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real worlds can be manic too

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*****

 

 

 

 

 

Soulmates aren’t real.

 

Realistically, Taehyung knows this.

 

Realistically, Taehyung knows a lot of things.

 

It’s the middle of his shift. The smell of overly-cooked teriyaki hangs in the air,  gimmicky tourist trap that wants to be a tourist trap. Is moderately successful at it.

 

If soulmates existed and Taehyung were to meet his, it’s not going to be like this, smelling like burnt onions and dressed in an overzealous bear costume with the head on too tight.    

 

Realistically, Taehyung knows this.

 

Realis-

 

Soulmates don’t deal in realistics.

 

Taehyung stands with his arms open, waiting. Standard position for his job. The headache that’s been building all night is kicking in, surroundings too bright through the eye holes of the bear-head.

 

The light shifts and-

 

His pupils dilate. Heart rate a racketing mess. THe breath gets knocked out of him. An invisible grip sinks into his chest, hook line and sinker. Everything spins at this moment, stars collapse, the earth orbits its focus, into this point.

 

Into the man under the lights.

 

When Taehyung imagines meeting his soulmate, it’s exactly like this.

 

It just doesn’t happen because of his soulmate.

 

The hook line and sinker part, yes. The lack of breathing, eyes popping out his skull? Not so much.

 

Sweetie, I think that’s enough. Let the nice Kumamon breathe.”

 

Taehyung’s knowledge of German starts and ends with the Sound of Music so he’s ad libbing. He mostly remembers auf wiedersehen and the part where the future Nazi really wanted to bang the hot older sister.

 

The kid currently strangling him blinks up at Taehyung, arms wrapped around his middle, long lashed cow-eyed stare. Taehyung’s not even sure how he’s doing it. The Kumamon costume isn’t slender.

 

He smiles even though the kid can’t see it through the head. Kumamon is always smiling.

 

The dad pries the kid off. The doggy bag goes flying. Taehyung manages to catch it. The mother spits more German at him as they leave. The kid waves, throwing one last look that reminds Taehyung of a grazing calf. 

 

Taehyung waves back.

 

He’s more winded than a nine year old should be capable of making him. He probably needs to accept Jimin’s offer to hit the gym.

 

Taehyung looks over at the bar. Towards the light. His chest feels tight, the lack of breath centering around his heart.

 

There are no more customers to greet. Taehyung sits at the bar. Manages it quite gracefully for someone wearing an oversized costume. He doesn’t really fit on the stool but he needs the break.

 

The bartender, Jiro, places a water in front of him. Taehyung gives his thanks.

 

Jiro heads to the other side of the bar. He slices lemons and tosses them in a bowl.

 

Taehyung doesn’t take off the bear-head. Won’t manage it gracefully. The right side of his body is too aware of itself, the air soupy, heavy. He removes the detachable paws. The cold glass settles the itch in his hands.

 

“I thought the kid would win. Glad I was wrong.”

 

Taehyung looks to his right, three stools down.

 

The man smiles, fingers grazing his glass, dark amber golden in the stale light. “All the fuss with the paramedics would’ve ruined my drink,” he says, voice throaty but light. Taehyung wonders if he sings.

 

“Glad my almost dying didn’t inconvenience your night. Frowns don’t belong on pretty faces.”

 

The man frowns. His face is just as pretty. Big eyes, high cheekbones, jaw sharp. Mouth pink like a dream. Taehyung guesses it’s hard for him not to be.

 

He stares at Taehyung. At Kumamon. There’s a hint of a smile in his frown. Taehyung wants to edge it out. “You not a fan of subtlety?”

 

Taehyung shrugs. Tries to. “Not very good at it. Prefer being honest.”

 

He laughs, this tiny helpless thing like he can’t help it. Like he doesn’t believe Taehyung. That’s okay. Most people wouldn’t.

 

He gets tiny wrinkles in the corners of his eyes when he smiles. Taehyung wants to press his mouth to them, coax a real smile from him so they grow. He wonders if they reach towards his impossible cheekbones.

 

He shakes his head, chin tilted as he cocks a brow. “Who are you supposed to be, again?”

 

Kumamon, some distant part of Taehyung’s brain supplies, but he’s light headed. The kid really did a number on him. Sitting at the bar, next to him, isn’t helping. “Whoever you want me to be,” Taehyung says. Means it a little too much already.

 

Taehyung has never been a fan of realistics.  

 

The man really laughs then, head thrown back, the line of his throat golden in the light. “Haven’t heard that one in a while. I’ve gotten picked up a lot of places. A family restaurant is a first.”

 

Taehyung isn’t trying to pick him up, not the way he means. He says, “You’re drinking at a family restaurant.”

 

The laughter quiets. His eyes cut, something feeline about him, predator. The other eyebrow rises. He’s all angles but his lips look shiny, soft. “Why does a family restaurant have a bar?” he shoots back, quick.

 

“What would our bartender do.”

 

“What?”

 

“That’s the answer. When I asked why we have a bar. What would Jiro do?”

 

The man quirks his mouth, sizing Taehyung up. He makes it obvious he finds Taehyung amusing. Taehyung doesnt let it put him off. Knows it’s because of the costume. Mostly

 

He swivels in Taehyung’s direction. Takes a sip of his drink, the frosted rim kissing his mouth. Taehyung has never been jealous of a piece of glass before.

 

He sits crossed legged, shoulders back, a carefulness to his confident posture like he knows how to carry himself, make himself look good. How to make the lamplights hanging over the bar hit the dip of his collar bones just so, fall over the skin of his chest above his low cut dark shirt, the slope of his neck begging for someone’s mouth. Taehyung doesn’t know why he’s bothering. Can’t imagine him ever looking anything less than exactly what anyone’s ever wanted. What Taehyung wants. Maybe he does this for everyone.

 

Taehyung doesn’t care.

 

Smirking, even that keeping his face pretty, prettier maybe, he looks at Taehyung from under his lashes and all Taehyun thinks about is if his eyes look this pretty in the daylight. If he’ll let Taehyung make him breakfast in bed every morning.

 

He’s getting ahead of himself. His chest yanks.

 

Again, Taehyung doesn’t care.

 

“Take off the head. I’m into a lot of shit but bestiality isn’t one of them.”

 

It’s pretty undignified, squeezing out of the head. At least he doesn’t elbow someone this time. Or knock over five sake bottles. Jiro went particularly mute around him then.  

 

Taehyung shakes his hair out. It gets sweaty in the costume but in a sexy way. So says Katrina from the wait staff. Taehyung hopes it’s not because she was drunk. And made out with him. Twice.

 

Holding the head on his lap, Taehyung asks, “Do I pass the test?”

 

He leans back, touches the top of the glass with his index finger, brings it to his lower lip. Taehyung wonders if his mouth tastes sweet or bitter. “Oh, I already knew you did,” he says, swiveling to stare at the rows of liquor, dark liquid made bright. Faked disinterest. Faked casualness. It makes Taehyung more curious, the ache in his hands worse, makes his heart want to know everything there is to know. He hears Yoongi’s voice, smoked out, ‘ Just chill, man. You gotta chill. It’ll come to you. It’ll come .’ And Taehyung’s good at chilling, at letting it come, but.

 

It’s his heart now. His soul.

 

“I saw you when you came in for your shift.”

 

It’s his chest. The way it yanks .

 

And taehyung knows. He knows he, and god he needs to ask his name, probably didn’t feel it, the sharp yank, his heart tossing a line to Taehyung’s and sinking its hook in and catching on a vessel, but it was his eyes. Drawn to Taehyung the second he stepped in the restaurant, his body aware of Taehyung’s body from the get go, and it doesn’t mean the same thing, but it means something.

 

Taehyung isn’t thinking too much about what.

 

The man drinks, crystals on the rim pinked. Taehyung asks, “What’s your name?”

 

“Usually people offer theirs first.” He gives Taehyung one of those amused smiles, doesn’t let him speak. “What have you been calling me in your head?”

 

He hasn’t been calling him anything. Just words. Associations. Things like pretty and beautiful and pink and wow thighs and everything inside me feels calm when I look at you even though my lungs are still out for the count .

 

Taehyung says, “Keep Walking.”

 

Another strange look. Taehyung can’t say he dislikes it. Throwing his expectations for a loop.    

 

Pointing to the glass, Taehyung sips his water. It doesn’t help with the breathing problem. The husky German kid can’t take credit for it anymore. “Whiskey. We only serve Jack Daniels.”

 

He’s still smiling, less amused. A tiny victory. “Not very traditional of a Japanese restaurant.”

 

“We’re not big on traditional. More about keeping the customer happy.”

 

The smile sharpens. “Really?”

 

“Jack Daniels is as inoffensive as it comes to whiskey.” When all that earns him is a stare, Taehyung adds, “Surprised you managed to convince Jiro to rim your glass for you, though. He’s as traditional as this place allows.”

 

“You a big whisky fan?”

 

“I’m familiar with it,” is all Taehyung says.

 

The smile softens a touch. “I’ve been told I can be persuasive.” He circles the rim, fingers elegant and well cared for, strong. There’s a scratch on his forearm, scabbed over.

 

He looks at Taehyung as he touches his bottom lip, and it’s so practiced, so obvious, but there’s a coquettishness to it, this shy abrasiveness like he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Doesn’t know how he looks. Wants him to think that. Taehyung tries not to fall for it but like this man being anything less than pretty, it’s hard. “I like all my drinks rimmed. And it’s Jungkook.”  

 

Taehyung looks away from his shiny mouth. “Huh?”

 

Jungkook grins and Taehyung startles at how bright it is, friendly, anything predatory about it gone. “Jungkook. My name. You seemed eager to know it.”

 

“I was,” Taehyung says. He can’t remember why. He’s having a hard time remembering a lot of things. Thinking. He’s not doing much of that now.

 

Not now, the wet of Jungkook’s mouth too distracting. The way his thighs, thick and muscled, look in his black jeans, the promise of power he exudes, and hearts and soulmates are a thing, but Taehyung’s body has been aware of Jungkook’s from the moment the lights hit him just right, cutting through the glass of his drink, pulling Taehyung’s attention from meeting his demise via too much love from a moo-eyed kid from Berlin to the pretty high of Jungkook’s cheekbones, the flutter of his dark lashes, the dip in his waist so deep Taehyung could already imagine his fingers imprinted on the curve, the flex of it between his hands.

 

Soulmates are a thing, platonics soulmates are another, but the idea that it’s pure, that believing someone is meant for you or the half of something you’ve been missing, doesn’t include wanting to map every inch of their body? Taehyung doesn’t believe that.

 

Realistically, it doesn’t make sense. Human souls aren’t pure. Taehyung is honest enough to admit his isn’t. Trying to eliminate desire from love in some guise for holiness is what makes it dirty. Fake pure. Dirtier than any sex Taehyung has ever had.   

 

Dirtier than the way Jungkook is looking at him now, dark, measured, unabashedly staring at Taehyung’s lips before he meets Taehyung’s eyes. Stays. “So. Your place or mine?”

 

And despite expecting it, what he’s been thinking himself, Taehyung’s brain short circuits. “I- I still have an hour and-” He looks at his wrist in search of his watch. Remembers he doesn’t wear one. The clock over the bar reads 9:38 . “Twenty-two minutes.”

 

Jungkook pulls a face, nose scrunching. It’s unexpectedly cute. Or maybe not. Cute was one of the other word associations. “Why would this place stay open until 11? On a Weds-” His annoyance at their operating hours is genuine, expression perplexed, unhappy purse of his lips. Cute . It shouldn’t fit, dressed up in black, the slick no bars held seductive thing he has going on, but it fits. Jungkook looks lethal. He also looks like the sweetest thing anyone’s ever seen.

 

Shaking his head, Jungkook finishes his drink. Glass hits smooth wood.

 

He levels Taehyung a look. “I’ve spent the whole day waiting around with little to show for it. Was supposed to meet a client here at 8. I’m not gonna wait for you too.”

 

But he has. Waited. Longer than you would for a shoddy business client who didn’t show up. Taehyung wouldn’t know from experience but waiting more than an hour might make you an idiot.

 

With his thinly veiled amusement and quick quips, Jungkook seems to be anything but.

 

“Tell you what,” Jungkook says, the enticing thing back in his eyes, shoulders sloping almost demurely, defined chest puffed out. On display. Posturing but not against Taehyung, at him. For him.

 

Again, Taehyung wonders why he bothers. If he can’t read Taehyung as well as Taehyung thinks he can.  

 

“I’ll give you ten minutes. Make up some excuse for why you have to go home early. That tiny little German tourist boy did a number on you.” He flicks his gaze all over Taehyung, the ridiculous bear costume. Lingers on Taehyung’s jaw, his lips, his hair. Maybe the disheveled sweaty thing really is attractive. Sure isn’t the Kumamon suit. “You look like you don’t put up much of a fight,” Jungkook teases, heavy with implication.

 

“Do you…” Taehyung trails off. He’s too dazed. There’s too many things he could ask; Do you always look this beautiful; Do you always cut other men down to size; Do you like moonlit walks on the beach and poetry and holding hands; Do you like it when someone kisses the little mole on your chin, the curve of your neck, the place between your legs after they make you wet there. “Do you always get whatever you want?”

 

The light catches the moment Jungkook stops, stares at Taehyung with parted lips. His brow furrows like Taehyung started spitting German at him, distrust clear in his eyes.

 

Taehyung wasn’t trying to throw him for another loop, is genuinely curious if Jungkook always demands what he wants and expects to get it, but he’s finally looking at Taehyung like he’s not mostly amused, like Taehyung isn’t just a thing to play with, to dangle by the balls.

 

Jungkook slips off the stool. He reaches for his wallet, and if his thighs are a wonder than the way his jeans hug his ass really might make Taehyung not put up a single fight, make him nothing but pathetic and weak.

 

Jungkook fishes some bills out, ignores Taehyung’s, “I’ve got it,” and tosses them on the bar. He shrugs at Taehyung, false sense of security, and grins, sweet.

 

“Guess we’ll see. I’ll be outside. Ten minutes, Taehyung.”

 

Taehyung watches him go, the cock of his hips, the buckles on his boots clicking as he saunters out the door. It’s a slow Wednesday and its a family restaurant but Taehyung isn’t the only one who does.

 

He adjusts the bear head in his lap.

 

Jiro throws him a pointed glance, lime pulp all over the bar counter.

 

Taehyung looks back at the door, reflective glass.

 

He realizes he never gave Jungkook his name.

 

*****

 

“Six minutes. I’m impressed.”

 

He’s a bright thing against dull city lIgor. For a city full of it, Taehyung has always found it lackluster at night. Hazy memories to compare it to. 

 

Taehyung lets the door close, arm swinging. The air is crisp outside, the smell of toasted steak faded. Mouth curving, he asks, “How’d you know my name?” He watches Jungkook. Leaning the way he is against the wall juts his hips out, shirt tucked into his black jeans. His legs seem to go on forever. Taehyung imagines them wrapped around his waist. His gut throbs, heart kicked dumb.  

 

Jungkook seems to revel in it, Taehyung’s attention, naked want. In getting what he wants. “Your bartender is very chatty. I assumed he doesn’t get a lot of interesting clients over four feet.”

 

“He’s not actually. Jiro. Bartender. Think he’s said five words to me the whole time I’ve worked here. We get interesting clients, though. Lots of Chileans for some reason.”

 

Jungkook blinks. “Okay?”

 

Taehyung clears his throat. The air around them feels cooler now, tension lopsided. Hands in his pockets, he smiles, self deprecating for throwing the moment off. “Guess you are as persuasive as you say.”

 

Jungkook hums, light and airy. Taehyung wants to feel it against his throat, his mouth. “Got you out here, didn’t I?” Jungkook asks. His boots click on the sidewalk, each step knocks up the pull in TAehyung’s hips, his chest, heat touching him everywhere when Jungkook stands close. “Have you decided?”

 

“On?” He tries swallowing. Can’t. Jungkook has a scar on his cheek, another mole near his eye. Taehyung feels wrung dry.  

 

“If you’re going to fuck me in your bed or mine. Or on the couch. Not really picky.”

 

And everything in Taehyung’s mind stutters to a halt. His mouth drops open, lids heavy, the heat wrapping around his middle and yanking, squeezing him drier than dry. He doesn’t remember the last time someone had him like this, dizzy with desire, hands horribly empty, his body flighty and ridiculous and like his limbs aren’t his.

 

It would hit Taehyung, how one sided it is, if Jungkook weren’t tilting back, biting nervously down on his bottom lip at Taehyung’s silence, and his mouth really is so pink, and they haven’t even kissed yet so maybe all this, this heat burning in his veins, is a fluke, all in his head. He wants to lean forward, figure out if Jungkook’s mouth is bitter or sweet, but he’s more afraid if he starts he’ll never want to pull away more than he is that this feeling isn’t real.

 

Taehyung’s brain kicks back online and he thinks, it was last year he felt this, the guy from that one show, the blonde he met at the beach. His brain keeps going, on overdrive, Let me take you to dinner, or Another drink?, or Can I hold your hand?, or I want to kiss every mole on your body, or Tell me what you dream about, or What’s your biggest fear?, Is it love?, Is it love at first sight?

 

Jungkook’s eyes are wide, his posture falling unsure as Taehyung stays quiet too long, and Taehyung feels another tug, another pull, and this, this kind of dizziness is one he’s never felt before. It’s got him too shaky, feet unsteady, the verge of constant vertigo.

 

Taehyung says, low and too fast and too breathless, “Wherever you want.”

 

Jungkook smiles, the brightest thing in this city. The kind of thing Taehyung could fall into. The kind of thing he won’t wonder if it’ll hurt until he lands.  

 

*****

 

“Interesting place,” Jungkook says, taking a turn around the living room.

 

“Thanks.” Taehyung hangs back. Watches him eye the mismatched rugs, the framed photographs, the gaming consoles. He looks good in Taehyung’s lazily haphazard space but he might look good anywhere. 

 

Jungkook picks something up from the coffee table, a circuit board with its guts spilling out. He flips it over. Asks, “You into space?”

 

“Space?”  

 

Jungkook points to the photographs. A dwarf star glows back at him.

 

Taehyung shrugs. His hands are restless, even in his pockets. “A bit.”

 

“Hmm.” Jungkook puts the board down, walks around the couch toward the other side of the living room, stops at the wall made up of sliding doors. “There isn’t a dead body in here is there?”

 

Taehyung pulls on his lower lip, forcibly smoothing his hands flat. “Shitty place to hide a body if you ask me.”

 

Jungkook arches a brow.

 

“Too obvious. I’d never hide the body in my own apartment.”

 

“That's good.” He grins when Taehyung mimics his expression. “Don’t think you could carry my body out of here. Dead or otherwise.”

 

And he’s probably right. It’s supposed to be some sort of dig at his masculinity maybe, but Taehyung’s never cared about that. Even if he clocked in at one eighty and could lift four times his weight, he doesn’t think he’d get very far before Jungkook had him tripped and on his back. He shrugs, says, “I know. That’s why I keep my forklift in there. Really easy to move the bodies that way.”

 

Jungkook laughs. His smile softens. He touches the nearest door, asks, “What’s in here? Really.”

 

“My computer.”

 

“Does it always make all that noise?”

 

“It’s a big computer,” Taehyung says. He wasn’t aware of the hum before Jungkook mentioned it. The whirring is always chugging away rhythmically. In the background. In his mind. 

 

Jungkook scans the room one last time. His gaze lands on Taehyung, eyelashes thick in the weak light of Taehyung’s living room. He rests his back against a sliding door, careful not to put his weight on it. He crosses his arms across his chest, biceps lithe and sculpted. Even his forearms are muscled, a stark vein running to his elbow Taehyung wants to drag his tongue over. He could probably carry Taehyung’s body out of here but something tells Taehyung he wouldn’t even bother.

 

“Take your clothes off?”

 

Taehyung swallows. “Now?”

 

Jungkook bites his lower lip. Nods. It’s a command but he ends it in a question, voice a little breathy like he already knows what that does to Taehyung.

 

Taehyung almost elbows himself in his haste to do it, hands jerky, belt buckle clacking, jeans shoved down and trapped around his ankles by his shoes.

 

Jungkook watches his struggle. Desire wains on his face. He frowns. “Didn’t your parents teach you to take your shoes off in the house?” he asks, standing in sock clad feet. His boots are lined up by Taehyung’s door.

 

Pulling his shirt off, Taehyung muses his hair, sweat dried and sticking up. Jungkook’s eyes wanders to his chest, his shoulders, frown replaced by a little ‘o’. Part of Taehyung wishes he still had his jeans on but there’s not a very strong point for modesty here. Not with the way Jungkook’s face, his whole existence really, makes any modicum of modesty Taehyung has ever had fall out the window. Never had much to begin with.

 

“I’m trying to think of why you’re bringing up my parents right now. Coming up blank.”

 

Jungkook narrows his eyes. If he’s aiming for intimidating he fails. Taehyung wonders if anyone’s ever told him irritation looks cute on him, the huffy pout of his mouth. “You’re what? Second generation? First? Going by your accent. I’ve never even been to Korea and I’ve never worn shoes inside the house.”

 

Taehyung smiles, something sweet licking his insides. “Neither. I was born there. That’s not why I have an accent, though. You should go someday. It changes your life.”

 

Jungkook rolls his eyes. He pulls away from the door, mouth grim. “Not like I haven’t heard that one before,” he mumbles.

 

Taehyung tries to correct himself, wasn’t trying to be condescending, but Jungkook flicks his chin, says, “Whatever. Get your dick out.”

 

Taehyung already has his boxers down before he finishes talking. He wasn’t kidding about the modesty thing. His cock’s already a little hard, hardens further under Jungkook’s gaze, calculating, almost cold. Except his cheeks are slightly flushed. Except his lips open into another perfect ‘o’. Except when their eyes meet, Jungkook’s are lit up, falling to Taehyung’s body, his cock, his hands, like he already knows exactly what he’s going to do with them, and Taehyung thinks he’s going to eat your heart right up and you’re going to let him.

 

“I think I should have asked you instead.”

 

“Asked me what?”

 

“If you’re going to give me whatever I want.”

 

Taehyung’s chest yanks. “Anything. Always.”

 

Jungkook’s face loses its intensity, the sensuality in how he stands, how he’s looking at Taehyung. “That line usually work for you?”

 

Taehyung shrugs. It’s doesn’t look smooth with his pants pooled around his ankles and his dick out, but he stays upright at least. “Don’t know. Never used it before so I guess we’ll see.”

 

Jungkook laughs, this one unrestrained, mouth wide, the sound braying bordering on unattractive. On him it is attractive, joyful, even if it is derisive.

 

“Hmm. Think you can get out of your shoes without falling? I’ll be very impressed if you do.”

 

“Don’t know that either. Guess we’ll see that too.”

 

Jungkook laughs again and it’s not derisive at all and Taehyung wants to keep him laughing like this something like forever.

 

*****

 

“Sit on the bed for me.”

 

It’s a request instead of a demand. Taehyung sits.  

 

Jungkook stands between his feet, decked out in black, not a hair out of place. Taehyung wonders if it’s a power thing, the slowness of the moment, the fact that they haven’t touched each other, haven’t kissed. Taehyung gets to fuck him but Jungkook gets to loom over him, fully dressed, Taehyung with his balls out, everything out of place.

 

Taehyung starts to say, “W-”

 

But then Jungkook grins. Makes Taehyung swallow his words. Makes them die when Jungkook’s knees hit the floor.

 

Taehyung’s breath goes shot. Jungkook’s heat hits him full force, fingers grazing over Taehyung’s knees. It’s barely a touch but Taehyung swears he feels it everywhere, the pit of his stomach burning the worst with it.

 

Jungkook looks up at him, eyes dark in the light. He smooths his hands up Taehyung’s thighs, eyes following the movement. Taehyung’s cock twitches, half hard against his thigh. Jungkook bites his lip.“You’re not gonna come if I suck you off first, are you?”

 

“I- fuck. No,” Taehyung says because he’s not that weak, because the promise of being inside of Jungkook, sweeter than his ballbusting front Jungkook, Jungkook with his thighs and his pink, pink mouth, is too much of the good kind of torture to wait to get hard a second time for. Not that it’d take him too long with the way Jungkook is looking at him. The way he licks his lips, throat clicking loudly in the quiet room. Breath heavy, arousal is a hard knot in Taehyung’s gut.

 

“Good,” Jungkook says, grin back in full force. His hands reach Taehyung’s hips. He runs an finger along the line of Taehyung’s cock, makes a little noise when Taehyung’s cock kicks, the head wet with precum already. “Wanted you in my mouth the second I saw you.”

 

And Taehyung wonders if he means the second he saw Taehyung or the second he saw his cock, but then Jungkook is wrapping a hand around him, fingers rough but palm soft, the slide progressively wetter as he dips his head over Taehyung’s lap.

 

Taehyung grips the sheets on either side of him, hands so fucking useless. He inhales when Jungkook drags his tongue along his hip bone, digs his teeth in. He hisses, fingers flexing.

 

“Fuck, you’re so- Jungk-”

 

“You can pull my hair,” Jungkook breathes out, licks his way to the other side of Taehyung’s hip, fingers tugging at his cock, grip hot. He’s a shock of black between Taehyung’s thighs, hair shiny, shoulders shifting in his shirt. “Don’t touch my jaw. But touch my hair all you want. If you think you’re being too rough, trust me, you’re not.”

 

It’s a threat and too much trust all in one and maybe Taehyung was being a little overconfident in his previous experience, in his cock, but he can’t dwell on it because Jungkook pulls back, settles on his knees better, and dropping his pretty mouth open, laps his tongue over the head of Taehyung’s cock. Taehyung’s brain fizzles out but not before Jungkook flicks his eyes up to his again, the contact almost giving Taehyung frission, a chemical reaction, too heady, too heavy for something that isn’t physical. Then Jungkook flutters his lashes closed and he takes Taehyung into his mouth.  

 

Realistically, a mouth is a mouth. A tight, wet, hot place for his cock. As long as teeth don’t come into play, it’s hard to complain about a blowjob in Taehyung’s book. And Jungkook is all those things, mouth hot enough, tongue wet enough when it drags along the underside of his cock, the promise of his throat tight when he drops his jaw open, lets the tip nudge up just beyond the roof of his mouth. But it’s other things. The fan of his eyelashes against his cheeks. The little hums he lets out when Taehyung groans as Jungkook sucks. His lips clamp tight as he pulls back until it’s just the head between his lips. Jungkook suckles and Taehyung rips his hands from the mattress, thighs tensing at how good Jungkook’s mouth feels. Jungkook moans softly when Taehyung mutters, “Oh, fuck,” and lets himself slide a hand in Jungkook’s hair, the other on his shoulder, lets himself touch him finally. His hair is coarser than it looks, tangles easily between Taehyung’s fingers. He brushes his thumb along the line of Jungkook’s temple, his neck, and his skin is so soft. Taehyung’s hands feel too gritty, clumsy and dirty, in comparison.  

 

Jungkook pulls off with a wet pop, breath stuttered. “God, your cock,” Jungkook says, almost reverent, breathless like he just got his throat fucked.

 

Taehyung wants to laugh, lightheaded like he just fucked Jungkook’s throat instead of a bit of sucking, a little tongue work, and fuck, maybe he really is that weak. Gets a little weaker when Jungkook groans, runs his lips down his cock, skims his nose along the base and nuzzles the short, wiry hairs from Taehyung’s pelvis to his belly button. It’s primitive, territorial almost. It should feel out of place, out of this moment. Taehyung tugs lightly on the hair at Jungkook’s nape. Jungkook sighs deeply, pushes into Taehyung’s hand. He kisses his way back to the head of Taehyung’s cock, these teasing deep kisses, and yep, if Jungkook wants to get territorial about his dick Taehyung isn’t going to say anything about it. Would probably hand in the deed to it if that’s what Jungkook wanted.

 

Heat swims in Taehyung’s veins, sweat touching the backs of his knees, his throat. Only gets worse when Jungkook works his tongue inside his mouth, gets himself wetter, the sound obscene. Jungkook parts his lips and he spits, saliva drips over Taehyung’s already dripping cock, nasty and unapologetic about it.

 

Taehyung runs his hands through his hair, gapes at him, waiting.

 

Jungkook looks up at him, sucks Taehyung back into his mouth, doesn’t stop until nose grazes Taehyung’s pelvis, cheeks hollowed.

 

Without thinking about it, Taehyung pulls on his hair, digs his thumb into the the bend of Jungkook’s shoulder and neck. Jungkook gurgles a moan, eyes half lidded, the muscles of his back bunching, one of his hands disappearing between his legs, the other curled around Taehyung’s hip. He swallows around Taehyung’s cock.

 

“Oh, fuck,” Taehyung grunts. He tenses his thighs, tenses fucking everything when his cock throbs in the wet heat of Jungkook’s mouth, his fucking throat. “Shit. Your mouth, Jungkook. Look so good. You look. Your mouth- fuck,” he cuts off his rambling because Jungkook moans again, the vibration around his cock almost painful it’s so good. Jungkook slides back, lips tight, comes back and stays down longer, and his body moves with it, spine arching, and Taehyung can see the curve of his ass, his pointed heels. He’s still wearing his damn socks and Taehyung almost laughs except Jungkook’s arm keeps jerking between his own thighs, elbow jutting sharply and fuck, Taehyung knows what that means. He bites back a tortured groan, mouth really running,

 

“Fuck. Are you touching yourself? You are-shit,” he says when Jungkook moans in the back of his throat, where Taehyung’s cock is, and Taehyung can’t even see it but he feels like he’s being punched in the gut, Jungkook so turned on by Taehyung’s cock in his mouth, hand between his thighs over his own cock through his jeans. Taehyung’s mind starts rambling too, wonders how hard he is, how he likes to touch himself, if his underwear is wet, if it hurts in his too tight jeans, if Jungkook likes it when it hurts- “wanna touch you, get my hands are all over you. You’re so hot, Jungkook- holy fu-”

 

They move at the same time, Jungkook off his cock and Taehyung’s hands finding Jungkook’s hips.

 

Jungkook gives a last sucking kiss to the head. Taehyung’s hips jolt, has to hold himself from accidentally choking him with it. ‘Fuck! Sorry-”

 

Jungkook ignores him, impatiently rises off his knees, pulling at the hem of his shirt tucked into his jeans.

 

Taehyung touches his belt, hands shaking, “Can I…”

 

And Jungkook groans, fumbling hands pushing his shirt up his navel, over his defined chest. “Yes, oh my g- you don’t have to ask all the t- ah!” Taehyung gets his belt undone, firm hands popping the button of Jungkook’s jeans, zipper down and jeans halfway down his thighs before Jungkook can finish his sentence.

 

Jungkook inhales quickly, blinks at him surprised.

 

“Fuck,” Taehyung says faintly, fingers gripping Jungkook’s thighs hard enough to bruise when he sees Jungkook’s underwear, black clingy boxer briefs, the material sheer looking and stretched over his cock. The head is soaked through. “You’re not real.”

 

Jungkook snorts but Taehyung means it. He shifts forward, serious about getting his mouth all over him, committed to it. He kisses the band of Jungkook’s underwear around one of his legs where it meets his thigh, hands skimming up and down over Jungkook’s soft skin from the backs of his knees to the thick of his thighs right below his ass.

 

Jungkook’s abs clench, another sharp little inhale that makes Taehyung’s gut twist.

 

“Wait- fuck,” Jungkook says, hands pushing into Taehyung’s hair, holding him off with a harsh pull. “Don’t touch my cock.”

 

Taehyung hisses through his teeth, lips pressed to the hot skin of Jungkook’s thigh. Jungkook gentles his hands, fingers running through Taehyung’s damp hair. “Sorry, I- I like it when I make myself wait. I’ll come harder on your cock if my cock is untouched longer.”

 

“But you already touched your cock,” Taehyung points out because the image, the impression of it, is burned into his mind, searing and hot, Jungkook’s desperate movements. He licks at the edge of Jungkook’s underwear, moaning when he reaches the inside of Jungkook’s thigh, smooth and a little slick with precum, and Jungkook lets him, spreads his legs a little wider for Taehyung’s mouth.

 

Jungkook groans, hands cupping the back Taehyung’s head, thumbs digging into his nape. “Who said I was touching my cock? Oh fuck, Ta-” Taehyung sucks on his skin and Jungkook’s voice melts into a breathy moan, thighs twitching in Taehyung’s hold and Taehyung wants that sound against his mouth, wants it when he gets Jungkook on his back, when he slides inside of him and feels every sweet moan tremble around his cock.

 

It’s that thought that has him pushing Jungkook’s jeans the rest of the way down. He lifts each of his knees to pull the jeans off his ankles, carefully places Jungkook’s left foot into his lap to roll his sock off.

 

Jungkook loses his balance for a second, digs his nails into Taehyung’s shoulders. “You don’t have a foot fetish, do you? Or some kind of Cinderella fantasy?”

 

Taehyung laughs. He kisses a line from the bend of Jungkook’s knee to his thigh, slow, wet kisses that make Jungkook’s muscles jump, the smooth almost hairless skin goosebumped. “No. Just a fetish for getting you naked. Crazy to, if I’m honest.”

 

“Well, you could be a little less, like, chivalrous about it and a little more crazy ab- nnngh, oh!”

 

Taehyung hides his smile against the underside of Jungkook’s knee as he digs his thumb into the ball of Jungkook’s foot, and he wasn’t lying about the foot fetish but maybe Jungkook has pretty feet, skin smooth and cared for. He has a mole on the side of his achilles, darker than his other moles. Maybe Taehyung has to resist pressing his mouth to it. His ankles are almost dainty in comparison to the rest of his leg, calves and thighs muscled and obviously worked for. Maybe the disgust in Jungkook’s voice is put on, the tremor that works through his body small but there, against Taehyung’s lips, in his hands. Maybe everything about Jungkook is pretty to Taehyung, from his pretty toes to the fake disgust from his pretty mouth.

 

The other leg gets the same treatment, sock off, thigh sticky kissed, and then Taehyung just-

 

Just looks at him.

 

The shape he makes in Taehyung’s bedroom, the one overhead light outlining his body and all of a sudden Taehyung wishes he had softer lighting, wishes he was in the apartment he shared with Hoseok and Yoongi straight out of college. He imagines the twinkle lights backdropping the breadth of Jungkook’s shoulders, the way it narrows into his thin waist and curves out into his hips, widens out at his thick kissed up thighs, the knobs of his roughed up knees. The other things it would illuminate. The angle of his jaw. The mole on his hip, the one on his chin Taehyung has thought about kissing too many times to count. The scar on his cheek. The scrape on his shin. The one Taehyung noticed earlier on his forearm.

 

“How’d this happen?” He asks, drawing the fingers of one hand over the recently healed scab, dark red. He slides his other up Jungkook’s hip until it reaches his waist, settles in the dip, fingers spread out and brushing his spine, thumb close to his belly button.

 

Jungkook tenses. Then he gives into the touch, and fuck, Taehyung was right. He wants to get his mouth all over his waist but he thinks he won’t be able to move his hand from the curve of it, no longer empty and stupidly useless.

 

“Cliff edge,” Jungkook says, quietly. His hands are no longer on Taehyung’s shoulders, only one of them back in his hair. “I climb. Um. Why are you u- are you just gonna keep looking at me?”

 

Taehyung blinks. The urgency in his cock is a simmering hum, and yeah, kind of. He’d just look at him if that’s what Jungkook wanted. Forgotten he’s a body too, that Taehyung is more than something just made to look at Jungkook, the strength and hard rounded curves of him. “Sorry,” he says, knows his smile is caught up in his eyes. “You’re just really beautiful.”

 

And it’s not his body. Or not just. Hair messy from Taehyung’s hands. His big endless eyes. Smudged pink mouth, gloss smeared around, and again, from Taehyung. From his cock. His thumb now, reaching up and wiping at the corner of Jungkook’s fuller bottom lip, his perfect little cupid’s bow.   

 

Jungkook rolls his eyes, the cocksure, no nonsense attitude from earlier coming back. “I’m already naked. You don’t have to chat me up.”

 

“You don’t think you’re beautiful? And you’re still wearing your underwear so, not really naked.”

 

The boxer briefs hit the floor with a swish.

 

Taehyung swallows, tries to keep his tongue inside his mouth. “Are those silk?”

 

“Yea- what’s it to y- No. You know what.” Jungkook doesn’t finish, starts to push Taehyung back on the bed, and Taehyung goes, makes space so Jungkook can climb up with him, and- “You need to stop talking. Your mouth is almost as ridiculous as your coc- oh, fuck!”

 

Taehyung twists at the last second, hands sure as he gets Jungkook on his back, the sheets ruffled beneath him, head on Taehyung’s pillow.

 

Jungkook looks up at him, short of gaping, startled.

 

Taehyung ducks his head, bites back a smile against Jungkook’s hipbone, a pleased shiver licking up his spine when Jungkook breathes out a long fuck, hands in Taehyung’s hair, arching up into Taehyung’s mouth. He’s all contradictions but so is Taehyung. Taehyung is all cock and shoulders and big hands, wide in some places, lanky and soft and weak looking in others. He doesn’t look like he can put up a fight, and he doesn’t, but he likes catching people off guard whenever just to show he could.

 

This isn’t a fight, anyway. It’s for Jungkook, anyway.

 

He kisses Jungkook’s hips and he’s just a mouth. Just hands. Everywhere. Anywhere he can reach on Jungkook’s body. His thighs. His biceps. The soft give beneath the hard line of his abs. The insides of his knees. He slides his hands around Jungkook’s hips to grip his ass, groaning as he kneads at the soft flesh until Jungkook almost kicks him so he gets on with it, gets distracted by his lips skimming over a nipple. He tries to pull away but Jungkook kicks him for real, knocks his knee against Taehyung’s side, demanding, “Yes, with your mouth, can you- fuck, yes- and the other, with your- your hand, pleas-” Jungkook’s voice breaks when Taehyung complies, kissing his pecs and latching onto one nipple and sucking, thumbing the other and tugging gently, keeps his other hand wandering the length of Jungkook’s body, and Taehyung feels like he’s not enough, not enough hands or mouth or self or anything.

 

Maybe Jungkook isn’t either. He doesn’t stop touching Taehyung, his hair, his nape, the lines of his shoulders, legs coming up to cradle Taehyung’s body, heels sliding down Taehyung’s back, the dip of his spine, his ass. His mouth doesn’t touch Taehyung, too busy giving away his pleasure, sighing and moaning high, warm but sugar sweet, sounds like if Taehyung just touched him here, kissed him there, he could get him to sing for him.

 

Their cocks brush and Jungkook yanks Taehyung’s hair, hard enough to sting.

 

Taehyung grunts. He bites at Jungkook’s niple, gets the other until its pink and swollen too.

 

Jungkook keens throatily, soothes the skin of Taehyung’s scall where he pulled with a muttered sorry, an unexpectedly sweet gesture. “I take it back. Oh- hmmm. Your mouth is as ridiculous as cock.”

 

Taehyung chokes on a laugh, tries to tell him it’s okay, he can yank Taehyung’s hair, Taehyung himself, around all he wants, but Jungkook uses his knees to create distance between their bodies, hands cupping Taehyung’s jaw, thumbs on his cheeks, insistent.

 

Taehyung gives one last suck, drops a tiny kiss to the curve of his pec. Pulls back.

 

Jungkook’s eyes are blown wide, mouth panting softly, hair mused over Taehyung’s pillow. He looks like a mess, but Taehyung knows he looks worse. Knows he’s worse because he’s Jungkook’s mess. Disheveled and unraveled as he is, Jungkook still looks like Jungkook’s.

 

He hasn’t stopped brushing his thumbs over Taehyung’s cheeks. He looks lost for a moment, like he’s forgotten what he was going to say, what words are. His gaze cuts bellow Taehyung’s eyes. To his chin, his throat maybe. He looks back up, whatever was there gone. “Get your lube.”

 

And right. Because they’re more than just mouths. More than just hands. It takes Taehyung too long to find his lube, a condom, even though he knows where he keeps them. First drawer, right at the top between a gel for chest congestion and his backup pair of eyeglasses. Jungkook moves on the bed, breathing fast against Taehyung’s ears.

 

Hands shaky, Taehyung catches the impression of his reflection in the glass. The heavy feeling migrates to his brain, his chest. There was something he wanted to ask Jungkook. Something he wanted-

 

“Is that strawberry flavored lube?”

 

Taehyung looks back and he almost drops the lube, bangs his knee against his night stand because, fuck, Jungkook is kneeling on the bed, chest pressed to the mattress and his legs spread, his back a perfect arch as he frowns at Taehyung, cheek pillowed on the sheets, disgruntled.

 

He’s simultaneously the most obscene, dirty thing Taehyung has ever seen and the most adorable and it’s giving Taehyung the worst-best kind of whiplash.

 

“Uh,” says Taehyung. The offending bottle in his grasp is a glaringly pink. Pinker than Jungkook’s lips.

 

Jungkook sighs. His ass is high, looks thicker than it is thanks to the position, and he really looks like a dream, something Taehyung thought up in his nastiest, sweetest fantasies. “I can’t believe I’m gonna let someone who dresses as Kumamon shove strawberry flavored lube up my ass.”

 

Taehyung blanches. “You don’t have to. This is the only lube I have but there’s a pharmacy around the corner. I can get plain lube if you want. Or another flavor. Or we don’t have to fuck. I can suck you off. Or whatever you want. Or we could- just talk. Or something.”

 

Jungkook stares at him like Taehyung asked him if he can fly. If he’s been to the other side of the Milky Way.

 

“It’s Sweet Berry Kiss if that makes it better. The addition of all the other berries,” he adds after more silence.

 

Jungkook buries his face in Taehyung’s sheets, shoulders shaking. He kneels up and pulls Taehyung down onto the bed, the ghost of a smile stuck to the corners of his mouth. He tales the bottle from Taehyung with an offended stare, squeezes lube all over Taehyung’s fingers, translucent pink globs sliding down Taehyung’s knuckles. Light catches on plastic. There’s a lot of squirting which doesn’t sound sexy but in the context, to Taehyung, is.

 

“It doesn’t,” Jungkook tells him. He tosses the bottle next to Taehyung’s hip. Then he straddles Taehyung’s lap, sinking down so Taehyung’s cock is flush against one of his ass cheeks, their skin pressing together. Taehyung groans at the friction, the weight of Jungkook in his lap. “Really doesn’t, but hurry up and finger me. Let’s see if your hands hold up to your cock and your ridiculous mouth.”

 

They already do if the way Jungkook goes pliant at the hand Taehyung runs down his spine, curves overs his ass and pulls a cheek to the side, the featherlight touch of a curious finger over his rim, has him moaning against Taehyung’s shoulder, the way he’s responded to Taehyung’s touch so far, but Taehyung will take the challenge.  

 

He’s two fingers in, has Jungkook shaking in his lap and digging his teeth into the muscle of Taehyung’s chest hard enough to hurt, when Jungkook grunts, mouth wet against Taehyung’s skin. “It smells- oh. Like a plastic straw-ugh, yes, there- berry hellscape, what the fuck. I can’t-”

 

The smell isn’t as strong to Taehyung but he’s too distracted with Jungkook in his arms, sweaty and gorgeous and opening up around Taehyung’s fingers despite his resistance, doesn’t resist where it counts. He starts sprouting shit, means it to be some kind of comforting, “It’s synthetic free. And maybe paraben free too if-”

 

“Oh m- you’re so ridiculous, read me the label why don’t yo-” Jungkook grunts, scrapes his teeth along Taehyung’s collarbone, ruts his hips back when Taehyung presses down on the soft skin between his hole and his balls, fingers fucking him slower but deeper, the sound of lube wet and too loud.

 

“Do you want me to stop?” Taehyung asks. And he will. He would. But he sucks on one of Jungkook’s nipples because he liked that. But he crooks his fingers and rubs just shy of Jungkook’s prostate because he seems to like that even more, when Taehyung is a bit of a tease, makes him wait like he asked, like he said he likes.

 

Jungkook looks down at him, brow twisted, annoyed, knees digging into the mattress on either side of Taehyung’s hips, and Taehyung shouldn’t find that as hot as he does. Shouldn’t make him want to fist Jungkook’s cock, his own, get them off impatient and abrupt like that. But he does, really fucking does, hips shifting under Jungkook, his cock leaking against his ass cheek, desperate for the heat of him.

 

Taehyung curl his fingers harder, wrist aching but it doesn’t matter because he hits Jungkook’s prostate, presses down on it and rubs, quick taps and slow deep grinds until Jungkook really starts shaking in his lap, whatever terrible thing he was about to cut Taehyung down with gets drowned out by the gasp that rips out of his throat, clutching Taehyung’s shoulders as he grinds down on his fingers and, “Oh fuck-how are you so- fuck yes, yes! Just like that. Fuck, oh my god, please!”

 

Taehyung bites back a whine, drags his mouth up the curve of Jungkook’s jaw, because Jungkook needs to stop begging, needs to never stop, should be the one making Taehyung beg instead, should tell Taehyung exactly what he wants and then make Taehyung work for the privilege to give it to him.

 

Another long rub against his prostate and Jungkook’s rim starts clenching, his flushed chest heaving, abs tensing quickly and his cock, tight between their fronts and dripping precum all over the soft of Taehyung’s abdomen, the mess of hair beneath Taehyung’s belly button. He moans, pressed right up to Taehyung’s ear and Taehyung doubles his efforts, works another finger in, his free hand squeezing his ass, encouraging Jungkook to hump his hips up and down, ride his fingers and then grind down onto it when his thighs tremble.

 

“Fuck! You- ugh, need to stop, Taeh- you have to-”

 

“It’s okay. You can. Just-”

 

“No,” Jungkook says sharply but his body keeps moving, eyes closing when Taehyung presses up just right, rubs up against a spot along his walls that has him groaning, nerves buzzing. He grips Taehyung’s biceps, the mattress squeaking when he moves to get his knees underneath himself. “I’m gonna come- fuck! Gonna come. Stop- get your fingers out. I-”

 

“I know,” Taehyung says lowly, grunts it against the edge of his cheek, and fuck he’s so close to his mouth, and fuck, Jungkook is so close, and Taehyung wants to feel it, wants- “I know. You can come. Fuck. Want you to. Wanna feel it, come on, Jungkook, let me make you come-”

 

Jungkook’s shoulders loosen and he looks like he’s giving into it, the heat, the fucked out feeling that must be swimming up his veins, centering in his hips, the base of his spine, knees splayed out as he drops further onto Taehyung’s lap and-

 

“Uh uh,” Jungkook bites out, back straightening. He fists Taehyung’s shoulders, reaches back for Taehyung’s wrist. “Said I’d come on your cock the first time.”

 

Taehyung chokes. “The first-”

 

He runs his fingers along the tight heat of Jungkook’s ass one last time, pulls them out slowly even though it feels like the worst thing he’s ever done, cock jerking when Jungkook clenches down on them as they go. Taehyung tries getting his breath back but it’s hard, hard to stop touching him, sticky fingers squeezing his waist, his hips, the insides of his thighs for the way it makes Jungkook sigh, high and pretty.

 

It’s out of his hands though. One moment his hands are full, the next, Jungkook pulls away. He turns around to find the condom, or the lube, or his phone, who the fuck knows, Taehyung sure doesn’t because right then his entire soul checks out of existence as he gets a facefull of Jungkook’s lubed up, spread open ass. It’s a crass way to think of it, the words slimy, undeserving of how gorgeous Jungkook’s ass is, perky and muscular but so fucking soft looking, just the right handful for Taehyung’s hands. And he tests this, of course Taehyung does, palms smoothing over it. Jungkook shivers and the heat lodged in Taehyung’s gut rises.

 

His mouth feels too dry, tongue as useless as his hands were. His mind floats with want, soul slowly coming back to him as he stares, Jungkook reaching for something and maybe Taehyung should help, make himself useful but his hands have a mind of their own, fingers spreading out on his cheeks, thumbs grazing the sides of Jungkook’s hole.

 

“Oh!” Jungkook arches, spine fucking melting, and his hole clenches on nothing, lubed up hand squeezing a little too hard around Taehyung’s dick in response and oh, that’s what he was reaching for. 

 

Taehyung moans, thinks about how now his dick tastes like berries and how Jungkook’s ass already tastes like it, between his cheeks, inside of it.

 

Taehyung squeezes his eyes shut for a second. He breathes out a shaky, “Fuck.” Strokes his thumbs along Jungkook’s crack, back bending forward to let Jungkook move how he needs to get… whatever else the fuck it is without having to take his hands off him.

 

It’s like his feet all over again. Because Jungkook’s ass really is pretty, gorgeous really, cheeks lighter than the rest of his lightly tanned body, a speck of a mole on the inside of the left cheek, but that’s not the worst part. The part that makes Taehyung have to clench his jaw and measure his breaths. The shitty light of his room makes Jungkook’s hole look unbearably pink, glistening with lube running down toward the insides of his thighs and landing on Taehyung’s legs because they used too much, and it’s ruined his sheets, maybe permeated his mattress, and Taehyung doesn’t care. He wants. Taehyung fucking wants-

 

Taehyung wants to put his mouth on him, where Jungkook is wet.

 

Jungkook has stopped moving, perched on his knees, curved the way he is over Taehyung’s body and toward his feet. His breathing is loud, hand curled loosely around Taehyung’s cock. Paused. Waiting.

 

The arousal burns in Taehyung’s gut and he can’t- he can’t help it. He cups Jungkook’s ass fully and skims his lips up his left cheek, kisses the little mole, his tailbone. Jungkook’s breath goes shaky, shoulders high like he’s about to turn over. Taehyung watches him, kneads the skin of his ass, starts to ask, “Can I-”

 

Jungkook groans, already reaching a hand back for Taehyung’s head, gets lost somewhere around Taehyung’s jaw, the shell of his ear, asks, “Do you like…”

 

Taehyung makes an unintelligible, deep sound from his chest. He presses his face to the underside of Jungkook’s ass cheek, sucks a kiss into his skin that has Jungkook blindly tangling his fingers in Taehyung’s hair, nails scratching on his forehead accidentally in his haste. He looks behind at Taehyung worriedly, hand gentle, says, “Shit. Sorry. Fuck. Sorry- I-”

 

Taehyung moans shakily, grabs Jungkook’s hips more securely when it looks like he might pull away and Taehyung can take the pain, take the sharpness of Jungkook’s eager edges. He traces his soft left cheek with softer lips, says, “Yeah, I like it. I really- I. Wanna  eat you out-

 

With that, Jungkook yanks his head forward but Taehyung is already moving, fucking crash lands with his face buried between Jungkook’s ass, tongue dragging along his rim in one long, dirty stroke.

 

Jungkook almost rips his hair out.

 

Taehyung barely notices. All he is is a mouth. The hands holding Jungkook’s hips, his thighs. All he is is a tongue anything that keeps Jungkook making those tiny noises, breathless little whimpers he doesn’t bother muffling into the bed or anywhere else, his own arm, Taehyung’s thigh. Just breathes them into the air, the only thing Taehyung can hear over his blood rushing, all of it going to his cock. He pulls back and lets his hot breath fall over Jungkook’s hole, clenching pink and pretty, empty. Goes back in more insistent this time, tongue lapping from his rim to the dimples in his spine and back where he stays, licks over and over until every single one of Taehyung’s senses is just fucking berries, thick and sweet and so fucking wet, in his mouth and on his face, smeared over his chin and sticking to his fingers, getting it all over Jungkook’s hips, his belly, his thighs.  

 

“Fuck,” Jungkook moans and Taehyung feels it around his tongue, feels it everywhere and it pulls at his chest, and his back aches from the awkward curve he’s been holding himself at so he wraps his arms around Jungkook’s waist, his hips, leans back until his shoulders land on the pillow, Jungkook practically sitting on his face.

 

Jungkook keens throatily. His spine goes ramrod straight, breath stuttered as he gasps. “Oh, my god. Oh, fuck.”

 

Taehyung groans as Jungkook settles, his thighs on either side of Taehyung’s head, and fuck, the heat is suffocating, soaked, but Taehyung wouldn’t mind drowning like this, mouth full of sweet and surrounded by Jungkook’s ass, would use his last breath to get Jungkook where he wants to go.

 

He loses himself in it then, driving his tongue over the clench of Jungkook’s rim, takes his time kissing him wetter until Jungkook lets go of his hair, bends forward so he can get a hand on Taehyung’s cock again, finally biting his noises into the skin of Taehyung’s hip.

 

Taehyung rears back to breathe a little, just a little, hands spreading Jungkook further open. He bites down on the curve of his ass. Jungkook’s thighs clench around his face and he kisses the base of Taehyung’s cock, cups his balls.

 

Moaning, Taehyung fastens his mouth around his rim, lips sliding wetly, and sucks.

 

Jungkook writhes. He doesn’t seem to breathe for a few too many seconds before his hips buck, the only thing keeping him from kicking Taehyung or falling off is Taehyung’s arms, curled around his thighs, palms cupping his ass. And the noises. They sound wrenched out of his throat, out of those song worthy vocal cords, and all Taehyung can do is push his tongue inside his ass, licking at his slick walls and making his own weak noises back.

 

He’s swimming in it, tongue stroking thick and filthy inside Jungkook until suddenly, there are hands covering his, trembling as they grip his fingers, thumbs stroking over his wrists. Jungkook lifts his hips as much as he can, half bitten words, “Okay. You have to stop. I fucking- I mean it. Taehy-. You have to fuck me now. Oh my g- your mouth is the wors-” He breaks off on a moan, hips squirming when Taehyung gives him a final dirty little suck, kisses him sweet.

 

“Thought my mouth was ridiculous,” Taehyung asks against his left cheek. He licks over the mole, is already more than a little obsessed with it. Jungkook’s hands are heavy on his, the touch grounding, heady. “And are you sure? I can make you co-”

 

“Come like this. Yeah, I know. Fucking presumptuous of you to think you can,” Jungkook snipes, tart, the pliant, messy thing in Taehyung’s arms gone. Not like this version of him isn’t enticing too, the way he demands what he wants, the way he says, “It’s almost like you don’t want me to sit on your cock.”

 

Taehyung’s soul-mind-heart-body-thing does the checking out thing again.

 

By the time he rejoins this plane of existence, Jungkook is rolling the condom onto Taehyung’s cock, kneeling next to Taehyung on the twisted sheets. His sweat is shiny under the lights. Eyes even shinier, meet Taehyung’s somewhere between coy and brazen, grow darker when Taehyung twitches in his grasp, friction wet and smooth.

 

Jungkook goes to straddle Taehyung again, facing away this time.

 

Taehyung stops him with a hand on his waist. Says, “Wait.”

 

Jungkook blinks. Shoulders rising and falling, his hair tangled over his eyebrows, inky black.

 

Taehyung thinks about brushing the curl touching his lashes away. Asks, “Do you like- I mean. Can I kiss you? Would you want me to? Kiss you. Or. Do you want to? Kiss me.”

 

It’s been on his mind all night, since the second he saw Jungkook and Jungkook was already thinking about sucking his cock. He doesn’t think he’s ever gone this long without kissing someone. He knows why he hasn’t pushed for it. He wonders why Jungkook hasn’t.

 

Jungkook snorts, his cheeks turning as flushed as his chest.

 

“Usually people don’t ask. They just, you know, kiss the person. Really starting to think you do have some respectful, prince charming role play thing going on,” he says, cutting, dismissive. But his face is pink like his mouth. Like his everywhere. But he’s leaning into Taehyung’s space, stradling one of his thighs, chests close.

 

Taehyung half shrugs half dies, his dick kicking up against Jungkook’s, just as hard and wet as his. His hands find his waist, run along the curve where he’s softest. “Some people aren’t into that. And we haven’t yet so I thought I should ask.”

 

Jungkook snorts again, this one more of a laugh. His eyes drop to Taehyung’s mouth and Taehyung half dies once more, maybe stays dead because his throat won’t work when he swallows.

 

He says, “This isn’t some escort movie. Yeah, I like kissing. And yes, I want to-” He stops, seems to get stuck on his own failing throat. He clears it. Touches Taehyung’s jaw, fingers warm. “You can kiss me,” he finishes softly.  

 

And well.

 

Taehyung breathes in when Jungkook exhales. It takes them a moment to find a fit. Jungkook leans down a little, too tall on his knees. Taehyung meets him halfway, uses his grip on his waist to slot him further on his thigh. Their noses brush. It still feels like everything is soaked. Jungkook’s cock pressing wet against his abdomen. His never ending eyes, like a fucking cluster of stars got lost in them a long time ago and never found its way home. The sigh he kisses to the space between their mouths. Eyelashes fluttering, breath hot, and then-

 

The second their lips touch, Taehyung knows he’s fucked.

 

It’s a gentle thing at first. Close mouthed and smooth from their sticky lips. Jungkook’s hand cups the side of his face. Taehyung thumbs the curve of his waist, digs his fingers a little. That has Jungkook sucking a breath harshly, a moan sweet in his throat. He kisses Taehyung’s top lip, the bottom, teases their lips together until Taehyung opens his mouth and their tongues find the other. Taehyung grunts into the kiss, pulls him closer. Jungkook falls into it, into him, hands knotting in his hair, kisses Taehyung’s mouth like he knows he belongs there, like he already knows its his.

 

Taehyung knows he’s fucked.

 

Because he knows what’s been in the back of his mind all night.

 

Because Jungkook sucks his tongue inside his mouth, dirty and with a purpose.

 

Because the mess of Taehyung’s hair is his.

 

Because he tastes like fucking berries.

 

Be-

 

It happens like nothing Taehyung imagined.

 

He watches the sloping curve of Jungkook’s back as he lowers himself on Taehyung’s cock, the moment Jungkook’s rim swallows the head, hips swiveling gently. 

 

Taehyung inhales sharply. He’s flat on his back, hands hanging off Jungkook’s hips, sweat slicked and restless. It’s overwhelming. The wet heat of him. Jungkook holds himself high, back muscles bunching, the forced relaxed jut of his shoulders on display.

 

“Fuck,” Jungkook whispers hotly. He grips Taehyung’s cock by the base, his other hand pressing down on Taehyung’s thigh for leverage.

 

Feet pressing into the mattress, Taehyung sits up, holds him tighter.

 

“Wait,” Jungkook says, halfway down his cock. His ass clenches when Taehyung shifts, pulses like a heartbeat around him. Taehyung rubs his forehead against his shoulder, kisses the sweaty skin. “Stay down. Don’t. Not yet. Please. Let me just- yes!”

 

It’s the please that kills Taehyung. It’s his ass but it’s also just Jungkook. Commanding and begging, body sculpted and strong where it’s attractive, poetically masculine like someone carved him from some ancient stone, soft and thick where it matters, where it feels good to touch him.  

 

Taehyung lies back. His sheets smells like Jungkook, sweat and the clean scent he must wear, earthy and flowery, mulch during spring. And the fake berries though Taehyung knows he must smell like it on his own too. It’s a wave of heat around Taehyung’s head, his body, and he focuses on that because if he focuses on Jungkook he’s going to come apart, and he’s not even really talking about his cock.

 

It’s hard not to. Not when he can feel the way Jungkook’s hips flex, pelvis clenching as he take the rest of Taehyung’s cock inside himself. Not when Jungkook’s ass meets Taehyung’s hip bones and he lets out a satisfied sigh, rocks himself in Taehyung’s lap for a moment.

 

Taehyung grunts, has to keep his hips from kicking. Jungkook shakes above him and they’ve barely started but his thighs tremble when he angles his hips a little more, knees sinking apart as he grinds himself on Taehyung’s cock, both hands on Taehyung’s hips behind himself, arms slicked with sweat.

 

All Taehyung can do is lie there and let Jungkook pleasure himself, let him pleasure Taehyung, because fuck does he, so tight around Taehyung’s cock, wet and warm and making Taehyung question everything he’s ever known about being inside someone, about sex, all the metaphysical bullshit people say they think about during sex. Or maybe that’s high. He can’t remember. He feels high right now. Maybe it’s the fucking berry lube. Maybe it’s the smell of burnt teriyaki permanently logged in his lungs and maybe, he should have showered, and maybe- fuck, it’s the ass around his cock because Jungkook starts lifting up, clenched tight until he’s at the head, drops down slowly, fucking himself down on Taehyung with these deep, dirty rolls.

 

And Taehyung promised so he won’t move but he can’t keep his hands to himself. Runs them up Jungkook’s waist, down his thighs, rubs his fingers along his wet inner thighs, does it again when Jungkook gasps breathless, keeps Taehyung’s hands there with his own.

 

Jungkook fucks down harder on the next stroke. His entire body shudders, head dropping back, spine arched as he rides Taehyung, hips circling quick and messy. “Oh fuck. F-fuck.” And he keeps going, mouth panting and finishing on, “God, your cock.”

 

Taehyung heaves, nails digging into Jungkook’s skin. Jungkook lets go of his hands then, reaches down to grab an ass cheek to angle himself better, the other running up his waist and Taehyung’s join him, skirts his fingers up his back to tangle in his hair, over his shoulders, his heaving chest to his nipples. Jungkook moans, melts into his hands, the tension seeping out of his body. He bends back a little, arching into the fingers that Taehyung has in his hair. Taehyung thumbs the side of his head carefully, grip tightening on his hair and tugging , damp strands caught between his fingers.

 

Jungkook gives a high pitched keen. His ass starts clenching rhythmically, a desperate edge to the way he sinks back into the movement and stays, the head of Taehyung’s cock grinding into his prostate and he doesn’t stop, not even when his breath halts and it sounds like it’s too much.

 

It’s almost too much for Taehyung, hips flexing, cock throbbing in the drenched heat of Jungkook’s hole. He grits his teeth, keeps his hands on Jungkook, tongue feeling too thick for his mouth when Jungkook gasps, senseless sounds, like his tongue is too big for his mouth too. Taehyung goes on autopilot. He bends a leg, rolls up into the clench of Jungkook’s body, and tugs on the hair at the back of his head, mindful of Jungkook’s neck, of the way he groans.

 

There’s a quick inhale and then Jungkook goes even tighter around his cock. His body quakes, the worst of it in his thighs, his ass, and he moans the highest he has all night, drawn out but nothing overt about it, not a show he’s putting on but pitched out of him like he doesn’t realize how loud he’s being. Not that Taehyung does either. Jungkook clenches around his cock and Taehyung makes a tortured noise, heart rate spiking. Wetness lands on his balls, drips down onto his thighs, wet and thin.

 

Taehyung bites down on his tongue. Thinks there might be blood. “Did you just- fuck- just. Did you come?”

 

Jungkook cants his hips, fucking whines. “Yes. Yes!  Mhhm,” he groans, sinks back further, ass squelching wetly around Taehyung’s cock. His hips kick like he wants to pull away but he’s rocking himself onto it the next second like it feels too good not to, the too much feeling. “But I’m still hard. Hmm. Don’t always know if I can and most guys- But I had to t- on your cock. Fuck. Taehyu- fuck.”

 

Taehyung moans helplessly. His cock kicks at Jungkook saying his name. The first time since he climbed up on the bed. A few other things kick too but Taehyung ignores them for now.

 

He slides his hands to Jungkook’s waist, presses into the heaving muscle. “You feel so good. Shit, Jungkook, I- Are you sure I didn’t dream you up?” he says, stupidly, tongue dumb, honest.

 

Jungkook surprises him by laughing. It must be exhaustion creeping in or maybe Jungkook really is just a mess of sharp and sweet.

 

Feeling him laugh almost feels as good as feeling him come, anything that keeps Jungkook a trembling, pretty thing in his lap.

 

Humming, Jungkook looks over his shoulder, and fuck, he’s gorgeous, hair all over the place, mouth swollen, eyes pleased, the lines of his face relaxed. He looks fucked out. Blissed out. Taehyung knows they’re useless empty words, but he really looks like something from some other reality, all his little imperfections, his too big nose, the scars and scrapes, the sweat clinging everywhere, only makes him more unreal, how real he is, for him to be here, tall and beautiful and too much in Taehyung’s lap.

 

“You can fuck me now,” Jungkook tells him. He pats at the soft of Taehyung’s belly, spreads his palm between Taehyung’s pecs, runs his fingers over Taehyung’s throat, exploratory, curious. “How do you want me?”

 

Taehyung stares for a moment too long. Jungkook lets him, touches the bob of Taehyung’s Adam’s apple, his jaw, his mouth. 

 

Taehyung breathes out, weak and shaky. The thing in his chest tugs, weaker. Shakier. 

 

He lifts Jungkook off of his cock, hands trembling, Jungkook easing up on his knees to help the slide.

 

“C’mere,” Taehyung says, voice too deep, too soft.     

 

They end up leaning against the headboard, wood digging into Taehyung’s shoulders, Jungkook belly up as Taehyung bends his knees and rolls hips up into him, hips smacking wetly. Jungkook lets him fuck him however he wants, meets Taehyung’s thrusts with languid hips, edging Taehyung on as he moans. Taehyung sucks hickies into his neck, one hand wandering up and down his body, gripping his waist, his knee, anywhere he can touch. He runs the flat of his palm along the hot sweaty skin of the inside of his thighs. He digs his feet into the mattress, widens his stance a little so he can really fuck him, forces Jungkook’s legs apart as he angles his hips in a way that has Jungkook’s breath skittering. He throws his head back on Taehyung’s shoulder, and they’re pressed everywhere, bodies hot and damp, and Taehyung isn’t sure he’s ever been this disgusting during sex, mind buzzing and sweat filthy, lube everywhere, the remains from Jungkook’s first orgasm tacky and weirdly satisfying over the skin of his thighs. His eyes start blurring from the pleasure, pressure clawing at his insides and wanting out, wanting the sweet torture to end.

 

“Fuck. Feels- fuck,” Jungkook says into the edge of his jaw. He bites, soothes his tongue over the sting when Taehyung hisses, jerks his hips up harder. The stretch of his body is on display like this, and Taehyung fills his hands with it. He grips one of Jungkook’s thighs, grinds his cock into him, thinks he could black out from it, Jungkook’s hole clenching wet around his length, body pliant and melting into Taehyung’s hands.

 

“Shit,” Taehyung grits out when Jungkook sucks at the spot beneath his ear, hands skimming down Taehyung’s sides. “Your ass is amazing. You’re amazing. Fuck. Want to touch you. Want to make you come again- fuck. Can I. Jungkook. You-”

 

Jungkook grunts or snorts or laughs, or something, but Taehyung misses it because he shifts so Taehyung’s cock pushes into his ass down to the base, and leans further onto Taehyung’s front, slots his mouth over Taehyung’s. Taehyung loses himself in it. His lips are so fucking soft, whatever sticky pink thing he uses easing the glide of the kiss. He runs his tongue along the roof of Taehyung’s mouth, tastes fake sweet and a little bitter from whiskey. Jungkook sucks his bottom lip, sinks into the heat of Taehyung’s mouth. Gives him these slow, drugged out kisses with a hand knotted in Taehyung’s hair, gives Taehyung a bitter sweet thing to sink into.

 

A buzzing drives out from Taehyung’s cock, zings up his spine, and swims up his veins and he’s always tended toward being a mushy bastard during sex because sex is sex is sex, but it’s also an extension of love or something like it, the physical underpinning of it, body split open and barred even though he’s the one opening them for his cock, his insides turned out into someone else’s hands, vulnerable to their teeth and in the white hot pleasure-pain clouding his brain he lets them, willingly puts himself on the chopping block just so they’ll touch him, bless his body with their hands.

 

With Jungkook moaning against his mouth, turned up and all of his strength surrendered to Taehyung, it’s impossible not to do it.

 

With the way Taehyung’s chest hasn’t stopped yanking since he saw him for the first time, it’s inconceivable. He won’t even try not to.

 

He is going to make Jungkook come though. Can’t not.

 

He sits up and slides a hand around Jungkook’s cock. He groans when he finds him sloppy wet, jerking in his hold because he really hasn’t fucking touched himself. Jungkook sucks hard on Taehyung’s tongue, mumbles something into his mouth. Taehyung kisses him deeper, starts stroking his cock and it’s the way Jungkook grunts through his nose, breath shocky and hot on Taehyung’s face but doesn’t pull away that tips Taehyung over the edge, game over.

 

He rolls his hips up hard, fucks himself in in these tight wet grinds until Jungkook seizes up, mouth falling open as he clenches hard on Taehyung’s cock and spills messily all over Taehyung’s fist, leaks on his knuckles, makes a worse mess all over his own thighs, Taehyung’s, the sheets.

 

Any of the tension left speeps right out of Jungkook’s bones. He works his hips slowly on Taehyung’s cock, shoulders knocking the breath out of Taehyung’s chest.

 

Head tipped back on Taehyung’s shoulder, he stares at Taehyung wide eyed, panting. “Sorry. Am I too heavy? Do you need me to-”

 

Taehyung shakes his head, holds Jungkook tight as he shifts his hips into him, rolling a little mindless into his trembling heat, ass still too tight and soppy wet. Jungkook hums at the overstimulation but he grips Taehyung’s hand over his thigh, clenches on the next thrust up and Taehyung’s abdomen jerks, orgasm swooping out from under him as his cock throbs hard and he comes into the condom, head smushed awkwardly into Jungkook’s hairline, nose inhaling his sweaty flowery scent, huge lungfuls of it as his body twitches, knees locking hard enough his joints pop.

 

He can’t get his hips to stop rolling, tiny aborted thrusts as his body works through it, the terrible melting heat turning his brain off.

 

The next breath is a little easier. Then the next until it starts feeling less like his lungs are stuffed. Chest easing. It’s still all berries but at this point Taehyung won’t know what to do when it isn’t.

 

Jungkook twists in his lap. A sound gets stuck in his throat. He pulls at Taehyung’s wirst. “Too much. Ugh.”

 

Taehyung lets go of his cock. Kisses his hair apologetically, his jaw, the spot he can reach on his cheek, the erratic flutter of his pulse. He strokes along his thighs, mindless touch, fingertips light. Feels like he could drown in this too, the slow clockwork of Jungkook coming back into his body, and Taehyung was right, finds it impossible to get his mouth to stop, to breathe in anything that isn’t Jungkook, the berries.  

 

Jungkook breathes softly. He reaches for Taehyung’s face. Runs his thumb along Taehyung’s cheekbone, almost too gentle.

 

He pulls away after a moment, careful to move his shoulder so he doesn’t hit Taehyung’s chin. He sits up on Taehyung’s cock, seems to settle himself before lifting off.

 

Taehyung acts on instinct, gripping the condom, hand on his hip. He groans as Jungkook reflexively tightens, the small noise Jungkook makes when he’s empty kicking Taehyung in the gut.

 

Jungkook rolls off of him, then flops face first onto Taehyung’s destroyed sheets.

 

It’s anything but graceful but Jungkook manages to make it look purposeful. Like his thighs aren’t trembling faintly. Like he’s not rubbing his face into the bed, limbs rendered useless.

 

Taehyung touches his calf. Asks, “Okay?”

 

Jungkook grunts. He moans lightly when Taehyung digs his thumb into the lax muscle, legs spread and showing off the wet mess of his ass. Heat buzzes in Taehyung’s belly, the desire to bury his face there, where Jungkook is sweet and wet, more open than the last time Taehyung did.  

 

Jungkook stretches, back arching cat like, muscles flexing, slick in the light.

 

Taehyung lets the thought run around his mind. His dick twitches, accusing, reminds Taehyung of the grody condom, pink lube and sticky latex suffocating his skin.

 

Holding his fucked out, limp dick, he shuffles to the bathroom. Tosses the condom, wets a clean rag.

 

The mattress dips. Jungkook tenses.

 

Taehyung grazes his hip. “Need to clean you up.”

 

Jungkook blinks at him. He lays his head on his folded arms, rolls his shoulders in a long hum. “Whatever floats your boat, Disney Boy.”

 

Taehyung chuckles. Movements slow as he wipes up the mess between Jungkook’s cheeks. “Just doing the decent thing. You did all the work.”

 

Jungkook laughs, crooked. Skin flushed and teeth gleaming, post orgasm looks good on him, filthy and pretty and untouchable yet letting Taehyung put his hands on him. “Don’t sell yourself short. You gave me something to work with.” He eyes Taehyung’s cock, sacked out on Taehyung’s thigh. He hums and it gives a phantom throb like the fucker thinks it’s gonna get hard again tonight. Just might if Jungkook keeps looking at him like that. “Bet you make all the boys drool. Girls too.”

 

“What gave me away?”

 

“The pink lube,” Jungkook says, mouth a sticky bright cotton candy sheen.

 

“Hm. Is that what you want? Some kind of Prince Charming?”

 

“Who said I wanted anything?”

 

He seems to recoil at his own words, shoulders hunching. He shies away from Taehyung’s touch for the first time. Taehyung was already finished, rag balled up in his fist.

 

A horn blares from outside. It’s a reminder that there’s a world outside Taehyung’s bedroom.

 

Must remind Jungkook too. He takes a deep breath.

 

Slowly, Jungkook lifts up off the bed, hips first.

 

“You sure you’re okay?”

 

Jungkook laughs again. Less open. “Mhhm. Just trying to convince by knees they’re solid again.”

 

He’s startling honest when Taehyung least expects it. Taehyung doesn’t know what he’s waiting for. A front. A lie. Maybe it’s Jungkook’s way of carrying himself. Like he wants you to think he’s more guarded than he is.

 

Taehyung says, “You can stay. If you want. You don’t have to go. Stay.”  

 

Jungkook asks, “Do you want me to?”

 

And because Taehyung is always honest he says, “Yes.”

 

And because maybe Jungkook is too, he sits up, says, “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

 

Taehyung’s chest yanks.

 

He asks, “Why?”

 

“Because you’re looking at me like you don’t just want me to stay the night.”

 

It’s possibly the most presumptuous thing either one of them has said. It’s also true. Maybe Jungkook can read him as well as Taehyung thinks.

 

He doesn’t say that Jungkook is doing the same thing, that he’s still on Taehyung’s bed when he could be out the door. That he touched and kissed and fucked Taehyung like he wanted that too. And touches and kisses and fucking. They don’t really mean anything. Taehyung’s non-mushy sex brain knows that. Realistically.

 

He says, “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

 

Jungkook keeps his expression neutral but he huffs a breath, reaches down for his underwear. The light catches the silk, the well made stitching. “Look. You’ve got a nice cock and you know what to do with it, I’ll give you that. Already have. More than once. Big guy upstairs didn’t waste his time giving someone a big dick. But-”

 

He pulls his boxer-briefs on, soft fabric sliding up his damp skin. He doesn’t look at Taehyung. 

 

“You’re sweet, Taehyung. I don’t do sweet.”

 

The lie sits for a moment.

 

Jungkook swallows. Amends, “Not more than once.”

 

The jeans are next and each scrap of fabric is like a shield, a barrier, and Taehyung guesses he’s supposed to feel rebuffed, rejected, but his chest stays steady, the air doesn’t shift.

 

He finds an old pair of boxers at the foot of the bed and follows Jungkook out to the door, Jungkook’s sock clad feet soft over tile. It should feel like a dead man’s walk, like letting go something he isn’t supposed to. Something that’ll make him sorry. Regret. In his chest, maybe that string connecting them only Taehyung can feel gutting his heart.

 

Taehyung’s chest doesn’t tug. Like it knows.

 

Jungkook stands at the door, boots on. He takes a moment to fix his hair, tucks back the curl Taehyung thought about brushing earlier.

 

He gives Taehyung, his half naked body, his mouth, his face, a long look. Makes himself meet his eyes. “If it makes you feel better, I almost never do anyone twice.”

 

“Especially not if they’re sweet?” Taehyung asks lightly, goes for sarcasm, lands where he usually does, soft. 

 

Jungkook smiles. Small but real. It looks comfortable on his face. Like it’s at home. “Most people aren’t sweet if that makes you feel better too,” he says with a shrug. Then he steps out into the bright hall and, without looking back, he turns around the bend and is gone. 

 

Taehyung closes the door. Looks at his living room with its shit light. Tries to see it with the same wonder Jungkook showed earlier.

 

He doesn’t think he deserves to feel better. Anything, really. There’s something misplaced in his chest. Not a yank. Something out of bounds. He stares at the photographed pulsar on the far wall, wonders how sweet he actually is when what he wanted was to take Jungkook to dinner, kiss his moles, figure out his insides without having to put his hands on him, and what he did was take him home and fuck him instead.

 

He doesn’t wonder if he’ll see Jungkook again.

 

Realistically-

 

Soulmates don’t deal in realistics.

 

*****

 

 

Chapter Text

*****

 

 

 

 

 

“I think I met my soulmate”

 

Gun fire explodes. On screen, Jimin’s character dies a bloody death. He rematerializes a few seconds later, stats showing him on his last life.  

 

Jimin asks, “Think?”

 

Taehyung shifts on the couch. The words sound wrong, incomplete. He stares at the falling bodies on screen. “Know. I know I did.”

 

Clicking intensifies. Taehyung wipes out another sniper, shoves a fistful of chips in his mouth.

 

“Nice,” Jimin says. He leans as he shoots, crushes the remaining half of his lunch as he dips left, burger juice all over Taehyung’s couch. Taehyung once dropped acid on the arm, the fabirc singed black. “What’s thei- shit, fuck, fucking eat shit you fucki- name?”

 

“Jungkook. He’s so pretty it hurts, has the best laugh I’ve heard, maybe, ever? Oh, and he has no interest in ever seeing me again.”

 

“Huh. How’d you meet?”

 

Taehyung sighs, fluffs his hair. It flops limply. A shower probably would be a good idea today.

 

Jimin curses again, accidentally takes out someone from his own team. His borrowed t-shirt is covered in black bean sauce. He probably needs a shower too.  

 

“At the restaurant. Apparently, creepily happy bears really get him going.”

 

“Huh. So, it happened par the course concerning your life then?”

 

“Pretty much, yeah.”

 

Taehyung’s room still smells like berries. Like spring. He bought a scented candle to chase the scent out. Evergreen. Like winter. It’s still in the bag. When he got home from the store he called Jimin for a gaming marathon, got distracted. They’ve been camped out on his couch for almost two days.

 

He’s not wallowing. You can’t wallow with a second person. Jimin is the wallowing master and he never lets anyone, not even Taehyung who has seen him when he’s covered in his own hangover vomit and when he cries so hard his snot nosed face turns dark red, inside his apartment during his post break-up wallowing bouts.

 

Not that Taehyung is. Broken up.

 

“Huh,” Jimin repeats. He’s quiet for a while, maybe struggling for the perfect comforting thing to say.

 

Taehyung doesn’t want perfect comfort. He wants this. Sitting on his couch on the first consecutive two days he’s had off in months with mindless video games and beer and shitty food and his best friend. As close to perfect Taehyung thinks he’s ever gonna get.

 

He wants to tell Jimin this but the words sound synthetic, awkward and too emotional in that way sentimentality in friendships that have lasted forever feel. Like if he brings up the perfect ease of them, it’ll make them too aware of it, self conscious. But he wants to share the soft feeling in his chest at Jimin not hesitating to come over, the way he hasn’t prodded Taehyung even though he knew something was up, just gave Taehyung his space, sat and shared it with him until Taehyung came to him. Taehyung can be a mushy bastard outside the bedroom as much as he can be in it.  

 

Then he remembers. Jimin is the person who has seen Taehyung’s red snot-nosed face too. Has sat through too many of Taehyung’s heavy silences. Knows he can call Taehyung whenever and that Taehyung will drop everything to sit and share Jimin’s heavy silences too.

 

Easing up on his controller, Taehyung says, “Sorry if you and Sooyoung had plans this weekend. I-”

 

“Nah. She had a conference,” Jimin says, eyes locked on the screen. “Would’ve come over anyway. You know I’m always down for army zombies and bad tofu burgers.”

 

“You could just get a real burger instead of torturing yourself.”

 

“And face Seokjin’s disappointment?”

 

“How would he even know?”

 

“Oh. He’d know.”

 

Taehyung won’t argue that. Seokjin can smell burguer on Taehyung’s clothes days after. It’s only a little weirdly terrifying. “Don’t know why you all think you need to be vegetarians just because he is.”

 

“Pescetarian,” Jimin corrects, cursing when he almost gets taken out. “And you’re the only one who stupidly isn’t afraid of his culinary wrath. All that red meat is going to come back to bite you in the ass when we’re old.”

 

Taehyung makes a grunt of acknowledgement, shoots a zombie in the gut. Its insides spill, rotten organ blood all over the ground. Out of all his possible vices, red meat worries Taehyung the least.

 

Jimin’s thumbs click so hard it sounds like the controller is about to snap. His character dies its last gruesome death. He drops the controller with a shout. The game keeps going without him. He grabs two beer bottles from the six pack on the coffee table. Taehyung shakes his head when he offers. After a moment, Jimin puts them both back. He gives Taehyung a long look, dark circles under his eyes. Taehyung knows that look.

 

“How’s work?” Taehyung asks, keeping one eye on the enemy, one on Jimin. He takes out three in one go. Doesn’t feel any true sense of victory from it.

 

Jimin mimics a smile. “I spent only thirty minutes daydreaming about quitting on Friday. So. Progress?”

 

“Hmm. Pretty much par the course for you, though.”

 

“Pretty much. Remember when I said I’d be a millionaire by the time we were twenty-six?”

 

“Yes, but twenty-seven is the new twenty-six.”

 

“Taehyung. We are twenty-seven.”

 

Over the sound of flying bullets, Jimin’s voice is paused. Small. Like twenty-seven is the worst thing that can happen to someone. Taehyung takes his eyes off the game, lets his player take a hit. He can afford it.

 

Jimin is messing with an old piece he must have grabbed from under Taehyung’s coffee table. A pair of glasses, the lenses thick and square and opaque. The temples are inches thick and black. He taps the glass, asks, “How many prototypes of this one did you make?”

 

Taehyung doesn’t have to think about it. Takes his time answering. “Twenty-seven.”

 

Jimin shoots him a look, smiling. Still too small. “Seriously?”

 

Taehyung nods.

 

Jimin laughs funnily. Strange coincidences like that always amuse him. His smile brightens a touch. “Did I tell you I took Sooyoung to the exhibit?”

 

Taehyung hums. He hopes it sounds the way he meant it. Neutral.

 

Jimin isn’t fooled. He pushes on, “She loved it so much, we paid to go again. Said it felt like she was swimming in space.”

 

Taehyung smiles, finds he means it. “That Sooyoung of yours should have been a poet.”

 

“She’s not mine,” Jimin says but there’s a pleased tint to his smile. Taehyung doesn’t feel an ounce of sourness in his chest. Feels his own pleased for Jimin, for his happiness, means it down to his bones. “But yeah, maybe she should’ve. How’s it coming along?”Jimin asks. He glances at the sliding doors. The ones that take up an entire wall in Taehyung’s living room, the ones that Jungkook had peered at, questioned about dead bodies, had wanted to know.

 

Jimin looks back at Taehyung. There’s nothing expectant in his voice, his eyes. It’s just a question he has to ask. The way Taehyung had to ask Jimin about work even if he always knows the answer.

 

Taehyung doesn’t have to think about this one either. Still takes his time. “It’s going. Got a feeling about it.”

 

“Yeah?” And there’s the expectancy, the growing hope in his smile. Taehyung doesn’t feel stifled by it. It’s the same one he feels every time Jimin says he’s finally going to quit.

 

“Yeah,” Taehyung says. If he doesn’t say what kind of feeling it is he doesn’t have to snuff out the hope, that sympathy pit feeling Taehyung will get the next time he asks and Jimin will say he only fantasized about quitting for twenty-nine and fifty-nine seconds that day.

 

Jimin hums, clicks on the side of the glasses, plastic clacking. It doesn’t light up the way it’s supposed to, the hardware outdated and the power source tapped out. It’s just a hunk of plastic, taking up space in Taehyung’s living room. He should toss it along with the rest of the abandoned prototypes making a graveyard out of Taehyung’s apartment. “Man. I should have taken robotics with you and Seokjin. You did the smart thing by building your own degree. Got to do a little of everything instead of stuck in a hundred programming classes like me.”

 

Taehyung snorts. He remembers Jimin in college, in those hundreds of programming classes, how it was all he ever talked about, this intense focused passion Taehyung quietly envied. He tries imagining having had Jimin sitting with him in a cosmology seminar or a design theory course and can’t wrap his head around it.

 

He says, “Try telling my degree advisor that. Thought I was crazy for wanting to take Quantum and Astro at the same time.”

 

“Yeah and then you got it approved by the department head so showed how much he knew.”   

 

He probably knew more than Taehyung did at eighteen. Might still at whatever years he is older to Taehyung’s twenty-seven now. “He was just doing his job. A lot of interdisciplinary majors just dick around. That’s why they’re so anal about letting you do them.”

 

Jimin picks up his abandoned tofu burger, frowns at it when it doesn’t turn into a bacon cheeseburger on silent command. Sets it down again. They seriously need to get off the couch at some point today. They’re maybe too old for this. “You had a clearer idea of what you wanted than most people with their curriculums spoonfed to them. Besides,” Jimin adds, shaking the glasses for emphasis. “You ended up using all those courses. What’s the statistic at now? Most straightforward majors can’t say that.”

 

Taehyung eats more potato chips. The controller is slippery, his fingers greasy. He wonders how Jimin would react if he knew Taehyung had no idea what he was doing back then. How every class he decided to take was an effort to get away from everything he knew but still trying to stay close to the familiar, numbers and particles and motions. Jimin knows some of it, why he took the bare minimum of the chemistry he needed, stuck to the engineering courses that sounded completely foreign to him.

 

He thinks about Sooyoung’s words.

 

Thinks of Jungkook’s curious starry eyes, asking You into space?

 

Maybe that’s what Taehyung had been doing as an aimless college teenger. Trying to get some space. Trying to swim in it.

 

He thinks about his job at the restaurant. About his other jobs. About the prototype in Jimin’s hands.

 

From beyond the sliding doors to his left, Taehyung’s computer sputters softly, circuits working mutedly in its sleep.

 

Taehyung sits up. The couch cushion sinks. He makes to grab the beers Jimin abandoned. It sounds like a good idea. Lukewarm bubbles sliding down his throat. Filling his stomach. His brain. It sounds-

 

He stops when he realizes he wants it as much for himself as he does for Jimin. They finished one six pack yesterday. A second today. Started a third. He’s not close to his limit, doesn’t really have one, but that’s the thing about limits. They make you test them until you find yours.

 

Taehyung’s never been that interested in finding is. Has a pretty good idea of what it looks like.

 

He resumes playing, halfheartedly aiming for a kill, a victory he can control the outcome of.

 

Jimin watches him play.

 

Taehyung says, “You’ll quit when you’re ready.”

 

Jimin sighs. “I know,” he says, accepts the circle back without missing a beat. Jimin and him. They’re good at silences. Even when they’re full of words.

 

“Besides,” Taehyung continues, voice light. “NPR said twenty-six is the newer twenty-three so you still have four years to make good on your promise.”

 

“NPR,” Jimin repeats with a groan. He lies back, shoves the squished burguer back in its wrapper. “You need to quit latching onto whatever Yoongi does. There’s only room for one pretentious asshole in our friendship group.”

 

Taehyung laughs, thinks about Yoongi’s annoyed pretentious face. The chip bag crinkles against his hip when he kicks Jimin’s foot. “Listening to NPR isn’t pretentious. At this point Yoongi and I are linked for life. Our deathbeds will be side by side.”

 

“Over Seokjin’s dead body.”

 

“Well, yeah, man. Seokjin’s gonna die first. Obviously.”

 

“Over Yoongi’s dead body.”

 

“Got me there.”

 

Taehyung gets hit. Only loses a third of a life. He’ll make it. Wound clean, enemy short on manpower, he just has to keep it together for long enough.

 

His pillow still smells like berries.  

 

Like the earth after it rains in April.

 

A sniper pops up over the cracked roof of a decayed building. Taehyung focuses on ducking for cover, firing back, ignores the pathetic romanticising thoughts in his head. Maybe, like Sooyoung, he should have been a fucking poet too.

 

It’s all in his mind, the berry-flower-earth scent. It’s all stagnant sweat by now, in his sheets, his pillow cases, the ghost memory in his lungs. He just needs to change his sheets. Just needs to stop thinking about the shape of Jungkook’s lips, his waist, his ass, his eyes, his smart terrible mouth, the slippery moments of shy sweetness, the sound of Taehyung’s name in his voice. Taehyung just needs to.

 

He needs to but-  

 

Jimin asks, “Wanna get kombucha from the shack and then pretend to fall asleep at the observatory again?”

 

Taehyung doesn’t have to think about it. Doesn’t need to pause before asking, “And then actually fall asleep?”

 

“Duh.”

 

“Yoongi’s gonna be there,” he reminds Jimin.

 

“Great. Wanted to discuss an NPR article with him. You read the one about the Libyan kids who figured out how to power their entire town with well water? Kids. The fucking future, man.”

 

Taehyung has and he and Yoongi have already discussed it and he wants to hear whatever Jimin has to say about it but. He’s almost cleared this level. Taehyung has done his recon, can win this easy, but-

 

His chest doesn’t tug. Hasn’t in days.

 

But Taehyung isn’t wallowing.

 

About anything.

 

He’s not so he exits out of the game. Tosses his controller. Starts clearing the coffee table, all their two day crap, the equipment he usually keeps on it stored on the shelf beneath. The controller lands in the six pack carton, takes up the slot where a beer used to be.

 

Taehyung says, “Need to shower first. We fucking stink.”

 

Jimin grins like this is all their lives are. Dirty take out containers, hours of a weekend to kill, drinking Seokjin’s fermented tea, falling asleep under fake stars. Like there are worse things than being twenty-seven. Than not being where you want to be.

 

Jimin and Taehyung are good at that. Are good at it together.  

 

When he gets back, he’ll air out his apartment. Make it smell like snow melting on pine.

 

“Par the course, man. Par the fucking course.”

 

*****

 

There are too many cupcakes again.

 

All the rooms in the community center are exactly the same but this one faces the sun, has more breathing room.

 

Taehyung always makes sure to schedule the city council public forums here. The city council has gotten sixty-three percent less verbally violent threats of a district uprising since Taehyung suggested it. Not that a threat of a couple dozens of people is a real one in a city of millions but it’s better not to trifle with the kind of people who go to district city council meetings in Los Angeles.

 

Taehyung wipes frosting on the leg of his slacks. There’s too many cupcakes but it’s okay. The bible study groups never eat the food and the youth outreach programs only request fruit and power bars. Taehyung always leaves the nicer snacks for meetings like today’s.

 

“Hi there.”

 

“Hey, Nelly,” Taehyung greets, smiles as he lays out the last pan. The frosting is sky blue. A calming color. “How’s it going?”

 

“Just fine, sugar.” Her voice is soothing, a face that reminds him of someone’s mother. She suits the room, suits days like today. “You doing all right? Thank you for this. Looks great.”

 

His cheeks feel warm. “Please. Don’t thank me. It’s my job.”

 

“Nonsense,” she says, no room for argument. She grabs a granola bar. They’re not as nice as the cupcakes but they have chocolate. Something extra. Sweet. “Most centers I’ve held meetings in put out saltines and ham. Or nothing. Anything that makes meetings a little lighter helps.”

 

Taehyung could use a little lightness himself. He woke up heavy. Always does on Tuesdays, his brain scratched up and muddled. Meetings like today’s make him sad in a vague impersonal way, like he’s looking at something he almost understands but can’t. The cupcakes, the detail of them, help. He tells himself they do. He hopes Nelly is right. Hopes they actually help the people they’re meant for.

 

Nelly pats his arm as she walks away, hard granola crunching between her teeth.

 

Taehyung checks the time on his phone. He’s got a good ten minutes but he’s done setting up, starts heading out.

 

He stops to make space for a man walking toward the front row of foldable chairs, and Taehyung misses his grateful smile, looks up just as his chest yanks and everything inside him comes to a stop.

 

All the light in the room seems to fall in one place.

 

Taehyung’s heart plummet to his feet, heavy like the weight of ten thousand men, keeps going till it feels like it’s sinking ten million leagues beneath the sea to the molten lava trapped underneath it, the earth’s core, the center of everything.

 

He stands by the third row. Talking to an older woman with braided hair, a woven shawl draped over her shoulders. The rest of the room is dark in comparison.

 

Taehyung was right.

 

He’s different in the morning light, none of the decadence that clung to him in the city streets or Taehyung’s apartment. Dressed in looser jeans and a simple white t-shirt, his shoulders are relaxed, posture contained, arms crossed at his waist. He’s smiling, toothless and gentle, head tilted encouragingly as he listens.

 

The woman says something and his smile grows. He touches a tassel on her shawl and laughs, eyes crinkling and the apples of his cheeks rounding. And Taehyung really was right. They’re just as beautiful in the morning light, wrinkles reaching toward those carefully sculpted cheekbones.

 

He’s just as beautiful as he was in Taehyung’s bedroom. Maybe more so.

 

The sunlight touches the side of his face, the brightest thing in the room and Taehyung knows there’s no maybe about it.

 

Jungkook’s face twists in confusion. He looks in Taehyung’s direction but not because his eyes are drawn to him like a magnet, a sixth sense, but because the woman speaks again, nodding in Taehyung’s direction.

 

Mouth freezing midword, the color drains from Jungkook’s cheeks.

 

Taehyung doesn’t even think about looking away, the sinking feeling filling his stomach. His heart starts climbing back up league by league, foot by foot. He watches Jungkook cross the room. There’s no point pretending he didn’t get caught lost staring at him. No point in pretending he doesn’t watch him walk toward him, the sun following his path, still turning the rest of the room bleak.

 

By the time Taehyung’s heart lands back in his chest, Jungkook is standing in front of him, stunned, face pale.

 

“What are you doing here?” Jungkook asks.

 

“I work here,” Taehyung says automatically. He’s all about automatics right now. Keeping his eyes on Jungkook’s and nowhere else. Breathing in. Out.

 

“You wor-” Jungkook juts his chin, sighs quietly through his nose. “Fuck. Just- Fuck.” Energy buzzes off him in waves but Taehyung isn’t threatened. It doesn’t feel angry.

 

Jungkook takes a step back, the untrust clear as day in his eyes. His voice is a little shaky. “You’re not stalking me are you?”

 

Taehyung isn’t offended, can only imagine why that’s Jungkook’s first thought. If that’s something people who come to meetings like today’s have to worry about. If it’s just Jungkook. He points to his name tag, shiny metal plate clipped to his button down.

 

Jungkook closes his eyes, shaking his head like he can make the image of Taehyung standing in front of him disappear. Taehyung wishes he could. Wishes he had left the room five minutes ago even if it meant never seeing him again.

 

Jungkook inhales, drops his arms from his waist. He seems to be trying to steel himself, mouth setting in a firm line and gaze hard.

 

Taehyung tries to think of something to say, that it’s okay, that Jungkook still has his privacy, that Taehyung isn’t grasping for straws for the perfect thing to say so Jungkook stops looking at him like that, like Taehyung is the last thing he ever wants to see.

 

He doesn’t. They’re all lies anyway.

 

Jungkook opens his mouth, the tiniest sound stuttering out, and for a moment something flashes in his eyes. Fear. Disgust. Something. Then, it’s poured out of him, face almost eerily blank as he turns away from Taehyung, giving the foldable chairs a last look. He doesn’t say anything to the older woman, angry set to his shoulders as he abandons the room.

 

She glances at Taehyung, concerned, woven colors of her shawl bright.

 

Taehyung stands there too long, his whole body too heavy.

 

The shame on Jungkook’s face stays with him for the rest of the day. Through preparing one of the rooms for the SAT Prep group. Through mopping up the vomit from senior citizens’ bingo. Through the bus ride all the way home.

 

He thinks it’ll stay with him for a while.

 

*****

 

He’s in the middle of signing off on a form when hands come down on the counter, nails blunt and prim.

 

Taehyung controls the urge to flinch. Jungkook’s stance is determined and too intimidating for 10 a.m. at a community center welcome counter. The collar of his leather jacket is popped, cuffed around his neck. Lips lined a hot pink. Jaw cutting. Ready for a fight.

 

Taehyung set up the room twenty minutes earlier than necessary today. Sped through the process, wasn’t as careful as he usually is, chairs in messy lines, frosting all over the table. He’s still not as surprised Jungkook went out of his way to find him as he should be.  

 

“Listen,” Jungkook says and his voice isn’t rude but his eyes are sharp. “If you’re going to be a problem you need to make it clear now because I’m not changing meeting locations just because some weirdo who fucked me once wants to get his dick wet again.”

 

The pen bleeds all over the form. Taehyung sets it down. Grabs a new form. Calmly, he says, “I’d never want to be a problem for you. I already asked if I could change shifts so I won’t be here when you are again.”

 

Jungkook just stares at him. He mouths wordlessly. Nothing comes out.

 

The conversation around them has dimmed. Taehyung can’t tell if it’s because Jungkook is speaking too loud and has scared them off or because it is this quiet in the center today.  

 

He starts filling out the new sheet, adds the date at the top. “And I’m sorry I acted like all I wanted was to get my dick wet. I really did want to get to know you but I wanted you more than I wanted to run the risk of not having you at all so it happened the way it did.”

 

Jungkook loses his stealy compurse, shoulders slumping as he looks at Taehyung like he’s some kind of apparition, a red moon that only comes along every million years, a meteor shower, a supernova crashing into a sun. “You’re for real, aren’t you? Like, this isn’t some act. Or a game. The things you say. This is, like, you.”

 

Taehyung fills the boxes on the form. Gives Jungkook a glance to show he’s paying attention. “Not like me. Is me. I don’t play games. I’m not very good at them.”

 

“God,” Jungkook breathes out. He looks strangely disappointed but at what Taehyung can’t figure out. “You really don’t put up a fight, do you?”

 

Shrugging, Taehyung shifts some papers around, stops on the one he’s looking for. “This isn’t a fight to me.” He tries not to eye Jungkook’s jacket, his tense arms, the clench of his jaw, too obviously. “Life doesn’t have to be one, either.”

 

Another look like Taehyung has galaxies pouring out of his eyeballs. But like the person watching really doesn’t like galaxies very much.

 

Jungkook smiles, teeth bared. This time his voice is rude, as sharp as his eyes. “Well, lucky you. Must be nice living in a fantasy world.”

 

Taehyung doesn’t. Live in a fantasy world. He thinks the real world is pretty fantastical all on its own. Jungkook’s words don’t cut, quick little jabs as Taehyung keeps his calm, flips to the second page. He recognizes this. Jungkook is lashing out, feels threatened, Taehyung the predator, Jungkook the one with his hen house invaded. Taehyung had tried not to come in today, hadn’t wanted to make Jungkook feel in any way uncomfortable, but no one could cover the shift.

 

He marks a box. Clicks the pen once.

 

Maybe he had waited a little too long to try to change today’s shift. Maybe he wanted to show Jungkook he had nothing to fear, that Taehyung isn’t trying to manipulate him or use him against himself, that Taehyung is here just to do his job. Make things a little easier. Lighter.

 

Maybe his motives aren’t as pure as he wishes they were.

 

He looks up. They stare at each other. The pen leaks again. This time against the laminated counter. Taehyung doesn’t wonder if the pink of Jungkook’s mouth tastes like berries.

 

Jungkook goes to say something. He makes a face, starts to walk away, stops.

 

“Did you- Did you really ask to not get put on this shift anymore?”

 

Taehyung nods. “I can get my supervisor so he can confirm it for you.”

 

“No,” Jungkook says quickly. His feet look unsure, half between walking away and staying. “You don’t have to. I- Um. Yeah. Okay.”

 

Taehyung presses the pen to the paper, mouth fumbling as he thinks of something else to say, something to cut the bad tension, the awkwardness, the heaviness choking his insides. “You should try the cupcakes! The ones with the blue frosting. They’re- uh, really good.”

 

Jungkook just looks at him, doesn’t say anything back. He turns around, heads in the direction he came from.

 

Taehyung doesn’t watch him go. He balls up the second ink stained form.

 

He wants to knock his head against the counter. Doesn’t. Grabs a third form instead. 

 

*****

 

“Thanks.”

 

Taehyung hits the space bar too hard. Another order form. Online this time. Toilet paper. Two-ply. The seniors for Sunday night bridge appreciate it. A lot of his job is just ordering stuff, filling out forms. Paper pushing. Bureaucracy without any actual bureaucracy.

 

Jungkook stands at the counter looking more like he did a week ago, something softened about him. His jacket is folded across his forearm. Taehyung wonders which is the real him. Thinks it might be both.

 

“For the tip about the cupcakes,” Jungkook clarifies. “Thank you.”

 

He says it carefully, hyper-conscious of the time he took to find Taehyung again. It makes the heavy feeling in Taehyung’s gut come back with a vengeance, that Jungkook has to thank him for being a decent person. For trying to be one.

 

And then Jungkook says, “I’ll see you around. Or not, I guess.” He gives a little wave, hand recoiling, cringe on his face.

 

He’s halfway across the lobby in seconds, shoulders high.

 

Taehyung watches him go this time. Lets himself wonder if he’ll see him again. The yank in his chest telling him all he needs to know.

 

Maybe it’s wistful thinking, and maybe Taehyung doesn’t live in a fantasy world, doesn’t distract himself with fake thoughts, but longing, wishing for things that aren’t his but could be.

 

Taehyung might know that a little too well.

 

                        *****

 

“Hey. You fill out the form?”

 

“Yeah. Scanned already.”

 

Jaebum nods, files it behind the desk. He’s the only other Korean who works at the center. It’s not enough to like someone but it’s the main reason Taehyung likes Jaebum. “Can’t believe they still have us scanning shit. Can’t believe we’re still using paper.”

 

“You’re the supervisor,” Taehyung points out. He cracks his back. His joints ache. Everything aches. He usually likes his days at the center but today he can’t wait to go home, faceplant into his couch, the computer rumbling to fill the silence.

 

Jaebum cuts him a glance, brow arched, the right side of condescending. “You know that means jack shit here.”

 

Taehyung doesn’t defend Jaebum’s perceived fake authority. Despite Taehyung’s own accepted recommendations, Jaebum isn’t wrong.

 

“Oh,” Jaebum says suddenly. “Wanted to ask. Did anyone give you trouble today?”

 

Taehyung frowns. “No.” No one gave him trouble. “Why?”

 

“It’s probably nothing but, while you were away from the desk, some guy from the Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous group came by and asked if you were going to be here every Tuesday at 10 or not. He didn’t complain about you but it seemed weird. And, you know, those people have issues and shit.”

 

His first thought is it’s called fucking anonymous for a reason, hands fisting on the keyboard. The second is to let it go. It’s things like this why he mostly likes Jaebum for their shared ethnicity.

 

Taehyung flexes his fingers. Clicks something on the screen, the mouse tapping deftly.

 

Jaebum waits, his polo pressed neatly, the collar flat around his neck. His expression is curious, a little worried. It was his idea to coordinate nicer snacks for the twelve step groups and youth programs, to book the bridge nights on a different day from the bingo players because the bingo players are big on carrying flasks and the bridge players aren’t to keep the peace. He should give his fake authority a little more credit.

 

“I don’t know. I don’t talk to people who come to meetings,” Taehyung says and it’s true. He only ever talks to the meeting leader, Nelly, her calm voice exchanging pleasantries with his. Jungkook’s the first one. “It’s probably nothing.”

 

After a second, Jaebum nods. “All right.” He grabs a set of keys from the hook by the computer, flips a few around. He gives Taehyung another look. “You sure about working Thursdays? You’ve never wanted to work Thursdays before.”

 

Taehyung says, “I’m sure. Thanks for accommodating it.”

 

“No problem. Make sure you set out the donuts for AA. They really likes their sweets. I don’t know if it’s a substitute for the alcohol but, hey, if it keeps them off the bottle, right?”

 

Jaebum is already walking around the desk, keys jangling, and Taehyung doesn’t react, doesn’t clench his fists, doesn’t grit his teeth.

 

He turns back to the order form, says, “No problem,” each syllable a dead weight on his tongue.  

  

 

*****

 

 

Leaning against the wall by the back door to the kitchen, Taehyung can smell the compost from here.

 

It’s from the juice shop across the lot. Seokjin isn’t big on composting. Everything the shack uses is biodegradable. It’s a fair compromise.

 

From inside, Hoseok is singing the theme song to some sitcom Taehyung can’t remember the name of. The sound of a knife hitting a cutting-board falls in between, a rhythm keeper for his offbeat voice.  

 

The air is dry. Taehyung breathes it in, cigarette dangling by his thigh. It’s stupid. He quit three years ago but it’s called a smoke break, different from his lunch break. He feels like he should at least keep up the pretense.

 

“This has to be a joke.”

 

The air notches up a few degrees. Wet like summer. Taehyung fumbles with the cigarette, fingers tightening around the unlit filter.

 

Jungkook looks at him from under the hanging sign of the shack, the words Eat Yourself Clean in blocky letters over wood, vine cutouts threaded through meant to give a tree like effect. Seokjin has never been one for subtlety. It’s one of the reasons he and Taehyung become friends.

 

Plastic bags hang off Jungkook’s wrists. The lunch special today is quinoa barley salad. He’s loaded to feed an army.

 

“Let me guess,” Jungkook says. He looks less annoyed than his voice implies. “You work here.”

 

Taehyung nods. He’s trying not look bellow Jungkook’s nose. It’s hard, impossible almost, the gauzy white shirt he’s wearing is basically see through and clings to his muscled chest. A thin gold chain sits dainty against the smooth skin of his neck. Leather jacket fit to his strong shoulders. Jeans hugging his hips and legs in all the right places. His mouth looks pinker than normal. Shiny. Wet. Taehyung wonders if it’s gloss, a lip tint maybe. Wonders what it tastes like.

 

He tasted like bitter sugar and desire when Taehyung kissed him. Like pink. Like fantasies. Dreams.

 

Like berries.

 

“Line cook,” he says. Looks Jungkook in the eye. He swallows thickly. It’s not much better. He taps the cigarette against his jeans. “Though there’s not much cooking involved. People are really into the raw movement these days. Prep guy is more accurate. My friend owns the place.”

 

Jungkook sighs, bags knocking against his thighs. “This is what I get for fucking someone who willingly dresses up as Kumamon.”

 

Taehyung smiles despite himself, the helpless way Jungkook says it. “Not willingly. I interviewed to be a waiter but I have unpredictability clumsy hands.”

 

Jungkook’s gaze wanders to said hands. He mutters, “Don’t look clumsy.” He purses his mouth, a little wiggle appearing between his brows. “You gonna smoke that or ask for its hand in marriage before you suck it?”

 

“Not really in the mood for it,” Taehyung says.

 

Jungkook keeps staring at his hand.

 

Taehyung holds the cigarette out.

 

Jungkook sighs, resigned.

 

His boots crunch gravel. They look like they cost a third of Taehyung’s monthly salary.

 

A beat. The space between them small. Jungkook extends his arms. Taehyung arranges the bags carefully on his wrists, plastic rustling. Jungkook lights up, golden zippo making Taehyung squint, light beaming off its golden surface. He flicks his wrist and the metal top swallows up the flame.

 

Jungkook places the filter between his lips, lets the smoke out slow. “Are you holding all these jobs at the same time or you getting fired every other week?”

 

Taehyung kicks a foot up on the wall, wonders how long is left of his break. He’s more surprised at the conversation than he is at Jungkook being here. “Haven’t gotten fired in a while. I’m an unpredictability good multitasker.”

 

Jungkook raises his brows, slanted and dark. He exhales smoke in Taehyung’s direction. It tickles at Taehyung’s nose, at his sensory memory. Looking at Jungkook’s mouth activates it too. Makes heat prickle in his lower abdomen. He glances at the empty parking lot, the hand painted sign of the juice shop, Squeeze Me Baby. Seokjin’s still bummed he didn’t come up with it first even though he hates juicing and thinks it’s an insult to food.

 

It’s blazing now, humidity coming back with a vengeance. Taehyung’s t-shirt feels stuck to his front, the plaid he usually wears hanging over a vegetable crate inside. He can’t help but wonder if Jungkook is sweltering in his tough guy jacket, if the insides of his thighs are slick and damp. The way they were when he had his sweaty hairline pressed under Taehyung’s kiss swollen mouth, when he sat himself in Taehyung’s lap and ruined Taehyung for anyone else.

 

Taehyung clears his throat, cuts his eyes around the half empty lot. A lot of healthy eateries, trying to quench the never ending quest for the perfect body-soul-mind purely through food. “I’m still figuring out what I want. Life and stuff. Figure it’s better to have my hand in different baskets than settle for one before I’m ready.”

 

It’s the truth but Taehyung wonders if it sounds like a lie to Jungkook too.

 

Jungkook takes a drag, the wiggle between his brows deepening. He stares at the orange tip, at Taehyung through the corner of his eye. “Good luck, I guess? Living the mid-twenties minimum-wage dream.”

 

“I don’t think twenty-seven is considered mid twenties.”

 

“Hmm. Don’t know how I feel about that. You being older than me.” Jungkook coughs, wrinkling his nose as he taps ash on the pavement. “I’m twenty-five,” he offers without prompting.

 

Taehyung hasn’t given it much thought. He figured they were around the same age.

 

He shifts the take out bags, bowls of quinoa tipping before righting themselves. “Do I seem younger than you?”

 

“Yes? No. I don’t-” Jungkook shakes his head, bangs falling on his forehead. He didn’t hesitate this much when they met. Like all his confidence has evaporated. Or like he’s less concerned with posturing. With how Taehyung sees him. “Wasn’t really thinking about it when we- Just surprised.” He makes a huffing sound, just shy of a laugh. “Don’t know why. Maybe ‘cause I forget how old I am. I- Sorry. Ignore me.” He nudges at the cigarette ash with a heel, mouth pursed tight. “Weird fucking day.”

 

Taehyung looks at him for a few seconds. Jungkook’s blatant rambling is unnerving yet welcome but it makes Taehyung want to put his hands on him, soothe the tense pull of his shoulders with his mouth. His hands.

 

He shrugs, tries to make himself feel as nonchalant as the action implies. There’s nothing either of them can do about it. Two years isn’t anything really. Twenty-five feels two days ago to Taehyung. 

 

He says, “Some days I forget how old I am too. Twenty-seven doesn’t feel all that different to twenty-five. I don’t know if that’s the average sentiment but it is with the people my age I know.”

 

Mostly. Maybe Jimin was a little brighter at twenty-five. Maybe Hoseok sang a little louder. Maybe Seokjin had less stress lines. Maybe only Yoongi seems more at home in his own skin, more himself with age.

 

Maybe Taehyung is trying to comfort Jungkook but Taehyung isn’t really good for that. Fake comfort. Fake feelings. Fake anything.

 

“ Hmm.”

 

Taehyung finally figures out what the juice shack must be composting today. Papaya, sweet and milky. Cantaloupes. It clogs the stench of smoke, will get buried under the smell of ammonia soon. Seokjin’s going to complain about it but Seokjin always complains about it.

 

Jungkook tips his head back on the wall, the filter burning, fingers restless. His toes point inward when he stands, black gleaming in the sun. Taehyung tries not to focus on that too much, how sweet it makes him look, leather and smoke and all. His stomachs flips, guilt souring constant desire he can’t help.

 

“So. Aren’t you gonna ask?”

 

Taehyung sniffles at the smokey decomposition of papayas peels and melon rinds in the air. He lets himself look at Jungkook openly. Another stomach flip, sweet and painful. “Ask?”

 

Jungkook smiles, nothing soft or shy or sweet about it. The smoke heightens the effect but Taehyung is staring at his front teeth, a little too big for his mouth, wonders if he had an overbite as a kid. “Come on. Anyone else would ask.”

 

And ask what but what Taehyung says is, “I’m not just anyone else.”

 

It’s not the kind of thing you should say about yourself, comes off as pompous, jerky, full of it, but Taehyung has heard it plenty. Weirdo Jungkook had called him but it hadn’t hurt. He’s always been a little off kilter, odd. He picked it up from his parents, their eccentricities and peculiar creativity. Chose friends who were a little strange. The people he’s loved too. He’s not worried about it anymore. Doesn’t know if he ever was. If it was just that people thought he should. Taehyung is twenty-seven and he likes himself. He wonders if most twenty-seven year olds do. If that’s the average sentiment.

 

If it ever hurt, it stopped a long time ago.

 

He says it because it’s true but mostly? He says it because of the word that appeared in his mind the second he looked at Jungkook and despite the fact that Taehyung was wearing a stupid bear suit and halfway to death, found him already looking back.

 

Jungkook holds his next inhale longer. There’s this look on his face. Taehyung’s heart thuds. The plastic bags feel like twenty tons hanging off his bony wrists.

 

Smoke seeps out of Jungkook’s mouth. He looks like he’s smiling down at his boots but his face is a grimace, twisted satisfaction in it. It’s the first time Taehyung thinks he looks anything less than pretty, as close to ugly as he gets probaby. It’s not very close. Lips pinched, jaw clenched. It looks like it hurts to hold himself that way.

 

That Taehyung put that look on his face. That hurts.

 

“You really are full of shit,” Jungkook says, shaking his hair out of his eyes. He taps the cigarette long after there isn’t any more ash. There’s a splatter of it on the wall. Jungkook curses, voice less fiery when he finishes, “Makes me wonder what else you’ve lied about.”

 

Taehyung doesn’t say he isn’t. That he hasn’t. It’s definitely not the kind of thing you can say about yourself. People either want to believe it about you or don’t.

 

He says, “I just don’t know what you want me to ask. You don’t have to worry about the wall, you know. It’s seen worse.”

 

“I wasn’t-” Jungkook huffs, eyes widening a little. Hesitant, he asks, “Like what?”

 

Taehyung bites his tongue, lets the wall take the burnt of his weight. His break has been long over. Yoongi should be poking his head out soon, demanding where he’s been.

 

“Ever seen the inside of a rotten coconut? Truly gnarly.”

 

Jungkook frowns. “Gnarly. Sorry, you said you were twenty-seven or fifteen? And what part of California are you from again? Because- oh my god, why-”

 

Taehyung watches him sputter, bites back a grin. Barely. The warm thing fills his stomach again, all sweet.  

 

Jungkook gives a sharp tilt of his head, hands trembling. He doesn’t willingly give away that he’s a nervous person but he has these little ticks, physical slips of tongue.

 

“I don’t want- Just drop the nice act. Ask which one I’m addicted to,” Jungkook goads, smoke trapped in his eyes. “Go ahead. I know you want to.”

 

Taehyung just stares at him, openly blank. He grips the plastic handles between his fingers, weak at their overloaded cargo.

 

Jungkook’s shoulders tense, fall as his breathing deepens, audible in the quiet midday lot. Like he’s bracing for an impact, a full frontal hit.

 

Taehyung knows he’s being provoked, pushed and prodded at because Jungkook wants to prove something. Taehyung has always been good at resisting people’s taunts. Besides, you don’t hit back when a wounded animal sinks its frightened teeth into your flesh. You just try to gently pry their mouth off before they drain all the blood from your body and leave you for dead.

 

“I’d never ask you that,” Taehyung says, doesn’t waver as he makes himself meet Jungkook’s eyes, even if it is hard, even if he really is so pretty it actually fucking hurts to look at him sometimes.

 

“I’d never ask anyone that. Never. Addictions are neuropsychological. They’re compulsions and personal and I. I’d never.” He loses steam, plastic digging into his skin. He sounds like a robot promising fealty, I’d never never never. Insincere. Like someone else programmed the words into his mouth, his consciousness. He inhales slowly. Lets it out like smoke. “I’d never use someone’s mind against them. For personal gain or whatever it is you’re thinking.”

 

Jungkook stares. Ash accumulates on the burning tip of his cigarette. He doesn’t shake it off.

 

Sweat dots the base of Taehyung’s neck. He should let the air settle, let his words land, but he’s already here, already talking and it’s hard to stop when he starts sometimes. “My dad was an alcoholic.” Jungkook’s face falls but Taehyung doesn’t let it faze him. His voice stays the same, the way it always sounds. A little too deep. Measured. An inflection here and there. “So, I don’t understand and I don’t pretend to. But I get it. A little at least.”

 

The softness on Jungkook’s face is only momentary. “I’m sure your dad appreciates you sharing his compulsions with total strangers.”

 

Taehyung says, “Well. He passed away so I don’t think he cares too much. I hope the afterlife has him entertained enough to not care about what people think about him. I think that would suck. Being dead and still caring about what people think about you.”

 

He’s said it enough, sat with it enough that it’s just another fact about himself. His name is Taehyung. He’s twenty-seven. He has a hodge podge cosmology-design-engineering-physics degree. He dresses as Kumamon for a living. His dad was an alcoholic. He likes to have a few beers sometimes. He knows how to build the kind of reality where it feels like you’re swimming in space. His dad is dead.

 

They’re just facts. Just things that have happened to him. Things he’s done. Surface level. They don’t mean anything. They’re just things.

 

Like looking at someone and thinking beautiful. Like looking at them and thinking soulmate.

 

He looks at Jungkook’s beautiful face, eyes pitiful and sad in the daylight.  

 

Taehyung lets himself think another fact. Says, “And we’re not total strangers. Not really.”

 

Jungkook bites his lower lip. He shifts on his feet, crushes ash under his boots, mouth dejected.   

 

Eventually he looks back up, the pity gone when he faces Taehyung, something regretful about the way he looks at him.

 

“What makes you think your dad’s in heaven?” Jungkook asks, curiosity getting the better of him again. Taehyung is glad he didn’t say sorry. It’s such a useless word. Sorry. “Don’t think christians are big fans of addicts.” He raises his arms like he’s going to cross them at his chest. Drops them just as quick, smoke floating up from around his hips.

 

“Who told you god is christian?” Taehyung shoots back, rueful. “I didn’t say heaven. And he didn’t really believe in any of that. Not in that way. And I don’t either. But. My dad was a good dad. Good husband. Good person. He was just a little fragile sometimes.”

 

He wasn’t the drama caricature of a drunk. He wasn’t a drunk period. He’d just sit with too many bottles, enough to numb his thoughts with, the light in his eyes with. Never violent or mean or cruel, just this murky sadness Taehyung could never see through, like the man who’d taught him to ride a bike and made Mickey Mouse pancakes on Saturday mornings had been replaced with a pod person, this empty vessel wearing the face of the man Taehyung loved more than anyone.

 

Jungkook’s face hardens. All stiff lines and smoke, face grey and shoulders back. Gearing up for a fight. Taehyung wonders what it takes. To get him to keep his fists down. “I’m not fragile.”

 

“I know,” Taehyung says even though that one is a lie but not for the reasons Jungkook thinks. “I don’t know you or pretend to. I wasn’t talking about you.” That part is true. He wants to but Taehyung has enough self awareness to know that a yank in his chest, a feeling when he looks at him, doesn’t mean knowledge.

 

Jungkook frowns. He stubs the cigarette out, crushes it with all the ash under his boot. They look too nice for the rough treatment. All of him does.

 

“I have to go to work. That radicchio bulgur shit is probably mush by now. Boss’ gonna fry my ass.”

 

Taehyung loops the bags around Jungkook’s wrists, careful not to touch him. Their fingers brush anyway, touch hot, buzzing in the wet heat. It burns at Taehyung’s skin, searing and piercing into his heart. Into his everywhere. Jungkook meets his eyes, his own round and big and the darkest minute of midnight, hot pink mouth open, this little breath quietly sounding out, and he really is so pretty Taehyung wonders if it ever stops hurting, if it hurts everyone else who looks at him too.

 

Jungkook takes a step back. The heat is just as unkind but Taehyung wouldn’t want the dry air back for anything.

 

Throat working, the golden chain glints in the light against Jungkook’s neck. He seems to think twice, three times, some more. “I really- I need that place, okay? Most twelve step programs suck but this one sucks less so. So, I hope you mean all the crap you say. Because if you don’t-“

 

He sighs through his nose, no smoke. He looks at Taehyung plainly, lays it out on the table, his soft and vulnerable parts out on display, and it’s so much that Taehyung wants to look away, take his dirty hands from the same space as Jungkook, this close to being able to touch him.

 

And Jungkook isn’t fragile, has maybe thought or done worse than Taehyung ever has, but Taehyung thinks. Sex. Love. Sex or Love, Sex and Love, and Taehyung knows he’s the unclean one between the two of them.  

 

He makes himself look at Jungkook, won’t take the coward’s way out. He thinks the ground would be far more judging, ash and dead coconut guts and Taehyung’s battered loafers.

 

Jungkook swallows. Says, “I’m not gonna knock your teeth out because I’ve touched your dick and that’s six ways to Sunday wrong, but I’ll get you fired so fast you’ll wish I punched you instead.” The threat is lessened by the softness in Jungkook’s eyes despite his mouth desperately trying to be the meanest little thing. “I’ve got a mean uppercut and your solar plexus is, like, ridiculously soft.”

 

“I’ll quit if my working there makes you that uncomfortable. I don’t really need that job.”

 

Taehyung does but he can find another job, work more hours here at the shack, dress up as Kumamon and hug a few more cute future German WWE fighters. He really is good at the multitasking minimum wage thing. Has it down to a science.

 

“No. I don’t-” Jungkook blows out a harsh breath, teeth grit. “I don’t want you to do that.”

 

Another head shake, that tiny curl grazing his eyebrow. Taehyung doesn’t think about brushing it aside, pressing kisses to his forehead, the way Jungkook’s eyes would roll but soften with a smile, the little wrinkles at the corners, the edges full of morning light.

 

Jungkook walks a few steps toward the lot. Stops. He turns, boots scraping against the hot pavement. He’s done this every time he’s left Taehyung, between abrupt departure, his body tilting to stay.

 

And Taehyung.

 

Wonders.

 

If the tilt starts between Jungkook’s lungs.

 

“I’m sorry I called you a weirdo the other day. I mean you are- strange. Like, really strange, but. I’m trying not to be a dick anymore and you- you don’t seem like a bad person so. I’m sorry.”

 

Taehyung furrows his brows. He’s barely thought about it. Sometimes sorry isn’t useless. Just unneeded. He starts to tell Jungkook this but Jungkook is still talking, like he has the same problem Taehyung does, can’t stop once he gets himself going.

 

“And. That stuff. About your dad. That- It can’t have been- you know, easy. But I’m glad that he was still a good dad.”  

 

The thing in Taehyung’s chest jerks forward. Threatens to split his heart in two.

 

Jungkook walks under the Squeeze Me, Baby sign before Taehyung can think of anything to say, sun beating over the black shape he makes, plastic anchoring his sides.

 

“Tae! Fuck are you, man?”

 

Taehyung steps over the ash, is inside before Yoongi’s lungs take another breath.

 

His chest tugs gently.

 

Taehyung goes back to work, smoke in his lungs, his hands quietly, comfortingly aching.

 

*****

 

Chapter Text

*****

 

 

 

 

 

Taehyung doesn’t operate on luck, but if he did, today would not be his day.

 

The register screen glitches. Dies for the the third time.

 

It’s the post lunch lull, the shack empty except for a few customers eating in.  

 

Taehyung sighs. Tries the same thing he did earlier, barely saves it from dying a fourth death. He tugs on his hair as he runs the system again. At least no one’s yelled or gotten annoyed with him yet. Vegans are terribly chill people. Taehyung would think they’d have shorter tempers, hunger eating away at them quicker. All these leaves and nuts and green powders don’t look like much, but maybe getting all your protein from plant based sources really does make you a better person.

 

The screen is smudged. His hands are slippery from handling tofu earlier even though he washed his hands three times. He tilts the screen and the little attachment to swipe credit cards through clatters to the ground. It skids under the counter. Hits the wall.

 

From the kitchen, pots bang. Someone laughs. Hoseok’s voice, humming.

 

Taehyung sighs.

 

Bending down, he lands knee first in spirulina and some other unidentified nutrient rich substance. He shoves as much as he can of his body under the bottom shelf, arm straining. He has long limbs which should make this easy but he’s also relatively tall-ish so the whole thing is more awkward than it would be if he were Jimin sized.

 

His fingers touch nothing but tile. He’s about to get a broom when his next breath comes a little slower and-

 

Something in Taehyung’s chest yanks.

 

From above, a tapping. Nails, blunt and impatient on the counter.

 

A voice, thick in the throat, sweet like honey when it hits the air. “Is someone here? I have ten music exec assholes hounding my ass for avocado bowls and stinky tabbouleh and not a lot of time.”

 

Taehyung jerks, smacks his head with the shelf. He groans quietly, fingers wrapping around the card swipe finally. He stands slowly, rubbing the back of his head.

 

Anticipation explodes like an asteroid colliding with a hundred planets in his stomach even though he knows. Even though he knew the second he heard him start to speak, from the inhale he took before that, from the way the air shifted when he entered the shack and changed the atmosphere, the air pressing up against Taehyung’s sides differently, charged, static.

 

Their eyes meet. Taehyung’s stomach flips, his chest tugging, insistent. Demanding. Like his dreamy thoughts, Taehyung wants to tell it to calm down but there’s no point. Trying to stop this. There never has been.

 

Jungkook says, “You’ve got dust bunnies in your hair. And a- a garbanzo bean?”

 

Taehyung pats his hair down, flicks the bean into the trash can next to the prep line.

 

Jungkook’s lips scrunch to one side, eyes mirthful.

 

It’s been three weeks. It shouldn’t feel like forever since Taehyung last saw him.

 

“That was weirdly impressive,” Jungkook says.

 

Taehyung picks up the rainbow printed baseball cap next to the register. It’s the only required part of his not-uniform. Seokjin doesn't care that he wears the same holey jeans five shifts in a row but he does care that everyone’s hair is out of the way. Taehyung is always knocking it off when it gets too hot. Seokjin yells at him for it a lot. Seokjin is only a pescatarian.

 

He flattens the cap over his head.

 

Jungkook cocks a brow. “That a statement?”

 

“Sure. Vegans are very accepting of all walks of life.”

 

Jungkook rolls his eyes. He raps the counter with his nails again, a soft click-clack as he reads the menu.

 

Taehyung watches him lick his bottom lip, shoulders shifting consideringly.

 

Hoseok’s humming morphs into sing-rapping, some old 90’s rap song Taehyung only knows the chorus of.

 

“Uh. So ten avocado bowls and some smelly tabbouleh?” Taehyung asks so something that isn’t Hoseok rapping about hot sex on a platter fills the air. He usually likes the live ipod thing Hoseok does and he likes 90’s rap fine, but he’s trying to separate sex from Jungkook and Hoseok isn’t exactly making it easy.

 

“Um. Yes. Make it eleven.”

 

“Drinks?”

 

“No. But some of those crispy wedge thingies.”

 

“Cassava chips?”

 

“Those. Yes.”

 

“Do you want the spicy sauce too?” When Jungkook hesitates too long, Taehyung adds, “There’s no point eating them without the sauce. The sauce makes the chips.”

 

Jungkook makes a face but he says, “Okay. Sauce it is then. Wouldn’t want there not to be a point to deep-fried sort of potatoes.”

 

Taehyung clicks on the screen, wipes the edge. His tofu hands leave another streak. “Cassavas are actually shrubs. Whole different family than the one potatos belongs to.”

 

“Right. You know your vegetables. That’s really sexy.”

 

It’s not, especially not by the way Jungkook says it, deadpan and sarcastic, but there’s nothing harsh in his voice. There isn’t anything harsh about him today, light wash denim jacket and a simple leather cross bag along his front, his bangs pushed back, face open and sun blessed. He looks like he should be on an album cover instead of getting jerk music producers overpriced vegetable meals. The love interest in a music video, beautiful and unattainable.

 

Taehyung confirms the order. Adds the employee discount.

 

Jungkook’s brows raise at the total but he hands his card over without comment, enters his pin number when Taehyung flips the screen towards him.

 

“The machine isn’t giving receipt copies. Sorry.” It’s true. It’s also convenient since Jungkook won’t see the employee discount applied.

 

Jungkook shrugs, pocketing his wallet, body arching as he reaches behind himself. Taehyung’s gut kicks but only a little. “I’ll get it on my app. Boss pays for it either way.”

 

Without another word, he goes to stand at the far end of the counter under the pick up sign, scrolling through his phone as he leans against the wall next to the drink case.

 

Taehyung moves to start his order. A hand comes down on his shoulder, the pungent smell of vinegar and soy infusing his lungs.

 

“I’ve got it. Keep taking orders.”

 

There’s a short line now but Taehyung starts to protest, “It’s a big order. I can-”

 

“Relax, man,” Yoongi says. “You’re the only one who can get that thing to obey you.” He gestures to the register, squeezes Taehyung’s shoulder. “I got this for you.”

 

He’s doing the opposite of doing something for Taehyung but Taehyung relents, stays at the register.

 

Sleeves pushed back, Yoongi snaps a pair of gloves on, bounce to his movements as he grabs an avocado half, spinning it like a basketball on his pointer. He’s whistling.

 

The woman in line stares up at the menu like her eternal happiness depends on whether she gets the kale or the spinach bowl.

 

Taehyung rests his hip against the counter, pushes the beak of his cap up.

 

Yoongi scoops some quinoa into the avocado with a flourish.

 

Taehyung furrows his brows. “Were you making out with Seokjin in the pickled vegetables fridge again?”

 

Yoongi grins, sprinkles cilantro. He’s on his third avocado already. Taehyung has always been jealous of his dexitry. “Making out isn’t the only thing we did.”

 

“That’s really unhygienic. A violation of at least ten restaurant health codes.”

 

Yoongi throws cilantro at him. “I blew him in his office. What do you take me for? We keep it pg in front of the veggies.”

 

Taehyung shakes off the cilantro leaves. Picks one off from his bottom lip. “I’ve seen you and Seokjin make out. That shit’s not kid rated.”

 

He glances at the woman in line. Her yoga pants are neon orange. She looks like she’s still deciding but more like she’s overheard their conversation and is debating whether to order at all.

 

The nearest three vegan places are all three star rated on Yelp to their four and a half. Taehyung understands her ambivalence.

 

By the drink case, Jungkook is still on his phone. His mouth is quirked.

 

“Where is he anyway? We’re almost out of cashew sauce. And I need to talk to him about the tablet. I can take it home but I’m pretty sure it’s a bust.”

 

“Just tell him to buy a new one. You’re the last word on all that shit,” Yoongi says, hands full of beets. “And he’s recovering in his office. From the blow job.”

 

“Yeah, I figured that last part out myself, thanks.”

 

Yoongi finishes an avocado. He grabs another, calls over his shoulder toward the kitchen, “Hey, Hoseok?”

 

The hot sex rapping stops for a moment. “Yeah, man?”

 

“Quit sexting that lame lawyer dude and make more cashew sauce!”

 

“On it! Also, f off!”

 

Taehyung smiles at the yoga pants woman, aims for friendly and encouraging. She doesn’t notice, the Yelp app open on her phone.

 

The guy behind her frowns at her head. Maybe he hasn’t had his nutrients today.

 

“Lay off him,” Taehyung says. “He’s trying to get laid. Like you just did. With our boss. In the back. Instead of at home. Where you live. Together.”

 

“Please. You turn into a sexual deviant when you’re in a relationship. The things you do to people would be considered immoral if you weren’t also always pathetically in love with them.”

 

“Love isn’t pathetic.” Taehyung doesn’t argue the other parts because a, he’s intimately familiar with Seokjin and Yoongi’s sex life, and b, consensual reciprocated desire between two adults isn’t immoral. A little nasty, sure. But immoral? Wanting to make someone feel good isn’t.  

 

He thinks about Jungkook, pink and spread out in his lap, and yeah, there’s nothing immoral about that.

 

Yoongi says, “It is when one person always ends up more in love than the other.”

 

Hoseok’s voice comes floating back, something about doing someone else’s girl.

 

Yoongi winces, half bent over the prep line so he can get to the bottom of the tabbouleh container. “Shit, man. I didn’t mean it like-”

 

Taehyung tosses some utensils in a take out bag, throws in extra napkins. “I know. We’re not all lucky enough to have our boss who’s our best friend as our soulmate who we met on our freshman orientation day.”

 

Yoongi makes a disgusted face. “Just because I want to live with him until I die, does not mean Jin and I are soulmates.”

 

Taehyung shoots him a look. Last year, they were featured on some instagram photographer’s couples photography series. It was called Sometimes True Love Doesn’t Have To Wait. Seokjin wasn’t really into it in the end. He bitched about inflated likes on some other couple’s picture for weeks. Yoongi printed their post. It’s in a frame on his desk in their apartment.

 

“That soulmate bullshit is why all your relationships end.”

 

Yoongi winces again.

 

Taehyung hands him a stack of lids for the tabbouleh, doesn’t say anything. 

 

“Shit, man. Not in a bad way. You jus-”

 

“I’m ready to order.”

 

Yoga pants lady approaches the counter. The risk four and a half stars promises is worth the employees talking about blow jobs apparently.

 

Taehyung clicks to the ordering screen. He knows what Yoongi was going to say. Yoongi knows Taehyung doesn’t agree. Their friendship preserves more than well despite it.

 

Yoongi finishes the order, calls out, “Order forty-one! Jung Junghan?”

 

“Uh. That’s me? I think? Do you mean Jeon Jungkook?”

 

Yoongi frowns at the receipt. “Uhhhh. Yeah. Sorry, man.” He squints at Jungkook. “You know someone who works here?”

 

Jungkook fidgets, reaching out for the food. He glances in Taehyung’s direction quickly and away. “Not- um. Not really?”

 

Yoongi frowns harder and Taehyung is about to throw something at him so he shuts up, an avocado half or a tofu slice, his hat, when Hoseok appears, heat flushed from the kitchen. His cap is on backwards, hair poking out through the strap. Yoongi isn't wearing his. He’s the only one who doesn’t get yelled at about it.

 

Hoseok stops when he sees Jungkook. His mouth curves attractively, eyes getting that look.

 

Taehyung knows that look.

 

He sighs, focuses on the task at hand, yoga pants lady’s very specific layering order for her layered salad. It’s a painstaking process that requires all of Taehyung’s attention. He still has half an ear on Hoseok’s footsteps, the edge of his vision on Jungkook’s hands.

 

Hoseok stands next to Yoongi, apron tied around his waist with double knots showing off the slope of his toned body.

 

“Cashew sauce for the minions and an order of cassava chips for the cute boy in blue. But careful. They’re hot,” Hoseok says as he slips them into one of the bags. He gives Jungkook that half smile he gives when he wants to hook up with the hottest boy in the bar.

 

Hoseok leans on the counter, biceps from hours of dancing with his street crew on display, somehow making kitchen sweat work, and Taehyung doesn’t think about how Hoseok almost always gets the hottest boy at the bar, that Jungkook is probably the hottest boy in every bar.

 

“But you look like you can handle heat.”

 

Jungkook laughs, bright and airy. He smiles like he did in the restaurant when Taehyung took off the Kumamon head, in Taehyung’s living room, when he was stretched and slicked up and fucked out in Taehyung’s bed.

 

“Hmm. Do I, now?”

 

Hoseok’s grin widens. Next to him, Yoongi is amused, something filthy in the stretch of his mouth. “A pro at it, I bet.”

 

“Do you, now?” Jeongguk’s eyes glimmer in the gentle warmth of the naked light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. Yoongi had argued against them when Seokjin had picked them out but Seokjin was already committed, hell bent on ticking off every item on the hip restaurant checklist. Those yelp reviews really like to go on about their decor so Taehyung guesses Seokjin was right about that one too.

 

Taehyung selects the payment option, turns the screen in yoga pants’ direction.

 

“I don’t like losing so you’re smart not to bet against me.” Jungkook picks his bags off the counter, flashes both Yoongi and Hoseok a smile, this one less devastating, less like he could sink his teeth into you and you wouldn’t notice until he has you wrung dry. “You guys have a nice day.”

 

He turns without looking anywhere else, light wash jeans outlining the muscles in his legs, the curve below his back, bordering on obscene.

 

Hoseok and Yoongi watch him go, heads tilting, twin expressions of admiration on their faces.

 

Taehyung can relate though he doesn’t partake, too busy trying to get the touch screen to not die again.

 

The bell chimes as the door closes, this antique thing that’s supposed to compliment their modern rustic aesthetic.

 

Hoseok whistles appreciatively, tosses an arm around Yoongi’s shoulders. “Damn. I’d swipe right on that so hard I’d break my thumb. Both thumbs.”

 

“Aren’t you dating a lawyer?”

 

Hoseok smirks, wipes the corner of Yoongi’s mouth. “Little drool there, man. Aren’t you dating our boss?”

 

Yoongi bats his hand, cheeks flushing like Hoseok’s kitchen-heat blush. “If Seokjin had seen him I’m pretty sure he’d have dumped me and asked if he could make him breakfast every morning. For forever.” He looks back toward the door, that filthy thing back on his face. “I don’t think I’d even be that mad about it.”

 

Taehyung wouldn’t be. Seokjin makes the best breakfast.

 

“I mean. For an ass that high and tight I wouldn’t be mad either. Fuck. I’d consider giving up being a sugar baby for that ass.”

 

“You are not gonna be some lawyer’s sugar baby.”

 

“Not if that guy ever comes back. Shit. I’d let him be mine.”

 

“You’re broke but okay.”

 

“Love knows no bank account.”

 

“I think you mean horniness.”

 

Hoseok sighs, very lovesick puppy. If the lovesick puppy was a horn dog. He gives Yoongi a shake. “Back to the kitchen with me. Let me know if we get any other baby faced dreamboats.”

 

He picks up the empty sauce container from the line, bumps Taehyung’s side affectionately as he slides past him.

 

“We still going out tonight? You’re my hype man, man.” Hoseok beams when Taehyung nods and bumps him back. “The gramps aren’t invited.”

 

Yoongi rolls his eyes. “We’ll be out like a light by 9 tonight so joke’s on you.” He loads his arms with a few more empty containers, flips the back of Hoseok’s hat as he heads to the kitchen.

 

Hoseok snickers. With another quick bump to Taehyung, he follows Yoongi’s lead.

 

The guy in line approaches the counter. Taehyung has dubbed him ponytail guy.

 

Then someone says,

 

“Excuse me. Sorry. I forgot something.”

 

Ponytail guy’s eyes look close to bulging out of his head but Taehyung doesn’t care. He can’t. He’ll give him an extra scoop of hemp seeds. Hemp seems to make vegans especially happy.

 

Jungkook takes something out of his leather cross bag, bangs dropping a little over his forehead. He places the item on the counter.

 

A ziplock bag.

 

Inside, two perfectly frosted cupcakes.

 

He doesn’t say anything. Doesn’t smile. Doesn’t look at Taehyung like he looked at Hoseok, like he looked at Taehyung that first night. Just gives Taehyung that open look, like he’s sizing him up. Not to judge him as an opponent, just to see. Just to look.

 

It’s been three weeks.

 

Jungkook turns to ponytail guy, who desperately looks like he’s in need of some hemp asap, and says, “If you get the cassava chips don’t forget the spicy sauce. The sauce makes the chips.”

 

He gives Taehyung another look. Taps his fingers on the counter. And then he’s walking towards the door, bags swinging, hips following suit, and Taehyung watches him go. Because he has to. Taehyung has no control over his gaze, the tugging in his chest, in his gut. In his everywhere. Has no control over any of this.

 

Maybe Yoongi is right and soulmates are bullshit.

 

Maybe whatever this is. Maybe it’s just Jungkook.

 

Jungkook looks over his shoulder through the window. Looks unsurprised to find Taehyung looking back. Something goes almost soft on his face, almost pleased.

 

Taehyung breathes a little easier but his chest goes haywire, yanks.

 

Ponytail guy doesn’t get the chips. Taehyung gives him some cashew sauce on the house for the wait. Sprinkles enough hemp to quell his anger until his next vegetable meal.



                         *****


When he takes his break, Taehyung doesn’t pull out his cigarettes. Licks blue frosting from his fingers.

 

Wonders if it the sugar tastes even sweeter from Jeongguk’s mouth.


*****


This time, Taehyung is ready for it.

 

“It’s for here.”

 

Taehyung fumbles with the touch screen, gut lodging in his throat. Carefully, he asks, “No asshole execs to feed today?”

 

“Nope. I killed them all so I actually get to take my break.”

 

“Congratulations. On the break not the ten body count rage-homicide.”

 

Jungkook frowns. Light glints off his ears, tiny hoops hanging from his lobes, thin metal curled at his left helix. Taehyung didn’t know his ears were pierced. He’s never seen him with earrings before. It makes him look decadent, part of the filthy cool crowd that hangs out in the music clubs downtown. Taehyung guesses the depiction is accurate. “Ten?”

 

“Last time? You said you had ten music execs to feed?”

 

“I did,” Jungkook says, the little wrinkle between his brows deepening before it smooths out. He tilts his chin, something teasing about it. “And who said I was enraged? I carry out all my murders in cold blood.”

 

“Well. If you need a character witness let me know,” Taehyung says, playing along. He and Jungkook talk about murder maybe a little too much but it’s an easy rapport. The kind of easy back and forth Taehyung likes with people he clicks with. “I can testify you’re a very normal customer. Very non-homicidal. Usually.”

 

There’s a long pause.

 

Jungkook drops his gaze to the counter. Bites his lip.

 

Taehyung activates the tablet, heart thrumming gently. He was able to debug it but Seokjin ordered a backup just in case.

 

Jungkook looks up at the menu, studies it. The light catches on the peach fuzz on his his cheeks, the cut of his jaw. His face looks more sculpted than usual, like he spent the weekend in Malibu, his skin covered in sand. His cheekbones look like they could make someone cry. Taehyung diverts his mind from that track but a few seconds later he’s thinking about a mouth kissing the bronzed skin over the angles of his face, the soft give of his cheeks.

 

Taehyung doesn’t rush him, lets him take his time. If it gives Taehyung an excuse to steal a glance or two at his lashes, at his heart shaped mouth, well.

 

“Can I have the special? And a water?”

 

Taehyung rings him up. Same discount. Same receipt excuse. He lets Jungkook know he’ll take it to him, hands him an order number.

 

Jungkook sits by the window. Takes his phone out. Doesn’t look at it, people watches.

 

Taehyung cleans the prep counter before starting. Pulls on a second pair of gloves when he rips the first. He adds too much spinach, an extra scoop of guacamole even though Seokjin has lectured them all about being too generous with it on more than one occasion. He’s not even doing it on purpose, it’s just Taehyung’s instincts, mind too caught up, heart somewhere in the middle. He knows why Jungkook is here but he can’t wrap his head around it. There’s lots of vegan take out restaurants around, three starred and above, more upscale and fancier than them even if the food is not as good as theirs and going by Jungkook’s rotating leather collection, he’s not hurting for cash. Jungkook doesn’t strike him as a fussy eater either.

 

A squeeze of lemon and the radish kimchi they can never seem to make enough of, and Taehyung sets the bowl on a tray. It’s the most well made bowl he’s made. Ever.

 

“Wow. That’s some fancy instagram shit level presenting, man,” Yoongi remarks as he places some quinoa on the line. Steam smokes up between them.

 

Yoongi takes the tray before Taehyung can even blink, shoos him toward the newly appeared customer in line.

 

Taehyung slaps a smile on his face for a mother and her three kids, all of them under five. Taehyung isn’t sure it’s okay to deprive children that young of meat but Taehyung isn’t a parent so he keeps the thought to himself.

 

His eyes keep wandering to the window. He can’t see Jungkook’s face, just the breadth of his back, his shoulders jolting slightly when Yoongi places the tray in front of him, the side of his face when he thanks him.

 

Yoongi places the order number under the counter, a weird look on his face.

 

“You know that guy?” he asks when the mom and her brood wander over to the drink case. He nods toward the window.

 

Taehyung starts their order, packs on extra quinoa for the kids’ sake. “Why?”

 

“No reason. That’s the cute guy who comes in sometimes, right?”

 

“I think. I mean. Yeah,” Taehyung says, voice shooting for neutral. Taehyung’s pretty sure he sounds everything except neutral.

 

Yoongi’s face gets weirder, kind of smiling, kind of not.

 

“Why?” Taehyung pushes. Doesn’t care if he sounds over eager. Obnoxious. He never cares but especially not with Yoongi. It’s Yoongi.

 

“Nothing. Just. He looked disappointed when he saw it was me bringing his food. Like, really disappointed. Tried to hide it but, also?”

 

Taehyung adds extra red cabbage for the kids.

 

Tension fills his muscles the longer Yoongi lets the anticipation build but he keeps scooping.

 

Carrots for eyesight. Chia for protein.  

 

Yoongi watches him. Taehyung spoons chickpea sauce over the bowls but he can feel it, the smugness wafting off of him.

 

Jaw tight, he relents. He looks at Yoongi, deadpans, “Also?” when Yoongi just stands there, sort of not but totally smiling at him.

 

“Also,” Yoongi sing-says, dragging the moment out because he knows how long Taehyung’s patience stretches. Kind of hard not to when you’ve known someone ten years. “The look on your face when I asked you about him.”

 

Taehyung tries. He does. But if there’s another thing Yoongi knows better than most people who know Taehyung, it’s how with some things, Taehyung is little more than a dog with a slobbered, lusted over bone.

 

“What was the look on my face?”

 

“Like I just told you humans can live in virtual realities now. Or like they just discovered another pulsar. Or.” Yoongi grabs a knife, sharpens it on the slicer, selects an avocado from the line. “Like Seokjin added burgers to the menu.”

 

Taehyung looks around, relaxes when there’s no sign of Seokjin. “He’s gonna kill you if he hears you. He still hasn’t forgiven me for getting you on beef again.”

 

Yoongi snorts, tosses a pit in the garbage can with perfect aim. “That was inevitable as long as you and I remained friends. Which going by length of friendship alone is going to continue-“

 

“Wow. Thanks. Really feeling the lov-”

 

“And Jin knows how much I love my meat so he’s not too bothered.”

 

Taehyung gives him a blank stare.

 

Yoongi grins, shoots for the garbage can. Another pit swooshes in. He takes the finished tray to the mom and her kids.

 

Taehyung glances around the shack. His heart knocks against his chest wall, tries to follow the yank coming from the window. Jungkook hunches as he eats, phone lit up in his palm.

 

A few minutes later, Jungkook brings his tray to the bin by the drinks display even though there’s another right next to the door. He looks up.

 

Taehyung isn’t ready for it.

 

His eyes land on Taehyung and he doesn’t smile, not exactly, but the corners of his mouth are soft, eyes steady.

 

The door swings after him, bell trilling.

 

Tossing and catching the last avocado pit in his hand, Yoongi shakes his head, laughs. “Oh, man. You’re fucked aren’t you?”

 

Yoongi makes the throw.

 

Taehyung intercepts the pit, the buttery layer of fat slicking his palm. He stares at it for a moment, tosses it in the can. It knocks up the sides as it lands.

 

Yoongi smiles, something soft about it too in a different way, brow cocked.

 

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m fucked.”


*****


“So how fucked are you?”

 

The compost smells of pineapple and kale today. And rot. But mostly pineapple going by the rinds the girls who run the shop were sorting when Taehyung stopped by earlier for life altering cleansing juice and easy conversation, easier smiles. His life doesn’t feel any more altered or cleansed than usual but he feels more confident, less restless in his skin at how easily he can still get pretty girls to smile, to give him that look.   

 

He wonders what it says about his ego. That he needs that.

 

Yoongi lights up, offers Taehyung the first hit.

 

Taehyung brings the joint to his mouth. This kind of smoke he still welcomes every so often. It’s gentle to his lungs, sweet on his tongue.

 

Sitting on a stack of empty produce crates, they’re in the most secluded part of the lot. His knee touching Yoongi’s, cool heat of a slow afternoon touching his face, Taehyung can almost pretend they’re back in college, in some tent in Death Valley, tucked together on the balcony of the apartment they shared when they were twenty-three.   

 

Taehyung passes the joint. Lets his inhale go. “Remember camping in Death Valley? How come we never do stuff like that anymore?”

 

Yoongi plays with the lighter, takes a long hit. The filter burns fast. “‘Cause you got poison oak and Hoseok lost his favorite Jordans. And Jin almost got plowed by a wild animal.”

 

“Who knew rams were that violent?”

 

“The horns should have been a give away. Him pretending to charge at it probably didn’t help. He wasn’t even drunk,” Yoongi groans, knocking his head on the wall. He rubs his nose, smoke floating above his mouth. “He really is the dumbest,” Yoongi says, voice stupidly fond.

 

Taehyung knocks their knees together. “You’re the one who’s in love with him.”

 

Yoongi sighs. “Dumb is as dumb loves or however it goes.”  

 

Taehyung nods. He picks at the seam of his jeans, right leg stretching out. They’re not trying to get faded. They’re too old for that. There’s still over half their shift left, Sana manning the front, Hoseok in the kitchen, Seokjin out at suppliers. Sana is the only actual vegan employed here other than Pete who works weekends.

 

“Maybe we should go camping,” Yoongi muses, thumbing the wheel of the lighter. The fluid sputters, doesn’t make a flame. “Get out of the city for a while. Some days it’s like I can’t breathe here, man. You get me?”

 

Taehyung nods again. He takes the joint, inhales for longer than he should. Yoongi keeps turning the wheel. Taehyung pulls at his jeans and yeah, Taehyung gets him. “‘Course, man. I get it. Get you.”

 

Yoongi smiles, bleary. They should probably put the joint out but Yoongi has good tolerance. Taehyung’s isn’t too bad though it isn’t what it used to be. Seokjin doesn’t really care if they do this anyway. Perk of being basically married to and the kind of friends you shit with the door open with, with the boss.

 

Yoongi grins up at the smoke, at Taehyung. “Who’d a thought, huh? You and me? And I was so annoyed when I saw you in the dorm. Thought they’d roomed me with some shrimpy looking space obsessed nerd. Thinking the roommate algorithm was total bullshit.”

 

Taehyung chuckles, joint warm between his fingers. “You weren’t wrong though.”

 

Yoongi takes another hit, laughs. “Nah, man. I was wrong. So fucking wrong.”

 

Taehyung feels the smoke cloud his throat. Something thick on his tongue at the gentle way Yoongi says it. He says, “Less shrimpier than you were. Way less shrimpier now than you still are.”  

 

“I could always count on you to reach the cereals on the higher shelves at the supermarket.”

 

Taehyung laughs, thinks of a younger Yoongi sleep deprived and wearing his hoodie inside out, arms loaded with sugary kids cereal, Taehyung knocking them down from the brightest shelves for him. “3 a.m. supermarket cereal runs. Damn. How are we not obese now? All we ever ate in college was Coco Puffs and Fruit Loops.”

 

“It’s that Asian constitution thing. As much as our parents tried to Americanize us, you can’t shake the metabolism of the far east.”

 

“Maybe. And all the vegetables Seokjin has forced fed us since.”

 

“Yep. Hey.” Yoongi bumps their knees together, holds a fist out. “That algorithm wasn’t bullshit. Second best roommate I’ve ever had.”

 

Taehyung smiles. His lungs buzz. That heart warm syrupy bullshit flooding his veins. Yoongi’s on it too. Yoongi gets it. He doesn't get the soulmate stuff, but most of the other shit that matters about Taehyung, Yoongi gets better than almost anyone.

 

“You used to complain I talked too much.”

 

“You did. You got me talking though. And you got really good at knowing when to be quiet. A little too good sometimes.”

 

Taehyung takes another drag, feels the smoke curl around his tongue.

 

Yoongi just looks at him, fist poised over their knees. “I mean it, man. Seokjin and I wouldn’t even be together if it wasn’t for you.”

 

“Jesus,” Taehyung breathes out around his exhale. His insides always get mushy when Yoongi gets like this. It’s only worse when it’s Seokjin. A littles less bad if it’s Hoseok, but it’s the fucking pits when it’s Jimin but Jimin hasn’t smoked in years, their straightlaced goodboy, the dignified member of society among them.

 

Taehyung scratches his leg over his jeans, asks, “Is it feelings hour?” It’s not even true. The only thing Taehyung did was become friends with Seokjin. One of the easiest things Taehyung has ever done.

 

“But it’s not even about that. You’ve been through it. We’ve been through it,” Yoongi says like that’s the only explanation needed. Then, “Did you get the newsletter from the alumni department?”

 

“Yeah,” Taehyung says after a moment. Wonders if this is going somewhere he’s going to have to talk himself down from.

 

All Yoongi says is, “Yeah. Well. It’s been ten years. I’m higher than I should be when we have to go back to work in five minutes but I’m nostalgic. Softened up. I’m saying, I’m grateful that out of all the shrimp, you’re the one I got stuck with.”

 

Taehyung shakes his head, dopey smile tugging at his lips. He bumps his fist against Yoongi's, their shoulders too for good measure. “I’m glad that out of all the emo fucks, I got saddled with the least emo-y one.”

 

Yoongi snorts. He drops the lighter but his hands aren’t jittery anymore. It’s how Taehyung has always preferred him, tension out of his limbs, his own loosening in response, and Yoongi gets it and Taehyung gets it too.

 

“We really should go camping,” Yoongi says, after the joint is out and they’re stacking the crates against the wall. “For Jimin’s sake at least. You see the texts he sent to the group chat?”

 

Taehyung shakes his head, stomach dropping. He hasn’t checked his phone all day. “Worse than last Wednesday?”

 

“He reenacted half of Clueless and half of Die Hard. Threw some Inception in. At the same time. Through emojis.”

 

Grimacing, Taehyung sets the last crate, stacked as neatly as he can for the delivery guy tomorrow. “Shit.”

 

Yoongi nods, mouth pulled unhappily. “Shit indeed. That corporate tech America fuckery is sucking his soul. Shit. Waiting for one of us to get a call he’s had a meltdown at work. He should quit already and come work here. Least until he finds something he actually likes.”

 

“You know Jimin, man. He’s got The Plan.”

 

The Plan ,” Yoongi says snidely, contempt not at Jimin but at the idea of a plan. The pressure of one. Yoongi let go of all those hang ups a long time ago. Taehyung never had them to begin with. Not his own at least.

 

“Yeah, The Plan. Jimin’s got the resilience of a thousand bulls. He’ll get himself there.” Taehyung doesn’t even have to think about it. If anyone is going to get themselves there, that elusive there, success, it’s going to be Jimin. “Besides. You know he’s bigger than the shack.”

 

Taehyung doesn’t worry Yoongi will take offense to that. Yoongi knows what he means. Jimin is different than them. Wants different things. Wants a different kind of more. Deserves it too.

 

Yoongi stops, one foot inside the doorway to the kitchen, one on the dirty asphalt. He’s got that look on his face. The one he usually saves for when he thinks Taehyung can’t see it. “Jimin’s not the only one I’d say that about.”

 

There’s a kid skateboarding across the lot, wheels rolling over the pavement. Early afternoon traffic is starting up in the distance. The sun burns. It’s technically spring but it feels like summer.  

 

Taehyung looks at the brown patch on the wall from the last time they cracked coconuts out here. They all smell like the most relaxing vacation whenever they do. It’s probably time for a visit to their coconut guy.

 

Yoongi asks, “We’ll take him camping next week?”

 

Taehyung says, “We’ll take him camping next week.” Then, “Not Death Valley.”

 

“Fuck Death Valley. Let’s go north. Get out of this fucking heat, man.”

 

“Fuck this heat, man.”

 

They’re just inside when Taehyung pauses. His lungs are still buzzing. Tongue loose. The soupy sweet thing from Yoongi’s feelings fest. “Yoongi?”

 

Yoongi looks back at him, something about his face, something the wrong kind of soupy, soft. Sad. “Yeah, man?”

 

“I really am fucked. Like, really fucked.”

 

“Worse than junior year?”

 

“Why junior year?”

 

Yoongi shrugs. “‘Cause it was after sophomore year.”

 

Taehyung thinks about it. He remembers sophomore year better than most people who had their sophomore year eight years ago. “I haven’t been that fucked since?”

 

“That. Or you’ve just gotten as good at hiding it as well as you have at being quiet.”

 

Taehyung sighs.

 

He runs his tongue along the inside of his cheek. His mouth tastes weed sweet. Not the kind of sweet he wishes it tasted of.

 

He says, “Most fucked I’ve ever been. Might ever be probably.”

 

Yoongi sighs.

 

He ducks inside for a moment. He’s back in seconds, drags them both to the spot again.

 

He doesn’t say anything. Doesn’t let Taehyung back inside until he’s had two more hits, a last one for himself, the smoke mixing with the smell of rotting caribbean vacation dreams.


*****


“You ever take your break at a reasonable time?”

 

Taehyung looks up from the table he’s wiping down. He doesn’t always have time to do this but it’s early, before the sort of lunch craze, and it’s part of his duties. Taehyung takes those very seriously. Seriously.

 

“What would be a reasonable time?” he asks, spraying the cloth with cleaner. It smells like honeysuckle.

 

“When I’m here.”

 

Taehyung’s heart kicks. He almost drops the bottle, barely catches it from tipping over.

 

Jungkook watches, amused but in a quiet way. He bites down on his fork. Chews his next bite slowly.

 

Taehyung swallows. Finds the words to say, “I was on my break the first time we saw each other here.”

 

Jungkook blinks his big eyes at him. He’s the only customer in the shack right now. There’s a bulgur grain stuck to his bottom lip. He’s sitting at the second table closest to the counter. It’s become his table of choice when he orders in which has become more frequent with every week that passes and Taehyung isn’t at the community center on Tuesdays. His mouth is somewhere between cotton candy pink and salmon today depending on how the light hits him. Where Taehyung is standing.

 

And Jungkook says, “You haven’t been on a break any of the other times I’ve been here.”

 

And Taehyung frowns because that’s true, and Jungkook just looks at him, and his stare is intense and purposeful, words without words, and there’s another earring in his left ear today, just the hoop in the right, and Taehyung’s heart kicks and-

 

And oh. Taehyung drags the cloth along the table over, wet streaks staring up at him. Without thinking he says, “I already took my break today,”

 

“Oh.” Jungkook focuses back on his food, eyes pinched. Stares at his plate like it’s the most interesting thing in his vicinity. Taehyung can’t really be offended. Hoseok makes really good bulgur.

 

Jungkook takes a bite, somehow both sloppily and like he spent twelve years at an elite all boys finishing school, wiping his mouth with the flat of his hand. He’s always precise movements even when he’s nervous, like he doesn’t move until he’s ready, even if he is unsure about it.

 

Taehyung flips the cloth over, wants to kick his past self for skipping breakfast today, for getting hungrier than usual, for taking his break too early. For a lot of things. He’s not used to it. Regret. He’s usually good about accepting things as they are. “Sorry, I-”

 

“Why are you saying sorry?” Jungkook frowns. He only looks at Taehyung for a second, plops more grain salad into his pouty glossed mouth, brows furrowed tight. It feels like he’s different every time Taehyung sees him. Today, he’s sullen. Reserved but not closed off. A little more petulant than Taehyung would expect from someone wearing leather combat boots. “You didn’t do anything.”

 

Taehyung is sorry though. For what he’s unsure. For not anticipating when Jungkook would be here today? For all the thoughts in his head that might make Jungkook recoil? Not the ones where Taehyung looks at his mouth too long or wonders where else he has moles on his body because last time he didn’t get to look as closely as he wanted and he knows he has more than a few (the one on his chin, his cheek, the tiny one in his lashline, his neck, on his ankle, the one Taehyung had kissed too many times to count). Not those. The other ones. The ones where he thinks about where Jungkook went to college and the house he grew up in and what he likes to do for fun. How he ended up in music, the business side of it, when he looks like he should be the face of it. What it would take to get him to laugh his real laugh again, head thrown back and mouth wide open. His favorite way to be kissed, not because someone is trying to arouse him, just to kiss him, just to give him their mouth.  

 

He wants Jungkook to ask him to take another break, to come outside for a smoke, to sit at his table for five minutes even if it might get him in trouble. It won’t. Seokjin is very amiable about certain things. Extra coconut shavings are a big no no. Slacking off a little when the shop is slow is a-okay.

 

Taehyung knows he could suggest it himself.

 

Jungkook stares at a broccoli floret like it’s committed a terrible offense by not being a piece of steak. His shoulders are slumped. His phone pings on the table. Goes ignored.    

 

Taehyung keeps cleaning tables.

 

Jungkook finishes his lunch.

 

Taehyung starts cleaning the last table.

 

From the kitchen, Hoseok sings an old folk ballad. It should be a turn off, the lack of music, the singing, but a lot of people tell them it’s nice to hear themselves think while eating, the other person they’re with, without speakers blaring at them. Like they’re at a friend’s house, a kitchen they know well. Hoseok takes requests. It’s an insider tip on their Yelp page. There’s a tip jar for him at the counter next to the biodegradable straws.

 

Jungkook snaps the lid on his bowl. He slips his phone in his pocket, sleeves of his shirt curling tight around his biceps.

 

“I should get back to work,” he says when Taehyung looks up.

 

“Oh. Cool. Uh. See you Monday?” Tomorrow is Saturday. Jungkook never comes in on the weekends anymore. Taehyung roundaboutly asked Pete about it once but only after Pete had mentioned some guy asking about the tall person who works here. Height wise Taehyung is pretty average as far as tall people goes, but at the shack where Sana is all of five foot four and all the cuter for it, and Yoongi is as tiny as the day Taehyung met him at seventeen, it’s not hard to narrow it down. Hoseok stays in the kitchen mostly and is shorter than him anyway and Seokjin only comes to the front if the place is on fire. Ergo, Taehyung. Tall person.

 

Jungkook’s face closes off and Taehyung mentally kicks himself again.

 

“The company’s doing a catered thing next week. So. Don’t know when I’ll be back,” he says even though a calendar would tell him it’d be the Monday after next, some time that week.

 

Taehyung just nods, goes back to the honey cleaner scented table.  

 

Jungkook is all packed up, ready to go. But he stands by his table. Waits. Says, “Can I give you some advice?”

 

Taehyung feels his chest yank. Just a little. Just the tiniest tug.

 

“Sure.”

 

“Turn your hat around?” He poses it as a question but he’s saying it more than he’s asking.

 

Taehyung knocks the cap off, pushes it down over his head backwards. His hair sticks out under the strap, curls around the edges.  

 

Jungkook gives him a once over, hot like a touch. He smiles, chin tilted, eyes crinkled like he knows what that does to Taehyung. That it guts him in the best way. Would do to anyone.

 

“You should wear it like that. It looks good,” Jungkook says, still smiling. He pushes the door open, bell ringing. “See you, Rainbow Boy.”

 

“What happened to Disney Boy?” Taehyung asks, stupidly breathless, his heart stupidly light. All of a sudden he’s no regrets, weightless.

 

Warm air seeps into the shack.

 

Light catches on Jungkook’s right lobe, on the heaviness of his eyes. He says, “I misjudged. I do that a lot. But you’re no Disney Boy. They’re too perfect. You just look like one.”

 

Heat fills Jungkook’s cheeks after he says that, darken further when someone walks into the shop as he’s backing away, the door knocking awkwardly between them.

 

Taehyung doesn’t drop the cleaning spray. He can’t say the same for the cloth. It slips out of his hands, makes a wet patch on the wooden floor.

 

The bell chimes. Jungkook and the new customer fumble around one another, shifting and moving in an awkward mockery of a dance, Jungkook for once hasty and uncoordinated, eager to make himself small to create space for someone else. His mouth spills hastier apologies. The other person waves them off, smiling genuine and wide, charmed, fucking endeared too, and of course it’s not just Taehyung who gets gutted by him, of course, and Jungkook turns, turns again, and then-

 

He stops.

 

On the other side of the door. He stops. Bathed by the sun, work to get back to, all of Los Angeles out there for him, and he stops. Lips a little parted, wisp of a breath, he looks at Taehyung, something in his stare, eyes almost crinkling, and-

 

Taehyung touches his own mouth just to confirm the smile stretched across it though he doesn’t have to. Just does it because for a second, for a moment, the sun kisses Jungkook’s mouth the way Taehyung wants to, with his smiling mouth against his own.

 

The next second, he’s gone, work, the stretch of the city far more interesting than the one on Taehyung’s face.  

 

And Taehyung stands there, heart spilling all over Seokjin’s clean tables.

 

Later, Seokjin remarks that he can’t believe Taehyung actually cleaned the tables for once. The cleanest they’ve ever been. Taehyung promises himself he’ll clean them every shift from now on. Because he takes his job seriously.

 

Seriously.


*****


“And I didn’t realize it at the time but that was the thing.”

 

“Mhhm.”

 

“She didn’t understand. That’s what I thought.”

 

“Right.”

 

“But the thing was-”

 

The lights glow softer in this room. It never gets much sun, faces the south part of the building. It should be impossible to tell, late evening darkness filtering in through the windows, but there’s a hum that washes over the floor, along the walls, the air. A space that doesn’t see a lot of natural light.

 

Taehyung didn’t think it was possible in a city like this one where the sun seems to constantly burn, but he thinks it’s okay. Necessary, even. It’s easy on the eyes. A good space for people who aren’t used to brightness, a gentle way to ease them in.

 

“-said. You know, that feeling you get when someone is about to say something you don’t want to hear and your mind has already processed it as them being wrong?”

 

“All the time. All the damn time. That’s your ego trying to protect itself. Judging before it can be judged.”

 

“Right. That was the first time I felt that. With her.”

 

“It’s a hard thing to face. Feeling let down by someone you love.”

 

“Yeah. It is. But it’s more than that, I think. It was less about love and more about trust. I trusted her not to doubt that I loved her. But the thing was-”

 

No one is supposed to be in here yet. Taehyung just finished setting up the chairs a few minutes ago. In the center of the room. In a circle. Distance between each chair. Not too much of it. Openness that invites a sense of oneness. And yet, the distance. The distance is important.

 

The first three buttons of Taehyung’s button down are open but the room is too warm, a noose around his neck pressing his spine into his throat. He has a few more trays to set out. Water bottles to stack up. The water is, especially, important.

 

Taehyung lays out a tray. Thinks about the bus ride home. About his shift at the restaurant tomorrow. The dinner at Seokjin and Yoongi’s after.

 

“And she said. She said that the problem was I couldn’t admit it. That even though I loved her, I couldn’t admit-”

 

Taehyung places a tray of cupcakes on the table. He miscalculates the space, has to tilt a box out of the way. Gets green all over his hands.    

 

He’s almost done. Just about to leave. Head back to the welcome desk. Fill out another form. Get the room for the bible study ready, for that self professed free loving church, any and all are welcome, worship who you worship, what you worship-

 

“That I needed it more. That I was choosing to need it more.”

 

“Strong word, there. Choice.”

 

“I thought so too. I thought that she meant that I was choosing it. The addiction. Being, you know, an alcoholic. The action of it. The hold it has on me. And then I realized-”

 

Taehyung shouldn’t be in here.

 

He shouldn’t but he can’t move his legs. His hands. Just stares at them, his thumbs covered in sugary green. It’s a warm color. Earthy. Just the right kind of bright.

 

“Taehyung?”

 

He blinks and all he sees is fluorescents. The open layout of the welcome center’s main room, a few plastic chairs, the vending machine, the front desk.

 

His co-worker stares at him, brow knotted, her eyeliner dark blue. He thinks her name is Sheila but he can’t remember and she isn’t wearing her name-tag, blouse a soft, soft pink. He feels terrible about it though the last time he worked with her was months ago but she knows his name and it’s something you should know. People’s names.

 

“You okay?”

 

“Yeah,” Taehyung says. He combs his hair back. It’s too long, gets closer to hanging around his jaw by the day. Knows he won’t cut it until Jimin or Yoongi hold a pair of scissors to his head, till Hoseok threatens him with a stainless steel knife again because some people can pull off the sexy hobo look but sorry, Tae, you’re not one of them, man . He smiles at maybe-Sheila. “Yeah, I’m fine. Sorry. Spaced out for a second.”

 

“You sure?” she asks. “You’re sweating. Hope you’re not coming down with that thing that’s been going around. My son got it. Nasty thing. Almost hacked up his lung. Both of them!”

 

Taehyung just smiles. Just says, “I’m fine. I overheat easily.”

  

“It’s sixty-eight degrees in here. Should get that checked,” she warns him. And yeah maybe he should. Maybe he will. “Better do it tomorrow. Don’t wanna ruin your whole weekend by getting sick. Nasty, nasty thing I tell you.”

 

It’s when he’s in the storage room, back against the cool wall, sweat sticking to his neck, half wishing he’d taken up Yoongi’s offer to take a blunt off him earlier today, half glad he didn’t, the other non existent half gathering up strength to carry the boxes he came to get out of here, that he realizes-

 

That it’s been another three weeks since Jungkook last walked into the shack.

 

That he hopes he’s going to his meetings if that’s what he needs. Even if it’s just to eat the free cupcakes. That they help.

 

That his mouth is being kissed, by a someone, by the sun, by the night lights, by anything, if that’s what he wants. If it’s what he needs too.

 

That-

 

“That’s the thing. I realized that I was the one who didn’t get it. She wasn’t saying I was choosing it. She was saying that I needed to believe that I was. And that choosing to do that wasn’t more important than loving her. It was more important than loving me.”

 

That there’s a terrible selfish part of Taehyung that wishes it is a choice.

 

That there’s an even more terrible selfish part of Taehyung, one that looks familiar, too familiar, that hopes with every terrible selfish part of himself, that it isn’t.

 

And most importantly-

 

That it’s Thursday and that he forgot to put out the donuts.

 

 

 

 

 

*****

Chapter Text


*****

 

 

 

 

 

The night thrums.

 

Soft halogen lights. Spin top airy synths. Wood sticky under his palms. Beer sliding down his throat.

 

Hoseok smiles at the hottest boy in the bar, puts a hand on him, interest red hot in the smile he gets back. Jimin is illuminated in the golden daze, talks to a few someone’s, his attention wandering to his phone, his smiles real and shining when a new message comes in.  

 

“Ready for the next one?”

 

Taehyung takes a look at his beer, a quarter left. “Shouldn’t you wait until the customer asks for it?”

 

The bartender smiles. Glass clinks as she prepares a drink. Clear liquor. Too much ice.

 

“Just trying to keep up with your pace,” she says. Her hair is down to the small of her back, falls in rivers of gold. It fits the bar. The night. “Kinda surprised you’ve been sitting here. Usually you’re out there with your friend with the ridiculously good game.”  

 

Taehyung isn’t too surprised she’s noticed him. They come here a lot. Taehyung has noticed her too.

 

Taehyung grins. Hoseok has moved on to speaking in his ear. Not sleazy whispering. It’s loud in the bar. The boy’s smile has twisted into a smirk, pupils dilated, tracking the toned lines of Hoseok’s arms. Taehyung has watched Hoseok seduce people for years. He could time by when they’ll be kissing, by when they’ll walk out of the bar. The same way he could time by when Jimin will be texting him tomorrow morning because Hoseok still hasn’t answered his you wake up alive this morning, idiot? text, how Hoseok must have finally done it this time, banged another crazy and gotten himself murdered via dick. He never has to text Taehyung the same thing. Taehyung always texts him first. Always.

 

He says, “He had enough game for the both of us tonight.”

 

“Doesn’t he always?” she shoots back. She finishes the drink, serves it with a flash of her teeth. It gets her a nice tip, a less nice flash of teeth back, a phone number scribbled on a damp napkin.

 

“I’ve always wanted to ask. Does that move actually work?” Taehyung asks watching the man walk away. His suit jacket is too tight. An arrogance in the puffed out way he moves, in expecting something from someone without having the decency of seeing if they even want to give it to him to begin with.

 

She stares at the napkin, dumps it along with the tip in the big jar sitting on the bar top.

 

Taehyung laughs, tips his beer at her.

 

She cleans the mess of ice on the lower counter. “It can work. Just wasn’t gonna for him.”

 

Taehyung wants to ask why. But he’s on his fourth beer. But her mouth is red. But another customer flags her down, bills at the ready.   

 

He finishes the beer. Thinks about the pros and cons of a fifth.

 

Glass thumps the counter. She holds the bottle opener over the bottle cap. Her hands look smooth, soft. She cocks a brow. Challenging. Taehyung’s always had a thing for women who can do that. Who look like they can make Taehyung work for it. Likes it in his men too.

 

Taehyung cocks a brow back.

 

She grins, the flat hue of her lipstick catching none of the light. “You sure I can’t convince you to try anything else? You’re the most dedicated beer drinker I’ve ever seen and I used to bartender for frat boys.”

 

He doesn’t think it’s anything that she’s noticed that as well. He’s noticed things too. Her thing for 80’s themed t-shirts. The high set of her shoulders. Her preference for keeping her mouth red. It’s a thing Taehyung does. Notice things about people. The way Hoseok clicks his tongue when he’s frustrated. The scar down the length of Jiro’s left palm. The bright red sneakers the driver of the bus he takes home always wears. He says, “I can’t tell if you’re insulting the frat boys or me.”

 

“Definitely the frat boys.”

 

Taehyung laughs. Nods at the bottle.

 

Metal snaps. She exchanges the empty one for the new one, the ice glassy against Taehyung’s fingers. Their fingers don’t touch but just barely.

 

She gives him another grin, heads down the counter to tend to another customer, smile at the ready.

 

Taehyung thumbs the side of the bottle, takes a long drink, bitterness kissing his throat.

 

The glare from his phone tells him it’s three minutes to 1 a.m.

 

The nagging in his brain tells him it’s been three days since he stopped wondering.

 

He scans the floor. Everything reflects warm against wood. The laid back hum presses down on his shoulders. Textbook southern California. No one has a care in the world here. No one cares to show it here.

 

Light bounces off the side of the bottle, cuts through the glass, cuts through his restless, fast paced, too-many-tracks tracked mind. He’s not thinking about any one thing. It’s just a Friday. It’s just the end of a week. Just the end of the third week.

 

He thinks about that. About time. About threes. Wonders if it means anything.

 

He takes another drink. Tries to stop wondering. Wonders what it means that he can’t.

 

Maybe he is thinking. Thinking about what Yoongi said. About ten years. Since he met Yoongi. Since his first year of college. Since everything around him was as fast paced as his mind, constant rush beaten pavement, people chasing trains, chasing taxis, chasing dreams, chasing futures.

 

It’s been ten years and he still thinks he moves too fast for this city. In his head. Where it doesn’t count.

 

The airy beat swirls.

 

Her mouth is red.

 

From across the bar, Jimin is throwing him a look, concerned but trying to hide it.  

 

Taehyung wonders what his face looks like. He doesn’t smile because that would tip Jimin right off. He gives Jimin a thumbs up, just dorky enough to let Jimin know that he has a handle on it. On time. On the beer in his hand. On himself.

 

Jimin relaxes visibly, smiles where Taehyung didn’t.

 

Taehyung brings the bottle to his mouth. His mouth tastes bitter.

 

He tells himself it’s the only part of him that is.

 

It’s been three weeks. Everything is three’s. He doesn’t wonder if it means something. He doesn’t think. About threes. About how he should be going home with someone. The second hottest boy in the bar. The woman with the beautiful pink hair. The man with the pretty cat eyes, pretty smile, pretty scar over his brow.

 

The bottle is ice. His fingers feel useless. Frozen.

 

Taehyung is thinking.

 

Maybe he’s wrong. Maybe everyone else is right and there is no tug, no line, no hearts, no such thing as gut instincts, the universe exploding when you look at someone for the first time. No such thing as soulmates. Connection is just a bullshit excuse for why he feels this inexplicable need to know this someone. To bury himself inside them. To find something there. The universe, himself, something.

 

Maybe Taehyung is twenty-seven and maybe he doesn’t always like himself.

 

Maybe none of these thoughts are actually his. Maybe they just belong to the bottle. Bottles.

 

The bartender finishes off an old fashioned for someone. Halfway down the bar, she smiles at Taehyung.

 

Her mouth is red, matte, but from certain angles, under certain lights, it looks shiny. Pink.

 

The bottle is cold against his mouth.

 

Taehyung smiles back.  

 

*****

 

It’s still snowing. Really snowing. Can you believe it?

 

Taehyung smiles, feels like the thing could melt right off his face. Phone pressed to his ear, he says, “I can. It’s still winter. And it’s the east coast.”

 

That earns him a harrumph. He smiles harder. ‘Very easy of you to say that from all the way out west. Thought you’d be cured of that smart mouth by now.’

 

“Impossible,” Taehyung says, knows she can hear the grin in his voice. “I got it from you.”

 

Her laugh fills the connection, deep from her belly. Taehyung can imagine the exact number of laugh lines on her face, the impression of a dimple in her left cheek. His heart squeezes in his chest, the good kind of pain.

 

He doesn’t shy away from the feeling, lets it simmer in his chest as he pulls his laptop close, opens a browser. “And I know about the snow. Junghwa sends me pictures. She’s really good at landscape shots.”

 

She sighs. The floorboards creak like she’s moving from the kitchen to the living room, to the little nook by the big window. The place she keeps her knitting needles. The place that gets the most sun. ‘She’s getting better at handling the phone than I am. She’s too smart for her age. Too smart for me!’ She sighs again, softer. Fond. ‘She gets more and more like you every day. I feel like I should know exactly what to do with her already but she keeps surprising me. Just like you in that way too.’

 

The squeezing feeling simmers a little deeper, pain a little less kind, a little less good. He pulls up his email. “I’ll facetime her tonight. She gets out of practice at four, right?”

 

Yes, but you don’t have to do it every week. I know you’re busy.’

 

“I’m never too busy,” he says because he isn’t. Busy is an idea. Is an excuse. Taehyung works three jobs and has no weekends but he’s never busy. He knows this isn’t true for everybody, knows some people really truly are stretched to their limits, so thinned out their loved ones can see their souls, but it is for him.

 

Taehyung, sometimes it’s more than weekly and you have a life. I understand that. She does too.’  

 

Taehyung’s first thought is, does she. The second is, what’s the point of life if you don’t make time for the people you love. The people that matter more than anything. In some ways, at least. He doesn’t think too hard on how empty the thought feels.

 

He clicks on an email at random.

 

“I like talking to her. Seeing her. I’m trying to track the progression of how blue her eyes are gonna get.”

 

She laughs, reluctant. Fabric shifts. Taehyung sees her getting settled, winter sunlight touching her face, the points of her needles threaded with bright yellow strings. ‘Bluer than blue. Than that hanbok you wore when you were five. Remember? It was a battle to get you in it for Chuseok and then you refused to take it off for two weeks.’

 

“I remember,” he says. He remembers tricking his way out of it. Talking his way out of it. Only agreeing to put it on when he found out his dad’s hanbok was the same color. Same blue. “Said I wanted to be buried in it. Only took it off because I spilled gochujang all over it.”

 

You were so distraught when it didn’t fit you the following year. You were always like that. Growing all of a sudden and not realizing it. Watching you grow into your hands is one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.’

 

There’s so much warmth in Taehyung’s chest he’s not sure what to do with it. It washes over him until it’s a part of him, background noise. Like the traffic outside his apartment window. Like the hum filling his living room, the occasional flicker of the monitor glowing under the gap in the doors.

 

“Now who’s the smart mouth?” he teases, relaxes into his kind of shity couch, in his kind of shitty apartment, after an honestly kind of shitty day at work with another shitty shift in a few hours. Shitty life someone might call it. Taehyung doesn’t. Especially not on days like today, phone pressed close, the voice of home closer.

 

Well, you did get it from me.’ The needles click. She says, ‘It’s how I remember to remember. Sometimes I look at her and forget that I’m not looking at you. But then I see her eyes.’ Her voice goes so quiet Taehyung blocks everything else out to hear her, fingers trembling around the phone. It’s like his hands have gone through another unexpected growth spurt. Too big and dumb and clumsy. His chest too. His heart. ‘Is that terrible of me? Some days- Does that make me a terrible mother?

 

Taehyung’s heart squeezes so hard he swears he cracks a rib.

 

On the screen, all his eyes can see-

 

Dear Taehyu-

 

-hear from you-

 

-would like-

 

-extend the exhibit until Septem-

 

-on loan at the Los Angeles Museum o-

 

‘-years, Taehyung. Sweetie. It’s been ten years.’

 

In his mind, all his eyes can see-

 

Taehyung breathes out softly. He lowers the screen slowly. Even slower, even softer, he says, “It doesn’t make you a terrible mom. Not at all. You couldn’t be one if you tried.”

 

Her next breath is longer. Shaky. He doesn’t want to think that her eyes might be glistening, the tell tale tremor of her chin. ‘Taehyung.’

 

“I know, mom. I know.”

 

All he can see is the last time she asked him that question, some version of it, the tie choking his neck, her eyes begging forgiveness for something that wasn’t her fault, wasn’t anybody’s fault. Because it wasn’t. It wasn’t. It isn’t.

 

I’m sorry,’ she says and he hates how easily the words leave her mouth. How she shouldn't ever say them. How undeserving he is of them. ‘It’s just been a long day. Long week. You know how I get with all the snow.’

 

The snow always did get to her. She’d bundle herself up like she was stepping out into the tundra. Would bundle Taehyung up too until he took charge of dressing himself, barely allowed two layers before he was trying to strip them all off. She’d complain but let him get away with it, trusted him to know his own body temperature, because he always did run too hot. She’d turn to complaining about the weather itself and say what you want about Daegu, Kim Taesuk, it never tried to freeze us to death, and his dad. His dad would kiss her face, let her bundle him up too. Would keep all the layers even when he started to sweat through them, would smile at Taehyung when she walked ahead of them, nose upturned at the snow. Would smile at Taehyung like a secret between just the two of them, understanding how to love her the way no one else got to.

 

And yeah, it’s the snow, but it’s been a long life. He doesn’t know where she got the strength. To do it again. To live a second one.

 

He pushes the laptop aside, stares at the neutron star framed above his tv. “I know.” Then, “Tell Junghwa whenever, yeah? I’m not doing anything tonight.” He’ll skip his break at the restaurant. Move some things around. He didn’t take his break at the shack today and he has a longer shift but he doesn’t need it. He’s taking it now in a way. “And tell Dan I liked his last facebook post. He’s really rocking the whole socialist liberal Bernie Bro thing really well considering how conservative his family is.”

 

She laughs, that deep belly thing again. ‘He saw you reposted it. It makes him happy whenever you do that.’

 

Taehyung looks at the pulsar. Says, “Yeah, well. I like Dan.”

 

She says, ‘I know.’ Makes it sound too much like thank you .

 

Taehyung says, “So tell me about the yellow snow this year. Is it as bad as I remember?”

 

And his mom smiles. Says, ‘If by bad you mean now it’s brown, then, yes, sweetie. It’s as bad.’  

 

*****

 

“You ever wonder why they’re coconuts?”

 

“‘Cause Spaniards thought they looked like heads?”

 

“Yeah, man, but the nut part. What’s up with that? There are no nuts.”  

 

“‘Cause English makes no sense?”

 

“Exactly. Fuck English. Fuck my parents wanting to give me and my sister a better life and moving us here. Wouldn’t have to deal with this nonsense in Korea.”

 

“Yeah, but then you’d have to deal with honorifics. Polite speech. And didn’t your parents leave before your mom was even pregnant with your sister? Wasn’t it just because your dad got transferred?”

 

“Well. Yeah. But I’d maybe have been happy in Gwangju and now I’ll never know. I’ll just never know, man.”

 

“Aren’t you happy here? And technically, you still could know.”

 

“That’s not the point. That’s just. Not the point. You doing okay with the cleaver there?”

 

Taehyung nods, wipes the side of his face with his shoulder. The sun beats down on his head, his shoulders, too hot everywhere.

 

The lot smells like beach today.

 

The blade’s handle is light in his hand. The fibers on the coconut are wet, rough against his fingers. He cups the body and gently brings down the dull part of the blade against it, rotates with each sharp crack.

 

Taehyung gives Hoseok a reassuring glance. “I almost took my thumb out with the hammer last time. Sana says this is full proof.”

 

“Sana’s been cracking coconuts since she was three, though,” Hoseok points out, cap pushed too far back on his head. His forehead is pink, a gift from the sun. “Her family makes their own coconut milk. Just don’t knick your face by accident or- ah fuck!”

 

Taehyung looks over to make sure Hoseok isn’t bleeding all over the coconuts. Tries not to laughs after he’s made sure he hasn’t. “You okay?”

 

“Yes. Don’t laugh, dick. Almost whacked off my thumb,” Hoseok says sourly. He puts his thumb in his mouth, sucks poutingly.

 

Taehyung grins. He pulls the coconut open, gets hit in the face with its thick sweet scent, the meat perfectly white. “I’ll kiss it better for you later.”

 

Hoseok lets his thumb go. Grabs the hammer again. A fresh coconut. “Oh, fuck you. You’ve been insufferable since you fucked the hot bartender from The Basement last week,” Hoseok says, frowning. “How’d you even do that? She‘s way too hot for you.”

 

Taehyung just says, “She is,” half between agreeing and noncommittal. He grabs another coconut. Firm jerk of his wrist. Crack. It’s all in the wrist, Sana had said.

 

Hoseok continues, “And then the guy from dinner at Jaehwan’s. Who, again, way too hot for you-”

 

“You know, some people do find me attractive.”

 

“I know. I’ve watched you sleep with hot people for years. But I had to pee on your rash infected fat ass once. Killed your fuck factor for me.”

 

“You didn’t actually have to pee on it-”

 

“I thought you were dying and got confused with jellyfish stings! I thought Jin was dead. And Jimin wouldn’t stop crying. Yoongi was useless and high off his dumb ass. I was under a lot of fucking stress, man!”

 

Taehyung smiles, lets the sun kiss his teeth. He breaks surface and smells beach, his favorite thai restaurant, the memory of his sophomore year of college, thick and cloying and so so sweet. “I know. I was really proud you agreed to Tahoe. You didn’t even lose your shoes this time.”

 

“I borrowed Yoongi’s shoes. Couldn’t lose them,” Hoseok says. He lays the kitchen towel he’s been using over his next coconut. Smashes the hammer, careful of his thumb.

 

Taehyung drains the water from the fruit in his hands, mindful of the meat, the scent clinging to the back of his throat. He breathes it in, even if he’s close to choking on it.

 

Hoseok is quiet, reddened face twisted in concentration. The hammer works steadily.

 

Taehyung says, “If it makes you feel better, the hot bartender’s boyfriend came home as I was leaving.”

 

Hoseok goes wide eyed. “Ouch.”

 

Taehyung wipes his face again. Taps a shell with the dull edge of the blade. “Apparently, they have an open relationship. So it was fine. Just awkward.”

 

It made him feel off. Shitty. Even though no one was angry and no one got surface level hurt. There was just this shitty feeling all around. It followed him home. Into his living room. Into his clean freshly washed sheets.

 

“No kidding. Fuck. That’s the kind of shit you tell someone beforehand. Oh hey. By the way. My dude might come home any second but it’s cool. He’ll probably just want to watch and jack it to you balls deep inside me.

 

Taehyung laughs. “Don’t think it’s that kind of open. And then the guy-”

 

“The guy guy or bartender’s guy?”

 

“The guy guy.”

 

“Shit. He have a husband and three blind albino kids or something?”

 

“Close but no. He just wanted me to not use a condom.”

 

“Oh. That’s hot. Stupid but hot. Where’d he want you to come? His feet or some shit? Thought you liked feet.”

 

“Why does everyone think I like feet-”

 

Tae.”

 

“Right. But uh. That was it. He wanted me to not pull out.”

 

“Ohhh. Sounds like you hit the nasty freaky sex jackpot this month,” Hoseok says. He’s still breaking coconuts, tipping the water into a big bowl, scooping out the meat into a separate one, but his progress is slowed, pinkish body turned toward Taehyung.

 

“Yeah,” Taehyung agrees. Fills the silence with a few consecutive smacks. He swallows the thick feeling in his throat. “But it made me,” Taehyung starts. He looks at himself in the big metal bowl full of coconut water. His reflection ripples over the surface as he drains, stares back at him when the water goes flat.

 

Pushing the bowl back, he picks up another coconut. “You ever feel like you’re too old? For some of the shit you do? Or that, happens to you?”

 

He keeps having the same conversation. They all are. Twenty-seven isn’t old. It’s bigger than a two year age difference, than time in counts of threes, but in the big picture. The scope of the universe. Twenty-seven is tiny. Nonexistence. Nothing.

 

Hoseok clicks his tongue.    

 

Something splashes Taehyung’s face.

 

He blinks. The water tubing down his cheeks tastes like a summer dream. He smiles. 

 

Taehyung dips his hands into the coconut water, gets Hoseok back.

 

Hoseok yells, face scrunching away from the coconut water attack. He laughs, ugly and loud and brighter than a million dying suns, boisterous in that way only Hoseok can be, like it’s all he’s ever gonna do. Just laugh and laugh forever. Taehyung’s chest gives, and the heaviness he’s been carrying around feels lighter, and maybe this is what he should have been doing instead of trying to find solace in someone else’s hands, in between their legs, in his search for a pink mouth. It’s that thing. You can’t forget someone with someone else, and maybe that’s the thing. The thing he needs to remember to remember. It’s not about using people to forget. It’s not about using at all.

 

Hoseok’s mouth cracks open, nothing cloying or too sweet about it, and Taehyung has coconut hairs in his mouth and Seokjin is going to kill them maybe probably, and it’s about the ones who make you forget without them having to do anything really. The ones who just merely by existing make you feel like you’re the only two who exist, your own ugly loud bright mouth next to theirs.  

 

They salvage what coconut water they can. The meat is intact. Seokjin will only mostly kill them.

 

Hoseok starts working on another coconut, saying, “I know what you mean. About being too old. But I think, if you feel that way, then-”

 

And Taehyung is listening, blade facing the sun, and he knows that whatever Hoseok is about to say is important, unexpectedly deep and too close to home in that way Hoseok is, and Taehyung is listening, he is, but in that moment-

 

His chest just-  

 

Yanks.

 

The cleaver clatters on the table.

 

“Tae? What’s- Taehyung! At least tell me if you pulled out or not before you go take your break, you assho-”

 

Taehyung stumbles inside the kitchen, heart battering like the ram that almost killed Seokjin all those year ago in Death Valley, Hoseok’s rising voice thin to his ears.

 

It’s in his head. Taehyung knows it is.

 

He breezes past Seokjin and Hyungwoo, their delivery guy, discussing kale prices at the island in kitchen.

 

Seokjin looks up from the invoice. Frowns. “What’s wrong with Hoseok? Did you two dare each other to shove dates up your noses again? That shit’s expensive, how many times- Taehyung?”

 

It’s all in his head. Taehyung knows.

 

The air isn’t changed, isn’t charged, and there’s nothing drawing him anywhere, but he walks through the short hallway to the front, the exposed beams hanging above his head looking like anvils about to crush him, and his chest isn’t actually tugging, and it isn’t any harder to breathe, and-

 

And Yoongi is standing at the register, and-

 

And-

 

“Um. I guess I’ll take a- Oh.”

 

It’s all in Taehyung’s head but-

 

“Hi.”

 

And Taehyung’s chest fucking yanks.

 

Taehyung says, “Hey.”

 

He wonders if he sounds as breathless as he feels.

 

Yoongi’s face says it all.

 

It’s a good thing Taehyung doesn’t care.

 

Yoongi looks between Taehyung and the customer side of the counter. He’s wearing his hat for once, the glove on his right hand rolled off. The screen is all smudged.

 

Taehyung cares about that even less.

 

Yoongi gives another sweeping look like he’s watching the world’s slowest, freeze framed tennis match. He says, “I’ll go help Hoseok finish the coconuts.”

 

“You sure?” Taehyung asks, head on wrong, not thinking right. Not thinking at all. Just a heartbeat. Just a thing being tugged, drawn to somewhere. To someone.

 

“Yep. You know me.” Yoongi abandons the counter. He unhooks Taehyung’s apron over Taehyung’s head and places it around his own neck. He ties it loosely. He looks at just Taehyung this time, the lights catching his pointed stare. The don’t be an idiot, don’t get more fucked than you have to, don’t fuck it up this time. “Always in the mood to smash shit.”

 

The last time Yoongi was on coconut duty, he threatened to quit. Threatened to leave Seokjin. Threatened they would never retire in Tahiti, die in each other’s arms on the shores of Maui.

 

Taehyung keeps his mouth shut.

 

Yoongi’s footfalls trail away. There’s a few customers eating but it feels like the shack is empty. Just Taehyung. Just-

 

“Hey,” Taehyung says.

 

“You said that already,” Jungkook says.

 

“I know.” Taehyung’s heart starts to slow. Less like it’s about to beat itself out of his chest, more like it’s finding a rhythm. A home. He wonders if he’s too old for this. He laughs a little, sheepish, helpless, and cares the least if he’s too old for this kind of feeling, the nakedness of his emotions.

 

He touches the screen, wipes Yoongi’s smudges away. “But. Hey.”

 

Jungkook’s mouth tugs. His lips are glossy and so so pink. “Hi,” he says back. He looks down at the counter, brings his gaze back up, something shy in the gesture like he was expecting a different welcome, a little more hostile, a little less like weeks haven’t passed.

 

Taehyung smiles. It doesn’t feel like weeks have passed. It feels like time hasn’t moved. Like the last time Taehyung saw his pretty pink mouth was yesterday, minutes ago, the last time he blinked.  

 

Jungkook’s shoulders lose some of their tension. He scans the menu briefly. “I’ll have a special. For here.”

 

Taehyung dries his wet hands on his jeans. Taps on the screen.

 

Jungkook clears his throat. There’s a small sniffle. Then, “When’s your break?”

 

Taehyung’s heart cranks back up. “In four minutes.”

 

“I know. I asked your coworker,” Jungkook explains when Taehyung stares at him, looks only a little apprehensive about it.

 

Taehyung’s fingers slip, leftover stickiness from Yoongi, and man, Taehyung doesn’t want to think about what Yoongi was or wasn’t touching earlier. Seokjin didn’t look that relaxed. He accidentally charges Jungkook for a hundred quinoa burgers. He cancels the order, starts over. “You did?”

 

“Mhhm. At first he looked at me weird. Then he cracked and told me 2:15. I didn’t even have to prod too hard. You probably shouldn’t trust him with your secrets.”

 

Yoongi has always been weak for the pretty ones. Seokjin is very very pretty. Jungkook, with his thick bitten lower lip, lashes thick against his dark eyes, might just be even prettier. Just a bit. Taehyung isn’t sure he’s allowed to think that way yet. Saying it out loud would get him his ass kicked. By Seokjin himself. He thinks it’s okay if the thought stays in his head. Just between Taehyung and every time he looks at Jungkook, thinks about him, remembers the feel of him under his hands.

 

And it’s too late for the secret thing. Yoongi already knows every single one of them.

 

Taehyung runs Jungkook’s card. Says, “That is my break time, yeah.”

 

“It’s 2:11 now.”

 

“It is.”

 

Jungkook enters his pin. The he says, “I’m gonna sit at that table over there.” He points, there being what Taehyung had come to think of as his usual table a few paces away, “and in four minutes, you should bring your own lunch and sit with me.”

 

Taehyung’s stomach sinks. “I can’t.”

 

“Oh.” Jungkook schools his expression, but Taehyung catches it, the disappointment hidden in his voice, in his eyes before he shields it. “Tha-

 

“I would! I- I want to. I just can’t. Eat. In here,” he explains, stutterers like he hasn’t in a while, since he was a little kid. He definitely thought he was too old for that.

 

Jungkook frowns, distrust arching his brows. “Why? Are employees only allowed to eat in the back?”

 

“No. It’s- It’s nothing weird. I promise. I-” He glances at the people eating. Not too many but enough that he can’t break Seokjin’s most important rule. The one he made especially for Taehyung. Vegans are particular about what kind of hands touch their food.

 

“I can’t say why either. I can show you, though.”

 

Jungkook raises his eyebrows further and he looks like he’s regretting all of this, coming back, coming in the first place, finding Taehyung over and over again, finding him in the first place, and it’s all in Taehyung’s head, and his heart is slowed to a steady beat, and Taehyung says,

 

“It’s just across the street.”

 

Puts it out there. For Jungkook to take him up on it if he wants to or not.

 

Jungkook studies him for a few long seconds. Gold glints off his neck, the thin chain wrapped snug around the smooth column of his throat. It makes him look like someone’s future king, regal and untouchable. Something no one will ever be worthy of. Much less Taehyung with his coconut stained hands, red stained hands, hands that feel a little too much at home when they’re curved around glass.

 

His face softens, less guarded. Less like Taehyung’s dirty hands would taint him if ever he gets to touch him again.

 

Jungkook says, “Okay.”

 

And for a moment, Taehyung lets himself wonder.

 

*****

 

“This is not what I was expecting.”

 

“What were you expecting?”

 

“Definitely not you stuffing your face with dead cow.”

 

“Sorry. I usually have better table manners. The dead cow is just really good today.”

 

Jungkook laughs, a tiny burst of sound. The bench on his side of the table creaks, the big umbrella anchored between them swaying in the light breeze.

 

Elbows on the table, Taehyung resist the urge to stuff his face with his burger, takes smaller bites. A few of the tables cluttered around them are occupied but Jungkook looks less tense, looks good with a bit of wind in his hair.

 

The grill sizzles from the open kitchen in the truck. The fryer hisses. Sun glimmers off the naturally made soda dispensers, nothing but carbon water, teeth rotting cane sugar, and enough ginger for Taehyung to excuse the inevitable sugar rush. It was one of the best things ever, the day the truck pulled into the lot across the shack and started serving the kind of burgers someone like Taehyung would never be a vegan for. Not that he ever really tried to be.  

 

Jungkook picks at his wrap. He gives Taehyung a sideways glance. “Kinda wish you’d told me. Would have held off on this fava bean thing.”

 

Taehyung almost chokes on his burger. “You eat meat? I thought you were-”

 

Pink kisses Jungkook’s cheeks, arrestingly attractive as he shrugs. Taehyung wants to feel the heat with his palms, with his own cheeks, his mouth. “Sort of? Not really, actually. Like, at all. Everyone I work for is just a snob and thinks being vegan makes you morally superior. So you kind of just have to go with it.”

 

Taehyung chews on that. On the dead cow in his mouth.

 

“It’s easy to get used to,” Jungkook continues. He rips the edge of his wrap, fingers fidgeting. Not meeting Taehyung’s eyes.

 

Taehyung wants to tell him it’s okay but he’s too busy trying to keep his face neutral. Also, he’s afraid if he talks now he really will choke.

 

“Eating vegan or raw or whatever a few times a week. It’s good. I feel lighter. And my workouts are, like, way better. I can bench an extra twenty pounds now and- where are you going?” Jungkook frowns up at him.

 

Taehyung pulls out his wallet, stands, one leg over the bench, the grass squishy beneath his sneakers. “Getting you a burger.”

 

“You don’t have t-”

 

“I owe you, anyway-”

 

Jungkook levels him a look. Taehyung feels knocked over by it. “If we’re being honest, I owe you. I know you’ve been giving me your employee discount. And you always give me the more expensive red quinoa stuff even though you charge me for the boring white kind.”

 

Taehyung scuffs the grass with his sneaker, heat prickling his neck. “I give all my friends my discount. I never use it.”

 

“Taehyung,” Jungkook says and Taehyung’s gut kicks and he doesn’t know if he can do this if Jungkook keeps looking at him like that. Eyes wide and dark and like he likes looking at Taehyung. If he keeps saying his name like that. A weight to the way the word leaves his mouth.

 

Jungkook’s hands still. The nervousness gone. “Taehyung. We’re not friends.”

 

Taehyung’s heart stutters. He can’t tell if that stings or not.

 

The breeze blows a little faster. It shifts the tension. The tugging in Taehyung’s chest. The umbrella keeping the shade at bay.

 

Jungkook is still looking up at him, eyes so young looking and expressive, Taehyung wonders how he ever thought him a predator, something vicious and cutting and almost mean, because he is intimidating, dripping gold and silver, glinting leather and gloss, but they don’t seem to say any of the things Taehyung originally thought they did.

 

Jungkook says, “I hate wasting food. Will you sit back down?” Then, voice honey soft, he asks “Please?”

 

Taehyung sits. Picks up his burger.

 

Jungkook waits a beat. Then he drops, “I think we should hang out.” Like it’s nothing. Like it’s the kind of thing people just say.

 

Taehyung smears ketchup all overs his mouth.

 

Taehyung tries again. Gets the burger inside his mouth this time.

 

“We should?” he asks, wiping his mouth with a napkin.

 

Jungkook holds back a smile, lips trembling, obviously trying not to openly laugh at him. Taehyung appreciates it though he doesn’t care. He likes Jungkook’s laugh even if it is at him. Especially then.

 

Jungkook glances at Taehyung’s fries. He tucks a stray hair behind his ear with his pinky. “Do you know what a sponsor is?”

 

Taehyung puts his burguer down, doesn’t trust his hands with it right now. He nods. He remembers his dad’s. A kind, gruff older man. Very straight laced. He’d been sober fifteen years by the time he’d become his dad’s sponsor. Taehyung still exchanges emails with him sometimes.

 

“My sponsor says I might have a fixation with you.”

 

An order gets called out. Cars pile up on the street. Through the protection of the umbrella, all Taehyung feels is burning sun.

 

Jungkook takes a bite of his wrap. Takes his time chewing. He looks at Taehyung. Says, “And I agree with her.”

 

Taehyung doesn’t bother going for another bite. He swallows, mouth warring between too dry and too wet.

 

Jungkook stays quiet. Doesn’t look away.

 

Taehyung asks, “Aren’t sponsors usually your same sex?” It’s the only coherent thing he can think of. He sees fixation in his mind, a lit up sign in neon.  

 

Swallowing, Jungkook’s lips twitch upward, edged. “Usually. But it’s more important your sponsor belong to the sex you’re not attracted to.”

 

Oh. “Oh. That makes sense.” He has the momentary thought, what someone who is attracted to both is supposed to do. How they weigh attraction. How they measure desire.The risk of it against a bigger, less forgiving risk.

 

Jungkook takes another bite. He sips his drink, the nice kombucha Seokjin makes with hand picked cherries. Taehyung reminds himself to pay for it when he gets back.

 

“I’d already come to that conclusion myself but she just helped me voice it out.”

 

Jungkook glances at the fries again.

 

Taehyung pushes them across the table.

 

Jungkook touches the basket, pokes a finger through the red plastic. “Usually that’s a bad thing. Getting fixated on someone. Or something.”

 

Jungkook pauses, seems to be mulling over his next words.

 

A few tables over, someone laughs. Knocks over their friend’s drink. Keeps laughing.

 

Jungkook says, “When I listed the fact that you fucked me so good I cried as only the fifth reason, she said that maybe it might be something worth exploring. If it’s what I- what we wanted.”

 

Taehyung bites down on his tongue, something pushing at his chest. He thinks of Jungkook, face down in his bed, breathing in the scent of Taehyung’s berry destroyed sheets and only looking up when Taehyung had moved to clean him up. It feels like too much, Jungkook admitting that. Too honest.

 

He wonders if this is what it felt like for Jungkook, pulling himself out of Taehyung’s apartment, in the community center, at the back entrance of the shack. Too much.

 

He wonders what the other four reasons are. If there are more than five.

 

Tentative, he asks, “Do you agree with that too?”

 

Jungkook shrugs, and he looks so unsure, making himself vulnerable in a way that can’t be easy, it kills Taehyung a little. Makes him want to make himself just as vulnerable in return. “I don’t know. But I think I want to find out. So. That’s why I think we should hang out.”

 

“Hang out?” It doesn’t feel adequate for whatever this is. Not that it’s much. Because Jungkook was right. They’re not really friends. Not yet. They’re just. Just a roadside burger stand. Just Jungkook eating too many barley salads. Just a family Kumamon themed restaurant. Just the scent of berries still stuck in Taehyung’s lungs. Just a tugging in his chest. Just the word he can’t help but think, two words in one, along with fixation.

 

Jungkook wipes his mouth carefully, taps his fingers on the plastic of his drink. “If I ask you a question will you be honest with me?”

 

“How will you know I’m being honest?”

 

Jungkook starts, mouth falling open. His shoulders come up, hands crossing on the table. The look he gives Taehyung is hard to place. Like he’s looking at him, really looking, for the first time. Softly, he says, “Guess I won’t.”

 

And Taehyung rather that, Jungkook’s surprise, his distrust even, if it makes him protect himself. If it keeps Taehyung from saying the first thing he thought, a bullshit laced, always, always, always, because that’s something he can’t guarantee. No one can. “Okay. Ask.”

 

“You don’t want to be friends with me, do you?”

 

Hands gripping the bench, Taehyung’s first reaction is yes. Of course. But he relaxes his hands, brings it down a few notches, lets his brain catch up to itself, and he thinks about friendship. All the ugly nasty shitty beautiful soul affirming bits. And he wants that from Jungkook. The acceptance. The messiness. The looking at someone and just knowing. Knowing them. Knowing what they’re saying with their eyes. By the sound of their breathing. The weight of their steps.

 

But he looks at Jungkook and he thinks of the word friend and he thinks of Jimin and Yoongi and Hoseok and Seokjin, thinks of all the other people he calls friends, and Taehyung wants things from him he’s never wanted from a friend. From anyone.

 

“No. I don’t.”

 

“I know,” Jungkook says, satisfaction brimming in his eyes. “I don’t want to be your friend either. But I’m not in a place where- and I’m not saying I want more. Or that I can give you- I don’t even know you. Really. But-”

 

“But you feel like you do?” It slips out and Taehyung knows it’s the wrong thing to say, can already feel the second Jungkook will pull away, physically from the outdoor table they’re sitting at. In all the other ways to.

 

Jungkook stays sat. He takes a fry, nibbles it in thought. It’s horribly cute and the worst part is he’s not even trying, probably has no idea how he looks to Taehyung.

 

“But I feel like I could,” Jungkook says quietly.

 

The sun burns but Taehyung thinks he can handle this. Taehyung can handle a lot. He’s good at weighing desire. The risk of it.

 

He picks up his burger. “So you want us to hang out?” he asks. Takes a bite, cold beef on his tongue.

 

Jungkook nods. “I think. I mean- yeah. If you’re up for it too. Yes. Get to know each other. Like you said you wanted to.” He bites a fry in half, already reaching for another, fava wrap abandoned. “Just. Nonsexually.”

 

Taehyung coughs. Doesn’t choke. “Nonsexually?” he asks, smacking his chest with his fist.

 

Jungkook doesn’t hide his amusement. “Mhhm. Nonsexually.”

 

“Even though we both want to have sex with each other?”

 

Jungkook’s hand freezes over the fry basket.

 

Taehyung holds his breath, holds the dead cow in his mouth, the dead stretch at truth, the obvious thing between them, because Taehyung might be a lot of things, but naive isn’t one of them. Hasn’t been for a long time and he knows what it means when Jungkook looks at him the way he does. Knows Jungkook knows what it means when it’s Taehyung the one doing the looking.

 

The surprise on Jungkook’s face is different this time. It’s an appreciating sort. Like Taehyung measures up when this time he expected him not to but is glad he did, proved him wrong.

 

His eyes are a little hooded in the light. His voice a little shy, a little unwillingly sexy, when he says, “Yes.”

 

“I don’t-” Taehyung stops. Breath punched out of him. Trying to find the proper words he should be saying. He doesn’t want to undermine Jungkook, his wants, what’s good for him, and Taehyung doesn’t know. He doesn’t. But an addiction is an addiction and he has to say it. For Jungkook’s sake. For his own. “I don’t want to be something you use to resist yourself. I don’t want to be something that hurts you.”

 

Jungkook’s face falls. Like the breath is being knocked out of him too. “That’s kind of why I think we should.” A look comes across his face, touched by sadness. Regret maybe. “If this is too much for you I completely get i-”

 

“It’s not too much,” Taehyung says. Automatic. It might be a lie. He thinks it might be worth it to find out. Knows it is.

 

Jungkook fiddles with the chain at his neck. “Do you just want to fuck me again?”

 

Without skipping a beat, Taehyung says, “No.” Knows he doesn’t have to ask it back.   

 

“Okay,” Jungkook says. Then, “So?”

 

“I mean, yes. Okay. If that’s- if this is what you want. Yes.”

 

“What about what you want?”

 

The question catches Taehyung off guard. The genuine concern. It feels like validation. That the glimpses he shows Taehyung, that first night, at the center, at the shack, here and now, are real, the soft sweet thing he is, despite the appearance, the way he initially carries himself. He threatens to take you out but never would, does it as his heart is bleeding out on his sleeve.

 

Taehyung stares at his burger. Carefully, he says, “You know it’s not all I want. It’s not all you want. But I do want to get to know you more than I want to just sleep with you again. If we know where we stand that’s a good thing, right?”

 

“I don’t know. I’m hoping it is,” Jungkook says.

 

Taehyung does too. He says, “So. Okay,”  

 

“So. We’re gonna hang out?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Nonsexually.”

 

Taehyung chuckles, muffled by the food in his mouth. Maybe if he laughs every time either of them says it, it’ll feel less like he’s dying. “Nonsexually.”

 

Jungkook’s eyes brighten. He looks lighter. Like he’s been carrying a weight around too. “We should probably stop saying nonsexually around each other.”

 

“That’s probably a good idea, yes.”

 

Jungkook wavers over the fries. Taehyung pushes them closer to his side. Jungkook has three in his mouth before Taehyung pulls his hand back. He wonders if Jungkook would really be that upset if he bought him that burger.

 

Jungkook chews, more mindful about keeping his mouth closed, before he says, “I’m kind of really disappointed you’re not a tree hugger.”

 

“Oh, I’m a tree hugger,” Taehyung insists, over exaggerated because it makes Jungkook laugh, his eyes lit up. And it shouldn’t be this easy, falling into this rhythm but Taehyung isn’t gonna question it. Isn’t going to even think of why. “Just not a cow hugger. Nothing against cows. I’ve just never hugged one.”

 

“Would you hug one before eating it?”  

 

“If that made it feel better about the fact that I’m gonna eat it, sure. Cows are cute.”

 

“You like cute things?”

 

“I love cute things. I’m a total goner for them.”

 

“Of course you are, Rainbow Boy.”

 

                        

                         *****

 

 

They stand under the shack’s sign when Taehyung’s break ends, numbers exchanged, Jungkook expected back at work.

 

“I do want to be your friend too,” Taehyung says. Because it’s true. Because it’s okay if Jungkook doesn’t believe it. Because feelings and sex and soulmates and love and friends. It’s kind of all mixed together. In Taehyung’s head. In his chest.

 

Jungkook shifts his weight on his feet, jean clad hips cocking. He’s got another bruise, right above his elbow this time, purplish. And friends and sex. It’s not as separate as it should be sometimes.  

 

Jungkook says, “Okay.” Accepts it. The truth. The lie. He throws Taehyung a little wave, turns.

 

“Hey.”

 

Jungkook turns, back around. Doesn’t look all that surprised. “Yeah?”

 

“How old were you when you got kissed for the first time?”

 

Jungkook does surprise him. He laughs, half his mouth curling softly. “Why?”

 

Taehyung shrugs. “Seems like the kind of thing a friend would know.”

 

Jimin was eight with a third cousin. Seokjin’s happened at fourteen, an older girl behind the stadium bleachers. Hoseok’s was the day before his seventeenth birthday. Yoongi had his at nineteen, in the quad near his and Taehyung’s dorm at 2 a.m., an older guy, the same one he’s been kissing since.

 

“Thirteen,” Jungkook says. “And I kissed first. You?”

 

“Fifteen and a half. I was the one getting kissed. It was super tonguey. Almost made me never want to kiss anyone ever again.”

 

And it’s worth it, the embarrassing story that would embarrass anyone else, just for the way it makes Jungkook laugh, for the way he says,

 

“Lucky for me you did.”

 

*****

 

Chapter Text

*****

 

“This your idea of hanging out?”

 

“It involves us doing something together. You said you liked physical activity. And it’s nonsexual.”

 

“Thought we agreed not to say sexual around each other?”

 

“That was nonsexual. Completely different word.”

 

“True. I’m adding it to the list.”

 

“There’s a list?”

 

“Yep. A list of unsayable words.”

 

“Hmmm. Needs a catchier title.”

 

“How about the list of forbidden words ?”

 

“No. Too sexy.”

 

“I’m adding sexy to the list too.”

 

“Man. We’re gonna run out of words.”

 

“We’ll just have to communicate through gestures and grunts. Get all caveman with each other.”

 

“Okay. How does the list of things we shan't say or do sound because if you start grunting at me this really isn’t going to work.”

 

Shan’t? Shit. Your full name isn’t Taehyung Covington The Third or some uppercrust headache like that is it?”

 

“I don’t think the British peerage would allow a Korean-American.”

 

“...”

 

“Not enough blue blood.”

 

“...”

 

“I did spend a semester abroad in England if that helps.”

 

“Huh. Have you traveled a lot?”

 

“A li-”

 

“Sorry to interrupt-”

 

The girl at the ticket counter smiles at them. A thirty ounce iced coffee sits by the register, her thousand megawatt smile the product of it.

 

“Are you guys getting tickets or do you need more time? Sorry. There’s a line behind you.”

 

Jungkook grins, sheepish. “Oops. Sorry. Yeah, no, we’re ready.”

 

She prints two tickets, smiles more genuinely. “It’s fine. You guys are cute. First date?”

 

Something in Taehyung’s stomach melts at that. His chest yanks, and it’s nothing, an easy assumption to make. It’s meaningless. The picture they make or don’t to this person who doesn’t know them, has watched them interact for barely a few minutes, doesn't matter.   

 

“Nope,” Jungkook is quick to say, striding forward to the window. “We’re just- um. One please.”

 

“Oh. Sorry,” she says, cutting the tickets, demeanor polite but she shoots Taehyung this look that makes him school his expression from whatever it was doing.

 

Jungkook waves her away, his own slightly dimmer megawatt smile as he pays because, right, this isn’t a date and even if it was, which this isn’t, most people go dutch anyway. Taehyung likes the I’ll get this one you get the next one system. It’s romantic without being archaic, lets both people treat the other, lessens expectation or the lack of them. He doesn’t wonder how Jungkook prefers it, if he’d think it sweet or manipulatively backwards as fuck like this one guy Taehyung had dated once.   

 

“It’s Kim, by the way,” Taehyung says, ticket in hand, as they head inside the complex, cool a/c a shock from city heat.

 

Jungkook walks in first, holds the interior door open for Taehyung. “What?”

 

“Thanks,” Taehyung says as it seals shut behind them. The walls are full of colorful splatters. The scent of slightly less toxic gasoline lingers. “My last name. Taehyung Kim. Kim Taehyung if we’re going for the legal way. And the better sounding way.”

 

Jungkook pulls a face. “Ugh. I know, right? I feel like my name sounds so dumb when I say it. But imagine if my name was Scott Johnson and I had to introduce myself as Johnson Scott? I’d sound super dumb.”

 

“Or like the people who make toilet paper merged with the people who own Johnson & Johnson’s and you’re their baby heir.”

 

Jungkook snickers. He slides his hands in his back pockets, elbows close to his sides, body arched and Taehyung feels stupidly accomplished, like he’s done something bigger than getting Jungkook to laugh at his lame joke.

 

They stand in line to get their equipment. The sound of triggers go off behind the wall.

 

Jungkook says, “Mine’s Jeon. Jeon Jungkook. JJK.”

 

Taehyung smiles, feels his heart melt all over again.

 

Jungkook tucks his chin, cheeks going a little red. “Sorry. That was, like, super lame.”

 

Taehyung shakes his head, wants to reassure him with a casual touch, one of Hoseok’s bro bumps or something, but he’s pretty sure touching of any kind is on the list. “Nah. JJK. It’s cute.”

 

Or maybe it isn’t because Jungkook elbows him without looking as they move up in the line. “Don’t make me put cute on the list. I know you like your cute shit.”

 

And Taehyung doesn't say anything because he really really does.

 

They get suited up, guns loaded, and Jungkook smiles at him, ruthless and so out for blood it knocks Taehyung over a little, the gun suddenly too heavy in his hands. It surprises him, how enticing he is like this, that Taehyung still likes him like this too.

 

“Ready to get your ass kicked, Kim?” Jungkook asks outside, the open shooting field beyond them, every man for himself. Goggles on the top of his head, he eyes Taehyung challengingly, wide stanced in the ugly camo jumpsuit he makes work somehow. More forest foliage meets adorable woodland creature, less repressed gun nut. The fact that it hugs his hips just right might have something to do with it.

 

“Think I prefer Rainbow Boy,” Taehyung says, twisting the barrel on his gun. He hasn’t done this since highschool and he’s a little worried he’ll somehow take someone’s eye out. His own. “And you’re gonna have to work for it, JJK.”

 

Jungkook rolls his eyes but he’s trying not to laugh. Even through his mask Taehyung can tell. It’s his eyes. Taehyung wonders if he knows how badly they give him away.

 

Tugging his goggles down, Jungkook presses the barrel of his gun to Taehyung’s chest. “I’d tell you to watch your back but you’re gonna see me coming. Face first. Right here.”

 

He taps twice before he turns away, steps out onto the grass, ready for the kill. He leaves Taehyung standing there, heart thumping where Jungkook pressed the marker, smile hidden by his mask.  

 

When Jungkook lands his first hit less than five minutes later and splatters bright red paint on Taehyung’s jumpsuit, gets him good right over his heart in the place he marked, he doesn’t contain his laugh, big and loud in his triumphant victory. Crushes Taehyung’s weak bust open heart in the process.

 

Taehyung’s body flinches on impact. He blinks. Raises his marker. Aims. Shoots back.

 

*****

 

The ducks mean business today.

 

The old man by the pond feeding them almost gets bit, his hand almost yanked off.

 

“Ouch,” Jungkook says, wincing, ice cream kissing his lips.

 

The park is crowded, typical Sunday, people getting a lazy read in, babies rolling on big blankets while their parents have a midday drink, kids screaming on the swings.

 

Taehyung scoops his soft serve, pink with bits of white melting in the sun.  

 

Jungkook turns to him. Their knees touch as he shifts on the bench. “Sorry about your hand.”

 

“It’s fine,” Taehyung says, stretches his yellow covered palm. It stings a little, a dull throb. Jungkook had dropped the marker immediately when he’d realized he’d gotten skin, had cradled Taehyung’s hand gently between his own. Taehyung feels the ghost of that more than the paintball smashing into his palm. “I shouldn’t have taken my glove off.”

 

“Why did you anyhow?” Jungkook frowns, cone held over the seat so any splatters fall on the wood.

 

Taehyung shrugs, heat warming the base of his neck. “Thought a spider had climbed in there.”

 

Jungkook chokes on a laugh. “Wait. Really?”

 

“Yes. Really. There was paint all over my goggles and I couldn’t see and I thought I felt something tickl-”

 

Jungkook outright cackles.

 

“Yeah, yeah. You almost took my hand out but go ahead. Laugh it up,” Taehyung says, amused, lips tugging at the infectious sound.

 

Jungkook stops, eyes remorseful. “I really am sorry-”

 

“Don’t worry. Seriously,” Taehyung assures him because it doesn’t hurt. Not really. He points to Jungkook’s jeans. “You’re getting ice cream on your-”

 

“Shit.” Jungkook moves again, eats like half of the top scoop as damage control. “Paintballs hurt like a motherfucker,” he says once he’s got the situation under control. “And hands are weak. I got one in the face in high school without a mask on like an idiot. I cried like a little wimp.”

 

“I have a hard time believing that,” Taehyung says though he can, maybe a little too clearly.  

 

“Oh, you have no idea. I was tiny when I was seventeen. Not like I’m super big now or anything but I was a total wimp back then. Still cry like one but it takes a lot more to make me cry.”

 

Taehyung thinks of Jungkook and what he might have been like at seventeen. Defenses down. Softer. Cuter, though that doesn’t seem possible. Shyer, which seems likely. Or maybe he was angrier, shoulders up, fists always at the ready even if he never won a fight, rage dripping from his pores. Seventeen can be a very angry time for a boy.

 

Jungkook throws him a look, teasing. “At least I didn’t get you in the solar plexus. Then you would have cried like a twenty-seven year old wimp. That’d be super embarrassing for you.”

 

Taehyung snorts. The ducks quack in the pond. A kid’s laugh rings shrill as he races past them on his way to the ice cream stand. “My weak solar plexus. Are you ever gonna let that go?”

 

“Mhhhm. No.”

 

Taehyung supposes he can let him have that one. There’s a lot of things Taehyung isn’t letting go of either.

 

Jungkook asks, “What’s with the whole vegan thing?”

 

“The thing?” Taehyung relaxes into the bench, legs splayed out. It’s the first Sunday he’s had off in a while. It feels lethargic in an unnatural way, like he has to remind his body to let go.

 

“Yeah. You work at a vegan restaurant but you sneak out to be a carnivore. Haven’t you heard meat is murder?”

 

“I have. It’s a terrible album.”

 

Jungkook kicks him lightly, laughs, head tilting back in the sun. He licks his cone slowly, his soft pink tongue turning vanilla white.

 

Taehyung forces his gaze away. Watches some birds bob in the fountain, skimming its surface, stomach flipping. He scoops his own ice cream, strawberry, tiny pieces of coconut mixed throughout. It’s too sweet on his tongue. He holds the wet cup with damp hands. He doesn’t wish Jungkook had gotten a cup too as much as he should.  

 

“Isn’t you working there unethical?” Jungkook asks, fake judging. Another too friendly kick.

 

And he’s joking, obviously, but Taehyung takes his time thinking about the question, the answer, the grey area of a grey area. “Maybe? The place started as a burrito truck, actually. My friend, Seokjin, he’s the owner, needed help and I had the time. Then he went vegan and I tried it for a while. The vegan thing. But burgers. They’re my one weakness.”

 

“You only have one weakness?” Jungkook’s s voice is even. His lashes are golden in the light. He waits for Taehyung’s response openly, wet lips shiny. He licks at his cone, bites at the waffle, digs his teeth in.

 

Taehyung shoves his spoon in his mouth. Resists the urge to choke himself with it. “One of them.”

 

“Hmm.”

 

“I try to make up for it in other ways,” Taehyung says after a beat of silence. “The maybe unethical part.”

 

“Like?”

 

“I eat organic meat. Locally sourced if I can swing it. I think it’s less about what we eat but the intention of it. The intention to try to be good. Or do good. Even if it’s only a little.”

 

When Jungkook just looksf at him, body tilted towards Taehyung’s slightly, listening, he adds, “I mean, yeah, eating meat is shit for the environment and your health, but it’s also biological.”

 

“Biological?”

 

“Instinctual.”

 

He can feel it. The foot he might be shoving in his mouth but he can also feel the other thing. The motormouth he’s always getting called out for, Yoongi coaxing him to take another hit, an academic advisor asking him to slow down, let the rest of them catch up to Taehyung’s overworking mind, a distant aunt’s chastising, his father firmly brushing her off because he was the same and look how well he turned out, his face beaming at Taehyung, so young and barely at his father’s hip but already poised to be exactly like him.

 

There’s something clogged in his throat. Taehyung looks down at his ice cream. He always forgets. Strawberries on their own are too sour. The other berries balance it out. The coconut makes it worse.

 

Jungkook brings a leg up on the bench, rests his elbow on his knee, the movement elegant. His body is all angles, hint of curves. Taehyung realizes he hasn’t asked him if he sings. Makes a note to ask if he dances when he does.

 

Jungkook breaks off a piece of his waffle cone. Hesitates. Drops it into Taehyung’s cup.

 

Softly, he asks, “Instinctual?”

 

Taehyung swallows. He stares at pink goop. The waffle piece turns the color of Jungkook’s tongue. “The want to... consume meat. It’s ingrained in our dna. Through, you know, social conditioning and thousands of years of evolution. So undoing that is hard for some of us. And some people can do it. Maybe a lot. But I think it’s okay. That not all of us can. If we just...do it in ways that’s good for us. Or try to.”

 

The quacking from the pond escalates. The old man tosses half the remaining loaf of bread in the shallow water. The quacking rises, then quiets. The blood boiling instinct to snap their beaks satisfied.

 

“For the planet,” Taehyung adds when all he can hear is all the surrounding life in the park. Jungkook breathing softly at his side. When all Taehyung can see is pink. “And the cows.”

 

Across the green there’s a roudy game of touch football. A beefy dude gets toppled over by a skinny kid. Someone calls a foul. The rest of the boys pile on top, shouted laugher, foul curses, bodies colliding.

 

“So we should all say a prayer before we eat our dead cows?”

 

Taehyung grins. He looks up. Jungkook is already looking at him, something softly guarded in the slant of his mouth, eyes not giving him away for once. His face is shaded in the light, a different kind of pink.

 

Taehyung eats the waffle cone on his next scoop. It’s just sweet enough. “That and try to make sure it hasn’t traveled too much. Got to roll around in some grass and sun tan. No shitty dark barns.”

 

“And that it got hugged.”

 

“Sure. Cows deserve hugs too.”

 

Jungkook laughs, bites his cone again. Melting ice cream runs a river down his wrist, paints his lightly bronzed skin sticky sweet. “Oh, shit.” He’s quick to follow the river with his tongue, still laughing as he drags it over the thick vein in his forearm, near the soft inside of his elbow, loud and light in a way Taehyung hasn’t heard from him before. Oblivious to the heat burning in the pit of Taehyung’s stomach, the stars exploding into dying suns and burning away at his insides.

 

“Fuck.” One final suck to his skin, the sound loud and short of obscene for such a family infested setting, Jungkook wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. “Shit. I don’t think we brought napkins.”

 

He looks around, waving the cone as he twists.

 

Taehyung finds some from- somewhere. He doesn’t remember taking them. He hopes they weren’t left on the bench by whoever sat here before them.

 

“Thanks,” Jungkook mumbles as he takes them, mouth full of ice cream and open on a laugh.

 

“Good?” Jungkook asks. He turns fully towards Taehyung for an inspection. His mouth is parted, lips shiny in the sun. Eyes big and wet looking, intense.

 

The heat in Taehyung’s stomach guts him, hard. He tries not to go there, he does, but it’s instinctual, it’s maybe inscribed into his DNA already, the way it reminds him of Jungkook in his bed, Jungkook looking at him over his shoulder, gripping Taehyung’s hands to his waist, biting down on Taehyung’s jaw to muffle his gasps.

 

Taehyung tries to calm his gut down, his brain. Tries to swallow back how dry his mouth is even if he takes his tongue in the process. “You have some-” And his voice is too raspy, too something. He settles for gesturing vaguely at his mouth.

 

Jungkook is quick to clean himself up, pink in his cheeks now. “Sorry,” he says, sounding so embarrassed and somehow not at all that Taehyung wonders how unaware he is. How unaware he wants Taehyung to think he is. He wonders if that’s unfair of him.

 

“No,” he says, swirling the remaining ice cream soup in his cup. “It was cute,” he adds unthinking.

 

Jungkook’s face goes sweet, smile a little wistful. “Crap,” he says, snapping another piece of waffle-cone.

 

“What?”

 

Jungkook drops the piece into Taehyung’s cup. “I just put cute on the list.”

 

“Oh,” Taehyung says faintly. Eats the waffle chunk before it can turn to mush.  

 

The ducks quack and kids scream and laugh. Air light, hot and fizzy. Taehyung wonders what else he’s been missing on lazy Sundays.

 

“That’s okay,” he says. His hand aches. Both of them. “I don’t like cute things that much anyway.”

 

And that’s a lie and Jungkook can probably tell and Jungkook isn’t oblivious and Taehyung can tell and they might just have to put Jungkook on the list too.     

 

*****

 

jjk

 

i think

we can handle it

 

you

 

handle what?

also

hi

 

jjk

 

ye hi

how’s your week been

mine sucked

yours was prob very nice

blah

blah

can i get back to the important part?

 

you

 

wow

 

jjk

 

?

 

you

 

yes you can

 

jjk

 

k

so dinner

super hang out activity

boring even

 

you

sure. sushi?

 

jjk

 

ugh no

sushi’s too sensual

wake up rainbow boy

in fct

we should avoid all asian food

too sexy

 

you

 

isn’t that fetishistic?

 

jjk

 

idk

can you fetishize yurself

??

 

you

 

i guess fajitas? aren’t sensual

sensual is on the list btw

so is sushi

we’ll come back to the rest of asia later

 

jjk

 

ughhhhhhhhhhjhhhhhhhh

 

you

did you break your thumb?

what’s wrong?

 

jjk

hhhhhhhh

fajitas wtf

 

you

 

what’s wrong with mexican?

 

jjk

 

ugh no

no

NO

i know where we re going

wear loose pants

 

you

 

i only own loose pants

also

should i be scared?

 

you

only if youre afraid of the truth

and skulls

 

*****

 

“So what’s your thing?”

 

“My thing?”

 

“Yeah. Your thing. Your, like, life philosophy.”

 

Jungkook is shrouded in light. Green on his hair. Blue bounces off the tip of his nose, lands on his cupids bow in red. His drink is cayenne rimmed, grapefruit and lime slices floating in pink liquid. He leans across the tiled table-top, ancient symbols and decorated skulls translucent under festive lamps shaped like sombreros.

 

“Life philosophy?”

 

“Don’t say it like that. You’re totally the kind of person who has a life philosophy.”

 

“What kind of person is that?” Taehyung asks, clammy hands hidden under the table. Above them, ceiling fans whip lazily. Conversations bob around them. Waiters carry steaming cast iron platters. The speakers tremble with some Spanish pop song, treble kicked all the way up.

 

“Hmm,” Jungkook hums, cupping his jaw, silver around his wrist shimmery. His shoulders shift gracefully in his sweater, cream colored and fluffy looking, the row of earrings down his left ear glinting in the light. His face looks angular, defined, like it does when he comes into the shop during lunch for work. Done up. Professional. But his cheekbones glitter, reflect light, and his mouth looks glossy, pinker than normal. It’s probably from the drink, summer sweat, but he looked like that when they sat down and it’s. It’s not a thing. This is Los Angeles, only second when it comes to pretty men who make themselves prettier, after New York. After Seoul, possibly. It’s not about tonight or about Taehyung or them hanging out or anything. If Taehyung led a different life, was a different kind of less lazy person, he’d buy a bunch of shit for his face too. Bathroom full of bb cream. A Sephora card. Probably. Maybe. Not likely. Taehyung is shitty at memberships. He lost his Target card in a CVS once.

 

The light moves. There’s the tiniest bit of sparkles in whatever Jungkook has smeared over his lips. It makes Taehyung wonder. What it tastes like. If his own lips would sparkle if he kissed him. If Jungkook has a Sephora membership. A Target card.

 

“Hmm,” Jungkook hums again in thought. The sound shouldn’t be as loud as it is in the noise infested restaurant but it brings Taehyung back to the moment though part of him still strays to the bright spark of Jungkook’s mouth. It doesn’t matter. His mind has an agenda of its own and short of asking Jungkook to put a paper bag over his head when they’re together, there’s really nothing Taehyung can do about where his mind goes around Jungkook.

 

Elbows on the table, Jungkook props his chin on his laced hands, gaze dark and playful and so consciously on Taehyung it sends Taehyung’s blood racing, makes it impossible for his mind to be anywhere else.

 

Taehyung reaches for his water glass. The cold only helps a little.  

 

“Spiritual wanderer. Transient. Big believer in karma and the chakras. The universe and its big plans.”

 

The treble kicks up another notch. Taehyung’s fingers slip on his water glass, shaky. The warm air sticks to his skin, to his brain. Something unknots in his chest. Ties itself over harder.

 

“Karma?” he asks, voice pitched low.

 

Jungkook leans further, all of him red. His eyes lose some of their intensity but he charges on. “Yep. A free thinker. One of those non-judgy types who actually doesn’t judge.”

 

“That’s a pretty big assumption. Generous considering we don’t know each other that well.”

 

Jungkook shrugs. He moves back a litte, the scarlett on his cheeks icy blue. “You’re sitting here with me right now. That’s pretty non-judgy to me.”

 

They stare at each other for a moment, like the atmosphere feels sticky to Jungkook too, drudgy and hard to wade through.

 

Taking a sip of his drink, everything in it tinted green, Jungkook finishes, enumerating, “Total outdoors adventurer granola instagram boyfriend. Ethnically considerate. And... you’re a liberal.”

 

Fist to his mouth, Taehyung scrunches his brows, the thing in his chest momentarily forgotten. “I thought politics were off topic in polite conversation?”

 

Jungkook snorts. “That’s only Thanksgiving. And none of our conversations have been polite. I propositioned you the first time we met and I’m pretty sure I’ve cussed you out, like, every other conversation we’ve had.”

 

Taehyung laughs. He drops his hand to the table, cups his glass. Less shaky. In his hands. His chest is another story.

 

Jungkook watches him, the arch of his brows impatient.

 

Taehyung nods slowly, sighs. Makes a show of it. The lights dance in Jungkook’s eyes. “That was pretty accurate. Scarily accurate.”

 

“Yeah?” Jungkook asks, smile wide. He looks astronomically happy with himself, doesn’t hide it, like Taehyung is staring into the asteroid right before it hits him.

 

“You got one part wrong though.”

 

“Which? If it turns out you’re a libertarian or some shit I’m going home.”

 

A waitress comes by, places salsa and chips on the table. Jungkook smiles his thanks. Loads up a chip.

 

“Or was it the big universe plans stuff?” Jungkook asks as he swirls the salsa. “I guess if you don’t believe in god or whatever you wouldn’t believe in there being a plan for everything either.”

 

“Surprised you remember that.”

 

“Why? Do I seem like I don’t listen?” Jungkook questions, fingers tapping against his cheek as he pops the chip in his mouth.

 

Taehyung drags his thumb along his glass, chews on a half melted ice cube. He thinks about how upset Jungkook was that day, annoyance wafting off of him, the piercing wire of his words. Blazing fire. Smoke pouring out his mouth. Thinks about the sincere way he’d said he was glad Taehyung’s father was a dad. That he tried to be one.

 

“I don’t know. Think I’m too busy listening to you to realize. That’s to your advantage, I guess.”

 

Jungkook’s grin glitters. “Better think twice before you tell me things. I remember as well as I listen.”

 

Fake threat. False warning. Taehyung doesn’t watch his words. Doesn’t want to. Not with Jungkook. He thinks about Jungkook reading him to an almost t. Not the chakras shit so much but only because he’s never been able to sit through a meditation class. Maybe when he’s older, more patient, more centered. But the other stuff. The big universe plans. Yeah, that’s Taehyung. The proof of it sitting across from him. The one word he is going to watch not to say around Jungkook.

 

Taehyung shifts forward, like he’s about to share some horrible secret. “I’m a terrible outdoor granola boyfriend.”

 

Jungkook plays along, eyes daring, the kaleidoscoping colors swimming over his face. “Really?” He sounds genuinely surprised. He dips a chip in the salsa bowl, chews.

 

Taehyung bites back a smile. “I’ll go on a hike if you ask me but I’m not much of the outdoorsy type. However, I did go camping with my friends recently.”

 

“And?”

 

“Not terrible. Better than last time.”

 

“What happened last time?”

 

“Everyone almost died at various times. There’s an incident involving gatorade and a condom I’m not allowed to talk about. Also, someone peed on someone else.”

 

“Let me guess. You were the someone?”

 

“Close. The someone else.”

 

Jungkook laughs, nose scrunching. He makes an attempt to hide his face in his shoulder but he ends up throwing his head back, laughter pouring out of him, looks so unconcerned with how he looks, how he sounds, that Taehyung’s heart just gives.

 

“Not much of a boyfriend either,” Taehyung adds as a half thought, picks out an overly salty chip. The salsa is more watery than he’s used to but stronger. Real kick to his tongue.

 

Ice clinks. Jungkook stirs the salsa. Chews, the green light closing off his face. “I’m adding boyfriend to the list. In fact, all relationship talk. Non negotiable unlike Asia. Which I’m still on the fence about.”

 

“Okay,” Taehyung easily agrees. Can’t help but point out, “You said it first.”

 

“I know,” Jungkook admits. He wipes his greasy fingers on a cloth napkin. Looks at Taehyung through his lashes. “It’s different when you say it.”

 

The he says, “I feel very fooled about the outdoors thing.”

 

“Why?” Taehyung asks, voice a little dazed, still stuck boyfriend, on Jungkook’s easy admission.

 

Jungkook gestures to Taehyung, his t-shirt under an open flannel, red and blue squares. Casual. Boring. Very hangout appropriate. The white of Jungkook’s sweater looks impossibly soft, vibrant in the lively mood of the restaurant. Taehyung feels inadequate, colorless in comparison.

 

“You wear too much plaid. You dress like a very lean beardless lumberjack.”  

 

“You should’ve seen me a few years ago. I dressed like an accountant who moonlighted as an arts dealer. In the 70’s.”

 

“I have no idea what that looks like.”

 

“Lots of dress shirts. Mismatched colors. Flowy slacks.”

 

Jungkook raises his brows. He tilts his head, like he’s trying to picture it and coming up short. “Huh.”

 

“Then I went really heavy into this tie phase. You’d think I was an investment banker or a car salesman. Who thought he was a Coppola character.”

 

Jungkook smiles, drops some salsa on the table. “So what happened? To make you want to dress like a Levis ad?”

 

Taehyung shrugs. Their hands knock together over the chip basket. Jungkook’s smile goes shy and it makes Taehyung’s heart yank, that these are the kinds of things that fluster him. Innocent hand contact and being called cute. Taehyung pulls back, lets Jungkook go first.

 

“I stopped caring. I grew out of trying to figure myself out through what I was wearing. When you’re young clothes give you a sense of identity.” Taehyung pauses to eat a chip. “Now I don’t really care all that much. Or I care in a different way.”  

 

Jungkook seems to think this over, light glinting off his jaw as he chews carefully.

 

“Plus. The flannels at H&M are cheap.”

 

Jungkook shakes his head, grinning mouth pressed to the lip of his glass. “You don’t shop at H&M. You’re totally a charity shop Goodwill boy.”

 

“Close,” Taehyung concedes. “I’m a dedicated patron of Son of a Vet. Vets are really good at finding cheap well-made flannel apparently.” He reaches for the basket, hands coming away oily. “What about you?”

 

Jungkook wipes the corner of his mouth. Grabs the bottle of hot sauce next to the napkin dispenser. There’s a picture a funny looking parrot on the label. Taehyung isn’t fooled. He still nods when Jungkook shakes it over the salsa in question. Taehyung’s tongue throbs in anticipatory burn as drop after drop drips into the bowl. 

 

“What about me?”

 

Taehyung grins. “Did you always dress like a high fashion off duty model slash the boy your mom warned you against dating in high school?”

 

Jungkook narrows his eyes but he’s still smiling, cheekbones high and a pretty flush touching his skin. “Since midway through college. Grad school really cemented it. But I’ve always liked simplicity. Minimalism or whatever it’s called? I like black. I like white. I like lines that make my body look good. Show it off.”

 

He only says it a little like a boast. A show off no one would mind him showing off.  

 

“I did have an embarrassingly large Stussy collection for a while. And for the record?”

 

Taehyung arches his brows, edges him on. Dips a chip.  

 

Jungkook touches the rim of his drink. Watches the limes float. Peeks his tongue out and licks the cayenne from his finger. “All the moms in high school loved me. I was really sweet back then,” he says, says it so fucking sweetly, like the finger he just licked was covered in sugar and not heat soaked peppers.

 

Taehyung eats the chip. His mouth burns.  

 

The waitress comes by in a flurry of half Spanish half English, apologizing for the wait, how crowded the restaurant is tonight.

 

Jungkook is quick to assure her, stream of Spanish leaving his mouth, confident and effortless.

 

Taehyung sits back, watches the exchange quietly, the burn in his stomach now.

 

A smile stretches on her face, deep set wrinkles aging her delicately. 

 

Jungkook gives Taehyung a quick look, “You don’t-”

 

Taehyung shakes his head.

 

Jungkook turns back to her, that same sort of shy from that morning in the community center all those weeks ago gracing his face, open and sweet. Different.

 

She says something that makes Jungkook shoot Taehyung another look, smaller, shyer. He answers her a little stilted. She stares at them for a few seconds, looks at Taehyung too long, some strange mixture of judgemental and disappointment.

 

Taehyung frowns at Jungkook but he’s no help, flicking the edge of a chip and avoiding his eyes in the silence.

 

“Ahhh,” she lets out eventually. Makes a note on her pad.

 

Taehyung is not consulted as Jungkook orders as previously decided, the only exception being when he’s asked if he wants to order a drink. He shakes his head.

 

Jungkook blushes, glances at his drink guiltily. “Sorry. I probably shouldn’t have-”

 

“It’s fine,” Taehyung cuts him off, mindful to keep any sharpness out of his voice. He wets another chip. His lips only mostly want to peel off his face. “I drink. Just didn’t want to tonight.”

 

Menus are taken. The waitress comes back a minute later, sets a water glass in front of Jungkook, refills Taehyung’s.

 

“You didn’t have to-”

 

“I’m driving. Only wanted one anyhow.”

 

Taehyung watches him for a few seconds, something warm swooping in his stomach.

 

Jungkook’s cheek get a little redder. The thing in Taehyung’s chest burns.

 

“So,” Taehyung says, clearing his throat. His hands feel dumb. “What am I eating?”

 

Jungkook rolls his eyes. “You would have tried to order a fajita. In case you didn’t notice, fajitas aren’t on the menu. No real Mexican restaurant serves fajitas. Trust me. Your mouth is in good hands.”

 

“Just my mouth?”

 

Jungkook’s eyes fall to the mouth in question. Skirt away, lips quirking. “The rest of you too,” he promises softly, and Taehyung has always been too loose with his trust, always good at getting back up when people trip him with it. He knows he’d let Jungkook trip him over and over. It doesn’t worry him as much as it should.

 

“I think I have to reconsider the ethnically conscious thing,” Jungkook says, nose wrinkling.

 

“Hey,” Taehyung protests. “Tex-mex is still mex.”

 

Mouth falling open, indignation steaming off him, Jungkook looks like he’s gearing up to really ream into him, so Taehyung beats him to it. “How did you learn Spanish?”

 

Jungkook grimaces,unimpressed with Taehyung’s obviousness, but he says, “I grew up in East LA.”

 

“It’s mostly Hispanic, yeah?”

 

“Basically all. My mom had a Mexican boyfriend.”

 

“Oh. What about your dad?”

 

“The Mexican boyfriend was my dad.”

 

Taehyung frowns. “But you don’t-”

 

Jungkook eyes him harshly, displeasure heightened under the green light. “What. I don’t look half Mexican enough?”

 

Taehyung chokes on a chip. “Uh-”

 

“You’re, like, secretly not ethnically considerate at all are you? One of those self hating Asian-Americans. Total twinkie boy.” Mouth pursed unhappily, Jungkook asks, deadpan, “Is that what all the plaid’s about?”

 

Taehyung widens his eyes so big it hurts his head. He sits up too fast, bangs his knee under the table. The glasses shake. “No! Shit. I didn’t mean- shit. I’m not-”

 

Jungkook’s mouth twitches.

 

Taehyung stops. His knee throbs as hard as his tongue does. He squints, studies Jungkook’s face in the multicolored sombrero lights. “You’re fucking with me.”

 

Jungkook grins, wide and just the tiniest bit mean. He looks inordinately pleased. He nods. “Mhmmm.”

 

Taehyung feels his own mouth tug. Can’t help it. “You’re terrible.”

 

“I had to! You’re really gullible and when you get embarrassed your face goes all-” Jungkook cuts himself off, eyes downcast at the tile skulls. He twists his water glass. All the ice in his paloma has melted, forgotten near his silverware.

 

Quietly, he finishes, “Your face.” Says it like he wants it to come out genuinely mean. He’s too subdued about it, too cute about it, cheeks glittery pink.

 

Taehyung lets it slide. Nudges the chip bowl at him to get his attention. “So really. Your dad?”

 

Jungkook shakes himself out of the moment, a little shimmy to his shoulders. He breaks a chip in two, doesn’t eat it. “The short version is my very Korean paternal grandparents moved to Guadalajara so my grandfather could go to medical school. They had my dad. Moved to California where my grandpa open his practice in Maravilla. He’s always been really stingy so he didn’t mind not living the lavish doctor life. And he likes Hispanic patients more than Korean ones. They talk about the old country too much. Make him homesick.”

 

“And your mom?”  

 

“My mom is from Walnut.”

 

Ah.”

 

“Ah indeed,” Jungkook says with a nod. He shakes out more hot sauce. Eats both chips at once.

 

“How’d they meet?” Taehyung asks, tries to picture Jungkook’s parents, the good girl from the nice Asian community, the kid from the rougher part of town. What they looked like to people. He wonders what he and Jungkook, Jungkook in his expensive leather boots and soft sweater and his pretty face, Taehyung in his rip off working class clothes and the dark circles under his eyes, look like to people. If they don’t make sense sitting across from each other.    

 

Jungkook says, “My mom went through a rebellious phase in high school. My dad was very much the boy your mom warned you about.”

 

“Sounds like family dinners weren’t very pleasant growing up.”  

 

Jungkook shrugs, nose that cute little wrinkle. Taehyung figures it’s okay, if he keeps just saying it in his head. “The funny thing is both my grandparents are doctors. Both from Busan originally. It was just a matter of zip codes. Of a mcmansion versus a house in the less rundown part of the bad side of town.”

 

“Are they still together?” Taehyung asks. Keeps anything out of his voice, too much curiosity, too much like he’s trying to put any pieces together.

 

Jungkook’s guard must be down because he just smiles, the little wrinkles at the corners of his eyes bleeding the color of love. “They just celebrated their twenty-seventh year together. My mom never cared about the mcmansion.”

 

The part of Taehyung that believes in the universe’s big plans, in the splitting of souls, thinks twenty-seven . He asks, “Did you- Sorry. Nevermind.”

 

“What?”

 

“No it’s-” Taehyung stops himself short. Shakes his head. “I can’t ask.”

 

“Ask me,” Jungkook prods. He presses his shoe to Taehyung’s under the table. Touches their ankles when Taehyung doesn’t budge.

 

A little helpless, trying not to move a single muscle, Taehyung explains, “It’s on the list.” And it’s just their feet, not even their feet, their shoes, their jeans, but it’s Jungkook reaching out. Jungkook cutting space between them when Taehyung feels too careful of crossing it.

 

“Ask.”

 

Taehyung sighs. He stretches, pushes back a little, his loafer tilted against Jungkook’s sleek boot, the one thing Taehyung kept from his art-dealer-accountant days.

 

Jungkook gets the message, pulls his foot away. His brow furrows. He looks lost. Like he’s forgotten something he’s supposed to be remembering.

 

Taehyun knocks his hand into the hot sauce bottle. He tips it over the salsa. Asks, “Did you have any Mexican boyfriends?”

 

The waitress is approaching their table, plates steaming. Taehyung thinks out to the god he doesn't believe in, a prayer for his bruised tongue.

 

“I was a lot like my mom in high school,” Jungkook says, slow smile blooming over his mouth. Soft. Sweet. Guards down. Like he doesn’t have any. “All of my boyfriends were Mexican and all of their mothers loved me.”

 

*****

 

“I never asked you.”

 

“What?”

 

“What your life philosophy is.”

 

The night is cool. The street lights bite, buzzing in front of Taehyung’s eyes.  

 

“I don’t have one,” Jungkook says, hands in the pockets of his jacket, tossed over his sweater. He should be a sweaty dizzy mess but he looks cool and collected.

 

Taehyung shoots him a look. “You don’t-”

 

I’m not the kind of person who has a life philosophy.”

 

Taehyung stops short on the sidewalk, the restaurant's sign flashing brightly. He shakes his head slowly, lets his disbelief show on his face. “Nah. No way. You have one. Can’t tell me otherwise.”

 

“Doubt all you want, Kim,” Jungkook says with a shrug. He toes at a pebble. The neon kisses his face. “I’m a very simple, straightforward person. I live like I dress. None of the frills. Life is whatever it is and I’m just along for the ride. Get rolled over sometimes but so does everyone else.”

 

“That’s a really nice life philosophy. Too bad it’s not yours.”

 

“Don’t try to tell me who I am.”

 

Lit up, Jungkook is all bite. All guard. He says that and he doesn’t watch his words. Says that and he did the exact thing to Taehyung a few hours ago, in greater and more excruciating detail. Had no problem taking all the things he’s observed about Taehyung and ascribed a meaning, an outcome.

 

Someone else would call him out for it. Tell him not to dish it out if he can’t take it. Taehyung lets the silence envelop them. Watches Jungkook wither under his gaze, shoulders tense, looking down at his boots. It’s a little tempting, almost. Hypocrisy isn’t attractive on anyone. But Taehyung knows when to back off. When to roll over. He isn’t nearly as non-judgemental as Jungkook seems to thinks he is, as Taehyung wishes he was.

 

“I-”

 

“All right,” Taehyung says. “I won’t.”

 

Jungkook looks back down. He coughs, leather creaking softly as he moves.

 

Cars stream by. The hum of bars is loud. Night breathes and falls around them.

 

Taehyung’s phone vibrates.

 

 

hobi

 

rubik’s is having 2x1

dicks too

come

it’s on me

 

you

 

don’t you mean it’s on your sugar daddy?

 

 

“Do you like music?”

 

Taehyung glances up. Gets blinded by the neon. He lowers his phone. Makes his voice maybe a little too gentle when he says, “Yeah. ‘Course.”

 

“No. I mean- going to shows.” Jungkook bites his lip. He tugs on his jacket. Straightens his back, trying to make himself bigger, taller. “Some people are weird about live music.”

 

Taehyung holds the phone against his side. It buzzes.

 

Jungkook glances at Taehyung’s waist. Looks at something across the street.

 

Taehyung says, “I like shows.”

 

Jungkook nods. “Okay.”

 

“Okay?”

 

“Yeah. Okay. Good.”

 

His phone buzzes again.

 

 

hobi

 

asshule

come have fun

even the ancients are coming

no excuse

yu’ll prub get ass twice wit yor streak lutttely

twice deeee ass

 

 

Taehyung snorts.

 

 

you

 

sounds like you’re having enough fun for us both

 

 

He clicks the side button. The screen goes dark.

 

Jungkook nudges the pebble on the sidewalk. Brows pinched.

 

Hoseok’s answer comes in.

 

Jungkook nudges the pebble a little harder.

 

“Sorry,” Taehyung says, slides his phone in his pocket. He can answer Hoseok’s drunk ramblings later. “It’s just my friend Hose-”

 

“You don’t have to explain,” Jungkook cuts him off. His brows pinch further, mouth a little pouted and trying to hide it. “Like, anything. To me. Obviously. You don’t, like, owe me explanations.”

 

Taehyung blinks. He purses his mouth, feels a weird little laugh trying to bubble up his throat though he’s not sure why.

 

He says, “I know I don’t owe you anything. But I could tell what you were thinking and it’s just easier. Being clear about stuff. We said we would, right?”

 

Jungkook gapes for a moment. He closes his mouth, rolls his eyes, looks like he’s doing it at himself. “Right. You don’t play games. You’re not good at them.”

 

Taehyung resists the urge to gape himself. He’d remind himself to heed Jungkook’s warning, to be careful with what he says, if that wasn’t the whole point of this. Jungkook knowing him. If it wasn’t what Taehyung wanted anyway.

 

He doesn’t say there is no game to play anyhow. There never was.

 

A group of people their age walk by, ties loosened, heels in hands. The beginning of the rat-race work week. Taehyung wonders what that’s like. Running the race.

They cut through them as they pass, hide Jungkook from Taehyung’s line of vision.

 

The street goes quiet.

 

Caught up in the light of a bar sign, purple twisting with yellow, Jungkook is looking at him, something Taehyung can’t name on his face. Maybe like he’s finally realizing that there really is no game to play.

 

Maybe that’s just what Taehyung wants him to be realizing.

 

Taehyung asks, voice soft, “Did you just wanna know if I like shows?”

 

“No?” Jungkook sighs, looks at him a little softer, looks as quickly away, the soft thing gone, breath huffing. “Ugh- Can you not do that thing you do with your face?”

 

Taehyung squints, bewildered. He feels out of place with Jungkook like this, a different kind of shyness about him. Nothing coy about it, all lack of confidence. “What thing?”

 

“That thing you-” he huffs again. He steels himself, shoulders high, and he’s right about the minimalist-whatever of his clothes because they do show off his body, his lines, the width between his shoulders, waist, and thighs, making Taehyung’s hands ache.

 

Jungkook meets Taehyung’s eyes, all confidence. “Nevermind. I’m going to this show on Thursday. It’s kind of for work but not and I’m gonna check out this DJ and do you wanna come with me?”

 

Today is Tuesday.

 

Taehyung says, “Yes.”

 

Jungkook smiles, this tiny thing but Taehyung feels it swallow him whole. “Okay.”

 

“Okay.” This is the part a goodbye fits. A see you later they’ll both mean this time. Later is two days away.

 

Taehyung says, “Can I ask you something?”

 

Jungkook nods.

 

“The waitress. What did she ask you?”

 

Jungkook grins, impish, but the neon paints the heat in his cheeks. “She asked me a lot of things. If you could handle spice. I told her no ‘cause i figured all the flanel killed your taste buds. When you started sweating after I added the hot sauce I knew I’d guessed right. Does your mom have to make you separate kimchi?”

 

Quitely, Taehyung says, “She used to.”

 

Jungkook blanches. “Oh my god. She’s not dead too is she? Fuck. That sounded terr- I’m so sorry, Taehyung. God-”

 

Taehyung stares, face impassive.

 

It takes Jungkook longer than it took him, wide eyed and fretting, words sputtering and Taehyung almost cracks but then Jungkook stops. Starts to frown. “Are you-”

 

And Taehyung says nothing.

 

Jungkook’s frown deepens and he steps closer and- “Oh my god. Fuck you.”

 

Taehyung tries to hold it, he does, but it bursts out of him, braying and loud. 

 

Jungkook slaps Taehyung’s arm, hard, sound swallowed up in the night.

 

“Fucking asshole. I can’t believe y-”

 

“You did it first,” Taehyung points out, laughing, flinching out of Jungkook’s range.

 

Jungkook glares. Hair mused, lips sticky, the last thing he is intimidating even if his hits hurt. “Yeah. About being fake half Mexican. Which, technically, I sort of am. Not-” He taps his knuckles lightly against Taehyung’s arm. They’re standing closer now. They seem to fall aware of it at the same time. He looks at Taehyung through the light. Voice thick. “About my parents being fake dead. Parent.” Jungkook, bites his lip. He inhales shakily, gaze tender. “Sorry.”

 

“It’s okay,” Taehyung says faintly. For once, he can’t tell if the yank in his chest is because of Jungkook. “It was a long time ago.”

 

“Still.” Jungkook comes closer, tender thing shining in his eyes. In his voice, his mouth, on his pink lips, and Taehyung can’t, he really fucking can’t, and the air is so sticky and his hands ache and his mouth is numb and he can’t-

 

“Can I ask my question?”

 

Jungkook stops. His eyes widen at the sudden shift, Taehyung’s sharp cut-off, voice decidedly gentle but firm. Something flashes in his eyes. He nods, slides his hands in his jacket pockets. Takes a step back.

 

The air feels clearer but Taehyung wants it back. The stickiness. He wonders if he should need the distance more than he should want it. The ache. “She asked you something about me. Gave us that weird look after you said no. I know what no means.”

 

Jungkook shrugs. He’s holding himself tense, careful, but the soft thing is still in his eyes. “Same thing in English.”

 

“Jeon-”

 

“Ugh. Don’t. That’s what all the dipshits on the baseball team called me.”

 

“Because you dated a hot Mexican boy who was on the-”

 

“No, jerkface,” Jungkook says. He rolls his eyes, this time at Taehyung. “I was the hot sort-of-not Mexican boy on the team. You’re looking at the star pitcher.”

 

“No wonder all the moms loved you,” Taehyung says, can see him clear as day, in white and blue on a pitcher’s mound, bringing gold home. He knows the smile is too soft on his face. Doesn’t care. “Sweet all American pretty boy.”

 

“Mhhm,” Jungkook hums, this look about him, eyes adverted, cheeks flushed, the sweetest sweet pretty boy. A compliment in lieu of an apology. He’s not sure it’s warranted but he feels the need to. Wants to.  

 

Jungkook takes a step, fleeting in and out of the buzzing lights. “And with that. I’m off.”

 

Taehyung doesn’t hold back the guffaw. “Come o-”

 

Jungkook grins, says, “See you Thursday,” right before he spins, heading down the sidewalk.

 

Taehyung watches his shadow dip in and out longer than he should. He sighs. Turns in the opposite direction.

 

“Hey!”

 

Jungkook is a brilliant thing under a lamppost, the light bathing him like the tail end of a comet.

 

He asks, “What’d you wanna be when you grew up when you were a kid?”

 

The song from the bar across the street beats in time with Taehyung’s chest. His phone buzzes.

 

He thinks about all the things he wanted to be as a kid. The ones he was supposed to be. Says, “An astronaut.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

Taehyung nods, says, “Yeah,” in case Jungkook can’t see it in the low light.

 

Jungkook looks at him, considering. “Yeah. That make sense.”

 

Taehyung kicks at the pebble Jungkook abandoned. “You?”

 

“Pitcher for the Yankees. Then I realized the Yankees suck and decided to be an assistant instead. My doctor grandparents are very proud of me in case you were thinking otherwise.”

 

Taehyung smiles. Knows it’s not the whole story. Figures he’ll find out some other night. He likes the thought. Of more nights. Of all the things he has yet to know, be told, figure out. “You’re an LA kid and you didn’t root for the Dodgers?”

 

“Yeah, man. Dodgers suck too,” Jungkook says. Then, “I’m adding hot to the list.”

 

“Gonna run out of words,” Taehyung reminds him but he doesn’t think it’d be too bad if they did. If they went through every word in the universe and had to resort to using their eyes. Their hands.   

 

Jungkook gives a little shrug. His grin is the brightest thing on this sidewalk. This city maybe. “The grunting. I’m telling you. It’s gonna happen. Mark my words, Kim.”

 

It’s a tease more than a threat and Taehyung laughs, starts walking backwards a little. Says, “Goodnight, Jungkook.”  

 

Jungkook smiles, toothless and small. Just as bright. Brighter maybe.

 

“Goodnight, Rainbow Boy.”

 

*****

 

The club is hot. Bodies in movement. The bass resonates against the walls, against Taehyung’s heart, dark and slow, ominous under a weightless beat.

 

“Can I get a beer? Whatever lightest pilsner you have is fine.”

 

The darkness seeps across the walls. Throws shades across faces, the liquor bottles stacked high.

 

Next to him, a guy asks for a whiskey sour. Cheapest whiskey they have. He looks young. Barely out of college. Maybe still in it. Taehyung almost tells him to go for the good stuff. You never skimp on whiskey. There’s no point otherwise.

 

Taehyung pays the bartender, glass icy against his skin.

 

He resists the urge to press the bottle to his sweaty brow. He feels hot, sweltering already, the pangs of the kind of night you know you should have stayed home filling his chest. Someone skims too close to him on their way to the bar, hits him full force with their sweat slicked heat.

 

Taehyung moves out of their way, tries to find somewhere to fit on the overcrowded floor. He looks toward the stage and it’s all shadows. Half thoughts of people. He almost brought Jimin tonight. Jungkook said there’d be people here. Taehyung thinks he could use a person of his own. Safety. A reminder. Something to keep him reminded.

 

The lights tap out.

 

Come back golden.

 

Everything is. The two people kissing by the back wall. The dress of this one girl dancing, smiling in Taehyung’s direction. Someone’s direction. Summers are gold. Taxis are gold. Whiskey is gol-

 

Taehyung looks toward the stage and the dark thing in his chest turns gold too. His grip slips on his beer, the label wet and flimsy.

 

Taehyung looks-

 

He’s laughing with a tall someone. Laughing in a way Taehyung’s barely seen. His mouth is stretched open when he looks to the side. His eyes are crinkled when they find Taehyung’s across the club.

 

Jungkook looks-

 

Recognition flashes across his face. His mouth freezes, melts into a smile, melts gold. He says something to the tall someone. Starts making his way across the floor. And Taehyung keeps his hold on the bottle, condensation making it hard, and he waits for Jungkook to come him, the way his smile doesn’t let up making it harder, and Taehyung stands there, the yank in his heart loosening the closer Jungkook gets, and the beat melts all over him, and everything is gold, and maybe coming out was a mistake, maybe this, the way his body responds to Jungkook’s pathetically easy, is a mistake too and yet-

 

He’s glad he didn’t stay home.

 

*****

 

Chapter Text

*****

 

         

“Please don’t tell me you call this dancing.”

 

In the drenching heat of the club, Jungkook draws looks, an alluring thing under the muted lights. It’s the peek of forehead between his bangs. The kiss bruised look to his heart colored mouth. The thick of his thighs in his tight jeans, silver in his left ear, gold everywhere else. For Taehyung it’s his eyes. It’s everything really, but at the heart of it, in his chest, it’s his eyes.    

 

“Not at all.” Taehyung takes a swig of his beer. “This is graceful swaying.” He demonstrates said gracefulness, feet planted firmly as he moves to the deep bass thing the dj has going on.    

 

Jungkook is unconvinced, looks at Taehyung and his swaying skeptically. If he notices the people staring at him, at the shape of his arms in his leather jacket or the swell of his ass, he doesn’t give it away, eyes busy judging Taehyung. “Swaying? Graceful?”

 

“Yes. Gliding. I’m very swan like.”

 

“That’s not eve- are you drinking the house beer?”

 

“I don’t know, maybe? I just asked for a pilsner.”

 

It probably is. It’s almost unbearably light in Taehyung’s throat, doesn’t hit bitter at all. He’s usually more careful about what he orders but it seems like the universe is on his side tonight. Something, someone, watching out for him.

 

Someone bumps into Jungkook from behind, sends him forward into Taehyung’s space, and yeah, someone’s on Taehyung’s side alright.

 

“Oh, man.” Jungkook isn’t dancing but he moves his body every so often like he can’t help it. His hands are empty. He’s all light with every second that passes and the lighting in the club grows darker. “And you’re dude bopping. That is what you’re doing. Ugh. You’re such a guy sometimes it’s disgusting.”

 

Taehyung brings the bottle to his mouth. He blinks at Jungkook. “Uh. I am a guy?”

 

Jungkook shuffles to make space for a couple walking through, their fingers knotted together. His eyes linger on their hands. He looks back at Taehyung. “Not my point.”

 

The bass grows in its intensity. Rattles up against Taehyung’s insides.

 

Someone knocks into his side, pushes him and Jungkook closer, the heat a little more real, something Taehyung can almost touch.

 

Jungkook’s eyes drop somewhere around Taehyung’s jaw, his chin, the space between his nose and his upper lip.

 

Taehyung tries not to move, not to sway. He tightens his grip on his bottle. It’s fine. The club is overcrowded. Everyone is standing close.

 

There’s a mole on Jungkook’s cheek. The base of his throat is sweaty. His skin glimmers in the half dark, like someone should be putting their mouth there. On his skin. On him. All over him.

 

Taehyung’s heart throbs, grows too many sizes too big for his chest. He’s not sure his lungs fit in there with it anymore but it’s fine. Tonight it’s fine.

 

Taehyung takes another sip. Says, “And you wear leather jackets and look at people like you kick puppies in your spare time. So what does that make you?”

 

It’s as bad a lie as Taehyung has ever told one. Jungkook just looks like he wants people to think that but he gives himself away. Those big eyes. The sometimes timid way he holds his body like he’s not sure what do with it, like it’s too much, even for himself. And that smile. Toothy and sweet and the kind of thing that mercilessly punches you in the gut.

 

Jungkook’s gaze catches on Taehyung’s bottle. He narrows his eyes. “I’d rather cut my own arm off than ever hurt a puppy which goes to show just how wrong you are.”

 

“Wow,” is Taehyung’s response, biting back a grin though he can tell he’s failing by the way Jungkook’s eyes narrow further.   

 

“And?”

 

“And.”

 

“I’m a grown man. Not a guy. A dude guy,” Jungkook adds, mouth curling somewhere between teasing and snide, and now it’s nearly impossible for Taehyung to keep the besotted grin off his face, stupidly done in when Jungkook gets like this. A point to prove. Eager to put whoever has pissed him off in his place. Even if it is Taehyung he’s focusing all that energy on. Maybe especially because it is. “I stopped being a dude guy when I did my taxes for the first time without crying.”

 

“I still cry when I do my tax-”

 

And,” Jungkook interjects, voice rising with the music though not by much. Whenever one of them shifts, whenever someone around them moves, their arms brush. Their sides press together, sticky. It’s fine. Tonight it’s fine. It’s the occupancy hazard. Magnets. Poles attracting by instinct. The stuff metals are made of. “I get constantly told how angelic I am so. Guess you’re just hellbent on being all sorts of wrong tonight.”

 

Taehyung smiles. He can see it. Halo floating, wings coming around his body, pointed tail swinging behind him only those daring to get close enough get to see right before he wraps it around their necks and chokes them. With desire. To give him whatever he wants. To please him until he decides to save them.

 

Taehyung gestures to the club at large. “Shouldn't you be schmoozing? You said this was a work thing?”

 

Jungkook rolls his eyes, looks miffed at the abrupt subject change, arms held closer to his body, away from Taehyung. Taehyung thinks about saying something but he could actually use the subject change. He needs to stop thinking about desire and want and pleasing in the context of Jungkook. Taehyung is kind of really fucking terrible at this whole nonsexual thing.

 

Jungkook looks at him out of the corner of his eye, lingers somewhere around Taehyung’s chin again, and Taehyung wonders if Jungkook is maybe a little fucking terrible at it too.

 

“I said sort of,” Jungkook eventually says. He points near the stage. “See that guy over there?” he asks, gesturing to a guy talking to the tall guy Jungkook was with earlier. Taller than tall guy.

 

“Yes.”

 

“I’m trying to scout him for my label. The label I work for. They just acquired a smaller electronica division. They’re looking for acts to sign and I’m gonna sign him.”

 

“You ever sign someone before?”

 

“Nope,” Jungkook says, leaning close, like he’s sharing a secret. The light glances off his jaw, off the seriousness in his eyes. “He’s my ticket out of assistant glorified coffee boy hell. There’s a spot opening up in A&R and I will shank myself if that dickheaded intern from fucking Rhode Island gets it.”

 

Taehyung pulls back to see him properly. Jungkook is all cheekbone from this angle, all determination. Everyone else is here to drink or dance or fuck the week away while Jungkook is here for the conquer. The future. The future he wants. It feels like a privilege, to watch him want something that has nothing to do with wanting in the only way Taehyung has known him. To watch him do something about getting it.

 

He bumps Jungkook with the bottle gently. “Why are you talking to me instead of schmoozing him?”

 

Jungkook pushes his hair off his forehead. He looks out into the crowd almost too purposefully, body a gentle rock to the music. Closer to graceful than Taehyung could ever hope to be. “I’m taking a schmooze break. And I asked you here. Have to make sure you’re having a good time and not, like, regretting coming out tonight.”

 

He turns to Taehyung, curiosity in his shaded face but he doesn’t ask, doesn’t pry, and Taehyung wonders what his face looked like when the light was gold and their eyes found each other. He can’t even remember why he wished he hadn’t come.

 

The heat. The dark. Lack of light. Too much gold. Something.

 

Taehyung nudges him again, a barely there touch. “I’ve got my beer. My guy dude- what was it- bopping? I’m good. Go. Do your thing. Schmooze.”

 

Jungkook pushes back against him, an easy gentle sway, an actual touch. “I’m adding schmooze to the list but only because I’m sick of it not because it makes me want to jump your bones.”

 

The bass explodes in Taehyung’s ears. His fingers slide on wet glass, the bottle slipping out of his grip. Taehyung watches it happen in slow motion. Can already see the moment the beer will shatter, wet his jeans, cut someone’s skin. Knows he should stop it. Try to catch it. But his muscles are dead weight. But his bones are liquid. But his hands aren’t his.

 

Jungkook sucks in a sharp breath. He shoots a hand out, body lowering so all Taehyung sees is his dark hair, the curve of his back. Jungkook manages to catch it, the bottle half empty and bubbling up non threateningly in his hold.

 

Taehyung’s throat works. “You have good reflexes,” he says when his voice box works again.  

 

Jungkook looks up at him from his half bent stance. His eyes are wet in the light. His mouth looks kiss swollen and bruised in the best way and Taehyung remembers the last time Jungkook was like this, almost on his knees for him except last time he actually was on his knees, and fuck, it’s not just Taehyung’s hands that aren’t his, and Taehyung can’t-

 

Jungkook stands. Shatters the illusion. His front brushes all along Taehyung’s. He swallows, chest rising and falling noticeably. From the suddenness of it all. The near accident he just saved Taehyung from.

 

Taehyung watches his adam’s apple bob, throat tendons thick. He remembers skimming it with his mouth, his pulse going shaky the longer Taehyung kissed him there, the clean flowery scent under the berries. Jungkook says something, lips dragging as they move. Or maybe it’s Taehyung who is dragging. Stuck wading through desire drenched heat. Jungkook searches his face. Lands on his mouth. Stays. Taehyung closes his eyes against it. Feels Jungkook touch him. His elbow. Somewhere sharp.

 

Taehyung opens his eyes and the lights hurt, back to that golden intensity. He wonders if Jungkook comes to this club a lot, if Taehyung is going to suffer through more nights like these, too much heat and too many bodies too close to him except the one he actually wants. Whiplash lights. Whiplash friendliness and desire.

 

Not that Taehyung is truly suffering. Not that he’s not more than willing to suffer. Eager for it.

 

He looks at Jungkook’s hand around the bottle. The foam wetting the sleeve of his nice jacket.

 

“Shit. Sorry,” Taehyung mutters, uses the end of his t-shirt to dry it. It’s red but the stain quickly turns the fabric an amber yellow. “Sorry. If I ruined it I can replace it. I can replace it anyway if-”

 

Jungkook blinks. He’s still looking at Taehyung’s mouth. Taehyung doesn’t have to wonder if he’s bad at it. The nonsexual thing. The sexual thing. But he does wonder if Jungkook’s chest feels as shaky as his. If it feels like something is trying to rip itself out of it and tie itself to whatever is inside of Taehyung’s.

 

Another blink. The lights go muted again. Through it, Jungkook’s cheeks look attractively flushed. “It’s okay. It’s, um, fine. Um. It’s seen worse,” Jungkook says, hard to hear over the bass pounding all around them. He ducks down to examine his sleeve, the crown of his head brushing Taehyung’s jaw and suddenly it’s not fine.

 

Taehyung is too aware of it. The bass beating inside his chest. The lack of space between their bodies. His hand almost touching the warm skin of Jungkook’s wrist, and Jungkook’s hair is too close to Taehyung’s mouth, to his nose, and he smells like club sweat and something floral and heady and, fuck, is that cinnamon? and somewhere in the mix is a sugar rush, like he showers in a damn tropical waterfall and then rubs his entire body with vanilla beans or something, and fuck, Taehyung doesn’t know if he can do this, and he wants to, he wants to, but maybe he actually can’t, and-

 

But Jungkook is gripping his wrist. He slides up until their hands are aligned, wraps his fingers around Taehyung’s.

 

Taehyung’s chest gets a little shakier, hyper aware of the touch of their skin, and it’s not that their hands are a perfect fit, entwined and lining up everywhere, nestled soft and securely together, club sweat and beer foam sealing them together. It’s not that at all. Jungkook’s skin is too rough in some places and baby soft in others and Taehyung’s fingers are too bony and long, his palms feel clumsy and too big, and heat gets trapped quickly between them. It doesn’t feel like someone cut their hands apart from each other millions of years ago. It’s not a perfect fit at all.

 

It’s just that Taehyung can’t imagine anywhere else he wants his hand to be.

 

Jungkook smiles like it’s fine. Going to be. Like he knows something Taehyung doesn’t.

 

And he’s saying, “Come meet my friend Namjoon. You can hang while I not-schmooze.”

 

He doesn’t let go as he leads Taehyung through the club, their hands linked between them, and it’s fine. Taehyung’s stomach is somersaulting itself to the moon but it’s fine. He’ll remember to tell Jungkook to add hand holding to the list later.

 

Bone jumping too just in case.

 

*****

 

It’s lighter outside compared to the club. Somewhere around 2 a.m.

 

Jungkook walks a little ways in front of Taehyung. Bright thing in the dark. He stops between two cars parked on the curb.

 

Taehyung’s heart drops.

 

“Uh. No.”

 

“Why?” Jungkook asks, foot already kicked up on the gas pedal. Another too bright thing in the night light.  

 

“Because I like my limbs where they are? You know, attached to my body?”

 

“I drive this thing better than I do my car,” Jungkook says confidently, hand petting the seat of the motorcycle the way some people pet their dogs. Their children.

 

“That means nothing to me,” Taehyung says, heart dropping further as he watches Jungkook move, hands gripping the handle bars as he sits on the bike, strong thighs spread wide on either side of the leather seat. Taehyung thinks graceful again, the arch of Jungkook’s knees angled, his calves hugged tight by his jeans. Feline. Silent power.

 

Taehyung asks, “Do you dance?”

 

Surprise crosses Jungkook’s face. “Shouldn’t you have asked me that when we were inside the club?”

 

“I-” Taehyung swallows, the image of Jungkook’s body a slow grinding rock against his, some dark corner of the club, his face pressed into the sweaty hollow of Jungkook’s sweet spicy throat. “I meant, if you danced like you took classes. You move like a dancer, I don’t- would you have danced with me? If I’d asked?”

 

“I don’t know,” Jungkook says, something startling honest about it. His hands go slack on the handle bars. He fiddles with his hair for a moment, tucks a loose strand behind his ear. “I did hip-hop in high school. A little ballet though I quit when they told me I’d never be a principal dancer.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Why’d I give up or why wouldn’t I be a principal?”

 

“The second one,” Taehyung says, doesn’t even get distracted by the thought of Jungkook in tights, just the majestic sight he must have been.

 

Jungkook shrugs, shoulders confined in leather. “I danced too much like a ballerina. Not- not because the way I danced was feminine. I got told I danced too aggressively a lot. Which is bullshit but- because I danced like I was the center. Male ballet dancers are considered props in some ballet circles. I was never gonna be happy just being someone else’s prop.”

 

And no Taehyung can’t imagine he ever would.

 

“Are you surprised?” Jungkook asks.

 

“That you did ballet?” When Jungkook nods, Taehyung rocks back on his heels, says, “Not really. I can see it. You having this whole Nureyev thing going on. Outshining all the other dancers.”

 

Jungkook’s mouth quirks. “You know Nureyev?”

 

“A little,” Taehyung says, face hot suddenly though he’s not sure why. “I listened to a lot of classical growing up. Tchaikovsky got me through a lot of calculus and there was this one youtube clip of that Swan Lake pas de- I forget the word. Duo?”

 

Deux,” Jungkook corrects softly, something about his face right now making Taehyung’s chest tug hard enough to make him worry it actually might be ripping itself in two.

 

“That. I studied to that one a lot. Always thought it was sad and romantic but there was something really peaceful about it too and- what?”

 

“Nothing,” Jungkook says. He shakes his head and the lights catch on his smile, the way it unfurls in his eyes. “It’s just- that was my favorite pas de deux to dance to. I could Nureyev it up as much as I wanted and no one would say anything. I mean- It’s about the swan but the story. It’s about him too.”  

 

Across the street, a couple stumbles out of a club. Hands steadying one another. Then falling between them.

 

Taehyung thinks the story is about him too. Thinks about Jungkook’s hands.

 

“So,” Jungkook says. “Did thinking about me in tights convince you to let me drive you home?”

 

Taehyung rolls his eyes. Laughs. “I don’t know how bad a driver you are.”

 

“I’m a great driver, fuck you very much.”

 

“That’s impossible. Everyone in Los Angeles is a terrible driver.”

 

“Just get on,” Jungkook says, done with Taehyung’s stalling. He straps on a helmet. A second one hangs off one of the handle bars.

 

Still, Taehyung glances down the sidewalk. Says, “I took the metro, it’s-”

 

“Metro doesn’t run around here at this hour.”

 

“I’ll get an ub-”

 

“See it as payback for all those discounts.”

 

“I don’t-”

 

Jungkook tilts his chin, something insistent about it. The glare from the streetlight catches on the black of his helmet. “I promise you’ll arrive home safe and sound. I told you you were in good hands, didn’t I?”

 

Taehyung lets out a breath. The heat’s been unbearable all night. It’s somehow worse now. He’s glad he’s just in his beer stained t-shirt. “I don’t think it’s a good idea,” he admits softly. “You taking me home.”

 

“It’s just a ride, Taehyung,” Jungkook says, holding the helmet out. Face blank like he doesn’t really care if Taehyung agrees. Eyes hooded, dark in the oppressively sultry light.

 

It doesn’t feel like it. It’s funny. The night they met it was Taehyung begging him to stay, heart pathetically ripped up in his hands, on his bed, and now it’s Jungkook. Asking because he isn’t begging, straddled on his black motorcycle. Silent metallic killer in the night. A beast he’s tamed and made his, high off tonight’s success, one step closer out of assistant coffee boy hell.

 

Taehyung sighs and Jungkook’s eyes light up. He shakes the helmet at him. Knows he’s won. Knows Taehyung is just that pathetic for him.

 

Taehyung moves forward to takes it and Jungkook smiles, wide and unabashed, and maybe he cares whether or not Taehyung said yes more than Taehyung thinks. More than Taehyung gives him credit for. He doesn’t know why keeps getting surprised, at the reminder of Jungkook’s softness. His gentle kindness. The fact that he wants Taehyung around.

 

The club is still at it. Music vibrates through the walls, travels across the sidewalk, up Taehyung’s feet, into his bones, his guts. He’s a little buzzed from the third beer, from the melting bass, from the shop talk pouring out of Namjoon’s tipsy mouth as they waited for the show to start, the gentle grind of Jungkook’s hips to the beat once it did, nowhere near Taehyung’s but stage center of the heat licking up Taehyung’s insides, shoving it down his stomach, making his hands feel the emptiness. The ache.

 

“Wait.”

 

Jungkook hops off and flips the seat, pulls out a jacket. He hands it to Taehyung. Gets on again. “That t-shirt’s not gonna protect you if we crash and go flying. Road burn is killer.”

 

Taehyung laughs with a shake of his head. The leather is buttery against his hands, red and black panels catching the street lamps. He shrugs it on. It’s tight at the shoulders, loose on his arms. It probably fits Jungkook like a glove.

 

Jungkook gives him an appraising look, smile sticky. Hot like a touch. “Now you really look like a Levi’s commercial. If Levi’s partnered with All Saints.”

 

Taehyung laughs again, feels a little tipsier. Feels that look to his chest, his fucking bones. “I’m wearing like two months of my wages, aren’t I?”

 

Jungkook shrugs. Hands him the helmet.

 

“I look like an auto racer,” Taehyung says, catching his reflection in a nearby car window. He looks like a mess. Infinitely cooler than he is. He touches the smooth jacket. He hasn’t worn leather in years. He doesn’t know how anyone can in Los Angeles. Even in winter, the weather is punishingly hot.

 

At least the helmet fits on right. He’s a little more worried about cracking his head open. “A drunk one who lost. And ended up wearing some other driver’s stuff. You drive for Nascar or something?”

 

Another shrug, Jungkook’s shoulders bouncing cutely. He should look ridiculous, decked out lawless man, a rule breaker, but Jungkook makes it work. Wields adorable and sexy at the same time, effortless about it. Makes Taehyung’s gut fill with warmth. Makes Taehyung’s heart kick.

 

Taehyung tries not to touch him as he climbs on behind him, swinging his leg over the side, but it’s a motorcycle not a canoe so more touching than Taehyung needs ends up happening.

 

“Hold on,” Jungkook shouts as he starts the bike, engine rumbling. “This isn’t the time for pussy footing!”

 

Taehyung snorts. Resists the urge to bury it against the smooth skin of Jungkook’s nape. He puts his hands on the slim cut of his waist. Regrets it immediately. He keeps one on but grips the seat with the other. A compromise. It’s just a little too much, Jungkook’s back pressed to his chest, the vibrations, the way Jungkook is almost sitting in his lap, Taehyung’s knees cupping the backs of Jungkook’s, thighs pressing and the heat is a burn everywhere. The humidity slicks up Taehyung’s hair and his shirt, leather like the most ineffective straight jacket and it’s just. A lot. Not enough. 

 

Jungkook’s shifts to step on the gas and Taehyung inhales sharply, hand tightening on his waist. Jungkook’s abdomen clenches under his fingers when their bodies brush, the plush of his ass between Taehyung’s legs. A little shudder goes through Jungkook, punches Taehyung square in the chest.

 

Then Jungkook revs the engine, pushes down on the pedal, and Taehyung’s soul threatens to leave his body, grip tightening even more, the heat between his legs can fuck itself. Taehyung is probably going to die with a hard on but that’s not too far from how Taehyung has always seen himself going.

 

Jungkook laughs over the growling machine and they speed off, and Taehyung holds on, and all he is is hands.

 

*****

 

“See? Safe and sound.”

 

“Don’t know about sound. Pretty sure I’m legally deaf now.”

 

Jungkook smiles. He shakes his hair out, lifts up the kickstand. “Damn. Am I gonna be this much of a stick in the mud when I’m twenty-seven? You’re too young to be this lame. If so, I’ll pull an Amy Winehouse.” He peers at Taehyung, eyes twinkling. “Do you think I’ll be famous?”

 

Taehyung looks at him. Feels stumped. No one’s ever thought he was the boring one, too held back, not daring enough. He’s usually too much, too out there, always jesus, Tae, you’re gonna get us arrested, fucking chill, man, always take it easy, baby, pretty sure that defies the laws of physics, aren’t you supposed to know all about that? Even to his friends who are as off-kilter as he is, even to every wonderfully strange person he’s ever loved.

 

But Jungkook is vibrant, unafraid and bold, drains all the color around him and centers it on himself, Taehyung a smear of white in comparison.

 

Jungkook’s hands are tentative when he takes the helmet back. His voice is just as timid when he says, “Thanks. For coming tonight.”

 

Taehyung snaps himself out of the stupor, his brain trailing off without him. He smiles. “Of course. Congratulations, by the way. Your ticket out of coffee boy hell looks like the real deal.”

 

“Man, I hope so. I mean, it’s not a done deal b-”

 

“It is,” Taehyung says, partly because he can feel it, partly because this kind of uncertainty looks wrong on Jungkook.

 

Jungkook’s cheeks are stained, night warmth, and this kind of shyness looks a little too good on him. Makes Taehyung want to kiss it out of him. Put his hands on him.

 

Taehyung clears his throat, about a million things stuck in there, heat warped. He starts to take the jacket off.

 

“Keep it,” Jungkook says when it’s around his biceps.

 

Taehyung frowns, mouth opening on, “I c-”

 

“Not for keeps. That thing cost me an embarrassing number of coffee runs. Did I tell you that my bosses only drink fresh cold pressed coffee that’s made with beans that have been hand picked by blind Ecuadorian lizards?”

 

“Those must be the world’s most talented blind lizards.”

 

“Maybe. I mean- They’re just lizards. Probably have some kind of scent advantage.”

 

Taehyung chuckles. He feels less dragged down. All that air whipping at him at seventy miles an hour must have cleared his head.

 

Jungkook says, “Just give it to me next time we see each other. Want you to look like a Levi’s ad the next time you walk up to me.”

 

Taehyung cocks a brow, aims for fake smug. “Thought I always looked like a Levi’s ad?”

 

It must work because Jungkook’s cheeks get a little rosier and he laughs, ringing and high. “The fancy kind. You just became the face of their All Saints collab, remember?”

 

Taehyung grins and Jungkook’s teeth are bright and his eyes are close to sparkling, brighter than the lights from Taehyung’s apartment complex behind them and maybe it’s the high of cinching a deal or the electricity from the club, but he’s different tonight, alive and warm and real in a way he wasn’t that first night. In a way he’s been for a while if Taehyung lets himself be honest. If he lets himself feel the way he’s trying not to.

 

There’s a moment hanging in the air, a tension inside Taehyung where that question he wants to ask sits, and he almost forgets. That there’s a list and that Jungkook has a sponsor and that he talks about his parents like they’re a fairytale and that he doesn’t want anything from Taehyung. Doesn’t want to want it. The thought twists the heaviness because that’s not true. Jungkook wants this and Taehyung is going to give it to him because he wasn’t lying when Jungkook asked him if he would give him whatever he wanted. Anything. Anywhere.

 

Jungkook smiles at him, sweet and just a little shy, and Taehyung means it even more now.

 

Taehyung dips his head in a nod, says, “I’m gonna walk away first time time.”

 

“You do that- Oh. Hold on.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

Jungkook grins, all angel. Taehyung believes it for a few seconds too many. Motorcycle between his thighs, sticky kissed lips, ear sharp and pierced, expensive scuffed up leather, he’s every boy your mom warned you about. The sweetest little hell’s angel. Taehyung’s mom never did. His dad neither. When it came to this, to the thing beating in his chest, they knew Taehyung was going to do whatever he wanted. It was his one compromise when in everything else he was always anything, anywhere, whatever they wanted. Always.

 

He tries not to think about how if Jungkook knew that the second Taehyung looked at him he just knew. If Taehyung verbalized this thing between them. If Jungkook knew about the heart tugs, the word soulmate, if he’d step on the gas and leave Taehyung in the dust.

 

He thinks about how all the mothers of Jungkook’s boyfriends’ loved him. He thinks about his own mom and how she’d take one look at that soft sweet smile and love him almost immediately.

 

His mom has always been like Yoongi that way. Weak for the pretty ones.  

 

Jungkook grins, so handsome, so pretty, so sweet Taehyung can almost taste it, and Taehyung’s knees go weak, all of him does, and Taehyung just. Thinks. Maybe. Maybe.

 

“How do you feel about rock climbing?”

 

And maybe Jungkook isn’t the only one between them who is a little like their own mom.

 

*****

 

No matter what musicians, and one Jeon Jungkook, would have Taehyung believe, twenty-seven is too young to die.

 

“When you said rock climbing I envisioned foam rocks. Those colorful hand holds. A cute girl with a ponytail chalking my hands for me,” Taehyung says, craning his head back. All the way back. He can barely see the top of the mountain from here, all of its gravity defying, bone breaking glory.

 

He can feel Jungkook’s disapproving stare on the side of his face. Jungkook sighs. Knocks Taehyung’s knee with his own. Taehyung barely loses his balance, stands his ground.

 

“No. I meant real rocks. And fuck ponytail girl. There’s a cute boy but you can chalk your hands yourself. You’re a big boy, Kim.”

 

Sometimes Taehyung doesn’t think he is, his mind freediving into the gutter and saluting Taehyung’s rational mind as it falls, Jungkook calling him big in a different, sweatier, context. He doesn’t call Jungkook out on saying the c-word. Taehyung says it in his head plenty.

 

“It’s gonna be fine,” Jungkook says, hands on his waist. Taking the mountain in too. “Your arms are stronger than your solar plexus.”

 

Taehyung laughs, neck straightening. He lets himself elbow Jungkook’s side. Just barley. “Man. You really don’t let shit go.”

 

“Nope,” Jungkook answers, looks almost too proud of that fact. “I’m like a dog with a bone.”

 

“Hmm.”

 

Jungkook continues, “‘Sides. That very nice man over there is going to make sure you don’t, like, smack yourself against the side of the mountain.” Jungkook looks behind them, waves. “Aren’t you, Taecyeon?”

 

Taecyeon, the very tall, very nicely muscled, nice man, smiles at them. Nicely. He sorts something out on a harness, ropes unwound and hooked onto a claw looking device.

 

“Don’t you mean us fall?”

 

“Oh. No. I free solo climb. The rope’s for you.”

 

Taehyung blanches. His heart drop kicks itself. “Isn’t that-”

 

“Dangerous?”

 

Taehyung scoffs. “I was thinking more life threateningly terrifying. But sure. Dangerous.”

 

Jungkook pats his shoulder, tutting softly. Taehyung raises a brow, put upon besument because he’s holding back the laugh that wants to spill out his throat at the sight Jungkook is, mock concern and mouth pouting for Taehyung’s benefit. He’s probably the only person on the planet who can make condescending cute. Taehyung is probably biased but it’s okay. He’s self aware about it.

 

“That’s what makes it fun,” Jungkook says. His thumb brushes over a vein in Taehyung’s arm. Taehyung inhales at the touch.

 

Jungkook’s hand stutters. He drops it. Looks back at the mountain. He says, “The thrill of it. Now shut up and let Taecyeon strap your dick in,” he adds before walking off, run off from the mountain crunching under his shoes.  

 

“Jesus-”

 

Taecyeon gives Taehyung the harness, hooks him up to the rope. There’s very minimal dick strapping. Taecyeon is very nice and very tall about it. Taehyung wonders if Jungkook just surrounds himself with tall men and Taehyung, barely a centimeter or two taller, is a misnomer.

 

Taecyeon tosses Jungkook a look, shares a nice smile with Taehyung. “He’s a spitfire, that one. You guys been together long?”

 

Taehyung’s hands get tangled in the harness. “Oh. We- We’re not-”

 

Taecyeon makes a face. “Oh. Sorry. Just assumed. You guys look- And he’s never brought anyone here. Hasn’t really made use of the climbing school since he took an ice climbing safety course a couple years ago.”

 

Taehyung bites his tongue. On the desire to ask him what they look like. About the fucking ice climbing. “No. It’s cool. We’re just-”

 

Jungkook stands by a cluster of trees. He dips his hands into a bag full of chalk. He’s wearing those sweat resistant workout clothes people who go the gym a lot own, the kind that outline your body like a second skin, his chest defined and the thin material clinging to his thighs and calves. Taehyung kind of wants to cry, but only a little. Jungkook is wearing a vest. That helps.

 

Jungkook claps his hands. A cloud of white dusts around him. He holds back a sneeze, face contorting and scrunched up, eyes shut.

 

Taehyung’s heart tugs at how much he wants to kiss his nose when it’s like that. He tries to think about anything else. His impending trip to the hospital. How some things are too tiny for the human eye to see, even virtually. When the next stock market crash will be.

 

A bird caws over head. The sun is gentle for this hour in the morning.

 

Jungkook digs his shoes against the soft terrain, brows furrowing. Unsatisfied with the feel of his shoe, he bends over, checks something with the laces, and Taehyung’s mouth maybe drops open, and fuck he really is going to cry today, because the pants cup Jungkook’s ass something obscene, and Hoseok was holding back because high and tight is kind of an understatement, and every cell in Taehyung’s body tries to de-evolve about a couple millenia. Heat kicks in his hips, and yeah, Taehyung is going to die today but it won’t be because Jungkook pushed him off a mountain.

 

Right.” 

 

When Taehyung looks, Taecyeon is smirking at him. It’s the nicest smirk Taehyung has ever seen. He offers Taehyung a bag of chalk, chiseled jaw prominent and jutted in the sun. “I see what you’re just.”

 

Taehyung chalks his hands.

 

Jungkook wanders back over to the base of the mountain. He’s taken the vest off. And the shirt. 

 

Taehyung doesn’t bury his face in his hands but only because they’re tacky with chalk.

 

“You okay?” Jungkook asks, genuine concern in his deep eyes. The mid morning light plays tricks, refracts shades, brings out little flecks of light brown in his irises, golden, like someone is pouring milk and gold shavings into a vat of dark chocolate, making it sweet.

 

Taehyung needs to stop thinking about food. He also needs to stop thinking about Jungkook’s eyes. His ass. Jungkook in general.

 

Jungkook tugs at Taehyung’s harness, index curled around a strap, jerking Taehyung’s hips around. Taehyung swallows a laugh at how literal that is.

 

“The time to chicken out is now. Not later when you’re halfway up the mountain and I’m already waiting for you up at the top.”

 

Taehyung smiles. Studies his expression. The heat burning off him isn’t purely sexual. The way he looks revved up but not for a fight. “Are you okay? You’re all excitable today. Showing off.”

 

Jungkook rolls his eyes but his already sun kissed cheeks darken, like he forgot to put on sunblock. He didn’t. Taehyung watched him rub it all over his face. There’s a dollop of it on Taehyung’s nose.

 

“I’m about to climb a mountain with my bare hands. Yeah. I’m excited.”

 

“I’d be more impressed if you were barefoot too.”

 

“Good thing I’m not trying to impress you, then,” Jungkook snipes with a little smile. A sort of smirk. Nice like Taecyeon’s but for a completely different reason. The tiniest bit nicer. “And I’m working up to that.”

 

Taehyung regards him at the serious tone, the image of Jungkook’s toes clinging to the side of a cliff.

 

Nonchalant, he asks, “You like this kind of stuff a lot? Stuff that gets your adrenaline going. The thrill, you said?”

 

The bike, the scaling mountains without any gear. The fixation. A picture is starting to form itself in Taehyung’s head.

 

Jungkook’s face hardens, smile thinning. He stares at Taehyung with a flat mouth, eyes burning. Don’t try to tell me who I am, he’d said. Don’t try to figure me out, he’d meant. Jungkook swipes his hands against his pants, ghost paws on his hips. He doesn’t look at Taehyung, shoulders edged up. It doesn’t upset Taehyung but he finds it a little ironic. Wonders if by get to know each other Jungkook just meant he wanted to lay Taehyung out, carve out all his pieces, use them to satisfy some kind of curiosity he couldn’t shake off.

 

The smile comes back tough, Jungkook’s dimples stark in the mountain air. He’s pissed and he’s not hiding it but all Taehyung can think about is soothing the anger with his mouth, skimming his lips along the tiny craters in his cheeks. For the first time, how weak he is about Jungkook, feels the wrong side of pathetic.

 

Jungkook says, “I just like a challenge. Keeps my heart pumping.” He turns to Taecyeon, hooked up to the other end of Taehyung’s rope. “Is he ready?”

 

A muscle in Taecyeon’s otherwise placid face jumps. His eyes are amused. “The baylage is good to go but I think you have to ask him that.”

 

Taehyung says, “I’m as good as I’ll ever go.”

 

The annoyance dims on Jungkook’s face. He tugs on another strap on the harness, gentler, mouth twisted guiltily. “You really don’t have to if you don’t want to. I just thought it’d be, like-”

 

“We’re already here. Hey,” he says, angling his head so Jungkook has to look at him. Jungkook does, all the annoyance gone, reluctance in his eyes, like he was expecting Taehyung to get annoyed back and doesn’t know what to do with the fact that he didn’t. “I’ll be fine.”

 

“I’m not-” Jungkook trails off. He shakes his head, eyes upward. “Okay. Well. The rope is mostly so you don’t fall. You have to get yourself up there on your own but if you need more slack you just-”

 

“I know. Taecyeon was thorough in his demonstration. Plus, I’ve climbed up in Joshua Tree.”

 

Jungkook huffs. Gives a final yank before stepping away. “Then why were you bitching so much? You’re more nervous than when my sixty year old grandpa climbs. Which is not at all, by the way.”

 

“Because that was years ago in college and I was really fucking high and they gave me a hard hat and-”

 

Glancing over his shoulder, Jungkook chews on his lower lip. “Do you want a hard hat? I’m sure there’s one in the truck-”

 

Taehyung holds onto the rope with gloved hands. Keeps his hands occupied. A task at hand that isn’t cupping Jungkook’s tensed jaw. “No. I don’t nee- your grandpa climbs?”

 

Jungkook gives him a look, brows slanted. He faces the mountain’s base, finds a place for his hands on the grainy surface, muscles in his triceps bulging, veiny and already lightly sheened in sweat. He lifts a leg, and pressing his foot onto the curve of the rock, he says, “Who do think taught me how to fucking climb?” His other leg comes up, toes finding traction, and then he’s pushing up with both feet, hauling himself up a goddamn fucking mountain with his bare hands like it’s nothing.

 

When he’s a few feet up, he gazes back down at Taehyung, fingers arched as he holds himself in place, right knee somewhere around his armpit. Taehyung gets dizzy for him. “Don’t fall off the mountain please.” He looks behind Taehyung. “If he breaks his head open, I’ll really shove the baseball bat up your ass this time, Taecyeon!”

 

Taecyeon laughs, loud enough to disturb the birds hiding in a nearby bush, chirping as they take flight.

 

With a last look at Taehyung, Jungkook moves his left foot up, body stretching upward.

 

Taehyung watches him go, the sun playing off Jungkook’s shoulder blades, giving him wings. He’s only half entranced by Jungkook’s ass basically hanging over his face, too enraptured by the agility in his movements, the lack of hesitance as he finds weaknesses to grab onto, cracks in the facade to rest his feet for only a second or two before he’s found his grip on smoother rock like that’s nothing too. It’s instinctual, the way he moves. Primal and natural in the purest sense of the word, like a part of Jungkook’s cells didn’t evolve either but for this sacred ritual, virtuous where Taehyung’s went depraved, man bending to nature as he tries to conquer it.

 

Taehyung snaps his jaw shut. He turns back to Taecyeon. “You’ll catch me or whatever when I fall, right?”

 

Taecyeon smiles, his tall attractive face becoming more attractive and tall. His biceps are tense and he’s not even doing anything. Taehyung doesn’t wonder how well he knows what he and Jungkook are or aren’t just. “Not gonna fall. Jeon doesn’t hang out with weaklings. You’ve got this.”

 

Taehyung turns back to the rocks. Mountain. He probably should have mentioned the climb at Joshua Tree was more of a down climb. That he was also drunk as well as high. Sometimes, Taehyung is surprised he made it to twenty-seven.

 

He sighs. His palms give under the rock, ridged and rough, tiny vines climbing through the surface. He asks evolution for a blessing, some of that oneness with nature he assumes he’s supposed to be feeling, that Jungkook very evidently feels, and Taehyung is very weak and he’s definitely going to fall but he’s tied to a rope so it won’t hurt too much. He hopes.

 

Taehyung takes a deep breath and lifts a leg. Finds a place to land. He pushes up. Breathes again.

 

Then, he tries to climb up a fucking mountain.

 

*****

 

The sun is high in the sky by the time Taehyung makes it to the top.

 

Taehyung reaches up, fingers grazing the rocky top, rope tight. His arms shake violently. His t-shirt is soaked and his cargo pants are slipping down his ass and his lungs feel desperate, expanding to their limits in his chest. Jungkook had turned his nose up at the multi pockets but Taehyung’s seen guys do yoga poses off the side of cliffs in Lululemon so Taehyung doesn’t feel too bad about his choice of pants.

 

He doesn’t feel much of anything right now as he finds a grip, the rope slacking as he takes a breath and crawl-steps over the edge, his sneakers crunching granite as he pulls himself on the flat top.

 

“I lied,” Jungkook says, smile stretched wide. “I was totally trying to impress you but I’m the one who’s impressed.”

 

Jungkook sits on rock, feet swinging over the edge. A breeze ruffles through his hair, dries the film of sweat gracing his body.

 

Taehyung breathes out a laugh against the ground, doesn’t care that he’s getting pebble dust in his greedy lungs. He feels a little dizzy, head stuffed, can’t tell if it’s in the good or bad way yet.

 

He gets his knees to obey his mind and stands and his mouth drops open, and he’s going to get a mouth full of flies at some point today, but he doesn’t care because it looks like the entire state is stretched before him, all the surrounding mountains curling towards each other and the sky is so fucking blue Taehyung wants to swim in it, not a single cloud in sight. His stomach drops, swoops right into a freefall, but he thinks it’s the good kind of dizzy. The good kind of deathly scared.

 

“I know right?” Jungkook asks, smile softer. He pats the spot next to him.

 

“Oh, now I’m gonna sit on the edge?” Taehyung questions but he’s already walking towards him.

 

“You already conquered the beast. Sitting on it shouldn’t be too hard.”

 

Taehyung grunts, obnoxious grin pulling at his lips. He crouch-drags himself across the rough ground until he reaches the edge, both feet touching air. His stomach goes for another roller coaster ride, loops over itself about a hundred times and lands hard on his spleen, but it’s fine. Taehyung has always liked roller coasters. Even if every second of them is always torture.

 

“This view is unreal.”

 

“Worth almost dying for?” Jungkook asks even though only one of them took an actual risk to get up here.

 

For miles it’s all blue horizon, the sun beating down over the taller peaks in the distance.

 

“Definitely.”

 

Jungkook beams and it’s so bright and unrestrained it almost makes Taehyung forget what time of day it is and, fuck, he’s actually starting to embarrass his own mind with the way he keeps waxing poetic about everything Jungkook does.

 

Jungkook sighs, this deep contented thing. “This was the first climb I properly did on my own.”

 

“Please don’t tell me how old you were. The tiny bit of accomplishment I feel right now will evaporate.”

 

Jungkook laughs, bumps their shoulders lightly. He doesn’t budge Taehyung, not even a hair, but Taehyung digs his fingers into the sediment so hard his wrist pops in protest.

 

“You did really well. You barely looked like you wanted to die a few times.”

 

“How can you stand to look down when you’re doing that?” Taehyung asks. He sort of can’t stand to look down now and the only way he’s going to fall right now is if Jungkook actually pushes him.

 

Jungkook brushes his bangs off his forehead, runs a hand through his hair. “Had to make sure you were keeping up. And that you didn’t actually, you know, fall.”

 

“Thought the rope was supposed to make sure of that?”

 

Jungkook makes a movement, manages to shrug with just his eyes. Taehyung is impressed he’s the age he is and can manage that level of teenage petulance. Jungkook points to the water pouch clipped to Taehyung’s harness, drains about a quarter of it. Taehyung drinks the next quarter.

 

“So. Tell me about climbing Joshua Tree while high.”

 

Taehyung risks it. Looks straight below. He can see the tiny dot Taecyeon makes, hunched over and photographing something with his phone. “Not much to tell,” he says.  

 

“Come on.”

 

“Shouldn’t we be heading down now?”

 

“We’re taking a break. Taking in the view. Now spill.”

 

“I think I hear Taecyeon screaming? We should go make sure he’s not getting mauled by a bear.”

 

“That’s very sweet that you care about Taecyeon’s well being but he could crush the bear with his pinky toes. We’d just get in the way.”

 

“That’s...probably true.”

 

“So?”

 

The horizon is painfully perfect, the valley stroked with green everywhere. The air really is cleaner and crisper up a mountain. Taehyung breathes in, lets it wash out the rock dust from his insides. Cooling sweat throws chills down his back. The perfect picture of the outdoorsy granola boyfriend. All that’s missing is the bald eagle to really hone in the whole American bullshit dream they’re enacting right now.

 

Jungkook nudges him again, their slick arms gliding together.

 

Taehyung ignores the heat in his gut, turns to him.

 

Jungkook’s face isn’t expectant the way his voice is. Challenging but not against Taehyung. Taehyung wonders who the adversary is.

 

Rubbing his fingers against rock, he says, “Not much to tell. I was a junior. Seokjin- the one who owns the shack- had just graduated and we went to Joshua to camp.”

 

“Where’d you go to school?”

 

“UCLA.”

 

Jungkook’s eyebrows quirk, something kind of pleased about it. “Ohh. So you’re, like, fancy smart.”

 

Taehyung snorts. “I don’t cause that impression off the bat?”

 

“Oh, you do,” Jungkook says plainly. Not a backtrack or to save face. He brings his thighs together, kicks against the mountain edge a little. “I mean. Not when you’re wearing a Japanese bear head, but- I guess I was expecting something more nerdy? ‘Cause of your apartment. All the computer parts and the astronomy stuff. Some place even artsy maybe. You’ve got that whole nerdy quirky thing going for you. UCLA is smart in a different way.”

 

Taehyung’s brows knit, fingers flicking off loose pieces rock, a larger pebble cascading off the side. There’s an uncomfortable beat in his chest. “Not gonna lie. I hate that word. Quirky.”

 

Jungkook frowns. “Why?”

 

“It’s so- derogatory.”

 

“What? How?” Jungkook asks, sounds truly bewildered about the forced casualness in Taehyung’s voice, the prickle beneath it.

 

“It’s just-” Taehyung trails off. Says, “It’s demeaning.”

 

The kicking stops. “You can’t just keep using ‘d’ words to describe it.”

 

“It’s like calling someone weird,” Taehyung explains. He rolls his neck, his nape singing in tension, and he doesn’t know why he’s getting worked up. It didn’t bother him last time Jungkook said something similar. It’s never bothered Taehyung. Has always been a strange source of pride. Everyone else is trying to be like everyone else, his dad used to say. Well, guess what? You’re just like your old man. You try to be no one else but you. “It’s belittling,” he says, tries to keep the edge out of his voice. Asks, “Are ‘b’ words okay?” and knows he’s failed.  

 

Jungkook is quiet for a moment. “You’re surprisingly snarky sometimes, you know that?”

 

Taehyung doesn’t have a counter to that.

 

He brings the pouch to his lips again, throat soothed by the cool water. He offers it to Jungkook, a silent peace offering for putting the mood off. Jungkook shakes his head. Looks to the drop below. He swings his legs in a wide arc.

 

“Okay,” Jungkook eventually says. “I put it on the list. Weird and all its variants too.” He’s still staring at the earth beneath them, brows pulled in thought, face soft.

 

Warmth fills Taehyung’s stomach, his chest. “I’m sorry. About-”

 

Jungkook shakes his head, that soft look on his face still. “I’m the one who’s, like, sorry. I mean- I think everyone’s fucking we- w-word. Q-word. In their own way. I think it’s good. I know I am. Like really. You haven’t even scratched the surface and I probably seem like a total wei- headcase to you-”

 

Taehyung frowns, the warmth icing at the deprecating tone of his voice. “You’re not-”

 

“And I’m super nerdy too. Like. My manga collection rivals my leather collection. And I’ve been parading my leather collection at you for weeks now. So.” Jungkook takes a quiet breath, his eyes getting that pinched look they get when he’s upset. Taehyung tries to tell him it’s okay, it really wasn’t anything, but Jungkook is barrelling on, words streaming like he can’t help it. “And I knew it bothered you last time. When I said- That. So, sorry if I brought up some childhood angst or reminded you of some asshole person. I- Sometimes it’s, like, I think too much before I speak and then I don’t speak at all and other times it’s, like, I don’t even think-”

 

“Jungkook.”

 

Jungkook jerks to a stop, eyes wide. He pants softly. “Sorry.”

 

Taehyung wants to reach out. A comfort, a soothing touch. He’s afraid once he starts it might be too hard to stop. He offers the water again. Jungkook takes it, fingers squeezing the sides.

 

“It’s really fine. I overreacted. It’s not a childhood trauma thing. I grew up with a pretty strong sense of self. Good support system. My parents nurtured the quirky sides fo me,” he says because saying the word takes away its power. “They were like that too. It just gets to me sometimes, I guess. It’s like you said. Everyone’s weird. Why am I that obvious about it?”

 

Jungkook keeps his eyes on him. Sips, hands gripped hard.

 

“And I don’t think you’re a headcase or anything like that,” he says, adamant, tries to inject every ounce of honesty he has into his voice because that’s the only part of all this that bothers him. That Jungkook thinks he thinks that. That he’s done something to give the thought life. Lightly he adds, anything to get that upset look off Jungkook’s face, “Though I am gonna have to see that manga collection for myself to believe it.”

 

Jungkook’s mouth tugs up weakly. He caps the pouch. Passes it over. Their fingers brush. They take their time pulling away, another silent try at amends of sorts.

 

Taehyung nudges their elbows together, ignores it when the roller coaster in his stomach start to spin on its axis. “You were right. About the nerd thing. More design focused than artsy. And I said no to Caltech ‘cause I realized I didn’t actually want to be a computer engineer and I rejected Berkeley because I wanted to get the fuck away from the cold. Even if it was just fog. I got enough cold back home.”

 

Jungkook raises his brows. “Cal-fucking- How did you say that without making yourself sound like a bragging assho- wait.” He frowns, deep set and full of sun. “You’re not from California?”

 

“No.”

 

Jungkook blinks. “Well? Is it fucking Oregon? You dress like you’re from fucking Oregon.

 

“No. Not fucking Oregon,” Taehyung says with a laugh. “New York.”

 

Jungkook stares. Sweat dots his upper lip. It’s the first time Taehyung lets himself get a good look at his mouth today, everything else too distracting. It’s a natural pink, soft looking as always.

 

“New York. As in New York City?” Jungkook asks like the place is a foreign, unpleasant, alien world.

 

Something tugs in Taehyung’s chest. “Is there any other?”

 

Sun skips off the planes of Jungkook’s chest, the angle of his chin as he looks up. He sighs up at the sky, a strange smile on his lips. Jungkook says, “I went to NYU.”

 

The thing kicks. “Really?”

 

“Mhhm.” Jungkook nods, his eyes up, up, up. “I wanted to experience the cold.”

 

“How’d that work out for you?”

 

“I regretted it every winter. But- It’s kind of funny. It happens all the time. West coast kids going east for school. East coast kids fucking off for the west. But- it’s funny isn’t it?” He doesn’t look at Taehyung, keeps blinding himself with the sun but Taehyung feels the words against his ear, his cheek, the edge of his mouth, the place yanking away at his chest. “You. And me.”

 

And sure. It’s funny but Taehyung doesn’t feel like laughing.

 

“I almost didn’t come back. From New York.”

 

“Why did you?” Taehyung asks, maybe a little too quiet, but there’s no other sounds around them, just their careful breaths, just the maybe almost collisions of their lives earlier than planned.  

 

“I missed the warmth. Plus.” Jungkook finally looks at him. It almost knocks Taehyung off the damn mountain, the shy tilt of his head, the openly sweet dip of his mouth. “New York has shitty Mexican food. All the kids who grow up there think fajitas are a valid food option.”

 

Taehyung smiles. He wonders if Jungkook has a list that’s all his own, full of all the things Taehyung says he wants to use against him. Taehyung has his own but there’s nothing recreminating on it. Not for Jungkook at least.

 

Taehyung says, “I almost didn’t stay. In California.” Says it the way Jungkook had. A closely guarded truth.  

 

“Why did you? Stay?”

 

Taehyung has been wondering the same thing. For a while now. He hasn’t wondered why at all today. Not once. Something else tugs in his chest. Twists hard enough to make his insides ache.

 

Taehyung says, “I didn’t want to go back to the cold.”  

 

Jungkook runs his hands along his thighs, picks at the fabric of his pants, the tacky give against his skin. He looks at Taehyung carefully, asks, “Can I tell you something?”

 

Taehyung nods.

 

“This used to be my grandpa’s favorite climb. Its really easy.” Jungkook throws Taehyung a sideways glance, a little teasing but gentle, in a way meant not to sting. “But he really loves the view. Thinks it’s the best in the whole state even though- it’s great but there are way better, more impressive views. Obviously. We’re not even that high up.”

 

The first cloud rolls across the sky. Jungkook tracks its trail, wind kissing his hair, the darker shading on his cheeks from the burning noon sun. “He hasn’t come back since my grandmother passed away three years ago. Too many memories. He’s sort of terribly stubborn like that. Doesn’t like remembering.”

 

Taehyung thinks of something to say that isn’t sorry. He wonders if that’s what Jungkook wants to hear.

 

“She asked him to marry her again here,” Jungkook says, smile in his voice. Like it’s something out of a daydream. Something someone wrote into existence.

 

Taehyung frowns. “She asked him? What do you mean again?”

 

Jungkook nods, flicks a pebble off the edge. “They got divorced when my dad was a teenager. She missed Korea and they had money problems and-” He stops. Runs his tongue inside his cheek as if he’s tasting his next words before he says them. “He was unfaithful. And it was just- A lot I guess. ”

 

“I’m sorry,” Taehyung says. It seems like the thing to say.

 

Jungkook shrugs, face out of view as he leans forward, body tilted toward the deep fall. He does it so carelessly it makes Taehyung’s stomach take another rollercoaster ride.

 

Taehyung asks, “So how’d they…”

 

“She never went back. Didn’t want to take my dad halfway across the world from him. I don’t know exactly how it happened but they found their way back to each other. Somehow.”

 

“They got back together the year I was born. I was the ring bearer at the wedding when I was three.” Jungkook sits back, gaze lost in the horizon. “Gave everyone a scare when they thought I’d swallowed the rings.”

 

Taehyung can see him too clearly. So tiny and big eyed and a little bowtie hanging from his neck, his grin all teeth, all wide eyes. Heart melting little thing. Spoiled rotten. He asks, “Was your grandma a climber too?”

 

Jungkook finally looks at him. He says, “He was sitting right where you are when she asked him.”

 

And Taehyung says, “I got cross faded at Joshua Tree and tried to climb down a mountain because it was the third anniversary of the day my dad died.”

 

Taehyung breathes and it doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t. Mountain air is too clean for that.

 

Jungkook stretches his hand in the space between them. He touches their pinkies together. Taehyung lets him. It burns but like the cool water after scorching heat, soothes. The good kind of ache. Taehyung breathes around it.

 

Softly, Jungkook asks, “Did your friends know what day it was?”

 

“No. They still followed me down to make sure I didn’t break every bone in my body. Only fractured my left ankle.”

 

“Good. I like all your other bones more.”

 

“I like all my other bones more too. They didn’t give up on me when I needed them most.”

 

Jungkook takes a look at the ankle in question, something deflecting about the time he takes to do it.

 

Taehyung is silently thankful for it. All of a sudden, the altitude feels higher than it is. The air too clean, as stifling as the highest summit in the world.

 

Then, Jungkook kicks his ankle, laughs loudly when Taehyung brings feet up, scoots back from the edge, tiny pebbles cascading over the bend. “Okay. I’m starting to think you actually did murder all your bosses and I’m next.”

 

“You freaking out like that is more likely to kill you than me lightly tapping your ankle.”

 

Taehyung protests, “That wasn’t a tap you-”

 

“You ready to climb down now? Or do you need another minute to connect with nature?”

 

Taehyung’s chest yanks and he wonders again if maybe Jungkook does feel it too, that he knew when it got too heavy, too much for Taehyung. That it got too heavy for him at the same time too.

 

“Think I’ve had enough nature.” Taehyung looks out, thinks whether or not the sky will ever be this blue again. “How are we getting down?”

 

“Well. We can either, you rappel down while I crab backwards climb like that little show you just put on for me.”

 

“Or?” Taehyung asks, grin sardonic.

 

“Or. We can walk down the trail. Like everyone else.”

 

“I’ve always preferred being a part of the crowd. Sheeple mentality.”

 

“Somehow, I really doubt that. There’s an energy bar in that little pouch if you need it. It’s a steep trail.”

 

It’s funny. Taehyung feels fine. More than. Like he could climb the mountain all over again. Any mountain. Climb it backwards.

 

“I’m good.”

 

“Pass it over then. I’m so hungry I could eat that rock over there. Watch it or I just might eat you. You look better than usual.”

 

“I’m going to ignore you said that. I’m also going to eat ten murdered cows when I’m on ground again.”

 

“Huh. I happen to know where to get the best murdered cows in town.”

 

“Oh yeah?”

 

“Mhhm. The cooks hug their cows before they slaughter them. It’s very humane and I know you’re all about that.”

 

“Yeah. Humanity is all right in my book.”

 

*****

 

“Thanks, man. I owe you one.”

 

Taecyeon pats the door of his truck, the emblem of the climbing school chipped and faded. “Just come over for dinner sometime. Nani will make your favorite. The boys miss their tio Kookie. Bring this one. You like enchiladas?” He directs the last bit to Taehyung and Taehyung doesn’t, not really. The fajitas ruined his taste buds.

 

Jungkook is sliding his vest back on, drags the zipper up slowly.

 

Taehyung nods.

 

“All right then. Take it easy, Jeon. Nice meeting you, Taehyung. You come back and see me, yeah? We’ll make a climber out of you yet.” He waves, wide smile on his movie star face. He backs out of the parking spot on the curb and merges back into the traffic, wheels screeching on the pavement.

 

It’s hotter in the city, saturated.

 

Jungkook clears his throat.

 

Taehyung clicks his teeth. Picks at a scrape on his elbow. A parting gift from a jagged rock.

 

Jungkook bites out, “If you say anything about-”

 

“Wasn’t gonna.”

 

“Hmm.”

 

Taehyung asks, “Can I ask-”

 

Jungkook says, “Taecyeon married an actual Mexican. A Mexican Mexican. Not a Mexican national like my mom. Married that is.”

 

“Hmm.”

 

“So.”

 

“So.”

 

“Dead cow?” Jungkook asks.

 

“Dead cow,” Taehyung says.

 

*****

 

jjk

 

ready to be real rainbow, rainbow boy?

 

you

 

whatever it is

no

 

jjk

 

you dont even know what it is

 

you

 

i can sense my impending doom from here

 

jjk

 

ugh

dont be lame

 

you

 

sorry

your home state has drained all the cool from me

 

jjk

 

as if

you were never cool kim

whole reason i like you

 

you

 

don’t try to swindle me with compliments

 

jjk

 

what am i swindling you out of

 

you

 

my dignity

my breakfast

my cool

 

jjk

 

thought we established you werent cool

gonna convince you at dinner

here’s an apatizer

2 words

para

gliding

 

you

 

yeah

no

 

jjk

 

ugh

 

you

 

how about a movie?

we can sit and not try to die

 

jjk

what happened to anything

anywhere

?

 

you

 

any movie you want

any time you want

any theatre you want

 

jjk

 

ughhhhh

 

you

 

any candy you want too

 

jjk

 

wouldn’t say that if i were you

i’ve got a big sweet tooth

 

you

 

that’s ok

i do too

 

*****

 

The hum is a grumble tonight.

 

Kicked out on his couch, Taehyung can see the gap in the sliding doors, the peek of his working table.

 

His coffee table is more of a mess than usual, spilled wires, half busted open motherboards. An unopened letter sits among the mess. The return address from the California Science Center. He won’t bother opening it. It’s the same as the email version.   

 

He goes to the kitchen. The fridge light stings his eyes. There’s three bottles of beer in the door from the last time Jimin was over. Chocolate stout. He must have forgotten them. Taehyung stares at the fridge door for a moment. Another. Reaches inside. The fridge door closes with a smack.

 

Taehyung downs half a bottle of iced tea on his way back to the living room.

 

The noise is louder here, in the gap. He can feel the heat from the machine, the hours it spends working. On nothing. Keeping the circuits running, burning energy, burning heat. Hand damp from the bottle, Taehyung pushes the door open, widens the gap, plastic creaking as it slides.

 

It’s a standard set up he supposes. Tower, monitor, keyboard. A bigger screen behind it. Big might have been an understatement size wise but it’s nothing that intimidating. Nothing impressive. Nothing to balk at. He worked with bigger computers in college. For a short time after.

 

He touches the piece of equipment laid on the table next to it. The tool kit next to it. It’s just a headset, just a pair of lenses, just an augmented version of the human eye.

 

He bumps into the rolling chair with his hip. He can’t remember the last time he sat in it.

 

The computer whirrs a little faster, like it’s overloaded. Too much. He thinks he should turn it off. It’s not very conscientious. Not good for the environment. Humanity. Probably not good for the cows either in that everything is connected way.  

 

From the couch, his phone pings.

 

Taehyung stares at the screen. At the name there. His chest tugs in that way that makes him forgot what his chest ever before. Before. Kept him breathing. Kept him alive.  

 

It’s a picture of Jungkook. A selfie. He’s making a silly face, tongue stuck out, as he hangs from a parachute hundreds of feet above the Pacific Ocean.

 

Taehyung’s gut starts riding a roller coaster backwards just looking at him.   

 

He realizes he’s smiling dumbly when another message comes in.

 

jjk

 

next time we’re going hang gliding

 

Taehyung looks up hang gliding. The roller coaster rams itself against his liver.

 

Another ping. Taehyung sighs, his once comfortable slouch destroyed, head almost between his knees as he tries to convince himself his feet are very much on the ground right now. A floor. A carpet.

 

He reads the text.

 

jjk

 

don’t pussy out on me again, kim

 

He should have gone paragliding while he had the chance.

 

Taehyung sighs, stretches back out on his couch. He rests his feet on his coffee table, nudges a long metal sheet with his toe. His computer rumbles from its closet. The screens glares at him, the paper thin bulbs in the living room glinting off of it. Taehyung weighs the pros of getting up to slide the doors shut. Mute the rumbling. The glare. The judgement.

 

He opens another text thread.

 

 

you

 

will you water my plants if i die?

 

mr. kim seokjin

 

your plants can fuck themselves

and isn’t it just the one plant?

 

 

Taehyung sighs again. He should have texted Jimin.

 

A string of messages come in.

 

 

mr. kim seokjin

 

wanna come around for a smoke?

j’s grilling tilapia

pick up some jicama 

 

 

He texts Jimin.

 

 

you

 

meet me at the international super

also will you water my plants when i die?

 

 

Jimin’s response is immediate.

 

 

ride and die shorty

 

yes to both

gimme like 10

when are you planning on dying btw

did you change my name in your phone from that dumb thing hoseok wrote?

 

 

you

 

of course

you know it’s true tho

only shorty i ride AND die for is you

 

 

ride and die shorty

 

lies

what about yoongi?

he’s even shortier than me

 

 

you

 

i’d die for yoongi

won’t catch me riding for him tho

 

 

Jimin said to give him ten but Taehyung is off the couch. He changes out of his work clothes and into a pair of baggy jeans and a t-shirt. A flannel too because why not.

 

He thinks about stopping by Jimin’s apartment with the beers. Thinks about the letter. Thinks about quieting his apartment.

 

He stands at the sliding doors and feels… nothing really. No pull, no tug. No yank. Just stands there. Thinks. Wonders.

 

He slides the doors closed. The tower whirrs softly.

 

Taehyung leaves his apartment empty handed.

 

When he and Jimin show up, Hoseok opens the door, three beers held by the necks.

 

Yoongi is yelling over the stereo, something classic playing, Drunken Tiger or something else from a childhood that should have been Taehyung’s but wasn’t.

 

The grill crackles. The apartment smells like lemons and woodfire.

 

Taehyung’s phone buzzes.

 

Hoseok grins, points to Taehyung. “Oh, good. You brought the jicama. I’ve got the pineapple in the kitchen. Let’s try to make the salsa until Seokjin yells at us we’re doing it wrong and kicks us out. Beer?” he offers, the hallway light shooting through the pale liquid.

 

Taehyung enters the apartment, hands full.

 

*****

 

 

jjk

 

i totally wouldve let you subject me to your dude guy dancing

in case you were still wondering

 

you

 

anyone ever tell you don't play fair?

  

jjk

 

all the time

ysyk

already picked out the color of your hang glider

 

you

 

i’m not getting out of this one am i?

 

jjk

 

dont worry

i’ve got good hands

and lucky you

youre in them

 

 

*****

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

*****

 

“I don’t know how I feel about this,” Jungkook says. 

 

“Too controversial?” Taehyung asks.

 

Jungkook flicks a brow. The sun glances off how unimpressed he is by all of this, Taehyung included. “It’s a dog doing a handstand wearing a tutu, Taehyung. We’ve seen, like, four of them. There’s another one right over there.”

 

“Yeah, but that one has a sparkly tutu,” Taehyung points out reasonably. The sparkly tutu wearing dog backs him up, yipping as it spins on its hind legs. “The other dogs aren’t sparkling.”

 

Jungkook sighs. He meanders down the boardwalk, Taehyung in step. Taehyung can’t help but laugh at how genuine his disappointment is. It earns him another eyebrow flick, but a smile tugs at Jungkook’s lips followed by an eye roll like he knows Taehyung is laughing at him and only cares a little. It’s not mean spirited, the laugh, he just likes seeing Jungkook like this. Unrestrained. Himself. Even if it is unsatisfied and more than a little moody.

 

The breeze picks up and it’s salted with ocean, fried dough and sugary taffy tangling in the air around them.

 

“We should have brought our skateboards,” Jungkook says. He watches a boy skate by, wooden planks clattering under his wheels, pink streamers attached to his skates and whipping in the wind. “Would tear shit up all along this beach as a kid. Was a real menace. But I’d always smile winningly when I ran over people’s feet with my board so no one ever sicked their dog on me.” He gives that winning smile now, teeth shown off proudly.

 

“That would require me to own a skateboard.”

 

Jungkook stops, scrunches up his face. “You’ve lived in LA for ten years and don’t own a skateboard? How?”

 

“Uh,” Taehyung says, drawing the sound out. “Like a lot of people? Most people who live here?”

 

“That’s so wrong. So many types of wrong. God. We’re gonna get you a board,” Jungkook promises. Threatens. He throws Taehyung a look, tease of a smile. “What was your life even before you met me? Can’t keep your feet on the ground all the time, Kim.”

 

Taehyung tries to reign his smile in. Sometimes being with Jungkook is like being an alternate reality where the bright shiny strange thing isn’t Taehyung, isn’t the possibilities of the universe. Is Jungkook, a centrifugal force, luminous and a little too close to burning out.   

 

It’s a heavy thought, puts a straining weight Taehyung’s chest. He admits, “I had a board growing up. I was terrible but that didn’t stop me. I’d try not to die up and down Midtown. The angry drivers were nicer in Flushing, though.”

 

“Huh,” Jungkook says wonderingly. He moves a little closer to Taehyung so a woman and her toddler can toddle by, penguin floaties around the kid’s arms. “You’re more adventurous than you let on.” His smile goes devious, sharp. “Were you a total skater boy? Bet you were a beanie wearing, Vans sponsored, beanpole poser. A cute one. Always stoked to be alive and stuff. Bet you broke a few ballerinas’ hearts.”

 

Taehyung raises his brows. Doesn’t say anything about the c-word. Jungkook was always going to get away with not sticking to the list where Taehyung wasn’t. “Did you just turn my life into an Avril Lavigne song?”

 

“Yep. No regrets.”

 

“I was actually a Converse kid,” he says, sliding his hands in his pockets. He’s in his work slacks, for once overdressed compared to all the half naked people on the boardwalk. “What were you? DC boy?”

 

“Only the comics, fuck you very much. Thirteen year old me wanted to be buried in his Vans,” Jungkook shoots back like being accused of wearing the wrong brand of sneakers is the gravest insult.

 

Taehyung chuckles, takes maybe too much pleasure in how easy he is to rile up sometimes. He’d feel about bad about it if the sight of him, flushed and irritated, didn’t make Taehyung’s gut throb. “I only broke one ballerina’s heart. All the others broke mine.”

 

“I’m sure they really regret it now,” Jungkook says almost too casually, but he looks at Taehyung head on when he says, “Whatever loser they married doesn’t look as good in their Vans as you did.”  

 

Taehyung feels his own neck flush, grateful for the collar of his shirt. He looks down at his shoes, at the view of the beach. He asks, “So what about you? You were both the skater boy and the ballerina.” The heartbroken and the heartbreaker.

 

Jungkook grins, somehow blending seamlessly with the crowd dressed in all black, backdropped in the blazing beach stained sun. “Hmm. Pretty sure we would have broken each other’s hearts.”

 

“That wasn’t what I meant,” Taehyung says after a moment too long.

 

“Wasn’t it?” Jungkook asks, that same little grin. Then, “You know what they say about teenagers. Dumb about love. All the smarter for it, if you ask me.”

 

The words hit Taehyung a little too hard. A little too close. He hasn’t been a teenager for a very long time but he can’t say he’s that much smarter. About a lot of things.  

 

Jungkook just smiles at him, like he’s maybe not all that smart too. He gets distracted by another dog, this one wearing a bikini top along with the standard tutu.

 

The boardwalk is bustling with people, energy. Taehyung hasn’t been here in a long while. Back in college with Yoongi and Hoseok on an empty Saturday afternoon. With someone else, their hand in Taehyung’s. Maybe him and Seokjin, looking for somewhere to park the truck, rough asphalt at the edge of sand, starving beach goers with cash filled hands.

 

“Maybe Venice has lots its thing,” he says when they’ve reached a tattoo shop, tattoo machines buzzing over sunburnt skin. He’s not going for sage, wise. Hopes it kind of sounds that way anyway. “That je ne sais quoi-ness from your youth.”

 

Jungkook makes a retching sound. “Ugh. Your French is, like, obnoxiously native sounding. You really are from New York City. Fancy pompous city boy.”

 

Taehyung smiles, rueful. “I did take French all through high school.”

 

“Ugh.”

 

“Sorry. They didn’t offer Spanish. It was that or Latin.”

 

“Really ugh.”

 

“You sound ridiculously high and mighty for someone born so close to Hollywood. Los Angeles isn’t a fancy city in your book?”

 

Jungkook purses his mouth in thought. He walks past the tattoo shop, long legs striding forward. “Not the same way New York is. We don’t hide the fact that we’re fake prim fuckers. This city smells like plastic and we roll around in it gladly. You New Yorkers? Prancing around with this affectation like you’re the common global man but you all go around quoting, like, Nitzsche at each other and only eating at hole in the wall Sri Lankan restaurants that you can’t book on OpenTable. Reading the Times and jacking off into The Wall Street Journal.”

 

He pauses to flip through a stand selling t-shirts, bright tie dye rainbow prints. Kids’ cartoon characters smiling derangedly in the sun.

 

Jungkook holds up a shirt with a cartoon muscle body on it. He puts it back. Turns to Taehyung and says, “Even the in denial folks from Queens who all think they’re from the old country. And Brooklynites are the worst. It’s exhausting breathing around you all,” he finishes, lips in a fake sneer, the picture of judgemental snobbery.

 

Arms close to his sides, Taehyung side steps across the boardwalk, wide strides diagonally away from Jungkook. He crosses paths with a hefty man walking a pitbull who stares at him like there’s a second head sprouting from his neck. The pitbull tries to hump Taehyung’s leg, slobbers all over his hand. Taehyung coos at him in parting.

 

“Tae-The fuck are you doing?” Jungkook calls, fake sneer gone, blank confusion taking its place.

 

“Putting some distance between us so you can breathe! And so I’m not within hitting range when you tell me how much you hate Manhattan fuckers.”

 

Jungkook stops walking, hands on his hips, drawing Taehyung’s attention there. Not that it’s ever too far from them. His jeans soak up the afternoon heat, shirt tucked in so the sloping curve from his waist to his hips and smoothing out over his muscular thighs is pronounced, looks like its in need of hands. Jungkook’s thumbs press just below his hip bones and Taehyung thinks about how if his hands were just that bit bigger his pinkies could reach the place his waist dips. He doesn’t think about his own hands. “Come back here.”

 

Taehyung shakes his head. He holds back a smile, tenses his jaw. “Nope. I think I prefer this side of the boardwalk.”

 

Jungkook sighs, long suffering, like Taehyung isn’t worth it, and he’s probably right about that, but Jungkook also isn’t the type to give up easily, especially when it comes to getting what he wants. Especially when he wants to get it from Taehyung. He didn’t manage to get Taehyung floating over the Pacific but he did get him to almost puke his guts out all over the San Fernando Valley.

 

Hands clasped behind himself, Jungkook slaps a pleasant smile on his face. “I’m not gonna do anything to you.”

 

Taehyung squints at him, really plays up how little he trusts Jungkook’s innocent front. He crosses over to him slowly, dodges a middle aged woman with a toucan on her shoulder, a group of pre-teens sticking pieces of cotton candy in each other’s hair. The boardwalk is crowded for midweek, Jungkook off work early and Taehyung only having his shift at the community center. Worked out almost a little too perfectly when Jungkook texted what he was doing, if he wanted to meet up. The way a lot of things between them seem to.

 

He stands so their shoes line up, the tips of Jungkook’s military grade boots scuffing against Taehyung’s wing-tipped oxfords. Jungkook lowers his lashes to look at him, soft looking lips curved up. Are soft, Taehyung’s mind supplies. Still remembers exactly how featherlight they felt against his own. He’s trying not to but Taehyung is terrible at trying a lot of things he doesn’t actually want to not do. They look peachy today, like Jungkook bit into overly ripened fruit right before he smiled at Taehyung from under the Venice welcome sign an hour or so ago.

 

Jungkook keeps his word. He’s not doing anything to Taehyung, arms swinging dorkily behind his back, but he doesn’t have to try. He’s already doing it. Always. “Where would you have gone to school?” Jungkook says, voice as sweet sounding as his mouth looks. “If you’d never left New York?”

 

More breathless than he should be, and isn’t that how Taehyung always is around Jungkook, he says, “Would’ve never left Manhattan. I would have gone to Columbia.”

 

Jungkook hums, peach stained mouth mischievous. “You have dog slobber on your chin,” is his response to Taehyung’s admission. He starts walking down the boardwalk, leaves Taehyung’s face pinking behind him.

 

Taehyung laughs, at himself, at the thoughts he can’t help. He wipes his chin, mindful not to get it on his dress shirt. Just a plain blue button down and thrifted cheaply but Taehyung has been known to over do it with the stain remover and that pitbull had steak stuck in its teeth. Taehyung’s pants leg is surprisingly slobberless despite the humping.

 

When he catches up to Jungkook, he’s still smirking, self satisfied and adorable about it. “So?”

 

“So what?”

 

Taehyung turns so his body faces Jungkook’s side, not crowding in on him but causing the impression that he could. “Say whatever terrible thing you wanna say about Manhattan fuckers. I can’t wait to hear what you have to say about people from the Bronx too.”

 

Jungkook eyes his proximity, brows derisive, but Taehyung is learning to pick out when he’s putting a face on, guards up for protection. He’s hoping he is at least. He thinks he’s on the money now, the way Jungkook’s gaze keeps falling to where the shirt opens at Taehyung’s throat, his collar bones exposed in the sweltering air, the way the corner of Jungkook’s mouth trembles, laughter squashed and repressed.

 

“I’ll buy you a funnel cake,” Taehyung tempts.

 

Jungkook rolls his eyes. “I can buy my own funnel cake.”

 

There’s a crack in the cement. Taehyung sees it before he trips.

 

Jungkook holds his hands on his hips again. His elbow brushes Taehyung’s torso, drags against him. Taehyung thinks it’s a signal, back off, but then he does it again, slower, sharp skin on cotton. Taehyung almost trips for the second time.

 

Jungkook stops abruptly and Taehyung really miscalculated because they’re too close, Venice heat a tangible heady force between them.

 

“What was your question again?”

 

Taehyung licks the inside of his dry mouth, swears he can feel desert sand cracking his teeth. “Uh- Manhattan fuckers? Bronxinites?”

 

Jungkook smiles, less derisive. Peachy. “You mean Bronxites?”

 

“Sure, that.”

 

Jungkook steps closer, heat searing. He meets Taehyung’s eyes, says, “The kindest guy I know almost went to Columbia in Manhattan.”

 

And Taehyung’s chest tugs. And Taehyung thinks about the kind of guys, the kind of men, who have been in Jungkook’s life for Taehyung to be the kindest. And he doesn’t deserve it, not when he can’t stop looking at the curve of Jungkook’s hips or his never ending legs, god his legs, or his mouth, his sweet stained mouth, or.

 

Jungkook’s gaze drops to Taehyung’s mouth. Comes back to his eyes. Softer. “So that’s what I have to say about Manhattan fuckers.” He grips Taehyung’s elbow to get him moving again, hand dropping as soon as Taehyung’s brain sputters back to life and he follows.

 

“The Bronx is the best borough in that hell city you come from. It’s where Yankee Stadium is,” Jungkook says like that’s enough, and really for Taehyung, a Manhattan kid through and through even now, it is. He watches Jungkook swing his arms at his sides, something so young about him in this moment, Taehyung thinks if he really were as kind as Jungkook says, or maybe a little less, he’d reach out, find one of Jungkook’s hands with his own in the space between them.

 

An older man walks in the opposite direction. Cheeks pink. A pretzel the size of his head in his hands.

 

Jungkook turns to Taehyung. Smiles. “I changed my mind about the funnel cakes. I’ll buy yours if you buy mine?”

 

*****

 

One of the tutu wearing handstand doing dogs tries to hump Taehyung at the funnel cake stand. His pants leg gets drenched. Jungkook squawks as he and the owner, this shrimpy looking pimply teenager, try to push the dog off, his giggles sweeter than the sugar about to touch Taehyung’s mouth.                        

 

*****

 

“It just doesn’t taste the same,” Jungkook announces, frowning at his funnel cake, the little paper plate dripping grease. Taehyung didn’t know a piece of oil soaked bread could make someone this crestfallen.  

 

He takes his spot on the bench, sitting on the back rest next to Jungkook, their feet on the seat. He hands a slushie to Jungkook, keeps the water for himself.

 

Jungkook mumbles, “Thanks.” Takes a long sip, face withholding judgement for the moment.

 

Taehyung holds his funnel cake, stares at its sugarless shiny surface. He ate like ten leftover cupcakes at the center. Taehyung isn’t twenty-two anymore. He knows when to cut it out with the sugar. Jungkook, lips puckered around his straw and sucking synthetic cherry-grape sludge into his mouth, isn’t concerned with the same thoughts. Maybe the two years between them do make a difference. Or maybe Taehyung finally does need to get off his ass and finally agree to join Jimin’s gym. With the way Jungkook talks about working out and enjoys traipsing up mountains, he’ll be getting away with eating whatever he wants until he’s his grandpa’s age. Traipsing up mountains too.

 

The street lights are on and a blueish golden sheen paints the stalls and darkened shops, highlights the faces of the people walking toward the ferris wheel at the end of the pier, like fireflies buzzing for home. Taehyung has lost track of the hours they’ve been here. Didn’t notice when the sun fell.

 

Jungkook slurps, a sloppy wet sound Taehyung should find more disgusting than he does. “You mixed the cherry and the grape like I asked,” Jungkook says, mouth curled shyly.

 

Taehyung shrugs, more casual than he feels. He bites into his cake, grease melting on his tongue. “Well. Yeah. You asked.”

 

Jungkook grins. Then his face twitches. It’s mostly his nose, that scrunch Taehyung is more than halfway enamored with. “It doesn’t taste the same either.”

 

Taehyung chuckles. “You’re seriously hard to please tonight.”

 

Light glances off Jungkook’s eyelashes when he looks down. He picks something off his jeans, rubs his fingers together. He looks back at Taehyung, voice sugar warm when he asks, “Are you trying to please me?”

 

Taehyung swallows, the sound loud and unfiltered, more disgusting than Jungkook’s slurping.  “You don’t seriously want me to answer that, do you?”

 

Powdered sugar dusts Jungkook’s upper lip. He licks it away. Says, “No. I guess not.”

 

Taehyung takes a second bite, squirts jam all over his hand. He’s a mess today. Off center. Worse than usual. Dog spit. Steak blood. Too much sun. Too much sugar when he knows better, even if it is the fruit based kind. Even if it is berries. Even if he can’t help it.  

 

Jungkook doesn’t seem to think before leaning over and cleaning Taehyung’s mess up, dabbing his napkin over Taehyung’s hand. A second natured gesture. Attentive. Caring. He pays attention to his work, white soaking up dark pink. “We can’t add please to the list. I’m a very polite person and it’ll throw off my speech patterns.”

 

Taehyung has proof of that. In a few different contexts. He looks away from the sweep of Jungkook’s cheek. The beauty mark close to his temple. “Maybe...”

 

“Maybe?” Jungkook encourages. He balls up the napkin, drops it between his boots on the bench.

 

Taehyung picks at his cake, picks at his words. Blue scatters over the boardwalk. He says, “Maybe we don’t need the list.”

 

Jungkook bites at his straw. “What do you mean?”

 

“I mean,” Taehyung starts. Stops. He tries to read Jungkook’s expression but it’s shadowed in the bright blue. Open. Waiting for whatever Taehyung is going to say. “Maybe we shouldn’t, is what I’m trying to say. I think. It’s a smokescreen. A way for us to duck our heads in the sand.”

 

Jungkook slurps. He asks, “So... we’re ostriches?”

 

“Sort of? It’s like we’re looking at each other through rose tinted glasses. Or. That’s what it feels like when I look at you.” He’s saying too much. Exposing himself. He thinks of Jungkook, soft faced in window filtered sun, the anger at finding Taehyung in the one place he was supposed to be protected, safe, the room sweet with frosting. It makes it easier for Taehyung even though he’s stating the obvious. He wants Jungkook. In all the ways you can want someone. Taehyung is trying to navigate around it. Through it. Towards it, the hopeful, less kind, the dirtily honest part of himself admits. He tries not to feel guilty about it. Guilt is useless here. Between them. Jungkook knows. Has known since he watched Taehyung stuff his face with dead cow for the first time. From the moment Taehyung asked him to stay. Since he watched Taehyung look at him for the first time maybe.

 

He tries to reinforce the lack of a need for guilt when he remembers Jungkook is trying to navigate something similar. A lot of similar somethings.

 

Taehyung thinks want and desire and sex and love. He thinks about the difference between all of them. How it depends on the person. On the want. The desire. Sex. The love.

 

He says, “It’s like I’m dancing around you all the time.”

 

Jungkook pulls his funnel cake apart, fingers covered in white. “I don’t know about that. Kind of feels like that’s what I’m trying not to do. The rose colored thing,” he says quietly. His shoulders are hunched but he doesn’t look tense or uncomfortable, body open, angled toward Taehyung’s. He looks like he’s searching for comfort. Warmth. He looks at Taehyung carefully, says, “I have danced around you, though. A lot. Feels like all I ever do lately.”

 

A pigeon swoops in on a plastic lid on the ground near their bench.

 

Jungkook tosses a piece of his funnel cake at it.

 

The pigeon ditches the plastic, attacks the fried dough instead.

 

Taehyung breathes out slowly. He’s not even thinking about the yanking. Focuses on breathing. On the sea salt tickling his nose. The sugar. “It’s just. I figure- We’re adults. We’re maybe passed the age of...being ostriches.”

 

More not-that-disgusting slurping.

 

The ferris wheel spins in neon hues, pier water glowing like someone spilled the entirety of the virtual color spectrum over the waves.

 

Taehyung can hear the delighted whoops of the people spinning from here. Thinks he could use some of that. A little mindless dizzy inducing thrill. Some whooping.  

 

“Eh.”

 

Jungkook slides the heels of his boots along the bench planks. He skims his fingers over his pierced ear, the left one, makes the piercings clink and reflect light at different angles. He adjusts the hoop at the top of his helix, tugs on the celtic knot in his lobe. Some people call them love knots. Jimin had one in college. Got his ear infected. Didn’t know he was allergic to nickel until he was out from under his parents’ thumb. Taehyung follows its glare, follows its twists and turns, the way it ties in on itself in silver.

 

Jungkook says, “I don’t think I’m good at it. Adulting.”

 

Taehyung knocks into his water bottle. Stops it right before it rolls off the seat. “I don’t think anyone is good at it,” he says popping the cap. “They just are. Adults.”

 

“No but like- I still act like a kid.”

 

“You don’t seem like one,” Taehyung says, eyeing the way the lights play off him. The edge of his jaw. The veins in his neck, his arms. It’s not a physical thigh. Despite the bouts of insecurity, how ridiculously cute he can be, there isn’t anything kid like about Jungkook in the way a lot of people their age can be. He looks like youth and he is, embodies it in the most desireable way possible, like someone finally found the fountain of youth and poured it all inside of him, in the wonderment of his eyes, in how almost needlessly beautiful he is, and there’s that whole cliche god must have spent a little more time on you, but really, god or the universe or Jungkook’s parents’ genes could have spent a little less time on him, for Taehyung’s sake, for everyone’s, but really, it’s none of that. Maybe Taehyung has an unfair advantage, insider knowledge, but the way Jungkook carries himself, talks about himself, in the dark edges of a club, he doesn’t seem to live with the kind of things an immature kid could handle.       

 

“What I mean is-” Jungkook sighs, tugs at his earring again. Sips his ice sludge. “I feel like a kid. I know I fed you all that bullshit in the club. About being a man. And yeah, sure. Technically I am. But like, some days? I wake up and think, I’m still twenty-two, right? Oh wait. No. I’m eighteen. I’m fifteen and I don’t know how to drive but I just scaled my first mountain. And then I remember. I’m twenty-five. Basically twenty-six. Basically ancient. Basically dead.”

 

“Man. What am I?”

 

“Decrepit. But it looks really good on you,” Jungkook says, mouth wet looking, openly flirty.

 

Taehyung exhales, rough. He distracts himself with his jam smushed funnel cake.

 

Jungkook laughs, loud in the almost night. In the almost sweet thing between them. “I swear you get shy about the randomest shit.”

 

“You get shy too,” Taehyung argues. Jungkook does it now, shoulders lifting gently, hiding his grinning mouth against the left one, eyes all lashes, peach mouth tinged purple-red, cheeks blue-pink.

 

“Of course I do. I spent most of my life as an innocent good boy. Reacting like one is a hard habit to shake.”

 

Taehyung wants to tell him that he’s still innocent in the ways that matter. That he’s still good. Wants to ask why his voice gets that quality it does sometimes, like the person he is now is tainted. Ruined. No longer good. He knows why Jungkook thinks that way. It’s not Taehyung’s place. It’s not anyone’s. Jungkook knows himself better than Taehyung does. Than anyone does.

 

He still wants to tell him. He still wants to ask.

 

Taehyung’s chest aches and his hands feel useless, empty, and he looks at Jungkook, the way he smiles at Taehyung, beautiful and like it hurts a little to but like he’s okay that it does, like he’s learning to live through it, and for the first time it scares Taehyung, that he might have to live with an aching chest, and useless, empty, too big ugly dumb hands, for the rest of his life. That he’s going to be one huge ache for the next forever.  

 

Jungkook asks, “Are you gonna add compliments to the list too? If you take my list away it’s gonna be futile. Besides. You already compliment me a lot.”

 

“I do?” And, fuck, has Taehyung been running his mouth without noticing? How much sappy nauseating shit has he been spewing all over Jungkook without being aware of it?

 

Jungkook nods, gets more powdered sugar on himself. This time his nose. Taehyung doesn’t think about cleaning it off. With his tongue. The way it would startle a laugh out of Jungkook, loud, savage. Ugly and all the more beautiful for it. “Mhmm. Most of the time you don’t even do it with your mouth.”

 

Taehyung’s eyes have always been helpless, drawn to pretty things, mushy, tell all betrayers. He squeezes his water bottle, plastic crunching. “Sorry. I’m trying but-” He wonders if wondering if something is a lie makes it one. “I just. I can’t help it,” he says. Gives more of himself away.

 

Jungkook gets caught up in the lights. Hands fidgeting. He looks at Taehyung, something quiet in it. “Don’t be sorry.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Because if you’re sorry then I have to be too,” Jungkook says. It’s easier to pick out now, Jungkook’s knees knocked apart, the tilt of his chin, how softly he’s looking at Taehyung, at everything, the blue lighted hues. The quiet thing. How kind of sad it is. “And I don’t want to be.”  

 

“But I am sorry,” Taehyung says, words fast, grease seeping into the skin of his clenching hands, breath unsteady. It takes him a second. A moment. To realize he’s angry. At himself. At the thing inside Jungkook’s mind that makes him think of himself as unclean. The thing that put raw hurting shame on his face that morning in the center. Like he’s not the most beautiful, most pure thing Taehyung has ever held in his hands.

 

At the similar thing that lurks in Taehyung’s own mind. A shadow of what could be. Of what he knows what that could be looks exactly like. Taehyung’s too big dumb ugly hands curled tightly, uselessly, around a bottle.

 

He takes another breath and it’s gone just as fast. Turns itself into a simmer Taehyung can ignore.

 

He’s never had much use for it. Anger.

 

He’s always been good at ignoring it. Anger.

 

“Taehyung?” Jungkook asks. He’s set the slushy between his boots, fist curled loosely, paused at reaching out. The sad thing is in his voice now, vulnerable and concerned. So innocent it crushes Taehyung’s soul a little.

 

“I just- I want to be able to help it. I should be able to,” Taehyung corrects before Jungkook can say anything. It rushes out of him. Still breathless, nothing a stranger would call angry.

 

Jungkook isn’t a stranger but he doesn’t really know Taehyung. He’s getting there but. Not yet. Not the way the people who have known him for years do. Not the way Taehyung does.

 

There’s another loud whoop from the ferris wheel, a body of color bleeding blue.

 

Jungkook says, “That’s the thing though, isn’t it? About desire. You can not act on it. You can choose not to. But you can’t control that you feel it.”

 

That’s the thing-

 

Taehyung blinks and all the lights flash neon, pink and purple and yellow and-

 

Jungkook tilts his head and the light catches over the love knot in his ear lobe in pink. He licks his lower lip, voice somehow both confident and shaky. “Do you regret it? Wanting me?”

 

It takes Taehyung aback, how blatant the question is, and he wonders if people actually talk to each other like this, spell everything out and ask the ugly difficult questions, and he wonders if they’ve both had it wrong this entire time. If Jungkook is the honest one and Taehyung is the liar. The one who hides. The one with his guard up.

 

Taehyung says, “No.”

 

“Good.” Jungkook takes a long sip, the noisiest so far. He tosses the pigeon another bite from his funnel cake. “I don’t either. It’s not a bad thing, Taehyung. Us wanting each other.”

 

Taehyung chews on a piece of fried dough. He doesn’t think that’s the bad part. The wanting. It’s all the other things. He thinks about keeping the thought to himself. Hiding it. Pushing it down, but- “What if that’s not the bad thing? The fact that I want you. I mean- you know, don’t you? That I don’t just want you. Because I- I do.” And he hesitates here. And he stutters here. Because some habits really are hard to shake. He takes a small, soundless breath. “But I want you more than just physically. It’s. This isn’t just physical. To me.”

 

Even if a lot of his thoughts are. Even if he’s already said this in more ways than one, in more ways than he can count.

 

“You said it yourself, Taehyung.” And Taehyung wonders if Jungkook has ever said his name this much, if anyone has, if it’s ever sounded this sweet. “I already know.”

 

He doesn’t say the same thing back. Doesn’t say what it is or isn’t for him. Just keeps watching the pigeon eat. Just slurps his slushy. Just knocks his legs a little wider, the side of his worn boot touching Taehyung’s pristine dress shoe.

 

“How’s that for taking off the rose tinted glasses?” Jungkook asks.

 

Taehyung says, “Not bad.”

 

“Still on the fence about the list?”

 

Taehyung half shrugs, mouth full of strawberries. “Not sure which side of the fence I’m on anymore.”

 

Jungkook doesn’t say anything to that. Brows slanted in thought, fingers covered in powdered sugar.

 

All the noise around from the pier blurs, makes the quiet between them louder.     

 

Taehyung thinks back to the conversation at hand, the ring round circular way he and Jungkook talk to each other. Thinks about what it means to be an adult. If acknowledging the responsibility of your own desires makes you one. “I think you’re pretty convincingly adult.”

 

“I am?”

 

Taehyung nods. “You do your taxes without crying and you can afford thousands of dollars worth of leather. Other than a mortgage what else do you want out of impending senior citizenship?”

 

Jungkook smiles, something quiet about it too but it isn’t sad. A good kind of quiet. “Thank you.”

 

“For what?” Taehyung asks. He licks jam off his thumb.

 

“For not assuming I’m some doctors’ grandkid trust fund baby.”

 

Taehyung quirks his mouth. Teases, “Are you a doctors’ grandkid trust fund baby?”

 

Jungkook shakes his head, offers the disgusting syrup ice to Taehyung.

 

Taehyung rears back, careful no to topple off the bench. “I probably have dog slobber in my mouth.”

 

Jungkook shrugs, ice sludge held out. Taehyung hesitates. The strawberry jam is pure fructose, but what’s more sugar, a tiny bit more sweetness in Taehyung’s life. He goes for it but Jungkook pulls the cup out of reach, brings it close to Taehyung’s mouth himself.

 

Taehyung doesn’t think, presses their sides together as he ducks his head and gets a mild brain freeze, lets himself look into Jungkook’s eyes, thick lashed and big and glazed in the light. Bedroom eyes but not because they’re arousing, though they are, of course they are, and not because he’s trying to seduce Taehyung, though he seduced Taehyung a long time ago and he knows it, but because it’s probably what his eyes look like first thing in the morning, when he can’t think to care what they look like, who they’ll attract. So he lets himself. Let’s himself look. Lets himself want. Lets Jungkook see himself be wanted.

 

Taehyung sits up.

 

His lips come away sticky, too tacky to be the slushie. His mouth tastes like a cherry-grape-peach. He’s going to ask about that Sephora membership someday but he doesn’t want to break the moment now, this quiet loudness.

 

Jungkook pulls the drink back. Takes a small sip, half melted ice getting stuck halfway through the straw. He says, “They helped with college- my grandparents -but I’ve done everything else on my own since. Did a little investing in college through some friends.”

 

“That sounds very adult.”

 

You’re very adult.”

 

Taehyung spreads the pink reddish filling around the foil wrapper of his funnel cake. Something somersaults in his stomach. Tries to astrally project itself in his lungs. “I don’t hear that very often.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Because.”

 

“Because?” Jungkook prods and he really is persistent. True to his word. Dog with a bone.

 

Taehyung purses his mouth, aware of his own guardedness. Again, he thinks he might have more walls up than Jungkook. Again, he thinks Jungkook might not have any. Might have them weakened.

 

Jungkook watches him, face open and waiting, hopeful and there, and he might have those walls weakened just for Taehyung.

 

Taehyung says, “Because. I’m in my late twenties and I don’t have a career and work three- technically four -part time jobs. I can’t hold a relationship for long. I still forget to do my laundry some weeks. My apartment’s a mess. And sometimes if it weren’t for my friends, for my jobs, I’d forget to get off my couch.”

 

The whoops from the ferris wheel grow louder, deafening.

 

Jungkook chews on the straw, tiny furrow between his brows.

 

Taehyung reaches for his water, the cap cracking as he twists it. He wants to regret his motormouth, the unattractive splay of all his faults but he doesn’t. Can’t find it in himself to.

 

“So?”

 

Taehyung’s heart lurches. Twists hard enough to crack. “So?” he repeats, weak.

 

Jungkook turns so both his knees press into Taehyung’s thigh. He’s warm, but it isn’t just everywhere they touch, or because Los Angeles is always unbearably hot to Taehyung, but it’s in his eyes, the determination in his voice. “I don’t think that matters,” Jungkook says, furrow knotted deeper. “Like. All that stuff you said. So what?”

 

Taehyung doesn’t have an answer.

 

The furrow smooths out, the fire dampening a bit. “Most careers just make people miserable. Sure, a lot of people like their jobs and are passionate or whatever, but, why do you think the midlife crisis is so common? Why do you think the quarter life crisis is for people our age? There’s nothing wrong with wage work.”

 

“My dad has been a mechanic his whole life,” Jungkook says, soft and hard all at once, and isn’t that how he is, who he is to Taehyung, hard edges, soft insides, where it matters. “Does that mean his life matters less? That he’s a less important contributing member to society? You support yourself. Who cares how you do it? There are fifty year old married men with mortgages and snot nosed kids who don’t do all that other stuff you forget.” He turns all edges here, not a lot of sympathy, not much softness. “Some men will never touch a laundry machine in their whole life.”

 

“I don’t think that’s very adult,” Jungkook finishes, back to the soft thing he is, at the heart of it, of himself.  

 

And there’s a lot to unpack there and Taehyung feels the yank so sharply he swears his chest is going to come apart, but all he can think to ask is, “You don’t like kids?”

 

Jungkook slurps, red and purple swirling in his cup. “I love kids. I’ve just decided all those useless fifty year olds raise terrible tiny people.”

 

It makes Taehyung laugh, makes him want to ask what kind of tiny people Jungkook thinks he’d raise but he still has some semblance of control over his motormouth. His eyes, though. Those fuckers call all their own shots.

 

Jungkook clears his throat. Something deliberate in it. “You- You carry yourself like you know who you are. Like you don’t care what people think. Not ‘cause you’re a dick but. Because you just. You’re comfortable in who you turned out to be. And you like who he- that is. You are. I think that makes you more grown up than a lot of the sad fuckers I know.”  

 

Ferris wheel lights daze. Someone yells down the boardwalk, a plea for their friend to hurry up. A group of little blonde heads speed by, eerily identical in the blue haze.

 

“I- sorry. Am I way off?” Jungkook asks, stilted, a stuttered little breath somewhere in his words. He keeps his eyes averted, that furrow in his brows and cheeks dark in the brightness.

 

The words hit Taehyung hard. He feels naked, more than he did in his living room, jeans around his ankles, Jungkook’s eyes hungry and pressing everywhere. “Is that how you see me?”

 

Their eyes meet. Jungkook’s look starved for an entirely different reason now. “It’s how you seem to me. Or. How I see you.” He laughs a little, glances at his slushy, the lights kissing his cheekbones. “Guess I’m pretty bad at the whole no rose colored lenses thing, huh?”

 

“I don’t think liking yourself is an adult thing,” Taehyung says, tries to get them back on track. The jam filled fried dough sits heavy in his stomach. So does the thought that they’ve been veering off for the last few hours. That he might have as much control over his mouth as he does his eyes. “I think it’s a human thing. Something you lose and find again throughout your life.”

 

“Do you think-”

 

Taehyung doesn’t rush him. He wonders if Jungkook thinks he’s one of those sad fuckers and the thought hurts. It aches.

 

“Do you think you can find it even if it’s been lost for a while? A really long while?”

 

“Always.”

 

He offers Jungkook some of his strawberry fried cake, lets him pry the sugar from Taehyung’s hand with his teeth, lets him get close to the pulse point in his wrist, and Jungkook’s lips are a powdered red now and Taehyung wants to taste the cherry-grape-peach-berry mess from his mouth with his own.

 

Taehyung bites, right where Jungkook’s lips were. “Want to go on the ferris wheel?”

 

Jungkook grins. “Fuck yeah.”

 

“Just so you know. I might close my eyes and be deathly afraid the whole time or go blank faced and show no emotion. It’s one of the two when it comes to ferris wheels and me.”

 

“You must have been fun at Coney Island as a kid. How about I hold your hand when we reach the top? Just in case you suddenly get scared- Oh. I forgot to ask.”

 

“What?”

 

“What was your favorite slushie flavor as a kid?”

 

Taehyung can’t remember. All he can think is, “Peach.”

 

“See? Fancy city boy. Now, come on. Wanna see the city lights from high up.”

 

With that Jungkook is off the bench. He tosses his empty slushy cup in the trash. Reaches out for Taehyung’s hand to coax him to follow and Taehyung thinks it’s just to get his ass moving, but Jungkook pulls him along, enticing smile full of spinning lights as he walks backward, his hand cold and sticky against Taehyung’s warmer one. Taehyung doesn’t pull away.

 

He did forget to tell Jungkook to add hand holding to the list. 

 

 

 

 

 

*****

 

 

 

“So Yoongi says you’re fucked.”

 

Taehyung doesn’t look up from refilling the dressing. Lemon tahini. He stinks of olive oil. “Yeah.”

 

“How’s that going?”

 

“You know. About the same.”

 

“That’s good, right? At least it’s not worse in the fucked department.”

 

“I’m not complaining.”  

 

“Good,” Seokjin says. He’s messing around on the tablet, checking the register so far. It’s been a slow day. These are the days Seokjin ventures out to the front. “The interface works a lot better now. The accounting program runs a lot smoother too.”

 

Taehyung half nods, half shakes his head. “No problem.”

 

The shack is mostly empty at this hour. There’s a couple where Jungkook usually sits, forks digging into the same salad bowl, bodies huddled close.

 

“I would have asked Jimin, but-”

 

“You know I don’t mind doing that stuff,” Taehyung interjects. There’s something in the balsamic dressing. Parsley? “Jimin shouldn’t have to do it anyway.”

 

“At least Jimin lets me pay him for it without a fight.”

 

It’s definitely not a parsley leaf. He ignores the sharp thud at the sudden turn in Seokjin’s voice. The familiarity of it. The undercurrent of storm under the calm.

 

From the kitchen, Hoseok starts singing. It sounds romantic.

 

The couple is bickering teasingly, their forks diving for the same bamboo shoot.

  

Seokjin’s shoulders are tight, the lines around his mouth pronounced. He’s been stressed about a bad delivery all week. Swiss chard instead of kale. Whole different type of bitter.

 

“Hyung-”

 

“Don’t hyung me, Kim Taehyung. That shit hasn’t worked on me since my brother stopped using it and you know it.” Seokjin sighs, rests his palms on the counter. “I write you checks because I expect you to deposit them. You’re the only reason I still even have checks. You must be the sole human keeping bank tellers employed.”

 

“If I let you do direct deposit with me, you’d pay me too much,” Taehyung says, attention focused on skimming the surface of the dressing with a spoon, trying to fish out the ufo, unidentified-floating-object. He’s pretty sure it’s a chilli pepper. “Also, you can deposit checks with your phone. I haven’t stepped foot in a bank in years.”

 

“Tae-”

 

Taehyung’s hand isn’t as steady as it should be. He drops the maybe chili pepper. He swears under his breath. Grabs another spoon. Tries again. He says, “And I do let you pay me. You should be thanking me for not price gouging you. Most programmers are greedy money starved pricks.”

 

He can feel Seokjin’s stare on his face, that warm concerned thing that’s never cloying, never too much. He still remembers the first time Seokjin had looked at him that way, after Taehyung had fucked up a test his first semester and hadn’t told anyone, had quietly choked on it until Seokjin had spilled it out of him with this same exact look.

 

Seokjin abandons the tablet. Grabs an empty bottle. Pours pinkish liquid into it, rosemary and gochujang.

 

When he speaks, Seokjin’s voice is steady. All calm, hints of annoyance gone. “You built the website from scratch. And the mobile version. You just upgraded my inventory keeping system. You know I was never a pure programmer, but I don’t have to be to know I’m not paying you nearly as much as I should.”

 

Taehyung lifts the spoon. It’s a blackened garlic clove, genetically engineered to be tiny. He dumps it in the trash. Looks at Seokjin, says, “Programming was small fish to you. You were too busy building robots.”

 

Seokjin smirks, “And now I own a vegan restaurant. The only robot here is Yoongi and I always forget to turn him off before going home.”

 

Taehyung smiles. It’s maybe strained on his mouth. Maybe Seokjin can tell.

 

Taehyung fills a bottle, dark thick liquid sticking to the sides. “You know I don’t do that extra stuff for the money. I love this place. What you’ve been able to do with it. Most people don’t get past the food truck stage.” He shakes his head when Seokjin goes to speak. They’ve had this conversation too many times to count. For anything to really change. He wonders why they both keep trying. Since it was just Seokjin and him and a reconverted delivery truck, the stench of kimchi and the fryer, first the smell of beef stuffed tortillas, then nothing but a sweat infused garden when Seokjin realized no one else was doing it, the meatless cruelty free thing. That he could deep fry in avocado oil and none of the other Korean burrito trucks were doing the same. Since they started turning a profit and Taehyung started saying, “We’re friends, man. They’re not even favors. I do it because you need it and I’d do anything for you. Anything. You pay me enough, Jin. I mean it.”

 

Hoseok starts belting, starts declaring his love to a desperately sincere degree.

 

Taehyung fills another bottle. He can’t remember what this song is called. He pours a bit of dressing on his pinky. Licks it off. It burns his tongue a little. Chilli turmeric.

 

There’s a weight on Taehyung’s shoulder.

 

Seokjin digs his chin into the place his neck and shoulder meet, his spiced breath fanning softly over Taehyung’s jaw. He must have been tasting the dressings too. For a second, Taehyung lets himself cave under it. For a second, Seokjin lets him.

 

“For someone so smart, you can be kind of dumb sometimes,” Seokjin says. Ribbing him lovingly. Like he’s holding a dirty weathered mirror up to Taehyung’s soon to be weathering face with the softest hands. 

 

Taehyung looks up.

 

The couple at Jungkook’s table shares a kiss, quick and sweet, lips in a smile. The kind of kiss people who have been kissing for a while exchange. He tries remembering what that feels like. Kissing like it’s a favorite habit. Muscle memory.

 

He doesn’t think about anyone in particular other than the person he’s always thinking about lately.

 

He thinks how their mouths probably taste of a garlic infused greenhouse.

 

He doesn’t think about how he’s designated that particular table as Jungkook’s table.

 

He thinks about Jungkook’s mouth, the mess of sweetness it was the last time Taehyung saw him.

 

Taehyung uncaps a dressing bottle. It takes him a few tries. His hands are weighed down, Seokjin’s weight throwing him off. He looks back at Seokjin, that same warm understanding he’s known for years. “Yeah, well. You could be building robots right now so which one of us is the dumb one?”

 

Seokjin knocks their heads together, hard once. Then softer. Gentle. “I’d only build evil robots so still you,” he says. He gives Taehyung a nuzzle, adds, “I’m proud of you.” He says it the way Taehyung had said hyung, like home, in the first language they ever spoke from the place they were both born, Seokjin’s consonants softened in a rhyme.

 

Taehyung is quiet. Says the words back, rougher than Seokjin’s accent, product of the countryside his parents were from against the posh pretty city people Seokjin’s parents are.

 

Seokjin squeezes his side, so hyung-like he doesn’t have to be called the word. Just is. He stays a few moments, the quick affectionate press of their bodies. Then Seokjin steps back. Returns to the tablet.

 

Taehyung can’t tell if the heaviness is lighter or more pronounced without him as a tangible weight.

 

They work in silence for a while, Hoseok’s voice as the background.

 

“So,” Seokjin starts casually and Taehyung’s body relaxes. Eases. Seokjin’s always been like that. Easy in the best way. “The reason you’re fucked. Hoseok says he has the kind of ass dreams are drooled during.”

 

Taehyung is a little less thankful. “How does Hoseok even know?”

 

Seokjin stares at him like he really means it when he called Taehyung dumb. “You told Yoongi. When has Yoongi ever kept anything from Hoseok? They have more secrets than Yoongi and I do and I’m the one sucking Yoongi’s dick.”

 

Taehyung can’t find it in him to be bothered. Yoongi basically texted Hoseok the second he and Seokjin did it the first time. He’s still pretty convinced it was during the doing was actually happening no matter how hard they deny it. Seokjin always says he was too distracted by finally touching Yoongi’s dick to notice.  

 

Taehyung shrugs. “You know Hoseok. It’s not the size of the cheeks that matter to him but how firmly they bounce when you spank them.”

 

Seokjin arches his brows, expectant.

 

Taehyung blinks at him.

 

Seokjin breaks first. He always does. “Well? Is his ass actually as firm as it apparently looks when you spank them?”

 

A dressing bottle almost gets knocked over. Taehyung sets it right. Caps it. “We haven-”

 

Taehyung ,” Seokjin starts. Says it exactly like that. Taehyung. “I walked in on you jerking off into a sock in Hoseok’s dorm during your sophomore year. I saved you from the life altering mistake you almost made when you tried to cement your love for Chet Baker and Celine Dion at the same time. Which is only the third gayest thing you’ve ever tried to do. My funny heart will go on would have made a horrible tattoo.”

 

Taehyung blinks some more. There’s dressing all over the counter. He should clean that up. Before Seokjin yells about it.

 

Seokjin doesn’t. Just gives Taehyung that recriminating look. Eyebrows menacing. “Are you denying any of this?”

 

“No. It’s just usually you do these in threes so I was waiting for the third one.”

 

“Right. Uhhhh.” Seokjin’s brows go furrowed. His face lights up when he thinks of a third one. “Oh! I’ve never told Yoongi about that dream you had about him.”

 

“Which one?”

 

“You know which one.”

 

Right. That one.

 

Seokjin leers at him, face so perverted Taehyung would be put off if he hadn’t walked in on Seokjin’s orgasm face more times than he ever wanted to. Never would be the preferable number but when you’re friends with two people who are grossly in love, who are as close to soulmates if they actually exist despite how much one of them denies it on principal, and prone to grossly fuck everywhere, and you live with one of them, it’s a sad risk you to take to sleep in your own bed.

 

He caves. Taehyung always does. With Seokjin especially. “I didn’t- uh, spank them the one time we-”

 

Dressing starts dripping off the counter. It pools on the tile.

 

“But they are pretty firm, yeah,” he rushes out, words tripping to get them out as quick as possible.

 

Seokjin doesn’t look at the spilled dressing, lost inventory. Much too preoccupied on his want for spoken word porn.

 

Taehyung tries to swallow his tongue. He does , but now he’s thinking about Jungkook in a different way than he’s always thinking about him, in that other way he’s always, always thinking about him, and he feels a flicker of that anger-lust-guilt he always feels at feeling this way, but Jungkook said it was okay, to want, to want what he does, to want the way he does, and the ugly parts of Taehyung are a little too willing to admit that it doesn’t matter, it’s too late to swallow anything, because he has as much control over his mind as he does his eyes or his mouth, and it’s Jungkook’s ass and the fact that it’s not just how it looks in jeans and spandex stretchy workout pants, but the fact that Taehyung has seen it, felt it’s soft muscular give in his hands, around his tongue, his co- “They’re really firm. Actually. Like, really- it’s not big but it’s perky and, like, sculpted? And high. Tight. His cheeks. Not his- though, yes his- and he has this cute little mole right on his-”

 

Seokjin’s grin is utter filth.

 

Taehyung resists the urge to bang his head against the balsamic dirtied counter. He clenches his hands at his sides. Keeps them out of the way. It’s the one part of him Taehyung still feels he has any control over. His hands. They’re not his anymore but he can keep them where they belong.

 

He sighs. Says, “And I’m going to go shove my head in the pickled vegetable fridge now.”

 

Seokjin keeps grinning. “You do that. Bring some carrots while you’re back there.”

 

Taehyung gives him a mock salute. “Will do.”

 

Seokjin tosses a cleaning rag on the floor without looking, clicking something on the screen. The fabric quickly turns a muddy blue black. “And don’t forget your hat. Don’t think I didn’t see you and Hoseok using it to lob brownie samples at the girls who work at the juice shack yesterday. Do you know how long it takes me to get those butterless eggless things to taste like perfect fudge pillows of heaven?”

 

“Sorry. We just wanted to repay them for not charging us extra for coconut water in our juices. It won’t happen again.”

 

“Don’t lie to me, Taehyung. Next week it’ll be the three of you using it to fling water balloons off the roof again.”

 

“We haven’t done that since the summer of ‘15. And that was your id-”

 

“That’s the end of work allotted heart to heart time,” Seokjin cuts him off, not even dignifying himself to give Taehyung one of those looks. The warm, easy, reprimanding ones that turn all of Taehyung’s defenses to jelly. Almost all of them. “Go take your sex crisis break in the pickle fridge.”       

 

And because Seokjin is Seokjin, and Taehyung is Taehyung, he goes.

 

He comes back in time to catch a glimpse of the couple leaving, hands tangled together loosely but sure, Jungkook’s table empty and clean and like no one has sat there since he did last. Waiting.

 

And Taehyung goes back to work. Waits.  

 

*****

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

*****

 

The water is the clearest calm.

 

Everything surrounding Taehyung is. Clear. Calm. He breathes it in. The cool serene scent of the canal. Clean water. Salt. The flowers blooming everywhere. Everything is-

 

“I can’t believe you wouldn’t let me go in the ocean.”

 

Taehyung looks to his side. Almost tips over. He regains his balance, feet finding traction in the middle of his paddle board. It’s more of a state of mind than an actual feeling of calm serenity. Kind of hard to truly feel when Taehyung is standing on a foot wide board and relying on his arms to get himself moving on semi-flat water.    

 

Jungkook is glaring at him from his own paddle board, neon yellow stripe along its white body. He stands like he was born on it, poised and tall, gripping his paddle with sure hands, gliding over the water ahead of Taehyung.

 

Taehyung anchors his paddle. His board feels a little too wet which he knows is unavoidable and stupid to think but standing on a board in flat water is different than standing on it in different circumstances. He’s used to the motion of waves. Catching swell. This whole paddling thing isn’t really convincing him.

 

He gives Jungkook a look. “I didn’t not let you anything. The ocean’s right over there.” He points vaguely up ahead. Almost loses his paddle in the process. “You can abandon me whenever you want.”

 

Jungkook huffs. He paddles in a wide arc, cutting through the water like a blade. His swim trunks are bright red. They reach below mid thigh.

 

Taehyung was expecting something black. Something above mid thigh. He’s glad he was wrong on both accounts. 

 

Jungkook says, “The whole point is we do this shit together. God. You’re so-”

 

“The water in the canal is ocean water so, technically, we are in the ocean.”

 

“You would point that out,” Jungkook mutters. He seems momentarily mollified by fact alone as they paddle along. Taehyung bends his knees as he switches his paddle from one hand to the other, thinks he’s getting the hang of it.

 

Jungkook sighs, forlong. His face is a little too tanned like he forgot to put on sun block this morning. The tip of his nose is pink. Taehyung tries not to think of the c-word and fails.

 

“I wanted to see a pelican, Taehyung,” Jungkook says, manages to say the words like a sigh too. “And, like, paddle a wave. I want to live the full beach experience whenever I can. I live thirty minutes from the beach and get to go, like, barely once every two nevers.”

 

Jungkook sighs again, this one drenched in so much longing Taehyung thinks the c-word so many times in a row he actually feels embarrassed about it, like Jungkook is envisioning that beach life he’s been denied. Sand in his toes. A wave smacking him lovingly in the face.

 

A seagull dives over the water, its wings grazing the surface before it takes flight up over the line of houses, colorful villas vibrant against blue.

 

Taehyung opens his mouth.

 

“Don’t bother,” Jungkook cuts him off. Doesn’t even look at him. “I said pelican. That was a seagull. I may not be a science nerd but I know my beach birds, Kim.”

 

“Calling me Kim,” Taehyung says, hissing through his teeth dramatically. “Now I know I’m in trouble.”

 

Jungkook doesn’t have to look at him for Taehyung to feel his eye roll.

 

Water splashes. Jungkook picks up speed, anchored boats swaying and bobbing as he passes them.

 

Taehyung watches him paddle over the water, the shape his body makes, stance wide and graceful, his waist lean and sloped, the sun touching his nape. He follows at a more sedated pace. Spreads his toes out for some semblance at balance. This part Taehyung gets. Understands. It’s the staying in place part that isn’t natural to him. His body aching to bend. To go. But the water is too flat. Calm.

 

The beach is on the other side of the wall of houses, noise trailing in muffled and distorted, and Taehyung feels the regret hit him, at denying Jungkook something, at his disappointment masked as annoyance though its probably also real annoyance and Taehyung’s grip slides on the paddle, about to tell Jungkook they can go out to the beach, go wherever he wants, because Taehyung may not be as sweet as Jungkook thinks he is or as honest, but he’s not a liar, he’s not, and he meant it. Taehyung meant it. Anything. Anywhere.  

  

Jungkook sighs for a third time. Longer. Deeper. Happier. Or just happy, really. Like he’s accepting that this too is ocean water, that this is enough, and he’s found it in himself to be pleased about it.

 

Taehyung falls further back. He lets the length of his paddle knock against the side of his board to stop it. 

 

Jungkook paddles on and Taehyung watches him, chest tugging softly, following after him.

 

Then Taehyung takes a breath, tilts his head back and lets a noise rip.

 

Jungkook stops, shoulders up. He doesn’t capsize the way Taehyung probably would. He looks back at Taehyung, frowning. He stops his board, floats in place. The wind is as the calm as the water. “Are you having a psychotic episode?” he asks.

 

“Nope.” Taehyung lets out another noise, higher pitched and as close to barking as he can get. “I’m making beach sounds. That was my jet ski followed by my dog who steals sun tanning Beverly Hills’ housewife’s bikini top.”

 

Jungkook scoffs, looks devastatingly unimpressed. Looks devastatingly pretty as he does it.

 

Taehyung makes a squeaking sound. Follows it up with a low pained grunt.

 

“The hell was that supposed to be?”

 

Douche bro getting hit in the face with a volleyball.”

 

Another noise. Taehyung’s board skirts a little, like even the water is disturbed. There are a few people along the canal, in their docked boats or relaxing in their verandas but Taehyung doesn’t care, because as a general rule Taehyung doesn’t, but also because there’s a smile creeping onto Jungkook’s face. Starts in the best place. The place that means it’s a real one.  

 

“That was terrifying. What was that supposed to be?”

 

Shrieking one year old getting splashed by a wave. Which to me, who am one years old, is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

 

The crinkles at the corners of Jungkook’s eyes are full of sun.

 

Taehyung’s chest gives a hard tug and the smile makes its way onto Jungkook’s mouth.

 

The seagull comes back. Or maybe it’s another one. It drops something into the canal, water jumping in a perfect splash before swallowing itself up.

 

Taehyung paddles up to where Jungkook is waiting, their boards level. He says, “Now close your eyes and picture a pelican flying over your head.”

 

Jungkook starts to roll his eyes but he stops. Looks at Taehyung. It might just be the sun but his eyes are so warm Taehyung swears he can feel them. On his chest. Inside of it.

 

Jungkook’s eyelashes flutter, all of him touched by the brightness. He sways a little but keeps his balance almost embarrassingly easy.

 

A smile tugs at Taehyung’s mouth as he takes him in. Knows he’d be inhaling salt water if he did the same.

 

With a deep breath, he makes the pelican noise, closer to a parrot if he judges fairly. To what a dodo probably sounded like.

 

Jungkook doesn’t hold back and he laughs, opening his eyes so he doesn’t fall because not even he is that innately lucky or graceful. He’s laughing at Taehyung, his ridiculousness, but his smile is wide, bright and fearless, kissed by the sun, and if Taehyung isn’t going to be the one doing it someone should. Even if it is a blazing ball of light that will consume the Earth someday. Jungkook deserves to be kissed like a favorite habit. Easy and simple and so so sweet.

 

Taehyung makes some more noises, each one more ridiculous than the last. They start paddling again, following along the path of the canal, nowhere to go but forward.  

 

Jungkook’s paddle slopes through the water, bright yellow under the crystal clear water. He shakes his head at Taehyung, says, “You’re so shameless. That rich lady is looking at us like she’s about to call the cops.”

 

Taehyung ducks his head in latent half embarrassment, but he gives her a happy wave while managing a good stroke game. She doesn’t return it. And no Taehyung isn't going to make the dick joke because Taehyung is twenty-seven and he doesn't make dick jokes.

 

He doesn’t feel like making light of the moment, not even in his head, because he really does feel calm. Cathartic sort of. Limb loosed. At ease. The protective cocoon of the canal enveloping him and Jungkook’s smile looks permanently attached to his face now and any embarrassment Taehyung might feel is worth that and then some.

 

“How do you know she’s rich?”  

 

“I just live under the assumption that anyone who has the means to own a boat is rich. That was a terrible pelican by the way.”

 

Taehyung sighs. Switches sides again. Manages not to capsize himself or the board in the process. He bites back a grin. A solid half hour in and he’s avoided face planting and made Jungkook laugh so hard he looked close to tipping over? Successful outing if Taehyung’s ever had one.

 

“Man. So demanding. You’re lucky I’m doing this at all,” Taehyung says though they both know that’s a lie. He barely needed convincing and only put his foot down about the ocean because he knew he’d lose the paddle.

 

Jungkook hums. He does it the way he speaks, deep in his throat, high and sweet when it leaves his mouth. It’s unabashedly one of Taehyung’s favorite things about him. “You say that like it surprises you. How demanding I am. It’s kind of funny.”

 

“Why?” Taehyung asks, thinks it’s funny how Jungkook keeps pointing them out. All these seemingly funny things between them.

 

“Because. The fact that I’m demanding,” Jungkook says. He lifts his face toward the sun, seems to seek out its warmth. The sun is all too eager to give it to him, turns the tan of his upper body gold, the red of his swim trunks as bright as flames. “It’s the one thing I never tried hiding from you.”

 

Taehyung knows what he’s talking about but for once, it’s easy to ignore it, the image of Jungkook pushing Taehyung down on his bed and taking what he wanted. How eagerly Taehyung gave it to him.

 

Something in Taehyung’s chest lurches. A breeze cuts through the canal, makes his arms have to work for it. Balance. “That implies you’ve tried hiding everything else.”

 

“Don’t know why I bothered,” Jungkook says. His ears are naked except the tiny hoops in each lobe. Taehyung wonders if the metal would burn under his fingers. His mouth. Jungkook steers himself further, water breaking for him. “You’ve practically figured it all out anyway.”

 

“What makes you say that?” Taehyung asks, the thing in his chest trying to crawl further down. Out. His fingers are wrapped too tight around his paddle. If it were cardboard, he’d snap it in half. If it were cardboard, Taehyung would have sunk to the bottom of the ocean a while ago.

 

But Jungkook just keeps smiling. Still is when he says, “Because I’m the one who told them to you. Even the parts I haven’t meant to.”  

 

And it’s funny. The more Taehyung knows, the more Jungkook shows him, the less Taehyung feels like he does. He wonders if this is what every person who’s ever discovered a star or a planet or a galaxy has felt. Realizing that every time they find something, the universe gets that much bigger, that much more endless, that harder to know.

 

Taehyung looks at Jungkook’s smiling face and he wonders if it should scare him more than it does. That every person’s mind is its own world, but Taehyung looks at Jungkook and sees a universe.

 

That it doesn’t scare him at all.

 

Taehyung thinks, sex or love. Sex and love. Says, “I’m sure there’s a lot I still don’t know.”

 

Jungkook shrugs. He paddles in a wide arc for a few seconds. “I’m still mad about the pelican.”

 

Taehyung laughs. “Trust me. My balance is very unreliable. This is better for both of us.”

 

“So you keep saying,” Jungkook says, eyeing him, brows arched. “So far I haven’t seen much of this unreliability.”

 

Taehyung grins, a bit more sardonic than he should. “If we did this in open water, I’d fall and get swallowed by a jellyfish or a shark.”

 

“That’s why you need practice,” Jungkook reasons. He leans forward, lays his paddle horizontally on his board.

 

Taehyung frowns as he watches Jungkook tilt this way and that. He finds his center on the board, then he lifts a leg up in an almost triangle, foot kissing the inside of his thigh, arms at his sides.

 

Taehyung only knows its called tree pose for that one year Yoongi was super into the crunchy meditation essential oils lifestyle. Taehyung also has a mild hernia about it, awed and impressed and out of nowhere turned on. It socks him in the gut, the heat from the sun landing in the pit of his stomach, punishing him for it like a sunburn.

 

He makes his voice sound joking when he warns, “If you go into downward dog on a paddleboard in the middle of a canal I will knock you off with my paddle stick.”

 

Jungkook laughs, raises his arms over his head in prayer, the paddle motionless on the lip of the board. His balance doesn’t falter and the arousal simmers, now he’s mostly equal parts awed and jealous. If Taehyung’s concentration slips for a second he starts turning in a circle like an idiot.

 

“We should totally go to a yoga class together,” Jungkook beams at him.

 

Taehyung envisions it. Incense burning. Waterfall sounds. Jungkook in clingy pants. Jungkook bending over. Jungkook-

 

“Uh. No thanks.” Taehyung doesn’t want to have an actual hernia.

 

“Please. Don’t tell me you’re one of those people.”

 

“What people?”

 

“You know,” Jungkook says like Taehyung is supposed to just know. When all Taehyung does is try not to ram into a boat, he explains, “Those people. The ones who are morally opposed to yoga. Think it’s all East Asian fetishizing.”

 

“Um,” Taehyung says belatedly, paddling a little harder to get away from the boat. To get to Jungkook on the other side of the canal. “I am East Asian. So are you? And isn’t yoga Indian?”

 

“It’s in the east. Ish. Of Asia.”

 

“Hadn’t we decided we can’t fetishize ourselves?”

 

“Don’t remember,” Jungkook dismisses. “You’re derailing my point.”

 

“Which is?”

 

“You. me. Yoga. Your butt would look amazing in yoga pants.”

 

“Can you not talk about my butt when I’m in board shorts? This mesh is unforgiving.”

 

Jungkook laughs, giggles really, and it’s so fucking c-word Taehyung has a hard time keeping the goofy smile off of his face. Doesn’t try that hard to. Tries even less when Jungkook sticks his tongue out at him, uses the edge of his paddle to flick water at Taehyung.

 

Taehyung flinches, flicks back.

 

Jungkook yelps, paddles quicker, puts himself out of Taehyung’s aim. “You can talk about my butt if you want,” he calls over his shoulder, smile wide, just a little sharp. He winks and everything and it’s so terrible of him, so obvious that he just knows. He doesn’t have to demand anything. Even if it’s not exactly the way he wanted it, Taehyung is going to give it to him. Anything. Easy as anything.

 

Taehyung rolls his eyes but he keeps up. His arms are starting to burn but it feels good. Invigorating and shit. “Yeah, I’m putting butt on the list. Your butt. In fact, all of your body parts? They’re on the list now.”

 

“Hmm.” Jungkook watches Taehyung catch up, watches him paddle by. His smile is a little too wide. Maybe kind of dorky too. “You’re better at this stuff than you give off the vibe you’re going to.”

 

Taehyung grins. The houses are even more colorful in this part of the canal. Picturesque. Too pretty. He breathes in ocean air, wonders when the last time he felt this at peace, this at home with himself, with everything, was. The last time he had dinner at Seokjin’s. The last blunt he smoked with Yoongi. Going on a midnight grocery raid with Jimina and Hoseok.

 

The last time he was with Jungkook.

 

Lightly, because everything feels light right now, he asks, “Why does it feel like I’m always trying to pass some test when I’m with you?”

 

There’s a bridge up ahead. An old man waves at Taehyung from his boat. Taehyung waves back. Their boards cruise over the current, wind picking up.

 

“I don’t know.” Jungkook’s voice comes from Taehyung’s right, some of the warmth leaked out. “Why do you think you feel that way?”

 

Taehyung’s hold on the paddle falters. He has to lock up his knees to keep his balance.

 

Jungkook looks straight ahead, an edge to the way he holds his jaw in place.

 

“I-”

 

“But you’re not so you can unclench,” Jungkook says, the bite Taehyung was expecting absent. He keeps looking ahead. “No, seriously. Unclench. It fucks up your balance. This isn’t surfing. Pull your shoulders back and tuck your belly in to keep your posture. You’re gonna faceplant like that and you refused to put the ankle strap on so you’d probably sink before you get your oxygen back and swim to the surface.”

 

The lightness gets shoved down by sudden tension. The heaviness in Jungkook’s words. In Taehyung’s hands.

 

“A little dramatic, don’t you think?” Taehyung asks, because it was. Because he feels thrown off. Truly off balance for the first time all day.

 

All Jungkook says is, “You tell me.”

 

The first thing Taehyung thinks is sorry. The second is cutting the tension, keeping it light, because it feels good. Not being weighed down. Lightness. To feel this way with Jungkook.

 

Jokingly, Taehyung says, “I just figured, when a shark finds a way to swim in here, which they can by the way because this opens up to the ocean, he’d go for the board first and give me time to get away. And you didn’t put on the ankle strap,” he points out, wills Jungkook to finally look at him.

 

I don’t need the ankle strap.”

 

There’s nothing particularly digging about the statement. Taehyung is the one who’s always berating his own instability around gravity and sometimes very moveable objects, but he knows he’s fucked up. Tapped into some latent insecurity or pushed at the wrong button, and this is the part he always forgets, the minefield of being with a new person, not knowing how what you say could be taken out of context, the inadvertent insults, the childhood traumas you can reawaken without meaning to. If Jungkook is a universe then it’s worse, each time Taehyung discovers some new corner of him, fucks one thing up and causes a chain reaction. Fucks up ten more.

 

The only way to know is to ask, and Taehyung is going to, he is, but they’ve reached the bridge, the breath into the open ocean, and Jungkook slows, water sloshing and echoing at the mouth of the enclosure, where it’s dark and suddenly, unbearably, hidden from the sun.

 

“If you were, hypothetically-” Jungkook starts. He’s still not looking at Taehyung, hands tight on the paddle. Tension in his shoulders. “Under a series of some kind of mind-game playing tests, you would be, hypothetically, acing each and every one so.”

 

Jungkook drags his paddle over the surface of the water, hair falling in his eyes. He holds his balance effortlessly, and of course he climbs mountains without ropes, and of course he did ballet to Taehyung’s favorite score, and of course he knows how to rearrange any fucker’s windpipe but chooses not to, and of course he’s so beautiful Taehyung can’t breathe around it. Because he can’t. Not really. Not without his chest tugging, pointing him out, telling Taehyung there, there, there. Him.

 

It does so now. Pulls so hard Taehyung thinks this is it. This is when he falls. “Jungkook-”

 

Jungkook finally looks at him. He smiles. His mouth stays a line. Even in the lack of light, Taehyung can see it. In his eyes.

 

“Flying colors, really. So like I said. Unclench, Taehyung.”   

 

*****

 

There’s an actual waterfall.

 

“Yeah, this was a mistake.”

 

“Will you chill? Or like, I guess that’s the whole point of this. Prepare to be chill. Get yourself in the impending chill zone.”

 

“I just don’t remember agreeing to this. I remember being opposed to this. Vehemently, if I recall-”

 

“Why don’t you conserve this energy into feeling prana flow through you?”

 

“Feel the who do what?”

 

“I don’t know. My last yoga teacher was always going on about it. It’s like chi. Sort of. Life energy in your chakras. Not sure. I’m only really into this ‘cause it makes me bendy.”

 

“I remember the bad seafood-”

 

“You threw up in that grandma’s petunia garden only a little-”

 

“Then you smacking me with your board-”

 

“I said I was sorry, like, a million times-”

 

“The doctor said I wasn’t concussed but you did make my head spin like five times-”

 

Oh my god. You’re such a baby. And a drama queen. And a liar.”

 

“You left a bruise is all I’m saying.”

 

“I did not.”

 

“Everyone kept asking why I had a busted face. If I’d been in a bar fight. My friends all think I’m a degenerate now.”

 

“The only thing that got busted was your pride, Kim, fuck-”

 

And Taehyung didn’t think this one all the way through because Jungkook doesn’t take his word for it. He comes close. Puts his hands on Taehyung’s face.

 

Taehyung’s breath goes shot.

 

He grips Taehyung’s jaw, angles his head toward the light to examine his cheek. He worries his bottom lip as he studies Taehyung with too much attention. His breath is warm on Taehyung’s face, hands a little cold, but his touch is gentle, careful.

 

Taehyung’s breath comes back all at once. He still tries not to breathe. Tries not to move a muscle. Tries not to fall in love with how the light coming in through the studio windows lights up Jungkook’s eyes, takes them from every star in the milky way all the way up to every shiny spinning thing in the fucking universe.

 

Their eyes meet, a slow thing, a warm almost touch, and Jungkook thumbs over his cheekbone, his breath shaky over Taehyung’s face before he steps back, calls Taehyung dramatic again, and it’s too late for trying not to breathe, not to fall.

 

It’s too late for a lot of things.

 

*****

 

If there is one thing Yoongi swears by other than his borderline obsessive love for Seokjin, it’s yoga.

 

It’s apparently the reason he became an actualized person. Whenever any of them ask why he quit, his reaction is always the same. The whole point of yoga is to become actualized. I am actualzied. You saying I don’t seem actualized?

 

The other reason, which Taehyung suspects is the real one, Yoongi quit?

 

“-now push back into downward dog and-”

 

Taehyung groans, hair plastered to his forehead. Pressing his hands into the sweat soaked mat, he forces his hips back, his body forming a lopsided triangle. He assumes. His knees are inches from the ground, way too bent, limbs trembling. All those granola instagram boyfriends make this look easy. It’s probably all photoshop because Taehyung feels no chill and all he wants is to die. Starfish onto his mat at least.

 

Something taps his butt.

 

On the next mat over, Jungkook is in his own downward dog. Except he’s on one leg. On tiptoe. The other leg, the one he kicked Taehyung with, is bent over his back, toes dangling over the arch of his spine.

 

Taehyung wants to die but harder.

 

He refocuses on the task at hand- not pulling a muscle and not actually dying -and the teacher leads them through a series of poses, and Taehyung can’t remember the last time he contorted his body around this much. Probably around the time he gained full control of his neck. Also around the last time Taehyung had any sort of contact with his toes without bending his knees to hell and back.

 

The waterfall waterfalls and the studio is full of deep meditative breaths and smokey burnt myrth and the supposed smells of an Indian temple but Taehyung isn’t taking any of it in, finding his chi or becoming actualized, because Jungkook breezes through every pose, does every variation the teacher suggests and then some and Taehyung doesn’t really have an excuse to be looking but his eyes. They wander. The soft light grazes Jungkook’s body, the lines he makes, and he’s such a vision like this, serene and concentrated when he’s not being a little shit to Taehyung and trying to make him eat shit on his mat.

 

Taehyung gets another tap during warrior something. Again when he’s struggling out of another downward dog, but then they get to actually sit on their mats so Taehyung doesn’t really care that Jungkook doesn’t care that Taehyung is dying and it’s his fault.

 

They’re in one of these sitting poses, facing the big windows so they’re turned toward the person next to them, legs spread and hands reaching toward something but Taehyung can’t remember what it’s supposed to be. Completion. Nirvana. The gateway to hell.

 

“Now, bend forward, come down onto your chest, keep your toes pointed-”

 

Taehyung does about one of these things. Touching his toes is a no go but keeping them pointed? Taehyung can do.

 

Jungkook does all of these things. He has his legs spread wider than Taehyung’s so maybe that helps, and the movement as he bends takes his hips hips forward, thighs relaxing, back flat. He drops his head forward and all Taehyung can see is his back, t-shirt loose and falling around his sculpted waist, and this is okay. This is fine.

 

Then Taehyung makes his mistake.

 

He looks below Jungkook’s back.

 

Taehyung gulps the little liquid left in his body. His hips are screaming at him and his legs are going to never work again as punishment but all Taehyung can focus on is the way Jungkook sighs deeply, and Taehyung knows it’s him, he knows , and melts into the pose, his limbs stretching forward, and his chest pushes further toward the floor, his hips rolling into it, ass plumped up and thick looking in his skin tight pants. Taehyung can see his muscles shifting. Nothing left to the imagination isn’t even in this realm of existence. Taehyung isn’t even in this realm of existence. Heat zaps up his insides, centers in his gut, and something stirs somewhere and his heart kicks, and he’s never been so sweaty in his whole life, and how do people find this relaxing, Yoongi was right to quit this bullshit, and it’s not his chest yanking, it’s not-  

 

Taehyung sits up fast, back muscles protesting. His mat screeches. The person next to him asks if he’s okay. It doesn’t matter. Taehyung is an adult. He’s not going to sport a semi in a yoga class. The heat between his legs begs to differ but that doesn’t matter either. Taehyung is twenty-seven. He doesn’t think with his dick.

 

Much.

 

The rest of the class comes out of the pose and Taehyung doesn’t think. Acts.

 

He leans forward. Finds Jungkook’s waist. Pinches.

 

Jungkook squeaks in surprise, shoulders jumping. He laughs loudly, the calming serenity of the room broken.

 

The teacher whips around, seems to immediately know who the culprit is and gives them both the evil eye, and aren’t yogis supposed to be chill? Taehyung would think laughing would be more of a thing during yoga. He tries to project chill at her. She doesn’t buy it, walks around the contorting students, face smoothing out.

 

Taehyung gets a few more evil eyes but Jungkook has to stifle his laughs, comes up with increasingly body defying ways to get him back each time Taehyung gets him good.

 

It makes any future bad luck worth it. Taehyung doesn’t believe in luck anyway.

 

*****

 

The waterfall doubles as a drinking fountain. Everyone else uses reusable bottles while they fill up the little paper cups stacked on a rock. Taehyung hopes they’re compostable but he’s too busy dreaming of the hamburguer he’s going to stuff his face with just to reward himself getting through this to care about his carbon footprint at the moment.

 

The teacher comes up to them to make small talk, mostly with Jungkook because Taehyung is busy with the whole dead cow dreaming. Jungkook engages her. He looks relaxed and genuinely calm, shoulders loose and smiling as he asks her a question about a pose and maybe all this downward dog stuff isn’t as evil as Taehyung thinks it is.

 

He tunes in as she asks,

 

“Have you ever taken a couple’s yoga class?”

 

Jungkook stares at her, damp hair slick to his temples. He startles when he realizes what she means. “Oh, um-”  

 

“We offer one on Saturdays. It can be very instrumental in helping build trust and intimacy. It’s also very hands on. It seems like you two would enjoy that.” She smiles. More of a smirk, knowingly pleasant gaze aimed at Taehyung which isn’t fair because he didn’t even start it. Just got competitive. And lost when Jungkook knocked him out of his sad attempt at pigeon-cow-some-barn-animal pose.

 

He says nothing, sweatpants stuck to his legs and ass. Imagines drowning himself in his tiny water cup.

 

“We’re not, uh- we aren’t,” Jungkook says, fidgeting with the edge of his t-shirt. He shoots Taehyung a little look, eyes wide like he’s asking for backup. Asking for something. The loose melty thing his body has been doing since class ended is gone, pose rigid.  

 

Much like Taehyung’s try at projecting chill, the teacher is unconvinced. “You don’t have to be a couple to take a couple class of course but- oh. I’m sorry. Do you prefer the term partners? I thought that fell out of fashion after the nineties.”

 

Jungkook’s mouth falls open, indignation rolling off him so obviously, Taehyung can feel the heat of it slam up against his strung out, decrepit, badly stretched body.

 

Taehyung takes this as his cue to help. He wraps his gross sweaty hand around Jungkook’s not gross sweaty bicep, starts ushering him out of the studio, saying, “Thanks for the class! I think I finally rebalanced my pran-chi thing.”

 

*****

 

“You lied to me,” Taehyung says, half his burguer demolished.

 

Jungkook, because he’s an actual civilized human being, has about two thirds to go. “Yes, but when?”

 

I only do yoga ‘cause it makes me bendy.

 

“That sounded nothing like me. At all. Stick to pelicans. Which you also suck at. But. Less.”

 

“Come on,” Taehyung prods. The restaurant is a fast casual that looks like a chain but isn’t, refurbished wood tables and lemon cayenne sodas and those same hipster vintage style lightbulbs the shack uses. The music choice is less original than theirs, a never ending stream of twinkling synth flared dream pop. Goes with the prana chill thing they have going so far today. “You were so into it. Every time I looked over you looked halfway to reaching nirvana. You were so in the zone during sabashaza I thought you’d meditated yourself into a comma.”

 

Jungkook picks a burnt part off his burger. There’s a little pile of them on his plate. “It’s savasana ,” he corrects, taking a sip of his soda, cheekbones protruding as he drinks. He flicks his eyes up at Taehyung like he can feel him looking. Like he’s setting him up for, “Why were you looking at me so much anyway?”

 

“To keep up with the poses,” Taehyung says easily, stuffs more burger in his mouth. “Obviously. That giant in front of me was blocking the teacher.”

 

Jungkook doesn’t say that there’s nothing to see during savasana, all you do is lie on your mat and close your eyes. He shrugs, crams a fistful of fries in his mouth. “You didn’t want me to put my mat in front of you so that was your own fault.”

 

“Mhhmmm,” is all Taehyung says. “So?”

 

Jungkook bats his lashes. Less like he’s trying to be sexy, more like he’s bored with Taehyung’s questioning. He peels more charred beef. “So?”

 

Taehyung pats his pockets one handed, his shirt, mutters, “I think. No- wait. I think I left it-”

 

Jungkook frowns, puts his burguer down. “What? Your phone? The next class started but we can-”

 

“No. I’m looking for the spoon I’m gonna use to get the answer out of you.”

 

Jungkook’s brow twists. He smiles confusedly. “What.”

 

“You know. Like the idiom. Spooning it out of you?”

 

Jungkook blinks, the smile stretching like he can’t help it. Taehyung’s own mouth tugs, a warm feeling settling in his chest. “Are you talking about sacartelo a cucharadas ?”

 

Taehyung takes another bite. His burger is burnt too but he’s barely tasting the thing, stomach a gaping pit, desperate for fuel after sweating out half his body weight. “So that’s what it’s supposed to sound like. Huh.”

 

Jungkook rolls his eyes. He throws his balled up napkin at Taehyung. It ricochets off Taehyung’s nose, leaves a ketchup smear. “Did you look that up just so you could make an unfunny bit with it?”

 

“My friend Seokjin, the one who-”

 

“Who owns the shack. I know.”

 

“Oh,” Taehyung says, remembers Jungkook saying he remembers. He listens. Taehyung scrunches up the napkin, tosses it next to his plate. “Yeah. Him. He’s big on puns. Bit time. And he took Spanish in college and actually remembers a lot. He’s the one who brought it up when I mentioned I’d been encountering some Spanish with you lately. And it made you smile so not that unfunny.”

 

“You talk to your friend about me?”

 

Taehyung fumbles with his burguer. Picks at a burned edge. Eats it. “A little? Nothing personal. Just sort of. He knows you exist. In a vague way. Vaguely. Is that.” He checks Jungkook’s expression but he’s not really getting anything from it. “Is that okay?”

 

Jungkook dips a fry in sauce, some ketchup sriracha thing, drenches it until the entire fried potato wedge is blood red. “No. Yeah. It’s fine. You’ve already met two of my friends. And hung out with them. Close friends. So. That’s fine. That he knows I exist. Vaguely. In a vague way.”

 

A light bulb goes off in Taehyung’s head, as bright as the papery lights hanging above them and he starts, “Do you want-”

 

“I wasn’t lying,” Jungkook cuts him off. He bites into his fry, makes a face. He drops it back into the fry mountain, picks another. “The main reason I like it is ‘cause it makes me flexible. My climbing agility is crazy good since I started and I can ride waves for longer and if that’s ‘cause I have the balance of a motherfucking crane now you can ask the little dickheads at Lunada why they’re so impressed with me they don’t stab my bike tires.”

 

Taehyung doesn’t blink at the whiplash change of conversation. There’s a nonverbal push in Jungkook’s tone, a place he doesn’t want the conversation to go.

 

Taehyung sits back, burger momentarily forgotten as Jungkook’s words catch up to him. “Wait. You surf in fucking Lunada? As in the surf spot where there’s a gang protecting it? You take your motorcycle to fucking Lunada?”

 

Jungkook is nonplussed. Eats a fry. He works through them the way Taehyung does his burguer. Taehyung is this close to ordering another order. Another burger too. “Sometimes. It’s not as bad it used to be.” He shrugs. “And I’ve been surfing there since I was, like, eight.”

 

“Of course you have.”

 

“What,” Jungkook bites out. He straightens out of his slouch, eyes sharpening. “I’m supposed to be scared of a bunch of jobless trust fund babies with daddy issues? They spend all day on that beach piss drunk protecting the area from evil foreigners, which is anyone not born in fucking Palos Verdes fucking Estates, because they have so much money they never have to work. They claim the land is sacred to locals. They’ve barely been there a century,” Jungkook says, the most derisive Taehyung’s ever seen him, mouth in a scowl, face hard. “Their grandparents benefitted from the murder of the actual locals and now they get to reap the goods.”

 

He takes a breath to sip his soda, bits of red and green floating among the ice and Taehyung’s chest yanks looking at him. Jungkook is vibrating with his words, luminous and impassioned, a different kind of beautiful from the tranquility of the studio.

 

“The people who truly thought the land was sacred? They’re all dead. Shoved out over the borderline. Stuck in reservations. And yeah, that’s what this whole country was born out of. Colonialism and exploitation, right? Massacre and fucking up the land for the expansion. Capitalist bullshit. We all benefit from it. I know I have. But at least most of us don’t terrorize people over a fucking swell spot. It’s called fucking Lunada. White people didn’t name that.”

 

The dream pop gets a little dreamier or maybe that’s Taehyung, the light around Jungkook turning rose except he’s not looking at him through tinted glass. Jungkook is very real now, anger in his mouth, undercurrent of hurt in his voice, fragmented shame and conviction. Blazing bright beautiful thing.   

 

There’s too many questions running around Taehyung’s mind. He settles on, “Do you think the southern part of California should be reabsorbed into Mexico?”

 

Jungkook lets out a breath, scornful, lips almost in a sneer. “Okay. Yeah. Whate-” He juts his chin, stabs at the ketchup again.

 

“No. I’m serious,” Taehyung is quick to insist. He doesn’t think, just reaches across the table, touches the back of Jungkook’s hand. Barely there touch. It sends his heart swooping anyway. Trying to catapult itself out of the milky way. “Sorry if that was rude. You’re just. Really passionate. Watching you talk sometimes. It’s like-”

 

“Like?” Jungkook asks, voice soft. He looks up cautiously, sweat dried hair flat on his forehead. His hand is frozen, fry dropped back on the pile.

 

Taehyung wonders if he should pull away. He says, “Like I’m watching a star collapse. A neutron star but in reverse. Instead of contracting, making yourself smaller, you come out of yourself. It’s like getting reminded that some stars are actually bigger than the sun.”

 

Jungkook’s brows furrow, lips parting like he just got knocked over. Out of nowhere. Blindsided by it. For a moment, his eyes look damp in the fragile light.

 

For a moment he looks unbearably, heart stoppingly, alone.  

 

“Wow. Sorry. That was really dumb. I-” Taehyung bites his tongue, his own brows knotting as his words play back to him, ridiculous and too much. He starts to take his hand back.

 

Jungkook stops him. He hooks their indexes together, skin brushing warm. He pushes against Taehyung, finger curling, until Taehyung holds back, the pads of Taehyung’s other fingers resting over Jungkook’s knuckles. Jungkook looks at him, hesitant, is this okay, do you need to put this the list too? In the moment, Taehyung can’t even remember there is a list. That there isn’t anything except their hands. He runs his pinky along the outer edge of Jungkook’s, his skin soft but mountain roughened at the tips.

 

Jungkook bites his lip. He’s looking at their hands. “No. It’s- most people wouldn’t say that about me. I mean. Not that way. But calling me passionate. Usually it’s the opposite.

 

Fuck those people, Taehyung thinks. Says, “Then they’re not paying attention.”

 

Pink graces Jungkook’s cheeks. The sad lonely thing leaves his face. Comes back. He stares at Taehyung. At their hands. “You’re so-” He stops. Shakes his head. “You’re really into that stuff, right? Space? You talk about it a bit. And your apartment.”

 

I’m so what, Taehyung thinks. But Jungkook’s unfinished thoughts. His swallowed words. Those are his and his alone. He says, “Sort of.”

 

“Sort of,” Jungkook repeats flatly. He drags a nail on the hairs between Taehyung’s knuckles. The hairs on both of Taehyung’s arms stand, a sensory memory but not, Jungkook’s nails dragging somewhere else on his body. He breathes around it.

 

Jungkook says, “You know, you act like you’re an open book but you really like keeping some cards close to your chest.”

 

Taehyung lets that fill the space. His burguer sits unfinished, a quarter left. Fries going cold.

 

One of the employees refills the ice machine, ice clinking as they tumble from a big bin.

 

Taehyung lets the sound wash over him. Lets Jungkook mark him up, pry him open.

 

He wonders what it means that Jungkook breathes annoyance at him, anger even, but he still keeps his hand on him. Still wants to touch him. Holds Taehyung in this tiny way.   

 

Taehyung says, “I don’t act like anything.” He gives Jungkook’s hand a squeeze, untangles their fingers.

 

He wonders what it means that he’s breathing his own annoyance back and his instinct is to pull away.

 

Taehyung picks up his burguer, the overcooked meat ashy in his mouth. “I’m not trying to, I mean. And yeah, I’m into space stuff. Studied it a little in college. About the cards thing.” He shrugs. “Doesn’t everyone?”

 

Jungkook surprises him by smiling.

 

“What?” Taehyung asks, half chewed up meat useless in his mouth.

 

Jungkook leans over the table, helps himself to Taehyung’s side of the fries. Taehyung wasn’t eating them anyway. His eyes are bright, blazing but in the good way, the way anyone would burn themselves for, and fuck, how anyone could think he’s anything less than passion incarnate is beyond Taehyung. “You’re not as mysterious as you think you are.”

 

“Me?” Taehyung asks, brow quirking. “I’m the one who thinks he’s the mysterious one between us?”

 

“Yep. You know my dirty secrets, Taehyung Kim.” His smile goes a little ravenous. All teeth. “One day I’ll know all of yours.”   

 

Taehyung’s heart thuds. Everything around him slows. And Taehyung doesn’t know, not really, only knows the surface level of it, not the details, and he’s not going to ask. He’s never going to ask. Only wants it willingly spilled from Jungkook’s mouth. And sex is isn’t love and love isn’t sex but sometimes, even at this age, Taehyung can be shit at spotting the difference.

 

He shouldn’t be. Sex is all physical. Love is anything but. Throw the word soulmate in there and it should be clear cut, lines drawn and marking where one ends, the other begins.

 

He looks at Jungkook and all the lines get blurred.  

 

He says, “Maybe it’s just my face.”

 

Jungkook frowns softly. “Hmm?”

 

“The open book thing. A lot of people think I have a very innocent face.”

 

“People who don’t know you maybe.”

 

“And you do?”

 

Jungkook steals the rest of his fries. They were his to begin with. “Just said I didn’t. Not yet.”

 

Yet. Not not really. Yet. Like it’s inevitable. Predestined. To be.

 

“Is that what you want? To know all my supposedly dirty secrets?”

 

“Your dirty secrets. The clean ones. Every bit of that not-mysterious mysterious brain of yours.” Jungkook stops enumerating. Stares at the look on Taehyung’s face. His smile goes a little teasing, a little soft. “What did you think get to know you meant?”

 

It usually means something more casual. Something people who aren’t that serious about each other say sometimes. Something other people mean too much.

 

He wonders if Jungkook knew, back then, how much he meant it.

 

Jungkook pokes at his forgotten buguer, pulls it in half with deft hands. Starts eating one of the halves. “Sorry about getting pissy. About the Mexico question. My friends get it. But a lot of the people I’ve-” He stops, takes a bite. Chews for what might be too long. “A lot of people don’t.”

 

He asks, “Thought you only dated Mexican boys?”

 

Jungkook goes a bit pink again. This time it’s more red than anything.

 

Taehyung feels like his entire body is one big flame. A burst. “Uh-”

 

Jungkook recovers smoothly. “That was high school. Most of college too. But post college. Whole ‘nother story.”

 

Taehyung tries not to think about it. What kind of people he means. The list of people Taehyung is sort of a part of. If he’s maybe on a list all his own.

 

“Anyway,” Jungkook says, steering the conversation back. “I’m not the person to answer that. It’s not just a political thing. It’s cultural and I’m not- I don’t think I should have any say in that. Having a national as a parent isn’t the same as actually, you know, being from there. Maybe that’s not the right way to look at it. I don’t know. Kind of still trying to figure that out myself. It gets muddled when you grow up around it. Get sort of raised like what you’re not. Not really.”

 

Something clicks. In Taehyung’s brain. He wants to tell him gets it. Not the same way. But being raised for something you aren’t. Not truly. The way it feels off kilter. He wants to but the words get stuck in his throat, and that thing Jungkook said. About the cards? He knows Taehyung better than he thinks he does.

 

Jungkook pokes at the soggy ketchup drenched fry. “I surf at El Porto and Topanga more. Leo Carrillo if I want the picturesque factor. So you can sleep okay at night,” he says, bats his lashes funnily, this time a little sexy about it. Maybe that’s just Taehyung. He doesn’t think so. “I only risk getting shanked every so often.”

 

Taehyung laughs. Knows he’s going to lose a night or three of sleep about it anyway. He finishes his cold burguer, asks, “Not Zuma?”

 

“Eh. Too trendy.”

 

“Will you make fun of me if I say I go to Heavens?”

 

“Ugh. Heavens’ too fucking cold. Even with a wetsuit. Why- You surf?” Jungkook deadpans. He shakes his head, eyes narrowed. “No fucking way.”

 

Taehyung smirks, feels a little thrill at how shocked he looks. “Swear it. Cut my teeth at Long Beach. Up in Montauk in winter breaks. For real. I smacked my head against my board when I was fifteen and chipped my front tooth.”

 

“No way,” Jungkook says softly. A little awed. He inspects Taehyung’s teeth. Touches his chin lightly. They should probably stop touching so much. Put it on the list. At this point it feels unavoidable. Predestined. Jungkook’s hands on him. His hands on Jungkook. Gravitational force. It happens without thinking about it. Whether Taehyung breathes around it or not.

 

Jungkook looks at him, disgruntled. Mouth pursed adorably. Taehyung can think that one. It’s not on the list. Jungkook’s hands are still cupping his chin. “And you didn’t want to paddle in the fucking ocean why? You’ve got ketchup on your chin,” he says. Wiping it off himself with his thumb. Taehyung was more worried about dead cow stuck in his teeth. Lettuce breath.

 

A little dazed, because whenever he’s aware of gravity, the thing keeping Taehyung on the ground, he gets really fucking dazed, he reasons, “I didn’t want to lose the paddle. I can only concentrate on one piece of equipment at a time.”

 

“Fucki- See? Cards.” Jungkook grins. He looks at Taehyung’s mouth less clinically. Eyes darkening. His thumb swipes over the point of Taehyung’s chin, back and forth. He looks as dazed as Taehyung feels.

 

Tension spikes in Taehyung’s chest. In the space around them. He balls up his hands. Keeps them to himself. He thinks burger mouth. Thinks Jungkook’s mouth and that gets him looking at it, soda wet and teeth marked, and Taehyung thinks it would look even better, if those were Taehyung’s marks instead, and-

 

Jungkook sighs quietly. Pulls away, busies himself with his drink. “We’re totally surfing Topanga together.”

 

“Isn’t the barrier at Topanga rocky?” Taehyung asks, tension smoothing out. Chest shaky. He’s thinking about the one time he surfed there. How it almost knocked his teeth out.

 

He is thinking about mouths.

 

Jungkook says, “You can handle the ice water at Montauk. You can handle a few rocks, Rainbow Boy.”    

 

*****

 

“I gave myself a cut off date.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“October 12, 2020. 11:59 p.m.”

 

“Why so specific?”

 

“Because if I turn thirty and I still do software development for a company that sells tan people sketchy exercise programs, I will move back to Partridge and live in my brother’s basement.”

 

“You’d never move back to Partridge, man. You hated it there. And your brother doesn’t have a basement.”

 

Jimin sighs, jabs his thumb on the x on his controller and cross kicks Taehyung’s player so hard its head snaps back with a bone curdling crack. “This was supposed to be a starting point for me. It’s been five years, Tae. I was supposed to be doing r&s for Google by now. Taking over Apple. I could program circles around Steve Jobs. I can’t even get an interview with a shopping app. A shopping app for your dog.”

 

Taehyung fights back, lands a hit. “He’s dead and knew jack shit about programming so you’d have two unfair advantages but yeah, you could.”

 

The glare from the tv screen makes Jimin squint, the set of his jaw sharp in the light.

 

Taehyung relaxes his fingers on his controller.

 

Jimin roundhouses his player. Sends him spiraling on its back.

 

They’ve been at it a few hours. Typical work night for them. Taehyung’s messy star spun living room. Take out bags. Beers cluttered over the coffee table.

 

Taehyung looks at him. Nudges his foot with his toes. “Give yourself a break. You started out as an intern getting paid in vending machine stipends. Now you make more than the guy who hired you.”

 

“I know,” Jimin says. He eases up on Taehyung’s player, the next punch a soft lob. “It’s just- My dad’s retiring. Did I tell you?” When Taehyung shakes his head he says, “In Maine. Mom and him bought a fishing boat. That’s supposed to be me someday. Not Maine but- maybe Busan. I can’t die without seeing Busan. But.”

 

Jimin trails off, small. Voiceless.   

 

Taehyung thinks about that, aiming a swift kick at Jimin’s player. Retiring. In Maine. He tries to wrap his head around it. Finds he can’t. Not the Maine part. But. A day he won’t work. No post-work kick back. No Jimin on his couch to get through it with him.

 

He can see it perfectly for Jimin.

 

Jimin is a good son.

 

Programmer like his father. Had his rebellious phase. Righted himself. Found his path. The path.

 

Jimin is a good son.

 

Cold beer held between his legs, Taehyung says, “You’ll get there.”

 

Jimin looks at him, sinks his head into the couch cushion. “Can I get there faster?”

 

“Sure. I’ll get on finishing that time machine for you.”

 

That actually pulls a smile out of Jimin. Taehyung’s heart eases. The heaviness feels les heavy. Like a weight Taehyung can bear.

 

Jimin takes a pull from his beer, this melon flavored lager that has negative alcohol percent per volume. Tastes like it at least. It’s the only kind of beer Jimin ever brings over. The flavored kind.

 

Jimin asks, “How’s the thing going?”

 

Taehyung keeps his shoulders relaxed. Something pinches at the back of his neck. His shoulders. The heaviness is back to what it’s supposed to feel like. Heavy.

 

Taehyung says, “It’s- I shelved it.”

 

The living room is full of the sound of hits. Loud engineered exclamations. Knuckles crushing fake skin.

 

Beyond the sliding doors, Taehyung’s computer whirrs.  

 

One of them lands a suckerpunch. Taehyung can’t tell who.

 

Slowly, like he’s trailing over every telling inch of Taehyung’s apartment, Jimin’s eyes crawl from the game to Taehyung’s face. Hit his profile. Taehyung’s nose. Stays.

 

They used to call Taehyung Honker in college. It didn’t make sense because his nose isn’t that big, a sloshed Hoseok going on and on about how lucky Taehyung was that everything on his face was huge to balance it out, and fuck Hoseok and his perfectly tiny china doll nose. He still gets asked who his plastic surgeon is. Hoseok is always unbearably smug and nauseatingly friendly when he says he’s never had one. Cue Seokjin chiming in with the big dick jokes, almost falling into some sorority house’s pool, Yoongi having a drunk argument with some frat guy in Yoongi’s never ending quest to defend Kanye West as the second coming of Jesus, Jimin already floating in the pool on a green noodle and laughing at all of them.

 

Taehyung says nothing, drinks his melon bubble juice. His mind lands on Jungkook. Predictably. Unsurprisingly. Jungkook has a bit of a big nose, real honker, but it’s cute on him. Gives his face this tiny imperfection, makes it interesting, takes him from pretty to beautiful, and fuck maybe this watered down mango stuff has more alcohol than Taehyung thinks.

 

“Tae-tae.”

 

Taehyung whistles lowly, soft thing blooming in his chest. “Damn. Are you turning into a lightweight in your old age? Haven’t called me that in years.”

 

Jimin wiggles his mouth. His brows. It almost makes Taehyung laugh. “I’m feeling nostalgic tonight. There’s two more days left in the work week and I miss the days when we stayed up till 3 a.m. and overdosed on red bull trying to finish our Circuits homework. I miss getting baked in yours and Yoongi’s dorm. I miss. I just miss when it was easy and we had no idea. How easy we had it.”

 

Taehyung goes bleary eyed at the tv screen. His voice doesn’t feel like his own when he asks, “Are our lives really this lame? I mean, college. Shouldn’t we at least miss being twenty-three? Twenty-three was a good year.”

 

Jimin rests his legs on the coffee table, knocks over a take-out bag. Soy sauce packets scatter over scrapped pieces of metal. Taehyung can’t find it in himself to care.

 

“Wasn’t that the year Hoseok broke his ankle and had to give up his choreographer spot? Also the year you and Seokjin almost went to jail for parking the truck in Melrose because those dick cops were racist shit stains and kept trying to get his permit revoked?”

 

Taehyung says, “I miss the truck. We used to get lots of cute tipsy girls trying to stave off hangovers. They tipped really well.”

 

“They tipped well because the dudes who ran the food truck looked like GQ models. Sweaty and kimchi smelling, but GQ models nonetheless.”

 

“Aww. Thanks, man. Gonna tell Seokjin you said that.”

 

“Because Seokjin’s dick needs more jacking.”

 

“Pretty sure Yoongi has that covered.”

 

They’re quiet for a moment, the impact of punches landing taking over.

 

Jimin says, “You ever wonder who-”

 

“Nope.”

 

“I mean I know they switch it up but who do you thi-”

 

“Jimin,” Taehyung says. “Nope.”

 

Jimin pulls a face, nods. He drinks, belches into his fist. “I miss those burritos. Deep fried Korean style chimichangas. He really is a genius even if he’s never used that Robotics degree.”

 

Taehyung scratches under his jaw. Says, “He revived that truck from the heap of junk it was when he bought it. Pretty mad scientist of him if you ask me.”

 

“We all know who the real mad scientist between us is, Taehyung.”

 

On screen, Jimin’s player lands on his back.

 

Taehyung’s rears back, fists up. “Now, Yoongi? Really is the picture of not using your college degree. Yoongi was never gonna be a sociologist. He hates people,” he says, more because it’s an old beaten to death joke than there being any truth to it.

 

Jimin takes a pause. Says, “He likes some people. People named Seokjin. He also like Hoseok’s and Jimin’s.”

 

Taehyung smiles, flat. “Thanks.”

 

Jimin clicks his tongue. His player goes still, all its soft bits exposed. “You going to keep talking in circles trying to distract me?”

 

Taehyung looks at him. The glaring light on Jimin’s face. The desire for the week to be over in the lines on it.

 

Jimin smiles, says, “I know you like we were born from the same zygote. We basically came from the same sperm.”

 

Taehyung keeps going in circles. Says, “My mom has always thought your dad is pretty cute.”

 

“Tell your mom to back off,” Jimin circles back, unperturbed by Taehyung’s stubbornness. He probably anticipated it. Hazard of being from the same sperm as someone. As close to it. “My mom’s a biter. Real Busan bitch.”

 

Taehyung snorts. “I’m sure Dan would appreciate your mom kicking my mom’s ass.”

 

“I’ll never get over your step-dad’s name being Dan. It’s so...white.”

 

“He is white so,” Taehyung says. He snorts in his head this time. So. It’s not enough to think about Jungkook all the time. He’s starting to talk like him too.

 

He thinks of Dan instead. His normal pleasant self. A good man. A good step-dad. A good dad. A kind guy if Taehyung has ever met one. The way he puts a smile on Taehyung’s mom’s tired face. Always a real one.

 

At least when Taehyung sees them, they’re always real. He thinks that’s enough. Hopes it is.

 

Jimin asks, “They ask you to come back home for Christmas again?”

 

Taehyung stares at his player. At his bloody face. His bruised body. He says, “They have to ask. It’s barely spring but it’s like clockwork. They’re coming here. Same as always.”

 

“Guess it’s lucky Dan’s from Cali too.”

 

“Hmm,” Taehyung sounds out, thoughtful. Maybe that’s all it is. Where you’re born. Where you end up. West coast boys heading east. East coast boys coming west. The ones who stay. In a way, it’s who Taehyung has always been. Boy born in the east brought west. Raised in the eastern part of the west. Grew up. Went in search for the west again. Stayed. In a different way, Dan is the same. Born on a military base in Tokyo. East. Grew up bouncing around Europe. West. Found his way back somewhere east. Found Taehyung’s mom.  Stayed. Then you have boys like Jungkook. Born in the west. No amount of east in his blood, in the time he’s spent there, would ever keep from the west for long. There’s a lot he doesn’t know, but Taehyung knows that much about him. Even if he makes it to Korea someday, and Taehyung really hopes he does, Jungkook is a California boy, a west boy, through and through.

 

Taehyung picks at the label of his beer. He thinks of the reason Dan stayed in New York. The reason Taehyung hasn’t left Los Angeles in ten years. Thinks about his mom. Thinks about Jungkook.

 

Maybe he and Dan have more in common than he’s always thought.

 

Taehyung says, “Yeah. Lucky.”

 

Jimin smiles. “I can’t wait to see Junghwa again. She’s a whole different size every time I see her. Like she’s leveling up. Saw the picture your mom uploaded the other day. Can’t believe she’s already five.”

 

“Me neither,” Taehyung says, grinning. It should be strange. Taehyung was turning twenty-three the year she was born. Maybe that’s why he always remembers it as a good year. Despite all the shit that happened. Twenty-three was a good year. “My baby sister’s a whole pokemon. We should take her to the Grove again. For the tree lighting. She got a real kick out of it last time.”

 

“Yeah. We should.” Jimin’s smile widens. “She still in love with Hoseok?”

 

Taehyung groans. He rips the wet label, adhesive peeling loudly against glass. “She asked about him five times when we facetimed last week. She’s a scarily determined five year old.”

 

Jimin laughs. He rests his head on the back of the couch. They’ve abandoned the game at this point, their players standing listlessly, fists at the ready. Time running without them. “He shouldn’t have said yes when she asked him to marry him when she was three. The Kim’s are very determined when it comes to love.”

 

Tossing the half ripped label on his coffee table, Taehyung thinks about his dad. How he followed his mom across a country. Convinced her to follow him across an ocean to another. He doesn’t think about anything else, about anyone, and yeah, The Kim’s are determined when it comes to love.

 

“If Hoseok ends up marrying my little sister I’ll mess up his perfect little Kardashian nose.”

 

“He’s gonna get pissy you called it that again. And you’d never hurt Hoseok. You love him too much. That one time you accidentally elbowed his face you cried ‘cause you thought you’d ruined his Kim K nose.”

 

“I was sad because of his nose. It really is perfect.” Taehyung pauses the game before the timer runs out. He thinks about his sister. Her determined little heart. Christmas wasn’t that long ago but all of a sudden his chest aches. He wishes it were December already. Wishes for a few things. Too many. He stares at the frozen players, says, “Nothing to worry about anyway. She’s not a Kim.”

 

From outside the apartment, glass smashes. A car blares its horn.

 

Someone is playing some old school rap on a busted stereo, the speakers blown out. Tupac. Biggie, maybe. Yoongi would kill him for not knowing the difference. Call him a fake honorary Californian. A disgrace to his home city. Taehyung can pick a Chopin from a Bach no problem but the music of the places he’s from, has been from. Those are a little harder. They all sort of blend together in his ears.

 

Toes hit Taehyung’s knee.

 

Jimin waits until Taehyung looks at him. When he speaks, there’s so much determination, so much love, for a second Taehyung almost believes they really did come from the same zygote. The same place. “She’s your sister, Tae. Of course she’s a Kim.”

 

From inside the apartment, the computer tower quiets to a hum.

 

Soy packets litter all over the coffee table, dots of dark brown among leftover food. Glass. Metal. An unopened letter stands out among the mess in white.

 

Taehyung thinks of his little sister. Her beaming face. The way her huge eyes crescent when she smiles. Her black hair. The way her words trip up. The same mole Taehyung has on his nose on hers.

 

“She’s already gearing up to be a genius. Just like her brother,” Jimin says like he can hear Taehyung’s thoughts. Like he’s having the same ones. “Pretty like him too. She’s basically the girl version of you. No offense to Dan, but she has zero white in her. Except her eyes. Baby blues.”

 

Taehyung thinks of his little sister. Her blue eyes. Her lighter skin. The way she stops and repeats her words when she messes up. The mole on her temple against the one he has beneath his eye.

 

Softly, he says, “No way. She’s gonna be way prettier. Already smarter. She wants to be a lawyer this month. And I don’t think Dan would be offended by that. He’s very... ethnically considerate.”

 

“Ethnically considerate.” Jimin smiles around the rim of his bottle. “Gonna steal that one.”

 

“Not mine so go ahead.” He doesn’t think Jungkook would mind. Jimin’s a no holds back kind of guy. Takes no one’s shit except his own. Tolerates his own shit a little too much. Taehyung thinks they’d like each other. Jimin and Jungkook. Both Busan boys. Both west boys at heart. Both boys that feel like Taehyung’s in very different ways.

 

He downs the rest of the beer, soured watermelon stinging his throat. It lands in his stomach harshly. Jungkook isn’t his. Isn’t anyone's. Isn’t a thing to belong to someone. The kind of someone who belongs to someone else. The way no one is. Not really. Taehyung doesn’t want that. He doesn’t. Thinks it once more so it sticks like the sour melon making a home in his stomach.

 

Jimin breaks into his thoughts with his toes again. He slides down the couch until they’re tucked under Taehyung’s thigh. A search for unnecessary warmth. “Maybe you should have been a lawyer. You hide how well you are at deflecting like a pro.”

 

“Jimin-”

 

“It’s not a performance review, man. I’m just asking.”

 

The moment feels stilted. Or maybe it’s just Taehyung. One hand gripped around empty glass. The other around the game control. Fake fight frozen on a fake screen. A real fight stilted live in color. Not much a fight. Not a fight at all. He doesn’t think he and Jimin have ever had what anyone would consider an actual fight. Fighting with Jimin has always felt like fighting himself.

 

Taehyung says, “I’m just- not feeling it right now. I wasn’t that commited to it.”

 

Jimin is quiet for a long moment. “You don’t expect me to believe that, do you?” he asks, eyes on his lap. He’s ripping the label on his own bottle, nail flicking against the sticky paper. “Look around this apartment, Tae. Listen to it. You never turn that computer off.”  

 

Taehyung tips his head back on the couch. Stares at the ceiling. He knows what his apartment looks like. Collapsed stars on the walls. NASA snapped pictures of white dwarfs. Broken up computer parts and prototypes on his coffee table, in the kitchen, in the desk in his bedroom. In the reconverted room in his living room. The computer he won’t turn off, its circuits speedely chugging along, kept in a constant state of sleep for. Someday. For nothing. For Taehyung to make up his mind.

 

It looks like a shrine to a different place. A different person. A place that isn’t in his galaxy. A person that doesn’t exist anymore. 

 

“What do you want me to say?”

 

“Just want you to be honest with me.”

 

When Taehyung doesn’t say anything, Jimin slides a little further, his toes pressing down into the cushion. He isn’t poking Taehyung with them, just the top of his foot a resting place for half of Taehyung’s thigh, throwing his balance off. “They’re still exhibiting it. Your last piece.”

 

He thinks about telling Jimin about the email. Showing him the letter. The request for an extension. For another piece. Another little piece of non reality.

 

Taehyung holds himself in place, the off kilter thing pressing down on his chest.

 

Jimin says, “It’s been three years. Three years. That’s a pretty big deal. That they still want it. It’s on loan to the Los Angeles Art Museum next month.”

 

He doesn’t ask how Jimin knows that. Other than the fact that Jimin just knows everything. Always.

 

“Have you thought of reaching out to the design lab? I’m sure-”

 

“I just-”

 

Jimin goes silent. Is all breath.

 

Taehyung tries to think of the words. He wishes it were as easy as the right words. As an input of code. The right formula. The right theory.

 

He looks at the mess his coffee table is. Looks at the letter. The last two beers. He doesn’t want one. They’re just watermelon. They’re barely alcohol. The thing in his chest presses, presses, right up against his lungs. His heart. In between. Taehyung’s next breath comes out forced. Fake. So fucking fake and yet his lungs are shaking. And yet-

 

The grip he has around the bottle in his hand tightens and Taehyung thinks, he doesn’t want to want to want one. Thinks it twice so it sticks.

 

With a thud, he places the bottle on the table. He sits back, empty handed. Fills up his hands with Jimin’s legs, places them on his lap. A grounding weight.

 

Taehyung inhales, takes a few gentle breaths. When they feel real, steady, he says, “Remember when you broke up with he who shall not be named ? And whenever I tried to talk to you about it, you told me to back the fuck off?” He says it softly. Says fuck the way Jimin had said it. Not now. Please. Soon. But. Not now.

 

Just as soft, Jimin says, “Nico and I follow each other on Instagram now. I even liked a picture of him and the dickmuncher and felt nothing but happiness.”

 

Taehyung laughs when usually mention of the dickmuncher, but mostly of Nico, piece of shit slick smug bastard, makes Taehyung’s heckles raise. They still can’t mention him around Hoseok who goes red faced in his rage.

 

He digs his knuckles into the side of Jimin’s leg and he’s so tense, muscles ready to jump apart from his bones, even after a few beers and mindless brain draining video games, that Taehyung can’t wait until October 12th, 2020. 11:59 p.m. Even if it brings Taehyung two months closer to being decrepit. That much closer to dead, as Jungkook had put it. “You’re still calling him the dickmuncher so I don’t know how accurate it is that you’re over the whole thing.”

 

JImin doesn’t laugh. Just looks at Taehyung. Just asks, “Are you asking me to back the fuck off?”

 

“No,” Taehyung says. He means it. Hopes he does. “Just some space, man.”

 

“I have been. We all have. And it’s fine. But I know how much you like your space, Tae.”

 

Taehyung rolls his head to look at him. The tv glow catches on his worried face and were it anyone else, any other person, Taehyung would be recoiling, the thing in his chest eases instead. Because next week or in a month or on October 13th, 2020. 12:00 a.m. It’ll be the roles reversed. Taehyung’s concerned face. Jimin telling him in the exact loving words. Back the fuck off.

 

He says, “I know, Jiminie-ah. I know.”

 

“Fuck. Haven’t heard that in an even longer while.” Jimin sighs. “Okay.” Grunting, he sits up. He sets his half empty bottle next to Taehyung’s and pats Taehyung’s hand on his leg. Says, a more convincing, a more gentle, “Okay.”

 

It’s moments like these, in the quiet ease of acceptance, that Taehyung doesn’t doubt that Jimin is his, has been since the moment he sat third row in his differential calculus class and turned to his seatmate and found Jimin, smile at the ready. “Ready to go back to kicking my ass?”

 

“Yeah. Lets play that zombie game next so you can kick mine.”

 

Taehyung unpauses the game. The sound of bodies caving on impact fills the apartment again.

 

Jimin kicks his feet up on the headrest, thumbs squashing the buttons on his controller. “Can I ask how it’s going? With the boy of your dreams?”

 

“Is that what a soulmate is? The person of our dreams?” Taehyung asks. Like the idea of true connection is just that. Dreamscape.

 

He delivers a swift uppercut to Jimin’s player, blood leaking from its nose. Taehyung says, “He’s not much of a boy anyway. Has his shit together more than I do. More mature too.”

 

He thinks of Jungkook calling him an adult. Calling himself a kid. He wonders if they’re both just blinded. To reality. To each other.

 

“That answers my question.”

 

He looks at Jimin expecting sarcasm screwed up in his face, but Jimin is focused on the game, the glaring light catching his content expression.

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“The way you talk about him. The way you said that. Like the fact doesn’t bother you or make you jealous. Just makes you happy that he has his shit together.” Jimin makes his player stumble with another roundhouse, right at his neck. “It answers my question.”

 

Taehyung wasn’t aware of it. His voice. The sound of it. It wasn’t even a real answer. Something is either going or it isn’t. He doesn’t know which would be more appropriate. Thinks he’s caught between both.

 

He flips the question back at Jimin.

 

Jimin’s smile blooms. A flush he can’t help, and maybe he really is over fucking Nico and the fucking dickmuncher. “She spent the weekend again. She left on Tuesday because she ran out of clothes. I’ve been staying over at her place since.”

 

“I’m happy for you. Really. You deserve it,” Taehyung says, his face mirroring the content on Jimin’s. He bumps his head against the side of Jimin’s feet, gets him to look at him. “You’re gonna get there. I know it, man.”

 

Jimin is a good son.

 

On the path. On the plan. Has himself a good Korean girl. A projected carefully planned future. 401K. Goes home for Christmas. A retirement timeline. In Maine, maybe Busan, one day. Jimin is a good son.

 

Jimin bumps back, laughs when Taehyung mock gags over his supposedly stinky feet. “You too, man. I know it. You too.”

 

Jimin is a good son.

 

An even better friend.

 

*****

 

After Jimin goes home, after he’s cleaned up his apartment, trash full of their leftovers, the extra beers gone home with Jimin. The ones he left from that one time still in Taehyung’s fridge door, the empty ones still on the coffee table.

 

After, he slides the doors in the living room open, well oiled and dragging smooth.

 

He sits in the chair. The back protests as he shifts, patent leather cushion no longer holding his shape.

 

He runs his hands over the keyboard. Stares at the prototype on the work table, bright white lamp from the lamp clipped to the wall beaming over it.

 

He sits there and he stares. Leg pressed to the tower, he feels the warmth emanating from it, temperature kept regulated.  

 

He stares at the diagrams, the images of  dark holes and stars tacked on the walls, the constant whirring of circuits running.

 

He stares and he thinks about his little sister and he hopes, for her sake, that she isn’t a Kim.

 

He sits there until his eyes are dry and red. Until he makes himself get up. Makes himself toss the empty beer bottles in the trash. The full ones in his fridge land in the garbage with a loud clang. One of them breaks, shattered glass, the smell of brewed chocolate filling the kitchen. He chugs water until his stomach feels ready to burst. Turns the light off. He lies in his clean scented sheets, not really meadow scented like his laundry detergent promised, but clean.

 

He thinks about plans. About not having one. Abandoning them.

 

He thinks about soulmates. About his dad. About his mom. About Dan.

 

He thinks about Jungkook.

 

He thinks about the universe. Universes.

 

He thinks about the stars, how bright they are, the brightest before they got out, and falls asleep.

 

*****

 

Outside the theater, heat washes over the street.

 

Taehyung’s phone buzzes. There’s a feeling in his chest he can’t place.

 

He ignores the buzz. Works on finishing his coke, the hollow sound of soda shooting up the straw. Extra large is always a mistake but he can never seem to help himself.

 

Yoongi and Hoseok follow behind trying to decide what to do next. Seokjin’s at some night business class and Jimin is studying for this course he’s taking to keep his skills relevant. The three of them out of for a night of CGI and tearing up the town in comparison.

 

“Overachieving assholes,” Yoongi gripes, pushing the sleeves of his jacket up. “How’d we end up the slackers?

 

Hoseok scoffs. “Speak for yourself. I run the kitchen with your better half and I teach dance to underprivileged kids-”

 

“Bet your lawyer sugar daddy is very impressed by what a selfless giving asshole you are-”

 

“He is,” Hoseok cuts in. He shakes half a box of nerds into his mouth. Demanded Yoongi buy them for him and didn’t even eat them during the movie. “That’s in limbo right now but anyhow. And my man, Taehyung, over here-”

 

The night is at the edge of sticky. All the signs are in hangul, most of the people walking by look familiar but aren’t. Taehyung feels settled tonight. Centered. Like he could maybe finally take that meditation class.

 

His phone vibrates again. Reminds him of the feeling in his chest. Less of a yank. A pull.

 

Taehyung pulls out his phone. “How about sushi?” He suggests, cutting into their bickering. He doesn't want this vibe ruined tonight. This feeling of calm. Something like home. “You guys feeling some yellow tuna?”

 

Yoongi throws a nerd at Taehyung. It bounces off the lid of his soda, scuttles on the sidewalk. “You stuffed yourself with a jumbo popcorn. How are you still hungry?”

 

Hoseok is saying, “-holding down various jobs like a champ and he’s going to build a virtual replica of, like, all of space one day. You’re just a glorified kept man, Yoongi.”

 

“I part own the shack and work the front, fuck you, Hose-”

 

“Barbeque?” Taehyung asks, half listening to them as his phone vibrates for the third time, rumbling against his wet palm. The calm goes a little lopsided. Physically disturbed. “I’m feeling galbi. What about you gu-”

 

“There’s no shame in being a glorified house husband, man.”

 

“Says the sugar baby in training-”

 

In the neon glare of a noraebang, music rattling onto the sidewalk, Taehyung looks down at his phone screen. The calm feeling turns to ice in his chest.

 

 

jjk

 

hey

 

u busy

 

?

 

 

Taehyung’s brows raise. The movie theatre chill is a distant memory, night heat seeping into his bones. It used to be too dry when he moved here, west coast sea sucking all the moisture from the air. The air’s too wet now, too familiar.

 

This is a first for them. Usually Jungkook just drops whatever random thing he wants them to do, asks if the time works for Taehyung, like it’s a given that Taehyung will say yes.

 

Usually, it is.

 

He starts texting back one handed, soda cup rested against his thigh, when another string of messages comes in.

 

 

jjk

 

course youre busy

 

furgot its fridy

 

srry ignoree 

 

 

Taehyung hangs back a few paces, Yoongi and Hoseok’s bickering mixing with the murmurings of the city. Blaring engines careen down the street. Indistinct conversation in the language his parents spoke to him, the language of his first few years of life. Heels clacking on cement. Weekend night hum.

 

When Taehyung first came here, he’d close his eyes and knew if he wanted to he could pretend he was three thousand miles in the opposite direction. He never really wanted to and it never truly worked whenever he did. Los Angeles smells too much like the ocean underneath all the muck, like sunscreen and the piss stain scent of the brewery up by Roscoe and all the tiny jasmine blooming in spring and the burnt carcasses from the San Bernardino fires pushing westward. It smelled too clean to Taehyung. Like city officials were pouring bleach into the airwaves every morning.

 

Sometimes it still smells too clean.  

 

He takes a sip, chews on the ice that makes it up the oversized straw.  

 

 

you

hey

 

no it’s fine

 

what’s up? are you okay?

 

jjk

 

nothing

 

 

Nothing else comes but the bubble signaling Jungkook is typing keeps appearing and disappearing.

 

Taehyung slows, feet dragging on concrete, damp thumbs hesitating over the keyboard.

 

 

jjk

 

im fine

 

jus wanted to chill but it s fine

 

dont worry

 

 

JTaehyung frowns, heart starting to pound, calm feeling stalled in his bones. The song from the bar up the block is a twangy guitar pronged melody, lo-fi and out of place on the bustling street, the place they’re passing by now playing jittery techno that booms into the traffic and reaches the other side of the pavement.

 

Hoseok is shoving Yoongi’s shoulder, face pried open in an explosive laugh, Yoongi’s little satisfied smile bright like he’s done something far more difficult than wrestling a laugh out of Hoseok. Somedays Taehyung thinks it’s the most painless thing any of them have ever done, getting Hoseok to smile.

 

Jungkook texts again.

 

 

jjk

 

‘m fine

 

Taehyung wonders which one of them he’s trying to convince.

 

He comes to a stop under a street light, artificial heat making the actual heat worse.

 

 

you

 

where are you?

 

jjk

 

i’m fiem

 

ugh

 

FINE

 

srry not yelling at u

 

fumb slipped

 

ugh

 

zeriouss

 

ughhhhh

 

seriously

 

 

Taehyung is already typing by the third text, coke held against his elbow so he can use both hands. The cup is sweating against his shirt, a small bit of relief in the humidity clinging to his skin. His mind is on autopilot as he texts, fingers tapping fast, the techno lofi jangle irritating the air around him and in time with the beat in his chest.

 

 

you

 

where are u?

 

ill come to wherever u are

 

if you need me

 

 

Taehyung erases the extra question marks. Sends the text, chest shaky, coming apart. He tells himself to calm down but he can’t. He can see Jungkook’s trembling hands, bitten lip, shoulders hunched, making himself smaller, pulling inward as he reaches out. Toward Taehyung.

 

Jungkook doesn’t answer. No bubbles after more than a few seconds. Taehyung wipes his brow against his shoulder, frown deep. He hesitates as he types.

 

 

you

 

to

 

if you need me to

 

 

“Tae?”

 

The speech bubble pops up. Taehyung releases his jaw, inhales and all he breathes in is gas fumes. Barbeque lighter fluid. Bleach.

 

 

jjk

 

uhg

 

fcuk

 

taehyung

 

 

Taehyung’s chest tugs.

 

 

you

 

tell me where you are

 

if you want me there im there

 

i mean it

 

 

“Taehyung?”

 

Yoongi touches his shoulder, hand clammy. Taehyung flinches.

 

Hoseok’s brows are furrowed, the street light filling the hollows beneath his eyes. “Hey. You okay, man?”

 

“Yeah, sorry,” Taehyung says, glancing down at the speech bubbles frozen on his screen like Jungkook keeps writing and rewriting the same few words over and over again, doesn’t want any spelling mistakes, doesn’t want to have anything to say. “Sorry. It’s my- my friend. I think he needs someone right now.”

 

Yoongi doesn’t let go of his shoulder. “Is he okay?”

 

“I don’t- I think so?”

 

 

jjk

 

don wanna ruin your night

 

sorry

 

 

Taehyung breathes out, the only thing left in his lungs is the night flowers.

 

you

 

youre not

 

wanna see you

 

always do

 

you know that

 

 

He doesn’t get to think whether he’s rammed his foot all the way down his throat and his toes are now at the other side of Pluto, at the end of the farthest galaxy the human eye will never see. Somewhere else so far that’ll have him really fucked when-

 

 

jjk

 

fckkk

 

know tht pie place by the old silent theater i wes hollywood?????

 

 

Taehyung doesn’t. Finds it online.

 

He looks up at Hoseok and Yoongi while he does it, fingers skipping on the screen. “Sorry. Do you guys mind? I don’t wanna bail but-”

 

“Of course. We were thinking about going back to the old folks’ home and having a Mario Kart marathon. Pick up some Tino’s or something for your bottomless pit stomach.”

 

“If Seokjin finds out we went to Tino’s again, he’ll skin us.”

 

“He needs to get over that. Tino doesn’t even know they’ve been in a feud for three years. Jin didn’t actually invent deep fried Korean burritos.”

 

“You sure it’s okay?” Taehyung asks but he’s already pulling up the map, frowning at the blue lines, trying to figure out the quickest way there.

 

“Yeah, man. Where’s he at? We’ll drop you off.”

 

“Thanks but it’s in West Hollywood. I’ll tak the m- shit. Public’ll take over an hour. I’ll uber.”

 

“West Fucking Hollywood?” Yoongi asks, like the concept of West Hollywood itself offends him. “Who the fuck is in West goddamn Ho-”

 

“It’s not that far,” Hoseok says diplomatically. “Like, half an hour.”

 

Yoongi makes a face, reaches for the soda when it starts slipping from the crook of Taehyung’s elbow. “On a Friday at nine thirty? Gonna take forty. At least.” He bumps Hoseok’s arm, says, “We’ll take you. Faster that way.”

 

“Seriously, guys-”

 

 

jjk

 

its ok. really.

 

i was just in a weird mood. shitty day at work.

 

don’t worry

 

 

Taehyung jarrs when Hoseok throws his arm around his shoulders, jolting his stunned thumbs. Hoseok kicks Yoongi’s leg to get him walking down the sidewalk. “Come on. We’ll play NPR in the car. NPR always keeps Yoongi zen when he speeds.”

 

The ice rattles as Yoongi drinks from Taehyung’s cup, watered down sugar broth at this point, and Taehyung isn’t paying attention, trusts Hoseok to lead him over the cracks and hidden traps in a city like Los Angeles, deceptive and cunning in its outward dirtiness in some places, its synthetically slick perfection in others.

 

“Okay,” Taehyung says, thumbs smudging as he types and retypes and he wonders if he should take Jungkook’s words at face value, and he wishes he wasn’t so bad at words, wasn’t so good at tripping, wishes he understood human language as well as people think he does, as well as he does circuits and numbers in infinity and the perfect quinoa to tofu ratio. “Okay. Thanks. I’ll let you know where to drop me off on the strip. It’s by Melrose.”

 

“Fucking Melro- Jesus.” Yoongi shakes his head. Offers Hoseok the coke, who pops the lid, shakes some ice in his mouth. A cube lands on Taehyung’s neck, hits his skin like a snowdrop, melting instantly.

 

Yoongi says, “Haven’t seen the strip since I moved here. Man, the most eyesore part of this eyesore town.”  

 

Hoseok pulls Taehyung along. “You’re from Florida, man. Last person who can talk about eyesores. Your whole state is an eyesore. Except the beaches. And the Disney World. But Universal is fucking ugly no matter what you say.”

 

Taehyung presses send.

 

 

you

 

i know where it is

 

i’ll be there.

 

give me 30 maybe 40

 

The reply comes barely a few seconds later.

 

jjk

 

kay

 

Then-

 

jjk

 

thank you

 

 

And relief warms Taehyung’s chest at finally knowing the right words.

 

*****

 

Yoongi gets him there in twenty-nine.

 

*****

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

*****

 

“I got you pie. They were out of peach. Sorry.”

 

“Tha-”

 

“So, I got berry. Because I remembered. That you like berries. Unless you don’t and the lube was just- shit. Sorry. I’d add lube to the list but I think berries was the problem word-”

 

“Jungkook.

 

Jungkook stops. Looks up.

 

The fluorescents are blinding. The way they light up Jungkook’s eyes is blinding. The dark of his lashes against them.

 

It blinds.

 

Taehyung touches the edge of a spoon. The dirty table top.

 

He says, “I didn’t come here for the pie.”

 

“I-” Jungkook starts. He lets out a slow breath. Looks down at his hands. “Yeah.”

 

“And I like berries. You don’t have to put them on the list.”

 

It would be futile at this point. The list is full of things Taehyung likes. He tries to not think about it for the millionth time but that’s all Taehyung is. Trying. Failing to. Mind already there. How he likes the cloying scent of berries from Jungkook’s body. From his lips. How it stuck to Jungkook’s tongue, to the roof of his mouth, after he kissed Taehyung for the first time. How he tasted like he was born on a fake berry farm, was bred from them, each kiss after that.

 

Taehyung doesn’t even get angry at himself this time. Just accepts it. Just lets it sit there. In his mind. Where it’s safe. Away from his mouth. His hands. His chest.  

 

Jungkook fidgets with his fork, the plate in front of him demolished and crumb filled. His skin is pale in the buzzing lights of the shop. Shoulders hunched, about ready to bust out of the seams of his jacket, leather glaringly shiny.

 

They’re quiet for a few minutes, just breathing in the same closed in space, and Taehyung starts to relax. The feeling in his chest starts to ease and whatever this is, is fine. Jungkook is okay, physically at least, and he just needs a moment, and Taehyung can give that to him.

 

Then, Jungkook looks up again.

 

Then, Jungkook gives a smile, tiny and barely there. Like he feels he has to. It’s wrong on his mouth. That mouth that Taehyung is so desperate to kiss again his entire body is one large ache from it, and all of a sudden, the anger hits Taehyung so hard it feels like whiplash. Almost snaps his neck back. Except.

 

His heat rate doesn’t spike. He doesn’t see red. He doesn’t-

 

It’s not anger.

 

His stomach doubles over. Heavy. He wants to hide. He wants to tear his skin off. Wants to rip his dirty hands off. He wants clean ones. He wants-

 

It curdles in Taehyung’s belly.

 

The shame.

 

That Jungkook looks like he hasn’t slept in days. That his shoulders look seconds from caving in. That there’s a slight tremor in his hands. That he looks like a fake shelled version of himself and Taehyung can’t keep his thoughts from taking that steep drop into filth land. That he’s not actually trying to stop himself from going there.

 

That Taehyung really does keep things close to his chest but Jungkook reads the cards he can see well.

 

You don’t want to be my friend, Taehyung.    

 

Taehyung had thought it honest then. Now it makes his stomach roll, makes his chest yank in guilt.

 

It doesn’t matter that Jungkook said it was okay. To want.

 

Taehyung has had dirty hands for years. Dirty desires. Might have been born with them.

 

He should be able to control them.

 

He thinks of his father.

 

Of the beers he had last night.

 

Taehyung looks at Jungkook. And he thinks.

 

Metal clangs. A stack of empty pie pans clatters to the ground. There’s a loud shout.

 

The shop smells sweet. Warm. Too warm for California. Ceiling fans turn lazily above them. Taehyung tries not to feel suffocated.

 

Fails at that too.

 

Taehyung cuts into his pie. Too many blueberries stick to his teeth.

 

Twisting his coffee mug, Jungkook stares at a spot on the table, ceramic scratching fake wood.

 

The waitress comes by with the coffee pot. Taehyung declines. Feels too jittery for it. Doesn’t care for the stuff anyway. Jungkook nods. It’s watered down drip coffee. Standard bakery fair. Jungkook dumps three little cups of creamer into it. Brings the full mug to his mouth. Doesn’t drink. The steam drifts up, warms his face.

 

A football match fills the silence. Real Madrid is winning but they’re always winning. Jimin always complains about it, Yoongi lording it over his head smugly.   

 

Jungkook opens his mouth, tips the mug.

 

Too many blueberries fill Taehyung’s mouth again.

 

Jungkook frowns, looks like he’s seconds from burning a hole through the table.

 

Then he huffs out a breath, a sort of laugh. “I don’t- I don’t actually want to talk about it.” He looks at Taehyung in the eye finally, expression swarmed with guilt. “I’m sorry.”

 

Taehyung shrugs, keeps his face the same neutral patience he’s been aiming for. Careful to keep anything else hidden. The place shame belongs. “That’s fine. I did actually just come for the pie,” he says, smooths out his grimace at the sour berries in his mouth.

 

Another laugh. A little less sort of, more real.

 

“I am sorry though,” Jungkook says, cupping his mug close. For warmth. For protection. Why he needs either in this climate, when he dresses the way he does and boasts of the uppercut he says he has. It makes more than just Taehyung’s body ache. “For making you come here. You were out, right? I’m guessing not near here.”

 

Taehyung swallows. He should have gotten the coffee. Taken the watered coke from Yoongi’s car. “I don’t strike you as the West Hollyhood type?”

 

“Not especially, no. You just called it Holly-hood.”

 

Taehyung smiles, wry. He pushes a blueberry across his plate. It’s really just blueberries. He’s counted two strawberry pieces so far. False advertising. Taehyung should be more used to it than he is. This city is all fake promises. Fake people.

 

He says, “I was coming out of a movie with Yoongi and Hoseok. We were just gonna chill. Have a screaming match over Mario Kart and kimchi burritos back at Yoongi’s.”

 

“They sound fun.”

 

“They are. You’d like them.”

 

Jungkook hums, taps his fingers on the table. “Mario Kart? That’s, like, mega old school. Elementary even.”

 

“Yeah, well. We made a pact during college to never play Overwatch together again. And Call of Duty turns Hoseok into a rage monster so. Yoshi Island it is.”

 

“That’s a limited range of gaming options.”

 

“Well, what do you play then?”

 

Jungkook shakes his head. He rips open a few packets of sugar. They spill into his milky coffee like snow, fresh and powdery. “I quit gaming in high school. I spent the entire summer before eleventh grade in my room glued to my console. I’d take a shit with my headset on. My grandparents kept saying I’d grown half a foot since the last time they’d seen me. When I went for a climb before the semester started, I almost dislocated my shoulder because I was so rusty. I get really,” he pauses to sip. Swallow. He presses his tongue to his front teeth. He stirs and watches his coffee until the white has bled into the dark. “I can get really fixated with things. So. I quit. Haven’t played since.”

 

Taehyung digs his fork into the pie, doesn’t take a bite.

 

Jungkook’s hair blazes under the harsh lights, dark matter. Too bright despite it.

 

He grins at Taehyung like muscle memory, no teeth. “Hoseok. He’s the one who works the kitchen, right? With the apron? The one who-”

 

“Is always flirting with you, yeah.”

 

Jungkook smirks. It doesn’t reach his eyes. More muscle memory. His cheeks color a little, pinkish in the light. “I don’t know if I’d call it flirting.”

 

“Hmm.”

 

Jungkook dances his fingers along his mug. He shifts in his seat, looks at Taehyung through his lashes. It’s more shy than anything, like he’s unsure. Of his own question. Of Taehyung. It still guts Taehyung silly. Punches the shame in his stomach clean. Burns like lust. “Would it bother you? If I did think of it as flirting?”

 

Taehyung almost laughs. At the idea of Taehyung finding Hoseok a bother. Which is funny in and of itself because of course he can be. He laughs too loud sometimes. Gets bitchy at the worst moments. Is a serial cuddle-hugger. Eats all of Taehyung’s peanut butter when he comes over. The most terrible roller coaster seat mate, leaves Taehyung with nail marks in his arms whenever Taehyung loses and gets saddled with him. But the fact that Hoseok is a creature who wants. Who is viscerally drawn to beautiful things and lets them know it. Puts a smile on their faces and makes them feel wanted in a good way. A clean way.

 

Taehyung could never feel bothered by that.

 

Even if it is Jungkook. Especially if it is. Jungkook deserves to be wanted in the rawest, cleanest way possible.

 

Hoseok is one of the dirtiest clean things Taehyung has ever known.  

 

It would soothe the customers of the shack. To know that the first hands who touch their food have never known the blood stained sin of meat. Parents straight out of a hippy vegan commune in Santa Barbara, Hoseok came into this world clean.

 

Taehyung asks, “Would you want it to bother me?”

 

Jungkook pulls back. Subtle as he does. Averts his eyes. Drinks from his mug. Shrugs.

 

Taehyung says, “Yeah, that’s him. Yoongi’s the one who works the front with me a lot.”

 

“He and Yoongi aren’t...”

 

Taehyung snorts. Shoves pie in his mouth. “For all of one second when Yoongi knocked Hoseok over on move in day freshman year. Then Yoongi opened his mouth.”

 

Jungkook smiles, hint of teeth. Taehyung tries not to savor it like a hint of a victory.

 

“Nah. Really. They love each other. A little too much sometimes if you ask me. But Yoongi has been basically married to Seokjin since they met on Yoongi’s orientation day. Seokjin was his tour guide and Yoongi was a goner the second he saw him even though he denied it for a year before they got together.”

 

Jungkook’s eyes soften. His smile too. “They sound nauseatingly in love.”

 

Taehyung shakes his head with an eye roll, hard enough to rattle his insides. It makes him dizzy, tilts the world too much, but Jungkook laughs, the edges of his shoulders relaxing. Taehyung can take the dizziness. His body turned inside out if it gets Jungkook like this. Soft. Less strung out. He ignores the part that’s caused by the shape of the word love in Jungkook’s voice.

 

“Try working with it. Sharing a dorm with it. My entire freshman year was like front row seats for the shittiest k-drama ever. Don’t know what possessed me to room with Yoongi for the next three years too.”

 

“They never moved in together during college?”

 

Taehyung shakes his head. Less dizzying. “Yoongi and I moved into an apartment with Hoseok in third year but Seokjin couldn’t. He had to live at his frat house. They live together now, though.”

 

“You’re friends with a frat bro?” Jungkook asks, delight sparkling in his eyes.

 

Taehyung grins. The shaky thing in his chest feels settled. Dizzy in a good way. “I am friends with the least fratty ex frat bro you’ll ever meet.”

 

“You’re friends with a frat bro.”

 

“We’ve established this, yes.”

 

Leaning back, Jungkook regards him, mouth pursed coyly. It’s hard not to return the attention, the open appraisal, intense and all on Taehyung. “Did you go to a lot of Greek parties?”

 

“Enough.”

 

“Huh. Hook up with a lot of sorority girls? Frat bros?”

 

“More sorority girls than frat bros. Frat bros are disgusting. And not any more than the general student body, but yeah. Some.”

 

“Huh,” is what Jungkook says, eyes so bright it’s like fucking comets are shooting up inside them. Taehyung wouldn’t blink if they actually were.

 

“What?” Taehyung asks, feels the stupid grin hanging off his mouth. Doesn’t try to repress it. Hide it. He isn’t ashamed of it. This kind of want. Wants Jungkook to see it. Know it. Feel it. Always.  

 

“Nothing. You just really are full of surprises sometimes,” Jungkook says, something shy in his smile now. He cups his chin, face less pale, luminescent almost. “So were you, like, a total campus player?”

 

Taehyung throws his head back, laughs loudly. The radio gets turned up. Atletico finally scores, the crowd going bezerk. They’re the only customers in the shop.

 

Breath caught back, Taehyung says, “Jesus. No. I- yeah, I got around but nothing compared to most college kids. I slept in the lab more nights than I could count. I thought 90’s grunge jeans were cool. I wasn’t exactly the cream of the crop.”

 

Jungkook rolls his eyes so hard Taehyung is genuinely surprised they don’t end up white side out. “And yet you still got all those sorority girls to go down on you.” He shrugs one shoulder, dismissive. Unimpressed. “Sounds pretty player to me.”

 

Taehyung laughs again, spat out of him. “Jungk-”

 

Jungkook doesn’t back down, seems to relish in Taehyung’s bafflement. He leans forward, the need to pull back, to feel protected, gone in favor of making Taehyung squirm. “Please. Don’t act like you don’t know exactly what you look like. Fake modesty is very unattractive, Rainbow Boy.”

 

Biting his tongue, Taehyung shakes his head at the table, at his barely eaten pie.

 

Jungkook isn’t being insistent in a sharp way but he is steering the conversation in a direction that seems littered in warning signs. Swells up and only advanced surfers allowed in the water. Taehyung may have sharpened his teeth at Lincoln Boulevard and the freezing waters in east New York, but he’s out of practice. Rusty. His series of wipeouts in Topanga last week proof of that. He caught a few good waves eventually but only after almost busting his head open on the jagged coast line one times too many.

 

The surf at Heavens is cool but forgiving. Easy.

 

Maybe Taehyung has let himself get too used to it. The easy.

 

“I’m not allowed to say anything in response to that,” he says. He wonders if Jungkook can hear. How helpless he sounds.

 

Eyebrows slanting, Jungkook asks, “Why?”

 

Taehyung shrugs. Pushes himself flat against the back of his chair. Knows he looks as helpless as his voice is. “It goes against the list.”

 

Jungkook bites his lower lip, a practiced movement, makes it fuller than it is, like it should be swollen from too many kisses. They’re less smooth looking than usual, no shiny pink toned residue.  

 

Jungkook doesn’t waver. He says, “I don’t care about the list tonight.”

 

The warning signals grow louder. Blare in Taehyung’s ears. Crushing swell rising into tsunami territory. Crush in his roiling gut.

 

Taehyung grinds his teeth a little. He scoops blueberry goop into his mouth. “What do you want me to say?”

 

Jungkook flicks a brow. He curves in a little, some of the satisfaction melting out of his gaze but the defiance is still there, in the high line of his shoulders.

 

Taehyung doesn’t let how out of depth he feels show on his face. Hides the helplessness like he does other things. He cuts into the pie, chews through the bitterness. Through Jungkook’s silence.

 

“A straightforward answer,” Jungkook says finally. He doesn’t give anything away, hand curled loosely around his mug, mouth petulant, expression almost bored. Like he didn’t tell Taehyung not to talk about his relationships, didn’t take the word boyfriend out of his mouth, and is out of nowhere, now, goading Taehyung to rip them back out himself, because he says so. Because that’s what Jungkook wants and of course Taehyung is going to give it to him.

 

Some other person, some other version of Taehyung, would get angry about this. Feel jerked around. And maybe a part of Taehyung is. Deep down, in some part he doesn’t want to recognize about himself, he is.

 

But he can’t. Because Jungkook is crushingly beautiful and crushingly demanding and crushingly unfair and he really never has tried to hide the fact that he is from Taehyung.

 

But he can’t. Because Taehyung said anything, anywhere, and in the bigger part of himself, the part that matters, the one Taehyung hopes does, he’s honest.  

 

“Well,” Taehyung says, purposely evasive, because Jungkook did say he wasn’t playing mind games but this feels like one, one Jungkook wants him to lose. “It’s not that straightforward. Yeah, I screwed around but I had a girlfriend my whole second year. Only reason we broke up was because she transferred to another university halfway across the country.”

 

Taehyung still thinks about her sometimes. If she’s happy. If she got used to the cold like she feared she wouldn’t. If she still needs someone to run their hands through her hair when she can’t sleep. If her curls still smell like lilacs. If the insides of her thighs still taste like coconut. If someone else finds it almost impossible to climb outside of her every single time, finds any dumb boyish excuse to stay inside of her. If she’s a professor like she wanted to be. If she still listens to Nas and clicks her teeth when she’s angry and snorts when she laughs too hard and likes an arm curled across his shoulder to keep her warm.

 

He hopes for it. All of it.

 

A foul is called over the radio. A yellow card, the second of the game. It must be early in still.

 

Jungkook scratches his jaw, the scar in his cheek. He doesn’t look away from Taehyung’s face, not even when the waitress comes by and he asks for another slice of pie. Apple. They always have apple.

 

Taehyung drags his fork across his plate, a grating sound. “And I dated this guy when I was a senior. He was a freshman. It didn’t last long but I couldn’t see it ending until it did.”    

 

“Did you love him?” Jungkook asks. He didn’t have to about her. Could probably hear it in Taehyung’s voice.

 

Love at twenty-one is a strange thing. Sometimes so lust dumb you can’t see straight, sometimes so sweet it makes your stomach turn over. Sometimes neither and so casual you forget you’re not just friends.

 

It was even harder to pull away from his bed some days, his legs curled around Taehyung’s waist to pull him back when Taehyung remembered he had class and tried to. Fell back in almost stupidly easy. Others, Taehyung had a hard time remembering he had somewhere to fall. He had ridiculous eyelashes, the kind of tan you can’t get from the sun, and a dedicated love for anything Fincher and sour patch kids. He liked holding hands a lot. Taehyung hopes he’s on a movie set somewhere though he hasn’t seen his name anywhere.

 

He thinks about him less.

 

“Yeah. I loved him.”

 

Jungkook looks away.

 

He picks up his mug. Sets it down. Asks, “So, Seokjin and Yoongi have been together since? Never broke up?”

 

The abruptness should throw Taehyung off but he’s too used to it by now. The way they jump back and forth between conversations in a conversation. He wonders if Jungkook will later ask him who he’s dated since college, why it didn’t work out, why Taehyung doesn’t think he’s much of a boyfriend.

 

He wonders if Jimin would think Jungkook would make a good lawyer too.

 

Taehyung says, “No.”

 

The waitress drops off Jungkook’s pie. Jungkook cuts off a fifth in one go.

 

“That’s nice. Seokjin never gets weird about Hoseok?”

 

Taehyung picks at his slice. Presses down on a berry. Watches it bleed purple-blue. He tries to chase out the shaky feeling returning to his chest. He’s had too much sugar today. His fork hits the plate with a clack. “Nothing to get weird about. That was never a thing. Maybe if Hoseok and Yoongi had met first things would be different but.” Taehyung swallows a bite of crust, wipes the edge of his mouth with his hand.

 

Jungkook slides over a napkin, wordless.

 

Taehyung takes it. Gives him a nod back.

 

Taehyung says, “And honestly? Most days it’s Seokjin and Hoseok who love each other a little too much. Besides, Jin is really big on the whole free love thing. He doesn’t believe in possessiveness or jealousy. He thinks if someone is supposed to be with him they will be until they choose not to. Yoongi’s the jealous one.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“In a chill way. Mostly. He’s not a dick about it.” Anymore, at least. Taehyung stops on a chuckle, remembers Yoongi giving Jungkook’s retreating back the worst elevator eyes. “He definitely has a wandering eye so he’d never say anything. Yoongi’s just a penguin.”

  

Jungkook’s mouth quirks. “Penguin?”

 

“Yeah. He mates for life.”

 

Jungkook narrows his gaze. Almost lazy about it. He looks at Taehyung for a long moment. Asks, so crushingly flat if Taehyung were anyone else, it would hurt, “So, soulmates?”

 

All the sounds grow.

 

Baking pans clattering against the cement floor in the kitchen. A chorus of reprimands. The impact of a foot against the ball. The crowd losing its sanity, breaking the sound barrier, the commentator’s never ending stream of goooooooooooool!!!!

 

Taehyung’s beating heart trying to choke itself inside his chest, reaching up for his throat in search of air, a bigger space to breathe.  

 

It’s the derisive way Jungkook says it, the mean little edge to his pretty mouth.

 

Even though he grew up with two sets of people who he describes as close to the definition of soulmates as possible.

 

Even though he kept running into Taehyung at every turn when it was the last thing he wanted, when it should have been completely impossible.

 

Even though he reached out to Taehyung tonight when he could have gone to anyone else. Probably should have.

 

And Taehyung thinks fixation.

 

And Taehyung says, “Yeah. Soulmates.”

 

Jungkook takes a breath, shoulders too wide for his jacket again as he inhales, and he looks up at Taehyung and there’s something in his eyes, the lights draining the color that’s been working back into his face, and the shaky thing twitches in Taehyung’s chest, threatens to break him apart, and Taehyung thinks put it on the list, put it on the list, put it on the list , please, god, put it on-

 

-and Jungkook says,

 

“Can we get out of here? Just- just outside? The radio’s driving me crazy.”

 

Taehyung doesn’t deflate. In disappointment. In bitterness. Just keeps his back straight in his chair. Just says, “Yes.”

 

*****

 

The night blinds.

 

“Sure you don’t want some?”

 

“I’m good. Promise.”

 

The hood of Jungkook’s car is blue. Pie box open between them.

 

Taehyung’s stomach is to its limits, heaviness prickling at his insides. He’d been starving earlier despite the mountain of popcorn in his stomach. He doesn’t think he could fit another thing in his mouth right now.

 

He isn’t sure he can feel the difference anymore. Between starvation and not.

 

Neon fills Taehyung’s eyes. All the billboards pollute his line of sight. The distance from the strip mellows the noisy car engines, the bustle from the clubs, down to a drone. Easy on the ears.

 

Taehyung hasn’t had a night like this in a while that didn’t include a bar or a rooftop or a band.

 

Just Taehyung and the vibrations of this city, its rhythms falling and rising around him. Almost familiar. Almost home. Maybe in a few years. After another ten give or take.

 

Jungkook shifts next to him, the top flap of the pie box hitting Taehyung’s elbow.

 

He’s had a night like this in an even longer time.

 

Just him and the drone and someone else.

 

Red grazes Jungkook’s top lashes, humming and wrapping him up like a halo of light.

 

Taehyung looks at a beer ad, an oversized can fit for a giant. “Do you hang out around here a lot?”

 

“Oh.” Jungkook wrinkles his nose, pastry flake stuck to his top lip. “No. I was driving and decided to- just stop. Were you Downtown?”

 

“Yeah, how’d you- is it okay that I’m sitting on your car like this? I don’t want to scratch the pai-”

 

“‘S fine,” Jungkook mumbles around an apple. He licks the fork, halfway through the slice. Most of Taehyung’s pie is in the box. It won’t be long before he starts working on that one too.

 

Cinnamon spice fill Taehyung’s nose. His stomach lurches. He picks his feet off the bumper, slides forward so he can sit up tall, feet hitting the pavement. Parked along the sidewalk of the pie shop, the lights fall on the curb in slants.

 

Taehyung isn’t sweating like he was outside the theatre, t-shirt stuck dry to his front, but he feels constricted. Like his skin is on all wrong.

 

“It’s fine, Tae- Really. This car is older than both of us combined-”

 

“Shouldn’t that be more reason to be carefu-”

 

“No. Will you please just- Sit and not eat pie with me? Please?”

 

The hood sinks.

 

The license plate on the car parked in front of Jungkook’s reads ASS MAN.

 

Taehyung understands the sentiment if not the need to drive around declaring it.

 

Jungkook sits cross legged, boots uncaring of his car’s paint job. His shin touches Taehyung’s thigh through their jeans. He faces the street. The shops across it. Faces Taehyung.

 

Taehyung looks back at the billboards, vision swimming in and out of focus.

 

Jungkook asks, “What’s the thing you got the most mad at? As a kid?”

 

“Depends on what you mean by kid.” Kid means a lot of things. The physicality of it. The mentality of it. Some people never stop being kids. Some of them are all the better for it. Some of them are the worse kind of people because of it.

 

Jungkook furrows his brows. Bites down on his fork. His lips are finally shiny again. The cinnamon spiked brown sugar makes them glitter in the night. “Hmm. Younger than twelve.”

 

That cuts Taehyung’s options. Makes it easier to be honest. Not that he hasn’t been, with Jungkook at least, at least about most things, but the cards thing. He watches Jungkook, sitting bent over the hood of his older than old car, cinnamon spiced mouth, the slight curl to his hair, and sometimes it feels like he already has all of Taehyung’s cards tucked in the back pocket of his unfairly tight jeans. Makes Taehyung forget they’re there. That he has to reach behind Jungkook for them. To show him.

 

Taehyung clears his throat. Tthinks about being twelve. Younger than. When the anger burned sudden and quick. Left just as fast. Stayed for days. “My parents took my dog to live on a farm when I was nine. I didn’t talk to them for weeks.”

 

Jungkook pokes the inside of his cheek with the fork. “Live on a farm, like, live on a farm or live on a farm?”

 

Taehyung smiles faintly, at the cute way Jungkook scrunches his mouth to emphasize. He doesn’t bother thinking of it as the c-word. The list doesn’t count tonight. Doesn’t ever really count.

 

He tugs on the collar of his shirt. The heat sticks. It might just be in Taehyung’s head. He’s having a hard time distinguishing that one too. Real, climate caused heat versus the other kind. The one born in Jungkook’s eyes. He says, “On an actual farm. Upstate. We were moving to an apartment that didn’t allow pets.”

 

Jungkook bumps him with the pie box. Voice small and sweet, he says, “I’m sorry.”

 

“Why?” Taehyung asks, mouth going into a frown around the smile he’s trying to fight, the sincerity in Jungkook’s voice a little too much. “It was a long time ago.” At nine it had felt like the worst thing to happen to him, losing Iridium. Taehyung had named her. His dad’s favorite element. The thing that might have wiped out most of life on earth sixty-six odd million years ago. Took the dinosaurs with it. The thing meteors are made out of. It had seemed like a fair compromise at the time. A good one. His dad had joked that Taehyung would make an excellent monk if he could manage to keep up his silent treatment, Taehyung’s young face blank in anger. 

 

Taehyung had broken some time in March, right when the snow had finally started to melt in Manhattan.

 

“I know.” Shrugging, Jungkook taps the cardboard. “I’m sorry for nine year old you. If someone had taken my dog from me growing up I would have cried for weeks. Might still be crying about it now.”

 

It’s probably sadistic to think about someone crying but the image lands in Taehyung’s mind, unbidden. Unprompted. That Jungkook must be the pretty kind. Eyes sparkling more than usual. Lashes wet. Face tender and open and sweet, the reddest edge of pink, and Taehyung wants to hate himself but maybe he already does. The parts that make the anger burn, the shame coil, and maybe that’s the way to breathe around it.

 

Love is constant but liking is not.

 

Maybe, one day, Taehyung will learn to love his dirty hands.

 

Maybe, he can love the rest of himself and hate his hands, his wants, his desires, forever.     

 

Taehyung keeps his eyes toward the strip. Keeps his hands where they are. He says, “I’m a really ugly crier so I only cried for like a day and spent the rest of it steaming mad. The worst I was ever mad at them. Even as a teenager.”

 

He feels it like a hand reaching into his chest, a fist clenching around a lung, digging into his heart, when his words play back to him.

 

When he hears the lie.

 

The heat is too much. Too close. Taehyung keeps his movements slow as he shifts, shrugs out of his plaid, pulls his t-shirt from his front. He wonders if the rest of the year will be this hot. This stiflingly, unbearably close.

 

Taehyung sits up again. The hood protests at his inability to stay still.

 

Jungkook’s eyes drop to his lap, fork picking at the crust.

 

Taehyung swallows. It’s a little easier to ignore the heat now. All the different kinds. “What was your dog’s name?” he asks.

 

“He was a rottweiler. Seagull.”

 

“You named your rottweiler Seagull?” The breed makes sense. Jungkook with a rottweiler, all black and tan, fierce and territorial. Real spitfire of a beast.

 

Jungkook smacks him with the box. A piece of blueberry pie falls out. He doesn’t seem to care, glares at Taehyung’s disbelief. “He liked chasing seagulls at the beach, okay? I was, like, fucking six when we got him, god- And he was really excitable. And loud. Always had his tongue wagging out. Like he was smiling.” He settles a little when he sees that Taehyung isn’t going to interrupt. He pokes at a blueberry, voice lost in memory, the sad happy kind. “He followed me everywhere. Slept curled around my head even when he got too big for it.”

 

Taehyung adjusts the image. Protective and sweet, the most loyal of friends.

 

“I really want another someday. They’re the best dogs if you aren’t an aggressive prick about them,” Jungkook says. He points at Taehyung with the fork, eyes still glaring, a little teasing now. Bright pretty thing in the night. The brightest prettiest thing Taehyung has ever seen on a night like this. “And I’ll name her, because I want a girl next, Seagull The Second. Just to spite you.”

 

“Will you now,” Taehyung says, flat and his own kind of teasing, not thinking about implications, how loose Jungkook is being with his words tonight. With himself. Maybe he’s always been like this and Taehyung just hasn’t been paying as close attention as he thought. Too many distractions. All of them reflections of Jungkook.  

 

“Mhhm,” Jungkook says around pie. He nudges Taehyung. Warm press of his knee.

 

Taehyung clenches his hands. Sets them on his own knees like they’re glued there, no other place to go, like they’re complete strangers to the heat of Jungkook’s body, the feel of his skin. Like they don’t know the shape of hI’m by touch.

 

Jungkook asks, “What was your dog’s name? The farm one.”

 

“It was-” Taehyung starts to say as he looks back at Jungkook. Right now that’s safer. Jungkook’s face instead of Jungkook’s knee. Jungkook’s hands. There’s a kaleidoscope of colors spiraling on Jungkook’s cheek. Glare from the billboards. Most of it is red but the rest of the colors are there too. Blue and green and yellow and. And Taehyung smiles. Despite the gnawing at his insides.

 

Despite the strange look Jungkook gives him. Despite the fact that he thinks the concept of soulmates is something worth of scorn. Despite. Despite a lot of things.

 

“Why-” Jungkook stops, and despite the strange look and the confusion and the scorn, he laughs. Smiles at Taehyung. No derision. Nothing mean. Just a smile. A real one. Without knowing why he is. “Why are smiling like that?”

 

Taehyung ducks his head, to get his mouth under control, to gets his bearings together, away from thoughts he can’t help, but then. He remembers nineteen. The way her face would change whenever Taehyung did this, especially in the middle of an argument, the way she’d say, I hate it when you do that. How honest she’d be when she’d answer after he’d asked why, because it makes me wish we were in my dorm. Your dorm. Makes me want your hands on me. Being twenty-one and the first time he’d asked Taehyung, that’s a move, yeah? It’s such a move. How instantly he’d said, because that whole bashful thing you do makes it hotter that you fuck me the way you do.

 

It feels circular. To keep thinking about it. Them. He’s had relationships since then, longer ones, more intense ones, but he keeps circling back. To Jungkook asking about them. To the fact that it’s been ten years. That if he’d picked differently, if he’d made a different decision back then, there wouldn’t be a her, wouldn’t be a him.

 

That maybe there would be just one person to look back on.

 

That maybe Taehyung wouldn’t be looking back at all.

 

It’s not a move, or at least he doesn’t mean it as one, but when he looks, Jungkook is already there, fork tossed in the pie box, hands dropped down at his sides on the hood. His eyelashes keep tangling together, chin tucked a little as he studies Taehyung, and his sparkly mouth is parted, breaths falling out softly, and he looks. He looks like he wouldn’t mind some hands on him. Like he might want them.

 

Taehyung slides both of his hands between his thighs and the hood, wraps his fingers around the width of his bones. Holds on.

 

He says, and it really is out of a feeling of bashfulness, out of feeling out of his depth and unable to hide from it, the too much, “Iridium. That was her name.”

 

Jungkook blinks. Comes out of the want. Spine arching as he realizes he was in it. He doesn’t pull back, just keeps the pie box close, makes it seem like the small pink square takes up his entire lap. His next breath is less soft. “You’re gonna have to explain that one to me.”

 

“Sorry. Wasn’t big on birds as a kid.” He flinches, ready for the next hit, but it doesn’t come. It gets him an eye roll, one of Jungkook’s slightly less shaky hands reaching for the fork. “But it’s just as obvious I promise. It’s a chemical element.”

 

“Aha?” Jungkook pushes, mouth closing around gooey apples. “So? Iride- Ire- God. What was it again? I can’t even pronounce it. You were saying that at nine? Ir- Ugh, Tae-”

 

It’s the way he says it. That he’s genuinely annoyed but trying anyway, to say the name of the dog Taehyung hasn’t even seen in almost twenty years, doesn’t remember as well as he wishes he did. It’s him saying Taehyung’s name, the short version of it, the one his friends call him, the one his family calls him over distance and thousands of miles. Said closely, warmly, like it’s a word that matters, tiny in the space between them.

 

Taehyung’s chest tugs. Breaks right open. His mouth follows suit. “You’re so fucking cute sometimes. You know that?”

 

“-oesn’t even- Um.” Jungkook gapes, the bite he’d balanced on his fork spilling on his thighs. He doesn’t flinch at his possibly ruined jeans. Dark blue. Almost black. Well made stitching. Probably worth a good chunk of one of Taehyung’s paychecks. “Taehyung.”

 

Taehyung closes his eyes, chest swooping in its own wreckage. And that almost might be worse. Jungkook saying his name like that, every syllable, every part. His voice breathless. His voice drenched in want. Like every part of Taehyung’s name matters.

 

“Sor-” Taehyung swallows it back. Because he isn’t. Sorry.

 

Because maybe he should stop trying to be.

 

Because, maybe, he should stop wanting to be.   

 

“You said. That you didn’t care about it. The list. Tonight.”

 

Jungkook breathes out. In. Slow on the inhale. Slower on the exhale. Like maybe the heat is too much for him too. He says, “I did. I- I don’t.”

 

Jungkook pushes his hair off his forehead, out of his eyes, the damp wave the heat has made of it. He skims his eyes off Taehyung’s mouth. His nose. His eyes go up like he’s about to roll them but they just stay up. At the lights. At all the stuff hanging above them. And Taehyung gets it. He does. Earth’s pretty interesting but everything that’s out there, the impossible possibility of it, is more. Will always be more.  

 

And yet, Taehyung doesn’t look up. Just watches the lights glint off Jungkook’s nose. The row of earrings in his left ear. The star spangled thing his mouth is. The lit up sky his eyes are.

 

Jungkook keeps looking up. A flush starts crawling up his cheeks but that’s okay. Taehyung’s neck is stupid warm too.

 

Jungkook says, mumbled, “Don’t get what’s so cute about me being dumb. Unable to pronounce basic elements? Sure. Real cute that.”

 

“It wasn’t that,” Taehyung says because he might as well ride this honesty wave while he can. Before Jungkook realizes. Before the jig is up. Before Jungkook realizes the same thing Taehyung has a long time ago. The thing he’s forgotten. The thing he’s remembering.

 

People always make liars out of themselves. Even when they’re being honest. It’s just a new version calling an older version of themselves the thing they swear they aren’t. Liar.

 

Before the night is over and the list might matter more than ever.

 

“It was you. It’s always just you.”

 

The stars disappear. Every single one collapsing in on itself the second Jungkook’s lashes touch.

 

Jungkook says, “Taehyung,” and nothing else.

 

The noise from the strip rises. There isn’t a sound barrier anymore. Destroyed by the football fans over radio waves a while ago. Taehyung doesn’t know how long. Can’t remember. Feels like time doesn’t exist out of this space. Like there wasn’t a before he sat here on the hood Jungkook’s car, with Jungkook and the drone, and nothing else.

 

Like there won’t be anything after it.

 

A laugh comes from down the street. A group of kids, college aged. Freshly graduated. Spilling out of the silent theatre that was Taehyung’s point of reference. The coordinates that got him here.

 

Jungkook’s eyes are still closed. He holds himself tense, jaw set, muscles bunched, like every part of his body is made of metal. An unstoppable force. A moveable object trying desperately not to move. Hands out on the hood. One face up. Toward the sky. The other flat. Knuckles arched. Fingers pressing down like they’ll reach concrete if he tries hard enough. A request for upliftment. A plea for grounding.

 

Back when Yoongi used to do yoga. When he meditated. Before he became actualized, he’d explained it to Taehyung once. Before, when the jealousy used to choke him so relentlessly Taehyung could barely stand to look at him sometimes, couldn’t watch Yoongi struggle to breathe around it, around Seokjin. The fact that Yoongi could stop loving him and Seokjin would be okay eventually, would find someone else to love or not, and Seokjin would breathe just fine while Yoongi would spend the rest of his life choking on it. The fact that Seokjin knew how to build robots, could have been the first person to make the world’s first evil A.I., and all he did was take his diploma and told that idea to fuck itself. Told his parents a more loving version of the same, and had gone to do what he wanted instead. That at the same time, it took Yoongi years to tell his parents that he wouldn’t pursue a doctorate, that he’d gone to graduate school and dropped out because if he hadn’t, it would have killed him. That he’d had to lie through his teeth about it.

 

That the biggest thing Yoongi has ever been jealous of was Seokjin himself, and the selfless, clean way he loved Yoongi.

 

That he loved Yoongi despite the fact that Yoongi’s love was selfish. Unclean.

 

That he loved Yoongi because he knew, maybe, that one day, it wouldn’t be.

 

That he loved Yoongi despite the fact that he knew that it might always be.  

 

Taehyung remembers Yoongi. Cross legged at six am on the floor in the shitty living room of their shitty apartment. Hoseok sacked out asleep on the couch. The sun skittering across Hoseok’s perfect nose and Yoongi’s knobby knees, and Taehyung didn’t realize it then, how much he loved that apartment, but he realized the important thing. With Hoseok’s soft snores and Yoongi’s softer voice under them, palms face up on his knees, Taehyung’s face down, and it’s all about what you need. It’s all in the hands. You’re all hands, Tae.

 

And it was later too, when Seokjin and Jimin came over with breakfast, Hoseok a sleepy taco stuffed thing at Taehyung’s side, his and Jimin’s legs tangled together as Jimin and Yoongi bickered over something or the other with Seokjin trading sides, but it was then. With a dead to the world Hoseok and a Yoongi showing him how to ask for what he needed, for grounding, for the sky, the morning after Taehyung bought a bottle of whisky and sobbed as he poured the entire thing down their toilet with shaking hands, with Yoongi at his side, with Hoseok staying up all night on the couch in case Taehyung felt the need to go out and buy another. It was then that Taehyung realized that Los Angeles would never feel like home but these people did.

 

That he loved them, but he loved Yoongi differently because he understood. Because he was unclean too and he loved Taehyung because of it.

 

That he loved them, but he loved Hoseok differently because he didn’t understand. Because he was clean and he loved Taehyung despite it.         

 

A blink and everything in Taehyung’s line of sight is stars. Jungkook looks at him, socks Taehyung in the gut with how openly he’s staring into his eyes, the dark of them, the wet sheen of them in the light, and Taehyung.

 

Taehyung backs up, off.

 

Physically, in the distance he puts between himself and Jungkook, enough space for the pie box and then some. In all the other ways, because he never wants to hear Jungkook say his name like that again. Begging when he shouldn’t, when the idea of what he’s asking rips Taehyung’s insides apart. Because if he ever does see Jungkook cry it might actually kill him, be the thing that does Taehyung in.

 

He knows that’s impossible. That no one has ever died because someone else’s face was tear stained and any other night Taehyung wouldn’t think it. Would think the idea silly. People cry. Someone is crying right now and no one is dying over it.

 

But tonight.

 

Taehyung keeps his hands where they are. He says, “Iridium. It’s the second densest metal we know of. It’s what they think wiped out the dinosaurs. Found abnormal levels of it where the meteor is supposed to have hit.”

 

Jungkook brings his hands back to himself, the elegant flow of movement flooding back into his arms making Taehyung borderline hate every ballet teacher he ever had. The ones who told him the time of Nureyev was dead and all Jungkook would ever be was someone’s pretty prop, someone else’s strength. That most people wouldn’t know that the story was about him too.

 

“And you wanted to name your dog this why?” Jungkook asks, back to stuffing his mouth with pie, and Taehyung’s chest starts to bring itself together, is almost intensely in love with this, a little desperately, how it feels like everything is going to spiral out of its axis one moment, and the next, they come back, and everything, the earth, them, is still.

 

Taehyung bumps the box with his arm. Doesn’t move otherwise. “It was my dad’s favorite element. Can’t remember why. I think he just liked the name. Said it almost sounded Korean if you said it fast enough. And I. I liked space. It seemed like a good- a good fit. I was seven when we got her. I was obsessed with dinosaurs but couldn’t say triceratops. I was very bad at t’s back then. So why not name her after the thing that wiped them out? Especially if it was something as cool as a meteor. As cool as space.”

 

All the sugar has to have melted on Jungkook’s tongue by now. It melts on his smile. In the soft way he looks at Taehyung now. “Is that why you were smiling like that? Because of your dad?”

 

“No,” Taehyung says.

 

Jungkook raises his brows, thrown by the cut of Taehyung’s voice.

 

Taehyung makes his words smoother. Softer. Less like his vocal chords are made out of the world’s second densest metal. “No,” he repeats, gentled. “It was because of Iridium. The element. It was named because the salts they found- the reaction compounds from it- they were full of colors. They named it after Iris. The personification of the rainbow in Greek. So I was smiling because-”

 

“-because you had a rainbow dog,” Jungkook says, the smile too wide for his face, and he might not believe in soulmates, might not believe in Taehyung, but he believes in this. In all these strange little things tying and bringing them together, and maybe he truly doesn’t. Believe in Taehyung, that there’s something making their chests tug towards each other, but fuck it if Jeon Jungkook, if Jungkook Jeon, doesn’t believe in the universe.   

 

Jungkook laughs, sugar sweet and loud, and Taehyung almost doesn’t believe any other version of him exists. That there are times when he looks like he’s made out of meteor debris, harsh and hurt, a thing not made for Taehyung’s hands.

 

Chest racked with the last of his laughter, Jungkook says, “Rainbow Dog for the Rainbow Boy.”

 

Taehyung hums. Laughs too. He scuffs his sneakers against the gravel. When it’s quiet for a few moments, he asks “What about you?”

 

“What about me?”

 

“What made you mad? As a kid?”

 

“Oh.” Jungkook frowns. At the circle back. Thinking. The red halo of light makes him look innocent. Heaven’s angel instead of hell’s. Like he’s never known anger.

 

It doesn’t fool Taehyung this time. Fools him even less at Jungkook’s answer.

 

“I never got mad. I was the perfect child.”

 

“Pfft.”

 

“What?” Jungkook demands, mock outrage on his face, crust on the corner of his mouth. His tongue is blue when he licks it off. Taehyung wasn’t planning on finishing his piece anyway. “You don’t believe I was perfect?”

 

Taehyung side steps the question. He releases his hands, uses them to cup his knees. Lifts the edges of his sneakers to the bumper. He’s pretty sure he’s in the clear now. They both are. He says, “I will believe nothing less than that you were a terrible little handful-”

 

“Fuck you-”

 

“But you always got away with it. Always. Those big eyes and that smile in a baby version of you? Yeah, you got away with everything.”

 

Jungkook narrows his eyes. The backdrop of light makes everything dark about him striking. Stark. The jacket. The hair. The eyes. He holds onto the expression for a few more seconds, and Taehyung doesn’t even care if he’s overstepped some boundary or said something wrong, and yeah, those eyes can get away with anything. Always.

 

Jungkook’s jaw ticks, lips twitching. “Not terrible,” he relents, doesn’t look all that mad about it. “But I was demanding. Not of things. I wasn’t spoiled like that. But I did want everything for me. My parents’ time and all the things I wanted to do. And I was very impatient and very bad at taking no for an answer. So maybe I was a tiny, tiny, bit of a tiny handful. Can be sometimes still,” he adds, an admirable concession. Taehyung doesn’t know if he’d admit it so willing. Then again, Taehyung doesn’t have to. He carries it willingly. His handfulness. “The tiniest of handfuls. Baby sized.”

 

Taehyung frowns at his hands. Holds them up to study them. “No one’s ever called them baby sized but I guess- hmm if I was a Spice Girl I would be Baby Spice. Baby Spice hands.”

 

Jungkook snickers, the pie box sliding around his lap. He cackles when he laughs like this, unrestrained and boisterous. Evil sounding, like he’s conjuring the worst plans, about to ruin your life and you won’t even see it coming. If evil things can be cute. His cheeks are flushed, night heat and something else. “Wow. That is- wow.”

 

“Sorry,” Taehyung says, eyes downcast. At seven Taehyung was terrible at t’s. At twenty-seven he’s terrible at breaking habits. Besides, this time, he actually kind of means it. The sorry.

 

“No. It’s… it’s fine,” Jungkook says. Sounds like he kind of means it too.

 

The box shuffles. The lights in the pie shop go off.

 

Noise less of a drone, buzzing on the less busy street.

 

Jungkook stabs at a lone raspberry. “You’re so not Baby Spice.”

 

“Wasn’t she the dumb one?”

 

Jungkook frowns, brows wrinkled. “You’re not dumb. And that’s mean,” Jungkook says, voice soured, genuinely upset.

 

Jungkook’s knee presses into the side of Taehyung’s leg, stays there until Taehyung looks up. He watches Taehyung carefully, face shadowed in the darker light.

 

Taehyung feels reprimanded, called out. The bad kid on the playground. “I didn’t mean it like- I meant silly. Naive. And you called yourself it first,” he adds, like that makes it okay. It doesn’t so he says, “Which you’re not. I meant to say something before. You’re not dumb.”

 

“That’s different, though.”

 

“What is?”

 

“Me calling myself dumb versus you calling yourself dumb.”

 

“How?”

 

“Because. You’re actually smart.”

 

Taehyung’s shoulders go up. He’s glad he took the flannel off. Would have strangled his body with it if he wearing it now. “D-

 

“What? You are,” Jungkook insists, gesturing with the fork. “I’ve seen your apartment. I fucking- I spend time with you, Taehyung. Hear you talk. The way you speak. You say you sort of like space but you talk about it technically. You named your dog after a chemical element when you were fucking six years old. I’m twenty-five and I’ve never even heard of the damn thing. If you haven’t realized that I-”

 

Taehyung’s heart spikes. “That you what?”

 

Jungkook shakes his head, chin jutted. “Nothing.”

 

But Taehyung isn’t having it. Not now. It’s not anger but it’s that word. Realized. “That you what?”

 

“Nothing.”

 

“Jungkook, that you wh-

 

“This isn’t about that. Just-”

 

“Well, then what is it about? Because-” And this is when the rest of Taehyung’s brain, his motor functions kick in. He stops himself short, chews up all the words before they can spit out.

 

The silence rings.

 

Everything gets buried under it. The Sunset Strip is drained of color. Of light. Of sound.

 

The street they’re parked on is as silent as the movies playing in the theater.

 

Jungkook says, “Because what?” The thinnest hint of ice in his voice. Of something that cuts. Like the thing that gave the meteors away. The sliver of it they smacked into the surface of the earth as a reminder. A lesson. That even beautiful things, the things made from stars, can hurt you. Destroy you.  

 

“Because- fu- nothing.”

 

But Jungkook is the one not having it now. His face hardens, shoulders back, and maybe he really was a perfect little angel as a kid, saved up all his anger for adulthood. How quick he is to it now, ready to blaze the second he doesn’t like something. Thinks he isn’t going to. “Because what, Taehyung.”

 

“Because,” Taehyung says. Lets it hang. Lets himself re-word his words. “Because you’ve been through a shit night. Day? I don’t even know. And you don’t have to talk about it. To me. To anyone. It’s fine but. Jesus.” He leaves out the part where it feels like Jungkook has been on the edge of putting Taehyung through the wringer all night. That it’s fine if he does it but he needs to actually fucking do it. Just put Taehyung through the wringer instead of teetering on it. Threatening them both with it.

 

Taehyung sighs. Pushes all the air out. Hopes it helps with the the thing his chest is doing. Breaking apart. Putting itself together. He can’t tell now. He can’t tell a lot of things.

 

“I was just trying to tell you you’re smart. You aren’t dumb. Not even- You’re smart. You are. Please tell me you know that.”  

 

Jungkook clicks his jaw so hard Taehyung swears he feels the ache in his own. He shrugs. “I know I’m not, like, stupid. But I’m not. Whatever. Academically inclined. I went to college because I had to. I struggled through every non core class and grad school was pure hell and I don’t. I don’t care about things. Or know about them. I’m shallow- Don’t look at me like that. You know it’s true. You see it. The way I talk. How I dress. I work for a big record company. We swallow up tiny labels and now I’m going to-”

 

“Don’t.”

 

“I-” Jungkook’s chest heaves, and he blinks his bright eyes at Taehyung, and god, he’s so blind to himself, to Taehyung and how he sees him and, “Don’t? Wh-”

 

“Don’t put yourself down. Don’t.” Taehyung swallows. Picks his words. The right ones. Wants to avoid what he knows this usually ends in. Shouted words and things no one means, and life might not be a fight to Taehyung, and he knows it’s unavoidable sometimes. The fight. But Taehyung doesn’t want it to be one whenever he can help it. When anger can be subsided. Softened by the things he does mean. “Don’t tell me I think you’re shallow. Don’t- You have no- Sometimes you say something and I’ll think about it for the rest of the week because I’ve never thought of if that way or. You just-” And Jungkook really has no idea. How he actually is. How Taehyung sees him. Because he won’t let Taehyung tell him. Because Taehyung isn’t- Because they aren’t -

 

Because-

 

Because when a star collapses, when it burns itself out, it isn’t because it has run out of light. It’s because that’s all the star is. Light it cannot contain any longer.

 

So it comes apart. Gives itself to the universe.

 

Jungkook stares at him, caught up in all the light, and Taehyung wonders if he’s the one who has it wrong. If Jungkook is both the star and the universe. If Taehyung is just the debris. The thing that caused the collapse. The explosion.

 

Taehyung’s heart clenches. He wants to duck his head again. Hide. Shade himself from the light.  

 

He looks at Jungkook instead, lets him see the shame pouring out of him. “If I said something. Or did something, to make you think-”

 

“God, no. Taehyung. I’m just-”

 

“So don’t put yourself down.”

 

“I’m just a little fucked up tonight, I’m not-”

 

“Not in front of me. Please.”

 

Jungkook chews on his lower lip. Picks at the edges of the pie box. Taehyung can see it. The why pushing at his tongue.

 

Jungkook says, voice small, strong somehow too, “Okay.”

 

Taehyung doesn’t bother explaining. Jungkook already knows why.  

 

Jungkook’s fork scratches against cardboard.

 

Taehyung notices a scuff mark on his left sneaker. Leans down to rub at it. They’re an old pair of ratty converse. Might have been Seokjin’s at some point. Like sort of liking space and still being a little bad at t’s, Taehyung hasn’t changed that much since he was a kid. Still has some habits that are impossible to break.

 

“You know,” he says, cutting the quiet at the same time Jungkook starts, “I think it’s-”

 

“Sorry, you go-”

 

“No, sorry, you were saying-”

 

And Taehyung wants to laugh. That they keep being sorry to each other. When neither of them has really done anything to the other.

 

Maybe that’s what the fuck they’re so sorry about it.

 

Taehyung nods at him, keeps his mouth shut.

 

Jungkook breathes out a laugh, something funny about the little eye roll he gives. He pushes a strand of hair behind his ear, pinky curving gently. “Nothing. Just. Was gonna say. It’s sweet. That you named your dog after the stars. Sort of. I mean. Meteors are, like, made from all that stuff, right? When the first stars exploded. Like all of us are. I guess.”

 

Taehyung doesn’t know what his hands are doing.

 

He grapples with them. Relaxes when he finds them still on his knees. He hopes that’s what he needs right now. Grounding. The earth. He hopes-

 

He hopes that Jungkook can feel it. The way Taehyung’s chest is tugging. That his own is, maybe, tugging back.

 

Because all Taehyung is, is hands, but really, more than anything, he might be hope.

 

Taehyung says, “You know it’s actually one of the least common elements on Earth. In its purest form. Most people won’t ever see it so, in your defense, it’s not a basic element in that sense. I was just a very specific kind of kid.”

 

Jungkook’s lips curve up, glossed over in blue and brown. The only pink thing about him is the box in his hands but Taehyung thinks of the color. The color of hearts, the mix of hues. Wonders if some of the iridium salts they obtained were the same shades. If they put them under a microscope and someone thought that maybe hearts are rainbows too.

 

“Do you think we’d have been friends if we’d met as kids?”

 

“Don’t know,” Taehyung says. He shrugs. “Sure, if you’d wanted us to be.”

 

“Why if I wanted to?”

 

“Because I wanted to be everyone’s friend. Met people and already sort of thought I was theirs.”

 

Jungkook hums. “I was the opposite. I could never tell if we actually were. I made Taecyeon cry once when I said we weren’t because he hadn’t said it yet and I just- I didn’t know if he thought we were friends. We were five or something. I cried so hard that day I thought my eyeballs would pop out.”

 

Taehyung laughs softly, heart squeezing in his chest at the image. Taecyeon’s tiny face before it was handsome and tall. Jungkook’s tinier face, tinier still. The heart crushingly simple things friendship at five years old can be.

 

“That’s a long time to be friends with someone.”

 

“Maybe,” Jungkook says. He sighs, body bending to it. “Yeah, it is.” He looks at Taehyung, hair falling in his eyes again. Taehyung presses his thumbs into the knobs of his knees. “I changed my mind. I don’t think I’d want us to have been friends. I wouldn’t have wanted to make you cry like that.”

 

“I didn’t cry a lot as a kid,” Taehyung says. “Took a lot to get my going.”

 

“Yeah, but. Wouldn’t have wanted to make you. Like, at all,” Jungkook says, so earnestly, so sweetly, Taehyung wonders why he’d even worry about it. About hurting anyone when the thought alone has him in knots about it, mouth pulled down unhappily at the mere idea of a tinier version of himself making a tinier version of Taehyung cry. “You were probably really innocent when you were little and I was- you were right. I was kind of terrible. Could be really mean though I wasn’t trying to be.”

 

Taehyung can’t even picture it. Jungkook out to hurt. On purpose. Can’t imagine him being anything except the sweet bright thing he is. He says, “That’s not what I said. I said you were a terrible handful. And trust me, I wasn’t that innocent.” He swallows, reaches for grounding without thinking on it too hard, how his knees are just bones. How his bones are just cracked earth. “Kind of hard to be when you grow up with a father you don’t see for a whole Sunday because he spent it drinking in his bedroom.”

 

Cardboard bends.

 

A car alarm goes off a few streets over.

 

Jungkook’s next exhale is sharper. Sounds like he chokes on it.

 

“It wasn’t all the time,” Taehyung says because it wasn’t. Because that wasn’t his dad, that was his father, and they were different people. To Taehyung. Maybe not to everyone else but to Taehyung they were. Because that was his father, not his dad, but Taehyung has to be fair to him, to the fragile thing he was, too. “It was only sometimes. But it happened. That’s just. The way it was.”

 

Taehyung stares at the scuff on his shoe. He shrugs. Means it. It’s just the way it was. It was just some Sundays.

 

Some Sundays Taehyung had a father. All the other ones he had dad. He remembers those more. He holds on to those harder.

 

Finds that they ground him.

 

He shows Jungkook his face, the lack of hurt. Of bitterness, on it. “So, no. I wasn’t very innocent. Not compared to most kids. I don’t think so anyway. Other kids probably had their own things that broke their innocence. Everyone does. Eventually.”

 

Jungkook looks down. He’s all eyelashes to Taehyung. All slope of nose.

 

When he brings his gaze back up, Taehyung has to lock up all his muscles. Grind his teeth.      

 

“I guess we’d already established that. That you’re not innocent. And I should know,” Jungkook says and there’s brown sugar on his cupid’s bow and his eyes are so pretty, deep and never ending, and he’s looking at Taehyung the way he had earlier, intense and arresting and like Taehyung is the only thing around.

 

But there’s something else in them, in his eyes, and Jungkook isn’t the only who’s blind to himself.

 

Because Jungkook’s eyes?

 

“You’ve had me in your bed, Kim Taehyung.”

 

And here it is. The ringer. Taehyung wonders if it means he won. If it means he lost.

 

Taehyung’s breath goes shot. He tightens his hands on his knees, all the heat in the air is inside his body now, piercing and hot and that’s not enough to make him hard, Taehyung isn’t fucking eighteen anymore, he’s not, but the heat sucker punches him in the gut, between his legs, dick twitching in his jeans. Muscle fucking memory.

 

“Jungk-”

 

“Don’t strike me as much of a Spice Girls boy either. Grew up on classical, you said? Your dad brought you up on it? Beethoven and all that shit. Some jazz too probably. Miles Davis or whoever the fuck.”

 

This time the whiplash does hit Taehyung and he wants to laugh but it’s too hot, heavy and sticky and Taehyung is going to suffocate from it. From a lot of things. “My dad was more of a Mozart guy. Not really one for Miles Davis. More of a Chet Baker fan. How do you keep-”

 

“I keep telling you, Rainbow Boy,” Jungkook says. He shifts so he can sit the way Taehyung is, facing the car in front of them. He’s a mess of creaking sliding leather. He swings his feet against the bumper. The cuff of his watch skims the hood. Jungkook doesn’t react, not a care for the paint job. “You’re only an enigma about some things.”

 

A part of Taehyung is starting to hate it. Rainbow Boy. The way Jungkook uses it when he wants distance. Space. And Taehyung likes space, sort of fucking loves it, but not like this. Not with Jungkook. How it’s a joke. One without the funny part.

 

The other part of Taehyung hopes he never stops saying it.

 

And then Jungkook asks, “How long did you wait ‘till after I left to change your sheets?”

 

Because the thing about Jungkook’s eyes right now?

 

They’re fucking mean.

 

Taehyung hangs his head. Laughs shakily. Whatever this test is he’s failing it so hard he doesn’t think he’s on the grading scale. Already through the wringer and he didn’t even know. How wrung he already is. “Come on, Kook. Are you gonna cut me some slack tonight or-”

 

“You saying I haven’t? Besides,” Jungkook adds and Taehyung hears it now. The heaviness he’s been skirting all night. The sharp edge of the thing that’s been poking at him since he reached out to Taehyung. The reason Taehyung is here. He dresses it up with how low he speaks, the breathy way he accuses Taehyung with his words, sexual and dirty.

 

“You didn’t hide it. Kept your nose all over me. Against my neck and in my hair. Between my thighs. Liked how I tasted too, didn’t you? Like berries. Fucking berries. Thought you’d never get your tongue out of my ass. And I didn’t want you to. Wanted you to make me come on it. You wanted it too. And I would have let you. If I hadn’t made you pull away when I did.”  

 

Taehyung’s jaw aches. It’s the only ache he knows right now.

 

He stares at the dirty street. At his hands.

 

There’s a hole in his jeans. Light denim. Overly washed and faded. The hinge of his knee exposed. It was a rip a few minutes ago but Taehyung has been pulling at it. Working it open. Latching on to the weak bits.

 

“I’m not trying to make you feel bad,” Jungkook says, the mean thing in his voice now. The way it sounds like a smile. Is anything but. “We all have our things. Kinks. The shit that gets us off.”

 

All Taehyung can hear is Jungkook’s breath. Almost feel the way it works in his lungs. Feels it so close it’s as if their chests are pressed together, Jungkook’s legs strangling Taehyung’s waist, his sweaty dark hair spread out across Taehyung’s pillow, his tongue choking Taehyung’s mouth, their lips melted together.

 

Everything being Taehyung’s hands.

 

Everything tasting like berries.

 

Jungkook shifts. The hood protests as he moves, as he comes close. His lips barely ghost Taehyung’s ear. His body is all promise of heat. Quietly, softly, like no one else is supposed to hear, like no one else can know, Jungkook asks, “Do you feel ashamed?”

 

It hits Taehyung. The words. Against his head. Inside his chest.

 

Do you feel ashamed?

 

Do you feel it? The shame?

 

“No.”

 

Taehyung turns to face him and their bodies are too close but Taehyung doesn’t react beyond the usual things. The obvious ones. The physical ones. The ones that go him . But Taehyung already knows. His body. The parts that matter. They know too.

 

Taehyung says, “You know I want you. Nothing shameful about it.”

 

Wanting Jungkook isn’t the shameful part.

 

Jungkook sets his jaw. A muscle in his cheek jumps. There’s less fire in his eyes, uncertainty seeping in. “Are you mad?”

 

“No,” Taehyung says, doesn’t have to think about it. He doesn’t really do anger anymore. Hasn’t in a very long time. “But is this really how you want to do this?”

 

Jungkook opens his mouth and then he just-

 

Deflates. Body sinking. Spine falling. Caving in. The mean thing burns out of his eyes. His shoulders go hunched, give the illusion that they’re too small for his jacket, swallows himself whole inside its heat sucking protection.

 

He doesn’t meet Taehyung’s eyes but his words are remorseful. His voice is. The pull of his mouth still angry but not at Taehyung, his hands clutched around the pie box.

 

“Do you find it easy? To talk about your feelings? Or just. Stuff that- whatever. Pisses you off or makes you upset. Even if you trust the person?”

 

Taehyung wonders if that’s what this is. This back and forth. The way they keep pushing at each other. The teetering of anger. The baring of how ugly Taehyung is. The things that have tried to make Jungkook ugly and failed.

 

If it’s trust. Something like it.

 

Jungkook says, “Or you think you do. Or that you might? Trust them.”

 

Taehyung says, “No.”   

 

“No?” Jungkook asks. The hope in his voice, the light of it. It pierces Taehyung in the gut.

 

His heart.

 

In his own hope.

 

Head still hung, Taehyung leans forward. He digs his elbows into his knees. Makes them take the brunt of his upper body weight. All he sees is black tar, the tips of his sneakers.

 

The heat from Jungkook’s words is stifling in a way but different. Grimy. Gummy and webbing under Taehyung’s skin.

 

He still appreciates the question. The lack of assumption in it.

 

Taehyung says, “No. My face can give me away sometimes and- I don’t think it’s easy for anyone. But I mostly just bottle it up. When I get pissed. Try working it out in my head until that’s all it is. In my head. I can get lost there a lot. Drives my friend Jimin up the wall.”  

 

He thinks of Jimin. Of how he’d react to all this. How he would have asked Jungkook the question point blank. Would have prodded and poked and made him bleed until Jungkook was a split open turned out wretched thing between them. How Jimin would have called him out for being nasty, called Taehyung out for being evasive, would have yelled until he was red in the face, then broken down and cried before either of them.

 

How Jimin doesn’t know about the bottle. The bottles. How he has no idea that Taehyung’s toilet bowl was more whisky than anything that one morning. How he thinks Hoseok was pure exhaustion because he’d stayed out fucking someone all night. How he thinks Yoongi’s hands were shaking because that’s just who Yoongi was back then. All shake.

 

Because that would have destroyed Jimin and Taehyung is not a meteor.

 

Jungkook sniffles a little. Clears his throat.

 

He says, “Your blank face is kind of intense. Very mob movie-ish. Ever thought of going into acting because-” Jungkook’s voice is all light. None of the filth from earlier and Taehyung is tired.

 

Of the not funny jokes.

 

Of the night heat.

 

Of whatever test he’s failed tonight.

 

“Jungkook,” Taehyung says. He hesitates for only a second. Presses his knee into Jungkook’s. Ignores the heat. The way it makes his blood sizzle. Sends his chest alight. Makes him want to be touching him everywhere else too.

 

It’s a warning. A question. An enough.  

 

Jungkook stops.

 

Everything. His words. His pulling away. Anything that isn’t the only thing he does now.

 

Stopping. Looking at Taehyung.

 

The red halo cradles Jungkook’s head and he really is so pretty, beautiful and fucking smart and so sharp that Taehyung doesn’t know what to do with it, him, himself, and it’s not just Taehyung’s hands. He wants to put his mouth, his fucking nose, all over him, and maybe it does shame Taehyung a little, so much it chokes him, but it’s easier, to think about the things that shame him because they’re dirty, than the ones that do because Jungkook doesn’t know about them.

 

The soft ones.

 

The ones that aren’t dirty at all.

 

The ones that made Taehyung think the word soulmate the first time he ever looked at him.

 

The ones that make Taehyung more sure of the word every time he’s looked at him since.

 

The ones that are clean.

 

Taehyung says, “I haven’t asked because you said you didn’t want to talk. But if you want to- just. You said you were. But, Jungkook are you ok-”

 

“This guy at the meeting this week wouldn’t shut up about the fact that he’s addicted to masturbating.”

 

He spits the words out so fast, melds them all together, that Taehyung thinks he’s forgotten what words are. Like Jungkook just spoke to him in Spanish. From underwater.

 

Taehyung snaps his jaw shut. Teeth clicking together so hard he might have broken one.

 

Jungkook takes a breath. Doesn’t let it out.

 

Taehyung picks at the frayed edge of his jeans, tries to find what he’s supposed to say. Doesn’t think it exists. “I. Uh-”

 

“And it’s. It’s whatever, you know? Masturbating. We all do it. Or most of us. But it’s obviously a problem for this guy.”

 

Jungkook pulls at the sides of the box, the fork stuck between the remains of both slices. He stares at Taehyung’s shoulder, at his discarded plaid, at another car parked across the street.

 

It doesn’t sound like he’s let go of that breath yet.

 

Taehyung doesn’t move. Isn’t sure he’s breathing.

 

Jungkook says, “He was talking about it. At the meeting. How it cuts into his work time and he rather jack off than fuck his wife. Who he loves. Or he says he does. And it doesn’t even arouse him but he just- Has to do it. Can’t help himself. Says he’s been like this for as long as he can remember. Doesn’t know a time he wasn’t.”

 

Another breath.

 

“And I’m sitting there listening to him, and it takes me a while, but I realize that my knee is shaking like crazy. That I wanted to leave the room. That I needed to. That I was listening to this guy talk about how he has such an obsession with touching himself he missed his kid’s softball game. That he thinks he’s a horrible person. Father. Husband-”

 

“And all I could think about was how angry I was.”

 

Taehyung lets his hands dangle between his knees.

 

Can’t keep his weight up any longer.

 

Jungkook’s brow twists from beyond his shoulder.

 

Taehyung wonders if this is okay. If it breaks some twelve-step rule.

 

His father never talked about his meetings as far as Taehyung knows. Not that he would with his kid, but considering he acted like nothing was different about him when he wasn’t on the other end of a bottle, Taehyung figures he only spoke about them with people who were chained to the end of their own.

   

Jungkook inhales again. Voice steady. Hands shaky. “I don’t know why. It’s not even- people talk about some real fucked up shit there. Serial cheaters who can’t stop and manipulative shit they’ve done to keep a relationship and being so needy for their partners they can’t function without them.”

 

The shakiness comes out in his voice a little.

 

Taehyung wants to tell him to let the breath go. He holds his own breath instead.

 

“People who can’t get off unless there’s an actual threat someone will walk in on them. Their boss or their fucking grandma, or if the only reason they like getting fucked is because they don’t want to deal with how much they fucking hate themselves. It’s really-”

 

Jungkook swallows. His throat bobs harshly. Dirty golden light fills the dips under his cheekbones.

 

“And it was really hypocritical of me. To get angry. But I got angry because- Because I was disgusted. At him. I was so disgusted because I was thinking god. ” Jungkook’s voice breaks around another inhale, this one quick and full. Like there’s too much air in his lungs. Like he’s forgotten that to keep breathing he needs to let the air go at some point. That he can’t be scared of it. Of letting go. Of running out of air.

 

I just thought, That is such a non issue. I wish that was my problem. I wish all I wanted was to jerk off all the time and not-” Jungkook stops. Shakes his head, biting his lip so hard blood rushes to the surface.

 

Taehyung doesn’t think about what Jungkook’s problem is.

 

Doesn’t think about getting him to let go of the breath with his mouth.

 

Taehyung doesn’t think about love and Taehyung doesn’t think about sex. The beautiful ugly tangled mess they can make together.   

 

He doesn’t.

 

He wants to put his hands over Jungkook’s. Over his chest.

 

He wants too make the shaking stop.

 

“It’s so shitty. To judge someone like that. To be like most people who think. Whatever. That sex and love addiction is a joke or an excuse for not owning up to your own shitty shittyness. I’m being so shitty but I’m still-”

 

And, fuck, if Jungkook takes one more breath without letting it go first, Taehyung doesn’t know what he’ll do, and-

 

“I’m still really fucking angry.”

 

Up ahead, someone gets into a car. The door slams. Headlights wash over the street.

 

Taehyung looks at his hands. Hanging there over the pavement.

 

He asks, “Did you talk to your sponsor about it?”

 

The hood creaks.

 

He’s said the wrong thing. Taehyung words as useless as his hands.

 

Jungkook’s feet hit the bumper. Their knees touch. Jungkook pulls back, leather shifting as he shrugs it off, lets it fall around his waist.

 

Jungkook taps on the hood. Lands on a scratch. Rubs his index over it before he says, “Yeah. She said those feelings can arise. Listening to people talk about the things that shame them can be- Can elicit those feelings in you. It’s normal.”

 

He says it the way he said soulmates. Like the word doesn’t make sense to him. Like the word is deserving of hatred. Normal.

 

“But it’s been three days and I’m still angry. Angry about the fact that I got mad in the first place. I ate, like, twelve of those cupcakes you like and it just made me nauseous and then angry that I was nauseous. And then I ate another just to really bring the feeling home,” Jungkook finishes, a crooked little laugh at himself. An ugly sound.

 

The next breath comes.

 

Taehyung breathes through it. Doesn’t spring into action. Doesn’t betray himself. Doesn’t betray Jungkook with his hands.

 

The grimy, gumy feeling swims through his blood. Pushes at his bones.

 

Taehyung doesn’t trust himself to look at Jungkook yet.

 

He needs another breath. Another second.

 

There’s blood on the pavement. Someone cut themselves with a piece of glass. Cut someone else open. Taehyung’s sneakers look out of place above it. Next to Jungkook’s boots, sleek pull ons, the leather pristine and smooth like they belong on some Manhattan sidewalk, like their owner would never try to careen up a mountain in them. Press down on the clutch and kick up gravel with them.

 

Taehyung glances up.

 

Jungkook is staring at the pie box. The ASS MAN license plate. The billboards.  

 

Taehyung says, “Do you want to know what I think?”

 

Jungkook moves. Chin first. The rest of him follows. He gives Taehyung a long, silent look.

 

He says, “Sure.”

 

“I think it’s okay. That you got mad. Disgusted even. It’s okay that you got mad for getting mad.

And that you don’t know why. Or what to do with it. Sometimes anger is just anger. It’s not rational.”

 

If it’s wrong or right, Taehyung isn’t going to care. Maybe there isn’t a wrong or a right tonight.

 

“Maybe you just have to let yourself feel it. The anger.”

 

“Do you get angry a lot? As a not kid?”

 

“No,” Taehyung says and it’s not a lie. It isn’t. “But I bottle it up when I do. And I’m bad at knowing what to do with it too.”

 

It might be easier. To say this without looking at him.

 

Taehyung watches the light play across Jungkook’s face and it’s not easy, to make the synapses in his brain connect and keep his mouth going through all the other stuff going on. The useless things. The ache in his hands. The shameful scorching in his stomach. And maybe the feeling isn’t real. Maybe Jungkook is right and his scorn is rightful, but it still feels like Taehyung could look at him forever. Even when it’s not easy. Especially then.

 

Jungkook just looks at him. Blinks at Taehyung with tired, open eyes.

 

Taehyung says, “And it’s okay if you don’t think it’s normal that you feel that way. It’s- I think it’s okay. To not feel normal sometimes.”

 

“Even if you don’t feel normal most of the time?” Jungkook asks, the words tiny. Exhausted.

 

“I wouldn’t know normal if it punched me in the face. Most people don’t. If they tell you otherwise, they’re probably lying to you.”

 

Light splatters over Jungkook’s face. It’s a rotating billboard. The one with all the colors. It lands on Jungkook’s cheeks. All color. All light.

 

The sounds from the strip clutters the street again. It’s turned into a tourist pit the last few years, has been for a while. Taehyung hasn’t been to the clubs there in years, young and drunk off his ass and desperate for action. That dirty sex drenched rockstar filth. Didn’t really find it.  

 

Jungkook doesn’t look away from Taehyung. Lets him see it. Feel it. The moment the rainbow trembles.

 

The moment Jungkook breathes out.

 

The ache in Taehyung’s hands lessens. His own breathing stops hurting. Starts feeling like his own again.

 

Kicking his boots against the bumper, Jungkook breathes out. In. Out. The way he’s supposed to.

 

After a moment, he says, “Ugh. Sorry. About- whatever. Tonight and all... this.” He throws Taehyung a quick look, shy and withered. “Talking fucking sucks and I’m, like, shit at it so-”

 

“Hey,” Taehyung says, gentle, his own version of admonishing.

 

Jungkook isn’t a bad kid, isn’t a kid at all, but he likes treating himself like he is.

 

“Don’t apologize. This is what we do, yeah? Talk. When not you’re trying to find new ways to cause my body damage- I’m still hurting from that one pose, by the way-”

 

“I still don’t get how it was child’s pose that almost did you in. It’s literally called child’s pose, Tae.”

 

“-but talking,” Taehyung insists, bumps his knee to get him to quiet. Jungkook doesn’t pull back, doesn’t move when Taehyung does. Keeps his leg where it is in case Taehyung wants to come back. “It’s what we do. So you can talk all you want. About whatever you want. And I think you’re pretty good at it when you let yourself. When you actually just talk.”

 

It’s quiet for another few seconds.

 

When Jungkook speaks, it’s resigned. Done in. Like Taehyung isn’t the only one who lost tonight. “Okay,” Jungkook says. “But I’m still sorry. What I said earlier. That wasn’t-”

 

“Jungkook.”

 

He waits until Jungkook looks at him, until he stops shying away.

 

“I don’t want you to be sorry,” Taehyung says, the same words Jungkook has said to him.

 

“I still am, though,” Jungkook says, maybe not the words verbatim, as they spilled out of Taehyung’s mouth, but the sentiment. The feeling.

 

And Taehyung says, “It took me a week. After you left. It took me a week. Left the pillow case for a little longer.”

 

Jungkook sucks in a breath. His face falls, just plummets, like he wasn’t expecting Taehyung to admit it, like he doesn’t know what to do with it now that he has, and his lips part, and his mouth is pink, it always is, at its core, the way Taehyung thinks of it, wants it, and it’s so fucking easy for Taehyung to give him the shameful parts of himself. Some of them. The ones that don’t make him feel ashamed at all. The ones that are about Jungkook.

 

And it doesn’t scare Taehyung.

 

That one day, they all might be.

 

Jungkook sighs. Once. Shaky. The good kind.

 

His eyes go hazy for a second. Two. Seems to get lost in the lights.

 

He nods once, at himself. Twice, at Taehyung. A third time.

 

For luck, maybe. Jungkook seems like the kind. To believe in luck.

 

This time, when Jungkook asks, “You want some pie?”

 

Taehyung says, “Yeah. Yeah, I want some pie.”

 

The pies are a mess. Soggy crusts. Sugar gone too sour. Too sweet. There are too many blueberries in Taehyung’s mouth again. It’s been  hours and the still night can’t decide if it wants to be dry or muggy, if it wants to choke Taehyung or let him breathe, and Taehyung has an early shift at the center tomorrow, a shift at the restaurant after, but Taehyung thinks he could stay out here for forever.

 

Til the sun turns out all the billboards.

 

Til the only rainbow touching Jungkook is the one inside his chest.  

 

Taehyung swallows pie. Says, “So. Tell me about your shitty work day.”

 

Jungkook sighs, put upon. Dramatic. The good kind of sigh. The one that doesn’t make Taehyung’s chest hurt. Doesn’t leave him wondering whether or not Jungkook will decide to breathe. “Well. It was Rhode Island’s fault. Unsurprisingly.”

 

“Unsurprisingly. Fucking Rhode Island. By the way-”

 

“By the way? Wait. By the way back at you. Did you try the apple? It’s way better than the berry crap. I don’t get why you like those so much. Too fuckin’ sweet.”

 

“Mhhm.” Taehyung tries the apple. It’s okay. Better than the blueberries. Still too sweet in all the wrong ways. He pushes the fork back at Jungkook, gestures to the car. “When are you gonna explain how you ended up with a baby blue oldsmobile? It’s been burning my mind all night.”

 

“What’s wrong with baby blue, Kim?”

 

“Nothing. Was just expecting another color from you. Black. Majestic. A knock off batmobile.”

 

“I wish I was slick enough to own a batmobile. And baby blue is plenty majestic. Color of royalty. I feel like the king of the town when I drive this thing.” Jungkook licks the fork. Presses it back it Taehyung’s into hand. The waitress only gave them one. Taehyung thinks about it. How their mouths taste the same right now. Too sweet. Not sweet enough.

 

Jungkook says, “It was my grandma’s car.” He looks at Taehyung sideways. Haughty. “Better think twice before you insult it.”

 

Taehyung smiles. He wasn’t sure he’d feel like it again. Tonight. Maybe that’s the thing too. Contentment. Happiness. It comes out of nowhere. Doesn’t promise to stay. Shoots itself up in his guts. Sets him a light. Burns out just as quick. Always comes back.

 

He says, “Wouldn’t dream of it. You look pretty majestic now. King sitting on his throne. King of West Holly-hood. Pie crumbs on his face.”

 

Jungkook sticks his tongue out. Disgustingly blue. Taehyung still wants to put his own against it. Kiss the blue from his mouth. Kiss Jungkook clean. 

 

Jungkook wipes his face, the back of his hand gentle against his cheek. “Does that make you my right hand man? Or my jester?” He grins, teeth bright. “A not as funny as the king one.”

 

“Doesn’t that defeat my purpose? A jester who can’t jest?”

 

“Yeah, but you’re nice to look at so the king doesn’t care all that much.”

 

“Does he now?”

 

“Mhhhm. The king really likes it when his jesters look like real life Levi’s commercials. All you need is some brown boots.”

 

“Your jester will get right on that.”

 

Jungkook beams, shoulders coming up sweetly as he pulls Taehyung’s not-move, except on him it’s a total move, it is, hair falling into his eyes as he looks up at Taehyung from under his lashes, and maybe there are a lot of versions of him, too many to count, and maybe Taehyung wants every single one of them, but this one. Happy and relaxed and with a sweet kissed mouth. This is the one Taehyung wants for Jungkook’s sake.

 

“By the way, again,” Jungkook says as he wrestles the fork out of Taehyung’s grip. Taehyung only holds on for the excuse to let their hands touch for longer. For the way Jungkook comes out of it, pleased. Victorious. “You can’t name your dog Iridi- whatever the second.”

 

“I can’t?” Taehyung asks. Hasn’t even thought of it. Another dog. Another Iridium.

 

“Nope,” Jungkook answers, popping the p obnoxiously. “Can’t name your dog something I can’t pronounce,” he says, eyes glinting, purposeful.

 

Taehyung thinks. Maybe a girl this time. Wet brown eyes. Tongue wagging smile. A dog who looks like they live at the beach. Who glows with it. Maybe Iris this time.

 

Seagull The Second is a terrible fucking name for a dog. No matter what Jungkook says.

 

Taehyung is easy but he’s not that easy.

 

Jungkook’s gaze is knowing but he just scoops more pie. Holds it up to Taehyung’s mouth. Gives a shocked little laugh when Taehyung actually moves forward, eats it right out of his hand.

 

The content thing settles in Taehyung’s chest. The one from earlier, from when he was standing outside of a movie theater with the two people who understand him better than most. From before he came here. To be with the one who’s starting to understand Taehyung too. Maybe in a way no one else does.

 

A small smile tugs at Taehyung’s mouth and this one-

 

This one is for his dad.

 

Because when Taehyung was five he sat Taehyung down in their modest living room, the one without a windowsill, the one where it was just the three of them, just Taehyung and his dad and his mom, and he said Taehyung. These are the elements. They made you and me and everything else. And he laid them out, each square they represented, the letter and number that represented them, and he’d said they came from the stars, Taehyung, and now they’re ours, and without meaning to, in that tiny living room, he’d opened up the universe-

 

And he gave Taehyung the stars.

 

And Taehyung asks, “So. Rhode Island?”

 

And Jungkook says, “So. Rhode Island-”

 

*****

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

*****

 

 

 

 

 

The last time Taehyung was this high, he almost fell off a mountain.

 

“You ever been to one of these?”

 

Taehyung smiles, caught. “What gave me away?”

 

“Deer in the headlights, man,” Namjoon smiles back. Lets Taehyung in on the secret. “All over your face. The people here aren’t even that pretty.”

 

“I’m more thrown by the champagne flute tower. But really, the fact that the flutes are full of organic beer and not champagne.”

 

Namjoon takes a glance at the flute tower. A few too many stories high on the other side of the rooftop. A bit too close to the pool. Pale liquid sparkling in the sun. Glass stems burnished in gold. Taehyung wonders if it’s real.

 

“I think it’s supposed to be ironic,” Namjoon says. He extends his gaze across the rooftop. Like everything is doused in irony. The people. The alcohol. The very concept of a rooftop pool. An exercise in irony.  

 

Taehyung tilts his head. Feels the heat of the sun on his cheek. A brand. Everywhere he turns today. Heat.

 

He says, “I thought this generation had collectively decided to move on from irony. Wasn’t our nostalgic recreating the 80’s and 90’s supposed to have cured us of that? I’m pretty sure that’s why every song has a synthesizer again.”

 

Namjoon sighs, thoughtful. Doesn’t sound weighed down by it. The irony. The nostalgia. “Pretty sure that’s why I own a gameboy again. But don’t know. I think all that’s just made us more ironic. More nostalgic too.”   

 

“That’s probably the economy. And the whole drinking beer out of champagne glasses thing.”

 

Namjoon cocks a brow. Raises a hand. No champagne flute in sight. Just a dark glass bottle. He inclines it towards Taehyung. “I’ll drink to that.”

 

Taehyung lifts his own bottle. Clinks it against Namjoon’s. Cocks a brow back. Drinks.

 

It’s just bitter enough. The flutes looked more trouble than they were worth drinking out of them for the posh factor. To blend in. Taehyung has never really cared for that.

 

Namjoon, leaning next to him in the corner of the banister lining the roof, the city spread out behind them, doesn’t seem to care for it either.

 

More heat touches Taehyung’s face. Softer. Thoughtful.

 

Namjoon is smiling at him. No irony. Something closer to nostalgia in it. “You’re alright, man,” he tells Taehyung. He turns away from the rooftop. Toward the city view.

 

A breeze pushes at Taehyung’s back.

 

The pool glitters under the sun. The not-that pretty people lounge around. Glitter just as brightly. Even the dj shines, if not in the music he makes, the sides of his turntables reflect beams that blind.

 

Taehyung squints.

 

He follows Namjoon’s lead. Dangles his beer forty odd floors above the ground. He pushes the sunglasses at the top of his head over his eyes. The brightness hurts less. He asks, “I didn’t seem alright last time we met?”

 

Namjoon laughs, good natured. He taps his beer against the metal top of the banister, light bouncing off both. “Can I be real with you? No bullshit?”

 

The sun kisses Taehyung’s nape.

 

Another presence joins it. A different kind of heat. Another kind of kiss. He doesn’t look behind them. Back at the roof.

 

He looks at Namjoon. Nods.

 

“You seemed nice. Hard to read, but nice. First impressions are hardly ever right. Especially when people seem as nice as you did.”

 

Taehyung raises his beer to his mouth. Stops. Below them, it’s all palm trees doting sidewalks. Beyond that, sand. On the other side, further out, is all ocean. For days. For the people from around here, this is all they’ll ever know. Even if they only come back to sleep. Even if they move halfway across the country. The world. Never come home. This is probably what they’ll always think of. The ocean, and how she cradled them, kept them surrounded in blue.

 

It’s what Taehyung thinks he’d think of, anyway had he been ocean born.  

 

It’s that thought that keeps his grip on the bottle. Away from his mouth. Makes him ask, “Don’t people say the opposite? First impressions are usually right?”

 

It makes sense. Namjoon and Jungkook being friends. That they both see Taehyung and think he’s written in a different language. Waterlogged pages. Cards. That they see him and question who the fuck is this guy, and not that they took one look at him and knew. Flipped through him. Easy as anything. Anyone.

 

He remembers something Yoongi told him once. Both of them smoked up. Back when they were still mostly young. Still mostly shaky handed. That’s the thing about you, man. The longer we’re friends the less I know you. The more you surprise me. That’s how I know I know you. People think they know you. I know I don’t.   

 

Namjoon smirks, sun filling the edges of his face. He pulls his shades on, frames dark on his nose bridge. His nose is almost as perfect and tiny as Hoseok’s. “Because people are usually right, huh? I spent hours on ebay and an embarrassing amount of cash and now I own a fucking Game Boy again because I thought it would reconnect me with my childhood. People are idiots.”

 

Taehyung brings the bottle to his lips. It’s cold. The only way to quench the heat. A reprieve from the sun. “Got me there. And usually,” he adds, tries not to smile around his repeating use of the word. “People get offended at nice but I will take it as a compliment.”

 

“Oh, trust me. It’s a compliment,” Namjoon says, an edge to it. “No. But really. Compared to the fuckers Jungkook usually brings around? Nice is nice .” He takes a swig, slower than Taehyung.

 

“But since I’m being honest, I’m not gonna bullshit you-“

 

“The bar’s pretty low.”

 

Taehyung sets his bottle on the banister. The glass makes a wet thunk. He watches the cars crawling along the street below, the palm trees swaying along the coast line. Makes a vague noise of acknowledgement. Finds it a little too easy not to smile now.

 

Namjoon throws him a sidelong glance. “Been a while since he brought one around, though. And definitely not the same one twice.”

 

The wind ruffles Taehyung’s hair. Sweeps under his shirt.

 

Another press from the sun. From the different kind of heat. His shoulders this time.

 

Taehyung pushes his glasses back up his forehead. The sudden clarity hurts his eyes. Everything that less clear. “You spend a lot of time in Malibu?”

 

Namjoon throws his head back. He grips the banister one handed as he laughs, keeps his balance by a thread. “Damn. You’re as mum about this as he is. Mummer, maybe. He got you that well trained or this one of those this isn’t as serious as it looks situations?”

 

It’s the light way Namjoon says it. The pleasant tilt of his head, the friendly laugh, that doesn’t make Taehyung’s hackels rise. Maybe instead of a copyright lawyer Namjoon should have been a politician. Likeable to a fault. Even when his words out of anyone else’s mouth would piss Taehyung off.

 

Taehyung thumbs the side of his beer. Glass sweaty. He thinks of when he told Jungkook he doesn’t get angry as often. As a not-kid.

 

Maybe Taehyung is more of a liar than he realizes. Maybe he doesn’t know himself as well as he thinks he should at twenty-seven. Maybe no one does. Know themselves, that is. Maybe everyone, everyone who’s honest with themselves, goes around constantly surprising themselves.

 

He looks at Namjoon’s nice face. Thinks of the Game Boy he bought in a quest for connection. With himself. An older version. A more innocent one. He wonders if Namjoon is constantly surprising himself too.

 

Taehyung breathes out. Relaxes his shoulders. He asks, “Not to be rude or anything, but shouldn’t you be schmoozing too? Industry deals to... deal or something.”

 

Namjoon smiles. No edge to it. “No. But I do know when to take a hint. Sorry, man. Jungkook acts like he doesn’t need anyone looking out for him but everyone needs someone who cares. And he talks about you a bit. More than. So I care. If you’re actually nice. To him specifically.”     

 

Water splashes. The wind picks up.

 

Taehyung tries to keep himself very still. His hands. The questions burning in his mind.

 

He bites his tongue. His hands flex. His beer almost falls forty floors.

 

The heat. Every single kind. Burning.  

 

Namjoon stares back at him, that senator worthy face. His eyes are hidden but its an unapologetic look. Trustworthy. Open in his own lack of implicit trust. And Taehyung’s mind stutters and the beginning of a word slips out even though Namjoon isn’t who he should be asking, and he-

 

“So. What are the two best looking, excluding yours truly, most boring, which yours truly is not even a contender for, guys at the party talking about?”

 

Grinning, Namjoon slides down the banister, lets Jungkook elbow his way between them, a flurry of limbs and sun kissed skin. Of heat.

 

Taehyung gathers himself close. Shifts left. Takes his beer with him. He’s that much more conscious of it. Space. The humming noise from the beach. The murmur from the party behind them.

 

The heat. How now it’s all sun.

 

Jungkook leans over the edge, peers down bellow. The wind plays with his hair. The low neck of his shirt exposes his collarbones, the top of his muscled chest, the gold chain wrapped snugly around his neck.

 

“No way are we the most boring guys here,” Namjoon defends. “I overheard a guy trying to hit on someone by talking about his investment portfolio. Most of his stocks are in Bing. Fucking Bing. She looked ready to dive into her glass.”

 

“You’re dressed exactly the same and are the only fucks drinking out of actual bottles. How’d you manage to get the bartenders to hand those over?”

 

“Namjoon is very persuasive,” Taehyung explains.

 

“And it’s not exactly the same,” Namjoon adds, tugging at the front of his shirt. “My stripes are half a shade lighter than Taehyung’s.”

 

Jungkook grunts, clearly unimpressed. With both of them. Taehyung thinks he’s more than within his rights because he and Namjoon are dressed the same. Blue and white striped shirts. Cream colored rolled up slacks. Same navy boat shoes. Black rimmed sunglasses. Even their shins are about the same amount of hairy. Namjoon’s outfit is obviously Ralph Lauren or some other more expensive obscure brand while Taehyung’s is decidedly not. Jungkook has taken great pleasure in pointing it out all day. It got old pretty fast but neither of them have tried that hard to stop him.

 

Taehyung was going for a non-ironic sailing theme, blend in with the Malibu natives. Something tells him Namjoon was going for ironic.

 

Maybe Taehyung was a little too.

 

“And you,” Namjoon furthers, pointing at Jungkook with his bottle, “shouldn’t be taking digs at anyone’s clothing. You own two colors and way too much leather. Even for someone who lives in fucking Los Angeles. Even.”

 

“Even,” Jungkook mocks, and here they are. Head of legal and aspiring A&R rep. Head of it one day maybe. Bastions of maturity. “I’ve been compared to an off duty male model so you can kiss my sweet, sweet ass, Namjoon,” Jungkook says, mouth twisted smugly, his arm brushing Taehyung’s.  

 

“Never said it was a male model you looked like,” Taehyung counters. Because he really has been a smug shit all day. Because it’s too hot and he’s standing too close to Taehyung. Like it’s an afterthought. Like it’s a given. Because now he’s got Taehyung thinking about his sweet, sweet ass. His sweet, sweet everything.

 

Jungkook pulls back from the edge. He turns his head toward Taehyung with a sharp jerk. His face is blank. Then, he grins, simpering about it, flirty and so convincing, it’s obvious in its fakeness. Heightens the effect by batting his lashes, haloed and golden in the sun. Kills it all the next second. He crosses his arms, biceps pronounced and intimidating in their strength. “That’s very attractive that you think the idea of being compared to a woman is going to insult me.”

 

Embarrassment crawls up Taehyung’s spine. Chokes his neck. He hadn’t meant it that way. Doesn’t know what he meant by it. Just wanted to break the tension. The lack of it. The one he’s been carrying inside himself. Just wanted to mute Jungkook’s everything a little. Takes him down a tiny peg. Only a little. Just for a moment. Long enough so Namjoon’s words stop ringing in his head. So he can adjust to Jungkook’s heat touching him instead of being across a rooftop from him. Serves Taehyung right. Getting his ass handed to him instead. “That’s not- Shit. I-”

 

“I thought he wasn’t supposed to be attracting you?”

 

“I. Um- I did-”

 

Jungkook holds his scathing gaze, hidden under the honey trap his posture is. His eyes flicker over Taehyung. The next second, his arms fall to his sides. Body softening. Intimidating for a completely different reason. He rolls his eyes, gives every spoiled teenager a run for their money. “Relax.” He pats Taehyung’s hand lightly, palm warm. Touch lingering.

 

Sneering at Namjoon, Taehyung momentarily dismissed, Jungkook taps Namjoon’s beer, short nails clacking. “Do you need to maybe cut back, Joon? It sounds like it’s going to your head.”     

 

Namjoon, prudently, moves further down the edge of the rooftop. It’s nice to know it’s not just Taehyung. Who gets bowled over by hhim. Smacked back into place with a word. A look.

 

He doesn’t think about how he stays exactly where he is, in the line of fire, while Namjoon is smart enough to cut his losses. Protect himself.

 

Jungkook dangles his hands over the banister, fingers touching air. He shoots a glance between them. “So?”

 

Taehyung shakes himself out of his stupor. Still reeling from jackhammering his foot in his mouth. From the soft roughness of Jungkook’s skin against his. “So what?”

 

“What were you talking about?”

 

Taehyung goes right back to the stupor. His mind blanks. Sun haze. Foam bubbling down his throat. “Uh-”

 

“You. Obviously.”

 

Jungkook’s face brightens. More than it already is. Stunning feat he pulls off again and again. Socks Taehyung silly with it every time. “Oh?” he asks. Asks Namjoon, by the direction he shoots his voice in. But he’s looking at Taehyung through the corner of his eye. But his body tilts left.

 

“Yep,” Namjoon confirms, grin eking out on savage, and Taehyung was totally right. He’s all politician, untrustworthy and slimy, does it all with the nicest smile on his trustworthy face. “About how tired your jokes are and how annoying you can get.”

 

Taehyung breathes a sigh of relief. Tries to pass it off as rooftop party bliss. The Malibu chillax air seeping into his lungs. Namjoon catches it for what it is, because of course he does, hides his delight with the rim of his bottle.

 

With another eye roll, and he is on a roll with those today, Jungkook shoots another barb at Namjoon with, “And you’re turning thirty this year exactly how?” He turns again, this time the side of his body leaning on the banister, back to Namjoon. Another clear dismissal. He’s full of those today too.

 

He must buy Taehyung’s rooftop bliss chill though because he smiles at Taehyung, eyebrows wiggling mischievously. Taehyung’s entire body is just one big tug toward it. Him. “You must be feeling pretty good, mhhm? All young for once in the presence of this ancient?”

 

Namjoon, beer against his mouth like it’s been surgically attached there, just fucking giggles.

 

Taehyung wants to hate his affable, amused self. Finds it close to impossible.

 

Far more impossible, is the heat of Jungkook’s body. Taehyung blinks at him through his glasses. For the action than the effect it could have. Jungkook can’t see it. The sun makes him a hot line pressed all along Taehyung’s front, chests brushing when Jungkook shifts. There’s less than an inch of space between them, the distance Taehyung made for him gone. Maybe. Taehyung is a little too sun dazed, heat hazed, to take account of much right now. Not even space.

 

Namjoon shifts further away. Unnecessary.  

 

“What?” Jungkook asks at Taehyung’s silence, chin ducked innocently, eyes challenging.

 

Taehyung swallows. Feels like the beer is still making its way down his throat. Solidified itself into bitter sludge. He finds it in himself to shrug. Cups his bottle. Slides his other hand in the pocket of his sailor inspired slacks. Keeps them both busy. Out of trouble.

 

“Didn’t say anything,” he says when he finally gets the rest of himself to join into the fray, the whole nothing to see here thing he’s supposed to have going for himself, tongue unsticking from the roof of his dry mouth.

 

Jungkook pulls back, like he can read the tension in Taehyung’s body. It’s barely an inch but an inch is a fucking inch. An inch is a mile with Jungkook.

 

Another breath of relief starts to work itself through Taehyung’s body but then he takes stalk of Jungkook. The way the movement has tilted his hips forward. Towards Taehyung’s. Heat punches Taehyung in the gut. Like the sun is burning itself up in there. Taehyung locks what feels like every muscle in his body. He wonders if Jungkook can see his eyes narrowing, if his eyebrows are giving him away.

 

Jungkook doesn’t. Give himself away. He scans the length of Taehyung’s body, hot and slow like the press of fingers, the slide of a palm. Seems to focus on Taehyung’s shoulders, the casual bend of his elbow, his forehead. His mouth.

 

Taehyung tries locking his lungs too but they’re not really listening to him. They never do.

 

“Very weekend summering b-word,” Jungkook proclaims once he’s taken his fill, sounds a little too pleased with himself.

 

“B-word?” Namjoon asks, intrigued. Taehyung’s trying not to pay attention to how he’s looking at them. How he also looks a little too pleased. Wonders if it’s a good thing. If Taehyung indulging Jungkook like this, letting him push him around how he wants, his skin thin weakness for him, is what Namjoon considers being nice.

 

Jungkook smiles, the barely there wrinkles at the corners of his eyes full of sunlight. “It’s an inside joke,” he replies before plucking the beer from Taehyung’s hand.

 

Taehyung raises his brows. Knows Jungkook can see that.

 

“What?” Less innocent. Jungkook takes a long pull, smacks his wet stained mouth. Beer and the gloss he’s wearing today. Berry Fantasy. Because of course it is. Taehyung saw the label when he swiped his lips with it in the car on the drive over, excuse his chronically dry lips and his hatred for the feel chapstick. Tried coconut oil and hates that more. Taehyung hadn’t mentioned the plenty of other options to soothe chapped lips. He still uses the aquaphor Seokjin gave him a while back, clear and boringly shiny; the banana-pineapple lipsmackers he borrowed from Yoongi and never returned. He’d just watched Jungkook apply it, the shy smile he’d sported when he caught Taehyung staring at him through the rearview.

 

Jungkook smacks his lips again. If the movement is supposed to be obnoxious he misses the mark. By a mile and then some. “Tastes better from the bottle.”

 

“You’ve had at least three of those champagne flutes already. But sure.”

 

“You were watching me?” Jungkook asks, the pleased thing in his eyes growing. Glowing. Telling the sun to fuck off. He shifts his weight on one foot so he’s slouching without making himself look lazy, makes it so he has to look up at Taehyung. Enticing. Body shown off in all the right ways. He’s ridiculously good at that, making himself seem almost smaller than he is, than Taehyung. Should be impossible. Some kind of trick Taehyung finds himself falling for. Willingly. Hopelessly.

 

Maybe it’s all the tall guys Jungkook hangs out with.

 

Taehyung wonders if all the other fucks were tall too.

 

If again, Taehyung is an anomaly. The outlier. In terms of a lot of things.

 

The thought makes the hackles absent with Namjoon, want to rise. The bad kind of heat.

 

Taehyung forces an eye roll, his own kind of dismissive. “Was trying to see if I could catch you schmoozing,” he says, going for smooth. It works if the way Jungkook’s eyes darken says anything. He swipes his beer from Jungkook’s grip, doesn’t drink. “See some high class industry action.”

 

Jungkook snorts, doesn’t say anything about the s-word. He takes the beer back. Taehyung lets him. Watches him sip. Jungkook gives him a critical stare, holds the beer against his chest, arms curling against his front. “The glasses ruin the effect though,” he muses. He grabs his sunglasses from the neck of his shirt. Rimmed in gold. “Try these.”

 

Taehyung rolls his eyes at himself, at how quickly he takes his own glasses off, offers them so Jungkook can hold them.

 

The sunglasses settle comfortably on his face, opaque the world less than his own, light gold instead of a burning blaze without them.

 

Jungkook smiles wide, fucking glitters, and he’s the brightest thing on this rooftop. He isn’t wearing his earrings today except the hoops in his lobes. A replica of his silver love knot in the left in gold. Dripping in it. The gold. In sun. “You’re so not a wayfarer face. That face was born for aviators. Back me up, Namjoon.”

 

“Oh. You do know I’m still here.”

 

Jungkook twists to mouth something rude and cutting going by the laugh it forces out of Namjoon, voracious and loud and ruining the chill nu-disco posh vibe the dj has going for him.

 

Jungkook faces Taehyung again, mollified at delivering his threat. Namjoon smiles at Taehyung over his head, smug and nice as shit at the same time, eyebrows raised. Teasing. Commiserating. If he doesn’t run for governor or something someday, it’ll be a waste. Taehyung will be the first in line at the polls and Taehyung has been mailing in his ballot for the last two elections.

 

“I don’t think he needs much swaying in your direction. Personally, I like the wayfarers. Ray Ban guy through and through.”

 

“They’re both Ray Ban, you- don’t listen to him,” Jungkook says, stands tall like he can block Namjoon from Taehyung’s line of sight like that. With Namjoon leaning over the railing, he succeeds. Taehyung wasn’t looking at him anyway. “I know what I’m talking about. I’m a little disappointed you’ve reached twenty-seven and didn’t know this about yourself.”    

 

“Guess we’ve found a purpose for you walking into my life,” Taehyung says though he does know this about himself. He lost his last pair of aviators in a freak stinky tofu work accident. It’s the only time Seokjin had considered firing him. “To teach me the error in my sunglass wearing ways.”

 

“I don’t know about that,” Jungkook says, doesn’t take the bait. “Pretty sure- I mean, technically, you walked into mine.”

 

From behind Jungkook, Namjoon coughs. Chokes.

 

Taehyung isn’t sure. Maybe it’s terrible of him, but he can’t find it in himself to care. Dumb struck like he was in the car today. At the berries. At the quiet shy thing of Jungkook’s smile. How you wouldn’t think he’d be capable of it, making himself small, of such honest shyness, when he’s so big in a way, so much, this constantly un-collapsing star. How readily he shows Taehyung this side of him, over and over again, each time a little more real, puts Taehyung right at the center of the collapse.

 

Jungkook laughs, nose scrunching. He puffs his cheeks, awkward, like he was expecting something, and for once, Taehyung didn’t deliver. Taehyung flinches, words catching, but Jungkook is already saying, “But, um. Sure. That’s why- oh. Wait. Let me try yours.”

 

Taehyung goes to warn him but Jungkook is already slipping them on, black making his white outfit sharp against his lightly tanned skin. Angel with hint of the devil he keeps under wraps.

 

Jungkook frowns. He looks around, head bobbing this way and that. Waiting for the world to adjust. For the click. His brows furrow, the shocked look on his face when he gets it is stupidly adorable. “Oh my g- You’re. Oh my god? Taehyung.”

 

“Jungk-”

 

“Oh my god. Taehyung, you’re blind.”

 

Taehyung rolls his eyes. At Jungkook. He reaches for the glasses but Jungkook easily evades him. Takes up the space Namjoon left for him. “It’s just a little- for distance and light. Can you take them off?”

 

“No. You’re, like, seriously blind. How did I not know this?”

 

“I wear contacts. It’s not that big-”

 

“I think you’re blinder than my grandpa. This is adorable. Oh my- Tae? So adorable.”

 

“Kook. You’re gonna fuck up your eyes. Take them-”

 

“I will,” Jungkook promises. He holds his hands up to keep Taehyung at bay. Like Taehyung could ever come close unless Jungkook lets him. Pulls him in. “Tell me how I look first.”

 

Taehyung’s chest squeezes. Goes a little topsy turvy. The sun beats down on his nape. Beer sits lopsided in his stomach. He catches Namjoon smiling at them in the edge of his vision, the only way to describe it as fond. It’s that what makes him say, “Adorable,” because his tongue is alcohol-heat loose. Because Namjoon’s gaze is also approving. Because it’s true and Jungkook said it first. It’s not on the list anyway. Adorable. He doesn’t think it’ll stay that way much longer. Might as well say it while he can. “Like Tom Cruise is somewhere crying right now because not only do you look better in wayfarers than him, you could snap his neck with your elbows. Now please take them off?”  

 

Jungkook smiles, small and shy. Sure in it. In the warmth gracing his face. He lowers his hands, holds out his sun blessed face to Taehyung. To Taehyung’s hands.

 

Like an automat, his hands go. Except there’s nothing automatic in the way he has to hide the shake. In the way he holds his breath and lets it out slow. In the way he pulls the sunglasses off carefully, his fingers briefly touching Jungkook’s nose, the regal, imposing, curve of it. Every end nerve in his hands singing, and he’s touched Jungkook before, more intimately and deeply than grazing his fucking nose, but it’s like his fingertips have been burned off by the sun. Like if someone tried to find Taehyung by touch, book and bring him in for a crime, they’d find him gone, his prints erased without a trace.  

 

Taehyung hides the way his hands fumble with the frames by twirling them by one of the arms. He sticks them in his hair, contains the flopped over mess the sea breeze has made of it.

 

“Thank you,” Jungkook says as he hangs his aviators off his shirt. He leans against the banister, taps Taehyung’s beer. Taehyung nods, looks at the edge of the beach he can see from here as Jungkook drinks. “You should push your hair up like that more. You have good eyebrows.”

 

Taehyung snorts. The nu-disco vibe is getting a little too edmy. Taehyung decides not to have a second beer like he was planning. Edmy vibes and Taehyung and beers are a bad idea. Sometimes. Better safe than sorry. There’s just a lot of dude-guy bopping and Jungkook doesn’t need any more ammo today. The twinning outfits with his work best friend has been plenty. “With my fivehead? This only looks okay because half my hair is still in my face.”

 

“What if I said I like your fivehead? And it looks more than just okay.”

 

“All right then,” Namjoon cuts in before Taehyung can think of anything to say to that. Can think anything at all. “And because I really do know how to take a hint, I’m gonna go. I think I see a client and suddenly I am desperate to schmooze.”

 

Jungkook frowns, annoyance prickling at his pouted mouth. “Can you not say that word? Oh- If you go by the bar will you get me another drink?” he finishes, all sweetness.

 

Namjoon sighs, this long suffering thing, but he pushes off the banister, doesn’t wait for a response when he asks, “With a twist?” and gestures with his bottle at Taehyung. Taehyung shakes his head. Maybe everyone is just that little bit weak for Jungkook after all. Even if they don’t want to put their hands on him. Although maybe Namjoon does, Taehyung wouldn’t know. Friendship and sex, like sex and love, can get muddled. Can get burned and distorted in the mind. The chest. The hips.

 

Namjoon shoots them a little smile, a funny salute, and Taehyung thinks of him saying So I care . The way he’d said nice .  The fondness in his eyes as he’d watched them.

 

“So,” Taehyung says watching Namjoon walk away, striped shirt billowing in the breeze. “You get all your schmooz- you know. That. Done?”

 

“Ugh. Yes. Sort of. Being a kiss ass is annoying.”

 

Taehyung laughs, offers him the last of the beer. Jungkook pushes it back toward him, flips to look back out over the street, the palms, the beach.

 

“You’re not trying to sign that guy are you?” Taehyung props his elbows on the banister. Jerks his bottle toward the dj.

 

Jungkook makes a face. “Please. I left my edm bro phase in high school where it belonged. This was about buttering up my boss. The sort-of-dick I pointed out to you earlier.”

 

“Wearing the-”

 

“Yep.”

 

“Does he always dress like that?”

 

“Yep. Though sometimes the polos are neon.”

 

“Nice.”

 

“Right? Makes for a very appealing visual in the office.”

 

“Better than the rainbow snapbacks.”

 

“I like the rainbow snapback,” Jungkook says. Watches a woman with a stroller on the sidewalk below. He sighs softly, tilting his face up to the sun. “You know, I really do hate all this. Work parties. Sucking up. It’s a necessary evil, I guess, but it makes me feel fake. How easy I can do it.”

 

“So why do it?” Taehyung questions, rolling the bottle between his palms. The liquid sloshes against the sides. Threatens to bubble up. Explode. Doesn’t. The woman reaches the end of the block, crosses the street, her sundress swaying in the wind.

 

“Necessary evil. I don’t want to be an assistant forever. And this industry is so- it’s fake. It’s not about the music but- Everyone knows that. And it’s dying too. The recording industry. I mean, that’s obvious. It keeps reviving itself every so often but it’ll happen eventually. People say the album has made a comeback and that’s sort of true but only for certain artists. A&R jobs have been cut to hell and back.”

 

“Which is why you hate Rhode Island.”

 

Jungkook hums. “Which is why I hate Rhode Island. Plus, it’s more pretentious than New York. And it sucks. But- I’m already thinking ahead. Rhode Island can have my job once I leave.”

 

“So, what? Streaming?” Taehyung asks, taking a guess. He watches the sun bathe Jungkook’s face, kiss the lines in his cheeks, the bow of his lips. He’s magnetic like this, in his element, passionate, feet planted firmly on ground that’s shaky for everyone else.

 

“No. I mean-yes, it’s the now and the future and everyone is bending to it. So yes. But they compensate musicians like shit. Necessary evil, right? So do record labels but. I want them to get their fair due. And people say the gatekeepers are dead and there’s a lot of self reliant musicians and that’s great but. That’s not true for everyone. Art is art but it’s still work. If you look at the hours clocked to create an album or-”

 

Jungkook cuts himself off, looking toward the high rise in front of them. He lowers his voice, seems to pick his words carefully. “That small label we acquired? It treats its artists really well. Fair distributions deals, clean legal practices. We’re the ones who sought them out. That’s what I want. I want to find talent and bring them into the fold. Help them grow. I might go into management someday. Don’t know. But. Whatever does or doesn’t happen with this shit fest industry, music isn’t going anywhere. But not everyone is the self sufficient type. And the ones who are struggled a lot before they managed it. I think I’d like it if I could help people struggle less. Even just a little.”

 

There’s a splash from the pool. The faint sound of the swell breaking. The music finds its way to the older side of disco, cracked out. On a glitter high. Decadent and sugary. Fits this party, every Malibu rooftop. Doesn’t fit this corner of the roof, this tiny space, this boy. This man.

 

Fits the way Taehyung looks at him even less.  

 

Jungkook laughs, high and strained. He peers at Taehyung quickly. Away. Tugs on one of his earrings, thumb fidgeting with the hoop. “Sorry. Was I talking too much? You probably do- Sorr-”  

 

“No,” Taehyung says softly. Heart too heavy. Heart too light. The tugging reaching an almost unbearable strength. He’s trying to pick his words carefully, more careful than Jungkook just did. He feels winded, bowled over, about to be knocked over the edge of this roof. “No. You just. You sound like you really know what you’re talking about. Like you really know what you want out of life.” It’s the collapsing star thing. Magnified by a million. Every star in the universe working itself out of its own destruction. It makes Taehyung’s limbs unsteady. Makes him want to get on his knees. Makes him weak in the best, most humbling, way.

 

Jungkook’s look goes curious. “Only about this stuff. All the other stuff? The stuff that probably matters more?” He shakes his head, hair falling in his eyes. “Total mess.”

 

And Taehyung wants to say that he likes messes. Might love them. More than he should. Knows them well.

 

He says, “Sorry, by the way. About earlier. The model joke,” he explains when Jungkook arches his brows. “I didn’t mean- and you’re obviously not-”

 

Jungkook frowns. The berry fantasy droops, sticks to the corners of his lips. “You still hung up on that? I told you it was fine.”

 

“Yeah, but-”

 

Groaning, Jungkook reaches for the bottle, drinks the last of Taehyung’s beer. A drop rolls from the corner of his mouth, travels down his chin. Wets the chain sitting delicate on his neck, the thick tendons of his throat. Taehyung follows the trail it leaves. Wonders if his gaze feels warm too. Like a touch.

 

Jungkook’s body gives the tiniest shiver. He licks his lips. Pulls Taehyung’s attention there instead. He shakes himself out the next moment. Comes up on his toes for a second, and fuck, that gets to Taehyung for some reason. The effortless way he controls his body. The fact that Taehyung knows what it looks like when he doesn’t.

 

Jungkook says, “Look. I’m confident in my dick. To an obnoxious degree in case you haven’t noticed.”

 

“Jesus,” Taehyung sighs out, smiling before he can help it.

 

“Most people,” Jungkook interjects, pointedly, “think I come off as overcompensating. Trying too hard to be macho masculine.” He shrugs, fingers curled, arms straining as he holds himself. En pointe, it’s called. Most male dancers know how. Never get to do it on stage. Taehyung read an NPR article about it once. Jungkook sighs, sways himself in the breeze. “I like what I like. I don’t care if whoever marketed it did it with a vagina or testicles in mind. That includes motorcycles and obscene amounts of leather and also, overpriced lip stains. Among other things.”

 

The sun caves itself around Taehyung’s head. Lands in the pit of his stomach. Burns. His voice is stupid deep breathy thing when he asks, “What other things?” He can guess a few. The scents Jungkook uses are too simpler. Sweet. Cologne tends to be made with sandalwood. Like most men are supposed to smell like wood and work and sweat. Cedar. Make Taehyung want to hold his breath. Jungkook carries himself like a sea breeze, light and airy. He always smells a little like he just came back from Barbados or something. Like gardenias and grapefruits. Like summer.  

 

Jungkook hums. Gaze averted. Berry stained mouth sharp.

 

Taehyung mutters jesus again. Drains the last of the beer. He lips come way sticky. A little sweet but not explicitly like berries. He is not disappointed about it.

 

“Women get compared to men all the time and it’s a compliment. I know you didn’t mean anything by it but I just- I don’t think it’s shameful to be seen as feminine. Or to like things made for women. Whatever that criteria is. Besides,” Jungkook adds, looking at Taehyung head on this time, finds no need to hide about this. “Have you seen the leather jackets models wear? I’d do some really terrible things to afford jackets like that.”

 

“Don’t doubt that for a second.”

 

Jungkook drops his weight forward, rests his forearms on the railing. He lays his cheek on his arm, doesn’t hide this either. His open appraisal of Taehyung today. “You do look really good like this. Makes you look older.”

 

“I thought getting old was bad. Thought I was old,” Taehyung reminds him. Tries to keep his voice light. Heat off his neck. Fails at both.

 

Jungkook smiles, more with his eyes than anything. “You wear it well. Poised. Mature. You’ll be a hot DILF someday.”

 

“DILF?” Taehyung frowns. Knows he’s heard it before. He pushes the sunglasses further up his head, thinking.

 

Daddy I’d Like to Fuck . Dad, technically but you’re totally going to be that guy. Some pretty young thing calling you daddy. You’d be super into that.”

 

Taehyung chokes on a laugh, face hotter than sun. Enough to burn the world. The whole fucking universe maybe. “Fuck. Jungkook, where do you-” he rubs his face, sweeps his sunglasses back when they slide. “No. Not, like, at all,” he says and he means it though who knows if forty year old him will be into that. Taehyung doesn’t think so. Can’t really think. The thought of himself and kids and pretty young things. Not with Jungkook standing right there, looking at him the way he is, sun eyes and soft and sweet, in this murky context, a pretty young thing now but he won’t be much of one some day, not when Taehyung will be anywhere close to being in the realm of a, a DILF, fuck, and Taehyung shouldn’t be going there but his mind already is.

 

Has been there a few times too many considering where they are.

 

Where they aren’t.

 

Taehyung hangs his head. Leans on the banister. “Bet you’ll be the one into that. Aren’t leather daddies still a thing?”

 

Jungkook shrugs, shoulders shimmying funnily. Adorably. “You get so bashful sometimes.”

 

“Haven’t we already had this conversation?”

 

“Yeah, but. I don’t know. You’re so nonchalant a lot of the time. Confident. And other times it’s like you forget.”

 

“Forget?”

 

“That you know exactly how to fit inside yourself.”        

 

“Sounds like I’m not the only one who’s been looking.”

 

“You know you’re not,” Jungkook says, something about his eyes too heavy. Too bright. “I was watching for glimpses of your brows. All the wind up here is letting your forehead breathe.”

 

Taehyung shakes his head. Knocks his sunglasses over his eyes. Jungkook’s face is shaded. Clearer. Still too bright. “You’re different today.”

 

“How?” Jungkook asks. The sun glances off his cheekbone, the way he’s angled toward Taehyung. His gaze drops to Taehyung’s mouth. His eyes. Back.

 

“You’re…” Taehyung trails off. Props his chin on his arm. Lets himself openly look because Jungkook is too and he is different, has been since that night, and they’ve always toed this line, but Jungkook is being more obvious about it now, direct and blatantly flirting. Aiming for a reaction, and it’s doing Taehyung’s head in, how much he wants to push back. Fall into it. “Lit up. Exuberant-”

 

“Exube- We get it. You did well on your SAT’s. You can cut it with the-”

 

“Bratty as fuck too. Like you’re gonna burn this fake posh place to the ground if we’re not all careful.”

 

“You really do think I’m a homicidal rage monster, don’t you?”

 

“Adorably bratty, though. Real c-word.”

 

“Ugh,” Jungkook grits, but he’s smiling through his glare. Like he wants to be pissed and can’t fake it. “You know. It was Namjoon’s idea for you to come today.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Mhhm. Said this was gonna be a suck fest and you made last time bearable. He’s a hip-hop snob which is whatever since hip-hop is basically all electronica now but. Whatever.”

 

Taehyung hums. Drags his chin against his arm. “I liked the music last time. But yeah. It was cool having him there. He’s good at putting people at ease.” And Namjoon is. Is just as good at putting them out of it. Maybe that’s just Taehyung.  

 

“He is,” Jungkook nods. “Kind of jealous he got to chill with you, though. While I had to work.”

 

Taehyung chuckles, looks over his shoulder. For the nicer striped shirt. Finds it by the pool, chatting up a man in suit. “Roles reversed now seems like.”

 

“And he forgot my drink. He’s, like, the worst,” Jungkook says with an affection drenched sigh.

 

“You guys seem close.”

 

“We interned together. Different departments but we’d both just come from New York so we bonded over that.”

 

“He’s older though, yeah? Almost thirty?”

 

“Mhhm. He went backpacking after college. Took some time off. Lost himself for a little. Didn’t come back ‘till he’d- you know, found himself. Was ready for life. Adulthood.” Jungkook deepens his voice, like he’s quoting someone else. “The suck.”  

 

Taehyung finds himself smiling. “The suck. I like that.”

 

Jungkook narrows his eyes at him playfully. “Of course you do. Appreciate all that life philosophy b-fucking-s. Pretentious city boy fucker.” He sticks his foot out. Pokes Taehyung with it gently to show he doesn’t mean it. Taehyung’s knee gives to the weight. Already knew. “So. Um, yeah. I’d just finished my masters and he was in law school. Went through the shit together. Have stuck together ever since, really.”

 

And Taehyung gets that. The people you go through it with. The shit. How they matter. How instinctual it becomes. To stick with them. To care. He’s glad that Jungkook has someone like that. Doesn’t know him that well, at all really, but he’s glad Namjoon does too. Feels like this one he can say and does. 

 

Jungkook sighs, softer in response. “Me too.” He inches a little closer along the banister. Looks down at the drop. Back at Taehyung. A question in his eyes. A request.

 

The metal burns when Taehyung slides right. Sun signed. Their elbows touch. It’s just their elbows, bone more than anything, skin abused and rough, but Taehyung’s arm buzzes with it. The rest of him too.   

 

Jungkook speaks almost hushed. Like this is all there is. This tiny corner of an industry party rooftop. Candy disco muted. Hidden under crashing waves. Under how audible their breathing is. Close like this. “We have this pipe dream of running our own label someday. Something small. Not independent for the sake of the name, but like, intimate. To put the artist first. Do it right. Pippiest pipe dream of all. “Jungkook grins, tiny like a secret, and he prods at Taehyung for his hang ups, but he goes into these moments as well, unsure when he really has no reason to be. The bad kind of shy. The one that makes Taehyung’s ache in the painful way.  

 

“Doesn’t sound that pipe dreamy to me.”

 

Jungkook’s smile grows, and really, not even the perfect Malibu sun has anything on it. Not even a contender. “You think so?”

 

And Taehyung is the last person he should be asking. For confirmation that his dreams aren’t unreachable. That his wants aren’t outside of the realm of possibility. Taehyung was brought up to deal in the physical. The real. How things react. How the universe is structured in the most tangible way. Dicated by the senses. By matter. Ended up dreaming up every possibility instead. Trying to fit the scope of the universe, the grandness of it, in his head. In his hands. To try and put them in someone else’s head. Their hands.

 

He doesn’t think about whether he’s failed at that.

 

He thinks about this. About Jungkook and how very earth grounded he is. Even on tiptoe. Even when he’s gliding over the Pacific. Hanging off the side of a mountain from his bare, worked over fingers.

 

He thinks about the other fucks. What Namjoon’s definition of nice is. How not nice those fucks must have been. How Jungkook deserves more than just nice.

 

“Yeah. Yeah, I think so,” Taehyung says. Tiny. Like it’s a secret too.

 

The look that crosses Jungkook’s face then. Eyes lighting up. Bronze cheeks flushed. A smile that’s only ever known hope. Goodness. It’s pleased but there’s nothing selfish or satisfied about it. It’s for Taehyung. About Taehyung. And Jungkook openly shows it. Gives it to him.

 

And Jungkook deserves kindness. Everything that is good. More than anyone physically, tangibly, possibly, has to give.

 

Jungkook says, “He likes you. Namjoon. I can tell.” Hums the words. Doesn’t sound like he’s quoting anybody. Sounds exactly like himself.

 

And Taehyung doesn’t look away from him, from his sunkissed eyes. Whispers, “I like him too.”

 

And Jungkook smiles, the same kind of quiet. Everything about him good. Everything about him sunlit. Everything pink.

 

The music segways. Less dico. More bro edm-y. Taehyung thinks it might be time to go.

 

With a sigh, Jungkook straightens. He flexes on his toes one last time. Comes down. He gives Taehyung a look. Less quiet. Says, “I need, like, ten burgers to cleanse out all this kiss ass shit. Some cow ass. We should ditch and go eat something disgustingly bad for us.”

 

Taehyung picks his bent body up. Shades his eyes. Everything clearer. “Whenever you’re ready. I’ll never say no to some good ass.”

 

“Even cow ass?”

 

“Especially cow ass.”

 

And Jungkook laughs, leads the way, and Taehyung hopes that what he’s always wanted can be real. Possible impossibilities.

 

That he is what Jungkook called him once. On a boardwalk. After getting slobbered by an exuberant pitbull. The kindest boy from Manhattan.

 

That Taehyung, despite his hands, has it in himself to always be good. Always, to be kind.

 

 

*****

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

*****

 

“I can’t believe you got us thrown out.”

 

“I can’t believe you tried to steal a bunny and didn’t get thrown out.”

 

“The only person who seems constantly surprised by how charming I am is you.”

 

“I wouldn’t say surprised. Shocked-”

 

“Ha ha h-”

 

“Flummoxed. Flabbergasted-”

 

“Ugh. If I wanted to hang out with a thesaurus, I’d call Namjoon y-”

 

“Astonished.”

 

“Couldn’t think of another f word?”

 

“Oh. I can think of a few f words-”

 

“Look at you with the innuendo. Don’t make me pull the list out this early in the d-”

 

“Floored. The fact that people get completely taken with you? Leaves me totally dumb founded.”

 

“You’re so lucky you have the face that you do.”  

 

“Mhhm.”

 

“And I wasn’t trying to steal the bunny. Not my fault it wanted to come home with me.”

 

“It could probably recognize you as its equal. Leader of a nicer burrow. That place was drafty as fuck.”

 

“What’s that supposed to mean.”

 

“Really?”

 

“Choose your words. Carefully.”

 

“What? With the teeth and the- the eyes? Come on. I bet you used to get called all sorts of names.”

 

“I was never bullied. That’s terrible that you think that.”

 

“I meant nicely. You get all huffy too. Stomp your foot when you’re not getting your way.”

 

“I’ve never done that. And you say that like I don’t always get my way.”

 

“Well. Yeah. Hard to say no to bunnies. All adorable and shit.”

 

“At least I didn’t break some nice old lady’s toilet seat.”

 

“Okay, but, who runs a museum out of their own home? That’s just asking for trouble.”

 

“They seemed to manage it fine before you showed up.”

 

“Can we move on from this? I already apologized and paid for a new seat. What were you talking about when I went back in anyway? Your face was all constipated.”

 

“She thought we were cousins and wanted to know if you were always this clumsy.”

 

“She did not.”

 

“Well, first she asked how I managed to live with a destructo husband. Cousins was her next guess. I don’t know what that says about us. Or her. Or cousins.”

 

“Next time let’s go to The Museum of Death. Or any other museum.”

 

“Sure. This was your idea though.”

 

“From now on, let’s do whatever you want. Your ideas, despite the life threatening aspect? Pretty solid. Less embarrassing for everyone involved.”

 

“Don’t you mean for you? And huh. Look at that. Didn’t have to stomp my foot or anything.”

 

“Don’t get cocky. Er.”

 

“I can’t help it. I don’t control what happens in my pants.”

 

“You don’t honestly expect me to let that slide do you?”

 

“Yes. Shut up. Can I tell you something? Wait. Two things.”

 

“Yes. No need to get all huffy. Thought I’d left Bugs with the bunch back there.”

 

“That’s who you want to compare me to? Not even Thumper? Or, like, Jessica Rabbit?”

 

“Jessica Rabbit. She wasn’t an actual bunny, Kook. Was she? I don’t. Why-”

 

“Anyway. If I had a backpack there’d totally be a bunny in there right now.”

 

“Of course. Fuck that nice old lady. And?”

 

“She did kick us out and think we were cousins. So yeah. Fuck her. And I added adorable to the list.”

 

“Didn’t she also think we were married? And noted. I added my own word.”

 

“Which?”

 

“Oh, I can’t tell you. It was kind of already on the list.”

 

“What? That’s not how i-”

 

“Hey. Let’s go to the pet store and pretend like we’re gonna buy a bunny. We went to a bunny museum and I didn’t even get to pet one.”

 

“Know what? I am gonna let that one slide. And. Yes. I’d love to see you get yourself thrown out of a pet store.”

 

“Wouldn’t be the first time.”

 

“Why am I not surprised. Or astonished. Flummo-”

 

“Before you get all huffy, it was college. Junior year. It involved Hoseok, a screwdriver, and an iguana.”

 

*****

 

They totally get thrown out of the pet store.

 

It is totally not Taehyung’s fault this time.

 

*****

 

The keyboard clicks.

 

“This guy, right? Just doesn’t get it.”

 

“Uh huh?”

 

“I’m laying it on thick. But he won’t take the hint, right?”

 

“Uh huh?”

 

“And then he-”

 

“Uh huh?”

 

“Took a big ‘ol dump. Right on the bed.”

 

“Uh. Huh.”

 

“Fuck, Tae. You’re not even listening.”

 

The clicking stops.

 

Taehyung blinks. Looks at his hands, the edges of his fingertips caught between the lids of Seokjin’s laptop, Hoseok’s hand pressing the top lid down. Keeping him trapped.

 

He blinks at Hoseok from where he’s sat at the office desk. Trapped. “I’m sorry. Do you need to be walked a second time today?”

 

Hoseok clicks his tongue, lip curling impatiently. He hops up on the desk next to the laptop. Almost knocks over Seokjin’s succulents.

 

Taehyung rights them, drags them to the other end of the desk. Hoseok wiggles into a comfortable seat.

 

“I thought the point of office time was chill time,” Hoseok says, pushing Taehyung’s chair out to make room for his legs. “I have rutabaga in the oven. Perfect time for a smoke.”

 

“Can’t,” Taehyung answers after another long blink. He pushes the laptop open with his knuckles. The screen is underlined in red. Rows of code screwed up. He sighs. Backspaces. Resumes his typing. He doesn’t protest when Hoseok knocks his hat off and puts it on his own head. Hoseok lost his last week. Taehyung is pretty sure it’s in a pickling jar from when Hoseok and Seokjin broke into the emergency soju when they stayed late running inventory one night. Taehyung and Yoongi had found them in the office the next morning, cuddled together under the desk. Shirtless. Yoongi had just rolled eyes, kicked them awake. Hoseok is the one person who has never made Yoongi jealous. Even Taehyung has earned himself a few death glares but it’s not Taehyung’s fault Yoongi is dating nature’s most obvious proof of natural selection. He elbows Hoseok’s knee as he types. “Office time is so I can do the shit to the website and the accounting program Seokjin needs me to. Break time is for smoking. Or when we go to the bathroom.”

 

“Man. You’d think Seokjin could do that. And, like, why do we need a website anyway?” Hoseok asks. He kicks the arm of Taehyung’s chair as he speaks, rooting around the desk, rifling through pens and sticky notes. Old receipts Seokjin never throws out. Yoongi’s car keys in the holder shaped like a magnifying glass. The light catches off of it, cuts through Hoseok’s fingers. The tightness of his mouth.

 

Taehyung looks back at the screen. Shrugs. “People visit it. Visit us. And as Seokjin always says computers are for-

 

“- building robots, everything else is for the nerds . Doesn’t that offend you? To your core? At your fucking essence?”

 

Hoseok picks up a stress ball. Squishy pink Luigi. He brought it back for Seokjin on his trip to Japan a few years ago. His apron is covered in root residue. Temples sweaty, he’s a disheveled contrast to the spotless corners of the office, white finishes and light cherry oak. It keeps Seokjin serene. Vegans stress Seokjin out. Maybe Taehyung should tell him about that yoga class.

 

The kicking intensifies. Hoseok’s fingers curl around Luigi. Choke him.

 

The clicking lessens. One handed.

 

Taehyung grips Hoseok’s knee. Rubs his thumb against the hinge. “Are you still mad about the rutabagas?”

 

Luigi’s eyes gouge out of his pink head. Hoseok stares down at him, jaw set. “I just wish he’d listen to me, man. Like. He says he will. And then he just does what he wants. Like, at first it’s all oh, sure, Hoseokie. And then, the next day, I’m signing for fifteen boxes of rutabagas from the delivery guy.”

 

Hoseok sighs, tucks his hair under Taehyung’s cap, the strap pressing to his sweaty forehead.

 

“I get it. He’s the boss but-”

 

“You know he’s not like that,” Taehyung reasons. The office chair squeaks as he rolls closer. He digs into the side of Hoseok’s knee with his index until Hoseok looks at him. “He got a new knife set because you said the Japanese ones were better. Switched over to avacado oil even if it was more expensive. You saved this place from going out of business by trashing vegan pun tuesday . Not even Yoongi tried to dissuade him. He was just gonna go with it.”

 

“Yoongi’s so whipped. Fuck. That was horrible.”

 

“See? You’re the sense in their crazy non-reason. Talk to him. You basically co-manage this place with him.”

 

Hoseok takes it easy on the Luigi, leg losing tension under Taehyung’s coaxing fingers. “He sort of already asked me to.”

 

Taehyung raises his brows. Smiles. “Yeah? That’s awesome.”  

 

“Nah. It was a while back. When I thought my knee would get better.” Hoseok clicks his tongue again. Sets the Luigi down in his chair-cum-pencil-holder. Taehyung goes to pull his hand away but Hoseok nudges into it. It used to calm him. The living room smokey. Taehyung’s hand slathered in menthol. Hoseok’s busted knee in his lap. Something stupid marathoned on tv. The coffee table littered in unopened acceptance letters. They lost hours like that for months that year.

 

It used to calm Taehyung. That he could do that for Hoseok. It never felt like lost time. Like that was just what Taehyung was supposed to be doing the year he was twenty-three. Waiting for his little sister to be born. Waiting for Hoseok to come out of what could only be compared to death.    

 

It calms him now. He hadn’t realized he needed it. Calming. That Hoseok’s tension, his upset, had been leaking into the room. Into Taehyung.

 

Hoseok says, “So I said no. And now. He hasn’t asked again and I don’t feel like it’s fair to stick my nose in it.”

 

“Seok. Come on, man. It’s Seokjin. Just talk to him.”

 

The kicking kicks up. “I don’t know. Things are good now. What if-”

 

“Hoseokie.”

 

The kicking stops.

 

Hoseok lets out a breath. His chin is root dirtied, smeared in earth.

 

Taehyung squeezes his knee. Says, “He probably hasn’t asked because he thinks you don’t want it. Talk to him.”

 

A pause. Then, “Yeah?”

 

“Hella yeah,” Taehyung says because he knows it’ll make Hoseok laugh. Smile at the very least.

 

Hoseok snorts. Very laugh like. “Ten fucking years in L.A. and you still talk like you’re from goddamn Oakland. No wonder everyone thinks you’re a NorCal punk ass bitch.”

 

“Must be something very nor about me. Got told I look like I’m from Oregon recently.”

 

“Fucking Oregon. Pretentious Portland hipster. All that fucking flannel. Like Yoongi. That’s our Taehyungie.”

 

Taehyung grins. “Sorry. My parents didn’t join a hippy commune in Santa Barbara in the 80’s so I could be born as a real deal pretty Socal surfer baby. Gotta make up for it somehow.”

 

“Fucker.” Hoseok shakes his head. Laughs. Kicks the chair. Laughs harder when Taehyung pinches him gently. “Not really true. The nor part. Or the pretentious part. You’re the real deal, man. Born in the motherland. True blue southern Daegu boy.”

 

There’s a wistfulness in Hoseok’s voice. A softness to the way Dae-gu hits his tongue, a rounded d where most people still say it like a harsh t. A harsh word. For a harsh place to some. Hot and humid, as warm as it gets sometimes there. The motherland.

 

Maybe Los Angeles isn’t as unlike a home as Taehyung thinks sometimes.

 

Hoseok says, “You’re probably right, though. New York is pretty nor.” He grins. “Hella nor, yeah?”

 

And yeah. New York is as fucking nor as it gets in this country. As far as Taehyung’s concerned.

 

He smiles. Soft. Touches Hoseok’s knee softer still, right where the impact happen. Where his bones collided the one time Hoseok got the timing wrong. Spun too fast. Right out of his own orbit. Broke apart. “Hella yeah,” he says back, softened. The yeah rising. Like a question. A confirmation.

 

And Hoseok gets it because of course he fucking does. Hoseok is like Yoongi that way. Always gets it. When it comes to Taehyung.

 

Hoseok nods. The tight corners of his mouth loosen. “Yeah. You’re right. I don’t know why I was stressing,” he says though he’s not completely relaxed but he’s getting there, knee finally slack under Taehyung’s palm. No matter the root mulch on his apron, under his nails, the earth on his chin, he’s back to that SoCal ease. Blessed west coast Santa Barbara baby. Even the dirt there is clean.

 

Taehyung pats Hoseok’s knee. Right where the bone grew back.

 

He wakes the laptop up, a screen of code blinking back at him. “It’s fucking Seokjin, man,” he says like that’s that.

 

And because it is, Hoseok smiles. Says, “Fucking Seokjin, man.”

 

The keyboard clicks.

 

Hoseok pokes around the pencil holder. Makes Luigi dance across Taehyung’s typing hands. Reads a few of Seokjin’s old receipts. Has Taehyung google Eros branded lube because what the fuck is in it that compelled him to spend forty fucking dollars on lube, are his and Yoongi’s dicks and assholes that precious?

 

“You know,” Hoseok starts as he reads one half of the split screen, half Taehyung’s code, the other an internet search on the pros and possible hazardous cons of glitter lube ten pages in,    

 

“He said he’s offered you too.”

 

The clicking stops. Resumes. Taehyung arches a brow in Hoseok’s direction. Doesn’t move when his leg knocks into Taehyung’s elbow.

 

Hoseok says, “He was tipsy when he told me so don’t hold it against him. Not to manage the place, but I know he’s offered you to partner a few times too and you’ve shot him down pretty fast. I hadn’t thought of it, but it doesn’t make sense that you’re the only one who isn’t in on this.”

 

Taehyung flexes his fingers. His knuckles feel tight. He wonders if it’s possible for them to feel anything else. They’re all bone after all. All harshness.

 

The office is too quiet. Too serene. Against all the white, the cherry oak is on the lighter side of cherry. Pink almost.

 

Hoseok makes another noise, his tongue hitting his front teeth. A low whistle. He and Yoongi have spent officially too much time together.

 

Taehyung pushes up the sleeves of his flannel. Yoongi has the exact same one. Green and yellow. He stares at the collection of stress balls on Seokjin’s desk, a habit he picked up from Jimin. Maybe they all spend too much time together. Ten years will do that to you. Make some people thicker than blood. Make others distant memories. Ghosts by how real they seem some days.

 

The keyboard stays silent. Hoseok adds, “You’ve put more of yourself into this place than I have. Than Yoongi, even. You picked the colors when this place was a food truck, Tae.”

 

“I don’t have the time. With my other jobs-”

 

“Yeah, but if you did you wouldn’t need those other jobs. You do more than someone who just does this part time,” Hoseok finishes. Taps the laptop for emphasis, plastic clicking.

 

Taehyung backspaces. Fixes a bit of screwed up code. “I get what you’re doing, man, and I appreciate it, but-”

 

“I was talking to Jimin-”

 

Taehyung’s hands fumble. Fuck up the code again. He sighs. Presses down on the keyboard. All ten fingers. No palms. The impact lessened. Still an ugly sound. A harsh sound.

 

Nostrils flared. His breathing is harsh. Voice too when he says, “Sounds like you’re talking to everyone. Yoongi got something to say too?”

 

The quiet is close to unbearable now.

 

Taehyung’s jaw feels ready to snap. Knuckles all bone. He knows his face is giving him away but he can’t get it to stop.

 

Hoseok’s knees are bent over the edge of the desk.

 

Taehyung clenches his hands on the keyboard, fists soaking up the metallic generated heat.

 

Hoseok voice is quiet too when he says, “No, man. We- I’m not even worried about you. Or I am but I get you. I’m all about the acting like nothing’s wrong until I’m in here screaming at you about fucking root vegetables. Yoongi takes his aggressions out on the cabbage. We have the most evenly distributed kimchi this side of K-town thanks to his pissy tantrums. Jimin just- he just mentioned you weren’t working on your piece anymore and last time I asked you, you said you were.”

 

Warmth touches Taehyung’s shoulder.

 

Hoseok grips it when he doesn’t get pushed off. When he feels it rise under his hold. The breath Taehyung forces himself to take.  

 

“All I’m saying is. If you wanna talk or smoke up or whatever. I’m here, man.” Hoseok shrugs. In the cloying serenity of Seokjin’s office, he’s the calmest thing Taehyung knows. Boom of a laugh and an outdated walking 90’s boombox, no one knows how to quiet the way Hoseok does. How to settle inside themselves. “You got me through my two worst break-ups and the worst one wasn’t even with a person. I don’t think I’d ever danced again, be able to teach the kids, if it weren’t for you. So you know I get it. You do.”

 

Taehyung forces the exhale. Lets all the ugly shit out. Makes the bones in his shoulder imitate star debris, like bone can make itself soft. The kind of thing that swims through veins. Forms into the soft bits. The layers of flesh protecting the stuff inside his chest from the rest of himself.

 

He remembers Hoseok not wanting to climb out of bed for weeks. How he’d rewatch the video over and over again, the three seconds that changed everything, his own face reflected back at him. Pure joy one moment. Excruciating agony the next. Taehyung had plotted with Yoongi to find the fucker who’d uploaded the performance online. Had traced his IP address and everything. Then Hoseok not wanting to climb out of the couch. How he finally stopped replaying the video. Then Hoseok not wanting to climb out of their apartment. How Yoongi had worked himself to the bone to make Hoseok’s part of the rent. How Taehyung had been there because it was the thing to do when he wasn’t working to make up the rest of the rent, smoked up blunts rolled on the unopened letters on the coffee table, empty bags of cheese puffs and ramen packets. Until one day, Hoseok had had enough.

 

He was dancing by his third month of physical therapy. Not at the level he’d been. Not national dance crew worthy. Not the level they knew Hoseok could be. Because they’d seen it. Had watched him burn himself into it. Like they’d gotten to witness the sun rotate and expand into itself. Then, had gotten to watch the sun burn itself out.

 

But dancing all the same. He was teaching kids before the year was out.

 

How that had been what had forced Taehyung off the couch. Headed for the trash can. With all the unopened letters except one.

 

Taehyung breathes out. Hoseok’s knuckles are soft under his hand. He holds on for too long. Hoseok doesn’t say anything. Just bumps Taehyung’s elbow with his knee. Just holds back.

 

He clicks save. Closes the laptop. “A smoke sounds really right good now.”

 

Hoseok smiles. He practically bounces off the desk, halfway out of the office by the time Taehyung is standing. “Hella yeah, it fucking does, man.”  

 

Taehyung chuckles. “Seokjin’s gonna get mad you were rubbing your ass all over his desk again.”

 

“Seokjin can lick my future co-managing cheeks,” Hoseok says as they reach the hallway where the kitchen sections off from the front, felt padded walls, the pipe exposed ceiling causing their steps to echo, and warmth fills Taehyung’s chest at the ease of Hoseok’s shoulders and it probably doesn’t matter that Hoseok’s parents joined that hippy commune, Hoseok would have been the same never ending sun, rebirthing itself after every death, even if he’d been burned into existence on the streets of Gwangju. Maybe all Santa Barbara did for Hoseok was make him an ocean child. Gave him clean hands.   

 

Right as they reach the front, Hoseok stops, pavement beaten sneakers screeching on Seokjin’s clean floor.

 

Taehyung almost knocks him over, rams into his back. He catches himself in time, hands reaching for Hoseok’s t-shirt to keep him upright. “Hoseok. Wha-”

 

“Damn,” Hoseok is all says.

 

In that voice.

 

The one he uses at clubs. The one he uses for a certain kind of pretty boy. For the prettiest ones.

 

The left side of Taehyung’s chest goes tight.  

 

Hoseok sighs, “I’d kill to smoke me off a piece of that. How are you not getting some of that, again? Daily. At the minimum. He looks like he likes it daily. At least.”

 

Taehyung’s chest keeps doing the tightening thing, and fuck, is he having a heart attack? He only smoked for a year and his family doesn’t have a history of it, the universe probably thought the men in the Kim family had enough ugly to deal with, but Taehyung knows bodies don’t give a shit about the universe and when it’s your time it’s your fucking time. He says, “That doesn’t make any sense, wha-”  

 

His eyes follow Hoseok’s line of sight.

 

Land on Seokjin at the register.

 

The tightness in his chest reaches its limit, winds itself so hard it’s like it’s trying to pull all of gravity in on itself, and maybe Taehyung is wrong. Maybe Taehyung is the star and maybe this is the collapse, or maybe he really is fucking dying, and he thought he had at least until he was his dad’s age because that’s how it goes, lose your dad young, do him right, do him wrong, try and be the half the man he was, fail, fail, fail, then the universe takes you away when it did him and maybe that’s not how it is, it’s how it should be, so Taehyung was supposed to have until he was forty-two at least.

 

His eyes shift.

 

Land on the person at the counter.

 

And Taehyung’s chest eases. Gives the softest, gentlest, of tugs.

 

And Taehyung isn’t the star, isn’t the collapse, because it’s in front of him, standing under the paper faded lights of the shack. Except it isn’t a star. It’s the universe, smiling softly at Seokjin. The brightest luminescent thing in the room.  

 

And Taehyung is no fucking universe but he feels it anyway. Like every star has just taken shape. Exploded themselves in Taehyung’s fucking chest. His everywhere. Left him burning with it.

 

Light.  

 

Taehyung missteps. Feels like he’s ramming himself into Hoseok’s back on repeat. The felt covered drywalls of the hallway. Knocking himself into the fucking sun.

 

Hoseok twists. Hooks his elbow around Taehyung’s neck. Yanks. “Scratch that. How did you even land that in the first place? You’re hot but you’re not that hot.”

 

“Jimin says I am that hot,” Taehyung mumbles, half into Hoseok’s armpit, barely paying attention. He should be used to it by now, the way looking at him sometimes just knocks Taehyung over, breathless and brain dumb. How not used to it he is the way sunlight catches in his eyes when he smiles like this, with the little wrinkles kissing his skin. Even though Taehyung mostly sees him in daylight now. Mostly sees him smile like this always now.

 

Hoseok shakes him, rattles him out of his stupor, and Taehyung would want a reality check, really, but he’s not in the habit of fighting himself. Resisting the inevitable. Not about this. Not about the universe.

 

“Jimin has best best friend blinders on. I’m only a best friend. I’m honest.”

 

“I don’t think- aren’t we too old for friendship hierarchies? And to be referring to sex as getting some ?”  

 

“Maybe.” Hoseok makes the sucking whistling sound. Taehyung is going to stage an intervention. Just one week apart. It’ll do both him and Yoongi some good. He tries not to squirm as Hoseok gives him elevator eyes. The non-sexy kind. “Is it your stroke game? The impression of it since he hasn’t- I remember college. Yoongi alway did say you kicked him out a lot-”

 

“He and Seokjin kicked me out way more. Hoseok-”

 

From the front, someone laughs.

 

Seokjin’s braying mess of laughter hits Taehyung in the face. It’s a good one too. High pitched and stuck in his throat, his body doubling over so he can smack his thigh as an outlet for just how funny whatever it is.

 

Underneath it, a lower one follows. Softer. And Taehyung knows. That not everything about him is soft. That maybe most things aren’t. But right now. But today. With the tugging thing moving gently in his chest, the universe is the softest thing to Taehyung. In this moment. Maybe in every moment.

 

Maybe always.

 

“And we shared a wall for a while there so I know your dick isn’t all for show. Unless you have a knack for picking screamers. Or it’s really just your dick. Is that what it is? He sees your big hands and is putting two and two together? Having a big dick doesn’t mean you know what to do with it. He looks like the type to know that. I mean you do going by past evidence. Or you just date people who like agreeing with you. A lot. Excessively if you ask me. I gotta say, I love you, man, but you’re not exactly the most agreeable person all the ti-”

 

Hoseok trails off.

 

Taehyung yanks his gaze away from the counter. “Are you done?”

 

The beam on Hoseok’s face breathes smug. “Yes. Answer my question.”

 

Taehyung shrugs him off. He knocks the hat off Hoseok’s head and squashes it over his own, strap pressing down on his forehead. He’s not in the mood to deal with Seokjin’s bitching today. Also, he hasn’t washed his hair in a few days. Taehyung is just being courteous. To their customers. To his fellow man. “Which one?”

 

Hoseok’s eyes go heavenward. Like he’s asking for patience. Like Taehyung is a child he has to suffer, and yeah, a week away from both Yoongi and Seokjin. That should be enough.

 

Hoseok grips Taehyung’s chin with his smudged fingers. Directs Taehyung’s head toward the front. The soft thing yanks.  

 

Hoseok says, “He’s obviously into you. He looks like that. He has the body he has. You’re obviously not doing anything about it or else you’d literally never fucking shut up about him. It doesn’t compute. I thought you were good at computing, Taehyung.”

 

“How would you know he’s into me? Every time he comes in here you flirt with him,” Taehyung argues, headbutting out of Hoseok’s dirty sweaty grip. Taehyung’s face probably smells like rutabagas now. Like earth.

 

“Allow me to paint you a picture.”

 

“How about you paint your a-”

 

Hoseok ignores him, his arm finding Taehyung’s shoulders. A warm weight. Taehyung allows it. “He comes in here every week. Doesn’t alway get food for his office. Or eat. He tries to hide it but he’s disappointed if you’re not at the register. You’re, like, not-dating or whatever the fuck it is you’re not doing. You went hang gliding, man. And.” He pauses dramatically, can’t hide how proud he is of his own cleverness, and that’s it. He’s cut off from Jimin too. Maybe it would do them all some good. Ten years is a very long time to spend every possible moment you have with the same five people. It’s obviously turned them all into leeches of each other. Terrible people. “He’s looked over here three- now, four- times and it’s not me he’s looking at even though I flirt with him while you just stand there and look at him like flowers are gonna sprout out of his cute perfect ass.”

 

“I don’t just stare at him,” Taehyung mumbles. He feels like he’s in college again except they never really did this. Gawking. Not that much. Mostly when drunk.

 

“Right. Sometimes you offer him free kombucha and smile dumbly at him. And look two seconds from asking if he’ll have your future freakishly large handed children. Or to marry you at least.”

 

“Okay, then.” Taehyung steps out of Hoseok’s hold. Hoseok allows this. “I am done with this conversation.”

 

“Unless.”

 

Taehyung sighs. Shoulders sagging, he asks “Unless?” because he can’t resist. Hoseok specifically. He’s the reason behind three out of Taehyung’s four almost arrests. Hoseok is only sane sometimes and only in the Yoongi-Seokjin combo. He rarely is with Taehyung. Is usually the thing that sparks Taehyung off.

 

Hoseok grins. It’s not as filthy as Taehyung expects considering his next words are,

 

“Unless he does know your stroke game.”

 

“You know,” Taehyung says, voice flat. “Not everything is about sex.”

 

The grin grows, the kind of thing dug up from depraved places. “It kind of is, man,” Hoseok says, and for the first time in all the while Taehyung has known him, he thinks Hoseok might be a little like him. Unclean.

 

A dirty fucking thing.  

 

Taehyung doesn’t want to think about how true that is or isn’t. The necessity of a list. The meetings Jungkook goes to once a week. Every week. Hasn’t missed one since Taehyung stopped working Tuesdays at the center. Taehyung’s own thoughts. The way Jungkook has been looking at Taehyung’s mouth more and more. The way, if Taehyung is honest, if he lets himself think about it, he’s never stopped.

 

The fact that Taehyung’s hands haven’t stopped aching since the second he laid eyes on him.

 

But Taehyung doesn't want to give Hoseok the satisfaction. His tiny perfect nose already gives him enough of that.

 

Taehyung starts toward the front, feet shuffling backwards. He arches his brows, injects as much condescension into his expression as his body is capable of, and says, “One day you’re gonna fall in love and then we’ll see you.”

 

Hoseok stares. His root stained face has no expression for a second. Another.

 

The sound goes out in Taehyung’s head.

 

The words hit Taehyung at the same time they do Hoseok.

 

Hoseok’s mouth drops open. His eyes imitate pink Luigi’s when he’s getting the fake life squeezed out of him.

 

The sound slams back into Taehyung’s head.

 

Hoseok’s dramatic as fuck gasp. Sana dropping something in the kitchen. Yoongi assuring her it’s okay, no Seokjin isn’t gonna kill her, don’t worry, he’s got her back, they can fix it. More laughter from the front.

 

Taehyung’s heart valiantly, uselessly, trying to compress itself into the tiniest, quietest, death of a star.

 

“That wasn’t- I didn’t,” and Taehyung’s tongue is a dead weight in his mouth. His heart is a dead weight in his chest. He doesn’t know what he means to say. He doesn’t know what he’s supposed to not mean to say.

 

Hoseok smiles and he didn’t get it from Taehyung. It always been something they’ve naturally shared. Maybe something the universe decided a very long time ago. Hoseok smiles. All teeth. Disappearing eyes. Helplessly bright. Wide the way Taehyung’s is. When it’s real. “Shit, Tae-”

 

Taehyung’s foot catches on an errant bag of basmati rice. His neck feels too warm. Burning. Like Hoseok really is the goddamn sun. “Don’t you have some rutabagas to beat into submission? Think I can smell them burning. I-”

 

Hoseok’s smile eases. Santa Barbara surf baby through and through. “And a blunt to smoke but I’ll do you one solider. I won’t flirt with him anymore.” Hoseok crosses his index over his heart. Both indexes. “I don’t flirt with my friends’ dudes.”

 

“He’s not mine,” Taehyung quickly says, because even if. Even if Jungkook and him were Jungkook and him , even if Taehyung knew exactly what he means, Jungkook isn’t the kind of person who belongs to someone.

 

Taehyung wouldn’t want him to be. He wouldn’t.

 

He pushes the rice bag against the wall. Straightens the collar of his flannel out. “You flirt with Seokjin all the time. Flirt with Yoongi too. Too much.”

 

“Yeah. And I flirt with Jimin too. You can flirt with your friends. Only one I don’t flirt with is you. You’re that special.”

 

There’s the whole auto-death his chestal area is trying to accomplish but Taehyung laughs. He says, “I don’t know, man. I feel pretty flirted with. You went on about my dick for a while there.”

 

Hoseok makes kissy faces at him. Starts walking toward the kitchen. Backwards too. For the kissy faces. They probably look very stupid, and Taehyung might actually be dying, but the thought doesn’t bother Taehyung. Not at all. “Can you blame me? It’s a great dick.”

 

Hoseok backs into the wall before Taehyung can warn him. He turns.

 

Taehyung takes this as his cue. 

 

“Hey, Taehyung?”

 

Taehyung stops before he twists his ankle. Brains himself with another misplaced bag of rice.

 

Hoseok gives him that easy smile. With his earth dirtied face, he says, “I love you, man. Hella amount, yeah?”

 

It almost makes Taehyung brain himself on the rice bag. How easily Hoseok always says it. How when they sat on that couch for the better part of that year, during twenty-three, it wasn’t always Hoseok the one working himself out of a death. How he stayed anyway. How he tends to spark Taehyung but he’s also been the one to keep him contained. How he’s always had blessedly, steady, clean hands. Even after dealing with earthbound things.

 

Things like lust.

 

Things like rutabaga.

 

Things like Taehyung.   

 

How he knew Taehyung wasn’t going to spend his break smoking that join he’s had in his apron all day the moment he saw who was on the other side of that counter.

 

And maybe Taehyung’s chest is tugging toward the front but it’s also full of warmth. Sun warmth. Maybe instead of an intervention, they can all go camping again next weekend. Temporarily move into Seokjin and Yoongi’s for a week like they did a few months back. Pile up in the living room and eat all their food. Decide to never leave this time because ten years. Ten years isn’t enough. Won’t ever be enough.

 

In the grand scheme of it all, to the universe, ten years is nothing.

 

Taehyung shakes his head, mouth tugging. “We’re not even drunk right now. If you make me cry at work I’ll never forgive you, asshole.”

 

Hoseok just shrugs.

 

Taehyung ducks his head, and he doesn’t have to worry that Hoseok is going to take it the wrong way. That if they were closer, he’d ruffle Taehyung’s hair, shove his head away, give him a fucking noogie like they’re still eighteen and terrible little shits to each other who’d say they hella fucking loved each other because it was a joke. Without really meaning it. How Hoseok knows how much Taehyung means it now. “Hella love you, Seok. Fucking hella.”

 

“Fucking goddamn hella.”

 

With a last knowing grin toward the counter, Hoseok spins toward the kitchen, swiftly and without danger of spraining anything. Reaches into his apron. Purple bic lighter in his dirt smudged hand.

 

Taehyung turns, a few paces shy from knocking Seokjin to the floor flat on his ass.

 

Seokjin doesn’t notice. Hands gesturing as he talks, about...something. Stop signs. The Greek economy. Moonbeams. Speaking of knacks, Seokjin has one for combining unrelated conversation topics.

 

Jungkook looks actively engaged, nodding at whatever it is Seokjin is saying- ascendant sun signs? coral reef bleaching?- but his eyes skip over to Taehyung for a second. Another. His lips curl. The wrinkles at his eyes deepen.

 

Taehyung’s tug up in response though they were already there. His eyes are probably disappearing right out of his skull.  

 

“Oh. Taehyung,” Seokjin looks over his shoulder. Doesn’t blink when he sees how close Taehyung is. Just pokes his chest. Points at Jungkook. “Look who it is!”

 

Taehyung scratches at his nape. He wishes LA weather was turtleneck appropriate. “Yeah. I see, Seokjin. Thanks.” He looks at Jungkook again, his chest fucking fluttering, the dead thing shaking itself back to life. “Hey.”

 

“Hi,” Jungkook says. Even his voice sounds like it’s smiling. A little breathless. He pushes his hair behind his pierced ear, eyes dropping for a moment. He’s not wearing a jacket today, just a well made looking t-shirt tucked into his jeans. White. It cups his biceps to a t. His mouth is glossy, a devastatingly pretty pink. “Thought you might want to have lunch together?”

 

There’s paper bag on the counter. Inoffensive looking. Grease stains drench the bottom. The smell of beef smacks Taehyung in the stomach. 

 

Taehyung looks at Seokjin, eyes bulging like pink Luigi’s.

 

“Uh-”

 

“Sure,” Seokjin cuts in, hitting Taehyung’s back, pushing him toward the partition in the counter. “Take your lunch, Tae. Take two lunches.”

 

“That doesn’t-”

 

“Great,” Jungkook says. Grabs the bag full of very obvious very dead grilled cow. Taehyung raises his eyebrows at Seokjin. Seokjin shoves him harder toward the customers’ side. He knows Seokjin can smell it. Seokjin has the nose of a bloodhound. It’s how he can tell when Yoongi has been to Bath and Body Works without him even though Yoongi always sprays himself down with Dior Homme to mask the soapy apple smell. “Thanks for the website recommendation, Seokjin!”

 

“Trust me. It’ll change your life.”

 

Taehyung doesn’t want to know.

 

Jungkook heads for the door and Seokjin takes the moment to hold Taehyung back. He points to Jungkook, makes grabby hands like he’s squeezing an ass. Boobs. Melons. Something round. Face approving. Too approving. He makes the okay sign at Taehyung, throws in a couple of thumbs up to seal the Seokjin certified approval of ass.

 

Taehyung rips out of his grip. Makes a strangled noise. And yep he’s definitely dying.

 

Jungkook twists, silver glinting as he looks over his shoulder. “What was th-”

 

Taehyung grabs his shoulders. Twists him forward again. “Nope. Don’t look behind you. Please. Keep walking. Trust me.”

 

Jungkook grunts, unhappy at being manhandled, but he doesn’t force out of Taehyung’s hold. He says, “You smoke up again during work, Rainbow Boy?” But he doesn’t look behind them. But he follows Taehyung’s lead.

 

*****

 

His lungs are full of earth.

 

“Sorry about the smell,” Jungkook says around his burger. Mouth closed as he chews, his words are muffled. “The heat makes it worse, I think. Manurey. I thought it’d be nice- to, like, eat outside but we can go.”

 

“It’s fine,” Taehyung says. He taps his nose. “This thing is used to stinky tofu and pickling brines. If it doesn’t smell like satan’s asshole at least a little, I don’t know what to do with myself.”

 

“Are you sure? We could eat in a soundbooth. My bosses won’t care. Or. They will but screw them.”

 

“Kook. It’s fine. Really. Plus, it goes with the theme. Now we know what the cows we’re eating felt like. Or, smelled like. What they smelled in life?”

 

“That should be a turn off but I’m so hungry I don’t fucking care. Keep talking manure to me, Kim. Might let you finally buy me that burger once I’m done with this one.”

 

Taehyung chokes on a laugh but he doesn’t care either. They’re surrounded by green. A real garden for a fake city. Flowers bloomed all around, they sit on a piece of tarp Jungkook found from somewhere. “Whose music video is this for anyway? Anyone I’d know?”

 

“Industry Rule Number One,” Jungkook says. He crosses his legs, fabric scrunching under his boots. He grins, dazzling in the muted greenery. “Don’t spill industry secrets.”

 

“Ohhh. Okay. I get it.”

 

“What?”

 

“No, it’s okay. You’re doing that thing you do.”

 

“The thing. That I do.”

 

“Yeah. You know. Showing off. Being a big shot. Big industry man-”

 

“Fuck you-”

 

“Hey, I’d do the same thing if I were you. I’d be worse. Not half as c-word as you are about it but. In general, I’m never as c-word as you are.”  

 

“Seriously. Fuck y-”

 

“I admire you, really. I don’t think I’d be able to keep all the secrets to myself. I’m a huge blabbermouth-”

 

“I’ll show you a huge mouth since you wanna know so badly, you je-” Jungkook catches himself in time, teeth snapping. He glares at Taehyung with narrowed eyes, cheekbones pinked.

 

Taehyung presses his lips together but he knows it’s clear as day in his eyes. His smile, his joy, at winding him up. Teasing him. Turing him pink.  

 

Jungkook scoffs. Rolls his eyes. But it sounds too much like a laugh. But there’s a smile in his eyes. But his face is lightly flushed the way it gets. He tucks his legs beneath himself, knee pressing to Taehyung’s leg.

 

He says, “You’re not as slick as you think you are.”

 

“I’m a little slick,” Taehyung counters, slathers the coky on in his voice. It’s all for show. All to keep the game up. His focus is zeroed in on that tiny space of contact. All the heat in his body landing there, where Jungkook is almost, barely, touching him. All Taehyung is, is that patch of jean protected skin. All thigh.

 

“Hmm.” The earth shifts. Jungkook does too. Both his knees are touching Taehyung now, one at his knee, the other at Taehyung’s hip, his body toward Taehyung, facing him, open towards him, and it’s not just the flowers in bloom, but the heat reaching out from Taehyung’s thigh to the ache in his body, and now that’s all Taehyung can think about. His hips. Jungkook’s spread knees. Jungkook’s body opening, laid out underneath him on this very real grass. The way he’d smell like flowers, like the cleanest sweat slicked earth. The wet press of his pink mouth, open against Taehyung’s. The way Jungkook would bloom too, like the heat, the lust burning Taehyung’s insides. The way he’d be so very real under Taehyung’s dirty hands.

 

It’s like that night all over again.

 

It’s like every time they’re together. Despite Taehyung denying it. Not letting himself think about it.

 

Except this time, Taehyung has something to occupy his hands with.  

 

Except this time, Jungkook is all softened edges. Light skitters through the leaves and settles in his eyes. In his sweetly smiling mouth. In the kindness of this moment. Bringing Taehyung his favorite lunch and making his friend laugh so genuinely and taking Taehyung to this place that doesn’t feel real in how real it is, in how good he is, and Taehyung just-

 

Thinks about what he said to Hoseok.

 

What Hoseok said.

 

That it’s not the context of love in the context of Jungkook that killed the thing in Taehyung’s heart.

 

That maybe not everything is about sex but sometimes, between some people, it’s the bigger thing. The mountain you have to climb.

 

Jungkook comes close, says, “So. Hi.”

 

Taehyung laughs through his nose. If he were fifteen he’d call it a giggle but Taehyung isn’t fifteen. So it’s a laugh. A triling one. High pitched. Nervous. “Uh. Hi?”

 

“Don’t make that face,” Jungkook admonishes. He knocks into Taehyung’s side with his chest, presses closer and Taehyung has to keep his hands soft, almost cradling his half burger in his palms. Burgers don’t make as good stress balls as pink Luigi's.

 

He takes a bite, more lettuce than anything, but it gives his mouth something to do too. It’s the contrast of the green, the petals of purple and yellow, of ocean blue, but Jungkook’s mouth really does look heart wrenchingly pink today, the color of candy heart shaped valentines, and if Taehyung isn’t careful, if he lets himself forget, he’s going to do something he won’t regret. Could never regret it no matter how hard Taehyung lied to himself about it after.

 

Jungkook says, “I haven’t seen you in five days. Everything could be different about you for all I know.”

 

Taehyung’s jaw stops working. Mushed up lettuce bun on his tongue. Five days. Not almost a week. Not a few days. Not in what feels like forever. Five days. Like Jungkook has been counting.

 

Taehyung has always been aware of it. Counting. Time. It’s been an estimated 13.7999 billion years since the universe made itself. Took another 155 million years and maybe then some to birth the first star. It wasn’t until barely 4 billion years ago for there to be enough stars to give themselves over to the Earth.

 

It’s been 27 years since enough meteor debris came together to make Taehyung.

 

Only took 2 years after that for the universe to make itself again.     

 

It’s been 22 years since Jungkook’s grandparents promised to be together forever for a second time. Since they knew what it meant for real.

 

Only-

 

It’s been ten years.

 

He’s unsure of the exact amount of time he’s known Jungkook. Knows it was a Wednesday. It was a Tuesday. He doesn’t think it means that it matters less. That this amount of time isn’t significant. Like stars exploding. Like the universe blooming.

 

Maybe it just means that time doesn’t matter as much as Taehyung has always thought. The passing of it. The keeping of it.

 

Taehyung gets his jaw moving. Swallows the mush. He gives into it. The press of Jungkook’s body. The heat of it. Lets his shoulders ease. Not as naturally as Hoseok does, as being born from the heat, the surf, the way Jungkook is too, because despite his birthplace, Taehyung really is as northern as they come. Lack of ease. “Sorry. My shifts have been all over the place. Nothing’s different. Same old same old.”

 

Jungkook hums. Low in his throat. Taehyung can practically feel the vibrations. How sweet it would taste if he kissed the sound from Jungkook’s mouth. “How’s Kumamon?”

 

“Still Kumamoning. Boss got a bigger head so the air flow is better. Actually flows now.”

 

“See?” Jungkook nudges him again. His chest is all soft-tough muscle. All flood of warmth. He beams. “Different. The center? Are the bingo players still sneaking in their flasks? Or was that the bridge players.”

 

“Center’s fine. It’s both now. If people think confiscating alcohol from teenagers is a pain, try convincing a Medicare subscriber that they can’t drink because we don’t have a license. They have weapons. Walkers hurt like a bitch.”

 

“Just swipe them when they’re distracted with the numbers. Old fuckers won’t notice. The shack?”

 

“The shack is... the shack. Sana finally convinced Seokjin to give her a go at the kitchen. It’s going. Mostly.”

 

“Good for her. He and Yoongi still banging in the- what was it, the pickle fridge?”  

 

“Every fucking chance they get.”

 

Jungkook smiles, this curved, almost dreamy thing. He lowers his gaze, all eyelashes, a different kind of pink dusting his cheeks. He folds the wrapper of his burger. Goes to take a bite. Doesn’t. “That’s sweet. That they’re still in love like that, you know?” And Taehyung doesn’t, not really, except maybe he might, maybe he will, maybe, and-

 

Jungkook looks back up. Says, “So. How’s The Taehyung?”

 

Taehyung’s chest shifts. The lust gets burned out. Turned down to a simmer. Taehyung just feels warm. Just feels something like good. He finds it in himself to nudge Jungkook back. To be easy. “You know how The Taehyung is. We’ve texted.”

 

Jungkook shakes his head, his styled hair parting around his forehead. “Texting isn’t the same. It leaves out tone. Facial expressions. You’re shitty at emojis.”

 

“I’m great at emojis, excuse you.”

 

“Tae. All you ever send me are the t-rex and the stack of yens. The dolphin when you feel funny. Sometimes I get a smiley out of you but it’s always the upside down one.”

 

“That’s just where my life is at now. Waiting for the dinosaurs to come back and to get paid. Smiling at you upside down. As I hang off a mountain. Or from a torture puppy pose. And dolphins are hilarious.”

 

“It’s downward dog and you know that and you seriously need to get over that, it wasn’t tha-”

 

“At least I don’t send you nothing but the water gun.”

 

“Well. I sent you a blushing smiley once and you never responded so. Yeah. Nothing but water guns is what you’re gonna get. You’re lucky it’s not a bunch of bombs.”

 

“I don’t know. The bombs seem more you-”

 

“Don’t e-”

 

“Because you’re so explosive. Like a live wire.”

 

“Okay. Really?”

 

“Come out of nowhere,” Taehyung continues. Voice low. He looks at Jungkook, and he tries for the cocky thing, but underneath it, there’s nothing cocky about it. Him. “Shake everything to its core. Never leave anything or anyone that crosses your path the same. Not that they’d want to be. Couldn’t be if they tried.”

 

The heat swims through the plants. Wraps them up in it. Taehyung wonders why anyone would film here. If that’s the point. A fake garden jungle without having to fly to one.

 

Jungkook’s next breath is audible. Taehyung feels his moving chest against his arm. The soft ripples of it. His eyes take on a misted quality, lashes fluttered, and Taehyung thinks he’s had it all wrong. If it’s going to be his hips and Jungkook’s knees around them but Taehyung the one pushed into the earth. Like the first time. Taehyung inside of Jungkook’s open body but Taehyung will be the one who blooms anyway, because Jungkook-

 

Jungkook smiles. Sharp. He moves slowly, gives Taehyung fair warning. A chance to back away. There’s nowhere to go. Taehyung is rooted and he guesses this is what it must feel like, the desperation to press eject, abort, oxygen tank emptying out, even though he knows. He could launch himself, abort all the fuck he wants, but it doesn’t matter. He’s already running out of air. Already out of breath. Already in the middle of space.   

 

The press of Jungkook’s hard chin is a soft thing against Taehyung’s shoulder. He looks up at Taehyung. Says, “That pretty bullshit might have worked on all the frat boys you fucked, but if you think it’s gonna work on me, I’m smarter than even you think I am.”

 

Taehyung’s lungs decide to rematerizalie in his chest. He still barely breathes. He can’t breathe around it. How close Jungkook is. And did it really smell like manure when they got here because Jungkook really does smell like flowers, fresh in spring. After it’s rained. After someone with dirty hands has pulled them from the ground. Clean.

 

Taehyung doesn’t move. “I didn’t use pretty bullshit with the frat boys.”

 

“Good,” Jungkook says.

 

“It’s not- it isn’t bullshit. I really- you’re so-”

 

“I know,” Jungkook breaks in, and his voice goes gentle. Sharpness bleeding out. He pushes into Taehyung’s shoulder for a moment. Pure instinct. Like it’s something he does all the time, and Taehyung locks up all his joints, belly flipping over, heat punching between his legs. In his chest.

 

Jungkook pulls away, eyes glossy in the greenish light. He looks like something out of an ancient myth. Something birthed from the earth. Something so beautiful only the stars could have made him. He says, “I know. But you’re still giving me the run around. If you’re not going to be honest with me, Taehyung, what’s the fucking point?”

 

Taehyung looks at him. His shoulder buzzes. 

 

He asks, “Honest about?”

 

“How you are. Really.”

 

“I’m good.”

 

Jungkook just- falls. Shoulders. Eyes. Face. He bites his lower lip, the edges of his top teeth turning pink. The disappointment of his expression, the nakedness of it, the sadness of it, is so unbearable, so suffocating, that’s what’s going to end Taehyung. Not the heat. Not the thing in his chest. The death star his heart is.

 

Taehyung is the one who moves now. He ducks so Jungkook has to look at him, comes into his space carefully. His gut throbs at the way he takes up all of it anyway, the scope of his shoulders wide against Jungkook’s hard chest. Gives Jungkook nowhere else to go, and this is part of why Taehyung will always see himself as a dirty thing. Earthbound. Lust drenched. Even though Jungkook could knock him back with his pinky, without breaking a sweat. Without moving a hair out of place.

 

Jungkook doesn’t move. Stays.

 

“Hey. No. I’m not- I’m good. Really. I’m so. I’m so good right now, Jungkook.”

 

And Jungkook. Because he really is the cleanest thing Taehyung has ever know. At his essence. Where it matters. Even if he might think of himself as the most nasty, lust drenched thing between someone else’s sheets.

 

Jungkook looks at him. Half lidded, lashes so pretty and so so dark. “Really?”

 

Taehyung says, and fuck he didn’t know his voice could get this soft, the words woven from his mouth like silk, like warmth, like stardust, “Really.” Thinks hella really. Fucking goddamn hella really.

 

Jungkook smiles. Says, “Okay. Okay, good.”

 

Taehyung eases back. Easy as anything. Ten years in the south. The western part of it. In a semblance back to his roots. Taehyung is good at faking it. Ease.

 

There’s no point bothering with the burger at this point. He does anyway. If he’s going to disappoint Seokjin, take two breaks while he’s at it, Taehyung better make it worth it.

 

He chews. “How’s The Jeon, then?”  

 

Jungkook laughs. He sets his wrapper aside, burger long finished. Taehyung really might get the chance to buy him that second one today. “The Jeon is surprisingly good actually. Like. Really good.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

Jungkook nods. Brings his knees to his chest, arms linked loosely around them. “Mhhm.”

 

Taehyung gauges the pros and cons of forcing the rest of the cold burger in his mouth. He thinks of the money Jungkook spent. The gesture.

 

He fists the wrapper once he finishes. Tosses it in the greasy paper bag. Rubs his oily hands on his jeans. They’re already stained with soy sauce. Smeared in ground chickpeas. “Anything good happen in the last five days?”

 

Jungkook props his chin on his knee. The same one he pressed to Taehyung’s shoulder. He smiles. The same way he’s been smiling at him for the last hour. “Nope. It happened today.”

 

And Taehyung says, “One thing is new. At the shack.”

 

Jungkook brightens. “Yeah?”

 

“Yeah. Hoseok- he’s the one who-”

 

“Who works the kitchen, yeah. The ex-dancer. Your friend. What about him?”

 

“He said he wasn’t going to flirt with you anymore.”

 

Jungkook, impossibly, against every law in nature, the laws of physics, that rule the stars, brightens further. “Really?”

 

“Yeah. Uh. Yes.”

 

Jungkook doesn’t ask why Hoseok would even mention that. How Jungkook even came up in conversation. Just juts one of his shoulders. Plays with the hoop in his right earlobe. Presses his heels into the earth through the tarp. “Huh. Guess that’s a good thing.”

 

Mouth bone dry, Taehyung manages to choke. “It- uh. It is?” And fuck maybe Taehyung is reverting to being fifteen. Giggling. The fucking stutter he’d pried his mouth open, rearranged his tongue practically, to get rid of coming back.

 

“Sure,” Jungkook says. “Only reason I come into the shop is to get flirted with so that sucks but it’s for the best probably. Hoseok isn’t my type.”

 

Taehyung tries to clear his throat. Materialize a more efficient, actually functioning set of vocal chords. Like a lot of Taehyung’s efforts, it’s pure shit.

 

“He isn’t?” Taehyung asks. Stupidly. Dumbly. Because he knows Hoseok fucking isn’t but it’s different. To heart it. To have it confirmed. Because maybe Taehyung loves him the way he loves Jimin and Yoongi and Seokjin. So much it’s the only thing that keeps him breathing some days. That he’d sacrifice any of his time for him. But Hoseok, with his arms and his ease and his blessed bloodless Santa Barbara upbringing. The easy way he tells the people he loves that he does. Hoseok is anyone’s type.

 

“Nope.” Jungkook picks at the grass. Wraps his fingers around a long climbing plant hanging by his shoulder. “I don’t do guys who wear rainbow patterned snapbacks.”  

 

Taehyung, his own rainbow patterned snapback keeping the heat from soaking his hair, smiles. Doesn’t bother trying to contain it. “Oh you don’t, huh?”

 

“Yep.”

 

“Guess that works out then.”

 

Jungkook’s gaze narrows. Green caught up in his hands. His eyes. “How?”

 

Taehyung tips his cap back, the strap kissing his hairline. “I only do guys who wear them. So there’s nothing to worry about here then,” he says because Taehyung might be a weak blooming breathless idiot about Jungkook. Might never put up a fight against him. Might be the worst at playing any kind of game. But this. This Taehyung can be very good at. When he wants to. When he needs to.  

 

But Jungkook-

 

He untangles his fingers from the plant. Stretches them out. His arm. Taehyung realizes the second right before he does it. The way Jungkook curls his hand, the motion of his arm clearing through the air, the space. The impact his fist makes against the bill as he knocks the rainbow baseball cap clear off Taehyung’s head. Makes it spin in the air until it lands in his lap.

 

“Kook, don’t. That thing is fucking disgusti-”

 

But Jungkook doesn’t listen. Fits the sweaty thing over his perfect hair, the brim touching his nape, forehead on display.

 

But Jungkook grins. Shrugs, the cut of his shirt showing off his tanned collarbones. And he might have been born in East L.A., made tough by it, by a lot of things, but he’s a sun surf baby at heart too. Ease in all the good ways. Belongs to the surf and it makes sense. That Busan is right by the ocean. That oceans are made out of star stuff too.

 

But Taehyung is good-

 

But Jungkook will always be better.

 

Jungkook touches the green. Smooths his hand over the cap. His body is a curved line. A dark bright thing in a flower garden, and he doesn’t even have to put his hands on Taehyung. Doesn’t have to touch him ever again. Taehyung is already-

 

His stare glances off a set of petals. Pink. Jungkook looks at Taehyung. All lashes and it’s so fucking obvious, but Taehyung falls for it. Weak to it.

 

Jungkook asks, “Do I look like the dumb frat boy fuckboy of your dreams?”

 

The green heat clears. Melts some of its haze. The planets re-align. A supernova explodes. Remakes the universe all over again.

 

Maybe that’s just Taehyung.

 

Because the answer is obvious.

 

Jungkook doesn’t look like anything.

 

Jungkook is.

 

The boy Taehyung wants to fuck.

 

The boy Taehyung wants.

 

He’s just. The boy really.

 

Not much of one. More man than most of the men Taehyung has known and been with. Even if he doesn’t see himself that way yet.

 

“No,” Taehyung says. Voice like it’s coming out of his guts, like it’s being yanked out by the very hands asking the question. “No. Sorry. Frat boy fuckboys aren’t this c-word.”

 

Jungkook smiles. Soft fucking thing. The kind of thing only a star could make. “Too bad. When you wear it, you look like mine.”

 

And Jungkook doesn’t mean it that way, he doesn’t, but Taehyung is, he fucking is, and-

 

And Jungkook plucks a fake real flower. Brings it up to his nose. His eyes close as he inhales. Blooms with it as his eyelids flutter back open, as he aims right for Taehyung’s chest like he’s wrapping the flower around the string, the thing that tugs, prying the space open right between Taehyung’s lungs.

 

And Jungkook says, “Minus the frat boy fuckboy part. I’ve never liked frat boys. And fuckboys can fuck themselves.”

 

And the ache isn’t just in Taehyung’s hands anymore. It’s everywhere. Feels like the only thing Taehyung knows. He breathes out. Says, “Jungkook-”

 

“I talked about you. This week. At the meeting.”

 

Taehyung blinks.

 

Expects the green to be muddied. Dry roots. Dead flowers.

 

It all comes back brighter. Like the flowers really are unfurling in real time. The green tangle of plants above them spreading out for the light. Jungkook at the center of it all, but really, isn’t he always? Since before Taehyung realized. Something in the back of his mind telling him. Tugging at him. When the thought of staying in New York was close to killing him and out of all the places he could have gone, all the almost homes he could have made, it was here he chose. Something yanking Taehyung west. Maybe that’s the real reason his parents left Daegu. Because they knew. That their east born son belonged somewhere else. Somewhere west. That something was waiting for him there.

 

Maybe, since the first birth of the universe.

 

Jungkook smiles as he says it. It stays through Taehyung’s silence. Waits.

 

Taehyung touches the ground. His fingers graze fabric. Tarp. It hits him. The sweaty unwashed mess his hair is. His grease stained jeans. The dampness at his spine, his neck, his brow. How Jungkook is the one touching earth but Taehyung is the one with grimy hands. Filthy. Embedded into his skin with it.    

 

Taehyung asks, “You did?”

 

Jungkook nods. He touches a petal with too much care. Like it’s still in its growth process. Like he’s not the one who stunted it. Set its slow march into death. “Not, like, in specifics. I didn’t say your name. Just in case. But. About you. How-” He licks his lips. Takes a little pause for a breath. It ruffles the flower and what the fuck does Taehyung know. Really. Maybe that thing is still growing. Breathing. Safer in Jungkook’s too careful hands than it is in the ground. “I tend to lie to the people I’m wi- Or, like, not tell them the truth? Same thing, but. Not really. I keep things from them. The important things. And. I’ve sort of lied to you. About dumb things. Things you could probably easily tell. But. I haven’t kept things from you. Not the important things. Not- the ones that matter.”

 

Chest cracked open, Taehyung doesn’t move. Waits.

 

“And I know. That we aren’t- That.” He shakes his head. Shake the flower. “Someone said. Sometimes people don’t say anything back. Just let you talk. But sometimes they feel like they can comment. That you’re open to it. So someone made a comment. That usually I talk in generalizations. I generalize my- myself. That it was the first time I was talking about someone else. A someone. And that- that it seemed like it was a good thing that I was.”

 

Cradling the flower to his chest, Jungkook’s smile grows tiny. Mostly in his eyes. Mostly in his voice. “And it did. It felt good. It felt good to talk. But-”

 

He looks at Taehyung. In the middle of the fakest city on Earth. In the middle of the realest flower garden Taehyung has ever been inside of. He at Taehyung like the softest touch, like Taehyung is the softest, cleanest thing he’s ever seen. 

 

“It felt really good. To talk. About you.”

 

The light sways. Enough breeze in the city, on the ground floor, away from the ocean, to ruffle the greenery.

 

“Did your sponsor have anything to say about it?” Taehyung asks.

 

Because it’s the only thing he can think of at the fact that when Jungkook talks about sex. When Jungkook talks about love. When Jungkook could talk about any someone, might have a lot of someone’s to chose from, Jungkook talks about Taehyung.

 

Jungkook gives a little shrug. He rests his cheek against his own shoulder. The swirl of colors on the hat shimmers under the light, his hair curling under the brim attractively. He brings the flower to his lips, breathes it in, nose scrunching cutely, and he looks both so young and like a thing out of time. Ageless. Something that’s always been. He says, “She just said if it feels good then it feels good. It is. To not fight it.”

 

Taehyung lets the thought run through his mind. The things he should fight. The things he shouldn’t. That Taehyung himself can be a thing to be fought.

 

Jungkook’s eyes aren’t all lashes. Aren’t too bright. He just looks at Taehyung. The tiny little wrinkles blooming from the corners of his eyes. Full of green light. “But do you- Is it okay? That I did? That it did?”

 

Is it okay? To feel good?

 

Light lands on Jungkook’s face. Taehyung can see it now. The place he touched his cheek after he dug his fingers into the grass. How the ground around them is covered in green but grass, like all plants, like most beautiful things, grows out of the dirt. Cover the earth so all people can see are the pretty parts. The things that bloom.

 

Taehyung doesn’t move. Doesn’t think the word or spur his muscles to come apart, to push his bones forward. All he does is follow the yank. Swipes his thumb over Jungkook’s cheek. Feels how warm he is. How soft he is. Presses into his skin.

 

He takes the dirt away. Where it belongs. Makes Jungkook clean again. How he is.

 

He says, “Yeah, Kook. Of course it is.”

 

Jungkook smiles into his hand. “You keep calling me that.”

 

“What? Oh. Kook?”

 

Jungkook nods. Into Taehyung’s palm. It seemed like a good idea at the time. The not-Taehyung’s-idea. To touch him. Now it’s just a reminder. That the main thing keeping Taehyung from touching him, is Taehyung himself. That he’s touched his cheek again, and in every direction, there’s something else he wants to be touching.

 

Everything.

 

Taehyung doesn’t pull away. He inhales softly. It’s more mulch than manure. More flowers than anything. Something sugary beneath it. A layer of headiness under all that. A little spiced. A little like heat.

 

He says, “Sorry. I figured, you’ve been calling me Tae. I didn’t- I thought it’d be okay, but if it’s not-”

 

With a last movement into Taehyung fingers, something close to a nuzzle, but smaller, the intention of it, and fuck that gets Taehyung’s blood singing, Jungkook lowers Taehyung’s hand. Holds it with the flower in his lap. He shrugs. “Doesn’t everyone call you Tae?”

 

“Not everyone calls you Kook?”

 

“Most people don’t.”

 

Most people are fucking idiots.

 

Taehyung touches the flower. Soft thing between their hands. He says, “What happened to being smarter than I thought? I’m not most people, remember?”

 

And Jungkook laughs. Keeps Taehyung’s baseball cap on his head. Taehyung’s hand in his lap. Reaches up. Tucks the flower behind Taehyung’s ear. Brushes Taehyung’s hair out of the way. Runs his thumb along the shell of Taehyung’s ear. Makes Taehyung’s skin pebble. Makes Taehyung’s breath go shaky. Shakier. “Sorry. Guess I lied again. I’m the dumb fuck boy after all.”    

 

And Jeon Jungkook, Jungkook Jeon, is a lot of things, but sometimes, he really is a little liar.

 

Jungkook hums. “Look at that.”

 

“What am I looking at?” Taehyung asks and it doesn’t matter. That his skin is buzzing under Jungkook’s exploratory touch. Burning. That Taehyung is one big give. A living breathing ache. Because all he is, is hands. A hand. Lying in Jungkook’s lap. Anchoring him to the ground. The earth.

 

Jungkook says, “Rainbow Boy becomes Flower Boy.”

 

“Does that make you Rainbow Boy now?”

 

Jungkook cards his fingers through Taehyung’s dirty hair. Just over his ear. Just close to his temple. Just enough. “No. Rainbows are just flowers made out of light. Didn’t you learn that during your fancy science degree?”

 

Taehyung keeps himself still. And yeah, he wants to uncurl his hand. Stretch his palm out over Jungkook’s thigh. Curl it around his hip. Hips. The pretty cut of his waist. But just this. Any kind of touching him. Is enough. Has to be. Taehyung might have dirty hands, might be a filthy thing aching to touch, but he won’t put them anywhere Jungkook hasn’t told them to go. Needed them to.

 

He flexes his fingers against the rough denim of Jungkook’s pants. Says, “Think they only teach that in the fancy New York schools. Sounds like the sort of theory someone comes up with in a dream. California isn’t much for dreaming, you know.”

 

Jungkook quirks a brow. Adjusts the flower at Taehyung’s ear. Drops his hand. It lands over Taehyung’s. He touches Taehyung’s wrist. His pulse. Where his blood is singing. Blooming. The hairs at Taehyung’s hands, his arms, stand at attention. Shuder like a rush. The pretty contrast of Jungkook’s lightly tanned fingers against his darker skin. “The fuck are you talking about? All anyone ever does in this damn state is dream. There’s a whole fucking song about it.”

 

“Yeah?” Taehyung asks. Smile in his voice. Wonders how long it’ll take Jungkook to catch it this time.

 

“Yes. Do you seriously not-”

 

“Not sure. How’s it go?”

 

“I- I’m not gonna sing it.”

 

“Not even if it jogs my memory?”  

 

“You could get me to do a lot of things, Tae. But I’m not going to sing for you.”

 

“I’ve been told I can be pretty persuasive.”

 

“I’m almost a hundred percent sure you’ve never been told that.”

 

“If you say so. I’ll get you to sing someday.”

 

“In your dreams, Taehyung Kim.”

 

And that’s fine. That Taehyung Kim will never get Jungkook Jeon to sing. Technically, he doesn’t exist. Is a dream thing himself. Legally, Taehyung is still a Kim first. A Taehyung second. But more than that-

 

Taehyung is a dreamer and Jungkook is the kind of thing dreamers dream.

 

*****

 

Outside the fake-real garden, the real heat feels stale.

 

Jungkook asks, “Are you sure you don’t need it back?”

 

“Nah,” Taehyung assures. His hands go to run through his hair, half pushed back over his forehead, defying the call of gravity purely by how dirty it is. He tangles them in his plaid. Slides them in his front pockets. They’ve gotten into enough trouble today.

 

“Don’t wanna get you in trouble, though. Make you break dress code,” Jungkook jokes but he settles the snapback further down his forehead. In his white t-shirt and dark jeans, maybe he does look like something. Typical California kid. Skateboard under his sneakered feet. Surfboard under his muscled arm. Kid worthy of envy. Kid living the dream.

 

Jungkook rocks back on his heels. His boots are flat today, black suede too prim for the dirty sidewalk his office is off of. All glass and metal. Potted palm trees in the lobby. Through the doors, the first thing Taehyung can see is the receptionist. Pretty enough to be a supermodel.

 

So typical California cool the cold dead cow in Taehyung’s stomach churns.

 

Churns further because Jungkook is doing that thing he does. The thing he’s so good at. Looking up at Taehyung. Hips tilted. Chin jutted. Lids lowered. Hook line and sinker like he doesn’t realize Taehyung is already caught.

 

Because Jungkook glances around Taehyung’s face. Lands on his mouth. Stays.

 

He bites his lower lip, pink stickiness catching in the sun. Doesn’t look away. Body open. Tilted. Towards Taehyung.

 

Heat stirs in Taehyung’s belly and Taehyung is so sure, so fucking sure, is already deep in it. Trouble. The universe. Everything having to do with Jungkook.

 

And maybe a tiny part of Taehyung is starting to forget. That he is a thing of the earth. Dirty. Unclean. Because a part of him is starting to remember. That at its essence. At its core. The earth was made from the stars, from the universe, too.

 

So maybe it’s okay. If he sways forward a little. If he gives into the yank and his chest is yanking so hard Taehyung really is a little scared it’s actually coming apart.

 

Maybe it’s okay if he goes where Jungkook might want him to.

 

Jungkook’s eyes widen a little and his flower kissed mouth parts for a breath, drags his pink tongue against his bottom lip and he’s staring at Taehyung’s mouth and maybe it is okay.

 

To feel good.

 

Taehyung’s hands uncurl in his jean’s pockets and Jungkook stays perfectly still, and Taehyung’s chest burns and Taehyung’s hands-

 

And Taehyung stuffs his fists in his pockets.

 

Sways back.

 

Looks at the cracks in the sidewalk.

 

He clears his throat. Doesn’t breathe.

 

Taehyung says, “I won’t get in trouble. You can just- give it back to me next time?”

 

Jungkook makes a noise. Like he’s shoving all the air out of his lungs. Less huffy than a huff. Like he’d been saving too much air in his lungs and doesn’t really have any use for it anymore.

 

Taehyung studies something knifed into the concrete. It looks Russian. Someone’s name. Someone else’s.

 

Softly, Jungkook says, “Yeah. Okay. Yeah, Friday, right?”

 

Spine straight, Jungkook is already staring him in the eye when Taehyung drags his gaze back up to him. Like this, he and Taehyung are of a height. Always are really. Some days, depending on the boots he’s armed himself with, he’s a little taller. It’s all illusions. Shit Taehyung falls for.   

 

“Friday?”

 

Jungkook furrows his brows. “The show? At Union? I’m going to see that duo I told you about. You said you’d come with me?”

 

And right. Taehyung did. “Right. I remember. I did. Yes-”

 

“If you changed your mind, it’s fi-”

 

“Kook?”

 

Jungkook shifts. Arms coming up across his middle. He swallows, damp throat bobbing, words sounding out quietly.

 

Taehyung stretches his hands so wide in his pockets he can feel the seams caving. The size of them, of how useless they are, bursting. He says, “I’ll see you Friday. Okay?”

 

Jungkook sighs. Huffs another breath. This one more like a laugh. He smiles, half his mouth turning up, as he agrees, “Okay. Yeah- I. Okay. Well.” He takes a step. Points over his shoulder. Thumb jerked dorkily and god, Taehyung’s hands are so fucking useless. “I better go. Some of us aren’t best friends with our bosses and get two lunches just because.”

 

And right. Just because.

 

Taehyung’s mouth does… something. Stretches. Moves. Whatever it is, he doesn’t have to look at himself to know it’s not reaching his eyes. He wonders if Jungkook can tell. Hopes he can’t. “Get to work, Rainbow Boy.”

 

A laugh bursts out of Jungkook. A real one. He shakes his head, half turns towards the building. “Not your rainbow boy. Rainbow boy.”

 

Taehyung squints. Probably looks like a dork himself. “Thought I was Flower Boy now?”

 

Jungkook lifts a shoulder. Reaches for his back pocket. “You dropped my flower,” he says. Pulls it from behind him, the petals smushed a little. He sticks the stem under the side of the snapback. Close to his temple. Pink blooming from the dark of his hair. From the rainbow.

 

The door opens automatically. Jungkook looks over his shoulder. His smile is blazing against the afternoon sun. Gleams shinier than the metal glass building. The decadence. The opulence of an industry. And Taehyung knows. That if anyone were to tell him he isn’t the brightest thing in the universe, that some stars are brighter, Taehyung would fight them, until he was sore in the throat. In his hands. Until it’s all Taehyung would know.

 

Jungkook says, “Text me, huh? Something that isn’t a fucking t-rex for once.”

 

Taehyung’s smile blooms. “How about the baby chick? Almost as fitting as the bomb for you.”

 

Jungkook snorts, eyes wrinkling near the pink, and Jimin was right all those nights ago. When he said Taehyung should have been a terrible poet or something because Taehyung wants to give Jungkook all the flowers. Starve the rest of the world of them. Plant his own flowers inside of him. Make him bloom.

 

Jungkook says-

 

But Taehyung won’t. He won’t, because sometimes, more important than feeling good-

 

“Why stop there? Text me the whole damn barn, Kim.”

 

Taehyung says-

 

Is to be good.

 

“You asked for it, Jeon. Gonna fill your inbox with the entire animal kingdom.”

 

Jungkook smiles at him for a second longer. Looks for a nanosecond like he’s-

 

The doors slide shut. Seals the air inside.

 

Taehyung stands in the stale air for too long. Sun burning on his exposed head. Carved words under his battered sneakers. He turns. He doesn’t really need that second break. Seokjin’s going to kill him for giving away his hat as is. 

 

He doesn’t think about that much. At all.

 

All Taehyung can think about are flowers. How they bloom.

 

How it looked, for a nano second, like Jungkook was waiting.

 

For longer than that.

 

*****

 

Seokjin doesn’t kill him but it’s a very close thing.

 

 

*****

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

*****




The sun is dying.

 

The half light shades the streets. Graffiti sprayed across murals. Swaths of lit up color. Of half dark.

 

Jungkook shakes his half empty cup of boba, peering inside. Ice smacks against plastic. He sips, dark pink liquid swirling. Says, “This was a terrible idea. It’s too late for bubble tea.”

 

Taehyung watches his mouth pucker around the straw. Drinks from his own cup. Honeydew. The green looks neon in the fading evening. “Too late?”

 

Rattling his ice, Jungkook uses his straw to spear a pearl. Dragon fruit. He tossed the lid a while back after he’d popped it off the cup too hard, plastic ripping in his hands. Prey caught, Jungkook snaps his teeth around the soft fruit triumphantly, lips curling happily. “For col’ shi’. Ish gonn’ get chilly shoon.”

 

Taehyung’s chest thuds at how silly, c-word as shit, he looks. Sounds. Can’t help a smile. Smile freezing when he processes Jungkook’s words. He stops on the sidewalk, jaw dropped.

 

Jungkook walks a few more paces. Finally notices Taehyung isn’t next to him. Looks behind him. He’s a sharp contrast to the lack of singularity around him, the weak color. Weaker light. The only sure thing in the almost night.

 

“What?” Jungkook asks.

 

Taehyung squints. “You’re kidding. Right?”

 

Jungkook stares. “Abou- Oh. No.” He rolls his eyes. Picks another dragon fruit. Chews. His cheeks glow. Like he spread fairy dust or something along his cut cheekbones this morning. Light catchers. Taehyung’s stare is appreciative. Wondrous. Aware of itself. “Weather app said it’d be in the low 60’s tonight.”

 

Taehyung squints some more. “In what world is that-”

 

“In my world. The world in which I need a jacket if it’s anything below 65.”

 

“I’ve barely seen you without a jacket in above 65 weather-”

 

Another eye roll. Another dragon fruit.

 

Taehyung is undeterred. “You’re insane. Like actually. 60 is perfect-”

 

T-shirt weather . Yeah. Aha. I’ve heard it before.” Jungkook squares a look off Taehyung’s jaw. His face is edged out in the light. Harsh. He stirs his tea, trim nails against bright blue. His knuckles are all scratched up from his last climb. Cracked dried blood. Taehyung’s stomach had tried to swallow itself when he’d texted him the pictures, bloody fist and glorious smile in the frame, the exhilaration leaking through the screen at conquering another beast. Becoming one with it.

 

Jungkook cocks a hip as he stands on the sidewalk. Sucks noisily. Doesn’t look at Taehyung. Says, “You know. To most people here, 60 is fucking chilly. You’ve been here, what? Ten years. Maybe it’s time you, like, acclimate yourself. I mean. I get it,” he says like he actually doesn’t. He looks at Taehyung. His eyes are dark. Beyond pigmentation. Beyond color. Beyond the slow creep of night. “New York boy. But. This isn’t fucking New York.”

 

Taehyung stops. He’s already at a stand still. But he stops. He takes a sip.

 

Carefully, he says, “No. It’s not.”

 

Jungkook hesitates. His brows stay the same arched line. Still just as high. Like a string is holding them up. But his mouth opens. Closes. His eyes drop. Come back up. Apprehensive. “S- I just mean. Can’t you save the holier than thou manly man front for when you go hom- when you go back? Let us hot blooded pussies complain about the cold, yeah?”

 

He smiles at the end. At the edges. Like he’s trying to soften something. The moment. The words. Himself. The way he spat the word New York . A dirty filthy thing.

 

Jungkook is the one with busted up bar-fight looking knuckles. But sure. Taehyung is the one with fronts. The manly man.

 

Taehyung can’t remember what the inside of Laguardia or JFK look like. If there are hundreds of coffee places now at the gates. He wouldn’t even be able to tell someone how much the subway from Manhattan from either airport would cost. But sure. Taehyung will save it for when he goes back.  

 

Jungkook is the one who says it’s not insulting to be compared to a woman. Taehyung is the one who feels his bones a little chilled. But sure. Jungkook is the pussy.

 

Taehyung asks, “Are you okay?”

 

Jungkook’s face flickers. The lights do. Across his skin. His jaw tenses. Imperceptible but. The light catches it.

 

Then, Jungkook rolls his eyes again. Longer. “Yes. For the fourth time, you don’t have to keep as-”

 

“I’m not-”

 

“Four times, Taehyung.”

 

Sorry , Taehyung thinks. Says it, because pussies aren’t weak, but between them, Taehyung is the weak one. “Sorry.”

 

Jungkook’s expression softens. His eyebrows twist, baby wrinkles on his forehead. He purses his mouth. Unhappy. “Don’t be sorry. Just come here,” he says, and his voice is twisted too. Harshness gone. All rounded consonants. Gentle. He extends his hand out to Taehyung, the bruises Taehyung wants to heal with his mouth. “Please?” he adds when Taehyung doesn’t move. Rooted to the sidewalk.

 

Taehyung goes.

 

He reaches Jungkook. Keeps walking.

 

Jungkook follows. He brushes Taehyung’s shoulder with his own gently. Gentle. Gentle. Gentle.

 

Taehyung lets the contact ground him. Soothe some part of him though he’s unsure which.

 

They cross half a block. Storefront lights wash over the street in fluorescents. Taehyung isn’t sure where they are. Downtown. Somewhere near the Geffen maybe. Not too far from the USC campus. It hadn’t even occurred to Taehyung to apply there when he was thinking about college. Maybe if he had he’d know downtown better, nevermind he’s been working and living around it for the last six years.

 

“I’m sorry,” Jungkook says over the sounds of their footsteps. Liquid sloshing. The mess of traffic on the freeway. The messy backdrop of the city. “You were right. I’m annoyed. Kinda. That work thing earlier was terrible and I haven’t talked to my parents in, like, the last week ‘cause we keep missing each other. And. Just. Stuff.”

 

Taehyung lets their shoulders touch. “Stuff?”

 

“Yeah. Stuff.” Jungkook looks at him through the corner of his eye. He knocks his bobba against his side. Asks, “Promise you won’t laugh?”

 

Taehyung nods.

 

“I’m already kind of cold,” Jungkook admits, face scrunched up sweetly. Is the one who laughs, adds to the messy soundtrack of the streets.

 

Warmth fills Taehyung’s chest. Their sides are pressed together, arms and cups bumping. Jungkook’s admission. The sunset stark against his cheeks. The fact that Jungkook wanted to fight and chose not to instead. It all warms the space inside Taehyung. Between his lungs.

 

Pushing his shoulders back, he starts shrugging out of his plaid. It’s an actual flannel, thick and sturdy. A barrier against wind.

 

Jungkook holds his hands up, shakes his head. “You don’t have to- oh, my god. Seriously. It’s just a little chilly. I’m fine-”

 

But he isn’t. Said so himself. About the other stuff, Taehyung can’t do anything. But this. This tiny thing. Taehyung can make better. Try to.

 

Taehyung grips the flannel by the collar, holds it out to Jungkook. “Take it.”

 

Jungkook curls his fingers. Shakes his head harder, bangs mussed. “It’s okay. Really.”

 

Taehyung sighs. “Take it, Koo-”

 

“Ugh. You can’t just call me that whenever you’re trying to get me to listen to you. Or, like, be cute.”

 

Pushing his arm out, Taehyung smirks. “Cute?”

 

This time, Jungkook manages the least annoyed eye roll Taehyung has ever seen. In history. Color darkens his sparkly cheeks. Paired with his wet sticky mouth, the curling light in his eyes, he looks almost casually sexual. Alluring. Straight out of Taehyung’s favorite fantasy-porno-wet-dream. Taehyung’s chest rises a little slower. Each time his heart expands, it punches against his ribcage.

 

Those eyes looking up at him. Those glittery cheekbones near Taehyung’s hips, his cock. That slick wet mouth against his own. The only fantasy Taehyung has anymore. The only porno he watches every time he closes his eyes. The only wet thing he dreams about.     

 

Jungkook touches the flannel. Says, “C-word. God. Whatever. You’re so-” He frowns at Taehyung, menacing without any real threat. “You ordered all that ice. Are you sure? Once I put this on, I’m not taking it off.”

 

Taehyung lets go.

 

Jungkook fumbles to keep his grip. Saves Taehyung’s flannel from meeting its dirty demise. The cesspool of bacteria and filth Los Angeles is. He curses Taehyung out nastily under his breath, ice clinking as he jerks, straw flying.

 

“Fuck you, you son of a bitc- fake chivalrous piece of shit. You’re not getting this back-”  

 

Taehyung catches the straw.

 

Jungkook gapes. His eyes get lost around Taehyung’s hand. On it. The breadth of it, his knuckles, long fingered grip. The dark light shadows his cheeks further. He blinks once. Curls his lips in a sneer. He bites down on his bubble tea cup to free his hands. Lifts his arms to wrap the flannel around himself, fabric whipping in the air. He gets his arms through it, collar flat around his neck. A smile stretches across his face, the open shirt hanging loosely around his torso. “Oh, man. You are seriously not getting this back. It’s so warm? How are you not all sweaty?” he asks. Bites out. Plucks the cup from between his teeth with careful hands. He looks almost blissfully happy. Warm.

 

It sours a little when he narrows his eyes. Asks, “Was that supposed to impress me?”

 

Taehyung shrugs. Offers the straw. His stomach flips pleasantly at the picture Jungkook makes. He looks good. In flannel. Because he always looks good. Because it’s Taehyung’s flannel he’s wearing.

 

“If you think I want that after it’s been in your germy fingers, you’re the insane one.”

 

Taehyung just smiles. Drops the straw in his own cup.  

 

Jungkook eyes him for another moment. “Are you really going to drink from both str- Of course he is. And he ordered grass jelly. Who orders grass jelly?” He shakes his head at Taehyung, looks down his nose at Taehyung, the same perfect derisiveness he was that first night. Hasn’t been in a while.

 

He says, “I mean this as conceivebally nicely as possible. As your… not-friend. You are so w-word sometimes. So so so w-word.”

 

And maybe. On another night. On any other night. That would bother Taehyung. Hurt him, even. A little. A lot. A fucking hella a lot. But tonight.

 

Tonight, Jungkook isn’t okay.

 

Tonight, nothing is going to bother Taehyung.

 

Tonight, Jungkook is cold.

 

Tonight, he’s wearing Taehyung’s clothes.

 

So Taehyung just smirks. Just shrugs. Smiles. Drinks through both straws. Eats his grass jelly.

 

Jungkook’s face falls. The light over him. Falls. His voice cracks, “Tae- Taehyung-”   

 

“So what was wrong?”

 

Jungkook’s eyes widen. “W-what?”

 

“With the work thing,” Taehyung explains. He steps back when a couple with a stroller passes by. The baby is kicking up his legs, babbling about something far too complex for puny adult brains to understand. Maybe something far too simple. The couple look around Taehyung’s age. A little older. The taller guy pushes the stroller one handed, his other hand tangled with his husband’s. Partner. Boyfriend. Taehyung wonders what they like to be called.

 

The baby kicks out in Jungkook’s direction. Cackles. The loudest thing in the city. Jungkook’s face falls in a different way. Softens sweetly. He laughs back, eyes lit up.

 

He looks back at Taehyung. Face still that soft, sweet thing.

 

The sidewalk is heat sticky under Taehyung’s shoes. He crosses the space. His mouth feels sticky. Expensive lip stain. Dragon fruit. His insides are sticky. Drowning in it.

 

They’ve ended up next to a bus stop. The back of it is spray painted. In black bold letters-

 

Only the free ever truly live   

 

Jungkook backs into the fiberglass, light scattering through. Beneath it in tiny script-

 

you were born dead fuck head

 

Taehyung presses his knee to the stop. He’s waited at this stop before. Has taken this bus hundreds of times by now. He asks, “You said the work thing was annoying?”

 

Jungkook breathes out, lips puffing. Taehyung half expects a cloud of smoke to billow through his saturated lips, remembers the one time he’s seen Jungkook smoke. The glossy stain is clear tonight. His mouth is still flower colored. Taehyung wonders. How many ways he can say pink. How many times until he gets sick of it.

 

Jungkook says, “There were just all these people. Fake shit. I had to do a lot of sucking up so, maybe, I can get a meeting for this one client. So maybe they’ll think about it. So maybe. Maybe. Maybe . It’s just- frustrating. I know I should be thankful. Grateful. At least I’m in the industry I want to be in. Working what I studied. Sort of. Almost. But it’s just. It’s that thing. The thing,” he echoes softly. Back propped, his body is a slanted line. Shirt tucked, waist shown off. In a too big flannel enveloping his frame. Powerful in the good places. Trim and curved where hands can grip him. With a pretty desire soaked face. Eyes land on him. Taehyung’s. Other people’s. Roam over him as they go. Taehyung wonders. What they’re thinking about. How they’re thinking about.

 

For once, Taehyung doesn’t hate himself for wondering. Wanting. Much.

 

“I know where I want to be. And it sucks. Not being there yet when I can see it. I mean, really see it.”   

 

Jungkook looks up ahead. At the darkness covered in fake lights. They can’t see many stars in the city. The way no one can in most cities. Most nights. And yet Taehyung’s eyes are full of them. Looking at Jungkook. His cheekbones lit up. Kissed in light.

 

The stars go out. Glance off Jungkook’s left cheek. He looks at Taehyung.

 

Asks, “Do you know what I mean? I’m sure you- I. Have you ever seen yourself somewhere? So much it felt real? Like. Not just work stuff but. Life. Life stuff. Like you’re supposed to be there already? Like you’re meant to have it?” He bites his lower lip. Looks at Taehyung openly. “Have you ever wanted something like that?”

 

The grass jelly clogs Taehyung’s throat. Condensation sticks to his fingers. Bubble tea melting. Cold sweating itself out.

 

He thinks of himself.

 

Seeing himself.

 

In New York. In Columbia. In a classroom.

 

In a plane.

 

In California. In UCLA. In a classroom.

 

The first time Jimin smiled at him. The first time he swung a door open and found Yoongi on the other side. The first time he told Hoseok he hella loved him. The first time Seokjin told him it would all be okay.

 

The first time he saw his dad holding a posterboard of the periodic table. The first time he found a bottle inside the cupboard. The first bottle he saw his father hold. The last one. The first time his dad told him how proud he was of him. The last time.

 

The first time someone told him that he looked exactly like his dad. The first time someone told him you look exactly like your father.

 

The first time he looked up. The first time he thought there.

 

The universe.

 

The first time he looked at someone and thought them.

 

The first time he looked at someone and knew him.

 

He looks at Jungkook’s mouth.

 

Taehyung says, “You’ll get there. You and Namjoon. The label. Everything you want. You’ll get there.”

 

Jungkook’s hair falls in his eyes. Shades him from Taehyung. Hides away the stars. He watches the ground for a few seconds, back tightening. He lifts his head. Relaxes his shoulders. Vertebra by vertebra.

 

He stares at Taehyung. Stays at his mouth. Doesn’t look anywhere else. He says, “Right. Namjoon and me. The label. Right.”

 

Brows knitting, Taehyung asks, “Was that not what you wanted to hear?”

 

Jungkook looks at him. His eyes are smiling. Strangely. Weirdly . “It’s what I needed to hear.”

 

Jungkook brings his cup to his mouth. Lychee with lychee. He drinks. Taehyung does too. The honeydew has gone too sweet, black jelly floating in the melting ice.

 

He bites his straw. Both. “That sucks. About your parents.”

 

“Yeah. It’s fine. A lot of people don’t talk to theirs for months but. I’m just- Used to it, I guess.” Jungkook gives a little shrug. Brings one side of the flannel closer around himself. “It’s silly. Being still, kind of, attached to them or whatever, I know-”

 

Taehyung bumps him with his cup. Wets his flannel over Jungkook’s bicep. “Who cares about other people and their parents? You talk to yours every week. I still call my mom every week.”

 

Jungkook smiles. No longer strangely. With his mouth. Like he had for the baby but. Differently. Different kind of sweet. “Yeah?”

 

Taehyung nods. “Facetime my sister every week too.”

 

“You have a sister?” Jungkook asks softly. His eyebrows arch. “I didn’t know that.”

 

“Little sister. She’s five. Half sister,” he clarifies at Jungkook’s confused look.

 

“Oh.” Softer. “Is your mom...”

 

Resting his shoulder on the plexiglass, Taehyung lets it take his weight. Shakes his cup to get to the jelly cubes, half melted and sludged around the ice. “My parents were young when they had me. Early twenties. She remarried- I was twenty-one? When she married Dan. They got pregnant less than a year later.”

 

Jungkook mouths soundlessly. He licks his lips. He’s all attention now. The tension touches his shoulders again.

 

Taehyung doesn’t even have to say it. Think it. About his hands.

 

He holds his cup firmly. Pokes his straw around the ice.

 

“Dan. That sounds. Is he- Is he nice?”

 

Taehyung smiles at the question. That that’s where Jungkook’s mind goes. What he thinks is important to ask. “Yeah. He’s really. Really kind.” He shrugs. Clamps a jelly using both straws. “It’s the happiest my mom’s ever been.”

 

He looks up in time to see it.

 

The way Jungkook’ face falls. Crumbles. Caves in on itself in the yellowed light. His mouth shakes. His pretty cheekbones tremble. He frowns, brows hard.

 

Taehyung’s chest heaves. He almost drops the cup, heart twisting. Everything one big twist. “Jungkook? Hey. Kook, what-”

 

Jungkook shakes his head. His face is dry. He wipes under his chin with a sleeve, squares of blue and purple beneath his jaw. “But you said- You said your dad was a good dad. That he was a good husband. How can you-” He clenches his teeth, eyes glinting. Anger. Something else. Something that makes Taehyung’s entire body tug. “How can you say that?”

 

Taehyung’s chest stutters. For a second, he wonders whose parents they’re talking about.

 

Air balloons in his lungs. They pop just as fast.

 

Jelly forgotten, it’s a miracle he’s still remembering to hold onto the tea. Taehyung sighs. His entire body. One big heave. It pushes him forward. His shoulder touches Jungkook’s. Sticky heat.

 

Jungkook watches him, eyes less panicky. Body less worked up. He doesn’t ease into Taehyung but he doesn’t move away either. Taehyung will take what he can get.   

 

Taehyung says, “He was. As much as he could be. My parents. They did love each other. I know that. I-” He struggles for the word. Different than the one he’s thinking. Nothing else comes. His voice is faint around, “I believe it. But by the end of it? I think it was over. In a certain way. For a while. It was hard. It got hard. And maybe it’s supposed to be? Or that’s what people want us to think. But I think it should be easy too. And. I don’t blame my mom. I can’t. Because.” He stops. Swallows. Jelly. The words he wants to say. The ones he can’t left unsaid. He looks at Jungkook. “How do you love half of a person?”

 

The light fades another notch. The sun falling further.

 

Half light. Jungkook looks him in the eye. He doesn’t seem to be moving. The flannel flutters in the wind. The rest of him seems unmoved. Unmovable.

 

Quietly, Jungkook asks, “Is that what you think? That your dad was half a person?”

 

Taehyung shrugs. Doesn’t know what he really thinks. That his dad was one person. His father another. That he was two people. That he was two halves of a person. Of a dad. Of a father. He honestly doesn’t know how happier his mom is or isn’t now. Maybe it’s just a story Taehyung needs to tell himself. A belief he needs to carry. He’s probably too old for stories. For beliefs.

 

“Isn’t everybody? In a way.”

 

“No.”

 

The conviction in Jungkook’s voice presses at Taehyung’s chest like a hand. Reaches inside his guts. Sneaks in between his lungs. Sweeps over his heart.

 

“No,” Jungkook says again. His eyes are so bright it’s like a fire sweltering. Like a nebula against the naked eye. His lips curve. Taehyung thinks of the Carina Nebula. The pinkest nebula in the sky. “No, they’re not. Not everyone. You’re, like, the most complete person I know. I look at you and- And I don’t see a single thing missing. Not one.”

 

It’s both hands. Jungkook touching his throat. Yanking at his ribs. Tugging at his brain. His blood vessels. Shoving at his bones. To make space. The space that’s already been made.

 

Taehyung tries to breathe through it. Around it. He’s not sure his lungs are his anymore either.

 

He swallows. Says, “I could use a lot things, though. To change them. More money, probably, would be helpful. I could be less lazy. To focus on one thing. I’m not perfect, Jungkook-”

 

Jungkook rises to his full height. Luminous beautiful force. A star mass if there ever was one. It’s a little crazy to Taehyung. That he can just glance over at him and look. With his naked eyes. That anyone can. He arches one perfect brow. “Who said anything about perfect? You could probably use a ton of shit. A haircut. For one. Doesn’t matter.” His brow softens. He looks almost pitiful but not at Taehyung. “That’s not what complete is. Complete is just. Complete. You.”

 

Taehyung laughs. Shaky. His chest is too. His spine feels fucked up. Wrong. Jungkook probably pushed too hard. Set it against his liver or something. Doesn’t matter either, Taehyung bets.

 

“A haircut, yeah. You gonna throw a fit if I get one you don’t like?”  

 

“What do you think?” The glass reflects Jungkook’s half sneer. His half smile. He knocks into Taehyung’s shoulder. Sends him swaying. “Of course I am.”

 

Jungkook chugs the rest of his boba. Grins around the lip of his cup. Little pieces of lychee stick to the bottom, red in the light.

 

Taehyung rubs his cheek against his own shoulder, t-shirt scratchy under his skin. His flannel is soft in comparison, faded. Well used. He says, “It wasn’t my dad’s addiction that made him half a person. That makes me think....”

 

Jungkook’s face says nothing. He lowers his cup. Turns towards Taehyung.

 

Taehyung wonders. What the rule for other people is. How many times before you talk to someone. Before you tell them all the ugly shit. How many kisses, fucks, late night talks, fights, laughs, cries. Before you tell them.

 

“It’s that he stopped trying. I think- Maybe it’s not fair. To say it. To think it. But I’ve known other people. Other addicts. His sponsor, especially, and. I think he wasn’t trying.” He looks  out at the street. The shadows of the people walking by. There’s a pressure at his side. At his chest, when he says, “And all my mom ever did was try.”

 

“Okay,” Jungkook says.

 

Taehyung stares. He goes to speak. Wrinkles his brows. “Okay? But I wasn’t…”

 

“I know. But-” Jungkook pauses. He touches Taehyung’s hand. Just a brief thing. A barely there touch. Taehyung presses against his fingers, rough-soft, mountain blessed, soothed by how well Jungkook likes to treat himself. Some parts of himself. A barely there touch back.

 

Jungkook steps away from the bus stop. Comes fully into the light.

 

He looks at Taehyung. Openly. All of him.

 

He says, “But okay.”

 

Then,

 

“How do you feel about scuba diving?”

 

Taehyung heaves. A weak half laugh. His fingers are jittery. Hands numb from the heat cold. Next time, he’ll get less sugar. Next time, he’ll wear longer sleeves when the weather app says 60.

 

Jungkook grins. Calls Taehyung forward.

 

Taehyung pushes off the plexiglass.

 

Next time, Taehyung will-



*****



They’re standing by Jungkook’s bike. Parked on slower street. The night is full dark. Fake light. Clouds skitter across the sky. Even the moon is hidden tonight.

 

“You didn’t have to walk me back.”   

 

“I know. Wanted to.”

 

Jungkook smiles, bright. “Maybe your chivalry is real after all, huh.”

 

Taehyung shrugs.

 

The breeze curls around them. Lifts up Taehyung’s too long hair.

 

Jungkook pulls the sleeves over his hands. Folds his arms across his waist for a moment.

 

Taehyung doesn’t have to repress a shiver. “Just being nice. A concerned citizen. Always use the buddy system, as my camp counselors taught me.”

 

“Of course you went to camp. Space camp, right? Some fancy program at NASA for kids that you had to write a billion essays for.”

 

“Math camp, actually. No essays though I had to do a few problem sets.”

 

“Huh. Oh!” Jungkook flips the seat of his bike up. It hits the back with a thump. He pulls something out. Taehyung’s snapback. The rainbow pattern catches the light. “Here. Knew I’d see you today. Forgot it last time.”

 

“Oh.” Taehyung takes it. It feels heavier than it is. He offers it back. “You can keep it if you want. It looks better on you anyway.”

 

Yellow blinks over Jungkook’s head. Halo of sun colored light in the night. “It’s not really my style though, is it? Besides. You need it for work. Can’t let the boss stay mad,” he says with a laugh. Foot poised on the kickstand, he starts to pull off the flanel, hand curving up on his shoulder to tug the fabric.

 

“Wait.”

 

Shoulders raised, hand curled where the bone juts into his arm, Jungkook is a thing of light. Taking off Taehyung’s clothes. Eyes shiny and dark. Reminds Taehyung of those old pin up models. Reminds him of a lot of things.

 

He says, “You can keep it. It’s still chilly and only going to get worse.”

 

Jungkook hesitates.

 

Pulls.

 

He folds the flannel lengthwise once it’s off. Holds it out. It sways in the light breeze. The barely there chill.

 

Hands full of the rainbow cap, Taehyung doesn’t move. “Thought you said I wasn’t getting that back?” he tries to smile. Something rueful. He feels off center. Off kilter. The thing in his chest tugging in a strange way.

 

Jungkook shakes his head. Shakes the jacket he pulls out from under the seat. “I’ve got my jacket. You’ve got the walk back. Sorry I can’t give you a ride. Have to be up early and-”

 

“It’s fine. Bus is only two blocks away.”

 

“I- okay.”

 

“Okay.”

 

Taehyung still doesn’t move.

 

Jungkook digs his heel into the kickstand. It makes a clicking sound. His hands are full. He bites his lower lip. Takes a breath.

 

Taehyung’s chest moves. In response. Like it’s taking a breath too. Losing one.

 

Jungkook says, “Taehyu-”

 

“I don’t know about the scuba diving. You’ve convinced me of a lot of things but I don’t think this will be one of them.”

 

“O- fine. I guess? Or not. I don’t. Tae-”

 

“You know we’ve only discovered less than five percent of the ocean? Forget sharks. I saw a shark surfing once. Almost. Might have been a dolphin. Who knows what’s down there re-”

 

“Taehyung-”

 

“Anything. Everything. Everywh-”

 

“Taehyung.”

 

Taehyung stops.

 

Jungkook doesn’t raise his voice. Doesn’t shout. His mouth spits it out. Taehyung’s name. Not like he did New York. Like something filthy. He says it like it’s the one word in his throat. His lungs.

 

Then more words are rushing out through Jungkook’s bitten lips. Abused by his own teeth. Gloss smudged. Fucked up not unlike his mountain bloody knuckles. “Fuck. I’m sorry. About earlier. What I said. About calling you w-”

 

“Don’t.”

 

Breath punches out of Jungkook’s chest. Arms falling. Hair curling above his damp looking eyes. Apologetic eyes. He looks like the kid he’s always saying he is. Like Taehyung is denying him something and he doesn’t understand why he can’t just have it. “But. Taehyung-”

 

“Don’t be sorry,” Taehyung says. So much conviction in it he chokes himself with it. He pulls the snapback on his head. Tucks his now clean hair under it. He steps forward. Ducks a little so Jungkook has to look at him. Makes himself look up because, really, it’s all Taehyung knows. Looking up. At the sky. The universe. Things he wants. Things he sees himself having so clearly his guts ache with it. That all he can do is try to breathe around them. It.

 

He grabs onto the flannel gently. Takes it from Jungkook’s grasp. “Okay? Don’t.”

 

This close, he sees the way Jungkook holds his next breath. How hard he furrows his brows. The illusion of wetness in his eyes. The way his face falls for a breath. A nanosecond. Comes back.

 

Jungkook is silent.

 

Lets go.

 

Taehyung grips his flannel. Softly asks, “Are you sure? That,” he stops. Says, “you’re okay?”

 

Jungkook shrugs. His mouth opens like he’s going to smile. Doesn’t. “No. But I will be. Said so yourself.”

 

Taehyung’s heart trembles. Before he can think on it too hard, before he can think it away, he says, “Let me take you to dinner. I owe you for the burgers. Let me- let me take you out, yeah? It’s still early. Don’t go home yet.”

 

Jungkook’s mouth tugs. He smiles this time. The sweetest thing. Even if he never tastes like berries again, he’ll always be the sweetest thing Taehyung has ever known.

 

He lifts his fingers to Taehyung’s forehead. Grazes his skin so gently it’s a lie to call it a touch. Pushes a few fallen strands of Taehyung’s hair under the cap. His fingers linger. His breath touches Taehyung’s face. Warm. He says, “You paid for the bobba. And you don’t owe me anything, Taehyung.”

 

And it makes sense. That they’re the words Taehyung has been wanting to say. Should have maybe been the first words he said to Jungkook. And they’re still the wrong words.

 

Taehyung is kind of terrible at a lot of things. Isn’t maybe very good at any one thing. But if there’s one thing he knows about himself, it’s that he’s a shitty fucking poet. Shitty at words.

 

He steps back. Folds the flannel over his forearm.

 

Jungkook slides his jacket on. Black leather. Gleaming in the fake light. He straddles his bike. Beast between his strong thighs. Power contained. Tamed. Sexual and not. A thing to be desired. A thing that desires.

 

Tonight, all Taehyung sees is the angel. Wearing the clothes, the edges, of a devil.  

 

Taehyung says, “Text me that you got back. Just. For tonight, yeah? Let me know you made it home safely?”

 

Jungkook smiles, soft, and maybe a hells angel is just a devil in disguise but Taehyung doubts that any of them can be this sweet. This open with themselves. This soft with others when they know the fight. Keep their bloodied knuckles to themselves instead of ramming them in other people’s faces like they can. Should, maybe. “Okay,” he agrees. Asks, “You too?”

 

Taehyung nods. “And about the scuba diving? Maybe you’ll convince me.”

 

Jungkook watches his own fingers curl around the handle bars. Looks at Taehyung for a long moment. “Yeah. Maybe. And yeah. Sure. I’ll- I. Yeah. I will. I’ll see you?”

 

Jungkook steps on the clutch. The beast roars to life. He gives Taehyung a last look. He isn’t wearing his helmet so he’s all light. Bathed in it.

 

Taehyung sees it more than he hears it.

 

Goodnight, Tae.”

 

He mouths the words back.

 

He gets swallowed up in the growl. The exhaust fumes Jungkook leaves in his wake.

 

Taehyung watches him go. Stands there. Longer than he should. He makes his way to the bus stop. Flannel in his grip, his arms kissed cold under the dead yellow lights.



*****



The apartment door swings shut behind him. Seals in the heat. His living room is quiet tonight. A hum.

 

He toes his shoes off. His phone buzzes.

 

 

jjk

 

safe and sound

in bed

thinking about u

u scubaing

 

 

Taehyung smiles so wide it hurts. And maybe he’s felt off tonight. Off center. Off kilter. But, doesn’t Taehyung always? Doesn’t, if they’re very honest with themselves, everyone?

 

 

you

 

in your dreams jungkook jeon

 

 

The reply comes when he reaches the sliding doors. As he slides the one he left open for some reason closed. The hum vibrates. Sound that touches air. Silent.

 

 

jjk

 

then i’ll see you in them taehyung kim

 

 

Another text comes in before he can reply, phone clutched in his grip.

 

 

jjk

 

goodnight rainbow boy

 

 

When Taehyung sleeps that night, he dreams.



*****



“-seen a lot of things in my life. Never seen something like that.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Mhhm. Left me downright stupefied.”

 

“Ah. I’m sure it wasn’t that bad.”

 

“I’m telling you. It was- You texting your sweetheart on that thing? Looking at a hunk of plastic like it holds all the answers to the fine universe, child.”

 

Taehyung grins, sheepish. The bus jerks to a stop. He curls his hand around the handrail, feet planted as he sways. Inertia. Sudden motionless. He slides his phone in his jeans pocket. The screen stays dark. “No. Sorry, Nelson, I-”

 

Nelson waves him off. He’s been driving this same bus for as long as Taehyung’s been taking it. Early morning work commute, it’s almost crowded today for L.A. standards. There’s plenty of seats open but Taehyung likes the front. Likes how Nelson indulges conversation. Didn’t get to do it as much in New York. Took the subway most of the time. Walked everywhere else.

 

“Nothing to be sorry about. Only reason I learned how to use those damned things was so I could communicate with my lady. Real sweet thing she is but she’s got a real temper that one.” Palm open on the wheel, Nelson maneuvers through traffic. He throws Taehyung a glance, laugh lines curving around his mouth. “Your lady. She sweet?”

 

The grin touches Taehyung’s mouth. He thinks he feels his phone vibrate but it’s just the bus. The motor. The city. His foot slides forward, touches the yellow line separating the seating area from the driver’s seat. He says, “They’re something. Got a real temper too.”

 

Nelson laughs. A real one. Always is with him. He’s that kind of person. The ones who only laugh when they mean it. “Those are the good ones. You don’t let someone like that go. You hear me, boy?”

 

Taehyung nods. Toes the line.

 

It gets Taehyung a reprimand, wheel spinning as they take a curve, turn onto the avenue. “Now stay behind the yellow line, Taehyung, don’t make me tell you twice, child-”



*****



you

 

so

how was he?

dream me?



*****



The bell chimes.

 

Taehyung looks up, tries to control the jerk his bones make. His chest gives.

 

His shoulders fall.

 

His chest swoops. Useless breath.

 

Yoongi elbows him roughly, smiles at the customer approaching the counter. Guy in his twenties. Casual business wear. Nice button down. Nicer jeans. Probably works at one of the billion startups around downtown. The ones not impressive enough for Silicon Valley. For the golden gates up north.

 

Through the corner of his mouth, Yoongi snaps, “Try and not look at the customers like you rather be getting your teeth pulled. And quit looking at your phone. You’ve been staring at it all day and it hasn’t gone off. Once.”

 

Taehyung straightens. Widens his mouth. Something most people would call a smile. He shoves his phone under the counter, squeezes it between a bag of chia seeds and some recycled paper napkins.

 

Yoongi follows his movements, brows furrowed. He’s wearing his snapback for once. The bill protecting his gaze from the weak lights hanging above them. From the sun coming in through the glass. “Do you need to go to the back? Hoseok could probably use some help. He’s got all that squash to deal with today. Lots of slicing. Smashing stuff up.”

 

“Nah. I’m fine. Sorry. Sorry, I’m just. You know me. Spacey today.”

 

Yoongi frowns. He looks over at the customer. At Taehyung. “Seriously, man, if you need a break. I can handle the front-”

 

“Yoongi.” Taehyung breathes. Smiles. A real one. For Yoongi it’s easy. Like breathing. “I’m fine. I got this. I got it.”

 

Slowly, Yoongi nods. Grabs a pair of gloves. He reaches around Taehyung for Taehyung’s hat. Presses it to his chest. He takes a moment to knock Taehyung’s side with his own. Skirt Taehyung’s shoulder with his chin and it feels so very familiar yet so very not. Yoongi does it all the time, really. His chin against Taehyung’s shoulder. His face in Taehyung’s neck when they hug. Easy access given that he’s shorter than Taehyung. Always has to look up at Taehyung. Never seems to bother him. See it as a hardship. It’s just the way it is. “All right. We’ll take a smoke later, okay? Got some really good afroberry. You’ll like it.”

 

And Taehyung smiles. Smiles at the customer.

 

Says, “Hey. Welcome to-”

 

     

 

*****



jjk

 

hey

work’s been killer

gotta make that paper

 

 

Taehyung stares at the message. The string of yen emojis.

 

Fluorescents bounce off his screen. He doesn’t squint. The lenses of his glasses swallow up the glare. He forgot his contacts this morning. His eyes feel drier than usual.   

 

Someone bumps into him. Taehyung closes the fridge door. Makes space. Smiles an apology.

 

He stands in line. The girl at the checkout has deep bags under her eyes. She looks young. College aged. A little older. She’s chewing gum. The bubble pops in pink.

 

Taehyung holds his items in the crook of his elbow, arm held against his chest.  

 

 

you

 

tell me about it

no really

tell me

you won’t believe the amount of vomit i’ve had to mop up at the center since i last saw you

 

 

Taehyung drops his items on the counter.

 

Checkout girl blows another bubble. Smirks when she sees the bottle among his items.

 

She scans his iced tea. A bag of chips. Says, “You know, girls don’t actually care about that flavored shit.”

 

Taehyung pulls out his wallet. Shrugs. The white light catches on the thick pink. The translucent thickness sticking to the plastic. “It’s not for a girl.”

 

She tilts her head back, amused. Surprised. Taehyung knows what she’s thinking. It’s not what he means. Not exactly. Taehyung hasn’t fucked a girl since he considered himself a boy. College maybe. A little after that. He’s fucked plenty of women since. Even if it has been a bit of a while since the last one. Since his mouth was kissed red. Since he slipped his cock somewhere soft and warm and tight in that way women are. Wet because he made it that way. With his fingers. His mouth. His words.

 

It’s not what he means. But it’s not for a boy, a man, either.

 

His phone buzzes.

 

 

jjk

 

story for a story huh

 

 

Check out girl laughs. Cracked with exhaustion. Taehyung wonders how many hours she works. If she’s putting herself through school. Getting herself out of it.

 

She swipes his card. Hands it back, manicured nails clacking against the raised numbers. “Sorry, dude. Uh. Sir? It’s been a long night.”

 

Taehyung takes the bag, plastic rustling. He smiles. “Don’t worry about it. I get that. The grind, yeah? And anyway,” He sticks the receipt in the bag. “It’s for me,” he says. Because it’s been a long night. Because it’s true. Maybe it’ll give her another laugh. Something to think about.

 

He turns away from the counter. Nods at the person behind him. A woman. Older than him. Her mouth a heart stopping, blood pumping, red. She smiles back. Lingers.

 

A bubble pops. Check out girl laughs.   

 

Taehyung pulls out his phone. Hovers over the screen.

 

Outside, the lights-



*****



you

 

you go first

your’s is probably more interesting



*****



jjk

 

hey

keep missing u

work but

you know better than i do about tht

mybe i wasn’t so off about the daddy thing either

hah

 

 

you

 

maybe

how are you?



*****


you

 

apparently most scuba related deaths happen when the diver is alone

guess the buddy system works in the ocean too



*****



you

 

saw a chihuahua on the bus today

was wearing a tutu

reminded me of you

both the fact that he was mexican

and wearing a tutu

did you ever have to wear a tutu when you were a ballerino?



*****



you

 

maybe scuba diving won’t be that bad

ocean water is just molten rock vapor

maybe instead of a shark we’d find a star down there



*****



jjk

 

srry

iv been mia

i looked up the ocen thing

u were right

but when aren’t you

lol

 

 

you

 

yeah hey

sorry about the texts

know you said you were busy

 

 

jjk

 

pls

its fine

not busy

just

anyw

might have a show wanna take you too

very dude bro-y

totally ur thing

 

 

you

 

even if i dude bop?

 

 

jjk

 

ur the only guy i’d let dude bop around me

 

 

you

 

ur the only guy i wanna dude bop around

what's the artist’s name?



*****



“Taehyung?”

 

Taehyung looks up.

 

Jaebum stands in the doorway to the storage room. His perfectly pressed polo is deep green today. Like a forest. A jungle, maybe. A garden.

 

Taehyung stares. “Sorry. Was I taking too long? I couldn’t find the cupcakes.”

 

Jaebum’s face is all lines. They cut deep across his forehead. Around his eyes. “Taehyung. You’re holding them.”

 

Taehyung blinks. It’s the dark in the storage room. The solitary light bulb attached to the ceiling. He looks down. Little circles stare up at him. Topped in pastel blue. Baby blue. “Oh. Yeah. Forgot my contacts again. Think I left my glasses at the desk.”

 

Jaebum blinks.

 

He points at Taehyung’s head. “They’re on your head.”

 

Taehyung redistributes the weight in his hands. Touches his hair. His fingers find plastic. He lowers the frames, sets them on his kind of big nose. Over his too wide eyes.

 

There are little leaves on Jaebum’s polo. A shade of green lighter than the rest of the fabric.

 

Taehyung laughs. Breathes out something that sounds like it. “Hmm. Thought I had a few more years before I started pulling the crazy grandpa act.”

 

Jaebum stares.

 

Taehyung stares back. The cupcakes feel like brick. Lead. How iridium must feel. Not the samples Taehyung has seen in labs but the actuality of it. The enough of it to make an impact.  

 

After a moment, Jaebum laughs. Rests his back against the doorframe. “You’ll be joining the bingo players before you know it.”

 

Taehyung laughs again. Phone heavy in his pocket. Heavy in its silence.

 

The halo of light sways about his head.

 

He says-



*****



you

 

i looked up that dj

he seems just dude bro-y enough



*****



you

 

are you busy t-

 

“Taetae?”

 

Light cuts through Jimin’s bottle.

 

Cuts through his smile.

 

Through his eyes.

 

He touches Taehyung’s shoulder. Presses his side to the bar top.

 

The bar isn’t crowded tonight but the noise crowds in on Taehyung’s shoulders. His ears. His head feels blurry. Stuffed.

 

Jimin asks, “Do you wanna go home?”

 

Taehyung frowns. His elbows feel stuck to the sticky surface. Scratched wood. Gritty. Someone had one too many sugary drinks. He looks at his screen. Screen gone dark. Unfinished message abandoned. Wonders if his phone is stuck too. “No. Why-”

 

“Well,” Jimin says. He sets his beer on the counter next to Taehyung’s. “You haven’t touched your beer. Which is fine but you ordered it. You haven’t moved from this chair since we got here even though you keep getting hit on because you’re wearing your hot nerd glasses. Hoseok’s pulled three people already.”

 

Taehyung rolls his eyes. Laughs, a gruff sound. “I’m not going to the clinic with him again if he thinks he’s gotten another UTI.”

 

“Aww. Of course you are.”

 

Taehyung sighs. “Of course I am.”

 

The high chair squeaks as Jimin sits. His knee brushes Taehyung’s. Stays. “Buddy. You’re not having any fun.”

 

Taehyung flips his phone over. It unsticks from the wood almost too easily. He asks, “You ever get tired of coming out with us? You’ve got yourself a girl. Kind of pointless. Going out. Doesn’t Sooyoung care?”

 

Jimin rolls his bottle between his palms. The glass rubs against the grain. “Maybe? Sure I get tired. But I like hanging out with you guys. I don’t really care what we do. I do like this.” He points around the bar. The warm tones. The hazy light. The friendly smiles on the bartenders’ faces. Even the music has this tinge of coziness. Intimacy. Taehyung doesn’t know why his lungs feel so tight tonight. Like the warmth is asphyxiating. Too much. “Meeting people. De-stressing. And yeah I’ve got a girl who’s an adjunct professor who gets stuck with only night classes so, no, she doesn’t care. She knows I’m gonna come home to her.”

 

“Wait. Are you guys-”

 

“Not yet. Not officially,” Jimin says, but his cheeks flush a little, and for the first time all night, the warmth doesn’t bother Taehyung as much. “Figuratively. What about you? Don’t you have a boy? A not-boy? Doesn’t he care?”

 

Under the soft lighting, the light cuts through Taehyung’s beer.

 

The rows of bottles on the wooden shelves on the back wall.

 

The back of his phone. Motionless. As Taehyung left it.  

 

Taehyung says, “No. He won’t.”

 

The corners of Jimin’s mouth tighten. His knee presses closer. “Tae?”

 

Taehyung grabs his beer. Holds it up to Jimin. “It’s been a long week. Let’s have some fun tonight, yeah? I don’t wanna go home yet. Promise we can eat shit and vegetate on the couch later.”

 

Jimin’s fingers tighten around his bottle.

 

Taehyung presses his knee back to Jimin’s. Doesn’t hide anything on his face. There’s no point. There’s never a point but especially not with Jimin.

 

Light breaks when Jimin clinks their beers together. When he smiles back at Taehyung.


  

*****



you

 

(hey-)

 

you

 

(did i do-)

 

you

 

(the special is quinoa salad today. the red kind you pretend you don’t li-)

 

you

 

(some kid hugged me so hard tonight i thought he’d cracked my chest. he really loves kumamon. says it reminds him of home. my chest still kinda hurts. the place where y-)

 

you

 

(there’s a band playing at el toro i think you’d like. do you even like bands? i have no idea. you never talk about them but i think you’d like these guys. they remind me of-)

 

you

 

(i think my mom loved my dad so much it hu-)

 

you

 

(my little sister’s name is junghw-)

 

you

 

(i think i might be a terrible so-)

 

you

 

(i think part of my dad loved my mom so much he couldn’t live with it. the shame. that the other part didn-)

 

you

 

(did i do-)

 

you

 

(hey-)



*****



“I gotta say, man. I was really surprised you called me.”

 

“I know it’s outta the blue b-”

 

“No, man. It’s okay. Seriously. But you sort of just disappeared. After you left the program. I kept waiting to hear from you. Wishing I would. I knew you were okay but, it’s not the same without you. The guys miss you too.”

 

“Come on. I’m sure better people have joined. More experience. Better schooling.”

 

“That’s all subjective. Sure, we got this guy from MIT now. Real genius. Like  level almost. More like Saha. Maybe Hynek. But, I don’t know, man. Don’t really know many people who can recreate space. I don’t think you ever really got it.”

 

“Got what?”

 

“That- oh. Do you need to get that? Go ahead. I don’t mind.”

 

Against the white table cloth, Taehyung’s phone vibrates. Face down.

 

His fingers flex. He touches the aluminum.

 

His chest doesn’t tug.

 

His chest-

 

“No.” Taehyung pushes the phone to the edge of his napkin near his glass. Pale amber liquid. Gold in the light. He says, “No. I don’t.” He looks across the table. Asks, “What didn’t I get?”

 

Across the table, he smiles. It’s the realest smile Taehyung has seen in a while. In a different way. A certain type of smile. A certain type of face.

 

“You were Hawkings. Sagan. If they weren’t just theorists. You made it real.”

 

Taehyung touches his beer. The cold glass.

 

“You turned reality into a dream. Made it feel like one. Not a lot people can do that.”

 

The lights in the restaurant are bright.

 

Taehyung does not squint.

 

The smile grows. “Most people?”

 

Most people-

 

“Most people get stuck on the dream.”



*****



Taehyung is half asleep when he hears it. Creeping into his half conscious.

 

He opens his eyes. Stares at his ceiling. Expanse of nothingness. White.

 

His phone buzzes. Rattles his nightstand.

 

Stops.

 

Taehyung stays very still. Closes his eyes.

 

The vibration picks up. He blinks back awake.

 

He breathes out. Leans over on his side. The bed creaks. He grabs the phone off his nightstand. Stares at the screen. His eyes hurt at the brightness. His thumb stalls over the notification.

 

Taehyung swipes at the screen.

 

His chest starts tugging. Has been for a while. Hasn’t really stopped. Not once.

 

If Taehyung is honest-

 

It’s never stopped.

 

 

jjk

 

hey

 

 

Taehyung breathes in.

 

His eyes feel too dry. He should put his glasses on. His contacts.

 

He brings his phone closer.

 

 

jjk

 

im not bailing

im not

i swer

i jus

need some time

 

 

Surprise punches Taehyung’s sleep addled brain.

 

It’s been days.

 

Weeks.

 

But.

 

Maybe sometimes days are just that. Days. Weeks. The summer between their junior and senior year, he and Jimin didn’t talk for sixteen days. The next time they did, Jimin had bitched him out. Had sent him scathing text after text, but five minutes later, a day, twenty, time, Jimin was over it. Taehyung was too. Like time had never happened.

 

He stares at the texts. At the way Jungkook writes not unlike he speaks. Brash. Eager. Somehow careful. Somehow not at all.

 

Maybe Taehyung has been a little hazy. Wondering. Maybe he was just too used to Jungkook texting him back. Texting him first. But Jungkook doesn’t owe him anything. Explanations. His time. If Jungkook wants time he can have it. All the time he wants. Needs.

 

Maybe a part of Taehyung didn’t get that. Maybe he hadn’t realized. That this is what Jungkook was trying to tell him. Without telling him.

 

Maybe Taehyung wants to believe that.

 

Needs to.

 

He presses his head into his pillow, the imprint his head has left.

 

He’d cracked a window earlier. Night heat seeps into the air. That one night was just an outlier. A last taste of L.A. winter.

 

He taps on the keyboard.

 

 

you

 

hey

it’s fine

you’re okay tho?

 

 

The bubbles pop up as soon as he sends the first text. Jungkook’s slew of texts pour in.

 

 

jjk

 

yeah

fine

im

fine

just

you know

im sorry

 

 

And maybe Taehyung doesn’t. Know. Not really. He stares at the sorry for a while. He goes a little cross eyed against the light. Fumbles for his glasses on the table, half folded over a book he’s forgotten to finish. Something about stars. The new ways they’ve found to identify them. Seek them out.

 

 

you

 

it’s all right

thanks for letting me know you’re okay

 

 

jjk

shit

fuck

i hadnt thought of that

that youd b worrying

i should have texted you before

but i didnt know what

how

to say

im sorry taehyung

 

 

Taehyung stares at the screen. He no longer has to squint but it still makes his eyes blink too often to read the words. He wonders what that says about him. About them. That Jungkook didn’t think. Didn’t know. That Taehyung would be wondering. Worrying.

 

The phone goes off. An almost desperate edge to how quickly the messages come in.

 

 

jjk

 

i dont know how long

or

i dont know

so

i get it

if you wont want to

talk to me

or like see me

after

i get it

i really do

but if you do

i just

need some space tae

just a little

 

 

And it’s funny. Almost. For the first time in Taehyung’s life, since he first looked up and saw, and knew, the last thing Taehyung wants is space. Even a little.

 

But this isn’t about what Taehyung wants.

 

And Taehyung doesn’t think about it. Anything. Just answers. Fingers sure. Not a single shake.

 

 

you

 

of course i’m gonna wanna see you

talk to you

take your time

just let me know when

if you’re ready

 

His phone stays silent. His thumbs tense. Touch the screen.

 

 

you

 

i meant it kook

whenever

take all the time you need

 

 

His phone stays still in his hand. The screen goes dark.

 

Taehyung falls asleep. Glasses on. Phone in his half curled hand.



*****



The sun pushes Taehyung out of sleep.

 

His alarm is going off.

 

He can’t remember what he dreamt last night.

 

On the screen of his blaring phone, there’s a notification. Two.

 

 

jjk

 

okay

 

Then,

 

jjk

 

thank you taehyung

 

 

Half asleep, Taehyung wants to tell him not to. Not to thank him. Not to thank Taehyung, anyone, for doing the barely decent thing. Respecting what he wants. Forgiving him when nothing he’s done warrants forgiveness. Not really.

 

But that’s not what Jungkook needs. Or wants. From him.

 

So Taehyung drops his phone on his bed.

 

Feet too warm as he walks out into his living room.

 

So Taehyung opens up the windows in the kitchen.

 

The coffee machine drips. Spits out its shitty coffee. Weak just the way Taehyung drinks it. Needs it.

 

So Taehyung stands at the sliding doors. His hands shake. He pushes them open anyway. Sits at his desk. The chair protests under his weight, unused to it. Scolds him for it. He moves the mouse. A thin film of dust kicks up.

 

The screen takes a second. Then some. Wakes up.

 

So all Taehyung sees is space.

 

He lets it run through his mind. For a moment. Sex. Love. Sex in the context of Jungkook. Love in the context of him. That what surprised Taehyung about what he said to Hoseok was that maybe he thought the first time he’d say it. Admit it. Jungkook. The word love without the word sex. The word sex in a different way. He hoped, he wanted, to be saying it to Jungkook. To have at least kissed his mouth again. That it wouldn’t make him ache to think about it anymore.

 

But it’s just for a moment.

 

Because that’s not what Jungkook needs right now.

 

And maybe.

 

It’s not what Taehyung needs either.

 

So Taehyung sits at his workstation and does what he needs to do and thinks about nothing except what he needs to be thinking about.

 

So Taehyung thinks about space.



*****   

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

*****

 

 

 

His hands ache.

 

The apartment is one big hum. Windows open, the sounds of the city float in. Horns blare. Motors burn. Wheels on pavement. Yells in languages he doesn’t understand. In languages he understands too well.

 

He leans forward. The chair creaks. It’s probably time for a new one but he likes this one. It’s familiar. Feels like it belongs. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Makes it feel like he’s the one who belongs.

 

Fingers steady, he connects two pieces of wire. Deft hands. Held breath. Waits.

 

He looks up.

 

The monitor blinks.

 

He looks down. At his hands. Up.

 

The lights, stubbornly, do not blink back.

 

Taehyung eases his hands. Leans away. The chair creaks again.

 

Light washes over the walls of the apartment. The sun hadn’t even risen when he started. Going by the heat sticking to his sides, the sounds, it’s around twelve. A little after.

 

He lets his head fall back. His drawing board takes up the far wall. Covers the frames hanging there, the old spot of water drainage that’s been there since he moved in. It’s all equations. Numbers. Infinities. Space. Time.

 

He looks down. Back. Wonders if he has an equation wrong. If he missed a step.

 

His stomach grumbles. It’s probably time for a break.

 

His head falls further back. His eyes roam. Pause on his coffee table. His old prototypes. Ripped up pieces of defunct machinery, motherboards, headsets, eyepieces, sensors. Unfinished ideas. Unfinished dreams. Unfinished realities.

 

He scratches his abdomen over his t-shirt. Lets out a yawn.

 

He thinks about it. The unfinished. Unfinished projects. Unfinished time. Unfinished love.

 

Unfinished life. If it’s a choice a person makes. If it happens to them. If they let it.

 

He thinks about his dad.

 

His phone vibrates on the desk. Hits itself against the computer mouse, insistent.

 

He thinks about how space itself is a thing unfinished. Ever expanding. Ever remaking itself. Destroying itself. Coming back to itself. Even if it turns out the universe isn’t infinite. Is finite. Has an end.

 

The idea of it. Of universe. Of space. Forever unfinished.

 

He picks up his phone. Smiles at the message.

 


ride and die shorty

i have the company card and two hours
can you meet at 1:30?
you can have the parrillada just for you

 


you

you’re not talking about Augusto’s are you?

 


He clicks on the computer screen. Drags the mouse around to rotate the projected model, the specific corner of the universe marked by its coordinates. By its stars.

 

His phone buzzes.

 


ride and die shorty

you mean the best argentine steakhouse outside of buenos aires?
uh yeah i am

 


you

jiminnie
you’ve never been to buenos aires
and man do you love me that much?

 


The reply is immediate.

 


ride and die shorty

someday
maybe i’ll retire there instead of busan. you’d come visit me, yeah, you punk?
and do you have to even ask?

 


The apartment hums.

 

Inside Taehyung’s chest is a buzz. A light.

 

He gets another text.

 


ride and die shorty

i love you the most, kim taehyung

 


The warmth inside the apartment spreads out in Taehyung’s chest. Settles there. Where it always is, really.

 

His stomach rumbles. It’ll take him a good half hour to get to Melrose. He clicks the mouse. Puts the computer to sleep. Quiets some of the hum.

 

He looks at his diagrams. White dotted lines over blue graphing paper. He wonders if space, if the universe, really is more physics than chemistry. How it’s all just numbers. Just time. He thinks about the unfinished love. About his dad. Thinks about Jimin. About people. How love isn’t really unfinished. How it’s like the universe. Expanding. Contracting. Transforming. A dead star is really just burnt matter. Energy for something, someone, else.

 

He thinks.

 

He goes up to the diagram. Picks up the white marking pen. Works for another half hour before he meets Jimin.

 

When he leaves the apartment, his hands ache.

 

It feels good.

 

 

 

                        *****

 

 

“Guess it’s true what they say.”

 

“About?”

 

“Guys with big feet.”

 

“Isn’t it big hands?”

 

“Big hands. Big feet. Big nose. And, oh damn, you have all three.”

 

Taehyung laughs. Ducks his head, chin grazing his collarbone. Because he’s reaching down for his t-shirt, bunched up at the end of the bed. Because he does know how it makes him look.

 

He pulls it over his head. Lets his hair, half sweat-damp, half dry, fall as it wants. Knows that looks good too.

 

The room is full of shaded light. Gauzy fabric hangs over light fixtures. It’s calm. Serene. Unintrusive. Invites Taehyung in with it instead of forcing it on him. To be calm. He feels welcomed by it.

 

Shadows skitter over the walls.

 

The dresser.

 

His hands when he zips up his jeans.

 

The stretch of her belly exposed by the twisted bed sheets.

 

Her smile.

 

Taehyung smiles back.

 

She says, “Thanks for rushing out while I’m still conscious. Most assholes sneak out while I’m asleep and leave my door unlocked.”

 

Taehyung grapples with the zipper. Pinches some of his boxers with it. Swears. “I-”

 

From the bed, she snorts. “Dude. I was kidding. The rushing out part, not the assholes. They seriously do that. Like I don’t live two minutes from Skid Row. Like, thanks for prioritizing your walk of shame over the chick you just fucked’s security. Did you zip up your junk?”

 

Taehyung pulls the zipper down slowly. Brings it back up. Tooth by tooth. He shakes his head. Laughs. “No.”

 

“Good,” she says, smile spreading just as slowly.

 

Her lips are the color of roses that have been left out in the sun. Sucked up all its heat. They’re on the thicker side. Swollen. Kiss bitten. Made that way by Taehyung’s mouth. Taehyung wonders if his looks the same.

 

Her eyes are lit up in the shadows and Taehyung feels sated, feels good, but heat warms the pit of his stomach. Burns at the memory of her mouth.

 

He sits on the bed to pull on his socks. Her sheets are soft. He says, “On behalf of all assholes everywhere, I’m sorry. And I don’t mean to rush out. I have this thing really early across town.”

 

“Dude,” she says. Again. She calls him that more than his name. Dude. “Chillax.” She pokes Taehyung’s side with her toes. They’re warm. Dig into his ribs. “Really. The only asshole thing about you is how honest you are.”

 

“Most people say it’s the worst thing an asshole can be. Honest.”

 

“Of course most people say that. Most people are assholes. They just don’t know it.”

 

She wiggles her eyebrows to get him to laugh. Succeeds. Pretty arches framing her prettier eyes. Green. She gets them from her mom. The opposite version of the way Junghwa got her’s.

 

Left sock on, Taehyung drops the right one to grab her shin. Her toes press in harder. She squawks when he grips her calf and puts an end to her tickling toes. His fingers sink into the warmth of her skin. Smooth. She’s got good legs. Strong and toned. She used to run track in college. Still runs now.

 

She lets out a breathless laugh. Doesn’t fight him. Seems content to lie there. In Taehyung’s hold. To let him touch her. Says, “We agreed anyway. No post-sex cuddle sleeping. Dumbest way to catch feelings.”

 

Her runs his thumb along the curve of her calf. Slow. “And feelings are the worst?”

 

She nods. “The worst.”

 

“But us playing tag frisbee in the park isn’t going to make any feelings be caught?”

 

“I’d play tag frisbee with my cheating douche canoe ex. All of them. I’d play it with my grandma and I can’t stand her. She always steals my purse mints.”

 

Taehyung laughs. He watches the shadows play over her. The curve of her arm. The waves of her hair across her pillow. Her eyes watching his hands.

 

He says, “Sometimes you can’t help it. The caught feelings. Most of the time you can’t.”

 

She shrugs. Extends her leg. Skims her toes up Taehyung’s chest. Her toenails are painted a deep matted blue.

 

Taehyung’s skin picks up in goosebumps wherever she touches him. The warmth ripples in the pit of his stomach.

 

“Then if it happens, it happens. Just because something is the worst doesn’t mean it’s bad, dude.” Her left eye creases when she grins like this. Sleepy. Honest. “You gotta go, then you gotta go, but-” She runs her heel in the soft part beneath his chest. Right over his abdomen. Tilts her head back. Taehyung wonders. If she knows how it makes her look. “Once more? Before you go? Go?”

 

Taehyung smiles. Catches her toes. “You keep calling me dude. Is that because you can’t remember my name among all the other dudes you’re sleeping with? And was that a Wham reference?”

 

She bends her knee back. Her grin is shadowed. Spread out. “Hell yeah that’s a Wham reference. And I totally remember your name. Taehyung. How’s my pronunciation?”

 

He follows her movement. The bed shifts under his re-added weight. His knees on the mattress. His hands on her calves. “A plus. Native almost.”

 

She laughs. Pulls the sheets away. He kisses the inside of her knee. She laughs again, raises her hands over head, presses them into her pillow. Sighs. “Better than you butchering my name. Make me sound like I’m named after a car. Is that because you can’t keep up with all the girls you’re sleeping with?”

 

Taehyung ducks his head. Smiles into her skin. “Not my fault your parents named you one letter off Mitsubishi.”

 

That gets him a head swat. He makes up for it. Kisses up between her legs. She tastes like sweat. Like her shower gel. Summery. Less fruits. More actual sea water. Salt. A different kind of ocean baby. He presses his mouth between her thighs, where she’s wet. All he tastes is her. And it isn’t all there is. It’s there. The sticky stuff no one likes to think about. The taste of latex from the condom. More sweat. The gross parts to some people. The technicalities of sex. Taehyung doesn’t mind them. They’re just a part of it. Come with it. Sex. And Taehyung likes it. Sex. The things that come with it too.

 

So Taehyung kisses her. There. Between her thighs, until she’s soaked, until his mouth is soaked too, until his ears are soaked with her sighs. Until it’s all he breathes in. Breathes it in just fine.

 

He fills his hands with her body. Her laugh.

 

His hands ache. His chests stays steady.

 

It feels good.

 

 

 

                         *****

 

 

“I think everyone has this moment. The one I just had.”

 

A throat clears.

 

“I just celebrated my first wedding anniversary and we found out a few weeks ago that we’re pregnant.”

 

A hand touches a shoulder. Soft smiles. Softer murmurs.

 

“And we were so happy. I was so happy. Did all the things you’re supposed to, you know? Call family. Friends. Let them know. But there was one person who was supposed to know.”

 

She takes a breath. Quiet. Touches her neck. The necklace above her collarbones.

 

“The first person most people tell after the other parent. And I couldn’t tell her.”

 

Chair legs squeak. The linoleum floor is shiny. Bright.

 

“I haven’t talked to my mom in five years. And somehow….”

 

Her voice cracks. Comes back the same way. Cracked.

 

“Somehow she was the first person I thought to tell. The first person I wanted to tell. Before my dad even. My dad who’s always been there. And I couldn’t tell her. Because I don’t talk to her anymore. I don’t even know if the number I have for her still works.”

 

She stops. Touches her necklace. Lets a breath out.

 

“And it made me so angry. And sad. That she’s the reason we don’t talk. And that’s the thing. My mom is her addiction to me. That’s what she’s always been to me.”

 

The room is silent. For a moment, it feels like no one is breathing.

 

Taehyung breathes in.

 

“But the thing I realized is. It doesn’t matter. That I have a husband who loves me and a great job and amazing friends who care. A dad who was there. A baby on the way. A family of my own. It doesn’t matter that I have a good life.”

 

She takes another breath.

 

“Because I’m not over it. Because I’m probably never going to be over it. Not because I’m a pessimist or think therapy or any sort of help doesn’t work. But because it’s a part of me. It’s a part of her. My mom is an addict. I grew up with it. Addiction. It’s a part of me too. And I can’t pretend like it isn’t. Because that gives it power too. Ignoring it.”

 

The room fills up. More soft murmurs. A few nods.

 

The circle of chairs is spaced out. Enough distance. The illusion of each person’s space. Like they’re not all sharing the same thing. Space. The kind of parents who brought them to this place, who made them seek it out, in the first place.

 

She’s sitting directly across from Taehyung. Hair curled and pinned back. Pearls around her neck. They catch the too bright light. Should hurt the eyes.

 

When she meets his gaze, across the space, Taehyung smiles. A soft curl of his mouth.

 

Through the murmurs, the brightness, she smiles back.

 

Taehyung breathes out.

 

Another throat clears.

 

At the head of the circle, his face is trusting. The kind you want to trust. Weathered lines. The kind of face that’s deserving of it. Trust. “What Alana just shared is a difficult thing to internalize. An honest one. It makes us think. Are people- are our parents -their addictions? Is it okay if they are? And is it okay if we think they aren’t?” He pauses. Gives his trusting face to each of them. “Would anyone else like to share?”

 

“I’m not my addictions.”

 

The focus shifts.



“And I’m definitely not my parents’ either. James, by the way,” he adds. Lifts his hand in a half hearted wave. There’s a simple band on the ring finger of his left hand. Silver. It pulls all the light in the room toward it. Taehyung watches him, listens to him, doesn’t feel the desire to look away. “For any of you who aren’t here every Saturday like I am.”

 

A few laughs come and go.

 

He sits with his back straight. Takes in the room. Lets the room take him in. “I’m an AA member as well as NA. They say like father like son? Sometimes it’s like mother like son too. I even like the same drugs she did. Is that the right word? Like? I think it’s need. But, yeah. Talk about the spitting image of your parents. However the phrase goes. You’re looking at him.”

 

Another laugh.

 

Taehyung is a little surprised. That it didn’t come from his own mouth.

 

“I used to think that too. That all my parents were was addiction. But then I became an addict. Maybe I was born one? Predestined for it. Vulnerable to it. Science can’t seem to make up its mind about that.”

 

Taehyung thinks about it. The science of it. Addiction. Nature versus nurture. Environment versus genetics. Maybe they’re all going about it the wrong way. Maybe it’s not about versus.

 

Maybe it’s all random. Already likely shots landing in the dark.

 

Through the window, the sun crawls over the floor. Spreads.

 

“But my point is. It made me understand. That the problem wasn’t me. That my parents acted like they didn’t care about me or like they didn’t love me because- Because the person they didn’t care about was themselves. The person they didn’t love was them. And that I could either let that kill me or accept it. Live with it. Learn to show the people I love that I love them. That I care. And that one of those people is me. Despite my addictions. That I deserve to love myself too.”

 

The person next to Taehyung shifts.

 

Someone rubs at their arms. The room is kept at a cool 66. A little chiller than the center Taehyung works at.

 

Under his collar, Taehyung feels just at the edge of cool. Just right.

 

He clears his throat. Twists the ring on his finger. Taehyung wonders how long he’s been married. How long he’s been in love. If his spouse understands him. It. Loves him despite the fact that they never will. Understand it. Him. All the parts of him.

 

The addict. The child of one. How similar they are. How they’re almost nothing alike.

 

What it means to be both.

 

“Hippy dippy bullshit but it’s the biggest thing addicts’ kids deal with. Or so they say. Self esteem? Not being able to love yourself because your addict parent didn’t. Not the right way. Didn’t teach you to. But I don’t think anyone is. Loved the right way. Taught to love themselves. There’s no right way, I don’t think. It’s not a list you can tick off. Everyone’s just trying. Most of us, anyway.”

 

This time, he’s the one who laughs. Breath of air.

 

“So am I my addictions? Are my parents theirs? Don’t know that either. It’s like the self-thought thing. Am I my thoughts? Or are they just that? My thoughts?”

 

He looks at her. Doesn’t seem blinded either. By the brightness. Her eyes. Her pearls.

 

“I don’t think it’s something we need to get over. Or should have to. It’s not our fault. It’s not...it’s not anyone’s fault. We just accept it. Move on. Realize it’s okay that we can’t always move on the way we want. Keep trying to. Even if we’re trying our whole lives. Find a way to live anyway.”

 

Through the brightness, she looks back.

 

Taehyung wonders. If they’ve all spent their lives looking at things that are too bright. Things they couldn’t properly see. If that’s why the brightness doesn’t hurt now. Why it never really hurts.

 

This time, when the question gets asked. 

 

This time, it’s Taehyung.

 

Who clears his throat.

 

Who looks.

 

Who lets himself be seen.

 

Who says, “Taehyung. That’s me. I’m Taehyung. And my father was an alcoholic. I’m an addict’s adult kid. And I guess that’s me too.”

 

He breathes in and the exhale comes out a little less easy. But it’s there. His lungs emptying. He inhales again. Looks to the head of the circle. Of the space. Shrugs.

 

“That’s all I have to share today.”

 

More murmurs.

 

More brightness.

 

Taehyung doesn’t look away.

 

He gets a smile. A nod. “Sometimes? That’s the only thing you have to.”

 

Then, “Anyone else?”

 

Taehyung smiles back.

 

He breathes.

 

And sometimes?

 

That’s enough too.

 

 

                          *****

 

 

It’s all about almonds here.

 

Chocolate covered. Salted. Smoked. Jalapeño hot.

 

The only stand out is a platter of croissants. Cheese between the bread. Whatever it is, Taehyung can smell it from here.

 

He nudges a bowl of spiced almonds out of the way. Thinks of the drought. Wonders if the croissants have any gluten. This community center is in a nicer neighborhood. Expensive cars in the parking lot. Trees dotting the sidewalk. Less mix of languages than Taehyung is used to. They seem to be the types to think that matters. Whether or not something has gluten.

 

Taehyung picks up a sandwich. Taehyung has never cared about gluten.

 

“Taehyung?”

 

Brie clings to the backs of Taehyung’s molars. He wipes a crumb from his face. Holds his hand out.

 

“Hey, Manuel. Thanks for today,” Taehyung says as they shake. He points with his croissant filled hand to the room.

 

“Of course. It’s been a while. I’m glad you’re here.”

 

“Yeah. It’s- I think I thought I was. Over it, you know? I’m glad I’m here too.”

 

Manuel picks up a handful of almonds. Salty-sweet.

 

The lines in his face become smothered in light when he smiles, half his face wrinkling. Like pressing your thumb into soft dough. The marks of age. Considering. Thoughtful.

 

“It’s one way to look at it. Like it’s something to get over. I think that’s why so many of us are so hung up. People in general, not just- us. The adult children of alcoholics. Kind of funny, if you ask me. We’re still considered kids but we weren’t ever really kids. Not the way most kids are, were we?”

 

Taehyung chews. Licks cheese from the roof of his mouth. He’s half thinking about the carbon footprint of the travel it takes to get brie to California. Half thinking about Manuel’s mom. How she was in her longest stint of rehab the last time Taehyung came to a meeting. Half thinking about his father. How rehab never seemed to come into the equation. How he seemed too functional for it.

 

But mostly, Taehyung is thinking about the kind of kid he was. Half shaped to be like his dad. Half molded to be like his father. Caught somewhere in between.

 

He wonders about the kind of adult he’s turned out to be.

 

The kid he still carries.

 

The man he is.

 

Manuel pops two almonds into his mouth. One dipped in chocolate. The other crusted in sea salt.

 

He says, “But the hang ups. Like life is just a bunch of stuff to get over. I don’t think that’s very helpful.”

 

Conversations floats around them. Around Taehyung.

 

He bites down on the flaky bread. It melts on his tongue.

 

Taehyung says, “I don’t either.”

 

He looks at the room. Shiny reflective floors. Bay style windows. They’re not too far from the beach. Taehyung can almost hear it. The ocean.

 

He asks, “So what’s the answer?” Even though. Taehyung already knows. Is beginning to.

 

Manuel knows this too.

 

He pulls a handkerchief from his pocket. The kind some men of a certain age still carry. Of a certain grace. He dabs at the edge of his mouth. Folds the handkerchief into a little square. Crunches another almond between his teeth.

 

“I like what Alana said. I like what James said. I even,” he pauses to look at Taehyung. To see him. “-like what you said too. I meant it. Sometimes you just need to say it. Sometimes you need to take the first step over and over again until you’re ready for the second step. Until you realize you’re never ready. And you take it anyway.”

 

Manuel doesn’t smile with his mouth. It gets caught up in his eyes. Lit up. It’s probably pure flowery bullshit. That thing people say. About the eyes being the windows to the soul or whatever. But eyes. They have a way of being honest when the rest of a face, a person, isn’t.

 

Taehyung thinks of his father’s eyes. Of his dad’s. How they looked when they said I love you. How looking back, if Taehyung is honest with himself, they always looked the same.

 

Taehyung prefers it. Being honest.

 

When he can.

 

When he’s ready for it.

 

A lot of the time, Taehyung is ready for it.

 

Manuel pockets his handkerchief.

 

He says, “My grandfather had this saying. Cada persona es un mundo. Every person is their own world. Everyone gets to reach their own answer. Whatever helps them cope. Live.”

 

Manuel eats the last almond. Wipes it on a paper napkin. Extends his hand.

 

When Taehyung grips it, he smiles.

 

“It’s really good to see you, Taehyung.”

 

Taehyung wonders. If the grandfather he doesn’t remember had a similar saying in a different language. Wisdom that comes with age.

 

Manuel’s hand is worn. Almost leather rough. The product of a certain kind of life. A certain kind of man.

 

Taehyung inhales. The exhale comes a little less easy. But he breathes. But he’s here.

 

Manuel grips his hand back.

 

And this too feels good.

 

“It’s really good to see you too.”

 

 

                        *****

 

 


The first time Taehyung got caught inside a wave, he was fifteen.

 

His instinct was to fight it. The water pummeling his skull. Filling his chest. His lungs. The weight of force. Of speed. Turning what was once pure lightness. Something he couldn’t cup in his hands for very long. Into heaviness. Something that could destroy beaches. Cities. The very ocean. In that moment, physicality didn’t matter. Physics itself didn’t matter. The how. The why. Mass by force by constantly growing speed.

 

Because the only thing that mattered was that Taehyung’s body thought it was drowning.

 

The strange thing was.

 

The weird thing was.

 

It was that thought.

 

That filtered moment of clarity. Through the kicking. The thrashing. The desperate stretch toward the surface just out of reach.

 

It was then that Taehyung realized.

 

That Taehyung was not his body.

 

Not just.

 

His limbs went lax the next second. Arms and legs loose. Hands and feet dead end weights.

 

Later, he’ll think about it. How he knew to do that. Instinct. Energy conservation. Reasoning. Logic. Taehyung didn’t always have a lot of it but when he did, Taehyung had it more than almost anyone. It was simple really. The water, the ocean, was more powerful than him. Bigger. Far more endless than Taehyung could ever think to be. Infinite in the way that humans had been explorers for milenia and knew more about outer space than their own water, had spent centuries discovering and killing themselves over and over again because somehow that was easier than figuring out the ocean. Seemingly infinite beast.

 

All Taehyung had to do was let go.

 

All Taehyung had to do was wait.

 

All Taehyung had to do was give in.

 

All Taehyung had to do was not fight.

 

All Taehyung had to do was wait.

 

He was above surface a few seconds later. Heaving gasp fulls of air fighting into his lungs. The swell lulled to tiny curls. His board floating a few meters away. His highschool best friend yelling his name. Asking if he was okay. If he wasn’t dead.

 

He was fifteen then.

 

Taehyung is twenty-seven now.

 

They call it catching a wave.

 

The foam is thick today. Sticks to Taehyung’s wetsuit. His lungs. His slicked back hair.

 

The water in Heavens beach is cold. That’s what all the other surfers have been saying all morning. Taehyung pretends it is. Cold.

 

It feels familiar.

 

It feels, almost, like home.

 

Taehyung blinks. Saltwater fills his eyes. The body of his board is too smooth against his chest. He over waxed earlier. He’s usually the other way around. Hesitant with it. Cautious. Just enough to keep his grip.

 

He doesn’t have much time to think about it.

 

He paddles with his hands. Empty grips of water. Feet picked up. Early morning sun burning at his nape.

 

He doesn’t have much time to think about it.

 

Because the wave is coming for him.

 

There’s always that split second. That moment. Before he catches the wave. Before the almost vertigo. The pop up.

 

That Taehyung realizes.

 

That everyone might be wrong.

 

 

 

                         *****

 

 

 


You ever wonder? Why we surf?

 

I almost just kind of died, Mickey. I don’t wanna get existential right now.

 

I know your dad is hellbent on you going to Columbia, but he really needs to stop force feeding you SAT prep books. You sound like a fucking asshole.

 

Hey-

 

I mean it. Like. You know how many people die every year surfing?

 

Come on, Mic. That’s like asking why people drive cars when there are so many accidents. You do it because you need to. You have to. You’ve been surfing your whole life, dude. Pretty sure you could surf before you could form an actual sentence.

 

Dick. And quit calling me dude. You sound like a poser.

 

I mean- yeah.

 

I know, but, like-

 

Why do you surf?

 

Taehyung-

 

I’m being serious. Why do you surf, Mickey?

 

Because. Because I can’t not. Because it’s the only time I’m actually inside my own head. It’s the only time I’m aware of it. Everything. Because it’s when I feel the most like me. Because I have to, Tae. Even if it kills me someday.

 

 

 

 

                         *****

 

 

 


It comes to Taehyung in waves.

 

His lack of speed.

 

How muted the sound is. The murmur from the beach. The deafening crash of the water. The crying gulls. All of it made soundless. Hushed.

 

That all his eyes can see is blue twisted green. Curling sprays of foam. Ripples.

 

That’s when he notices. When he looks up. That the top of the wave is barreling over his head. Closing him in. Cradling him close. In blue. In green. In the ocean.

 

They say it’s like seeing god. Riding inside a wave.

 

Taehyung doesn’t think he’s seeing god.

 

The truth is Taehyung doesn’t think.

 

Because the next second, the moment he realizes what’s happening, that he’s stumbled himself into the thing surfers painstakingly plan and dream about, the barrel is curling closed, Taehyung still caught inside it.

 

His board is swiped clean from under him.

 

Taehyung inhales, catches his breath right before the water pushes him over, under.

 

Taehyung blinks.

 

Water pushes at his head. His chest. The waves crash. Shade the sun. The picture perfect blue day. For a second, he can’t tell which way is up.

 

Bubbles escape his nose. His lungs squeeze. Warn him. That he needs to find it. Up.

 

He feels it now. How cold the water is.

 

Something shifts. The sun. The waves. Taehyung’s body. The light clears and the water is blue green bright again. All around him.

 

Then, Taehyung remembers.

 

Then, Taehyung looks up.

 

When he breaks the surface, hair plastered over his eyes, lungs shaking, the sound slams back into Taehyung’s head.

 

The screams from the beach. The gulls flying ahead. The distant sounds of the city.

 

Someone calling his name.

 

He blinks.

 

“You alright there, Tae?”

 

“Yeah, he’s fine. Look at him! Just fucking barreled like it was nothing.”

 

“Right before he fucking ate it! Aces before you got knocked over though. Beautiful fucking thing if I’ve ever seen it.”

 

Taehyung blinks again.

 

His board, flipped over so the fin bobs on the flat surface, is a few meters away. Like nothing happened. Like it’s waiting for Taehyung and is wondering where he went. Taehyung had been expecting to find it halfway across the beach. In tatters maybe, half its body missing. He smiles.

 

He shakes his hair out, water drops flicking everywhere. Skipping over the gently curling waves.

 

Taehyung’s surfboard floats.

 

Waits.

 

He swims towards it, hands smacking on its slick surface as he pushes it right side up. Climbs back on. Settles his weight over it, legs dangling on either side.

 

Water rushes. Spraying foams of white.

 

Someone asks, “You had enough? The swell’s killer today, man.”

 

Taehyung doesn’t really know them. They’re just the guys he surfs with sometimes. The ones who are always here. If Heavens was anything like Lunada, was the kind of beach that inspired a gang, these guys would be it. The friendly version. The kind type, maybe.

 

Taehyung looks toward the shoreline. It’s an early Thursday. Not too crowded. He could lay himself out. Catch some sun. Bronze his already permanently summer soaked skin. He thinks it’s kind of funny. When people get shocked he isn’t from California. When they find out where he’s actually from. When they realize Taehyung is not a sun kissed surf baby.

 

Taehyung let’s himself float for a moment. Looks up. That placid baby blue.

 

It’s kind of perfect that way. This beach’s name.

 

Heavens.

 

Taehyung’s hands find the water.

 

The shoreline is calm. Peaceful. Easy.

 

Taehyung paddles towards the swell. The lip of the open ocean.

 

He doesn’t think about seeing god.

 

He doesn’t think about much of anything.

 

There’s another wave coming and the only thing Taehyung thinks of is that everyone might be wrong.

 

It isn’t the surfer who catches the wave.

 

It isn’t the surfer and Taehyung wants to be caught.

 

By the time he lines up for his next wave, sun beating his head as hard as the waves just did, the ache in Taehyung’s hands is a beating pulse.

 

It feels really fucking good.

 

 

 

                        *****

 

 

 

It isn’t a hum here.

 

It’s a growl.

 

Everything is glass.

 

Exposed.

 

It’s all about space except there isn’t any. Space.

 

“Well. What do you think?”

 

They’re in the detox room. Not Taehyung’s term. Mark’s. It’s a clean space. A room that breathes.

 

Everywhere Taehyung turns, green.

 

He thinks they should have called it The Garden. That’s what it is. He wonders why hide it. Why dress it up. He rather call things by their name.

 

As they are.

 

But he guesses it makes sense too. A space away from all the machines. The glass. The growl. The seemingly toxic. Everyone needs something to clean themselves out. A space. Even if it is just a room full of plants. A man made garden.

 

When Taehyung needs it, he goes outside his apartment. Shuts the sliding doors. Quiets the hum.

 

He reaches for a leaf. The edges are spindly. Look like they could cut. He says, “It looks amazing. You guys have grown a lot in the last few years.”

 

It gets him a sigh. A little exasperated. Mostly fond. Familiar. It gives Taehyung pause. It shouldn’t. He hasn’t seen Mark in years but some friendships are like this. Some people are. Like time doesn’t pass between you. Not because both of you haven’t grown but, because in the time apart, you have, in similarly distant directions.

 

Mark half grins, eyebrow cocked. “That’s not what I’m asking.”

 

Taehyung resists the urge to cock his brow back. He knows what Mark is asking. Why he was just given a tour of the floor. The simulation rooms. The development lab. The monster computers spitting out model after model.

 

He asks, “Can I ask you something?”

 

Mark nods. Isn’t thrown. It’s weirdly comforting. That he’s the still the guy Taehyung remembers from his junior year computational mechanics course. From his first PhD seminar. Cool as a cucumber Mark. Almost nothing ever threw him. Not the girl he wanted to marry cheating on him. Not almost failing linear systems. It was the little things that pissed Mark off. Stupid shit that got his blood boiling. A little too close to throwing his laptop at whoever was making him angry.

 

Taehyung could always relate even if his anger was the opposite. Is the opposite. It’s always the big things with Taehyung. Maybe that’s why he’s always loved space. The universe. The things bigger than him.

 

He asks, “Why Los Angeles? We talked about it before. Moving the lab up to Palo Alto. San Francisco. Pasadena. Even upstate New York would make more sense for you guys. Closer to the bigger tech centers. Nobody comes to Los Angeles for the latest in pseudo space adventure. Unless you’re Elon Musk.”

 

Mark snorts. “Fuck Elon Musk.” He leans on the glass wall. Green surrounds him. Makes him look like something very much in time. In the now. “I don’t know, man. Why not Los Angeles? I always wanted to be here. Even before I moved here. I’ve never truly wanted anywhere else. I love this city. In all it’s hellishness. The grants are willing to pay for it, why fuck off to anywhere else?”

 

He looks at Taehyung for a moment. Green light glints off his jaw.

 

Taehyung lets the plant go. Breathes in.

 

Mark asks, “Shouldn’t I be asking you that? Why Los Angeles? Why UCLA? You’re the one who got into Berkeley. Fucking Stanford. Why’d you come down here instead?”

 

Taehyung wonders if it’s odd. That they never talked about it back then. During college. During the summer after they graduated. During that half hearted vending machine lunch they shared outside of a lecture hall and Mark started spewing about being sick of graduate school and they’d barely started, how fucked up the education system was, how he was going to end up buried under someone else’s research or working at some r&d lab making some rich fuck richer. During that poke bowl dinner a few weeks later where Mark asked what Taehyung thought of Mark being that rich fuck. Minus the rich part.

 

Through the glass, Taehyung can see the expanse of the labs. The interconnecting rooms. Trial and error. Trying to take what little people know about space. Make it real. Make people be able to feel it. It should have surprised Taehyung back then. That there was someone else, a few someone else's, who wanted what he did. The universe. To try and see if they could make people feel what it might feel like if people could breathe in it. The universe. Make people imagine they could.

 

It should have surprised Taehyung but it didn’t.

 

In the end, that’s what everyone wants.

 

To come home.

 

To find the place they came from.

 

It’s why, already five times now, Taehyung has gone back to Daegu.

 

It’s why, one day, when the plan allows it, Jimin will go back to Busan.

 

It’s why, one day, when he’s ready, Taehyung will go back to New York.

 

At their essence, if they’re honest, everyone wants home. Everyone wants the universe.

 

Because maybe everyone is a little strange.

 

A little weird.

 

They have to be. Space, the universe, with all its mysteries and intricacies, it’s unknowability.

 

The universe is pretty fucking weird.

 

It only makes sense then. That people are too. Even if they don’t realize it. Want to admit it.

 

Taehyung says, “Because I knew if I went to an engineering school, that’s what I’d do. Be an engineer. And I didn’t want to be an engineer.”

 

Mark’s grin widens. “So you decided to become a design focused astrophysicist cosmology inclined developer who knows too much about engineering anyway?”

 

Taehyung shrugs. “Seemed a good thing to be at the time.”

 

Mark asks, “How’s it seem now?”

 

Taehyung looks at the green.

 

The garden.

 

At Mark.

 

His chest stays steady but his hands.

 

They ache.

 

Taehyung grins.

 

Thinks.

 

Feels.

 

Says, “Good. I think. Yeah. I think it seems good.”

 

 

 

                         *****

 

 

 

“What about him?”

 

“Oh. Totally.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Fuck yeah. He keeps fidgeting when he looks away. Clear sign of a double life. Look at his watch. It doesn’t fit him. Gift from his sugar daddy who obviously doesn’t know his taste that well.”

 

“Huh.”

 

“I’m right, man. I swear it. I am.”

 

“Maybe his sugar daddy should talk to Seokjin.”

 

The pause is heavy.

 

Taehyung bites his lip. Uses his foot to push up off the floor. Keep the hammock swinging.

 

Yoongi says, “Why.”

 

“I mean. Seokjin knows your taste to a t. He could probably give him a few pointers. How to be the model sugar daddy.”

 

Yoongi might have the shortest legs of them. Might move around the least. And he and Taehyung might be twenty-seven. Might be on the south side of too old. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t try to push Taehyung off the hammock. That doesn’t mean his legs don’t pack a mean punch.

 

“Fuck you,” Yoongi grumbles as Taehyung hacks up a lung laughing, fingers grappling with the fabric of the hammock, body twisted, hanging off the edge.

 

Taehyung just laughs. Hacks up his other lung. He lies down again when Yoongi stops trying to push him over.

 

He goes back to swinging the hammock, knee bent. This mollifies Yoongi. Some. Makes the breeze curl through his hair. Taehyung would feel bad about the noise, the ruckus, but the pool area of Yoongi and Seokjin’s apartment complex isn’t busy for a Tuesday. Just a dad and his kids. A woman is sun tanning. A few college aged students in the jaccuzi. The couple Yoongi was just analyzing. It’s about the only thing Yoongi uses his sociology degree for. Fake psychoanalyzing people. Observing them. Finding patterns of behavior. Relating them to how society has pressured them to make them work. The world is Min Yoongi’s never ending case study.

 

Usually, they’re high when they do this. Taehyung pointing out people. Yoongi classifying their behavior. Weaving stories about them. Reasons they seem to act the way they do.

 

Today it’s just them. Just Taehyung and Yoongi and the breeze. The lapping water of the pool. Yoongi’s pale arms taking in sun. Taehyung’s long leg swinging them rhythmically, Yoongi lulled by Taehyung’s motions.

 

Today, it’s just them.

 

“You seem happy lately.”

 

Taehyung’s foot skids tile.

 

A moment.

 

He pushes off from his heel.

 

The hammock swings.

 

He asks, “I do?”

 

“Yeah.” Yoongi’s eyes are closed. Face open to the heat. He’ll start to pink soon. Despite being from Florida, being used to too much deathly sun, Yoongi has never been much of a beach baby. “Yeah,” Yoongi repeats. “For a while there. But, lately, it’s like you’re lighter. A different kind of happy.”

 

Taehyung says, “I thought emotions were fleeting. Don’t get stuck on trying to be one?”

 

“Yeah. But sometimes you just are one. And you just seem it. Lately. Happy.”

 

“That’s seems very anti-actualized. The opposite of what you said you learned through meditation.

 

“I’m trying to ask you how you are, dickface.”

 

Taehyung pokes Yoongi with his foot. Keeps them swinging with the other.

 

The breeze sweeps over Yoongi’s eyelashes. His pink face. The moment he opens his eyes.

 

Yoongi looks at him.

 

Taehyung smiles. “You can ask me, man.”

 

Form the pool, the diving board springs creak.

 

“You haven’t mentioned him in a while. The reason you’re fucked. And you seem happy. But I know you. And you haven’t mentioned him.”

 

A body hits the water.

 

The splash is loud.

 

Clean.

 

Taehyung’s chest is steady.

 

He looks at Yoongi.

 

Taehyung doesn’t think.

 

Just says, “He asked me for space. So that’s what I‘m trying to give him. Space.”

 

“And you’re okay with that?”

 

“Am I not supposed to be?”

 

“You can be. If that’s what you are. Not okay.”

 

It’s the careful way Yoongi says it. The lack of judgement. Of pity. Just a reminder. Just in case Taehyung has forgotten.

 

Taehyung’s chest bleeds warmth.

 

Still is when he says, just as carefully, “I know, Yoon. And, yes, I’m.” He stops. Makes himself keep looking at Yoongi. Doesn’t find it any harder to breathe. It’s just Yoongi. Just Taehyung and Yoongi and the breeze. “I miss him. I still. I still feel the same. And yeah, it. It’s hard. Sometimes. A lot of the times. But.”

 

Taehyung wonders about it.

 

What it means.

 

To be okay.

 

If it’s okay if every person has their own definition of it.

 

Of love.

 

Of home.

 

Of the way they move on.

 

Of trying.

 

If it’s okay that it never looks the way some people expect. The way they want. Need.

 

Because home isn’t the same to any two people.

 

Not even if they grew up with the same parents. The same love. The same house.

 

Because even in the mess of the universe. The ordered chaos. In the millions of billions of trillions of stars. No two stars are exactly the same.

 

Taehyung thinks it might be.

 

Okay.

 

Thinks it kind of has to be.

 

He doesn’t try to find the words. He doesn’t try to make Yoongi understand. Just says them as they come to him. Just hopes Yoongi understands regardless. “Life didn’t stop either. My life didn’t. I’m not trying to be happy right now. I’m just trying. In general. Maybe that’s what happy is. You know me. Said so yourself. I couldn’t fake an emotion if it paid me. So if I seem happy. I guess. Yeah. I’m happy. It means I’m happy right now.”

 

Another splash. This time someone cannonballing.

 

The breeze sits between them. The words.

 

Taehyung thinks about it. Him. Jungkook. It’s not that he hasn’t been letting himself lately or hasn’t been at all.

 

It’s just.

 

There isn’t much to think about.

 

Really.

 

All there is to Taehyung is space.

 

In the sunny breeze, Yoongi’s face doesn’t give anything away.

 

He looks at Taehyung calmly. Looks at him in pink.

 

Taehyung wonders what it means. That he thinks of pink and it doesn’t hurt. Doesn’t send his chest spiraling.

 

He thinks that might be okay too.

 

Yoongi says, “But you found the one. Your soulmate, like you’ve always said. And you’re not heartbroken he doesn’t want to be with you?”

 

Taehyung doesn’t flinch. Someone else might. But not Taehyung. That’s just Yoongi. Doesn’t mean to hurt. To cut. But he doesn’t have time for bullshit. He chooses his words but he’s blunt. Says what he means. Even if it cuts.

 

Taehyung picks his foot up. Knee bent. The hammock glides back and forth, hinges on the bars holding it up squeaking. Taehyung’s board shorts slide up his thighs. Take in the sun.

 

He says, “But he’s not the one.”

 

Yoongi blinks.

 

He scratches at his sun grazed nose. They really need to go soon. Out of the sun. For Seokjin’s sake who’s going to have to deal with a sunburnt Yoongi more than for Yoongi himself.

 

Yoongi blinks some more.

 

Taehyung waits.

 

Yoongi blinks one last time. His voice is strung out when he says, “The fuck? I thought he was your fucking soulmate.”

 

Taehyung doesn’t think. It doesn’t hurt when he says, “He is.”

 

Yoongi curses some more.

 

It shouldn’t make Taehyung laugh but it does. Technically, most people would think Taehyung shouldn’t be able to. Laugh. Smile. Be happy. His soulmate doesn’t want to be with him. It should be a soul crushing heartbreaking thing.

 

It should be.

 

A part of it is.

 

But another part. The bigger part.

 

The part about hearts.

 

Hearts are star stuff. Universe stuff. And the universe is very good at making itself over again. At birthing itself out of the chaos. Explosions. Out of stars that have burnt out and into something else.

 

Yoongi shifts onto his side. Shields himself with the flap of the hammock, woven red fabric. His arms are a little pink too. “I don’t get it. How is your soulmate not the one?” 

 

“Not much to get,” Taehyung says. He stretches his leg out, presses his heel onto the hot tile. Hinges squeak. Taehyung’s voice is steady. Like his chest. Like his thoughts. It’s just Yoongi. Even if he doesn’t get it. The soulmate thing. Even if Yoongi never fucking gets it. Yoongi gets the thing that matters. Yoongi gets Taehyung. “The soulmate thing. I always thought it’d be the person I’d feel connected with. Automatic. Like a flash. The lightbulb going on. That I’d look at them and know. And he was -is- that, but that doesn’t make him the one. I don’t think there is a one. I don’t think we’re built that way.”

 

He thinks of his parents. Thinks of Dan. Thinks of his sister’s baby blue eyes. How smart she is. How beautiful she is. How one day she’s gonna light the world on fire and put it back together. See it through its rebirth.

 

And maybe soulmates are a thing. In actuality. Just to Taehyung. Secretly, in the darkest parts of their hearts, to everyone.

 

But having someone as a soulmate. Believing they are. That doesn’t mean he can’t love other people. A lot of other people. In different ways.

 

“I think by soulmate, I just meant the person I was always supposed be with. Why no one else made exact sense. But. I’m starting to think there aren’t supposed to’s. I think the universe might be too big for supposed to’s.”

 

In a way, it’s never made sense. That someone like Taehyung would believe in it. Soulmates.

 

In another way, it’s the only thing that's ever made sense.

 

The thought that a long time ago. A nebula caved. Made a star. And then that star fell apart. Half of it exploding into another star. The rest of it crash landing into the earth. And it made Taehyung.

 

That some time later, that other star destroyed itself. Fell to the earth too. And it made someone else.

 

If it’s one thing Yoongi doesn’t care about it’s space stuff. The universe. Yoongi’s never really given a shit about it. It’s the other reason he quit meditating. Yoga. All the universe bullshit. Yoongi doesn’t have a lot of time for it. Bullshit. “So you don’t care? If he never wants to be with you? If all he ever wants from you is space?”

 

It makes Taehyung smile. How almost sad Yoongi sounds about it.

 

Yoongi, who calls soulmates bullshit.

 

Who has one and doesn’t even know it.

 

Doesn’t really care as long as he’s his.

 

“Of course I care. But life goes on. I’m not gonna fall apart because I’m not what he needs. Right now. Or ever. I’m not.”

 

Maybe someone else would. A lot of someone else’s. But Taehyung didn’t. Won’t. Because maybe Taehyung just isn’t built that way. Because maybe Taehyung lost the worst thing a boy, an almost man, can lose. His dad. His father. And he fell apart then. But then he put himself back together. Is still in the process of it. Putting himself back together. Might be doing it for the rest of his life.

 

And Taehyung might have aching dirty hands.

 

But.

 

But those aching dirty hands.

 

But Taehyung.

 

But Taehyung is made of earth stuff and all earth stuff really is just star stuff.

 

The stuff of stars.

 

Universe stuff and nothing is stronger, is better at making itself again, than the universe.

 

The breeze runs through Taehyung’s hair. Ruffles his board shorts. Taehyung feels it. The warmth from Yoongi’s eyes. Feels it everywhere.

 

Taehyung says, “I don’t want to be with him if I’m not what he needs.”

 

And maybe that hurts.

 

But maybe, sometimes, it’s supposed to.

 

Yoongi asks, “But what about what you need?”

 

“But that’s the thing,” Taehyung says and it’s always that. The thing of it. The sticky in between. The truth that feels like a lie because people don’t want to see it. Because they want it to be the lie. “If I’m not what he needs, then that means he’s not what I need either. And that’s okay.”

 

Or maybe Taehyung just hopes it is. Needs it to be.

 

And because Yoongi really does get him, knows Taehyung even when he doesn’t, asks, “Is it?”

 

Taehyung smiles. Means it. Wants to. Hopes he does. If not today then tomorrow. The next day. Some day. He’s going to try. Until he means it with every aching bone in his body. “I fucking hope so, man. I don’t know. I don’t think anyone does. I’m trying to make it okay. I think that’s all I can do. All anyone can do.”

 

Water breaks.

 

One of the little girls yells for her dad. He cheers her on. Picks her up when she finishes a lap, pool water wetting his t-shirt, his soon to be wrinkled face bright in the sun.

 

For a long breathless moment, for a forever, Yoongi just looks at Taehyung.

 

Then his mouth twitches. His chest follows. Until all of Yoongi is twitching, the hammock shaking with him, Taehyung’s foot dangling over the edge as they rock.

 

“Oh, man. Oh fuck,” Yoongi breathes out when he gets his voice under control. A few more laughs break out. His eyes are wet.

 

Taehyung wonders if he should be offended but. It’s Yoongi.

 

Yoongi heaves a sigh. He shakes his head. Shakes at the sun. “You and Seokjin and your zen love bullshit. You two assholes are the same.”

 

Taehyung’s heard this one before. Still, he edges Yoongi on. “Thought I was the sappy unrealistic romantic who romanticized the fake concept of soulmates?”

 

“Nah,” Yoongi says. He kicks at Taehyung’s idle leg. Knocks their feet together. Even Yoongi’s toes look pinkish. They always get like this. In too much sun. Taehyung can feel the smile curling his face, wonders how silly it looks, and it’s in this tiny moment, this soundless non-thing, that Taehyung knows this about Yoongi, about Yoongi’s goddamn toes, because he’s known Yoongi for ten years. Because Yoongi, Yoongi’s friendship, is Taehyung’s, and in this moment Taehyung loves Yoongi so much it hurts. How loving Yoongi doesn’t hurt at all.

 

“You’re even zen Buddhist about that. Every relationship you’ve ever had ended because you could never really commit because you swore they weren’t your soulmate. And then you meet them, your fucking soulmate, and he fucks off and you accept it. You’re okay. When most people would fall the fuck apart,” Yoongi says before he starts laughing again.

 

Taehyung half smiles. It’s not him Yoongi’s laughing at. He’s not sure what it is but he knows that much. Thinks it might be the universe Yoongi is laughing at. He doesn’t think the universe would be offended either.

 

Mostly dark matter. All gas matter. At its essence. If Taehyung thinks about it, the universe is pretty hilarious.

 

Yoongi sighs. The movement has rolled him closer, his head leaned on Taehyung’s shoulder. Even lying down, he’s the perfect height. To tuck himself into Taehyung’s side. To chuckle against Taehyung’s sun hot sleeve. Yoongi headbuts the bony hinge of Taehyung’s upper arm. Says, “You and Seokjin? Two peas in a zen buddhist pod.”

 

Taehyung headbuts Yoongi back. Digs his chin into his soft hair. Yoongi smells like drug store apple shampoo. Like the bergamot candles Seokjin likes to burn. Like the last bit of Hoseok’s hash.

 

Quietly, Yoongi says, “Sometimes I think I’d die if he left me.”

 

Taehyung’s heart twists. His chest doesn’t move but his heart squeezes. It’s strange. How you can feel someone else’s pain like your own. The idea of it. The possibility of it.

 

He nuzzles his chin into Yoongi’s hair. Makes the hammock sway. Watches the dad beam at his little girl, the pool glimmering.

 

“I know I won’t. I know. And I’m better about it. About everything. Us. Our relationship. It’s good. We’re good. But sometimes I don’t think I’d be very good at not being with him. Not like you are.”

 

Taehyung wonders. How good he is at it. He hasn’t had to be without Jungkook for very long. Was never really with him in the first place.

 

He wonders how long it took his mom. To be good at not being with Taehyung’s father. To be good with Dan.

 

If it’s still hard sometimes. Not being with Taehyung’s dad.

 

Taehyung says, “Seokjin loves you.” Because the only bullshit Yoongi ever has time for is his own. Because sometimes Yoongi needs a reminder too.

 

“I know,” Yoongi says and his voice doesn’t waver. Doesn’t hesitate. Says it like what it is. Truth. “I know. But I know he won’t die without me. And most days that’s okay. That’s good. It’s so fucking good. I never want him to fall apart. I never want him to hurt like that. But other days. Other days it’s not.” Yoongi chuckles. Choked. “Makes me a fucking asshole or what?”

 

“I think it just makes you human, Yoongi. Besides, haven’t you heard? We’re all fucking assholes.”

 

He thinks of Mitzuki. Wonders what she’s doing. The cool shadowed shade of her room. He likes thinking about her when he isn’t with her. Even if he’s with someone else. Even if she is. It feels good, and like not believing in supposed to’s, Taehyung is learning that sometimes it’s good.

 

To feel good.

 

Yoongi exhales. Warm breath over Taehyung’s collarbone. “Even Seokjin?”

 

“Even Seokjin.”

 

“Even you?”

 

He grins into Yoongi’s hair. “Especially me.”

 

Taehyung thinks he might be the worst kind of all. The kind who knows. Who doesn’t fall apart. That even if he wakes up tomorrow and comes to sobbing shaking pieces as the sun rises, Taehyung knows. That he can put himself back together. That he’s done it before. That he’s never really stopped.

 

Yoongi says, “He wants to go back home for Christmas. He’s looking at tickets already.”

 

Taehyung hums. Thinks of home. “You wanna spend December over there? It gets really cold in Seoul in winter. You’ve only gone in summer.”

 

“As cold as New York?”

 

Taehyung thinks on it. The last Christmas he spent in Seoul. The last one he spent in Manhattan. Says, “It’s a different kind of cold.”

 

Yoongi shrugs. “Don’t really care where we spend it. Long as it’s not fucking Florida.”

 

“Fucking Florida.”

 

Yoongi asks, “You ever think about it?”

 

“About what?”

 

“The kind of life you’d had, or the kind of person you’d be, if your parents had never left Daegu?”

 

Taehyung says, “All the time.” He pauses. Holds a fist up between them. “But?”

 

Yoongi brings his own fist up. Asks, “Daegu forever?”

 

Because it doesn’t matters that Yoongi wasn’t born there.

 

Because it doesn’t matter that Taehyung left when he was two. Got dragged halfway across the world. Dragged himself across it almost sixteen years later.

 

It doesn’t matter.

 

Because they’ll always belong to Daegu.

 

Because in belonging to Daegu, they belong to each other.

 

Taehyung bumps his fist against Yoongi’s.

 

Taehyung says, “Daegu forever.”

 

His foot aches.

 

And that too feels more than good.

 

 

                         *****

 

 

They start getting the blue frosted cupcakes at the center again.

 

Taehyung puts a post-it note on them. Sets them aside. For Tuesday. For 10 a.m.

 

It’s Thursday.

 

He grabs a box of donuts.

 

His hands do not shake.

 

It’s Thursday.

 

Fatty sugar to replace the ache for a bottle. For the bitterness going down a throat. A heart.

 

It’s Thursday.

 

But Taehyung’s hands do not shake.

 

And that.

 

That feels good too. 

 

 

 

                        *****

 

 

Tonight, the club is packed.

 

Tonight, someone is making at eyes at Taehyung.

 

The lights pulse to the beat. To the bass. To the thumping in Taehyung’s chest.

 

Tonight, Taehyung wanted a drink.

 

He’d sat at the bar.

 

Curled his fingers around the glass.

 

Amber liquid.

 

Brighter than the lights.

 

Dead star stuff.

 

Tonight, Taehyung didn’t want to want a drink.

 

He wonders if his glass is still sitting there.

 

Watered down.

 

Warm.

 

He wonders.

 

Doesn’t move.

 

Tonight, he stands in the middle of the club. Where the music hits him in the face. Where the bass booms.

 

Tonight, he lets someone make eyes at him.

 

Tonight, he doesn’t drink.

 

Tonight, the bass melts over him. Floats around him. Fills his chest. Fills his everywhere.

 

Tonight, everything aches.

 

Tonight, Taehyung feels good.

 

 

 

                           *****

 

 

 

He goes home alone.

 

The beat follows him all the way into his apartment, into his bed. 

 

Into his dreams.

 

In the morning, he sits at his desk. Works with the beat still playing in his head until the ache in his hands tells him it’s time to stop.

 

He stops when it no longer feels good.

 

 

 

                         *****

 

 

“So.”

 

“So?”

 

“What’s she like?”

 

“Who?”

 

“The girl you’re in love with.”

 

Night sounds fill the room. The windows are open. It’s past midnight but the heat is palpable. It’s too early in the year for it to be this hot but the heat two blocks from Skid Row feels hotter, like the city muck attracts more heat, more sun, hoards it greedily. It probably is too hot to be this close to Skid Row. For having sex this close to Skid Row.

 

Taehyung presses his sweaty head into the pillow. He usually doesn’t stay this late. Doesn’t mind a later trek home. Even this close to Skid Row. But he wants her to get her sleep. Doesn’t want her to have to wait up. To make sure her door is locked. Doesn’t mind being an asshole but not that kind. The thoughtless kind.

 

Taehyung puts a lot of thought into it. His asshole-ness.

 

He watches the shadows touch her face.

 

Asks, “What makes you think I’m in love?”

 

“Honestly? I’m totally pulling it out of my ass but also power of deduction. Guy your age. Looks the way you do. Isn’t a terrible piece of garbage. Is actually a seemingly decent human person. But he still fucks twenty-three year olds? And isn’t a dick about it? You don’t still live with your parents so you’re obviously a semi-functioning adult. So either you’re a douchebag in hiding and I’m gonna be disappointed at some point or you’re in love with someone and can’t do anything about it.”

 

It’d be easy to say.

 

That she’s watched too many dramas.

 

Read too many novels.

 

Streamed too many offbeat non-romantic not-comedies about coming of age.

 

But the silence feels stunned. Taehyung feels it too. How transparent he is. To her.

 

He says, “I don’t fall in love with girls anymore.”

 

Her brows furrow.

 

There’s a mark on her neck from Taehyung’s mouth. It hits him then. What a boyish thing to do that is. To mark someone. How most men never grow out of it.

 

How he still hasn’t.

 

“I mean. I do with women. But not girls. Or boys. But with men.”

 

“Aren’t you just getting too semantical about it?”

 

Taehyung thinks maybe.

 

Wonders if she thinks of herself as a woman. A girl. Something in between.

 

He asks, “What makes you so sure it’s a woman? Why not a man?”

 

“Huh.” She clicks her tongue. She plays with a loose thread in her t-shirt. A faded baseball team logo stretches across the front. Taehyung wonders if it belonged to an ex. A friend. Someone she was in love with once. Is still a little in love with years later. She shrugs. “Don’t know. Guess I figured you’d be with him if it were another dude.”

 

Taehyung doesn’t ask why.

 

Her eyes catch the light. She sighs. Pushes the sheets down with her feet. “So. Can I ask?”

 

“Sure,” Taehyung answers without thinking what he’s saying yes to.

 

She looks at him. Her hair frizzes a little in the heat. Taehyung wonders if she gets it from her mom. The way she got her eyes. He wants to reach out. Smooth it with his fingers. Not for any reason in particular. Because he wants to. Because he knows she’d let him and not think too much about it. What it means. What it doesn’t.

 

He wonders if that makes him an asshole too.

 

She says, “So. What’s he like?”

 

He asks, “Why do you want to know?”

 

He hopes his voice doesn’t sound harsh. Brusque. Hopes it sounds the way he meant it. Curious. At her curiosity.

 

Her smile is startlingly soft. “Because you’re not actually an asshole, Taehyung. Because when you’re with me you don’t look through me. Like you’re looking for someone else. Because I wanna know.”

 

He wonders if this is what he gets. For not thinking about Jungkook. People asking about him. Wanting to know. It doesn’t bother him the way it should. Doesn’t bother him at all really.

 

He thinks about it. What Jungkook is like. What anyone is like.

 

A long list of things they are.

 

A longer list of things they aren’t.

 

He’s attractive. He’s strong. He’s sensitive. He’s ambitious. He’s adventurous. He’s funny. He’s caring. He’s giving. He’s gentle. He’s passionate. He’s curious. He’s kind. 

 

He’s irritable. He’s snobbish. He’s materialistic. He’s moody. He’s insecure. He’s angry. He’s shy. He’s narcissistic. He’s arrogant. He’s demanding. He’s selfish. He’s mean.

 

He’s honest.

 

He’s a liar.

 

Taehyung could be describing anyone. Could be thinking about anyone.

 

The generic list people use to describe someone. Anyone. The person they love. The person they hate. The person in between.

 

Themselves.

 

The shadows slice through the light. Or maybe Taehyung has it wrong. It’s the light, cutting through the darkness. The shadows.

 

Heat sticks him to this bed. They aren’t touching anywhere but he likes that he can feel it. The space she takes up. That his body is aware of it. That it can be. Of someone else’s heat. That he can think about Jungkook and be in someone else’s bed and not want to be anywhere else. That where he wants to be is where he is. Here.

 

He asks, “Have you ever been with someone who constantly took your breath away?”

 

Her eyes lose focus for a few seconds. Get lost somewhere on Taehyung’s face. Like she’s imagining what that feels like. Like someone’s face popped into her mind the second Taehyung spoke.

 

She nods.

 

“He was like that. Except he also made it really easy. Being with him. To get my breath back. Even if it didn’t seem like it at the time. It was. It was so easy to breathe around him I’m not really sure I knew what it was to breathe that easily before him.”

 

Because it was. Is.

 

Because that list was a cop out.

 

Because Jungkook is so pretty it hurts in the best way possible. Because he can scale mountains yet the sound of a baby laughing makes him melt. Because he has the temper of a spoiled fucking kid sometimes but the thought of Taehyung’s dad not being a good father, of Taehyung’s parents not actually being in love, almost made him cry, made his eyes water, made his whole body tremble. Because he wants to destroy the music industry and make it better for the people who matter. Because he says he doesn’t like sweet guys and yet he’s the sweetest thing Taehyung has ever known. Because he looks like he can knock your teeth out if you look at him funny one second and the next he looks like he’s scared of his own hands. Because he’s beautiful in every single way but he talks about himself like he’s ugly.

 

Because he’s kind of fucking terrible but he’s also really not.

 

Because he wanted Taehyung to kiss him. On the sidewalk outside his office. In the fake flower garden. Dozens of times before that. A hundred maybe.

 

Because he doesn’t believe in soulmates but he was born from them.

 

Because he looked at Taehyung like the word soulmate terrified him.

 

And he looked at Taehyung anyway.

 

And he wanted Taehyung to kiss him anyway.

 

And Taehyung knew that and looked away.

 

And Taehyung knew that and never kissed him.

 

Because he’s a liar.

 

Because he’s honest.

 

Is. Was.

 

“And did you do the same to him?”

 

Her voice is like the half light. Undisturbing. Soft. But present. But there. Still bright. Here.

 

Taehyung looks at her. Gets his breath back. Forces it back. Tries. Because now Taehyung is the one. Who has to try. To get his breath back.

 

He asks, “Which part? The breathless part or the breathing part?”

 

“Both.”

 

And maybe Taehyung is a little arrogant himself. Really is a bit of an asshole. His own brand of narcissistic. Because he remembers. The way Jungkook would look at him. His hands. His mouth.

 

Maybe Taehyung really is just a hopeful fucker.

 

Maybe Taehyung is a liar, learning, trying, to be honest.

 

Taehyung says, “Yeah. I think. Yeah, I think I did.”

 

He expects the next question. The obvious one.

 

The sheets ruffle. A pillow gets fluffed. Folded over and shoved beneath her cheek. She rubs her face against it, soft in the delicate light.

 

“You can stay the night. If you want.”

 

“What about the catching feelings?” Taehyung asks but he didn’t even try to put his boxers on earlier. Just laid himself out in her bed. Marinating in the heat. In the shape of her half clothed body. In the gentle brightness.

 

She shrugs. The neck of the t-shirt falls on her shoulder, all jut of bone. Taehyung thinks about it. Touching her there too.

 

“You can’t help it. The catching. And anyway. Do you even have any left to catch?”

 

Taehyung thinks about it. How big a heart is. How much it can expand. Fit. Same with the mind. The soul. That’s what feelings are. What love is. Soul-body-mind.

 

Because maybe that’s the thing. Feelings are like waves. You’re the one who gets caught.

 

“I don’t want to hurt you,” he says. Like saying it will make it happen. Because he really doesn’t want to. Hurt her. Himself. Anyone.

 

“So don’t,” she says. Like it’s that easy. Because, maybe, it can be.

 

Maybe it can’t.

 

Taehyung still reaches out. Because he wants to. Because he’s been wanting to since he stopped touching her. Because she wants him to too.

 

Her hair is smooth under his fingertips. Just the slightest tiny curl. Heat touched.

 

She says, “It’s just a place to sleep, dude. Skid Row’s still kinda fucked. Especially at this hour. You shouldn’t walk home alone in the dark.”

 

Taehyung doesn't say it’s a half walk. More of a train ride. A trip on the bus. Alone. In the dark.

 

It’s possibly stupid. To have hang ups about sleeping with someone you’ve already fucked. Because sex can be disguised as fucking, as pure lust, pure need. Can genuinely be it. But sleep is vulnerable. Intimate because it isn’t at all. Your sleeping defenseless body next to someone else’s. The trust in that. Whether you realize it’s there or not.

 

It’s probably stupid. That she’s too young and dumb and Taehyung isn’t as young but just as dumb. Dumber still.

 

Or maybe it’s just a place to sleep. To rest his head. His body. Next to another body who likes his body as much as he likes theirs.

 

So Taehyung touches her hair. Her neck. The edge of her baseball t-shirt. Wonders who she thought of.

 

Wonders at the size of his soul-body-mind. Of hers.

 

Wonders how long before he’s caught.

 

He falls asleep feeling more safe than anyone should this close to Skid Row.

 

He hopes, even if it’s just for once, even if it’s for a moment, she falls asleep the same.

 

 

 

                         *****

 

 

In the morning, the room is all light.

It feels good.

 

 

                          *****

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text


                       

 

 

 

                             *****

 

 

 

 

What makes a star?

 

It’s a question Taehyung has been asked many times. One he’s had to answer even more.

 

It’s the wrong question.

 

Because what people are really asking is,

 

What is a star made of?

 

How is a star made?

 

Basic fourth grade knowledge. A few years give or take. For some people, they don’t learn it until middle school. For Taehyung, he learned it when he was five. It doesn’t mean anything. Doesn’t make Taehyung more or less of anything. It’s just something he learned. Something he was taught.

 

Most people forget.

 

That stars are burning gas. The dense leftovers of a collapsed nebula. That that’s why they burn so bright. All the light trapped together. Until it burns itself out again. Makes itself another star or planet or galaxy. Something else entirely.

 

Stars are just hydrogen. Helium. A few other things.

 

Stars are just elements, themselves the remnants of other stars.

 

Taehyung didn’t forget.

 

But what people really should be asking,

 

What Taehyung has been asking,

 

What makes a star?

 

“Sir?”

 

Taehyung blinks.

 

The expanse above him is dark. Blank. Not a beaming shining thing in sight.

 

He looks down. His neck cracks, the knob of his spine pressing into the back of his chair.

 

The kid looks about fifteen. Is probably eighteen. A little older. His uniform polo is wrinkled. The dark blue looks black in the slowly flicking lights. He hides a frown under forced minimum wage rewarded politeness.

 

“Sir. The show’s over. If you want to catch the next one it’s in an hour and fifteen but there probably aren’t any tickets left.”

 

The kid watches him, broom and trash bag in hand. There are a few other employees walking through the aisles in the auditorium, checking seats for candy wrappers or gum, the carpeted floor for lost items. The doors swing shut behind the last stragglers. Now there’s just one straggler. Taehyung.

 

He stands. Pats his pockets to make sure he has his phone. Throws the kid a smile, sheepish.

 

“Sorry,” he says though it’s not the first time Taehyung has done this. Fallen asleep at the Planetarium. Pretended to. Let his thoughts wander. Sat here as the projected stars spinning above him burned beneath his eyelids.

 

Usually, Jimin’s with him. Actually asleep at his side.

 

Today it’s just Taehyung.

 

He steps out of the aisle, shoes scraping against the fuzzy carpet.

 

The kid mumbles something. A half hearted it’s fine. Like it’s fine it’s going to take him longer to get his job done. To get paid.

 

A candy wrapper sticks to Taehyung’s sole. Food isn’t allowed inside the planetarium. He picks it up. Stuffs it in his pocket. Says, “Thanks. For keeping the auditorium clean.”

 

The kid doesn’t hide his frown this time. “Thanks? It’s just my job, man. Sir, uh, I mean. They’re just stars, right? Fake stars.”

 

And that’s not exactly right. But. It’s close.

 

Taehyung asks, “You don’t like space?”

 

There’s no judgement in his tone. It’s just a question. Just a curiosity.

 

The kid shrugs. “Sure. But it’s just space, right? It’s all out there. We’re in here.”

 

The planetarium fills with light.

 

Taehyung says, “Yeah, I guess you’re right. It’s just space.”

 

He nods in parting. Picks up another wrapper on his way down the stairs.

 

Outside the planetarium, he makes a left. Heads towards the west side of the observatory. Makes a right. Heads east.

 

He stops.

 

This exhibit isn’t very big. No more than a stretch of wall. Eighteen rows across. Nine down.

 

It’s not big at all. Among the smallest exhibits in the observatory. And yet. In eighteen rows across. Nine going down.

 

It’s the entirety of the universe.

 

The stuff the stars made. The stuff that made the stars.

 

The stuff everything is made out of. Out there and in here too.

 

A little boy walks up to the display. Keeps his distance from Taehyung. He shoots Taehyung a look through the corner of his eye. Comes up to the interactive board at the bottom. He presses down on a button. Another. Makes the colored squares light up. Makes every chemical element look a little more like what they are.

 

Bright burning things.

 

The rebirth of a star.

 

And the things that made it too.

 

When Taehyung steps out of the observatory, into the real light, the sun burns.

 

It feels good.

 

 

 

                          *****

 

 

 

“C- can you see me?”

 

“Yeah, I can see you. Can you see me?”

 

“Yeah! Momma can you see oppa?”

 

“Yes. Tell Taetae what you did this morning.”

 

“I will. But look, momma. Taetae’s on the roof! Can you see the ocean?”

 

“No. But I can hear it. Can you?”

 

Her eyes fill his phone screen. She presses closer. Listens. All he sees is ocean blue.

 

She pulls away with a pout.

 

Taehyung’s mouth stretches. He doesn’t think he can smile any wider. His heart thuds. Warm.

 

“I can’t hear it, oppa. You can’t either, can you?”

 

From behind her, their mom stifles a laugh. Her eyes are bright in the morning light. It’s eleven a.m. in New York. In Manhattan. The sun just rose in Los Angeles.

 

He doesn’t come out here much. The rooftop of his apartment complex. There isn’t much to it. A couple of patio chairs. A vegetable garden. Sometimes people throw barbecues. Some come up for a breather. For a smoke. A few different things.

 

He likes it well enough but when he’s not inside his apartment, he likes to be outside of it. Away. In the city.

 

He isn’t sure what made him come out here today. Maybe he wanted to show Junghwa that the sun rises the same way here too.

 

Maybe he needed a breather too.

 

He curbs his smile at her impatient face, the exact way his used to get. It’s a little crazy. How much she looks like him. How much she is like him. How much she isn’t.

 

He says, “Of course I can hear it. If you live by the ocean, it gets trapped inside your head. Even when you’re miles away.”

 

Her brows wrinkle as she thinks on this. She looks back at their mother. At Taehyung. Asks, “Then how come I can’t hear it?”

 

Manhattan is by the ocean too.

 

Their mother comes further into the frame. She presses close to Jungwa’s ear, whispers loudly, “You have to imagine it you can hear it. Taetae is being silly.”

 

Junghwa’s face scrunches. She gives Taehyung a menacing look. Taehyung tries not to laugh. Barely holds it in. “Don’t be silly, Taetae!”

 

Taehyung mock pouts. His nose wrinkles. Someone must have smoked not too long ago. The patio chair he sits in has left over ash spilled on the arm rest. A cigarette butt sticks up from someone else’s potted plant. Aloe. Taehyung plucks it. Tosses it into his empty coffee cup.

 

At the same time he does, their mother says, “Be silly, Junghwa!” and tickles her sides. Junghwa explodes in laughter, hiccuping giggles. Flails under lovingly attacking fingers. Looks silly. Is silly.

 

“But Taetae! Momma! I’m five now,” she proclaims, proud in that way only kids are of their age. “Only babies are silly.”

 

“Who told you that?”

 

She shrugs. Picks at her dress. She’s still in her dress phase. Last year she wanted to wear nothing but denim shorts. Would put up a rousing argument for why she didn’t need to wear anything else. Fall and winter were an obstacle course. A test to his mother and Dan’s patience. It was sort of lucky then. You can wear shorts during Christmas in Los Angeles.

 

Taehyung says, “You’re never too old to be silly, Junghwa. Listen to your oppa, yeah?”

 

He almost expects her to question him.

 

All she does is shrug. “Okay, Taetae.”

 

Their mom nudges her. Mutters something the microphone doesn’t catch.

 

Junghwa beams. She reaches for something offscreen. Holds up a foam board, neat little squares. Neon colors. Numbers.

 

“Look! Look, oppa. I counted the days. All of them. Unp- until I see you again. Until I’m in Califo-Cali-“ Junghwa stops. Licks her lips. Starts over. “California.” Smiles.

 

Soon, she won’t stutter at all anymore. Will grow out of it faster than Taehyung did. Her mouth catching up to her brain more effortlessly than it took his. Dan was the one who thought of it. A speech therapist. Just someone to help her work it out. How to pause. Stop. Think. Try again. Their mom hadn’t thought of it back then. With Taehyung. His dad didn’t either. Taehyung is glad Dan knew to think of it.

 

Taehyung counts them. The little squares. Looks at the number. The days. Until he sees her again.

 

It takes him a moment. Another. To get his breath back. To make his voice work. “Wow. You did all that? Today?”

 

Junghwa nods. Her face is the brightest of beams.

 

Taehyung swallows. Feels the air push down his throat. His heart shakes inside his chest. Inside the warmth. “Did momma help?”

 

Junghwa twists to look over her shoulder. Her face squints. She whispers, “Only a little. But I had to pick all the colors. Momma isn’t very good at colors.”

 

Their mom doesn’t hide her smile. In the Manhattan light, her eyes look wet. But her smile is real. As bright as Junghwa’s.

 

Junghwa lowers the calendar. She tilts her head. Her green eyes go a little blurry. Dark. “Oppa. Did I make you sad?”

 

Taehyung laughs. Sniffles. He shakes his head. Presses his heel to the corner of his eye. “No. No, you didn’t make me sad. Not at all. Do you wanna see something?”

 

Hesitant, Junghwa nods.

 

Taehyung pauses the call. He can still hear them but he can’t see them. Their mom hums as Junghwa speaks, something about lunch, about pigeons, about what makes the cheese in the pizza from that stand near the subway so sticky. He clicks on his screen. Takes a picture of it. Opens his texts. Sends one.

 

He clicks back to the call.

 

“Check momma’s messages.”

 

Junghwa hands off the iPad to their mom, does as he’s asked.

 

The phone clicks. Drowns out waking city sounds. For once, Taehyung doesn’t have anywhere to be. Anywhere he wants to be. Except here. Except this.

 

When Junghwa looks back up at the screen, her smile is exactly like Taehyung’s. Wide mouth. Squinted eyes. Most people wouldn’t even be able to tell if they saw them like this. That their eyes aren’t exactly the same. Taehyung’s dark like a night without stars. Her’s bright like the sky when it’s a perfect baby blue.

 

“You’ve been counting too, oppa!”

 

Taehyung nods. Knows his smile threatens to split his face in half. “Since the last second I saw you.”

 

Junghwa looks at the picture of his calendar again. The countdown. The reminder.

 

She brings it up to the screen. Points. “You forgot to count today. I already counted it. You can’t forget!”

 

Taehyung reminds her, “Your day starts before mine, remember?”

 

She nods. “Your sun just came up. I remember. I just saw it.”

 

“But it’s the same sun, right? I’m just looking at it differently. Because I’m behind you. Always just behind you, remember?”

 

“I remember. Because oppa is protecting me. That’s what momma says. That that’s why we’re so far away. Right?” Junghwa asks, same little head tilt. Her voice going high the way it does when she wants to question something. Knows she should. Knows she’s probably right about it.

 

Taehyung nods. Hopes his eyes just feel more wet than they look. “Right. Always. Oppa loves you, Junghwa. You know that too, yeah? Remember it. Always.”

 

Junghwa nods. Face back to the beam. “Always. You remember too, oppa. That Junghwa loves Taetae. You remember it too?”

 

In the corner of the screen, just out of focus, their mom smiles. Eyes just as wet as theirs.

 

They don’t look much like her. Their mom. Neither of them do. They look too much like each other. But in this moment, right now, Taehyung can’t imagine how anyone would think they look like anything except her’s.

 

And Taehyung says, “Always.”

 

 

 

                        *****

 

 

 


The apartment is full of smoke.

 

The good kind. Of something sizzling on a grill. Of softly burning candles. Of another nearby grill, the smell of smoldering coal seeping in through the window.

 

“You know why the swordfish is the best dressed fish?”

 

“Do not answer that. Do not-”

 

“Because it always looks sharp!”

 

Yoongi groans. Smacks his head against the cracked shell of the watermelon he’s been slicing.

 

Seokjin gasps another couple of quick laughs, shoulders bouncing as he flips the fish. He hums in satisfaction at the perfect grill marks. Oil bubbles. The stove hisses.

 

Taehyung smiles into his beer. Leans against the counter. Watches them work.

 

“One thing,” Yoongi says. Head still too close to shoved inside the melon. “I ask him for one thing. No more puns. And does he listen? To this one thing that I ask?”

 

Seokjin pokes at a fish steak. Rolls his eyes. He cocks a brow at Taehyung. “One thing, he says. As if asking me to change the basis of my personality is just that. One thing.”

 

From inside the melon, Yoongi mumbles, “What personality-”

 

Seokjin steps away from the grill, the open window letting the smoke escape. He checks something boiling on the stove. Some kind of root vegetable Taehyung helped him peel earlier. Chunk into pieces. Easy stuff. The kind of thing Taehyung would have to try to fuck up. Seokjin rips a few leaves from the hanging herb garden, twisted tendrils of green in a white plant box next to the pantry where the kitchen gets the best light. He stops by the fridge. Grabs a beer. Pops off the top. He crosses back to the counter. Places the beer at Yoongi’s elbow.

 

He presses into Yoongi’s side, the length of Seokjin’s long body almost funny against Yoongi’s. It isn’t really. Funny. It looks like it belongs there. Like it fits. Like they fit.

 

Yoongi grunts. Tries looking more annoyed than he is. But Taehyung can tell. Taehyung can always tell.

 

Seokjin skims his nose across Yoongi’s temple. Nudges the beer to his arm. “The personality that won you over. The one you love. The one that loves you. Now get your head out of the watermelon, babe. If there’s hair in the salsa, I’ll murder you.”

 

Then he kisses Yoongi’s smoke warmed cheek. Heads towards the living room, lighter in hand. He gives Taehyung’s arm a squeeze as he goes.

 

The smell of bergamot grows. Gets richer. Warmer. A record starts spinning. Something lofi. Calming. Zen. Something very Yoongi. Very Seokjin in a different way.

 

Yoongi doesn’t move for a long second. He sighs. Laughs. Picks his head out of the watermelon. Grabs the beer.

 

He flicks a watermelon seed at Taehyung. “Shut up.”

 

Taehyung holds up his hands, his left frosted from cool glass. Tonight, he wanted one. Tonight, it felt good to want one. “Didn’t say anything.”

 

“You want to, though.”

 

Taehyung shrugs. “It’s nothing. I’m just.” He drinks from his beer. It hits his tongue gently. Smooth. It’s a stout. Darker than black. Should hit harder than it does. Seokjin doesn’t keep flavored beer in the fridge. Doesn’t disguise a drink for what it is. A drink. Doesn’t treat Taehyung with kid gloves. Doesn’t soften any blows. Taehyung’s always good about it. Just having one. Two. Knowing when to stop. How many he can take.

 

He wipes his mouth. Says, “I’m happy that you guys are happy. That things are good.”

 

Yoongi drinks. His glass hits the counter with a thunk. Glass against marble. It took them seven months to find the right counter. Seokjin can be picky like that. Yoongi is about other things. Which side the bedroom faces. The kind of bed he sleeps on. The kind of music that is played in the house.

 

“Yeah,” Yoongi agrees. Another sigh. Longer. The kind that’s drenched in satisfaction. Happiness.

 

Taehyung would never think it, seeing him like this. That sometimes Yoongi doubts. That he thinks he’d die without Seokjin. That it’s not always good.

 

Yoongi picks up the knife. Cuts away from the rind. Slices the red fruit into cubes. “Who would've ever thought? Back then. Him and me. That we’d last this long. That we’d last at all.”

 

Taehyung shrugs. “I did. Maybe not this long,” he says, teasing. “But it always made sense to me. You two.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Of course.”

 

Maybe not at first. Taehyung’s seemingly recluse of a roommate and the tall confident sophomore he’d connected with instantly. The one who walked like he knew where he fit. Where he was. Who he was. The one who sat with Taehyung in a library hall as Taehyung had the verge of a panic attack, a possible failing grade, that he’d made a mistake. To come to UCLA. That he should have gone to Berkeley. To Stanford.

 

To Columbia.

 

In the end, Taehyung didn’t have the panic attack. Didn’t fail. Not even close to it.

 

In the end, Yoongi wasn’t much of a recluse. Wasn’t one at all.

 

In the end, Seokjin didn’t always know where he fit. Seemed to only know for sure in a few places. In a sweltering kitchen. With his laughing face pressed to Taehyung’s shoulder. To Hoseok’s. To Jimin’s. With his body, too long and wide, curled and almost perfectly right along Yoongi’s.

 

“Guess that makes sense.”

 

“What does?”

 

Yoongi cuts into the melon.

 

The grill hisses.

 

Taehyung walks over. Doesn’t touch anything. Just watches. Keeps an eye on it. So he can catch it. Give a warning. Right before it’s too late.

 

“That you knew before I did.”

 

Yoongi tosses the cubed melon into a bowl.

 

Taehyung hands him a bottle of olive oil. The gold drizzles over the pink. Turns it shiny. Turns it wetter. Turns it golden.

 

Yoongi gives Taehyung a smile. More in his eyes than anything. “About us. You and me. You were right about that too.”

 

And maybe Taehyung was. Right. About Yoongi and Seokjin. About Yoongi and him. About all of them. Maybe he was just hoping.

 

The same way he hoped he’d figure it out one day. What makes the stars.

 

The same way he hoped UCLA was the right decision.

 

The same way he hoped on any particular night that he wouldn’t want a bottle.

 

The same way he’s hoped for a lot of things.

 

The grill crackles.

 

Taehyung takes a chance. Lowers the flame. If Seokjin yells at him for it at least they can eat slightly raw fish instead of eating it burnt.

 

From the living room, the lofi chill gets even more chill. The kind of thing Yoongi can really zone out to. The kind of thing he’d compare Seokjin and Taehyung to.

 

The front door opens.

 

Voices fill the living room.

 

The hallway.

 

The kitchen.

 

“Never fear, my men. My dudes. My dude men.”

 

“Jesus Christ, Hoseok, just get to the poi-”

 

“I’ve saved dinner.” Hoseok grins. He pulls a bottle from a grocery bag. Holds it up like he’s not just saving dinner. Like he’s saving the world. “I brought the rice wine vinegar.”

 

From the hallway, Seokjin cheers. “The true love of my life.”

 

Hoseok’s grins, smug. Nasty. He’s still sweaty from dance class but his shoulders are lax. He’s not leaning too much on one foot. It’s the good kind of exhaustion today. Taehyung wonders if the kids landed the choreography finally. Remembers to ask. “I knew you’d come around to me one day. Sorry, Yoongi. My man. My dude. We all knew it was really me Jinnie loved.”

 

Seokjin snorts and pries the bottle out of Hoseok’s hand. “I meant the vinegar.”

 

Hoseok sighs sadly. Dumps the groceries onto the counter. He shrugs at Yoongi. “Ah, well. Guess it’s just you and me, Yoong.”

 

The bottle cracks open. Seokjin flips the fish steaks. Frowns at the flame. Leaves it as is.

 

He comes to stand next to Yoongi. Splashes vinegar over the pink gold mess. Turns it white. For a moment. Then the pink-gold takes over. More pink. More gold.

 

“Over my dead body, Jung Hoseok.”

 

Hoseok laughs. He grabs a knife. Swipes half of Yoongi’s beer. Yoongi frowns, lets him. “That’s Hoseok Jung to you, motherfucker.”

 

A body presses into Taehyung’s side.

 

Taehyung shifts. Makes room at the counter. Says, “Hey.”

 

“Hey,” says Jimin. He gives most of his weight to Taehyung. He’s still wearing his tie, the too tight knot yanked bellow his collarbones. He bumps Taehyung’s shoulder with his cheek. It’s one of Taehyung’s favorite things about Jimin. About them. The same way it is about Yoongi but different. How Jimin just fits like this with him. How Jimin is just his.

 

“How was work?”

 

Jimin sighs. Drawn out. The bad kind of exhaustion. Taehyung can feel it. How heavy Jimin’s body must feel to himself right now. But it’s okay. Taehyung’s body is bigger. Not really stronger but. It’s okay. Taehyung can take it. Taehyung can always take it.

 

Jimin smiles up at him. Tries to. “Same old same old.”

 

And Taehyung thinks about it. October 12th. 2020. 11:59 p.m. He’s not afraid of it. Turning thirty. Being thirty.

 

Sometimes, Taehyung thinks he isn’t afraid of anything.

 

Jimin taps the side of Taehyung’s bottle with his index, brow raised. He looks at Taehyung carefully, their faces close. His skin is pale against the dark liquid. Ghostly almost.

 

Taehyung nods. Smiles. Tonight. Today. It feels good.

 

The edge of Jimin’s shoulders relaxes. Barely. But there. Some. The tiniest bit. That makes it okay. That October 12th. 2020. 11:59 p.m. is three years down the line. That in some ways, the ways that matter, thirty is very far away.

 

The smoke in the apartment is muted. It doesn’t tickle Taehyung’s nose. Doesn’t make him want to flinch. Be anywhere else.

 

Hoseok picks a watermelon seed from Yoongi’s neck. Presses his damp dance soaked face to Seokjin’s bicep. He seasons the salsa just right. Gets Jimin his own beer. Makes Taehyung try the salsa to make sure it is in fact just right.

 

And the apartment is warm. The music is soft. And Yoongi wipes at Seokjin’s face and Jimin stays where he is, pressed to Taehyung’s side, and this is Taehyung’s life. The one he’s chosen. It’s not just happening to him. It’s Taehyung’s. It’s his. And it is good.

 

And Hoseok says, “You’ll never guess how big his dick was.”

 

And yeah. It’s good.

 

 

                       *****

 

 

“Go long!”

 

Taehyung goes long. Tries to.

 

The golden labrador goes longer. Tries harder.

 

“That was so not long!”

 

The lab trots up to Taehyung. Tail wagging. Frisbee clamped in his jaw.

 

Taehyung squats and pulls the frisbee from the dog’s mouth gently. His fingers come away slobbered. He ruffles the dog’s coat, pretty golden fur in the sun.

 

Someone whistles. The lab perks up, nose high. He licks at Taehyung’s sticky hands, is off and across the park in seconds. Taehyung stands. Waves at their owner. Gets a wave back.

 

He tosses the frisbee upward. Catches it. “Sorry. I’m only really good at sports where I only have to focus on one thing at a time.”

 

Mitzuki gives him a look, clearly doesn’t buy it. She looks good like this. Park sun backlighting her, long hair pulled at the top of her head, shorts tiny, t-shirt the right side of big. She always looks good but especially like this.

 

“What do you have to focus on other than the frisbee?”

 

“My feet. Obviously.”

 

She holds the look for a few seconds. Then she laughs. Loud. Unconscious of it. Her mouth does this funny little thing when she laughs. Makes to look like she wants to frown but changes her mind halfway.

 

Taehyung holds the frisbee in her direction.

 

Her face goes funny again. Thinking. She shakes her head. She plops down in the grass right where she is. “I think that’s enough of that today. Not really in the mood to play with dog slobber.”

 

“But dog slobber makes it better. It’s lubricant. Cuts down on friction. Increases speed,” Taehyung argues but he walks towards her. Plops down right next to her.

 

Their knees jostle together. She doesn’t move away. Taehyung doesn’t either. Her knees are a little knobby. Tiny. Taehyung isn’t very big. Compared to other people. To a lot of other men. But there’s a part of him, that part that never evolved, that likes this. The contrast of her body against his. The tininess of her. The bigness of himself. That he doesn’t have to wonder how they’ll fit together.

 

“Was any of that true or are you just taking advantage of the fact that I know nothing about physics? Or chemistry or whatever that was.”

 

“The first one. A hundred percent.”

 

She doesn’t believe him. It’s a clear give away. Her half smile. Taehyung only half expected her to.

 

The park is crowded for a weekday. It’s the busiest park in this neighborhood. The cleanest. Taehyung doesn’t really care either way. He grew up in New York. New York doesn’t separate it. The clean places from the dirty ones. Every corner he’d turn. Every alleyway. A toss up as to which one it’d be.

 

Taehyung says, “You don’t have to know anything about physics anyway. If anything, as a marketer you should know all about biology. How endorphins work. How the brain works. So people will buy your shit.”

 

“Mmm. That is what I do. Convince people to buy shit.” She doesn’t give Taehyung time. To wonder if he’s offended her. She presses her knee closer. Grips the edge of her ponytail. Knots it at the crown of her head. She smiles. “But I like it. Selling people shit. I’m good at it. I like being good at the things I like.”

 

“That’s a good way to look at it.”

 

“That’s what I think too. Plus. People need shit.”

 

“People do need shit.”

 

“Right? Glad you see it that way.”

 

“Glad you see it that way too.”

 

The labrador from earlier comes back. Runs a circle around them. Licks at their knees. Runs another circle. Runs back at the call of a sharp whistle.

 

Taehyung asks, “Why Skid Row?”

 

She corrects, “Close to Skid Row.”

 

Taehyung grins. “Close to Skid Row.”

 

She pulls at her t-shirt. Tucks it into the waist of her shorts. The sun sprawls over her thighs. Taehyung finds his hands itching. Envious. Want to sprawl there too.

 

She says, “The reason most post college twenty somethings live in shitty places.”

 

“Student loans?”

 

“Student loans.” She lifts her knees a little. Touches the outside of Taehyung’s thigh. The grass is warm. The air is warm. Everywhere is warm. “What about you? You already pay off all yours? Is that cool of me to ask? I know you almost thirty year olds are kind of sensitive about it. How you were the first ones the post recession world screwed over before you even got to college.”



Taehyung laughs. Picks at the grass. He wonders if this part makes other people embarrassed. Tentative. Taehyung feels neither. Feels them in different ways. “Not sensitive about it. Not this almost thirty year old anyway. I actually didn’t have student loans. I was a scholarship kid.”

 

She eyes him. Impressed. Not afraid to show it. “Even graduate school?”

 

Taehyung nods. “Grants too. But yes.”

 

She takes in this new information. Shifts her view of him. She already knows about most of it. What he went to school for. What he did with it. What he stopped doing with it. It was one of the first things he told her. It never occurred to him. Not to.

 

He thinks about it. What it means that with other people, with another someone, it was one of the first things he did. Thought. Not to tell them.

 

A strand of hair falls from her knot. It curls over her left eye.

 

Taehyung’s hands itch.

 

They ache.

 

“I didn’t take you for that type. The other kind of privileged.”

 

“I think that would offend most scholarship kids.”

 

“Are you offended?”

 

“No. I’m not most scholarship kids.”

 

“I’m sure all the scholarship kids say that.”

 

Taehyung shrugs. Says, “No one’s ever really called me that. Privileged.”

 

She shrugs back. “Everyone’s privileged. Compared to someone else.”

 

Taehyung curls his hands into the grass. It’s a simplistic way to put it but Taehyung figures, technically, semantically, realistically, she’s right. Taehyung grew up in Manhattan. The okay parts. The nice-ish parts. Went to the good schools. Got into the best universities. Lives in an okay part of Los Angeles. The good part of a not so good part. By choice more than anything. He’s never gone to bed hungry. He’s never not been able to go home. It’s always been a choice. To go home. To not.

 

He’s never given it much thought.

 

Because in a lot of ways, he isn’t. Child of immigrants. Child of people who didn’t come from much.

 

Because in a lot of ways he is. Child of immigrants who found a home easily. Child of people who made a lot out of not very much.

 

A lot of people have had it better, leagues better, but a lot of people, too many, have had it worse.

 

She grins. “Did I just totally changer your whole world view?”

 

“A little. But you’ve been doing that since we met.”

 

She lets out a laugh. A hoot. It makes the older guy sitting on a bench give her a look. Taehyung looks back.

 

She says, “That was smooth as fuck, dude. If I didn’t already know what your dick looked like, I’d totally want to know now.”

 

Taehyung shakes his head. Bites his smile away. “Nah. You’re not as easily swayed as that.”

 

Her shoulder brushes his. Her hair is still in her face. Taehyung’s hands still ache.

 

“You have no idea. I totally am.”

 

Taehyung asks, “If you could go anywhere, anywhere at all, where would you go?”

 

The sounds of the park weave around them. Dogs barking. The birds chirping. Kids screaming. The cars mulling about beyond it. It might be a dirty place, nothing safe about it, but the grass is real. The flowers are bright in the light. Everything bloomed because something decided it would a long long time ago.

 

She says, “I’d go back to Japan. Tokyo this time. It’s insane. That I’ve been there a bunch of times but I’ve never gone to Tokyo. Totally crazy. We always go to Fukuoka. That’s where my dad is from. Where I was born. Last time, I made it all the way to Kyoto. Next time, I’ll make it to Tokyo.”

 

“You will,” Taehyung says. Wonders if it sounds like hope. Like a promise.

 

She says, “Bet I can guess. Where you’d go.”

 

Taehyung says, “Guess.”

 

“Anywhere.”

 

Taehyung doesn’t ask. Doesn’t wonder. How she knows. How she knew.

 

His hands ache.

 

She smiles. Says,

 

“You don’t have to look at me like that.”

 

Why?

 

Taehyung asks, “Like what?”

 

Because you’re looking at me like you don’t just want me to stay the night.

 

“Like you want to kiss me. You can. You can kiss me.”

 

Taehyung isn't aware of it. If it’s harder to breathe. Easier. What his chest is doing. What his heart is or isn’t doing.

 

The only thing Taehyung is aware of is that he wants to kiss her.

 

That she wants him to.

 

So Taehyung does.

 

His fingers are steady when he brushes her hair behind her ear. When he touches the warmth of her cheek. When he touches her mouth with his own. When he touches her thigh, slides his palm where she’s soft. Where she’s warm. Where she’s tiny. Where, maybe, one day, already a little, she’s starting to feel like his. Where she could be.

 

So Taehyung kisses her and he can’t remember the last time it felt this easy. This good. The last time it felt like this. The last time it didn’t hurt at all.

 

Taehyung pulls away.

 

He sighs against her mouth.

 

She sighs back.

 

Taehyung opens his mouth. To say something. To ask her something. To kiss her again. But then he feels it.

 

Something at his nape.

 

The feeling.

 

The prickling sensation.

 

That feeling.

 

That someone is watching you.

 

Usually, people are wrong.

 

It’s just paranoia.

 

Just fear.

 

Inflated sense of ego.

 

And Taehyung thinks.

 

It’s nothing.

 

It’s no one.

 

It’s just his goddamn fucking ego because Taehyung might be kind. Might have good intentions. Might be trying desperately, relentlessly, faultlessly, to be good. But Taehyung is still human. Still a man. Still a person. Still kind of an asshole. The worst kind. The kind who knows how to hide that he can be as arrogant as anyone else. As much of an egotistical prick as anyone else.

 

And Taehyung thinks.

 

Don’t turn around.

 

He looks over his shoulder the next second.

 

And his heart is tumbling out of his chest the one after that.

 

For a moment, for an eternity, for as wide as the universe is, nothing happens.

 

Then, from the other side of the park, by the gates.

 

Then, Namjoon smiles. Tips his head in Taehyung’s direction. Lifts up a hand, thumb folded towards his palm in silent greeting. Acknowledgement.

 

Namjoon doesn’t turn around. He doesn’t walk away. He just stands there. Smiling at Taehyung. Saying hi.

 

Mitzuki asks, “Friend of yours?”

 

It takes Taehyung a second. To look back at her, and fuck, she really is beautiful like this. Hair tied up. Light eyed. They’re even greener in the day. In the sun. In the lighter shadows of her room. All the time, really. She looks good. She looks like she fits.

 

Taehyung says, “Something like that.”

 

She looks at him. In that way. Like the next step is obvious. “Well? Go say hi, dude. Looks like he’s waiting for you to.”

 

And Namjoon is. Unmoving. Waiting. Looking at them. Something in one of his hands.

 

And Taehyung figures she’s right. He’s starting to wonder. If maybe she’s right about a lot of things. Everything.

 

He’s up before he can think about it too much. At all.

 

He’s halfway across the park. By the gates. Standing in front of Namjoon. Before he can think at all.

 

Taehyung says, “Hey.”

 

Namjoon’s smile deepens if possible. All dimple. He sticks his free hand out, the one he was waving with. “Hey, man. How’s it been?”

 

Taehyung takes his hand. Namjoon’s grip is firm. Friendly. Not even the edge of a threat. His hands are soft. City hands. The kind of mountains Namjoon climbs are metaphorical. Symbolic.

 

They shake.

 

Taehyung’s heart finds his chest again. He finds his words again too. “It’s been good. Good. You?”

 

“Good too. You alright? You’re looking at me like I’m a ghost.”

 

Taehyung laughs. He’s only a little surprised it isn’t forced. He shakes his head. Shakes himself out of it. “Sorry. I’m just surprised. Didn’t really think this would be your part of town.”

 

“It’s not,” Namjoon concedes. He picks up the fork sticking up from his cone. Taehyung can smell it now. Grilled lamb from the truck stationed at the park gates. Sun glints off Namjoon’s watch. Silver. A nice compliment to his ironed slacks. The nicer button down secured with a leather belt. A clear cut sign that he doesn’t belong this close to Skid Row. “But this park has the best kebab truck this side of Century City. Worth maybe getting murdered for if you ask me.”

 

“Not like you can’t get murdered anywhere in this city.”

 

“Exactly, man. Exactly.”

 

A guy shouts from the truck. Order’s up.

 

Someone else’s frisbee gets thrown. Lands in someone else’s dog’s mouth.

 

Namjoon looks over Taehyung’s shoulder. Takes a bite. The lamb looks burnt. Probably tastes better that way. “She’s pretty.”

 

And Taehyung wonders. If Namjoon doesn’t think he’s very nice anymore. If he looks at Taehyung and just sees another fucker. Another fuck.

 

Taehyung says, “Yeah. She is.”

 

“I sold my game boy-”

 

“Namjoo-”

 

They stop at the same time. Laugh.

 

Taehyung asks, “You did?”

 

“Yeah. Made a killing with it on eBay. I don’t feel any more nostalgic than I already did so I think it was the right decision.”

 

Namjoon shakes his head. Looks at Taehyung. Straight in the eye. That convincing politician thing. Namjoon wears it well. A little too well. It’s a shame, really, that he’s just a lawyer.

 

Namjoon says, “If you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, it’s not happening, man. I’m glad I ran into you. It’s good to see you. Really.”

 

A laugh crawls up Taehyung’s throat. Shaky. He keeps it inside his chest. Keeps it inside his head too. “It’s not you. I just. Was kind of expecting you to tell me to fuck off if we ever ran into each other.”

 

Namjoon’s mouth thins. His brow pinches. Discontent in plain view. It’s very not-politician of him. Maybe it’s better this way. That Namjoon is just a lawyer.

 

He glances at his meat. Takes care picking the next strip. “Yeah. Guess I caused that impression the last time we met, huh?”

 

Namjoon takes the bite.

 

Taehyung doesn’t prod. Doesn’t ask. Waits.

 

Namjoon says, “Look. He didn’t say much. Didn’t say much of anything. And I don’t know you. If we’re honest, I haven’t known him long either. Three years is, what? Nothing? But I do know him. And I think I can tell. The kind of person you are. The kind of person you aren’t. So, no. I’m not gonna tell you to fuck off, Taehyung.”

 

Taehyung isn't sure. What he’s supposed to do with that. What he wants to do with it. “That’s pretty magnanimous if you.”

 

Namjoon shrugs. “Maybe. Or maybe I’m just not a dick. Without reason. This town’s big but it’s not that big. So next time we run into each other, if we do, I’m not gonna tell you to fuck off either.”

 

Taehyung lets this sit. Finds himself smiling. Wry. “Unless he gives you a reason to?”

 

Not that there is a reason to. Really. But everyone has their own version of it. Life. Their stories. Hurt in different ways. Sometimes it takes a while to realize. That they’re hurt at all.

 

Namjoon’s smile matches Taehyung’s. Just as wry. “Unless he gives me a reason to. Then you better cross the street if you ever see me,” he says, mugs it up to sell his threat.

 

He checks his watch after. He tears at his kebab with his fork. Scuffs his shoe against the park grass. He looks back up at Taehyung. Smiles so he’s all dimple again. Looks like he belongs exactly where he is, in a sunny park eating charred meat, at home where he stands here with Taehyung.

 

“Kind of sucks, though, man. I was looking forward to it one day. Being able to say that I liked you.”

 

There’s a finality in Namjoon’s words.

 

But Namjoon said it himself. He doesn’t know anything.

 

The thing is?

 

Taehyung doesn’t either.

 

And Taehyung said anything.

 

Said whenever.

 

Said wherever.

 

And he meant it.

 

But Taehyung is also a liar.

 

But Taehyung is also not waiting.

 

Taehyung breathes out. Says, “Yeah. Me too.”

 

Then, Namjoon says,

 

“You can ask about him, you know. If you want.”

 

Taehyung opens his mouth.

 

But Namjoon, also, says, “But it’s okay too. If you don’t want to.”

 

The park in Skid Row doesn’t really smell like a flower garden. It isn’t one. It’s just a park. With flowers. In the less safe, more dirty, part of town.

 

Taehyung looks over his shoulder.

 

Mitzuki’s back is to them. It looks like she hasn’t turned around once.

 

Her hands are pressed to the grass.

 

Taehyung looks at Namjoon. Asks, “Is he okay?”

 

Namjoon uses the edge of his fork to pick at his teeth. He still manages to look clean cut as he does it. The illusion that he belongs here gone. Like he doesn’t belong here instead. Standing in front of Taehyung. With his soft unruined hands.

 

Namjoon asks, “Is that really what you want to know?”

 

Taehyung doesn’t have to think about it.

 

“Yes.”

 

It’s the only thing that matters.

 

About Jungkook. Specifically.

 

It’s the only thing that matters to Taehyung.

 

All the other stuff.

 

It’s not real. Not right now.

 

They don’t matter.

 

Taehyung has other things. That are real. That matter more right now.

 

Namjoon finishes the last of his kebab. Folds the cone around the fork. He shrugs. “He’ll be fine.”

 

It doesn’t surprise Taehyung. That Namjoon isn’t the kind of person who bullshits. Even when he maybe should be.

 

Besides, Taehyung already knew. That Jungkook wasn’t okay. He felt it that night. Felt it every text he sent after. Has felt it in his absence since.

 

His chest doesn’t tug.

 

He says, “Okay. That’s good. I’m glad, then.”

 

He’s stuck with the thought that it’s a shame. That Namjoon and Yoongi will never be friends. Taehyung thinks they’d like each other. The utter lack of bullshit that would exist between them.

 

It’s not really the thing that should be making Taehyung feel anything. That it’s a shame. That it’s sad. He can’t really think about all the other things. The ones that don’t matter.

 

Namjoon smiles. Tosses his meat dirtied cone into the trash. He doesn’t offer Taehyung his hand again.

 

“Take care of yourself, Taehyung. I’ll see you around,” he says.

 

Namjoon says it like he means it. Like he wants to. Hopes to.

 

Taehyung doesn’t say anything back. Just watches Namjoon walk away.

 

He doesn’t wonder if he should have asked something else.

 

He doesn’t wonder anything.

 

Taehyung turns.

 

“Hey, Taehyung!”

 

Taehyung stops.

 

Thinks it again.

 

Don’t turn around.

 

In the light, there’s something sad about Namjoon’s face. Something close to it. The kind that isn’t sad at all. The kind that’s hopeful. It makes Taehyung wonder. If Namjoon is the kind of person who finds himself breathing around things, people, life, too.

 

If his soft city hands are like Taehyung’s. Dirty in the way no one can tell.

 

Namjoon says, “Jungkook is the kind of person who always bounces back.” He gives Taehyung a little nod. “Glad to see you are too.”

 

Then, Namjoon smiles.

 

Then, Namjoon turns.

 

Then, Namjoon is gone. The dirty part of the city behind him.

 

This time, Taehyung doesn’t turn around.

 

The grass is still warm. The bend of Mitzuki’s knee is warm. Her smile warmer.

 

“Your friend okay?”

 

Taehyung breathes out. Says, “He’s. Yes. He’s okay. Going to be.”

 

Her brows pull. Her smile goes funny. Taehyung likes that about her. Likes a lot of things about her. “Going to be?”

 

Taehyung picks up the frisbee. It’s dry now. He tries spinning it on his index. The way Yoongi would. Fails. Tries it again. He makes it one whole turn, one spin of the earth around the sun, around the universe, before it topples into his lap.

 

He smiles. Means it. “Yeah. Going to be. I mean. Aren’t we all gonna be? In the end?”

 

“What. When we’re dead?”

 

“Sure. When we’re dead.”

 

She shrugs. Plucks the frisbee from Taehyung’s hands.

 

“I think you may have missed your calling. Instead of studying freaky space stuff, you should have been a philosopher. I’ve questioned my life’s purpose eighty-four percent more times since I met you. Talk about selling someone shit, eh?”

 

She stands. All legs. All green. The best looking thing in this park.

 

“You up for another round?”

 

“What about the dog slobber?”

 

“Dog slobber’s dead and gone, dude,” she says with a laugh. Offers a hand.

 

Taehyung doesn't need it. He takes it anyway.

 

Mitzuki smiles. Squeezes his hand when he’s standing. Her hands are soft. City hands. “Now this time, when I say go long, I mean go fucking long, Taehyung.”

 

This time, Taehyung goes long.

 

This time, Taehyung catches it.

 

His hands still ache.

 

And the thing is?

 

It feels fucking good anyway.

 

 

 

                         *****

 

 

 

The sun is melting.

 

It has been. For millions of years. For a billion. For longer. Since its birth. A slow burning explosion towards death. Steady roiling constant almost burst of white hot star guts.

 

But today.

Today Taehyung can see it. Feel it.

 

The sun is melting.

 

Everything below it. The sky. The ocean. Taehyung.

 

Everything else is too.

 

He buries his hands in the water, rolling waves flowing through his fingers. Doesn’t let him hold on for long. Doesn’t let him hold on at all.

 

Taehyung does it anyway. Tries to find it. A grip.

 

Another wave makes its way under him. He lurches forward, locks his knees to keep himself steady, to keep his board, his body, back. To resist the urge. To follow it.

 

It isn’t the time.

 

It isn’t the right one.

 

His chest burns with it. His gut is full of it. The knowledge. The certainty. The same way the sun is burning the top of his head so hotly if he touched his hair right now, the wet plastered weight of it, his hand would come away singed. The same way its heat is a full pressing weight on his back, the fabric of his wetsuit held off from disintegrating thanks to his perfectly waxed board.

 

Because it is. Taehyung made sure of it, his hands moving in crisscrossing motions all along the body of it. Steady hands. Sure hands. For the perfect glide. The perfect ease. The perfect grip.

 

A shout from the shoreline gets carried above the crashing swell.

 

Swooping down to skid the water with its beak, a seagull cries. Glides with spread wings over the fizzy sea foam. Takes for the air again.

 

Someone is calling Taehyung’s name.

 

Above him, the sky melts. Drips down his nape, paints wings of warmth on his shoulder blades.

 

Taehyung takes it all in. Inside himself. Inside his chest. Lets it lurch him forward along with the next wave, curving up beneath the flat of his board, almost tipping forward before Taehyung grips it. His balance. His center of gravity.

 

Because it’s the right one.

 

The one he’s been waiting for.

 

The pop up is smooth. Easy. Hands strong, wrists stronger, pushing his weight. Up. Pitched forward, slightly off his left side. Feet firm. The upward tuck, untuck, curl, flow of his body. The flow of his body on the board. The flow of his body anchored by the flow of the wave.

 

Today, it’s easy.

 

Today, the wave doesn’t break with a crash. When the wave rises higher, the barrel curls over his head. The wave closes him in.

 

Today, the sound goes out.

 

Today, Taehyung sees the ocean melt blue. Sees the sky melt turquoise green. Sees them melt into each other. Sees the moment they start to, like the sun is, start to melt him.

 

Today, Taehyung sees God. Sees god. Sees every god and God and goddess and deity every person on earth has ever got on their knees for or cursed out.

 

Today, Taehyung sees the universe.

 

Not because he’s looking up.

 

Not because he’s staring at a person. Because he aches for them. Because the universe was birthed from them. Because one day it’ll collapse with them. Because the universe blooms from their chest.

 

From their heart.

 

Today, Taehyung sees the universe because the universe is all around him.

 

Always.

Today, Taehyung sees the universe because, maybe, Taehyung too is the u-

 

Getting yourself inside the wave, letting yourself get caught. That’s the easy part.

 

The less easy part. The hard part. The adrenaline pumping, bone shaking, muscle aching, soul searing, difficult part, is letting yourself let go.

 

Is getting yourself out of the wave.

 

The first time Taehyung got himself out of a wave, he was twenty-three.

 

 

 

I’ll never understand it. I’ve lived five minutes from the beach my whole life and I’ve never wanted to surf. I wouldn’t dream of it. Surfers are crazy. Every single one of you. What you did out there. Going inside the wave like that. Crazy.”

 

“My dad felt the same. He didn’t like it. That I surf.”

 

Smart man, your father. He ever try and get you to stop?”

 

No. My dad never tried to get me to stop doing anything I said I wanted to. It just made him nervous. Surfing. Letting his kid out there. The ocean is unpredictable, he’d say. Unknowable. It scared him, I think. The unknowable.”

 

Doesn’t it scare all of us? You telling me it doesn’t scare you?”

 

“No, it scares me too. But feeling scared isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes, I think feeling scared can be good.”

 

“See? What I tell you. Surfers. You’re all crazy. May the good Lord bless that father of yours. You take good care of him, you hear? Be a good son. We only have one father in this life. Do you try? To be a good son?”

 

Under the falling sun, the waves break. They roll up to the shore. Lap at Taehyung’s toes, his ankles, his shins. His surfboard dries in the softened rays, stood up in its perch in the sand.

 

Taehyung lets it wash over him. The water. The heat. The sing-song cadence of the first language he ever knew. The first one that pressed to the roof of his mouth and left the bow of his tongue. The soft fragile space inside his throat. His mind. The one he’s still trying to understand. Doesn’t know. If he ever truly will.

 

He says,

 

“I tried.”

 

“Well, keep trying, son. That’s all we can do in this life. Try.”

 

“That’s where you and my father differ. He said you can always do. If you want it enough. If you try hard enough.”

 

Perhaps. It’s also another way of saying try. With the limitation to never stop. Until you do whatever it is you’re trying.”

 

“Maybe. Yeah, maybe.”

 

Ah, the youth today. So downtrodden yet so young. When I was your age, I’d already fought in one war. Was about to fight in a second.”

 

And then you came home?”

 

And then I came home. And fought another. Still fighting it, son. You are too. Don’t think you aren’t because you grew up over there. Don’t let those soft people fool you into thinking you aren’t.”

 

“There aren’t lot of people who would call Americans soft.”

 

“Ahhhh. People. Crazy. Every single one of them. You should head to Japan next. If you like surfing so much. That’s what they say. That the real surf is in Japan. Busan doesn’t compare. Or so they say. Says them. Most beautiful place on earth, if you ask me, Busan. Makes the most beautiful people. The most honest. Even our gangsters are honest.”

 

I’m heading there next. After I go home. Then Seoul. Going to surf Okinawa. Kochi and Tokushima if I have the time.”

 

“You going alone?”

 

No. A friend’s meeting me there. But I don’t mind being alone.”

 

Mind it a little, son. No man should be alone for long. You find yourself a nice girl, yah? A beautiful one. A good one. Marry a Busan girl if you can convince her to love you. The most beautiful girls in the world are from Busan. And the best part is they don’t even know it.”

 

What about the men? What are the men from Busan like?”

 

The men? Hmmm. The most honest, of course. You meet a man from Busan and you better watch what you tell him. They can smell a lie from a mile away. But they also can’t lie. The most honest men. Men from Busan. Where’d you say home was for you?”

 

Daegu. Home is Daegu.”

 

Ah. Daegu. Tae-gu.”

 

What do they say? About the men from Daegu?”

 

They say never trust a man from Daegu. You’ll know him fifty years and still not know who he really is. They’ll never lie to you but they’ll never tell you the truth either. Unknowable is a man from Daegu.”

 

And the women?”

 

Never trust a woman from Daegu. She’s beautiful. And the worst part is she knows it.”

 

Hmm.”

 

What do you think? Sound about right?”

 

Does it matter what I say? You won’t believe me anyway.”

 

“Ahhhhh. You surfers. Crazy. Every single damn one of you.”

 

“You know I never call myself that. A surfer.”

 

“And why not? You surf, don’t you?”

 

 

 

Today, getting out of the wave is-

 

His board skids over the wave. Taehyung’s arm slices through the water rolling around him. The illusion of a grip. Slight tuck of his body, knees bent, almost perfect center of gravity as he bears his weight downward. The barrel curls, curling, curls, the other side of the ocean visible through the falling curtain of liquid blue-green-green-blue.

 

And then with a softly sharp turn of his board. The tuck of his body. Ducking his head, spray wetting his drenched hair, Taehyung is outside of the wave, riding the gentle swell of it, the remnants of its break.

 

Taehyung lets himself. Lets himself let go.

 

Because that’s the hard part. The soul searing part of leaving the wave. When you’re no longer being surrounded by it. The soundlessness. The God you don’t believe in. The god you do. The ocean cradling you safely. Cradling you close.

 

The universe.

 

Because you never know. If you’ll make it to the other side.

 

Unless you try.

 

Unless you do.

 

That’s why it’s easier. Letting the wave leave you.

 

But today.

 

Today, it’s easy.

 

“Shit, dude! That tube looked fucking sweet.”

 

“Sweet? Sick as a motherfucker. As the motherfucker who rode it. You ain’t gotta make us all look so bad all the time, man.”

 

“Already does it with his face.”

 

“Watch it, Casey. Your man crush is showing.”

 

“Fuck you, man. My man crush is always showing.”

 

Taehyung lets this wash over him too. The not-soundlessness. The sound. The easy chatter. The loud murmurs from the few beach goers. The kids swimming in the shallow end. The distant muffled city hum.

 

It washes over Taehyung. Melts into him.

 

He paddles against the incoming waves. Makes for the swell.

 

Smiling, he dips under a wave. Comes back up, hair salt crusted to his forehead. He probably does need that haircut. Maybe he’ll do that today. After one more wave. After.

 

He shakes his hair out, toes skimming the water. Says, “Maybe if you guys surfed more and chatted less you’d make yourselves look good too.”

 

Water splashes.

 

Taehyung shakes his hair out once more. Laughs. He doesn’t think he could keep it off his face. The smile. Doesn’t think he could keep it inside him. The laughter.

 

“Fuck off, man!”

 

“Watch that big head of yours, Taehyung. The ocean doesn’t like it when you think you’ve conquered her. Think you’re a motherfucker? The ocean’s the biggest mother there is and she’ll fuck you twice as hard back. Infinity times back.”

 

“Motherfucker!”

 

Taehyung’s laugh crashes against the waves. The break. The sound-full sound.

 

Because Taehyung knows all about infinity. Knows nothing next to nothing about the ocean. Knows he doesn’t know it. Just that it’s melting. The way the sun is. Just that it is stardust made liquid. The way the whole universe is, the stuff that made the stars.

 

Skin burnt, muscles straining, soul still shaking, Taehyung pushes through the water with aching arms, the lip of his board bobbing in and out of the foam, his hands trying to find a grip.

 

They don’t.

 

He keeps trying anyway.

 

Today, his hands ache and the reason is because of the universe. Because the reason is Taehyung himself.

 

Today, his hands are shaking.

 

Today, it’s easy.

 

 

 


                       *****

 

 


“My dad wasn’t an angry man.”

 

Sunlight pours through the windows.

 

It sweeps over the brilliantly shiny tile floor.

 

Slants off a fine row of pearls.

 

Bounces off a wedding band.

 

Lands on Taehyung’s face. Fills him with the illusion of warmth. Makes him shine too.

 

“I actually never saw him angry. Not once. He had the world’s calmest temper. My mom is the one with the temper. She gets set off really easy. She’s the sweetest person ever but she’s quick to anger. My dad used to tease her because it was so easy to get her angry. She could never stay mad at him long, though. At me neither.”

 

A chair leg squeaks.

 

Someone coughs.

 

Taehyung scratches his nose. Drops his gaze to the smooth tile. Brightness fills his eyes.

 

“My father wasn’t an angry man either.”

 

Another cough. Same person.

 

The air conditioning kicks on, motor turning quickly to keep the room at the right temperature. A cool 66 degrees.

 

Someone shivers.

 

The light touches the side of Taehyung’s face. His bowed head. The spot he’s watching on the floor.

 

“He was never angry. Never got close to it. Not where I could see it or hear it, at least. I think- If he was angry, if he ever did feel that way, I think he kept it in his head. In his mind. Inside his own self. A lot of people say that people who drink... alcoholics. They say that they’re sad. They’re so sad and they can’t handle it the way everyone else does. Everyone else who can handle their sad. That that’s why they drink.”

 

“But I don’t think that’s true.”

 

There’s a sniffle. A handkerchief is passed over. Accepted. Blown into.

 

Someone clears their throat loudly. The force they push down on their windpipe makes them cough. Makes them clear their throat for a second, longer, time.

 

The person next to the shivering man offers him a jacket. With a polite shake of his head, he declines.

 

Taehyung licks his dry lips. Tastes salt water.

 

He looks up. Just above someone’s eyes. Just above the place on his own face they’re looking back.

 

“I think my father was angry. He wasn’t an angry man. Or an angry person. But I think he was angry. He was angry and it made him sad so he drank. Or maybe he was angry so he drank and that made him sad.”

 

Taehyung almost gets lost in it. The not looking. The almost seeing.

 

He shakes his head. A minute thing. Coaxes his eyes lower. Tells himself it’s okay to look. To be seen.

 

“I don’t remember when I started thinking of him that way. Separating him. As a person. As a parent. By the time I realized, it was too late. He already was what we was to me. Two different people. Two different parents. And it wasn’t until he died that I realized-”

 

“I loved my dad. I looked up to him like- like he put the stars in the sky. Like he made them. Like he made the whole universe. Because to me he did. But when my dad died. When my father died. When they both died. I was sad. But I was also really angry. And I didn’t know. That I could get that angry. And it took me years to figure it out but-”

 

“I was only angry at one of them.”

 

An inhale overtakes the room.

 

Fills the space.

 

“I loved my dad. But I didn’t love my father. I know that sounds- Awful. But I didn’t. I didn’t know him. He didn’t let me. So I didn’t love my father.”

 

“But he wasn’t the one I was angry at.”

 

Taehyung looks. Sees.

 

“I loved my dad. I love my dad. But the one I was angry at was him. And the thing is?”

 

Taehyung is looked at. Is seen.

 

There’s a slight tremor in his aching hands.

 

The light pours.

 

“I’m still angry.”

 

 

 

                         *****

 

 

 

“It’s really good to see you, Taehyung.”

 

Manuel crunches a handful of almonds. Caramel glazed.

 

When they shake hands, Taehyung’s fingers are smeared in brie.

 

Taehyung’s hands are still shaking.

 

“It’s really good to see you too.”

 

 

 

                       ******

 

 

The shadows fall across her eyes.

 

Inside her gasping mouth.

 

Paint her heaving breats. The curve of her waist. The space between her legs where she’s open and wet and tight around him. Wet from his mouth. She didn’t taste like anything except ocean when he hiked up her legs and kissed her there, ate her out like she was the sweetest unsweet thing. She probably tastes like him now. The impression of him. His mouth.

 

And his hands.

 

His hands are shaking.

 

They slip on the hard edges of her hips, the backs of his fingers stripped in shadow. Light.

 

His knees skid on her sheets, starched, not as soft as she deserves, too rough for what she can probably afford. Her next gasp is all light. Her legs tighten. All of her does. Pulls.

 

Pulls at him. His hips between her thighs. His hands at her skin. His mouth in want of a mouth. Hers.

 

Taehyung grips at her knee. He wants to press his face against it. Catch his breath. Catch his bearings. Because she feels good. Because he’s inside her. Because being inside her might feel a little too good.

 

He wants to.

 

But his mouth.

 

But her mouth.

 

He thinks there might be too much space between them. Their bodies. Their. Something.

 

So he leans down. Kisses her. Fucks her as he kisses her. Kisses her as he fucks her. So he fucks her and he kisses her and kisses her and kisses her. Lets her pull him. And she does. With her hands, her body, her mouth. And she fucks him back. Kisses him until he can’t breathe. Until it feels good not to have to. Until he doesn’t want to hide his face anywhere. Doesn’t want his mouth anywhere except against her’s.

 

It’s with a shudder that she comes. It starts in her hips, works out to her legs. Her stomach. Her chest. Her arms. With her teeth on Taehyung’s lower lip. Fingers digging into his shoulders. One of Taehyung’s hands between her thighs, palm pressed to her lower belly.

 

It’s with a laugh, after. Up at the ceiling. Half into his mouth.

 

It’s with a rough breath that he comes. Punched out of him. Pulled out of him. Into the condom. Into her shuddery body. With her hands on him. Fingers soft. Palms even softer.

 

It’s with a soft breath, after. Breathed into her mouth like a laugh.

 

He pulls out, the wet sound of his cock pulling out of her body jarring in the sudden quiet, and it’s easy. He rolls the condom off, soaked and squelching in that nasty way good sex is, and tosses it in the little silver wastebasket by her bed and it’s easy.

 

He lies on his back and stares at the sinewy shadows dancing across the ceiling, the driving cars cutting through the light. The windows are open, and the room is too hot, and it’s easy.

 

His shoulder touches hers and it’s easy.

 

Half curled over his softly rising and falling abdomen, his hands shake.

 

And it’s easy.

 

To ignore the shaking.

 

That he’s not ignoring it.

 

Mitzuki says, “I could really use a deep dish pizza right now. Or a hot dog. Twelve hotdogs.”

 

Taehyung’s mouth curves. He tries to bump their shoulders together. Manages to make the muscles in his bicep jerk more than anything.

 

“Think you can get away with making it eleven since you already had one.”

 

She’s quiet for a moment. Then she laughs, teeth pressed together like she’s trying not to. Isn’t trying that hard. “That is disgusting. And now I really want that hot dog.”

 

The sheets rustle as she stands. She throws on a t-shirt and some shorts and pads out of the room with light steps. The water runs in the bathroom. The fridge door closes with a slam in the kitchen. The microwave beeps.

 

Another car drives by. Drags its shadow across the wall. Cuts through the dark. The light.

 

Taehyung inhales. Forces out the exhale. Does it again. His body feels like a slowly stopping metronome, keeping time. Making it drag. Easing its way from the time of day when it’s dark to the time of day when it’s light.

 

His fingers start to curl further. Stop. He flexes them. Spreads them out over his belly. Over his gut. His faintly sticky skin. His easing body.

 

A breeze rustles the curtains. It washes over Taehyung’s legs. Cuts through his fingers. Touches at his hair.

 

He runs a hand through it. Finds it grounding. Giving his hands something to do. One of them at least. He curls his fingers on air when he reaches the ends of his hair, unused to the slide being shorter than it was. He wonders how long it’ll take him. To get used to it.

 

The bed dips. Doesn’t make a sound. It’s one of those memory foam types. The kind that remembers your body. The way the people who sleep in it find the easiest sleep. It’s probably too nice for this apartment. For the sheets stretched over it.

 

Taehyung wonders. If it’s starting to remember his body. The easiest way he falls asleep.

 

Something lands on Taehyung’s belly. Over his unfurled hand. Wrapped in foil and lumpy.

 

“Thanks,” he says. He sits up against the headboard, sheet thrown over his lap. He peels the foil off. The scent of spice hits him in the face, hits him harder when he takes the first bite, softened microwave tortilla melting on his tongue.

 

Mitzuki salutes him with a hot dog. She eats about a third in the next mouthful, mustard on her lip, legs crossed beneath herself.

 

“Did you run out of hotdogs?” Taehyung asks, chin jutted toward the other two buns on the plate on her lap.

 

She shrugs and wipes her mouth with her knuckles. A glob of mustard falls on her oversized shirt. Raphael from the Ninja Turtles sticks his tongue out at Taehyung, his armor covered in shiny yellow.

 

“Don’t you like Mexican food?”

 

“Are freezer aisle burritos considered Mexican food?”

 

“They are to me. I’d be more than happy to get called out on it by an actual Mexican, though. And anyway, it’s the only non meat thing in my house. I’m trying to support your lifestyle choices, dude.”

 

Taehyung chews, the itch in his tongue making sense now. It’s just cheese. Just vegetables. Soft microwave tortilla. It’s barely spicy. Barely the kind of thing that would make his heart kick. His eyes water.

 

He squeezes her knee in quiet thanks. Rips more of the foil. Eats.

 

Mitzuki grins, half light falling over the dark curtain of her hair. The slope of her shoulder. Her green eyes so dark they’re almost black in certain lights. The lack of it.

 

“I bought my ticket. To go to to Japan this year. Did I tell you?”

 

Taehyung shakes his head. Smiles. “No. That’s awesome. When are you going?”

 

“The fall. Guess where I’m going?”

 

He smiles wider. Muffled by mushed tortilla, he asks, “Yeah?”

 

“Yeah. Talking about it made me realize I should just do it. Just go. Start there. Work my way home. Gonna be in Tokyo for a week. See Kobe. Itsukushima. Shikoku. Then I’ll go home.”

 

“You still consider it home? Fukuoka?”

 

“Sometimes. As in sometimes it feels like it. A lot of the time it doesn’t. But sometimes nowhere feels like home. Maybe where our parents are feels like home the most.”

 

“Especially this close to Skid Row?”

 

“Especially. Maybe it was all the moving we did growing up. Living in different countries. What’s that thing those kids are called? Third culture kids? You get it. You are one. Kind of.”

 

“I think you had to have lived in more than one culture as a kid to be considered third culture. You traipsed all over Europe. I left Korea when I was two and never went anywhere else.”

 

“Yeah, but you moved to LA when you were seventeen. A baby basically. A whole different culture to learn to live in while you were still a kid.”

 

Taehyung picks at a piece of tortilla. There are too many vegetables in his mouth.

 

He thinks about seventeen. Thinks about what makes a kid. What makes someone a kid unlike the other kids. A not kid. A sort of kid. An almost kid.

 

He swallows. Puts more cheesy vegetables in his mouth. The cheese helps with ignoring the vegetables.

 

He says, “Maybe. New York is basically a world of cultures. Maybe just being from there makes you third culture.”

 

“Maybe,” Mitzuki agrees. She starts on her next hot dog, relish filling the length of the bun over the meat. Something white underneath.

 

Taehyung stuffs the last of the burrito in his mouth. Balls up the wrapper. Aims for the wastebasket. Gives a half hearted fist bump when it hits the bottom.

 

He says, “I’ve been thinking about going to Korea. It’s been a few years. It’s probably time.”

 

“How long’s it been?”

 

“Four years. I was twenty-three.”

 

“Hey! That’s how old I am,” she says, mouth a shocked gasp like she’s just realized this.

 

Taehyung makes a shocked face back. “That’s right. Basically a kid still.”

 

“Ohhhh. Better be careful with that, mister. If I’m still a kid that means I’m still a girl and you don’t fuck girls anymore, remember?”

 

And. Right. Taehyung doesn’t fuck girls anymore. Doesn’t fuck boys anymore. Taehyung isn’t a kid anymore.

 

He says, “Right.” He runs through his hair again. Both hands. He cups his nape when he runs out of hair this time.

 

Mitzuki watches him, shadows touching her cheek. “It looks good, by the way. Your hair. I meant to say it earlier but you distracted me with all the dick stuff.”

 

Taehyung smiles, soft. It feels soft. On his face. In his chest. He knots his fingers at his nape. It feels steadier this way. The shake. To ignore it. “Thanks. For the compliment. And the dick stuff.”

 

“Sure,” she says. She bites into the last hot dog. Then she asks, “So… are you okay?”

 

Taehyung flexes his fingers. Settles them. Settles more languidly against the headboard, metal bars digging shapes into his back. “What do you mean?”

 

Mitzuki doesn’t blink obviously at him. Doesn’t roll her eyes. Taehyung doesn’t expect her to. She eats her sodium congested mechanically separated meat. Body calm and relaxed on her bed. Face patient. Words open. “I mean are you okay? You seem kinda off tonight.”

 

It’s such a simple question. An honest one. It deserves an honest answer.

 

Taehyung says, “No. I’m not okay tonight. Not really.”

 

“Hm.”

 

An honest sound.

 

He cranes his neck towards her ceiling. Toward the half light half dark. Everything is at the edge of golden. The edge of black. He feels like he’s almost floating. He feels like he could almost shake apart.

 

Sex is supposed to make you forget. Is supposed to heal you. Is supposed to make your body boneless, your mind mindless.

 

“You ever have those days where you feel off? An off kilter day. Like yesterday was fine. Good even. You felt really good. But today you just don’t. And tomorrow will probably be fine. But today just isn’t?”

 

She says, “All the time. Except today has been three days. Or a week. Or a month. It’s a never ending off kilter off center weird day. You feel weird every day. How many days has it been for you?”

 

Taehyung looks at her.

 

It’s strange. How a word in a certain context can mean one thing. How a word from a certain mouth can sting. How you can choose not to let a wound form from it, fester. Plant a garden from it instead.

 

Taehyung looks at her.

 

She doesn’t look like she ever feels off kilter. She looks like she knows exactly how to fit inside herself. She looks like she knows exactly where she stands. How to get herself to someplace else once she no longer wants to be where she currently is.

 

She looks like she doesn’t need anyone to tell her any of that.

 

He says, “Since I was born. But off center from already off center? A few days. Half days.”

 

“Is this about him? The guy you- The guy?” Mitzuki asks, swiping at the top of the bun. Her finger comes away red.

 

Taehyung can smell it from here. The plasticky sugar doused tomato smell of ketchup. Some of it lands on Raphael on her t-shirt too. A more obvious wound.

 

Taehyung uncurls his hands. Drops them from his nape. He sprawls them at his sides, palms up. The opposite of grounding. Upliftment. He wonders how that works since his knuckles are facing the earth. Knuckles are as much hands as palms, as the tips of his fingers, are.

 

Taehyung says, “Yes.”

 

It’s only the second thing he isn’t completely honest about with her. Isn’t honest about it at all.