When Jeongguk wakes, it takes him five, six, seven seconds for him to understand where he is. He’s seen this in movies, he thinks briefly—the bright white lights overhead, machines beeping in the distance. He blinks the sleep out of his eyes and raises his head just enough to look down at himself, at the scratchy white sheets covering him. There’s a tube stuck in his hand, attached to a bag hanging beside him. Dumbly, he wonders if he could ask them to put something stronger in it, whatever it is.
He’s in a hospital. Everything is white—white sheets, white walls, white ceilings. White, white, like what he thinks he saw before he passed out last night, and oh, he knows why he’s here. Thinks briefly that he doesn’t want to be here, but it’s less about the hospital and more about the world in general, more about this situation, this context, this life.
Jeongguk’s mouth is dry, but he’s breathing fine. Is it weird, he wonders, that he once googled what an opioid overdose would entail? He can rattle the symptoms off easily—clammy skin, small pupils, dizziness, extreme drowsiness, choking, difficulty breathing. Opioids affect the part of the brain that control breathing. People die from opioid overdoses because it slows their breathing to the point of not breathing at all, and was that what he wanted last night? He can’t remember. He’d been drinking.
By the time a nurse comes around to check on him, finding that he’s awake, he doesn’t need her to explain what happened because he knows. Jeongguk isn’t stupid—doesn’t need to be treated like a child, doesn’t need some woman in scrubs to lean down by the bed and explain to him that he took too many drugs last night, that they’re monitoring his vital signs, that he’ll have to be here for a while. He doesn’t bother to ask who brought him in, because he knows it couldn’t have been any of his family members. They’re the reason he started drinking, anyway, probably the reason he started mixing his alcohol with drugs, too.
What Jeongguk finds is that hospitals are boring, at least when he has no visitors. He’s left with his thoughts, with the darkness that caused all of this in the first place—why did you do it, a doctor asks in the middle of the afternoon. I’m tired, he answers, and the doctor tells him that he can sleep if he wants, but—that’s not what he means. It’s not the first time he’s mixed his poisons, but it’s the first time he’s had to pay the price for it and—he’s still tired. He’s suffocating, confined in this bed and staring at the ceiling and. He doesn’t want this anymore. Doesn’t want to feel like this anymore, doesn’t want to hurt himself anymore.
In his head, he imagines the perfect escape—he could leave Seoul. He could run from his family, from the warzone that has become his home. He could go to the sea, maybe, and spend his days on the beach. He could write poems and paint sunsets and sing, sing, sing—
His fantasies are interrupted by thundering footsteps and his eyes snap to the door to see two teenage boys stumbling into the room. They can’t be much older than him, laughing a little before one of them looks up and stops abruptly, laughter stopping.
“Oh shit,” he says, and the other one—taller, can’t be much older than Jeongguk himself—lets out another giggle. “Hobi—”
“Wait, this isn’t Tae’s room,” says the taller one, backtracking out of the room to presumably check the door number. “Jimin, you fucking idiot, it’s 245, not 542!”
“Namjoon-hyung said it was 542,” says the first boy—Jimin, presumably.
Jeongguk stares at them. Part of him wants to be angry about the intrusion, but—it’s the most interaction he’s had outside of nurses and doctors for the better part of the day, and it’s a bit entertaining. He’d gotten sick of trying to find something on the television within half an hour. So he sits up a little, raising his eyebrows before he says, “Well, this is 542 and your friend isn’t here, so…”
“Oh, fuck,” says the taller one, the one the other had called Hobi—“Almost forgot you were here. Sorry for disturbing you.”
“It’s—” Jeongguk begins, about to say it’s okay when the first one, Jimin, grabs Hobi’s wrist to begin pulling him out of the room.
“We’ll just—yeah,” says Jimin, already giggling as he turns around to head out of the room and.
“Wait,” calls Jeongguk desperately, and he’s unsure why he even wants to keep them from leaving, but—he’s lonely. Not just here, not just now. Jeongguk has been lonely for years, never able to keep a real friend because his family is always moving around, trying to find somewhere better even though each place is the same because it’s always the same people he’s with. His father claims this will finally be the last move, though. And Jeongguk is going to keep him to it, which means—he sort of recognizes the pair, something about school.
The pair stops, turning to look at him with questioning expressions, and Jeongguk licks his lips. He’s not good with people. He’s not good with social interaction of any sort, always the quiet one who prefers to do things on his own, but—earlier, the doctor told him that it would be good for him to find some solid friends, people he could do things with. People who could help him when he gets into a slump or has a problem with his father, people who can keep him from trying to overdose again. He’d laughed. But now—
“You guys go to Kyungbock High School, right?” he asks. They look—vaguely familiar, although Jeongguk keeps his head down anyway. He thinks he’s heard that laughter before, thinks he’s seen that smile somewhere, and—it’s a long shot. The two boys look at each other, and he feels dread curling in his gut.
And then—“Yeah,” says Jimin. “Do you?”
“I just transferred,” says Jeongguk.
“Oh, cool!” crows Jimin. “I’m Jimin, this is Hoseok. We’re here visiting one of our dumbass friends who broke his leg.”
“Room 245, right,” says Jeongguk. “Um—I’m Jeongguk.”
“Jeongguk,” says Jimin, like he’s testing it on his tongue. “Nice name. Are you liking school so far?”
Jeongguk thinks of the homework that has begun to pile in his room. It’s not that he isn’t good at school, it’s just that—he finds it hard to concentrate sometimes, and he gets anxious about doing well too easily. He fights too often with his father, spends too many nights drunk to actually do his work. He doesn’t have friends at school, not yet, but he supposes all of that aside, it’s not so bad.
“I like the classes,” he admits. “Although I find them kind of easy, so I usually end up sitting at the back of the room and reading manga when everyone else is working.”
Surprised laughter bubbles out of both Jimin’s and Hoseok’s mouths, and Jeongguk finds himself grinning, just a little.
“A man after my own heart,” says Hoseok.
Jimin scoffs. “You read manga in class because you don’t understand what the teacher is talking about, not because you’re too smart for everyone and finish your work faster.”
“That’s a lie!”
“I’ve seen your report card!”
Jeongguk—laughs. Can’t help it, likes the way they have this easy banter with each other. And it feels good to laugh, to have something to ease him after so long of feeling nothing, nothing. He likes the pair of them, finds himself yearning for whatever they have. Maybe it would help.
“Alright, maybe I’m not a nerd like some people,” says Hoseok with a shrug. “You should help me sometime.”
It takes a moment for Jeongguk to realize Hoseok is talking to him. “Oh,” he said. “I mean—yeah, I guess, if you wanted help. I wouldn’t mind giving you a hand.” Wouldn’t mind talking to someone, being with someone other than his own thoughts and demons.
“You’re pretty cool, Jeonggukkie,” says Jimin with a wide grin, and he can’t help but blush.
And then Hoseok asks, “What are you in here for, anyway?”
Jimin smacks his chest. “Hyung, that’s rude,” he says, but Jeongguk—well, he has nothing to lose?
“It’s fine,” he says. “It’s, ah. Just like… drug problems. Almost overdosed.”
Jimin and Hoseok sort of look at him like—like they don’t think he’s a freak for it. It’s not commonplace for a high school student to end up in the hospital after almost overdosing, he’s sure of it, and one of the reasons he’s never made many friends is because no one wants to be friends with someone who drinks as much as he does, who uses drugs like he does. It’s never recreational, though, and he can’t help it, just like he can’t help the way they all look at him when they find out that he’s got enough problems of his own.
“Oh,” says Hoseok.
“Are you—I mean,” begins Jimin. Jeongguk feels like all of the air has been sucked out of the room. “Are you okay?”
And he knows they just met. Knows he’s probably losing his chance of really being friends, but he’s sick of lying—to himself, to others. “Not really,” he admits, and then—“Sorry, that’s weird. You guys can go visit your friend and I’ll stop bothering you.”
Jimin and Hoseok look at each other again, like they can communicate without actually needing to speak, and—Jeongguk isn’t jealous. He isn’t.
“I have a better idea,” Jimin says after a moment. “It sounds like you need a friend or six, Jeongguk-ssi. And it just so happens that I know some people who could be really good friends. If you—I mean, if you don’t mind, we can introduce you to the rest of our friends and we could all hang out… in here.”
He’s not sure why anyone would offer. Jeongguk isn’t a very friendly person, although it’s not because he’s not nice—it’s because he’s learned how to always have his guard up, his walls. He’s used to people hurting him. But here are two nice people, all open and wide smiles, offering him something on an olive branch. Having six other people in his room might be a lot more than he bargained for, but… well. Maybe that’s what he needs.
“Okay,” he agrees. “Yeah, that might be nice.”
That’s how it starts, he thinks—suddenly there are six other boys in his room, crowding around with chairs and bottles of soda and. It’s strange, really, how quickly he seems to blend into them. He’s the one in the hospital bed but he’s not the center of attention, at least not after the initial introductions and questions about school, why he transferred, what he likes to do. The thing is, this ragtag group of boys are remarkably good at just—existing wherever they go. Before long, they’re all laughing about something, broken off into smaller conversations, making fun of things on the television and Jeongguk sits there in his hospital bed, sort of just watching all of them. They’re giving him space even in his own hospital room, like they already know.
He talks a bit with the one called Namjoon, who did text Jimin with the right room number after all. He speaks soft and gentle, asking Jeongguk questions about his time in the hospital but never prying, never overstepping his boundaries. They watch the others together—Jimin and Hoseok playing ‘keep the remote away’ with Taehyung, the one in a wheelchair because of his broken leg. There’s Seokjin, too, trying to berate the others for being loud and making a mess of Jeongguk’s room, although Jeongguk doesn’t mind because there’s no one else to visit him. This is nice.
And then there’s Yoongi—he’s off to the side, silent more or less, watching the others, too. Sometimes his eyes will move to Jeongguk’s, just briefly, like he’s trying to watch Jeongguk without getting caught. The problem is that Jeongguk is trying to do the same thing—he’s not sure what to make of Yoongi. He’s the one who has spoken the least, the one who isn’t yelling or playing games or asking him questions. Jeongguk isn’t sure what to make of Yoongi, but—that’s fine. They don’t all have to be friends.
Eventually, though, a nurse comes in to tell them to be quiet. Looks strangely at Taehyung, who tries to hide his entire casted leg and wheelchair behind Seokjin, to no avail. They do stay quieter after that, though, the commotion boiling down into something calmer when the nurse has to change whatever they’re pumping into his veins and everything sort of narrows in on that one fact—they’ve made a new friend, but he’s hooked up to machines and bags and. He almost died last night.
He’s afraid, just a little, that they’ll all change their minds. It wasn’t like Jimin and Hoseok gave them much of a choice in the matter when they hauled the whole group over to Jeongguk’s room, anyway, and he shifts uncomfortably on the bed, keeping his head down.
It’s Seokjin who speaks first, saying, “It was really nice to meet you, Jeongguk-ssi.”
The boy lifts his head, pink colouring his cheeks as he narrows in on the older boy. But he’s not done—“It would be cool if we could hang out at school when you’re out of here,” Seokjin adds, gaze skirting to the others, who quickly nod and voice their agreement. “You seem pretty neat and I’m sure we would love to have another person to hang out with.”
“You can help balance out the whole dynamic,” Namjoon adds at his side. “We’ve got too many dumbasses over there who don’t know how to act, and I have a feeling you’ll be able to mellow them out.”
“Hyung!” one of them crows—Taehyung. But then he adds, “Although it would be really cool to talk to you more, Jeongguk-ah. Maybe when we’re both not confined to hospital beds, because that’s not really helpful when it comes to making friends.”
Jeongguk stutters out a laugh, feeling a little overwhelmed with all of the attention. They’re all looking at him—even Yoongi, still in the corner, watching him carefully. Lips in a thin line, like maybe—maybe he doesn’t care as much about Jeongguk making friends with them all.
“That would be cool,” he admits. “I don’t… really have any friends at the moment, and I’ll admit that my home life isn’t that great either.” He’s awkward, picking at the blanket covering his legs because it’s hard to admit, but he knows he needs to. He only met these boys an hour ago, but there’s something there, he thinks. Something that’s drawing him to them anyway, something that’s telling him they can do something.
“I don’t want to end up in here again,” says Jeongguk quietly, and he feels Namjoon’s hand on his knee, squeezing it with reassurance. “I need—help.” He looks up then, finding Jimin’s eyes first, and then Hoseok’s—the first two to offer him something, to see that maybe he needed help even though he didn’t say anything. It’s hard for him to admit, but he knows it’s the truth, and there’s something in their eyes that is giving him the courage to go on. “I have a lot of problems and I understand if that’s going to keep you from… you know, wanting to be friends with me, but I think having friends could help me. Just—figure out how to cope with things without putting myself in the hospital all of the time.”
“Of course,” says Hoseok instantly, moving to the other side of the bed so he can ruffle Jeongguk’s hair. “We’ve all got problems, too. Everyone has problems, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have friends or get help. We just met, but… I dunno, I really like you. And I do want to help you. We’ve all been at rock bottom at some point and the rest of us have helped and that’s… that’s what we do.”
“We’ll help you, Jeongguk-ah,” says Namjoon. “Whatever you need, we’ll help you.”
The rest of them are quick to voice their agreement—even Yoongi, Jeongguk notes, who nods his head. And. He can feel something get stuck in his throat, something like gratitude but a bit of fear; he doesn’t want to mess this up, but he knows that he has to put in effort himself if he wants to get better. And he does want to get better, because waking up in the hospital once was bad enough. He doesn’t need to end up in this situation again.
And it’s strange, maybe, that he already feels more at home with these six boys than he ever has with his family. Already feels that warm, that calm. He doesn’t know what to do with all of it.
Later, when they leave—because another nurse comes looking for Taehyung and berates him, making him go back to his own room, and then berates the rest of them and someone suggests they leave Jeongguk alone anyway (although he doesn’t mind, he really doesn’t mind)—they take their turns ruffling his hair or patting his knee and telling him to rest well, to gain his strength back soon. He exchanges numbers with Jimin, just for now, just until he can get back on his feet and think about going to school again, where they promise they’ll be waiting for him.
When they’re gone, he finds himself letting out a breath he hadn’t known he was holding, and then he turns and—
“Jesus Christ!” he shouts, startling when he sees Yoongi is standing right beside his bed.
“Sorry,” says the other boy, awkwardly scratching behind his ear. “I just, um. I just wanted to tell you that I get it, kind of? The thing with not having a lot of friends and having a shit family and not knowing how to deal with it very well. I mean, lots of them get it, too—they weren’t lying when they said we all have problems, but—” Yoongi stops again, licking at his lips, and. Jeongguk can tell he feels awkward, unsure how to approach the topic when it’s so sensitive.
Jeongguk can’t stop staring at him.
“Yeah,” says Yoongi after a moment. “They’re good guys, all of them. It’s hard for me to trust people sometimes, just because of—stuff that’s happened, but they don’t care about my baggage. They’re really genuine when they say they want to help, so I think they’ll be good for you.”
Jeongguk swallows tightly. Worries at his bottom lip for a moment before he asks, “What about you?”
Yoongi’s eyes widen. “What about me?”
“Would you… be good for me, too?”
There’s an awkward chuckle, and Yoongi doesn’t look at him when he says, “I hope so. I dunno if adding two self-destructive people together is the best idea, but at least we’ll understand each other.” And then he grins, just a little—but it lights up his whole face, changes everything when he looks at Jeongguk and Jeongguk finds himself at a total loss for words. He can tell what Yoongi was talking about with the others—they do seem genuine, seem like they want to do what’s best for him, for all of them. But there’s something about Yoongi, about the way he’s trying to show Jeongguk that maybe there’s a part of him that understands Jeongguk on a much deeper level—something that makes Jeongguk’s chest hurt. In a good way.
“I should… yeah,” says Yoongi, gesturing to the door.
“Yeah, sure,” says Jeongguk quickly. “I’ll, um—see you at school, I guess?”
“Yeah,” says Yoongi with a nod, grinning a little wider. “See you at school, Jeongguk-ah.”
It’s only when he’s nearly out of the door that he pauses, turning to look back at Jeongguk with something soft on his face. “Don’t… don’t overdose again, okay?” he asks. “I’ll help you find better ways of coping with shit, but until you’re ready to get our help, just—don’t do it.”
And Jeongguk wants help. He knows he needs it, is ready to receive it, and he’s desperate enough that he’ll trust near-strangers to give it to him. But it’s only at that point, with Yoongi staring at him with that pleading look on his face, that he realizes—maybe this will actually work.
Long after Yoongi has gone, following the rest of them, Jeongguk sits in his hospital bed and he finds himself thinking about mint hair and dark eyes and something more. Something good.
Something worth staying for.
Yoongi doesn’t call him until Jeongguk is closer to being drunk out of his mind than not. He’s lost track of it already, always does—it’s never hard to find someone who will buy him the bottles, and he keeps them hidden under his bed until he needs them. Until times like now, when he just needs to get away get away getaway.
Seeing Yoongi’s name pop up on his phone isn’t a surprise; Jeongguk has been steadily ignoring his texts for the past hour, steadily ignoring the texts of the others, too. He takes another long swig of the vodka in his hand before he, because why not, picks up the phone and presses it to his ear, swallowing the burning liquid as he waits for the inevitable—
“Where are you?” asks Yoongi. There are voices in the background. “I know you’ve been reading my texts.”
Jeongguk makes a hmm sound, low in his throat. What Yoongi wants to hear is that he’s sick or busy studying or just forgot, because even after three months, he’s not used to having friends. Not used to having people wanting to communicate with him, not used to having texts to reply to. What Yoongi doesn’t want to hear is the truth—that he doesn’t fucking care and there’s an almost-empty bottle of vodka balanced carefully on his leg as he sits on top of the monkey bars at his old elementary school. Staring at the stars, like maybe if he tries hard enough, he can become one of them.
“Jeongguk,” says Yoongi, more stern this time. “You’re missing Fajita Friday.” He almost laughs at that, at how stupid it is—not just the name, but the very idea. They don’t even eat fajitas and it’s a Thursday, but Seokjin had been adamant about having an alliteration name for their weekly get togethers. He’s been good about going, about trying. He asked for help and his hyungs are eager to give it, but sometimes—sometimes he doesn’t actually want it.
“Fuck Fajita Friday,” Jeongguk mumbles, trying not to let his voice slur. He takes another drink from the bottle.
“Jeongguk, are you—drunk?” asks Yoongi.
Jeongguk hums again. “Did you know that there’s a mathematical formula for altruism that suggests there is no selfless act?”
“What—what does that mean?”
“And pigs can feel depression?”
“And there’s a whale who sings at such a high frequency that no other whale can hear so it’s probably the loneliest whale in the world?”
He hears Yoongi sigh. Then the voices get quieter, not because anyone is speaking less, but because Yoongi is walking away, probably—Jeongguk hears the door close. Tries to imagine where Yoongi is right now, what the others are doing. If they miss him.
“What’s it called?” asks Yoongi.
Jeongguk takes another sip of vodka. “What’s what called?”
“The whale, what’s it called?”
“They don’t know,” says Jeongguk. “They haven’t found it yet, just its song.”
Yoongi hums a little through the phone, voice gravelly. “You ever feel like that whale?” he asks.
“All the time,” says Jeongguk. He’s always hated big cities because he can’t see the stars—all that light pollution. He almost tells Yoongi that, then thinks better of it. Instead, he asks, “Do they hate me yet?”
“Who?” asks Yoongi.
“Everyone else. Do they hate me yet? Regret agreeing to help me?”
“Never, Guk-ah,” and it sounds. Genuine. Sometimes Jeongguk can’t tell, not because his hyungs don’t show that they care about him, but because Jeongguk keeps fucking up anyway. He told them, back at the hospital, that he had problems. But no matter how hard he tries, they keep crawling back up, trying to ruin whatever few steps forward he’s made. Namjoon likes to tell him that two steps forward and one step back is better than nothing, but it doesn’t feel like it. He’s still here, isn’t he? Drunk and lonely and so, so tired.
“Where are you?” Yoongi tries again, quieter this time.
Jeongguk wants to be alone, but he still finds himself replying, “The playground.”
“Which one do you think, dumbass?”
It takes half an hour for Yoongi to get there, coasting onto the sidewalk with his old bike. It’s a piece of shit, but it works anyway, and Jeongguk can make out his shape through the streetlight next to the playground. He doesn’t move, having finished the bottle of vodka and feeling too lazy to climb off of the monkey bars to get the soju that he brought, still stuck in the sand.
Yoongi doesn’t say anything until he’s standing below the monkey bars, Jeongguk’s feet practically touching his chest. And then they just look at each other for a while, and Jeongguk thinks that he likes Yoongi’s hair like this—mint, all wind-swept. He’s a bit out of breath.
Then Yoongi reaches up and wraps his hands around both of Jeongguk’s ankles, gives an experimental little tug.
“What are you doing here?” asks Yoongi, like he can’t already smell the alcohol wafting off of Jeongguk, like he can’t see the empty bottle. There’s nothing accusatory in his words, though, and Jeongguk wiggles his feet as he looks up at the stars again.
“Did I ever tell you that I used to go to school here?” he asks instead of answering the question. “The first elementary school I went to, actually, before everything in my family went to shit. I was only here for a few years, but it’s probably the happiest I’ve been in my entire life.”
“Is that why you always come back here when you’re fucked up?” asks Yoongi—and there’s still nothing judgemental in it. Just a question. “You’re trying to relive every good thing about this place, like you can… absorb that happiness again.”
Jeongguk shrugs. Everything is a little too hazy to think that deeply, and he’s never been good at psychoanalyzing himself, anyway. Yoongi’s better at it—at seeing through all of the masks Jeongguk puts on, although he’s always gentle about trying to pry them away.
“Are you gonna come down or do I need to come up?” asks Yoongi next, tugging on Jeongguk’s ankle again to make him look down. Jeongguk does, feeling a little dizzy as he realizes how high up he is—not bad, maybe, but he’s drunk. He’d break an ankle trying to get down.
In response, he nudges Yoongi’s shoulder with his foot and the elder gets the idea, letting go so that he can head for the little ladder rungs that allow him to climb on top of the monkey bars, too. He shuffles down and down until he’s next to Jeongguk, legs hanging off of the edge and swinging back and forth. From up here, everything looks the same, but it still makes him feel like he’s a little on top of the world, so.
“I broke my arm on one of these once,” says Yoongi, and Jeongguk looks over at him, trying to focus. “I was probably… seven? My older brother and I were at the playground after school, just having fun or whatever, and he challenged me to see who could get across the monkey bars the fastest. Of course, he had longer arms so he could skip a rung and get over faster, but I was determined to win anyway. I tried jumping to the third or fourth rung from the beginning, just barely caught it, and then went flying from all the momentum and landed on my elbow funny.” He rubs at his right elbow, like he can still imagine the pain. Jeongguk can. “I refused to cry even though my brother was freaking out, and he had to leave me there so he can bike all the way home and get our mom. Except she was gone on one of her benders again, so he got one of the neighbours instead and they took me to the hospital.”
“That’s a really depressing story,” says Jeongguk after a moment.
“I didn’t say it wasn’t,” says Yoongi.
Jeongguk—lets out a breathy laugh, a little belatedly. Sometimes he wonders what kind of drunk he would be if he drank with friends instead of alone, if he downed vodka for the fun of it instead of for the sole reason of trying to drink himself into an early grave. He thinks he might be a fun drunk—he’d dance and sing a lot, finally come out of his shell.
Instead, he just sits there and finds that he has nothing much to say. He should have asked Yoongi to bring up the soju.
Yoongi’s thigh is pressed against his, warm and steady. Everything about Yoongi is warm and steady, and he ditched their friends for him and that’s—nice, probably.
“What were you doing at Fajita Friday?” Jeongguk asks, because even though he doesn’t feel guilty about skipping it, he knows he should. He’s good at playing these parts.
“Board game,” says Yoongi. “Monopoly, actually. It was mostly just Seokjin-hyung screaming about his right to own all of the best properties, Taehyung and Jimin fighting over money, and Hobi slyly stealing from the bank the whole time.”
Jeongguk grins, despite himself. It’s all too easy to see it, to see all of the noise and the fighting and the laughter, too. He’s only known them for three months, but he knows them well enough. He’s blended in quite well, mostly because he’s quiet and unassuming and keeps to himself. They don’t have to worry about including him because he’s always just kind of there, wherever they go. They keep him occupied, distracted. That was the whole point of Fajita Friday, and then he fucked it up.
“What about Namjoon-hyung?” asks Jeongguk.
“He was winning while everyone else was fighting.”
Yoongi huffs, just a little. And Jeongguk grins wider, because he knows that Yoongi isn’t the best with board games, or any games—not because he’s not good at that, but because he always tries to cheat and then gets upset when someone catches him, claiming the system is flawed. He probably lost out five minutes into the game.
“They’re not mad at you,” says Yoongi rather than answering. “They’re just—worried. We’re all worried about you, Jeonggukkie.”
“Why?” asks Jeongguk. “Because sometimes you think I’d rather be dead than alive and you’re worried I might do something about it one day? Because you’ve been trying to help me for three months and I’m still here, getting drunk in a playground on a Thursday night?”
“Yes,” says Yoongi. “You know what you’re doing.”
“I’ve chosen to do all of this without regrets.”
“You asked us for help, Guk-ah. The least you could do is actually accept it.”
He laughs—low and guttural. He did ask for help. He’s trying not to regret it now, because before he met Yoongi and the others, he could drink in peace. And yeah, maybe he’d wake up in the park with dried vomit on his shirt and realize that absolutely no one missed him or wondered where he was, but maybe that’s better than someone meddling.
“Why’d you do it, anyway?” asks Yoongi, bumping their knees together.
In lieu of answering, Jeongguk shuffles backwards on top of the bars. Careful to keep his hold—but maybe not careful enough, because he’s drunk and falling probably wouldn’t hurt anyway—he sticks his legs through the bars, hooking his knees on one of them so that he can fall backward and hang there. He hears Yoongi’s sharp intake of breath when he goes, all in a matter of seconds, feels the protective hand on his knee to make sure he doesn’t swing off completely, but.
“My mom used to do this with me when I was a kid,” he says, feeling the blood beginning to rush to his head. “Before she died.”
“This is about your mom?” asks Yoongi.
“She wanted me to be a singer, I think. Told me that I had the voice of angel and I’d been sent by God to change the world’s hearts one by one until everyone could understand beauty and love and goodness.”
Quietly, he hears Yoongi from far, far above him—“I didn’t know you sang.”
“I don’t,” says Jeongguk. “My dad tells me that singing is for pussies and faggots, and if I don’t learn how to make myself useful by the time I graduate, he won’t come to my funeral when I starve on the street.” It’s not the worst thing he’s said—hardly. Jeongguk has never met a crueller man than his father, and through the dizziness and blood rushing to his head, he can still hear the words that the man spat at him earlier that evening.
Yoongi is quiet for a minute, and then he says, “Did you have another fight with him?”
“It was less of a fight,” says Jeongguk, heaving as he reaches up to grab the bars and haul himself upward again. Yoongi helps, a hand on his knee, a hand on his back, careful to keep him steady as he sways. “More of him screaming at me and threatening to bash my head in. Nothing new.” He doesn’t even remember how it started, probably something inconsequential—Jeongguk forgot to put his shoes away or mentioned a movie he wanted to see in theatres or just looked at the man the wrong way. These days, the reason doesn’t seem to be much the problem.
“Jeongguk,” says Yoongi, and it’s careful, and Jeongguk knows what’s coming next. “You can’t just get drunk every time you have a fight with your dad. We talked about this.”
And Jeongguk—petulant child, drunk teenager—swings his legs around the bars so that he can jump off and to the ground. He lands with a painful twinge to his ankles, stumbles a little on the landing. “I wanna swing,” he says, straightening up and trying to blink through his vision enough to make out where the swings even are. Now that he’s walking, he realizes just how drunk he is, unable to coordinate his limbs very well as he ventures across the playground.
“Fucking—Jeongguk!” calls Yoongi, and Jeongguk hears him hit the ground too, footsteps approaching.
“I wanna swing, hyung,” says Jeongguk, turning to look at the older boy as Yoongi catches him and catches his wrist. “Take me to the stars.”
The thing is, he knows that Yoongi is soft on him. Softer than he is on the rest of their friends, at least, and maybe it has something to do with the fact that Jeongguk is the youngest of them all, the most fragile. Maybe it’s the fact that they both come from similar places, at least when it comes to their families. Jeongguk drinks, Yoongi smokes. Neither of them knows how to deal with their hearts very well.
And he knows, too, that the others send Yoongi to deal with him when he’s like this because Jeongguk actually listens to Yoongi. He listens to all of them, but there’s something about Yoongi—something that makes Jeongguk want to listen, something that makes him want to be better. For Yoongi.
There’s something there—something he might want to think about it, but he’s too drunk and hazy and Yoongi leads him to the swings, sitting him in one of the seats and making sure Jeongguk is holding onto the chains.
“There,” says Yoongi. “Now are you going to listen to me?”
“This isn’t swinging, hyung,” says Jeongguk. His bottom lip juts out just a fraction of an inch, but it’s enough. Yoongi sighs, but he moves behind Jeongguk anyway, grabbing hold of the side of the swing so that he can begin pushing.
Jeongguk sticks his legs out and holds on tight, closing his eyes as Yoongi begins pushing him—gently at first, then a little harder and faster so that Jeongguk picks up speed and begins pumping his legs to swing properly. He can feel the wind—feels like he’s flying a little, even though his entire head is spinning when he closes his eyes, and he likes it. Likes thinking that he could just take off from here and go and go and fly far away from all of this shit, away from his family and the emptiness that is still there, even after three months.
He wanted them all to help. But it’s not enough, never enough.
“You can’t use alcohol as a coping mechanism anymore,” Yoongi calls once he’s stopped pushing Jeongguk and Jeongguk is just swinging on his own, higher and higher.
“Did you hear me?” asks Yoongi. “Jeongguk, I said you can’t use—”
Jeongguk falls off the swing.
He lands with a dull thud on his front, having slipped off right at the peak, and for a moment, he’s too out of it to actually register what happened—until there’s a muffled fuck and footsteps, quick quick, hands on his shoulders, turning him over. Hands all over him, checking his limbs and his face and Yoongi breathing, he could recognize Yoongi breathing anywhere.
“Guk-ah,” says Yoongi, and it’s urgent. Concerned. “Guk-ah, are you okay? Shit, open your eyes!”
Jeongguk does, looking up at Yoongi—his eyes are wide and there’s panic written on his face, practically straddling Jeongguk where he’s checking up on him. His hands are still on either side of Jeongguk’s face, and he sucks in a breath as Jeongguk blinks up at him.
“M’fine,” says Jeongguk. He doesn’t feel pain anywhere, just a little soreness, and. He’d rather focus on the utter terror that melts away from Yoongi’s face before he lets out a groan, sitting up—sitting on Jeongguk—and smacking his arm.
“You fucking dipshit,” says Yoongi. “Scared the shit out of me, I thought you broke your arm or something."
Jeongguk giggles a little. “Only you’re stupid enough to break your arm on the playground, hyung.”
“Shut up, brat,” says Yoongi, wiping his hair off of his forehead. He sighs, settling harder where he’s sitting on Jeongguk’s stomach. He takes a moment, and then he’s looking at Jeongguk again, something careful, careful in his eyes. “I’m serious, though, Guk-ah. You can’t drink every time you have a fight with your dad or every time you don’t do well on an exam or any time you just… want to, okay? That’s not healthy.”
“Can I get high?”
“No,” says Yoongi. “No, Jeongguk, listen. You asked for our help and this is me helping you. You need to find better coping mechanisms, okay? I know—I know everything is shit and you have an awful family and you have problems. I have problems, too. That doesn’t mean I can just drink my pain away.”
“You could,” says Jeongguk. “We could drink together.”
Yoongi sighs. “No,” he says. “But—we can do other stuff together.”
Oddly enough, Jeongguk’s heart jumps in his chest, even though Yoongi hasn’t suggested anything and—suddenly all he can focus on are Yoongi’s lips, the curve of them. His cupid’s bow.
“Are you listening to me?” asks Yoongi, snapping his fingers in front of Jeongguk’s face, and the boy startles slightly. Yoongi is so warm on him, so steady and comforting and he can’t help getting distracted, not when his mind is all over the place anyway.
“Yeah,” he mumbles.
“This is important,” says Yoongi. “The next time you want to drink, you call me instead, okay? Call me and I’ll come to you, wherever you are, and we’ll do something else. We’ll go for a walk or egg someone’s house or talk about things so that you can get all of your feelings out instead of trying to drown them with vodka. Okay?”
Jeongguk sniffs, squirming a little because—he doesn’t like that. Even if the alcohol makes him do stupid things, even if he always feels awful, awful after… he likes it. He likes having these blissful few hours, likes not having to think about anything else. It doesn’t make him forget, but it’s enough for a while.
“Okay?” repeats Yoongi, harsher this time.
“What if you’re busy?” asks Jeongguk.
“Then you call Seokjin-hyung,” replies Yoongi. “And if he’s busy, you call Hoseokie. And if he’s busy, you call Namjoon-ah, and then you call Jiminie, and then you call Tae. Whatever we’re doing, we will stop and we will help you, Jeongguk, because you are our friend and we care about you and we want you to be better. We want you to be okay, and the only way that’s going to happen is if you let us in and you let us do something for you.”
Jeongguk purses his lips, trying not to admit to how nice that might sound—how it warms him up just a little, makes his heart ache less. They’ve been good about trying to help him so far, but Jeongguk still slips up. Still isn’t used to having someone who is willing to take care of him, but here is Yoongi, staring down at him with something fierce and protective in his eyes.
“Okay,” he finally admits quietly.
“Okay, what?” asks Yoongi.
Jeongguk groans, squirming again before he huffs. “Okay, I’ll call you instead of getting drunk the next time something bad happens.”
“Good,” says Yoongi. He leans down until their faces are an inch apart. “Good boy, Jeonggukkie.” He bumps their noses together, and Jeongguk tries to ignore the furious blush that blooms on his cheeks, is glad for the cover of night and darkness to keep Yoongi from seeing it. He thinks about Yoongi doing that every time he calls instead of getting drunk—being proud of him, being happy with something he’s done and rewarding him for it.
So maybe it won’t be the worst thing to ask for help.
Jeongguk tries, tries, tries. He tries to remember to ask for help, tries to remember that there are better ways of dealing with his problems than the ways he’s learned. There are still bottles stashed under his bed and too many avenues of finding anything that could push him over the edge like the first time, but when he feels himself beginning to slip or spiral, he does his best to remember to reach for his phone first.
It helps when his hyungs start leaving him text reminders every day, little things to remind him that he matters to them and that they’re always available if he needs something—even if it’s not anything big. Yoongi asks him, each and every day, if he’s okay, if he’s eaten, if he needs a little time away from his home and father. Jimin and Taehyung leave him post-it notes all over the mirror in his room, silly encouragements about how good he looks and how hard-working he is and how worthy he is of everything good that happens in his life.
It’s stupid, he thinks.
But it begins to work.
He still slips sometimes, when he has a particularly bad fight with his father or when something reminds him of his mother to the point of throwing him into despair. When he gets a bad grade on an assignment, when he gets too anxious about—anything. He’s always anxious about something. But his hyungs forgive him for it, gently reminding him to reach for them first, and it’s a learning process, but. He is learning.
It’s nearing exam season when it hits him hardest—the anxiety. It creeps up slowly, like it always does, starting like an itch that he can’t scratch, something deep inside of him. He always gets anxious around exam season, the perfectionist in him needing to do well, needing to prove himself. But something about this year is worse—he sleeps less, can’t sit still even in class as his mind goes and goes and doesn’t stop, always thinking up the next worst thing.
Maybe it has to do with the way Yoongi looks at him now, like he didn’t before. Or maybe Jeongguk is only noticing it now, because he’s looking at Yoongi differently, too—since the night in the playground, there’s been something more between them, something heavy and hard and terrifying to hold, but he wants to hold it. Yoongi makes his heart hurt in a good way, but the anxiety makes it hurt in a bad way, and if he thinks about it—if he thinks about it, he realizes he’s terrified of what that something between them could mean.
He finds himself avoiding Yoongi, locking himself in his bedroom for hours on end under the pretence of studying—and he should study but instead he can’t stop thinking and thinking and feeling like no matter what he does, nothing will solve the way his body is all locked up, hands sweaty. It’s not a question of if he’ll fail—fail school and fail Yoongi, too—but when. It’s always a question of when, and isn’t Yoongi putting too much faith in him? Isn’t Yoongi trusting him too much to be able to take care of himself, to let someone else take care of him? Jeongguk didn’t ask for it. Maybe he did, all those months ago in the hospital, but not like this, never like this.
Jeongguk didn’t ask to like Yoongi like this.
It all comes to a head the night before his first exam—mathematics, should be easy. He’s only studied for a day or two, though, always too uneasy to even open his textbooks, and he knows the formulas anyway, but he’s probably going to fail. He’s probably going to fail and then Yoongi will look at him with that disappointed look, the same one he gave him the last time Jeongguk reached for the bottle instead of his phone, and he never wants to upset Yoongi but isn’t there something about caring in there?
He spends an hour hiding in his bed, trying to calm down the rabbit beat of his heart, but it’s all bubbling up in his throat anyway, too much, too much, he can’t stop the thoughts and worries and fears—and all at once, he needs something more. Valium or Xanax fucking morphine, he doesn’t know, doesn’t care, just—needs it.
Jeongguk lurches out of his bed, grabbing his phone where it sits on his bedside table. His hands are shaking as he unlocks it, desperately scrolling through his contacts as he tries to find someone he knows will have something—something that can calm him down, make him forget about the anxiety and fear and other problems, even if it’s just for a few hours.
He finds the right contact, no relief flooding through him as his thumb hovers over the name, and then—he stops. Directly underneath the contact is another, much more familiar: Seokjinie-hyung.
Jeongguk pauses, breath catching in his throat as he stares at the two names. It feels like a crossroads, a fork in his path as he tries to think around the waves crashing in his head. Yoongi told him to call every time he feels the need to distract himself, every time he needs a way to cope. And he knows, he knows that a drug could calm him down faster and more effectively, but. He thinks about that disappointed look, thinks about having to go to school tomorrow morning and have them know, because they always know, somehow.
He breathes out, slowly. Presses the contact name and the call button, and waits with bated breath.
Seokjin picks up on the third ring.
“Hey, Jeonggukkie,” the older boy says, too cheerful—“I was just thinking about you. Studying hard?”
What comes out in response is a raspy, “Hyung.” Desperate, on the verge of tears as he hears Seokjin’s voice and hopes he didn’t make the wrong choice. He doesn’t know how to say it, just wants him to know.
“Jeongguk?” asks Seokjin. “Are you okay?”
“No,” he replies. “No, I need—I need help. Please help me.”
It’s a miracle what those three words can do, he thinks later, when Seokjin has driven all the way to Jeongguk’s house from his own and snuck the boy out of his bedroom window so not to alert Jeongguk’s father. Seokjin drives back to his own house with Jeongguk curled in the passenger seat, offering him reassurances even though Jeongguk won’t say anything, not yet—not until he feels safe and has someone’s undivided attention. Already, he’s feeling less panicked, but he’s still thinking about—that blissful unawareness he would have gotten from an opiate.
Seokjin ushers Jeongguk into the house when they arrive, calling to his parents that he’s found another friend for the study group—and then he’s facing Taehyung and Namjoon, too, having interrupted an actual study group, and then he just feels. Awful, the anxiety flaring inside of him again when he realizes he’s hurting his friends somehow even when asking for help, even if Yoongi said that all of them would drop everything if he needed help.
They sit him down on Seokjin’s bed, offering him blankets and tea and reassuring words and for a few minutes, Jeongguk just. Sits there. Staring at his friends, at their concerned eyes, at their abandoned study notes. They care more about him. He has to believe it, has to get it into his head that he isn’t a burden, that they’re not disappointed in him, and somehow, this has become so much bigger than exams, bigger even than Yoongi.
Finally, when he feels more like himself, he says, “Thanks.”
Seokjin is by his side in an instant, cramming onto the bed beside him and placing a comforting hand on his thigh. “What’s this about?” he asks.
Jeongguk has never been good with words. And still, he tries—“I get anxiety sometimes,” he tells them, staring down into the half-empty cup of tea in his hands. “Like, really badly sometimes. Maybe more than sometimes. I get anxious around exam time because I—I want to do well. I guess everyone does.” He looks up briefly, eyes catching on the textbooks scattered around the room and he feels guilty again, knowing he’s taking away their precious study time. But Taehyung is crawling onto the bed on his other side, petting his hair a little, and Namjoon is kneeling on the floor beside the bed, watching him intently. They don’t look upset, he tells himself. He has to trust what he sees.
“It’s really bad this year,” continues Jeongguk. “I don’t know why. It’s—it’s not like I’m doing worse in school? And I’m used to moving around a lot, so it can’t be the new school thing, either.” He takes a shaky breath, trying to focus on Seokjin’s hand on his thigh, Taehyung’s fingers in his air. It’s something, it’s something.
“But I guess…” he begins. Pauses. Takes a deep breath. “I’m anxious about other stuff, too.”
“What other stuff?” asks Seokjin, giving his thigh a squeeze.
“Does Yoongi look at everyone like that?” replies Jeongguk.
Maybe it’s embarrassing, he thinks, to admit that there’s something happening between them. Maybe it’s supposed to be a secret, maybe Yoongi doesn’t want anyone else knowing. It’s not like they’ve done anything or spoken about anything, but maybe that’s why he’s feeling so anxious—he has no idea where they stand, suddenly, not when every brush of their hands sends sparks up and down his spine.
It’s Namjoon who replies, resting his arms in a fold on top of the bed. “No,” he says. “Only you.”
Jeongguk isn’t sure if that’s supposed to make him feel better or not. Either way—he lets out another shaky breath, staring hard at his white-knuckled grip on the mug. “Oh,” he says.
“Do you like him, Jeongguk-ah?” asks Taehyung.
He’s not good at being honest when he’s anxious. But his first response is still, “Very much. More than I should, I think.”
“He likes you too, you know,” says Seokjin. “I know it’s scary. And I know that telling you not to be anxious about it isn’t going to change anything, because you can’t control it, but you can talk to him about it. He’s soft on you.”
“You’re all soft on me,” says Jeongguk. “I always fuck up and you’re still here, telling me that it’s okay.”
Taehyung gives his head a gentle pat. “That’s because it is okay,” he says. “We all mess up. And you can’t control feeling anxious about things, especially when it comes to relationships.”
“Would it make you feel better if he were here?” asks Namjoon, and Jeongguk’s panic—spikes.
“No,” he says hurriedly. “No, please don’t—don’t call him.”
“Hey, baby, it’s okay,” says Seokjin, pulling him into a side hug. “We’re not going to call him. Namjoonie was just wondering.”
“I don’t want to see him,” admits Jeongguk. It’s less about—being afraid, maybe, more about realizing that there is something there. He needs time to understand it, process it. He’ll talk to Yoongi, he thinks, when he’s not in the middle of trying to remember what it’s like to be himself again, without all of the anxiety clogging up his throat. He’s still anxious, but maybe it’s getting better now, the longer that he’s talking it over with people who care about him. He likes the way Taehyung is scratching his nails over Jeongguk’s scalp, anyway.
Nestled against Seokjin’s chest, too, he thinks things could be worse.
“I just don’t want things to change,” he mumbles.
Seokjin drops a kiss to the top of his head, gentle. “It doesn’t have to.”
“Wouldn’t it mess up the whole dynamic of the group?” asks Jeongguk. “You know, if there were two people who had their own thing.”
“Jimin and Hobi-hyung practically have their own thing already,” says Taehyung with a shrug. “And besides, we’re all allowed to have our own relationships with each other. Just because we’re all friends doesn’t mean we can’t have special friendships with each other.”
“Listen, Jeongguk,” says Namjoon. “It doesn’t have to be a big deal. If you want to do something about it, then talk to him, okay? We can… be there, if you want.”
“Like back-up,” adds Taehyung.
Jeongguk groans a little, turning to hide his face in Seokjin’s chest. “That’s so embarrassing,” he says. “Having you listen in on a fucking heart-to-heart like that while I try to admit my feelings.”
“You could write them out instead,” suggests Seokjin. “All poetic and shit.”
“M’not good at being poetic,” grumbles Jeongguk.
“Now you’re just being difficult.”
He’s silent for a moment, and then Taehyung pokes him. “Are you still worried about the exams?”
Jeongguk hadn’t really been thinking about it, although if he focuses on everything—he is feeling somewhat calmer. Not entirely, because while talking about all of this does help, it’s not quite the same as just having it all over and dealt with. But he’s not regretting coming here instead of getting high, so that has to be a good sign.
“I’m always worried about exams,” says Jeongguk.
“We can help you study,” says Taehyung. “Or if you just need to veg out, we can watch a movie.”
“Taehyung-ah,” sighs Seokjin. “That is extremely irresponsible when finals start tomorrow.”
“C’mon, hyung, I just got the new Avengers on DVD,” whines Taehyung. “I know it’s super depressing, but we know how much Jeonggukkie loves Iron Man.”
“We’re supposed to be helping him, and that includes passing his classes.”
“That includes calling emergency Fajita Fridays if need be!”
Jeongguk can’t help but giggle, just a little, listening to the two of them bicker as Namjoon catches his eye, an exasperated look on his face. This is what he came for—being able to sit back and watch what they do, to feel a part of it even if he’s always on the outskirts, in the shadows. They know that he’s better at observing, anyway, and they’re a good distraction. Maybe he’s still going to be anxious about school and Yoongi, but he’s always going to be anxious about school and Yoongi.
In the end, Taehyung gets his way. He fishes the Avengers DVD out of his backpack (“I keep it with me at all times because you never know when you’ll need it, and look, I was right!”) and they sneak snacks and (non-alcoholic) drinks from the pantry while they wait for Jimin and Hoseok to show up after Namjoon texts them. No one mentions Yoongi, and Jeongguk feels a little guilty about it, but not guilty enough.
And later, when they’re all snuggled up in a massive pile on Seokjin’s tiny bed, with Jeongguk’s head in someone’s lap and his legs in someone else’s, all warm and safe and secure, Seokjin leans over until his lips are brushing against Jeongguk’s ear so he can say, “I’m glad you called. We’re really proud of you, Jeonggukkie.”
He stops paying attention to the movie, even if it’s a scene with Iron Man, so that he can focus on the feeling of his hyungs breathing around him, cocooning him into something safe. It feels like home. It’s not the first time he’s asked for help and it certainly won’t be the last, but there’s something about this time, even without Yoongi—something about understanding. Something about realizing that this is what he wants, this is what he needs. For the first time, he thinks that perhaps just feeling loved and loving in return is better than getting drunk or high or trying to run away from his problems.
They can’t solve his problems. But that’s not what they’re trying to do. They’re just trying to make the burden a little easier to bear.
He looks at what he has now and he thinks—he made the right choice.
He’ll always make the right choice.
“You should join the music club,” says Jimin, nodding toward where Yoongi is seated at the piano—it’s old and dusty, but does its job nonetheless.
“And what, spend a few hours every week scoffing at how everyone is a worse musician than him?” asks Taehyung, teasing; he’s playing with the maracas, shaking them here and there.
“He’s not that good,” answers Jimin. “No offense, hyung.”
“None taken,” murmurs Yoongi.
“Tae’s right,” Namjoon pipes up, fiddling with a recorder like he’s actually going to play it and hurt all of their ears. “Yoongi-hyung doesn’t like listening to other people tell him what to do. He’d never be able to listen to some music teacher tell him what to play and how to play it.”
Jeongguk thinks about it from where he’s sitting beside Yoongi on the piano bench, occasionally pressing down on one of the keys, just lightly. Yoongi is talented at the piano, having taught himself from a young age, but he’d never fit in with the music club, the school kids. The instrument means more to him than that.
“We could start our own music club,” suggests Jeongguk, grinning a little as he looks over at the others. “Yoongi-hyung can play the piano, and Namjoon-hyung can play the recorder, and Tae-hyung and Jimin-hyung can do the maracas or the drums or whatever. Seokjin-hyung can play the trumpet, and Hobi-hyung…” He pauses, watching the older boy’s expectant face—“The triangle?”
“Nice,” says Hoseok.
Christmas has come and gone, and Jeongguk did well on his exams. He always does well on his exams, the ugliness of his anxiety calming into something more manageable, something in the background for now. He finds it easier to breathe sometimes, when he reaches for his phone first instead of a bottle of alcohol or pills, and each time, his hyungs give him that look—one of pride, one that tells him that he’s doing well. It’s not doing it for those looks, but it certainly helps.
Something like spring is just creeping in, and it’s too late to join clubs anyway—but the school year and finish and another will start in the fall, and then there will be chances for new beginnings. These days, Jeongguk does his best to follow his hyungs wherever they go, finding that there’s a much smaller chance of something setting him off if he just does what they do.
So—the music room. Yoongi’s thigh pressed to his as he does scales on the piano, a cacophony of music and voices and brotherhood echoing through the little space they’ve made for themselves, at least for now.
“And what about you?” asks Namjoon, putting down the recorder. “You need an instrument, too.”
Jeongguk is about to deny it, citing that he doesn’t any the sort of talent that they might, when Yoongi takes his hands off the keys and says, “Jeonggukkie can be our singer.”
The truth is, Jeongguk hasn’t told anyone other than Yoongi that he loves to sing—loved to, since he doesn’t really sing anymore. For a moment, it feels like Yoongi is betraying his trust by admitting that to everyone, and then Yoongi turns to look at him and there’s that funny little grin on his lips and. Jeongguk forgets that he wants to be angry.
“Jeonggukkie can sing?” Hoseok gasps. “You have to sing us a song!”
“Yes, sing for us!” Jimin immediately adds. “You have to.”
“I’m not really—”
“Don’t put yourself down,” someone else says, maybe Taehyung, but he isn’t sure because then they’re all chiming in with their reassurances and encouragement, practically begging him to sing for them. Discomfort lodges itself in his throat as they crowd around the piano and beg, beg, beg, and then there’s Yoongi’s hand on his thigh, squeezing.
The older boy leans close enough to whisper, “You don’t have to if you don’t want to. I’m sorry for bringing it up.”
But—Jeongguk sucks in a breath. He hasn’t sung for a long time, at least for another person. He used to for his mother, and for his father, too, before everything went to shit—now his father threatens to beat him every time he hears Jeongguk singing in the shower or in his room or out in the backyard, where he thinks he might be safe. He’s never safe. But here—in this little cocoon his hyungs have made for him, he knows he’s safe. And no matter how terrible he thinks he is, he knows they’ll only push him so far.
“Okay,” he reluctantly agrees, to the raucous applause of some of his hyungs. “I—I’m not very good, I have to warn you. I don’t really sing for other people and I’ve never gotten lessons, but I—”
“It’ll be beautiful,” says Seokjin. “I just know it. Our Jeonggukkie can never go wrong.”
“Stop, you’re going to make him more nervous,” chastises Jimin, giving Seokjin a smack on the arm.
“It’s fine,” Jeongguk laughs nervously, ignoring the rest of them in favour of looking over at Yoongi, a silent plea in his eyes. He doesn’t want to do it alone.
Understanding—because Yoongi always understands—he asks, “Do you want me to play?”
He does—for a little while, anyway. Yoongi squeezes Jeongguk’s hand in reassurance before he begins, fingers moving deftly over the keys as the music feels the empty room. It’s a song he knows, one they all know, and suddenly, the six pairs of eyes on him are too much. Jeongguk closes his own, trying to summon all of his courage and maybe remember what his mother used to tell him about being brave, and so what if he sucks? So what, so what, they’ll love him anyway.
Jeongguk begins to sing.
He can practically hear the collective breath that they all take as his voice rings out the first note. And it’s terrifying—his voice shakes a little at the beginning, unsure of itself, but he keeps his eyes closed and focuses on Yoongi playing beside him and he sings. He sings and sings and feels himself grow more confident as the seconds pass by until he’s belting out the notes and—at some point, Yoongi stops playing but Jeongguk continues singing, the first time in so long that he’s felt free to do something he loved. Loves, because he still loves singing but it’s been suffocated out of him, dreams crushed by years and years of hardship and believing he’ll never be anything.
For the first time in a long time, he feels—free.
When the last note fades in the room, Jeongguk takes a deep breath and then opens his eyes. What he finds are six pairs of eyes staring back at him incredulously, and he startles slightly, blinking as they just look at him.
“Was… it bad?” he asks, shrinking slightly in his seat.
“Bad?” asks Namjoon. “Jeongguk, that was… that was—”
“The best fucking thing I’ve ever heard!” shouts Taehyung, breaking the spell of silence as there’s suddenly so much more noise—all of them shouting about how good he is, how they didn’t know he was hiding such pipes, how proud of him they are. They all crowd around him again, and someone is ruffling his hair, someone is patting him on the back, Seokjin won’t stop pinching his cheeks like he’s an actual child.
“Why didn’t you tell us you could sing like that?”
“He could be the next Rain.”
“You should join the music club instead of Yoongi-hyung!”
It’s like that, really—all of the compliments, the praises, the reassurances. Jeongguk cowers a little under all of it, ducking his head with embarrassment, although it’s not just because it’s used to it—but because he doesn’t quite believe it.
“I dunno,” he admits, glancing over at Yoongi, who hasn’t said anything this whole time. But he’s holding Jeongguk’s hand under the piano, so, maybe—“I don’t think I’m that good.”
“Jeongguk, you have a real talent,” Seokjin tells him. “Everyone can learn and make improvements, but you’re really good at singing.”
“I’ve just practiced that one a lot,” he protests.
“Accept our compliments, you brat,” says Jimin. “You’re good. You’re a great singer and no matter what you say, you’re not going to change our minds about that.”
Maybe it’s something about being able to see his own talents or maybe it’s about accepting himself or maybe it’s about years and years of his own father telling him that he’s not anything of the things his hyungs ever tell him. He’s gotten much better at asking them for help, at understanding that he has people who care about him enough to want to help. But seeing his own worth is a whole different story, and maybe it starts with this.
Still—“Okay,” he says, only to get them off of his back about it. “I can sing. I believe you.” Yoongi squeezes his hand under the piano, like he knows that Jeongguk is only saying it so that they won’t bother him anymore. He does that too, Jeongguk thinks—Yoongi’s good at making people believe what he wants them to believe, including that he agrees with them even though he’s never actually said he does.
“You don’t have to join music club if you want,” says Taehyung. “But you should sing more. You’re really good at it and you deserve to be able to sing when you want.”
“Thanks,” Jeongguk mumbles, still avoiding eye contact with all of them. It’s embarrassing to have sung for them in the first place, and now he’s not sure what to do with all of this praise, all of these good things they’re giving him—he’s never been good with compliments, if only because he’s not used to getting them. If only because he never really believes them.
But he’s trying, and isn’t that what matters?
Yoongi is quick to change the subject, likely picking up on Jeongguk’s discomfort, instead teasing one of the others about their total lack of talent in the singing department. Somehow, it dissolves into this: Namjoon and Hoseok trying to outdo each other with hitting high notes even though neither of them are singers and it’s just them screaming at each other. And this: Jimin and Taehyung and Seokjin chasing each other with recorders, playing through their noses and trying to recreate scenes from Titanic with their soulful music.
And this: when they leave, Yoongi slips his fingers around Jeongguk’s wrist in a silent order to stay. He does, feeling all sorts of embarrassed again because he knows what this is about. Once the door has closed behind his other hyungs, Jeongguk looks up at Yoongi as he worries his lip, and hates, hates, hates the little grin on Yoongi’s lips. Hates that he knows he can’t resist it, hates that there’s always something more.
The thing is, they haven’t really talked about it: them. After Jeongguk’s near breakdown in December, he felt less anxious about whatever their relationship might be, but neither of them put words to it. He just let it happen—the soft touches, the hand-holding, the way Yoongi falls asleep on his shoulder sometimes when they’re watching movies.
And now they’re here and Yoongi is looking at him, really looking. Jeongguk ducks his head again.
“They’re right, you know,” says Yoongi. “You really are a good singer.”
“They have to say that,” says Jeongguk. “It would be rude not to.”
“When have they ever been dishonest with you?” And that’s—a good question. He can’t think of a time when they weren’t honest with him, even when the truth was harsh. They’ve always been nice, but they’ve always been honest. Even when it came to his breakdowns or slip-ups, they always told him that he needed to do better, but they’ve never done it without love.
“I know, but—” he begins.
“No buts, Guk-ah,” says Yoongi, fitting his fingers under Jeongguk’s chin to lift his head. “I know you don’t believe it yet, but you’re so talented. You’re beautiful and wonderful and smart and hard-working and you’ve been doing so well these past few months, learning so much and remembering to ask for help. I know it’s hard for you to accept and love yourself, but you will one day. I know it. For now, just—accept this, okay? Let us love you.”
Jeongguk swallows tightly, and all he can see is the way Yoongi is looking at him, soft but determined. But something else—like he really does believe everything he’s saying about Jeongguk, like he’s always thought those things. Like he’s willing to spend the rest of his life helping Jeongguk believe them, too.
He realizes he’s been staring for too long without saying anything, sucking in a breath as he tries to keep himself from looking at Yoongi’s lips. “Yeah,” he breathes. “Okay.”
“Are you even listening to me?”
“Yes,” says Jeongguk. “I’m trying not to argue with you about it.”
Yoongi smirks a little—because Jeongguk is still staring at his lips, can’t help it—and he thinks that Yoongi could probably say anything he wanted right now and Jeongguk would agree to it. It’s not about accepting himself anymore, although he knows it’ll come to that in the days and months and maybe even years to come. He can’t undo years of damage so easily, but suddenly, he wants Yoongi to try. Wants to let him try, thinks that maybe it wouldn’t be the worst thing to let someone else rummage around in his heart and rearrange things a little.
He doesn’t realize he’s leaning forward until Yoongi moves his fingers from under Jeongguk’s cheek to his lips, pressing his thumb into Jeongguk’s bottom lip both to stop him and to beckon him even closer. Jeongguk stops moving, blinking as he tries not to tremble.
“This isn’t going to fix it,” whispers Yoongi.
“I know,” says Jeongguk.
“You can’t take my love for you and make it love for yourself.”
Jeongguk thinks about it—thinks about everything between them, thinks about the playground, when Yoongi made Jeongguk promise so much. He thinks about every other day in between and how far he’s come and how he isn’t scared anymore, at least about this. There’s nothing to be afraid of when it comes to Yoongi because it’s just Yoongi, the same Yoongi who sat in the corner in Jeongguk’s hospital room and waited until they were alone to pull back his own ribcage and show Jeongguk a bit of his heart. They have the same heart in some ways, he thinks. Yoongi’s good at not showing it, at not showing his hurt, and he tells Jeongguk that’s not good, that sometimes being transparent will get him hurt but it’ll help him heal faster, too.
Neither of them needs convincing. Still, when Yoongi doesn’t voice another protest, just pulling Jeongguk’s lip down with his thumb, Jeongguk asks, “Are you going to kiss me or not?”
“Brat,” says Yoongi.
But he kisses Jeongguk anyway.
It’s like this: Yoongi’s lips aren’t as soft as Jeongguk thought they would be, but he kisses Jeongguk soft anyway, just a gentle press of his lips at first—testing the waters, trying to understand. Jeongguk has never kissed anyone before and it shows with how sloppy and inexperienced he is, but he lets Yoongi take the lead. Lets him press a little harder, one of his hands cupping Jeongguk’s face like he’s afraid Jeongguk might fall apart if he holds him too tightly—sometimes Jeongguk thinks that, too.
And this: Yoongi pulls back too quickly and Jeongguk chases after him, but he won’t allow it—presses his index finger into Jeongguk’s lips again, this time to keep him at bay. Jeongguk is breathing too heavily for a kiss that only lasted a few seconds, but it’s more than that.
And this: when Yoongi looks at him, Jeongguk gets it. He wants to believe that he’s good and talented and beautiful and that he will be okay, that if he just stays here—he’ll get better. When he sees how Yoongi looks at him, Jeongguk wants to get better.
“Hyung,” says Jeongguk, voice shaking just a little. “I need help.”
He’s good at it now, he thinks—asking. When he’s on the verge of a breakdown, before he even feels like he needs something more. His hyungs have been adamant about helping him with other things, too, though, like accepting himself and seeing his talents and understanding the world, just a little.
And—this, too, he hopes.
“What is it?” asks Yoongi, concern already flooding his voice. “What do you need?”
“No, it’s not—” Jeongguk lets out a breathy laugh. “It’s not that. I just, um—can all of you come over for a little while? If you’re not busy.”
“You’re worrying me,” says Yoongi, “but yeah, I’ll round up the crew. Are you sure it’s not anything bad?”
Jeongguk looks at the letter in his hands, one he’d had to sneak past his father because he wouldn’t care. “Nothing bad,” he says. “I promise.”
By the time all of them show up—some a little sweatier than others (Taehyung complains about having biked all the way from the ice cream shop he’s gotten a job at, having skipped out on his shift after telling his boss that it was an emergency, and—yeah, Yoongi was right back on the playground, when he said they would drop whatever they were doing for him, no matter how big or small the problem)—Jeongguk is more nervous than he should be. He’s been pacing his room, accidentally wrinkling the letter in his hands as he waits.
It shouldn’t be that big of a deal. He doesn’t need help distracting himself from the worse parts of his life, doesn’t need someone to hide the bottles so that he doesn’t do something he’ll regret. (He doesn’t have bottles to hide anymore—Jimin and Hoseok helped him clean out his room last month, after he realized that he didn’t need those crutches anymore. And sometimes he still wants them, but it’s working, he thinks. It’ll soon be a year since he met his hyungs and he’s made so many leaps and bounds since then.)
Still, when there’s the sound of a pebble hitting his window, Jeongguk nearly jumps out of his skin. He hurries to the window, opening it and peering down at the ragtag group of friends he’s found—best friends, brothers. Closer than family.
Once they’re all crammed into his little room, watching him warily as though he’s got a second head, Jeongguk takes a deep breath. “I called you all here,” he begins—
“What, is this a business meeting?” asks Seokjin, and Namjoon elbows him.
“I—I mean,” says Jeongguk, and he doesn’t know why he’s so nervous. Worrying at his bottom lip, he attempts to get the words out. “All of you have been really—erm, really instrumental in my… growth this past year. From helping me learn how to cope with my problems better to helping me see my own worth, it’s been… good.” He swallows tightly. He doesn’t like the way they’re looking at him—a little fearful, but mostly with that pride. It makes his cheeks burn with embarrassment. “So I think it’s only fair that you help me with something good for once.”
Unable to tell them what himself—too embarrassed, too worried about the resulting shrieks he’ll get—Jeongguk shoves the letter at them, waiting for someone to take it. Yoongi does, eyebrows furrowed as he reads it quickly and—“Holy shit,” he says. “Jeongguk!”
“What?” calls Jimin. “What is it, let me—” He clambers over some of the others to snatch the letter out of Yoongi’s hands, reading it out loud this time. “Mr. Jeon Jeongguk, we at Kyungbock High School are pleased to inform you that you will be receiving an award for academic achievement at this—” He doesn’t get a chance to finish before Hoseok screams, followed by Taehyung, and both of them vault over the others to tackle Jeongguk into a hug.
It goes like that—all of them are yelling, hugging him, shaking him a little. Seokjin’s crowing about how proud he is of his son, whom he raised on his back since he was fifteen—which makes no sense, but Jeongguk is laughing anyway, trying to duck out of the way of Namjoon giving him an affectionate hair ruffle as Jimin repeats the letter, louder this time. They’re all so loud, positively pleased and glowing with it all. Jeongguk flushes with embarrassment under the praise and compliments, and catches Yoongi’s eye where the older boy still sits on his bed—the only one who hasn’t tried to crowd into him and yell his congratulations.
It reminds him of that day at the hospital, when all of them met. Yoongi waited until he knew Jeongguk wouldn’t be distracted by the others to tell him the one thing that mattered the most, and he knows they’ll get their moment later, when everyone else has left. That seems to be how they get all of their moments.
But here—Yoongi’s smiling at him, and he mouths something that Jeongguk guesses is congratulations, and he grins back. Although all of his hyungs have been important in getting him to this point—keeping him from missing school or dropping out because of his problems, helping him study when he needs it, helping him accept that he is intelligent and hard-working and if he puts his mind to it, he can do anything—it’s always been Yoongi. Just a little more. Maybe it’s because Jeongguk is practically in love with him.
Before he can do more than mouth a thank you back at Yoongi, Namjoon is grabbing him by the shoulders, pulling him out of the pile that Hoseok, Jimin, and Taehyung have made of him. “What did you need help with, though?” he asks.
“Oh,” says Jeongguk, almost having forgotten. “They’re doing a little ceremony so I—I need help picking out an outfit.”
Seokjin gasps. “An impromptu fashion show!”
Although he shows his displeasure for it, Jeongguk does the impromptu fashion show. It’s worth it to make his hyungs laugh, to see them trying to pick apart his outfits and choose which one is the best. Jeongguk doesn’t have many clothes to begin with, but they find a way to make it work as Jimin and Hoseok tear through his closet, pulling out collared shirts and slacks Jeongguk didn’t even know were in there. He struts through the room showing off each outfit that the pair put together for him—somewhere near ten in total, although Jeongguk stops counting after the fourth.
At some point, he begins to think they’re doing this less for choosing an outfit and more for trying to put together the weirdest outfits they possibly can, all because they know Jeongguk will indulge them and model the outfits anyway. He loves them as much as they love him, after all.
By the time he’s ready to call it quits (they’ve given him some weird pink combination with shorts over pants and a scarf, and there’s no possible way anyone can really think that’s an appropriate outfit for an awards ceremony), they hand him something that actually works. It’s a simple white button-up shirt paired with their school blazer—“If we’re being honest, they probably want you to wear that, anyway,” says Namjoon—a tie, and a pair of black slacks that were shoved deep in his closet. Jimin tries to style his hair a little and although he feels like an idiot, he turns to face the rest of them.
“How’s this?” he asks for what feels like the fortieth time, and there’s a bout of silence before someone lets out a dramatic sobbing noise.
“He’s all grown up,” says Seokjin. “Look at him! Looks like he’s going to prom and everything.”
“Prom!” exclaims Taehyung. “Hold on, he needs a prom date.”
Yoongi, who has otherwise been only watching with an amused expression on his face, blanches as everyone turns to him. “Do you see what I’m wearing?” he asks, gesturing to the wildly ripped jeans and stained hoodie.
“Yeah, you’ll make Jeonggukkie look even better,” says Hoseok, giving Yoongi a shove off of the bed, and the others clap madly as Yoongi does as he’s told, getting to his feet and ambling toward Jeongguk.
And Jeongguk has no idea what they’re supposed to do—but Yoongi is looking at him with an expectant sort of expression, raising his eyebrows as though to say, Might as well give them what they want. Jeongguk’s cheeks are tinted pink already, regretting asking any of them for help when he knows this is what it always turns into—endless teasing, especially about the two of them since they officially started dating only two months ago.
“Okay, stand together like you like each other,” says Seokjin as he takes out his phone—Jeongguk groans again—and starts snapping pictures like he’s someone’s dad.
“We do like each other,” mutters Jeongguk, but Yoongi moves to his side anyway, wrapping his arm around the back of Jeongguk’s waist and tugging him closer. Jeongguk watches, with mild horror, as the rest of his friends take out their phones too, all crowding together to snap pictures as though they are going to prom.
They’re all being loud about it, too, saying silly photographer things about turning his chin and looking here or there and smiling wide. Jeongguk feels like an idiot—although he always feels like an idiot. Still, he smiles, can’t help but laugh because they’re all absolutely ridiculous and he loves them. He loves this—feeling like he belongs to something, feeling like he has something worth staying for.
As the others shout and take pictures and start squabbling, inevitably, Jeongguk glances over at Yoongi to see the older boy is already looking back at him. There’s that funny grin on his lips again—a little crooked, like he doesn’t actually know that he’s smiling. And he’s looking at Jeongguk with so much unadulterated love in his eyes that it almost makes Jeongguk take a step back, if only so he can stomach it.
Yoongi leans close, whispering, “I’m really proud of you,” into his ear as Jeongguk flushes again—partially because of the words, partially because some of his hyungs start calling for them to kiss for the camera.
“I couldn’t have done it without you,” replies Jeongguk.
“This wasn’t us,” says Yoongi. “This was all you, bun. You deserve it.”
He flushes brighter as Yoongi pulls back, still grinning wide—“Kiss, kiss!” yells Taehyung. “Give the people what they want!”
“Would you shut your goddamned trap?” snaps Yoongi, although there’s a distinct lack of malice in the words.
“You kiss your mom with that mouth?” asks Taehyung.
“No, but I kiss Jeongguk with it,” says Yoongi, and then does just that.
A week later, as Jeongguk sits nervously in a gymnasium full of students and parents, Yoongi reaches over and takes his hand. Squeezes it with reassurance and comfort, and somehow, that feels like everything. His entire year has been about learning to let someone else take his hand and lead him where he needs to go, help him back on his feet, give him a little encouragement so that he can walk on his own when he needs to.
When he can.
Finally—he can. Nothing is ever easy and he still messes up, still looks in the mirror and can’t see what his hyungs see, but this is. The first step, he thinks. The first step of many, because Jeongguk isn’t afraid anymore—not of this.
When they call his name, Jeongguk gets to his feet and makes his way to the stage, letting the applause from the crowd push him forward. So maybe he’s good at school. So maybe he’s good at other things, too—singing and sports and asking for help. So maybe he doesn’t need an award to prove those things, but it certainly helps.
It certainly helps when the principal of the school hands him a little plaque and shakes his hand and Jeongguk turns to look out at the crowd to see his six hyungs standing from the seats, screaming wildly. He thinks Seokjin might be crying. He looks at them, looks at all of their love for him, and he thinks—yeah.
Maybe he’ll be okay.