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starfish in the rough

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"Shh," Taehyung whispers. They all go quiet, shuffling a little better behind the wall. One by one, their heads peek out behind it in wonder.

 

"Is that him?" Hoseok whispers, eyes wide.

 

"Yeah," Taehyung says, taking a deep breath. He feels butterflies at the bottom of his stomach. Against his better judgment, his heart soars in his chest, warm with an inexplicable something. If he strains his ears, he can almost hear Salut d'Amour being played by a string band in the background. Almost. "That's him."

 

Sure enough, the man who had visited Taehyung's shop weeks ago was standing in front of the bank, having a lively conversation with an important-looking, elderly Dark Mage. He looked exactly as he had when he'd walked into Taehyung's shop. Blond hair, sharp, brown eyes, and a sleek white uniform draped in an elegant blue cape.

 

Jeongguk sighs, loudly. They all turn to look at him, Jimin hurrying to shush him. "You could have just told us who it was, Tae," he says, sounding stressed. "I skipped out on a free lunch for warriors because of this. I could be eating potatoes, right now. Juicy, free, buttered potatoes with a pool of gravy by the side."

 

Taehyung's brows furrow together in annoyance and confusion, and this time, it's Jimin's turn to sigh heavily. "Tae, do you seriously not know who that guy is?" he hisses, jabbing a gloved finger in the air in the direction of the object of their attentions.

 

Namjoon, who'd been crouched on the ground, rakes a hand through his hair. "It's Kim Seokjin, Tae. Doesn't that ring any bells?" Then, in a resigned murmur, "Of all people..."

 

"The Kim Seokjin?" Yoongi barks, incredulously, barely concealed laughter in his voice. He tips his head out the side for another look, his rosary dangling from his neck.

 

"Wow," Hoseok just says, fingers curled around the corner, voice in awe. "Wow, Tae, he's hot. I can't believe he looks even better in real life."

 

He places a firm hand on Taehyung's shoulder and gives it a tight squeeze, something he does whenever he wants to reassure someone, or when he wants to offer his deepest sympathies. "I'm sorry Tae," he adds, unhelpfully. "I just don't think this is going to work."

 

"He's way out of your league," Jeongguk says, sounding bored now, and looking awfully regretful that he'd skipped out on free food. He scuffs a mercenary's boot on the cobblestone ground. "He's hot," he says, matter-of fact-ly, "and you're not." Taehyung frowns.

 

Namjoon shakes his head. It's been less than five minutes, but everyone looks like they're ready to go home. "But not just that. He's been working for the health ministry for years, and he's only twenty-three. Rumours are that he's a level 86 White Mage and that his healing powers are incredible."

 

"Responsible, check. Hardworking, check. Hotter than Hoseok's turquoise pot fire, check. You name it," Jimin says, "he's the entire package. I'd tap that too, if I could."

 

At this, Taehyung protests, albeit a little weakly. "But I came third in that pageant, remember? Last year." The crowd had loved him, he remembers. They'd roared and cheered when he'd come out on stage, and he'd received so many singing flowers and pencil-shaped candies. He must have something going for him.

 

"Yeah," Jimin replies, sticking his tongue out. "For dressing up as a sparkly starfish. That makes you novel with the grandmas, but it doesn't make you cute." He looks around for his bow, before patting his back. "Guess that's a day."

 

The others nod brightly in agreement, much to Taehyung's dismay. They each stand up, adjust their sack straps and dust off their trousers, waving off Taehyung's pleading eyes. After goodbyes murmured in similar variations, they disperse, all looking glad to go. Hoseok skips off back to his potion stall, and Yoongi trudges back to his duties as a priest, in the far east of the town. Jimin and Namjoon both walk off in the direction of the forest, planning their next quest as they go, and Jeongguk's almost sprinting, Taehyung notices, his figure fast disappearing behind one of the marketplace shops.

 

Taehyung, left alone, stands with the cool wall of the local bank pressed against his back. When, catching his breath, he hazards a tentative look around the corner, even his crush is gone.

 

He lets himself sink into himself a little. So the guy who'd walked into Taehyung's spell shop a month ago with someone else had been Kim Seokjin: handsome, well-spoken (probably), busy, and supposedly, someone so well-known around town that even Yoongi, who couldn't even be bothered opening up the town paper most days, knew about him.

 

They were right, in a sense. Taehyung didn't have any hope. No matter whether or not Seokjin was as unreachable an existence as the rest of them had said, he was still taken. He remembers the beautiful woman with flaming red hair, and in a matching blue velvet cape who had been beside him as they'd looked around the shop. They'd stayed there for a few minutes, before the lady had apparently found what she needed, and had brought it to the counter. Seokjin had excused himself and stepped outside to take a telegram, much to Taehyung's disappointment, though he'd hoped, while searching through his drawers for some change, and wrapping the bulletproof fishbowl with his wand, that he might come back in again.

 

He hadn't.

 

Before going back to the shop, Taehyung decides to drown himself in apple cider that's thirty percent juice concentrate and forget about people called Park Jimin and Jeon Jeongguk. The starfish costume that he'd worn for last year's pageant was cute, he was sure. He'd spent days searching for the right fabric, before stitching it laboriously by hand and casting a complex sparkle spell on it. It didn't just sparkle normally, like glitter. It sparkled like diamonds underwater, and looked completely different in daylight than it did in the dark of the night. Plus, as Taehyung had insisted, and still maintains, starfishes are rare, in their town.

 

He walks home juggling more than just a generous jug of apple cider. He'd splurged on some mango pie, and a couple of long, sugar-coated figure-eight shaped donuts doused in cinnamon-flavoured cream, despite having a full inventory. He might have also bought a top hat decorated with sea urchins that had been ridiculously, over-the-board expensive, and would potentially have to survive on meagre servings of bread and butter for the next few days. Or weeks. Did it really matter? At this point, Taehyung figures that living frugally for a while could be worth it, if paying that price could help him get over his impossibly large crush.

 

Maybe he could go out hunting and gathering in the woods, he thinks. He might find a stray, poisonous mushroom to add to his diet, or he might train and level up, only to get gobbled up by a baby dragon on the path home. That might be good. Today, he'd come upon Seokjin by complete chance in the streets, but what was the likelihood that he'd see him again, when they'd only met once after a whole twenty years of life spent in this massive town?

 

Taehyung almost drops his life-savings on his feet when he sees Kim Seokjin standing in front of his shop. It takes a while to process his figure in that blue, velvet cape that Taehyung remembers so well: broad, yet lean, and with a side-profile that Taehyung thinks he'll never forget, staring at Taehyung's hastily scrawled sign - 'Out of apple cider and donuts that haven't gone stale. Will be back at one-ish.'

 

"Hi," Seokjin says, smile soft, but bright, turning, when he hears Taehyung's slowing footsteps approaching. He looks like he's just about to ask Taehyung something before his smile quickly morphs into something more concerned. His eyes fall on the three litre jug on Taehyung's shoulder, pressed up against his cheek. "Can I help you with that?"

 

"No," Taehyung says. He hopes he didn't squeak. Seokjin blinks at him, and Taehyung realises that he probably did. "I mean, I'm okay. I'm just going in here." He gestures to his shop with a shaking arm as he walks up the shallow step to the door. "Thank you."

 

"You're the owner of this shop?" Seokjin asks, peering into the stained-glass window.

 

Taehyung quickly unloads his baggage onto the counter, feeling lighter. He feels his heart traitorously pumping in his chest. "Yeah." He pokes his head out the door. "Would you like to come in?"

 

Seokjin smiles. "I would very much like to." He walks in, tentatively at first, but then gently and purposefully. Taehyung quietly admires the way that the sunlight filtering through the window casts shadows of red and blue across his hair and his cheeks, the leaves of ferns occasionally shading him from view. His lips part slightly as he takes in the back wall.

 

"You know," Seokjin says, looking warmly upon the glowing abacuses lined across one of the top shelves, "I've been here before."

 

I know, Taehyung thinks, carefully watching Seokjin stroll around and pick up items that had caught his interest. It's a strange feeling, having his hopeless crush of a month, who he thought he'd never see again, actually in his shop, looking like he might really like Taehyung's wares. Taehyung feels himself floating and sinking at the same time.

 

"I really like your shop," Seokjin says, looking up at the ceiling, strewn with chandeliers and hanging creepers. His gaze levels onto the oak wood counter, covered in the piano-shaped music boxes and vibrantly coloured quills that Taehyung had taken out from the cupboard the night before. "It's...different. In a good way."

 

"Thanks," Taehyung says, feeling a blush creep up his neck. "Want to see how these pianos work?"

 

Seokjin nods, eyes curious, and Taehyung quickly winds one up. The keys on the piano start to move, playing a rendition of Nocturnes. "You see, they all play Chopin when they're wound up. But if you tell them to play something else, they will." Taehyung asks politely for Clair de Lune, and the keys pause, and begin playing it immediately. The sound is mellow but light, and Taehyung props it back onto the counter. He sees Seokjin's eyes widen in wonder at the dip of each key, and feels his chest squeeze.

 

"This is amazing," Seokjin says, earnestly, once the song comes to an end. He blinks a little. "You made it play Debussy on demand."

 

"I altered a 'sing for me' spell and cast it on it," Taehyung says, shyly. "They only take requests for classical music at the moment, but Chet Baker's a work in progress." He winds up another, before gesturing towards the bottle filled with quills. "Oh, and these quills write with invisible ink. They're perfect for secret messages. Want to write something that you'd have to dip into oil to read?"

 

Seokjin laughs, his beautiful eyes crinkling with amusement. He picks a purple one up, and weighs it in his hand. "I'd love to, but I have no one to write to. It's a brilliant idea, though."

 

Taehyung takes him around the shop, showing him the most interesting things that he's made. A stained-glass lamp that adjusts its brightness depending on lighting of the room it's in. A notebook whose page numbers change when paper is ripped out of it. A box that you could dip your head in, and that would make you feel like you were suspended in space, hung amongst the stars.

 

Seokjin dips his head in for a little, and Taehyung gets the privilege of hearing the muffled screaming of probably the strongest mage in town. It makes Taehyung chuckle a little when Seokjin pulls his head out, looking a little disoriented, and with his fringe plastered down to his nose. They both laugh, and Taehyung brings Seokjin a copper comb that gets through every tangle.

 

"I only got to have a short look, last time I came, but I really wanted to stay for longer," Seokjin tells him, as the sun begins to set. He sits on a stool that Taehyung that brought out for him, elbows planted on the counter. In front of them lie tall, glass mugs and several saucers covered in the remnants of a few donuts and maybe some large helpings of mango pie. Against a soft backing of orange light, Seokjin smiles, a little tiredly, but if Taehyung isn't completely imagining things, he thinks that Seokjin looks happy as well.

 

Taehyung's happy, too, if a wistful sort of happy. He'd gotten a whole afternoon with Seokjin, and Seokjin had been even more wonderful than he could have hoped. What more could he ask for?

 

"You know," Seokjin says, a little contemplatively, face propped up in his palms, "I'd never seen anything that could sparkle and ripple like diamonds underwater." Taehyung stiffens a little in surprise. One look at Seokjin tells Taehyung that he knows exactly what he's talking about.

 

"You noticed," Taehyung manages to say, in disbelief. Kim Seokjin, of all people, had noticed the details in Taehyung's painstakingly made starfish costume.

 

"That starfish garb was really special magic," Seokjin continues, eyes bright. "I had to ask, afterwards, whose it was. They told me the name of your shop."

 

"So you came," Taehyung says, in slow realisation, "with your girlfriend."

 

"Girlfriend?" Seokjin asks, then, wide eyes looking up at Taehyung, strangely.

 

"You were with a beautiful person, with vivid red hair," Taehyung says, looking down at the table. "She had the same blue cape."

 

"Blue cape," Seokjin mutters, in consternation, gazing at his own. He pulls one of the ends towards Taehyung. "Do you mean this one?"

 

Taehyung nods, trying not to look as despondent as he feels, but Seokjin just smiles proudly. "It's the cape all of us wear at the Health Ministry," he explains.

 

"Really?" Taehyung says, all too quickly. Sure enough, when Taehyung leans in to have a look at the brooch pinned to it, he can recognise the gold emblem of the King carved into it. It was, indeed, the shiny medallion known to be pinned onto the uniforms of all of his public servants, and upon closer inspection, Taehyung could see that the navy blue fabric was also covered, from top to bottom, with in a pattern resembling the same shield of arms.

 

"She's my colleague," Seokjin says, brushing his cape back down. Taehyung re-orientates himself, feeling the knot in his stomach loosen. "Her name's Hani. I wanted to finally come here, and she needed a birthday present."

 

No, Taehyung feels like he could fly to the moon.

 

So he didn't have to go and get eaten by a dragon, after all.

 

"She bought my last bulletproof fishbowl," Taehyung says, happily.

 

Seokjin's pink lips stretch into a beam, eyes twinkling. "Yeah," he says, softly, glowingly. It's a smile that knocks the wind out of Taehyung's chest. "And you remembered me."

 

Of course I did, Taehyung thinks, not a little breathily. He clenches his fists, loosely. Instead, he says, "How could I forget?"

 

"Your name," Seokjin says, then. He looks at Taehyung insistently. Warmly. "You haven't told me your name, yet."

 

It's almost embarrassing, Jimin would've said if he'd been there to witness it, how eagerly Taehyung jumps at the opportunity.

 

"It's Taehyung," he says, not missing a beat. "Kim Taehyung." Then, a little slower, and with a great deal of sincerity, "I'd love it if you came again."

 

The way that Seokjin smiles as he leaves, ears pink and with a piano playing Liebestraume under his arm, assures Taehyung that he would be seeing him again, sometime soon.