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growing up is a heavy leaf to turn

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2011

Taehyung is a lot more homesick than he thought he would be.

He feels ridiculous when he realizes, because of course everyone told him he would feel this way--his parents, his grandparents, even the serious-faced man who gave him the contract to sign, the man who Taehyung figures is now his first-ever boss. Taehyung brushed off all their words of warning or comfort, because when he’d first signed that contract any negative feelings had seemed a million miles away, in another solar system from the excitement and impatience he felt to just get started already. Of course he didn’t enjoy saying goodbye to his dad when he left Taehyung in the dorm that first night to go back to Daegu, but even that couldn’t make a dent in his optimism. Getting actually signed to an idol company, someone giving him the chance to sing and dance and perform professionally, visions of fame and fortune in his future… it felt like something from the best kind of dream. It felt like getting an invitation to Hogwarts. Besides, at seventeen years old Taehyung was confident in his own independence, certain that he’d have no problem living a cool adult life in Seoul.

But that was six weeks ago. There’s been so much that Taehyung never considered: how much he would hate the strict diet, the severity of the dancing and singing instructors, how difficult it would be to try and hide his dialect all the time--he knows it keeps slipping out, and that the friends he’s made at school have probably realized where he’s from and are just too nice to make fun of him for it. Taehyung is exhausted all the time, more tired than he can ever remember being in his life, and of course he knew going into this how hard he’d be expected to work but it’s still hard to accept that they basically never get to sleep.

None of the other trainees seem to be struggling with the amount of work or the sleep deprivation. Most of the older guys compete with each other about how few hours they slept the night before, trading numbers like it’s a badge of honor. Even Jungkook, who gets cranky and defensive over the smallest of things, takes the demands of their schedule without complaint. And if the maknae isn’t going to whine about being tired and sore and hungry then Taehyung definitely can’t.

He misses his parents. He misses his old room with the Naruto posters on the wall, his grandparents’ farm and strawberry season, his dog. Taehyung calls his mom several times a week (he suspects this is more often than any of the others are calling their parents, just one more thing to feel weird about), and it’s still not enough, because he can tell his mom how hard it is all he wants and all she can do is tell him that he’s strong and she’s proud of him, but she can’t pull him onto her lap or give him any guarantees. Sometimes talking to her actually makes Taehyung feel worse, reminds him how alone he really is.

He’s not a little kid anymore, he begged and pleaded and harassed his parents until they agreed to let him do this by arguing that he wasn’t a little kid anymore, so he has no right to these feelings and it’s stupid that he’s feeling them at all. Taehyung shoves the homesickness down, does his best not to think about it, tries to be louder and happier and friendlier to all the other guys to make up for it, and that works for about a week until he drags his sorry ass home from a dance practice sweaty and gross and with a cramp in his calf so bad it makes him limp, and Hunchul snaps at him when he grabs a power bar without thinking about how many of the group snacks he’s had this week, and he feels tears well up behind his eyes so fast that he has to drop the stupid power bar and make a beeline for the bathroom to avoid bursting into tears in the kitchen like a giant baby.

And then he just can’t stop crying. He gets maybe five minutes of peace before Namjoon is banging on the door, yelling through it that the rest of them all need to shower so can Taehyung hurry up in there--he gets halfway through the sentence and then his voice trails off, and Taehyung wonders if one of the others explained to him that he’s probably crying in here. He yells that he’ll be out soon, just give him a minute because he has diarrhea and it’s nasty, and hopes desperately that they’re groaning or laughing in disgust and can’t hear the truth in his voice. But there’s nothing that can make this less humiliating, and as Taehyung goes through too much toilet paper trying to dry his eyes and his nose, he thinks that if someone were to offer him a new contract that would allow him to give up his idol dreams in exchange for never having to leave this bathroom and face the others, he’d sign in a heartbeat.

He doesn’t know how long he stays in their shoebox of a bathroom (with so many teenaged dudes living here, it always stinks in the bathroom, always always, so different from the nice warm clean feeling he gets in every single room of his grandparents’ house), but no one else bangs on the door. Taehyung is grateful that they’ve given him space, even though he knows that like Namjoon said, most of them must need to take showers and piss and brush their teeth and everything. Taehyung has one of those faces that always shows it after he’s cried, and when he looks at his puffy eyes and red nose in the mirror he knows that he’d have to stay in here all night if he wanted to go through the door and not look like a sniffling pathetic child.

The one piece of good luck he’s had all day is that none of the other guys are in the living room when he slinks out. Hunchul and Hoseok are talking in the kitchen--Taehyung can’t even look in that direction, he’s worried his chin will start trembling again even though Hunchul’s temper was only the straw that broke the camel’s back. The other guys are all either in the bedroom or not in the dorm, and Taehyung doesn’t feel tired yet so he curls up on the couch with his 3DS.

He tries as hard as he can to get absorbed into the game and not think, he just wants to not think for a little while. It’s almost working when he smells food and glances up and sees Yoongi standing in front of him, holding a bowl of rice and vegetables in front of Taehyung’s face. Taehyung hadn’t even heard him approach.

“You missed dinner,” Yoongi says by way of explanation. “That new guy, Seokjin-hyung? He cooked.” When Taehyung just blinks up at him, he shrugs and sets the bowl on the side table, within reach. He hesitates, then sets a water bottle next to the food, not looking at Taehyung. He sits down on the opposite side of the couch and grabs for the remote, turning the TV on to a music show while Taehyung stares at him.

“If you don’t want it--” Yoongi starts, and Taehyung snatches the bowl to his chest. After shoveling a few bites of rice into his mouth he remembers the water, gulping it down greedily. Crying is dehydrating; a headache had been starting to build, but it already feels better.

“Thank you, hyung,” he says. “This is really--thank you.” He hears the exhausted satoori come out of his mouth and cringes, the tips of his ears burning, but Yoongi doesn’t comment on it, just shrugs one shoulder without looking away from the TV. He seems uncomfortable with the gratitude, so Taehyung doesn’t push it, turning to the TV himself and hosing down his dinner in record time. He’d forgotten how hungry he was before the crying fit.

The music show has gone to commercial by the time Yoongi speaks again. Taehyung isn’t expecting it; he’s kind of zoned out, full and starting to get sleepy and feeling mostly numb. Then Yoongi says, in full Daegu dialect, “It’s hard for all of us. You know that, right?”

Taehyung stares at him. Yoongi glances at him once before turning to the TV again, like he cares enough to give advice (was that even advice?) but not enough to maintain eye contact. Taehyung’s never heard him say so many words in a row in dialect. His control over his voice always seems so perfect, better than Taehyung thinks he’ll ever manage himself.

“Yeah, I know,” Taehyung says, giving up on keeping the Daegu out of his own voice. He wants to say something else, because suddenly nothing seems more important than hearing Yoongi talk to him like they’re in Daegu, like his brain has gotten attached to the idea that if Taehyung can’t walk into his mom’s kitchen right now and get a hug then this is the only thing that could come close.

But for once in his life, Taehyung can’t think of a damn thing to say, can’t figure out how to keep the conversation going. He opens his mouth and shuts it and stuffs his face with chicken, hoping that Yoongi will say something else. But he seems to feel like he said all that he needed to say, and when Taehyung swallows and thanks him again, all he does is nod stiffly.

Taehyung found out that Yoongi was from Daegu on his first day, of course, when they all made their introductions. He’d been too excited, said some overeager bullshit about how it was cool to meet someone else from the same town. Maybe he’d even tried to high-five him? Already Taehyung can’t remember, embarrassment having granted him swift amnesia. Because Yoongi hadn’t gotten mad at him or anything, but he’d also shown absolutely no indication that he thought the two of them having Daegu in common meant anything at all. Taehyung hasn’t tried to bring it up since. Now that he’s known Yoongi a little while and gotten used to his baseline coldness, Taehyung realizes how foolish it had been of him to expect some kind of friendly bond over their similar roots.

But when Taehyung finally tries to sleep that night, he can’t get their brief conversation out of his head. It wasn’t just the satoori--he never would have expected Yoongi to bring him food like that, to give a shit about him crying or missing dinner. Even if he’s disappointed that they didn’t really talk, it makes Taehyung feel the tiniest flicker in his chest to echo the wild flame of his first day’s optimism.

***

Hunchul quits, packing his bag and leaving the dorm only a few short hours after he gives the managers his notice. Taehyung is at school and then at dance practice for the entire time, doesn’t even find out about it until he arrives home at eleven at night. It’s not like they were on the worst of terms, but he’s a bit relieved he didn’t have to say goodbye, and feels guilty for not being as sad about the departure as his hyungs clearly are.

***

Taehyung’s not shy, and joining Big Hit hasn’t transformed him into a shy kid. But he questions himself more after the fact, now. Berates himself for saying things that he should have known, thirty seconds ago when the words left his mouth, were stupid. Being one of the youngest trainees has been a weird adjustment. Taehyung has older cousins, but he’s never lived with them.

But the social part of life in the dorms gets easier eventually. After the first couple of months, Taehyung feels more certain of his place in their ragtag, shifting group. He feels less like he has nothing to offer. He knows his meager singing and dancing abilities aren’t much yet, that he was contracted more for “potential” than talent, but maybe he can contribute in other ways.

Most of the remaining trainees are quiet, moody guys when they’re not performing, guys who clearly dislike the lack of alone time that comes with living in a tiny apartment with a bunch of other dudes. It’s not that they’re not friendly, but Hoseok is the only one who can match him for energy levels. Hoseok takes his job of being upbeat seriously, and he’s physical and grabby and warm and always tries to make everyone laugh. Taehyung finds himself often sucked into his energy, yelling and dancing around when Hoseok wants to yell and dance around, letting go of his recent self-consciousness to just goof off.

And sometimes he notices the other guys watching and laughing, laughing in the good way and not at him. Maybe it helps them all deal with the sleep deprivation, or offers a distraction.

When Taehyung was twelve, his grandmother squished his cheeks and told him that he was a ray of sunshine who lifted her mood just by being himself. Obviously no one but his grandma is ever going to describe him that way, but still, Taehyung thinks that maybe his hyperactivity doesn’t have to be such a problem here.

Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that it’s not only a problem. It’s definitely not appreciated by everyone equally, or at all times.

“I don’t understand you,” Yoongi says. Taehyung looks at him, squinting through his shaggy hair to meet Yoongi’s eyes even if it’s dificult to do while he’s in a backbend.

“What’s not to get?” Taehyung asks even though he knows it’s kind of a pointless question. Maybe when he was in middle school he still wanted to know why people didn’t understand him, but by now he’s stopped trying to figure it out. He’s only seventeen but he still knows with dead certainty that people will find him bizarre and impossible to understand for the rest of his life.

Taehyung experiments with lifting one foot off the ground and pointing his toe, wobbles, and flops down out of the backbend. His form is terrible and he wasn’t protecting his back by engaging his abs well enough and if Hoseok were watching he’d probably yell at Taehyung about that, so good thing Hoseok isn’t here. He rolls over onto his stomach, pawing dirt from the studio floor off his cheek. Now he and Yoongi are at eye level, from where Yoongi is curled up on the floor in a fetal position. Their dance teacher has gotten held up in some meeting, along with Hoseok and Namjoon, and apparently Yoongi had been going to take this opportunity to nap.

“How do you not run out of energy?” Yoongi blinks at him slowly, reminding Taehyung of his grandparents’ lazy old cat who slow-blinks when she likes you. “You don’t get any more sleep than I do and you don’t even drink coffee. I’m exhausted just looking at you.”

Yoongi is talking to him directly, asking Taehyung a question, and sure it’s because he seems aghast at Taehyung’s behavior but it’s still an opportunity. Taehyung licks his lips and pushes himself up on his elbows. “Coffee tastes like butt--”

He doesn’t get anything else out, because he hears a warning cry and then Jungkook is tackling him, choosing now to continue a semi-violent game of tag they’d started earlier. So Taehyung has to get him back, and after a few minutes of scuffling on the floor Taehyung looks over at Yoongi again but his eyes are closed now and his brow is furrowed like he’s determined to get some rest no matter how loud they are. Taehyung feels a twinge of sympathy, but then Jungkook’s hand squirms under his shirt to pinch and twist the skin next to his bellybutton, and it makes him yell loudly enough that even Seokjin says, “Yah, Tae, we’re inside.

***

There is a new girl at school, and all of Taehyung’s friends are obsessed with her. She is definitely pretty, Taehyung can see that, but he feels slightly left out as his school friends spend their whole lunch hour discussing every detail they know about her and then deciding that one of them ought to bite the bullet for the group and talk to her. To Taehyung’s extreme surprise, they nominate him.

“You’re all outgoing and good with people,” his friend Minseok says. “It makes sense you’d be good with girls, too.”

Taehyung beams at the compliment, even though he’s not sure that Minseok’s logic tracks. And he’s not sure that he’s going to be very successful in trying to talk to Sooyeon, but the other guys are talking about her like she’s an alien or a terrifying-but-sexy zombie, so maybe in comparison he’s got a decent shot.

“Put in a good word for me,” Minseok begs him as he stands up to cross the courtyard to her table. “Tell her I’m really good at musical theory, I could help her study?”

Taehyung shakes his head. “If she actually talks to me I’m not about to waste my breath recommending you,” he says.

It turns out that Sooyeon is really nice, looking up from her book and smiling when Taehyung introduces himself. She invites him to sit at her table, and they talk a little about the book she’s reading and the differences between her old school and this one, and Taehyung doesn’t want to look over his shoulder because he knows his friends will all be pretending not to stare in a super obvious way.

Feeling encouraged, Taehyung asks if he can carry her books for her when the bell rings to signal that lunch is over. Her cheeks go pink when she says yes. And Taehyung’s not sure how exactly this happens, but the following day they make out in the stairwell behind the auditorium that no one ever uses, and he learns that you can pop a boner just from like thirty seconds of kissing.

He doesn’t tell any of his friends about the kissing part, because he’s not sure what it means and they’re already giving him enough shit about carrying her books to class, which they saw yesterday. After classes are over, he manages to catch up with her before she gets on the bus, and gets out a rushed request for her to be his girlfriend. To his surprise, Sooyeon turns him down, although she does say that he is very cute and a good kisser. But she doesn’t want a boyfriend right now, it would interfere with her studies too much and she needs to keep her grades up.

“And you’re training to be an idol, right? You probably don’t have time either,” she adds, and oh, right, maybe he should have thought about that.

As he walks back to the dorm, Taehyung wonders why he doesn’t feel more disappointed.

***

It’s not the first time Taehyung has seen Yoongi and Namjoon rap, but it is the first time he’s seen them freestyle. It’s at the end of a dance practice, and Taehyung is flopped exhausted on the floor so he misses the start of it, doesn’t catch what makes them decide to start practicing their verses right here and now. But then he sits up and pays attention, because he recognizes these verses, he’s heard them before and knows this is what Yoongi and Namjoon and Hoseok and Hyosang are all working on. He’s heard them before but it’s still fantastic to watch, feeling the beat catch in his chest like it’s contagious, wanting to participate but still, it’s enough to sit here and watch and bounce his shoulders and occasionally yell to hype them up. He feels selfishly lucky that he’s the only one here getting to watch (Seokjin’s off at a college class, and Jungkook left last week for L.A.), and also a little bit useless, the only one in the room who can’t just join in.

And then they run out of material that they’ve already written, but Namjoon and Yoongi keep going, prowling around each other and improvising. Hoseok and Hyosang both quiet down and join Taehyung on the floor--Taehyung knows that Hoseok is still learning how to rap, so maybe he can’t spit verses off the top of his head like this just yet, and maybe Hyosang just wants to watch and appreciate this instead of trying to compete.

It’s definitely something to watch. Taehyung feels like his eyes must be bulging out of his head, and at some point he stops clapping or moving to the beat in favor of just staring, trying to pay as close attention as he can to catch every word (which is impossible, it’s far too fast, how can Yoongi do that, he’s not even breathing). Yoongi and Namjoon trade insults that are somehow both brutal and full of playful bravado, grinning and snarling and locking eyes with each other sometimes and at other times launching their words outward at the dance room mirrors, at their audience of three. Taehyung feels privileged, watching this. Feels, for the first time, the spark of electricity in his spine at the thought of getting to be part of something like this--something special. He knows he has so far to go before he can approach their level, musically and in all other ways, but he wants to get there so badly. Maybe not with rapping, but with something, he wants to do something as well as Yoongi and Namjoon rap. Wants to be worthy of them.

When they finish, Taehyung lets go of any hopes of not looking like a dumb kid or a fanboy and jumps to his feet, clapping wildly. “That was fucking awesome!”

Yoongi pretends to wince and stagger back, like the volume of Taehyung’s voice is painful to him. “Jesus, calm down.”

But as cranky as he tries to be, Taehyung doesn’t miss the smile trying to fight its way out of the corner of his mouth. Yoongi still scares Taehyung a bit, but Taehyung throws caution to the wind and hugs him, squeezing tight and letting go before Yoongi has a chance to hold him back, then hugs Namjoon next. It’s all very sweaty. Everyone always tells Taehyung that he’s bouncing off the walls but right now he has so much energy that he thinks he literally could throw himself against those mirrors and all that would happen is he’d pinball around the room, just like a beam of light.

“You guys are incredible,” Taehyung says, and behind him Hoseok and Hyosang are making noises of agreement and exchanging high-fives and back-slaps with Namjoon and Yoongi. Taehyung bounces on the balls of his feet, can’t even try to still himself. “Had you written any of that before? Was it really all just improvisation?”

“What do you think freestyle is?” Namjoon says, but not unkindly. He’s smiling at Taehyung like he’s bemused, a little surprised at how into this Taehyung is. Taehyung doesn’t get why it would be surprising. He signed up to join a hip-hop group because he loves hip-hop, even if he’s not as much of an expert on it as the other trainees.

“But what if you can’t think of anything? Doesn’t that ever get scary? Doesn’t your mind ever just go, like, poof?” Taehyung mimes an explosion with his hand at the side of his head, and Hoseok laughs and slings an arm around his shoulders.

“Don’t get too hero-worshippy there,” he says, and Taehyung’s whole face goes red. “Yeah, it’s improv but it’s like improv music or dance: there are certain themes that you know you can stick to, rules to play by and tricks to keep in your back pocket, to make it easier to come up with rhymes. Not that I can do it yet, but, you know. It’s not magic.”

“It’s not something I could ever do,” Taehyung says. Namjoon and Yoongi frown at him, but Taehyung wasn’t being down on himself or fishing for compliments--it’s just the truth. He’s not nearly good enough with words. Even if he gets better at rapping, he’ll never be able to think up and spit verses on the fly. Not like his hyungs just did.

“I think you guys are really cool,” Taehyung continues, because he doesn’t want those looks of slight concern anymore, and sure enough as soon as he calls him cool Yoongi’s face shifts into a scowl instead.

“Whatever, I need to head to the studio,” he grumps, looking away and blushing a bit when Taehyung just grins at him. Later Taehyung will probably go back to feeling shy and nervous around Yoongi, but right now embarrassing him is fun.

“Okay, have a good recording session, you’re a genius,” he says cheerfully. Yoongi actually snarls at him before stamping out the door, which just makes both Taehyung and Hoseok laugh, and Hoseok ruffles Taehyung’s hair before letting his arm drop from his shoulders.

The warm energy from the dance room lingers in Taehyung’s chest as he walks back to the dorm with Hoseok and Hyosang (Namjoon went to the studio with Yoongi), as he showers off all the sweat from dancing, as he flops into his bed with his 3DS. It feels emptier than usual in the dorm without Jungkook here, even though that kid is still so quiet when he’s not trying to physically fight you. Taehyung misses him, if only because without Jungkook around he’s the youngest.

But also because he thinks Jungkook would have liked to see their hyungs’ freestyling, and he would understand why Taehyung can’t get over it. There will be more of this in the future, a lot more if they manage to actually make it to a debut. Taehyung hopes there will be more, tries to tell himself that he’s hitched his boat to something permanent and true, even though he’s not an idiot and he knows that contract or no, it could all go up in smoke at any time. That’s often how some of the hyungs talk about their group: with a sense of foreboding and anxiety permeating even casual chitchat about the future. It makes Taehyung feel naive and dumb for how excited he was when he got here. It's like they all came in knowing something he didn't, and Taehyung has listened to enough of the gossip and the venting by now that he gets it, but he doesn't…. Get it.

It's not all the hyungs. Seokjin listens to others vent, but Taehyung can tell he tries to be positive in the things he says himself. Namjoon is a worrier, but he's also a good leader and when he says that their future is bright, it's hard not to believe him. Hoseok worries about everything but will switch to trying to be positive or upbeat if he notices Taehyung and Jungkook listening (which is unnecessary, Taehyung isn't a little kid and can handle it even if Jungkook can't, but whatever).

Hyosang seems to be a complainer by nature. So was Hunchul before he left. Yoongi though…

Yoongi only rarely complains. He grumbles, he doesn't smile often unless he's in a very good and relaxed mood, and he seems to be perpetually tired. When he gets drawn into conversations about debut and the future of their group he speaks bluntly, and it’s sometimes harsh. Sometimes angry: angry at the industry, angry at other rappers, anger at their management. Sometimes it’s nothing so specific, but listening to him you get this sense of bleakness in his worldview, some deep sadness that tangles around him, shuttering his face and keeping him distant.

Yoongi’s grim thoughts about their possible future affect Taehyung more than what any of the others have to say. He speaks with authority and no dramatic self-pitying indulgence, so when he does say things that hint at his real outlook the words always sink like a stone in Taehyung’s belly.

When he’s performing, Yoongi is completely different. Taehyung thinks about watching him today, how alive he was, how his energy felt like a tangible thing that lit you up from the inside out. Taehyung wishes that side of Yoongi came out more often. Because he wants happiness for Yoongi, and maybe more selfishly because he still feels scared around the hard edges of Yoongi’s sad self; and maybe, more selfishly still, because Yoongi at his most charismatic had stunned Taehyung like a light clicking on in the darkness, and he just wants more.

***

Taehyung has this friend back home in Daegu, Wonsik. Not his best friend, not the guy he's most comfortable or familiar with, but somehow the one Taehyung always found himself most seeking to impress, and the one he's missed the most. Their friendship has run hot and cold over the years, but they've kept in touch since Taehyung left for Seoul--or, well, Taehyung has sent him lots of selfies and Wonsik has sometimes ignored them and sometimes told Taehyung how good he looks, how pretty, how much like an idol on TV.

With how non-stop busy he’s been, it's easy for Taehyung to avoid wondering why he sends Wonsik selfies that he doesn't send any of his other friends. Easy not to think about why he tries to get the angles right to get Wonsik to tell him he looks good, or about the way hope sparked in his belly the one time Wonsik told him he almost looked as cute as a girl.

Taehyung needs to get good at taking pictures of himself, anyway. That hasn't come up in their media training yet but he overheard Seokjin and Hoseok talking about it the other day, complaining about angles or whatever. So really, Taehyung is just doing extra credit at his job.

Even though his homesickness is not quite as bad as it was a few months ago, Taehyung counts down the days until their winter break arrives and he can go home. Big Hit keeps him at the dorms for several long days after his school winter break starts, taking advantage of Taehyung's free days to put him through hours of meetings and vocal training and recording sessions for shit that probably won't ever be on any album. Taehyung knows he should care more, and spending real time in the studio is cool and all--Taehyung had never been around recording equipment before this year, and he has a feeling that this puts him massively behind a lot of the other guys, or at least the other ones that are supposed to be singers, like Jungkook.

But Taehyung doesn't hate anything the way he hates meetings. Sitting through meetings makes the usual itch of energy beneath his skin turn into something more like a fire burning all over, he hates sitting still and trying to look serious while people talk at him and he inevitably spaces out and misses important shit. Taehyung hates the frustrated reprimands and annoyed looks he gets when people have to repeat themselves for him. It makes him feel like a spoiled kid, and he's supposed to be a professional.

It's worse when he's in meetings by himself with one of the managers or with Bang PD-nim, which has been the case with most of these end-of-year meetings because they're starting to try and work out what his “concept" is going to be. It seems early for that because they don't have a debut date yet, seems like they'll never have a debut date and try as he might Taehyung can’t visualize an end to the interminable training. But according to Bang PD-nim, Taehyung's concept could affect what direction they go with his training, so they should at least be thinking about it now.

It's important shit that affects Taehyung very directly, so he knows he should be giving these meetings his full attention. If he doesn't come up with some ideas of his own, they're going to go with making him the 4D guy, and Taehyung hates the sound of that. But concentration feels impossible when going home is so close Taehyung can almost taste his grandma's cooking already. Every time they trap him in the stupid meeting room, Taehyung wants to press his whole body against the stupid corporate-feeling glass windows and scream for help like he's being murdered or something.

Wonsik is on his mind more and more as the first day of the break looms closer, and it doesn’t even make sense that he’s so excited about it because with family obligations, they won’t be able to hang out until after Christmas, until Taehyung has been back in Daegu for over a week. Taehyung makes a joke about how seeing Wonsik will be his birthday present, and Wonsik texts back lol and Taehyung doesn’t know what means. He tries to distract himself by making more immediate plans with his other friends from junior high, and tells himself he’s looking forward to seeing them as much as Wonsik.

On their last night in the dorm, it’s only him and Yoongi and Hoseok--Namjoon, Seokjin and Hyosang left a few hours ago, their parents are right near the city so why wouldn’t they? Seokjin still doesn’t even officially live here, so probably all this means to him is a much-needed vacation from work. Taehyung tries not to be too jealous of the Seoul guys that get to see their families all the time.

To pass the time, he and Yoongi and Hoseok put on a movie, and it’s not even that scary--it’s an action thriller, not horror--but Taehyung is still surprised at how much Hoseok and Yoongi keep jumping at the suspenseful parts and how much Hoseok, especially, screams. Taehyung never really blinks an eye at this stuff, and at one point Hoseok accuses him of being a robot, then tickles him until Taehyung cries uncle, making them both miss a good chunk of one of the longest fight scenes in the movie. It’s one of the first times since he arrived here that Taehyung has actually felt like someone’s dongsaeng.

After the movie, Hoseok slips out to take a phone call, and Taehyung tries not to feel too self-conscious about how the noise and the laughter in the room dies as soon as he’s gone. Because Yoongi has nothing to say to Taehyung, apparently.

“Are you looking forward to going back to Daegu?” Taehyung says, smiling at Yoongi. It feels like a basic question, and like he should already know the answer, but he doesn’t. They haven’t spent much time together like this, just the two of them.

Taehyung thought it was a softball question, not much beyond polite small talk, but Yoongi winces. Then his face smoothes over blank, like he’s trying to cover up his reaction. He gives one of his constant taciturn shrugs. “Sure, I guess. It’ll be nice to see the dog.”

Taehyung has seen more pictures of Yoongi’s family dog, at this point, than he has of his parents. But some people are just private, he figures, and also it’s a very cute dog. “Yeah, I can’t wait to see Soonshim. And my grandma’s cat! She’s so cute and huge and cranky, she hates it when I pick her up but lets me do it anyway. Are you taking the train back? I haven’t been to the train station since they finished all that construction.”

Taehyung doesn’t even realize that he’s slipped into dialect until Yoongi glances at him and responds in kind. “Yeah, I am. The new station is nice, it’s a lot bigger now. Less claustrophobic in there. And it has a Daedok.”

Taehyung groans at the memory of one of his favorite restaurants. “I didn’t even think about being able to eat Daedok again! Oh man, I can’t wait. Nothing here is as good as their makchang gui.”

Yoongi smiles. “I prefer Jinju Jip.”

It’s a common division among people back home, most everyone Taehyung knows has a preference for either Jinju or Daedok. All of a sudden he is so homesick it’s like a stomach cramp, and it hardly even matters that this time tomorrow he’ll be back there again. He scowls and tucks his knees up under him on the couch to argue with Yoongi, theatrical about it to push away the pangs of strong feelings. Yoongi engages him on the finer points of the differences in the two restaurants’ jajangmyeon, and when Hoseok gets back he finds them deep in conversation, interrupts by teasing in Jeolla, “Yah, use a language we can all speak.”

***

Taehyung's dad comes to pick him up, even though Taehyung had insisted that he could just take the train. It makes him feel immature, but he can’t pretend not to be thrilled to see his dad a few hours earlier than he would have if he’d taken the train. Taehyung answers the knock at the door and sees him, then throws his arms around him, only feeling a little self-conscious that Hoseok and Yoongi can see from the kitchen.

They don’t stick around long, but Taehyung hears Hoseok and Yoongi making polite conversation with his dad while he’s busy in his room, throwing the last of his things into his bag because of course he started to pack, got halfway through, and forgot to finish. When Taehyung emerges with his bag, he can see how close Hoseok and Yoongi are standing to each other, with their best respectful faces on as they talk to his dad. They look like such a pair right now, and Taehyung’s not sure why but it makes him feel a little wistful.

Family keeps him busy as soon as he arrives in Daegu, and Taehyung enjoys getting babied by his grandparents and his mom so much that he barely even thinks about seeing Wonsik so soon. Christmas is good, warm and bright and Taehyung unwinds more over the course of a few days than he thought humanly possible. He’s surprised to find that as grateful as he is to be away from the dorm and Seoul and dance practices and bland grilled chicken, he enjoys talking about his work to his family, happily telling his siblings funny stories about the other trainees and finding excuses to drop new anecdotes he’s learned about music or dance into conversation with his parents. They indulge him with fond smiles and tell him how proud they are of him, and Taehyung never gets tired of hearing it.

The holiday goes by fast, and then December 27th rolls around, the day he and Wonsik had tentatively planned to hang out. Taehyung texts him about it as casually as he can, and is relieved when Wonsik doesn’t flake out on him, like he’s done in the past. They meet up downtown and go see the new Mission: Impossible movie, and Wonsik doesn’t want to go home just yet after it’s over so they walk around under the streetlights, talking about the movie and catching up on each other’s lives over the past few months.

Wonsik looks at him with wide eyes when Taehyung talks about being a trainee, and it makes warmth prickle at the back of his neck even though he knows that nothing about his life is actually glamorous right now and so he doesn’t deserve getting a look like that. But then, who knows what kind of look might be on his face when he watches Wonsik speak, weirdly fascinated by the way his eyes light up as he tells a story and the press of his lips when he pauses to find the right words.

Their wandering takes them to a park close to the theater. It’s funny: Taehyung knows that Daegu is a big enough city in its own right, and he can remember that when his family first moved back here, he felt scared sometimes by the size of the crowds. But maybe that was just being a little kid, because now that he has Seoul as a point of comparison he can’t help but think that everything around him feels suburban and weirdly small. This park is nearly empty except for them, even though it’s still early. In the seven months he’s lived there, Taehyung has yet to go anywhere in Seoul that felt so dead.

When they’re sitting on a bench, no one in sight, Taehyung feels something like a firecracker go off inside his chest. That’s all the warning he gets before he’s leaning into Wonsik’s space and kissing him, right after Wonsik asked a rhetorical question that Taehyung didn’t even properly hear.

The kiss lasts barely two full seconds, but it’s long enough for the firecracker feeling to melt into warm light all through him. And then Taehyung realizes what he's doing, and before he can pause or pull back, Wonsik grips him by the shoulders and shoves him off.

“I don't--I don't,” Wonsik says, and shakes his head like he's trying to clear it, or find more words. But he doesn't say anything else, just stands up jerkily from the bench with his hands balled up into fists at his side. Taehyung has a wild moment where a hundred images of worst case scenarios flash through his mind all at once, and he flinches. He’s never been hit before, not by someone who meant it.

Then Wonsik is gone, walking quickly and then practically running, and Taehyung is on his feet running in the opposite direction. He doesn't know why he's running, just that he can feel his own tongue too thick and sour at the roof of his mouth and each one of his limbs feels too long and uncontrollable and traitorous.

Taehyung can't believe himself. He feels almost as shocked by his own treacherous mouth as Wonsik had been. He hadn't been planning that kiss, hadn’t thought he had a crush, he didn't even think once about kissing Wonsik before it was happening. Did he? No, he didn't. (Did he?)

He cries in the immediate aftermath, after Wonsik has shoved him away and fled and made Taehyung flee the scene, too. Mostly tears of shock, an automatic physical reaction to being so alarmed. He dries his eyes by the time he gets home, and he catches his parents exchanging some worried looks about him, but they don't ask for any explanation.

Taehyung cries about it again in the middle of the night, trying to be as quiet as possible so as to not wake up his little brother who shares this room. He doesn't even know why he liked Wonsik so much, but it hurts to know that they'll probably never talk again. Taehyung keeps thinking about texting him, but what could he even say? If he hadn't been so impulsive, maybe he could have approached the situation in some way that would have allowed him to figure out whether Wonsik would be open to something. Maybe he could have gotten a read on things without giving himself away. But of course he had to go kiss him out of nowhere instead.

In the morning, Taehyung resolves not to think about what happened anymore. He can brush it off as a fluke, a failed experiment, and it’s okay because he’ll never want that from another boy ever again. Because considering the alternative is scary. Taehyung is already considered so odd by so many people. He already stands out so much. He doesn't need this to be one more thing setting him apart.

Taehyung can just let the Wonsik situation be a blip in the general story of his life, a story in which he kisses and dates plenty of girls and has a wife someday with five kids and two dogs and a cat. He can put Wonsik and the fact that he kissed a boy out of his mind. It doesn't have to mean anything.

A few days later, Taehyung's grandmother bakes him a cake for his birthday. And to his surprise, he gets birthday texts from all the other trainees, even a birthday email from Jungkook who's still in L.A. They all say variations on the same thing, that he should stay healthy in the coming year and that they miss him and are looking forward to seeing him in Seoul again soon.

Taehyung is looking forward to seeing them too, sort of. At any rate he’s far more ready to leave Daegu and get back to the grind than he thought he would be when the break started. The thought of leaving his family again so soon makes him feel like crying, but he is also desperate and determined to put as much space and time between him and what happened with Wonsik as possible.

The year turns over; it's a freezing night in Daegu, colder than it's been since Taehyung got home, but he and his parents and grandparents still come out to the porch to share a drink at midnight, a small tradition they have for the calendar new year since it’s so close to Taehyung’s birthday--might as well. Lunar New Year is the bigger deal, in another couple of months, but Taehyung likes that the western new year feels kind of like his own personal holiday.

This year his parents had made noises about not letting him stay up, but it was just joking, a successful attempt to get a rise out of him as Taehyung puffed up with indignation and arguments that he was a working man now who didn't even live at home anymore. They more than make up for the teasing by toasting him at midnight, declaring him their musical rising star. Taehyung wasn't expecting it and he cries, promising them that he'll work hard to deserve their support.

He goes to bed feeling disoriented and drowsy from half a glass of champagne, and in the last few minutes before sleep his thoughts drift to Seoul, to going back to the dorm the day after tomorrow. Some part of him is skeptical that he’ll be going back, like now that he’s slipped back into the grooves of this house, being a trainee was just a murky dream he once had. That life seems unreachable and fake compared to his worn-in life here with his family, Daegu and the farm, his brother’s soft heavy sleeping breaths a few feet away from him. It’s surreal to think that Taehyung should have to leave. Why had he been so eager to pack his bags just a few months ago? How is it worth it?

No matter what happens in the next few years, whether he ever debuts as an idol or not, Taehyung knows that the Big Hit dorms in Seoul won’t ever feel like home.

Chapter Text

2012

Jungkook returns from the United States in February. Taehyung greets him by throwing his arms around him and yelling that he missed him and attempting (and failing) to lift him off the ground. Jungkook seems surprised by Taehyung's enthusiasm at his return, and Taehyung has surprised himself a bit, too. Part of it is that sleep deprivation has paradoxically made him hyper today, but mostly he’s just that happy to see Jungkook.

“It doesn't feel right without you here,” Taehyung tells him. “I’ve had no one to beat up on this whole time, why didn't you think about that before you left?”

The shy goggly look in Jungkook's eyes sparks into puffed-up indignation as he straightens to his full height, jaw jutting out. “What are you even talking about, I'm the one beating up on you.”

“How dare you speak to your hyung that way,” Taehyung says, and tries to get Jungkook into a headlock. Jungkook twists out of it and they scuffle for a while until Seokjin throws a sofa pillow at them.

When Taehyung asks Jungkook how LA was, Jungkook is full of stories about his dance teachers and American food and all the cool new techniques he learned. When Taehyung asks him about his fellow students, he ducks his head and scratches at the back of his neck.

“Ah, I didn't really make any friends or talk to the other guys much,” he says. “Sorry, hyung.”

“What are you apologizing to me for?” Taehyung reaches a hand up to pet Jungkook's hair, thumb tapping against the shell of his ear. “You don't have to be sorry for feeling shy, Kook. It can be hard to make friends.”

Jungkook's mouth twists. “Not for you.”

That's true, but Taehyung has been trying to make Jungkook see that it's not because he's special or cool in any way, that simply being open to people isn't some superpower that Jungkook can never have. Now that he's finally started to open up more to Taehyung and some of the other trainees, it's almost painful to see how silent and stilted Jungkook still gets around all other people.

“It just makes me sad to think of you being alone in America. So lonely, so sad, without your best hyung around to protect you.”

He lays it on thick to make Jungkook laugh, and it works, with Jungkook groaning and shoving him away.

***

Taehyung reasons with himself that even if he were into guys, which he probably isn’t aside from one fluke and surely everyone is allowed one fluke in their life, living with all the other trainees in one room would be enough to kill that completely. You need some sense of mystery for attraction to happen, right, and after the fourth or so time watching Hyosang scratch up between his butt cheeks while they’re showering together, he concludes that any mystery left the building months ago.

All boys, including himself, disgust Taehyung by this point in the idol trainee lifestyle, he’s decided. Surely if he were even slightly gay, he would enjoy living with all these dudes, wouldn’t he? He’d be turned on constantly by all the naked sweaty smelly manflesh that’s up in his grill 24/7? Instead all the other trainees are starting to feel like brothers, so surely that has to mean something. Girls are still mysterious. Taehyung is certain that they never smell or scratch between their buttcheeks in the shower. That makes them much more appealing.

Or it should, anyway.

One morning Taehyung stumbles into the kitchen first thing after waking, needing to grab a water bottle and something for breakfast before school, and doesn’t realize until he’s got the fridge door open that Seokjin is already there, cooking something that smells delicious and wearing only a pair of black boxer briefs. And later Taehyung will blame a multitude of factors: how he’s still half-asleep, his morning wood having only gone down very recently; the fact that Seokjin only officially moved into the dorm in January, so Taehyung can’t yet pick out the particular sound of his burps from a line-up and is, therefore, not completely bored by the sight of his naked chest and legs; and Seokjin was specifically brought on to be their visual, it’s his literal job to dazzle people with his hotness and take over their brains with temporary gay panic in kitchens at six in the morning, probably.

But whatever the excuses Taehyung will come up with later, it doesn’t change the fact that in the moment, standing in front of the stupid fridge, Taehyung’s eyes stray to somewhere around the small of Seokjin’s back and then they just get stuck there. Taehyung feels heat flooding his face and pooling in his gut, and there’s a lot of skin and a lot of muscle and Seokjin’s back is seriously broad--he looks so much bigger than Taehyung can ever imagine himself getting, he looks like an actual man and he could probably lift Taehyung easily off the ground with arms like that--

Taehyung slams the fridge closed and ignores Seokjin’s annoyingly cheerful greeting and flees like his life depends on it.

Taehyung spends several days feeling like the truth is following him around like a neon sign over his head, announcing his secrets to everyone, terrifyingly impossible to control. He squirms whenever people look at him a second too long, jumps when anyone tries to get his attention. He only manages to look Seokjin in the eye once every 48 hours. It’s all very bad.

In a moment of desperation, Taehyung steals one of the magazines that Hyosang keeps (barely) hidden under his bed and sequesters himself in the bathroom. He spends too long staring at pictures of naked women, and--he always figured that if boobs and butts still looked weird to him instead of sexy, all it meant was that he was a late bloomer. And hadn’t he liked kissing Sooyeon? She had been so nice and pretty. Maybe he just needs to be kissing a girl to feel it, maybe there’s a big difference between that and looking at photos of oily naked bodies in a magazine.

Taehyung could probably get another girl at school to kiss him. It hadn’t been a scary or difficult thing to do with Sooyeon. But even though he spends the walk to school every day firmly telling himself that today will be the day he talks to another girl, he keeps not doing it. Every time a free period comes around, he feels no motivation to even try; it’s hard to hang on to the reasons why he should, because those reasons all come down to being afraid, and Taehyung isn’t very good at staying afraid of things

And on some level he’s realized that there is little point to continued experiments when he already knows the truth.

***

Taehyung doesn't notice the tension in the room until it spills over, and then he feels like an idiot for not realizing that nearly everyone in the dance studio has been somewhere on the scale of pissed off or resentful for most of their practice time. He feels young, that's what it is, childish and dumb as he watches Yoongi and Hyosang snap at each other in front of the huge mirrors at the front of the room. He can't even track what they're arguing about: it started about lyrics, but seems to have expanded to include almost every aspect of their shared, claustrophobic lives.

Then one of the managers gets involved, trying to shut it down. Hyosang quiets down pretty fast, but Yoongi just shifts his argument to the manager. Taehyung has never seen him get this heated. He's not yelling, but the bitterness in his voice is almost worse.

“I just don't see the point of this if it's never going anywhere,” Yoongi says. “I don't know if I even believe you that we're ever going to fucking debut.” And Taehyung knows that it's not about him, but he can't help but be affected by those words, feeling them like a spear through his belly. Maybe he lets it out in some kind of noise or unconscious gesture, because Yoongi's eyes flicker to his in the mirror. Taehyung almost thinks he's imagining it, because why would Yoongi look at him specifically? He's just one of many trainees, just another kid that Yoongi doesn't think will ever debut.

They're in trouble, is the thing. The choreographers are all dissatisfied with their dancing as a whole, but today they seemed to completely run out of helpful criticism, instead saying pessimistic things and berating without offering suggestions. Taehyung knows that Seokjin feels awful, but it's not just him. Their group lacks cohesion and fire in their performances, and one of the choreographers even claimed that Hoseok being as good as he was didn't help them, because he stood out like a sore thumb from the rest. (The look on Hoseok’s face at that had been scary, and Taehyung is surprised that he's not the one losing it to their manager.)

“Language, Yoongi-ssi,” the manager chides. He doesn't offer any other argument against what Yoongi is saying, and Taehyung can tell that's the last straw. Yoongi's face screws up and he touches his shoulder briefly, maybe an unconscious gesture, before balling his hand into a fist.

“Oh, fuck you,” Yoongi says, before spinning on his heel and leaving the room.

Taehyung knows that he should probably be upset with Yoongi, because that was very disrespectful and might get them all in trouble, but a small part of him thinks it was also kind of cool.

Minor pandemonium erupts after the door swings shut behind Yoongi’s back. Hyosang says, “Oh, what the FUCK” to no one in particular, Namjoon rushes over to the manager to apologize for Yoongi’s behavior, and the dance instructor swears quietly and then tells them that practice is done for the day.

Hoseok turns to Taehyung and Jungkook with a tight smile fixed on his face. “Let’s do some stretches and cool down,” he says. “Oh, Kookie, it’ll be okay--”

Jungkook had gasped when Yoongi stormed out of the room, and now his eyes are huge and a bit watery as he stares at the door. “Is Yoongi-hyung going to get fired?”

“Nah, he’d quit before they ever fired him,” Seokjin says, suddenly at Jungkook’s side. Hoseok gives him a glare, but Seokjin snakes an arm around Jungkook’s waist, pulling him in and jostling him a bit. “Don’t worry about Yoongi-yah, the company loves him! He’s said worse than that to the big bosses before!”

Taehyung isn’t sure that’s true. Not judging from the tightness in Hoseok’s eyes and the way Namjoon is still spilling words to their manager and instructors. But now Jungkook is wrestling with Seokjin to get out of his arms while Seokjin clings and laughs, so Taehyung won’t argue.

“Taetae.” Hoseok nudges him in the side with one of his pointy elbows, startling Taehyung from staring into the space above Jungkook’s struggling shoulder. Hoseok is peering at him, frowning. “You okay? It’s shitty to watch people fighting like that.”

Taehyung glances in the mirror and sees that his face is perfectly blank. It’s probably been that way for a minute. He shakes himself and gives Hoseok a smile. “I’m fine, hyung. Didn’t you say we should stretch?”

There’s no stopping Hoseok from pulling him into a half-hug and smacking a kiss to Taehyung’s hair. Taehyung doesn’t bother putting up much protest. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Namjoon leaving with the managers and instructors, still talking fast, tension written into the lines of his back. They’ll be having some meeting right now, him and Bang PD-nim and the rest of their management. Taehyung trusts Namjoon, but….

It’s not something he thinks about often, how much power this company has over all of them. It’s better to think about working hard, staying healthy, and in exchange their management will take care of him. Of all of them.

Taehyung hopes that’s true.

Unsurprisingly, Yoongi isn’t in the dorm when they drift home from the studio. Taehyung figures he must be off cooling down somewhere. Everyone else is subdued and quiet, even Hoseok. Seokjin throws together a basic dinner, which only Taehyung and Jungkook eat, but he seems to have run out of cheerful things to say.

Taehyung and Jungkook don’t know what else to do, so they settle on video games, squished next to each other on Taehyung’s bunk, Jungkook borrowing Taehyung’s 3DS to play while Taehyung watches and critiques . Taehyung tries to get into it as much as he can, but it’s not nearly enough of a distraction. His mind keeps wandering off, back to Yoongi and the scowl on his face and the snarl of his teeth and the rasp of his bitten-off words.

Then Jungkook swears viciously and throws Taehyung’s console, snapping Taehyung back into the present. The DS3 is fine, it just bounces on the mattress, but Jungkook is obviously upset about more than whatever mistake he just made in the game.

“Whoa whoa, hey, what’s up?” Taehyung says, sitting up enough to look down at Jungkook, who avoids his eyes with an angry sniff.

“Nothing. Nothing, I’m just. This sucks. Today sucks.” Jungkook rubs at his cheekbone and Taehyung feels a lump form in his own throat. He’s a sympathetic crier, nothing to do with his own fears and worries.

“It's going to be okay, Kookie,” Taehyung says, and pulls Jungkook's face into his shoulder so that he can't see whatever look is in Taehyung's eyes right now, as it would probably be a dead giveaway that he doesn't believe what he's saying. He thinks about crawling back to Daegu with all his parents money already spent and nothing to show for it, and hopefully Jungkook won't read any tears into his loud sniffle.

Jungkook shifts his whole body towards him and curls up with his cheek pressed into the soft fabric of Taehyung's t-shirt. Taehyung doesn't think he's actually crying, which is good. In the past he's never known what to do with a crying Jungkook, other than try to distract him with games or, when they had enough around, food. But it's hard to know specific things to say to try to comfort him, because Taehyung doesn't have any answers. And when it comes to talent and work ethic, Jungkook is in much better shape than he is, so when Jungkook is feeling worried about his chances then what can Taehyung possibly offer for reassurance?

But right now Jungkook is maybe more exhausted than he is emotional. And yep, sure enough, Taehyung feels his breathing even out until Jungkook is fast asleep on his chest.

Taehyung extricates himself as quietly as he can, wiggling out from under Jungkook and tipping him gently sideways to lie on his bed. He’s glad that Jungkook is getting some sleep, and maybe he should try to sleep next to him, but Taehyung feels jittery. The only other guy left in the dorm is Hyosang, sitting hunched at the kitchen counter working on his laptop. He has headphones on, sending every possible clear signal that he doesn’t want to be bothered. Namjoon hasn’t returned from his meeting with the company, and Seokjin and Hoseok slipped out quietly together while Taehyung was playing games with Jungkook.

There’s a scraped, burnt and bedraggled feeling in the back of Taehyung’s throat. He grabs his jacket and mumbles to Hyosang that he’s going out, as if he has anywhere to go other than the studio. Hyosang doesn’t even look up; when Taehyung catches a glimpse of his screen, he sees that he has a chat window open, typing furiously deep in conversation with someone.

Threads seem to be unraveling all around Taehyung. Not that any of them were so tightly woven together in the first place.

When Taehyung finishes dragging his feet down the stairs from their apartment to the street, it’s odd to realize that it’s grown dark outside. He was cooped up for hours inside the dorm, unaccustomed to all the free time from an afternoon of canceled practices. Now he’s disoriented, the garish streetlights harsh against his eyes and the dark closing in beyond their glow.

Theoretically, since Taehyung is underage he should be getting permission from one of the managers to go unaccompanied anywhere that’s not school or the studio. But everyone operates with the understanding that permission can be taken for granted as long as you’re not going out super late or going anywhere scandalous or far away. Big Hit gives them more freedom than Taehyung would get at another, larger company. Or at least, that’s what he was told when he signed with them; he has no point of comparison.

Taehyung’s feet carry him automatically down the block towards the studio, because where else is he going to go? Maybe the computer is free and he can fight through the many viruses to browse the internet.

Taehyung rounds the corner and spots Yoongi, leaning against the wall of the nearest convenience store. He’s actually in the narrow little alleyway between the store and their studio building, crouched down at the edge of the circle of light from a streetlamp overhead, like he doesn’t want to be seen.

Maybe Taehyung should hesitate longer, or just keep on walking, all things considered. But he jogs over before he can think to do otherwise, already calling out, “Hyung? That you?”

Yoongi looks up from his phone, eyes blinking wide and startled for a second until he recognizes who’s calling his name. It’s oddly vulnerable. Then he’s ducking his head as he gets to feet with a sigh, and when he looks at Taehyung again he just looks like normal Yoongi. The furthest thing from vulnerable. “Taehyung-ah. What are you up to?”

Taehyung opens and closes his mouth, thinks about saying ‘getting fresh air’ or ‘looking for dinner’ or ‘just feeling restless.’ What comes out is something like “Getting fresh…. dinner,” and Taehyung wants to sink into the sidewalk as the corner of Yoongi’s mouth twitches.

“Um, nothing really,” he tries again. Talks faster, over himself. “There’s no one home and Kookie fell asleep but I’m still awake and I was thinking about maybe, I don’t know, working on something in the studio? I thought maybe I would run into you there. Or the other trainees, or. I don’t know. It’s a nice night for a walk.”

They both know that Taehyung doesn’t have anything he could be working on in the studio; he’s not like the rapper hyungs, he can’t compose things yet. Yoongi kindly doesn’t say anything about that. He nods and leans against the wall, then winces and shifts so that his shoulder isn’t taking any of his weight. Taehyung’s eyes flick from Yoongi’s shoulder to his face, and he can tell Yoongi just noticed him noticing.

After half a second of deliberation Taehyung joins him. He subtly scoots his back down the wall so that they’re standing at the same level, so that he’s not got his usual few centimeters of height on Yoongi.

“It is a nice night for a walk. Good to get fresh air.”

Yoongi sounds so tired, his voice all slurred gravel. Taehyung can hear the Daegu pitch to his words, but the words themselves are all standard Seoul--Yoongi hasn’t switched over to satoori, so maybe the accent is coming out without his conscious permission.

“Have you had dinner yet, hyung?”

“Nah. Not hungry. Why, fishing for kimbap?”

“No!” Taehyung grimaces. He wasn’t aiming for Yoongi to buy him snacks, but his stomach growls audibly, not supporting his case. He thinks of Yoongi bringing him dinner when he was crying last year. “I just didn’t want you to go hungry. Not, uh… not with how practice went.”

Taehyung can’t speak more clearly than a mumble, and can’t look at Yoongi head-on. He keeps his eyes fixed on the gray-green gum stuck to the opposite wall, and tries not to fidget when he feels Yoongi shifting to look at him.

“Don’t worry about hyung,” Yoongi says.

Taehyung frowns and this time does turn to look at him. “So you skipped dinner?”

Yoongi laughs. “Don’t worry about it. Do you want me to get you fried chicken or something? I can afford maybe one chicken wing.”

Taehyung can feel Yoongi’s evasion, how he’s trying to prod and steer Taehyung back into the role of a greedy dongsaeng who doesn’t ask questions of his hyung, doesn’t get concerned. Taehyung feels weird, his tongue heavy and graceless in his mouth, well out of his comfort zone trying to think of the right thing to say here. But the deep purple shadows beneath Yoongi’s eyes give his whole face a brittleness, and there’s the way he’s favoring his shoulder. So Taehyung presses forward.

“Are you in trouble after what happened today at practice?” Taehyung says. He can hear himself whispering, for some dumb reason, like it makes more sense for this conversation to be happening if Yoongi can barely hear him. He swallows and speaks up. “Do you want to talk about it?”

Yoongi bows his head. All Taehyung can see of his expression is his furrowed brow, and the clench of his jaw. For a dreadful few moments Taehyung thinks that Yoongi is just going to not say anything at all, and then Taehyung will have to find some other way to fill in the silence or perhaps just fall over dead on the gravel, but then Yoongi seems to collect himself, looking up and scratching at the side of his neck with his face composed again.

“No, it’s fine,” Yoongi says. He glances at Taehyung and then away, flippant. It could not be more clearly a brush-off.

Taehyung takes a breath and lets it out. Maybe it’s his fault as much as Yoongi’s, this heavy awkwardness between them. Maybe it’s the fact that Taehyung has always felt shy around Yoongi, so he’s avoided him instead of making a real effort. He can understand why Yoongi wouldn’t want to confide in him all of a sudden. Why he wouldn’t want to lean on Taehyung. Yoongi has taken care of him sometimes because he’s a good hyung, but he’s not comfortable with it going both ways. Taehyung understands, but he still has to try.

“It’s hard for all of us, hyung.” Taehyung clumsily repeats Yoongi’s own words back to him--words from almost a year ago, he realizes, when it doesn’t seem that long ago at all. Or maybe it’s been a lifetime since then.

 

This gets a reaction out of Yoongi, finally. His lips part and he blinks, startled maybe by Taehyung exhibiting the skill of basic memory for conversations. Then he closes his mouth and his lips twist, and Taehyung can’t tell if he’s trying to smile or if it’s something more bitter.

“Thanks, Taehyung-ah. We should head back.”

And that’s it. Yoongi steps away from the wall and cracks his neck, touching his shoulder again gingerly. Taehyung wants to ask about that, even though Yoongi has so far evaded every question about the obvious injury. Not even Hoseok can get him to talk about it, so Taehyung definitely won’t get anything out of him.

It’s still cold outside at night, even in April. As they walk back together, a stiff breeze gives Taehyung gooseflesh on his arms, and Yoongi clucks at him when he shivers.

“Don’t go out without a jacket just because it’s technically spring, Taehyungie. You have to take care of yourself, remember?”

Taehyung hugs his cold arms to his stomach. The garish yellow of the street lights makes the circles under Yoongi’s eyes look sallow, almost green. “So do you, Yoongi-ssi.”

***

Seokjin must have been right about how much Bang PD-nim and the rest of the managers love Yoongi, because as far as Taehyung can tell he doesn’t get even a slap on the wrist for telling them to fuck off. Instead, a few things happen in quick succession, and it’s hard not to interpret the collective chaos as a grim sign for their group’s dwindling hopes for debut.

Within two weeks of the studio fight, Hyosang is fired; they are told to audition for a JYP project, to gain experience; and management announces that Park Jimin will be joining as their newest trainee.

It’s not an announcement that anyone takes well. Because it doesn’t make any sense: Hyosang was a rapper, so if their group needed a replacement for him then why bring on someone who they apparently want to train for vocals and dance? Why bring on a new guy at all when they’ve been training for so long by this point? It means they won’t be debuting this year, despite the vague promises that had been made in January. This isn’t shocking news, it’s been apparent for a while that PD-nim only made those promises to keep them happy, but the confirmation is still a blow.

Yoongi is so pissed that Taehyung is afraid he’ll threaten to quit again. The six of them, the last remaining trainees, are sitting on two bunks while Yoongi rants and paces around between the beds. Namjoon looks exhausted, and doesn’t say anything to counter the angry points Yoongi keeps making, instead just nodding his head along in defeat. Even Seokjin is uncharacteristically frowning. Hoseok has Jungkook in his lap and he’s just watching Yoongi, his frown etching worry lines deep into his face.

“I think they just want a group of seven,” Namjoon says when Yoongi seems to finally run out of steam. “They liked that number when it was Hyosang. And they want another strong dancer.” He looks guiltily at Hoseok, who rolls his eyes and mutters something unintelligible.

“But what if it’s not about getting to seven boys?” Taehyung’s voice cracks, embarrassing him. He swallows hard as five heads swivel to stare at him. Jungkook’s eyes are so huge and he looks so worried. “What if they’re starting another trainee because they want to cut one of us.”

“They could cut any of us at any time whether they have a new trainee or not,” Yoongi says. Blunt as ever. “So Park Jimin doesn’t really change that either way.”

“Easy for you to say when he’s not a rapper.”

The words fall out of Taehyung’s mouth without his permission, and he immediately wants to take them back. He hates the way he sounds, resentful and pouting. Yoongi shoots him a stony look, and for a dreadful moment Taehyung thinks that they’re going to actually argue, which is the last thing he wants.

Namjoon jumps in before Yoongi can respond. “I don’t think they want Park Jimin to replace anybody. We’re all here because they’re invested in our success, and that includes him now.” He turns to Taehyung as he says this last part, and Taehyung feels grateful that Namjoon protected him from the wrath of Yoongi but guilty that he’s being gently scolded. The churning tangle of emotions in his gut threatens to bubble up and overwhelm him, and instead of trying to talk Taehyung curls his body to face away from the group and leans his head on Namjoon’s shoulder.

He’s never been as clingy with Namjoon as he is with Hoseok, Seokjin or Jungkook, because he can tell Namjoon isn’t a cuddler. Taehyung doesn’t know why he’s doing this now, but Namjoon is only stiff for a couple of beats before his hand comes up to hug Taehyung’s shoulders.

Taehyung knows he must look like a little kid, hiding from the tension in the room with his face in his hyung’s jacket. Whatever. He feels too bad to care.

“It’ll go badly for the whole group if we don’t do everything we can to help the new trainee succeed,” Namjoon says, his words directed to everyone now. Taehyung nods to show he’s listening. “He’s going to be one of us if everything goes well, and we want things to go well. So let’s treat him like one of us.”

“I’m not going to be an asshole to some poor kid, Namjoon-ah.” Yoongi sounds abashed now, some of the wind gone out of his sails. Taehyung hears the sound of him sitting down heavily on the opposite bunk, next to Hoseok, but he doesn’t look up from the wall view that Namjoon’s shoulder gives him.

“Okay, well good. That’s good.”

They can all hear how tired Namjoon is. Taehyung snakes an arm around his waist to hug him, and Namjoon squeezes his shoulders in return. Even with how shitty everything is, it makes Taehyung feel a little better. Like maybe he can be touchy with Namjoon sometimes, like that can be okay.

***

Taehyung would never have been anything but nice to a new trainee, with or without a lecture from Namjoon about it, because he remembers all too well how hard his first few months were and there’s no way he’d make it harder for someone else. But, still, he feels more enthusiastic about the prospect of the new guy when he hears that Park Jimin is his age.

It’s no guarantee that Jimin will be cool, Taehyung knows that. But maybe, maybe. Maybe they can be something to each other.

In typical fashion, they get no warning on the day that Jimin arrives. Or maybe someone told Taehyung this morning and he forgot. The end result is the same: it's one of the first hot days in May and the building's air conditioning is on the fritz, so after dance practice Taehyung is hanging out in his underwear.

In theory he's doing his homework. He has his book open in front of him, even if he also has his 3DS in his hands. He has the bedroom to himself, by pure chance because Namjoon and Yoongi are at the studio, Seokjin took Jungkook to his parents’ house for dinner tonight, and Hoseok is doing something or other in the living room. Taehyung is contemplating ditching his books completely to take advantage of the rare solitude and jerk off (risky, Hoseok could come in at any moment) when he hears the front door opening and voices in the living room.

Taehyung realizes quickly that it must be the new guy, but putting on pants doesn't strike him as the most urgent issue he has to fix. Taehyung darts to the closest mirror to check his sweaty hair, then frantically shoves several of his dirty socks under his bunk to join their brethren. He throws away the couple of chip bags that were lying at the foot of his bed and makes an attempt to brush crumbs off his sheets. Not that Park Jimin will probably be judging how neat he keeps his bunk, but Taehyung just doesn't want to look like the worst one. He now has less chip detritus in his bed than Namjoon, so at least that's something.

Taehyung has just barely gotten around to contemplating pants when he hears a soft knock on the door. There's nothing for it. Taehyung opens the bedroom door and decides that it was a conscious choice to meet his new best friend in only red boxer briefs.

“Jimin-ssi! It's nice to meet you, I'm Kim Taehyung. Did they tell you we're in the same year?”

Jimin returns Taehyung's bow with one of his own, but he doesn't return Taehyung's bright grin. He looks startled, blinking at Taehyung with puffy eyes like this is all a big surprise. He's cute, but not what Taehyung was expecting somehow. If he'd bothered before to put into words what he had been expecting, it would have been someone taller, with model level good looks and glamour even as a teenager; someone so striking that it would be immediately apparent why Big Hit made an exception to bring him on so late.

“Ah. It's nice to meet you, I'm Jimin. I don't think anyone told me about you, no.” Jimin's eyes drop to Taehyung's underwear for a second before flitting back up to his face. He doesn't look offended, at least, but Taehyung can't tell what's on his mind. At least Jimin's parents aren't here to see him off, small mercies.

“This is my lucky underwear,” Taehyung says. He doesn't have lucky underwear. What? “So you know what that means.”

Jimin’s eyebrows raise up nearly to his hairline. “Uh. Your what?”

“It means we're going to be friends,” Taehyung says loudly. Who knows why. He's just saying words, Jimin makes him nervous already.

Hoseok appears to save him. He’s all smiles, giving Jimin a one-armed hug that Jimin accepts with a shy smile in return, like they’re already well-acquainted. And when Hoseok says, “We want you to feel comfortable here, Jimin-ah,” Jimin visibly relaxes under his arm, like Hoseok’s words are magic.

“I’m sure I will, Hoseok-ssi, thank you.”

“You can call me hyung! We’re going to get to know each other well, why not start now?” Hoseok pinches Jimin’s ear playfully, and Jimin’s cheeks redden when he laughs. Taehyung’s not sure who he’s more jealous of: Hoseok, for being the one to draw Jimin’s attention first like this when Taehyung could really really use a friend his age, or Jimin, for getting this careful kind of one-on-one concern and attention from the hyungs from Day 1, because they’re all aware that he’s entering at a precarious point and everyone wants to try extra to make him feel welcome.

Taehyung is pouting at Hoseok, indignant because no one had told him he could get less formal with his speech until he’d been here for like three whole days, but Hoseok doesn’t see. He steers Jimin back into the living room, sitting him down in front of the couch and putting on a drama and asking questions about what food Jimin likes to eat, is he a morning person or night person, is he messy or tidy, etc. Taehyung sits down with them and joins in the conversation when he can, eventually getting caught up into it enough that he forgets to feel nervous or pouty.

Namjoon and Yoongi come home from the studio in the middle of an argument, their muffled animated voices audible through the door in the few moments before they step inside. They keep going into the hall threshold, and Taehyung doesn’t catch much of what they’re yelling about but he’s pretty sure it’s Digimon, and then they stop mid-sentence as soon as they catch sight of Jimin. Namjoon introduces himself earnestly, and Yoongi follows suit with a fair amount of friendliness, for him.

Seokjin and Jungkook arrive not long after that, and Seokjin immediately insists on feeding Jimin some of the food his mother had sent back to the dorm with him. Sitting cross-legged on the couch with a big bowl of jigae in his lap and Jungkook eyeing him curiously from beneath his bangs, Jimin looks less uncertain than he did when he first arrived. His eyes slide over to meet Taehyung’s, and Taehyung starts, realizing he was staring.

“Hey, I just realized,” Hoseok says, then points to Jungkook and Taehyung and wiggles his fingers. “Now we have three youngest, since Jimin and Tae are the same age.”

Taehyung, Jimin and Jungkook look at each other. Taehyung hadn’t quite thought of it that way before, but it’s true, they’re a little sub-unit of dongsaengs now.

“Our maknaes! So cute,” Seokjin says, and pinches Jungkook’s cheek like an auntie. He laughs and dodges the elbow Jungkook tries to jab him with. Jimin giggles, still looking a little unsure, and Taehyung follows the impulse to drag him in with an arm around his shoulders.

“Jungkookie, it’s our responsibility to make Jimin-ah feel at home.” Taehyung glances at Jimin, feeling a weird little thrill at the lack of honorific. Maybe it’s dumb, probably it’s dumb, to get so excited about the age thing when he doesn’t even know Jimin yet. But tonight, filled with shaky optimism, Taehyung believes he can fling them forward into bestfriendship without waiting, without boredom, without awkwardness.

When it starts getting late and the hyungs wander off one-by-one to bedtime rituals or washing dishes or more songwriting, Jungkook is still on the couch, and he probably won’t go to bed without Taehyung because he has a habit--Taehyung’s unsure if he’s noticed--of attaching himself to Taehyung’s side whenever they get some big news or big changes. Taehyung’s still on the couch because he’s attached himself to Jimin’s side. Jimin probably doesn’t even know where to go or what to do.

“Hey we should all sleep together tonight,” Taehyung blurts. Two sets of eyes blink at him, and he realizes what his words just sounded like and realizes that his arm is still around Jimin’s shoulders. But taking it back would just make him look like he knows he’s being weird, so Taehyung clings harder. “I mean, like, sleep out in the living room together. For bonding?”

“For bonding,” Jimin echoes, sounding slightly dead inside but hey, he hasn’t shrugged Taehyung off. Jungkook, bless Jungkook, laughs and shrugs like this is something they do all the time and not something weird that Taehyung is suggesting because he desperately wants Jimin to love them right off the bat.

“It would protect you from hyung’s snoring for your first night,” Jungkook says. “Maybe it’s best to ease you into that.”

“Uh-oh. Which hyung snores?”

“I think you should guess,” Taehyung says. His heart is beating a little stupidly fast considering that all he’s doing is sitting here holding Jimin. Jimin’s slim shoulders fit perfectly in the space of his arm though, is the thing.

Thinking about shoulders makes him think about Seokjin’s shoulders, which makes him remember his embarrassing reaction to Seokjin cooking shirtless in the kitchen, which brings him back around to how close he’s snuggled up to Jimin. Taehyung lets go quickly, but can’t bring himself to scoot away.

They get some blankets and pillows from the bedroom, and stay up late watching TV on the floor in front of the couch since it’s easier for all them to fit there. They get some laughter and shaking heads from the other members when they pass through. Seokjin tells them in a mock-stern voice not to stay up too late, and then when Jimin looks worried he has to add that no one cares about that because Yoongi is going to ruin his health by staying up till 4am every night anyway, so they can go to bed whenever they want.

Jungkook falls asleep first, yellow-green light from the variety show on the TV illuminating his drooling face. Jimin and Taehyung laugh about that quietly, so as not to wake him, and Jimin shifts into Taehyung and tangles their legs together closer under the blankets. Taehyung is getting sleepy, too, and his last thoughts before he drifts completely away circle around the idea that it would be so nice if he and Jimin were to fall asleep at the exact same moment; same year, same deep even breaths, same eyes slipping shut, perhaps even the same dreams.

***

Jimin isn’t unfriendly, and he isn’t cold. He works incredibly hard right from the beginning, clearly aware that he’s coming in late and has a lot of catching up to do. He’s a little shy, but not as bad as Jungkook used to be, at least around the dorms. He’s overly respectful at first, and it takes a lot of teasing from Hoseok and Seokjin before he loosens up and is willing to tease his hyungs back.

He’s not unfriendly, he isn’t cold. He just refuses to meet Taehyung at the level of friendship and camaraderie and brotherhood that Taehyung is pushing for, and Taehyung could probably be doing a better job of hiding the fact that it’s bothering him.

“But they really like you,” Taehyung says, trying for what must be the fifteenth time to convince Jimin to hang out with him and his school friends after class. “If you would just give them a chance, I know you’d get along with them.”

“It’s nothing against them,” Jimin says, packing his books and notebooks neatly into his backpack as students flow out of the classroom around them. He means ‘it’s nothing against you,’ and Taehyung suspects he is lying. “I just need to use all my spare time right now for practice. You know how behind I am.”

“Well, I think you’re doing great,” Taehyung says loyally. Jimin gives him a small smile, eyes peeking out gratefully under his hair. The company hasn’t taken him in for a haircut yet, not since he got here.

“Thanks, Tae. Say hi to the guys for me.”

Taehyung likes his school friends, and it’s nice to have people to hang out with and talk to who aren’t trainees. It helps with the occasionally-oppressive feeling that his world is closing in around him, that nothing exists outside of the dance studio and the cramped dorm. But he doesn’t care that much if Jimin likes them, too, although he thinks that would be cool. He just wants Jimin to share more things with him. And plus, there had been Jimin’s first day at their school, when Taehyung hadn’t been paying close enough attention and hadn’t realized until the afternoon that Jimin never said a word to anyone all day, even though Taehyung had told all his friends to be nice to him. Taehyung wanted to kick himself when he eventually got Jimin to confess that the reason for his silence was his worry about his dialect. Taehyung remembered so well how that had been, he really should have known.

But Jimin expresses his nerves so different from Taehyung. Jimin always speaks up in class, always ready with his hand raised to answer questions, often lingering behind after classes to ask about something from homework. He seems like he’s a bit of a teacher’s pet. But with his peers, Jimin falls into long periods of quiet, sometimes even in the middle of conversations, like he’s gone somewhere else in his head or worse--like he’s still right there, watching carefully what you’re doing and saying, but certain that he can’t share whatever his thoughts are. Sometimes Taehyung feels very judged.

The long spring days give way to summer, and Jimin has been living with them for three weeks, then four, then six then eventually Taehyung loses track. He’s now as used to having Jimin in his space as he is any of the others. He thinks they’re friends--no, that’s stupid, he knows they’re friends. Taehyung chooses, more and more, to walk home with Jimin after school instead of staying behind to hang out with his other friends. Jimin laughs at his jokes. They’ve developed a whole roleplaying routine, usually based on whatever drama was left playing in the background at the dorm the night before, and Taehyung delights in falling into it at strategic moments to annoy Jungkook the most.

During summer break, Taehyung has to share Jimin with the other guys during the day, no longer just the two of them going off to school together. As much as Taehyung is looking forward to no school, he almost misses that routine. Especially since it turns out that he doesn’t have to share Jimin with the others, because no one gets to see him much at all, since he’s holed up privately with dance instructors 24/7. Apparently Big Hit wants to see him pass evaluations by the end of summer. Perhaps Hoseok is getting to see more of Jimin, he might be helping him with extra instruction and advice, but Taehyung has no confirmation of that since all he gets is Jimin dragging himself back to the dorms at 2am and then faceplanting into bed, exchanging a grunt with Taehyung at most. And he’s always gone in the mornings by the time Taehyung wakes up, too.

Taehyung has his own progress to worry about. Rumors are swirling again that they’re going to debut “soon,” but this time the rumors go hand-in-hand with everyone’s training ramping up. Upsettingly, instructors zero in on all the flaws in Taehyung’s dancing and vocals and schedule a ton of private sessions, so much of his suffering happens solo. Taehyung doesn’t want to spend all his time working on the things he’s bad at, it sucks all the fun out of it, but he doesn’t dare whine because if the company is finally getting serious about debut, he doesn’t want to seem unprofessional.

In the last week of break before school comes back, the air conditioning in the dorms breaks again, during a record-breaking heat wave. And it’s so much worse than it was in May. They don’t even use the a/c that much, they never run it at night and sparingly throughout the day, but not having it at all somehow makes a huge difference. The air in every nook and cranny of their living space is hot and sticky and smelly, and all the cold showers in the world don’t help. Tempers run high in the heat. Namjoon and Seokjin get into a fight about Seokjin wanting to cook dinner even though that will make the kitchen even hotter, and it’s a bad one too, with raised voices and other sore subjects getting dragged up and Hoseok getting pissed at both of them when he gets his head bitten off for trying to be the peacemaker.

Taehyung takes refuge in the bedroom, and to his surprise he sees that Jimin is already there--he hadn’t realized Jimin had returned from practice. It doesn’t look like he’s showered yet. He’s sitting on the bunk below his own (Taehyung’s bed, not that he minds), elbows resting on his knees, half-collapsed forward with his head hanging low. He looks up at the sound of the door, sees it’s Taehyung, and drops his head again.

Taehyung’s mouth was open to complain (gossip) about the arguing hyungs. He shuts it. “Jimin-ah, you okay?”

Most of the time, when he asks that question Jimin says that he’s fine. Which, in and of itself, is fine: Taehyung does the same thing to him. Where would they be, if they actually talked about it every time things felt too overwhelming, too exhausting, too lonely or daunting? Taehyung’s not going to lose face like that, and he knows Jimin won’t either. But it seems nice to ask.

Tonight is different. Tonight Jimin sits up all the way and blinks up at the ceiling, swallowing hard. Holding back tears. “I’m going to be cut. I’m not good enough.”

Taehyung sits next to him and only hesitates for less than a second before putting a hand on Jimin’s shoulder. “No way! You’re amazing, you’re a much better dancer than I am and you’ve only been doing this for a few months. Why would they cut you?”

Jimin shakes his head. “They’re disappointed with my progress. They think I can’t improve enough in time for a debut next year.”

“They’re wrong,” Taehyung says firmly. “You’ve already improved a lot. You’re so talented. You and Kookie and Hoseok hyung are better dancers than the rest of us combined--”

“Hyung is on the chopping block, too.”

“--what?” Taehyung stares. That can’t be right. There’s no way they’d cut Hoseok, he’s been here since before Taehyung, before Seokjin and Jungkook even.

Jimin blinks rapidly but tears spill onto his cheeks anyway. “They’re considering cutting him from the group and maybe trying to debut him with a different group down the line. He told me today. He told me he’ll quit first.”

It’s clear that this is the main thing that’s got Jimin upset. Taehyung can’t blame him. He feels stunned. At a loss for words, he tugs Jimin closer and hooks his chin over Jimin’s shoulder. Their breaths synchronize and Taehyung can feel the cool, sticky texture of Jimin’s wet cheek against his temple.

“He won’t quit. And there’s no way they’ll cut him, they’re probably just trying to get him to agree to something. But there’s no way. You’ll see, Jiminie.”

Taehyung tries to say it with all the confidence of Seokjin telling Jungkook that Big Hit would never fire Yoongi. It works well enough in the moment, calming Jimin down. But at the end of the week, with only two days left before the school year starts and the whole city still stewing in this miserable heat wave, the air shimmering above the asphalt of the bank building’s parking lot next door, Hoseok leaves.

He’s uncharacteristically blunt about it, like maybe he thinks that will make it easier to accept. Or maybe he hadn’t thought that far ahead, because he seems genuinely surprised when Jungkook bursts into tears. Jimin looks misty-eyed, too, sick and resigned because he’s apparently known about this for longer than the rest of them. Taehyung should’ve had that knowledge, too, but he didn’t believe it so now he’s blindsided, far too shocked to cry.

“Ah, Kook-ah, it’ll be all right,” Hoseok says, clumsily pulling Jungkook into a hug. He gives Yoongi a beseeching look over Jungkook’s shoulder, and gets only Yoongi’s most stoic glare back. Yoongi is rigid, impassive, a far cry from the goofy way he’d been joking around with Hoseok in the studio only a few days ago. Seokjin next to him is just as stoic, and when Jungkook finally lets go of Hoseok, Seokjin rests his hand on Jungkook’s lower back and pulls him in against his side, pressing a kiss to the top of his head.

Namjoon isn’t even there. Taehyung hasn’t seen him in a couple days; he’s been too busy with meetings, always getting pulled out of group practices to talk with Bang PD or one of the other higher-ups, coming back to the dorm late with stress and worry etched into his features. Now Taehyung can guess why.

He can’t believe that Hoseok would leave without saying goodbye to Namjoon. But then again, maybe this is the way he wanted it.

The next time Namjoon has them all in a room together, he tells them that he’s fighting with the company to get Hoseok back.

“They’re fucking idiots if they think this group can debut without him,” Namjoon says, a dark scowl on his face. “I’m not going to let him quit. I’m going to fix this, you’ll see.”

Taehyung wants to believe him. But it feels like the final nail in a coffin, so much more so than when Hyosang left. He feels like he’s running completely on autopilot, putting his school uniform back on (the pants are getting too short for his legs) and trailing after Jimin on the way to new classes.

“Hey,” Jimin says, touching Taehyung’s shoulder and interrupting his staring out the window of their first period classroom. “Are you okay?”

Taehyung shifts his stare to Jimin, his thoughts foggy and dull and far off. He doesn’t even know what he was just thinking about. “Oh. Yeah, I’m fine. I guess.”

Jimin frowns at him and doesn’t move his hand away. Instead he sort of pets the nape of Taehyung’s neck, which seems like a weird thing to do in school when their classmates are sitting down around them, but Taehyung has to admit it’s weirdly comforting.

“Maybe he’ll come back,” Jimin suggests, and then makes a face when Taehyung rolls his eyes at him. “Okay, I don’t really think so, but nothing’s impossible.”

It’s a strange reversal from their conversation a few days ago, when Taehyung had been the one trying to comfort Jimin. The thing is, back then Taehyung had only been comforting because he’d been stupidly certain Jimin was worried over something that wouldn’t happen. But Hoseok leaving really feels like the end of the fucking world, or at least the end of this fucking group. Even Jimin can’t think of anything uplifting other than the idea that maybe it will reverse itself.

“He told me to keep working hard, before he left,” Jimin says. “He said that we were all really talented and deserved success. So I think we should keep working hard, like we were doing when Hoseok hyung was still here.”

It’s not the most hopeful sentiment. Jimin always works hard, so of course he thinks it’s the solution to everything. But it still makes Taehyung feel a bit better. He leans into Jimin’s touch and then, when Jimin doesn’t stiffen or move away, lets his head rest on Jimin’s shoulder.

“Okay,” he says as the teacher stands up, ready to start the class. “I’ll keep working hard if that’s what you’re going to do.”

***

It’s like they take turns being the one who’s upset about Hoseok’s absence. Jimin takes care of Taehyung at school, lets him copy off his notes because he keeps spacing out through his classes. In the middle of the night, Jimin surprises Taehyung by crawling into bed next to him, cuddling in close and saying in a low voice that if Hoseok couldn’t make it, then Jimin doesn’t have a chance. Taehyung doesn’t want to wake the others, so he whispers back that this isn’t true and squeezes him as hard as he can.

And then much to everyone’s awe, Namjoon pulls off the impossible. Taehyung and Jimin arrive home from school one day, almost two weeks since Hoseok left, to find him waiting for them in the dorm, sitting stiffly on the couch all nervous like he thought maybe they wouldn’t want him to come back. Taehyung stares frozen for a second while Jimin makes an odd little choked squawking sound. Then he yells and throws himself at Hoseok, Jimin right behind him, toppling Hoseok backwards onto the pillows before all three of them slide to the floor.

“I should never have left,” Hoseok says, but Taehyung refuses to let him be serious or apologetic.

“That doesn’t matter, it never even happened, you’ve actually been here this whole time you just had food poisoning and we didn’t see you because you were puking your guts out in the toilet all this time,” he declares. To his surprise, this gets the biggest laugh from Jimin, who throws his head all the way back and loses his balance, teetering until he’s slumped against the couch. Taehyung marvels a little at this: the long line of Jimin’s neck, his shoulders shaking, and the relieved grin on his face when he looks up at them again.

It might not mean much. But with Jimin laughing with him and Hoseok making his weird, familiar happy noises in Taehyung’s ear with his arms still wrapped around him, Taehyung feels better than he has in weeks.

***

It’s a good night. Taehyung is happy and sleepy, full of the barbecued meat that Seokjin had treated them to, a celebration of Hoseok’s return. Now all seven of them are lingering in the restaurant, feeling no hurry to get back to the dorms, lazy at the prospect of a rare chance to sleep in tomorrow morning.

Taehyung is in such a good mood that he almost forgets himself, almost screws everything up.

He’s sitting by Yoongi and Jungkook, half-taking part in the conversation around him and half-zoning out. Jungkook is chattering excitedly about an action movie coming out this weekend and how much he wants to see it--some Japanese thing, a live-action version of an anime he likes. Yoongi is listening indulgently but also teasing him about it.

“Dunno, Kookie. That trailer looked pretty cheesy. You really think those special effects can pull off all the magical boy transformations?”

“They’re not magical boy transformations, hyung! And even if the CGI isn’t the greatest, the casting is incredible, okay? Oki Takumi is the actor that all the fans have been wanting to play the main guy for years, and the fact that they actually got him for the movie is just--like, it’s totally insane! There’s no way it’s going to suck with him in it.”

“Hmm.” Yoongi pretends to be mulling this over. He turns to Taehyung with his eyes crinkling, his lips curving up into an amused secretive smile. Inviting Taehyung in on the joke. “I’m not convinced. What do you think, Tae? Kook’s made you watch the trailer more than anyone else.”

“Hmm?” Taehyung says, halfway into a meat coma. He yawns. “Oh, Oki Takumi’s hot.”

The thing is, Jungkook really has forced Taehyung to watch that trailer a lot. And the promotional interviews with Oki. And the behind-the-scenes filming stuff that has already come out for the fans. And maybe not all of that was Jungkook “forcing” Taehyung to watch, because well, Oki Takumi really is hot. Taehyung’s maybe developed a slight fixation. Maybe had a couple dirty dreams about his whole Japanese actor crush situation.

It takes several long seconds for Taehyung’s words to catch up to him. Jungkook just laughs and shoves him, not even considering for a second that Taehyung isn’t joking, but Yoongi has paused. He’s looking at Taehyung. Really looking at him, his head tilted and a thoughtful line creasing between his eyebrows. Like he’s doing math calculations in his head, and soon he’ll be done and he’ll know just what Taehyung’s offhand statement adds up to.

Cold panic washes over Taehyung. He’s wide awake now. “And I like the special effects!” he says, voice unnaturally high. “I like that it’s cheesy, I think it works for the, um, franchise?”

“It’s not cheesy though,” Jungkook insists, and Yoongi’s attention shifts back to him. They go back to debating without Taehyung, and the moment passes, and Taehyung lets out a shaky breath.

He can’t have close calls like that. He can’t.

For so long after the Seokjin kitchen incident, after Taehyung accepted defeat in the battle of maintaining denial about his sexuality, he’d managed to avoid thinking about it. Sort of. More or less. He hadn’t been fixated on it, at any rate, but his close call at the restaurant scares him shitless. Makes him feel like all this gay shit is lurking inside him, waiting for the right time to strike, to fall out of his mouth at the worst time and ruin his life.

Taehyung doesn’t want it to sneak up on him again. He wants to do something about it. He wants--experience, maybe? Would that help? Whether or not it would help, once the idea occurs to Taehyung that he could try to find a guy to kiss, it becomes very difficult to think about anything else.

Embarrassing kitchen incidents with Seokjin aside, Taehyung does his best to direct his thoughts away from any of the guys that surround him on a daily basis. That’s just--no. Even aside from the level of familiarity, he can’t imagine the awkwardness of making a pass at any of them and being turned down and then having to continue singing and dancing and showering together. He doesn’t think that any of the remaining trainees would be assholes about it or tell on him to any of the managers, but also he knows that he should be more cautious about this than he is with most things.

That leaves boys at school. Taehyung doesn’t have a crush on anyone, but he starts looking at the boys around him a little closer, trying to be subtle about it. He doesn’t want to pine away for anyone like he did for Wonsik. That was too painful, his heart still feels bruised whenever he’s reminded of it. He just wants the fireworks feeling that he had for a few seconds when they kissed, and he wants that with a boy that won’t push him away.

Taehyung is pretty sure that none of his friends at school could be gay. None of them hang back when the conversation turns to girls the way he does. They could all be acting, but Taehyung doesn’t think so.

There’s a guy that hangs out with them sometimes, Daehyun, who’s friends with some of Taehyung’s friends but not really a part of their group. He’s one of those people who isn’t really part of any group at school but who seems to know everyone, a floater. Taehyung has only talked to him for real a couple of times, but Daehyun always comes off as very smart, and not just because he wears hipster glasses. Taehyung thinks he’s in the newspaper club or something like that. He talks about things very confidently and seems open-minded and watchful, the kind of person that notices a lot of stuff around them.

Taehyung hopes that Daehyun is open-minded, anyway, and that he’s not just seeing that because he wants to see it. He doesn’t want to kiss Daehyun, but he has a feeling that maybe… maybe what? Taehyung doesn’t even know what he’s after, just that telling someone like Daehyun seems like a good idea, a better idea than telling anyone he’s closer to. Daehyun seems like he can keep a secret. And Taehyung is a little afraid of what’s going to happen to all this energy inside of him if he can’t figure out someplace to put it.

He approaches Daehyun one day at the end of lunch period, when Daehyun is eating alone and reading in an empty classroom. He doesn’t seem super thrilled when Taehyung sits down at a desk next to him, but he’s not unfriendly, either.

“So hey,” Taehyung says. “Yeah.” He has no idea how to start this. He scoots his desk closer to Daehyun until their two desks are touching. Daehyun blinks at him, bemused and waiting.

“This is going to sound weird,” Taehyung says. Fuck. How should he do this? How does anyone do this, find other people that are the same, when every single person at this school is closeted because they’re all planning to work in the entertainment industry? He has to just go for it, it’s the only way. “Are you gay? Because I think I might be gay.”

It goes… better than it could have gone, but not great. Daehyun’s jaw drops and he pinches between his eyebrows and groans, and when he opens his eyes he’s glaring at Taehyung. But it’s more exasperation than real anger. “Oh my god, dude. Why are you--why are you asking me? We barely know each other!”

“I don’t know! I don’t know, I’m sorry,” Taehyung says, shrinking back. “You just--you seemed like someone I could ask and maybe it would be okay, I don’t know. You have kind of a vibe, no offense.”

“‘Kind of a vibe, no offense,’” Daehyun mimics, rolling his eyes to the ceiling. He has a dramatic streak, Taehyung is learning. “I have a girlfriend! She doesn’t go to this school, but I thought you knew!”

“I’m sorry,” Taehyung says again, and moves to leave, but Daehyun stops him.

“No, sit back down,” he says. He sighs and chews his lip and Taehyung waits and tries not to fidget.

“You’re, like, the third person to come out to me just this year. I guess I do have some kind of vibe. I’m not gay, but my hyung is. Maybe that’s why people feel like they can talk to me about this stuff.” Daehyun looks at Taehyung with narrowed eyes, like he’s waiting for a negative reaction about his hyung. Taehyung is just trying to hold back his excitement over hearing that another gay person exists at all, let alone in his orbit.

“Oh, that’s cool. Does he go to this school? Do I know him?” Taehyung leans his chin on his fist, trying to seem casual. Trying not to vibrate.

“He went here but he graduated before you transferred here. Most people don’t know that about him so don’t spread it around, okay? He’s an actor.”

“I wouldn’t, of course I wouldn’t,” Taehyung says quickly. “Um, do you think that I could… would he be open to meeting me? Maybe? Not in a date way,” he clarifies at the look on Daehyun’s face. “I just… I don’t really know anyone else who. Um. You know.”

Taehyung can’t quite say it. He feels more self-conscious about his own loneliness at this moment than he does about his sexuality. Daehyun is looking at him like he gets it, and maybe he does, if things were at all similar for his brother.

“Yeah, I’ll give him your number. I don’t think he would mind talking to you about it.” Daehyun’s voice is kinder now, and relief thumps hard in Taehyung’s chest. He throws his arms around Daehyun in a quick hug, letting go before Daehyun can go back to complaining.

To Taehyung’s disappointment, Daehyun’s brother doesn’t text him immediately. He spends days on edge, peeking at his phone all the time, wishing that he had thought to ask Daehyun for his brother’s number so that he could reach out. He feels absolutely crestfallen when the whole week goes by without hearing anything. Daehyun was just being nice, telling him that he’d pass his number along; it was never a guarantee that he actually would, or that the brother would care about reaching out. The one avenue Taehyung could think of to meet other people like him, and it had been a bust. He feels more alone than ever.

But then Daehyun’s brother does text him after all, and Taehyung has been kept so busy that he’s almost forgotten about the whole thing. His heart still leaps up into his throat when he opens the text from an unknown number and realizes who it is. Daehyun’s brother is named Minjae and his first text is formal and a little stiff, and it doesn’t mention anything about either of them being gay. He just introduces himself and asks Taehyung if he would like to meet up at a noodle shop close to Taehyung’s school sometime soon.

it’s easier to talk about some things in person, he adds in a follow-up text.

Taehyung is nervous. He doesn’t know what to expect from meeting Minjae, and he doesn’t know what Minjae is expecting from him. He has about a thousand questions and no idea how to put any of them into words. He’s worried that he’s going to meet Minjae and open his mouth and have no words and he’ll just be standing there with his tongue lolling out and Minjae will think there’s been some horrible mistake because Taehyung clearly can’t even speak Korean and might even be some kind of defective robot.

Taehyung blows off dance practice after school on Monday to meet Minjae. Jimin frowns at him when Taehyung admits that he’s not planning on going, and maybe Taehyung should feel worse about skipping, but this feels more important to him than getting yelled at by their teacher for the fourth time this week.

“It’s just one practice,” Taehyung tells Jimin. “It’s not that big a deal to miss one practice.”

“You won’t improve without discipline,” Jimin says. He looks obstinate, his arms crossed over his chest and his shoulders rigid. In their school uniform jacket, he looks like a miniature angry business mogul or something, not a cute idol. Taehyung sighs.

“I don’t know, I think I’m doing okay.” Okay enough to miss one dumb practice, anyway. One practice is not going to make or break Taehyung’s idol career. He just can’t bring himself to care about it, and he can tell that Jimin is never going to see it that way. He pats Jimin’s shoulder. “Just tell them I had an important other commitment. Or tell them that I blew it off and you tried really hard to get me to change my mind, that will probably earn you some points, right?”

Jimin rolls his eyes and then says, “I’m not that kind of jerk, okay.” And he actually looks a little hurt, so Taehyung shifts his shoulder pat into a one-armed hug, but it’s awkward. They’re both stiff and Taehyung lets go.

“I just meant you don’t have to cover for me, Jimin-ah. It’s not your responsibility.”

Taehyung recognizes Minjae immediately, because he looks a lot like Daehyun. He waves Taehyung over, so maybe Daehyun showed him a picture or something. He’s smiling and relaxed and he looks a lot friendlier than Taehyung imagined from his texts.

“I ordered you food because I figured you would be hungry,” Minjae says when they’ve made introductions and bowed and Taehyung has sat down. As if on cue, Taehyung’s stomach growls, and Minjae laughs, but it’s kind. “I remember what it was like when I was your age. Always hungry after class lets out, right?”

“Did you graduate that long ago?” It comes out a little cheekier than Taehyung intended, but Minjae seems to like that, too, his eyes crinkling at the corners.

Taehyung’s food comes, and they talk about casual things, exchange the basic information. Minjae tells Taehyung about his major and Taehyung fills him in on his idol training. He’s nervous, he can’t stop his leg from jiggling. He keeps accidentally talking with his mouth full, getting carried away and then having to stop and swallow and wipe his mouth in embarrassment. He’s waiting for Minjae to do--something, he doesn’t even know. Bring up a boyfriend, or ask Taehyung how he knows he’s gay, or just something. But at the same time he has no idea what to expect. What if they go through this whole conversation without mentioning homosexuality once, just because Taehyung’s too much of a chicken?

As Taehyung is finishing up his noodles, Minjae finally says, “So you wanted to meet me because I’m gay.”

Taehyung nearly chokes and does get broth on his uniform. “Uh. Yes?”

Minjae raises his eyebrows and sets down his chopsticks. He’s all finished with his noodles anyway. “And you’re… what? Questioning?”

“Uhhhhh,” Taehyung says again, and wow, Minjae must think he’s really dumb. “I wouldn’t…. say that…” Minjae starts to frown and Taehyung panics a bit. “I just mean, like, I don’t think it’s much of a question. I think I kinda. Know?”

“Know what, exactly?”

Taehyung wants to sink into the dirty floor of this restaurant. It’s harder to say it here, in public, to someone he’s only just met, than it was to say it to Daehyun in the classroom. “Know that I’m--gay,” he says, volume dropping on the last word. He feels his face go hot. His voice is so loud in his ears suddenly, did everyone at every table around them hear what he just said? Even though he practically whispered it?

Minjae’s face melts into a smile and he leans back in his chair, giving Taehyung a wink. “There you go. It’s nice to say some things clearly, huh?”

Taehyung exhales a shaky breath. “It--yeah.”

Minjae reaches forward and pats Taehyung’s forearm, giving it a gentle squeeze. “How long have you known?”

Taehyung opens his mouth and starts to talk. And talk, and talk, and talk. It all pours out of him: kissing that girl last year, the whole Wonsik saga, the complications of life as a trainee. So much of this stuff Taehyung has never told anyone, not even his mom. Yet it’s strangely easy to talk to this man who’s practically a stranger, because he already doesn’t feel like a stranger anymore. Not when they have something like this in common.

“Living with all the other trainees, it’s…. I mean there’s just one computer to share, so I can’t really look stuff up? So I have a lot of questions, I guess, about everything” Taehyung finishes. Oh shit, does Minjae think he’s talking about porn? “I don’t mean looking up porn, just like--other stuff. Gay stuff. You know?”

“I do know,” Minjae says. He tilts his head, giving Taehyung a considering look that makes him squirm. “I’ll answer any questions I can, but I feel like you might be better off just talking to more people like you. Like us.”

Taehyung deflates. “I uh. I don’t know anyone else. Just you.”

“I’m sure you know others. You just don’t know that you know,” Minjae says, somewhat mysteriously. Taehyung opens his mouth to ask what the hell that means, but then Minjae says, “I go to parties sometimes, get-togethers for people like us. I usually hear about them every few weeks or so. It’s not just for college students, I see high school guys there too. It can be kind of a hook-up scene, but…” Minjae shrugs, as if Taehyung is going to know how that sentence should end, as if Taehyung has any knowledge whatsoever about what a ‘hook-up scene’ might be like. “You’d meet more gay people, that’s for sure.”

Taehyung realizes he’s staring, his eyes probably look huge and dumb, and he tries to affect a more casual air. “Yeah, uh, that would be cool I guess. I would be into going to something like that.”

“I think the next one will be next Friday, I’ll text you.”

“Yeah! I’ll be there.” Next Friday Taehyung is supposed to have an assessment after school, and then vocal lessons, and probably more dance practice after that. He doesn’t know how he’s going to get away to go to a party, of all things. But he’ll find a way. He has to.

***

“This is a terrible idea,” Jimin says.

“It’s not, it’s going to be fine. I’ll stay for the assessment and the vocal lessons and just ditch the final dance practice. It’s not even mandatory, right?”

Jimin huffs. “And you think they’re not going to notice you’re gone? What if staff start asking questions, what am I supposed to tell them?”

“Um, I had a family emergency? I have a cousin in Seoul that really needed me to come help deliver a baby?” Taehyung shrugs. It’s hard for him to focus on the question of how to cover his tracks. He’s way too excited about the party itself, it’s all he’s been able to think about for days. He’d even impulsively told Jimin about it, too giddy to keep it entirely to himself. He left out the detail that it was a gay party, of course, but he hadn’t been able to resist telling Jimin that college students would probably be there, and that it was supposed to be a hook-up scene. He hoped that wasn’t too incriminating. Straight people could have hook-up scenes too, right? Probably?

Jimin does not seem particularly excited for him. “You just told me it wasn’t my responsibility to cover for you. You should remember that, seeing as the last time you skipped was only like, three days ago! You can’t skip twice in a week Tae, come on!”

“That was nine days ago not three, and it’s not twice in a week, give me a break. And this is more important than the last time I skipped! What’s the problem with it anyway? Why does it matter if I’m not falling behind?”

They both have their arms crossed, scowling at each other while leaning against the wall enclosing their school courtyard. Taehyung is trying to be nice, but he doesn’t understand why Jimin cares so much whether or not he skips. Even if Taehyung were going to fall behind, which he won’t, that would just make Jimin look better in comparison.

“I’m just worried about you,” Jimin finally says, grinding his teeth like it’s a thing he doesn’t like saying. “It sounds like a big stupid risk. Why do you even care so much about going?”

Taehyung almost wants to tell him. All his reasons why are itching in his chest, scratching to get out. Instead he just shrugs. “I just think it’s going to be fun. Do some stuff worth writing songs about, you know?”

Jimin still isn’t happy when Taehyung leaves, but he’s grudgingly accepted that he can’t change Taehyung’s mind. Taehyung feels a little bad that he’s made Jimin annoyed with him, but it feels like a distant concern. He’s so impatient for this party he feels like he’s going to vibrate out of his clothes as soon as he’s changed out of his school uniform and into jeans and a t-shirt.

Taehyung isn’t sure what he’d been expecting as the bus takes him further into a residential, seemingly quiet neighborhood. Maybe he’d been thinking this thing would be in a bar, or a club, or a bar-club-like building. This neighborhood is close to the arts university that Minjae attends, but it seems to be mostly real houses, real trees. Taehyung has a hard time imagining lots of college students living here. It reminds him too much of the more boring parts of Daegu.

Taehyung doesn’t know where in Seoul all the gay people are living, but it can’t be here. Could it?

Minjae had told Taehyung to meet him at a nearby cafe so that Taehyung wouldn’t have to walk in to the party all alone. It doesn’t occur to Taehyung until he sees the cafe on the corner that he’s out here by himself, about to meet up with a bunch of college kids, all of which are strangers except one guy that he’s met exactly once. He’s not with any adults and no other trainees, either. No one knows exactly where he is, and anything could happen.

A grin spreads over his face as he pushes open the cafe door. This is the coolest, most grown-up thing he’s ever done.

Minjae spots Taehyung as soon as he enters, and waves him over to his table. He looks more relaxed than he was when Taehyung met him, with silver jewelry glinting at his earlobes and wrists. He’s smiling and joking with the other two guys sitting with him. There are empty beer glasses on the table, and Minjae says they just finished pre-gaming.

“But none for you! You don’t want to make things worse for yourself by showing up to your dorm drunk,” Minjae adds, playfully shaking a finger in Taehyung’s face.

“Worse for myself?”

Minjae laughs. “I have enough ex-trainee friends to know that companies don’t look well on you guys sneaking out to go party.”

“Oh don’t worry, sweetheart,” cuts in one of Minjae’s friends. He lays a comforting hand on Taehyung’s forearm, his fingernails laquered with a pretty shell pink. “I’m sure you’ll be just fine. And it’ll be worth it, because with a cute face like yours? After tonight you’ll have like, a million new friends.”

Taehyung doesn’t know if that’s true, but as they leave the cafe and head towards the party house, hope bumps in his chest like a brand new beat.

The house looks like every other house on the block, narrow and two stories high with grayish beigeish walls and a small balcony where two young guys are laughing and smoking cigarettes. They start hearing the party noise from outside as they walk past the front gate, and when they enter Taehyung has to stand there and blink for a few moments, disoriented and adjusting to the sounds and the smells (alcohol mostly, and cigarette smoke, and B.O., and the combination shouldn’t be enticing but somehow it is). There are boys everywhere, men everywhere--maybe some of them are still in high school like Taehyung, but at first glance he has to assume that everyone around him is older than him, more sophisticated and experienced and knowledgeable to an infinite degree. Everyone is so handsome. Everyone is dressed so well.

As Taehyung’s eyes wander hungrily over the living room, nodding vaguely as one of Minjae’s friends asks if he wants something to drink, forgetting to follow when the friend heads towards where the kitchen must be. He’s distracted, because he’s just noticed two guys sharing one of the big sofa chairs, in the middle of an embrace, kissing each other softly.

Taehyung has never seen two men kissing before, not in his direct line of sight like this. No one else is paying them any mind; they’re in a corner, somewhat shadowed but obviously not hiding. Taehyung tries not to stare, he doesn’t want to be rude, but he can feel his ears burning and he just wants--he has the craziest urge to reach out and touch them, not because he thinks it’s hot but because he needs to know it’s real.

He remembers kissing Wonsik, the memory washing over him all of a sudden like ocean water splashing up to his chest when he was just dipping his toes in the surf. It’s not what he wants to think about here. He wants to make new memories. He looks away from the embracing couple, searching for a distraction, and follows the music he can hear from somewhere. He belatedly realizes that he’s wandered away from Minjae and his friends in the process, and maybe he should find them again, since they’re the only people here that he knows. But then Taehyung walks into a room where lots of people (lots of guys, guys as far as the eye can see, guys wearing makeup or skirts or jewelry or shiny shirts or no shirts at all or no pants at all) are dancing, crowding against each other and smiling and sweating and holding their plastic cups carefully out from their bodies, the floor sticky with spilled beer and soju regardless.

The energy of the crowd is like a magnetic pull. Taehyung gets swept up in it, lost in it, and smiles back when guys smile at him. It’s fun. It’s really, really fun, fun in a way that’s so different from the exhausting hard work of dance practice, fun in a way that makes Taehyung feel like soda pop is fizzing through his veins, like all he is is sugar and carbonation bubbling to the top of him. He can’t stop grinning. He can’t stop dancing with his hands up over his head and his hips swiveling, probably looking like a dumbass. He tries to covertly watch other guys, tries to copy what they’re doing with their hips and their shoulders and their ribs. Maybe he’s getting the hang of it? If Jimin were here, he’d probably pick this up in seconds.

Taehyung isn’t dancing alone for long. Guys come in and out of his orbit, most of them just smiling and laughing and exchanging a few words with him, maybe dancing together for a little bit before they’re gone again. He gets called cute, a lot. A tall guy in red sequined hot pants stumbles onto him and then squishes his cheeks, and Taehyung is so surprised that he just lets it happen. It’s all a little overwhelming, but mostly not in a bad way. Taehyung has never disliked attention.

One boy lingers longer than any of the others had. He’d been staring at Taehyung from across the room for a while, for half a song at least, and Taehyung had been staring back. When he finally comes over, all he says is “Can I?” and when Taehyung nods, already a little breathless, he puts a hand on Taehyung’s hip when he dances in close.

It’s a different kind of dancing than Taehyung’s done with anyone else tonight. This guy pulls Taehyung in against him and pushes his thigh against Taehyung’s hips. Taehyung doesn’t know what to do with his arms, and puts them around his partner’s shoulders in an approximation of a hug as they sway to the beat. He feels stupid and awkward, but the guy sighs into his ear like he’s not awkward at all.

By the time the song finishes, the guy has pushed Taehyung up against the wall and is kissing him with his whole body pressed up against Taehyung’s. Taehyung’s brain is full of excited white noise, exclamation point after dizzy exclamation point as this guy slips his tongue inside his mouth. He tastes like cigarette smoke; Taehyung learns he’s not crazy about the taste of cigarette smoke; the cold metal of his necklace keeps poking Taehyung just under his sternum; he’s hard against Taehyung’s thigh. He can probably feel that Taehyung is hard, too, poking him in his thigh.

Taehyung wonders what the man’s name is. Wonders if he’s a high school or college student. He didn’t intend to get here without having any kind of conversation, it just all seemed to happen very fast. And Taehyung was impatient to be kissed.

Taehyung hears someone clear their throat and feels a tap on his shoulder, and when his dance partner gives him a few more centimeters of space he turns his head to see Minjae.

“I’m shocked, so shocked that this is how your night has gone,” Minjae says, heading Taehyung’s mortification off before it can get started. “I hate to interrupt, but we’re probably going to leave soon and I thought you might want to leave with us? It’s getting kinda late.”

HIs eyes flick to Taehyung’s dance partner, who immediately gives Taehyung a lot more centimeters of space.Taehyung stands up properly and wipes his palms on his pants, feeling like his brain needs to catch up with everything.

“Uh, yeah! Yeah, that sounds good. Um, it was nice to meet you?” Taehyung says, turning to the guy he was making out with. Not that they ever properly met. The guy’s mouth twitches in half a smile, like he’s thinking the same thing, and he gives Taehyung a little mock salute.

“Yeah, you too. This was fun, have a nice night.”

And then he’s backing away into the crowd, and Taehyung is leaving with Minjae, and Minjae’s friends are waiting for them at the front door, and fresh air hitting his face makes him realize how stuffy and warm it had gotten inside that party. Taehyung inhales, and his erection is flagging thank god, and he just had his first ever non-Wonsik non-girl kiss and then some. He’s not sure what the appropriate response to that is but the response he’s got right now is laughter. He claps his hands over his mouth, aware that Minjae and his friends are all looking at him, but his shoulders are still shaking and giggles still escape between his fingers.

“So, I’m guessing you had fun,” Minjae says drily, looking at Taehyung with a fond smile on his face. “Made a new friend?”

Taehyung lets his hands drop. “Um, I didn’t get his name. Is that bad?”

One of Minjae’s friends snorts. “Nope, it’s pretty standard. I’d be more concerned if you came out of there with his phone number written on your ass.”

Minjae elbows him. “Ignore Donghyuk. The important thing is, Taehyung-ah, did you have a good time? Did you like the party?”

Taehyung’s cheeks hurt from smiling. “Hyung, I loved it.”

***

Exhaustion catches up with Taehyung on the bus, when he’s almost back at the dorm. It’s not that late compared to what other young people, probably, are used to, but it’s close to midnight. Taehyung is used to being awake at this hour when he’s working, dance practices stretching into the morning hours even when his eyes are grainy and jitters from too much caffeine ruin every movement, but crossing the city after spending hours dancing at a party (and… making out with someone whose cigarettes he can still smell on his own clothes) makes him a different kind of tired.

He’s running on fumes, thoughts circling around the bed in his immediate future and feet plodding forward on automatic, and he’s completely forgotten to be worried about the fact that he sneaked out. It doesn’t occur to him to check his cell phone until he’s gotten off the bus, only five minutes away now from the dorm, and his heart sinks when he sees two missed calls from his manager. Maybe it’s for the best, though--what could he possibly have said if he’d picked up?

Taehyung slips into a state of denial after pocketing his phone again, determinedly thinking about other things and pretending to himself that consequences to his decisions are fake. He has much to think about, anyway: when the next party is going to be, will he see that guy again, does he want to see that guy again (not really? And is that bad), what he can wear to the next one to look a little bit less like himself and a little bit more like the cool, glammed-up-but-still-casual guys that had danced around him all night. All of Minjae’s friends had programmed their numbers into Taehyung’s phone at some point, and he already has text messages saying how cute he is and how adorable he is and how he should definitely come out with them again.

So he’s not faking the air of distracted and happy obliviousness when he lets himself into the dorm and greets Hoseok carelessly, only to realize that six sets of eyes are staring at him, and no one is smiling.

Taehyung doesn’t have a chance to try and come up with any kind of lie. Namjoon has his arms crossed over his chest, and after an initial flurried exchange of ‘where were you’s and ‘nowhere’s and ‘do you have any idea how late it is,’ he cuts in and says, “Tae, give it up, we know you were at a--some kind of party, Jimin told us.”

Taehyung’s heart hammers in his chest in a completely different way than it had when he’d been kissed at the party. He’s certain that everything he did tonight is written all over his face, the return of that neon sign spilling every secret. His reflex is to look at Jimin, but Jimin won’t meet his eyes.

“We didn’t know where you were,” Jimin says, already on the defensive before Taehyung has said a word. “Everyone was so worried, the managers found out and they were freaking out, they might’ve called the cops if no one said where you were--”

“They wouldn’t have called the cops,” Taehyung says, and Jimin cringes back like the words have physical force. Namjoon cuts in again, his palms open and peacekeeping.

“No one was trying to get you in trouble, I promise. But it’s better that we knew where you were, it’s much better, and I don’t know what staff are going to do but I don’t think it’s going to be that drastic. But we should, um--we should use this as an opportunity to have a conversation that we’ve been needing to have, anyway. All of us, as a group.”

Taehyung’s stomach rolls. He absolutely does not want to have one of their group conversations/arguments right now, not when he’s tired and upset and not when the subject is going to be all about how he’s fucked up. He couldn’t even make a break for it now if he wanted to, Seokjin is edging closer to him in the kitchen and Taehyung just knows he’d be tackled if he tried to flee.

“I’m sorry I snuck out, I won’t do it again, there’s nothing to talk about,” Taehyung tries, but everyone is already sitting down in the living room, all the members’ postures somewhere on the gradient of pissy to worn out. Taehyung sits down with dread bubbling in his guts, and he just wants to know what exactly Jimin told them, but Jimin still won’t even catch his eye.

“This isn’t really about partying,” Namjoon starts as soon as Taehyung has sat down. “We should maybe lay some ground rules about that, too, but I thought that the more pressing issue was, ah. Well. I think we all need to get on the same page regarding our romantic and sexual lives while we’re in this group.”

Taehyung covers his face with both hands. He can’t believe this is happening.

“We might as well cut to the chase and get real about this,” Seokjin says, and Taehyung is pretty sure that this is something they were all discussing before he got home. It all sounds almost rehearsed. “We shouldn’t be trying to make time to date or hook up or anything like that right now. Not when everything is on the line for our debut.”

Taehyung drops his hands to look at Seokjin in horror. “What, you mean like no dating at all?

Seokjin nods, his eyes serious in a way Taehyung rarely sees. “Yeah, I mean like no dating at all, and no hooking up at all. Not for the foreseeable future anyway. It just doesn’t make sense, we don’t have the time and our priority has to be our careers, it has to be this group.”

“Also it’s so risky,” Hoseok says, shifting around nervously on the couch, crossing and uncrossing his legs. “Any time that word gets out about idols dating, it creates a huge scandal. It could ruin everything for us, you know? It’s just courting disaster to try and see people at all, there’s no way to keep it secret enough.”

“Before we’ve even debuted?” Taehyung fires back. “Come on, there’s not going to be any kind of scandal in Dispatch because I went to a party once in high school. We don’t even know when we’re debuting, if it’ll ever even happen!”

“No one is saying that,” Namjoon says, in his Gentle Leader voice. Instead of making Taehyung calm down and feel reasonable again, it just brings him closer to flying off the handle. “This isn’t just about tonight, and it isn’t about you. No one is blaming you--”

“That’s not what it feels like!”

“But we shouldn’t wait to discuss things like this until we’re being more scrutinized, we should figure it out now,” Namjoon continues doggedly. “I just, I really think we all need to be on the same page about dating and sex and things like that. We might not have anything in our contract about it, but all the same reasons that idols get dating bans written into their contract still apply to us. Just like everything else, all seven of us should go along with the consensus of the group.”

“That doesn’t work if some of us care about dating and others don’t!” Taehyung can’t even try to keep the frustration out of his voice by now. He knows he sounds like a bratty teenager and he can’t help it, can’t be better or more mature. The rising, quavering pitch of his voice is all he has right now. “Like maybe it’s not much of a sacrifice for you, but for me, I--I mean--”

He falters then, because in the end he can’t be honest about his reasons. He can’t confess that he’s fighting for this because tonight he met a side of himself that he can’t show anywhere else. The flush on his face could be a dead giveaway, and Taehyung is close to panicking, but he’s saved by his hyungs yelling at him.

“Show respect, Taehyung-ah,” Hoseok says, frowning. Yoongi echoes him: “You can’t speak for anyone else. We’re all sacrificing here and your pain isn’t the center of the universe, all right?”

Neither Jungkook nor Jimin have said a word throughout this whole miserable thing. They’re huddled close to each other, sitting on the floor in front of Hoseok and Yoongi’s legs, and when Taehyung glances over Jungkook cringes at him in sympathy. But he’s not on Taehyung’s side, apparently. Why would he be, he’s just a kid, he might not even care about this stuff yet. And Jimin…

Jimin probably cares a thousand times more about getting good grades than he does about having sex with anyone, Taehyung thinks meanly.

“Don’t think of it as giving up freedom,” Yoongi says, quietly, quieter than Taehyung would have expected from him at a time like this. Any hopes he might have had that Yoongi, stubborn rebellious Yoongi, would be on his side about this, are quickly dashed. “Think of it as making things easier for yourself, right? Being in this group is going to be really fucking hard, and it’ll be really fucking harder if you’re trying to spend all your energy chasing tail at the same time.”

“I'm not talking about all my energy though. That's not--you've got the wrong idea, I would never let it become my first priority, it wouldn’t make me any less committed to my job.”

“What kind of energy do you imagine that you'll have left over from performing?” Seokjin says, exasperated. He glances at Namjoon, something unspoken communicated between them. “We've all had to do our own coming to terms with how hard we'll have to work just to debut, not to mention after debut. Honestly, Taehyung, what do you think this is?”

That stops Taehyung in his tracks. His mouth is still open, but he can't think of anything else to say. Guilt and shame crest over his anger, finally dousing it, and he ducks his head.

The room is quiet for only a few moments before Namjoon draws in a slow breath and speaks. “I know that conversations like this are hard. We’re seven different people and it's natural that we wouldn't have all come to this company with the same priorities.”

Taehyung realizes distantly that his hands are trembling. He doesn't have long arguments like this very often, not with anyone outside his family. And that's different.

He's horrified that they think he doesn't share the same priorities, the same dreams and goals.

“We already have so much working against us. Let's not add to that with division or distraction okay?”

Murmurs of agreement echo around the room. Taehyung nods his head, not trusting himself to speak.

He can barely look at Jimin after Namjoon declares the meeting over. He stands in the corner of the room with his arms wrapped around himself while the other boys circulate between the kitchen and the bathroom and bedroom,muttering quietly and trying to get back to normal. Taehyung can feel the awkward sympathy radiating from Jungkook, but he can't tell if the others are still mad at him or what. The apartment has never felt smaller.

Jimin hovers nearby, avoiding direct eye contact. Taehyung doesn't want to look at him either.

“You didn't have to tell,” Taehyung says. Can't hold himself back from saying it, even if maybe it would be better for them both if he pretended not to care.

Jimin jolts and blinks at him with wide eyes. “No one knew where you were, Tae. They were all worried, the hyungs and staff, and -”

“You still didn't have to tell them what I was doing! You could have, I don't know…” Taehyung flounders on the word ‘lie.’ He knows that he's angry at Jimin for following the rules, for behaving the way he's supposed to, the way they're all supposed to, and maybe that's not fair, to be disappointed that their bond that Taehyung has been working so hard for isn't stronger than all those things. Jimin is looking at him like he doesn't know how to make this right, and neither does Taehyung.

“I was just trying to think of the group,” Jimin says. “I wouldn't have told if the staff hadn't realized you were gone, but maybe it's better this way. Now we're all on the same page, right?” He doesn't sound regretful, not really. Taehyung wishes they could trade places right now so Jimin could feel what it's like to be at the center of the discussion like that, to have everyone know your business and think that what you're doing is wrong. To have six faces looking at you, united in not understanding why you care so much about this one freedom.

Taehyung feels a lump in his throat and stops hugging his middle, stepping away from Jimin. He can't be in this stupid dorm a second longer, he'll just start screaming and never stop. “I'm gonna go outside,” he mutters. “I'll be back in a few minutes, in case you wanna tell staff about it.”

Jimin's face shutters. That was mean, and Taehyung feels bad about it already but he's not about to take it back.

He's out their front door and halfway down the stairs (the elevator is broken this week, again) before he realizes that he's not alone. Yoongi catches up to him on the ground floor, and he's trying to look casual, like it's just a coincidence that he's leaving and it's not to keep an eye on Taehyung.

“Hyung, you don't have to come with me,” Taehyung says, trying to muster at least a few scraps of dignity. It's been ages since he's felt like this much of a child. “I'm not going anywhere, I just wanted some air.”

“Ah, I know.” Yoongi messes with his beanie and glances away from Taehyung's eyes. “I'll give you your space. Just stay on this block, yeah?”

Taehyung's cheeks burn. It's obvious that Namjoon asked Yoongi to come out here to keep an eye on Taehyung, even though Yoongi kindly tries to downplay it. Taehyung mumbles an affirmative and leaves Yoongi leaning against the wall of their building, texting on his phone.

Taehyung circles the block until some of the humiliation and anger drain away, leaving him with the exhaustion he felt before he got back to the dorm. He trudges back to Yoongi, who looks up at him through his black hair, smushed down on his forehead by his hat. Yoongi is hard to read sometimes--most of the time, for Taehyung. He doesn't know what Yoongi thinks of him right now.

Probably nothing positive.

“Done for the night?” Yoongi says. He yawns theatrically. “I wanted to be asleep hours ago.”

Taehyung lingers outside the door. “Yoongi-hyung. I owe you an apology.”

Yoongi waves a hand. “That's not necessary.”

“No, really. I shouldn't have argued, shouldn't have gone out at all. It was wrong of me and disrespectful to all of you.” He gives half a bow, and when he peeks up at Yoongi he sees him cough, uncomfortable.

“Stop that. I'm not angry with you, okay? A conversation about all this stuff was going to be necessary sooner or later, rules have to be established at some point. You were just the unlucky one who got to kick things off.”

Taehyung straightens up. “I'm still really sorry.”

“We all fuck up sometimes. If you want to make it up to someone, make it up to Namjoon. He’s the one that had to talk to staff for you.” Yoongi tilts his head, and the rasp in his voice goes softer and lower. “And maybe Jimin, too. He was pretty stressed.”

Taehyung has nothing to say to that. It’s not what he wants to hear right now, and he thinks Yoongi must know that. He shrugs, and Yoongi sighs, and then to Taehyung’s surprise he reaches out and touches Taehyung’s arm, turning him and manhandling him towards the door as the hand slides to Taehyung’s back, solid and comforting. “Yah, seriously, I need to sleep.”

Taehyung mumbles an okay and trudges up the stairs next to Yoongi, watching their shoes plod down on each step as they walk up three flights. A post-cry headache is building between Taehyung’s temples, even though only a few tears had actually spilled over during the fight. His throat feels scratchy and raw. Taehyung wonders if he’s going to get sick now; that seems karmically just for his infractions.

Yoongi doesn't drop his hand from around Taehyung's back until they reach the apartment. He squeezes as he lets go, not quite a hug, which is fine as Taehyung doesn't want to be hugged right now. He feels a little sick walking in to face the others again, but everyone else is either in bed or busy getting there, Seokjin brushing his teeth and Hoseok taking off a face mask and Namjoon cross-legged in bed writing in a notepad.

Jimin doesn't look up from the textbook he's reading in his bunk as Taehyung climbs into bed, and Taehyung's unhappy thoughts drift into incoherence in smaller and smaller circles until he falls asleep.

***

It’s not easy to avoid someone when every part of your life involves them, but Taehyung does his best. He puts headphones in during his walk to school with Jimin, and walks a few feet ahead of him. He spends as much time outside of the dorm as possible, taking long walks and calling his parents, his grandparents, his Daegu friends, anyone he can think of to give him an excuse to stay out (and he keeps his walks close to the dorm, so no one can accuse him of leaving for another party). He lingers in the recording studio when Yoongi and Namjoon are working until they get tired of his questions and ask him to leave. Unless it’s for mandatory group practices, he avoids the dance studio, as that’s Jimin’s ground.

In their shared classes, he tries to sit across the room from Jimin. Jimin doesn’t even try to hang out with Taehyung’s group of friends during lunch, which Taehyung feels a twinge of guilt about because he doesn’t think that Jimin has other friends at this school to hang out with.

“We live together,” Jimin bursts out with after almost a week of this, when he tries to sit across from Taehyung at an outside table during a break and Taehyung starts gathering his things to leave. “You can’t keep this up forever!”

Taehyung has no response to that. He knows he can’t keep it up forever. Unless he wants to quit the group, he’ll have to make up with Jimin at some point. He’s just not ready to do that quite yet. He just needs a little more time, for… for he doesn’t even know what. For thinking all his mean and sad thoughts, and getting them out of his system, although they don’t seem to be going anywhere. For grieving that party and how amazing it was and how he’ll never get to experience anything like that ever again and how it’s all Jimin’s fault.

(It’s not really, he knows that too, but having a villain in his mind makes it slightly easier somehow, because if Taehyung can just be mad at Jimin then he doesn’t have to think about all the other reasons for why it’s fucked up that he can never have that again, sadness that spirals out wider and wider until he’s sad not just about his own life and future, but also about the music industry and his country and the world and the whole universe probably. Taehyung could go to Mars and he still wouldn’t be able to kiss who he wants to kiss without getting in trouble for it.

So, yeah. It’s all Jimin’s fault.)

After the party, Minjae brought him into a group text with his other friends, to keep him in the loop for the next time they went out. Taehyung didn’t reply to any of the messages for two days, because it made him too sad, and he was surprised when Minjae bothered to text him privately to ‘see if he was still alive.’ Taehyung told him an edited, less pathetic version of how he’d gotten caught and had agreed not to go out and do any partying or dating in the future. To his surprise, Minjae didn’t react like it was the end of the world, and didn’t seem to think it meant Taehyung could never see any of them or go to another party again.

oh no :( i def get why u want to lay low for a while!

u should still stay in the group thread tho… keep up w what the gays of seoul have up their sleeves for the future ;)

and i’ll ask around w my trainee friends

get the inside scoop on how they got around those rules w/out getting caught

bc i know those assholes didnt stay celibate the whole time lolol

Taehyung bites his lip while reading the texts. He shouldn’t get his hopes up. And his resolve to be good and make up for his irresponsible behavior shouldn’t be weakening already, dammit.

But if there was some way to make it all work… to comply with what the group decided was best and still get to have the other things he wants….

Taehyung starts replying to the group thread, and he didn’t get much of a chance to really talk to Minjae’s friends at the party, but it turns out that they’re all hilarious and become very determined to teach him vocabulary and things as soon as it becomes clear that Taehyung really doesn’t know anything about being gay.

It goes a long way towards cheering Taehyung up. On Monday, without thinking about it first Taehyung leaves his friends at lunch and takes his tray over to sit with Jimin.

“Oh, so you’ve decided to acknowledge my existence? I feel so lucky,” Jimin says, caustic and scowling. But he doesn’t leave. Taehyung doesn’t know what to say, because it’s not like he feels 100% great about things again, so he doesn’t say anything, and they eat together in silence.

It’s awkward, and it remains awkward. Taehyung doesn’t walk to school with his headphones in anymore, but they also don’t talk or roleplay or goof off like they used to. Jimin is clearly angry with Taehyung, too, a factor that Taehyung didn’t consider during his extended self-involved sulk.

“You two are both being ridiculous,” Seokjin says to Taehyung one night in November, interrupting Taehyung muttering about how Jimin is claiming that he doesn’t have chemistry notes for Taehyung to look at before their test tomorrow. “You should talk things out with him! It’s the only way!” He emphasizes with a poke to Taehyung’s ribs that’s hard enough to make his point and Taehyung winces, rubbing over the skin.

He’s in the kitchen helping Seokjin clean, part of his campaign to redeem himself with all the hyungs. Seokjin is the one Taehyung was most nervous about, because Seokjin is the sternest when he’s mad and Seokjin’s words (honestly, Taehyung, what do you think this is?) had cut the deepest. But he’s also accepted Taehyung’s clumsy efforts to make it up to him with an easy grace, putting Taehyung on dish-drying duty and smiling and joking with him the whole time.

But now he’s looking at Taehyung expectantly, and Taehyung is just going to disappoint him again. He shakes his head. “I can’t talk things out, hyung. There’s nothing to say.”

Seokjin rolls his eyes and flaps at Taehyung with the soapy sponge he’s holding. “Sure there is. Tell him your side of the story, use ‘I’ statements to explain why you did what you did, and then ask about his side of things.”

Taehyung thinks about making out with a handsome stranger on the dance floor. “I can’t do that.”

“You are far too stubborn for your own good, you know that?”

“It’s not about being stubborn,” Taehyung says stubbornly. “I just know he doesn’t want to hear it.”

“Are you kidding me? Jimin-ah thinks the sun shines out of your ass,” Seokjin says, then laughs when Taehyung looks at him like he’s grown a second head. “How can you not have noticed that, seriously? He lights up when you walk into a room, he sticks to you like glue, he’s about a thousand times more animated around you than anyone else. And as much as you two can drain the life out of me, we’ve all missed that energy.”

Taehyung stares at him and then looks down at the plate in his hand, half-heartedly swiping at it with his towel. He appreciates the advice, but Seokjin’s wrong about this one. Taehyung spent so long yearning for Jimin to like him that much. If he’d gotten there before it all went to shit, he would have noticed.

And that doesn’t matter now, anyway. Whatever Jimin’s opinion of Taehyung was before, he’s cooled on him since.

***

Apparently staff are serious about their debut this time. The current plan is to schedule it for the middle of next year, and everyone’s final membership in the group will be determined by the end of January. The company has a social media plan, too, whatever that means. The drift that Taehyung catches is that they’re going to have to be take a lot more pictures and record a lot more video and put themselves out there even before debut, on top of recording songs and ramping up all their training.

Taehyung’s not crazy about the extra work, but the photo and video stuff sounds kinda fun. He seems to be the only one that feels that way though.

“I thought I would at least have a whole album out before anyone forced me to degrade myself in front of a camera,” Yoongi moans dramatically, sprawled out and taking up the whole couch.

“It’s not degrading! I’m excited about it,” Taehyung says from the floor, hugging one of the couch pillows. “It’s going to be fun to think up what we’re going to say to fans and stuff! And posting silly pictures of each other!”

“You would be excited.” Yoongi pouts at him. “You kids and your camera phones and youtubes and social media.”

“You’re two years older than me.

The prospect of an actual date for debut makes everyone a little punchy, a little giddy. They’re all being worked so hard that by all rights they should be too exhausted to communicate in anything but grunts and gestures, but instead everyone loses sleep they can’t afford to lose in favor of giggled conversations whispered across bunks, impromptu leg wrestling that almost takes out the TV, food fights because they’re all so sick of plain chicken breasts that throwing them across the table is more appealing than eating them.

Taehyung and Jimin have the added stress of a ton of exams right before the start of winter break. After witnessing Taehyung absolutely bomb a test in their history class, Jimin takes pity on him and resumes sharing his notes and helping him study again. Taehyung thanks him profusely and asks what he can do to make it up to him; Jimin just fixes him with a cool-eyed look that makes Taehyung feel about five inches tall, and shrugs.

They’re spending more time together than ever, but it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference.

The days fly by with lightning speed. Taehyung blinks and then he’s taken the last of his exams for the year, and school is all wrapped up, and in another week he’ll be leaving for Daegu, on Christmas Eve this year because the company is reluctant to give them any days off at all. Some of the others are even staying to work and record more over Christmas, but Taehyung refuses to feel guilty about leaving to spend the holiday with his family. It’s his birthday too, after all.

On Christmas Eve eve, Seokjin and Yoongi cook a big meal for everyone. They can’t afford beef, so it’s mostly a lot of chicken and different kinds of noodles, but it’s tasty anyway. Even with Jimin’s attitude towards Taehyung alternating between frosty or just plain shy, it’s a good evening. Yoongi splurged on beer and makes Jimin and Taehyung suffer by pretending to consider for a long time whether or not they get to have any; in the end they get one small glass each, and Jungkook gets none (he pouts, but Taehyung doubts he wanted some that badly in the first place).

Beer doesn’t taste like what Taehyung had expected, and he doesn’t think he likes it very much. In the end he can’t even finish his glass, and gives the last half of it to Jimin. Maybe he’d like soju better.

***

The morning of his birthday, Taehyung wakes up to a text from Namjoon asking if he would like it if the members came to wish him a happy birthday. Confused, Taehyung tells him that yeah he’d like it but they really don’t have to come all the way from Seoul just for him. Namjoon replies, great, we’re at the daegu train station actually

Taehyung sends a bunch of exclamation points back and jumps up to ask his parents if it’s okay for seven guys to come over. But Namjoon had apparently contacted his mother last week to ask her permission for this little surprise party, and she laughs when Taehyung squeals and hugs her.

It’s surreal watching the six trainees walk through the front door of his grandparents’ house, greeting his parents with polite formality and looking around at Taehyung’s childhood home with interest. They brought a birthday cake for him, chocolate cake with chocolate icing and strawberry filling and strawberries on top, and his parents provide the candles. His parents, younger siblings, and grandparents join the members in a circle to sing happy birthday and clap for him, and Taehyung manages not to cry but it’s a close one.

Jimin sings along with everyone else, but Taehyung can tell that he’s hanging back slightly. He’d looked nervous when he walked into the house, like he wasn’t sure if he was as welcome as everyone else. Taehyung hadn’t had much of a chance to try and reassure him in the midst of inviting everyone in and introducing his family. Now he’s standing against the wall in the living room, instead of sitting on the floor or squished onto the couch with the others. Taehyung’s mother gave him a slice of cake, but he’s only picking at it.

Everything else aside, Taehyung was raised to be a good host. He walks over to Jimin, setting a fresh strawberry on his plate and smiling at him when Jimin looks up, startled. “Thank you for coming. It’s really nice of you.”

Jimin’s smile starts hesitant and then gradually grows. “Of course. Thank you for having me. Happy birthday, Tae-ah.”

“Thanks! Now we’re the same age again. Um, so, how was your Christmas?”

They chat a little bit before the conversation falters. Hoseok, red-cheeked and possibly drunk already (Taehyung’s dad, with great ceremony, had given glasses of whiskey to the hyungs), swoops in to smear chocolate icing on Taehyung’s cheek. Taehyung makes a face, but he can’t protest against tradition.

“We should take a picture,” Jimin says suddenly. “You’ll want to remember your birthday, right? With everyone here to celebrate?”

“Oh, yeah. Sure!” Jimin turns and before he can beckon the others to come over, an idea catches on Taehyung’s tongue and tumble out of his mouth. “Actually why don’t we get one with just us. You want to?”

Jimin’s lips part in surprise, but he nods.

It’s not the greatest picture. Taehyung can’t resist making a dumb face, and he still has cake all over his cheeks. Jimin turns his hat around backwards because he thinks it looks better that way, and he’s making the almost-duck face that he’s made in a lot of selfies recently to try and figure out his angles, but his eyes are polite and distant, the same look he’s had since he stepped inside Taehyung’s grandparents’ house.

Looking at the photo, Taehyung thinks that they don’t really look like they’re friends. And that, somehow more than almost anything else from the past two months, makes his heart sink into a sad puddle. He wonders if Jimin sees it, too. The distance. The sadness. The friendship that could have been.

“Thank you,” Taehyung says quietly, slipping his phone back into his pocket. “I’ll, um. I’ll send you the photo, in case you want it.”

“Sure, that would be nice,” Jimin says, an odd thickness in his voice. He clears his throat and seems like he’s going to say something else, mouth open and breath held. Taehyung looks at him, waiting, but Jimin swallows and the moment passes. And they both return to the party.

It’s okay, Taehyung tells himself later that afternoon, when he’s excused himself to sit out on the porch for a moment to himself. It’s okay if Jimin isn’t his best friend. He was fine before Jimin came along, and he’s still fine now that they’re more like co-workers than anything else.

Taehyung stays outside watching his breath fog in front of his face until Namjoon comes out to tell him that they’re all leaving to take the train back to Seoul.

Chapter Text

2013

It takes a minute for Bang Sihyuk’s words to sink in. “What is that supposed to mean?” Taehyung looks from Sihyuk to Jiwoon, their media trainer, and back again. Their passive faces are impossible to interpret. “Hidden member? I don’t get it.”

“In this important lead-up period to the group’s debut, we have an opportunity to build curiosity and interest. A small company can’t take it for granted that anyone will pay attention right from the start.” Jiwoon rattles this off without pause or hesitation, like it’s a line of reasoning that the whole staff have repeated back and forth to each other over and over, until it was seamless with no room for alternatives. “And we believe that it will get people interested if we have six members being active on social media, communicating our message and building personas for the fans to attached to, while keeping one member secret.”

“You will be fully involved with social media from debut onward.” Bang Sihyuk picks up the explanation smoothly where Jiwoon left off, giving Taehyung no room to even think about objecting. “Our hope and expectation is that fans will be excited about the reveal of a mysterious seventh member, driving them to be even more interested in getting to know you than they would have otherwise been.”

Taehyung looks between them again, conscious of the need to be respectful and composed, but there is a burning feeling in his chest. “Um. Why does it have to be me?”

The adults in the room trade glances. Taehyung’s vocal instructor takes on the question, his voice cool and calm without any of the condescending gentleness that you would use with a child--so at least there’s that. “Your eclectic personality, along with the 4D persona that you’ll be building, makes you the best option.”

They keep explaining, and Taehyung nods along and stops paying attention once he realizes that this has really been decided and there’s no point arguing. He tries to stay calm, to live up to the image of maturity they expect of him, but it must be obvious that he’s not thrilled about this. Hurt feelings sink their way into his ribcage, curling protectively around his bones.

He holds it together through the meeting, bowing respectfully at the end and giving them a murmured promise that he’ll work hard. He feels three sets of eyes on him, probably trying to predict whether he’s going to turn this into some kind of problem.

Taehyung walks quickly back to the dorm and shuts the apartment door behind him, breathing with his back against it. Bang Sihyuk had been clear that this role he was going to play, being the ‘hidden member,’ did not mean they were considering striking him from the final lineup. Taehyung had passed his examinations to become an idol in December, he had signed the contract, his status as a member of the group was confirmed. His manager had explained to him, in a brisk and clipped tone that brooked no argument, that this is not a move that should signal uncertainty or insecurity. It is simply part of the job he’s expected to do.

Taehyung tries and fails to keep his eyes from filling with tears. He’d been so stupid to look forward to recording videos, to look forward to these months before debut, to be cautiously optimistic. How is he always such a child, even when he thought he had a handle on things, even when he’d just turned a year older.

 

And he isn’t alone in the dorm. Jimin pokes his head out of the bedroom when he hears Taehyung come in, and Taehyung ducks his head, but not fast enough to keep Jimin from seeing that he’s crying. He crosses the living room in three strides and shuts himself in the bathroom without looking up.

Taehyung grips the edges of their grimy sink, bent over and trying to gulp back sobs as quietly as he can. How can he possibly trust that he’ll still be part of the group when they’re going to keep him from being part of the group for months? It could be so easy to eliminate him from the lineup when he's the ‘hidden member.’ How can this not be a signal that they’re uncertain about him?

There’s a knock on the door, and Jimin’s voice calling softly through the wood. “Taehyung-ah? Can I come in?”

Taehyung hesitates.

Later, he won’t understand why he opened the door; why he didn’t just shout that he had diarrhea or needed a shower or something, like he’s done with bathroom crying jags before. Maybe it’s the surprise that Jimin asks to come in at all, instead of going along with the usual dorm rule of pretending to be unaware that the trainee crying in the bathroom is crying.

Taehyung opens the door, letting Jimin inside the cramped bathroom with a sniffle. Jimin perches on the narrow ledge of the bathtub while Taehyung puts the toilet lid down and sits on that, giving in to the urge to hug his knees to his chest.

Taehyung explains what their management had just told him, unable to look Jimin in the eye while he does so. He was the one who was most enthusiastic about this whole social media thing, the vlogs and the tweets and the whatever. It’s so embarrassing now. Jimin must think he’s an idiot. The thought makes him cry harder, which makes him feel even more foolish, and by the time Taehyung gathers the courage to peek at Jimin over his own knees, he feels like his whole self has crumbled into the floor, any charisma or talent or work ethic that he theoretically had lost to the grout between bathroom tiles.

But Jimin isn’t looking at him like he’s worthless. Jimin’s whole body is leaned forward, almost teetering off the bathtub, and Taehyung is hit with the irrefutable knowledge that Jimin wants desperately to hold him right now. Maybe Jimin himself hasn’t even realized, maybe the tilt of his body is subconscious, but Taehyung…. Taehyung just knows.

“You’re not stupid,” Jimin says with fierce conviction when Taehyung has finished speaking. Had Taehyung called himself stupid out loud? He can’t even remember and it seems possible that Jimin has read his mind. “You’re not stupid and you’re a part of this group and you’re going to debut with us. Okay?”

Taehyung sniffs and swallows. “Um. Okay.”

“It sucks that they’re doing this to you but it doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t make you any less important to us.” Jimin nods, strict in his interpretation of the world and of Taehyung’s necessity within it. “And the fans are going to love you the second they see your face, whenever that is.”

Taehyung manages a watery smile. “How do you know?”

“Because I’m not blind, dummy!” Jimin seems to acquiesce in some internal battle, scooting closer on the bathtub until their knees touch and then reaching out, wiping Taehyung’s wet cheeks with his thumbs and the overlong sleeve of his sweatshirt. Taehyung startles and stills, his eyes automatically closing when Jimin’s touch turns into soothing fingers combing his hair.

“It’s going to suck,” Taehyung mumbles while Jimin pets him. “I’m going to be so jealous of all of you.”

Jimin lets out a choked little laugh. “Want to trade places? I’ve been having nightmares about making a vlog. It’s going to be awful.”

Taehyung laughs too. “You’re going to be great, shut up. And come on, you would whine so much if you had to trade places with me.”

Jimin pulls back to look at him. This is more familiar than they’ve spoken to each other in months. Familiar in a way that Taehyung thought they’d lost when they fought last year, when Jimin turned him in and Taehyung took too long to forgive.

“You’re right, I couldn’t handle it,” Jimin says. “That’s the real reason they chose you, you know. They know that you’re strong enough to take being left out. They know that you can bounce back from having your head fucked with like this.”

Taehyung opens and closes his mouth. He's not sure where Jimin got this impression of him, or what it means. Belatedly, he realizes that his tears have stopped.

“Wash your face,” Jimin says, and then bites his lip and looks down like he just realized he was giving orders. “My mom always made me and my brother do that after crying. She says it makes you feel better.”

Taehyung gets up and dutifully washes the snot and dried salt tracks from his cheeks. He wonders how many habits he's picked up from other mothers, just by virtue of living in this dorm. Jungkook has taken to drinking a glass of water after dinner every night, because Taehyung's grandmother drilled this habit into Taehyung early in life and he must have passed it on.

Jimin gets shy again after they've left the bathroom, like it was only Taehyung's distress that gave him the courage to bridge the gulf between them. Taehyung feels it too, the awkward shift in the air, but he wants to ignore it.

“Can we hang out in the bedroom? You can play something on my 3DS if you want.”

“I should really study.” Jimin looks regretful and Taehyung knows he could leave it here. If Jimin hadn't shown him such kindness, maybe he would have.

“I can read over your shoulder. Quiz you on the important bits.”

That's how Yoongi and Namjoon and Hoseok find them hours later, when they return from the studio: lying down practically on top of each other in Taehyung’s narrow bunk, Taehyung half-reading Jimin's biology textbook from where his head rests on Jimin's shoulder, half-listening to him breathe and murmur quiet facts for them both.

***

Everyone is kind to Taehyung about the whole hidden member thing. Getting so much attention and fond affection from his hyungs for the entire week does a thorough job of lifting his spirits, and Taehyung is not above milking everyone’s pity for him to get out of certain chores and dance practices. The hyungs and all the staff know exactly what he’s doing, but they must feel guilty because they all still indulge him, much to the dismay of Jimin and Jungkook (although they’re no less sappy to Taehyung than the older guys, they draw the line at chore imbalances).

Taehyung doesn’t get bummed about it again until it’s time for Namjoon to record his first video. They can all tell that Namjoon is nervous; he keeps locking himself in the bathroom and running the shower so they won’t hear him practicing talking to himself in the mirror. It’ll run up their water bill, but no one is going to tell him no. While Seokjin is doing Taehyung’s dishes, he tells him in hushed tones, like he still can’t believe it, that Namjoon actually came to him for advice and help. It’s hard to imagine their proud, confident leader Namjoon wanting coaching on how to talk to YouTube, but their media training so far has been a joke: Big Hit never had the budget to put trainees in front of cameras very often, and they’re woefully inexperienced with all the little things that idols are supposed to know how to do on TV to charm people. So it makes sense that Namjoon would seek out the only one of them who has any kind of acting experience.

They all wait outside the door of the studio listening while Namjoon records his vlog, even though he explicitly asked them not to do this. There’s no reason for Taehyung to feel left out, since right now only one person is participating in this surreal exercise, but nonetheless he does. Hoseok and Yoongi keeps trading looks that seem to be silent communications of dread, and Jungkook mouths phrases to himself after Namjoon says them, like he’s trying to make sure that his own tongue won’t betray him when the time comes.

Taehyung doesn’t have anything to feel nervous for, though. What is he even doing here? He won’t be able to record his first video (if it ever happens at all, and Taehyung can’t help but feel suspicious that their management had lied to him to make this a sweeter pill to swallow) until after their debut in June, which feels so far away that it might as well be a lifetime from now. There’s no point in paying attention to this. He’s mostly here to torture himself.

He had thought he was sulking quietly, but when Namjoon is close to wrapping up, Yoongi looks over at Taehyung and nudges him with an elbow. “Cheer up,” he murmurs, low enough that it won’t get picked up by the microphone on the other side of the door and none of the other four hear him. “Your fans won’t want to see you looking sad.”

Taehyung snorts and rolls his eyes. He feels condescended to, but it still makes him feel a bit better.

“No fans, hyung,” he mutters back. “I can look however I want.”

Yoongi digs his elbow into Taehyung’s side again, a little harder this time, an attempt at tickling. And Taehyung didn’t manage to speak as quietly as Yoongi had; Jimin looks over at them and puts a finger to his lips like he’s a stern librarian. Taehyung squirms and shoves back at Yoongi and it ends, somehow, with him clinging to Yoongi’s side, which is how Namjoon finds them when he opens the studio door to see six abashed faces staring up at him from where they were all crouching at the door.

***

Taehyung’s friendship with Jimin is a funny thing. He feels better about it after his bathroom crying fit, less convinced that they’ll be estranged forever, but it still takes him a while to realize that Jimin loves him.

Winter deepens but the days are getting longer. Not only has Taehyung stopped wishing that he and Jimin didn’t have to spend so much time together, he has been automatically filling what free time he does have with more Jimin. He pulls Jimin away from their friend group for private conversations during lunches and free periods; he flops on Jimin’s bed at night, after dance practices have finished when he can barely keep his eyes open but still has his homework to do for the next day. They find themselves in the bathroom together more than once, sometimes because one or both of them is crying and sometimes to gossip and sometimes because one of them needs to shower or pee and the other hasn’t finished a thought. When they walk to school, their steps sync automatically even though Taehyung’s legs are longer. Their comedy roleplay routine kicks off again, completely without them meaning to, and Taehyung doesn’t even realize it until the hyungs start giving them shit for being annoying and Jungkook sulks because he feels left out.

Taehyung cries easier in front of Jimin after that first time in the bathroom. This is a decision his body makes without his input: Taehyung has always had willful, independent tear ducts that frequently ignore the wishes of his brain, but now if he’s at all tired or hungry (so 90% of his waking hours) and he ends up alone with Jimin in a room, his eyes will tear up almost out of habit. It’s embarrassing, or it should be embarrassing. Jimin cries plenty in front of Taehyung, too, so Taehyung often forgets to be embarrassed.

Six months ago he would not have thought it possible to be any busier than he already was, but now Taehyung would kill for one of those comparatively relaxed September days. Preparation for debut is grueling. Taehyung, Jimin and Jungkook are pulled out of classes more and more, but they still have to keep up academically.

In their free time, the trainees are expected to tweet and vlog to their theoretically-growing fanbase. Taehyung, of course, is exempt from this due to being the "hidden member." He doesn't feel grateful, but he can admit that the time it frees up does feel like a small blessing. It's not that it takes a long time for the others to make their recordings or pictures or tweets or whatever, but they spend so much time beforehand stressing about what to say, how to pose, what to do with their hands, and how to look cool, and then so much time afterwards scouring the internet for people's reactions.

It seems like it takes a lot of energy. In a small act of pointless rebellion, Taehyung deliberately doesn't look for people talking about them on the internet, because he knows none of it will be about him. He's still curious so it's hard to resist, but it's not like he doesn't hear about what the internet thinks from Jimin and Jungkook anyway.

After the first couple of recording sessions that he's excluded from, Taehyung realizes that this whole 'hidden member' thing could have a not-insubstantial silver lining. He's kept in touch with Minjae and his friends, still reading their group chat and occasionally participating, and they still invite him every time there's going to be a new party for the performing arts gays. Taehyung has declined every invitation, trying to follow the agreed-upon rules for all the trainees and be good and make up for his fuck-up in the fall.

Then there comes a Friday night when Yoongi and Namjoon are scheduled to record a vlog together, Seokjin has taken Jungkook over to his family's house for dinner, and Jimin and Hoseok are working with their dance instructor on some special choreography. Taehyung won't have anywhere he has to be for like, three whole hours. And there's going to be a party tonight, at a different house, one that's closer to his school and therefore closer to the dorm. And Namjoon is already acting guilty and consoling around Taehyung, like he's realized that Taehyung has gotten completely left out of tonight's schedule and he’s worried about him.

Maybe Taehyung plays it up a little. Maybe he mopes on purpose, letting his shoulders droop and keeping his eyes downcast while he tells Namjoon that no, it's really fine, it doesn't bother him. Well, not much, anyway. He'll get over it, he needs to stop being a baby--

"You're not being a baby," Namjoon says, his eyes earnest even behind the ridiculous sunglasses. "Taetae, I get it, I would be frustrated in your position too."

Taehyung shrugs and gives Namjoon a putting-on-a-brave-face smile and then lets it falter slightly, making Namjoon's concern visibly ratchet up several degrees. "It's fine, hyung. I was just going to go over to a friend's house to study tonight, you know, to keep myself busy."

"Of course," Namjoon says, and surprises Taehyung by pulling him into a very gangly hug. He doesn't ask which friend, or what time Taehyung will be home, and Taehyung feels bad for deceiving him, but his guilt is dwarfed by his excitement for tonight.

This time the party is in an apartment, not a house, and it's even more crowded than the last party. It should feel claustrophobic, with men pressed in on all sides of Taehyung and electronic music thumping through the floor, but Taehyung loves it.

And just like last time, he finds himself drawn away from his friends by a new guy who wants to do more than dance with him. They start making out against a wall but with the size of this apartment and how crowded it is, they’re so exposed it’s ridiculous. After Taehyung gets bumped by another dancer and almost bites the poor guy’s tongue off, they stop making out and the other boy (Dongil, they traded names this time) leads him by the hand to a tiny hall closet. Taehyung receives his first blowjob with coats in his face and a clothes hanger poking his ear, certain that they’re going to be caught and elated by the risk, then even more elated when he realizes that no one at this party would give a shit if they were discovered.

Dongil doesn’t ask him to reciprocate, just stands up and wipes his mouth and kisses Taehyung on the cheek, then steps back out of the tiny room. Taehyung stumbles out after him, and Dongil smacks his ass playfully and disappears back into the dancing crowd.

Taehyung has to leave the party soon after that, changing in the train station bathroom into his school uniform like he went straight from his classes to studying with a friend. Hopefully he doesn’t smell like cigarette smoke. Hopefully he doesn’t smell like cum.

Dread tightens in his stomach as he gets closer to the dorm, but he had been right about the timing of it all: Namjoon and Yoongi only just finished their video, and the other four aren’t back at the dorm yet. Taehyung can hardly believe it, but it seems like his lie will hold. He goes to bed early while Namjoon and Yoongi still have their heads bent together, arguing over lyrics. He flops on his bunk and stares up at the bottom of the bed above him, grinning so hard his jaw starts to hurt.

When Jimin drags himself to bed a half hour later, looking exhausted from the dance practice, Taehyung is surprised to find that he wants to tell him about tonight. He won’t, that would defeat the whole point--and it would be unfair to Jimin, he realizes, just as he was unfair to him last time when he put the burden of secrets and broken rules on his shoulders.

But as irrational as it is, the desire to share tonight with him is there. Perhaps it’s because these days, he shares almost everything else he does with Jimin. Perhaps it’s because Jimin always listens so well when Taehyung tells him things.

Taehyung doesn’t dare sneak out to parties every weekend, but he does it often enough that by the time Spring has bloomed in the city, he has a much more thorough understanding of what Minjae had meant by “hook-up scene.” He makes so many new friends that Minjae is no longer the only one inviting him to things, and someone gets him a fake I.D. with the promise that certain clubs are even better than the house parties that get thrown for those too young or too broke to really go out. Taehyung doesn’t care about drinking or partying for its own sake, but he can’t help his ever-curious nature.

Taehyung knows he has to keep a low profile. He knows that he shouldn’t be doing this at all, but everyone in this scene has a career that depends on staying closeted. Everyone has too much to lose by outing anyone else. That’s how he hopes it works, anyway. If it were really that risky, none of them would be here, right?

Taehyung and Jimin are taking the long way home from a dance practice one night in April. They’ve both been worked to the bone, but the exhaustion has given them a strange kind of propulsive energy and the night air is warmer than it has been all year, so they’re walking around the blocks of their neighborhood.

They’re not talking about anything important when Jimin trails off in the middle of a sentence. Taehyung looks at him and waits for him to finish, then forgets to wait and they keep walking in comfortable silence while Jimin thinks. One of the streetlamps is burnt out on this street, resulting in a long stretch of unlit sidewalk, so you feel completely enveloped by the dark for a minute, maybe two, maybe three.

Jimin looks at Taehyung in the cozy darkness and says, “You can tell me anything, you know.”

Taehyung’s heart catches in his throat. He doesn’t think about his secrets, about the parties and the dancing and his stolen kisses and his wrong desires; it doesn’t occur to him until hours later, staring up at Jimin’s bunk while he can’t sleep, that it was a missed opportunity to come clean. Instead he looks at Jimin, face completely unreadable under the cover of a starless sky, and realizes that Jimin loves him.

Taehyung says “Yes, I know,” and loves him back.

***

Taehyung forgot to account for this particular club being farther away from the dorm than most of the other party spots he’s been sneaking off to. He leaves a little later from the party than he means to, and then misses his bus connection when he gets off the subway. He walks home instead, but still gets home before 12:30, early enough that everyone should still be up and working outside of the dorms. No one is scheduled to record any videos today, so it had been a risk to try and sneak out, but Namjoon and Seokjin have been suffering through extra dance practices with Hoseok lately, which means they’ve been stressed and distracted.

If all else fails and Taehyung does get busted for being away from the studio and the dorm for several hours, one of his friends at school (a boy who Taehyung got reacquainted with when they ran into each other at one of the parties a few weeks ago) has agreed to lie and say Taehyung was at his house studying.

When Taehyung lets himself into the dorm, he can feel that something is wrong immediately. His stomach flips, queasy memories of last fall’s confrontation washing over him. But there’s only one pair of shoes on the rack by the door, only one person home. It’s Yoongi, sitting on the sofa with his arms and legs crossed, and any relief that Taehyung might have felt over the rest of the group being out is quashed by the way Yoongi glares at him.

All of Taehyung’s excuses and Plan Bs go flying out his head. “Um,” he says, trying for a smile. “Hi, hyung.”

“Taehyung-ssi, do you mind telling me where you’ve been?”

The thing about Yoongi is, despite the fact that Taehyung has always found him a bit intimidating, he’s not actually that scary. He’ll argue and be blunt and stand up for himself, but he doesn’t yell. The angriest Taehyung has ever seen him was that time he said ‘fuck you’ to their managers, and afterwards he’d just left the room. There are no explosions with Yoongi, nothing that could justify Taehyung’s fear right now.

Yoongi’s mouth twists when Taehyung doesn’t answer. “Get over here,” he says, his voice low and cold. “You need to explain yourself. Right now.”

And yes, this would be why Taehyung is afraid: he’s never seen Yoongi this angry, so he has no frame of reference.

Taehyung toes his shoes off and slips on a pair of house slippers, his feet feeling clumsier than they should. He shuffles over to the living room and sits on the sofa chair across from Yoongi on the couch, flipping his cell phone nervously in his hands. “I, um--I was studying at a friend’s house, he can tell you--”

“Don’t lie.”

Taehyung shuts his mouth, swallows and tries again. “Hyung--Yoongi-ssi, I--”

“Staff came looking for you. They thought they would find you dancing with Jimin and Jungkook, and when those two said they thought you were working on vocals, they went to the vocal instructor. He hadn’t seen you tonight, so they came to me while I was recording in the studio.”

Oh no. Taehyung’s mouth is dry as bone, his teeth feel too large in his jaw, his tongue unable to come up with the right words to say. He grips the tatty edge of the chair and wants to look down at his feet, but he can’t look away from the way Yoongi’s jaw keeps clenching.

“I told them that instead of working on vocals, you’d been working with me on your rap, but I sent you home early because you had a sore throat and needed sleep to let it heal.”

“You--what?” Taehyung blinks, his mouth hanging open. This isn’t where he expected Yoongi’s story to go.

Yoongi makes a frustrated growl in the back of his throat. “I had to think fast. If staff discovered you sneaking out not once, but twice, the consequences would be bad for all of us.”

“You… covered for me,” Taehyung says, still trying to catch up.

Yoongi growls again. “Only because it was the best way to keep us all out of trouble!”

“But you didn’t tell any of the others?”

“Not yet I haven’t,” Yoongi says warningly. “Taehyung-ah, don’t get the wrong idea. I might have lied for you in the moment but I’m not happy about it.”

“Right,” Taehyung says quickly, and presses his lips together to stop the smile that was trying to spread over his face.

“Tell me where you were. And don’t give me any of that ‘I was studying’ bullshit.”

Taehyung pulls his legs up on the chair, tucking his feet under him. He’s still reeling from the fact that Yoongi covered for him, which is not something he ever would have counted on happening. He feels disoriented, off-balance. “I was… out. With friends.”

“Have you been drinking?”

“No! No, I’m completely sober, I swear. Do you want to smell my breath and see?” Taehyung immediately regrets offering this, because he might not smell like alcohol but the boy he was with tonight had a strong cologne, and it might be lingering on his shirt collar or something.

Yoongi wrinkles his nose. “I’ll pass. If you haven’t been drinking, then what is it? What’s so important that you would lie to all of us? Are you dating someone?”

“No...”

Yoongi misinterprets Taehyung’s shifty expression as being an answer to his question. He visibly relaxes, his shoulders sagging a little bit, like Taehyung dating someone in secret isn’t the worst case scenario here. “You are, aren’t you. Well, at least being at some girl’s house is safer than you being swallowed up into a crime den or something.”

“Crime den-? Hyung, you sound like an ahjumma.”

“Don’t, Taehyung-ah. I’ve had hours to sit here and wonder what the hell is going on.” With a start, Taehyung realizes that he was wrong in his initial assessment of Yoongi’s mood: this is not the angriest he has ever seen him. Yoongi had been angry, yes, but more than that he’d been scared.

“Sorry,” Taehyung mutters, clasping his knees to his chest. “I’ve been safe, I promise. And I don’t have a secret girlfriend.”

Yoongi tilts his head, his eyes narrowing. Taehyung feels captured and scrutinized, like if he looked up he would see the calculations in Yoongi’s mind drawn out in the air between them. “No girlfriend. But this has something to do with the argument we had last year, doesn’t it? And how you didn’t like our no dating rule?”

Taehyung flushes. “But I’m not dating anyone. I told you….”

“Oh my god! Do you not realize that sleeping around is so much worse? More dangerous for us? What if someone gets her feelings hurt and decides to go to the paparazzi, or your company, or just the fucking internet?” It’s as much of an explosion as Taehyung has ever heard from Yoongi, and after he spits the words out he scrubs his hand over his face, pushing his hair back in frustration. Taehyung feels further and further away from his body as Yoongi gets closer to the truth, and all he can do is hold himself tighter and stare at the same spot on the opposite wall above his left elbow.

“It’s just casual. That wouldn’t happen.”

“Yeah, I must be crazy for thinking that girls might struggle to keep things casual with you.” Sarcasm turns Yoongi’s voice rough, and Taehyung doesn’t know what he means, but he doesn’t care, either. Something that was already stretched to a breaking point deep inside his chest has snapped, and Taehyung is still out of his body but now he’s sitting up straighter, looking Yoongi in the eye,

“It’s not girls.”

Yoongi stops in the middle of inhaling for another rant. “Excuse me?”

“I’m not hooking up with girls. Guys are different. They all know it’s casual, none of them have even asked for my phone number.”

“O-oh.” Yoongi turns away, blinking rapidly. Taehyung watches the rise and fall of his chest, his reddening cheeks, and can’t think past the pounding of his own blood in his ears. He can’t believe he did what he just did, he doesn’t know if it’s safe, if this was the right decision. He’s not sure if he feels ecstatically relieved or more terrified than he’s ever been.

Quiet, quiet. Taehyung hears a car honking, several stories down and half a block away. An engine revs, then dies down again. Taehyung would be listening to the second hand of a clock if they had one of those in the dorm. Then Yoongi gathers himself and looks at Taehyung again, moving closer to him on the couch.

“It’s still dangerous. It’s career-ending dangerous if you were to get caught, if the wrong person sees you. How do you know you can trust the other guys at these--clubs, or parties, or wherever it is you’re going?”

Taehyung is starting to come out the other side of his shock at himself. He frowns at Yoongi, and doesn’t back down. “They all have just as much to lose as I do, that’s how. If one person snitched or outed anyone, everyone would be screwed.”

“And you want to depend on that? Is it really worth it just to get laid?”

“It’s not about getting laid! Or, it’s not, it’s--it’s more than that, it’s like.” Taehyung’s breath catches in his throat, and he knows he’s going to say this wrong, that it will come out all fumbled words and petty stubbornness. He pushes past the specter of embarrassment, because there was no point in spilling his biggest secret if he doesn’t. “It’s about this part of myself. It’s an important part, and I have to lie about it all the time, to everyone, and I always will.”

A shadow passes over Yoongi’s face. “Tae-ah…”

“I can’t explore it anywhere else. If I didn’t sneak out to go dancing and--and hook up with people, I would have to hide it all the time. I wouldn’t even know who I was, because the person I can be there is different. Is more. And I can’t be him anywhere else.”

Taehyung pauses and looks at Yoongi, who is picking at the cuticles of his left hand, his fingers knotting anxiously together with his eyes fixed on Taehyung. There’s something about it--something about Yoongi--

It’s not a deliberate decision, what Taehyung does next. Too many thoughts flit through his mind for him to keep track of them, realizations and conclusions that dwell below his conscious mind and maybe have for some time, questions posed and answered in lockstep until what comes out of his mouth is: “Do you maybe know what that feels like? Hyung?”

Yoongi goes stock still, staring at Taehyung with an almost comical expression frozen on his face. Taehyung waits for him. He doesn’t feel any urge to backpedal or explain himself, and the only reason he managed to phrase it as a question and tack ‘hyung’ on the end is years of age hierarchy conditioning. He’d never before considered whether Yoongi might be like him, but now it makes sense to him somehow, like so many small signs have come together to signal something: his lyrics, and the way some of them smirk and gesture and stand hovering over a larger truth; the fact that Taehyung has never heard him talk about girls outside the context of music. Even the sharpness of his small frame, and how Yoongi has never seemed to mind his delicate build.

It could all mean nothing. But Taehyung doesn’t think he’s wrong.

Yoongi seems to shudder, one long gust of breath emptying out of him. Then his eyes flutter closed, and when he opens them again he looks settled in himself, the way Taehyung is used to him looking. “Yeah. I know what that feels like.”

All the breath in Taehyung’s lungs seems to rush out at once as the magnitude of all this hits him. “Oh,” he says, then “Oh.I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have--I didn’t mean to guess like that--”

“It’s fine.” Yoongi waves away Taehyung’s belated apology and surprises him by leaning forward until he’s in Taehyung’s space, then reaching across the space between them to take one of Taehyung’s hands in both of his. He doesn’t speak until their eyes have met.

“Just because I’ve been where you are doesn’t mean I’m not worried for you. It’s actually kind of the opposite.”

Taehyung lost the momentum of his self-righteousness when Yoongi took his hand. He nods a little helplessly, then shakes his head. “You don’t need to worry though. I have friends and they look after me, and the guys I’ve, um, hooked up with--” his face is on fire and Yoongi looks a bit like he wants out of this part of the conversation, but he’s still holding Taehyung’s hand so Taehyung keeps going. “It’s casual with them, like I said. None of them are going to out me in a fit of passion or something. They’re older and they don’t care.”

“Strangely enough, you hooking up with older men who don’t care about you does not exactly make me feel better about your safety,” Yoongi says.

“I didn’t mean it like that. It’s not like I’m getting together with assholes, I have taste.”

Yoongi almost smiles. “Of course you do. What about protection?”

“Oh my god.” Taehyung covers his face with his free hand. “Hyung. We don’t have to do this.”

“Don’t we?” Yoongi squeezes his hand and Taehyung swears his cheeks somehow heat up even more. “Just answer the question. It’s an important one.”

“Yeah, my friend Minjae gave me… stuff,” Taehyung mumbles into his palm. “He talked to me about it, so you don’t need to, okay? That would be. So weird if you did.”

“I agree,” Yoongi says mildly. “Taehyung-ah, look at me?”

Taehyung drops his hand and looks at Yoongi. His brow is furrowed, but he doesn’t look upset anymore. “I understand why you need this. When I was going through the same thing, I had an outlet for it, and I don’t want to take yours away.”

Taehyung’s heartbeat pounds in his eardrums, deafening and full of hope. His voice comes out a dry croak. “So you won’t tell?”

“I won’t tell,” Yoongi says, matching Taehyung’s whisper. “But if you’re going to keep doing this, I need to know when you’re going and where.”

“I told you, I’m safe about it.”

Yoongi shakes his head. “If I’m going to cover for you to the other guys, to staff? I’m only going to do that if I know where you’ll be every time. That’s my condition.”

Taehyung thinks he’s misheard, at first. It had never occurred to him to hope for so much from Yoongi. His throat feels thick, and he has to swallow a few times before he can talk. “Okay. I can do that.”

“They bought it today when I said I was teaching you to rap, so I guess we can just keep up that excuse. It should hold up okay. You have to actually improve your rapping, though, if I’m going to say I’m helping you.”

“I can do that! Um, I can try anyway.” Taehyung shrugs. He’ll worry about his nonexistent rapping abilities later. He’s shaking a little bit, from shock and excitement and fear and possibly every other emotion on the human spectrum--he feels like he’s gone through them all, sitting in this chair across from the other gay trainee in their house.

As Yoongi lets go of his hand Taehyung thinks he might be trembling a little, too. He doesn’t know if Yoongi is trembling for him, or for himself. It feels like the Earth was just slightly scrambled, a soft 4.3 on Taehyung’s personal richter scale, and now when he looks around the cluttered dorm it seems like everything has settled back into place a centimeter off. Taehyung wonders if he’s blinking too much.

“Thank you,” he says, as soon as he realizes he hasn’t said it yet. “Hyung. Thank you. For--uh.”

Yoongi’s lips twitch and he pulls on his neck, embarrassed like he always gets by sincerity directed his way. “You don’t have to thank me,” he murmurs. “Well--you do have to thank me for lying for you. But not for the rest.”

“Thank you for lying for me,” Taehyung says as quickly as he can, like Yoongi might rescind the offer if he doesn’t. He has so much more to say, questions piling up chaotically on his tongue and getting stuck there because he doesn’t know what to ask first. Yoongi looks at him with heaviness at the corners of his eyes, the line of his mouth tight with an emotion that Taehyung couldn’t even try to name. He’s already staring at Yoongi’s lips so he sees it when he takes in a breath and then stops, hesitates before speaking, like he’s just as clueless as Taehyung about where this conversation ought to go next.

The sound of footsteps thumping down the hall reaches them before the sound of muffled voices, and then a key turning in the lock. Yoongi exhales without saying whatever he was thinking about, and they both turn away in unison, eyes on different corners of the room when Namjoon and Seokjin and Hoseok enter the room. They’re laughing and arguing about something, and when they see Taehyung and Yoongi in the living room the argument expands to include them, their opinions demanded on obscure ‘90s variety shows that apparently everyone but Taehyung’s parents watched.

***

Taehyung keeps waiting for the fact of their debut on the horizon to start feeling real, but it’s only six weeks away now and he still doesn’t truly believe it will happen. They’re almost finished recording the album, or at least Taehyung is fairly certain that his parts are finished. The focus has switched to choreography, practice after practice until Taehyung feels like he could do the moves in his sleep even though his body keeps screwing it up while he’s awake. For all intents and purposes, he and Jimin have been pulled out of school, far more abruptly than Taehyung had imagined it happening. They still have to do homework, but no one expects them to show up for their classes anymore.

Taehyung’s conversation with Yoongi about sneaking out is funny in retrospect, because there hasn’t been free time to even consider trying to get away in the weeks since. They haven’t talked about it, haven’t even been alone in a room together. Sometimes Taehyung thinks about Yoongi and what he said, late at night in his bunk before physical exhaustion sweeps him under. Sometimes he wonders if it was a real conversation that happened or just a weird dream that he had.

Except that he knows it’s real. He knows it’s real, because now sometimes Yoongi will glance at him at odd times in group conversations, a cat-eyed attention paid to Taehyung when he least expects it. Sometimes the look comes with a smile, a bump to his shoulder, a large hand touching his knee or the back of his neck or his hair with affection. Taehyung doesn’t know how his own looks or responses to Yoongi have changed; he’s tried to continue as if nothing is different, because he doesn’t know if Yoongi has told anyone else. If he’s kept it to himself, just like Taehyung had, then Taehyung can’t be the one to give him away.

Taehyung used to get teased by his family for being an open book, but he thinks he’s gotten better at keeping secrets in the past year.

He’s fielded some text messages from Minjae and the others about how he’s been absent lately and how his presence has been missed. When Taehyung has the time and the presence of mind to text back, he’s apologetic, but they understand once he explains that they’re in the middle of the big push to debut. Right now there just isn’t room for anything or anyone in his life beyond the other members, and he’s grown used to being shuttled back and forth between the dorm, the dance studio, the recording studio and back again. It’s monotonous. It’s hard.

When Bang Sihyuk tells them that the album is finished, it comes as a shock even though Taehyung finished recording and re-recording his parts what feels like a lifetime ago. Taehyung has been so impatient, they’ve all been so impatient, the mixing was taking forever, but--

“Are you sure this isn’t a televised prank?” Seokjin says, voicing what they’re all thinking.

Bang Sihyuk smiles. “No prank. The album is ready to go, and will be released June 12. We will film the music video next week. Your choreography is ready, right?”

Hoseok looks at them all with narrowed eyes, and most of the other members look at the floor or the wall. Someone coughs. “We will be ready, sunbaenim,” Hoseok promises, and Taehyung wonders if he’s imagining the threatening undertone of his voice.

Sihyuk nods as if he hasn’t noticed their collective misgivings. “One month to the release. I am confident that you all will be ready, and we will make a strong debut. Your futures are just beginning.”

The seven of them bow in acknowledgment. Taehyung can already hear Seokjin parodying this somber speech later; he’s sharpened his impression of their boss to perfection lately.

“Extra practice for everyone tonight,” Hoseok tells them as soon as the staff have left them alone in the dorm. “As soon as we’ve finished dinner, back in the studio. We only have a week until this is going to be filmed.”

He gets no arguments or grumbling. Taehyung actually feels solid on the No More Dream choreography, but knowing they have to film it for a music video is still terrifying. In fact, the whole thing is terrifying: how are they possibly going to practice enough to perform the way they’ll need to? How are they possibly going to get to the point where they can hold their heads up high and present themselves as an idol group? It’s funny: Taehyung feels simultaneously that they are better and more skilled than most of the other groups he sees on TV, and he’s aching to be able to prove himself on the same stage already. And right next to that feeling is his intense fear that they suck and can’t compete and they’ll be laughed off the MNET stage, with no one ever taking them seriously again.

“You don’t... really think that will happen though, do you?” Jimin says when Taehyung confesses his contradicting predictions. They’re sitting on the sidewalk curb outside of the dance studio, sharing a bag of chips from the corner store in the fifteen minute break before they have to head back inside for more practice.

“I don’t know,” Taehyung says. “I guess not? Probably not. It’s just that in my head, either we get laughed off or they give us a daesang on the spot. I can’t picture anything in between.”

Jimin nods with a far-off, nauseous look on his face, like he only heard Taehyung’s negative prediction and not the positive one. “Ugh. I’ve had so many nightmares where I get up on stage and suddenly don’t know how to dance anymore and fuck up the stage for everyone.”

“That’s not going to happen,” Taehyung says, much more firm in his reassurance to Jimin than he’s ever able to be to himself.

“Says you,” Jimin says darkly, grabbing the empty chip bag from Taehyung and pouring the crumbs into his mouth.

After they film the music video (which is fun, actually, a lot more fun than Taehyung thought it would be), it’s like Taehyung has stepped into a time machine that makes everything happen in fast-forward. Before he knows it, there’s only a week left before debut. Then that week passes so quickly, with so much work and so little sleep, that he doesn’t even have a chance to pause and worry about what’s on the horizon. It’s just practice, practice, practice all the time, and sometimes they get pulled into meetings or costume fittings or consultations with the stylists. Two days before debut, Taehyung’s hair is bleached and dyed and permed, and it feels like the first time in weeks that he’s had two hours to breathe and sit still and anticipate being on TV soon. The sitting still part is awful: even with how hard they’ve been working, Taehyung feels like a live wire of energy, movement trying to twitch and spill out of every part of him.

He doesn’t like how his hair looks at the end, but the other trainees (the other members, he needs to get used to them not being trainees anymore) all tell him he looks cute. Even Jungkook looks at him with wide eyes and stutters a bit, then skitters away scowling when Taehyung chucks him under the chin.

Jimin climbs into his bed the night before their debut, and even though it’s not a surprise Taehyung still groans and half-heartedly tries to shove him off. “Jiminie, I’m tired.

Jimin just clings like a limpet, his buff arms (finally showing the results of months of an even leaner chicken diet than the rest of them had, plus endless push-ups and weightlifting, Taehyung had felt so sorry for him) wrapping vicelike around Taehyung’s middle. “Don’t give me that. It’s tomorrow! It’s only a few hours away! Don’t tell me you’re going to sleep right now, I don’t believe you.”

Before Taehyung can reply, he feels the mattress dip on his other side, which is all the warning he gets before Jungkook clings to him and in the process drives his bony knee into Taehyung’s lower spine. “No sleep till debut.”

“No hitting the baby,” Seokjin says when he sees Taehyung howling in pain and attempting revenge. He follows his words with a running jump onto them, lightly pummeling Jungkook’s back.

Hoseok squeals and joins them when he walks in from his shower and sees the pile of squabbling limbs. In the tiny triangle of vision that Taehyung has between Seokjin’s armpit and Hoseok’s ribcage, he can see Namjoon pausing in the doorway, clearly deliberating over whether, as the leader, he should be too mature to take part in this. He makes up his mind and clambers over them, and then they all freeze as the bunk gives an ominous creak. If Taehyung’s mouth weren’t completely muffled by Jimin’s shirt, he would point out that they shouldn’t have done this on a bottom bunk, because there’s not enough room and Namjoon’s back is shoved up against the ceiling of the bed frame above them.

The bed frame holds. Someone kicks someone else in the shins, and the squirming quasi-wrestling match is off again. That’s how Yoongi finds them, looking more like a multi-limbed eldritch monster than an idol group, all of Taehyung’s bedding and pillows in a heap on the floor. Namjoon’s low slung basketball shorts have been yanked down to his calves and he’s yelling as Hoseok pinches and twists the skin of his thigh.

“Wow,” Yoongi says mildly. Taehyung attempts to tell him to get over here because he’s not better than this, but somehow Jimin’s shirt in his mouth has been replaced by like three of Jimin’s fingers.

“Don’t think you’re better than this, Yoongi-chi,” Seokjin pants, red-in-the-face from Jungkook’s headlock. “We saved a spot just for you, right here under hyung’s--aarrrgh, Kook-ah you little--”

Seokjin goes under again and their pile gets rearranged. Yoongi is laughing, almost silent, head ducked to the floor and an exhausted grin flashing the white of his teeth. He hits the bedroom light, and the sudden darkness makes everyone start yelling again, and by the time the room settles into something close to quiet again, Taehyung realizes that Yoongi has slid into bed with them, worming his way into the Seokjin-Jungkook-Namjoon section of the bed that Taehyung has no direct contact with.

Taehyung feels a sudden odd pang of wishing that Yoongi had joined his side of the bed instead, pressed up against him as tightly as Jimin and now Hoseok are. But his brain is too exhausted to hang onto any real thoughts or desires, and the brief sense of longing fades and filters into calm nothing as the bodies of his friends press in on all sides, as he listens to seven sets of lungs inhaling and exhaling in the heavy darkness.

***

And then the day is here, and then the hour is here, and their manager is shepherding all of them into a van to go to the TV studio and start the long process of pre-recording and then performing their debut set. Holy shit. Holy shit.

Taehyung has never been so nervous in his life, but what's much worse than that is the dismaying realization that he isn't nearly as nervous as most of the others.

Everyone is putting on their own version of a brave face. Hoseok is energetic like always, and Namjoon seems confident, head held high and challenging like he’s already daring the world to come at them. Only the fact that he takes any spare several seconds of silence as an opportunity to practice his rapping gives him away. Jungkook has been bugging Jimin and Taehyung all morning, goading them into play-fights. Yoongi is quiet, but Yoongi is often quiet, especially in the mornings.

Seokjin is freaking Taehyung out. He’s freaking them all out, at least if the way Jungkook keeps trying to cheer him up, only to get a tight smile in return, is any indication. Seokjin keeps staring out the window with his jaw grinding, staring at the floor, staring at the distance, nodding his head vacantly while being somewhere else entirely when you’re talking to him.

“Hyung has been so worried about his dancing all week,” Jimin murmurs to him when Taehyung mentions it, in the brief window of time when they’re flurrying around the dorm getting ready before the drive to the MNET studio. “I don’t think he’s been eating or sleeping well.”

Taehyung hadn’t noticed that Seokjin was feeling bad at all. He feels shitty, suddenly aware of how self-absorbed he’s been, too concerned with his own skills and fears and hunger and lack of sleep, with only enough concern left over to notice Jimin’s well-being and look after Jungkook the way they all do.

“It’s really good of you to notice that,” Taehyung murmurs back to Jimin. Jimin pulls back from their little huddle in the hallway to give Taehyung a bemused look, like Taehyung has once again said something that only has context inside his own head, and pulls him into a hug. He doesn’t reply to the compliment, but Taehyung knows he is pleased.

On the short walk from their dorm down the building stairs to the van waiting curb side a little ways down the street, Taehyung catches up to walk beside Seokjin. “Hyung, fighting! You’re going to do great!”

This takes Seokjin enough by surprise that he startles out of the trance he’s been in all morning and looks at Taehyung like he’s actually seeing him. He even laughs. “Thank you? What was that for, Taetae?”

Taehyung knows he will be rebuffed if he tries to tell his hyung that he was worried about him. He just smiles at Seokjin and shrugs. “I’m just excited!”

And it’s the truth. Taehyung is nervous, sure, but it’s more a physical thing, butterflies flitting around in his stomach so busily that he thinks he could feel their frantic wings if he pressed his palm to his gut. Otherwise, he’s excited. He’s going to be on TV. He can’t remember the first time he started wanting that, and tonight he’ll finally be doing it.

In the van that all seven of them plus their manager somehow crowd into, they’re given one last lecture on how to emotionally prepare for being on camera. Their debut starts the second they walk into the studio, not just when they get on the stage, because their own company will be filming them for the fans. Having a cameraman follow them around is bound to feel different from sitting in front of a computer camera and talking about their day (not that Taehyung has gotten to do that), but the key thing they should remember is that it’s okay to appear shy or awkward on camera, and they should not try to hide emotions that they think are uncomfortable. Fans will like seeing them be vulnerable or childish, apparently. It will make people feel more connected to them, more sympathetic.

The inside of the van is stuffy and hot, the limited A/C not reaching all the way to the seats in the back where Taehyung is squished between Jimin and the car door. It’s not even 7am yet but traffic is bad, the van lurching back and forth between commuter vehicles inching forward, salarymen and women that are probably not all driving to their music show debut. Taehyung tries to pay attention to the manager’s words, but the rocking motion of the car has the same effect on him as it usually does, and his cheek finds Jimin’s shoulder to rest on.

Jimin nudges him back up. “How can you be falling asleep right now,” he hisses in Taehyung’s ear.

“‘M not,” Taehyung protests groggily, despite visible evidence to the contrary.

“Seriously, how,” Jimin says again, looking at Taehyung like he’s a marvel, or perhaps a freak of nature. “I’m like, ready to puke I’m so nervous. How are you so calm?”

Taehyung doesn’t know how to respond. He doesn’t feel calm, but he also isn’t ready to puke, and the butterflies in his stomach don’t prevent him from being overly warm and sleepy. Is that not how it works for other people? Jimin is staring at him with a slight twitch under his right eyelid, and on Jimin’s other side Taehyung can see how Jungkook is hugging himself tightly like he wants to be as small as possible.

“Pay attention in the back,” their manager barks, and Taehyung and Jimin both shut up and face forward. It’s just more things that have already been drilled into them this past week, as well as a short motivational speech.

The van pulls into the studio parking lot, but their manager is still talking, even once the vehicle is parked. Everyone shifts around, squinting out the windows, visibly antsy to get out. “Hey! One last thing,” their manager says, holding up a stern lecturing finger. “Remember how lucky you are to have this much airtime. You’re only getting two songs because another group had to cancel and your sunbaes negotiated well on your behalf. Be grateful, show respect, and do not waste this opportunity.”

Murmurs of humble acknowledgment reverberate around the van. They are allowed to clamber out, and the cameraman who drove behind them is already checking his equipment, and Namjoon gets them to circle up and do a quick “fighting” once in the parking lot before they go inside. They’ll do it several more times today, probably. On camera for Youtube, before going to sing and dance and rap on camera for a television audience of--Taehyung doesn’t know. Thousands? Millions? The entire world, his family in Daegu, the president? Probably not the president, she’ll be too busy to watch music shows. But there’s no guarantee about everyone else.

The inside of MNET’s studios is… different from what Taehyung had expected. An annoyed-looking woman wearing a headset ushers them from the glitzy lobby into a hallway, and then other annoyed people usher them down different hallways and up some stairs and into an elevator and then they wait outside of the elevator for a long, long time, and Taehyung complains to the camera because they were told to present their real emotions and then fills time by doing lunges down the hall. Namjoon snaps at him to get back to the group when another annoyed person, this time an older man wearing a suit and a different kind of headset, shows up to tell them they’re expected in the dressing rooms to get ready for the pre-recording, and that they are late. How they can be late when the studio people are the ones that told them to wait here, Taehyung doesn’t know, but they all chorus apologies as one and the man doesn’t even listen, gives directions to Namjoon and then disappears.

Taehyung could swear that Namjoon visibly breaks out into panic sweat before their eyes as he realizes he was expected to remember those directions and navigate them. Thankfully, Yoongi was also listening, and they manage to find the set of rooms where stylists and makeup artists are waiting for them.

They get finished with makeup and hair and styling, and then there is nothing to do but stand around and wait. This is exactly the time when they should be goofing off for the camera, but no one is in the mood for that. With every second that ticks by before their first performance, nerves get wound tighter and tighter until Taehyung wonders if his face looks as springloaded as all of the faces around him.

They wait and wait and wait and Taehyung knows that he did goof off for Big Hit’s camera at some point, that they all did, but it’s all a blur. When he watches the short backstage video on YouTube weeks later when it’s released, he won’t remember saying or doing any of those things.

Taehyung knew it would feel different, to perform No More Dream and We Are Bulletproof on MNET’s stage instead of their boring old studio. Hoseok and Jungkook had both talked about how exciting it had been to perform for an audience with Jo-Kwon, and Yoongi and Namjoon have rapped for a live audience before, but Taehyung’s never done anything like that. It’s both different and not; the noise of the crowd and the blur of faces that Taehyung can make out past the stage lights is thrilling, but at the same time muscle memory has taken over. Taehyung is both right here, more present than he’s ever been, and somewhere else entirely.

And that’s just the pre-recording. Taehyung is giddy when all seven of them file off the stage, cheering and grinning at Big Hit’s cameraman and accepting sweat cloths and bottled water from the stagehands. He’s already going over the mistakes he made in his head, and even though those mistakes were plentiful, he thinks… he thinks that overall they did pretty good. Didn’t they? Nobody knew who they were before now, and as their manager reminded them they were only given this time slot because another group had to cancel. And yet by the end of their second song, people were cheering, yelling for them. Maybe not the whole crowd, but some. That’s good, right?

More waiting happens between pre-recording and the final stage. Taehyung gets antsy, bothers Jimin, bothers his hyungs, bothers Jimin some more. None of them know how to act right now. There’s the strange and shocking fact (Taehyung, at least, is shocked; perhaps he shouldn’t be) that Seokjin cried after they performed, and because of this stupid camera following them around no one can ask him why or be all that comforting. Everyone is jittery, coming down from adrenaline, makeup artists and stylist noonas and stagehands fluttering around them and prodding Taehyung everywhere.

During all the waiting, Taehyung finds himself at some point alone with Jimin, in a little rectangle of space that might be a magical pocket dimension because neither the cameraman nor any of the other people milling about seem to have noticed that they’re here. Taehyung wraps his arms around Jimin from behind and squeezes, holding him close.

“We’re halfway done,” Jimin mutters, sounding like he’s talking as much to himself as to Taehyung. “Pre-recording down. Only the real thing left.”

“Doesn’t feel like we’re halfway,” Taehyung mutters back.

Jimin grips Taehyung’s forearms and squeezes, leans his head back until his head bumps Taehyung’s, resting against each other temple to temple. “We’re so close, Tae-ah. So close to being out there. It’s going to be real.”

“Real,” Taehyung echoes. Even the word sounds strange. Much of what they’re releasing for the first week of their debut has already been completed: they’ve taken the photos, done the interviews, recorded other videos for the fans. Technically, it already is real. Yet Taehyung also can’t help the feeling that a totally new life is waiting to begin the second video of him goes out on TV. They will be on TV, and that is when everything will change.

***

They sing and dance for live TV. It’s exhilarating and terrifying. Taehyung thinks they do well, although some of the other members seem frustrated. They all make silly poses for group photos, thank everyone around the TV studio that they can find to thank, are relieved of some of the heavy costume jewelry by staff and stagehands, and then they’re leaving the building. Just like that.

“Congratulations,” their manager tells them outside in the parking lot, looking each member in the eye before he lets them get in the van. “You did well. You’ve told the world who you are, and now the world is going to take notice.”

***

Before their debut, Taehyung had so much anxiety about being liked; all of the others had been getting mail and comments and tweets about them for months because of social media, and not all of it has been nice. Hoseok had started trying to hide the fact that he got hate mail after it upset Taehyung the first time, but Taehyung knows it still happens. Jimin, too, has gotten negativity, people saying horrible things that Taehyung can’t imagine anyone saying out loud to his face.

Fanmail trickles in in greater numbers after their first music show performance, but not as quickly as Taehyung expected. The reaction, in general, is not what Taehyung had expected. It makes him feel foolish, to realize that on some level he was expecting the whole country to talk of nothing but Bangtan from the second they performed. They’ve been working so hard, and to Taehyung it feels like an unprecedented whirlwind of activity, radio interviews and magazine photoshoots and performances here and there. They haven’t gone on TV other than music shows yet, but apparently Big Hit has designed their own variety show to share with fans what their lives are like, and filming will start next week.

But whatever definitive thing that Taehyung had hoped for to mark his transition from Person to Idol, whatever change he was hoping to experience… if it happens, Taehyung fails to recognize it. Life mostly continues on as it had been, but with more stage makeup and cameras. Not only does their schedule stay grueling, it somehow gets worse, and Taehyung is always half-asleep unless there’s a camera pointed at his face. He doesn’t feel different, more famous or more special. No one stops him in the street to tell him that BTS is their new favorite group or that V is their new favorite idol.

The letter arrives separate from their usual weekly delivery of fanmail, on a random Tuesday when Taehyung wasn’t expecting anything. After an impromptu meeting in the dance studio wraps, one of the managers catches his elbow and smiles at him. It’s the kind of indulgent smile that people usually have before they give Taehyung something he asked for but didn’t expect to get, or surprising him with ice cream or some other kind of treat.

“I didn’t want to wait to show you this,” the manager says, and hands Taehyung an envelope.

Taehyung’s heart jumps up until he can feel it in his ears, beating loud and insistent. He opens the envelope carefully, trying to peel apart the glued edges without ripping it too much. Taehyung is usually a confident person, doesn’t think of himself as having low self-esteem, but he still has to read the letter three times before he comes even close to believing that this is actually about him, directed to him, that this person (this fan!) wrote to him specifically and there hasn’t been some mistake.

V oppa!! I saw you on TV and loved your performance. your stage was so cool and good. I love your hair!!! You have good energy and smile and you make me want to do well so i can see you perform one day. I think you are very cute and I think BTS will do well. Keep going and keep doing a good job. Fighting!!!

It’s short and the handwriting is big and feminine, all the characters written in the rounded style that Taehyung remembers girls always used when he was in junior high. The paper is the kind you tear from a grade school notebook. There are hearts and ‘V’s doodled in the corners. Taehyung reads it three or four times and then presses the letter to his chest, smoothing over the lined paper.

“Thank you,” Taehyung says, looking at the manager. His throat scratches on the words. “Can I keep it?”

He realizes it’s a stupid thing to ask as soon as the words have left his mouth, but something about the letter feels illicit, like he only received it by mistake. Like someone is going to find out and get angry. His manager laughs and then groans, making a show of squeezing his eyes shut and turning his head, looking away.

“Of course you can keep it, my god. No need to give me those big eyes.”

Taehyung wasn’t trying to give anyone anything, and he feels too dazed to understand what the manager means. He says thank you again, and again, and then the manager physically grabs him by the shoulders and turns him around, giving him a gentle push towards the door to leave and join the other members for lunch in the restaurant downstairs.

Later that evening, Taehyung shows the letter to Namjoon. It’s not until he has actually handed it over that he feels stupid about it, that he realizes he is being childish and silly like a boy half his age.

But Namjoon doesn’t act like he’s being stupid. He takes the letter and his eyes widen when he realizes what it is, and his eyes flit back and forth as he reads the short amount of text in a couple of seconds. Then he grins at Taehyung and pulls him into a hug. “I knew this would happen as soon as they saw your face and heard your voice, Taehyung-ah. Congratulations.”

“It’s just one letter,” Taehyung mumbles into Namjoon’s shoulder. It makes Namjoon pull back, frowning and holding Taehyung by the arms like he’s a father or a teacher.

“Don’t say that. It’s a milestone, and it’s good that you’re grateful for the love we get from fans.”

Taehyung takes the letter back from Namjoon and looks at it again. Is ‘grateful’ the word for what he feels? Mostly he has a hard time believing it. And he wants to track down this girl and do something nice for her. It feels awkward to receive something so kind and heartfelt and be unable to give anything in return.

“Hyung, look,” Taehyung says, and turns forty-five degrees to where Seokjin is standing only a few feet away in the kitchen, doing a bad job of pretending not to eavesdrop.

“Oh? What’s that, Taehyung-ah?” Seokjin says, too loud for indoors. “Were you showing Namjoon-ah some homework perhaps? A page from your diary?”

Taehyung groans. Seokjin is so embarrassing sometimes. “Just read it,” he says, and Seokjin is there immediately, snatching the letter from Taehyung’s hand. He reads it quickly, then gives Taehyung a big smile, open and sincere.

“This is great. You’re a man now!”

“Oh my god, stop it.” Taehyung covers his face in his hands while Namjoon laughs.

Predictably, Hoseok screams when Taehyung shows it to him. “I think you destroyed my ear drums,” Taehyung tries to whine as Hoseok squeezes the breath out of him, but his cheeks have begun to hurt from all the smiling.

He has to go to the studio to show Yoongi. Taehyung almost loses his nerve to do it, because when Yoongi opens the door to let Taehyung in he looks more than a little annoyed at the interruption, like he was deeply absorbed in whatever he was working on. Taehyung hands him the piece of paper without preamble, and distracted or not, Yoongi still takes it and reads it with care, like he senses the importance from the way Taehyung is vibrating.

When he’s read it a couple of times, he looks up and meets Taehyung’s eyes. The smile spreads over his face slow but then it doesn’t stop until Taehyung can see all of his gums. “Congratulations, Taehyung-ah. I’m honored that you showed it to me.”

Taehyung thinks someone must have lit a fire in his face, that’s how quickly his ears turn red. “Honored?” he says, and it comes out all weird and breathy. He coughs. “Um. Yeah. Well. I just wanted all the hyungs to see it.”

Yoongi nods. “Yeah. Thank you. You should be really, really proud.”

Taehyung could sink into the floor right now from giddy embarrassment. Or he could float up through the roof, not stopping until his shoulders bump the stars. “Thank you, hyung. Thank you. I…”

Taehyung feels like he should have something better, more serious and mature to say, about being an idol or a professional or even just a man now, even if that was just a joke Seokjin had made. But the words aren’t forming on his tongue. And anyway, Yoongi isn’t looking at him like he expects Taehyung to say more. He’s just standing there, smiling at him, while Taehyung smiles down at the fan letter. It seems like a good sign for the future. It seems like a good sign for everything.

***

“It’s really not hard,” Jimin says, for what is probably the tenth time today. “I was nervous too, but you’re going to be great. Just act natural and friendly.”

“I know, I know.” Taehyung licks his lips. He’s looking at Jimin’s face, but he can see the computer camera in the corner of his eye. It seems weirdly sentient. He keeps expecting it to move.

Jimin reaches up to adjust the scarf that Taehyung has wrapped around his head. “The fans already think you’re cute, so this is just icing on the cake. And it’ll stop feeling weird after a few minutes, I swear.”

“Okay, cool.”

“And it’s not live. We can always edit it later. It’s just for YouTube.”

“Jimin-ah, I know. Let’s just start.”

Jimin smiles at him, his eyes scanning Taehyung’s face with an odd soft expression like he’s looking at a child or a small animal. Taehyung’s impulse is to scrunch his nose or go cross-eyed or do something else to break the tension, because his stomach is jumping around with nerves and he’s been waiting for months to just do this. But he can sit on the jumping bubbles of energy inside him a little while longer, long enough to give Jimin his sappy moment.

“All right,” Jimin says, and leans forward to turn the camera on. He salutes it and Taehyung puts his forefinger and thumb under his chin in his signature pose as Jimin says, “Shall we start?”

It goesfast--Taehyung knew it would, he’s seen enough of these filmed by the other members. The videos are supposed to be short. What’s surprising is how as soon as Jimin turns the camera off, Taehyung remembers absolutely nothing of what either of them just said. Before this, he’d thought so hard about what he would say it and how he would say it, but now it’s like aliens stole his memory or something. Very specific amnesia. Did he open his mouth and just say gibberish for three minutes?

“Your best friend, huh?” Jimin says as he’s clicking around on the video, making basic edits. Looking at the computer screen now, and not at Taehyung.

“Huh? Oh,” Taehyung says, a little of his memory coming back. He’d called Jimin his best friend when they’d introduced themselves for the video. But of course he’d said that. It’s what they are by now, or at least Taehyung thought-

“Is that… wrong?”

“No,” Jimin says, a little too quickly, and then coughs and shrugs like he remembered to try to be cool. “I mean, no, it’s not wrong, I just noticed. That’s all.”

Taehyung bumps his shoulder and then puts his arm around Jimin when he decides the bump is insufficient. “You’re my best friend,” Taehyung says. “And I know I’m yours because we’re together all the time so I know you don’t have time for another whole best friend besides me.”

Jimin is blushing. It’s cute, and though he still won’t look at Taehyung, he doesn’t try to squirm out of Taehyung’s arm the way he does when he’s actually uncomfortable. “Yeah, you’re my best friend too. And it’s good for the fans to know that, I guess.”

“Oh, I hadn’t really thought about that,” Taehyung says. This time Jimin does look at him, with that skeptical narrow-eyed look he gets when he’s trying to figure out if Taehyung is for real. Taehyung looks back at him and waits, but Jimin goes back to editing the video.

The next night, in a rare reversal of their usual schedules and work ethics, Jimin goes out to dinner with Jungkook while Taehyung stays behind to practice with Hoseok. He’d messed up his footwork at their last performance of Attack on Bangtan, and he needs to get it better nailed down.

When Taehyung gets out of the dance studio late that night, he has a bunch of texts from Jimin.

ah taehung-ah


taetae

I’m drunk kekekekeke

I just wanted to tell you that you’re my best friend too

and I’m so happy we’re friends again

and I love you

ah I’m so drunk….. kekekeke

A lump forms in Taehyung’s throat. He doesn’t know why his phone suddenly feels heavy in his hand, like Jimin’s words have physical weight, so much more than pixels on a screen. He doesn’t have to think about what to send back.

I love you too Jimin-ah


my best friend

***

Taehyung has gotten texts from Minjae and his other friends from the party scene to congratulate him on Bangtan’s debut, to tell him that they saw him on TV and he looked great/super cute/silly/whatever, but he hasn’t gotten any news about parties or club nights in a while. His friends know he can’t possibly take time away from the group right now, not even just one night.

But miraculously, even though Taehyung had begun to think that the post-debut breakneck pace of life might never end, things slow down a bit as promotions for No More Dream start to wind down. They won’t have any kind of real break, as most of the material for their next album has already been written and they need to be in the studio recording, but suddenly hours of unscheduled time start popping up here and there. Taehyung ends up with a whole free Thursday evening in his immediate future, and apparently some well-known house DJ is going to play a set at an Itaewon club and the event, his friends tell him, is going to be a very big deal.

Taehyung declines their invitation on reflex, but to his surprise, Yoongi brings it up to him. He pulls Taehyung aside when they’re all walking from the studio to the dorm, telling Namjoon something vague about how he’d promised to buy Taehyung ice cream today, so they’ll catch up with the rest later.

“I’m broke, actually,” Yoongi says flatly after Taehyung has excitedly dragged him into the store. Speaking over Taehyung’s disappointed whine, he adds, “I wanted to talk to you about DJ Rush on Thursday. Are you going? The agreement was that if you’re sneaking out to something like that, you need to tell me about it first.”

Taehyung’s mouth is hanging open and he can’t seem to close it. It’s one thing to know that Yoongi is gay; it’s another thing entirely for Yoongi to know about the same secretive community that Taehyung has found. Do they know any of the same people? How many degrees of separation are there between his hyung and all the boys Taehyung has been kissing? They always existed in two separate universes, before now.

“Are you going, hyung?” Taehyung ducks down a bit to peer at Yoongi’s eyes beneath the fall of his hair, leaning closer when Yoongi scowls and tries to rear back from him. “How do you know about it? Do you go to other things at that club? Do you know my friend Minjae?”

Yoongi wrinkles his nose. “No I’m not going. I’m too old for that shit.”

“You’re two--” Taehyung shakes his head, no, he’s not going to get into the ‘you’re only two years older than me’ thing again. Yoongi is just deflecting. “How did you hear about it then?”

Yoongi just shrugs a shoulder. “Not important. I just need to know what your plans are, if I’m going to cover for you.”

“I--I wasn’t gonna go.” Taehyung blinks and his brain catches up with him, and he glances around the convenience store like the bored, half-deaf ahjussi behind the counter and zero other customers around are going to tell on him, on them. He lowers his voice. “But are you saying I could go? Should I go, hyung?”

“You should stay home where you’re guaranteed not to get into any trouble or fuck up your career,” Yoongi says, sharpness that makes Taehyung wince. He’d walked right into that one. “It’s a stupid risk if you go. But I guess I’m a little surprised that you haven’t taken advantage of that offer I made in a moment of weakness, it was months ago now.”

“There hasn’t been time!”

Taehyung can’t interpret the look Yoongi is giving him now, some hybrid of skepticism, confusion, and just maybe, fondness. “There were still things you could have weaseled out of.”

Taehyung frowns. “It’s not like I was gonna skip out on anything that would have created more work for the rest of you, or made me fall behind.”

It’s Yoongi’s turn to peer at Taehyung now, and he laughs when Taehyung squirms uncomfortably. “Is that maturity I sense, Taehyung-ah? Is my dongsaeng growing up?”

He says it in satoori, and to Taehyung’s dismay he can feel himself blushing. It’s just that Yoongi doesn’t tease him all that often, not the way Hoseok and Seokjin do. Taehyung crosses his arms. “Hyung, come on….”

Yoongi laughs again and reaches out, squeezes Taehyung’s elbow affectionately before dropping his hand. “It would be a bad idea to go, and I don’t endorse it. But it’s your decision. And if you want to tell people that we took the night to work on your rapping, I will.”

“My decision is to go,” Taehyung says quickly, because it’s not like he really has to think about it now that he’s been given the slightest hint of encouragement. “Seriously though, how did you hear about it? Do you ever…?”

“Not anymore.” Yoongi glances around the store and then jerks his chin towards the door, and Taehyung follows him out. “I used to go to things like that sometimes, when I first moved to Seoul. When I first realized I liked guys.”

Yoongi mentions liking guys so casually, yet it thunders through Taehyung’s head, far more impact than soft-spoken words should have on a walk in broad daylight back to their dorm. How can he just say it like that, off-hand, no tension in his voice? “O-oh. Do you ever miss it?”

Yoongi snorts. “The hook-ups? Not really. I got all that out of my system way before signing with Big Hit.”

Taehyung’s criminal imagination immediately fills his head with a thousand blurry images of Yoongi ‘getting it out of his system.’ Taehyung shoves his hands in his pockets and says, “Ah! That makes sense,” a little too loudly perhaps from the way Yoongi glances at him. He hurries to change the subject, asking Yoongi about the producing he’s been doing with Slow Rabbit, and then they rejoin the others at the dorm and it’s dinner time and Taehyung doesn’t get a moment alone until his shower the next morning.

As hot water sluices over the back of his neck and shoulders, Taehyung remembers Yoongi mentioning his lurid past and remembers being flustered over it. But as the water pressure works over his sore muscles and rinses all the sticky product from his hair, he does his best to redirect his thoughts, because his hyung’s (wild?) past with other guys is none of his business to think about, or imagine, or daydream over, or--

Taehyung goes to the party. Or the show, the concert or whatever it technically is meant to be; it feels like everyone at the club is there to dance and grind and disappear off the dance floor in twos and threes, same as the other times Taehyung has been here, but this DJ is supposed to be a big deal and Taehyung is a fellow musician now so he should respect that. He tries to pay attention to and appreciate the music, but abandons that quickly when... well. When a cute boy wants to disappear off the dance floor with him.

Taehyung stays out a little later than he normally would, emboldened by knowing Yoongi has his back. At eleven, he’d texted like he’d promised, saying where he was and that he was fine. Yoongi texted back ok and then everyone knows I’ll probably be in the studio until at least 2 tonight and that was that.

Taehyung gets home around 1:30. He goes to the studio first, then second-guesses himself because what if someone sees him entering when he’s supposed to already be in there with Yoongi? So he texts ahead of time instead, and Yoongi tells him when the coast is clear so that he can come up.

Yoongi looks at him with narrowed eyes when Taehyung slips inside the studio door. “You’ve got glitter on your collar.”

“Oh, shit.” Taehyung tug on his collar and cranes his neck back to try and see the offending glitter, rubbing at his shirt ineffectively. “Uh, is it gone?”

“Useless.” Yoongi shakes his head with a small smile, and gets up from the computer to the couch, where there’s a small and ambiguous pile of--Taehyung thought it was just hoodies, but Yoongi gets a t-shirt from out of there. He gives it a sniff and then holds it out to Taehyung. “Just wear mine.”

It’s one of the jerseys that they’ve been wearing for No More Dream promotions, with Yoongi’s birth year and SUGA on the back. Taehyung takes it, and feels his face redden, though he’s not sure why. They all share clothes all of the time. Hell, half of Jungkook’s wardrobe he stole from Taehyung and Jimin. It’s just the stage name stamped on it that makes it seem special, a little more Yoongi than the rest of Yoongi’s clothes.

Taehyung strips off his glittery shirt and shrugs the jersey over his head. When he looks up, Yoongi has crossed the room back to his computer, fiddling with knobs on the speakers. The tips of his ears look pink.

“I need to finish up this verse,” Yoongi says without looking at Taehyung. “You can chill on the couch, or whatever.”

Taehyung sits. “You’re not going to teach me how to rap, hyung?”

“I’m busy,” Yoongi grumbles. He sits back down at the computer, shoulders hunched. “Practice on your own time.”

“Okay,” Taehyung says. Yoongi glances at him like he didn't expect him to be so agreeable. Taehyung grins back.

Now that he's back, comfortable on the couch and even wearing clothes that are certain to have no incriminating smells or stains, the relief settles in until it feels almost euphoric. Taehyung went out and stayed out and returned without mishaps and now he's with Yoongi, his hyung who's on his side. He never realized how good it would feel to have someone getting his back.

To have someone who knows his secrets.

“What are you grinning about?” Yoongi says, even though he's facing the screen and fucking around with the levels of his song. “Your night was that good, huh?”

“Oh, well,” Taehyung blinks and remembers skin, spit, hands all over him, club music thumping in the background. “Yeah, I had fun. And now I'm here. I don't know. It's good.” And now I'm here and you're here and I'm wearing your shirt.

Yoongi hums and lets the subject drop. “I have to re-record these lines. You want to learn something about rapping tonight, then listen well.”

***

Taehyung still doesn’t enjoy having to be the 4D guy, although he’s long since accepted it. It’s not like that persona is so far removed from the way he can normally be, but in a strange way trying to act like a caricature of himself feels more uncomfortable than if he were trying to act like someone else entirely.

Once when Taehyung is complaining about it, Jimin gives him an odd look and says, “Okay, but do you think any of us feel like we get to be ourselves on camera?”

“I--what? Did PD-nim give you instructions for your role, too? You never said anything…”

Jimin waves that off impatiently. “No, nothing specific like that. But it’s not like I can be just myself on camera. No one wants just Jimin, you know?”

“What are you talking about! I want just Jimin….”

“You don’t count, Tae! I’m talking about our fans, the audience, duh. For them I have to be--I don’t know how to say it. The eyeliner helps. Dressing differently helps. But even without all that I think I couldn’t act like just myself on camera, you know?”

Taehyung doesn’t know, not quite, but he thinks he understands. Jimin doesn’t feel like he fits into their group’s whole concept without things like eyeliner and muscle tees. Maybe, in a way, having to be the 4D guy is a blessing in disguise; Taehyung hasn’t worried much about whether he’s coming off as hip-hop enough, because he has that to try and fit into instead.

He wraps his limbs around Jimin octopus-style and pulls him close on the couch. “You look so cute in the eyeliner and the hats.”

Jimin squirms and then settles against him. “I’m not trying to look ‘cute,’” he grumbles, but lets it go. “Do you see my point through?”

“That I should stop feeling sorry for myself? I got that loud and clear, Jiminie.”

Jimin flicks him in the ear, hard, and yelps when Taehyung pinches him in retaliation. Their cuddle pile devolves.

Filming a reality show is fun. Rookie King is fun, mostly. They were all nervous about it to varying degrees (Taehyung again thought he might be the least nervous, but it still affected him), but it was surprisingly easy to relax and be goofy. Easier than it had been when they were being filmed in the TV studio on that first day, easier than it’s been for the radio interviews they’ve done. Having even just a vague script for the sketches helps some, and knowing that the point is to just be wacky and funny helps some, and they all feed off of each other anyway. It’s a good time and none of the cameramen or directors get very strict with them.

Taehyung tries to be as goofy and weird as he can, and the directors give him positive feedback. And he makes the other members laugh, so hopefully the audience will be laughing, too. A lot of the games they play are fun, even the weird punishments, but some of it is….

“Tae-ah, want to come with me to the store?” Yoongi says from the doorway of the bedroom. Yoongi looks up from the webtoon he’s reading, about to say no, but Yoongi is giving him an intense look that belies the casual tone of his voice. He raises an eyebrow. Taehyung shuts his mouth and gets up to go to the convenience store with him.

“So how are you holding up?” Yoongi asks as they walk the short distance from the dorm to the corner store. At Taehyung’s blank look, he says, “Since the episode we filmed today. The whole kissing thing.”

“Oh, that.” Taehyung hasn’t thought about it much since they wrapped filming for the day. Kissing Hoseok was weird, sure, but it was barely even a kiss. The whole thing had made Taehyung’s skin prickle all over with hot embarrassment, but most of the punishments they had to do for the show are embarrassing.

“It was fine,” he says when Yoongi keeps looking at him, expecting some kind of answer. “I’m holding up fine. It was just TV.”

Yoongi’s eyebrows wrinkle up into a frown. “It was a shitty position to put you in.”

“Hyung, it’s not like I’ve never watched variety before. Idols have to do that kind of thing all the time. You and Seokjin hyung have both had to wear dresses.”

“Yeah, but just because it’s par for the course doesn’t mean it’s great. Not for… well. Not for people like us.”

“Oh. That.”

“Can’t get one over on you,” Yoongi says drily. They’ve reached the store, Yoongi pushing the door open and making the bell jingle over their heads. The cashier doesn’t even look up at them from where he’s reading a magazine behind the counter. Taehyung vaguely wonders if the aisles of this cramped store are going to become their regular spot for when Yoongi wants to talk to him about gay stuff, and he’s about to make this joke out loud when Yoongi continues,

“I wanted to check in with you about it. Because I was involved, too, and I don’t know how you feel about that.”

Taehyung remembers Yoongi’s involvement. He remembers Yoongi standing so close, not even a hand’s-width away while he and Hoseok were playacting about not wanting to kiss. He remembers Yoongi’s hand on the back of his neck, fingers brushing his hair. Taehyung might just remember that sensation better than he remembers the half a second peck that Hoseok gave him on the lips.

“I feel fine about it. I mean. You were just playing along.”

Yoongi looks at him for a long moment, and Taehyung feels studied. It’s a little uncomfortable.

“I was playing along, yeah. All this stuff, the aegyo, the variety. It’s not my favorite thing. I kind of hate it actually.”

“But you’re good at it,” Taehyung interjects.

“I--what?” Yoongi pauses, staring at him. “No, I’m not. Are you kidding?”

Taehyung frowns. “I’m not kidding. You’re good at it, you’re funny! Your whole grandpa routine, I think it works well for stuff like our show.”

Yoongi is looking at him like Taehyung just told him he had two heads. “Uh, okay. If you say so. My point is: I never wanted to do this sort of thing. I didn’t want to be an idol at first because i hated the idea of humiliating myself in front of an audience. But I came around on that, obviously, so now I… I don’t really see the point of resisting it, I guess. Even when we’re asked to do things I find offensive or insulting.”

Taehyung doesn’t quite know what to say. He feels dumb that Yoongi has put so much thought into this, and is saying such smart things about it, when Taehyung has just been going along with things. Should he have been offended by the kiss scene with Hoseok? When they did it, he hadn’t been thinking about the other times he’s kissed men; Taehyung had put that in a box outside of his thoughts as soon as he realized what the punishment was going to be, the same he tries to keep it in a box outside of himself at school, onstage, and most places that aren’t the parties he goes to. It’s not like it had been hard to pretend to be as viscerally grossed out by the kiss as everyone else was. He’d just fed off the energy of the room.

“Yeah, I feel the same way,” Taehyung says, hoping that it’s not obvious in his voice that he hasn’t thought deeply about it like Yoongi has. He doesn’t want Yoongi to think he’s dumb, or doesn’t care about things like this.

“I think I get too into it sometimes, because I’m trying to leave my shyness behind when we have to do dumb shit,” Yoongi says. He places a hand on Taehyung’s arm, and Taehyung is more startled by the touch than he should be. “If I crossed a line today, I apologize. I should have been more careful. Trying too hard for the cameras because I was uncomfortable is no excuse.”

Taehyung swallows. Is the cashier looking at them now? No, he’s still reading his magazine. It’s just Taehyung who’s looking everywhere but at Yoongi’s serious face. “You didn’t, hyung. It’s really okay.”

Yoongi nods and mercifully drops the subject, turning away from Taehyung to look at the refrigerated side of the aisle. He walks past the rows of gimbap to the alcohol.

“Hey, Tae-ah, you want a beer?”

Taehyung feels his eyes bug out in his head. “Uh, what? Really? I mean, yes! I think!”

Yoongi smirks at Taehyung over his shoulder. “It’s nice to want things.”

And then he leaves the store without buying nothing, leaving Taehyung to sputter with indignation in his wake.

***

It’s a little bit strange how things don’t just come to a stop after they release their first mini album and wrap promotions for it. Putting out their first release had felt like the most incredible accomplishment, and it’s weird to realize that only a couple months later, they have to turn around and do it again.

“Ugh, I can’t believe it just becomes a routine,” Taehyung complains--whines--to Hoseok one night in October, when promotions for their second mini album were finally slowing. Taehyung is splayed on his back on the living room floor, while Hoseok is primly curled up in a chair radiating disapproval for Taehyung’s floor-lying ways. It’s true that no one has vacuumed for a while. “It’s like--we basically killed ourselves for debut, like it was just so hard and so much work, you know? And it felt like the hugest thing. And we just did that again, and they want us to get to work on the next album soon, and…”

“And it just becomes normal?”

Taehyung frowns and nods, and jumps when Hoseok reaches out his bony leg to prod him in the ribs where he’s ticklish.

“I forget how young you are sometimes,” Hoseok says. “Yeah, everything becomes routine if you keep doing it. Duh. That’s just life.”

“Thank you, o wise 19-year-old,” Taehyung mutters, and has to wriggle away when Hoseok digs his toes harder into his side.

One of the ways their lives have changed since debut is that birthday celebrations are for their fans now, not just for each other. It was more than a month ago now, but they all still feel terrible about how Jungkook’s birthday prank turned out, even if Jungkook immediately forgave them for it and they all did everything they could to make it up to him afterward. They didn’t need to be told to celebrate Namjoon’s birthday in a more low-key way--even without the disaster of Jungkook’s birthday, none of them thought for a moment that Namjoon was the type of person who would enjoy a big party for himself, let alone a party that was filmed. They all tweet their pictures imitating him, and he writes a long blog post for the occasion, in typical Namjoon fashion.

The blog post Namjoon writes gives Taehyung an idea for what to do for Jimin’s birthday. It feels important to do something special: he still remembers Jimin coming to see him for his own birthday even though (as he’d confessed over the summer, during one of their late-night whisper sessions, crowded in the same bunk even though the apartment heat made sharing body heat far too sweaty and stifling) at the time Jimin had been convinced that Taehyung hated him. They’re best friends now, and when Taehyung thinks back to his birthday last year it seems like it happened in a different lifetime, not less than a year ago.

Taehyung doesn’t have money to buy anything big. But he has the picture they took together at his party last year, and he has his social media platforms, and when he thinks about Jimin and what he means to him, he realizes he has a lot to say.

Taehyung’s impulse is to ask one of the hyungs to help him write it. He’s not great with words. But he doesn’t want Jimin, or anyone else, to think that what he has to say came from anywhere except directly from his heart. Even if the whole thing comes off as clumsy and embarrassing, hopefully Jimin will still take his meaning.

On Jimin’s birthday, he posts the picture to the fancafe and writes a post to go along with it. He tries to talk about how proud he is of Jimin, how much he’s seen him grow in the past year, how much he appreciates him and how much every single person in the world should love him as well. He feels silly when he reads it over, but he doesn’t want to think about it too hard because he’s afraid he’ll lose his nerve, so he posts it.

In the morning, he wakes up groggily to Jimin climbing onto his mattress, shoving him over closer to the wall to make room. “I can’t believe you,” Jimin hisses in Taehyung’s ear as Taehyung muzzily protests. “You gave me no warning! You said all those--things!”

“You upset?” Taehyung manages to get out. Sleep is doing its best to pull him back under, especially with Jimin’s comforting weight at his back.

Jimin sighs, and presses a dry kiss to Taehyung’s ear. “No. I love you too. See, I can say it outside of katalk.”

“Sure you can,” Taehyung says, and falls back asleep.

***

Last year when December rolled around, Taehyung had been going crazy with how badly he’d missed his family and his home. The previous year had been even worse. But now--Taehyung still misses his family, of course he does, but it’s not like he’s sick of the other members. He’s not looking forward to leaving them for an extended break, and it's going to feel strange to leave Seoul, too.

They've been calling each other family in interviews, because well, it’s part of the standard idol group script. But it also feels true. In a strange way Taehyung feels like he's grown up with all of them, and when they refer to each other as brothers it doesn't feel like part of any kind of promotion.

Their schedule continues for Seokjin’s birthday, and they spend most of the day in the recording studio. But when they wrap that and head to dance practice, their choreographer surprises them by bringing wine.

“Oh, because I drive you to drink, right?” Seokjin says, laughing as he accepts the gift. But he bows deeply, murmuring a more serious thanks that Taehyung can't hear across the room, but it makes their teacher beam.

This time Taehyung is given more alcohol than he got at their last group celebration. They drink in the studio, and their managers and other staff leave them alone to party with as much responsibility as they can manage. Seokjin calls dibs on the playlist, as it’s his birthday, but the songs he chooses are just the same ones they’re all used to dancing around to anyway.

Taehyung feels liquid and lighter than air, which is maybe what being drunk feels like, but he also thinks it’s just a side effect of the energy in the room. Seokjin is such a spirited, celebratory person, so it makes sense that on his birthday he’d get them all in a better mood than usual. The slight gap in their schedule, their Rookie of the Year award, the surprise gift of soju: it all comes together in the seven of them laughing, smiling, dancing silly just for the fuck of it. Taehyung jumps on Jungkook’s back experimentally and is thrilled when Jungkook can actually carry his weight.

“This is my first birthday since we debuted,” Seokjin declares, following the example set by Jungkook, Namjoon and Jimin. He laughs high and loud, pouring even Jungkook a second glass, and Taehyung clinks his against Jimin’s to make the sound ring out, almost hard enough to shatter the glass across both their hands.

At some point he feels good enough while dancing to space out a little bit, no longer directing his body so much as it’s directing him. His heart rate is going pleasantly fast, his blood hot and skin warm all over, and he feels himself start to move in a different way. His hips flow into the side-to-side swing that’s closer to the kind of dancing he’s learned to do at all his parties, rather than the relatively neutered and precise choreography that gets drilled into his head a thousand times over for their performances.

Taehyung feels a pang of weird nostalgia and longing even though the last time he was at one of those parties was just last week. Maybe it’s the sudden realization of how fleeting those opportunities are, that someday soon he will be too busy or too famous or too old; that he can justify it to himself as youthful indiscretion, but only to a point. Or maybe it’s the desire to share what he’s experienced and who he’s becoming with the people in this room, his second family, six of the most important people in the world and six people who don’t know him nearly as well as they think they do. It has started to feel natural to Taehyung to keep part of himself back, but in the champagne-fueled clarity of this moment it doesn’t feel natural at all: it feels like it’s compressing him down into the street when all he wants to do is grow towards the light.

One other person in this room knows Taehyung as well as he wants to be known. Taehyung’s eyes scan the room until he finds Yoongi standing in a corner, cringing at all of them like he wasn’t hunched over goblin-style with his arms windmilling to nothing approaching a beat just thirty seconds ago. He meets Taehyung’s eyes and groans and laughs, as if Taehyung looks particularly silly, and Taehyung laughs too. He gravitates to Yoongi’s side like it’s nothing, like space isn’t any kind of real constraint, and then watches himself curiously as his hips keep swinging back and forth, the kind of dance move that doesn’t make much sense unless you’re holding someone else by the hip.

Yoongi goes along with it, laughing and easy, like Taehyung is doing something cute. For a few measures they’re no longer adjacent bodies in the same room, they’re dancing with each other, face-to-face with only a handspan and a few breaths separating them. Taehyung watches as their hips sway, as their groins press against the air between their bodies. Thoughts blur through his mind: He’s getting taller than Yoongi. Yoongi isn’t dancing like he has a hurt shoulder anymore. It’s possible that they both learned to dance this way by dancing with other men.

Yoongi peels away, still looking more amused than anything else. Taehyung backs off too, before Yoongi can do something awful like ruffle his hair or coo at him. He doesn’t know why that would feel awful right now. He doesn’t know why his stomach is suddenly jumpy, his breaths coming shorter. He turns around and plasters himself to Jimin’s side, knocking him off-balance and earning himself a sharp jab to the ribs and a quick scuffle.

Taehyung doesn’t think about Yoongi or that moment with him again until the night is long over, and he’s face-planted in his bed surrounded by the sounds of the other members falling asleep. He has the start of an erection going for some reason, which is making it hard to resist humping the mattress, and possibly the lingering effects of alcohol are affecting his self-control as well. He presses his hips carefully down, knowing he risks getting mercilessly made fun of if anyone happens to glance at his bunk right now, but it’s worth it for the zing of warmth that tingles through him.

That’s when he remembers dancing with Yoongi, and looking down to watch Yoongi’s hips and his slender legs, Yoongi’s shoulders and chest and neck close enough to grab if he were to reach out. Yoongi moving in a way that was sexy, in a way that for almost no time at all seemed like it was just for Taehyung.

The mental image combined with what Taehyung is doing spooks him enough that he rolls over onto his side and smashes his face into his pillow and tries to get tired really fast. Weirdly, it works, and Taehyung falls asleep quickly and thoroughly, and in the morning he’s forgotten that thinking about Yoongi had turned him on. He remembers the half a minute of dancing, though. He remembers the excitement of Yoongi’s attention on him, and he remembers noticing that it felt exciting to have Yoongi’s attention on him, and he doesn’t know what to do with that.

This year Taehyung won’t be home on his birthday because of the end-of-year awards. But they do still get a short break in December to be with their families, only a few days, enough time to go back to Daegu and catch up on sleep and then come right back. Yoongi and Taehyung will be taking the same train, along with Jimin and Jungkook on their way home to Busan. There’s no reason for Taehyung to feel strange about it.

He hasn’t spent much time around Yoongi in the days since they danced together. Since Taehyung noticed himself noticing Yoongi. It shouldn’t change anything, shouldn’t make Taehyung nervous at the prospect of taking this train together. There’s no reason for Taehyung to be nervous around any of the members, not when he’s so used to their faces and voices and smells and moods. There’s no reason for any of that to be different with Yoongi.

And for the most part, it isn’t: they head to the train station together with Jimin and Jungkook, and Yoongi lets the three of them talk amongst themselves, occasionally jumping in with his own opinion or to tell them they can’t do whatever it is they were considering doing. Yoongi seems tired. They’re all tired, of course, but Yoongi seems too tired to care much about conversation this morning.

On the train, the four of them put on headphones and Yoongi falls asleep almost immediately, pulling his legs up on the seat and letting his head rest against the train window. When Yoongi sleeps he looks smaller than he does when he’s awake, like the stubborn grit of his personality makes him literally larger than life. Right now he’s swamped by his black hoodie, and a beanie covers the top half of his face with a mask over the rest. His legs are so skinny. Looking at them makes Taehyung want to reach out and test if he could circle Yoongi’s whole shin with one hand.

When Taehyung realizes he’s been staring, he shifts in his seat until he’s situated sideways and facing the window, sitting obnoxiously with one knee bent up on the seat. It’s not like anyone noticed him looking for too long, but it’s still embarrassing. And Yoongi must have been disturbed by his squirming, because he opens one eye sleepily, reminding Taehyung of a cat or a sleepy dragon.

“You’re not sitting right,” Yoongi mumbles, both eyes open now, blinking slow.

Taehyung coughs and clears his throat. “Neither are you.”

Yoongi’s smile shows in his eyes, even though his mouth is hidden by the mask. “It looks uncomfortable.”

“It’s not.”

“Mm. Suit yourself.” Yoongi shifts and settles further back in his seat, his hands coming up now to hug his knees. His long fingers have ragged cuticles, bitten and torn. Taehyung thinks about reaching out to touch, maybe taking one of those hands in his and warm it up, maybe running his thumb over Yoongi’s knuckles. Maybe kissing the parts of Yoongi’s hands that make it clear how hard he is on himself.

There’s no way to unthink a thought once you’ve had it.

“Wake me up when we’re home,” Yoongi says, closing his eyes again. Taehyung mumbles an acknowledgment and turns back to the window. He puts his headphones in and he closes his eyes, but he doesn’t truly listen to any of the songs that shuffle on, and he remains wide awake the whole way to Daegu.