When Namjoon was in grade school, he was a little bit cocky. High IQ, good grades, mixtapes that had a surprisingly big following on SoundCloud.
He was ready to get out of Ilsan, move to Seoul, and start his life. He had friends who planned to stay forever in Ilsan, who wanted to find a nice girl and get married. Now, Namjoon didn’t begrudge them at all for wanting that, but back then he might have been a little too vocal about how his life was going to be big and exciting and theirs, well, weren’t.
He was going to be famous. He was going to shake up the music industry. Rapper, producer, he wanted to do it all.
When he went back home now and caught up with former classmates, they forgave him his youthful arrogance asked what he was doing. And every time he answered, they said,
“Oh wow that must be your dream job.”
And every time they did, he lied.
He didn’t blurt out that now he understood that actually life is just an endless stretch of drudgery in order to stay alive in order to do more drudgery until you died.
He didn’t say that life was miserable. He didn’t say that he, Namjoon, was miserable.
No one wanted to hear that, and he was more than a little ashamed of it. So he lied.
His supposed “dream job” working for one of the biggest entertainment companies in the country was nothing like how he thought it was going to be. Sure, he got to produce music for some of the hottest idol groups in the country. He got to go to industry events and rub elbows with celebrities. He had G-Dragon’s number in his phone.
And it really had been what he wanted to do, what he went to school for, what he was good at—making beats, writing lyrics, telling a story. And he didn’t even mind making music for other people to perform, that wasn’t the problem. That had always been part of his plan.
But it was monotonous, formulaic, calculated. It felt more like he was making music only for profit and not for the music, like he was creating a product and not a song. He had to consider markets and sales trends in the industry, along with giving consideration to accompanying choreography he never could have done himself in a million years. And he worked with a whole team of people just to get one song, not all of whom he saw eye-to-eye with. The worst part, though, was that in the end he rarely liked any of the songs enough or felt like he contributed enough on them to feel proud about having his name on the credits.
It paid the bills, but it also drained him of any of the energy he wanted to have leftover to make his own music, his own raps, his own mixtapes.
It was starting to get hard to go into the studio every day.
So that’s why he was taking a walk in the park by the river near the company offices in the middle of the morning on a weekday, telling the other producers he was taking an early lunch.
The thing he liked best about the park was that in the middle of the day it was sparsely populated. And in February it was even more so. It had warmed up just enough that it wasn’t biting, but it wasn’t yet to that point of Spring thaw when you could smell the dampness of the earth ready to come alive again.
It was the perfect weather for contemplating how his life got to be something he used to want and now resented with nearly every fiber of his being, and how there was no way out because his only real life skill was using Cubase.
He was briefly but not seriously considering if it would be a good idea to just fling himself in the river and see what happened when he noticed a figure in the distance in a long puffy coat who was standing all alone and very still.
Namjoon immediately felt a kinship with them, imagining them to be another lonely person at the river for looking for comfort from the river in the middle of the morning in late February.
He decided to walk in that direction. He didn’t need to talk to the person or even make eye contact. He just wanted a few moments of anonymous kinship.
When he got closer, he was even more intrigued. The figure was a man, and he was bundled up an unreasonable amount, so much so that Namjoon couldn’t really get a good look at him. But he wasn’t staring out into the abyss of the river like Namjoon had been doing. He had his head tilted at an odd angle like he was listening for something. Then he shuffled a few steps to the left and tilted his head again. He did a couple more times, and it was so intriguing that Namjoon had to ask. Unfortunately, he had no finesse.
“Excuse me, but um, can I ask what you're doing?”
The man startled.
“Sorry,” Namjoon said. “I thought you saw me.”
The man pulled his scarf down from his face. He was a lot younger looking than Namjoon expected. In fact, he was kind of cute.
“I knew you were there. I just wasn’t expecting you to talk,” he grumbled.
“Again, I’m sorry,” Namjoon said. “It was nosy of me and I just—"
“I’m collecting sounds,” the man interrupted, as if that was an even remotely normal answer to Namjoon’s question.
That’s when Namjoon noticed that the man was carrying an old, portable reel-to-reel tape recorder. And that, well, that was even more intriguing.
“Do they still make tape for those?” Namjoon asked kneeling down beside the machine.
The man’s face lit up a little, and he proceeded to show Namjoon exactly how the recorder worked, telling Namjoon about the old school record shop that kept him stocked in recording tape but how he had to order the splicing tape he liked from Germany.
“I’m Namjoon,” Namjoon blurted out after the explanation, after the man answered all of Namjoon’s questions that he interrupted with.
Yoongi smiled back, and that’s when Namjoon realized that he felt more alive talking to Yoongi, a stranger, than he had in months, maybe years.
“You know a lot about recording,” Yoongi said.
“Oh, um, I’m a producer over there,” Namjoon replied sheepishly, pointing in the direction of his company’s building.
“That makes sense then. That’s cool.”
“No, it isn’t. I hate it,” Namjoon blurted out, surprising even himself with how he said it. He’d never actually uttered those words out loud to another human being before. “The reason why I’m walking around today is because I was having a mental breakdown about having to layer three kick drums together for a sample that’s going to end up in some trance knockoff that no one is going to notice because it’s in a song being performed by a bunch of hot 20-somethings in ripped jeans.”
Namjoon was flailing his arms a little as his rant wound down, and he realized that maybe he shouldn’t have just unloaded all of that on a man he had just met. In fact, Yoongi’s face was contorted into something that looked like horror and Namjoon felt terrible for complaining about what really was in theory a good job. It paid the bills anyway. And at least it was in the industry that Namjoon thought he still wanted to be in.
“You layer three kick drums?” Yoongi asked. “But you’d have to do so much filtering to get that to work. Can’t you just find a kick drum sample that works as is? I mean, you’re already going to have to add snare and hi-hats and claps for a trance beat. Why give yourself more work?”
Namjoon almost laughed. Of course it was the technique that was making Yoongi’s nose wrinkle in disgust.
“I know, I know. It’s terrible. I hate myself, believe me. But somehow I never have the kick samples that have the right character. It’s my lot in life.”
“What’d you do in a past life that punished you by making you layer kick drum samples.”
“Probably kicked puppies, which is awful. I love puppies.”
“Well, I guess if you love puppies then at least you’re probably not a serial killer,” Yoongi muttered.
“Wait. You thought I was a serial killer?”
“I’m worried about the way you create beats. It’s borderline psychotic. There’s a better way, Namjoon.”
Namjoon felt the laughter bubble out of him before he could stop it.
But then Yoongi was laughing, too. and Namjoon felt his heart doing that annoying thing where it started beating a little faster. He tried to avoid that feeling, but Yoongi’s laugh was rough, like it was underused, and when he stopped laughing his expression softened as he looked at Namjoon.
“Do you want to help me collect sounds?” he asked.
“What kind of sounds exactly?”
“The river, the wind, the birds, people walking, dogs barking, the traffic. I want to capture the atmosphere of this spot.”
“Okay,” Namjoon said.
“Don’t you want to know why?”
“I mean, that seems like kind of a personal question. I don’t just go around asking men I just met why they’re collecting sounds with a reel-to-reel at 11 in the morning on a Wednesday.” Namjoon was teasing. He hardly ever teased. He hardly even recognized himself. Somewhere inside him, under all the disappointment at where his life was and the self-loathing, there was a sense of humor, the ability to flirt, to take those rare little moments of joy that life held, to want to share them with other people.
“It’s Tuesday,” Yoongi said.
“Oh fuck is it really?”
“You really do hate your job, don’t you?”
“I mean, it’s only hurting my soul,” Namjoon said with a shrug.
Yoongi shot him another soft, sympathetic look as if he cared that Namjoon, a man he had just met, was miserable. Namjoon was fairly certain that everyone he worked with, his friends, his family, knew that Namjoon was unhappy, but they never looked at him like that, like it mattered that Namjoon was miserable.
He knew how it looked on the outside. He had an amazing job in the music industry, a song he produced won a Korean Music Award. But he was compromising so much of himself to do it, and that misery had bled out into every other aspect of his life. And he hated himself for it.
And Namjoon could just tell that Yoongi somehow seemed to get that. Only a really kindred spirit would get it, would see that there was a difference between making music and making music .
Namjoon didn’t know how he got to this point. Sometimes he wondered if he was happy when he was the overachieving kid from Ilsan. He felt so far away from who that person was.
“I’m making an album,” Yoongi said. His voice went soft as he said it, a little shy. And he looked cute all of a sudden, vulnerable.
An Namjoon understood that, too. Whenever you created something, there was some piece of you in it, and sharing it meant exposing that raw, vulnerable part of yourself that you were giving away in it. It was a scary feeling but an invigorating one. And Namjoon didn’t feel it anymore with the kind of songs he was producing.
He missed it.
Maybe he didn’t miss the person he was, but he missed the person he always wanted to be.
And this man in front of him, Yoongi, was like a beacon of hope that maybe he could get back on track toward being that person.
“An album of sounds?” Namjoon asked.
Yoongi looked curiously at him.
“Have you ever heard of the Sounds of the Sea recordings?”
“Those obscure recordings that the US Navy did in the 1960s of snapping shrimp and catfish?”
“Of course he’s heard of the Sounds of the Sea recordings,” Yoongi muttered under his breath again, so quietly that Namjoon almost missed it.
“Yeah, so, I’m not doing that exactly,” he said louder. “But it kind of gave me this idea. I wanted to capture Seoul in an album. I came here when I was 16 to get out of Daegu to make music, and, shit, it’s nearly broken me a few a times, but I love it—the people, the food, the culture, even the smog. It’s my home. It’s part of me now. And I just wanted to capture that, the sounds of my favorite places to make a tribute to them.”
Namjoon’s jaw dropped.
“You think so?”
“That’s—wow. I’ve never heard anything like that in my life.”
“I hear music everywhere. I always have. In the traffic, the river, the sizzling of barbecue. I just wanted other people to hear it, to hear what I hear.”
“I can’t wait to listen to it,” Namjoon blurted out. “I mean, when it comes out. No pressure.”
Yoongi grinned at him. And Namjoon was momentarily blinded. Somehow he knew that the smile wasn’t one Yoongi used on just anyone.
“I’m not going to say I don’t have a bunch of half-finished projects lying around, but I feel pretty good about this one.”
“Is it multiple songs or like one big concept?”
“Songs,” Yoongi said. “I have a few mostly finished. Today I’m recording the sounds for background music. I wrote a song about the river while I was standing here.”
“How long have you been standing here?”
“About twenty minutes.”
“And you wrote a song? In twenty minutes? My god.”
“I mean, it’s not fully fleshed out, but I need to record the river and the wind and your footsteps coming toward me or it won’t be the same.”
His footsteps? Oh Namjoon was even more intrigued.
“Do you want me to go back and walk toward you again?” Namjoon offered.
“Of course,” Namjoon replied.
So he did. He spent the rest of his very extended lunch hour in the park with Yoongi, who gave him his business card—with his personal number written on the back—and told him to come by his studio if he was free later that week. To see what happened to the sounds they collected.
* * *
Namjoon couldn’t stop thinking about Yoongi and his reel-to-reel and his sounds and his album about Seoul, even as he layered his kick drum samples that afternoon and applied filters and felt his soul shriveling up again inside him.
The way Yoongi just intuitively seemed to know what sounded right, like he really did hear music in everything. He knew what key the birds chirped in and car horns blared in.
And when he was really getting into his explanations of where to position the recorder, his whole face lit up and he was just so beautiful, so alive. Namjoon had forgotten what that was like, to care about something so much it that it consumed you in a good way, in the way that made you want to get up in the morning to do it all over again.
It was like Namjoon had turned into a zombie somewhere along the way. It was like working in music was making him hate music.
Yoongi even gave Namjoon a hug before they parted.
“Because it looked like you need it,” he said.
“Oh,” was all Namjoon replied dumbly.
He did need it.
And he couldn’t help but think that maybe he needed Yoongi, too.
And that was a little bit terrifying.
When Namjoon fell for people, he fell hard. He obsessed a little, wanted to impress them. It was everything after the falling that he was unsure about, not good at.
It was like all his insecurities surfaced any time someone liked him back, and he was incapable of just being with another person. He second-guessed himself and got paranoid he wasn’t good enough. He turned into someone he didn’t like and managed to fuck things up without even realizing it until it was too late.
There was something about Yoongi that was immediately calming, grounding, but also exciting, interesting. He hung out in parks with a tape recorder in the middle of the day and didn’t give a shit when people looked over at him like he was a nutcase.
It was like he was the exact opposite of Namjoon, painfully aware in social situations where he didn’t fit, work functions where he knew everyone hated him while he desperately wished they didn’t.
He liked Yoongi—but he couldn’t afford to like Yoongi and risk pulling him into the whirlpool of disaster like everything else he touched. He didn’t want to start something and then fuck it up like he always did.
He also wasn’t exactly sure that Yoongi liked him back.
“I met my soulmate today,” Namjoon announced to Hoseok as he barged into the choreography office after he finished for the day.
“Hmm?” Hoseok asked noncommittally. He was watching something on his phone. Hoseok was always on his phone.
“Pay attention to me. I met my soulmate.”
“I don’t know how that’s possible because Rainer Maria Rilke is dead, but okay,” Hoseok said as he looked up at Namjoon with a thoroughly unimpressed look.
“Very funny. He’s a musician.”
“Of course he is. Namjoon, you’re the most predictable man in the world. Which of our competitors does he work for? Is this going to be another Jackson situation?”
“No this is not going to be another Jackson situation.”
The Jackson situation was admittedly very bad, shouting matches in the hallways bad, Jackson almost ending his contract bad, and Namjoon almost getting fired bad.
It was why Namjoon was working with idol groups and not hip-hop groups anymore, sacrificing the music he really wanted to make for the good of the company. Jackson was too good to let go, and he was just a little bit better than Namjoon, so Namjoon had offered and the company—and Jackson—had accepted it.
They gave Jackson a studio on a different floor, moved Namjoon to the worst studio in the basement that all the idols hating coming down to for vocals, and that was that. The basement matched Namjoon’s feelings about the whole ordeal, about the job itself.
“It’s really not,” Namjoon emphasized.
Hoseok’s face was skeptical.
And that was fair. Namjoon hadn’t exactly been the best boyfriend to Jackson and Jackson hadn’t been the best boyfriend back. It was a toxic situation all around. And Hoseok was there through all of it, partly because he was the lead choreographer for two of the company’s boy groups and couldn’t escape it, and partly because he was one of Namjoon’s only two friends at work and his roommate since Namjoon moved to Seoul.
“Jackson and I were clearly very wrong for each other.”
Hoseok gave him another unimpressed look.
“What? What’s that look?”
“Nothing. It’s nothing,” Hoseok said, putting his hands up in a gesture of surrender.
It was something, but Hoseok and Jackson were still on friendly terms, so it was a subject Namjoon and Hoseok just kind of agreed to never talk about. But there was something there that Hoseok wasn’t saying.
“Okay, but you’re the one who says I should date,” Namjoon said.
“No, I’m the one who says you should stop moping around the apartment every weekend. That does not necessarily mean dating.”
“Well I might have plans this weekend. Can you try to be a little happy for me? You know I have a hard time making a good first impression on people.”
“That’s an understatement.”
“And anyway, I’m not going to date him. I doubt he’s even into men.”
“Well, something happened that made you burst in here and say he’s your soulmate.”
“It could be because he’s the only person who has been nice to me without feeling obligated to in years.”
“I think I resent that a little.”
“I didn’t mean you. But come on, I know I have some blind spots, but I’m not totally unaware when people are nice to me because they think they have to be because of my job.”
“Seokjin’s nice to you.”
“Seokjin is literally the nicest person I’ve ever met other than you. You guys probably never even fight.”
“We really don’t.”
“How? Doesn’t he ever get on your nerves?”
“All the time! But that’s who he is, and I love the idiot, annoying parts and all.”
“Does not compute,” Namjoon said in a robot voice.
“You’re not a robot, you’re just emotionally stunted.”
“I feel like I should be offended by that,” Namjoon said.
But it was kind of true. Okay, maybe a lot true. And anyway, Namjoon didn’t have the slightest clue how to read Yoongi.
“I’m not sure if he was flirting with me or if he is my platonic soulmate, but I think I’m already half in love with him, and I have to make myself stop because I’ll fuck it up somehow.”
That made Hoseok sit up straighter. Namjoon hadn’t even told Jackson he loved him, and they dated for over a year.
“Half in love? Already?”
Namjoon nodded miserably.
“Wow. Okay, tell me about this guy.”
Namjoon grinned at Hoseok.
“I thought you’d never ask. He has a voice like sandpaper and he pulls music out of the air like magic.”
* * *
Namjoon did end up going to Yoongi’s studio that weekend.
They had been texting back and forth during the week, though Yoongi wasn’t a very good texter. He took a long time to answer, his replies were short, and he never used emojis. Namjoon figured it went along with the whole reel-to-reel thing. He was probably a hipster type who eschewed technology. He probably kept notebooks full of song lyrics on a bookshelf.
But Yoongi smiled brightly when he opened the door for Namjoon, and suddenly Namjoon didn’t care if Yoongi was a hipster who hated television and acted like he didn’t know who Light Yagami was. He revealed his gums when he smiled and he looked so soft in a giant hoodie and skinny jeans that, try as he might to resist, Namjoon knew in the back of his head that against all better judgment, he was a goner.
“Here it is,” Yoongi said. “Welcome to my life.”
He led Namjoon around proudly, first to the tiny office with a coffee pot and a mini-fridge full of Red Bull, then pointed out where the toilet was, and then into the recording space.
The studio was pretty small, absolutely nothing like the studio he worked in, and Namjoon loved it immediately. It wasn’t sterile at all. There was no chrome to be found. In the recording booth itself there were heavy rugs on the floor and eggshell foam stapled to the walls and ceiling for soundproofing. It felt like a cave.
There was a Gretsch kit set up in the booth and an old upright Yamaha sat in the corner. In the rest of the recording room there were random percussion instruments strewn around on every surface, a few guitars were sitting in stands next to a giant desk that held the console, and there was a Telecaster mounted on the wall, along with a mandolin, a banjo, and a stringed instrument that Namjoon had never seen before in person.
“Is that a lute?” he asked.
“I was experimenting,” Yoongi said shyly.
“Experimenting to become a bard?”
“Something like that,” Yoongi grinned.
“Do you have a harpsichord around here somewhere too?”
“No, but I do know a harpsichord player if you need one. She’s the best.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Namjoon said.
The analog mixing console Namjoon was expecting, and the multitrack deck, but there was also a computer, a digital mixing board, a midi controller.
“I wasn’t expecting a computer,” Namjoon blurted out like an idiot.
“You thought I was a hipster, didn’t you?”
“Um, maybe,” he mumbled.
“I mean I’m working with tape on the sounds of Seoul project, but I record digitally, too. But even then I prefer to record in the studio than use samples.”
As he said it, he raised an eyebrow at Namjoon.
“So if you need a kick drum sample?”
“I’ll just record a kick drum, yeah.”
“I’m not a serial killer even though I don’t play drums,” Namjoon insisted.
“On the scale of 0 to serial killer, being a drummer would actually nudge you closer to serial killer, don’t you think?”
“I mean, drummers do have the kind of precision that a serial killer needs,” Namjoon mused.
“If it’s a good drummer,” Yoongi quipped.
“So do you play? I mean, not just drums but do you play all of these?” Namjoon waved his hand around the room at all the instruments.
“I mean, I don’t play the Tele except on very special occasions, but yeah I can play all of them. I usually have friends who come in and play on my albums though, because it gets to be too much otherwise, you know?”
Namjoon nodded absently as he tried to quash his bubbling insecurity.
He couldn’t really play any instruments. He was a digital music guy through and through. He usually didn’t mind, because it didn’t matter when you could sample and when you worked with some of the best studio musicians in the country. But when he met people like Yoongi he always felt like an imposter. Like he wasn’t a real musician since he couldn’t play the piano. He could read music, but that was only because he had to as part of his degree program.
Yoongi was looking at him, and Namjoon realized that he was waiting for Namjoon’s opinion, his approval. Yoongi called the studio his life, and he was revealing it all to Namjoon, who didn’t at all deserve the responsibility of someone’s life.
“I like it,” Namjoon said. “A lot. I like this so much better than layering kick drums.”
“Yeah. It feels like you can really make things here, you know? Like the ghosts of songs past will help you, because the cleaning lady who comes in at midnight didn’t throw them all away when she emptied out the bin to make it nice and disinfected for the next day.”
Yoongi was staring at him.
“I’m projecting again, aren’t I?” Namjoon asked.
“A little bit, yeah.”
“It’s okay, Namjoon. I get it.”
And the thing was, he was pretty sure Yoongi did get it.
“So what’s the next step with the sounds from the river?” Namjoon asked.
“Um, well, I started mixing everything we recorded on the multi-track and came up with the backing track. The next step is to record the instruments and vocals over it.”
“Can I hear it?” Namjoon asked.
He realized what he was asking as soon as the words were out of his mouth, like all his brain-to-mouth filters disappeared in the presence of Yoongi. It was one thing to help Yoongi collect sounds. To ask to hear a partially finished song was a question of intimacy. It was like asking, can I temporarily hold your heart?
Part of Namjoon was hoping Yoongi would say no.
He wasn’t sure he could hold Yoongi’s heart without squeezing it too hard.
Instead of denying the request, Yoongi took the Telecaster down from the wall and plugged it into an amp, strumming a couple chords and adjusting the tuning.
The air in the studio suddenly felt thicker.
“I thought you only played the Telecaster on very special occasions,” Namjoon said.
“Maybe this is a very special occasion,” Yoongi replied quietly.
Then he went over to the tape deck and pressed play.
The first thing Namjoon heard was the river. And suddenly Namjoon was transformed back to that day at the park. He heard his own footsteps approaching, he heard the birds and the quiet din of the distant traffic. He closed his eyes.
And then Yoongi started strumming his Telecaster with a melody that let the sounds of the river float in and out. Like the melody was the river and the guitar was just flowing along with it.
The music filled him up, and even though Namjoon was there that day, he was now experiencing the river park in February through Yoongi’s perspective. It wasn’t the sad lonely walk that Namjoon took that morning, it held joy and promise.
Yoongi didn’t have lyrics, but his low voice followed the melody with a series of “da”s. And his voice, his voice ran down Namjoon’s spine and made him shiver as the last notes rang out.
“Wow,” Namjoon whispered.
Namjoon opened his eyes, and Yoongi was staring at him. His pupils were blown and he was looking at Namjoon like Namjoon mattered, like he wanted Namjoon’s opinion, like this was something important to him and he was welcoming Namjoon to hold onto his heart.
Yoongi licked his lips.
Namjoon didn’t mean to kiss Yoongi, not really. He was trying to not fall for the other man, to not get swept up in something he knew he wasn’t at all prepared for.
It was just that the music was so beautiful, and Yoongi was looking at him in that way, Namjoon had to do something, so he took three steps forward and cupped Yoongi’s face in his hands.
He searched his eyes for few moments, finding what he needed, finding want, and then closed the distance between them.
Yoongi’s lips were rough, but his skin was smooth under Namjoon’s fingertips as he moved to hold the back on Yoongi’s neck to deepen the kiss, pushing his tongue between Yoongi’s parted lips.
He tried to move in closer, wanting to feel Yoongi against him, but the Telecaster was in the way.
The zipper of Namjoon’s jacket hit the strings, making a discordant noise that snapped them out of the moment. Though the air still felt thick.
“Do you want to produce it with me?” Yoongi asked as they made a little space between them.
“The Seoul album?” Namjoon replied, startled.
“But I’ve never worked with tape.”
“I’ll teach you. You’ll pick it up fast. I think you’ll like it.”
“You don’t know if I’m any good at producing,” Namjoon tried. It was a terrifying offer. Because Namjoon did, very much, want to help Yoongi with his record, wanted to hear Seoul through Yoongi’s ears, wanted to learn from him how to do something that wasn’t layering kick drums.
“You work for one of the biggest entertainment companies in the country. I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t hire you if you weren’t good. You probably went to school for this shit.”
“Ugh, I did,” Namjoon said. “You don’t have to rub it in.”
“Rub what it in? It’s great that you went to school. I wish I could have gone to school, but I couldn’t afford it.”
“But it’s less, I don’t know, authentic,” Namjoon said, still wanting, but not wanting, an out.
“It really doesn’t matter how you get into it. We’re all obsessive assholes who got way too into The Solutions and had a regrettable Bukowski phase at some point.”
Namjoon laughed at that.
“Okay that’s true.”
“Music finds us,” Yoongi said, softer. “If I had a choice I would gone into finance or something responsible.”
Namjoon's jaw dropped a little. He actually hadstarted in finance and finally had to transfer because he was so miserable. If he needed a sign to solidify his connection to Yoongi, that was it.
“I probably have a clause in my contract that says I can’t, you know, produce for another label.”
“Quit your label.”
“I need income.”
“Tragic necessity,” Yoongi replied. “I can’t offer you big three money.”
“I can still help,” Namjoon said, finally caving in to what at this point felt inevitable. “Just unofficially.”
“Okay then, do you want to go out with me? Collect more sounds while on a date maybe?”
“Yeah, yeah, let’s do that.”
* * *
Yoongi had been joking about Namjoon quitting his label.
At least, Namjoon was pretty sure he had been joking.
But Namjoon thought about it seriously. He thought about it a lot. He made decent enough money that he wouldn’t be destitute if he quit. He and Hoseok had been roommates for years even though they could now both afford to live alone. Namjoon knew that Hoseok and Seokjin had been talking about moving in together, but they both liked their apartments and both men were very stubborn.
And Namjoon secretly thought that Hoseok stuck around for Namjoon’s sake. He worried about Namjoon not eating or doing laundry or slipping and falling when he fell asleep in the shower.
But it wasn’t like Yoongi was offering him a job. Namjoon wasn’t sure if Yoongi’s studio made any money. He could have looked into the financials, but it felt invasive.
He also wasn’t entirely sure that Yoongi was real. Seeing the financials of his studio and the independent label would bring the whole mysterious thing he had going on, and Namjoon wasn’t ready for the reality to sink in.
So he was moping on the couch Sunday morning when Seokjin emerged from Hoseok’s bedroom.
“Don’t you have a whole bedroom for brooding?”
“The couch is more comfortable.”
“Well lift your stupidly long legs so I can sit down.”
Namjoon bent his legs to accommodate Seokjin, but as soon as the other man sat down, he set his feet down on his lap.
“I’m not rubbing your feet. I’m not Hoseok.”
Hoseok gave great foot rubs.
“Where is Hoseok?” Namjoon asked.
If Hoseok had been there, Seokjin never would have slept so late.
“On Sunday morning? They work those kids like machines.”
“Tour coming up,” Seokjin replied sadly.
“Oh, right. Sorry.”
“I’m used to him leaving now. It’s just a few weeks in Japan.”
“Are you going to meet him for any of it.”
“Not this time,” Seokjin said with a sigh.
They sat in silence for a moment.
“He loves his job,” Seokjin said. “He’s the only person I know who loves their job.”
“It’s sick, isn’t it?”
“That’s why I can’t tell him how much I miss him when he travels.”
Namjoon would never say anything to Seokjin, but the other reason Hoseok insisted on living with Namjoon at their place was so Seokjin could stay there when Hoseok traveled and not be lonely.
The two of them were ridiculous.
And Namjoon secretly wanted their kind of ridiculous. He just didn’t ever seem to get there.
“So why are you brooding?”
“I had one of the most intense experiences of my life yesterday,” Namjoon started.
“Fisting?” Seokjin asked calmly.
“Why would you go with fisting ?”
“It’s an intense experience!”
“How would you know?”
Seokjin didn’t respond, just stared Namjoon down with a wry look on his face.
“You have not. Hoseok would have told me.”
“Hey, I got around before I met Hoseok,” Seokjin huffed.
Namjoon still didn’t know if he was being serious.
“Doesn’t it, I don’t know, hurt like hell?” he asked.
“You have to use a lot of lube.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“It wasn’t fisting,” Namjoon said.
“Well then I’m all out of guesses,” Seokjin replied.
Seokjin could be absolutely absurd, but Namjoon liked that about him. Hoseok tended to be over-serious, and Seokjin balanced him out. They balanced each other out. Namjoon never really thought of a romantic partner as someone who could pull you out of your head until he saw the two of them together.
“Did Hoseok tell you about the guy I met?”
“Your soulmate?” Seokjin teased.
“I don’t appreciate your tone.”
“What? That’s the word you used.”
Namjoon glared at Seokjin, but replied to him anyway.
“He played me a song yesterday. The song I helped him with in the park.”
“That was the intense experience?”
“And then I kissed him.”
“I’ve never felt so drawn to someone before. I can’t even describe it. And I don’t know. He’s just so cool.”
“Cool like aloof? Or cool like Mario?”
“You are literally the only person who thinks Mario is cool,” Namjoon groaned.
“Hey! He rocked the stash all the way through the 2000s when everyone else was clean-shaven. Tell me that’s not cool.”
“Fine. He’s cool like Mario. He might also be cool temperature-wise. Even inside he was kind of bundled up.”
“Is he an Eskimo?” Seokjin asked.
“I don’t think you’re supposed to use that word. And no. But he was bundled up in a hoodie that was so big for him it gave him sweater paws.”
“You know,” Namjoon said as he demonstrated, pulling the sleeves of his hoodie over his hands. “And his hair was so soft.”
“Wait. How do you know about his hair?”
“Um,” Namjoon said.
“And you said you weren’t fisting.”
“I really don’t want to know how your mind works. My hand touched his hair during the kiss.”
“Oooh. So, you’ve established that he’s not so much a platonic soulmate then.”
“He kissed me back until I ran into his Telecaster.”
“A Telecaster is a guitar.”
“Sure it is.”
“It is! Fender designed it in 1950.”
“Was it a bad kiss then?”
“Help me out here then,” Seokjin said, exasperated. “Shouldn’t you be happy and not brooding on the couch?”
“He makes me want to quit my job.”
“That’s a hell of a kiss.”
“It was,” Namjoon agreed. “But it was the whole thing. Him, his studio, the work he’s doing. I want that. I want to be a part of that.”
“And,” Seokjin prompted.
“You know me. I’m a disaster. I don’t want to push myself in there, into his life, and ruin it. Ruin my career. Ruin him. Have him hate me.”
“Don’t you usually go to Hoseok for these kind of things?”
“Hoseok is always afraid of hurting my feelings, while simultaneously mocking me for not having feelings.”
“You have feelings, Namjoon,” Seokjin said. “You just don’t know how to deal with the scary ones.”
“I know. How do you do it? How do you decide to take that chance with someone? With your life?”
“Do you want my advice?”
“About my job or about Yoongi?”
“His name’s Yoongi?” Seokjin asked.
“About Yoongi, then. I’m not qualified to give professional advice. I hate my job more than you do.”
Namjoon didn’t think that was humanly possible. But it was surprising to hear Seokjin say it out loud. He almost never complained about it. But then, sometimes he would come into the apartment and go straight for the alcohol stash that definitely wasn’t Hoseok’s. And he did growl at his phone when checking his email a lot.
“But I have successfully navigated a relationship with Hoseok for five years. And I was scared as hell when I realized I loved him.”
“Really?” Namjoon asked. The two of them made it seem so easy.
“Of course. It’s always scary. But I’m not going to give you advice if you aren’t going to take it.”
“I’ll take it.”
“I’ll try to take it.”
“Okay, that’s fair,” Seokjin said. “So here it is: Be honest. And be kind.”
Namjoon looked at him for a moment, waiting for more.
“Yes. To Yoongi. But also to yourself. If you’re compatible? That’s all you need for it to work.”
* * *
For Namjoon and Yoongi’s sound recording date later that week, they went to KwangJang market. They wandered around a little bit at first and talked, trading off carrying the reel-to-reel.
Yoongi jumped right in to the hard stuff. He was so straightforward, Namjoon didn’t really know what to make of it at first.
“When I first started therapy, my therapist would give me homework assignments. To make me get out of the house,” Yoongi explained. “I used to live around here, so she would tell me to go to the market and give me a scavenger hunt, like buy something red and something blue. The next week it would be eat something spicy.”
“That’s a really interesting form of therapy,” Namjoon said.
“Well, part of the way my depression works is that everything becomes dull around the edges. I stop seeing color. Food tastes bland. I can’t make music. It’s, well, I know it’s really bad if I can’t make music. But if I can awaken the other senses, then I start to hear music again.”
“That sounds awful,” Namjoon said. “Like being cut off from the world.”
“Yeah, that’s exactly what it’s like when it gets bad.”
“Thanks for being open it,” Namjoon said tentatively.
“We’re always taught to be ashamed about everything that makes us not seem perfect or the best, and it’s bullshit.”
Namjoon nodded. It was almost too much to hear Yoongi say it. It broke the illusion he had been carrying that Yoongi was perfect, but somehow it made Namjoon like him more. Maybe they were two flawed people. Maybe Yoongi wouldn’t mind that Namjoon was awkward and bitter. Maybe it was okay that Namjoon wasn’t perfect.
“I work with idol groups,” he said “I see the struggle to be perfect every day.”
“What a life, man. I feel for those kids. I’ve had a couple former trainees come through my studio. It messes them up.”
“Yeah. And it’s not my place to say anything because I just record them, I don’t manage them, so I have to pretend I don’t notice when they’re exhausted or hurt.”
Yoongi shook his head sadly.
“So tell me more about what you work on. You can’t possibly hate everything about your job.”
Namjoon froze. He stood for 20 seconds in silence while Yoongi watched him curiously, waiting, like he wasn’t going to take nothing for an answer.
“I don’t always hate the music I’m making,” Namjoon said finally.
“Well that’s good.”
“I guess,” Namjoon started. “I guess I like pop music because it can reach a lot of people. And some of the songs I’ve worked on have a positive message for young people.”
“That’s really important,” Yoongi said, smiling at Namjoon. “They might not get a good message from anything else.”
“That was one of the reasons I didn’t mind switching,” Namjoon replied.
“Switching?” Yoongi asked.
And Namjoon realized his mistake. He felt like he already knew Yoongi even though this was only their third meeting.
“Oh, I used to work with the hip-hop groups, but I had to transfer because of a, uh, personal conflict.”
“Were you fucking one of the rappers?” Yoongi asked, eyes wide. “Which one?”
“Damn. Some hot as fuck rappers come out of your company.”
“They’re all straight. At least, that I know of.”
“That’s a shame.”
“Yeah, I know. But no, I was in a relationship with another producer. And it wasn’t a great situation. And oh god I’m talking about an ex on a first date. That’s like the cardinal sin of dating.”
Namjoon could feel himself turning beet red, hoping against hope that Yoongi didn’t ask any follow-up questions. He didn’t know how to explain what went wrong with Jackson. The way Hoseok always tiptoed around the subject made him pretty sure that Jackson had some pretty horrible things to say about him. And he wasn’t so sure they weren’t undeserved.
“We can call you coming to my studio the first date and this the second if that would make you feel better,” Yoongi said instead.
“Did I ruin my chance at another one?”
“Of course not. We all have baggage. I have mental illness and an ex-girlfriend who stalked me for two years.”
“I had to get a restraining order.”
“Yeah, one time she hid in the trash bin out behind my studio. She was unwell.”
“How long did you date?”
“Just a couple months.”
Namjoon had so many questions, but not likely any that wouldn’t be offensive in some way, so he did something he wasn’t good at doing and swallowed those questions.
“Well, I probably won’t fit in a bin,” he blurted out instead.
Yoongi burst out laughing. And Namjoon felt like he avoided a potential disaster.
“Oh!” Yoongi stopped dead in his tracks
“What?” Namjoon said, nervously.
“Here. I like the sound of the scissors cutting cloth.”
Namjoon paused and started listening, it was a nice sound.
“We’re probably going to have to ask her so we can get the mic closer,” Namjoon said.
Yoongi didn’t hesitate, just walked right up to the woman while carrying the reel-to-reel. Somehow she looked delighted at the idea and cut various fabrics for them for a solid 15 minutes. Yoongi got her name and promised that he would give her a copy of the album when it came out.
Once they were out of earshot, Namjoon had to ask,
“How did you do that?”
“Get her to help so easily.”
“I have an honest face. I want some sounds of the food vendors for the bridge, are you hungry?”
“I am. Wait. For the bridge? I thought you didn’t have a song for this place yet. Are you writing a song right now?”
“I came up with the melody when she was cutting the silk.”
“How are you real?” Namjoon wondered out loud.
“I spent a lot of time here. It’s like the songs are kind of just waiting for me to take them. I guess when you write songs for your job it’s a lot different.”
“When I write them for idol groups it is.”
“You must have written your own songs at some point.”
“Oh well yeah, I was a rapper for awhile. I had a Soundcloud and everything.”
“Did you go by Namjoon?”
“No,” Namjoon said meekly.
“Oh no, how embarrassing was it? I used to go by Gloss if it makes you feel any better.”
“Well at least that makes sense because of your name. Mine was stupid.”
“You have to tell me now.”
Namjoon wasn’t exactly embarrassed by his old work. It was pretty good for a teenager, but he hated the name he chose for himself, and as soon as he got his current job, he took everything down from the internet. There wasn’t anything really tying it to him, but you never knew.
“It was, uh, Runch Randa,” he admitted.
“Wait. You’re Runch Randa?”
“Holy shit,” Yoongi replied. “Holy shit I don’t believe it. I’ve been looking for you for years .”
“You disappeared from YouTube and Soundcloud like five years ago, and I wondered what happened to you. Wondered if a label snapped you up. I loved your stuff. The word play was incredible and the metaphors. Like the idea of your life being scribbled lines that are partly erased.”
“You liked that?”
“I have still have downloads of your stuff on my computer.”
Namjoon wanted to go hide in embarrassment. He’d had a decent following back then, nothing like his friend Zico, but decent. He never thought that his songs really made an impact on anyone, though, especially not so much that they remembered them years later.
“I don’t even know what to say. I wrote all that stuff when I was pretty young.”
“You might have been young, but that doesn’t mean anything,” Yoongi said. “Your lyrics were really smart.”
“You had this way of criticizing the world in ways that wasn’t your standard teenage angst. It was like there was a part of you that wanted to make the world better, too.”
“Wow,” Namjoon said, feeling a little dazed. “That’s probably the nicest thing anyone has ever said about my music.”
“Well, I mean it.”
Namjoon never got to write music like that anymore. He missed it. He missed being that kid who thought he could make the world better.
Yoongi seemed to get that he had struck a nostalgic nerve, so he quietly asked if Namjoon was ready to eat.
They headed toward the food stalls where there was a throng of people pushing through all the aisles. They found a small corner where a woman was frying bindaetteok and Yoongi couldn’t help but record it, until Namjoon’s stomach started growling so loudly he was worried that it would get picked up on the recording.
Yoongi relented and they ordered some of the bindaetteok and then wandered around, getting kimchi dumplings and pajeon and galbitang. They found a spot at a counter and sat down to eat.
Namjoon was too busy eating to engage in much conversation and it was almost too loud to hear each other anyway, but after they finished, Yoongi wanted to go back and take another lap of the fabric stalls where it was quieter.
“Can I ask you something?” Namjoon asked as they walked.
“Why tape? Why not bring a digital recorder and collect the sounds that way? You could get more tracks. It’d be easier to mix.”
Yoongi shook his head.
“Tape is alive,” he said.
The way he said it, with so much reverence, so much feeling, hit Namjoon like it knocked the wind out of him.
“Alive?” Namjoon asked, needing more information, wanting to pull every last idea out of Yoongi’s head if he could just for a moment see the world the way Yoongi did.
“Well, what is tape? It’s just a strip of plastic. But you take sound, you take those pressure changes in the air and convert them to an electric current and to a magnetic field, and then you put that magnetic field onto the tape. It’s a real, tangible thing. It’s a force. When you play it, it moves. 1s and 0s aren’t alive.”
Namjoon couldn’t argue with that.
“And before you say anything,” Yoongi added. “I like digital music. You can get really great sounds you can’t capture on tape. You can get things precise and neat. But this is for Seoul. I’m trying to capture the city that gives me life, that saved my life, I had to do it in a medium that’s also alive.”
“I really want to kiss you again,” Namjoon replied.
Yoongi flashed him the smile that made Namjoon weak.
“I’d like to kiss you again too.”
But they couldn’t, not out in public, so Namjoon settled for grabbing Yoongi’s free hand and giving it a squeeze.
* * *
Namjoon always had a good ear, always loved music, always had something playing at all times. Growing up you would never find Namjoon without headphones on. He asked for expensive Beats headphones from his parents when he was 12 years old, and they made him do extra chores for half a year before he “earned” them.
He listened to everything—a lot of hip-hop, but also pop, gugak, rock. He liked the way music made him feel, the way it made all the other thoughts in his head go away or quiet down. He didn’t have to worry about being tall and awkward, about not being popular, about his parents fighting over money. None of it mattered when he had music in his ears.
But over the years he had stopped listening to music for aesthetic reasons, like when a melody was beautiful or because a lyric really struck a nerve.
He had started listening for trends—trap beats, Latin beats, baroque pop. And there was a part of him that still liked being able to pull apart a popular song, tease out the components.
But it was a cold, mechanical process now.
Yoongi had so much passion for music in him that it was overwhelming just being around him. Namjoon wasn’t sure he ever felt like that or remembered what that felt like. But seeing Yoongi get so excited talking about tape, it made him want to feel something again. He wanted into Yoongi’s world.
It also made him feel extremely inadequate.
He was trying to figure out a bridge for a song that one of the boy groups was supposed to have a dance break to when there was a knock on his studio door.
“Come in,” he called.
“Hey, I have the vocal tracks for—are you okay?”
It was Taehyung, his only other friend at work. He liked working with Taehyung. He had actually gone through idol training but ultimately decided that he’d rather stay behind the scenes. He often did backing vocals, providing deep undertones to the sometimes very thin vocals of the idols.
“Hmm?” Namjoon asked.
“Well, you’re lying on the floor in the middle of the room,” Taehyung explained.
“I’m trying to feel the beat to figure out what it’s missing. I thought lying down might help.”
Taehyung laid down on the floor next to him.
“What are you doing?”
“Feeling the beat.”
So they lay there in silence, listening to the beat Namjoon had come up with.
“You aren’t a dancer are you?” Taehyung asked.
“Oh god, no.”
“It’s missing the fun,” Taehyung said. “Dancing is supposed to be fun.”
“Fun?” Namjoon echoed weakly. “I don’t think I know anything about fun.”
“That’s really sad, hyung,” Taehyung replied.
“I know,” Namjoon said, sitting up.
“Are you okay?”
“Not really,” Namjoon said. “But I got a glimpse of what okay might look like and it’s freaking me out a little.”
“A glimpse? Like a vision?”
“What? No.” Though he thought about the way that Yoongi guided him through the KwangJang market. “I mean, not really. Kind of?”
“You’re being vague here.”
“Sorry,” Namjoon said helplessly.
“It’s okay. I think if you had it all sorted out, you wouldn’t be here lying on the floor of your studio trying to write a dance beat.”
Taehyung was always oddly perceptive, and Namjoon wasn’t sure he was entirely happy working there either. Everyone complained about their job to blow off steam, but sometimes Taehyung’s steam seemed to come from a place of resentment.
“Can I ask you something personal?” Namjoon asked.
“Do you like working here? Like, is this really what you want to do?”
“Oh,” Taehyung replied. “I didn’t think that’s what you were going to ask.”
“What did you think I was going to ask?”
“I don’t know. Generally when someone wants to ask a personal question it’s about sex.”
“I have absolutely no interest in your sex life.”
“Well, I’ve kind of been seeing this couple that—”
“I really don’t want to—”
“They’re both dancers.”
“Imagine being sandwiched between two sets of washboard abs. And holy shit are they both flexible.”
“Okay, that’s—I mean, I still didn’t want to know that, but I’m sure that’s great. For you.”
“But, back to, um, working? Are you happy here?”
“Well, I’m not not happy, not the way you are, but this isn’t going to satisfy me forever, you know? I have a lot of things I want to make and to do. It can be a little stifling here.”
“What else do you want to do?”
“Photography. I don’t have enough for an exhibit yet, but it’s always been a dream of mine. I paint, do work in mixed media, too. I’d like to have a farm, maybe back in Daegu. Raise honeybees. Sometimes I think—well nevermind.”
“No, tell me.”
“Are you sure? Because I don’t mean this to be offensive. I’m dragging myself more than anyone else when I say this.”
“I won’t be offended.”
“Sometimes I think we people behind the scenes feel like we failed at ‘making it.’”
It might not have been true for everyone, but it was definitely true for Namjoon.
“I wanted to be a producer,” Namjoon said. “But only after I gave up the idea of being a performer.”
“Why did you give up on it?” Taehyung asked.
“I figured out from a pretty young age that most people just don’t seem to like me. I don’t have that thing that draws people in that you need to be a successful performer. You have it, you know. You make friends wherever you go.”
“I hated performing, though.”
“Well I’m sure if you ever break into the art world, you’ll get a lot of fans.”
“Yeah. You have that je ne sais quoi.”
“I wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true.”
Taehyung stayed with him that afternoon and helped him find the fun in his beat. It wasn’t the worst afternoon of work Namjoon had ever had.
* * *
Namjoon didn’t know when he was going to see Yoongi next. Yoongi had apologetically told him that his brother had roped him into helping him move over the weekend and that he probably wouldn’t have time to collect any sounds.
Hoseok was still out of town, and Seokjin had decided to go see his parents, so Namjoon was left to his own devices, which meant marathoning web cartoons in his pajamas all day on Saturday. Seokjin texted him on Saturday yelling at him to go outside.
He was surprised to get a text from Yoongi on Sunday asking if he was free to meet him at a cat cafe that wasn’t all that far from Namjoon’s apartment.
Namjoon tried not to seem too eager in his response, but he responded twenty seconds after he got Yoongi’s text.
He got dressed and was out the door in 10 minutes.
Since the cat cafe was nearby, he got there before Yoongi. And since it was starting to rain, he went ahead and went in.
He told the owner that he was paying the entry fee for two people and then ordered a latte and had them hold onto his card for Yoongi’s drink.
He wander through the cafe a little, heading for the giant window seat covered in cushions along one wall. There were probably thirty cats in the room, sleeping on tables and in little cat beds all along the floor. He stopped to look at two all-gray cats that were curled up together. They seemed to sense him hovering over them and woke up, so he sat down on the floor beside him and started petting them, scratching behind their ears.
“Those two like belly rubs,” a familiar voice said behind him.
Namjoon whipped his head around to find Yoongi looking down at him fondly, holding a cup in his hand.
“You paid for me,” Yoongi said.
“You’re welcome,” Namjoon said, smiling back, the butterflies in his stomach fluttering.
He stood up awkwardly, not knowing if he should kiss him or hug him.
“I was going to sit over there before I got distracted,” Namjoon said. “The owner said they’ll come sit on your lap.”
Yoongi smiled at him again, and the butterflies fluttered harder.
As it turned out, cats loved Yoongi. As soon as they settled in the window seat, three cats immediately came toward Yoongi. He greeted one of them by name.
“So you come here a lot?” Namjoon asked.
“I used to more often, but I try to come a couple times a month.”
“What is it about this place in particular?” Namjoon asked.
“When I first moved here, I had to leave my dog back in Daegu with my parents, and I tried going to dog cafes, but it just made me miss my dog more.”
Namjoon’s heart melted a little.
“I get it,” Namjoon said. “My dog is with my parents. Honestly the only reason I visit them as often as I do is to see him.”
Of course, then they had to take out their phones and show each other pictures their dogs. Yoongi’s dog was named after the holy water from where he was born and was an adorable poodle mix that like showing off his belly for belly-rubbing purposes.
“I like cats just as much as dogs, so I got to know this place pretty well,” Yoongi said. “I don’t know if it will be good for recording, since meowing isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing sound. But I wanted to try.”
“There’s also the espresso machine and the chorus of ‘aw’s every five minutes.”
“Well, that’s mostly you, though.”
“They’re really cute,” Namjoon huffed.
“I like the ‘aw’s,” Yoongi replied softly.
That was when two cats came up to Yoongi and curled up in his lap. Yoongi used both hands to scratch behind their ears and under their chins. They both started purring so loudly that Namjoon had to record it.
“I think you can make purring work,” he said, after one of the cats decided she’d had enough.
While they finished their coffees, Yoongi talked a little about how the splicing worked, how he could cut out the best sounds from whatever they recorded if they got anything good.
“So you don’t always write the song along with the sounds? Sometimes you write it after?”
Yoongi nodded his head and said, “Yeah, I go both ways.”
And then he immediately blushed.
“That’s, uh, good to know,” Namjoon replied. “I mean, about the songwriting process. I know some people always do lyrics first or music first. But I, um, go both ways, too. Depending on how I feel.”
Namjoon was pretty sure he was blushing, too, but luckily another cat decided then to come up to Namjoon, tentatively putting a paw on his leg.
“Aren’t you pretty,” Namjoon said to the long-hair. As if she heard him, she finished her journey and settled in Namjoon’s lap.
He started stroking her fur. When he looked up, Yoongi had his phone pointed toward him, taking a picture.
“Sorry,” Yoongi said. “I couldn’t help myself.”
“Was it a good shot?”
“You have to let me take one of you with the cats after she moves and I can reach my phone. I’m trapped here forever now.”
The cat, who, according to the cafe owner, was named Sheba, gave a yawn and repositioned herself, burrowing further into Namjoon’s lap.
“Did you know that cats are a sign of rebirth?” Namjoon asked Yoongi.
“No, but I guess that makes sense with the nine lives thing.”
“Yeah, they used to be a symbol of good luck here until the stray population exploded and they basically became an invasive species.”
“My neighbors get mad at me because I feed the strays that come around the back of my apartment building.”
“It doesn’t seem fair when human beings are the far more invasive species,” Namjoon replied.
“That’s what I told my neighbor. She wasn’t impressed.”
“Humans have decided what to call invasive based on their own comfort, totally forgetting that we’re a part of this whole planet, too,” Namjoon asserted.
“Exactly. We’re still a part of the natural world whether we like it or not,” Yoongi added.
“That’s what I used to think about music,” Namjoon said. “That it was a part of the world like a living thing. That’s why I like what you’re doing so much with this sound project.”
“I used to think that music was all inspiration. Like it just came to you like a gift from the muses,” Yoongi replied. “But I don’t think that’s quite right anymore. It just is everywhere.”
Namjoon loved it, loved the way Yoongi said it with so much conviction and passion. Namjoon could almost believe him, wanted to believe him. But instead, he blurted out,
“Now I think of music as calculated and cold.”
He meant to make it sounds like a joke, but it didn’t come out that way.
“You should quit your job,” Yoongi replied.
Namjoon didn’t think Yoongi was teasing anymore. But it just wasn’t that easy. So Namjoon changed the subject.
“Is that a Maine Coon?” he asked, pointing to a giant cat sitting in the corner that he hadn’t noticed when he first came in.
“It is,” Yoongi answered. “His name is Tae-Hui.”
“Very fitting,” Namjoon said. “I always kind of wanted a Maine Coon.”
“He’s really friendly. Ask the owner if you can give him a treat and he’ll be your friend for life.”
So Namjoon befriended Tae-Hui, and Yoongi took another series of pictures of him, this time dancing with the Maine Coon.
Namjoon told Yoongi he lived nearby, and after they had their fill of cats, he offered that they could go back to his. He didn’t really have an ulterior motive, but as soon as they were through the door, Yoongi was pulling him down for a kiss while simultaneously taking off his shoes.
“I have wanted to kiss you all day,” Yoongi murmured against Namjoon’s lips.
“God, me too.”
Namjoon walked them back to the sofa. They barely broke apart, their legs tangled together as they fell sideways onto it. Kissing Yoongi was as intense as it had been the first time, intense like the man himself. He kissed with his whole body, his hands went from tracing lightly up Namjoon’s arm to tugging at his hair and Namjoon couldn’t get enough. Yoongi moved his lips to Namjoon’s neck, pressing featherlight kisses against his skin until Namjoon couldn’t take anymore and grabbed the back of Yoongi’s neck.
“Tease,” he muttered.
Yoongi laughed into his shoulder before bringing lips back to the front of Namjoon’s neck, sucking hard like he meant it.
“Fuck, Yoongi,” Namjoon groaned.
How could kissing make him feel like he was about fall apart into a million pieces?
They were still making out on the sofa when Seokjin came home unexpectedly early from his parents’ place.
“Seriously, you have a bed, in a room, with walls” Seokjin said in lieu of a greeting.
Namjoon groaned and buried his face in the crook of Yoongi’s neck.
“I’m Seokjin. Namjoonie’s roommate is my partner. You must be Yoongi.”
“I am Yoongi,” Yoongi replied as he untangled himself from Namjoon and nodded politely at Seokjin. “Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you, too. Is Namjoon treating you well?”
“Seokjin,” Namjoon scolded.
Seokjin waved Namjoon off.
“Namjoon’s a mess, but he’s Hoseok’s and my mess, so I’m just checking to make sure we don’t need to knock some sense into him. He likes you.”
Yoongi was kind of staring at Seokjin like he wasn’t sure what was happening, and Namjoon felt like he was watching a car crash. He sat there frozen, willing Seokjin to shut up.
But Yoongi recovered quickly and said, “Namjoon has been great. Ten out of ten would go out with again.”
Seokjin nodded once sharply.
“Good. Well, if he does need the sense knocked into him just let me know.”
“Sorry for barging in. Are you guys going to fuck? Because I can leave and come back later if you want the place to yourselves. Or I can just wait it out in Hoseok’s room with some noise cancelling headphones.”
“To be honest you kind of spoiled the mood,” Namjoon said drily.
“I should be going anyway,” Yoongi said. “I told my brother I’d help him set up his home theater. He wants surround sound even though he literally only watches shitty zombie movies.”
So Namjoon straightened his clothes, and walked Yoongi out of the building.
“I’m sorry about Seokjin,” he said.
“He seemed like he wants you to be happy.”
“He does. He adopted me as his younger brother even though he’s the youngest in his family and clearly needs more home training.”
“Well, I did promise my brother I’d come back at a reasonable hour. Thanks for meeting me today.”
“I had a good time. I liked the last part a lot especially.”
“Me too,” Yoongi said, as he planted another lingering kiss on Namjoon’s lips right in the doorway of the building. “Let’s do it again.”
“Yes,” was all Namjoon managed to stutter out.
* * *
Hoseok came back early from Japan.
The group had their trainer with them and danced like a well-oiled machine, so Hoseok asked to come home early. He would never say it was because Seokjin had been having a hard time at work and was particularly needy.
He barged into Namjoon’s studio, with a “surprise,” but he had a box of the Japanese white chocolate butter cookies that Namjoon loved, so Namjoon didn’t complain about his lack of knocking etiquette.
“You texted me that you were coming back early. This isn’t a surprise.”
“Do you want your cookies or not?”
Namjoon put his hand on his chest.
“I mean, wow! What are you doing here? I’m so shocked.”
“Two out of ten,” Hoseok replied, but he did hand over the box of cookies.
“How was Japan?”
“Fine. Had a good time with the backup dancers. Drank too much sake. Missed Seokjin.”
“You drank sake?”
“It was not my finest moment, I’ll be honest.”
“Okay, this requires an explanation.”
“It was nothing. You know how I get when I drink.”
Hoseok was a serious person, but normally a very happy one, full of so much energy he didn’t know what to do with it half the time. When he drank his serious side got a lot more dark. It was the exact opposite of nearly everyone else Namjoon knew. It was like Hoseok’s version of being reckless was being sad.
“I might have Facetimed Seokjin while I was sitting with the cats that lived outside our hotel.”
“That doesn’t sound that bad.”
“It might have been near some dumpsters. And I might have scared some of the hotel staff half to death.”
Namjoon couldn’t help it and started laughing.
“The cats understood me,” Hoseok sniffed. “And Seokjin said we could get a cat. I mean, if you’re okay with it. Though it can mostly live at Seokjin’s place if you’d rather.”
Namjoon thought about Yoongi and the cats at the cafe and smiled.
“I would be fine with a cat. Maybe two so it doesn’t get lonely.”
“Does this agreeability have anything to do with a certain person and a certain cat cafe?”
“You were very opposed to the idea of a cat when I suggested it a few months ago.”
“I’m allowed to change my mind.”
“Mmm hmm,” Hoseok replied. “So is this three dates now?”
“They’re kind of working dates.”
“Seokjin said he caught you making out on the sofa.”
“We were in the neighborhood,” Namjoon said weakly.
“Kim Namjoon,” Hoseok scolded.
“A few weeks ago you were barging into my studio saying you met your soulmate and now you don’t seem excited about it at all.”
“I am excited about him,” Namjoon said. “He’s amazing. He’s smart and ridiculously cute. You should have seen the way the cats flocked to him like he was Snow White in the forest.”
Hoseok was smirking at Namjoon.
“It’s official,” he said.
“I’ve never seen you like this. I didn’t think you could be like this. You’re smitten .”
“I am,” Namjoon said, burying his face in his hands. “Ugh, I am. I hate having feelings.”
“It’s good to have feelings. You don’t need to hide them.”
“I’m going to fuck it up. It’s just—he’s so real.”
“He’s real in the way that you’re real.”
“Thanks?” Hoseok replied.
“It’s a compliment, I promise. It’s just that I don’t think I know how to be real.”
Hoseok looked at Namjoon, studying him intently. He almost looked worried. Namjoon hated worrying Hoseok.
“Namjoon, you are real,” Hoseok said.
Namjoon shook his head.
“I mean, I know I’m alive,” he said. “I just sometimes feel like, I don’t know, that I look all right from the outside, on paper, but when you get to the inside it’s just a disappointment.”
Instead of trying to automatically reassure him, which would have made Namjoon feel worse, Hoseok asked,
“Have you felt this way for a long time?”
Namjoon thought about it for a second and then nodded.
“Then working with idols probably wasn’t the best line of work for you.”
Hoseok’s lips twitched.
“You like them. You know you do,” Namjoon said.
“I like some of them,” Hoseok amended. “But you do too.”
“What’s your point?” Namjoon asked.
“My point is that even the most vapid, shallow one of these kids has a little bit of depth to them. And you know it. And if they have real depth, then you certainly do too.”
“Thanks,” Namjoon replied.
“You’re real,” Hoseok repeated. “I mean it.”
* * *
On Namjoon’s next date with Yoongi that Friday, they almost didn’t collect any sounds at all.
They were planning to go out to dinner, to a little mom and pop restaurant run by a couple from Daegu that Yoongi loved, but Yoongi wasn’t ready when Namjoon got to his place to pick him up after work. Yoongi answered the door in a pair of low slung jeans and nothing else.
And something inside of Namjoon just snapped. He pounced on Yoongi, kissing him so fiercely they tumbled onto Yoongi’s sofa.
And then Namjoon was straddling Yoongi, leaving bite marks on his chest, and Yoongi had slipped his hands down the back of Namjoon’s pants, grabbing his ass, kneading it in his hands, encouraging Namjoon to grind down against him.
“Can we?” Namjoon panted in Yoongi’s ear.
“Bedroom,” Yoongi gasped.
It took them another five minutes to stop kissing long enough to get off the sofa and into Yoongi’s bedroom.
And then they fucked in Yoongi’s giant bed.
It wasn’t frantic anymore, instead they went hard and slow, their bodies tangled together so closely that Namjoon felt for a few moments that they weren’t two separate men, but one steady, beating rhythm.
Afterward, after Namjoon caught his breath and after Yoongi uncurled himself from where he was resting his head on Namjoon’s chest, something settled into Namjoon. And for a fleeting moment he wondered if it would also be like this, if it would always be this easy to be with Yoongi, if they would always fit together so well.
It was still early. There was plenty of time to go out to dinner, but Yoongi grumbled about putting on pants, and Namjoon was inclined to agree, so they ordered takeout.
While they waited for it to arrive, Yoongi padded out to the living room and sat down completely naked at the baby grand piano that took up most of the living room.
Namjoon put on boxers and followed him, settling onto the sofa to listen to him play. After a few measures, he realized that he didn’t recognize the song, so he grabbed the reel-to-reel from the table and started recording, tiptoeing toward Yoongi and holding the recorder near the open strings.
When Yoongi stopped playing, Namjoon hit stop.
“I wasn’t doing that for the album,” Yoongi said, but he didn’t sound mad that Namjoon had intruded.
“But you could. Your apartment could be a place in Seoul that inspires you.”
“Fucking you was the inspiring part.”
Namjoon abandoned the tape recorder and straddled the piano bench next to Yoongi, cupping Yoongi’s face in his hands, planting a deep kiss on his lips.
He kept his hands on Yoongi’s face, holding him in place as they kissed, like maybe he could hold Yoongi there in place and stay in that particular moment forever.
But then the intercom buzzed and Yoongi went to throw his jeans back on to answer the door, and the spell was a little bit broken.
They sat on the sofa and ate in comfortable silence until their initial hunger was put at bay.
Yoongi shifted his position, sitting sideways with his back against the arm of the sofa, tucking his feet under Namjoon’s thigh. It was a little gesture of intimacy, though it also may have been because Yoongi’s feet were cold like ice.
“You could put on socks,” Namjoon said after he jumped a little in surprise.
“But socks don’t have your body heat.”
Namjoon scooted a little closer to get more of his thigh to cover Yoongi’s feet, making Yoongi laugh in surprise.
Yoongi was quiet for a few minutes, so Namjoon kept eating, even as it seemed like Yoongi was watching him. He glanced over and met Yoongi’s eyes.
“Sorry,” Yoongi blurted out. “You were right.”
“I mean, I usually am,” Namjoon replied.
Yoongi stuck his tongue out at him.
“I take it back. You weren’t right at all.”
“No! I want to know! I’m wrong all the time, most of the time even. I need to revel in the times I am actually right.”
Yoongi side-eyed him.
“Fine, fine,” Yoongi said. “You were right about my apartment. I love it here. They let me have my piano and it has perfect light in the evening and there’s a magpie that sings for me every morning that I’m going to have to record now. And—”
He cut himself off.
“And I like having you here. I like seeing you here. I like you sitting at my piano bench and sleeping in my bed.”
He immediately buried his face in hands like the admission took a lot out of him, and Namjoon knew exactly how he felt in that moment of exposure, how much it took out of him to say it.
“Hey,” Namjoon said, he reached over and grabbed Yoongi’s wrists lightly, pulling them off his face. “I like being here, too.”
“Yeah,” Namjoon replied.
Yoongi spread his legs apart enough for Namjoon to move between them, leaning over Yoongi to kiss him deeply, trying to say what he was too terrified to voice.
“Stay,” Yoongi said as he pulled back from Namjoon’s lips. “Tonight, I mean.”
“To record the magpie tomorrow?” Namjoon asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Mmm hmm,” Yoongi agreed. “For the magpie.”
“Okay,” Namjoon breathed against Yoongi’s ear. “For the magpie.”
* * *
It was good. Things with Yoongi were good.
And Namjoon was sure he was going to screw it up.
After the weekend he spent at Yoongi’s apartment, he returned to work feeling not horrible for a change, and then immediately got caught up in the stress of the company’s biggest boy group’s comeback. The album was behind schedule, which wasn’t Namjoon’s fault at all, but somehow it still felt like it was.
Everyone was feeling the pressure and Namjoon knew that. Hoseok was working day and night on the choreography for the comeback, so they were both getting home at midnight and had been reduced to grunting at each other by way of communication. But when the head of the company came into his studio to ask him if they would be able to meet the deadline, Namjoon couldn’t help but feel like he was sole thing holding them back.
As it got closer to the release date, Namjoon and Taehyung both practically moved into the company building. Namjoon brought a pillow and blanket from home so he could sleep on the tiny, uncomfortable sofa in his studio.
The idols were coming in to re-record vocals at all hours of the night. Two of the members had been co-writing more and more, and so they were also in Namjoon’s studio at odd hours, exhausted from dance practice, giving input about the lead single. They were good kids, sometimes had really good ideas, and he usually liked being able to teach them about the process. But they didn’t agree on anything, so Namjoon had to moderate between them, had to explain that they needed to stay on trend, and it was cutting into the time he needed to actually finish the mixing for the single as well as the teaser.
Yoongi’s texts and occasional phone calls where he’d talk Namjoon through a recording problem or tell Namjoon a story from his underground rapper days were the only things getting him through the hellish hours and endless frustration.
And Namjoon appreciated it. Loved that he could text Yoongi whiny things about snare drums that no one else would understand. But he felt himself getting clingy, like he needed nice words from Yoongi like a beacon to get through the day. He didn’t want to be dependent on Yoongi in that way, as if he was the only good thing in his life.
And so he had that worry on top of everything else he was worrying about. So he tried to force himself to not turn to his phone every time he was feeling frustrated. He tried to bury himself in the work, tried to fix the snare drums by himself.
But everyone in the building was tense with worry and Namjoon couldn’t help but feel the weight of it all.
Taehyung came into his studio at two o’clock one morning with his eyes wide and deer-like.
“I have been awake for so long that my body has revolted against me and now that I have a break to sleep, I’m wired as fuck. Do you want to go get drunk?”
“Fucking yes I want to go get drunk,” Namjoon said.
So they went out and found a little hole in the wall bar that stayed open all night and order a few bottles of soju.
The trouble was that while they were drinking, they talked about the album. Taehyung vented his frustrations about the singer who was always flat and required autotune. And Namjoon complained about the empty instrumentation in the last two songs he was trying to finish.
There wasn’t anything they could do about the flat singer, but as they talked through one of the ballads, listening to the latest version that Namjoon had put on his phone, they both decided that it needed an acoustic guitar to enrich the sound. Namjoon thought it was probably thanks to Yoongi’s influence that he even had the idea, but Taehyung thought it would work, too.
And so Namjoon was pleasantly drunk on soju at four in the morning, not really aware of time anymore, when he thought it would be a great idea to text Yoongi to ask for his help.
Condenser mic or dynamic mic for acoustic guitar?
Yoongi texted him back not five minutes later.
Combine large diaphragm for body and small diaphragm for brightness.
Namjoon hadn’t actually been expecting a response right then. Yoongi liked to sleep.
Namjoon replied with Sorry for waking you THX and three heart emojis.
Had it not been four in the morning and if he hadn’t had a bottle of soju coursing through him, he probably wouldn’t have added the hearts.
Yoongi texted back,
If it has a more aggressive rhythm, use the dynamic mic between frets 12 & 14.
Namjoon wondered if Yoongi was politely ignoring the heart emojis, but then another text came in right after, this time it was just the blowing kiss smiley.
And Namjoon melted, full-on sank back into the booth like he was physically melting.
“What’s that face?” Taehyung asked.
“‘M not making a face,” Namjoon replied.
“You are making a face. I know that face. You’re in love and I demand to know details.”
“You are. You’re texting someone at ass o’clock in the morning, they’re replying to you and making you smile like I have never seen you smile in the four years I have known you.”
If Namjoon hadn’t been severely sleep-deprived and tipsy, he probably would have denied it. Instead, he clutched his phone to his chest and sighed.
“I met him when he was recording sounds in the park on an old reel-to-reel.”
“An old reel-to-reel?”
“And he has a recording studio and he knows everything about music, and he’s so nice that cats like him,” Namjoon was swooning a little, but he was pretty sure it was mostly the soju. Mostly.
Taehyung was giggling.
“What? Why are you laughing at me?”
“Is his name Min Yoongi, by any chance?”
Namjoon sat up straight so fast that he knocked over the soju bottle, luckily it was empty.
“You know him?”
“Yeah! He’s from Daegu. I’ve known him since we were kids.”
“Oh god,” Namjoon said. “Oh god, don’t tell him I was swooning.”
“But it’s really cute, hyung. I don’t talk to him all that often, so don’t worry. You’re secret about how stupidly in love with him you are is safe with me.”
Namjoon hid his face behind his hands.
“This is so embarrassing.”
“It’s not! Yoongi does know everything about music and cats do like him. He’s also a really nice guy. Kind of lonely, really. I think you two match well.”
“Both stuck in your heads, prefer mixing boards to people. Yeah, I think it’s a match.”
“I really like him,” Namjoon whispered. “And he’s a really good kisser.”
“Oh my god. You’re talking to me about kissing. You really do have it bad.”
“So were you sexting just now? Is that what has you so giddy?”
“No,” Namjoon said, confused. “I asked him the best way to record an acoustic guitar.”
Taehyung threw back his head and laughed.
“What’s so funny,” Namjoon demanded.
“For the two of you, that is sexting.”
* * *
The album finally came together and just needed to be mastered, which wasn’t Namjoon’s part of the process. Hoseok was still swamped with dance rehearsals and tour preparations, and so Namjoon felt a bit guilty.
But the boss finally sent Namjoon and Taehyung home on Thursday and told them not to come back until Monday. Namjoon slept straight through Friday.
By Saturday he was feeling vaguely more human, and he just missed being around Yoongi, so when Yoongi asked if he wanted to go to Namdaemun because he wanted an open-air market for a sound difference, Namjoon was eager to say yes.
They met at the market mid-morning, just to avoid the busiest time. It was a little chilly, not enough into Spring to fully take the crisp edge off the air. And Yoongi was bundled up in a padded coat and thick scarf like it was the middle of winter. When he saw Namjoon, he shook his head.
“Aren’t you cold?”
“No?” Namjoon was just wearing his denim jacket.
Yoongi sidled up to him, probably too close to strictly be polite.
“Can I steal some of your warmth then?”
“I’d give it to you if I could. I can at least carry the reel-to-reel so your hands don’t freeze.”
“Thank you,” Yoongi said, pouting a little. “It’s supposed to be Spring.”
“Well, we’re at a market. Let me buy you gloves.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“Are your hands cold?”
“Then how about I buy gloves for myself and you can borrow them.”
“I mean, if you need gloves,” Yoongi said casually.
“I do,” Namjoon replied, even though he didn't.
So Yoongi picked out a pair of gloves that Namjoon bought, stuffed into his jacket pockets, and then asked if Yoongi wanted to borrow ten seconds later.
Once Yoongi’s hands were sufficiently warmer, they walked through the maze of streets that made up the market.
They ended up recording in a couple of jewelry shops where Yoongi seemed to know the owners. Since Yoongi wore a lot of jewelry, Namjoon figured he was a frequent customer. The tinkling of metal sounded interesting on tape. Namjoon also recorded Yoongi trying on rings, the metal clanking together as he wiggled his fingers.
“Are you going to get those?” Namjoon asked.
“You’ve found my weakness,” Yoongi replied. “I think I might.”
“They suit you,” Namjoon said. “You have nice hands.”
They didn’t say anything to each other about it, but they were both clearly trying hard not touch each other too much. And failing.
Namjoon would casually fling his arm around Yoongi’s shoulders. Yoongi would press his hand at the small of Namjoon’s back to direct him through the market. Even though Namjoon was enjoying the market, enjoying seeing Yoongi in his element, he was also itching to get Yoongi back into bed.
It was all going well until they decided to get lunch, and their date was interrupted by Jackson of all people.
It was way too crowded around the food stalls, so Namjoon found a counter to sit at with the reel-to-reel while Yoongi got them food. Namjoon told Yoongi to surprise him, so he was thinking about how to not reveal that he was kind of a picky eater so soon into dating when a voice startled him.
“I didn’t know you liked seafood,” he said, gesturing toward the nearby stalls that all featured fish.
“I’m on a date actually,” Namjoon replied through gritted teeth.
“A date? Here?” Jackson asked in the haughty tone that Namjoon used to find amusing, but now hated.
Namjoon almost blurted out everything, that he and Yoongi were collecting sounds, that Yoongi was a better producer than Jackson, that Yoongi thought Namjoon was a good songwriter, a good lyricist. That he was nice without any expectations, the way Jackson never was.
But he didn’t say any of that.
“A date can be anywhere if the company is good,” he said instead.
Jackson raised an eyebrow, but didn’t acknowledge Namjoon’s response.
“I heard you barely got the album done.”
“You as in me, or you as in the collective you?” Namjoon asked.
Jackson smirked and Namjoon could see the snarky response on his tongue about groups only being as strong as their weakest link. Namjoon clenched his hands into fists.
Of course, because the universe hated Namjoon, that was exactly when Yoongi came up with a tray of food, that included fish.
“Hi,” Yoongi said.
“Yoongi, this is Jackson,” Namjoon said. “He works for the label, too. Jackson, this is Yoongi.”
Yoongi set down the food and nodded politely at Jackson, who nodded back.
“Well it’s nice to see that you’ve gotten Namjoon to branch out,” he said, gesturing to the tray.
Namjoon smiled tightly as Yoongi gave him a confused look. Jackson liked to tease Namjoon about his eating habits.
“So are you a producer, too, Jackson?” Yoongi asked tentatively.
“Yeah, I work with our hip-hop groups.”
“Oh that’s cool,” Yoongi replied, clearly making the connection that this was Namjoon’s ex. “You didn’t work on the latest TYX album by any chance, did you?”
“Yeah, that was my team.”
“I really like that one. There was a weird trend in hip-hop for a while of the really over-produced sound, but that album was restrained in a good way.”
“Thanks, man. Are you in the business?”
“Ah, yeah, I have a studio. Sometimes I do a little freelancing with the big three.”
“Cool,” Jackson said, clearly uninterested.
Yoongi inched closer to Namjoon.
“Well, I’ll see you around, then,” Namjoon said loudly.
“Yeah, see you around. Nice to meet you, Yoongi.”
Jackson walked away, but Namjoon could still feel his gaze on them. So Namjoon grabbed some of the fish stew and started eating, trying to ignore the rubbery fish texture he hated. He was working his way through a fish cake when Yoongi cleared his throat.
“So that was the guy that fucked you up,” he said casually.
“How do you know he fucked me up?”
“The way you talked on our first date. The fact that you’re clearly not on good terms now.”
“We just weren’t good together,” Namjoon shrugged. He could hear Seokjin’s voice in his head telling him to be honest. So then he admitted, “We fought a lot.”
Yoongi looked curiously at Namjoon.
“I have a hard time thinking of you fighting,” Yoongi said.
“It’s not something I like about myself,” Namjoon said with a sigh. “But I can be provoked. He knew right where my sore spots were and liked to poke at them.”
Jackson always acted like he was better than Namjoon. He had slightly higher scores in school, was fluent in two more languages. Sometimes he would record over Namjoon’s work and then say he was trying to make it better. But Namjoon would sometimes initiate their fights, pettily baiting Jackson into arguments.
“It seems like there’s still some resentment there,” Yoongi said, taking a sip of soda.
“What do you know about it?” Namjoon replied.
The air felt thinner somehow, like he was being backed toward the edge of a cliff. He never even considered that Yoongi might meet Jackson, might see the anger that Namjoon still had toward him. Namjoon didn’t like everyone by any means, but he could be civil, polite, to anyone other than Jackson.
“I’m not a relationship expert, but I did go to therapy and I learned how to sort through my shit. Trust me, you feel better about yourself when you do.”
“Are you telling me I need therapy?”
And there is was. Yoongi was confirming what Namjoon already knew, that Yoongi was better than him, was more emotionally intelligent, better at dealing with his shit. Namjoon was the mess that Seokjin said he was. He wasn’t good enough for Yoongi. But to know it was one thing. To have it confirmed by Yoongi himself was another.
“Like I said before, we all have baggage. I just think it’s important to deal with it. There are reasons why certain people get under our skin that don’t always have to do with the other person.”
The tension building up in Namjoon burst all at once.
“You have all the answers, don’t you? Quit my job, go to therapy. You don’t need to tell me how to live my life,” Namjoon replied. He knew his voice was too loud. People were starting to look over at them.
“That’s not what I’m trying to do—” Yoongi started.
“That’s what it sounds like you’re trying to do,” Namjoon cut him off.
Yoongi stared at him, and it made Namjoon feel like even more of a caged animal. Homo emotionalus unintelligus .
“Well if you don’t want to hear me out, then maybe you should go,” Yoongi said.
The way he said it, like he was disappointed in Namjoon, took all of Namjoon’s anger and turned it instantly into shame.
“I’m sorry, I—” he started, desperately.
“We can talk later,” Yoongi said. “Right now I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“Okay,” Namjoon said dumbly, not entirely sure how their date went so poorly so quickly.
He got up off the stool and stumbled into the throng of people in the market, not looking back.
* * *
When Namjoon got home, he moped.
Hoseok was surprisingly home, sitting on the sofa in sweatpants zoned out in front of the TV, which was possibly the most un-Hoseok-like thing he had every come home to.
“Are you okay?” Namjoon asked. “Are you a pod person?”
“Why would you think I’m a pod person?”
“I have never seen you watch TV without Seokjin holding you down and forcing you to cuddle with him.”
Hoseok crossed his arms defensively. “I thought I’d try it out. It seems to be popular among the youth.”
“Seokjin has to work on your one day off and you’re moping.”
“Yeah, well, you’re home way earlier than I thought you’d be. I wasn’t expecting you until tomorrow at the earliest.”
Namjoon made a whiny noise and then curled up in a ball on the sofa next to Hoseok.
“Oh no, what happened?” Hoseok asked, sitting up straight like he was genuinely concerned.
Somehow that made Namjoon feel even worse.
“Am I one of those people?” Namjoon asked.
“You’re going to have to be more specific. You are a person.”
“I got into an argument with Yoongi that I’m pretty sure was my fault, and now he’ll probably never want to talk to me again.”
“Well, he said he’d talk to me later, but I sort of don’t believe him.”
“Jackson ran into us.”
“Oh no,” Hoseok replied. “I’m guessing the two of you started your weird competitive thing?”
“No! I was perfectly polite. It was just that afterward Yoongi asked me about him and I don’t know.”
“Well, I don’t know unless you tell me,” Hoseok said gently.
“He’s smarter than me.”
“No, well yes, but I meant Yoongi.”
“Why do you say that?”
“He knows how to play every instrument and he makes puns from out of nowhere, and he knows how to recognize feelings and not yell at people when they make him feel like an idiot.”
“Namjoon, if I say something, can you promise not to get mad at me, because I’m your best friend and you love me.”
“I can try.”
Hoseok grabbed Namjoon’s hands and looked him straight in the eye.
“Did he really intentionally make you feel like an idiot? Or did you just feel like an idiot because of something he said?”
Namjoon felt like the wind had been knocked out of him.
“Oh no,” Namjoon whispered.
“There it is.”
“Oh no, I really do need therapy.”
“Did Yoongi tell you that?”
“He said I had some resentment toward Jackson that I haven’t worked through.”
“I know that now.”
Namjoon had felt it back at the market with Yoongi, that need to be right, to get the last word in, like he went right back to being the cocky kid with the high IQ who knew better than everyone else. He hated that part himself.
Jackson was smarter than Namjoon, too. No matter what Hoseok thought, Jackson did lord it over Namjoon, was competitive about it, and it made Namjoon revert back to that cocky kid from Ilsan.
But Yoongi was nothing like Jackson. Yoongi listened to Namjoon’s input. Yoongi explained tape recording to Namjoon without making him feel like an idiot. It was more like Yoongi was excited about it and made Namjoon feel excited while he was learning.
God he was an idiot. He was an idiot who fucked it up with the best man he’d ever met, a man who was perfect for him if he had just been able to get his head out of his ass sooner.
“Are you crying?” Hoseok asked.
“What if I am?”
“I’ve never seen you cry before. What do I do?”
“I’m not going to—oh, just come here.”
And so Namjoon curled up in Hoseok’s open arms and cried.
When Seokjin came in after work, Namjoon was still tucked against Hoseok. Without a word, Seokjin sat down on Namjoon’s other side and sandwiched him in a hug.
“Are you going to make fun of me?” Namjoon asked.
“Not when you’re actually hurting. What do you take me for?”
“Thank you, Seokjin-hyung.”
* * *
Yoongi said they’d talk later, but Namjoon didn’t hear from Yoongi the next day. Or the next. Or the next.
He kept typing out texts and deleting them, not knowing what to say other than “I’m sorry I’m an idiot.”
He did start to look up therapists though.
And there was still some re-recording to do for the album, even after the mastering, so Namjoon reluctantly went through the motions at work.
Everyone could tell that there was something wrong. Even the people at work who didn’t like him but usually ignored him were politely tiptoeing around him. He felt hollowed out and empty. Seokjin packed him lunch before he went into work and ordered Hoseok to make sure Namjoon ate.
Namjoon wanted to his friends that he was fine, but he wasn’t fine. He missed Yoongi. He hated himself that he screwed everything up because he kept everything bottled inside. Ever since he was a kid he never felt like he was allowed to be upset or to ask anyone for help.
He was always praised for being intelligent, and folded up in that was the expectation that he would be fine and could figure everything out on his own.
Namjoon was listening to the masters of what was going to be the second single, trying to care about it, trying not to think about how the kick drums reminded him of Yoongi, when there was a knock on his studio door.
“Come in,” he called, assuming it was Taehyung or his boss.
Yoongi was the last person he expected to come walking into his studio.
“Hi,” Yoongi said, after they stared, blinking at each other..
“Hi,” Namjoon said dumbly. “You’re here.”
“I am here.”
“How did—why are—”
“I came to say I’m sorry,” Yoongi said quickly. “It was eating me up so much I couldn’t sleep for the last three days. I feel like maybe I was a little too forceful with the therapy stuff.”
Namjoon shook his head quickly.
“No, no. You weren’t. You really weren’t. You said something I didn’t like, and I lashed out at you rather than considering what you had to say. Really. I should be apologizing to you. I was going to apologize to you. I just didn’t know how. You being here is so much more than I deserve.”
“I didn’t like it when people suggested therapy to me either. It’s just really helped me is all,” Yoongi explained.
“I think, well, I think maybe I don’t necessarily handle it well when people are smarter than me.”
“I’m not smarter than you, Namjoon.”
“Well, I want to be more like you, the way you make music, the way you look at the world.”
“It’s not a competition.”
“I know,” Namjoon said. “I know that intellectually. It’s just—I find you inspiring to be around. And then I come here, and I’m, well, here.”
He gestured around at the stark space.
“It’s hard to see you here,” Yoongi said quietly, looking around the studio. “It doesn’t look like you.”
Namjoon didn’t respond, still a bit overwhelmed that Yoongi was there.
“And, look, I don’t want to pressure you to quit your job. I’m sorry if it came across that way. You’re just so miserable here, and I—I care about you. I don’t want you to be miserable.”
Namjoon could feel tears prickling behind his eyes. Yoongi was here. Yoongi cared. And Namjoon cared enough about him that he forced himself to be honest.
“It felt a little like you’re pressuring me to quit.”
“It’s okay. I mean, I wish I could just up and quit most days. But it’s not that easy. I can’t just up and quit. I have obligations, contracts, but I also like some of the kids coming up. They need producers they can trust.”
“Okay then maybe we should take a break.”
“No!” Namjoon shouted, and then lowered his voice to repeat. “No. I mean, I know this is a lot to ask, and you deserve someone better than me, but I’m really working on myself. I don’t just have unresolved issues about Jackson. It’s not even him really, I think it goes back to being a kid in school and having a lot of pressure put on me.”
Yoongi was shaking his head.
“Why would you say that? That I deserve someone better than you?”
“Because you’re amazing and talented and doing really cool things with music. And I’m a disaster. I’m not good at relationships, and I’m only just now starting to figure out why even though it’s shit I should have learned a long time ago.”
Yoongi hesitated, standing awkwardly in between the door and Namjoon’s desk, looking like he wanted to step forward, but instead hovered there in between.
“I meant a break from the recordings. I’ve never met anyone like you, Namjoon. You get it. No one else has ever gotten it.”
“Why do I sense a but?”
Yoongi took a deep breath, like the conversation was hard for him too.
“I just don’t like being yelled at when it sounds a lot more like you’re yelling at yourself.”
He had Namjoon pinpointed, and Namjoon felt so awful, more awful than he felt back at the market.
“I’m not—I’m not very good at being vulnerable. But I can see that now. I can try.”
“Do you want to try?”
And somehow it was that simple question that made the dam break. And Namjoon cried for the second time in a week.
Yoongi closed the space between them and grabbed Namjoon’s hands, pulling him out of the chair and leading him to the little sofa in the corner. He put his arm around Namjoon’s shoulders and Namjoon curled into him, sniffling.
“Are you sure you want this mess?” Namjoon finally asked.
“Namjoon, you severely overestimate me.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m a mess too. I just own my mess. And I work on it.”
“I like you a lot,” Namjoon replied. “Whatever mess you think you have, you’re doing a good job with it.”
“You’re not doing nearly as bad with yours as you think,” Yoongi said.
Then he dropped a kiss to the top of Namjoon’s head.
When Hoseok came to check on Namjoon to make sure he ate and hadn’t strangled himself with a mic cord, they were still sitting on the sofa together. Yoongi, who really looked like he hadn’t slept in three days, had fallen asleep, and Namjoon wasn’t about to wake him.
“Everything okay?” Hoseok whispered.
“I think it will be,” Namjoon whispered back.
* * *
So Yoongi and Namjoon went on another date, a real date, no sound gathering, no talking about Namjoon and his job.
They went to the movies. Taehyung recommended the movie to them. It was some French film from the 60s, and it was supposedly famous, so Namjoon thought maybe it would be okay.
It was awful. So awful that if Namjoon hadn’t been there with Yoongi, he would have walked out.
“So what did you think?” Yoongi asked tentatively, as the lights came up and they shuffled out of the theater.
“It was terrible.”
“Oh thank god,” Yoongi said.
“I was worried if you liked it that I was going to have to pretend not to judge you. But was really going to end up going home and sinking into an anxiety spiral, wondering if we’re really compatible at all outside of music.”
“I was worried that I was being a pretentious asshole and was really trying to like it. But...”
“It was bad. Like objectively bad. And so misogynistic.”
“It really was. I’m going to yell at Taehyung at work on Monday,” Namjoon agreed. “So no anxiety spiral?”
“I’m sure there will be something else,” Yoongi teased.
“We could talk about those things,” he offered.
“What?” Yoongi asked.
“If you’re feeling anxious about what we’re doing, we could talk about it.”
Yoongi smiled at Namjoon.
“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you for offering. But that’s why I have a therapist. There are some thoughts I have that I know are absolutely ridiculous, and so I tell them to my therapist because she can tell me I’m being ridiculous and I don’t have to worry about it affecting her.”
“That makes sense,” Namjoon said. He hadn’t thought about therapy that way before. He thought it was talking about your childhood and all the ways your parents screwed you up. He added, “I’m really not good at this.”
“Good at what?”
“Being a functioning human adult capable of mature communication.”
“You’re trying though.”
“And you’re really not as bad at it as you keep saying. You’re way more self-aware than you give yourself credit for.”
“Thanks?” Namjoon replied, unsure of whether that was a compliment or not.
It was warmer out now, warm enough that Yoongi was in a leather jacket instead of his heavy padded coat. Namjoon couldn’t help but check him out a little as they walked down the busy street outside the movie theater.
“I want noodles,” Yoongi announced.
So they walked through the throngs of people to find a place to get noodles. They found a restaurant with outdoor seating, which made for better people watching. The food came out quickly and they ate in a comfortable silence. Comfortable, that was until Namjoon blurted out,
“This was stupid.”
“Uh,” Yoongi replied.
“You’re a musician. You’re a musician 24 hours a day. You should have brought the tape recorder. This is beautiful. The laughing, the slurping, the street noise, there’s a song here isn’t there?”
Yoongi stared at Namjoon for a terribly long five seconds before he smiled widely.
“We don’t have to record it all. We can just enjoy it. But that reminds me of another place I want to take you.”
“I mean, I’m sure you’ve been there before, but maybe not just to listen?”
“The rainbow fountain?”
“I’ve never been there just to see the fountain,” Namjoon said. “I’ve just crossed the bridge a bunch of times.”
“Do you want to go?”
Namjoon nodded. He’d go anywhere that Yoongi wanted to take him.
It was starting to get colder as it got later, so Yoongi asked if Namjoon wanted to get a drink first to warm them up. They went into a whiskey bar where Yoongi knew the bartender and sipped glasses of Laphroaig.
“How do you know everyone?” Namjoon asked, after Yoongi introduced him to Daeho.
“There are a whole lot of musicians in this city who got stuck doing other things with their lives out of necessity,” Yoongi said. “Daeho is a violin player, but not good enough to do it professionally. His girlfriend plays cello. There’s a group that gets together every month just to play, and I met them there.”
“You played with them? Guitar?”
“Ah, no. Upright bass.”
For some reason the idea of Yoongi playing an upright bass was unfathomably hot to Namjoon. The idea of his long hand moving up and down the neck, plucking out rhythms with the other. He downed the rest of his whiskey in one swallow, and then looked at Yoongi intently, reaching over to give his thigh an unsubtle squeeze.
“Bass, huh?” Yoongi laughed.
Namjoon shook his head.
“You playing bass.”
Yoongi ducked his head, embarrassed.
“Do you want to see the fountain or do you want to go back to my place?” Yoongi asked in a low voice.
“Both,” Namjoon said as he leaned into Yoongi’s space.
Yoongi downed the rest of his whiskey in one go.
“That was 40-year-old oak barrel aged whiskey,” Yoongi said like he didn’t quite believe what he had just done.
“I’m a really good lay,” Namjoon said with a shrug.
Yoongi burst out laughing.
“I can’t argue with you there,” he said.
He flagged Daeho over to pay the tab and say goodbye. He looked very suspiciously at their already empty glasses but only raised an eyebrow at Yoongi, who shrugged.
“How out are you?” Namjoon asked as they walked to the bridge.
“Pretty much all my friends know I’m bi. Daeho knew we were on a date,” Yoongi said. “I’ve actually ended up being the guy that people always come out to.”
“I’d feel comfortable coming out to you,” Namjoon said. “You’re not judgmental at all.”
“Thanks,” Yoongi said, ducking his head the way he often did when Namjoon complimented him.
“So Daeho knows we desecrated his good whiskey because we’re horny?”
“Yep!” Yoongi said brightly.
The rainbow fountain was pretty. The sound of the water rushing down into the river was oddly melodic. But they were both distracted. Namjoon boldly grabbed Yoongi’s hand as they walked, and Yoongi let him.
“This would be a nice place to record,” Namjoon said.
“Maybe later,” Yoongi said, leaning into him. “Right now I want to get you into my bed.”
Namjoon didn’t argue.
The next morning, Namjoon woke up in that bed with Yoongi tucked against his side and the magpie singing outside. Yoongi was still asleep, making snuffling noises as he burrowed even closer against Namjoon’s side. Namjoon kept very still, didn’t want to jostle him as as he slept.
“I want to be a part of it,” Namjoon said as soon as Yoongi made the first signs of stirring.
“The album. I’ll stop comparing what I do for a living to what you do. This sounds of Seoul album is really important, and I want to be a part of it if you’ll have me.”
“I wanted you to be a part of it the day you met me by the river,” Yoongi murmured against Namjoon’s chest. “Now go back to sleep. It’s Sunday.”
* * *
Yoongi had ten places in Seoul, ten songs, recorded in a four-month span. As April wore on, Namjoon spent Saturdays with him in the studio, learning how the analog equipment, giving input on songs.
At first he didn’t feel like he was helping very much, but then he figured out a way to slow down the cutting fabric sound in a way that added warmth to the whole song, and he got it. He understood why Yoongi loved tape. It wasn’t just getting the sound right, it was building something physical, manipulating time and space.
He would never be able to do it at his job, but he liked having something separate. It almost made it easier to not compare the two.
Yoongi very shyly asked Namjoon if he would help with some of the lyrics. Not all of the songs were going to have vocals, but with some of them it fit. Namjoon was a little hesitant at first, but it turned out he loved working with Yoongi. They were able to bounce ideas off each other, and it really felt like they were writing together and the end product was better than anything either of them would have come up with on their own.
When they had them down, Yoongi suggested a couple of his friends to do the singing parts, but Namjoon was able to convince him to at least record a guide of the vocals himself.
Namjoon loved Yoongi’s singing voice. He didn’t have a lot of range, but his voice had a texture and a color that sounded more earnest than a trained singer. And it fit with the style of music they were creating.
Even though he didn’t play any instruments, Namjoon recorded Yoongi playing drums and piano and melodica. Yoongi did record him playing some shakers, but Namjoon thought it was mostly so he felt included. He met more of Yoongi’s friends as they recorded, the harpsichord player, a few guitar players, a flutist, a zither player.
It was the zither that gave Namjoon an idea.
The album was coming together, but Yoongi wanted another song, something different from what he had so far. And it got to the point where he was texting Namjoon from different locations in the city but finding that none of them were quite right.
So Namjoon made a phone call, and waited for Yoongi to come pick him up from work one Friday.
“Do you want to go to a commune and meet my hippie uncle?” Namjoon asked.
“Um,” Yoongi said.
“There are a lot of interesting sounds there and I think you’d like him.”
“So not in a ‘meet the parents’ kind of way?”
“Oh god no. My mom has never actually said the word ‘gay’ in front of me. I just think you’d like my uncle, and I can see you there.”
“At a commune?” Yoongi asked.
“It’s not really a commune, not technically. It’s a hanok that he keeps adding onto in Seochon. The way you know musicians who didn’t make it. He’s the same way with artists, painters. They just decided to live together and cut themselves off from the world a little.”
“So like an artist colony,” Yoongi said.
“Well, yeah, but, you’ll see why I said commune after you meet my uncle. I mean, if you want to.”
“I’m in,” Yoongi said.
“I think you’ll like it even if it isn’t one of your places in Seoul. It’s one of mine.”
So on Saturday morning, they got on the train to go to the northern neighborhood, and Yoongi asked Namjoon to tell him about his uncle.
“I was always smart, and everyone always told me ‘oh you should go into business’. And my uncle was the only person who cared what I wanted. He used to play records for me. All kinds of music, a lot of gugak, but also Led Zeppelin and Radiohead.”
“I like him already,” Yoongi replied.
“He and my mom were always close, and so he was around when I was growing up. But when he started the commune, my mom would never let me go visit him. I think she was afraid that as I got older I would be influenced by him and would ‘throw my life away’ to be an artist.”
“I got that a lot from my parents, too,” Yoongi replied. “I had decent marks in school, but I always liked liberal arts instead of something practical.”
“Same here. I got a delivery job and spent all my wages on music equipment so my parents couldn’t complain about it.”
“Are they all right with it now?”
“More or less.”
“More or less,” Yoongi echoed. “I think they lie to my grandmother about what I do for a living though.”
“I think mine did too until someone in her retirement home saw me at the Korean Music Awards on TV.”
“Award-winning producer, Kim Namjoon,” Yoongi said fondly.
Namjoon shook his head.
“Anyway, my uncle’s commune,” Namjoon continued. “Eventually, my mom let me visit him there, and when I asked her why she had a sudden change of heart, she said, ‘because you’re different, and you’re uncle’s different, and you need some kind of guidance about being different.’ It turns out that was her way of trying to tell me she accepted my sexuality, because my uncle was the only gay person she knew. But I didn’t quite realize that at the time. She knew I was gay before I did.”
“That’s actually kind of sweet.”
“In her way it kind of was, yeah.”
So they met Namjoon’s uncle Chul and his partner Manny, who was from Chile and immediately offered them some kombucha.
Chul gave them a brief tour of the hanok. Yoongi took to Chul and Manny like they were old friends. Namjoon didn’t have to orchestrate the conversation as they talked about the paintings Chul sold and the music Yoongi made.
A few of the other artists came outside to the back garden where they sat chatting, and they all loved Yoongi’s project as he explained it and the tape recorder to them.
Manny produced a ukulele and his uncle got out his zither. Other musical instruments started appearing from fellow residents, and they started playing folk songs sitting on the hodgepodge of stools on the veranda.
There were wind chimes hanging from the overhang intermixing with the music.
Namjoon looked over at Yoongi who had his eyes closed and a blissful look on his face.
When there was a break, Yoongi asked if they’d be willing to be recorded. Everyone happily agreed.
“Namjoonie said you play a lot of instruments,” Chul said to Yoongi.
“Oh, well, piano and guitar mostly.”
“Well we surely have a guitar somewhere around here.”
Manny got up and quickly came back holding a beautiful Spanish guitar.
“I took a guess,” he said.
“Oh,” Yoongi said. “Oh it’s beautiful. Are you sure?”
“Of course, son,” Manny replied.
Yoongi grabbed a stool for his foot and plucked out a melody.
Chul exchanged a look with Namjoon.
“He’s good,” Namjoon mouthed.
They decided on a folk song they all knew.
And then Namjoon started recording, putting the microphone right in the center of the group, lying down flat on his stomach to not interfere with the sound. He recorded them all tuning to get in the right key and then Yoongi counting off before they began to play.
It was a bit like magic. These people all coming together, rejecting society in their own way, all having the same music inside them.
Namjoon was blinking back tears as they finished. They played a few more songs before Yoongi and Namjoon made to leave.
“It was so nice to meet you, Yoongi. I think you met Namjoon at just the right time,” Chul said as he showed them out.
“I think I met him at the right time, too,” Yoongi said softly.
“Good luck with your project, son,” Manny said. “My grandfather always said there was music everywhere if you just knew how to listen.”
“I like that,” Yoongi said.
“I felt my grandfather here tonight,” Manny replied. “Thank you both for coming.”
They had another round of hugs and then Namjoon and Yoongi headed toward the train.
Yoongi was quiet as they walked, and Namjoon left him be with silence.
“What’d you think?” he asked once they were at the train station.
“They were great. Thank you for taking me there. I think this is the last place we needed. It ties it all together really. One of the things I was missing was the people.”
“I’m glad,” Namjoon said, leaning into Yoongi just a little bit closer.
* * *
A month later, Namjoon and Yoongi were lying side by side on the rug in Yoongi’s studio listening to all 11 tracks of a complete album, because Namjoon insisted it was the best way to listen to music since he had started doing it in his studio and Yoongi humored him.
“We made an album,” Namjoon said.
“We did make an album,” Yoongi replied.
“It really feels like we’re in Seoul.”
“We are in Seoul.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I do,” Yoongi said and then asked. “So what’s your favorite song?”
“The one at my uncle’s place. They’re going to be so excited to hear it, you know?”
“We’re going to have to invite them to the record release party,” Yoongi mused.
“Mmm hmm,” Namjoon agreed.
He rolled over onto his side and propped himself up on his elbow.
“So which one is your favorite?”
Yoongi locked eyes with Namjoon’s.
“The one by the river.”
“Why’s that?” Namjoon asked as he leaned down, hovering inches above Yoongi.
“Are you really going to make me say it?”
“Yes,” Namjoon replied, leaning down even closer so his lips were nearly brushing Yoongi’s.
“Because it’s the day I met you,” Yoongi whispered.
Namjoon smiled into the kiss.