They meet on a morning when Jeongguk is stumbling out of some guy’s bedroom, shirtless and holding onto the wrinkled Oxford he’d been wearing the previous night. He’s stuffing his feet into his shoes with his hair disarrayed and one of his eyes squeezed shut when he hears someone gasp behind him.
He freezes for a moment, one hand on the wall, before looking blearily over his shoulder into the dim kitchen. There’s a guy his age in a pale blue shirt with Kristoff Bjorgman’s face printed big and gaudy over the chest, one hand holding a jug of orange juice and the other holding a half-filled glass.
They stare at each other dopily for a second before the guy sets both items down and flicks on the fluorescent lamp overhead, drenching them in blinding light under which they both grimace for a few seconds. “Hi, I’m Taehyung,” the guy finally says, rushed, and extends a tan hand forward. Jeongguk grasps it firmly, feeling the cold patches on the skin where it had been grasping the jug.
“What are the chances, huh?” Taehyung scratches one finger through the tawny hair at his nape. “Two random Korean guys awake alone in an apartment neither of them lives at.”
“Oh,” Jeongguk snorts, glancing uncomfortably around at the neat space they’re occupying. “Yeah.” He glances back at Taehyung, who’s watching him with undisguised interest, and clears his throat. “Well, I gotta go. Work,” he mumbles, pointing to his watch, and pulls his shirt on, buttoning it hurriedly.
Taehyung steps forward, tugging on the ends of his sleeves as he leans against the doorjamb. His feet are bare, toes curling where he piles one sole on top of the other. “Have you been over before?”
Jeongguk’s busy leaning down and juggling his car keys and his phone as he ties his shoelaces, so he manages only a grunted, “No.”
“Do you know how to get out of the garage?”
When Jeongguk straightens, he fixes his collar and rolls up his sleeves neatly. He has thirty minutes to get from here across town to the campus, and then another fifteen minutes to grab a coffee from the shop downstairs before he has to be at the weekly faculty meeting. He swipes errant hands through his hair and hopes it looks purposefully messy, in a dignified way. “No, is there some code to punch in?”
Taehyung walks past him, toeing on a pair of black suede loafers and grabbing a key off the hook beside the door. “Yes, and you have to lift the gate up six inches because the mechanism’s gone crappy. I’ll just go with you.”
“Oh,” Jeongguk repeats, pausing with his back against the knob as Taehyung looks at him expectantly. When the other raises his eyebrows with amusement, Jeongguk swivels, pulling the door open and stepping through. “Right. Thanks.”
The walk to the elevator is silent, but not stiff, and he’s grateful Taehyung came because under 1 there are buttons marked M, B, and P, and he probably would have ended up stopping at each one with the hope of being in the right place. Taehyung grins at him. “Taking your car to a one-night stand’s place seems like a bit of a commitment.”
Jeongguk shrugs. There’s a semblance of shame that curls in his stomach at the way it must look to Taehyung – which isn’t too far off from the way it actually is – and despite the years he’s spent sleeping around with bravado that’s mostly forced, he knows he hasn’t truly come to terms with the way he lives his life. “Wasn’t going to leave it at the bar.”
“Were you sober enough to drive, at least?” Taehyung asks, eyebrows tilted like he’s really worried. His face is still soft with sleep, puffy, and Jeongguk scoffs at him, not unkindly.
“I was fine.”
The elevator dings when it opens, and they file out into a grungy underground garage, huge, extending out in all directions past what Jeongguk can see. While he glances around with dismay, Taehyung watches him with a little private smile, bordering on creepy. “Uh,” he begins, twirling his keys around one finger and roaming forward to try to glance at cars and see if one looks familiar. “This is going to take a while.”
Taehyung snorts then and begins walking in the direction of a support beam with a big 7 inscribed in blue ink, not bothering to look behind him. “This way,” he calls, loose magenta pajama pants swinging around his legs. They’re short enough that they don’t touch the ground as he plods along, but Jeongguk still grimaces when the beautiful loafers step onto a weird stain on the cement floor without the notice of their owner.
With Jeongguk following several feet behind, they eventually reach a clearing where he spots his Sorento parked neatly into a corner. Jeongguk blinks. “How did you know?”
Taehyung points at the 7-OT printed beneath his back bumper. “That’s the spot assigned to their apartment.” He frowns playfully. “Harry didn’t give us any notice, so I had to park at a meter.” After considering for a moment, he adds, “He and Ansel usually take turns having guests over.”
“Oh, shit, sorry,” Jeongguk says, one hand in his pocket awkwardly as he cradles his keys in the other. “I can reimburse you?”
Taehyung grins at him, and it’s the prettiest thing Jeongguk has ever seen. “Well, since you offered, you don’t have to. It’s not the first time Hazza's done it, anyway.” He gestures toward the car with a broad hand. “Go ahead. I’ll get the gate for you.”
Jeongguk starts, hopping behind the wheel, and takes a shuddering breath once the engine revs to life, shaking himself a little. He has twenty minutes now.
As he approaches the exit, he spots Taehyung bent at the waist beneath a lit LCD keypad and hefting the bottom edge of the flimsy metal gate up along its chain. Once the car is close enough, the gears click audibly and it begins to ascend on its own. Jeongguk rolls down the window. “Thanks, man.”
Taehyung waves at him. “Have a nice drive of shame.”
Jeongguk blinks at him with disbelief before bursting into laughter. “You, too, man.”
Taehyung shakes his head. “I’m not.”
“Oh, you’re dating Hansel?”
“Ansel,” Taehyung corrects with another private grin, like he’s trying not to laugh at Jeongguk. Somehow, it doesn’t insult him. “No, we’re best friends. I was sleeping on the couch. Heard everything,” he clicks his tongue and winks, pointing two finger guns at Jeongguk through the open window.
Jeongguk tilts his head. “How old are you?”
Taehyung shrinks back, pouting. “Twenty-nine,” he answers with a ridiculously low pitch to his voice.
“Amazing.” Jeongguk glances at the gate, which is still hovering open above him, then points to Taehyung’s shirt. “So was that purchased to, like, shake a fist at God and prove that adulthood is meaningless, or did you win it after beating up a toddler?”
Taehyung places gentle hands upside-down onto the cartoonish round cheeks of the ice harvester’s face. “I can’t believe you’re scoffing at the only man who has never let anyone down.”
The gate starts to slide down, making Jeongguk edge forward again to halt its progress, and he looks back at the strange man-child outside his window with a faint smile. “Nice to meet you, Taehyung.”
The other smiles back at him, innocent and genuine. “Likewise.”
He keeps glancing into the rearview mirror as he drives away, at the retreating shape growing darker and smaller as it wanders away from the closing gate, and even laughs a little. He makes it to campus with no time for a coffee, but he stays awake during the meeting all the same.
For no particular reason, Jeongguk thinks of Taehyung several times over the following weeks. He sees a decorative snowflake hanging in the window of a dorm he passes on his way to lunch and thinks of the shirt, or he sees someone winking and remembers Taehyung’s finger guns. But it’s not enough for him to notice, consciously, not to mention actually try to be proactive about it.
But life, as it oft does for truly hopeless cases, throws him a bone when he’s crossing the street toward a bagel joint, two blocks away from the Business building he’s been in since his first lecture that morning. As his foot lands on the sidewalk, he hears, “Hey! Kristoff hater!”
He glances up from the crack in the pavement he’d nearly stumbled into and finds Taehyung squinting at him, fingers wrapped around the handle of the heavy door as he holds it open, like he’d been about to walk in but needed to make Jeongguk aware of his disdain. “Man-child,” he acknowledges in turn, nodding.
Taehyung squints harder. “I’ve thought about it long and hard, and I think you’re just envious. You could never be what he is, and it hurts you to be reminded.”
Jeongguk looks away solemnly, hands in the pockets of his pea coat. Spring is slow to grace them this year, the air chilly even as they edge into April, and though the skies are clear and blue, he shudders a little as he stands there, four feet away from the open door that Taehyung could easily shut on him. He sniffs theatrically. “You’ve cracked the code. Please don’t make me talk about it.”
Taehyung waves him over the threshold with his free hand, a pleasant smile on his lips again, like he’d gotten exactly what he wanted out of the interaction.
After they both order their bagels and drinks, Taehyung pulls out a high chair from under the bar and seats himself, staring at Jeongguk. “You look very,” he gestures in circular motions in the broad direction of Jeongguk’s body, “important.”
While his pea coat is crisp and starched, it’s sitting snugly over a fairly normal business-casual ensemble, but compared to the loose periwinkle sweater Taehyung’s drowning in, he supposes he does seem a little more invested in his day. “I am.”
Taehyung rolls his eyes. “So, what, are you some big banking honcho? Vice president? CEO?”
Jeongguk’s name is called, and he grabs his hot coffee eagerly, standing just to Taehyung’s side as he pours creamer in. “I teach economics at that little college down the street.”
Taehyung’s eyes widen. “You’re just a professor? I mean, at Stanford, but still – you drive that ugly big Sorento when you’re just a nerd who did kind of okay in grad school?”
“Hey,” Jeongguk laughs, “take it easy. What big, important work are you doing for the world?”
Taehyung chews his lip. “I compose. I’m actually an adjunct this semester, ‘at that little college down the street.’”
Jeongguk glances down at Taehyung’s washed-out wide-leg pants hanging over a pair of crude artsy sandals, and then hovers on the soft, fleecy material of the oversize sweater. “I can see it.”
“I’ll have you know, there are students who beg for me to post OOTDs on my Instagram.”
Jeongguk quirks a brow at him, stirring his coffee slowly.
“Outfit of the day,” Taehyung supplies needlessly. “And Kristoff happens to have been a fan favorite.”
Jeongguk glances at the servers and sees that his bagel sandwich is nowhere near being prepared, so he slips out of his coat, hanging it over the back of the chair beside Taehyung. When he slides into the seat, Taehyung gives him a once-over. “God, you’re hot.”
Not for the first time, Jeongguk stares and then bursts into laughter. “Do you just say things, like they control you rather than the other way around?”
Taehyung gives him the stink eye and reaches for his own drink when his name is yelled out. It’s a frothy milkshake with whipped cream on top, go figure. Jeongguk watches him raise the straw to his mouth and sip. After several gulps, Taehyung lets out a happy sigh and smacks his lips together. “I’ve never seen a problem with giving genuine opinions about things, as long as they’re not hurtful. And you know you’re hot, that’s why you dress and carry yourself the way you do. But you sure don’t romance it.”
Jeongguk studies him. “Are you a romantic?”
Frowning a little at his cup, Taehyung shrugs. “Romance is different for everyone. I don’t think that’s a fair question.”
“Why? Are you?”
Jeongguk drinks some of his coffee and looks him in the eyes. “No, I’m a realist.”
“Ah,” Taehyung says, knowing and amused again like he’d been when they first met, secretly laughing at him. “So you don’t hate Kristoff because of his genre or target demographic, you hate him because he symbolizes something you refuse to believe in.” His fingers rise to tap his temple. “I see you.”
“More than anything, I’m irritated that these people are supposed to tell stories to children that are meant to weigh heavily and impress values, and they’re telling them that love like that is real.” He pauses. “That love is real.”
“You don’t think love is real?”
They’re interrupted by a sudden gust of noise from the coffee machines, and they both turn to watch one of the employees unwrap a large packet of sesame bagels and begin slicing them. “No,” Jeongguk finally says, turning back to his cup. “And it’s terrible to sell the idea of it to little kids, making them search for it for the rest of their lives.”
“Aw,” Taehyung says quietly. He fiddles with the round top of his cup, plastic crinkling through the air. “That’s sad.”
Jeongguk looks at his profile. “Have you found it, then?”
Taehyung sighs. “Love?”
“Love, yeah. That overwhelming, positive emotion that distracts you from your surroundings and cheers you up whenever you think about it, fills you up until you don’t need anything else.”
Taehyung considers, then nods. “I think so.”
Jeongguk notices how sober the mood has become but refuses to feel apologetic. “Then that’s very lucky.”
“Yeah,” Taehyung agrees, studying him curiously. “I guess so.”
When they part several minutes later with their respective toasty bagels, it’s with mutual lingering looks that probe, and no more words exchanged.
Two days later, Taehyung shows up at the tail end of the weekly faculty meeting.
They lock eyes when the door opens and Taehyung steps through, clad in the most painfully red blazer with a white scarf hanging loosely over it, and Jeongguk watches him walk carefully toward the opposite end of the table, seating himself beside the Dean of Humanities and Sciences with a bright smile.
“Ah, Taehyung,” she greets, gesturing around the room at large. “Happy you could join us on such short notice. Everyone, Mr. Kim here has been teaching three courses in the Music department this semester, and we’ve had raving reviews from students in every single class. As our academic programs evolve on the fresh paths we’ve created, I’ve been hoping to initiate more cross-studies and cross-humanities projects. Several students have approached me and their major advisers asking how they can combine subjects like music with business, or biophysics with ethics.” She rifles through the papers in front of her, pushing her glasses further up her nose carefully with one well-manicured finger. “While our established Music representative, Professor Gotlieb, is on sabbatical, I would like to have Mr. Kim fill in as we delve into expanding our scholastic flexibilities. In particular, I’d like to place him in the focus group with Professors Byun, Do, and Jeon as we roll out some tentative hybrid courses for the summer term.”
Jeongguk looks up and finds Taehyung already looking at him, a little teasing smile playing at the corner of his lips.
“Please, the four of you, stay behind once we’re done here to ensure you’re on the same page and able to throw some ideas around in the coming weeks.”
When the room empties some minutes later, Jeongguk watches Baekhyun sidle up to Taehyung and whisper something into his ear, making both of them laugh raucously. Kyungsoo hangs behind disinterestedly, still seated on the same end of the table as Jeongguk, pen between his lips as he stares at his phone.
“Listen, I won’t sugarcoat it, I have a date,” Baekhyun announces a moment later, hands on each of Taehyung’s shoulders as he stands behind him. “So why don’t we all just exchange numbers and set a good time to meet this weekend?”
Jeongguk shrugs, just as Kyungsoo slides his phone all the way down the table until it stops one foot away from Taehyung. Baekhyun’s face, as he watches this, is strange and shadowed, lingering on the way Kyungsoo turns back to his notebook before cheerfully adding, “Actually, why don’t we all just give Taehyung our numbers and have him start a group chat?” He takes the phone and slides it all the way back, grinning when it smacks Kyungsoo’s elbow. Jeongguk’s used to this, gets his fair dose of it every week, but Taehyung looks on uncomfortably and nods like he’s eager to please, eager to make this odd energy dissipate.
Jeongguk is last to donate his number, by which time the other two are gone and Taehyung has one earpiece of his glasses between his teeth while he types unhurriedly. The glasses, when Jeongguk looks closely, have no lenses, which makes him roll his eyes as he plops down in the seat beside the composer. “Look who’s important now,” he says, leaning his head against the back of his chair and letting his eyelids slide closed. “Big man on campus. Trying to leave Gotlieb without a job?”
Taehyung snorts, still buried deep in his phone as he customizes the chat, probably adding emojis to their names and changing the background to little photos of Kristoff. “If all goes well.”
They sit in silence for a few minutes, Jeongguk dozing because he knows his next class isn’t until four and he’s in no rush to do much of anything. After a couple of minutes, his phone buzzes in his pocket as the text finally goes out, but he doesn’t move, breathing evenly and relaxing his muscles.
“Did you ever believe in love?” Taehyung asks, jarring in the silence that’s enveloped them.
Jeongguk straightens, blinking at him. The adjunct’s got his phone on the table and his chin propped on the knuckles of one hand, gazing at Jeongguk like he’s studying a specimen. “Sure, I did. Because of those stupid movies I watched with my friends when I was a kid. But the thing is, we’re all in our late twenties now, and nobody’s rescued any of us.”
"You want to be rescued." Taehyung’s eyes crinkle gently, but he doesn’t fully smile. His dark hair veils his even darker eyes, and the midday April sun streaming through the windows doesn’t illuminate him any. Jeongguk wonders if he looks as ethereal, as eerie. “I thought I couldn’t be around you, when you first said that the other day. How could I willfully put myself in the orbit of someone so cynical, you know? But it fits you, somehow. I like it now.”
Jeongguk makes a face. “Well, thanks for tolerating me.”
“No, no, it’s not that,” Taehyung laughs, pocketing his phone. “I just didn’t want you to rub off on me and make me all sad like you are.” He doesn’t let Jeongguk interject affrontedly, continuing, “But your bark’s bigger than your bite.”
“Come on,” Taehyung stands, slinging his messenger bag over his shoulder. With his glasses, scarf, and blazer – plus the beret Jeongguk only just notices when he turns – he looks like something out of a parody French tourism brochure. “The place in the basement of the Languages building does two-for-one on Fridays.”
When they fall into bed together, it’s nearing the end of May.
After their rigorous meetings over the course of weeks, both on and off campus, to try to get some sensible plan of action to the dean, they usually end up staying wherever the meetings are held, long past when the other two leave them. Kyungsoo, in particular, seems always eager to run as soon as the hour is up, and Baekhyun glares at his retreating back before following dejectedly some minutes later.
Since Taehyung works at a recording studio full-time during the hours he doesn’t spend teaching or deliberating over how to combine music, economics, philosophy, and mathematics into one coherent course that holds appeal for at least twenty students per semester, he and Jeongguk don’t normally speak once they’re out of one another’s sight.
On May twenty-second, they all meet at a burger joint for dinner after Taehyung sends a string of salivating faces interspersed among emojis of burgers, fries, and a soda cup every hour, on the hour, starting at noon.
Jeongguk’s still picking at his fries when their own sexual tension proves to be too much for its owners and their colleagues leave with promises to type up drafts of individual proposals to the dean that they can all look over. Taehyung watches them leave – keeping several feet between them with stiff backs and red necks – with a grin. “See, that isn’t love yet.”
Jeongguk’s eyebrows jump. “Yet?”
“I think Kyungsoo’s probably nearly there, but Baekhyun’s too free-spirited.”
“And you see that glaring obstacle resolving itself somehow?”
“I think people can learn,” Taehyung nods. “People can figure out what they’re willing to compromise on in order to have something that’s more valuable to them. Baekhyun likes to flirt, especially with me and you, since Kyungsoo gets a front row seat, but have you noticed the way he’s been getting madder and madder when Kyungsoo snaps at him? It’s only a matter of time.”
Jeongguk ignores the majority of the words and the vaguely creepy memories they evoke of Baekhyun batting eyes at him. “So a principal tenet of love is compromise?”
“Of course,” Taehyung says, emphatic. “Every little bit of peace between two humans requires compromise.”
“Shouldn’t that definitively prove, then, that the notion of love that movies try to teach us is a farce? No princess gets to look at the terms and conditions of being saved, before she’s saved. She’s only promised euphoria.”
His companion considers, his eyes lingering – as they have at many instances throughout the hour – on the vivid hickeys littering Jeongguk’s neck. He’d used a high-collared jacket to cover them in class, but Taehyung had zeroed in on the marks as soon as he’d removed it at the table. It’s all made more uncomfortable by the fact that he won’t openly address what he’s staring at, or the fact that he’s staring at all, which is very unlike him. “She doesn’t have to stay,” he says softly, raising his eyes to Jeongguk’s finally. “Nobody ever has to stay. Love shouldn’t be a prison.”
Jeongguk lets his own eyes wander over the smooth planes of Taehyung’s face, the soft curves of his features that still somehow look sharp, cutting. “I assume we’re talking about the pretend era of medieval princess lore, where they had basic human rights such as refusal of marriage.”
When Taehyung laughs, the sound is melodic. “Precisely.” After a second, he sobers. “Don’t you agree, though, that we compromise with every single person we see throughout the day?”
Jeongguk dips one crisp fry in ketchup and stares at the red for a second before popping it into his mouth. “I don’t think I do, all that much. Not since I decided love is a lie and death is a promise.”
Taehyung snorts, pushing his tray away from himself and stretching his legs out beneath the table. As summer approaches at high speed, the weather has become bearable, and while Jeongguk has made the switch to short sleeved polos and light cotton Henleys, Taehyung jumped with both feet into loose shirts with wide necks and holes in them or layered Bohemian silk robe attire, which are almost guaranteed to divulge skin that Stanford professors generally try to keep covered. Now, his collar dips to just below his second rib, which protrudes through bronze skin as he sits slanted in his chair, and Jeongguk tries not to look at it. “You talk like you’ve been fucked up a few times by love gone wrong. Wanna share?”
Chewing on another fry slowly, Jeongguk gazes at the darkening street he can see through a distant window. Daylight ends late now, but their dinner’s gone much later. “It’s all one repeating story about the same two characters. The moral is: they both always end up alone despite how hard they kept trying not to be.”
“Maybe the problem is trying so hard not to be alone,” Taehyung muses. One of his feet scuffs at the brick-colored tile floor beneath them. “Aloneness isn’t something to run from.”
“Then why are we all running?”
“I don’t know,” Taehyung says on an exhale. “But listen, this is important. I really want to sleep with you.”
Jeongguk’s eyes had been on his ketchup cup, squeezing it and watching the substance morph from the pressure, and he glances up with shock at Taehyung’s calm face. When several seconds pass and nobody laughs or says, “Kidding!” he sits back in his seat and processes. “Are you for real?”
Taehyung shrugs one shoulder, pulling at the very thin, practically translucent, material of his shirt and drawing Jeongguk’s eyes down. “You’re not about love anyway, right? So this should be a mutually beneficial arrangement.”
Jeongguk blinks rapidly, still reeling from the bluntness. He has no problem with it, at night inside a dingy bar with several drinks coursing through his system, but Taehyung has established himself as a friend. For two months Taehyung has been off-limits, and certainly too different from him to want the same things Jeongguk wants – and yet.
He shifts forward, one finger hooking on the collar of Taehyung’s shirt and pulling it lower, almost low enough to expose the dark nipples that he’s spotted through the faint gray already, and Taehyung watches his hand tolerantly, lips pouted and head tilted low. Jeongguk releases the shirt, watching the material bounce up, and leans back. “Yeah, okay.”
There’s a moment, as Jeongguk’s pressing the hem of Taehyung’s shirt up to his neck, mouth sore and swollen from the spit-slick kisses they’ve been exchanging for what feels like eons, where he pulls back and asks, “Since we’re friends but you know that I’m not in this for anything real, doesn’t it feel like I’m using you?”
Taehyung’s eyes are half-closed and amused, private little smile playing at his lips again that Jeongguk dips down to kiss off, and then he spreads his arms wide, heaving, “By God, use me.”
May bleeds into June bleeds into July, and classes end. Kyungsoo had aggressively taken charge of their formal proposal and sent it off the night before the graduation ceremony, and there’s been a resounding radio silence in the weeks since.
In the meager month or two since the first night they fucked, Jeongguk has become familiar with Taehyung’s apartment in much the same way as Taehyung has acclimated to his.
Where Jeongguk lives on the modest salary of a young professor who’s barely been around for two years, Taehyung has earnings and royalties from all the songs he’s written for half of a decade – some of which actually blare from Jeongguk’s radio regularly, which blows his mind – and lives in a spacious skyscraper in the Financial District. It was a commute to campus on the days when he had to go, but apparently he’d begged the dean to give him the fall semester off to focus on several albums he has coming to his desk over the course of the summer.
With classes done and nothing tethering him to Palo Alto anymore, Jeongguk winds up in the city more and more, spending his days at coffee shops typing up new lesson plans and waiting for a text from the elder asking him to come over.
A relationship of friends with benefits, common as it had been among his peers, never actually fell within Jeongguk’s grasp as he grew up. The friends he had in college and graduate school were people who, while they were plenty funny and easygoing and similar to him, never made him want to engage in the incontestable web of complexities that is having a sexual relationship with a friend. But, he thinks, if they’d offered him the no-holds-barred deal that Taehyung did, he’d have fucked every one of them, too.
On the days that Taehyung gets finished with a project early, he always joins Jeongguk in his various nooks around town, sitting down opposite Jeongguk’s open laptop and ordering four drinks off the happy hour menu that they always share. When they’re tipsy enough to start leaning close and trying to touch whatever skin they can reach, Taehyung calls a cab. More than once, they tumble out of the back seat with pants or shirts unbuttoned and mouths red.
That he’s heard all the variety of sounds Taehyung makes when he comes, that he knows exactly how the skin of his lower back tastes, it changes nothing. Jeongguk wakes up the morning after their first time together and mocks everything in Taehyung’s closet, and Taehyung laughs for four minutes at the utter pitch black of every clothing, furniture, and decorative item he sees at Jeongguk’s apartment. A couple weeks in, they halt in the middle of foreplay to debate whether the song playing softly from the speakers which Taehyung wrote is better than its more popular cover by an indie band, a teasing quarrel which softens all the dicks in its vicinity, and then they end up watching TV for two hours until they pass out.
Most notably unchanged are their confident forays into the long, drawn-out philosophical debates about love and its (non)existence. Taehyung likens it to religion at one point, arguing that you definitely can’t feel it if you choose not to believe in it, to which Jeongguk replies that by the same token you can’t feel it whether or not you believe in it, and Taehyung shuts him up with a blowjob.
“Do you know any couple,” he asks one night as his eyes get heavier and his lips are pressed so tightly to Taehyung’s sweaty ribs that he’s slurring, “that hasn’t broken up?”
“Hmm?” Taehyung asks, just as sleepy.
“’Cause, you know, relationships either end or they last. So if you believe in love that much, I would think it’s backed up by your acquaintance with at least one couple that’s made it last.”
Taehyung sighs lazily, humming on the exhale. It makes Jeongguk’s head bob, but it’s gentle. “My parents,” he lists, interrupting himself on a loud yawn. “My ex.”
Jeongguk’s eyes drift open, slowly focusing on the pebbled skin beneath him. “Your ex?” he echoes.
“Yeah, he dumped me when we were,” he yawns again, more vociferously, “in our senior year. And a week later he started dating some girl from one of his classes, and they got married four months later. It’s been seven years, and now she’s pregnant for the fourth time.”
Jeongguk breathes silently for a while, gaze drifting over the goosebumps on Taehyung’s chest. He raises a hand to press against the skin and rub it, trying to make the bumps go away, but Taehyung only laughs at him when the bumps multiply. “Huh,” he finally says, dropping his hand to Taehyung’s waist and curling his fingers over the hip bone.
“I’m happy for him. There’s no feeling of anger that she gave him what I could not – it’s common sense. She and I are different people. I also gave him what she could not. But he needed what she had more, and there’s no reason that I should feel wrong about that. So I’m happy for him.”
Jeongguk’s first girlfriend, the one who’d made him fall in love for the first and only time in his life, the one who held his heart in her hands, had dumped him when her childhood sweetheart contacted her out of the blue and wanted to meet up. He feels his fist unfurl, just a tiny bit, as Taehyung’s words wash over him, and cautiously lets her go.
The July sun is heavy, baking them as they lounge on the rooftop of Taehyung’s building beside an unexpectedly empty pool, when Jeongguk rolls over to scratch at his balls.
“Dude, there’s security cameras right above us,” Taehyung laughs, one eye open after he heard the creak of Jeongguk’s day bed. His face shines from the water that hasn’t dried yet since he slid out of the cool blue pool, and the droplets across his chest glisten with every breath. “Can you at least be subtle about it?”
Jeongguk glances up at the black plastic that's glued to the ceiling of the veranda they're in, hoping he makes direct eye contact with the security guard watching him, and shrugs. “If it’s a dude, he gets it.”
“And if it’s a lady?”
“She wishes she could get this,” Jeongguk mumbles, making a vaguely distasteful motion toward his board shorts. He lets out a pleased smile when Taehyung laughs.
“You been bagging lots of ladies lately?” Taehyung asks, chewing on some straw he’d pulled from the manicured lawn at the entrance.
Jeongguk scratches the spot between his ribs where the sunscreen’s begun to run. “Nah.”
“All-dick summer for you, huh?”
“Just one dick, actually,” Jeongguk answers unthinkingly, reaching for the can of watermelon Four Loko he’s hidden between his bag and Taehyung’s. “When would I even meet anyone else?”
There’s a long pause then that makes him replay his words in his head. He turns to look at Taehyung and finds him squinting at the sky through his shiny Ray-Bans. One of his legs is bent at the knee and swaying in the air, making his wet trunks stretch and fold tantalizingly over his dick. Jeongguk watches.
“What if the person you’re going to marry is waiting for you somewhere in the city all these weeks?”
Jeongguk scoffs, turning up to face the sun as well. His eyes slip closed and he listens to the sound of the hot tub whirring in the distance as it bubbles. “Haven’t I made my thoughts on that very clear?”
“You don’t have to love the person you marry, you don’t even have to like them. Of course, I’d hope for better for you, even if you think it’s unrealistic.” Taehyung taps his arm roughly until he hands the half-empty can over, then sips from it generously. “But you’re not as disillusioned as you like to think. When we met and you said all of that stuff, you actually seemed like you were curious about the future, maybe even excited for it.”
“Do you know the last time I got butterflies in my stomach?”
Taehyung hums in the negative. He sets the cold can on top of Jeongguk's wrist, tapping out some rhythm with its base that only he can hear.
“When I was nineteen. We met as freshmen and spent every waking moment together, to the point where I couldn’t experience a piss without telling her all about it. And she ditched me when I was nineteen, the same day that I got those stupid butterflies in my stomach as I was planning to ask her to meet my parents over the holidays. I was so stoked for them to see her.” He clicks his tongue in his mouth, feels a drop of sweat roll down his side. “And I’m half-convinced I only felt that stuff because I was nervous. I was always nervous then, everything was so new to me. I’ve slept with, like, hundreds of people since her, Tae.” He cracks one eye open and looks at his friend, who’s got both of his closed and facing the fluffy clouds above them. “No butterflies.”
“To be fair, nobody feels butterflies in the middle of sex. That’s kind of an unrelated emotion.” He laughs when Jeongguk retaliates by smacking him with the can and spraying Four Loko on his stomach. “But you’re not going to get butterflies with everyone you meet, that’s the whole point. You get them when you meet someone who matters. You think hundreds of people is enough? I’d set it as low as one in a thousand. That’s how often you make it really work.”
“This from Mister ‘love is extremely real, you’re just a cynic’?”
“I never denied that it’s hard or that it’s rare. If you recall, only my parents and my ex have proven me right. But they have, you know? That counts for something.”
Jeongguk hums noncommittally. He finishes off the drink in his hand and reaches in his bag for a new one, offering it to Taehyung for the first sip. “All I know is that love is messed up. And it doesn’t work. And trying is a waste of time.”
“Well, I’m almost in agreement with you when I remember the guy who broke up with me because he thought my smile was weird.”
Jeongguk scowls. “What? He said that?”
“Yeah, he said it was squarish and awkward.” He forces a smile then, exaggerated stretch of muscles. “See? Like a box.”
Jeongguk squints. “Box? I dunno. That’s a fuckin’ moronic excuse to break up with someone, he’s probably in prison now, but it seems more … like, cordate to me.”
Taehyung rises to his elbow, carefully drinking the fruit punch flavor and smacking his lips together, a habit that endears Jeongguk every time he sees it. From behind the layer of Jeongguk’s sunglasses and the layer of Taehyung’s, it’s hard to say where the composer’s eyes are looking, or if they’re even open. But for a long time after he’s done drinking, he just slouches there propped on one arm and unmoving, and Jeongguk feels naked.
On the last day of July, Taehyung joins him in the shower when they’re both at Jeongguk’s place in the morning.
He generally doesn’t lock the door, either forgetting because he’s so used to living alone or choosing not to because he doesn’t really expect Taehyung to sneak in with a knife, but he’s caught off-guard when the door opens and they meet eyes through the glass. Even steamed up, it doesn’t mask how instantly Jeongguk’s dick fills, and Taehyung glances down with his tongue between his teeth, untying the string on his loose blue pajama pants with a grin.
For twenty of the thirty minutes they spend in there, they get dirty more than they get clean, but there’s a solid stretch of time when Taehyung dips his hands in Jeongguk’s shampooed hair and massages gently, leaning forward to kiss him as he does. There’s no shortage of hot water in the building, thankfully, so they don’t grow cold as they take turns rinsing off, and when Jeongguk goes to step out, Taehyung catches him by the waist. He pulls him back slowly, gently, until they’re pressed together with no space between, dropping soft kisses on Jeongguk’s shoulders and nape, running firm hands over his chest and stomach until Jeongguk thinks he’s about ready for another round.
Gradually, though, the touches grow infrequent and more like caresses, stroking just enough to get Jeongguk’s hair to rise until they taper off entirely.
They dry off in silence, kissing as they pat themselves down, kissing as Taehyung makes a turban on Jeongguk’s head, kissing as Taehyung giggles into his mouth and pushes into his space until Jeongguk is leaning so far back over the sink that Taehyung is leaning over it, too.
He’s got his eyes closed and his lips parted, breathing raggedly, when Taehyung whispers, “I think we should stop.”
The thing about love is, it doesn’t hinge on sex. Heaps of people have been in love without having ever even touched one another’s skin. So when he first hears the words, Jeongguk thinks it’ll be okay. The sex will stop, but they’ll still be friends and it’ll be okay. He isn’t losing Taehyung.
Then, Taehyung says, “And it’d probably be best if we took a break from each other.” At Jeongguk’s slack jaw, he adds, “Not forever! The dean guilt-tripped me into doing an expedited two-credit course for freshmen, so I’ll be on campus in September. But, just for now.”
Jeongguk swallows and steps away, fingers fiddling with the towel around his waist. “Okay. Uh, why?”
Taehyung gestures between them with a shaking hand, which he drops to his side quickly. “I just think this is a bit confusing. We started this as a hook-up thing, for convenience, with no end goal and no commitment, but it seems to me – it just feels like it’s turned into an actual relationship? And that’s not what you signed on for, that’s not what was on the table. So I think we should take a step back.”
“Ah,” Jeongguk nods, gaze low on the handle of the cabinets where he keeps fresh towels, from where Taehyung had just retrieved three clean ones to wrap him up in as he kissed him senseless. “That makes sense. I’m sorry.”
Taehyung steps closer. “Why are you sorry? Neither of us did anything wrong.”
Jeongguk bites his lip, nodding again.
“Seriously. I just think we need a breather, you know? And we’ll be back to normal in a month.” He taps Jeongguk’s chin with one finger, making him glance up. “You agree, don’t you? We turned awfully monogamous, awfully fast.”
The toothbrushes they’ve both left in each other’s bathrooms, the way Taehyung’s address comes up first in his GPS, the fact that Jeongguk hasn’t stepped foot in a bar in months – yes, those are pretty clear signs. He just hadn’t realized they were pointing to something that Taehyung considered bad.
“I agree,” he says woodenly and watches Taehyung smile brightly at him as he walks out of the bathroom, taking most of the steam and all of Jeongguk with him.
In the weeks they spend not talking, Jeongguk gets all of his lesson plans finally done, figures out the assigned textbooks, and even manages to make himself faculty mentor of a newly-approved student club that combines the humanities with the sciences in a series of tasteful talent shows throughout the year.
His faculty partner is a Professor Jung from the Developmental Biology department, and after several long email strings where they propose a variety of event ideas, they agree to meet at the campus bookstore for a coffee and a chat. He notices, for the first time that he manages to go outside of his apartment, that several sets of his clothes are still at Taehyung’s, but he makes himself forget about them. He’ll buy new ones.
Hoseok is funny and friendly, talking over him sometimes in excitement that reminds him of Taehyung.
“Last idea, though, for the spring sessions – I was thinking we have some young professionals, maybe Stanford alums, who are employed in fields that combine several fields of study in a comprehensible and productive way. I figure one for each show, and they can talk at the very end and do some Q&A for students who find their specialties interesting.”
Jeongguk nods eagerly. “That sounds fitting. And between the two of us, we can find more than a handful of diverse candidates.”
Hoseok nods happily, jotting something down in his notepad, and then throws his pen down. “I looked you up on the school website when we were first assigned. You look … much more tired in person.”
Jeongguk doesn’t take offense, laughing for what seems like the first time since Taehyung left his apartment that horrible midsummer day. “No, yeah, I’ve had a tough go recently.”
His companion frowns, leaning forward sympathetically. “Talk to me. I double-majored in psychology, I can give you some basic Freudian rejoinders.”
Jeongguk laughs again, one finger smoothing over the edge of the table as his eyes follow it. “What did they teach you about love?”
“You know, not much at all,” Hoseok says, shrugging. “It wasn’t a core issue in most areas of study. A lot of entry-level psychology is about behavioral and theoretical questions. Personally, though, I think it’s a made-up word.”
Eyes wide, Jeongguk lets out a sharp breath, half-laughing, half-gasping. “For real?”
“We say we ‘love’ when we grow attached. Personally, I think what happens is that we begin to feel happiness almost exclusively in the presence of one person and it makes us dependent, in a very subconscious and animalistic way. But love is not an emotion on its own. So, yes, I think we made it up.”
“See, I didn’t feel … reliant like that. And the way other people see it, like this weight has been taken off your shoulders and everything is sunshine and rainbows, I didn’t feel that, either. I didn’t feel anything new or exciting at all. Just like I didn’t in all the years before that. But now that it’s over, all that I feel is pain.” Jeongguk clears his throat. “So what was it?”
There’s a contemplative look on Hoseok’s face. “I think you’re looking for a strict dictionary definition for something that cannot be defined. Hate, for instance, is different for everyone as well: some use it as motivation to hurt and kill, while others turn cold, while even others use it to create something beautiful like art and music. You won’t ever find your keys if you keep asking everyone else what theirs look like.”
“So … what does that mean?” Jeongguk glances around them at the empty bookstore café, the lone students with their noses in books who have scattered along the walls. Do they question themselves as ferociously as he does, are the books where they’re searching for answers?
“It just means that maybe your version of love isn’t about rainbows and puppies and smiling all the time. Maybe your version of love is feeling empty when they’re away. Maybe it’s jealousy. Maybe it’s a constant urge to please. Or maybe it’s feeling like nothing has changed at all, like someone has inserted themselves seamlessly into your already fulfilling life and you only realize how much you loved them once they’ve left behind holes where they used to be.”
Jeongguk gapes at him.
Hoseok shrugs and throws him a sunny smile, sipping his Frappuccino through a ridiculously long purple straw. “Just theory, though.”
During the first week of school, he sits in the quad alone with a notebook in his hands and headphones over his ears, listening to the seventy-plus songs he’d found with Taehyung’s name on them, and watches people pass him by. In the notebook, he jots down the ways in which he notices Taehyung's absence.
There are young couples, much younger than him, who walk by holding hands and gazing at each other besottedly, and it makes him a little sick, it still does, but he watches because he wants to know. Their fingers intertwine the way his and Taehyung’s did, in bed, right before they fell asleep spooning. Their smiles look soft and private the way Taehyung's always had, and it’s only now that Jeongguk catches on. Their bodies lean in symmetrically as they walk like there’s something pulling them together, and he thinks of the span of thirty seconds in that last shower when they’d both piled their chins on each other’s shoulders and just stood under the spray, dozing.
The low ache in his stomach when he thinks of Taehyung, it keeps pushing him into the certainty that Hoseok was right.
Maybe being in love isn’t about exalting joy and euphoria and rescuing that he’d interpreted from the princess movies. In the end, what those princesses had was a partner, someone who wanted to stick around, who found them interesting, who found them valuable. Maybe the issue was that he’d drawn the wrong lessons, internalized the wrong morals. Maybe being in love isn’t about getting rescued at all, nobody can do that for him except himself. But maybe being in love is about his own desire to rescue Taehyung – from the evil of the world, from suffering, and, hey, maybe from himself, just for starters.
They meet again at the first faculty meeting of the semester, when any kinks of scheduling, room assignments, and course structure are ironed out and the dean gives them all assignments like first-graders.
Taehyung looks fresh, clothes less loose-fitting than his typical brand, but still free-spirited and kooky. His hair has highlights in it that he’d earned lying beside Jeongguk by the pool, and they glitter in the sun as he sits beside a window with one earpiece of a new pair of obnoxious glasses between his teeth.
The meeting lasts forever, Jeongguk knows because he counts every second that he spends staring at Taehyung’s profile while the elder listens to other professors speak. He only glances away when he sees the shocked joy on Taehyung’s face as people begin to file out of the room, and he follows his gaze to spot Kyungsoo’s hand land gently on the curve of Baekhyun’s hip, directing him around the table. The mathematics professor is animatedly retelling some story from his first day of classes to Professor Park of the Linguistics department, barely paying attention, and Jeongguk feels a pang of sympathy for Kyungsoo for a moment, watching him follow along silently.
At the door, however, Baekhyun waves Chanyeol off and lifts a hand to Kyungsoo’s nape, massaging it gently with a warm smile. When they leave the room, they’re holding hands.
When Jeongguk looks away again, he finds Taehyung watching him.
“Hi,” he croaks, voice breaking on an extremely short word. Taehyung smiles.
“Have you lost weight?” he asks, rather than offer a greeting in response.
Jeongguk glances down at himself. He has dropped some pounds, not a lot, but he’d been almost exclusively lying in bed and answering emails for most of the previous month. He’s shocked that Taehyung noticed. “A bit.”
Taehyung sets his gold-rimmed glasses on his nose and watches the last professor walk out, leaving them alone in the room. “Still pessimistic about the world and your place in it?”
Jeongguk stills. “Is that why you broke it off? Was I making you sad?”
The elder smiles that secretive smile, scratching the tip of his nose. “You were making me really happy, actually.”
They gaze at each other silently, Taehyung with patience and Jeongguk with shock. “What does that mean?” he asks, feeling like it’s the only question he’s got anymore.
Taehyung steeples his hands and sets his forehead atop them. “It means you thought your affection was garbage and your attention was a waste, and I was willing to be your recycle bin. Until I wasn’t.”
The chair makes comical squeaking sounds when Jeongguk rolls himself over to sit across from Taehyung at the front of the room. The tabletop that separates them seems too wide a rift, but his hands itch to touch the appalling sketch of Sven that’s bedazzled across Taehyung’s ribs, and he knows it’s too soon. He hasn’t even told Taehyung yet.
“I loved you,” he chokes out, watching Taehyung blink at him, looking soft and fluffy like the morning they met.
After six heart-stoppingly silent seconds, Taehyung’s lips curls. “I know.”
The air leaves Jeongguk’s lungs all at once. “You know?”
Taehyung gestures at him vaguely, eyes wide and mouth quivering as it tries to stop a smile. “Of course I know, you’ve got the emotional age of a toddler! What self-respecting twenty-seven-year-old drinks Four Loko in public on a Saturday morning?” Jeongguk opens his mouth to argue, but Taehyung talks over him, “But you shared it with me! You didn’t even let passing dogs have tiny bites of your food when we went out, and you let me drink half of your stupid fuckboy glorified sodas. You stopped sleeping with other people two weeks after we hooked up, and you thought you could hide it from me. I saw those awful tacky hickeys fade, Guk, you’re not subtle.”
“Plus, you didn’t even notice when we literally spent every night together for the whole month of July. You barely left my place for days. You had a toothbrush and clothes at my apartment.” He takes a deep breath, letting it out in a whoosh that gently unsettles his long bangs. "You called my smile fucking heart-shaped."
They sit in silence that echoes, blinking at one another.
Jeongguk lowers his head until his nose thunks against the table. Taehyung snorts. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he groans into the wood.
“You convinced yourself that love – and therefore I – was a waste of your time, from that very first night. Maybe from the day we met.” Taehyung reaches over and gently ruffles the hair at the top of Jeongguk’s head. “I didn’t want to have to convince you that I wasn’t.”
The younger looks up, eyes falling to the bottom half of the bedazzled moose that is finally visible with how Taehyung is leaning over the table. “The salt in the wound was that you left your stupid Kristoff shirt in my bed.” He stands, pulling and shoving at Taehyung’s waist until he’s lying flat on his back on the table, giggling and batting Jeongguk away gently. “That hurt more than the fucking breakup.”
Taehyung roars with laughter for so long that Jeongguk has to settle for kissing his teeth.