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 1.

“I’m not going to do this forever.”

“Uh huh,” says Yoongi. They’re in the break-room at the Red Lobster and there’s a garish, grimly lit, impromptu employee party that’s sprung up around leftovers and the sodden spirit of Christmas. It’s sort of hot—not too much—but still Namjoon wishes for rain. Yoongi’s eyeing a soggy-looking box of seafood pizza, and Namjoon’s eyeing that girl who works the tables by the pool. He’s not interested in her particularly. He’s just been told that she’s been here the longest—five years—and something about trying to comprehend all that volume of time— all those years carting plates and taking orders and watching out of the corner of your eye to see if a kid is drowning in the fucking pool— is driving Namjoon nose-first into an existential crisis.

“I’m just,” Namjoon says, desperate. “I have to find a better job. I can’t do this forever.”

“The job market sort of sucks,” Yoongi says, breezily. “But don’t panic.”

“How the fuck am I not supposed to panic? Look at this shirt! This shirt says I’m Cray Cray. And then it has the picture of the wrong shellfish. It’s ridiculous. This is my life.”

Yoongi cracks open a lobster and nods sympathetically. “I heard XXX is looking for a salesman, if you want to hit that up.”

Namjoon snorts. “I’d rather save kids drowning in this shitty pool than throw out dudes jacking off to the jackets of soft porn DVDs.”

“Plus, you’d get blue-balls from working there,” Yoongi says. “Or maybe you’ll acclimatize, and then you’ll never get horny again. I heard that’s why the last guy quit.”

“Because he couldn’t get horny?”

“Yeah.”

“Tragic.”

“At least this place has free pizza. Imagine working at Real Deal.”

Namjoon shudders. Real Deal is across the street—a retail hell of mass-produced T-shirts and cheap sunglasses and shitty electronics. Namjoon is pretty sure they only sell export surplus and smuggled goods. Every Friday is Black Friday, screams their motto, hand-painted in red on black on a huge banner strung right across their only window. The words don’t lie: every Friday, prices at the Real Deal are slashed down to half and the shop turns to Sparta. Their employees are known to hide in the bathrooms to escape bloodthirsty customers.

“Capitalism,” Yoongi says sagely, between giant swills of Mountain Dew. “It’s already put a bullet in us, Kim Namjoon.”

Namjoon doesn’t want to believe that. Namjoon wants to believe that his degree in music and communication will actually amount to something. That he’s soon going to somehow extricate his genius from where it’s trapped under the kitchen linoleum like a beached whale; that someday his lucky moon will rise and then it’ll be his time. He feels sick in his gut when he thinks of working here for five more years, stuck as an insect in amber. The girl by the pool wears thick glasses, and behind them her eyes are like tiny, lost moons, filled to the brim with the dreamy sort of agony boredom brings.

Namjoon doesn’t want eyes like that, not by the time he’s just twenty-five.

Namjoon wants to believe in magic.

Namjoon wants to believe.

“You want to come write some tunes tonight?” Yoongi asks, his tone that careful academic thing he uses when he’s seeing too much into Namjoon but doesn’t want to discuss it. “Finish that rap?”

“Maybe tomorrow. I’m teaching night school today.”

“Ah. English.”

“And Math. And everything, really. I get ten dollars per class. It’s mostly immigrants and dropout kids who figured they need to pass school at some point. Not that I judge them for it—better late than never, and some of them are very brave for—”

“Puzzle out your feelings on night school later,” Yoongi interrupts. “You want me to drive you?”

“Beats taking the bus.”

Yoongi’s shitbox car breaks down all the time, bleeds gasoline, and occasionally belches smoke like some small, inefficient demon is resident within the engine. It’s so tiny that Namjoon has to fold his legs at an awkward angle to fit into the shotgun seat.  (Yoongi: “It’s perfect for me. Who told you to get so abnormally tall?”) It also has a fucking epic music system—bass that sets the seats vibrating like they’re in massage chairs, speakers that capture and emphasize every angry word spat out by all of Yoongi’s favorite underground rappers. When Yoongi turns the volume dial up to the max, the entire thing thrums to the music like a bloated boombox.

It’s raining a little when they pull out of the employee parking at the Red Lobster. Night blankets the car like a lake, red light after red light strobing by as they drive. Contrails trickle past in fuzzy auroras, bright billboards announcing one luxury after another flitting past and leaving the taste of bitter pills. Namjoon’s thoughts skip orbitals and he thinks dreamily of studios, libraries, a comfy armchair: all objects of his deepest fantasies. Yoongi keeps muttering under his breath to bits of nonsensical rap (“my tick don’t like no dirty stick”), going slow to avoid skidding on the half-hearted snow.

“You’re going to be a bit late.”

“It’s okay, hyung. Nobody cares.”

The night school is held on the top floor of a local college, in a stuffy room that smells like too much cheap deodorant and sweat. The first time Namjoon went to teach there, the janitor had stopped him and asked him in exaggeratedly simplified English what he was doing there.

School? He’d asked, gesturing wildly, and Namjoon had nodded. Study? Degree? Chinese?

I’m not Chinese, Namjoon said. I’m here to teach.

The janitor looked over him once, slow and disbelieving, taking in his slightly crumpled pants and Red Lobster shirt and gangly limbs. Namjoon had sort of fixed his hair with some gel to resemble a professional approach, but the shitbox car’s AC hadn’t been working that day and Yoongi had made him crack open the windows. By the time the janitor’s assessing gaze reached the top of his head, Namjoon’s hair was doing its best Kilimanjaro impression.

Teach? He asked. Namjoon forced himself to smile, vast and glassy, trying to channel the good Asian manners he’d been taught before he could even write the ABCs.

Yeah, man. Teach.

Something about his approximation of an American accent worked. Okay, the janitor had said, fine. He pressed a button on a shuddering elevator and kept his eyes on Namjoon as he walked inside. When the doors closed on Namjoon, he could hear the janitor mutter, sourly: sure look Chinese to me.

Dude still calls him China Boy. It rankles—just not enough to be worth doing anything.

Yoongi drops him off at the gate.  “See you tomorrow. Don’t let the kids get you down.”

Namjoon walks through the courtyard, thinking of the poem he’s supposed to be teaching. Nobody in night school wants to learn poetry. There’s some interest in biology, and surprisingly some in math, but when Namjoon starts talking about Kubla Khan they all go back to playing rambunctious rounds of Candy Crush.

 Nobody in night school wants to learn shit about Shakespeare either, even if that’s part of the curriculum. Kinda horny but not horny enough is the usual complaint. Unsurprisingly, Namjoon’s copy of Charles Lamb’s abridged Shakespeare—the one on the syllabus for high school equivalency tests—is marked up with crude drawings of an erotic subtext.

It’s not the best gig in the world, this. It just pays some bills.

Today there’s a newcomer.

Namjoon sees him the moment he enters, because  the new boy is stuck in the first row, smack between the Estonian woman who wraps all her things in brown paper and the heavily pregnant teenager dealing drugs to the other kids. He’s slumped in his seat, wearing a loud bomber jacket with bright blue tigers on it, hair tucked under a snapback and a giant laptop balanced on his knees. Something vaguely familiar blasts out of his earphones. There’s a giant cup of some weird looking liquid in front of him, which Namjoon is not looking forward to request him to throw out.

Namjoon considers ignoring, and then remembers that he’s the teacher. No more the awkward automatic teacher’s pet likely to get his face smashed in by cool-looking little thugs.

“Hi,” Namjoon says, over the smacking of keys and the trilling of phones and the yodeling dropouts at the back. “You’re new.”

The kid looks up, yanking off his earphones. He can’t be much younger than Namjoon.

“Hi,” he says. “I’m Travis.”

It’s so unconvincing that Namjoon doesn’t even think before he responds, “No, you’re not.”

Then he mentally kicks himself because God, Namjoon, this is none of your business.

Not-Travis gives a very small shrug of shoulders. Those are some shoulders, Namjoon does not think. That is a face, Namjoon does not think. He gets a peek of some lines of code when the newcomer moves to close his laptop, and is fairly certain that whatever he’s doing, it’s probably not legal.

A furrow appears between Not-Travis’s eyes. “I was supposed to be in Mrs. Burton’s class. You don’t look like Mrs. Burton.”

“No. I’m Kim Namjoon. I don’t know a Mrs. Burton. Maybe you’re supposed to be in a different center.”

“Guess I’m lost, then.”

“Guess so.”

At this point Namjoon expects the boy to get out of his seat and out of his life, but Not-Travis just pouts in a slightly confused way and crosses his arms.

“Er. If you’re staying, drinks are not allowed in class. Policy.”

“Okay,” says Not-Travis, and immediately swallows the rest of whatever in his cup in three large gulps. He smacks his lips when he’s finished, and Namjoon stares at the faint milk mustache in disbelief. “Done.”

“Um. Cool. I guess.”

Namjoon leaves him be. Tonight’s going to be hard enough: he’s going to have to preface Kubla Khan with a story of how Coleridge was fucking stoned as fuck when he dreamed it up, and then got too stone cold sober before he could write down all of his vivid hallucinations. And then Namjoon’s going to have to deal with tangential discussions about weed and the consequences of making it legal, which is possibly the only debate more than 50% of his classroom is invested in at any point.

“So, okay,” he starts. “This is one of the main poems in the course, you can expect at least one question from this, so—”

Namjoon babbles on. Time always stretches in a saltwater-taffy way when he’s in this room. He can feel seconds ticking by, hear the ceiling fans whirring, feel the sweat beading at the back of his neck in very high definition. His own voice always sounds grating to him in the confines of this room, the tittering of his students a constant backdrop, and he keeps doing that thing (the dumb thing, the thing Yoongi says he should stop doing) where he circles back to try and figure out where he went wrong.

He’s always been a good student. He’d gone to college. He’s multilingual and a good team player and understands words like Dow-Jones Index and Sustainable Asset Management. How exactly had he ended up here, in this stuffy room, discussing poetry to GED-aspirants who’d much rather bean each other with their fucking shoes while he talked…

And now his attention slips to Not-Travis and finds him doodling something on his desk.

That something—specifically—being Namjoon.

Namjoon shuffles a bit to see better. He tells himself it’s an unconscious decision: Not-Travis is new, he’s weird, Namjoon is curious. It’s not like this classroom is intellectually stimulating in any other way.

The drawing is sort of cartoonish, but Namjoon can tell it’s meant to be him—confirmed when Not-Travis adds dimples to the cartoon face. The legs are very long, and if Namjoon didn’t know better, he’d swear there’s a look of painful earnestness on the cartoon’s face.

Not-Travis looks up. Their eyes meet for a single incendiary second in which Namjoon’s face goes red hot at being caught staring. The other boy just smiles, whole face lighting up like a fucking Christmas tree. Namjoon stutters over his explanation of how Coleridge was inspired by Milton, says Abysinnian thrice, and considers throwing himself out the window.

“Mr. Kim,” says the Estonian woman, disapprovingly. “The poem.”

Namjoon continues to discuss Kubla Khan.

As he does, he can see Not-Dravis doodle more random things. The meandering river Alph, from the poem, snaking around cartoon Namjoon. The dome of pleasure with stalactites of ice. Tiny flowers and climbing trees, twining vines everywhere. By the end of class his desk is covered with black ink, and he’s drawing a whole solar system of planets around cartoon-Namjoon’s head.

“Now,” Namjoon says, on a hard swallow, staring at the representation of his own pained-looking face on Not-Travis’s desk, “we will do a Diagnostic Test.”

They’re part of the program, these tests. Some equations, reading comprehension—fairly easy stuff, designed to test progress. He passes them around and then spends the next thirty minutes gaping at how Not-Travis does not attempt his all, instead using the margins of the test to continue his series of doodles.

“You’re not supposed to do that,” Namjoon says. “You’re supposed to take the test.”

“I know,” says Not-Travis, vaguely profound. “I don’t know anything yet. So it’s okay.”

Somehow, this seems so perfectly fair and true that Namjoon does not argue. When Namjoon takes the tests back, he sees that Not-Travis has scribbled his name across the top of the sheet, as if this is some courtesy he can’t seem to do without. Taehyung Kim, he reads, which seems a lot more likely than Travis, and also fits that face.

“Good class, Mr. Kim,” Taehyung Kim says to him, when Namjoon finally dismisses class and all of his students are creeping zombie-like out of the door. “Very nice thoughts on stoner poem.” 

Namjoon isn’t sure if this is meant to be sarcastic, so he just grunts. “You were in the wrong place,” he says. “You didn’t have to stay.”

Taehyung shrugs. “I liked the poem. Here, I drew a picture of you. And some other things.”

“I noticed. Why do I look like that?”

“Like what?” Taehyung asks. “I don’t know. That’s just how you look.”

“Oh.”

“It’s cute. You have nice skin.”

“I know.”

“Look, I also drew Lucifer.”

So Taehyung had paid attention to his rambles on Paradise Lost. Namjoon ignores the sudden shoot of tenderness that squishes his heart like an alien tentacle.

“And these are some planets and stuff, because your bag has a NASA pin, and there’s an astronaut on your water bottle.”

“Is that Pluto?”

“Yes. Please don’t tell me I’m wrong, I don’t want it to feel left out.”

“That’s…nice?” Namjoon squeaks, because Taehyung suddenly leans in, too close.

“Are you doing a poem again in your next class?”

“I don’t know? Probably not? Maybe Math?”

“Cool,” says Taehyung, brightly. “I suck at math.”

“But you’re not in my class,” Namjoon says, flustered. “Really—you should find Mrs. Burton, whoever she is, I’m sure they’re waiting for you—”

Taehyung looks at him intently. Namjoon has an awful, hind-brain thought that Taehyung is terrifyingly gorgeous, all big eyes and long lashes and intense eyebrows. The lines of his body are both strong and sweet, as if he’s never known awkwardness in his life. When he looks at Namjoon, he stares like he’s seeing something more than just Namjoon’s face.

It’s extremely disconcerting. Namjoon has to remind himself to breathe.

“I don’t want Mrs. Burton,” Taehyung says. “I like you.”

“That’s not statistically probable,” Namjoon says, because this much must be obvious. “You don’t even know me.”

Taehyung’s tongue does this lip-swipe thing which is both weirdly horny but also completely innocent and habitual. “I like how you actually like the poem,” he says, and actually sounds so, so earnest that Namjoon has to swallow and look away. “I like your voice. I like that you drew a dulcimer to explain what it was.”

“Wasn’t a very good drawing.”

“Still,” Taehyung shrugs. “You speak so well. I feel like the most interesting parts of anything I think always gets stuck in my head when I try to put them to words.”

Namjoon blinks. This is not an extempore class, he wants to say. But that will probably be rude, and the kid does sound sincere when he asks, quietly, “Can I please come to your next class?”

Namjoon panics.

It’s the weirdness of the context: nobody’s ever spoken to him in night school except to yell about how they weren’t getting this fucking math, or how Shakespeare should’ve just written some goddamn porn. Nobody’s ever stayed back in class for a single extra second. Namjoon’s definitely never had someone say they like his teaching (or his voice, or the fucking dumbass dulcimer he’d drawn).

Especially not someone who spent the entire class drawing cartoons and didn’t bother to answer a single test question.

“No,” Namjoon says. “I mean. No, you can’t, that’s not how—find Mrs. Burton.

And then Namjoon gets out of there before he can see the expression on Taehyung’s face.

2.

By the time his next session at the night school is due, Namjoon’s mostly forgotten about it all.

Not Taehyung—he hasn’t forgotten Taehyung. He doesn’t think Taehyung is the kind of person people forget that easy. What Namjoon has left to the dregs of his subconscious memory is his weird panic; the idea of this random person calling him cute; the general weirdness of Taehyung’s existence in that class— at that moment— like some glitch in the universe.

“I’m probably never going to see him again. Right?” Namjoon says, one of the intervening days when they’re in the cafeteria. “Because honestly, that dulcimer was a disaster, I should never draw in my life again—”

“You’re thinking too much.” Yoongi slaps a bunch of sandwiches onto his plate. “It’s giving me a headache.”

“Do you think it’s part of a scam? It could be part of a scam. He was doing some weird shit with his laptop. Why else would he compliment me?”

“He’s a fucking weirdo who likes poetry. He lost his way. He’s on some acid. He’s just flirting with you. It can be so many things other than a fucking conspiracy, Namjoon, why are you making this a thing?”

Namjoon gulps. Yoongi’s right, but is Namjoon really being too paranoid about this? Maybe it’s just that Taehyung is a sudden, confusing wedge in Namjoon’s Kansas-flat life. Maybe it’s just that he’s a little jarred by him. It’s not everyday that someone tells Namjoon they want to see him again. For his voice. And for Math!

Either way, Namjoon thinks, the cafeteria at Red Lobster is probably the last place he should discuss it. Things like the meaning of life, or philosophy, or the idea of hopes and dreams are all taboo topics in this place. Namjoon learned it the hard way, when on the second day he told Andre who worked the grill that he hoped this gig was temporary, that his employability would hopefully pick up when the job market settled a bit, that he wanted to do something related to media and communication.

You see, Namjoon told Andre, Namjoon was writing some papers. When they got published in the journals that mattered, he’d get to do conferences, and people would get to know him, and then he’d find a nice, academic job somewhere, get a dog, and raise fifteen cacti.

“Oh yeah,” Andre said, dryly, when he was done. “I can just feel the genius ooze out of you. Your intellect can generate its own Wi-Fi! Your handling of tables suggest deep reservoirs of greatness! Now can Professor Kim please go collect orders from Table 3? They look ready to smack a bitch.”

Yoongi very kindly taught him about the millennial world’s universal hatred of intellectuals later that night.

(“Let me explain this in a way you understand. You’ve seen Friends? You’ve seen how every punchline to do with Ross probably has something to do with his intellect? His, ah, painful nerdism?”

“Nerdism isn’t a word, hyung.”

Yoongi’s mouth curled in sympathy. “This is precisely your problem,” he said. “Nobody likes smart people who show it, Namjoonie. If you’ve got two braincells to slap together, you’ve got to hide it the best you can.”

“I’m not a show-off.”

“I’m not saying you are. You’re just a bit of an idiot. The smart thing to do is pretend you’re stupid. That way, you’re one of them.”)

Namjoon was observant enough to soon realize the truth of this. Telling your co-workers that you hoped to work white-collar in the near future was committing social suicide. Somehow, everyone equated his mental prowess to his virginity, his Asianness, and his sexual orientation. To be caught reading a book in the Red Lobster was to announce that you were a “gay virgin ass-fucker”, which didn’t even honestly make logical sense—how was he both virgin and an ass-fucker? He and Yoongi strictly conversed in English in the Red Lobster after Namjoon saw the kind of suspicious looks Leonard Montanez got for taking his mom’s call in Spanish during lunch break.

“Either way. If Poetry Boy shows up in your next class, just maybe properly ask him to fuck off. If you don’t want him there. Ask him to fuck off, just like that,” Yoongi snaps his fingers. “Just like that. You’re tall, you can be scary if you try.”

Namjoon scoffs, mouth full of weird seafood sandwich. Yoongi has vastly overestimated Namjoon’s prowess at intimidating anything.

At best he can maybe mildly request.

“I can’t tell him to just fuck off, he’s there to learn. As a teacher, it’s my duty to promote learning. If he doesn’t want to go find his Mrs. Burton and he’s in my class again, I’m just going to teach him.”

“Promote learning,” Yoongi groans. “How are you for real?”

“It’s a complete non-issue, anyway,” Namjoon says. “He’s probably not even going to show up.”

Turns out, Namjoon is wrong about that.

He’s standing in front of the blackboard at his next class, writing a quadratic equation, when Taehyung scrambles to a halt outside the door. It’s his shoes—something about them loud and squeaky on the tiled floor, and when Namjoon whips his head to look, Taehyung is panting, swiping glossy dark locks out of his eyes. Without his snapback, his hair is an homage to 80s mullets, curling softly at the nape of his neck. It makes him look a lot gentler—more hemp-necklace-hipster than Adderall-chewing-frat-boy.

Namjoon feels how slack his mouth  is and shuts it with an audible pop. “Oh. Hi.”

“Hi,” Taehyung says, with a little gasp. His mouth is very pink, like maybe he’s wearing lipstick, but then he licks his lips and it’s still the same pink, so Namjoon is maybe very fucked. “I’m supposed to be in this class?”

Namjoon takes a deep breath. Wets his own lips. “Are you?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m probably in your attendance roster,” says Taehyung, helpfully.

Namjoon checks the attendance roster through a haze of white confusion. There, at the very end, neatly printed: Taehyung Kim.

This is surprising, thinks Namjoon. Wonders what strings Taehyung pulled to get himself reassigned. Is a bit chuffed that Taehyung cared enough to go to the trouble.

“No Mrs. Burton, then?”

“Told you,” Taehyung’s grin is bright and square; makes his eyes into little moons.  “Didn’t want her. Can I come in?”

“You’re late.”

Taehyung blinks. “But I did the poetry assignment.”

Holy shit, Namjoon thinks. He did the poetry assignment.

“Okay, but we’re doing Math today.”

Taehyung looks like a really excited puppy when he smiles. “Great. Quadratic equations. I suck at this, it’s awesome.”

Somebody clears their throat at the back of the room. Namjoon startles, cluing in again to the fact that he and Taehyung aren’t the only people in this room.

“Come in, then.”

In the next hour and a half, Namjoon talks so much about discriminants and parabolas and values of the vertex that his own head begins to spin. Then he goes around, peeking at his students’ work. There are, like, two people who have managed to scrawl down anything other than a vaguely parabolic looking curve. Namjoon mentally laments his life, as usual. He leaves Taehyung for last, sure that he’s out there in the front drawing Namjoon watering plants— or whatever he’s assumed from Namjoon’s SAVE TREES t-shirt— but when he gets to him, Taehyung is midway through actually solving an equation.

His hair hangs in his face. He looks a little worn, like he doesn’t sleep well enough or eat anything that isn’t junk food. There’s a tiny pimple starting to form on his chin, peeking out pink, curious at the surroundings. His pencil moves uncertainly, the top of it wet from his mouth, but he’s slowly making x marks on his graph paper, calculating slope, using the edge of a textbook to connect lines. Namjoon watches until he scrawls the right answer, and tries not to delve too deeply into when his academic interest in Taehyung’s battle with the equation turns into ogling at his hands instead.

Because those are some hands.

A messy grin spills across Taehyung’s face when he spots Namjoon. “Look!” he says, triumphant. “Look, I think I got it!”

No one Namjoon knows—past or present— has ever expressed so much enthusiasm for a fucking quadratic equation. Namjoon feels a little weak in his knees. “Uh. Good job.”

“You’re a good teacher.”

This is probably blatantly untrue, but Taehyung looks so ridiculously sincere that Namjoon’s chest hurts. He feels his mouth slowly stretch into a rogue grin, non-containable, completely beyond his control. As if Taehyung’s enthusiasm for high-school math is a parasite that has made itself at home  within Namjoon’s own heart.

“Eep,” Taehyung mumbles, and covers his grin with his hand. “Dimples.”

This time, Taehyung actually attempts the Diagnostic Test. Namjoon looks on as he plays Match the Following with English, and carefully follows the story in the Reading Comprehension bit with the tip of his pencil drawing out each word. When the test is done, Namjoon collects both it and the poetry assignments. Most of it is hand-written, scrawled on crumpled pages of paper. Kim Taehyung’s is printed, Times New Roman font point 12, four whole pages and a fifth page full of AAA citations.

“I looked at the example papers you emailed the class.”

Namjoon’s mouth runs dry. “The assignment was supposed to be one page.”

“I know,” Taehyung says. “I just wanted to do more. Is that okay?”

Is that—I don’t know. Why did you want to do more?”

“You taught us more than there was in the syllabus. I thought it was cool.”

And then he smiles again, sweet in a way that seems completely unfair to Namjoon, this weird boy with his shaggy hair and big ears and face like a poet’s dream.

Namjoon’s brain short-circuits. There’s some citrus shampoo Taehyung’s using for his hair, which Namjoon can smell very loudly. It’s starting to derange him.

“Great,” he says, hand raised in a thumbs-up, backing away as if he’s doused in kerosene and Kim Taehyung is a sparkling, lit match. “Thanks! See you next class! Be good! Do more math!”

“Okay!” Taehyung calls, happily, and the last thing Namjoon sees before he books it out of there is Taehyung’s big, yaoi hands, raised in a cheery wave.

3.

Taehyung slowly becomes a fixture in Namjoon’s life.

It happens slowly—Namjoon startling every time Taehyung skidded late into class, then beginning to expect him, then growing concerned on the days Taehyung doesn’t show up. He gets used to Taehyung staying back after class sometimes, to work on his doubts.

Math gives him the most trouble, and he’s most prone to giving up at it, so Namjoon had told him once, after class, that Taehyung couldn’t skip whole sections of the subject just because he wanted to.

(“But I don’t get it,” Taehyung had whined. “I just don’t.”

“You got quadratic equations. You’ll get this too. I’ll help you. But you have to want to try. Do you want to try?”

Taehyung had rolled his eyes. “This is so stupid,” he’d said, but then opened his book to the chapter on trigonometry.)

Namjoon comes to expect his assignments too. There’s always effort in them, in the nice margins and neat formatting, in the simplistic but mostly error-less writing. It’s a little weird because Taehyung doesn’t seem to take note-taking seriously at all. He tries in Math, but every other class is doodling time for him, ink filling up every surface around him as his attention flits from words to images to random disconnected things like the slogan on Namjoon’s t-shirt.

Taehyung’s own clothes are often cut up, but artfully; a snip there and a tear here, skin showing bronze through the gaps, like it’s pre-meditated to torment Namjoon.

“Why are you tormented?” Yoongi asks, every time Namjoon laments about his best student. “He’s cute, he’s almost your age. Judging by the way he writes his papers, he’s at least got a crush the size of the Chrysler building for you. You say he thinks of at least one compliment daily.”

“It’s just the way he says it. Like—he’s not taking a piss at me, he really means it, you know? Like, when Taehyung says I should consider teaching college. Dumb idea, but he really believes it. You can see it in his eyes. He has really big eyes. Like swimming pools.” Namjoon groans, flails a little. “Yesterday, he said Mr.Kim, you make mensuration matter.

Yoongi does a double-take. “Menstruation?”

No, hyung, mensuration. Like, Min Yoongi wants to build a rectangular fence for his hypothetical garden of weed to protect it from white usurpers. Given that the cost is X equals You Can’t Afford It per centimeter, calculate how many times Min Yoongi Can’t Afford It to build an entire fence.”

I don’t believe in fences anyway. And you’re a fucking dork.”

“I know. Also, not the point.”

Yoongi yawns. Anyway. Poetry Boy? Do you like him?”

Namjoon’s spent most of the last week picturing his nose crashing into Taehyung’s pretty face like a fucking meteorite. This is—he’s convinced—200% what will happen if he were to ever get over his crippling awkwardness and actually kiss him. Not that the image does anything to quell his lust for his best student.

God, it sounds so wrong in his head.

“It’s not that hard, Joon-ah,” Yoongi says, all crooked half-smile, teasing. “Does Poetry Boy’s lovingly written assignments make you pop a boner or not?”

“Maybe,” Namjoon says to Yoongi, miserable. “I mean. Definitely.”

“So then ask him out! What’s your hang-up?”

Namjoon’s always scandalized by this suggestion. “Hyung! He’s a student.”

“In adult school. Which means he’s an adult. And you’re an adult. LHS equals RHS. Problem solved.”

“It’s the principle of the thing.”

“God, you’re impossible. Anyway, if he’s so bright, what the heck was he so caught up in that he didn’t finish school?”

Namjoon wants to know the answer to this, too. From the first Kubla Khan essay (which he handed back to Taehyung with an explanation that laid out how night school didn’t give out A+s, and how if it had Namjoon would give him an A+, but since he couldn’t,  Taehyung could have a Red Lobster themed crab-sticker instead) Namjoon’s curiosity has burned in him, a deep-sea flare that’s lasted longer than any crush ever.

He wants to know what Taehyung does with that bulky laptop he carries around everywhere. He wants to know what’s up with cutting up all his clothes and drawing on all his stuff, and why Taehyung’s thoughts on poetry and Shakespeare all meander into long melancholic tangents about nostalgia. He wants to know what possessed Taehyung to write a twenty page thesis on the Renaissance, when Namjoon’s assignment had only asked him to identify six major art and literary works of the era. He wants to know if Taehyung really likes staying back after class to work on his doubts with Namjoon, or if it’s all some sort of elaborate act; why Taehyung’s dutifully stuck every crab-sticker Namjoon’s ever given him on the front of his register— a whole army of cheery Cray Cray crabs, just sitting there in plain view of the rest of the class; why Taehyung doesn’t care that every other student in the class looks at him like he’s a) insane, b) a total shoe-licker, c) hopelessly gay.

Namjoon thinks Taehyung doesn’t care how the class looks at him. Or what Namjoon thinks of him. Or what anyone thinks of him. This is surely a fucking miracle, an improbability, a flaw in the code—because Namjoon thinks of nothing else at all.

His whole time at the Red Lobster is spent trying to impress his boss. Every lobster delivered to an accurate table is in the hopes that maybe—just maybe—he’ll be promoted to cashier. Namjoon’s whole body continuously aches from the awareness of the gulf between what he knows he could be doing, and what he’s actually doing.

“There’s a requirement for an exotic dancer at a club down the street,” Yoongi tells him one day, sipping on the awful thick, black coffee that he carries around like liquor in a flask. “Do you think I could be one?”

Namjoon looks at him searchingly. Yoongi is pale and small, snuggly in his giant Red Lobster XXXL tee that comes down to his knees, with his cat eyes and the belligerent twist to his mouth when he isn’t grinning all gummy like a maniac. It’s completely at odds with Namjoon’s picture of any exotic dancer.

“Probably not,” Namjoon says, trying to let him down very gently in case this is some secret dream Yoongi’s only mentioning now. “Sorry, hyung.”

“But look, I have a trick.” Yoongi says, lifting up his shirt. Then he does a weird thing with his belly, where all of his insides seem to sinuously move up and down beneath his skin, rippling the way belly dancers do. “See?”

Namjoon moans and shudders, on his back on the floor in the break-room, like the sight’s somehow electrocuted him. “Why. Stop. Gross. I don’t want to.”

 “Aw, shucks. That might put a wedge in my exotic dance plans,” Yoongi makes a popping sound with his mouth, then stretches unconcernedly. “Hey, listen, I might have found a job listing for you.”

Namjoon sits up. “What? Where?”

“It’s a desk job, but it’s in marketing. I have a friend who works in an agency. He can get you an interview. Do you want?”

 “Do you have to ask?”

“Yeah, but it’s full time, not shift-based, so you’ll probably have to give up night school. There are policies around multiple sources of income.”

“Hyung, I fucking hate night school,” Namjoon says. “I mean. Not entirely. There are some positives—”

“Poetry Boy—”

“—but the cons far outweigh the pros. Please hook me up. I’ll take you for Korean food. I’ll buy you skewers. I’ll buy you pizza.”

“Don’t be dramatic,” Yoongi yawns, lashes fluttering. “Your interview is tomorrow. Sorry—couldn’t get a later date.”

“Holy shit, hyung, you’re an angel.

A pleased smile spreads across Yoongi’s face. “Thank you, I do thrive on praise.”

Namjoon tackles him. He’s pretty sure he’ll overthink this later, as this is possibly the last thing Yoongi will pretend to want, flailing and yelling at Namjoon to get off as he is. But he also really can’t help the bubbling, effervescent happiness lighting up every nerve in his body.

Finally.

Fucking finally, a chance.

4.

He’s teaching Shakespeare tonight.

A Comedy of Errors, the abridged version. Most of the class is asleep, as usual, and Taehyung is doodling, as usual. Today he’s drawing Antipholus of Ephesus and Antipholus of Syracuse, the twins from the story. They’re suspended in a net. Tangled in the net is also all the other characters—the confused wife and the identical servants, the kitchen-maid, the conjurer Pinch out to exorcise the demons out of all the main players.

Namjoon stops talking for a minute. Absolutely nobody looks up or pays any attention, and Taehyung continues to add a whip to his already overcrowded net of ink. Namjoon puts his teaching notes down on the table and scuttles a bit closer.

“Why do you do that?”

Taehyung looks up. His eyes are owlish, huger beneath the glasses he’s wearing, and there’s ink all over his hands. Namjoon knows it’s from how he draws—with the right and with the left—smudging it all sometimes as he goes. He’s not much into precision, Taehyung. It’s like whatever is in him spills out with impatience, and it’s all he can do to try contain it within a single surface.

“Do what?”

Namjoon waves his hand over the doodles. “This. Drawing stuff. In class.”

Taehyung blinks, then beams. “Oh. This.”

“Yeah.”

“Helps me concentrate.”

“Really? Because it looks sometimes like you’re not paying attention.”

Taehyung’s eyes go wider, and the smile drops off his face so fast that Namjoon nearly winces. “Um,” Taehyung says. “Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Syracuse come to Ephesus where they run into their long separated identical twins, Antipholus of Ephesus and Dromio of Ephesus, leading to multiple cases of mistaken identity, and this here is Ariadne, Antipholus of Ephesus’s wife who should really leave him because he’s super into violence, and this is Luciana, and this is Nell who they call a lot of racist things, and also Shakespeare is a bit of a misogynist, and—”

His voice gets tight and more upset as he speaks, and Namjoon’s insides are beginning to liquify from a vague sense of guilt. “Okay,” he says. “Okay, Taehyung, stop. I didn’t mean to suggest you weren’t paying attention.”

“Cool,” Taehyung says, still sounding ruffled, mouth settling into a little line. “Because I am.”

Namjoon sighs. It’s just that it’s not the usual, he doesn’t want to say. There’s nothing usual in methods of learning: everyone finds their own path. Namjoon has always used color-coded flash cards. Hoseok, his college best-friend, used to walk around frantically while yelling the contents of the textbook as loud as his vocal chords would allow. Yoongi, when he’s memorizing something, does it with his eyes screwed shut and fists clenched tight, as if he’s trying to keep all the words inside him with sheer force of will.

“I really want to pass this. I really want to go to college some day,” Taehyung says, very quietly, still not looking at Namjoon. “And something about the way you teach works for me.”

“Okay,” Namjoon says, miserable, stomach flipping. “Okay.”

“So I am,” Taehyung’s tone is very candid. “Paying attention.”

Namjoon feels immediately stupid.

The rest of class is awful because Taehyung sits very still, gaze far away and right at the edge of his seat, as if he’s thinking of making a run for it. He doesn’t draw or move at all. Namjoon finds his gaze slip worriedly in his direction more than once, but forces himself to keep talking. It feels weirdly terrible to see Taehyung like that, so still, hands folded on the desk tight.

The Diagnostic Test Namjoon gives out tonight is mostly on math, and Taehyung bends over it without question.

Namjoon watches the top of his head. His hair’s getting even longer, now, nearly brushing at his shoulders. His denim jacket is old and worn, and painted on with a bunch of smudged colors. It should look stupid, but it doesn’t.

Nothing looks stupid on Taehyung.

When class is done, Taehyung stays back like usual. He has doubts in linear algebra. Namjoon sits with him, patient as Taehyung figures out trisection and bisection by himself, watching and trying to untangle the puzzle of his clear earnestness and unconventional nature. He’s dimly aware that it’s probably not fair to classify anyone as unconventional. But every time he looks at Taehyung he thinks of a magpie tugging something to brightness within his own graying soul, and Namjoon is overcome. It’s a stupid thing to feel, but it’s true.

If the city is a pack of sardines, tightly jammed together, then Taehyung stands out, alone. If the night school is a hum of Netscape-gray static, Taehyung stands out, in color.

So it’s not fair to judge someone for being unconventional, but Namjoon can’t help it.

Taehyung’s like a fucking pole star. Bright and impossible to miss.

“You get the hang of that?”

Taehyung, putting the brackets on his last set of coordinates, hums. His voice is soft. Namjoon wonders if he sings. “Yep. Guess so. Is this the right answer?”

“It’s perfect.”

“Okay.”

Usually, when they’re done, Taehyung will grin and say, that’s all, thank you, Namjoon, and hop out of the room with his stuff and his distracting ink-stained hands. Today he stands, looks right at Namjoon and blurts, “I need you to tell me it’s okay to draw in class.”

Namjoon’s first reaction is to laugh it off. It comes from a place of embarrassment, a place of who am I to tell you to do anything, but Taehyung’s eyes look huge and hurt and Namjoon starts to feel sick inside.

“I don’t—”

“Just say it,” Taehyung insists. “I know I’m being fucking weird, but just say it.”

Namjoon sucks in his breath like through a straw. “Uh,” he says. “It’s okay to draw in class. Really. I didn’t even mean to suggest it wasn’t. If you want to bring a recorder and tape me, that’s fine, too. If you want to take pictures of the blackboard. I don’t care. Whatever helps you. Go for it. You know?”

Taehyung nods, very carefully. “Thank you,” he says, and Namjoon feels suddenly seasick, undeserving of whatever sincerity coloring Taehyung’s tone.

“It’s no big deal. Really. I’m here to help, in whichever way you need me. That’s what I’m here for.”

Whatever emotion it is that flickers across Taehyung’s face, it’s too much for Namjoon to look at with his own mortal eyes and not implode.

“You should know,” Taehyung says, “that you’re the best. I just knew that first day, I knew.”

Namjoon’s throat closes up. He picks up the paperweight on his desk, throws it in the air, and drops it. It rolls towards the edge of the desk, and Taehyung grabs it, hands it back to him with a smile.

Namjoon blurts, unthinking;  “Why do you always say these things?”

“Say what?”

“Things. Compliments,” his body is beginning to curl up on him, possessed by its primal urge to hide, “Nice things.”

“Like, what? Like you’re a good teacher? Because it’s true.”

“I don’t do much,” Namjoon mumbles. “I just read shit out from these dumb notes. I don’t do anything.”

“But you explain things,” Taehyung says, eyes huge, completely earnest. “You’re patient. When you say oh, look, trigonometry is easy, I trust that you’re telling the truth, even if it isn’t and trigonometry sucks ass. You help so much. You’re so good. Really.”

Namjoon looks at the equations they’ve just solved. The graph paper begins to lose focus, become blurry. He quickly blinks and picks up the paperweight again. It’s heavy in his hand, but it feels good. Grounding.

He says nothing.

“Do you think I’m making shit up?” Taehyung asks, very gently. “I never make shit up. Everybody tells me I need a brain to mouth filter. So you can trust me. Okay? I’m glad I didn’t go to Mrs. Burton.”

“Oh,” Namjoon says, momentarily speechless. “Um. Thanks.”

Taehyung makes lame little finger guns, shoots Namjoon with them, pew pew. Then he grins and walks out with his crab-sticker covered register. Namjoon hears him stop just outside the door, turn halfway to shout at the top of his lungs: “Ugh, you’re so good, Kim Namjoon! I can’t believe you’re real.”

Then he runs away, choking on a sweet laugh. Namjoon’s left to sit in the empty classroom, heart so suddenly full he feels sick, smiling dopily at the crumpled pages of his teaching notes.

5.

Sometimes, Namjoon thinks, walking back that night, sometimes he looks at you like he knows everything.

It’s a strange thing about Taehyung—how he noticed Namjoon’s thing for celestial bodies and crabs, how he asked out of the blue one day if Namjoon liked rap, how he brought a slightly smushed piece of cake one night to class because he thought Namjoon might like sweet things.

“You told me,” he says, every time Namjoon asks him how he knew. And maybe Namjoon did—he doesn’t remember. Taehyung asks a lot of questions. What’s your favorite book, and why do you think algebra is important, and do you like jellyfish. In response, Namjoon finds himself telling him more than answers.

I like the rain, because people mind their own business. I like the rain because the sun feels unkind. The sun asks questions—who are you, what have you become. The rain washes everything away.

And Taehyung: I like the sun. You can be so free in the sun. Kids can run around. People don’t need to rush.

Namjoon has always seen people in silhouettes and lines; always found it easier to see in broader concepts than granularities. Me and you. Us and them. Haves and have-nots. Namjoon finds small-talk awkward, does not dig beyond superficialities. He makes judgments basis the shape of the world, and where exactly someone slots into that world.

He thinks Taehyung might be the opposite.

He thinks maybe, when Taehyung sees people, he sees them in an enfolding, over-encompassing way—an entire galaxy of quirks and likes and preferences. He thinks, maybe, that the shape of the world itself is not a mutable thing to him. That it moves and shifts and changes depending on who he’s talking to, and Taehyung adapts effortlessly each time.

It’s why he is the way he is. Open and assured and inviting. Making friends with every single person in the night school. Terrifyingly gentle.

Namjoon has started looking forward to night school—which he didn’t think was possible. Night school has become comforting, warm, a place where he can be himself.

The stars move slowly above him as he walks, the crush of leaves under his feet comforting.

Namjoon has always been lonesome. Lonesome isn’t the same as loneliness, he doesn’t think. Lonesome isn’t aloneness. Lonesome is an unintercepted signal sent out into space. Lonesome is a radio tower in the middle of a desert, or a lighthouse on a far-away cliff.

More than anything, maybe, lonesome is a sort of invisibility. And what Taehyung does, everyday, with his grin and his questions and his assurances is yell I see you.

I see you, Kim Namjoon.

The night unfurls around him quietly. Namjoon smiles all the way home.

6.

The interview goes sideways almost from the start.

There’s a panel with two women wearing flowery pantsuits, and a catatonic-looking man who slumps in his seat like a dead walrus. Namjoon doesn’t like judging people by appearances, or even attaching descriptions to them basis how they look, but this dude bears a clear resemblance to the walrus in his teaching notes for the Walrus and the Carpenter.

Namjoon keeps a grin stuccoed on his face, tries not to fiddle with the cuff of his scratchy old college blazer, looks at the bottles of placebo pills he’s supposed to be marketing with growing disquiet.

“Um, so,” he asks. “Do these actually work?”

One of the women looks up from his resume.  “Does it matter?”

“…I guess not.”

“It says here, Mr. Kim, that you quit your last marketing job without notice.”

“Uh. Right,” Namjoon says. “Had a disagreement with my, uh. My boss.”

“Can you clarify?”

Namjoon gulps air and fidgets in his seat. “It was a new-age pharmacy. He wanted to make money off exploiting animals, and it violated every rule in the book.”

The old anger still tastes stale in his mouth. Namjoon swallows it down and looks at the pills again. He imagines writing advertising copy for them, explaining how they’d change the taker’s life. He imagines phone-calls with invisible buyers, clarifying how much nutrition precisely was in each capsule, how many slices of bread and glasses of milk it could replace.

Namjoon thinks of Taehyung, of him saying I trust that you’re telling the truth.

Namjoon wonders how much truth he will tell, working in this office.

Through the glass doors of the interview room, Namjoon can see a wide expanse of cheap rugs and tiny cubicles, machines, yawning strangers. A printer spits out paper. A shredder eats them up.

Namjoon’s stomach churns.

The walrus-man speaks in a slow, booming voice. “But you were in marketing, Mr. Kim. Not legal or HR.”

For a second, Namjoon locks eyes with him. Walrus-man’s gaze is filmy, drooping with boredom, as if he’d really rather be anywhere but here.

“It was a matter of principle,” Namjoon tries not to fidget with his cuff again. “Dead animals.”

“But it wasn’t your job,” Walrus Man points out. “Wasn’t your business.”

Yeah, that’s what he said, too.

Namjoon fortifies his melting smile. “I was operating beyond the scope of my role to save the company from a potential lawsuit.”

Walrus Man regards him milkily. “Oh, so you were being smart, is what you were doing.”

Namjoon opens his mouth to answer this, but then a familiar voice distracts him.

You fucking motherfucker, he hears, and then the sound of a door slamming. There’s a loud screech for security! that’s cut off by a louder oof, exactly the sound produced by a human when a foot meets their stomach.

Namjoon turns his head to look. Most of the employees are standing up at their desks, craning their necks to see.

“Mr. Kim,” calls Walrus Man. “I asked you a question.”

“No,” Namjoon says mildly, trying to hide his alarm, because he’s sure it’s Taehyung he heard, certain almost. But how can that be? “You offered an observation. An incorrect observation, based on a confirmation bias you seem to have against people that look, talk or act like me.”

One of the employees moves out of his line of sight so Namjoon can finally see the scuffle.

And god fucking damn it, it is Taehyung.

He’s holding his laptop above his head like a drowning man trying to save his baby. His face is shuttered, very pissed, and his stance is of someone who isn’t likely to give up without a fight.

“Wow,” Namjoon mumbles. “Wow, this fucking idiot.”

“Mr. Kim—”

Now there’s a bunch of burly security headed in Taehyung’s direction. Taehyung shows no signs of wanting to move towards the exit, however, and all the employees press forward like hungry gators, jonesing to witness a fight.

Namjoon finds himself slowly getting out of his uncomfortable chair before he can put conscious thought to it.

“Please sit down, Mr. Kim,” says Floral Pantsuit 1. “We’re not done, yet.”

Floral Pantsuit 2 has fallen asleep, despite all the havoc outside. Walrus Man just stares at Namjoon like he can’t believe the sort of sad quarry he has to deal with on the daily.

“I think I’m done,” Namjoon says, as nicely as he can muster. “Sorry. Um. Gotta go now.”

“Mr. Kim—”

Namjoon knocks over a bowl of gummies when he pushes his chair back. “Oops, sorry,” he says again, hands up, slowly backing towards the door. “Sorry, good luck with your pills. Bye!”

He lets his brittle smile crack the moment he’s out of the door. It feels really good. Relieving, somehow. Yoongi’s going to kill him for blowing this, and probably never listen to Namjoon complain about the Red Lobster ever again, but Namjoon’s loosening his suffocating tie even before he’s fully out of the interview room.

Out in the wide expanse of whirring desktops and over-frigid AC, Kim Taehyung—Poetry Boy, A+ student, and apparent troublemaker—is still refusing to budge.

“—I’ll un-hack you when you pay me, asshole,” he’s yelling. His accent is more pronounced when upset, which Namjoon finds immensely endearing, which is a weird emotion to have in the middle of what is surely shaping up to be a major crisis. “You fucking cheapskates!”

Namjoon takes a deep breath. Unsticks a gummy bear from the bottom of his shoe. Triangulates the distance between him, Taehyung, and the burly security. Sees an opening.

He’s never run towards conflict.

But Namjoon is Taehyung’s teacher, and as an educator, he’s meant to shine the light of wisdom on him.

Even if that means dragging him out of this office before the security can re-arrange Taehyung’s handsome face.

“Kim Taehyung!” Namjoon calls, as he gets close.

Maybe his voice is surprising in the context of this office, but Taehyung immediately turns around. His eyes get wide for an instant before Namjoon nearly crashes into him, propelling him forward and towards the exit.

“What—” Taehyung mumbles. “What, Namjoon, how—”

“Just move.”

“Oh no, no, I have to get my money—”

And then he tries to turn around and head right back into the chaos. Namjoon groans. The security are still power-walking towards them, hands pumping like angry, flightless birds. Namjoon gets an arm around Taehyung’s shoulders and yanks him back, surprised at his own strength, and Taehyung looks reasonably gobsmacked enough that he gives in to the tow and lets Namjoon drag him nearly halfway to the exit.

But they’re not running. They’re just sort of confused-waddling to the exit. Taehyung doesn’t really want to go. Namjoon should have known from his cut-up clothes and his general air of nonchalance that Taehyung is one of those fucking millennial kids with a death-wish.

By the time they’re at the door the security’s caught up to them, all thick muscles and giant fluttering mustache, and it’s all Namjoon can do to push Taehyung out the door before turning around.

“We’re leaving, sir,” he says, trying to put on as non-threatening a face as he can muster. “Sorry for the inconvenience.”

“You’re trespassing,” the security says, big meaty hand coming down on Namjoon’s shoulder. “Please co-operate while I remove you from the premises.”

Fair enough, thinks Namjoon faintly. This dude can remove them both from the premises, and then Namjoon can go catch his breath over coffee. But then Taehyung pokes his head back in through the door.

“Hey, beefcake! Tell your big boss I’m going to leak what’s really in those pills. And your sales data. And the three-hundred mail long email chain of his sordid affair with his secretary.”

The employees’ collective wheeze at this is a very good impersonation of air through a whale’s blow-hole.

Namjoon smiles his best presidential smile. “We’ll just go now,” he says, plaintively. Puts up his hands. Very non-threatening. “Good day.”

But the security ignores him to swing a fist at Taehyung, either to clock him across the face or grab for his collar—Namjoon isn’t sure. Either way, Namjoon is there first, slotting himself between the guy and Taehyung.

Fist, meet cheek.

Cheek—fucking ow.

And then everything is white-hot and confusing and his head is swimming in agony and Taehyung is yelling.

On his worst days at the Red Lobster, when his hands are clumsier than usual and he’s maybe broken a plate and someone’s berated him for being a useless yuppie or some equally odd slur, Namjoon goes for long walks under the moon, reviewing his situation like a sick calculator. He walks the empty streets, looking at the harsh streetlight turn everything sharp and ugly, thinking in a stuck-tape loop: what am I doing, what am I doing, what am I doing. The world is profit-centric, not altruistic: Namjoon knows this. Namjoon knows it—he just can’t shut up and take it. He’s an evolutionary misstep; a flawed model among all the other kids who press their nose to the grinder and still survive. He’s a mess. He’s a jelly-centered, soft-shelled, helpless little crustacean of a human being, and the only place he feels warm is in the dark, in the moonlight.

So he walks the quietest alleys, where the streetlights don’t work. He walks, and he thinks, and then he crawls back home to his shitty apartment and lets Yoongi make him shitty tea.

This is what he thinks is happening now. He’s walking, and he’s sad. He’s confused. He’s telling someone about how he couldn’t have stayed in a job that exploited poor baby animals. He’s telling someone how Namjoon is so worried for his future that the present feels unbearable, but every time he tries to put a shape to that future it slip-slides from him, as if his fingers are soaped up and can’t find a grip on his own life. He’s telling someone how he finds desk jobs stifling, and how he knows that’s a privileged position to speak from considering most kids his age can’t afford college, but how it’s unfair anyway that this is the only acceptable, sufficiently-paid path.

Namjoon wishes loudly for rain. He says, like a prayer: “I don’t want to sell pills.”

“I don’t want you to sell pills, either.”

“Hmm,” Namjoon says, and suddenly his eyes are all hot, and he thinks he might cry. “Your hand is very soft.”

“We can sit down in a minute,” a voice says. It sounds pleading. “Hyung—can I call you hyung? Okay. We can sit down in a minute, hyung, and then I’ll get you some ice, okay? Fuck. I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Namjoon hyung, it’s my fault—I—”

Namjoon’s head is splitting. “Uh—um. How did we get away?”

“I sort of punched the dude,” Taehyung says—because of course it’s Taehyung, of course, “which didn’t do anything, it just felt kinda good. Then I threatened to go live on Facebook. Show the world how they treat potential employees. They backed off. Are you a potential employee?”

“Not anymore, I guess.” Namjoon finds this hysterical. “Haha. Ha. Not anymore!”

“Oh. Fuck, I’m so sorry.”

Namjoon tries to go for a dismissive hand gesture and nearly face-plants the road. “Didn’t want the job,” he says, swaying as Taehyung steadies him. “Wowzie, your jacket is sparkly.”

“Thanks, it stuck the sequins on myself. I think you’re still a bit confused. I hope you don’t have a concussion. Can you get a concussion from getting punched? Do you want to go to a hospital? Do you have medical insurance? Because I don’t—”

Namjoon flounders, locates what he thinks might be Taehyung’s shoulder. Squeezes it. “Chill. I just—Maybe tea.”

“Boba? I know a place—”

“Regular tea,” Namjoon says. His voice sounds strangled. Taehyung is so bright, so brilliant, like somehow he’s actually become the pole star. Namjoon can’t look at him. He’s probably just standing in the sun. “Water. Ah. My head.

“Sorry, I didn’t want—”

“’S not your fault. Can we get out of the sun?”

“Okay.” Taehyung sniffles. “Okay, I’m gonna—”

“Are you crying? Don’t cry, I really didn’t want that job, I swear. I think those were erectile dysfunction pills. I was too scared to even ask.”

Taehyung snorts, and then sobs. “They are,” he wails. “Bastards had me do some shady Internet stuff, steal sales data off a competitor and all, and then they wouldn’t even pay. That’s why I got pissed. I didn’t want you to get in trouble. I didn’t even know you were gonna be there. Why would you want to work there?”

“Money. Why are you doing them illegal favors?”

“Money,” Taehyung intones. Then he stops walking abruptly, and Namjoon crashes slow and planetary against his shoulder. “Mmm, okay, so I live here—do you want to come up? I have tea. And ice.”

Which is how Namjoon ends up in Taehyung’s apartment holding a sodden washcloth to his rapidly swelling cheek. Taehyung’s apartment is really weird, half full of plant-life and the other full of scraps of fabric. Namjoon has to share space with one half of a dress-form mannequin on the couch. It has really oddly shaped breasts.

“My roommate makes costumes for theater,” Taehyung explains, flitting around the space like a small, very confused lovebird. “Oh, here’s tea. Um—this has seven flavors, none of which I particularly... moroccan mint, rose, chamomile?” he frowns, a furrow appearing between his brows. “Oh, okay, these look sort of normal—classic or Darjeeling? Sorry, it’s my roommate’s.”

Namjoon groans into the fabric of the couch. “Anything. Yoongi’s teas are awful, so whatever you have is probably going to be an improvement.”

“Gotcha. I don’t really know how to cook, so.”

Even Namjoon is slightly alarmed by this. “Tea isn’t cooking, Taehyung.”

Taehyung shrugs non-committedly at this, completely unbothered, so Namjoon has to peel himself off the couch and wobble to the kitchen, because he isn’t sure he’d survive running down the five flights of emergency exit staircase if Taehyung ends up setting himself on fire.

A supervisory eye, he thinks, is warranted, for Namjoon’s own, concussed benefit.

Turns out, Taehyung isn’t honestly that bad. He has at least 80% more steadiness in all his limbs as compared to Namjoon, and enough presence of mind to not grab the teapot with his bare hands as Namjoon would have done.

So Taehyung makes the tea, and then bubbles over with apologetic generosity and also makes instant curry ramen. Then he pushes Namjoon down on a wobbly chair while the noodles boil so he can properly ice Namjoon’s cheek.

“Ow.”

“Stay still. Oh no, it’s swelling really bad.”

Namjoon sits quietly for a few minutes. Taehyung cups his face in his hands, tilts his chin up to stare better at the bruising. His hands are blessedly cold against Namjoon’s overheated skin. Namjoon tries very hard not to think of his fingers. That way lies danger.

“What’s up with all these plants?”

“Oh,” Taehyung says, dabbing slowly beneath Namjoon’s eye. “That’s me. Herbs, mostly. Sell them to the Vietnamese grandma across the street for her home remedies. Girls buy it. I buy it. It’s awesome. For allergies.”

Namjoon looks up. From this angle, he has a clear view of Taehyung’s sun-browned arms, the curve of his shoulder. His dark hair curls against his neck like a question mark. He’s sticking his tongue out in concentration, which makes Namjoon’s head swim.

 “So,” Namjoon says, to distract himself. “You are doing something illegal with that laptop.”

“Uh. Yeah.” Taehyung’s smile is uncertain, embarrassed. “Don’t look at me like that, I’m not Mr. Robot. I learned it off a book called Hacking for Dummies. Seriously, I’m a small fry. Just lucky that other people are bigger idiots with a computer.”

“You know how much trouble you’ll get in if you’re caught?”

Now Namjoon sounds like a dad. Not even a cool dad—just a weird, puffy-faced, nagging dad. He shakes his head, and the motion somehow knocks the ice out of Taehyung’s hand. They both watch it fly away in a projectile arc—Namjoon in familiar dismay, Taehyung with scientific curiosity. It plops uneventfully on the kitchen counter. Taehyung shrugs and goes to get more from the refrigerator.

“It pays better than my roommate’s shitty costuming job, and he works like eighty-hour weeks,” Taehyung says. “It probably pays better than your night school. Or the Red Lobster.”

Namjoon swivels slowly in his chair, holding onto both arms so he doesn’t go careening into Taehyung. “You know about the Red Lobster?”

“Oh yeah. I’m cray cray for your crayfish.” He steps back, judges Namjoon’s face iced-up enough, and looks at him intently through his bangs. “You didn’t have to do that, you know. Help me, or whatever. You didn’t have to get hurt for my sake. I feel bad.”

Namjoon’s whole face feels lobster-red. “It’s okay. Please don’t. I didn’t even think.”

“Yeah. Yeah, that’s the thing about you, isn’t it?”

Namjoon doesn’t know what that means.

He sits there, quietly stewing in anxiety, unsure where to look or what to touch or if it will look dumb if he gets out of this chair to go look at the plants. Taehyung busies himself with the noodles, and Namjoon sips awkwardly on his tea. He dumps a packet of sugar in it, so Taehyung gives him a second one, and he dumps that too. Taehyung watches a little wide-eyed.

“Um. Good tea.”

“Oh! Great. More sugar?”

“I think at this point it’s about sixty percent sugar.”

There are cheap prints of some artwork he recognizes on the walls, Van Gogh and Klimt and others, alongside photographs of Taehyung and some short, bright-eyed, fae-looking creature who’s probably the roommate. 

“I’m sorry I don’t have any healthy food,” Taehyung says. “Maybe there’s half a cucumber in the fridge, but god knows where that’s been.”

“My favorite thing to eat in the world is Burger King.”

“Oh. Cool. Then we’re good! Let’s eat.”

Namjoon burns his mouth thrice trying to swallow down the noodles. It’s probably dumb how much he’s staring, but he can’t help it; stripped off the ugly light of the classroom, clear from the shroud of night, in the light and the green and the mundane quietude of this apartment, Taehyung looks different. It’s not merely superficial. Taehyung has always been oppressively beautiful, but so far he’s been a sketch to Namjoon, a collection of lines and shading. Now he’s being colored in.

Namjoon holds his breath. There’s a small scar on Taehyung’s cheek that Namjoon’s never noticed before, and now that he has, he wants to know how Taehyung got it. He wants to know how Taehyung learned to take stems and earth and seeds and make them into green, flourishing things. He wants to know about Taehyung’s roommate, and if the roommate is responsible for the customized clothes Taehyung keeps wearing or if he does that all by himself. He wants to know so much.

He looks, and looks, and at some point he’s surprised to come to the conclusion that all the while he’d been looking, Taehyung has been looking back.

His smile is shy. Namjoon promptly panics and drowns half a bottle of water.

 “Can I ask you something?” Taehyung says, when Namjoon’s feeling calmer. “Why night school?”

“I could ask you the same thing,” Namjoon says, mouth half full of noodles. “You seem smart. You catch on very fast in class, and your assignments are—ah—excessive sometimes, but top-tier. Why’d you wait so long to pass high school?”

Taehyung grimaces. “Dumb story,” he rubs at his cheek awkwardly, “but my high school sucked. I have dyslexia, I don’t do well with reading or writing assignments— especially in class. Zorro—I mean, Mrs. Z, she was my English teacher—would just mark these big red Xs all over my stuff. Slash, slash, all over, like she’s some crazy avenger on a battlefield. I tried, I’d come up with so many ways I could retain what she was saying in class—mnemonics, doodling, all sorts of things—but the quizzes and written assignments just did me in. I asked if I could take the assignment packets home, so I could work on them in my computer, but she said, we don’t allow special accommodations.”

“Wow.”

Taehyung shrugs. “Yeah, so it got bad and I stopped going. Didn’t seem like there was a point, and back then I thought who fucking needs school? Turns out, I do. I want to study plants. And vegetables. Get a degree so I can work at a place I like. And I can’t do any of that if I don’t pass school.” He gobbles up a giant noodle, quiet for a minute, before cracking a wide grin. “Also I just sort of picture Mrs.Z’s face. I’ll probably never see her again, but I just want to prove it to her that I did something. You know?”

Namjoon swallows. It’s hard to imagine little Taehyung, so earnest when he’s trying to learn, knocking on closed doors because responsible adults wouldn’t find ways to accommodate him. It’s hard to imagine unkindnesses from teachers at all: academics has always been Namjoon’s sanctuary, the space where he’s thrived. But of course, he’s heard worse stories than this.

“Well, if it matters,” he says, and Taehyung looks up expectantly from his plate, “you’re my best student.”

Taehyung’s smile is the sweetest thing, so lovely it aches. Namjoon tries to smile back—because what do you do, what else do you do, why did you have to say that corny thing, Namjoon?—and then clutches his cheek.

Ow.

7.

They’re doing Taehyung’s laundry.

Namjoon isn’t sure how exactly this situation came about to be, but he’s glad: they’d stayed in that apartment for too long talking, until the light went and everything went muted in the purple of dusk. They drank more sugary tea. Namjoon told him stories about the Red Lobster, and Taehyung laughed like a child at some of them, cracking silly shellfish jokes until all of Namjoon’s pent-up frustration at the job felt effervescent, bubbling up and out of him. Namjoon told him, quiet and rushed, about his unfinished papers and academic dream. Haha, he said, they hate that stuff at the Red Lobster. Haha. It wasn't funny but he laughed, really hard, and Taehyung’s face fell a little—Namjoon saw it clear even though the curtain kept blowing between them where they sat on the floor, casting a veil of shadow across his face. Taehyung told him about odd hacking jobs he’s done—sometimes wives, looking to out their husbands’ affairs; sometimes small companies, looking for any sort of dirt on a competitor—and Namjoon spent half an hour arguing with him on the ethical aspect of it all.

At the end of that conversation, Taehyung had grinned and said, quietly, “You’re so good, hyung. Like—here,” his hand breached the space between them, took it away, landed sure and heavy against Namjoon’s chest. “In your heart. You’re so fucking good. You don’t know how good you are.”

And then Namjoon was sure he was going to explode. Taehyung’s hand just hung there for a minute, like a bookmark on an open page, and Namjoon didn’t know what to do. Ignore it? Hold it? Was he meant to just indulge it, treat it like some sort of symbiotic parasite that had fastened itself to his body? Should he just sit here, absorbing the gentle, soft loveliness Taehyung exuded like a cell under osmosis?

“You’re also very sexy,” Taehyung said, and he was suddenly a significant percentage hotter— Namjoon didn't know how he did it. His face just changed, from goofy and silly to sharp-jawed, achingly hot, absolute perfection. “Do you know this? Your thighs, holy shit.”

Okay, so this sort of cleared up the hand situation—Taehyung definitely wanted to be touched—but Namjoon’s literacy of other human bodies had sort of gone AWOL. At the end Namjoon made a sort of aborted movement that ended up with their fingers brushing. Taehyung smiled at that, but then didn’t seem to know where they should go from there either, which was how the next thing to come out of his mouth had been: “Do you wanna come do my laundry with me?”

So here they are.

The laundromat is empty, lit with a pale, rosy light. There’s a moon hanging out at one window, small and yellow, like a craggy fingernail. Namjoon breathes in. It smells like detergent and salt and damp.

“Kinda silly but sometimes I do my homework in here. It’s quiet.”

Taehyung slots the coins in the machine and the whoosh of the water begins, steady and amniotic. Namjoon sits on the bench. Taehyung follows, in a while, boots up his laptop. He pulls his legs up so his legs are folded beneath him, his hands  in the valley of his thighs, soft, holdable things.

“This assignment is giving me trouble,” Taehyung says. “So it’s a good thing you’re here. What exactly is Tolstoy trying to say about war here?”

Namjoon watches one of Taehyung’s long button-downs swim in the mini-sea, a tangled cuff pushing up to wave through the glass. “It’s more than about war, or state terror, even. Think more general.”

“Okay,” Taehyung says. “So, maybe, a rite of passage?  Ivan is a child, before that night. After what he witnesses, the real world, he becomes an adult?”

“Loss of innocence,” Namjoon nods. “Awareness of, and stress from, the expectations of society.”

Taehyung frowns. “Or maybe loss of hope. Of wonder.”

“I didn’t think of it that way. Don’t think Tolstoy intended it that way.”

“Can I write my assignment that way?”

“Of course. It’s your own interpretation. How you engage with the text is all up to you, as long as you can prove your argument with valid examples.”

Namjoon’s watching one of Taehyung’s jackets tumble about—the one he wears to class sometimes with hope hand-painted on it. Namjoon knows from memory that there’s a tear along the front pocket, a little rip that Taehyung’s highlighted in neon-green fabric paint. Spotting it through the soap and water is like catching a glimpse of an old friend.

They sit for a while like that. Taehyung’s keyboard keeps clacking, and he keeps biting his lip as he thinks, working his mouth wet. Namjoon feels his awkwardness slowly seep out to be replaced by something wonderfully quiet.

“We should do this more often.”

“What?” Taehyung asks, distracted. “Laundry?”

Hang out, Namjoon thinks. Doesn’t say it.

“It’s restful.”

“Hmm,” Taehyung says. He types out a sentence, and Namjoon reads over his shoulder: tolstoy invokes images of wonder and luxury in the first half of the tale

“Hyung,Taehyung says, another quiet while later. “Why did you stop trying to get your papers published?”

Namjoon looks at the swirling clothes. Breathes in. He’s not sure, really. At some point in his stint at the Red Lobster he’d gotten tired of everybody’s little jabs at his “genius”. At some point he decided that clumsy, quiet Kim Namjoon is a better-liked substitute over clumsy, loud Kim Namjoon. Nobody—except maybe Yoongi—tolerated the Namjoon who wanted to discuss bees and poetry and books. In the Red Lobster, everyone’s time and focus and energy was elsewhere, in feelings and families and issues that they didn’t want to discuss with him.

At some point Namjoon really got what Yoongi was trying to say. Why everyone—even Namjoon—liked Joey better than Ross.

So, at some point, he stopped thinking and talking about the papers. Or academia. Or the fifteen cacti.

A desk job is okay, Namjoon started to think. Centralized AC. Dental and medical. Paid time off. Sick leaves.

Big dreams are overrated, he thought. He’s a speck of a person, nothing special, traversing the same zippy pinball routes of life as anyone else. His voice alone is nothing special.

He doesn’t tell Taehyung all this. He’s a little horrified to even realize it himself.  He’s got lots of words in him—Namjoon always has words—but the problem is how these are the heavy, heavy kind. If these words come out of him now, then Taehyung will lose that fluffy, ebullient happiness he’s been trailing all day since Namjoon first ended up in his apartment with a horrible shiner. He’ll get wide-eyed and his mouth will make that thin, hurt shape and he’ll try to impress upon Namjoon why Namjoon is wonderful.

Which—Namjoon thinks Taehyung is wonderful, for being so assuredly himself and unafraid of anything. Taehyung is wonderful for deciding it was fine to hold Namjoon’s sweaty hand and swing it between them for the entire distance from the apartment to the laundromat. Taehyung is wonderful for sitting here attempting this assignment Namjoon’s set him with all the commitment and sincerity his giant, floofy heart can contain.

Namjoon is maybe less wonderful.

Wonderless.

Exhausted.

“I better get a crab-sticker for this,” Taehyung says, after a few minutes of silence. His voice is cheery, an aural band-aid, smoothing over the awkwardness. “It’ll be my twenty-fifth.”

Namjoon, horribly relieved, says, “You count them?”

“Fuck yeah. No one ever gave me stickers at school.”

There’s a tiny twang in Namjoon’s heart at that. “I might be out of crab-stickers,” he says, apologetic. “I’ll have to go to the Red Lobster to get new ones.”

“That’s okay. You got punched in the face for me. Reward enough.”

“Wow. Glad to know my face is worth exactly one crummy sticker.”

One of Taehyung’s hands has crept up somehow to the space between them. Namjoon’s hand promptly becomes a starfish with a brain of its own, itching to attach itself to the top of Taehyung’s. He feels buoyant and strange, some old light sparking to life inside him, lit by this quiet place and the day’s irreverence and the gentle way Taehyung’s head bobs as he reads through his paper.

You know, the hardest thing I ever did was decide to go back to school,” Taehyung says, after a while. “I convinced myself that ship had sailed, long back. That I was too old for second chances now. The day I came into your English class—that was so hard, hyung. I wanted to throw up the whole way there. I got completely lost and ended up at the wrong center. Right before I walked in, I nearly convinced myself that it isn’t worth it, that I can get by on making whatever money I’m making now, I don’t need a school degree to survive. But I wanted to try. For once. Just for me.”

It’s very quiet when he finishes speaking. Namjoon feels it in his heart, feels it as more than just the silence of the laundromat. It’s like the whole world has gone quiet, all under the enormous sky. Quiet everywhere—from the streets to Taehyung’s body to Namjoon’s soul. He closes his eyes for a moment and pretends that the whoosh of the washing machines is a hurtling star—that he’s far and away and alone under the sky where his past and present and future did not matter.

Taehyung doesn’t push him. Namjoon doesn’t think Taehyung will ever push him. He doesn’t say anything at all for a long time, and when he finally speaks, he just says, Maybe we should do this more often.”

“Hmm?”

“I can work on my assignments. You can work on…whatever. If you want. We can both try. But you have to want to try. Do you want to?”

Somebody comes in to the laundromat, and begins to rip open a packet of detergent. The room fills with the scent of lemons.

“Maybe,” Namjoon says, truthfully. “I don’t know. I have to think about it.”

“I’ll give you one of my stickers,” Taehyung says, not specifically to Namjoon, just musing out loud. “Maybe. When you apply to journals, when you finish a study of your own. I’ll give you a sticker, but it won’t be a crab one. I’ll give you—I don’t know. A doodle.”

“I love your doodles.”

“Here,” Taehyung says, and pulls out a Sharpie. “I’ll give you one now. Give me your hand.”

Taehyung draws a moon. It’s a little bit of magic, Namjoon thinks, because Taehyung doesn’t know. Taehyung doesn’t know he quiets his head with nighttime walks. Taehyung doesn’t know his favorite time of the day is the soft, chill blanket of night that descends over the city in the hour after night school ends. 

Or maybe he does—in that odd, observant way of his. Maybe he sees Namjoon for exactly what he is.

Taehyung draws a cute little moon, fully round and with craters, and Namjoon feels airless, bewildered, incredulously and unexpectedly happy.

When he finishes, Taehyung blows gently on the ink, then smiles a little impatient and kisses it instead.

There’s the tiniest ghost of dark ink on his mouth when he looks up.

“Oh,” says Namjoon, pointing, then surges forward to kiss Taehyung. The ink tastes a little chemical-y, but Taehyung tastes like sugar and tea.

Namjoon falls into him like a pebble into a well, down and down, endless. Taehyung tugs him into a better angle, licks hot into his mouth.

Crazy, unbelievable heat shoots up from the base of Namjoon’s spine, his head dizzy, hands full of Taehyung’s stupid, shimmery jacket. Taehyung climbs up somehow on the narrow bench so that he ends up somehow between Namjoon’s legs—which is terrible, Namjoon shudders hard at the realization—his hands curling around the back of Namjoon’s neck, mouth a heavy, wanting thing.

Namjoon feels like he’s being violently drowned, but like, in a really good way. It feels surreal. Taehyung feels big and warm and wonderful, his pulse running thick and fast beneath Namjoon’s mouth when he presses his lips to his neck.

Namjoon breaks away for a moment. Taehyung’s hand is buried in his hair, and it feels faintly devastating. Taehyung’s tongue, running a quick stripe up the line of Namjoon’s throat, is similarly devastating.

All of Namjoon is a crucible of fond devastation.

“Hang on,” Namjoon says. “Hang on, I have to—”

“Don’t bring the student thing up,” Taehyung says, warningly. “I’m an adult. You’re an adult. LHS equals RHS.”

“Have you been talking to Yoongi? What the fuck? Also, no, fuck that, I want to kiss you—”

Taehyung rocks forward again, catches their lips in a quick, snatching kiss.

“—mmm, but, laundromat. Other people.”

Taehyung grins tangibly against Namjoon’s mouth. Then he stands, pushing his laptop into his bag, winking sweetly at Namjoon. “Clothes are done,” he says. “You’re so gorgeous. Maybe kiss me elsewhere?”

There are whole little stars, exploding in Namjoon’s chest. The moon doodle is a little smeared, but that’s okay. Taehyung can always draw more. Any number of moons he wants—he can draw all of them on Namjoon’s skin.

“Sure,” Namjoon says, giddily. “I can do that.”

8.

Yoongi is vaguely displeased that Namjoon blew the pill-company interview, but only because he has a thing for his friend in the agency.

“Otherwise, Namjoon-ah,” he says, “Good for you. Maybe getting punched in the face by a burly security is your wake up call.”

They’re in the employee cafeteria. Namjoon is reading a book about communication and conflict resolution in computer-mediated groups. Everyone that passes by stares at him, but it’s a little better than yesterday, when he’d been reading a graphic novel that was clearly about the Middle East.

Namjoon knows they’re going to make his life difficult, but for the first time in a long time he doesn’t care. Yoongi is right: it feels like time stopped and rebooted again during that interview, and in the few hours after that. Like maybe Taehyung had disconnected him from the rest of the world, then put him back together a different way.

Namjoon knows that it’s a fact well known that if you are anything different from the accepted prototype-human, you’d find it hard to live. If you are a bookworm, a virgin, an Asian, have a different religion, follow a diet, wear plus size, or identify queer in some way, you are a  problem. He knows all the words—words he learned in college—to explain places like the Red Lobster which seethed with hate for anything it considered out of the norm. He knew all the words, and he knew that change would never be too easy to come by.

Sometimes you just have to steel your stomach and want to try.

“Hey,” Yoongi says. “When am I meeting Poetry Boy?”

“Soon. He has exams coming up,” Namjoon says. “Wow, can’t wait till he sees your car though. He loves rap.”

Yoongi narrows his eyes. “Maybe don’t have him listen to anything of ours yet. Safety’s sake.”

Taehyung meets him at night school and then they walk back together. It doesn’t take Namjoon long to get used to someone walking with him, especially because Taehyung can be very quiet when he wants to be. In the bluish light of unlit streets, it’s just them both and the moon. In the distance, the lights of buildings shimmer like cerebral circuitry.

Halcyon,” Namjoon tells him. “A time in the past characterized by great happiness. That’s a future SAT word.”

“Halcyon,” Taehyung sounds it out. His English is more rounded than Namjoon’s, somehow delicious in his mouth. “Pretty word. Isn’t there any word for a future time of happiness?”

“Is there?” Namjoon squints, both at the thought and at the alley. “I’ll have to look it up.”

“Amazing. A word that you don’t know.”

“I don’t know a lot of things,” Namjoon says. “I don’t know dumb things. For example, your plants. What even are your plants? How do you tell them apart? Most of their leaves look the same to me, and you say, oh, this one is waxy, I don’t know what that means.”

Taehyung giggles. “Plants smell different. They feel different.”

“I have no knowledge of plants. Except cacti. I had a dream of living with several cacti. My low-maintenance, hard to kill sons.”

“All your dreams are wonderfully quiet,” Taehyung says, pressing his fingers to the inside of Namjoon’s elbow. “Cute. How’s your papers going?”

“I did some work. Went to the library, did some research and everything. I don’t know if they’re good enough, if my writing is good enough—”

“Hey. I believe in you,” Taehyung says, gravely. He locks his arm with Namjoon, swings them hard as they walk off-balance down the street. “You just have to trust yourself.”

Namjoon’s glad the street is so dark, because he feels a flush creeping up his chest, taking an expressway all the way to his ears.

It stays on him all the way to his apartment, what with Taehyung ridiculously knocking into him all the time, laughing soft into Namjoon’s shoulder every time Namjoon makes a grab for him.

It continues to stay with him, all through Taehyung’s delighted cooing over his dumb plushies, his high-pitched I didn’t know you were so SOFT, hyung, that goes straight to Namjoon’s head like a shot of potent liquor.

It stays with him when he curls a hand under his pillow, his pulse jackrabbiting under the press of Taehyung’s lips. His body goes hot, spine shivery; he takes Taehyung’s face in his hands, and thinks fleetingly how in the neon-blue ocean of the unlit room, Taehyung’s eyes look moon-colored.

They kiss and kiss, and Taehyung lets him bend him backwards, cants his face up so Namjoon can mouth along his jaw, and it all feels very new but also very non-frightening, which Namjoon guesses is a Taehyung thing.

He’s glad for it.

Taehyung’s hands skate smooth over Namjoon’s thighs, and Namjoon feels the tips of his fingers like a minor electric shock.

“Fuck,” Taehyung says, and squeezes experimentally. “Love your thighs.”

Namjoon says, wholly truthful, “I love yours too.”

“I’m so soft,” Taehyung whines, “I’m lazy.”

“This is such a good thing,” Namjoon assures him. He palms the soft skin of Taehyung’s stomach and Taehyung shudders beautifully. “You’re so hot. You have no idea.”

Taehyung presses a hand to Namjoon’s hip and breathes strangled, mouth open and snagging along Namjoon’s collarbone. “Can I touch you?”

“Yeah.”

Namjoon’s glad that there’s no awkwardness at all in the way Taehyung just goes for it, thumbing open the button of Namjoon’s fly and working down the zipper, every second of anticipation overwhelming until he carefully shapes his fingers around Namjoon’s cock and watches him intently.

Namjoon pushes his hips into the grip, and Taehyung strokes him off, tip of his tongue bit between his teeth, focusing hard.

“Is this okay?” Taehyung asks, his voice hitting a subterranean timbre, and Namjoon has a quick thought of how unfair this is, because he can’t open his own mouth for fear that he thinks he’ll squeak from the steady pressure of Taehyung’s hand and the look in his eyes. His head is spinning, thoughts fragmenting, and Taehyung asks, wrenched low, “Do you like that? I think you do…”

Namjoon’s mind is capsizing with how much he likes it. Taehyung’s hand feels slick down there, the slide of his fingers smooth, the pressure just right. Namjoon feels so desperately turned on it hurts.

“You gotta tell me,” Taehyung says, right in his ear. “I have to know.”

Teeth gritted around a moan, Namjoon half hides his face in the pillow. “Yeah, yeah.”

“Yeah, what?”

Namjoon arches up and into Taehyung, and Taehyung makes the most incredible sound, eyes fluttering shut, breathing out hot against Namjoon’s throat. “Yeah, I like it.”

“Good,” Taehyung whispers, all huge, dumb grin, “I do, too. I like you. So much.”

It’s so easy and sweet and Namjoon still blushes dangerously red because Taehyung won’t stop looking. Namjoon pushes his face into Taehyung’s shoulder and sucks in ragged parcels of air.

Taehyung brings him off like that, steady and slow. Namjoon pants and twists a hand in Taehyung’s hair, moves his hips jerkily until everything is too hot and tight and amazing. Burying his face in Taehyung’s throat, Namjoon lets the flood wash over him, the hot pull in his balls shooting up and through his nerves in a blinding fog. He thinks Taehyung gasps, all pleased with himself as Namjoon comes into his hand, and then Namjoon sort of vanishes for a minute.

When he resurfaces, Taehyung has a hand fisted around his own cock, stroking hard and fast. Namjoon watches distantly as his own trembling fingers reach forward to help, Taehyung gasping his name as Namjoon’s hand twists around his cock. Taehyung pushes his sticky hand over Namjoon’s, pushes them both down together. It doesn’t take long after that, Taehyung’s breath coming in sharp pants and his mouth open wet, gaze weighted even as he keeps looking at Namjoon.

Namjoon has never had anyone look at him like that; like he holds all the answers, every little thing; like trust is a physical thing exchanged between their bodies, from Taehyung to him.

Taehyung finishes sharply, crying out and reaching for a kiss, and Namjoon indulges him buoyantly, pressing open-mouthed kisses all over his face.

It’s kind of amazing. Afterwards they lie in a sprawl, let time blur.  Taehyung’s fingers twitch in his hair, slides down to touch the place where everyone points to their heart.

“You were supposed to quiz me,” he says, muffled. His thumb traces the edge of Namjoon’s lowest rib, rises to curve gentle around his nipple. “I have exams coming. What sort of teacher are you?”

“Oh,” Namjoon says. “A good one. This was bio.”

“Thanks,” Taehyung says, sardonically, twisting Namjoon’s arm lightly in his loose grip. “I’ll write an essay on this very important lesson.”

“I’ll give you a sticker.”

Taehyung slings an arm across Namjoon’s stomach, drags him closer. His pulse skims quietly beneath Namjoon’s fingertips, becalmed now. He tangles their legs together, and pushes his face against Namjoon’s shoulder.

Namjoon feels a slow laugh coming on. “What are you doing? Are you going to sleep like that? You’re not even going to clean up?”

“What’s the point, I have to shower again in the morning.”

“Why are you so huggy? Weird spider monkey. Gross.”

“You’re gross,” Taehyung says, sleepily. “Hugging is nice. Hugging is the best. How dare you.”

Namjoon smiles. Thinks of Taehyung after class, one night, asking him, do you like octopuses?

Octopodes, Namjoon had said. That’s the correct plural.

Whatever, Taehyung had persisted. Do you like them?

Taehyung is a big, beautiful octopus.

The blue light spilling into the room makes it all seem a little ephemeral, like the bed is a boat on a gentle ocean. Outside, trucks pass and the moon rises higher. There’s a fleck of light floating on Taehyung’s face, a coin-sized gleam of brightness from outside, and Namjoon watches it travel over his eyelids and his nose and rest on his cheek.

He’s still watching it traipse a path over Taehyung’s skin when he falls asleep.

9.

Taehyung transfers half of his required credits to the nearest high school. Most of Namjoon’s class do. Their grades from quizzes and assignments aren’t world-changing but they do progress, which is surprise enough. Someone at the Red Lobster leaves pussy fucker carved into his employee locker in retaliation for his reading time, which makes both Taehyung and Yoongi howl with laughter. Namjoon’s old manager at the Red Lobster would have tried to get him to repaint the locker, but he’s been replaced by a newer dude who launches into a wild investigation to find the actual culprit. When they don’t get anywhere with that, Namjoon is informed that he can choose what he wants to do with the locker.

He picks a Sunday they’re both not working to let Taehyung go to town on it. Taehyung fills the small space with as many small sea-creatures as can fit, and is drawing the last limb onto a wonky starfish when Namjoon’s new boss shows up.

“Nice job,” Seokjin Kim says, looking intently at Tae’s wriggly squid. “Do you want to do the walls in the pool area?”

Taehyung’s eyes narrow a little, like a shark sensing opportunity. “Are we talking free or paid?”

“Who in their right mind works for free?” Seokjin chuckles. “We’ll pay you.”

Which is how Taehyung ends up drawing giant cartoon shellfish in the Red Lobster, Yoongi overlooking and calling out nonsense instructions (’too many legs’— and— ‘too nice-looking, Taehyung, we want people to eat them, not adopt them’) while Namjoon waits some tables.

Namjoon sneaks glances when he can. Taehyung’s disposition is sunny and bright— completely in his element with his hair pushed back with a bandanna—paintbrush at the ready. Where his worn Legalize It t-shirt rides up, a crescent of sun-tanned skin keeps winking on and off at Namjoon.

He’s staring at it, half-mystified, a tray of water glasses balanced precariously in his hand, when Seokjin calls his name from where he’s standing at the entrance to the kitchen.

“Hey! Namjoon! This letter came for you.”

Seokjin is not a conventional boss. He wanders around in mismatched hot-shorts and a pink snapback, screams a lot at wriggling lobsters, and doesn’t give a fuck what anyone says about him. He gives Namjoon a suspicious look when Namjoon collects the letter.

“What is it?” he asks. “A letter of inheritance? A letter of apartment foreclosure? Results of a paternity test?”

“What? No,” Namjoon mumbles, eyes scanning the text to make sure it says what it says. “I—uh. This is an acceptance letter. From an international research journal. For a paper I wrote.”

 “Oh,” Seokjin says, surprised. “Oh—is that good? That’s good, right?”

Namjoon feels dizzy. Dear Namjoon Kim, he reads, We’re pleased to accept for publication…

“Hey, Renoir!” Seokjin shouts, “your boyfriend got into some international journal.”

At which point Taehyung squeaks, promptly abandons his paintbrush and climbs Namjoon like a monkey.

“I told you,” he says. “I told you. I’m so proud of you!”

He sticks his tongue in Namjoon’s ear and Namjoon yelps, surprised, nearly bats him away before gaining control of his facilities and holding tightly onto him instead. Taehyung buries his face in the back of Namjoon’s neck, kisses softly at his hair. He smells like paint and turpentine, whirls like a dervish to steal the letter from Namjoon, begins reading it out loud in an endearingly obnoxious voice.

Something thick feels lodged in Namjoon’s throat. He can hear Yoongi holler from somewhere, loud and explicit as always, and Seokjin’s handing him a beer, saying good for you, man. Taehyung says, out loud, exemplary work—do you hear that Yoongi hyung, EXEMPLARY WORK, what did I tell you—

Namjoon takes a breath. Smiles to himself.

If lonesomeness is invisibility, he thinks, he’s no longer that. Hasn’t been in a while.

His heart feels full. Grin a bust-open thing.

Near the pool, Taehyung dances away from Yoongi, holding the letter above his head.

The sun feels warm—kind on Namjoon’s skin.

For once, he doesn’t wish for rain.