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Namjoon heard the news last. Needless to say, it pissed him off. The termination of Hunchul’s contract the previous year had rendered him the new leader of the band. He was the only one left of the original lineup. Management should inform him first when it came to these things, not Hoseok or Yoongi.

 

Ikje, Donghyuk and Hunchul just laughed at him when he vented to them during their lunch meeting that week, which he ought to have seen coming. There were three traitors in fake Armani jeans if he’d ever seen any.

 

“Don’t take it personally,” Hunchul said after a while through waning snickers and poked his arm. “It won’t be the last time something like that happens. Bang is an airhead, he always forgets something.”

 

Namjoon could tell he was speaking from experience because he used to be on the receiving end of these complaints. And then Hunchul had left. That made it hard for Namjoon not to take it personally. It felt like Mr. Bang wasn’t taking him seriously as Hunchul’s follow-up, like he was merely the butt of an elaborate prank.

 

Ikje scowled at that. “I told you this would happen, Joon,” he said and tapped the surface of the table as if to emphasize his point. “You should quit while you still can.”

 

What a load of bullshit. Ikje had said no such thing, not even after he’d exited Mr. Bang’s office for the last time. When Namjoon had announced he would take over Hunchul’s position in the band, he had merely scrunched up his forehead in puzzlement—not unlike Namjoon himself. They all had expected Hyosang to replace Hunchul as the leader.

 

Anyway, Namjoon wasn’t a quitter. He told Ikje as much and kicked him in the shin below the table.

 

“We’ll see about that.” Ikje flipped him the finger.

 

Donghyuk, who had observed the exchange in silence, grabbed him by the wrist and put his hand down onto the table. “Don’t be an ass, Je,” he said and flashed Namjoon one of his rare genuine smiles.

 

 


 

 

At first Seokjin thought it was another scam. Big Hit Entertainment—who would ever run a business with that kind of name? But then he met Mr. Bang in person. Bang Sihyuk was definitely the type of person who would run a business with that kind of name. A man on a mission, he plotted to take South Korea’s music market by storm with a brand new concept: a boy band that made undiluted, unapologetic hip-hop. Bulletproof Boyscouts. BTS for short. For a reason no sane person could ever dream to grasp, he wanted Seokjin to be part of it.

 

Naturally, Seokjin politely declined the offer. He knew nothing about music, least of all hip-hop, of all genres out there. Didn’t care much for it either, to the dismay of his older brother. There had to be more suitable candidates.

 

Seokjin’s refusal did not discourage Mr. Bang in the least. “Meet the other band members first,” he said to Seokjin, who couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing. “If you’re still not interested after talking to them, I won’t bother you again.”

 

As much as Mr. Bang’s confidence perplexed him, Seokjin was intrigued. A week later he descended the stairs to the recording studios in the basement of the building Big Hit occupied. What he found there perplexed and intrigued him even more.

 

The familiar smell of smoke and frankincense befogged him as he opened the door. He boggled. Who on earth lit incense in a recording studio without windows?

 

Apart from the confounding smell, three young men filled the minute room, and they were just as confounding. One perched on a leather chair that faced what Seokjin surmised was a mixing console hooked up to one of the biggest computer monitors he’d ever laid eyes upon. The other two had squashed themselves onto a ratty sofa pushed up against the wall on the other side of the room. None of them noticed that someone else had entered the studio. As if under a spell, they all gawked at the large screen, almost like it was something to be worshipped.

 

Seokjin cleared his throat. The two on the couch flinched and whipped around to direct their gawking at him. The other one lazily swiveled his chair around and greeted him with a knowing smile that pulled at the corners of his sharp eyes.

 

“Ah, our newest addition,” he said in a much deeper voice than Seokjin would associate with somebody who had the face and complexion of a porcelain doll. “You’re a gumiho, right?”

 

Gumiho. The word smashed into Seokjin like a freight train. No one had called him that in a long, long while.

 

“A what?” He feigned surprised laughter, which had rarely failed him so far. He’d gotten that A in his improv acting class for a reason after all.

 

The guy at the far end of the sofa tilted his head almost at a square angle. “Are you sure?” he asked the one on the chair. “He doesn’t look like one.”

 

“But he smells like one,” the third one said and cringed promptly. He jumped up and bowed at Seokjin, casting another waft of incense his way. “Sorry, that was rude.”

 

All at once the odd smell made sense. “You’re a dragon,” Seokjin blurted, which earned some titters from the other two. His palms started to sweat. His kind and dragons rarely meshed well. “Oh, I’m—I’m sorry, that was—sorry.”

 

To his amazement, the dragon just smiled. He had a nice smile. “Guess that makes us even. I’m Jin Hyosang by the way.”

 

“I thought gumiho were supposed to be all graceful and dignified.” The guy on the chair snorted to himself. “Then again, I used to think dragons have authority and power.”

 

“That’s rich coming from you, Yoongi,” scoffed the one still sitting on the couch. “You say you can see the future, but your visions aren’t worth shit.”

 

Seokjin rubbed his clammy hands on his jeans. “You can see the future?”

 

“Min Yoongi, dreamseer at your service,” Yoongi said with a smirk that had nothing in common with the mysterious old priestess Seokjin’s family consulted every month. “And my visions are worth a great deal of shit, Hobi’s just jealous.”

 

The other one—Hobi, apparently—rolled his eyes. “As if. Talking to ghosts is way cooler.” He struck a pose, raising his right hand so it nearly hit the low ceiling of the room, and beamed at Seokjin. “I’m Jung Hoseok, the best medium in Gwangju! Nice to meet you.”

 

Seokjin stared at them: Hyosang, shaking his head; Yoongi, leaning back in his chair; Hoseok, hand still high in the air. A gumiho, a dragon, a dreamseer and a medium in a hip-hop boyband. It sounded like the beginning of a bad joke.

 

 


 

 

When he met Kim Seokjin, Namjoon’s first thought was that he must have walked into a film set by accident or something because he had never seen cheekbones quite this symmetrical before in real life. His second thought was that someone like that belonged in his sister’s teen magazines, not in the lineup of a hip-hop group. His voice didn’t fit either. It had an awkward nasal pitch that Namjoon couldn’t imagine singing, let alone rapping.

 

“What do you do?” he asked after they had gone through the obligatory introductions, settling on the armrest of the couch, where Hyosang and Hoseok sat, watching them.

 

For the fraction of a second, Seokjin’s gaze flickered to Yoongi, who was lounging on his chair as usual. “I study acting at Konkuk University,” he said in his weird twang that practically screamed, “I’m a spoiled upper-class Seoul socialite, please punch me in my perfect face!”

 

“Acting.” Namjoon had no trouble envisaging that, but it didn’t answer his real question. “Can you dance? Sing? Rap?”

 

Seokjin’s stupidly broad shoulders rose in a shrug. “Not really.”

 

That threw Namjoon for a loop. Did Mr. Bang know that? If so, what had he scouted Seokjin for? Why hadn’t he briefed Namjoon about this?

 

“Excuse me,” he said, not at all apologetic, “but why are you here then?”

 

Again Seokjin shrugged. “Beats me. Mr. Bang just told me to meet you guys, that’s it. To be honest, I don’t really want to be an idol, but he insisted I come here.”

 

In an instant Namjoon stood and built himself up to full height. He didn’t have Seokjin’s bulky frame, but he had a good inch on him, and he wasn’t above taking advantage of that. “Well, you did, so now you can leave again. Goodbye.”

 

The others erupted into protests that he should watch his manners. He couldn’t have cared less. Manners were a social construct invented by people like Kim Seokjin, who probably thought beatboxing was a kind of martial art. Why waste precious time on shallow rich kids with even more shallow pleasantries?

 

Seokjin’s nostrils flared, contorting his smooth features, and Namjoon thought he heard him growl. Was that supposed to scare him?

 

“It was nice meeting you all,” he said, pointedly not looking at Namjoon. “Good luck with your band.”

 

He spun on his heel and stormed off. What a pompous ass.

 

 


 

 

Rage boiling right underneath his skin, Seokjin aggressively tapped a foot as he waited for the elevator to arrive and take him away from this fresh hell. But before the doors could ding open, he was twisted around and  dragged a few steps back. Hoseok and Hyosang, having each grasped one of his arms, looked at him with wide eyes.

 

“Don’t be mad!” Hoseok said and promptly winced. “Okay, be mad, you have every right, but don’t go yet.”

 

Taking in his pleading expression and Hyosang’s frown, Seokjin freed himself from their holds. “Why not?”

 

“Because Namjoon is a dumbass,” Hyosang said, “and you shouldn’t let that get to you.”

 

“He wasn’t all wrong.” Seokjin sneered. “Obviously, I don’t belong here.”

 

At that Hoseok shrank back a little, but Hyosang stayed where he was, upright and straightforward in a way that probably only dragons could accomplish. “Namjoon doesn’t get to decide that,” he said so firmly Seokjin almost believed it. “You do.”

 

As if to underscore his point, a cloud of his incense smell tickled Seokjin’s nose.

 

“Hyo is right.” Hoseok halted before he amended, “Namjoon isn’t a bad person though. He’s just very steadfast in his beliefs, and that makes him jump to conclusions from time to time.”

 

He was doing his best to explain his friend’s douchebaggery to mollify Seokjin, and it spoke for Hoseok as a person that he was willing to go that far, but his words bounced right off Seokjin’s pride. He was kind of a prideful guy. Maybe a little petty too at times. His grandmother used to say that he had to be—not only as a fox, but also as a Kim.

 

 


 

 

“Wasn’t that a bit harsh?”

 

Tucked into his chair with all his limbs folded, Yoongi assessed Namjoon with a cutting glance. To look threatening while effectively in fetal position was a skill he had perfected throughout his years as a trainee, and Namjoon could not deny that he envied him for it. He had to put in a lot of hard work and sunglasses to appear even remotely imposing.

 

Crossing his arms in front of his chest, he leaned against the backrest of the couch. “I’m surprised you didn’t snap at him first.” He raised his brows in a silent request for Yoongi to explain himself.

 

Yoongi pouted like he did every time he pored over something difficult—the bills, usually. “I see myself in him,” he said, tugging at his lower lip with his thumb. “What do you think his parents are gonna say when they hear he went to some shady no-name entertainment company to become an idol?”

 

His thoughtful expression soured. It wasn’t hard to guess why. Yoongi’s parents had kicked him out once they’d realized he wouldn’t stop doing music anytime soon, just like Namjoon’s had. They had bonded over their common bitterness and self-loathing while scribbling down lyrics until their wrists had become sore.

 

Namjoon had not taken into account that Seokjin might end up facing the same fate just by coming here, even though he did not, in fact, want to work for the agency.

 

“It isn’t like he’ll ever come back.” He stretched himself and yawned. All this fuss had tuckered him out.

 

“I wouldn’t bet on that,” Yoongi said.

 

 


 

 

His brother freaked out when Seokjin recounted to him his strange encounter with Mr. Bang’s trainees, though not for the reason he had expected.

 

“You met Kim Namjoon?” he squealed. “As in, Runchranda?”

 

Calmly, Seokjin cut the chicken on his plate and pretended it was Seokjung’s face. The mental image had a tremendous therapeutic effect. “Is that an actual word or are you just making random noises with your mouth?”

 

“He’s one of the best newcomers in the underground!” He sounded exasperated, as if Seokjin had violated some sort of law by not knowing or caring about that. As if Kim Namjoon’s prestige as a rapper held more relevance than the fact that he had been the one sole human in that studio otherwise full of supernatural creatures. Not to mention his manners—or lack thereof.

 

Another bad joke.

 

Seokjin put his knife and fork down. His fingers hurt. He’d never get used to eating with western cutlery. “That’s what you’re worked up about? He was the only one who couldn’t tell what I am, Jungie! If Mom and Dad find out about this, they’ll kill me.”

 

“Why would they find out? You aren’t going to tell them, are you?” Seokjung asked and resumed to slurp his noodles.

 

“Absolutely not! But one of those guys might.” Seokjin bit his lip. “If word about our family got around to the wrong people, we could get in some serious trouble.”

 

Now Seokjung set his cutlery aside as well. “From what you told me about ‘those guys,’ I don’t think we have to worry about that.” He quirked a brow. “What is this really about, Jinnie?”

 

Seokjin frowned at him. What was that supposed to mean? Did Seokjung not see the gravity of the situation here?

 

“Of course we have to worry about that. These people didn’t bat an eyelash when they realized what I am. They must have known beforehand. Maybe they did research on our family. What if they blackmail us?”

 

A beat of silence passed between the two brothers. Then Seokjung started laughing.

 

“Blackmail?” he said in between hiccups of laughter. “This isn’t one of your scripts, bro.”

 

What the hell? Out of the two of them, Seokjung ought to be the smart and responsible one. As the heir to their father’s business, he ought to stay vigilant to protect the family from threats like this.

 

“I don’t see what’s so funny about this.”

 

Finally, the laughter ebbed away. “Didn’t you say one of them—Yoongi?—is a dreamseer? He probably had a vision about you. Besides, if there was a dragon, it’s no wonder they recognized you right away.” He reached across the table to pat Seokjin’s arm. “You’re overthinking this. Not everybody is out to get you.”

 

Technically, it was impossible to know that for sure, but Seokjin refrained from telling his brother that. Seokjung obviously did not agree.

 

“If I’m overthinking this, you’re underthinking it.”

 

Seokjung sighed. “I’m thinking plenty, just not about the things that you do.”

 

“Such as?”

 

A glint flashed in his brother’s eyes that made the hair on Seokjin’s nape stand on end. ”Such as your fear to take this chance just because you’re too paranoid to believe that there are people out there who don’t treat us like monsters.”

 

“I’m not scared,” Seokjin said. He sounded whiny and petulant. Arguing with Seokjung always reduced him to this small, weak version of himself that he usually locked away in the deepest crevices of his mind, where it belonged.

 

Seokjung bared his teeth in a vulpine grin. “Prove it.”

Chapter Text

Namjoon must have been cursed. At this point it was the only explanation that made even an iota of sense. First, Hunchul had resigned, then Ikje and Donghyuk, and now this. Once was chance. Twice was coincidence. The third time marked a pattern—a pattern that told him no single person in this world could attract this much bad luck in such a short span of time without some higher power involved.

 

Kim Seokjin had just waltzed into the café, their café, where the four of them gathered every week so they wouldn’t drift apart completely. In his mind Namjoon tried to edit him out of the scenery, but Seokjin stood out like a sore thumb in his designer pants and ironed button-up. What was he doing in this neighborhood anyway? Had he gotten lost?

 

It was impossible for the others to overlook him. Donghyuk and Ikje wrinkled their noses at him as he rounded the cash register to retrieve his order at the counter and entered their field of vision.

 

Hunchul raised his huge brows. “That guy has guts to show up here.”

 

Well, that was one way to look at it, Namjoon supposed, trying to hide behind his latte macchiato so Seokjin wouldn’t see him when he turned around to leave. Because Namjoon’s karma had a fucking skeleton of bones to pick with him, however, that was exactly what happened.

 

Seokjin stopped short in the middle of the shop and gaped at him. He seemed just as thrilled about this turn of events as Namjoon.

 

“Something you’d like to share with us?” Hunchul asked Namjoon, brows climbing ever higher.

 

Idly, Namjoon wondered what he had done to deserve this. “Remember the guy Bang sent down to meet us a couple days ago? The really obnoxious one?” He rubbed at his temples that had begun to throb. “That’s him.”

 

Donghyuk whistled. Hunchul’s eyebrows nearly flew off his face.

 

“Wow, that’s just—”

 

Namjoon never found out what Ikje thought that was. In the meantime, Seokjin had recovered from his shock and made his way over to their table. He nodded at them all and offered Namjoon a strained smile. His large build loomed over them portentously.

 

“Nice to see you again,” he said. For an actor in training, he was an awful liar.

 

“Uh,” said Namjoon, failing to come up with an explanation why Seokjin had come to talk to him instead of politely ignoring him like a normal person. “Right.”

 

Ikje glowered at Seokjin. “What’s someone like you doing on this side of the Han River?”

 

Something about the stress he put on the “you” rubbed Namjoon the wrong way even though he had asked himself the same question. Contempt underlay Ikje’s tone to a degree that bewildered him. Admittedly, Namjoon had told him and the other two all about Seokjin’s douchebaggery the other day, but that was a bit much, wasn’t it? Judging by their frowns, Hunchul and Donghyuk thought the same thing.

 

Seokjin’s knuckles turned white around their grip on the paper cup. “Getting some coffee,” he replied, clipped but surprisingly calm. No nonsense, all business. “I didn’t realize that was a crime.”

 

“Didn’t you?” Ikje narrowed his bugging eyes, which made it look like they were about to pop out of their sockets. “Your kind aren’t welcome here, you know that.”

 

Yeah, no. As much as Namjoon disliked Seokjin, he couldn’t just sit back while one of his friends went against every principle of basic human decency. “Yo, what the fuck,” he hissed and smacked Ikje’s arm.

 

“Stay out of this!” Ikje barked at him. There was no other way to describe the guttural way his voice rumbled out of him.

 

“Dude,” Hunchul said. “Chill.”

 

Behind his thick-rimmed glasses, Donghyuk was still frowning at the general situation.

 

“Fine,” Seokjin said, backing away slowly. “I’ve gotten my coffee, I’ll go.”

 

The same guy who had tried to intimidate Namjoon by growling at him like a complete psycho withdrew from their table as though some sort of validity inhered in any of the shit Ikje had spewed. He inclined his head at Namjoon before he stalked out of the café onto the sidewalk, where he merged with the crowd.

 

“What the fuck,” Namjoon said again, this time more to himself.

 

“I second that,” Hunchul said and glared at Ikje, who glared right back.

 

“Trust me, you’d thank me if you knew what I do.” He curled his lips in distaste. “People like him are just rotten, all the way to the core. Better steer clear of them before you get caught up.”

 

Namjoon thought of Seokjin’s straight posture, the irritating lilt of his voice. Caught up in what, he wondered.

 

 


 

 

This was all Seokjung’s fault. Seokjin wouldn’t have ever transgressed the treaty boundaries if Seokjung hadn’t challenged him like that. But he had because he knew that Seokjin only valued two things in this world more than his family: food and his pride. His godforsaken pride that had made him blind to all reason and led him all the way to that café in Itaewon, where Namjoon hung out with his friends once a week.

 

Astonishingly, Hyosang had been all too willing to share all that information with him. He appeared to contradict all the unfavorable things Seokjin had learned about dragons as a child. Dragons, his grandmother had taught him, were unpredictable, powerful beings that acted as if they owned the air they inhaled and the ground they walked on. Hyosang was kind, open-minded and humble, full of gentle smiles that had Seokjin tingling all over, not unlike the smoky smell of incense that surrounded him.

 

He even texted Seokjin that evening to ask how his attempt to broker a ceasefire with Namjoon had panned out.

 

Hyosang

Hey

How’d it go

Why didn’t you tell me one of Kim Namjoon’s friends is a samjokgu??  

Sorry

I didn’t know he’d be there

…So it didn’t go that well I take it

Wow you’re a genius  

I’m really sorry

 

Seokjin didn’t have it in him to stay mad at him for much longer. That Hyosang had volunteered to help him out at all made up for the mess with that dog. Perhaps his brother had been right about one thing. Not everybody was out to get him. Besides, nothing too serious had happened beyond some ill-advised trespassing. Surely, his parents could turn a blind eye on that if they ever found out about that little misadventure.

 

He spent the rest of the night messaging back and forth, consulting with Hyosang what he should do next to get to know the band better. From the back of his head, a voice reminded him that he shouldn’t get involved with them. After all, foxes didn’t get involved with anyone but their own kind.

 

In the end Hyosang, whom Seokjin began to suspect was actually an angel and not a dragon, proposed that he talk to Namjoon and arrange for the three of them to meet up, without the interference of any three-legged mutts whose existence was founded on hatred for foxes.

 

Seokjin agreed instantly. That would show Seokjung he wasn’t afraid of anything or anyone. He would learn all about BTS and Mr. Bang, and then his brother could no longer manipulate him into any more stupid decisions.

 

 


 

 

“I heard you ran into Seokjin the other day.”

 

Lowering the pencil in his hand, Namjoon looked up from his notebook. Hyosang loafed on the bunk beside Namjoon’s own, fiddling with the hem of his duvet.

 

“Are you two talking?” The question came out a lot more accusatory than Namjoon had intended. What his subconscious was accusing Hyosang of precisely, Namjoon couldn’t quite guess.

 

Hyosang’s hands stilled. “Is that a problem?”

 

“No,” Namjoon said slowly, processing this development and what it could mean for the band in the long run. “I guess not.”

 

“I also heard that Ikje gave him shit,” Hyosang added after a moment, somewhere in between question and prompt.

 

Namjoon grimaced. Although he wasn’t responsible for the crap Ikje pulled anymore, he still felt bad. “Yeah. He wouldn’t even tell us why.” An idea struck him that he hadn’t taken into account before. “Wait, do they know each other or something?”

 

“Or something,” Hyosang said. “It isn’t my place to talk about it.”

 

Fair enough. Namjoon didn’t like butting into other people’s business either. But if that wasn’t the reason, why had Hyosang brought the topic up in the first place? “What do you want to talk about then?”

 

“I thought we could go meet him together,” Hyosang said, sitting up.

 

“Who, Ikje?”

 

“No, you idiot. Seokjin.”

 

Seokjin. That name continued to crop up, like a weed growing back regardless of Namjoon’s efforts to get rid of it. He sighed. There was no way he was getting more work done any time soon. He closed his notebook and mustered Hyosang, who looked way too excited at the prospect of seeing Seokjin again, in Namjoon’s opinion. “Seokjin,” he repeated. “What for?”

 

“For the band?” Hyosang said with wide eyes as though that should have been obvious.

 

“He doesn’t want to be in the band,” Namjoon reminded him, but Hyosang’s expression didn’t even waver. “He doesn’t, right?”

 

“He hasn’t decided yet.”

 

That did not add up with what Seokjin had said in the recording studio a week ago. Why would he have changed his mind? Could Hyosang have had something to do with that? He must have, Namjoon concluded, considering his enthusiasm about this—for what reason, though, Namjoon couldn’t fathom. In any case, meeting Seokjin one more time was inevitable at this point. Once he had zeroed in on an idea, nothing was capable of veering Hyosang’s course of action. He really should have succeeded Hunchul instead of Namjoon.

 

“All right,” Namjoon said. He knew when it was time to admit defeat.

 

 


 

 

Squished into a booth in the back of the restaurant, Hyosang and Namjoon made the ultimate odd couple. On the right, Hyosang relaxed against the backrest with his artfully tousled hair and popping eyes that had Seokjin torn whether he wanted to be him or just wanted him period. And on the left, Namjoon fidgeted in his seat, which looked much too small for his long arms and legs knocking against the table every time he moved. The image of someone like him onstage as the leader of a hip-hop group flew in the face of reason, Seokjin thought.

 

He flashed them one of his smoothest smiles as he slid into the other side of the booth. Hyosang returned it with ease. Namjoon went rigid as though somebody had just dumped a bucket of water on him. He stayed like that for the majority of the conversation, only opening his mouth once to order some tea when the waiter showed up. Seokjin could barely contain his disgust. Who the hell ordered tea at a barbecue?

 

While he stuffed his face, Hyosang told him about life as a Big Hit trainee and the future Mr. Bang had planned out for them. He confirmed Seokjin’s suspicion that Bang was a bit of a nutcase—though, to his credit, a prolific one. Nobody in the company queried why he persisted in his demand for Seokjin to join this particular band project, they all simply accepted it because whims like that had gotten him where he was now, at the top of his very own entertainment label. Seokjin was hard-pressed to argue against that kind of logic, even if he still had trouble picturing himself doing anything music-related.

 

Around half an hour into the meal, Hyosang disappeared to the restroom. To Seokjin’s utter amazement, Namjoon used their sudden privacy to break his silence.

 

“I wanted to apologize,” he ground out. It seemed to require substantial physical effort on his part to get the words across his tongue.

 

Seokjin froze, stopping his hand holding the chopsticks halfway to his mouth. Namjoon’s lips puckered like he had just sucked on a lemon. Slowly, the piece of pork slipped from the grip of Seokjin’s chopsticks and splatted back onto his plate.

 

The wet sound of meat colliding with porcelain wrenched him out of his stupor. “Sorry, what?”

 

“You know,” Namjoon said, shifting in his seat, “one of my friends was kind of a dick to you the other day. I know it isn’t my business, but I didn’t—I—you.” He paused to rake a hand through the jumble of his hair. “He was out of line.”

 

Huh. Seokjin leaned his chopsticks against the rim of his plate. Namjoon certainly was full of surprises, wasn’t he? Aiming to become a professional performer and yet cracking easily under pressure. Straightforward and yet awkward. Rude and blunt and headstrong and yet. And yet.

 

“Thanks,” Seokjin said and felt oddly self-conscious.

 

Namjoon cleared his throat, perhaps in an attempt to also clear his memory of this embarrassing episode. Seokjin certainly wished he could forget all about it.

 

“So,” he said, crossing his legs and promptly crashing his knee into the tabletop.

 

Laughter spluttered out of Seokjin, completely of its own accord. “Oh my god,” he wheezed, trying his hardest to breathe before he started squeaking, “s-sorry, I just—”

 

But then Namjoon was snickering too, wagging his head at himself, and an uneven pair of dimples etched themselves into his cheeks. Something in Seokjin’s stomach swooped. All at once he was so full he felt like he wouldn’t have to eat again for days. An altogether foreign feeling. By nature, foxes were always hungry.

 

“Glad to see you’re finally getting along.”

 

Hyosang had returned and squeezed back into his seat, choking the giggles in Seokjin’s throat. Namjoon’s dimples vanished. The moment was gone.

 

To distract himself from the familiar emptiness spreading in his gut, Seokjin picked up where he and Hyosang had left off. The evening went on as it had begun. Namjoon nipped at his tea as Hyosang filled Seokjin in about the many idiosyncrasies of Big Hit Entertainment. Hyosang was a great storyteller, animated but not over the top like Seokjin himself often was. He even managed to make Namjoon smile a few times, though without any trace of dimples.

 

Seokjin couldn’t recall the last time he’d had this much fun. Life as he knew it revolved around duty and reputations. He was aware that, comparatively, he had gotten lucky as the second son. So long as Seokjung followed their father’s footsteps, he was free to do what he wanted. Within reason of course. Acting stood within that reason. Being a hip-hop idol did not. Even if he wasn’t the principal heir, he was still a Kim. For a handful of minutes he had nearly forgotten that.

 

They left at midnight when the restaurant closed. Outside in the crisp autumn air, the spell of the evening wore off, and Seokjin remembered who he was, where he ought to stand.

 

"President Bang is right," Hyosang said as he zipped up his jacket all the way to the top. "You should join the band."

 

Up until that point, none of them had actually addressed this. Somewhere in between Hyosang's jokes and Namjoon's apology, Seokjin had forgotten about that too. "I, oh, I don't know."

 

"At least try recording with us once, Jin."

 

Namjoon looked at Hyosang as if he had just grown a second head, but Hyosang merely smiled at him, wholly unfazed.

 

"Okay," Seokjin heard himself say because nobody had ever called him that before. Then he realized his mistake. This was anything but okay.

 

 


 

 

Hope

I can’t believe this is actually happening  

believe it  

That joke stopped being funny five years ago

it’s a classic, u philistine

it just gets better with time

like a fine wine  

Can we please stop talking about your dated Naruto reference for a second and focus  

focus on what

ur inexplicable hatred for seokjin?

ur inability to cope with changes?

or maybe ur just scared he’ll be better than u

 

Hoseok was no help. Namjoon snapped his phone shut. He should have known better than to expect sense from Hoseok. Hoseok liked everybody, and everybody liked Hoseok. An equation like that left no room for sense or perfectly healthy dosages of doubt. Not that Hyosang was any better. Even Yoongi had astoundingly little reservations. Only Namjoon seemed to struggle with the image of Kim Seokjin, poster boy for snobbery, standing in the recording booth of their studio, as per Mr. Bang’s instruction (after Hyosang, the freak, had proposed the idea to him), and waiting for his cue to start rapping.

 

Seokjin. Rapping. What a concept.

 

A shudder zipped down his spine when Yoongi dropped the beat a minute later. It was one of his favorites, a possible contender for the first single album if—no, when—they got there. The bassline swung back and forth like a pendulum until the drums came in and kicked the track into overdrive. The tempo wasn’t easy to match, even for a veteran like Yoongi, but the challenge made it what it was.

 

The churning rhythm overran Seokjin without mercy. He had hardly gotten through the first bar before he yanked his headphones off and surrendered.

 

Hope

Or maybe I was right all along

how bad is it 

Remember when you started  

fuck u, i wasn’t that bad

but ouch

He’ll never even get that far  

wow

that’s mean

ur mean

Thanks

 

When he pocketed his phone again, Seokjin had re-emerged from the recording booth, all red ears and flatline mouth. No one said anything for a moment. Then Yoongi rose from his chair and mumbled something about needing more coffee before he made a beeline for the exit.

 

Hyosang gave Seokjin an encouraging tap on his shoulder and went after Yoongi, once again leaving Namjoon alone with Seokjin, who dragged himself over to the sofa and subsided there.

 

“Lay it on me, come on,” he said. “Tell me how awful I was.”

 

“You a masochist or something?”

 

Seokjin cast him a pointed look. “Just get it out of your system. I know you want to.”

 

“As entertaining as that would be, it wouldn’t actually get us anywhere,” Namjoon said and walked across the room to appropriate Yoongi’s chair. No matter how petty he got while texting his friends, he wasn’t that much of an asshole, but Seokjin didn’t have to know that. “You don’t like hip-hop, do you?”

 

Seokjin’s lips hardened into a sneer that didn’t flatter the soft contours of his face. “Did my rap skills give me away?”

 

Namjoon did not deign that with a response. “So what music do you like?”

 

“Ballads,” Seokjin said without hesitation.

 

How boring. Unsurprising and boring. Oh, well. “Show me.”

 

Seokjin’s sneer gave way to a bemused frown. “Pardon?”

 

“Sing one,” Namjoon clarified with a prompting wave of his hand.

 

Although his eyes bulged with disbelief, the determined set of Seokjin’s jaw made it very evident he would not back out. Namjoon’s boredom dispersed. Not many people he had encountered throughout his life would have the guts to take on a challenge like that, especially after that disgrace in the recording booth just now. Seokjin might be kind of a prick, but he was a spunky prick. Namjoon could respect that.

 

Hands tensing at his sides, Seokjin rose to his feet. “Turn around.”

 

Now it was turn for Namjoon’s eyes to bulge. “What?”

 

“Turn around,” Seokjin repeated impatiently like he was talking to a small child. “I won’t sing as long as you’re looking.”

 

All of Namjoon’s newfound esteem for Seokjin fizzled out on the spot. So much for spunky. He held up his hands, palms up front, and obediently rotated the chair. The faster they got this over with the better.

 

After a beat of silence, Seokjin struck up the first notes. They were so breathy and quiet it took Namjoon a moment to make out the song. He didn’t know the title, but he vaguely remembered his mother playing it sometimes a couple of years back. Something about waiting, about rain washing away the beauty of summer.

 

Seokjin wasn’t bad. The longer he went on the louder and clearer he became. He enunciated each syllable with a care that, mystifyingly, reminded Namjoon of the way good rappers focused on diction as much as on their flow. The grating nasality of his voice morphed into a smooth tenor. At the back of his mind, Namjoon wondered if actors got singing lessons because Seokjin sounded much too steady for an amateur, but then, as if on cue, his breath hitched and the song splintered off to an abrupt close.

 

He had wrung his hands together, knuckles white, when Namjoon swirled the chair back around. This time his inner turmoil appeared to extend farther than mere embarrassment. So he cared more about singing than rapping, huh? Namjoon filed that information away in the corresponding compartments of his brain for later reference.

 

“Better than I expected,” he said. Mr. Bang had taught him to always give credit when it was due, and Namjoon was nothing if not a good student.

 

Seokjin eyed him up and down as if he were seeing him for the first time. “If that’s true, I don’t want to know what you were expecting.”

 

“Hey,” Namjoon said and made a sweeping movement with his arms, figuratively evening out the gouges between them. “I stand corrected. Or, well, sit corrected, but that sounds kind of dumb.”

 

An unattractive snort sputtered out of Seokjin, which Namjoon’s poor attempt at humor definitely had not warranted, and it did not match Seokjin's slick exterior at all. Namjoon wondered what else hid beneath all that swagger, if perhaps an actual human being was inside there somewhere.

 

“You’re so weird,” Seokjin said. Seokjin of all people, who was screaking with high-pitched giggles that Namjoon should have found annoying as hell rather than likeable because Seokjin and likeable just did not go together. “You act so aloof all the time, but then you do stuff like that.”

 

“Stuff like what?”

 

Puns,” Seokjin said with a peculiar inflection that Namjoon couldn’t quite classify. Classifications at large lost all purport around Seokjin, it seemed. He was forcing Namjoon to reevaluate all of the assumptions that had structured his life up until now, peeling away his sanity layer by layer.

 

“Puns,” Namjoon repeated.

 

Whatever it was about his failed joke that had deterred Seokjin, it passed as quickly as it had gotten a hold of him. “Anyway, thanks for the compliment I guess.” His hands spasmed at his sides. “We’re done now, right?”

 

It took Namjoon several seconds to rearrange the mess in his head back into a simulacrum of order. “I wouldn’t mind hearing some more, but you can leave whenever you like.”

 

“You’re serious,” Seokjin said as if that had only just now occurred to him, as if he’d genuinely believed Namjoon had been kidding him about his singing.

 

Namjoon shrugged and reclined in his seat. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

 

In that instant the door to the studio opened, and the answer teetering on the edge of Seokjin’s lips fell away, irrevocably lost. Mr. Bang sauntered towards them, followed by Hyosang and Yoongi. He sat Seokjin down on the ratty couch and grilled Namjoon about the recording. He showed no sign of surprise when Namjoon answered that Seokjin had potential as a vocalist, unlike Yoongi and Hyosang, who threw Namjoon inquisitive glances above Mr. Bang’s shoulder. Since Namjoon had forgotten to record the actual singing, Seokjin had to do it once more. He screwed up more this time, but the soft slide of his voice remained impressive. And so it was decided that Seokjin absolutely had to join BTS, no way around it, because they all knew better than to disagree with Bang at this point.

 

Hope

seems like we were both right

?

he’s shit at rapping but way better at singing than u could ever hope to be

Whatever

Chapter Text

“So I guess I’m joining the band.”

 

Seokjung’s head snapped up, away from his phone, where he’d been going through his appointments for the day. He set it down on the table next to his coffee and fastened his gaze on Seokjin’s face.

 

“That’s an interesting development,” he remarked, not quite teasing yet, though Seokjin knew better than to expect anything else.

 

He gave a casual shrug. Or tried to anyway. With shoulders like his, it was impossible to make any movement casual. “If we ever debut, maybe. Right now there isn’t anything interesting about it.”

 

“’We,’ huh?” Seokjung smirked.

 

“Can it.” Seokjin shot him his evilest look, but that wasn’t enough to stop his brother in his self-satisfaction.

 

“I knew it,” Seokjung said, relishing Seokjin’s irritation. “I knew you’d change your mind.”

 

“I hope you don’t forget that when I talk to Mom and Dad.” With a flounce Seokjin ripped off a chunk of his omelet and shoveled it into his mouth. “I hope you’ll tell them that it was all your idea when they lose their shit.”

 

“Don’t worry, I will,” Seokjung said, still smirking, and reached back for his phone. “Have a little more faith in your big bro, Jinnie.”

 

“Can it,” Seokjin said again and tore his omelet to shreds.

 

His parents, however, took the news much better than anticipated, mostly because he only reached their voicemail when he called them. He hoped the spatial and temporal distance might lessen the blow, but even if it didn’t, his signature was already on the contract, and there was little they could do about that.

 

Seokjung was sure they would come around eventually and tossed him a boyish grin that dented his round cheeks. Seokjin had never noticed before that his brother had dimples. They looked nothing like Namjoon’s, which were all weird and lopsided. Namjoon’s face was like that in general, molded by an array of ill-fitting angles and irregular lines like a cubistic painting or an optical illusion. He looked especially odd next to Hyosang, who resembled Renaissance paintings—a Michelangelo maybe. He was just easy on the eyes in every fashion. Easy on the ears and nose too. Easily, so easily, the pervasive aroma of his incense smell would imbue Seokjin’s airways until all other scents in the room seemed to dissipate.

 

Adapting to the life of an idol trainee wasn’t as easy. By Mr. Bang’s demand, he moved into an apartment block downtown, where the others already shared a single-room unit. There was space for only two loft bunks, so he had to sleep on a futon in the small gap in between the two beds until the company could afford better accommodation for them.

 

All that paled in comparison to the actual training though. One week in, he had discovered that he lacked everything a proper idol required, and he couldn’t imagine ever meeting those requirements, no matter how hard he practiced. He started to seriously doubt his decision. He didn’t belong here. It had been silly of him to assume that this might change one day, that he might change one day.

 

“The heck are you doing here?”

 

Seokjin’s head jerked up from in between his knees where he had tucked it away. The doorway to the studio yawed open wide. Namjoon stood there, the hood of his sweater pulled over his forehead, and eyeballed Seokjin’s clumsy attempt to fit the entirety of his substantial figure onto the sofa.

 

“I keep asking that myself,” Seokjin said and drew his legs closer to his chest. At times like this he hated his size. Although he felt small, he remained this huge, uncoordinated lump of limbs. Namjoon might be even taller than him, but at least he was slimmer, less freakish.

 

The joints of Yoongi’s chair grunted as Namjoon plopped into it. “Uh,” he said, ever eloquent, and tugged at his hood. “Can I help you with something?”

 

Despite his evident bemusement, the concern in his question sounded genuine. That appeared to apply to Namjoon at large. He still wasn’t very enthusiastic about Seokjin’s affiliation with the band, but apart from that he treated him just like he did every other band mate. Of course there was none of Hoseok and Hyosang’s cordiality or Yoongi’s wry approval, but he took his role as bandleader more seriously than Seokjin had expected. Perhaps he’d be willing to listen.

 

Seokjin scrubbed his face. “What am I doing here?” he said through the grid of his fingers.

 

Understanding dawned on Namjoon’s face. “I don’t think I’m the one you should be asking that.”

 

“I know that,” Seokjin snapped and regretted it almost instantly. It wasn’t Namjoon’s fault that he was struggling. He had no one to blame for that but himself. “Sorry, I’m just—I’m tired.”

 

If Namjoon minded his outburst, it didn’t show in his expression. He smiled, small and askew, hinting at the dimples hiding in the fat of his cheeks. “It’s okay. I get it.”

 

Seokjin frowned at him. He highly doubted that. “I don’t mean, like, physically. I mean, I am beat, but that isn’t what I’m talking about.”

 

“That isn’t what I’m talking about either,” Namjoon said around his smile. “How long do you think I’ve been doing this? I joined Big Hit two years ago, and a debut date is nowhere in sight. All of the original trainees for this group have long since jumped ship. I’m the only one who stayed. Who stays.”

 

Oh. Seokjin hadn’t thought about that. Not once. How ignorant he must look in Namjoon’s eyes, how small-minded. Shame made him suddenly reconsider everything he knew about Namjoon and the band. He knew very little, he realized.

 

“Why do you? Stay, I mean.”

 

The edges of Namjoon’s smile brittled. He looked worn and exhausted, and for the first time Seokjin wondered how old he was—or rather how young. “I’m stubborn,” was all he said. There was a story there, but Seokjin didn’t dare touch on it head-on. He had no right to.

 

“I gathered as much,” he said instead, opting for a teasing tone that deflagrated already as he spoke.

 

“You are too,” Namjoon told him. It wasn’t an accusation. It wasn’t an insult either. It wasn’t anything that Seokjin could pinpoint, neither by ear nor by nose, like his senses had collectively shut down.

 

To stay in familiar territory, he decided to take it as banter regardless. “Not as much as you.”

 

The quirk of Namjoon’s mouth turned playful. “That remains to be seen.”

 

Seokjin snorted and unfurled his body. He jumped to his feet, stretched and went back to work.

 

Later that evening, curled up on his futon, Seokjin listened to the steady snores coming from Namjoon’s bunk and felt all the muscles in his body unwind. Even though he hadn’t known what was going on, Namjoon had taken the time to distract Seokjin from his self-pity. He didn’t even like Seokjin, and he had done it anyway. It hadn’t solved the actual problem—naturally—but that wasn’t the point. The point was that Namjoon, in diametric contrast to the rough act he played to match some stupid hip-hop cliché, had handled the situation with a care that usually only Seokjung bothered with, if at all.

 

Maybe it was time for Seokjin to rectify his initial evaluation of Namjoon’s character.

 

Hyosang certainly seemed to think so. “We told you he’s a good guy,” he said the next day after Seokjin had recounted to him the events from the previous night. “Underneath all that awkwardness.”

 

Seokjin was starting to see that. Still, Namjoon could only lose next to Hyosang, though that wasn’t really his fault. Next to Hyosang everybody would come off second best. Not that Seokjin could ever tell him that. After all Hyosang was a dragon. Even if he weren’t, there was no way he would be interested in someone like Seokjin. He was good-looking, sure, but that didn’t help when the object of your affection was way out of your league in every other aspect.

 

 


 

 

Everybody adjusted to the new situation faster than Namjoon did. Hoseok hadn’t been wrong. He didn’t deal with changes very well. He didn’t deal with them at all, if he could help it. As the bandleader, he couldn’t help it very often, unfortunately.

 

Seokjin was here to stay—for now at least—and there wasn’t much Namjoon could do about that. He had his doubts, though. It was questionable whether Seokjin had the willpower necessary to pull through on the long run, but so far he took his training seriously and worked hard, so Namjoon had no reason to complain. Quite the opposite, actually. Seokjin seemed to fit right in, buffering the gaps between the rest of them—gaps that Namjoon hadn’t even known existed.

 

When everybody else was grumpy after a particularly long day, he helped Hoseok to lighten the mood with an infinite arsenal of jokes that were so horrible that Namjoon couldn’t help but laugh every goddamn time. When they ran out of groceries, he never hesitated to sacrifice some of his own savings to make sure the fridge stayed well stocked. When they were all too busy to even remember eating, he woke up early to dish up some lunch boxes so they wouldn’t starve.

 

Occupying his usual spot at the stove, the young man with his threadbare apron and tousled bedhead shared nothing but a name with the ritzy rich kid Namjoon had met three weeks ago. The transformation Seokjin had gone through baffled him, not only because he hadn’t seen it coming. It raised the question why Seokjin put up a front like that in the first place.

 

“Where is everyone?” he asked, dragging Namjoon away from his ruminations. He settled down at the opposite end of the small table and placed two steaming bowls of fried rice with eggs on top of it.

 

“In the studio?” Namjoon hazarded, all senses zeroing in on the food in front of him. For someone who had likely grown up with a silver spoon in his mouth, Seokjin was a strikingly good cook. If somebody had told Namjoon that prior to rooming with him, he wouldn’t have believed it.

 

“You sure?” Seokjin stabbed at his breakfast with his chopsticks. “I haven’t seen Hyosang near the studio for days. Haven’t seen him at all actually.”

 

Ah, so that was the crux of the matter. Namjoon should have guessed as much. One thing he had figured out about Seokjin, if nothing else. He had a huge thing for Hyosang. Huge. It yet remained to be seen whether that thing was mutual or not.

 

“Didn’t he tell you? He’s studying for college entrance exams.”

 

“College?” He said the word as if the very idea of colleges unnerved him.

 

“His parents will stop supporting him if he doesn’t apply to one,” Namjoon said and surprised himself with how bitter he sounded. That Hyosang resumed his education didn’t mean he would quit Big Hit. Even if he did, he wouldn’t be the first one. Probably not the last one either, what with the way things were going.

 

“His parents,” Seokjin echoed, lowering his chopsticks. He stared at his bowl like it carried some sort of secret. “I see.”

 

Huh. That was not the reaction Namjoon had predicted. Perhaps Seokjin’s thing for Hyosang wasn’t as huge as he had presumed.

 

 


 

 

Two weeks later the inevitable happened. Hyosang left.

 

Seokjin hadn’t needed Yoongi’s powers to see it coming. It was the only possible consequence. Dragons and foxes didn’t belong anywhere near each other after all.

 

On Hyosang’s last evening in their shared apartment, they threw his farewell party. Hoseok and Yoongi were bickering with one another in their respective dialects about heaven knew what—did they even understand each other?—while Seokjin was chopping some fruit in the kitchen alcove. Namjoon and Hyosang lingered in the doorway to the bathroom, whispering to one another. Not that it made much of a difference. Seokjin heard them anyway.

 

“I don’t get it, man,” Namjoon said. “Your family has been bugging you about this for ages, but you never cared.”

 

Hyosang’s clothes rustled as he shifted from foot to foot. “I’ve really worn out their patience this time, Joon.”

 

That alone was enough to make Seokjin choke. He had to finish soon so he could interrupt them. He wouldn’t be able to stand listening to this for much longer.

 

A beat of silence passed between the two, which weighed all the more against the backdrop of Hoseok and Yoongi’s squabble. “That still doesn’t explain why you’re doing this. If he can keep studying on the side, so can you.”

 

Even though Namjoon hadn’t mentioned him by name, Seokjin knew he’d meant him. His fingers cramped around the handle of the knife. What would Namjoon say, he wondered, if Seokjin told him he was the reason why Hyosang couldn’t stay?

 

Hyosang didn’t respond.

 

“Coward,” Namjoon spat, no longer whispering.

 

The quarrel on the other side of the room stopped short. So did Seokjin. He whirled around to see Hyosang’s mouth slant into a weak smile. “Yeah,” he said. “You might be right about that.”

 

A loud clank resounded in the apartment. Seokjin had dropped the knife.

 

“It isn’t his fault,” he said, hackles rising. Namjoon didn’t know better. Didn’t know the truth. Still, Seokjin couldn’t let him get away with this. Regardless of what Namjoon knew or didn’t know, he was in no position to judge someone for the way they decided to live. “He has no other choice.”

 

“No, he doesn’t,” Namjoon agreed, to Seokjin’s astonishment. His jaw quivered as he spoke. “Not anymore.”

 

Without sparing either of them so much as another glance, he turned on his heel and stormed outside, banging the door shut behind himself. The sound rang in Seokjin’s ears like a gunshot.

 

Yoongi cleared his throat. “I really hoped you wouldn’t say that.”

 

“Maybe you should have warned me then!” Seokjin hissed at him. “Maybe you should have done that from the start!”

 

All of a sudden, a warm weight rested on his shoulder. The soothing fragrance of incense and burnt candles enshrouded him. “We’ve been over this,” Hyosang said in his soothing, even voice that, under normal circumstances, would have calmed Seokjin down in an instant. “I told him not to.”

 

Seokjin didn’t say anything to that. There was no point. Because of him Hyosang was forced to give up years of hard work, putting the whole band at risk in the process. Nothing he could say would undo that.

 

“Stop blaming yourself,” Hyosang went on, as though he had read Soekjin’s mind. He gave his shoulder a squeeze before he finally let it go. “I should go after Joon before he catches a cold.”

 

 


 

 

“What the fuck do you want?”

 

Hyosang held the umbrella over his head. “To save you from pneumonia,” he said mildly.

 

Namjoon refused to look up at him. He twisted around to glare at the brick wall he’d been propped up against. “I’d rather get pneumonia than talk to you right now.”

 

“Don’t be so dramatic.”

 

Privately, Namjoon thought he had every right to be as dramatic as he wanted, given the situation at hand. Out loud he said no such thing. He had already embarrassed himself enough for the night.

 

“Kim Namjoon,” Hyosang said. Namjoon flinched. Hyosang hadn’t called him by his full name in years.

 

Drawing a breath, Namjoon turned back around and met Hyosang’s eyes. There was no trace of anger in them. They looked straight into Namjoon’s, as calm and steady as ever. His effortless composure made Namjoon feel small and childish.

 

“Bang should have made you the leader,” he blurted out.

 

Hyosang snickered at that. “And you call me a coward.”

 

What in the world was that supposed to mean? Namjoon’s temper flared up once more. “This isn’t about me,” he said, narrowing his eyes at him.

 

Hyosang’s expression sobered. “Isn’t it?”

 

“If you ask me,” Namjoon said, “this is about Seokjin.”

 

That cracked Hyosang’s poise at last. “What gave you that idea?”

 

“Don’t play dumb. He likes you, even I can see that.”

 

Visibly tensing, Hyosang averted his gaze to something in the middle distance. “That has nothing to do with this. You don’t have anything to with this either.”

 

Namjoon bristled at that. Of course he had something to do with this. Not that he wanted to, but what he wanted didn’t matter when the band was involved. After almost two years of training, Hyosang should be aware of that—even if he was leaving.

 

“Hyo,” Namjoon said and grabbed Hyosang’s arm to get his attention. “Please cut the crap and tell me what’s going on.”

 

Hyosang bit his lip. “Fine.” He sighed. “There is … history between Jin’s family and mine. I can’t go into detail because I’m sure he wouldn’t want me to. He’d rip my head off if he knew I told you any of this. Anyway, my parents somehow got wind of Jin’s contract with the company and basically grilled me to find out if he was part of the band. At that point, lying wouldn’t have gotten me anywhere, so I told them the truth. They gave me an ultimatum to either make him go or go myself.“

 

Releasing his arm, Namjoon took a step back. He needed space to think. He needed to think of a way to fix this. Hyosang should not have to give up his dream because of something as petty and stupid as a family feud. It was 2011, not the fucking middle ages.

 

“You look like your head is about to implode,” Hyosang said with a snicker. “Dude, it’s okay. That I’m quitting Big Hit doesn't mean I'm quitting music altogether. Once I’m done with my exams, I’ll audition somewhere else.”

 

How could Hyosang just let go and accept this, like it meant nothing to him? Like the group meant nothing to him? Namjoon had a hard time processing this.

 

“This isn’t fair,” he said. He felt tired. Defeated.

 

Hyosang flicked his forehead. “Didn’t I tell you to stop being so dramatic? Come on, let’s go back before all the beer is gone.”

 

Too dejected to continue arguing, Namjoon complied. He said nothing about the texts he had gotten from Ikje two days before. He said nothing about the heavy weight sinking in his gut. He said nothing at all for the rest of the night.

 

Ikje 

is hyo really leaving

what the shit joon

this is all because of kim

why didnt you listen to me?!

i told you hed be trouble

 

 


 

 

With Hyosang gone, Seokjin moved from his futon on the floor to the bunk below Hoseok’s. It was torture. Everything smelled like Hyosang. Even after changing the sheets, the unmistakable fragrance of smoked incense pervaded the air—an invisible, ubiquitous reminder of what he had done.

 

Under these circumstances sleep was unthinkable. So he spent his nights studying or practicing instead. Every once in a while, his phone would buzz with a new message that usually went along the lines of:

 

Jungie 

Hey u ok

Havnt heard from u in days

Mom n dad r gonna come home nxt week

They sounded pissed on the phone

 

Seokjin ignored them all. He had gotten pretty good at ignoring things. He would deal with his parents when they were back. As for Seokjung, well. Seokjin was still mad and embarrassed he had let his brother talk him into this mess. He had been acting on impulse ever since, just like a selfish brat. Seokjung had probably had the laugh of his year with it all. He could play the concerned big brother all he wanted, Seokjin saw right through him. As long as he didn’t have to, he wouldn’t talk to him any time soon.

 

“If you keep this up, even you’re gonna reach your limit sooner or later.”

 

Seokjin startled. His head jerked up from his books. Hoseok had crouched down on the other side of the table and fixed Seokjin with a wondering look that made him want to squirm. Despite his sunny disposition, Hoseok unnerved him at times. Seokjin never heard it when he walked or moved. His link with the afterworld seemed to suck away every sound a normal person would make.

 

Seokjin had gotten pretty good at ignoring a lot of things. This was not one of them. “I’m sorry, did I wake you up?” he said, eyes never straying from the books spread out in front of him. Since Hyosang had left, Seokjin had barely talked to any of the other band members, and vice versa. He wasn’t certain he wanted to find out what had changed Hoseok’s mind—at midnight, of all times.

 

Hoseok’s forehead wrinkled. He rested his chin in his hands and continued to scrutinize Seokjin. “You can’t do this forever. You and I both know that.”

 

“You never know until you try.”

 

Hoseok snickered—a dry, mirthless rustle of breath that sounded wrong coming out of his mouth. “This isn’t just about you,” he said. “We’re a group, remember?”

 

As if Seokjin could ever forget about that. Everything in this apartment reminded him of it: their intermingled scents, the mixed-up laundry, the steady rhythm of Namjoon’s snores at night that belied the disharmony of the day. They were a group, and Seokjin had divided it. That was impossible to forget.

 

“I’m not really in the mood for a pep talk right now.”

 

“I’m not really in the mood for your bullshit either,” Hoseok countered breezily, “so I guess that makes us even.”

 

Even, huh? If he hadn’t been so drained, Seokjin would have laughed. Nothing was even. The second he had written his name on the contract next to Mr. Bang’s, the tectonic plates had shifted underneath his feet. Now everything was crooked and out of place.

 

He let out the heavy breath that had been sitting at the bottom of his lungs. “What do you want?”

 

“That should be obvious,” Hoseok said. “Talk to Yoongi and Namjoon so we can put this crap behind us and focus on what’s ahead.”

 

But how was Seokjin supposed to do that without knowing what was waiting for him there?

 

 


 

 

Sometimes Namjoon fantasized about what his life would be like if he had taken a different path. If he had gone to college like his parents and teachers had urged him to, if he hadn’t snuck out in the dead of night to spit his way up the underground. According to multiverse theory, there had to be a world like that out there, a world in which he had never set foot on a single stage. Where was that version of himself now? What was he doing? Had he made his family proud?

 

Was he happy?

 

The never-ending string of questions haunted Namjoon with answers he would never be able to obtain. Their absence left a constant imprint on his mind that seemed to become heavier with each passing day. The pressure reminded him of how small he truly was. There were so many secrets in the infinite stretch of the cosmos, and he could not ever grow large enough to understand even a fraction of them.

 

One of these secrets was Kim Seokjin, who was currently deep in discussion with Yoongi in the recording room. Namjoon stared at him in disbelief through the gap between the ajar door and its frame. Seokjin rarely ventured here. Most of his training took place upstairs. The basement belonged to the producers, or those who aspired to be one someday like Yoongi or Namjoon himself. The last time he had seen Seokjin down here had been the day Namjoon had found him angsting on the couch. So what was he doing here now?

 

Curiosity made Namjoon hesitate to push the door handle.

 

“I don’t care about your thing with Hyosang,” Yoongi said in a low voice that barely made it through the narrow crack of the door. “It was his decision to go. He’ll get a new contract offer soon anyway.”

 

Namjoon balked at Yoongi’s casual certainty. He spoke like it was a given that Hyosang would get another opportunity to pursue his music career although second chances were few and far between in this industry, especially for rookies like they all still were.

 

Seokjin shifted in his seat, grating the old couch springs against one another. He didn’t say anything.

 

“What about you?” Yoongi asked. “What’s your decision?”

 

Another pause. “I don’t know what you mean,” Seokjin said helplessly, not unlike a lost child looking for the way home. Namjoon could tell because he used to sound like that before he had begun to build a place for himself onstage.

 

“Then you’d better figure it out soon,” Yoongi said.

 

“How come you don’t know?”

 

This conversation was getting weirder and weirder by the minute. Why would Yoongi know what Seokjin wanted to do in the future?

 

“Foxes aren’t easy to predict,” Yoongi said, which made zero sense whatsoever. Namjoon was definitely missing something here.

 

Again Seokjin didn’t answer. Instead a suspicious wet noise slipped through the space left by the half-open door, signaling Namjoon to come back some other time when the studio was empty.

 

 


 

 

Contrary to Seokjin’s misgivings, Yoongi had not decapitated him. Despite the havoc he had wrecked, Yoongi had met him head-on, like an equal, like a person. “You have to figure out what you really want,” he had told Seokjin, who had found it hard to comprehend that Yoongi was still concerned about what Seokjin wanted. It shouldn’t have mattered to him. It shouldn’t have, but for some reason it had and still did.

 

Yoongi had given Seokjin hope that Namjoon might spare him some understanding as well. That hope dwindled when Seokjin ran into him in one of the practice rooms a couple of days after his talk with Yoongi. Since the room nestled at the far end of the corridor, almost as if it was trying to hide from view, it was seldom occupied—except for that Thursday evening.

 

Rain battered against the windows that lined the left wall, drowning out the usual city buzz. Namjoon was moving to the rhythm of one of his songs, tracking his form in the wall mirror on the right side of the room. Seokjin had never seen him dance before. His body followed the beat in choppy, uncoordinated bursts that had Seokjin cracking up before he knew what was happening.

 

At Seokjin’s sudden laughter, Namjoon spun around to glare daggers at him. No, daggers weren’t big enough. Swords. Or speers. A whole volley of them.

 

“Oh my god,” Seokjin cried out, horrified but somehow still giggling. “I’m so sorry.”

 

Impossibly, Namjoon’s glare intensified. His ears flared a warning red. “Please use one of the other rooms.”

 

“Actually, I’ve been looking for you,” Seokjin said hastily. If he didn’t seize this moment, he’d make everything even worse. He had to sort this mess out before the threads became too tangled to unravel.

 

That got Namjoon’s attention. The track he’d been dancing to arrived at its final crescendo. His expression eased somewhat. “Why?”

 

Seokjin drew a hefty gulp of air. Here went nothing. “To apologize,” he said. “It’s my fault Hyosang had to go.”

 

A new song started playing, stomping through the room in fast thumping strides.

 

“I know,” Namjoon said off-handedly, scowl back in place. “Why are you sorry? I thought you didn’t care about any of this.”

 

He had a point, and that stung. Seokjin’s throat constricted. He reminded himself that he wasn’t the victim here. “I didn’t,” he agreed and swallowed to relax his strung up vocal cords. “But I do now.”

 

“Right,” Namjoon said, evidently not convinced.

 

In his position, Seokjin wouldn’t have bought that either. He probably wouldn’t even have kept listening up to this point. It was a miracle Namjoon was still indulging him. Against his better judgment, hope burgeoned in the back of Seokjin’s head. Perhaps he could still turn things around.

 

“Can I stay?”

 

The question surprised Namjoon as much as Seokjin himself. He hadn’t meant to ask directly. He hadn’t even meant to bring it up right now. Namjoon wasn’t supposed to see how weak he really was. Why had he blurted it out like that? At this rate he would never succeed to get on Namjoon’s good side, or off his bad one at least.

 

But, inexplicably, his hostility abated. “Stay?” he asked, looking thoroughly befuddled. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. As you’ve already witnessed, I’m not exactly a good dancer.”

 

For someone usually so sharp, Kim Namjoon was hilariously dense sometimes. “Oh, that was supposed to be dancing?” he said, opting to use Namjoon’s lapse in wit to his advantage in order to distract him from figuring out what he had really meant.

 

Namjoon only smirked at him. “You know, I’ve seen you practice. You’re in no position to judge me.”

 

“Is that a challenge?”

 

“If you’re up for it.”

 

In that moment Seokjin would have been up for a lot of things to keep Namjoon’s mind away from his slip-up. He motioned for Namjoon to switch to a song they both knew the choreography to and walked up to the mirror. When the music set in, Namjoon blew his reflection a raspberry before he clumsily fell into the first sequence of steps. Seokjin didn’t fare any better, flailing his way through the song. By the end of it, they were both panting from exercise and poorly-contained laughter.

 

“Let’s call it a draw,” Seokjin proposed, palms on his knees to support the upper half of his body.

 

Namjoon plopped down onto the hardwood of the floor, splaying out his legs, which weren’t as scrawny as the baggy pants he always wore had made it seem. His thighs were bigger than Seokjin’s even though he worked out much more than Namjoon did. They were so tan too although he never spent any time outside, and—and why was Seokjin thinking about Namjoon’s thighs?

 

“Fine by me,” Namjoon said in between laborious huffs of breath. “A draw it is then.”

 

It might have been a draw, but to Seokjin it felt like a victory.

Chapter Text

Things went back to normal—well, as normal as they were likely to get in a household like theirs. Since the three of them were otherwise busy with their part time jobs, Namjoon didn’t see much of Hoseok and Yoongi outside of practice and impromptu late-night production sessions. They were all trying to cash in some extra money by helping out in various stores during the yuletide.

 

Seokjin, on the other hand, had basically buried himself in his textbooks and only emerged when presented with something warm to eat, if at all. The few glimpses Namjoon had caught of him this week revealed a thin, harried figure who hardly resembled the broad-chested young man he had come to know.

 

“University finals start next week,” Hunchul explained after Namjoon had expressed his concerns about Seokjin’s increasingly erratic behavior. “Haven’t seen or heard from my girlfriend in days.”

 

Wrenching his phone between his cheek and shoulder, Namjoon carried another box of atlases from the delivery van to the bookshop. “Ah, so that’s why Hoseok and Yoongi have been so nice to him lately. They’re even planning some sort of party for him, I think.”

 

At the other end of the line, Hunchul chuckled. “Man, Ikje will flip if he hears that.”

 

“Is he still pissed?” Namjoon inquired as he put the box down in the geography section.

 

Hunchul hummed. He used to do that whenever he'd wanted to stall for time to think during a negotiation with management. “He said he won’t to talk to you until Seokjin is out of the band.”

 

The muscles in Namjoon’s arms were beginning to go numb. By the time he was done, he probably wouldn’t feel them anymore. Before he had envied Seokjin for not having to do shit like this, but the mental image of staying cooped up inside all day to cram his head full of useless data had smothered that envy pretty quickly. Namjoon enjoyed learning new things, but not like that. Never again. It was bizarre to him that Seokjin managed to plough on, even with dance practice and vocal training on the side.

 

“Then I’m not going to hear from him for quite a while, I guess.”

 

The line swooshed with the force of Hunchul’s sigh. “I wish I knew what the fuck his deal is. This is the first time I’ve seen him like this.”

 

Namjoon was wondering the same thing. Had been for a while now. Apart from drunken bar fights, Ikje only ever had beef with customers who couldn’t pay. He didn’t hold grudges. The only clue Namjoon had was that Ikje and Seokjin apparently had some sort of history, but what that entailed was anyone’s guess. The two of them didn’t really socialize in the same circles. At the very least, Namjoon didn’t think so. Ikje was too small a fish to get hold of somebody like Seokjin, and Seokjin was way too straight-laced to pop anything harder than aspirin. Then again, he had already proven Namjoon wrong once before.

 

One thing they had in common though. Both were adamant about keeping the reasons behind their mutual hostility a secret.

 

That seemed to evolve into a theme with Seokjin. He was secrecy personified, and it drove Namjoon out of his mind.

 

 


 

 

For most students finals were hell on earth. For Seokjin they were nothing compared to dinner with his family. This particular one was shaping up to be the worst one yet, for obvious reasons. His parents, his brother plus fiancé, his aunt and her husband—they had all gathered around the vast teak dining table, which had already witnessed three generations’ worth of Kim family congregations, if his late grandmother’s stories were to be trusted. His parents’ return from overseas marked the official reason for the occasion, but everyone knew what this was really about.

 

“How did your exams go?” his aunt Sangmi asked. She was a stout middle-aged woman whose rough tone did not match her refined features.

 

With his fork Seokjin poked at the tuna on his plate. It was undercooked and tasted like cardboard. He didn’t understand why his parents always ended up hiring chefs who couldn’t even cook basic meals. These people were able to make the fanciest hors d’oeuvre from scratch, but once you gave them some rice and tuna, they had no idea what to do.

 

“Fine,” he answered, still looking at his fork.

 

Sangmi sniffed, which sufficed as commentary. She didn’t have to verbalize her opinion for Seokjin to know precisely what she was thinking. All members of his family possessed this particular skill, himself included, because it just wasn’t polite to tell a person to their face that they had become a disappointment. It was much nicer to harrumph and dispense disapproving glares, namely in his father’s case, who hadn’t spoken to him all evening. Not even a hello. Next to him his mother was fidgeting in her seat, obviously uncomfortable with the course the conversation was taking but not brave enough to intervene yet.

 

Seokjung must have picked up on that as well since, not a minute later, he launched into an anecdote about a funny business lunch he’d had the other week. Their mother relaxed visibly. Seokjin seized the opportunity to zone out. He let go of his fork and let his mind drift until the telltale buzz of his phone reeled him back to reality.

 

Discreetly, he slipped it out his pants pocket, unlocked the screen and peered at the new notifications. Hoseok as well as Yoongi had just messaged him—almost at the same time. That was odd, to say the least, though more so for Yoongi than for Hoseok.

 

Yoongi

 

Will you be home soon

 

Hoseokie

 

r u still at ur parents?

 

That did not sound promising. Almost every time they asked where he was or when he would come back, it was code for “we need help”—usually with something Namjoon had wrecked or the laundry, Yoongi’s mortal enemy. It was something of a miracle that these nitwits had even survived up until this point.

 

Yoongi + Hoseokie

 

Seokjin

I’m not going to leave because of your inability to manage a household

 

Hoseokie

but its an emergency

 

Yoongi

Yea, big trouble

 

Seokjin

I don’t care

 

Hoseokie

thats a lie and u kno it

also joon is already otw

 

Seokjin nearly dropped his phone. They really must have gotten themselves into some shit if they were sending Namjoon to get him. He didn’t even want to imagine what kind of havoc they might have wreaked in his absence. Still, he couldn’t go just like that. What was he supposed to tell his family? They would make him resign on the spot if they learned what kind of people his bandmates were.

 

“Jinnie, I talked to Mr. Yun a few days ago,” his mother piped up abruptly. “He told me the opera is offering internships again. You should apply! He said someone with your grades has a good chance of getting in.”

 

The rest of the table had quieted down and turned their attention to him. It was a test. Would he stay loyal to his family, follow their lead and contact respectable Mr. Yun of the National Opera? Or would he keep training at Big Hit Entertainment and turn away for good?

 

Black or white. There was no in between. The Kims didn’t do anything by halves. Seokjin had never been whole though. As the second son, he was fractured by default and effectively worthless. In the wild, his grandmother used to say, foxes ate the kits the family didn’t need.

 

Like a noose, anxiety corded up his throat, not quite tight enough to choke. He had to take a pick. Black or white?

 

Before he could loosen the bind around his throat and open his mouth, a knock disrupted the silence of the room. The door to the hallway opened and revealed the housekeeper Mrs. Choi. She announced in her wispy voice that there was a young man at the front door who wanted to talk to Master Seokjin.

 

That prompted Seokjin’s father to speak for the first time this evening. His dark eyes narrowed down to slits, squinting at Mrs. Choi as though he couldn’t quite believe she had dared to interrupt family dinner. “What do you mean, ‘a young man’?” he demanded. “Who is it?”

 

The pure distress on Mrs. Choi’s face showed that she would rather not elaborate on that, which made sense. If it Namjoon had come to pick up Seokjin like Hoseok had announced, his father would not be happy with her answer.

 

Taking pity on her, Seokjin stood up to take the matter out of her hands. It wasn’t her fault that Seokjin was trampling over everything his family believed in. “I’ll go see him.”

 

The air in the room thickened with the heavy smell of rage. Seokjin’s father, too, rose from his chair and built himself up to full height. Seokjin refused to let that intimidate him. Now, at eighteen, he was just as tall and broad as his father was. That sort of posturing didn’t work anymore.

 

“A human,” Seokjin’s father said and wrinkled his nose like it offended him to breathe the same air as such a lowly creature. “Did you call him here? Is he one of—”

 

“Dad!”

 

All seven heads in the room turned around to Seokjung, who had leapt to his feet and met their father’s glare head on. As the firstborn and future head of the household, he was the only family member able to do that without having to dread any consequences.

 

Seokjin began breathing through his mouth to avoid inhaling the condensing scent of charred wood emanating from his father. “It’s okay, Jungie.” He looked at the table without facing any of its occupants. “Excuse me, everyone, I should really go see who it is and what he needs.”

 

With a bow he stalked away to find out just what the fuck Namjoon and the others had been thinking.

 

 


 

 

The fuming young man who strode down the hallway reminded Namjoon of the first time he had met Seokjin two months ago. With his fitted dress shirt and pants, he was all crisp angles that looked ready to slice through anything and anyone foolish enough to stand in his way.

 

“Why are you here?” he hissed at Namjoon as soon as he had come to a stop, shoulders squared to make him appear even bigger than he already was.

 

Just what had Namjoon walked in on that Seokjin was this livid to see him here? “Whoa, chill.” He lifted his hands and made slow, flowing gestures to simulate the steady flux of a gentle stream, but that did nothing to relax Seokjin, who continued to look murderous. Had nobody told him what was going on? “Hobi and Yoongi sent me.”

 

Seokjin ground his teeth. “But why? I told you guys I’d visit my family today.”

 

Well, that answered one of Namjoon’s questions. Nobody had, in fact, told him what was going on. “They planned your birthday party for today. I thought you knew, but I guess not. Surprise?”

 

Surprise did not suffice to describe Seokjin’s reaction. He gawked at Namjoon, slack-jawed, but recovered instantaneously when Namjoon failed to stifle a snort at his shock. “Do you think this is a joke?”

 

Namjoon bridled at the haughty nasality in his voice. He hated it when Seokjin relapsed to his snotty rich kid persona. “What else am I supposed to think? You’re a little hard to take seriously at the moment.”

 

“What the hell is that—”

 

“Could you keep it down, please?”

 

As if on command, Seokjin’s mouth snapped shut. Behind him an older, pudgier version of himself had emerged from one of the adjoining rooms. He was walking towards Seokjin and Namjoon with an ease that implied he belonged here, perhaps even owned here. In stark contrast, Namjoon had never felt more out of place than in this monstrosity of a house.

 

The man bowed to Namjoon even though he was clearly older and of higher social status. It baffled Namjoon, who hastily returned the gesture, that someone like that willingly extended a sign of respect to a ratty-looking kid like himself.

 

“I’m Kim Seokjung, Jinnie’s older brother,” he said. Next to him Seokjin flushed furiously but stayed uncharacteristically quiet.

 

“Kim Namjoon. I’m Seokjin’s—” He hesitated. He was Seokjin’s what, exactly? Roommate? Coworker? Friend? “—band mate.”

 

Kim Seokjung smiled at him—genuinely, to Namjoon’s growing bewilderment. “Nice to meet you, Kim Namjoon,” he said. “I heard you and the other members of the group organized something for Jinnie’s birthday?”

 

How he had heard that through several brick walls was a mystery to Namjoon, but he didn’t question it further. At this hour of the day, he was just too tired to bother.

 

“I wouldn’t say ‘organized.’” He didn’t mention that, personally, he had contributed very little to the whole thing; hence Hoseok and Yoongi had roped him into fetching Seokjin to make up for his lack of effort.

 

Seokjin’s brother continued to smile. “Still, it’s really nice that you went so far! You guys must be pretty busy.” He reached around Seokjin’s shoulders and pushed him forward. “Well, then, go have fun!”

 

Seokjin stared at him. Something frantic and forlorn lay in his gaze. Something like fear. “Can I—” He bit the inside of his cheek. “What about Dad?”

 

The smile on Mr. Kim’s face faltered. “Give him some time to cool off. It'll be all right.” He did his best to sound reassuring, but even Namjoon, who had no idea what they were discussing, could tell that the validity of that statement was dubious at best.

 

“Right.”

 

Like some sort of string had been cut, Seokjin’s shoulders sagged. He looked, suddenly, about half of his original size. Trotting over to the brass coatrack on the wall, he grabbed his jacket and then Namjoon. He said nothing more to his brother as he dragged the two of them outside.

 

 


 

 

Emptiness gnawed at Seokjin’s insides—in more ways than one. The evening had starved him for a feeling other than bottomless anxiety. Extended exposure to his family always had that effect.

 

“I hope there’s food when we get home,” he grumbled into the awkward quiet that had spread between him and Namjoon once they had left the Kim family estate.

 

Through the unkempt tangle of his bangs, Namjoon threw him a mocking glance. “What, all those gourmet delicacies not good enough for you anymore? After Hobi’s burnt kimchi and Yoongi’s cup ramyun, you couldn’t stomach your caviar or whatever it is you rich people eat?”

 

Unknowingly, Namjoon had hit the nail right on the head. He had a knack for that, it seemed. Namjoon figured people out by accident, stumbling upon their innermost secrets without meaning to. Maybe that was the reason why he broke so much all the time. Maybe he just couldn’t help locating the weak point of everything and everybody around him.

 

“You have no idea,” Seokjin said and pushed those thoughts away for now. He had to eat soon. His stomach was starting to act up.

 

Another sideways glance, though concerned rather than derisive this time around. “Is everything all right? You look like crap.”

 

“Compared to my usual standards? Perhaps, but I still look miles better than you ever will, so.” Seokjin stuck his tongue out at him and hoped that would do to lure him away from that particular string of thought.

 

Unfortunately, Namjoon did not look convinced. “You can cut it out, you know. It’s okay if you don’t want to talk about it.”

 

He sounded so sincere it made Seokjin uncomfortable. He tried another angle. “Wait, don’t tell me you’re worried. About me?”

 

That seemed to do the trick. Namjoon hunched his shoulders and dug his hands into the pockets of his coat. “Stranger things have happened,” he muttered into the red atrocity of a scarf he had wrapped around his neck.

 

“You have no idea,” Seokjin said again, shaking his head to obscure the helpless grin that nipped at the corners of his mouth.

 

Namjoon pursed his lips, and—was he pouting? Seokjin choked on a giggle. Namjoon’s pout intensified. “You’re never gonna take me seriously, are you? I’m your leader, you know.”

 

Squashing the rest of his giggles, Seokjin said, “But I’m still older than you.”

 

“You don’t act like it,” Namjoon said, petulant, and Seokjin was torn between giggling some more and pinching Namjoon’s cheeks. He had never acted like that before—in front of Seokjin, at least. It was oddly endearing to see him behave like a teenager for once.

 

“Well, I’m the youngest in my family, so I’m not used to it.”

 

Now that he thought about it, Seokjin realized that he liked being the oldest a lot better than being the youngest, though that might have more to do with his family than with a question of age.

 

The look in Namjoon’s eyes became vacant, fixed on something invisible in the middle distance. “Must be nice,” he murmured to himself.

 

“Not really,” Seokjin said, unable to withhold a bitter snort. “Unless you enjoy being compared to your older siblings and cousins constantly.”

 

They rounded a corner and entered a slim road that slithered along between rows of well-groomed one-family-homes in smooth, elegant curves. Some of the windows illuminated the sidewalk with colorful Christmas lights. It all looked so neat, so picture perfect, and none of it was real. Nothing was ever real. Seokjin wanted to puke.

 

“I grew up in a house like that.” Namjoon pointed his head in the direction of one of the impeccable façades. Seokjin couldn’t imagine it. Someone like Namjoon, someone so unapologetic and headstrong, didn’t fit into that kind of scenery. He smirked at Seokjin as though he had read his mind. “Hard to believe, huh?”

 

In lieu of responding, Seokjin shrugged. The movement didn’t sit well with his churning gut, but he didn’t know what the correct answer was. Knowing Namjoon, there might not be one.

 

Gaze still lingering on the house he had pointed at, he carried on. “My parents kicked me out after I graduated.” A soundless chuckle puffed out of him in a white cloud, like he was revisiting one of his fondest memories. For all Seokjin knew, it might be. “They were so pissed when I told them I wouldn’t go to university.”

 

Seokjin stopped short, literally. Namjoon slowed down in front of him and quirked a brow at him. “University?” Seokjin peered at him, at his round, boyish features and his small almond eyes. “Aren’t you, like, sixteen?”

 

“Seventeen,” Namjoon corrected with another smirk. “I finished high school last spring. Skipped a couple grades.”

 

That certainly explained why Mr. Bang had given the leader position to Namjoon despite his age. Seokjin had been wondering about that for a while. He’d speculated back and forth, but he had not taken into account that Namjoon might be some sort of genius. Rather the opposite, honestly. He’d reckoned that Namjoon must have dropped out of school to pursue his music career.

 

“So you’re the next Einstein?” Seokjin asked against the ravenous nausea sloshing up his throat and began to walk again. He really needed food, and for some reason the news about Namjoon was only making it worse. The idea that they actually had something in common disconcerted him.

 

“Nah,” Namjoon said, falling into step with him. “Physics isn’t really my thing.”

 

“Oh? Then what is?”

 

“Writing. Languages.”

 

Which figured. Hyosang had told Seokjin over and over again what a talented songwriter Namjoon was, but Seokjin hadn’t quite believed him. It occurred to him that he had never read any of Namjoon’s lyrics. Was Namjoon aware of that? If so, did he care? Did Seokjin want him to?

 

“I don’t have anything I’m particularly good at,” he admitted. After Namjoon had shared such private parts of his history, he owed him that, didn’t he? “But since my brother already takes care of the family business, it didn’t matter as much as it could have.”

 

As the street wound on, the sidewalk gradually narrowed. The houses on each side seemed to slowly creep closer.

 

“But you wanted it to matter,” Namjoon concluded, gazing ahead. The coarse fabric of his jacket brushed the smooth wool of Seokjin’s coat.

 

Seokjin ventured a furtive glance at him. Namjoon’s profile looked much sharper than his face suggested from the front. “Funny, isn’t it?” Seokjin attempted to laugh, but his belly was so hollow that he couldn’t. He merely hacked a few dry huffs that almost ended up suffocating him. “I thought it would make me happy if my parents cared about what I’m doing. Now that they do, I just feel—”

 

All at once everything began to shake, cutting Seokjin off mid-breath. As the world tilted off its axis, the remainder of the sentence fell out of his mouth and shattered on the concrete. He lurched forward. So did his stomach. It slid up his chest and pushed his heart and lungs against his ribs. His vision blurred. From somewhere above a tinny voice called what might have been his name.

 

He forced his lips to open so he could respond, but nothing came out. He was so empty, completely carved out from the inside.

 

 


 

 

“We have to call his family.”

 

“And then what? We’ll never see him again!”

 

“Who cares, at least he’ll be okay! They should know how to fix this.”

 

“First of all, I care. Second, I don’t think he’ll be anything close to okay. He hates his family, Yoongi!”

 

Ears covered by his palms, Namjoon paced back and forth and tried to ignore Yoongi and Hoseok’s screaming, but the volume they had reached was impossible to mute. He didn’t understand how Seokjin managed to stay unconscious. There were no walls separating the beds from the rest of the apartment, nothing blocking any sound, let alone clamor like this.

 

In Namjoon’s opinion, both Hoseok and Yoongi were wrong. They should have gotten an ambulance for Seokjin right after he had passed out. Then he would have gotten better in safety and could have decided for himself whether or not he wanted his family to know that he had overworked himself to the point of fainting in the middle of the street. Hoseok and Yoongi, however, had unanimously vetoed that idea and refused to explain why.

 

They had been fighting ever since. All the while Namjoon had been wringing his brain for an alternate solution. He didn’t need to know the reason why they didn’t want to send Seokjin to a hospital. Namjoon had met Yoongi and Hoseok nearly two years ago, and they’d never done anything that had given him cause to question their reliability since then—neither as bandmates nor as friends. Besides, they were much closer to Seokjin than he was. They likely knew something about him that he didn’t, something that made them behave the way they did. What this something was didn’t matter. If Seokjin had wanted Namjoon to know that, he would have told him. He wouldn’t have been the right one to bear Seokjin’s secrets anyway. They barely tolerated each other as it was.

 

Out of nowhere, he felt something warm on his right shoulder, which hauled him away from his musings. Having resolved his argument with Yoongi for the time being, Hoseok had come over to Namjoon and was regarding him intently, almost imploringly. Behind him, crouching on a seat cushion, Yoongi glowered at him.

 

“Namjoon,” Hoseok said. That wasn’t a good sign. Usually, he addressed everybody with his extensive arsenal of nicknames. “We have to tell you something.”

 

“Correction!” Yoongi yelled from the background. “You have to tell him something. I ain’t telling shit.”

 

Pretending he hadn’t heard him, Hoseok gently pushed Namjoon down to sit with him at the table. Namjoon, although perplexed, let him. “Namjoon,” Hoseok said again, as though the name had become a message of its own. “There’s something we’ve been keeping from you, not because we don’t trust you but because we were scared you wouldn’t believe us. Please promise me you’ll listen until I’m done before you say or do anything.”

 

In spite of his ever-rising bemusement, Namjoon agreed and waited for Hoseok to go on. Noticeably relieved, Hoseok flashed him a small, grateful smile before he sucked in a shaky breath.

 

“Seokjin is a gumiho.”

 

Silence accompanied the statement, swift and all encompassing. Namjoon blinked at Hoseok, who did not hesitate to meet his eyes. Yoongi, the periphery of Namjoon’s mind noted, was also looking straight at him, unperturbed by this turn of events.

 

Hoseok wasn’t joking. Neither was Yoongi. Still, logic screeched at Namjoon that he couldn’t just take this at face value. Gumiho belonged in folktales and manwha. They weren’t real.

 

Right?

 

He clamped his mouth shut to resist the urge to laugh hysterically. Hoseok appeared to interpret this as his cue to elaborate.

 

“Some of the stuff about gumiho in storybooks is true. They used to eat people, but that’s forbidden now. The samjokgu make sure of that.” He gave a weak smile. “Ikje is one. That’s why he kept telling us to get rid of Seokjin. He couldn’t help assuming the worst of him. Probably won’t stop anytime soon. You know, being humanity’s sacred guardian and all that.”

 

The snarling sound of Ikje barking at Seokjin when they had met in the café resounded in Namjoon’s head. People like him are just rotten, Ikje had said. Better steer clear of them before you get caught up. Had he wanted to protect them from Seokjin, just like the three-legged dog had protected Grand Duke Jiang from the nine-tailed fox in the myth?

 

“Anyway,” Hoseok said, “gumiho need to eat, like, a lot to survive since they can’t munch on people’s brains anymore.”

 

“Wasn’t it hearts and livers?” Namjoon interjected automatically, unaware of what he was doing until the words had already left his mouth.

 

Yoongi snorted. Hoseok rolled his eyes. Some of the tension that had agglomerated in the room dissolved.

 

“My bad.” He made a show of bowing, almost crashing into the table in the process. “So, gumiho don’t feed on humans anymore ‘cause murder is bad, yadda, yadda, yadda. Of course they could give their marbles to someone and get life energy like that, but that has its own risks. Duh.”

 

Right, the fox marble. From one moment to the next, the unbidden image of Seokjin kissing someone rushed through Namjoon’s mind. How far did Seokjin have to reach with his tongue so the marble would remain in the other person’s throat? What was it like to receive a fox’s—no, Seokjin’s—source of power and life? To form a bond with him that would tie them together, physically and spiritually, for eternity? To feel Seokjin’s lips on his own? To taste

 

Namjoon reeled himself back before his imagination could get the better of him. Sometimes he really hated his brain.

 

"What does that have to do with Seokjin's—" He wavered, searching for an appropriate term. “—condition?”

 

Something clouded Hoseok’s expression. Namjoon couldn’t put his finger on what it was. In the time they had known each other, he had never seen him make a face like that. At the other end of the table, Yoongi stiffened, lips hardening into a thin line.

 

“Isn’t it obvious?” Hoseok asked, which was kind of ridiculous, to be honest. At the moment nothing was obvious to Namjoon anymore. “He’s hardly eaten or slept in the last weeks. It’s his dumb, fucked up way of punishing himself for what went down with Hyo. I don’t really understand how he did it though. From what I know about foxes, he shouldn’t have collapsed this fast.”

 

His gaze flickered over to Yoongi in a silent question. “That’s why I’m saying we oughtta contact his family,” Yoongi said tersely. “It isn’t normal for a gumiho to get so weak within weeks. Maybe he’s sick or cursed, and in either case we won’t be of much help.”

 

Namjoon needed a minute to process that. Not once in his life had he ever expected to contemplate magical foxes and curses as real things that could have an actual impact on him as a person. Hoseok and Yoongi were facing no such trouble, apparently. That raised another question.

 

“How come you guys know so much about all this?”

 

Hoseok shrunk into himself like he’d been caught doing something illicit, whereas Yoongi merely shrugged. “Well, I guess it comes with the territory when you grow up in a family full of people who can see the future,” he said casually, as though he were discussing something mundane like the weather or perhaps what they should have for dinner.

 

“See the future,” Namjoon said, careful with his enunciation so he could make sure they were all on the same page.

 

Once more Yoongi shrugged and added, “But only in my sleep. I’m a dreamseer, not a palmist or whatever the fuck you’re thinking of.”

 

Truthfully, Namjoon hadn’t thought of much at all in regard to how Yoongi saw the future, mainly because he was still struggling to reconcile the fact that he saw the future at all with his worldview. He didn’t say that out loud though. Instead he looked over at Hoseok, who had been exceptionally quiet for the past few minutes.

 

“And what are you, a medium?” he said to lighten the mood, but his efforts fell flat when Hoseok just sort of squirmed sheepishly. Namjoon felt his jaw drop. “Wait, seriously?”

 

One of Yoongi’s large hands flew into his vision, waving at him and Hoseok to return to the issue at hand. “Save your gaping for later, we still need to make a decision.”

 

Ah, so that was what Hoseok had had in mind. “You told me all this so I would side with you and outvote Yoongi, didn’t you?”

 

“No, of course not!” Hoseok sounded and looked so affronted Namjoon couldn’t tell if he was lying or not. “You’re the band leader, and you’re smarter than the both of us. It would be wrong to do this without your input.”

 

His input, huh? Lie or not, Namjoon could not deny that flattered him, but he possessed zero experiences or knowhow that related to supernatural beings and/or phenomena. Before he could inquire what kind of input Hoseok had been envisioning, his phone hummed in the back pocket of his jeans. He yanked it out to switch it off but stopped dead at the messages that had just come in.

 

Hyosang

 

Hope texted me earlier

Told me about Jin

Is he ok

Call me when you read this

 

Since the situation had arrived at an impasse, Namjoon supposed he might as well do as he was told and hit call. The dialing tone rang twice before Hyosang picked up with a breathless, “It’s my fault.”

 

That was unexpected. “Pardon?”

 

“It’s my fault,” he repeated. “I’m the reason why Jin’s like this.”

 

 


 

 

Morning had already broken when Seokjin came to again. He didn’t remember the last time he had slept through an entire night and woken up after the sun had. He also didn’t remember how he had gotten to his bed. For that matter, he didn’t remember much from the previous day in general.

 

He pushed himself upright and looked around. Except for Namjoon’s, all the other bunks were already vacant. The familiar metronome of his snores filled the apartment.

 

One by one, bits and pieces of memories returned to Seokjin: dinner with his family, as delightful as ever. Namjoon picking him up. Christmas lights. Hunger. Darkness.

 

Had he blacked out? Had he really been that famished?

 

How odd. He felt so full now.

 

Careful not to rouse Namjoon, he slid out of bed, grabbed some fresh clothes from the closet and tiptoed over to the bathroom for a much-needed shower. Namjoon would help him fill in the blanks later once he got up.

 

But Namjoon didn’t leave bed until mid-afternoon. Whenever Seokjin tried to prod him back into consciousness, he just moaned and rolled over on the other side. Seokjin, thoroughly discomfited, cancelled his appointments for the day to stay and watch over him. After all, he was likely responsible for Namjoon’s exhaustion.

 

Daylight was already waning when Namjoon woke up at last. His bedhair stuck out at their usual impossible angles as he dragged himself toward Seokjin, who had begun puttering around the kitchen counter for some tea and something to eat as soon as he’d heard noise from the beds.

 

“Sleeping Beauty finally graces me with his presence, I see,” he quipped, head downturned, eyes fixed on the kettle, so he wouldn’t have to face Namjoon yet.

 

His mortification over the fact that he had practically broken down in Namjoon’s arms, like a swooning maiden straight out of a drama, had had the whole day to evolve to full-grown shame. With Namjoon back up on his feet and nowhere to run, Seokjin feared he might combust with it any minute now.

 

Namjoon answered him with a noncommittal grumble, swerved and disappeared in the restroom. He looked marginally more alive as he re-emerged and moseyed toward the table to study the sandwiches and steaming mug Seokjin had prepared for him as if they were pieces to a puzzle he’d never believed he would get to solve. The severity of his stare made the nape of Seokjin’s neck prickle.

 

“You think it’ll taste better if you glare it down first?” he said, a little snappishly. Seokjung always told him that aggressive sarcasm wasn’t the most effective defense mechanism, but Seokjin disagreed. So far it had served him just fine.

 

Namjoon certainly didn’t mind. His posture mellowed. The peculiar look in his eyes faded. “As charming as ever,” he commented drily, but it lacked any genuine malice. On the contrary, he sounded relieved. Fond almost.

 

Seokjin’s embarrassment came back with a vengeance. He covered it up in the only way he knew. “It’s Prince Charming, actually.”

 

Rolling his eyes, Namjoon forwent replying in favor of tearing into the food and drink. He wolfed it all down in less than five minutes. Seokjin raised his brows at him. Like himself, Namjoon was normally a slow eater.

 

“That good, huh?”

 

“If I say yes, will you make some more?”

 

Seokjin’s brows ascended ever higher. “Do it yourself,” he said although he had already collected the empty plate and mug and was on his way back to the kitchen.

 

“Oh?” Seokjin didn’t like the roguish pitch of Namjoon’s voice at all. “Don’t you think you owe me after everything you put me through last night?”

 

A fierce flush burned Seokjin’s face. It was a good thing he had left the table.

 

Afternoon blended into evening. They continued like that, bickering while taking care of the chores that had piled up throughout the previous weeks. Neither of them brought up Seokjin’s faint again.

 

Around eight o’clock Hoseok and Yoongi came back for a quick dinner before they had to take off again for their respective night shifts at work. They crowded Seokjin against the counter once they’d shaken off shoes and jackets, interrogating and lecturing him about his health in turns.

 

“Calm down, geez! It wasn’t even that bad.”

 

Alas, that did nothing to assuage them.

 

“Not that bad?” Hoseok spluttered.

 

Yoongi yanked Seokjin forward by the collar. “You’re lucky Namjoon was there to help! Not everyone would have done that.”

 

“I know,” Seokjin shot back and took ahold of his wrist. It trembled in his grasp. “Look, I know, okay? But it’s over now.”

 

Jostling himself free, Yoongi stepped back and frowned, ostensibly disinclined to reply to that.

 

“Maybe for you,” Hoseok said, taking over. “Not for Namjoon. You shouldn’t forget that. You’re each other’s responsibility now.”

 

Responsibility? Seokjin tilted his head. “Isn’t that a tad much? Like, I’m grateful for what he’s done, but he didn’t get half as worked up about this as you are right now.”

 

“Wait.” Yoongi goggled at him, eyes larger than Seokjin had ever seen them before. “You—Namjoon didn’t tell you?” He turned to Hoseok for assistance, but he was, for once, speechless.

 

The sour stench of sweat mixed with anxiety fumed in between them all. It stung Seokjin’s nose and forced him to inhale through his mouth.

 

“Didn’t tell me what?”

 

Hoseok and Yoongi contemplated the question for a moment, visibly conflicted—by what Seokjin couldn’t even begin to guess.

 

“Ask Namjoon,” Hoseok said eventually. “And talk to Hyosang. He’s been worried about you.”

 

He didn’t disclose anything else, regardless of how much Seokjin nagged him. As expected, Yoongi followed his example. They left Seokjin at a loss, literally and figuratively.

 

Unfortunately, Namjoon had snuck out while the three of them had been talking, presumably to get at least a little work done for the day. Thus, Seokjin had no other option but to wait until Namjoon or the others came back to get an explanation.

 

Seokjin had never been very good at waiting, so he retrieved his phone from his nightstand and called Hyosang.

 

 


 

 

Popular belief had it that gumiho were shapeshifting troublemakers, by custom pretty young women who sported ears, a tail, and a penchant for pranks and improbable love stories.

 

Legend had it that gumiho were fox spirits, centuries old and greedy for power, wealth and human innards, though not necessarily in that order. They were as evil as they were clever, and they didn’t cower before anything or anyone. Not that they had to. Most of the time they evaded open confrontations; they preferred to operate from a safe distance so their victims would come to them, rather than the other way around.

 

Seokjin fit nowhere in these depictions. To be sure, he could be two-faced at times, and he was definitely young and pretty, but Namjoon had never spotted any sort of greed or tail on him. As of yet, it remained unclear whether that meant none of the above applied or whether Seokjin was only an exception. Namjoon hadn’t thought to ask Hoseok or Yoongi, and his Internet research hadn’t yielded anything worthwhile either.

 

Hyosang had provided some information, of course, but not nearly enough to satisfy Namjoon’s curiosity. Neither had the fox marble. Against his expectations and the others’ predictions, it hadn’t done much apart from adding a few new receptors to his senses, which had been an interesting but overall unhelpful experience.

 

Had Seokjin been aware that spending an extended period of time close to a dragon could easily kill him? And if he had, why had he stayed? Did he like Hyosang that much?

 

If Namjoon wanted answers, he would have to ask Seokjin himself, but the mere thought terrified him. After all, they—he—had done all this without his consent. He and Seokjin hadn’t even been friends before, and now…

 

This wasn’t a KBS soap opera or a Joseon folktale. There would be no zany romance subplot to conclude all the convoluted drama, no three-legged hound to restore justice by divine dispensation. There would just be Namjoon and Seokjin, stranded in a minefield of sandtraps.

 

 


 

 

“I can’t believe he did that!”

 

Seokjin flung himself onto the couch, buried his face in one of the cushions and screamed.

 

Somewhere in front of him footsteps padded across the carpet. “Is that really necessary?” his brother said from above. Seokjin imagined him standing there, one hand on his hip while the other hid an exasperated grin. And sure enough, when he disengaged himself from the sofa, Seokjung was right there, smirking like he couldn’t help himself.

 

Another scream brewed in Seokjin’s throat. Fingers clawing into his own palm, he swallowed it down. “You’re the one who got me into this mess. If it hadn’t been for you, I never would have met any of them.”

 

All mirth bled from Seokjung’s face. His hands dropped to his sides. “I never would have bugged you to give that agency a try if I had known what would happen.” He paused. “I just wanted you to get out of this godforsaken house and see that life has more to offer than family and tradition. When I went to the states for uni, it was like—damn, it was like a whole new world, Jinnie!”

 

The pure bliss in his voice startled Seokjin. Reflexively, he thought of Hoseok’s unwavering warmth, Yoongi’s quiet support, Namjoon’s brutal honesty, and Hyosang. Oh, it was a new world all right, but did “new” automatically equal “good”? What if it didn’t? What if he wanted to go back to his old world, where he at least knew what to expect?

 

He glanced up at his brother, whose eyes were glazed over with something tender, wistful even. In that second realization smacked into Seokjin, swift and sharp like a slap on the cheek.

 

Unlike his own, Seokjung’s freedom had always had an expiration date. This time around next year he would have already taken up their father’s place at the top of an international economic empire. And for all his horsing around, he never complained about it, not once. He had made peace with the family rules. He’d had no other choice.

 

Seokjin had a choice. He had the choice his brother hadn’t had, but he’d been too much of a coward to fully seize it.

 

“A whole new world,” he breathed, fingers slackening.

 

Seokjung smiled at him. “And a beautiful one, just wait and see.” He crouched down and took Seokjin’s hands in his. “Don’t give up. Not yet. Even if it’s going to be hard, it may be worth it in the end.”

Chapter Text

Bang PD

Hi Namjoon, I just want to remind you that Jungkook will be back next month. Please take care of him and the other members! I know things have been rough lately, but we have to keep going. Best, Bang Si-Hyuk

 

The message had just come in, interrupting Namjoon’s current producing session, which had neared the fourth hour without yielding any noteworthy results. He read it over and over, deliberating how to respond. Right before Seokjin had first shown up, he had gotten a similar text, but everybody else had already known all about the news. There had been no use—no point—for him to take care of anything. There had been no point for him to do much of anything at all recently.

 

What about now? Did the others know already?

 

The creak of the opening door deranged his thread of thought. He glanced up. Seokjin entered the studio, gently closing the door behind himself.

 

“We should talk,” he declared and sat down on the sofa without giving Namjoon a chance to protest.

 

There was no stalling the inevitable now. Namjoon gulped. He had done his utmost to stay out of Seokjin’s way for the last three days, dreading how this conversation might pan out. Whatever the outcome, things were bound to change for all of them, and Namjoon still sucked at adapting to any form of change. Perhaps that was the reason why Mr. Bang always told him everything last.

 

Elbows propped up on his thighs, Seokjin eyed him through his bangs. He needed a haircut. Long hair didn’t suit him. It gave him an edgy, almost wild look that was at odds with the fine symmetry of his features. Faces like that required something more even, Namjoon thought, more sophisticated.

 

“Your hair looks weird,” he blurted out, stunning not only Seokjin but also himself into momentary silence.

 

Seokjin blinked at him. Namjoon fought the impulse to run. Shouldn’t the fox marble save him from blunders like this?

 

“Come again?”

 

“Please don’t make me.”

 

Snorting, Seokjin settled back into the couch. “You’re in no position to judge other people’s appearances, if you ask me.”

 

Namjoon hadn’t asked. He hadn’t asked because he knew that. In terms of looks, he’d always been the odd one out: too tall and dark to be cute, too lanky to be manly, too plain to be handsome. The way he dressed only made it worse, or so Ikje and Hunchul liked to tell him, but at least he didn’t reek of weed all the time. So yeah, he knew, but the comment had struck home nonetheless. Idols needed to have good looks. His were below average, even more so compared to somebody like Seokjin.

 

Annoyed with Seokjin as well as himself, he shifted in his seat. “Forget it,” he huffed. “What did you want to talk about?”

 

“What do you think?” Seokjin cocked his head, the curtain of his bangs opening. The harsh shine of the strip light above glistened in his eyes.

 

Once again Namjoon wrestled with his flight instincts. He was a rational human being, wasn't he? So he would resolve the situation accordingly. “I think,” he said, exhaling audibly, “you’re right to be mad, but there wasn’t anything else we could have done. Without Hyosang we wouldn’t have even known what was wrong with you.”

 

At the mention of Hyosang, something in the air between them spiked, as though the very molecules around them were sizzling with the tension of all the words they hadn’t said within these past three days.

 

“You could have contacted my family,” Seokjin said, tone strained from the weight of an emotion Namjoon couldn’t identify.

 

He considered that for a moment, considered Seokjin, cross-referencing just how he had gotten here to this point, because Namjoon had never been part of this many awkward and frankly surreal discussions with the same person prior to meeting him. Most people didn’t bother with Namjoon more than once.

 

“Yoongi said we should. Hoseok said—he didn’t agree.”

 

“And you?”

 

“And me what?”

 

“What did you say?”

 

Good question.

 

“I didn’t actually say anything,” Namjoon confessed. “Hyosang called before I could. After he told us about what was going on, I, well, I made the suggestion to try the whole fox marble power exchange thingamajig.”

 

Bending forward again, Seokjin angled a quizzical look at him. “That was your idea?”

 

“Sorry?” Namjoon offered.

 

Seokjin’s eyes searched Namjoon’s face for something. What that something might be, he didn’t dare imagine. “Weren’t you scared?”

 

“Scared?” Namjoon thought about it. “I mean, kind of, yeah. We didn’t know for sure if it would work.”

 

Although he pulled a face that conveyed he wasn’t satisfied with that answer in the slightest, Seokjin didn’t prod any further. Instead he lowered his head to stare at the tight clasp of his hands that lay in his lap.

 

“Thank you,” he said, breath catching at the end, “but I’m not sure that was the best course of action. No offense.”

 

That was a much calmer reaction than Namjoon had anticipated. Too calm almost. It crept him out a little, to be honest. This kind of complacency didn’t match the bossy smartass who had taken reign over the bulk of the group’s domestic life.

 

“I thought you’d be angrier,” Namjoon said. It was simply too freaky to ignore.

 

A choppy chuckle toppled out of Seokjin’s mouth. It was a pretty mouth—pretty much like everything else about him, pretty to a degree that was demoralizing for a guy like Namjoon himself.

 

“I was,” said Seokjin, “but what would that accomplish? What’s done is done. I just hope you know what you’ve gotten yourself into.”

 

Namjoon’s face flared up with a fierce flush. For once he thanked his genes for his dark skin because it would absorb most of it.

 

“We only have to, uh, err.” He paused to clear his throat and hate himself. “We only have to k—repeat the ritual, right?”

 

Though Seokjin’s complexion (unfairly) remained unchanged, his squirming was indicator enough that he felt as uncomfortable about this as Namjoon did, which consoled his bruised ego a little.

 

“Right.” Seokjin rubbed his palms on his jeans. “I don’t know if anyone told you yet, but, um, it has to be at least, umm, twice a week.”

 

Twice a week. Namjoon would have to exchange energy with him twice a week. That. Well. That shouldn’t be too bad. He would merely have to put his face on Seokjin’s. Two times in seven days. It would be just like giving mouth-to-mouth, only with tongue. He could do that. He had to. For the band. Yeah. He could do that for the band.

 

“It’s been three days,” Seokjin went on. His squirming had developed into a full-body fidget. “Since, um, you know.”

 

Oh. Namjoon’s flush burned its way up to his ears. “So should we—do we have to—I mean, right now?” His voice rose so high at the end it cracked.

 

At last a gratifying sheen of pink layered Seokjin’s cheeks. “I know it’s kind of sudden, but at least we’re alone right now.”

 

Fair point. Namjoon shuddered to think about the faces Hoseok and Yoongi would make if they accidentally walked in on it.

 

“Okay,” Namjoon heard himself say before his body left the chair to join Seokjin on the couch. It was as if his brain had disconnected from the rest of himself, rejecting to be part of something so ludicrous.

 

Up close he discovered the imperfections on Seokjin’s face: tired, puffy eyes and patches of red, open flesh on his lips where he must have bitten them. In just a few seconds, Namjoon would put his own lips there. The mental image geared his heart rate up to a solid 150.

 

The actual image before him didn’t help either. Seokjin had shut his eyes. His lashes jittered against the swollen skin beneath. His strong brows had drawn together, but otherwise his face was nothing but smooth lines and elegant curves, most of all his mouth.

 

His mouth. Usually brimming with snark and bad wordplay, it was completely still now. The dark rips in the skin of his lower lip stood out against the soft color around them.

 

“Do it,” that mouth whispered, and Namjoon could only obey.

 

Cautiously, he inched closer towards it, towards Seokjin. He started at the first contact, the almost forgotten sensation of someone else’s lips against his own after years of no time for anything but work and paralyzing anxiety. It felt warm and dry and a little peculiar, but he didn’t let that retain him. He was no quitter after all.

 

The same could be said about Seokjin. He wasted no time opening his mouth and swiping his tongue over the seam of Namjoon’s lips so he would follow suit. Once more Namjoon was helpless to refuse.

 

He hated it. They fit together too well, sliding against each other without resistance, as though it were easy, as though it meant nothing. It should have meant nothing, but it did to Namjoon, and he hated it.

 

When Seokjin attempted to coax his way further into the cavern of his mouth, something in Namjoon burst. He wasn’t going to let Seokjin take over just like that. It had been Namjoon’s idea to do this, and he would see it through on his own terms.

 

He gripped Seokjin’s chin, keeping him in place, and scraped his incisors over Seokjin’s tongue. His jaw tensed in Namjoon’s grasp, but he made no move to free himself. That he allowed Namjoon to get away with this, allowed Namjoon to have this, gave him a rush so fast and so high it scared him a little. This hadn’t been supposed to happen. None of this had been supposed to happen.

 

Seokjin began to pant. Hot staccato puffs of air fizzled into nothing in between their lips as Namjoon guided him deeper into his mouth. And then Seokjin swallowed. He swallowed, with his tongue somehow still in Namjoon’s mouth, like he was trying to eat him up and drink him down. Shivers rattled through Namjoon from head to toe. A guttural inhuman sound rippled up Seokjin’s throat that made Namjoon want to hold him down and push more noises out of him.

 

Three days ago, when all of this had started, it hadn’t felt anything like that. It had sickened Namjoon, having to pry open Seokjin’s lifeless mouth so he was able to stick his tongue inside and get the marble. Afterwards a nauseous kind of dizziness had overtaken him and drained him from the inside out.

 

In a way, this was even worse. He was taking advantage of Seokjin’s vulnerability—no, he was enjoying it. He enjoyed seeing and feeling Seokjin like this, so open and alive with him, for him. Except he wasn’t doing it for Namjoon. He was doing it for survival.

 

How could Namjoon have forgotten that? What had gotten into him? He shoved Seokjin away and fell off the sofa. Dazed, Seokjin looked down at him. His faced had puffed up with all the energy he had just taken from Namjoon. His mouth had become so red Namjoon could hardly make out the bloody spots on it.

 

“Thank you,” he said hoarsely and licked his lips. “Are you all right?”

 

Namjoon was too disgusted with himself to answer. He stumbled out of the studio and locked himself in the nearest restroom.

 

 


 

 

This couldn’t have gone worse.

 

Seokjin fell back into the cushions of the couch and stared at the ceiling. His mouth still throbbed from the way Namjoon’s had pressed against it. That had been yet another side of him Seokjin had not seen coming. Namjoon acted so standoffish most of the time Seokjin would never have believed he could be like this if he hadn’t witnessed it for himself.

 

Even more unbelievable, Seokjin hadn’t stopped him. He had let Namjoon take control although he could have easily overpowered him physically. Something in the firm grip of Namjoon’s fingers on his jaw had made him feel safe, protected even, which made no sense because why would Namjoon ever want to protect him? After all, he was helping Seokjin out of a sense of duty, not affection or sympathy.

 

No wonder he had bolted like that. Seokjin’s reaction really must have grossed him out.

 

With a groan Seokjin slung an arm over his face. How was he ever going to recover from this?

 

 


 

 

Christmas and New Year’s rolled by in an avalanche of work, frost and more work. Apart from their necessary biweekly meetings, Namjoon went back to avoiding Seokjin. He didn’t trust himself to be around him more than he had to after what he had done.

 

That didn’t make transferring his energy to Seokjin any easier though. Residue embarrassment and self-loathing strained their encounters—at least on Namjoon’s part, and he had enough of both to last a lifetime. Being so close to Seokjin didn’t get any easier either. To see him like that, to feel him like that, was more than intimate. It was more than words could express. It was more than somebody like Namjoon should have ever glimpsed, let alone deserved.

 

 


 

 

Jeon Jungkook arrived on the fourth of January. It was a bright winter morning, coated in sprinklings of rime ice that sparkled in the sunlight. Practice and part-time jobs had been called off for the day. For the first time in weeks everybody was home together. Hoseok and Seokjin used the occasion to catch up on some housework while Yoongi and Namjoon were collecting Jungkook from the train station.

 

Since Seokjin hadn’t seen or heard much from the others recently, there hadn’t been an opportunity to inquire about him. Apparently, he had spent the last year in the US to improve his dancing, but that was all Seokjin’s intel amounted to. He pictured someone similar to Hoseok, slim and fast and full of energy.

 

As it turned out, he wasn’t far off the mark. Jungkook was all of those things. He was also fourteen.

 

With his doe eyes, he blinked up at Seokjin, who wondered, idly, just what Mr. Bang had been smoking when he’d decided recruiting a fucking toddler was a good idea.

 

“He’s a child,” he said to no one in particular. Someone had to say it.

 

But Yoongi and Hoseok only shrugged. Jungkook continued to blink at him in silence.

 

“Technically,” Namjoon said, “we’re all children.”

 

Seokjin spluttered an indignant laugh. “That’s not the same!”

 

“Excuse me,” Jungkook piped up, brows pinching into a frown that was so absurdly cute Seokjin almost had an aneurism. “Why does Joon smell like you? He’s human.”

 

For an entire minute, nobody said anything. Then Hoseok and Yoongi exploded into guffaws.

 

Namjoon glared at them before he turned to Jungkook in question. “What do you mean, ‘he’s human’?”

 

“Well, you are one, aren’t you?” Jungkook said. “But he isn’t.”

 

In the meantime Seokjin had tried to sniff out if Namjoon did, in fact, smell like him, but so many people in such a small space made it hard to tell. He tutted at Jungkook and propped his hands on his hips. “Hey, little brat, is that how you talk to your elders? Where are your manners, huh?”

 

Sizing him up, Jungkook imitated his stance. “And where are yours?” he retorted. “You never answered my question!”

 

“This is amazing,” Yoongi squeaked. Judging by his chortles, Hoseok seemed to agree.

 

“Can someone please explain what’s going on here?” Namjoon waved his arms around to get the group’s attention, nearly poking his own eyes out in the process.

 

Arms falling to his sides, Jungkook took pity on him. “I’m a moon rabbit,” he said and puffed out his chest a little.

 

Seokjin hadn't noticed that. He had never met a moon rabbit before; the only person he knew who had had been his grandmother. She hadn’t told him or Seokjung much about them, likely because they were so scarce that she hadn’t felt the need to pass on knowledge about them. She would turn in her grave if she knew Seokjin had ended up in a band with one.

 

“Not you too.” Namjoon wilted. “Am I the only normal one here?”

 

At last Yoongi and Hoseok’s fit seemed to subside. “Normal is a bit of a stretch,” Yoongi said with a final snort. “Especially now that you’ve got Seokjin’s marble.”

 

Scalding heat shot up to Seokjin’s face, which had turned into a Pavlovian response by now. Every time someone brought it up, his head would light up like a goddamn tomato.

 

In his peripheral vision, Namjoon had gone rigid. Jungkook eyed them both curiously.

 

“I see,” he said after a while. “That makes sense. Joon’s always been weak to pretty faces.”

 

What?

 

“Th-that’s not true!” Namjoon yelped.

 

Of course that instantly had Hoseok and Yoongi cackling again. Jungkook nodded to himself, evidently satisfied that he had solved this mystery. Blanching, Namjoon continued to stutter. Seokjin, who’d had enough humiliation for one day, opted for flight. He dashed outside and spent two very therapeutic hours grocery shopping.

 

When he returned, he found the apartment empty, though the shower was running. A post-it on the fridge informed him that Hoseok, Yoongi and Jungkook had gone out to show the kid around the neighborhood. So, if he didn’t find some excuse to leave again, Seokjin would have to be alone with Namjoon for the remainder of the day. Magnificent.

 

To occupy his mind with something else, he picked up where he and Hoseok had left off before Jungkook’s arrival and scooped up the dirty clothes strewn around the room. Why did they even have a laundry basket if nobody ever used it?

 

Once he had gathered them all in his arms, he elbowed the bathroom door open to pile everything in the washer, but a loud moan from the shower stall arrested him on the doorstep. It was a full drawn-out sound that bounced off the tiled walls and reverberated in Seokjin’s brain. He hugged the laundry tighter to himself. He had to go, mustn’t invade Namjoon’s privacy like this, but his feet were rooted to the floor.

 

“Fuck,” Namjoon moaned again. His voice rasped in a way that reminded Seokjin of his hard grip on Seokjin’s chin all those weeks ago.

 

Finally, Seokjin’s legs budged. He dumped the laundry in the washer and hightailed it out of there as fast as his feet would carry him.

 

 


 

 

He had done it again. Methodically, Namjoon pointed the showerhead at the wall he had just come on. If only he could rinse his mind like that as well. Regardless of what he did, the memories of Seokjin’s lips gliding over his, yielding to Namjoon’s every movement, would not fade away.

 

At first he had blamed it on his hormones. As a teenager, he was prone to ill-timed erections and sexual fixations. Now, almost three weeks later, that theory didn’t hold up anymore. Biology alone didn’t suffice to explain why his brain kept revisiting this particular moment while ignoring everything else, including porn.

 

Namjoon watched a lot of porn. In the quiet of the recording studio late at night, when he was too strung out to come up with new lyrics or accords, he browsed the web for hours on end to distract himself. As of late he required more distractions than usual. Anything Seokjin said or did could give him a boner, from drinking water to dance practice, which was insane because Seokjin was a worse dancer than Namjoon. Somehow it all looped back to that one moment, that one fraction of time that had ruined everything.

 

So Namjoon watched more porn than ever—to no avail. Namjoon was stuck in his Möbius strip of horny doom.

 

 


 

 

Hyosang

Hey how’re you holding up?

Fine and you? Already preparing for the first semester of uni?

Nah I’m not as studious as you

Seriously though

How is it? With Namjoon and all

 

On the one hand, it flattered Seokjin to hear that Hyosang cared about his wellbeing. It was comforting that he hadn’t stopped thinking about Seokjin. On the other hand, that raised the question why he cared. Was he genuinely interested? Or did he still feel guilty? Had Hoseok or Yoongi told him to contact Seokjin? What should he say?

 

The list of possible answers stretched on endlessly before Seokjin’s inner eye, and none of them were particularly encouraging.

 

Hyosang

I said I’m fine

Everything is fine

There’s no reason to worry so much

Yes there is

It’s my fault you’re like this now

 

“Like this”? Seokjin frowned at his phone. Like what? What was he like? What did Hyosang mean?

 

After the customary thirty seconds, the screen went black, but Seokjin kept staring at it, as if it might light up any moment with an explanation that would temper the anxiety brewing in his gut. He kept staring and staring until his eyes watered. Nothing happened. Of course not, what was he thinking? He rubbed at his eyes. How unsightly, a grown man behaving like a naïve schoolgirl.

 

“Are you crying?”

 

Snapping his phone shut, Seokjin lifted his head. Namjoon goggled at him through unkempt bangs. He looked even shaggier than usual, like he’d just rolled out of bed. Given his latest sleep patterns—or lack thereof—he very well might have.

 

“No,” Seokjin said brusquely. “I’m just getting tired waiting for you. Where have you been? We were supposed to meet twenty minutes ago.”

 

Deflecting the attack by ignoring it, Namjoon sunk down next to him on the hardwood floor. “You’re the only person I know who still uses a flip phone,” he said, side-eying said flip phone, for about the hundredth time since they had met. Originally, Seokjin had expected Namjoon would comment on the phone’s color too, but he never did.

 

“You’re the only one person I know who willingly goes out dressed like a hobo,” Seokjin reposted and pointed a hard look at Namjoon’s threadbare hoody and jeans.

 

Namjoon squared his shoulders defensively. The subject of his appearance, Seokjin had discovered, seldom failed to rile him up.“Not everybody has the leisure to care about looks.”

 

Okay, fine, this wasn‘t getting them anywhere. Seokjin raised his hands in a peace offering. “You’re right, sorry,” he said, trying not to make a face. He hated it when he backed down first because Namjoon never gloated about it. No, he was always humble, down to earth. Seokjin didn’t get it. It didn’t fit the rest of his personality.

 

“Who were you texting?” Namjoon asked then, wholly non-sequitur like only he could be.

 

“Hyosang,” Seokjin replied before he realized that, perhaps, talking about him to Namjoon might not be the smartest idea. “Why do you want to know?”

 

Namjoon’s pose deflated. “I—you looked sad.”

 

Abruptly, Seokjin recognized that Namjoon hadn’t jibed when he’d asked if Seokjin was crying. It had been a genuine question. As a fox and a Kim, Seokjin had very limited experience with those.

 

“I wasn’t sad.”

 

Namjoon slid a dubious glance across his face and said, “I totally believe you.”

 

If that had come from his brother, Seokjin would have laughed. From Yoongi or Hoseok, he would have tolerated it. From Namjoon though? From Namjoon, it could be anything in between a joke and an accusation, and Seokjin wasn’t in the mood for another guessing game.

 

“What’s it to you anyway?” he bit out, teeth scrunching around the syllables.

 

Namjoon’s expression blanked. He wiped the palms of his hands across his face. “Don’t you think it’s time we stopped this?” Dropping his hands, he locked gazes with Seokjin, who found himself physically incapable of breaking eye contact. That was how humans usually felt when a gumiho looked them in the eye. Whether Namjoon had consciously tapped into that power or whether the marble had done that on its own, Seokjin couldn’t discern.

 

“Stop what?”

 

The force of Namjoon’s eyes loosened. He snickered weakly. “Just—stop. Please.” He looked at Seokjin like he was a clown and he had just told the saddest joke in the world. “We may not be friends, but we’re in this together. I don’t hate you, and even if you hate me, this doesn’t have to be so hard all the time. You’re stuck with me, so can’t we just talk about this like adults?”

 

What a punch line. Talk about sad jokes.

 

“You aren’t an adult,” Seokjin said sharply. He wasn’t the one making things hard. “No matter how much you pretend to be one.”

 

Taking the blow in stride, Namjoon ploughed on. “Is that what this is about? Age? Seniority?”

 

His tenacity was making Seokjin’s head throb. Why couldn’t he just let it drop? “Let’s just get this over with, okay?”

 

Namjoon sat back to give him a thorough onceover, as though they were meeting for the first time. “I don’t get you,” he said.

 

Good, Seokjin thought and leaned into his space. Namjoon didn’t stop him, didn’t even flinch when their lips met. He kept his entire body still so Seokjin could take what he needed. Seokjin loathed how passive he was, like he just happened to be there and couldn’t have cared less. He wanted Namjoon to take something from this too, but what did Seokjin have that Namjoon would ever accept from him?

 

Seokjin was a gumiho. Namjoon was a human, and a weird one at that. Historically, this combination was even worse than a gumiho and a dragon. Seokjin was literally sucking the life out of Namjoon. The only difference between him and a conventional cannibal was that he wasn’t killing Namjoon in the process.

 

It’s my fault you’re like this now. Was that what Hyosang had meant?

 

When they separated again, Namjoon’s cheeks glistened in the neon light of the room. His eyes were dry. “I don’t get you,” he said one more time.

 

“If it’s any consolation,” Seokjin said, raising a hand to his own wet cheeks, “I don’t get you either.”

 

With the sleeve of his sweater, he scrubbed his face, but it was too late. He could already feel his eyelids swelling.

 

His phone buzzed in his lap, announcing a new incoming message.

 

Hyosang

 

Do me a favor and take care of yourself yeah?

 

 


 

 

The weekly lunch meeting had obtained another member. Hunchul and Donghyuk were elated to see Hyosang again; they hadn’t meet in person since Hunchul’s last gig some months ago. Meanwhile, Ikje still refused to show himself any place where Namjoon was present.

 

“Looking good,” Hunchul crowed at Hyosang, patting his back as he sat down.

 

He was right. Hyosang did look good. Moving back home had treated him well: he had gained substance and color, as though some sort of burden had been lifted from his shoulders.

 

Namjoon couldn’t bring himself to be happy for him. Ever since Seokjin had cried in front of him three days ago, he’d been in a foul mood.

 

“Hey!” Hyosang tugged at Namjoon’s pullover. “Who pissed in your coffee today, huh?”

 

“Ignore him,” Hunchul advised and took a swig of his americano.

 

“He’s been like this all day,” Donghyuk added and adjusted his snapback, a nervous habit he had picked up from Yoongi. “It’s, uh, because of the new guy.”

 

It didn’t even surprise Namjoon that he was spilling the beans. Donghyuk had never been very skilled at keeping secrets. Namjoon had needed to talk to someone though, and Hunchul was even worse with secrets than Donghyuk. It had only been a matter of time until Hyosang would, one way or another, learn about it.

 

In a flash Hyosang’s features switched from happy to alarmed. “Is something wrong with Jin?”

 

The worried twinge in his voice perplexed Namjoon. Hadn’t Hyosang been texting Seokjin? Hadn’t Seokjin told him? And where did that nickname come from anyway?

 

“Nothing you don’t already know,” Namjoon said. He wasn’t going to go into detail in front of Hunchul and Donghyuk. They had no clue about the true nature of their ex-bandmates, and Namjoon saw no reason to change that.

 

The subsequent minute ticked by wordlessly as Hyosang took that in, brows pinching together. “What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked in a tone not dissimilar to that of Namjoon’s parents after he’d told them he would not pursue an academic career.

 

“Guys,” Hunchul stepped in, “I’m honestly not sure what you’re talking about, but take it down a notch, okay? Remember, we’re all friends here.”

 

Beside him Donghyuk rocked his head up and down in agreement.

 

Folding his hands on the table where they could easily be seen, Namjoon composed himself. Hunchul was right. Hyosang was his friend. He ought to treat him as such. Getting emotional wasn’t going to solve anything.

 

“Sorry,” he said, measuring his breaths like the vocal coaches had taught him to. “It just. It isn’t easy. For any of us.”

 

Hyosang’s forehead uncreased. “I tried talking to him, but he doesn’t really tell me much. He always brushes me off.”

 

That was something Namjoon was uncomfortably familiar with. “It isn’t easy,” he said again because it was the only thing he knew for sure.

Chapter Text

Rain flooded February and flushed the leftover dirt from the previous year out of the streets. Hypnotized by the steady drum of the rain beating against the windows, Seokjin found himself zoning out time and time again. He thought of going outside into the downpour so it would clean him along with everything else, rinse all those ugly intrusive thoughts about Namjoon out of his head.

 

Ever since he had walked in on Namjoon showering, Seokjin hadn’t been able to shake the mental image of him like that, with the spray of the water tracing the outlines of his torso, glistening skin catching the light of the lamp overhead, big bony fingers dipping between his legs. His mind had latched onto the idea and wouldn’t let go of it even weeks later.

 

Each time Seokjin closed the shower stall behind himself, his thoughts reverted to Namjoon. As he turned on the hot water, he reappeared in front of Seokjin and groaned into his ear. His hands reached out to cup Seokjin’s head, and Seokjin let him. He let his fantasy run wild because he was weak and starving in a way he didn’t recognize.

 

The harder he tried to detach himself from Namjoon, physically as well as emotionally, the more he gravitated towards him. He couldn’t help orbiting around him although he knew, once he got too close, he would vaporize in his atmosphere.

 

When they had met, Seokjin had thought Hyosang was like the sun: warm, bright, the center of his solar system. Seokjin had feared he was going blind after looking at him directly for too long. Touching him had burned Seokjin’s skin.

 

If Hyosang was the sun, then Namjoon was the earth. Where Hyosang was fire, iridescent and impalpable, Namjoon was solid and firm. Reliable. He was there for Seokjin in spite of their differences. He gave off an air of fixity that made Seokjin feel safe and free at the same time, no longer floating aimlessly through the vacuum of space.

 

Bracing himself against the wet tiles of the wall, Seokjin let out a shaky exhale that turned into steam in the heat of the shower. He wanted Namjoon. Worse, he liked him. His knees buckled. He slid down the wall and collapsed against it. He liked Namjoon.

 

 


 

 

Everybody called Seokjin Jin now, including Mr. Bang. Seokjin liked it. Namjoon didn’t. He kept calling him by his full name, and Hoseok and Yoongi kept tossing him the stink eye. Namjoon couldn’t really fault them for it. They knew he didn’t like the nickname because Hyosang had used it first. Petty stupidity like that wasn’t becoming of a bandleader.

 

As time went by, Jungkook noticed it too, which was something of a feat. Normally, he possessed the empathetic capacity of a three-year-old. Yoongi liked to say that he was emotionally challenged. Hoseok liked to say that he was taking after Yoongi. Namjoon liked to think both might be the case.

 

During a recording session a couple of days before Yoongi’s birthday, Jungkook looked up at him, his eyes growing into perfect circles, and asked, “Why aren’t you dating Jin?” He sounded genuinely flummoxed, as though he had been stewing over this for quite some time now.

 

Namjoon nearly crushed the keyboard. He gawked at Jungkook, scandalized. “Why—why would I—what?”

 

“You like him,” Jungkook said with conviction, like he was stating a fact.

 

“No, I don’t.”

 

The denial came so fast they could both tell from the get go that he was lying. Namjoon screwed his mouth shut before he said anything else and gave the little runt more ammunition than he already had.

 

Jungkook smirked at him and said, “You’re a mess, bro.”

 

He wasn’t entirely wrong about that, but Namjoon wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction of validating him. He straightened in his seat so he towered over Jungkook, who—to Namjoon’s consternation—did not appear very impressed. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he insisted and imitated the way Yoongi would glower at him when he got too close to his equipment.

 

Although he remained mostly unfazed, Jungkook shrugged and returned to practicing the chorus of their current song project. But Namjoon knew that it was far too early to count his blessings.

 

 


 

 

Hoseok and Yoongi had made up their minds to celebrate their birthdays together. In the last week of March, they drummed up all members of Bangtan, past and present, for a party in their apartment. Hyosang and a tall guy named Hunchul supplied everyone with beer, bar Jungkook of course, and Hoseok cranked up the volume of his portable speakers.

 

Seokjin stayed on the sidelines for the most part, cradling an unopened beer bottle in his lap, and observed the group in front of him. Hoseok, Hyosang and Hunchul were clearly the mood makers, whereas Yoongi, Jungkook and Donghyuk were more subdued. Namjoon hovered somewhere in the middle, adamant on being the mediator as usual.

 

There was something representative about it all, Seokjin thought. Something emblematic. Every one of them contributed something of his own to the larger whole. The cogs of their friendship continued to turn even though their paths had branched off into opposite directions. Seokjin envied that, primarily because he doubted he would ever be a part of it.

 

“You don’t like beer?”

 

Hyosang had sidled up to him, face flushed from alcohol and laughter, and pointed at the abandoned bottle on Seokjin’s legs.

 

Seokjin offered it to him. “Not really. More of a soju guy honestly, but don’t tell anyone.”

 

“Why not?” Hyosang accepted the beer gladly. “Scared they’ll try to get you drunk?”

 

“Someone has to stay sober and protect Jungkook’s innocence.”

 

“Good luck with that.”

 

They were quiet for a while. Around them the bustle of the party carried on. Seokjin’s senses buzzed with the effort to keep up with it all. He could hardly sniff out Hyosang’s scent among those of the others, but it didn’t bother him.

 

“I’m glad you’re better now,” Hyosang murmured against the rim of his beer bottle, eyes downcast.

 

With a huff Seokjin hit him on the back, throwing him into a sputtering fit. “Brooding isn’t a good look on you.”

 

“I’m being serious here,” Hyosang said once the coughing had abated. “I’m glad everything is working out even though, well, you know.”

 

Seokjin did know. “Me too,” he said, though he wasn’t convinced.

 

Was it really working out? What would Namjoon say? Seokjin didn’t know. He never knew what Namjoon would say.

 

 


 

 

“Heya, my name is Kim Taehyung, eighteen years old, Capricorn, ascendant Libra! Nice to meet you.”

 

Through the shadows of the twilit hallway, Namjoon squinted at the apparition in front of him beyond the doorstep. It had to be an apparition because, surely, nobody would show up out of the blue like this at the fucking crack of dawn. The boy looked like one too with his big eyes, floppy brown hair and the wall of teeth that built up his smile.

 

When Namjoon didn’t respond (his sleep-addled brain was still buffering), Kim Taehyung, eighteen years old, Capricorn, ascendant Libra, just wiggled his way into the apartment and plunked his suitcase down in the center of the room.

 

His suitcase?

 

Namjoon whipped around. The boy/apparition inspected the cluttered living area with almost childlike curiosity. A dark feeling settled in the pit of Namjoon’s stomach.

 

“Did President Bang send you?”

 

“Yeah.” He gave Namjoon a long blank look. “Didn’t he tell you?”

 

Before Namjoon could explain that, no, once again Mr. Bang hadn’t told him jack shit, Seokjin sat up in his bunk, blinking blearily at the room at large.

 

“Namjoon,” he said in a rough, sleepy voice that did things to Namjoon and his sexual frustration, “what is a fairy doing here at—” He tossed a glance at the alarm standing on the nightstand wedged in between his bed and Jungkook’s futon. “—half past six?”

 

“A fairy.” Namjoon did his best to be shocked, but he was simply too tired. “Okay.”

 

He closed the door and went back to bed. And that was how Taehyung joined the band.

 

 


 

 

Like most fairies Seokjin had encountered so far, Taehyung was a menace. He didn’t believe in personal boundaries, household chores or anything else from the domestic order Seokjin and Hoseok had implemented, which had a devastating effect on Jungkook, who was putty in Taehyung’s hands as soon as video games or anime were involved.

 

As time wore on and the tentative buds of spring grew into full bloom, Seokjin began to feel like, by signing his trainee contract, he had also unwittingly consented to adopt an ever-increasing pack of unruly teenagers. When he wasn’t busy practicing or studying, he was either worrying about or tidying up after them. Hoseok, the lone exception, was just as busy as Seokjin himself, if not more so, due to his part-time job, and Yoongi, albeit the second oldest, was no help at all.

 

“I don’t get why you’re doing this to yourself,” he would often say, lounging on the nearest horizontal surface since he was too exhausted or hungry to stay on his feet or both. He likely hadn't had a wink of sleep for days. Typical.

 

“You know what I don’t get?” Seokjin would ask, aggressively frying some leftovers for him. Also typical. “Why don’t your survival instincts kick in when you get like this?”

 

But he was fighting an unwinnable battle. Two weeks later Yoongi smashed his shoulder in a car accident. Although he’d had to get surgery immediately to minimize permanent damage, he refused to stay in the hospital for even one night. Seokjin yelled at him until his vocal cords gave out, but Yoongi didn’t budge. He thought Big Hit would fire him if they found out he was injured, like that was the real issue.

 

So Seokjin stormed out of the apartment and stuffed himself with noodles in a hole in the wall a few blocks north. Halfway through his second bowl, the door chimed and Namjoon stepped inside.

 

“How did you find me?” he demanded through a mouthful of ramen.

 

“Just a hunch.” Namjoon took the only other available stool at the counter. “You’re a stress eater.”

 

Seokjin buried himself in his bowl to hide his embarrassment. It hadn’t been a secret per se, but that Namjoon had found out discomfited him regardless. “What do you want?” he said, steering the conversation away from himself.

 

“Nothing.”

 

“Everybody wants something.”

 

“Fine.” Beyond the rim of his bowl, Seokjin could see Namjoon pinching the bridge of his nose. “I want you to forgive him.”

 

“Why?”

 

Namjoon let out an indignant huff. “Yoongi’s desperate. He and I, we both are. We’ve been doing this for years, and we don’t even know if we’ll ever get to debut. We bet our future on this!” He gritted his teeth. “That might be difficult for you to understand since you only became a trainee on a whim, but we’ve got a whole fucking lot to lose here.”

 

That was a low blow. Seokjin had always presumed that Namjoon didn’t hold him in very high regard, but hadn’t it gotten better over time? Hadn’t they become closer? At least close enough for Namjoon to realize that Seokjin had come to care for this, for them all, just like Namjoon did?

 

Either Seokjin had presumed wrong or none of that mattered to Namjoon. Whatever the case, Seokjin didn’t even have the right to be angry about it. After all, Namjoon had a point. Seokjin was different from him, Yoongi or most other trainees out there. He had no dream that drove him forward. He had no passion or ambitions. Money, fame, art—all those big things were very nice but meant altogether very little to him.

 

Family, however, meant a great deal to Seokjin. It meant everything to him. Ultimately, it all came down to this: he had longed for a family.

 

How foolish.

 

“I’m sorry,” he said. His voice, still hoarse from before, teetered on the edge of tearing completely. He almost said it twice, to prove how much he regretted, but Namjoon wouldn’t believe him, would he? So Seokjin pushed his stool away from the counter, where he placed a wad of cash for the lady who ran the place, and left.

 

 


 

 

“So I think I fucked up.”

 

Everyone stared at him.

 

“You called us here to tell us that?” Yoongi asked after a pause.

 

Namjoon bypassed him and put several plastic bags on the table they had all huddled around. “I brought food.” He gestured towards the bags.

 

Nobody appeared particularly enthusiastic about this.

 

“Cheap takeout isn’t going to persuade us to help you,” Hoseok said sternly, crossing his arms in front of his chest.

 

“But I’m hungry,” Jungkook complained, on the verge of an epic pout. Hoseok shushed him.

 

Taehyung, who had been atypically quiet until now, swept an unreadable look across Namjoon’s face. His own face was devoid of any emotion. Seokjin and Jungkook had told Namjoon that Taehyung, like all fairies, got like this sometimes, but, having never witnessed it for himself, he hadn’t quite believed them. It was eerie and entirely nonhuman.

 

“You’re a good person,” he told Namjoon. It wasn’t an opinion or an assertion. It was an objective evaluation. The fair folk, Taehyung had explained once, could look into human hearts. Namjoon hadn’t believed that either. “Why aren’t you doing good?”

 

Namjoon asked himself the very same question every goddamn day. Needless to mention he had not found an answer yet. “I don’t know,” he said, which made Taehyung frown.

 

“I don’t understand.”

 

Yoongi smiled wryly at that. “People are like that. It’s what makes us human.”

 

“So Joon has to hurt Jin to be human?” Taehyung concluded. His frown deepened.

 

“No, Tae,” Jungkook piped up from the far end of the table. “I think Yoongi means something else. Sometimes humans can’t help doing things that go against their values. They make mistakes, and then they learn from them.”

 

Taehyung mulled this over, glancing back and forth between Namjoon and Jungkook as if he were trying to connect what Jungkook had said to Namjoon as a person. “Okay,” he said. “What have you learned?”

 

“That he’s a dumbass with the social skills of road kill,” Hoseok cut in before Namjoon could reply.

 

Under normal circumstances, that would have been the cue for everyone else to laugh. That they all stayed impassive testified to the gravity of the situation. They were all upset about what had happened, including Namjoon. Seokjin had grown on them in ways they hadn’t predicted. He was a part of the group now. He was a part of them.

 

Yes, Seokjin hadn’t intended to become an idol, but that was also true for everyone else in this room. Hoseok had wanted to be a dancer. Jungkook had auditioned just to sing, nothing more and nothing less. Taehyung had skidded into show business by accident. And both Yoongi and Namjoon himself used to detest idols and the corporate machinery that hid behind them.

 

Yes, Seokjin came from a different background than Namjoon, but so did Hoseok, Jungkook and Taehyung. Of all people, Namjoon ought to know best that being different did not equal bad.

 

So why had he said those awful things to Seokjin? What was wrong with him?

 

“Is it because of what he is?” Yoongi asked out of nowhere, derailing Namjoon’s train of thought entirely.

 

“Why would that have anything to do with this?”

 

Yoongi raised his brows. “Among all the things that go bump in the night, his kind isn’t exactly the most popular.”

 

“Jin grew up with his family telling him that gumiho are better than everyone else,” Hoseok added and grimaced. “All the while everyone else avoided him because of that.”

 

“But normal people don’t know about that.”

 

Hoseok’s grimace contorted into an ugly smile. “They don’t have to. You’ve seen it for yourself, he’s pretty good at keeping others at arm’s length.”

 

Understanding hit him all at once. “He’s doing all that on purpose because he thinks that’s what he deserves.”

 

“Took you long enough,” Jungkook chimed in, fishing a carton of noodles from one of the plastic bags. “So can we eat now?”

 

“Shut up.” Hoseok pinched him into silence.

 

Yoongi drilled into Namjoon with his eyes. “Do you get now why he joined the band?”

 

Oh, Namjoon got it all right, though, in hindsight, he should have gotten it earlier. The way Ikje had been talking about Seokjin should have been a dead giveaway, not to mention that evening Namjoon had picked him up from home. He’d had a suspicion then, but it still had seemed ludicrous that Seokjin would choose a ragtag bunch of kids like them over his own kin.

 

When Namjoon had moved out, he had taken all his regrets with him. He didn’t resent his parents. He understood where they were coming from, even if they did not extend the same understanding to him in return. To this day they refused to accept his decision. It was sad, but only time would change it. Namjoon could live with that. He wasn’t alone.

 

When Seokjin had moved out, he had taken centuries of emotional baggage with him, more than a human like Namjoon could ever fathom. He had kept it all inside to fester there until it had almost consumed him. Although he must have noticed that Hyosang was the source of his deteriorating health, he hadn’t said anything. He had believed he’d been alone. It was time someone showed him that wasn’t true.

 

“Good,” Yoongi said at length, taking Namjoon’s silence as affirmation. “Now go tell him you didn’t mean it so we can focus on things that actually matter.”

 

Taehyung and Hoseok exchanged a knowing look.

 

“You only want Jin back because he’ll save you from doing the laundry.”

 

Yoongi chucked a box of rice at them.


 

 

A sense of foreboding befell Seokjin when Mrs. Choi interrupted his lunch to declare that a young man was requesting to see him. Upon further questioning, she confirmed his apprehension: it was the same young man who had come for him once before.

 

Mercifully, all other residents of the house had gone out so he could deal with this before his parents got wind of anything. He set his cutlery down and asked Mrs. Choi to take the visitor to the parlor.

 

Warm sunbeams filtered into the room in spades that sliced through the air like blades of light. Namjoon waited in the middle of the room, where the beams intersected. He was fussing with the hem of his neon green shirt that featured a bright orange crab on the front. It was one of his all-time favorites. Seokjin wanted to burn it. Of course he was wearing it today.

 

“What is it?” Seokjin made his tone lofty, as though he were watching the scene from far away without any personal attachment. He wasn’t going to allow his feelings to get the better of him again.

 

The response came with some delay. Namjoon’s hands let go of his shirt. He looked up at Seokjin in a fashion that could only be labeled as stricken (but by what?) and inhaled.

 

“Come back home.”

 

The word “home” coming out of Namjoon’s mouth froze the blood in Seokjin’s veins. It was baiting him with everything he’d never get to have.

 

“I am home,” he spat, harsher than Namjoon deserved, but Seokjin needed to get rid of him. Namjoon was the living, breathing reminder of the sheer scope of Seokjin’s stupidity. The earlier Namjoon left, the faster Seokjin could go back to binge eating until he had swallowed every last bit of his idiotic feelings.

 

“No, you aren’t,” Namjoon said. No scoff, no irony. Matter of fact. “Come back with me. Come home.”

 

It took all of Seokjin’s willpower not to start screaming. What gave Namjoon the right to show up here and say that, after he had made it abundantly clear that he still didn’t acknowledge Seokjin as a member of the group?

 

“We both know you don’t really want that. So just go back and tell Hoseok and Yoongi that I said no.”

 

“I’m not here because of them,” Namjoon persisted, making abortive movements with his arms to indicate his sincerity. “I’m here because I was an asshole. Just hear me out, yeah? You can still kick me out after if you want.”

 

That only aggravated Seokjin more. “Why should I? Why on earth should I listen to what you have to say?”

 

“You’re going to die if you stay here!” Namjoon exploded, flailing so hard he nearly knocked himself over.

 

All of Seokjin’s indignation evaporated. Mortification, sharp and sour as bile, licked at the bottom of his throat.

 

Namjoon’s arms froze mid-movement, inches away from hitting his face. In slow motion he lowered them, let them hang limply at his sides like the branches of a dying tree. “You forgot.” He swayed a little, as if the realization was having a physical impact on him. “I can’t believe you actually forgot about that.”

 

Seokjin had no problem believing it. Conceptually, it was hard to imagine that anybody would forget about something like that. In reality, though, it wasn’t hard at all. When he had run out of the restaurant, he hadn’t been thinking. Hadn’t been able to. His mind, completely knee-jerk, had shut down and handed the reigns over to his impulses like it tended to when he was scared and overwhelmed.

 

“I-I’m not sure what to say.”

 

“Me neither.” Namjoon laughed tonelessly, slumping down to a crouch, and scrubbed his face. “Fuck, what a mess.”

 

An apt summary.

 

“Sorry,” Seokjin said. He meant it even though he knew it wasn’t enough.

 

“For what?” Brows knitting, Namjoon looked up at him, shook his head. “Wait, I don’t wanna hear it. I don’t wanna hear you say that anymore.”

 

Seokjin wanted to scream again but somehow found himself crying instead. Tears rolled down his cheeks in hot, ugly streaks. Why were emotions always so ugly?

 

“But you’re stuck with me now,” he said wetly.

 

Namjoon, jumping back to his feet, met Seokjin’s eyes like he was accepting a challenge Seokjin hadn’t noticed he’d issued. “That was my decision. Don’t take that away from me.”

 

A watery laugh clogged up Seokjin’s swelling throat. “You’re an idiot,” he mumbled, not sure whether he was talking to Namjoon or himself.

 

“We both are,” Namjoon agreed. With his right hand, he reached out to touch Seokjin but then seemed to think better of it and dropped it again. “So what happens now? Will you go back with me?”

 

Underneath the contact lenses, Seokjin’s eyes itched. He blinked to make the burning go away, and more tears spilled forth, which only made it more painful.

 

“I don’t belong there.”

 

He didn’t belong anywhere.

 

This time Namjoon didn’t hesitate. He put a firm, warm hand on the strip of skin just above the collar of Seokjin’s shirt. “Stop telling yourself that. You have a place in the group just like everyone else.” He squeezed him. “Why can’t you see that? You’re important to all of us.”

 

“Even to you?” Seokjin wanted to ask but didn’t. He wasn’t ready to hear the answer yet.

 

“Let’s go back,” Namjoon whispered to him, stroking his fingers against the dip of Seokjin’s clavicle, where most of his tears had pooled.

 

Seokjin was too weak a man to keep objecting. Obediently, he followed the tug of Namjoon’s hand on his shoulder out of the salon, out of the house, and into the sun.

Chapter Text

Namjoon smelled Ikje before he glimpsed him. Shrouded in the lingering rancid sweetness of weed, he was easy to pick out from the mélange of coffee, milk and flour that drifted through the café. As he joined Namjoon and Hyosang at their usual table, he pulled his face into a tight scowl that made his insectlike eyes stand out even more. He grunted an unintelligible greeting and downed almost half of the coffee he had just ordered.

 

“Thank you for coming,” Namjoon opened to appease him. When he and Hyosang had asked him to meet up and clear up the mess that had piled up between them, he’d had his doubts whether Ikje would even show up.

 

Another grunt. Namjoon interpreted that as permission to proceed. “So.” He clasped his hands together and braced himself. “We were wondering how we could show you that Seokjin isn’t the evil, man-eating monster you think he is, and we agreed that the easiest way would be talking to him in person.”

 

For a long, blood-curdling moment, nobody said anything. Namjoon stole a glance at Hyosang to his right, who had gone absolutely still.

 

Ikje’s fingers tensed around the coffee mug. His chin clenched like he was holding himself back from saying something.

 

To Namjoon’s astonishment (and profound gratitude), Hyosang took over and said, “I know it must be hard for you. This goes against everything you’ve been told since you were born, but Jin is a person with feelings and morals just like we are. When he realized that I was draining his energy, he didn’t do anything to stop it.”

 

Ikje scoffed into his coffee. “That just proves he’s dumb, not that he isn’t a monster.”

 

As stubborn as ever. Namjoon grimaced but soldiered on. Sooner or later even Ikje had to recognize that he was wrong. “If he really were a monster, he would have taken his marble back and killed me the second he woke up and noticed it was gone.”

 

“Foxes aren’t straightforward like that.” With a clink Ikje set his cup on the table. “They’re sly. Backstabbing. He gains more if he keeps you alive for now. Once you stop being useful to him, he’ll rip the marble right out of your throat.”

 

To Namjoon, who had grown up in a world of number crunching and fact checking, that sounded utterly insane, but to Ikje, who had been raised to hunt demons and spirits, it was all he had ever known. To Ikje, it was reality. No wonder he smoked so much dope all the time.

 

Namjoon sighed. He unfolded his hands, which had begun to sweat, and wiped them on his pants. “Give him one chance. Just one.”

 

“Please.” Hyosang offered Ikje a gentle smile, a truce, which he begrudgingly returned. “Just one.”

 

“Just one,” Ikje said.

 

Namjoon and Hyosang grinned at each other. Step one, accomplished.

 

 


 

 

It was strange to have Hyosang as a visitor. Not good or bad, just—just strange. Unaccustomed. Day by day, his scent in the apartment had been wearing thinner and thinner. All of his remaining belongings had long since been cleared out. There was nothing left here that connected him to this place even though he had been living in it for years.

 

“We’d like to ask you a favor,” he told Seokjin, sliding into his old spot at the table, and that was strange too. It was strange because Taehyung usually sat there now, but Taehyung had gone out to look for a part-time job with Hoseok.

 

Only Namjoon, Hyosang and Seokjin himself were home at the moment, probably a deliberate move on Namjoon’s part. Seokjin had yet to make up his mind what he thought about that.

 

“What kind of favor?”

 

Similar sheepish looks appeared on both Namjoon and Hyosang’s faces.

 

“You remember Ikje? The samjogku from the coffee shop?” Namjoon asked, and Seokjin dipped his head in wary confirmation. “Would you meet him?”

 

The air in the apartment spiked with Namjoon and Hyosang’s combined anxiety. If they were nervous enough about this to stink up the whole place, Seokjin reckoned, there must be more to their request than they let on.

 

“Why?” His attention wandered from Namjoon—sweating and squirmy—to Hyosang—also sweating but motionless as a rock.

 

Hyosang’s expression became somber. “Ikje thinks you should leave the band because of what you are. He blames it on you that I’m not a trainee anymore.”

 

“Oh,” Seokjin said and smoothed out the rough fabric of his jeans. The sensitive material hadn’t coped well with the cheap new detergent. “Well, he has a point, doesn’t he?”

 

In a flash Namjoon pitched forward to lean across the table and pin Seokjin with a hard, almost disappointed look. “No, he doesn’t.” His hands balled into fists. “But neither he nor you will believe that unless you talk to each other.”

 

“I don’t see how that will change anything.” Seokjin lifted his eyebrows.

 

Namjoon did not yield. “Maybe it won’t, but we don’t know that until we try.”

 

Seokjin snuck a peek at Hyosang over Namjoon’s shoulder. His posture had loosened up a little. He was observing the exchange in front of him with a slight, curious smile.

 

“Fine,” Seokjin said at length. Namjoon had pushed him into a corner Seokjin couldn’t argue himself out of, and he wasn’t even smug about it because, apparently, that was just not a Namjoon thing to do. Seokjin didn’t think he’d ever get used to that, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.

 

No, it might not be a bad thing after all.

 

 


 

 

Step two, accomplished. Step three would be the last and most important one.

 

The oncoming weekend Seokjin was going to meet Ikje.

 

Though it might be a challenge for the both of them, it would do them good to look at the bigger picture for once. It had certainly worked for Namjoon. Throughout the course of the past seven months, his universe had expanded so much it hardly resembled the limited, one-dimensional sphere it had once been. Unintentionally, Seokjin had taught him a whole series of life lessons, and it was about time Namjoon gave back. Or tried to. He had done everything he could think of to make his plan work, but, when it came to people, there were always too many variables involved to guarantee anything.

 

Yoongi, for his part, wasn’t very optimistic when Namjoon told him about it after dance practice a week after his negotiation with Ikje. “For the record,” he said, massaging his shoulder, “if this blows up in your face, and it will, remember I told you so.”

 

“Thanks, very encouraging.”

 

“I wasn’t trying to be.”

 

Although Hoseok, Jungkook and Taehyung supported Namjoon’s idea, they grew noticeably more apprehensive as that fateful weekend approached, which contributed nothing to Namjoon’s own unease. When he and Seokjin got together in an empty room at Big Hit Entertainment that Friday to feed him, all of his nerves were vibrating with agitation.

 

“Will you—can I—stop fidgeting,” Seokjin barked at Namjoon, but that only made him fidget harder.

 

“I can’t help it!” he spit back.

 

“Well, you have to!”

 

“Well, make me!”

 

That was, in retrospect, not his smartest move.

 

With a snarl Seokjin tackled him to the ground. The pain in his back blindsided Namjoon for a moment; otherwise he might have prevented what happened next.

 

Seokjin, bracketing his head with his arms, lunged at Namjoon to bite down on his lower lip. Gasping, Namjoon opened his mouth on reflex—exactly what Seokjin had intended. He plunged his tongue into Namjoon’s mouth, and Namjoon’s brain imploded.

 

At the bottom of his throat, a high, embarrassing sound welled up that rose into a full-fledged whine as it left his mouth. In retaliation he hiked up his left leg, shaking Seokjin off balance, and overthrew him. A hiss whistled through Seokjin’s teeth as his head knocked against the hardwood floor.

 

Namjoon used his left thigh, still wedged in between Seokjin’s, to hold him in place. It came in handy that the bulk of Namjoon’s strength resided in his legs rather than his arms, as opposed to Seokjin’s. Hands propped up on Seokjin’s chest, Namjoon ducked down and pried his lips open with a nip of his teeth in a parody of what Seokjin had done just now.

 

Seokjin put up no further resistance. Instead he wound his arms around Namjoon’s neck to pull him in closer until their chests bumped into one another. Namjoon felt Seokjin’s heartbeat thumping just out of time with his own. Two complementary cadences that created a complete whole, but Namjoon wanted more.

 

He drunk in Seokjin’s breaths and tasted fire. Greedily, he swallowed them down to get another lungful of heat and stoke the flames in the pit of his stomach.

 

The meager remainder of his delirious brain noted that such thoughts bordered on insanity since another person’s expiration wasn’t actually pleasant to inhale, but it fizzled out as soon as Seokjin’s hips bucked up into Namjoon’s thigh.

 

The movement propelled him forward, impossibly closer to Seokjin. Sparks of something huge and unutterable zipped up his spine and pushed him harder into Seokjin. Any minute now Namjoon was going to blaze up right on top of him. He had transformed into a comet, bound to crash and burn by Seokjin’s gravitational pull, and he was looking forward to every single second of it.

 

“Seokjin,” he whispered against Seokjin’s lips.

 

But then, from one instant to the next, Seokjin shoved him away, and for a moment Namjoon really thought he was about to vaporize, meteor fallout and all.

 

“My name,” Seokjin panted, scrambling upright, “you said my name.”

 

The few functioning synapses Namjoon had left required several attempts to process that. “Seokjin,” he repeated because that was it, wasn’t it? That had been it all along.

 

“You. You’ve never.” The muscles in Seokjin’s chest cramped up visibly. “This is the first time you’ve said my name.”

 

This was it.

 

“Seokjin,” he said one more time. Third time was the charm, right? With somebody like Seokjin, Namjoon reckoned, he needed all the charms he could get. “Can I kiss you?”

 

Seokjin squeaked. “Me?”

 

This had been it all along.

 

“Who else?”

 

To Namjoon it was a rhetorical question. To Seokjin, who sucked in a sharp breath, it was not. The cold tendrils of suspicion unfurled in Namjoon’s insides, freezing everything they could reach. Had he misread the situation?

 

But not a minute after he had spoken, Seokjin shifted closer to him. His eyes, directed at Namjoon’s face, flitted back and forth as though they were trying to decipher some sort of code. He licked his lips—his clever, nimble lips that knew exactly how to pulp Namjoon’s brain to mush—and closed the final gap between them.

 

Kissing, Namjoon discovered, was an entirely different affair than putting your mouth on another person’s mouth to share your life force in a magic ritual. For one, it was a lot more awkward. Since it placed their relationship in a new frame, Namjoon wasn’t sure how to determine what role he ought to play in it. He hesitated to press against Seokjin, to give or take too much too soon. Nevertheless the knowledge that this was an actual kiss—a consensual act of mutual attraction rather than a necessity—blew Namjoon’s mind.

 

He was kissing Kim Seokjin. He was kissing Kim Seokjin, and Kim Seokjin was kissing him back.

 

 


 

 

Seokjin wanted the kiss to last forever. Not because it was so good but because it was something he had never thought he’d get to have. Eventually, though, they had to part for air.

 

“What do we do now?” Namjoon asked once his breathing had slowed down.

 

The question was, of course, obligatory, but in the post-kissing daze it hadn’t even crossed Seokjin’s mind. Now it sat there, uninvited, in the center of his head and demanded answers that he didn’t have.

 

“What do you want to do?”

 

“Nothing,” Namjoon said without hesitation. “I just want you.”

 

A warm force coiled around Seokjin’s chest, squeezed, and spread out through his body until every nerve ending tingled with it. Although that made very little sense biologically, as long as Namjoon kept looking at him like that—like he’d done something incredible, like might be something incredible—Seokjin couldn’t care less about his nonsensical neurological responses.

 

He attempted to reply, to give some affirmation, but his voice did not oblige him. His answer melted in the warmth simmering in his ribcage before it reached his throat. He could just nod weakly, shyly, because all he amounted to these days was, apparently, a horrid romance cliché.

 

“So.” Namjoon cleared his throat and scratched the back of his neck. He looked about as embarrassed as Seokjin felt. Well, at least he wasn’t the only cliché here.

 

“So,” he agreed and went back to kissing Namjoon and himself senseless.

 

 


 

 

Later, as Namjoon pulled at the handle of the door to their apartment, Seokjin grasped his free hand for support. His palm felt just as sweaty as Namjoon’s own.

 

It was one of those rare evenings when everyone was home at the same time. Even Yoongi, who normally worked at this hour, was there, hunched over a bowl of instant ramyun. Huddled together on the futon, Jungkook and Taehyung were smashing buttons on their shared Nintendo DS. Hoseok, elbows-deep in the sink, was doing the dishes.

 

They all looked up when Namjoon and Seokjin opened the door, hands still joined.

 

“You’re late for dinner,” Yoongi said around a mouthful of noodles before either of them had even stepped inside.

 

“Yoongi,” Hoseok chided, “don’t talk while eating. You’re setting a bad example for the kids.”

 

But Taehyung and Jungkook had already reverted to their game and likely not heard a single word.

 

“My life,” Namjoon said to no one in particular, “is sometimes indescribably strange.”

 

Yoongi ignored him. “Jin does it too!” He waved his chopsticks in Seokjin’s direction, smacking his lips furiously at Hoseok.

 

“Does that include me?” Seokjin inquired.

 

Namjoon darted a sideways glance at him. He was wearing one of his stupidest grins.

 

“You’re the strangest of them all.”

 

Seokjin’s grin widened. Namjoon liked every stupid inch of it.

 

 


 

 

Seokjin appreciated the group’s nonchalance. By contrast, he and Namjoon blundered around each other like a pair of deranged clowns for the rest of the night and the following morning, much to Hoseok and Taehyung’s amusement. Yoongi had already disappeared again to an early shift at one of his numerous part-time jobs and Jungkook was fast asleep after a late-night session of Starcraft.

 

“You’re going to drive Ikje up a wall if you keep this up,” Hoseok snickered around a bite of toast as Namjoon bumped into Seokjin for the fourth time while pacing the room.

 

At the moment Seokjin was ready to go up a wall himself. “Can’t you stay still for just one minute?”

 

“If I don’t move, I’ll explode,” Namjoon said, dead serious, and proceeded to circle the table where the other three were having their breakfast.

 

“This is better than TV,” Taehyung stage-whispered to Hoseok, eyes wandering back and forth between Seokjin and Namjoon. He sounded delighted.

 

Hoseok made a vague gesture with his toast slice. “Eh.”

 

“Good, please do,” Seokjin said to Namjoon, deliberately not looking in his direction. Watching him was making Seokjin dizzy. “Maybe I’ll finally have some peace.”

 

“With these knuckleheads?” Namjoon scoffed and began a new round. “Have fun.”

 

Seokjin had to scoff at that as well. “Touché."

 

Bickering with Namjoon, just like he usually would, Seokjin found, made the situation more manageable. It was a familiar pattern that helped him navigate the uncharted waters around him.

 

After breakfast both Taehyung and Hoseok headed out for work and/or practice—Seokjin wasn't sure. He had lost track of what everyone did at what time weeks ago. Namjoon and Hoseok were the only ones still trying to keep up.

 

Now there were three hours left to go until the meeting with the samjokgu. No, Choi Ikje. Seokjin should probably start addressing him by his name.

 

“What are you thinking about?” Namjoon propped his arms up on the kitchen counter, just left of the sink, where Seokjin was dumping the dirty dishes.

 

The clank, clank of glass and porcelain resonated dully in the metal belly of the sink. “My brother says I think too much. So I’m trying not to think at all.”

 

“Hm.” Namjoon rested his chin on his right fist and slid a slow glance across Seokjin’s profile. “How’s that working out?”

 

“Don’t be a smartass.” Seokjin shoved him—lightly because Namjoon was more accident prone than a cursed person. Seokjin knew; every member of his family had cursed their fair share of people, himself included. “What are you thinking about?”

 

“I don’t know.”

 

Seokjin turned to get a better look at him. “You don’t know?”

 

Exhaling through his nose, Namjoon inched down the counter, farther into the direction Seokjin had pushed him. His gaze dropped to the floor. “There’s so much I need to think about. Where am I supposed to begin?”

 

“Depends on where you want to end up,” Seokjin said and caught one of Namjoon’s hands in his own. Since they had roughly the same size, they slotted into each other almost perfectly. If they gave it some time and practice, Seokjin imagined, the “almost” might even vanish one day.

 

Namjoon’s thumb brushed over Seokjin’s knuckles. “Don’t be a smartass,” he said, still looking at the floor.

 

 


 

 

Ikje was already waiting for them, perched at a table in an empty corner of the coffee shop. A baggy shirt hung off his bony shoulders, one of his old band tees whose print had already faded beyond recognition when Namjoon had met him. He traced Seokjin and Namjoon with his eyes as they crossed the store.

 

“Hey,” Namjoon said, sounding brighter than he felt, and plonked down into the seat opposite him.

 

Seokjin slipped into the chair to his left. Ikje merely grunted in response. Tension bubbled in between them, hot and stifling.

 

Namjoon was about to jump in to mollify the surging tides before they flooded everything in their wake when Seokjin began to speak. “Hello Choi Ikje, third child of the holy hounds in Northern Seoul.” He dipped his head in an approximation of a bow. “I am Kim Seokjin, second child of the foxes in Gwacheon. Please let me apologize for overstepping the boundaries.”

 

With bemused awe Namjoon looked from Seokjin, all solemn and poised and perfect hair, to Ikje, scrunching up his nose like he’d smelt something rank. “It’s too late for formalities. You have violated the treaty and disrespected both your family and mine in the process.”

 

“And yet you didn’t report me,” Seokjin said without missing a beat. His tone, though inquisitive, wasn’t threatening, to Namjoon’s relief. Ikje was radiating enough hostility for all three of them.

 

“I’m not going to risk peace for something like that. I’m not like you.” He flashed Seokjin the sharp curves of his canines. “But I won’t stay that lenient forever.”

 

Although Namjoon itched to butt in and tell Ikje he couldn’t talk to other people like that, he forced himself to stay put. This wasn’t his battle to fight. Besides, Seokjin was perfectly capable of holding his own.

 

Unlike Namjoon, however, Seokjin didn’t appear to mind Ikje’s answer. “Thank you. I don’t plan on being that selfish again.”

 

That surprised but didn’t satisfy Ikje. “Still selfish enough to keep Hyosang’s place,” he accused.

 

“I believed that too, at first, but then I’ve realized that his place disappeared when he left. He took it with him. By the time he was gone, I was already building my own.”

 

Beneath the tabletop Seokjin’s hand snuck around Namjoon’s and interlaced their fingers. Bolts of emotion ran up Namjoon’s arm, lightning-fast, all the way through his chest and into his heart. It relieved him to hear that Seokjin had stopped blaming himself.

 

“Even if I hadn’t,” Seokjin resumed, “do you think Hyosang would come back if I asked to leave instead? He’s a dragon. He’s better than that.”

 

Finally, Ikje seemed to have run out of arguments. He ground his teeth, visibly displeased that Seokjin had fended off all his blows. “That doesn’t mean I accept you.”

 

“That’s fine,” Seokjin said with a smile that was as hot as it was terrifying. “I don’t accept you either.”

 

Ikje resumed to grind his teeth and didn’t say anything else. This, Namjoon decided, seemed like a good moment to suspend the conversation.

 

“Great, good.” He reached out to pat them both on the shoulder. “That was—that was good. A good talk.”

 

Seokjin snorted at him fondly, which Namjoon chalked up as a good sign. Jaw tight, Ikje’s eyes traveled from Namjoon to Seokjin and back again, but he remained silent until they said their goodbyes.

 

“Be careful,” he told Namjoon before he pierced Seokjin with a final look of disdain and disappeared in a back alley.

 

Namjoon gazed after him, unsure how or where to go from here. This hadn’t quite been the resolution he and Hyosang had been aiming at. Still, it would have to do for now. In the foreseeable future, Ikje wouldn’t be amenable to anything more. Namjoon consoled himself that he had done what he could, even if that didn’t add up to a whole lot.

 

“I like you, Namjoon.”

 

All thoughts in Namjoon’s mind screeched to a halt. He blinked at Seokjin, half-expecting to find him gone from one flicker of his eyelids to the next, like some urban fata morgana. But Seokjin stayed where he was, tapping his foot against the concrete. He was looking at something just above Namjoon’s right shoulder.

 

“I don’t understand.”

 

Seokjin’s entire body stiffened. The air around him spiked with something harsh and tangy, almost foul. Whatever emotion it was, Namjoon figured it couldn’t be good. A jarring, hollow sound came out of Seokjin’s mouth. It took Namjoon several seconds to recognize it as laughter.

 

“Me neither,” Seokjin said, eyes not leaving that spot somewhere beyond Namjoon’s shoulder. “But I do. I know it makes no sense.”

 

It really, really didn’t, Namjoon thought.

 

“You—me?” His voice jumped to a humiliating squeak. Numbly, he registered some passers-by giving him funny looks, though he paid them no mind. “You aren’t pranking me, are you?”

 

Seokjin stopped laughing. His eyes refocused and flew up to meet Namjoon’s with a withering glare. “A prank,” he said without inflection. “Do you honestly believe I’d prank you about this?”

 

“In my defense this is pretty out of character for you.”

 

The acrid smell Seokjin gave off turned even more biting. “Namjoon, we’ve kissed.”

 

While that was, in and of itself, a sound argument, Namjoon still experienced some difficulty wrapping his head around all this. Empirically, the likelihood that somebody like Kim Seokjin would ever develop any sort of interest in somebody like Kim Namjoon approximated zero.

 

“But—”

 

“But what?”

 

But what, indeed.

 

“I’m a loser!” Surely, Seokjin was aware of this. “I’m a failed rapper and the bandleader of a trainee group that will probably never see its debut.”

 

None of that fazed Seokjin in the slightest. “And I’m a monster who eats people. Which do you think is worse?”

 

“That’s a bit dramatic. You don’t eat people.”

 

Seokjin smirked. “The same goes for you. You haven’t failed, and you aren’t shitty. If you were, you wouldn’t have set up this meeting with Choi.” His smirk softened. “You’re a good leader, Namjoon. And I’ll be damned if we’re not gearing up for our first showcase this time next year.”

 

Namjoon’s chest swelled with something so warm and big it nearly made him choke. The pungent smell from before gave way to something mellower. Seokjin meant what he was saying, he wasn’t just doing it to boost Namjoon’s self-esteem.

 

The urge to kiss him again overcame Namjoon, but he stomped it down for the time being. Instead he pulled Seokjin in a tight hug. He didn’t care that the angle bordered on painful or that they were in the middle of the street. They had already attracted attention because of Seokjin’s looks and their heights, a bit of public hugging made little difference.

 

Breathlessly, he laughed into Seokjin’s shoulder. He could feel Seokjin grinning against the skin behind his ear.

 

“I like you too.”

 

 


 

 

Having a boyfriend required something of a learning process. Since neither Namjoon nor Seokjin himself had been in a proper relationship before, even simply hanging out together became foreign and nerve-wracking. At the same time it was exhilarating. For the first time in his life, somebody reciprocated Seokjin’s feelings. The only real downside was that they rarely got the opportunity to explore and act on those feelings. Most of the time at least one of them, if not both, was either practicing, working, studying or some combination thereof. On the miraculous occasion that they did have free time together, they tended to be too winded for anything more than sleepy cuddling while the others were snickering in the background.

 

In addition, Mr. Bang had assigned the group an official manager at the end of March, who was supposed to guide them through the last steps before the debut. Although Yoongi and Namjoon had had their doubts at first, Mr. Song had earned their approval with little difficulty. He was smart in a heavyset kind of way and definitely knew what he was doing.

 

“Pull through for another year,” he promised them, “and you’re good to go.”

 

That sounded almost too good to be true.

 

Only Taehyung seemed a bit befuddled by this. “Why another whole year?”

 

Hobeom, as he had asked them to call him, smiled like he had foreseen such a reaction. “You’ll get one more member.”

 

There was a full minute of silence before the table exploded into a fit of questions.

 

“What?”

 

“Why?”

 

Another one?”

 

“Who?”

 

Raising a hand, Hobeom beckoned them to quiet down. “President Bang will introduce him to you in two weeks.” He flicked a brief glance at Taehyung. “Though some of you may have met him already.”

 

They all turned to Taehyung, who shrugged. Unaffected, Hobeom moved on to hand them the schedules for the following weeks and took his leave. No one spared his spreadsheets a single look. Each of them was trying to deduce the new member’s identity, with little success. Not even Yoongi had an idea.

 

It wasn’t until late in the evening that it occurred to Seokjin that neither Mr. Bang nor Hobeom knew about him and Namjoon. In the frenzy of it all, he had completely forgotten about that.

 

He got lost in the labyrinth of letters in the textbook in front of him as he debated with himself the best course of action. On the one hand, revealing the truth had the potential to backfire and get them kicked out of the company. On the other, it might end up being lethal for the entire band if Hobeom or Bang found out on accident.

 

In any case he couldn’t make a decision without consulting Namjoon and the others first.

 

 


 

 

Fittingly, the last member joined the group on the last day of April. Cherry blossoms fluttered through the air and covered the city, heralding the end of spring. They were waiting for Mr. Bang and the newcomer in one of the dance studios, leaning back against the wall mirrors, except for Yoongi.

 

Knees drawn up to his chest, he cowered in a corner and watched the door with an intensity he normally devoted to his music only. Ever since Hobeom’s announcement two weeks prior, he had been sleeping less and less. He'd seen something, obviously, but he refused to disclose what that something was.

 

His tenseness did nothing to improve the condition of Namjoon’s nerves. When the door finally swung open, he was ready to break into a cold sweat.

 

The guy who trailed inside after Mr. Bang looked harmless enough. In fact, he looked perfectly innocent with his thick-rimmed glasses and oversized sweater, which did not reassure Yoongi whatsoever. He backed even further away into his corner and glowered at the boy. That was not a very good omen.

 

“Hi guys!” Mr. Bang waved at them all. “This is—”

 

“Jimin!”

 

Without warning Taehyung launched himself at the kid—Jimin, ostensibly—who caught him with ease despite their height difference. While the two were celebrating their reunion, Mr. Bang explained that Taehyung and Park Jimin were currently attending the same high school and had unknowingly signed contracts with the same entertainment agency. He omitted why he had put them into the same band, but Namjoon had long since given up second-guessing Bang’s ideas.

 

The mandatory introductions ensued. Jimin seemed polite and shy, if a bit naïve, just like his exterior suggested. He greeted every member with a bow and thanked them for allowing him to join. It nonplussed him when Yoongi just grumbled in response and pointedly stayed in the back, but he didn’t remark on it.

 

Namjoon, however, did. As the others crowded Jimin for an initiatory quizzing, he walked up to Yoongi and raised his brows at him. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

 

A while passed until Yoongi provided an answer, even though it wasn’t really an answer at all. “Do you think he’s human?”

 

“What?” Namjoon looked Jimin over once more and couldn’t spot anything out of the ordinary. “Isn’t he?”

 

Yoongi grimaced. “I don’t know,” he said, tone somewhere between apprehension and frustration.

 

When Namjoon asked Seokjin about Jimin later that day, he was just as surprised as Namjoon had been.

 

“I didn’t notice anything,” he said, forehead wrinkling. “Did Yoongi say anything else?”

 

Namjoon let out a sigh and rested his head on Seokjin’s shoulder. “No.”

 

For some reason Yoongi had maintained his secrecy, and Namjoon had no choice but to accept that. Yoongi wasn’t hurting anybody or putting the band at risk after all. Besides, he would tell Namjoon if it were necessary.

 

Warm fingers began carding through Namjoon’s hair. “What about us?” Seokjin murmured. “Should we tell the company?”

 

Another problem Namjoon had no solution for. Since they had kissed for real that first time, he had done his utmost to banish it from his mind. He couldn’t push it away forever, he supposed.

 

“I’m not sure.” He buried his face in Seokjin’s chest.

 

Above, Seokjin nodded. “I think we should.” His hand in Namjoon’s hair stopped moving. “If you don’t want to, I understand, but I’m done with hiding. I’m tired of it.”

 

Namjoon could understand that. “Let’s ask the others first.” He drew in a lungful of Seokjin’s scent, milky and soothing. It was a frightening prospect, but together with Seokjin he might be able to face it. Together with Seokjin he might be able to face anything.

 

 


 

 

Reluctantly, Yoongi, too, warmed up to Jimin, though he never fully relaxed around him. Seokjin was starting to see why. There was something different about him, something off, in a way that Seokjin couldn’t pin down.

 

As time went by and spring blended into summer, Hoseok and Jungkook picked up on it as well.

 

“Tae knows something,” Jungkook said one morning in mid-May when the three of them were alone in the apartment. “But he won’t tell me anything.”

 

Hoseok sipped at his coffee. “Of course not. He’s Jimin’s best friend.”

 

Jungkook muttered something rude into his cereal. Now that Jimin was living with them, he was forced to share Taehyung with him. Like many other only children, Jungkook had never truly learnt how sharing worked.

 

“I know we shouldn’t pry,” Seokjin chimed in, poking at his toast, “but it’s hard not to. I’ve never met anybody like this.”

 

Hoseok and Jungkook hummed in agreement. For people like them, who had always been capable of categorizing their surroundings in one way or another, it was more than unsettling to lose that ability. It felt like a constant, spreading itch that they couldn’t quite scratch.

 

“We’ll have to wait until he’s ready to tell us,” Hoseok said.

 

“I’ve been thinking.” Jungkook paused munching to send Hoseok and Seokjin a look of great importance. “What if Jimin doesn’t know himself?”

 

Frowning, Hoseok put down his coffee. “You mean he may not know what he is either?”

 

It wasn’t likely but not impossible. “Not everyone grows up like we did,” Seokjin said.

 

“True.” Hoseok ran his index finger along the handle of his mug. “But even if that’s the case, we should let him be for now.”

 

Seokjin was fine with that. He had other things to worry about anyway. “Hey, um.” He lifted his hand to direct their attention to himself. “About Namjoon and I. Um. We—we were thinking of telling Hobeom.”

 

Jungkook and Hoseok blinked at him. He blinked back.

 

“Okay?” Jungkook said and grated his spoon against the bottom of his bowl to scrape out the dregs.

 

“Oh, so that was what Namjoon was discussing with Jimin and Yoongi the other day.” Hoseok gave Seokjin a thumbs-up. “Good luck!”

 

Weird. These people were so weird.

 

Seokjin gobbled up his toast, dashed to the bathroom and turned the shower all the way up so they wouldn’t hear him cry.

 

 


 

 

Hobeom’s office was located in one of the upper floors of the building the agency rented, which perhaps hinted at his rank in the corporate hierarchy. The room was rather small, though, and littered with boxes and papers and empty lunchboxes. In the center of it all sat Hobeom, tapping away on his notebook.

 

“Sorry,” he said as they entered, barely glancing up from the screen, “it’s kind of cramped in here. I’d offer you a seat, but, well, you see how it is.”

 

Namjoon scrubbed the clammy palms of his hands on his jeans. From the corner of his eye, he saw Seokjin’s Adam’s apple bob thickly.

 

“We don’t mind standing.”

 

Lowering the screen a little, Hobeom looked at them and asked, “So what can I do for you?”

 

For a second Namjoon thought he might pass out, but then cool, dry fingers wrapped around his. “There’s something we have to tell you,” Seokjin said, voice wobbling. Namjoon squeezed his hand to let him know he would take over if necessary, but Seokjin kept going. “Namjoon and I are together.”

 

Hobeom shut his notebook completely. “I was afraid you’d say that.” He massaged the bridge of his nose. “You know you can’t be public?”

 

“Yes,” Namjoon said, feeling steadier. The worst part was over, and, wondrously, Hobeom wasn’t flipping yet. It could only go uphill from here.

 

“Good.” Hobeom’s expression relaxed somewhat. “I’ll notify the president. He won’t be pleased, but if you keep it on the down low, you should be okay.”

 

Both Namjoon and Seokjin gaped at him. That had gone way too smoothly.

 

“Really? That’s it?”

 

Already opening his notebook again, Hobeom gave them a dismissive look. “I don’t have time to chew you out like a pair of kids. I’m your manager, not your keeper. It’s none of my business as long as you continue working like you have been.”

 

Namjoon exchanged an awed grin with Seokjin. Uphill, he thought. It was really going uphill.

 

 


 

 

In June they celebrated Jimin’s entry into the band. They had just moved into a bigger apartment and gotten a couple of days off to settle in. It was still a tight fit with only two rooms, but at least everyone had his own bed now with an actual frame and mattress.

 

For the occasion Yoongi had doled out some of his whiskey, which Seokjin knew cost more than Yoongi and Hoseok’s salaries combined because it was the same brand his father usually drank. Jungkook, Taehyung and Jimin had thrown their allowances together to amass an insane amount of snacks although they knew they would have to double their exercise regimen for the subsequent week. It was their way of compensating for not being able to drink, Taehyung had explained very seriously.

 

Seokjin, for his part, was content with buzzing himself with a cup of soju and leaning back against Namjoon’s chest while the others were doing their damnedest to get alcohol and/or food poisoning.

 

“I’m happy,” he whispered and slanted his eyes up to Namjoon to see if he had heard him. Seokjin wanted him to know, wanted to know if he was happy too.

 

“I’m not,” said Namjoon.

 

That was enough for Seokjin to sober up again. He sat up and twisted around so he could see Namjoon’s face. Namjoon had pulled the corners of his mouth all the way down in mock-chagrin.

 

“We’re never alone together,” he groused and pouted, for good measure.

 

It was official. Seokjin was dating an idiot. “Poor baby.” With a roll of his eyes, he leaned back against Namjoon.

 

“Why don’t we go somewhere?” Namjoon sounded normal again. “Just the two of us?”

 

Admittedly, that did sound nice. “But where to?”

 

He felt Namjoon shrug. “Anywhere, I don’t care. I just want to be with you.”

 

Seokjin wasn’t simply dating an idiot, he was dating a sappy idiot. “Oh my god,” he squealed with delight. “Are you a romantic?”

 

Namjoon made a noise of distinct disgruntlement.

 

“Do you like long walks on the beach?”

 

Another noise, though less surly; grittier. “I’ll show you what I like.”

 

In the blink of an eye, he yanked Seokjin back up, all big, warm hands, and pulled him into a kiss. He wasted no time and tore right into it, in an entirely non-romantic manner. Everything was happening so fast Seokjin could barely get enough air to breathe. A dark rush sparked at the bottom of his chest. 

 

“I want to be with you,” Namjoon repeated, a hushed, indistinct murmur that almost didn’t catch up with Seokjin’s racing thoughts.

 

He wanted to be with Namjoon too, in every possible sense of the word, but a loud harrumph interrupted them before he got a chance to tell him. No longer stuffing themselves with calories and intoxicants, the other five grimaced at them with unrestrained distaste. With a shriek Seokjin scrambled away from Namjoon, who had frozen into place.

 

“Ew,” Jungkook said. He looked like he was seconds away from hurling.

 

Namjoon was right. They could really use some privacy once in a while.

 

 


 

 

Summer came and went so quickly Namjoon wondered if he had dreamed it. As the leader, it was primarily his responsibility to ensure Jimin made up for his lost time. Unfortunately, that turned out to be a much more onerous task than originally presumed. Jimin, he soon realized, was a phenomenal dancer but a mediocre singer and an atrocious rapper. So Namjoon spent the bulk of July and August in the studio with Yoongi, Jimin, and a ton of irate text messages to the lunch meet group chat.

 

The Crew

Namjoon

Can’t come this week either

Sorry

Ikje

again??

 

Hunchul

The new kid again huh

 

Donghyuk

You’ve been in that studio for three hours already

Take a break

Namjoon

Later

Yoongi is in the zone right now, or whatever

I can’t leave them alone together

Ikje

makes sense

 

Hunchul

Lol what

 

Hyosang

Yoongi needs to get over himself

 

Hunchul

Lol what

 

Donghyuk

….

I’m kind of glad I’m not stuck with you guys anymore

 

Honestly, Namjoon couldn’t hold it against him. Sometimes he was tempted to hole himself up in Donghyuk’s studio upstairs until Yoongi had worked himself out of the weird funk he fell into whenever he was in Jimin’s presence. But the perfectionist in him didn’t allow it. Also Donghyuk had secured his door with a padlock.

 

So Namjoon stayed until summer was gone.

 

 


 

 

The gravel crunched beneath their feat as Seokjin led Namjoon up the hill. He could smell the forest beyond, untouched and powerful. Apart from a lone pilgrim here and there, nobody had strayed these parts in decades, maybe even centuries. Well, nobody human.

 

Namjoon trailed after him, careful not to breach any borders he wasn’t meant to breach. Seokjin appreciated that. After all, this must be even stranger for him than for Seokjin himself.

 

When they reached the hilltop some time later, Namjoon gasped just like Seokjin had on his first trip up here. Fringed by a grove of camphor and alder trees, the shrine of the Kim family crowned the slope and oversaw the woods and meadows at its feet. The building itself wasn’t very grand or striking; it was its elevated position, looming high above everything else, that gave it an air of divinity that harked back to darker, bloodier days.

 

Strings of red lanterns lined the final stairs to the entrance. It was a bright, balmy autumn day, but all the lanterns were alight. What fox shrine would this be without some foxfire?

 

The doors slid open as Seokjin climbed the mossy steps, inviting them in. Namjoon lingered behind, hands clutching the straps of his backpack, and eyed the house warily.

 

“Is this really okay?”

 

To Seokjin, coming to the shrine felt like visiting an old friend. To Namjoon, it had to be the exact opposite. Seokjin took one of his hands and smiled. “Yes, everything’s okay. It wouldn’t have let you come up here otherwise.”

 

It?” Namjoon gulped but let Seokjin drag him along.

 

“The shrine,” Seokjin answered and pulled him inside.

 

The ancient floorboards creaked salutatory. Namjoon’s hands shivered in his. He said, “The shrine.” More shivers. “Yeah, sure, all right.”

 

Chuckling, Seokjin let go of his hand and shrugged off his bag. “It won’t eat you as long as I’m here,” he said, just to fuck with him.

 

Namjoon did not appreciate the joke. “I changed my mind. Let’s go back. I don’t want to go on a trip with you anymore.”

 

“Come on, don’t be a baby and help me get the oven going.”

 

“It’s not even October,” Namjoon protested, though he was obediently following Seokjin to the backroom. It consisted of a compact wooden dresser and a huge black stove, both covered in soot and dust.

 

Seokjin, shielding his mouth and nose with his left arm, opened the bottom drawer of the dresser with his right. A grey cloud rose in the stale air of the room. Namjoon coughed.

 

“It gets cold out here early, believe me.”

 

They got to work, and twenty minutes later the first embers cracked in the firewood. Seokjin rustled up a mess kit from another drawer, poured some of the stew they had brought into a pot and put it on the stove.

 

“This feels so wrong,” Namjoon said, watching him.

 

“Why?” Seokjin tugged at the wooden panel on the wall that opened the closet with the futons. “Whoever said you can’t camp in a temple?”

 

“Isn’t—isn’t it a little disrespectful?”

 

Seokjin hauled out two sets of beddings and unrolled them in the main room. “It belongs to my family. Do you respect my family?” Fluffing the pillows, he grinned up at Namjoon and waited for his response.

 

Namjoon made a face. “I respect you.”

 

In the oven a log popped with a harsh, crackling sound. Seokjin laughed, his high-pitched, honking one. “Good enough for me.” Better than good, actually, but Namjoon ought to know that by now.

 

They ate the stew on the flight of stairs in front of the shrine, where they had the best view of their surroundings. The sunset from up here was a sight to behold, especially during this time of the year, when the leaves of the trees almost had the same color as the sinking sun. They sat there until it had burnt out and the sky stretched on and on in an infinite web of stars.

 

Thanks to the fire, the inside of the shrine had warmed up nicely. Seokjin checked it one last time before he got ready to sleep. Meanwhile, Namjoon had already changed into a loose shirt and boxers and was waiting for him by the futons. Silently, he tracked Seokjin’s movements as he shed his sweater, unbuttoned his pants, and toed out of his socks.

 

“What are you doing?” Namjoon asked. The moonlight streaming through the windows cast his features into sharp relief. His eyes, darker than ever, rested on Seokjin.

 

Seokjin felt himself go hot, then cold. He was losing his nerve. “What does it look like?” he asked back, slipping under the covers next to Namjoon.

 

“We—” He paused. His hands were spasming at his sides. “Are you—I—I’ve never, well. You know.”

 

Yeah, Seokjin knew. At least they were in this together. “Me neither. Just hands, a few times.” He settled onto his side, face propped up on the heel of his right hand, so he faced Namjoon. His heart was jumping against his ribs. “I want it. With you. If you, um, want it too.”

 

Namjoon shifted forward, out of the light, into the shadows, where Seokjin was waiting for him. “I do,” he said and hesitated again. “But I—I want to do it right.”

 

“So long as you do me right,” Seokjin said, unable to help himself, “you’ll be fine.”

 

With a long-suffering groan, Namjoon crashed face-first into his sheets. “Why are you like this?”

 

“I just wanted to lighten the mood, you were so gloomy. Do you want our first time to be gloomy?” Seokjin prodded Namjoon’s collapsed form. “When I was told you were kinky, I wasn’t expecting this.”

 

Namjoon’s head jerked up from the pillow. Suddenly, Seokjin was grateful for his night vision because he would really hate to miss out on this.

 

“You were told what?”

 

“I was told various things, from various sources, but they all referred back to a certain folder on your computer.” Seokjin widened his eyes for extra dramatic effect. “Is it true you’ve got it all in alphabetical order?”

 

That snapped the remaining threads of Namjoon’s patience. His face went from hilarious shock to growing irritation. At last they were getting somewhere. “You don’t want our first time to be gloomy, huh? What do you want then?”

 

Pulse still speeding at full tilt, Seokjin lifted his blanket. All wisecracks aside, he’d never really done this before either, though bantering with Namjoon helped him ease into it. He hoped it was helping Namjoon as well.

 

“I want you,” he said. “C’mere, I want you, I want this.”

 

And then Namjoon needed no more coercion. He rolled Seokjin onto his back, blanket thrown aside, and straddled him. With his fingertips he mapped the outlines of Seokjin’s torso, cautiously, meticulously, like seeing wasn’t enough.

 

Still, Seokjin had to ask. “What do you want?”

 

Namjoon laughed drily as he descended to nose along the arch of Seokjin’s neck. His huffs left goosebumps in their wake. “You,” he said, voice low, against the skin where Seokjin’s throat met his jaw. “You, goddamnit, you.”

 

Once he had said, Who else?

 

Seokjin took his head into his hands and drew him in for a kiss. Over time the shape and feel of Namjoon’s mouth had become familiar; he knew now what to do to get Namjoon where he wanted him, how he wanted him. He might not have done this before, but he knew what he liked and had gained a pretty good idea of what Namjoon liked too.

 

Seokjin liked to feel safe and cared for. He liked it when Namjoon snaked his arms around his waist, like Seokjin was something to keep, to hold onto. He liked it when Namjoon brushed his lips across his chest, smelling and tasting him, taking him in with all his senses. He liked it when Namjoon liked it too.

 

“Been thinking ‘bout this forever.” Namjoon’s hands had found the waistband of Seokjin’s boxers. His mouth had found one of Seokjin’s nipples. “Tell me—tell me if I’m going too far.”

 

He was sweet, so sweet, and Seokjin wanted more of that, more of him. With one hand he grabbed Namjoon’s shoulders and pushed him downward. With the other he reached for the lube and condoms he had stashed away under his pillow. “You haven’t gone far enough yet.”

 

Namjoon, never one to back down from a challenge, did not hold back any longer. He licked the length of Seokjin’s cock, up and down and up again, while his slicked-up fingers wound their way between Seokjin’s asscheeks. They rubbed his hole until it was wet and tender before the first one eventually pressed inside.

 

“Yes,” Seokjin hissed, drawing out the s as if that might draw out this moment, this feeling.

 

What Namjoon lacked in finesse and experience he compensated with diligence and enthusiasm. He was a quick study too. It didn’t take him long to figure out which way to crook his fingers and swirl his tongue in order to get Seokjin panting.

 

“Good?” he asked very smugly and very unnecessarily.

 

Seokjin refused to reply, which earned him another finger and a scrape of teeth on the underside of his dick. If this was Namjoon’s attempt at punishing him for his silence, it wasn’t a clever one.

 

“I’m not going to do it unless you say it.”

 

“Not going to do what?” Seokjin tried to scoff but it became a moan instead, raw and guttural.

 

Namjoon picked up the pace on both ends. “Not going to fuck you,” he said, voice dropping deeper than Seokjin had ever heard it before.

 

Nonsensically, a hot flush crept up Seokjin’s spine, but he would not cave yet. “You think you got what it takes?”

 

In an instant, Namjoon retreated and righted himself, blinking down at Seokjin lazily. “Don’t I?” He made a show of peeling off his shirt and boxers. He glowed in the pale shine of the moon, and Seokjin was too gay and too turned on to pretend it wasn’t working.

 

“‘S good.” He hooked his legs around Namjoon to reel him back in. “So good.”

 

Cursing, Namjoon fumbled to slip a condom onto himself. Seokjin’s dumb macho fox pride gloated at the sight. He had done that, made Namjoon forget his tensions and inhibitions.

 

Good,” he echoed when he entered Seokjin a moment later, sucking in shallow breaths through his mouth.

 

It didn’t matter that his movements were uncoordinated or that the muscles in Seokjin’s thighs strained to maintain their position. The sensation of having someone else, of having Namjoon, inside of himself washed over Seokjin, flooded him, deluged him. The undertow pulled him down and dragged him in deep.

 

He only resurfaced once Namjoon curled a hand around his cock, stroking him in time with his thrusts. It was a steady, inevitable surge from then on, faster and higher, up until the crest of the wave, until there was nothing left to feel.

 

 


 

 

When Namjoon woke up the next morning, he found it difficult to comprehend that all of this was real, that Seokjin was real, tucked into the futon right beside him. With him. He had a hunch that feeling would last for a while. He’d like it if it did.

 

He’d like it, he thought, if it lasted forever.