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finger paint (a smile on his face)

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           *

 

            “She’s a good kid.”

            Namjoon knows it’s true, so he nods.

            Juhee, kid in question, sits on the bench near the kindergarten entrance, pulling her shoes out from the locker. Her head is ducked, likely to hide the tears she has rolling down her cheeks. She’s been getting quieter recently. Not at home, at least, but whenever Namjoon picks her up from school, she waits until they’re through the front door to launch into the full account of her day. Instead of screeching in excitement when she sees a pigeon, she merely tugs on Namjoon’s coat and points at it. Rather than shout her thank-yous to the women at the kimbap store beside their apartment, she says it quietly before poking at her tuna rolls.

            “I’m worried about her,” Namjoon finds himself saying softly.

            Lee Bongja, principal and most patient woman in Seoul, laughs. “I don’t think I’ve ever met a parent who isn’t worried about their child.”

            “Do they also worry about whether or not they’re doing anything right? Or if they’re failing disastrously at teaching their kids?”

            “Oh, all the good ones do. Parenting is hard,” Bongja answers.

            Namjoon sighs, pushing his hair back from his forehead. “How many other students do you have called into your office at least once a month for misbehavior?”

            Bongja chuckles, and they watch as Juhee finishes pulling on her shoes. “Only a few. They’re bullies, though. Juhee doesn’t have a bullying bone in her body.”

            This is also true. Juhee has a temper- a particularly wicked one when people aren’t being nice- but she’s not a bully. “She still can’t go around pulling hair when kids say rude things to her.”

            “No. But she’ll learn.”

            Juhee wipes her cheeks before standing up and turning toward Namjoon, an impressive scowl on her face.

            Bongja pats Namjoon’s arm. “You’re doing okay, Namjoon. So is Juhee. Give yourself a little more grace.”

 

*

 

            “Hey Green Bean, what do you want for dinner?” Namjoon asks, closing his laptop and looking across the table.

            Juhee pauses in her gnawing of an orange colored pencil. “Fried chicken,” she says.

            Namjoon hums, putting his elbows on the table. “I can order fried chicken. What vegetable?”

            Juhee wrinkles her nose. “I don’t like vegetables, Dad. Just fried chicken.”

            “Don’t like vegetables?” He widens his eyes in mock offense. “But you’re my Green Bean. I love my greens.”

            “People are the only good greens,” Juhee says seriously as she drags her pencil across the page of her coloring book. She’s making the sky orange, which Namjoon can appreciate.

            “People are the only good greens,” Namjoon repeats, deciding that it makes sense. “Sure. But what about green vegetables? Those are at least okay, even if they’re not your favorite.”

            Juhee switches to a blue pencil and moves on to the frog at the bottom of her page. “They’re gross.”

            “Then let’s eat a not-so green vegetable tonight. I’ll call in the fried chicken and heat up the eggplant from Monday.”

            “Deal,” Juhee says, and uses her free hand to blow Namjoon a kiss.

            Namjoon snorts. It’s a habit Juhee picked up from Seokjin, one of Namjoon’s old university friends who looks after Juhee sometimes. He seals his negotiations over food and bedtime and games with Juhee by blowing her kisses. “Deal,” Namjoon answers, leaning over the table to kiss the top of her head.

            Juhee ends up eating almost half of the eggplant without complaint, and Namjoon only has to argue with her for about five minutes before she relents and changes into her pajamas, though she digs through her dresser to get to the ones with bears on the shirt.

            “Clean before bed,” Namjoon reminds her.

            Juhee nods, starting to shove things back into her dresser and make a pile of her books and coloring materials.

            It’s a one bedroom apartment, but at least it’s bigger than the studio Namjoon had rented before. This way, Juhee’s little bed is against one wall beneath the window, and Namjoon’s is beside the door.

            “One story?” Juhee asks, after their teeth are brushed and she’s beneath her blankets.

            Namjoon nods.“What do you want to hear about tonight?”

            “Astronauts,” Juhee says.

            So Namjoon tells her a story about Junee the astronaut and her moon dog- about how they fixed their broken rocket ship on Mars and decided, instead of going back to earth, that they would explore the next galaxy over and make maps of the stars.

            “And they lived happily ever after,” Namjoon finishes, pressing a kiss to Juhee’s forehead.

            She smiles sleepily, nestling down into her pillow.

            Namjoon is glad for nights like these. Yesterday, he hadn’t been so lucky. Yesterday, Juhee had still been angry about getting in trouble for pulling her classmate’s hair at kindergarten.

Yesterday, Namjoon had to tell her that she couldn’t use physical violence against someone else just because they said something unkind.

Yesterday, Namjoon had to hold her as she cried because the girl whose hair she pulled- the one saying cruel things- had made fun of Juhee for not having a mother. Namjoon had to tell Juhee again (because this conversation happened more often than he could really bear) that her mother wasn’t ready for a family when Juhee came into the world- that she loved Juhee but she didn’t know how to be a parent. That Juhee is still loved and still important and not strange for only having a dad around.

            Yesterday, Namjoon wondered if he wasn’t doing enough for his daughter. If he was irrevocably messing up as a father.

            But tonight, Juhee falls asleep smiling, mumbling something about stars, and Namjoon whispers, “You’re the brightest one, Juhee-yah,” before pulling the blankets up beneath his daughter’s chin.

 

*

 

            Namjoon can’t say he’s entirely surprised by the call on Tuesday morning. He’s already surviving on less than five hours of sleep, a watery americano, and desperation when he picks up his phone at the broadcasting station.

            “Yoongi-hyung, can you- shit- can you cover for me?” Namjoon’s jacket catches on the edge of his chair, and he makes a grab for the messenger bag on the edge of his desk. “Juhee’s kindergarten called. I need to go in.”

            “Got it,” Yoongi says, barely glancing up from his notes. “You going to be back in time for the interview?”

            “I don’t think so. Especially not with traffic. I’m so sorry, hyung, I promise I’ll make it up-”

            “It’s fine. We wrote the questions together, Joon-ah, I know what to ask. Go get your kid.”

            So Namjoon runs out of their office, hopping from one foot to the other as he waits for the elevator, and hails a cab even though taxi rides from Dongdaemun all the way to Juhee’s kindergarten aren’t exactly in his budget.

            He peers out the window as they move through traffic, fidgeting with his jacket before realizing he has a coffee stain on his white button-up, trying to at least mitigate the damage as he licks his finger and rubs it frantically against the little splotch with absolutely zero success.

            Juhee’s school called exactly forty-two minutes before by the time Namjoon makes it to the correct neighborhood, paying the taxi driver in cash and not bothering to wait for the change.

            He runs through the alley to take the shortcut there, a familiar one since it’s how he walks Juhee to school every weekday morning.

            It’s understandable, however, that Namjoon is panting as he makes it to the kindergarten, stumbling out of his shoes and into the guest slippers in the lobby as the receptionist at the front desk looks at Namjoon with a sigh.

            “Namjoon-ssi, I didn’t expect to see you here again so soon.”

            It’s been under two weeks.

            Namjoon winces. “I wish I could say the same.”

            The woman looks like she’s biting back a smile, but she shakes her head. “Juhee is really something.”

            “Yeah,” Namjoon agrees, raking his hand through his hair as he hurries past the desk. He wonders how many parents the receptionist can recognize on sight, feeling like he’s probably one of the unfortunate few. “She is.”

            The principal’s office is at the end of the hall that Namjoon has privately named the hallway of doom. The classes are in session, all the other small children singing or playing games in the rooms on either side of Namjoon as he shuffles quickly past them, slippers scuffing the tile.

            The door is closed, so Namjoon knocks twice before going inside.

            Bongja sits at her desk, hands folded neatly in front of her, giving Namjoon the arched-eyebrow look of fancy seeing you here again Kim Namjoon.

            “Hello,” Namjoon says, closing the door and bowing deeply. His gaze immediately flicks to Juhee, seated at her usual spot on the leather couch. Her hair is in the same uneven pigtails he’d helped put them in this morning, bright pink converse hovering over the edge of the sofa, legs too short to reach the ground. “Juhee-yah.”

            Juhee looks at him with suspicious eyes and a rather intense frown.

            Namjoon takes a slow breath before taking in the rest of the room. Juhee’s teacher stands by Bongja’s desk with her arms crossed over her chest, wearing an expression of pure exhaustion that reads I’m so done. Namjoon can’t honestly say he blames her for it.

            On the couch opposite Juhee, however, is a little boy and a man who is possibly his older brother- or his father. Namjoon, as a young father himself, finds it better not to assume either way. He gets enough confusion from people trying to figure out how he’s related to Juhee, which leads to very awkward introductions.

            “Hello,” Namjoon greets, ducking his head.

            The man quickly stands to bow as well. “Hello,” he answers, voice surprisingly deep.

            Namjoon blinks at him, realizing that he’s wearing a t-shirt that’s splattered with paint and ripped jeans. It, at the very least, makes Namjoon feel slightly less self-conscious about the coffee stain on his button-up. At the most, Namjoon does a double take because the man looks like he belongs among the brushstrokes of a painting- and not just because of the streaks of color across his clothes.

            “Namjoon-ssi, this is Taehyung-ssi, Suho’s father,” Bongja says from her desk.

            “It’s nice to meet you,” Namjoon blurts automatically, only to wince. “I, uh, wish of course we weren’t meeting under the given circumstances.”

            The man- Taehyung- laughs. It’s a low, gentle sound that surprises Namjoon out of his cringe and has him looking at Taehyung again. “No, it’s nice to meet you, too,” he says. His hair is pushed back with a bandana, ruffled and fortunately a little less perfect than the rest of him. He doesn’t fit in with the kindergarten in the slightest, but that’s probably a good thing. At least, Namjoon thinks it’s a good thing. Namjoon doesn’t really fit in either.

            “Now that the pleasantries are out of the way,” Bongja says, and Namjoon turns to look at her, “there’s the matter of Juhee and Suho’s behavior today.”

            “I’m sitting right here,” Juhee pipes up sullenly, sounding, as per usual, much older than her five years.

            Bongja’s mouth twitches. “Yes. Juhee, Suho, your parents are here because of your fight. Do you have anything to say?”

            “I didn’t start it,” the little boy- Suho- says. He’s still on the sofa, slippers kicked off on the floor and sitting cross-legged. For the first time, Namjoon actually looks at him. He’s tiny, much smaller than Juhee, with thick, round glasses perched on the bridge of his nose. “Not my fault.”

            “You wouldn’t share!” Juhee accuses. She points a finger across the room. “You said you wouldn’t share and I had to buy my own blocks because those were yours, but those blocks are the school’s.You were lying and being mean.” She looks at Namjoon with an expression of pure rage. “He lied, Dad. And he wasn’t sharing. It wasn’t fair.”

            Namjoon runs his hand through his hair again. Juhee is very fond of calling things out for not being fair. She’s almost always right. Except about eating vegetables. It’s perfectly fair for Namjoon to make her eat her vegetables.

            “Juhee-yah, you can’t bite people if they don’t share with you,” Namjoon says, as he moves to squat beside the couch. That had been the real kicker of the phone call. Juhee had moved from smacks and hair pulling to biting. He wonders how she’s gotten to this point. They don’t watch violent movies. She’s never seen Namjoon hurt anyone. Namjoon takes spiders outside instead of killing them, for God’s sake.So why is she biting kids?  Namjoon wonders. “We were already here this month because you pulled Iseul’s hair,” he says, trying to keep his voice level.

            “Iseul was mean, too. She said I was weird because I don’t have a mom,” Juhee shoots back, staring Namjoon directly in the eye.  

            Namjoon exhales slowly. It’s still fresh for both Juhee and Namjoon-  the memory of being in this same office only two weeks before, Iseul’s mother yelling at Namjoon about how terribly he raised his motherless daughter. It had taken everything for Namjoon to swallow back all anger at her self-righteous attitude and apologize for Juhee’s behavior as his daughter fumed and refused to say sorry to the girl who played the no-mother card. Namjoon can’t say he blames her.

            He needs another coffee. Or a nap. Or not to be called into the principal’s office twice in the same month. Or, most of all, to know how to handle these situations.

            “It sounds like Iseul isn’t a very nice kid,” Taehyung says from behind them.

            Namjoon glances over his shoulder and finds Taehyung gently tugging at his son’s hand, pulling Suho off the sofa and helping him into his slippers, planting several kisses over his son’s head as he does this.

            “Suho wasn’t being very nice either,” Taehyung says,  leading Suho over until they’re all standing next to Juhee.  “Sharing is nice, Suho. You know that.”

            Suho pouts, glasses slipping down his nose.

            Namjoon decides to make sure they’re all level for this conversation, and he wraps his arms around Juhee and slips her off the couch to plop her down on her feet in front of it. She turns into Namjoon’s chest as he kneels. He hugs her for a few moments before patting her back. “I don’t think you were being nice at all, Green Bean,” Namjoon says quietly.

            “Yeah,” she answers, tiny hands fisting Namjoon’s coat. “But Suho wouldn’t share, Dad.”

            “What else could you have done?” Namjoon asks, pulling back slightly so he can look at her, downturned lips and round cheeks.

            “Told a teacher,” she says with a shrug.

            “Right. Or found different toys to play with for a little bit.”

            Juhee nods, still frowning.

            “We don’t hurt people, Juhee. You know better,” Namjoon says softly, willing her to understand.

            “Yeah,” she agrees, ducking her head. “I know, Dad.”

            Taehyung ends up squatting beside Namjoon, perched a little strangely like an overgrown grasshopper. The fact that he hasn’t already demanded Juhee be moved classes or switch kindergartens is honestly a first. Iseul’s mother had tried to get Juhee kicked out of the kindergarten. Namjoon would’ve had to look for another one, considering public school first grade didn’t start for another eight months and the nearest kindergarten other than Bongja’s was much farther from their apartment.

            Taehyung, grasshopper legs and dried paint, puts his hand on his son’s shoulder. “Suho, maybe you can say something to Juhee about not sharing the blocks with her.”

            “Fine.” Suho scuffs his slipper against the floor. “I’m sorry I didn’t share,” he says, not looking up. “That was bad.”

            “It was,” Juhee mumbles.

            Namjoon sighs. “Juhee, you did something bad, too.”

            “Yeah. Hurting people is mean,” Juhee adds, pulling at the sleeves of her neon green jacket. “I’m sorry I bit you.”

            “Thank you for apologizing, Juhee-ssi,” Taehyung says to her so politely it would sound patronizing were it not for how seriously he tells her this. He seems completely comfortable with the principal’s office- with talking about this pleasantly and calmly.

            It’s a change from the other parents at the school.

            Then Taehyung’s face breaks into a grin, and Namjoon blinks, feeling a little bit dazed by it. It being Taehyung’s smile- moonlight bright and a little rectangular, cheeks going from smooth and mature to full and round, eyes curving beneath bold brows. Paint-covered, grasshopper-sitting, and gorgeous. “I think you could be good friends,” Taehyung says, looking from Juhee to Suho.

            Juhee, Suho, and Namjoon all stare at him incredulously.

            Bongja snorts from behind her desk, and the teacher gives a dry, “Good luck with that.”

            Taehyung just turns his gaze on Namjoon, a straight beam of dark brown, wide and every bit as beautiful as his smile. “What do you say, Namjoon-ssi?”

            Namjoon finds he can’t say much at all, which is odd for him since he usually has many, many words. “Yes,” Namjoon manages after a few moments of mental flailing.

            “Perfect,” Taehyung says.

 

*

 

            “Wait Dad, I want the blues,” Juhee says, pointing at the pair of little ballet flats on the shoe rack.

            Namjoon, Juhee’s backpack over one shoulder and his messenger bag for work on the other, asks, “What’s wrong with your pinks?”

            Juhee grimaces. “My skirt doesn’t like ‘em.” She sets to work on taking them off, undoing the laces Namjoon just tied into perfect bows.

            Their apartment is a disaster behind them. Their Saturday mornings are usually slow and sluggish, but not today. Today, for reasons Namjoon’s still not entirely sure of, he’s taking Juhee to Paint!for a playdate with Suho and six other kids who are regulars for Saturday art classes.

            Taehyung had talked to Namjoon about it as they walked out of the kindergarten on Tuesday. Apparently, Taehyung owns an educational arts studio, one that does mostly adult classes during the week and runs kids programs on Saturdays. Today, Juhee is supposed to go to one of those programs with Suho.

            Thus, there are two bowls of half-eaten soup on the table and random globs of rice in the kitchen that Juhee had somehow spread everywhere with sticky fingers during breakfast. Two dresses and four shirts are strewn across the tiny living room, thanks to Juhee’s indecision about what to wear. One shirt, however, is Namjoon’s, which he managed to spill coffee on again after he’d just put it on.

            Namjoon pulls Juhee’s blue flats down from the rack. “We’re going to clean when we get back, Juhee-yah,” he says.

            She gives him one of her signature empty stares. “Of coursewe are, Dad. We clean before bedtime. That’s why we make it messy in the morning.”

            Namjoon decides not to find a response to that, running his hand through his hair with a sigh as he shoves his own shoes on.

            Juhee is fairly quiet as they wait for the bus, only pointing to a fluffed up pigeon and asking Namjoon why it looks funny. The morning is a little gray, though thankfully it’s just the layer of clouds above them and not dust in the air. It’s peaceful, especially in the little side street that they live on.

            Juhee sits on Namjoon’s lap as they ride to Paint! She’s big enough for her own seat now, but unless she’s feeling particularly ornery, she crawls onto Namjoon’s thighs every time. Juhee’s had nothing but growth spurts for the last two years, thus the nickname Green Bean. Namjoon has a feeling she’ll be nearly as tall as he is one day.

            She plays with his fingers, giggling when Namjoon turns his hands over so they’re palms-up and he can curl them over, nearly encompassing Juhee’s completely.

            The building that houses Paint! is seven floors tall, and of course Paint! is at the top, and of course Juhee wants to take the stairs.

            She gives up on floor three and Namjoon carries her to the elevator, his daughter flopping dramatically in his arms. “My legs are jelly, Dad. Wiggly.”

            Namjoon laughs softly, bouncing her on his hip. “Wiggly? Where’d your bones go?”

            “They’re wiggly, too.”

            Namjoon isn’t entirely sure he was expecting, but the elevator doors open on the top floor and immediately color greets them.

            The elevator lobby is small on the seventh floor, and the door to the studio is open. So Namjoon steps into the room with rainbows streaked across the walls, interrupted by everything from orange robots- spotted near the back window- to blue tigers- behind the desk where Taehyung stands.

            Suho is perched on the counter ledge, glasses still falling down his nose. His knees are scraped beneath a pair of pastel yellow shorts, and he blinks at Taehyung and Juhee when they come inside.

            “Ah, Namjoon-ssi and Juhee-ssi. How are you doing?” Taehyung asks, beaming at them, and Juhee lets out a giggle at the respectful way Taehyung addresses her.

            Namjoon can’t help but stare again at Taehyung. He thinks it should be impossible for someone to be as stunning as this, particularly not when they’re kind enough to invite the kid who bit their own son to a Saturday art lesson.

            “I’m fine, thank you,” Namjoon answers when he remembers Taehyung asked a question. He looks at Juhee and finds her watching Taehyung with large eyes, still smiling. “Juhee-yah, how are you doing?”

            She curls her fingers into Namjoon’s coat. “I’m good.”

            “I’m glad. Suho said there’s a lot of your classmates getting sick now, right?” Taehyung moves around the desk to approach Juhee and Namjoon, leaning against the counter beside Suho. He’s barefoot, toes wiggling against the wood floors.

            Namjoon thinks it’s probably weird to look at Taehyung’s feet and he quickly reorients his attention.

            Juhee nods. “Teacher said it’s the flu.”

            Taehyung and Namjoon both wince. The flu means a kindergarten apocalypse.

            “Nayoung went sick in class,” Suho informs them. “And then she cried.”

            “It was gross,” Juhee adds.

            Namjoon rubs his hand across his face. Juhee had missed this part when regailing him about her days last week, though he’s honestly glad because it usually happens over dinner. And knowing Juhee, she would’ve described it in graphic detail.

            “Not as gross as the time Dain sneezed on Iseul,” Suho argues.

            “That was funny,” Juhee counters. “Not gross.”

            Taehyung raises one of his perfect eyebrows as he looks at Namjoon, Juhee arguing from her position in Namjoon’s arms and Suho from his perch on the counter.

            “I knew they’d get along well,” Taehyung says.

            “I don’t know if I’d call this getting along,” Namjoon answers quietly, but he feels his lips twitch up.

            “-screamed and teacher called her mom,” Juhee’s laughing, something Namjoon has dubbed the gremlin giggle for the way her nose scrunches as she cackles.

            “Hey, why don’t you two go ahead and pick a spot to sit?” Taehyung asks, and he lifts Suho up from the counter only to plant a kiss on his cheek before he sets him down on the floor.

            “You have to sit next to me, Dad,” Suho says, suddenly even more serious as he pushes his glasses back up his nose. “You promised.”

            “I know, Suho-yah. Save a little room for me and I’ll be sure to sit next to you when I can.” Taehyung says.

            Suho shakes his head. “Promise again.”

            Taehyung leans down to stick out his pinky, and Suho makes the promise, both father and son kissing their own thumbs. “Promise,” Taehyung says.

            “Okay.” Suho looks back at Juhee and reaches for her hand. “I know the best spot. The sun comes in through the window. It gets real warm and nice over here.”

            There are low tables spread throughout the room past the little entryway, all currently covered in plastic. Bowls of water and plastic plates with gobs of paint sit on each one, along with large pieces of white paper.

            “We’re fingerpainting today,” Taehyung tells Namjoon.

            “Oh, yeah,” Namjoon says quickly, looking back at Taehyung and finding the man looking at him with a grin.

            “You want to join?”

            “Me?” Namjoon asks, eyes lingering a little too long on Taehyung’s smile, flicking down even further to a streak of blue paint that travels from the collar of Taehyung’s gray sweater up to his neck.

            Taehyung laughs again. Namjoon decides he really likes the sound. It’s deep but bright at the same time, almost contagious. “Yes, you, Namjoon-ssi.”

            “Oh.” Namjoon lifts his arm, pointing to his messenger bag. “I have to run into work for a quick meeting, but thank you.”

            A family comes through the doors behind Namjoon, and he awkwardly shuffles to the side to let Taehyung check them in, telling the kids to pick a spot. Another man wearing paint-covered clothes comes out from what must be the back room with frocks, handing them out to Suho, Juhee, and the kids that just came in. One of the kids lets out a “Jimin-teacher,” before ambushing the man who must be a Paint! employee.

            “I’ll head out now,” Namjoon says, and he puts Juhee’s backpack against the wall, wondering if this is a disaster waiting to happen. “If there’s anything-”

            “I’ll call,” Taehyung assures him. “Don’t worry, Namjoon-ssi, we’re going to have fun here.”

            Namjoon glances at Juhee and Suho who seem to be still arguing, but at least Juhee doesn’t appear close to sinking her teeth into Suho’s arm again. “Okay,” Namjoon says, and hopes for the best.

 

*

 

            “And then Taehyung-teacher said that I have a- a…” Juhee frowns, ice cream smudged on her nose, cone clutched in her left hand and dripping all over her fingers. “An eye for art? What does that mean?”

            “An eye for art? It’s… it’s being able to see and understand art in a special way,” Namjoon answers, trying to find the right words. “Artistic intuition.”

            “Intu- intu-”

            Yoongi, walking with Juhee’s right hand clutching his, snorts. “Your teacher means you’re good at art, kiddo.”

            Yoongi came back with Namjoon after their work meeting at the broadcasting station to pick up Juhee. Namjoon doesn’t think his co-worker would ever admit it, but Yoongi spoils Juhee, always buying her ice cream from the convenience store or bringing her new books whenever he visits for dinner.

            “Oh,” Juhee says, leaning down to lick her ice cream and smearing more of it across her nose. “I’m pretty good at coloring. Finger painting is harder. I kept mixing colors I didn’t want mixed. Messy.” She has a streak of pink on her cheek that she didn’t let Namjoon clean off of her with the wet wipes Taehyung offered at the studio. She’d insisted she wanted it there.

            They amble through the park, the afternoon every bit as gray as the morning. It’s past Juhee’s nap time, so by the time they get back to the apartment, Juhee is both ice-cream sticky and grumpy.

            “Don’t wanna take a nap,” she tells Namjoon.

            “Trust me kid, take naps now while you can,” Yoongi says with a sigh as he collapses onto Namjoon’s sofa. He’s rubbing at his shoulder, an old injury that always acts up and makes Namjoon worry.

            Juhee ignores Yoongi in favor of glaring at Namjoon. “Dad, don’t wanna.”

            Namjoon carries her to the kitchen sink and helps were wash her hands as she continues to reiterate just how much she doesn’t want to nap, even as she yawns. “Just lay down for a bit then, Juhee,” Namjoon says, setting her down on her bed.

            “No! Uncle Yoongi’s here. I want to play with him.”

            “Uncle Yoongi’s taking a nap, kid,” Yoongi calls from the living room.

            Juhee frowns harder at this. “I want to play more. I’m not tired.”

            Namjoon takes a slow breath in and out. Be firm, he thinks. “Just close your eyes and give them some rest. If you take a break now, you’ll be more awake to play with Yoongi after his nap.”

            Juhee stares at Namjoon suspiciously. “Just rest. ‘M not sleeping.”

            “Just rest. No getting up and playing for at least… at least half an hour,” Namjoon says, rubbing at his temple. It usually takes Juhee about twenty minutes to fall asleep.

            “Fine. But I’m not going to sleep.”

            Nearly an hour later, Juhee is most definitely asleep.

            Namjoon sits with Yoongi’s feet on his lap on the sofa, watching the TV on low volume. It’s been weeks since he was able to spend time with Yoongi outside of work.

            “That dad from Juhee’s school seems decent,” Yoongi says when the news switches to a commercial break.

            Namjoon nods, sinking a little lower onto the sofa.

            Yoongi nudges Namjoon’s thigh with his heel. “You going to see him again?”

            Namjoon blinks, eyes moving away from the screen to find Yoongi staring back at him. “I told him I could take Juhee and Suho to the aquarium next Sunday with the family pass as a thank-you for inviting Juhee to the art class today, so probably.”

            Yoongi hums. “Why not just go with the dad too?”

            “Taehyung,” Namjoon supplies the name, though he’s pretty sure Taehyung introduced himself to Yoongi when they picked Juhee up earlier. “And I thought maybe he’d have errands to run? I haven’t heard anything about Suho’s mom, so if he’s a single dad too he might need time to take care of some things.”

            “What if you invite the dad along too?”

            “Taehyung,” Namjoon says again. “And I don’t know. Would he even want to come? It’s not like we know each other outside of ‘my daughter bit his son and attended a kid’s art class.’”

            “Namjoon,” Yoongi sighs. “You know the dad-”

            “Taehyung.”

            “-tried to keep you from paying for the class and told you the next one was on him too, yeah? And said you should stay next time? That’s called ‘attempting to be friends with someone.’ Forming human connection. Bonding. That shit.”

            Namjoon blinks. “Am I seriously getting lectured about human connection by Min Yoongi?”

            “Yeah. Only ‘cause you’ve been in dad-mode so long you’ve forgotten what it’s like to have a social life of your own.” Yoongi shifts, pressing his toes into Namjoons thigh. “I’m not an expert, but I sure as hell know that the dad wants you as more than a potential babysitter for his kid. Invite him to the damn aquarium, Namjoon. Talk to him. Be his friend. If he’s single, maybe get laid.”

            “Hyung,” Namjoon groans. “That’s not-”

            “He’s hot. And he was going a little cross-eyed at your dimples. It was cute.”

Namjoon definitely hadn’t noticed that. “He was?”

“Yup,” Yoongi says, voice disinterested but cat-eyes fixed on Namjoon like he’s about to pounce.

“I doubt it,” Namjoon mumbles, trying to turn his attention back to the television.

Yoongi grunts. “Most people get hot and bothered by your dimples, Joon-ah. Don’t act so surprised.”

“Why would you say ‘hot and bothered,’ hyung?” Namjoon asks, giving Yoongi a judgemental glare as he shoves Yoongi’s feet off of him. “You sounds like Seokjin.”

“No I don’t,” Yoongi gripes. “Bring back my foot pillow.”

            “My thighs aren’t your foot pillow.”

            “They are. And your face is red, Joon. You already have a crush on the dad, don’t you?”

            “Taehyung,” Namjoon says automatically. “And no, I don’t have… have a crush, hyung. He’s kind and artistic and good with kids, that’s all.”

            Yoongi grunts. “And he looks like a fucking model.”

            Namjoon is very, very glad Juhee is asleep for this conversation. “Okay, that’s enough on this topic. You want a beer?”

            “Sure.”

            Namjoon escapes to the kitchen, only to open the refrigerator and sigh. “Sorry, hyung,” he calls back to the living room. “Apple juice or banana milk?”

 

*

 

            Namjoon waits on Monday afternoon outside the kindergarten. Juhee holds Namjoon’s hand tightly, saying goodbye to a few children as they leave and ducking behind Namjoon’s legs for the rest.

            “Juhee, are you fighting with some of the kids?” Namjoon asks quietly, when one girl in particular comes screeching out the front doors with a severe-looking woman.

            Juhee, face buried in the back of Namjoon’s black jeans, shakes her head. “No. Not fighting, Dad. I’m being nice. ‘M not biting anyone or pulling hair now. Promise.”

            “I believe you, Green Bean.” Namjoon frowns, reaching around to place his hand on the top of her head, gently pulling his fingers through her tangled hair. There are bits of leaves stuck in it, and Namjoon wonders if she tried to climb another tree today. “Are the other kids being nice, too?”

            Juhee shrugs, and Namjoon takes a deep breath and decides to check with Juhee’s teacher later in the week if she doesn’t talk with him about it before then. He doesn’t think pushing Juhee would help. Or maybe it would. He has a book written by an acclaimed parenting expert at home with about one hundred tabs in it and he thinks one might be on talking with your teenager about things they’re secretive about in their private life that give parents cause for concern. Juhee is not a teenager, and she’s not necessarily being secretive, but Namjoon might find that section again and read it just in case.

            “Namjoon-ssi.”

            Namjoon glances up to find Taehyung hurrying toward him, paintless today and wearing an oversized button-up. “Taehyung-ssi,” Namjoon greets, smiling and ducking his head.

            “Dad!” Suho, who must have been waiting in the entrance, runs out of the kindergarten. “You’re late, Dad. You promised you’d be here when class ended.”

            “Sorry, kiddo,” Taehyung says, and Namjoon feels something heavier to the words than a simple dismissive apology. “Dad’s sorry.” He opens his arms and Suho hurries into them, hooking his chin over Taehyung’s shoulder as the man picks him up. Taehyung immediately kisses every available part of Suho’s face with exaggerated noises, pulling a giggle out of Suho.

            “Taehyung-teacher,” Juhee leans around Namjoon’s legs, looking up at Taehyung. “I made a coloring page for you this morning.”

            “Wow, you did?” Taehyung asks, eyes curving as he smiles in a way that makes Namjoon a little too aware of his own heartbeat. “Can I see?”

            “It’s at home,” Juhee tells him. “But it’s really pretty. I drew you as a fish.”

            Namjoon has seen picture in question, and he is caught between a laugh and a wince. Taehyung, however, just gasps. “Thank you, Juhee-ssi. Do I have any mermaid friends?”

            Juhee frowns. “Mermaids aren’t real, Taehyung-teacher. But I drew Dad as a crab before, and crabs live by the water, so maybe you and Dad can be friends.”

            Taehyung grins, and Namjoon hears Yoongi saying in the back of his mind you already have a crush on the dad, don’t you?

            “I think fish and crabs could be very good friends. That’s a great idea. I don’t know about mermaids not being real, though. I think they’re out there somewhere. The ocean is so, so deep, we’ll never know.” Taehyung pats Suho’s back.

            “Speaking of the ocean,” Namjoon says, seizing the opening, “I was hoping to invite you and Suho to the aquarium on Sunday. As a thank you. For last Saturday- the art class. Juhee had a lot of fun- and I have a family pass we could use.” Namjoon manages to stop talking by letting out an awkward laugh, Juhee grabbing a fistfull of his jeans and tugging for no apparent reason.

            “Sunday?” Taehyung presses his lips against the side of Suho’s head. “What do you say, kiddo? You want to see some sharks?”

            Suho gives a tiny nod.

            “Sharks are fish,” Juhee tells them both seriously.

            “That’s right,” Namjoon says, leaning down slightly to wipe away some dirt he notices on her cheek. Probably also from tree-climbing attempts. “Sharks are just really big fish with sharp teeth.”

            Juhee nods before turning her thousand-yard stare and accompanying frown to Taehyung. “Come see fish with us, Taehyung-teacher. We can look at sharks and pet the stars.”

            “Starfish,” Namjoon mouths to Taehyung.

            “Well, I can’t say no to that,” Taehyung tells Juhee, but he looks at Namjoon and grins.

            Namjoon finds himself grinning right back.

 

*

            “Hey, Green Bean.”

            “Yeah, Dad?”

            Namjoon smooths Juhee’s blanket, sitting on the edge of her bed. “Do you like going to kindergarten?”

            “Uh-huh. We get to learn lots and lots.” Juhee wiggles under the covers, nestling down into her pillow. “And at break today I climbed a tree really high. But Insook-teacher made me come down.”

            “That’s because you could get hurt climbing trees, Juhee-yah,” Namjoon says, sweeping soome of her hair out of her face. “We can go to the park tomorrow and I can help you climb, but you shouldn’t it on your own.”

            Juhee scrunches her nose. “But I’m good at it.”

            “Then you can show me when we’re together. I just don’t want you to get hurt. Okay?”

            Juhee stares at him, considering. “Okay.” She purses her lips and makes a kiss noises to seal the promise, and Namjoon leans down to gently to kiss to her forehead.

“What about your friends at school?” Namjoon presses as he straightens up again. “Are you and Seokyung still getting along?”

            “Yeah. We play dolls together. But she’s only there before lunch.” Juhee yawns, and Namjoon can tell his window of conversation is closing. “Her mom gets her.”

            Namjoon hums thoughtfully. Seokyung is a sweet kid, and her mother- who Namjoon’s met a few times- has been pleasant though always in a rush. “Are the kids nice to you, Juhee-yah?” Namjoon finally asks.

            Juhee plucks at the top of the blanket with tiny hands, fingers still a little chubby. “Some of ‘em. Iseul… Iseul said I’m too loud. Her friends are mean, too. They think I’m weird.”

            “They sound really mean,” Namjoon agrees, keeping his voice level despite the tension he feels in his jaw. Juhee is staring back at him, and he knows his next words matter. So he cups Juhee’s round cheeks and leans over to nuzzle their noses together. “But I’m so lucky to have my kind, kind, Green Bean.”

            He wonders whether or not it’s enough. If he needs to ask Juhee more questions about Iseul or go to the teacher or-

            Juhee’s face breaks into a smile, reaching up to hold Namjoon’s face as well. “Lucky Dad,” she agrees, eyes crinkled.

            “So lucky,” Namjoon agrees. “And whatever they say, you’re not too loud, Juhee-yah. You love the world around you so much, and that’s not ever a bad thing. And being weird is good, too. It makes you wonderful.”

            Juhee doesn’t really seem to absorb this, preoccupied with poking at Namjoon’s dimples as she laughs. “Dad, you’re my Green Bean, too,” she tells him.

            Namjoon squishes her cheeks lightly, pulling a giggle out of her, and wishes he could will all the bad things away. To make the kids at her school be kind. To have Juhee understand that her brain is beautiful and the way she talks is, too.

“Okay,” Namjoon tells her instead, heart aching but smiling down at her all the same. “We’re the Green Bean Team. Now it’s time for bed.”

            “One story?” Juhee asks, dropping her hands from Namjoon’s cheeks and staring up at him expectantly.

            “One story.”

            “I want to hear about a crab king.”

            Namjoon hums, lying down beside Juhee though his legs hang off the edge of the mattress. She rolls over, clinging onto his arm like it’s a stuffed animal. “Once upon atime,” Namjoon begins, “there was a crab king who ruled over the Crystal Isles. The islands were small but beautiful, full of trees and birds and pretty rocks. But the most beautiful part of all the islands wasn’t the nature or the gems that lay beneath the sand. It was the crab king’s daughter- smart and strong and quite the adventurer...”

 

*

 

            Muted light reflects on the surface of the tanks behind them, tiger sharks occasionally swimming in and out of view. The smaller fish are what really seem to fascinate Suho, though Juhee is mostly fascinated with the sharks.

            The aquarium is fairly quiet for a Sunday, but it’s off-season and mid-afternoon.

            Taehyung and Namjoon talk about work and life and little bits and pieces of themselves. Namjoon learns more about Taehyung outside of Suho’s father- about his degree in art and his roots in Daegu.

Suho and Juhee do actually get along well. Juhee is just as full of conversation with Suho as she is at home, which makes Namjoon relax. She needs friends- other children her life that don’t say she talks too loud or too much or make her feel like she’s somehow existing in the wrong way.

            “They’re both so gentle,” Taehyung says.

            Suho and Juhee are at the Touch-Zone of the aquarium, sticking their fingers into the water slowly and tracing the starfish and sea urchins. An aquarium employee watches the children sharply, ready to step in if gentle prodding becomes poking.

            Namjoon nods, smiling slightly as Suho squeaks in excitement and Juhee leans so close to the water her nose nearly touches the surface.

“They are,” Namjoon agrees.

A group of children leave off to their left, parents dragging them to the next exhibit.

            “Our turn, hyung,” Taehyung says, gently taking Namjoon’s wrist and tugging him over to the edge of the water.

            Namjoon blinks. He’d told Taehyung to just call him ‘hyung’ at some point last week, one of the days he and Juhee had waited with Suho for Taehyung to come pick him up. It still sounds petal-soft in Taehyung’s voice.

            “Our turn?” Namjoon repeats.

            Taehyung laughs, that breathy deep giggle that always blindsides Namjoon a little bit more than it should. “Come on. This isn’t just for kids.”

            Namjoon watches as Taehyung lowers his hand into the water. He doesn’t have a wedding ring, but there’s a thick silver band around his middle finger, glinting against the gold of his skin.

            Taehyung carefully drags his pointer over the nearest starfish, surface of the tank rippling, lapping against his wrist.

            “Pretty,” Namjoon blurts before he feels heat rush to his cheeks.

            “I know,” Taehyung answers, still looking at the water and thankfully not realizing Namjoon was staring at him. “You won’t hurt them, hyung. Touch tanks are fine for sea animals like this if you’re gentle.”

            Namjoon has only stood with Juhee while she stroked urchins before, always more preoccupied with making sure she’s being careful with the animals.

He rolls up his sleeve and lets his hand drop into the tank, holding his breath as he reaches for an urchin, spines brushing against his fingertips.

            For whatever reason, the gentle tickle on his pointer makes him laugh- a short, surprised thing.

            “Cool, right?” Taehyung murmurs. “You know, one kind of sea urchin can actually live up to two hundred years?”

            Namjoon glances up in surprise. “That’s amazing.”

            Taehyung nods. “It seems like such a long time. But then I think about the ocean- and how… how timeless it is, I guess. And maybe it would feel like forever but only a moment at the same time. Two hundred years in two long seconds.”

            Namjoon breathes and pictures it- about the way the world slows underwater and suspends life and sound, floating along with the waves, carried by the current or the tide.

“Sometimes,” Namjoon says, looking at the urchin beneath his fingers, “I feel like we go through life that way, too.”

            They get ice cream at the aquarium snack shop when Juhee and Suho tire themselves out, Juhee falling asleep against Namjoon’s shoulder and Suho securely in Taehyung’s lap, mouth wide open as he naps.

            There’s the glass wall of the open ocean tank behind them, an occasional fish the size of Namjoon swimming by, aquarium dim lighting glinting off their scales.

            “Thank you for coming today,” Namjoon says, keeping his voice low. Juhee’s eyes are fluttering closed, and he wraps an arm around her.

            “No, thank you for inviting us. Suho had a good time.” Taehyung kisses the top of Suho’s head. “I did too, hyung. I forgot what it was like to just have fun with someone outside of work.”

            Namjoon nods in understanding. He and Yoongi get to talk at the station and that’s honestly the most interaction with other adults that Namjoon gets. He has the occasional night out about once a month with either Seokjin or Yoongi, one of them taking care of Juhee and the other getting drinks or watching a movie with Namjoon.

            But this is nice, too. Getting to be with Juhee but still doing something fun out and about with someone like Taehyung, especially with Suho there keep up with Juhee’s chattering about the fish.

            “It was great,” Namjoon tells Taehyung. “Really, I- I appreciated this a lot.”

            Taehyung looks almost as tired as the kids, smile a little sleepy as he says, “We should do this more often.”

            “Yeah,” Namjoon whispers. “We should.”

 

*

 

            “I don’t want to eat them.”

            “You can’t live off of chicken, Juhee.”

            “Yes I can.”

            “No, you can’t.”

            “I can!”

            “Juhee, you have to eat your vegetables. Otherwise you’ll be tired and maybe even get sick. Vegetables have important nutrients like-”

            “I don’t want them.”

            Namjoon groans, raking his hand through his hair as Juhee stares stubbornly at him from across the table. He can’t get his own daughter to eat carrots. Carrots- one of the most innocent vegetables. “So you’re okay with being tired this week and not feeling well because you’re not putting healthy food in your body?”

            “No.”

            “That can happen if you don’t eat well, Juhee. Please just eat your vegetables. I’ll buy more eggplant tomorrow, okay?”

            Juhee ignores her chopsticks and instead picks up a piece of carrot with her fingers. “I don’t like the orange ones.”

            Namjoon takes a slow breath- in through the nose, out through the mouth. “Okay, fine. No more orange ones this month. Just tonight.”

            “Fine.” Juhee pops the carrot in her mouth.

            The rest of Monday evening goes more smoothly, which Namjoon is grateful for after a long day of work. He and Yoongi had interviewed the lead singer of an indie band on their show, but unfortunately when they accepted calls for question and answer, some of the things people had asked were borderline offensive- particularly regarding a song that many interpreted as bringing up issues of being closeted regarding the singer’s sexuality.

            It had been stressful to say the least, and took an emotional toll on Yoongi and Namjoon as well. Namjoon still has a bundle of unhappy things in his chest from the day, but he tries to push them away in favor of getting Juhee ready for bed. She makes silly faces in the mirror when they brush their teeth, and Namjoon feels himself laugh and the tension fade at least a little bit.

            Juhee climbs under the covers wearing her frog pajamas, asking Namjoon for a story about people who don’t have to eat vegetables.

            Namjoon tickles her until she relents and asks for one about superheroes instead.

            “Taehyung invited us to another art class this weekend,” Namjoon tells her when he finishes, the villain of the story reformed into the superhero’s sidekick.

            Juhee peers up at him. “Can we go?”

            “If you want to, Green Bean.”

            Juhee nods. “I want to.”

            “Good,” Namjoon says as he kisses her goodnight. “Do you like Suho and Taehyung?” He asks as he stands up, making his way over to his own bed.

            “Yeah. I like ‘em a lot.”

            Namjoon smiles, lying down and rolling over on his side. “Me too,” he murmurs, thinking of Taehyung’s laugh. “Me too.”

 

*

 

            Namjoon meets Suho’s mother by surprise the next Saturday, startling completely when he walks into Paint! with Juhee clinging on to his leg like an overgrown monkey and finds Suho calling a woman ‘mom.’

            Maybe Namjoon should’ve asked, since for plenty of adults it’s a normal question, but Namjoon didn’t know if it would be appropriate to ask why Taehyung’s never mentioned Suho’s mother. And maybe, part of him had just assumed. And part of him- maybe part of him hoped, as selfish and terrible as it is, that Taehyung wasn’t married.

            “I’ve got work, baby, I’m sorry,” the woman is telling Suho, grabbing for her purse on the counter of Paint!’s entrance. “I’ll be back tonight and we’ll go get tasty barbecue, okay?”

            “No! Mom just stay. You said you’d stay.”

            “Not today, Suho-yah.” She seems to notice Namjoon and Juhee lingering in the doorway and gives a quick half-bow to Namjoon. “Hello. Taehyung and Jimin will be here in just a minute to check you in.”

            Namjoon’s head spins. Is Taehyung really married? He’s never mentioned this woman before. He doesn’t wear a wedding ring. No one else has picked up Suho from school that Taehyung’s seen.

            Guilt courses through him like the rush of an angry river current, and Namjoon swallows it down. He’s never said or done anything about the feelings he has for Taehyung. He hasn’t technically done anything wrong. He can stop whatever thoughts he has for Taehyung and-

            “Noona,” Taehyung’s voice calls from the back room. “Are you still there? Do you think you could-” Taehyung appears with a giant glob of blue clay in his hands. “Oh, hyung!”

            “Hey,” Namjoon says in a voice that thankfully doesn’t match the warbling thoughts inside his head. “Sorry, we’re a little bit early. Can I help with anything?”

            “Ah, no, it’s fine. Just make yourself at home,” Taehyung says, plopping the clay down on the nearest table. “Noona, your jacket’s still in the back.”

            “Oh shi-” the woman’s eyes flick to Suho and Juhee. “-ny.” She coughs. “Let me grab it.”

            Suho’s face scrunches as his mother turns away and Namjoon has a feeling about what’s coming. “Suho-yah,” he says quickly as the woman rushes to the back room. “Do you know what class today is about?”

            Suho sniffs loudly. “Clay.”

            “Yeah? That’s great. Will you sculpt something?”

            Suho shrugs, but fortunately by then Taehyung is there and picks Suho up. “We’re sculpting animals,” Taehyung supplies.

            Suho wraps his arms around Taehyung’s neck. “I don’t want to do clay. I want to spend time with mom.”

            “I want to make a cat,” Juhee declares to no one in particular.

            “Your mom’s got work, kiddo. But she made you a big breakfast this morning, right? What did she cook?”

            Taehyung takes Suho to a back table with a frantic glance over his shoulder at Namjoon with wide-eyes and an unhappy stretch to his lips. Juhee follows them, shouting, “Suho I’ll let you make a cat, too!”

            Namjoon shifts his weight uncomfortably, the lump in his stomach growing limbs and dragging itself around in circles like some nasty, guilty, jealous creature. He takes a slow breath to steady himself, putting Juhee’s backpack and his messenger bag on the wall and telling himself that his feelings for Taehyung were only a crush, that there’s no reason to be sad or guilty, that he and Taehyung will still be fantastic friends.

            He appreciates Taehyung as a person- and his wife is probably wonderful as well.

            “Sorry for the insanity,” a voice says, and Namjoon turns from the wall with the bag hooks that he was apparently staring at for his own internal monologue. “I’m Lee Yongseon, Suho’s mom.”

            Namjoon quickly bows his head. “Kim Namjoon, Juhee’s father.”

            Yongseon straightens up from her own respectful duck of the head, gaze flicking over him as a smile spreads across her face. “Namjoon-ssi, it’s wonderful to meet you. Taehyung’s told me so much about you.”

            The guilty little creature drags itself up to Namjoon’s chest where it nestles between his ribs, resigned. “Ah,” Namjoon manages, forcing a smile. It’s nice that Taehyung talks about him. They’ve become friendly acquaintances. It makes sense. “Yes. It’s really kind of him to invite Juhee to class again.”

            Yongseon has a soft face, thick glasses perched on her nose that are probably and indication of where Suho gets his bad eyesight from. Her smile only widens though, and she’s definitely beautiful. “Of course! Taehyung is great, isn’t he?”

            Namjoon’s limbed creature presses against his lungs, making the next slow breath Namjoon attempts a little tight. “Yeah, he really is,” Namjoon agrees, an awkward laugh slipping out of him.

            Yongseon smiles brightly. “Absolutely. I’m lucky we’re such good friends. You know,” she says, stepping a little closer to Namjoon as his thoughts fumble in confusion at such good friends. “I keep telling him that he could get back out there again- making friends. Dating. It was difficult for me, given that we both work and do our best to co-parent Suho, but I was able to find someone special.” She flutters her left hand at Namjoon, a simple gold ring glinting on her finger and matching the same mischievous sparkle in her eye. “My girlfriend is actually a great help in raising Suho, you know.”

            Namjoon’s mouth falls open slightly, and the creature in his chest lets go of his ribs and falls right back to his stomach where it proceeds to flip around in confusion. “Oh, that’s great,” Namjoon manages the response.

            Yongseon nods enthusiastically. “What about you, Namjoon-ssi?”

            “Am I… married?” Namjoon asks.

            Yongseon just nods again, peering at him expectantly.

            “No. My wife and I divorced about five years ago now.”

            “Oh, I see,” Yongseon says. And Namjoon thinks the usual reaction is discomfort or sympathy, but Yongseon just still stares at him like she’s finding something utterly fascinating written on his nose. “I’ve heard Juhee is a brilliant kid. You must be very proud.”

            Namjoon starts to answer, but Yongseon rushes on. “I’m late for a work meeting, but it was so wonderful to meet you, Namjoon-ssi. Really excellent. I hope to see you around more often. I know Taehyung loves spending time with you.”

            And with that, Yongseon brushes past him, leaving Namjoon in utter confusion and a large amount of information to sort through.

            “Dad,” Juhee shouts from the back table, and Namjoon looks back to find her with a glob of clay on top of her head, Taehyung still holding a sniffling Suho beside her. “It’s stuck in my hair.”

            Namjoon will have to sort through it later.

 

*

 

            Just as he was the first to arrive, Namjoon is the last to leave. Suho and Juhee roll clay between their fingers, sculptures already destroyed, while the sweet-smiling Jimin-teacher, who apparently is Taehyung’s co-owner named Park Jimin, talks to them.

            Namjoon waits to pay at the front desk, but when Taehyung comes over, he shakes his head. “No, hyung. Really, there’s no need.” Taehyung’s face is a little pale, dark circles beneath his eyes. He’d been frantically running around for most of the class, though he’d still managed to make exaggerated funny faces at all the kids as he checked on their progress and helped them wet drying clay.

            “It’s a class, Taehyung-ah,” he answers. “This is your work. Please, let me-”

            “I wanted you and Juhee to be here,” Taehyung says firmly. He looks too tired, something about the heightened rasp of his voice concerning.

            Namjoon frowns, stepping a little closer. “Are you feeling alright?”

            “Yeah. Just the air quality, I think,” Taehyung says, though he clears his throat. “Anyway, hyung, how about we just do something this week after school? You can buy Suho and I bingsu.”

            “Sure,” Namjoon says, though he’s still mostly concerned about the borderline exhaustion across Taehyung’s features. “Just pick a day.”

            “Wednesday?” Taehyung asks, and Namjoon nods, putting away his wallet. “Also, hyung.”

            Namjoon blinks up at Taehyung, dark eyes and full flashes and asymmetrical lids that only make him more and more in need of staring. “My, um. Suho’s mom spoke to you, right?”

            “Oh, yeah,” Namjoon runs his hand through his hair, unsure of how to describe that entire rushed conversation. “She seems really great.”

            Taehyung nods, but his lips are pushed out in a pouting frown. “She’s a wonderful friend. And a good mother to Suho. We’re not- not married, though.”

            “She mentioned that,” Namjoon says.

            “Yeah,” Taehyung answers, long fingers splayed out on the counter between them, pointer tapping lightly on the surface. Namjoon thinks he looks uncomfortable.

            “I’m not either,” Namjoon says gently. “Not married. I know it can be a sore point with some people, but I understand, Taehyung-ah. Really.”

            The broad line of Taehyung’s shoulders relax. “You hadn’t mentioned anything about your wife, but I didn’t want to assume.”

            Namjoon had assumed. It almost came back to bite him in the ass. “We divorced right after Juhee was born. She hasn’t been around since.” Namjoon doesn’t add that she hasn’t once sent Juhee a birthday card, that she completely disappeared from the life of the man who used to be her husband and her daughter.

            “I’m sorry,” Taehyung says quietly.

            “I think I made my peace with it years ago,” Namjoon answers with a small smile. “Or maybe I’m still trying to.”

            “For what it’s worth, I can’t imagine anyone wanting to walk away from you and Juhee,” Taehyung says, only to follow it with his eyes widening and his hand sliding off the counter as he drags it back to his side. “Sorry, that was-”

            “No. Thank you,” Namjoon says, and whatever ugly creature had been occupying space inside him earlier in the day turns into something several shades lighter, warm in his belly.

            Taehyung’s cheeks are sunrise pink, and he ducks his head. “It’s true. You and Juhee are wonderful. I’m lucky to spend time with you.”

            Namjoon’s wry smile spreads. “I think I’m the lucky one,” he answers with heat creeping up his neck.

            Taehyung’s eyes flick up to him, and yes, they fall on his dimples. Maybe Yoongi was on to something after all. “So,” Taehyung says, a little bit of breathlessness in the carmel depths of his voice, “Wednesday?”

 

*

 

            “You’re eating all my chocolate, Dad,” Juhee says indignantly, turning her razor-sharp glare on Namjoon as he guiltily puts down his spoon. Juhee immediately shoves an extra large bite of bingsu into her mouth, all while staring at Namjoon from the corner of her eye.

            It’s Wednesday afternoon, and the dessert cafe a block away from the kindergarten is warm with sunlight pouring in through the windows.

            Across the table, Suho continues to pick at his mango shaved ice, seeming more interested in re-arranging the contents of his bowl than eating them.

            “Suho-yah,” Taehyung says, gently poking his son’s arm. “Feed dad.”

            Suho nods, clumsily spooning a large glob of ice cream and shaved ice before holding it up for Taehyung.

            “Delicious,” Taehyung hums, smacking his lips. “I think I want more, though.” He looks at Namjoon, grins, and says, “I’ll be right back.”

            He returns a few minutes later with a chocolate bingsu, depositing a few chunks back in Juhee and Namjoon’s bowl and then asking, “Hyung, will you split this one with me?”

            Namjoon feels himself flush, but he laughs and nods.

            Taehyung grins, and Namjoon melts much faster than the ice cream.

 

*

 

            They make a habit of it.

            Not just bingsu on Wednesdays or Paint!on Saturdays. But doing things together. Taking the kids out. Talking. They make a habit of that.

            Somehow, they just start waiting for each other outside the kindergarten. Most days, Namjoon is there first. Suho has warmed up enough to Namjoon to the point that he’s become clingy. He asks Namjoon to pick him up, and Juhee never seems to mind. She’s usually too busy telling Namjoon about her day.

            Namjoon can see a shift happening again with his daughter. This time, instead of growing more quiet, she’s moving back a little more to how she was before. She chatters to Suho, and Namjoon has never once heard the boy tell her to be quiet. Instead, Suho asks her questions and listens with rapt attention, sometimes arguing or adding something.

            Occasionally, Taehyung will get to the kindergarten first.

            Today is like that, and Namjoon finds Taehyung with Juhee and Suho in the little grassy patch outside the school. None of them have their shoes on, just barefoot in the afternoon sunshine.

            Suho sits in Taehyung’s lap as Juhee stands next to Taehyung, putting little dandelions she plucked from the ground in his hair.

            Namjoon finds himself just watching.

            Taehyung laughs at something Juhee tells him, wide smile and curving eyes. Juhee does her gremlin giggle back, her shoulders shaking.

            Warmth spreads from Namjoon’s chest to his fingers and to his toes, and he wants to bask in this, spread out like a lizard just in this particular moment in time and let it seep into his skin.

            “Hyung,” Taehyung calls, dandelions in his hair. He smiles, and Namjoon feels like he’s swallowed the sun.

            “Dad!” Juhee abandons her hair styling work and runs for Namjoon, arms open.

            Namjoon sweeps her into a hug, breathing in the smell of earth in her hair- grass and dirt and flowers. “Hi, Green Bean,” he says, and wonders if it’s possible to feel nostalgia for something that’s only happening in the present, unfurling like flowers before his very eyes.

 

*

 

            “The album was released only a few months back, and despite not garnering much attention, the tracks are truly phenomenal,” Namjoon says into the microphone, his elbows braced on the desk.

            “Our final track of the night was written by the lead guitarist, Choi Minsu, and produced by Im Sua,” Yoongi adds, his voice low and gravelly. “This is Suga and RM, thank you for listening this afternoon.”

            Namjoon hits play and cuts their mics, leaning back in his chair. “Good work, hyung,” he says.

            “You, too.” Yoongi yawns, groaning loudly as he rubs his nose. “What are you doing Friday night, Joon?”

            Namjoon pulls down his headphones. “Nothing at the moment. Maybe take Juhee to get ice cream.”

            “Come to my place instead. Some people are getting together.”

            Namjoon arches his eyebrows. “Is this an invitation? From you? For a social event?”

            Yoongi flips him off. “Don’t make me uninvite you.”

            Namjoon chuckles. “What’s the occasion?”

            Yoongi shrugs. “Wanted you to meet someone.”

            “Someone?”

            “My boyfriend.”

            Namjoon feels his eyes bulge and he tries to slide closer to Yoongi only to have his headphones get caught around his neck and choke him for a few seconds before Yoongi kicks his chair back with an eye roll. “Your boyfriend?” Namjoon throws off the headphones. “Hyung-”

            “Yes, I have a boyfriend. We’ve been together for about four months now. His name is Hoseok. He’s great. Yes, you can bring Juhee. Yes, you should invite Taehyung and his kid.”

            Namjoon gapes. “Four months? Four months and you didn’t mention him to me?”

            “I’m a very private person, Namjoon.”

            “Bullshit, hyung, you told me about that weird digestion problem you had just last week.”

            Yoongi just shrugs again.

            Namjoon rakes his hand through his hair. “Amazing. Hoseok, huh? I’ll definitely be there.” He frowns. “Why should I invite Taehyung? You’ve only met him a few times.”

            Yoongi gives Namjoon a very disinterested look. “And how many times have you met him?”

            Namjoon’s lost count. This week they took Suho and Juhee to bubble tea. Last week they went to the park and watched in terror (Namjoon), amazement (Taehyung), and jealousy (Suho), as Juhee climbed up the trees like a spider monkey. The week before that they’d gone to a movie Suho wanted to see about robots that ended in Juhee declaring she was going to make robots when she grew up. Then there was the walks after school everyday. The games of I-Spy as Namjoon and Juhee walked Taehyung and Suho to their bus stop.

            “A few times,” Namjoon says. He doesn’t mention that he and Taehyung have been texting more and more. That Taehyung wished him a good morning and attached a picture of a dog he saw on the way to work. If Namjoon lets him think about it too much he ends up sucked into a whirlpool of hoping-not hoping-wondering-backing away-going closer.

            Yoongi snorts. “If I have to hear another rant about how unfairly beautiful Kim Taehyung is, or how fascinating you find his brain, or how much he makes Juhee laugh, I’m going to kick your ass myself. You’ve been raving about him for the last month, Joon. Introduce him to more of your life.”

            Namjoon swivels a little bit in his chair. “We’ll see.”

 

*

 

            Taehyung fits in perfectly. He’s easy to love, so Namjoon is hardly surprised when Yoongi’s boyfriend Hoseok- a man with a heart-shaped smile and kind eyes- declares that Taehyung is his new best friend after about ten minutes of conversation.

            Suho has yet to greet anyone, too shy to even lift his head from the crook of Taehyung’s neck. Taehyung rubs slow circles on his back as he talks to the other adults.

            Juhee, of course, had beelined for Seokjin the moment they got to Yoongi’s apartment. She’d crawled onto the sofa beside him and began telling him about her tree-climbing adventures.

            It’s nice. Namjoon can’t remember the last time he spent time with friends in an environment like this

            “So after three weeks of this,” Hoseok says to Namjoon, pulling a pack of beer out of the refrigerator, “I approached him and asked if he needed help.”

            “He said no, of course,” Namjoon says.

            They were meant only to go to the kitchen to get drinks, but Namjoon had used the opportunity to ask how Hoseok and Yoongi met. Hoseok seems to enjoy telling the story.

            “Exactly,” Hoseok laughs. “He thought I was just another gym rat trying to show off or something. But I was legitimately concerned he was going to injure himself.”

            Hoseok goes to the same gym as Yoongi, but seemingly for fun. Yoongi only attends because of his old shoulder injury. It keeps acting up, and Namjoon vaguely remembers Yoongi saying his doctor told him he needed to do some exercises for it.

            “So did he let you give him tips?”

            Hoseok snorts. “No. His face went red and he stomped off to the locker room. But he left his phone by the weights, so I had to go bring it to him. When I gave it to him, he scoffed and asked why I’d been staring at him so much the last few weeks. I told him it was because I’d seen him doing the exercises dangerously, and he stared for a moment before going, ‘Got it.’ It took me a few days to realize he thought I’d been checking him out. Which, I mean, I’d been doing that too. So the next time I saw him, I asked him to get coffee with me.”

            Namjoon laughs, cracking open a beer and leaning against the counter. “Did he ever let you help him with his exercises?”

            “About two months into dating,” Hoseok answers, grinning over the top of his bottle. “And even then it was an ordeal.”

            “Sounds about right. Hyung is stubborn.”

            “No kidding.” Hoseok takes a drink of his beer. “What about you and Taehyung? How did you two meet?”

            Namjoon coughs. “Oh, we’re not- we’re not together like that. I mean, we met because Juhee bit his son and we were all called to the principal’s office. But we’re not together. We’re friends. Our kids are friends, at least.” Namjoon raises his bottle to his lips and chugs to make himself stop talking.

            “I see,” Hoseok says, blinking in what might be confusion. “Wait, Juhee bit Suho?”

            Namjoon winces. “Yeah. Not my proudest moment as a father. She had a phase for a while in which if kids were being mean to her, she’d skip the talking and go straight for hair-pulling. And, apparently, biting. We’ve had lots of talks about it, and she’s been a lot better. I think she’s finally got it figured out.” He hopes.

            Hoseok whistles quietly, swirling around his beer. “I’ve always thought parenting is the hardest job in the world.”

            Namjoon hums. “I think it’s the best one, too. Maybe because it is work, but it’s not truly a job. You put in the hours and the planning, but at the end of the day it’s about figuring out how to best love your kid.”

            Hoseok smiles softly. “You sound like a great dad, Namjoon.”

            Namjoon feels heat rise to his cheeks. “I don’t know about that.”

            “He’s the best,” Taehyung’s voice comes from the doorway to the living room. He’s leaning against the frame, looking at Namjoon. Suho isn’t in his arms anymore, which means he’s warmed up enough to either Yoongi or Seokjin.

            Namjoon’s face is definitely red now, and he shuffles his feet awkwardly against the kitchen tile. “I’m pretty sure you’ve seen Juhee on too many sugar highs to say that I’ve got the parenting thing down, Taehyung-ah.”

            “No,” Taehyung says seriously. “I think Juhee’s had the perfect amount of sugar highs.”

            They bring the rest of the beers out to the living room along with two boxes of grape juice. Namjoon stares in mild confusion when he finds Suho sitting quietly on Yoongi’s lap, surprised that he’s not trying to hide from the strangers in the room anymore.

            Taehyung and Namjoon sit on the loveseat across from the sofa, and when the food delivery arrives, messily help each other grab food from the coffee table.

            Both of their kids end up falling asleep on Yoongi and Seokjin later in the evening, Juhee with Seokjin’s phone still in hand- whatever game she was playing paused..

            Seokjin and Namjoon trade telling embarrassing stories about Yoongi, which make Hoseok and Taehyung laugh even though Yoongi promises to murder everyone in the room as soon as Suho wakes up from where he’s nestled on Yoongi’s chest.

            Namjoon and Taehyung take the kids home once the others break out the soju, hugs and promises to this again.

            “Let me hang out with Juhee more often,” Seokjin says to Namjoon. “She’s more fun than you.”

            Namjoon makes an offended noise and Taehyung giggles, urging him out the door.

            “Thanks for inviting me tonight, hyung,” Taehyung says. The night is warm, spring turning to summer, as they walk down the street. Suho is completely out in Taehyung’s hold, but Juhee is snuffling into Namjoon’s neck quietly, still squirming around a little bit.

            “Thank you for coming,” Namjoon answers.

            They part ways at the subway station, but Namjoon wishes they didn’t have to. He wonders, for a brief moment, what it would be like if they were a family. If he and Taehyung were parents to both of the sweet kids in their arms. If they could go to dinners like that with friends and then go home together, tucking Juhee and Suho into bed and staying up later, curled around each other on the sofa with books in their hands and a blanket pulled over their laps.

            It would be nice, Namjoon thinks. It would be really, really nice.

            He’s never had that before. Maybe that’s why his chest tightens when he thinks about it.

 

*

 

            “Namjoon-ssi.”

            Namjoon turns around to find Yongseon approaching from the street, her hair pulled back in a messy bun and wearing sweatpants and a loose t-shirt. “Yongseon-ssi,” he greets her.

            Juhee, in the middle of playing some weird game that involves spinning Suho in circles, pauses and looks up at Suho’s mother. “Where’s Taehyung-teacher?” she asks with a glare.

            Namjoon winces. “Juhee-yah, that’s not polite. Greet Yongseon-ssi first.”

            “Hello,” Juhee mumbles.

            Suho, staggering slightly into Namjoon’s legs, blinks up at Yongseon. His glasses are sliding down his nose, and Namjoon leans over to help him push them back up again. “Mom! Where’s Dad?”

            The kindergarten is almost empty behind them. It’s been half an hour after the last class, and Namjoon was beginning to get concerned that Taehyung was even later than usual. Now, however, he’s even more worried. Taehyung has afternoons and most weekends with Suho, Yongseon and her girlfriend getting evenings and mornings with Suho during the week. It seems to work for them, especially because Taehyung’s said oftentimes they’ll all end up eating dinner together when Taehyung doesn’t teach evening art classes.

            Namjoon’s never seen a more functional ex-couple, though Taehyung’s mentioned before they were never even a couple at all. Just friends at university who slept together. He’s seen Yongseon around a few times at Paint! as well, once with her girlfriend- another beautiful woman who seemed great with kids.

            Yongseon squats down, opening her arms for a hug. “He’s not feeling well, love. So we’re going to have the afternoon together. How does that sound?”

            Suho waddles over to her, still unsteady on his feet. “Dad’s sick?”

            “He’s got a nasty cold.” Yongseon picks Suho up, looking at Namjoon. “Thank you so much for waiting with Suho, Namjoon-ssi.”

            “Of course,” Namjoon says quickly. “Is Taehyung alright? There’s a pharmacy down the street, I can pick something up to send back with you.”

            Yongseon’s lips twitch, and Namjoon almost thinks she’s amused by the situation. “He’s terrible at taking care of himself when he’s sick, so he could probably use some medicine.”

            Namjoon nods. Taehyung always looks tired, verging on sick, so he’s not surprised that his immune system finally weakened enough for him to catch something. “I’ll just-”

            “Would it be alright if Suho and I took Juhee out for the afternoon?” Yongseon asks, interrupting him. “I was thinking that it’s such a lovely day, the botanical gardens might be a good place to go.”

            “Gardens?” Juhee repeats, glare immediately shifting into wide-eyed excitement. “Dad, can I go to the gardens?”

            Namjoon blinks a few times. “I, um, that’s kind of you to offer, Yongseon-ssi-”

            “We can exchange numbers and I’ll send you pictures along the way. What do you say, kiddos? Everything’s in bloom right now.”

            “I want to go,” Suho says.

            “Me too,” Juhee adds, tugging on Namjoon’s jeans. “Me too, Dad.”

            Namjoon looks from Juhee to Suho to Yongseon, and then down the street where the pharmacy is. “Yongseon-ssi-”

            “Just Yongseon is fine,” Yongseon says, grinning. “I think you’re older than me. Can I call you oppa?”

            Namjoon wonders if Yongseon is perhaps the human equivalent of a bulldozer. “Um. Yes.”

            “Great. Let me give you my number, Namjoon-oppa,” she says, and Namjoon scrambles to get his phone out of his pocket as she rattles off the digits. “If you’ll let Juhee come with us for the afternoon I can keep up with you so you don’t worry about how we’re doing. It’ll be fun. I heard there’s a special exhibit on butterflies.”

            “Butterflies!” Juhee shrieks, bouncing up and down on her toes.

            Namjoon can’t help but smile. Just the last few months of spending time with Taehyung and Suho have brought back out her enthusiasm when they’re out, and Namjoon is so glad for it.

            “Okay,” Namjoon agrees. “Thank you.”

            “Of course,” Yongseon says.

            “Please call me if anything comes up,” Namjoon says, sending a quick ‘This is Kim Namjoon’ to Yongseon. “Juhee, be kind, learn a lot and-”

            “Have fun,” Juhee finishes. “I know, Dad. I love you. Go, go.” She shoos him away.

            Yongseon snorts at the exact same time as Namjoon, and they make eye contact over Juhee.

            “Okay, I’m leaving,” Namjoon says, raising his hands in defeat as he walks backward in the direction of the pharmacy. “Be good, Green Bean.”

            “Be good, Dad,” she shouts back.

            Namjoon rolls his eyes and promptly trips over uneven sidewalk.

 

*

 

            It’s his first time at Taehyung’s apartment. He’s not sure what he expects to find as he waits outside the door with the little paper pharmacy bag of decongestants and painkillers. He and Taehyung have existed only in each other’s peripheries while spending so much time together. Taehyung’s even been to Yoongi’s apartment, but not Namjoon.

            So there’s a weird fluttering in Namjoon’s stomach as he takes a deep breath and raises his free hand to knock.

            The door clicks open a few moments later, Taehyung peering at Namjoon with bleary eyes.

            Namjoon has seen Taehyung covered in paint, rushing toward the kindergarten with a guilty expression. He’s seen Taehyung frustrated, mostly when Suho is refusing to try something in favor of clinging onto him unresponsively. He’s seen Taehyung tired, usually after a Saturday session at Paint! after he’s been running around helping groups of kids with their art projects.

            But he’s never seen Taehyung look so worn out.

            The bags under his eyes are deep set and purple, nearly bruised. His lips are chapped, even as his tongue darts out to wet them as he holds open the door in a pair of sweatpants and a baggy t-shirt.

            “Hi, hyung,” he croaks. His beautiful voice is barely there, all cracks and rough edges. “You really didn’t have to-”

            “I wanted to,” Namjoon says quickly.

            Taehyung steps back, seeming to invite Namjoon inside. So Namjoon kicks off his shoes and enters the apartment, out of the periphery and into the core.

            “Sorry for the mess.”

            “It’s fine, Taehyung-ah. You’re sick. And I can promise you my apartment looks almost identical.”

            There are books and toys strewn across the floor in addition to a few shirts, both child-sized and ones that are clearly Taehyung’s.

“Tea?” Taehyung asks, swaying slightly.

            “How about I make you some?” Namjoon says, gently placing his hand on Taehyung’s arm and guiding him toward the fraying sofa in the small main room.

            “Thank you, hyung,” Taehyung murmurs.

            The kitchen is tucked in the corner. There’s a built-in bar instead of a table across from the counters, two stools covered with papers and art supplies tucked beneath them.

            Namjoon fills the electric kettle with water and turns it on, rummaging through Taehyung’s cabinets to find tea and mugs while stealing glances back at the sofa.

            Taehyung’s head is drooping, knees drawn up to his chest. He looks younger— smaller. Then again, Namjoon supposes, Taehyung isyoung. He’s twenty-four to Namjoon’s twenty-six, but it’s easy to forget when they’re both preoccupied with being parents.

            Namjoon brings the mugs of tea over once the water is poured, leaving Taehyung’s on the little end table beside him and holding his own.

            “Taehyung-ah,” he says softly. “Have you eaten yet today?”

            Taehyung jerks slightly as he raises his head, blinking. “Huh? Sorry, hyung.”

            Namjoon sets his mug down on the floor and frowns, reaching over to lay his palm across Taehyung’s forehead. “Shit, Taehyung, you’re burning up.”

            Taehyung makes a low noise in the back of his throat and leans in to Namjoon’s touch. “A little. Your hand feels good.”

            Namjoon tries to ignore the way his heart stutters at this, instead raising his other hand to put it against the back of Taehyung’s neck, palm cool against Taehyung’s overheated skin. “Do you have any towels I can soak?”

            “Mm,” Taehyung breathes. He’s shifted on the sofa closer to Namjoon. “In the closet. But this is nice, hyung.”

            Namjoon waits a few more seconds, looking down at Taehyung’s face. He’s still beautiful, even with dark circles beneath his eyes and chapped lips.

            Namjoon has had a lot of time to look at Taehyung over the last few months. A lot of time to get to know him.

            His crush hasn’t gone away.

            It’s just turned into something more. Something warmer. Something softer. Something deeper.

            Namjoon shuffles around Taehyung’s apartment, finding the closet and the stack of towels at the top. He gets one damp in the sink with cool water before returning to Taehyung and placing it over his forehead, Taehyung’s long eyelashes fluttering as he lets out a soft sigh.

            Namjoon orders them rice porridge. He pays for the delivery, Taehyung barely even stirring with the knock at the door.

            He wakes Taehyung up gently, and they eat together on the sofa, Taehyung taking some of the medicine Namjoon brought along.

            Taehyung asks about Namjoon’s day at work, and Namjoon complains about all the requests they’ve been getting recently for a singer that Namjoon thinks isn’t a good human, despite making good music.

            Taehyung listens, nodding along.

            When they finish their porridge, Namjoon checks his phone and finds that Yongseon sent him a picture of Juhee next to a poster about butterflies, a massive smile on her face, eyes scrunched up and one of her hands making a clumsy finger heart.

            Namjoon shows Taehyung the picture, and Taehyung laughs, only for it to turn into a cough.

            “Juhee’s so smart,” Taehyung says as he sips the water Namjoon hands him. “I guess with you as a dad, she’s bound to be.”

            Namjoon leans back on the sofa. “I wasn’t that great in school, actually. I had a hard time focusing. I loved learning, but perfect grades? Not so adept there.”

            “There are lots of way to be smart, hyung,” Taehyung tells him.

            Namjoon smiles, ducking his head as he meets Taehyung’s eyes and finds them so, so warm. “There’s one of Suho, too,” Namjoon says, scrolling to the next photo and holding his phone up for Taehyung to see.

            Suho’s got his nose in a sunflower, clearly giggling at something.

            Taehyung exhales sharply, and Namjoon watches as his face darkens despite the photo- or, Namjoon realizes, because of it.

“Tae?” Namjoon asks quietly.

            Taehyung shifts on the couch with a frown. “This is the third time I’ve been sick this year,” he says, and his lips pull down to deepen the unhappy expression. “The third time I’ve had to ask Yongseon to take care of Suho full time since I don’t want to get him sick, too.”

            Namjoon’s fingers twitch, but he doesn’t reach out to comfort him. “It’s not in your control, Taehyung-ah,” he says instead.

            Taehyung closes his eyes, shaking his head. “It’s not just that. It’s- it’s not ever having enough time. I’m always late picking Suho up, hyung. You’ve seen it.”

            Namjoon has, and he reads the guilt on Taehyung’s face every time.

            “Both Yongseon and I work full time. Even on Saturdays, I have the class and can’t just spend time with Suho,” Taehyung continues with a rasp. “He’s always so anxious. He constantly needs to hold onto me or Yongseon, and I know it’s because we haven’t given him enough of our undivided attention. But if we move to Daegu where my family is or to Incheon where Yongseon’s mom lives, we’d have to give up the life we built here and choose between families. And it’s so selfish, but I want us to be alright doing this our way. On our terms.” His tongue darts out to wet his lips. “But I think it’s a mistake sometimes. Or- or I don’t know anymore. I want the studio. I love it. At the same time I’m barely paying for rent right now. I don’t know if I can do this, hyung.”

            “Taehyung-”

            “I don’t know if I can be a good dad to Suho when I barely know what I’m doing. I- I don’t know what I’m doing.” Taehyung’s shoulders tremble, hoarse voice shaking along with it as he starts to cry- these little muffled noises.

            He turns his face toward Namjoon, onto his shoulder.

            For a few moments, Namjoon’s brain overloads, wondering and wondering but all too quickly. So he does what feels right.

            He pulls Taehyung into his arms, hands locking behind Taehyung’s back to keep him pressed against Namjoon’s chest. “You’re doing well, Taehyung-ah,” Namjoon whispers into his hair, willing Taehyung to feel the truth behind the words. “You’re doing well.”

            “I’m not, hyung,” Taehyung croaks. “I’m doing such a shit job of this. I can’t even take care of myself.”

            Namjoon feels the tremble of Taehyung’s frame and takes a slow breath before trying to start. “Tae,” he manages, but then he has to stop and swallow around the lump in his throat that somehow worked its way up there. “You forgot to take care of yourself because you’ve been taking care of Suho and working yourself into the ground. Suho is loved and happy and good,Taehyung-ah. You’re doing that. You’re so good, too, Taehyung-ah. So loved. And I hope happy, too. If not now, then sometime soon.”

            Taehyung lets out a shaky little laugh that could still be a sob, his cheek pressed against Namjoon’s shoulder. “I’m happy, hyung. I am. Just sometimes, it's- it’s too much. I’m so worried that I’m not doing this right. There’s nothing more important to me than my family, hyung. But I’m holding onto the dream of having my own studio, and sometimes it feels like the wrong thing to do. Like it’s bad for Suho. Like I’m not putting him first.”

            Namjoon raises one of his hands, stroking through Taehyung’s hair clumsily, fingers tangling in the strands. “You know Suho loves you.”

            Taehyung sniffs quietly as he shifts in Namjoon’s arms. “Yeah. I know that, hyung.”

            “When you love someone, you want them to be happy. You want them to chase their dreams.” Namjoon closes his eyes, an imitation of the night sky in the darkness it provides, the best thinking time. “I had the choice of moving back to Ilsan after Eunhye left me- trying to patch things up with my parents. But I didn’t.”

            Taehyung’s voice is soft and muffled. “Why not?”  

            “I’m not sure,” Namjoon admits. “I kept making lists of pros and cons and thinking it through. And maybe one of the biggest reasons was that I want to be a dad that Juhee could be proud of as she grows up. My father wasn’t-” Namjoon swallows the words, clearing is throat. “I’d been working at the station for a year then and thought I had enough stability to handle it. And it’s been so hard, Taehyung-ah. I have doubts, too. About how to raise her. If I’m doing this dad thing right at all. I question it every day. But when I tell her stories at bedtime and she looks at me like she knows I would move planets and travel galaxies for her- that she knows how much I love her… it feels like we’re going to be okay. Suho looks at you that same way, Taehyung-ah.”

            Taehyung nods against Namjoon’s chest, and they’re both quiet for a few heartbeats before Taehyung asks, “Do you really think we’ll be okay? As… as parents? As people?”

            Namjoon gently squeezes his arms, hugging Taehyung closer. “I don’t know,” he admits, and Taehyung hugs him back. There’s so much uncertainty, Namjoon thinks. But- “I don’t know the future, but I know you,” he continues. “You will continue to be an amazing father to Suho. You’ll continue to be amazing. Always.”

            Taehyung shifts, leaning back so he’s looking up at Namjoon with red-rimmed, dark-circled eyes. “Meeting you was the best thing that’s happened to me in a long time,” he says.

            The air leaves his lungs gently, a whisper of warmth that still has his arms pebbling with goosebumps as he takes in the line of Taehyung’s nose. The softness of his cheeks and the asymmetry of his lids. He marvels that he had the luck to meet someone like Taehyung at all.

“Meeting you was like that for me, too,” Namjoon tells him quietly.

            Taehyung has tear tracks on his face, but the corner of his mouth tugs up into a smile. “I’m sorry for this. For being sick and crying all over you. I could try to blame the breakdown on the cold meds, but...”

            “You don’t need to apologize.”

            “Then thank you.” Taehyung tucks his head beneath Namjoon’s chin again. “Thank you, hyung.”

            They stay like that until Namjoon gets a text from Yongseon that they’re leaving the botanical garden. Taehyung is half asleep, and Namjoon fills up a cup of water and leaves it next to the sofa.

            “Feel better, Taehyung-ah,” Namjoon says as he leaves, and it takes everything in him not to kiss the overwarm skin of Taehyung’s forehead before he goes.

 

*         

 

            When Namjoon tucks Juhee into bed that night, she asks for a story about butterflies and flower fairies, still filled with wonder from her time with Yongseon. Namjoon weaves a tale about a magic garden with roses for fairy beds and toadstools as trampolines.

            “Is Taehyung-teacher going to be okay?” Juhee asks, her eyes drooping closed as Namjoon finishes the story.

            “Of course.” Namjoon brushes her hair out of her eyes carefully. “He’s just a little sick.”

            “I hate being sick. That’s why I eat my vegetables even though I don’t like ‘em,” Juhee tugs the blankets up under her chin.

            Namjoon chuckles. “It’s a smart choice, Green Bean.” He adjusts the sheets, making sure her feet are covered. He hesitates for a moment before he asks, “Juhee-yah, do you like Taehyung?”

            Juhee sniffs, eyes mostly closed. “Ilove Taehyung-teacher,” she mumbles.

            Namjoon’s chest aches. “I’m glad,” he whispers, sitting on the edge of Juhee’s mattress until she falls asleep. “I think maybe I could, too.”

 

*

 

            Namjoon leaves work a little early the next day to pick up food and take it to Taehyung. He doesn’t stay long, just enough to drink a cup of tea with Taehyung on the sofa.

            “You’re the best, hyung,” Taehyung croaks at him, his skin a little less flushed than it was the day before, eyes clearer. “I owe you multiple dinners.”

            Namjoon waves him off. “You don’t owe me anything, Taehyung-ah. Just think about getting better, okay?”

            Taehyung gives him a small smile when he leaves, walking him to the door while still wrapped in a blanket. “Okay.”

 

*

 

            Taehyung starts picking Suho up again on Thursday, but he does it with Yongseon and her girlfriend, Wheein.

            “Let’s get an early dinner together,” Yongseon says with a grin, standing outside the kindergarten with Suho wrapped around one of her legs.

“Food,” Juhee says seriously, nodding as she looks at Namjoon. “Meat?”

            So they get dinner together at a barbecue, Namjoon and Wheein taking turns grilling meat and making polite conversation while Taehyung and Yongseon entertain the kids with games of I-Spy around the restaurant.

            “No fair,” Juhee says accusingly to Yongseon. “I asked for blue already.”

            “Ah, water isn’t blue, Juhee-yah,” Yongseon says teasingly. “It’s clear, isn’t it?”

            “It’s blue.”

            “Fine. One more question.”

            Suho’s on Taehyung’s lap beside Namjoon, quietly murmuring to Taehyung as he tries to find whatever Taehyung’s looking at.

            “Is it pretty?” Suho asks.

            Taehyung hums. “Yeah. Very pretty.”

            Namjoon glances around the restaurant as he uses the tongs to flip over some of the meat. He’s not sure there are any pretty decorations in the store.

            “I don’t know, Dad,” Suho says. “What is it?”

            Namjoon thinks Suho is only on question three or four, but Taehyung doesn’t push him to keep trying. He bounces him lightly on his lap and says, “It’s Namjoon.”

            Namjoon blinks, head swiveling to look at Taehyung incredulously. The word pretty echoes in his head, and he thinks it might be the first time anyone’s ever called him that. Does Taehyung really think he’s… pretty?

            Wheein snorts loudly from across the table. “Namjoon-ssi, can I finish grilling the meat for you? Unless you’d prefer it charred.”

            Namjoon flushes, hurriedly turning his attention back to where it should be. “No, sorry. I got it.”

            They eat more than they should, Yongseon getting up three times to refill their side dishes. The kids make messy lettuce wraps, managing to get food all over their clothes. At some point, Juhee ends up sitting on Namjoon, and Taehyung helps feed her.

            With the days lengthening as it draws closer to summer, sunlight streams in through the windows. The restaurant is still fairly busy, the air humid and warm from the steam rising from the grills. It smells like home-cooked food.

            Wheein and Yongseon tease, often dragging Taehyung into their jokes. They all seem to get along well with each other.

            Namjoongets along well with them, too.

            He thinks for a moment that they probably look like two straight couples out with their kids, rather than a single dad and his daughter, two ex-friends with benefits who co-parent with their kid and the mom’s girlfriend.

            It’s strange.

            But it feels right.

 

*

 

            “Hey, hyung.”

            Namjoon looks up from the book in his hands.

            Taehyung stands a few steps away, the rows of the shelves towering over them. The library is quiet- all shuffling feet and murmurs from visitors on a Saturday evening. They signed Juhee and Suho up for story time with dogs event, and this is the first session. Suho had been a little less than ready to let Taehyung leave the room, but after hugs and several of Taehyung’s exaggerated kisses to his cheeks, Suho had waved goodbye, holding Juhee’s hand tightly.

            “Yeah?”

            Taehyung drags his pointer across a few titles as he comes to stand in front of Namjoon, tilting his head to the side. “Would you want to do something next Friday night?”

            “Sure.” He reshelves the book. “What were you thinking?”

            Taehyung puts his hands in his pockets- he’s wearing loose black pants today that are miraculously paint-stain free. “My friend is graduating from university this year. He’s doing this expo with the other photography students and invited me. I know you’re interested in photography, too, so I thought it would be fun.”

            Namjoon smiles, nodding. “That sounds great, Tae. What time?”

            “It starts at six and goes until around ten in the evening.” Taehyung shuffles his feet slightly. There’s something a little off about his posture, eyes flicking away from Namjoon’s.

            Namjoon hums under his breath. “Is it okay if I can only stop by for the beginning? You know how Juhee gets if she doesn’t get to sleep before eight.”

            “Oh, yeah. I meant, ah- I meant it would just be the two of us.” Taehyung looks back up at Namjoon, face unreadable.

            “Oh,” Namjoon says slowly. “Okay.”

            “It’s an open invitation,” Taehyung adds, tongue darting out to wet his lips. Namjoon can’t help but track the movement. “I know it’s late in the world of dad-bedtimes, but if you want, Yongseon’s offered to have Juhee over with her anytime. Or if you’re busy-”

            “I’m not,” Namjoon blurts, effectively cutting Taehyung off.

            “You’re not?”

            “I’m not busy,” Namjoon says quickly, remembering to lower his voice when he hears a shush come from a neighboring aisle. He feels heat creep up the back of his neck. “I’d love to go to the photography expo with you.”

            Taehyung’s strange posture- which Namjoon realizes now was a tension in his shoulders- relaxes. “Oh,” Taehyung breathes, and his face breaks into one of those beautiful grins. “Good. Thank you, hyung.”

            Namjoon smiles back, running his hand through his hair. “I think it’d be better for Juhee to stay at home since she can get really stubborn at bed time, but I’ll ask Seokjin if he can stay with her until we get back.”

            “Perfect,” Taehyung whispers.

            “Perfect,” Namjoon agrees.

            They both go back to looking at books, but Namjoon’s heart is racing and he has a hard time focusing on the titles. He ends up checking out a novel he’s read three times before already and a picture book on whales for Juhee.

 

*

 

            Friday comes around faster than expected, and Namjoon ends up racing around his apartment trying to get everything together for Seokjin to take care of Juhee while also changing out of his work clothes and into something that doesn’t scream I am a young dad who spilled coffee or banana milk on most of my shirts last week and I have only two pairs of clean pants left because laundry takes a lot of time.

            “That isyour aesthetic,” Seokjin says mildly when Namjoon tells him this, hopping into jeans that he’s not even sure fit him anymore. “Oh, Namjoonie, those pants make your ass look great.”

            Namjoon is grateful for the closed door, Juhee playing out in the main room with the television on in the background. He still glares at Seokjin. “I’m not trying to make anything look good, hyung, I’m just- damn it-” he almost falls over, catching himself on the bed and struggling the rest of the way into the jeans. “I’m worried these are too casual.”

            “It’s going to be a bunch of university students,” Seokjin says airily, passing Namjoon a shirt he plucked from his closet. “They live off cup ramen and coffee. I think you’ll be fine.”

            “I hope so,” Namjoon mutters, slipping on the top and buttoning it with fumbling fingers. “There’s eggplant in the fridge along with a few apples that can be snacks or go with dinner. I left money pinned to the refrigerator for take-out, so order whatever you want.”

            Seokjin rolls his eyes. “Namjoon, I got this. I can pay for chicken- because I know that’s what Juhee will want- with my own money, bargain with her to get her to eat veggies, help her clean the room before bed, make sure she brushes her teeth, get her into pajamas, and tuck her into bed before eight.”

            Namjoon exhales, managing to get the last button on his shirt. He looks at Seokjin to find his hyung watching him with an amused expression, full lips pushed out and eyes glittering. “Right,” Namjoon says. “Sorry, hyung. I’m just…”

            “Nervous. And overthinking.”

            “Yeah,” Namjoon admits, raking his hand through his hair. “A bit. I know it’s not a date-”

            “It might be,” Seokjin says.

            Namjoon shakes his head. “I’m not going to assume. Or hope. But I’m still… I don’t know.”

            Seokjin smiles kindly. “You like him a lot, Joon-ah.”

            Namjoon can’t even deny it anymore, so instead he tugs at the collar of his shirt and glances at the mirror of Juhee’s little chest of drawers.

            He looks a little tired from the week. His hair is sticking up, and he thinks he’s starting to get deep-lined wrinkles around his eyes. He breathes out heavily.

            Seokjin hums, stepping around Namjoon to unbutton Namjoon’s shirt much faster than Namjoon had done them up, leaving it open for the white t-shirt beneath it. “There. You look great.”

            Namjoon glances back in the mirror and finds nothing but himself.

            Pretty, he hears Taehyung’s voice in the back of his head.

            “Hm,” Namjoon blinks, looking away.

            “Just try, for the love of all that’s holy, not to spill anything on yourself if you go get food afterwards, okay?”

            Namjoon sighs. “I make no promises.”

            Seokjin pats his back. “Go say goodbye to your kid.”

            Namjoon starts for the door to the main room, but Seokjin clicks his tongue. “Wait, one last thing. I don’t have anywhere to be tomorrow morning, so if you decide to stay out with Taehyung or, you know, end up going back to his place for some nice, stress-relieving sex, just text me.”

            Namjoon chokes on air. “This is a friend thing, hyung! We’re not going to hook-up at the end of the night. We’re friends. We’re going to go to this thing and maybe get a late dinner after as friends.”

            “Say friends one more time, Namjoon,” Seokjin says, folding his arms over his chest and quirking an eyebrow.

            “Friends.” Namjoon drags out the word.

            Seokjin lunges for him, but Namjoon manages to get the door open in time and flee out into the living room.

            “Juhee-yah, catch your Dad for me?” Seokjin requests as Namjoon launches himself toward the kitchen.

            Juhee gremlin giggles, abandoning her coloring books in front of the television and running toward Namjoon with outstretched arms.

 

*

 

            The photography expo is amazing.

            Namjoon and Taehyung walk around the building- a large exhibition space in the university’s art building- stopping in front of almost every one of them.

            “Look at the lighting in this one,” Taehyung breathes at a picture of the sun coming over the crest of a darkened skyline.

            They move slowly, the expo hall relatively quiet as they came near the opening hours. There’s a few different rooms- all white walls and wood floors. But they seem to like the pace they’re at as they linger in front of certain pieces longer than others, steps quiet and voices barely above a whisper.

            “Taehyung-ah,” Namjoon says, staring at a black and white photo of a broken down more traditional style home beside the construction of a new building. “This one is…”

            “It’s so sad,” Taehyung murmurs.

            Namjoon nods, and he feels Taehyung’s shoulder against his.

            They eventually run into Taehyung’s friend, and Taehyung introduces them.

            “This is Jeongguk, amazing photographer, Jimin’s boyfriend, and occasionally my Overwatch competitor when we both have time,” Taehyung says, gesturing to the tall and unfairly muscly university student.

            Jeongguk offers Namjoon a shy smile and a nod.

            “Jeongguk, this is Namjoon-hyung, music show host, dad to one of the cutest kids ever, and the one who took care of me when I was sick last week.”

            Namjoon greets him with a smile too, feeling a little bit old as he takes in Jeongguk’s black beanie and sweatshirt combo. He looks every bit the part of a university student.

            “Thanks for coming,” Jeongguk says quietly, as Taehyung wraps an arm around his shoulders.

            “Wouldn’t have missed it,” Taehyung says, planting a kiss on his cheek, which makes Jeongguk laugh, scrunching his nose and gently pushing Taehyung off.

            “This is an amazing exhibition,” Namjoon tells him. “I don’t think we’ve seen your work yet, though.”

            “Oh, yeah,” Jeongguk rubs the back of his neck. “It’s in the main room. I didn’t want to hang around it and hear what people were saying.”

            Taehyung nudges Jeongguk’s foot with his own. “They’ll only be saying good things, so it’s probably a smart choice. We can’t have your ego getting too big, can we?”

            “Gee, thanks, hyung,” Jeongguk says, but he’s still smiling.

            They go back to the main room with Jeongguk in tow, and Namjoon is completely honest when he tells Jeongguk his photographs are amazing. He was expecting, at least from Jeongguk’s all black clothing choices, he’d take black and white- or at least have a more muted style.

            But Jeongguk’s photographs- which are arranged like a collage on the wall, set in simple frames- are soft and colorful, full of pastel blues and pinks and oranges.

            Jimin arrives a little bit later, apparently finishing up teaching a dance class, which Namjoon learns is another side job he works in addition to his part-time at Paint!

            They talk for a little bit, and Namjoon quickly forgets to feel out of place.

            Jimin asks about Juhee, seeming to have grown fond of her from Saturday classes. Jeongguk and Namjoon talk about Namjoon’s job at the station and about Jeongguk’s plans to work with a photography studio for a few years after graduation before attempting a switch to freelance.

            Taehyung leans into Namjoon’s side, and Namjoon tries not to be distracted by him.

            “Do you still want to get dinner?” Taehyung murmurs softly, close to Namjoon’s ear as Jeongguk and Jimin tease each other in the background.

            “Yeah,” Namjoon whispers, tilting his head to smile at Taehyung, feeling the drumbeat of his heart when Taehyung’s eyes smile back at him. “Whenever you’re hungry.”

            “I’m always hungry,” Taehyung answers with a grin.

            They say goodbye to Jimin and Jeongguk and leave, strolling along the winding paths of campus with Taehyung leading the way.

            “I was only here for a year before I switched to online, but I’ve met Jimin and Jeongguk around campus enough over the years that I know all the best places,” Taehyung says.

            It’s just past sunset now- sometime after eight, warm and quiet with a gentle breeze rustling through the trees. The sky is darkening, the kind of transition where Namjoon can feel the world holding its breath.

            “What’s your favorite?” Namjoon asks.

            Taehyung hums while he thinks. After a moment, his eyebrows shoot up, disappearing beneath his hair as he looks at Namjoon. “How do you feel about picnics, hyung?”

            Namjoon grins. “I love them.”

            They buy food from a convenience store on the edge of campus. It’s just triangle kimbap and bottles of green tea and ice cream, but Namjoon is giddy as he follows Taehyung through the dark.

            Taehyung leads him to a little pond, moonlight on the surface of the water. The grass is soft, and Namjoon plops down in it with only one knee popping. “I like this,” Namjoon says, setting the convenience store bag beside him as he drags his palm through the green blades beneath him. “Juhee and I haven’t had a picnic since last summer.”

            Taehyung digs out the ice cream cones, handing one to Namjoon. “Eat it before it melts, hyung.”

            “Dessert first,” Namjoon says in a low voice. “If Juhee was here it’d be game over. I’d never get her to eat anything other than ice cream for dinner and fried chicken for dessert.”

            Taehyung giggles, peeling back the paper and licking at the chocolate. “I tried doing some weird reverse psychology on Suho for a while,” he says, kicking off his shoes. “I said he could only have his vegetables if he ate his cookie first.”

            Namjoon whistles. “Manipulative. Did it work?”

            “No. He’s got a sweet tooth like me. We know good food when we taste it.” Taehyung licks his ice cream rather aggressively. “Like this. Ice cream descended from the heavens.”

            “Carried on the wings of fallen angels,” Namjoon adds, nibbling at his cone.

            “Sinful, but with a heavenly taste,” Taehyung continues.

            They lock eyes over their cones and laugh, Taehyung’s deep and Namjoon’s bright as the sounds carry through the quiet green space.

            When the ice cream is finished, they start in on the kimbap, putting their trash back in the bags with sticky fingers. Namjoon ends up taking his shoes off as well, and he and Taehyung finish with green tea beneath the night sky, moonlight glinting on the little pond.

            Taehyung leans back in the grass, throwing his limbs out like a giant starfish. “I think I miss Daegu.”

            Namjoon hums, lying down a safe distance beside him, not close enough to touch, though a large part of Namjoon would like that very much. “Your family?”

            “Oh, my family, yeah. But I was thinking about the stars. Daegu’s still too big of a city with a ton of light pollution, but if you go to the outskirts where I grew up, all the artificial brightness fades and you can see the sky again.”

            Namjoon looks up at the moon. It’s a cloudless night, but the stars are hidden by the millions upon millions of lights on the surface of Seoul. “My parents used to take my sister and I hiking,” Namjoon recalls, grass tickling the back of his neck. “It was just one weekend each summer, but it was my favorite trip.”

            There’s a soft rustle, and Namjoon lets his head tilt over and finds Taehyung rolled on his side, looking at Namjoon. “When did you stop?” He asks, but there’s something sad and heavy in his eyes that tells Namjoon he must already know- that he’s already guessed there was was rift from the way Namjoon never talks about his family.

            “My second year of high school,” Namjoon says, and it doesn’t make his eyes well up the way it used to. “My dad caught me kissing a boy from the broadcasting club in the alley behind our house.”

            “Oh,” Taehyung says, so softly Namjoon almost doesn’t hear it.

            “He didn’t really talk to me after that. It was like I didn't even exist. Moving away for university was for the best. Things were better for a little bit when Eunhye and I got married- God, we were so young and unprepared, Tae. I don’t think we would’ve lasted even if Juhee hadn’t come along. But my father spoke to me again. He came to the wedding.” Namjoon finds himself turning over, too, unable to look away from Taehyung. The words slip out, less painful than they were in the years before but heavy on his tongue all the same. “When Eunhye left, my father just took it as more confirmation that I was… that I was somehow irreversibly wrong and I couldn’t have a family- I’d never have one.”

            Taehyung reaches toward him, fingers brushing against Namjoon’s knuckles. It’s an invitation, and one that Namjoon takes. Their hands clasp together loosely, resting on the grass between them.

            “It’s not true,” Taehyung says, and his eyes are an anchor. “I know that you know, hyung, but you should still hear it.”

            Namjoon breathes out slowly, breathes back in and inhales the night into his lungs. “But Eunhye didleave. She left me when Juhee was only three months old and-” Namjoon cuts the words off, because saying them reminds him that little has changed since then.

            “And?” Taehyung whispers.

            Namjoon feels Taehyung’s hand in his. Feels his eyes on him. Feels that he’s here. “I’d never felt so alone.”

            The words fall from Namjoon’s lips and bury themselves in the ground, seeping beneath the grass.

            It’s quiet then. Only the breeze and soft breaths and heartbeats. But Taehyung watches Namjoon and Namjoon lets himself be held hostage by his gaze. Or maybe just be encompassed by it.

            “Do you still feel that way?” Taehyung asks after the moments stretch and stretch, finally snapped by the rasp of his voice. “Alone?”

            “No,” Namjoon says. “Not most of the time. Yoongi and Seokjin were always there. They love Juhee. I don’t know what I would’ve done without them.”

            Taehyung nods, hair rustling against the grass, lips parted slightly and eyes just as impossibly beautiful as always, even in the darkness. “They’re your family.”

            “They are,” Namjoon agrees. There’s a tightness in his throat that remains, even when he tries to swallow it down. “And maybe it’s too soon to say this, Tae, but you’re-”

            “You’re my family, too,” Taehyung says, low and quiet and everything to Namjoon.

            Namjoon doesn’t know if his eyes were wet before- or for how long- but as he sucks in a sharp breath and blinks, he feels tears roll down his cheeks, trailing over his nose. “You’re my family,” Namjoon repeats.

            Taehyung raises himself up onto his elbows, taking the hand that isn’t holding onto Namjoon’s and dragging calloused fingers over Namjoon’s face.

            And then they stop.

            Namjoon thinks they’re floating- deep beneath the surface of the pond, suspended for a moment that hasn’t yet been caught by the current of time.

            Namjoon’s heart continues to beat but everything else stands still, and he’s wanted Taehyung since he first saw him- since he first saw how beautiful and how kind and how lovely.

            “Taehyung-ah.”

            Taehyung shudders, his hair hanging in his eyes as he leans over Namjoon, braces his elbow on the other side of Namjoon’s head. “I like you so much, hyung.”

“Oh,” Namjoon brushes hair out of Taehyung’s eyes with his free hand, feels his own pulse and the heat from Taehyung’s chest. Maybe this should feel earth-shattering, but instead it’s as if a piece has fallen in place. “I’ve liked you since the moment I saw you covered in paint inside the principal’s office,” Namjoon whispers.

            Taehyung laughs, deep but bright and so, so soft.  “Can I kiss you?” he asks, smile in his eyes.

            “Yes,” Namjoon murmurs, trailing his fingers over the curve of Taehyung’s cheek. “Please.”

            Taehyung kisses him slowly. Breathlessly. Carefully.

            Namjoon feels Taehyung’s tongue brush softly against his lips and he parts his mouth, letting Taehyung in, holding him against his chest as everything else falls away except the weight of Taehyung over him, the tremble of Taehyung’s arm where he’s holding himself up.

            Namjoon pulls back only to gently roll them over, to push Taehyung’s bangs off his forehead lightly, looking down at the halo of Taehyung’s hair against the grass and the moonlight on his skin, silver on gold.

            “You’re art,” Namjoon tells him in wonder.

            Taehyung grins wide. “Cheesy.”

            “It’s true.”

            Taehyung wraps his arms around Namjoon’s neck, eyes turning serious beneath the bold line of his brows. “You’re the one I always want to paint,” he says. “So gorgeous.”

            Namjoon tries to shake his head, but Taehyung pulls him down, capturing his lips, breathing against them, “Beautiful, hyung. Want to cover you in golds and blues.”

            They paint each other with kisses instead, whispers and gentle touches and laughter, softer than the night.

            When they stand later and pull on their shoes, there’s grass in Taehyung’s hair and stains on Namjoon’s knees. Taehyung reaches for Namjoon’s hand and takes it, time resuming with a few birds fluttering in the trees and an occasional person on campus, slow and quiet.

            “Can I take you on a date?” Namjoon asks as they walk.

            “This was a date,” Taehyung points out. “You can take me on a second date.”

            Namjoon hums. They pass by a student with a backpack and his headphones in, nodding along to the beat of his own song. Namjoon wonders what he’s listening to for a moment. Where he’s going.

            “Is it a date if the kids are there?” Namjoon wonders.

            Taehyung seems to consider it as they reach the edge of campus and wait at a stoplight to cross the street. “It’s half of a date,” he decides.

            “I wanted to take Juhee and Suho to the planetarium,” Namjoon says. “And I want to take you there, too.”

            “Okay, so a half date then,” Taehyung agrees. His hand is so warm around Namjoon’s, and his palm is calloused but the way he holds Namjoon is unbelievably soft. “And the weekend after that we take a trip to the beach with them before it gets too hot.”

            Namjoon hums. “I bet I can get Seokjin-hyung to drive us so we don’t have to take the bus. Does that make it a quarter date? A large family event?”

            “I’m not sure, but I like the sound of it. We can invite Yoongi-hyung, too.”

            “And Hoseok. Maybe Jimin would be free?”

            “Jimin and Jeongguk.”

            “We’d need two cars.”

            “Jeongguk has one. His driving is mildly terrifying though, so I’d vote we take the kids in Seokjin’s car for when Jimin inevitably starts freaking out because Jeongguk is going significantly over the speed limit.”

            Namjoon laughs, Taehyung leaning into his side and fitting so well, shoulder-to-shoulder as the wait for the bus.

 

           

 

*

 

            Seokjin is sprawled out on the couch when Namjoon walks in, scrolling through his phone. He puts it down, patting the cushion next to him.

            “So,” he says quietly, wiggling his eyebrows. “How did it go?”

            Namjoon flops down, tangling their legs together. “Good.”

            “Yeah? It looks like it was more than good. Your dimples are showing.”

            Namjoon leans over, putting his head on Seokjin’s shoulder. “It was amazing,” he says, and he realizes from Seokjin’s comment that he’s still smiling, though he hadn’t really noticed it before. “How was Juhee?”

            “A perfect little angel, as always. She had me read that book on whales to her three times though, so maybe you should go to the library and pick up some new ones.” Seokjin wraps an arm around Namjoon. “Are you okay? You’re smiling but you’re also spaced out.”

            “Just thinking,” Namjoon murmurs. “And I usually go to bed right after Juhee. This is the latest I’ve been up in a long time.”

            “Old man,” Seokjin teases. “Did you guys get to talk?”

            Namjoon hums an affirmative. “We talked. I think we’re… we’re dating now. Or we’re going to try it, at least.”

            “Well I win that bet.”

            Namjoon blinks. “What?”

            “Yoongi and I bet on how long it would take. Yoongi thought it would be another month of pining from you, but I said you’d go out once just the two of you and have a big romantic moment like the sap you are,” Seokjin informs him, smirking slightly.

            “Why am I not surprised?” Namjoon asks with a sigh.

            “That I won?”

            “No,” Namjoon says, glaring at Seokjin. “That you and Yoongi were betting on this.”

            “Because Yoongi and I both like free food, and you were talking so much about Taehyung we had to make it bearable somehow,” Seokjin says primly.

            “I wasn’t that bad.”

            “You were. And then I saw Taehyung at Yoongi’s apartment and I knew he had it even worse. He looks at you like you hung the stars, Joon-ah.”

            Namjoon feels heat rush to his cheeks, and he ducks his head. “Really?”

            “Yeah, that or he wants a good dicking.”

            “Hyung!”

            “What? You’ve got grass stains on your knees, Namjoon, did you blow him behind a tree or something?”

            Namjoon squirms away from Seokjin. “What the hell, hyung! We had a picnic and we kissed. That’s all.”

            “Don’t act so offended. Just because you haven’t gotten laid in years doesn’t mean you’re suddenly pure-minded,” Seokjin says, hooking his ankles around Namjoon’s leg.

            “I’m going to tell Yoongi that nothing happened between Taehyung and I so he doesn’t owe you dinner,” Namjoon hisses.

            “Don’t you dare.”

            But then Seokjin giggles, and Namjoon huffs a laugh and they collapse in on each other and Namjoon thinks of saying that Seokjin and Yoongi are his family and knows it’s true.

            By the time Seokjin leaves, Namjoon barely manages to brush his teeth and change, his eyes drooping in exhaustion.

            He leaves the lights off when he enters the bedroom, the floor thankfully clear of toys and books as he makes his way over to Juhee’s bed to tuck her in.

            She’s sleeping heavily, mouth wide open and nearly snoring. Her legs are sprawled across the bed, and she’s gotten so bigthat Namjoon sometimes can’t help but think how fast she’s growing.

            The first time Namjoon held her, she’d been so, so small. And wailing. They hadn’t even washed her yet, so she was still sticky to the touch.

            His hands had been shaking.

            The whole time Eunhye had been pregnant, Namjoon had quietly worried to himself.

            That he wouldn’t be a good parent. That his own issues with his father would somehow transfer to his child. That he couldn’t raise her to be kind or good. That he wasn’t enough.

            But he held her that first time, Juhee crying with her tiny face scrunched up like some kind of goblin creature, and he loved her.

            All the fear and the worry swept away with the tide of his breaths, churned into determination, and rolled back to the shore.

            Namjoon held Juhee that first time and swore to himself that he would do everything he could to keep her safe- to help her grow with love. To be the kind of father that she would visit thirty years in the future and greet with her arms wide open.

            It was that kind of timeless moment in which Namjoon saw the future stretched out before him while frozen in place in his present.

            The kind of moment that happened again tonight, Taehyung’s lips on his and whispers of plans and promises that wove around them, a future unfolding while seconds lingered longer than they were allowed.

            “I love you, Juhee,” he whispers to her now, tugging her blankets up beneath her chin. “And I think we’re going to love Taehyung a lot, too.”

 

*

 

            The weather is verging on too warm when they go to the beach, and Namjoon spends a good ten minutes chasing around Juhee in order to slather her in sunscreen while she laughs and tells him that his hands are too cold.

            Eventually, one spilled bottle of water later and a near ankle-twist, it’s Seokjin who’s able to wrangle her in with tickles.

            Suho perches on Taehyung’s lap, a pair of Seokjin’s sunglasses over his own, holding them onto his head as he looks out at the ocean. “Dad, how big is the water?”

            “Really big. It’s so deep that no one really knows what’s at the bottom,” Taehyung tells him.

            “There are whales in there,” Juhee declares, Seokjin rubbing sunscreen on her nose. “Whales and sharks and lots of pretty fish.”

            “What’s your favorite, Juhee-yah?” Jimin asks. He’s stretched out on a towel, Jeongguk fiddling with a camera beside him.

            Juhee hesitates, lips pushing forward as she thinks. “Before it was sharks. But then I read about whales and I like ‘em a lot.”

            “I like whales too,” Namjoon tells her.

            Hoseok sighs to his left, and Namjoon hears him tell Yoongi, “The sun isn’t going to kill you, hyung.”

Namjoon looks over to find Yoongi slathering on what must be a fifth layer of sunscreen on his face, the man wearing a long sleeve shirt and shorts, though his pale legs are covered with a picnic blanket.

            “I’m protecting my skin,” Yoongi mutters.

            Hoseok plucks his hat from his head and sticks it on Yoongi. “There. All protected.”

            Yoongi grumbles, but there’s a lopsided smile tugging at his lips.

            Juhee and Hoseok start to play with a soft ball they packed, Hoseok cheering wildly every time Juhee manages to catch it. Suho stares intently at Jeongguk as he snaps pictures, eventually gathering the courage to walk over to him and whisper, “Can I see?”

            Namjoon watches them as the sun moves lazily across the sky, warm sand and loving eyes. Taehyung leans against him, chin hooked over his shoulder.

            Neither of them speak. It’s enough to just look- to see their family together like this.

            “Hyung,” Taehyung says in his ear, wrapping his arms around Namjoon from where he sits behind him.

            “Taehyung-ah.”

            Taehyung kisses his neck. “Want to go look for some crabs?”

            Namjoon grins, tilting his head back to catch Taehyung’s lips. “Yeah,” he says. “Let’s do that.”

 

*

 

            After months of relative calm, Namjoon finds himself in the principal’s office again with an irate Choi Jangmi, mother of Iseul.

            Juhee, apparently, hit Iseul when the little girl wouldn’t stop singing some nonsense song about stupid Suho and freak Juhee- about how they were weird and no one wanted them there.

            Juhee sits sullenly on the sofa as Namjoon enters the room, greeting Principal Bongja and Juhee’s teacher and Iseul’s glowering mother.

            The conversation goes about as well as it did the time before, though this time Juhee whispers, “I’m sorry, Dad,” to Namjoon though she refuses to apologize to Iseul.

            Jangmi threatens to go through official channels to remove Juhee from the school, and Namjoon takes slow breaths as he stands in front of his daughter, physically blocking her from view of the vindictive woman and the child she’s raising to be so cruel.

            Bongja, still the most patient woman in Seoul, talks Jangmi down with a level-voice as Namjoon apologizes on Juhee’s behalf despite the frustration boiling in his stomach. He doesn’t make Juhee say she’s sorry to Iseul. He doesn’t know if she should be.

            “Iseul is a bully,” the teacher says quietly once Jangmi has stormed from the office with Iseul in tow. “I recommend changing classes. I’ve spoken to her multiple times about her behavior, but I can’t do enough without her mother’s cooperation.”

            Namjoon sighs deeply, trying to exhale the anger away as he turns back to Juhee from her spot on the sofa. “Juhee-yah, would you want to switch classes?”

            Juhee, tear tracks and glare, shakes her head. “I want to stay with Suho.”

            “We could change them both,” Bongja says, opening a file on her desk.

            Namjoon kneels in front of Juhee, wiping her cheeks with his thumbs. “We can put you and Suho in a different class. I’ll talk to Taehyung about it. Okay?”

            “Okay,” she says.

            This time, when Bongja walks Namjoon and Juhee to the lobby, Namjoon watches Juhee put on her pink shoes and says, “She’s a good kid.”

            Bongja chuckles, clearly remembering their conversation from months and months ago as well. “She is.”

            “I don’t really know how to talk to her about today,” Namjoon admits quietly. “Part of me is proud of her for standing up her herself and for Suho. Part of me is disappointed she did it through violence again. I want her to be compassionate and kind, but this feels like so much of a gray area.”

            “Then you tell her just that,” Bongja says, lips quirking up in the corners. “There’s no rule book for parenting, Namjoon-ah.”

            Namjoon exhales in a half-laugh. “I read at least fifteen parenting books since Juhee was born, but I think more and more that I’m just learning as I go.”

            “Then keep learning,” Bongja tells him, patting his arm.

            Namjoon gives her a small smile, ducking his head before he joins Juhee in the entryway, shuffling into his shoes before scooping Juhee up in his arms.

            Juhee clasps her hands behind his neck as they wait outside beneath a tree for Taehyung to arrive. Juhee’s quiet, resting her cheek on Namjoon’s shoulder.

            Suho comes out and runs for Namjoon a few minutes later, and Namjoon has to sit down he grass so both of the kids can cling to him. Suho’s nose is red from crying, glasses slipping off his nose, and Namjoon is glad his arm span is wide enough to envelop them both.

            “There’s nothing wrong with either of you, whatever Iseul thinks,” he says, pressing a gentle kiss to Suho’s forehead first and then Juhee’s. “I love you,” he tells them.

            When Taehyung arrives, he gives Namjoon a long look, bold brows furrowed. And then he joins them on the grass, closing their little circle. “Hi,” he says softly, and he wraps them in a hug and gives his own flurry of kisses to Suho and Juhee and then a single, precious one to Namjoon. “Rough day?”

            Namjoon looks at the kids and nods.

            Later, Namjoon will tell Taehyung about what happened with Iseul and her mother. Later, they’ll talk to Juhee about her actions, navigate how to discuss rights and wrongs and gray areas. Later, they’ll buy them both ice cream- chocolate for Suho and strawberry for Juhee (and caramel for Taehyung and cookies and cream for Namjoon). Later, they’ll meet Wheein and Yongseon for dinner, hugging Suho good night before he leaves with his moms.

            Much, much later, they’ll take Juhee home to Namjoon’s apartment and argue with her about clean pajamas, and Taehyung will make silly faces with her while they brush their teeth before they tuck her in with a story.

            And just before bed, Namjoon and Taehyung will sit on the couch together, books in their hands and glasses perched on Taehyung’s nose.

            There will be no blanket over their laps because of the summer heat, but there will be gentle words and soft laughter, the clock quietly ticking on the wall.

 

*

            “Come on, hyung,” Taehyung laughs, wiggling his fingers. “Don’t tell me you’re scared of a little paint.”

            Juhee screeches like a goblin as she clings to one of his legs, Suho already wrapped around the other. “It’s just paint, Dad,” she says, forehead streaked with purple.

            “I have wet-wipes,” Jimin calls from the back room.

            Late morning light streams through the windows of Paint!, the last of Taehyung’s Saturday class out the door.

            “I don’t need wet wipes,” Namjoon says, rooted to the spot thanks to Juhee and Suho. He’s trying not to laugh, but Taehyung keeps making one of his ridiculous faces, and thus Namjoon is failing miserably. “Juhee, if you let me go, we’ll get chicken for lunch.”

            “TaeTae will buy me chicken,” Juhee says.

            Namjoon presses a hand to his heart, making an attempt to stumble backward but far too unbalanced with the monkeys looped around his legs. Juhee has grown even taller in the last several months. “Juhee-yah, doesn’t the chicken taste better when I buy it?”

            “Nope.”

            “Get him, Dad,” Suho whisper-shouts. “Get him now!”

            Taehyung swoops forward with a giggle, taking Namjoon’s face in his hands.

            Namjoon lets out an exaggerated, warbling groan, wrinkling his nose as Taehyung smears the cold paint on his cheeks. “Gross,” Namjoon says.

            “Beautiful,” Taehyung counters with a grin.

            Namjoon flushes, but he’s not so unused to hearing it now. He raises his own hands, cupping Taehyung’s cheeks and pulling him in for a kiss.

            It smells a little too much like paint as Namjoon breathes him in, and Taehyung’s sticky fingers are still pressing into Namjoon’s dimples. But it’s perfect, even as Suho asks, “Why do adults kiss each other like that?” and Juhee gives the answer, “Because that’s how old people kiss when they’re in love.”

            Taehyung laughs into the kiss, their noses bumping as Namjoon snorts and pulls back, keeping Taehyung’s face cradled in his hands.

            “Is it now?” Taehyung asks, and they both look down to see Suho and Juhee staring up at them. “I guess you know I love Namjoon a lot then.”

            Juhee nods seriously, and Namjoon finds his eyes prickling for no good reason. “I know. I love him a lot, too.”

            “And I love Joonie,” Suho adds, tugging on Namjoon’s pants. “Joonie, I love you.”

            Namjoon blinks, and when he smiles it’s with tears tracking over the paint on his cheeks. “That’s really good, Suho-yah,” he says. “Because I love you all so much.”

            And it’s one of those moments.

            “You love me too, don’t you, hyung?” Jimin calls.

            Namjoon chuckles, finally letting go of Taehyung’s face after another kiss as he wipes at his cheeks with the back of his hand. “Of course, Jimin-ah.”

            “Good,” Jimin says. “Because I brought you a wet wipe.”