they speak whatever’s on their mind
they do whatever’s in their pants
the boys i mean are not refined
they shake the mountains when they dance
the boys i mean, e e cummings
The edges of his life are brilliant and brilliant and brilliant. He can see them even when he closes his eyes.
Kim Seokjin is more ruthless than Min Yoongi, but Yoongi holds a stare much better.
Jeongguk learns this when he’s dividing his time between the two of them. The table they’re sitting at (him on one side, the unimpressed but impressive teamwork of them on the other) is so wide across that he almost feels like he has trouble focusing on them.
Seokjin is sitting regal and straight, the line of his shoulders haughty under the sharp strokes of his blazer. Elbows off the table, prim and proper. Beside him, Yoongi has his hands in loose fists on the mahogany, shoulder blades pressed against the high velveteen back of his chair, waist sloping away from it, all lazy angles.
Jeongguk is dividing his time between the two of them, looking Seokjin in the eye for a few seconds, Yoongi next. Every time he switches, Seokjin looks away— but Yoongi keeps staring even when Jeongguk doesn’t. His hair’s industrial bleach makes him look softer around the edges than Seokjin with his brown and hinted green. Jeongguk takes in the details of both their faces very, very well; there’s enough time for him to memorise them flawlessly. Seokjin’s lips, Yoongi’s nose, the differing shades under their eyes. The dark blue of their blazers, the silver accents, the college’s coat of arms on their chests. Seokjin’s cold and uninterested looks, Yoongi’s focused singular one.
Jeongguk stares at Yoongi. Yoongi stares at Jeongguk.
Jeongguk stares at Seokjin. Yoongi still stares at Jeongguk.
Jeongguk is aware that neither of them is trying to intimidate him, just like they’re aware that he’s scoping them out. There are people with whom it’s worth trying to mask what you’re doing, and then there are people like his father and Kim Seokjin.
Minutes pass. Jeongguk isn’t exaggerating; he doesn’t exaggerate. Minutes pass, and he makes sure his blinks are rhythmic and few. Seokjin has slow, exasperated blinks, like he’s showing with his eyes what a waste of time this is. Yoongi has indulgent ones, like he’s genuinely curious about Jeongguk, or entirely absent from the room.
The silence stretches.
‘Whatever,’ Yoongi says, straightening up from his slump. ‘As long as you, like, don’t set my room on fire or something.’
Seokjin sighs, then smiles at Jeongguk. It’s cold.
‘Wow,’ someone in class tells him when he’s nine years old and drawing a house with crayons, then again when he’s fourteen and learning how to fence, and then again at some hopped-up party on the beaches of Busan, the sea and the air whipping at each other. ‘It must be boring to be you.’
Jeongguk walks into college in the second week of March, and Kim Taehyung is on the lips of everyone.
Flat racing happens on three main tiers. Group one, the classics of the United Kingdom, and every other race that the world cares the most about, with the highest international importance. Group two are other international events; held in a select handful of countries with the who’s who showing up from wherever they were previously hungover.
Group three are the domestic races. Morning to evening, stakes higher and higher. Steeds that no one will be able to forget.
The only other thing Yoongi had said to Jeongguk last week was our college name is the fucking worst. Jeongguk doesn’t disagree; Bang (Sihyuk) Private College for Boys isn’t the luckiest of names no matter how you slice it. For all the grandeur and the millions they pay in tuition fees, even the dramatic motto doesn’t soften the blow, as Yoongi had demonstrated.
Bang, he had said, disgusted, pointing at Jeongguk with both his index fingers, thumbs cocked. The future of the country.
The future of the country, currently, is a concentration of gossiping students concerned with only two things (and only one in essence): the domestic races at the end of the year; most importantly, the fact that the college is hosting its first one.
And synonymous to the colours of the racing club, Kim Taehyung. Third-year history major; eldest child of three and heir to Skyline Hospitalities and their five stars; the best horseman in the college.
‘Seokjin’s been angling for this, like, all his life,’ Jeongguk hears when he’s shuffling his papers and pretending he isn’t eavesdropping on three different conversations simultaneously. (His appearance helps; nondescript when compared to some of the fashion the students are sporting despite it being uniform day. He adjusts his tie and swallows; the nervous new second-year, irrelevant at the far end of one of the assembly tables.)
He’s close enough to eavesdrop on three conversations, but focuses on one when he realises they’re all talking about the same thing.
‘He finally managed to get the trustees onboard this year, I don’t even know how he did it.’
‘Sounds about right though, you know how he is. Fuck that guy.’
It’s both easy and complicated to have a social hierarchy within an elite college. The rules aren’t quite the same, the boundaries less clear, the rungs of the ladder slippery with vodka. When it comes to finishing schools, the top and the bottom of the barrel can both make it in and wear the same shirts, but a college is another thing entirely. To stand out in a college— whose purpose is to let the populace know that it’s higher, richer, better — is to be something phenomenal.
It’s early in the morning, but the March sun is streaming in vertical sheets through the tall windows, new glass and old brass frames. From all the wood to the marble floors to the heavy curtains tied off to the side, the assembly hall is all too warm for Bang, whose colours are a chilling blue and silver. There is a part of Jeongguk that this bothers, but the people inside the hall are too riveting for him to dwell on it.
He knows Bang has an affiliate, a sister institution, full of students in skirts and socks who are just as maliciously affronted at the things that go on in their walks of life as the ones here are. In the scattered groups of blue blazers and accounts of holidaying in Macau (I couldn’t be assed to go any farther) the common thread is the race. When— February, the end of the year. Where— the turf, holy shit they’ll need to have automated tellers installed, you know that’s just gonna bring trouble. How— apparently even Park Jimin made his contribution to convincing the trustees, as...unorthodox as his contribution sounds.
Who— Kim Taehyung. The star of the racing club, and the best jockey Bang College has seen in thirty years. They say the horses barely need a trainer when he's around. He can do it all himself. Talk to them.
‘Hey,’ Jeongguk hears, as expected, from the boy who had looked too hungover (from the corner of Jeongguk’s eye) to find another seat. (Eavesdropping doesn’t involve his eyes; observation is vital.) ‘Mind if I sit here?’
‘Please,’ Jeongguk says, gestures with the hand that isn’t holding his stack of useless papers. ‘Go right ahead.’
‘Thanks, man,’ the boy says. ‘Listen, wake me up when the president comes in, yeah?’
‘The school president or the student president?’
‘President Park. Don’t wake me up for Seokjin. Fuck that guy.’
Jeongguk isn’t new to this side of the country. Seoul is too big for him not to have been to it; his brother’s debut was one of the largest events the Seoul society has ever seen. The children of big people come from everywhere but flock to the capitals eventually, and then again, Busan is no small place.
This side of the country isn’t new to Jeongguk. Bang College is. It’s bigger to him than he is to it— there are times when everyone knows everyone else by name with such conviction, that the anomaly of not being known turns right around into blending in— whoever sees him and finds him unfamiliar will think they forgot his name, that’s all. New students trickle in now and then, transfers who got bored with their old schools, late bloomers getting the stamp on paper that they need. Actual freshmen, neither nervous nor excited, having grown up around the same people they will now go to college with.
Jeongguk is the slightest bit different. He trusts his fellow second-years not to give a shit.
He honours the request of the hungover boy and doesn’t wake him up when Kim Seokjin enters, freezing instead to keep sharp eyes on him. Them.
There is no immediate silence or hush that takes over the assembly hall. No chatter turning into whispers or wide eyes, because being the most powerful group of people in a college is one thing, and being that in a college like this one, entirely another. This power isn’t acknowledged in the open; it’s the kind that goes behind doors on late afternoon phone calls in soundproofed offices, everyone saying fuck that guy but not meaning it because Seokjin holds the school in his hands.
Kim Seokjin, fourth-year management major and second in line to his parents’ conglomerate, isn’t actually leading the group. At the front, instead, is a petite, orange-brown haired boy who walks with the kind of tilt to his chin and lope to his step that confirms his identity to Jeongguk; he remembers Jimin’s debut in Busan.
Wolves have a pattern when they walk.
Park Jimin, third-year, performing arts, is at the lead; looking unconcerned about how exposed he is to the vastness of the hall. Seokjin is behind him, taller and stiffer like he’s been above all this for years. To Seokjin’s left, Yoongi, hair as fried as Jeongguk remembers it, face entirely different. Fourth-year, pharmacy; bored, annoyed at having to be here; Jeongguk sees it in the knot of his tie.
(Jeongguk is sitting too still to be noticed and too still to not, but he can talk his way out of whatever happens and he’s got the papers in his hands.)
Behind Seokjin is Kim Namjoon, who Jeongguk actually remembers from his brother’s debut and didn’t even have to look up. Fourth-year, political sciences like his politician parents. His glasses are thick and dark-rimmed, hair so neat that Jeongguk could almost smile.
The most fragile up front, leading and setting the pace. The rest of the pack in the middle, walking focused and neat.
There’s a sturdy boy hanging off Yoongi’s back, his lips parted wide in the middle of a laugh. His uniform is as sloppy as Yoongi’s, dark bangs a mess, eyes narrowed so far that Jeongguk can’t tell what his face looks like. If he’s friendly with Yoongi he’s a fourth-year; if he’s a fourth-year in the student council, he’s Jung Hoseok. A perfunctory athletic science degree to complement his tennis skills, an older sister with a velvet glove on the reins of the business. He’s still laughing when they cross Jeongguk’s table, deep voice trailing off as Jeongguk looks at the last member of the student council.
Wolves have a pattern when they walk. The most fragile up front, leading and setting the pace. The rest of the pack in the middle, walking focused and neat. And in the very back, at a distance, alone; the alpha.
Park Jimin is not fragile. Jung Hoseok and Min Yoongi aren’t just a part of the pack. In a handful of people so strong and dangerous, Jeongguk finds it hard to conceive how savage Kim Taehyung must be, to be bringing up the rear.
The talk of the college is stitched under the coat of arms on his blazer; the racing club’s blue and white colours vivid against the fabric. When Jeongguk’s gaze climbs upwards, Taehyung is running a hand through his brown hair, from crown to hairline in one motion, jerking his head quickly to shake out the strands. His eyes are almost sharper than Jeongguk’s, in a way that his yearbook photograph didn’t capture. A way that has Jeongguk’s defences rising as quickly as the hair on his nape. Taehyung’s eyebrows are raised slightly, and then the spell breaks— his mouth is curling into a carefree smile as he calls out to someone and waves.
Jeongguk works his thumb against the twenty-seven edges of the papers in his hands (something to blend in with the brochure-loaded freshman crowd and avoid the second-years) and doesn’t look away until he’s seeing the back of Taehyung’s head.
Jeongguk studies mathematics. He likes how it is; clean, simple, perfect. Non-negotiable even though there are exceptions. Non-negotiable exceptions; strange laws taken for granted and basics thwarted like his teachers eat logic for breakfast.
He was top of the class at his old college, to no one’s surprise. (Jeongguk likes things where being the best is non-negotiable, too.)
Classes at Bang start in the middle of the week; Monday and Tuesday are reserved for orientations, scheduling, and pretending no one’s going to sneak out of campus after emptying the bar’s liquor stock.
Jeongguk watches from the outside, or rather, the inside. His room, the kind of single that only the president and vice-president of the student council have, is the last in the hallway of the scholars’ boarding house. You’re lucky to be here, Seokjin had told him flatly, when Jeongguk crossed him in the landing while moving in. Two rucksacks, a four-wheel trolley; no one to help.
President Park had briefly contemplated getting Jeongguk to repeat his first year, but nothing can defeat a flawless transcript. That’s non-negotiable too.
His room isn’t as furnished as Seokjin’s must be, but it’s good enough. A queen and two cushions, a desk and a chair, shower ensuite and a window opening right into the woods in the depths of campus. It’s only a two-storey building; he evaluated the distance between the windowsill and the nearest sturdy branch on the first day itself. It’s good, and the woods aren’t terrible either, especially not with how freshly green they are in the advent of spring. (He’d leaned out as far as possible, the first day; spotted a pair of Balenciagas hanging by their laces outside Hoseok and Namjoon’s window, two rooms away from him. And to their left, the last room on this side of the wing; Taehyung and Jimin, the youngest if not for him.)
The first few days of classes are just revision, a chance for him to fill in the gaps between the curriculum of his old college and get used to the professors. Jeongguk doesn’t usually need to keep his teachers’ natures in mind when his academics are foolproof, but he’s found that it always helps. (At least, he’s found that if he smiles often enough at his new calculus professor, he can get away with never being called upon to answer.)
Bang College, like every other institution that coaches the leaders-in-making of the country, also insists on a number of extra-curricular activities that one can only get out of with forged medical certificates or outright skipping. Understandably, horseriding is optional, as are the performing arts. Everything else offers only the option of selection; having three activities is mandatory. Jeongguk takes swimming and archery, resorting to fencing when he realises there are no other solo options. (A mask, at least, is better than nothing.)
The campus is structured differently from the one in Busan; the shift in geography accounting for the colour of the riding turf and the thicket of the trees circling the outside boundaries. Jeongguk hasn’t brought a car because he doesn’t like to push things; he hardly plans on making friends that close anyway. The boundaries of the campus mean nothing to him because he hardly plans on crossing them, either.
On his fifth night, at the end of the week, he hears loud hooting from the hallway. He isn’t curious enough to check (wouldn’t have done it even otherwise) but he pauses his flipping of his thick textbook and focuses on the sounds. Someone’s giggling in a nasal, high-pitched, musical spill of laughter, and there’s another voice countering it, steady, amused. It’s abrasive in how it grinds against his senses, satisfyingly rough, so strong that it can be low and loud at the same time.
‘Come out, new boy,’ the higher voice sings then, much closer to his door; right on the other side. ‘We want to say hi.’
‘Shut up, Jiminnie,’ the other voice says, and Jeongguk stares at the beginning of line four, page two hundred and one. However. ‘Move your ass, come on, you damn boozehead.’
‘New boy!’ Jimin’s voice is more distant now, and Jeongguk guesses Taehyung (it has to be him; Jeongguk knows Seokjin, Yoongi and Hoseok’s voices; knows Namjoon with that timid look wouldn’t call anyone a boozehead) has dragged him away.
‘New boy!’ Jimin calls again. ‘Welcome to Bang! We’re the future of the country.’
Around the end of March and Jeongguk’s third week at college, he actually crosses someone in the hallway as he’s leaving his room. It shouldn’t be surprising, but Jeongguk has made a point to always leave and return at times when he wouldn’t have to see a soul in the boarding house. His classmates are the kind who have been taught that one doesn’t spontaneously make introductions; one is introduced. The fact that no mutual friend exists between him and anyone else in his faculty ensures that no one approaches him, which works perfectly fine.
As for the student council, he doesn’t plan on befriending them until he’s scoped them out thoroughly. With them it’s not a question of making connections; it’s about not getting on their bad side, especially Seokjin and Yoongi. Observing from afar is his modus operandi, but it means he has to take time before he figures out a way to join them or have them acknowledge him— until then, he plans to lay low.
Or rather, had planned; someone is currently walking towards the stairs at the same time as him.
It’s Taehyung, hair a strange muted blue in the early-morning light coming through the hallway window (it’s early enough that the sun isn’t up, even for summer). He’s twisting to reach the zipper on his backpack, stuffing something inside with an impatient huff. Jeongguk considers vaulting over the rail to avoid him, but figures that it’ll only get him noticed faster.
So, when Taehyung looks up, Jeongguk nods briefly at him, looks away just as quick.
‘Morning,’ Taehyung says, voice husky with sleep, and Jeongguk nods again, decides that skipping three stairs at a time isn’t too much.
He ends up following Taehyung to the turf. Not close behind him; with a calculated forty-minute gap by when he knows Taehyung must’ve woken up properly, gotten his gear on, boots, helmet. Indeed, when Jeongguk first spots him just outside the stables, he’s pulling on a pair of gloves, slender, black. The sun is almost entirely up, the last blues of the dawn spread out behind Taehyung’s figure on the open fields, cut in places only by the strongholds of the low riding arenas.
Taehyung is alone, which is exactly what he was aiming for when he left the boarding house that early. For that reason, Jeongguk owes him the honesty of not hiding to watch him; the rest of the truth, however, belongs to him. He doesn’t attempt to cross the actual fence; stays on this side of the white wood of it and looks around.
The turf is as widespread as it should be, given that it’s going to be home to a domestic flat race at the end of the year. It’s natural grass, though he imagines the college will invest in synthetics if the races become regular. The grass is fresh and green, and dry enough under his shoes that he doesn’t have to wonder about the convenience of riding over it.
The stables aren’t the biggest Jeongguk has seen; he remembers the Jeju races from when he was fifteen, the sheer drama of it all; the imposing structures, housing some of the best thoroughbreds of the country. Bang College’s stables aren’t as big as those, but they’re big enough; he knows they mean business. Two riding arenas on the far end, sloped roofs and low-set doors. For all that horseriding is optional, the racing club isn’t joking around.
And then there’s Taehyung, who disappeared into the stables at the same time that Jeongguk picked a spot behind the fence, and is leading his steed out now. Jeongguk can faintly spot the silhouettes of other trainers inside the stables, doesn't envy their job.
The horse is amazing to look at, simple and quiet the way Taehyung himself doesn’t need to announce his presence. High, chiseled, a coat of steel grey, looking like he’s been by Taehyung’s side for years. Jeongguk suspects it’s the truth; Taehyung is stroking his neck absently, looking like he still has some waking up to do.
But then he’s taking a deep breath, stretching his arms once, fully. And in one swift movement that not even Jeongguk can process as the sum of its parts, Taehyung is mounting the horse. And for a moment, Jeongguk forgets the colours of the sunrise and looks only at the foreground. It’s dark and light enough that Taehyung cuts a majestic figure against the sky, clean lines from top to toe; the curve of his helmet and the contrast of its dark straps against his jaw, the column of his back, the movement of the steed’s head as Taehyung takes hold of the reins.
To say he rides like a prince is the kind of unnecessary comparison Jeongguk doesn’t like to waste time on. It isn’t something that needs to be said when it can be seen as clear as the day that’s breaking; the practiced rhythm of it, the easy speed, how there is no fanfare before or after. Jeongguk is transfixed even as he realises that he’s transfixed, held in place by the kind of human admiration he hasn’t felt in a long time.
Taehyung knows he’s watching, but doesn’t acknowledge it apart from not sending him away. He’s focused, knows what he wants to do, doesn’t care about anything else. The silence that steals over is something Jeongguk can feel even through the expanse of the light air and dry grass, and he hasn’t ever felt that at all.
Eventually, the sun comes up, and Jeongguk can hear the false starts of the campus coming to life. Cars shifting into first gear, the whistles of swimming coaches in the distance, the brightness falling over everything. Two trainers stepping out from the stables, calling to Taehyung, who waves to them. Their personal kingdom of the morning is locking itself up, and Jeongguk, unsatisfied, makes his way back to civilisation.
April brings elections. According to regulations that perturb no one (especially not Jeongguk) the president of the student council is chosen by the board of directors. All other positions are up for the general vote, which shows in the overly-scented cards placed on all the library tables, emails sent out to make campaigns. Bang College isn’t a place for posters, of course, or any kind of face-to-face conversation. Those who can’t get elected on the basis of their name and reputation alone don’t deserve to be on the council. (Jeongguk knows this; his place in his old college’s council was vetoed by the board.)
In the contained flurry of the most sophisticated campaigning that snobbish twenty-year-olds can manage, there is one afternoon in the mess hall, during the weekly common lunch. Jeongguk looks up from his food when there’s a loud, loud boom.
The picture his housemates paint against the dramatic backdrop of the hall is so out of place that Jeongguk’s sure they’ve been doing this every year. Hoseok (apparently a revolutionary this election season for getting massage chairs installed in the common rooms) is currently climbing onto the table where the six of them are sitting, and doing it in the single most ungraceful way possible.
When he’s standing on top and has successfully attracted the attention of the entire hall, he bends down and yanks Yoongi up with him. Yoongi, who was half-asleep before this rude awakening, looks rightfully disgruntled but manages to join Hoseok. He does kick over a glass in the process, which lands on Namjoon’s lap. Jeongguk winces internally; at least it’s not uniform day.
Hoseok pulls Yoongi in with an arm around his neck, ruffling his light hair harshly and looking around at the hall.
‘THIS,’ he begins, loudly; Jeongguk wonders in which year the kitchen staff stopped intervening. ‘IS OUR MAN YOONGI. He’s running for vice president this year as well.’
‘I am?’ Yoongi says.
‘You are, sweet cheeks,’ Hoseok grins. Turning back to the sixty-five percent of the student body that made it to the common lunch, he continues. ‘Now, some of you bombastic motherfuckers are new here, so let me fill you in real quick.
‘Yoongi runs for vice president,’ he says. ‘And then you fucking vote for him. Got it?’
Jeongguk doesn’t have to be a genius (although he still is) to figure out that the smell of marijuana that fills the second-floor wing daily comes from Yoongi’s room. He and Hoseok have had red-rimmed eyes for fifty percent of the times Jeongguk has seen them; the kind of fake rebels who want to break free of the bourgeoisie and start a band, roaring in the common rooms and climbing out of their windows every other week.
Jeongguk looks at the rest of their table. There are six places to one; seven if you want. Seokjin is the only one still sitting on his side; across his thoroughly bored countenance is a panicking Namjoon, and Taehyung, who’s laughing and dabbing at his thighs with a napkin. Jimin is sporting the most dramatic hangover shades that a student of Bang could wear, head tilted up towards the ceiling, at a clear mental distance from whatever is currently happening. They paint the kind of picture, right now, that makes one wonder how any of them are on the council. (Strictly speaking, Namjoon apparently got voted out within a month for trying to do something actually constructive with his position.)
The students are talking over each other now, some laughing, others plain annoyed. Jeongguk sits silent; he’s too busy watching how Hoseok cocks his eyebrow, how Yoongi isn’t opposing his bid; the kind of confidence that means this wasn’t even necessary— Yoongi will get voted in.
As if to confirm this, Seokjin stands up once Hoseok and Yoongi have stepped off. He clears his throat and the chatter dies; he straightens his tie and Jeongguk puts his chopsticks down.
Seokjin looks around at the room, careful, and then points to Yoongi.
‘Vote for him,’ he says simply, and sits back down.
Jeongguk ends up holding hands with Kim Taehyung before they’re officially introduced to each other. To be fair, he hadn’t expected to be introduced anytime soon, but he does have to admit that holding hands isn’t something he’d anticipated.
Then again, he hadn’t anticipated what came before or after, either.
It begins at some half-point of April, one warm summery night when he’s left his window open for a change. His notebook is at an angle to his laptop, graphing software making the machine whirr. It’s not something he has to focus on; his fingers are practiced, transcribing what he sees on the screen onto the sheet with his half-millimetre pencil point. The practice isn’t in the intellectual steps of copying the coordinates; it’s in the pressure of his hands so that the lead doesn’t break, even as he stares at the screen. -8.01, -2.50.
He’s darkening his plotted point when he hears it.
The trilling starts before the sirens, and for one second he’s almost ready to ignore it. The number of smoke alarms that go off per week proves the absurdity of giving spoiled rich boys kitchens to cook in. And while it isn’t the easiest thing to do, Jeongguk’s gotten used to tuning it out.
So when the trilling starts, typical like the ringing of a buzzer at the end of a class, he doesn’t stop the movement of his pencil on the paper.
Then the sirens follow, and Jeongguk’s lead breaks.
He’s moving in autopilot as he registers their loud, loud sound; taking his phone and slipping it into his pocket, stepping into his pre-laced shoes, looking around at the room, opening the door. Eleven-thirty isn’t the time for a fire drill; he’d checked the weekly schedule when he came to college. (Still has the schedule of his old one memorised.)
Seokjin is just turning towards Jeongguk’s door when he steps out. He takes a hard look at Jeongguk before turning away to check on the others, and Jeongguk watches as Yoongi and Hoseok tumble out of their own rooms, Namjoon following Hoseok. There’s no sight of Taehyung and Jimin.
The sirens continue. They’re deafening, these loud, long, whooping sounds that fill the air quickly, bearable only when they all step outside into the night. The rest of the house has emptied out too, and behind the pins and needles in his head Jeongguk realises that there are a lot of students in this building.
What he also realises— or, rather, knew from the beginning— is that there is no fire.
‘Motherfucker,’ Hoseok is saying as they gather outside. He’s in silk pyjamas, hair swept back with a band, the most ridiculous-looking mint mask on his face. ‘I have to steam this off in ten minutes.’
‘Where’s Jimin?’ Seokjin asks, roving eye over the rest of the students. ‘And Taehyung?’
The thin silence that follows answers all their questions, along with Taehyung and Jimin themselves— they push past a couple of half-asleep first-years and come to a stop in front of Namjoon and Yoongi, clearly having run.
‘You guys, ’ Namjoon groans, and Jeongguk is ashamed when it takes him ten more seconds to understand what’s going on. Given the amount of ruckus Taehyung and Jimin make, an alarm prank could hardly be anyone else. ‘You guys, it’s not even been a month .’
‘Fuck that,’ Jimin snaps. ‘We’re in deep shit.’
Jeongguk knows they are; takes advantage of his momentary invisibility to scrutinise both their hands. Jimin’s fine; he’s running them through his hair, clenching and unclenching his fists, looking just as worried as he should be— given that his best friend is about to get into very, very serious trouble.
And— of course. The blue of the tamper dye looks darker than usual on Taehyung’s skin, in the high night lighting of the boarding house entrance. Taehyung has his fingers spread, palm upwards, looking down at it with a kind of worry that Jeongguk’s never seen on his face.
‘Did you wash it?’ Yoongi asks. Pencil tucked behind his ear, eyes bright and alert; he was studying late into the night, which is probably the only time Yoongi actually does something seriously. ‘Tell me you didn’t fucking wash it.’
‘No,’ Taehyung says, distractedly. ‘I didn’t— I was just messing around, I didn’t know—’
‘’Course you didn’t.’ Yoongi sighs, pinches the bridge of his nose, sighs again. ‘It’s on your hand, I can’t save you fuckers this time.’
‘Taehyung, you know you can’t mess up this year, you’re racing,’ Seokjin says tightly. Taehyung blanches at that, and even though Jeongguk knows the exact moment his mind makes the decision, he still feels like he’s stepping forward out of instinct.
‘Give me your hand,’ he says to Taehyung, who looks up, frowning. ‘Your hand.’
‘Hey,’ Yoongi says lowly, warning, but Jeongguk ignores him. Before anyone can react further, he’s taking Taehyung’s wrist, pressing their palms together, locking their fingers for a moment.
The dye is just damp enough to work, transferring to his palm as he rubs their skin together. Taehyung’s hand is warm and firm in his, and even though he doesn’t curl his fingers, Jeongguk can feel how thin and long they are.
There’s as much silence around them as possible when fifty students are speculating among the echoes of sirens.
‘What are you,’ Taehyung begins, but Jeongguk’s dropping his hand and turning to face ahead, just in time for the authorities.
Considering that the only two times Jeongguk has seen President Park were in quite different (or maybe not, after all) circumstances, the sight of him in what looks like panda-patterned pyjamas is definitely amusing to some corner of his mind. He doesn’t feel like laughing, though. Actually, he doesn’t think he’s feeling anything at all apart from the pins and needles that have traveled from his head to the hand that holds the mark of the dye. It’s the dye and Taehyung’s touch both; Jeongguk has never held hands.
‘There’s no point in hiding,’ President Park calls out; the chatter dies. He looks as serious as he sounds; Jeongguk wonders for a moment if Taehyung really would’ve been disqualified from the races. ‘The dye doesn’t fade off for days. Step forward now and it’ll be easier for everyone concerned.’
Jeongguk waits an obligatory minute, his vision twinging brighter every second of it. Adrenaline is roaring in his veins, pulse faster than the trilling of the first bell ten minutes ago. He’d never considered this place a new start, but he’d never expected this either.
Taehyung is looking at him, not confused anymore, just surprised. Watchful, lips parted as if he still wants to protest, eyes sharp. Jeongguk feels his gaze like the point of a blade but stares straight ahead.
‘We will find out,’ President Park says. Deceptively young face, dark serious eyes.
Jeongguk apologises mentally, and then steps forward.
‘It was me,’ he says.
President Park turns to him immediately, and his face falls long enough for Jeongguk to remember that he isn’t that old either. Not like Jeongguk’s father; fully experienced, always steady. President Park's eyes flash panic for a moment, before he purses his lips.
Don’t say my name, Jeongguk thinks as calmly as he can. (He, at least, never panics. Even though he can almost hear the movement of slippers on ground as fifty, sixty people, security and students, turn to face him too, waiting for him to leave so that they can talk about him. Even though he can feel each pair of eyes on him, gazes crawling up the back of his neck.)
But his name isn’t taken, and in return, Jeongguk raises his hand, palm upwards. The man’s expression hardens, and he nods, says, ‘Follow me.’
Jeongguk breathes out. Lifts his foot.
There are three seconds— three very slow seconds that he can see pass by him in the rustle of the stray leaves around his feet on the ground— when Jeongguk wants to turn around and punch Kim Taehyung right in the throat.
Then those three seconds pass, and his brain fills in with the natural solution.
‘He tried to stop me,’ he says, turning to look at Taehyung, who catches on and steps forward, blinks at him before turning to the president with the exact expression he should have. (Jeongguk always knew he was smart.) His face is only half-earnest, the other half resigned, as if he knows what’s about to be said.
‘Taehyung,’ the president sighs on cue, a nonverbal not again in his tired voice. ‘Is this—’
Taehyung holds up his hand, then lowers it, clenches it. ‘He was— he was freaking out. I didn’t know the dye would— I know how this looks—’
‘Both of you,’ the president cuts in. ‘In my office. Now.’
The day Jeongguk manages to be invited to the head office under better circumstances, he’ll be able to admire it. The dark blue carpet, the couches with their coffee table and its ornamental ashtray. The narrow, long windows; the heavy curtains on them. President Park’s desk itself, backed by a stereotypical wall unit bookcase and tall lamps. It paints a picture, a product of deliberate details, gets the message across— even in his nightwear, the president looks as formidable as he must be, to be allowed to lead this college at his age.
‘Sit,’ he says, and they do; Taehyung sitting, Jeongguk perching. ‘Explain.’
Jeongguk waits for Taehyung to take the lead, curls his fingers into his trousers. Taehyung’s in his nightclothes; dark, lined pyjamas that work perfectly for their story. Jeongguk still dressed for the day, and Taehyung who was just out to refill his water when he came across this distressed second-year in the hallway downstairs. (Jeongguk can’t believe Taehyung— who he thought was smart — would actually pull the alarm of his own boarding house.)
‘I was going out to grab a snack,’ Taehyung says. ‘And he was just...I mean, he looked...I got worried. So I...I just went up to him, you know?’
He’s pulling it off; he’s probably been in his office much more than Jeongguk has. (Jeongguk observes from the outside, too; Taehyung and Jimin’s reputation can’t really be covered by the term pranksters. Professional ruiners of things, maybe.) Jeongguk can see that he’s playing at earnestness; eyes wide, eyebrows raised. A bad boy up to actual good for a change.
He steps in at the pause, talks to his clenched hands on his knees. ‘I’m sorry,’ he says, quietly. ‘I...I was stressed. I…’
‘Jeongguk,’ President Park speaks up, after he’s waited a few seconds. ‘You already know how serious a violation this is. But allow me to draw your attention to the fact that you could very well have compromised Taehyung’s participation in this year’s races—’
‘I know that,’ Jeongguk blurts on time. ‘I didn’t know he’d— I was stressed. I thought it was real.’
Flat racing happens on three main tiers. Group one, group two, group three. A twenty-year-old jockey not out of college yet, and his beautiful steel grey steed. If Jeongguk could properly implement the concept of loyalty, he wouldn’t be at this college in the first place— but at least he’s passionate in his version of it. The one that worships mathematics, precision, poetry in motion.
The school has never held these races before. And if a group of pranksters Jeongguk doesn’t need to be loyal to are at the forefront of it, then maybe his opening to say hello is by saving Taehyung’s race.
‘I thought it was real,’ he says, and swallows. Once, twice, works his jaw and eats a deliberate, close-mouthed yawn. Thinks without really thinking, so that either the thoughts or the fatigue will move from the back to the front of his head, waits for it to work.
Then it works. His eyes fill up, slowly and then fast, and he bares his teeth and grits them to make it faster. More painful to watch.
One tear spills over and he keeps the movement of his hand discreet when he reaches up to wipe it off.
‘I thought it was real,’ he says again, breath hitching. He keeps his gaze on the floor, doesn’t overdo it; two or three tears should be enough. ‘I’m sorry, I’ve just been here for a month and— my parents— I— I—’
He hopes Taehyung won’t do something over-the-top like touching his knee, or something. President Park’s hackles will be up immediately and then they’ll both get into the worst kind of trouble. He waits a beat, keeps it up until it’s safe, then looks at President Park.
‘I’m sorry,’ he says. ‘If you— if you have to— I’ll take it. But— just, because of me, if the races…’
Jeongguk knows the president is looking at him. Carefully, gauging his behaviour like any trained teacher would. He also knows Taehyung’s looking awkwardly off to the side, the clueless civilian pulled into something against his will. So Jeongguk breathes, and waits.
Breathes again, resists biting his lip.
A stretch of tense silence. Then:
‘Consider this a warning,’ President Park says, and Jeongguk nods immediately, fervently. ‘I understand that a new environment can be overwhelming. But here at Bang College—’ — the future of the country— ‘—we want to help you be the best you can be. We’re here to help, Jeongguk.’
Jeongguk nods again, doesn’t say anything. Chews on his lower lip.
‘Taehyung, you might want to share that snack with Jeongguk here,’ the president tries, and Taehyung laughs along; he’s smart like that. ‘All right, get out of here, both of you. I can’t tell you not to shower, but just know that it’ll make the dye spread.’
‘Yes, sir,’ Taehyung says. He’s already getting up, pulling on his shirt. Jeongguk looks at his stupid night slippers and wonders he got himself into this mess. ‘Sorry, sir.’
‘Jeongguk?’ Jeongguk looks up, lip still in his teeth. ‘You live with the student council. You can always talk to them if you feel like it. Namjoon, or Seokjin, or even Taehyung.’
‘Yeah, man,’ Taehyung says. Jeongguk can hear the snide grin, is back to wanting to punch Taehyung. ‘Listen, it’s all chill. You can totally—’
‘Thanks,’ Jeongguk cuts in. ‘Thank you. And thank you, sir. I’ll keep that in mind.’
The president smiles. Park Jinyoung, thirteenth president of Bang Private College for Boys. Fiercely intelligent and too compassionate, from the three times that Jeongguk’s met him. He hopes next time will be better, he sincerely does.
‘Have a good night, boys,’ President Park says. ‘Early to bed, early to rise.’
‘Stop,’ Taehyung says.
Stop, Taehyung says, and Jeongguk does, without putting any thought to it. He’d planned on going back to his room and locking it, waiting for things to settle before making his introductions in the morning— but now he’s stopped, one flight of stairs down from the president’s office, halfway across the campus from his room.
Stop, Taehyung says, and Jeongguk stops.
He feels the edges of Taehyung’s shirt brush past him, that’s how close Taehyung is when he steps in front of Jeongguk. The false sincerity is gone, eyes sharp again, half a smirk on the side of his mouth. He’s handsome in a dumbfounding way, his presence striking every time Jeongguk feels it up close. He doesn’t know how Taehyung does it; he’s seen Taehyung goof around in the common room, doing the most godawful stupid shit without caring, looking all of twelve years old— and then there’s this, the boy who was trailing behind the others the first time Jeongguk saw him, the one who sat upright on the back of that magnificent horse before dawn.
‘Who are you?’ Taehyung breathes, and for a moment Jeongguk wants to bite around that attention. Swallow it, eat it, keep it for himself. It’s gone as quickly as it came, and he refuses to blink. ‘I won’t ask you why you did that, but mark me curious for how.’
Jeongguk doesn’t say anything.
‘I can’t cry on command,’ Taehyung says, tilting his head. ‘It’s the only thing I can’t do. I’m good at selling things to people, but not that.
‘You’re scary,’ he continues. ‘It’s nice to meet you. Kim Taehyung, horseman, but you already know that.’
‘Jeongguk,’ Jeongguk replies, finally.
‘Jeon Jeongguk,’ Taehyung corrects, and Jeongguk’s blood flares. ‘I want to see if I can make you cry.’
It’s hideously sunny the day of Hoseok’s first match of the season. The kind of day where Jeongguk would’ve preferred to draw the blinds down to study— if he wasn’t rubbing his palms on his jeans while waiting for Jimin to finally sit.
Jimin, for one, is exactly the kind of person who looks distastefully at the colour, material and mould of whatever chair isn’t a worthy throne for his ass, before sitting on it like it’s a throne anyway. This includes, as Jeongguk’s currently observing, the seats of the audience section of the tennis court. Jimin is lounging, pulling off artistic sloppiness, all arched back and spread legs and sunglasses that must weigh half a kilogram on his nose. He knows he looks good. Jeongguk knows he looks good.
‘What’re you waiting for, new boy?’ Jimin turns his head lazily, raises an eyebrow. ‘Sit, already.’
He doesn’t like sunglasses, likes his eyes uncovered so that people can be painfully aware of when he chooses to look at them. He still regrets his choice of not bringing any; the sun’s right in his eyes so that he has to keep blinking the daze away. Of all the days, the college would choose this one, and Taehyung would choose this to invite Jeongguk to.
Hoseok’s an idiot, but his backhand’ll make you cry. Come watch with us.
Jeongguk knows that no wasn’t an option for a single moment, so the least he could’ve done is brought a pair of—
He looks up, to his left. For a second, the shift of sunlight leaves him unable to distinguish Taehyung’s features. Then they come into focus, sharp as ever, the sun gifting the kind of gold to his skin that makes Jeongguk have to swallow. Taehyung’s hair, visibly brown even indoors, is a mess of light-coloured curls in the slight breeze, and something about the sight of him in all that white he’s wearing, standing tall above Jeongguk— it makes Jeongguk swallow.
Taehyung’s holding out a pair of sunglasses, another tucked into the buttons of his polo. His palm still bears a faint blue patch, four days old. ‘Can’t have those doe eyes hurting, can we? I’m stealing the fencing coach’s car next week, need you to cry me out of it.’
‘God, you sleaze,’ Jimin huffs, but Jeongguk takes the sunglasses and puts them on, looks at the court properly as Taehyung sits beside him. It’s more difficult than he would’ve thought, with the scent of Taehyung’s cologne so close, fresh in the summer air. But the day Jeongguk’s incapable of observation is going to be some day indeed; he takes only a few seconds to slip back to normal.
The court is synthetic, dark grey and harsh, the kind of terrain that hurts your knees if you step too hard with the wrong shoes. Tennis has never been his favourite, but like everything else that he attempts, he holds a standard that wouldn’t normally go unnoticed. (It always has, however; Jeongguk is the kind of excellent at everything where nothing stands out, apart from the assumption that Jeongguk is excellent at everything. Besides, his brother did it first.)
The court is synthetic, the seating for the audience decently comfortable despite what Jimin thinks, and how Seokjin wiped his seat with an antibacterial wipe before sitting down with his massive sunglasses. Jeongguk would’ve preferred to sit last, but Taehyung and Jimin are just as smart; he’s stuck between them, the others to Jimin’s right. Seokjin, Yoongi, Namjoon with a six-pack of orange juice.
Hoseok’s rival steps out first. An alarmingly small boy with dark wavy hair in a middle part, a smile wide like Taehyung’s as he waves to his backers.
From what Jeongguk understands, Bang College’s oldest traditional rival is the Excelsior Academy. Dramatic (and unfortunate) names come with the territory; his old school had the kind of name that made a room go quiet when it was dropped.
But all the same, apparently no one bothers with the full version of Excelsior anyway. A few of the Exo (a nickname that puts it right back in Bang’s league of inanity) students behind Hoseok’s rival are in their uniforms, maroon and gold to counter Bang’s blue and silver. It’s too hot for blazers; most of them are already just hanging off shoulders. All these boys with their sunglasses and bottles of energy drinks and large cellphones— Jeongguk, who can’t remember the last time he was in the audience, feels the most cheerful he’s felt since coming here.
‘Here he comes,’ Taehyung says, nudges Jeongguk’s knee with his own. ‘Look at the man. They’re best friends, did you know? Hoseok and that fucking kitten kid. Jongdae.’
He wonders if they’re going to see Exo often, if he’ll have to learn about all of them too. Jongdae waves to Hoseok just as cheerfully as Hoseok waves to him, and there’s a bristling on both sides of the audience, a disgruntled murmur.
‘Look at his shorts,’ he hears just as he focuses on Hoseok’s shorts (despite himself). They’re quite...tight, much shorter than tennis shorts are strictly required to be. ‘Look at that homoerotic shit. And he’s the straight one of the lot.’
‘Are you going to keep talking throughout?’ Jeongguk asks before he can stop himself.
Taehyung laughs immediately, not even obnoxious; just pleased. It’s so low in Jeongguk’s ear, soothing when he didn’t know something needed soothing. ‘I can if you want, crocodile boy.’
If anyone is surprised at Jeongguk being there, they don’t mention it, or acknowledge him at all— something which doesn’t surprise him in turn.
Hoseok doesn’t play like a dream— that’s hardly the word for it— but like something magnificent all the same. At Jeongguk’s old college, being the best was this selfish need; not only did he have to be the best, he had to be the only one. No sharing, not for a single thing.
Here, at Bang, he’s learning quickly how motives can change with places. Being the best— being good — is still habit like the air he breathes. But surrounded by excellence that doesn’t threaten him, he can appreciate the beauty of it.
Seeing Hoseok is a lot like seeing Taehyung that one morning; poetry in motion. The lines of his arms from the distance, how strong his legs look, the beautiful backhand Taehyung mentioned. The kind of talent that is reliable, a delight to watch because you know it’s not only heaven-sent— and hence, not temporary.
The thing about Bang College (and his old college, and Excelsior, and the Park and Kim sister school with the girls that simultaneously fawn over and hate Hoseok, according to Taehyung) is that elite doesn’t only mean we are the sons of the sons of power; it means that your bloodline might have given you a place, but it’s your work that’s going to keep it.
Yoongi might have a blunt in his hand nine times out of ten, but the night Jeongguk heard the sirens, he was the only one completely alert; battling his pharmacy degree with the kind of intelligence that makes you rear back, wondering what he could do if he put his mind to it. Only observing from the inside and outside, Jeongguk has never seen smooth talkers, connection-makers like Namjoon and Seokjin. No one who dances like Jimin— Jeongguk remembers his debut like it was yesterday.
No one who plays tennis like Hoseok— who wins the match— and most certainly no one who looks as much like a prince atop a steed as Taehyung does.
‘I’ll never get it,’ Yoongi says, later, in the locker room. ‘You’re so stupid. How do you keep up with the strategy of it?’
‘Keep up with this,’ Hoseok replies, raising both his middle fingers with an eye-scrunching grin. ‘Your man won, didn’t he? Asshole. And anyway, Jeongyeon said I was fantastic out there, so take that.’
‘I know you think you’re all that,’ Seokjin says without looking up from his phone. ‘But just so you know, if you don’t win the real matches, that miserable brat on Exo’s council will—’
‘Oh Sehun,’ Taehyung fills in for Jeongguk in a stage whisper, like he’s been doing all afternoon. ‘He’s the youngest council president that academy has seen, and if you think Yoongi’s existence annoys Seokjin, you haven’t seen shit.’
The afternoon stretches long. Jeongguk knows that the match was just a friendly— taken too seriously by the hot blue blood of both colleges— but Jongdae lost only by chance. Jeongguk knows ability when he sees it; they might be the only pair of friends between Bang and Exo, but neither held back for the other’s sake. (Jeongguk has wondered before what it must be like to have friends like that, or friends at all, but it doesn’t bother him.)
‘Let them wind down,’ Taehyung says. ‘None of those motherfuckers’ll admit it, but when one of us is on the stage the other five turn into dads. I’ll make the introductions in the common room.’
‘I know them already.’
‘Sure you do,’ comes the cheerful reply. ‘Maybe I want to make the introductions anyway. Maybe you want someone to make the introductions. It’s quieter that way, isn’t it? No one’s eyes on you that way.’
Jeongguk swallows, looks at the uneven loop of Yoongi’s laces. Seokjin must hate those shoes.
Hoseok moans, loud and guttural.
Something that Jeongguk understood a while ago but is only seeing the details of now, is the fact that Kim Namjoon is one of the most long-suffering individuals on this planet, and definitely number two on this campus after President Park. Pointing in a group of people and saying Namjoon’s the only good one could be a bit of a stretch, but nothing really is, when it comes to the group that is currently sprawled around the common room.
More remarkable than the smell of weed surrounding Yoongi in clouds of dissidence is the barely-there, rhythmic sound of the bed moving inside the house head’s room. (Jeongguk would’ve worried that Jimin is in there with the house head if Taehyung hadn’t assured him that the scholars’ house doesn’t have one.)
More remarkable than the sound of Jimin having either a wrestling match or a jumping contest one door beyond them is how very done Seokjin looks with all of it. He’s swiping through something on his tablet with one hand, the other holding a slim bottle of what looks like authentic green tea, rice and all.
Taehyung, of course, notices that Jeongguk’s (discreetly) trying to gather the contents of Seokjin’s screen, and fills in.
‘Seokjin’s retail therapy needs retail therapy,’ he says in a low voice. ‘Let’s just put it that way.’
‘I have ears,’ Seokjin says without looking up, and Taehyung laughs as if that’s what he wanted. ‘Can you get the awkward introductions over with and leave the elders in peace?’
‘I hardly think—’
Hoseok moans again, louder. More remarkable than Seokjin’s annoyance; a nuanced, deliberately sexual moan. Maybe it’d be less remarkable if Hoseok actually had a hand or mouth between his legs, but the only thing in his lap is a giant bowl of Cheetos. He’s picking them out lethargically, a complete switch from the boy who was destroying the court two hours ago; chewing slowly, half-asleep. He’s on the carpet with one knee to his chest, the other leg stretched out— back to the door behind which Jimin is doing some very aggressive yoga.
Hoseok moans one more time, face utterly blank and bored, in time with the headboard of the bed hitting the wall.
The sound from inside stops for a second. Then there’s Jimin’s voice, muffled but clear in intent.
‘FUCK you, Hoseok!’
It comes down to the most remarkable thing happening in this room. In the middle of it all— the sunlight through the curtains, the cackle Hoseok lets out before starting up the moans again, Taehyung leaning against the doorframe and howling— sits Namjoon at the sole study desk, three books to his left and an actual inkwell on his right, looking so inclined to have death take him that the fact that he hasn’t sunk through the floor is something to be applauded in itself.
‘Taehyung,’ Seokjin says. ‘You have five minutes of my attention. Either sit down or get out.’
‘Jeongguk,’ Taehyung says quickly. Jeongguk looks away from Namjoon morosely filling up his fountain pen, to stare at the floor instead. ‘I figured we owe him.’
‘We owe him?’ Seokjin snorts.
‘I mean, I guess we should thank you for saving these riot cunts,’ Yoongi says, raising an eyebrow at Taehyung and then the door (Hoseok moans the loudest yet). ‘And like, ask you your major or some shit. What’s kicking, kid?’
‘Make an attempt,’ Taehyung says. ‘Anyway, he does—’
‘Mathematics,’ Jeongguk says. ‘I study mathematics.’
Yoongi whistles, and even that sounds disinterested. ‘Swell. All right. I’m Yoongi, I’m the vice-president—’
‘—even though he does jack shit but play on his DS—’
‘—even though I do jack shit but play on my DS,’ he says. ‘The nerd at the desk is Namjoon.’
‘Namjoon has a swear jar,’ Taehyung says, voice subdued under one of Hoseok’s moans. ‘If you swear before noon, you gotta put in a blank cheque for Amnesty International. Scholars’ house rule number one.’
‘Hoseok, if you don’t shut up—’
‘Rule number two,’ Taehyung continues. ‘So, Seokjin’s bed—’
‘Do not, ’ Seokjin says. ‘We’re not doing this right now.’
‘I mean, he will find out one day,’ Hoseok says. He’s holding three Cheetos, orange dust on his fingertips and mouth. ‘We’ll always stand up to your monarchy and all. The revolution will not be televised.’
‘Not with you in those clothes it won’t,’ Seokjin shoots back. ‘Anyway, Jeongguk. Do not ever enter my room. Do not touch my bed.’
Just as Jeongguk’s wondering how to reply to that (and pretend not to have met Seokjin before) the door behind Hoseok opens without warning, sending him toppling backwards, Cheetos spilling. Jeongguk gets more of a view inside his loose boxers than he would’ve asked for, but quickly looks to the source of the movement.
Jimin looks exhausted, but not as much as the man behind him. Jeongguk would be able to place better which magazine he was the centrefold of if the man didn’t look doubly exhausted. Trying to hide it, but if you’re thirty-something it shows. (Jeongguk wouldn’t have imagined that to be a preference of Jimin’s.)
Jimin steps out, sweaty and glorious in his bathrobe and damp orange hair.
‘You are going to hell,’ he informs Hoseok, pointing and raising his eyebrows.
‘Save me a seat,’ Hoseok says. He doesn’t bother to sit up; just gathers his fallen Cheeto comrades into the bowl mournfully.
The man behind Jimin— Jeongguk’s sure he’s some banker— clears his throat and straightens his tie. It’s probably cliché; not that Jeongguk would know.
It’s how he said— at his old college, friends were...not very possible; regular, lighthearted interactions something he’d never been exposed to. Always observing from the outside, like right now— it’s not only to keep himself safe, it’s also to avoid the glaring truth of never having been surrounded like this before. By people who are willing to just...talk to him, just like that.
Jeongguk doesn’t like foreign situations, especially not ones that he can’t even extrapolate and navigate. He might know the facts about the wolf pack, but the human— he hates that word in this context— bewilderment of being here right now on a single whim of Taehyung’s is making him malfunction. He can’t recognise the banker straightening his tie.
He doesn’t imagine words will be exchanged, and he’s right; the man simply steps around Jimin with his satchel. He spares a moment to level an absolutely bone-tired look at Hoseok, who is still horizontal but has resumed eating. Then, without a single glance at anyone else, the man crosses over and steps out the door.
Jimin leans his head against the doorframe with a dreamy sigh. Then Hoseok throws a Cheeto at him and it turns into a murderous scowl.
‘I have no problem with facing people you’ve had liaisons with at a Christmas party, dear cousin,’ Seokjin says. ‘I do have a problem with holding a conversation with several of them at the same time.’
‘At least you’re facing them,’ Yoongi says. ‘I mean—’
‘Don’t,’ Jimin cuts in. ‘Not in front of the new boy.’
‘Jimin,’ Taehyung says, ‘makes a career out of corrupting career men.’
‘My favourite was last year’s Forbes Asia cover,’ Jimin says. ‘God, that man knew how to use his—’
Jeongguk remembers Jimin’s debut in Busan. A solo performance, middle-parted black hair, so ethereal on the stage— so unconventional for a debut, but his skill in ballet justifying his choice. That’ll be you next year, his brother had said. Well, not dancing, but still.
True, Jeongguk didn’t dance the following year for his debut. Jeongguk didn’t do much of anything ; it was the kind of quiet affair that didn’t make it to a single paper. But it’s exactly things like that which have allowed him to work jobs since he was fifteen, so he isn’t complaining. Not quite.
He still can’t place the man.
‘The Economist, ’ Taehyung says, on cue. ‘December 2017. We keep a pink scrapbook with cutouts and everything.’
Jeongguk doesn’t thank him, and then Hoseok finally decides to sit up and address him properly.
‘Welcome to Bang College,’ he says in a grand voice, one Cheeto balanced precariously in the scandalous dip of his neckline. ‘Blood runs hot, tension runs high, Yoongi runs for vice president.’
‘Every year,’ Yoongi says.
Jeongguk has worked every summer vacation since he turned fifteen. Cleaning tables after closing, dishes in the farthest corner of the kitchen. Everyday chores that he can get hired for without employers digging into his family name, all of them after hours. It’s easier with smaller joints; those have even less of a chance of knowing his identity than his own peers do.
He doesn’t share those peers’ concept of working only a certain job if at all. He’s nineteen; last year students were walking into class, declaring they’d been appointed to one of their parents’ firms. Flipping their hair, straightening their ties, proud to walk into those tall buildings as employees before heirs.
(Jeongguk could hardly declare something similar, for a number of reasons. One being the walls of his classroom themselves.)
In a way, he’s met a lot more people than others would have. Whether it’s through his parents, or his brother. Or the jobs he worked without caring how rough the skin of his palms got, how there’s more than one reason that the smell of gasoline is so familiar. He’s met a lot more people than others would have, but spoken to a lot less than anyone would think. Greetings are one thing; champagne conversation over the new bill is one thing; looking someone in the eye, smiling, and meaning it entirely another.
Taehyung walks into his life. There’s nothing dramatic or convolutedly intentional. He just walks into Jeongguk’s life in broad daylight, without knocking, but making sure he doesn’t catch Jeongguk off-guard. There’s something commanding about it, but not imposing.
There’s something commanding about Taehyung.
‘Listen,’ Yoongi’s saying to Namjoon as they enter. (Taehyung also walks into his room very often, telling him to come along here or there.) ‘I’ve never met a guy more hungry for your dick. I’m pretty sure he’d, like, suck you off in the stables if you wanted. Mud and horseshit and all.’
‘Who’re we talking about?’ Taehyung throws himself down at Namjoon’s feet, yanking a cushion from behind his back. ‘Oh, wait, I know. Jackson Wang from fencing class.’
‘That’s the man,’ Yoongi says, pointing at Taehyung solemnly. ‘Too bad Namjoon’s not over his ex yet.’
(Love lives are set in stone, Taehyung had said just that morning. Seokjin’s inability to feel any kind of attraction, Hoseok’s inability to score a second date. Namjoon’s inability to get over his high school ex-girlfriend.)
‘I know,’ Taehyung says. Jeongguk spots a few empty places but opts for the window seat. (He now actually participates in conversations instead of eavesdropping on them.) ‘He really would go for it in the stables for Namjoon. Namjoon’s just got that thing.’
‘All that power,’ Seokjin says dryly, even as Jimin loses his shit to not the first and definitely not the last gigglefit of the afternoon. ‘You heathens will sleep with anything that walks as long as you have a horizontal surface.’
‘You say that like it’s a bad thing,’ Hoseok says.
‘Also, who said anything about horizontal surfaces?’ Jimin raises a perfectly plucked eyebrow, breaks into his ridiculous grin. ‘I prefer windows, myself.’
Even Jeongguk can’t hold back a snort, which makes them all turn to him. The most delighted (and unabashedly so) is Taehyung; he has been going all out this past week.
What Jeongguk’s learned quickly is that they both function very differently with people. Where Jeongguk hides and keeps his silence, Taehyung puts his cards in plain sight because he’s that sure of victory. Behind metaphors, Jeongguk really wants to play poker against him; he’ll ask when the next games are.
If Taehyung’s curious, Jeongguk’s almost mystified. It’s like the boy who whispered I want to see if I can make you cry was someone— not entirely different, maybe, but someone that Taehyung forgot to be, come morning. All he’s done is haul Jeongguk around; so this is where we keep the molly; see that tree over there, Hoseok was caught with a girl behind it and let me just tell you. Maybe Taehyung didn’t forget to be that boy again either. Maybe he never stopped being him. Or maybe that moment, the whispered I want to see wasn’t anything memorable for Taehyung.
Taehyung looks delighted that Jimin got a laugh out of Jeongguk. He’s also shameless in his intent, right from that first I want to see. There’s a kind of transparency in his motives that’s slowly beginning to make Jeongguk do circles. (Surely someone who bluntly says you’re hot and I’m bored as justification has to be either entirely fearless or too smart even for Jeongguk. He hopes it’s not both.)
‘Congratulations, kid,’ Yoongi says. ‘You now get to tell the world that your life’s first smile was when Jimin said he likes to be fucked against windows.’
Jeongguk doesn’t reply, just looks down at his hands. It’s not that he isn’t smart enough to simulate banter; on the contrary, it’s the refreshing feeling of knowing that they’ll understand if he doesn’t want to respond. Conversely, he’d be caught if he was faking it anyway; Seokjin, Yoongi, and Taehyung are all in this room.
May isn’t as hot as it could be. The sun is strong, but the heat isn’t stifling the way June will get. They’ve finally filled in the outdoor pools, and the crickets are getting progressively louder every night. Once he closes his window, though, it’s the same routine; set up the reading lamp, study until midnight. Wake up at six instead of four; there’s no one to avoid in the hallways now. Go to class. Go to sports. Go to study.
Up and at them.
Jeongguk doesn’t know about making friends; he’s never had any. He’s seen it from the outside, but never from the inside. And if this is what it looks like, he could take a few weeks more to settle into it, and then settle into it. Theoretically, if they’re friends, they’re not supposed to mind.
‘Oh, shut up,’ Hoseok’s saying when he comes back to the conversation. ‘Namjoon’s fencing is even shittier than his love life. Wang’s not going for that .’
‘Wang doesn’t give a— hang on.’ Taehyung flails around ungracefully, trying to locate his phone which is blaring some obnoxious guitar riff. (As Jeongguk understands, Taehyung likes his bands. A lot.) ‘Where— right. Hello?’
Jeongguk usually makes up for not being able to listen in on all phone calls by reading expressions. Taehyung, however, has none, as he listens to whatever he’s being told. If anything, his face loses its grin and falls to a stony set of his jaw, before he says a curt all right and hangs up.
It doesn’t take a genius to smell trouble, and yet only Yoongi and Seokjin catch on. (It doesn’t take genius; it does take attention.) They follow Taehyung with his eyes as Taehyung gets up, brushing his loose shirt off.
‘Later,’ Taehyung says. When he’s halfway to the door, he turns around and looks at Jeongguk, narrows his eyes a little.
‘Crocodile boy,’ he says. ‘Come with me.’
If Jeongguk was standing in front of him, the horse would block out the sun.
Jet black and larger than any beast Jeongguk has ever seen, he’s rearing back, two hooves in the air and his legs straight and sturdy and dark, and altogether imposing in a way Jeongguk has never seen any living creature hold itself. Jet black, larger than life, with not one, not two, but five trainers hanging off the ropes around his body, like strings trailing below a dark, sky-eating kite.
They aren’t succeeding. Five aren’t enough to hold him down; the others at a distance are even more helpless. Jeongguk, on the safer side of the fence, still feels like he’s one second away from taking a kick in the chest across all those metres of grass.
The sun is strong, only stronger than the horse because of how far Jeongguk is. From here, the horse cuts a sharp black figure against the sky, like someone took a knife to the pale blue canvas of it, along with the light of the sun. When he’s rearing up, it’s only him and the inky blackness of his coat, clean lines. Blue sky, black. Yellow-green grass, black. Brown ropes, black, and the men looking as terrified as Jeongguk has seen people look only a handful of times in his life.
He can see the problem, guess why Taehyung’s been called in— but adding the two for the outcome is where his mind draws the line. Because yes, Jeongguk has seen Taehyung atop his own steed and heard his voice in the dark of the night, I want to see. But he’s also seen Taehyung fall asleep with a hand curled around a tipping glass of milk; has seen him laugh as he tries a dick move in chess against Namjoon. He doesn’t doubt for a moment how strong Taehyung is, but he’s gotten so used to that laughing, carefree one that he—
But beside him, Taehyung is bristling with energy. He’s only had the time to grab his gloves (Jeongguk followed him into his room, not thinking to resist the command) and pull them on along the way. He’s tugging at them again now, making sure they touch his wrists. And Jeongguk, for only a moment, takes his eyes off the horse to look at Taehyung’s hands.
Then Taehyung’s tapping Jeongguk’s shoulder in some form of salutation, and vaulting right over the fence as if he owns the turf.
Taller than most of the trainers and striding strong across the grass, Taehyung looks to be the only one who isn’t afraid of the horse. (And maybe that includes Jeongguk; he doesn’t know. There’s a tenseness between his chest and stomach, a cold tingling across his shoulders as he sees one of the trainers narrowly dodge a hit. Jeongguk has never experienced fear, doesn’t know what it feels like— but he’s never felt this before, so he could hazard a guess.)
Taehyung looks to be the only one who isn’t afraid of the horse, even though he’s only got his gloves; sneakers falling soundlessly over the grass and pale blue shirt sleeves rolled up. Jeongguk thinks for a strange, numb instant, about running and pulling him back to safety, but then Taehyung’s shouting.
‘Back off! ’ he says, voice booming and rich even in this open space, as he slows down and stops right in front of the horse. ‘He’s scared, back off!’
Jeongguk knows how to ride horses. Growing up in his house and society, he knows how to do a little of everything. Not so much master of none as it is an excellence that everyone takes for granted when it comes to him. He knows how to ride horses, what commands they follow, the importance of Taehyung’s racing colours, the way he’s not afraid to face a wild horse in his everyday clothes. But he doesn’t know it intimately; the nuances behind each command, why the horses do the things they do.
So when Taehyung says back off, for another numb instant Jeongguk thinks he’s going up against the beast all alone— his back, his long legs, his arms spread out, clear but still so reed-like against all that black. And what Jeongguk feels then— thinking that Taehyung’s alone— he doesn’t need a reference to define as fear.
But back off only means that two trainers step back, letting go in time for Taehyung to grab the lead rope with both hands. When he closes his hands around the thickness of it, the horse pulls back with renewed fervour, and Jeongguk thinks that the chafe is going to tear right through Taehyung’s gloves. But it would chafe if it had give; Taehyung doesn’t let up for a nanosecond. Reed-like against the horse, but transforming so fast into something else that Jeongguk marvels at the fear he was feeling.
This is Kim Taehyung.
The horse doesn’t go easily. Jeongguk watches in the kind of disjointed haze he hasn’t felt in months, as Taehyung struggles and the horse struggles, and the movement goes back and forth against the vastness of the field. The three remaining trainers are behind the horse, pushing at him every time he allows Taehyung progress, bracing for when he doesn’t. Apart from that first back off, Taehyung hasn’t raised his voice. Only speaking too low for Jeongguk to hear, focusing all his mind and strength on getting the steed to cooperate.
Jeongguk is patient. It’s not a virtue; it’s a requirement that goes behind who he is. He’s patient, and understands theoretically that it’s not possible for Taehyung to take control in thirty seconds, lead the horse to the stables like the trainers have apparently been trying to for half an hour. He understands theoretically; isn’t surprised when five minutes bleed into five more; stops counting. (He’s patient. He’s not, however, inclined to count on his fingers how patient he is.)
There’s no exact moment when victory breaks through. No clear cession of control, but he hadn’t expected that either. Instead, Taehyung’s legs stop pushing into the ground at that steep angle and straighten up little by little. And the horse, vengeful but exhausted, finally allows himself to be led to the stables with the trainers pushing him. Jeongguk watches them disappear behind the doors, spares a glance at the remaining men, who are now laughing (albeit nervously) about the rope burn on their hands and rolling their shoulders.
He wonders about Taehyung’s hands.
He isn’t wrong in wondering. Taehyung’s already peeling his gloves off as they make their way back, grimacing in comical exaggeration at the nearly-bleeding marks on his palms. Jeongguk inspects it from a distance too, their twin gazes careful and critical. (If Jeongguk’s focus shifts to the thin lengths of Taehyung’s fingers, Taehyung’s too busy making lewd jokes to notice.)
‘That one’s going to be right piece of work,’ Taehyung says when they’re halfway to the boarding house. ‘You should’ve seen him in the stall. I thought he’d snap my hand off.’
Jeongguk doesn’t like asking questions when he can get answers without having to— and one of the blank truths of his life is that he’s never had a question he couldn’t discern the answer to on his own. Family ties, favourite drinks, the exact record of illegal activities swept under the carpet of prestige. With Taehyung, he finds that the questions he wants answered are ones that he’ll have to ask. And he understands that questions like that never arose before because he wasn’t interested.
Taehyung is interesting.
‘Have you ever met one like him?’ Jeongguk asks.
‘What, the colt?’ Taehyung unfolds his gloves for the seventeenth time; Jeongguk wants to grab them and stuff them in his pocket. ‘I’ve seen a few that were mistreated, but never someone like him. He’s completely unbroken. Wild.’
‘Does he have a name?’
‘Not yet,’ Taehyung grins. ‘You wanna pick?’
Jeongguk looks away, squints at the low rise of the boarding house pulling up in vision. He ignores Taehyung, and Taehyung laughs, aware and delighted and aware.
He knows Seokjin probably has a duplicate key to his room, and anyway, when he locks his door, it isn’t to keep anyone out or in. It’s just one of those little things that puts him more at ease. His way of establishing office hours, even though more often than not he ends up letting one of the boys in even past midnight.
What he means to say is, the sound he can hear right now is definitely that of a key turning in his lock— and if it’s a key and not a card or a hairpin, he doesn’t need to get his fists ready.
To say that Jeongguk’s a light sleeper is an unnecessary statement. Given everything, it would be absurd if he wasn’t. To say he’s a light sleeper is also an understatement; he woke up the moment he heard the key being inserted. He’ll feign sleep for as long as needed, eyes closed and body loose, but if the intruder thinks they’ll find anything interesting, they’re going to be sorely disappointed.
The door opens, and Jeongguk holds himself still as it also clicks shut. Not a thief or a curious cat, then; they want something with him. There’s only one person who wouldn’t bother waiting ‘til morning, and sure enough, his next inhale brings the scent of Taehyung’s cologne that he’s memorised (not to flatter Taehyung; Jeongguk knows what name and edition they all wear).
He’s awake. Taehyung knows, and it’s not going to dissuade either of them. When Taehyung steps up to his bedside, close enough that Jeongguk hear the rustle of his shirt brushing the sheets, Jeongguk keeps his eyes closed. Taehyung has sharp night vision, he knows; the moonlight’s enough for him to see Jeongguk’s face.
And his hand is close now, fingers touching Jeongguk’s hair even as he senses Taehyung go down to his knees. They slide over his eyes, smooth and sure. In the dark and quiet, Jeongguk’s more aware of the touch than usual— and after all, it’s the first time Taehyung’s touching him like this, skin on skin. If his breath is pulling on its reins and trying to stop, it’s because he’s never been touched like this.
Then he feels it: the press of a blunt, cold edge to his lips. He can smell it clearly; it’s like kindling in a glass. He knows what he’s supposed to do. He was spared from this last year for reasons he isn’t proud of, but a new student is a new student.
Especially a new student who wants to be friends with the wolf pack. Especially a new student like him.
Jeongguk knows how initiations work, knows what he’s supposed to do— and when he does it, he wonders if he’d have done it for anyone else. But he’s doing it, and it leaves no room for other thought.
Because then he’s parting his lips, and Taehyung is tipping the glass over, slow enough that the liquid only trickles into his mouth. It’s not out of the kindness of Taehyung’s heart.
To say it burns is also an understatement. It’s not out of the kindness of his heart that Taehyung’s careful; it’s because a shot of pure, blazing green, eighty-percent absinthe has only one way of being more painful: taking it slow.
It burns. It’s terrible, an ice-cold reminder that it’s not made for everyone. He could panic at the taste, but as the burn spreads, he finds himself relaxing into the pillows instead.
Then the glass is gone, and Taehyung’s hand is on his lips now. What goes through his body at that renders the absinthe much more bearable.
‘Hold it in,’ Taehyung says, voice low. It’s the voice that stopped Jeongguk in his tracks, that first night. See, there’s something commanding about Taehyung, and then there’s something commanding about how Taehyung speaks to Jeongguk— only Jeongguk. ‘Don’t swallow. Hold it in.’
He holds it in, opens his eyes. His night vision’s sharp, too; he can see Taehyung’s face.
‘Good boy,’ he says.
A livewire sparks in Jeongguk’s mind.
And then it ends quickly, the way everything seems to, with Taehyung. Jeongguk thinks he doesn’t have the attention span to keep anything up; either that, or he doesn’t care about maintaining appearances.
Whichever it is, Taehyung’s smile turns off the moment Jeongguk swallows. He straightens up, grabbing Jeongguk’s collar and hauling him along.
‘Up,’ he says, voice detached, just like initiations are supposed to be. No one’s a friend, no one cares behind the fact that Jeongguk’s new and has to prove himself. It’s nothing different from what he’s been experiencing at Bang from the start— it’s not like anyone knows him enough to care, anyway. ‘Change. You have three minutes. Take longer and it’s another shot before we go.’
Jeongguk changes in one and a half, the inside of his mouth still tingling. Taehyung’s already out in the hallway, tying the laces of one of his boots. He doesn’t acknowledge Jeongguk stepping out; only starts towards the stairs in silence. Jeongguk doesn’t know about having friends, but Taehyung’s cold demeanour makes him uneasy; the biggest evidence of how habituated he’s become to the opposite.
He doesn’t dwell on it. Taehyung’s opening the main doors and stepping into the warm night without a glance backwards, and Jeongguk can only follow.
Bang College teaches target archery. Jeongguk, who learned it first-hand from his brother, has always enjoyed the sport. Vision, accuracy, strong mind, steady hands— it might not be the ultimate physical test, but few things combine the body and mind the way a bow and arrow do. (Besides, it’s a solipsist game. Crudely put, Jeongguk’s into those.)
‘It could’ve been worse,’ Yoongi says as Jeongguk stares at the target. ‘But we owe you one.’
‘Believe us,’ Hoseok says. ‘I was drunk for two days straight after mine, so we’re really letting you off easy here.’
There is always something offbeat and eerie about sports facilities at night. It’s a very particular atmosphere, one that Jeongguk knows all too well. Tall, bright lights like fake moons in the sky, their white wash unforgiving over grass or cement or polished, wet ( wet ) wooden floors. The sound of crickets, the silence otherwise, the unsettling knowledge that you’re not supposed to be here right now. He doesn’t think he’s been able to shake it off even for actual evening games; it’s that eerie.
The football field is no different. There’s only one; the establishment doesn’t take football as seriously as fencing. After all, it’s sweaty and rowdy in all the wrong ways— and all the boys have taken it to heart. Jeongguk knows how often there are games between Bang and Exo, ending in cheers unlike every other match between the two. Maybe it’s because of that, that it’s all the more strange to be standing here under the floodlights, knowing that nothing cheerful is in store. They’re all still in day clothes, fully alert but casual, as if they haven’t been planning this for a week.
Jeongguk doesn’t trust them. He doesn’t think they’ll hurt him, or damage him, or sabotage him; he just doesn’t expect them to think of his wellbeing the way friends do. It doesn’t hurt; he’s never expected that care from anyone. If anything, it’s confusing because he knows that initiation is followed by inclusion. When not all of them even know where he comes from, who he is, why he’s here. It must take a lot, that acceptance— of patience, or apathy.
‘He just never talks, does he?’ Jimin asks, arms crossed and one hip cocked as he leans his weight on his other knee. It’s the kind of terrible posture that goes against everything Jimin is, so Jeongguk can tell that he’s enjoying himself. ‘New boy never talks. You think he’s the broody drunk type?’
‘You’d know broody drunks,’ Yoongi mutters darkly. ‘Leave him alone. I don’t talk either.’
‘Oh, Yoongi, you talk,’ Hoseok says. ‘ Believe me, you fuckin’ talk.’
Seokjin and Namjoon aren’t engaging in the midnight banter, concentrated on their task the way Taehyung’s gaze is concentrated on Jeongguk. There’s a small metal table to the side of the target, white lace tablecloth and all. On it are three shot glasses, which Seokjin and Namjoon are filling to the brims. The liquid is clear, and he’s grateful; it’ll be strong but clean, whatever it is.
Next to the target is also the rest of the equipment, the full haul; bracers, tabs, everything. He doesn’t need to check to know it’s all top quality; he wouldn’t expect any less from Seokjin’s management— nobody’s fucking around.
‘All right,’ Seokjin says just then, turning to Jeongguk. (And that’s another thing; whenever they lock eyes he goes back to President Park's office, but Seokjin might as well have forgotten that first meeting.) ‘It’s simple. Three shots.’ He points to the target.
‘And three shots. ’ Jimin points to the glasses. ‘You’ll alternate. Also, we won’t kill you if you miss, but—’
‘But you’ll live with the acute knowledge of having missed,’ Seokjin finishes with one of his campaign smiles. ‘I’m sure that will be lovely.’
‘I say this every initiation,’ Hoseok mutters. ‘But he doesn’t have a heart.’
‘And you don’t have a passing grade,’ Seokjin says. ‘But I don’t point that out on the daily, do I?’
Jeongguk’s stepping towards the table when Namjoon stops him, eyebrows raised. Behind the thick frames of his glasses, his gaze is ever careful, though just a little sharper tonight.
‘You can pick up the gear and get ready,’ he says. ‘We’ll bring the shot to you.’
So he does. There are only two arrows, but he’s sure Seokjin has the third one somewhere. He’s used to the motions of slipping on the bracer, picking up the bow; they don’t need thought. In fact, when archery combines the body and mind, it’s not about active thought. Only focus.
Jeongguk’s good at focusing.
‘First shot,’ Jimin says, sauntering forward with the glass between two fingers and his thumb. He has this way of locking his shoulders and head when he stops, a smile on his face like he knows how sexual he’s being. ‘Drink up, new boy.’
Jeongguk takes the glass without acknowledging him, throws it back quickly. It’s white rum, pure and expensive, a different burn tumbling down his throat when he swallows. Hiding the grimace that comes with alcohol is a skill he’s had since he was sixteen; he keeps his face blank like at those dinner parties where he might as well have not been invited. If the inside of his skull is still simmering from the absinthe, he hides it well.
Jimin picks the glass out of his fingers, smiles at him, sweet and bright. Under the floodlights, his hair is light orange like the sunset. Then he’s walking away, falling into line with Namjoon and Seokjin. The other three are behind Jeongguk. He knows they’re watching, all their attention on him, waiting for him to move. All eyes on him.
Up and at them.
He takes a deep breath and gets into position. White outer rings, then black, then blue. Then red, before the final yellow circle that he doesn’t have the option of missing. It’s not about the initiation. Jeongguk doesn’t look at stakes when he decides that losing isn’t an option. Jeongguk doesn’t decide that losing isn’t an option ; it’s one of the only truths of his life.
All eyes on him; he fixes the arrow, feels its thin form between his fingers. He isn’t used to this bow, but as long as it’s functional, he can make it work. He fixes the arrow, moves to pull back on it, slowly.
Then the screaming starts.
There’s something to be said about their coordination; he doesn’t catch any signal before they start, and yet they start simultaneously. Their coordination reminds him of himself— a synergy he thought could only be achieved between body and mind, not human beings. He can’t tell who started first; they’re in sync, they’re practiced. And they’re loud.
They’re very, very, very loud. Taehyung’s baritone under Hoseok and Yoongi’s roars, Namjoon— and Jimin— and Seokjin giving it their all; heaving forwards and yelling in his face. It’s not ungraceful; it’s too loud to be anything but powerful. It’s too loud, it’s too loud, it’s almost too loud.
But if Jeongguk hadn’t perfected the art of tuning out noise, he wouldn’t be entirely sane. So he closes his eyes and breathes in, breathes out; starts up a tinnitus that he can focus on instead, lets it take over until there’s only blackness and keen.
Then he opens his eyes and locks them on the two-dimensional sun of the target, and he pulls back and aims.
It strikes the bullseye, and he lowers the bow and stares at it. Not to make sure, just to look. The screaming stops as abruptly as it started, though it echoes, and he realises how short it was despite how long it felt. He’s always counted seconds; this task took sixteen. But counting sixteen seconds seems so much longer or shorter in different situations.
Either way, bullseye. That’s all that matters; he lowers the bow.
They don’t comment on it. He does ask himself if he might hear a good boy again, but shakes it off before it settles. The crickets are refilling the silence they were scared into. (Jeongguk wonders how much Seokjin paid security to sleep for the night.)
‘Second shot,’ Hoseok says, nearly spilling half the glass as he bounds over with it. His grin, too, is bright and jovial, as if they aren’t pouring alcohol into Jeongguk and making him work with weaponry. At the thought, his eyes start to tingle, the shot hitting him before he even takes it. He knew the absinthe would kick in soon, but it still takes him by surprise. ‘Cheers.’
Gin this time, London dry. He’s always hated gin, from its strange, nauseating flavour to its disarmingly fresh smell. Taking it after the first two is difficult; he almost brings it back up before it even goes down. But if he were to admit defeat to one shot of gin, he’d deserve to spend the rest of the year in isolation. Even more so given that he’s starting to like company.
He braces himself for the screaming again, but instead hears the soft crunch of boots on wet grass. When he turns, the others are making their way to the bleachers. Hoseok and Yoongi talking in low, good-natured voices, Jimin in the front, followed by Namjoon and Seokjin. He hopes they don’t plan to release fireworks or the like, but he isn’t going to give them the time anyway. (A dramatic victory is great, but a guaranteed victory is greater.)
Jeongguk raises the bow, takes the second arrow. It’s when he’s pulling it back and starting to focus that the hair on the back of his neck rises, and he hears a clear breath in his ear.
‘Think you can make the shot, golden boy?’
Taehyung’s voice materialises like Taehyung himself came into Jeongguk’s life; no preamble, no pageantry, no room for a desire to oppose.
‘Think you can do it?’ he breathes, so close that it’s a wonder they’re not touching. The absinthe curls and spits in his stomach; the first prickling of sweat starting up on his hairline. ‘Think three shots won’t bring you down? Bet you think you need to win everything, don’t you? Bet you need to show everyone who’s boss. Who’s the golden boy in here.’
Jeongguk swallows. Jeongguk looks at the target. Jeongguk looks at the target. Jeongguk looks at the target.
‘Bet you can’t make it, Jeon Jeongguk,’ Taehyung whispers, lips at the shell of his ear now, good God. His voice is made of money, so rich, too rich, like the guilty burn of dark chocolate; like liquor. ‘Bet everything’s spinning, you’re drunk. Aren’t you drunk, golden boy? Don’t you think you’ll miss?’
He wasn’t drunk before this. He still doesn’t think he’ll miss, because he’s never lost so easy, or at all.
‘Go ahead,’ Taehyung says. ‘Come on, make the shot. Try it, beautiful—’ — livewire, gin, livewire— ‘—I’m watching you.’
The truth is, if Taehyung wouldn’t have said that, wouldn’t have said I’m watching you, then Jeongguk just might’ve missed— missed meaning landing on the edge of the yellow instead of the centre, which is the same as missing. If Taehyung wouldn’t have said I’m watching you, Jeongguk just might’ve lost.
But Taehyung’s watching him. For the first time in his life, Jeongguk wants to win.
So he pulls the arrow back and locks his eyes on the target, pretends Taehyung isn’t still murmuring in his ear as he releases.
Just like that, Jeongguk’s more than halfway through. One more shot and one more shot ; he can take his spinning head and go to sleep and wake up in five hours, get his Saturday morning run, get to his studying. Holidays are soon but exams are sooner; one more shot and he’ll go back to proving himself in other ways. Always proving himself, definitely a little drunk now, not in vision but in thought.
He can hear the others taking up their places again. Hoseok’s cross-legged on the lawn, Yoongi slumps down beside him. Namjoon and Seokjin are still at the table, Jimin’s still cocking his head and smiling, but they’re quiet; indulgent, almost, in their silent encouragement.
Seokjin steps forward then, and Jeongguk suddenly remembers that he only had two arrows. He blinks at the one in Seokjin’s hand, takes it, brings it up to his face. Squints at the tip, then understands.
It’s blunt. Less dangerous than regular tips (though not harmless). They know he isn’t drunk yet, not enough to need precautions, so it’s not about that. No, a blunt tip past midnight with three spirits in his stomach can only mean—
He feels the edges of Taehyung’s shirt brush past him. That’s how very close Taehyung is when he steps up in front of Jeongguk, back to him, and starts walking towards the target. This tinnitus isn’t Jeongguk’s own; he would never conjure up something this urgent and shrill and invincibly thin.
At least Taehyung’s wearing protective gear. A vest, two layers under it even in the weight of the summer air. He’ll be fine if a little sore— Jeongguk recoils. He recoils internally, stunned for one inhale that he entertained the possibility of the arrow touching Taehyung—
That’s when he realises. The arrow can’t touch Taehyung, who’s moving to stand in the dead centre of the target. The arrow can’t touch Taehyung, so the arrow can’t touch the bullseye. It has to miss his spread arms and ribs and chest and heart, and land instead on the sliver of red that he’s left open.
In other words, Jeongguk has to lose to win.
Yoongi hands him the third shot, without a word. Jeongguk doesn’t take his eyes off Taehyung as he swallows the not-there taste of vodka, the slide of it smooth and killing.
He doesn’t take his eyes off Taehyung; it was never an option. Under the lights the confidence on Taehyung’s face is stark; eyes dark and blazing blazing blazing, hair fluttering, lips curling up in a hint of a smile. Under the floodlights Taehyung is stark. The colours of the target are more vivid than ever, and the slide of the vodka is killing, and losing was never an option until Jeongguk discovered, five seconds ago, what it’s like to have stakes.
They know better than to make any noise. The weight of their gazes says more than their voices ever could, anyway, and Jeongguk wouldn’t have heard them if they spoke. He’s too busy trying to look away from the trust in Taehyung’s eyes in order to focus on the red. The red, not the yellow, the red. The red, he has to lose if he doesn’t want to lose. And he doesn’t want to lose. He doesn’t want to lose.
This isn’t emotion. Jeongguk wonders what emotion is like, real emotion, the kind that goes behind the mechanical functioning of mental response and sinks right down to the bones. Actually, Jeongguk wonders what emotion is like when it’s not sparking and crackling and roaring for a night. Wonders if he can feel it without needing all that outside his body.
This isn’t emotion, which is good, because he has a task and four shots of alcohol in himself. So he picks his bow up and fixes the blunt arrow that doesn’t need to be blunt because it won’t touch Taehyung, and he pulls back. He pulls back and he aims at the red between Taehyung’s left arm and flank, and he tells himself, this is how it starts.
Jeongguk takes a breath.
He can hear the arrow shooting through the air when he lets go, and the sound of it tells him it’s going where he wants it to. He’s so sure of it that he doesn’t watch the shot.
He watches Taehyung instead.
Taehyung doesn’t flinch.
The shot goes where it’s supposed to. The end of the arrow shaking with the force of it, exactly between Taehyung’s arm and ribs. The liquor in his veins just might bring Jeongguk to his knees, but first he needs to be told. Needs to be told.
He looks at Taehyung, and Taehyung looks back, and he turns to look at the others. Doesn’t say anything; doesn’t talk.
Jimin’s still smiling, Hoseok too. The others are watching with no expression, but he’s sure there’s a touch of wildness in his eyes now. Just a touch as it all climbs to his head now. Just a touch, like the smell of Taehyung’s cologne when he kneeled by Jeongguk’s bedside and said good boy.
Good boy. Good boy. Good—
‘Your first official task,’ Seokjin says. ‘Go put all this shit away.’
‘And don’t vomit,’ Hoseok adds cheerfully.
To be fair, he doesn’t. Not until he’s done returning the equipment. Navigating the campus when he’s drunk (and oh, is he drunk) and alone (oh, is he alone) is an adventure, although as a laughing Jimin tells him over the phone (Jeongguk doesn’t recall making the call, or saving Jimin in his contacts, for that matter) man, I can’t even navigate it when I’m sober.
It’s only when he reaches the scholars’ house that he leans against the outer wall with one hand, back bent so that he can avoid his shoes when the drinks come up. He doesn’t always react like this, but four of those shots with everything else— even he’s not immune.
He does it discreetly, at least. Spits up as quietly as he can— very quiet, he’s good at being quiet, new boy never talks, new boy isn’t a broody drunk, new boy is just drunk — and cringes at the sheer unpleasantness of it. He’s drunk and alone and drunk alone, but his arrows went where they were supposed to, and Seokjin said first official task but meant as one of us. Alone, then, is momentary.
Right then he feels a hand on his shoulder, and he’s too drunk not to jerk in response. But when he looks up, it’s Namjoon, who’s been as quiet as him the entire night, shadowing Jimin and Seokjin.
Namjoon’s looking at him; in the dim light above the main door, Jeongguk can see how kind it is, how unassumingly helpful Namjoon is. He looks at the evening shadow on Namjoon’s jaw, keeps looking because he’ll spit up again otherwise. Namjoon’s kind, and alone is momentary— and that is amazing, uncharted ground.
Namjoon holds out a bottle, water this time, thank God. Jeongguk takes it and feels the warmth of Namjoon’s palm moving down his back, coming to rest at his waist before pulling away.
It would follow that the college annually hosts events that are just as elite and pretentious as its coat of arms. Actually relevant tennis matches, fencing tournaments, charity balls, the works.
One of the last three-day weekends before the summer is reserved for a series of cultural functions. A couple of stage plays, a group of musicians that Yoongi and Hoseok are bitterly envious of. Three days of beauty, culture, and assorted class A drugs. An excuse to ditch classes, and more reasons for the student council to stalk through the halls like they own them. (Seokjin, as Jeongguk’s not surprised to note, is especially good at this.)
The families start arriving on Friday morning. Everyone who's anyone makes a point to make it there. Yoongi’s father is first, stepping out of a relatively modest car given his monopoly over the schedule H market. Eyes like Yoongi’s, the only thing they have in common; where Yoongi is bleached, petit, and uncaring of his surroundings, his father stands tall and alert in the crispest of suits despite the heat. This, too, doesn’t surprise Jeongguk.
Seokjin’s family is next, his older brother smiling charmingly at both the swooning students of Park and Kim, and the ones from Bang and Exo valiantly trying to hide their swooning. Having a sibling like that cut a figure ahead of you is a very precise way to grow up; Jeongguk would know.
Somewhere around noon, there’s a loud hoot from Hoseok’s room and an answering shut the fuck up in a stern, foreign voice. The iron hand beneath the velvet glove that is Hoseok’s sister is one of the most beautiful women Jeongguk’s ever seen. All of Hoseok’s features narrowed and sharpened at the edges, chestnut hair all the way to her waist. She’s brought homemade sweets for her brother and his “ridiculous troupe” and also for her favourite, Jeongyeon. She doesn’t look twice at Jeongguk, which suits him just fine.
There’s something in him that closes down a little when he sees Taehyung’s family.
Earlier, he’d hidden a smile at Jimin’s parents, both in clothes picked out by someone else. Thick glasses, wayward hair (absolute hipsters, according to Hoseok, just travel the world collecting books and sending Jiminnie pictures) and smiles so identical that Jeongguk couldn’t figure out which one was Jimin’s. And when Namjoon’s mother sat down at lunch, he could see every bit of the politician in her and her husband, who she was on the phone with. He could see who raised Namjoon to be so courteous, and it reminded him of college, of Busan.
It had been fine. Seeing them show up one by one had been fine, earlier. He’d known he wouldn’t see any familiar limousines; his was the only invitation sent through the council and not a call. Calling in person wouldn’t have made a difference, which is why he didn’t do it.
All the same, when he sees Taehyung’s family, it stops being so fine.
He has two siblings, in their early teens with features entirely different from Taehyung’s; they’re carbon copies of their mother. Taehyung, on the other hand, is his own father thirty years younger, down to the nose, lips, smile.
It’s not their appearance that makes it stop being fine. No, they look impeccable, but just on this side of friendly, which is foreign to him. (To be fair, his own brother has never been anything less than genuinely friendly— but only to be fair.) It’s not their appearance; they own the best chain of hotels in the country and dress like it; they’re very humanly gorgeous.
No, what creeps through the air and gets to Jeongguk is that out of all the reunions he’s seen today, Taehyung’s the only one who runs up to his family like he’s ten years old, and embraces them with real joy. Chatters nineteen to the dozen about the weather, the domestic races, the new black horse.
Jeongguk isn’t obtuse. He knows everyone else is just as happy, but eighteen and nineteen and twenty bring ego, and ego brings hesitant greetings, hugs replaced by how are you’s and smiles behind hands. In the middle of that stoicism, when he sees the wide grin on Taehyung’s face (the I went for a midnight run and bought three boxes of candy one) and when he sees his arms tight around his father, and when he hears how loud and high Taehyung’s voice gets— something closes down a little.
‘Your folks coming?’ Yoongi asks lightly. Jeongguk never noticed him stepping up to the doorway, but letting his guard down comes in degrees and this is one of them.
He doesn’t answer, though.
The evening heat is thick. There’s an attempt at a “friendly” outdoor dinner, too perfect to be actually friendly. Garlands of lights in the trees, silk tablecloths, a girl from Park and Kim singing a duet with one of the Exo boys. (Exo’s own council hasn’t arrived yet, apparently busy closing up for their own holidays. Jeongguk’s anticipating seeing them in action, but he’ll have to wait until the next evening.)
The food and wine is amazing; there’s no question about the quality of any aspect of the evening. That is why he classifies it as an attempt— there are jokes, and genuine laughter and enjoyment, but— putting together two groups of people with so many similarities and yet differences can only mean that both are wondering when they’ll be able to separate.
The cleanest example is Namjoon, playing the political prince; moving tables and socialising, reinforcing his steely mother’s connections, forging new ones. But Jeongguk sees in the way he rocks back on his heels almost imperceptibly, that there is a certain consequentiality to all this that is making him panic.
There’s also Jeongguk himself, who isn’t experiencing apathy towards social gatherings for a change. No, this time, he actively wants to leave. Not because of all these people around him or because the food and wine and music are all excellent, but because he wants to get away before this feeling grows.
The feeling, that is, of missing active attention.
Jeongguk is excellent at everything. Jeongguk is also unnoticeable because he’s excellent at everything. People pay attention either to those who fail miserably— or those who win but on their own volatile terms, like Taehyung and Jimin. The lack of attention that Seokjin gets while simultaneously being the butterfly of the party, is the same in quantity if not nature, to the lack of attention Jeongguk’s used to, blending into the background and being quietly efficient.
The problem is, he’d never wanted anything else before.
Now he finds himself chewing his food a little viciously, having more wine than necessary, wondering how he could get so used to dinnertime conversation when he’s been without it for nineteen years.
(Oh, Jeongguk knows how to make conversation. He might even know how to make someone laugh if push came to shove, but no one stays at his table long enough for that.
Jeongguk also knows how to hold conversation; now if only someone would give him a chance to prove it.)
He takes a sip of his wine and looks past the foam green of Hoseok’s sister’s dress to where Namjoon’s talking to President Park. It’s only eight-thirty, but Jeongguk’s nothing if not patient, despite it all.
‘I’m so offended,’ Taehyung says. ‘Like, I’m sitting beside you, I know who you are, and I still want to fuck you.’
Jimin’s answering wind-chime laughter carries across the green and hopefully to the man he’s had his eyes on since Jeongguk got here. (Culture week isn’t relevant to his swimming coach; morning practice stretched from seven to eleven, with Jeongguk climbing out only at noon after doing a few solitary lengths. His hair’s still damp and curling, fingers smelling of ionisers, but the strong sunlight feels good on his skin.)
‘Sorry, handsome,’ Jimin says. ‘Nothing under twenty-eight.’
‘That’s very specific,’ Jeongguk says before he can stop himself. Jimin pauses for a second before laughing again, levelling one of his sunshine grins. And Jeongguk, who never considered sexual attraction off-limits, can see why Taehyung’s offended. Jimin’s wearing tortoiseshell glasses that Jeongguk doesn’t think he actually needs, even after meeting his bespectacled parents. Hair swept back and delicate in the daylight, a pastel complement to the powder blue jumper around his shoulders. Jimin likes to go textbook; white polo and white shorts, no cap so that he can raise a hand to shade his eyes, look pretty.
It’s textbook, and Jeongguk still has to look away, squint at one of the flagstick pins in the distance when Jimin smiles at him.
‘Once upon a time, young one,’ Jimin says, ‘I had an experience. It changed my life.’
‘He got,’ Taehyung stage-whispers over his shoulder, ‘a really good dicking.’
‘Shut up, Taehyung. I had an experience, young one. I am consequently convinced that no man under the age of twenty-eight has what it takes.’
‘To give a good dicking.’
‘Taehyung, I swear to God.’
Jimin’s target across the green stands up and stretches. Jeongguk’s too far to tell which man of the year favourite he is, but he must have a great face for Jimin to have been so fixated for the past half hour. Sure enough, Jimin sees his chance as the man reaches for his stand bag, and jumps up too.
‘Well, that’s my cue,’ he says brightly. ‘Time to caddy for daddy, boys.’
‘Don’t you have rehearsal in, like, half an hour?’ Going by the way he reaches for his mojito, Taehyung doesn’t seem to really care. ‘Also, that’s not a staff bag. He’ll see right through you.’
‘I know,’ Jimin says, utterly pleased with himself. ‘He’ll get the point so much quicker.’
‘You shame this family. Go. No, wait wait wait.’
Jeongguk considers sneaking a sip of Taehyung’s mojito while he fixes Jimin’s hair, but before he can act on this (surprising) idea, Taehyung’s sending Jimin off with a pat to his cheek. ‘Get some.’
Jeongguk watches Jimin break into a jog towards the some, then looks away. His clothes are no longer damp, but the post-swimming hunger is hitting him. There are snacks on the table— prim little English-style sandwiches for pretense, and rice cakes for when pretending becomes annoying.
And then there’s Taehyung, who cares neither about decorum nor about pretending (synonymous to him). Between ungraceful sucks on his black straw, he’s devouring Pepero sticks at a rate that would alarm hamsters. Jeongguk looks on with fascination as he shoves an entire packet’s worth into his mouth, crunching down on them and chewing with his cheeks puffed out.
Taehyung catches him, of course. Swallows slowly before raising an eyebrow. ‘Want some?’
‘I’m good, thanks,’ Jeongguk says, reaching for a sandwich. White bread and cucumber, frustratingly light, but it does the job somewhat. ‘Your parents aren’t into golf?’
He doesn’t even know why he came here in the first place, let alone why he’s asking questions. Swimming was tiring enough; he could’ve gone back and studied in peace before Jimin’s evening performance. (He has a pas de deux with someone from Exo whom everyone only refers to as pretty boy, and while Jeongguk’s mildly annoyed at not having specifics he’s looking forward to the performance.) Instead, seeing a “golf. boring. help.” from Taehyung in his texts, he’d taken a detour.
As if that wasn’t bad enough.
‘Mom likes it,’ Taehyung says. ‘The little ones wanted to go out with Baekhyun so they all went. Those children love that shrimp more than their own brother.’
‘Byun Baekhyun? The architecture firm?’
‘There you go with your classifieds shit. You wanna add to your inventory that Baekhyun cried like a little bitch watching Zankyou no Terror? Because I saw that firsthand.’
Jeongguk snorts and takes another, large, bite; no one’s going to tell him it’s impolite, certainly not Taehyung. ‘You didn’t want to go along?’
‘I hate Baekhyun,’ Taehyung says merrily. ‘Our parents used to dress us in matching outfits for playdates. I hate that guy.’
‘You were at finishing school together?’
‘Roommates. Believe me, that’s why I chose a different college. You can only take so many Adele concerts in the shower.’
Jeongguk lets a real laugh slip at that, putting his fourth sandwich down and covering his mouth. Taehyung watches in open amusement as Jeongguk chokes slightly on cucumber, then slides his mojito across the table.
Taking a sip, Jeongguk squints at one of the other white umbrellas on the green. ‘How’s the horse doing?’
‘Oh, the colt? Yeah, just watching him for the moment. Stalking around the fences and shit, like a real creep.’
‘Is he still as...strong-willed?’
‘Kind of? I mean, I can see that he’s chilling out, but nowhere near enough. He has two trainers on his ass.’
‘Right,’ Jeongguk says. ‘Well, happy creeping.’
Taehyung laughs, not as loud as usual, almost absent.
‘I like when you ask questions,’ he says. ‘Not just because it makes you talk, or anything. I just love talking.’
‘I can see that,’ Jeongguk says, picks up the mojito again. ‘No offence, but you kind of never shut up. I don’t need to ask questions for that.’
‘Clever boy can use casual language!’ Taehyung raises an eyebrow. ‘And here I thought you only speak textbook.’
The thing is, normally Jeongguk does. Normally, Jeongguk wouldn’t ask architecture firm because of course it’s the goddamn architecture firm. Etiquette lessons in conversation stallers and extenders are one thing; he’d understand if he was using those with Seokjin’s father or his own. When it’s someone his age, someone like Taehyung, it’s something else— it’s genuine interest. The idea that silence can be companionable, followed by the idea that he’d still rather talk.
Jeongguk knows how to hold conversation. Also, Taehyung’s mojito is entirely too sweet.
When he slides it back, Taehyung’s looking at him. Halfway to I want to see but still the silly boy who just ate eighty percent more chocolate than he should have. Jeongguk, who is singular like a line without on or off switches, doesn’t know what to make of a real person, someone this nuanced.
‘Where are they, Jeon Jeongguk?’ Taehyung asks softly. ‘Is Busan that far?’
Panic surges, quick and brief. Busan. It’s not the most difficult thing to find out about someone; but it is when it’s Jeongguk. Knowing about Busan could mean knowing about his old college. Knowing about his old college—
‘I wonder why you’re here.’ It’s almost a whisper, even with no one around for metres. In the distance over the lemon-green grass, powerful men are playing golf, and Jimin is playing those powerful men. The sun is up high in the sky, and the sandwiches feel heavy in his stomach now.
Jeongguk doesn’t answer; it wasn’t a question.
Then Taehyung takes his glass, takes a long sip from the straw Jeongguk just used. Pulls out a half-eaten Pepero stick and bites into it.
Then he turns back to Jeongguk and levels him with a loud, sincere grin. One that he doesn’t deserve, just like he doesn’t deserve what Taehyung says next.
‘I’m glad you are, though. It’s nice to meet you, Jeon Jeongguk.’
Jimin is a vision.
There is gentle, blurred light on his lowered head, brightening the moment he looks up— fast and fluid and pulling Jeongguk into his movement from the first second. The violins start when Jimin raises himself on one leg, and then Jeongguk is lost.
Until, that is, the side entrance to the auditorium swings open unceremoniously.
Jimin is a vision, but Yoongi and Hoseok are stealing the show.
(Earlier, Jeongguk finally saw Excelsior’s student council, with appropriately spiteful commentary from Seokjin. They’re here, don’t look— Hoseok, what did I just say.
They were every bit as deserving of Bang College’s collective hatred and grudging admiration. All of them fresh and handsome in their maroon blazers and gold accents, stepping into the hall in their own formation, their own solid reality. They looked every bit as formidable as they should; Jeongguk now understands why it’s a pleasure to go against them.
Before Oh Sehun— Exo’s youngest ever council president and too similar to Seokjin for comfort— he’d focused on Baekhyun, just because. An almost hysterically delicate frame matched only by Jongdae, and both of them with impish smiles. There were others too; everyone minus Jimin’s dance partner. Jeongguk recognised Kim Joonmyun, almost Namjoon’s blood brother in both history and nature, but the others were strangers:
Sehun’s vice-president, a small boy, light and flighty. A beanpole, token rich boy with his tattoos and piercings, sleeves rolled, collar popped. One behind him, half the height but all eyes, token rich boy eyeing the tattooed rich boy with exasperation. A sharp-faced boy in the back, looking just as high as Yoongi.
‘A fucking handful,’ Seokjin muttered darkly. ‘God, Jimin better destroy pretty boy.’)
Jimin might be destroying pretty boy (a Kim Jongin, Namjoon tells Jeongguk) but Jeongguk isn’t paying a lot of attention for the moment. There was a cursory minute of realising how unsettlingly beautiful Jimin is in costume under a light, but the moment Yoongi and Hoseok stumbled into the auditorium— five minutes late— they started, in a very systematic, nearly strategic manner, to gather the attention of the entire first row and Jeongguk from three tables away.
Jimin is a vision. But Yoongi and Hoseok are high .
Jeongguk has never done drugs, but he’s been around enough. In the grand scheme of things, Yoongi’s love for weed is pretty tame— but weed is weed, and excessive amounts of it will result in exactly what is going on at the student council’s table next to the stage.
First and foremost is Seokjin, who looks to be three seconds away from committing particularly violent homicide. The gaze that communicates this pure desire to murder is currently being directed at Yoongi, to his immediate right. To Seokjin’s immediate left is Hoseok, and out of the two, he at least seems to be aware of the fact that if he acts out any further, Seokjin will skin him alive.
Unfortunately, Jeongguk doesn’t see how Hoseok could be acting out more than he already is. High out of his mind, he let out one loud cheer for Jimin (who deserves a standing ovation for his poker face alone) and then sat down heavily, starting up a session of lightly-wheezing laughter that he’s been muffling into his fist ever since. His eyes are squeezed shut, and there must definitely be a few tears as he continues wheezing ungracefully. Jeongguk supposes he can be credited for being mostly quiet, which is much more than can be said for Yoongi.
Because the sound Hoseok’s making might resemble that of smoke gently escaping from an exhaust pipe, but Yoongi is crying. Genuinely crying, with an incredibly high and quivery sort of whimpering, only audible over the music because it shares the tinny texture of Hoseok’s laughter. It’s almost touching that the two of them are so attuned even while embarrassing the entirety of the establishment. What is less touching is the obvious fact that Yoongi— who definitely isn’t as transfixed as Namjoon is with the moving form of Jimin— is mostly crying because Jimin set him off and the weed did the rest. He looks at the stage occasionally, but every time, he just shakes his head and splutters a little, setting himself off into another round of tears. It reminds Jeongguk of children on airplanes; the exact slow buildup of wailing when they realise that they’re not leaving the airborne hell cabin for the next few hours.
On Yoongi’s other side, Taehyung’s trying his level best to keep a straight face as he passes him tissues. While he looks like he’s three seconds away from bursting into laughter, his eyes are trained on Jimin, which reminds Jeongguk of what is supposed to be the highlight of the evening.
Onstage, Jimin is beautiful . So is Jongin, in pure white to contrast Jimin’s jet black; silver faces, hair pushed back. Their movements are so fluid and graceful that Jeongguk doesn’t quite know how to respond.
In these past few months, one of his biggest problems has been how difficult it is to place these new friends of his in their different situations. Seokjin and Namjoon are themselves everywhere they go; this he can understand. (Even now, the only one at the table with him is Namjoon— also the only one watching Jimin with absolute attention.) But then there’s Jimin, who was in tight white shorts and a polo only eight hours ago, talking about this and that— that Jimin is here now, with his shoulders thrown back and his head held high like he owns the stage, only pure nerve-pulling emotion on his face and the grace of a dancer.
There’s Hoseok, who has no volume control except when he’s playing, mouth set tight and eyes focused (although, to quote Jimin, the only time Hoseok isn’t sunshine personified is when he’s complaining about being the solitary straight in an academy that worships dick). There’s Yoongi himself, currently a snivelling, intoxicated mess, when Jeongguk knows just how perfect his grades are. It’s a kind of dichotomy that Jeongguk finds difficult to get used to, when he’s only been shown the most perfect sides of people, growing up.
(There is also Kim Taehyung.)
Onstage, Jimin is beautiful; seeing him move is poetry in motion. There’s not one flaw that Jeongguk can detect in his performance, and the way he’s in sync with Jongin doesn’t look like they started only three weeks ago. It’s short, an adaptation of a sequence Namjoon loves, with Jimin and Jongin as rival angels. They’re beautiful, both of them, in an untouchable way— and it reminds Jeongguk of Jimin’s debut in Busan, reminds him of how Jimin walks with that same gait offstage too. His promiscuity has never been a subject of debate; you can’t objectify what you don’t even dare to look at, unless he lets you. There are few others that Jeongguk’s met who make their choices so fiercely and fearlessly; Jimin has never been the most fragile of the wolf pack. And yet— he’s beautiful, untouchably so. The irony of it isn’t lost on Jeongguk, nor is the tragedy. The way Jimin turns his head towards the ceiling and bares his neck, arm going up and coming down in an arc; the kind of pain on his face that cannot be all acting—
Jeongguk is struggling with dichotomy this summer. Even as Namjoon sighs and clutches his glass of juice tighter, Yoongi, at the council’s table, lets out his loudest sob yet.
‘Um,’ Jeongguk tries once, then again when Namjoon doesn’t respond. ‘Sorry to interrupt, but.’
‘Yes,’ Namjoon says, still staring at Jimin’s pose.
Jeongguk looks at Yoongi, who’s now lowering himself in his chair, sliding under the tablecloth and steadily crying along the way. Hoseok looks like he’s slowly dying, but Jeongguk’s honestly more worried about Yoongi given his proximity to Seokjin.
‘Isn’t the president going to kill him?’
‘What?’ Namjoon frowns, then finally turns to Jeongguk. ‘Oh, Seokjin’s just mad because he personally did Yoongi’s make up. Don’t worry about it.’
Onstage, Jimin and Jongin lock hands and raise themselves on their toes. Hoseok lets out a groundbreakingly uncouth whoop and starts clapping, and Yoongi’s ensuing keens are thankfully drowned by the audience’s applause.
Jeongguk missed about sixty percent of the performance, but seeing that Yoongi’s under the tablecloth now and sobbing in an openly laughing Taehyung’s lap, and that Hoseok’s now thumping the table with his fist and roaring— well, there’s not too much to be regretted.
For a bunch of near-princes, none of the boys have a second thought to rolling their sleeves up and helping to clear the mess hall for the post-performance party. (The celebration is attributed to Jimin and Jongin's stunning success, for appearances. In reality, the rascals that make up the populations of Bang, Excelsior, and Park and Kim would’ve found any excuse to celebrate. Their exhausted parents would’ve also found any excuse to retire to the outdoors. Jeongguk might not have a social life, but he’s aware of the holistic concept.)
In the absence of Hoseok, who’s on a poppers run, Taehyung is in lead of the arrangements, yelling instructions punctuated with scratchy hollers of pure mirth. Jeongguk should be helping instead of leaning against a stack of chairs and staring at how Taehyung’s shirt fits over his chest, but then again, none of the council is doing the grunt work. Neither them, nor Exo; he can see their president exchanging smiles with Seokjin as if both are convinced that their dancing angel did kill the other one. (Meanwhile, Jeongguk’s convinced that if Jimin didn’t have such a puissant age complex, he’d be screwing Jongin’s brains out by now.)
The girls from Park and Kim are setting up the bar. It’s almost heartwarming to see all these students, in their fancy clothes with their hair and their nails done, not giving a damn about their clutches and phones with Gucci covers as they argue about whether the punch needs more vodka or not (in the words of one beautiful girl, listen, don’t pretend we’re adding more than three drops of juice to this bowl of piss ). There are times when he wonders if the real adults sit with their margaritas and think about how their children are doing drugs, but he’s never put more than a few seconds into thinking about others’ parents.
The unmistakable smell of weed hits him again, accompanied by Yoongi himself. His eyes are glassy and red, but a half-hour break and a half-virgin joint have clearly done wonders for his emotional outburst. He has his usual expression on, which Jeongguk would refrain from (but Jimin delights in) calling a resting bitchface.
‘Not giving them a hand, your majesty?’
Jeongguk straightens up and clears his throat. He tries to think of an explanation other than Kim Taehyung is really handsome when he’s ordering people around and then figures that it could very well pass, given that Yoongi’s high.
Before he can say anything, though, Yoongi’s eyes go wide as he spots something over Jeongguk’s shoulder.
‘Oh my God,’ he says in a loud, wheezy whisper. ‘Oh my God, it’s Joonmyun.’
‘The very man. Where’s Jimin.’
At that, Yoongi quite literally snaps out of it. That is to say, he snaps his head back towards Jeongguk with ferocious, shark-like instinct. The look he gives him is the exact hilariously lucid one that someone who’s rolled up a big fat one usually has; like he’s about to deliver the doctrine of the decade.
‘You don’t know anything, ’ Yoongi says, and Jeongguk grits his teeth to keep the laughter in. ‘Just. There are things that you know, and then there’s...there are the, things. That you don’t know, those things.’
‘Right,’ Jeongguk says slowly. ‘Well, Jimin must be getting dressed for the party.’
Jeongguk doesn’t find the root of the Kim Joonmyun mystery until Jimin enters later, flanked by Namjoon and Hoseok. The information is first revealed to him in the form of Hoseok (also still high) letting out another of his victorious screeches, also upon spotting Joonmyun (who remains oblivious).
‘JIMIN,’ Hoseok says. ‘IT’S YOUR SUGAR DADDY.’
‘Which one,’ Jimin sighs.
Seokjin answers that one. ‘The intern.’
Taehyung explains ten minutes later, by the drinks table. (Taehyung often ends up being the one to explain, since no one else really has time for Jeongguk. Jeongguk accepted this fact the same day he accepted that Taehyung always would have time for him.)
As it turns out, Joonmyun has the reputation of being a very dapper bachelor despite being all of twenty-one years old, and dresses the part. To such an extent, that Jimin (upon meeting him first) mistook him for an actual father instead of the theoretical daddy, and proceeded to fuck him accordingly.
‘It’s been two years,’ Taehyung says, fixing his mostly-rum-not-really-Coke. ‘We just don’t let him live it down. Plus Joonmyun’s pretty helpful too.’
‘What do you mean?’ Jeongguk considers getting a drink, then decides to wait for the music to start. (He doesn’t really dance unless it’s waltzing with his parents’ friends. But he has a core-deep bond with all music that doesn’t remind him of childhood, and that means, in surprising severity, every blood-pumping track that has ever played at a nightclub.)
‘Well,’ Taehyung replies, ‘there was this one time he got trashed and called Namjoon crying. He was like, I want to drink a mixer of vodka and Jimin’s—’
‘Maybe if flavour of the month could buy him some fashion sense,’ Seokjin’s voice cuts in, and Jeongguk turns to him. Seokjin has his own adult-like margarita (according to Hoseok, man doesn’t know how to have fun) and is talking to Yoongi, who’s listening quite solemnly for someone who has rolling paper stuck in his hair. ‘Don’t think I didn’t spot that spring 2014 Balmain.’
‘Amen,’ Yoongi says gravely. ‘And anyway, like, have you seen Kyungsoo? He’s like...so fucking short, like. That’s a lot of terror compressed into...a very small thing.’
Jeongguk raises a perturbed eyebrow at Taehyung just as Kyungsoo himself comes to the table. It has to be Kyungsoo; going by the ice-cold murder on his face, Yoongi’s comment could only mean him. (Jeongguk doesn’t play favourites; he tells it like it is. Kyungsoo does look like a lot of terror was compressed into a very small thing.)
‘No juice?’ Kyungsoo says distastefully, apparently not having heard Yoongi at all. Jeongguk wants to point out the bottles right behind him, but that would involve speaking to Kyungsoo, and he doesn’t want to accidentally start a gang war.
‘Are you surprised?’ That’s Sehun, a good head taller than Kyungsoo, voice nasal and too condescending for a fellow second-year. ‘This place breeds binge-drinkers like it breeds horses.’
‘And we can afford both, even,’ Yoongi replies lazily. ‘Imagine that.’
Sehun turns and smiles brightly at Yoongi, eyes turning into dark crescents, and Seokjin rivals it with a smile of his own. When Jeongguk looks away from the frankly magnetic sight and back at Taehyung, Taehyung’s holding back a laugh, which he shoots down with half of his mostly-rum-not-really-Coke.
(As it also turns out, the student councils of Bang Private College for Boys, and Excelsior Academy, do not exactly get along.)
At some point the party explodes into action, with a ferocity unlike most others that Jeongguk has seen, even including the beaches of Busan with their pills and strung-up lights.
The speakers are set to go; the disc jockey has taken over. Jeongguk squints at him for a good three minutes before realising that it’s the tattooed beanpole from earlier, eyes already bright with alcohol and voice almost as rough as Taehyung, yelling at everyone to light this motherfucking place on fire, this is Park Chanyeol and I’ll throw you out if you don’t make noise. It makes Jeongguk laugh but it’s enthusiastic, and most of the population in the mess hall is already too drunk to care.
Chanyeol’s good with the music, and Jeongguk likes that. Everyone loves the music, and Jeongguk likes that. There’s a lot of alcohol, and Jeongguk likes that. Watch out for this, Chanyeol’s song shouts. Watch out for this, watch out for this.
He isn’t the type to dance with a crowd or engage in bar conversation, but he does enjoy nursing a drink or five and letting the music rile him up in his own way— by himself, the way he’s always done things. He doesn’t worry about getting honest or confessional while drunk— he doesn’t talk to people when he’s drunk; has never had to make an effort to hold the truth back.
However, Bang has changed everything; changed parties too. He’s managed to skip most of the council’s “celebrations”, which mostly involve Taehyung and Jimin consuming quantities of alcohol that no one should, and Yoongi and Hoseok indulging in equal amounts of weed, while Seokjin and Namjoon discuss the stock market. But even he didn’t feel like missing out on this one, and he was right. There’s so many people, after all, and if nothing else, he’s here to see Taehyung dance.
And oh, does Taehyung dance. Nowhere near the level of Jimin and Jongin who look much less like the Lord’s angels than they previously did— but holding his own with the way his shoulders roll, the sheer joy on his face, the way he bites his lips and pushes up against someone here, someone there, hands flirting with the hems of blazers and skirts, fingers twirling some girl’s hair out of its braid as she swats laughingly at his arm. He’s handsome, good God, and this punch really is just three drops juice. Chanyeol’s good with the music, with its agitated notes and triumphant drops, making everyone yell and cheer like they weren’t being sophisticated earlier in the evening.
He’s so focused on Taehyung that he doesn’t even notice when the boy’s right in front of him. It takes him a moment before he even register’s Taehyung’s presence, and by then Taehyung’s already backing him up against the wall and grinning at him. Not his carefree one, no, this is something much sharper and equally sure of itself. Taehyung’s sweating, a couple of buttons undone on his white shirt, sleeves rolled up messily, triangles of fabric sticking out against his skin. Jeongguk can barely tell their colour in the gold-interrupted dark. The summer night is navy, the tall windows of the hall opened to let the breeze and moonlight in, the only other light from the chandeliers high up— some sick, sick, sick in the best way— some sick fusion of the tradition of this establishment and the nihilism of its students.
Jeongguk likes that. Jeongguk likes Taehyung, who’s taking his glass out of his hands, then taking his hands.
Without a word, Taehyung starts walking backwards, leading Jeongguk right into the fray. As he steps into the light, Jeongguk sees him more and more. His shirt, untucked from his trousers; his hair, ruffled and brown, edges swept aside while some strands stick to his forehead with sweat. The glint in his eyes that has nothing to do with what he or Jeongguk have had to drink. The way he’s looking at Jeongguk, like he isn’t just picking out his next victim to dance with.
No, Jeongguk doesn’t think Taehyung wants to dance.
He’s not wrong. Taehyung doesn’t stop at the dance floor, but cuts through it. Jeongguk vaguely hears Hoseok’s voice somewhere, spots the Jung sisters from Park and Kim knocking back test tube shots, thinks that was possibly Jackson Wang with his shirt off. But Taehyung’s hands are still around his, and Jeongguk has never seen a sight like this before.
Taehyung cuts through the crowd— holding Jeongguk’s hands, looking into his eyes— cuts through the dancing students, takes Jeongguk to one of the tables they’ve pushed up against the wall, close to the action but not quite. Jimin’s there, hair a shade darker, lips too. Gaze too, when he spots Jeongguk.
‘Motherfucker,’ Jimin laughs, and Jeongguk spots what’s on the table. Lime, salt.
Tres Cuatro y Cinco.
‘It’s almost midnight,’ Taehyung says. ‘It’s time to get the party started.’
Time to get the party started. For Jeongguk, the party started with the music— but the way Taehyung is looking at him, he realises that these are animals of a different kind. There is no satiation for them, no such thing as enough. He feels it in the grip of Taehyung’s hands, and sees it in the glint in his eyes; it’s time to get the party started.
To be fair, Taehyung would look like sin to everyone in this room, lying down the way he does once his waist hits the table. His shirt standing out against the polished wood as he unbuttons it slowly and splays it out, legs spread apart like shame was never a concept. To be fair, Taehyung looks like sin. To be fair, Jeongguk has never worried about getting confessional when drunk.
That’s when Jimin hops daintily onto an adjoining table, raises his arms soundlessly. Of course he doesn’t need to shout when he’s one of the twin stars of the evening— everyone’s been waiting for him to say something. And sure enough, even though Jeongguk’s eyes are stuck on Taehyung’s horizontal form, he registers the music slowing down, the multiple gazes of the entire floor— and him, all alone, in front of the table and Taehyung’s spread legs.
Jimin says nothing even once the attention’s on him. Instead, he points with both hands down to Taehyung and Jeongguk, and that explains itself. The crowd cheers and all at once the music comes back on like life filling what was previously a vacuum, and Jeongguk can hear it stronger, tenfold, in his buzzing ears. To be fair, Taehyung looks like sin.
He doesn’t look at Jeongguk. Not when he takes a thick wedge of lime and holds it ready between his fingers. Not when Jimin rubs another wedge over the ridge of Taehyung’s collarbone and shakes out a line of salt over it. He doesn’t look at Jeongguk when Jimin uncaps the small mouth of the bottle and splays a hand over his ribs, holding his stomach taught as he trickles the tequila into his navel the way Taehyung trickled that absinthe into Jeongguk’s mouth weeks ago, and Jeongguk wonders if every inch of this attraction was always meant to be drenched in lighter fluid, gasoline.
Taehyung doesn’t look at Jeongguk when he puts the wedge in his mouth. He closes his eyes, instead, and curls one of his hands. Curls the fingers, two of them, silently calling Jeongguk forward— and Jeongguk, well, Jeongguk has never disobeyed an instruction given to him by Kim Taehyung.
He goes forward. The crowd behind him is so oppressive and exhilarating that he’s sensing things in the air that he never even knew were present. So he goes forward, and doesn’t stop at the side of the table— walks right up to the breadth, where Taehyung’s legs curl at the knees below the edge. Stands right between them, looking up at Taehyung’s body like it’s laid out just for him. (And it’s laid out just for him.)
The buzzing in his ears is a roaring now, and even though Jeongguk has perfected the art of tuning out all sound and following his own rhythm, this is so thrilling. It’s just like Taehyung to pull him into something so intimate and do it in front of a crowd, try it, beautiful, I’m watching you, like Taehyung was born with Jeongguk’s weaknesses memorised—
Jeongguk doesn’t have weaknesses.
Lick, slam, suck. He knows the order, but as Taehyung moves his knees higher to bracket Jeongguk’s hips, he has to remind himself that it’s lick, slam, suck. Not bite, bite, bite.
Blow a kiss, the speakers are punching, like his heart against the inside of his chest. Blow a kiss. Fire a gun. This is the remix.
With the edge of the table digging into his thighs, Jeongguk looms above Taehyung and looks down at his naked skin. The little cut on his lower lip that must sting like sparks with the lime, the way his sharp teeth are digging so strong into the fruit. The salt on his collarbone, coarse and wet with sweat; the dip of his sternum that Jeongguk shouldn’t be looking at, just like Taehyung isn’t looking at him, eyes closed.
This is the remix.
Jeongguk looms above Taehyung for a moment. Then he rests his palms over Taehyung’s shirt on the table and bends down to fit his lips around the salt. Laves his tongue over the sinking taste of it and shudders because only Taehyung will feel it, and drags his open mouth down the line of Taehyung’s chest— his skin is blazing like he’s running a fever; his skin is perfect like that fever’s a fire— to come to a stop at his navel.
The tequila is good, and Jeongguk likes that. Breathes and sucks it in, doesn’t miss the way Taehyung’s muscles twist under his lips, because Taehyung knows only he will feel it. Stays for a moment longer just for the last of it, before he’s going up again to wrench the lime from Taehyung’s lips.
The citrus shock almost makes him stumble back, but losing isn’t an option— not even when that option is so, so sweet. Instead, he chews on the lime and steps off, stares at Taehyung’s face, his still-closed eyes. The way he breathes in through his mouth, lips now parted with nothing between them. Even as Jimin announces that the party has officially begun, lust away, you hellbound motherfuckers.
But Jeongguk doesn’t move any further. He waits at the side, looks at Taehyung, picks the lime out, and he waits. Seconds, and seconds, as the music rises and the tables are dragged out and Jimin disappears in the movement of it all. Somewhere in the movement of it all, it’s only him and Taehyung in a mess of dark and light blurs, the burn of lime and the salt of sweat.
Then Taehyung opens his eyes, slowly, and he turns his head to look at Jeongguk— he knew exactly where to look. Keeps their gazes locked as he raises a hand, keeps their gazes locked as he snakes it down his own body.
Taehyung dips the tips of his middle and ring finger into his navel and swirls them around, keeps their gazes locked. And when he brings those fingers up and pushes them between his shining red lips, he keeps their gazes locked. When he licks them, he keeps their gazes locked.
Jeongguk swallows, and it’s laced with much more and much less of Taehyung’s taste than he wants.
The party ends at four. Jeongguk’s in bed by one.
He’s the kind of drunk where it doesn’t take over him completely; won’t until he’s done. Instead, it makes his head heavy and his movements swing with inertia; arm falling to the bed when he tries to unbutton his trousers the first time. Head sinking into the pillows, the firmness of the mattress under him such cool pressure against his sweaty body.
He’s the kind of drunk where setting an alarm is an afterthought; he trusts his morning self to wake up and set one later, doesn’t care if he doesn’t— he’s already tossing his phone, only listening in case it hits the floor. He’s the kind of drunk where there is only one thing on his mind.
Maybe Taehyung, when he wrapped those wet lips around those wet fingers, wanted Jeongguk to wonder about how they’d look wrapped around other things. Maybe, but.
But Jeongguk knows Taehyung; he’s seen him on the turf and the floor and heard him say I want to see in that voice that still gives him goosebumps, still makes his gut ache with this want , this dull-toothed bite. The attention— Jeongguk knows how fierce Taehyung’s attention it, and every moment that he spends as the subject of it feels like his turn under the sun.
Taehyung’s eyes holding Jeongguk’s gaze as his lips touched his fingers; a show for Jeongguk only. And Jeongguk, all Jeongguk wants to do is sink to his knees and see if he can earn that attention. See if he can earn it, but he can’t, so he lets his head sink into the pillows, lifts his hand again.
The door’s locked, the window’s closed. His trousers have been straining since he bit down on the lime in Taehyung’s mouth, and he’s the kind of drunk where there's only one thing on his mind. So when he wraps a hand around his length, he isn’t surprised. The surprise had come when he’d felt that stirring of arousal in the first place; the fact that it came from outside his own planned thought trajectory surprised him. That the image of Taehyung looking at him— and only him and only him— could catch him off-guard and make his stomach twist; that surprised him.
Attention. Taehyung wrapping his lips around his fingers, but before that, crooking those fingers and pulling Jeongguk so easily; as if on a string. As if on reins.
Control. That was what surprised him, before the lime.
Jeongguk’s past that surprise now. No, Jeongguk’s just ungracefully hard and wants to come with the thought of taking those commanding fingers into his mouth, to choke on them, taste the lime and liquor. Take Taehyung’s cock next, his hands behind his back and Taehyung’s on his head, unforgiving and focused.
He gathers the slip-slide of wetness on the head, trailing it down the sides and changing the angle, shuddering at the heat of the blood rushing under his skin, both in his palm and the pulsing veins of the length it’s gripping. The air’s thick and hot and making him sweat more than before as he moves his fist, slow but thorough, letting his brain do the work he’s denying his body the chance for.
He knows Taehyung’s too smart to stick his fingers in his mouth to say what if this was your cock, knows that’s not why he did it. Knows what a clever fucking thing Taehyung is, how clever he’d be with his fingers down Jeongguk’s throat, down Jeongguk’s clothes, replacing Jeongguk’s desperate grip with his own. Those long fingers, wet with spit and alcohol and so sure around Jeongguk, maybe even with those black gloves on.
And then maybe he could have Taehyung’s attention. Every Taehyung— the silly one and the one that’s poetry in motion and everything in between, looking at Jeongguk as he moves his hand, bites his lip, flicks his wrist to see what that does to Jeongguk, because he’s paying attention and Jeongguk has earned it, earned the control he gets to give up to Taehyung.
Earned control, and not discipline, that he can give up to Taehyung.
Jeongguk doesn’t moan. He grits his teeth, closes his eyes, focuses inwards. Turns all that sound that’s begging to fly out from somewhere deeper than his throat, into a nervous, swirling, flickering energy just under his skin, joining the heat flaring from where his hand’s moving, faster now. He gets more frantic with every stroke, when he passes over the spots where he’s most sensitive, as if his hand’s moving of its own accord. The sound gathers and fills him up, buzzing loudly like the crackling of static, the timbre of Taehyung’s voice when he commands Jeongguk, stop, go. The timbre of Taehyung’s command, and how much Jeongguk wants to fucking listen, so much that he swallows his own noises to hear.
Good boy. The memory is sudden, fitting right in with what he last saw. Jeongguk’s eyes fly open and then squeeze shut, so hard he sees phosphenes over the image of Taehyung above him, one hand tight on his jaw, forcing his mouth open, the fingers of the other curling against his lips.
Those phosphenes are still fluttering when Jeongguk raises his other hand, passes over his hipbones and ribs, touching briefly at his throat— cool and startling against the skin there— before he brings his fingers to his mouth. He can’t force his own jaw open; he can’t control himself. But he takes three of his fingers and pushes them in, teeth grazing against them as they fill up his mouth, press against his tongue.
They take up space, quiet his frustrating emptiness, but it’s not enough. When he curls them, he thinks about Taehyung’s thin leather gloves, how long his fingers are, his bones in Jeongguk’s grip when Jeongguk stole that dangerous dye from him. The curl of them in his navel, their slender silhouettes against Taehyung’s red lips, the black gloves, everything that makes them different from Jeongguk’s; everything that makes Jeongguk’s own fingers, clumsy but filling, different from Taehyung’s. They quiet his emptiness, quiet him, force him to stay silent to listen better, but they’re not Taehyung.
His fingers are his own, they do what he wants them to do. He wants someone to tell him what to do; wants to follow instructions, be good. Wants someone to see how good he’s being, what a perfect little—
Taehyung says stop and Jeongguk stops. Taehyung says go and Jeongguk runs. Taehyung says I want to see and Jeongguk wants to show. He moves his hand faster, curls his fist tighter, pushes his fingers deeper. It’s a sequence of not enough and oh, oh, oh, because he can hear Taehyung’s voice but Taehyung’s at the party, shirt unbuttoned, hair sweaty, smirking at someone the way Jeongguk wants him to smirk down right now— and the hunger returns tenfold, the instinct to bite, bite, bite, swallow, keep it all for himself.
Attention, all his, only his. The bitter salt of Taehyung’s skin, the unbearable, unforgiving focus of his eyes. The timbre of his voice, the sharpness of their locked gazes. There’s something commanding about Taehyung and then there’s something commanding about how Taehyung speaks to Jeongguk— his voice, low like the lights and rough like the static, saying things, saying things to Jeongguk, saying — Good boy. Stop. Go.
He bites, and the reins snap, sizzle, flare heat up the column of his spine.
Jeongguk stills for a second— hips jack-knifing off the bed, heels digging into it— before he curls in on himself, exhaling long and harsh through his nose, before he opens his mouth and frees his fingers to take a shuddering gasp, turning on his side, wet hand gripping blindly at the sheets. He rides it out against the bed, damp hair stuck to his forehead, the corner of the pillow wet where he’s biting into it, soundlessly heaving through his orgasm as it fills him with heat, demanding, commanding, his turn in the sun.
Heaviness takes over as he comes down, every deep breath sending him into unthinking darkness. His hand’s still on himself, palm cupped as his hips jerk through the last of it, and he might just fall asleep like this. Half-naked and filled with Taehyung’s voice; a part of his head says he should always be like this.
Jeongguk opens his eyes, looks at the dimly-lit edges of the room. His head is heavy, sinking into the pillows; he hopes he’s set an alarm for tomorrow. Hopes Taehyung won’t look at him and know what he’s done, because if losing isn’t an option, admitting he lost is even less of one.
He dreams. He dreams, and he’s alive, and the edges of his life are brilliant and brilliant and brilliant.
The edges of the slender hands around his throat are brilliant. He can see them even when he closes his eyes.
Taehyung stays back on campus for the holidays, and Jeongguk knows it’s half for him.
He knows, because Taehyung actually leaves first, bags full of history books (they’ll all have to study over the summer) and mouth full of chatter; his brother’s hit a growth spurt and he can’t wait to see if they’re the same height now.
Having to study over the summer has nothing to do with their exams; they all aced the semester finals with the exception of Hoseok, whose degree is ornamental anyway. Seokjin comes in one afternoon with a stony expression and a ninety-eight that his brother will apparently never let him live down. Jimin’s pas de deux reinforces his position in every dance coach’s good books, which surprises no one. Yoongi scores a perfect hundred, which also surprises no one.
Taehyung’s excited about his grades too, as he packs his bags; talking his mouth off about how he almost fell asleep during the Opium Wars essay while Jeongguk watches from the doorway. He doesn’t ask if Jeongguk’s going home; none of them do, and Jeongguk doesn’t know if it’s apathy or sympathy. It’s always hard to tell when he thinks about all of them as a whole; harder even, if he focuses on Taehyung alone.
They don’t ask, and then they’re gone. Seokjin and Jimin leave first to one of their summer houses, followed by Namjoon and Hoseok. Yoongi and Taehyung are last, getting into Taehyung’s car late at night— Taehyung wants to drive himself, and Yoongi acquiesces after much grumbling about his driving— Taehyung loading their bags while Yoongi settles in the backseat with roughly forty pillows, a clip-on light, and a stack of Katekyou Hitman Reborn. Jeongguk waves them off and walks back, staring at the now-empty common room before going upstairs.
He doesn’t know if he misses them all, the wolf pack and the rest of his vacantly friendly classmates, but then again, he doesn’t quite know what missing someone is like. Just knows that absence is only conspicuous when preceded by presence. It does feel strange to cook his own dinner because there aren’t enough students to keep the mess hall open. (Not that Jeongguk isn’t a good cook. He’s fantastic, working with recipes copied by hand from his mother’s books even though he was never rewarded her supervision.)
He maintains his routine the best he can. The pool’s closed for maintenance but the gym’s still open, and the mornings are cool enough to jog on the grounds. Routine isn’t keeping himself busy; it’s routine. Missing a day won’t ruin his form, but it’ll be a twenty-four hour fault in what should be a perfect structure. Missing is unnecessary, even though it’s the holidays and Taehyung and Jimin aren’t blowing up his phone, making him wonder if he’s synonymous with the campus for them, blending into the summer landscape. Jeongguk’s never had friends like them— or friends at all— and if there were others willing to blow up his phone, then he’d be at the beach, not alone on the empty grounds.
Where are they, Jeon Jeongguk? Is Busan that far?
It’s also strange, not needing to tune noise out because there’s silence anyway, save for the crickets.
Funnily enough, it’s Taehyung’s return that makes that silence remarkable, because Taehyung’s the antithesis of it. Only a week after his departure, Jeongguk hears the main door of the house slam. A moment later, the stomping footsteps telling him that it’s either a student or a stampede come to a stop outside the common room door, and then it’s swinging open.
‘Hey,’ Taehyung says. ‘Wait, what the fuck.’
To be fair, Jeongguk’s surrounded by enough textbooks and graphing sheets for twenty students. He’s also on the floor at the low coffee table, laptop next to a mug of coffee that’s definitely gone cold, last he took a cringing sip. To be fair, it’s the common room, when Jeongguk’s never really studied here— which is exactly why he doesn’t know how to arrange any of it.
It’s possible, then, that Jeongguk’s been missing the wolf pack, as raucous and nasty as they are.
In the afternoon light, Taehyung looks like a vision for a second, before Jeongguk registers the scowl on his face. It makes his throat tighten; surely he’s not made Taehyung angry just by sitting and studying. Jeongguk’s throat is tight but his mind is already taking in the details. Pale shirt, dark pants, mud on his shoes, Jeongguk missed him, Jeongguk missed him even though he’s just been gone a week.
Then he sees Taehyung’s arm and it makes a little more sense.
His right sleeve is rolled up, and the tan skin of his forearm is— not broken, thank God, but bruised. A red-maroon that’ll be purple within the hour when Taehyung takes the ice off it, except there isn’t any ice, just the ugly, semi-circular bruise that makes Jeongguk leap off the floor.
‘What happened?’ he asks, already moving to Namjoon’s desk, which stores the first-aid kit and legal pills. ‘I thought you were in Daegu.’
‘I was,’ Taehyung says. ‘My parents threw me out.’
Taehyung rolls his eyes and steps inside, eyeing Jeongguk’s books distastefully before collapsing into one of the armchairs, wincing when his arm touches it. ‘I’m joking. I came to check on the colt. Evidently, it did not go well.’
Now— that Taehyung’s a brat, Jeongguk’s aware of. That he’s a serial terrible-decision maker, Jeongguk’s also aware of. That when he’s not winning in everything he does, he’s all around weird, Jeongguk’s also aware of.
(For example, he remembers one of the occasions when the conversation between them all took a turn from Yoongi walking in on Jimin taking nudes with a selfie stick and promptly doing an about turn, to the biggest jump scares any of them had given each other.
Seokjin’s contribution had been vetoed, of the day Yoongi and Hoseok bought matching fur-lined Gucci slippers that he called high fashion Crocs. They’d graciously accepted, however, the account of the day Hoseok met Taehyung’s first steed. Hoseok can take only up to a certain size of animal, Yoongi had explained. His dog? Sure. Anything bigger, not so much.
‘Are you kidding me?’ Jimin had said that day, resting his head in Namjoon’s lap, making Namjoon jump and nearly drop his book. ‘Taehyung sleeps eyes half-open, that’s the creepiest fucking shit I’ve ever seen.’
‘You guys, it’s not like he can help it.’
‘ Thank you, ’ Taehyung said emphatically, smiling at Namjoon then glaring at Jimin. ‘Namjoon’s my only friend.’
‘That’s because he snores like a fucking jackhammer.’)
Jeongguk knows Taehyung’s a brat, and his injured arm explains the look on his face. However, Taehyung wouldn’t be Taehyung if he didn’t constantly come up with things that catch people off-guard, which he demonstrates when asked what happened.
‘He bit me,’ Taehyung says darkly, and Jeongguk just looks at him, hears the petulant tone of his voice. ‘I got bit. Okay? I got bit by a fucking horse.’
One second Jeongguk’s standing next to Namjoon’s desk holding disinfectant and cotton; the next, he’s laughing. So hard that they fall out of his hands as he clutches the polished edge and wheezes. It takes over him before he knows it; the full picture of Taehyung’s murderous glare and sloppy posture too much in combination with what he just said.
Jeongguk doesn’t remember when he last laughed this hard, and he thinks Taehyung knows that too. Taehyung lifts himself up on an elbow; blinks before losing the glare for a grin, sudden and sweet, that then tones down into an exasperated smirk. Jeongguk is laughing, laughing, but he can’t stop seeing the most microscopic details of Taehyung’s expressions, and for a moment summer’s kingdom is reduced to this: a mess of papers on the carpeted floor, a beam of sunlight on Taehyung’s arched form, a smile tugging at Jeongguk’s face.
‘As much as your laugh makes my heart go jiggle wiggle boom,’ Taehyung says, ‘I’d appreciate if you actually brought that first-aid shit here. And then told me why you’ve turned our common room into a calculus exhibit.’
He explains the bite when Jeongguk’s cleaning it, without questioning why Jeongguk’s cleaning it. Explains that the colt— need to name him, I’ve been thinking, what d’you think of Razor— needs to be walked because he’s too dangerous to be be turned out like the other horses, but Taehyung still wants to keep him racing fit; also explains ruefully that he got ahead of himself.
‘It’s been over a month, hasn’t it?’ Jeongguk purses his lips when Taehyung winces at the press of the ice pack. ‘Since the day he arrived?’
‘Yep. Thought he’d warm up to me, but I couldn’t even get the halter on. Trainers were laughing their asses off. Chased me right to the doors, you should’ve seen my face.’
‘I did see it. You weren’t very happy.’
‘Damn right I wasn’t. I’m gonna have to spend such a shitton of time in the stall, get him used to it. You going anywhere?’
Jeongguk stares at the stained cotton and swallows. He wonders what Taehyung would do if he actually answered, said no, I do have a place I could go to, but Busan is far depending on where you’re looking from, but keeps staring instead. There are some truths to Jeongguk’s life, and this is one of them.
That night a driver comes by with all of Taehyung’s books and clothes, and Jeongguk hears the tinny sound of glam rock playing from two rooms over well into the night.
The pool reopens the second week, but the handful of remaining students only flock to it in the afternoons to cool off. Jeongguk crosses them once or twice; Kim Yugyeom from statistics on an inflatable raft, sipping lethargically from a dangerously horizontal bottle; Park Jihyo from Park and Kim with her girlfriend. There are jam sessions late into the night, boomboxes and guitars and dancing. Nothing too loud, nothing too demanding, just students in the spirit of summer, mixing some soju and ecstasy. Taehyung drags him along once or twice, showing up at his door on the stroke of midnight in shorts and floral shirts, ugly sandals, obnoxious grin.
No one’s at the pool in the mornings, because it’s not hot enough yet.
They take to it.
They take to everything; or rather, Taehyung takes to everything that Jeongguk’s always done alone. He’s the one to suggest hitting the pool when the sun is halfway up to dawn, and he laughs loud enough to scare the nesting birds when Jeongguk swears, startled at the cool water. He’s the one who cannonballs right in and splashes Jeongguk as if they’re children.
Jeongguk isn’t a morning person; he doesn’t care about the part of the day— he’s equally alert for all of them. He’s indifferent towards the clock outside of routine, but he does find Taehyung too loud for morning. The way he hollers without any respect for those entertaining the concept of sleeping in for the holidays, the way he swims, sharp and fast one moment but going under to grab Jeongguk’s ankles the next. He’s as good as Jeongguk; he pulls off underwater attacks because he anticipates all of Jeongguk’s defence moves.
Taehyung also always has a lot to say. On the days they skip the pool, Jeongguk goes for his run a little past six-thirty, and if Taehyung isn’t in the stall with the colt, he joins. When he joins, Jeongguk has to put his earphones away because Taehyung doesn’t understand the simple concept of not talking while jogging, even when it tires him. Jeongguk measures the breaths— and how often Taehyung loses his— between anecdotes, how his voice gets strained before he coughs, fuck, sorry, yeah, so Seokjin came in like ‘Which one of you fucks is catfishing as me?’. (Taehyung and Jimin, of course. Jeongguk refrains from pointing out that they hardly need to catfish, because apart from having a lot to say, Taehyung also has an exceptionally big head.)
Jeongguk has a routine, but then there’s Taehyung.
He inserts himself into that routine. Not with permission, but not by force. More than anything, it’s matter-of-fact. He doesn’t acknowledge how excited he’d been to see his family, how there’s no way he had his fill in five days; never acknowledges that he’s only with the colt half the time, cheerfully complaining about said colt the other half when he’s swimming with Jeongguk, studying with Jeongguk, eating with Jeongguk.
Three weeks in, Jackson Wang challenges him to a fencing match because Taehyung talks you up a lot, I don’t even know where you’re from. Jeongguk feels that rare dilemma, a rock and a hard place, but Taehyung pulls him aside and says, ‘He’ll never forgive you if you go easy. Hell, I’ll never forgive you.’
So Jeongguk doesn’t. He loses anyway. It’s new but he never took fencing at his old college; he knew there’d be fencers there like Jackson who actually wanted a career in it. Jeongguk’s almost compassionate like that, choosing not to engage— and hence be the best— in something when he knows it could hurt others. So he loses, and it’s new, but Jackson grins wide and friendly and says that it’s one of the most challenging matches he’s had in a while. Jeongguk wonders if this is how friends are made, or if it’s just that they’re maybe ten students staying back over the summer, and the campus is empty, and they’re the kings.
Taehyung inserts himself into Jeongguk’s routine. Jeongguk still does everything by himself in essence; listens to Taehyung talking about his dogs while he does his work; listens to the slight sound of Taehyung’s music coming from his earphones when they run in silence, but Jeongguk’s always run in silence anyway. Taehyung doesn’t strip him of being by himself; they both know it’s not a problem. Instead, Taehyung, Jeongguk thinks, is trying to separate by himself and alone into new definitions. Jeongguk works with his graphing calculator on his own in his head, but beside him in the common room that they’ve made into their den, Taehyung highlights dates in his third book of the day.
Jeongguk’s never had this before, someone waiting for him in the stairwell, even if just for a quick morning, see you at noon. He never sings or dances at the poolside parties, but he does dip his feet into the blue-lit water as Taehyung rolls up joints and talks shit about Exo, calls Baekhyun on the speakerphone to needle him. He talks more with Jackson and Jihyo and her girlfriend— Nayeon— laughs when Yugyeom insults one of their professors. Everyone talks about why they’ve stayed— didn’t want to lose touch with studies, wanted peace and quiet without the extended family. Taehyung says he came back to check on the colt but doesn’t mention why he stayed. Jeongguk looks at his arm, completely healed; Jeongguk looks at his smile.
No one asks him why he stayed. He doesn’t breathe a word about Busan.
Summer settles down like a blanket of heat, stifling at times but good and heavy on the bones. Sometimes, Taehyung actually leaves Jeongguk be. Plays his music down the hall and Skypes his siblings, loud enough for the sound to filter into the woods like the warm light of his window in a blurry trapezium over the trees. Taehyung gives him an illegally acquired key to the main building’s rooftop, and Jeongguk looks at it every night but doesn’t ever go.
In a way, it’s almost like that party after Jimin’s performance never happened. Jeongguk’s back to wondering if Taehyung just forgets those things, forgets to be that person the next morning. If it’s only Jeongguk who keeps an obsessive account of everything that happened from day one. Taehyung never brings up the Tres Cuatro y Cinco, and Jeongguk’s left to remember his fingers in his mouth by himself. Compartmentalisation is strange when someone else is doing the work for him; Taehyung is different every morning and night. Sharp glowing edges smoothed over in an instant by his smile, cheerful jabs at Jeongguk’s ninety-degree handwriting but wandering fingers by the poolside. Never touching his skin but ghosting as much over his shirt as alcohol permits.
Jeongguk doesn’t know what to make of it— or Taehyung in general— but by the time the fourth week sets in, moving along with Taehyung’s flow is no longer a decision he makes over and over. It’s just another part of his routine.
But there are nights when he finds himself lonely without others, without Taehyung. And he doesn’t know if that’s supposed to become routine or not.
Then the library reopens, and Taehyung stops compartmentalising.
Jeongguk never saw it coming, but he isn’t surprised— when it happens, he realises that he’d stopped trying to figure Taehyung out long ago.
While he mostly studies in his room, he also has a fixed two hours that he spends in the library. Despite it all (or the root of it all) he has a theoretical, intellectual, perhaps conditioned respect for places like these that clearly belong to an institution. Libraries, grounds, auditoriums.
He’s in the library from six to eight, before dinner. He also has a fixed place; not in the back where students meet to have what they think is unholy sex against the religion collection, and not in the front with the librarian-enforced peace and quiet. No, Jeongguk has a desk for eight on the second floor, with a window that overlooks the three grounds. The green, the field, the turf.
Taehyung joins him on the fourth day, after Jeongguk answers his text of dude hangover dying where u at honestly. He regrets it a little— the library’s one of the only spots on campus that remain solely his; Taehyung and everyone he’s brought Jeongguk in touch with have taken over the rest. He should’ve seen it coming when Taehyung and Jimin started entering his room without knocking, but he didn’t. Just like he didn’t see this coming; Taehyung stumbling over to his table with messy hair, setting down his stack of books right beside Jeongguk with a tired smile.
‘I thought you were hungover,’ Jeongguk says, pulling his own books closer.
‘The Cold War nasty isn’t going to care about that,’ comes the reply, and Jeongguk snorts, turns back to his laptop. (One of Taehyung’s idiosyncrasies is referring to professors as nasties, with the sole exception of his master, who was demoted to meanie when she teared up at a picture of his new puppy.) ‘Besides, I have a sense of shame around you, I gotta work when you’re working.’
‘Are you implying that you actually have a sense of shame with certain people?’
Taehyung narrows his eyes, pretends to consider. ‘Okay, shame’s a stretch but I can totally comport myself. Like Seokjin says, decorum, bitch.’
‘I’ve never heard Seokjin swear.’
‘Bullshit. Man swears more than he breathes. Should’ve heard him last time the bed thing happened.’
Jeongguk lowers his screen, squints when the sunlight reflects off it tenfold, lowers it further and squints at Taehyung instead. ‘I’ve been meaning to ask. What’s this about Seokjin’s bed?’
‘Oh, right.’ Taehyung pauses the rocking of his chair, suspended backwards, hair all brown and golden, eyes glittering with mischief in the sun. He falls back down with a muted thump, leans forward with a childish smirk. ‘Okay, you’re gonna love this.’
‘I don’t think I am, but go on.’
‘You are. It’s a house rule to love things that annoy Seokjin, okay? You’d better play along.’
‘Just tell me, Taehyung.’
‘Okay.’ Taehyung sweeps his books aside dramatically; Jeongguk catches a couple of English titles. ‘Okay, so Seokjin’s, like, ace, right? And aro too, like this guy just doesn’t give a fuck. His most intense relationship is with his personal buyer and, like, Yoongi. Though that’s only because Yoongi never fixes his roots and Seokjin’s like, if you’re going to bleach at least patch up your roots.’
‘Go on.’ Jeongguk has gleaned Seokjin’s disinterest in engaging romantically or sexually, and his weaponisation of it; it’s an observation that comes not in bullet points but as a retrospective understanding of how something functions as a whole. A slowly-forming picture with their individual idiosyncrasies as the details making it up, their public personalities the principal strokes. He’s sure there are many more things that he knows about the wolf pack that only come to the mind when prompted. ‘What does this have to do with his bed?’
‘I’m getting there, pipe down, Socrates.’ Taehyung rocks his chair back again, fixes his knees under the edge of the table. Jeongguk wishes he wouldn’t, the angle of the sunlight is getting really distracting and Taehyung’s going to catch him staring. ‘So he thinks sex is for shitheads, right? Like, he’s not repulsed or anything, we’d never bug him about it otherwise. He just thinks it’s stupid as fuck.’
‘An acceptable point of view. And?’
‘So,’ Taehyung stage-whispers, falling forward again, so threateningly close to Jeongguk, ‘it’s a rite of passage to have sex in his bed.’
Jeongguk blinks at him. His hair shifted when he came forward, so that it’s falling into his eyes boyishly. Then he registers what Taehyung just said, and wishes his face was expressive, because he’d give anything to fully convey the contempt he feels towards this idea without having to voice it. Unfortunately, he has to settle for talking.
‘That’s the most ridiculously immature thing I’ve ever heard of.’
‘It drives him up the wall.’ Taehyung sounds delighted. ‘But like, fake drives him up the wall, it’s beautiful. We leave ratings on his letterpad and he keeps them all.’
‘I refuse to believe this.’
‘Jeongguk.’ Jeongguk’s heart speeds up; maybe because Taehyung’s so involved and amused, maybe because Jeongguk never thought they’d be friends, maybe because he likes how his name sounds in Taehyung’s mouth. ‘He leaves condoms and lube in the drawer.’
That snaps him out of it; he snorts and shakes his head, stares out at the green, the cloudless blue sky. ‘Has he ever caught someone in the act?’
‘All the time. We jump out the window. Jiminnie doesn’t ‘cause he’s too pretty to run.’
‘Oh, don’t let it die. Ask more questions.’
Jeongguk huffs again, looks back at Taehyung’s crooked smile and shining eyes. ‘I don’t know, what do you want me to ask? What thread count his sheets are?’ He tries a smile of his own and tilts his head.
‘Oh, he smiles!’ Taehyung falls forward, fast this time, hair flying up. ‘Stop the presses, crocodile boy knows how to smile!’
Jeongguk says nothing, smiles wider despite himself when he recalls laughing in the common room, a month ago now. These moments should probably feel more monumental, more all-encompassing and dramatic; I never exactly laughed before, I never exactly smiled. But they aren’t; they come without preamble or fanfare, whether it’s him suppressing them or them suppressing him. He never saw them coming, but he isn’t surprised.
‘Oh, there’s the smile again!’ Taehyung’s laughing now, honey slow and sunny sweet, as he rocks his chair back. Jeongguk wonders if he himself would be good-natured if he had something like a personality, but mostly he smiles. ‘What a smile, beautiful. Glad I put it there.’
Taehyung comes forward again, and he changes the angle of his chair so that he’s falling right towards Jeongguk, slowly and deliberately, and he stops compartmentalising.
Taehyung is close. Taehyung is close now, and Jeongguk doesn’t know what to do, which is new. Taehyung’s so close that Jeongguk can tell apart the shades of brown in his hair; can see the different flecks of caramel and gold in his eyes; can smell the sharp scent of his cologne as if it’s Jeongguk’s own.
‘Do you want to?’ he whispers, and Jeongguk’s chest caves a little. ‘That’s what you should ask. Do you want to?’
Jeongguk doesn’t need him to complete that question. Do you want to feel those sheets for yourself? Do you want to fuck in someone else’s bed, hot and funny and wrong? Do you want to talk about this?
Taehyung is closer than anyone has ever been. And Jeongguk, giving up the only place that’s only his, doesn’t know what to do.
Then Taehyung rocks his damned chair back again, away from Jeongguk, falls away. The moment falls away, but it only pulls Jeongguk with it.
‘You think you’re really smart,’ Taehyung says, a detached amusement in his voice. ‘You are. But not as much as you think you are.’
Jeongguk looks at his keyboard.
‘You try not to be interesting, is that it?’ Taehyung says, and if it was someone else he’d wonder how they got from coordinate A to coordinate B. But this is Taehyung, who picks into the roots of everything Jeongguk does so well that it catches Jeongguk himself off-guard. ‘You’re not playing hard-to-get, I know. You just think this is the easy way out.’
Jeongguk won’t pretend Taehyung’s smarter than him. Ahead in experience, yes. But not smarter, for the sheer fact that Taehyung doesn’t know the facts; how far Busan is, the pure hundreds of Jeongguk’s grades, what he dreams about at night. And then again, Taehyung isn’t Jeongguk; looks into everything Jeongguk does and sees a reasoning different from the mechanics.
This belongs to that reasoning.
‘You think no one sees you?’ Taehyung says. Jeongguk wonders if this was ever about Seokjin’s bed or Taehyung’s hangover or the Tres Cuatro y Cinco, or if it’s just about the night with the sirens when Jeongguk, a stranger, took Taehyung’s hand and swallowed the blame. Taehyung knows things about him that Jeongguk didn’t know himself, but Jeongguk doesn’t even know if Taehyung’s a genius, or just moody, or exceptionally deceptive. If this is a whim or a plan. ‘You think you’re that smart?’
Jeongguk wants to avoid Taehyung’s gaze, look away, but that would be defeat and he isn’t in a new place for defeat. So he looks right into those caramel and gold flecks, and Taehyung continues.
‘I’ve seen you fencing,’ he says. ‘Seen you working. Seen you making friends and smiling at dogs, shit.’ Rocks his chair back, and this time Jeongguk knows he’ll turn. Falls forward, hands flying out to balance. One on the desk, one on Jeongguk’s shoulder like he’d planned this all along.
‘I know what college you’re from, Jeon Jeongguk,’ he says, steady, casual, and Jeongguk’s chest caves again. ‘I just don’t know why you’re not there anymore.’
He can smell the spicy cinnamon of Taehyung’s toothpaste. A part of him notes clinically that he could punch Taehyung in the throat right now, like he should’ve done when the fire alarm first went off. He’s in his right to resent Taehyung for rifling through records (Yoongi and Seokjin wouldn’t have breathed a word) and hunting up names that shouldn’t be hunted up.
‘Jeon Jaehyuk Academy,’ Taehyung whispers. ‘Why would you leave Jeon Academy?’
He’s in his right to resent Taehyung, punch him in the throat, burn evidence. But instead, Jeongguk looks into his eyes and repeats the words mentally. Jeon Academy. Why would you leave Jeon Academy?
'You aren’t even trying to hit me.’
Why would you leave Jeon Academy?
‘You want a way out,’ and Taehyung leans in ever closer when he makes that full circle; you’re not playing hard to get, I know. ‘But you let me in.’
Is Busan that far?
Jeongguk’s eyes are burning with the effort not to blink, so he closes them; he’ll see Taehyung anyway. When he opens them Taehyung’s still looking at him, his fingertips making a slow climb over the side of his neck, behind his ear, in his hair. It tickles and burns and sparks on his skin; it’s brilliant.
‘You let me in,’ Taehyung repeats, quietly. Jeongguk can feel every movement of his hand, so slow and careful through his hair like he’s waiting to see when Jeongguk, if Jeongguk— ‘And now if you stop me, I win. If you don’t stop me, I still win.’
Jeongguk tries to breathe past the malfunctioning spark in his throat, and Taehyung mouths good boy.
‘I always win,’ is what he says out loud, and it doesn’t sound the same as losing is not an option.
The moment spills. Trickles and tinkles like absent fingers over piano keys, the sunlight turning to sounds; chimes and sparkles. The spark in Jeongguk’s throat flits from vein to vein, and when Taehyung pulls his hand away, he trails it over Jeongguk’s jaw. Over the spark in his throat.
‘Four hundred,’ he says suddenly.
‘The thread count,' he continues. 'Seokjin doesn’t like dense sheets.’
The moment cools. There Taehyung is, grinning like nothing happened, compartmentalising for Jeongguk. Making it easier.
‘Incredible,’ Jeongguk says finally, because it’s time to compartmentalise. ‘The fact that you know that is terrifying.’
‘Pot and kettle, darling. I know you’ve added it to your inventory.’
He knows Taehyung knows that because Taehyung knows him. So he lets the moment pass and doesn’t reach up to touch the shadow of Taehyung’s hand on his throat.
Jeongguk is a fantastic cook, with a black journal of recipes hand-copied from his mother’s books, past midnight in the light of the walk-in pantry. What makes him fantastic is his ability to follow instructions down to every stroke of the pen, tried and tested methods, practiced mastery with knives and skillets.
Seokjin, however, is a fantastic cook because he loves cooking. The only reason Jeongguk doesn’t lament the closing of the mess hall— despite cooking with Taehyung being quite disastrous and existentially upsetting— is because he would’ve missed the experience of Seokjin’s food otherwise, in more ways than one.
The mess hall is still closed when Seokjin returns, because he’s back two and a half weeks earlier than expected. More importantly— with Yoongi in tow. Jeongguk’s nurture makes him raise his hackles the moment something extraordinary happens— like this— but what surprises him more is Taehyung’s reaction.
That is to say, one too-warm evening when the thick air smells acutely like cut grass, the boarding house’s main door opens with a bang, and Yoongi’s throaty lisp floats through the air.
‘—never going to hear the end of it,’ he’s saying. ‘You know Hoseok latches onto shit.’
Jeongguk straightens up and shuts his textbook with a finger on page six hundred, while Taehyung simply drops his own, eyebrows climbing to his hairline. Just then, Yoongi’s voice is joined by another.
‘Well, he is fraternising with the enemy. No amount of latching on is going to refute that.’
At Seokjin’s voice, Taehyung’s lips part in his signature grin, the midnight candy one. Jeongguk doesn’t know why he’s that delighted, but then again, Taehyung would find a way to be delighted about wet cement. So Jeongguk watches as he tries to leap off his beanbag, catches his heel and falls, then leaps up again, undeterred.
‘He was like, just ‘cause I don’t have unresolved sexual tension with the entirety of Exo and don’t share your orientation, so I brought up Namjoon’s ex-girlfriend and he was like Namjoon doesn’t count.’
‘It is true that Namjoon’s pathetic love life isn’t a statistically relevant value—’ Seokjin’s scathing evaluation is interrupted by Taehyung flying to the doorway and flinging himself on him and Yoongi. ‘What the — oh, Taehyung.’
‘You broke through,’ Taehyung says, voice muffled by Seokjin’s shoulder. ‘You totally broke through. That’s why you’re back.’
Jeongguk presses pages six hundred to seven hundred between his fingers; neither Seokjin nor Yoongi replies. In all fairness, they’ve never really spoken out loud about the year-end races despite their biggest priority being to get green lights on the preparations. Jeongguk and Taehyung are the only ones to spot their work; Jeongguk because he’s Jeongguk, and Taehyung because he’s racing. Isn’t only racing; he’s the star of the racing club. The best jockey Bang college has seen in thirty years.
Jeongguk has yet to see him do what he does best; we’re the future of the country.
‘Okay, don’t blank me,’ the future of the country’s saying petulantly, a far cry from the star of the racing club and yet every bit that star. ‘Tell me why they called you. Licenses? Is it for the bookies? Is your brother coming—’
‘Why don’t you worry about your race,’ Yoongi cuts in, not unkindly. ‘We’ll take care of the logistics. Just win us back the money we put in.’
‘But I want to know. I’ve been waiting for this all my life. ’
‘Correction. Seokjin’s been waiting for this all his life. You didn’t even know until six months ago.’
‘Fuck you, Yoongi.’
Seokjin looks at Jeongguk over Taehyung’s shoulder, and Jeongguk breathes in, raises a hand to wave. Seokin doesn’t wave back, but Yoongi does. Jeongguk, for lack of knowing how to have friends, drops the book and waves with his other hand too.
Seokjin tells them not to be late; he’s making dinner.
According to Taehyung, Seokjin’s cooking is a rare treat. He’s the president, after all, and second-in-line to his father’s throne. For all that he’s at every party with a cocktail and a smile, he’s the busiest of the wolf pack.
‘No time to fuck around in the kitchen,’ Taehyung says, as he buttons Jeongguk’s shirt for him. ‘If he’s cooking, he’s in a good mood. Which means my fucking race is in the fucking bag.’
‘Technically, you’d have to win it for that to happen.’
‘Details, clever boy. Besides, my winning depends on the race itself.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean.’ Taehyung steps back, fixes Jeongguk’s collar. Grins and winks at him. ‘It depends on the race. Like, is there a race?’
‘There is a race.’
‘Then I’ll win it. See what I mean? If it exists, I’ll win it.’
Losing isn’t an option. Jeongguk keeps thinking, these days, that if he figured out the difference in the phrasing, then maybe he could be like Taehyung too.
Dinner is different. Principally because Kim Seokjin is julienning carrots at the counter instead of sitting at the head of the table, grip on chopsticks more regal than the outfits of those sitting next to him. (Though Jeongguk guesses he will do that after he’s done with the carrots.)
Be that as it may, Kim Seokjin is julienning carrots, and with a frightening efficiency that not even Jeongguk possesses. What’s more, he’s got Min Yoongi making batter with less frightening efficiency, because he’s too lazy to move his arm properly.
‘Yoongi,’ Seokjin huffs, sweeping aside an orange pile of shreds and getting a new carrot, ‘for the love of God. I ask one thing of you—’
‘You don’t know how many equations I did today, don’t sass me.’
‘This isn’t sass. I’m saying that all I ask of you is to get the batter in good shape, it’s rhythmic, you don’t even have to concentrate— ’
‘Your, like, emphases don’t mean shit to me, just so you know.’
‘Would you feed Hoseok this kind of batter?’
‘I wouldn’t feed Hoseok home-cooked dumplings, I’d take him out.’
‘I could help,’ Taehyung pipes up, but there’s a double chorus of absolutely not before he can finish. They don’t even bother to turn to see the disappointment on his face.
‘You’re not coming near the kitchen,’ Seokjin says.
‘Um, I am in the kitchen—’
‘Not after last time,’ Yoongi adds. ‘I’ll never get the visual of that day out of my mind, and it’s all your fault.’
Jeongguk doesn’t know whom to ask what happened on that day, so he waits for Taehyung to fill in like he always does. In the meantime, watching the blurry movement of Seokjin’s hand with the knife is strangely soothing, especially coupled with the sparkling purple twilight coming through the window just behind him.
Yoongi’s intelligent beyond comprehension. A born genius (while Jeongguk painstakingly self-trained with mnemonics) with the self-assured, sharp kind of laziness that only natural prodigies can afford. Bleached hair, unlaced shoes, easy grin (for friends).
Seokjin, too, is intelligent behind comprehension. It’s self-evident that this is the first time someone reminds Jeongguk of his father. But more than that, Seokjin’s updated behind the elementary with how the people around him work, winning not through sheer power but studied manipulation of it.
Jeongguk’s always known that they make a formidable team, but he hadn’t expected the first live example of it to be them making vegetable dumplings. There’s always a first time for everything, he supposes, and their synergy is poetry in motion.
The evening’s first time is the different dinner. Seokjin and Yoongi, quiet where it counts (that is, Taehyung’s incessant questions about the races) but constantly bickering otherwise; Taehyung himself, compartmentalising the swimming pool and library and common room in favour of recounting what his dog did to his sister’s bed; and Jeongguk, not as close to them as they are to each other, but somehow theirs anyway.
Missing the wolf pack was a reality he accepted when Taehyung stepped into the common room with a bitten arm. Now, Jeongguk looks; at Seokjin admonishing how little Yoongi’s eating; Taehyung on his phone watching Jimin’s Snapchat story (that high-pitched giggle could only be Jimin). Jeongguk looks; at the sky, fully dark now but sparkling brighter. He wonders at how this smells more like family than any meal he had in his Busan mansion, and bites into a dumpling.
It tastes divine. Yoongi catches his eye, and Jeongguk chews, wonders why his throat is straining a little, hurting. His eyes feel prickly too, but he keeps them on Yoongi’s.
And Yoongi looks at him. Narrows his eyes a fraction and then awards Jeongguk with his toothy smile, all gums and good humour.
August starts drawing to a close. With a fortnight to go before classes, race preparations, and Jeongguk’s twentieth, more and more students start to trickle back into campus. Taehyung passionately takes to the stables, realising he won’t have any time between his rhetoric elective and Pusan Perimeter thesis (unless he gives up partying, which even Jeongguk snorts at). Spends hours in there with the colt, reports to Jeongguk through mouthfuls of food in the evenings. ‘It’s slow. It’s not like magic. Breaking a horse in is slow as fuck. One step forward, three steps back. Slow, slow, slow, oh, we’re walking, slow, slow, shit, can’t stop saying slow, get this joint away from me, stat.’
Taehyung’s the biggest wheeler dealer of the wolf pack, for his sheer audacity if nothing else. It doesn’t surprise Jeongguk, then, when somewhere in the third week of August he walks into Jeongguk’s room covered in— Jeongguk really hopes that’s mud, and he really hopes mud means dirt caked on sweat so that it won’t drip onto his carpet.
‘He dumped me in the dirt,’ Taehyung says cheerfully, ‘but like, half a minute after I sat on him.’
‘Congratulations,’ Jeongguk says, then pushes him out the door. ‘Please take a shower.’
He doesn’t need Taehyung to explain how significant a milestone it is; managing to sit on the horse’s back. It followed after weeks in the stall, after Taehyung managing to put the halter and shank on, managing to walk him around the yard for days before trying to mount him. For all that Taehyung talks Jeongguk’s ear off, he’s been silent, concentrated, for this. And even though he knows better, Jeongguk can’t help but think more of Taehyung’s sincerity now that he’s quieter about it.
A cloudy Friday marks the near-end of the holidays. Jeongguk’s done with the last of his self-prescribed literature (from the pictures he’d taken of his brother’s bookshelves before leaving) and the smell of weed’s returned to the corridor with Hoseok. (Jeongguk had missed the wolf pack, but definitely not as much as Yoongi had missed Hoseok.)
When he goes downstairs to the common room— common again— he finds Taehyung at Namjoon’s desk, chin leaning on his hands, elbows pressing into his open textbook. His eyes are fixed on the blank wall across from him.
‘Know you’re here,’ he says. ‘Sit.’
Jeongguk hesitates, then pulls up a chair. Taehyung’s in a T-shirt with some faded tourist spot name on it, bare golden arms tight under the sleeves. His hair’s damp from a shower, lips already chapped; bitten.
‘Thunderbolt,’ Taehyung says to the wall. ‘I’m gonna call him Thunderbolt.’
‘Thunderbolt,’ Jeongguk repeats. It’s not the most uncommon as far as names go; he’d expected something Taehyung-like, outlandish. But it sounds good, solid, and when he thinks to the jet black colt, it fits.
‘Ever think about control, crocodile boy?’
Jeongguk doesn’t know if he thinks about anything other than control. ‘What do you mean?’
‘He didn’t throw me off today,’ Taehyung says. ‘Doesn’t mean he never will. But now, doesn’t mean he always will, either.’
The clouds have the room in greys and blues, odd flares of orange along the wall, on the bridge of Taehyung’s nose. Jeongguk looks at the way he’s still staring ahead, as if he isn’t really talking to Jeongguk, but himself.
‘So you’re saying you controlled him?’
‘I’m saying he let me control him. He controlled himself.’
It is one of the truths of Jeongguk’s life, after all.
‘Submission,’ Taehyung continues, and Jeongguk’s arms erupt into gooseflesh, and he wants, so bad, to think Taehyung’s talking to him. But Taehyung’s talking to himself, about himself, about Thunderbolt. Jeongguk doesn’t have his attention, and it makes his teeth clench with unearned frustration, but he stays quiet. ‘When I break him, I won’t break him in. He’ll be broken in.’
‘His choice,’ Jeongguk says.
‘His choice. His submission isn’t my victory. I don’t live for that kind of submission.’
‘What’s that kind of submission?’
‘He won’t always throw me off,’ Taehyung says. ‘And now I’ve named him. He knows my face. Knows my voice.’
One of the truths of Jeongguk’s life is that control is constant from hand to hand. That it can be constant only if it isn’t wrenched from one pair of hands by another. That isn’t control, and not the kind of submission Taehyung’s talking about, not the kind Jeongguk dreams of sometimes. Because that wouldn’t be submission.
‘Surrender,’ he says, also to the wall.
‘Surrender,’ comes Taehyung’s reply. ‘Don’t give me any of that shit. I mean, Jimin gets off on it. Yoongi only listens to Seokjin. Namjoon listens to everyone . You see where I’m going?’
‘Where are you going?’
‘Places,’ Taehyung says, and he finally turns, grins at Jeongguk. It’s sharp and orange and alight. ‘Because I don’t listen to people.’
Jeongguk doesn’t register it, not completely. But the dry, windy Monday morning of the week after, the first day back, Taehyung walks into President Park’s office and informs him that he’ll be competing in the year-end races with Thunderbolt, and the school combusts.
Four days into the chaos, Jeongguk wakes up at midnight in a cold sweat.
He can hear Seokjin pacing in the corridor, barking something into his phone that has no doubt got to do with Taehyung’s scandalous declaration. The school’s first ever domestic races, millions at stake, reputations at stake, the racing club at stake— and Taehyung, saying he won’t race with his own steed, but with a new one. Worse, an unbroken one. Worse, an absolutely wild unbroken one. A maiden race. A different track. A logistical mess.
‘We’re trying, sir,’ Seokjin says, voice sweet now. Another call. ‘As far as I know, the horse— of course, sir. Absolutely unreasonable, we’re trying to— yes, sir.’ A third chime. Seokjin’s voice switches again. ‘No, you get your fucking ass here in twelve hours, Jaehwan—’ —Jeongguk has never heard Seokjin swear— ‘—fly if you have to. This is a fucking disaster.’
Jeongguk remembers one of their friendly squabbles over dinner, before the holidays. Hoseok, who has two phones, one for hookups, the other for networking. Jimin, offended at the distinction, because to him hookups are networking. Seokjin, rolling his eyes fondly— but the memory makes Jeongguk’s chest twinge right now, thinking about Seokjin with his own two phones, both blowing up now for something that isn’t his fault. For something that he worked so hard for.
It’s unnatural for Jeongguk to feel for someone else (or himself), but then again, it’s unnatural for Jeongguk to wake up at midnight in a cold sweat.
00:03, his phone tells him. Friday, 1 September.
Outside, Seokjin throws something against a wall. Jeongguk stares up at the ceiling in the dark and tries to will the next twenty-three hours and fifty-seven minutes away.
In a way, it’s fitting. The last time college opened after holidays, everyone was talking about Kim Taehyung. This time too, everyone is talking about Kim Taehyung.
‘I can’t believe they haven’t thrown him out yet,’ Jeongguk overhears in one of the marbled, bright bathrooms over the sound of cascade taps. ‘From the club, at least. What the fuck, man.’
‘I mean, it’s Taehyung. I’d be more surprised if he hadn’t pulled any shit for the races.’
‘There’s a limit, and you know the dude loves winning. How are you gonna win with a fucking wildling? This is shit. Dad’s pissed too.’
Loves winning. Hates losing. There’s something about phrasing, but today’s the last of all days that Jeongguk’s in the headspace to catch it.
Despite it all, classes resume with almost perfect calm. Almost, because professors are being called out for emergency meetings, students texting back and forth without bothering to hide it. If Jeongguk didn’t know the magnitude of a real conditions race before, he does now that one statement’s caused destructive ripples in more than one sphere of their society. Group three flat racing; morning to evening, stakes higher and higher.
Rebellion is one thing, Kim Taehyung is another. The future of the country is a concentration of gossipping students concerned with only two things: the school’s first domestic race, and how Kim Taehyung, star of the racing club and the best jockey Bang has seen in thirty years, has gone and fucked it all up.
Seokjin is calmer in the daytime, and Jeongguk wishes he could say the same. At least his poker face has been trained by actually playing poker since he was thirteen, and against the best players he knows, both in skill and luck. It doesn’t show that he woke up at midnight in a cold sweat; if it did, no one but Taehyung would notice anyway.
Taehyung himself has been missing all week. He isn’t skipping class or meals, but he doesn’t sit in the common room with them, doesn’t walk into the mess hall with them. (Jeongguk, who was just beginning to join that formation, takes three steps back because doing it without Taehyung is bizarre. He wouldn’t know where to stand.)
He’s missing today, too, leaving them to eat in whatever silence is possible when half the hall’s staring at them and Seokjin and Yoongi’s phones keep vibrating every three minutes. The fifth time it happens, Hoseok curses loudly and snatches Yoongi’s phone, shoves it in his own pocket while Yoongi puts a bite in his mouth.
Jeongguk picks at his food. His phone doesn’t vibrate.
On his brother’s twentieth, Jeongguk baked a three-tier cake. Their parents had a ten-tier wheeled in. Jeongguk’s buttercream had ended up as breakfast the next day, but before that his brother had sent him a picture late into the night of a clumsily cut-out slice, captioned way better than that Ladurée shit honestly.
And Jeongguk thinks for a moment that maybe he’ll call. But Jeongguk’s thought that every single day since he left Busan, and he’s never been right. So he watches Jimin cut up Namjoon’s steak and wonders how many times Taehyung’s going to eat instant ramen before he faces the fury of the mess hall.
In the evening, he runs. Earphones in, world out, like he doesn’t live every other day like that— except he doesn’t, not anymore. Not since Taehyung and the wolf pack, Jackson Wang and the pool parties; not since Bang, the future of the country.
Jeongguk doesn’t think about how he ended up here. He thinks about how it’d be if he hadn’t. How he could be at a dinner table right now with people that are technically family; maybe his parents would’ve had a ten-tier wheeled in for him too. Dinner would’ve tasted just like lunch, which would’ve tasted just like breakfast. No candles or song, just a ten-tier and four people at a silent table, a Rolex in a velvet box.
Here it’s Jeongguk and the track, lit unnatural and eerie like every sports facility at night. There’s no table and no cake, and Jeongguk runs triumphant in the knowledge that it’s a choice. But mostly, he runs.
When he can’t run anymore, he bends over, hands on his knees, letting his sweaty hair drip to the red ground. And then he finally accepts that there will be no phone calls and no messages, and that in two hours, the day will be done. He doesn’t know whether he wanted it to pass with or without event, but Taehyung and Thunderbolt somehow took care of both. Now— he doesn’t know whether he wanted it to pass quickly, or didn’t want it to exist in the first place. The date skipped, no questions asked.
Jeongguk stares at the sweat-darkened spots in the soil for a long time, then straightens up. In the distance, all the windows of the scholars’ house are lit except his. He walks instead of running, turns his music off to listen to the night. Listens to the patter of water on the floor when he’s standing under the shower, listens to the faint ringing in his ears as he pulls his pyjamas on.
Listens to the silence after that, and then bolts out of his room before the truth of his life can sound itself.
Taehyung opens the door before Jeongguk realises he’s knocked (before Jeongguk regrets knocking). He’s drumming his fingers on the doorframe in that agitated I’ve taken "vitamins" way, but he still looks Jeongguk up and down slowly, thoroughly. At Jeongguk’s pyjamas and house slippers, the book he’s holding but won’t read, his barely-dried hair.
If Jeongguk wasn’t so busy running, he’d be surprised that he knocked on Taehyung’s door past eleven, without a single logical reason. As it is, he’s running. So he swallows and looks at Taehyung, and Taehyung looks back.
‘Riding solo not cutting it anymore?’ he says, but there’s no bite, and he opens the door fully. He’s in an oversized Suseong Fire Department T-shirt over boxers, looking for a moment so boyish and soft.
Jeongguk steps in, glances over at Jimin who’s reading in bed, bundled up in a sweatshirt Jeongguk remembers Taehyung gifting him after his summer performance. Then he looks back at Taehyung, curls his toes in his slippers.
Jeongguk wants to say something, anything, but if he opens his mouth he’ll blurt it’s my birthday and no one cared even the first time, and admitting that he lost is even less of an option than losing. And he thinks about the you know the dude loves winning that he heard in the morning, and it kicks up a dust storm in his head that he doesn’t know what to do with right now, and he wishes someone would sort him out, just for the next forty-six minutes. Wishes Taehyung would just— do it again. Undo the compartments, open the door.
‘I do sleep with my eyes open, you know,’ Taehyung says, after a careful pause. And Jeongguk relaxes, coolness washing over the heated tingling in his veins.
‘He does,’ Jimin says from behind his book.
‘Fuck off, Jiminnie, we’re having a moment here.’
Jeongguk has forty-three minutes to go until his birthday ends.
In those forty-three minutes, Taehyung takes one and a half to clear the mess off his bed and set it up. A hoodie, three textbooks, his iPad with its puppy-patterned cover. A pair of hopelessly tangled earphones which he dumps on the nightstand before punching up the pillows, yanking down the covers.
Jeongguk takes thirty seconds to get into bed after him. Two seconds to compose himself so that the panic— he knows it’s panic; his heart speeding behind control, his throat closing up; he can hear everything in the world— doesn’t show. Five seconds to feel that panic without expressing it, five more to lay his head on the too-soft pillow that’ll give him a cramp in the morning.
But in the morning his birthday will be over; in forty minutes his birthday will be over, so he lays his head on the pillow and waits for Taehyung to catch the panic anyway. Thinks that maybe someday he’ll have to step forward and not just knock, but open the door too, but today isn’t that day.
And Taehyung seems to know that, too. He looks at Jeongguk plainly in the lights he’s turned down low, and he doesn’t smile, and his fingers don’t fidget.
‘Jiminnie? You asleep?’ he calls.
‘Yeah, I’m very asleep,’ Jimin replies sarcastically. But he doesn’t say more, and the lights are low.
Taehyung is quiet when he lifts his hand. Quiet enough that if Jeongguk couldn’t see him, albeit dimly, he’d have been startled at the touch of Taehyung’s fingertip on the inside of his arm. But he can see, and doesn’t even blink as it lands. One fingertip in the dip between the slender tendons on the inside of his wrist, and then Taehyung trails it upwards, to the inside of his elbow.
Trails it downwards again, after a few seconds. Upwards, downwards. Upwards, downwards. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. Jeongguk focuses on the path of Taehyung’s fingertip, the way it tickles against his skin, the way it makes the centre of his palm itch, the way it makes his fingers twitch. The way Taehyung’s own breathing mirrors the path, loud and steady and so audible to Jeongguk that nothing else reaches his ears anymore.
It’s too dark for details but Jeongguk has long since memorised how Taehyung’s eyelashes look against his cheeks.
Upwards, downwards. Breathe in, breathe out. Good boy.
Jeongguk loses count of the minutes, but losing itself isn’t an option. It’s easier for him to calm down when Taehyung wants him to. When there are stakes.
And there are stakes, tingling up and down his arm, so Jeongguk closes his eyes and sleeps.
Taehyung stops calling him crocodile boy after that.
When Jeongguk dreams again, the hands move from his throat to his chest, curling above his heart. There, there is no brilliance, and Jeongguk wishes there was.
Jeongguk wishes there was.
Jimin’s birthday party, on the other hand, ends before it starts.
Jeongguk and Taehyung are assigned to replenish the pregaming supply on their way to the scholars’ house from classes. They leave the car, walk to get some fresh air ( I love that horse but if I have to stay in that stall one fucking second longer, golden boy, gonna kill someone ) and the bounce of Taehyung’s voice as he recounts his day is worth the strain of holding the soju bottles. It’s reasonably warm for October, the chill of autumn only creeping in the later hours. Jeongguk tries to focus on the bottles; Taehyung’s deep red sweater sits too well on his shoulders, and under the light of the entrance, it stands out against the skin of his arms where the sleeves are rolled up. Taehyung stands out against the wall, and Jeongguk swallows so hard it hurts.
‘So I was saying he’s totally got a sense of humour, and Soojung looks at me and goes, you’re telling me that horse has a soul.’
‘Arguably, Thunderbolt is a little—’ Jeongguk shifts the bag between hands to push the common room door open, anticipating music but hearing none.
‘Gonna stop you right there. Thunder’s misunderstood. He’s going through his Evanescence phase—’
—and then Taehyung is dropping the bags and running, without a word.
Back in summer, when Jeongguk was struggling with dichotomy, Jimin and Jongin had performed a pas de deux, untouchable. Ironically. Tragically. The exposure of Jimin’s throat, his arm going up and down in an arc, the kind of pain on his face that couldn’t be all acting.
Park Jimin might not always have led the wolf pack, but he’s certainly never been fragile. Powerful, proud, promiscuous, yes— but never once allowing himself to be objectified without his consent, never once allowing himself to be touched without his consent. Taehyung can joke, Seokjin can sigh; Park Jimin is walking talent and wit, and he might not always have been in the lead, but he always will be.
Park Jimin is also hanging off Namjoon's shoulder, drunk beyond any sort of coherence, at nine in the evening on his own birthday.
Jeongguk blinks for a moment, tries to put two and two together. The system’s set up but there’s no music; half the lights are on like they’re in the tail-end of an afterparty. Their glow seems unfriendly as Taehyung rushes to Namjoon’s side, as Jeongguk looks around at the room. It’s all off, a few inches to the side; Yoongi's eyes are the most focused that Jeongguk has ever seen them outside of organic chemistry; Hoseok’s emerging from the house head’s room with a blanket. Seokjin’s— Seokjin’s straightening up from the floor, wet tissues in his bare manicured hands. Jeongguk watches in a half-daze as they function together like a machine; a shiny, snarky whole, but a whole all the same—
Jeongguk feels lonely. Then he doesn’t. Then he feels it again, shameful and absent and disorienting.
And yet the most remarkable is Namjoon. His arm is around Jimin’s waist, hair a mess second only to Jimin’s. Namjoon’s coordination is characteristic; dozens of instructions running through his head and making it out in order. His coordination is characteristic; his tone isn’t. He’s snapping at Taehyung to get some water in here, damn it, glaring after him as he hurries to comply . And Jimin hangs off his shoulder, hair wet and clumped, laughing emptily at the floor before he stops altogether.
And yet, the most remarkable— even when the laughter dies, Namjoon is still standing there, like he was waiting for it to fade. And that’s when Jeongguk realises in retrospect, a slowly-forming picture of the wolf pack— Jeongguk realises that Namjoon’s always waiting on the sidelines for this hour of the day, his patience poetry in motion, for when everyone turns honest for a change.
Jimin laughs emptily at the floor, eyes narrowing, lashes dark with mascara and tangled, gloss or saliva shining on his parted lips. And then he stops and turns honest.
‘I don’t even like any of them,’ he says, smiling.
The machine pauses.
Jeongguk waits for someone to say something, say shut up Jimin, say we always knew, but there is only oppressive quiet save for the far-off, alienating sound of a party in another boarding house. No one speaks about them, every single man Jimin’s taken to bed, every single one he ever will. No one speaks, and that’s why it’s silent enough for Jeongguk to hear the shake in Namjoon’s breath when he exhales into Jimin’s hair.
‘Water, Taehyung, please,’ Namjoon says, voice cracking, and the machine goes back into action. Seokjin drops the tissues into the bin, Hoseok arranges the blanket around Jimin’s shoulders as Taehyung holds a bottle to his lips.
Yoongi returns only once they’ve taken Jimin into the house head’s room that Jeongguk first met him on the threshold of. Jeongguk’s rooted to the spot, bag still in his hands, when Yoongi puts out his Marlboro and returns to the action. And it’s synergy, Jeongguk knows; Yoongi steps away from the window as Seokjin stops at the couch, staring at the floor too, eyes blank, mouth open.
Yoongi comes to the couch just as Seokjin sits heavily on it, and Jeongguk knows the feeling of slipping out of autopilot all too well. The adrenaline crash, the return to reality, the bile climbing up your throat. Seokjin’s pale, his hands are shaking, and Jeongguk thinks that’s what it must be like to be loved. Namjoon’s arms steady under Jimin’s weight as he carried him to the door, the sound of Taehyung murmuring comfort to him, the jaded acceptance on Hoseok’s face.
Seokjin’s hands are shaking; he loves his cousin. And Yoongi sits next to him with his messy bleached hair and calm expression, and he spreads his arms and says, ‘Seokjinnie.’
It takes a long minute, and for the umpteenth time in the past half hour, Jeongguk feels like an intruder. Watching from the outside, not the inside. But he watches anyway, as Seokjin takes a deep breath to steady himself and nods, first at the floor, then at Yoongi.
This isn’t the first time, then. Jeongguk wonders when that was. When they were all that fragile, before they learned to be wolves. Before Seokjin’s martinis and Yoongi’s marijuana, before Jimin’s gait and Namjoon’s bowties and Hoseok’s wristbands, before Taehyung’s gloves.
Jeongguk tries to remember being fragile. It doesn’t work.
The first time Taehyung actually comes close to his dream, I want to see, it isn't on purpose. Neither on his part, nor on Jeongguk's.
Someone could joke that Taehyung's the knight in shining armour, whisking Jeongguk away on his beautiful steed. But this is Bang College and this is Kim Taehyung, and his colt won't even let him last a full five minutes on his back. Taehyung's no knight atop a steed, not tonight; but he does whisk Jeongguk away. More accurately, he walks into Jeongguk's room without knocking, and says let's go, come with me.
It's something past midnight. There are now issues other than the races, at least outside the wolf pack; midterms are approaching. Maybe even Jeongguk could be worried, if he could only shake off this layer of frost that's settled over him. He's just as familiar with ice as fire, but he prefers his interactions with the two to be strategised. Contained fires, city fires. Ice on the inside, not dew frozen on skin.
Jeongguk's no stranger to frost; he's the architect of it. But every once in a while it comes over him of its own accord, and this time it started crawling up his feet the moment he heard Seokjin throw his phone against the wall a month and a half ago.
Taehyung walks in without knocking at something past midnight, when Jeongguk's fighting the pins and needles in his head with his forehead pressed to the cold lid of his laptop. His papers are in a mess all over the desk, reading lamp turned away. He knows it's Taehyung because Jimin's away in Jeju, on a Seokjin-ordained holiday to recover from his party that never was last weekend.
And yes, it's been a week since that cold crawled all the way up to Jeongguk's neck and froze there. It’s out of his control, this time, because he hadn’t even seen it coming, let alone planned it. And the reason for that is that Jeongguk used to be so familiar with disillusionment that he’d never been able to discern it.
Now, when he’d begun to, just barely, come out of it and see what could almost be called the positive side of things— to see crushing reality again, it’s almost as if he can’t take it. Whatever little magic he was beginning to see in the way the wolf pack worked, how they took him in; it’s gone now. Like explaining to a disappointed child who has just learned how the mechanism of something works, sorry, it’s not magic after all. Sorry, there’s one less mystery in the world and one more fact for you to know. And since when had logic become synonymous to misery for Jeongguk? Since when had he started asking questions, first to his situation and then to himself?
The wolf pack stands before him, platinum facade turned to thin glass. He sees the cogs and the wheels and the exact spots where the oil is leaking; he sees the weak links that he really thought didn’t exist. And worst of all— Jeongguk, who had the luxury of believing in the perfection of others because he was perfect, now doesn’t know that he can trust himself, seeing those others falter.
And yet, even worse; he’s so ready, desperate, almost, to be convinced otherwise. To let Taehyung walk into his room and say let’s go, come with me, like he did months ago to show Jeongguk what fear was, a black beast canceling out the sun.
But the sun isn’t out; it’s midnight, and Taehyung is no knight atop a steed; when he leads Jeongguk out of the brightly-lit entrance of the boarding house, it’s to the parking lot.
Against the sound of the nightly crickets, the twin slams of the car doors are deafening. Jeongguk takes in the smell of cigarettes and expensive cologne, nausea rising in his throat as he straps in his seat-belt. Once Taehyung’s strapped his own, he puts his hand on Jeongguk’s forehead in passing, moving it through his hair with the heel pressed to Jeongguk’s temple for just a second. It’s startlingly cold against his skin, but no expression crosses Taehyung’s face. Instead he reaches over and opens the glove compartment, pulls out a white bottle, tosses it to Jeongguk; the sound of pills rattling is deafening too.
Jeongguk shakes out two painkillers, swallows them dry as Taehyung lights up the ignition and pulls out of the parking lot, slowly inches onto the route leading to the highway as trees become scanter and scanter, and the occasional sounds of citygoing cars and buses fill the air.
Taehyung turns the stereo on. Presses at the controls on the steering wheel, flips through what seems like a hundred tracks but was probably a dozen; Jeongguk’s not counting anymore. Jeongguk’s not counting anymore, and Taehyung finally lands on some British band he vaguely remembers his brother listening to; lets the first beaming, clear notes of the electric guitar fill the air.
The road stretches out beyond the windshield, a lighter grey than it’s supposed to be, tinged an almost-dirty yellow from the tall, pillarlike lights standing guardian on their way, the only way: ahead.
Then Taehyung drives.
For how long, Jeongguk doesn’t know. He isn’t counting anymore. But he drives for long enough that the pills can take effect, and when he reaches over once to press the back of his hand against Jeongguk’s neck, it feels warmer now, and Jeongguk closes his eyes for a moment. The only way is ahead in the ever-expanding dark, the lights like matchsticks; docile fire, city fire.
Jeongguk has so many questions. He wants to ask if his first evaluation was right— if seeing them all work together, understanding how they’ve been doing it for so long, right from Namjoon training Hoseok in mnemonics for exams to Seokjin admonishing Yoongi in the kitchen to Taehyung brushing Jimin’s hair out of his eyes— if seeing that come to a head in that one situation of distress was supposed to be more awe-inspiring than disillusioning, if his disappointment is between his logical— miserable— nature and that split-second moment where he felt invasive; in front of a whole that had no place for him.
He wants to ask if that whole could ever have a place for him. He wants to ask what it’s like to have a place. He wants to ask if Taehyung thinks that’s what’s needed to make it perfect— everything. He wants to ask Taehyung if this is what it’s like not to be completely, completely alone.
He wants to be proven wrong. He wants to lose. He wants his logic to be— bent over, broken in; he wants to surrender.
He wants to—
I want to see.
The first time Taehyung comes close to the dream that he loves teasing Jeongguk with since the first day; I want to see if I can make you cry for real, want to see if we should just be calling you crocodile, this tie around your wrists this hand on your mouth this gaze on your gaze. It isn’t on purpose, on either of their parts, and most of all, he doesn’t even notice. Or worse; he does, and says nothing.
Instead, Jeongguk squints at the road ahead and works his jaw, to swallow tears this time, quell the alarming tingling in his eyes and nose and throat, to find the root. The lights are too bright; the pills are too strong; he has a fever. But every excuse falls away in the face of the buzzing darkness in his head, the absence of warmth and brilliance, like in his airless dreams.
And Taehyung— well, Taehyung drives. He doesn’t answer the questions that Jeongguk doesn’t ask; utterly silent for once. Maybe he doesn’t have answers, maybe he doesn’t hear the questions. Maybe he isn’t perfect; but that, he never was. Winning to win, not to continue a single, horizontal line of excellence. Living to live, not to continue not dying.
Jeongguk tries to remember being alive. It works all too well; coming back to the present is a hopeless letdown. His eyes sting and fill but never overflow.
Jeongguk wakes up on his own; the sun has long since stopped shining through the November frost on the windows. The year’s lost its momentum, the last intermission before December picks up with its frantic submissions and exams. Jeongguk of all people should be opposed to the reality that the quantification of is meaningless, but then again, outside of his routine— old or new— the clock has never meant anything.
So it’s amusing to see how the general interpretation of productivity changes this time of the year; technically the races are only three months away, but as long as it’s still this year and not the next, everyone thinks they’re some far-off eventuality. They’re still next year, as far as most of the students are concerned, and only in January will the panic come.
Of course, neither Yoongi nor Seokjin are the kind to fall for this trap, especially when their schedules haven’t cleared since September, or so it seems to Jeongguk. And the culprit behind their constantly-ringing phones is hardly the kind to fall for the trap either.
Kim Taehyung, then, hasn’t shown a single sign of negotiating or budging from his stance. It’s all the more important, then, that he remember how close the races really are and what he stands to lose— if he considers defeat a possibility, that is. Which he still doesn’t, despite the tumbles he’s taken since he started riding Thunderbolt, despite the bruises and chafing on his hands and even one more bite mark, upper arm this time. If he hasn’t shown a sign of budging, nor has Jeongguk; tending quietly to the wounds without Taehyung’s request, being ignored completely three times out of four, and shamelessly scrutinised the fourth. It’s become ritual at this point; the disinfectant, the pills, the ice, the bandages.
Summer seems far away, a secret kingdom doused out and locked up. The wolf pack are back to normal— or Jeongguk’s perception of them— but he doesn’t remember when he heard Taehyung laugh last, feels like it really was in that disheveled common room with the sun pouring in through the window like molten iron, translucent and delicious, jiggle-wiggle-boom, when Jeongguk, too, had laughed.
Thunderbolt might have started listening, but submission or surrender is out of the question. Jeongguk, at least, is witness to that, along with Seokjin and Yoongi, who come often to watch Taehyung train. Yoongi at the gym, Seokjin at the turf. Never together, always quiet, never a word exchanged with Taehyung, who never exchanges a word with them.
It’s fitting, then, that it happens when both Yoongi and Seokjin show up, on a morning when the sun doesn’t shine through the frost on Jeongguk’s window.
Not the barest glimmer, that morning. Jeongguk does really wake up on his own, before his alarm, reaching out slowly to mute his phone. Just in time for sunrise, but there isn’t the barest glimmer through the frost, only the melancholy blue of the onset of winter, the sky a giant ring of glass.
Jeongguk vaults over the railing all the way to the landing, pausing to zip his jacket before he continues the rest of the way downstairs. The path to the turf is still damp, with traces of mud from the shrubberies on either side. It’s before seven in the morning; the sun even being up is a feat. The slight morning wind is harsh on Jeongguk’s bare face, but it’s been the same way for days now, since the beginning of November when Taehyung started to walk Thunderbolt every single day (started taking his tumbles).
Today, though, there’s one difference. The cold is fine, the wind is fine, the missing sun is fine. But right at the edge of the fence (and never further; Jeongguk knows how to choose his place) stands not only Seokjin— who always manages to arrive before Jeongguk somehow— but Yoongi as well.
It’s not difficult for them to cut a picture against the washed-out background. Seokjin’s quilted jacket is zipped all the way up, its navy silhouette sharp despite the soft edges. The big velvet scarf Jeongguk’s gotten accustomed to seeing flutters only slightly in the air, and as always, his riding boots are spotless despite last night’s rain.
The indicator of the weather is actually the damped-down faux fur on the hood of Yoongi’s parka, which is down and open around his shoulders. Yoongi doesn’t seem to mind, though; the rest of his jacket is unzipped, the mosaic patchwork of his sweater showing through. Instead, Jeongguk’s the one who feels just the slightest shiver at the sight of them.
The only acknowledgement of his presence that he receives is Yoongi nodding at him, curt, these are business hours. Seokjin doesn’t so much as turn around; they’ve been doing this every day, after all. So Jeongguk joins them in staring coldly out at the muted almost-sea-green of the grass, which would be bending over if it was long enough, under the wind that’s picking up slightly now and then. He clenches and unclenches his fists to shake the pain out of his palms, shrug off the realisation that there’s more than one reason that Seokjin and Yoongi make such imposing figures on the wrong side of seven in the morning. It’s because this is the first time that Jeongguk’s going to see them observing someone with the same calculation that he was subjected to months ago, right in the beginning of it all.
But the thought flies right out of his mind when the stable gates open, because the duo— if it can be called one— tends to do that. The duo, that is, on the other side of the fence.
Taehyung, staring ahead just as coldly, steps out of the gates, and Jeongguk hushes his brain.
Tired, jaded, determined. He doesn’t acknowledge them anymore than they do him, and yet Jeongguk sees him look both Yoongi and Seokjin in the eyes. It isn’t contradictory; Jeongguk grew up with that kind of empty regard targeted at him. At once the centre of attention, at once on the sidelines, excellence taken for granted.
Here, Taehyung doesn’t even spare him a glance. And all for the better, because Jeongguk’s already trying not to gape at Thunderbolt.
No matter how many times he sees the steed, his first instinct is always to step back. No matter how far he is or how docile Thunderbolt. And albeit knowing that Seokjin and Yoongi’s calm is often a farce, he genuinely doesn’t know if he’s the only one that Thunderbolt inspires this kind of fear (he thinks it’s fear) in. The way when Taehyung enters a room Jeongguk, for a moment, thinks they’re the only two in there; in that way, Thunderbolt entering the line of his vision makes him forget that there are others around.
The colours of the dawning day are dark but Thunderbolt is darker still, the sheen of the night rippling over his flawless coat. Large eyes glittering even in the dull morning, wide awake, ready to go. He’s magnificent; large and present and pure-blooded beast. And no matter how calm he is right now— finally, under Taehyung’s hand— for Jeongguk he will always be the dark kite of the summer sky that he was when they first saw him.
Which makes it all the more— well, not surprising; Jeongguk doesn’t have the word— to see how Taehyung stretches his arms quickly, shakes them out, and climbs onto the horse’s back without further ado or fanfare, not stopping once to check his helmet or his gloves. Not even the trainers, alert behind him, seem tense. After having taken so many falls and cuts and scrapes and the proverbial skinned knee, Taehyung has never once shown anything but confidence— both in himself and in Thunderbolt. In his place, Jeongguk would never be able to approach the steed so casually, let alone sit astride him in one swift movement the way Taehyung has been doing all November.
Before he can even process the vague admiration that the sight inspires, Taehyung’s already easing Thunderbolt into a walk. It seems just the slightest bit impatient, but Jeongguk knows Taehyung would never make a mistake like that, especially not with an audience. (Taehyung’s always so sure of victory, actually, that Jeongguk wouldn’t mind seeing him lose— has never seen him win, after all.) As it is, it works; Thunderbolt moves into action easily, habituated. Jeongguk watches as they walk slowly through the neat-cut grass (Taehyung moved him out of the designated paddocks last week) while the sun inches up in the distance.
But then— Taehyung frowns, so quick that even Jeongguk’s lucky to have caught it. But then— a silent movement of Taehyung’s heels (in theory) and Thunderbolt— listens. Behaves. Does the trot Taehyung’s been trying to get him to do. It’s still dark despite the time, but every time that steed and rider cross the patch of sky that isn’t as dark, they wedge deeper into the cutout of their silhouette.
Their, yes, because in glimpses and flashes, Jeongguk’s been seeing it— the slipping in of something like cooperation if not coordination. Taehyung takes both the literal and metaphorical fall if Thunderbolt isn’t up to it on a particular day, but every now and then Jeongguk sees the colt take responsibility too. A personality beginning to come through, a keen mind with a grasp unparalleled by any horse Jeongguk’s ever seen before, the diagonal pairs of his strong legs rising and falling in an almost-flawless rhythm.
In that vein, it makes sense that this transition is so subtle that Jeongguk doesn’t realise the exact moment that cold morning when it stops being a transition and comes into effect. There is no big moment of but then, no chance for Jeongguk to react more minutely than the tightening of a numbing hand he didn’t know he had on the fence. Instead, there is this subtle transition, a succession of seconds indistinguishable from one another, where Jeongguk thinks he sees, for a second, another furrow in Taehyung’s brow— and then in the same second, a hint of a smile on his chapped lips— but he has to have imagined it.
Or not, because in what seems like that very same second, the dark blurring pattern of Thunderbolt’s legs changes once again, and settles into a canter as if it had never been anything but. And even though Jeongguk’s not on the scene, he’s as close to it as can be— and he sees how smooth and quiet Thunderbolt seems. Half of the time, Taehyung would’ve been in the dirt by now, but today the colt doesn’t seem to have the slightest intention of throwing him off. Instead, he’s focused, hooves falling perfectly on the ground beneath him, and above him Taehyung leaning forward, looking only ahead, which is the right way.
Jeongguk, instead, looks to his side, searching for a reaction that he can’t stop himself from wanting. But to his disappointment— yes, disappointment; he’s invested now, honest-to-God invested, and there’s no turning back— Yoongi and Seokjin don’t seem to have even blinked. They’re watching as carefully as before, but that’s all. So Jeongguk doesn’t waste his time on their passionless faces; turns back to Taehyung and Thunderbolt.
The canter seems to last forever, fast that it may be; it’s enough time for the sun to come up fully in the sky, drawn-out pulsing of near-grey light, like an inverted raincloud following Thunderbolt’s path. There is no cliché, then, of it twinkling on his eyes or his mane or the flash of Taehyung’s teeth, when Taehyung clucks him up into a gallop.
The words are on the tip of Jeongguk’s tongue, poetry, but he swallows them. Out of the corner of his eye he senses Yoongi leaning forward, and it’s difficult to tear his eyes from the sight but he manages to look to his side— and Yoongi’s almost halfway over the fence, and unconscious of it. He’s watching so keenly, lucid and arrowhead-sharp, all at once a counterpart and complement to Seokjin’s still-stony countenance. And then that second passes— distinct in that it isn’t devoted to Taehyung— and Jeongguk faces the turf again, and stares and stares.
This, finally, is that moment, skipping right past cooperation and coordination. This isn’t submission, this isn’t surrender; this is what Taehyung was talking about when he named his brave black colt—
This is synchronisation. Their matching angles, their matching eyes that Jeongguk can’t even see properly. The speed and the nearly soundless fall of their combined weights on the ground, over and over again, perpetual like a magic box. So here they are on the wrong side of the fence, the race in Yoongi’s mind and Seokjin’s pocket and Jeongguk’s throat. And on the right side of the fence where the race is in two pairs of untamed hearts, Thunderbolt gives a small buck, and then Taehyung is slowing him down to a walk. Patting his neck, steering him forward still until he’s up close.
(Seokjin pulls out his phone; Jeongguk hears the outgoing text sound that he forgot to turn off for once.)
But then— but then, again. Not that Jeongguk would mind seeing Taehyung lose, but this painstakingly slow victory is something else too. The cold morning is still cold and the sky is still where it was when the sun didn’t shine through Jeongguk’s frosted window— but in front of him are the kings of summer, fall, damp wild ground. The electricity is palpable, not only between the five of them but between their collective entity and the air, and then between the air and the glass-ring sky. Between the two of them and those lights and pills, that car. Between Taehyung and Thunderbolt, finally his partner. Between Jeongguk and his past, no memory of emotion apart from that one bright night.
Between Jeongguk and Thunderbolt, who charges off Taehyung’s out-of-breath, heaving energy, and rears up, up, up on his hind legs like the first time Jeongguk ever saw him. And now the sun is winter-bright but washed out as if through frost melting on the aperture; not so much a shape as a splash, spilled glow soaked through the sky.
And now Thunderbolt, high in that sky, takes a bite out of that sun for Taehyung to eat. The brilliance drips from his mouth, and now Jeongguk knows an emotion he thought to be fear.
It’s not fear, it’s awe. At the missing sun and the building spark and the path ahead, onwards and upwards. At Taehyung who looks right at him.
And now, Taehyung looks beast . Unbroken, fierce, challenging.
To say something changes between them is simultaneously redundant and a hideous understatement. Jeongguk hardly knows where to look, anymore.
The party is relatively tame, the kind that started out as dinner and soju and then went to shit. As it is, the common room isn't as teeming with people as it normally would be, despite it being the one night a week when coed socialising is actually allowed. Usually on these nights, the Park and Kim girls are already coming in with snacks and booze from five in the evening, but the cold and submissions season has the general count down to about twenty, which is small even for the scholars' house.
Missing notably are Yoongi and Seokjin, the former without comment and the latter after snapping 'What do you think this is, Ouran High School Host Club?' at some unsuspecting soul he crossed on the landing who offered him a rice cake. Jeongguk, too, would've preferred to work in his room, or as Jimin puts it, brood like every single character Lee Minho has ever played, but finds himself more or less trapped by Namjoon's trusty desk, literally atop the high cabinet next to it. He knows precisely how he found himself in this position— first perching on the desk to avoid the haphazard sweep of the vacuum cleaner that Jackson was conducting, then deciding that the cabinet offered a calm place to read at best, and a good vantage point at worst. (He's become familiar for more than just Taehyung, now; a place of his own in every gathering, a shadow of personality among all the others.)
Currently, despite the convivial lull of the party, vantage point seems more likely than anything. Of course Taehyung and Jimin take the limited reading-lamp spotlight, stripteasing to some trot number in front of a vaguely horrified Namjoon who hasn't changed out of his uniform yet. There's already some stain on the dark blue of his blazer, but Jeongguk imagines a little wryly that the one left on his dignity before the end of the evening will be much harder to get out.
(Taehyung, of course, glances over every now and then, but his curiosity feels a little empty, or rather, there isn't a lot of curiosity in the first place. No, Jeongguk thinks, sometimes, that Taehyung might actually be onto him.)
He catches sight of Jeongyeon going through flashcards attached on a keyring, her long coffin-shaped nails a metallic gold that matches the stick barrette holding her dark hair up. Solidarity, then; he isn't the only one who'd rather be studying.
'Love that girl,' he hears then from beside— well, under him, and it's only then that he realises that the slumped form sitting cross-legged on Namjoon's desk is Hoseok. 'Love love love that girl.'
Jeongguk doesn't want to assume Hoseok's speaking to him, so he stays silent. At any rate, it's not new knowledge that he loves Jeongyeon, or that Jeongyeon tolerates him, and Jeongguk keeps track of information; he doesn't meddle.
'Yo,' Hoseok says then, voice graver than before. 'She's been yelling at me for like a week straight now. Just up and stopped talking to me today.'
That sparks Jeongguk's curiosity. 'Is that so?'
'Yeah. Says I shouldn't be taking so long considering my offer.'
'Don't you— oh, right. You're the new guy. Right.' Jeongguk turns, finally, just in time to see Hoseok standing up on surprisingly steady legs, shoulder to Jeongguk's nose now. So he's only high, then. 'Okay, wait, I'm sitting back down.'
Jeongguk passes him the little bottle of water he has beside him, and Hoseok takes a grateful gulp, then five more. Tossing the empty bottle away— someone yelps— he looks up at Jeongguk, red-rimmed eyes quite keen.
'Now see here,' he says. 'I'm pretty useless. Academically speaking.'
'But that's because I know what I'm good at, don't like wasting time on other shit. Love tennis. Love Jeongyeon.'
Jeongguk waits for him to remember what he was talking about, but after more than five minutes of seeing Taehyung trying to climb atop a shrieking Jackson's shoulders, curiosity gets the better of him again. He makes a brief calculation, then asks, 'I heard you have an offer to play professionally after graduation.'
'The fuck I do,' Hoseok says. 'I have three.'
'The thing is, like, so that's why she's not talking to me, right. Two of the offers are like, fucking whatever. But the third one, now— hang on, whatever. It's not like you know shit about tennis.'
'I might surprise you yet.'
'Clever boy,' Hoseok laughs, and Jeongguk almost starts; that's one of Taehyung's nicknames. 'Fine, the name Mouratoglou mean something to you?'
And, well, Jeongguk's always known that Hoseok is an amazing player, but to be invited by an academy like that is something that's practically unheard of. He doesn't want to say he'd never have thought, but it's the truth. Hoseok might be phenomenal but he's also arguably older than the average athlete that starts out professionally, and after all, even if he's a wolf of the pack, Jeongguk would really never have thought that he'd want to do something with his tennis.
'The French Riviera is quite nice,' is what he says instead, at which Hoseok snorts.
'Like those asshats would actually recruit me. That's the thing, they contacted old panda pyjamas for a fucking camp. But that's the fucking thing, a fucking camp in their school'd be better than two years at any of the others.'
Jeongguk understands the struggle, then. Objectively speaking, the country's never sent out a lot of strong tennis players; an offer like this is ridiculously good. But it's also a statement on Hoseok's seriousness about his career, the iron hand under his sister's velvet glove, about— well, everything. Jeongguk doesn't have to be emotional to extrapolate the mental stress; being emotionally intelligent is enough. He might not be able to feel Hoseok's apprehension and excitement for him— has never really felt his own— but he can imagine them, and hence his confusion.
'And fucking Jeongyeon,' Hoseok says darkly. 'I mean, I fucking get it. She's not having it, whatever. Insert joke about Namjoon's high school ex, whatever, too lazy to make it. But I'd be fucking happy if she and Dawon did their thing with the businesses and I was just...fucking, there.
'But no,' he continues, and there's a far-off twinge to his voice that makes Jeongguk tune into him actively, finally. 'No, it's all, you love it AND you're good at it, what the fuck is stopping you, Hobi. Like, look in the fucking mirror, maybe, you control freak.'
Jung Hoseok, resident weed prince-in-waiting, hesitating between the French Riviera and a childhood sweetheart. Now that— no, Jeongguk wouldn't have thought. To a point where he isn't restraining himself from commenting; he genuinely doesn't know what to say.
'Don't mind me,' Hoseok says on cue. 'She's just pissing me off. Just really wanna play tennis without being a bitter old sack about it. Don't wanna start hating it.'
And that, that's the Hoseok that Jeongguk knows so far. It's a surprisingly common struggle, this one, of whether to make a passion into a career or not, and one he can perfectly imagine Hoseok having. Someone like Yoongi would never step down from a career opportunity, and Jimin has been fearless about his choice since his debut. Everyone has something that drives them— Namjoon has his philanthropy, Seokjin has his family. Taehyung, well, Taehyung loves winning.
But Jeongguk, well, Jeongguk doesn't know what to say.
One day, Jeongguk takes that illegal copy of the keys to the rooftop that Taehyung proposed to him in the summer, without really asking or explaining. Stealth has never been an issue; he gets all the way up without a single creak. The building isn’t all that high, but he can still see all the varying shades of the sky; how it’s lighter in some places but not yet in others, how the sun itself isn’t visible yet but its light already is.
Yet another year coming to an end, and what would have been yet another year without change, had it not been for Jeongguk’s dwindling hunger gnawing at him again, and for Bang college. The future of the country. But there’s that saying about things changing but remaining the same; Busan is still as far as ever, and though the morning dew will start to run off the tips of the greenery surrounding this campus, Jeongguk’s got some thawing to do.
If nothing, he’s entertaining the concept, at least. Even if the sun rises on Taehyung training his dark-velvet colt, and on Seokjin and Yoongi haggard after another sleepless night, and on Namjoon and Jimin and Hoseok on his court, and on the cold grey shores of Busan— even if that sun rises everywhere and Jeongguk is empty and cold, at least he knows that warmth exists.
Even though Jeongguk is empty like the morning sky; even though Jeongguk is empty like a hollow of white. He knows that the midnight glow, the firebug spark, the rope dipped in gasoline chafing his hands like the reins on a bloodhorse— he knows it was real, like this morning.
He feels, then, that the kingdom of this sunrise was made just for him. Light orange and pure chilling white, and tines of blood red striking out.
The night Taehyung turns over another year, so does the year itself. Almost. It’s so cold that Jeongguk loses all feeling in his fingers just cutting the route between Jackson’s car and the boarding house. But inside it’s stiflingly warm, more bodies packed into the common room than should be strictly allowed; but then again, it’s Taehyung’s birthday. Favourite among the favourites, the chosen one with his storm horse.
The chosen one chooses Jeongguk tonight, like he has every night since they met. Jeongguk feels that golden gaze sharpen the moment it flits his way, Taehyung taking a visibly deep breath interrupted by the smile spreading his lips almost involuntarily. Jeongguk sees the sharpening of his gaze, the unsteady rise and fall of his chest, that movement of his hand through his hair, shaking it out. These moments haven’t come that often this month, the more Taehyung gets obsessed with his races, and so they cut through Jeongguk’s loneliness with a worse potency. Nothing can compare— it’s like being under that sun he was looking for on the rooftop.
‘What a sight to start the new year off with,’ Taehyung says the moment he gets within earshot. ‘Nothing can stop me now.’
‘New year’s eve is tomorrow,’ Jeongguk informs him, but his throat is seized as if by a fist.
It’s stiflingly warm. The music is loud and consists purely of Taehyung’s favourites— Chanyeol made sure to let everyone know that this horrible taste certainly doesn’t belong to him — the windows are so misted that the lights outside have all expanded into vague bokeh. Someone thought to bring over food, from what the sole tray only littered with crumbs says. They’ve already used it to lay out boxes and bottles and what Jeongguk hopes are electric candles. He isn’t willing to deal with more than one fire tonight— Taehyung is already drunk and it’s barely past ten. His eyes are bright, hair messy, smile even wider than always. And as if he wasn’t already as shameless as can be about his liking for Jeongguk, here he acts on it, physically. Never a step beyond the boundaries Jeongguk has set that are only visible to Taehyung, but otherwise positively pinned to those glass walls as if through some wind behind his back.
Jeongguk hasn't gotten anything for Taehyung. So he would like to say he indulges Taehyung just for the occasion, but he thinks that would be a lie. He still doesn’t know why he does it, but he doesn’t look for answers— a skill he’s been honing all year— and just removes himself from the moment halfway. Living it and looking in from the outside at the same time, so as not to miss a single detail. The velvet feel of Taehyung’s royal blue blazer under his fingers, the bass of the horrible-taste song thundering under their dancing feet, and Taehyung’s breath, brown tequila and cinnamon. Jeongguk knows how to dance, and he knows how to dance with Taehyung ever since that first night with the Tres Cuatro y Cinco , but he barely knows what to do with the fact that he’s enjoying it. It isn’t as if he isn’t used to Taehyung’s demanding proximity, or every new thing that it’s brought along with its shimmering self. Friendship and flaws and fireworks. But it’s as if Jeongguk’s always been looking from the outside in, or the inside out, he doesn’t know which— bemused and academically interested in whatever his brain and nerve endings have chosen to subject his body to this time.
‘I was thinking about you earlier,’ Taehyung says when the song lulls before its drop. ‘That morning. Looked like you were going out of your mind. The sight of you, fuck, even he knew. Thunderbolt.’
No, Jeongguk doesn’t want to remove himself halfway and look from the outside in. Now he revels— a smile on his own lips that he makes sure not to let Taehyung see, his eyes drifting closed of their own accord, head tipping back towards the ceiling, nodding to an addictive beat even he can’t escape. The world is closing in on them, them, them. The growl of the bass a beast in his chest, and the scratch of Taehyung’s fingernails viciously vivid.
‘Can’t think straight anymore, golden boy.’ Taehyung’s all whispers, throaty laugh. ‘Got me wrapped around your finger, shit.’
He leans forward then, forehead against Jeongguk’s. Jeongguk’s breath claws at the skin of his throat, begging to get in, heart thrumming in the absence of oxygen, brain humming. If Taehyung kisses him here, right now, Jeongguk will never be able to go back to anything— won’t have even the remote chance he still does of one day returning to who he used to be, when things were easier and he’d never been fragile and never cried in a car on an October evening. The desire convulses and rises like smoke from his feet to his chest, turning his lungs over in nauseating spins. The bass, the claws, the gasoline—
Taehyung shifts his head and presses— not his lips, but his teeth, to Jeongguk’s jugular. The purest, most carnal show, one that wants Jeongguk to go limp in his arms just as strongly as every other synapse of him protests against that kind of surrender. He settles for something halfway, hissing through his teeth and tightening his hold on Taehyung’s collar, half pushing him away, half pulling.
Taehyung is laughing, openly. Delighted. ‘Say something, for fucking once. I’m hanging by a thread here.’
Jeongguk does. ‘Keep hanging, birthday boy.’
And so the year turns over, and so the school and the cold and their machine stays suspended, getting closer and closer to the eye of a storm of their own fabrication. Jeongguk takes exams and makes small talk, and it’s as if the teachers have genuinely forgotten who he is. (The students, after all, don’t even know. If they knew, they wouldn’t think twice about it.) His trips to the archery range are less and less frequent, but he keeps up fencing for the company of Jackson and his band, all blissfully uncaring of the “fucking mess the student council has gotten itself into this time". It’s official, then; Jeongguk is grouped in with the wolves for all functional purposes, and beyond those too. It would’ve surprised him if Taehyung’s obnoxious affinity to him hadn’t made the rounds of the campuses, but thankfully, no one takes Taehyung seriously about anything other than horse riding. Isn’t that why they’re in this “fucking mess” in the first place?
He goes to the pool, still. The warm water does wonders for his muscles in ways the longest of hot showers could never, and he still goes at the most solitary hours possible. Sometimes Jimin takes a detour from the dance studio and comes by with hot soup in a dainty tumbler, and dry remarks about Jeongguk’s butterfly stroke, nasal voice echoing off the walls and frosted glass windows and high ceilings. Jeongguk shoots back more often than not now, and if they weren’t all so busy pretending everything is normal, Jimin would probably be more delighted at it all. As it is, he sometimes waits until Jeongguk’s dressed again, then hands him a bag, or a box, or a thermos.
‘Take this to him,’ he says. ‘He probably won’t see anyone else.’
School is school and exams are exams, regardless of what’s going to happen a few weeks from now. Taehyung isn’t even remotely honouring the condition on which he’s being given time off— he’s barely in his bed six hours a night, let alone going to the library to study. Jeongguk lets him pretend that his words and actions and explosions at his birthday were all a result of alcohol; compartmentalisation. Taehyung doesn’t have time to get into it right now; Jeongguk would know how that feels.
So they say nothing when he brings over food to the stables, sits down at the office table. Taehyung talks about progress and falls and what the trainer said yesterday afternoon, and that he’s sore, god damn it. Wolfs down noodles and salad and sighs as he warms his fingers on the thermos. Jeongguk usually brings a textbook or his laptop along, working on his reading and assignments and revisions while Taehyung talks his anxiety away. Sometimes their hands brush when Taehyung returns the bags and boxes and thermoses to him, Jeongguk’s fingers freezing, Taehyung’s warm. Sometimes Taehyung curses and puts the thermos away, rubs Jeongguk’s hands, too hard, chafing the skin. Once, he brings them up to his mouth and blows on them, lips tea-hot on his fingertips. Jeongguk nearly scrapes the skin off of them on the way back to the campus, stomach turning.
Seokjin doesn’t bother grilling him. Taehyung’s talented at saying so much that any important information is well-hidden in his mouth without arousing suspicion. No one’s trying to play his game; it’s too late now, anyway. Everything is official and the bookies have published their limits— for better or for worse, there’s no going back.
For worse, then.
His hair is damp from the cold outside, the wool of his scarf dotted with minuscule raindrops. He takes it off as soon as he gets inside, sighing at the warmth of the radiators. Pauses to unzip his jacket in the stairwell, then skips the steps on the way to his room. By the time he closes the door behind him he’s down to his sweater and already reaching to slip out of his boots. His bed has never been as welcome as it is right now; outside, the sky is already indigo even though it’s only five, and he had the foresight to leave his warmest socks to heat under the window. He gets under the covers, head tipped back against the pillows, eyes closed, letting himself melt into the mattress.
He doesn’t know how long it lasts, but he knows it isn’t long enough. Because in what seems like seconds, there is the sound of a door slamming and a loud, indistinguishable yell, and then heavy footfalls on the stairs. A thump on a wall, another loud curse, and another door slam that has Jeongguk vaulting out of his bed before he can even register that it was Taehyung’s voice. By the time he gets dressed and runs to the room, all the other doors in the hallway are open, and he’s the last one to arrive.
He has a stunning sense of déjà vu for a second— the machine, running again. Jimin sitting behind Taehyung on the bed, arms wrapped tight around his waist. Seokjin at the window, face glacial. Namjoon reading aloud from a sheet of paper.
Then Jeongguk notices Yoongi and Hoseok, and the illusion breaks. They’re both sitting on the floor at Taehyung’s feet, hairbands on their heads, an intensely holographic sheet mask on Yoongi’s face and an even more alarming-looking blue one on Hoseok’s. When he shifts to look at Jeongguk, it glows iridescent green. They are, both of them, impossibly stoned.
Jeongguk takes a deep breath and finally tunes in to what Namjoon is reading in his I’m sorry to break this news voice that he uses only when it’s six in the morning and he really needs everyone to keep it down so he can sleep.
‘—after careful consideration of all factors and in the presence of the expertise of no less than five bloodstock agents and trainers—’
‘You don’t need them anyway,’ Jimin says fiercely, but Taehyung doesn’t look like he’s listening at all. His eyes are dark and he has a tilt to his mouth that scares Jeongguk, a little. ‘Come on, Taehyungie. Fuck them. Fuck them all.’
‘—however, we believe that the opportunity to represent the racing club of the academy is in itself a high honour, and—’
‘Come on, Taehyung,’ Hoseok says, too. His voice is unbelievably scratchy, and Jeongguk is already bracing himself for whatever is about to come next. ‘I’m sure Bob is going to be just fine.’
At that, Taehyung comes back to himself, if briefly. Face taking on a murderous glare, he narrows his eyes at Hoseok and hisses, ‘Who the fuck is Bob? ’
‘Hoseok, be serious,’ Yoongi snaps. ‘He’s talking about Billy, Taehyung. The boy. Horse.’
‘—regardless of the circumstances, the committee sincerely wishes Kim Taehyung-sshi the best—’
‘Namjoon.’ That’s Seokjin, quietly, but loud enough to make them all look at him, except for Taehyung, who is now glaring at his hands.
‘You knew this would happen.’ Seokjin’s voice is cold. ‘I warned you. Yoongi warned you. President Park warned you. The trainers warned you. You knew the trustees would rescind their bets.’
Only then does Jeongguk actually understand the thrumming rage in the room despite Yoongi and Hoseok’s half-presence. He can tell Seokjin is furious, both at Taehyung and at everyone else. This is the Seokjin that threw his phone at the wall in September, and this time, Jeongguk feels like a part of the action.
‘Did I really know?’ Taehyung replies. ‘You could’ve told me a thousand fucking times and I still wouldn’t have believed that not a single goddamn person in this place has faith in me. Not even my own fucking club.’
‘They can’t bet on you, it’s policy,’ Seokjin says. ‘And the parents were going to bet on Copenhague, not Thunderbolt. They have every right to rescind their bets, and now you're making the club a loss. Don’t make me say this a third time.’
‘I didn’t ask you to say it the first. Who the hell bought Thunderbolt, me or the club? I don't remember forking out thirty-five million won for him. Don't you fucking talk down to me.’
The silence that follows is long enough for Jeongguk to consider every course of action possible. Leave and go back to the warmth of his bed, ignoring a problem that is far from his own. Try to break the tension and ask if someone wants a beer from downstairs. Stride forward and put his arms around Taehyung too, as if Jeongguk is the sort of person to embrace people in the first place, much less do it to comfort them. But as he sees the faraway look on Jimin’s face, out of platitudes, and the way Namjoon is glaring at the letter in his hands as if he can change its contents through sheer force of will, Jeongguk has the time to decide on a fourth course of action— one where he makes a problem that isn’t his, his. Because he’s part of the machine. Because he wants to be. Because it's Taehyung.
‘What,’ he says, voice sounding unnaturally light in the sullen quiet. ‘You don’t trust the horse to win anymore because no one’s betting on him? You can only win when winning brings something?’
Taehyung seems to take longer to register that Jeongguk was the one to speak up, than everyone else in the room. The only one who doesn’t seem openly aghast at what he said is Seokjin, who’s now crossed his arms, trying to incinerate the tree just outside Taehyung’s window with his eyes.
But then Taehyung looks up slowly, as if in a haze, and locks gazes with Jeongguk. And, well, it’s too late to back down now, so Jeongguk stares back.
‘Get out,’ Taehyung says. ‘Everyone but him.’
No one hesitates to obey, not even Jimin, even though he rolls his eyes very pointedly and mouths you’ve done it now at Jeongguk before leaving the room. The door closes with a sort of finality, and now it’s only Taehyung and Jeongguk in this mess that Jeongguk so desperately wants to participate in, despite not having been the one to create it. The eye of the storm, so very close now.
‘I know why you left Jeon Academy, Jeon Jeongguk,’ Taehyung says, then, and Jeongguk feels his blood drain out from under his feet. Into the carpet. Downstairs.
He won’t back down. He wants in. He wants control. ‘Don’t you win just to win? I thought you always win.’
Taehyung takes no heed. ‘I just don’t know why you did it. I need to know why you did it.’
Deep breath. Control. ‘This isn’t about that. This is about you. Trying to get to me isn’t going to solve your own problems. At best, it’s a diversion tactic.’
He laughs at that, loud and bitter, and Jeongguk feels something hot surge behind his eyes. Irritation. Anger. Frustration. He doesn’t know. He doesn’t really know.
‘Right,’ Taehyung says, voice as bitter as his laugh. ‘That’s right, everything I do is a diversion tactic. I do it for the publicity, right? Wild fucking Kim Taehyung with his wild fucking horse. Trying to get into your pants and your head. God, whatever. I don’t know why I’m trying to talk to you .’
‘You do know why.’ The anger lessens. ‘You worked on it all year so that one day I’d talk back to you. Be proud. You won. You always win.’
‘I don’t want to win like this.’ Jeongguk, the race. ‘Doesn’t feel like winning.’
‘Why not? Isn’t victory sweeter when no one thought you could do it?’
‘And don’t you always win, regardless? You always win. So win.’
Then the storm doesn’t come, so Jeongguk goes looking for it. The rain is calling at his window, sloughing down the darkness of the sky in washes of darkness so thick that he can’t see a single point of light, artificial or not. The golden glow of his lamps stops short against the wall of water, reflected in each sharp drop like sparks.
Jeongguk takes a deep breath, blinks them away. Raises his phone, puts it back down, raises it up again. Pockets it instead and throws on his jacket.
The riding hall is enormous, more so with the hollow sound of the rain echoing around it. The gymnasium had been around the same size, now that he thinks about it (he is always thinking about it). There was no storm that night; only the dry heat of summer, the kind that made his throat feel like sandpaper. He hadn’t taken a deep breath that night, and he hadn’t blinked.
If Taehyung is surprised to see him there, he doesn’t show it. Certainly doesn’t have time for Jeongguk right now, with the race days away and a world to prove wrong. He only nods, then goes back to tying Thunderbolt in place.
‘Got in just in time,’ he says. ‘He was about to freak out on me. Good thing Jin pushed for those all-weather tracks last year.’
Jeongguk watches. It's the first time he's seeing Thunderbolt up so close, in all these months, and immobile. He can see details he hadn't before— the shine of his eyes, the narrow silver plate on the cheek piece that says his name in simple letters. The detail on the browband, the curve of the poll. Thunderbolt stares back, mouth closed, not breathing hard. Not blinking. Sharp gaze, aware.
‘I dream about it all the time,’ Jeongguk says. His voice is lost in the largeness of the hall, like it would have been if he had spoken, that night. But he hadn’t. He hadn’t spoken and he hadn’t taken a deep breath and he hadn’t blinked, because he only had time for one thing, and that was being excellent.
The gymnasium had been around the same size, lit unnatural and eerie like every sports facility at night. Tall, bright lights like fake moons in the sky, their white wash unforgiving over grass or cement or wet wooden floors. His father’s academy, tall and bright and unforgiving. The third truth, the worst. The killing one. The dark one. The dream one, until Taehyung’s hands around his neck and Taehyung’s mouth on his throat and Taehyung’s words in his ear. Crocodile boy. Golden boy.
‘Yeah, I guess you do,’ he replies, on cue. ‘I would, too. I’d dream about it all the time. Dream about Thunderbolt all the time. Dream about going wild. Actually wild, not the wild me that you all have made up.’
‘You are wild.’ That night, the summer heat was dry and his throat felt like sandpaper. His brother was in Portugal, away safe from the bewildered hurt, the only one who might have been hurt. Jeongguk was in Busan, like his mother and father, and Busan was already so far away. Is Busan really that far, Jeon Jeongguk? Yes, Busan was really that far, even standing in the middle of that empty gymnasium at midnight, more present in the moment than he had ever been all his life. Something he thought he’d never feel again, until today, right now, under Taehyung’s gaze in the middle of a storm. ‘I could never be like you.’
‘Because, what, you aren’t?’ Taehyung raises an eyebrow, then breaks off into laughter, a little bitter, a little dark. Jeongguk remembers laying out the gasoline. Not laughing or speaking or breathing or blinking. No hands around his neck that night, or around his heart. But a light. Hot and white. He had methodically opened each container, barely flinching at the smell, stepping only just out of its way as it spread across the floor like poison. ‘You aren’t wild? After what you did?’
Nearly a year ago, Jeongguk had saved the race by taking the blame, and it had all started with a siren, his favourite sound in the world, second now to Taehyung’s voice. That night, he had pretended to hate it, cried a tear. But every time he dreams, he relives the very first time, at the gymnasium. Sitting in the car in the pitch black night outside, waiting for the sirens to kick in before driving away. Waiting to see if the flames might decide to indulge him and eat the sky whole.
That first and last time, he had methodically opened each container.
How much gasoline to restart a life?
Only about as much as is allowed to avoid blowing up a building on a summer night.
How many flicks of the lighter to feel alive?
‘I know you burned it down, Jeon Jeongguk,’ Taehyung says. ‘And I think I know why.’
That night, without a deep breath and without blinking, Jeongguk had set the edges of his life on the kind of purifying fire that he had only heard about in sermons. They were brilliant and brilliant and brilliant, and for a moment there, he had control over it all— most of all, over himself, over his white-hot red-hot heart. He had been alive.
‘But I’ll wait for you to tell me. That secret’s all yours. Isn’t in some sheet of records somewhere. I’ll wait for you to trust me.’
‘I trust you,’ Jeongguk says, and the storm stops for a second, paused over their heads, and so does the fire, the flames climbing over his knees stopping to curl there, waiting. ‘I only trust you.’
‘Then tell me. Trust me, damn it. Someone should.’
He didn’t take a deep breath then, but he does now. Closes his eyes. Maybe Taehyung does know why. Maybe he knows the most shameful truth of Jeongguk’s life, the one he took for religion and pasted onto his own face until Taehyung came along to ruin it all.
‘Everyone always expects you to win, right?’ he says. ‘Except this one time, when they’re expecting you to lose?’
For the first time since he got here, he sees an expression on Taehyung’s face that isn’t murder. It’s surprise this time, then bemusement.
‘Is that what this is? That they’re always expecting you to lose? Is that why you—’
Jeongguk scoffs, surprisingly bitter, like he took a leaf out of Taehyung’s spiteful book. ‘I wish it was that.’
So maybe he doesn’t know, Taehyung. Maybe he doesn’t know that one last govern. The one the fire spoke.
They don’t care.
They don’t care they don’t care they don’t care.
‘I wish,’ he says again, softer. ‘I wish they cared that much. No— they just didn’t care. I burned down a building to get my father to care, and he didn’t blink. Packed me off here to get me out of his sight, and hushed the whole thing up. They just didn’t care, Taehyung. No one cared. No one cares. No one. Nobody.’
‘I care,’ Taehyung says. ‘And you don’t have to burn a single fucking thing for me to care.’
‘Don’t I?’ he squints at the floor, the fire still speaking. ‘Didn’t I? How did we get here, then? There’s no mystery anymore. Nothing for you to win. You won. Now you get to collect, and leave.’
‘I am collecting,’ comes the reply, so tender for a second that Jeongguk looks back up, frowning, trying to catch the joke. But Taehyung’s looking right at him, face downcast but eyes sharp, one dark victory behind him, one before. ‘I won your trust. I want to keep it. I need someone to trust me, and you need someone to trust. I need to fear losing, and you need to want to win just to win.’
A silence follows, the clouds holding back the rain like breath in weak lungs, and the smell of burning still rising from Jeongguk’s feet.
But what Jeongguk needs is to be alone, and he’s gifted at telling when someone else needs to be alone. Taehyung needs to be alone, for once, whether he knows it or not. So he gives Taehyung one last look, and behind him, Thunderbolt huffs, jerks his head.
Jeongguk leaves them to embers and wind.
On the morning of race day, Jeongguk wakes up before his alarm. Four hours before the track opens for racegoers and six before the races start. A full twelve hours before the last race of the day, no longer the most important one, but certainly what everyone's going to be holding their breath for. It's cold but clear, he can tell even before his feet land on the carpet. He opens his blinds to the tree just in front of his window, branches bare and reaching out towards to freezing glass of the pane.
He can see identical squares of light falling over the entire row of trees. Counts the windows. Seokjin, Yoongi. Hoseok and Namjoon. And the very last window at the end of the wing, of course. Everyone's already awake. Some didn't sleep at all.
Classes are suspended for the day. He stifles his nervous energy into calculations, too wired to just read. When his clock beeps at eight, he closes the notebook and pushes his chair back, hands on the desk, eyes staring at nothing. The sun has come up, and the track opens in two hours. He'll be needed downstairs in one.
The shower is hot, too hot. The skin under his hair hurts as he towels off, hurts more as he takes a dryer to it. Steps out naked, still dripping a little, and stares for a moment at the clothes he'd laid out last night. Nothing special, smart dress; suit, two pairs of shoes. A blue tie for the colours of the club. He dries off and slips it on; the socks, the trousers, the shirt.
Just as he's pulling on the tie, there's a knock on the door, then the push of it opening. Jeongguk raises his eyebrows; of all people, it's Hoseok.
'Came to make sure you weren't gothing it up or something,' he says, voice too cheerful for the hour and for the suit he himself is wearing. Hair slicked back, camel overcoat already on. 'Good. You can wear the Chelsea boots, Seokjin won't kill you. Winter is winter.'
Jeongguk snorts at that, sits on the edge of his bed to get the boots on. Hoseok comes over and kneels, adjusts the tie a little, nudging the knot until he's satisfied. Brushes his hands over Jeongguk's shoulders, pats them.
'Good,' he says again. 'Make 'em weep.'
'I'm not the one racing.'
'No,' Hoseok replies. Pats Jeongguk's cheek and straightens up. 'You're not.'
They gather in the common room, all of them but one. Jeongguk doesn't know who looks most stunning, but it has to be a tie between Seokjin and Jimin. Long coats and almost longer scarves, a shimmering, daring peacock shade for Seokjin, rich brown for Jimin. Yoongi has on a navy checkered three-piece, and Namjoon's in grey. No one speaks when Jeongguk and Hoseok enter; only Namjoon waves a hand towards where steaming mugs of coffee are waiting for them.
'Well,' Yoongi says finally, palming his pockets for his Marlboros. 'He's eaten. They'll examine him in an hour, then it's back to the stall.'
No one replies. Jeongguk doesn't know why Yoongi said it. Everyone knows how it's going to go, and how excruciatingly long the day is going to be, knowing that they'll have to wait until sundown to actually get the race they've been planning for the past year. He knows the procedure inside out by now, given the number of times Taehyung went over it obsessively weeks ago, when they were still on talking terms and Jeongguk would bring him his lunch.
The vets will make him jog, he'd said around his fourth mouthful of kimchi in as many seconds. Then check his legs. Check his blood for milkshaking. Then he'll go back to his stall and I pray to God that he'll get some sleep. He isn't a bleeder so he won't need injections.
Forty-five minutes to go, they'll call him out. God. Fuck. I'm losing my mind thinking about it.
No one replies to Yoongi's unnecessary statement. Jeongguk downs his coffee in silence and hopes breakfast at the track will be good. The scholar's house seems, right now, so isolated from the rest of the world. Just the six of them thinking about the other two, the turf a faraway place and yet right outside their door. And now it's time to go out on it.
On cue, Seokjin seems to blink himself out of a daze, then looks at all of them slowly. The cold winter air, the sunlight through the common room windows where Jeongguk sees their summer ghosts, laughing over last night's jokes and belting out old music while he watched from his favourite seat against the panes. Where he met them all the first time, so fully themselves and not afraid of anything. Now Seokjin looks at all of them, and there is nothing discernable in his eyes, which tells Jeongguk he's terrified. It's a strange look on him.
'Let's go,' he says, and heads for the door, and into the cold outside.
The racecourse is already thrumming with life, and it's not even filled up yet. It's been a while since Jeongguk saw so many people gathered in the same place, so many of them, even their prim chatter coming together into a sort of oppressive din, something that reminds him of how old this sport is, one of the oldest, one of the simplest. Flat racing, three tiers, thoroughbreds. The racegoers fill up the stands and the grass and the sky, shapes of blue and grey and beige against the foggy winter backdrop of it all. Gloves and scarves and coats, flat boots and expensive binoculars. They all have their own waiting for them at the office.
The amenity tents look unbearably cosy, white with warm yellow lights inside and the promise of food and drinks and even a little bit of music. The lounges, small, are already filled with people milling about, flutes in hand along with the programmes. Jeongguk picks up one of each on the way to breakfast; the programme, the racing form, even the handicapping sheets.
'Souvenirs, how charming,' Jimin says snarkily, and Jeongguk actually deigns to roll up the programme and smack him on the back of the head. They're all acting out today, then.
He flips through the program as they settle down with their plates, Seokjin already charming the pants off three men with a bright smile and soulless eyes. Eight races, half-hour intervals. Copenhague is racing, with a different jockey, someone they called in last minute from Jeju. Good preliminary odds. White with blue diamonds. Black Moon, best odds across the table, raised at Ddarabi.
He stops on the last page, fingers moving over the neat print. 7. Thunderbolt. Dark blue, white stripes on sleeves, blue cap. Kim Taehyung.
Then he looks at the odds, and puts the programme away. Breakfast is cooling, and he doesn't want to be vomiting pure coffee later.
They step out half an hour before noon, the sun fully up and the sky a bright blue. Jeongguk starts to head for the stands, but then stops, skips a breath, the next one pooling out in white mist before his face. Runs a finger over the glossy page of the programme again, tucked away in his pocket now, and stares at the ground. But then Hoseok is nudging him, come on, we're gonna go see Taehyungie real quick, and he blinks himself out of it, follows.
Thunderbolt is nowhere in sight, hopefully asleep in his stall. Jeongguk sees one of his brave trainers, then the other one, and at last, Taehyung, speaking earnestly to a veterinarian.
To say the sight of him cuts Jeongguk's breath off again is the least of services he can do. Taehyung's not dressed in uniform yet, but he's in breeches and an Eton slim fit, so white against his golden skin, high brown boots. Nearly a year of knowing Bang College's best horseman and it's the first time Jeongguk's seeing him like this. A weak link in his knees loosens; he swallows. Hair swept back, eyes focused, hands moving to explain his point while the woman in front of him nods, pats him on the shoulder, nods again. He shines to attention when he spots them, bows to the doctor before making his way over.
'You look like a homewrecker,' Jimin sighs. 'We have to take pictures later.'
'When I'll be caked in mud and smelling like a stable?'
'Honey, don't kid yourself. You always smell like a stable.'
Jeongguk doesn't say anything to Taehyung, and Taehyung doesn't say anything to Jeongguk. Seokjin is speaking to him tersely, then Yoongi, then Hoseok, smooching him obnoxiously on the top of his head. But Jeongguk only looks without looking, breathes without breathing. It's like he's in a different world, which he is. Realising all of a sudden that this is it— this is who he is, where he is now. A part of this group, dressed up here with them, on the most important day of the year. Hoseok who came to check on his tie and Yoongi who didn't care as long as his room wasn't set on fire.
He made it. He made it. And now for the best, and the worst. Taehyung.
Jeongguk doesn't really look at him. Looks at the others instead, the detail of their expensive clothes. The veterinarian's hands, muddy-gloved. The racegoers, far but imposing, and now the first of the announcements over the speakers, calls to the receiving barn.
'Come on, time to get seated,' Yoongi says. 'Taehyung, Seokjin and I will be back later. No one else. Do your rituals.'
He does. Gathers Jimin into his arms and rocks him, kisses his forehead. Gets his hair ruffles from Hoseok and Namjoon, then grins cockily at all of them, making a show of himself. Wild fucking Kim Taehyung with his wild fucking horse.
'You'll see,' he says simply, and then turns away from them.
But Jeongguk hangs behind, in a place he imagines to be right next to that of Taehyung's in the formation. Sees them make their way to the stands. He slows down, turns around, walks backwards.
Taehyung's turned again, too, as if he was waiting. His gaze is so piercing that Jeongguk, for a moment, wants to disappear. Wants to break into a run and cross the fence, and leap into Taehyung's arms, these hands on your neck this mouth on your mouth. But he does neither, only stares back, and keeps staring, until he can't anymore.
Then he curls a hand around the programme in his pocket again, catching up to the rest of them. Pulls it out and looks around, trying to spot the area.
'Don't even think about it,' Seokjin says. He isn't so much as looking at Jeongguk, but there is ice in his voice. 'You represent us now.' Make 'em weep.
'Why the hell not?' That's Namjoon; Jeongguk blinks in surprise, turns around. Namjoon has a set to his voice too, but it isn't cold at all. On the contrary. 'Do you really just have a wallet where your heart should be?'
'Namjoon, for fuck's sake.'
Namjoon turns to Jeongguk, eyes bright with indignation. 'Go. I'll cover your losses.'
And Jeongguk goes, but not before pausing and turning around one last time.
'There'll be no losses,' he says.
The Totepool teller's name tag says Ahn Jaehyo . Jeongguk stares at it for a second before looking at him, smiling politely in greeting. Presents himself, then the rest.
Track number. Horse number. Bet type, win.
'And the amount, sir?'
Jeongguk doesn't take a deep breath, doesn't blink. And, for once, doesn't close his eyes.
The day crawls, but the races flash by. It's been over a decade since the last time Jeongguk went to one this big, and as observant as he was at ten, it definitely wasn't enough. He only has vague memories of large hats and fluffy white clouds; it was summer, back then. Not being allowed to taste from his father's glass. The binoculars too heavy for his little hands.
It's surreal, now. They're well-seated but still in the stands; they're still students, after all, even though no one's done more to make this entire day happen than Seokjin and Yoongi. They don't seem to mind, though, and actually look interested in the other races, which is a humbling reminder to Jeongguk that the world doesn't revolve around Taehyung. A humbling reminder to Taehyung, too, he imagines, watching Copenhague win his race, the same club trustees cheering in the winner's circle that sent him a polite letter a month ago saying you're lucky we're letting you race at all.
It gets warm sometime in the afternoon, about the time everyone decides to refill their drinks all at the same time, between the fourth and the fifth races. Jeongguk savours it too, knowing sundown is coming soon and temperatures are going to drop sharply. Besides, standing in line is one of the most calming things.
It's there that he bumps into a face he knows albeit never having officially met. To his credit, Byun Baekhyun treats him like a familiar friend too, right away, which tells Jeongguk volumes about how much Taehyung talks about him to others.
'Yeah, I spoke to him last week,' Baekhyun says, picking up three canapés deftly, popping one into his mouth. 'He was like, I don't care. The Cadre Noir can do without you for a day. Because of course, it's not like it takes me an entire day just to get here from Bumfuck Nowhere, France.'
'You still came.'
'Of course I did. I don't know if he's told you but I'm basically Taehyung's husband. I mean I came back last summer just to party with him. I will seriously marry him if you don't intervene.'
Jeongguk can't help a smile at that, distracted for a moment by the commentator announcing the next race. There's something strangely warming about the way Baekhyun's talking to him, something that soothes that part of him that told Taehyung that day in the hall, there's no mystery, anymore. This feels— strange. Stable. This is what it must feel like, to be a part of someone's life. To have someone talk about you. To have someone care.
Baekhyun joins them at their seats, making a show of gushing over Jimin's hair and how it looks so much better in person, then settling down between him and Jeongguk. With a whoosh of sharp cologne and warmth, Jackson sits down on his other side, grins.
'I want to see the mess up close,' he says. 'Don't tell Mr. President over there, but the entire school is lowkey rooting for Taehyung.'
Mr. President doesn't need Jackson to tell him that, and even if he did, he hardly seems to care about the opinion of the school. He never has, after all. Hate him all you want, as long as you vote for Yoongi, keep the council in power, and never say a word to his face. And after all, the school knows better. Jeongguk knows better than to say a word to Seokjin’s face. Even right now, at his most vulnerable— they’ll call for the last race’s horses at the receiving barn any minute now— he’s still sharp, almost cruel with it. Flanked on either side by Namjoon and Yoongi, sharing the same regard. At once a part of the audience and something more, and something less, too. Jeongguk hardly knows which of them is more invested, after all; merryfaced Jackson with his quips, Baekhyun, the only one who could possibly understand every aspect of Taehyung’s love for the sport.
Jimin, who starts and tries to hide it as the announcement comes, horses to the receiving barn. Practically breaking his own knees with his grip on them. Hoseok, diligently hiding his nervousness in his phone, thumbs flying over the screen.
‘Come on,’ Seokjin says to Yoongi, then. ‘They’ll be at the walking ring soon.’
Jeongguk can just about see it from here. As the sun starts to go down in earnest and the floodlights come on, he can still see enough to know that no other horse in that ring has a coat as dark as Thunderbolt’s, who, instead of blending into his sombre background, seems to somehow stand out all the more against it, the light touching off the fur on the sharp edges of his body and flaring him up as if with a halo. Goddamn horses, he can almost hear Hoseok say, and stifles a slightly hysterical laugh at the thought.
He can just about see the moment Taehyung comes out, too. Helmet on, gear on, protection on. The easy way he swings onto Thunderbolt, the way he did with Copenhague the first time Jeongguk ever saw him on the turf. The way Thunderbolt comes easily, too; warming up smoothly and letting Taehyung lead him into the gate. There are six others, all filled now, different-coloured helmets and different-coloured coats; it’s time to use his binoculars but he can hardly stand to.
‘Riders up,’ the paddock judge calls.
Every member of the wolf pack who’s still seated in the stands holds their breath for a moment, expecting him to buck, or rear, or react to the restrictive walls of the gate in some way. But he doesn’t; and as Seokjin and Yoongi settle back into their seats with a sort of humming finality, Jeongguk feels like he’s the one who’s going to jump out of his skin.
‘Holy fuck,’ Hoseok moans. ‘I can’t do it. I can’t watch. I can’t do it.’
But Jeongguk’s raising his binoculars, his heart too large for his body, thumping away in every inch of his flesh that he can feel. Hot blood is coursing through his brains; he can feel it in the strangest of places— the small of his back, and the insides of his knees, and the place in his chest where nausea stays when it has nowhere to go. His ears tune in to the commentary automatically; the commentator sounds deceptively peaceful, as if everyone hasn’t talked in whispers about this race for weeks. Months. Years, when it comes to one of those jockeys, the one in the blue cap. White stripes on his sleeves. A colt so moonless you could never miss him.
Jeongguk takes a deep breath, fills his lungs as far as they’ll fill.
‘And away they go! ’
The moment it starts, for the very first time in his life, Jeongguk doesn’t notice a single thing. He doesn’t know what Baekhyun and Jackson are screaming or if they’re screaming at all; he doesn’t know what anything looks like. His mind is blank; his eyes can only see one thing— the them of Taehyung and Thunderbolt.
There was never a question. There was never a question. Taehyung is poetry in motion, Thunderbolt is wildfire on the trail. His legs are pure black strokes against the lit track when Jeongguk can actually make them out; Taehyung’s form, perfectly poised and yet a feather-breath away from flying off his steed. He’s in the lead on the outside, two others just barely keeping up with him. The jeep and truck follow, Jeongguk doesn’t care. Patrol judges talking into their mouthpieces at the first pole, then the second pole. Jeongguk doesn’t care. The commentator, high off the energy of the crowd and screaming something at the end of the first quarter, Jeongguk doesn’t care.
Time warps. His vision is restricted to the track. He can see the grass on the edges start to sizzle and smoke, painful piano notes falling each over the other like a moment that can’t decide whether it’s flying up or falling down. Jeongguk’s heart plays a staccato in his chest, breath a freezing hailstorm in his throat.
There was never a question. He can’t see Taehyung’s face from here, or Thunderbolt’s eyes, but this puts synchronisation to shame. No, Jeongguk thinks that this is what love looks like, brilliant and brilliant and brilliant. He doesn’t take his eyes off Taehyung, but he knows he’d see him even if he closed them. The slip-slide of their turns along the turns and their stretches along the stretches, the motion of Taehyung’s hand, the reverberating transparent-black motion of the crop, one part of the machine coming alive and waking the other up with him. He can’t stop looking; can’t stop remembering that night with the fire, the floodlights and night sky and sparks. How alive he felt, feels.
It’s only as they near the end that Jeongguk realises that the reason his throat feels so raw is because he’s been roaring. His hearing returns. Beside him, shouting. Behind him, shouting. Seokjin and Yoongi and Hoseok and Jimin and Namjoon, even, he can hear him somehow; like they did that first night when Jeongguk cocked back an arrow and hit the target despite their noise. He’s part of the noise now, the way Taehyung said the others live one toe off the edge when one of them is onstage.
Then Thunderbolt crosses that nearly-invisible finish line even though it’s lit golden by the lights; the commentator is shouting, Thunderbolt wins, what a horse he is.
He sees Taehyung even as they jump out their seats; he’d see Taehyung even if he closed his eyes. He’s raised himself up now, kissing his fist, pumping it, roaring, too. God, Jeongguk wishes he could look into those eyes, this gaze on that gaze, to see it. To see winning just for winning, to see fear crushed under two pairs of hooves. But he can’t, so he makes up for it by roaring some more, yelling with the others whose families have lost money. Then he stops, makes a small sound in the back of his throat, but all at once Jackson is hooting and clapping him on the back and Baekhyun is grabbing his wrist and Jimin— Jimin is shifting, taking Jeongguk’s face in his hands and grinning at him, mouth open in disbelief and eyes so bright, bewildered. Jeongguk clutches his wrist for a moment, and falls headlong into the rush of friendship, left foot following the right one over the edge. Hoseok’s hands are over his face; he’s laughing hysterically, and now Baekhyun, too. Over their shoulders Jeongguk sees Seokjin struggle to control his smile, Namjoon and Yoongi having long since given up. There is so much noise, so much of it, crackling and popping and coming and going in flashes. Jeongguk is almost outside himself.
They don’t give him a second to hesitate; Baekhyun’s pushing him and Jimin’s pulling him, and before he knows it he’s following the wolf pack down to the winner’s circle. Don’t let a single one of those old farts get into that photo with Taehyungie, Yoongi is yelling into his phone as if the person on the other end can hear him over the noise of the crowd, and Jeongguk laughs out loud to himself, still a little baffled. They’re hypocrites too, the best kind, for having fought with Taehyung— all of them all at once— but still swallowing pure ecstasy at his win. The best kind, because they fought and yelled but Seokjin did everything in his power to let Taehyung race, and Yoongi shut off that cynical part of his brain to just believe, for once. The machine, the platinum wall turned diamond. There is no mystery, and Jeongguk has never been happier for a broken illusion.
The trustees are still posing with Taehyung when they arrive; he’s got three bouquets in his hands and his helmet is slightly askew. It’s their turn next, and Jeongguk has half a mind not to enter the frame, but Hoseok yanks him in with an arm around his shoulders, tells him to smile for the camera. It’s surreal; smiling for the camera. Smiling like this. Jeongguk is outside himself. So is Thunderbolt, it seems; he’s so bemused at the attention that he actually lets Jimin kiss him on the nose, only blinking in response.
But then Seokjin and Namjoon are helping— no, lifting Taehyung off, with no care to how he is staining their suits. Seokjin squeezes his eyes shut tight and kisses the top of Taehyung’s head, and Taehyung, with no care either, holds him like he would a brother. Yoongi is next, cupping Taehyung’s cheek and surely saying something glib, given the eyeroll Taehyung gives him. Namjoon and Hoseok, still shouting a little, shaking him roughly. Jimin, practically in tears, flinging himself on Taehyung, who doesn’t stumble back; he was expecting it.
Jeongguk lingers behind, smile still on his face but no longer sure what to do with his hands. Sees Taehyung looking half in disbelief, half in ecstasy at all of them, and doesn’t feel lonely for a second. Especially not when Taehyung turns to him in the end, and takes a breath. Then Jeongguk doesn’t have to wish he could’ve seen him right after the finish line; he has that same look in his eyes, like the boiling blood Jeongguk felt in his mouth. Nothing like how he stared at Jeongguk before the race and somehow everything like it.
Taehyung calls him over silently, with a nod of his head, and, well, Jeongguk has never not listened to him. He walks over, and Taehyung looks at him, and Jeongguk looks at his sweaty helmet-flattened hair, the streaks of dirt on his face and neck, his dusty shoes, his splattered breeches. Taehyung looks like a fucking mess, and Jeongguk steps as close to him as he’s allowed.
‘What did you bet,’ Taehyung says. ‘Tell me you bet on me.’
And Jeongguk, who’s ugly rich and waited tables and done dishes, and once spent an entire summer getting the smell of gasoline out of his clothes, Jeongguk laughs.
‘I won’t tell you,’ he answers, then laughs again. Taehyung looks like he, too, is learning what love is. ‘He didn’t even let me. Said the track couldn’t possibly cover it.’
For a second, Taehyung sways as if he is going to faint, and then Jeongguk is catching him, finally knowing where to put his hands. Around Taehyung’s slender shoulders, around his waist, Taehyung’s forehead pressed against his shoulder, every breath a winded gasp of victory.
‘You dumbfuck,’ Taehyung says, strangled. ‘And you call yourself smart? That’s not how bets work. That’s not how you bet on stuff.’
‘I never once called myself smart,’ Jeongguk replies. ‘That’s why I would’ve bet fucking everything.
‘I would’ve bet everything, Taehyung.’
The post-race festivities last only about until midnight, for appearances' sake. Jeongguk drinks soju out of small glasses and avoids anyone who looks to be over the age of thirty (which is easy to do; he just has to avoid Jimin) and watches with a feeling he places on a pedestal above pride, as Taehyung reaps everything he sowed. Photographs and grudging congratulations, and drinks over drinks over drinks. Seokjin has long since shed his coat but kept his scarf on, spots of pink high on his cheeks, eyes merry, and over in the corner, Yoongi, Hoseok, and Baekhyun are engaged in what seems like intense conversation with a couple of Frenchmen. Namjoon is beside Jeongguk— it happens often— with a glass he's been nursing for hours, which happens often too.
But then midnight rolls around and it's time to stop pretending, and no one even bothers to stop them as they make their way off the grounds and back to the boarding houses, and especially the scholars' house, where the cultured ladies of Park and Kim have prepared both floors for the largest party of their academic careers. Jeongguk can hear the music— something foreign, suave and slinking like bitter gin— far before they even get to the houses; the windows are all wide open despite the cold, every small building alive with celebration. The push and pull of the bodies inside must be stuffing up the air. He laughs without reason as they approach; maybe at the surreally beautiful sight of all the dancing silhouettes against the warm lights inside. Sehun perched on Hoseok's windowsill, long legs dangling over the edge, waving his cigarette at them, tiny orange light cutting the winter air. Jackson choosing to climb into the common room— the epicentre of the chaos— through the window too, falling over with all he's already had to drink. One of the Jung sisters, shrieking at the sight of Taehyung and rattling something off in rapid-fire English that even Jeongguk takes a moment to seize the meaning of, laughing harder when he does. They're spectators to their own victory; drinks are ready, anonymous hands pulling him into the room and handing him sweating glasses, the music overwhelming, the heat just perfect. He thinks he hears Seokjin squawking something about they better not have touched my bedroom but he's already caught up in the rest of it.
Taehyung is submerged immediately; someone's prepared shots for him. Jeongguk follows; picks through the crowd, determined not to lose him again to the loudness of it all. He stops short near his favourite window seat, where a table waits with their drinks. He smells the absinthe before he spots it, and Taehyung, as if he knew Jeongguk was behind him all along, turns around to level him a smirk that is pure schadenfreude.
'Hand me a lighter,' he says to Jeongyeon, who's busy getting to know the bottom of a beer can. 'I'm making backdrafts.'
It's past midnight on what might just be the greatest day of Jeongguk's life, when he learns what a backdraft is. Shots, lit up, breathe the smoke, drink the flames. Taehyung's face, orange and red and blue in the fire. It is scorching down his throat, and he hoots when he's done swallowing, pulling a surprised laugh out of Taehyung, sharp and mirthful.
'Look who's drunk,' he says, but Jeongguk is learning a lot of things today. Poetry and brilliance and love and backdrafts and something on a pedestal above pride, and something else that is so dangerously close to happiness that he might not dare look at it directly. One illusion that he refuses to break, one mystery that'll just have to remain unsolved forever.
He shakes his head. 'You wish I were that easy.'
He does end up losing Taehyung in the crowd. The party goes by in flashes of sound and light, like the dirtiest of thunderstorms. Jimin dancing like dream, laughing with his head thrown back, oblivious to the pining regards of more than one young man in the room. The smooth criss-cross of his legs, their movement matched only by Jongin, who's sweating through his tank, tattoos darker than usual. Kyungsoo sneering disdainfully as Chanyeol and Nayeon spill out careful lines over the loudspeaker. Seokjin and Hoseok's sister, laughing— Seokjin, laughing out loud— over something on her phone screen. Probably Tweets, headlines of local websites, already updated. Is he on the front page in the corner of Taehyung's impossible success? Are people seeing him? Is someone awake in Busan right now?
Jeongguk doesn't give a fuck. The song blasting over the loudspeakers is telling them to dance out of obligation, and while he won't follow that instruction until Taehyung comes to drag him out as usual, he's more than happy to watch the others do it. Takes his perch on top of Namjoon's cabinet, puts away the swear jar, snorting when he sees that more than one person has mistaken it for an ashtray. But he doesn't watch, now. He pulls out his phone and takes pictures, takes videos. Namjoon and Joonmyun in the far corner, thinking they're being slick with their twin moon-eyes and old-soul drinks, looks fixed to the dancers in the centre of the room. Yoongi, personally and loudly offended that Chanyeol and Nayeon didn't wait for him before proceeding to the lines. All of them, really; all of these brilliant, sharp people that surround him. Some of them friends, even. Jeongguk records every crest and trough of it, of the feeling of belonging somewhere.
And then soon enough, that familiar force is at his feet again, quite literally. Taehyung's blinking up at him expectantly, hair damp with sweat, eyes so bright and ecstatic. He says nothing, only holds his arms open, beckons. Jeongguk has half a mind to refuse him out of spite— and just to see his face— but when Taehyung says stop, Jeongguk stops. When Taehyung says go, Jeongguk jumps. So he straightens up and reaches down, and lets Taehyung pull him all the way. Their foreheads knock together, sparks behind Jeongguk's eyes, just as the song slows down into something a little smoother, the beat still fast enough to keep their legs moving.
'You've got to know by now that dancing isn't my thing,' he says, and Taehyung laughs. It's obnoxious and self-aware, and he can't help but smile.
'I mean, you took a whole year to inform me, so I have the right to ignore you.'
'You talk as if you listen to me otherwise.'
'Sure I listen to you.' His lips are almost touching Jeongguk's ear, voice low and electric. It's romantic, almost, all of Taehyung's attention on him like this, as if nothing else exists, even though he just proved the world wrong and should be focused on that. But he's proving the world wrong right now too; he listens to Jeongguk. 'All the things you don't say because you don't find them useful to your— your fucking construction, or whatever. Of what you're supposed to be.'
'Are you testing how much you can get me to talk back? I'm nearing the end of my battery, I'll start brick-walling you any moment now.'
'Brick-wall away. I'm just here because you're hot.'
'And because you've had your fill of the others and you're bored.'
'I don't want to kiss the others, though.' Jeongguk freezes at that for a second; of course it was coming, it's been coming since last summer. But to hear it like that, not oblique for once— 'I only want to kiss you. I only want you.'
It's been coming since the first time they met, the first time they talked, their hands stained with trouble and sirens still ringing in his ears, and when Taehyung says it again, I want to see, pulling back to look Jeongguk that gaze on his gaze, an ember slips into a crevice and lights up all of his chest.
The door slams hard into its frame, and then Taehyung slams Jeongguk hard into the door. Just hard enough; it's dull but still rocks him down to his bones, head ringing with it, temple pressed against the cold smooth wood, hot cheek almost sticking to it. He lets out a sound despite himself, then another one when Taehyung turns him around, just as roughly. He looks hungry. He looks like he did that November morning.
Go, Jeongguk says, and Taehyung surges forward, those lips on his lips. They're blazing, and it's too much, all at once, but Jeongguk swallows it all. Swallows the heat and closes his eyes, hands clutching Taehyung's shirt, pulling him close, chest to chest, Taehyung's own hands pressed against the door. Taehyung opens up wider and moves; licks over Jeongguk's jaw and then the point where it tapers off under his ear; Jeongguk shudders and tightens his hold, head thrown back against the wood, the contact sending phosphenes ringing through his brain. Teeth and tongue on his neck, then his collarbone, then his jugular, then back on his mouth, eating away at all of him as if he's the sun. Almost outside himself, Jeongguk notices that the window is still open, the music floating up to them two-fold— the bass thumping through the door, the melody drifting in through the air. It feels less lonely, but so deliciously intimate, and he can't believe this is actually happening. He almost thought it never would. That Taehyung would change his mind, after all. That he wouldn't be enough, again.
'Stop it,' Taehyung says, uncharacteristically sharp, and Jeongguk blinks. 'You're here right now. You got other places to be? Go there tomorrow. Focus on me.'
Jeongguk almost laughs at the irony of it. 'I can't remember the last time I didn't.'
Taehyung smiles, then, something secret and proud. Melting visibly. Leans forward and kisses Jeongguk's mouth again, this time cupping his face, thumbs stroking under his eyes. But Jeongguk is filled with a strange sort of spite, all the months of want catching up to him, and he bites back. Curls his fists into Taehyung's hair and tugs, wraps one leg around his and makes him stumble forward, closer. Closer. The solid weight of Taehyung, the hard muscle of his thigh now between Jeongguk's legs, pressing hot and close, and now his hand sinking, fingers trailing over Jeongguk's neck and his ribs, the touch horrid and singular even through his shirt, and now his fingers sliding under the hem, up again, playing the ribs like piano keys. Taehyung's hand his hot but Jeongguk's skin is hotter, and this is something Jeongguk will never lose— something Taehyung will never win. And if that's not perfect, he doesn't know what is. So he gives back as good as he gets, and pulls a moan out of Taehyung when their hips come together, then another when he raises his thigh, purposeful.
There are no more words, finally. Just Taehyung moving his fingers through Jeongguk's hair, pressing one last kiss to his panting mouth before kneeling as if he's been waiting all his life to do it. There's something about the way he wraps his arms around Jeongguk's waist, leans his forehead against the metal of his belt, something that almost makes Jeongguk wonder about control. His own hands back in Taehyung's hair, pushing it off his forehead, stroking it back, his breath trapped between his chest and his throat at the sight of him on the floor, looking up.
Jeongguk says go and Taehyung kisses over the fabric of his shirt, lips pressed to the lowest of his ribs before descending. He makes quick work of Jeongguk's belt and buttons, lowering them just enough, Jeongguk shuddering and laughing at the cold of the air against his skin. Taehyung laughs too, and that's warm and ticklish and— Jeongguk leans his head back again, closes his eyes.
The inside of his mouth is too hot to bear. Jeongguk bears it anyway, bears the drag of Taehyung's lips as he teases him out of his boxers, tongue pressed flat against skin, no teasing. Taehyung's fingers curl into the hem of the boxers, pulling down, and Jeongguk thinks back to last summer, fingers down his own throat and head full of ideas about how Taehyung would ruin him. In none of the iterations had he thought of this. Taehyung says I want to see and Jeongguk wants to show, but Taehyung's looking almost in the wrong places. The rightest of places, then, kneeling and looking up. Right, if Taehyung thinks it is.
His eyes are closed as he sinks down, eyebrows furrowed, a sort of concentration that almost has nothing to do with Jeongguk. It's not performative in the least; it just is. Like everything Taehyung does, without the slightest regard of who's watching him do it. And really, it's Jeongguk's fault for thinking he could ever predict what Taehyung would do. So he closes his own eyes again, sees Taehyung through them anyway, and lets himself go. Tres Cuatro y Cinco, and gasoline and lighter fluid.
Just when he's so close to the edge that he has to call out a wordless warning, Taehyung pulls off, sudden and cruel and smirking— a Taehyung he knows, finally— and springs to his feet without the slightest of hitches. One hand still on his hips and snaking to the front even as the other one turns Jeongguk around harshly, pushing him up so close against the door that he can hardly take in any air. It's too much, Taehyung against his back, kissing down his neck, whispering something in his ear— if only Jeongguk could make out the words, if only Jeongguk could make out anything at all— arm curled over his chest now.
Taehyung's hand is perfect and divine and everything Jeongguk needs, the speed and the grip and the twists of his wrist, as if he's been studying Jeongguk all his life. As if he's been studying Jeongguk all night. All this time. From the honey-sunsets of the summer to the white hollows of winter, the electric guitar in the car and the leather gloves, and the splash of Taehyung falling backwards into the aquamarine water of the pool, while Jeongguk laughed. It's too much, all of it, all catching up to him, the want and the heat and the cold and the ice, and the fire, the dreams. The dreams, the fingers around his throat scratching over his shirt now, the empty bed the branches at the window the graph he was working on when the sirens rang. How Taehyung hadn't flinched when Jeongguk let the arrow loose. Everything rises, everything falls. Everything rises again, finally a use for every useless detail his brain hides away for no reason, selfish and greedy and terrified of losing something he never had. It all catches up to him. It all catches up to him.
Then the words come back, damning and blessing all at once. So good, Taehyung is saying, you're such a good boy. 'I'm so proud of you, did you know that?'
The moan he lets out when he comes is the loudest sound he's ever made for himself. He feels it, the unnatural, liberating vibration of it in his throat and his chest when he gasps and inhales in gulps like he's just come up from underwater.
He feels all of it, hissing through him like a fissure, the lit end of a firework. His pulse throbbing all the way from his thighs to his throat, his heart pounding so hard the door must be bruised. Taehyung's chest must be bruised, when Jeongguk falls back on it, head resting against his sharp shoulder and eyes looking up but seeing nothing. Jeongguk gasps, and bucks his hips up into Taehyung's hand, and gasps some more.
'Breathe,' Taehyung whispers. 'Breathe, beautiful.' The fact that his hand on Jeongguk's sternum is splayed over his shirt and not under it, is the most intimate interaction Jeongguk has ever had with another human being. 'That's right. Breathe.'
Then— the tears don't come by force, not as if he's squeezing his eyes shut and they're hanging at the corners. No, his eyes are wide open and staring at nothing, Taehyung's unsteady exhales against his shoulder. His eyes are wide open when the tears well up and spill over with embarrassing ease.
For a moment, Jeongguk is outside himself. Not seeing, not feeling, only hearing himself breathe.
Then he feels lips on his jaw again, gentle, this time, soft. Deft hands working to put him back in order, closing just one button loosely, a kiss on his wet cheek again. And then, sensing the weakness that Jeongguk would never admit is in his legs, Taehyung turns him around and leads him backwards to the four-poster, pushes him down on it and crawls on top of him, reaching down to kiss him right through the pillows. Jeongguk is so wrung out, so full to the edges, and the tears leak into the silk of the sheets of their own accord, linked to no emotion that he can detect, let alone name. And Taehyung understands, the way he always does; breathes slow for Jeongguk to follow, and doesn't look him in the eye for too long.
But Jeongguk looks. At the golden slopes of his shoulders, revealed by how his shirt is slipping off. The fall of his hair over his eyes, his slender fingers carding through it. The way his eyes drift closed when Jeongguk reaches out to brush a hand over his thigh— Taehyung stops it on its path and lifts it to his mouth, kisses Jeongguk's fingertips before biting gently on them, fond and teasing.
'Later,' he says, voice bruised. 'Tomorrow. Whenever.'
And when he steps off, leaving Jeongguk to the cold of the room and a brief fear in his windpipe, he's quick to return. Two hot towels and a pair of Jimin's pyjamas, expressly to laugh at how they ride well above Jeongguk's ankles. The music is still going downstairs; the party will go on long into the night, and no care that the star of it is in bed with someone and won't be coming back. It grows fainter once Taehyung closes the window, and the night grows soothing when he dims the lights. And Jeongguk is so bone-deep tired, sinking into the bed with every inch of him that touches it, heartbeat accelerating for no reason at all, with no particular thought in his mind, until he's almost shaking with it.
In that electric exhaustion, Taehyung is solid gold weight against his back. Not demanding for once, not commanding. The warmth of his body, the press of his lips, even his arm as it wraps around Jeongguk's chest, locking both of his hands into place right above his drumming heart. He kisses the side of Jeongguk's neck, then settles back down, then changes his mind again. Turns Jeongguk over onto his back and looks down at him, something serious on the edge of his lips before he switches it out for a smile.
'You should know that that was not peak performance,' he says, and Jeongguk really will punch him in the throat. 'That was like, a six at best. I've been up for seventeen hours at this point, and you're so hot I just had to be as fast as I could—'
'Taehyung,' Jeongguk cuts in, about to make his first request, and maybe the most important one. 'Please just fucking shut up for once.'
So Taehyung listens to someone for once, and shuts up. See, surrender, and all that crap, the way he had put it back when he didn't listen to people. Love doesn't have to be synonymous but sometimes it is, anyway, maybe one night out of three.
(Jeongguk doesn't know the specifics yet. He'll need two more nights to tell.)
Graduation morning dawns bright and sunny, and for a day they can all delude themselves that the cold is gone for good. Jeongguk certainly doesn't remember it being so warm when he got here a year ago, but then he doesn't remember paying particular attention to the weather back then. Only Seokjin and Yoongi, strangers with strange faces.
They're dressed in the school colours for the last time, the two of them, and Namjoon and Hoseok. Badges and ribbons and beautiful wristwatches, only the best for today. Seokjin has even done something to tame Yoongi's bleach-fried blond for the occasion; it doesn't seem as harsh as it usually does, at least not from the audience where Jeongguk's sitting, tiny bottle of water in hand, frowning against the sun. On either side of him, Jimin is doing a fantastic job of not crying, and Taehyung a mediocre one of pretending not to. Jeongguk finds it hilarious that of all people, it's Jeongyeon who's been sniffling into tissues for the past half-hour, since the very beginning of the ceremony, Dawon rolling her eyes but patting her on the shoulder anyway.
'They look so good,' Jimin sighs. 'I can't believe Jackson actually took his snapback off. He's all forehead.'
'I liked him better with the snapback on.' Jeongguk swallows a laugh as just then, the sun hits a particularly shiny spot on aforementioned forehead. 'I don't know this guy.'
'You have no taste, Jeongguk.'
They call Seokjin on first, then Yoongi, president and vice-president after all. There's a foreign grace to them that makes Jeongguk uneasy, strangely sad in a way he can't exactly decipher. Maybe it's the realisation that the wolf pack will never quite be the same again, that he witnessed what were the last of its true glory days. But then again— maybe the glory days are just beginning.
Namjoon gives the farewell speech, after every diploma has been collected. Jeongguk is half-listening to his steady voice, his promise to make use of the education he was afforded, and half-watching the magic of his earnest words on the jaded audience. Hoseok, seated just behind, is squinting up at the sky; Jeongguk can almost hear him sniffle. Proud smiles, even a little laugh here and there; Jimin, staring seemingly at nothing.
It's noon by the time the ceremony ends, the new graduates stuffy in their blazers, Jeongguk sweating through his shirt too. The sun is at its highest, filtering yellow and green through the small leaves that have started to spring up on the branches again. Jeongguk looks at them and the freshly-trimmed grass, and at his shoes, shiny, polished. Then he remembers that he doesn't have to hesitate anymore— that they never told him to hesitate anyway. Looks back up and makes his way over to where the other six are, Hoseok leaning against a solid tree trunk, blazer already folded over his arm, babbling nineteen to the dozen.
'I can't believe she cried,' he's saying, as Jeongguk picks his way through the weeds and stops by Taehyung's side. 'Like, I don't take the offer, she's mad, I take the offer, she's sad. What am I supposed to do? Give up and become a salmon farmer in Norway?'
'You could be an adult for once and understand that she's glad,' Seokjin says, but he seems to have trouble speaking. Jeongguk widens his eyes and stifles a laugh as he verifies the symptoms— throat working, nose red at the tip. 'We all are. You're going to be magnificent out there. We all are.'
'Oh my God, he's totally gonna cry,' Taehyung says. 'Look at him.'
'I'll cry at your funeral,' Seokjin snaps, voice telltale thick now. 'Shut up.'
'How is that even a comeback? What is that supposed to mean?'
'I'll kill you and then cry at your funeral, I don't know.'
They spend the afternoon sitting in the grass, no care for their clothes. Jeongguk loses count of the number of times Yoongi tells Taehyung to take good care of that godforsaken horse you ruined our lives for, to train him, keep racing him, let him run as much as he wants, away, one day, if he wants. Hoseok won't stop making jokes about having to learn French now, and Namjoon leans against the trunk, eyes closed and head tipped back, as if he's taking in the sound of everyone one last time.
Jeongguk misses them already, and then more when they stand up, tall over the three who're still sitting, blocking out the sun.
'We'll see you this evening,' Seokjin says. 'President Park wants to speak to the graduates in private. I have a feeling he's going to chew us out.'
'He could never,' Hoseok says. 'He's going to cry harder than you did last—'
'Get tased, Hoseok.'
'Get taste, Hoseok.'
Jeongguk, Taehyung and Jimin watch them leave, backs turned now, talking among themselves, making their way back to campus. Hoseok screeches with laughter at something, throwing an arm around Yoongi, and Namjoon turns around halfway before stopping, and facing forward again.
'Poor Hobi,' Taehyung sighs. 'Doomed in love and off to fucking Monte Carlo to boot.'
Jeongguk does turn, completely. Looks down at Jimin, who's lying on his back, arm thrown over his eyes, orange hair haloing out in the grass. All things considered, Hoseok being the doomed one is almost laughable.
'You're not going to say anything?' he asks.
Jimin doesn't answer, but Taehyung shifts. 'What, what am I missing?'
'You know, right? Don't tell me you don't know.'
'Don't know what? Babe, for real—'
'I know,' Jimin replies. Doesn't take the arm off his eyes, but his lower lip is trembling despite his smile. 'I've known since October.'
October, right, when he carried Jimin to bed. Only a fool wouldn't have known, then. That's when Jeongguk knew, too, even though he didn't realise it until later, thinking back to it. How his hold looked on Jimin, and the shake of his voice, too; Jeongguk remembers it like it was yesterday, which it almost was, in a way. Humbled suddenly at the realisation that the races aren't the only thing to have happened this year; that he isn't the only thing to have happened to the wolf pack.
On cue, Taehyung cracks. 'I feel like I'm hallucinating. How the hell does Jeongguk know something about you that I don't, Jiminnie?'
'You were too busy with your stupid horse,' Jimin snaps, but there's no real bite to it. His voice sounds a little weak, actually. 'Forget it. There's nothing to say.'
'Of course there is,' Jeongguk says, uncaring of whatever line he may be crossing. That ship sailed when he asked the first question. 'What are you planning to do about it?'
'What do you want me to do, smartass? Run after him right now and yell something? Oh, sorry, I haven't looked at you the same since you put my drunk ass to bed but I'm seven years late to the party and a fucking mess so I'm gonna let you become the president of the country in peace?'
'Wait, Namjoon?' Taehyung's definitely never reached that pitch with his voice (Jeongguk would know). 'What? Nerd Namjoon? In...with my Jiminnie?'
Jeongguk takes a deep breath and pinches the bridge of his nose. He's all talked out for today, and while he and Jimin might actually be the closest after Taehyung, he isn't sure about whether they actually get along or not. It's ridiculous; he's trying to figure it out slowly. Maybe some parties over the summer will solve it.
'But Namjoon's high school ex-girlfriend,' Taehyung says blankly. 'Oh my God, my entire life is a lie.'
'Don't beat yourself up,' Jeongguk says. 'I'm pretty sure Seokjin's the only one who's known all this while. Sometimes all you need is someone from outside to tell you what's going on on the inside.'
'Oh yeah, golden boy?' And that was a mistake; both Jimin and Taehyung are straightening up now, levelling him with twin sets of raised eyebrows. They're a dangerous unit, the troublemakers who got him here after all, crying wolf when there was no wolf. It's just the three of them now, the rioters and the riot, and even though Jeongyeon will never marry Hoseok and Namjoon might never say the truth to Jimin and once they set off it might be months before Seokjin and Yoongi come back to the country, for just one second, the kingdom seems perfect, and Jeongguk, for once, can't wait for the rest of it all.
'Pretend I didn't say anything,' he says. 'I have no capacity of observation. I know nothing about anything.'
'We'll see about that,' Jimin says, a split second before he and Taehyung launch themselves forward, fists armed with weeds.
In the early evening, Taehyung walks into his room without knocking, and comes to stand by the desk, slamming a hand down on Jeongguk's open textbook. Jeongguk takes a second to admire just how disarmingly perfect his fingers are, before looking up, an eyebrow raised, unimpressed.
'We have to go,' Taehyung says solemnly. 'It's our last chance.'
Seokjin's bedroom is pristine, as if he's never lived a day in it. Rose silk sheets and curtains, pulled shut around the bed, unholy alcove. They're a little cold against Jeongguk's bare back as Taehyung throws him onto it, and he hisses, then laughs, pulling until Taehyung falls too, mouths coming together easily. Jeongguk can't believe they're doing this; he'd nearly forgotten about Seokjin's stupid house rules; do not go near my room. Do not touch my bed. The condoms in the nightstand drawer and the notepad for ratings, the window an escape one stride away. The sun will set soon, and Seokjin will be back to dress up for the dinner they're all supposed act sophisticated at, and Taehyung will sit beside Jeongguk and play footsie with him under the table like they're in a movie, all the while while they eat fancy food and drink out of fragile glasses. But for now they're in someone else's bed, hot and funny and wrong, and Jeongguk is buzzing with it, with this daily reminder of how silly and gorgeous and hilarious Taehyung is, his own amazing person, and one that chooses, daily, to adore Jeongguk. Jeongguk.
He's almost selfish with it; it shows everywhere. In the morning when they step out of their showers and meet in the hallway after just half an hour of separation and Taehyung crowds him into the wall and rests his head on Jeongguk's shoulder, breathing in the smell of his cologne. In the afternoons with Thunderbolt, the way he's always happier when Jeongguk's around, because his jockey is happier when Jeongguk's around. And in the evenings— well.
Taehyung always fucks him selfishly, too. He doesn't say selfish because Taehyung doesn't pay attention to him— he says selfish precisely because of how much attention Taehyung does pay. He'd call him a saint, or generous, or maybe plain obsessed with pulling sounds out of Jeongguk, but the truth is that it's Taehyung's way of chasing his own pleasure. That's why Jeongguk calls it selfish— sometimes Taehyung doesn't even realise that he hasn't come yet, he's so busy making Jeongguk do it again and again.
But Jeongguk can be selfish too. Dirty and selfish and obsessed.
Seokjin's bedroom is pristine, his bed sweet-smelling and without a single dent. It's a shame that he'll have to change the sheets tonight, because Jeongguk's every bit as messy as Taehyung is precise when it comes to this in particular, and the fit of his lips around Taehyung never comes without lines of wetness running down the length and into the crevices where Taehyung's thighs meet, and even over the lines of his hipbones. Jeongguk loves it that way, so imperfect it couldn't be any more perfect, and Taehyung whines just right, hitting the right note, when Jeongguk lets his lower lip drip onto his stomach.
They make good use of the equipment left behind by their gracious— if unknowing— host, once Jeongguk's satisfied with his work and sinking down on Taehyung, eyes squeezed shut, throat tight. Taehyung loves it like this; so Jeongguk loves it, more than anything else. Every time he looks down at Taehyung a reminder of the very first, when he was on his knees with nothing but devotion in the set of his mouth, I want to see. Jeongguk shows and shows, taking Taehyung's hands and placing them where he wants; the dips of his ribs, one hand caught up in Jeongguk's own, fingers tangled. Taehyung looks otherworldly against the pink of the pillows, helpless to the tug of Jeongguk's hips and the sound of his voice. Jeongguk knows.
He knows how weak Taehyung is, really. The way he growls touch yourself but the commanding edge is sanded off, and if Jeongguk thinks about it, it sounded like Taehyung bit off a please in the end. 'Gonna be the death of me, Jeon Jeongguk— oh.'
Jeongguk wraps a fist around himself and tugs once, twice, and the sheer change in Taehyung's expression has him careening towards the edge: for a few seconds, all of Taehyung's cockiness is gone, replaced by amazement and the kind of desperation that Jeongguk never thought another could have for him.
'Oh, baby,' Taehyung moans, helpless, yes, under Jeongguk; weak, yes, for his pleasure. 'So beautiful, fuck. So gorgeous.'
He smiles when he comes, something that is halfway through to his usual grin but also hushed and incredulous, as if he can't believe his luck, when Jeongguk's the one who can't believe his. But he lets it slide, lets Taehyung have his moment in the sun, lets him pull out and roll Jeongguk over, laughing breathlessly.
'Make one joke about horse riding,' he says, and Jeongguk clamps a hand over his mouth.
'The shitty jokes are your job, not mine.'
'You're a fiery little brat, aren't you?'
'Fiery? What did I just say?' But Taehyung is too busy kissing all over his face, fingers tickling his sides, lips playful and soft and all Jeongguk's—
Until the inevitable shriek of indignation sounds in the hallway, followed immediately by angry fists on the door.
'Kim Taehyung, you open this fucking door! I will go Godfather on your ass, I'm not joking right now!'
Taehyung takes a deep breath, blows it out through his mouth. 'Okay. Time to move.'
Jeongguk doesn't ask if there's time to grab a towel before Seokjin takes a two-second break from his rage to realise that he still has the keys to his own room (for one last night), simply uses his shirt to clean up— with some regret— and slips it on, cringing at the wet feeling of it.
'I really don't know if it was worth it,' he starts to say, but Taehyung's holding out— right.
'Rating, quick,' he says.
'I am not rating sex with you in Seokjin's notepad, Taehyung, so you better—'
So he sighs and rolls his eyes and employs every other theatric that proximity with Jimin has taught him, but takes the pad and the pen, stares down at the perfect white of it for a second. Then, smirking to himself, he sketches in a quick parabola, crosses in a pair of coordinates.
'What the fuck,' Taehyung says flatly.
'If he solves for it, it'll be—'
'KIM FUCKING TAEHYUNG.' The voice is in the room before Seokjin even throws the door open, and Taehyung's shrieking now, scrambling to get off the bed, pulling his clothes on whichever way they'll go, pushing Jeongguk forward. 'I cannot believe the audacity of you two to disrespect me on my graduation day, and to think I nominated you for the council, you fucking— YOU GET BACK HERE—'
The window is wide open, and the sunset is blood red and all theirs. He turns back one last time, sparks in his eyes and smile on his lips.
'Out we go, sweetheart,' Taehyung sings, and Jeongguk is already eating the air.