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Min Yoongi was the most hated man in South Korea.

 

That is, if one believed the current top trending term on Naver and all the fan forums of Chef Challenge that had just exploded in outrage at the result of the last episode of this year's season. Which Jimin did. The Internet had never lied to him before.

 

Min Yoongi had made the fan favorite contestant cry with his critique, his vote had cost her the title, and he was a monster.

 

"Booo," Jimin jeered at the television, now rolling the credits, the camera focused on the undeserving chef who’d won and the judges congratulating him.

 

If he wasn't certain Jungkook would hit him for making a mess of their shared apartment, Jimin would have thrown a handful of potato chips at the TV, too, and especially would have aimed it directly at Min Yoongi's troll face.

 

He was always so smug and mean; who cared if he'd earned two Michelin stars almost immediately upon opening his first restaurant a few years ago at the ripe old age of 25? Or that he'd won, like, all the cooking competitions ever held in the history of the world? Or that he regularly rubbed shoulders with idols and actors and heads of state at his stupid, expensive, exclusive restaurant where you had to make reservations six months in advance? God, what a dick.

 

"I keep telling you; he's really not that bad," Jungkook chimed in, barely even looking up from some game he was playing on his tablet at the other end of their sofa. "Most of it's just editing."

 

Jimin considered throwing the bag of potato chips at his roommate slash best friend since early childhood instead. "Just because you subbed in on production for an episode, like, two seasons ago doesn't mean you know everything," Jimin complained.

 

"He was kind of nice," said Jungkook with a shrug, like he didn't know that everyone was nice to him regardless because he came across like a fluffy little baby bunny who was impossible not to love, even when he was making outlandish, fully false statements like Min Yoongi is kind of nice. "Anyway, you're going to have to get over it if you make it past auditions for the next season."

 

Hands thrown up, Jimin did a full-body groan, ending up with his face in the sofa. "Why must you remind me? Kookie, I'm going to die."

 

Judging by the jaunty music from the tablet suddenly stopping, Jungkook must have paused his game. "This is a lot of drama for something that hasn't happened yet."

 

Jimin reached out blindly for him, fingers eventually bunching at a seam of Jungkook's sweatpants. "This is exactly the appropriate amount of drama for them not telling me how I did on the interview," he moaned. "It was already two weeks ago, Kook-aaah."

 

Even though he had something of an in in Jungkook, who'd hopped around on different shows and sets as a production assistant over the past several years, Jungkook couldn't tell him everything about the casting process for Chef Challenge. Jimin had thus far sent in a written application, survived an hour-long telephone interview, and had gone in for an in-person interview with a prepared meal for their tasters to judge.

 

And… that was it. He hadn't heard from them again since then. Did that mean they were still deciding? Did it mean they hated the cold seafood noodle salad he'd brought in? He'd put too much soy sauce; he'd known it at the time, but had gone with it anyway, and now he was sure it had been his downfall, and that would be fine if only they would tell him one way or another.

 

Jungkook patted him on the head. "It'll be okay, hyung."

 

Jimin rolled over onto his back, arms straight above his head and landing in Jungkook's lap. "No, I'm destined to be an office drone forever," he said, descending rapidly into forlornness. At 28, he only had approximately 40 more years of mind-numbing office droning; totally doable. "It's okay, I'll just give up on my dreams. Who needs dreams? Dreams are for people who can make a good cold noodle salad."

 

Jungkook smacked two fingers against Jimin's forehead.

 

"Ow," Jimin protested. "Disrespecting elders!"

 

"Doesn't count if the elder is whining like a baby," said Jungkook.

 

"I'm not whining," said Jimin. "I am stating my predicament like a calm adult. Can't you tell the difference?"

 

"Can’t you tell the difference?" Jungkook mimicked in a cartoony approximation of what he apparently thought was Jimin’s voice.

 

Jimin reached up to slap him in the face but only managed to graze his chin as Jungkook smoothly moved out of reach. "I hate you; you’re the worst best friend I’ve ever had. I’m canceling our friendship," Jimin declared.

 

"Oh no," Jungkook intoned dully. "What ever will I do."

 

Exactly what Jungkook could do teetered on the tip of Jimin’s tongue (it involved a sharp stick, Jungkook’s ass, and much shoving), but a startled yelp overtook it instead, as Jimin’s phone buzzed with a text notification. He jumped off the couch.

 

Jimin’s heart somersaulted in his chest at the sight of the sender ID.

 

"Oh no, oh no, oh no," said Jimin, dancing on urgent tiptoes. "It’s them. It’s the Chef Challenge people. You read it, Kookie."

 

Jungkook took the phone and opened the text, his gaze scanning quickly over the words.

 

"Let me down gently," Jimin pleaded. He clapped his hands over his eyes, like this would help soften the blow of rejection.

 

"You made it to the next round of auditions," Jungkook said, a grin evident in his voice.

 

"No, I didn’t!" Jimin gasped. He narrowed suspicious eyes at Jungkook through his fingers, getting the fraction of a view of his ex-best friend's toothy smile. "You better not be pranking me or I will kill you in your sleep."

 

Jungkook tossed the phone back at him. "Read it yourself, then."

 

Bobbling the phone with a small cry of panic, Jimin caught it and brought the text message up to his face. Congratulations, you have passed the in-person interview for Chef Challenge. Please call our office to schedule your participation in a group technical skills audition next week, it said.

 

Jimin read it again. And then twice more for good measure, to make sure he hadn’t hallucinated any of those words.

 

"Hee," he giggled into his hand, still tucked too deep in disbelief to let out any more than that.

 

"Next thing you know," Jungkook said, "you’ll be telling Min Yoongi to go fuck himself on national television."

 

"Don’t sully my moment!" Jimin said, hugging his phone to his chest, the treasured text message right at his heart. "Can’t you let me bask in this glow for one more minute without making me think of his stupid face?"

 

"Min Yoongi," enunciated Jungkook.

 

"Drink poison," said Jimin.

 

*

 

There wasn’t any sign telling him not to loiter, so Jimin loitered. Technically, he was hyperventilating outside the building where his audition was taking place, so maybe that counted as a medical emergency more than straight-up lurking.

 

A tall, broad-shouldered man walked past him and went inside, then stepped back out again.

 

"Are you okay?" he asked.

 

Jimin whirled around with a grunt of surprise. On the upside, it made him stop hyperventilating. On the downside, the sight of who was talking to him almost made him start again.

 

"Oh my god, you’re Kim Seokjin," said Jimin.

 

"That’s what my ID tells me," said Kim Seokjin cheerfully. He always seemed cheerful. Even being sat next to a toad like Min Yoongi on the judging panel of Chef Challenge appeared to have no dampening effect on his sunny, disarming disposition and bright smile.

 

"Are you-- Are you judging the technical auditions?" Jimin breathed.

 

"Oh, is that what you’re here for? Why are you having a mental breakdown outside? In this heat, no less. Come inside, it’s much cooler. There’s air-conditioning," said Seokjin, ushering him inside the building. "And no, I’m just here for a meeting. They don’t involve us until filming actually starts."

 

"Ah, I see," said Jimin. He was at a loss for what else to say in the presence of such an esteemed TV personality.

 

Though Kim Seokjin had made his name in interior decorating, his myriad social media posts about food and a first place finish in a celebrity cooking competition several years ago had garnered him a judge’s spot on Chef Challenge to represent the palate and skillset of the everyman. At least, that was the theory, because there was nothing common about Kim Seokjin.

 

"Good luck," said Seokjin, leading him to the reception desk. "Maybe I’ll see you in the competition."

 

"Hnnh," said Jimin as Seokjin flashed a smile at him and walked away.

 

Restraining himself from fishing out his phone to text Jungkook immediately about his celeb encounter with possibly the world's most handsome man, Jimin checked in at the front desk, received a temporary visitor badge, and was bade to go up a few floors to the audition room.

 

He’d come early to give himself enough time to have a full-on episode outside beforehand, but he wasn’t the first one there. Jimin entered a room that appeared to be a bunch of cubicle walls, each booth set up with a portable gas stove, pots and pans and cooking utensils, and a crate of ingredients. Perhaps he should have also accounted for an extra five minutes to have an episode inside.

 

"Name," said someone near the entrance holding a clipboard. She was all glasses and ponytail and very little actual interest in who he was.

 

"Park Jimin," Jimin managed to eke out.

 

She marked a check in blue ink next to his name. "Booth 22," she said, indicating the row he’d be ensconced in.

 

As proud as Jimin was of himself for making it this far, it did take away a bit of his feeling of achievement to see at least a few dozen other people here as well. He thought about scoping out the competition, but it seemed pointless at this stage. Unless someone was setting their cubicle on fire, just looking at them wouldn’t tell him anything about their cooking skills.

 

There were ahjummas and ahjussis, a few people who looked his age, at least one girl who he didn’t think should be here without parental supervision, and dressed from every walk of life. Jimin heard the dissonance of different regional dialects from all over the room, too. He was lucky he’d only had to take a city bus here.

 

Jimin found his booth and said a shy hello to the petite, wavy-haired girl who was in the one next to his.

 

"Kim Sejeong," she said brightly. She had an immediately likeable, impish air about her. "Can you believe we’re here?"

 

"No," Jimin admitted. "It’s crazy. I even met Kim Seokjin outside."

 

Her eyes went entirely round. "No way! He’s my favorite judge! I’m so jealous. What is he like? Is he coming?"

 

Jimin shook his head no and explained what Seokjin had told him. "But he’s seriously so nice; he’s just like he seems on TV!"

 

Sejeong squealed. "I would have completely melted at his feet. Wah, you must be made of steel to withstand holding a whole conversation with him. He’s so handsome." 

 

Feeling a blush overtake him, Jimin said, "I don’t think what I said qualifies as conversation. I think I kind of just made sounds at him. Like… farm animal sounds."

 

Sejeong threw her head back in laughter. "Wow, okay, I take it back, then."

 

Their chat was cut short by an announcement coming over the intercom in the room, telling the attendees that their technical challenge was about to start. The voice explained what was in front of them and that each row had its own tasting judge or producer who would be walking by to ask them questions and converse with them as they cooked.

 

Jimin hadn’t really considered that aspect of it, but he supposed when he watched Chef Challenge on TV, all the contestants did always have to explain what they were doing and why while doing it, and some would tell stories or make jokes. It wasn’t enough just to be a good cook; you had to have a TV-ready personality as well.

 

He was already sweaty.

 

"Fighting!" Sejeong whispered to him, with a fist pump.

 

Jimin returned the gesture as the voice gave them their brief. No recipe was provided, and the amateur chefs were to use any amount and combination of the ingredients in the crate to make their own version of kimchi fried rice within 45 minutes.

 

Easy, thought Jimin with relief.

 

The auditionees were given the go-ahead to start. Pots and pans clanged against each other and assorted muttering rose into the air; somewhere at the other end of the room Jimin heard someone drop something and swear in frustration.

 

Feeling sorry for whoever it was but at the same time glad that it wasn’t him, Jimin tried to put everything else out of his mind while he prepared his dish. He’d made it dozens of times before, and had, in fact, learned how to do it from his halmeoni, who made the best kimchi fried rice -- actually, the best everything -- ever. Despite this, Jimin couldn’t help the clammy feeling in his hands.

 

She’d always told him, teasingly, that her secret ingredient was love. Right now, the best secret ingredient Jimin could come up with was anxiety, but it would have to do.

 

He spied a producer stopping at the next stall to talk to one of the auditionees, holding up a handheld camera, and redoubled his efforts. Surreptitiously, he smoothed down his hair, hoping the bleach job he'd recently done on it didn't look terrible on camera.

 

Soon, the producer ambled over to Jimin’s station.

 

"Hello," he said amiably. He was tall and thin, with hair the color of straw and a guileless, dimpled smile. "I’m Kim Namjoon. I’m one of the producers for Chef Challenge."

 

"Nice to meet you," Jimin said, flashing the most telegenic smile he could muster. It may have come across deranged; he’d never know. "I’m Park Jimin."

 

"Don’t mind the camera. Tell me a little bit about yourself," Namjoon prompted. "What’s your interest in cooking, how you feel about the challenge today, things like that."

 

"Oh, sure," said Jimin as breezily as he could while simultaneously eyeballing a tablespoon of sesame oil. He told Namjoon about his halmeoni, how she’d taken care of him while his parents were off at work and involved him in all her errands and chores, so he’d learned from an early age how to keep house and take care of himself, and the importance of a warm, home-cooked meal. Jimin paused. "Oh, sorry, is that too much information?"

 

Namjoon smiled. "No, no, don’t worry about it," he said, then moved on to Sejeong’s booth.

 

Jimin frowned at his rice. They were always so tight-lipped, these Chef Challenge people, never giving anything away. At his telephone and in-person interviews, too, they’d been like that, nice and polite but distant, dropping absolutely no hints about what they thought. Was there, like, a training they all went to? Did they all get certificates in being poker-faced?

 

The judges on the show weren’t like that, though. They told you exactly what they thought. Jimin would prefer that to ambiguity, even if it meant being told he was terrible to his face. With any luck, he’d make it there. Though preferably with praise rather than Min Yoongi telling him his food tasted like it’d been scraped off the bottom of a shoe (which, how would he even know).

 

The voice over the intercom informed them of their remaining time. Jimin shoved Min Yoongi out of his mind and finished up his fried rice, plating it carefully with a sprinkle of seaweed and sesame seeds and topped with a crispy fried egg. All in all, it didn’t look too bad, if Jimin were to say so himself.

 

Not long after, a tasting judge came by to try Jimin’s dish. The taster chewed thoughtfully, nodded, then marked something on his clipboard, and moved along.

 

Jimin waited until the taster had passed Sejeong’s station, then leaned over to whisper heatedly, "Why won’t they say anything?"

 

"I know, right?" she whispered back. "It’s killing me! I need immediate validation!" Sejeong shoveled a heap of her fried rice onto a spoon and offered it to Jimin. "Tell me the truth. I swear I can handle it."

 

While she steeled herself for his judgment, Jimin pointed to his own dish, indicating that she should try his as well.

 

"Mmm," said Jimin around his mouthful. He shook a thumbs-up at Sejeong. "You did very well. Good job."

 

Sejeong grinned. "You too."

 

 

*

 

This time, it took the producers two entire months to make their decisions. Even though Jimin received an email every now and then assuring him that they were still waiting on some final decisions or submissions or whatever, having that time drag on led to Jimin already convincing himself that they’d wanted nothing to do with him and he could kiss his dreams of attending culinary school goodbye.

 

His boss was not helpful, either, badgering him constantly for updates on whether he’d been accepted or not. The nice thing was that Manager Choi was a huge fan of Chef Challenge, too, and therefore had signed off on all the time Jimin had needed to partake in the interviewing and auditioning process, as well as promising future time off if he actually got on the show.

 

On the other hand, once they’d gone over all the net profit and domestic inventory and client retention reports, all Manager Choi wanted to talk about was Jimin’s audition experience and whether he had heard back yet.

 

"No," said Jimin.

 

Manager Choi, forty going on sixty-five and perpetually unable to tie his tie right, groaned in frustration, fists curling with disappointment in his thinning hair. "Don’t they realize our department pride is at stake here? If we could say that Hansung Imports produced Park Jimin, top Chef Challenge star, customers would come flocking to us!"

 

Though Jimin personally didn’t see what connection could be made between his cooking and the company’s imported machinery, he agreed with a firm nod, "That’s right."

 

It’d be especially upsetting to have to tell Manager Choi that he hadn’t made it. Jimin suspected he might cry.

 

Which made his relief all the sweeter a week later when Jimin finally received a text from the Chef Challenge producers to congratulate him on his casting, along with instructions to keep a lookout for an email they would send out soon with his contract.

 

Almost immediately after that, he got a Katalk message from Sejeong, who he’d exchanged contact information with after the technical challenge. Did you hear from them???

 

Yes, Jimin typed, though he felt like he might be in a dream and would wake up at any moment, everything just a little hazy and unreal, I got in.

 

Me too!!! Sejeong replied, along with a dancing chipmunk emoji.

 

Jimin excused himself from his desk and scurried out into the hallway, then pulled up Sejeong’s number from his contacts list and dialed it, his thumbs vibrating with excitement. She shrieked into the phone by way of greeting and Jimin laughed, relieved and glad and over the moon, not only that he was actually going to be on Chef Challenge, but that his new friend had made it, too.

 

After they had gotten all their squeals out and hung up, Jimin texted Jungkook.

 

JUNGKOOOOOOOOOK I DID IIIIIIT

 

JUNGKOOOOOOK READ YOUR MESSAGES

 

JUNGKOOK AAAAAAHHHHHH

 

He realized that getting impatient about Jungkook not reading his texts right away within the span of fifteen seconds was a little on the side of unreasonable, but Jungkook seriously had nothing else important in his life besides Jimin and should definitely be putting down whatever he was doing to respond to Jimin.

 

I’M WORKIIIING, came Jungkook’s equally loud reply, finally.

 

I DON’T CAAAARE, typed Jimin. I’M GONNA BE ON CHEF CHALLENGE QUIT YOUR JOB AND COME CONGRATULATE ME.

 

Holy shit for real?

 

Jimin grinned at his phone. A laugh bubbled up his throat and he clamped his hand over his mouth to keep it from spilling over. It actually was for real. He was going to be on Chef Challenge and he was going to meet Kim Seokjin (again!) and Ahn Hani and that other judge he didn’t care about and he was going to learn so many things and make all kinds of connections and get one step closer to affording culinary school.

 

He felt his knees go wobbly, and Jimin dropped into an unsteady crouch, using the corridor wall for support as the shock sank in and settled into his bones.

 

It’s real, he typed.

 

Dinner’s on you, hyung!!

 

*

 

The next step, after signing his life and rights away, was for Jimin and the other fourteen chosen ones to show up back at the Chef Challenge offices to attend an initial meeting where the filming process would be explained to them. They’d then head to the set for a rehearsal of sorts, get shown where everything was, and be given briefs on how they were expected to respond to the cameras and producers. And after that, there’d be photoshoots and on-camera interviews.

 

It was all a bit much, but at least Jimin and Sejeong had each other. He wasn’t sure about the rest of the contestants.

 

To begin with, there were only so many names he could remember at a time, especially when they all just went around in a big circle to introduce themselves -- plus all the producers and wranglers and what seemed like sixty thousand other people on set.

 

There was the producer Kim Namjoon, whom Jimin remembered from the technical audition. He seemed to be the one who interacted with the contestants the most. He also seemed the nicest of the producers, so Jimin made a mental note to stick by him as much as possible.

 

As for the contestants… Jimin squinted slightly as he looked around the conference table. Easily picked out was Yook Sungjae, who was tall and quirky and polite, and seemed to have already carved out a position for himself in the room as everyone’s favorite little brother. Next to him, a couple of young, lanky guys whose names might have been Go Shinwon and Something Sanghyuk? Jimin wasn’t entirely sure.

 

Next to them, Lee Ilhwa, a chatty, fluttery mom-type eager to shelter everyone under her wing, which endeared her to Jimin immediately, plus the fact that she had already claimed adoption rights to Sejeong and fussed over Jimin’s crooked collar. She seemed entirely untroubled by the male contestant standing across from her, Taeyang, whose intense, circumspect expression hadn't let up since walking in.

 

The others’ names Jimin had already forgotten as soon as they’d been said. There was a taciturn, intimidating older man who looked to be in his forties; a pair of tiny, button-cute young ladies seemingly cut from the same adorable cloth and destined to be best friends; another pair of slender, well-dressed women who radiated confidence; an older ahjumma who looked as if she not only suffered no fools but could easily arm-wrestle them into submission as well; and then two handsome drama hero-looking types who somehow hadn’t been scouted yet by any entertainment agencies.

 

Once introductions were done, the producers explained what the contestants could expect from their experience.

 

"Filming is a long process," said Namjoon. "The hour-long program you see on TV sometimes takes maybe twelve, fourteen hours to film."

 

A few surprised gasps and murmurs rose among the contestants.

 

"There can be a lot of downtime as well," he went on, "while we prep the sets for the different challenges. And of course, you’ve all seen the talking heads and exit interviews that we do, too, and that takes extra time. You’re not allowed to leave the studio either, unless with prior permission and a wrangler, so be prepared for some potentially very long and boring days. Bring music or games or whatever if you need to for when you’re in the waiting rooms."

 

Jimin exchanged a wide-eyed glance with Sejeong. Filming was to take place on Saturdays, but Jimin still felt a surge of relief that Manager Choi was so understanding about the time needed to commit to the show.

 

Another producer passed out a sheet of paper outlining things they should keep in mind, like not wearing thin stripes or clothing with visible logos, covering tattoos, and keeping distracting accessories, makeup, or hair to a minimum, with the producers having final say on whether a contestant’s appearance was acceptable or not.

 

It was honestly exhausting just hearing about it. Though Jimin wasn’t exactly having second thoughts about signing up for the program, he hadn't fully considered all the other aspects of being on the program and how much thought he'd need to put into them.

 

"Don't worry about meals or snacks, we'll take care of that. Okay," said Namjoon, looking around and seeing no immediate questions. He pushed himself up from his chair. "Let’s go see the set."

 

Like scared ducklings, the contestants followed behind him in a slightly befuddled, disorganized group.

 

The first impression Jimin got of the set was that it was huge. He supposed the cameras needed adequate space to get in and around each contestant’s station, and with fifteen people to accommodate at the start, plus the judges panel, that meant the set had to be pretty roomy.

 

There were a few crew members already milling around, though the actual first day of competition wouldn’t begin until the following day.

 

Jimin overheard someone complain about a PA being late and was liable to get fired if he didn’t show up in the next two minutes.

 

Sejeong tugged urgently on his arm. "It’s Kim Seokjin!" she hissed, gesturing to the judge leaning casually against the long table that served as the judges panel.

 

There were a few more excited murmurs of recognition coming from the rest of the group as well.

 

Jimin perked up, craning his neck from behind one of the too-tall drama leading men to catch a glimpse of Seokjin. Seokjin was, as usual, dressed impeccably and looked ready to start being on camera that very instant. Next to him was a shorter man Jimin didn’t recognize, clad in all black sweats and a baseball cap and with a posture entirely too relaxed for being stood next to Kim Seokjin.

 

"Omo, omo," said Ilhwa, coming to join their little starstruck group. "Is that Min Yoongi? Ahh, I love him."

 

"Huh?" said Jimin.

 

Now that he’d actually been identified, Jimin could see that it was indeed Min Yoongi standing at Seokjin’s side. He looked completely different from how he appeared on television, smaller and softer and far less intimidating somehow, whereas on the show just one Medusa stare from him could reduce grown men to blubbering messes.

 

"Ah, it seems we’ve been graced with a few judges’ presences today," Namjoon said, possibly overhearing them. He paused the set tour and called out. "Seokjin hyung, Yoongi hyung, what are you doing here?"

 

Seokjin grinned. "Just wanted to check out our new batch of sacrificial lambs today. Nice to meet you, everyone! Let’s work together well!" he said brightly, waving with both hands. His glance landed on Jimin. "Oh! Manggaeddeok! You made it!"

 

"Who-- what?" said Jimin, looking around, not sure Seokjin had actually spoken to him.

 

"Manggaeddeok?" said Min Yoongi, raising a wry eyebrow and pinning his gaze on Jimin.

 

It wasn’t quite the piercing glare Jimin was used to seeing on the show, but it was close. It felt as if he was being sized up and also possibly chewed up and spat out, like when sharks took test bites of surfers in the hopes that they were food.

 

"Look at those pinchable cheeks!" Seokjin said with a laugh. "Sorry, I didn’t know your name so that’s what I decided to call you."

 

Jimin bowed, flustered, well aware of all the other contestants' envious eyes on him. "It’s okay! I’m Park Jimin!"

 

"I like your hair!" Seokjin said with a thumbs-up.

 

Jimin felt himself blush, probably going red all the way up to the roots of his newly honey-blond dyed hair. If Kim Seokjin approved of it, Jimin had a mind to never change his hair color again.

 

"You’ve… met before?" Namjoon asked.

 

"Ran into him outside the building the day we had our planning meeting a few weeks ago," Seokjin explained. "Don’t worry, Joonie, there’s no conflict of interest. Honestly, you get so het up about such silly things."

 

"It’s my job," Namjoon sniffed.

 

Jimin sort of heard Sejeong squealing next to him, a high-frequency bleating that was perhaps more suited to company of the canine variety.

 

"Oh my god, he even remembers you from all that time ago," one of the other girls said with a dreamy sigh. "You're so lucky."

 

Jimin shook his head and waved his hands to dispel any wild assumptions, whatever they might be, though he couldn't exactly disagree that having Kim Seokjin recognize him was possibly the most thrilling thing that had ever happened in his adult life.

 

A young man with a thick mop of black hair and thin, metal-rimmed glasses approached Yoongi then, calling him hyung, effectively ending the impromptu meet-the-judges session. Jimin marveled at the fact that not one, but two entire people had no problem publicly claiming Min Yoongi as their hyung. Jimin would rather be tarred and feathered first.

 

The contestants were then shown a large, well-organized and painstakingly labeled pantry area where they could access their everyday, commonly used ingredients like salt, vegetable oil, and soy sauce, as well as a row of fridges and freezers for whatever perishables might be on the docket for the day.

 

They were then assigned at random to the cooking stations in the middle of the set, and a cameraman demonstrated the angles at which they’d usually be filmed, what "beauty shots" were, and ways to signal producers or camera directors without ruining someone else’s take.

 

The crash course in being a reality competition contestant left Jimin’s head reeling, but there wasn’t time for him to panic about it, as they were whisked off to make-up chairs next to prepare for a photoshoot. For a sense of cohesion, they were all also given plain white button-up shirts to wear for the photos.

 

After changing, Jimin underwent a series of dabbing and powdering and concealing, plus other things he didn’t know how to name under the quick, expert hands of a make-up artist, with the result that his face seemed airbrushed to perfection.

 

Sejeong came over to his chair when she was done getting made up -- though truthfully not much had to be done with her, in Jimin’s estimation -- and said, "Oh, hyung! You look like you could be on the cover of GQ!"

 

His lips quirking up at being called hyung instead of oppa, Jimin said, "Speak for yourself. Your make-up person was done with you in, like, two seconds."

 

"We should form an idol group," Shinwon piped up from the next chair. "We can all be the visuals."

 

Sejeong gave him a high five.

 

Though Jimin had made friends with Sejeong the fastest, the others seemed pretty nice as well. There wasn’t anyone who was ringing alarm bells in his head or waving red flags of any sort; previous seasons of Chef Challenge had sometimes devolved a little into backbiting or jealous rivalries, which were Jimin’s least favorite parts of watching the show. He hoped his cohort would keep drama to a minimum. He just wanted to cook his best.

 

A wrangler pulled Sejeong away to stand in front of a plain, white backdrop. Jimin stood behind the photographer to watch as she was given an apron to put on and a wooden spoon to hold up in her individual shots. The photographer made encouraging comments as he snapped away, and Sejeong was done in a matter of minutes.

 

Jimin came next. After having watched Sejeong go through it, he knew there was nothing to really worry about, but as soon as the wrangler stepped away and Jimin stood on his own with a tomato clutched in one hand, his brain screeched to a halt. What was smiling? Had he ever learned smiling?

 

"Uh," said the photographer, lowering his camera for a second, "maybe a little more… cheerful?"

 

Jimin heard Sejeong laughing off to the side. "You can do it, hyung!"

 

Behind the photographer, the bespectacled young man from before emerged, the one who’d called Min Yoongi hyung, and therefore possibly a mentally unstable person. The conjecture continued to hold water, as the young man began posing behind the photographer as if he were the one holding a ridiculous, lone tomato in his hands.

 

It took Jimin a bewildered moment, but, following some gesturing and encouraging looks from the young man, Jimin gathered that he was supposed to copy his movements. He offered the tomato to the camera with a coy glance, contemplated it as if it were a fascinating study subject, held it up next to his cheek with affection.

 

Soon, the photographer got what he wanted out of Jimin and sent him off, a hint of relief in his face.

 

Jimin blinked at the dismissal and quickly got out of the way as Sungjae took his place and began doing high-fashion model poses with a head of broccoli.

 

"Nice job," the young man said with a grin. His smile was almost rectangular, the way manga characters got drawn when they were excited. "I’m Kim Taehyung, by the way."

 

Jimin shook his hand with a little bow and introduced himself. "Thanks for the help," he said with an embarrassed laugh. "I don’t know why I just froze like that. I thought the photographer was going to punch me."

 

"No worries," said Taehyung. "I have a lot of experience with that. I’m Min Yoongi’s manager, and he hates getting his photo taken, so I’ve had to do that for him before at a lot of his photoshoots."

 

"Ahh… I see. That must be an interesting job," said Jimin at his diplomatic best. It was probably not the right forum to share his grievances about Min Yoongi making his favorite contestant from the last season cry, so Jimin kept it to himself.

 

Taehyung snickered. "I know what you’re thinking. Min Yoongi, that smart-ass bastard? Not untrue," he said good-naturedly. "But I’ve worked for him for three years, and I love my job. I would jump into traffic for him, so there must be something in that."

 

"Stockholm Syndrome?" Jimin blurted out.

 

Taehyung burst into laughter. "You’re hilarious. You’re going to be great on the show."

 

Though Jimin hadn’t really been joking, he gave Taehyung a weak smile and considered telling him to blink twice if he needed help getting out of Min Yoongi’s evil clutches, but was interrupted by a noise from Taehyung’s phone.

 

"Duty calls!" Taehyung said, and swanned away.

 

There was a little bit of waiting around while each contestant went through their individual photoshoots, then the wranglers corralled everyone in front of the backdrop to let the photographer take a few group shots. This time, at least, Jimin didn’t have to pretend a tomato was the love of his life, as they stood in two rows, like for a class picture.

 

Jimin could see that his fellow contestants were already flagging a little, and so was he, but they still had individual interviews to sit through. He could see copious amounts of coffee in his future and probably a lot of late-night crying to Jungkook.

 

Two areas were set up for interviews, and Namjoon called Jimin over. Jimin was directed to a seat and had to wait for lights to be adjusted before Namjoon started the interview.

 

"Can you tell me that story again? About you and your grandmother?" Namjoon said. "But, uh, speak to me, not into the camera."

 

So, once again, Jimin relayed his experiences at his halmeoni’s knee, the way he’d learned how to measure the amount of water needed to cook rice to fluffy perfection on the stove top; how his halmeoni experimented with pickling and fermenting everything remotely edible, to tiny guinea pig Jimin’s consternation; the bittersweet feeling he got every time he cooked something they had once cooked side by side, now that she was gone.

 

"Great, that’s great," said Namjoon. "If she were here now, what would you say to her?"

 

"Oh," said Jimin, caught slightly off-guard. "Uh, I guess, I miss her a lot?"

 

"You can speak to the camera for this one," said Namjoon. "Like you’re doing a video message."

 

"Okay…" said Jimin. He shifted his gaze to look into the camera lens. "Halmeoni, I miss you and love you lots!"

 

"Anything else?" Namjoon prompted.

 

"... No?" Jimin said, unsure what else to say. Anything he did want to say to his grandmother was between him and her, really.

 

Namjoon looked as if he wanted to ask Jimin to say something else but left it. "Okay," he said with a smile. "I think we have enough. Check out with your wrangler and go home and get some rest. We start early tomorrow."

 

"Thank you," said Jimin politely. He did as he was told, then made his way out of the building after texting Sejeong that he was leaving and that he’d see her the next day.

 

On his way out, he passed Taehyung and Min Yoongi having a chat in the middle of the hallway.

 

"Bye!" Taehyung called out. "Get lots of sleep! Tomorrow will be crazy!"

 

"Bye, Taehyung-ssi," Jimin said.

 

He flicked his glance towards Yoongi, wondering if he was supposed to say anything, but Yoongi, though looking in his direction, didn’t seem inclined to speak either, so Jimin sort of bowed at him and left. 

 

Jimin caught his bus just in time and fell asleep almost as soon as he sat down, even with the constant jostling and stop announcements. By some miracle, he awoke two stops before his, brain fuzzy with fading details of a dream; Min Yoongi had been in it, saying something about Jimin’s hair. Jimin had already lost the words to the dream ether, but he knew he’d woken up indignant about it.

 

He huffed to himself, then pressed the button to alert the driver he wanted to alight. The competition hadn’t even started yet and he was already having stress dreams about the meanest judge. It didn’t bode well for his sanity. Anyway, who was Min Yoongi to tell him anything about his hair; the surly judge's hair was always the same, simple and black and boring.

 

The bus rolled into Jimin’s stop and Jimin hopped off, pushing the dream out of his mind. He didn’t need that kind of useless negativity in his life.

 

Jimin rode the elevator up to the apartment, and as soon as he punched in the passcode and entered, Jungkook scared him with a surprise, popping up from the couch on his knees, like a giant Whac-a-Mole mole.

 

Jimin leapt into a fighting stance with a startled cry. "Oh, god, it’s only you," he breathed in relief. Once the adrenaline passed, he went over to shove Jungkook in the shoulder.

 

"It’s not my fault you’re easily scared," said Jungkook, leaning over the back of the sofa.

 

"I am cautious, not scared," said Jimin.

 

"Whatever you say, hyung," said Jungkook, a corner of his lips tipping up into mockery.  "Anyway, if you’re done being frightened, I have news."

 

"What?"

 

"I just got booked last-minute for a PA job on Chef Challenge," Jungkook announced, arms raised in the air like a prize fighter. "My last director recommended me. Because I am, as you know, awesome."

 

"No way!" Jimin said, excitement subduing whatever residual pique he harbored from being startled. "That means I’ll get to see you on set all the time?"

 

Jungkook nodded. "I may even have to get coffee for you," he said. "It’s your dream come true."

 

"Ah yes, peon Jungkook serving me coffee on a golden tray while I look benevolently upon my adoring subjects," Jimin said, enacting his royal wave at the otherwise empty living room. "This pleases us."

 

"But I can also get the camera director to shoot really unflattering angles of you, so…"

 

Jimin clicked his tongue, in as dignified a manner as he could. "We are beautiful from every angle, peasant."

 

"Wow, you haven’t even gotten on actual television and it’s already gone to your head. If you start relaying this TV appearance into a career as an Instagram influencer, I’m breaking up with you," said Jungkook.

 

Jimin reached out an aristocratic hand and touched his fingers to the underside of Jungkook’s chin. "Never, my love."

 

Apparently seeing -- with one hundred percent accuracy -- that Jimin was rapidly descending into a let’s-reenact-all-the-drama-tropes mood, Jungkook backed away from Jimin’s Joseon dynasty forbidden love story. "Stop being so weird, hyung. God, you’re the worst," he said, and ran towards his room.

 

"Just let me love you," Jimin called after him.

 

"No, get away from me!" Jungkook yelled over his shoulder.

 

"Don’t fight it, baby!"

 

Jungkook slammed his bedroom door. "Choke on a dick!"

 

"That requires me actually finding one first," said Jimin to himself.

Chapter Text

Despite his best intentions, Jimin did not get a good night’s sleep, anxiety sprinting up and down his veins for hours on end. He couldn’t get his mind to be quiet, either, repeatedly playing out horrible scenarios on the Chef Challenge set where he accidentally chopped a fingertip off or dropped his finished dish on the floor or ran out of time with nothing to serve but raw meat juice.

 

"At least," Jungkook said the next morning, "they’re grounded in reality, and you haven’t spiraled into worrying about, like, starting an oil fire that burns the whole studio down."

 

"Well, now I am," said Jimin.

 

Because production assistants were required on set well before most everyone else, Jungkook headed out first after scarfing down a couple bowls of cereal. Jimin considered going with him anyway, but he’d probably just get in everyone’s way. There’d be plenty of time for that later, during the so-called downtime that Namjoon had mentioned.

 

Jimin went to the hallway cupboard and considered the haphazard pile of board games stacked precariously on the top shelf. He wondered if he should bring a few games he and the other contestants could play together. He had his phone, of course, but he hated the thought of isolating himself and staring at it all day. Besides, there was only so much Magic Piano he could play without making his eyes swim.

 

He stuffed a few card games into his backpack - regular playing cards, Uno, and Halli Galli. If nothing else, he might be able to play Solitaire or build a card house, at least.

 

Hiking his backpack over one shoulder, Jimin set out for his first day on Chef Challenge.

 

It felt weird to say that. Even though his body was moving and going in the right direction, some part of him still didn't quite believe that he was even supposed to go to the studio, like when he turned up, they'd take one look at him and chuck him out for being an impostor.

 

Despite this fear, he was allowed in without any trouble when he showed the ID badge he'd been assigned, not even a suspicious glance. He didn't immediately see Jungkook, but who knew what errand his roommate had been sent on; from what Jungkook had told Jimin over the years, his PA job ranged anywhere from cleaning to handling cameras to coffee runs to assistant directing.

 

On his way to checking in in the men's dressing room, he re-introduced himself to Lisa and Jennie, the two younger ladies who were almost mirror images of each other and seemed to already be besties. At least he wasn't the only one who couldn't remember everyone's names. They wished him luck and carried on their way, arms linked. A few steps later, he bowed to and apologetically got the name of Yoon Bomi, another contestant, who was slim and sleek and looked far more put together than Jimin felt.

 

In the dressing room, Jimin got himself touched up with powder and his hair sprayed into submission and his clothes yanked around a bit. Most everyone had arrived already, the room a little strained with jitters and early morning fatigue. The older, imposing man with the from the day before was looking pinched and grouchy, clutching a giant cup of coffee; Sungjae, Sanghyuk, and one of the drama heroes, Baekhyun, were having a push-up competition; Shinwon had somehow fallen asleep on the floor, long limbs splayed open.

 

Namjoon poked his head in. "Interviews!" he called out. "If a stylist has touched you, you're ready to go."

 

Obediently, those who had finished getting touched up filed out of the room behind Namjoon and submitted to quick, medium close-ups of them explaining how they felt about the competition now that they were nearly about to start.

 

Soon, everyone was out on the main set and given their places. They stood behind their stations, tight and tense, hoping not to be the one to screw up the take.

 

Jimin spotted Jungkook at last, running around behind the camera directors; he still didn't know what Jungkook was up to, but felt a wave of comfort wash over him just knowing his friend was around. If nothing else, Jungkook had the upper body strength to pick Jimin up if and when he fainted from nerves.

 

The host, Jung Hoseok, who had been with the show from day one, strode out confidently onto the set in a sharp suit and found his mark in the dead center between the two rows of cooking stations. He tugged the hem of his suit jacket and smoothed his auburn fringe to the side while doing a round of vocal warm-ups.

 

Once given his cue, Hoseok smiled into the camera trained on him and said, with a wide gesture at the contestants, "It's the show that takes home cooking to the next level. Welcome to Chef Challenge!" He paused and rolled his shoulders. "Can I try that again? Gosh, it's like I haven't done this in years."

 

"The break was so long, Hoseok-ah!" Seokjin called out from the judges' table, reaching towards Hoseok with a yearning hand.

 

Hoseok returned the gesture as Ahn Hani, the third judge and renowned food critic, laughed and shook her head, her long, red hair falling over her shoulders. Min Yoongi seemed not to have noticed any of this going on, as expressionless as a steamed fish.

 

The camera director called for quiet again and Hoseok did his opening line once more, this time nailing it with ease. He moved on quickly to introducing himself and the judges panel, as well as explaining a little more what the show was about.

 

"It's the start of our fourth season, and it's going to be more exciting than ever!" he promised the home audience. "Our judges may be the same, but we have fifteen new contestants who are raising the bar for what home cooks can do, each of them vying for a chance to win the grand prize of W500,000,000 cash! Oh shit, it's not 500 million. Sorry, sorry! 50! 50 million!"

 

Hoseok smacked his mouth lightly.

 

"Just leave it, and you can pony up the rest, Seokie," said Yoongi, arms crossed lazily over his chest. "God knows you make enough money just standing around and running your mouth." 

 

"You come try my job and see!" Hoseok shot back with a laugh. "Here, take a cue card, take it."

 

He gave Yoongi one of his cards, and Yoongi gamely read it out in an exaggerated simulacrum of Hoseok's speaking style. Seokjin honked with laughter at Hoseok's disbelief.

 

"Wah, this hyung," Hoseok said to the crew, pointing at Yoongi. "He's scary."

 

It was weird. Jimin had never considered before the idea of anyone liking Min Yoongi enough to joke around with him. Nor did he remember ever seeing Min Yoongi laugh on camera. It was like he'd fallen into an alternate, upside-down universe. Next, someone was going to tell him that water was dry and the moon was made of cheesecake.

 

Once more, the director called for everyone to fall in line, and Hoseok explained the premise of the show again.

 

Jimin clapped politely along with everyone else at the grand prize. And then one more time, for a different camera angle and because a producer noticed that Hoseok had left out a word from his script.

 

It all seemed so smooth and effortless on TV, but Jimin supposed something had to add up those twelve-hour days that weren't just cooking and judging.

 

"Now, speaking of special challenges," Hoseok said, with what looked like a saucy grin at the camera, and then a smooth turn towards the judges' table, "we have one from the judges themselves. Let's introduce them!"

 

One by one, Hoseok went down the line, starting with Ahn Hani, "Food critic and dessert smasher." She grinned, big eyes sparkling, and waved at the camera. "Next up," announced Hoseok, "Kim Seokjin, sexy design genius with even sexier taste buds!"

 

Seokjin blew a kiss to the camera. Knowing he wasn't going to be featured at this particular point, Hoseok pretended to gag and throw up.

 

"And finally, record-breaking chef and the judge everyone loves to hate, Min Yoongi!"

 

Yoongi gave a small nod to the camera, the barest hint of a smile on his face.

 

"Min Yoongi-ssi," said Hoseok, "I understand the judges have come up with a fun challenge to start this year's competition."

 

"I wouldn't call it fun," said Yoongi. "It's more of a waste of time. But that's mostly because Kim Seokjin came up with it, so he should take responsibility."

 

"Ahh," said Hoseok, as if he was being told this for the first time, though clearly it had all been rehearsed at some point. "Kim Seokjin-ssi, what do you have to say to that?"

 

"It’s just to start off with something lively and help everyone get comfortable with each other! Besides, my good friend Hani thinks it's a good idea, and my good friend Hani is never wrong," said Seokjin.

 

"That is correct," said Hani, grinning.

 

Jimin loved their dynamic and secretly kind of shipped them; however, everyone knew Hani was engaged to an idol singer. Which, while somewhat sinking his ship, at least meant Kim Seokjin was available. That is, in Jimin’s fantasy world where someone like Kim Seokjin would even consider touching a plebeian like him with a ten-foot pole.

 

Hoseok explained the challenge; contrary to the anchor challenges of the show, this actually was the first time the contestants were hearing about it. It involved breaking into four randomly assigned teams and working as a team to make meringue by hand. They passed only if they could hold the mixing bowl over their heads without any drippage within a ten-minute time limit. 

 

Inwardly, Jimin groaned. He regretted not hitting the gym with Jungkook more often.

 

"And for morale's sake," said Seokjin, "I'll be joining one of the groups as well! Isn't this already more fun than last year?"

 

Filming paused while a couple of the producers asked the contestants for bigger reaction shots to the challenge. Ilhwa overdid it, practically flailing in agony, while Sungjae looked as if he was attempting to make himself burst into tears on command. The best Jimin could do was gape like a goldfish. He and Sejeong practiced looking shocked at each other.

 

Hoseok laughed at all of them. "Ahh, this new batch of kids is fun."

 

"Who are you calling a kid? I could be your mom," challenged the other ahjumma in the group -- Ra Miran, said the nametag on her apron. She brandished a spatula at Hoseok, who immediately bowed and apologized with a giggle and finger hearts.

 

"Okay, maybe tone it down a little," said Namjoon. "Less of the… arms, Ilhwa-ssi."

 

And so it went, until finally, it was time to get into their teams. Jimin was grouped with Shinwon, Ilhwa, and Lisa. He liked all of them thus far, but they were so screwed.

 

Shinwon echoed his unspoken sentiments. "I'm sorry, guys, but look at my noodle arms," he moaned, waving them up and down pathetically. "I mean, give me a mixer and I can make meringue for days, but like this? I'm going to be completely useless."

 

"Oh, let's just have fun!" said Ilhwa. "It doesn't matter anyway; there's nothing riding on it."

 

Lisa nodded, on board. "We'll just do our best," she said cheerfully. "But I guess we do have to decide who has to be the one to hold the bowl over their head."

 

"Rock, paper, scissors?" Jimin suggested.

 

He shouldn't have, because he rock-paper-scissored himself right into the unwanted position. The rest of his team yelled with victory while he cried out, clutching his failure of a hand, "Nooo!"

 

Namjoon looked over at them with concern, then sort of backed away accidentally into another team, where Sungjae was leading his members in a raucous cheer they'd apparently made up on the spot. Sungjae glanced over at Jimin's team and made exaggerated I'm watching you gestures at them.

 

"Very enthusiastic, this batch," said Hoseok approvingly to the crew. "It's going to be a good season."

 

"Are we allowed to use anything from the pantry?" Sejeong asked suddenly. "Or just what's in front of us?"

 

"Just that," said Namjoon, nodding towards the eggs and sugar at their workstation. He cocked his head in curiosity. "Why, what were you hoping to get?"

 

"Cream of tartar," she said. "Or… lemon juice? Please?"

 

Namjoon smiled. "No."

 

"PD-nim, you're mean," Sejeong said.

 

Namjoon's smile brightened as he nodded in agreement.

 

Yoongi, leaning back in his chair and watching the proceedings in silence, seemed to approve of Sejeong's request, if the slight eyebrow raise was anything to go by. Jimin made a mental note to ask her about it later; he never even really knew what cream of tartar was for.

 

After the producers had settled everyone down and gotten them in the right places, including a medic on standby off-screen, the challenge began, each team member responsible for taking a turn at whipping at least once. All at once, frenzied whisking began at each of the four designated stations.

 

"Ahh, that's right, Eun Jiwon-ssi!" Seokjin called out excitedly at his team member, the quiet, intimidating older man. "He's starting to get a lot of air in there!"

 

Hoseok yelled a variety of encouraging words to the contestants as time ticked down. A buzzer went off, indicating the end of the challenge, and each team had to show the results of their efforts.

 

Sungjae's team passed and they jumped around cheering in a group hug, as if they'd won a national title. The next group, with one of the handsome drama leading men as the chosen one, attempted to talk their way out of the upside-down bowl test.

 

"Do you know how long it takes me to get my hair to look this good?" asked the drama hero.

 

Hoseok laughed along with him and placed a commiserating but firm hand on his shoulder, "I'm afraid rules are rules, Hakyeon-ssi. Please, upend the bowl over your head."

 

Hakyeon sighed dramatically and said to his team members, "If this is the end for me, tell my mother I loved her."

 

As expected, he deposited a lump of meringue on his head, to the rowdy laughter of everyone on set. At least, Jimin thought, that team's meringue was somewhat solid. He knew exactly what his was going to do when he upturned it over his head; it was going to flow like a river right down his face.

 

Seokjin's team passed with flying colors, and with them done with the challenge, that of course meant Jimin was next.

 

"Sorry," said Shinwon.

 

"Sorry," said Lisa.

 

"Sorry, darling, I'll help you clean up!" said Ilhwa.

 

"Something tells me," said Hoseok, "that this is not going to go well."

 

Jimin snickered in spite of himself. He squeezed his eyes shut and grinned, then overturned the bowl. It took a second, but then he felt it, a soft plop followed by thick liquid running over his fringe. He leaned forward and heard it splat onto the floor.

 

"Go Team Noodle Arms!" Shinwon cheered.

 

The room burst into laughter at the sight of Jimin dripping everywhere. One of the crew brought him towels and cleaned up what had fallen on the floor. Jimin and Hakyeon high fived on their way off the set and to the washroom to clean up what they could.

 

Jungkook poked his head in the washroom and said, "That was awesome. I'm going to watch that video every day for the rest of my life and pass it down to my grandchildren and their children’s children."

 

"Get out, you psycho," yelled Jimin. "No one in their right mind would procreate with you!"

 

Jungkook tittered and left, clearly still convinced he had one up on Jimin.

 

After getting as much egg white out of their hair as possible, Jimin and Hakyeon went back to the stylists to dry and style their hair to look at least similar to before.

 

"I can't believe," said Hakyeon, over the whir of the hairdryer, "this is going to be our national TV debut. I told everyone I know that I'm on this show, and that's the first thing they're going to see. My family is never going to let me live it down."

 

Jimin giggled. "Don't worry, you still looked very handsome with egg on your head. I'm sure you'll have lots of fans."  

 

Hakyeon reached over and shook his hand. "Please tell my sisters when they stop laughing 20 years from now."

 

They hurried back to the set to see most everyone milling around, chatting, a couple of contestants pulled aside for interviews about the first team challenge. Team Noodle Arms applauded Jimin's return like he was a village hero while Hakyeon got loud slaps on the back from his members, all to Seokjin's delighted laughter and clapping.

 

With that, the crew set them up for their first actual cooking challenge of the competition, and the carefree mood from before gave way to first day nerves once more.

 

As in previous seasons, the setup of the challenges remained largely the same. There were three rounds each week, all of which would be filmed in one day – hence, the long filming hours. For the most part, they followed an appetizer, main, and dessert order, depending on the overarching challenge for the week.

 

"Now," said Hoseok, back in hosting mode, "we want our contestants to kick off the competition with something healthy. Especially at this time of year, when fried food can feel too heavy and meat too greasy, we need something refreshing and good for our bodies."

 

Jimin tuned out a bit while Hoseok chatted with the judges on the topic, worrying about the time limit and whether he could recreate his required three dishes to standard. They had received the brief a week ago about what the first week's challenges were, so they'd had time to prepare as well as inform the producers what they were planning and receive approval of their recipes.

 

Boiled down, it was a vegetable challenge. They'd been given a choice of three vegetables, and Jimin had gone with broccoli. Not by a long shot was it Jimin's favorite vegetable, but he knew what to do with it to at least make it palatable.

 

Once they began cooking, the more terrifying part was having the judges walk around their stations and talk to them while they cooked. Jimin had barely been able to speak to Seokjin when there were zero stakes; he didn't know how he was going to fare with all three of the judges staring him down while he was forced to talk about what he was doing.

 

Cameras and producers moved all around them while Hoseok wandered around chatting with different contestants and soothing their nerves. It was a wonder that no one on staff ever accidentally got in a background shot when it all seemed to be a free-for-all as far as who and what got filmed where.

 

"Aish!" Jimin heard someone exclaim from somewhere behind him, along with a clatter. He had no idea if it was a contestant or crew member, but he didn't have time to think about it; if it mattered, he supposed he'd find out later during judging or on the broadcast.

 

"Just keep going," Jimin muttered to himself as he sheared the tops of the florets off a head of broccoli.

 

Namjoon popped up from seemingly nowhere. "Can you say that again, but just a bit louder, so the mics can pick you up?"

 

"Huh?" said Jimin.

 

"I think your lapel mic isn't working properly; we'll fix that at the next break. So even if you're talking to yourself, you have to be louder for now," said Namjoon. He gestured to the cameraman next to him. "Okay, go again."

 

Though a little thrown, Jimin repeated his own words of encouragement to himself. Namjoon disappeared and didn't come back, so Jimin figured it had probably gone all right.

 

Not long after, the dreaded judges' visit happened. Hoseok led the charge, which at least was comforting; he always seemed to be on the contestants' side and often acted like a big brother when the stress appeared to be too much.

 

"Park Jimin!" said Hoseok.

 

"Oh, hi," said Jimin, glancing up to greet them all at once. He felt ten times hotter and sweatier at their approach.

 

"Tell us what you're making for your three broccoli dishes?" said Hani, sweetly. Jimin liked her as a judge, too. She didn't shy away from critiques, but she always had a kind word to add, regardless of the situation.

 

"Uh, I'm attempting," said Jimin, swallowing to get rid of the dry spot in his throat, "um, to make my own broccoli tofu--"

 

"Oh! Sounds interesting," said Seokjin.

 

"And pickled broccoli and a fried broccoli pancake," Jimin finished.

 

"Hm," said Yoongi.

 

Jimin looked at him, unsure whether to expect more. He got nothing.

 

"You're going to make the tofu yourself?" Seokjin said. "That seems a bit ambitious, no?" He looked around at the other judges to confirm.

 

"It can be done," said Yoongi. "We'll see."

 

If it was meant as a challenge, it didn't show in Yoongi's face. Hardly anything ever did. He was impossible to read. Sometimes, when watching him on TV, Jimin would be convinced that he hated a dish, only for Yoongi to say it was well done, or that Yoongi actually didn't mind what a contestant had made, until he'd outright say he'd been served a bowl of hot garbage.

 

"Pickled broccoli also sounds…" said Hoseok. "Mmm… unusual?"

 

"It's really good, I promise," said Jimin. "It's my grandmother's old recipe. I used to hate it as a kid, but sometimes I really crave it now."

 

"Okay, well, I'll have to take your word for it for now! Good luck!" Hoseok said and moved the judges on to the next station.

 

The time flew by even faster than Jimin had anticipated, and his hands followed suit. Even though the kitchen was unfamiliar, and normally he'd have music playing or the TV on or Jungkook chatting to him, Jimin tried not to think about anything else but getting his task done.

 

He was only vaguely aware of producers and cameras and Hoseok flitting in and out of his peripheral vision as they went around talking to other contestants and getting close-up shots of their cooking.

 

Jimin signaled a producer just before taking his tofu out of the steamer so they could get a shot of it as it emerged.

 

It looked a bit wobbly, but Jimin said, for the camera's benefit mostly, but also to reassure himself, "It's okay, it's okay. It'll set a little more as it cools."

 

Hoseok announced the final minute to go, and Jimin plated everything as best he could. It was a bit messy and not exactly what he'd envisioned, but given the circumstances, Jimin was proud that he'd at least managed to finish all three of his dishes with a smidgen of time to spare.

 

"Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit," he heard Lisa chanting from the station behind him as he wiped off the rim of a plate.

 

Jimin turned to see her staring in dismay at a puddle of soup that had sloshed onto the floor. He ran over to her station, forgetting the cameras.

 

"What do you need?" he asked. "How can I help?"

 

"It's ruined," she moaned, hands bunching in her hair. "I don't have enough to serve."

 

"No, it's okay," said Jimin. "You can just make it-- an appetizer. In those little tiny appetizer soup cups, right? There's enough for that."

 

Lisa looked up at him with wide eyes, as if she'd gotten a second shot of adrenaline. "You're right. You're right!" she said as she dashed to the back to grab the unplanned set of crockery, a cameraman jogging after her to get the action.

 

Hoseok, about to start the 10-second countdown, noticed her frantic running. "Ten," he said, and paused for another two. "Nine… Oh, this is exciting, isn't it? Eight and a half..."

 

Another contestant, too, a sweet-faced woman -- Jimin belatedly caught Jung Eunji on her nametag -- rushed over to Lisa's station to help her put all her plates at the end of the station, the final step if they were to be counted for judging, and Jimin held her pot steady while Lisa ladled what little soup she had left into small cups.

 

"Fiiive…" Hoseok drew out, with a keen eye towards each of the contestants' progress, particularly with what was happening at Lisa's station.

 

"I thought it was six?" said Seokjin.

 

"Okay! Okay!" Lisa said, everything back under control and on track again.

 

"Four, three, two, one!" Hoseok announced in a rush, meeting the large digital timer on the wall exactly as it beeped at zero.

 

Lisa hugged Eunji and gave Jimin a series of grateful high tens. "Thank you so much, you guys. I would have completely lost my head without you."

 

The producers dismissed the contestants for the moment to clean themselves up and hand their dirty aprons off to waiting staff. At a back table, off-camera, there was tea waiting, and some light snacks, around which the contestants naturally gathered after they were done washing up and getting themselves camera ready again for judging.

 

What apparently the home audience didn't get to see was that each contestant had to make an extra plating dish, in addition to the usual three that ended up at the judges panel, and the judges, with notes in hand, were already trying their dishes in a separate room, so that they'd get eaten while they were still hot. By the time filming was set up again for the actual judging session, the dishes would have long gone cold. It was something Jimin had always wondered about, and now he knew.

 

Cameramen came to take close-ups of each of the contestants' dishes at the ends of their workstations, while the judges, apparently done with their tasting, got pulled by a couple of producers to one corner of the set to confer with each other quietly. Hoseok got called over as well, and the discussion continued.

 

Watching the discussion unfold with a worried frown, Jimin leaned over towards Lisa as inconspicuously as he could. "Are we in trouble?"

 

Though it was entirely possible that it had ended up on the cutting room floor, Jimin, who had watched Chef Challenge religiously since its premier season, had never seen contestants help each other out before. He wondered if that was what the producers and judges were talking about. Maybe they'd made Chef Challenge history and were going to get kicked off immediately.

 

"If we are, it's a hundred percent on me," she said firmly. "You're not going anywhere, I'll make sure of it."

 

"It's not like you guys cooked anything for her," said Sungjae. "I don't see what you could get in trouble for."

 

Still, Jimin watched the conversation with trepidation. He couldn't hear anything, but from his line of vision he could see Min Yoongi shake his head vehemently, probably champing at the bit for a three-person elimination right off the bat. It had never happened before, and each week only one person went, but Jimin wouldn't put anything past that demon judge.

 

Jungkook trotted by with a box of something, and Jimin hissed to get his attention.

 

"Hey, do you know what they're talking about?"

 

"Huh?" said Jungkook. He looked over at the judges' table and shifted the box in his arms. "Do I look like I get invited to sit in on their secret cabal meetings? Shit like that happens all the time; that's why filming takes so long."

 

"Ugh, why did you get this job if you weren't going to be helpful to me?" Jimin groused.

 

Jungkook stuck his tongue out at him and carried on his way.

 

Once he was out of earshot, Lisa shifted closer and nudged Jimin's arm. "Hey, who's the cute PA? Can a girl get an introduction?"

 

"His name's Jungkook. And a girl can get an introduction," said Jimin with a smile, "but a girl might also be disappointed to find out he's incredibly gay."

 

"Ugh, this day just keeps getting worse," Lisa said, throwing her head back in frustration, followed by a laugh.

 

The meeting broke up not long after, and Namjoon beckoned the contestants to take their places at their stations so they could film the judging process. Nothing was said about whether anyone was in trouble or not, so Jimin figured -- or at least hoped -- that no news was good news.

 

One by one, the contestants were called up to bring their creations up to the judges' table and present them with a short explanation of the vegetable they had chosen and what they'd done with it. Extra cameras roved around the set to get reaction shots from the rest of the contestants as well while judging proceeded.

 

Ilhwa and Miran received generally favorable reviews, while the judges had differing opinions on Shinwon and Jennie; Sanghyuk had to deal with disappointing everyone, including himself, by undercooking one of his dishes and ending up with, according to Min Yoongi, an inedible mess.

 

It was Lisa's turn after that, and she marched up to the judges' table with her plates, a grave look on her face.

 

Hani led with, "You had a bit of trouble towards the end."

 

"Yes, I'm actually not really sure what happened, but I think my hand slipped from nerves and, well, a lot of the soup ended up on the floor," said Lisa, regretfully. "But I'm grateful for Jimin and Eunji's help. I don't know if I would have finished without them."

 

"I wouldn't make it a habit," said Yoongi, a hint of warning in his voice.

 

"Yes, of course," said Lisa, with a tiny bow.

 

With that out of the way, the judges proceeded to taste her dishes for the camera’s benefit, with Hani praising her for the complexity of one of the dishes and Seokjin joking that the only thing that would have improved her offering was to have served a larger portion of soup.

 

A couple more contestants came and went, including Baekhyun, who was chided for playing everything too safe, and Eunji, who received a biting comment from Yoongi about paying more attention to her own cooking, as she could have spent the last thirty seconds adding flavor to her dishes rather than worrying about Lisa.  Jimin gave Eunji a commiserating look on her way back, then heard his name called. He brought his tray up to the judges, then clasped his hands behind his back, hoping the cameras wouldn't catch his fingers twisting in nervousness.

 

"Oh!" said Seokjin, after having tasted Jimin's broccoli tofu. "This is quite good. I wasn't expecting that. I wasn’t even sure if you’d finish."

 

"It could stand to have been in the steamer a little longer; even an extra thirty, forty seconds would have firmed it up more. Watch the order of things you’re doing; you could have put this in earlier without sacrificing time on your other dishes," Yoongi said. With a thoughtful tilt of his head, he added, "But the inclusion of the ground sesame seeds was a nice idea. It gives the tofu an extra hint of nuttiness."

 

Jimin felt his eyebrows shoot up to his hairline. He'd never imagined that his very first comment from Min Yoongi would be close to positive. Every time he'd pictured coming up for judging, imaginary Min Yoongi had shredded him to pieces and then set all the pieces on fire. Still, there were two more dishes to go; Jimin was optimistic Min Yoongi would soon meet expectations.

 

"Waaah," said Seokjin at the pickled broccoli. He put down his chopsticks and applauded. "It's like my tastebuds were sleeping soundly and now the broccoli has come and slapped them all awake!"

 

Hani laughed. "Is that a good thing? I hope that's a good thing, because I love this."

 

Unfortunately, Jimin's last dish, the fried pancake, fell short.

 

"What was the challenge?" Min Yoongi asked.

 

It felt like a trap, but Jimin had no choice but to answer, "To make three healthy--"

 

Yoongi cut him off. "Oh, so you do know? Then why didn't you follow the brief? This is a deep-fried pancake. How is that considered healthy and refreshing? It's fatty and greasy and the broccoli is barely even recognizable in there," he said, and pushed his plate away. "Disappointing."

 

With nothing else to do but accept the judging, Jimin thanked the judges for their input and went back to his station. Though it didn't feel especially good to have Min Yoongi call him out for something as basic as not meeting the parameters of the challenge, Jimin couldn't help but concede the point. When he'd been trying to think up dishes in the week coming up to filming, he'd been going for three distinct textures and flavors and had lost sight a little of the brief. And if there was any silver lining in all of this, at least it was Min Yoongi who'd blasted him – as expected – rather than the other judges; Jimin didn't know what he would do if someone as lovely as Kim Seokjin had turned on him.

 

During pauses in filming, the contestants who had already gone through judging snuck around to each other's stations to share what they had made, and after everyone's dishes had been judged, the contestants were corralled once more for their first round of post-judging interviews.

 

In the meantime, the crew cleaned and set up for the next challenge. Jimin had never really thought about it before, but he felt sorry for whoever had to wash all those dirty dishes. He wondered if Jungkook had to. If that was the case, he was sure he'd hear about it later.

 

Out of the corner of his eye, Jimin saw Taehyung scurry past, but wasn't able to catch his attention to say hello.

 

While they finished the last few interviews, Jungkook and another crew member were helping the catering staff set up lunch in a large break room backstage where everyone gathered. Smelling the familiar, wonderful scent of Korean comfort food, Jimin latched onto Jungkook's arm and said, "I like you again."

 

Jungkook sniffed with contempt and shook him off, but asked, "Is it going okay?"

 

Jimin nodded, glad to have his best friend to debrief with, even if only for a short moment. "Although I thought I might get kicked off before I even got judged after the thing with Lisa. Min Yoongi looked like he really wanted us off his show."

 

"Eh?" said Jungkook with raised eyebrows. "No, he didn't."

 

"What?" said Jimin, equally confused. "You said you didn't even know what they were talking about when I asked you."

 

"That was before I talked to Kim Taehyung."

 

"Oh, you know Taehyung?"

 

"You're not the only one who can make friends on set," said Jungkook with a grin. "Word is, some of the producers thought it was unfair for Lisa to get the extra help, but Min Yoongi fought to keep all of you in. Or at least, not to boot you for things that weren't about your cooking skills."

 

Jimin narrowed his eyes. "That sounds… incorrect."

 

Jungkook shrugged. "Just passing along the office gossip."

 

Sungjae, sitting in a rolling chair, wheeled himself backwards and into the conversation, eyes glinting with interest. "I heard the word gossip."

 

"Min Yoongi's a big softie, pass it on," said Jungkook.

 

Sungjae frowned and rubbed his chin. "Are you sure?"

 

"See?" said Jimin. "Get us more believable gossip, Kookie. This is total nonsense."

 

"I don't want to hang out with you guys anymore," said Jungkook, screwing up his nose in a pout. "You're mean and you don't appreciate me. I'm gonna go find Taehyung. He's nice to me; he's going to be my new best friend."

 

Jimin reached for Jungkook's cheeks. "Ujujujuju," he cooed, as to a tiny baby. "Oh no, is my Jungkookie upset?"

 

Jungkook slapped his hands away. "I hate you so much, hyung. I'm never speaking to you again."

 

"Okay, see you at home," said Jimin.

 

"Later," said Jungkook, waving. Jimin watched as he trotted off and, indeed, found Taehyung, who was just walking into the break room with Yoongi and Seokjin.

 

The break room was fairly spartan, with rows of tables and chairs set up like a school cafeteria. That wasn't where the analogy ended, either, with Hoseok, the judges, and the producers sitting together and chatting comfortably, an aura of untouchability floating around them. The crew were their own ragtag group of rowdy miscreants. The contestants, on the other hand, were all the new kid at school, and they clumped together for safety.

 

"So?" Ilhwa asked the group at large. "How is everyone feeling? It's exciting, right?"

 

"I undercooked my dishes," moaned Sanghyuk, lips pushing out in a pout. "I am not excited to be the first one kicked off."

 

Ilhwa murmured a noise of comfort. "Nonsense, that was only the first round. It's just nerves. You got here for a reason, right? We all did," she said bracingly. "Don't let one small bump in the road get to you."

 

While Sanghyuk gave her a somewhat mollified smile, Bomi asked, "What's everyone in for?"

 

"You mean besides the sweet, sweet cash prize?" Sungjae replied. He shrugged and said, "Just want to see if I can do it and where I can go with it. My friends have been telling me to try out for a long time."

 

"Tuition for culinary school," Jimin said, pointing at himself.

 

Jennie perked up. "Oh, same! It's so expensive, isn't it?"

 

There were varying answers from the rest of the contestants: Miran cited boredom now that her kids were grown; Taeyang saw it as getting one foot in the industry without having to start as a busboy; Shinwon had applied at the behest of his YouTube cooking channel subscribers and hoped it might make his channel a viable sole source of income.  

 

Jimin elbowed Sejeong lightly. "What about you?"

 

"Oh, my parents used to run their own restaurant in our neighborhood and they really loved it, but they had to close during the last recession," she said. Looking a little shy as she continued, Sejeong said, "So I figured, um, maybe if I win, I can give them the money to open it again."

 

Sat on the other side of Sejeong, Eunji gave her a friendly shove. "Ah, I wanted that money to go and bum around Europe and eat my weight in pasta with my boyfriend. You're making me look bad!"

 

"No, no," Sungjae corrected mildly and shot Sejeong a beatific grin. "She's making all of us look bad."

 

"Aigo," Ilhwa cooed while Sejeong hid her face in her hands, "your parents are so lucky to have a daughter like you. You don't already have a boyfriend, right, Sejeong-ah? My eldest son is 25 and he's really responsible and hard-working and—"

 

Miran let out a scoffing laugh. "Lee Ilhwa-ssi, are you seriously trying to set her up with your son right now?"

 

"Well, he doesn't seem to be finding girlfriends on his own!" Ilhwa said.

 

"Eonni," Bomi cut in, "responsible and hard-working aren't really selling points these days. The important thing is, does he have style?"

 

"Does it even matter?" Jimin said. "We're in the presence of Kim Seokjin right now. Kim Seokjin, the world's most handsome man. Who's going to measure up to that?"

 

At the sight of several heads nodding in agreement, including Sejeong's, Ilhwa sighed in defeat.

 

Once lunch was over, the crew went back to the set to prep some more for the next round of filming, and a few contestants were called out to reshoot interviews.

 

There was nothing much else to do but wait, so Jimin whipped out his game cards and asked Sejeong to play with him. They started with Uno just between the two of them initially, but began drawing a small crowd, and soon, there were seven of them in the game and making a lot of noise.

 

Jennie eyed Sanghyuk's single remaining card with a flinty look. "Draw four!" she cried triumphantly, laying down her card.

 

"No! How could you?" Sanghyuk wailed, forced to add cards to his hand. "I had it all planned out so well!"

 

The rest of the players laughed and teased Sanghyuk's failed strategy, the game continuing in the circle with every manner of sabotage and easily severed alliances. Sungjae jumped up and threw down a final card with a victory cry, only to be told that he couldn't place a Wild on top of a Draw 2 and collapsed to his knees; Lisa told everyone to "eat it, bitches" when she was the first one to get rid of all her cards; Jimin laughed so hard he cried and couldn't stop hiccupping, which made him laugh all over again.

 

A bottle of water suddenly landed with a thud on the table in front of him. "Stop it," said the looming specter of Min Yoongi. "It's annoying."

 

"W-what?" said Jimin, while gameplay and yelling continued at the other end of the table, with Jennie making Sanghyuk suffer again.

 

Sejeong looked back and forth between them, eyes wide, like she wasn't sure if she'd need to break up a fight in the next five seconds.

 

"The hiccupping," said Yoongi flatly. "You'll hold up filming like that."

 

"Uhh, oh," said Jimin. "Thank you…?" Though honestly Min Yoongi's abrupt appearance out of thin air seemed to have scared his hiccups away already. His thanks went without a reply, as Yoongi hadn't waited for thanks to begin with and had started walking away.

 

"He's so scary," Sejeong whispered, even though Yoongi surely couldn't hear them above the ruckus of the game.

 

"I think I just got five years taken off my life," said Jimin, holding a hand over his chest, feeling his heart race beneath it.

 

"Pay attention," said Shinwon, elbowing him. "It's your turn."

 

The game came to a halt without a real conclusion, as they were called back to the set to start their next challenge, another one related to healthy eating. Much like how the morning had gone, filming started and stopped and started again, the actual cooking was stressful and frantic, the contestants got interviewed about eight more times and their fates placed in the hands of the judges.

 

But as nerve-wracking as judging was, it held no candle to elimination.

 

And it might not even have been that bad, either, if they weren't given so much time to stew over it. The judges had sequestered themselves somewhere to discuss their verdict in private, and all there was to do was wait and worry.

 

Jimin hadn't done spectacularly, but he hadn't had any outright disasters, either. But he could say that about everyone else, too. Again, he wondered if stepping in to help Lisa would work against him and be a deciding factor as to whether he was an acceptable contestant or not -- but it seemed to have opened the door for other contestants to give each other a hand, too, with Taeyang popping open a jar that Jennie had been struggling with, and Miran shouting a warning to Shinwon when it looked as if something of his was about to burn.

 

The break room was quiet, only the occasional shuffle of someone entering or exiting the room or a nervous cough broke the silence.

 

Sungjae began humming something to himself, fingers at first tapping lightly against his knee, and then evolving into a full-on drum solo. Before Jimin knew it, Sungjae and Hakyeon were starting a terrible rap battle, in which neither of them could rhyme appropriately nor match the beat.

 

Little by little, the mood in the room lifted.

 

Hoseok wandered in, just in time to catch Sungjae standing on a table and anointing himself a rap god, and sat himself in a chair next to Jimin, head cocked in slight bewilderment. "You guys are the loudest group of contestants we've ever had," he said. "Every time I walk by it's like something insane is happening."

 

"Oh, sorry," said Jimin. "Should we keep it down?"

 

"No," Hoseok laughed. "It's a refreshing change, actually. Usually at this point everyone's deathly quiet and it's so uncomfortable."

 

Namjoon came in shortly after to interrupt the fun, though. "The judges are ready to go. Everyone on set."

 

In the early stages, Jimin knew, they'd divide the contestants into "safe" and "danger" groups. Those in the middle of the pack went to the safe group, and the top three and bottom three were thrown together, then Hoseok would draw out the announcement and ratchet up the tension, with the help of music later edited in, until just two people in the bottom were left. And then one would be axed.

 

Though the producers had made a few changes to the format this year, the elimination remained the same. Jimin was pronounced to be in the middle group almost right away, and with a wave of relief, he strode off to the side to wait for the rest of the results.

 

But once again, the actual process of filming required several takes; sometimes it was because Hoseok had flubbed a line, sometimes the producers or directors wanted clearer reaction shots, sometimes Jimin couldn't even tell why they were doing a retake when the retake seemed exactly the same.

 

In the end, Ilhwa received top honors, and it was Baekhyun, of leading man material, who was the first to go. He accepted the decision with a regretful nod, and the contestants gathered around him to wish him well. Though Jimin hadn't built as much of a rapport with him as he'd had with some of the others, it still seemed a shame.

 

The producers made them all do post-elimination interviews, and by the time they were all done, Jimin realized that, indeed, it had been a twelve-hour day -- longer, in fact -- and he was exhausted.

 

He also realized how much more respect he'd have to grant to Jungkook now that he knew Jungkook did consecutive days like this on the regular. Or maybe he could just buy Jungkook ice-cream more often in place of respect.

 

Throwing his backpack over his shoulders, Jimin went looking for Jungkook to see if he wanted to head home together; he knew Jungkook, in addition to having to get to set earlier than everyone else, also tended to leave the latest, but Jimin didn't mind waiting. It'd be nice to have the company on the way home, and Jungkook usually let Jimin rest on his shoulder on the bus.

 

After asking one of the grips, Jimin headed down the hallway that led to the dressing rooms and poked his head around. But instead of finding Jungkook, he ran into Min Yoongi, who looked as if he was on his way out the building. He had his baseball cap on again, hiding his dark hair, and had changed back into sweats, no longer Min Yoongi, celebrity chef, but just another body about to blend into the crowd.

 

"Oh, hello," said Jimin, stiltedly. "Uh… You haven't seen… Never mind, sorry."

 

"Who are you looking for?" Yoongi asked. His voice was soft in the stillness of the nearly empty building.

 

Jimin couldn't quite tell if Yoongi was sincerely trying to be helpful or if he was asking because he was suspicious of Jimin and what he was doing skulking around when most everyone else had gone home. Probably the latter.

 

"Uh, I'm not sure you know him?" said Jimin. "He's a PA… Um, Jeon Jungkook?"

 

"Oh, Jungkook. Yeah, he worked on the show a couple years ago," said Yoongi. "He's upstairs talking to Taehyung. You can go up if you want; it's just the production offices up there. Third floor."

 

"Ah… okay," said Jimin, unsure of himself in the face of such… good will. "Thank you. I guess, I'll head up there, then."

 

He bowed and stepped towards the elevator bank, but Yoongi called his attention back. "Park Jimin."

 

"Uh?" said Jimin, turning around.

 

Yoongi pursed his lips, as if contemplating whether he wanted to carry on the conversation. "Why did you help Lisa-ssi earlier?" he asked.

 

"Because… she needed help," said Jimin, frowning, not even remembering considering any other option. "So we helped her."

 

"It would have made the competition easier on you if she'd failed," Yoongi pointed out.

 

Jimin's eyebrows drew together. "I guess…" he conceded reluctantly. "I mean, maybe it would have eliminated her if we hadn't done anything, but that would've been such an unsatisfying way to win, wouldn't it? If I win, I want it to be because I went up against the best, otherwise it's just… an accident."

 

Though Jimin was immediately afraid he'd said way too much and probably sounded like an idiot, one side of Yoongi's mouth tilted up into what could have been a smile if Jimin squinted really hard.

 

"Okay," Yoongi said with a nod. "See you next week."

 

He didn't wait for Jimin to say goodbye and disappeared around a corner.

 

Jimin blinked at the expanse of the corridor that Yoongi had just vacated, not sure what exactly had happened. He'd had a civil conversation with Min Yoongi, who actually had come across… kind of nice? He suddenly recalled Jungkook having said something along the same lines, and was struck, belatedly, by the fact that Yoongi not only already knew a new crew member by name, but also seemed to have remembered Jungkook from when he'd subbed in on the show once, two years ago.

 

Some mysteries of the universe, however, were just not meant to be solved, so Jimin set it out of his mind and headed upstairs to look for Jungkook. As soon as the elevator doors opened onto the third floor, Jimin heard Jungkook’s laughter and followed the sound.

 

"Jungkook-ah?" Jimin called out.

 

Jungkook’s head appeared around a corner, eyes lighting up in surprise. "Oh, hyung! What are you doing up here?"

 

"Looking for you," said Jimin. "Wanna get the bus home together?"

 

"Yeah," said Jungkook. "Just give me a second."

 

Taehyung’s head appeared next. "We’re exchanging numbers," he said with a fatuous grin. "He tells me I’ve overthrown you as head best friend."

 

"You’re welcome to him," said Jimin. He walked forward and into the side hallway where Jungkook was quickly typing a test text message to Taehyung. "He needs feeding and watering at least four times a day and sometimes he’ll drag you out to the gym with him even if it’s midnight and you’re already in your pajamas."

 

"Oh no, the gym?" moaned Taehyung. "I need to reconsider this."

 

Jungkook hit send, and Taehyung’s phone pinged. "Too late!"

 

"Haha, he’s your problem now," said Jimin.

 

"I’ve been tricked," said Taehyung, with a put-out glance towards Jungkook that almost immediately turned into a smile. "This is what I get for crushing on every cute crew guy I see."

 

"This makes me feel very special," said Jungkook.

 

Jimin patted his cheek gently. "You’re not."

 

Jungkook scowled at him. "Let’s go before I commit a murder in sight of these CCTVs."

 

"Taehyung-ssi, if I mysteriously disappear from the blind spot of a security camera, you’ll be a very important witness!" Jimin said over his shoulder, as Jungkook bodily pushed him towards the elevators. "Tell my story!"

 

Taehyung waved. "I’ll sell it to the highest bidder, don’t worry!" 

 

"Don’t stay too late!" Jungkook called back at him.

 

Once they were safely in the elevator and out of earshot, Jimin elbowed Jungkook in the ribs and lifted his eyebrows salaciously. "So… You and Kim Taehyung?"

 

"Maybe," said Jungkook, though the curve of his mouth leaned much further towards yes.

 

"This is so exciting," said Jimin, clapping his hands together.

 

"It’s only been one day, calm down," said Jungkook.

 

The elevator dinged and let them out on the ground floor. Together, they walked out into the inky night, humid, late-summer air enveloping them as soon as they passed the building doors.

 

Jungkook’s phone chimed with a message notification, and he failed to bite down a smile as soon as he read it, cheeks going rose pink. Well past the point in their friendship where Jimin had to make up an excuse for being nosy, he peered over and saw Taehyung’s name at the top, but wasn’t able to make out what the message said before Jungkook yanked the phone out of view.

 

"Oh my god, you’re so smitten," Jimin teased.

 

"Shut up," said Jungkook. "I am not."

 

"Tell that to your face," said Jimin.

Chapter Text

Watching himself on television was beyond surreal. Rationally, Jimin knew that the person on the screen was, in fact, him, and he had done all those things on set, but it was like having an out-of-body experience. He felt weirdly detached and yet fully invested at the same time.

 

Once Jimin managed to get over that feeling, the next thing he noticed was how everything had been edited together from the chaos. They must be miracle workers, the editors, to be able to splice hours and hours of footage together into one tight, cohesive package, especially as the show was filmed and broadcast on a weekly basis. They weren’t aired live, but it was a near thing. The first day of competition had only been less than a week ago. 

 

The other thing Jimin noted, with slight annoyance, was that Jungkook had been right, again, about how the judges were edited, too. In reality, the judges had given them all reams of feedback, tips, and advice, but really only the pithiest lines had made it into the broadcast.

 

Jimin remembered his first critique from Min Yoongi had been fairly detailed about what he’d done right and how he could have made it even better, but all that was shown on the aired program was Yoongi telling him that he should have steamed the tofu longer.

 

As the show came to an end, Jimin wondered how the first episode would be received by the viewing audience. He itched to go online to check out the first wave of reactions from the fan forums, but knew he’d get sucked in, and he had to get up early the next day for Week 2 of Chef Challenge.

 

He managed to stave off the temptation to look himself up on Naver and put his phone out of reach of his bed, then tried his best to fall asleep.

 

Jimin was only half successful. Knowing that the upcoming challenge was a three-course mystery box challenge -- which was to say, there was no real way to prepare for it except to memorize and perfect basic skills -- gave Jimin’s brain fits of anxiety that woke him up throughout the night, peppering his dreams with the kinds of circumstances where he was late for class or forgotten to study for an exam even though university was a distant five years ago or lost his keys and no one would let him inside.

 

Still, when his alarm blared from the other side of the room as morning rolled in, Jimin was forced to rise to turn its infernal clamor off. He stumbled to the bathroom to get ready, almost walking straight into Jungkook, who was similarly groggy and unhappily groping around in the hallway.

 

They had a lifeless fight over who got bathroom privileges first, and eventually Jungkook managed to slip past Jimin’s limp fists to sequester himself inside, where he’d probably fall asleep over the sink drooling toothpaste for a few minutes.

 

Grumbling to himself, Jimin lurched to the kitchen to make coffee. The scent of it brewing gradually perked him up a little, and he gained enough strength from it to punch Jungkook in the arm properly when Jungkook came out of the bathroom, damp from the shower.

 

Unlike the previous week, Jimin was planning to go in at the same time as Jungkook. He felt like he knew his way around enough now that it wouldn’t be weird and awkward for him to show up early and sit around for a bit, maybe chat with some of the crew, too; they seemed nice.

 

Besides, Jimin wanted to get into the space as soon as possible to sort of-- absorb it. He couldn’t really explain it, but he kind of felt like he needed to feel the energy of the set so he could better picture himself flying through his challenges.

 

A quick breakfast and bus ride later, Jimin and Jungkook arrived at the studio; they badged in and made their way down to the set.

 

Jungkook had work to do right away, so he said goodbye to Jimin and left him in the hands of one of the stylists who had just shown up.

 

"Oh no," said the stylist noona, Dambi, looking over at him in concern. "What’s up with the dark circles?"

 

Jimin shrugged helplessly. "Couldn’t sleep."

 

She patted him on the back in sympathy. "Never mind, when Sookyung eonni gets here she can fix it with concealer. That shirt looks really good on you, though. Nice choice. It’ll show up on screen well."

 

Jimin thanked her as she left to prep for her own duties and went to wander the set for a bit, trying his best to stay out of the crew’s way. Slowly, more and more people filed into the building, but there was still time before the contestants were actually due for call.

 

He stood at his previous station, though he knew they’d be switched up for the upcoming round of challenges, and made himself a mental picture of smoothly tackling whatever mystery ingredients they could throw at him.

 

Someone turned the ovens on to make sure they were working and would be preheated for the competition, their fans whirring into a steady drone that settled all over the studio and eventually turned into white noise.

 

Jimin checked his email -- there were a couple about work that he could easily answer and an additional one from Manager Choi wishing him all the best, with many exclamation marks.

 

His thumbs hovered over his browser app. Bad idea, he told himself. But this time, Jimin gave in and opened the bookmark to his favorite Chef Challenge fan discussion forum, much too curious to see what people thought about last night’s episode. Reactions were, as always, mixed, a wide spectrum of people who were appalled at the format changes and caliber of contestant and others who loved everything about it. And then…

 

Jimin couldn’t help it, his eyes instinctively homing in on his name wherever it showed up.

 

"His face looks like a foot."

 

"What was up with that pickled broccoli thing?? It looked so bad. I mean, visual presentation still counts as a thing in judging, right?? But I guess if my Seokjinnie said it was good I’ll just have to trust him! Oppa always knows best!!"

 

"I thought it was really nice of him to help that other girl!"

 

"How good can broccoli tofu taste, honestly? It’s literally just broccoli and tofu mixed together. Minus five thousand points."

 

"I’m sick of this guy already. Shut tf up about your stupid grandmother, dude. She's dead, get over it."

 

"Yeah I thought we’d learned by now that trotting out the dead relative doesn’t actually win you any sympathy points? What an attention whore. He should go join his grandmother if he’s that attached. Probably learned how to be a little bitch from her too."

 

Jimin’s heart dropped to the bottom of his stomach. He’d come across comments just like that before, during previous seasons, and he’d been able to ignore them for the most part, focusing on the ones that actually talked about what the contestants had cooked. But these ones pierced right into him, lodging in his chest, sharp and twisted.

 

He heard his breath hitch in his throat. Holding it together with tight, clenched fists, Jimin walked off the set and towards the men’s room, hopefully into the loneliest, darkest corner of it he could find.

 

But he got only halfway there when a tear spilled over his cheek. Whatever people wanted to say about his food, they could go right ahead -- god knew he’d had plenty of opinions about previous dishes before -- but to bring his halmeoni into it like that, to speak of her so brutally like that, that was way too low.

 

Jimin wiped his eyes and sniffled, continuing blindly towards the washroom.

 

Unfortunately, yet one more obstacle barred his way and its name was Min Yoongi. Jimin didn’t even see him at first and only when they were almost about to collide did Jimin jump back with a startled yelp.

 

"Sorry," Jimin said hurriedly, ducking his head down so Yoongi couldn’t see his face.

 

Yoongi sort of grunted something dismissive, but after taking one look at Jimin, he said, "Park Jimin…" His voice was wary, almost alarmed. "Are-- are you crying?"

 

"No," said Jimin, though his face was practically dripping. "Excuse me."

 

He attempted to flee to the washroom, but the sheer authority in Yoongi’s voice stopped him again. "Park Jimin." He sighed, as if put upon. Like Jimin’s crying was a personal affront to him. "Come with me."

 

Yoongi walked to the door leading to the stairwells and only turned to check if Jimin was following him when he got there and pushed the door open. He indicated with a jerk of his head for Jimin to join him in the stairwell.

 

It was a little echoey, all angles and concrete, and Jimin’s sniffing sounded too loud in the enclosed space, but it was blessedly empty. Of course, besides Min Yoongi.

 

"What is it?" Yoongi asked, arms crossed over his chest.

 

"N-nothing," said Jimin, his head lowered. If he could bend it any further, he’d curl his face right into his chest where no one could see him. 

 

"A lot of nothing has happened in my life before, and I can tell you I’ve never wept in a stairwell because of it," said Yoongi, while at the same time fishing casually in his bag for something. "Spit it out."

 

Jimin let out a tiny squeak of surprise at the packet of tissues Yoongi pulled out and offered him. "Thank you," he whispered, accepting the tissues, and wiped at his nose.

 

Yoongi lifted his eyebrows, waiting.

 

It was clear Jimin wasn’t going to be given leave without spilling, so he said, feeling his cheeks burn in embarrassment and indignation, "I looked up the fan forums…"

 

"Find something not so nice about yourself?" Yoongi said, his tone somewhat softening.

 

Jimin nodded miserably. "It-- it wasn’t even me so much as-- as--" He paused, feeling another knot taking form at the bottom of his throat. "My halmeoni, she doesn’t deserve that. She didn’t do anything. Why are people saying such mean things about her?"

 

"Ah," said Yoongi, nodding. He went silent for a moment, letting Jimin push through another bout of tears. "The thing is, people are dicks sometimes."

 

"Huh?" said Jimin. This was not really the sort of pep talk he was expecting, or even anything remotely comforting, from Min Yoongi.

 

"Especially when they're all concentrated in one place on the Internet," Yoongi continued. "But you can't stop people being dicks."

 

So far, this was the least helpful thing Jimin had ever heard. He paused his sniffling to give Yoongi a doleful stare. "I really appreciate you trying to help me, Min Yoongi-ssi, but…" Jimin trailed off, unsure how to tell Yoongi that he was terrible at this.

 

"I wasn't done," said Yoongi irritably. He rubbed the back of his neck, frowning, and regrouped. "You can't control what anyone says or does. All you can do is… be true to yourself. If your conscience is clear, then who gives a shit what some moron says on the Internet?"

 

Jimin's lower lip trembled still, against his will, but he clenched his jaw to make it stop. Min Yoongi was right. He hadn't done anything wrong. He hadn't let his halmeoni down.

 

"I mean, do you know who they even let on the Internet these days?" Yoongi went on. "Fucking anyone. They don't even need to prove that they own a single brain cell. So I really wouldn't be inclined to just let some asshole with a keyboard tell you who you are or what's important to you. Understand?"

 

Jimin nodded. Against all odds, talking to Min Yoongi actually was helping. "Thank you," he said and swiped the back of his hand against his eyes, then glanced towards the door to the hallway. "Do I-- um, does it look bad? Do I look like I was crying?"

 

"Yes," said Yoongi.

 

"Oh," said Jimin. He really didn't want to explain to anyone why his eyes were all red and puffy. It was bad enough he'd had his breakdown in front of one of the judges.

 

Yoongi sighed again. "Come on, there'll be fewer people up here," he said, trudging up the stairs, once again assuming Jimin would follow him without looking back. He led Jimin to a restroom on the second floor. "Go wash your face."

 

While Yoongi hovered nearby with his arms crossed, Jimin went to the sinks and splashed cold water on his face, cupping his hands over his eyes to hopefully reduce some of the swelling under his eyes. He checked himself out in the mirror; it looked marginally better. Jimin heard a rustling sound and turned to find Yoongi holding out a handful of paper towels for him.

 

"Thank you," Jimin murmured and patted his face dry. He sniffled one last time, blinking at his reflection. "It looks okay, right?"

 

Yoongi eyed Jimin critically, then frowned. Another rifling through his bag produced a small black tube. "You want some of this?"

 

Though Jimin took it, he blinked at Yoongi, unsure what to do with it.

 

Yoongi stared back at him.

 

"Uh, what…" said Jimin, turning the item over in his hands.

 

"Concealer," said Yoongi, as if this should have been obvious to even the dimmest of toddlers.

 

"Oh," said Jimin, though this new information hardly helped. He used a tinted moisturizer from time to time, but beyond that, Jimin knew next to nothing about cosmetics. "How, uh…?"

 

Yoongi's lips pressed together in an impatient line, but he took the concealer stick from Jimin. With one hand he tilted Jimin's chin up towards the light and the other dabbed concealer under his eyes, then with a gentle fingertip, blended the concealer into his skin. Jimin's body tensed at the closeness, and he found himself staring everywhere except at Yoongi's face and trying not to breathe; thankfully Yoongi seemed not to notice.

 

"Sookyung noona will probably redo this," said Yoongi, his voice low with their proximity, "but at least it won't look so red when you go back downstairs." Stepping back, he capped the concealer and dropped it into his bag.

 

"Oh. Thank you," said Jimin.

 

Jimin stood there a moment too long, looking at Yoongi, wondering just who he actually was. 

 

"Did you need something else?" Yoongi asked.

 

"Uh, no," said Jimin, slightly startled. "Thank you for your help. I guess I'll… go."

 

Yoongi nodded and turned on his heel, not bothering with any pleasantries as he left.

 

Jimin was stuck in place for a few seconds, feeling a flutter of dissatisfaction, the niggling sort of feeling that he'd missed something or left something behind, but couldn't figure out what it was. He exited the restroom and made his way downstairs again and to the dressing room, brow furrowed in concentration.

 

He couldn't figure Min Yoongi out. It was annoying. One moment to the next, Jimin felt as insignificant as a speck of dust in Yoongi's presence and then like a precious baby bird under his thoughtful, meticulous care.

 

"Good morning," Shinwon yawned, heading to the dressing room as well but from the opposite direction. He appeared to have rolled straight out of bed and to the studio, hair all askew.

 

Stashing the enigma of Min Yoongi away for later, Jimin cleared his throat to make sure his voice was steady before returning the greeting. "Morning," he said. "Excited about the mystery box?"

 

"God, no," said Shinwon. "I keep having nightmares about it. Like, what if they ask us to make dessert out of fish liver and kelp? Or I don't know, tree bark and a burnt tire?"

 

"Put enough sugar in it, it'll be fine," said Jimin carelessly.

 

Shinwon chortled. "And then torch the sugar to really bring out that burnt rubber flavor."

 

"Delicious," said Jimin.

 

They joked around some more as they both got seats in the make-up chairs, and it took a while for Jimin to realize no one had commented thus far on him looking out of sorts. In fact, he'd even stopped feeling out of sorts and hadn't noticed.

 

Which was all to the good, as he had bigger things to worry about; to wit, their three-course challenge for the day -- appetizer, entree, and dessert, all with ingredients they weren't told about beforehand.

 

Though he was fairly sure Shinwon wasn't a prophetic dreamer, and history had indicated that the ingredients given were always, at the very least, known to be edible, just because they weren't getting burnt tires didn't mean the mystery ingredients weren't going to be onerous to work with.

 

He remembered an episode from the second season where the contestants' mystery boxes had included things like Marmite and black licorice and chocolate-covered crickets. Nearly no one had produced anything worth eating. Season three had scaled it back on the weirdness, but who knew what the producers had in store for the current contestants?

 

Once again, when it was time, they went through interviews then filed out onto the set and stood behind their stations while Hoseok introduced the theme for the episode. Following that, he brought out the judges. Jimin kept his eyes on Yoongi for most of it as the judges chatted with Hoseok, but Yoongi didn't spare him a second glance.

 

In addition to not knowing what their boxes held, the contestants had their names randomly drawn from colorful cards so they could pick which boxes they wanted -- not that the order in which they picked made any difference, since every box looked exactly the same; it was purely luck of the draw what they would get.

 

Despite Hoseok telling them this and assuring them that it would be pointless to employ any kind of box-picking strategy, there was still a fair amount of deep rumination on the contestants' parts. Sungjae swore Hoseok had a tell and engaged in a staring contest with him for a while; Ilhwa made her picks based on a tip a street fortune-teller had once given her; Shinwon chose the boxes that seemed the most askew, convinced that the angle of their placement meant something.

 

"Every year they do this," Seokjin said, shaking his head in mild disbelief.

 

"Like you didn't do the same thing that time we had that special judges' competition episode at Chuseok," Hani snickered.  

 

"'Oh, the box on the left is chipped in the corner, Yoongi-yah, there must be something special about it,'" Yoongi mimicked in a goofy version of Seokjin's voice, rocking from side to side. "'Hoseok's eyebrow just twitched, that box must have something good in it.'"

 

"That's because his eyebrow did twitch, and the box did end up having red caviar in it. I was not wrong," Seokjin shot back.

 

Hoseok shushed them. "Can you not encourage these kids to stare at my face? My face is not a clue!"

 

Eventually, and without too much more attempted reading of Hoseok's expressions, the contestants got through the mystery box choosing. For filming efficiency, they picked their boxes for all three courses at the same time, though on the broadcast it'd be cut differently.

 

Jimin ended up with a box of ground beef, capers, and panko for his first box. His mind raced with appetizer possibilities, picking up and discarding ideas as he went. The contestants were allowed time to think about what they wanted to make and to give the producers a rough sketch of their intended recipes, with runners then dispatched to procure any ingredients the studio didn’t already have on hand.

 

Since it wasn’t expressly forbidden, Sejeong came over to bounce her ideas off Jimin. She’d gotten zucchini, ricotta cheese, and mint, and as she and Jimin talked through what could and wouldn’t work, Sungjae wandered into their conversation as well, giving input and asking for some back.

 

Though a handful of contestants were content to keep their thoughts to themselves, other clusters of friendly discussion began taking shape, and while waiting for the runners to return, several of them did a walk around each of the stations to check out each other’s ingredients. Hoseok joined them, marveling over his own inability to think of a single way to put any of the ingredients together.

 

"Oh, I wish I had gotten that one!" Jennie said, pointing at Hakyeon’s curry paste. "Want to exchange? I have heavy cream that would go so well with your clams."

 

"No, no, no," Hoseok laughed.

 

"Quick, someone create a diversion," said Hakyeon, and made a big show of handing off his curry paste to Jennie while Shinwon and Sanghyuk staged a slap-fight as a distraction tactic.

 

"Yaaah," said Hoseok, shaking his head. "I feel like a teacher in the bad kids’ classroom."

 

"But that’s the class that was the most fun," Seokjin pitched in.

 

"Hm, sounds like you’re speaking from experience," said Hani.

 

"Does this face look like it got in fights?" Seokjin asked.

 

Namjoon pulled the contestants individually for quick interviews on how they felt about their mystery basket contents, and like that, half the morning was already over before they’d even begun cooking anything.

 

After his interview, Jimin wandered over to the snack table to get a cup of tea, and noted with slight chagrin that Min Yoongi was there, doing the same. Jimin hesitated. Yoongi had seen him a teary, snotty mess earlier that morning; it'd be awkward to talk to him now. Not, of course, that Jimin would ever feel entirely comfortable around him.

 

Then again, Yoongi had brought up a good point -- Jimin hadn't done anything wrong; who gave a shit what anyone else, including the great Min Yoongi himself, thought?

 

He strode up to the snack table and said a polite greeting, then poured a cup of tea for himself.

 

"Feeling better?" Yoongi asked casually.

 

"Oh, uh, yes, thank you. I-- I'm glad I ran into you this morning," said Jimin, a little surprised to find that he actually meant every word of it. "It really helped."

 

"Yes, well," said Yoongi, "you're lucky it was me. If you'd run into Kim Seokjin, he'd have hugged you for at least an hour. Horrible."

 

"Heh," Jimin giggled at the thought. Kim Seokjin was probably an excellent hugger. "That doesn't sound so bad."

 

Yoongi took a sip of his tea. With a raised eyebrow, he asked, "I suppose you're one of those people who thinks he's devastatingly handsome and charming?"

 

"Isn't he?" Jimin asked. He gasped. "Oh no, is he secretly a monster? Is that what you're telling me? Does he eat puppies?"

 

"I wish," said Yoongi, with a face full of dissatisfaction. "It'd make it easier to sit next to him."

 

"Why? Because he's so handsome and you're n--" Jimin's mouth screeched to a halt, a long, loud string of swearing streaming through his head like a runaway news ticker. "I mean-- No-- I mean--"

 

Yoongi looked simultaneously appalled and delighted. The slight upward curve of his mouth seemed to settle on the latter. "Oh, Park Jimin," he said, a glint in his eye that was almost approval. "You're mean."

 

"No, no! No, no, no, no, I didn't mean it that way!" Jimin said, waving his hands frantically, but the more Jimin tried to defuse the situation, the more amusement Yoongi seemed to derive from it.

 

"Mmhm," said Yoongi with a nod, his eyebrows pulling together as he leaned forward a little, like he was completely engrossed in what Jimin was saying.

 

"It's not that you're ugly. You're not. I didn't mean that at all," Jimin said hastily. He could have screamed. If not for the fact that it would be even ruder, he'd drag himself out by the collar right now and punch himself in the ribs, what was his problem? "It's just-- You-- No--" 

 

"Forget it. I'll spare you the trouble of having to look at my unfortunate face any longer," said Yoongi, outright smiling this time, all teeth. "Enjoy your tea."

 

As Yoongi sauntered away, Jimin groaned inwardly, wishing he could bash his head into the snack table. Maybe it'd give him amnesia and he could live the rest of his life in blessed ignorance of this moment ever happening. What was wrong with him? And after Yoongi had gone against his very nature and had been kind to Jimin earlier?

 

He ran over to Sejeong and said, "Help me. I just insulted Min Yoongi to his face. I think he's plotting my murder now."

 

Sejeong inhaled sharply. "What did you say to him?"

 

"I kind of told him he was ugly?" Jimin said helplessly.

 

Her mouth agape, Sejeong looked him up and down. "Oh god, why?"

 

"I don't know! I don't know! It just sort of came out," Jimin cried. "I don't know what's wrong with me. We were even kind of having a normal type of conversation and then-- and then, I said that."

 

"Oh, hyung," Sejeong said, shaking her head. "If it makes you feel any better, I will always remember you fondly and I promise to come to visit your urn at the columbarium at least once a year."

 

"Aaargghh," Jimin said into his hands.

 

He didn't have much time to think about it further, though, for better or for worse, as the runners came back and everyone was set up at their stations. The first round began, Hoseok starting the timer with his usual flair.

 

Jimin pushed all extraneous thoughts out of his mind and focused solely on what was in front of him. He could worry about Yoongi eating him alive later.

 

Though it was only their second week in the studio kitchen, Jimin was already beginning to feel accustomed to Hoseok and the judges wandering around and inspecting everything they did. Namjoon came up to ask him to explain what he was planning to make and what he was doing at that specific moment.

 

"Baked meatballs with an herb salsa," said Jimin, while crushing a bag of walnuts with a meat tenderizer. "Um, I'm putting walnuts in for extra texture. Gives it a little extra flavor, too. I think it'll be good. Should be good. Fingers crossed."

 

He looked up to smile at Namjoon and noticed, all of a sudden, out of the corner of his eye, that Min Yoongi was standing off to the side, watching him closely. Jimin started slightly at the sight of him.

 

"Oh god, he's so scary," Jimin said to Namjoon, who chuckled. "He's like a ghost, he's always appearing out of nowhere and then he doesn't say anything. Am I doing this right? Are walnuts the right decision?" He turned to Yoongi inquiringly, desperate to rebuild the bridge he'd inadvertently burned. "Feelings about walnuts?"

 

Yoongi only sort of smirked and walked off to frighten someone else with his hawk-eyed staring.

 

Jimin scowled at the walnuts but continued with them anyway. He tossed the meatballs in the oven and cleaned up his station a bit, then continued working on the salsa while time flew by in a mad dash towards zero.

 

When Hoseok came by with all three judges in tow to ask him what he was working on, Jimin could feel his face burning under Yoongi's gaze. He barely processed what Hoseok said and might have stuttered through his answer to Hani's question about the salsa with pure gibberish. He forgot the interaction immediately after it happened, catching Yoongi's eye as Hoseok led them to another contestant's station.

 

Yoongi maintained eye contact with him for longer than was probably necessary, his enigmatic expression impossible to read.

 

Once the judges had all left, Jimin felt a breath leave his lungs in one big whoosh. He forced himself to focus again, focus focus focus Min Yoongi focus focus.

 

Despite the distraction, Jimin managed to finish his meatball appetizer on time and with a creation he actually did kind of feel proud of. It looked appetizing, the salsa a bright, fresh, beautiful green that hopefully would catch the judges' attention and possibly make one of them forget that Jimin was an idiot who couldn't control his mouth.

 

While the contestants' dishes were whisked away for the judges' initial tasting off-camera, more interviews were conducted, and once that was over, Jimin brought out a deck of cards again to while the rest of the time away. It was poker this time, which Miran kindly taught him and proceeded to demolish him, Taeyang, and Bomi in three rounds straight.

 

When the judges were ready to make their verdicts, they all gathered back on set. Jimin was called up towards the end for his appetizer to be judged. He brought his tray up nervously, willing his hands not to rattle the three plates on it. As he watched the judges cut into their appetizers and waited for their verdict, Jimin chewed on his bottom lip, resisting the urge to plead with Yoongi with his eyes to not eviscerate him too badly.

 

To his surprise, Yoongi had nothing unkind to say.

 

"Meatballs can be boring," he said, "especially when they're served by themselves like this. But you have a nice crispy layer on the outside and the inside is soft and juicy; it feels good to bite into. The walnuts do add extra texture as well. The salsa, maybe pull back on the lemon a little; it almost overpowers the natural flavors of your herbs. The capers and chili peppers are already quite strong, you don't want it fighting with them as well. But overall, not bad."

 

Jimin waited a moment longer for some kind of final punch to the gut, but it never came, Hoseok interjecting to thank Jimin and call up the next contestant.

 

Walking back to his station, Jimin smiled at the thumbs-up Sejeong gave him and sat down on his stool, his mind whirring.

 

He barely paid attention to the rest of the judging, and the cameras readjusting to focus on Hoseok as he announced the end of the first round brought Jimin's attention back. Hoseok went through a couple of takes, then Namjoon called for a lunch break.

 

Everyone gathered in the break room once more after cleaning themselves up and tucked into the catering.

 

At the crew table, Taehyung sat next to Jungkook, animatedly describing something that made Jungkook burst into laughter. Jimin wasn't surprised to see them nearly glued together; Jungkook had spent the interim week either texting Taehyung, going for coffee with Taehyung, or telling Jimin about Taehyung.  

 

When most people were done eating and beginning to get up to either stretch their legs or wander, Jimin went to join Jungkook and Taehyung.

 

He said hello to Taehyung, then leaned heavily against Jungkook and said, "I'm so tired, Kookie."

 

Jungkook, even though he'd gotten up at the same time as Jimin and had probably been on his feet for five hours straight, patted his head. "Take a nap. You don't have to be on set for a while yet."

 

"Can I use your legs?" Jimin asked.

 

Jungkook chuckled. "Sorry, I need them. I have to go back to the set in a minute."

 

"You want to use one of the couches upstairs?" Taehyung asked. "I can let you into Yoongi hyung's dressing room."

 

"Oh," said Jimin. "No, no, that's okay. I don't want to break any rules." He also didn't want to see Min Yoongi; what if he accidentally said something even worse to him?

 

Taehyung dismissed the concern immediately. "Hani noona lets the girls use her couch all the time. She's been asking the execs for couches in the contestants' dressing room for, like, two years, but they're kinda cheap about stuff like that, so until then she's opened hers to the ladies if they need it. She's seriously the nicest."

 

Jimin shook his head. "It'd be weird…"

 

"All right," said Taehyung, shrugging. "I guess you'll have to find someone else's legs, then."

 

"How squishy are yours?" Jimin asked.

 

Taehyung poked himself in the thighs experimentally. "Mmm, five," he concluded, as if that meant anything to anyone.

 

"Okay, gimme your legs," said Jimin, gesturing for Taehyung to come over.

 

Taehyung checked his watch. "I can give you twenty minutes of leg time."

 

"Cool," said Jimin.

 

"No one's gonna ask me if I'm okay with you sleeping on my boyfriend?" Jungkook asked in exasperation.

 

Jimin punched him in the shoulder, jaw dropping open. "What? Boyfriend?" he exclaimed. "Why didn't you tell me? You asshole! I should know these things! Since when?"

 

"Uh, since right now?" Jungkook said, looking over hopefully at Taehyung for confirmation. 

 

Taehyung grinned at Jungkook, nodding, stars in his eyes. "Yeah, sounds good."

 

"You--" said Jimin, gawping at them. He shook his head, bewildered. How was it so easy for them? Jungkook had just made a casual suggestion on the spot and now officially had a boyfriend, while Jimin's course of action usually went something like, 1) nurse secret crush on emotionally unavailable man, 2) make fool out of self in front of emotionally unavailable man, 3) cry, 4) get fat on ice-cream, and 5) repeat steps 1-4, ad nauseum. It never ended in someone looking at him the way Taehyung looked at Jungkook. So not fair.

 

"Honey," said Taehyung sweetly, linking one arm with Jungkook's, "is it okay if Jimin sleeps on me? Only the poor thing is so tired."

 

"Oh no, you're going to be that couple," Jimin groaned, face in his hands.

 

"Only in front of you, hyung," Jungkook promised.

 

"You're both assholes and you deserve each other," said Jimin bitterly.

 

"Thank you," Taehyung said, all sincerity. He squeezed Jungkook's hand, then got up from his chair and found a spot on the floor by the wall. "Now come here and lie on my soft, pillowy thighs."

 

"I kind of don't want to now," said Jimin, "if you're going to describe them like that."

 

Taehyung clicked his tongue. "Well, would you rather I said sharp and bony?" 

 

"Gotta take what you can get, hyung," said Jungkook, before trotting off towards the set.

 

Jimin trudged over. He supposed he'd brought it on himself. Besides, leaving the off putting choice of vocabulary aside, it was nice of Taehyung to offer. Jimin got as comfortable as he could on the floor with his head in Taehyung's lap; in actuality his legs fell somewhere in the middle of pillowy and bony. It wasn't too bad.

 

"What's this?" Sungjae said with interest, ambling over. "Is it nap time? Can I join?"

 

"Yes, let's be nap buddies, Sungjae-yah," said Jimin.

 

"Yay," said Sungjae, and lay down next to him. "Work never has nap time. We should institute this in all workplaces."

 

Jimin murmured his agreement and wondered if Manager Choi would approve it if he wrote a proposal to turn their stockroom into a nap zone. Their stationery supplies could find somewhere else to live; it wasn't like they got post-lunch drowsy.

 

Sungjae squirmed uncomfortably and shifted himself so he was lying on Jimin's legs now, shaping them into something like human dominoes. "Should bring a pillow next week," he said, and yawned. "Maybe a sleeping bag. Let's just turn this show into competitive sleeping."

 

Jimin shut his eyes, tried to count through his breathing, four in, eight out. It helped him sleep sometimes, or at the very least, it tended to relax him more when he was getting ready for bed.

 

He wasn't sure how much time went by or if he actually had fallen asleep, but a quiet, familiar voice broke through to his consciousness.

 

"What's going on here?" Min Yoongi asked, his voice low, almost a whisper.

 

"They were tired," Taehyung replied. "Did you need me to do something?"

 

"Yeah…" said Yoongi. "But I suppose it can wait. Come find me after they wake up."

 

Jimin heard Yoongi leave, then drifted off again. Next thing he knew, Taehyung was gently shaking him awake.

 

"Hey, you guys have to be on set in, like, ten minutes. Better go freshen up and make sure the stylists get a look at you before you get in front of the cameras," he said.

 

Jimin thanked Taehyung and pushed himself up into a sitting position, which had the dual effect of jostling Sungjae awake. "Ten minutes," he said to Sungjae, who frowned at him but nodded.

 

They went to the dressing rooms together to straighten out their clothing and let the make-up artists touch them up before heading back out to the kitchen, where some of the other contestants were already gathered. Hoseok was pacing across the set and practicing lines off a cue card, and Hani sat at the judges' table scrolling through something on her phone.

 

With two mystery baskets to go, it was going to be a long day. Jimin was glad he'd taken the nap, as short as it had been. He needed all the mental resources he had. He might even need another nap later.

 

A director called for quiet on the set, then Hoseok launched into the explanation for the contestants' second round: making an entree from their mystery ingredients.

 

They got to work quickly, with Hoseok and the judges once again walking around to inspect and comment on their progress. Jimin kept an eye out for Min Yoongi, slightly afraid he'd pop up out of nowhere again with his long, nerve-fraying stare.

 

Yoongi did come by to check things out for a while, but it was with Seokjin in tow, so it was slightly less tense for Jimin than the first time, and he felt his shoulders relax a little. Without Hoseok and the cameras, the judges had so far been pretty good about not being distracting, except, of course, in the sense that they were watching your every move and silently emanating criticism.

 

Jimin's entree box hadn't been bad at all -- pork belly, Chinese turnip, candied ginger, and a bottle of cola that he could fairly easily put together as a braised stew. Probably. Assuming he got the rest of his spices and ingredients right. And Seokjin didn't eat all of his ginger.

 

"I need those!" Jimin said, shooing Seokjin away from the packet of candied ginger at his station.

 

"All of it?" Seokjin said dubiously as he chewed. He snuck his hand in for another one. "It's a really big bag. I don't think you want all of it to go in your stew. It'll ruin the pork."

 

"Fine, fine, just take one and go," Jimin said, harried. "Sungjae got a thing of fruit roll-ups; go eat his!"

 

"Ooh, you're right, I forgot about those," said Seokjin, turning to see if Sungjae had used it yet. He stole one more piece of candied ginger and scampered towards Sungjae's station, where he successfully finagled more sweets into his possession.

 

Yoongi sniffed. "Huh, the things you guys let him get away with because he's so handsome."

 

Jimin grimaced and offered the bag to Yoongi, knowing he had no other choice, especially with a cameraman hovering nearby. Refuse to, and it'd be tantamount to telling Yoongi he was hideous, again

 

"Oh, for me? No, thank you, I try to stay away from sweets," said Yoongi modestly. He appeared to be enjoying himself a little too much. If it wasn't at his own expense, Jimin might even find it amusing that the normally sour-faced judge had a side like this to him at all.

 

"Don't you have a bunch of other contestants to terrorize?" Jimin asked, frazzled, while he took a knife to his turnip. There was a chance he was going down the route of offending Yoongi once more, but Jimin couldn't handle the stress of perfecting his entrée and dealing with Min Yoongi simultaneously.

 

"Yeah, but terrorizing you is the most fun," said Yoongi.

 

"I have a knife, you know," said Jimin. He immediately regretted it. Seriously, he needed to get his head checked. First, he'd told Min Yoongi he was ugly, and now he was threatening him with a weapon. What next? Slashing all his tires? "Ah, sh-- I'm--"

 

"Park Jimin," Yoongi interrupted. "Work on those knife skills first, then come and threaten me. You won't even puncture any important internal organs with posture like that. You're fast, but you're not as efficient as you could be. Your back gets tired quickly, doesn't it?"

 

"Uh," said Jimin. He felt like he'd been spun through a gyroscope, unsure how they'd gotten to suddenly talking about his knife technique. "I've taken a knife skills class before…"

 

It had been about different types of cuts; he'd learned how to julienne, dice, and produce batonnets and chiffonades. They'd also learned that using a dull knife was a sin on par with committing murder, but there hadn't been anything about posture, as far as Jimin recalled.

 

Yoongi cocked his head, studying Jimin with a thoughtful, though slightly unsatisfied look on his face. "Take a better one," he said, then strolled away before Jimin could get another word in.

 

Jimin frowned but, knowing his lapel mic could pick up everything he said, even in a whisper, kept his thoughts inside his head. Though his initial instinct was to pay Yoongi no heed, the more responsible part of his brain told Jimin that Yoongi was probably right. Sometimes his back and shoulders did fatigue after a short time in the kitchen.

 

All that said, it wouldn't change anything now, so Jimin continued working as he was and produced the best he could in the moment.

 

Once the timer went, Jimin backed away from his station, breathing out a sigh of relief. Two down, one to go.

 

"Who wants leftover fruit roll-up?" Sungjae called out. "Jimin-ah, I know you have candied ginger. Trade?"

 

"Yeah," said Jimin, and poised his throwing arm. "Catch."

 

He tossed a piece of ginger at Sungjae, who managed to angle his head right under its arc, and it fell neatly into his mouth. Those who had managed to see it happen erupted in a cheer.

 

"Daebak," said Seokjin, eyes wide with glee as he and the other judges walked past with crew members carrying each contestant's plates away to do their secret tasting backstage.

 

"Me next, me next!" Shinwon shouted from the opposite end of the set, his station near the back while Jimin had been front row this time.

 

Jimin wound up like a baseball pitcher and aimed at Shinwon. He released the candied ginger into the air and realized almost immediately that he'd overshot Shinwon by a lot, his chest flooding with dread as, helplessly, he watched it nail Min Yoongi square in the back of the head.

 

"Oh no," whispered Jimin to a deathly silent studio. His flight response wanted to kick in, but his feet were hell bent on staying rooted where they were, determined to get him killed.

 

Yoongi turned around to see what had bounced off his head. Once he recognized the offending item, he looked up and said, completely unruffled, "Park Jimin, you know the rules. Time's up; you can't add anything else to your dish."

 

There was a snort of laughter somewhere behind Jimin that he didn't have to look to know it was Jungkook. But it broke the tension, and soon Jungkook wasn't the only one laughing. In fact, Sungjae was laughing and pointing.

 

Yoongi rolled his eyes and carried on out of sight behind the set of doors where the judges did their first tastings. Jimin stared at the doors, wondering how he was still alive and… had Min Yoongi actually made a joke at him?

 

Jungkook jogged over, grinning. "Hyung, one of the cameras was still rolling," he said, looking absolutely delighted to be able to impart this information to Jimin. "It's only Week 2 and I already have so much material to use against you. This is the best thing that's ever happened to me. Promise you'll make it to the finals. That's like ten more weeks of comedy blackmail gold." 

 

Jimin placed his hands on either side of Jungkook's face and said in an intense whisper, "I am going to take a knife skills class to learn how to debone you and then stuff you with your own liver pate."

 

"Skin on, or…?"

 

"Naturally. I'm not a monster," said Jimin.

 

"Go clean up, hyung, your hands smell like pork," Jungkook complained.

 

"Ugh," said Jimin, and went.

 

After washing up, there were the requisite interviews and a bit of downtime, and then it was back to the set for judging. Miran and Sungjae had done the best this round, while Jiwon endured a disappointed Hani admonishing him for leaving out one of his mystery box ingredients -- it was considered a cardinal sin on the show, if history was anything to go by, and unless he turned out a miracle for the final round, Jiwon was definitely headed for a place in the bottom three.

 

Jimin himself received middling reviews, with Seokjin praising the balance of his flavors but Yoongi calling his stew predictable and challenging him to be more innovative.

 

Post-judging interviews preceded their dinner break, and then finally, it was time for the dessert round. Jimin felt both worn out and nervous, but adrenaline kept him going through the thirty minutes they were allotted for their desserts.

 

Toting a cameraman along with him, Hoseok came to check on Jimin as he was scooping out the flesh of an avocado from his box. "How are you feeling about this round?" he asked. "Confident? You look like you know what you're doing."

 

Jimin let out a frazzled laugh. "That's good, because I'm dying inside."

 

"Happy thoughts, happy thoughts," Hoseok chirped, giving Jimin an impromptu shoulder massage. "I believe in you! No one dies under my watch! It's forbidden!"

 

Giggling, Jimin said, "I guess I can soldier on, then."

 

"There's a good boy," said Hoseok cheerfully.

 

The thirty minutes flew by in a blink. Jimin went into his interview feeling like a zombie, shuffling into the room with barely any energy left; Min Yoongi should see his posture now. It took him a few seconds to process the producers' questions and even longer to actually parse through the words coming out of his own mouth. But the producers didn't stop him, so Jimin figured he'd not said anything terribly inappropriate.

 

At the elimination, it seemed a foregone conclusion, as Jiwon had produced a passable, but not miraculous, dessert that couldn't quite save him from the chopping block.

 

After interviews again, Namjoon asked the remaining contestants to stay a little longer for an additional announcement, which turned out to be sign-ups for the upcoming weeks' extra cooking classes they held during every competition.

 

The classes weren't exactly advertised to the public, since part of the drama of the broadcast was making it seem like the contestants were coming up with ideas on the spot and already knew how to do everything before joining the show. Which, as far as Jimin could tell, was true of no one in his cohort. As it had been with all the contestants from previous seasons, they were all amateur cooks with a passion for the art but no specialized or professional training and had come in with different sets and levels of skills across cuisines and techniques.

 

He scanned the list of available classes that would be held each week, which had been scheduled for Sundays or on weeknights, in consideration of the contestants who had held on to their Monday to Friday regular jobs.

 

"The classes listed here," said Namjoon, preempting probably at least half of the group's thought process, "don't mean that they align with the challenges in any way. There's no strategy required; if you want to learn something that's on here, go for it."

 

Knife Technique, Jimin spotted as Namjoon tacked the sheets up onto a corkboard. The instructor's name was unfamiliar. Flashing instantly back to Min Yoongi's comments about his efficiency and posture, Jimin grabbed a pen and scratched his name onto the sign-up sheet. It was scheduled for two weeks from now, which, of course, meant that Jimin had to stay in the competition long enough to even make it there.

 

There were other ones, too, that he'd likely benefit from. He'd never been quite as precise as baking needed him to be, preferring to go by feel, nor did he have much experience with seafood. Jimin signed up for those, too. And then, for good measure, every single class offered. His near future was going to be beyond exhausting, but he'd come here to learn new things just as much as to demonstrate his existing skills, and it would be crazy of him to pass up free lessons.

 

Feeling tired but optimistic, Jimin grabbed his backpack and checked out with his wrangler, calling out a goodbye to the few stragglers who were left and still packing up.

 

He walked down a quiet corridor towards the exit, having planned to meet up with Jungkook just by the doors. It was with only a smidgen of surprise -- though Jimin wasn't sure why he bothered being surprised anymore; this was apparently his life now -- that he saw Min Yoongi heading in the same direction. What would his idiot brain do now to embarrass him, Jimin wondered. Stick his leg out to trip Min Yoongi? Accidentally slap him in the face? The possibilities were endless.

 

"Night," said Yoongi, his lips pressing into a straight line but still somehow came off as almost a smile.

 

"Good night," said Jimin politely. So far, so good.

 

Yoongi's feet paused. "Ah, if you're looking for Jeon Jungkook, he's upstairs making out with my manager," he said with the distaste of the recently scarred. "So go up there at your own risk."

 

Jimin's nose screwed upwards. "I don't think I've done anything to deserve that kind of punishment," he said.

 

"Really?" said Yoongi, a corner of his mouth crooking up just the slightest degree. "Not even, I don't know, hurling a projectile at--"

 

Oh yeah, that. Shit, he'd never actually apologized for it. Jimin bent in half. "I'm really sorry for throwing food at you, Min Yoongi-ssi!" he yelled to his knees. "I swear I wasn't aiming for you. And I didn't mean to threaten you with my knife either. Or call you ugly!"

 

Imagine Jungkook's happiness if he'd known about all of those things instead of just the one.

 

"And thank you for not being mad at me during judging!" Jimin added.

 

There was a long silence, and Jimin unbent himself, half-expecting Yoongi to have just walked away and left him there bowing uncomfortably. But when he straightened up again, Yoongi was still there, the smile widening now.

 

"You thought I'd be mad and take it out on you while judging? Because you think I'm ugly?" Yoongi chuckled softly. "Believe me, I've heard worse. You haven't even breached the top one hundred, Park Jimin."

 

Jimin had definitely thought worse before. "I-- I don't think you're ugly," he sputtered. "It just came out wrong."

 

"No take-backs," said Yoongi placidly. "Stand by what you believe in."

 

"But I really don't think that!" Jimin said. Just because Yoongi wasn't as good-looking as Kim Seokjin didn't make him entirely grotesque; no one was as good-looking as Kim Seokjin. The fact that Yoongi wouldn't let him recant made Jimin want to stamp his foot, but he had a feeling it wouldn't help his case. "It's not that, I mean, it's just your personality, really. You can be incredibly rude sometimes and, and mean, and you make people cry for no good reason, but--"

 

God. Damn it.

 

Yoongi looked at him, apparently fascinated by Jimin repeatedly jamming his foot into his own mouth. "Carry on," he said, with a polite gesture.

 

"I am going to stand over there now," said Jimin resolutely, pointing to a corner far, far away. "Please go home, Yoongi-ssi, so that I can't say anything else to you that will haunt me forever."

 

A smile spread over Yoongi's face, an actual, bona fide smile that showed his teeth, gums and all. The corners of his eyes crinkled. It was an odd sight, but not wholly unwelcome. It opened up his face and made him look almost -- almost -- cute, a word Jimin had never once ascribed to him before.

 

"Park Jimin, you worry too much. You're so--" Yoongi said, shaking his head. He didn't finish the thought, changing course instead. "Listen, I know I'm the asshole judge. You saying it to my face will not make me any more or less of the asshole judge. So say whatever you mean. The only thing I care about is whether or not you're performing up to your potential."

 

Jimin frowned, not quite understanding. "So… you're not offended? By any of the terrible things I've accidentally said to you today?"

 

With a light shrug, Yoongi said, "You're going to have to work a lot harder to offend me."

 

"What if I throw ginger at you again?" Jimin asked. 

 

"Don't push your luck," said Yoongi. He opened the door to the night air. "See you next week."

 

"Bye," said Jimin in a small voice, not sure if Yoongi could even hear him as he walked out the door.

 

Jimin stood at the door for a while, replaying the day in his head. It had been a long, long day. And Min Yoongi had been there for practically every part of it. Picking him up when Jimin had nearly broken from the nasty comments online, teasing rather than reprimanding when Jimin misspoke, repeatedly pushing him to be better.

 

God, who was he? Asshole judge, Yoongi had said so himself. But also… there was something else the cameras didn't catch or that the editors left out. Something that Jimin had never considered before. In his own irritating, supercilious way, Min Yoongi cared.

 

Weird.

 

Jimin shook his head and pulled his phone from his pocket. He was too tired to think anymore, and he'd waited long enough for Jungkook. He opened up his Katalk chat with his roommate.

 

Stop sucking face with your boyfriend and let's goooo.

 

Jungkook's reply came thirty seconds later, reading, How did you know are you spying on us you pervert?

 

Yes… Jimin typed. Turn around.

 

Though Jimin wished he could secretly see whether Jungkook fell for it, the reply he received was evidence enough: You are a dick.

 

A dick who's tired and needs to go home so hurry the fuck up.

 

A moment later, Jimin heard the elevator ding and its doors slide open. Jungkook appeared hand-in-hand with Taehyung in the corridor shortly, his face breaking into a scowl as soon as he set eyes on Jimin. "Why do you have to be such a cockblocker?"

 

"It's my sworn duty as your hyung," said Jimin, shrugging at how much the situation was out of his hands. "They make us sign in blood and everything."

 

Though Taehyung had been equally cockblocked, he grinned. "This explains so much. Is there a prize or something? Because Yoongi hyung is really on it. I can't tell you how many times he's called or texted or just shown up while I was in the middle of… you know."

 

Jungkook gasped. "You've hooked up with people other than me? Outrageous."

 

"They meant nothing to me, baby," crooned Taehyung.

 

Jimin narrowed his eyes. For two people who had only met a week ago and made it official this morning, they were strangely secure about each other. Were Jimin in Jungkook's place he'd already be spiraling into a bottomless hole of how many and how good were they. Again, beyond not fair.

 

"Anyway, guess what," said Jungkook.

 

"The real treasure was the friends we made along the way," guessed Jimin.

 

"Ddaeng," said Jungkook, slicing a hand through the air to indicate how wrong Jimin was. "Taehyung hyung said he can give us a lift home."

 

"Ooh," said Jimin. "That's very nice of you, Taehyung-ssi. How come you don't have to drive your boss home?"

 

"Because," said Taehyung, a smile rounding his cheeks, "he's weird and he likes walking at night."

 

Whatever Min Yoongi got up to in his spare time was no business of Jimin's; besides, if it meant it freed Taehyung and his car up so that Jimin and Jungkook didn't have to wait for the bus when Jimin was already about to fall over into a twelve-hour coma, then all the better.

 

"Lead the way," said Jimin.

Chapter Text

The first cooking class, held in the same building as the Chef Challenge studio but on another floor, was about the classic mother sauces used in Western cooking. Jimin already knew how to do decent bechamel and veloute sauces, but the others were a little trickier.

 

Of the remaining contestants, all thirteen had signed up for the first class, taught by Seo Minjung, a petite woman with smiling eyes whom Jimin had never met or heard of. But her credentials gave Jimin more than enough confidence that she would have significant wisdom to impart -- she'd studied and worked in Italy and France, taught at Le Cordon Bleu, and for a time had been head chef for a major hotel in Seoul.

 

"I'm pulling back on work now to raise my kids," she explained cheerfully, "but once in a while it's so wonderful to be back in a kitchen and teach amazing cooks like you!"

 

She started out with a short lecture on base sauces and flavor structures, then gave them instructions to put together the simplest of the mother sauces, a bechamel. Once she was satisfied with what they made, they moved on to more and more complex concepts.

 

As she continued her explanations and Jimin scribbled as many notes as he could, the door to the kitchen opened and two people slipped in quietly. Jimin might not have even noticed, trying to absorb as much information as he could, except for the fact that one of the newcomers looked a little like Min Yoongi.

 

Minjung clapped her hands together in delight. "Yoongi-yah, you made it!"

 

Oh, it really was him. He didn't look like himself again. His hair was unstyled, just sort of soft and fluffy like he'd washed and run out the door, and he was dressed down in jeans and sneakers and a long-sleeved shirt that hung a little too loose at the shoulders. But considering how many times Jimin had seen him by now out of broadcast-appropriate clothing, he supposed he ought to be used to non-celebrity Min Yoongi.

 

"Hi, noona," said Yoongi, bowing. "Sorry I'm late. I was held up in a meeting."

 

Minjung beamed at him, then at the class. "Everyone, you know Yoongi. He was a student of mine for a short time," she said, looking seconds away from pinching his cheeks. "I asked the producers if it was all right for them to lend him to me as my assistant. Even though there are only thirteen of you, I really wanted to make sure you each got enough attention and mentoring as possible! And Yoongi, you’ve brought one of the producers with you, yes?"

 

The other man who’d come in with Yoongi raised a hand in greeting. He looked only vaguely familiar, short and smiley and a little unsure of himself, and Jimin guessed he must be a producer who worked more behind the scenes rather than on set like Namjoon.

 

"Seo! Eun! Kwang!" said the producer by way of introduction, snapping his heels together as if undergoing military inspection. "I will do my best!"

 

"Yes," said Yoongi. "Eunkwang-ssi is new to the production team this year and he's here to make sure I treat everyone fairly and that there’s no favoritism that would affect the show."

 

Sungjae blurted out, "But you don’t like any of us that much anyway." There was then a whapping sound and Sungjae cried out softly; as far as Jimin could tell, someone had probably smacked him for saying out loud what they’d all been thinking.

 

Yoongi shrugged at Eunkwang, as if agreeing with Sungjae. "That’s what I told them," said Yoongi with an impassive expression that could equally have been dry humor as much as the honest truth. "But they insisted."

 

"Don’t mind me," said Eunkwang, bowing multiple times in different directions. "I’ll just observe."

 

Minjung welcomed him happily, then gestured for Yoongi to come over so she could fuss over him and tie an apron on for him. 

 

Sejeong leaned over to Jimin and said, "I hope she teaches all of our classes. I love her and I want her to be my mom."

 

"You already got Ilhwa as your second mom, leave some for the rest of us," said Jimin.

 

"No," said Sejeong, turning her nose up. "All the moms shall be mine."

 

"You'd think one of them would teach you how to share," said Jimin with a click of his tongue.

 

"Now," said Minjung, getting everyone's attention back. "We've talked about the classic sauces, but I also want you to learn more about reductions. When you thicken sauces with roux it can get a little too heavy, especially in a meal with multiple courses. Reductions, while they take longer, have a lighter feel but very concentrated flavor."

 

Jimin nodded as he listened. Out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of Yoongi rolling up his long, loose sleeves, folding them neatly just below the elbow. It had never occurred to Jimin before to think about what Yoongi had under there, always in traditional long-sleeved chef's whites in pictures or interviews, or a suit jacket on Chef Challenge. But it appeared that the man had forearms. Like, really, really nice forearms.

 

Oh no, what was happening? Jimin ripped his gaze away, utterly frazzled by the fact that he'd been ogling Min Yoongi's arms. Jimin told himself he was just tired and therefore easily swayed. It could've been any arm at all and he'd have been just as impressed.

 

Jimin gave himself a mental slap to focus on what he was actually here for. Reductions, yes. Reductions good. Min Yoongi bad.

 

As Minjung got the class started on a pan reduction with a pre-made sauce base, she and Yoongi individually came around to observe each student and give feedback and advice.

 

Jimin was deglazing and scraping his pan to get the remnants of browned shallots off the bottom of it when Yoongi swung by.

 

"Is this, um…" Jimin began, but stopped himself, wishing it was Minjung who had come over to his station instead. He didn't want to pepper Yoongi with questions about technique; it seemed like admitting he had pockets of ignorance (which he did) that Yoongi might later use against him during the competition (which he probably would).

 

"Are you afraid the fond is burnt?" Yoongi asked.

 

Jimin's eyes went wide. He had been afraid he had burnt bits of meat and shallots, some parts of it looking a little too dark for his liking, especially on cookware he wasn't used to. But now he was more concerned that Min Yoongi appeared to have mind-reading abilities. "Uh. Yes," he said, and then thought really hard about a dancing elephant to see if Yoongi reacted.

 

The elephant appeared to be of no interest. "What does the smell tell you?" Yoongi asked.

 

"Um," said Jimin. "It doesn't smell burnt…"

 

"Then you're fine. Trust your senses," said Yoongi. The hint of a frown appeared on his brow, and he looked at Jimin with a mixture of curiosity and challenge. "I know we only have stock provided here for deglazing, but if you had to pick something else, what would you use to deglaze? What would you make your sauce with?"

 

Surmising that white wine would be considered too basic of an answer, Jimin said uncertainly, "Brandy…?"

 

"Are you asking me?"

 

"Brandy," Jimin said more firmly. He'd seared pork, and it would pair just fine.

 

"With?" Yoongi pressed.

 

Jimin thought furiously about his flavors, things he'd made or eaten before. Was Yoongi doing this to the other contestants in the room, too? Or was Jimin just unlucky? He'd come to this class to learn things, not to get suckered into a pop quiz. The nerve.

 

"Apples and fennel," said Jimin, with almost too much confidence, so Yoongi would get out of his hair. "Deglaze with brandy and pork stock, then add apples and fennel."

 

"Think about your fats and acids, too," said Yoongi, then ambled off to see what Jennie had gotten up to.

 

"I was gonna mention them next, but someone just up and walked away…" Jimin muttered.

 

He wasn't mollified, exactly, but it was with some measure of appeasement that Jimin overheard Yoongi similarly question a petrified Jennie on her methods. At least he wasn't only targeting Jimin.

 

The class itself lasted almost four hours in total, not counting the unpleasant task of washing everything they’d used in the course of their cooking. Jimin had notes for days, too, having written down nearly everything Minjung had said. He’d have to copy them later into a notebook that wasn’t splattered with dried, crusted sauce.

 

"Thank you, everyone, for such a great class!" Minjung said, clapping her hands together. "You were all excellent students!"

 

The contestants bowed and chorused out a thank you to her.

 

"And of course thank you also to our Yoongi, for helping me out today," Minjung said, appearing not to notice the slightly less enthusiastic response this time from the class. "I hope to see you again next week for knife skills!"

 

Sejeong did a little fist pump, excited to have Minjung again as an instructor, though by the time next week’s class rolled around, the competition would have eliminated one of them.

 

It was pointless to hope it wouldn’t be him, so Jimin made himself think optimistically. Of course he and Sejeong would still be around next week for another of Minjung’s classes. Of course they would be there to learn proper knife technique. And maybe even Yoongi would be there again, too, to demonstrate the finer points of a pinch grip, and he’d have his sleeves rolled up again, and Jimin would be able to see up close those toned muscles working underneath his pale skin.

 

Or… not, and Jimin needed to get a cup of coffee and trade in his brain for a less glitchy model. One that operated normally and didn’t think about Min Yoongi in ridiculous ways.

 

Yes, who did he need to talk to about that?

 

*

 

Week 3 arrived on the heels of the second episode’s broadcast, which Jimin had, of course, watched. As before, most of what had happened hadn’t made it into the actual broadcast, including -- thankfully -- the candied ginger incident, though he was pretty sure Jungkook had begged for a copy of it to torture him until the end of time.

 

The part where Jimin had threatened Yoongi with a knife had been included, though, but played more for comic effect than anything.

 

And then Jungkook, watching the broadcast next to him, had complimented Jimin’s balls of steel and prophesied his murder at Min Yoongi's hands -- in the dressing room, with a cast iron skillet -- which Jungkook was shocked to be told did not help in any way.

 

It was to be a surprise challenge again for Week 3, but not with mystery boxes. Namjoon had been tight-lipped, so that was all Jimin knew coming into this round of competition.

 

On set, the producers finally explained in detail the challenge for the week to make sure everyone understood the same thing -- and it seemed they did, considering the wide-eyed, dismayed glances that were exchanged.

 

It had been done in the first season and then never brought back again until now, and Jimin wished they’d kept it buried, at least until his season was over. He remembered enjoying watching it on TV, but for Jimin himself to have to compete not only against his fellow contestants but Min Yoongi as well? God, why? What had he done in his past life to deserve this?

 

"Okay?" said Namjoon, looking around for confused faces or raised hands for questions. "First round you get to see what the dish is and then you have to recreate it, second round you'll taste it blind."

 

"And somehow even with all these shenanigans," clarified Miran with narrowed eyes, "we're expected to match Min Yoongi's skill level?"

 

Namjoon chuckled. "It's no big shame if you don't, but we have incentives. First, I should say that one of the executive producers will stand in as a judge for Yoongi in the first round. The judges will rank all your dishes, including Yoongi's, and if anyone manages to beat him," he said, as if this was possible, "you'll earn five extra minutes for the next round."

 

It didn’t sound like much, but five minutes could make a big difference between undercooked and perfect, or an emulsion and a destabilized mess. Though the chances of tipping Yoongi for first place were slim, the promised reward at least lessened the pain of the first round a little.

 

"Our staff will make the initial dish for your tasting, and then Yoongi will cook at the same time as you all. For the first round, you have thirty minutes to cook, but because he has more experience, we're handicapping him with only ten minutes," Namjoon continued. He grinned and added, "In the pantry, you will find all the ingredients necessary to make the dish. Plus a few more that you don’t need at all."

 

Sanghyuk and Hakyeon groaned in harmonic unison.

 

"PD-nim," Sejeong said with a pout, "you’re too much. How can you do this to us?"

 

Namjoon seemed to take this as a compliment, his smile brightening. "Everybody understand the rules?"

 

The contestants muttered a collective and unhappy yes, then were wrangled into the break room, where they broke into a cacophony of complaints and moaning.

 

Hoseok came in sucking on a tall cup of iced coffee, surprised by the pessimistic mood in the room. "Come on, you guys," he said, far peppier than the situation called for, "it’s not that bad!"

 

"Wasn’t there a reason this challenge was retired after the first season?" Eunji asked forlornly. "Like half the people completely bombed."

 

"Not completely," said Hoseok. "A lot of those dishes still tasted pretty good, just not exactly right."

 

"Yeah," said Jennie, "like when one of them mistook a flour batter for cow knee collagen?"

 

"And it was pretty good!" Hoseok insisted. "It just wasn’t batter! Anyway, that was years ago. The rules are different now. You don’t need to worry so much. Plus, Yoongi said he’s going to go easy on you; he likes you guys."

 

Jimin heard a snort, and then realized he had done it.

 

"Seconded," said Sungjae.

 

Hoseok flapped a hand downwards to indicate they were all being silly. "What, you all still believe he’s the mean one? He’s a pushover." He paused and glanced around as if there might be spies everywhere. "But don’t tell him I said that." 

 

The contestants were wrangled once more to interviews and then onto the set where a long table had been set up, thirteen covered dishes dotting its surface. Directed to sit along one side of the table, Jimin, Sejeong, and Ilhwa sat together at one end, whispering to each other about what they thought the mystery dish might be.

 

Jimin smelled… something. It was garlicky for sure, and underneath that, seafood of some sort? Shrimp, maybe. Which was his least favorite protein to work with or eat.

 

Namjoon called Yoongi over and said, "Yoongi hyung, you sit at the end there. Next to Park Jimin."

 

Following Namjoon's gestures, Jimin, Sejeong, and Ilhwa moved one seat down to open up the end for Yoongi. Yoongi, dressed in his chef's whites for the occasion, nodded at Namjoon and ambled over. He never seemed to be in a hurry; Jimin wasn't sure what he'd even be able to accomplish in ten minutes. Sometimes it took Jimin ten minutes to get a wine bottle open. But, really, that was what Jungkook was for.

 

Ilhwa leaned forward and turned towards Yoongi. She and Miran seemed to be the only ones who weren't scared of him; in fact, Ilhwa seemed to be his biggest fangirl. "Min Yoongi-ssi," she said pleasantly, "tell us truthfully. Do you know what's under here?"

 

Yoongi blinked at the cloche covering the dish in front of them. "No, they made sure not to tell me. But I think I can guess."

 

"Really?" Ilhwa said, already impressed. "What do you think it is?"

 

"What do you think it is?" Yoongi turned around.

 

"That's cheating," Jimin piped up, though he hadn't meant to. "Ilhwa noona asked first."

 

Yoongi cocked his head, considering Jimin's point. "Fair enough. Gambas al ajillo. Your turn."

 

"Gam-bah-se what?" said Jimin. He'd heard a jumble of syllables, but that was all. Yoongi definitely had not said any comprehensible words. Before he could stop himself, Jimin asked, with suspicious eyes, "Are you just making that up?"

 

A corner of Yoongi's lips curled up. "No. Your turn."

 

"I don't know," said Jimin, brow furrowing. "Some kind of garlic shrimp?"

 

Sejeong nodded. "Definitely garlic. But that's all I've got."

 

The camera director called for quiet, and Hoseok stepped up to his mark to reiterate the rules of the challenge for the home audience, as well as introduce the producer who'd be taking Yoongi's place at the judging panel. They had to stop and start a few times to get proper reaction shots, then Hoseok announced that they could remove the cloches and see what dish they had to taste and recreate.

 

To Jimin's pleasant surprise, it was indeed shrimp. He could definitely see garlic in there, as well as what looked like chopped flat-leaf parsley. On the side was a slice of perfectly toasted, crusty bread.

 

"Everyone!" said Hoseok. "What you have in front of you is a Spanish appetizer, or tapas, called gambas al ach-- Shit, I should have practiced this more. I had it down earlier. How do you say it again, Namjoon-ah?"

 

"Ganbarimasu!" Seokjin interjected.

 

"Don't pretend like you know!" Hoseok shouted.

 

Meanwhile, Jimin turned to Yoongi, mouth agape.

 

"I didn't cheat," Yoongi preempted. "You can ask Namjoon. Anyway, you got it right, too. It's essentially garlic shrimp; it just has a Spanish name."

 

Jimin frowned. With Yoongi that familiar with the dish that he could name it precisely by its aroma alone, the chances of beating him seemed more impossible than ever. Maybe the mere ten minutes Yoongi had would be enough to trip him up, but it still felt a little unfair that the contestants were at such a disadvantage.

 

Once Hoseok got back on track, the contestants were then allowed five minutes to taste their dishes to figure out not only what was in it, but also what balance of ingredients they needed to best recreate it.

 

Yoongi seemed to only need the five seconds it took for him to cut a piece of shrimp, place it on one end of the toast, and chew it. He put down his knife and fork and waited. 

 

"Oh, feeling confident, are we?" Hoseok teased.

 

Jimin fought not to glare at the complacent judge next to him and focus on building a list of ingredients in his head instead. Garlic, obviously, flat-leaf parsley, olive oil… there must be some sort of dry alcohol involved too. White wine? Sherry? He wondered if he could try cooking it both ways and see which one came closer. Shrimp cooked fast; he could potentially get away with it. And then there was spice. But what kind?

 

Hoseok announced the end of the minute, then the crew stepped in to remove the dishes and the long table. Following that, the cameras went on again, and Hoseok counted the contestants down to their pantry raid.

 

Shrimp had already been provided at their stations, since it was an obvious ingredient, but everything else they had to choose from the pantry. Jimin grabbed everything he had on his mental shopping list and ran back to his station, arms full.

 

His station was right in the front row this time, situated across the aisle from Yoongi. Since Yoongi was on a different clock, he leaned against his station, waiting for the timer, and watched everyone else around him.

 

"Isn't that cheating?" Jimin only half-jokingly asked a producer while he frantically shelled his pile of fresh shrimp. "He can see what we're all doing and get ideas."

 

"I don't need your ideas to win, Park Jimin," Yoongi called out.

 

"How can he hear me from all the way over there?" Jimin moaned at the producer in front of him.

 

The producer laughed. "It's like summoning the devil, isn't it? Any time you say his name it's like he suddenly appears."

 

"Exactly!" Jimin said. "That's what I said last week!"

 

"Don't make me come over there, Jihoon hyung," said Yoongi mildly.

 

Hoseok came round to chat with each of the contestants, as well as Yoongi in an impromptu interview about his feelings on the task. Jimin only heard snatches of it, too wrapped up in his own work of deveining shrimp and mixing and tasting spices to pay full attention.

 

In due time, Hoseok counted Yoongi down for his turn at the pantry, and when he dashed off, the producer in front of Jimin murmured in surprise, "Wow, that's the fastest I've ever seen him go anywhere."

 

Jimin looked up and laughed. As he tossed his shrimp in the pan with the first of two alcohols he'd picked up from the pantry, he snuck a look over at Yoongi. The sight made Jimin pause for a moment. Contrary to expectations, given the unhurried way he did everything else, Yoongi was fast. He prepped his shrimp in almost no time at all and appeared to be moving without thinking, his hands landing on the precise ingredient or tool he needed at any given time, even if he was looking in a different direction. And good god, the way he sliced his garlic was like watching a video at double speed. It was mesmerizing.

 

"PD-nim," Jimin said, "the rest of us are screwed, aren't we?"

 

The producer laughed again. "Don't give up; it's not over till it's over."

 

Unlike previous rounds where their dishes were taken away for the judges to taste and talk about in a different room, this time, the crew brought forward the long table again. All along the table they placed standing pictures of the contestants and Yoongi in random order, and the contestants' dishes then went behind the pictures.

 

The judges were trotted out. Standing on the other side of the table, they couldn't see which dish belonged to whom. They started with Shinwon's gambas al ajillo at one end of the table and made their way down the line.

 

Namjoon told the contestants to keep their reactions to a minimum this time, so as not to give away to the judges whose dish they were tasting.

 

"Oh, I got a bit of shell!" Seokjin said of Lisa's. He picked it out of his mouth and showed it off to Hani like it was a prize while Lisa stared into space with a grimace.

 

"The shrimp is cooked well, but the spice isn't there," said Hani when she got to Sanghyuk's. She poked around the dish with her fork. "It's also a little too sweet from, I think, whatever wine was put in. Is there any chili in here at all?"

 

Upon eating one of Jimin's shrimp, Seokjin's lips pursed and he curled his hands into fists and waved them back and forth in front of himself. "Mmm!" he said, shaking his head from side to side in delight. "It's a garlic explosion! Someone threw a handful of garlic confetti in my mouth, and I love it."

 

Sejeong and Ilhwa received positive comments as well; Miran had gone overboard with gochugaru for her spice, which made Seokjin have to take a break to gulp down water and redo his makeup from sweating, with the cameras still rolling; Sungjae's was almost a full replica of the original; and Yoongi's…

 

Hani gave it an arch look. "This looks like a textbook gambas al ajillo," she said, and sucked in an uncertain breath through her teeth. "But the flavor isn't quite there… It has potential, but still needs a lot of work." 

 

Seokjin frowned as he chewed. "I can hear weeping all the way from Barcelona."

 

Though the contestants were quiet throughout, Jimin could imagine the gasp going up in his head replicated in theirs. He didn't understand how this could have happened; Yoongi had looked so calm and controlled throughout his ten minutes, not to mention the fact that he was a nationally renowned chef. Chancing a stealthy glance Yoongi's way, Jimin thought he caught the briefest glimpse of Yoongi's brow furrowing.

 

Conferring quietly amongst each other, the judges then stated their rankings, beginning with Yoongi, in dead last.

 

Seokjin snorted with laughter, immediately dispelling the shocked air in the room. "Your face, Yoongi-yah!"

 

The production team cheered, and it took Jimin a second to realize that the whole thing had been a setup. The entire staff had plotted against Yoongi, it seemed, just to get him to sweat a little. Yoongi shook his head, chuckling quietly, as it appeared to dawn on him at the same time that he'd been had.  

 

Next to Jimin, Sungjae whispered, "What the fuck just happened?"

 

"You're all the worst," said Yoongi. "And you can cut this out later, Joon-ah, but fuck you."

 

"Happy belated birthday. We prank because we love," said Namjoon and raised his arms above his head in a big heart, but Yoongi rejected it, making a cross with his arms.

 

"The producers told us which one was yours," said Seokjin happily, while the executive producer who had taken Yoongi's place for the first round of judging hid a laugh behind his hand.  

 

"I mean, it's obviously excellent. It's an amazing, classic gambas al ajillo," said Hani with a smile. "But still. Last place, Min Yoongi, for barely being challenged."

 

Realizing that the whole thing had been a silly trick and that they weren't actually up against Yoongi was a relief, but it still didn't quite evaporate the pulsing adrenaline from the stress of the round. "Oh my god," Jimin muttered to Sungjae, lapel mic be damned. "If they ever do this again on our season I'm going to start a riot."

 

"Right there with you," Sungjae replied, exchanging a fist bump with him.

 

Hoseok joined in with the staff's ribbing cheerily and attempted to squish Yoongi's face, making cooing noises about wasn't Min Yoongi the cutest when he was angry. Jimin would be loath to admit it, but he kind of agreed, the way Yoongi's cheeks puffed up as he glared and batted Hoseok's hands away.

 

"Well, now he's making the I'll get you back when you least expect it face," said Hoseok, "so let's all sleep with the lights on tonight."

 

Yoongi rolled his eyes. "Yah, Joon-ah," he said, gesturing at the contestants. "You better make it up to them, putting them through all of that nonsense for nothing."

 

"Suddenly he's my favorite judge," said Sungjae to Jimin, sotto voce. He clung to Jimin's arm in alarm. "The world has turned upside down."

 

Namjoon grinned apologetically at the contestants. "Of course, of course. The five-minute reward is still in place. Judging is still the same, just minus Yoongi hyung."

 

At the very least, the contestants' efforts weren't entirely in vain. After the producers got everyone back in place, Hoseok got the show back on track, explaining to the cameras the little prank they'd played on Yoongi in honor of his 30th birthday and that judging would occur as usual.

 

"Kim Seokjin-ssi!" Hoseok said. "Please tell us who came in thirteenth place!"

 

The rankings went on from bottom to top, and Jimin was more and more surprised not to have heard his name, until he was placed third, with Sejeong above him, and Sungjae in first place. Sungjae ran a victory lap around the table, waving his arms in the air as he went and giving Jimin a high ten when he came back.

 

"This means, of course," said Hoseok, "that Sungjae, you get the bonus of having an extra five minutes in the next round!"

 

As the segment wrapped up and the cameras turned off, Jimin approached Yoongi hesitantly. "Um, Min Yoongi-ssi," he said, glancing at Yoongi's dish on the table. "Is it okay if I try some of your, uh, gam-bah-se… Only Hani-ssi said it was, that's what it's supposed to taste like, and, and I've never had it before. Except I guess the one we tasted earlier. But--"

 

Yoongi's eyebrows lifted in mild surprise. "Yeah, go ahead. You'd better do it before the crew gets to it."

 

Indeed, Jimin had seen some of the crew carry around their own cutlery sets for just such an occasion, a free-for-all when the cameras went down and there was leftover food from a finished challenge.

 

"Also… it's gambas," Yoongi articulated slowly, "al ajillo."

 

Whereas it sounded exotic rolling off Yoongi's tongue, Jimin's tries were heavily laden with his Korean accent. Jimin giggled at his own ineptitude. "If I ever go to Spain, will they laugh at me?"

 

"A lot," said Yoongi. "Endlessly."

 

Jimin scowled at Yoongi, but only for a second, in jest. He grabbed a set of chopsticks from his station and ate a piece of Yoongi's shrimp. Oh. Jimin could maybe now understand why Min Yoongi had earned himself those Michelin stars; he didn’t even like shrimp that much to begin with, but this was… revelatory.

 

"It's really good," said Jimin, wiping his mouth and staring at Yoongi in awe. He had too many superlatives fighting for space in his head, and all that came out was, "Like, really, really good."

 

A quiet breath of laughter escaped Yoongi's lips. "Thank you," he said with a modest nod. "It was the first Western dish I perfected when I was learning how to cook as a kid. I was wondering why the producers chose it…"

 

"You made this as a kid?" Jimin said, oddly envious, even though he himself had been raised at the stove. "Who taught you?"

 

Yoongi shrugged. "No one. Cookbooks from the library, I guess? I was the weird kid more obsessed with cooking than video games."

 

"Oh, so about as popular in school as you are now?" Jimin said, before recognizing what was coming out of his mouth. A mental sigh of resignation fluttered through his head; why -- why -- he had so much difficulty behaving himself in front of Yoongi was the most vexing mystery.

 

"Even less, if you can believe it," said Yoongi, apparently taking no offense at all.

 

"I cannot," said Jimin.

 

As he crossed his arms over his chest, Yoongi pinned Jimin with a discerning gaze. "You know, Park Jimin, you're the only contestant who's ever really talked to me like this. To my face, I mean. I know everyone trashes me online or to each other, but you…"

 

Ah, there was his comeuppance for accidentally speaking comfortably to Yoongi so often, like they were friends or something. As if that would ever happen. "Oh, I'm sor--" Jimin began.

 

"I like it," said Yoongi contemplatively, nodding a few times as if to cement his point further.

 

Jimin stared at him for a moment. "Come again?"

 

Seeming to find something amusing in Jimin's bewilderment, one side of Yoongi's mouth turned upwards slightly, in what Jimin was coming to understand to be his understated version of a smile. "It's nice," said Yoongi. "Refreshing."

 

"... that I sometimes insult you on accident?" said Jimin.

 

"That you talk to me like I'm a normal person," Yoongi clarified.

 

He'd not really thought about it before, having never been in the position of being anywhere near a celebrity -- and Yoongi both revered and reviled in culinary entertainment circles, at that. But Jimin supposed it must get weird at times, knowing nearly everyone had something to say about you, but rarely ever to you.

 

"Oh, I see," said Jimin. "So you'd like me to continue insulting you, is what I'm hearing."

 

Yoongi's smile widened a fraction. "If it's not too much trouble."

 

"I mean, gosh, such a difficult burden for one person," said Jimin. He smiled brightly and saluted. "But I'll try my best!"

 

It got a light chuckle out of Yoongi, who nodded and said, "It's all I ask."

 

"But, um, before I get to that, I'm going to have to, uh," said Jimin, cradling Yoongi's gambas al ajillo dish close to his chest as he noticed more hungry crew members approaching the competition table, "hide in a closet somewhere and finish this all by myself."

 

"I won't tell," said Yoongi.

 

Jimin flashed a grin at him and ran off to find Sejeong so he could share his spoils. "Sejeong-ah," he called out in a conspiratorial whisper from one of the workstations near the back of the set. "Come over here, hurry up. I have Min Yoongi's gam-bah-se." He knew he was still saying it wrong, but Yoongi wasn't around to correct him.

 

"Did you steal it?" she asked, horrified.

 

"No, I asked him, and he said it was fine," said Jimin. "Try it; it's really good."

 

Sejeong looked askance at him. "You talked to him and he wasn't scary?"

 

"Only a little," said Jimin. He offered her the plate, then said thoughtfully, "Sometimes he's not scary at all, actually."

 

Too occupied to gasp, having just stuffed a large shrimp into her mouth, Sejeong's eyes widened. "Who are you?" she asked, muffled.

 

"I am Park Jimin," he said, hands on his hips in a superhero pose, only a little spoiled by the fact that one of his hands was still holding chopsticks, "the people's shrimp-getter."

 

"So lame," said Sejeong. "I'm ashamed to know you, hyung."

 

"Huh, see if I get any Michelin star shrimp for you again," said Jimin. He whisked the plate away from her and stalked off, looking back to see her laughing and reaching out a hand with a long 'no' falling from her lips.

 

Jimin supposed he'd kept what was left of Yoongi's creation from the crew long enough and slid it back onto the table, where some of the staff were already gathered. Like some kind of mad crow, Jungkook fell upon it immediately, although Jimin hadn't even seen him in the vicinity, and whipped out a fork from somewhere on his person.

 

"Yesss," Jungkook said, hovering low so he could shield it from the sights of other crew members. "I was waiting for this. I saw you steal it. I was about to come after you."

 

"Why does everyone think I stole it? I asked," said Jimin, "and he said I could."

 

"See, he's sometimes kind of nice, right?" said Jungkook, shoving two shrimp at once into his mouth, his cheeks filling like a chipmunk's. "Taehyung hyung keeps saying that Min Yoongi is, like, the kindest boss he's ever had. You think I should be worried he's secretly in love with Yoongi?"

 

"No, because I don't see him wantonly making out with Min Yoongi in public all the time," Jimin said pointedly.

 

Jungkook scoffed. "The empty production offices on the third floor are not public, and you've never even seen us making out; you only heard about it secondhand. If you'd seen, you'd know it's super hot."

 

"I need to go away from you now," said Jimin.

 

"But I haven't finished telling you about--"

 

Jimin clapped his hands over his ears and made a droning noise, a hundred and twelve percent certain that whatever Jungkook was about to say, it was gross and inappropriate for his pure, innocent ears.

 

Interviews again, then a lunch break, when Jimin discovered that the problem with eating food of Min Yoongi's caliber was that it made the catering seem like pig slop in comparison. But the production team was paying for it at least, so Jimin ate his slop gratefully.

 

Because the first challenge had turned out somewhat different from what Namjoon had told them earlier in the day, he made sure to explain the second round again, with emphasis that there wouldn't be an elaborate prank by the staff on Min Yoongi this time.

 

"Because then he will break into our homes and slit our throats one by one," Hoseok chipped in blithely.

 

"I recall someone saying he was a pushover?" Shinwon said with a raised hand at the back of the peanut gallery.

 

"Hm," said Hoseok, rubbing his chin. "Can't imagine who it could've been."

 

Namjoon endured the tangent silently, then said, "As I was saying, Yoongi will be making the target dish this time, and you will taste it blindfolded. He won't be competing, of course; he'll take his regular place as a judge. Your task, like last time, is to recreate the dish as best you can. Again, the pantry will have everything you need, but also unnecessary ingredients to throw you off."

 

The contestants were wrangled once more into the dressing rooms so that they could be led onto the set one by one, the others not allowed to watch or listen in lest they get influenced by each other’s guesses.

 

When it was Jimin’s turn, he was told to sit at a table then blindfolded tightly, not even a sliver of light let through.

 

"Okay," said Namjoon. "When you taste the food, talk us through what you think you’re eating or whatever flavors you’re getting. Even if you think you’re totally off-base."

 

Footsteps neared, and so did the aroma of the mystery dish. Jimin’s nose wrinkled as he tried to work out through scent alone what he was being given. It was citrusy; he could tell that much. He heard the light clatter of a plate being placed in front of him, and the scent intensified.

 

A fork and spoon were placed in his hands, and Jimin asked, worried, "Is this an actual challenge or are you now just pranking us to see who makes the biggest mess on their face?"

 

Namjoon laughed. "A little of column A, a little of column B."

 

"PD-nim," said Jimin earnestly, "I hate you."

 

"Whenever you're ready," said Namjoon, a catch of laughter in his voice. "You’ll have three minutes."

 

Jimin stabbed at what he hoped was the plate in front of him with his fork; he managed to sink it into something, though with slight difficulty. It made a crackling sound as he pierced it, and Jimin surmised that it came from a crisp outer shell of some sort. He brought it up to his face and smelled it first, careful not to jab whatever it was into his nose, then took a tentative bite. It had a crispy batter on the outside; something deep-fried and draped with a light sauce.

 

"Oh, it’s a bit like tangsuyuk," said Jimin. "But chicken, not pork."

 

The sauce was the tricky part, again. There was an undertone of bitterness that might have been from orange rinds or… beer? Jimin frowned, not quite able to differentiate the flavors.

 

"Tell us what you’re thinking," Namjoon reminded him.

 

Jimin admitted, "Uh, I’m not quite sure what’s in the sauce. It’s orangey but also it’s just a little bitter? Something that makes it not overly sweet." He scraped around for more sauce and tasted that by itself, hoping to clarify the flavors. "I think… ginger, too. A little spice. Is any of this right? PD-nim? A hint? Cough once if yes, twice if no?"

 

"Sorry, you’re on your own," Namjoon chuckled.

 

Jimin’s three minutes were up, and the dish taken away before he was given permission to remove the blindfold, after which he went to do a quick interview.

 

"Ahh," he cried to the interviewer, "I don’t know, I don’t know. I think maybe I know? But I keep second-guessing myself."

 

Still, he went with his initial instincts when the time came, grabbing from the pantry everything that had come to mind, and got started.

 

Jimin didn’t deep fry things at home very often; he hated the clean-up and also how it made the apartment smell like frying for at least a week after. But he knew enough -- or at least hoped he knew enough -- about the double-frying process and how to make a passable batter.

 

Hoseok and the judges visited his station to check out what he was doing. Since Yoongi had been the one to cook the original dish this round, Jimin watched Yoongi closely for any giveaways while he explained what he thought went in the mystery dish. But, of course, Yoongi was predictably inscrutable; a raised eyebrow from him could mean anything from this is perfect to are you fucking kidding me.

 

"Oh?" said Seokjin, spying the bottle of lager on Jimin’s station. "Is that going in your dish, or are you just getting a head start on an afterparty?"

 

"I’m using it, so you can’t take it," Jimin said.

 

"Hostile," Seokjin complained dramatically, with a hand to his chest. "Plus, that was only one time! I mean, what was I supposed to do, not eat candy?" 

 

"Yes," said Yoongi and Hani at the same time.

 

Hoseok let out a high laugh. "Ooh, this may be the season we finally institute the rule that Kim Seokjin can’t eat anything off the contestants’ stations. Park Jimin, you might be changing history as we speak."

 

"That’s called discrimination, Jung Hoseok, and I won’t stand for it," said Seokjin. He pushed his bottom lip out, pouting like a child. "Jimin-ah, all I’ve ever done is love you! How can you treat me like this?"

 

"Mm, I don't know," said Jimin, feigning disinterest while he continued working on his dish. "What have you done for me lately?"

 

Yoongi snickered, the quiet sound of it giving Jimin a little spark of satisfaction, like he'd done something right. Jimin looked up briefly and met his eyes, a smile shared between them while Seokjin huffed with indignation.

 

"I wasted the best years of my life on you," Seokjin said, throwing an arm over his eyes.

 

"Okay, let’s take this melodrama elsewhere and leave the poor boy in peace," said Hoseok, dragging Seokjin away by the arm to menace Sanghyuk at the next workstation.

 

Seokjin gave Jimin a thumbs-up as he went, with Yoongi and Hani trailing slowly after like they didn’t want to claim any relation to him.

 

The full hour they were allotted seemed almost a luxury at the beginning, but it whizzed by just as quickly as their half-hour before, with almost everyone scrambling to finish at the end. Even Sungjae, who had been gifted the five-minute head start, worked until the very last second.

 

Clean-up and interviews followed, as well as a lot of downtime, while the judges made their deliberations. Finally, the contestants were brought out again to hear what the judges had to say and move on to elimination.

 

Once more, Sungjae’s palate proved unstoppable, coming the closest to Yoongi’s dish, a crispy orange chicken dish made with beer. Jimin couldn’t be unhappy with his second-place finish; the only thing that had kept him from pulling ahead of Sungjae had been frying his chicken in slightly too-hot oil. 

 

When it came time for elimination, it was Sanghyuk who went this time. Though it was only Week 3, the eliminations were getting harder to handle. Jimin wasn't that close to Sanghyuk, but Hakyeon and Sungjae were, and the latter three took Sanghyuk’s dismissal with total dejection.

 

After another round of interviews, Namjoon confirmed the number of sign-ups for the next day’s cooking class with Seo Minjung. Twelve hands went up in the air, everyone left in the competition absolutely invested in the extra classes, especially as missing a class might mean a future disadvantage in the competition.

 

Jungkook texted that he had to stay a little later with the crew, and to go on home without him, so Jimin grabbed his backpack and headed out.

 

Ruminating on the day as he walked to the bus stop, Jimin felt the urge to pinch himself just to check if he was in a dream. He was a contestant on Chef Challenge, and he'd just gotten second place on one of the hardest challenges the producers had ever introduced. Tiny, chubby-fisted Jimin, standing on a stool at the kitchen sink learning how to cook rice, could never have imagined this.

 

Jimin smiled up at the sky, where, for a small moment, everything was right in the world.

 

*

 

Compared to the contestants, all of whom had staggered into the class kitchen in varying states of fatigue, Seo Minjung was a ball of sunshine. She greeted each one of them by name and with a smile so bright, Jimin almost had to shield his eyes.

 

"I’m so happy to see you again!" said Minjung. "And nearly all of you showed up, too; I’m honored to have you here! I understand Taeyang-ssi is sick and couldn't make it today, so let's send some warm thoughts his way!"

 

Min Yoongi had turned up again as well, in his assistant capacity -- and with his producer slash handler Eunkwang in tow. He greeted everyone with a curt nod while Eunkwang waved both hands enthusiastically.

 

"Now, since you’ve made it onto the show and everything," said Minjung, "I’m betting most of you already have some pretty good knife skills. But! Even though your cuts may be coming out correctly, you still might not be getting the best out of yourself because of the way you grip the knife or manage your board or hold your stance. So that’s part of what we’ll be teaching you today. We'll also talk about the importance of knife choice and how to take care of your knives properly."

 

When Jimin had gone to the knife skills class from before, they hadn’t talked much about any of that, just the different types of cuts.

 

Minjung used Yoongi as her demonstration model, first standing him at a station with the wrong posture and pointing out all the bad things he was doing with his body. Then, she corrected his posture, explaining the line that she wanted to see from wrist to forearm to elbow and why it mattered.

 

Clapping her hands together twice, Minjung then said, "Okay! Now, let’s pair up and see if you can give suggestions to your partner for adjustments to their stance. It may not feel natural in your body at first, but if you’re intentional about it, you’ll get used to it over time."

 

Since there was an odd number of students, Minjung called Eunkwang over to partner with Jimin while she and Yoongi went around to observe and instruct each pair.

 

"I… don’t know what I’m doing," said the producer, standing by Jimin’s station awkwardly.

 

"Just pretend you’re in the kitchen chopping something!" said Minjung.

 

Eunkwang stood ramrod straight, making a sawing motion in the air, truly lost.

 

"Uh," said Jimin, not even sure where to start. Maybe with the fact that nobody held cutting boards at neck level and swung their knife arm back and forth. Jimin gently caught hold of his arm and lowered it. "PD-nim… It’s, uh… The cutting board would be down here…"

 

Eunkwang looked helplessly at him. "Sorry, I’m useless in the kitchen," he admitted, a little shamefaced. "My mom does everything, and I just… eat it."

 

Minjung appeared to have second thoughts about using the producer as part of the lesson. "Yoongi-yah!" she called out. "Will you come over here and partner up with this friend?"

 

Though Yoongi gave Eunkwang an inquiring look, as if to ask whether it was acceptable that he step in like this, the producer seemed more than happy to be relieved of his duties as Jimin's partner and gestured for Yoongi to take his place.

 

Happy with the arrangement, Minjung flitted away to help someone else.

 

"Show me how you usually position yourself," said Yoongi.

 

Fighting his awkwardness, Jimin stood as he would if he were about to cut something up. He already knew it was wrong; Yoongi had commented on it during the competition.

 

"Okay, now taking into consideration what Minjung noona just demonstrated, how would you adjust?" Yoongi asked.

 

"Um," said Jimin, and shifted one foot forward. That much he remembered at least. He turned his body somewhat, recalling Minjung having said something about angling the food and the knife for the most efficiency.

 

"Good," said Yoongi, watching him with arms crossed, "but you want to be at more of a diagonal. Angle your shoulder and chest back a bit -- other shoulder -- No, seriously, your other shoulder. You want to be square to-- Are you even listening, Park Jimin?"

 

"I'm trying!" said Jimin, frustrated with Yoongi's abstract direction. "You're not making sense. I don't know what it means to be square to something!"

 

Yoongi huffed with irritation. He hesitated, then stepped forward, placing his hands on Jimin's shoulders. Gently, he moved Jimin's body to the appropriate angle. "See? This is the line you're looking for. It will strain your back less, and it helps you zone your board."

 

"Oh," said Jimin, feeling slightly hot. Had the air-conditioning stopped working suddenly?

 

"Got it?" said Yoongi. At Jimin's stiff nod, Yoongi let go and stepped back. "Good, I'm going to check on the others."

 

Jimin stood there for a moment, blank, then blinked himself back into the moment and took mental notes of his positioning.

 

In short order, Minjung returned to the front, looking pleased with their collective posture. She launched into a short lecture on mise en place and the flow and positioning of food on the board, then talked about using the knuckles as a guide while cutting and introduced basic knife cuts and shapes.

 

After a short demonstration, she passed around carrots to each station and said, "Please start practicing slicing, making sure to tuck in your fingertips!"

 

Once again, she and Yoongi walked around critiquing each of the contestants' techniques, making small adjustments and comments here and there.

 

Ilhwa and Sejeong were at the station next to Jimin's, giggling to each other about something when Yoongi stopped to watch them. The giggling stopped immediately, and they concentrated on their carrots.

 

"Lee Ilhwa-ssi," Yoongi observed. "You're working too hard. You just need a nice rocking motion when you slice."

 

Ilhwa tried to follow what he was saying but didn't seem to pass muster.

 

"Here, can I show you?" Yoongi asked.

 

As he took over to demonstrate, Jimin couldn't help but peer over to see if he could benefit from this impromptu lesson as well. It never hurt to watch a great chef in action.

 

But in addition to watching Yoongi slice piece after uniform piece of carrot at a medium tempo, Jimin couldn't help but pay attention to his hands, the strong grip he had on the knife, the curve of his long fingers as he held the carrot steady. They were nice hands. They went well with the nice forearms.

 

Distracted, Jimin accidentally lifted his knife just a little bit too high, scraping the edge on one of his knuckles on the way down. "Ah!" Jimin cried softly.

 

Blood began to spot the wound. Though it wasn't bleeding terribly as of yet, Jimin held his wounded hand up to stem the blood flow anyway. He set the knife down and looked around for Minjung to ask if there was a first aid kit in the room.

 

"Ahh! Blood! Blood!" Eunkwang cried from across the room with a horrified look on his face, pointing at Jimin. "Where's the medic?"

 

Yoongi strode over to Jimin, gesturing to Minjung that he'd take care of it, and said to the producer calmly, "Eunkwang-ssi, we're not even filming. Why would there be a medic at a cooking class?"

 

"Uh," said Eunkwang, looking slightly queasy as he searched for a spot to sit down.

 

"You okay, hyung?" Sejeong asked, Ilhwa looking on worriedly in Jimin's direction.

 

Jimin nodded, trying to wave away her and Ilhwa's concern as well as the rest of the class's staring. He could tell the wound was going to be fine, seeing as all the blood in his body was burning red in his cheeks at the moment.

 

"Over here," said Yoongi, leading Jimin across the room to a sink, where he instructed Jimin to wash with soap and water while he himself reached for a first aid kit.

 

Jimin hissed a little as the soap stung but continued with it to make sure the wound was clean. It didn't seem too bad, as far as cuts went -- he'd definitely done worse to himself before -- but it wasn't exactly an optimal situation. Still, he had to muster up a smile when Minjung popped by to check if he was okay and dropped it when she flitted away again.

 

Yoongi pulled out a square of gauze from the first aid kit. He folded it in half for thickness and handed it to Jimin. "Put pressure on it for a little bit, then we'll take a look."

 

Jimin took it from him and did as he was told. He felt the burn in his face reignite, embarrassed by his blunder. Especially since he'd been daydreaming about someone's stupid hands while using a sharp knife. At least no one was making a big deal out of it now; he could hear Minjung continuing to give feedback to the others and carrying on the class as usual.

 

"Happens a lot," said Yoongi, again giving off the impression he could read Jimin's mind. "Even in professional kitchens. But you just have to keep going."

 

"Even you?" Jimin asked.

 

Yoongi showed him a light scar that ran from one end of his left palm to the other. "It's faded a lot now, but this was probably my first really bad one. I did it while cleaning a knife. Just wasn't thinking and swiped it right across my hand."

 

Jimin grimaced at the thought of it. "How long did it take to recover?"

 

"Uh…" Yoongi frowned. "I don't really remember. I just put one of those blue plasters on it, you know? And some plastic wrap, and then went back to work. So it was kind of like--"

 

"That's crazy," said Jimin, staring at what must have been a horrifically painful cut on Yoongi's hand. He almost wanted to take Yoongi's hand to inspect it, to make sure he was okay. "You're crazy."

 

Yoongi lifted an eyebrow and said with a slight shrug, "It was busy. They needed me in the kitchen. Things get really messed up back there if a person just leaves."

 

"Still crazy," Jimin decided.

 

"I had a sous chef once who nearly cut her finger clean off," Yoongi said with a tinge of nostalgia. "She stitched it back on herself and kept working until close, then went to the hospital."

 

"You're all insane," said Jimin.

 

Yoongi chuckled and appeared not to disagree. Turning his arm outward, Yoongi then pointed to a dark patch on the inside of his elbow. "This one's from boiling oil; it was disgusting the first few days," he said, sounding almost proud of the fact. "The skin just came right off."

 

"Are you trying to make me never want to set foot in a kitchen again?" Jimin asked, unable to keep the dismay off his face. "Where's the PD? This is like the opposite of favoritism."

 

"You'll be fine," said Yoongi with a light laugh. He nodded towards Jimin's hand. "Let's see."

 

Jimin had almost forgotten about it. Removing the gauze, Jimin could see that the pressure had staunched the blood pretty well, and the cut wasn't deep at all.

 

He was about to say as much, when Yoongi took hold of his hand to get a closer look. His pain receptors shut off abruptly, and all Jimin felt then was a small, strange thrill in his chest at the touch.

 

Yoongi murmured, "It doesn't look too bad. A small bandage should do you just fine."

 

He picked up a tube of antiseptic cream from the first aid kit and squeezed a small amount over Jimin's wound, frowning slightly in concentration. If it stung at all, Jimin had no idea, focused only on Yoongi's face and how gently Yoongi was handling him. Yoongi fished a bandage out from the kit and tore it open, then carefully wrapped it around Jimin's finger.

 

"Get a glove over it," he said, "and see if that works. If not, let me or Minjung noona know. The glove might feel a little unwieldy, but it's still good practical experience."

 

Jimin could only nod, feeling oddly out of breath.

 

"Well?" said Yoongi. "Get back to work. Your kitchen's not going to run without you."

 

"Oh. Right," said Jimin, jerked out of his stupor. "Carrots. Yes. Thank—thank you."

 

He shuffled back to his station, throwing a smile Sejeong's way when she raised inquiring eyebrows at him. As soon as she looked back at her cutting board, Jimin's face took on a frown. Thinking about the strange feeling in his chest when Yoongi had taken his hand would only make him more distracted and possibly lose him an entire finger in the process, so Jimin pushed the memory far, far down. He had more important things to concentrate on.

 

"Ah, our wounded soldier is back," said Minjung brightly, "just in time for us to move on to squaring off our carrots and practicing julienne cuts!"

 

They julienned and diced and brunoised until they could do no more, everyone heartily sick of carrots and potatoes by the end of the class. Jimin never wanted to see either of them ever again, though Minjung was sending them home with what they had practiced on so as not to let the food go to waste. Jimin's plan was to foist them on Jungkook immediately.

 

Minjung congratulated the contestants on another job well done and wished them the best for the upcoming week's competition.

 

The contestants gave their thanks to Minjung and Yoongi, and left in small groups of twos and threes.

 

"Oh, you poor thing," said Ilhwa, patting Jimin on the back as they walked out of the building with Sejeong. "It didn't hurt much, did it?"

 

"Hm, no," said Jimin. Warmth suffused his cheeks as he thought back to the moment when Yoongi had patched him up ever so carefully. "Not very much at all."

 

"That's good," she said. "It was nice of Min Yoongi-ssi to take care of you."

 

Sejeong scrunched her nose up. "I wouldn't want him to. He seems like the type to scold you for getting hurt in the first place. Did he, hyung? Should I go beat him up for you or what? Hook my fingers up his snobby nose like this for being mean to our hyung?" She jerked two clawed fingers upwards and made a threatening face, or at least as threatening as her dainty features could manage.

 

"No, he was really kind about it. Leave his nose alone," Jimin laughed.

 

"K-kind?" Sejeong repeated slowly, as if she'd never heard the word in her life.

 

"See? I've been telling you all along," said Ilhwa.

 

"We know, eonni, you have a huge crush on him," Sejeong teased. "It's totally unfathomable, but we love you anyway."

 

Jimin said goodbye to Sejeong and Ilhwa at his bus stop, the other two heading towards the subway. He sat down on one of the available benches at the stop and looked over his bandaged hand, the image of Yoongi holding it coming right back to him again, the chef’s face set in concentration as he studied Jimin’s injury. It had been… Jimin had liked it. Liked how Yoongi had taken care of him.

 

Jimin shook his head of the thought. Must be all the blood loss, making him think crazy things.

 

The practically nonexistent blood loss.

 

Oh no.

 

Oh, god.

 

Shit, he liked Min Yoongi.

 

Jimin missed his bus.

 

 

Chapter Text

Jimin walked into Week 4 heavily in denial. 

 

He most certainly did not have a crush on Min Yoongi. Just because the man happened to have nice arms and hands and knew his way around a first aid kit and helped him stop crying one time and had these cute little crinkles around the corners of his eyes during the rare times that he smiled -- oh shit, when had Jimin added that last one to the list? 

 

"Idiot," Jimin muttered at himself, just as he had muttered it to himself the night before, watching the broadcast, his eyes automatically looking for Yoongi on screen. 

 

The way his heart had thrilled at the sight of Yoongi chuckling to himself when he'd realized the staff had played a trick on him-- No, no, that hadn't been anything to do with his heart. That had obviously been gastrointestinal reflux. From all the carrots that were still in their fridge and somehow multiplying behind his back. 

 

Jimin fell into a chair in the dressing room, hoping to see Yoongi and at the same time viciously denying that he did. It was tiring. 

 

"Morning," said Sungjae, loping into the room. He threw his backpack into a corner and came to sit in the makeup chair next to Jimin's. "I wish these chairs reclined. Like, not just this much, but all the way flat. What I mean is, I wish this chair was my bed and I was still in it." 

 

"Mm," Jimin concurred. 

 

In addition to losing his marbles over the Min Yoongi situation, Jimin had spent most of his non-work hours practicing cooking techniques and quizzing himself on flavor profiles and making Jungkook eat all his creative failures (he didn't seem to mind; Jimin had a theory that Jungkook would eat garbage if he just put enough ketchup on it). In short, Jimin was sleep-deprived and crabby as hell. 

 

At least, until Shinwon arrived with a carrier of four iced coffees for the remaining male contestants, plus another for himself in his other hand. They'd started out with eight but had dropped so fast, all three eliminations thus far picking off the men one by one. 

 

"We're the only ones left," said Shinwon with a faraway gaze into the middle distance that Jimin normally would have picked up and run away with, since Jungkook never wanted to play drama tropes with him, but he was too tired. "We must uphold our fragile dignity and at least have the five of us make it through to the next round." 

 

"I'll take your coffee, but I make no promises," said Sungjae. 

 

"What are you talking about?" Taeyang said. "You won last week; you're the last one who should be scared of leaving." 

 

"It's the winner's curse!" Sungjae said. "It happened in the second season, Week 3, remember? When, ugh, what's his name? The young guy with the glasses? He won the comfort food challenge, hands down, and then the very next week he completely fell apart!" 

 

"Donghee," Jimin filled in. If only he could push out useless information like this and create more brain space for memorizing how to make pastry, that'd be swell. 

 

"Third season, too," Sungjae continued. "Week 3 again, same thing. I'm doomed, you guys. Hella doomed." 

 

Hakyeon said, "We'll pour out soju for you at your station."

 

"No, no, he deserves the best cooking wine," Jimin said. 

 

"That's all I ask," said Sungjae, and pressed his palms together with a bow. 

 

When the contestants were gathered on set for their morning briefing, Namjoon began with an announcement for the whole staff. 

 

"We had a 6.2% rating for yesterday’s broadcast, which is the highest it’s ever been," he said happily, a big grin pulling in his dimples. He paused to let the applause die down. "To thank everyone for their hard work, the execs would like to treat everyone to dinner after filming tonight. I know it’ll be late, and no one’s obligated to come, but they’ve promised as much meat and soju as we want, so I know I will be there."

 

"And to commemorate my departure from the show," said Sungjae to the other contestants. 

 

Shinwon shoved him in the shoulder. "Will you stop? If you’re going to be like this, give me back the coffee. Losers don’t get coffee."

 

"No," said Sungjae, and ripped the lid off to chug the rest of the iced coffee down while staring at Shinwon. He appeared to regret it immediately, clutching his forehead. "Oww." 

 

Hoseok looked over with equal parts curiosity and concern. "What’s happening over there?" 

 

"Sungjae’s sabotaging himself," said Jimin. 

 

"The curse is upon me," said Sungjae dramatically. "It’s already begun." 

 

Despite his dire prophecy, Sungjae seemed to push through the first round with as much speed and capability as before contracting the curse. Week 4 was all about creating something out of nothing, or, more specifically, making three high-end dining courses from nothing but pantry staples and convenience store food. 

 

Sungjae turned out a Thai-inspired salad from frozen mandu, while Jimin himself had scraped whatever bits of seafood he could together -- tuna from inside a triangle kimbap, a hot bar, octopus from a 3-minute rice bowl – food processed the hell out of all of it, and using crushed potato chips and shrimp crackers as breading, made seafood patties. 

 

"I don’t want this to work," said Hani with a smile, "because, frankly, it sounded disgusting when you were describing it, but it really, really does. Using the chips and shrimp crackers to bread was inspired. Nice job." 

 

Seokjin, as expected, hared off in an eccentric, incomprehensible direction. "It tastes like all the sea creatures in here are coming together after a long separation and they’re embracing each other in happiness. It’s so touching." 

 

When it got down to Yoongi’s turn, Jimin felt himself straighten up a little, hands twisting behind his back as usual, and bit his bottom lip in nervousness. It had always mattered what Min Yoongi had to say during judging, his approval the most coveted of all despite being the least-liked judge, but now it mattered just a little bit more. 

 

Idiot , Jimin thought to himself, but couldn’t stop chewing on his lip anyway. 

 

"When you have a fried component like this," said Yoongi, "think about serving it with something else, a dipping sauce maybe, something acidic to help cut through the greasiness. Remember that you want a balance of flavors. This being an appetizer as well, you generally don’t want it to have too heavy of a mouthfeel. What could you have added?" 

 

Jimin knew this part wouldn’t make it into the broadcast. The judges’ little lessons like this rarely did since they weren’t exactly about verdicts but more like teaching moments that took longer than the available airtime. 

 

He tried his best to absorb everything Yoongi was saying, but the difficulty was that Jimin had to focus on Yoongi’s face to pay attention. Min Yoongi had never been traditionally beautiful, didn’t have a small, slender face like Kim Seokjin; his eyes were sharp and narrow and face too boyish and round. 

 

Nevertheless. 

 

Jimin swallowed a knot of nerves watching Yoongi’s lips shape his words, his hands graceful and expressive as they added emphasis. Had his skin always been that… glowy?  

 

Answering Yoongi’s questions as best he could, Jimin shuffled back to his station after Yoongi’s final verdict of, "Not bad, but definitely has room for improvement; the competition is stiff, so you really need to start proving that you belong here." 

 

While it wasn’t damning, it wasn’t a position Jimin wanted to be in either. So far he hadn't come up tops in any of the challenge rounds, and he couldn't coast through like this for long before he either stepped up his game or just fell out of contention entirely. 

 

The rest of the day continued in the same vein, Jimin getting more and more frustrated with himself. It wasn’t that he was making anything bad, it was that it just wasn’t quite good enough to surpass people like Sungjae and Sejeong, who consistently excelled and had creative juices pouring out their ears. 

 

His second-place finish from last week seemed a long way away now. Sungjae didn’t have a curse at all; it was Jimin who had it, and it was the curse of the solidly mediocre. 

 

At eliminations, when Jennie was chosen to go, Jimin could barely even work up the relief to know he was staying. She was a really good cook, too. Did Jimin really deserve to stay in over her? Guilt chewed away at his insides as he said goodbye to her and she clung to Lisa in tears. 

 

"Ah, hyung," said Sejeong, patting his shoulder after the cameras went down, "you know by this point it’s all a crapshoot. Like, one tiny thing can make the difference. It sucks that Jennie’s leaving, but it’s not your fault. You’re good at what you do."

 

"Thanks," Jimin said dully. He squeezed Sejeong’s hand with a semblance of gratitude before she ran off to the dressing room. 

 

He wanted to go straight home and sleep, then spend the rest of his week studying up and putting every last bit of his energy into being better at this. After work, he could make flashcards and rewatch videos of all the great chefs and borrow all the cookbooks from the library and--

 

"You’re coming to the dinner, right?" Jungkook asked, slinging an arm over Jimin’s shoulder. 

 

"Where did you come from?" Jimin asked suspiciously. Jungkook never seemed to be around on set except to ambush or embarrass him, or both. 

 

"The shadows, where I wait and watch," said Jungkook. "Taehyung hyung said he can drive us to the restaurant." 

 

Jimin shook his head. "I don’t think so. I’m kinda done. I just wanna go home." 

 

Sensing something amiss, Jungkook frowned and pulled Jimin aside, out of sight of the people still milling around the set. "Why? What’s wrong?" 

 

Up until now, Jimin had rolled with the punches; he’d made it on the show, gotten through several challenges and still remained standing. Maybe he should’ve predicted this earlier, but in all the excitement he’d never quite processed the magnitude of being here and what it meant to him and how stressful it would all be, and now, apparently, his brain had decided it was time to freak the fuck out. 

 

In spite of himself, tears pricked Jimin’s eyes. "I can’t do this. I’m just not good enough," he said. 

 

"Who says?" Jungkook said heatedly. "You weren’t sent off. And even if you were, so what? Just because three people sitting all high and mighty at a table said so? Nobody died and made them king of the world." 

 

"But they are the king," Jimin disputed. "And they think I’m… medium good. Not even all the way good; I’m just one of those contestants who’s cannon fodder. I’m just biding my time until the inevitable." 

 

Jungkook’s face twisted with mild scorn. "Since when have you ever been an extra in your own drama?" 

 

"What?" 

 

"You, you’re always pretending like you’re the male lead in everything you do and, let me be clear, I hate it. But why are you suddenly relegating yourself to the sidelines like some sad cameo? In this drama, you’re obviously the underdog who overcomes all obstacles to win everything in the end," said Jungkook. He gave Jimin a baleful look. "Have you even watched dramas?" 

 

"It could also be a tragedy where we learn that just because you have dreams it doesn’t mean anything…" Jimin said, not done with his sulk. 

 

"No, the real tragedy is that I’m the handsome best friend who should have been cast as the male lead," said Jungkook. He lifted a disdainful eyebrow. "But I didn’t sleep my way to the top, so." 

 

Jimin gasped. The fact that Jungkook was actually playing the drama game with him this time cheered Jimin up more than anything. He flashed an indignant look at Jungkook. "What are you insinuating?" 

 

Jungkook shrugged lightly and inspected his cuticles. "Someday it’ll all come out, Park Jimin. Then we’ll see who’s on top." 

 

"Bring it on, bitch," said Jimin. 

 

"And then freeze frame and roll credits," said Jungkook. "And in the previews for next episode I’ll put poison in your coffee and push you into the sea." 

 

"Dark. I like it," said Jimin. He smiled fondly at his best friend. "Thanks, Kookie. You really are a great little sidekick." 

 

Jungkook gave him a level stare. "Fuck you." 

 

"You mean Taehyung, dear," said Jimin. "He’s the one you want to fuck."

 

"Who says I haven’t?" said Jungkook, with waggly eyebrows for accompaniment. "Sometimes when you’re not home, I invite him over and we do it everywhere . No surface is safe from us." 

 

Jimin’s mouth screwed to one side, displeased. "This-- I have brought this upon myself," he said, and hung his head.  

 

"Come and get drunk with us at the company dinner so you can forget this whole conversation," said Jungkook. "No alcohol tastes sweeter than the one someone else buys." 

 

"You think I should?" Jimin asked. He still kind of wanted to go home and sleep, but now that he’d been adequately pepped out of his funk, going out with his friends for barbeque and soju didn’t sound bad either. 

 

"Definitely. I hear Kim Seokjin will be there," said Jungkook. 

 

At one point, this would have been more than enough bait. But somewhere in the past few weeks, the novelty and shine of being in Kim Seokjin’s presence had worn off somewhat; he was still egregiously handsome and sillier than a six-year-old and could power an entire city grid with his smile, but rather than being a faraway, unattainable celebrity crush, he was now just another person that Jimin kind of knew. Plus… 

 

"Um, what about Min Yoongi?" Jimin asked with all the nonchalance he could gather.

 

"Oh, yeah," said Jungkook. "That’s why Taehyung hyung can take us; he’s driving Min Yoongi there, but supposedly he said it’s fine to take more people in the car, too. But it’s not like you have to sit next to him at dinner. There’s gonna be a lot of people there."

 

"Right," said Jimin. What a terrible fate that would be. He definitely didn’t want that. 

 

Jungkook began pushing Jimin along to the dressing room so he could pick up his belongings. "It’s weird ‘cos Taehyung hyung said Min Yoongi normally never goes to these things, but whatever. As long as we get to see Taehyung, who cares what Min Yoongi does." 

 

"I don’t think the royal we is appropriate in this case," said Jimin. 

 

He went to get his backpack while Jungkook texted Taehyung that they were on the way to the parking garage. 

 

"He’s yelling that we’re holding everyone up," Jungkook informed Jimin. 

 

"I’m coming, I’m coming," said Jimin. 

 

They jogged to the parking garage where they saw Taehyung waiting for them. He broke into a wide smile as he caught sight of Jungkook and waved happily. Yoongi appeared to already be in the passenger seat of his black SUV, doing something on his phone and paying them absolutely no mind. When Jimin climbed into the back, he was surprised to see Namjoon in there, too. 

 

"Oh, hello," said Jimin. "Uh, thank you for letting us catch a ride with you. Sorry we’re late."

 

Yoongi grunted an acknowledgement.  

 

Jimin scrambled over to the middle seat and turned around to find Jungkook not behind him. Looking out the windshield to see Jungkook and Taehyung holding hands and talking, clearly infatuated with one another, Jimin rolled his eyes. "I thought we were already late," he said. 

 

"Young love is gross," said Namjoon. 

 

Yoongi leaned over to the driver’s seat and poked the car horn, the abrupt honk startling Taehyung and Jungkook into trotting over and getting in the car, finally. 

 

"Everyone buckled?" Taehyung asked cheerily. "Safety, safety!" 

 

Jimin saluted. 

 

"We’re going to die of old age first," said Yoongi, "if we don’t get moving." 

 

Taehyung only laughed and eased the car out of its parking spot. The restaurant was a few short minutes away, and many of the other staff and contestants were already seated, in the middle of grilling and drinking. A cheer went up when the latecomers arrived, and Hoseok pointed them to a small table to the side that had been left open for them, the only empty table left, as the production team was big enough to take over the entire space. 

 

Contrary to what Jungkook had said, this arrangement meant Jimin did end up sitting at the same table as Yoongi, though across from him at one end of the table rather than next to him. He didn’t hate it. Plus, he had Jungkook on his left to hopefully keep him from making too big a fool of himself, should that time come. 

 

Taehyung took the seat on the other side of Jungkook and rubbed his hands together excitedly as he looked at the shiny grill. "Meat is so exciting." 

 

"Okay," said Namjoon, settling into the seat next to Yoongi. "Ground rules. Number one, absolutely no shop talk, unless it’s to tell me what a great producer I am. In fact, that is rule number two, you must tell me what a great producer I am. Number three, this is all going on the company credit card and will probably never happen again in our lifetimes, so eat and drink as much as you want." 

 

"Are you sure that’s what the bosses said?" Yoongi asked. 

 

"I read between the lines," said Namjoon, with a wink. 

 

"You’re the best producer ever," said Jimin. 

 

"Oh, thank you," said Namjoon. "How unexpected." 

 

An ahjumma arrived with a large plate of raw beef brisket, pushing it onto the grill for them, plus a couple other plates of select meats for them to grill on their own later, and then randomly handing the tongs to Taehyung, who relinquished them right away to Yoongi. Several bottles of soju came next. Jungkook did his soju duties as the youngest at the table and poured everyone’s drinks for them except Taehyung, who didn’t drink and got a cola instead. 

 

Seokjin came over, noisily dragging a chair up to the other end of the table. He plunked his chin in his hands, cheeks already a little red from drink. "My table’s no fun," he said. 

 

"Why?" said Yoongi, now on grilling duty. "Do they not like your shitty jokes?" 

 

"My jokes are of the highest caliber," sniffed Seokjin. "I’m just not appreciated in my own time. Like van Gogh." 

 

"Yes, hyung, we know," said Namjoon placatingly. "Please don’t waste your amazing jokes on plebes like us." 

 

Seokjin grinned at him. "Well, since you asked so nicely." 

 

"I didn’t!" said Namjoon. He buried his face in his hands, muffling a groan. "Goddammit." 

 

"Where does a polar bear keep its money?" Seokjin began. 

 

"They are wild animals with no concept of currency," said Yoongi, while behind his hands Namjoon might have said something like I don't care at the same time. 

 

Ignoring the interruptions, Seokjin said, "A snowbank! A-ha-ha-ha-ha!" He applauded himself, his head shaking side to side in total admiration of his own wit. "Get it? A snowbank!" 

 

It really wasn't that funny. But somehow, a giggle trilled out of Jimin's mouth while Jungkook stared at Seokjin, frozen, like he had no idea how to react.  

 

"Oh, yaaah , Park Jimin," said Seokjin, pointing at him in glee. "See, now there's a connoisseur of jokes. Let's hang out sometime; I will teach you the ways of the pun, young grasshopper."

 

Yoongi placed a few pieces of meat on Jimin's plate and said, "Please don't encourage him. It will only get worse." 

 

Was it just Jimin's imagination, or had Yoongi served only him and left everyone else to fight over the meat on the grill for themselves? He smiled and nodded his thanks, earning in return Yoongi sort of shaking his chopsticks at him in a gesture that indicated he should eat up. 

 

"What's a cow's favorite holiday?" said Seokjin. 

 

"Ah! Ah! I know!" Jungkook jolted up, nearly tipping the table, and yelled, "Moo Year's Eve!" 

 

"Oh! Good one!" said Seokjin excitedly. "I was going to say Lunar Moo Year, but I like yours, too! I was right, this is the best table!" 

 

"Oh no, Kook," said Taehyung to Jungkook, who looked exceedingly proud of himself. "Not you, too." 

 

"Why," said Namjoon into his soju. "Why me." 

 

"These dongsaengs are great," said Seokjin. He held out his hands towards Jungkook and Jimin, despite not being able to reach the latter across the length of the table and added, "I am your hyung now. Our fates are forever intertwined and united by our appreciation of old man jokes." 

 

Jimin looked to Yoongi, unsure how to respond. 

 

"I can't help you," said Yoongi, casually lifting a piece of kimchi to his mouth. "You did this to yourself." 

 

" Yah , Min Yoongi," said Seokjin, hands now on his hips. "The poor kid is looking to you for guidance and you're just going to let him flap in the wind?" 

 

"Twist in the wind," Namjoon corrected. 

 

Seokjin held a palm up to Namjoon's face, rejecting the correction. "Kids, don't let Yoongi's tsundere-ness lure you in. I'm the one who will be nice to you and teach you cool jokes and not let you flap alone in the breeze. This is why," Seokjin paused and hiccupped, "I am the best hyung."

 

As if waiting for the perfect cue, Hoseok suddenly popped into view and said, "Lies. You won't even let me borrow your Switch when you're not playing it. Yoongi hyung is clearly the better hyung, because he gets Taetae to steal your Switch when you're not looking and lets me play it." 

 

"Ohh," said Taehyung, nodding in comprehension. "So that's why I always have to steal it." 

 

" That's why I can never find it where I last left it? You fuckers, I thought I was losing my mind," said Seokjin. "All right, fine, Yoongi has two and I have two. Right, right? I have Jungkookie and Jimin? Liking my joke was a tacit agreement to forswear your allegiance to me." He pointed at each of them in turn to gauge their loyalty. 

 

"Okay…?" said Jimin. 

 

"Wait, where am I in this?" Taehyung asked. 

 

"You're with Yoongi, obviously," said Seokjin. 

 

"Aw, but I didn't get to choose!" Taehyung grumbled, bouncing in his seat in pique. 

 

"Ohh, Taehyungie, I'm so touched," Seokjin said, eyes lighting up. "Does this mean I already have three kids on my side?" 

 

"No, I choose Yoongi hyu— Ah! Mean!" exclaimed Taehyung, rubbing the spot on his arm where Seokjin had punched him. 

 

Seokjin turned a sweet smile on Namjoon and batted his eyelashes. "Joon-ah, you're the deciding factor. Me or Yoongi. Which of us is the better hyung? And remember I bought you lunch just last week and lent you my phone charger while Yoongi has never done anything remotely nice for you or anyone in his whole life." 

 

"I don't know," said Namjoon. He sucked air in through his teeth, caught in mock indecision. "Yoongi hyung hasn't told me any terrible jokes lately, so…" 

 

"What's even happening right now?" Jimin asked Jungkook, as Hoseok pulled up another chair, forcibly squeezing himself between Namjoon and Yoongi and settling in for the debate. 

 

Overhearing, Yoongi answered, "A discussion with literally no value." He leaned forward conspiratorially. "That said, it is very important that you defect to my side." 

 

"Oh, okay," said Jimin, his immediate acquiescence somewhat of a surprise to Yoongi, if his raised eyebrows were anything to go by. Jimin raised his hand timidly. "Um, Seokjin, uh, hyung? I'm jumping ship." 

 

"What? Why?" Seokjin demanded. 

 

Jimin pointed at Yoongi. "He told me to." 

 

Yoongi nodded smugly. "That's right. Park Jimin's mine."

 

Jimin's stomach did a funny little flip at the proclamation. 

 

"Treachery," Seokjin accused. "All I have left is Jungkook. Jungkook-ah, you won't abandon me, right?" 

 

Jungkook's head whipped up just as he was shoving a large piece of grilled ribeye in his mouth. "Uh, yeah, never," he agreed, though it was clear he had no idea what he was agreeing to. 

 

Patting down the pockets of his suit jacket, Seokjin pulled out a finger heart for Jungkook. 

 

Taehyung clutched Jungkook’s hand and held it close to his chest. "Oh no, this means we’re on opposing sides. Will our love ever be able to overcome this obstacle? Will we only ever meet on Chilseok when the magpies build a bridge for our tearful reunion?" 

 

While Hoseok laughed and got up to declare he needed the bathroom, Namjoon threw a piece of lettuce at Taehyung. "That’s not even the right story." 

 

Jimin giggled again. Apparently Taehyung was the one he should have been playing drama tropes with all this time, or at least old Korean folktales. 

 

His face palling, Jungkook frowned and looked between Jimin and Taehyung. "Why is this happening? I'm surrounded by idiots," Jungkook whispered to himself. 

 

"Yah," Taehyung said, giving him a light shove. "Who're you calling an idiot?" 

 

"You, hyung," Jungkook said. "You." 

 

Taehyung made flower petals of his hands and pressed his chin into the heels of his hands. "But a pretty idiot, right?" he said and blinked at Jungkook from underneath his eyelashes. 

 

In spite of himself, Jungkook's mouth curled up into an affectionate smile. 

 

"Well, this has gotten gross," Namjoon announced. He popped a piece of meat into his mouth and added, "I'm going to mingle with other people who won't ruin my appetite." With that, he got up and ruffled Taehyung's hair, then meandered over to another table, absorbed almost immediately into their chatter. 

 

"Wait for me, Joon-ah! I just thought of the perfect joke to tell you! You'll like it, I swear!" Seokjin called after him. He stood, a little wobbly, and shouted, "Go Shinwon! Trade seats with me!" 

 

Startled but acquiescent, Shinwon left his seat and came over to take Seokjin's vacated chair. "Hi," he said to the table with a hesitant little bow, glancing apprehensively in Yoongi's direction though the judge paid him little mind, busy with grilling a fresh plate of pork belly.  

 

"Sit, sit," Taehyung welcomed him with a big smile. "You're the one with the cooking channel, right? With the pretty orange cat?" 

 

"She sits so nice and quietly the whole time while you're cooking!" Jimin gushed, having watched several of Shinwon's YouTube videos since hearing about his channel. "All the comments are about how well-behaved she is. I wish I had a cat like that. The ones that used to live on my street when I was a kid were always so rude." 

 

"She's just been trained since she was really young," Shinwon said, though it was apparent that he was proud of his popular cat and happy to have people to talk to comfortably even though Yoongi was at the same table. 

 

"Have I seen this cat?" Jungkook asked Jimin, brow furrowed. "I would like to see this cat." 

 

Jimin gasped. "I haven't shown you? Shinwon-ah, show Jungkook one of your videos. She's seriously the prettiest cat." 

 

"I am," Shinwon pointed out as he cued up a video, "also in these, cooking." 

 

"Shh," said Taehyung.

Despite initially not even wanting to come to this gathering, Jimin was having fun. If there wasn’t the competition going on and everything, he could even see making friends with all these people. Not, of course, that he was assuming famous people like Seokjin or Yoongi or Hoseok would want to befriend him back. Who was he, after all, but just some kid who could sometimes make a decent meal? 

 

"Ahh," Hoseok said to Yoongi when he came back from the restroom, opening his mouth like a baby bird waiting to be fed. Yoongi picked a piece of pork belly from the grill with the tongs and fed it to Hoseok. Steam blew from his mouth and Hoseok fanned his face, bouncing in his chair. "Hot, hot, hot! Aagh!" 

 

Yoongi laughed, his eyes squeezing into little crescents. It changed his face, when Yoongi laughed, made him look light and carefree. And it happened so rarely, as far as Jimin knew, it was like looking into the sun during an eclipse -- he knew he shouldn’t stare, but Jimin couldn’t pull his eyes away.

 

Perhaps he’d felt it, because Yoongi caught his gaze. He held it for a moment, the grin turning slowly into a soft smile that made Jimin’s cheeks warm. Yoongi blinked and broke their eye contact; he turned a few pieces of meat on the grill, then put one on Jimin's plate. 

 

"Eat more," he said, and gave Hoseok a few pieces as well. 

 

"Yeah, finish it, so we make space for more," said Hoseok. He lifted a hand to get the ahjumma’s attention, already on it. He ordered what sounded like too much, then made a lettuce wrap and offered it to Shinwon, who received it happily. Hoseok smiled, looking pleased. "Eat up, eat up. Aigo, you kids are all so skinny."  

 

A few more bottles of soju arrived with the additional orders of meat, and Namjoon ambled back to the table as well. Jimin shook and twisted the cap off one of the bottles and filled Namjoon and Yoongi's glasses politely. While Namjoon did an easy one-shot with his drink, Yoongi gave Jimin a nod of thanks, then took the bottle off him to return the favor, his fingers momentarily closing over Jimin's. 

 

Jimin bit his lip to hold back whatever noise it was that clamored at the back of his throat; a gasp or a girlish sigh, maybe. Either way, it was guaranteed to be embarrassing, especially for so innocent and fleeting a touch. Drinking much more probably wouldn't help his case.

 

Still, he lifted his soju glass to his lips and took at least a socially appropriate sip. He noticed Yoongi doing the same, but this was only because he was noticing Yoongi looking at him.

 

"Ah... sorry, I don't drink much," said Jimin, which was only partially true, and he'd already had a fair amount up to this point. 

 

Jungkook coughed all of a sudden and turned to Jimin with a raised eyebrow. 

 

"Usually," Jimin appended, fighting Jungkook's eyebrow with one of his own until he won. 

 

At home with Jungkook, they could smash down a dozen bottles easily, and being best friends meant they already knew what kind of gargantuan idiot the other could be, so there was no real caution necessary. But in mixed company, Jimin preferred to be more careful, especially seeing what belligerent, sobbing clowns his colleagues sometimes became at company functions.

 

Yoongi shook his head to indicate it was fine, holding up his own barely drunk glass as evidence. "That's why I don't usually like to come to these things." 

 

"So why did you decide to come this time?" Jimin asked. The specter of hope lifted its head curiously, as if Min Yoongi would pinpoint him as the reason, and Jimin shoved it back down into oblivion.

 

"Mm," Yoongi said mildly, "the company seemed like it'd be good."

 

Jimin glanced in the direction where Namjoon and Hoseok were cheerfully ribbing each other over something he hadn't paid attention to and said, "Seems like it'd be good every time?"

 

"You did hear Seokjin hyung's jokes, right?" said Yoongi.

 

"Yeah, but... they're so terrible they come right back round to being funny again," said Jimin. He snickered. "The snowbank…" 

 

"Don't make me already have to disown you, Park Jimin."

 

With a big smile, Jimin plopped his chin into his hands. "Never, hyung ," he said, putting an especially cutesy spin on the name.

 

"Oh, why are you so cute?" Hoseok demanded as he leaned over, cocking his head to one side as if truly puzzled. 

 

"Is he?" Yoongi said, looking at Jimin with an upward tilt of his mouth. It was obviously said to poke a little fun at Jimin, but somehow it still felt like Yoongi was agreeing, his eyes clear and warm. 

 

Jimin nodded proudly. 

 

"See, he knows," said Hoseok. 

 

"Mm," said Yoongi noncommittally, though the slight smile was still on his face as he lifted his soju glass to take another sip. 

 

Feeling fatigue beginning to set in again, Jimin leaned against Jungkook, comfortably observing and listening to the conversations flying around him – Taehyung saying something blasphemous about one of Namjoon's favorite shows and Namjoon pelting him with a garlic clove; Hoseok fondly recalling the time he’d been mistaken for a much-despised local politician and had gotten produce thrown at him; Yoongi’s smiles getting a little looser with each story. 

 

Jungkook patted Jimin’s back and checked his watch; Jimin peered over, noting with slight surprise that it was already close to two in the morning. "Need to go home?" Jungkook asked quietly. 

 

"No, it’s okay, we can stay as long as you want," said Jimin. He covered a yawn with the back of his hand and rested his head on Jungkook’s shoulder. 

 

"Taehyung-ah," Yoongi said suddenly. "It’s getting late. I think I’m about ready to head back. You good to drive or should I call someone?" 

 

Taehyung nodded, somehow still bright-eyed and energetic and full of managerial zeal. "Yup, I’m good. I’m not tired. I’m ready to go when you are." 

 

"Booo," said Namjoon. "Losers." 

 

Yoongi looked at Jungkook. "You guys want a lift?" 

 

"Uh, yeah, sure," said Jungkook, glancing at Jimin for confirmation. 

 

"Yeah, you might as well," said Taehyung, rubbing Jungkook’s arm. "You’re not very far out of the way, and there won’t be buses by now." 

 

"Jihoon hyung," Yoongi called out to the producer at one of the other tables. "We’re going. We can drop you off if you want since you live so close." 

 

The producer thanked him but elected to stay for a few more drinks, so in the end just the four of them left after saying their goodbyes to the rest of the group. They stepped out into the street, the night relatively quiet, while behind them the muted din of the company dinner carried on without missing a beat. 

 

Taehyung unlocked the car that he'd miraculously managed to find a spot for right in front of the restaurant and they got in, Jimin sinking contentedly into the plush leather backseat. He could easily fall asleep here. 

 

"Poor little guy. You might have to carry him up," he heard Taehyung say with a light laugh. 

 

"Not after all the meat he just ate," said Jungkook. 

 

Jimin felt a hand on his arm, shaking him awake. He rubbed his eyes, pouting a little at being pulled from such a comfortable nap. In… Min Yoongi’s car. Jimin’s eyes flew open to see the car's interior light on and all three of them looking expectantly at him. "Oh no," he mumbled. "Did I fall asleep? I’m so sorry. Oh no." 

 

"Hurry up and go to bed," said Yoongi. It sounded like an order, though his eyes were soft and concerned. "That can’t be comfortable." 

 

"Come on, hyung," said Jungkook, tugging on his arm. "Let’s get you upstairs, you big, dumb baby." 

 

"‘M not," said Jimin. He followed Jungkook out of the car and bowed to Yoongi, who’d rolled his window down, all the while wondering how he could have passed out so quickly in what was probably the reality show equivalent of his boss’s car. "Thank you for the ride. I’m sorry I, uh--" 

 

"He's a sleepy drunk," Jungkook filled in. 

 

Jimin scowled at him as best he could while rubbing one eye. To Yoongi, he said, "I didn't mean to be so rude, Yoongi-ssi. I--" 

 

"Hyung," Yoongi corrected with the smallest hint of a smile, something almost fond in it. "You were tired; it’s really fine. Get some rest." 

 

"Okay," said Jimin in a small voice. "Good night, Yoongi hyung."

 

Yoongi's smile stretched a little wider. "Good night," he said, then rolled the window back up. 

 

Meanwhile, Taehyung had gotten out as well, jogging over to give Jungkook a quick peck on the lips, then saying goodbye. 

 

Yoongi rolled down his window again. "I don’t pay you to make me see this, Kim Taehyung." 

 

"Nobody said you had to look!" Taehyung said, but hurried back to the car. 

 

Jimin and Jungkook waved goodbye as Taehyung pulled the SUV back out onto the road, then trudged to the apartment elevator together. They stood side by side in the elevator, watching the numbers tick upwards in a pleasant silence until Jungkook cleared his throat with what sounded like an inordinate amount of smugness. 

 

"So," said Jungkook airily, eyes still on the number display, "you seemed to get along with Min Yoongi pretty well." 

 

Jimin let out a begrudging grunt. 

 

"Sixth floor, please alight," said the elevator voice when the doors opened onto their floor. 

 

"' Oh, no, Yoongi hyung, I don't drink much, eeheehee ,'" Jungkook tittered coquettishly several octaves above his normal voice as they walked down the corridor to their apartment. He poked Jimin the side. " 'Look at me, I'm so cute, hyung, heeheehee. '" 

 

Despite feeling tired, Jimin managed to put a good amount of force into the slap he landed on Jungkook's chest. "I didn't sound like that, leave me alone," Jimin groused. 

 

"Not until you admit I was right," said Jungkook. 

 

Jimin frowned, his heart beating erratically as if he'd been caught doing something illicit. Now was not the time he was prepared to say aloud how he'd been feeling towards Yoongi recently. Not now, or possibly ever. "About what?" he mumbled warily. 

 

"I told you he was decent," said Jungkook. "And you wouldn't believe me, you always thought he was such an asshole from TV. But now who's right? It's me. Me, that's who." 

 

They reached their apartment, Jungkook punching in the door code and opening the door while behind him Jimin silently heaved a sigh of relief that he hadn't yet been caught out. The light in the doorway flicked on automatically as they stepped in, and Jungkook kicked off his shoes, stretching his arms over his head. 

 

"Yes, yes," said Jimin, "you told me so." 

 

Jungkook emitted a cheeky, sneery laugh. "Yeah," he cheered. "Jungkook wins again." 

 

Jimin rolled his eyes. "Did you have fun at dinner, Kook-ah?" 

 

"There was free meat, so yes," said Jungkook, shuffling across the kitchen in his slippers to get a cup of water. "And I like those guys. They’re funny. They’re not stuck-up like some of the other people I’ve worked with." 

 

"Yeah?" said Jimin. He took off his shoes and placed them carefully back in the shoe cabinet, then got his comfy house slippers on.  

 

"Mm," said Jungkook. "It’s not on many sets that people even know my name." 

 

"Or fall in love with you?" teased Jimin. 

 

Jungkook snickered. "No, please, that happens constantly." 

 

Chapter Text

The Basics of Baking class saw the contestants with an entirely different instructor and therefore no assistant Min Yoongi. She was just as engaging and knowledgeable as Seo Minjung, and Jimin now had things like creme patissiere and choux pastry and pie crusts in his arsenal -- assuming he could remember them well enough should they come up at a challenge.

 

Though Yoongi hadn’t been there, it didn’t stop Jimin from flitting off into the occasional daydream, where he imagined Yoongi with sleeves rolled up and kneading a ball of dough (again with the forearms; Jimin was coming to realize he had a definite thing for them) or whisking egg whites into stiff peaks or, uh, doing inappropriate things with whipped cream.

 

It was all getting a bit out of hand.

 

A month ago, had Jimin been told he’d be fantasizing about Min Yoongi, he’d have slapped the messenger in the face for defamation of character and insulting his taste in -- not just men, but human beings in general.

 

And now? How far he had fallen.

 

Luckily, Jimin had other things to distract him, like dedicating himself to researching and practicing the hell out of the upcoming challenge for Week 5. Unlike the previous couple of weeks, the producers were taking a break from surprise challenges and had informed the contestants what the expectations were so they could have the week to perfect whatever they intended to make. But of course, having the information beforehand also meant that the challenge was going to be incredibly difficult.

 

Week 5 was about illusion -- making their dish look like something else entirely. Much of the illusion food realm centered around desserts, like cakes made to look like sandwiches or potted plants, but the show was asking for its usual three courses.

 

Jimin was about ninety percent of the way there with making what looked like a cake out of vegetables and tofu cream cheese and was still ironing out several kinks in turning a chicken liver pate into a recognizable shape.

 

He lived off coffee and panic, his hands were stained in a rainbow of natural food coloring, and he slept only when Jungkook strong-armed him into it, literally dragging Jimin from the kitchen and dumping him onto his bed with additional threats of sitting on him unless he complied.

 

But it was worth it.

 

When his pate, after countless tweaks, finally came together one night looking like a mandarin orange, Jimin slumped to the floor and burst into tears. He was sure he looked like a madman, crying and laughing at the same time while clutching a ball of liver on a metal skewer, but who gave a shit when he'd actually succeeded?

 

Jimin got up and put the finishing touches on it, then started from scratch once more to see if he could replicate his success. And when he did, he sat on the kitchen floor and cried all over again.

 

"This is very concerning," said Jungkook when he came home from a movie date with Taehyung to find Jimin in the middle of being a hot mess. He stood at the edge of the kitchen, arms crossed.

 

"But Kookie," wheezed Jimin from the floor, "I did it."

 

"Yes, congratulations, but you also have crazy eyes," said Jungkook. "Have you had anything besides coffee in the last twenty-four hours?"

 

Jimin took a moment to think. He'd skipped lunch at work to think through solutions for his fake orange, had downed like six sachets' worth of Maxim Gold to keep himself going, and then had started straight on perfecting his recipe as soon as he'd gotten home. "Um… I don't think so," said Jimin. "But I'm not hungry."

 

"Probably because your stomach is eating itself at this point," said Jungkook. "Get up, hyung. Go shower and then you're going to eat something."

 

Normally he would have argued, but Jimin could tell when Jungkook meant business, and objecting would only lead to Jungkook manhandling him into the shower. Which, for all involved, was very much the non-preferred option.

 

Jimin picked himself up from the floor and shuffled to the bathroom. Despite thinking Jungkook was making a fuss over nothing, the shower did feel good, and he came out to find Jungkook cleaning up the kitchen, careful to leave his creations alone.

 

"Kook-ah, you're the best," said Jimin. And sneezed.

 

"I know, and that better not be you getting sick," said Jungkook.

 

"I'm not, I'm not," said Jimin, though probably subsisting on instant coffee and approximately four hours of sleep a night for the past week hadn’t done him any favors. "Must just be dust or something."

 

Jungkook narrowed a stare at him. "Take those vitamins your dad keeps sending you from the States."

 

"Those are for old people," Jimin scoffed. He sneezed again, the force of it leaving him feeling dizzy for a second. "Ah, shit."

 

"Sit down, grandpa," sighed Jungkook. "I'll get them for you."

 

*

 

Jimin arrived on set for Week 5 hopped up on cold medication and with almost no voice to speak of. Wearing a face mask, he shuffled into the dressing room and waved silently at Hakyeon and Shinwon, who'd both arrived early and were already in the process of getting made up.

 

He sat at the makeup chair that was the furthest away from them and texted their group chat: Don't look at me, I'm hideous and sick.

 

"Oh, what happened?" asked Shinwon. "Did you not sleep again?"

 

Hakyeon whirled around in his chair to face Jimin, startling the makeup noona Sookyung, who rapped him lightly on the head with the end of her makeup brush. "Yah, Park Jimin," he said, "didn't we just tell you that that's not healthy? It's right here in the group chat. And don't tell me you didn't see it; it was clearly read."

 

Jimin really regretted starting the group chat during Week 2 when he'd been all bright-eyed and yet to be betrayed. How could he have predicted it would be used against him someday? And even by contestants who'd left the competition but not the chat, Jennie pinging in with a concerned emoji and echoing Hakyeon's sentiments.

 

Jimin scowled and typed, I had stuff to work on! I don't have time for trifling things like basic human needs.

 

"We all had stuff to work on, and the rest of us managed to not come in looking like the poster boy for the undead," said Hakyeon.

 

Sunken eyes are all the rage right now.

 

Shinwon clicked his tongue, clearly not on board with the latest trends. "I have a yoga mat in my car; should I get it? You can sleep on that between filming."

 

"Gross," said Hakyeon. "It probably smells like your feet."

 

"Better than smelling like yours," Shinwon shot back.

 

It's okay, typed Jimin. I'll be fine.

 

The makeup noona finished with Shinwon and came over to do what she could with Jimin. Shinwon hopped out of his makeup chair. "Be right back," he said, striding out of the dressing room. He came back a few moments later, grinning, pulling Ilhwa in by the hand. "I brought reinforcements. A mom."

 

Ilhwa ran up to Jimin to feel his forehead while Jimin scowled at Shinwon as best he could through the flurry of Sookyung's powder brush, feeling betrayed.

 

"Omo, you silly thing, you look awful," said Ilhwa. "Why run yourself ragged like that?"

 

"We told him not to, noona!" Hakyeon tattled, clearly fishing for good boy points.

 

"I'm fine," Jimin rasped. Unfortunately, he sounded like the rattle of old bones in a crypt, so it wasn't very convincing. He cleared his throat and tried again, but it came out sounding even more terrible the second time. "I sound worse than I actually am."

 

"Well," said Ilhwa, patting his hand, "once Sookyung-ssi is done with you, we'll find you a place to rest."

 

"I'll be fast," said Sookyung.

 

She made Jimin look as presentable as possible, then gave Ilhwa the go-ahead to take Jimin. Ilhwa grabbed Jimin's hand and walked him out of the dressing room. "I know just the place," she said. "Sometimes Hani lets us use her dressing room because there's a nice, big sofa in there; I've gotten a good nap in once or twice."

 

Jimin shook his head. He didn't want to take away the ladies' lounging space.

 

"No, don’t worry, not there," said Ilhwa, as they walked down the corridor to the elevator bank. "But to get there you have to walk past Min Yoongi's dressing room, and I've seen a sofa in there, too. So we'll just--"

 

Jimin tugged on her hand and shook his head even harder.

 

But she had mom strength and he was sick and feeble, so he found himself being pulled along anyway.

 

"I don't know why you're all so scared of him," Ilhwa said. "He's a sweetheart."

 

As they passed the women's dressing room, Miran poked her head out, waving her phone. "What's this I hear about our Jimin feeling poorly?"

 

"He's caught a bad cold," said Ilhwa. "The poor thing can barely talk."

 

Jimin felt like he was all of four years old, clinging shyly to his mother's hand as they walked through the market on the weekend and the ahjumma produce sellers would know all about his nursery school escapades and how he'd slept the night before and if he'd been pooping well lately. And then he'd get apple slices and orange segments and sometimes a couple of sweet, juicy grapes for his trouble.

 

Miran frowned. "There's yuja tea in the pantry. Let me find one of the producers and see if we can't use some for him. I'm sure they won't mind."

 

Jimin shook his head; he was fine and didn't need fussing over and definitely did not need Ilhwa and Miran to go out of their way to take care of him.

 

"Oh, do you not like yuja tea?" Miran asked. Without waiting for a response, she continued, "Well, you'll just have to endure it. It's the best thing for you, so I don't want to hear any complaints."

 

"No, no," said Jimin through the dry sand in his throat. "Please don't trouble yourself."

 

"Aigoo," said Miran. "This kid. Are you taking him upstairs?"

 

Ilhwa nodded. "I was going to see if we could ask Min Yoongi about his sofa."

 

"Good, I'll come with you," said Miran.

 

Oh god, now Jimin had a whole cadre of moms about to mother their way through to Min Yoongi's dressing room. Why not Seokjin's dressing room? Or Hoseok's? Why did it have to be Min Yoongi when Jimin looked like death warmed over and was in imminent danger of hacking up a lung? Probably directly onto Yoongi's shoes, if history was anything to go by.

 

Ilhwa and Miran led Jimin to the elevator bank, where, lo and behold, there stood Yoongi and Taehyung, waiting for the same elevator.

 

"Ah! Min Yoongi-ssi!" Ilhwa called out.

 

Yoongi, in his regular non-broadcast sweats, turned around and greeted them with a slight bow. "Were you looking for me?"

 

"Yes," said Ilhwa with a bright smile. "You see, our Jimin isn't feeling very well, and we were hoping to find him a place to rest for a bit."

 

"Like your office," said Miran, almost threateningly. "With the nice couch."

 

Jimin shook his head frantically, hoping Yoongi and Taehyung would understand that this was not his idea and he wasn't really that sick and he was being held hostage by two of the nicest women he'd ever met.

 

"What's wrong with him?" Yoongi asked.

 

"Nothing," Jimin said, the word coming out as if it'd been shredded through a Microplane.

 

"Oh god," said Taehyung, taken aback. "What happened to you? Are you going to be okay? Is he going to be okay?"

 

"Yes," said Jimin.

 

"Come upstairs," said Yoongi.

 

The elevator doors opened, but Miran held back. "I'm going to make some yuja tea for him, and I'll bring it up," she said. "If the producers let me use the stuff in the pantry."

 

"If they ask, tell them I said it's fine," said Yoongi, then let the elevator doors close.

 

Whether consciously or not, Jimin wasn't quite aware, but he shifted himself slightly behind Ilhwa for safety. He hated imposing like this, on everyone he'd come across this morning, and obviously Yoongi had been cornered into offering his room, because who could say no to the double mom team of Ilhwa and Miran, which made Jimin feel even worse.

 

The elevator dinged and opened its doors to the floor where the judges usually spent their downtime. Ilhwa cheerfully dragged Jimin along with her to where Yoongi's room apparently was; Jimin had never come up here before -- it looked a lot like the third floor except with fewer computers and open cubicles.

 

Yoongi's dressing room was set up almost like a living room, with a long fabric sofa and its matching armchair and coffee table with a tea tray set at one end, and even a flatscreen TV mounted to the wall. Off to the side was a small garment rack where a collection of Yoongi's Chef Challenge wardrobe hung, as well as two plain work desks and a dressing table.

 

Taehyung scurried in and moved a few stray items off the sofa, then gestured for Jimin to sit. Jimin tried to indicate with his hands that really it was okay and he felt fine and everyone should go about their regular business. Equally silently, Taehyung glared at him and pointed with vehemence at the couch for Jimin to sit his ass down.

 

Jimin slid onto the couch feeling chastised. He tried to take up as little space as possible on it, curling his shoulders in and fitting his hands between his knees.

 

For his part, Yoongi appeared not to be bothered by the intrusion, setting his bag on the floor and sitting down at one of the desks with a few files. He motioned Taehyung over to discuss something with him, barely seeming to notice that Jimin was in the room at all.

 

"Have a lie-down, Jimin dear," said Ilhwa. "We’ll come and get you when the producers want us on set, okay?"

 

A quick glance towards Yoongi indicated that Yoongi didn’t care what he did, so Jimin acquiesced, curling up with his knees close to his chest, getting the feeling that Ilhwa would badger him about it if he didn’t.

 

"Jimin-ah!" came Miran’s voice from far down the hallway. She power-walked into the dressing room without so much as an acknowledgement for barging into one of the judges’ private spaces, placing a mug of steaming tea in front of Jimin on the coffee table. "It’s very hot, so let it cool a bit. But you have to drink it; it’ll help you feel better."

 

"Thank you," Jimin croaked.

 

Miran dismissed the thanks brusquely. "Go to sleep, go to sleep," she said. "They’re still having some kind of production meeting downstairs, so they won’t need us for a while yet."

 

She and Ilhwa left the room together, with Ilhwa calling out, "Thank you, Min Yoong-ssi!" to which Yoongi raised a hand in acknowledgement without looking up.

 

Not long after, Taehyung went out as well on an errand, giving Jimin a quick wave as he bustled out. It left Jimin alone in the room with Yoongi, though for all the attention Yoongi was giving him they might as well be on opposite ends of the building.

 

With nothing else to do and no one talking to him, Jimin resigned himself to sleep and closed his eyes.

 

When he opened them again – he didn't know how long later, but he felt at least slightly less dead – Yoongi was still at the desk with his back to Jimin, hunched over something. Jimin blinked and stared at the curve of Yoongi's back, wondering why and how exactly he'd come not only to tolerate Yoongi, but actually like him.

 

He’d figured out early on that Yoongi wasn’t quite the savage beast TV had made him out to be, but it wasn’t just that. Yoongi was still sometimes terse and didn’t sugarcoat his words -- nor did he expect anyone else to -- but underneath that was a wholly unexpected kindness. He’d taken care of Jimin so many times without ever actually acknowledging as much or asking for anything in return.

 

Was that what had reshaped Yoongi in Jimin’s mind? Turned his face from something loathsome Jimin had wanted to throw chips at, to a face that made Jimin feel nourished and warm inside? A face he wanted to hold in his hands and study, from the sharp eyebrows to the round tip of his nose to the curve of his soft lips.

 

Yoongi got up slowly from the desk and turned around. Somehow afraid he might get in trouble, Jimin snapped his eyes shut and pretended to still be sleeping.

 

"Park Jimin?" Yoongi said softly.

 

Jimin didn’t move.

 

"His tea is going to get cold," Yoongi muttered and sighed.

 

Eyes still firmly shut, Jimin felt a soft flap in the air above him, and then something settling over his body, its shape not quite smooth enough to be a blanket, but did the same job anyway. Yoongi's palm pressed gently against his forehead for a couple of seconds, gauging his temperature, then pulled away, a cool emptiness left behind in its place.

 

Jimin forced himself to keep his eyes closed for a few moments longer, then heard a series of faraway shuffling sounds and took the risk of easing his eyes open. He stifled a gasp. Yoongi’s back was to him again, and what he’d heard was Yoongi changing out of his sweats into his broadcast attire. He already had a pair of tight black slacks on, but the top -- well, there wasn’t one.

 

Jimin gazed down the line of Yoongi’s pale back, his lips falling open a little as he wondered what it’d be like to press his hands to Yoongi’s skin.

 

The sound of Jimin’s breath hitching in his throat made Yoongi turn to check on him, his eyes widening a fraction when he realized Jimin was staring at him. Hastily, Yoongi pulled his button-down shirt on. "Sorry, thought you were sleeping," he said, and Jimin couldn’t tell for sure in the soft light of the room, but he thought Yoongi’s cheeks might have gone a bit pink.

 

"I, um, I was," Jimin lied and rubbed his eyes. "I just…"

 

Yoongi quickly buttoned up his shirt, and Jimin couldn’t help but follow the movement with his eyes, lamenting silently every successive inch of skin that got covered up.

 

"Drink your tea before it gets too cold," said Yoongi, and pulled on a blazer.

 

Jimin sat up, just now realizing that what Yoongi had covered him up with was one of his sweatshirts, and brought the mug up to his lips with two hands. It was still warm enough, and it felt good against his hands. He took a long sip, the citrusy drink easing down his throat and spreading warmth in his chest. Jimin licked the corners of his mouth, droplets of sweetness lingering there. He looked up to see Yoongi watching him intently, the meaning behind his expression once again hidden from Jimin’s understanding.

 

"I drank some, see?" said Jimin, holding the mug out as proof, his throat temporarily soothed. "You don’t have to stand there and supervise me."

 

"I wasn’t-- Never mind," said Yoongi with a shake of his head.

 

"Thank you for, uh," said Jimin, gesturing to the sofa and the sweatshirt he now hugged to his chest.

 

"Mm," said Yoongi, nodding.

 

Jimin looked at his shoes, feeling small again. "I feel bad, putting you out. And everyone."

 

"I don’t think anyone thinks you’re putting them out," said Yoongi. He paused, then added, somewhat quieter, "They just care about you."

 

Jimin lifted his eyes to Yoongi’s, something different in Yoongi’s tone this time that made Jimin think maybe-- He sneezed. "Ugh," said Jimin, pressing his fingers to his forehead to stave off the pressure building there and sniffing noisily. "Ow. Stupid-- Hate this cold."

 

Yoongi shook his head, a soft chuckle ghosting out of his lips. "Drink your tea." He got on his cell phone, turning away from Jimin, though Jimin could still hear everything he said. "Namjoon-ah… Oh good, Miran told you already. Yeah, can you bring the medic up here? See if she can do anything? How should I know? What am I, a nurse?"

 

"Medic?" Jimin asked worriedly after Yoongi hung up. Not another person for him to inconvenience. "It's really not that bad. I feel fine, I promise."

 

His memory of all the seasons of Chef Challenge reminded him that medics appeared on the scene when things went really wrong, like the one time someone had tripped while running to the pantry and dislocated a knee. The medics helped with serious injuries, not… cases of the sniffles.

 

"Park Jimin, what did I just say?"

 

Jimin consulted his short-term memory and came up with, "You're not a nurse?"

 

Yoongi leveled a flat glare at him. "Before that. You're not putting anyone out. Let people help you. They want to," he said. "I promise."

 

Namjoon arrived with their resident medic in tow, a portly, calm woman in her forties. She looked Jimin over, doing a bit of prodding here and there, and asked Jimin kindly to explain his symptoms to her. She nodded, turning to Namjoon and Yoongi to say, "It doesn't sound like it's too bad. I can give him a non-steroidal shot. It should at least reduce the inflammation in his nose and throat, hopefully within a few hours."

 

"So he can still compete?" Namjoon asked. At the medic's affirmative nod, Namjoon looked to Jimin. "Sound good to you? I can’t imagine you’d want to be in the kitchen without the shot."

 

"Oh… Okay," said Jimin.

 

"We’ll be downstairs," said Yoongi, while the medic looked through her bag for the necessary equipment. "I’ll send Taehyung up to get you when you’re needed."

 

"Okay," Jimin said again, only now realizing this was all meant to help him stay in the competition as best he could in his condition.

 

The injection went quickly, and the medic left him to rest after extracting a promise from him that he would tell her if he felt any worse. Jimin drank more of his yuja tea, though it was mostly lukewarm at this point. His phone buzzed in his pocket, and he pulled it out to see a message from Jungkook.

 

Word on set is you have pneumonia but don’t worry I told everyone it’s just syphilis. 

 

I coughed on everything you own, typed Jimin.  

 

Jimin leaned back against the sofa and closed his eyes. He didn’t exactly want to fall asleep, seeing as they could call him to set at any moment, and indeed--

 

"Are you awake?" Taehyung whispered from the doorway.

 

"Mm," said Jimin, rousing himself. He pushed off from the sofa with a little difficulty. "Coming."

 

Taehyung hovered next to him all the way to the elevators, arms out, as if afraid Jimin might just collapse along the way.

 

"You don’t have to," said Jimin, his throat still scratchy but at least a little bit better than before the tea. "I have a cold, not, like, tuberculosis."

 

"I know, but," said Taehyung, "Kookie will be so mad at me if I broke his best friend."

 

Jimin laughed but regretted the way it hurt his throat. "Yeah, but he’d be mad at me if I got you sick, so maybe stand back a bit."

 

They agreed to split the difference by walking together at a normal pace and with a normal amount of distance between them as they got in the elevator and headed downstairs. The set was its usual flurry of activity when they got there, with Namjoon gathering the contestants to make sure everyone was on the same page for the upcoming challenge.

 

Jimin thanked Taehyung for fetching him and went to join the group as unobtrusively as he could. Sungjae noticed him, though, and patted him lightly on the shoulder to welcome him back.

 

Namjoon was explaining the challenge, giving them the same instructions they'd received the week prior, just to make sure they were a hundred percent clear on what was going on. Before long, he dismissed them to their assigned stations -- Jimin was near the back this time; he wondered if they'd put him there so as not to get too many shots of his exhausted, germ-ridden face. Sookyung had done the best she could, but not even all those layers of makeup could disguise the fact that he was sick and was considering faceplanting into his cutting board.

 

The timer started, and Jimin took a deep breath. He stretched his gloved fingers. As rundown as he was, he wasn't about to let a stupid cold get in his way.

 

In the middle of muttering to himself -- which Jimin was sure the sound editors would hate him for, given how raspy and unintelligible he was while stuffed up -- Hoseok came by his station with the judges.

 

"Jimin-ssi!" said Hoseok. "The producers tell me it's a miracle you're alive. What's going on this week?"

 

Jimin laughed, a puff of lightly clattering air. "I'm just getting over a cold, that's all. Mostly it's my voice that's gone." He held up his hands like a surgeon about to enter the OR. "But I am taking hygienic precautions."

 

"Don't worry," said Seokjin. "I'm sure even if you sneeze all over the food it'll still be worth eating."

 

"But please don't," said Hani, giving Seokjin a sideways look of consternation. "Tell us what you're making for your illusion appetizer?"

 

"It's a salad, but I'm going to make it look like a cake. It has a soybean flour sponge base, and layers of vegetables in between," explained Jimin, pushing through the discomfort in his throat, "and I'm going to frost it with tofu cream cheese, and make decorations out of carrots and beets."

 

Seokjin eyed him suspiciously. "Interesting. But also weird," he said. He put a finger to his chin. "But interesting!"

 

Meanwhile, Yoongi contributed nothing to the chitchat, just stood there with his hands held casually behind his back and his eyes trained on Jimin, regardless of who was talking. Whether it was meant to make him nervous or not, Jimin couldn't tell -- as usual -- but rather than feeling flustered by Yoongi's gaze, Jimin felt bolstered by it. Like Yoongi wasn't saying anything because he knew Jimin was going to do just fine.

 

But that was probably projecting.

 

"Well, we can't wait to see it!" said Hoseok.

 

He led the judges away to the next station and left Jimin to concentrate on his appetizer. It wasn't difficult, per se, just a little fiddly to maintain all the layers when he cut into it to look like an actual cake slice.

 

As always, time went by in a flash. Jimin had just managed to put on his last beet rose onto the cake when the timer buzzed, and he stepped back, hands up, flush with satisfaction. To the naked eye, it looked like the kind of chic cake displayed in patisserie windows that always drew admiration from passersby.

 

While the judges went off to their secret tasting quarters, Namjoon gathered the contestants for interviews. How they were going to get anything from Jimin's cracked, brittle voice was beyond him, but Jimin supposed that was the producers' problem.

 

Their solution was to give him a large drawing pad and a Sharpie to preserve what he had of his voice, though Namjoon told him that he was welcome to speak as well, if he felt like he was up for it.

 

Like always, Jimin was asked to go through what had happened during the challenge, the things he'd been thinking and feeling at certain points, how he thought the other contestants' appetizers had turned out, what he predicted the judges might say.

 

"I think Min Yoongi…" he began, then motioned for the producers to give him a second and popped the cap off the Sharpie.

 

He drew a big circle, then black eyes, mismatched and mischievous eyebrows, and a big, open smile with a set of protruding front teeth. Jimin turned the pad around towards the camera and laughed at the drawing, his body folding to the side in surrender to his own ridiculousness.

 

"That's supposed to be Min Yoongi?" Namjoon asked, laughing along with him. "When he tastes your salad cake?"

 

Jimin looked at the picture proudly. "It's cute, right? His teeth are a bit like that," he said, pointing, "when he laughs."

 

"He's gonna kill you," said Namjoon.

 

"That's only if you show him," said Jimin. He looked straight down the barrel of the camera lens with his sweetest smile. "Please take this part out, editor-nim. I will buy you a cup of coffee next time. And you too, PD-nim."

 

Namjoon chuckled. "No bribing the staff."

 

Jimin threw a finger heart at the camera.

 

"Okay, I think we've got all we need," Namjoon said dryly.

 

Dismissed to the break room, Jimin sat down with Sejeong and Sungjae, watching them play a lazy game of Go Fish while the others variously rested, played games on their phone, listened to music, or stared into space.

 

They were called back to the set in due time. Sejeong, first up, impressed the judges with the miniature set of Impressionist paintings, frame and all, she'd made out of her ingredients. One by one, they each received their verdicts -- including a disappointing one for Miran, who hadn't quite succeeded in the illusion part of the challenge, as well as Shinwon, whose mistiming had led to some parts of his dish being slightly burnt.

 

Jimin was called up last.

 

"Well, you look terrible and you sound terrible," said Seokjin blithely, "but at least you made up for it by giving us this amazing creation! My eyes keep telling me it's cake and it looks like strawberry cream on the outside, but it's actually all veggies and I can't handle it. And you have to teach me how to make this beet rose immediately. I'm gonna blow my mom's mind next time I go back home!"

 

Hani echoed his sentiments, though hers were a little more refined. "I was a bit worried that you -- and everyone -- would focus too much on the visual aspect and forget your flavors, but I was worried for nothing. Everything goes together really nicely, it tastes fresh, the cream isn't too much. Especially considering that you're not running at a hundred percent today, this is exceptional."

 

Jimin beamed, then reined it in for Yoongi's ruling.

 

"I like it," said Yoongi. Normally, just that statement would have been enough to make Jimin's entire day, but Yoongi went on. "The way you structured this shows me that you put a lot of thought into it; there are distinct layers -- just like with a real cake -- and it all holds together beautifully," he said, using his fork to point out what he meant for the cameras. "And like Hani said, you not only followed the brief visually, but you didn't sacrifice any flavor either. Nicely done."

 

Jimin bent into a quick, low bow. He could feel his cheeks blooming red with gratification. Nearly at the halfway point of the show now, Week 5 was definitely a good stage at which he could start making a concentrated run for finals glory.

 

Just as he was about to return to his station, Yoongi said, "One more thing."

 

He reached down underneath the judges' table and pulled out a large piece of paper that Jimin recognized at once.

 

Yoongi held up Jimin's drawing. "The producers showed me this. They said you thought I'd make this face after trying your cake?"

 

If there was a way for Jimin to extract a cup of coffee from Namjoon's body, he'd reach right in and yank it out. Jimin bit his lower lip, grinning in admission, knowing he had no way out. After all, he'd done it right in front of the cameras. "It was more like an aspiration," he said to Yoongi.

 

Yoongi cocked his head, as if not sure whether he agreed. "I suppose you earned it," he said after some consideration, then held the drawing up next to his face and mimicked its expression in a wide, toothy smile.

 

Seokjin leaned over with helpful fingers to arrange one of Yoongi's eyebrows into the same composition as the picture as the staff on set and the contestants began laughing.

 

Giggling into his hands, Jimin met Yoongi's eyes again, the playful exchange entirely novel and adorable. If Jimin didn't already like Yoongi, he knew this would be the moment that would crumble the rest of his walls. He'd never seen Yoongi like this before, and its rarity made it all the more charming. It was just so goddamn cute.

 

And there were the crinkles around his eyes again that Jimin had come to like so much. If he wasn't careful, he could get lost in Yoongi's eyes.

 

"I don't know about you," said Hoseok, coming to put a friendly arm around Jimin's shoulder, "but our Min Yoongi smiling… I think this is an impending sign of the apocalypse?"

 

Jimin thanked the judges once more and headed back to his station, after which Hoseok rattled off a few more lines to the camera summing up the first challenge and previewing the upcoming round, as well as exhorting the home audience to check the show's website for the contestants' recipes.

 

They were dismissed after that for a bit of down time while the crew cleaned up and prepped for the next round of cooking and filming.

 

"Park Jimin," he heard.

 

Jimin turned around to face Yoongi. "Yes?"

 

Yoongi still had the drawing in hand. "Sign?" he asked, holding it out along with a Sharpie. His mouth was curled up at one end. Once upon a time Jimin might have read it in the realm of mockery, but there was nothing about Yoongi now that suggested it. If anything, he was still in the slightly impish mood from judging.

 

"Why?" Jimin laughed, though he reached out for the proffered items.

 

"I like it better than the caricature drawing I got once from a street artist in Paris," said Yoongi, casually sliding his hands into his pockets. "Didn't look like me at all."

 

Jimin let a smidgen of jealousy show on his face. "Wow, Paris. That sounds nice. I've never even been outside of Korea."

 

"It's a beautiful city," said Yoongi. "You'd fit right in. I think you'd probably like it. "

 

"Maybe one day," said Jimin, though certainly not on his current salary as a paper pusher at Hansung Imports. "But not go to your caricaturist, probably."

 

"Yes, he really didn't get my devil horns right," Yoongi sighed.

 

Jimin snickered and was in the middle of scribbling his name at the bottom of the paper when his mind clicked to what Yoongi had said about Paris. And then about him. Surely he hadn't meant that Jimin would fit in because he was also beautiful. Surely, surely not. Jimin paused writing and looked up, and Yoongi only gazed back at him mildly.

 

"What?" Yoongi asked.

 

"N--never mind," said Jimin, feeling his face go a little warm, and ducked his head back down to finish writing his name. He straightened up and handed the paper and marker back to Yoongi. "Um, don't go selling it online immediately. I know it's going to be quite the hot ticket item, but…"

 

"What are you talking about? I'm keeping this forever," said Yoongi, holding the paper close to his chest.

 

Jimin blinked at him. He knew they were kidding around. He obviously had not meant a single word about the online selling thing. But something in Yoongi's tone, somewhere just underneath the sarcasm, glimmered with sincerity.

 

"If you need to come upstairs again to rest," said Yoongi, "just come. You don't have to ask."

 

"Oh," said Jimin. "Okay, thank you."

 

Yoongi nodded and walked away, leaving Jimin to stare after him in slight befuddlement yet again. He shook off the feeling and went to join the rest of the contestants in the break room for lunch, which was Japanese bento boxes today. He wasn't feeling particularly hungry, so surrendered half of his bento box to Jungkook (assuring his dear friend that he'd sneezed in it, after Jungkook had already eaten a mouthful) and picked at the other half.

 

Despite not having an appetite, Jimin felt better, probably thanks to the injection the medic had given him. And he definitely needed to feel better for the next round, the most challenging one yet. He'd been successful at home, but it didn't always translate that way in the set kitchen with the timer constantly looming over them and unexpected things going wrong at the most unexpected times.

 

So it was with cautious optimism that Jimin approached his workstation again when they were called back to set for the second round.

 

Given the difficulty of this round, they were given a little more time than usual to complete their creations, and Jimin needed every second of it. He exchanged a thumbs-up with Sejeong, assigned to a station in the middle of her row, and took a deep breath.

 

Hoseok took his mark and introduced the second round, then started off the clock.

 

As always, he brought the judges round to each of the cooking stations to find out more about what the contestants were planning to serve; Jimin tried to pay them no mind as they talked with Hakyeon and Lisa at the front.

 

By the time they got to him, Jimin already had his chicken liver pate set aside and cooling and was working on the jelly for the outer coating. He looked up as the judges approached and gave them a nervous smile, half expecting them to tell him he was crazy for attempting this.

 

"It's, um," said Jimin, at Hani's prompting. He gestured to the pate he had blended together. "I'm going to try to make it look like a mandarin orange. I-- It worked at home a few times, so…"

 

"Gosh, I can't even imagine how," said Seokjin, his eyebrows drawing together as he stared uncomprehendingly at what Jimin had on his board. "Not that I'm doubting you!"

 

"It'll be interesting to see it come together," said Yoongi, and Jimin had a feeling there was an ellipse attached, along with if it comes together.

 

After the good reviews he'd gotten earlier in the day, there was no way Jimin was going to let himself down on this round. "It will," he said, with more confidence than he felt inside, but he needed to hear it out loud, even if it was only from himself.

 

Yoongi nodded. "Good luck."

 

After Hoseok pulled the judges away to the next station to interrogate Sungjae, who promised to blow their minds, Jimin threw himself back into his project with mental blinders on, only every now and then reminding himself to look up and check if he was on track with time. More than once, he noticed Yoongi walking by to check on his and the other contestants' progress, but Yoongi didn't speak to him, so Jimin tried his best to ignore his presence.

 

"Wow, what's that?" said a voice suddenly.

 

Startled, Jimin nearly dropped the saucepan in his hand and realized Seokjin was perched right at the end of his station, elbows propped on the workbench and chin in his hands.

 

"Sorry, I thought you knew I was here!" said Seokjin, reaching out to steady him. "I've been standing here for, like, five minutes!"

 

"Huh?" said Jimin.

 

"Wah, this kid," said Seokjin to no one in particular. "You must have done so well in school with concentration like that. But also, I'm hurt, Park Jimin. I've been standing here this whole time and you never even noticed me." He touched his face gingerly. "Surely these good looks aren't already fading."

 

Jimin gathered himself and clicked back into where he was in the recipe he'd been working through in his head. As his hands caught up, he said, "Sorry, I guess I was, um--" He blinked, clearly remembering he'd seen Yoongi pass by several times, but hadn't registered Seokjin's presence at all. Jimin cleared his throat. "Uh, this is my mandarin jelly mixture; it'll go on the outside as a coating for the liver pate."

 

Seokjin looked over at it with interest and asked Jimin to explain what he was doing to make it. Despite the interruption, it wasn't a terrible burden, as it gave Jimin the opportunity to talk himself through his own steps at a more measured pace than the way he usually muttered to himself during competition rounds.

 

Eventually, Seokjin loped away to see what other people were doing, and Jimin buckled down hard again.

 

It wasn't much long after, or at least it didn't feel like very long, that Hoseok announced the final five minutes. Jimin fought the urge to rush himself, fearing he might accidentally make a mistake if he did; even so, he went down to the wire, sticking his leaf stem decorations into the eight faux oranges right at the end of Hoseok's countdown.

 

He exchanged exhausted high fives with Hakyeon in front of him and Sungjae to the side. Sungjae's looked amazing, if deliberately unappealing; he'd made the facsimile of a kitchen sponge with bubbly dish soap.

 

"Oh my god," said Jimin, "that looks so good, Sungjae-yah."

 

"Disgusting, right?" said Sungjae, eyes lighting up. "Nobody will want to eat it!"

 

They submitted themselves once more to interviews after retiring their aprons to the crew and washing up, then it was back to waiting again. Jimin brought out cards once more, this time gathering his friends to play Halli Galli, though Ilhwa and Miran politely demurred. Seokjin even came in to join them, but after destroying everyone in multiple consecutive games, a democratic vote banned him from ever playing with them again.

 

"That's fine," Seokjin sniffed. "I just came to assert my dominance. No one will ever beat the Halli Galli king of Gyeonggi-do."

 

"We're just kidding, Seokjin-ssi," said Jimin, grinning.

 

"That's hyung to you. To all of you!" said Seokjin with a grand, sweeping gesture. He spotted Yoongi wandering in as well with Taehyung, and called out, "Yoongi-yah! Taehyung-ah! Come and play with us. I'm defending my Halli Galli title from these children."

 

"I'm older than you," Hakyeon pointed out. " And Taeyang hyung."

 

Seokjin leaned forward with interest. "You must both have fantastic skincare regimens, then. What's your secret?"

 

Taehyung looked to Yoongi for permission, and once having received Yoongi's nod, he scuttled over with a happy grin and plopped himself down next to Jimin. "This looks fun," he said.

 

Though Yoongi elected not to join them, he got a cup of tea and sat nearby checking his phone while Taehyung played, like a dad at a children's park.

 

Eventually, they segued from Halli Galli into poker (with imaginary currency that Lisa kept track of on a piece of notebook paper, because Namjoon wouldn't let them gamble with anything real on business premises, not even the family size pack of Homerun Balls Shinwon had brought in to share), though Jimin could barely remember the rules.

 

Seokjin anointed himself the dealer and made a big show of shuffling the deck, though he almost immediately lost one under the table. "But how did I make that card disappear?" he asked, wiggling his fingers as of a low-rent magician.

 

"Hurry up, hyung," Taehyung complained.

 

"No hassling the dealer," said Seokjin. "Just for that you get your cards last."

 

At Jimin and Shinwon's request they played a few practice rounds to get the rules down again, then Seokjin announced, prize fight style, that they were officially starting and that the ante was a million won.

 

"Oof," said Sungjae, shaking his head while Lisa jotted down the pot, "I don't know if I can afford this game."

 

"Just throw in your imaginary Rolex later," suggested Eunji, "if you have to."

 

"In that case," said Shinwon, "please let's all pretend that I am dripping with jewels. And I'm wearing that giant necklace from Titanic."

 

Taehyung snorted into his hand and then whispered to Jimin, "Now he's made me imagine he's laid out on the couch asking to be drawn like one of Jack's French girls."

 

"Oh no," Jimin said and burst into giggles. "Stop."

 

Yoongi glanced up at the sound, eyes immediately drawn in Jimin's direction. His mouth crooked into a quick smile, then he went back to scrolling through his phone. Why he was choosing to hang out here instead of in the relative comfort of his own dressing room when he wasn't even participating in the game was beyond Jimin, which was not to say that Jimin minded. He kept his eyes on Yoongi for a moment longer, hoping he'd look up again, but Seokjin drew his attention back to the game.

 

"First bet!" he called, starting with Lisa at his left.

 

They went around the circle of players in a series of betting rounds, a couple of calls and a couple of folds in between, until just Jimin and Sungjae remained. Chewing on his bottom lip, Jimin looked at his cards and at the river, not quite sure what to do. As he hesitated, Yoongi walked over to stand behind him.

 

"Call," said Yoongi.

 

"Huh?" said Jimin. He looked backwards to see Yoongi shrugging noncommittally but trusted him anyway. "Okay. Call."

 

"Hey, that's cheating," said Sungjae, pouting while Lisa penciled Jimin's money into the pot. It was beginning to look complicated, but at least Jimin wasn't the one in charge of the notebook.

 

"When you're as bad at poker as I am, you need all the help you can get," said Jimin.

 

Sungjae eyed him with a frown. "But that's the whole point, to bilk money out of players like you. Not fair, I want someone to help me take all of Jimin's money. I have mouths to feed at home."

 

Taeyang leaned over towards Sungjae to get a full view of his cards. "Yeah, you're fine," he said casually. "You have a straight."

 

"Hyung! You can't just tell them!" Sungjae said, aghast, and hit Taeyang's arm.

 

"Just trying to help," said Taeyang, flashing him a smile.

 

Sungjae looked from him to Yoongi and back again, then erupted in a loud groan. "This is so unfair. I'm not playing against Jiminie, I'm playing against two big mean hyungs! This one won't stop smiling creepily," he said, jabbing a finger in Taeyang's direction, "and the other one won't stop staring creepily."

 

Behind him, Jimin heard Yoongi break into a small huff of laughter. He felt Yoongi's hands resting along the top of his chair, fingers just barely touching Jimin's back, and shifted the slightest bit backwards to press against them. He bit down a smile when Yoongi stayed where he was.

 

Sungjae glared at his cards for a moment, then back up at Taeyang and Yoongi, and wrenched backwards with a cry of frustration. "I fold, I fold, I fold. I can't handle this. When my pretend children go hungry, know that it's your fault."

 

"Hee," said Jimin with glee as he leaned forward to reveal his cards. He'd had a three-of-a-kind, a rank lower than Sungjae's straight.

 

"Nooo," Sungjae howled.  

 

It would have been nice to gather all the chips from the table into his very own pile, like they always did in movies, but he had to content himself with watching Lisa transfer numbers into his column. He looked back to thank Yoongi, but Yoongi had disappeared.

 

Apparently it was to get to set, as one of the staff came in to call everyone back to film judging.

 

When it came to Jimin's turn, he stood in front of the judges, heart pounding in his chest. He took as deep a breath as he could without pushing himself over into a coughing fit, and waited as the judges scrutinized his presentation, which he had served with grilled bread and a side salad.

 

"Park Jimin," said Seokjin delightedly, fists at his hips, "did you spend the whole time we gave you for cooking driving out to some orchard to pick mandarin oranges? Because that is what I see on my plate and I won't be told otherwise."

 

Hani looked up at Jimin with a proud smile. "I'm blown away. It looks absolutely real. You even have the texture of the rind right."

 

They cut into the faux fruit, revealing the creamy chicken liver pate inside, and tasted it for the benefit of the cameras. Seokjin stood up and applauded.

 

Jimin bit his lip, glancing at his shoes, and hardly dared to smile.

 

"I don't know what you were thinking," said Yoongi, after Hani had heaped more praise on Jimin, "but I certainly think you were insane to have attempted this. With how complicated the whole process is and the time constraints that you had, it was doomed from the start."

 

Jimin's heart plummeted to the bottom of his stomach and he couldn't look Yoongi in the eye. After all those teary nights in his kitchen trying over and over again, to be told that it was still a failure…

 

"So it's even more insane," Yoongi continued, "that you pulled it off."

 

His eyes snapped up to meet Yoongi's. It took another second for Jimin's brain to register the pleased smile on Yoongi's face. "Oh…" Jimin breathed.

 

"Park Jimin, this is what I've been waiting for from you," said Yoongi. "You've shown occasional brilliance here and there, and more than a few missteps, but today it's really all come together. This is probably as close to perfection as we've ever gotten from a challenge like this. I would have this in my restaurant in a heartbeat."

 

"Wow wow wooow," said Hoseok, putting his arm around Jimin. He shook Jimin a little from side to side, possibly in an attempt to rock the speechlessness out of him. "Rave reviews from the judges! How are you feeling, Jimin-ssi?"

 

"I-- I think I need to lie down," Jimin told him, his voice equally raspy from his illness as it was the sudden surge of emotion that had risen up in his throat.

 

Hoseok laughed, then dispatched him back to his station with congratulations, and called Lisa up for judging. Sejeong made a face of delight at Jimin as he passed by her station and Hakyeon slapped him on the back.

 

Jimin didn't even hear what the judges had to say to Lisa, still reeling from not only the unanimous approval from the judges, but Yoongi's comments in particular. All those teary nights in his kitchen had absolutely been worth it; he felt as if he might burst with joy.

 

Post-judging, Namjoon pulled them in for quick interviews, during which all Jimin could really do was stare at Namjoon and shrug helplessly.

 

"I'm gonna need a little more than that," snickered Namjoon.

 

"I-- Ah--" said Jimin, shaking his head, still in disbelief.

 

"Okay, get out of here," said Namjoon. He rolled his eyes good-naturedly. "You're useless to me."

 

Jimin bowed in a combination of thanks and apologies and skittered out of the interview room, where he was immediately attacked by Jungkook in an enormous hug that lifted Jimin's feet off the floor.

 

"I-- Seriously, where do you come from?" Jimin said, though he made no attempt to fight Jungkook off, knowing it was more than futile, and accepted his limp ragdoll fate.

 

"That was so cool to see, hyung!" Jungkook said. He finally deigned to put Jimin down. "You're, like, the best one here now. Min Yoongi practically said so."

 

"No, shh," said Jimin. "It's only been two rounds; who knows what I'll fuck up next time."

 

"That's loser talk," Jungkook admonished him, at the same time that another voice said, "I certainly hope not."

 

Jimin whirled around, recognizing Yoongi's voice. "Where did you come from?" he blurted out, making Yoongi's eyebrows lift in surprise. "Are there, like, trap doors on set I don't know about?"

 

"No, you're just unobservant as shit," said Jungkook helpfully. He smacked Jimin on the butt and scurried off after a quick nod of acknowledgement to Yoongi, leaving Jimin to fend off the scary judge by himself -- though, admittedly, much less scary now.

 

"Sorry," said Yoongi, rubbing the back of his neck with one hand, a cup of hot tea in the other. "Didn't mean to, uh, startle you. But really-- good job on the last round. I have high hopes for you." 

 

"Thank you," said Jimin. He felt heat suffuse his cheeks, certain he was blushing. "But Yoongi-ssi--"

 

"Hyung," Yoongi said with a wry smile.

 

"Ah," said Jimin, still unaccustomed to the thought. He tried it out again. "... Hyung?"

 

"Yes?"

 

"Did you really have to do the thing where you made it sound like I totally screwed up," Jimin asked, just a pitch short of a whine, "and then tell me it was actually good all along? I mean, I thought I was going to be sick. It was like my heart had been drop-kicked into highway traffic, hyung."

 

A slow smile broke over Yoongi's face, like the glow of a nascent sunrise, his eyes as soft as Jimin had ever seen them. "I'll try to be more careful with your heart next time."

 

Jimin's breath caught in his throat. He was sure Yoongi hadn't meant to make it sound like a confession; what kind of alternate universe insanity would that be?

 

"I, uh--" said Yoongi, frowning slightly. He held out the cup of tea in his hand. "This is-- Ra Miran told me to give this to you."

 

"Oh," said Jimin, accepting it with both hands, his fingers brushing against Yoongi's as he took the cup. He tried not to notice the minor thrill it sent down his spine. "Thank you."

 

Yoongi nodded, then turned on his heel and walked off. It seemed a bad habit of his, just up and leaving conversations without any prior indication that he was done, the way people in movies never said goodbye on the phone and just rudely hung up on each other constantly.

 

Nevertheless, Jimin was grateful for the delivery. He held the cup up to his nose, breathing in its steam and scent. It wasn't yuja this time, but something spicy and sweet. Jimin took a sip as he walked back to the break room, honey sweetness coating his tongue and the warmth of ginger diffusing through his chest.

 

He sat next to Sejeong quietly, drinking his tea, and she held the back of her hand to his forehead to check his temperature. Satisfied he wasn't getting any worse, she then showed him a cute video of a litter of clumsy puppies that she'd just found online, and they squealed together at every adorable move the puppies made.

 

"If you could pick one to take home," she asked, "which one do you think you'd want?"

 

"Only one?" Jimin said. "I'm taking all of them. I don't care about your rules."

 

Sejeong smacked his leg. "Greedy."

 

"But just imagine what it would be like to cuddle up to eight chubby little puppies at the same time, Sejeong-ah," Jimin said. "Don't take my dreams away from me. It's all I have!"

 

"Fine, you can choose two."

 

"Oh, there you are, Jimin-ah," said Miran, coming up to them. "I was going to ask if you wanted me to make you more tea, but you already got some; that's good."

 

Jimin blinked, his mouth falling open slightly. "But I thought…" he began. Jimin shook his head to dispel the inquiring look on Miran's face. "No, never mind. Thank you for thinking of me, though."

 

"How's your throat feeling?" she asked.

 

Looking at the tea Yoongi had given him, Jimin smiled. "Better."

 

He watched another baby animal video with Sejeong, then excused himself and headed upstairs to Yoongi's dressing room, determined not to let him get away with ceding credit to Miran for the tea.

 

Jimin rapped his knuckles politely on Yoongi's open door, poking his head in at the same time to see Yoongi sitting on the couch, looking at something on his phone. At the knock, Yoongi glanced up, smiling when he registered Jimin standing at the door. It came so naturally to his face Jimin felt as if there were a burst of sunshine in his chest.

 

"Yoongi hyung, can I come in?" Jimin asked uncertainly.

 

"What did I tell you earlier?"

 

"That I don't have to ask?" said Jimin.

 

Yoongi nodded and got up from the sofa, gesturing that it was all Jimin's. "Don't make that face," he said, to the beginnings of Jimin attempting to insist that Yoongi didn't need to get up for him. "If you need to lie down, just lie down. It doesn't put me out, I promise."

 

Jimin shuffled in and took Yoongi's place on the sofa a little sheepishly. He'd really only come to thank Yoongi for the tea, but he didn't know how to refute Yoongi's assumption without seeming rude and capricious. He set the tea down carefully on the coffee table in front of him with a soft note of thanks to Yoongi, who dismissed it with a short wave of his hand.

 

"Can I, um," Jimin began. He was probably overstepping his bounds, but if he was going to lie down anyway… "Can you lend me your sweatshirt again?"

 

"Oh," said Yoongi, his eyebrows lifting slightly. He retrieved it from the back of his desk chair where he'd folded and hung it neatly. "Sure."

 

Jimin received it happily and settled it over himself as he curled up, resting his head on one arm of the sofa. He looked at Yoongi, who was sitting sideways in his desk chair with an elbow propped along the backrest to face Jimin, and said, "You didn't have to tell me it was Miran noona, you know."

 

"What-- Oh," said Yoongi again as Jimin pointed with his nose at the tea. Yoongi frowned slightly at being caught out. "I didn't want to make you feel uncomfortable."

 

"Why would I feel uncomfortable?" 

 

Yoongi gestured at nothing. "You said earlier that it made you feel bad."

 

"So… you wanted me to feel bad about Miran noona instead?" Jimin said with a light laugh.  

 

Though he opened his mouth, it appeared that Yoongi didn't have a very satisfactory explanation, and he said at length, "Something like that."

 

Sitting up, Jimin said, "Are you just afraid people will find out you're secretly really nice and won't take you seriously as the mean judge anymore?"

 

"Secretly really nice?" Yoongi repeated, almost as if confused.

 

"Mmhm," said Jimin. He lay back down again, complacent, and sent a cheeky smile Yoongi's way. "You're secretly soft and fluffy and gooey inside."

 

Yoongi inhaled deeply, his brow furrowed in thought. "This is literally the first time anyone has ever said that about me. I don't know how I feel about it. Possibly offended," he mused, no offense taken in his tone at all.

 

"Gooey," Jimin suggested.

 

"Viscera is like that sometimes," said Yoongi.

 

Jimin stopped short of rolling his eyes at Yoongi's deflection. Had no one ever taught him how to take a slightly tart compliment? "Yours are extra gooey," Jimin insisted. "Because you're secretly really nice."

 

"No one will ever believe you," said Yoongi. He rested his chin comfortably over his arm. "They'll just think you're crazy. Crazy Old Park Jimin, they'll call you. So sad, they'll say, he used to have such a bright future ahead of him. And now? Just spouting nonsense on a street corner, that Crazy Old Park Jimin."

 

"Wait, how come I'm old suddenly?" Jimin asked.

 

"That's the only part you have a problem with?" Yoongi said with a tiny huff of laughter.

 

"Hyung," said Jimin, giving him a side-eye, "I am young and beautiful."

 

"Be that as it may, Crazy Young and Beautiful Park Jimin doesn't have the same ring to it," said Yoongi. "It's not going to work."

 

This now made it the second instance that Yoongi had inadvertently said Jimin was beautiful (even if Jimin had mentioned it first this time). Whether he actually meant it or Jimin was just reading extra intent into it was unclear, but he chose to go with the former, mostly because he wanted it to be true.

 

"Taehyung thinks you're nice, too," said Jimin. "He apparently says so all the time."

 

"Taehyung is my manager. He's contractually obligated to say good things about me in public," said Yoongi dryly. "He gets bonuses if he meets an annual quota."

 

"I'm not your manager," said Jimin, "and I think you're nice. I'm going to tell everyone, and they'll totally believe me. Everyone likes me. I have a very trustworthy face, you know." As proof, he pointed to his face.

 

Yoongi narrowed his eyes. "Yes, you do have a strange way of making people like you."

 

He didn't have enough confidence to pursue the natural line of thought, so the question of do you like me too rolled from the tip of Jimin's tongue and back down his throat again. Instead, he went with, "How come you're okay with people thinking of you as a mean person? Isn't it hard?"

 

Yoongi's eyebrows lifted at the sudden change of direction, then pushed downwards thoughtfully. "Sometimes," he said, surprising Jimin with his honesty. "But more often than not, it doesn't matter, really."

 

"Because there are lots of morons with keyboards?" said Jimin.

 

At his words to Jimin from all those weeks ago coming back to him, Yoongi smiled. "Pretty much," he said. "It was difficult in the beginning, when I first started doing television. But over time you just get inured to it. It comes with the territory. I mean, even Seokjin hyung gets shit sometimes, and he, as we know, is the world's most handsome man." 

 

Jimin caught the glint in Yoongi's eye and said, with playful suspicion, "Are you going to hold that against me forever? It's not my fault, you know. That he's so good-looking and you're…" Jimin paused and grinned.

 

"Dare you to finish that sentence," said Yoongi.

 

Jimin's brain dared him, too. Surprisingly charming, he could say. Or return the favor and call Yoongi beautiful. Maybe even magnetic. Because there was no denying that Jimin felt an inexorable pull towards Yoongi that simple words couldn't explain; it wasn't just one thing or another, it was everything about Yoongi that added up to his inescapable allure. He was reticent and blunt and soft and kind, and Jimin liked him so much.

 

Not that he was going to say any of that out loud.

 

"Only slightly less good-looking?" Jimin teased. That he had gotten to this point with Yoongi at all was nothing short of a modern-day miracle.

 

Yoongi laughed quietly. "Oh, I've improved in your estimation. A banner day."

 

"You could be more excited about it," said Jimin.

 

"Hooray," said Yoongi in a monotone.

 

"Do you ever get excited about anything, hyung?" Jimin asked. He didn't know why he was asking so many things; maybe the opportunity of getting to know Yoongi one-on-one for any extended amount of time was too good to pass up. "You're always so calm."

 

Yoongi shrugged. "If there's something to get excited about."

 

"Like…?" Jimin prompted.

 

His eyebrows pulled together in thought, Yoongi said, "When I see my dog?"

 

Jimin lifted his head from the sofa arm. "You have a dog?" he asked, probably more excited about this news than Yoongi would be if he won the lottery.

 

Yoongi nodded. "Holly. He lives with my parents, though. I'm too busy to take care of him properly," he said with a slight frown. 

 

"Pictures, please," said Jimin. "You can't mention a dog and not show pictures. It's the law." 

 

"Well, if it's the law…" said Yoongi. He got up from his desk chair and pulled out his phone, then sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the sofa. He scrolled through his image gallery and proudly showed Jimin a photo of a sweet-faced, brown, curly-coated toy poodle. "That's my Holly."

 

Jimin couldn't stop the high-pitched squeal of delight that skirled out of his mouth. "He's so cute! I love him," he cooed, his hands coming up to his cheeks. "I want to cuddle him forever."

 

Yoongi ducked his head, a smile flaring on his face, as if embarrassed on behalf of his dog. "He'd like you a lot, too," he said.

 

Jimin grinned, completely in love with this moment. Despite the workplace setting, with Jimin lying on the couch and Yoongi sat casually in front of him on the floor, looking through pictures on Yoongi's phone, it felt like they were just hanging out in someone's living room, relaxed and comfortable. Jimin had never been so happy to be sick and imposing on someone else before.

 

"This one," said Yoongi, pulling up another picture of Holly sporting glamorous sunglasses, "is from when we took him to the beach earlier this year." He smiled at the recollection and then said, a little abashed at pushing the pet equivalent of too many baby pictures on Jimin, "Sorry, I don't get to show him off much."

 

Before Yoongi could put his phone away, Jimin reached out and touched his arm to stop him. "No, I like it," Jimin said, his hand lingering on Yoongi's sleeve just a second longer than it ought. "You must really love him a lot."

 

"Hm?" said Yoongi, looking up from the spot where Jimin had touched him.

 

"Your face," said Jimin. "It gets all soft and cute."

 

Yoongi narrowed his eyes. "There goes Crazy Old Park Jimin again."

 

Jimin giggled, his knees coming up higher towards his chest. "Hyung, I told you, it's Crazy Young and Beautiful Jimin."

 

"Well, I'll give you two of those things," said Yoongi.

 

Jimin was a little afraid to ask which two, fearing disappointment or embarrassment or somehow a distressing mix of both. It was possibly fortunate, then, that Taehyung walked into the dressing room at that moment. He seemed wholly unsurprised by Jimin's presence and came to sit on the couch, lifting Jimin's feet to clear a space for himself and then setting his feet back down on his lap.

 

"Hyung, that JTBC producer called again," said Taehyung, getting comfortable. "He wants to take you out to dinner and offered to up your appearance fee."

 

"No," said Yoongi.

 

"That's what I told him," said Taehyung with a grin. He patted Jimin's shin. "You want to take the job for Yoongi hyung and let some camera people film every second of your daily life for a week?"

 

"Yeah," said Jimin. "Me at my little gray cubicle running reports on our lathe and tube bender suppliers would make such sexy, riveting television."

 

"You have the face for it," said Taehyung. He winked and shot a finger gun at Jimin, earning himself a light kick in the chest from Jimin's heel. "What? You do. Lots of people think you're attractive; I see it online all the time."

 

Jimin slowly dragged Yoongi's sweatshirt up over his face until everything just below his eyes was covered, feeling his cheeks redden while Taehyung laughed. "No, shh," he said from under the sweatshirt.

 

"Don't embarrass the poor invalid," said Yoongi.

 

Peering at Taehyung over the shoulder of the sweatshirt, Jimin let out a small, vindicated, "Yeah, I'm poorly. How dare you compliment me."

 

"Well, buck up, pretty princess," said Taehyung, glancing at a notification that had just lit up his phone, "because you're due back on set in five."

 

He had just gotten comfortable, but Jimin supposed the show must go on. He breathed in a deep, fortifying breath, the faintest scent of what must be Yoongi's laundry detergent from the sweatshirt filling his nose. He wondered, for the smallest of moments, if Yoongi smelled like that all the time and fought the urge to press the sweatshirt closer against his face.

 

As Jimin eased himself up, Taehyung's phone rang, and just before he answered it and walked out of the room to take the call, he said to Yoongi, "Fix his hair a bit!"

 

"Not my job," Yoongi replied, frowning slightly at being given an order by someone who not only was younger but also under his employ. The frown dissipated as he turned to Jimin and said, "Uh, your hair."

 

"Why? Is it terrible?" Jimin asked.

 

Though he had sort of been hoping Yoongi would take Taehyung's orders, Yoongi merely pointed Jimin towards the dressing table, in front of which a big, well-lit mirror hung. Jimin's hair was sticking up a little from when he'd laid his head down, and he bent over to the mirror and managed to smooth his hair back into looking mostly presentable. Anyway the stylist noona would come and fix it if it needed help.

 

Once he was satisfied with it, Jimin straightened up again. He quickly grabbed the mug he'd left on the coffee table and said, "Should we go?"

 

Yoongi's mouth opened to respond, but he seemed to retract whatever he was about to say before it could even come out. He gave Jimin a brief hint of a smile. "Go on ahead. I need to, um, check my emails first."

 

Nodding, Jimin stepped out of the dressing room and rode the elevator downstairs alone. He held the precious mug tight to his chest, though it had long since gone cold, then joined his cohort on set for last-minute instructions and announcements.

 

Before long, they were off to the races again. The third and final round of the day, making desserts look like things they weren’t, came and went in a flash. Baking wasn't Jimin's forte, but he could at least make a decent sponge and had learned how to handle fondant and buttercream in the extra cooking class the week prior, so he focused his efforts more on decorating his cake to look like a sandwich.

 

He wasn't expecting too much from it, having directed most of his practice time towards the appetizer and entrée, and indeed, when it came to judging, he received a passing grade, but nothing anywhere near what had been said about his entrée.

 

At eliminations, even though Jimin was confident he'd make it through on the back of his entrée, a small knot of anxiety formed in his stomach anyway as Hoseok announced their fates.

 

In the end, it was Miran who was axed, to Jimin's utter dismay. Not, of course, that by this point he wouldn't have been upset at any of his other friends leaving. Miran, though, took the news with only a stoic nod and thanks to the judges and producers for the experience of being on the show.

 

After the final interviews of the day, Jimin went to the dressing room to grab his backpack, everyone else in a similarly somber mood. He received a silent pat on the back from Hakyeon, then went to wait for Jungkook at their regular exit.

 

A tiny (not so tiny) part of Jimin hoped he'd run into Yoongi again so he could properly thank him -- for the tea and the cheating at poker -- but it wasn't to be, Jungkook loping into view only a minute later.

 

"Finally time to go home!" said Jungkook happily. "You feeling good about how you did today, hyung?"

 

Jimin couldn't complain, though Miran leaving was still on his mind. "Mm," he said with a nod, remembering what Yoongi had said about having high expectations for him. "Of course, that means I'll have to work even harder from now on so I can keep on top of the competition."

 

"You work hard enough," said Jungkook, rolling his eyes as he opened the door to the street. "If you push yourself any harder you're gonna need to cook from the hospital."

 

"On the upside, I'll make better food than they'd give me," said Jimin.

Chapter Text

Seafood Knowledge and Techniques was probably Jimin's least favorite class so far; for one thing, he'd never been fond of the smell of seafood. Two, shucking oysters was fucking difficult. He'd already nearly stabbed himself twice, had definitely stabbed the still-closed oyster in his hand through its hinge a bunch of times -- if he ever got it open, it'd just be a macabre murder scene staring back at him -- and he was going to stab Yoongi soon if Yoongi didn't stop showing off.

 

Technically, Yoongi was "demonstrating," but the quick twist and pop of his knife like it was nothing and the lack of effort showing on his face made Jimin pretty sure he was just doing it to be obnoxious.

 

He'd come to class pleasantly surprised that Seo Minjung was back as their instructor and Yoongi her assistant again (along with his hapless producer handler Eunkwang), but then after the lecture on seafood categories and quality assessment, and the hands-on lesson on scaling and fabricating fish, came the accursed oysters.

 

Jimin found a morbid pleasure in not being the only one struggling, at least; Bomi had already sworn at her oysters too many times to count, Hakyeon had accidentally cut himself and had to get bandaged up by the teacher, and Shinwon had suggested in a desperate, hopeful tone that perhaps otters had the right idea in bashing the oysters open with a rock.

 

"It's okay!" said Minjung bracingly. "Everyone has a hard time in the beginning; it really takes a lot of time to master. I'm not expecting you to be experts at this right away. I just want you to know what the general technique is so you have an idea of what to do if you happen to come across some nice bivalves!"

 

She went around the various contestants' stations to give feedback and suggestions, while golden child Sungjae, who'd managed to get his oysters open immediately thanks to having done it many times before, got permission to eat his and then gave pointers to a grumpy Hakyeon next to him. Ilhwa and Eunji, too, who'd both spent their childhoods living by the seaside, had no problems with their batches of oysters.

 

Yoongi put down his oyster knife and wiped his hands off, coming round to Shinwon's station to talk him out of hurling his mollusk against the wall and hoping for the best.

 

"With all due respect, hyung-nim," said Shinwon, having picked up from Seokjin that he and Yoongi were universally their hyungs now, for no real reason other than that Seokjin liked the idea, "I think it would make me feel a lot better if you would let me throw this at the wall really hard."

 

"No," said Yoongi. "Park Jimin, come over here so I can teach you both at the same time."

 

Obediently, Jimin trudged over to Shinwon's adjacent station with his stuff. With Jimin and Shinwon flanking him, Yoongi slowly explained the process again and watched them closely as they copied his movements. Even as irked as he was with the task, the fact that this gave Jimin a reason to stare at Yoongi's hands at close range did help somewhat.

 

Over at Sejeong and Ilhwa's station, a small celebration erupted with the former meeting with success, making Jimin huff out a breath of envy.

 

"It looks like you're trying to use too much strength," Yoongi said to Shinwon. "You could hurt yourself that way, or the oyster. You can't present a shredded oyster."

 

"Well, it deserves it. Maybe that'll make it think about what it's done," said Shinwon, though he backed off with the pressure on the knife a little and wiggled it around until there was the soft pop of the hinge giving way. "Oh! It heard my threat!"

 

"Park Jimin," said Yoongi, leaving Shinwon to finish up the rest of it by himself, the hard part over, "point it downward, not at your hand."

 

"This is downward, though?" Jimin said with a frown.

 

Like before, where Yoongi's verbal direction didn't quite click for Jimin, Yoongi switched over to tactile instruction instead, guiding Jimin's knife angle to a safer position with his fingers wrapped loosely around Jimin's wrist. His thumb glided up the back of Jimin's hand as he made the adjustment, leaving an unexpected, delicate tingle in its wake that made Jimin's insides twist, sweet and tight.

 

Jimin didn't have enough wherewithal to squash flat the gasp that flew from his mouth at Yoongi's touch and froze in place, suddenly hyper aware of his heart hammering against his chest. Which also meant Yoongi could probably feel the same racing pulse at his wrist. Like some kind of masochistic moron -- and what kind of drama was he even in where innocent hand-holding, if he could even properly term it that, was somehow the steamiest thing that had ever happened to him -- he made the mistake of glancing over at Yoongi to check if he'd noticed, and caught his eyes.

 

In all actuality, they made eye contact for probably less than a second. But in that half-second it was like Jimin was able to take in every detail about Yoongi, from the fan of his eyelashes to the softness of his pink, slightly parted lips. What would it feel like to kiss him, Jimin wondered.

 

Yoongi stepped back, the barest sheen of uncertainty in his eyes, releasing Jimin's wrist. He blinked at the surface of the workstation for a moment, then said, "Try again."

 

"Huh?" said Jimin. He looked down, half-expecting Yoongi's hand to still be on his. "Oh."

 

"Can I eat this?" Shinwon cut in, delighted with himself.

 

Yoongi nodded. "It'd just go to waste if you didn't."

 

"Awesome," said Shinwon, and tipped the oyster into his mouth.

 

Torn between being grateful for the momentary interruption and wanting to gently shove Shinwon out of the way, Jimin took a deep, frustrated breath, not sure what he was more frustrated by, the goddamn shucking or Yoongi.

 

"Relax," said Yoongi. "It isn't going to make or break you."

 

"What if I get oysters in a mystery box this week?" Jimin asked, frowning at the stubborn oyster in his hand. "What am I supposed to do then?"

 

Yoongi's mouth tipped up into a smile. "Throw them at the wall?"

 

In spite of himself, Jimin mirrored his smile, though there was still a slightly annoyed bent to it. "You're not helping," he said, his lips pushing out into a small pout.

 

It was quick enough that had Jimin blinked he might well have missed it, but Yoongi's eyes flickered to Jimin's mouth just then. As if by reflex, Yoongi licked his lips. He clacked his teeth together and swallowed tightly before saying, "Do you want me to show you again?"

 

Shinwon walked off somewhere to talk to someone else -- it was incredibly out of Jimin's scope of focus at the moment to care who it was, and Jimin seized the opportunity to get the extra tutoring out of Yoongi. Despite there being a dozen other people in the room, Jimin could easily imagine that it was just him and Yoongi, and Yoongi's time belonged solely to him.

 

"Yes," Jimin said.

 

It was only a feeling. Not even that, just an inkling of a feeling. But there was something of an electric hum in the air between them that made Jimin wonder if Yoongi had more than just a soft spot for him. That he paid attention to Jimin that extra little bit in the same way Jimin was drawn to him, too.

 

He looked at Yoongi, almost in challenge, waiting to see if he was right.

 

Yoongi hesitated for a moment, then took Jimin's hand again in his to guide his positioning. "Hold it pointed at the table. You want firm pressure, but if you overdo it you could hurt yourself," he said. His voice was low and soft, almost as if he was speaking right next to Jimin's ear, in exactly the kind of tone that might beckon Jimin to bed and make him fall apart at the seams.

 

The oysters were entirely irrelevant now; if Jimin did somehow end up with them in a mystery box he'd just have to borrow a hammer from the set crew and swing. It was nigh impossible to concentrate on the actual task at hand when Yoongi's light touch was making his skin thrum with anticipation.

 

Jimin could feel his breaths beginning to get deeper and heavier, and for as much as he wanted to see where this could lead, there was still -- thankfully -- a part of Jimin that was cognizant of the circumstance at hand. All the other people in the room, for example; or the fact that he was getting aroused while learning how to handle seafood.

 

"I… Uh, I think I got it," said Jimin, nearly at a whisper.

 

Yoongi's fingers were slow to let him go, and they grazed across Jimin's skin as they departed, as if leaving a trail for him to remember. Yoongi moved back a step and cleared his throat quietly. "Let's see," he said, nodding towards Jimin's knife.

 

It took a couple more tries, but Jimin finally met success, twisting the knife until he broke through the hinge of the oyster shell, a telltale popping sound signaling its surrender.

 

"Hey, I did it," said Jimin. "I did it, Yoongi hyung."

 

Yoongi gave him a small smile and nodded. "You did," he said, the expression on his face a strange mix of approval and wistfulness. 

 

At the front of the kitchen classroom, Minjung clapped her hands together twice and said, "Okay, everyone! We have about five minutes left, so finish up what you're doing and let's clean up! Yoongi and I will be at the front if you have any last-minute questions!" 

 

"Nice job," Yoongi murmured. He moved away from the station, walking behind Jimin to get back to Minjung, and as he passed, his hand fleetingly touched Jimin's back.

 

Jimin had no idea why, but it made him a little sad. He watched Yoongi talk with Minjung and the attendant producer for a moment, the clamor of the rest of the class as they chatted and cleaned nothing but white noise, but Yoongi didn't look back at him. Jimin sighed to himself and washed up all the utensils and boards he'd dirtied along the way, finding stray scales here and there from the fish he'd butchered earlier.

 

"Hyung," Sejeong whispered, leaning over from her station. "Are you okay?"

 

"What?" said Jimin, startled. "Yeah, I'm fine. Why?"

 

Sejeong shrugged. "I don't know; you just looked kinda down for a minute there."

 

Jimin mustered up a smile for her. "Nah, just my usual worrying about the upcoming challenges, that's all."

 

It was technically not untrue. He was constantly worrying about the challenges; even if not at the forefront of his mind, they took up a lot of real estate in his daily thoughts. That he was also thinking about Yoongi seemed less appropriate a concern to share, not that he would, even if he wanted to.

 

Without bothering with a goodbye but to Minjung, Yoongi slipped out of the classroom with Eunkwang while the contestants finished up wiping down their workstations and putting everything away. Jimin could only watch him leave and wonder why it seemed Yoongi was always walking away from him.

 

And still, there was the hand-touching to contend with… It had been ridiculous to consider it then, and ridiculous now, how much it had affected him when in objective reality it had been about as provocative as a woman showing her bare ankle in this day and age. All the same, Jimin was ninety-nine percent sure that he hadn't been the only one affected by it.

 

Even thinking about it now gave him a tiny thrill that started in his chest and warmed into his stomach, how gentle Yoongi's fingers had been, how deep his voice, the way he'd looked at Jimin's lips and how he'd tried to cover it up.

 

The one percent of remaining uncertainty was only due to the fact that Jimin had not had a boyfriend in a long time, and therefore not had sex in a long time, and the possibility his second brain was now taking any kind of basic, human touch as potential.

 

Then again, Jungkook had slapped his ass just the other day for some reason he couldn't remember, and it wasn't like Jimin was suddenly lusting after him either, nor ascribing Jungkook's extreme lack of respect to him as having a thing for Jimin. Gross.

 

Of course, even if it was the case that Yoongi felt the same way about him, it didn't mean anything was going to happen. The fact that he had to have a handler in the cooking classes to avoid accidental favoritism surely meant starting anything remotely romantic with a contestant was verboten.

 

Besides which, who knew what Yoongi might want from him, if anything at all? Jimin had always been a relationship kind of person; he didn't do casual hook-ups, had never completely understood the allure of a one-night stand. He wanted dates and flowers and breakfast and Yoongi in all of it, but he might be alone on that.

 

He was getting ahead of himself. Really, very, and much too far ahead.

 

Stifling a long sigh, Jimin finished up his cleaning and put Yoongi out of his mind for the time being. He went to help Sejeong and Ilhwa, then walked out with them in a discussion of the upcoming challenge.

 

Or at least, Sejeong and Ilhwa discussed the upcoming challenge while Jimin pretended to listen, murmuring noises of agreement where he felt appropriate, but all the while thinking about Yoongi again.

 

Once Jimin was out of the competition, be it this week or next or right till the end, he would probably never see Yoongi again, except on TV maybe. Surely it would be better for Jimin to just stop himself now, rather than let his feelings run farther afield until it was too late to call them back, and he'd end up lying on the floor with a tub of ice-cream flavored with fat drops of his tears, as usual.

 

It was the most logical response, to stop feeling everything he was feeling, to ignore the possibility that Yoongi might even reciprocate, to leave things as they were and never mention or think of them again. It was adult and responsible.

 

Which of course meant Jimin wasn't going to do any of that. What Jimin was probably going to do was to continue to moon after Yoongi in silence like some ill-fated drama second lead.

 

By no stretch of the imagination was this a good plan; Jimin already knew the flutters in his stomach that he was chasing weren't worth the eventual house-bound moping, the thrill in his chest every time he heard Yoongi's low voice not nearly enough to make up for the emptiness that would follow. But he couldn't imagine where to even start making himself stop thinking about Yoongi, so here he was, stuck at the intersection of Hopeless Crush and Pathetic Pining, and there was nowhere else to go.

 

*

 

Week 6 approached without warning; it seemed like they'd only left the set a day ago before they had to go back again for their next round of challenges.

 

Quietly distressed and his whole body thrumming with nerves, Jimin walked into the building with a tight hold on the straps of his backpack. He'd downed the contents of an energy drink before arriving and stuffed the remainder of the six-pack into his bag for later.

 

As jittery as they made him, they'd also kept him awake and going the past few days while he'd gone through every preparation he could for this challenge -- research, trying out dozens of different recipes and unfamiliar techniques, fighting with Jungkook about what constituted a reasonable bedtime for a spry twenty-something young man (or an idiot driving himself increasingly insane, depending on the point of view), fighting next with Taehyung after Jungkook gave up and tagged him in, secretly quizzing himself underneath his bed covers after getting forcibly dragged into his bed.

 

Jimin felt both overly ready and not at all, which left him shaking off excess energy through tapping his feet the entire time the makeup noona worked on him.

 

The week's challenge was straightforward enough on paper -- a three-course French meal. In execution, it was time-consuming, to say the least, and they were barely given enough time to begin with anyway.

 

Jimin started with stuffed squid. It wasn't very difficult a recipe technique-wise, so the judges could ding him on for taking things too easy, which meant he had to make sure everything about it was perfect.

 

When Hoseok stopped by his station with the judges, Jimin looked up and smiled at them, spending a moment extra on Yoongi.

 

He hadn't seen Yoongi at all since the previous seafood techniques class, not even when coming into the building today. Given Jimin's apparent propensity for running into Yoongi at every opportune and inopportune time, it was surprising he hadn't already today, only spying Yoongi from afar for the first time when they'd gathered on set for the day’s initial challenge.

 

Yoongi nodded wordlessly at him, his mouth stretching into something that couldn't reasonably be called a smile. It wasn't exactly cold, but Yoongi didn't quite meet his eyes, a vaguely indifferent air about him that was more his public persona than the Yoongi Jimin had come to know. Jimin's heart, hammering from nerves and caffeine, faltered and dipped down to the bottom of his stomach.

 

Thankfully, Hoseok threw out a blithe question that Jimin was forced to pay attention to, and though Jimin had half his mind on Yoongi, he did his best to respond and describe what he was planning on making.

 

Though Yoongi participated in the conversation when specifically addressed, he said nothing directly to Jimin until it was time for the judges to go to the next contestant's workstation.

 

While Hoseok led the others to the station behind Jimin, Yoongi lingered for a second. He touched his fingers to the edge of Jimin's workbench and said softly, without looking at Jimin, "Good luck."

 

"Thank you," said Jimin, unsure of what else he could possibly say.

 

He took a deep breath. Knowing cameras were on him, Jimin resisted the urge to look back at Yoongi and buckled down on his work. There was a lot to be done, and not enough time in which to do it. He didn't have the luxury of spending precious seconds wondering what Yoongi was thinking.

 

The rest of the day continued in the same vein.

 

Yoongi was nowhere to be seen during their breaks, holing himself up somewhere private whenever they weren't filming. At lunch, Jimin snuck upstairs to see if he was in his dressing room, but the door was closed, and Jimin's courage ran away without him, so he could only retrace his steps downstairs and pretend things were fine.

 

During judging Yoongi's remarks to all of them were no different than usual, fair but sharp -- and in this at least Jimin found a little bit of comfort, that Yoongi was treating everyone with the same disinterest, but even then, it seemed almost robotic. Like he'd just trotted himself out to perform and then retreated back into a box again until the next time he was needed.

 

If anyone else noticed, they didn't say anything about it, which made Jimin wonder if he was being overly sensitive.

 

And after all, it wasn't as if Yoongi owed him anything. If he was distracted or worried or upset about something, Jimin certainly wouldn't be the first person on Yoongi's list to go to. Jimin couldn't even properly call them friends.

 

His stomach churned uneasily the whole day -- no thanks either to the third energy drink he'd chugged down to get through to the last challenge -- but there was nothing he could do about any of it. Whatever Yoongi was thinking or doing or going through, it wasn't Jimin's business and he couldn't let it mar his performance.

 

That mindset worked as he made it through to the next week, eliminations seeing Taeyang off and leaving nine remaining contestants.

 

After saying goodbye to the other contestants, Jimin trudged to the usual exit closest to his bus stop, heading home by himself tonight as Jungkook had already told him that he and Taehyung had planned on going for a drink together after work.  

 

But when he reached the doors, Jimin paused. He wondered if Yoongi had already left and maybe if he waited, he might run into Yoongi. A part of him said it was a pathetic idea, and another made his feet stay in place.

 

Jimin's shoulders sagged with self-reproach and fatigue, though exhaustion didn't quite cancel out the fidgety feeling he had in his limbs. Gripping the padded shoulder straps of his backpack, Jimin paced up and down by the doors, thinking about whether he'd inadvertently done something to offend Yoongi, then chastising himself for supposing he was even that important in the other man’s life to be able to affect him in the slightest way.

 

He heard quiet footsteps behind him and turned to see Yoongi stop and take a step backwards the way he came.

 

"Oh, hyung," said Jimin with a small smile, a wave of affection rolling over him, glad he'd waited.

 

Yoongi nodded stiffly, the smile going unreturned. His body was tense, and his gaze flicked over Jimin's shoulder at the door. It was clear he'd come upon Jimin unexpectedly and had tried but failed to run in the opposite direction before being spotted. Jimin wasn't sure if he should be the one offended now.

 

"Um," said Jimin, uncertain of what to say now that the opportunity had come. Why did it seem so momentous, anyway? "... Are you okay?"

 

Yoongi blinked, caught unawares. "I-- Yeah. I'm fine."

 

"Oh," said Jimin. He toyed with the hanging straps on his backpack awkwardly, Yoongi seeming disinclined to elaborate. "Okay. You just seemed kind of… not yourself today."

 

Something familiar flashed across Yoongi's eyes then dulled again, like sunshine shuttered out. "No, I'm fine," he repeated curtly. He seemed to be about to add something but changed his mind. "I have to go."

 

Yoongi didn't wait for a response. He pushed the door open and walked out, leaving Jimin behind.

 

It wasn't the first time Yoongi had done that to him. But it was the first time Jimin felt like crying because of it. He didn't even know why. He felt tears brimming at his eyes and swiped the back of his hand over them, confused and upset that he was getting emotional to begin with.

 

Sure, Yoongi owed him nothing, so why did his brush off hurt? Jimin had gotten too used to a different side of Yoongi, a side that made him feel special. But he wasn't. He wasn't anything to Yoongi.

 

Still teary, Jimin crouched down next to a wall and told himself angrily to stop, beating a fist against his thigh in equal parts castigation and distraction. "Stupid," he hissed at himself.

 

It was like this that Jungkook and Taehyung found him.

 

"Hyung, what the fuck?" Jungkook said, running over to put an arm around Jimin's shoulder. "What happened? What's wrong?"

 

"I don't know," said Jimin, afraid that if he said more he might actually start sobbing for real.

 

Tugging Jimin closer, Jungkook wrapped him up in a hug. "That's okay, we don't have to talk about it right now."

 

Taehyung helped Jungkook lift Jimin to his feet, and he leaned heavily against them, embarrassment now cutting through. Here he was, having a breakdown in the middle of a hallway over what he could only describe as nothing, and here they were, not even judging him for it.

 

"Sorry," Jimin mumbled. 

 

"Today was really stressful, huh?" Taehyung said kindly.

 

Jimin sniffled and nodded. Even Yoongi aside, he did have to admit that the competition was nerve-wracking all of the time, even when he wasn't on set, and he was thankful to Taehyung for giving him that to hide behind for the time being.

 

"Come on, I'll drive you guys home," said Taehyung.

 

"No, no, it's okay," Jimin said, "you guys were going to get drinks after, Jungkook said."

 

Taehyung exchanged a look with Jungkook. "I'll drive you home," Taehyung said firmly.

 

Though Jungkook kept shooting him worried looks on the way to the carpark and during the drive home, Jimin felt no inclination to say anything else. He wouldn't even know where to start even if did. Sure, he could attribute at least part of it to the pressure of the competition, but that obviously wasn't all of it.

 

In fact, objectively speaking, today had gone well. He hadn't made any big mistakes, and his dishes had all been well-received. Combined with his success from the previous week, he could now even be considered one of the frontrunners.

 

At any other time, he'd be ecstatic, but instead he was fretting over some guy, and Jimin hated himself for falling into this pattern yet again, mooning over someone who didn't feel the same and getting all overwrought for no good reason. He'd even predicted it several days before and ignored his own history, hoping outrageously that it might be different this time with Yoongi.

 

Jimin's stomach roiled with a dozen hot emotions, all of them in a knock-out brawl to claim ascendancy. He pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes, determined not to let any more tears out.

 

He had no idea what Yoongi was thinking; his behavior today could easily have had nothing to do with Jimin at all. But compared with how Yoongi had treated him in the past few weeks, it felt so much like rejection that Jimin couldn't think what else it could be. It was only the remains of his pride that kept him from asking Taehyung if there was something going on with Yoongi, and so he was left with nothing but his own assumptions and imagination.

 

Taehyung dropped them off at their apartment complex with a sweet promise to check on Jimin the next day and bring over anything he needed.

 

Managing a watery smile, Jimin thanked him and headed up to the apartment with Jungkook in silence.

 

"Sorry I ruined your date, Kook-ah," Jimin finally said when they reached the door.

 

Jungkook waved it off. "It's not like Taehyung and I don't see each other all the time during the rest of the week, too. It's okay. I'll just video call him later."

 

At Jungkook's suggestion, Jimin took a long, hot shower, the day's grime and sweat and expectations swirling down the drain and out of sight. He breathed in the steam that misted around him, filling his insides with something else besides his disappointment, and when he was done, he almost felt better.

 

Jimin dried himself off and tugged on worn shorts and an old T-shirt with the hem ripped on one side. Wiping the condensation off the bathroom mirror, Jimin stared at his reflection for a long minute. Tired eyes looked back at him and a mouth that tried for a smile but couldn't quite manage it. He would make it try harder next time.

 

He padded out on bare feet towards the kitchen where Jungkook was munching on a cream cracker and boiling water for tea, two chamomile tea bags already arranged neatly in their mugs.

 

"I feel really stupid, Kook-ah," said Jimin, sitting cross-legged in one of the chairs at the kitchen table. He hadn't meant to start the conversation that way, but oh well, he couldn't take it back now.

 

"Why?" asked Jungkook as he pushed another cracker into his mouth.

 

Jimin waited for Jungkook to pour the boiled water into their cups and bring them over to the table before going on. "I accidentally kind of fell in love with Min Yoongi, I think," Jimin said, frowning as he fiddled with the tea bag label.

 

Jungkook stared at him, a crumb falling from his open mouth. "You… did what now?"

 

Something about Jungkook's dumbfounded expression set Jimin off and he dropped his head into his arms, wailing, "I fell in love with Min Yoongi. What is wrong with me? Kookie, I'm so stupid. Why am I so stupid?"

 

"I… don't know…?" Jungkook said.

 

Jimin looked up with a doleful stare. "That's the part where you're supposed to say no hyung you're not stupid."

 

Obviously still confused from several sentences ago, Jungkook said, "Okay. No, hyung, you're not stupid." His eyebrows pulled together in thought, then lifted in realization, his eyes going rounder than usual. "Oh. That's why you were so… At the company dinner? I thought you were just… You're in love with him?"

 

"Yes," Jimin groaned into his hands. "Look, I didn't ask for this, okay? It was just that… he turned out to be so— so kind and thoughtful and he's so soft when he talks about his dog and he asked me to sign that dumb picture I drew and I don't know what to do."

 

"Okay. Okay," said Jungkook, nodding furiously at the barrage of information. "Um, okay."   

 

Attempting to gather himself, Jimin took a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh. He crossed his arms on top of the table to rest his chin on them. "I don't know what to do," he said again. "I feel like I just got dumped even though nothing ever actually happened between us, and I don't know why it feels like this."

 

To his credit, Jungkook didn't make a big deal out of any of it, not the part where just a few months ago Jimin had hated the sight of Yoongi or why he'd suddenly had a change of heart or how any of this had even come to be. "So, uh, I take it he doesn't feel the same way?" Jungkook asked cautiously.

 

Jimin shook his head. "Nope. Just me doing my usual faraway pining shit." He pressed his forehead into his arms. "Why am I like this?"

 

Jungkook's hand landed on his back, rubbing up and down its length vigorously. "It's not your fault he can't see how good you are. That part's all on him. If anyone should feel like an idiot it's him, not you. And no one worth your time should ever make you feel stupid, unless it's me."

 

Jimin puffed a breath of laughter into his arms. "Good point." The smile on his face eased away and he sighed again. "I just thought… he was really nice. And kind. I guess I just read too much into it."

 

"Would it make you feel better if you thought of him as a monster again? Should I say some mean things about him and help you go back to hating him like before?" Jungkook asked.   

 

Turning his head to face Jungkook, Jimin said, "Like what?"

 

"Um," said Jungkook, thinking. "He looks like a dumb pig. No, he's kinda small, so he looks like a dumb piglet."

 

"I knew it," said Jimin. "You're incapable of being mean to anyone except me. Piglets are adorable, dummy."

 

"No, I'm mean!" said Jungkook defensively. "Remember when Minwoo was such an asshole to you all the time and I threatened to rip his balls off with my bare hands and feed them to him?"

 

"Heh, yeah," said Jimin, snickering at the recollection. "That was a good day. He ran so fast. God, I can't believe I ever dated him."

 

"You want me to tell Min Yoongi I'll cut his dick off?"

 

"You mean without getting fired immediately and blacklisted in the industry for the rest of your life? Sure, go ahead," said Jimin, waving a magnanimous arm. "But only if I'm around, because I want to get that on video. It's not fair you have so much on me, and I have no ammunition at all."

 

Jungkook frowned. "Hm, no, let's keep it that way. Anyway," he said with a pointed look, "if you're threatening me with blackmail it sounds like you feel better."

 

Jimin grinned. "I suppose."

 

Satisfied that Jimin wasn't in immediate danger of drowning himself in his own tears, Jungkook shooed him off to bed. For once, Jimin didn't fight him on it. He could afford to take one night off from practicing, after all, and he was exhausted anyway, both mentally and physically.

 

Maybe things would look better in the morning.

 

*

 

Hindsight and a full night's sleep gave Jimin back his misplaced perspective as well as a tinge of embarrassment that he'd overreacted to such an extent. Whatever Yoongi was doing wasn't Jimin's to decide, but what he did have control over was himself, and now was a good time to start exerting that control.

 

Just because he was up to his neck in unrequited feelings didn't mean he couldn't still do his work. The upcoming week's challenge was going to be another mystery box week, so even though there was nothing specific he had to practice for, there were lots of techniques he could learn and refine.

 

With a new sense of purpose bubbling within him, Jimin swung himself out of bed and got dressed, ready to tackle whatever kitchen project he could accomplish before having to get to the cooking class that afternoon.

 

He made himself a cup of coffee and opened his laptop to the spreadsheet he'd been using to keep track of his different practice recipes. He could practice smoking things, maybe, or rope Jungkook into picking a hodgepodge of ingredients from their fridge and make something good out of them.

 

While ruminating over his options, Jimin heard a knock at the door. Through the peephole he saw Taehyung grinning and waving, and Jimin opened the door to let him in.

 

"Good morning," said Taehyung. He stepped in and slid his shoes off. "How are you? Is it too early? I tried texting Jungkook before coming over, but I think he's still sleeping."

 

"He usually is," said Jimin. "Come in, come in, it's okay. You have my number, too, right? You can text me if you need to. Sometimes Jungkook doesn't even hear his alarm when it's right next to his head." 

 

Despite having seen Jimin lose his shit the day before, Taehyung acted no different around him. He lifted a bulging carrier bag and said, "I brought stuff. I didn't really know what you like or would make you feel better, so I have donuts and bread and ice-cream, and I think Jungkook said you guys like this brand of pear juice."

 

"Wow," said Jimin. If Jungkook ever broke up with Taehyung, he might have to tie Jungkook to a chair and bully him until he agreed to take Taehyung back. "That's… really nice of you. I hope it didn't cost a lot."

 

Taehyung waved off the gratitude and concern, pulling more and more things out of the carrier bag as if it had an endless bottom. He took out a small box of red ginseng extract packets. "Uh, these are technically Yoongi hyung's, but he said I could take them. So then, technically," Taehyung said, eyes towards the ceiling like he needed to remember something important, "they are from me, not Yoongi hyung."

 

"… Okay," said Jimin. He had a lot of questions about what Taehyung had just said but didn't know what order in which to unpack it. "I-- Why…?"

 

"Don't worry about it. I didn't say anything," said Taehyung brightly. "Where should I put all of this?"

 

Hosting duties kicking in and temporarily shoving his previous thoughts away, Jimin said, "Oh, I'll take care of it. Sit, sit. Do you want something to drink? Coffee? Oh, no, Jungkook said you don't drink coffee because you don't like bitter things, right?"  

 

Taehyung's face lit up, apparently pleased that Jungkook had been talking about him. "Yeah," he said. "Water is fine."

 

While Jimin poured a glass of water, he heard Jungkook's bedroom door open and the telltale sounds of Jungkook stumbling out of his room, a bump and a grunt and unintelligible noises that were probably swearing.

 

"Kook-ah," Jimin called. "Taehyung is here."

 

There was a curious, inquisitive sound, then Jungkook appeared with a deeply furrowed brow, eyes barely open. A sleepy smile spread over his face once he spied Taehyung through his squint, and Jungkook came over to sit on Taehyung's lap with what looked like the intention to fall asleep again.

 

Taehyung wrapped loose arms around him as Jungkook settled in and kissed Jungkook's nose.

 

"Aw," said Jimin, "you guys are so gross."

 

"Shh, I'm trying to sleep," mumbled Jungkook.

 

"That's what your bed is for, idiot. Why did you come out all the way here to sleep?" Jimin asked, slapping Jungkook lightly on the back of the head.

 

Jungkook gestured towards Taehyung as if this was answer enough.

 

Patting his butt, Taehyung said, "You want breakfast? I brought that bread you like."

 

Despite calling them disgusting, Jimin secretly did like them together; the way they had initially gotten together might have been slightly unconventional, but Jungkook seemed more than happy and Taehyung clearly took good care of him.

 

Meanwhile, the parts of Jimin that weren't actively being pleased for Jungkook shrouded themselves in envy. He knew it was useless to compare and it wasn't a matter of fair or unfair, but the occasional thought crept in here and there wondering why he couldn't have what he wanted, too.

 

"You okay, Jimin?" Taehyung asked suddenly.

 

"He's in love," Jungkook muttered, too comfortable and sleepy to realize what he was saying in the presence of Yoongi's manager.

 

Jimin shot him a heated glare that threatened to punch him in the balls later. "No, I'm not."

 

Belatedly, it dawned on Jungkook that he ought not to have said anything in front of Taehyung, and he mumbled in meek contrition at Jimin, "Sorry…"

 

"Ah, well," said Taehyung in a voice a little too bracing for the awkwardness in the room, "whoever you're in love or not in love with, if they don't appreciate you, then they are, um… dumb."

 

If the situation weren't so fraught, Jimin might even laugh, knowing Taehyung was inadvertently insulting the boss he so looked up to.

 

"That's what I said," said Jungkook, now awake enough to tear into a cheese bun from Taehyung's pile of pastries. "But it's okay, I already promised to cut off his dick if Jimin hyung wants me to."

 

"Can we stop talking about this?" said Jimin. "It doesn't matter anyway."

 

Jungkook slid off Taehyung's lap and gave Jimin a sideways hug, then stuffed a piece of bread in his hyung's mouth. "Have some carbs. It'll make you feel better."

 

"And if you do want to talk about it without anyone threatening the vital parts of the people involved," said Taehyung, grinning apologetically in the direction of Jungkook's betrayed pout, "I'm available."

 

Though Jimin was definitely not going to take him up on it, the offer was more than appreciated, nonetheless. "Thanks, that's really nice of you," he said. "If Jungkook doesn't work out, I'll have an opening for a new best friend. I'll keep you posted."

 

"I shouldn't have gotten out of bed for this," said Jungkook.

Chapter Text

Week 7 marked just over the halfway point for this season of Chef Challenge, scheduled to run for thirteen weeks, with the final episode featuring the last three contestants standing. Jimin had occasional moments of disbelief that he'd even made it this far, every other week convinced that that one would be his last.

 

So of course Week 7 was no different, and Jimin hurtled himself between the twin whirlpools of resignation and despair, and only intermittently came up for air when someone pulled him out of his own head.

 

At the moment, it was Sungjae, in the dressing room, chattering excitedly about a sous vide machine his parents had gifted him and promising to let Jimin come and play with it sometime.

 

Even so, it couldn't keep Jimin's anxiety at bay, flaring out in different directions all at once -- fretting about what the week's mystery box ingredients could possibly be, fearing he'd come up blank and have nothing to show, praying he'd practiced the right things in the days leading up to this. And all the while, simmering underneath it all, was still the slight ache of missing Yoongi.

 

Which, even to his own mind, seemed a preposterous thing. But no matter how many times he told himself that they weren't really anything to each other, it didn't do much to dull the feeling.

 

Their cooking class this week on handling various types of doughs had been with Minjung, her faithful assistant conspicuously missing. Jimin couldn't decide if he felt relieved about it or not; on one hand, he really wanted to see Yoongi. On the other, he wasn't sure if he could handle it if Yoongi looked at him like he was nothing again. Jimin had already spent the interim week not sleeping or eating again in favor of milking every last second of that precious time attempting to master techniques he was still rusty on. He felt fragile enough as it was, and if he'd had another brush with Yoongi like the last time, Jimin might just give up and walk off the nearest available cliff.

 

But he'd made it here in one piece and, fingers crossed, would come out the same.

 

As they were called to set for the first challenge, Jimin hopped out of his makeup chair and felt his knees shake. He grabbed onto the arm of the chair, his vision swimming for half a second.

 

"Whoa," said Sungjae, holding onto his elbow. "You okay there?"

 

Jimin's vision cleared and he blinked hard in confusion. "I think I got up too fast."

 

Sungjae let go of him experimentally, and on finding Jimin was standing just fine on his own now, said, "Do you need water or something? Did you eat breakfast today? How many fingers am I holding up?"

 

"If you're going to test my vision like that you have to at least hold up something," Jimin groused.

 

Belatedly, Sungjae showed him two fingers. "Oh, well," he said sheepishly, "I guess zero when I didn't hold up any fingers still counts."

 

"I'm fine," said Jimin, partially relieved Sungjae wasn't pursuing the breakfast question, because then Jimin would have to ask if an energy drink at 4AM met the criteria, and he had a feeling Sungjae would take Jungkook's side on that one. It wasn't his fault his stomach couldn't handle anything that early and when he was already practically nauseous with nerves. They were lucky he wasn't constantly throwing up on them. In fact, they should thank him for not eating breakfast.

 

Satisfied Jimin wasn't going to collapse, Sungjae said, "All right, let's go then, and cook the fuck out of these mystery boxes."

 

Jimin laughed and high fived him.

 

After Namjoon went over the instructions, which were essentially the same as the first time they'd gone through a mystery box challenge, the contestants were assigned to their workstations, given last minute touch-ups and their aprons to put on, and cheered on by Hoseok, bright and smiley.

 

As it was with every week, they went through all the motions of Hoseok introducing the show and the week's theme, plus the judges panel. It might have been Jimin's imagination, but Yoongi looked a little wearier than usual, the makeup under his eyes not quite sufficient to entirely blot out the dark circles there. Not that it was Jimin's business in any shape or form.

 

Filming went on for a bit with Hoseok recounting the rules of the challenge for the camera and sharing banter with the judges, until finally, it was time for the contestants to make a run for their mystery boxes.

 

As before, the mix was entirely random, and although they were called up one by one, it really didn't matter what order they picked their boxes in. Once everyone had a box on their workstations, Hoseok gave them the go-ahead to open up and see what strange treasures awaited them, promised by the producers this time to be far more challenging to use together than the previous mystery box challenge.

 

Jimin pulled out from his box a jar of radish kimchi -- which nixed Korean cuisine for him, certain that the judges would dock him for taking an obvious, easy route with it; a fish he couldn't immediately identify -- not a great start, considering its taste and texture could make a big difference in how he prepared it; and peanut butter.

 

The contestants were given a few minutes to sketch out their plans for their first dish. After consulting with and giving input back to Sejeong and Sungjae, who'd hopped around to see what everyone had gotten, Jimin decided he could take a chance with frying his fish whole and make a peanut sauce for it, plus a salad on the side that would require him to rinse most of the fermented flavor out of the radishes in his kimchi.

 

It felt good to have a solid plan, though that didn't stop Jimin's heart from ricocheting all around his ribcage when Hoseok started the timer with his signature flourish.

 

Grateful for Minjung's class on handling seafood, Jimin furiously set to work cleaning and scaling the fish, almost hitting Hoseok in the eye with a wayward, airborne scale as he stopped by with the judges to chat.

 

"Okay," said Hoseok, barely losing a beat after dodging the scale. "I'm going to stand on the other side now! This is a dangerous place to work!"

 

"Sorry! Sorry it's such a mess!" Jimin said, though he couldn't afford to slow down until he got to the trickier places around the fins and tail. "It's the only way I know!"

 

Seokjin laughed. "You do you, Park Jimin!" 

 

"Are there any scales in my hair?" Hoseok asked.

 

While Hani reassured Hoseok that his on-camera dignity was still intact, Jimin did his best not to notice Yoongi standing there. As much as it was self-preservation, there was a small part of Jimin that resentfully figured two could play the cold shoulder game. It appeared to work, as Jimin explained his plans to Seokjin and Hani with nary a word from Yoongi, and Hoseok led the judges away to the next station before long.

 

Jimin breathed out a short sigh of relief once they left, though once the relief passed, a residual feeling of regret settled in and got comfortable. God, what was he even trying to play at? He wasn't a petty little kid. So what if Yoongi wasn't as friendly as he'd been previously? That didn't mean Jimin had to be a dick about it, too.

 

Worse, it was distracting him from the task at hand, again. Jimin frowned at himself and gritted his teeth to pull his concentration back in. With the fish adequately prepped and all the errant scales hopefully wiped clean from his station, Jimin began gathering and measuring out his spices, vaguely aware now of the Hoseok-led interviews having finished and the judges meandering around on their own to observe everyone.

 

The studio lights felt hotter than usual and it probably wasn't a good look on him, sweat prickling at the back of his neck. Jimin pushed up his sleeves, hoping that would help a little, but the respite only lasted for a brief moment.

 

Without warning, Jimin's vision went spotty. "Shit, stop it," he said to himself, well aware his lapel mic would pick it up, but whatever, the editors could easily clip it out. He didn't have time for this. Jimin squeezed his eyes shut, expecting it to pass as it had done earlier -- what even was happening right now?

 

Hoping not to draw attention to himself, Jimin sank into a crouch and put his head between his knees. He drew in long, deep breaths, desperate for whatever this was to go away.

 

"Yah, Jimin," came Hakyeon's urgent voice from the station behind him. "Are you okay?"

 

Jimin lifted his head slowly and opened his eyes, relieved to find his vision had cleared. He turned and managed a weak smile at Hakyeon. Unfortunately, Hakyeon calling out like that had attracted Hoseok's attention, and the host came trotting over to crouch by his side – with a cameraman standing right behind him filming the interaction.

 

With a warm hand on Jimin's back, Hoseok asked in a low voice, "What's wrong?"

 

"Nothing, nothing. Just felt a little dizzy for a second," said Jimin. "'S fine."

 

Hoseok helped Jimin to his feet and patted him on the shoulder. Though he still looked concerned, Hoseok turned to the camera with a practiced smile and said, in his smooth emcee voice, "All is well! Just a little hiccup. We live to cook another day!"

 

After giving Jimin a short pep talk, Hoseok moved away, and not long after that, Jimin noticed, when he looked up to check the remaining time, the medic standing at the edge of the set nearest to his station. Jimin grimaced and redoubled his efforts on his dish, trying to will away the mix of anger and embarrassment that roiled inside him every time he thought about the cameras catching his moment of frailty. He could only hope it wouldn't make the final broadcast.  

 

By some miracle or Jimin's force of will, he finished the round without further incident and with a dish he was quite proud of.

 

At the producers' direction, Jimin shuffled off to an interview where, to his chagrin, Namjoon asked him about his dizzy spell.

 

Attempting to hide his frustration, Jimin slapped on a smile and said, "Nothing to worry about, really. I just felt a little lightheaded for a moment, no big deal."

 

"Do you think the competition might be getting to you?" Namjoon pressed. "Stress?"

 

Jimin shook his head. "I mean, it's always stressful," he laughed, though it sounded thin even to his own ears. He ramped up the smile, not wanting the cameras to catch any further vulnerability; it was bad enough already that there'd been the first instance to begin with. "But I'm doing fine, I think. I'm really happy I was able to finish in time, and I think the judges will like what I did."

 

Thankfully, Namjoon went with the flow of Jimin's response and asked him about his dish for the remainder of the interview, leaving the dizzy spell behind.

 

Once he was dismissed, Jimin went to the break room where most of the rest of the contestants were gathered, either done with their own interviews or waiting to do one. He sat down next to Sungjae, who was working his way through a large packet of sweet rice crackers and offered some to Jimin.

 

Jimin shook his head. "Thanks, not very hungry, though."

 

He really wasn't. It seemed as if nerves had gnawed a void into where his stomach used to be, and the thought of food only made him feel slightly nauseated. Jimin considered another energy drink to get him through the next few hours, but his body didn't seem to want that either.

 

Instead, Jimin sipped on a bottle of water while he chatted to Sungjae about how their respective dishes had turned out and how they had no time to do anything else since joining the competition, with Sungjae lamenting particularly his not being able to go with friends on a weekend beach chalet trip they'd planned ages ago.

 

"When I get out of here," Sungjae mused, as if he were trapped in an elevator or prison, "I'm going to take a week off and go fishing every day. Just me and the sea and some really upset fish. Mm, paradise."

 

"Mmhm," said Jimin, nodding. "No offense, Sungjae-yah, but that sounds boring as shit."

 

Sungjae laughed. "That's because you've never gone. Right? Okay, I'm taking you with me. When we get out of here, we'll eat a block of tofu each, and then we're going fishing. Yay! I bet Sanghyuk would come, too. In fact—" He glanced around the room. "Yah! Go Shinwon! Fishing trip with me and Jiminie! Date TBD! You in?"

 

Shinwon clicked finger guns at him in reply.

 

"Hey, rude," Eunji called out. "I wanna go."

 

"Yay!" said Sungjae again. "Who else?"

 

"No thanks," said Lisa cheerily. "Call me when you decide to do something indoors and with air-conditioning."

 

"Can I come but just sit down and drink beer and make fun of everyone who hasn't caught anything the whole time?" Bomi asked. "Because that sounds like an ideal afternoon, on land or sea."

 

"Yes!" Sungjae agreed.

 

"What happened to just you and the sea and the fish?" Jimin asked with a laugh.

 

Sungjae gave him a level stare. "No offense, Jimin-ah, but that's hella boring."

 

Laughter bubbled up and spilled out of Jimin's throat, like it had been waiting all this time to escape. Jimin relished the feeling; maybe his nonexistent love life was in shambles, but he was gaining a whole bunch of new friends from this experience, and that in itself was much more than what he'd imagined he would get out of being on Chef Challenge.  

 

Spirits buoyed a little, Jimin went into the rest of the day feeling at least slightly more like himself. The following two rounds of cooking and judging came and went without any major disasters, though also with nothing by way of standout creations either on Jimin's part, and before he knew it, they were gathered on set for Week 7's elimination.

 

As before, they were divided into "safe" and "danger" groups, with Jimin in the latter camp, along with Lisa, Hakyeon, and Eunji. He gripped his fingers tightly behind his back, listening to each tense, drawn-out pronouncement with increasingly frayed nerves. It was probably a good thing he hadn't eaten much for lunch besides a few spoonfuls of rice and kimchi, or it might all be coming back up onto his shoes right now.

 

"This week's decision was particularly difficult to make," Hani said to the contestants on the chopping block. "The person we're letting go didn't make any big mistakes, the food tasted good and looked good; it's just that we're starting to come to a point in the competition where it's so tight that we have to look at really small, precise details to make our comparisons."

 

Hoseok nodded in acknowledgement of the sentiment and said, "Our next contestant who will join us in Week 8 -- Park Jimin."

 

Jimin blinked and felt Hakyeon pat him on the back in congratulations. A relieved breath whooshed out of his lungs as he went to stand with the group remaining on the show, his feet unsteady and hands shaking.

 

Once Eunji was proclaimed safe as well, Hoseok then announced that between the last two contestants, it was Hakyeon's time to go.

 

"No," Jimin whispered, though had it been Lisa he'd have said the same thing, too.

 

"Shit," Sungjae breathed.

 

Hakyeon accepted the result with a good-natured smile and talked with Hoseok for a few moments about what a memorable time he'd had on the show, and how he planned to continue pursuing his culinary dreams. Once given the green light by the producers, the contestants swarmed around Hakyeon to hug him and say goodbye, the judges and Hoseok in the mix as well.

 

It was just this side of chaotic, with several people speaking all at once and a few tears shed, everyone moving this way and that to wish Hakyeon well.

 

Maybe it was the small crowd or the studio lights or the emotion of it all, but sweat began to pepper Jimin's temples and staticky spots colored his vision.

 

"Not this again," Jimin muttered to himself.

 

But this time, even before he had the wherewithal to find some way to remedy it like he had before, Jimin's vision began going black at the edges and closing in. All around him, he could still hear the chatter of the other contestants, but it seemed distant and indecipherable.

 

"Um," said Jimin. He reached out to the nearest passing person and gripped their arm to steady himself. Something was obviously very wrong with him, and he didn't know what to do. He cleared his throat and rasped out as calmly as he could, "I can't-- I--"

 

"Park Jimin, what-- Jimin-ah!"

 

The next thing he knew, he was on the floor. Jimin blinked, and Yoongi's face swam into view above him, lips pressed together in a tight, worried line.

 

"Yoongi hyung…?" Jimin said, discombobulated. "What…?"

 

"No, no, no," said Yoongi, gently pushing him down with one hand as Jimin attempted to sit up. His other hand had a strong, warm hold on Jimin's. "Don't get up yet. Let the medic take a look at you first."

 

The same medic who'd given him the steroid injection a couple weeks before came running, and Jimin could hear Namjoon nearby telling everyone else that it was under control and to give them space.

 

"Hello, Jimin-ssi," said the medic kindly as she looked him over. To Yoongi, she said, "Can you help me elevate his legs, please? To just above heart level." 

 

"What happened?" Jimin asked, already missing the feeling of Yoongi's hand as Yoongi shifted from his side to rest Jimin's feet in his lap. "Hyung?"

 

"I'm here, don't worry," said Yoongi, squeezing his ankle.

 

The medic gave Jimin a warm, comforting smile. "You fainted, Jimin-ssi. Probably from low blood sugar or stress, I'm guessing," she said. "We're going to get you back on your feet in a minute, okay?"

 

Jimin nodded as best he could with his head on the floor.

 

"Can you sit up for me?"

 

Jimin pushed himself up on his hands, feeling generally okay. He looked to the medic for further instructions, then noticed Jungkook rushing over with a bottle of juice, his brow marred with concern. Jungkook twisted the cap open and handed the bottle to the medic.

 

She held it out for Jimin and said, "Let's get some sugar in you and have you rest for a bit, and you should be right as rain again."

 

While Jimin sipped at the juice, the medic asked him a few questions that might help her know better how to help him, like if he had a history of heart or neurological issues, how he'd been sleeping lately, what he'd had to eat or drink that day. Shamefacedly, Jimin had to admit what he already knew he shouldn't have been doing -- running on no sleep and nearly no sustenance but shitty energy drinks.

 

"Okay, well," said the medic, without excessive judgment, "that's probably where it came from, then. You pushed yourself too hard, so this is your body's way of telling you to take it a little easier."

 

In direct contrast to her calm, soothing tone, the combined heat of Yoongi and Jungkook's increasing glowers on hearing Jimin's admission made Jimin want to crawl under a rock and live the rest of his life there, far away from what he was sure was soon to be one or both of them yelling at him.

 

"He's okay," the medic called out to a collective murmur of relief from the bystanders. Turning her attention back to him, she said, "It happens. Nothing to be embarrassed about. Let's find you a place to rest for a while."

 

"He can use my dressing room," said Yoongi.

 

With Jungkook's help, Jimin got to his feet. He happened to catch Shinwon's eye as he rose, and a bewildered but relieved Shinwon started clapping. To Jimin's dismay, it caught on, like he was an injured pro athlete being carried off the field.

 

"Oh my god," Jimin groaned quietly while Jungkook helped him remove the mic pack and wire out from the back of his shirt. "This is the worst."

 

"You deserve it, asshole," Jungkook muttered savagely. "I told you this would happen."

 

"I know," Jimin said in a small voice.

 

Seeing that things were under control, Namjoon called for the production team to get back to work. "We still have interviews and wrap-up," he said, clapping his hands together twice to get everyone's focus back where it should be. "Jungkook-ah, we need you…"

 

"Go ahead, I'm okay," said Jimin.

 

Jungkook threw his arms around Jimin, in imminent danger of crushing all his bones. "I hate you, you stupid fucker."

 

"Love you, too, Kook," Jimin said warmly.

 

Throwing a wary but expectant look Yoongi's way, Jungkook left to finish up his set duties.

 

"Your dressing room?" the medic prompted Yoongi.

 

As they walked to the elevators together with the medic, Yoongi held onto Jimin's hand again, presumably to keep him steady. In all honesty, Jimin didn't need it, already feeling well enough to walk on his own volition, but he didn't say anything and clasped Yoongi's hand right back.

 

"At least it didn't happen until the end of the day," said Jimin as Yoongi led him into the elevator and pushed the button for his floor. They stepped back to give the medic space to stand in front of them, then Jimin added, "Otherwise I might have been eliminated this week. That would've been awful."

 

"Is that really what's most important right now?" Yoongi said.

 

Jimin nodded absently. He hadn't made it all the way to Week 7 just to let his stupid body up and collapse and throw the competition for him.

 

Yoongi took a deep breath and stared up at the number display above the elevator doors, his grip around Jimin's hand tightening, but he didn't say anything.

 

With the medic, they walked slowly towards Yoongi's dressing room and Yoongi sat him down on the couch. At the medic's behest, Jimin drank half the bottle of juice to raise his blood sugar back to less catastrophic levels and curled up on the couch.

 

"I want you to finish that before you leave, okay?" said the medic, patting him on the shoulder. A lively tune chimed from her pocket, and she pulled out her phone with an apologetic frown and picked up the call. "Hi, son. I'm at work, so-- what happened?"

 

Yoongi gestured for her to go and take care of whatever she needed to, and the medic bowed in thanks and left the room quickly, hissing reproach at her son.

 

Once she left, Yoongi sank onto the floor in front of Jimin and scrubbed his palms over his face. When his hands pulled away and settled in his lap, they were shaking slightly. He inhaled a long, quiet breath.

 

"Hyung, are you okay?" Jimin asked.

 

"Mm," said Yoongi tightly. "I'm trying not to yell at you."

 

"Well, you can't make me feel worse," Jimin pointed out. "I almost kicked myself out of the competition."

 

"Will you forget about the competition for one second?" Yoongi snapped, eyes lit with fire. "It's literally the least important thing right now! How could you just throw away your health like that? Do you not realize how much it hurts to see you like this, and I-- and the rest of us can't do anything about it? Do you have any idea what it's like to see-- I was so-- It was really scary, Jimin-ah. You just… crumpled. What if I hadn't happened to be there to catch you? You could have hit your head, or-- or--"

 

Jimin reached out and grabbed hold of one of Yoongi's hands, effectively shutting him up. "Hyung," he said, rubbing his thumb over Yoongi's knuckles to reassure him. "I'm okay."

 

Yoongi stared at their hands, but Jimin didn't let go. If Yoongi wanted out, he'd have to be the one to do it. But Yoongi didn't pull away either. The fight seemed to have drained entirely out of his body.

 

"Please… don't ever do that again," said Yoongi to the floor, barely above a whisper. His fingers tightened around Jimin's.

 

Having this conversation while he was lying on his side seemed a little strange, so Jimin sat up and tugged on Yoongi's hand to make Yoongi come and sit next to him on the sofa. To Jimin's surprise, Yoongi came easily and without opposition.

 

"I'm sorry for making you worry," said Jimin softly.

 

As if he still wasn't sure that Jimin was actually alive and well in front of him, Yoongi lifted his free hand tentatively and placed it against Jimin's cheek. Yoongi's expressions had never been easy to read, but this one was pure rawness, like he'd been taken apart and bared open. Apprehension and uncertainty were engraved across his face, his eyes searching Jimin's for an answer to put his heart at ease.

 

Jimin leaned into his touch, pressing a hand against Yoongi's to hold it there. He closed his eyes for a moment to savor the feeling. This was what he had wanted that day in the cooking class, for Yoongi to lean in and touch him, for them to fall into place like they naturally fit together.

 

And the way Yoongi was looking at him, it wasn't hard to imagine that he felt the same.

 

Yoongi's behavior the previous week suddenly seemed crystal clear.

 

"Hyung, were you avoiding me last week?" Jimin asked.

 

Yoongi startled slightly, the question unexpected. There was a hint of guilt in his face, and he nodded, just once, as if that was as much as he could admit.

 

"Why?" Jimin asked, keeping a gentle hold on the hand at his cheek so Yoongi couldn't pull away from him.

 

"You have no idea how hard it is…" Yoongi started. He swallowed and shook his head, either unable or unwilling to go on.

 

"So tell me," said Jimin.

 

"I can't be around you like this, Jimin-ah. Every time I'm around you, I just… I forget myself," Yoongi said, clearly conflicted, his words doing nothing to draw his hand away from Jimin. A harsh breath blew out through his nose. He looked at Jimin helplessly. "You make me so-- I…"

 

Feeling a surge of courage, Jimin took the hand from his cheek and pressed a kiss to Yoongi's palm. Yoongi let out a trembling breath and swallowed nervously, never taking his eyes off Jimin's. He traced a hesitant thumb over Jimin's bottom lip, sending shivers down Jimin's body. A soft whimper ascended from Jimin's throat and drew a rush of heat up along with it to color his cheeks.

 

"Hyung," Jimin breathed.

 

For a long moment, all they did was look at each other, the air between them growing thicker and warmer.

 

Jimin pressed forward. "Kiss me?" he murmured.

 

"Jimin, god, I…" said Yoongi. There was desperation on his face now, fighting to hold him back, to retreat to safety, but it could only hold him for so long.

 

Yoongi cupped Jimin's face in his hands and leaned in, pressing their foreheads together gently. His breath ghosted over Jimin's lips, warm and inviting and so close.

 

"Yoongi hyung!" came a voice from the hallway. "Are you guys up here?"

 

Like a shot, Yoongi leapt back. He scrambled away from Jimin and almost fell off the couch in his haste. "Fuck," he muttered, rubbing a hand over his face.

 

Taehyung appeared in the doorway just as Yoongi got to his feet and took several steps back from the couch. "Oh. Uh," said Taehyung, his eyes wide, apparently aware that he'd walked in on something. "I didn't-- I didn't see anything! I mean, I'm, I'm not here. You're just… imagining things… specter, uh… figment of your…"

 

As Taehyung attempted to back away, movements jerky and unsure, Yoongi sighed through his teeth and said, "What do you want, Taehyung?"

 

"Namjoon hyung sent me up to check on Jimin and see if he can come do his interview," Taehyung said contritely. He turned big, apologetic eyes on Jimin. "How are you feeling?"  

 

"Um," said Jimin. Unfulfilled. "Better. I can-- I'll come down."

 

"O-okay," said Taehyung.

 

"Taehyung, drive him home afterwards," Yoongi said stiffly.

 

Jimin was about to say that it was unnecessary, but Yoongi had already turned his back to them on the pretext of going over to his desk to look at some file that sat open atop it. Their moment lost, Jimin could only get to his feet and indicate to Taehyung that he was ready to head downstairs.

 

He looked back once on his way out, but Yoongi was still turned away from him.

 

"Um, sorry if I-- uh," said Taehyung, as they got in the elevator. He didn't seem to know how to finish his sentence, his mouth opening and closing awkwardly.

 

"No, no," said Jimin. "It was… nothing."

 

The elevator ride down filled with painful silence, until finally the doors opened, and Taehyung said, "I'll text Jungkook and let him know I'm driving you guys. Just, uh, meet me at the usual doors when you're done."

 

Jimin nodded and went to the interview room where one of the producers was waiting for him. He usually had Namjoon conducting his interviews, but it was a different producer, Jihoon, who was there this time.

 

"PD-nim…" Jimin said as he sat down, worrying his bottom lip between his teeth. "You're not going to show it on TV, are you?"

 

"Well, I don't really have much say over that, but I doubt it," said the producer. He gave Jimin an avuncular smile and patted his arm. "Truthfully speaking, if it had happened during the competition, the drama would have made for good television, but since it came after eliminations…"

 

Jimin nodded, understanding that from a production point of view, someone fainting after the show probably wasn't a particularly compelling story arc. He felt thankful once again that his stupid body had at least chosen a convenient time to malfunction and for Jihoon's honesty.

 

"Anyway, Namjoon said I didn't need to ask you about it, so we'll just talk about the dish that you made and then you can go home and get some rest. Sound good?" Jihoon said.

 

The interview was short and sweet, Jimin only having to explain like he always did about what he'd been thinking during the cooking and judging processes.

 

On his way out of the interview room, he spotted Yoongi and Namjoon across the set having a conversation that neither of them seemed especially happy about. Jimin wondered if he should wait a little bit so he could talk to Yoongi but decided against it, what with Taehyung probably already waiting for him outside.

 

When he got back to the dressing room and picked up his backpack, Jimin found his phone lit up with multiple messages from the other contestants. The first few hoped Jimin was doing all right, then ex-contestants chimed in asking what had happened, after which everyone asked if Jimin was feeling okay and to let them know if he needed anything. Then, since he'd yet to respond, offers came in ranging from soup to the phone number of a trusted family doctor to shamanistic talismans. Once Jimin texted back that he was fine, the group chat filled with hearts and happy faces and a message from Sungjae that accused him of pretending to be sick so he wouldn't have to go fishing.

 

Shit, it didn't work? Jimin sent with a smile.

 

He left the dressing room, walking down the quiet corridor towards his usual exit to wait for Jungkook, who'd sent a short message to say that he'd be along in a minute. 

 

In the silence and emptiness of the hallway, Jimin had time to recollect his day. All the stuff that had happened on set already seemed ages ago, but the part where Yoongi had almost kissed him was fresh and bright at the forefront of his mind. A shiver darted across Jimin's skin as he recalled the feeling of being that close to Yoongi, Yoongi's thumb brushing so gently over his lips, his face in Yoongi's hands. The memory enveloped him so strongly he could almost taste it.

 

"Hyung."

 

Jimin turned around to face Jungkook. "Oh, Kook-ah," he said, then formed his hands into a heart shape to preempt the shouty lecture he was sure Jungkook had prepared. Not that he didn't deserve it, because god knew Jungkook had tried his best to make Jimin eat and sleep and not drive himself insane. "I love you."

 

The twitch in Jungkook's pout suggested he was at least slightly moved, though he folded his arms across his chest and lifted his chin, looking down his nose at Jimin. "Call me hyung-nim, then I'll forgive you."

 

"Hyung-nim!" Jimin called out in his cutest voice and did a full bow on his knees. He looked up from the ground and, balancing on his elbows, gave Jungkook two finger hearts.

 

In spite of itself, Jungkook's pout twisted into a smile. "Okay, fine. But you have to promise you're going to take better care of yourself from now on. And at least sometimes listen to me."

 

Jimin accepted Jungkook's outstretched hand to pull him up to his feet and said, "Promise." He gave Jungkook a quick hug. "Let's get home quick, I have a lot to tell you. Is Taehyung outside already?"

 

Jungkook nodded. "Let's go."

 

*

 

 

As PD Jihoon had suspected, the Friday broadcast showed nothing of Jimin's fainting spell after Hakyeon's elimination. The episode ended the usual way, with interview snippets of the eliminated contestant and a couple from the judges to explain their decision, then music and credits rolling over a zoomed-out shot of everyone gathered around after the elimination to exchange handshakes and well wishes.

 

Even Jimin's momentary lapse during the first round had just been thrown into the intro montage where Hoseok's voiceover welcomed the viewers to Week 7, narrating the higher stakes of the competition and increased pressure the contestants faced, over other short clips of contestants dropping things or running around in panic or reacting to critiques.

 

For what it could have been, Jimin thought he came out looking more than fine.

 

Which, thankfully, was one less thing to worry about as he headed into Week 8. He'd learned his lesson, too, from his prior habits, and had made the effort to approach the competition in a more measured, healthier way, though every once in a while, an energy drink still managed to sneak in.

 

Of course, there were still the usual jitters from the competition itself, and now, something entirely new to contend with -- what he would say to Yoongi when they saw each other next.

 

The Sunday cooking class -- Jungkook had graciously permitted him to attend; Jimin figured he owed Jungkook maybe about three more acts of obedience before he could go back to being the true dominant hyung -- had been with Seo Minjung again, but no Yoongi, and she'd only mentioned that he'd had a last-minute schedule conflict.

 

Which, considering what the seafood class had been like, perhaps was fortunate, lest Jimin finally lose it and attempt to mount Yoongi in the middle of instruction.

 

Jimin had replayed their near kiss in his mind approximately a thousand times, wondering how it would have turned out if Taehyung hadn't arrived.

 

He imagined going to the studio and being yanked into a dark corner by Yoongi to finish what they had started, or Yoongi asking him up to his dressing room on some thin pretext and pushing him against the wall, or just making out right in the middle of the corridor. In most instances, though, the daydreams weren't allowed to go very far, as it'd be unseemly to sport a boner at work or on the bus. But at home, there were more than a few times when Jimin’s imagination led him down some very dirty paths and left him to clean up the mess on his bed.

 

It wasn't that he was truly expecting any such thing to happen in real life, but they at least needed to talk about what had happened that day. Despite not actually kissing, it had gone far enough that pretending there was nothing between them wasn't really an option anymore.

 

Jimin arrived at the Chef Challenge studio in good spirits, he and Jungkook wishing each other a good day as they parted ways to head to their respective areas.

 

He chatted with Dambi, the stylist noona, while she worked on prettifying his hair for the cameras, sat quietly throughout the flurry of Sookyung's makeup brushes, then went to the break room to grab a quick cup of coffee.

 

Sejeong was already there, sipping on a milky coffee and leafing idly through a magazine. She looked up as he entered and waved with a cheerful smile.

 

"Morning!" she called. She pointed to the snack table, where there was a basket containing a variety of single-use coffee packets. "Try the yellow one, it's a mocha flavor. I think it's new."

 

"Ooh," said Jimin, interest piqued. He did as Sejeong had suggested and came to sit across the table from her. "How was work? I don't think I've talked to you since… Wednesday? Thursday?" He couldn't remember when they'd texted last outside of the group chat, long days melding together into one amorphous time blob.

 

"Ah, I was going to tell you yesterday and then I forgot!" Sejeong said. "You know my team leader, right? He's driving me crazy."

 

Jimin listened attentively while Sejeong relayed a story about how the team leader at her actual job had made her stay late several days running to fix mistakes in a report that he had made and wouldn't take responsibility for, cutting egregiously into her cooking practice and study time.  

 

"If I go out this week, it'll be his fault," Sejeong said darkly. "Then I'll have no choice but to staple him to the conference room wall by his big, stupid, flappy lips."

 

Jimin shook his head. "Then the company will be mad at you for the damage to the wall."

 

"Oh, I didn't consider that. See? It's a good thing I consulted you first," said Sejeong. She placed her chin in her hands and looked at Jimin hopefully. "Hyung, can't you kill him for me? Just a little?"

 

Lisa walked in, yawning, then squinted at them. "Did I just hear you take a hit out on someone? Ahh, eonni," she grumbled, "did you just make me an accessory to something? I'm too young and pretty to go to jail!"

 

"I'll make it worth your while," Sejeong said conspiratorially.

 

Sitting down next to Jimin, Lisa asked, "How much?"

 

"All of my love and respect," Sejeong offered.

 

"Tch," scoffed Lisa. She got up again to peruse the snack table and came back peeling a mandarin orange, segments of which she passed around while the three of them engaged in leisurely chatter about committing the perfect murder. In the midst of their plotting, other contestants gradually filed in, some more awake than others, and soon, everyone was gathered at the same table.

 

"No, I'm telling you," said Bomi, "a regular bonfire is not hot enough to burn a body."

 

From the doorway, Namjoon cleared his throat, peering at them in slight concern. "Uh, is everyone here?"

 

Ilhwa did a quick headcount and gave him a thumbs-up.

 

"Okay, so quick heads-up," said Namjoon. He clapped his hands together and then suddenly looked as if he didn't know what to do with them, a frown forming on his face. He gathered himself and started over. "Okay, so. Min Yoongi had something come up and we couldn't work the schedule out, so he's, uh… He won't be joining us for the rest of the season."

 

"Oh dear," said Ilhwa. "Is he--"

 

"That's, uh, all the information I can share," said Namjoon. "But he's fine. He's not, like, injured or anything. He said to tell you guys good luck."

 

Jimin sat back, slightly stunned. Of course, it was entirely possible that something urgent had come up for Yoongi; Jimin didn't know all the ins and outs of his life. But surely, surely, it was a little too coincidental that they had almost kissed the week before -- and probably would have, too, if Taehyung hadn't walked in -- and now Yoongi had disappeared. After he had admitted to avoiding Jimin last week because he couldn't trust himself to handle his feelings, this new development maybe shouldn't have surprised Jimin at all.

 

Namjoon further explained that they'd been able to secure someone to take Yoongi's place, a relatively well-known chef who ran a popular Chinese restaurant and had guest-judged a couple of times on previous seasons.

 

With that, a couple of the show wranglers gathered the contestants on set and directed them to their assigned workstations for the day.

 

Hoseok took his spot and opened the show as usual, then informed the home audience of Yoongi's absence. "But he has kindly left us a video message," said Hoseok. Gesturing to the big screen where the countdown clock was usually displayed, he added, "Let's take a look!"

 

"Hello, everyone, this is Min Yoongi," said the onscreen image of Yoongi. "I'm sorry to tell you that, for personal reasons, I will not be participating in the rest of the season, though I will certainly be watching the broadcasts and cheering you on. I wish you all the best, and I expect to see great things from you till the end."

 

He ended with a half-smile and a small fist pump, then the screen went black, and Hoseok spoke again.

 

"Ah, that was our Yoongi-ssi, who unfortunately had to leave us for the remainder of the season," said Hoseok. "But not to worry, we are still in good hands with our regular judges Ahn Hani and Kim Seokjin, as well as a familiar face! You may recognize the newest addition to our judging panel from the first and second seasons. Please give a warm welcome to Chef Lee Yeonbok!"

 

Dimly aware that he ought to applaud like everyone else, Jimin managed a robotic clap as he stared at the seat Yoongi used to occupy, now taken by a chef who had an affable, grandfatherly air about him.

 

While Hoseok chatted a little with the judges about the change, Jimin tuned the conversation out. Yoongi's departure could be due to a lot of things. Maybe… a family emergency, or his house had burned down, or he was running away for tax evasion, or… Or maybe he considered the almost kiss a mistake and saw no other option but to ghost Jimin on national television.

 

Jimin couldn't say it didn't hurt. Even if it had nothing to do with him at all, Yoongi just leaving him hanging like this after what had happened between them certainly didn't feel very good. Surely the decent thing to do would be to at least say something to him. Or even if it had everything to do with Jimin, he'd prefer if Yoongi said to his face that he regretted it, rather than the shrieking silence Jimin was currently left with.

 

What was he supposed to do now?

 

"Onto our theme for this week!" Hoseok announced. "Recently, camping has found its way into many people's hearts -- enjoying a beer with friends as you sit around a campfire, listening to the sounds of nature, sleeping under the stars, and… eating convenience store sandwiches or cold beans from a can? Not if our home cooks have anything to say about it!"

 

Right, Jimin was supposed to cook now.

 

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, along with all his thoughts of Yoongi.

 

Outdoor cooking being the main challenge for the day -- not exactly Jimin's forte -- he listened intently to the producers' instructions and threw himself into the challenge with a stoic ferocity he might even have been proud of if he hadn't been so busy trying to keep up the façade of being ferociously stoic.

 

Two rounds passed with Jimin producing dishes the judges unanimously approved of, and as they went into a break between rounds, he tried not to think about what Yoongi would have said about them.

 

"Wow, the producers really love us today," said Sejong, picking through the snack table. "There's way more than usual."

 

"Hm?" said Jimin, joining her to take a look.

 

Indeed, there was an abundance of extra snacks at their snack table today. Sometimes Seokjin shared the treats he received from his multitude of fans, but there was a large box of red ginseng extract packets that had appeared among the regular variety of chips and candy and fruit that looked a little… familiar.

 

Sejeong snatched up a ginseng packet and tore it open, squeezing the bitter liquid up into her mouth. "Mm, I feel more energized already."

 

Seokjin politely elbowed his way between them to grab a paper cup. "They do love us, but they have no money," he said cheerfully. He flapped the cover of the ginseng box open. "Didn't you see the note-- Oh, I guess it got thrown away. It was from a fan. A Holly, I think?"

 

"A fan…?" said Jimin. He didn't know any people called Holly. He knew a dog named Holly. Not that that meant anything.

 

"Well, you know," said Seokjin, shrugging while he made himself a cup of tea, "every once in a while, a fan of the show sends stuff for the whole cast and crew. One year we even got a coffee truck for, like, four weeks in a row. I wonder what ever happened to that guy… Oh well. Enjoy it while it lasts!"

 

"They must really love the show," Sejeong said incredulously as Seokjin loped off elsewhere. "Wah, can you imagine how much all of this ginseng cost? I couldn't even afford to give it to my own parents, let alone all the staff of a TV show."

 

"Yeah…" said Jimin, frowning at the box. "Crazy."

 

"Did you have one already?" Sejeong asked. At the shake of Jimin's head, she said, "Hurry up and take one, then. We can't have a repeat of last week."

 

Though he did as he was told, Jimin also stuck his tongue out at her. "Shinwon's the one with a sore throat this week. Go bother him."

 

"I'd better," she said, taking another packet for Shinwon. "You guys all seem incapable of taking care of yourselves properly."

 

"Yes, eomma, where would we be without you?" Jimin said dryly.

 

She tapped the ginseng packet against his nose. "Languishing in the streets, no doubt." Sejeong laughed and sailed off to find Shinwon, calling out for him like she was ringing the dinner bell for the kids to come in.

 

Jimin opened his packet of ginseng extract and sucked on it thoughtfully. He could come up with several reasons, if it really was Yoongi who'd sent it in, why he had done it. But when it boiled down, all Jimin had were his own conjectures, and none of them were as satisfactory as if Yoongi could have just come out and told Jimin himself.

 

That, of course, was the most frustrating part of it all. He could afford Yoongi a million reasons and excuses, but Yoongi himself had yet to contribute a single one.

 

Jimin thought about texting Taehyung to ask what was going on, on one hand wondering if it would be considered needy, and on the other, wanting a clear answer from someone, anyone. He was about to run to the dressing room to grab his phone before he could change his mind, when a wrangler signaled that it was time for everyone to get back on set for the final round.

 

With a huff of exasperation, Jimin pushed Yoongi to the back of his mind.

 

The next couple of hours flew by in a whirl of stress and cooking and, in the end, the heavy disappointment of Shinwon's departure, as Hoseok announced Week 8's elimination.

 

"Never mind, never mind," said Shinwon as the remaining contestants gathered around him in a group hug afterwards. "I already got, like, another three thousand subscribers to my YouTube channel, so it's all good! I'll be fine, guys. Seriously. Oh my god, please don't cry, you're going to make me cry."

 

At Sungjae's behest, he and Jimin took Shinwon out for a round of drinks afterwards at a nearby pojangmacha, texting Hakyeon and Sanghyuk to come along as well. For a short while, Jimin had the luxury of laughing and joking with his friends as they downed shots and planned culinary world domination and appointed themselves in various positions in the idol chef band they would one day form and discussed details of their fishing trip, date still TBD.

 

By the time they paid the bill and were ready to head home, Jimin noted with slight dismay that it was well past a reasonable hour to contact Taehyung. He resigned himself to waiting till the next day and waved goodbye to his friends after they'd stuffed a stumbling, red-faced Shinwon into a cab with strict instructions for him to text the group when he made it home, then hailed a taxi for himself.

 

Jimin sighed to himself as the taxi moved quietly through the city. Barring a major life tragedy, Jimin didn't think it was altogether selfish to want some kind of explanation from Yoongi. It didn't seem fair either that Jimin was the one who'd be asking Taehyung for information or maybe even for Yoongi's number. Yoongi knew very well Jimin and Jungkook were best friends; he also knew Jungkook and Taehyung were boyfriends; therefore, Yoongi should also know how to get Jimin's number from Taehyung. Why did Jimin have to be the one to reach out when he wasn't the one who'd left without a word?

 

And still, he worried that there was some kind of major life tragedy, in which case he was prepared to feel terrible for thinking that Yoongi was doing this on purpose to him.

 

All that soju had perhaps not been an exemplary idea.

 

Jimin reached home and found Jungkook lying on the sofa in the living room, playing on his tablet.

 

"Oh, hyung," said Jungkook. He paused his game and set the tablet aside, pushing himself into a sitting position. "Did you have a nice time?"

 

"Mm," said Jimin. He slid his shoes off and placed them in the cabinet. It was only when he looked up from stepping into his slippers that he noticed the cautious look on Jungkook's face. "Did something happen?"

 

"I, uh-- I talked to Taehyung earlier."

 

"And?" Jimin asked warily. He felt himself tense, though he wasn't exactly sure what he was bracing himself for; hearing through the grapevine that Yoongi had never liked him anyway, or maybe Yoongi's entire hometown had died and Jimin was the asshole for being pissed?

 

"Um, Taehyung said Yoongi quit the show but that he wouldn't tell him why," said Jungkook. He looked down at his hands and fiddled with them. "Taehyung thinks it might be because of what happened last week…"

 

"With me, you mean?" Jimin said.

 

At Jungkook's nod, Jimin came forward to sink into the other end of the sofa. He chewed on his lip for a while, not sure what to feel. In the end, he said, "At least I'm not the asshole."

 

"What?" said Jungkook.

 

"We've been… dancing around each other for weeks, and then last week we almost kiss, and then the next thing I know, he's just gone without saying anything? And it's because of me somehow? I'm not the dick here, right?" Jimin asked, his thoughts tumbling out in a rush. "Am I reading this wrong? How else am I supposed to interpret this, Kook? He-- He quit his job so he could never see me again is what I'm getting here."  

 

Jungkook frowned, unsure. "I don't know… That seems a really, like, overly dramatic move, don't you think?"

 

"Then what?"

 

"I… Taehyung says he thinks Yoongi really likes you. Do you think maybe… he left because of that? Like, he might be too biased now to judge the competition properly?" Jungkook suggested.

 

Jimin slumped against the backrest of the sofa. "I don't know. Maybe. But that's the point, Kook, I don't know. If that was the case, he could say so. I mean, even if it's not, he could say something. But he didn't. He just left."

 

Jungkook nodded. "Yeah, that wasn't fair."

 

Drawing his knees up to his chest, Jimin perched his chin despondently on them. "What am I supposed to do now, Kook-ah? Do I chase after him? Or wait for him? Or do I… do I cut my losses?"

 

"I don't know…" Jungkook murmured. He hesitantly offered his phone. "Do you want to call Taehyung and ask him?"

 

Jimin shook his head. "No, if there were more, he would tell you, right? Yeah, because Taehyung actually likes you, and because unlike some people, he knows what communication is." Jimin sighed. He was tired of getting left behind, of watching Yoongi walk away. "Maybe I just give up." 

Chapter Text

Of course, as these things always went, giving up on Yoongi was easier said than done.

 

Besides popping up in Jimin's mind at random moments of the day over the following week and in video interviews when Jimin temporarily lost his resolve and went searching for them, Yoongi had a habit of also wandering into Jimin's dreams. Sometimes he'd be soft and sweet and they'd go out shopping for kittens or whatever, and Jimin would wake up with the biggest smile on his face; other nights, Yoongi would push Jimin into the dressing room couch with hot, dirty words on his lips and fuck him until Jimin woke sweaty and moaning.

 

Most nights.

 

Jimin mashed his hands over his face, stifling a groan wrenched from the depths of his soul. It was still dark and he had a couple hours before he needed to be at filming, and he should just go back to sleep, but his dick was ridiculously hard, thanks to goddamn Yoongi who'd come to him in his dreams again to do things to him.

 

Giving in to it seemed unwise, like he'd be crossing a bridge he couldn't turn back on, but Jimin was so keyed up that if he didn't do something about it he might scream.

 

"Fuck," he muttered. "Fuck it, fuck it."

 

Pushing his shorts down his thighs, Jimin wrapped his fingers around his cock, a light sigh escaping his lips. A part of him wanted to get it over as fast as possible, just do it this once and forget it, but the image that kept coming to him -- which of course his stupid brain would capture forever with crystal clarity when Jimin couldn't remember a single one of his other dreams from like the last ten years -- was the view of Yoongi underneath him as he rode Yoongi's cock, and god, if he didn't savor every second of something like that, he was an idiot.

 

It was simultaneously incredible and frightening how clearly he could see it in his mind, how much he could nearly feel it, Yoongi gripping onto Jimin's thighs and snapping his hips up every time Jimin ground down, the sweat on his brow, the bow of his back, the way his parted lips were bitten red.

 

Losing himself in it, Jimin pumped his fist furiously over his cock. He grunted out Yoongi's name in a broken rhythm, heels digging into the mattress, his other hand clutching tight at his pillow while in another existence Yoongi drove him harder with rich, honeyed words of praise.

 

His orgasm plowed over him and knocked him sideways, and Jimin pressed his hand over his mouth to smother a cry. Breathless, chest heaving and heart pounding, Jimin lay there unmoving for a few moments before blindly groping for a discarded shirt from the floor to wipe himself off.

 

Yoongi's image lingered in his mind, almost in mockery, but soon enough it turned warm again, wrapping Jimin up in softness and drifting him out to sleep.

 

When morning arrived, it dropped off a healthy dose of self-reproach right in the middle of Jimin's stomach as he stared down at the soiled shirt on the floor, stiff and stained and disgusting. So much for forgetting Yoongi.

 

 

*

 

Week 9 minus Shinwon felt a bit like a bulb in a string of Christmas lights had gone out; the rest of the string still lit up well enough, but the one darkened spot was conspicuous in its absence of light.

 

Without Shinwon there to brighten the mood, and with stress levels at an all-time high now that they were down to just seven, Jimin wasn't exactly sure how he'd made it through all three rounds without falling apart.

 

But there had been a grim determination, too, driving him this week. What it was determined to do, Jimin wasn't sure. Part of it was spite, he knew that much, to prove to Yoongi -- and himself -- that he was doing just fine; better, even, without Yoongi there to distract him. And then there were times, too, when Jimin's actions were fueled by the desire to make Yoongi proud, to exceed the expectations Yoongi had set on him what felt like much too long ago.

 

Regardless of the motivation, Jimin made it through an elimination that left Eunji the last one on the chopping block.

 

Just like every other time, it stung to lose someone he liked and admired, and watching it on TV almost a week later, when Week 9's episode aired, made it suck all over again.

 

Jimin sniffled into the couch cushion on seeing the close-up shot of Eunji getting teary at her elimination. It was probably somewhat masochistic at this point to watch until the end, seeing as he already knew the result, but at the same time, it seemed unkind not to give his friends their full air time when they were cut from the competition.

 

He'd already been mildly teased by Jungkook about still religiously watching the show to begin with, now that he was on it. At first Jimin had been curious about how everything was portrayed and cut down from their twelve hours of work, and then it'd been more because he could watch Yoongi, and now… His official response was that it gave him inspiration and ideas when he watched the others. After all, it wasn't like he could learn anything from them when they were actually there filming and he was cooking at the same time as them. And, overall, it wasn't untrue.

 

But the unofficial, secret, take-it-to-his-grave reason was that he thought Yoongi might be watching, too. And he could kind of pretend -- god, could he be more pathetic -- it was something they were doing together.

 

Thankfully, he had nothing to explain in self-defense this week, as Jungkook was out with Taehyung for the evening. As it was, Jimin could barely explain himself to himself.

 

He lay on the couch a little bit longer, watching but not quite processing the variety show that had come on next. People on the show were talking rapidly, with full bore excitement, and he just didn't have the energy or mental fortitude to keep up. He had another full day of competition and filming tomorrow, and he should probably just call it a night.

 

With some effort, Jimin levered himself off the couch and switched the television off. He stood there for a moment, listening to the relative quiet of the apartment -- there was the hum of the refrigerator, and somewhere far down the hallway outside their front door, a neighbor was shouting something indistinct and laughing.

 

A whisper of loneliness curled itself around his shoulders, and Jimin shook it off with a huff.

 

He brushed his teeth and clambered into bed, sitting up with his back against the pillow at his headboard, his phone perfectly pleasant company. Jimin checked all his usual haunts, liked almost everything that turned up on his Instagram feed, chatted for a while with his friends in their Chef Challenge group chat. He was in the middle of reading a webtoon when his screen suddenly informed him of an incoming call.

 

It was an unfamiliar number, and it being so late, Jimin wondered if he should bother picking up at all. Whoever it was could leave a message if it was important.

 

Despite this thought, Jimin fulfilled the urge to answer it anyway.

 

"Hello?" Jimin said. No sound came from the other end, and Jimin checked the display to see if the call had even connected. "... Hello?"

 

"Park Jimin."

 

Jimin drew in a soft gasp, the voice immediately recognizable. "Yoongi hyung? What-- I-- I didn’t know you had my number," he said. The next thought that he didn’t put a voice to was, Why didn’t you call me sooner?

 

"I asked Taehyung for it," said Yoongi. There was a barely audible start and stop of a word, then, "I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have called."

 

"What? Wait," Jimin said, clutching his phone closer to his ear. "Why?"

 

"Jimin-ah…"

 

Jimin had never heard that tone from him before, wistful and longing and full of regret. It made Jimin want to run to him, wherever he was in the world, and soothe the hurt from his voice, regardless of how frustrated Jimin was with him.

 

"Why did you leave?" Jimin asked.

 

A long pause ensued, so long that Jimin wasn’t even sure Yoongi was there anymore. He was about to check, when Yoongi spoke. "You know why," he said at last. "I couldn’t be objective about you anymore. It wouldn’t be fair."

 

"It’s not fair that you just left either, hyung," said Jimin. "And you didn’t say a word to me. It’s been weeks."

 

"I know. I’m sorry," said Yoongi for the second time that night. "I thought it would be easier that way."

 

"Was it?"

 

"No."

 

He ought to have felt a measure of vindication, maybe, or even petty pleasure that Yoongi had been suffering, too, from his abrupt departure, but Jimin couldn’t find the wherewithal to nurse any of those feelings. He just wanted to go back to those moments they’d had before.

 

"And," Yoongi added, "I really shouldn’t be calling you either. I-- I don’t want to jeopardize your place in the competition. I don't want anything to get in your way. If anyone found out, they’d think you were getting an unfair advantage. But I just-- I just…"

 

"You just what?"

 

"I just wanted to hear your voice again, at least," said Yoongi, sounding defeated.

 

Jimin's mouth curved into a pout. "What about me, hyung? At least I'm on TV once a week, you know," he said, ludicrous as it sounded. "And you can use the channel's video player to see me, too. All I have are old online interviews of you, and you're always so grumpy and formal in them, and not at all like the way you talk to me."

 

"How do I talk to you?" Yoongi asked, curious.

 

"Like… you like me. Like I mean something to you," Jimin said.

 

"I do like you," said Yoongi. "You know I do."

 

"I wish I could see you, hyung," said Jimin.

 

"Me too. I-- I miss you."

 

Jimin's heart flattened under the weight of Yoongi's admission and cracked a little bit, knowing how he felt and now for certain how Yoongi felt, and yet not being able to see each other.

 

"I'm still mad at you, though," Jimin said anyway, because it was true. "Hyung, it really hurt that you couldn't even spare me one second to say something. I understand why you left. I do, really. But why couldn't you just tell me?"

 

"I was stupid and scared and overwhelmed," said Yoongi. "But that doesn't excuse it. You deserved better from me. I'm sorry, Jimin. I really am."

 

Jimin inhaled a deep breath and let it out in one long sigh, releasing the last of his apprehension. "If… next time," he said, "you feel scared and overwhelmed, can you try to… not run away first thing? Can you just come and talk to me?"

 

"Are you… giving me a next time?" Yoongi asked hesitantly.

 

"I mean, if you want," said Jimin.

 

"Yes," said Yoongi. "To both things."

 

Jimin's chest lightened. "Okay."

 

"Okay," said Yoongi.

 

"Okay," Jimin said again, and laughed quietly at himself. "It's really nice to talk to you again. What have you been up to lately, hyung?"

 

"Working," said Yoongi. "Restaurant stuff, mostly. Annoying all my employees by coming in too often. What about you? How are things in the glamorous world of machinery imports?"

 

Giggling, Jimin's heart lifted. "So exciting, hyung. We just got this new European contract and, oh, the legalese, it really set my heart aflutter. I mean, so much scintillating verbiage around non-disclosure and non-compete agreements."

 

"Yeah, keep talking, baby," Yoongi chuckled. 

 

A little thrill of pleasure swooped in Jimin's stomach. "Oh, I liked that," he said softly, before he even knew what he was saying. "I liked you calling me that."

 

He could almost hear the smile on Yoongi's face. "I'll keep that in mind," said Yoongi.

 

"What are you doing right now, hyung?" Jimin asked.

 

"Right now?" said Yoongi. "Mm, nothing, really. Just got into bed."

 

"Oh, me too. What does it look like? Your bedroom, I mean," said Jimin, on a roll of inane questions. He didn't have a particularly specific reason for asking, just wanted to hear Yoongi talk. There was a good chance he'd be asking Yoongi about the weather pretty soon and be captivated by whatever Yoongi had to say about the air quality index.

 

"Well," said Yoongi, "it's plain."

 

Jimin clicked his tongue. "And? Like… what color is it? Or, um, what else do you have in there besides your bed? Like, I have a desk and a shelf and my bedspread is white with a checkered pattern and I have a stuffed yellow dog whose name is Chimmy and he is the cuddliest. Also, there are a lot of cookbooks and notecards on the floor that I should have picked up days ago, but I've been too lazy to."

 

"Well, now that makes mine even less interesting," said Yoongi. "I literally have a bed and a nightstand and a lamp, and that's it. I guess I don't really like having that much in here."

 

What about me sat at the back of Jimin's tongue, champing at the bit to be let go, but Jimin swallowed it down. "Wow, we're really different, hyung. My room is full of crap," he laughed.

 

Yoongi let out a light laugh. "I live by myself, so I have more space to spread my shit around."

 

"Doesn't it get lonely?"

 

There was a brief pause before Yoongi spoke. "Sometimes."

 

"That's sad," said Jimin.

 

"Used to it," Yoongi said with a dry chuckle.

 

"But I don't want you to be lonely, hyung." Jimin drew his knees up to his chest and rested his chin over them, imagining Yoongi, lost and tiny, in his spacious, empty bedroom. "Can I keep you company for a little bit tonight? We don't even have to talk if you don't want to. Just leave this call open and it'll be like I'm right next to you, sort of."

 

"Park Jimin," said Yoongi, and the fondness in his voice sent a trickle of honey sweetness through Jimin's body all the way down to his toes. "I've really never met anyone like you."

 

Jimin bit down a grin, even though there was no one to see it. "So is that a yes?"

 

"I would love that," said Yoongi. "But I want to hear your voice. Tell me about… anything."

 

"Mm, well, the fine dust was at average levels today and is predicted to also be average tomorrow," said Jimin.

 

Yoongi laughed. "This is exactly the kind of content I came here for. What other hot button issues do you have for me?"

 

"Experts report that Min Yoongi is really cute. The story at eleven," said Jimin.

 

Another bark of laughter came through the line, and Jimin smiled at the mental picture of Yoongi's mouth stretching wide over his teeth, the kind of big laugh that showed the pink of his gums. "I'm not sure if I trust these experts of yours," said Yoongi. "What are their credentials, exactly?"

 

"How dare you question the credibility of my sources, hyung," gasped Jimin. "They have functioning eyes, that's what their credentials are."

 

"Yeah, but they are mentally incapacitated in some way, right?"

 

"Hyung, you're so pretty," Jimin insisted. "Really, really."

 

"That's not what I've heard," Yoongi said.

 

"That's why I'm telling you now," said Jimin. It occurred to him that, well, he'd only ever told Yoongi that he wasn't not handsome, which definitely wasn't the same as telling him how beautiful he actually was. "I just want to look at your face all the time."

 

"Works out nicely," said Yoongi. "Because I want to look at yours."

 

"And maybe hold your hand a bit."

 

"A lot," Yoongi corrected.

 

"A lot," Jimin agreed, wondering if this, or ever, was an opportune time to bring up all the other things he wanted to do with Yoongi. And to Yoongi. He swallowed his nerves and went for it, the fact that Yoongi wasn't in the room with him or even able to look at him somehow lending him a smidgen of courage. "And kiss you. A lot, too. You know that day, when we almost did?"

 

"Yeah," Yoongi breathed. 

 

"I wish we had. I really wish…" said Jimin. God knew he’d thought about it a million times since then. "Or, actually, maybe… Maybe I don’t. I-- Hm."

 

"What?" Yoongi prompted curiously.

 

"Maybe I don't," said Jimin, the words coming to him slowly. "Because then maybe if I knew what it felt like, it would just make me want it more. Make me want you more."

 

"Jimin…" said Yoongi. Warning laced his voice, but something else shimmered through the caution, something that strained to escape the bounds of his rationality.

 

Up to this point their conversation had been, for the most part, light and casual, but Jimin was taking it somewhere perhaps Yoongi didn't want to go. They had never talked about it before, what with Yoongi immediately making himself scarce every time it happened, the physical want, the electricity that hissed and sparked between them when they touched.

 

"I can’t stop thinking about it," said Jimin. Maybe this wouldn’t be coming out in such a mad rush if Yoongi had just stopped to talk to him once before quitting the show, shut it down before Jimin’s imagination could run away down the road of possibilities, grasping at whatever shreds of hope it came across along the way. "What if nobody had come in just then? What if we’d just had more time? Would you have kissed me, hyung?"

 

He was aware that he sounded just a little bit desperate and frustrated, but he had to know if Yoongi had been as affected by it as he had. Did he think about it, too? Did it burn at the forefront of his mind, even after all this time?

 

"Yes," Yoongi rasped.

 

Jimin let out the breath he’d been holding; it shuddered out of his mouth as Yoongi’s reply hit him. "How?"

 

"Jimin, don’t," Yoongi pleaded.

 

"I want to know," said Jimin. "What it would be like."

 

"I… We shouldn't do this," said Yoongi through a harsh breath. "This isn't how…"

 

Jimin clutched a corner of the blanket in his fist, feeling his face flush with growing embarrassment at having pushed too far. "I'm sorry… Do you not want me, hyung?" he asked quietly. "I--I mean, it's totally fine if--"

 

"Fuck, you know that’s not what I mean. Of course I do, Jimin-ah. You have no idea, seriously, I…" said Yoongi. "I do. I want you, probably too much, and I've wanted you for probably too long. If Taehyung hadn't come in that time, you would have known exactly how much I want you." 

 

"Then… Can you tell me now? Tell me how you would kiss me? Tell me what would have happened?" Jimin asked, still gripping his blanket for safety. 

 

Jimin could hear Yoongi’s shaky breathing at the other end of the line, and just when he was about to give up, Yoongi said softly, "Slow. It'd be slow."

 

As if Yoongi’s lips were on his, Jimin released a quiet, contented sigh.

 

"I’d… I’d take your face in my hands and kiss you, slowly, at first," said Yoongi. "It’s the first time I’m kissing you, so I’m not really sure what you want yet. How far I should go."

 

"I like this, this is good, you’re so good," said Jimin.

 

"Tell me what you want," said Yoongi.

 

"I want more, hyung. Kiss me harder. I want to know what your mouth tastes like," said Jimin.

 

"Then lick into my mouth and taste me. Suck on my tongue," said Yoongi.

 

Jimin let out a breathy moan as he imagined it, his mouth open to Yoongi’s in a hard, wet kiss, pushing his tongue against Yoongi’s, their bodies pressed so close not even air could get between them.

 

"I want you so much," Jimin said.

 

"Want you, too, baby," said Yoongi.

 

Heat rode up Jimin's skin. "I’ve wanted this for so long. Did you know, hyung?"

 

"Tell me."

 

"I dream about it," said Jimin, his eyes losing focus as he fell into his imagination. "I dream about that moment and about that time in cooking class and on set, but nobody ever walks in, nobody else is there. Nobody interrupts us, and you kiss me over and over again and your hands are in my hair and then your mouth is on my neck, and it feels so good. I can’t help myself, I think about how you’d push me to the floor or up against the wall and put your mouth on me."

 

"Do you know how many times I’ve thought about it, too?" Yoongi said, already sounding half-wrecked. "Kissing you, biting your neck, having my hands on you? Every night, Jimin-ah. Every night I think about you in my bed."

 

"Touch me, fuck," said Jimin, his eyes squeezed shut as he slid a hand underneath the waistband of his pajama shorts. "Mark me. Make me yours."

 

"Jimin… Shit," groaned Yoongi. "You’re making me so hard."

 

"Me too, hyung. I can’t get enough of you," Jimin said, almost whining in his desperation. "You know this is going to make me want even more."

 

"How much more?"

 

"Everything. Anything," Jimin said. He ached like nothing else for Yoongi’s touch. He could almost feel it, the ghosts of Yoongi’s fingers fluttering over his skin. "I’m all yours. Do anything you want with me. I’m yours."

 

"Park Jimin," Yoongi said in a low, sultry voice. "That’s a dangerous offer."

 

Jimin pressed the phone closer to his ear, wanting to pour Yoongi’s voice right into his very being, thick and sweet like honey. "Take me to bed."

 

He heard a strangled growl from the other end of the line, the primal sound of it piercing straight to his core and roaring in his blood.

 

"I’m going to make you come apart, Park Jimin."

 

"Fuck yes," Jimin breathed.

 

"I don’t care about whatever you’re wearing; I’m ripping it right off," said Yoongi. "I need to have my hands on you right now. I want you naked underneath me."

 

Jimin swallowed a cry of arousal at the thought of it. "Then fair’s fair," he said when he got his breath back. "You take everything off, too."

 

"Do you want me to fuck you right now, or you want me to tease you?" Yoongi asked.

 

"Make me beg," said Jimin. "Make me want it until I can’t take it anymore."

 

Yoongi’s breath shuddered over the line. "Then your hands are going to go over your head. You can’t touch."

 

Jimin felt a whine rise up in his throat, but said, "Okay, hyung."

 

He put the phone on speaker on a volume as loud as he dared, hopefully without it reaching outside his bedroom walls in case Jungkook happened to come back at an inopportune time, and locked his hands behind his head. There was no way Yoongi would know whether he was complying or not, but right now, with that voice guiding him, Jimin would do whatever he was told. If Yoongi told him to fly, Jimin would find a way to grow wings.

 

"You wanted my mouth on you, you wanted me to mark you," said Yoongi, in total control. "Just underneath your jaw, I’ll kiss you there. And take the skin between my teeth; I want everyone to see it and know that you’re mine."

 

"Yours," said Jimin, his breath going thready as Yoongi continued to detail moving his mouth down Jimin’s body, sucking on his nipples, grazing his teeth over Jimin’s chest, claiming every inch of territory as his.

 

Heat pooled low in Jimin’s stomach, unfurling desperation in waves throughout his body. His fingers twisted together, tight and strained, aching to touch himself, but Yoongi hadn’t given him permission yet.

 

"Does it feel good, Jimin-ah?"

 

"Yes, god, yes," said Jimin.

 

"Do you want my mouth on your cock?"

 

Jimin emitted a sound that couldn’t qualify as anywhere near a word. The frenzied greed in his voice might have, at some point, been embarrassing, but he was too far gone to care. He just wanted Yoongi.

 

"You’re so hard for me," said Yoongi, his breaths getting heavier. "I want to lick every inch of you and take you in my mouth."

 

"Yes," said Jimin, beyond eager. "Please."

 

"You fill my mouth up so good," said Yoongi. "I love how you feel on my tongue, so smooth and hard and heavy."

 

Jimin’s mind reeled with the image of Yoongi going down on him, how hot it would feel, how beautiful and profane it would be to see Yoongi’s pink lips wrapped around his cock, how Yoongi would moan every time it hit the back of his throat. Jimin whined, nearly unable to cope with it. His hands grabbed at his pillow and he bit down on his lower lip, trying to stifle the sounds rising from his lungs.

 

"Please, hyung, I need--"

 

"Not yet," said Yoongi. "I’m not done with you."

 

Surges of sweet, twisting intensity racked his body, but Jimin fought to keep them at bay as Yoongi decided to take him in deeper. Jimin writhed against his mattress, his hips bucking into the heated thought of Yoongi’s mouth.

 

"God, you're so--" Jimin couldn’t finish, biting his lip again, the minute pain staving off his imminent release. He wanted to last longer, wanted Yoongi’s voice in his ear forever.

 

And then, Yoongi said, "I want you to come in my mouth."

 

It took all of Jimin’s self-control not to come right then. "Fuck, yes," he managed to say.

 

"You’ve been so good, so good for me," Yoongi breathed.

 

Jimin whimpered. "Can I-- touch myself, hyung?" At Yoongi’s murmur of confirmation, Jimin wrapped his fingers around his own cock, hissing at how sensitive it was. One more word from Yoongi and he’d lose himself altogether.

 

"Do you like this, Jimin? You like me sucking you off?"

 

"Yes, god, please," Jimin babbled, furiously stroking himself. "Please -- I’m so close--"

 

"Come on, baby," Yoongi urged. "Let me taste you."

 

Shattered by Yoongi's words, Jimin cried out softly, releasing into his own hand, as he imagined coming in the heat of Yoongi’s mouth, his tongue swirling all around him, licking and swallowing up every last drop of what Jimin had to give.

 

"Fuck, I--" Jimin said brokenly. Somewhere in the haze, he realized Yoongi had held himself off all this time and, "Hyung, you’re still-- I wanna--"

 

"Tell me," said Yoongi.

 

Jimin took a few deep breaths to calm his racing heart, then said, "You-- Fuck my mouth, hyung. I want to take it." 

 

He heard a faraway grunt of surprise, then, "God, you don’t know what you’re doing to me."

 

Jimin’s throat burbled out a tired giggle as he lazily fumbled around what he could reach of his desk for a box of tissues. "I can only imagine. I wish I could see you. Are you touching yourself, hyung?"

 

"Yes," said Yoongi.

 

"Think how pretty my lips would look around your cock," said Jimin. "And how good it would feel every time you thrust into my mouth and I take you down my throat. You can pull my hair, I'll like it, it'll make me moan. Do you like hearing me?"

 

"God, yes," Yoongi gritted out. "I like-- like knowing I can do that to you. Make you lose control."

 

"Only you, hyung," breathed Jimin. "I'll only ever do it for you."

 

"Shit," said Yoongi through a broken cry as he quickly reached his release. "Fuck, Jimin-ah."

 

"I love when you say my name like that," Jimin murmured, hearing Yoongi's sharp, almost wheezing breaths shuddering with the force of his orgasm.

 

For a long moment, all that transpired through the line was the sound of their breathing, Jimin's now relaxed and Yoongi's still struggling to come back to normal. Behind closed eyes, Jimin imagined Yoongi was lying next to him, blissful and sated and warm. If he reached to his side he might even feel Yoongi's hand in his. 

 

"Hyung," Jimin said softly, after Yoongi's breath had calmed down. "Are you good?"

 

A low laugh rumbled into his ear. "More than good," Yoongi said. "Though I have to say, this isn't exactly how I imagined the phone call to go."

 

"What did you think would happen?"

 

"That you'd hang up on me," said Yoongi simply, as if it was a matter of fact. "Or you wouldn't pick up at all and I wouldn't have the guts to leave a message. But mostly I figured… I'd fucked up too much and for the last time and you'd hang up on me immediately."

 

"I wouldn't," said Jimin, wishing he could wrap his arms around Yoongi. "I like you too much."

 

"It's more than I deserve," said Yoongi, his voice going quiet and contemplative. "Thank you for being so patient with me while I… you know, tried to pretend I didn't feel anything for you and ran away at every available opportunity. It was really unfair to you."

 

"Must have been really hard to pretend," said Jimin airily. "Since I'm so awesome."

 

"That you are," Yoongi agreed. "It's not really how I imagined our, uh, first time either."

 

"No?" Jimin prompted.

 

Yoongi hummed a note of affirmation. "Thought I might be able to get at least a little bit of romance in first. You know? Flowers, dinner and a movie, all that?"

 

"No one's stopping you from romancing me. Anyway, this time doesn't really count, does it? It was basically imaginary," Jimin said and listened intently to the sound of Yoongi's quiet laugh, trying to memorize its melody so he could unwrap the sound in his mind whenever he wanted later. "Hyung, when will I get to see you again?"

 

Yoongi let out a quiet sigh. "Not until after the competition is over."

 

"What if I just lose this week?" Jimin asked. He wasn't truly serious; the competition meant a lot to him and his culinary pride. But still, the temptation of throwing the competition so he could see Yoongi sooner… He couldn't dismiss it out of hand.

 

"Don't you dare, Park Jimin," said Yoongi. "You're going all the way to the end, you understand? You have the talent to do it. Don't throw it away just for this."

 

"This isn't just anything," said Jimin. "But… I know what you're saying."

 

"Do your best," said Yoongi, his tone gentler now that he knew Jimin wasn't going to do anything reckless. "I'll know if you don't."

 

Jimin nodded, though he knew Yoongi couldn't see him. "And you're not going to call me again, are you?" he asked. The answer was obvious; Yoongi had already said that contacting him this once to begin with could get them both in trouble, but Jimin just had to make sure. He didn't want to hope for something that wouldn't come.

 

"Right," said Yoongi, and sighed again. "And honestly, even if you did lose this week, it still wouldn't be a good idea to be in contact until the whole show is done."

 

"It's only a few weeks longer," Jimin said bracingly. "It'll be like… if you went on a trip where, um, there was no WiFi or hotspots or cell signal."

 

"What kind of backwards hellscape are you sending me to?" said Yoongi.

 

Jimin giggled. "That way you can't do anything else but think about me."

 

"I already think about nothing else but you," said Yoongi.

 

"Smooth," said Jimin approvingly.

 

Yoongi chuckled, then said, "I should let you get some sleep. You have a big day tomorrow."

 

"I don't want to hang up," said Jimin, though he knew he should. Yoongi was right; he needed to be well-rested before another long day of competition. But all the same, "I don't want to stop hearing your voice."

 

"Me neither…" said Yoongi. "Tell you what, I'll find a way to let you hear my voice any time you want if you promise to go to bed."

 

Jimin couldn't imagine what he was talking about. "How?"

 

"The beauty of a surprise, Park Jimin, is that it is a surprise."

 

"Is that your way of saying that you haven't actually figured out how yet?" Jimin asked suspiciously.

 

"Go to sleep, Jimin-ah."

 

"You haven't figured out how yet."

 

"I'm going to hang up."

 

Jimin smiled, despite the threat. "I miss you, hyung."

 

"I miss you, too," said Yoongi. "Go to sleep."

 

"Okay," said Jimin. "See you soon."

 

Reluctantly, they terminated the call. Jimin looked at his phone for a minute, half his mind wondering if that all had just really happened, and the other half fervently hoping Yoongi would immediately call again. But of course, he already knew it wasn't going to happen.

 

The best Jimin could do now was to work as hard as he could to stay in the running on Chef Challenge and make Yoongi proud.

 

*

 

Jungkook had gotten in late enough that Jimin had fallen asleep by the time he came home. So it was really his own fault that he was so startled by Jimin being up and about and aggressively cheerful the following morning, well before their routine scuffle for first rights to the bathroom.

 

"Be honest, hyung," said Jungkook through a mouthful of toothpaste foam as he peered out from the bathroom with as much suspicion as he could muster while still not fully awake, "how many energy drinks have you already had? Are you high right now?"

 

"Nope," said Jimin, grinning. "And none. Toast?"

 

Though dissatisfied with the response, Jungkook disappeared back into the bathroom, and Jimin heard him rinsing his mouth out and the tapping of his toothbrush against the side of the sink. "Do we still have that strawberry jam you made?" he called out.

 

Jimin dropped two slices of bread into the toaster for him. "Little bit," he called back.

 

He set all the appropriate breakfast things on their kitchen table and munched on his own buttered toast while waiting for Jungkook to finish showering and come back out, hopefully a little more alert to listen to Jimin update him on what had happened the night prior.

 

It still seemed a little bit like a dream, and if Jimin had pinched himself as many times as he thought he should, he'd be bruising like an overripe peach.

 

Jungkook emerged in due time, rubbing a towel over his wet hair violently, then settling the towel around his neck as he came to sit at the table. It took him the duration of one piece of toast finished before he noticed Jimin, chin in hands, just watching him eat with a happy smile.

 

"For real, what is wrong with you right now?" Jungkook asked.

 

"I talked to Yoongi yesterday," said Jimin.

 

Jungkook raised an eyebrow and shoved another corner of toast in his mouth. Cautiously, he said, "And?"

 

"We, uh, we worked it out. He called and apologized for being stupid and distant, and we… talked," said Jimin, suddenly feeling a bashful urge to squeeze his hands against his cheeks. He didn't want to get into what the talking had eventually led to, at least not right now; maybe later if an opportunity came up to sully Jungkook's innocent ears and drive him out of the room. "Anyway, um, he said he got my number from Taehyung."

 

"Oh, did he?" said Jungkook a little too casually from behind his coffee mug.

 

"Wait," said Jimin. "Did you know? Did you know and not tell me?"

 

"I just happened to be there when Yoongi texted Taehyung asking for your number," said Jungkook in his own defense. "And then Taehyung happened to tell me about it. I didn't say anything because I didn't know what he was gonna do with it. Like, what if I got your hopes up for no reason?"

 

Jimin frowned but couldn’t dispute that Jungkook's not telling him was due to looking out for him.

 

"Also, it was, like, last week," Jungkook continued.

 

"He'd had my number for that long?" Jimin said. He shook his head with a light laugh, unsure whether this information made him more frustrated with Yoongi's apprehension or endeared. "Well, anyway. He called."

 

"You said," said Jungkook, smiling.

 

"I like him so much, Kook-ah," said Jimin, almost wailing. He covered his face with his hands. It was just that he was grinning so wide and he had to contain his happiness somehow or it would spill everywhere, an overabundance of sunshine. He shifted to pressing his fists at his mouth. "But I can't see him until Chef Challenge is over."

 

"Uh?" said Jungkook.

 

"In case people think there was, like, collusion or something."

 

"Well, that's very noble and stupid. But I get it," said Jungkook with a shrug. He downed the rest of his coffee, then narrowed his gaze at Jimin. "He does know that if he jerks you around I'll kick his ass, right?"

 

"No," said Jimin. "But I'd love to be there when you tell him."

 

"Kick yours, too," grumbled Jungkook.

 

Underneath the table, Jimin swung his foot, his heel connecting lightly with Jungkook's shin. "That's disrespecting elders."

 

Gripping the sides of his chair, Jungkook had a kick-fight with Jimin's feet, and said, "Hyung, you know I can lift you with one arm. You're only making yourself look bad-- Ow, why are your toenails so sharp?"

 

Jimin laughed, taking it as a victory. He grabbed their empty plates and deposited them in the sink. "Hurry up, we have to go soon," he said, but before Jungkook could move from his seat, Jimin hugged him, rocking them back and forth. "And thanks, Kookie. You're the best."

 

Jungkook mumbled something about him making them even later and scuttled away to his room once Jimin deigned to release him.

 

They went to the Chef Challenge studio, parting ways at the dressing room where Jimin deposited himself into an empty makeup chair. He had his pick of several, seeing as he and Sungjae were the only male contestants left. The dressing room had gotten much quieter and seemingly more spacious since Shinwon had been cut.

 

Sungjae plodded in not long after, and Jimin held out a fist for him to bump.

 

"Morning," Sungjae yawned.

 

"Morning," said Jimin. "How're you feeling about today?"

 

Sungjae settled himself into the makeup chair next to Jimin's, resting clasped fingers over his stomach and leaning back with closed eyes. A calm smile graced his lips. "Shit."

 

"No, Sungjae-yah, you're not supposed to say that," said Jimin, reaching over to shove his shoulder. "You're going to win this whole thing, you dummy. You've aced practically every challenge so far."

 

"Shh," said Sungjae, his face still tilted towards the ceiling, like he was sunning himself. "Don't let the universe hear you."

 

"Oh, right," said Jimin. "What I really meant was, you're very bad at cooking."

 

Sungjae turned to Jimin with a grin. "Thanks, buddy. How have your practices been this week?"

 

As far as familiarity with the cuisine and techniques went, making Korean comfort food was, on paper, the easiest challenge they'd had thus far. Which, of course, meant they'd be graded about ten times more harshly and every mistake would be magnified exponentially. Jimin didn't want to think about how many generations of ancestors he'd be disgracing if he couldn't turn out a good kalbi jjim.

 

"Fraught," said Jimin.

 

At least Jungkook had been thoroughly enjoying the fruits and occasional disasters of his labors in the last week.

 

In the end, possibly because they'd managed to successfully deceive the universe, both he and Sungjae advanced to the next week. Still, it wasn't without disappointment that they had to see Bomi go, not for anything egregious, just not quite coming up to par with the rest this once.

 

After their final round of interviews for the day, Jimin headed home by himself since Jungkook was headed over to Taehyung's for the night.

 

The bus ride was relatively quiet, save for the stop announcements and the rumble of the engine, the riders keeping to themselves. Jimin checked his phone for messages he knew wouldn't be there and stared down at the contact he'd saved the night before.

 

He wasn't going to call or text it, but he just liked knowing he had it.

 

With a soft sigh, Jimin shut the phone display off and put his phone in his pocket. Yoongi would probably hear from Taehyung through Jungkook the results of today's challenges anyway.

 

Playing telephone was, to say the least, a weird way to conduct a relationship. If Jimin could actually call what they had a relationship. Then again, for all its anomalies and the fact that he and Yoongi hadn't really spent that much time together overall so far, Jimin somehow felt more secure about Yoongi than he remembered feeling about past boyfriends.

 

Maybe it was just time and context that had faded them from his mind, but Yoongi felt different. He felt right.

 

Jimin smiled to himself as he recalled bits and pieces of their conversation from the night before, alighting at his stop and walking the rest of the short way home.

 

He slipped his shoes off at the door and managed to at least change into pajamas before tumbling straight into bed, fatigue already pulling him towards sleep.

 

*

 

Jimin woke late the next morning, too comfortable to get out of bed right away. He rolled around for a bit while occasionally checking his email or Instagram or flicking through various apps and websites he liked to visit from time to time.

 

He clicked to an online interview Yoongi, Seokjin, and Hani had done a couple of years ago about Chef Challenge, a third of the video's view count probably down to Jimin alone. He'd watched it so many times he practically had all of Yoongi's responses memorized. The words didn't much matter, though. Jimin just liked watching it to see Yoongi's face.

 

After the video ended at a too-short three-and-a-half minutes, Jimin rubbed his face and finally decided he should get up.

 

On his way to lumbering over to the bathroom, however, he heard a knock at the front door, and Jimin detoured over there instead with a frown.

 

He eased the door open carefully, hiding most of his body behind it, as he was still in his rumpled pajamas.

 

"Delivery for Park Jimin," said the man on the other side of the door.

 

"Oh," said Jimin. He didn't remember having ordered anything recently, and his parents always told him beforehand when they were sending things over from the States. "Um, that's me."

 

The first item the deliveryman handed over was an almost comically large flower arrangement. It was a collection of beautiful lilies and coral-colored roses and other pretty sprigs and bunches Jimin didn't know the names of.

 

He wondered if he was the right Park Jimin to be getting these, but before he could ask, the deliveryman shoved a big cardboard box under his nose and said, "And this one. Have a nice day, sir."

 

"Uh, thank you." Jimin nearly fumbled the box, one of his arms already full of flowers. He stepped back gingerly and kicked the door closed, then set his deliveries on the floor. He noticed now that the flower arrangement had a small card attached that said Park Jimin on it.

 

Jimin tugged the card out and opened it, his heart melting a little to read, I miss you -- Hyung.  

 

He sat on the floor, smiling at the card and trying hard not to clutch it to his chest like a lovestruck teenager, for a few moments forgetting that there was another delivery package to deal with.

 

When he could bring himself to put the card away, Jimin carefully stuck it back in its little plastic holder and set to work on opening the cardboard box. Once the tape had been cut through, he lifted the flaps to find an oversized, loose-limbed teddy bear inside with curly brown fur. Jimin laughed to himself, confused and surprised that Yoongi would send him something like this on top of the already extravagant flowers.

 

He took the bear out of the box and noticed it had a sticker on its paw that said Press Me! Jimin did as instructed.

 

"Park Jimin, fighting!" called Yoongi's voice.

 

Jimin stared at the bear for a moment and dissolved into laughter at Yoongi's solution to Jimin wanting to hear his voice every day. He pressed the paw one more time, then hugged the bear tightly and brought it to his bedroom, setting it carefully next to his stuffed dog Chimmy.

 

"Be nice, make friends," he told them.

 

He heard a series of beeps at the front door; Jungkook was home.

 

Jimin came out of his room to find Jungkook regarding the flower arrangement with slight surprise.

 

"Wow," said Jungkook, slinging a bag off his shoulder, "if this is the kind of welcome I get after being gone for one night, I'm gonna leave more often. If I leave for a whole week, will you buy me a car? Please say yes."

 

"They're from Yoongi," said Jimin, biting his lip in a smile.

 

Jungkook lifted a hand to his chest. "I didn't know I meant that much to him. Will he buy me a car?"

 

"Shut up," said Jimin. He reached down to circle his arms around the flower arrangement and swung it out of Jungkook's way, intending to march it into his room. Jungkook obviously had no appreciation for its significance and should not get to enjoy it. "You already have Taehyung to ferry you around everywhere now anyway."

 

"Yes, that is nice," said Jungkook.

 

Jimin took the flowers and placed them on the floor in his bedroom, having no other surface clear enough to hold them, and came back out again.

 

"How was it?" he asked. "Your sleepover?"

 

Jungkook smiled. "Good."

 

"Whoa, slow down," said Jimin. "I can't keep track of all the details like this."

 

Pouring himself a cup of water, Jungkook said with an arch look, "As I recall, the last time I tried to tell you details, you ran away screaming."

 

"I walked away loudly," Jimin corrected in a prim voice. "Also, you were being nasty on purpose. I want to know cute details, not how much of a dicking you got."

 

"But what if his dick is cute?" Jungkook asked.

 

"A conundrum," Jimin admitted. "But really, how was it?"

 

"It was really nice," said Jungkook, smiling in reluctant surrender. "I like that we can just hang out and it's comfortable and I don't have to pretend I'm anything I'm not, you know? And he's hot." After a second's thought, he added, "I'm going to marry him, I think."

 

Jimin beamed, utterly unsurprised. "Dibs on planning your wedding."

 

"Nah," said Jungkook. "We're more of the surprise elopement type. Just out of the blue one day, married." He said this like he was dropping a mic.

 

"What? Does he know? Have you already talked about this?"

 

"Yeah, like, we'll maybe go to Jeju and eat some tangerines and pork and call it good," said Jungkook. "I mean, I suppose you can come, still."  

 

"I'd better be invited," said Jimin with a huff. "Who else is going to ugly cry at your eternal happiness and let you take pictures of it? God, it's like you don't even think these things through."

 

"I did," said Jungkook. "And I'm gonna marry him."

 

"Okay, cool," said Jimin.

 

Jungkook grinned. "Yeah."

Chapter Text

Jimin's run on Chef Challenge lasted two more weeks, getting shut out in Week 12, just before the finals. He'd probably be embarrassed later, his teary and splotchy cheeks immortalized forever on cable television, but for now, he would cry.

 

"And so, as we bid farewell to Park Jimin, that means," Hoseok announced to the cameras, rather solemnly, "that we will see you next week with our finalists, Lee Ilhwa, Kim Sejeong, and Yook Sungjae."

 

After a few more closing remarks, Hoseok nodded goodbye to the home audience and turned to give Jimin a hug once the other three contestants released him from theirs.

 

He ruffled Jimin's hair a little. "Be proud of yourself," he said. "You did well."

 

Jimin nodded gratefully. He knew Hoseok was right; there was nothing he'd done to disgrace himself, hadn't done anything wrong. Though it was a disappointment to have to go, the other three remaining were just a little better than him, and Jimin had no shame in admitting it. He'd come as far as he could, competing against the some of the best amateur cooks the show had seen so far, making amazing friends, meeting Yoongi. Jimin had no regrets.

 

Seokjin and Hani left the judges' table to come over and extend their commiserations as well, with Seokjin crushing Jimin to his chest and Hani patting his back.

 

"Manggaeddeok!" Seokjin said. "I'll miss you so much!"

 

In spite of himself, Jimin laughed at the pet name.

 

"You'd better keep in touch, okay?" Seokjin said. "Give me your Instagram right now. I'm going to stalk you immediately."

 

Once that was done, Hani squeezed Jimin's shoulder comfortingly. "Don't get discouraged by this, okay?" she said with a gentle smile. "You've shown us a lot of wonderful skills. Your life is going to change in so many ways after this, I promise."

 

The cameras were still rolling; on television the credits would appear over everyone saying goodbye to Jimin and celebrating the finalists. Jimin sniffled but smiled as much as he could. After all, it wasn't just about him leaving. Sejeong, Sungjae, and Ilhwa were headed to the finals of Chef Challenge, and he couldn't think of three people more deserving. It was going to be such an awesome finale, even if he wasn't in it.  

 

As soon as the cameras turned off, Jungkook came running in from the sidelines. Though Jimin expected another sympathetic hug that might fracture some of his smaller bones, Jungkook slung an arm around Jimin's shoulders instead. "Hyung, you good?"

 

"Mmhm," said Jimin, mostly meaning it.

 

"Taehyung and I are gonna take you out to drink after this, okay? You're not allowed to say no, and he's already on his way," said Jungkook.

 

Jimin rolled his eyes, though he wasn't displeased at the prospects of a) alcohol, and b) getting a lift home that wasn't the bus. "I still have interviews," he said, nodding in Namjoon's direction. "It might be a while."

 

Jungkook shrugged. "Taehyung knows lots of people here. He'll keep himself occupied," he said. Another thought occurred to him, and he licked his teeth. "Or, failing that, I can keep him occupied."

 

"Hard pass on drinks with the two of you," Jimin said, but failed to get away from Jungkook's iron grip.

 

"We'll be good," Jungkook promised with a snorting laugh.

 

Jimin noticed Namjoon motioning him over and said, "Gotta go. Text you when I'm done."

 

He trotted over to Namjoon, who directed him to the interview room where the makeup noona was ready and waiting with her brushes to touch him up, his original makeup runny and tracked with dried tears.

 

"What's the point, though?" Jimin asked, accidentally getting a mouthful of brush. "I'm just gonna cry all over again when I'm talking to you, PD-nim."

 

Namjoon smiled. "Then at least you'll look pretty when you do."

 

Jimin did end up tearing up again over the course of the interview. It wasn't just having to leave the kitchen set that had somehow become almost like a second home with a second family, but he was losing out on the prize money now. Culinary school would have to wait much, much longer.

 

"You know," Namjoon said, once the official interview was done and the camera operator was moving the equipment out of the way, "I wouldn't worry about it too much. I can't tell you much more than this, not until the show is all over, but we've already been getting calls… Inquiries always come in about our best contestants."

 

Jimin frowned. "What does that mean?"

 

"It means people are interested in you," said Namjoon. "Like, in a wanting-to-give-you-a-job kind of way."

 

"What… kind of job?" Jimin asked.

 

Namjoon waved the question off. "I've already told you too much," he said, exasperated. "Just… take some time to rest, okay? Things will work out on their own."

 

Though Jimin narrowed his eyes in dissatisfaction, then used his best aegyo to ask Namjoon to pretty please be less cryptic, Namjoon only grinned and shooed him away, leaving Jimin standing outside the interview room to wonder who exactly was interested in potentially hiring him.

 

He went back to the dressing room to find a few notes stuck to his backpack -- messages of loud affection from the other three contestants, who'd already left for home by the time Jimin had finished his interview. He smiled at the notes and tucked them carefully into his pocket.

 

Inside his backpack, Jimin's phone blinked insistently at him, lit up with a million messages from the Chef Challenge group chat, starting with Sejeong posting the results and the ensuing posts from everyone else congratulatory and sympathetic alike. One from Shinwon included an invitation to Jimin to something he called the Happy Losers Club, which the three finalists were emphatically forbidden to join, because it was to gossip about them.

 

It didn't actually exist, but reading the subsequent bickering between the rest of his friends made Jimin laugh out loud and forget his tears.

 

Jimin had plenty to be thankful for already, but no longer having the stress of the competition was definitely another one. He could sleep now; he could come home from work and do absolutely nothing, and it'd be fine.

 

He could go drinking with his friends.

 

Jimin texted Jungkook and hitched his backpack over his shoulders, ambling over to their usual exit to see Jungkook already loitering there.

 

"Hyung!" Jungkook called out, waving. "Taehyung's just outside. Ready?"

 

"Are you sure this is going to be fun for him?" Jimin asked as Jungkook pulled him by the elbow and out the doors. "He doesn't drink, right?"

 

"Not much," Jungkook confirmed, "but he says his reward is getting to watch other people make fools of themselves."

 

"Ah," said Jimin in understanding. "No wonder you get along so well." 

 

Taehyung was waiting by his idling car, casually leaning against its frame while his thumbs moved at lightning speed over his phone. He lifted his head at Jungkook's call, and his lips pulled into a wide grin. Taehyung waved enthusiastically at them both. "Hi!" he trilled. "Who's ready for a night of unlimited debauchery?"

 

"Uhh," said Jimin.

 

"He means we're going to get grilled intestines and then go to noraebang," Jungkook explained.

 

"Oh, fair," Jimin conceded. "Thanks for coming out, Taehyung-ah."

 

"Of course!" said Taehyung, as if he wouldn't have considered any other option. "After a day like today, you deserve to let off some steam, right?"

 

They piled into the car, and Taehyung drove them to a bustling restaurant packed with customers and shouting but friendly staff who moved around the tight spaces with practiced ease. A chatty ahjumma came to take their order, shooting the breeze for a little bit with Taehyung, who seemed to be a regular, and in a few minutes brought over a large pan of intestines and placed it on top of the grill at their table, sparking a fire underneath it.

 

She left the intestines to cook for a bit and came back with three bottles of soju and glasses, one bottle more than they'd originally ordered. "Service," she said with a wink at Taehyung, who responded with a cute noise of gratitude. "Where's the other one?"

 

"Oh, Yoongi hyung? He's on a business trip," Taehyung said.

 

"You tell him to come and visit when he gets back," she said, cutting up some of the bigger pieces of intestine and turning them on the grill. "It's been too long since I've seen his face."

 

That makes two of us, Jimin thought.

 

"Yes, imo," said Taehyung obediently. He smiled after her as she moved away to help at another table. To no one in particular, he added, "He's in Europe. It'll be a while before he gets back. Almost two weeks."

 

Jimin restrained himself enough not to ask when exactly Yoongi's return flight was scheduled to arrive and definitely didn't imagine a touching airport reunion just outside the arrivals gate. He filled a piece of lettuce in his palm and stuffed it in his mouth instead, listening to Taehyung and Jungkook lead the conversation elsewhere.

 

Not that it mattered when Yoongi's plane touched down; Jimin already knew: not until the competition was over. In fact, it was better in a way, that Yoongi was on some far-off continent and not a mere five-minute bus ride away. His restraint might not hold against a cheap bus fare, but definitely couldn't do anything about the cost of an international flight.

 

By the time they'd picked the grill clean, Jimin had a little under two bottles of soju under his belt and was feeling pleasantly buzzed. The kind of loose, giggly feeling that, if not entirely throwing caution to the wind, made him care a lot less about the concept of having inhibitions.

 

Which explained both his and Jungkook's perfectly synchronized performance at noraebang to EXID's Up & Down, as well as letting Taehyung record it on his phone while he whooped with laughter the whole time.

 

More drinks and snacks appeared on the table thanks to Taehyung, and about an hour and a half into their room reservation, Jungkook flagged, stretching himself out on one of the cushioned benches, head in Taehyung's lap. He still managed to sing a decent ballad from that position, earning himself 99 points from the finicky rating system before dozing off.

 

Jimin decided to lie down as well, taking up the other length of the L shape their benches were in, while Taehyung got stuck in the bend. Stretched out on his back, Jimin burrowed his head into the bench to look up at Taehyung, upside-down. "I think I'm supposed to threaten you at some point about treating Kookie right," he said. "In the name of hyung duty."

 

With no songs to play, the sound system blared a monthly promotion announcement to the backing track of excitable synth pop.

 

Fingers threading through Jungkook's hair, Taehyung said, "I'm ready."

 

"If you hurt Kookie," Jimin began, not actually knowing how to finish. He'd never really had to do this before, Jungkook's past relationships never important enough for him to feel like he had to get involved. Being slightly drunk and sleepy at the moment didn't much help either. "Um, if you hurt Kookie, I will break into your house and wrap everything in an inch-thick layer of plastic film. Like, everything. Toothbrush, individual socks, faucets, bed…"

 

Taehyung nodded. "I understand." He cocked his head, an amiable look on his face. "You want me to threaten you now? For Yoongi hyung? Dongsaeng duty."

 

"Hit me, bro," said Jimin, a hiccupy giggle escaping.

 

"Mm, if you break Yoongi hyung's heart, I'm going to hire an airplane banner service to fly over your workplace every day announcing what a tiny dick you have," said Taehyung.

 

"Nice," said Jimin in appreciation, lifting his hand up for a high five.

 

Taehyung laughed and slapped his palm.

 

They were possibly doing it wrong.

 

"But really," said Taehyung, "he seems a lot happier since he met you. I mean, except for the part where he was making himself miserable, but that's his own fault."

 

Jimin tried not to visibly perk up. "Does he talk about me?"

 

Taehyung hummed a note of disagreement. "Not especially, but he's never told me much about personal stuff. He keeps things to himself a lot. Unluckily for him," said Taehyung, tapping Jimin's nose, "I've known him too long and have the passcode to his house, so I notice things."

 

Flopping over with force onto his stomach, Jimin said, "You can't say things like that and then not spill."

 

"Remember that drawing you did of him once? The weird circle with legs?"

 

"It also had arms, thank you," said Jimin. "But go on."

 

"It might be up on the wall in his home office now," said Taehyung.

 

Blushing with surprised pleasure, Jimin wished he had a pillow to giggle into. His arms would have to suffice. "What did he say when you saw?"

 

"Pretended it didn't exist and kicked me out, and then made me promise not to tell," said Taehyung. His eyebrows shifted up slightly, and he lifted a hand to his lips. "Oops. Oh well, that was a while ago. Times have changed and we must change with them."

 

Despite enjoying this little nugget of information, Jimin said, "You're bad at keeping secrets."

 

"I know," said Taehyung, as if excited to have a flaw.

 

"But you're good for Kookie," Jimin appended, "so it's cool."

 

"Huh?" said Jungkook, roused suddenly from hearing his name. "Where?"  

 

"Here," said Taehyung and poked Jungkook in the stomach.

 

Jungkook squeaked, his body folding in half like the snap of a clamshell. He scrambled to his knees, affronted. "You're dead," he said, the intensity of the threat somewhat marred by his pout and ruffled hair. He swiped the noraebang's tambourine off the table and shook it, its gentle jingling doing even less to back him up. "I'm gonna wring your neck with this tambourine."

 

"That's a novel way to go," said Jimin, popping a stale shrimp cracker in his mouth.

 

"Really inventive, babe," Taehyung enthused.

 

Jungkook's eyes narrowed in slight confusion. "I feel like you're ganging up on me." He looked between the two of them, suspicion in full bloom on his face. "What were you talking about while I was out?"

 

Jimin smiled. "Nothing important."

 

*

 

As expected, Yoongi had received the news about Jimin's ousting, which was why Jimin opened the door the day after to another flower delivery -- a little less ostentatious in size this time -- with a card that read, Proud of you - Hyung.

 

Jimin set it happily in the center of the kitchen table for the time being; by the time meals and other projects rolled around he'd have to move it elsewhere, but he liked being able to see it where he was.

 

Though he didn't have his own projects anymore for the competition and was already starting to feel something like withdrawal without the adrenaline-pumped feeling of having to rush home every day to practice, both Sungjae and Sejeong had enlisted his help to test their recipes and provide feedback.

 

He was more than happy to do it. It passed the time and gave him something to keep his mind on.

 

The week went by quickly, and for the first time in three months, Jimin didn't have to wake at an ungodly hour on Saturday morning to get to filming. It felt weird. Even weirder was sitting home and just about every hour wondering what was happening on set. He couldn't quite remember what his regular life had been before all of this.

 

It wasn't until late evening, of course, that filming ended, and Sungjae posted in the group chat: Everyone bow down to Queen Sejeong!

 

The chat exploded with congratulations and row after row of celebratory emojis at Sejeong's win, and Jimin squealed to himself in the empty apartment. He would have been ecstatic at any of the three finalists taking the crown, but Sejeong had been the very first friend he'd made at Chef Challenge, and somehow that made it all the more special.

 

Soon, the chat turned into plans hastily pulled together for everyone to meet for a late supper and drinks, and half an hour later, Jimin hopped out of a cab and into a barbecue restaurant. He greeted the former contestants who had already arrived before him, getting pulled into a loose hug with Shinwon and Hakyeon.

 

They had to keep it to themselves that Sejeong had won, lest it leak before the final episode's broadcast date, and in keeping with that spirit, tried their best to behave as if they knew nothing. If a few toasts were made, it was only with their best surreptitious, stealthy glances and hushed whispers, as if they were plotting a heist together.

 

Jimin couldn't remember a time in recent memory when he'd laughed so hard he started hiccupping, and the image of Yoongi glowering at him while slamming a bottle of water down suddenly popped into his mind. Jimin grinned even harder and hiccupped again.

 

His phone vibrated in his pocket, and Jimin excused himself to check it and make a run to the bathroom.

 

On his phone was a message from Taehyung: Yoongi hyung will be back on Friday in time for the watch party. You'll be there right? (v^°)

 

Jimin's heart leapt about a thousand feet. The production crew were throwing a viewing party at the studio so everyone could gather for one last time and watch the final episode's broadcast together. He'd been planning on attending to begin with, but if Yoongi was going to show as well, then nothing short of a hostile alien takeover was going to stop Jimin from being there.

 

*

 

Jimin stood in the doorway of his bedroom, glancing nervously at the bathroom. He hadn't spoken to Yoongi in a long time, out of necessity, but he was still getting flowers, and considering Taehyung passing along intel on Yoongi's near future whereabouts, Jimin was fairly sure that Yoongi was still interested.

 

The question was, Jimin mused as he worried his lower lip between his teeth, exactly how interested?

 

"Hyung, what are you doing?" said Jungkook, appearing in the hallway.

 

"Do I, um…" Jimin began, then felt his face go hot. Why in god's name was he considering asking Jungkook about this? "Never mind. Go away."

 

"Okay," said Jungkook with a shrug, "but if you turn up in front of Min Yoongi with that constipated look on your face, don't blame me. I tried to help you."

 

Jimin grimaced, which probably didn't help the pinched air about him. "Do you think Yoongi will want to fuck me?"

 

"I take it back, I don't want to help you," said Jungkook.

 

"Yes, you do. You're always in my business," said Jimin.

 

Jungkook lifted a shoulder in concession. "Fine, then yes. Is this about what you're wearing? Because I don't think you want to wear those joggers to the watch party. They do nothing for your butt."

 

"No one asked you to look at my butt. And I know what I'm going to wear. It's just…" said Jimin, feeling silly to voice his uncertain thoughts aloud. No doubt continuing this conversation would only make Jungkook agree. "I don't want to jinx myself? If I assume that we're going to fuck and if I prep and then it doesn't happen and then it'll be like I--"

 

"First of all, this is the dumbest thing you've ever said," said Jungkook, "and the competition was already stiff as shit. Second, you should always assume he wants to fuck you."

 

He slapped his hands onto Jimin's shoulders and turned him around, marching them into Jimin's bedroom and in front of the full-length mirror hanging on the inside of an open closet door. "Look at this stupid face," he said, squishing Jimin's cheeks with his palms. "It's heinously attractive. Who wouldn't want to do you? Besides me, because I think you're gross."

 

Jimin's reflection frowned at Jungkook's just over his shoulder. "How is this both uplifting and bullying at the same time?"

 

"I'm gifted, like my mom always said," Jungkook replied with a grin, pressing Jimin's cheeks in with every other syllable. "Anyway, so what if you prep yourself and then he doesn't fuck you? Then you come home and film yourself to show him what he missed."

 

"What did your mom think you were gifted in, exactly?" Jimin asked.

 

"In life, obviously," clipped Jungkook. Once again, he pushed Jimin by the shoulders to go wherever he wanted, which this time was apparently towards the bathroom. "Now you go make yourself all sexy, and while you're doing that, I'm going to tell Taehyung every detail about this conversation."

 

"I should have murdered you when I had the chance," said Jimin.

 

Jungkook shook his head in mock disappointment. "You just don't want it enough."

 

He walked away, and a second later, Jimin heard him starting up some game on his tablet. Jimin shut the bathroom door and stared at his face in the mirror. He didn't want to have unrealistic expectations -- about anything. It wasn't about the sex, really, not all of it. It was that, for all he knew, absence had made the heart grow less fond, and Yoongi was planning on turning up to let him down gently.

 

Jimin shook his head to dispel the thought. He couldn't let some nebulous fear get in the way. What he had to go on were Yoongi's words and actions, and he should at least afford Yoongi the benefit of his confidence.

 

After washing up, Jimin put on a simple shirt and blazer and a pair of his fanciest jeans that at least Jungkook would approve of as butt-worthy.

 

"Yes," Jungkook confirmed, "he'll definitely want to put his dick in that."

 

They took a taxi together to the Chef Challenge studio, Jimin fidgeting the entire way. He wasn't sure he'd felt this nervous even during judging, his heart barreling at light speed and ready to burst into a shower of tears and confetti at the first sight of Yoongi.

 

It was with slight disappointment but mostly relief that Jimin and Jungkook arrived at the set -- which had been decorated beautifully with faux foliage and strings of twinkling lights to the effect of a cozy outdoor affair -- with Yoongi and Taehyung nowhere in sight yet. It at least gave Jimin the opportunity to say hello to and catch up with various staff members, along with the other contestants and the family or friends they'd brought, rather than staring at Yoongi the whole time.

 

His own parents wouldn't be here to witness him in all his fourth-place glory, but even though they'd have gladly gotten on a plane for this, Jimin had told them not to. It'd be a waste of money for them to come all that way just for a viewing party when he hadn't even won anything, and besides, he wasn't sure he was ready to introduce Yoongi to them yet. They'd be so nice and scare him off immediately.

 

"Jimin-ah!" Ilhwa called out from a few feet away, a smiling man standing next to her.

 

Jimin waved happily and went over to say hello, glad to see Miran with her as well. It hadn't been that long since he'd last seen either of them, and they were both active in the group chat, but he couldn't stop grinning at seeing all the contestants in the same room again.

 

"Noona! And noona!" Jimin greeted them.

 

"Have you lost weight?" Miran asked him suspiciously. "You've been taking care of yourself, right? I made a lot of banchan this week, do you want me to give you some? Give me your address. I'll bring some by tomorrow."

 

"Don't badger the poor thing," laughed Ilhwa. "Jimin-ah, this is my husband, Dong-il. He watched the show every week and rooted for you so hard!"

 

Jimin bowed in gratitude. "Thank you. You must be so proud of Ilhwa noona!"

 

Her husband shrugged, though his face shone with admiration for his wife. "She's all right, I suppose," he said, then grinned and put his arm around Ilhwa, pulling her in snugly and smacking a kiss to her temple. "I kid, honey. You've done so well."

 

Ilhwa glowed under the praise and said to Miran, "Where did your boys go?"

 

Rolling her eyes, Miran jerked her head towards a corner of the room where two young men were talking to Hani. "Embarrassing their mother trying to chat Hani up," she said. "I suppose I should go and save them from themselves."

 

While Miran stalked off to pry her sons away from Hani, Jennie and Lisa ran up, hand-in-hand, to squeal their hellos to Jimin and Ilhwa.

 

After chatting with them for a while, Jimin excused himself to get a drink, feeling his throat starting to go dry at the imminent prospect of seeing Yoongi again. He took in more of the décor as he wandered the set looking for where the refreshments were.  

 

Rows of chairs had been arranged in front of the large screen that had previously been used to show their cooking timer, and a little bit behind the chairs were long trestle tables on which myriad enticing finger foods and beverages had been placed.

 

Jimin was just getting himself a soda when Namjoon sidled up next to him, some sparkling fizzy drink in his hand.

 

"Oh, Jimin!" said Namjoon, giving him a hearty handshake. "Good to see you again."

 

"You too, PD-nim," said Jimin brightly.

 

Namjoon smiled. "You don't have to call me that anymore now that the show's done," he said. " Yoongi and I hang out outside of work a lot, so if you guys are together, you might as well call me hyung. Don't you think?"

 

"Uh, what?" said Jimin. "Did you-- You know? You… knew?"

 

Chuckling, Namjoon said, "Like I was going to let Yoongi quit the rest of the season for no good reason. He told me." His smile softened. "It was the right decision, but all the same, it must have been hard on you, especially him going no-contact."

 

"Oh, I…" Jimin didn't know quite what to say. It had been hard. There had been so many times he'd wanted to coincidentally bump into Yoongi in the streets for the sole purpose of shaking him by the shoulders and telling him to stop being such an idiot. But, in the end… "He's worth it," Jimin said.

 

"I feel like I should throw up," said Namjoon, frowning at Jimin's sudden sentimentality. "But I'm also really happy for you guys, so I'll restrain myself."

 

"Thanks, hyung," said Jimin.

 

"Oh, yah, Manggaeddeok!" came Seokjin's familiar voice, and not long after that, Seokjin's arm slung around Jimin's shoulder. He lowered his voice conspiratorially. "I heard about the general manager from Serendipity calling! That must be so exciting."

 

"Huh? Serendipity… You mean the restaurant?" Jimin said, brow furrowing. It was the only thing he could think of, the Gangnam-based restaurant that specialized in European contemporary cuisine. He'd never set foot in it, but it featured in top twenty lists constantly. "Called who?" 

 

"Joon!" said Seokjin.

 

Namjoon landed a light whack on Seokjin's arm. "You know we're not supposed to tell them about those yet."

 

Brushing off Namjoon's chiding, Seokjin said, "Ah, it'll all start tomorrow anyway, and today is practically over." To Jimin, he explained in a happy sing-song voice, "They're interested in you."

 

It didn't seem much of an explanation, so Jimin turned to look at Namjoon for help.

 

Namjoon sighed. "Fine, but as soon as this conversation is over, it never happened. Remember when I said there were a lot of people interested in hiring you?"

 

"Ha, see, you already talked about it before," Seokjin pointed out. "And you're scolding me for doing it? This disrespectful kid."

 

Barely suppressing an eye roll, Namjoon said, "Anyway, Serendipity's one of the places that inquired about you. The thing you made for Illusion Week -- they really want to have that on their menu, apparently. And you on their staff." He paused to take a more considerate view. "I mean, you still have to go through interviews and stuff, but you know. They seem to like you."

 

"Ah, he's a shoo-in. Anywhere!" said Seokjin. He positioned an upturned palm underneath Jimin's chin. "Who would turn down this cute face?"

 

"Not me!" said Taehyung, popping up from somewhere behind Jimin.

 

Jimin turned to face him, a cheerful response submitting to a quick death on his tongue as he caught sight of Yoongi trailing behind Taehyung. "Yoongi hyung," he breathed.

 

"Park Jimin," said Yoongi with a soft smile, and in that instant, all of Jimin's previous doubts melted into nothing.

 

While Yoongi greeted a couple of staff members walking by, Jimin was only vaguely aware of Taehyung grinning and clapping his fingers together in quiet excitement and Namjoon pulling Seokjin away on the pretext of saying hello to someone else who'd just walked in. They seemed to dissolve into the background, not much more than blurry white noise.

 

Jimin took a step towards Yoongi, desperate to rush forward and hug him, but still had enough wherewithal to hold himself back with so many other people milling around.

 

Taehyung positioned himself in front of them like some kind of bodyguard to afford them a semblance of privacy, turning to wink at them once.

 

"He's so embarrassing," Yoongi muttered, rubbing the back of his neck.

 

"How have you been, hyung?" Jimin asked.

 

"Terrible," said Yoongi. "I missed you."

 

A smile flared onto Jimin's face, his heart lighting up equally bright. "Me too. Thank you for the flowers. And the bear. I listened to your voice every day."

 

Yoongi seemed to be fighting a grin, ducking his head slightly. "What are you doing after this?"

 

"Nothing," said Jimin.

 

The lights overhead dimmed a little, and a crew member announced that the broadcast would be starting in a couple of minutes.

 

As the others in attendance began to gravitate towards the seating area, Yoongi reached out a hand, his fingertips gliding over Jimin’s wrist. It was such a simple and incomplete touch, but it made Jimin’s whole body shiver.

 

Yoongi leaned in. "Come home with me."

 

The rawness of his voice made Jimin’s breath catch in his throat, his heart racing forward like it was being called home.

 

"Yes," Jimin said, as if there was any answer but that.

 

Yoongi's smile was the warmest beam of sunshine under which Jimin wanted to curl up forever. "Okay," he said. "Meet me later? At our usual exit?"

 

Jimin nodded, swallowing a laugh at the fact that they had an exit that was now considered theirs. He allowed himself a quick squeeze of Yoongi's hand, then went to find a seat next to Jungkook and Taehyung, just in time to cheer along with everyone else when the broadcast started with the familiar Chef Challenge logo lighting up the screen and Hoseok introducing the show with his usual flair.

 

Though his mind was half on Yoongi, Jimin thoroughly enjoyed watching the final episode, prouder than anything of his friends as they met challenge after challenge and showed their mettle through several unexpected setbacks, proving why they were the finalists.

 

And even though he'd known for a week already that Sejeong had won, Jimin still clutched his fingers together throughout most of the viewing, gasping at the sight of Sejeong accidentally cutting her finger while cleaning a fish, wincing at Ilhwa nearly dropping a pan of hot oil on herself, sympathizing with a quiet groan when Sungjae's handmade mandu skin came out slightly wrong and he had to start all over, precious time wasted.

 

In the end, Sejeong's salt-crusted fish from the second round that the judges could find absolutely no fault with carried her to victory.

 

The crowd erupted in applause as the credits rolled, and someone turned the lights back up. For several minutes after, it was all a tangle of hugs and cheers and group selcas.

 

It was a while yet before Jimin was able to pull himself away. Eventually, with promises to meet up with his friends again soon and plans to go to Sungjae's house to sous vide everything they could get their hands on, Jimin slipped out of the room, not quite able to avoid Jungkook hissing obnoxious, lewd encouragement at him as he left.

 

Yoongi was already waiting at the exit, hands in his pockets. He smiled as Jimin approached, and without the distraction of everything else at the watch party, Jimin now had the proper opportunity to drink in the sight of Yoongi. He looked amazing in just a simple black suit, slim and dapper and beautiful.

 

Jimin had waited long enough. He strode up and took Yoongi's face in his hands and kissed him.

 

He felt a quiet, tensed gasp against his mouth, then Yoongi's lips pressing back against his, soft and pliant. It was everything Jimin had ever imagined, warmth suffusing his body as Yoongi held him so close he was sure Yoongi could feel the flutter of his heart.

 

They kept the kiss gentle and chaste, a bookmark to come back to.

 

Pulling away a little, Yoongi leaned his forehead against Jimin's and drew his thumb over Jimin's bottom lip. "Shall we go?"

 

"Yeah," said Jimin.

 

Yoongi held out his hand for Jimin's. "Is it okay if we walk? My place is only about ten minutes from here."

 

Jimin had no objections; in fact, with Yoongi looking at him like that, all fond and tender, Jimin would gladly walk to the ends of the earth. He took Yoongi's hand and they headed out together, strolling down a quiet but well-lit, landscaped path. "How was Europe, hyung?" he asked. "Which part did you go to? What did you do there? You were gone so long."

 

"Italy and France. I took a couple of courses out there," said Yoongi, "on some new techniques and sustainable practices. Walked around a lot. Ate a lot. Wished you were there with me a lot. Almost fell down some cathedral stairs. That's about it."

 

"Hyung," said Jimin, swinging their arms together, "how can you be so good at talking about food and then so bad at describing literally everything else? Like your room, that time I asked. All I know is that it's plain." 

 

"Well, you're going to see it soon anyway, aren't you?" said Yoongi.

 

Jimin pursed his lips, trying to will the flush away from his face at the implication. "Okay, but it's not like I'm going to see Europe, am I?"

 

"I'll take you with me next time," said Yoongi casually.

 

"Careful," said Jimin, "I'm gonna hold you to it. Even if I have to sneak into your luggage as a stowaway."

 

"What? And make me pay the ridiculous overweight baggage fee? How could you?"

 

"Who are you calling overweight, hyung?" Jimin demanded in mock outrage, but couldn't keep it together for long enough and laughed.

 

Yoongi's feet slowed, his eyes lit up with an affectionate smile. He turned his body to face Jimin and lifted a hand to caress Jimin's cheek. "Jimin-ah, you know I really like you, right?"

 

Jimin nodded.

 

"Good," said Yoongi. "I don't know if I ever actually said."

 

His insides welling up with warmth, Jimin stepped forward and pressed another kiss to Yoongi's lips. There was no surprised hesitation this time, Yoongi's lips parting easily for him. Gently, Jimin sucked Yoongi's bottom lip between his teeth and he heard a minute groan drift into his mouth.

 

Yoongi drew back and tugged on Jimin's hand, cheeks flushed and pretty underneath the glow of an overhead streetlamp. "If you keep doing that, we'll never make it home."

 

"It's not my fault that I've been deprived all this time," said Jimin, though he let himself be pulled along the pathway -- at a quicker pace than before, it seemed like. "That's all on you, hyung. I can't be held responsible for the fact that you're so cute."

 

Shaking his head, Yoongi chuckled and said, "I could say the same about you, and yet here I am restraining myself in public like a model citizen."

 

"Sounds like you're just not motivated enough," said Jimin airily. "Do you even want to kiss me, hyung?"

 

Yoongi gave him an arch look, which was the first indication that Jimin had made a strategic error. The second, by which time it was already too late, was Yoongi pulling him into a dark patch of shadow from overhanging trees and grabbing Jimin by the waist to bruise a hard kiss to his lips, open and hungry.

 

Wind curled and susurrated through the leaves above them, keeping a raspy rhythm to the rapid hammering of Jimin's own heart. Yoongi brought one hand up to the back of Jimin's head, fingers a tight comb in his hair, and Jimin heard himself moan softly against the swell of Yoongi's warm, wet lips.

 

His hands raked up Yoongi's back, desperate to hold him as close as possible. Jimin opened his mouth and their tongues met in a hot slide as the kiss deepened, sending a rush of heat through him.

 

So much for keeping things chaste, with Yoongi claiming Jimin's mouth for his own, sparking fire to burn all around him. Distantly, Jimin wondered how long he could stand, his body electric and shaken and close to combustible already from the intensity of Yoongi's kiss alone.

 

As if he could hear Jimin's thoughts, Yoongi stepped back, breathless but more than a little smug at Jimin's momentary speechlessness.

 

"Unfair," Jimin wheezed. "You can't do that and then just-- just--"

 

"I think I did," said Yoongi, grinning, Cheshire cat-like.

 

"And you expect me to restrain myself now?" Jimin whined.

 

Yoongi giggled, which would be the most adorable sound Jimin had ever heard if he wasn't currently out of his mind. Yoongi grabbed Jimin's hand, brushing his lips across the ridge of knuckles, and said, "Come on, we only have a little bit to go."

 

"Is it too late to get a cab?" Jimin asked, looking around in vain.

 

"I have to say, this is amazing for my self-esteem," said Yoongi.

 

"And I'm a lot easier than I thought," Jimin grumbled, but he sidled close to Yoongi and pressed up against his side. "Hyung, you're mean."

 

"That was hyung teaching you a lesson not to start things you can't finish," Yoongi said, tapping Jimin on the nose.

 

"I was just saving it for later!" Jimin protested.

 

Yoongi pecked his cheek. "Okay, baby," he said, probably to be patronizing, but Jimin was mollified anyway, thrilled to be called that in person and that Yoongi was wantonly displaying affection in public -- not that there was really anyone else walking around at the moment.

 

It wasn't long before Yoongi pointed out a high-rise apartment complex, in the lobby of which a security guard loitered and nodded a quick greeting to Yoongi as they came in.

 

They rode the elevator up in silence, but still holding hands, and they got off at the top floor. When Yoongi opened the door to his place, he gestured for Jimin to enter first, and Jimin was met with the sight of floor-to-ceiling windows that looked upon a broad, twinkling view of the city below.

 

"Wow," he breathed. "This is so nice."

 

Jimin stepped into a pair of soft house slippers that Yoongi laid out for him and went to the window to get a better view of the nighttime cityscape while Yoongi got them both glasses of water.

 

"I can't believe you live here, hyung. It's beautiful," Jimin said, careful not to get fingerprints on the window glass, or a nose print. He accepted the water gratefully, a little thirsty from their walk activities.

 

"Seems nicer now that you're in it," said Yoongi.

 

"Can I see your office?" Jimin asked.

 

"Sure," said Yoongi, leading Jimin by the hand to a room just off the main living area, where -- just like Taehyung had said -- Jimin's drawing had been framed and hung up on the wall right by the desk.

 

Jimin grinned at Yoongi. "It really is there! Taehyung told me."

 

"I must not pay him enough," said Yoongi with a twist of his mouth. "Spilling all my secrets like that."

 

"Don't worry, it was well-intentioned. It was only part of him threatening me to treat you right," said Jimin.

 

"Why? Were you thinking of being mean to me?" Yoongi asked, lifting an eyebrow.

 

Jimin took Yoongi's glass of water from him and set it down on the desk, along with his own, so that he could run his fingers along the lapels of Yoongi's jacket. "I would never," he said and leaned in to kiss Yoongi.

 

It took no time for them to pick up where they'd left off, urgent, open-mouthed kisses that made Jimin's knees want to buckle. Only now there was no reason they needed to stop, nowhere to go and nothing to hide.

 

"Hyung," Jimin breathed, tilting his neck back as Yoongi moved to mouth at his jaw.

 

He let Yoongi nudge him towards a wall, its presence solid at Jimin's back and something to hold him upright while everything about Yoongi's touch threatened to bring him to his knees. Jimin had never wanted anyone this badly before, the force of his need straining against his chest, pounding a furious drumbeat in his pulse.

 

Yoongi returned to his mouth, their teeth clacking together in desperation, and sucked on Jimin's lower lip until it wrenched a moan from Jimin's throat. Jimin arched away from the wall slightly as he felt Yoongi's hands pushing his blazer off his shoulders and heard it drop to the floor.

 

It was only polite to return the favor, Jimin tugging Yoongi's jacket open and yanking it off him. He spread his hands over the firm planes of Yoongi's chest and felt the fervent heartbeat underneath it match his own.

 

Breaths ragged and harsh, Jimin pulled back to look at Yoongi, a sudden sense of wonder sweeping over him, an incredulity that this was what he had.

 

Yet Yoongi was first to speak the very same thoughts, his eyes roaming over Jimin's face. "I can't believe you're really here," he said in a hushed voice that made Jimin's heart twist almost painfully.

 

"I'm here," said Jimin. 

 

Like waves meeting the ocean, they crashed together again, inexorably destined for one another.

 

With a quick flick of his wrist, Yoongi untucked Jimin's shirt and moved his hands underneath its hem to burn against Jimin's sides. Already it felt incredible to have just this much of Yoongi's hands on his skin, yet Jimin wanted more.

 

He fumbled with Yoongi's belt, lifting the strap end out of the first loop and trying to bend back its buckle. "What the fu-- I," Jimin grunted, struggling with the belt for what seemed like an eternity, but it wouldn't give under his hands. "Wh-- What is this, some kind of chastity belt?"

 

He felt Yoongi shaking against him, silent breaths of laughter huffed into the skin at his neck.

 

"Don't-- Hyung, it's not funny," Jimin said, though he couldn't help the giggle that burst out of him. "I'm trying to-- Your belt is defective."

 

Yoongi pulled back, still laughing, and took Jimin's face in his hands. With a fond smile, he said, "It's not defective; you're just bad at this."

 

"Rude," gasped Jimin and slapped him on the shoulder.

 

"But still so adorable." Yoongi grinned and kissed his pout away to make up for it. It should have been alarming how quickly Jimin's indignation melted away from the warmth of Yoongi's smile and the heat of his lips, but he'd practically already forgotten what they'd been talking about, his head fuzzy and full of Yoongi.  

 

Pulling away once more, Yoongi undid his belt himself, stripping it from the belt loops in one smooth movement and tossing it aside.

 

"I loosened it for you," said Jimin mulishly.

 

"Mmhm," said Yoongi with a smirk. He unbuttoned his pants and shoved them down, then pressed a palm to the wall just next to Jimin's head for balance as he peeled his trousers off, socks pulled away with them, eyes trained on Jimin's face.

 

Jimin felt his mouth go dry at the sight of Yoongi's erection straining against his black briefs. He wanted to know what it would feel like in his hands, his mouth, deep inside him. "Shit, hyung," he breathed. "You're so hot-- I want-- Can I touch you?"

 

In answer, Yoongi took one of his hands and pressed Jimin's palm to his cock, his eyes fluttering shut in pleasure. He let out a soft moan as Jimin stroked him and moved to fondle his balls. "Jimin-ah… Fuck."

 

Watching Yoongi give himself over to Jimin's touch sent electricity coursing through his veins. Jimin curled his free hand around the back of Yoongi's neck to draw him in close, mouthing at his throat. "Wanted to do this for so long, hyung. I didn't think I'd ever get to," he said, between long, wet kisses to the column of Yoongi’s neck. Jimin’s hands curved around the tops of Yoongi's thighs to palm his ass. "Didn't even know if you wanted me the way I wanted you."

 

"Fuck that," Yoongi rasped. He hooked his fingers under Jimin's chin and bruised a kiss to his lips. "I'll show you how much I want you. How much I want to make you mine." 

 

He moved a hand behind Jimin's thigh and lifted, bringing Jimin's knee up to his hip. Yoongi angled himself forward, his cock pressing flush against Jimin's groin. A gasp stuttered out of Jimin's throat.

 

"You feel that, baby? Can you feel what you do to me?" Yoongi said against the shell of his ear, his breath hot and harsh and intoxicating. "Should I tell you how many times I got off to the thought of you? Imagining taking you up against the wall, bending you over my desk, watching you fuck yourself on my cock?"

 

Yoongi's words tightened Jimin's stomach into a taut, nearly unbearable coil of humming nerves. Even if he could form the words at all in the static nothingness of his brain, Jimin could barely speak them, capable only of whimpers and gasps, his whole body concentrated on the pleasure of grinding his hips against Yoongi's. 

 

Yoongi pulled Jimin's shirt apart and threw it on the floor, warm hands skimming over his ribs. He rolled his thumb over one of Jimin's nipples, then bent his head to suck on it.

 

Jimin's head fell backwards, hitting the wall with a dull thud that hardly registered above the sound of the whine Yoongi pulled from him. "Hyung, please," he panted, though he wasn't even quite cognizant of what he was asking for. He brought shaking hands up to Yoongi's shirt buttons, determined to get to Yoongi's bare skin.

 

Shrugging the shirt off, Yoongi grabbed Jimin by the hips and kissed him again, hard and wet and hot, and dragged Jimin along down the short hallway to his bedroom.

 

He pushed Jimin onto the bedcovers and followed quickly after, crawling over Jimin, knees on either side of his hips. Propped up on his elbows, Jimin watched, licking his lips, Yoongi's deft hands work his jeans open, his stomach contracting with anticipation as Yoongi pulled them off. "God, I want you so much," Yoongi said.

 

"Fuck, hyung," said Jimin, his eyes squeezing shut as Yoongi moved up to mouth at his cock through his underwear.

 

"I bet you're gonna taste so good," said Yoongi. He curled his fingertips into the waistband of Jimin's underwear and eased them down his hips, releasing Jimin's cock, already leaking and shiny with precome. He dipped his head down, taking Jimin's cock in one hand. Looking up at Jimin through his eyelashes, Yoongi darted his tongue out at the wet head, licking up the taste of him.

 

Jimin cried out softly. He never could have imagined that this would ever be real, that his fantasies would be anything but that -- fantasies. Feeling the need for Yoongi's skin, for this moment to feel exactly as real as it was, Jimin pulled him up roughly by the arms and kissed him, fingers twisting in Yoongi's hair. Yoongi responded eagerly, opening his mouth to Jimin's at once. Jimin tasted the hint of salt on his tongue and moaned into his mouth.

 

He splayed his hands across the expanse of Yoongi's back, skating them down his shoulder blades and spine, then underneath his briefs. Jimin squeezed the firm flesh of Yoongi's ass, making Yoongi buck his hips a little, then pushed his briefs down to his thighs.

 

"Shit, hyung," Jimin said. He licked his lips, staring at Yoongi's erect cock, hard and marble smooth. He wanted to rub his face on it. "You're so hot, fuck."

 

Yoongi pulled his underwear the rest of the way off and lay himself half on top of Jimin, his cock pushing at the outside of Jimin's thigh. "Yeah?" he murmured, pressing gentle kisses to Jimin's jaw. "Like what you see?"

 

"Fuck yes," said Jimin.

 

"What do you want hyung to do to you, Jimin-ah, hm?" said Yoongi.

 

The sultry tinge to his slow, deep voice alone might make Jimin fall apart, waves of heat crashing over his body. "Anything you wanna give me," said Jimin, angling his head down so he could catch Yoongi's lips with his. "Anything, please, I just need you."

 

Yoongi kissed him hard, one hand trailing down Jimin's stomach to wrap his fingers lightly around his length. "How about I start with my fingers," he purred, "and then fuck you with my tongue?"

 

The desperate sound that surged up Jimin's throat, falling somewhere between a whine and a growl, was as good as a yes, and Yoongi maneuvered him onto his front, where Jimin drew himself up so he could balance on his elbows and knees. Yoongi kissed the knobs at the base of Jimin's spine and kept one hand on his hip as he reached over to the bedside table to root around in a drawer.

 

A bottle of lube in his fist, Yoongi tossed a condom packet onto the bed for later. He clicked open the bottle, then seemed to change his mind, closing it again.

 

Jimin whined, shifting backwards. "Hyung, why--"

 

Yoongi slapped him lightly on the ass. "Patience, baby boy. Just want to do this first," he murmured, unruffled, then spread Jimin's ass cheeks with his hands.

 

Jimin cried out and almost collapsed into the mattress as he felt Yoongi's tongue lapping at his rim. "Oh, fuck-- fuck, hyung," Jimin blathered.

 

"You like that?" Yoongi asked, sounding as if he knew full well. "You like my mouth on you?"

 

"God, yes, yes, please--"

 

Yoongi licked at the tiny ridges of his rim, peppering kisses to the skin around it.

 

The lube bottle clicked open again, and Yoongi squeezed a liberal amount of it onto his fingers. Jimin looked back briefly to see him warming the lube up between his fingers, then Yoongi pressed a fingertip to Jimin's rim and kissed his back through the initial discomfort that filtered up in his voice. "Feel okay?" Yoongi asked softly.

 

Jimin grunted a yes. "I can take it, hyung. Please, more. I want more."

 

"You're so good, Jimin-ah," Yoongi said, rubbing the side of his thigh, and pushed his finger in deeper. "God, you're so tight. Can't wait to get my cock inside you."

 

Jimin moaned and pushed back against Yoongi's hand, but Yoongi took his time, careful and slow. He added more lube and another finger, burying them deep inside Jimin, his accompanying words alternately soothing and incendiary, until Jimin was almost in tears with how much he wanted Yoongi to just take him apart.

 

When the slide became easier and easier with three of Yoongi's fingers fucking into him, Jimin gasped out, "Please, please, hyung. Please, fuck me."

 

Like lightning, Yoongi pulled his fingers out, making Jimin whimper softly, only to push his ass cheeks apart again and thrust his tongue inside Jimin's hole.

 

"God, fuck-- ah--" Jimin cried, his head falling onto the pillow in front of him.

 

He might have crumpled altogether were it not for Yoongi's hands holding him steady. But hearing Yoongi moan against his skin as he fucked Jimin with his tongue only made the sensation ever more shattering, like he was being blown to pieces from the inside out, simultaneously excruciating and exquisite a feeling.

 

Yoongi snaked his hand forward to lightly tug at Jimin's cock, seemingly determined to torture him into an early grave.

 

"Hyung, please, please, god," Jimin said, through cracked, effortful breaths. "Please, I need your cock, please, hyung. I-- I don't wanna come unless you're inside me."

 

Yoongi drew back, breathing heavily through his mouth. "On your back then," he said.

 

With Yoongi's help, Jimin shifted onto his back, drinking in the gorgeous sight of Yoongi before him, eyes dark and hair mussed, a light sheen of sweat shimmering at his forehead. Yoongi wiped his chin with the back of his hand and smiled at Jimin while trying to get his breathing under control.

 

"You look so good like this, baby," he rasped as he rolled the condom on and slicked himself up. "Waiting and ready for me to fill you up."

 

Jimin's cock twitched in response. He couldn't properly describe the feeling of having Yoongi rake his eyes up and down his body like that, so exposed and open. He wanted to be swallowed up, to be engulfed entirely by Yoongi's touch, for Yoongi to be his whole universe. 

 

Yoongi leaned forward, something shifting and shining in his eyes as he looked over Jimin's face. He brushed his thumb over Jimin's lower lip, then replaced it with his mouth, soft and sweet. "I adore you, Park Jimin," he breathed. "Every inch of you, inside and out."

 

"Hyung…" Jimin whispered.

 

Yoongi lifted Jimin's knees over his thighs. Then, holding him by the hips and locking Jimin's eyes to his, Yoongi eased his hips forward, the tip of his cock pushing at Jimin's sensitive rim. Murmuring praise and encouragement as Jimin fisted at the bedsheets, Yoongi pressed further in.

 

His tongue had felt good before, amazing, but this-- Jimin could scarcely breathe. His head was spinning and his chest tight with the beautiful, delicious, agonizing feeling of Yoongi's cock stretching him and filling him up. Slowly, Yoongi pushed his cock deep inside Jimin, until there was no further to go.

 

"Shit, Jimin-ah…" Yoongi said. He bit down on his bottom lip, a harsh breath blowing out through his nose. "Fuck, you feel so good."

 

Having Yoongi buried inside him felt incredible and overwhelming all at once, Jimin’s chest close to bursting and tears springing to his eyes of their own accord. None of the previous times he'd had sex before had ever felt like this, like more than just physical pleasure, like a flame sparking to life in his heart and spreading its embers to burn in his bones and blood.

 

Yoongi leaned down and pressed a kiss to his lips so gentle it spilled Jimin's tears. "Oh, baby… Is it too much?" Yoongi asked softly. "Do you want to stop?"

 

Jimin shook his head frantically. Never, never, never. "No, don't-- Don't stop. Just… go slow, okay?"

 

Yoongi nodded and brushed another light kiss to his lips. He bracketed his arms by Jimin's sides, then gradually dragged his hips back, pulling almost halfway out of Jimin, before easing in again. Jimin whimpered, nearly unable to hold himself together, but he lifted his hips slightly to encourage Yoongi to keep going.

 

"You're doing so well for me, sweetheart," Yoongi murmured, the endearment almost bringing tears to Jimin's eyes again. "I've got you."

 

Slowly, Jimin acclimated to Yoongi's glide and pace, and he wanted all that Yoongi could give him. "More, hyung," he said, touching his fingers to Yoongi's. "Please, I want it."

 

"Okay, baby," said Yoongi.

 

He moved slowly in and out of Jimin a few more times, then began picking up his pace. Jimin's back arched underneath him, mouth open in a continuous gasp. Yoongi snapped his hips forward, thrusting deep and hard, sweat beading on his chest. He shifted one of Jimin's legs over his shoulder, adjusting the angle and hitting a sweet spot deep inside Jimin.

 

"Fu--uhh," Jimin groaned, the sound ripped from the depths of his being. He couldn't take much more, the edges of his vision starting to close in.

 

Hands scrabbling and useless over the bedsheets, Jimin cried out again and again as Yoongi's cock drummed relentlessly against that spot, turning the backs of his eyelids a blinding white. He could barely tell where his body was in space anymore; all he knew was Yoongi, Yoongi, Yoongi.

 

"Hyung," he managed to grate out, "I-- I'm-- g'nna--"

 

Yoongi reached out for Jimin's neglected cock and wrapped loose fingers around its length. "Look at me," he commanded.

 

Jimin fought against his body and pried his eyes open, catching Yoongi's gaze. He held it for as long as he could while Yoongi continued thrusting hard into him and stroking his cock, the intense, ardent look on Yoongi's face throwing him over into a supernova of wild, bright, bursting starlight.

 

Yoongi stroked him through his release, spurts of hot come falling in white ribbons across his stomach and chest.

 

"Sh-- I--" Jimin said, though he didn't even know what he was trying to say. "Ngh--"

 

Yoongi pressed his face into the side of Jimin's knee, grunting as he continued rutting into Jimin, close to edge himself.

 

"Hyung, yeah--" said Jimin, his tongue heavy. He tightened his walls around Yoongi's cock. "Give it t'me."

 

Yoongi abruptly stilled with an aborted cry, and Jimin felt the tremors of Yoongi's body pass through into his. Jimin kept a hold on him, clenching at Yoongi's cock, until he felt the strain leach out of his body. Yoongi fell on top of him, smearing Jimin's come everywhere between their bodies.

 

"Fuck," Yoongi groaned, exhausted, into Jimin's neck.

 

Jimin slid soothing hands up and down Yoongi's back. "Agree," he said with a light laugh.

 

"You're fucking amazing," Yoongi said, muffled against Jimin's skin.

 

"'M not," mumbled Jimin, looking for somewhere to bury his face.

 

Yoongi lifted his head, eyes half-lidded with fatigue and his mouth open in a half-smile. "After all of that, you're being shy now? You're ridiculous," he chuckled and kissed Jimin on the cheek. Reluctantly, he pushed himself up onto his elbows, frowning at the mess he'd made, and eased himself out of Jimin.

 

Jimin made a small noise of dissatisfaction but sat up and followed Yoongi to the en suite bathroom so they could clean themselves up.

 

While Yoongi waited for the tap water to run warm, he tied off the condom and lobbed it in a trash can. Jimin took the opportunity to observe him from the doorway, unable to keep the smile off his face, wondering just how he and Min Yoongi had gotten here. He was so, so beautiful; Jimin had no idea how he'd ever thought the opposite before.

 

"Didn't anyone ever tell you it's rude to stare?" Yoongi asked, with a quick glance towards Jimin as he wet a washcloth under the tap then wrung it out.

 

"Can't I stare at my own-- um," said Jimin and clacked his teeth shut. He'd been about to say boyfriend, but they hadn't really gotten to that point yet, hadn't talked about it at all. It wasn't as if they were Jungkook and Taehyung, and Jimin could just say it and it'd be true. Those a-holes.

 

"Your…? Yoongi prompted, coming over to wipe the dried mess off Jimin's stomach. His movements were slow and gentle, and Jimin bit his lip, not wanting to say anything too sappy too soon.

 

"My, um, Yoongi hyung?" he said.

 

Yoongi raised an eyebrow at him. "Oh, hm," he said, while he cleaned himself off. "I was sort of hoping you'd say 'boyfriend' there, but if you--"

 

"Really?" Jimin cut in. "You want…?"

 

"If you'll have me," said Yoongi with a small smile. He busied himself rinsing out the washcloth at the sink, but Jimin could see his cheeks flushing a little pink in the reflection of the mirror. Yoongi wrung the washcloth out again, then set it to the side. He seemed not to know what to do with his hands now, frowning at them. "But I'm not trying to pressure you or--"

 

Jimin strode forward and cupped Yoongi's face in his hands. "I want you, always," he said, and kissed Yoongi.

 

And kissed him and kissed him, until they fell into bed again, boyfriends.

 

*

 

Jimin woke feeling sated and pleasantly sore. Though the space next to him on the bed was empty, he could smell strong coffee brewing and the faint sounds of Yoongi moving in the kitchen through the closed bedroom door. A smile bloomed on Jimin's face and, even though there was no one to see him, he pressed his face into the pillow, as if that would keep a safe lid on his happiness.

 

He reached out to touch the corner of Yoongi's pillow, bits and pieces of the night before coming back to him with more clarity as he slowly grew more awake with a soft beam of sunshine warming his face.

 

Jimin could scarcely believe any of it had happened, but he was in Yoongi's bed, wearing a pair of Yoongi's pajamas, and had spent most of the night holding Yoongi in his arms. As far as dreams went, it was probably his best, and Jimin wasn't about to test-pinch himself.

 

Rubbing his eyes, he eased himself out of bed and went to the bathroom, squeezing toothpaste onto the extra toothbrush Yoongi had given him the night prior. After brushing his teeth and splashing some water on his face, he poked his head out of the bedroom to see where Yoongi was.

 

Jimin found him at the stove, dressed in his usual sweats and standing with his back to Jimin, getting ready to fry a few eggs.

 

"Hyung," he said quietly.

 

Yoongi turned his head and smiled at the sight of Jimin. "Good morning," he said. "I'm making breakfast."

 

Jimin walked up and slid his arms around Yoongi, pressing against his warm back and resting his cheek against the back of Yoongi's neck. "That's nice," he said, relishing the feeling of being so close. "You're nice."

 

The vibrations of Yoongi's chuckle traveled across Jimin's body. "There's coffee if you want some."

 

Murmuring a yes, Jimin made no move to get it. "I don't want to let you go yet," he said, nuzzling against Yoongi's neck. "I had to wake up all alone. It was very sad."

 

Yoongi reached behind him to pat Jimin on the butt. "Poor thing," he said, obviously without any real sympathy. "Free lodging and breakfast and still complaining. What am I going to do with you, hm?"

 

"Mm," Jimin hummed. "I don't know. I'm not really that hungry yet. You want to help me work up an appetite?"

 

"There's an elliptical in that other room and a few weights," said Yoongi, pointing with his spatula. "Knock yourself out."

 

"Hyung," Jimin whined. He hopped from foot to foot, jiggling them both with his hold still tight around Yoongi.

 

Yoongi snapped the stove burner off and moved the half-cooked eggs off the heat. He turned around to face Jimin. "Yes?"

 

Taking his chance, Jimin pecked him on the lips. "Good morning."

 

"I can see it's going to be difficult to get anything done while you're here," said Yoongi, though his eyes were warm, and he gently pushed a lock of Jimin's fringe out of his eyes. He snaked his arms around Jimin's waist and ran his hands up and down his back. "You're a lot of trouble, Park Jimin."

 

Jimin grinned. "I can always go if you don't want me here," he said, and kissed Yoongi's neck. 

 

"When did I say that?" asked Yoongi, leaning his head backwards to give Jimin better access.

 

"You tried to make me exercise, hyung," said Jimin, lightly biting the curve of Yoongi's shoulder as punishment. He lifted his head back up to kiss Yoongi on the lips again. "That's no way to treat a houseguest."

 

"Hm, how ever can I make it up to you?" Yoongi wondered.

 

Jimin kissed him, biting his lower lip lightly, and Yoongi opened up easily for him, their tongues sliding languidly against one another's. Smiling into their kiss, a part of him still incredulous that he got to do this, Jimin licked into Yoongi's mouth and moaned softly at how good it felt. He felt Yoongi's hand at the back of his head, fingers clutching into his hair, keeping him close.

 

For a few long, lazy moments, they stood in the kitchen simply savoring the feeling and the novelty of getting to kiss each other whenever they wanted, but Jimin's hands began to itch to touch Yoongi's skin.

 

He pulled back slightly, one hand trailing down Yoongi's stomach and to his already half-hard cock, and said, "How do you feel about a good morning blowjob?"

 

"I get to make it up to you by having my dick sucked?" said Yoongi. He tugged Jimin forward for another quick kiss. "I hate to tell you this, Jimin-ah, but you have absolutely no negotiation skills."

 

Jimin laughed. "It's my final offer."

 

"Oh, all right," said Yoongi with a shrug and a playful sparkle in his eye. "If you must."

 

 

*

 

EPILOGUE

 

Ahn Hani's wedding to idol star Im Hyunsik was the celebrity wedding event of the year.

 

It seemed like every movie star and idol group and top chef had been put on the guest list, and then there was Jimin. To be fair, Hani had also invited many past contestants and the crew from Chef Challenge, but they still appeared vastly outnumbered by entertainment luminaries Jimin had never seen up close before.

 

"Will you stop gawping?" said Yoongi. "They're just regular people."

 

"No, I can't," said Jimin while staring in the direction of a gaggle of guests he was sure contained at least three MAMA Daesang winners. "I can't and I won't."

 

Yoongi sighed, sliding his arm around Jimin's waist. "I can't take you anywhere."

 

To satisfy him, Jimin gawped at the décor instead. The ceremony was to take place at one of the most expensive wedding venues in the city, and it showed in its attention to detail. Every table had crisp linens and centerpieces in exquisite bloom; the ceiling was studded with hanging garlands and lights like they were in a magical forest; even the way the sunlight streamed softly into the room through the wall-to-wall glass doors seemed to come in at the perfect angle.

 

The tables were arranged to create an aisle in the middle of the room, at the end of which was a platform for the bride and groom. For a brief moment, Jimin entertained the thought of him and Yoongi standing up there with an officiant, saying their own vows.

 

They'd only been together for a little over six months -- during most of which Jimin had been steadily working his way up to being a recipe developer at Serendipity -- probably a little too early to be imagining these things. It looked good, though, in Jimin's head. Though maybe they would do theirs outdoors in some beautifully kept garden grounds with a floral arch and a gentle spring breeze.

 

Oops, that got away from him a bit.

 

Jimin felt Yoongi tugging at his wrist. "I think," said Yoongi, gesturing to a table where Taehyung and Jungkook were already seated and waving enthusiastically at them, "our seats are over there."

 

"Selca time!" Taehyung announced as soon as they got there.

 

Yoongi grumpily submitted to a couple of snaps but soon bowed out, complaining about all the photos being the same, and sat to watch the others clown around with their selca-taking instead.

 

"Don't look now," said Jungkook, sotto voce, "but I think Yoongi hyung likes you."

 

Jimin laughed and looked. His eyes met Yoongi's, and he felt a rush of warmth in his chest at the sight of the soft, fond expression on Yoongi's face. Jimin would never get sick of it, he was sure, the way Yoongi gazed at him as if he was the most precious thing in the world.

 

"Don't be silly," said Taehyung in his own stage whisper. "Yoongi hyung loooves him."

 

"Why are you all staring at me?" Yoongi asked.

 

"No reason," said Taehyung, grinning.

 

"Wasn't," said Jungkook.

 

"I love you," said Jimin.

 

It wasn't the first time he'd said it, but it still made Yoongi's cheeks go slightly pink, and he ducked his head with a pleased smile -- though the ensuing hooting from Jungkook, who decidedly had not spent the last six months growing out of his joy at embarrassing his hyungs, chased the blush away about as quickly as it had turned up.

 

Jimin abandoned Jungkook to his own devices and went to sit next to Yoongi, squeezing his hand, as other friends began arriving at their table and an adjacent one. For a short while, they chatted with Seokjin and Namjoon, while Hoseok appeared to have started some clandestine betting pool with Taehyung and Shinwon at the next table.

 

Someone at the front of the room tapped a microphone, so Jimin didn't get to find out what the betting was for, as the ceremony was about to commence.

 

The doors to the event hall eased open to a sweet swell of music from a string quartet, and Hani and her husband-to-be stepped in, in all their wedding finery, arms locked. The assembled crowd stood and clapped while the couple walked down the length of the aisle, their smiles sparkling. 

 

"That's going to be us one day," said Yoongi, leaning to Jimin's side and nodding towards the happy couple.

 

Jimin's hands stilled, mid-clap. "Are you proposing to me right now?"

 

"Hell no," said Yoongi, barely audible above the din of the guests' applause and cheers. "You think I'd be so crass as to steal the spotlight at someone else's wedding to propose to you? It's going to be much classier than that. It's like you don't know me at all, Park Jimin." He clicked his tongue in disappointment.

 

"But… you are saying you want to marry me someday?" Jimin tried to clarify while pretending to still clap. Maybe to Yoongi it wasn't a big deal, but Jesus fuck, it was a big deal. "Like… marry. Me."

 

Yoongi smiled. "If you'll have me."

 

Jimin attempted very, very hard to tamp down the delirious, happy blush beginning to bloom across his face. "This sounds suspiciously like a proposal at someone else's wedding," he said.

 

"Well, it's not," said Yoongi with an insouciant shrug. "I don't know what else to tell you."

 

Narrowing his eyes, Jimin only received a blank smile in return.

 

As the couple reached the platform, the guests sat and witnessed their vows in a happy silence. Cheers erupted again when the newlyweds kissed, and they walked out of the hall to change into traditional wedding hanboks. In the meantime, rather than a buffet station that Jimin was used to at weddings he'd been to, they were served their meals.

 

Mouth-watering grilled steak appeared in front of them, along with a lobster risotto and roasted carrots.

 

"Ready?" Yoongi asked quietly.

 

Jimin nodded with a grin, and they both cut into their steaks. Yoongi always ended up winning these little games they liked to play when they ate something new together, but Jimin was getting better and was looking forward to the day he could reach the same standard of Yoongi's palate.

 

After chewing carefully, Jimin counted down from three on his fingers under the table where Yoongi could see them. On zero, they both said, "Tenderloin."

 

"That one was too easy, though," said Yoongi, and Jimin had to nod in agreement, given that tenderloin was that much more distinct from other cuts of beef.

 

"Sauce next?" Jimin said.

 

"My god, you guys are doing this again?" Namjoon sighed once he noticed both their faces deep in concentration as they each tasted the sauce that had been drizzled over the steaks. He reached over and shook Jimin by the shoulder. "The competition is over, Jimin-ah."

 

"Not while Yoongi is still around," Jimin said cheerfully.

 

"What do you mean while I'm still around?" Yoongi asked, pinching his thigh lightly. "I'm not planning on going anywhere. Are you?"

 

Jimin leaned in to kiss Yoongi's cheek. "Nope."  

 

If there was anywhere to go, he planned to go there with Yoongi. The past six months with Yoongi had been the happiest and most fulfilling of Jimin's life; sure, they had their off days and little quarrels once in a while, but at the end of the day, they always came back to each other, ready to make amends and move forward together, stronger than before. Jimin wasn't going anywhere without Yoongi.

 

"Good, then stop stalling," said Yoongi. "Sauce."

 

Jimin smiled. "Three, two, one…"