Abruptly, he's awake. Yoongi's hand fumbles for his phone. Eyes shut, he counts a breath, then another, and another, and almost drifts off again before—
He flips over his phone, and unsticks one eye to squint at the bright yellow Katalk notification.
Split into three messages, because Namjoon knows it takes more than one text alert to rouse him. Yoongi rolls onto his back.
no. joined the class planning committee too busy for u now
Namjoon's reply is immediate: Get out of bed let's get coffee
Yoongi drops his phone without responding and rubs his eyes. It must be past noon; the sun is blasting through his flimsy curtains like a fucking laser beam. He shares a lunch hour with Namjoon's class, and they usually eat together by the tool shed on the roof. Namjoon always checks there first. Yoongi untangles himself from his nest of blankets, wincing and making a mental note to stop falling asleep in his jeans, and gets up to rinse his face at the kitchen sink.
Within five minutes, he's out the door of his rooftop room, squinting at the July sun as he clatters down the outer staircase. It's a short bus ride to their usual meeting spot in Hongdae, Yoongi having picked his address mainly for its proximity to the hip hop clubs. Yoongi ducks into a corner convenience store upon arrival, and emerges ten minutes later clutching a plastic shopping bag just as Namjoon's bus pulls up.
"Class planning committee, nice one," Namjoon says by way of greeting, tugging on both straps of his backpack. He's changed out of his school uniform into an XXL-sized shirt and track pants.
"Yeah, and the president asked me out too."
Namjoon cracks up. "Hyung, do you even know who your class president is?" At Yoongi's shrug, he shoves Yoongi in the chest. "Oh, here." He shoves Yoongi again, this time with a thick roll wrapped in tin foil; kimbap, no doubt, purchased from the snack shop in their school cafeteria. Namjoon buys them the same lunch every day to take up to the roof.
"Thanks," Yoongi says, but Namjoon is already scurrying ahead of him.
"C'mon hyung, I know you just woke up, but let's move our asses before the good tables are taken."
The coffee shop is a squat brown brick building tucked behind the turn of a side street a couple of blocks away. The, because it's the only one Yoongi has ever paid to spend time in, and only on special occasions. Coffee is a luxury, but this is the cafe that hosts Kim Bonghyun's hip hop podcast. Inside, Yoongi has witnessed more than a dozen recognized underground MCs passing through, chatting over drinks and working on music; he's even greeted some of them.
"What about your afternoon classes," Yoongi asks, half out of lazy obligation and half teasing. "Don't skip them."
Namjoon snorts and tosses his backpack on an empty corner table, pulling out a chair. "Look who's talking, hyung."
Yoongi puts on a face of deep disapproval, shaking his head as he moves past Namjoon towards the self-service counter. "You can't live comparing yourself to others, Namjoon-ah."
He orders two Americanos and returns to find Namjoon looking at him with a rapt expression. "Hyung! Are you paying for my coffee today?"
The corner of Yoongi's mouth twitches. "It's a special occasion."
A buzz announces when their drinks are ready. Yoongi fetches them and slides one cup over to Namjoon, following it with the shopping bag from the convenience store. "Congratulations, Kim Namjoon."
Namjoon paws the bag open eagerly, almost knocking over his coffee. It's just an assortment of packaged snacks, six or seven of them, but his face lights up. "Hyung, what's this?"
Yoongi rescues Namjoon's cup and sets it at a safe distance. "It's for yesterday." His smile widens beyond his control at the sudden pleased flush on Namjoon's cheeks. "Congratulations on passing the audition for Big Deal."
"Just the first round," Namjoon says, but Yoongi is undeterred, pretending to drum the table with his palms and cheering in a stage whisper. He soaks up Namjoon's embarrassment like a sea sponge.
"Were you the youngest there? Sixteen-year-old Runch Randa, wow." Namjoon drops his head to his chest with exaggerated shyness, but Yoongi carries on. "Hey, you better not forget about me when you make it big. Who did you see? Was Deepflow there?"
"It's only the first round, hyung," Namjoon repeats with a grin.
"And now you're halfway there," Yoongi counters.
Namjoon doesn't lift his head. "Yeah," he says happily, and Yoongi's smile turns almost soft. Then he crows and kicks Namjoon under the table. Namjoon yelps. "Hyung! Wait, hyung, you should've come too, though."
Yoongi scrunches his face. "Nah. I'm pretty busy with my crew."
"Oh right. You guys working on some new stuff?"
"Yeah." Yoongi's stomach rumbles, reminding him that he hasn't eaten since he woke up. He unwraps the roll of kimbap in his lap and shoves a piece in his mouth. "So when's the second round?"
"In four days." Namjoon holds up four fingers. "Friday night. It's a joint stage with one of their signed artists. I have to perform with Dead'P."
Yoongi says, mouth full, "Shit, isn't Dead'P the leader?"
"They gave me the instrumental track we'll be using. I just have to write my own verses to it." Namjoon's phone dings. He glances at the screen, then at the entrance of the coffee shop. "Oh shit, I forgot I promised to meet Hoseok today."
"What for?" Yoongi's met Jung Hoseok a handful of times before, but they've never exchanged more than cursory greetings. All Yoongi knows is he's the top student at a nearby dance school and intent on becoming an idol trainee, both of which mean they're on different life paths.
"He wants to try out for JYP and asked me to help him with his flow." Namjoon waves to Hoseok, who's just entered the cafe, and gets up to squeeze into the seat next to Yoongi. Yoongi flips open his lyrics notebook and nods in greeting as Hoseok approaches Namjoon's vacated chair.
"Yo, congratulations!" Hoseok grabs Namjoon's hand and draws him close, clapping him on the back. "Oh hey, good afternoon, hyung." He flashes a cheery smile at Yoongi over Namjoon's shoulder before turning his attention back to Namjoon. "Give me a hug man, maybe some of that audition luck will rub off."
"No luck, all skill," Namjoon drawls in English, and Yoongi rolls his eyes while Hoseok laughs.
Leaving the two alone, Yoongi slouches in his seat and smooths out the wrinkles of the page he fell asleep on last night. They always work on their lyrics at the coffee shop. It's an unspoken game of dress-up: just sitting here, in a locale frequented by veterans of the industry, makes Yoongi feel more legitimate.
Hoseok leaves early for dance practice, but Yoongi stays until Namjoon has to leave for cram school. The afternoon has stretched into early evening, though summer means the sky has barely begun to dim. Outside the doors of the cafe, Namjoon produces a wrapped glass jar from his backpack. "My mom made some kimchi. It's radish, she knows you like it."
"Oh. Tell her thanks from me." Yoongi takes the jar with both hands. He's not sure Namjoon's mother actually remembers what he likes, but Namjoon does, always leaving Yoongi most of the radish side dishes whenever they eat together. "Your mom's cooking is always good."
"Yeah," Namjoon agrees, tapping out a cigarette. He lights it and takes a drag, kicking his feet as they walk side by side towards the bus stop. "Hyung, you should go to school tomorrow."
"All right," Yoongi says. He accepts the cigarette when Namjoon passes it to him and puts it to his lips, the filter faintly damp from Namjoon's mouth. "Give me a wake-up call in the morning." He should turn in early today if he's going to make it to class tomorrow, but Yoongi is not the least bit sleepy. Maybe he should message Nakyoon-hyung and see what he's doing.
The bus arrives, and Yoongi boards it with a curt nod. Namjoon waves at him through the window. Standing alone on the sidewalk in his oversized clothes, he looks every inch the dorky first-year, but there's no doubt that Namjoon's precocious, possessing an incredible sense of rhythm to match his mature lyrics. Yoongi tries to picture Namjoon swept away under one of the big indie labels and feels a wash of envy.
He takes out his phone, selecting a random stupid Katalk emoticon and sending it to Namjoon before swiping over to his D-Town group chat and tapping out what's up?. He figures it's only natural to be jealous, but Yoongi didn't come to Seoul alone. He's not looking to join anyone or anything—he already has someplace he belongs.
His phone buzzes.
at the studio. come over
The studio is located across the neighbourhood in the basement of an office building. His crew rents it out three or four nights a week, making sure to post the schedule in their group chat so everyone can make the most of the paid time. Monday night isn't on the list, which is why Yoongi is frowning as he takes the elevator down and lets himself into the room.
"Why are you guys here by yourself," he complains. "I thought we had Thursday and the weekend?"
Three of his hyungs are present. Nakyoon, hunched over a mess of music sheets on the table, greets him first. "It wasn't planned. I had some beats in mind, and my friend let us in on his timeslot. Yoongi-yah, sit here." He pats the sofa cushion next to him.
Yoongi takes the seat. "Can I hear it?"
"Give me a minute." Seokchun is busy programming the Maschine. "What were you up to in Hongdae, kid? Hanging out with that friend of yours—um, Randy Panda?"
"Runch Randa," Ikseon corrects, swivelling his chair away from the keyboard. "Isn't that right?"
Yoongi nods. He's the maknae of the crew; everyone else is at least two years older and out of high school, so they don't hang around the same crowd. "Ikseon-hyung, did you finish the song from last time?"
"Still working on it." Ikseon sighs. The months since D-Town's last mixtape have been piling up. "I haven't had a lot of time to sit down lately."
"Shit." Nakyoon checks his watch. "Speaking of work, I have a night shift soon."
"Hold on, listen to this first." Seokchun fumbles with an audio jack and presses the playback button on the Maschine.
Yoongi leans in eagerly. He worked his ass off to get into a school in Seoul after his crew decided to make the move. They've been here for almost two years now, and while a rocky start was expected, they're still only doing about as well as they did in Daegu. Sometimes worse. There are more opportunities and more resources, but the competition is immense: making it in the capital is the dream of every aspiring rapper.
Yoongi finds himself biting his fingernails and wipes his hand on his pants. He gets antsy every time he starts on this train of thought. He hunches his shoulders, giving himself a mental shake, and focuses on the beats filtering through the studio speakers.
The sun is high in the sky the next afternoon, and Yoongi is trying to become one with the brick wall. He survived his morning classes, but the initial alertness after waking up has long worn off into crankiness. Not to mention he's a little hungover. Ikseon had busted out the beer about fifteen minutes after Yoongi arrived, and the rest was poor decision-making.
"Hyung, you showed up." Namjoon's smug voice comes from the direction of the stairwell. "I was a little worried this morning, it sounded like a bear on the phone. I thought you'd been eaten alive or something."
"Ha ha," Yoongi mutters. "Shut up."
Cool plastic touches his cheek. Yoongi reaches for the bottle of water without opening his eyes. Namjoon settles next to him, and Yoongi hears the telltale crinkle of tin foil before the faint smell of pickled vegetables and warm rice wafts into the air. His stomach stirs. He turns his head and juts out his jaw, opening his mouth expectantly.
"I'm going to stick it up your nose," Namjoon says. Yoongi's eyes snap open.
"Fuck you," he grumbles, and snatches the kimbap out of Namjoon's hand.
"Ungrateful hyung." Namjoon sniffs. He's just kidding, but it makes Yoongi pause mid-chew. They both know Namjoon buys lunch every day because Yoongi wouldn't eat it otherwise—it's not exactly that he can't afford three meals a day, but he can't afford three meals a day and try to build a music career. Yoongi straightens against the wall and starts chewing again, slowly. He clears his throat. "So, how's the writing going? For the audition."
Namjoon rubs his nose. "It's okay. It's cool, I laid some stuff down last night—just trial verses." He drums his fingers on his knee, jiggling his leg a little. "If you have time, hyung…"
"I'll take a listen, sure. You want me to come over tonight?" Yoongi fishes out his lighter and a cigarette from the inner pocket of his school blazer, and Namjoon shakes his head.
Yoongi shrugs. "No one's here."
"You're going to reek, hyung. And the teachers patrol everywhere," Namjoon says mildly. Namjoon keeps his cigarettes at the very bottom of his bag and never takes them out within sight of school grounds. He's smarter than Yoongi in that way. And plenty of other ways, Yoongi thinks contemplatively, exhaling a plume of smoke. He squints out over the roof, suddenly at peace with the relentlessly bright weather. The sky is a rare, clear blue.
"How long until lunch is over?" he asks. "I don't want to go back inside."
"Twenty minutes." Namjoon replies. He sighs, picking apart a piece of kimbap. "Let's drop out."
Yoongi smiles. "Yeah?"
"Yeah," Namjoon says. "Ditch this shit right now." The words are reckless, but Namjoon speaks dreamily, relaxed against the shed wall. Yoongi has lost track of how many times he's heard this exact speech. "You know how much of our lives we waste here? Classes, self-study, cram school, private tutoring." Namjoon ticks off his rice-sticky fingers. "Hyung, do you ever think about how many songs could you write in that time?"
"I don't go to half of those." Yoongi snorts. "How many songs could you write?"
"A lot of songs," Namjoon answers. "A heck of a lot."
Yoongi lets his head fall back. Smoke floats above his face like a low cloud. "If we dropped out I could go to your house right now and we could work on your audition."
"Let's go," Namjoon says, but neither of them make any attempt to move.
"Go where?" Another voice interrupts.
Namjoon turns. "Oh, hey Seokjin-hyung."
Yoongi closes his eyes, ignoring them. He recognizes the voice: Kim Seokjin, a senior on the disciplinary committee. Yoongi is pretty familiar with all the members of the committee, and Seokjin is enough of a pushover that he doesn't bother putting out his cigarette.
"Namjoon-ah, the chemistry teacher wants to ask you—NO!" Seokjin yelps. "Min Yoongi, don't let me see anything!"
The throbbing at his temples has almost completely lifted, but Yoongi still grimaces at the shout. "Just pretend you didn't," he calls.
"I can't pretend." Seokjin sounds offended. "Yoongi, if I give you any more points you're going to have detention until the end of the term."
"Don't look then."
Seokjin groans. "Anyway, Namjoon, the chemistry teacher wants to ask you about some broken beakers," he says, then hesitates before continuing in a firm tone. "And one point, Yoongi."
Eyes still closed, Yoongi throws the cigarette in Seokjin's direction.
He convinces Namjoon to skip last period—otherwise, there's no way Yoongi can escape going to his detention, and they have important things to do. Namjoon is pretty reluctant; for a kid who rails so much against the education system, he's a model student. Or maybe, in their teachers' perspectives, for a model student he has some puzzling opinions and bad choices in friends. Yoongi doesn't insult him by pondering that out loud. He's probably one of the few who understand that Namjoon has nothing against school learning and no time for the punks who cause trouble just to be cool. It's the underlying value system with which Namjoon takes issue.
They take the subway to Itaewon because Namjoon wants to buy a new top for his audition, and Yoongi doesn't hesitate to complain about it.
"There's a store I want to check out there," Namjoon says, but Yoongi scoffs. You can buy the same box tees in Hongdae or Myeongdong with a lower chance of having to deal with expats. Seoul is pretty mild, but experience back at home has taught Yoongi to avoid young G.I.'s like the plague.
Namjoon leads him to a tiny streetwear shop two floors above a corner Starbucks. Five customers and this place would be stuffed to the brim; there's almost no room to maneuver between the floor-to-ceiling shelves along all four walls and the center table display. Namjoon edges through the shop with his elbows tight at his sides, peering around like there's a telescope between him and the stacks of folded shirts.
Yoongi looks at a few shelves of merchandise, fingering the collars and checking the labels, and nods to himself in grudging approval. The inventory is a nice split between classics and new stock, and he can spy a large back room behind the checkout counter. "You sure this is real?"
"The prices look real," Namjoon says wryly, gingerly poking through a tower of crewnecks with his fingertips. He looks stupid being so cautious, but Yoongi keeps his mouth shut. There's no way he's risking Namjoon breaking something in a place like this.
They spend almost two hours in the store, Namjoon trying to decide between two colorways of the same shirt while Yoongi lingers over a black logo-front MORT Paris tee. He really likes it. He really doesn't need it. He hasn't bought anything non-essential for himself in a long while, but he has plenty of clothes at home. Yoongi chews on his lip. If he hypothetically did buy the shirt, XL or XXL?
"Hyung, white or red?" Namjoon holds up both shirts.
Yoongi narrows his eyes. "White," he declares. "The stage is gonna be dark, right? Plus, less chance of you clashing with whatever Dead'P is wearing."
Namjoon laughs. "Good call." He puts down the red tee, and points at the shirt Yoongi's still touching. "Are you going to get that?"
Yoongi removes his hand. "Nah," he says. "It's okay."
"It's really nice."
Yoongi shrugs, and follows Namjoon to the counter.
The sales assistant doesn't even bother to close the Hiphop Playa forum page he's been reading since they entered and wordlessly rings up Namjoon's purchase. Namjoon collects his receipt and, just as they're about to turn and go, the sales assistant speaks. "You said Dead'P, are you doing the Big Deal auditions on Friday?"
"Uh." Namjoon rubs his finger under his nose. "Yeah, yeah I am."
The sales assistant looks at him, blank-faced and evaluating. After an uncomfortable silence, he nods. "You're Runch Randa, right? Good luck."
Namjoon turns pink, and Yoongi decides to drag him the hell out of there before Namjoon blows his own reputation.
As soon as they're out of earshot, Yoongi digs his elbow into Namjoon's ribs and mimics, "You're Runch Randa, right?"
"Oh my god hyung, shut up." Namjoon splutters, laughing. "That dude made me so nervous, I was scared to say yes. Maybe he meant it in a bad way."
Yoongi shoots Namjoon a look. "Who are you, Tablo? You're getting recognized on the street, that's sick."
Namjoon scratches his head, unable to keep the grin off his face. "Okay, yeah. A little bit. But you're used to this, right?" Yoongi cracks up and, encouraged, Namjoon croons, "I've heard all about Gloss-sunbae from Daegu."
"Stop," Yoongi demands, but a grin tugs at his mouth. The encounter with the sales assistant has left him simultaneously light and tethered: his chest feels full but pricked, like something's tugging on the tenuous skin of an inflated balloon. He did have something of a name in Daegu, and the memory makes him hungrier. "Man, you're gonna be great on Friday."
"Thanks, hyung. Hey, you know Hoseok got into JYP? It's a good time for auditions, I guess."
"Really?" Yoongi brings his thumbnail to his mouth, then catches himself and lifts his chin. He's unexpectedly impressed. The sky is darkening above them, its hazy deep colour settling into the corners of the horizon. No stars tonight, probably. He exhales, stops scanning for the moon. "I guess it is."
The sun has set by the time they turn onto Namjoon's street. Yoongi is lugging a shopping bag containing the thickest curtains he could find, licking the last smear of ddeokbokki sauce off his knuckle.
"Is this going to be like, an album? A single?" Namjoon asks. He'd asked how D-Town were doing, and Yoongi filled him in on the latest progress, playing on his phone the new sound clip Seokchun emailed their group that morning.
"Hopefully an album." They released their first album six months after arriving in Seoul, but it's been well over a year since. "I think Ikseon-hyung wants an album. No one's said anything yet, though."
"What about you?" Namjoon says, spearing the last piece of ddeokbokki in his cup. "It's your crew."
Yoongi shrugs. It's not a problem of asserting himself. He's not timid around his hyungs, and even if he were, he doesn't think his mouth could keep itself shut if he thought something needed saying. Everyone wants an album, but Ikseon works three jobs and Nakyoon is putting himself through a certificate program. Jaesu and his girlfriend have been talking about marriage. Yoongi's just a kid in high school whose mom sends him a monthly allowance to cover rent and school fees, and he says as much to Namjoon.
He's not the kind of guy who likes talking about these things to other people, but thankfully Namjoon just blows out his cheeks and shakes his head, no uncomfortable sign of pity on his face. "It's fucking hard, man."
"Korea sucks," Yoongi says. "No one cares about hip hop."
"Everyone only cares about idols," Namjoon agrees. "Hyung, next time there's an audition, you should do it. I'm sure your crew won't mind. They understand that their responsibilities and yours are different, right? You might as well make the most of it before you graduate and become an adult." He tries to pop the last piece of ddeokbokki in his mouth and misses, hitting his chin.
Yoongi snorts and hands him the leftover napkins. "Compared to you, I'm already an adult. Does your mom know I'm coming over?"
"She won't mind." Namjoon cleans his face and stuffs the napkins in his empty cup. "I'm gonna throw these out." He jogs to the neat stack of garbage waiting for pick-up outside his house gate. Yoongi follows, almost bumping into Namjoon's back when Namjoon stops short.
"Oh," Namjoon says. He clears his throat. "Um."
Yoongi peers around him, but he doesn't know what he's supposed to be looking at. "Namjoon, what?"
Namjoon drops into a crouch. "I think," he says slowly, carefully. "I think my, uh—my recording equipment got thrown out. That's my microphone." Yoongi follows the direction of Namjoon's pointing finger, and Namjoon's right.
"Oh," Yoongi echoes. "Shit. Do you think—maybe it was by accident?"
Namjoon shifts the equipment, and they both wince at the visible damage. "Nah," he replies, still in those steady, measured tones. "It's broken."
Yoongi looks up at the house. The lights are on. It looks perfectly welcoming. He stands up and sticks his pinky nail between his teeth. "Do you, uh, want to work on the thing another day? Tomorrow?" It's probably not a good idea to intrude upon Namjoon's family right now.
Namjoon's shoulders relax a little. "Uh, yeah. That sounds good, hyung." He quietly places the empty ddeokbokki cup on top of the garbage pile, and stands up. His face is smooth, but a muscle jumps in his jaw. "Thanks. And thanks for coming out with me today."
"No big. I'll see you tomorrow?" Yoongi sticks his hands in his pockets. "Katalk me."
"Yeah, sure." Namjoon waves distractedly, and Yoongi figures it's best to get out of there quickly. He leaves without daring a backward glance. The image of Namjoon's dumbfounded figure, staring at his dented music equipment on the pavement outside his bright house, is already imprinted on the back of his eyelids.
Yoongi checks his phone at regular intervals the entire way home, but it stays dark. He wonders if maybe he shouldn't have left Namjoon alone, maybe he should've invited Namjoon to stay at his place tonight—but no, Namjoon prefers facing trouble up front. Yoongi just has a blank, stifling worry weighing on him, the kind of brooding born out of someone you care about having a problem that is completely detached from you. There's nothing he can do with that feeling. Yoongi sends a message after he reaches his apartment anyway, just a casual i'm gonna be up all night == can't sleep, to let Namjoon know he's available if needed.
He takes a shower and changes into old sweats, padding to the kitchen area to scrounge up a ramyun packet and put on a pot of water. The trash bin is full, so he stoops and replaces the plastic bag, tying up the full one and tossing it near the doorway. He puts away the dry dishes on the dishrack and, remembering the radish kimchi from Namjoon, scoops some out onto a small plate before storing the jar back in the fridge. Leaning against the counter, munching on a piece of kimchi and waiting for his ramyun to cook, Yoongi surveys his cramped one-room flat with sudden relief.
The room is shabby as hell, drafty and cramped with scratched paint and yellow lighting. His couch doubles as a bed, and most of his belongings are stored in cardboard boxes. Still, he can come and go as he wants, and he has the space for a good desk setup, with a computer, speakers, and a decent microphone. He's saving for his own rhythm machine. He can do everything he needs to do without worrying about interference from others. Yoongi figures he was lucky to begin with, being born a second son. His parents are more accepting than most, if not exactly encouraging. They'd have to be stupid not to know his priorities in going to Seoul, but they never forbade him from hanging out with his hyungs back in Daegu.
It's different for Namjoon, who has valuable other options. Yoongi has never been good at school, but Namjoon ranks first in his grade and could get into almost any university he wants. Yoongi can only imagine what a waste pursuing music must seem like to Namjoon's parents, which is a mostly bullshit way of thinking, but not one to which Namjoon can be entirely indifferent. Namjoon only has a little sister; he must feel the looming responsibility to support his family. How is he going to provide for his parents in their old age, selling songs for ten won? Yoongi looks around his apartment again, this time with a frown. For now, it's a respite, but he can only live alone like this, without regard for anyone but himself, for so long.
Yoongi takes the ramyun off the stove and sits cross-legged on the kitchen floor, back against the cabinets. He knows his parents just hope he'll graduate with a diploma and get a job that pays regularly, but Yoongi would like to make them proud, too. It's not as though he's satisfied shifting all the family duty onto his older brother. Namjoon's right. Yoongi has the luxury now of not having to worry about anything but school and music, but he graduates next year. He'll be eligible for military service soon, and there's an unspoken consensus that if you don't make it before you enlist, you won't ever.
Everyone tells him he's so young, but Yoongi only feels like he's running out of time.
He places the pot on the floor and climbs to his feet, checking his phone again. Still no word. He hopes Namjoon isn't too shaken from preparing for his audition. Cold light from the window slants right across Yoongi's pillow, and with a sigh he retrieves the shopping bag from Itaewon. It takes only a few moments to remove the hanging translucent curtains and replace them with new, sturdier polyester drapes. The night is luminous, lit up by the street lamps from below and the pale, hazy smog in the sky, but Yoongi can still spot faint, twinkling pinpricks of light in the distance. There are stars out tonight after all. Idly, he wonders how he would fare against Dead'P, and his fingers itch for a pen.
The faster they can prove themselves, Yoongi thinks, turning from the window in search of his notebook. Yoongi will defend his crew to his last breath, but honestly speaking, he's restless. It's hard on everyone.
Namjoon still hasn't contacted him by morning. Yoongi wakes up uncharacteristically early and gets dressed for school, intent on finding Namjoon before the first-period bell. He considers checking Namjoon's house first, in case he doesn't show up to class, but Namjoon's parents know Yoongi is part of the hip hop scene, and if they see him it's likely to cause more trouble.
He bursts out of his apartment just as Namjoon's head pops into sight above the outer staircase. They both freeze. Yoongi opens his mouth, then closes it, thinking he should let Namjoon set the tone of the conversation.
"Morning," Namjoon says. "Whoa, you're up early, Yoongi-hyung."
"I might be sleepwalking." Yoongi walks to the top of the stairs and Namjoon turns around, starts heading back down. "You're not here just to wake me up, are you? Did Seokjin-hyung put you up to this?"
"Haha, no." Yoongi can't see Namjoon's face, but his voice sounds cheerful. "I thought we could go to school together."
"Ugh." Yoongi rolls his eyes at the sky. It's a beautiful day, warm and sunny without being glaringly bright, not a touch of humidity in the air. "Pass."
Namjoon doesn't reply right away, and Yoongi decides he's had enough of morning icebreakers. "So," he says. "What's up? What happened?"
Namjoon slows so they can walk side by side. "My mom tossed the stuff." True to form, he doesn't look petulant or even angry, just rueful. "Apparently the school called about my absences and she figured it out. I think she listened to my last mixtape too."
Yoongi tries to remember. "The one about how big your dick is?"
Namjoon winces, and Yoongi shakes his head. "What a bitch," he says, and Namjoon shoves him playfully.
"Watch it, hyung." Namjoon rubs his hand through his hair and scrunches his face. "Although I'm kinda pissed because I bought that stuff with my own money."
"Are you in trouble?"
"Not really. Sort of, but what can they do?" Namjoon shrugs. "They yelled at me for hours last night, but they can't keep me from leaving the house because I have classes and study sessions and they can't make sure I'm only going to those unless they escort me everywhere." He shrugs again. "I mean, my teachers will tell them if I skip, and they'll yell again, but I dunno if that's harder on me or on them."
"Don't worry," Yoongi says. "They'll get over it. A few missed classes are nothing, your exam scores are still great."
"Yeah, I guess."
"More importantly, how's it going with the audition? Did you lose what you were working on?"
Namjoon shakes his head. "I have the lyrics on paper. It's better when I can record myself and play it back but it's not a big deal, I can do that anywhere."
"You can use my microphone," Yoongi suggests. "Or D-Town has the studio tomorrow night, we could go there."
"Thanks hyung. I'll let you know if I need it."
They walk the rest of the block in silence. When they reach the main street intersection, Namjoon stops and heaves a sigh. "Man, I really am pissed," he says, half-laughing. His hands are curled at his sides, his fingers flexing. Namjoon always strives for more patience than his age allows. Yoongi knows the feeling. The underground doesn't coddle, and for kids who hang around an older crowd, keeping cool is how you prove yourself. "I'm so pissed."
"I'd be fucking furious," Yoongi offers.
Namjoon huffs a laugh. "It's not even the equipment—I'm mad about that, but I can replace it. She trashed my sequencer—I had a ton of tracks on that, you know? I was working on a ton of shit." He tries to keep his voice conversational, but the frustration leaks through. Rubbing his nose, Namjoon abruptly glares at the sky. "Fuck, the weather's so nice. I know this is what got me into trouble in the first place, but I really don't want to go to class right now."
"Me neither." Yoongi shields his eyes. "It's perfect beach weather."
"Hyung, let's go to the beach."
Yoongi smiles. "Yeah? Let's go."
"We can make a day trip," Namjoon says. "Work on our music by the waves and get back in time for dinner."
Yoongi cocks his head, seriously considering it. The water wouldn't be too cold for a dip. "Shit, I really want to," he murmurs. He can't remember the last time he went to the beach.
"It's what, a two-hour trip?" Namjoon looks at Yoongi. "Should we?"
They've been standing in place long enough for the sun to bake through the layers of Yoongi's uniform. Soon it'll be too hot to wear his blazer. Sweat is starting to prickle at the back of his neck and under his arms, quickened by his building excitement. "Say it one more time," Yoongi tells Namjoon. "And we'll go."
Namjoon's grin is slow and blinding. "Let's go to the beach, Yoongi-hyung."
They take a bus to Eurwangni Beach, just outside Incheon Airport. Namjoon lets Yoongi listen to the track he received from Big Deal for the second audition, and they discuss his tentative lyrics together, but most of the ride is spent with Yoongi sleeping on Namjoon's shoulder, Namjoon nodding off against the window. They arrive at half past ten, Yoongi jerking awake and tugging out his earphones, hustling a bleary Namjoon off the bus.
It's before noon on a weekday, so the beach is mostly deserted, though not as empty as Yoongi expected. The weather has brought out a scattering of college students and seniors, and there are several American tourists by the water. Yoongi sheds his school blazer and rolls up his sleeves. They pick their way down the beach slope, past the strip normally crowded with family tents through the stretch of umbrella platforms for rent.
"Have you ever been here before, hyung?" Namjoon calls to him.
Yoongi is busy trying not to get sand in his shoes. "Once. For the weekend. My hyungs and I stayed in a pension." He gestures to one of the platforms. "We rented one of these, and Jaesu-hyung brought his grill so we could barbecue on it." The beach had been unbelievably crowded at that time, noisy and thick with the smell of food and sweat.
They stop before the mudflats to fold up their pants and remove their socks and shoes. The tide is out, and Yoongi's toes immediately sink in the muddy sand. It's not quite cool, but too thick to fully absorb the sun's heat. He wades into the water until he's ankle-deep, facing the windy horizon. He feels like he's been transported to a holiday, as though leaving the city has slipped him out of the normal days of the week. Eurwangni is not a beautiful beach, but what it lacks in white sands it makes up for in accessible escape.
"I don't know, hyung." Namjoon gives the water a dubious look. "It's cold."
"Of course it's cold, you pussy," Yoongi says patiently. "The sun'll warm us up after, when it's noon. And we can dry off in a restaurant for lunch." He grabs Namjoon's forearm and drags him back up the slope, bullying him into stripping off his top and undershirt. Neither of them brought swimming trunks, but Yoongi only hesitates for a moment before shucking off his pants. He's not sure it's allowed, but they're far enough from the other beach-goers to be safe and, besides, his briefs are black.
"Last one to the buoys buys lunch," he yells, and takes off at a sprint.
The water is cold for a summer morning, and Yoongi yelps when the waves hit his belly, but he can hear Namjoon splashing close behind, so he redoubles his efforts, immersing himself to the chin as soon as he's deep enough. Namjoon has longer limbs, but Yoongi is quicker. He's only a foot from the buoys when something yanks him by the ankle and his head goes under.
"Motherfucker!" Yoongi roars as he resurfaces. Namjoon leans against a buoy, doubled over in laughter. Yoongi growls, wipes his streaming face, and slaps the water in front of Namjoon with his open palms. He pounces while Namjoon's eyes are still closed and wrestles his head under the waves. Namjoon's hands grapple with Yoongi's sides and arms, but Yoongi is relentless.
He lets up before Namjoon drowns. "Just barely," Namjoon retorts in a splutter.
Yoongi rakes his wet hair back from his face. The water doesn't feel at all cold anymore, lapping against the warm skin of his shoulders. The sea is shallow here, and the balls of his feet scrape against the countless hard, smoothened fragments of shell along the bottom. "Learn to take what you dish out, Seoul boy," he taunts, then takes off with a shout as Namjoon snarls and lunges for his neck.
Yoongi loses track of time. They tussle in the water and race each other, taking turns playing percussion with the surface of the water while the other freestyles a rap. At some point Yoongi realizes he's laughing, though he can't remember why, or when he started. His throat is parched from the salt water, but he can't keep the grin off his face.
The sun passes its highest point in the sky as they're winding down, trying to float on their backs while holding hands like Namjoon saw otters do in a nature documentary. "They do it when they sleep so they don't drift away from each other," he explains. It's stupidly hard: Yoongi closes his eyes and leans back, letting the water carry him, but the moment he grasps Namjoon's hand they both start to sink, like they're balloons affixing themselves to a weight, or one of them is a weight and one of them is a balloon, either way too conscious of gravity—each other's, the earth's. Lying upturned and motionless like that, Namjoon starts to shiver through his giggles, so Yoongi calls it a day, and they both release each other and scramble back up the surf.
They dry off on the brightest patch of beach they can find, using their undershirts as towels. Yoongi buys them lunch from a convenience shop, and they stretch out on the beach, looping the Big Deal audition track on Namjoon's phone between them.
At first they just mess around, freestyling over the beat. Every time one of them comes up with a good line, Yoongi gestures for Namjoon to write it down. Somehow they end up crouched over the same notebook page, Namjoon scribbling and Yoongi making quick annotations, pausing in their work only long enough to rewind and replay parts of the track, their heads bobbing in tandem to the beat. The rhythm drills itself into Yoongi's brain, into the squeeze of his lungs and his heart, thrumming through his body to meet the sun beating down his back. He's warm inside and out, elbow to elbow with Namjoon, his stomach full and his calves and feet sticky with sand, and abruptly Yoongi thinks, This is not the happiest I have ever been. He can't remember the last time he was this carefree, but relaxation isn't the same as fulfillment, and he learned a purer, deeper joy in the pits of Hongdae, on his first beer-stained stage in front of an indifferent audience of two. Burden is proof of dedication, and hip hop is nothing but dedication. He and Namjoon came all the way to the sea to forget their worries and responsibilities, but suddenly Yoongi just wants to run back to everything waiting for him in Seoul.
If the school informed Namjoon's parents about his absence, Namjoon doesn't let on the next day. He asks Yoongi if he can work at D-Town's rented studio after school, and Yoongi calls Ikseon to check if it's okay.
"Yeah, yeah that's fine." Ikseon's voice is distorted by the sounds of traffic. He must be out on a delivery run. "No one's going to be there, anyway. Nakyoon has an exam coming up, and I have work. And you know how often Jaesu-hyung pops in these days. Nakyoon said we probably shouldn't ask him to chip in for rent anymore."
"No one?" Yoongi hasn't checked the group chat for updates yet today. "Is Seokchun-hyung sick?"
"Nah, he's fine."
"What about the song he was working on?"
"Trashed it." Ikseon clucks his tongue. "Decided it was derivative and a waste of time. Can you believe that guy? He's too much of a perfectionist, I always tell him."
"What? Ah, I liked it." Yoongi's disappointment is visible enough to catch Namjoon's attention.
"Yeah, you know how sulky he gets. He probably won't be in this weekend either. You guys can go wild, just don't lose our security deposit."
"Thanks hyung." Yoongi hangs up and turns to a curious Namjoon. "We have the place to ourselves."
"I thought your crew was working on something," Namjoon says. He's trying to pry in the politest way possible, but Yoongi doesn't mind.
"We hit a setback." Yoongi sighs. Seokchun isn't the only one who composes in their crew, but he's one of the best and most driven members by far. The others have their own songs they're working on, and they'll continue to work on them as they did before, but the false start won't leave morale entirely unscathed.
At the studio, Namjoon sets himself up in the recording booth while Yoongi mans the mixing console. It's a live audition, so there's no point in trying to record a perfect studio copy, but Namjoon wants to judge his voice over the beat from a more whole perspective. They get the track in a few takes, and then Yoongi leaves Namjoon alone with a pair of headphones to assess. Yoongi curls up on the sofa with a laptop, opening Hiphop Playa and scrolling through the new articles and forum posts.
He looks up after a couple of hours to find Namjoon in the same position, hunched over a few papers with the headphones clamped over his ears, his head nodding so incessantly Yoongi wonders about his neck. The lyrics are pretty much set in stone at this point, though he and Namjoon never came to an agreement about one of the lines in the hook. Namjoon went with his preference, of course, but every time they argue Yoongi just thinks about how he would do it, if he were the one auditioning.
Yoongi glances at the forum thread he'd paused on, where users are discussing the coming year's label auditions. Brand New Music, Hi-Lite, Jungle Entertainment. He doesn't know if he can see himself in any of these companies. It's not a lack of self-confidence. Yoongi has been in love with music since he was twelve and listening to Stony Skunk for the first time, and has dedicated himself in the years since to making his own songs, but meeting Nakyoon through his older brother and being invited to join D-Town was the first time he felt as though he was really going somewhere. He always took for guaranteed that they would all do music together. He didn't think that was naive; Epik High stuck together, even when they were about to give up, and look where they are now.
Watching Namjoon this past week, though, has rekindled a sense of urgency Yoongi didn't know he was suppressing. Maybe he fooled himself into thinking the best thing he could do to adjust to their new circumstances was to stifle his ambition. Maybe there is no such thing as a necessary transition period. It was easy when his peers were in the same boat, but now Namjoon and even Jung Hoseok are slipping out of reach, and it sharpens Yoongi's hunger like a knife.
He's been losing grip on something that didn't need to be held in the first place. He has no claim to passion if he doesn't act upon it, and it's not dedication if he compromises his commitment. He has no intention of leaving his crew, but seeing Namjoon so determined even with his parents holding him back, Yoongi realizes that belonging to a place doesn't mean being chained there.
"Hyung." Namjoon is smiling at him, headphones around his neck. "Can you record me?"
Yoongi finds the camcorder and they clear a space in the middle of the studio. Namjoon practices his live delivery, over and over, stopping after each run to review himself on the monitor. He still looks young, baby fat clinging to his face, his neck and cheeks turning red because he hasn't mastered breath control. Yoongi tries to imagine Namjoon contracted under Big Deal Records, standing in their roster in between Dead'P and Dynamite. He couldn't picture it before, but witnessing Namjoon spit his meticulously crafted verses, quick, clever, over and over without fatigue, he realizes he's one step behind yet again. Namjoon has always been capable, confident, and above all, cognizant of his abilities and desires.
Namjoon doesn't pass the second audition for Big Deal.
He finds Yoongi at the back of the venue after the open performance, sweat pouring down his face and staining the back of his new shirt. Yoongi doesn't hesitate to grab him in a tight hug.
"You were great," Yoongi says. "Perfect, completely perfect." He hands Namjoon a bottle of water and several napkins.
Namjoon chugs half the bottle and dabs at his face. "Maybe not completely," he rasps with a crooked smile. He looks and sounds exhausted, disappointed though not unhappy. That will come later, Yoongi knows, when he cools down enough to begin picking over his performance. For now, Namjoon is still flushed with adrenaline and content to follow Yoongi as Yoongi pushes them through the crowd and outside into the warm summer night.
"That was the best I've ever seen you," Yoongi says honestly. "You know it's just how these things are." Objectively, Namjoon's rapping deserves a contract, but the requirements of each company are subjective. Maybe Namjoon isn't a perfect fit for Big Deal's style, or they think he's not quite ready. The underground labels don't throw money into maybe-promising investments to wait and see if they develop like the big talent agencies; they don't have the resources for it. Yoongi will be surprised to hear if Big Deal accepts more than one artist from tonight's finalists. "You made an impression on a lot of people tonight. That's important."
"I guess. Untouchable hyungs asked for my contact information after. Not that I expect anything." Namjoon says. "I always wonder how close I got—like if I had done one thing a little better, you know?"
"Maybe not better." Yoongi shrugs. "Maybe if you did something different, but you're not looking to change your style to fit someone else." He gestures to their surroundings. "That's why we're in the underground."
"We're in the underground because we're too ugly for music shows," Namjoon jokes, then sighs. "Don't take me seriously, but man, after a shutdown like this I always wonder if I should give up."
Yoongi kicks his feet along the sidewalk. The thud of the bass from Big Deal's open auditions is fading behind them, bleeding into the music spilling from the other clubs along the Hongdae street. People in hip hop wear hang around the food stands, most of them not much older than Yoongi and Namjoon. "You probably should," Yoongi advises.
Namjoon's eyebrows arch. "Yeah, hyung?"
"Focus on college instead." Yoongi keeps a perfect deadpan. "Get your head on straight and start thinking about other people. Like your hyung, for instance." Yoongi points to himself. "Please be considerate and take yourself out of the competition. Jungle has auditions soon."
Namjoon laughs and shoves Yoongi, then yanks him back by the collar when Yoongi veers a little too close to traffic. "Forget it, hyung," he shouts. "Sorry, but I'm young, so I'm going to be selfish for a while longer."
Yoongi grouses and rubs his neck, but the squint of his eyes is pleased. Their youth can only be used as an excuse for so long, so they might as well make the most of it. Just for a while longer, he thinks.