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Love Will Always Be a Lesson (Let's Get Out of its Way)

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Lights.

Things begin the first time Jeongguk meets Taehyung, when he’s cramming three wheat thins sandwiched with Philadelphia cream cheese into his mouth, crumbs on his fingers and on the cover of his book—a textbook, by the looks of it, from the way it’s bound in brown paper bag so the Bible-thin pages are protected from the grime of a scatterbrained college student. He is hardly the picture of one of Hollywood’s next biggest stars but here he is, slathering another cracker or three with cheese and shoving it into his mouth like it’s the first thing he’s eaten all day.

“Kim Taehyung?”

Taehyung looks up, mid-chew, hand loaded with two more crackers already. There’s a bump in his cheek where the cardboardy edge of a wheat thin protrudes into the soft inside of his mouth. He chews one more time and swallows, before saying, “You’ve got some,” and brushes the corner of his own lips. Jeongguk reaches up self-consciously, and his fingertips come away chocolated and sticky. “Hungry, huh?”

Camera.

Jeongguk doesn’t know how to take it, this guy pointing out the remnants of his Haagen Dazs vanilla milk chocolate almond bar instead of answering his question, but just this once, he decides to take it well. This is Hollywood, after all, and people like to see a smile whether or not you are happy.

“I was in a hurry.”

“Aw, you didn’t have to be,” Taehyung says. “The director is running late for the cold reading. Weather, apparently, but I think she’s wringing some poor junior screenwriter by the neck in the conference room upstairs.” When Jeongguk doesn’t reply, he looks up again, and laughs at the look on his face. “Hey, don’t look like that! I was just kidding, almost.”

Jeongguk slides his backpack off his shoulders, taking a seat next to Taehyung at the round table. The room is large, and empty save for them, and jitters start in his toes when he thinks about how it’ll fill with the rest of the cast and crew for the cold reading. The casting director had been kind, and the director had seemed to be very pleased with Jeongguk’s initial screen tests, but this was going to be a make or break.

“What do you think of this?” Taehyung says, flicking the corner of his script with his index and middle finger. “I’m really looking forward to getting to the character study, but it’ll be my first time doing something so big, I’m nervous as fuck. Here, have one.”

A wheat thin is thrust into Jeongguk’s hands and he’s starting to get the idea that Taehyung eats to cope with nerves, and wishes he had the metabolism to engage in stress-eating. “Me too,” Jeongguk says, biting one delicate corner off his cracker. “Who are you playing?”

“One of the mains,” Taehyung says, and his voice is knotted with anxiety and pride. “Aeterno.”

“Oh.” Jeongguk extends his hand. “Then it’s nice to meet you, fellow costar.”

“No way?” Taehyung says, a smile coming over his lips. “You’re playing, what’s the name—Dusk? You’re Jeon Jeongguk?”

“Dusk,” Jeongguk repeats, and holds the name of his character tight on his tongue. “I’m Jeon Jeongguk.”

Action!

 

The Timeshaker is Pia Ly’s second work and a departure from her first modestly successful romcom that she had debuted with three years prior, Jeongguk learns. Her vision this time is one of a boy who has maybe a few years left at best, who falls in love with one who will live forever—a Now, and a Forever, as the script calls them. Dusk is the first Now that Aeterno meets after the Hourglass War and the mass genocide of Nows, after he’d grown up his entire life shut away and protected in the cellar of a family of adoptive Forevers. And, of course, it is by some cruel fate that dictates Aeterno will fall in love with one of the only people that will not be around to share a forever with him.

Jeongguk also learns that Pia is an unforgiving perfectionist, which makes him think Taehyung was less than almost kidding about her wringing out a junior screenwriter that first day in the cold reading room.

Principal photography for doesn’t start for another two months, the weeks in which Jeongguk and Taehyung spend the days rehearsing their lines every chance they get. Taehyung has much more of a leg-up than Jeongguk does, having come from drama school, while Jeongguk had only fit the aura of the character that the director had been looking for. The pressure on his shoulders to impress and live up to the expectations is immense.

“I love this description of Dusk,” Taehyung says, pointing out a passage on one of the pages in his script. “When he’s first introduced, right here—‘A dark haired youth, with a cowlick in his hair as if he hadn’t brushed it this morning, barrels past. His coat is hanging off his shoulder, and a watch glints harshly where it digs into his wrist. It’s old-fashioned, as if it wasn’t bought with him in mind. He knocks Aeterno’s coffee out of his hand and just barely takes a moment to throw an apology over his shoulder, eyes wild, as if he is late. Aeterno has not met someone so horrifically pressed for time in years.’” Taehyung runs his thumb over the words, as if admiring the texture of the scene right under the pads of his fingers. “It’s very you.”

“You think so?”

“It suits you, somehow,” Taehyung says. “I see why Pia wanted to settle on you, despite your lack of acting experience.”

“Do you think I’m going to do okay?”

“You’re doing so well in the rehearsals,” Taehyung says. “What makes you think you won’t do well when it’s showtime?”

“Well, like you said,” Jeongguk says. “Lack of experience.”

“Oh, and what do you think they require for children? ‘Seeking five year olds to play the part of Timothy in Insidious 4, must have ten years of acting experience’? Everyone starts somewhere, some of us simply start earlier.”

“It just seems wrong to ask someone like me to play the part of someone like Dusk.”

Taehyung frowns, like he isn’t sure how to counter this one. It’s true; Jeongguk is but a naive seventeen years old to Taehyung’s nineteen, and neither of them have gone through anything that can even compare to what their characters have.

“I don’t think those things are mutually exclusive.” Taehyung rubs his finger against the dog-eared corners of his script. “Being a good character and personally knowing the things they have to deal with. It’s a plus if you do, but it’s not a requirement. In fact, it’s probably the mark of a good actor who can bring that character to life without needing to personally relate to them. You’re not an orphan like Dusk, and you weren’t abandoned because of who you are, but I’m sure there are sadnesses in your life that you can mold around that pain and make it taste real—you know?”

“I guess,” Jeongguk says.

“I know,” Taehyung corrects, with so much conviction that Jeongguk wants to believe him. “I know you will.” Some part of him really does.

 

In the time it takes for Jeongguk to fill Dusk’s shoes, stretch his hands until he can feel the lint in the fingertips of Dusks’s woolen gloves, he comes to learn some things about Kim Taehyung: he does, in fact, stress-eat to a fault, and usually whatever snack item he can get his hands on is the best, drama school made law school look like a charity organization, and he is from the gentle rolling lands of the countryside.

“How country are we talking,” Jeongguk asks, letting his hand drift closer and closer to the jumbo pack of Haribo peach gummies in the shapes of hearts. Today Taehyung’s textbook is dusted with the glittering grit of coarse, sour sugar crystals. “Like, I got up to milk the cows at 4 AM, there’s a horse in my kitchen, and my neighbor lives in an hour drive away country? My favorite artists are Tim McGraw and Faith Hill country?”

“I live in the countryside in the twenty-first century,” Taehyung says, snorting. “Not on Old McDonald’s farm, also I have taste, thanks. And for the record, we only let the premature or rejected foals in the kitchen.”

“So when did you come to the big city?”

“When I got into drama school,” Taehyung says, as if this should be obvious. Jeongguk just likes listening to him talk, and finds himself asking questions that he knows the answers to already. Pia had told him, trust, trust, trust. To build a convincing world you have to know and trust the actor you are building it with, trust that they will hold up the pillars and eaves of the story you want to tell together. But Taehyung is so complex, so enigmatic yet barefaced at the same time, that Jeongguk feels like he knows one person one moment and in the next doesn’t know him at all.

Blocking comes after the readings, when the producers and the director start talking them through the scenes, letting them get the feel of lines in context, and it is then that Jeongguk seems to finally see the clear edges of Kim Taehyung. Gentle, in some places—“look at me. Look at me,” and sharp in others, “don’t talk as if you understand how terrible it is to lack a sense of urgency.”

It feels like everyone is just a half-step ahead, though, and Jeongguk is exhausted trying to keep up. Everyone seems to know just one more detail that he should have known to do better, to perform better, and a week from the start of production, Jeongguk sits outside on a beat-up stone wheel chock in the parking lot, miserably eating a popsicle from the convenience store down the street.

“Hey.”

It’s Taehyung’s voice, but Jeongguk doesn’t look up. He’s not too eager to be reminded he needs to be back in the building, blocking out another scene with the storyboard artists and the director.

“Can I join you?”

Jeongguk doesn’t answer, and Taehyung settles himself down on the asphalt beside an oil stain in the parking space, no doubt left behind by some tired car. He’s holding an ice cream bar himself. “Rough day, huh?”

A grunt, following by the snap of chocolate when Jeongguk breaks the shell around the vanilla ice cream.

“Pia’s kind of a hardass,” Taehyung says, agreeing with Jeongguk’s sullen silence. “But I guess you have to be when you want to live up to your own success. Sophomore slump, you know? I think she’s scared of it coming for her.”

“She told me I talk too much,” Jeongguk says. “And we didn’t even do a scene with that many lines today!”

Taehyung raises his eyebrows, crinkling the plastic Haagen Dazs wrapper and shoving it into his pocket. “Oh, you mean the one where Aeterno learns that Dusk is a Now,” he says. “Yeah, I see what she means.”

“What.” Jeongguk fixes Taehyung with a betrayed look like, I thought you had my back here. “What does she mean, then?”

“You’re acting without emotion,” Taehyung says. “It’s coming out stilted. It just hasn’t been obvious in the scenes we’ve blocked up till now.”

“I told you my lack of experience is going to fuck this over.”

“Only if you think that that way.” Taehyung clamps his entire mouth over the rest of his ice cream, and Jeongguk stares as he pulls the stick out from between his lips clean.

“You just ate that in four--”

“There will be plenty of time to discuss my oral talents, and it is not now,” Taehyung says. “Here, let’s try something. I’ll try to get you to see what I mean.”

Jeongguk licks up the rest of his popsicle and tosses the stick into the trash, and stands up. When Taehyung holds out his hands, he slides his own into them, a little reluctantly, feeling the sweet stickiness of ice cream on Taehyung’s fingers.

“Okay,” Taehyung says, leading him out hand in hand into the middle of the parking lot. It’s chilly even for LA, and even with the sun spilling its sunset on Jeongguk’s face, he shivers. “Close your eyes.”

“What are you going to do,” Jeongguk asks.

“Can you relax?” Taehyung says. “Look,” he shakes Jeongguk’s arms a little. “There is so much tension in your muscles, relax.”

So Jeongguk shuts his eyes, and his world becomes tactile.

“Do you trust me?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Fair,” Taehyung says, a laugh in his voice. “I won’t hurt you, promise. Okay, think about Dusk. You are Dusk, named after the last thing his mother saw before the Hourglass War, and you’re in love with a Forever named Aeterno. He tells you to stand here with him and close your eyes and understand things as he does.”

Jeongguk takes a breath in through his nose.

“The first time I learned the word end,” Taehyung says, and Jeongguk knows the line immediately, “I didn’t understand it. I didn’t understand finality. I didn’t understand the idea that things do not last, because it is in the nature of Forevers that things move in circles, and not lines. Like clocks, you know? Three lines, stuck inside a circle, moving in a dizzying dance—”

“Until something in the universe dictates that it should end,” Jeongguk says. “One day, you look at your watch, and you see that it no longer runs, stuck at six PM when you took it off the evening before.”

“What is it like?”

“What is what like?”

“To run out of time?”

There is a pregnant pause that is to follow Taehyung’s line, and Jeongguk suddenly realizes why Taehyung must have chosen this scene—there’s a moment long enough to fit a heartbeat in before Taehyung’s hand touches his cheek and Jeongguk leans into the cradle of his palm.

“Look at me,” Taehyung breathes. “Look at me.”

Jeongguk opens his eyes, finally, and gazes into Taehyung’s face. He isn’t as close as Jeongguk imagined he would be, or maybe he is, and the proximity is no longer uncomfortable. Taehyung is supposed to lean forward—rather, scoot forward in the grass where they are sitting in a flowered moor for this scene—but the smooth, unbroken slide into each other's spaces never comes. Taehyung stares into his face, and Jeongguk into his, and there is a desperate edge in Taehyung’s expression—like he’s looking for something he lost in him, or something he never knew he wanted until now, and with a blink it is gone.

“See, that,” Taehyung says, “was talking just enough.”

“All I did—” Jeongguk swallows, pink-cheeked from the strange intensity between them just now, “all we did was look at each other.”

“Exactly,” Taehyung says, opening the back door into the building and motioning for Jeongguk to go inside. “Exactly.”

 

The set is built little by little, in spurts some days, and in others Jeongguk sees some of the storyboard artists gesturing beside the scaffolding of the basement that Dusk is to live in for most of his childhood. It’s dark and cold without the set lighting, illuminated faintly in the daytime by the sunlight streaming down the rickety staircase that’s bolted away from the rest of the world by a trapdoor.

“Did you see this photo?” Taehyung holds his phone out when they sit in costuming, getting their measurements taken. “One of the cinematographers took it the other day, and I took a photo of that, so excuse the quality.”

It’s a grainy double shot of Jeongguk standing with his arms crossed, chewing his lip as Pia talks to him. The script is pinned between his arm and his body. In the photo beneath is the image of him replying, looking animated, and a shadowed Taehyung is just barely discernible behind Jeongguk’s shoulder, framing his own face with double peace signs.

The girl taking Jeongguk’s measurements steps up onto a small stool and wraps the tape around his neck gently. She smells of roses and cigarettes, and Jeongguk is distracted by the flash of a piercing in her philtrum until Taehyung pipes up again.

“Did you have a chance to do any blocking with Marion today?”

“No,” Jeongguk says. “I actually haven’t talked to her since cold reading, she’s kind of…”

Taehyung raises his eyebrows at him. “Kind of what?”

“Weird?”

“Maybe that’s why they cast her, did you think of that,” Taehyung says.

“Her entire bag is filled with a million tiny 3 Musketeer chocolates, the fun-sized ones you get around Valentine’s Day. Like, that’s it? I don’t understand,” Jeongguk says. The costume designer measuring his arm snorts, and he looks at her. “Do you not think that’s weird?”

“Not the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen in a purse,” she says.

“What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen in a purse,” he asks, not sure if he wants to know the answer.

“Wait, tell him the story about your friend,” Taehyung says, leaning over the armrest of the couch.

“Fuck,” she curses, laughing, and Jeongguk looks between them.

“What,” he says warily.

“Well, my friend was at this guy’s house, and he didn’t have a really well-functioning toilet,” she says, pulling his shirt flat and wrapping the tape around his waist. “And she did a number two.”

“No,” Jeongguk says. “No—

“And she’d been in there for too long, you know,” she goes on, “and it’s starting to look weird, so she takes practically half a roll of toilet paper—“

“Stop!”

Taehyung is laughing so hard his eyes are slitted half-moons in his face, and Jeongguk looks at him, scandalized. “Why!”

“Listen, you don’t know what they’re hiding in there,” she says, tapping the side of his thigh twice to get him to put one out for her, and he obeys. “For all you know, there might be a piece of sh—”

“I’m sure,” Jeongguk nearly shouts, cutting her off, “that Marion is not carrying that around in her bag, I’ll take the three economy-sized bag of 3 Musketeers, holy shit.”

“Don’t call people weird, they just like to do things their own way,” she says. “Unless they’re men.”

“I’m a men.”

“Did I stutter?” she says. “Alright, Taehyung, you’re up.”

“She scares me,” Jeongguk confesses when they leave the costume agency later. It’s already after dark, and Taehyung’s laugh shivers in the air like a flicker of lamplight.

“They.”

“Oh, they scare me,” Jeongguk corrects.

“Yeah, they doesn’t really take any shit, huh? They’re fun, though. Once they showed me a tattoo on their underboob, which was pretty wild. Probably unprofessional, but it was great.”

Taehyung is wrapped up in a long trench coat, one that goes down to his knees and makes him look even taller than usual, with most of his face buried in the fleecy embrace of a scarf. His words are nearly eaten up by it, so Jeongguk doesn’t immediately hear him when he asks.

“You want to try a scene here?”

“Right here?” Jeongguk looks around. He’s gotten used to Taehyung springing impromptu rehearsals on him. Sometimes he sees why—the environment they find themselves in provides the perfect mood. Tonight, it’s an uncharacteristically quiet, empty parking lot for an LA evening. There’s a brilliantly neon window front across the street, the insides dark, where a tattoo parlor has closed up shop for the night. A pair of white cat eyes leers at them when a car with too-bright headlights makes a turn into the backstreet by the warehouse.

“Yeah.”

Jeongguk takes a breath. “Okay.”

“You start.”

There are so many scenes to choose from. Taehyung has always initiated, so Jeongguk draws a blank at first, but he remembers what Pia keeps telling him, her voice tinny and excited in his head.

“I know you told me that, when you have forever, there’s no real value in remembering things,” Jeongguk swallows. “But can I—can I ask you, maybe, to remember me, keep me in a dusty corner in the attic of your heart, and smile when you find our story years and years from now?”

Taehyung has that look again, one that Jeongguk has trouble deciphering for acting or true emotion; the mark of a rookie, perhaps, but even in movies he has not seen an expression so heartrending and sincere as the one Taehyung has for him when they do this. It’s see-through, but deep, like the color of the sky or the sound of pianos.

This part is unscripted, but Jeongguk keeps easily in character when Taehyung holds his face now. “Yes,” he says, “of course. Now, and forever.”

And Taehyung does not pull away, letting the heat of his palms warm Jeongguk’s cheeks. He wouldn’t say it’s instinctive, exactly, but Jeongguk tips his head forward until his mouth is so close to Taehyung’s that his breath fans out warm over Jeongguk’s lips.

Not that Jeongguk is going to kiss him, but. When he flicks his gaze up to Taehyung’s eyes again, the look is gone, a smile replacing it, and Taehyung steps back.

“You should’ve done that during blocking,” he says, adjusting his scarf. “You know Pia loves improvisation.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t know where that came from.”

“Neither do I, but it was amazing, so don’t sweat it,” Taehyung says. “Promise you’ll try it during production? You really got me there, too, I like it.”

“Yeah?” Jeongguk’s heart pounds in his chest, adrenaline surging belatedly through his body. It takes a couple of tries to fall back into smooth step with Taehyung, and his fingers are jittery in the curl of his fists. “I’m still sorry.”

“It’s okay, seriously,” Taehyung says. “On a list of things that you should apologize for, good acting where good acting is required is hardly one of them.”

 

Other things are not so easily explained away or swept under the rug, such as the fact that filming begins tomorrow, or that the script has a very real and very long sex scene.

It is long enough so as to just barely toe pornographic but still short and demurely censored enough for it to be considered Artistiqué, and Jeongguk has quite deliberately practiced and rehearsed around it. Taehyung never brings it up either, and Jeongguk is both thankful and even more nervous for it. He knows some things, though, and one of them is that sex scenes are always beyond awkward. They’re the antithesis of sexy. Some days Jeongguk will look at Taehyung, like today, where he’s standing shirtless waiting for their head costume designer—they go by Jen, which Jeongguk learned not because he asked but because he heard Pia talking to them—and, well. Sure. He wouldn’t mind.

“Take a picture, it’ll last longer,” Taehyung says, not looking up from where he’s adjusting his belt. It’s made of a clear, plasticky material, futuristic without being obnoxious. “Or you can just wait a year for the movie to hit theaters and get printed on Blu-ray.”

“I wasn’t looking.”

“Okay,” Taehyung says. “Sounds fake, but okay.”

Jen steps up on a stool again to get the shirt around Taehyung’s shoulders, wrapping him back up out of Jeongguk’s view. “If it’s loose or tight anywhere, let me know.”

“Are you nervous?”

“For tomorrow?” Taehyung shakes his head. “Nah, not really. Are you?”

“Maybe a little.”

Taehyung doesn’t tell him to keep his chin up, or smile, or say that it’ll be okay. “I know,” he murmurs instead. “You’ve been quiet today.”

“Oh,” Jeongguk says. “Have I?”

“More than usual, anyway,” Taehyung says. “But it’s normal to be nervous. It’s a big-budget film, after all, and you’re out here to be amazing, not to disappoint. It’s a lot of pressure for someone who’s never done this before.”

“Were you nervous?”

“I acted in theater productions and made two cameos on a TV show, Jeongguk.”

“That’s even worse!” Unimaginable, almost. “Theater productions, I mean. You’re in front a huge audience, live, and any mistake you make can’t be retaken or edited out.”

“Time is money,” Taehyung says. “Even if we can do retakes on set, that’s wasting time, and every extra day spent doing principal photography is thousands more dollars.”

“Oh,” Jeongguk says. Right. He’d seen Pia’s breakdown sheets as she’d bent over them with their assistant director, highlighted a rainbow splash of colors for every single minute detail that would cost them money. “I guess that’s true.”

“Now, if you mean the immediacy isn’t there, you’re right,” Taehyung says. “Still, it doesn’t change the fact we here to impress. There’s no time or space for mistakes, so when you say you’re nervous, don’t think it’s because you’re not good enough.”

And Jeongguk goes back to staring at him—Taehyung, a whirlwind that seems to have found a home in Jeongguk’s palms, who never rests, cramming in food and studies any moment Pia isn’t talking to him or that he doesn’t have his nose in the script. In the past few weeks Jeongguk thinks he’s put together what makes Taehyung, Taehyung, because trust, trust, trust. The other day Jeongguk had found Taehyung nodding off over his wrapped textbook, the bag of Haribo gummies almost empty, and he’d wondered if Taehyung trusts him too.

“You’re doing it again,” Taehyung says. “The staring.”

“Sorry.”

“No, tell me if I look good!” Jen hops off the stool and Taehyung looks down at himself, snapping the heels of his feet together. “Yeah?”

“You look great,” Jeongguk says, and whoever it is that looks at him like he makes the flowers bloom—Taehyung, or Taehyung’s Aeterno—smiles.

✩✩

Of all the things that Taehyung struggles with, he doesn’t expect being truthful with himself to be one of them.

For example, right now, he definitely, definitely, is getting a cold, but he figuratively (doesn’t let anyone catch on or know) and metaphorically (he’s running out of tissues and his break isn’t until after this scene finishes, and it’s not looking good) sucks it up. Jeongguk is studying the scene they’re shooting, or trying to shoot, as Pia talks to him—she’s quieter with him now, gentler, as Jeongguk grows to be more sure of himself.

“Hey, hotshot.”

Taehyung jumps, sniffling, and Marion is standing next to him. She’s a bit like a ghost, with her hair dyed a metallic lilac grey for her part, and always moves without a sound. Even though it’s past midnight in the middle of January, and they’re shooting in the snowy hills of the Cascades, she slips her blanket off from around her shoulders and holds it out to him. Taehyung shakes his head.

“I already have one, thanks. You have to keep yourself warm, too.”

“Y’look like you need to be hospitalized,” she says, draping it around him. “I’ll live.”

“Thank you,” Taehyung says, shivering harder. She offers a silvery wrapped candy, one of her telltale 3 Musketeers, and Taehyung shakes his head again.

“Sugar’s easy on your throat,” she says, unwrapping it. “Sure?”

“I’m sure.”

She shrugs, popping it in her mouth. It hasn’t been windy much in the past few days, but the breeze is especially icy by the water. Marion seems unbothered, her short hair whipping around her face during a particularly strong gust, and jerks her chin in Jeongguk’s direction.

“Tell them you can’t film any more tonight,” she manages around a mouthful of chocolate truffle. “Don’t want to be giving him whatever you have.”

She talks like this, in short sentences that sound like half-finished thoughts.

“Yeah,” Taehyung admits. “But if we—”

“Won’t be just today we’ll lose if he gets sick,” she goes on. “And he’s got a sinus disorder. You want him running that nose for three weeks, you finish the scene. Not my business.”

“How do you know he’s got a sinus disorder?”

“I listen.”

“That says absolutely nothing about a lot of things.”

“He dumped his backpack looking for something. A bottle of prescription strength antihistamine came flying at me,” she says. “I gave it back to him. Label said to take once a day to prevent runny nose.”

“So you didn’t actually hear anything at all.”

“Seeing, listening.” She shrugs again. “Sometimes the same thing.” Marion pops one last chocolate in her mouth and stands when someone calls her name. “Do you know him as well as you should?”

 

As he should? How much should he know about Jeongguk? They are coworkers, friends. There are one too many lead actors that have hated each other from the moment pre-production began from the moment they finished promotions, and Taehyung is glad he and Jeongguk are not one of those duos.

Jeongguk is extraordinarily more naked than Taehyung is about what he’s thinking, even though he is right—he doesn’t talk much, or didn’t talk much. But his face betrays his every emotion, and Taehyung can deduce how he’s feeling just by reading the line of his shoulders. Maybe he’s just good at reading people. He’s never felt like Jeongguk is a stranger.

“You’re eating ice cream in this weather?”

Jeongguk doesn’t budge when Taehyung sits down beside him.

“You said you used to not eat dairy.”

“Times change,” Jeongguk says. A royal blue blanket with a pattern of stars is wrapped around him, and the only bits of him that are visible are his feet, face, and the hand that’s holding his ice cream bar. “I’m not supposed to look like the healthiest individual. Dusk grew up in a basement.” He holds it out to Taehyung, who shakes his head.

“I’m good.”

“Okay,” Jeongguk says. “Better you not be eating ice cream with that fever.”

“Wait.” Taehyung frowns. “How did you know?”

“You’re burning up,” Jeongguk says plainly. “Your hands, they’re on fire. Even to me, and your hands are always cold to me.”

Jeongguk seems to find this statement too revealing, flushes a peach tint in his cheeks, and goes back to eating. A snowy silence floats between them, punctuated with Jeongguk’s sneezing, and he doesn’t object when Taehyung scoots closer to him and sighs at the warmth.

“Are you getting sick too?” Taehyung mumbles into the folds of his blanket. “Shit. I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s because the producers are smoking.” Jeongguk sniffles. “It irritates my sinuses. I hate it when my dad smokes around me.”

The sinus disorder that Marion had mentioned—there it is, as if she’d forecasted it. From here, Taehyung can see her offering one of their other costars, Ruben, a 3 Musketeer. He takes it.

“Do you think humans have that capacity?”

The thought comes out as unfinished and fragmented as one of Marion’s sentences. Jeongguk glances at him.

“For what?”

“Marion and Ruben, or rather, Hiraeth and Kairos,” Taehyung says. “Do you think a family of Forevers would really find it in their hearts to raise a child of the people the war told them to hate, like their own?”

A snap cracks between them as Jeongguk bends the now clean popsicle stick in half, the wood splintering in his fingers. “Of course,” he says. “Forevers are still human in that story, and all humans feel. Whether it be hate or pity. Dusk was lucky that they were the latter.”

“But he was a baby,” Taehyung says. “And they were not rich, but they hid him and raised him and uprooted their family for him. Which is not to say they should have loved him any less, even if he wasn’t theirs.” Taehyung rests his chin in his hand. “I think it amazes me, sometimes. The depth of the human spirit. The will of the human soul.”

“That’s what Pia wants to say, I think,” Jeongguk says. She’s half obscured by a cloud of cigarette smoke as she gestures to something in the distance with some of the cameramen and grips. “A story about love. But also the story of human resilience.”

“Wow,” says Taehyung. He rests his cheek on his knee, and turns his face to Jeongguk, who raises his eyebrows. “I like that interpretation.” He’ll carry it in his acting from now on.

The night is long, and too soon again they are called back to their feet to film. By the time Taehyung gets back to his hotel room he feels like his fever might be burning holes in his skin, but even in the troubled, feverish doze he manages to force himself into, he can still hear Jeongguk’s laugh.

 

In the following week, Taehyung gets better fitfully, with a fever that comes and goes like an unwelcome guest. Every morning, evidence of it is painted away with a generous layer of foundation.

“There’s nothing we can do about your eyes picking up light so harshly, though,” says one of the makeup artists. “We might have to just change the lighting positions so you’re not practically lens-flaring the camera.”

“Got it, sorry,” says Taehyung miserably. “Thanks, Ferd.”

“Nothing to apologize for. We all get sick.”

“How are you feeling today?” is the first thing Jeongguk says when they meet again. He’s not yet in costume, it’s early, and Jeongguk doesn’t even have to be onset until later this evening when they have a scene together. “You look better.”

“Thanks to MAC Pro foundation or whatever Ferd used on me today,” Taehyung says, giving Jeongguk’s hand a weak squeeze. It’s become his way of telling Taehyung’s fever without touching his face and running the risk of disturbing whatever makeup he has on. “But I feel a little better. I got some Nyquil at the cafe in the hotel downstairs last night and knocked out for twelve hours.”

“That’s good.” Jeongguk lets go of his hand, after holding it a little longer than necessary. “I actually hung out with Marion and Ruben last night.”

“Oh yeah?” Taehyung says. He reaches around for his bag and a bottle of Tylenol. “How did that go?”

“Marion is still weird, but she’s growing on me,” Jeongguk says. “And Ruben is hilarious, a riot. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Marion laugh in earnest but she did last night. Really a sight to behold.” He hands Taehyung his own water when Taehyung tries and fails to find his own. “Original plan was discuss some of our family dynamic so we’re more natural onscreen. It went well, at first. I have an older brother and Ruben is the middleman between two sisters and Marion has a little brother, but we ended up just talking about everything under the sun. Marion has a lot of existential questions, like have you ever thought about why traffic cones are orange?”

“Nope,” Taehyung says. “Sounds like you had fun.”

“Yeah.” Jeongguk picks at a frayed thread in the cuff of his sweater. “Wish you could’ve been there.”

Taehyung makes a noise of protest as he swallows his pill, waving in dismissal. “No, I would’ve gotten all of you sick. Next time, maybe.”

“Next time,” says Jeongguk, and Taehyung’s heart does a little foxtrot at the hope in his voice.

 

Next time means next week, after one entire Sunday in bed clears up the last of the sniffles and coughing for him. Taehyung is lucky in that most of his fevers go as quickly as they come. It’s a Thursday night, late after the filming has wrapped up for the day and the actors and principal crew have all retired to their rooms. A knock comes at his door when Taehyung is sitting at the foot of his bed, trying to wrestle open the plastic seal around a bottle of unopened water.

“Yeah?”

No answer. He crosses the room and puts his eye to the peephole, then opens the door in surprise.

“Hey, what’s up?”

“I’ve got drinks,” says Marion. “Want some?”

Taehyung peers down the hallway. Nothing is moving at this hour. “I’m nineteen.”

“So?” Her bag clunks heavily when she shifts it on her shoulder and Taehyung stares at it. “No hard liquor. Maybe some. Ruben and I were going to drink it but something came up and I can’t finish this all myself.” She shrugs. “There are easy drinks too. Taste like soda. If you don’t wanna, I’ll just save this for later.”

“Nah, come in,” Taehyung says, opening the door wider for her. “Should I tell Jeongguk to come over?”

“If you wanna.” She breezes past him, smelling like hookah, and begins unloading her bag—there’s a six pack of glass bottles, one bottle of vodka, and a little bottle of soda. “See? Harmless.”

Jeongguk sees the message right away when Taehyung asks, you want to come over for some drinks? marion just marched in with some alcohol.

what? lol he replies. right now?

yeah says Taehyung. come help drink some?

well...i’m seventeen

that’s what i said! she was just like ‘so?’ and the argument was over. if you don’t want to that’s fine but i wanted to ask in case you were interested.

nah i’ll come, which room are you in again?

And this is how Taehyung, Jeongguk, and Marion end up sitting in his room, with Taehyung and Jeongguk drinking what tastes like straight up orange soda but Marion swears up and down that there’s alcohol in it, it’s called a screwdriver, while she casually takes shots of vodka alone. Belvedere, says the typeface on the bottle.

“Ready for next week?” she asks, pouring herself another shot into her Dixie cup. Jeongguk chokes on his mouthful of screwdriver, getting some on his pajama pants, and Taehyung makes a noise that’s half-sigh half-groan. Everyone knows what’s being filmed next week. Her expression doesn’t shift as she downs another shot. It’s a bit alarming how well she can hold her alcohol. That had to have been at least her fourth one and she hardly seems fazed.

“I guess,” Jeongguk says. “Ready as I’ll ever be.”

“Practiced it at all?”

“Nope,” Taehyung says.

“Oh. Well, good luck.”

“Can I have some of that,” Jeongguk says suddenly, and the both of them turn to stare at him. Marion holds up the vodka.

“This?”

“Yeah, I want some.”

“Are you sure?” she asks. “It’s a bit strong.”

“I know.” He holds out his bottle of screwdriver. “Just mix it into this, so I don’t have to taste it.”

“Uh,” she says. “Okay, tell me when.”

The stream of liquor trickles in rivulets down the neck of the bottle as she pours, and Taehyung watches what must be one, two, and finally three shots dribble down into the drink before he says, “Hey, I think that’s enough.”

“Yeah?”

“Yes,” Taehyung says.

Too much, probably. They sit and talk, ruminating over what scene they’ll shoot last, if they’re going to finish before schedule or just on time. Pia is such a perfectionist that it seems unlikely that they’ll wrap up any time before the last moment, but the fear of going overtime has mostly been eradicated these past few days when they managed to get a good handful of scenes down pat in their first takes. She keeps praising how well Taehyung has gotten Jeongguk to react to him, but Jeongguk has always been so responsive. It hasn’t been difficult.

But it does not take long for Jeongguk’s words to start running into each other, at which point Marion leans over and picks the bottle, almost finished, out of his hand. His head starts knocking into Taehyung’s shoulder as he laughs at—nothing in particular, really.

“Okay, okay, easy,” says Taehyung. “I think we’re done for tonight.”

“I’d say,” she says. “Do you want me to take him back to his room?”

Taehyung is about to say yes when Jeongguk loses his balance, face falling into Taehyung’s lap, and he laughs before wrapping his arms around Taehyung’s waist.

“Or not,” she says, loading her bag. “Shall I?”

Without really thinking, Taehyung runs his fingers through Jeongguk’s hair, and he makes a pleased noise. His weight is heavy. Taehyung can feel how hard he’s gripping him, the muscles bunching in Jeongguk’s forearms, but nothing stops the rush of affection in his chest.

“I’ll be okay,” he says. “Go get some sleep.”

“See you tomorrow?”

“Yeah, see you. Thanks for coming over!”

The door clicks when it locks, and Taehyung stays seated in the middle of his rumpled covers, stroking Jeongguk’s hair away from his flushed cheeks.

“Is this the first time you’ve had alcohol?”

Taehyung doesn’t even expect him to reply, but Jeongguk blinks a bleary eye open and nods once.

“Jeez,” he laughs, no real edge in his voice. “Not really a heavyweight, are we?”

“Don’t laugh at me.”

“I’m not laughing,” Taehyung says, blatantly laughing. “It’s cute.”

Jeongguk doesn’t move to leave, even though the hour grows more and more weary. “Do you want to go back to your room?” asks Taehyung. “We have filming in the morning tomorrow.”

“No.” Jeongguk pushes his face further into Taehyung’s stomach. “Stay.”

“Okay, well,” Taehyung says, easing out of Jeongguk’s grasp. “Let’s go to bed, okay? I’m tired.”

By the time Taehyung has cleaned up, pulling his soft tshirt over his head, Jeongguk has already snuggled his way under the covers. He doesn’t move when Taehyung climbs in beside him, until their bodies touch. A gurgle escapes Taehyung’s throat when Jeongguk stretches his limbs out and gathers Taehyung close with arm and leg, until he’s trapped against the furnace-warmth of Jeongguk’s skin, his head tucked into the curve of Jeongguk’s neck.

“Hey.”

“Mmm.”

“Am I your human body pillow?”

“Mm,” Jeongguk mumbles. “You’re mine. My something. My Timeshaker.”

He goes out like a light.

✩✩

Jeongguk considers the experience an “exercise in embarrassment in preparation to have sex with Taehyung onscreen,” but that doesn’t negate the fact that he is so mortified that all he wants to do is get in contact with NASA and ask them to fling him into the sun.

“It was cute,” Taehyung insists, as Jen buttons up his costume for today, a peculiar coat made of a sheer, dark blue. It shimmers under the glare of the studio lighting. “No one’s ever climbed into my bed and insisted on staying. Except my youngest sister, if we count her.”

“Please stop talking, I remember everything,” Jeongguk says. He wishes he didn’t, but he wasn’t nearly drunk enough to forget anything.

Taehyung just laughs, a tinkling sound, and straightens out the cuffs of his jacket after Jen leaves him to get Ruben’s costume for the day. “Okay, I’ll leave you be. Did you get a chance to meet the composer of the score? He’s an interesting guy.”

“Really? No, I haven’t. Where’d you see him?”

“He and Pia left for the set earlier, they were talking out in the parking lot. He said he wanted to get a feel for the places the story would take place. That there’s magic in each place that he wants to capture accurately,” Taehyung brushes a wisp of hair out of his eyes, sinking down into the chair beside Jeongguk to get his face put on. “He took one look at me and said, ‘Oh, I know exactly what you sound like.’ Very flattering, a little bewildering. I think his name is Min Yoongi.”

“What do you sound like?” Jeongguk asks, snorting through his nose.

“I don’t know, I’m curious too. Guess we’ll find out when the movie is released.”

“I wonder what I sound like.”

“I’m sure he’s going to want to meet you,” Taehyung says, “to figure that out.”

Ferdinand seems to be running late, for some reason that they don’t know, and Jeongguk spins round and round in his vanity chair as Taehyung goes through his emails. A question burns in the pit of Jeongguk’s stomach, one he’s held since the first day of principal photography, and he drags his foot on the ground to kill the momentum of his chair.

Then it tunnels up the length of his chest, unchecked, and he can’t catch it by the wrist before it’s running away from him.

“Do you want to give it a go first?”

“Give what a go?” Taehyung asks, not looking up. When Jeongguk doesn’t answer, he looks up. “Give what a—oh,” he says, and spins his chair slowly so that it, too, faces Jeongguk. “You mean kissing?”

“Yeah.”

“I thought we said we were just going to do it cold, onscreen.”

“I might be out of practice,” Jeongguk mutters.

Taehyung sits back in his chair, crossing his arms. “Have you ever kissed anyone?”

“Yes I have!”

“Okay, I’m not doubting you,” Taehyung says, and leans forward. “I’m out of practice, too, so you don’t need be nervous.”

“I’m not nervous,” Jeongguk says, mirroring Taehyung’s position, tilting his head like the script says. The shiver that runs through Taehyung’s body when he puts a hand around his neck is reassuring.

“Could’ve fooled me,” Taehyung says, so close that his breath comes in puffs on Jeongguk’s lips. He pulls him in the last bit of distance with the hands he cups Jeongguk’s cheeks with.

Whatever Taehyung said about being out of practice is a complete lie. Jeongguk is intoxicated, all over again, on the taste of his lips. He finds himself tugging Taehyung closer to reach more of him, chasing his mouth when Taehyung pulls away for one breath, and he’s back again, gasping when Jeongguk doesn’t let him go so easy this time, yanking on his lower lip with his teeth.

“Bullshit about being out of practice,” Taehyung says, a breathless smile coming over his kiss-reddened mouth. He pulls back properly now. “Where’d you learn that?”

“Middle school.”

“Good lord,” says Taehyung. “When was that? Two years ago?”

“Rude!”

“Sloppy,” Taehyung says, wiping at chin.

“Sor—”

“No, it’s good,” says Taehyung. “It’s real.”

“Oh.”

“Like, it’ll look more real, you know?”

“Right.”

He doesn’t know if it’s more real later, when the entire crew is poised around them, a camera right in their faces. At least he knows the shape of Taehyung’s mouth when it’s due time for them to kiss.

“The first time I learned the word end, I didn’t understand it. I didn’t understand finality. I didn’t understand the idea that things do not last, because it is in the nature of Forevers that things move in circles, and not lines. Like clocks, you know? Three lines, stuck inside a circle, moving in a dizzying dance—”

“Until something in the universe dictates that it should end. One day, you look at your watch, and you see that it no longer runs, stuck at six PM when you took it off the evening before.”

“What is it like?”

“What is what like?”

“To run out of time?”

Jeongguk lets his eyes drift shut when Taehyung’s hand comes up to hold his face as tenderly as glass.

“Look at me. Look at me.”

They’re no longer in a parking lot, with Jeongguk downtrodden but hopeful, sticky vanilla on his fingertips. When he opens his eyes this time Taehyung has that terrible, beautiful look in his eyes again, like Jeongguk is a memory that he can’t quite remember having. Before he can overthink it, Jeongguk leans in, closes his eyes, kisses him.

In all, the shot takes four tries. “Dusk and Aeterno feel like they’re running out of time,” Pia says. “For Aeterno it’s the first time in his life that he’s felt like that. You have no time. You’re desperate.”

“Desperate,” Taehyung repeats, and looks up into Jeongguk’s face. “God, I really need to pee, I should not have drank so much coffee, I’m fucking desperate all right,” he says under his breath, and Jeongguk can’t help the laugh that escapes his lips. “Ok. Let’s make this our last take.”

Taehyung puts his hands on Jeongguk’s face, and at the call of action! he runs a thumb over the plane of Jeongguk’s cheek.

“Look at me,” he says, and his voice is full of longing. “Look at me.”

And Jeongguk does.

 

“Jesus Christ, I’m tired,” Taehyung says, dragging his hands down his face. “I want my food right now, right this moment.”

“You can drink the ketchup out of the bottle.”

“I’m seriously considering this right now, don’t encourage me.” Jeongguk makes a face and draws the glass Heinz bottle out of Taehyung’s reach, laughing at his mock destroyed expression.

“We did a good job today,” he says, plucking a packet of Splenda out of the glass dish. It’s late, as always, and this hole in the wall diner is the only one still open and serving. Taehyung had smiled and said, “Let’s go!” with a sunniness in voice despite his exhaustion. “I’m starving.”

“Now we just need to do a good job tomorrow.”

Taehyung meets his eyes from across the table, the wood sticky with honey and syrup residue, and Jeongguk looks away. He runs his thumbnail over the paneled glass of the ketchup bottle.

“Last day of filming here in cloudy Oregon,” Taehyung says, filling the silence. “I can’t say I’ll miss the rain, but I guess it’s nice not having to squint in the sun from dawn till dusk.”

“Are you nervous?”

“For tomorrow?” Taehyung laughs. “A bit, this time.”

“Okay, good, because that makes two of us.”

“We could practice it, if you want to.”

Jeongguk’s head snaps up at this, just in time for their waitress to come by with their orders. Taehyung thanks her, smiling when she leaves, but Jeongguk’s stomach has gone uncomfortably quiet even in the presence of a steaming breakfast omelette.

“Practice?”

“Only if you’re sure you want to, of course,” Taehyung says, reaching across the table and taking the ketchup from Jeongguk’s grip. “Just an idea.”

“Do you want to?”

“Would I be suggesting it if I didn’t?” Taehyung says, striping a zigzag of sauce over his hash browns. “Eat first, discuss later.”

Jeongguk take his fork and knife in hand, watching the square of butter melt and ooze into his pancakes on the side. “You just proposed we practice having sex.”

“My guy, my man, my dude,” says Taehyung, spearing a forkful of potatoes, “actors do much wilder and much more dangerous things for their art than practicing sex. Did you hear that Nicholas Cage—”

“I mean, I know,” Jeongguk says, cutting into his omelette. “You just swerved so hard back to the topic of food. Gave me whiplash.”

“I’m sorry,” Taehyung says. “If you’re willing, if you’re sure you want to practice, I can give you something much better.”

Jeongguk nearly inhales a cube of ham, and Taehyung just winks. With two eyes, so he tries to, anyway.

 

There is no instruction manual for this kind of thing, no How to Practice Sexual Intercourse with an Onscreen Costar for the Sake of Filmmaking for Dummies. Not even A Life Lesson imparted on him by his mother in the mornings before school about making good choices, with him stuffing his face with soegogi-yachaeguk at the dining table, could have prepared Jeongguk for this.

“Hmm,” Taehyung says as they step out of the diner. “I don’t have condoms.” He turns to look at Jeongguk. “You?”

“Uhm. No.”

“Yeah, I didn’t think so,” Taehyung says, and Jeongguk makes a noise that’s a cross between a sputter and a squawk. “Where do you think we can find condoms and lube at 11 PM in downtown Portland?”

“There’s a Rite Aid near the hotel,” Jeongguk supplies.

“Oh, excellent. Let’s pray they’re open.”

They are. It’s mostly empty, save for a few people in parkas and sweatpants with beanies over their heads, buying cereal mix and granola. Taehyung is literally humming, as if they’re just going to pick up some groceries for a snow day, and Jeongguk trails after him like a shadow.

“Get down here and help me pick.”

There’s a whole three shelves dedicated to condoms and lube and Jeongguk has never actually needed to be here, if he’s honest, so he grabs the first box in front of him.

Taehyung straightens up from where he’s crouched down by the bottom-most shelf, lube in hand, and raises his eyebrows. “XL,” he says out loud.

“Well, maybe. Like.”

“I’m very flattered, but I think standard size is fine.” Taehyung sets it back on the shelf and picks up the box next to it.

“Oh.”

“Come on, let’s go.”

If the cashier is judging them for the condoms, she makes no indication of it. Her eyes skate over it entirely, in fact, and Jeongguk is considerably less jittery by the time they walk out and catch another Uber back to the hotel. The backseat is dark and an undecidedly heavy rain is coming down around them, and Jeongguk feels Taehyung take his hand.

“Relax,” Taehyung says. “I can feel your muscles all bunched up from where I’m sitting.”

Jeongguk lets out some of the springcoil tension in his arm, but it’s hard, following Taehyung into his hotel room with rainwater clinging to his hair, to relax. If Taehyung is at all nervous he clearly is doing a much better job of hiding it, the plastic bag crinkling when he tosses it into the middle of the bed and promptly goes to pull his shirt over his head.

“I’m just going to wash up a little,” Taehyung says, Jeongguk watching him kick off his jeans now. “You wanna join me?”

“I’ll go after you.”

“Suit yourself,” Taehyung says, grabbing his pajamas off the top of his suitcase. “Feel free to make yourself at home.”

The sound of the shower runs, coupling with the pitter-patter of rain on the windows, and Jeongguk sinks into the foot of the bed. After a moment he twists, snagging the bag, and pulls it toward him until the box of condoms fall into his lap. It stares at him, traitorously innocuous, and Jeongguk shoves it back behind him in search of the remote.

There’s a rerun of a Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End on ABC Family tonight. Briefly, caught in mindless swashbuckling storytelling, Jeongguk wonders if he should tell Taehyung, hey, I’ve never done this before. Taehyung seems awfully sure of what he’s doing. It’s reassuring and even more nerve-wracking all at the same time.

“You’re up,” Taehyung says, stepping out of the bathroom with drying hair. “Oh, shit, I love this movie. And, also, hot water’s a bit spotty today for some reason, so you might be standing in freezing water for a few seconds here and there.”

He’s right. Jeongguk nearly jumps out of his skin, goosebumps erupting over his arms, when frigid water hits his chest, and he swears he hears Taehyung’s laughter when he curses at the top of his lungs. The water slides in icy sheets over his back when he ducks under the stream, waiting for it to warm enough to not induce hypothermia. The Cascades had been cold enough.

Lines, strangely, have a calming effect on him. They’re not always the easiest to remember, and Jeongguk still slips up here and there these days, being unseasoned and soft to the tricks of cramming them all into his head, but the process of sinking into the story is therapeutic even with the stress of having to remember them all. The water is still a shade too cold when he dumps shampoo in his hair, and he’s still nervous, but.

DUSK
Put your hands on me.

There’s a stunned, awed silence. Aeterno only stares at him for a moment. All that moves is his hand, sliding down to squeeze Dusk’s elbow.

AETERNO
Where?

Dusk takes Aeterno’s hand, the one that rests on his elbow, and slides it along his body, until it reaches the space between his legs.

DUSK
Everywhere.

Jeongguk chokes, nearly slipping, when the water cuts back to freezing again, piercing his skin like needles. One of the shampoo bottles topples to the floor of the tub when he flails at the wall for support.

“You okay?”

“I’m okay!”

Well, it’s now or never, really. The knob of the shower squeaks when Jeongguk shuts it off. He’s in the middle of toweling dry, reaching for his pants, when he pauses. Outside, the TV blares with music. Jeongguk hangs up his towel. He hesitates for one moment more, then opens the door.

“What a fell over in there? It sounded—holy shit,” Taehyung says, sitting up when he turns to look at Jeongguk who’s, well, starkly naked.

“I’m sorry,” Jeongguk says, trying not to hide his face in his hands. “I thought it would just be a good idea to like. Not have to go through doing all that undressing.”

“No, no, this is great, it’s great. Don’t be self-conscious,” Taehyung says, laughing, switching the TV off and crossing his legs. He holds his hands out. “Okay, come here.”

The rain is louder than ever. Jeongguk is thankful for it, because it’s almost enough to drown out the sound of his heart in his ears, and he’s thankful for the way that easy smile stays on Taehyung’s face even when he slides his hands into his palms.

“Okay,” he says, when Jeongguk has eased into the bed beside him. “Okay, I’m Aeterno. You’re Dusk. In the event you want to stop, tell me and we break character right away. Deal?”

“Deal.”

“Close your eyes.”

Jeongguk does.

“Are you nervous?”

“Yes.”

“Yeah, me too.”

Jeongguk chuckles, a ghost in his chest.

“Do you trust me?”

A breath.

“Yes.”

Then Jeongguk is kissed, and he sighs, letting his hands escape the hold Taehyung has on them to pull him in by the waist. Taehyung only breaks it to tug his shirt over his head, and Jeongguk catches a glimpse of that look in his eyes again, before he’s tugging Jeongguk’s face down to his again and kissing him like he’s been starving for it. It’s heady, the sensation of Taehyung’s mouth making his blood warm in his body, only at the sound their mouth separating does Jeongguk realize that Taehyung has his hand on his shoulder. It’s his cue.

“Put your hands on me,” he says, more out of breath than he should be.

Taehyung gazes at him, and Jeongguk fights back his shiver when Taehyung strokes the length of his arm, taking time around the curves of his deltoid, down to his elbow.

“Where?”

This time, Jeongguk does shiver when he drags Taehyung’s hand over his belly, and bites down on his lip when Taehyung cups his fingers around his cock.

“Everywhere.”

He lies back when Taehyung instructs him, reaches over his head for the lube. The plastic seal crinkles when Taehyung breaks it, and he flicks his gaze up. Something in Jeongguk’s face makes him stop, because he moves over Jeongguk’s body on all fours to kiss him again, and gives his cock a few strokes.

“I got you,” he whispers. “I’m going to finger you open, okay?”

Jeongguk nods.

“Ever done it before?”

“Possibly.”

“Possibly?” Taehyung asks. “You either have or haven’t.”

“I have.” No need to elaborate that it was by himself. Fingers are fingers.

“Okay.” The lube is slick on Taehyung fingers when he moves between Jeongguk’s thighs, and Jeongguk spreads them wider. “Don’t worry, I’ll make it good.” As if Jeongguk is actually doubting him, because he hasn’t felt anything but good so far. He pauses once more for Jeongguk to nod when he presses his fingers to his hole, at the same time he pushes in he puts his mouth over Jeongguk’s cock.

“Oh, fuck,” Jeongguk says, the words coming out a groan. “Fuck, Taehyung—”

“Mhmm?”

The vibration of Taehyung’s hum makes Jeongguk’s hips jump. He gives him two, then three fingers, and it’s an odd stretch—not uncomfortable, only foreign for someone else to be touching him in a place so intimate. “More,” Jeongguk gasps, inadvertently, and Taehyung pulls away. His lips are spit-slicked.

“More?”

“More,” Jeongguk says, “anything.”

Taehyung smiles against the head of Jeongguk’s cock, giving it a little kiss before letting it go. Then he eases his fingers free and reaches for the lube again.

“Taehyung,” Jeongguk says, throat sandpapery with arousal.

“Yeah.” There comes the papery sound of the condom box being opened. “What is it?”

“Come here?”

He does, sitting back on his heels, and Jeongguk sits up to face him. This slow, slightly clumsy dance is dizzying, and Jeongguk takes Taehyung by the shoulders partly to steady himself, partly to kiss him again.

“Mm.” Taehyung’s palm is cold and sticky with lube when he braces one against the muscle of Jeongguk’s chest.

Somehow, Jeongguk musters up the courage to hook his fingers into the waistband of Taehyung’s pants, and he helps him out of them. Taehyung is sad to let him go, pulling on his lower lip and biting before Jeongguk can lie back again to watch him slick up.

“Should we do that tomorrow?” Taehyung asks, words shuddering as he tries not to jerk himself off right there. “They’ll love it.”

“Sure. I like it.”

Taehyung eyes him, adjusting the condom on himself, and smiles gently. “Yeah, me too.”

He props Jeongguk’s hips on his legs, scooting close on his knees, and spreads Jeongguk open. Their faces are just a heartbeat apart.

“Kiss,” Jeongguk says, and Taehyung dips down for a second to give him one.

“Yes?” he asks, and the tip of his cock nudges at Jeongguk’s entrance.

“Yes.”

The breath in Jeongguk’s lungs hitches when Taehyung pushes in, and he digs half-moon welts into the skin of Taehyung’s shoulder blades until Taehyung has stilled. They stay like that, with Taehyung gasping a little into Jeongguk’s ear and Jeongguk burying his whimpers into Taehyung’s cheek. It takes a few moments, or maybe a dreamy few minutes, for Jeongguk to speak again.

“Move.”

Taehyung does, softly at first, then harder when Jeongguk moans and begs him to, yeah, oh, right there. Somewhere between the kisses, Taehyung starts to pump his cock with one hand and takes Jeongguk’s hand with the other, leans in close, until their cheeks can touch.

“Are you gonna come?”

“Yeah,” Jeongguk says hoarsely. “I’m gonna—Taehyung, I’m gonna—”

His body locks up when he feels Taehyung’s lips close around his earlobe, and Jeongguk comes so hard that the tightening of his body around Taehyung’s cock makes him come, too. Taehyung’s thighs are trembling, as is the rest of him, so hard that Jeongguk turns his face to kiss his cheek to ground him.

“Thank you,” he says, breathlessly, and Taehyung laughs against the hollow of his neck.

“Of course,” Taehyung says. “Now as long as we can replicate this tomorrow, onset, when there are twenty five people around the bed and three cameras on us, I’d say we’re good.”

✩✩

To say it all goes smoothly is being overly optimistic. Taehyung decides it could’ve been better, but it could’ve been a lot worse.

On the bright side, they only had to do three takes in all, with a retake of a few seconds here and there. His mind hadn’t blanked on him for any of the sparse lines or where he had to put his hands and mouth, and neither had Jeongguk’s. Turn face, count to three, kiss. Lie back, run hand up thigh, count two, kiss hipbone. Interlace fingers, kiss, count to five, break apart. Even without having practiced this exact choreography, they remember the script well, memory sharpened by nerves. A blush had even spread down from Taehyung’s cheeks to tint the line of his neck pink, he could feel it, and if it showed up through the makeup then it will look good, convincing, real.

On the downside, they both got boners. Not that anyone expected anything less, and as prepared as they thought they were for this it’s still nervewracking for twenty-some-odd people to be practically pointing a camera at their erections. Even if there won’t be any actual cuts of his cock onscreen in the end, now there are twenty more people in this world that have seen it, and he doesn’t know how to feel about that.

“A new respect for porn stars,” Jeongguk says, raising his glass of Coke in the hole-in-the-wall diner that recognizes them now, and always serves shoestring and not krinkle-cut fries with Jeongguk’s order. “It’s been two hours and I have three sweaters on, and I still feel naked.”

“Makes two of us,” Taehyung says, clinking glasses and drinking. The ice water hits the floor of his stomach and he shivers. “We did a good job, though. I’m proud of you. Proud of us.”

“Me too,” Jeongguk says. “It was awkward and I never want to do it again, but I think we did good, too.”

“You don’t know about that,” Taehyung says, ripping his breadstick apart. “What if you get a role in the future that requires disrobing again?”

“Fuck,” Jeongguk says, with feeling, and Taehyung laughs.

“It won’t be as long, I’m sure.” It’s not raining anymore now, even though it had been coming down like cats and dogs earlier, but the headlights of a car driving past in the parking lot still throws a pattern of speckles over Jeongguk’s cheek when its headlights beam through the window by their booth. “Our scene is going to max out at five, six minutes? That’s a long, long sex scene.”

“That’s true, I guess.” Taehyung glances up to see Jeongguk dipping the same fry into his paper cup of ketchup over and over. “Sorry it was so awkward today.”

“Mm, I’m sorry too,” Taehyung says. “Sex scenes are awkward as fuck as a general rule, though, so it’s nothing to really be sorry for.”

“Still, it’s a balancing act between flattery and mortification,” Jeongguk says. “Flattered, because you want that kind of reaction, right? From your costar. Means you must be doing something right. Mortification because of, well, everything else.”

“Yeah.” Taehyung picks up his knife and slices into his meat. “But you’re attractive, and you’re better at what you do than you think. Surely you must know the effect you have on me by now.”

The weight of Taehyung’s words hit him belatedly, and by the time he raises his gaze to gauge Jeongguk’s reaction, Jeongguk is already staring at him.

“I,” says Jeongguk, finally eating his ketchupy French fry. “I could say the same for you.”

“Oh?”

“Yes.” Jeongguk’s eyes are dark, unreadable, the one that Taehyung has come to know well. The one he turns on him when they’re alone. “Yes.”

 

Tonight is different is several ways. For starters, Jeongguk kisses him first, presses Taehyung up against the door as soon as it shuts, and asks him, “Do you want to do it right this time?”

Taehyung chuckles, and it’s more breath than sound, sticky over Jeongguk’s lips. Jeongguk is just barely his height, but he’s solid, and Taehyung enjoys the shiver of his body as he slides his arms to wrap around his neck. “Mm,” he hums against the plush of Jeongguk’s lower lip, but pulling back when Jeongguk tries to chase his mouth. “You read my mind.”

“Yes,” Jeongguk says, and this time Taehyung lets him kiss. Jeongguk’s mouth tastes like the ice cream bars they’d gotten at Rite Aid and eaten sitting on the curb, waiting for their Uber to come—“self-congratulatory dessert,” Jeongguk had insisted.

“How many of these can you eat in a sitting?”

“Probably five thousand calories’ worth,” Jeongguk had said, and when Taehyung had stared at him for an explanation, he’d just shrugged and said, “I was seven, and threw it all back up. I couldn’t eat them for a year.”

“Hey,” Taehyung says now, hair splayed in a dark fan over the pillow. “Hey, Jeongguk.”

“Hmm,” Jeongguk says, nosing at Taehyung’s Adam’s apple. “Yeah?”

“After this,” Taehyung runs his fingers back and forth over a knob between Jeongguk’s shoulder blades, an unusually pronounced jut of bone in the center of his spine. “Wait, does this hurt?”

“Nope,” Jeongguk says. “Been there always. What were you saying?”

“After this, we only have half a week left of filming. Then it’s goodbye, until the premiere in 2017.” Jeongguk lifts his face at this, and Taehyung smiles softly. “I guess I’ll have to go back to the tedium of trying to finish my university degree.”

“And I have to graduate,” Jeongguk says. “From high school. Gotta clutch that diploma.”

“I forget about that, sometimes.”

“I’ll miss you,” Jeongguk says. For the first time, he doesn’t look betrayed by his own words, and he goes on stroking the bare skin of Taehyung’s shoulder where his shirt had been pulled down so Jeongguk could fit his mouth to it. “The premiere feels like a lifetime away.”

“Yeah,” Taehyung agrees. “But we’ll see each other again. If you stick around, and if I stick around, we’ll be seeing a lot of each other.”

It’s not a particularly comforting thought, when the future is so uncertain, where the tides are subject to change whenever the seas of Hollywood so please. But Taehyung tips his head up to kiss Jeongguk again, to chase away that floating unease, and for now they hold onto each other and feel what is for sure.

The pent-up tension from this afternoon comes back all too eagerly, desire simmering in the grain of their muscles all evening. Jeongguk closes his eyes and lets it drag him to the deep end.

 

Winter in Los Angeles is in full swing when they return, but it feels like plunging headfirst back into summer. Taehyung peels off two entire jackets when they hop out of the van, the sun blazing down on his face, and he has to squint to see.

“Last stop,” Pia says, climbing out of her van with a faded baseball cap still on. “Just a few more days to go, guys!”

In all, Taehyung and Jeongguk have two more days left on set together, today included. There’s a scene that Pia and one of the producers want to do a retake of in the basement of Dusk’s house, and then another of Dusk and Aeterno in the backseat of a car. Tomorrow it will be an easy day—easy, in relativity, to the intensity of their work in Oregon.

“I know what you mean,” Taehyung says that night, later, in a cramped hotel. This one isn’t nearly as nice as the inn in Oregon, a run-down Best Western that looks like a setting for a psychological thriller. “I’m going to miss you too.”

Jeongguk looks up from where he’s nursing one of the screwdrivers Marion had generously donated, since she still had some leftover. “Ruben isn’t fond of them, and I wasn’t going to drink them all myself,” she’d said, loading them into Jeongguk’s backpack.

“Oh,” he says, blowing his breaths over the rim of the bottle so that it makes a low, sad, hooting sound. “Yeah.”

“You think this movie will do well?”

“I hope so,” Jeongguk says, and it’s the most that either of them can say. They’ve thrown themselves into these roles, and from what Taehyung understands, critics have been anticipating the release of The Timeshaker after the synopsis had been distributed within their circles. There’s been one trailer released for it, too, and the response has been bigger and more well-received than any of them had predicted. “I don’t want to be too optimistic, but. I hope so.”

“It’s just,” Taehyung says, folding his clothes unnecessarily where he’d tossed them into his suitcase without a second glance back in Oregon. “I just had that thought, today, we’re in such a small world onset and this story is going to be released all over the world. Suddenly it’s not so small. Not just you and me.”

“Still just you and me, in this room,” Jeongguk says. “And if we both decide to stick around, it can still just be you and me.”

“Yeah,” Taehyung says, smiling to himself. Jeongguk says it with a conviction that he doesn’t think he has, but Taehyung hears it, and jumps when he feels arms come up around his waist and his back being pulled into the warmth of Jeongguk’s chest. “Hey.” Taehyung brings a hand up to curl his fingers gently around Jeongguk’s forearm, gives a little wiggle when he doesn’t reply and only stands there. His forehead is pressed to the back of Taehyung’s head. “Jeongguk?”

“We’ll see each other again at the premieres.”

It sounds like he’s trying to convince himself more than Taehyung.

 

“Yes, of course,” Taehyung says. “And by that time I’ll be able to make toasts with champagne.”

“Not until December.”

“Shh. No one needs to know that.”

Jeongguk doesn’t speak up again, but he does allow Taehyung to turn around in his arms, wrap his arms around his neck, pulls them down to fall back onto the bed. It creaks when Taehyung lands.

“It’s almost 2016,” Taehyung murmurs. “We’ve known each other for a year now.”

A year. It’s flown by, and Jeongguk today looks like a different person from the one that had appeared in the doorway that first day in the studio, watching Taehyung chipmunk his cheeks with wheat thins. Jeongguk’s 18th birthday had been celebrated right onset, with Marion and Ruben smearing cream on his cheeks and Taehyung volunteering as tribute to lick it off, ew, I got some makeup in that bite.

“I know,” Jeongguk says, and Taehyung’s eyes flutter when he feels Jeongguk’s hands sliding under him. “One of the best of my life.”

“Aw,” Taehyung says. “Really?”

“You say that like it’s some surprise,” Jeongguk says, rolling his eyes, and he silences whatever stupid excuse Taehyung might try to make up by kissing him.

There’s no rain in Los Angeles, even at end of November’s life, to hide the sounds of their mouths meeting again and again, and the breaths between them are loud and desperate in their chests. The box of condoms is crushed from being jammed unceremoniously into Taehyung’s suitcase, but they’re still good when he manages to unearth them.

“You,” he says, dropping a packet into Jeongguk’s hand and curling his fingers around it, kisses the surprise off of his mouth. “I want you, tonight.”

“Really? You’re sure?”

“Go slow,” Taehyung whispers, kissing Jeongguk once more before he’s being rolled onto his back.

And Jeongguk does, maddeningly so; he counts Taehyung’s ribs with his lips and only laughs when Taehyung squirms, ticklish. “I thought you forgot about that,” he complains, the last word getting tangled in a moan when Jeongguk hooks his fingers inside him slightly. “Oh, fuck, Jeongguk—yes—”

“How could I forget that,” Jeongguk murmurs, and Taehyung’s heart swells so much that he can only answer him with kisses.

Taehyung chokes on his cries when Jeongguk finally gets inside him. There is barely contained restraint in Jeongguk’s body, not so much in his muscles, but Taehyung laughs breathlessly. “Don’t come on me so soon,” he teases, and is almost in love with the blush that blooms in Jeongguk’s cheeks.

“I won’t.”

But neither of them are able to last long anyway. Taehyung is so sensitive, shivery all over today, whimpering when Jeongguk licks at his mouth for more kisses. When Jeongguk hitches his legs higher up over his waist, he hits something inside him that makes Taehyung’s body seize as he comes between them.

“Fuck,” Jeongguk bites out, gasping into Taehyung’s shoulder, slipping a little along the bedsheets. Taehyung holds him, even with his back slick with sweat, until the tremors are gone.

“Jeongguk,” he says, something heavy on his tongue and his chest, and it’s not just the deadweight of Jeongguk’s body.

“Yeah?”

“I’m so glad you were my costar,” Taehyung says, and closes his eyes. Jeongguk squirms when his eyelashes kiss his shoulder. “My first costar.”

Jeongguk is the first on many of Taehyung’s lists. He doesn’t mention what other ones he’s on, just yet.

 

And, all too quickly, principal photography comes to an end.

Jeongguk and Taehyung are suited up in costume one more time on the last day, and they give Ferdinand, and Jen, and the rest of the makeup team hugs. Jeongguk is not the only one Taehyung finds that he’ll genuinely miss; he’s going to miss Jen’s head of blue corkscrew curls and their Medusa piercing and their personality that seems entirely too big for their body, and Ferdinand’s trademark parrot-squawk laugh.

“It’s been a pleasure working with you and your exceptionally handsome nose,” Ferdinand says, very seriously, and Taehyung guffaws. “I mean it! This movie is going to be a game changer. I know it.”

“All right,” Taehyung says, as he and Jeongguk get into position in the fake half-car. “You ready?”

Jeongguk takes Taehyung’s outstretched hand. “Ready.”

DUSK
Will you remember me, keep me in a dusty corner in the attic of your heart, and smile when you find our story years and years from now?

AETERNO
Yes. Of course. Now and forever.

In a movie about time, this funny thing called time races by them. Three, four takes later, and half a day of work has gone by. After their fifth take, Pia straightens up from behind the camera with a glittering smile, a nod, and says, “Guys—that’s a wrap!”

Taehyung throws himself into Jeongguk’s arms for a hug that lasts so long that Marion tells him, dryly, that his turn was up ten minutes ago. Wind, reel, and print. It’s the end of this story, but only the beginning of another.

✩✩

Without the rush of filming, makeup, hair, rinse and repeat every morning, Jeongguk returns to his quiet life in Los Angeles to finish up his last year of high school and graduate.

That’s the highlight of his year while The Timeshaker is in post-production, he supposes. It is nothing short of disorienting when, in the summer of 2017, movie posters for the film start appearing the hallways of Cinemark Theaters and trailers begin playing as the ads before YouTube videos. The posters are sweet, whimsical; he and Taehyung sit on opposite ends of an hourglass, tilted like a seesaw, with Taehyung on the lower end, the one with more sand. They’re blowing bubbles that meet in the middle. He can’t even look up and watch History of Japan for the nth time without seeing his own damn face and, Jesus Christ, did he really look at Taehyung like that during filming?

hey, says Taehyung a week before Jeongguk’s graduation. It’s four in the morning, and Jeongguk is awake from sleeping the day away after grad night in Disneyland. i was just looking up a video on youtube on incognito so the ads got through, and i saw our trailer!!!

Jeongguk rolls over to free his hands.

i know, he says. it looks good. i’m excited for the premiere.

me too! The grey typing bubble pops in and out of existence indecisively before turning into a, i’m excited to go to them with you.

The smile that comes over Jeongguk’s face is the brightest thing in his room.

i’m not. we have to watch everyone watch us have sex onscreen. does that excite you?

okay, maybe not that part. but i’m excited to see you again!!! arrest me.

But Jeongguk is, too. Time has rushed by in uneven dollops, like the gulp-gulp of paint being poured out of a full can. He wonders what Taehyung has done in his time off set—“finish what I can of my degree, I guess,” had been the answer when Jeongguk had asked some eleven months earlier during the last week onset. “Take time off to remember what it’s like to be a normal civilian. It’s nice and quiet in the countryside with my kitchen full of foals.” Jeongguk had snorted.

Throughout the year Taehyung had made a point to send him pictures of his hometown, a decidedly bizarre hybrid of the city and the countryside; some evenings Jeongguk’s phone would buzz with a Snapchat of Taehyung holding a Starbucks drink with Tayhung written on his cup, captioned tfw you forget to tell the barista your Easy American Name. Other days it would be a video of a tiny chick sitting atop the crown of Taehyung’s head, cheeping triumphantly from its throne.

two weeks from now and opening night at the chinese theater, Jeongguk says. i guess i should go dig out my suit from senior prom, huh?

christ thanks for reminding me. i don’t even know where mine is. Jeongguk scratches his nose as Taehyung keeps on typing. can you fucking believe it? tcl chinese theater on the hollywood walk of fame. this is real. it’s going to happen.

just barely, says Jeongguk. i can barely fucking believe it.

 

Taehyung is tanner, skin warm and sunbaked, when Jeongguk meets him again. His hair, too, is lighter.

“Sunbleaching,” Taehyung says. Jeongguk hugs him and he pulls away gripping Jeongguk’s arms. “Working out again, are we? Jesus. That was like hugging marble.”

“Shut up,” Jeongguk says, and Taehyung laughs when he goes in for a hug again. He smells good, like he’d dashed off cologne right before getting here, and gives him a rock back and forth.

“It’s good to see you again.” Taehyung squeezes him hard around the middle. “You grew. You look older.” He pulls back again to at Jeongguk’s face. “You look great.”

“Glad to hear I’m aging gracefully.” Jeongguk doesn’t feel all that much taller, but he and Taehyung do see eye-to-eye now. Maybe it’s the way his hair has been gelled out of his face, standing in a slick coif, that adds to his illusion of height. “You ready for this?”

“Been practicing my smile and wave for a month.”

Jeongguk understands what he means when the cameras and press and dozens and dozens of limos start showing up. This is the first time he’ll ever do this, and Taehyung stands by him and says, “Back straight. One hand in your pocket. Shoulders back, feet shoulder length apart. Smile.”

Celebrities that Jeongguk has only ever seen in magazine and on tabloids come up to him to shake his hand, some of them he barely recognizes. He sees Pia being interviewed in front a camera a distance away, wearing glittering oil-slick mermaid gown with cascade earrings that fall to her shoulders. Pride swells in his chest for her, despite how hard she’d pushed him. There she stands, unapologetic for the story she’s told.

“Hey, hotshot.”

Marion is nearly unrecognizable without her wavy silvery hair, dyed black and cut into a bob that just barely brushes her shoulders. She offers her arm, and Jeongguk reaches around her body to wrap a hand around her waist. The flash of cameras is starting to sting his eyes, so he’s thankful for the moments he can look away from the line on the other side of the stanchion dividers, with panels of the movie poster in lieu of ropes.

“What’ve you been up to for the last year?” he asks, and she gives him that mysterious smile that he does recognize.

“Living fast, dying young,” she says. “Saw your graduation photos online. Little boy not so little now, huh?” She gives him a once-over. “You’re bigger now.”

“Taehyung said the same thing.”

“He’s right,” she says. “He’s right about a lot of things. Samira Wiley is behind me and she’s going to come say hi to you, do not say anything stupid.”

“Wha—?” That has to have been the longest sentence she’s ever uttered to him in one breath. And she’s not kidding: the actress from Orange is the New Black is some six paces away in a flowing golden gown that trails out behind her.

But Marion is pulling away from him already to hug one of the producers, who, if Jeongguk remembers correctly, has a new baby. When he turns, Samira is standing in front of him and extending her hand.

“Hi,” he says, the word coming naturally, as nervous as he is. She is more petite than Jeongguk would have imagined, but her smile no less enchanting. “It’s amazing to be able to meet you!”

Jeongguk discovers he’s not all too terrible at this, even if it takes some practice to get the hang of. Smile, shake hands, thank them for coming, and tell them he hopes they enjoy the movie. He makes his rounds meeting the crew of the movie again, and Pia doesn’t even let him say hi before he’s hugging him and pulling him back by the elbows in a way that reminds him of his mother.

“Talented, talented Jeongguk,” she says, and her earrings catch the glaring light of the red carpet when she shakes her head. “You already look so different from the boy that first walked onset.”

“You have to be at least the tenth person who’s said that tonight.”

“Then they have good eyes,” she says. “You have confidence in your shoulders now. You hold your head up. Are you ready to show the world what we’ve made?”

“Ready.”

“There you are,” Taehyung says, finding Jeongguk again in the theater. “I wanted to sit next to you.”

“Are your parents here?”

“Yep,” says Taehyung. “Even though I told them that they really don’t want to see their son have sex for five and a half minutes onscreen.”

“Fuck,” Jeongguk laughs. “I said the same. My brother is here, too. I won’t be able to look him in the face for a week.”

This will be the first time that Taehyung and Jeongguk ever see the movie in its entirety, with graphic and sound editing. From the beginning until now, the movie has only ever been a series of unbroken shots, with no music and green screens in nearly every single scene. Jeongguk is curious to know what he sounded like, in the end, to Yoongi. He’s curious to know what this story sounded like to him.

“For some reason,” Taehyung says, as the lights dim and the audience whoops in anticipation, “I’m just as nervous for this as I used to be going onstage for a live play.”

“Makes two of us,” Jeongguk says. “Definitely two of us.”

He doesn’t know what he expected, sitting down in the TCL Chinese Theater to watch a movie he and Taehyung made together. It certainly wasn’t this, a story so real that in some parts he forget he’s watching himself onscreen. Other parts are harder to watch, and he chuckles when Taehyung turns his face away from the screen for a second. And, towards the end, the theater is so hushed and quiet that the thud of his own heartbeat is the loudest thing in the room.

There is one moment that hits his heart, one where he hears a rogue sniffle here and there, when Aeterno learns that Dusk never even made it to the new home they’d moved to for his own safety. Nobody budges until the scene has faded completely to black, and the tiny white letters Directed by Pia Ly appear across the screen, and a rumble of chatter comes to life inside the theater.

“Holy shit,” Taehyung says. “That didn’t even feel like that was the same movie we filmed. Did it?”

Jeongguk swallows, emotions stuck in his throat, and simply shakes his head.

Taehyung is the one to hug him first this time, and this time, he doesn’t let go first.

“What a journey,” he says, sounding close to what must be happy tears. “What a journey, my Timeshaker.”

 

From that moment on, Jeongguk’s life accelerates at full tilt. From the first premiere to the last is a span of two, maybe three months, flying all over the world to sit in at premieres in South Korea, France, Canada. He learns to live out of his suitcase and off travel sizes of everything, and his stomach gets used to eating different cuisine for every meal. September first happens to him in Japan, and Taehyung is the one who surprises him first with ichigo daifuku that he bought along the street by their hostel. “I couldn’t find any candles, let alone nineteen,” he says, as if Jeongguk would even complain. “Happy birthday!”

He doesn’t hate it, necessarily. It’s simply a very different lifestyle he imagined himself having.

“What lifestyle did you imagine for yourself?”

Taehyung is lying in his own bed, hair damp from his shower, staring intensely at something on his phone. They haven’t touched each other in any way that is even vaguely reminiscent of the things they did onset or offset during the filming of their movie. Something itches in Jeongguk’s fingers to—do something, he doesn’t know what. Reach over the gap between their bed on the floor and take Taehyung’s hand, or trail his fingers down his arm, exposed in the wide mouth of his yukata sleeve. Anything that will ease the weight in Jeongguk’s chest, a kind of deep, heartrending one that’s coupled with spikes of adrenaline. But this is constant, a perpetual vice around his lungs, like he can’t get enough air around Taehyung but can’t seem to breathe without him.

“A quiet one, I guess.” The ceiling is illuminated by the yellow lamplight outside, and Jeongguk lies back on his own bed with his hands pillowed behind his head, the soft yukata warm and cozy around him post shower. “Not one where I wake up in the morning and have to remember which country I’m in.”

“You make it sound like you got into international arms dealing.”

“Oh, now that sounds badass,” Jeongguk says. “But it’s not a bad lifestyle. It led me to you.”

“You flatter me,” Taehyung says, fluttering a hand over his heart. Jeongguk throws a balled-up tissue at him and he laughs, swatting it away. “But I know. I know. There’s no one else I’d rather be globe-trotting with than you.”

And trot the globe they do, for the wrap-up of international premieres does not mean rest—no, it means award season, and The Timeshaker has raked in no shortage of nominations. First the Screen Actors Guild nominations come, with invitations, then the Golden Globes; Pia even gets a nod from the Director’s Guild of America. The surrealism of this all doesn’t truly hit Jeongguk until he turns on his laptop one sunny morning, back in Los Angeles, and sees that Taehyung is nominated for Best Actor at the 89th Academy Awards.

can you fucking believe it? is the only thing in Jeongguk’s texts.

absolutely, he replies.

But the film industry is not as kind as anyone would like, even though their movie grosses over eight hundred million dollars worldwide, blowing the roofs off of all their expectations. The Timeshaker receives four Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Original Score. It wins only wins one, and it isn’t Best Actor. If Taehyung is disappointed, Jeongguk cannot tell—they are standing and cheering too hard for the director that led them through it all, and she herself seems to be holding back a flood of tears as the golden statuette is presented to her.

“To my amazing cast, Jeongguk and Taehyung, Marion and Ruben, and the whole team,” she says, wrapping her speech neatly with satin ribbon, “none of this would’ve been possible without you, and is as much an award to everyone who’s been a part of this endeavor as it is for me.”

Jeongguk turns to Taehyung, and—yeah. Yeah, it’s true. What an adventure it’s been, my Timeshaker.

 

In the fading heat of award season, Taehyung is whisked away by Lionsgate to do a movie that Jeongguk isn’t privy to the details of. He signs onto the role quickly, promising to tell him all that he can about it, and in the next month Jeongguk is left in Los Angeles with the glamor of Hollywood and a quiet, quiet phone. Not quiet for long, but his lockscreen doesn’t feel quite whole without texts from Taehyung to the effect of in loving memory of andrew garfield...he’s not dead, he’s just not playing spiderman in the third avengers movie and a slew of Andrew Garfield photos.

So Jeongguk does what he’s best at: throw himself into his work.

Casting directors start asking for him, only to be shocked that his main and only contact is, well, himself—so the next logical step is to pick up an agent. He goes by the name of Kirk, a lanky man just taller than him who seems to have nothing else in his wardrobe except black dress shirts and pants. “Did you work at Olive Garden or something?” is the second thing Jeongguk ever says to him, after “Oh my God, I’m so sorry, I thought you were a waiter.” He’s lucky Kirk finds this funny. By the end of that week Kirk manages to amass and organize a deluge of breakdowns from studios looking for actors for their upcoming projects, and he points to one of them on a list of titles.

“Young God,” he says, eating three Pocky at once. “Paramount. I’m partial to this one, it sounds like it would fit you. Different enough from your last role as Dusk, but not so drastic that the change will be jarring to the audience.”

“Hmm.”Jeongguk turns the paper over, but there aren’t any more details. “What’s it about?”

“A story about an alien who was sent to Earth, disguised as a human,” says Kirk. “The princess of her planet who left her home to judge whether or not Earth should be saved or destroyed.”

“Where do I come in?”

“Her initial judgment was that it should be destroyed.” The plastic Pocky wrapper crackles as Kirk ties it up in knots, balling it smaller and smaller. “She sees the horrible destruction of the environment and the grievances committed against humanity—war, violence, death. People shun her for looking different in some nations and laugh at her struggle with their language in others. At first it seems obvious that Earth is hell reborn, and not worth the trouble. Until she meets your character, and in unlikely ways, he gives her a reason to believe that the world should be saved.”

“I see.” Jeongguk opens his own pack of biscuit sticks. “I like the sound of it.”

“I can email you all the details of the other ones if you want to have a look, but I don’t know if any of them would interest you or really fit you right now.”

“I want to see,” says Jeongguk. “Even though I’ll end up listening to you anyway.”

“Obviously,” says Kirk, taking the breakdown sheet and folding it up neatly. “I know when I’m right.”

 

In the end, filming for Young God begins in April, and Jeongguk has the pleasure of meeting Lee Halla, the girl who plays the princess. She’s so slight he almost misses her the first time she’s onset, her curtain of dark hair blending her into the night. There’s a CLIF bar in her hand when she turns around, and he wonders if he’s going to go through his life meeting his costars mid-snack for the rest of his career.

“Jeon Jeongguk!” she says, when she catches sight of him. “They said you weren’t going to be onset until later. Really, really nice to be able to meet you!”

It really is a pleasure to work with Halla, actually. She has the same brand of bubbly cheerfulness and the unapologetic quirkiness that reminds him of Taehyung, though this time around, he’s the seasoned veteran and she’s the newcomer. It’s a reversal of roles that Jeongguk knew would have eventually come, but it’s still strange that it’s now his job to stop her during blocking and remind her posture is unnatural, or that she’s talking at him, and not to his character.

“Sorry, sorry,” she says, frustrated. “Okay, from the top.”

“You’re doing good,” he says. “And I don’t pretend to be expert on this, you don’t need to feel like I’m going to get impatient with you.”

“Thank you,” she says. There’s genuine relief in her voice, however small. “Was it this stressful for you for Timeshaker?”

“At first,” Jeongguk says. Halla has her hair done up roughly in the intricate hairstyle of alien royalty, which incorporates a heavy, elaborate headdress, that her character wears when she first lands on this planet. It reminds him of the one that Padme wears in the Star Wars franchise, and she’d stood in front of a body-length mirror just laughing at how completely out of this world it looked. “I had a great costar.”

“Taehyung, right?” she says, scratching her temple with the corner of her script packet. “Yeah, you guys looked amazing onscreen together. He taught you all this?”

“I really didn’t know what I was doing,” Jeongguk says. “Pia saw something in me, as frustrated as she got with me on set, sometimes. She kept pushing me, for some reason. And there was Taehyung. Somehow I became what both of them dreamed I could be.” He shrugs, realizing that he’s doing the thing that Pia kept chastising him for. Talking too much! he can still hear. “Sorry, that’s more than you need to know.”

“No, no, I like hearing this stuff!” Halla says, the gems of her headdress swinging back and forth when she shakes her head. “It’s really fascinating for me to listen to actors talk about their costars and how they create a movie together.” She elbows him in the ribs, and he makes a wounded noises. “I’m trying to do that with you, right? You gotta let me know how you think.”

Jeongguk snorts.

And, as if Taehyung had heard him from around the world, Jeongguk picks up his phone that evening to see a text on his lockscreen from him.

look at this!!! northern lights!!!

Jeongguk raises his eyebrows.

holy fuck, where are you?

scandinavia! Taehyung says. we’re filming out here~ it’s really cold. it started snowing and i suddenly remembered that night we were filming in the cascades in oregon. do you remember?

A smile that only Jeongguk knows rises to his mouth. how could i forget, he replies. can you tell me what your project is called now?

mmm. do you promise to keep your mouth shut?

i guess so?

well i guess you’re not finding out until you can!

okay, i promise! i promise.

Taehyung is typing for a few moments, even though the project title can’t possibly be that long. Then, point blanc.

oooh, sounds fancy. i’d expect you to be in france instead though. lol

we were there last week! says Taehyung. i got you something. it really reminded me of you and i was like omg i gotta get that for him! but i didn’t have any euros on me so i had to use some of my costar’s haha, i still owe her.

Jeongguk’s heart seizes in his chest and heat spreads up to his cheeks and down to his toes. Kirk doesn’t seem to notice him fidgeting in shotgun beside him, and Jeongguk is grateful for the blessing of darkness.

you’ll have to give it to me when you get back then.

yesss! i’ll tell you everything about it when we wrap up pp and after we both get back to la. you have to tell me about what you’ve been doing too! young god? hehe heard about it through the grapevine don’t get mad~ work hard!!

The words that Jeongguk’s thumbs type out really don’t go through the filter first. They come out as though they need to be said, regardless of what he wishes, and he’s hit send before he can really think it through.

miss you

But, thankfully, Jeongguk has chosen the one of the few people in the world that won’t think too much of it, unafraid to leave bits of his heart in other people’s hands.

me too, wherever you are, i miss you too!

 

Alfonso has a very different style of directing as compared to Pia; he’s more hands off and his presence is quieter, asking them to develop the relationship that they think a human and an alien would have—a human that an alien queen stopped the destruction of the entire world for.

“What’s that mean,” Halla asks, pointing at a line of three Ts in his character study notes. “Sorry, I was looking at your notes to get an idea of what you write in them.”

“Oh, this? Yeah, don’t worry about it, it’s for ‘trust trust trust.’ Pia said it all the time to me, for it to look convincing between two character, you have to trust your costar, so right around here,” he traces an arrow with his pencil to a mishmash of barely legible notes in the corner of the page, “the scene where Miremel first helps August, he starts to trust her. That’s where actor trust and character trust start becoming one, I think. So we want to show that.”

“Okay. Okay, let’s make that work.”

It’s after one particularly grueling night where he and Halla had to film in a pool made to look like ocean water, when Jeongguk is collapsing in his room back at home, that he takes out his phone and finds that there’s only one person whose company he wants right now.

is it still snowing in scandinavia?

Jeongguk doesn’t know what time it is, where Taehyung is in the world, but he replies to it like he’d been waiting for him.

we’re in new york! but it’s snowing here too.

The time on Jeongguk’s clock reads 12:02 AM.

why are you awake?!

we have to be in makeup in an hour, Taehyung says. so we’re getting breakfast!

we?

my costar and i, say hi~

Taehyung sends a selfie of himself doing one of his trademark toothy smile-frowns, just barely visible over a plaid scarf, a baseball cap pulled low over his eyes. His costar is pretty, with an asymmetrical bob, and she’s making a face at the camera like she is Not Pleased to have her picture taken at three in the AM. Her spoon is halfway out of her mouth where she’s eating out of a breakfast fruit cup.

HAHA she does not look amused about this, what’s her name?

risa! and yeah, she threw her spoon at me after i took this...unkind...i’m just a poor meme farmer tending to my meme crops...

Jeongguk is about to send a crylaughing emoji when Taehyung texts again.

principal photography is over next month for me, he says. you want to meet in la again, have lunch?

His thumbs are poised over his keyboard. Of course. Of course Jeongguk wants to get lunch with Taehyung again, but he had thought he would have more time to work out the tangled mess of knots in his chest, the feeling never quite subsiding, getting only worse as time passes. The calendar year is already hurtling to a close, and award season is due to begin again. Jeongguk has been getting invites in the mail to them, even though he’s not nominated for anything this year—once in the circle, always in the circle, it seems.

And it means he’ll have to see Taehyung again whether or not he’s ready.

So, do you even need to ask?

just making sure! Jeongguk can hear the laugh in his words, even as his eyes are drooping. you’re a busybody now too, my timeshaker.

But Jeongguk is already asleep, dreaming of a someday that he doesn’t even know he wants.

 

Okay, it’s December, and Jeongguk decides that he’s going to start off his new year, a fresh twenty year old, with the first new year’s resolution of his life. In 2018, he decides he is going to be more honest with himself. Step one, confront his feelings about Taehyung.

Failed step one.

So, as he comes to understand, there’s a reason why he and so many other people like him are terrified of facing these feelings. The second he allows himself to really consider the gravity of them, they seem to magnify tenfold. It becomes increasingly obvious that what he feels for Taehyung isn’t a lingering side-effect of the chemistry that their characters had onscreen. He had hoped, so to speak, that that was all it had been, a yearning romance created in the tightly controlled bubble of a film. On the one hand he’s scared to know that it isn’t, that it’s a much deeper, more complex part of himself that he’s ignored for the better part of two years to focus on his career.

But on the other, it makes him happy—as strange as it sounds, carrying such a heavy burden in his heart. It glows in his chest and spreads to all his bones. It’s soft and warm, and he knows that it can turn on him and tear him open with teeth and claws, and yet he still cannot say he hates it.

Love is a strange thing. Love is a gun loaded with kisses for bullets.

 

Taehyung’s hair is a shade of midnight black, a shock against his skin that’s paler than Jeongguk ever remembers it being.

“It happens when you run around in a Nordic country for the whole winter,” Taehyung says. “Nice haircut.”

“Don’t,” Jeongguk says, rubbing his hand against the undercut along the sides of his head. “I had to do it for my role.”

“I just said nice haircut,” Taehyung says blandly, but Jeongguk can smell the laugh on the backs of his words already. “Okay, it took me a second to recognize you, but you literally stared at me blankly too!”

There’s a better reason for staring at Taehyung blankly aside from his new hair color, but Jeongguk isn’t about to say why, not just yet. The restaurant is loud, bustling, enough so that Taehyung can’t hear the crinkle of the decorative plastic wrap that holds the bouquet of flowers under the table when Jeongguk pulls his chair in comfortably and his foot kicks it by accident.

Flowers. It’s really not Jeongguk’s thing, but it’s Taehyung’s, he knows. He can picture the light in Taehyung’s eyes, regardless of what his answer is. The last time Jeongguk had bought a flower product for anyone was his senior prom date, and that was just her corsage, so really, this is arguably the first time he’s ever gotten anyone except his mom flowers. He’d felt like an idiot, and is thoroughly convinced he’d looked like one too. The florist inside had nearly fainted behind the counter when he’d looked up, midway through his greeting, and seen Jeongguk looking out of place as the door swung shut with a cheerful jingle. There had been too many arrangements to choose from, but Jeongguk had gone with something—something small, something that wouldn’t feel like he couldn’t swallow if it was going to be a no.

“Can, I, uhm,” the florist had said, not looking him in the face as Jeongguk paid, “have your autograph?”

This is something that Jeongguk still needs to get used to, for sure. “Oh, uh, yeah, sure,” he’d replied, signing the florist’s business card before taking his bouquet of yellow roses with him. They’d been loud against his black clothing, an insistent pop of color against the grey ramshackle of the downtown backstreets.

“So,” Taehyung says. He laces his fingers together and holds them out flat, resting his chin on the bridge they create. “I saw the first poster for Young God coming here today.”

“Shit, where? I haven’t even had a chance to see the design yet. Look any good?”

“Hmm, not as cute as ours,” Taehyung says, then laughs. “Okay, I’m just being mean. It’s lovely.”

“What’s it like?”

“Here, I took a picture,” Taehyung says, fumbling for his phone. He taps the screen a few times, then holds it out. The lighting is mediocre, and it’s taken from the panel on the side of a bus stop, so the glass screen is dirty with city grime.

“Oh, I love it,” says Jeongguk. Half of his face takes up one side, and half of Halla’s on the other with her in full alien princess makeup. Where she’s looking down with ghost of a frown on her lips, he’s looking skyward, half-smiling, with hope. The backs of their figures, walking side by side, are pictured between them. “It came out better than I imagined.”

“I’m excited to see it,” Taehyung says. “Invite me to the premiere if I’m not otherwise?”

A text banner comes in on Taehyung’s phone, from a Risa Oshiro. Risa. His costar, Jeongguk remembers, the name jogging a memory in his head. oh, have fun! ^^v it says.

“You got a text.”

“Oh, from who?” Taehyung says, reaching out as Jeongguk hands his phone back.

“Risa? Your costar, right?”

“Ah, yeah!” Taehyung says. “Oh, I told her I was getting lunch with you.”

“You told her about me?”

“What a ridiculous question,” Taehyung mutters, locking his phone and setting it aside by the salt and pepper shakers. “Yes, you cotton-headed ninny muffin. I obviously was going to tell her about my best friend and first costar.”

“Cotton-head ninny—”

But Jeongguk’s mock outrage is interrupted by the waitress bringing them their drinks, a midori sour on the rocks for Taehyung and, tragically, still a mango iced tea for Jeongguk. He turns to focus on the part he liked.

“Best friend?”

“Jesus, you sound so shocked about all of this, like it’s new,” Taehyung says, smacking his lips after he takes a long sip from his drink. “Yes. My best friend. I’ve been looking forward to seeing you since I got back to the US.”

“It feels like,” Jeongguk says. “Like no time has passed at all, and yet it’s passed so slow.”

“I know,” Taehyung murmurs. “I just remember you as a seventeen year old, somehow. Unsure of yourself. You walked in here today and I could hardly recognize you, and not just because of your hair.”

“Yeah? How so?”

“You just look different,” Taehyung says, stirring his drink with the mini paper parasol. “You filled out. You grew up, not just in height or anything. There’s a maturity in your eyes that wasn’t there before. You don’t smile as much, either.”

“Oh,” Jeongguk frowns. “Should I fix that?”

“No, no,” Taehyung says, waving. “It’s kind of hot.”

“Oh,” Jeongguk repeats. “Thank you.”

“Wait, that reminds me!” Taehyung reaches around for his jacket, and Jeongguk has no idea how any part of this conversation so far would have reminded of Taehyung of what he holds out to him. “Your souvenir,” he says, when Jeongguk looks blankly at the tiny package in his palm, tissue paper tied neatly with a ribbon. “From France, remember?”

“Oh!” Jeongguk says. “Right.”

It’s a macaron, or, well, “It’s lip balm!” Taehyung takes it from him, and unscrews it, and there’s a little pink well of glossy balm inside. “Because your lips are always chapped. I noticed that.”

“Thank you,” Jeongguk says. “Yeah, they are.” It smells nice, like strawberries.

“And I know you like those scents, and all,” Taehyung says. “I thought of that time we ate that ichigo daifuku in Tokyo, for our screening, and you said you liked strawberries, too.”

“I do,” Jeongguk says, swiping the pad of his index finger over the smooth surface and running it over his lower lip. “Thanks for thinking of me.”

“Of course,” Taehyung says, as Jeongguk screws it shut. He swallows, drawing circles with his thumb over the lid. Okay. Okay. His heart jumps up in his chest when he thinks of what he wanted to say today, and he swallows again.

Okay.

“I have something to tell you.”

“Oh, okay,” Taehyung says, shifting in his chair and resting his chin on his hands again. “I have something to tell you, too, actually.”

“Okay, you first then,” Jeongguk says. He needs a minute. One more minute.

Taehyung smiles, brings his hands down to rest on the table, and leans forward a little. “I,” he says, “got a girlfriend.”

What?

Jeongguk’s heart seems to stop beating, just for a second.

What?

“Oh,” his mouth says, for him. “You did?”

“I did!” Taehyung says, looking so happy that he’s fit to burst. “Risa—you know—my costar! It was really natural, and it happened onset, and it was—it was right, somehow. We fell into it. I fell into it, and before we knew, we were getting breakfast at three AM, an hour before makeup in New York City.”

“You guys were dating already,” Jeongguk says, and he hopes his voice doesn’t sound as hollow as he suddenly feels. “When you sent me that selfie?”

“Mhm,” Taehyung says. “Two days before I sent it.”

“That’s great!” Jeongguk says. Holds love to his temple, pulls the trigger, feels the softest kiss that Taehyung had left there two years before. It hurts. It hurts. “I’m so happy for you!”

He’s not.

“Thank you,” Taehyung says, and Jeongguk falls in love, more, with the way that Taehyung cups his own cheeks and laughs with embarrassment. “God, I was really nervous to tell you, I don’t know why—but I’m glad I got it off my chest? I’m really glad you’re here. I don’t know. Does that make sense?”

No. No, it doesn’t.

“What were you going to tell me?”

I love you. I love you. I think I’ve loved you from the time we were onset together, from the moment you took my hands, as we told yet another story about star-crossed lovers, as if there aren’t enough of those already. There was never time I didn’t love you. Only a time that I didn’t know I loved you.

“Jeongguk?”

“Never mind,” Jeongguk says, and this time he doesn’t take care where he puts his feet under the table. A rose calyx crunches under the sole of his shoe and he doesn’t even flinch. “It’s okay. It’s not that important.”

“What? But you took a huge breath and got all ‘I have to tell you something’ on me, it had to be important.”

“Nah, nah.” Jeongguk waves his hand. “Don’t worry about it.”

“Are you sure?”

“Absolutely.”

Their food comes, and Jeongguk is glad to have something to occupy his mouth with. Taehyung chatters on, not sensing anything amiss, and Jeongguk is tempted to pat himself on the back for how good his acting has gotten. If Taehyung suspects anything, anything at all, he doesn’t show it. Jeongguk nods in the right places and plugs in laughs where he knows he should, and all the while he ignores the crushing feeling in the center of his chest. Gone is the soft glow, replaced with a slow, dull ache that throbs every time his heart beats.

“I have to take off early,” Taehyung says when their forks and knifes scrape the bottoms of their plates. “I wanted to stay for dessert, but there’s another press event I have to get to, and—”

“Of course,” Jeongguk says. “I have one later this evening, too.”

Taehyung searches his face, and for a fleeting second Jeongguk thinks he catches a glimpse of that fierce longing in his eyes that he used to have. “Is everything okay?” he asks, suddenly.

“What?” Jeongguk unfolds his napkin to wipe his mouth with. “Why wouldn’t it be?”

“You had this look, sometimes,” Taehyung says. His body is coiled in a way like he wants to reach for Jeongguk’s hand, and doesn’t know if they’re young and reckless enough to do it anymore. “You still do. It’s one you have when I know you’re thinking about something, and you’re not saying it.”

“That’s just my face,” Jeongguk says. He know exactly which look it is. He sees it in Taehyung’s face, too.

“Okay,” Taehyung says, signing the receipt when the waitress hands him back the checkbook, tucking his credit card back into his wallet. “I’m so happy I got to see you today.”

“Yes. Of course.”

And Taehyung can’t seem to resist, even as he’s shrugging his jacket on.

“Now and forever?”

Jeongguk laughs, in spite of himself. This one is genuine. Just as Taehyung is leaving, Jeongguk’s hand stretches across the widening chasm between them and catches his wrist.

“Oh,” Taehyung says, looking back with surprise. “Yeah?”

“Are you happy?”

The smile that breaks over Taehyung’s face breaks his heart.

“Yes!”

✩✩

Young God is snubbed at the Oscars, which is sad, because Taehyung really likes it. From what Jeongguk tells him, this is his costar’s breakout role.

“Fucked up, right?” Jeongguk says, swilling his champagne flute slowly, watching the row of actors and crewmembers and producers getting their statuettes engraved. “She was saying something about how she wasn’t sure the silver screen was what she wanted to do, though. She picked up a role in TV the other day. I think it’s going to be broadcast through NBC.”

“I thought with the number of Golden Globe nominations it got, it would at least be nominated here,” Taehyung says. “Guess not.”

“It’s okay,” says Jeongguk, tipping his flute back and draining it of its contents. “Jesus. One more year of this bullshit and I can drink actual alcohol. And, besides, it’s not so bad since I wasn’t nominated for anything. I’m more sorry to you.”

Taehyung scoffs. “Please. We knew that I wasn’t going to stand a chance against Eddie Redmayne. The Academy is practically glued to his dick.”

At this, Jeongguk laughs aloud. Recently, his smiles have gotten even rarer and his laughter is practically legend, so at least three or four people around them turn to stare at the sound. In the media Jeongguk has been dubbed icy, enigmatic. Elusive. His emotion does not sit so nakedly on his face anymore, but Taehyung likes to think he can still read him, even just a little. And, for many months now, he knows that there has to be something that Jeongguk is not telling him.

“Here babe,” Risa says, appearing out of the crowd of bodies with two champagne flutes, one in each hand. “I got completely distracted talking to Lupita Nyong’o, good Lord, she’s so gorgeous, a living Disney princess. Great to see you, Jeongguk,” she adds on, and he tips his head in greeting.

“Lupita?” Taehyung says. “I only had a chance to see her on the red carpet earlier, I wanted to congratulate her for Best Actress.”

“You want to go say hi?” she asks, draping an arm around his waist and giving it a little tug. “I think she’d love to meet you.”

“Come with?”

Jeongguk shakes his head. “I’m gonna call it a night,” he says. “Have fun, Taehyung.”

“But the governor’s ball just started!”

“I know,” Jeongguk says. “But I’ve got filming bright and early for my new project tomorrow, I don’t want to be hungover the first week onset.”

“I didn’t even get to see you that much today.”

“I don’t even get to see my mom,” Jeongguk says. “Listen, tell you what. I moved out recently. I’m in Studio City now. Let me know when you’re in the area, and you can come over.” He gives Risa a half-smile. “You both can come over.”

“Nah, I wouldn’t interrupt best friend time,” she says. “Unless you wanted me to. Doesn’t Rihanna live in Studio City?”

“Christ, now I have worry about seeing her, thanks,” Jeongguk says, and she laughs. “I don’t know, actually. But yeah, if you’re free, or anything, just give me a call.”

“But aren’t you going to be busy?”

“I know when it’s you,” Jeongguk says, patting the breast pocket where his phone must be. “Give me a call.”

 

Taehyung does not get a chance to be anywhere remotely close to Studio City, because his next project takes place almost exclusively in New York. Filming begins in the muggy heat of New England summer, and Risa sends him off with a promise that he’ll visit the rainbow bagel place and send her photos.

“What's your itinerary for the next month?” he asks, the morning he’s supposed to leave for the airport. He’s been staying at her place, in a beautiful oceanside house in San Diego. It’s amazing to live by the sea but Taehyung is unaccustomed to the tang of brine over the homey smell of dirt and soil.

“In a couple of weeks I’m supposed to fly out for filming in Fiji,” she says, rubbing her thumb up and down the back of his neck, her arms resting on his shoulders. “You take care, okay?”

“Okay.”

Not that Taehyung will be faced with any danger this time around. Where The Timeshaker had been a grand scale drama and Point Blanc had been fast-paced crime thriller, his new project, Pocketful of Sunshine, will be difficult in a way Taehyung has had the fortune of never truly understanding.

When the plane takes off, Taehyung pulls out his copy of the book that this movie will be based on, turns it over in his hands. Paperback, so it’s lighter. A hard copy, so he can mark it up with pen and post-it. The blurb is short.

My name is R.S. Goetzen. I have the privilege of having a job I love: stand-up comedy on some of the biggest stages in the world. I also have what my two-year-old niece calls The Sads, or, more professionally, major manic depression (at least, that’s what I think the doctor’s note said, you can never be too sure with their handwriting).

 

Tuesday.

It’s Tuesday. What does that mean? I had something to do. I have some things to do, places to see, people to meet. Okay, now that we’ve established that, do I have a show tonight? Maybe. Do I care? I want the answer to be yes.

Selene called last night. I love Selene. I might have mentioned that, or maybe it’s obvious by now, but I love Selene. She knows when I’ve picked up the phone. Some nights I don’t even have it in me to say hello, but when she hears the click and the stretch of static-woven silence she’ll say, “Hey, are you there? I hope you’re ready for a doozy of a story today. Fuck, I love retail.”

But as she was talking last night—the story really was interesting, but I admit my mind wandered. I was lying on my couch, face in my favorite pillow with the wine stain I forgot to launder in time, when I realized what scares me about getting better. Where my sister’s anger, as misplaced as it might be, comes from.

People ask me a lot, “Where do you find it in you to be a comedian? Where do those laughs come from?” Some deep part of me, I guess. Flowers picked from the front yard of the sad, sad place that I’ve lived in for seven years now. I think I understand what makes my knees knock and my heart race at the idea of confronting the monster in the closet, and it’s because I don’t know who I am anymore without my depression.

I can’t remember who I was. And I’m terrified to know who I’ll become without it.

“Hey. You okay?”

Leihua braces his hands on the edge of the empty stage and vaults himself up onto the surface so he sits next to Taehyung. A runaway highlighter comes to a stop against his thigh. “Sorry, I wouldn’t have bothered you if I hadn’t seen you wiping your eyes from over here, so—” He holds out a pack of Kleenex. “Uh, here.”

“Thanks.” Taehyung takes it, pulls out a tissue, even though he really doesn’t need them. “Just character study, you know, no big deal.”

Taehyung’s copy of the book is dog-eared, and Leihua reaches over to bring it into his lap.

“I was talking to Lawrence, just earlier today,” says Leihua. He runs his fingers over the raised letters of the author’s name, under the title. “He said something really interesting. I thought you might want to hear it, in case.”

“Oh,” says Taehyung. “Yeah, absolutely.”

“A lot of media nowadays is a lot about beating an external evil,” says Leihua, crossing his legs. “A corporation. A dictator. An oppressive regime. Or just a simple rival. Lawrence said he wanted to tell a story where the antagonist isn’t someone you can fight with your fists or your political influence. Neither brains nor brawn.”

Taehyung is quiet, and Leihua isn’t looking at him anymore.

“Because where do you turn when you can’t see your enemy?” Leihua says. “When it is so good at hiding that it nearly becomes a part of you? It hides behind you, in your shadow. And he said he wanted people to see this movie and be able to know, it’s okay—to not know how to defeat it alone. None of us are strong by ourselves. Only other people can see something that’s attacking us from behind.”

“Yeah,” Taehyung says, quietly, after a thick pause. “I see.”

“Listening to him is something else. Profound, even.”

“It really is.”

“Are you going to be okay?”

“I’ll be okay,” Taehyung promises. “It’s a heavy book, but I’ll be okay.”

✩✩

i’m doing a character study for my role in my new project and i came across this great passage, says Taehyung one slushy-cold New York morning. Jeongguk wonders where in the world he might be; knowing Taehyung, it doesn’t matter what time in the world it is. If his character is speaking to him, he’s listening.

tell me about it, he replies, pulling back the finger pouches of his mittens so that the tips of his thumbs are exposed to the cold.

can i send you a pic?

absolutely. is this for pocketful of sunshine?

mhm!

The photo is taken in conference room lighting, and there are annotations and post-it flags all along the sides of the pages, so Jeongguk has to zoom to read it properly.

Protip from me to you: when someone or something takes your shit away from you, consider yourself a dog.

Now, I know this sounds ridiculous. Which, I hope it does, because I collect my income by sounding ridiculous, so I hope I’m doing my job. But consider yourself a dog, and think about your friends, your mother or father, or whomever you know who has a dog—you yourself, perhaps—and imagine the times those dogs all somehow got their soft little mouths on chocolate. It was chaos, of some sort, and by the time that chocolate is wrested away from them they are kicked, notoriously puppy-eyed sad, and curl up in a corner until they think they’re forgiven again. Never and not quite knowing that there is so much pain for them in that brown niblet that seems to bring you so much joy.

So I tell myself, when the universe takes something away from me, when it never lets me have a taste of it no matter how much I yearn—I am the dog. The universe knows better. Listen to her. She must know something you don’t. She created you out of the stardust in the lines of her palms.

Some days I hear her reminders. Don’t eat the chocolate, somebody loves you. Some days, I wish I couldn’t.

wow. that’s something, huh?

right? it’s one of my favorite parts. i just, i want to put that in him, onscreen. i hope i can.

you will, says Jeongguk. i know it already.

i was curious, too Taehyung asks, i wanted to ask. what’s your chocolate?

Jeongguk blinks, lips thinning into a line. Kirk is still not here, and there are passerby in the hotel lobby giving him hushed looks and whispers now as his presence becomes more and more obvious. No one actually comes up to him, and he’s grateful for it.

You, he doesn’t say. But you could never hurt me.

 

The year of 2019 is the first in which Jeongguk is nominated for a slew of awards for Almost Blue. Between the mess of Golden Globes, SAGs, and Critics’ Choice nominations—as if he isn’t overwhelmed by the sheer volume of them already—Jeongguk receives one for the Academy Award for Best Actor.

Kirk’s text to him that morning is nothing but a mess of exclamation points and Jeongguk shoots one back of equal enthusiasm, and he scrolls down to see that Taehyung has also joined the party of congratulations—along with his mother, his girlfriend, his costar in the movie, Halla, Marion of all people, even Pia.

relax, i haven’t won it yet, he says to nearly everyone, but shoots Taehyung a congratulations to you too!!!!!!! my timeshaker!!!!

For Taehyung is, too, nominated for Best Actor for his role in Pocketful of Sunshine. Neither of them had had time to go to each other’s premieres, where Jeongguk’s had opened at Telluride and Taehyung’s at Warsaw, but Jeongguk had promised he’d go see the movie as soon as he could. But Taehyung had beaten him to it, snagging a showing of Almost Blue that very afternoon, answering him that night with a kind of bursting pride that Jeongguk could feel even over mediated electronic messaging.

you didn’t tell me you were in your first crime drama?! Taehyung had said. what an image change?? and fucking dark story, holy fuck. that was amazing!! you really pulled it off, i’m so happy you took this role.

What an image change indeed. First as Dusk, then as August, Jeongguk’s role as Arlo Blue was a departure from the shy, boyish image he’s cultivated. It had been one he’d initially been reluctant to take, but Kirk had given him a little push into it.

“I think it’ll be a good way to grow in your career,” he said, over cookies and cream Pocky. “You’re not the antagonist, exactly, but you’ll be playing someone that’s not as easy to immediately sympathize with. It’s about time, you know? What d’you say?”

So Jeongguk had sat down in a cold reading, shook the hand of his costar, and the rest was history.

Before he even finds out about his Oscar nomination, however, are the Golden Globes, and he and Taehyung are up against each other for the first time there, too. When he gives Jeongguk that familiar hug like he’s waited all his life to see him again, it is so extraordinarily hard to let go. The media loves it, to be honest; Jeongguk is sure all the entertainment news sites will have photos of them hugging in the next hour.

“Any dates tonight?” Taehyung asks.

“Not here,” Jeongguk says, and almost laughs at the look of surprise in Taehyung’s face.

“Not here? Meaning—? Wait, shut up,” he says. “Really? Who?”

“She’s a model,” Jeongguk says. “So you probably don’t know her. Met her when she was in New York for for Almost Blue, and she was there for New York Fashion Week.”

“Why the hell didn’t you bring her!” Taehyung accuses. “I want to meet her! You’ve met Risa a million times already. What’s her name?”

Jesselle Ouyang, “but don’t Google her on the red carpet, Taehyung, Jesus Christ.”

“Relax. I was going to ask you to get a selfie with me, anyway,” Taehyung says, as they step outside the field of lenses for a moment. There are so many actors on the red carpet tonight being interviewed every couple of steps, and Jeongguk nearly treads on the train of Zendaya’s gown and eats shit. “Holy shit, she’s tall as fuck. Are you shorter than her?”

“She’s my height,” Jeongguk says dryly.

“Barefoot?”

“I don’t know. It’s hard to tell when we’re usually like, in a horizontal position, most of the time.”

Taehyung whistles. “Hoo, dear God, my boy,” he says, putting his hand melodramatically over his heart. “Getting haute couture supermodels—”

“Could you kindly not?”

“The media will figure it out, it’s really not that hard,” Taehyung says. “Come here, take a picture with me!”

Jeongguk steps in close, close enough that he could just turn his face and kiss Taehyung on the temple if he wanted. No, of course he wants to, but if he could. But he can’t, not with the way things are, and the places where they stand in this world, so he smiles until Taehyung captures their faces besides each other.

“Wah, we look cute,” he says. “I wish I had our old selfies from 2015 on this phone, I want to put this beside them for Instagram.”

“The ultimate Transformation Tuesday.”

“I know!” Taehyung says, slipping his phone back into his pocket. “You were just a little bean back then.”

Jeongguk ends up sitting near the front of the stage, beside the Smith-Pinkett family, and Taehyung in the middle section towards the back. He should have brought his mother, now that he thinks about it; everyone brought a date, be it family or significant other. She’d waved him off when he asked, saying she was too old for such a production, preferring to save her energy to attend the Academy Awards with him.

you look so sad up there all by your lonesome :( says Taehyung. Jeongguk sits up in his seat and twists around to look for Taehyung again, peering through the mill of bodies of actors and actresses making their ways to their seats.

i’m all by lonesome D: he replies.

strike up a conversation with jaden smith. ask him if mirrors are real, i really wanna know.

FUCK HAHA NO

Christ, it’s a long show. The whole production is four hours long, red carpet and all, and it takes a while to get through all the smaller competitive categories. Pocketful of Sunshine nabs the award for Best Screenplay, Adapted; Jeongguk stands up and cheers at the top of his lungs when his costar wins Best Supporting Actress for their film in Almost Blue. Then, the moment of truth arrives, and Jeongguk confesses that he’s more nervous than he anticipated.

What if he wins?

He would have never pictured it, coming into this industry four years prior.

Announcing the award are Amandla Stenberg and Jaden “Most Trees Are Blue” Smith, and Jeongguk hardly hears the short summaries they give of all the films that the respective actors are nominated for. He applauds as each name is announced, though. He’s done this enough now, enough award shows and enough press, to operate on muscle memory.

“And the Golden Globe goes to…”

Jeongguk holds his breath. Amandla takes her time opening the envelope, her smile easy and slow, and then she leans in towards the mic.

“Kim Taehyung!”

The audience bursts into applause, and a smile springs to Jeongguk’s lips before he can even find Taehyung in the crowd—he’s standing up, hugging Risa wide-eyed and disbelieving, as someone in the row behind him claps him on the shoulder as he makes his way into the aisle. He catches Jeongguk in the sea of faces, unerring, drawn together like magnets, and he almost tearfully flings himself into Jeongguk’s embrace.

“I can’t believe this,” he says, and Jeongguk hugs him tight.

“Believe it!” he says, laughter in his voice and love in his arms. “Go and get your trophy!”

Taehyung lets him go, making his way up the steps to the stage where Amandla and Jaden hand him the statuette. He sweeps his eyes over the auditorium, a dazed smile on his face, and when the applause dies down he holds it up and says, “When I watched the Golden Globes as a kid I never expected this thing to weigh so much,” and a chuckle runs through the audience.

“Oh, God, I had—I had a speech prepared, you know, as we all do but I didn’t think I’d need to actually—recite it? I’m so sorry. Okay. Okay. First, thanks to the man who made it all possible—Rex, with your utmost patience, and Emmeline for her unfailing faith in me, to Lawrence Ritprasert who wrote the book that I had the unbelievable opportunity to bring to life, I hope I did your character justice. And to—to all the people who are forgotten in the grand scheme of filmmaking, whose names, their names only come at the very end of the credits when no one is watching anymore—to the costume designers, Ellen and Marina who made me and the rest of the cast the parts we had to play, and the guys who were on all the grips and dollies, and the storyboard artists who brought the script to life. To the editors in pre-production and post-production, none of this,” Taehyung gives his trophy a little pump in the air, “could have happened without each and every one of you.

“And, okay, sorry, I’m almost done here—to the people who are here for me through thick and thin. My family, my mom and dad, my little siblings who told me to go to the city to find my dream, who promised they could take care of the chickens themselves. And I am so incredibly lucky to have Risa—”

Jeongguk casts his eyes down in his lap for a moment, but steels his nerves and forces himself look back up.

“—who is nothing short of amazing, every day, in my life, and Jeongguk—”

Oh?

“—who let me believe in myself from the very dawn of this endeavor, as we find our ways through this crazy thing we call acting,” Taehyung chokes up on Jeongguk’s name, and his heart races, ribs tightening in his chest. “I’m so blessed to know an actor as amazing as you, I’m so blessed to have been nominated in the same category as you—as all the actors in this category, quite frankly!—and I never imagined I could have been so fortunate in this life to be able to call you a best friend. Thank you, thanks to everyone!”

✩✩

Neither Taehyung nor Jeongguk win the Academy Award for Best Actor.

On the bright side, if there is one, Taehyung gets to meet Jesselle. In his heart, he’s happy for Jeongguk—she is a little taller than him, and she claims to already have chosen her lowest pair of high heels for the night—but a funny feeling in his stomach is betraying that happiness, whisperingly snidely in the back of his head. He elects not to listen.

“I’m sorry,” Jeongguk says first, appearing out of the crowd at the Governor’s Ball, this year with real champagne in his champagne flute and his girlfriend on his arm. “I’m sorry. Not again.”

“Not again,” Taehyung groans. Risa is across the room, talking animatedly with Min Yoongi, who actually did win his Oscar this year for Best Original Score for a film called The Unkindness of Kasra Ray Lurell. They seem to share a mutual adoration for underground rap, as Taehyung has discovered, which is pleasantly new information to him. He makes Yoongi promise him he’ll show him some of his raps one day, because it’s hard to imagine someone that can compose scores as awe-inspiring and profound as the one he’d created for this movie also spits fire in his free time when he has it. “I wish they’d stop nominating me if they’re just not going to give me a win, but I’m sorry to you too.”

“It’s okay,” Jeongguk says. “Cheers to a good year in film anyway?”

“Cheers.”

Jesselle is hellishly intimidating—she’s taller, even, than Taehyung, and her face seems predisposed to fall into a frown, the sultry kind that’s characteristic of the high fashion runway. But Jeongguk says something to her later when they’re getting more champagne together, and her features soften when she breaks into a smile.

“Hey you,” Risa says, finding him. “Don’t be too sad, yeah?”

“I won’t be,” Taehyung says, gathering her to him by her waist. For a moment he forgets whether she’s talking about his third Oscar loss or Jeongguk—not that he’s sad about Jeongguk, nor does he know why he would be sad at all if not about his Oscar loss. Yet there it is, the feeling lounging like a lazy cat in his belly.

“Guess he’s not going to have so much time to keep talking to you now,” she says. This pulls all of Taehyung’s attention to focus, and he turns her stare at her. “If you hog him all for yourself, she’s going to get jealous.”

“It’s his jurisdiction whether he wants to pay attention to me or not,” Taehyung says. “We’re best friends. She doesn’t even get jealous when he talks to his Young God costar.”

“I’m just kidding, babe, I’m just kidding. You have me, too,” she says, and kisses his cheek.

“You’re always kidding.”

“Ah, I know. Come on, really, you look down. Let’s go get drinks.”

“Okay,” Taehyung says, smiling faintly when she slides her fingers into his. Jeongguk doesn’t look back.

 

The fast pace of Hollywood is enough for anything to fade easy. In time Taehyung forgets that sick feeling that had spread like tar through his blood that night at the Governor’s Ball after the 91st Academy Awards. He picks up another adapted screenplay called Why We Came to the City, set to start filming towards the tail end of the year.

All in all, 2019 passes just as fast, or as slow, as the other years have. In June, he gets down on one knee to propose to his girlfriend of almost three years now, and Risa actually bursts into tears and throws her arms around his neck on the front doormat. It had been cheesy, really, but Taehyung was a fan of that thing, and she’d come back home from a day of grueling press and pre-production conferences to open the door to him in a suit.

“What,” she’d said, confusion registering over the exhaustion in her face. Taehyung remembers it so well. The quality of her voice, how dark the night had been behind her, the smell of too much coffee still clinging to her clothes. Then he had pulled the box out of his pocket, and both her hands had jumped to her mouth in surprise.

(Spoiler alert: it was yes, and they did not get out of bed for three straight days after that. Her manager was about to tear his entire head of hair out.)

Naturally, it’s the only thing the Internet talks about for a week, give or take; from what Taehyung hears, their names trended for six straight hours on Twitter after he’d first been seen outside with an engagement ring.

“We probably shouldn’t go out together for anything for a while,” Risa says about two or so weeks later, where she’s lying on top of him, between his legs. Her hair is long now, streaming down her back and tickling Taehyung’s bare chest. “I nearly got trampled by the pap trying to buy a pack of tampons.”

“Should’ve asked me to buy them,” Taehyung says, rubbing his thumb back and forth against the dimple of her hip. “That would’ve given them something else to talk about.”

Risa’s chin is propped in her hands, her elbows splayed out over him so that there’s one digging into either of his shoulders. “Mm, I think I’m okay,” she says, and Taehyung can feel her breath on his mouth, now, and smiles through his closed eyes. “I’m glad knowing the whole world knows you’re mine.”

And so it was.

But there is someone that Taehyung holds in dusty attic of his heart, and recently, he’s been going up to that attic to sit with his memories more than he ever has.

happy 22nd birthday!!!! he texts in September. It’s like clockwork; when the streets of Los Angeles start to fill with high schoolers in backpacks again, when the traffic between Inglewood and West Hollywood is inundated with university students, he knows that it’s another year, another birthday. are you going to go out with jesselle tonight?

Jeongguk is awake early today.

lol jesselle and i are not together anymore, he says.

what!!! it’s only been 6 months?!

jesus has it been 6 months already? Jeongguk shoots back. damn, it’s been a while.

are you celebrating your birthday ALONE?

you’re not really alone in a club.

no gf?

yes gf but she’s in nyc for fashion week. her name’s jiwon...i was gonna invite halla over, but she’s got filming for the second season of new americana, so no cigar. lol

:(

are you busy? Jeongguk asks. i’m moving to a new place in 2020 and you haven’t even been to this one. you want to come over?

i live in san diego, jeonggukie.

mm. that’s true. meet you in carlsbad at 4 pm, then.

wait what? seriously?

i hope you got tomorrow free too because i plan to be fuuuucked up :-) :-)

Taehyung jumps out of bed, cold on Risa’s side where she’d gotten up at the crack of dawn this morning to fly out to Nebraska, where she’ll be shooting an indie. He’d driven her to the airport, and she’d kissed him goodbye in front of the security check, and whispered that she couldn’t wait to see him again. If the hickey on his throat wasn’t clear enough.

where should i meet you?

omni la costa, Jeongguk says. goddamn that place is nice.

do they even have rooms open?

1) it’s september 2) when you have enough money, there will always be rooms open

Taehyung laughs wryly at this, tossing his phone into the folds of the comforter before stripping down naked and stepping into the shower. When his phone hums with the sound of one more text coming in, he leans over to check what Jeongguk said.

can you believe this is the first birthday i’m spending with you since my 19th? it’s weird. if i’m not celebrating it with a film and camera crew, it’s with you.

It’s just as well that Jeongguk requested they meet up, because Taehyung has something to ask of him. He hasn’t seen him this dressed down in ages—if they’re not in suits, they’re in costume, and it takes him more than a few seconds to realize it’s Jeongguk coming toward him in a white tee and jeans in the parking lot.

“There you are, I thought you got caught in traffic!” But Jeongguk doesn’t even say anything to him before he envelops him in a hug that smells like laundry and a stale cologne. Taehyung brings his arms up to wrap around his middle, turning his face slightly into the side of Jeongguk’s neck. “Oh, hello to you, too. Happy twenty-second, my Timeshaker.”

“Hey,” Jeongguk says, pulling away, and he slides his hands down Taehyung’s arms until he reaches his hands, and lets those go, too. He glances down. “Wow. It’s real, huh?”

“Oh,” Taehyung says, and stretches the fingers of his left hand out so that his engagement ring flashes in the light of the sun. “Yeah. Pretty legit, right?”

“It looks good,” Jeongguk says. They walk, armed with their hastily packed duffels. “Like it always was supposed to be there.”

“Oh, good,” Taehyung says. “Because Risa was saying that maybe it was too pretty for my hand, I don’t know. She thought it would be weird.”

“It looks perfect.” Jeongguk rolls his eyes. “It’ll be perfect.”

“Will you come?”

Jeongguk pauses to stare. There’s a line of rowdy teens in the lobby to check in before them, but they go hushed, angry whispers erupting among them when they see who gets in line behind them. Taehyung shoots them a placid smile, trying not to feel the heat of Jeongguk’s eyes on his face.

“To your wedding?” he asks, voice even softer than it had been earlier in the parking lot.

“Of course,” says Taehyung. “Who else do you think I’d ask to be my best man?”

And, cruelly, so it is.

✩✩

The phrase it’s so beautiful I’m going to cry hasn’t ever been one that Jeongguk really related to, so being at Taehyung’s wedding may be the first time he understands the feeling.

Everything is beautiful, from the flower arrangements, to the centerpieces at each guest table, to even the gold ribbon tied around the necks of each wineglass. The wedding planner must have pulled out all the stops for this, and Jeongguk tells himself that it’s the beauty of the setup that makes the corners of his eyes sting and tighten.

“You go get changed,” and Jeongguk turns to see Taehyung’s mother holding out a paper bag. Something inside reflects the chandelier light overhead, and Jeongguk realizes they must be the boutonnieres for Taehyung and Jeongguk and the rest of the groomsmen. Or just him and Taehyung, since “The rest of them have had theirs delivered to their rooms directly. Go change!”

The elevator is paneled marble and mirrors, and Jeongguk stares at his own reflection as it goes zooming up half a dozen floors to his room. Taehyung is staying in one two down from his, and he drops off his jacket and picks up his own attire, folded and ironed, before making his way over.

“Oh, hey, you,” says Taehyung, opening the door and leaving it open so Jeongguk can let himself in. “I thought you weren’t coming.”

“How could I not come,” Jeongguk asks. “What would you do without me?”

“Panic, now can you help me with the adjustment back here,” Taehyung says, fumbling with the straps on the waist of his vest. “It’s too loose.”

“I got you,” Jeongguk says. Taehyung’s tuxedo is all white, all the way through, and it’s almost blinding to look at him. “Tell me when to stop.”

“Okay, that’s good.”

Taehyung insists Jeongguk get dressed himself. “I’ve gone to enough award shows to know how to do this by now,” he says, reaching into his suitcase for his bowtie. “And this stuff takes longer than you think to put on.”

“I’ve been to enough award shows to know that, too,” Jeongguk says, laughing, as he lifts the plastic dry-cleaning bag off of his clothing. Taehyung lets him step into his tux as he stands in front of the bathroom mirror to struggle with his bowtie—Jeongguk chuckles when he sees Taehyung looking up into the mirror and back down at what he presumes are instructions printed off Google on the counter. By the time he shrugs on the suitjacket, Taehyung has undone his progress three times already, and Jeongguk loops his own bowtie—black, instead of white—around his neck and knocks on the bathroom door.

“You need help?”

“I wanted to do it myself,” Taehyung says sadly. “But yeah, probably.”

Jeongguk straightens the satin around Taehyung’s neck, then begins folding the strip of fabric over and under and through itself, feeling Taehyung’s gaze on him.

“Watch my hands, not my face, so you’ll remember,” Jeongguk murmurs.

“I don’t want to remember,” Taehyung says. “So there’ll be someone who’ll have to do it for me always.”

Jeongguk flicks his gaze up at Taehyung’s face, heart sputtering in his chest before it quiets again. “Hope Risa can do bowties, then,” he says, and tightens the loops. “There.”

“Where did you learn to do this?”

“Mine got undone at the 77th Golden Globes,” says Jeongguk, “and I was up to announce for Best Screenplay with Halla. I was this close to having a meltdown backstage until she found me and fixed it. You kind of can’t forget an experience like that.”

“Wow,” Taehyung says, reaching into the paper bag, setting the boutonniere with the red roses aside for Jeongguk. “You looked so chic and collected up there, too.”

“I was neither of those words maybe thirty seconds before,” Jeongguk says. “If you screencap the part where we’re talking and zoom into my forehead you can see how hard I was sweating.”

“Gross,” Taehyung laughs, pinning the white rose to his lapel, making sure it sits flat. “Here, let me do it for you.”

Jeongguk holds still for Taehyung to pin his boutonniere on, but it’s fruitless. Taehyung’s hands are shaking so much that Jeongguk can feel it against his chest, and he reaches up to catch his hands in his own.

“Whoa, hey, are you okay?” he asks, pulling the rose out of Taehyung’s grasp. “Are you nervous?”

“Maybe a little.”

“I know,” Jeongguk says. “You’ve been quiet all day.”

Taehyung looks up at Jeongguk’s face as the words jog something in his memory, and a slow smile spreads over his lips. “Wow,” he says. “It’s been a while.”

“It has, hasn’t it?” Jeongguk lets go, picks up the boutonniere himself now, because if he held Taehyung’s hands any longer he might not find the will to let go, or say something stupid, like Don’t get married. Please don’t get married. “You said it before the first biggest adventure of my life. Now I’m saying it to you, before your second.”

“Thank you for being here for both of them,” Taehyung says.

“Of course,” replies Jeongguk. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

 

For most of the actual ceremony, Jeongguk zones out for his own mental sanity. He just hopes that the smile he plasters across his face is convincing, and the next time he really lets his brain do any real thinking is the reception, where he’ll have to make a toast to the Newly Wedded Couple and how delighted he is for them, how he has nothing but good wishes for them, and all sorts of other lies he’s made up for social conformity. He delivers his words on autopilot. He’s good at this rote memorization thing now. He’s very good at this acting thing now, and when he holds his glass up to them he downs all the wine in one breath.

“Maybe you should slow down,” says Momoe later, after dinner starts wrapping up, as Jeongguk helps himself to another full glass of cabernet franc. “Isn’t that your third glass?”

“Isn’t that your first?” Jeongguk nods at her own. “Would you like some more?”

“I think I’m okay for now,” she says, and he sets it back in the ice bucket. “We still have to dance later.”

“Oh right, best man and maid of honor,” Jeongguk says, tinking his glass with hers, and she stares as he downs a mouthful. “Cheers.”

“Can I ask you something?”

The wine nearly gets stuck in Jeongguk’s throat as it goes down, and he just barely chokes back a sputter. If she’s going to ask him about Taehyung or, worse, if she’s put two and two together, what Jeongguk has with him, he’s going to need a lot more alcohol. The wine bottle sitting in the ice bucket is suddenly exponentially more enticing.

“My sister really loves you and she asked me if I could get your autograph if I met you,” she says all in one breath. The request is so benign that it takes Jeongguk a moment to even process what she said, and then he’s laughing.

“Did you wait all evening to ask me that?” he says, putting his glass down to search for a pen. “Of course. Do you want me to sign on a napkin, or—?”

“Napkin, back of a placement card, whichever,” she says, a blush in her cheeks. Jeongguk reaches out to his little placement card, folded over in front of his glassware, where his name is embossed in gold foil.

“You could’ve asked me earlier,” he says.

“I thought it would be weird. And I was, I don’t know. Nervous.”

“Your best friend is a two-time Academy Award nominated actress, and you’re scared of me?” Jeongguk says. “How old is your sister?”

“Twelve.”

He pauses, looking up at her. “Twelve?”

“She was an accident,” says Momoe, and Jeongguk mock winces.

“Oof, more information than I needed,” he says, and it’s her turn to giggle. “And her name?”

“Hisano.”

It isn’t too often that Jeongguk signs for twelve-year-olds, so he pens a reminder in at the end to study hard before signing his name in a flourish. “You keep that safe,” he says as she tucks it into her clutch, hanging around the back of her chair.

“Of course, she’ll have my hands ironed if she finds out I got it and lost it,” Momoe says, and they stand together in silence drinking wine again. “Also, it makes perfect sense for me not to take Risa seriously,” she pipes up. Servers have come out and begun clearing away dishes. “I grew up with her. And with you, like—you’re a celebrity.”

“She also happens to be marrying another celebrity. Kim Taehyung, practically your brother-in-law. You’ll have to run into him every time you go to their house now, that’s something to take in.”

“Jesus Christ,” she says, shaking her head. “Pass me more of that wine.”

“Excellent idea,” he says, uncorking the bottle of the both of them. “I like the way you think.”

Lucky for them, the dancing begins quickly, before they can imbibe any more alcohol and render their feet completely useless. Jeongguk smiles in spite of himself when he watches Taehyung and Risa take the floor first, at the sheer, dreamy elation in Taehyung’s face; it’s a happiness so infectious that not even the heaviness in Jeongguk’s chest can dampen it.

“Shall we?”

Jeongguk takes Momoe’s hand. “Yes.”

Soon the floor is so full that it’s too crowded for them to really move, and they kind of sway in one spot; and when Jeongguk looks over the sea of heads he sees that Risa’s been swept away by her father, who’s peppered head of hair towers over everyone else’s. Some of the other groomsmen are dancing with each other, their partners having abandoned them to kick their heels off. Taehyung is laughing at something one of the bridesmaids is saying as they dance, and Jeongguk supposes this is his chance.

“Can we switch off?”

“Absolutely, my feet are killing me,” Momoe says. “You want more wine?”

“I think I’m okay for now,” Jeongguk says, and she smiles, nods, and squeezes her way out of the crowd.

“May I steal him for a second?”

Taehyung looks up, surprised, while the bridesmaid is already staring at Jeongguk in awe, nodding and stepping back without saying anything else. “Thanks,” he says, and she nods more before too disappearing into the crowd.

“I tried to be nice,” he says helplessly, turning back to Taehyung.

“I think she’s just a very big fan,” says Taehyung, who laughs and hooks a hand around Jeongguk’s shoulder. “She was funny.”

“Yeah? I saw you guys laughing.”

“She was telling me about software engineering,” Taehyung goes on, and hums. “Mmm. I understood maybe half of that, and then she thanked me for at least trying to look interested.”

“Not scared of you, then?”

“Maybe at first,” he says. “But she quickly came to realize that I am quite horrifically human after I stepped on her toe.”

“Ouch.”

“Yeah.”

The floor is a little roomier now, but just barely. Jeongguk’s heart feels so full it’s fit to burst, and the words come tumbling out before he can shoo them back into their cages.

“You look beautiful today.”

Taehyung lifts his chin up from where it’s come to rest on Jeongguk’s shoulder. “Oh,” he says, as if short of breath. “Thank you. You do too.”

“Sorry, that was—”

“No, it wasn’t, stop it,” Taehyung says. “Thank you. You just caught me off guard.”

It’s a bit late, too late, much too late to do something. Jeongguk had done nothing but sink lower in his seat when the pastor had asked if anyone objected, or so forever hold your peace. And he had, and Jeongguk can live with that decision. It’s not his place to take away someone else’s happiness just because he’s a bit short of it.

“I’m happy for you.”

“Thank you, I’m happy for me too,” Taehyung laughs, stroking the skin right above the line of Jeongguk’s starched collar. “You’re drunk, aren’t you?”

“You guys ordered very good wine.”

“Oh, I’m glad,” Taehyung says. “I was real iffy on the choice at first but I decided I’m not enough of a wine expert to tell the difference. Or care,” he says, laughing.

“Pity you didn’t get any of the Haagen Dazs ice cream bars,” Jeongguk says, and curses internally. Okay, too much wine.

“Oh, shit. I’m sorry,” Taehyung says. “I should’ve—”

“No, it was a joke,” Jeongguk says. “Besides. This is your wedding to Risa, not—”

Not me.

If Jeongguk had felt like his heart had been punched clean out of his chest some two years before, then this had been, this, as in waking up to see the Internet in half-shambles because of Taehyung’s engagement announcement, some kind of death. Hope closed its eyes for the last time, somewhere deep in the back of Jeongguk’s head. But love, love was still there, buried somewhere, embers traitorously warm no matter how hard Jeongguk tried to stamp them out.

Taehyung looks at him for many heartbeats, eyes searching Jeongguk’s face, waiting for him to finish. Then, to fill in the silence, he says, “It’s ok. We’ll eat them onset of the new project. Sound good?”

“Sounds great.”

“Go drink some water,” Taehyung says, giving his cheek a pat and letting Jeongguk go. “You’re a little warm.”

“Taehyung!”

“Hm?”

“I, uh,” Jeongguk says, dropping Taehyung’s hand where he’d grabbed onto it almost subconsciously. His tongue feels garbled, and it’s like they’re seventeen and nineteen all over again, trying to find characters that they didn’t even know they had in themselves. “Congratulations. On—on everything.”

A slow smile spreads over Taehyung’s face. “Thank you,” he answers. “For everything.”

Jeongguk doesn’t get a chance to see Taehyung again that night beyond the glimpse he catches of him and Risa taking a walk through the back patio and the moment they’re sent off, climbing into a sleek black limo with a wreath of roses on the hood. It’s just as well. He doesn’t know what other kinds of idiotic things his brain has in store for him, and he absolutely refuses to be that guy that ruins a wedding because of his own feelings.

“You alright?” Momoe asks, putting a hand on his elbow after they crowd begins to disperse. “I saw you booking it for the men’s room about an hour ago.”

“I’m okay, thanks,” Jeongguk says. “You?”

“Good. I’m going to head off as soon as everything is wrapped up. We’re probably going to go get some more drinks, me and the girls.” She looks on the verge of asking him to come before she remembers. “Have a good night?”

“It was a pleasure meeting you.”

No, Jeongguk doesn’t go get drinks. Not even if he wanted to. The alcohol is almost all out of his system now; it’s nearly midnight, and Jeongguk hasn’t had a drink since the end of dinner. There are still some lingering paparazzi around, but he makes it to his car without too much trouble and punches an address into the GPS. Then, halfway through the drive, he makes a call and props his phone up in its dashboard stand.

“Hey. Are you up right now?”

“Jeongguk?”

“Yeah, it’s me.”

“Hey! Yeah, I am. What’s up?”

“Sorry, am I bothering you?”

“You’re always bothering me, so I don’t know why this is suddenly a concern of yours.”

“Jesus, always got the sass on max,” Jeongguk mutters, and Halla laughs. The sound of it is welcome right now. “Mind if I come over?”

“No, but…” she pauses. “Isn’t that kind of sketch if the pap catch you?”

“My God, as if my life is some kind of secret?” Jeongguk says. “What I eat for breakfast is put on blast across the Internet every time I try to get IHOP.”

“If you say so,” she says. “Yeah, I’ll be up. Why?”

“I’ll tell you in a sec.”

“Okay. Drive safe.”

She hangs up with a click and, thankfully, the pap don’t try to follow him into the gated community that Halla lives in. She makes a life in an apartment, a nice one, but it’s nothing to sneeze at. They lose interest when the security asks them where they’re headed.

“Hey, whoa,” she says, when she opens the door. “I literally just put a bra on under my PJs, you didn’t have to come in a full—oh, wait, it was Taehyung’s wedding today, right? I forgot.”

“Yeah, it was.” Jeongguk sits down on her floormat and begins undoing the laces of his polished shoes with more force than necessary, the aglets clicking on the tile when he finally toes them off. Then he goes for the bowtie, loosening it finally, and she steps into the kitchen when he stands up.

“How was that?” she asks. “Shame I don’t know him better. I’ve never been to a wedding.”

“What? Never ever?”

“Never ever,” she says. “What do you want to drink? I got this really great tasting grapefruit soju the other day, and—”

“Something soft,” Jeongguk says, undoing the top button of his dress shirt and massaging his neck where the fabric had dug into his skin for an entire day. “I’ve had enough alcohol for the night.”

Halla leans her head out to look at him from behind her fridge door, a plastic spoon in her mouth and a Ben & Jerry’s pint in hand. “Enough?” she asks. “What?”

“You got ice cream?”

“Unfortunately,” she says. “You want some?”

“Yeah, I’d love some.”

“Here, catch.”

Jeongguk just barely snatches something that comes whizzing at his face and, when he opens his hand, he realizes.

“Oh, you eat these too?”

“The ice cream bars?” Halla shrugs. “My mom came by to visit and brought me some, I’m not super hot about them but you like ’em, right?”

Jeongguk unwraps it. “Yeah, I like them.”

“So, how was the wedding?”

“Good food,” Jeongguk grunts. “Nice music. Risa was beautiful, Taehyung looked great. Your typical wedding, I guess, with lots of famous people in one spot.”

“What was it that you wanted to talk about? That you called me at booty-call-o’clock for?”

“Oh, it was,” Jeongguk says. “Actually, it was about—”

The vanilla ice cream tastes like ash in his mouth. It hits him, finally, sitting here at this small dining table with Halla that he’s run out of chances, and he’s run out of time. He never quite had the chance or time to begin with, but that window had always been open, and he could feel the sunlight on his face. And now it’s been shut, the curtains drawn, and he’s the only one in the audience that isn’t applauding. Taehyung had always been a maybe. A one day. A could have been, but Jeongguk has always felt the gaze of Hollywood so hot on his back and he didn’t want their high profile lives to be so easily dissected day in and day out.

“Jeongguk?”

It’s so easy to mistake something fake for something real. After all, all of our realities are what we choose to believe, and Jeongguk has always believed that the chemistry they had during The Timeshaker was the result of hundreds of hours of rehearsal and filming, of working together, of the artificially composed world that had been the work of dozens of other people. And, to some extent, maybe it had been. Some of it had to have been, anyway, but some of it also had to have been real—or else he wouldn’t be sitting here in his friend’s kitchen five years later, heartsick to the core, trying not to remember that Taehyung is on a plane with someone that is not him, en route to their honeymoon destination where Taehyung will have sex with someone that is not him.

Just a bit of a tragedy, it is, that it takes a wedding for him to understand.

“Hey,” Halla says, setting her spoon down on the table, and Jeongguk is suddenly aware of the sticky, wet heat on his cheeks. It worms out of his eyes down to his chin. “Hey, no, Jeongguk, what’s wrong? Why are you—?”

She takes the ice cream out of his hand, setting it down in the wrapper, and holds out napkins to him. He presses his face into them, and feels his own shoulders shaking. Pathetic, really pathetic, and he lets himself lean into Halla’s side when she comes around the table to put an arm around his shoulder.

“Are you sure you want to talk about it?”

He shakes his head.

“You want that grapefruit soju now?”

A nod.

“Okay.”

✩✩

The Emmy awards are a week after the wedding, and Taehyung doesn’t even know why he’s online. Well, he does—Risa is in the shower and he likes to at least have some inkling of what’s happening in the industry. It keeps him on his toes. From what he sees from the red carpet photos that are being updated live by Twitter hashtag, Jeongguk is in attendance tonight. He’s Halla’s date, where she’s nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, and Taehyung has only met her a few times—once at the Academy Awards, when she and Jeongguk had attended together for Young God, and other times at the Golden Globes.

Jeongguk looks amazing. They both look amazing, really, the picture of a perfect couple, whether they really are one or not—he and Halla go together as well as bread and butter. She barely makes it up to his eye level, even in what must be stilettoes under her gown. There’s something that she’s laughing at, looking up with half-mooned laughter in her eyes, and he’s smiling too, still for the cameras, but he seems to be laughing along with her. It’s the one that’s so rare nowadays, one that he usually only saves for Taehyung.

The new project is one that’s set to start filming right after the 92nd Academy Awards come—Taehyung is nominated for Best Supporting Actor this time—and go. He’s starting to think that he has a major case of slap the stud syndrome, and Jeongguk keeps meeting him at the end of Governor’s Balls with a shrug and a, “Well, it looks like the both of us are doomed to be nominated and never win, so I guess all’s fair in love and war.”

“Cheers to that,” Taehyung said, and they’d drank.

“Liar’s Dice.” Their costar’s voice is a pleasant, soothing one, with a timbre that resonates like the lowest octave on a cello. “I’ve been looking forward to doing this. Looking forward, not meaning I haven’t been nervous as fuck.”

Roseia Brinston has a head of curly hair as wild as her imagination, so she and Taehyung click easy and right away. Jeongguk has press he needs to run back and forth between, for Badlands and pre-production for this, so he doesn’t get to meet her for a week after Taehyung has, the both of them staying up late over slushies to talk at length of the truly disturbing premise of the story.

“I thought you were going to get cold feet on us,” Taehyung says, hugging Jeongguk outside of the film studio the evening that Jeongguk finally makes it. It’s an unusually chilly night in Los Angeles, not unlike some of the evenings that they had first begun blocking together for Timeshaker.

“I would never get cold feet on a chance to see you,” Jeongguk says. “Jesus Christ. It’s like being back in the old days, huh?”

Not exactly, but it’s so familiar that it’s nearly haunting, to be sitting down in a conference room for a cold read together. This time it’s not Marion, taciturn and loris-eyed, between them, but Roseia with her personality as big and loud as her laughs. But Taehyung’s character will be murdered no more than exactly twenty-three minutes into the movie, but even still—there’s a lot of work to be done.

One of the scenes is particularly long, and difficult, as they come to learn in three months; it’s late into the night and they’re still filming outside. Roseia has a scene where her character is supposed to hallucinate and Jeongguk and Taehyung both have to be onset to be part of it. It takes Taehyung a moment to find him, shocked to smell cigarette smoke hanging around the air by Jeongguk’s trailer.

“Hey.”

“Hey.” Jeongguk doesn’t look at him, smoke rushing out of his nose, and Taehyung swallows the urge to tease him for looking like an angry bull. This Jeongguk doesn’t feel so easy to tease, anymore, especially not in the costume and makeup he’s wearing—a stiff, no-nonsense suit, and exaggerated eyeshadow that’s supposed to make him look nightmarish.

“I thought you had a sinus disorder.”

“I do.”

“I thought you hated it when your dad smoked.”

“I guess times change,” Jeongguk says, taking another long, slow drag of the cigarette, the ashen tip glowing a fiery red in the dim light, like a tiny sun.

The plastic of the Haagen Dazs ice cream bars crinkles when Taehyung brings his hands together. “Do you still like popsicles?” Somehow, his voice comes out smaller than he thought.

At this, Jeongguk looks up. “Of course,” he says. “If there is nothing else I love in my life, know that I will always love Haagen Dazs ice cream bars.”

“Good,” Taehyung says, taking a seat on the tiny staircase up to the doorway of the trailer where Jeongguk is seated. He stamps out the cigarette, and leans inside the trailer to dunk it in water before tossing it in the trash.

“Environmental awareness,” he says when Taehyung holds out his ice cream with raised eyebrows. “I kind of got into the habit after my costar in Badlands was an adamant environmentalist. She gave me a fifteen minute lecture when I didn’t pick up my straw and showed me a video of a sea turtle with a straw stuck in its nose, so now I can’t even put foodstuff in the trash without wincing anymore.”

Yeah, some things are different now, no matter how hauntingly familiar this all is. Every time Taehyung sees Jeongguk he’s a little different, though he’s starting to stabilize in recent months; he’s stopped growing like a young sapling, and maybe he’s one eyebrow hair worth of height on Taehyung now, but they really can’t tell when they’re side by side. His jaw is sharp and heavy, but his eyes are duller. They aren’t as bright and big as they used to be.

But when they sit down, sticky chocolate and vanilla in hand, there are some things that are still the same—the way Jeongguk shivers and laughs at the brainfreeze, clenching his teeth against it. The way he smiles, even though they’re so much fewer and far between lately. And Taehyung thinks that there are some things had been Now (that wide-eyed deer expression that Jeongguk would have when Taehyung called his name) and some things that are forever (the way that look he gives Taehyung hasn’t changed, dark, happysad, as if he’s touching a corner of the galaxy).

And Taehyung says something stupid, blurts it, really, to fill the silence.

“Those models keeping you happy these days?”

It comes out awkward and clunky. A question from a snooty, married man for a flighty youth.

“I suppose so.”

Some kind of apology is already on Taehyung’s lips when Jeongguk peels the wrapper further down his popsicle, shrugging. “I’m sure married life has its perks,” he goes on. He bites off all the chocolate around the vanilla and this, too, is something that must be Forever.

“Yeah, it does.” But.

But.

But nothing, Taehyung doesn’t want to leave room for doubt, doubt he doesn’t even know why he’s harboring. Yet, sometimes, sitting like this with Jeongguk, this But comes creeping back.

“I guess there’s something about it,” Taehyung says, even though he really doesn’t want to continue this topic. Jeongguk’s face is unreadable, suddenly, and Taehyung is only reminded over and over of how this industry has buffed them to a practiced shine—that, now, the kind of raw, honest emotion that had made Timeshaker a blockbuster has been kicked under the carpet for the harshest disciplines of acting.

“Something I wouldn’t understand, right?” Jeongguk says. It’s supposed to be a joke but there’s an undercurrent of bitterness. “As long as you’re happy, then that’s all I ask for.”

“Guys, you’re up!”

Jeongguk licks the wooden popsicle stick clean as he gets up, stepping around Taehyung neatly, and tosses it into recycling. Taehyung gets up slower, catching the last remnants of chocolate on his fingertips, and tries not to wonder why Jeongguk would ask for his happiness at all.

 

Taehyung doesn’t notice the first, second, or even third warning flags. Even after all these years, he still has to work on this whole being honest with himself schtick, but this time he has a pretty good excuse.

Risa doesn’t answer his texts some nights when she’s filming for her movie, this time in Washington. Naturally, Taehyung lets it go the first few times, but it becomes increasingly worrisome when she’ll go a full 48 hours in working cellular device regions without contacting him. When she does get home, she brushes off Date Night—their favorite tradition—with a “I’m busy, Taehyung, I’m busy.”

“Oh,” he says. “When do you want to do it?”

“Uhm,” she says, straightening up from her suitcase, a cardigan hanging from her fingers. “I don’t know. I think we might have to postpone them indefinitely for a while? This movie is taking way more out of me than I thought, and…” She runs a frustrated hand through her hair. “I’m sorry, I don’t know if I’m up for them, just now.”

“Of course,” says Taehyung.

“And is it okay if you don’t text me when I’m filming?” she asks, and the request itself is gentle, but Taehyung blinks where he sits in bed as though he’s been stung. “It distracts me.”

“Oh,” he says. “I’m sorry.”

“That sucks, man,” Jeongguk says, tearing open a croissant when Taehyung relays this to him later during break, onset of Liar’s Dice. “Filming is exhausting her, I guess? I’m still sorry, though. She was being harsh.”

“Yeah,” Taehyung says. He elects not to bring up the thousands of other times, lately, where she’d get angry at him for things that she never found a problem before. Not that it’s entirely out of the blue, because Risa has always been caustic and jagged around the edges, but it’s flared up into something genuinely hurtful lately.

“Yeah, but?” Jeongguk prompts, hearing the unspoken word at the end of Taehyung’s half-hearted grunt of an agreement.

“I just wish things were as they had been,” Taehyung says. “When we first met.”

“Impossible,” Jeongguk says, so easily that Taehyung looks up at him with a quirked eyebrow. His hands are wrapped around the sides of a disposable coffee cup. “Passion is partly based in surprise. You get to know someone, surprise fades away. Passion changes. Sometimes it fades with the surprise. Not that that’s what I’m saying,” he adds quickly. “But it’s unreasonable to expect things to be as they had been in the beginning.”

“We’re still close,” Taehyung says stubbornly.

“Yes,” Jeongguk says. “I suppose that’s true. But you haven’t tried living with me, so maybe you’d hate me by the end of the year, too.”

“I would never hate you!”

Jeongguk pauses where he’s rubbing his fingers together to get croissant flakes off of them and flicks his gaze up at Taehyung’s face. The words had come out loud, nearly angry.

“Thank you,” he says, softer, steering his eyes back down to his breakfast.

“And I don’t hate Risa,” Taehyung goes on. “I just wish we had a chance to talk—I’m sure if we just talked, this could get better, but she shuts me down every time. It’s like she doesn’t want to hear it.”

“What, she doesn’t even want to talk to you?” Jeongguk frowns. “That’s not good.”

“It’s not?”

“I mean, it’s not very helpful,” Jeongguk corrects, hearing the worry in Taehyung’s voice. “Like, she obviously must know there’s a problem if she’s shutting it down. She’s just not even giving it a chance to improve.”

Taehyung sighs, the steam of his coffee ghosting across the table.

“Does she do that a lot?”

“Not that she did a lot,” Taehyung says. “But her personality is just kind of like that, I guess.”

“You’re going to have to help me out here,” Jeongguk says. “You’re the one that’s married to her.”

“She does this thing where she makes me feel very small, or stupid, for some things I say,” Taehyung admits. “Like the things I ask you on set sometimes. ‘Look at Roseia, look at her curly hair. Do you think she likes it? Did her mom ever tell her to love it?I hope she likes it. I hope she’s proud of it.’”

“Yeah,” Jeongguk says. “I remember you saying that.”

“Sometimes Risa tells asks me why I even care,” Taehyung says. “I don’t know why I care. I just wonder, you know. It helps me build characters up for roles.”

“I’m sorry,” Jeongguk says. “For the record, the way you used to say that during Timeshaker, it’s changed how I look at character, too.”

“Yeah?” This much, at least, brings a weak smile to Taehyung’s face.

“Don’t sound so shocked,” Jeongguk says. “You said it yourself at the Golden Globes.”

“What did I say?”

“You said I helped you believe in yourself,” Jeongguk says. “It’s not a one-way deal. You, in turn, have done more for me than you know.”

✩✩

In the days after Liar’s Dice first premieres at Sundance, Jeongguk’s schedule turns into a juggling act between screenings and filming for yet another project. After Jeongguk gets his feet in the room—which, for him, at this point, isn’t too difficult—Kirk is hands off, letting him be until post-production and the premieres and promotion begin. That is, until the next breakdown comes through, whether it be from A24 or Warner Brothers or Fox Searchlight Pictures, who happened to request him specially.

“Can I know the name?”

“You know you can’t,” Jeongguk says, washing his hands in the men’s bathroom. “Have you tried the toilets? Japanese bidets are out of this world.”

“I fully intend to when there’s more time,” Taehyung says. “After the screening, maybe.” He reaches into a pocket on the inside of his suitjacket and pulls out a toothbrush only as big as Jeongguk’s hand.

“What.”

“I accidentally ate way too much wasabi,” Taehyung says, ripping the package open. “You can never have too many of these.”

Jeongguk stares at him brushing for a moment before shutting off the faucet.

“How have things been with Risa, and,” Jeongguk gestures vaguely.

Taehyung spits in the sink and rinses out his mouth. “They’ve been,” he says.

“Ah.” And, as much as Jeongguk will nobly tell himself he only wants them to be happy, some little, evil part of him betrays him and jeers victoriously in the darkest pits of himself, where he’s buried the things he’s ashamed of.

“They’ve been, and they will be,” Taehyung goes on, tossing the brush into the trash can. “After we finish premiering Liar’s Dice, both of us will have a breather. I think I might be taking a break from the silver screen for a while.”

“A break?” Jeongguk asks. “Really?”

“Yeah, I think I want to focus on family,” Taehyung says. “In forty years, that’s all I’ll have.”

“And me.”

“And you, if you don’t snuff it early on me.”

“Did you just imply that I’m going to die young?”

“I’m just saying that you can be kind of reckless,” Taehyung says lightly, and jumps out of the way with a laugh in his mouth when Jeongguk flicks water at him.

“Well, the new project I’m doing doesn’t really involve any stunts, so I think I’m safe on that front.”

“You can’t tell me what it is?” Taehyung asks, doing his best to look sad. “Come on, I probably have heard what it is already.”

“Hmm.” Jeongguk tangles his fingers pensively in rough paper towel. “You probably have.”

“Come on! Just a little hint.”

“Well,” Jeongguk says, never strong to Taehyung’s pleading. “The story takes place in San Francisco.”

 

It’s a story called Home, and Jeongguk plays a lost, homeless young man who changes his life when he finds an abandoned baby in a suitcase where he lives out his hopeless days at San Francisco International Airport.

“Hi,” he says, holding his hand out to the girl who is to be his costar, an eight-year-old girl who goes by Arian. “Nice to finally meet you, I’m Jeongguk.”

“You’re going to play Ezekiel?”

“You got it.”

“That means we’re going to be costars!” she says. “Because I’m playing Arya, and I’m really excited, because they told me I was going to be acting with someone really famous. I guess that’s you.”

“I guess it is,” Jeongguk says, smiling lopsidedly. Pia’s voice comes back to him in that moment, ringing in his ears. Trust, trust, trust. “Well, we’re both early, so what do you say we grab breakfast before we wait for these slowpokes to get here?”

“I think I have to ask my mom.”

“Of course you should.”

Breakfast, honestly, consists of grabbing food at the studio cafe downstairs, but Jeongguk understands that it’s probably nerve-wracking for a little girl’s parents, whose daughter’s biggest work so far has only been one of the child extras in a horror film, to hear that she’s going to be gallivanting off to get a croissant with one of Hollywood’s favorite starlets. So Jeongguk hands her his phone, lets her cradle the enormous piece of metal in her hand, and hopes to God she won’t drop it.

“What’d she say?” he asks when she hands the phone back to him.

“She said okay, but to remember stranger danger,” she says. “But I can take care of myself!”

“Stranger danger is still very important,” Jeongguk says. “Awesome, let’s go.”

To be honest, Jeongguk needs to drop as much muscle weight as he can for this role, at least for the beginning. Ezekiel Kan is not a fit, well-cut young man; no, he is a homeless, struggling one, pilfering through suitcases to survive. It’s definitely one of, if not the hardest roles Jeongguk’s ever taken on, but he’s determined to show the world what he can do.

“Alright, so I guess we’ve done nice boy, criminal, maybe it’s time for something a little softer,” Kirk had said. Snack of the day for that meeting had been strawberry creme Pocky. “Mature, still, definitely—probably moreso than Almost Blue or Badlands, actually.”

“Let’s hear it.”

 

Jeongguk learns that the innocence of children is one that he’s forgotten, but appreciates no less. Perhaps more, actually, now that he’s toeing twenty-three.

“Who’s this?”

“Hm?”

Arian has located and is currently pillaging Jeongguk’s wallet. Zaha had told them to get as comfortable as they could become with each other, and in the beginning, they’d started with building their little living space together, inside a rusty old baggage claim turnstile, one that’s located in an abandoned terminal of the airport in the story. Then she started asking him what was in his bag, and he’d let her go through it.

“This person.”

It’s an old, faded Polaroid, one that she’d pulled out from behind Jeongguk’s driver’s license. He recognizes it right away, and had forgotten himself he had it in there. Ruben had taken it, after Timeshaker shooting had ended; he and Taehyung were eating ice cream bars before a cast interview, standing in the hot LA sun. Jeongguk was smiling back then.

“He was my first costar,” Jeongguk says. He lies on his side in a rumpled, unironed suit, and props his temple in his hands. “In my first movie. Our first movie together.”

“I think I know him.”

“He’s in a lot of movies,” Jeongguk says. “Kim Taehyung.”

“Mama really likes one of the ones he’s in,” she says. “Point Blank.”

“Point Blanc, uh-huh,” Jeongguk says. “That was his second movie. I liked it, too.”

“Daddy puts pictures of me and Aiden in his wallet,” she says. “He likes to put the ones that Lifetouch takes at school for us. He says we put the people we love in our wallets so spending money hurts a little less. But I think he’s just saying that because he’s my dad.”

Jeongguk laughs. “Well, I think he has a fair point. We get to see the people we care about whenever we take out our wallets. It’s nice to see their faces if we’re having a bad day.”

“Then you should put this in front of your license!” She pushes the Polaroid back into the clear window pocket. “You’re not even smiling in your license, and you looked happy in this photo. Taehyung too.”

“Good point,” Jeongguk says, reaching over and straightening it through the thumbhole. “We really did.”

 

Taehyung texts Jeongguk mid-shoot during a weekend, and Jeongguk doesn’t get to catch it until past midnight.

i just saw some firstlook photos of home!! it says. you lost so much weight omg ㅠㅠ for the role right? the last time i saw you was at the oscars when you were nominated as best supporting actor for liar’s dice and you were twice as big as you look right now...don’t get sick! you better make sure to eat!!!

that’s why there are nutritionists and dieticians work out my each and every meal down to a gastromolecular science, god bless, Jeongguk says. but not being able to eat carbs is truly a medieval punishment.

It’s definitely jarring for Jeongguk to see himself in the mornings sometimes. The change isn’t so huge to him, probably because he sees his own body every day, but he does notice a concavity and a gauntness to his cheeks on the cloudy mornings where the cold light hits his face in the hotel bathroom. Gradually, his trainer had told him to ease off the weights in the gym, then to forgo all lifting, but had frowned at his thighs and sighed.

“Well, there’s nothing more we can really do about these,” she’d said. “So I think costuming is just going to have to put you in extra baggy pants to hide ’em.”

“Okay, good, because they’re my pride and joy,” Jeongguk had replied, patting his quads. “And if I can’t have nice arms then I should at least keep these.”

“Your arms are fine, they’re just skinnier, don’t fret. They just don’t want you looking like you walked off a cover of Men’s Health. And get ready to bulk back up for the second half of filming,” she’d added. “Do not go off track on your diet or else you’re going to get sick, and that’s not a party for any of us.”

do you have to keep this up for all of filming?

nah. just long enough for it to be maddening, then i’m supposed to gain it back throughout. they just wanted me to drop 20 first so i would look Max Unhealthy for the beginning.

:(

actor lyfe

Jeongguk rolls over in bed.

how are things? He pauses, wets his lips. with risa?

well…

taehyung.

i asked her about a family last week...she turned me down. that’s fine, it’s fine. i told her if she doesn’t want one, it’s fine. but it was “taehyung, not now,” she said. “we have things to do. we’re too busy for a child.” i mean, she’s right, i guess. maybe later. a family just isn’t a reasonable dream to have.

what?! you’re an academy award nominated actor and having children is an unreasonable dream? did she tell you that?

ouch. don’t remind me that i haven’t won so far LOL

okay HAHA sorry. you’re right.

Then, and she laughed at me for crying today, so that was fun too.

The sheets rustle when Jeongguk sits up. what? what the fuck?

yeah. you remember our dog i told you about? soonshimie? she had to be put down. she was so sick. she was so sick and i didn’t even know, my brother didn’t tell me. he didn’t want me to be sad. she’s been gone for three weeks already, he only told me today after they couldn’t hide it anymore.

oh my god. oh my god i’m so, so sorry, why the fuck did she laugh?

There’s nothing Jeongguk wants to do more than somehow reach through the phone and pull Taehyung to him, hug him close. Even though Taehyung is nothing but white text in a blue speech bubble on Jeongguk’s phone, he thinks he hears his voice crack.

she told me that men shouldn’t be weak, he says, and Jeongguk sees red.

so what the hell did you say to her?

i don’t know. i don’t remember, jeongguk. something to the effect of ‘leave me alone and let me be weak in peace, then,’ i guess.

What the fuck. do you want me to call you right now?

no, go to bed. you’ve got filming bright and early, i’ve got filming at the crack of dawn. it’s okay. i’m okay, don’t worry about it.

it’s not okay, Jeongguk insists, but Taehyung never replies.

 

ARYA
Daddy, will we ever find home one day?

Ezekiel reaches forward to straighten some of her flyaway bangs. They refuse to lie flat, even in sleep.

EZEKIEL
Home is wherever you can find the people you love most.

Arya is nodding off, eyes barely staying open. It’s been a trying day for her.

ARYA
Does that mean we’re home?

EZEKIEL
I think it does. I think we are.

“Cut!”

Jeongguk sits up. Arian follows suit, rubbing her eyes, genuinely sleepy. Child labor laws don’t let her work more than a few hours a day, but sometimes those few hours are in the middle of the night, and he lets her lean against his body where they’re huddled up in their tiny sleeping space. Their director, Zaha, looks triumphant as she pulls back with the camera, and the grips and mics all come to lean in and inspect the footage.

“That was excellent,” she says. “I think we’re good for today.”

“You think so?” Jeongguk says.

“I told Arian to open her eyes at the end of that exchange, and hold your gaze, as if Arya wants to believe her father more than anything,” she says, running the film in rewind. “And yet something in her face has changed, because she’s starting to understand more than he’s taught her.” Zaha shakes her head. “Really amazing work she did. You’re lucky to have a costar like her.”

“Thank you,” Arian says sleepily, where her head rests on Jeongguk’s chest. It’s solid again, returning to its usual muscle tone as his character grows up throughout the film, grows stronger with new meaning to his life. He Has Missed Carbs Like A Child Misses Their Blanket. “I tried my best.”

“It was excellent,” Zaha repeats. “I’m really impressed, Arian.”

“Sleepy?” Jeongguk props his weight up on his hands, the blanket that makes up their bed soft under the heels of his palms. “Me too.”

“Mama says I can’t have coffee to stay awake like you,” she says, looking ready to rub her eyes, then remembering she has makeup on. “Not fair.”

“Coffee gives me a bellyache, I only drink it if I’m tired out of my mind and know I have an intense scene to shoot,” Jeongguk says. “So it’s not really some kind of magic potion, either.”

The director gives them the call to close up shop for the day, so Jeongguk and Arian climb out of the turnstile. He waits with her as her parents come to pick her up.

“Where do you go home to?” she asks, out of the blue, tonight. They sit on the rim of a planter, the tree behind them dropping its leaves on them like little gifts every time the wind blows.

“Well, for filming, we live in a hotel, so I can’t really go home,” he says. “But I live in Malibu. My family is in Los Angeles.”

“So where is your home, home?”

“I guess it’s in Malibu.”

“In our movie, our home is SFO,” she says. “Because the person who loves us most is there. So does someone love you in Malibu?”

“No, I live alone.”

“What?” she asks, taken aback. “You live all by yourself? A whole house to yourself?”

“Yeah, I guess I do, huh?”

“Why?”

“Well, my parents want to live in Los Angeles, with my brother and his wife,” he says. “They like it there.”

“Why don’t you live with someone who loves you?”

“Well, it’s not always so easy to find them,” Jeongguk says. “Ezekiel didn’t find Arya until the lowest point in his life. It took him a while. She was his happy accident. It all depends on whether or not the universe is kind to us.”

“Oh,” she says. “I think that’s sad.”

“Yeah,” Jeongguk agrees. “It’s a little sad, sometimes.”

✩✩

The next time that they meet is at Cannes, where Home is set to be the opener.

Jeongguk is once again alone, and Taehyung wants to tease him and ask why he hasn’t gotten to meet any of Jeongguk’s girlfriends after Jesselle. “Not even Jiwon,” Taehyung pouts. “And the one after Jiwon. Vera, or something.”

“She didn’t want to,” he shrugs, shoulders sharp and smart in his dark blue suit. There’s no trace of the horrible diet he must’ve been put on for his role, his face full and golden. “Said she wasn’t interested in being the Internet’s newest chew toy, and you can’t exactly blame her.”

“Why didn’t you bring Halla?”

“She’s busy filming for the upcoming season of New Americana,” says Jeongguk. “She doesn’t have the privilege of taking time off with the cycles of film releases.”

“Shame,” says Taehyung. “She’s cute. You guys look good together.”

It isn’t supposed to sound so pitiful, but Taehyung can’t stuff the words back into his mouth. “You’ve been on the Internet too much,” is all that Jeongguk says, and Taehyung snorts. An answer that tells him absolutely nothing, a safe answer. They pause their conversation for Taehyung to smile, and Jeongguk to aim his trademark half-smirk for the cameras again, and make their way down the red carpet to make room for the actresses that come after them.

“How are you and Risa?”

The usual question, lately. Luckily, Taehyung has rehearsed this smile over and over again for it to be second nature now. “We’re great,” he says, albeit a bit woodenly. “She’s really busy doing work for her upcoming project, so.”

“So she let you come all by your lonesome all the way to France?”

“I’m not really alone, right?” says Taehyung. “I have you. And last time I checked, you’re just as dateless as I am.”

Jeongguk laughs in earnest at that, and over a dozen flashes of the cameras go off in that moment, immortalizing that rare laugh that Jeon Jeongguk never shares with the public—Taehyung’s Jeongguk, the soft, easy one, that talks with his mouth full and eats ice cream outside no matter the weather.

“Right,” Jeongguk says, as they make their way inside and away from the carpet. “You have me.”

“Home is opening, right? I’m excited.”

“Oh, Jesus,” Jeongguk says. “It’s a lot. To take in, I guess. I don’t know if I even want to see it myself.”

“Am I going to cry?”

“No, please, I’m going to be so embarrassed.”

“But am I going to cry. That’s a very different story.”

“I don’t know. Maybe you’ll laugh.”

For the record, Taehyung doesn’t know why he would. There’s nothing remotely funny about Home. Maybe Jeongguk had been talking about the scenes where he cries, face screwing up unbecomingly, but even then, Taehyung is not laughing. In some places the story hits his heart, makes him choke up, and it isn’t until after that scene where Jeongguk’s character is dragged tooth and nail into questioning, away from his little girl, that Taehyung comes to realize that he has his hands over his mouth and nose and his breath in his throat. Only when the screen darkens, and the words Directed by Zaha Abadi appear, does Taehyung turn to look at him.

“I take it you enjoyed it,” Jeongguk says blandly, but he’s smiling as the crowd around them erupts in applause.

“Oh my God,” Taehyung says, unshed tears making his voice wobble when he leans over to hug Jeongguk around his neck. “Oh my God, Jeongguk. Oh my God.”

“Not too bad?”

“Shut up.” Taehyung hugs him tighter. “I don’t know about you, but I intend to write a strongly worded letter to the Academy if they don’t nominate you for Best Actor next year.”

“Aw, don’t do that.” Jeongguk squeezes him too, then pulls Taehyung back to look at his face. “You really should stay on their good side.”

 

We’re great is one of Taehyung’s greatest lies.

He had figured it out, he remembers, the night after the 94th Academy awards, after Jeongguk had lost to Cristian Covarrubias for Best Supporting Actor. That time, Halla had been his date, and Taehyung finally had the chance to properly talk to her at the Governor’s Ball. He remembers where everything had been because the shock had been enough to imprint the image of all his surroundings into his head forever.

“Was he always like this?”

“Like what?”

Jeongguk said he’d gone to get them drinks, and Risa had gone to the bathroom, handing Taehyung her clutch. “You know,” she said, and gestures vaguely, the dim light catching on the gems of her bracelet. “His dry, sarcastic humor isn’t something you run into every day.”

“Oh,” Taehyung said, and laughed. “No, he wasn’t. He used to be really shy, kind of looked at you and waited for you to notice and ask him what he was thinking about.”

“What? No way.”

“I know, it’s weird to think about it now for me, too. He used blush a lot, and he smiled a lot more than he does now.”

“Aww,” said Halla. “I would’ve liked to have known him back then.”

“You couldn’t have,” Taehyung joked. “They snatched him fresh off the streets of Los Angeles and asked if he’d be willing to audition. The closest he’d ever been to a celebrity at the time was when he told me he accidently ran into Ryan Gosling at The Grove.”

Then something vibrated in Risa’s clutch, insistently, two or three times in a row. The first several times, Taehyung ignored it, then more came in—and he undid the clasp of her bag to see who it must be.

“What’s wrong?”

Something in Taehyung’s face must have changed. Twisted, perhaps, he wasn’t sure. Underneath them the carpet was a royal, deep red. When Taehyung looked back up at Halla, he saw Jennifer Lawrence just passing by behind her in a red gown, holding champagne the color of ambrosia in her flute. Jeongguk’s cologne was on Halla’s skin. She smelled like him. She smelled like him.

“Hey, are you okay?”

That time it was Jeongguk’s voice, and he was holding three glasses of champagne. His bowtie is of a polished white satin with a dull sheen under the lights, his hair black as a piano. “Taehyung?”

“I’m okay.”

“What happened?”

“I was just talking to him and he looked Risa’s phone and his face went all white,” Halla says, worry rising in her voice. “Hey—hey, Taehyung, where—?”

He found her coming out of the ladies room, giving a plastic smile to two women he doesn’t recognize standing outside, talking. Her dress had caught on her heels, and she was lifting the hem of her pink chiffon gown away from her feet.

“Taehyung,” she said, eyes big. “Baby, what’s wrong?”

“I.”

“What’s wrong?”

She put her hand on his face, and against his cheekbone her felt the cold kiss of her wedding band.

“Nothing,” he said. “Here’s—here’s your clutch.”

“Thank you,” she said. “Are you feeling okay? Do you want to go home?”

“I feel absolutely spectacular,” Taehyung said. “Come on, Jeongguk got us drinks. Let’s go.”

He offered his elbow, and with a smile, she slid her hand into it.

are you done yet? i’m thinking of you. lying in bed naked with me. god, i’ve been thinking of you all night.

And a photo of man, naked. A man that definitely was not Taehyung.

She did not take the confrontation well, to say the least. Taehyung hadn’t even beat around the bush. The night she got back from an overseas press conference, he’d been at the dining table with a glass of wine. It was three in the morning.

“What are you doing up?” she asked, irritable. “I told you not to wait for me.”

“There was something I wanted to talk to you about.”

“Later?” she asked. “I’m really tired, and—”

“It’s always later,” Taehyung says. “I’ve been waiting for later for almost a year, when will it be now?”

Her bag hit the hardwood pergo floor with a thunk. “Fine. What do you want to say?”

Taehyung took his time to speak up, running his thumb over the pattern of the crystal wineglass. The set had been a wedding present from Momoe.

“Taehyung—”

“How long were you going to take before you told me about him?” he said, the words feeling weak despite the anger that had simmered on low in his chest for days. “Day in, day out. Must’ve been real fun for you, watching me run around with you and play the part of a stupid, clueless husband. I’m not really a big fan of cheating. I don’t know about you.”

“Oh,” she said. “It’s not what you think—”

“It’s pretty hard to fucking explain away naked pictures of another man being sent to your phone, is what I think,” Taehyung said. “Or, I don’t know. Enlighten me. Is he a method actor? Do you guys need to sext in your new movie, is that it? Are you guys just always in character?”

“It,” she says, stepping into the kitchen. She puts a hand on the counter. “You don’t understand, you’re making a mistake, okay?”

“A mistake?” Taehyung asked, disbelief coloring his voice red. “You know, if you’re going to cheat, at least try to be sneakier. Like, I don’t know, don’t leave your phone in our room when you’re in the shower?”

“Taehyung,” and here, she’d gripped the counter so hard her knuckles turned white, “Please, listen. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I know exactly what I’m talking about, do not try to tell me I don’t.” Taehyung shakes his head, once. “You will not tell me what I think.”

“Babe,” she said, placating, “I think you need to go to sleep.”

“Stop telling me what I need!”

“Taehyung!”

The wine dripped off the table into a puddle on the floor, staining the tiles red as blood. A splash of it was on the table, still, and a bit left in the glass where Taehyung had slammed it down.

“I think,” she repeated, very slowly, “you need to go to bed.”

He did. He got into their bed, the one that they had picked out for this house together, and waited until her shower began to run. Then he tore through their room, pulling his suitcase out from under the bed. His favorite, the one with hundreds of stickers and old tags on it, and into it went anything he got his hands on—sweaters, a suit, ties.

He was gone by the time she came out of the bathroom. There was no way he was going to share a bed with her for one more night, knowing she was cheating, and lying, and now telling him that he didn’t know what he was talking about. He was done here, hitting the road with only one place in mind.

“Hyung,” Jongkyu said, eyes wide as saucers when he opened the door, sleep evaporating from his face. “What are you—Eunjin! Eunjin, umma, hyung came home—guys!”

“Taehyung-ah,” his mother had said, appearing between his two younger siblings in nothing but her nightdress, shorter than all three of them now. “What are you doing here? It’s nearly morning—come inside.”

“Hyung,” asked Jongkyu, “why are you here?”

“I need to,” Taehyung took a breath, “learn how to file a divorce.”

“What? What the fuck happened?”

“Jongkyu, that language—”

“Umma, he just walked in and said he was getting a divorce!”

It took three hours to explain it all to them, Taehyung sitting on the coffee table, his sister, brother, and mother lined up on the couch like a jury. His father had been on a business trip overseas in South Korea, and by the time he’d finished the sun was blazing a trail over the endless blue plains of the sky.

“Holy shit,” Jongkyu said, finally, and that time their mother hadn’t threatened to soap his mouth out. “Hyung, I’m so sorry.”

“I can’t believe this,” Eunjin said. “It’s not that I don’t believe you, but I can’t believe—that she’d do something like that, to you? And everything else she’s said to you. I can’t...she looked at you like you were the center of her universe.”

“I know,” Taehyung said. “I’m so sorry, you guys, you have work and you have class and I kept you all up all night—”

“It’s okay, I can skip,” Eunjin said as Jongkyu just scoffed.

“I’ll chew her out if I ever see her,” Jongkyu pledged. “But hyung, did you—drive here by yourself all the way from San Diego?”

“I did.” The blood felt frozen in his thighs, rushing down to his feet when he shifted. “You don’t happen to mind me crashing on your floor for a while?”

“Absolutely not. I have an air mattress you can use that I got for a trip and stayed at an AirBNB…”

Taehyung stood by as Jongkyu inflated it for him, stepping back with a couple of ratty blankets over it when he finished. “Sorry,” he said, scratching the back of his head. “We packed away a lot of your old stuff so I don’t know where any of it is.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Taehyung said. “A surface to sleep on is all I asked for.”

“I gotta head to work,” Jongkyu said, and bit his lip. “Are you going to be okay, hyung?”

“I’m seriously okay, Jongkyu. Don’t be any later to work than you already are.”

But even as tired as he was, Taehyung’s eyes would not close. He lay for an hour, pushing two, on the mattress, listening to the quiet creaks and groans of his aging childhood home. There were six missed calls from Risa on his phone when he checked, battery at a sad, yellow 16%. When his fingers wandered over to the dialpad, however, it wasn’t Risa that he called.

It was two thirty in the afternoon. He would be busy. He would be filming. They both knew this. He won’t pick up.

“Taehyung?”

And yet, wherever he might be in the world, Jeongguk will pick up for him.

“Hello?”

“Jeongguk,” Taehyung managed.

“Yeah, it’s me.”

But no words came out. Taehyung lay there, listening to Jeongguk go, “Hello? Taehyung, are you there? Taehyung?” He heard someone ask Jeongguk a question on the other end. “No, I think the line went dead, or I can’t hear him. Taehyung? I’ll call you back, okay? I can’t hear you at all.”

When Taehyung’s phone vibrated in his hand again, with Jeongguk’s photo on the screen, he didn’t answer. He didn’t want Jeongguk to hear him cry himself to sleep.

 

So it is in the bathroom of the house he grew up where Taehyung gets ready for the 96th Academy Awards, where he is nominated for Best Actor for Black Rainbow and Jeongguk for Home. The night before, he had called Risa, and she’d picked up on first ring.

“Where are you?” she demanded. “I’ve been worried out of my mind about you, you literally fucking vanished when I—”

“Tonight is the 96th Academy Awards,” Taehyung said, cutting her off. “Can I trust you to be my date for the last time, just so the paparazzi don’t have an excuse to lose their damn heads in the midst of award season?”

“Last time?”

“You’re kidding yourself if you think I’m going to live like this after what you’ve done.”

“You’re wrong,” she said.

Taehyung grit his teeth. “Shut up,” he said.

“Well,” she replied, sounding so detached that Taehyung wanted to scream, shake her by the shoulders, and ask her where the costar he’d fallen for during Point Blanc had gone. Maybe she never was here to begin with. Risa was constantly praised for being a chameleon actor, and maybe Taehyung had fallen for a story, and when it ended he had nothing left to love. “If you say so. I’ll meet you outside the Dolby Theater. When people ask, we visited our families for the weekend for moral support.”

“Sounds good to me.”

“Good,” she said, crooned, really. “See you later baby.”

She hung up before he could snarl, don’t call me baby. But when he brought his phone away from his face, he saw that there was a text from Jeongguk.

fingers crossed for one of us tonight!!!

And, in spite of everything, Taehyung smiled.

fingers, arms, legs, toes, and eyes crossed!

She isn’t here by the time Taehyung gets to the Dolby Theater, already overrun by press and limos. He tips his chauffeur generously today, for driving him all the way here from Visalia, and he’s lucky enough to catch Leihua just arriving, too, with his new boyfriend. He’s shy about it at first, and it’s adorable, but he warms up to Taehyung’s gentle teasing by the time they’ve made it to the red carpet.

“Taehyung,” someone shouts, “Why aren’t you here with Risa?”

“We’re coming separately today,” he says, “from our family’s homes.”

“Really?” Leihua asks. “You went home?”

“Everyone needs a good dose of home every now and then,” says Taehyung. With this, Leihua agrees.

“Hey.”

And then, Jeongguk is there, behind him, as he always is. Tonight his suit is a red so dark it might be black, maybe Taehyung is only imagining it, but—no, there’s a definite red sheen to the fabric. And, as always, he looks great.

“Hey!” Taehyung says, opening his arms. When Jeongguk hugs him, his eyes fall closed, and—he doesn’t know why. In that moment, though, finally something about this world feels right. “Who’s your date today?”

“Me, myself, and I,” Jeongguk says. “Girlfriend walked out last week.”

(“I don’t know what it is with you. Is this why you go through supermodels like pairs of contact lenses? Disposable every three months? You’re cold as ice. I don’t know how you ever expect someone to love you.”

“I don’t. I stopped expecting that from them seven years ago.”)

“Bummer,” Taehyung said. “Halla busy again?”

“She’s doing some filming in the Poconos, or wherever that is.”

“Pennsylvania.”

Jeongguk stares at him. “You just happened to know that?”

“I happen to know a lot of things, thank you!”

“Where’s Risa?” Jeongguk asks, laughter glittering in his eyes.

“Oh, she’s uh, we came separately.”

“Oh yeah?” Jeongguk nods. He, of everyone, seems to understand the things that Taehyung leaves unsaid. “I hope things are going okay.”

“They’re okay.”

But she never shows up. Taehyung dawdles as long as he can on the red carpet, long after Jeongguk’s costar arrives and they get swept up into red carpet interviews. If Taehyung recalls correctly, her name is Arian, and the top of her styled hair just barely is in line with the lowermost part of Jeongguk’s ribcage.

“Taehyung,” asks one of the press. “Could you tell us a bit about how you’re feeling tonight? Fifth nomination—pressure must be on.”

“Man, at this point, I just hope for the best, you know?” he says, smiling for the camera. “It’s really out of my control. If the Academy decides this year is the year, then I’ll be the luckiest man on earth, and if not—well, I’ll still be in Hollywood.”

“Are you optimistic about your chances tonight?”

“I guess I always am?” Taehyung shrugs. “But of course, every time, you know, I’m always nominated to compete against so many other amazing and illustrious actors. I’ve done all I could, performed my hardest. Just waiting to take that little golden man home now.”

“What’s it like to be competing against Jeongguk?”

“Oh,” Taehyung says, pretending to be offended, before he laughs. “I don’t know. You kind of, you look back at how far the both of us have come, and it’s not that I ever doubted him—but when we were just kids, in that first movie, did I ever imagine the both of us on this red carpet today? Crossing fingers for each other? Not exactly. It’s a feeling unlike any other.”

“Of course. Good luck to both of you tonight.”

“What were you saying about me,” Jeongguk says, squinting, when red carpet begins coming to a close. “I heard my name.”

“Oh, I was just telling all sorts of nasty secrets about you to the press,” Taehyung says. “The media is going to just lap it up.”

“Thanks, I can always count on you.”

“Risa isn’t here, is she?”

“I guess not,” Taehyung says, words muted. “Let’s go sit down.”

“Taehyung—”

“Will you sit with me?”

Today, Jeongguk turns that look on him in front of the entire world to see.

“Yes, always.”

 

With Jeongguk sitting beside him, Taehyung can forget some of the more unfortunate things in life. With Jeongguk sitting beside him, Taehyung is happy.

Somehow, things have always been easier when Jeongguk is beside him, regardless of how old they are, and what part of the world they’re in. If Jeongguk is there, Taehyung feels this thing called happiness as R.S. Goetzen had described it—“a kind of exploding in your chest that at once feels like fireworks and rain on windows, so happy your heart hurts. That kind of happiness, where the simplest things are beautiful—brownies in cups, and pollen, and the cracks in sidewalks after the rain has washed the dirt of winter away.”

“Fuck, I’m nervous,” Jeongguk confesses after Best Actress has been announced. “Fuck, I’m so nervous.”

“Me too,” Taehyung says. “But whatever happens—we’ll go to that Governor’s Ball again, and drink a ton of champagne. And you have to introduce me to Arian, she is so cute.”

She’s sitting behind them, actually, with her parents. “Sure,” Jeongguk says. “I think her mom is silently dying inside about sitting behind you at the Academy Awards, though.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Big fan of Point Blanc, so I hear.”

“I see,” Taehyung says.

Ellen is hosting the Oscars again this year, much to everyone’s delight, and the show goes on. A montage for some of the greatest film industry icons that had passed away that year plays, and then there’s a good twenty minutes of Ellen Antics™ before she even brings up the Best Actor category. This year Lupita is to announce them.

“These actors have given audiences some of the most outstanding performances of the year,” she says after the applause dies away. “Some comedic, some tragic, all of them stunning—a retired playwright who turns to hyperrealism to remember what he loved the theater for, a reclusive old man who has not left his house in nearly three decades, a homeless man whose life changes when he discovers an abandoned child whom he raises as his own—”

Taehyung grips Jeongguk’s elbow.

“—a cynical, jaded, psychologist, and a street artist whose dreams of the world are larger than life.” She pauses, mid-smile, as the audience applauds again. “Without further ado, here are the nominees for performance by an actor in a leading role.”

Beside him, Jeongguk shifts in his seat, the springs creaking.

“Varun Pasumarthy, Standing Ovations,” comes the cool voice of the announcer as stills of each character flashes across the jumbotron. “Terrence Khalameizer, When We Watered The Flowers. Jeon Jeongguk, Home. Jaron Bedford, Mind Over Matter. Kim Taehyung, Black Rainbow.

Jeongguk’s hand has found its way onto Taehyung’s, where he’s still squeezing his elbow so tight he’s sure he’s cutting off Jeongguk’s circulation.

“And the Oscar goes to…”

Taehyung’s mouth is dry as she tears open the seal of the envelope, golden stationery flashing dully in the stagelights.

“Jeon Jeongguk!”

“Oh my God,” says Jeongguk, beside him, standing up as if in a dream while the rest of the theater erupts in applause. He looks behind him, where Arian has jumped out of her seat, shouting something incoherent as he bends at the waist for her to hug him around his neck. “Holy shit, me—”

“You!” Taehyung says, and pulls him into a hug, and Jeongguk laughs in his ear. “I can’t believe you beat me to it! My Timeshaker!”

“Oh my god,” Jeongguk repeats, “Okay, shit—okay—”

“Go get your Oscar, you,” Taehyung says, but not before Jeongguk is hugged by at least three more people, and his director. When he finally makes it onstage, Taehyung doesn’t miss the gleam in his eyes.

“Okay, I had some thanks to say,” Jeongguk says, “and all of them just flew right out of my head, so here’s to hoping I remember them all.”

He goes down the line of all the people that Oscar winners thank—managerial teams, film crews, the directors, their costars, their family. And, in what Taehyung realizes is an echo of his Golden Globe win nearly six years ago, Jeongguk turns to him onstage and says, “To Taehyung, because if not for him, and I mean this in every sense—if not for him, I would not be standing here today. You who taught me so much about the world of acting, who taught me to believe in the people I played.”

Taehyung almost cries. He might have, just a little bit.

 

But after the joy of award season fizzles out, reality comes back to eat away at him from the inside.

It takes Taehyung three days after the Oscars to gather his things, his wits, and his courage to return to San Diego.

“I’ll go with you, hyung,” Jongkyu says seriously. “I’ll—I don’t know, yell at her.”

“She’ll laugh, don’t try,” Taehyung says. “It’s going to be a fucking riot getting her to sign the divorce papers, so I’m looking forward to that.”

“Oppa,” Eunjin says. “I don’t trust her.”

“I don’t, either, believe me,” Taehyung says dryly, and her smile is brittle. “Don’t worry about me, okay? If I can get through Hollywood, I can get through a divorce.”

“I don’t want her to ruin your name or your image in the media because she’s a terrible human being,” she goes on. “But if you say so. We’re always gonna be here, okay? Right here in Visalia.”

“Yes, Taehyung-ah, come home if you need to,” his mother says. Her hands are wrinkled, wizened with age, but when she takes his into them Taehyung suddenly feels like a little boy again. “If there’s anything you need, give us a call. Your father should be home soon and he can talk to you if you need him.”

“Thank you, tell him I missed him.” Taehyung ducks out. “I’ll be going now!”

“Good luck!” Jongkyu shouts as Taehyung starts his car. He gives them a wave, and then he’s back on the road.

Ha, luck. It really doesn’t matter how much luck Taehyung has in the world. Whether or not he succeeds in walking away from Risa with her signature on their divorce papers doesn’t change the fact that he dreads talking to her again.

The highways are clogged up at this hour of the day, and Taehyung knows that the people in the cars around him are staring as they’re stuck in this snail crawl on the 101. He stares resolutely at the license plate of the car in front of him, turning his air conditioning on full blast, even though the next gas station is miles and miles away. He turns on the radio too, for good measure, and nearly jumps out of his skin when Jeongguk’s voice filters out of the stereo.

“What the f—”

First it’s wait, that’s not him, then but it has to be, I’d know this voice anywhere. He stares at the radio, where the words JEON JEONGGUK - LOST STARS jog across the glowing blue screen, pausing for a moment before they move again.

He takes out his phone, turning down the music.

“You seem to like calling me at two PM a lot,” is the first thing that Jeongguk says when he picks up.

“You didn’t fucking tell me you sing,” Taehyung says. “I just turned on the radio and it’s—” He reaches forward and turns the knob of his radio.

“Oh, Jesus,” Jeongguk says. “Yeah, I did that for the soundtrack of Young God. The score composer heard me singing and insisted I had to.”

“I can’t believe you,” Taehyung says, as Jeongguk’s soft voice in the background tells him that sometimes, best laid plans sometimes are just a one-night stand. Or three-night stands, in their case.

“Well,” Jeongguk says, amusement in his voice. “Surprise?”

“I’m going to hang up and listen to this properly, then use up all my data on YouTube on my phone to listen to it some more.”

“Please don’t. I cringe hearing it now, it was so bad.”

“Are you kidding? It’s fucking amazing!”

“Aw, thank you. I gotta sing for you sometime in the future though, I can’t have you listening to my subpar stuff from 2018.” Jeongguk clears his throat. “Are you still in Visalia?”

The smile melts off Taehyung’s face. “No, I’m going back to San Diego,” he says. “It’s bumper to bumper, so.”

“Aw shit,” Jeongguk says. “Well, listen—I gotta take off for now, actually, I’m so sorry—”

“Oh, no, go ahead,” Taehyung says. “Don’t let me keep you.”

“Talk to you later,” Jeongguk says, and Taehyung’s phone beeps three times when he hangs up. Then Jeongguk’s song ends, and it’s replaced with something that grates on Taehyung’s ears. He shuts the radio off, so the rest of the drive is filled with only the sounds of the car’s engine beneath him.

The traffic is horrific, but the second that Taehyung’s house in San Diego looms up in his windshield, pristine white geometry against the dusky night sky, he wants to turn his car right around and drive—to where? He can’t run back to Visalia, so he grits his teeth and pulls up to the gate.

He parks his car on the driveway after security greenlights his ID and lets him through. Nothing in the house moves when he opens the front door; everything is still as immaculately clean as it he’d left it, the couches unsat in, the kitchen spotless. The little pool squid in the yard whirs along the floor of the swimming pool, illuminated by the blue lights.

Taehyung stands there in the foyer long enough for his feet to start hurting. Then he toes off his shoes, leaving his suitcase where it is, and makes for the living room. The shadowy lights of the streetlamps leave a sterile white glow over their wedding photo that hangs over the loveseat. They had looked so genuinely happy back then, somehow.

What happened?

“I was wondering when you’d come back.”

Taehyung startles so hard his knee bangs into the corner of the coffee table. Risa’s sitting at the dining table, alone, in a slouchy woolen sweater that makes her look like she’s drowning in fabric.

“How long have you been there?”

“As long as you have.”

Taehyung thins his mouth into a line. “You know what I’m here for, right?”

She laughs, tracing a knot in the wood of the table, nods at the thick packet of paper in his hand. “You know a divorce will go to court if I don’t sign those papers. Do you want to get tied up in there for two years?”

“What is it with you,” Taehyung says. “You cheat, and then you won’t let me go? What is your problem?”

“My problem is that you don’t know what you’re doing,” says Risa. “If I let you go, who’s gonna love you?”

Taehyung blinks. “Excuse me?”

“If I let you divorce me,” she enunciates, “who’s gonna love poor, poor you? Huh?” She laughs when Taehyung gapes at her. “Who, huh? Who’s gonna love you?”

And, in the midst of Taehyung’s haze of anger, Jeongguk’s face pops into his head. The laughing one, and the serious, quiet one. He can’t say why, but it’s Jeongguk. It’s always been Jeongguk.

But the front door rumbles when a key is put into the lock, and panic takes over the smug malice in Risa’s face.

“Fuck!” she hisses, leaping out of her seat and charging at Taehyung, who barely has time to put his hands up over himself before she’s shoving him backwards and slamming the door of the coat closet shut over his face. His heart pounds in his ears, his throat.

What?

Then a man’s voice.

“Why’s a suitcase in the foyer? Is that yours?”

“Yeah, sorry,” she says, and Taehyung hears the rustle of a jacket being removed. “You came back early today.”

“I wanted to surprise you,” he says, and through the slats of the closet door Taehyung sees him—tall, well-built, with scruff along his jaw and cheeks. “How are you?” he sinks into the loveseat, the fucking loveseat that he and Risa had picked out together for this house. Their house.

Then he lifts up her sweater, and Taehyung feels bile rise in this throat when he presses a kiss to her abdomen. “Did the little one give you any trouble today?”

Holy shit.

Taehyung, not now. We have things to do. We’re too busy for a child.

The room is spinning.

“I’m okay,” she says. “Little one’s okay.”

The smell of dusty coats scratches lines down Taehyung’s lungs. His suit from the Oscars still hasn’t been laundered, hanging in here. There’s stale, Oscar-trophy-shaped chocolate in one of the pockets. His palms are sweaty. He can’t stay in this closet forever. No, he refuses to stay in this fucking closet at all, and the door of it ricochets off the wall with a bang when he pushes it open.

“Holy shit, what the f—?”

“Sign it,” he says, voice booming, and Risa jumps out of the man’s arms. He appears thunderstruck, looking from her to Taehyung, back to Risa.

“Risa, you said—”

“He came home and—didn’t tell me, I—”

“Risa, what the fuck—”

“I said,” Taehyung says, “sign it. Do you need a pen?”

The gaze that Risa levels at him is defiant. “No,” she says, snatching one out of the drawer of the coffee table. “Where do I sign?”

“All the highlighted parts.”

For several moments, there’s nothing but the sound of pen to paper. Taehyung gives the man a nod, half spitefully, half bitterly. “You have fun dealing with her,” he says, and the man does not reply, staring up at him with a mixture of confusion and embarrassment and shame.

“Here,” Risa says, tossing the paper at it so it lands in a heap on the floor, spread-eagle. “If a lawyer is going to come back and demand I hand over shit, then—”

“Oh, you don’t need to worry,” Taehyung says. “You can have fucking everything. I don’t care. All I’m taking is my shit and my money, and anything we bought under both of our names is yours. I don’t want it.”

“You have nowhere to go,” she says, standing up. “You can run all you want, Taehyung.”

“I don’t care,” he says, and gathers the paper into his hands. “Anywhere is better than here.”

Conveniently, Taehyung’s suitcase is ready to grab and go, but by the time Taehyung has climbed back into his car, he furiously concedes that Risa is right—he has nowhere to go. He had sold his house in the Palisades, and it’s unreasonable at best to drive back to Visalia this very moment.

And then, some voice in his head whispers, Malibu.

The idea is insane. Jeongguk? Taehyung shakes his head. The likelihood that he’s even in the state right now is meager. Even if he is, it’s going to be ass o’clock in the morning once he gets there, and then there’s the question of whether they’ll even let Taehyung in.

Well. Malibu is north of here, so worst case scenario will be to gun it back to his hometown if Jeongguk isn’t a viable option.

The road is quieter now that night has fallen, and Taehyung fills up gas alone in the grimy station off the side of the highway, with only the company of headlights racing by some hundred yards away. He hopes against hope, when he gets back into his car, that the address Jeongguk had given him is his most current one, and enters it into his GPS.

! This destination requires use of restricted roads that might not be accessible to the public, it warns as he cranks the car into drive, and X’s out of it.

He thinks of what to say to Jeongguk. I’m sorry, I have nowhere to go, is it okay? It’s not like Jeongguk will say no, or turn him away, but there’s really an art to talking without making it sound like Taehyung is shattered blood and glass inside, and he really doesn’t want Jeongguk knowing what a mess he is. If he didn’t have to drive he’d been four shots in by now of the strongest alcohol he owns. Taehyung turns on the radio, but Jeongguk’s voice isn’t there to sing to him on this lonely road, so he punches the knob to shut it off, hands restless. It’s quiet again.

Who is going to love him?

Everyone is busy with their own lives.

Taehyung grips his steering wheel tighter and digs his fingernails into the buttery leather. He told himself he wouldn’t let Risa get to his head.

His leg is starting to go numb from being pressed on the gas for so long, when the GPS finally chirps at him to get off the highway at the next exit. He sees the silhouettes of palm trees come into view as he takes the exit a high swoop up, a bridge over the highway. The city comes into view, a dazzling nightscape.

The restricted roads come up none too soon. Jeongguk appears to be living in a neighborhood that, too, is gated, and Taehyung is sure it’s full of other celebrities that he can’t list off the top of his head. The white, iron-wrought gate is manned by a security guard that asks, “Name?”

“Of me or of who I’m visiting?”

“Of you,” he says, boredly, not even looking in Taehyung’s direction.

“I don’t live here. I’m here to visit someone.”

“Oh, in that case, your ID and residence name,” the security guard says, finally turning his face. Mild surprise registers in his eyes.

“I’m here to see Jeon Jeongguk.”

“Oh, you don’t even need to try him, he’s got an in list of six people and half of them are his family,” says the guard. “Sorry, my friend.”

Fuck. Taehyung takes a deep breath. “Please check anyway.”

“You like disappointment, huh?”

“Please.”

“Alright,” he says, sitting up and shaking the mouse of his monitor. He peers out of the window and Taehyung holds up his license for him. “Kim Taehyung...oh. Interesting. You are on his in list, actually.”

“I am?”

“Says right here.” He points at the flickering screen of the monitor. “I’m as surprised as you are.”

“So I can go in?”

“As soon as I get these gates open, my friend,” he says, leaning over to push a button on the control panel beside the keyboard. “Good night.”

“Thank you,” Taehyung says as the gates close behind him. Now that he’s in, his GPS speaks up again, telling him to go through a maze of meandering roads before it falls silent in front of a spreading estate that might be even bigger than Taehyung’s. All the lights are off in the windows.

He takes a breath, climbs out of the car, and locks his doors. Grass sandwiches the cobblestone path up to the front door, and over it is a security camera that blinks sleepily at him with its single red eye. On, off. On, off.

The doorbell is a metal contraption that looks more like a cell phone than a doorbell, and Taehyung fits his thumb to the button, takes another breath. Presses.

Twenty seconds go by. The melancholy sound of windchimes filters through the balmy evening air where it hangs in one of the neighbor’s porches.

Taehyung doesn’t know what he expected. Of course Jeongguk isn’t going to answer the door, if Jeongguk were to answer the door at all. He’d be lucky to just get a response from the housekeeper or a staffer. It’s strange enough that none of the security, he’s sure there are more around, have actually followed him on his heels to the front doorstep, framed with two carved marble lions each with one of their paws resting on the spherical knob at the top of the posts. Stranger even that Taehyung’s name is on the in list. He wonders who the two others that aren’t Jeongguk’s family could be.

Finally, after about a quarter hour of fruitless waiting, Taehyung takes out his phone and dials Jeongguk’s number. It’s much too cold to be wearing this little, but in his anger he hadn’t thought to take a sweater out from his suitcase.

The tone rings. Once, twice. Three times. The call doesn’t go dead, but Jeongguk doesn’t pick up, either.

Then a click, and “Taehyung?”

A breath hitches in his throat at the sound of Jeongguk’s voice. It’s sleepy, syllables blurred together like pen ink. His voice is deeper now, but Taehyung still remembers the way Jeongguk sounds when he wakes up. He wishes he didn’t. “Hello?” he prompts after Taehyung doesn’t reply.

“Hey, I, Jeongguk. Jeongguk?”

“Yeah, ’s’me,” he says. Gentle rustling filters through the line, and Taehyung bites the inside of his cheek at his own stupidity. Of course. What the fuck did he expect? Jeongguk has his own life, and it’s unlikely that whichever model warms his bed this week, this month, is too pleased about being woken in the godless hours of the morning. “What’s up?”

“I.” The snout of the lion is cold when he runs the tip of his finger along carved marble, coming up empty for words. “I’m here.”

Jeongguk doesn’t answer right away. “Where, here?” he asks, voice clearing of slumber.

“I’m here, as in, outside. Outside your place.”

“Outside the gate?”

“No, I’m at your front door. I’m sorry, I know it’s—it’s a ridiculous time, I don’t know why I—“

“Stay where you are.”

Jeongguk hangs up on him and the dial tone drones into Taehyung’s ear. For a moment, nothing moves, and then a ghostly figure appears in the frosted panels of glass in the doors. The lock clicks—well, several locks click—and one of the doors swings open.

They stare at each other.

“Hey.”

“Hey,” Taehyung echoes weakly.

“Were you,” Jeongguk scratches the back of his head. His sweatpants are inside out and half of his shirt is tucked into the waistband, like he’d thrown on clothes in the thirty seconds it took from hanging up to answering the door. When he meets Taehyung’s gaze, it’s hazy, disbelieving, and Jeongguk looks on the verge of asking if this is actually happening. “In town?”

“No, I came from home.”

He stares at him.

“You live in San Diego.”

“Yeah. I do.”

Jeongguk flicks his gaze to the right, then back at Taehyung’s face, like he’s missing some grand punchline here.

“This is Malibu.”

“I know,” Taehyung says. “Sorry, I should have told you, or something. That I was coming.”

“No, it’s okay,” Jeongguk says, and opens the door wider. “Here, come in. What happened? It’s,” he looks at the clock in the hallway, a unbearably chic, streamlined monstrosity of a thing, Taehyung doesn’t even know how to read it upon first glance, “Four AM. You want some water?”

“Yeah, okay,” says Taehyung, following Jeongguk into his kitchen. It looks hardly lived in, but there is a residual smell of dinner, so he sums it up to surgically immaculate cooks. Jeongguk busies himself, as Taehyung knows he likes to in a tense situation, just so his hands have something to do. The water makes a soothing noise as Jeongguk pours it into a tall glass.

“So do you want to talk about anything?”

“You have my name on the in list.”

Jeongguk nearly drops his Brita. Even perched on the bar stool, looking at Jeongguk’s back, Taehyung can hear the splash of water on the countertop.

“Oh, well,” Jeongguk says, turning around to hand Taehyung the glass. The slip in his composure could have been nothing more than a trick of the light if not for the puddle of water pooling across the granite, and Jeongguk catches it in a kitchen towel he snags off the handlebar of the stove. “I suppose I do.”

“Security says there are only six names on the list.” Taehyung laces his fingers together and rests his chin on the bridge they create. “Care to share them?”

Jeongguk leans his hip against the counter on the other side of the bar. “You,” he says. “My mom, my dad, my brother, my manager, and I forgot to delete the name of recent ex number…possibly seven.”

“Possibly?”

“You lose count, you know.”

“No, not really.”

“Right, you wouldn’t,” Jeongguk says, and it’s mostly joke, harmless, but it’s not without a bitter aftertaste. Or so Taehyung thinks. Maybe everything tastes bitter right now, but sitting in Jeongguk’s kitchen sipping on cold water makes him forget a little why he’s even here. He does not ask Taehyung again why they have found themselves here, with the counter digging a bit into Taehyung’s ribs, Jeongguk wearing a ratty t-shirt that could pass as a dress on (any of) his (many) girlfriend(s) (why can’t Taehyung forget that?). Instead he props his chin in his hand, lingering sleep making his face more honest that Taehyung has seen in a while, and the Jeongguk Look is back.

“Take a picture.”

“It won’t last any longer than it takes for me to forget I have it.”

Taehyung gives him a wry smile. “That’s one I haven’t heard.”

“Not bad, right?”

“Pia would be so proud.”

Taehyung thumbs at the rim of his glass a bit, watching as a drop of condensation slides down the smooth glass. The words “She’s cheating on me,” tumble out of his mouth nearly of their own accord, bursting to be known, and the subsequent sobs that follow are even more triumphantly unannounced. Through the fog of tears Taehyung sees Jeongguk lift his chin from his hand, frown pulling on the corners of his mouth, and his body disappears from Taehyung’s line of vision up as he moves around the bar.

Then his arms are pulling Taehyung close, and Jeongguk’s warmth wraps around him like home. Home. It comes as no surprise, really, that the world would fall in love with Jeongguk’s Ezekiel. It should come as no surprise, then, that Taehyung would fall in love with—

“Oh, Taehyung, I’m so sorry.”

“I guess I should have seen it coming,” Taehyung says, the words garbled around the force of his sobs. He tries not to cry as hard as he wants to, but the pressure in his throat is unbearable. These are tears he’s held since the moment he knew Risa wasn’t going to show up to be his date at the 96th Academy Awards, letting him walk alone across the red carpet. The drive here had been dry, quiet, the Pacific Coast Highway eerily empty in the dead of night. Now they come like the tide, unforgiving. “There’ve been red flags for ages, I just wanted to be blind to them. I just told myself that I was expecting too much.”

“What did you expect?” Jeongguk’s body leans away a little, but he keeps his hold around Taehyung, and there is the sound of a paper towel being torn from the roll.

“Remember that I told you I asked her if she wanted kids, and,” Taehyung takes it, pressing his eyes into the rough material. “And she said no? And I said, that’s okay, that’s fine. I get it, you have shit to do. We have shit to do. Or maybe she didn’t want kids at all, and that was okay too. But it was just,” Taehyung chokes on his own saliva here when he inhales too hard, breath shuddering. “It was just that she didn’t want one with me, because she’s pregnant, but she didn’t want her life to be tied any more than it already was to mine, and that’s just—that’s just, horrible, it just made me feel—why didn’t she just tell me? Why did she have to—it’s just, is there something wrong with me, why, I thought we could work through it—”

“Taehyung,” Jeongguk says, not so much to get his attention, but because it’s really the only thing he can say in response. “Oh, Taehyung, no. There’s nothing wrong with you.”

The words congeal in the pit of Taehyung’s stomach, and Jeongguk just lets him cry. It feels good, to finally let it out where he won’t be seen by anyone else but someone he trusts, away from people who will shove a camera in his face and ask him what’s wrong so they can get their week’s paycheck.

It takes a while for the tears to finally subside, and Taehyung is just a little embarrassed about the way he’s soaked the front of Jeongguk’s shirt. When there is nothing more but sniffles, Jeongguk asks, “Why come all the way here? You could have called me.”

Taehyung swallows thickly, the peppery feeling in his nose after he’s cried still burning in his throat. “I don’t know.” There’s no delicate way to say that he wanted someone to hold him like this. Not that Taehyung hopped in his car expressly seeking an embrace, but he didn’t realize he needed one so badly until he had it.

“Do you want to stay over?”

Jeongguk’s arms loosen when Taehyung finally lifts his face out of Jeongguk’s chest. His face is soft, open, and Taehyung fights the sudden urge to reach up and cup Jeongguk’s jaw like he had once nine years ago. It hadn’t been so well-defined back then, thrown into even sharper relief by the bluish-white lights of the kitchen, and his fingers itch to know the weight of Jeongguk’s bones on his body again.

“Why am I on your in list?”

They hold their gazes for a moment before Jeongguk is ducking his face, looking away. “I don’t know,” he mutters, also. “I just. Just in case, you know. And it came in handy. Where would you have gone if—“

“No, Jeongguk,” Taehyung says, so emphatically that Jeongguk looks back up at him. “I mean, I haven’t ever been to your house. I haven’t been to this one, or the one in Studio City, ever. You told me your address both times and told me to come visit, and—why? Why have you just kept me on your in list, knowing full well that I might never come?”

“I don’t know,” Jeongguk repeats, and this time it sounds like a plea. As if he knows why, and wants Taehyung to stop asking.

Taehyung shakes his head, half in disbelief, half in frustration that he can’t seem to convey this feeling in his chest. It weighs on his heart, like it’s pinned underneath the sole of a shoe. Then his hands are tired of waiting, sliding from where they’re braced against Jeongguk’s chest up to his face to make him look at Taehyung properly, and he kisses him.

It only lasts a heartbeat, a warm press of lips. Taehyung lets Jeongguk break away from it. He felt the tense of Jeongguk’s whole body when their mouths met, and he can’t blame him. Taehyung lets Jeongguk break away, but he doesn’t pull away, face but a breath away from Taehyung’s as he stares at him.

Some sort of explanation, or apology, he doesn’t know, is on Taehyung’s tongue. He’s overstepped some boundary, fuck, he knows he has. But Jeongguk leaves no room for him to give either of them, because he’s pressing back in again, kissing Taehyung with a kind of hunger that punches the air out of their lungs. It’s so desperate that Taehyung swears that Jeongguk whimpers against his lips when he opens his mouth and kisses back with a fervor to match. He lets Taehyung wrap his arms around his neck. He even lets Taehyung lock his ankles together around his waist, gathering him closer, closer, and they stay wrapped up in each other in Jeongguk’s quiet kitchen with only the sounds of their kissing to fill the silence.

Taehyung gasps into Jeongguk’s mouth when he feels his hands slide under the hem of his shirt, up along the plane of his back. It’s so hard not to press into the touch of Jeongguk’s palms, big and warm, so Taehyung lets himself shiver at the touch.

“Jeongguk—”

“Hey,” Jeongguk says, when Taehyung reciprocates, more insistently, trying to get the hem of Jeongguk’s shirt up and over his head. “Hey, wait.”

“Oh,” says Taehyung, pulling his hands away. The fabric of Jeongguk’s shirt falls down the length of his back with a soft sound when he lets go. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—”

Jeongguk catches Taehyung’s hands in his own, putting them back where they’d been resting on his shoulders. “I meant to ask,” he says, eyes dark, “if you wanted to go upstairs.”

“Yes,” Taehyung says, grip tightening on Jeongguk’s shoulders, the muscle solid under his hands. “Yes, I want to.”

Jeongguk leans into him, and Taehyung gets the message, curling his arms securely around Jeongguk’s neck as Jeongguk hooks his hands under the bends of Taehyung’s knees. Sitting in this bar stool makes it easy for him to do this, with Taehyung’s legs wrapped around his waist, and he even manages to get the kitchen light when they leave. To conserve energy, and all that. Jeongguk the Environmentally Conscious, now, Taehyung remembers. Just another one of the things that he noticed and tried to forgot from the moment he’d seen Jeongguk refuse to throw his cigarette butt on the sidewalk.

The trip up the stairs is a little harder. Taehyung keeps distracting him with kisses, and Jeongguk’s hand shoots out to steady them when he stumbles. But Taehyung only presses laughter into his lips, and it tastes like you, you, only for you.

In the places where the blankets are bunched up on Jeongguk’s bed, the mattress is still a little warm. Jeongguk nearly trips over an open suitcase on the floor, and Taehyung bounces when he lands in the middle of the bed, far too large for one person to occupy night in and night out.

“Jeongguk,” Taehyung gasps, back arching slightly when Jeongguk pushes his shirt out of the way to kiss his abdomen.

“Hmm?” Jeongguk says, giving Taehyung’s lowest ribs an open-mouthed kiss before looking up. His chin digs into Taehyung’s sternum. “Yeah?”

“Come back here and kiss me.”

The smile that comes over Jeongguk’s face is dreamy, disbelieving, but he does—shoulders wide and big enough now to block out the light when he moves over him, and Taehyung shivers with arousal. Jeongguk doesn’t miss it, the way Taehyung shakes beneath him, and laughs at the triumphant noise that Taehyung makes when he finally succeeds in getting Jeongguk’s tee off. He pulls away, giving Taehyung one last kiss, and asks, “Do you really want to do this?”

“Yes,” Taehyung says, embarrassed, almost scared by the decade’s buildup of longing in his voice. It comes with a strength he didn’t know he even had; not when Risa would always treat his soft heart with such disdain, as if she was shocked that it would shatter if she dropped it. “I’ve wanted you since the last time we—”

Jeongguk’s gaze bores through him. One of his hands is wrapped loosely around Taehyung’s wrist, and one of his thighs pressing down into the heat of Taehyung’s crotch, and he’s hyperaware of every part of their bodies that touches.

“The last time we did this?”

Taehyung might have nodded. He can’t be sure. It probably goes undetected, too miniscule a movement, the tiniest inclination of his face before he’s straining his head out of the pillows a little to kiss Jeongguk in reply instead.

There are some things that are the same, and some things that are different. Taehyung is still ticklish on the sides of his ribs, his heart contracting painfully when Jeongguk still remembers, and kisses him there to make him laugh. There’s a scar there, now, where Taehyung had been grazed by prop shrapnel onset of Point Blanc, and Jeongguk gives the faint line an extra kiss. Jeongguk’s spine still has that knob between his shoulder blades where one of his vertebrae juts out a little more than the rest, but the muscles around it are stronger, thicker, so much that Taehyung almost says that it must have disappeared until he finds it. There were some things that had only been now (then) and some things that are forever, and they have tread the treacherous land in between side by side all this time.

Taehyung whimpers when Jeongguk presses his cock against his entrance, slick with lube. He’d taken his sweet time stretching him, fingering him, waiting until Taehyung had been quite literally begging for him to fuck him properly. It’s not that he’s nervous, and Jeongguk doesn’t seem reluctant either, but his chest is tight with the realization that this is the same person he climbed into bed with the first time he ever got in bed with anyone, and here they are again.

“Relax,” Jeongguk says. “Relax for me.”

Taehyung shivers again at the touch of Jeongguk’s hand on the backs of his thighs, holding him still and open as he pushes in slow. At the sounds of whimpers in Taehyung’s throat, he stops, waiting for it to turn back into soft panting and Taehyung’s urges to keep going. He finally lets Taehyung’s legs down when he’s pressed in to the hilt, and Taehyung elects to wrap them around his waist and tug him close.

“Fuck,” Jeongguk pants, breath coming out in shuddering exhales, followed by quick, jerky inhales. “Taehyung, fuck.”

“Move,” Taehyung says, pulling Jeongguk down for more kisses, enjoying the groan that he feeds into Taehyung’s mouth when he rolls his hips once.

This time around the both of them know what the fuck they’re doing, and they do it well. Jeongguk fucks Taehyung hard, harder, Jeongguk, knowing the angle that hits Taehyung just right for him to tip his head back and moan brokenly. No earrings decorate Jeongguk’s ears right now but he chokes out a low groan when Taehyung closes his mouth around one of his earlobes anyway, losing the rhythm in his hips for a few seconds as Taehyung toys at the pierced flesh with his tongue.

Taehyung doesn’t need to say he’s going to come. Jeongguk senses it, the higher pitch of his cries, the raggedness of his breathing. “Do it,” he says, driving his hips into Taehyung’s. “Come now. Come for me.”

The sound of the endearment makes Taehyung’s joints lock up as he comes, tightening around Jeongguk so hard that he has to stop moving for a moment. He fucks Taehyung slowly through his orgasm, and just as Taehyung starts to come down from the high, fading into the aftershocks, Jeongguk comes too. Taehyung whimpers as Jeongguk rides through it, hips jerking once or twice more before he stills.

If either of them had thought they would only have a single round of sex, then suffice it to say: they don’t. There is a tireless, unrelenting desire in the pit of Taehyung’s stomach that Jeongguk takes absolute delight in helping to extinguish, despite the fact that the birds are starting to sing outside. The sky turns from a polluted navy-grey to a cold blue to, finally, an opalescent pink, like the inside an oyster shell.

Taehyung lies exhausted in the loose circle of Jeongguk’s arms at the end of it, sweat cooling on his skin. He can sense the subtle relaxation of Jeongguk’s muscles around him as he starts drifting off, even as Taehyung mouths lazily at his neck, pausing every now and then to give him a soft, proper kiss.

“Jeongguk?”

He gives him three kisses in succession, until Jeongguk blinks his eyes open just enough to see him. “Mm,” he hums, and even though his eyes are slitted, Taehyung shivers at the adoration in them. “Yeah?”

“Do you,” Taehyung smooths the covers under Jeongguk’s chin. “Do you love me?”

The question has Jeongguk opening his eyes this time with no difficulty at all. He blinks once, twice, then lets out a sigh that sounds like he’s sinking into the first sleep he’s had in years.

“Yes. Of course,” he says. “Now and forever.”

 

The sun casts a long, dazzling line across the surface of the sea beyond the cliffs by the time Taehyung is blinking his eyes open. His entire body is sore, like he’d worked out too long and too hard at the gym, and for a moment he thinks that had been exactly what he’d done to stave off the reality of his marriage.

Then the rest of the world comes back, a thousand pieces coming together at once to make a picture that he can’t quite comprehend. The smell of Jeongguk on his skin, and Jeongguk’s chest on his back, and the fact that this is not a room that Taehyung immediately recognizes. The grunt he gets when he turns his head, trying to see if he’s still dreaming, confirms this is real. Undeniably real, and Taehyung relaxes again with a disbelieving laugh.

“What’s so funny?”

“It feels like I woke up ten years in the past,” Taehyung murmurs, spreading one of his hands wide in the sheets.

Jeongguk’s laugh is nothing more than a quick succession of breaths against Taehyung’s shoulder, three puffs out of his nose and the shake of his ribs on his back. “Jesus. I hope this place is a little better than the hotel.”

“Much better. I still really enjoyed those complimentary chocolates, though.”

“There are some in the kitchen.”

Taehyung falls silent, and Jeongguk’s breathing evens out. For a moment he thinks that Jeongguk must’ve drifted back to sleep again—even though it’s nearing 3 PM in the afternoon, and Taehyung is a little embarrassed. His phone is probably overloaded with the outside world trying to reach him right now, and his head hurts at the thought of it.

But Jeongguk kisses his shoulder, softly, lips a little chapped from sleep, and his arm slides up Taehyung’s body where it had been draped loosely over his waist until his hand is pressed just under Taehyung’s heart. He trails his mouth along the curve of Taehyung’s shoulder, to the junction at his neck, and then lays kisses on his nape, and Taehyung shivers.

“What are you doing?”

“Making it obvious you didn’t wake up ten years into the past,” Jeongguk says. “By doing what I should’ve and didn’t do back then.”

“Holy shit,” Taehyung laughs, shivering in Jeongguk’s arms. It’s not cold, not in sunny Malibu even in the winter, but there are goosebumps along his arms at the sensation of Jeongguk pressing sleepy kisses along the back of his neck. When he squirms, making to toss, Jeongguk doesn’t restrain him and allows Taehyung settles in against his side, half-lying on top of him, with one leg between Jeongguk’s.

“How long?”

Jeongguk sighs. “You know how long, Taehyung.” He stays very still, even when Taehyung runs his thumb back and forth on the skin of his chest right beneath his collarbone.

The answer has been sitting in the dusty attic of Taehyung’s heart, in the cellar of his thoughts. The harder he tried not to know it the more it rattled in its confines.

“Nine years,” he says hollowly, and Jeongguk’s face doesn’t change to confirm or deny it. “That’s a very long time.”

“That’s almost as many years as Arian’s been alive.”

“Why me,” Taehyung asks, hand curling over Jeongguk’s shoulder now. There’s agitation in his body and Jeongguk seems to sense it, and reaches up to run a hand over the small of Taehyung’s back. “Why me, why someone who took nine years and a ruined marriage to realize he loved you back? Why did you wait for me?”

Frustration bubbles up in Taehyung’s throat again when Jeongguk regards him with infuriating composure. “Why?” he repeats. “Why did you wait for someone who made a life without you in it?”

“You have always been in my life,” Jeongguk says. “But—”

“How can you say that when—?”

“Listen, Taehyung, yes, you have been,” Jeongguk says, propping himself up on his elbows. “We have always been each other’s lives whether we wanted to be or not; from the first moment people watched us together in our first movie our paths have been on the same road, never quite crossing, maybe, but we have always had each other.”

“And that was enough for you.”

“Maybe it wasn’t enough,” Jeongguk admits. “No, it wasn’t—of course I wanted more than that moment you won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in Pocketful of Sunshine. But you know what kind of lives we lead, and for a long time I knew it had to just be lingering obsession from after our first movie. Maybe that’s what it was, at first, but as the years went on I still wanted more, still wanted everything on earth with you. I wanted to tell you, even. Given different circumstances, I probably would have. But I was too slow, and you came back from Scandinavia with Risa in tow, and you guys were happy. And then you got married, so I wasn’t going to fuck it all up by telling you.”

Taehyung is silent now. “Why me,” he whispers for the last time.

“Because I love you.”

No pomp, no fanfare. Jeongguk is so sure in his words that tears well up in Taehyung’s eyes, and he turns his face away before it crumples. But Jeongguk’s hand is gentle, turning it back, smoothing the tear tracks away with his thumb.

Today, he leans in first, and Taehyung is the one who whimpers and opens his mouth to Jeongguk’s kisses. He’s never made love exactly, not quite like this, not even on his honeymoon. Not three in the afternoon, when they have things to attend to, because they want to. They want to have something for themselves, just this once.

There are a few words that the tabloids are fond of when they describe Jeongguk: aloof, cool, notoriously stoic. So much that the presses all pounced on his expression and his smile when Taehyung had tearfully poured his heart out onstage to him, lost in a sea of every name he could think of, lingering on Jeongguk’s as his voice wavered.

In this moment, Jeongguk is none of those words—it’s impossible to connect the “aloof, cool, notoriously stoic” Jeon Jeongguk with the one that puts his hands on Taehyung’s body, so soft and gentle that Taehyung nearly tells him to be rougher just so that he can be sure this isn’t still all a dream. How can this person, who hitches Taehyung’s knees higher on his hips and kisses him, be the same Jeongguk with smiles so rare that the media is virtually banned from hunting them?

“I didn’t realize it earlier,” Jeongguk says, chest still rising and falling with little shudders later, and Taehyung pulls back from kissing him to hear him better.

“Realize what?”

“You said you love me.”

“Oh.” Taehyung sucks his lower lip into his mouth, thumbs at the patchwork of hickeys he left on Jeongguk’s throat. They look good. “Yes, I did. I do.”

“For how long?” Jeongguk seems to not be able to resist the question, a smile flirting with the corner of his mouth.

“From the moment you let me take your hands in that parking lot, and you closed your eyes,” Taehyung says. “It wasn’t love, exactly. But in that moment, something in me knew it was going to be you, sticky ice cream hands and all. Oh, it said. So this is the person you’ve been waiting for.

✩✩

It’s a life that Jeongguk had not even let himself dream of, for it is the happiest dreams from which he wakes saddest of all.

“Not a dream,” Taehyung murmurs when Jeongguk says it aloud on the second night, mouth loose after an orgasm. The weight of Taehyung’s head is solid and real on Jeongguk’s chest, and the tip of his finger tickles shapes of figure eights as he loops up, down around Jeongguk’s bellybutton. Up, down. “It’s real.”

“Why didn’t you ever say anything?”

Jeongguk can’t help the childishness of the question, and he curses at himself when Taehyung’s finger stops. He shifts his head so his face is tilted up to see Jeongguk’s.

“Same reason you didn’t,” he says, then goes back to tracing lines on Jeongguk’s abdomen. It’s sticky with their come. “I didn’t want to act on feelings that I thought were created by a story we told. I guess the joke was on me, since I went on to do exactly that, with someone else.”

“Oh.” Jeongguk runs his thumb against an inch of skin of Taehyung’s shoulder, where he has an arm around them. “You’re right.”

“I know,” Taehyung says. “I just can’t imagine what it’s been like for you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Sitting down and telling you I have a girlfriend,” Taehyung says, “asking you to be my best man and give a speech about how you were so happy for me. You don’t remember what happened in Carlsbad, do you?”

Jeongguk blinks. “What?”

“On your twenty-second. Do you remember what happened in Carlsbad at all?”

“No,” Jeongguk says. “I remember getting there and I remember waking up.”

“Yeah, we were sharing a bed in Omni,” Taehyung says. “Did you never wonder how we ended up there?”

“Obviously,” Jeongguk says. “I remember telling you not to tell me, because I didn’t want to know what I potentially did. Or said.” He pauses. “I’m concerned.”

“You didn’t say anything that gave much away, and thinking about it now, it breaks my heart,” Taehyung says. He snakes his arm around Jeongguk’s middle now. “But you got really, really drunk. The drunkest I’ve ever seen you.”

“I really didn’t say anything?”

“I mean, only one thing,” Taehyung says. “And you were drunk enough that I didn’t think much of it.”

“And that was?”

“‘Don’t get married,’” Taehyung says, so quietly that Jeongguk has to strain to hear. “You had your head on my shoulder in the bar. The music was so loud, maybe you thought I wouldn’t hear you, but I did.”

There’s a smothered silence.

“That wasn’t telling enough for you?” asks Jeongguk. “Fuck.”

“No, no, don’t,” Taehyung says, sitting up to push sweaty hair out of Jeongguk’s face and give him a kiss. His hand is gentle against Jeongguk’s neck. “I was drunk too, and I honestly didn’t remember that exchange for a while until it just—came back to me, for some reason.”

Jeongguk slides his hand down Taehyung’s arm, till his hand closes around the one Taehyung has on his neck. “And somehow, you came back to me,” he says. “I just wish we weren’t so scared, in the beginning.”

“I’m not scared anymore,” Taehyung says. “I want this.”

 

It’s on the third night when Jeongguk orders takeout that he figures he really can’t put it off any longer. Neither of them have left the house for anything in the past three days, and he knows that a small legion of paparazzi are amassing outside the gates of the neighborhood—the security guard had given him a call to ask him if something had happened.

“Everything’s under control,” Jeongguk said.

“Is there anything you want me to say to them?”

Jeongguk had cast a glance into his bedroom, where Taehyung was still cocooned in his blankets, hugging a roll of them to his chest after Jeongguk had slid out of his arms to answer the phone.

“That Kim Taehyung is my good friend,” Jeongguk says. Even the pause that the guard gives him sounds unconvinced.

“Will do.”

“Do you actually cook and eat this for yourself?” Taehyung says, rummaging through Jeongguk’s fridge for a drink. “As in, you have time to cook?”

“Sometimes,” Jeongguk says. “Every week the housekeeper comes by and makes enough for maybe three or four days, but if I’m on a role diet then I cook for myself.”

He waits until they’ve sat down at the dining table with their dinners, serving themselves out of takeout boxes. Taehyung doesn’t eat ravenously anymore, like a starving animal, the way Jeongguk remembers, but he does still fit at least twice the volume of food into his mouth that Jeongguk can before chewing.

“Taehyung,” he begins.

“Hm?” Taehyung brings a napkin to his mouth to wipe away chow mein oil. “Yeah?”

“I really didn’t want to bring this up, but I—I have to.”

“Oh.” Taehyung sets his chopsticks down. “What is it?”

“Well,” Jeongguk says, laying his chopstick across his bowl carefully, “this is amazing—having this with you. Still a dream to me, sometimes. I swear I must be making this all up in my head, but.” He chews his lip. It’s chapped again. “You’re technically...still legally married. To Risa.”

“Oh,” Taehyung says. “Oh, Jeongguk no—”

“No, listen, I know she cheated on you, but I can’t live with the idea that—” Jeongguk gestures wordlessly. “That, I don’t know. Under the law, and everything.”

“I know,” Taehyung says. His hands are folded on the table now, severe and businesslike. “I forgot to tell you, didn’t I? I filed for divorce. I have all the papers, and her signature, I just haven’t gotten in contact with the divorce lawyer, since I’ve kind of been. Here.”

“I don’t know how soon you can leave, either,” Jeongguk says. “The pap are all out there just waiting for us to stick our heads out.”

“Of course they are,” Taehyung says with a sigh. “I’m so sorry. I brought this all upon you, I’m so—”

“Stop it,” Jeongguk says. “I wouldn’t want you to go through this alone somewhere else.”

Taehyung holds his gaze for a moment before he picks up his chopsticks. His eyes are glassy. “I don’t deserve you,” he says, putting more noodles in his mouth.

They don’t even make it to the bedroom tonight. Luckily Jeongguk has an extra large, extra comfy couch, the kind that’s shaped like an L with a chaise lounge one end. Taehyung leans over to kiss him over the dishes, and “wait, Taehyung, we’re almost done here,” but Taehyung doesn’t let them finish. Jeongguk is hardly complaining. Between dishes and the shudder of Taehyung’s body against his, he thinks it’s a pretty clear choice.

It feels like a dream, and it might just have been one, when he wakes up at the end of the week to find that Taehyung is gone.

✩✩

“Are you sure it’s uncontested?”

“If she wants to contest it, she can have whatever she wants,” Taehyung says flatly. The divorce lawyer raises her eyebrows at this. “Besides my own income and my wardrobe, anything else that she wants is hers. I don’t care.”

“This a binding legal agreement, sir,” she says. “If you leave her the house, will you have another place to stay?”

The truthful answer is no, not yet. Jeongguk’s house had been a split-second decision, and Taehyung woke up at the end of the week in the middle of the night—he’s had trouble sleeping through the night, recently, ever since he’d first seen the texts on Risa’s phone—thinking that he might have made an unforgivable mistake.

Jeongguk’s face had been so open and peaceful in sleep this morning, hand just a tiny distance away from Taehyung’s. They had fallen asleep holding hands.

The words had been swirling in Taehyung’s thoughts ever since Jeongguk mentioned it—that Taehyung is, in the eye of the law, still married. It have broken that dreamlike visage around this, whatever it was that they had—neither friends with benefits, nor a relationship. Passion, maybe, but the greyness of it drove Taehyung out of his mind until he realized.

What if Jeongguk was a rebound?

He has perfect reason to think so; someone who runs out of one relationship straight into the arms of another? He doesn’t understand how Jeongguk is okay with that, with Taehyung potentially using him, now that he knows how Jeongguk feels.

“I will,” Taehyung says. “It doesn’t matter where it is.”

“Do you really agree to not claim anything beyond your own income and previously owned personal possessions?”

“I do.” One for a wedding, one for a divorce.

“Please sign in the highlighted areas, then,” she says. “We’ll have to get in contact with her again, and the divorce will take several months to be reflected in government records.”

“Am I done here, then?”

“Yes, if she doesn’t want to contest anything, in which case the both of you need to come back,” says the lawyer. “But it will be a hard time for her, since she already provided her signature on the papers. Couples will try anything.”

“Thank you,” Taehyung says. “For your work.”

“I’m sorry,” she says, as Taehyung stands. “I hope things work out for the better for you both.”

Taehyung thanks her once more before he heads out to his car. The windshield is dusty from making trips up and down the coast of California, and he sinks into the driver’s seat with a huge exhale and curls his fingers around the steering wheel.

He wants to go back to Jeongguk. It had been so hard to drag himself out of bed this morning, pitter around the house locating all the things that of his that somehow had found themselves into the smallest nooks and crannies. There’s a lone sock in the living room from a few days ago, and Taehyung’s phone, charging in the kitchen. This is one of the moments he’s thankful that Jeongguk sleeps like the dead, for he doesn’t move a muscle even when Taehyung leans over to kiss him.

“It’s just goodbye for a little while,” he whispered. “When I can be sure—I can be sure I can give you what you deserve.”

He’ll explain soon, when he gets all his shit together—his things out of their house, for one, as Taehyung puts his car in reverse and makes for San Diego again. The plan is to gather it all and go back to Visalia, and he’ll go from there. Maybe it’s time he settled somewhere a little close to Hollywood (to Jeongguk), in Los Angeles.

A weight, however small, has been lifted off his shoulders. He knows Jeongguk isn’t going to be happy with him—not at all, and he tries not to imagine Jeongguk waking up to a cold bed and no note except a text: i’ll be back, soon. It hardly suffices as an explanation but he hopes Jeongguk can find it in him to understand, one more time. Hopefully the last time.

The house is just as eerily quiet as it had been the last time Taehyung returned unannounced, until he shuts the door behind him. He turns around and Risa is there, materializing like an apparition.

“I got a call from your divorce lawyer today.”

“I’m tired,” is all Taehyung says.

“You’re making a mistake, leaving me.”

“Trust me,” Taehyung laughs, toeing his shoes off. “I’m doing myself a huge favor.”

“Who’s going to love you?”

Risa’s laugh is derisive, thrown back in his face. It bounces off the walls, filling it house up to its high ceilings. “Who’s going to love you if you leave me?”

There it is, this terrible question, again.

“All I know is that you don’t love me,” Taehyung says. The words are whiplashes on his back as he makes for the stairs. “You don’t.”

“That’s right, I don’t,” she says. “But who’s gonna love you, huh? Who?”

“Jeongguk will!”

The words settle around them like the dust after a blast, and Risa turns to look at him properly this time.

“Jeongguk will,” Taehyung repeats, fighting to keep the waver out of his voice. “Jeongguk does.”

The first time, Taehyung hadn’t quite known why Jeongguk’s face had popped into his head when she hurled that question at him, tearing him at the seams, his heartsblood staining the fabric of his skin. But this time around, it’s disorientingly clear where Jeongguk’s name comes from, yanked out of a deep, dark part of himself that Taehyung doesn’t visit often. A forgotten piece of his soul. The dusty corner in the attic of his heart. Maybe Jeongguk is too hurt, too angry to look at him again. Maybe Taehyung has penances to pay, but in this moment, nothing is clearer to him than the fact that yes, he loves Jeon Jeongguk. He has loved him for a heartbreakingly long time.

But Risa’s look of disbelief turns into a scoff. “Jeon Jeongguk?” she sneers. “Your best man? He has a new girlfriend warming his bed every other night.”

“He will,” Taehyung says. “More than you. More than you ever could.”

“Jeon Jeongguk, who could get anyone, play any role any role, Academy Award winning actor Jeon Jeongguk, settle for you?” She shakes her head, clucking her tongue. “It must be hard to get a date out there now.”

“I’ll be lucky to have him,” Taehyung says, “but whatever the outcome, it doesn’t matter if someone out there won’t love me. Because I can love myself, and I haven’t done that for a very long time. And the first thing I’ll to do to love myself is leave you.” He nods at her still-flat stomach, “And when that baby is born,” he says, “the whole world can see what kind of person you are, and there will be living proof of who you are and what you’ve done. And you know what? You can live with that. You can live with the idea that you brought all that baggage upon one set of very tiny, very innocent shoulders.”

“Everyone will think it’s yours,” she says, chin held up defiantly. “They will see you walk away from your own unborn child.”

“And when it comes into this world, looking nothing like me? Give it seven more months, honey bun,” Taehyung laughs, with a chill that rivals the one in Risa’s. “You know what, Risa? You can play games with the paparazzi. You can play games with the media. You can even play games with the men in Hollywood. But you’re done playing games with me.”

He hits the road.

 

It takes Taehyung a week to cut Risa out of his life, officially.

“I’m scared to ask,” Kit says, when he picks up a call from his manager. “Where are you in California exactly, right now?”

“I’m heading to Malibu right now,” Taehyung says. He had taken his car in for a wash in Visalia, and now it’s squeaky clean again. “The pap are having a lot of fun chasing me around the state right now, I think.”

Kit sighs over the phone. “Yeah, because the tabloids and the Internet are having a fucking field day with your life right now. I can hardly get through the flood of emails asking for your comment about this ordeal to get to the actual ones for work.”

“What should I know?”

“There’s a breakdown that came out from Columbia Pictures for a project that I think you should try,” says Kit, sounding like she’s trying to talk to him around dinner. “It’s not going to be in the works for a while, from what I understand the director and the scriptwriters have some conflicts to work out. You know the deal. It actually came up in the list as ‘Untitled 3,’ but I managed to wheedle some information out of third parties.”

“A force to be reckoned with, you are,” Taehyung says, shaking his head. Kit’s laugh filters through his sound system.

“Thank you, it’s what I do,” she says. “It’s about a mob boss. You interested?”

“Absolutely.” Taehyung says. “Is that all you got?”

“Unfortunately,” she says. “But if I get any more information, I’ll let you know.” A pause. “What are you heading to Malibu for?”

“I’ve got some things to sort out.”

“Is everything okay, with…?”

Taehyung slides his left hand along the rim of the steering wheel to turn on his right blinker to change lanes. His ring finger feels extraordinarily naked without two bands around it. It feels good. When he’d yanked them off, Taehyung had half expected there to be burn marks around his finger.

“It’s starting to be.”

“What should I tell the media, if they keep asking? Which they will.”

Taehyung takes in a slow breath through his nose, smelling the pungence of dirt and evening sprinklers through the crack in the window. “Tell them we filed for divorce,” he says. “There’s no point in hiding it now. I filed, she agreed.”

“Did she?”

“Her signature was on the papers.”

“Should I say why?”

Taehyung snorts. “Do you know why?”

Kit has the shame to sound embarrassed when she replies. “Well, I’ve just been seeing stuff on People magazine covers when I go to Safeway.”

“She was cheating on me,” Taehyung says. “It doesn’t matter if they want to believe what I say now, because that baby is coming in seven months and it’s not going to look like me.”

“Baby?” Kit says, choking on her food.

“I know. Fucking crazy, right?”

“You’re joking. With who?”

“Her costar in The Girl on the Train,” Taehyung says. “Isaiah? Isaiah Duque, if I recall correctly.”

“I’m sorry, Taehyung.”

“It’s okay,” he says. “It’s going to be, anyway.”

“Do you know where you’re going to stay?”

“For now?” he says. “No, not exactly. I was looking at a place in Westlake, or the Palisades again. But I don’t know just yet.”

“Okay,” says Kit. “All the best for you, I’ll get back in touch when Columbia tells me more details or send out a casting call.” She hesitates. “And give me a call, if you need.”

“Thanks, Kit,” he says. He won’t, but is grateful for the thought.

It’s only midnight this time when Taehyung rolls up to the gates of Jeongguk’s community this time. “Name?” says the security guard.

“Visiting.” It seems that the paparazzi haven’t figured out that he’s back here again.

“ID and residence?”

“Jeon Jeongguk,” Taehyung says, holding out his ID.

The security guard doesn’t even look at him. “No need to try, his list has four people. And three of those are his family.”

“Wait,” Taehyung says. “It was six last time I came here.”

“Looks like he updated it.”

“No, look for Taehyung, Kim Taehyung,” he insists. “It’s me, see?”

“I know it’s you, the media have been here for a week,” the guard says blandly. “And I’m telling you you’re not on his list anymore.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t really make it a point to wonder what celebrities do with their lives, unlike the rest of the nation.”

Taehyung leans back in the seat of his car dejectedly, staring out the darkness of his windshield. He knew Jeongguk would probably be angry, but he hadn’t expected this—Jeongguk refusing to even hear an apology or an explanation.

Then again, Jeongguk doesn’t owe him his time.

“I could call the residence,” the guard says, “and ask if he authorizes it.”

“Would you please?” Taehyung asks. “I just need to hear him say it himself.”

The guard dials. It rings four times, and Taehyung’s heart sinks down somewhere into the vicinity of his stomach.

“Hello?”

His head snaps up.

“Yeah, there’s a young man here looking for you. Kim Taehyung.” A chuckle. “Yeah, well, he is. Should I let him in?” The pause this time is longer. “Yes?”

Taehyung grips the side of his door.

“Got it.” He hangs up. “Lucky day, sir.”

“Thank you so much,” Taehyung says. “Thank you, really—”

“Now go in there and fix whatever it is, he didn’t sound happy.”

“Right,” Taehyung says, and puts his foot on the gas. The neighborhood is still lit at this hour, with lights in the windows of most of the houses; there’s a pool party happening in one, and Taehyung hears the shouting and laughter through his rolled-down windows. This time, though, he doesn’t hesitate on Jeongguk’s doorstep for going on half an hour—he throws himself out of the his car the second he parks it and hits the doorbell.

No one answers for a long time. Then, in the glass of the doorway, Taehyung sees something move, and the door opens.

Jeongguk regards him expressionlessly, then turns and walks back into the house. Taehyung stands there on the doormat, at a loss for words, but Jeongguk had left the door open. An invitation to come back in, but not a welcome.

“Jeongguk,” he says desperately, stepping into his house and shutting the door behind him. “Jeongguk, please—”

“Water?”

“I—no thank you, I’m sorry, I have to explain—”

“Yes, sit,” Jeongguk says. He has his back to Taehyung again, lifting his Brita out of the fridge and taking a glass out of the cabinet. Methodical. Keeping his hands busy. Taehyung swallows and climbs up into the barstool he had vacated just over a week earlier to be taken up to Jeongguk’s bedroom.

“I’m sorry,” Taehyung says the second Jeongguk puts the water down in front of him, but Jeongguk doesn’t answer—doesn’t even look at him, and it’s frightening him. Jeongguk has never turned this side of him on Taehyung. It’s one that they use in public, for the media or the paparazzi, and Taehyung has always prided himself on being one of the only ones who never had to see that side of him.

Jeongguk does not speak until he’s put the Brita back in the fridge, taking out a sports bottle full to the brim with peach-pink water and strawberries.

“I know,” he says, seating himself. “Or else you wouldn’t have come back.”

“No, Jeongguk, I’m sorry,” Taehyung says, and Jeongguk looks at him until he speaks again. “I know I’m in no place to be asking anything of you, I’m the last person in the world who should be doing that—but I must ask you to wait a little longer.”

“What for?”

“When I drove here from San Diego, running from my ex-wife,” Taehyung says, “you were the first person who came to mind. I don’t know why. We had an argument, and she asked me who was going to love me, and for some reason that time, you were the first person that came to mind—not my family, not Kit, not any of my other costars, but you. It’s like some small part of me already knew I loved you. It’s like some small part of me already knew you loved me, and knew that I had a safe place in your arms.”

Jeongguk’s chin is wrinkled where he has it rested on his laced fingers.

“But at the same time, that’s not fair to you,” Taehyung says, soldering on. “Running to you only because I know you will let me in no matter what. No,” he shakes his head. “I have to figure this out first—I have to figure out if I can give you what you’ve been ready to give me for nine years, or I couldn’t live with myself. Because—some part of me had to have loved my ex-wife, you know? In some broken way of ours. I don’t know, but I have to figure it out before I let you in.” Taehyung hangs his head now. “If that made sense.”

“You need time to see if I’m a rebound or not,” Jeongguk says economically.

“Y-yes.”

“I guess that’s fair,” Jeongguk says, sighing, the first sign of any emotion since Taehyung had stepped into his house. “I just wish you’d realize that I’d take anything from you, rebound or not.”

“No,” Taehyung says, sounding angrier than he meant to be. He sandpapers the hard edges. “No,” he repeats, “I’m not going to do that to you. I would never, could never.”

Jeongguk meets his gaze.

“You gave me your heart,” he says, the lump in his throat threatening to turn all his words to tears. “I have to make sure I won’t break it.”

“Okay,” Jeongguk says. “Thank you.”

“Are you going to have a new project soon?”

“Soon enough,” Jeongguk says, sipping from his bottle. “You?”

“Possibly. I need to get away for a while, maybe. Clear my thoughts.”

Jeongguk nods. “Take all the time you need.”

But Taehyung hears the things Jeongguk does not say, when he trudges down the cobblestone path back to his car. He turns to wave before he climbs in, and Jeongguk waves back where he has one shoulder leaned up against the doorframe.

He does not say I’ll be here when you come back. Taehyung turns on the radio and he thinks maybe that song Jeongguk had sun on the radio that day had only been a figment of his imagination, missing Jeongguk so much that it just manifested as music in his head. He does not say I will wait for you.

Why would he? No one should have to wait nine years for anybody.

✩✩

The silence goes on for months. Jeongguk didn’t expect it to be any shorter than that, but that silence slices through him as the days pass. Kirk emails him every other day keeping him updated on breakdowns for upcoming new projects, though most of them are signed off with not really you though and idk if it’s worth investing any time. i’ll keep you updated xx, kirk

In April, Jeongguk gets a text with a chime that belongs to no one else except one person.

i miss you, it says, from Taehyung, but it comes in the words, it’s snowing in scandinavia right now.

Scandinavia. Jeongguk tries not to know why he’s there.

i wanna see you again, Jeongguk answers, even though it reads, in the middle of april?

yeah, Taehyung says. and all i can think about is the time you put the pizza bites in the snow outside in the cascades so we had room in our mini fridge for our popsicles…i wanted to go buy some but it’s midnight and haagen dazs doesn’t exist here. just kidding, i’m sure it does. it might be expensive, though.

one of hollywood’s top earning actors and he worries about the price of an imported popsicle.

stupid. you’re right. i just didn’t want to eat them alone.

Jeongguk rests his chin in his hand. perfect weather for ice cream these days in malibu, you know.

i didn’t, but now i do. eat one for me. take a picture with the beach in the background. you know those instagram posts where it’s just a hand holding ice cream?

jesus christ. i’m not a foodstagrammer.

well then it looks like it’s high time you became one!~

(you’re all i think about, Taehyung types out, and never sends. the aurora borealis is beautiful here in the winter and all i can think about is you. you. you, and wish you could be here to see it with me.)

Jeongguk has a photoshoot for Swarovski at the end of the week and sugar makes his face bloat something terrible, so Jeongguk keeps his diet miserably healthy until Thursday. Thankfully, he’s not going to be the main focus, mainly a prop for Halla, so he lets himself cheat one day and eat a Hershey’s Kiss out of the complimentary jar at the gym (counterintuitive for it to be there, he thinks, as he climbs into his car and the chocolate melts in his mouth). Thursday morning he finds Halla sitting at one of the makeup vanities eating a stick of celery plain and whole.

“Ugh,” he says, and she makes a noise of greeting as he sinks down into one of the chairs beside her. “I thought you said you’d rather deepthroat an Elmer’s gluestick than eat plain celery.”

“I did that, and decided that I was still hungry,” Halla says, thumbnail clacking against the screen of her phone as she scrolls back up to the top of the page rapidly. “You should see Varshini. She walked in this morning and pulled a carrot out of a paper bag with the leaves still attached.”

“I’m so sorry,” Jeongguk grimaces, and shakes his head when Halla offers him the last half of her celery stalk. “You want to go to Shake Shack after? You’re probably starving.”

“Yes, please,” she says. “I’ve been thinking about all the food I’m going to eat after this all week.”

True to form, Varshini wanders back in, already fully made up, crunching away on a carrot with a full head of half-wilted leaves, and Jeongguk gives her a weak wave when she says hi. Her music is blasting so loud he can hear it through her headphones, and she walks by the both of them with a heady whiff of Marc Jacobs Daisy, wrists and earlobes sparkling with diamonds already.

“I told you,” Halla says, and Jeongguk casts her a look.

Halla abandons her rabbit food when the stylists come by to whip them into shape, and Jeongguk gets his scalp burned once or twice as his hairstylist wrestles his hair into place. The smell of mousse is not his favorite and it’s nearly overpowering as she runs it through his bangs so they’ll stand when she blow-dries them into place in soft waves, and he closes his eyes when she uncaps the foundation.

“Suck your cheeks in for me,” she says, and Jeongguk complies. An angled brush carves a gentle curve under his cheekbone. “Okay, you’re good.”

When they’re behind the camera, Jeongguk really doesn’t have to do much beyond sit. Halla is instructed to stand behind him, and put one hand over his eyes and spread the other over his mouth and jaw so that the rings and bracelets will catch the light, and she prefaces it with “Sorry, clammy hands,” before doing so.

“If I break out, you’re buying me more of the Clinique daily cleanser,” Jeongguk mumbles into her hand.

Varshini has her hair pinned back over her ear where an earring as big as a marble dangles, and she stands up on a box so she can appear to be whispering into his ear at the same height he is. One of her hands is draped over his shoulder so her bracelet can, too, catch the light, and they let themselves be arranged into a million different poses before the photographers seem satisfied with their work.

“Oh, I like that one,” Jeongguk says, pointing at the photo of Halla holding a necklace around Varshini’s throat, as if she’s about to do the clasp at the nape of her neck.

“I thought I was going to to look so stupid,” says Varshini, half laughing. “It was so cold and it kept tickling me.”

“I think we look good,” Halla decides, and they high five.

Varshini does not join them to partake in any sort of gluttony, however, and begs off with the reason that she’s got a press conference to get to in an hour. “But I’ll take a rain check,” she says, climbing into her van. “See you guys around!”

“You get her number?” Halla says, face obscured by her huge sunglasses. Jeongguk can feel paparazzi taking photos of them as they walk through West Hollywood, and shrugs.

“Nah.”

“What? Seriously?” She looks at him. “Why not? Thought you said you were single and ready to mingle.”

“I said I was single.”

“Jeongguk,” she says, “when have you ever been single, and not ready to mingle.”

“I’ve done my share of mingling.”

“Oh,” Halla says, dragging out the syllable as understanding comes over her face. “You’re tired of no strings attached mingling. One-night-mingles.”

“Please stop.”

“I didn’t think I’d ever hear you say that,” she says, shouldering her tote bag more securely. “Anyone who’s caught your heart, then?”

When Jeongguk doesn’t answer, she gasps. “Oh my God! Who?”

“I’m not talking about this.”

“Oh my God, Jeongguk. You just told me you didn’t even try to get her number, as if we don’t all know how hot Varshini is.”

“It’s a very long story.”

“I happen to play a main character in a three-going-on-four season TV show,” Halla says. “I think I can handle long stories.”

(She cries at the end of this one.)

 

Jeongguk had been lying when Taehyung asked him if he had any up and coming projects, because at the time, he hadn’t. It’s a little pathetic to say something like “Actually, I’ve been too out of it to focus on my work because of my mess of feelings, so I haven’t been answering my manager’s emails,” and also impractical. “Soon enough” is a much shorter answer.

But there it was, that happy dream from which he wakes up so sad that he can hardly fall asleep, and when he does, he has to fight a war with himself to get back out of bed. Some nights he catches himself rolling over in bed for his phone, opening YouTube, and searching ‘kim taehyung golden globes 2020’ just to hear him talk about Jeongguk with unadulterated happiness in his voice. They had been so much younger back then, just a short four years prior.

Other nights, and he hates himself for it, he’ll lie on his back and stare up at the ceiling, waiting for sleep to come—until he’s so restless that he sticks his hand under the covers, into his pants, and closes his eyes. He hates himself for it, for the way he’ll think about having sex with Taehyung again like they were making love, easy and practiced now. No longer the mess of fumbling limbs they once were.

And without work, Jeongguk holes up. He doesn’t want to see anyone, do anything, and Halla is the only person he consistently texts.

Kirk, bless him and his Olive Garden uniformed soul, decides he has had enough of this on Saturday morning towards the end of April.

“Jeongguk!” Kirk come crashing down the hallway without even bothering to take off his shoes, waving a scrap of paper that looks like the envelope of his water bill with some notes jotted down, and his phone. “Hey, Jeongguk! Listen, I’ve got great news,” he says, and comes to a stop across Jeongguk at the bar.

“How did you get in here,” asks Jeongguk.

“Wha—one of the security people let me in, duh. Listen, you won’t believe—”

“You have shoes on in my house.”

“I know, I know! I’m sorry, I’ll take them off in a second. Look!”

A glowing phone screen is shoved in Jeongguk’s face for approximately three nanoseconds before it’s being snatched back. “No, I’ll just tell you—Guillermo del Toro just reached out to me and asked if you could go in for some screen tests for the Pacific Rim sequel! He wants you to star alongside Rinko Kikuchi and Charlie Hunnam, another one of your costars is going to be less known, he’s also Korean American though, his name’s—” He balks when he notices that Jeongguk hasn’t said anything or done anything beyond continue to eat, and drops his hands to his sides. “What are you doing?”

“I’m eating spaghetti,” Jeongguk says frankly, raising his loaded fork in a toast. “To forgetti my regretti.”

“What the f—? No, Jeongguk, like, what the hell are you doing,” Kirk says. “You told me before you wanted to star in the Pacific Rim sequel if ever got back onto the discussion table again. Some mecha. Why do you look like I just read my tax return documents aloud to you? I was really excited about this. I thought you’d be really excited about this.”

“What’s the use of being excited about filming when you’ve already hit the top,” Jeongguk says, turning his fork in the middle of his spaghetti again.

Kirk crosses his arms. “You’re fucking kidding me.”

“But did I say anything objectively untrue?”

“Excuse me, kid,” says Kirk, reaching forward and snatching Jeongguk’s fork clean out of his grasp. “Are you saying that once you get an Academy Award, there’s no point anymore in making movies? Is that what you just fucking told me. I’ve never heard of anything more ridiculous in my life, and I had to work with Gwyneth fucking Paltrow once.”

“I’m very sorry,” Jeongguk says. “I hear her breakfast smoothies cost two hundred dollars.”

“Yeah, isn’t that just absolutely—I mean, listen! How you can honestly say that? Do you think Paolo Bermudez won Best Actor and threw his hands up and said, ‘well, looks like that’s that!’ Why do you think actresses like Meryl Streep are still in the game getting nominations every other year? This is your livelihood! You love doing this! And don’t try to convince me it’s not. An actor that doesn’t believe with his whole heart and soul in the stories he plays would never get an Academy Award.”

Jeongguk only regards him wearily, and Kirk seats himself in a barstool.

“What is up with you these days?” he asks. “You didn’t reply to emails for three days straight last week.”

“I’m sorry,” Jeongguk says. “Okay? I’m trying to get my life together and it’s not going that well. I know. I’m sorry.”

“What happened?” Kirk’s voice is gentler now. “Listen. If this is about perfection—”

“It’s not about perfection,” Jeongguk says, and Kirk recoils a little at the sting in his voice. He backpedals. “It’s not about perfection,” he repeats, softer this time. “That will always be something I’m scared of. Maybe it’s part of it, but…”

“But what?”

Jeongguk takes his fork back, and Kirk lets him, knowing that Jeongguk thinks better with something in his hands. “It’s really frustrating,” says Jeongguk. “In movies we know what happens next down to a science. We know what positions we’re supposed to be in at what time, how long we hold a look or a glance, what to say. There’s no such instruction manual in real life, and when things go wrong,” Jeongguk drags one tine of the fork against the bottom his dish, the metal and glass making a tinny screech. “When things go wrong, it’s so hard to know what to do next. It’s so hard to know what you did wrong and what you could’ve done better.”

A beat of silence falls over them, scattered with the sounds of grass being mowed outside. “So it is about perfection, in a way,” Kirk says. “Not your usual kind, but in a way.”

“I guess that’s the only way I know how to look at it.”

“You’d think a perfectionist would be cleaner, but no,” Kirk mutters under his breath and Jeongguk laughs, wryly, because Kirk is in full view of the sink that’s piling up with dishes. “You should know this better than anyone. You can do everything right. You can not make a single mistake. You can follow a recipe down to a T, and sometimes you will still not achieve what you want. Do you think any of those actors or actresses that don’t win an award after they’ve been nominated deserve it any less or more than the person who will? Perhaps a little in both. But that is not failure, Jeongguk. That is life.”

“But just say I have,” Jeongguk says. “Say I have failed someone.”

“Then you failed, and the only way to go now is up.” Kirk shrugs. “And someone who never fails? Seriously? They’re obviously not doing life right at all.”

 

The first impression that Jeongguk has of Kim Seokjin is that he is huge, until he meets Charlie and then Seokjin looks like a kindergartener in comparison.

“Amazing to finally meet you,” Charlie says, shaking his hand. “It’s definitely—definitely very humbling to meet the youngest winner of the Academy Award for Best Actor since Adrien Brody. How old was he?”

“Twenty-nine,” says Rinko. Charlie raises his eyebrows.

“And you’re twenty…?”

“Twenty six,” Jeongguk says. “And I’m very, very lucky. That win wasn’t all me. Definitely the compounded work of hundreds of people.”

“Here’s your script,” Kirk says, digging through his bag and handing Jeongguk a thick packet of paper, held together with a binder clip. “Do not lose it, it’s the only one that the writers gave me so far. Good luck in your cold reading, buddy.”

“Thanks, Kirk.” Jeongguk catches his wrist just as he’s turning to leave. “I mean, for. All of this.”

“You’re welcome, Jeongguk,” he says. “I just wanted to see you smile again.”

 

Pacific Rim filming will be so exhausting that Jeongguk has to hit the gym to build up even more muscle to have the stamina to run around in fifty-something-pound plugsuits all day. The rig that acts as the interior of their jaeger’s head is mostly green screen, but the cranks that their feet and arms attach to are real. By the end of the first week of principal photography Jeongguk’s arms and neck are so sore he starts taking baths just to be able to soak in hot water for an hour, until his fingers are pruny.

Arian calls him one evening. It’s 2024 now, which means she’s—

“Almost ten!” she says. Her voice isn’t as high and breathy as it used to be. “And Daddy asked who I wanted to come to my party, so I said I wanted you to come. But then I realized you’re probably busy.”

“Hey, I haven’t even answered yes or no yet,” Jeongguk laughs. He props his elbow on the rim of the tub so his phone doesn’t get wet. “When is it?” It doesn’t matter when it is, really. He knows he won’t be able to go.

“Next week, on Wednesday!”

“I’ll let you know, okay?” he says. “I’m actually filming for a movie right now and I’m not in town.”

“Oh? Where are you?”

“Toronto,” Jeongguk says.

“See Daddy, I told you he was busy!” she hisses off to the side.

“Hey, tell you what,” Jeongguk says. “If I can’t make it, I’ll give you a call that day. Sound good? You let me know when your party is, and I’ll call your dad in the middle of it.”

“Okay!”

“Great,” Jeongguk says. “Happy early birthday, Arian.”

Wednesday comes around. Time seems to pass slower when Taehyung doesn’t text him, or talk to him. Jeongguk makes good on his promise and gets an earful of rowdy ten year olds all screaming about how he’s actually a real person, and he tweets a photo of himself and Arian that the Academy photographers had taken of him the night he won Best Actor—he has her piggyback, and her thin arms are wrapped around his neck and holding his Oscar around its legs. happy birthday to the most amazing costar i could have asked for—happy one zero, you’re almost as old as me now!

And, in the slumber of June, Jeongguk finally finds his way home.

 

“Listen, you tasteless plebe,” Seokjin says, passionately over a glass of pomegranate juice. “Solid egg yolks are an offense to mankind. You never, ever order an egg well-done. Over hard, I mean. It’s always sunny side up or over easy. What kind of animal eats over hard. Disgusting. Solid egg yolks taste like little turds.”

“Mmm,” Jeongguk makes a show of moaning as he bites into his eggle bagel sandwich. “Mm, this delicious over hard egg sandwich.”

“Stop.”

“It’s so good,” he says, and Seokjin makes a face like a tortured cat. He knows he’s won when Seokjin just tells him to chew with his mouth closed.

“Why didn’t you invite Charlie and Rinko?”

“Guillermo wanted to talk to them about a scene we’re not in,” Seokjin explains. “Shame, though. Charlie’s funny.”

“He is.”

Seokjin wipes his fingers on a napkin, then his mouth. “Actually, I wanted to ask you a question, but I know it’s not necessarily something you want to answer, so please don’t feel like you have to.”

“Oh, fuck, okay,” Jeongguk says. “Let’s hear it.”

“Do you and Taehyung have something?”

Trust, trust, trust.

“It’s complicated,” says Jeongguk. “But the long and short of it is yes. There’s no use denying it.”

“Oh,” Seokjin says. “Okay.”

Jeongguk chews once. “Is that it?”

“Yeah,” Seokjin says. “It explains a lot about you, actually.”

“Like what?”

“You check your phone all the time, yet you never seem to be talking to anyone,” he says, so fast that Jeongguk recoils.

“I do?” He thinks. “I do not! I talk to Halla. And Roseia, sometimes.”

“But your face,” Seokjin says. “It doesn’t quite light up.”

“Oh,” Jeongguk quirks the side of his mouth. “I guess. Why?”

“Well, we’re supposed to be drift-compatible, inside each other’s heads for the film,” Seokjin says. “I just wanted to know you, the actor, a little too.”

Which is fair. They part ways after lunch; Seokjin heading back to the film studio, Jeongguk to the hotel. They’ll be moving their filming back to California for the last several scenes, and there’s maybe one more day of filming, at most two, left in Toronto.

i saw firstlook photos of you in pacrim!!! This time, it’s Halla. dude!!! i’m so excited to see it. you look great. who’s the hottie with a body filming with you though hmm

Jeongguk steps into the elevator of his hotel, smiling faintly at a mother who steps out with a baby in her arms and gapes at him.

kim seokjin, he says. and i won’t tell him you said that, his head is roughly one third the size of russia already.

ruuude, says Halla. Then, did taehyung ever...talk to you, again?

The elevator dings softly when it reaches his floor. just a text, he says. once.

a good text?

quite good, Jeongguk types out. He never gets a chance to hit the send button, because there’s a voice that says, in that moment, “Jeongguk?”

Taehyung?

“What are you doing here?” is what Jeongguk says. What he means is, Holy shit, you’re here.

“I had a connecting flight from Scandinavia back to LA that stopped here,” Taehyung says. He’s paler again, and Jeongguk remembers the way he smiled six years ago and said, Nordic countries. His hair is darker, and shorter than Jeongguk’s ever remembered it. He can actually see Taehyung’s eyebrows. “And I realized you were doing some filming here, and I thought—you know, what if? If we’ve managed to stay in touch, find each other somehow, all over the world, what’s to say I can’t try my luck one last time?”

“Oh my God,” he says.

“Sorry.” Taehyung presses his thumb into the handle of his suitcase. “I always do this, appearing in your life at the most random of times. On my terms, not yours. I’m sorry.”

“Are you back?”

Taehyung looks up at him. “Back?”

“I mean,” Jeongguk says. His voice is croaky, like his voice box has suddenly failed in the presence of Taehyung, here, flying across oceans and thinking only to find Jeongguk the minute he lands. “Have you figured it out? What future you want?”

“I have,” says Taehyung. “And I’ve made my choice. What’s yours?”

Jeongguk reaches up to wipe his eyes. “Fuck, Taehyung,” he curses. “I can’t believe you think you need to ask—”

“I just,” Taehyung gestures helplessly. “Need to hear it.”

It’s an extremely public hotel, in the middle of the day, where any guest could just open the door to go out, or get some ice, or put a tray of food in the hallway for collection. But it’s been nine years, nearly ten now, and Jeongguk no longer cares.

Taehyung’s back hits the door when they kiss, and Taehyung sighs into Jeongguk’s mouth. The kiss is short, but nothing short of exhilarating, and Taehyung’s eyes dance with a light that Jeongguk has never seen before—like the yearning with which he looked at Jeongguk so many times has finally come to a head.

“Now,” Jeongguk says, and presses his mouth into Taehyung’s cheek. “And forever.”

✩✩

They only date, officially, for six months after that.

Six short, short months, a blur of time in Hollywood, days and weeks in which they have to divide their time for each other and time onset filming Maelstrom and soon for Taehyung, Heart Beatdown. But in that time, Taehyung comes to know more love than many people have the privilege of experiencing in their whole lifetimes.

And, predictably, the Internet loses its fucking mind.

“The whole world is crying,” Taehyung says, amused, when Jeongguk gets home from one of the last days of filming for Maelstrom. “I think I like it.”

“I haven’t seen any of the press today,” Jeongguk says, going to his fridge as he does, every day, to take out his bottle of infused water. Taehyung tries very hard not to accuse him of being a food blogger wannabe but it’s just so hard when he watches Jeongguk chopping up pineapple every night for it. “What’s the highlight reel?”

“I think the best thing I’ve seen in this hour alone was the comment that said ‘after Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone broke up I no longer believed in love. I do again now.’”

At this, Jeongguk laughs. “Glad to be able to do that for them.”

Taehyung sits up, cross-legged, on the lounge end of Jeongguk’s couch. “Hard filming today?”

“Yeah,” Jeongguk says. “Pool work again.”

Taehyung opens his arms wordlessly, and Jeongguk smiles, putting down his bottle and shucking his jacket off. His hair smells like chlorine when he slides up between Taehyung’s legs and rests his head back against Taehyung’s shoulder.

“How much unpacking did you get done today?”

“A fair amount,” Taehyung says. “I can’t believe your guest room has a walk-in closet. Did any of your girlfriends even have enough to fill it?”

A chuckle. “Nope. Their wardrobes were half sponsored by the brands they modeled for, anyway.”

“There are still a ton of suitcases all over the room though, so don’t go in there. It’s a nightmare, and I got distracted when Kit messaged me about the new project.”

Jeongguk makes a noise of interest, his breath puffing against Taehyung’s neck. “Good news?”

“Good news,” Taehyung agrees. “It’s called Heart Beatdown. The casting director wants me to go in to do some screen testing and a cold read.”

“Were you their first choice?”

“A couple of other people were in consideration,” Taehyung says. “But it looks like I am.”

“Do you know the premise of it yet?”

“Some of it, yeah.”

“Tell me,” Jeongguk says, snuggling closer until his back is fitted tight against Taehyung’s chest.

“You should take a shower,” Taehyung says, pushing damp hair out of Jeongguk’s face. “You’re cold.”

“Tell me first,” Jeongguk says. “Or tell me in the shower,” and his voice fills with mischief.

“I’ll tell you now, you horndog.”

“Okay,” Jeongguk says.

“My character’s name is Osric Young,” Taehyung says, moving his hand over Jeongguk’s abdomen to lace his fingers with Jeongguk’s. “His day job is stay-at-home, model suburban father. His night job is underground, as one of three mob bosses of one of East Asia’s largest crime syndicates. The story is told through the eyes of his fifteen year old son. It begins when he invades the home of one of their rivals and mistakenly shoots a man who bends down only in fear that Young is going to shoot his child, only five at the time...”

Jeongguk is quiet for the whole time Taehyung explains it to him, his face resting in the curve of Taehyung’s neck. When Taehyung finally says, “And that’s all I know so far. Which is everything, I realize, but they said it’s subject to change, since the writers and the director are still trying to reach a compromise about what they want the script to be.” He turns his head ever so slightly when Jeongguk doesn’t react. “Baby?”

But Jeongguk’s breathing is deep and even on Taehyung’s skin. He settles deeper into the cushions, holding Jeongguk securely to his chest.

Dating each other has been so natural, in fact, that Taehyung thinks that they’ve been doing some strange form of it all their lives. It’s old—there’s nothing much to learn about each other, at this point. But dating each other has also been breathtakingly new, too; Taehyung has the privilege of holding Jeongguk’s hand every day when they go to sleep, gets to kiss Jeongguk whenever he wants, when they’re together, gets to text him work hard, i love you and get a i will, love you too in return. It is relearning everything he knows with a completely new set of glasses, and he finds they fit well.

Taehyung had been miserable, trying to understand where he wanted to go again after Risa. But the choice had been easy, he realized, one cold morning in Scandinavia, when the Northern Lights appeared in greens and blues over the night sky. The choice had been made for him nine years ago, and all he had to understand the things that were Now (Risa) and the things that were Forever (Jeongguk).

 

The commencement of principal photography for Heart Beatdown means that it is Jeongguk’s turn to be the one alone at home now, but he swears he doesn’t mind.

“It’s okay,” he murmurs the evening before Taehyung has to fly out to Hong Kong. “Even if I’m physically alone again, it’s different. You fill this whole house.”

There’s a hickey on Jeongguk’s throat, and at least six or so on his chest. Taehyung’s thighs do not fare much better.

“I’m gonna miss you,” Taehyung says. “I don’t want to go.”

“Gotta hustle for that Oscar, babe,” Jeongguk says, and laughs at the scrunch of Taehyung’s nose.

“Yours sits over the mantelpiece every day, mocking me,” Taehyung says, but there’s no real jealousy or bite in his voice. “You need to maintain it better. There’s a blanket of dust on it.”

“Lazy,” Jeongguk says. “I’m much more interested in making out with you than wiping down the little gold man.”

“I guess that’s acceptable,” Taehyung says, kissing Jeongguk on the mouth. He still has trouble sleeping through the nights sometimes, and will wake up to drop kisses all over Jeongguk’s face. Most of the time he’s careful enough not to wake him, but last night Jeongguk had blinked his eyes open blearily and asked, “Whas goin’ on?”

“Nothing,” Taehyung whispered. “I just wanted to kiss you.”

“Couldn’t sleep?”

“I woke up.”

Jeongguk had blinked, registering the words through the haze of sleep. Then, “Want me to hold you?”

“Yes, please.”

So Taehyung had snuggled up against Jeongguk’s body, reaching up to kiss him some more—and Jeongguk had kissed him back, until his mouth stopped pressing into Taehyung’s first, then softened against his lips as sleep took him back to dreamland. The sight of it made Taehyung’s chest swell so full that he could only bury his face in Jeongguk’s neck, following him into slumber.

A hotel room to himself in Hong Kong is going to be hard, but it’s okay. Wherever they both are in the world, they’ll find each other.

✩✩

“Okay,” Halla says, sipping her smoothie out of a mason jar. “You don’t look that great. What is it?”

This is only slightly an understatement. Jeongguk is currently getting comfortable with the smell of her dining table, where his face is planted. He groans.

“I know,” she says, with the voice of someone taking to a sad dog. “I know.”

The ice cubes clink against the jar as she stirs her drink, waiting for him to speak. Jeongguk had called her after a day of relatively easy filming for Maelstrom—only two hours in the plugsuits today!—and asked if he could come over.

“I’ve got a question.”

“Yeah, I noticed,” Halla says. “You want to tell me about it anytime soon?”

Jeongguk removes his face from her table, where there’s a scorch mark across the wood where she claimed her roommate had set a pot right off the stove. “How long do people date before proposing?”

Halla stares at him through the V created by the two sticks of cinnamon in her mason jar.

“You don’t mean to say—”

“It’s only been six months,” he says in a rush. “I know, I know. But to me—it’s like it’s been ten years, just waiting for this, but we’ve only been officially dating for six months, and I don’t want to propose to someone who just got divorced like a year before, what if he’s not read—?”

“Jeongguk.” She raises her voice over his, holding her hand up. “You’re going to propose to Taehyung?”

“Yes,” he says, “I thought that part was obvious.”

“No, not really, you kind of got to the second part before you even explained the first,” she says. Her watch sparkles under the light of her dining room when she crosses her arms again. Jeongguk hardly has a chance to see her outside of costume these days, as New Americana wraps up its last season. Her hair is cut short for it, a square bob that brushes the line of her shoulders. “You’re worried it’s too fast?”

“Yeah.”

“Well,” she says, stirring her drink again with a cinnamon stick, “would you say it is?”

“I don’t know, that’s why I’m asking you.”

“I don’t know what your relationship is like, despite how much mainstream pop culture is inundated with your faces these days,” she says. “You’re the one who’s known him for these past ten years, there’s no one else who knows him better.”

Jeongguk’s own drink has gone untouched all this time, a mojito that she’d made for him. It’s hard for him to match the girl who had starred with him in Young God, so unsure of herself, to this woman who had told him to sit his ass down as she poured rum and club soda into a shaker. He takes a sip of it now.

“You know why we’ve only dated for six months, and not the whole year after he’s been divorced?”

“I chalked it up to something like, he needed space, or something,” Halla says.

“Bingo.”

“And you’re scared proposing to him is going to have the same repellent effect on him.”

He needs something in his hands. Jeongguk picks the mint sprig off the top of his drink and begins ripping the leaves into tiny pieces, the oily residue coating his fingertips.

“Maybe.”

“I can see why you are,” she says, “but I don’t think you need to be scared.”

“Why?”

“You told me he came to find you again first, didn’t he? You’ve given him room for ten years now. I don’t think it’s wrong or even premature to ask this of him. And remember, it’s a proposal. The worst he can do is say no.”

“Yes, I realize,” Jeongguk rolls his eyes. “I’m trying to save myself the embarrassment of getting a no here.”

She shrugs. “You know him better than I do, really, Jeongguk.”

“I don’t want to burden him with this if he doesn’t want to say yes,” he says quietly. “I’ve had all this time to think about it. He’s only been with me for six months.”

“Has he ever said anything to give you the feeling like he doesn’t want to commit yet?”

Jeongguk thinks. No, Taehyung hasn’t. Quite the opposite in fact, when he called him from the Hong Kong the other day, when it was just barely dinnertime in California. Jeongguk had nearly dropped his phone in his excitement to answer.

“What do you think about a cat?” was the first thing he’d said when Jeongguk picked up.

“What?”

“A cat,” Taehyung yawned. “I had Soonshimie once, and my siblings got another puppy so my parents wouldn’t be lonely when they moved out. But we never raised a cat. One of my costars has a panic disorder, so she brings her cat onset every day. She says he calms her down, and he’s the sweetest baby ever.”

“What’s his name?”

“Pepperjack,” Taehyung said. “Like the cheese. Cute, right? He’s a calico, they’re the luckiest kind. So I got thinking, you know, when I come back and we settle down—how about a cat? There are so many that need adoption, actually.”

“We should,” Jeongguk hummed. “We should look into it.”

“No,” he says now, to Halla. “He hasn’t.”

“Then if your question is ‘should I propose,’ the answer is a resounding yes from me,” she says. There are deep red welts on her wrist when she undoes the clasp of her watch and sets it on the table. “But if your question is ‘how do I propose,’ then I might actually have some constructive advice to give."

 

The long and short of it is, when Taehyung gets back home, Jeongguk chickens out. He can literally hear Halla roll her eyes across the city and he, in turn, gives her the middle finger across the city. Oscar-winning actor or not, Jeongguk still enjoys using nonverbal profanity.

Taehyung is no less delighted to be home, though, throwing his shoes off at the door after he’s dropped off from the airport and making a running leap for Jeongguk’s arms. He smells of the outside, whiffs of cigarette smoke and coffee and grilled meat clinging to his clothes, but Jeongguk just closes his eyes and hugs him hard.

“I missed you,” Taehyung says, words squashed into Jeongguk’s shoulder. He has both legs wrapped around Jeongguk’s waist and his arms around Jeongguk’s neck.

“Me too, every day.” Taehyung kisses at the spot behind his ear. “Did principal photography go well?”

“What we finished? It came out great. We still have a lot left to do,” Taehyung says, and he lets his legs down. Jeongguk stumbles with him as they regain balance together. “But the rest of it is going to be here in the US.” He kisses Jeongguk on the mouth, once, twice. “And I’ll get to see you more.”

“I love the sound of it,” Jeongguk says, and they rechristen the couch that night.

Attempt two goes a little better, when Taehyung isn’t fresh off an international flight with squashed oyster crackers in his pockets. This isn’t to say that it succeeds, but it does go better.

“Why such a nice place?” Taehyung asks. Poster shooting was most of his schedule today, and Jeongguk had snagged the chance to book them dinner. “I just got out of my suit.”

“Sorry,” Jeongguk says, kissing the back of Taehyung’s neck as he helps him shrug on a fresh dress shirt. “But do I need a reason to take you out on date night?”

“I guess not,” Taehyung says, smiling so big that Jeongguk kisses the apple of his cheek as he does his tie.

“Did you ever learn how to do them?” he asks, remembering.

“What? Bowties?”

“Mhmm.”

“Of course not,” Taehyung says cheerfully, holding Jeongguk close to him around his waist and folding his fingers behind his back. “So you’ll have to do them for me always.”

Jeongguk shakes his head. “I guess I’m stuck with you forever, huh?”

“Now and forever and ever,” Taehyung agrees.

Jeongguk was going to propose to him, he was. He planned to do it before Taehyung had a chance to dig into dessert, when he was full with dinner, and he’d be caught most off-guard. But he’d gotten distracted by Taehyung telling him about some silly story about one of his child costars, about how he’d erupted into violent tears when he saw Taehyung covered in fake blood. The ring burns a hole in Jeongguk’s pocket all evening long, and he hangs it up with his coat at the end of the night, proposal caught behind his teeth.

And then, clear as day, Jeongguk realizes how he’s going to do it.

 

“I was poking around in your kitchen the other night, when I was hungry,” Taehyung says on the ride home from dinner out, a week later. “And I found a bottle of Hibiki whiskey? Where on earth did you get that?”

“First of all, when was this?” Jeongguk asks. “Did you wake up in the middle of the night again?”

“Yeah,” Taehyung admits.

“You should’ve woken me up.”

“I didn’t want to, you were sleeping so deeply,” Taehyung says. “But where’d you get it?”

“Oh, Rinko gave it to me,” he says. “Her mom sent it to her, but she doesn’t like whiskey, so she asked if I wanted it. Wasn’t going to say no.”

“We should try it tonight,” Taehyung says. “On the rocks. It looks good.”

“Yeah?” The security guard nods when he sees Jeongguk pull up to the gate, and opens it for him. “Looks like we’ve graduated from Haagen Dazs to whiskey. That escalated quickly.”

“We should have both.”

“Sounds disgusting, but that’s what I said about French fries and milkshakes at first,” Jeongguk says. “I suppose we should give it a try.”

“You have ice cream bars at home?”

“They might have expired,” Jeongguk says. He pulls into the driveway. “I used to buy them all the time, when you were still—before we started dating.”

Taehyung is quiet. “And you didn’t eat them?”

“I guess I would if I was drunk enough, some of them are open,” Jeongguk jokes. “But a lot of times I’d let them sit in there until I’d just give them to security in the summer. We’re good buds.”

“Oh,” Taehyung says softly. He gets out of the car slower, and Jeongguk kicks himself for running his mouth again, and catches Taehyung between his arms against his car.

“Hey, none of that,” he says, kissing him. “It’s different now. Come on. We were going to go try the whiskey, yeah?”

Taehyung tangles his fingers in Jeongguk’s as they step inside, and when Jeongguk turns, he’s snaking arms around his neck to kiss him on the doormat. It’s nice, but Jeongguk doesn’t like to kiss Taehyung when it tastes like an apology, one that he doesn’t need to be giving him, so he says, “Go pour some for both of us. If you want the ice cream it’s in the bottom drawer of the freezer.”

“Okay,” Taehyung says, kissing him one last time. Jeongguk takes his time to undo the laces of his shoes, heart pounding in his throat, and he wonders how Taehyung hadn’t heard it when they kissed. The blood that’s rushing through his brain now is nearly making him lightheaded, but he’s doing this tonight. The ring has been taunting him since he’d bought it, the second day he and Taehyung started dating (since they’d been stuck all day in bed on the first, naturally).

So, it’s been a while.

“You’ll never believe who texted me the other night, actually,” says Taehyung, busy with wineglasses. “After so many phone changes, you know, I’ve lost some contacts. I asked them, ‘who is this?’ Holy shit, I was so embarrassed.”

“Who was it?” The barstools scrape across the kitchen floor tiles as Jeongguk pulls one out for Taehyung, one for himself.

“Pia,” Taehyung says, bringing the glasses over to the bar counter. “And she was like, heard you and your Timeshaker finally found each other again? She said of all the things she’s done, she feels happiest that she brought us together.”

“I guess she did, didn’t she?” Jeongguk says. “We’ll have to invite her to—” He balks, then drinks more whiskey.

“To what?” Taehyung asks.

Jeongguk doesn’t say, “nothing,” as would be his instinctive reaction. He doesn’t clear his throat, or pause, or hesitate.

“Taehyung.”

“Yeah?”

“I,” Jeongguk says eloquently, and digs his hand into the pocket of his jacket. “Listen, I’ve—I’ve loved you for all the ten years we’ve known each other, and I—” Taehyung’s soft, gentle smile slides off his face when he sees the tiny velvet box in Jeongguk’s hand, lips parting, still slick from the whiskey. “I don’t know if you’ll say yes, but I had to ask—if you’d marry me. Will you marry me?”

Taehyung is staring at him, then at the engagement ring, then back at him again. “Jeongguk,” he says, voice breaking.

“Yes,” Jeongguk says, feeling a blush go down to his neck again, the worst kind. “I’m listening.”

It only made sense that he would propose here, in the middle of his kitchen, sitting in the same barstool that Taehyung had when he’d driven three hours to his house in the middle of the night from the southernmost border of the state. No, no one captures this proposal on camera. No one will post it on YouTube or share it on Facebook. No one will ever see it or know it except the two of them, and Jeongguk and Taehyung, whose livelihoods are based on being recorded for the pleasure of mass audiences, will have this all to themselves.

“Say something,” Jeongguk prompts weakly.

Taehyung has his hands over his mouth and nose again, like he did at the end of Home at Cannes. Then his face crumples, tears pooling in his eyes, as he nods, and holds out his hand for Jeongguk to slide the ring onto his finger.

“No, baby, no,” Jeongguk says gently, but Taehyung slides out of his stool, stumbling around the counter and into Jeongguk’s arms. “No, you’re supposed to be happy—”

“I’m happy,” Taehyung sobs, pulling back from the hug to give Jeongguk the wettest, saltiest kiss ever. “Happier than I’ve ever been, the happiest. God, did you even have to ask? I’ve been waiting for you all my life.”

 

There are more than two hundred people on the guest list, so it’s a good thing that the both of them have combined multimillion dollar incomes.

Jeongguk is in white, this time, and he’s not allowed to see Taehyung before the ceremony, so he goddamn hopes there’s someone who’ll do up his bowtie for him. Taehyung will be in grey, because he’d said “I want to look different, you know. From last time. I’m not going to have a best man either, that’s weird.” He’d smiled crookedly. “Because I’m marrying him.”

Of course. Taehyung also said that this will be his second wedding, and his last; he’ll never look back from this decision. The certainty in his voice had made Jeongguk’s heart shake.

His mother is the one that helps him with his tuxedo this time around, in the hotel room, even though he insists that he’s done this enough to know his way around it. “Just let me,” she insists, doing his tie slowly, her hands gnarled with age. “My son. I remember when you first left home to do that movie with him.”

“Umma—”

“That time you visited home, after Taehyung got married to that girl,” she says. “He was the one, wasn’t he?”

Jeongguk stares down at her.

“When I asked you why you’ve never brought anyone home for me,” she says, going on to do his bowtie. He has a feeling that she’s messing up now just to talk to him a little longer. “And you said you wanted to, but, and you never finished your sentence?”

“Oh,” says Jeongguk. “Yes. He was.”

“And the wind brought him back to you,” she says, eyes sparkling, and Jeongguk takes her hands in his.

“Umma, don’t, I’m not supposed to cry and make my face all blotchy before the ceremony even happens,” he says, and she laughs through the few tears that slip onto her cheeks. “Maybe after. That’s a better time.”

A knock comes at the door and he calls, “It’s unlocked!”

“Fuck, I practically had to wrestle these out of the florist’s hands,” says Halla as she barges in with an armful of bags, an angry storm of black gown and diamonds. Her hair is curled and she’s definitely a good strong five inches taller than usual. “Okay, this one is yours.”

She opens what looks like a clear plastic takeout box and lifts the boutonniere from its nest of paper confetti and beckons him forward. “Wait, it’s this one, right? Yellow rose, white spray?”

“Yes,” Jeongguk says. “Jesus, you’re so tall, this is weird.”

“A day not in combat boots means a day without dirt on my face, so it’s a tradeoff I can live with,” she says, lifting Jeongguk’s lapel from his chest to pin on the flower.

Jeongguk’s mother leaves them to go do her own makeup; she’d turned down the artist when he’d come in to do Jeongguk’s face, citing preference for her own hand. Halla struggles in silence for a few seconds before pulling it away to adjust one of the ribbons.

“Thank you,” Jeongguk says.

“Mhmm,” she hums. “I’m happy for you.”

“Is your boyfriend here?” Jeongguk asks.

“I think he got caught up in some traffic, I couldn’t talk to him for a while when I was at the florist’s.” She leans back. “There. Okay, I have to go do Taehyung now, so I’ll see you later?”

“See you later.”

The seating is arranged two half-moons, so that there are two aisles that meet in the center where the altar is. No one will be waiting there except the priest. Jeongguk finds that his heart is about to making a flying leap out of his mouth when he steps into the elevator with his mother down to the convention center of the hotel.

“Are you nervous?” she asks, hand in his elbow.

“A little.”

“Don’t be,” she says, and the answer is so different from the one that Taehyung gives him. He takes a deep breath that seems to do nothing but make his heart race even faster, and there’s nothing he can fiddle with in his hands.

The lobby where they’re supposed to walk in, and down their respective aisles, is dark. People seated on Jeongguk’s side all turn when they see him, and, fuck, this is what it must be like to play in live-action theater. Taehyung had told him it wasn’t really that bad, but that is a complete lie, Jeongguk decides now.

The music is playing. He takes one last deep breath. No need to be nervous.

He’s been rehearsing for this moment for the last ten years.

Lights, camera.

Action.

(“And do you take Kim Taehyung to be your lawfully wedded husband, in sickness and in health, now and forever?”

“Now and forever.”

That sob in the audience might be Pia.)

 

The reception that comes afterwards is part red carpet event, part family reunion. They go down an endless line of people who come up to congratulate them—Marion and her boyfriend, Ruben and his wife, Taehyung’s costars from Pocketful of Sunshine, Leihua and his husband, and his costars from Why We Came to the City, two men who seem to be permanently smiling, Park Jimin and Jung Hoseok. The list goes on and on.

“So,” says Arian when she gets to the front of the line, “is Taehyung going to make your house in Malibu a home now?”

She’s here with her father, and Jeongguk laughs out loud at this. “Yes, you guessed it, bud.”

“Then it’s amazing to meet you,” she says, shaking Taehyung’s hand. “And Mom was so sad she couldn’t come, but she says she’s happy for you.”

“Oh, dear,” Taehyung says, laughing, too. “I’ll get a photo with you later and sign it so you can make her extra jealous.”

“Great!” says Arian, and they high five.

Later, at dinner, Taehyung asks him something that he seems to have been holding on his tongue all evening.

“Last time, when we danced,” he says, not elaborating beyond that—not that he needs to, because Jeongguk knows exactly which instance Taehyung is talking about. “You said, ‘you’re marrying her, not,’ and you never went on.”

“Even then,” Jeongguk murmurs, holding Taehyung's hand under the table. The food had been excellent; Jeongguk chose the caterer. Best Thai food he’s ever had the fortune of putting in his mouth in his life, he said, and it would be an honor to have at his wedding. “Yes, that day especially. You looked so ethereal.”

“You didn’t want to let go of me.”

“I didn’t.”

“You won’t have to, ever again.”

“I hope not,” Jeongguk says. Taehyung’s face glows softly in the dim light, and the candlelights in the centerpiece of each table flicker across his cheekbones like runaway ghosts. “Because I don’t plan on it.”

✩✩

The flight to Santorini, Greece, is inhumanly long, so thank God for private jets.

Imerovigli Suites are so picturesque and quaint that, for a moment, they actually manage to tear their eyes away from each other to gawk at the hotel, at the landscape, the hues of the sky and the sea. The line of the horizon where they meet is a foggy, eternal blue.

“Four poster bed!” Taehyung cheers, letting his bags down and making a running leap for it. It really is four poster, Jeongguk’s only ever seen them onset or in Bed Bath & Beyond, complete with sheer curtains and thick, blue satin ribbons to tie them back. All the pillows bounce when Taehyung lands facedown in the center of the mattress, and Jeongguk sets his camera down with more care, but by the time Taehyung has rolled over onto his back Jeongguk is already climbing over him, caging him with arm and leg.

“It’s so beautiful here. I love you.”

Jeongguk dips his face in. “You chose this place.”

“I know,” says Taehyung, and his voice shivers. There’s so much joy in his chest he can’t quite restrain it all. “But still. I love you.”

“I know,” Jeongguk says, and he blinks his eyes open. “I love you too.”

The only thing that gets unpacked in the next hour or so is the lube. It’s hard to tell who’s more desperate—Taehyung, with his inability to keep his hands from wandering, nudging Jeongguk’s clothes off bit by bit, or Jeongguk, who refuses to move away to pull his shirt over his head because that means less kissing.

“Should have packed more button-downs,” Taehyung tsk’s when Jeongguk reluctantly pulls back with a grunt to throw his shirt off.

“Didn’t think about that,” Jeongguk breathes against Taehyung’s chest, where he puts his first hickey for the night. “I was way, way more concerned about packing enough lube.”

Taehyung decides he likes Jeongguk’s mouth on his the best right now, so he coaxes him back to kiss. There’s no need for condoms anymore, not after they both went in to get retested and not after they’re married like this. Taehyung scoots back up against the dozen or so pillow at the head of the bed, with the bottle of lube in hand, telling Jeongguk to get over here.

“Fuck, Taehyung,” Jeongguk gasps as Taehyung runs his hand along his cock. One of his hands is braced against the headboard, the other on Taehyung’s shoulder. It’s slick with the lube he’d used to stretch Taehyung open. “Taehyung—”

“Mmm,” Taehyung hums, pressing his thumb into the slit and enjoying the shudder of Jeongguk’s body over him. Jeongguk grabs his wrist.

“You’re gonna make me come,” he says. Taehyung allows himself to be pulled along the sheets by the backs of his knees so that he’ll be propped open on Jeongguk’s thighs. He whines just a bit when Jeongguk lines himself up and begins to push in, slow and steady, until he hits the hilt and Taehyung lets out a shaking breath.

“Jeongguk—”

“Yeah?”

Taehyung reaches out for something to hold, and Jeongguk gives him his hand. “Move,” he says, rolling his hips. Jeongguk groans in answer, folding his body over Taehyung’s, splaying his knees out wide. If they have any neighbors in the room beside them, they’re probably judging them for having sex this loud this early in the evening, and Taehyung isn’t quiet about his pleasure, moaning and panting into Jeongguk’s mouth. When Jeongguk reaches between them to jerk Taehyung off, it’s too much, and his body locks around Jeongguk’s as he comes so hard that he’s lightheaded.

“Babe,” Jeongguk says, breath rushing in and out of his lungs as Taehyung’s hips quiver through the aftershocks. He doesn’t say anything more, only leaning in to kiss, air in his lungs hitching when Taehyung tightens around him.

“Come,” Taehyung says, as Jeongguk thrusts again, shallowly.

He remembers something about Jeongguk in bed, from years ago, and he’s compelled to try it again—craning his head forward until he can kiss at Jeongguk’s earlobe, laughing breathlessly when he feels Jeongguk make a noise of surprise as he comes, holding his hips as deep as he can in Taehyung before he relaxes.

“I wondered if it would still work.”

“You’re the only one it works on,” Jeongguk says, words sticky with the afterglow of sex. “You.”

“Me,” Taehyung says, turning his face to kiss at Jeongguk’s temple. “Do you want to clean up and find something to eat, or?”

Jeongguk twists his head around so that they’re nose to nose. “Or,” he says, smiling lazily, and Taehyung has to kiss that, too.

 

Morning comes softly, followed by a dance of white-blue afternoon. The balm of Santorini air settled on Taehyung’s skin overnight, and the rise and fall of the plane of Jeongguk’s chest is there when he opens his eyes. Up, down. Up, down, steady, to the rhythm of his heartbeat.

The sheets rustle when Taehyung withdraws his hand between their bodies to splay across the expanse of Jeongguk’s abdomen, and a garland of hickeys decorates the slopes of his collarbones. He walks his fingers tiptoe up the length of Jeongguk’s body until his thumb can press into one of the bruises he left behind. It vanishes under the pressure of his finger, a cloudy white, and then the blood rushes back to the surface of Jeongguk’s skin.

Taehyung startles when Jeongguk’s hand catches his, warm and a little sweaty, and brings his hand up to his mouth to kiss.

“I didn’t know you were awake,” he whispers, feeling the chap of Jeongguk’s lips on his palm.

“Wasn’t,” Jeongguk mumbles. “Y’woke me up.” Taehyung has to strain to catch all the words where they’re spoken into his palm, muffled. Jeongguk inhales deep, a breath that he takes into the marrow of his bones, and tosses until he and Taehyung are nose to nose, breaths evening out to a steady lull again.

“Babe.” Jeongguk doesn’t budge. “Babe,” and Taehyung pairs this with a nudge of his knee into Jeongguk’s thigh.

“Unnh.”

“We have to go do something,” Taehyung whispers, tracing the corner of Jeongguk’s jaw with his fingers. “We’re in Greece. On a honeymoon. We should go see things.”

“Uhhunh.”

“God,” Taehyung says. “I can’t believe I remarried a zombie.”

“Mm, but you did marry me,” Jeongguk says, smugly, the word luring him out of the bog of sleep enough to chuckle. He gathers Taehyung closer with arm and leg. “Still an upgrade, I’d say.”

Getting Jeongguk out of bed is like fighting World War III alone with one hand behind his back, but Jeongguk’s stomach eventually helps Taehyung drag him out of bed. It growls so loud when they’re brushing their teeth, side by side, that Taehyung grimaces.

“How can you ignore that kind of hunger?”

“How do you think I dropped all that weight for Home,” Jeongguk says. “I hibernated.”

“No, don’t talk about that, I don’t like you so skinny,” Taehyung says. “You looked so sick.”

“It was only for a little while,” Jeongguk says.

So, food is in order. They sit in the center of their unmade, rumpled bed, looking up local places to eat, and pick a place called Naoussa. It’s nestled at the top of a cliff with a spectacular view—the ocean looks amazing here for miles around, like something that belongs on a postcard.

“You should bring your camera!”

“Good idea,” says Jeongguk, and slings the pack around his shoulder before taking Taehyung’s hand in his. “Alright, let’s go.”

They do get looks and stares, but not as many as they would in the US, and the diners that approach them once they’re seated are a lot shyer. Even their waitress doesn’t quite look Taehyung in the eye when she’s taking his order, and Jeongguk chuckles when she walks away, tearing the receipt out of her book.

“Looks like she’s a fan,” he says, and Taehyung chuckles as he takes a drink of ice water.

“She did the same to you.”

When their food arrives, Taehyung is more than ready to dig in, he’s starving, but Jeongguk stops him. “Wait,” he says, “I’ve got to get photos of this. I don’t know if I’ll ever come back here.”

“Baby, I’m going to pass out.”

“Real fast,” Jeongguk says, deftly fitting his lens to his camera and popping the cover off. “Okay, just a second.”

Taehyung fidgets until he hears the shutter go off and Jeongguk says, “Go ahead, sorry.” But it doesn’t feel right to eat without him, and Taehyung opts to simply watch Jeongguk aim the lens at his own food, focusing, fiddling with the aperture. The sunset is hitting his cheeks and turning them a soft bronze, and there’s a shard of light on the bridge of his nose where the sunlight is reflecting off the screen of his camera. Taehyung reaches out to take his left hand off the camera and into his.

“Tae—?”

He presses a kiss into the palm of Jeongguk’s hand, then one more to the ring on his finger. “Sorry,” he says, looking up at Jeongguk through his eyelashes, “you looked so handsome, I just had to.”

“Oh,” Jeongguk says, blushing like he’s seventeen again. “Babe—”

“Come on, let’s eat.”

 

They try to, somewhat, keep up with what’s happening in the world so they turn on the TV that evening, but all the news is in Greek, so they end up settling on a rerun of Titanic that has Greek subtitles. They have the windows open, and Taehyung’s skin is still warm and sensitive from the bath. They’d ended up sitting in it for going on an hour, until the water started cooling, because Jeongguk wouldn’t stop kissing him.

“I wonder what the Internet is saying about us today,” Jeongguk says. “Probably criticizing my lube brand choice? Hm. You think they’ve updated our Wiki pages yet?”

“Absolutely, fans can work faster than computer programs,” Taehyung says. He nuzzles his nose into the soft underside of Jeongguk’s jaw. “We should go out tomorrow. Like, out, out.”

“You want to?”

“If we were just going to have sex all day,” Taehyung laughs, “we could have just had our honeymoon in your house.”

“I like kissing you in the ocean here, though,” Jeongguk says. “But okay. Let’s go out tomorrow.”

“Should I start looking up places?”

“You want to?” Jeongguk hands him his phone. “Here, use my phone. I had some travel guides open on Safari already.”

“Thank you,” Taehyung says, settling back on Jeongguk’s chest. He doesn’t make it through five minutes of browsing when he becomes acutely aware of the heat against his tailbone.

“Are you getting hard on me?” Taehyung asks with mock disbelief, twisting slightly in the circle of Jeongguk’s arms to give him A Look. He aims for admonishing but probably lands way off mark somewhere between flirty and lascivious.

“What? I was thinking about having sex with you,” Jeongguk says, so frankly that Taehyung sputters.

“Dirty-minded,” Taehyung says, and wriggles back against Jeongguk’s crotch so his ass is pressed right up against it.

“Hmm,” Jeongguk says, and Taehyung’s whole body jumps under his touch and Jeongguk’s hand finds the waistband of Taehyung’s pants. He’s half-hard now, and flushes now at the warmth of Jeongguk’s hand on his cock. “I’m hardly the only one, so I guess that’s fair.”

Taehyung ends up kicking the blankets down to the foot of the bed and shimmying his pants down to his knees so that Jeongguk can jerk him off unrestricted; and, besides, the sight of Jeongguk’s fingers curled around him is so arousing that it makes him lightheaded.

“Give me a little lube, babe?”

The bottle of it has been sitting on their bedside table their whole time here for easy access, but Taehyung has to stretch his whole body across the bed to reach it, and his hands are shaking, so it’s not exactly easy at all. He groans in the back of his throat when the cool sensation of it hits his skin, Jeongguk moving his hand slowly up and down the length of his cock to spread it around.

“Relax.”

Taehyung drops his head back against Jeongguk’s shoulder, hooking his arm around Jeongguk’s neck to bring him down for kisses. It’s only a handjob, yet the intensity has Taehyung’s head spinning, and he can’t stop bucking his hips into the slick, wet circle of Jeongguk’s palm.

“Jeongguk—oh, Jeongguk—”

He comes all over his bare thighs, body slack on Jeongguk’s chest. The come glistens milky and thick on Jeongguk's hand as he releases Taehyung’s cock and brings his fingers to his mouth to lick. When Taehyung pulls it away so he can kiss him, he tastes himself.

“Okay,” he says, and Jeongguk moans a little when he gives his ear a kiss. “Now you.”

 

On the third night, Taehyung has too much to drink—the ouzitos are surprisingly good, and neither of them can resist wine on any given night. At first it’s cute, even funny; Taehyung can’t stop giggling every time Jeongguk kisses him, sitting in the cradle of Jeongguk’s crossed legs. His cheeks are warm and flushed. But then the sad stage comes, the one that made Jeongguk beg Taehyung not to get married in Carlsbad.

It begins with questions.

“But why?”

“Why what, babe?”

Taehyung hiccups, leaning his forehead against Jeongguk’s shoulder. “Why would you wait for me?”

“Taehyung…” They’ve been over this plenty of times.

“But why?” He sits up now, eyes glassy and unfocused but no less intense. “The more I think about it, the sadder I get. You were just prepared to love me pointlessly for the rest of your life? Why? And why would you marry me if I did that to you?”

“It’s not as if you forced me to fall in love with you and then left me to fend for myself,” Jeongguk says, holding Taehyung’s face steady with both hands. “It was my choice. And I lived with it.”

“Why wouldn’t you let anyone else in,” Taehyung says, reaching up to curl his own hands around Jeongguk’s wrists. “I couldn’t take that.”

“Take what?”

“I couldn’t take the idea of you being alone, always,” Taehyung says, on the verge of tears now. “I would be so sad, imagining you living out your days by yourself. Forever is such a long time when you don’t have someone to love.”

“Well, I guess that means you always loved me, which we’ve established,” Jeongguk says, “so it all worked out in the end anyway. Seven months ago you said yes when I proposed and three days ago you said I do at the altar, so you don’t need to worry about me being alone always.”

Taehyung regards him fiercely for several heartbeats before he leans in and kisses Jeongguk clumsily, landing more on the side of his lips at first before he turns his face to kiss his mouth properly. He won’t let go when Jeongguk tries to pull back for air, whimpering, desperate, and it’s not until Jeongguk has to gently yank him back that he stops.

“Hey—”

“What are you doing,” Taehyung demands, “I have to make up ten years worth of kisses and you’re slowing me down!”

“Babe, it’s okay,” Jeongguk says, the crushing feeling back in his chest when he rubs the silent tears off Taehyung’s cheeks with his thumbs. He hasn’t felt it in a long time, in fact, but this time it’s a little different—pain at the realization that he’s underestimated Taehyung’s love for him. It happens, he supposes, when he’s had to wait so long. “We have forever. Okay?”

“Okay,” Taehyung chokes. Jeongguk presses his face into his neck and lets him weep, quietly, until there’s nothing left.

 

The rest of the week races by. It’s hard to keep track of the passage of time when they spend most of the days sleeping when they want to sleep, waking up only to eat and make love.

But all too soon, the real world needs them to get back to work; both of them have press events to attend for their respective movies, and a week off had already been all the studios could allow them. Jeongguk supposes he could have picked a better time to propose, between projects, perhaps.

“No,” Taehyung says, when Jeongguk apologizes for it as they pack their suitcases. “I wouldn’t want you to wait any longer.”

“Yeah?”

“Would you?”

“I thought I was moving too fast,” Jeongguk says, folding one of his socks deliberately, “but no, I couldn’t wait any longer, either.”

“Stupid,” Taehyung says, fondly, and holds out Jeongguk’s boarding pass. “Here, don’t forget this.”

“Thank you.”

When they check out, they leave the hotel hand in hand. Getting back to Los Angeles means no rest, leaping back into a whirlwind of work, but Taehyung squeezes Jeongguk’s hand in his lap before they’re cleared for takeoff. Jeongguk looks back at him, from where he’d been peering out the window, and there’s still a trace of that look in his face, like he can scarcely believe that Taehyung is his, but it’s changed now. This one isn’t as sad, as heartbreaking; it tastes, faintly, of vanilla ice cream and chocolate instead.

Whatever Hollywood is going to throw at him next, it doesn’t look too bad.

 

The 97th Academy Awards is the first Oscar ceremony that they get to attend together, as a couple. They arrive together in a limo that drops them off at the red carpet just as Roseia is stepping out of hers with her long-time girlfriend.

“You guys!” she shouts, catching up to them, and Jeongguk thinks she might give him a hug first, but she opens her lithe arms wide and gathers both of them in so that their three head all crash together. Jeongguk gets a faceful of her curly hair and laughs. “I never had a chance to congratulate you both in person, holy shit—” She pulls back and beams at them both. “You look amazing together. It’s about time.”

“Thank you,” Taehyung says, giving her one hug extra. “And you look amazing today.”

“I know,” she says. “My agent was like, ‘Mm, Roseia, do you really want to be attending the Oscars with your natural hair?’ And I said, Leanne, God did not give me this afro for me to be ashamed of it.”

“You tell her,” Taehyung says. Roseia looks like she’s about to share more, but then he catches the eye of another actress and bids them a goodbye, taking her girlfriend’s hand in hers. “Christ. Love her.”

“She’s great.”

And, not unlike Roseia with her girlfriend, Taehyung refuses to let Jeongguk’s hand go, even when they’re flagged down for interviews. The MCs are very interested in asking him about his role and what he did to prepare for it, because, “This seems to be the hardest one you’ve taken on so far, would you agree?”

“I think all, I think all of them, really have their separate, different challenges,” Taehyung says, nodding in thought. “In terms of stunts it wasn’t a whole new ball game, or anything, but definitely the kind of mental strength I needed—”

“Pocketful of Sunshine was also a great deal of exercise in stretching your mental capabilities, right?”

“Definitely,” Taehyung says. “Both were different, though. Sunshine was very internal, Heart Beatdown was more, not external, exactly but it required me think in ways that I’d literally never experienced or witnessed.”

“And would you say you have a good chance of getting that Oscar tonight?” She’s smiling now, the teardrop earrings catching the lights as they swing back and forth. “It’s your sixth nomination now, isn’t it?”

“It is indeed.”

“There’s been a lot of talk about you and Jeongguk wearing the same colors for your suits tonight as you both did at your wedding,” she says, and Jeongguk chuckles at this, knowing what the question is going to be. “Is it for luck?”

“Aw, well,” Taehyung says. “Whatever happens, I’m already the luckiest man in the world to have him by my side.”

“Oh my God, the viewers are going to swoon,” she says. “And, Jeongguk, I understand you did work for the Pacific Rim sequel recently?”

“Yeah, yeah, I did,” Jeongguk says. “It had kind of been a dream of mine after I got into acting, I loved all sorts of mecha and gundam genres as a kid, so—my manager, actually, it was all his doing.”

“It’s a pretty big change from what you’ve been doing, right?” she asks. “You’ve done a lot of dramas and thrillers up till now, this is your first real jam-packed action-adventure kind of movie.”

“Absolutely, and I really enjoyed the experience,” Jeongguk answers. “And I hope everyone who ends up watching it likes the sequel as much as the first, I’ve got big shoes to fill.”

She wishes Taehyung luck tonight, and sends them on their way. If Risa is here tonight, Jeongguk does not see her, and if Taehyung does, he doesn’t mention her. After all, he only has eyes for one person in the world now, and possibly never had eyes for anyone else to begin with.

“You want to go in and sit down?”

“Sure,” Jeongguk says.

The night is long. This year’s Oscars are hosted by Sandra Bullock, who seriously does not seem to age, and it’s hilarious enough that the hours don’t seem to drag too hard. The ceremony moves steadily through Best Original Screenplay, to Best Cinematography, to Best Original Score—Min Yoongi is nominated again, and he wins, again—until Best Actress in a Leading Role is given to a Joelle Rossi for her performance in A Moment in Time.

“Ready?” Jeongguk murmurs very quietly, as Hugh Jackman is presenting onstage. Taehyung grips his hand, hard, his fingers a little sweaty.

“I think so.”

“Are you nervous?”

“Maybe a little.”

Jeongguk leans over to press a smile into Taehyung’s cheek. “I know.”

“John Boyega, Hoult,” says the cool, familiar announcer’s voice. “Leonardo DiCaprio, Empty Places.” Applause is sandwiched between each name and movie. “Jacob Tremblay, Walk the Line. Kim Taehyung, Heart Beatdown. Ryan Keo, They Came in Threes.”

Hugh leans back into the mic.

“And the Oscar goes to…”

He opens the envelope.

✩✩