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Jeongguk is only six, but he thinks he knows what kind of person his soulmate is.

“Again?” sighs his mother when she catches sight of the fresh scrapes on his knees that afternoon. “Jeongguk—”

“It wasn’t me,” he insists as he shuts the door behind him. “They showed up while I was at school. On my hands, too—look.”

Obligingly kneeling before him, she takes his hands in her own and turns them over to examine his palms. True to his word, they’re pink and raw, a product of what could only be a nasty fall. He felt it when it happened, the ghost of a stinging pain that shot through his hands and knees while he was in class, and he has the wounds to show for it.

Except it wasn’t actually Jeongguk who fell.

Sitting back on her heels, his mother shakes her head with a disapproving tut. “Whoever your soulmate is,” she says, “they ought to be more careful. It’s irresponsible of them, going around acting like no one else is sharing their marks.”

Careful. That’s what Jeongguk is. It’s what his mother taught him to be. Be careful, Jeongguk, you’re not the only one who’ll feel the bruises. Don’t draw on yourself, Jeongguk, do you want your soulmate to go to school with marker all over their arms?

Yeah, he’s careful. Maybe a little too careful, supplies the doubtful part of his mind. Accidents are inevitable and Jeongguk’s added his own number of injuries to the ever-shifting blue-purple patchwork that sprawls across his shins and joints, but at this point, he doubts that his soulmate would even notice a new mark. Not when they’ve already been making more than their fair share. Perhaps they’re just inconsiderate. Or—and this is the doubt speaking again—perhaps they’re simply not aware that they have a soulmate at all, because there have been cases like that; people with no soulmates, people with multiple soulmates.

“Why don’t you try reaching out to them?” his mother suggests, as if reading his mind. “It’s common enough for soulmates to communicate through written messages. That’s how your father and I found a time and place to meet.”

Jeongguk is shaking his head before she’s even finished speaking. “It’s fine, I don’t really mind that much,” he says. Not exactly true, but he doesn’t want to be the person who initiates interaction with their soulmate just to ask them if they can be a little more careful, please, I’m getting tired of all the bruises. No one wants to be that person.

His mother frowns. “It doesn’t have to be about the injuries if you don’t want it to be. You can just introduce yourself, remind them that you’re here.”

Remind them that you exist. But Jeongguk doesn’t want to be that person, either. Naïve as it may be to assume that everything will work out in the end, he has faith that fate will carry through, that he’ll meet his soulmate when the time is right. And though he is still young, he understands what it means to be clingy, how unattractive it looks to others, and that—more than the one who tells their soulmate to stop being so clumsy, more than the one who feels obligated to announce their presence to their soulmate in the most heavy-handed manner possible—is, above all, the person Jeongguk does not want to be.

“Maybe later,” he says, beginning his retreat toward the stairs with his backpack in tow.

He is only six, but he knows what kind of person he is.

 

Hello.

The characters appear on the back of his left arm sixteen months later, and Jeongguk spends at least thirty minutes having an existential crisis over whether or not to reply.

Hello.

He reads it over for the umpteenth time, heart faster and hands sweatier than they rightfully ought to be. Is his soulmate even addressing him? What if they’re the type to write on their arms for fun? What if someone else wrote it on them?

In the end, he does not respond. When it happens again and again—sometimes on his wrists and sometimes on his ankles, sometimes with question marks and sometimes with exclamation points—he pretends not to notice. It isn’t that he means to be rude or cold or standoffish, or that he doesn’t want to talk to his soulmate and find out who they are. It’s just that, well. He already ignored them the first time, and with every subsequent message that comes and goes, it gets harder and harder for him to respond without looking like a Grade A jerk. A self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts.

Besides, he isn’t sure he has anything to say to them.

 

Years pass, and Jeongguk grows up. He goes through the motions of learning, splits his time during class between gazing out the window and doodling on his notes and attempting to pay attention to the teacher. He goes through other things, too—clothes and binders and hobbies, phases that are too disgraceful to name. A progression typical of children as they age; Jeongguk is not an exception.

The bruises fade as he enters middle school, which he takes to mean that his soulmate is busy growing up, too, because no sooner does the last one ebb into marbled yellow-brown than the notes start appearing.

Notes is an umbrella term for the chicken scratch that decorates his arms day in and day out, ranging from reminders (pg. 284-290 #20-45, pick up Taerin after school, meet Minjae Sat. @2:00) to actual, literal notes. Once, near the beginning of Jeongguk’s first year of high school, he spends an entire evening watching a severely condensed history of South Korea write itself out on the inside of his left forearm. And just as he thinks it’s finally over, it starts up again on his right forearm, this time—he hadn’t realized it was possible, but it is—in considerably sloppier penmanship.

“Dude,” Yugyeom breathes when he sees him at school the next day, half in horror and half in awe. Jeongguk remembers too late to tug his sleeves over his hands. “Are you seriously planning to cheat on the physics test?”

“Not so loud,” Jeongguk hisses. “And it wasn’t me. History, not physics, see?” He flashes Yugyeom a glimpse of his marked-up arms before covering them again with the fabric of his blazer.

“You look guilty as fuck, hiding it like that.”

“Yeah, because I don’t want people like you snooping around.”

Yugyeom laughs. “Point taken. But man, your soulmate has guts. I just hope they get away with it.”

Abruptly, Jeongguk swears he can feel the weight the ink on his skin. Cheating on a test is no small offense, and if his soulmate gets caught, the consequences won’t be pretty.

“Yeah,” he says. “I hope they do, too.”

 

Jeongguk grows accustomed to the phantom press of a pen tip to his skin, a tingling sensation that inevitably has him putting down whatever he’s doing in order to watch. His soulmate has given up writing hello and all its variations in favor of scribbling random tidbits about their day, and Jeongguk finds that he doesn’t mind it so much, even if he can never bring himself to reply.

Although, that’s assuming the messages are intended for him in the first place. He may have an idea of what his soulmate is like, but that doesn’t give him any insight as to why they write what they do, and he isn’t quite confident enough in himself to take the chance and respond. For all he knows, his soulmate keeps a diary on their wrists for the hell of it; there’s nothing to prove that they expect him to respond, or that they even want him to.

Jeongguk doesn’t think he could live with himself if he wrote something back one day only to be rejected. So he stays quiet, even when it gets hard to keep his silence.

Case in point: it’s the middle of the night and Jeongguk is in the middle of cramming for a math test when a familiar prickle begins spreading down his arm.

G-Dragon’s new album is FIRE

He pulls up his sleeve and peers blearily down at the words. He’d known what to expect when he set his pencil down to check, but he hadn’t known to expect that. It’s one in the morning; he isn’t surprised that his soulmate is awake—high school students live in a constant state of sleep deprivation, and that’s a fact—but if they’re up because of work, too, then they should be doing that, not listening to G-Dragon.

Shaking his head, Jeongguk pulls his sleeve back down. He’ll be the last person to deny that Coup d’Etat is fire; Yugyeom can attest that Jeongguk waited out the final hours of his birthday in order to listen to the album the minute it dropped. He would be a hypocrite to shame his soulmate for listening to music instead of doing homework, and part of him wants nothing more than to put down his calculator and send a response, but his math grade is suffering and he really needs to study.

At the very least, he supposes as he picks up his pencil, his soulmate has good taste in music.

 

Bring umbrella tomorrow

mitosis vs. meiosis???

Yi Sun-Shin

STUDY RULES FOR DIFFERENTIATION!!!!!!

Exams are killing me I’m so done with school

 

The messages ease up after Jeongguk enters his second year of high school, but that doesn’t stop him from waking up to a nasty surprise one Saturday morning.

He doesn’t realize it immediately. Rather, he rolls out of bed, goes downstairs, and takes a seat at the breakfast table—and when he turns to greet his mother, her eyes go wide.

“Jeongguk—that’s—did you—”

He blinks at her. “What?”

“Your forehead,” she says, like it should be obvious.

Jeongguk’s father chooses that moment to look up from his phone, and the instant he spots what Jeongguk’s mother appears to be talking about, he chokes on a sip of his tea. “Have you looked in a mirror yet?” he asks, wiping delicately at his mouth with a napkin, and when Jeongguk shakes his head, mute, he says, “You might want to check before you leave the house, then.”

So Jeongguk goes back upstairs to check. He walks into the bathroom, flips the light switch, and takes a look at his reflection to get an idea of what has his parents acting so weirdly, and there. There it is.

A giant, suspiciously phallic shape Sharpied smack dab in the middle of his forehead.

“What the fuck,” he breathes, grabbing a washcloth from beside the sink without breaking eye contact with himself in the mirror. “What the fuck.

There is a dick on his face. There is a big, bold dick drawn onto his face in black permanent marker, and though Jeongguk scrubs and scrubs and scrubs until his forehead is red, he only succeeds in smudging it around.

He pumps a fistful of soap onto the towel and renews his efforts with twice the vigor. He has hagwon later today, and he’d rather step on Legos than go there like this. Maybe, he thinks, pausing for a second to examine the state of the dick, his parents will allow him to skip just this once. Does this count as a medical emergency? Jeongguk isn’t sure, but his hands are shaky and the towel is shaky and he’s growing more panicked by the second because it won’t come off.

He’s going to die. He’s going to die of public humiliation in front of everyone, and then he’s going to come back to life and kill his soulmate, because who the fuck draws a dick on their forehead knowing full well that it’ll show up on someone else, too?

Someone clears their throat behind him, and Jeongguk reluctantly turns to see his mother standing in the doorway to the bathroom, makeup kit in hand. She holds it up when she catches him looking.

“I had a feeling it might not come off,” she says apologetically, “but I can do my best to cover it up for you.”

That’s how he finds himself sitting on the toilet seat on a sunny weekend morning as his mother crouches before him, applying concealer to his forehead.

“I just don’t understand,” he says, wrinkling his nose at the foreign sensation of makeup against his skin. “Why would they do something like that?” It’s a jackass move, to put it lightly. Jeongguk wouldn’t have pegged his soulmate to be one of those people—the ones who deliberately leave marks that’ll embarrass their soulmate, like it’s all a joke, like a fellow human being isn’t about to feel the humiliation—but apparently they are, and he’s not sure how to feel about this news.

She smiles ruefully back at him. “Who knows? There could be any number of reasons for what they did. Have you considered that it might not have been them?”

Jeongguk pauses. He hadn’t considered it, but now that she mentions it, he supposes she may have a point. How many people would voluntarily go around with a dick on their face? Not many, he’s guessing. “Do you think someone else drew it?”

“It’s a possibility,” she says, shrugging. “You shouldn’t be so quick to assume the worst of them.”

Jeongguk thinks back to what he knows about his soulmate. They’re messy, if their handwriting is anything to go by, and they’re forgetful, if the constant reminders mean anything. They like music—Jeongguk usually recognizes the lyrics when they appear on his skin, and on the occasions that he doesn’t, he always takes it upon himself to look them up—and they have two younger siblings whom they seem to care for very much. They’re easily distracted, not the best in school, but something about them makes Jeongguk feel comfortable, at ease. Like they’re genuinely nice, genuinely friendly. Like they’re someone who’d understand why Jeongguk can’t find it in himself to ever respond to their messages; after all, they haven’t stopped writing even after so many years, and yeah, at this point Jeongguk can accept that the messages were always meant for him.

Suddenly, he feels bad for jumping to conclusions.

“Maybe you’re right,” he concedes as his mother puts the finishing touches on his forehead. “It doesn’t seem like something they’d do.”

She sits back on her heels, scans her work, scans his face. “You sound like you already know them.”

“It feels like I do,” says Jeongguk. “They write to me a lot.”

“Do you write back?”

“Not really,” he admits. “I never know what to say.”

She hums in acknowledgment as she packs the makeup away and gets to her feet. “They sound nice. You should get dressed soon, by the way. We lost some time with the… forehead.”

Jeongguk shoots to his feet. “Right. Thanks for…” he gestures lamely to his general facial area, “that.”

And he wouldn’t say that he’s come to expect his soulmate’s messages, but they write just about every day anyway. He figures that it’s pretty reasonable to check his arm every time he suspects he might be feeling something.

So he waits for an explanation to find its way onto his arm, sneaking peeks at it during hagwon, and when it doesn’t come, he waits for something—anything—addressed to him. But that Saturday, the only thing Jeongguk’s soulmate writes is, stock up on aspirin. And that’s when he starts to think he’s missing a piece of the picture.

Jeongguk is sixteen when he begins to think that he may not know his soulmate as well as he thought he did.

 

His soulmate still jots down reminders, but it’s not the same. There are no excerpts from their day, no comments on an album released over the weekend, nothing to suggest that they are anything more than a collection of dates and numbers and locations.

Jeongguk shouldn’t miss them as much as he does, but it isn’t like he can just ask them to start talking at him again. He figures he deserves it, in a way, for letting them have radio silence all these years, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less.

He manages, though. He jumps at the first telltale tingle on his skin, but learns not to expect much. They’ll meet eventually, he’s sure; no one has any idea how to explain how the soulmate system works, but it’s inexplicably powerful—it has to be, to bring so many people together in the way that it does—and he trusts that his time will come. Besides, he can already deduce that they’re Korean; he has it easier than the people whose soulmates live in different countries or continents entirely.

It isn’t until a couple months after the forehead incident that Jeongguk realizes he should probably do something to remind his soulmate that yes, hello, I still exist.

What happens is this: he wakes up Sunday morning, brushes his teeth, eats breakfast, gets dressed. Right as he’s pulling a shirt over his head, he happens to turn and catch a glimpse of himself in his dresser mirror.

His torso is littered in red-purple splotches. On his chest, on his stomach, on the jut of his hipbone.

And Jeongguk may have been naïve, but he sure as hell isn’t stupid. He knows these aren’t the same bruises he used to get when he was a child.

 

His soulmate is discreet, he’ll give them that. The hickeys never travel above the neckline, an observation Jeongguk makes with one part appreciation and three parts scorn, and they only show up on weekends, though it takes days longer for them to fade.

Jeongguk may be bad at math, but he can put two and two together.

He thinks they might be in college. Their notes have started mentioning lectures and professors ever since the school year began, and it would explain the hookups, too. High school students don’t have much time to do anything but study; certainly, it’s taking everything in Jeongguk to stay on top of his assignments while simultaneously preparing for the Suneung, which lurks around the corner.

The first time the hickeys show up, he forces himself to dismiss them as a fluke. A mistake, perhaps, a drunken one-time affair goaded on by the excitement of being in college.

But it happens a second time, and a third, and when Jeongguk wakes up a fourth time to find marks he never wanted all over his body, he decides to take action, only to get stuck on precisely how to take action.

Can you maybe stop sleeping around is a little too blunt. Hi it’s me I’m your soulmate is just plain tactless.

In the end, he doesn’t write anything at all. But come Monday morning, during his first class of the day, he takes a ballpoint pen and—struck by a combination of boredom and inspiration—starts drawing. Birds and flowers and leaves, anything that comes to mind, because he can’t find the right words and Korean’s always been his best subject anyway.

In the end, Jeongguk doesn’t write anything at all. Instead, he draws an intricate web of life onto his left arm, a sprawling sleeve of tattoo-like designs, and when he caps his pen at the end of the period, he can’t help but feel satisfied at his work. More than words and numbers, art has been his preferred mode of expression for as long as he can remember—the visual, the physical, the tangible.

This time, he doesn’t have to wait long. Not more than five minutes pass before Jeongguk feels the old tingle, on the back of his hand so as not to disturb the drawing, and when he checks, he doesn’t have the faintest inkling of doubt that this message is for him.

Wow you’re a really good artist!!

“What are you smiling like that for?” Yugyeom asks, nudging Jeongguk and leaning over before Jeongguk can snatch his hand away. “Finally work up the balls to talk to them, did you?”

Jeongguk settles for pushing at Yugeyom’s shoulder until he gets the hint and moves back. “Mind your own damn business.”

(Later, he racks his brain for something to say to his soulmate. When he comes up blank, he decides to leave things as they are, figuring that it’s best not to force it.

The hickeys stop happening after that regardless.)

 

Jeongguk likes to think of what he and his soulmate have as a comfortable silence. A quiet understanding, if you will, though he’s aware that the only thing standing between them and real interaction is his own inhibition.

Jeongguk’s soulmate continues to write on their arms and Jeongguk himself continues to remain content watching the words scrawl themselves across his skin. They stay like that for a while—and Jeongguk would be perfectly fine staying like that for a while longer because he can’t be sure of where he stands with them, not after everything that’s already happened, but his soulmate seems to have other ideas.

Draw me something?

The words appear on the back of his hand while he’s working on his English homework. Jeongguk hesitates for only a few seconds before grabbing a pen and writing to his soulmate for the first time in his life.

What do you want me to draw?

The response comes almost immediately.

Anything you want. It’ll be amazing no matter what, it reads, and Jeongguk is suddenly glad that blushes aren’t part of the mark-sharing deal because he’s fairly certain he’s turning red from head to toe.

That’s how Sunday evening finds him pushing his shirt sleeve to his elbow and drawing a mandala-like pattern that wraps around the girth of his forearm. He draws swirls and swoops and curlicues, shades it in dark enough to make it look like a tattoo; draws it from the inside out, starting from the center and making it grow along his arm, doesn’t stop until his pen runs out of ink and he remembers that he has school tomorrow.

It takes the better part of an hour, but his soulmate’s lavish praise—messy and barely legible, skittering across Jeongguk’s right arm in an slovenly line of characters—makes it completely worth the time.

 

The rest of high school passes in a caffeine-fueled haze of studying.

Draw for me? becomes a thing between the two of them. Sometimes the reason is bad day, can you draw me something? Other times it’s can you draw me a turtle I bet you’d make it look like a masterpiece. It’s all the same to Jeongguk because he likes doing this for his soulmate, likes getting the feeling that he’s doing something for them, however small; likes getting the feeling that he might, just might, be making their day a fraction brighter in the only way he knows. They don’t talk much in the way of actual conversation, but a picture is worth a thousand words and Jeongguk would draw a thousand pictures for his soulmate if they asked him to.

“Whipped,” Yugyeom coughs none too quietly into his fist whenever he catches Jeongguk doodling in class, which is—probably too often for Jeongguk’s own good, considering that grades are everything when it comes to the college application process.

But Jeongguk has never pretended to be a better student than he is and it isn’t like he ever wanted to go to any of the top universities, and besides. He likes drawing, he likes art, and he likes his soulmate.

“Shut up,” becomes the natural response to Yugyeom’s teasing comments—okay, not that it wasn’t already—and by the time Jeongguk exits the hellhole that is high school and enters the entirely new hellhole that is university, he’s inking his arms up on a weekly basis.

 

He meets Jimin and Hoseok when he joins the dance team.

It’s nice, having friends outside of class, even if the campus is big and there are strangers everywhere. This might have something to do with the fact that he doesn’t have very many friends in his classes, because it’s so much easier to bond over a shared hobby than it is over a shared assignment, but the point still stands: Jimin and Hoseok make Jeongguk feel a little more like he belongs here. A little less like an outsider peering in.

The first few weeks at Sejong are an exercise in adjusting. To college life, to college classes, to the college environment; to his schedule, to his roommate, to Seoul. The city is big and crowded and urban and the locals speak a different dialect from the one Jeongguk grew up using, but he takes the the changes in stride as best he can. It helps, being friends with people like Jimin and Hoseok and Jongin and Taemin. It’s like having a second family, cheesy as it sounds, because Jeongguk knows for a fact that he would be having an infinitely harder time without them.

University means a fresh start with a blank slate. Yugyeom’s halfway across the country, and so Jeongguk expands his list of acquaintances out of necessity. The members of the dance team are among the first to make it there; so is Jeongguk’s roommate, Seungkwan, and Jimin’s boyfriend, Yoongi.

Yoongi. Jimin’s soulmate, apparently; some guy who drops by the studio every so often to watch them wrap up. He’s short, in both the literal and figurative meanings of the word, but Jeongguk sees the way he softens toward Jimin when he thinks no one’s watching, and he wants. He wants what they have, wants to have something like it for himself.

He decides to ask Jimin about it during break on a Thursday afternoon, dropping himself onto the floor beside Jimin and bringing his water bottle to his lips like he believes the water might contain some last-minute courage if he drinks hard enough.

It doesn’t, but he swallows and asks anyway.

What he means to say is, Hey, Jimin, how did you and Yoongi-hyung meet?

What comes out instead is, “Hey, Jimin, did you know Yoongi-hyung before you met him?” Which is just an unusual way of phrasing the question, really, and it probably reveals something about Jeongguk’s own situation, because Jimin shoots him a funny look before he replies.

“What do you mean, did I know him before I met him?”

“Like,” Jeongguk waves a hand in the air, “did you ever communicate with him before you met him in person? By writing on your skin or whatever?”

“Oh,” says Jimin. “Yeah, he told me to stop being a damn klutz once, back when I was still trying to nail that flip—his words, not mine. Must’ve assumed I got the bruises from running into walls all the time.”

“And that’s the first thing he said to you?”

Jimin shrugs. “Yeah, I guess.” Then, almost defensively, “He was sixteen. We were young.”

But Jeongguk isn’t judging. He’s thinking of his own soulmate, remembering the tapestry of bruises that used to adorn his own body. Wondering if they have an explanation for that, or if they really were just clumsy. Jimin’s story sounds half-familiar, like a song he can’t remember the lyrics of, and Jeongguk is so absorbed in his thoughts that Jimin has to pinch him to get his attention.

Jeongguk recoils on instinct. “Ow. What was that for?”

“I asked you a question. Don’t ignore your elders, it’s rude.”

“...don’t look like my elder,” Jeongguk mutters, and pretends he didn’t say anything when Jimin shoots him a death glare.

“Why are you so curious, anyway? That eager to meet your soulmate, are you?”

“No, I’m actually dreading it,” Jeongguk deadpans. He’s only half-joking, and Jimin must pick up on this, because his expression turns mildly concerned.

“Why? Are they an asshole?”

“What? No,” Jeongguk stresses. Asshole is the last word he’d use to describe them. His soulmate, with their chicken scratch handwriting and excessive use of exclamation points, all enthusiasm and genuinely good intentions, is so far removed from the definition of asshole that it wouldn’t even cross Jeongguk’s mind to call them one.

Then he remembers the dick. The dick, and the hickeys, memories fairly recent in nature but ones that he’s managed to push to the back of his consciousness in light of the bond they’ve managed to form over Jeongguk’s drawings, and he reconsiders. “Well, maybe a little. I’m not sure. We don’t know each other well.”

“Ah,” says Jimin. “Don’t talk much, then, do you?”

Jeongguk shakes his head, and Jimin makes a noise of understanding.

“At least you’re not my roommate,” he says consolingly. “He didn’t even realize he had a soulmate until after he got here.”

“Got into college, you mean?”

Jimin nods, face grim. “Imagine that,” he says. “Going your whole life thinking you were the exception to the rule. Or that your soulmate was, like, a baby.”

Jeongguk cringes. “Oh, gross.”

“Yeah,” Jimin says with feeling. “I think he’s still half-convinced that his soulmate is ten years younger than him.”

Jeongguk is still processing this information when Hoseok calls out to them from across the studio. “Hey, losers, break’s over! Get off your asses.”

Practice starts up again, and like that, Jeongguk files the conversation away to forget about until later—except later comes sooner than expected. Three days after Jimin tells Jeongguk about Yoongi’s first words to him, Jeongguk rolls up his sleeve to find a message that suggests that his soulmate might be a little closer than anticipated.

 

Reclaim hoodie from Jimin. He can buy his own.

 

There has to be a mistake.

That’s the first thing Jeongguk thinks when he reads it. Then he reads it again to let it sink in, and rereads it a third time just to be absolutely fucking sure, because no way. No way does his soulmate know Jimin. If they do, it must be a different Jimin, one who doesn’t attend Sejong University, because that is Jeongguk’s school and no one warned him to be ready to share a campus with his soulmate. Or a friend, for that matter. Who does this person think they are, going around and sharing clothes with Jimin? Jeongguk would be even more indignant if he didn’t already know that Jimin was in a relationship.

The dance team doesn’t meet on Sundays, though, and so he waits for Monday to roll around before initiating his investigation.

“You’re not wearing the usual sweater,” he observes when Jimin enters the studio that afternoon, tossing his bag to one side before joining everyone else for warm-ups.

“What?” Jimin looks down at himself, as if just noticing that the Thrasher hoodie is nowhere to be seen. “Oh, yeah. That actually belonged to my roommate. He made me give it back to him last night.” He sounds less than pleased about it, but Jeongguk is too busy being horrified to notice or care.

“Your… roommate,” he echoes.

“Yeah,” says Jimin, eyeing him suspiciously. “Hey, you don’t look too good. Did you come down with a cold or something?”

“Mm? No, no, I’m fine. Peachy, in fact. Never been better.” Jeongguk shoots him a cheesy smile and two thumbs up in the hopes that the act will cover up his despair as his life crumbles around him. In retrospect, it’s definite overkill, but Jimin—bless his soul—doesn’t press for answers.

That sentiment lasts for all of twenty minutes, because when warm-up ends and Jeongguk strips down to a T-shirt, Jimin is the one who points out the drawings.

“Hey, Jeongguk,” he says, halfway out of his own sweater but too fixated on Jeongguk’s arm to finish the action. “Did you draw those?”

The those he’s referring to are the little boats Jeongguk doodled upon the request of his soulmate—Jimin’s roommate—last night.

His soulmate. Jimin’s roommate.

His soulmate. Jimin’s—

“Yes,” he blurts, because there’s no point in lying. Still, the way Jimin’s looking at him (like he’s seen, like he knows) is putting him on edge. So Jeongguk takes the coward’s route out. Literally. “I… have to use the bathroom.”

Murmuring an apology, he pushes past Jimin, who has his mouth opened to say something Jeongguk doesn’t want to hear, and flees into the relative safety of the restroom down the hall.

 

Unfortunately for Jeongguk, toilet stalls provide only a fleeting haven for nineteen-year-old boys trying to avoid impending doom, and Jimin—doom incarnate—corners him after practice.

“Do you want me to introduce you to him?” he says by way of prelude, and it’s all Jeongguk can do to gape at him.

“Who?” he says, even though he has a sinking feeling that he already knows what Jimin’s talking about.

“Taehyung,” says Jimin. “My roommate.”

Jeongguk coughs. Maybe if he feigns cluelessness, Jimin will let it go. “What, uh. What gave you that idea?”

No such luck; Jimin only narrows his eyes. “Don’t play dumb,” he says. “I saw your arm. Besides, you literally told me you were the one who drew them.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” Jeongguk asks, and he can hear the desperation bleeding into his tone, but he refuses to give up the game just yet. Not while there’s still a chance, however minimal, that Jimin will, if not be fooled, take the hint and keep his nose out of Jeongguk’s business.

Again, no such luck. “I’m his roommate,” Jimin says. “And his best friend. I see his ugly mug every day. You can’t seriously think I haven’t noticed the drawings on his arms.”

“His ugly mug,” Jeongguk repeats weakly.

Jimin waves him off. “Not literally. Not my point, either. He talks about you, like, 24/7, you know that? He’s so gone for you and he doesn’t even know you. He didn’t even think you existed until, what, two years ago? And now he won’t shut up about you.”

Jeongguk can feel himself blushing. He can feel the blood rushing to his face, and the knowledge of it only makes the situation even more embarrassing. Now he’s trapped in this self-perpetuating cycle of cherry-red mortification as Jimin goes on and on about Jeongguk’s soulmate like he’s been letting this rant build in him for the past two years and is only now unleashing it on Jeongguk’s poor, hapless ears.

“Does he really talk about me?” is what he ends up asking, shaky, when Jimin pauses to catch his breath.

“At least once a day,” Jimin says soulfully. “Not by name—he has no idea who you are—but when he isn’t talking about his classes or his play or his dog, he’s talking about his soulmate and how he can’t wait to meet them. He shows me the drawings, too. Says he can’t believe he’s destined to be with such an artist.”

“Wow. He sounds… wow,” Jeongguk breathes, shiny-eyed with adoration, and Jimin’s expression contorts in disgust.

Eugh. I’m going to regret this so much.”

“Regret what?”

Jimin stares. “Introducing you to each other,” he says, like it should be obvious. “He has rehearsal today, but if you hang around our dorm you’re bound to run into him when he comes back.”

“Whoa,” says Jeongguk, alarmed. This is all progressing too quickly. “Wouldn’t that be getting ahead of ourselves? I’m not sure I’m ready—”

“Why not?”

“I’m just—not.” Jeongguk chews his lip anxiously. The truth is, he’s happy with what he has with Taehyung, whatever that is, right now. He’s happy scribbling designs onto his skin without the pressure of having to find the right words to send, happy with the snatches of Taehyung’s life that he can infer from the notes he gets to see. “I like what we have right now. I don’t want to, I don’t know, disappoint him. Could you—not mention this to him?”

Jimin looks like he’s going to protest, but at Jeongguk’s pleading expression, he softens. Maybe he’s remembering that Jeongguk didn’t reach out to Taehyung for sixteen whole years. Maybe he’s starting to understand that for Jeongguk, talking to his soulmate isn’t as easy as just sitting down and writing out a message. There could be any number of reasons, but regardless of which ones hold true, he relents. “Okay,” he says. “Okay. I won’t force you to meet him, and I won’t tell him about you. But it’ll happen eventually, you know.”

Jeongguk breathes a sigh of relief. “Yeah,” he says, “I know. I just want it to happen on my terms.”

 

Jeongguk hadn’t exactly had anything in mind when he’d told Jimin that he wanted to meet Taehyung on his own terms, but if he had, this would’ve been pretty low on the list.

This is Jeongguk following the rehearsal @4:00 he finds on his wrist that morning and hiding in the back of the theater come four o’clock, taking advantage of the shadows in order to remain unseen by the students on stage. They haven’t started yet, from the looks of it—actors and stagehands alike moving the props into place, a forest-themed backdrop augmented by fake trees deposited at random intervals in the foreground—and Jeongguk really has no clue what to expect, but he’s willing to wait if it means a chance at seeing what Taehyung looks like.

Are there better ways to uncover this information? Undoubtedly. Jimin’s roommate-and-best-friend status has almost certainly granted him a collection of photos. It’s just that Jeongguk refuses to swallow his pride and ask after that whole spiel about him not being ready, and he’s pretty sure Jimin would never let him live it down.

So yeah, Jeongguk’s curious. Sue him.

He wants to see his soulmate in the flesh, wants to determine for himself whether Jimin was being serious when he mentioned Taehyung’s ugly mug. He isn’t shallow, he swears he isn’t—and really, if he already likes what he’s glimpsed of Taehyung through ink alone, he doubts that physical appearance would be a breaking point—but it would be nice to know what Taehyung looks like. Call it the human need to question things.

Someone passes through the door to the theater, a girl, and Jeongguk practically throws himself against the wall, pressing himself against it like he wants to melt into it.

He watches the back of her head as she walks down the aisle, moving past rows upon rows of seats until she reaches the raised stage, which she proceeds to swing herself onto. Jeongguk doesn’t let himself breathe easy until he sees her join the throng of people currently milling about at the front of the building, and when she finally does, he allows the tension to leave his body, dropping his head and turning it to the right—

“Fuck,” he hisses, jumping nearly half a meter into the air when he comes face to face with another boy. “What are you doing? How long have you been here?” How much have you seen?

“I could be asking the same of you,” says the boy, sounding deeply disgruntled. “I got here way before you did.”

The darkness is both a blessing and a curse, because Jeongguk can make out little more than a set of eyes and the outline of a face, comparatively pale in the shadows. He only hopes that the shadows have done an equally good job obscuring his own features; this is not his proudest moment, and he does not need any witnesses to his shame.

Then again, this guy was hiding in the back of a theater before Jeongguk even arrived at the scene, so maybe he’s the one who should be feeling more embarrassed.

“Yeah?” he says. “Why are you here, then?”

“I got here first,” the boy repeats.

“That means you have to answer first.”

“I’ll tell if you do, too.”

“Sure,” Jeongguk says, because he’s genuinely intrigued and he figures he can make up an excuse if he needs to. “I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours.”

“All right,” says the boy, “but you have to promise not to laugh.”

Jeongguk frowns. “I… promise?”

Apparently that’s good enough, because the boy leans forward and says in a confessional tone, “You know Kim Seokjin?”

“No.”

“Well, I’m here for him.” And with that, the boy retreats into his personal space bubble, seemingly satisfied with his own answer.

Jeongguk blinks after him, uncomprehending. The pieces should go together, he knows, but they just aren’t fitting. “...so,” he says, nodding slowly even though he understands nothing. “Kim Seokjin. Are you a friend or something?”

“Nah,” says the boy. “We’ve never spoken. He’s a senior, a year older than me.”

It occurs to Jeongguk that he should probably be acting more respectful than he is, considering that this guy is older than him. But what are the chances that they’ll meet again after this? He doesn’t have a name to go off, and he can’t even see the details of his face.

“So you’re stalking him,” he concludes, and the boy winces visibly.

“It sounds worse when you put it like that,” he says. “I want to get to know him, okay? ‘s not like that’s a crime.”

“Why don’t you just talk to him, then?” Jeongguk asks, painfully aware of the hypocrisy of that statement and willfully ignoring it in favor of watching the boy squirm.

“Easier said than done. I’m working up to it.” He pauses, then diverts the line of conversation. “Why are you here, anyway?”

Jeongguk wages a mental war with himself. On the one hand, he hadn’t intended for anyone else to find out about this; the original plan had to bring his shame to the grave with him and never let Jimin in on it, ever. On the other hand, he has more in common with this guy than he’d have expected, and they’re here for the same reason.

So he says as much.

“Are you mocking me?”

“No!” says Jeongguk, offended. The boy’s eyes widen and he makes a frantic shushing gesture with his hands, nervously glancing toward the stage to confirm that no one heard, and Jeongguk lowers his voice. “No,” he hisses. “I’m here because my soulmate has rehearsal and I want to see what he looks like in person.”

“Why don’t you just talk to him?” asks the boy, quoting Jeongguk’s earlier words verbatim, and Jeongguk scowls at him.

“Easier said than done,” he says, mimicking the response. Then, because he feels kind of bad about acting like a smart aleck, he clarifies, “I’m not ready to meet him yet. I just. Wanted to know what I’d be getting myself into, I guess.”

“Ah,” says the boy, bobbing his head. “I get what you mean.”

“Have you met your soulmate yet?”

“Not yet. But—” He breaks off, embarrassed, and Jeongguk finishes the sentiment for him.

“—you think it might be, uh, this Kim Seokjin?” he says.

The boy shrugs. “I had a feeling. Figured it was worth a shot. At least you’re already sure your guy is your soulmate.”

Jeongguk laughs nervously. If only it were as simple as that. Taehyung may be his soulmate, but that doesn’t make Jeongguk any less anxious about meeting him, and besides: the soulmate system isn’t flawless. There are glitches, mistakes, people who were destined to fall in love and yet end up falling out of it. The whole thing stresses him out more than it should, and that’s not even considering the fact that Jeongguk spent the first sixteen years of life being the quietest soulmate in the history of the world.

“Say, did you ever tell me what his name was?” the boy’s asking when Jeongguk finally returns his attention to him. “I don’t—”

“Taehyung!” someone calls from up front, and Jeongguk’s head snaps around on instinct as he searches for the source of the voice.

It’s the girl from before. She’s standing off to the side, peering into the wings where Jeongguk can’t see.

“Taehyung,” she says again, “get your ass out here and help us set up, or I swear—”

Someone shouts something back at her, voice muffled and indistinct and deep, and Jeongguk panics, throat going dry. He’s changed his mind. He isn’t ready. He doesn’t want to see Taehyung. Seeing Taehyung brings him that much closer to meeting Taehyung, and Jeongguk isn’t ready for that, god.

“Well,” he squeaks, turning to his new friend, “that was fun and all, but I think that’s my cue to leave! Have fun watching the rehearsal, good luck with Seokjin—”

“But they haven’t even come out yet,” the boy says, looking on in bewilderment as Jeongguk makes a hasty retreat to the door. “Didn’t you say you were also here to watch?”

“I think I’ve seen enough,” he says cheerily. It isn’t exactly a lie. “Nice meeting you. Bye!”

 

December finds Jeongguk in Jimin’s room after practice on Friday, tapping aimlessly at his phone. Hoseok’s claimed Jimin’s bed while Jimin himself is sprawled out on what must be Taehyung’s, which means Jeongguk has been relegated to the floor. He doesn’t mind much; he wasn’t planning to stay long, anyway. It’s just that Jimin’s dorm building is the closest to the studio and it’s really, really cold outside, so when Jimin had suggested that they hang around in his room for a while before going back to their own buildings, Jeongguk hadn’t seen any reason to protest. The heating is a blessing, truly, compared to the biting temperature they navigated in order to get here; he wouldn’t mind staying for the rest of the night, or even the rest of his life, it feels that good.

The only thing keeping him from settling down and getting comfortable is, of course, the fact that this is Jimin’s room. Not that it isn’t up to Jeongguk’s standards—sure, it looks kind of like a tornado passed through, but that’s part of its charm—but it’s Jimin’s room, which means Taehyung lives here, too.

Footsteps echo down the hall, and Jeongguk holds his breath until they move past the door without slowing or stopping.

“What time did you say rehearsal ended?” he asks, directing his attention toward Jimin, who’s engrossed in something on his own phone. Probably sexting Yoongi. Jeongguk shudders to think of it; he’s (accidentally and entirely unwillingly) seen more than enough of that to last him a lifetime.

“This is the third time you’ve asked,” says Jimin, long-suffering. “I told you, it runs late on Fridays. He won’t be back until six.”

“Just making sure,” Jeongguk says. He checks the time. It’s five, which gives him plenty of time to remove himself from this building before Taehyung so much as steps foot into it. “I might leave soon,” he adds. Better safe than sorry.

“What’s up with that?” asks Hoseok from the other end of the room. He’s lying flat on his back on Jimin’s mattress, but as Jeongguk watches, he shifts and pushes himself onto his side in order to arch an eyebrow down at Jeongguk. “Why are you so dead-set on avoiding Taehyung? He’s not a bad person, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

Jimin mumbles something about helping old ladies cross the street, back to being enraptured by whatever’s on his screen, and Jeongguk glances over at him. But Jimin looks utterly enamored with his phone, so Jeongguk averts his gaze quickly. Maybe not sexting, then; he’s probably exchanging cute texts with Yoongi, which, come to think of it, is even more disgusting.

“I’m just nervous, I guess,” he sighs. “What if he hates me? I was ignoring his messages until two years ago. I made him waste ink.”

“Well, what’d you do that for?”

Jeongguk splutters. “I didn’t have anything to say! He’d write hello, or tell me about his day, and I couldn’t even be sure that he was talking to me. Even if I could, I wouldn’t have known what to write.”

“He said hello,” Hoseok deadpans. “When people say that, they usually expect you to say it back.”

“Maybe he just liked the way it looked,” Jeongguk says defensively. “Besides, we’re talking now. Kind of.”

“Yeah,” Jimin butts in, “by drawing. How many pens have you run through? Ten? Twenty?”

“Sixteen,” Jeongguk mumbles, and Jimin exhales dramatically.

“If you’re worried you made him ‘waste ink’, try taking a look at yourself now,” he says. “Doesn’t your skin absorb that shit? I’m pretty sure your skin absorbs that shit. It’s chemistry.”

“You failed chemistry freshman year,” Jeongguk reminds him.

Jimin makes a squawking sound of indignation. “Telling you that was a mistake,” he laments. “I should’ve known better than to trust you with that information.”

A hand finds its way into Jeongguk’s hair just then, and he flails around for the two seconds it takes for him to realize that it’s Hoseok, patting his head for—for who knows what reason.

“Don’t stress so much about it,” he says consolingly. “What’s past is past. Taehyung’s a nice guy, he really is.”

Jeongguk relents, feels the fight go out of his body as he slumps against the floor, head pressing into the carpeted surface. “I’ll do it one of these days,” he says. “Meet him, I mean. Just not—”

Voices outside the door. They’re laughing about something, and as Jeongguk listens, one of them says, “I could’ve sworn I put my key in this pocket—oh, there it is.” And though he’s heard it just once before, muted from the wings of a stage at the front of a theater, he’s struck by the familiarity of its timbre, smooth and startlingly low, which can only—fuck—mean the worst.

“Huh,” says Jimin mildly. “Rehearsal must’ve let out early.”

“What,” Jeongguk whispers, feeling his blood freeze in his veins. “Jimin, you told me—”

Jimin shrugs not-very-apologetically in apology, but Jeongguk is already scanning the room for a place to hide. The desk is pushed up against the wall and the space beneath it resides in plain sight of the door, and it isn’t like he can lock himself in the non-existent bathroom, but wait, there—the space under Jimin’s bed.

Jeongguk scoots the fuck over to the bed, ignoring the question on Hoseok’s lips, and squeezes himself into the crack between bed frame and floor. It’s a tight fit, especially around his chest and shoulder area, and the door clicks open just as he’s swinging his legs into the confined space with him.

“Hey, Jiminie,” greets the same voice from before. Taehyung’s voice; Jeongguk commits it to memory. “Oh, Hoseok-hyung, you’re here too? I brought a friend from theater.” Footsteps shuffling, the door closing. “This is Seokjin-hyung. You might already know him; he’s in the same year as you.”

The mattress moves and the bed frame creaks as Hoseok brings himself into a sitting position, and Jeongguk stares up into the darkness, breath coming in shallow pants, terrified for his life. He has dust in his hair and he suspects he might be lying on a moldy potato chip, and that’s when he decides: he’s never going to try hiding under a bed again. He’s never going to think of beds the same way again. He’s never going to return to Jimin’s room again. Ever.

“Yeah, we’re in the same Lit class,” Hoseok’s saying. “You’re part of the drama club, then?”

“Seokjin-hyung is Lysander, actually,” Taehyung says. “One of the stars of the show.” And the fondness in his voice shouldn’t make Jeongguk jealous, not when he doesn’t even know Taehyung—not properly yet, anyway—but it does. It makes his stomach twist into an ugly knot, almost tempts him to get out from under the bed, and only his painful self-awareness holds him back. Crawling from beneath the roommate’s bed like a monster born of dust bunnies and chip bags? Not the best impression to make.

Seokjin laughs. “Like Puck isn’t the real show-stealer here,” he says. There’s no trace of resentment, just teasing affection, and Jeongguk wonders how long they’ve been friends. If Seokjin’s anywhere near as close with Taehyung as Taehyung is with Jimin, as Jeongguk is with Jimin. If they’ve known each other since Taehyung entered college or if they met just this year.

That name, though—Seokjin. It gives him an uncanny feeling of déjà vu, and it isn’t until Jeongguk starts thinking about the chance meeting at the theater that he remembers where it’s from.

Theater Boy. That’s the name Jeongguk has given him in absence of a real name to go by. Theater Boy had mentioned a Kim Seokjin that day, citing the desire to meet him and the fear of actually going up and initiating a conversation with him, something Jeongguk can relate to all too well.

The only Seokjin Jeongguk’s heard of is a member of the drama club. Taehyung is a member of the drama club. The Seokjin Taehyung’s brought back with him is a fellow member of the drama club. What are the chances?

“We were planning to hang around here until we got hungry,” says Taehyung. “Do you guys want go down to dinner together? You too, hyung, since you’re here.”

This last part seems to be addressed toward Hoseok, who says, “Yeah, sure. It’s kind of early to eat, though, isn’t it?”

“Let’s wait, then,” Jimin says, and Jeongguk feels himself die a little bit inside. Jimin can’t have forgotten that Jeongguk’s under his bed. He has to be doing this on purpose, the bastard.

Footsteps again. “Scoot over, Jiminie, this is my bed,” Taehyung says. Rustling noises; he seems to be digging around on his bed for something. Then, at length: “Shit, I forgot my charger in the dressing room. I’ll be right back.”

Jeongguk’s heart leaps into his throat. Could it be? Is Taehyung going to leave and give him the perfect opportunity to slip out of the dorm? This is too good to be true.

“You sure?” says Jimin, and Jeongguk entertains himself with the brief fantasy of slapping a hand over that big mouth of his. “It’s freezing outside. You can always go back in tomorrow to get it.”

“I don’t want to risk anyone taking it,” Taehyung says. “You know how people are. Broke and desperate, and all that. I’d take a free phone charger if I found one lying around.”

“Take your beanie with you, then,” Seokjin says. “Here.”

“Thanks, hyung. I’ll be quick.”

The door opens and closes. Jeongguk waits a few heartbeats, then pushes himself out of his hiding place with a cloud of dust.

“There you are,” says Jimin. “I was starting to worry. It’s not pretty under there, but I didn’t have time to warn you.”

“That’s an understatement,” Jeongguk coughs, peeling a distressingly long strand of lint from his hair. “I’ve learned my lesson.”

“Excuse me, but… who are you?”

Jeongguk looks up to find a pink-haired boy—Seokjin, undoubtedly—gaping like he’s just seen a ghost emerge from thin air.

“Jeon Jeongguk. Nice to meet you,” he says, doing his best to act normal. If he’d thought that stalking Taehyung to rehearsal was his lowest point, this busts a hole right through the bottom of the floor to claim the title of lowest point for itself. Seokjin is attractive—Jeongguk can understand why Theater Boy would be drawn to such a conventionally handsome face—and Jeongguk is, well. He’s Jeongguk, and he’s covered in dust and debris, and his ears are on fire from the sheer indignity of this situation. Speaking to Jimin and Hoseok now, he adds, “I should, uh, I should get going. See you around.”

Plastering a faux casual grin onto his face, he backpedals to the door and lets himself through, fully prepared to make a dash for his own dorm through the chilly winter air. Three sets of eyes follow him out.

As the door eases shut behind him, he hears Seokjin ask, “What was that?”

 

Jeongguk should probably get his shit together.

That’s the conclusion he arrives to that night in his dorm, after he’s showered and brushed his teeth and gotten ready for bed.

He fears the trash pile that resides beneath Jimin’s bed has turned his clothes an irreversible shade of gray, and really, that’s the breaking point. Jeongguk may live in white T-shirts and black hoodies and jeans in shades of either blue or black, but he doesn’t own an unlimited supply. Something’s got to give at some point, and for Jeongguk, this is it.

Having finished making his resolution, Jeongguk closes his eyes.

He’s half-asleep when the back of his hand starts to tingle, and then he’s wide awake, because it may have been ten years since they started but messages from Taehyung never fail to have this effect on Jeongguk.

Seungkwan is asleep, breathing slow and even from the other end of the room, and Jeongguk takes care to stay quiet when he turns on his lamp to take a look at what Taehyung has written.

He’s expecting a note, or a reminder; something Taehyung remembered last minute to jot down.

It’s neither.

Draw something for me? Only if you’re awake.

Jeongguk checks his phone. 1:27 A.M. He checks Seungkwan. Still asleep.

Then he slips out of bed, pads over to the desk to grab a black ballpoint pen, and returns to the warmth of his sheets to draw.

Maybe it’s his exhaustion. Maybe it’s the timing of the request, made in the middle of the night, that has Jeongguk drawing whatever comes to mind. Maybe it’s the events of that day, the utterly traumatic experience of hiding under Jimin’s bed while Taehyung stood less than three meters away in the same room, in the same vicinity.

Most likely it’s a combination of all three that leads Jeongguk to draw what he does that night. He thinks of Taehyung as he sets pen to skin, and he pulls on his memories. Remembers the trees that they were setting up on the day he met Theater Boy; draws a miniature forest that curves around the back of his forearm. Remembers the play he read in English back in high school, the one with the painfully archaic dialogue he had to search the translation of; etches out the silhouette of a fairy on the inside of his wrist, enveloped by trees and framed by leaves.

He fits everything onto the lower half of his forearm, careful to avoid the reminder already written on the upper half (Starbucks @1), and when he finishes, he sets the pen on his nightstand, turns off the lamp, and falls asleep.

 

On Saturday, he wakes up to a Thank you :) and a dawning sense of horror.

 

“Hyung,” Jeongguk says when he bursts into the studio for morning practice. He’s early, and so is Hoseok, the only other person who’s arrived. “Hyung, I’m so screwed.”

He must look deranged, eyes wild and shirt backwards, because Hoseok stops in the middle of what he’s doing to rush over. “What is it? What happened?” he asks, scrutinizing Jeongguk head to toe like he’s searching for an injury. “Are you all right?”

“No,” says Jeongguk, “nothing’s okay. I need you to book me a one-way ticket to South America. I can’t go to school here anymore. I can’t show my face ever again. I’m going to need special arrangements to complete all my coursework online—”

“But what happened?” Hoseok interrupts, voice rising in a milder version of Jeongguk’s own hysteria.

In response, Jeongguk shows him his arm.

Hoseok takes in the drawing, the swirling lines, thick in some places and thin in others, a dynamic piece of art designed to live on skin. “It’s… a fairy?” he says. It’s a statement, but it sounds more like a question. “And trees. And leaves. It looks really nice, Jeongguk, I don’t see what the problem is.”

“Taehyung isn’t supposed to know I know about the play,” Jeongguk says frantically. “It’s Puck, the character he plays, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that piece by that old English guy.”

Hoseok’s mouth opens in an ‘o’ of understanding.

“Yeah,” says Jeongguk. “Do you have your laptop with you? Have you ever booked a plane ticket before?”

“Maybe he’ll think it’s a coincidence,” Hoseok says. “If he doesn’t know that you know about the play, then he might just assume that you happen to like fairies. And trees.”

Jeongguk pauses. “I could take that chance,” he says, slowly, “or I could move to the other side of the world and not have to explain myself and tell him that I hid under his roommate’s bed to avoid him. No chance necessary.”

“Huh,” says Hoseok. “When you put it like that—”

Jimin materializes in the entrance to the studio, panting like he ran the whole way here. He stays there for a good ten seconds or so, doubled over with his hands on his knees, before straightening. Then he walks toward where Jeongguk and Hoseok are already standing, head down, and when he looks up and makes eye contact with Jeongguk, he stops and points a finger straight at him. “You.”

The intensity of the gesture makes Jeongguk wilt where he stands. “Yeah?” he says, though he thinks he can guess at what Jimin’s going to say. Taehyung’s been wondering why his soulmate has been stalking him, maybe, or he’s really weirded out, Jeongguk, maybe you should stop and, like, reconsider your entire life. Something along those lines.

“Taehyung woke me up at ass o’clock last night to show me your latest masterpiece,” Jimin says. “Are you trying to expose yourself?”

“It was late,” Jeongguk says weakly. “I wasn’t in my right mind, okay.” Remembering what Hoseok said, he asks, “Does he think it was a coincidence?”

Jimin’s flat stare kills his hopes. “He thinks you did it on purpose,” he says. “Like you wanted to hint that you go to the same school as him but weren’t sure how.”

Jeongguk deflates. “So he knows.”

“Of course he does. And he’s making it his personal mission to find out who you are, so if you’re not going to go up to himself yourself then it’s just a matter of time before he tracks you down.”

“Oh,” says Jeongguk, for lack of anything else to say. This is all escalating at an alarming rate. Not that he’d had a real plan in the first place; he’d just assumed that he’d have more time to figure things out. But if Taehyung has deduced that Jeongguk goes to the same university, that abbreviates his timeline considerably. Plus: they have Jimin in common, and Jeongguk isn’t about to count on his silence. Jimin may have kept his silence for the past couple months, but now that the Jeongguk-Taehyung Soulmate Debacle is coming to a head, he’s likelier to spill the beans sooner rather than later.

The studio door opens again, this time depositing a few more members of the dance team, and Jimin gives Jeongguk once last Look before moving to join them for warm-ups.

You’d better do something quick if you still want to meet Taehyung on your own terms, says the Look.

Hoseok rests a comforting hand on Jeongguk’s shoulder. “You should probably figure something out soon if you don’t want Taehyung to catch you off guard,” he says cheerfully. “It isn’t fun, trust me.”

“No, yeah,” says Jeongguk. “I will.”

And he doesn’t always do what he’s supposed to—studying comes to mind, as does folding his laundry and maintaining a normal sleep schedule like a respectable, responsible young adult—but when he does, he makes quick work of it.

He makes up his mind while they’re wrapping up practice. He’s going to put an end to this affair today.

“Did Taehyung mention anything about his plans for today?” he asks Jimin as the team members step out of the building and disperse into the brisk December weather. “Anything about going to a Starbucks, maybe?”

Jimin’s quiet for a moment, pensive, before he remembers. “Yeah, he said something about wanting to try one of their winter drinks yesterday,” he says. “Why?” And then, before Jeongguk can reply, “Wait. Are you planning to confront him? Today?”

“Uh, kind of,” says Jeongguk, taken aback by Jimin’s shocked reaction. “What? I thought you wanted me to do something about it.”

“No, I did,” says Jimin. “I do. I was just. Surprised. You’ve been beating around the bush for so long, it really felt like Taehyung was going to be the one to take the initiative.”

“Well, he isn’t, because I am,” Jeongguk says, mildly offended. “I’m the one who knows where he’ll be this afternoon, anyway.”

“That sounds really creepy,” Hoseok chimes helpfully, falling into step on Jeongguk’s other side.

Jeongguk glares at the ground. “You know what I mean.”

Hoseok claps him on the back. “Indeed I do! And I wish you the best of luck. Try not to put your foot in your mouth.”

“What?”

“Don’t make things weird,” Jimin translates. “I’m looking forward to the horror stories.”

“You don’t sound very confident in me,” Jeongguk says, miffed, and Jimin just laughs.

“Did he mention a time that he’d be there?” he asks.

“One. I still have an hour left.”

“He’s probably going to head for the Starbucks just off campus,” Jimin says. “That’s, what, a fifteen minute walk from here? You should still get going soon.”

“Yeah, I will,” says Jeongguk, mentally steeling himself in advance. “I was going to have lunch and work on my essay. Just until he shows up.”

“You do that,” Hoseok says, giving him an encouraging nudge. “Have your laptop with you?”

“Right in here,” Jeongguk replies, hefting his backpack over his shoulders for emphasis. “Guess I’ll see you guys later, then.”

“Bye,” says Hoseok as Jeongguk peels away. “Your shirt’s backwards, by the way.”

“Go get your man!” Jimin adds, voice loud enough to attract the attention of more than a few students around them, and Jeongguk hurries away as quickly as he can to avoid association, subtly zipping up his hoodie along the way.

 

One o’clock rolls around without preamble, though the sudden increase in Jeongguk’s heart rate begs to differ.

Nobody walks in on the dot—Jeongguk’s been checking the door religiously—but that’s to be expected. Jimin hadn’t made it sound like Taehyung was going to be meeting anyone, so there’s no reason for Taehyung to be punctual. He doesn’t even know what kind of person he should be looking for, a fact that is currently making him regret not asking Jimin.

He gives it thirty minutes. Thirty minutes to watch the door and the people that come in. A boy around his age—that’s all he’s operating from. It’s enough to eliminate approximately half the visitors as candidates, but not much more, considering that this particular chain location practically belongs to the students at Sejong.

Thirty minutes pass, and Jeongguk stops making excuses for himself. Somewhere in this café is his soulmate, unless there’s been a gross misunderstanding on both his and Jimin’s parts, and Jeongguk needs to figure out who it is before Taehyung leaves.

Seven brunets, one blond, and one redhead. Jeongguk eyes each of them. This would be easy if it weren’t winter; the drawing on his arm would be conspicuous if he were wearing a shortsleeve and so would the one on Taehyung’s, but as it is, Jeongguk came here in a sweater and a winter coat, and the same holds true for just about everyone but the baristas.

The soulmate system of sharing marks, though… he can still use that. If he can’t see Taehyung’s arms, then he’ll just have to get him to show them somehow, and if Taehyung is anything like Jeongguk when it comes to receiving messages, he’ll roll up his sleeve to see what’s going on.

Jeongguk digs through his bag, fervently praying that he had the foresight to bring a pen with him, and nearly cries in relief when his fingers finally close around a slim, smooth object nearly buried beneath everything else.

Shoving two layers of fabric up to his elbow, he clicks the pen and, without pausing to think it over too deeply—overthinking things is how he ended up skirting around Taehyung for so long, really—sends his first real message to his soulmate, right beneath the Starbucks reminder.

Hello!

A movement catches his eye—the blond sitting four tables over, putting down his holiday drink to roll up his sleeve. Jeongguk watches as surprise crosses his features, and then delight, happiness of a sort that lights up his entire face, and—

Oh, Jeongguk thinks faintly. He’s cute.

He allows himself to sit there for a minute, lost in a dreamy haze of wow I like his nose and does he get his eyebrows done or are they naturally that good as Taehyung searches his own possessions for a pen, only to come up short with just the pencil he was previously using to do his homework.

Taehyung stands, and Jeongguk realizes with a start that he’s going to ask someone for a pen. Let that sink in. Taehyung is going to ask someone for a pen because he didn’t bring one with him, just so he can respond to the first conversation his soulmate has ever initiated as soon as possible. He is too cute. Jeongguk could—hug him. Yeah, that’s it. He could hug Taehyung, and he kind of wants to walk over there and do it, except no, Taehyung’s already coming over, and it’s all Jeongguk can do not to melt into his chair.

“Excuse me, but do you have a—” Taehyung’s eyes land somewhere distinctly below Jeongguk’s face, and Jeongguk suddenly remembers that he never pushed his sleeve back down. Taehyung’s mouth freezes mid-question. His eyes flicker back up to Jeongguk’s, questioning. And Jeongguk just stares back, lips parted in a mirror of Taehyung’s expression even though he doesn’t have an excuse to be surprised.

He racks his brain for something to say, anything to break the silence, because Taehyung seems to be too preoccupied drinking in Jeongguk’s appearance to say something himself.

“Hi,” is what he winds up saying, and at the sound of his voice, Taehyung breaks free from his trance.

“Hi,” he replies, lips curling into a grin that could make flowers bloom, and Jeongguk wonders why he ever wanted to wait for this moment. “Can I sit here?”

 

“So,” says Taehyung. “Jimin’s friend, huh?”

“Unfortunately,” says Jeongguk. The answer elicits a laugh, and he has to bite down on the inside of his cheek to keep from doing something stupid, like smiling. “I’m on the dance team with him.”

“Really? I don’t recall him ever mentioning a Jeongguk.”

This. This is the perfect chance to explain himself. If Jeongguk had wanted a segue into an opportunity for him to tell Taehyung why he basically ignored him for ten years and then avoided him like the plague after he learned the truth, he couldn’t have asked for a better one.

Taehyung is watching him expectantly, waiting for a reply. Jeongguk opens his mouth, but the words catch in his throat, an involuntary last-minute attempt to save face.

But he’s been running from this whole soulmate business for long enough, been running from Taehyung for long enough. And because of what? His own insecurity? The fear that Taehyung would judge him or dislike him or reject him? It isn’t unheard of. Jeongguk’s familiar with the horror stories; they’ve probably fueled a good portion of that fear. The soulmate system is a mystery, and it doesn’t predict happy endings, only happy beginnings.

It’s up them to make this work, and honesty is the first step.

“I may or may not have told him not to mention me to you,” he confesses. Lets Taehyung see the sheepishness, the vulnerability. “Uh. Sorry about that. But I’m here now?”

“Wait, really? Why?” Taehyung’s expression is caught between surprise and dismay, and it takes everything in Jeongguk not to hastily back out of the honesty deal he just made with himself. “How long did you even know?

“Only a couple months,” Jeongguk says, beginning to sweat. “I was nervous. Didn’t want to jump into things until I got an idea of who you were.”

Tilting his head, Taehyung hums. “I thought that might’ve been the case.” He doesn’t appear entirely surprised, for which Jeongguk is thankful. “You found out about the play somehow, didn’t you?”

The way he says it makes him sound like he’s expecting Jeongguk to tell him exactly how he found out, but even now, even with Jeongguk’s personal vow to be straightforward about this, there are some lines he isn’t ready to cross just yet. Admitting to hiding under Jimin’s bed in order to avoid Taehyung is one of them.

“Yeah,” he says, dropping his gaze to his own hands. “Sorry if that creeped you out. I was trying not to seem like a stalker, but I, uh. I slipped up, didn’t I.”

Taehyung makes a noise of protest. “I thought it was cute,” he says, and Jeongguk flicks his eyes up to Taehyung’s in surprise.

“Really?”

“Mm. Think you’re pretty cute, too,” Taehyung says, tone assuming a more teasing note now. And Jeongguk makes an effort not to get flustered, he really does—he’s still in the stage where he wants to impress Taehyung, make Taehyung think he’s at least a little bit cool—but it’s hard when his soulmate is so upfront. If there’s anything he’s learned about Taehyung in these past few minutes, it’s that Taehyung, asides from being cute or hot or funny or nice, doesn’t suffer from the same inhibitions that Jeongguk does. He’s not afraid to speak his mind, and it would be intimidating if it were anyone else, but since it’s Taehyung and not anyone else, Jeongguk just finds it charming.

And yet: upfront or not, Taehyung doesn’t ask about the ten-year gap of silence.

And yet: candid or not, Jeongguk doesn’t ask about the hickeys. Or the bruises, for that matter, or the mysterious Sharpie dick.

They’ll come to that in their own time, he’s sure. But in this instant? They’re two soulmates, sitting across a table at a Starbucks near the university they both attend, finally seeing each other and talking to each other after years of disconnect and—even if only one of them knows it yet—near-misses. They have the rest of their lives to figure it out.

Taehyung grins at Jeongguk, casual and beautiful, and Jeongguk feels himself smile back, shyly. “Thanks. You’re not half bad yourself,” he says. Then: “You wanna get out of here?”

“I thought you’d never ask,” says Taehyung, pushing his chair back to stand, and Jeongguk rises with him.

He is nineteen when he faces the prospect of learning exactly who Taehyung is—learning Taehyung inside and out.

He is more than ready.

 

(Later, when they’re outside speed-walking back to the promise of the heating in Jeongguk’s room, Jeongguk gathers his courage in his hand and holds it out for Taehyung to take.

Taehyung stares but doesn’t take it, and Jeongguk, embarrassed, lets it drop slowly back to his side.

“Sorry,” he says. “I just thought—it’s okay if you don’t, I—”

“I don’t want the drawing to disappear,” Taehyung interrupts. “When we touch, I mean. I don’t want it to go away.”

Jeongguk blinks. Taehyung’s right, of course—marks stop transferring the first time you make skin contact with your soulmate, and the ones that don’t belong to you disappear for good—but Jeongguk had been too caught up in the moment to remember or care.

Not that it even matters that much, anyway.

“I can draw you anything you’d like,” he says. “It’s easier for me to do it on other people, anyway.”

Taehyung hesitates. “Is that a promise?”

“Of course.”

And Taehyung reaches out to grab Jeongguk’s hand in his own.)

 

(Jeongguk learns the story behind one of those unmentioned mysteries months later, when he wakes up in Taehyung’s bed to find both Taehyung and Jimin standing over him.

Still hazy with sleep, he settles his attention on Jimin and narrows his eyes. “What are you doing here.”

“I live in this room,” Jimin says. “What are you doing here?”

“My boyfriend lives in this room,” Jeongguk shoots back. The word sounds nice in his mouth; he makes mental note to repeat it to Taehyung later, when they’re not in the presence of a certain silver-haired gremlin of a roommate. “It’s my place now, too.”

Taehyung smiles and Jimin wrinkles his nose. “Nasty,” he says. “I knew I’d regret everything. If you did anything on my bed, I swear to god—”

“We didn’t do anything,” Jeongguk says, offended. “Period.”

“Seokjin-hyung’s been obsessed with this boy lately,” Taehyung supplies. “Some other junior. I think his name’s Namjoon. They were on a date somewhere, who else was I supposed to recruit to watch Haikyuu!! with me?”

“That show,” says Jimin, shaking his head in disapproval. Before either Taehyung or Jeongguk can come to its defense, he adds, “Well, I’m out. I told Yoongi-hyung I’d meet him for lunch today. Don’t make a mess. And,” he waves a finger threateningly, “don’t do anything on my bed.”

Jeongguk watches him go through heavy eyelids. “I say we fuck on his bed just to spite him,” he says, drowsiness and familiarity softening the brain-to-mouth filter that he typically takes such pains to maintain.

He lets his eyes drift shut, but when Taehyung doesn’t respond after a few more moments, he opens them again. Taehyung—his soulmate, his boyfriend, Jeongguk will live in eternal disbelief that he got this lucky—is still leaning over him, only his expression’s gone odd and twisted. Like he’s holding back a smirk, or trying not to laugh.

“What is it?” Jeongguk asks suspiciously, suddenly more alert. “Do I have something on my face?”

Taehyung’s stopped trying to conceal it, shoulders shaking with silent laughter as he manages, “You… you should look in the mirror.”

So Jeongguk pushes the covers off and pads over to the dresser, peers into the small mirror sitting on top, and.

“I tried to stop him, I swear,” Taehyung’s saying. “You know how Jimin gets when he’s dead-set on doing something, and this is his idea of a good time, he’s done it to me before, too—”

But Jeongguk isn’t listening. Because right there, smack dab in the middle of his forehead, is a giant, suspiciously—and suspiciously familiarly—phallic shaped object Sharpied for all to see.)