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(thought you knew) you were in this song

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(this one is about living.)

 

Jeongguk doesn’t know how long he stands there, at the counter, turning the bottle cap around in his fingers.

All he knows is that his head hurts, and his eyes hurt, and he misses Taehyung already.

He misses him too much and he misses him too soon, because Taehyung isn’t gone; Taehyung will be back in just two days, smiling at the train station with bags full of clothes and Daegu-bought food and dumb stories about his dog, saying happy birthday, angel, like he always has and always does – but Jeongguk misses him. So much. He’s coming back and Jeongguk fucking knows it but he misses him anyway. Misses him deeper than that. That pre-departure, missing without missing, the feeling he knows too well.

(He can just imagine Taehyung’s smile when he steps off the train, big bright and burning like they’ve been apart longer than just a week. Very happy, but a little sad, but still always Jeongguk’s favourite. Tripping onto the platform in shoes he never fucking puts on the right way, bags looped loosely in his arms, wrapped in one of Jeongguk’s jackets because it’s way too cold these days to go without but all the jackets he took to Daegu are Jeongguk’s.

He can just see Taehyung, like that. Glowing; real.)

Jeongguk rolls the bottle cap in his fingers, feeling plastic ridges on skin, cold and hard. Feels the small teeth on the outer edges, the swirling grooves on the inside, where the curves are built to fit and slide over the neck of the bottle. The even cold flatness of the top.

He takes a breath.

Taehyung is coming home.

Taehyung is coming home.

Fingers shaking, Jeongguk re-caps the bottle, twist by twist. Grooves slipping into each other until plastic meets plastic and it is snapped shut tight like it was always meant to be. Contained. Jeongguk breathes again, counting four seconds in, seven held, eight out.

He sets the bottle back in the counter and pushes it away, back to the corner against the wall. Pushes away all the other bottles, too, as far against the wall as he can. But somehow not back into the cupboards.

He tilts the framed photo of Taehyung - the long exposure one he’d taken all those dates ago, with the dandelion and mimosa and grass - outwards towards himself, just enough so that the sharp edge of sticker-covered picture frame blocks out the bottle from his vision. Again, he breathes.

Quietly, Jeongguk lies down on Taehyung’s side of the bed, instead; alone.

 

 

love - turn white to red.

love, turn red with the sun.

 

 

Jeongguk is nine when he has his first real talk on soulmates, roped in by-the-way when his older brother - then approaching adulthood - asks his parents one sticky day in autumn for more than what they already (think they) know. And Jeongguk is frustrated, and confused, to be forced still on the couch for what seems like a complete waste of time because he already knows about soulmates.

Your life partner, other half, one true love and so on; predestined by some kind of don’t-question-it and marked by a number on their wrist, visible only to your eyes.

He knows, everybody knows. His friends have told him already.

But as his parents begin to talk, Jeongguk soon realises there seems to be some kind of secret only they and his brother are privy to. Some fine-print footnote Jeongguk didn’t read. And when his parents go from telling them not to fight fate because it will always be pointless, to saying it’s best when your numbers are big and almost the same, and four digits could maybe be a rewarding gamble, but a single digit is really not worth the heartache, no matter what idealists say, Jeongguk scrunches up his nose and asks why.

There is a pause, then. A bubble of silence swelling taut in the air as his father looks at his mother and his mother looks at his brother and his brother mouths I never told him, sorry.

It is his mother who recovers first, pressing her lips into a thin flat line for a moment before parting them again, popping the sudden quiet.

“Jeongguk,” she says, like she is asking him what he ate for recess. “Do you know what the number means?”

Jeongguk shakes his head. He thought he did, but not much anymore.

She smiles then - an almost strange kind of smile, like she is looking at an old photo album and just about to flip the page. “Well,” she says. “Your soulmate’s number shows the number of days they have left in their life.”

Jeongguk blinks. It takes him a moment to get it, and then his mouth falls open. His friends are all either idiots or liars.

“So that’s why grown-ups know when they’re going to die?”

“Yes,” she says. Matter-of-fact, simple and easy. She looks relieved, just a little.

Jeongguk frowns, as the new information settles in his mind. Suddenly everything makes a lot more sense, although he is still confused about the thing about the digits. “Yoongi is such a liar. He said it’d be your birthday.”

And his brother laughs, from beside him. His father, too, a big bark-like bellow.

And then they continue talking, about how meeting early is best, and to always bare your wrists when you have a choice to, and how it could be anyone, really, so don’t go around making enemies. And - his mother stresses this, saying it three whole times - not to take stupid risks even after you know your own number, thinking you’ll be safe before the days run out. Because you will still die if you choose to do it to yourself.

And then again about the digits, something about thinking in multiples of three hundred and sixty-five. Something about how numbers do, occasionally change; no one really knows why. And people try to change the numbers, sometimes, too, but never to do it because it won’t work. Something about how everything has consequences, and it is always just best to be able to prepare.

Jeongguk listens in, and tries to understand.

 

 

(Fifteen years pass before Jeongguk actually, sort of, starts to maybe get it.)

It is one in the afternoon on a dry day in summer, when Jeongguk takes two steps, too fast, and falls down the stairs of the art museum.

Briefly, as the world spins to a blur in his vision, Jeongguk considers the irony of his artless fall drawing more attention than the Shermans and Hoppers and lone Pollock in the gallery below. But only briefly, because he really isn’t that much of a philosopher, and he’s too busy being embarrassed, and there isn’t time for thinking so hard, anyway, before he slams to the bottom and tastes the gallery floor wood and there’s blood on his lip, and everything is adrenaline-spun and sideways and his ass fucking hurts.

“Fuck,” Jeongguk wheezes, flat on the floor, trying to take stock of damage - to his body and his dignity and possibly his phone, even though he has no idea where it has fallen to. As the last step of the staircase slows its whirling in his vision, Jeongguk decides he is intact (at least physically, in the ways that count) although his phone’s condition remains a mystery and he may or may not have to never show his shamed self in this art museum ever again. Ever.

Jeongguk is trying to pick the least psychologically-damaging way to get off the floor, when a voice comes from behind him, washing suddenly into his ears - deep and smooth and unfamiliar.

“Are you okay?”

Jeongguk winces.

“Um,” says Jeongguk, trying to sound as conversational as possible while lying at the base of a staircase, lip throbbing and ass still sore and pride now draining slowly and painfully away. He cannot bear to roll over and face the speaker, whoever the fuck it is. “Yeah. Just - great. Cool. Wonderful. Never been better.”

“That’s good,” comes the voice again. It sounds amused, now, and Jeongguk wants to pioneer will-driven teleportation as fast as he can, right now, immediately. “Uh, you dropped your phone. Off the staircase.”

And for a blissful moment, Jeongguk doesn’t get it.

But then the statement clicks in his head and his insides seize up as he realises what it means. No more phone, no saved data of anything, no more not-yet-backed-up phone photographs - and no choice but to turn to face the stranger and acknowledge his irredeemably embarrassing position. Confrontation, whether he wants it or not.

Jeongguk is fucked.

Cursing the slippery tiles of the floor above, he pushes gingerly into a sitting position, pain coming in small bursts from his stair-bruised limbs, backbeats to the steady throb in his lip. Jeongguk pauses, and takes a breath. Hopes his ego is strong enough to survive the shame, and that the intense burning in his face looks less obvious than it feels.

He turns around-

And in one instant, Jeongguk forgets everything - that he’s in pain, that people are looking, that his phone is probably scrap metal by now; that soulmates are predestined and unchangeable so it is entirely pointless to look at a face before a wrist - because the single most breath-taking heart-stopping drop-dead fucking gorgeous man he has ever seen, in his life, is crouching right there before him on the gallery floor. Lithe legs folded under slim frame, face with the high cheekbones and sharp jaw, slightly tilted, sculpted mouth pressed shut.

Close, so close, much closer than Jeongguk thought he would be. Close enough for Jeongguk to get desperately lost somewhere in the tan stretch of skin between the edge of his ears and the arch of his brows, the curve of his lips and the angle of his nose bridge, to be hopelessly hypnotised by large deep-sea-dark eyes looking straight at him - in concern, and bemusement, and a kind of tentative confusion.

And then Jeongguk realises that he’s been very blatantly, very rudely, staring.

He panics.

Desperately he tries to dig words from his shut-down mess of a throat, something or anything to get out of the crushingly awkward situation. But his pitiful excuse for a brain is short-circuited and fumbling and proving itself absolutely useless - and Jeongguk can only drop his mouth open in exact imitation of a freshly dead fish.

Jeongguk is saved when the now increasingly-amused, painfully-handsomely -smiling, still-beautiful stranger flicks his eyes down to Jeongguk’s bleeding lip, and speaks first.

“Are you really okay?”

Too long a pause.

“Yeah. Of course. I-” Jeongguk somehow manages, still stunned, frozen, possibly entering cardiac arrest. He kicks the first words he can think of, after your eyelashes are so goddamn fucking long, how the fuck, out of his mouth. “-I totally meant to do that.”

There is a tense beat of silence.

And then the man’s eyes widen, and he starts to laugh, and Jeongguk’s face burns. First at the sound - because it sounds so good, so rich, so smooth and bright and warm and just right - and then even redder as he realises what the fuck he just said, and suddenly Jeongguk wishes he’d knocked himself out on the stairs when he still had the chance.

“Wow,” the stranger laughs. “What did your poor phone do to earn such a premeditated murder?”

“It- I- I’m-,” Jeongguk stutters. But cannot finish any sentence as he suddenly remembers the whole reason this stranger is even talking to him, and a new kind of horror splashes in his gut.

He forces his gaze from the stranger’s face to his hand. Long-fingered and broad, he can’t help but notice, peeking palm-up from the sleeve of a thin striped sweater, and curled around the miserably cracked remnants of Jeongguk’s phone.

Jeongguk doesn’t know if he wants to laugh, or cry, or wash his hands off mobile technology altogether. Hoping senselessly that the damage is only screen-deep, as if an already-much-dropped phone could actually survive falling off the side of an entire staircase, Jeongguk reaches out a bruised arm to gingerly take the wrecked piece of metal, flipping it over to test the power button.

It doesn’t work.

But he has no opportunity to agonise over the tragic loss of money and messaging services and saved everything data, because the stranger suddenly sucks in a breath, quick and sharp.

His hand shoots out to grab Jeongguk’s forearm, grip tight, hand still swathed in the sleeve of his sweater. Fabric and skin on skin. Jeongguk thinks he’s just possibly going to get a heart attack.

Heart pounding, he looks up, and sees the stranger looking down, eyes fixed on Jeongguk’s wrist where his hand is clasped, fingers up. Something in his gaze is changing, now, from light amusement to a soft kind of surprise to pure mouth-open wide-eyed shock.

It takes a stupidly long moment for Jeongguk to put the pieces together.

And then everything clicks into place, key-in-the-hole, and he feels like a firework has been set off in his gut. Hot, bright and explosive, and a little like he might be sick.

“Uh,” Jeongguk says.

“Holy fuck,” the stranger says.

“Am I,” Jeongguk ventures. “Are we?”

The stranger stares at Jeongguk’s wrist. Stares, and blinks, and stares and swallows and blinks again.

Slowly he looks up to meet Jeongguk’s gaze, and Jeongguk can feel the electric thread between them, feel his own heart pound so hard in his chest that he counts six exact thundering beats before the stranger starts to smile, a real smile. Soft and warm and only a little afraid - like trying a new language, like finding a golden ticket - and then he nods, firm and deliberate. He tightens his grip around Jeongguk’s wrist, rubs a thumb over the stripe of skin where Jeongguk assumes his number must be.

“You’re my soulmate.”

Two more beats.

“R-really?” Jeongguk stutters. “Me?”

The man smiles even more. “Yeah. You.”

“Oh,” says Jeongguk. He sucks in a breath, and then smiles back. Oh. “Hell fucking yes.”

And the stranger laughs, again, bell-like and bubbling like he cannot believe what he just found out. And, again, the sound rings just right in the curve of Jeongguk’s ear, and already he feels the sharp push of raw attraction in his chest.

It’s not love, not yet, but the promise burns sweet between them, set and signed in his wrist, the number only this man can see.

Jeongguk feels lucky; so, so lucky.

“-your name?” Jeongguk realises suddenly that he is being asked. He starts, and blinks, and flushes even harder.

“J-Jeongguk,” he manages. “Jeon Jeongguk. And you-”

“Taehyung,” the other replies, a little too fast in giddy excitement - cute. “I’m Kim Taehyung. Hi, Jeongguk.”

Taehyung laughs again, more shyly this time, as if Jeongguk’s name is ticklish on his tongue. And Jeongguk himself can only smile even harder, thinking about how this sound is his, now. Theirs. Theirs forever.

Or at least, however long the small print allows.

Because there is always that other side of the bargain, the side that Jeongguk doesn’t really want to think about; doesn’t know if he is ready for. The great weight in suspension - to be lifted or loaded on two pairs of shoulders. Suddenly the other people in the gallery feel suffocatingly present, just a little too much, too many eyes for what should be a private moment.

Jeongguk glances at Taehyung’s wrists, sleeve-hidden by his sweater, and sucks in a breath.

“Um,”  he says, “do you want to go somewhere else?”

“There’s this cafe nearby,” Taehyung replies. Then pauses, and lowers his voice, gently. “But, just so you know, you’ve got nothing to worry about.”

Jeongguk blinks. Then releases a breath, like he’s been holding it for years but didn’t quite notice until now. Suddenly he is light; suddenly he is breathing.

“Oh,” he says. “ Oh. Okay. And, um, you-”

“Let’s go first?” Taehyung interrupts, fingers tightening a fraction on Jeongguk’s wrist.

Jeongguk nods, dumbly, trying to get a hold of his runaway feelings.

They stand up, Taehyung first and Jeongguk second. The hand on Jeongguk’s wrist loosens but does not let go, as Taehyung guides them both to the exit.

And Jeongguk doesn’t resist, would never dream of resisting. He doesn’t know Taehyung yet, not really, but nothing feels better than the thought of staying in step with him - out the door, down more stairs, through a door again, until they spill out of the museum and onto the street.

The sky is clear.

“There,” Taehyung says, before Jeongguk has to ask. “My friend works there.” He points at a sign, across the road, block letters spelling some name he can’t quite make out above a door, all wood and glass. Jeongguk nods.

The cafe is not busy when they reach the other side of the road, in the lull time between morning and noon, and as they step through the door Taehyung waves casually to the barista - a young man, short and dark-haired - and brings them to the counter.

“Jiminnie,” Taehyung greets.

“You’re early,” the barista remarks. Then he glances at Jeongguk, eyes flitting up and down, hanging for a moment on his cut lip, then even longer on Taehyung’s hand clasped around his wrist. “And who’s this?”

Taehyung’s smile broadens, and he shoots Jeongguk a quick look. “Three guesses. Who do you think it is?”

The barista - Jimin, Jeongguk supposes - frowns. “I don’t know. Distant cousin?”

“Nope,” Taehyung grins. “Guess again.”

“Another fling?”

“What? No,” Taehyung frowns now. “Practicing for your soulmate isn’t the same as a fling. And that’s not it, anyway.”

Jimin freezes, and hangs quiet for a while. His eyes widen, a comical fraction, and Jeongguk bites back a laugh as Jimin whips his gaze back to Taehyung. “Don’t tell me-”

“I’m telling you.”

“No way,” the barista turns back to stare straight at Jeongguk, disbelief stamped all over his face. “Seriously? No kidding?”

Jeongguk smiles, a little sheepish, a little proud, as Taehyung bursts into obnoxious laughter beside him.

“No kidding,” Taehyung says. “Jiminnie, meet Jeon Jeongguk, your future brother-in-arms-in-law.”

“Hi,” says Jeongguk.

“What the fuck,” says Jimin. “Why is he so hot?”

Taehyung smacks him on the shoulder. “No ogling, he’s mine.”

“What the fuck,” repeats Jimin. He looks Jeongguk up and down again, this time with more scrutiny. “Since when?”

“Since just now,” Taehyung says. “We met in the art museum.”

“Wow,” says Jimin, still staring. With less suspicion, now. His eyes hover on the cut lip. “Did you get in a fight or something?”

“No,” says Jeongguk.

“Yes,” Taehyung insists. “He fought the stairs. To kill his phone.”

Jimin blinks, and Jeongguk blushes, and Taehyung laughs a little again and squeezes his wrist.

“Let’s sit down?” He says to Jeongguk. Then, back to the barista, “Jimin, we’ll have whatever you decide to treat your best friend in the whole world, since you were twelve, and his soulmate to, to celebrate this momentous occasion in their lives.”

Jeongguk laughs as Jimin swears behind the counter before winding into the kitchen. Then, feeling another tug at his wrist, follows Taehyung to a table in the corner.

They sit. Facing each other. Jeongguk takes a breath, and speaks first.

“So, um, your-”

“Wait,” Taehyung interrupts. “Do you want to know your exact number first?”

Jeongguk blinks. “Uh, okay.”

“It’s really fucking big,” Taehyung says, smiling as he fishes out his phone - to use the date calculating app everybody has, no doubt - from the pocket of his pants. “24172. That’s-” his eyes widen a little, as he keys in the number, “sixty- six more years. The last day is September 22. 2082.”

Jeongguk breathes. “Wow.”

“How old are you now?” Taehyung is grinning.

“Twenty-four,” Jeongguk says. “So I’ll be, what, ninety? Fucking hell.”

Taehyung laughs - he seems to laugh often, or maybe he is just excited; either way Jeongguk likes it, a lot - and squeezes Jeongguk’s wrist, two times. “Great. That’s so fucking great.”

Jeongguk laughs, too. A little breathy with shock and shaky with relief. He reaches over the table with his free hand, to tug lightly upwards at the sleeve of Taehyung’s sweater. “And you-”

“Wait,” Taehyung says suddenly. “Wait.”

Jeongguk furrows his brow. “Why?”

“Just wait,” Taehyung says. He chews at his lip, and goes quiet, eyes still fixed on where Jeongguk’s fingers still hold lightly to his sleeve.

Jeongguk waits.

“I,” says Taehyung, finally. “I don’t know if I want to know.”

“Oh,” replies Jeongguk. “Why?”

“I don’t know, it’s just-” Taehyung pauses. “Isn’t it scary? To know when you’ll die?”

“Isn’t it scarier to not know?”

“I mean it’s scary either way, but,” Taehyung frowns, and seems to think for a moment. “See, it’s nice if it’s a big number, but what if it’s not? What if I don’t make it a week? What if I die today? I wouldn’t want to live like a dying man if I only had so little.” He pauses, rubs his fingers on the table top. “I don’t think there’s much of anything more scary than finding out you only have one day left to live. Maybe I’ll want to know some day, but - it’s scary now.”

Silence, for a moment.

“But,” Jeongguk says, a little quietly. Almost to himself. “I’d want to know. If I didn’t, I think it’d be even scarier? To not know if I’ll suddenly lose you. Or find out too late and have no more time to, um, prepare, I guess? I wouldn’t want that.”

It is Taehyung’s turn to fall quiet, again, now. He twists a little at the fabric of his sleeves, hanging over his wrist. Jeongguk has long let go of it.

“Okay, how about this?” Taehyung offers. “You can see, but only tell me if you think I’d want to hear it.”

Jeongguk blinks.

“How would I know if I should tell you or not?”

“You’re my soulmate,” Taehyung says simply. “You’ll know.”

Jeongguk freezes, then takes a breath. Looks at Taehyung, eyes so steady but uncertain, and nods. Carefully, he slides his hand around Taehyung’s forearm, and turns it over so his wrist faces up.

He pushes back the sleeve, gently, and-

Like a broken elevator his heart plunges to his feet.

 

 

The second time Jeongguk has a serious talk about soulmates, he is eighteen.

It is not with his brother or mother or father, this time. This time he is away from family but surrounded by friends, and the air is so full of rap music and alcohol and slippery drunk words that if Jeongguk closes his eyes and shuts off his brain he can almost forget he was just at a funeral.

(The death was not easy, even though Jeongguk never really knew Yoongi’s mother, anyway. Even though everybody saw it coming, has had decades to see it coming and the last week of visits and gatherings she’d held to empty their mouths of regret. Even though Yoongi said that when it ended - cerebral aneurysm, as instant as you could ask for - she went out in the hospital on painkillers and a smile. Even with preparations all done and last words all said, and Jeongguk barely knowing her, anyway, the finality of it is thick in Yoongi’s apartment living room, hanging in the air and mingling with alcohol in the back of his throat; rancid.)

But Yoongi seems fine now, on his couch, sipping beer from a can with their small band of friends scattered about him - Jeongguk, on the floor by his legs, and Namjoon at the far end, and Hoseok wielding soulmate privileges to press in beside him, draped half over Yoongi in the way only he can get away with. There is music playing, something guttural and fierce but sad, and the six pack of beer Yoongi opened slowly diminishes between the four of them.

Jeongguk leans his head onto Yoongi’s knee, and receives a half-hearted kick in response. Yes, Jeongguk decides, Yoongi seems fine. More drunk than he likes to let himself get, but fine. As fine as he can be, at any rate.

“This whole soulmate thing,” Namjoon says suddenly. “It always sounds so simple, but it isn't, at all, is it? When you think about it?”

“You never think anything is simple,” replies Hoseok.

“Because nothing is,” Namjoon replies. “Nothing is simple.”

“Can’t this be simple?” Hoseok says, leaning into Yoongi as if making a statement, grip a little protective, a little assuring. “You have your soulmate and he has you back. That’s simple.”

“But you and Yoongi have it easy,” Namjoon says. “You’ve got each other and, what, sixty years each?”

“Fifty,” mumbles Yoongi.

“Fifty,” Namjoon amends. “But the point is - it’s easy when you luck out like that. But what about everyone who doesn’t? The people who never get a chance to meet, or whose counters are too different? Or people who aren’t inclined to romance in the first place?”

“My brain hurts,” mutters Hoseok. Yoongi beside him makes a kind of drunk snorting sound.

“Okay, right, maybe platonic soulmates can happen, even if there aren’t as many cases. But the whole thing - the idea that you can’t be whole on your own,” Namjoon says, hands sort of grasping at the air with his words. “Is it even true?”

Jeongguk frowns, but says nothing.

“I think,” Yoongi says, speech slurred at the edges. “It’s true, in a way. But finding your soulmate is enough to make you whole either.”

Hoseok nods, a little, chin against Yoongi’s shoulder. “But it helps,” he says.

“It helps,” Yoongi agrees.

“Maybe humankind is just an inherently lonely species,” Namjoon remarks.

“Or inherently weak,” offers Yoongi.

“Or maybe,” Hoseok says. “It’s just a nice thing, that everyone gets to have someone out there who can make you way happier than you could manage to alone.”

“But-” Namjoon says, “things don’t always work out happy, do they? Relationships take work, even for soulmates. The only thing now is, no matter how bad you fuck up or get fucked up, you never stop being in love. Isn’t that worse, than if we didn’t know about soulmates at all?”

Hoseok frowns. “I think it’s better.”

“I think it depends,” comments Yoongi.

“I don’t know,” says Jeongguk, because he doesn’t.

Namjoon drums his fingers on his arm. “Maybe it’s the counter that makes the real difference. If you fuck up a relationship, it’s your own fault. But if death fucks you over, then-” He stops, there, seeming to catch himself slipping away from tact.

“But,” Hoseok says. “We all die anyway, even without the counter. Seems a little unfair to blame it for anything. All it does is tell us when.”

“But is it really better to know?” Namjoon replies.

“I think I’d like that, to be able to prepare,” Jeongguk offers. “I don’t want regrets.”

“I heard from someone,” Yoongi says suddenly, barely above his breath, and everyone else drops silent. “That you can change the counter. For someone else.”

A sharp beat of silence, filled only by a lone long note from the song still playing.

“Really?” Jeongguk asks, first. “How?”

Yoongi pauses. “Hoseok wouldn’t let me.”

Jeongguk frowns, twisting around to look up at the pair. “Why-”

“Don’t,” Hoseok cuts in, an edge to his voice. “It’s not good.”

“I’m not saying I would ever do it,” Jeongguk says. “But just - how?”

Yoongi kicks Jeongguk, then, harder than before. “Hoseok’s right. Ain’t good.”

 

 

“So?” Taehyung asks, over the cafe table, eyes a mix of careful expectation and worry.

Jeongguk swallows. Tries to think. He can’t. He keeps his eyes on the wrist, the table, just not Taehyung’s face, as he opens his mouth and lets the number trip out.

“1892.”

He can see Taehyung start, as the last digit leaves Jeongguk’s mouth and no more numbers follow. As it sinks in.

  1. Four digits. Five years. Small enough to calculate, just by thinking in multiples of three-hundred-and-sixty-five.

A liminal number, enough-but-not-enough.

There is silence, then, as they try to stomach the news. Jeongguk looks back up, to watch as Taehyung numbly keys the digits into his phone, a lost kind of look in his eyes; like his body is responding a step ahead of his mind. Jeongguk tries to still the fear already pooling thick in his gut, the dread of loss before loss before loss.

“Also September 22,” is all Taehyung says. “2021.”

And then the first tear slides down his cheek, quiet and too small. Taehyung doesn’t seem to notice. Faintly, Jeongguk wonders if Jimin can see them. He hopes not.

“For the record,” Jeongguk says, as gently as he can - because it is all he can really do in a time like this, when sorry is neither right nor enough - and because he knows he was long lost, from the first moment they found eye contact. Jeongguk doesn’t know if he can call it love at first sight, but it is definitely something. Something hot and something sharp, enough to have made up his mind for him, in that instant. “I still want to be with you.”

Taehyung is quiet. Jeongguk tightens his hold on his wrist, a little. Just a little. In case Taehyung forgot it was there.

“I’m sorry,” Taehyung doesn’t meet his gaze, and Jeongguk doesn’t blame him. “I think I need some time. To think about-” he draws a breath, a breath like vinegar, “-this. All of this.”

Jeongguk looks at Taehyung, then.

Really, really looks at him, sitting there across the table. Lists details and counts landmarks, tries to take a mental snapshot of each angle of every feature, every square inch of skin to patch together in his memory, dark eyes and rich skin and lips tugged down at the corners. High cheekbones and sharp jaw and those long, long lashes. Everything in focus. Low ISO, high aperture, low shutter speed.

They have barely met, but already Jeongguk doesn’t know if they will ever meet again, and the photographer in him is (selfishly, stupidly, suddenly) desperate.

Jeongguk looks, as hard as he can. Just in case Taehyung becomes a future he will not have.

“Okay,” Jeongguk finally says. He squeezes Taehyung’s wrist, where the number stares up, challenging. Then lets go, deposits his hand back in his lap. His palm feels too-hot away from Taehyung’s skin. 1892. He breathes, tries to fit the number into the logic of his brain. “I’ll wait. You can find me at that gallery. I’ll keep on going. In the mornings.”

Taehyung bites his lip. “Thank you.”

Jeongguk fails to smile. “Take care.”

Taehyung nods, looking at the table. “Goodbye.”

And then he leaves.

(When Jimin comes back out of the kitchen with two steaming mugs and a full tray of food, barely a moment after, he finds Jeongguk at the table alone. Head in his arms, and shaking, as he tries to make sense of his own tears.

Jimin doesn’t stay the rest of his shift. Jeongguk doesn’t drink the coffee.)

 

 

The first time Jeongguk really actually asks about soulmates himself, he is twenty-four, and it is over the first payphone he gets his hands on, with tears drying on his cheeks and Taehyung heavy in his mind.

“Yoongi,” Jeongguk says, as soon as he hears a confused hello on the other end. “Yoongi. How do you change the soulmate counter?”

“What?” Yoongi says. “Wait, who- Jeongguk?”

“Yeah, it’s me. How do you change it? The counter?”

A pause, and an audible breath, and a sharp change in tone. “What? Holy fuck, no. Are you-”

“It’s not me,” Jeongguk says, quickly, even though already a part of him wonders if he would prefer it that way.“It’s my soulmate. He - we - I just met him today.”

A long silence. “How long more?”

“Five years.”

“Oh,” Yoongi says. “Huh.”

“Yoongi, there’s a way, isn’t there?”

“Jeongguk,” Yoongi says. He sounds tired, suddenly, in a strange pre-emptive kind of way. “You can’t just change the-”

“I can,” Jeongguk bites in. “You said it yourself. That you almost tried for your mom, but Hoseok stopped you. Don’t lie to me.”

Another pause. Then, a sigh. “Fine, I won’t. But I’m not telling you how either. It’s a bad idea.”

“Fuck that,” Jeongguk snaps. He wants to tear his hair out. “Can’t you let me decide for myself?”

A breath. “No.”

“Yoongi,” Jeongguk says. Pleads, almost. “Tell me.”

“It doesn’t work,” Yoongi says. “And the consequences - don’t fucking risk it, Jeon.”

Jeongguk tightens his grip on the phone receiver. “I’ve got fucking sixty-six years to live, Yoongi. I think I can handle whatever it is.” He pauses. “Please.”

“No,” Yoongi says.

“Hyung,” Jeongguk presses. “Please. I need to just know. It doesn’t mean I’ll do it, but I have to at least know what I’m not doing. My soulmate, he’s-” Jeongguk stops, and chews at his lip. “You haven’t met him, so you wouldn’t know. But he’s really something, okay? I like him, a lot. Already. You of all people should know how that feels. I can’t just know there’s this chance and not at least try to find out.”

Yoongi doesn’t reply, for a very long time.

“Yoongi-” Jeongguk says. “You can’t just-”

“You’re not giving up until I tell you, are you?”

“No, I’m not.”

A sigh comes through the receiver. “And if I don’t tell you, you’re finding some fucked up shady unreliable way to find out anyway, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I am.”

“You,” Yoongi says. “Are fucking impossible.”

“So,” Jeongguk ventures. “You’ll tell me?”

Just a short pause, this time. Like he knew it would come to this, anyway. “Not over the phone. Come to my place.”

Jeongguk feels like he’s won, but not in a way that makes him want to smile. “Okay.”

 

 

It takes Taehyung a while to realise that it’s all actually happening.

A part of him knows, of course, a part of him that has dragged the rest of his feelings to his feet in a lost slurry of mess and mortality. But the bigger part of him doesn’t - as he leaves the cafe, and stumbles blindly to the nearest bus-stop, as he sits down on the bench and wonders why his hands are shaking, and has suddenly no idea where he wants to go - it simply doesn’t feel like it’s happening. He can’t believe it. He can’t.

Nothing feels real, anymore. Not the art museum, the stairs, the phone; not the boy with the bright eyes and cut lip and the specific way his face fell apart, eyes then mouth then hands then the small dip of his head, shadow-bound down, when he said 1892 . Five years, five.

The five years, especially, do not feel real.

It’s only when a bus has come and went - and suddenly there are exhaust fumes burning his eyes thick in the air, and then footsteps, footsteps fast, and someone is calling his name yelling Kim Taehyung and Taehyung turns and sees Jimin running over, still in his barista apron - that everything starts to hit him. Not a train-crash kind of hitting, but the kind that crawls up on his back, inch by inch by cold sinking inch.

“There you are,” Jimin says, dropping onto the bench beside him. He reaches out a hand, and grips tight onto Taehyung’s forearm, like he knows he might just run away. “What happened? I came out to the front, and Jeongguk was crying, and- what the fuck happened?”

Taehyung stares at him, and thinks about how he’s known Jimin for fourteen whole years now. Fourteen whole long years. Since Jimin transferred into his school, tiny and soft in that way some twelve-year-olds are, and Taehyung spilled a carton of milk all over his books. Taehyung tries to remember what flavour the milk was, but the detail will not come to him.

“I’m,” Taehyung says. “Going back home to Daegu.”

“What?” Jimin says. His grip tightens. “Why?”

Taehyung bites his lip, and says nothing. Jimin’s hand tightens around Taehyung’s arm.

“Tae,” Jimin says. “What happened?”

“I want to be with my family,” says Taehyung.

And then he starts crying, and the realisation that this is actually happening, really actually happening, crawls all the way up past his back to hang around his neck like a noose, like a guillotine.

“Jimin,” Taehyung says, voice clogged and wet. “I’m dying. In five years. I’m dying in five years.”

“What?” Jimin says. “What the fuck? No. Fuck, no. No way.”

“1892,” says Taehyung, and then Jimin is hugging him, and then he’s crying too, until Taehyung can’t tell which sobs are Jimin’s and which are his own.

Two more buses come and go, before Taehyung wipes his face on his sleeve, and pulls back, and Jimin follows him home and sits on the floor while he throws clothes into a duffel bag, talking all the time about stupid things because Taehyung pretends not to hear if he says anything sad. And then they take a cab to the train station, and Taehyung boards the first train he can catch and Jimin waves at him through the window, until it moves off from the platform, and shrinks away into darkness, into nothing, and Jimin keeps on waving anyway.

 

 

When Jeongguk reaches Yoongi’s apartment, Hoseok answers the door. Quickly, like he’s been waiting.

“You’re here,” he says. He doesn’t look happy at all, which is a strange look for Hoseok, but then again happiness is the last thing Jeongguk could expect him to feel.

“Hi,” Jeongguk says, even though he somehow feels like he should be saying sorry. “Where’s Yoongi?”

Hoseok steps back to let him into the apartment. “Just in the other room. I’ll get him.”

Jeongguk kicks his shoes off and shuffles in, settling on the edge of the sofa, in front of the TV, while Hoseok disappears through a door. Jeongguk twists his hands together, tense. It’s almost surreal to feel tense in Yoongi’s apartment, where he’s been so often it’s nearly a surrogate home. He’s never had any reason to be tense, not with Yoongi and Hoseok, except the one time he broke Yoongi’s computer screen and didn’t want to admit it.

This time is different, though. He’s tense even though he hasn’t yet done anything wrong.

“Jeongguk.”

He looks up, and sees Yoongi headed over.

“Hyung,” Jeongguk says.

Yoongi sighs, and sits down on the couch beside him, leaning back into the cushioned backing. Jeongguk glances at him from the side, then at his reflection in the TV screen in front. Neither Yoongi’s expression is readable. Hoseok does not come out of the room.

“So,” Yoongi says. “What’s he like?”

Jeongguk pauses, works the words around his teeth. “I don’t know how to say it. We only met for a bit, but he’s - he’s just, kind of, beautiful? And I don’t mean just his face. All of him. He has a special way of smiling. You’d like him. I don’t think anyone could not like him.”

Yoongi doesn’t say anything. Jeongguk picks at a loose string from a cushion on the couch, tries to snap it with a tug of his fingers. It won’t break, no matter how fast he pulls.

“You’d have to,” Yoongi says finally, looking blankly ahead. “Pretty much try to kill yourself.”

Jeongguk freezes. “What?”

“To change the counter. Apparently.” He exhales. “You know how if you kill yourself before your counter is up, you still die?”

Jeongguk nods, silently.

“It’s supposed to be something like that,” Yoongi continues. “You’re supposed to do it in a way that’s related to the number of days left. Like shoot yourself seven times, or something, if they’ve got a week. You have to really try, too, no bullshit like smoking cigarettes and trying to get cancer. But,” Yoongi is looking at Jeongguk, now, right at him, gaze sharp-focused in a way that makes Jeongguk feel cut raw open like a cadaver. “It’s just a rumour. Bullshit and wishful thinking. Almost never works even if you believe the fuckers who say it did. Just ends with someone uselessly dead or losing decades off their own counter.”

“Oh,” Jeongguk says.

“And if it does work, it’s supposed to take time off your counter and put it to someone else’s. Almost always your soulmate, but some say it’s worked for family. The time doesn’t always add up, too. You could lose fifty years and give them a day. You could lose everything and still not change their counter.”

Jeongguk stares at the floor tiles, silent.

“Don’t do it,” Yoongi says.

Jeongguk says nothing.

“Seriously, Jeongguk,” Yoongi pushes. “I’m only telling you because you’re not that stupid. Don’t-”

“How does it work?”

“It doesn’t,” Yoongi snaps. “There’s no logic to it. Just rumours. Don’t be a fucking idiot, you’re too old to fall for fairytales.”

“But,” Jeongguk says. “It must have worked before, right?”

Yoongi hits him, a slap to the head. Hard enough to hurt.

“I said don’t fucking do it. It won’t work, got it? You’re not lucky. You’re not special. You’re not invincible even with your, what, sixty-six years? You’ll just die or fuck up your own counter, and nothing changes for your soulmate except now someone they care about is dying too fast, too. It’s just a rumor. You can’t just trust what you hear.”

Jeongguk pauses. “But you trusted it. You almost tried.”

“And I didn’t try,” Yoongi snaps. “For good reason. It’s bullshit.”

Jeongguk sighs. He lets go of the couch string.

“Okay. I get it, Yoongi. I won’t do it either.” He stops, stares at their reflections in the TV screen. “Really, I won’t. I kind of like, um, not dying. Thanks for telling me.”

“Swear you won’t?” Yoongi says.

“Swear I won’t,” Jeongguk replies.

“Not even try?”

“Not even try,” Jeongguk says. “Not like I can survive shooting myself 1892 times anyway.”

Yoongi lets out an audible breath, though Jeongguk cannot tell if he is more exasperated or relieved.

“You don’t really get it, do you?” Yoongi says.

“I do,” Jeongguk answers.

“You don’t,” Yoongi states. He sounds older, all of a sudden. “I didn’t get it either, at first. It’s like that with death - you won’t get it until it’s already over. So just trust me on this, okay?” His voice softens, just a bit. “Five years can be enough.”

Jeongguk says nothing. Just thinks. Tries to squeeze everything that happened - Taehyung, Taehyung’s counter, 1892 turning slowly to 1891 with each passing second, his own counter, Yoongi’s words - into a shape he can wrap his mind around. But it is like trying to fold the sea into the palm of his hand, into a form that won’t spill through the gaps of his fingers, and Jeongguk is not that good at origami.

He stays quiet for a long time.

 

 

It takes Taehyung six more days to learn that there is no right way to die.

On the train ride to Daegu it feels like the most natural thing, to want to see his family before anyone else. He thinks maybe it’s what is expected; the rightest thing he can think of - be a good son, grandson, brother, as much as possible while he still can. To be with the ones closest to him. Who should make him feel better about the whole dying thing, like they make him feel better about most things. The people who care and matter most.

But by the second day in the countryside, after endless conversations all sounding the same, Taehyung is exhausted.

He hasn’t felt better. If anything, the mixed reactions of crying (and trying not to cry, and pretending they hadn’t been crying, and forgetting how to really laugh, and asking him if there’s anything special he wants to do, anything they can do for him, anything at all, as if discovering a more imminent death than expected has suddenly made him the centre of the family) have only made it worse. Everything feels colored by the coming loss, greyed out in the shadow of his not-yet coffin.

It’s sad, and dull, and Taehyung is tired.

He’s used to being the bright one in his family, the happy one, and the clothes of this new role are scratchy and tight. Give them time to accept it, he tells himself, except there isn’t that much time to give.

By the second day, Taehyung finds himself desperate for someone to just fucking smile, already. He tries what he can think of, tells them all the embarrassing things Jimin said, and cute animals he’s seen, and stupid things his students have actually written into their assignments. There are laughs and curved mouths, but no one’s eyes are smiling.

By the third day, Taehyung finds himself thinking about Jeongguk, so hard that he can’t think of anything without seeing Jeongguk in it. They’ve met so briefly, and it doesn’t make sense, but Taehyung can’t help it; everything he sees or does warps its way into a question - does Jeongguk like it when it rains? Is he eating well back in the city? Is he a night person? Could he, possibly, be looking up at the night sky at the same time as Taehyung, like in a cliché romance movie? At the same clouds covering the same stars?

And if he might be, just maybe, thinking that much about Taehyung, too.

Taehyung almost wonders if it’s possible to miss someone you’ve barely even met, except he knows he’s becoming his own answer.

By the fourth day, Taehyung finds himself out taking long morning walks, counting paces between rocks and piling up twigs for no reason and trying to guess which are the same trees he remembers vaguely from his childhood. It’s quiet, and peaceful, and for once no one is saying anything depressing. He wonders how Jeongguk is, as he always does; an almost habitual missing, by now.

He stops at a tree with bark he likes, traces the patchy brown with the pad of his fingers, watching as tiny pieces flake off under his touch. He asks the tree if staying in Daegu is the right thing to do, because he knows it won’t try to give him an answer. It is, isn’t it? His family has always been important to him, and he can always travel back to see friends, anyway, and that’s what everyone regrets when they die, isn’t it? Not spending more time with family? Yes, Taehyung should stay; make up for the years and years he’s spent away in the city. Shouldn’t he? The leaves rustle, and say nothing.

Strangely enough, when Taehyung finally comes to a decision, it is because of his dog.

It is the fifth day, just after lunch, when it happens. Taehyung finds himself perched on the porch, rubbing his hands on the floor, feeling the flatness under his palms, and the wind on his face, and the smell of the trees all around him, warm-woody but fresh. And there in the yard is his dog, his Soonshim, sprawled flat on the ground in a cloud of white, blissfully asleep in the late afternoon air.

“Soonshimmie,” Taehyung scolds. “Why am I happier with you than everyone else?”

Soonshim kicks in her sleep, a quick twitching movement.

Taehyung smiles. He steps off the porch and settles beside the dog instead. Reaches out and buries his hand in the white cloud. Warm.

“I think,” he says. “I want to live.”

He rubs his hand up the fur on her neck, scratches behind sharp ears.

“I want to live, Soonshim,” he says. “I want to live life, not a five-year-long funeral.”

And just like that, he says it.

He delivers out the words that have been stewing simmering hot in his gut for days, tastes their flavour as they slide over his tongue. He feels lighter, like a knot has slid loose and spilled everything away and suddenly he’s been emptied. Emptied, but not hollow. Emptied like he’s ready to be full again.

“So that’s it,” Taehyung says, to no one. And he smiles, because he gets it now. He’s been dying all his life, he just didn’t know it yet. And there’s no right way to die, but some pretty good ways to live.

And one of them is waiting for him.

On the sixth day, Taehyung takes the night train back to the city.

 

 

“Hey,” Taehyung says, the first morning after he reaches back, as he spots a familiar silhouette in the art gallery. Lip still swollen, eyes still bright, fixed on a painting framed before him.

Jeongguk starts like he’s heard a bomb go off, and whips around, away from the Edward Hopper before him - A Woman in the Sun, Taehyung notes, one he has a special fondness for - and instantly drops his mouth dead open.

“It’s,” Jeongguk finally says, cheeks filling with color, “you.”

Taehyung nods. “Yeah, it’s me. I’ve made up my mind.”

“Oh,” Jeongguk stares at him. Opens his mouth again, then snaps it quickly shut, as if afraid of repeating his many (cute) tongue-tied mistakes. Stays still, for a heartbeat, then again opens. “So, um, you...?”

Taehyung only smiles. He shifts forward, just a half-step, just enough so that he can lean over and peck Jeongguk quick on the cheek. Because he has five years, and damn if he isn’t squeezing in as many kisses as he can.

Then Taehyung steps back, and tries to stifle the urge to start laughing because Jeon Jeongguk looks like he’s just about ready to catch on fire.

“This is me,” Taehyung announces. “Trying to ask you out.”

Jeongguk gapes at him, like a complete utter brain-fried idiot. It’s adorable, and Taehyung feels better already, so much better by a landslide than he has in the last six days.

“Y-yef-yiff me,” Jeongguk says.

And Taehyung balks, and Jeongguk turns even redder than either of them thought humanly possible.

“I meant-” he corrects frantically. “Yes, definitely, take me. Out! Take me out. Holy fucking shit.”

And Taehyung explodes into laughter, the wrong volume for a gallery, but he’s far past caring because Jeongguk looks like he wants to rewind his entire life back to the day he was born and it is so, so, unbelievably cute.

For the first time in too long, Taehyung feels alive.

“Okay, if you say that’s what you meant,” he teases, still laughing. “Are you free for the rest of today?”

“Um,” Jeongguk says. “Yes.”

He smiles, shy-embarrassed but bright, and Taehyung feels a bubble of warmth start to swell in his chest.

“Great,” Taehyung says. “There’s a really good dessert place nearby. My friend’s shop. They have this killer fruit parfait thing with strawberries and oranges.”

Jeongguk grins, a little dazedly. “Cool. I love fruit.”

“Really? I pegged you for a carnivore.” Taehyung says. He reaches out and wraps his hand around Jeongguk’s wrist - where the number still sits, stark on light skin - then changes his mind and slides his grip lower, instead, until their fingers are intertwined and Jeongguk’s breath hitches at the contact, and Taehyung learns that Jeongguk’s palms are pleasantly warm, the perfect temperature for his always-cold own. Tugging lightly, he starts heading for the exit.

“I mean, I love meat, too,” Jeongguk says, following. His eyes, always so bright, dart between staring at their hands to staring at Taehyung to glancing ahead just often enough to not slam into a pillar. “I just-”

“You love meat? Which kind?” Taehyung says, raising an eyebrow.

“Yes. I mean,” Jeongguk blinks, and then turns bright violent red again. He fumbles. “Fuck, not like that, I mean- are you always like this?”

Taehyung laughs. He’s been so damn tired from not laughing. “Unfortunately, yes. Especially when I’m with hot people. Except for when I’m at work - the kids come up with their own twisted innuendos just fine.”

“Hot people?” Jeongguk says, as they round a corner. “Wait, innuendos? And kids?”

Taehyung smiles, as faux-innocently as he can manage. “Yeah, that’s just how my work is.”

“What kind of…?” Jeongguk trails off, lost. Taehyung smiles harder, and squeezes his hand tight.

“Nah, I’m just messing with you,” he admits. “I’m an art teacher. At a high school, though we’re on summer vacation now. And you know how high schoolers are - show them the statue of David and all they can see is how small his dick is.”

Jeongguk laughs. “Okay, that’s more normal than I thought.”

Taehyung clicks his tongue. “Jeon Jeongguk, what a dirty mind.”

“Shut up,” Jeongguk laughs. “You said innuendos, what else was I supposed to think.”

Taehyung grins. “Fine, I’ll give you that. Out of mercy, just because you’re so hot.”

“God,” Jeongguk shakes his head. “Why do I like you?”

Taehyung nearly chokes, but only nearly. Instead he raises an eyebrow and puts on the most suave smile he can manage. Hopes he looks far more collected than his for-some-reason racing heartbeat would let on, more suit-and-wine than elementary-schooler-with-a-new-crush. “You like me?”

Jeongguk blushes, and looks at his feet. He’s smiling. “Of course.”

“Really?” Taehyung says. “Like? Or like like?”

(So much for suit-and-wine.)

“Come on, we’re soulmates,” Jeongguk says. He doesn’t seem to know how to stop blushing. “You know what it is.”

“But,” Taehyung protests. “Sometimes it takes a while for feelings to build, doesn’t it? I have to be sure.”

“How sure?”

“Hmm,” Taehyung says, exaggeratedly pensive. “Do you like me, as a person?”

“Yes,” the reply comes instantly, and Jeongguk looks almost surprised at how quick it slips out. He looks back down at the floor, shy. Always so shy. It’s fucking endearing.

“Do you like me, like you want to kiss me?”

“Yes.”

“Do you like me like you want to have crazy wild sex with me?”

Jeongguk stumbles, even though he’s been watching his feet the entire time. “Who the fuck asks that on the first date?”

“Me,” Taehyung says. “Sex is important. Especially since we’re soulmates.”

Jeongguk makes a sound, like a cross between an embarrassed trumpet and a chicken being stepped on. “Let me decide again if I even like you as a person.”

Taehyung laughs, then pauses, and squeezes Jeongguk’s hand. Almost carefully this time, because he really means it.

“Well,” Taehyung says, “you’ve got five years to decide.”

Silence, for a while. Jeongguk gets a strange kind of look on his face that Taehyung cannot quite stick a label to.

“Yeah, I guess we do,” Jeongguk finally says, turning his head over to face him, right straight at him, mouth quirking in a small warm tentative smile - not small out of tact but small out of shyness. A few locks of dark hair bow back over his forehead in the wind, and Taehyung suddenly feels the most inexplicable urge to reach out and touch them.

He does, because he has too little time left to hesitate, and they’re soulmates for sure anyway, and Jeongguk jolts at the action but doesn’t pull back.

Taehyung smiles.

“Did you think of me while I was gone?” He says.

Jeongguk blinks, then pauses. “Yeah.”

“A lot?”

“Yeah.”

Taehyung nods. He lets the hand at Jeongguk’s hair slide down to rest on his shoulder, right where it meets his neck. It’s warm. “That’s good. I was worried it was just me.”

“Oh?” Jeongguk says, smiling. His cheeks are coloring again, and Taehyung finds himself suddenly liking every shade of pink. “You thought of me too?”

“Yeah. Weird, right? I thought I’d be more concerned about the whole, you know, dying in five years thing. But in the end it was you I kept thinking of. I saw my dog take a shit and thought of you; it was that bad.”

Jeongguk furrows his brow at that, in this adorable way that draws creases around his nose, too, and Taehyung feels his mouth grow dry. “Dog shit? Hey, rude.”

“Not like that, you idiot.” Taehyung laughs. “In a good way, I swear. In a if-we-got-a-dog-would-he-clean-up-after-it kind of way.”

Jeongguk is the one laughing, now. Less shyly than he has before. It’s a good sound. A laugh Taehyung can trust. “Really?”

“Really,” Taehyung insists. “Besides, even if I did compare you to it you should take it as a compliment. My Soonshimmie’s an angel.”

“You’re terrible,” Jeongguk says. He squeezes Taehyung’s hand, a little too tight. Then he pauses, a while. Looks at Taehyung with another strange expression. Something like fondness, but not exactly the same. “You know, I didn’t expect my soulmate to be like you.”

“Really?” Taehyung says. “What did you expect?”

“I don’t know,” Jeongguk replies. “I just never thought my type was - you.”

Taehyung raises his eyebrows. “So I’m not your type?”

“No, I mean, yes. I mean,” Jeongguk laughs. “I mean I thought I had a type, and you weren’t anything like that. But then I saw you that day and you, uh, kind of kicked the old type out the window.”

“Oh?” Taehyung says. “What was the old type?”

Jeongguk chews on his lip, thoughtful. He’s still looking at Taehyung, and Taehyung can’t help but look back. They’ve stopped walking by now, Taehyung suddenly realises, even though he isn’t sure exactly when it happened or where they are.

“Well,” Jeongguk says. “Shorter? Uh, I don’t know. I guess I kind of never really thought you’d be a guy.”

Taehyung blinks. Puts on his best look of exaggerated mock offence. “Wow, I didn’t think you’d be homophobic.”

“Fuck,” Jeongguk laughs. “No. Of course not. I’m not even straight, I mean, obviously.”

“Prove it,” Taehyung teases. “It’s going to be a problem if my soulmate isn’t that sure if he’s into men.”

“Prove it?” Jeongguk says.

“Yes,” Taehyung says.

“Okay,” Jeongguk says.

And then Jeongguk kisses him.

And Taehyung gasps, because he did not expect that, but doesn’t pull away as he soon finds that Jeongguk’s lips are very warm, and very soft, and thicker on the bottom than the top in a way that is quickly becoming his own mouth’s favourite. He kisses back, soft at first, then hard, because fuck going slow when they only have five years, anyway. Taehyung brings the hand on Jeongguk’s shoulder around his neck, and pushes his tongue into their clumsy mess of a kiss, and Jeongguk sighs and opens his mouth, so cute and willing, and-

“Kim Taehyung!” comes a shout. “Not in front of my shop.”

Taehyung pulls back, and Jeongguk looks flushed and heady and a bit concussed, and they turn to see the source of the sound.

“Oh, right,” Taehyung says. “We’re at that dessert place I was talking about.”

“You,” yells the very familiar face in a very familiar pink apron, just outside the glass doors of the dessert parlour and coming rapidly closer to them. “What-”

“Seokjin,” Taehyung quickly interrupts. “Meet Jeongguk.”

“Jeongguk?” Seokjin says.

“Uh,” Jeongguk says. “Me.”

Seokjin stares at him, for a moment longer than necessary. “And you are…?”

“My soulmate,” Taehyung says, tightening his grip on Jeongguk’s hand. “I was taking him here for our first date.”

Seokjin blinks. “Your soulmate?”

“My soulmate.”

“Soulmate?”

“Soulmate.”

“Yours?”

“Yeah,” says Jeongguk.

And Seokjin stares at him, then at Taehyung, then makes a strangled kind of cry. Saying something about how all his younger friends are meeting their soulmates - and where is the justice in the world, he’s going to die a bachelor, and very nice to meet you, Jeongguk - Seokjin ushers them into the shop.

He serves up two of the most enormous strawberry-and-orange fruit parfait things Taehyung has ever seen. Then sits down with them at a round white table, apron and all, and starts rattling off questions like bullets; Jeongguk’s age (24), and job (still in college doing his Master’s, part-timing at a record store), and major (photography) and number of siblings (one), and hometown (Busan), and height (he isn’t actually sure), and horoscope (virgo), and blood type (A), until eventually Seokjin is satisfied enough to leave, telling them both to enjoy their food.

He does not ask about their counters, and Taehyung is overwhelmingly grateful, in that moment, that they’re friends.

 

 

The date, Jeongguk decides, has gone pretty well.

It’s night now, the wind barely chilly, and they’re walking in an almost-empty skatepark. Walking, not skating, because Taehyung said something over dinner about how skateparks must miss the feeling of feet, and it felt like a convincing reason at the time.

(Still does, if Jeongguk is honest. He’s learnt that Taehyung can be very convincing.)

“Anyway,” Taehyung says, suddenly, breaking the lull of conversation they had stepped into - ever since some paces back, when Jeongguk said something about the weather, and Taehyung said something about really feeling the moment, and Jeongguk said mm, and really felt the moment - in a tone so casual it’s like they never went silent at all. “It’s late.”

“Yeah,” Jeongguk says. It’s getting dark now, the sky lit by stars and the ground lit by street-lamps, and he has no idea what time it really is but Taehyung is probably right. He’s very convincing. “Do you want to go home?”

“Do you?” Taehyung asks.

“I don’t know,” Jeongguk answers.

“I can drive. I drove here,” Taehyung offers. “But not just anyone gets my chauffeur service car rides for free.”

“Do I get one, honey?” Jeongguk says, before he can stop himself. Instantly his face is on fire, and he regrets being born, and considers surgically removing his vocal chords, and slams his mouth shut so hard he might have given himself a concussion.

Taehyung laughs, and laughs, and stutters out honey and laughs some more. Then he gets a strange kind of smile on his face.

Taehyung hums. “Yes, honey, but on one condition.”

“What?”

“You come home with me.”

Jeongguk trips, nearly losing his footing on the curve of the quarter-pipe they’re trying to balance on. “What?” He says. “Um, this isn’t related to the crazy wild sex thing, right? Because, honestly, I-”

“No,” Taehyung laughs. He slides an arm through the loop of Jeongguk’s elbow. “Not that, don’t worry. But there’s something I want to do, and I want you to be with me when I do it.”

“Oh,” Jeongguk says. “Okay. Sure.”

Taehyung smiles, but there’s something in it that doesn’t look quite right, and Jeongguk pulls his hand from the arm-knot between them to reach around Taehyung’s waist instead. Carefully. Taehyung leans closer, into the action, and Jeongguk tightens his grip.

“Come on,” Taehyung says. “My car’s just back at the art museum.”

“Okay,” says Jeongguk.

“Thanks,” says Taehyung.

“For what?” asks Jeongguk. “I haven’t done anything.”

Taehyung shrugs. “You said yes. That’s something.”

 

 

Jeongguk doesn’t know what he expected, but this isn’t it.

“Taehyung,” he says, one hand holding a half-open old diary, thumb hooked over a specific page as per Taehyung’s instruction, and the other clasped around his own (recently-reacquired) phone, screen open on a note page quickly filling up with apparently random Taehyung-supplied words. “What are you doing?”

“I’m,” Taehyung says, voice coming muffled from the top of a stepladder in his storeroom. “Writing.”

Jeongguk blinks.

The last time he checked, writing was more about putting words on paper. And a lot less about digging up old sketchbooks and journals and photographs (some from the apartment, others apparently brought back from Taehyung’s family home, all the way from Daegu) but barely even looking at them, just breezing through each one until noticing something that recalls something else that suddenly demands another round of rummaging in the storeroom to be found, the first book tossed sadly aside to join others in a teetering stack, all the while sporadically yelling at your soulmate - boyfriend? - to list down seemingly arbitrary words somewhere.

“Uh,” Jeongguk says. “Are you sure you’re writing?”

“Yeah,” Taehyung answers. He’s climbing down the stepladder now, another small notebook in his hands. “I’m writing.”

“Writing what?” Jeongguk says.

Taehyung jumps the last step of the stepladder, and adds the notebook to a growing pile on his table. He rubs his hands on his pants.

“My bucket list.”

Jeongguk freezes. The words feel like a hand on his neck. “Oh.”

“See,” Taehyung says, finally satisfied with all the things he’s unearthed. He walks past Jeongguk, and sits down at his desk, surrounded now by three book-piles and a handful of stray knick-knacks. “I want to write a really good one.”

“Yeah?” Jeongguk manages. He heads over, and passes the page-marked book to Taehyung.

“Yeah,” Taehyung says, taking it. He flips open to the page, and lays it out on the table. It’s an old diary entry, something to do with a saxophone. “A really, really fucking good one. Not just stuff I can think of off the top of my head, but everything - all the things I want to do, and the ones I wanted to do but forgot I wanted, but still want to do now. I had a lot of weird dreams as a kid, you know. It’s not fair to just ignore them without checking first.”

“Oh,” Jeongguk says. He settles beside Taehyung as well as he can, sort-of-kneeling on the floor. Puts his phone on the table, so Taehyung can see the list of things he must have momentarily thought of. There’s a strange kind of cold knot in Jeongguk’s chest now, sharp and heavy, gradually tightening and tightening, notch by notch, whenever the five years are brought up.

Jeongguk ignores it. “How can I help?”

Taehyung looks over, and smiles at him, and Jeongguk suddenly wants to scream. “Don’t. I just want you here.”

Jeongguk blinks. Sucks in a breath and then smiles back, as honestly as he can. “Okay. I’ll stay.”

And he does.

He stays, and watches as Taehyung starts scouring through the stacks of notebooks and stray photos, listing things with a red pen on lined paper, surprisingly methodical. And as he scratches off words, adds in others, flips through old sketchbooks and journals and stops to think and then scratches things off, again. As he restarts on fresh paper, three times, and laughs at some old drawings, and goes quiet at others.

Jeongguk watches, not reading the words, not saying anything. Just watches and listens and tries his best to laugh when Taehyung shows him especially stupid childhood relics.

He wants to talk, sometimes, but it never feels right. The air is too private, even with them both together. Shared, but burningly private, like it isn’t Jeongguk and Taehyung alone in that space, but Taehyung and Taehyung’s past and Taehyung’s future; Jeongguk just watching them talk and argue and plan - all the time feeling the knot in his chest tighten harden inch by inch by inch, all the time acutely aware of the 1885 dark on Taehyung’s moving wrist.

Thirteen minutes to eleven, the number becomes 1884 , and Jeongguk takes note of the time when it happens. To prepare himself for the same moment in five years.

Another twenty-four minutes, and Taehyung goes still. His pen taps, for a moment longer, in the margin of his paper. As he reads through the list he’s written. Then he drops the pen, clattering on the table.

“Okay,” he announces.

“Done?” Jeongguk says.

“Yeah,” Taehyung says. “Here, you can read it.”

And Jeongguk takes the list - shorter than he expected, and surprisingly mundane, even though most are vague phrases offering few details - and runs his eyes slowly down the column of writing, stepping from each line to the next like the rungs of a ladder, haunted to charity to grass to saxophone.

“I think I can help with some of these,” Jeongguk says, eyes hovering over rap. “I’ve got a friend who does music, underground.”

Taehyung laughs. “You can help with all of them.

Jeongguk tries to smile, and keeps on reading. “You don’t want to travel anywhere?”

“No,” Taehyung says. “I’ve done that a lot already, actually. Back in college. I had an old bucket list, then. too. This one has the things I missed out.”

Jeongguk opens his mouth to respond, but then he reaches the last rung in the list.

His breath catches.

“Is that,” Jeongguk asks, even though the answer is penned messily - but doubtlessly - in red ink. “My name?”

“That’s the most important one,” Taehyung says. “Jeon Jeongguk. I don’t want to be alone.”

Jeongguk pauses, and breathes, and puts the list down on the table, careful not to let the corners fold. He turns to Taehyung, and tries to figure out how to package his feelings as words - the cold warmth, and the sad fondness, and the painfully coiling knot he still doesn’t have a name for. He wants to say something about how he never wants to leave, something about what he found out from Yoongi, something about the dwindling 1885, no, 1884.

But Jeongguk is bad with words, and worse with numbers, and only class he was ever really great at in high school was physical education. So he bites back whatever he was trying to say and pushes himself forward instead, kissing Taehyung full on the mouth, wrapping arms around his waist and his neck and pressing their tongues flush together and he has no idea what the fuck he is doing but it feels good; just right, and so good, and Jeongguk thinks of how funny it is that they’ve only met so recently. It feels like forever.

And when they finally break apart for air, Taehyung is looking at him with the exact same expression he’s probably got on his own face. And Jeongguk says, “Remember what I said about the crazy wild sex thing? I take that back.”

 

 

The first time Taehyung asks about soulmates, he is six, and doesn’t know what he’s asking, and both his parents shush him immediately because now is not the time, they have to visit his uncle, will he just stop moving and put on his socks, and Taehyung has to comply, even though the instruction doesn’t make any sense because sock-wearing necessitates moving, obviously.

It is only much later, on the car ride back home that night, socks still on and crammed between his grandparents with a meat bun in his hands, that Taehyung gets an answer.

“Taehyungie,” his mother says, from the passenger seat. “You wanted to know why we visited your uncle?”

“Yes,” he says quickly. This uncle lives at the far end of Busan, and smells like herbal ointment, and they don’t visit often. And when they do, it’s usually some festival or occasion or another, and everyone brings food and poker cards and has a party.

But this time was different. Very different.

“Well,” his mother pauses, like she’s trying to pick the best words. She does that, sometimes, and Taehyung can usually tell because she gets that one weird look on her face, like she’s doing a puzzle upside-down. This time he isn’t so sure, though. He’s not tall enough to see her face in the rearview mirror. “It’s because uncle invited everyone over, because, well-”

“Because what?” Taehyung interrupts. “Was it his birthday?”

“No, Taehyungie,” his mother says. “You didn’t say anything like that just now, did you?”

“No. Then why?” Taehyung says. He kicks his feet around, then knocks them together. The velcro on his shoes makes a nice sound when he knocks them like that. It’s a good tradeoff for having to wear socks.

“Because,” she says. Then, stops again. She probably gave Taehyung’s father a look, because he continues where she left off.

“Because he wanted to see everyone again,” Taehyung’s father says. “one last time before he passes away.”

Taehyung stops kicking his feet. “What?”

“He met his soulmate,” his father says. “Two days ago. And found out he has until Friday to live. Says he doesn’t want a funeral.”

It’s Wednesday.

Taehyung squeezes the meat bun, in his hands. He doesn’t really get it, but for some reason he feels less hungry. “Find out, how?”

“Remember when mom told you, you see a number on your soulmate’s hand? That’s how you know they’re the one?”

“Yeah,” says Taehyung. “She didn’t say what the number means.”

“It’s the number of days you have before you die,” says his father, plainly. “And uncle has until Friday.”

“Oh,” says Taehyung. He mulls over this. Suddenly, the day makes a lot more sense. Everyone surrounding that uncle, even though he’d always been one of the most distant relatives before. And talking, and fake-laughing, and sometimes crying, and his parents asking again and again if Taehyung has anything he wants to say to his uncle, anything at all he can think of, is he sure there’s nothing more. He thinks he should be sad, probably. “But what if you don’t have arms?”

“What?” His mother says.

“Then you can’t see the number.”

“Oh,” she almost laughs, but not in a funny way. “You’ll see it somewhere. It’ll be there.”

“Then,” says Taehyung. “How big will the number be?”

“Only your soulmate can tell you. It’ll be big, really big, if you’re lucky.”

Taehyung pauses, and squeezes the meat bun again. Thinks of the look on his uncle’s face, like every muscle in it had wilted, body caved like wax. Like nothing mattered anymore, and nothing was worth a smile, like he was sinking, bone-cold all alone, even surrounded by people.

“Am I lucky?” Taehyung says.

“Oh, darling,” his mother says.

“Let’s hope so,” his father says.

 

 

“That,” Jeongguk murmurs, into the nape of Taehyung’s still-bare neck. “Was less crazy and wild than I thought.”

Taehyung scoffs, tiredly. He rubs a thumb over Jeongguk’s wrist, across and back again on the stripe of skin where his number is. Soulmate.

“I was going easy on you. You’re, like, the most virginal virgin to have ever virgined.”

“Shut up,” Jeongguk says. “And not anymore.”

“Idiot,” Taehyung laughs. “Now you talk so big.”

Jeongguk exhales, and tightens his arm around Taehyung. “I really like you, you know that?”

Taehyung’s thumb stills, for a moment.

“Me too,” Taehyung says. “I really, really like you.”

Jeongguk smiles, and presses a kiss to the nape of Taehyung’s neck, then another, flush between his shoulder blades. Too drowsy to be shy. “Thanks for coming back.”

Taehyung’s thumb slides up to Jeongguk’s hand. Traces over the life-lines on his palm. “Why did you wait?”

“I wanted to,” Jeongguk says, because he did.

Taehyung’s thumb presses firmer on his skin.

“Hey, Jeongguk,” Taehyung says, then. Softer this time. “How are you so okay with this?”

“What?”

“I show up in your life as your soulmate, and have to die in five fucking years, and suddenly leave you for a week and come back just like this and you’re so- so okay with it,” Taehyung mumbles. “How do you do that?”

Jeongguk pauses. “I don’t know.”

“You’re the most okay person I know, so far,” Taehyung says. “With any of this.”

“Oh,” Jeongguk says. He pauses, to think. “I really don’t know. Maybe it just hasn’t hit me yet. I’ve always been a little slow with these things. I don’t know.”

Taehyung sighs, a little, and Jeongguk tries to press even closer against his back; as close as he can.

“Whatever it is,” Taehyung says. “I’m glad.”

“Glad?”

“It’s nice, that you’re okay. Makes me feel kind of, you know, a little okay too.”

Silence, for a while.

Taehyung stops following the lines on Jeongguk’s palm, but holds onto his fingers instead. Tight. Jeongguk squeezes back.

“Jeongguk,” Taehyung suddenly says, voice like he’s just remembered someone’s birthday. “We can't let this ruin us, okay? I've only got five years now, and I want to make them the best five years of my goddamn life. I want to make it work.”

Jeongguk freezes.

Then he nods, pressing in extra close to make sure Taehyung feels it. The dead-weight tightening knot in his gut starts to uncoil itself, just a little, and he almost stops thinking about what he’d sworn to Yoongi he wouldn’t do. Because Taehyung is right. The moment they let the knowledge seep into everything and grey out the colours, they have only played themselves.

Five years is a long time. It can be. Maybe. Probably.

“We’ll make it work,” Jeongguk says, and he means it.

Taehyung is right - or at least, very convincing.

 

 

The first thing they kick off the bucket list comes as an accident, eleven dates in as many days later, when Jeongguk falls asleep on the train and both of them miss their stop.

(Later, he tries to defend himself by insisting that it’s beyond human ability to stay awake on a long boring train ride, with his soulmate asleep on his shoulder, hair soft against his neck and arms tangled around his waist. Even though Taehyung then reminds him that he got the bad end of the pre-train-ride coin flip, and was supposed to be the one watching for their station, they’d agreed on it, and it was your idea to go out anyway, do we need a sign a contract next time? And Jeongguk has nothing left to say excep t shut up, you loved it anyway.)

But he does not think of that yet, when the first thing he notices - peeling open bleary eyelids, neck somehow aching on the side Taehyung is not sleeping on, train window rumbling against his skull - is that suddenly the train is much more empty, and the scenery outside both rural and unfamiliar, and the quickly approaching next-station name does not match anything in his head, and they are so fucking fucked.

“Taehyung,” Jeongguk says, shaking at his shoulder. “Taehyung, wake up.”

Taehyung makes a kind of groaning noise, and limply curls his arm tighter around Jeongguk. “Shut up, I’m asleep.”

“Stop sleeping,” Jeongguk says. “We have to get off.”

“We’re there?” Taehyung mumbles. “Already?”

Jeongguk laughs, apologetic. “Uh, actually, not really. We kind of-”

“Then why do we have to get off?” Taehyung mutters. He sounds annoyed, but only in the half-asleep kind of way. “Is it zombies? Tell them to wait five more goddamn minutes.”

“No,” Jeongguk says. “Not zombies. But we’re, sort of, like, a little bit, maybe, kind of, lost.”

Taehyung’s eyes open. “What?”

“I fell asleep too,” Jeongguk admits.

“Oh,” Taehyung says. He pushes up off Jeongguk’s shoulder, and rubs at his eyes. Stands up after only a few moments of stretching, strangely unfrazzled by this new development. “So where are we?”

“I don’t really know,” Jeongguk says, standing too, carefully lifting the bag with his camera equipment. “Not too far from that lake I wanted to bring you to, I hope, but not somewhere I’ve been before.”

Taehyung yawns, and rubs his hand through his own hair. Then, almost as an afterthought, through Jeongguk’s hair as well. He smiles. “Whatever. Let’s find out.”

Jeongguk smiles back. The train stops, and they get off, and step out into the middle of fucking nowhere.

“What the fuck?” Jeongguk says, first, two maps later. “I didn’t even know this was a station.”

Taehyung laughs. “Just how long did you sleep?”

“I don’t know,” Jeongguk mumbles. He squints at the labels on the map they found, tries to spot anything familiarly-labeled within reachable distance. It doesn’t help that his intended destination had been far off from civilisation, too. “I guess we can just take the train back the other way.”

“Or,” Taehyung says. “We could board that bus.”

“Bus?”

“Yeah,” Taehyung says, already marching over to the bus-stop at the station, arm raised in a wave at the driver. “Come on.”

Jeongguk frowns, but follows him. Up through the hissing-open doors. “You know this place?”

“Nope,” says Taehyung, as they settle in a seat. “But we came all the way here, right? Might as well explore a bit. There’s probably still cool places you can take photos at, too.”

Jeongguk considers this. “You’re right. Okay.”

“I’m always right,” Taehyung says. He laughs, and fits his hand with Jeongguk’s. His fingers are just a little too cold, as always, and Jeongguk rubs his thumb over the chilly ridges.

“Really?” Jeongguk says, smiling. “Then when should we get off?”

Taehyung hums. “I’ll let you decide that. You’re the photographer, after all. Just make sure the lighting makes me look good.”

“Then anywhere’s fine,” Jeongguk replies. “We just have to wait till it’s pitch black at night.”

Taehyung elbows him, and Jeongguk wheezes, and they both laugh because Jeongguk is a terrible liar.

The scenery in the window shifts from the sparse grey buildings around the station, to the greens and browns of summer woods. The bus seems to trail closer to the mountains, vaguely in the direction of the lake Jeongguk had been trying to get them to in the first place. He squints out the window, watches shapes move past in the sun. As a distant bus-stop moves into view, and then draws away again with no one getting off.

They alight at the next stop.

“Wonder where we are,” Taehyung says, once the bus has drawn away behind them.

“No idea,” Jeongguk says. “But the plants look good, and so does the lighting.”

Taehyung grins, raising his eyebrows. “And what about me?”

Jeongguk shrugs. “Photoshop.”

Taehyung laughs, and smacks him across the stomach, and Jeongguk feels his ears heat up almost on reflex to the sound. Then Taehyung grabs his hand - catching his wrist first before sliding down to the fingers, like he seems to do a lot - and starts walking in a direction. Purposefully, as if he knows the end in mind.

“Jeongguk, play a game with me.” He says.

“Okay,” Jeongguk replies. “What game?”

“Wow,” Taehyung says, smiling. “You’d better agree so easy only when I’m the one asking. Anyway, let’s pretend to be childhood friends.”

Jeongguk blinks. “What? So...pretend like we grew up together?”

“Yeah,” Taehyung says, looking straight ahead as they walk. “We knew each other since we were, like, three. And we know we’re soulmates. And we’re still growing up together, now. Wandering the woods all innocent. We’re too young and happy, see, to know about dying or sex or any of that. I mean, at least I didn’t know that as a kid. Unless you-”

“No, no way,” Jeongguk says. “I was a fucking oblivious brick of a kid. Really stupid. I didn’t know anything.” Still don’t. He squeezes Taehyung’s hand back, feels it warmed by his own to a comfortable temperature, perfectly tuned for holding. “Okay, then. Hyung, where the f- heck are we?”

“Don’t question it, Guk-ah. I know where we’re going,” Taehyung says, not missing a beat as they march through thinning trees. He raises his right arm, makes a vague kind of sweeping gesture at the pine trees around them. “Ladies and gentlemen, here on your right is our home-grown local quinoa field, planted in the second century by wandering nomads.”

“Nomads?” Jeongguk laughs. “Really?”

Taehyung squeezes his hand, raising his eyebrows at him. “And here on my left is all that remains of the nomad population. Oh, don’t look too long! He’s a shy boy.”

“Hey,” Jeongguk laughs. “Doesn’t that make me, like, the default nomad king?”

“No,” Taehyung states. “They were anarchists.”

Jeongguk frowns, exaggeratedly. “I don’t even get to be president?”

“Too bad,” Taehyung laughs. “Can’t revoke your nomadic anarchy heritage.”

And they walk on like that, talking nonsense, slipping in and out of their make-believes-in-make-believes; like real children, or maybe real idiots. Something about the trees, and the wind, and being completely lost and alone and sleep-blurred on the edges makes it feel like the most natural thing to do.

After a while, the thinning trees - eucalyptus, Taehyung now insists they are - give away altogether to a clearing of grass; a small hill full of weeds and mimosa. And Jeongguk feels a rippling kind of feeling in his chest.

“Hey,” he breathes. “Let’s stop.”

“Stop what?” Taehyung says. “Pretending? Or the pirates?”

“No,” Jeongguk smiles. “Walking. Let’s stop here. I think it’s a good spot.”

Taehyung pauses, and looks at the swell of grass, the sparse dandelions and chickweed underfoot. Green and green mingling. He nods.

“Okay.”

 

 

The first time Jeongguk and Taehyung really talk about the five years, to each other, it is the night of their second date, when Jeongguk decides he has to tell his family. About everything; or at least almost everything.

(Taehyung is a step ahead of him on that, too. Always ahead, with them spending a good hour in the afternoon finding spots with the best internet connection, as Taehyung made a video call to his family. Jeongguk peered into the front camera of the phone, and smiled as impressively as he could manage, as the image on the screen swung from one Kim family member another. Jeongguk tried to remember them all, and counted Taehyung’s features in their faces.)

“Um,” Jeongguk starts. “Taehyung?”

Taehyung looks over at him, away from the surreal short film he has playing on his laptop. It’s that surreal-short-film time of the night, both of them sitting in a nest of Taehyung’s blanket, pressed close and bound together by the junction of Jeongguk’s earphones’ wires. “Yeah?”

“Are you okay with it, if I tell my family about us?”

“Of course,” Taehyung says, easily. “I’m your soulmate. They should know.”

Jeongguk nods.

“Even about the five years?” He says.

Taehyung falls silent at that. On the screen, a man in a dark jacket climbs out of a river, movements quick and jerky, coming in stops-and-gos, stops-and-gos.

“Yeah,” Taehyung says. “They should know.”

Jeongguk leans toward Taehyung, until his forehead and Taehyung’s temple are just barely touching, hair flattening on skin. “Then what about my friends?” He stops. “Actually, sorry. I already told two of them. After the first day we met, you know. Sorry, I just-”

“It’s fine,” Taehyung says. “Really, it’s fine. It makes sense on that day; you must have been upset. And they’re bound to know eventually.”

Jeongguk pauses, quiet. He watches the screen, and thinks about the blank reflectiveness of Yoongi’s TV screen, and the 1883 on Taehyung’s wrist.

On the laptop screen, the man in the dark jacket stands with his back to the camera. Spreads his arms wide open and falls away, out of view.

 

 

The first shot Jeongguk takes, on the hill, is a fucking disaster.

He has the exposure set all wrong, underestimating the sunlight, after far too long of not shooting outdoors, and the wind direction changed right after he’d picked out a spot - and Taehyung ends up imperfectly-focused in the camera frame with a mess of hair half over his face, looking like a ghostly cross between mayonnaise and a light stick.

“Wow,” Taehyung says, laughing, when Jeongguk shows him the mess on the camera screen. “You really do need photoshop.”

Jeongguk laughs, doubly hard, fiddling with the buttons and tripod. “Nah, I’m ditching that shot. Can you sit down again?”

Taehyung returns to where he was earlier, and complies. Folds himself in the grass, lithe and liquid, head effortlessly tilting to dodge the wind. Jeongguk loves that about him - how he never actually looks awkward when he moves; no matter what his body does, it carries through with full confidence, in a kind of strangely fluid, almost animal-like, hypnotically graceful way. “Like this?”

“Yeah,” Jeongguk breathes. “Perfect.”

He re-checks the exposure, and adjusts the angle. Raises the shutter speed as an afterthought, and clicks again. This one comes out less terrible.

By the seventh shot, Jeongguk feels well-settled. The lens is focusing just right, and he’s shifted the tripod to a different angle, one where a clump of dandelion sits angelically bright behind the crest of Taehyung’s ear, where he’s splayed out sideways on the grass, hand propped under the sharp curve of his jaw. Jeongguk squints through the viewfinder. Perfects the focus, zooms in a fraction more, heart pounding at the piercingly serious expression Taehyung has put on. He’s got everything right. Or almost everything.

Jeongguk sticks his face out from behind the camera. “Hey, Tae.”

“Yeah?” Taehyung says back.

“You’re so damn beautiful, I think my heart stopped.”

And Taehyung laughs so hard, all warmth and bashfulness and pure caught-off-guard, and Jeongguk presses the shutter as fast as he can to catch his smile.

“Jeongguk!” Taehyung scolds.

“You look great like that,” Jeongguk protests. “Come here and see.”

Taehyung groans and half-walks-half-rolls his way over, to peer at the image on Jeongguk’s camera.

“Huh,” Taehyung says. “I do look good.”

“Told you,” Jeongguk says, laughing. “You should smile more.”

“Don’t I already smile a lot?”

“Not enough.”

“So hard to please,” Taehyung chides.

“Shut up,” Jeongguk laughs. “It was an experiment. And it worked.”

Taehyung shakes his head, lying back down sideways in the grass. Just far enough from the lens, but much nearer than before. Jeongguk can’t decide if this is sweet or just lazy. “You suck. Any more ‘experiments’ you want, Dr. Jeon?”

“Actually,” Jeongguk says, already changing the settings on his camera, repositioning the tripod for a new Taehyung-accommodating composition. He zooms out. “Yes.”

“Oh?” Taehyung says. “Seriously?”

“Yeah,” Jeongguk says. He brings his hands off the buttons, checks the focus a second time. “I want to try a long exposure shot. Can you move? Just do movement you want, for like, five seconds.”

“Any movement?” Taehyung smiles, gaze warm. “Really anything?”

“Yeah,” Jeongguk says. “Anything.”

Taehyung barely takes a second to think. “Okay.”

“Ready?”

“Yes.”

And Jeongguk counts down from three, and presses the button, and suddenly Taehyung is pushing up off the grass, into a sitting position, hand curved on graceful knee, and Jeongguk is dead stunned for a heartbeat at how phenomenal he looks in that one exact snapshot moment - eyes half-lidded and smile so sharp and hair all tangled, blond with all the roots just growing out, and-

-And then Taehyung has leaned over quick towards him, hand cupping rough around his jaw. And the tripod tips but doesn’t fall in Jeongguk’s grasp as Taehyung closes the gap between them all the way and kisses him full on the mouth, electric, pushing him down into the grass. Hard and hot, like a statement.

(The shot comes out a complete mess, and very surreal, ghosts of Taehyung mingling with a blurred backdrop, and Jeongguk later decides it is his favourite of the day.)

“What the fuck,” Jeongguk says, when Taehyung pushes up off him, smiling down.

“Did that experiment work?”

“Fuck,” Jeongguk says, stunned breathless. “Warn me next time.”

Taehyung laughs. “But why should I?”

“I just-” Jeongguk starts, but the rest of the words never make it out of his throat as Taehyung swoops down again, nipping quick at his ear, promptly ignoring Jeongguk’s instruction. Heat blooms at the contact, like a gunshot.

Jeongguk bites back the impulse to literally scream, as he feels his face burn embarrassingly red.

“Hey,” Taehyung says, pulling back with a surprisingly-gentle smile. “Can you do me a favour?”

“Yes,” Jeongguk says. Anything, he thinks. Both words come to him immediately.

“Leave your camera and lie down with me. In the grass. Promise it won’t be X-rated.”

Jeongguk blinks. “Uh, okay?”

Taehyung smiles at that, satisfied. He stands and sweeps grass off his pant legs and returns close to his earliest spot, further up on the curve of the hill. Jeongguk settles his tripod in a firm position on the slope, and then follows, lowering his back slow onto the pliant grass beside Taehyung. A patch of mimosa sits right by his hand, and he absently sweeps his fingers over the leaves, watching them curl close and darken under his touch. There are clouds in the sky above them, but not the kind that come with trouble. Soft, white, and rainless.

“Come closer,” Taehyung says, voice somehow quieter now. “Just a bit.”

Jeongguk shifts, towards Taehyung, away from the mimosa. “Like this?”

And Taehyung moves closer, too, the rest of the way until they are just apart enough for the tips of their pinkies to lightly brush, bodies perfectly aligned along the tilting swell of the hill.

The smell of grass floats around and between them, a little wet, and very fresh, and spreading with the wind combing over their hair, like a strange kind of waterless shower.

“I’ve always wanted to do this,” Taehyung says, voice still soft. “It’s on my bucket list, you know? Grass.”

“Just this?” Jeongguk says. Softly, too. Something about the situation seems to call for being quiet.

Taehyung smiles, sort of. “Yeah, just this. Just lie on grass, in this kind of meadow-y place. I think I saw it in a movie once, maybe. I’ve wanted to do this since I was a kid.”

Jeongguk tries to understand. “You mean you’ve never lain down on grass before?”

Taehyung laughs, a real laugh. Like what he just heard was really funny, except Jeongguk doesn’t get the joke.

“Of course I have.” Taehyung closes his eyes, and Jeongguk watches as an especially strong breath of wind sends tufts of dandelion seeds sweeping around Taehyung’s head, scattering in white pinpricks over his chest, weightless. “Loads of times. But I think it’s company that matters, really. It’s never felt right before, no matter who I tried with, or when I was alone. The place was fine, and so was the weather, but it was never right. Do you know what I mean? Grass didn’t feel like grass.”

“Then,” Jeongguk murmurs. He doesn’t know if he knows, but Taehyung makes his own special kind of sense, somehow. “Does it feel like grass now?”

Taehyung looks thoughtful, eyes up to the sky. “I think so. Yeah. Yeah, it does, huh, it really does.”

“Me too,” Jeongguk says, even though he barely knows what he means by saying it.

He closes his eyes, then opens them. Looks over, instead, grass tickling his cheek, and counts the tiny white dandelion wisps clinging to Taehyung's shirt like stars.

He’s up to six, when Taehyung sighs.

“When’s your birthday?”

Jeongguk blinks. “September first. Why?”

“Good,” says Taehyung. “Mine’s December thirtieth.”

“That’s late.”

“Less than a week after Christmas.”

“But why’d you ask?” Jeongguk presses, softly. Again.

“I don’t know,” Taehyung says. He pauses, for a while, like he is picking through his thoughts for the best arrangement of phrases. There’s a tuft of dandelion caught on his hair, swaying lightly but not letting go. “It just, kind of, felt like the right thing to ask. Like I’m supposed to already know this about you, or something. Does that make sense? We’re dating all out of order.”

Jeongguk laughs. “I guess. But does it matter? We’re soulmates.”

“No,” Taehyung smiles. “You’re right. It doesn’t. Not really. But I guess- I don’t want you to feel like-” He stops, then, fades into thoughtful silence.

Jeongguk looks back up at the clouds. “Do you think we’re rushing?”

“Sort of,” Taehyung admits. He laughs, too, like he’s uncomfortable. “That’s part of it, I guess. I mean, it’s kind of my fault we have a time limit. And, you know, the whole- It’s not like I like the time limit itself either. I want more time to know you. And do it right. And not have to ditch you. More time in general.”

Jeongguk thinks about Taehyung’s number, and the secret he got from Yoongi, and how slowly the cloud he’s been watching trawls it’s way across the sky. So slow, it’s nearly stagnant.

“Don’t worry about that,” Jeongguk says. “Just don’t. I like this. It doesn’t feel too fast at all. Don’t worry.”

(Too fast? No. Too brief? Maybe.)

Taehyung sighs, and Jeongguk shifts his arm, a fraction, so their pinky fingers can overlap.

“Really?” Taehyung says, a faint sharpness to his voice. “‘Don’t worry’?”

“Sorry,” Jeongguk says. “I don’t know what else to say.”

Taehyung shakes his head, in the grass. “You don’t have to say anything.”

So Jeongguk says nothing. Just inches his hand over even more, just a little bit, until he can rub a fingertip over the ridge of Taehyung’s fourth finger. As soothingly, but lightly, as he can.

“But I really think,” Jeongguk says, “we’re doing just fine.” And he just almost, just maybe, means it.

Because numbers are just numbers, in the end, and it’s hard to think about 1874 turning 1873 when he can barely get past thinking about this moment, today, tomorrow, and next week, and the Tuesday night they’d planned to go to this restaurant Seokjin told them about over the phone, and the dates they’d set apart to visit each other's’ families.

It’s hard to remember all that, when his brain can’t fit such big-but-small numbers, and everything feels like it’s moving so slow.

 

 

One week later, at night, they cross saxophone off the bucket list.

Taehyung gets Jeongguk to help him bake the neighbours apology cookies, the morning after the mess, first thing after both have pried aching bodies off Taehyung’s bed. Oatmeal and chocolate chip, following Seokjin’s recipes. There are no aprons, and in two hours Jeongguk earns five new stains on his T-shirt, and two on his mouth.

They keep a few of each flavour, and Taehyung insists the chocolate is better, even though his fingers can’t seem to stop reaching for the oatmeal.

 

 

(The next time Jeongguk asks about soulmates, it is just after a curtain of tears, in a way he never planned to.)

The clock reads seven-twenty-seven, and Taehyung’s wrist reads 1827, when Jeongguk hears the jangle of keys in the door and looks up from his laptop, to see him stepping into the apartment.

“Honey,” Taehyung calls, sing-song. “I’m home.”

“So cliché,” Jeongguk says, even though he can feel the blush already flooding his cheeks. “And this is your place, not ours.”

Taehyung clicks his tongue. “You know you like it.”

Jeongguk laughs, and shakes his head. Because he does, and they both do know it. “Welcome home.”

Taehyung smiles and kicks off his shoes. He heads over, socked feet sliding along on the floor, to ruffle a hand through Jeongguk’s hair.

“How was school?” He asks, and Jeongguk makes a face like he’s been slapped by a tennis racquet.

(Because school season has long kicked in again, turning Taehyung’s hair back to black. And filling both their schedules with a lot more of classes and grades and homework, as giver and giv-ee in the academic ecosystem. They’ve found time, though, still, even if most of it is evenings-to-nights in Taehyung’s apartment, or wandering dark streets with too much sugar in their hands on the days Jeongguk has no shift to work.)

“It’s weird when you ask that,” Jeongguk says. “That’s a parent question, not a boyfriend question.”

Taehyung laughs, settling onto the couch beside him, bag left to the floor. Already Jeongguk leans into his space, a half-step ahead of Taehyung’s arms around his shoulders. “Not my fault you’re still a student, while I’m already a teacher. Get on my level.”

“Fuck, that makes us sound so illicit,” Jeongguk says. He kicks at Taehyung’s foot, but not hard. “You’re only two years older, don’t stretch it.”

“Blame yourself for taking your Master’s. And gap years, too,” Taehyung scolds. “At this rate you’ll never graduate from studenthood.”

Jeongguk mock-sighs, and laughs, and shakes his head. “Bet you secretly want that. Is teacher-student another of your weird kinks?”

“I wonder,” says Taehyung, kissing Jeongguk on the cheek. Jeongguk blushes even harder, and smiles, and Taehyung keeps his head there on his shoulder.

They stay like that, for a while. In silence, except for Jeongguk’s stuttering bursts of typing.

“You know what day it is today?” Taehyung says suddenly.

Jeongguk stills, and frowns. “Thursday?”

Taehyung shakes his head. “Wrong. It’s September 22.”

Jeongguk freezes. The room feels, suddenly, like it’s been emptied of air. “Oh.”

“Yeah,” Taehyung says. He laughs, but it sounds a little strained. “The official five year mark.”

Jeongguk breathes. He shuts off his laptop.

“Is there anything special you want to do?” Jeongguk asks.

“Wrong again,” Taehyung says, slapping at Jeongguk’s stomach. “I hate that question.”

Jeongguk hums, and squeezes an arm around Taehyung, pushing his laptop away to the edge of the couch. A little awkward, but Taehyung seems content, hand smoothing over Jeongguk’s waist.

“Then how about,” Jeongguk says. Hopes his voice sounds lighter than it feels. “What should we eat for dinner?”

Jeongguk can feel Taehyung smile into his neck, but cannot tell if it is genuine by touch. “That’s a bit better. And let’s order in something.”

“Or,” Jeongguk offers again. “I, uh-”

“Don’t stutter in oral presentations,” Taehyung says.

“I love you.”

His voice comes out small, much smaller than he means it to. The words are new, and big, and unfamiliar, and his tongue has no confidence in sweeping them out of his mouth.

Taehyung goes shock-still on his shoulder. And the room, still, feels completely unbreathable.

“Sorry,” says Jeongguk.

“I’m going to take a shower,” says Taehyung. “Order dinner, yeah?”

And then Taehyung is pulling off his shoulder, Jeongguk’s arm around empty air. He lets it return to his side, meek, as Taehyung stands and stretches. Watches as Taehyung turns away, takes a step, then stops.

“Hey,” Taehyung says, into nothing.

Jeongguk looks up at him, eyes trained on the groove between his shoulder blades.

“What you just said,” Taehyung says, in a voice like he isn’t quite sure of what he’s saying, but needs to pretend he is. Quaver disguised as a snap. “You really mean it?”

“Yes,” says Jeongguk.

“Would you have said it now, even if I wasn’t dying?”

“I-” says Jeongguk.

Taehyung escapes the room. Jeongguk hears a door close, with no more force than usual. Distantly, he thinks he hears the water start running, too. Jeongguk takes a breath, or tries to. Lies down on the couch and looks up at the ceiling - white, in all directions - and reaches for his phone. Jeongguk wonders which restaurant to call for dinner.

(It is that evening, that it hits him. It hits him all at once.)

He doesn’t feel it at first, not really. Not as he decides to call up that noodle place Taehyung once mentioned he liked, the words rolling out on a conveyor belt to the phone receiver, Taehyung’s order leaving his teeth more easily than his own. As he hangs up, and sits up with his knees to his chest, and tries to decide what to say when Taehyung comes back.

I love you, he thinks, again. Because he does, he does love him. Really. Really? He knows he means it. Or at least, he thinks he does.

He knows Taehyung, at least, by now. Two months worth of knowing, traits filling his brain with growing lists; Taehyung’s favourites and dislikes and friends and anecdotes and habits and movements, the sounds - his voice, his laughs, the gruff tones of morning and rare featherlight ones like when Jimin told a joke that one time, that had Taehyung laughing so hard he could barely breathe, and the hums and coughs and sighs and his breathing - and Jeongguk decides that he does know Taehyung. Definitely. Two months have been a surprisingly long time for knowing.

Does he know Taehyung? Yes.

Does he mean it? Yes.

And just like that, it hits him.

That the more he knows, the more he cares, and the shorter and shorter five years feel. And it’s been happening, all along and still is, since the very first day they met in the art museum. An unstoppable steady slide into deep feeling;

Only now all of a sudden Jeongguk is facing not the side but the front, and the end is far, far, far too near in his vision.

Too near, too clear, too unbearably shakingly scorchingly final, and-

When Taehyung comes back, Jeongguk is still crying.

(He can’t calm down. He tries to, counts breaths, tells himself he - they - can manage with five years. But then thoughts flash in, sudden, and he remembers Taehyung's voice over phone, or the exact slope of his jaw, or the specific way his eyes curve and pull narrow when he laughs so hard he folds almost over, or all the points on his own body that know Taehyung's casual touch; even the strange ones like his ears and feet and under his chin.

And the fear only grows, bloats and magnifies, until Jeongguk can do nothing but cry, hard, as an explosive surge of emotion cuts the very air from his throat, tight hot liquid emotion, like a tidal wave of warmth and protectiveness and the pre-cold pain of not-yet-loss.)

He is so, irreversibly, inescapably, in love.

“Jeongguk?” Taehyung says.

“I love you,” Jeongguk chokes out.

“Is this about earlier? I didn’t-”

“No,” Jeongguk says. “I just- I love you.”

Taehyung looks confused, but sits down quick beside him. Jeongguk feels arms around his back and drops his head onto Taehyung’s shoulder, the action as natural as going home. So natural and easy and painfully used-to that he doesn’t know what he’d do when it’s no longer an option.

“Jeongguk?” Taehyung says. “Are you okay?”

Jeongguk shakes his head against Taehyung’s neck, brings his arms up to hold his waist. As tight as he can. Desperate. “Yes.”

“Idiot,” Taehyung says. “What’s going on?”

Jeongguk tries to slow his breathing; it doesn’t work. “I don’t know how to say it.”

Taehyung sighs, that worried deep sigh of his. Rubs his palms flat over Jeongguk’s back, firm but tender. “Did I hurt you?”

“No,” Jeongguk says. “It’s not your fault.”

Taehyung moves a hand to Jeongguk’s hair, fingers stroking and soothing. “Then what is it, angel? Talk to me.”

And Jeongguk tries to, desperately wants to, but words are cement in the foot of his throat. Instead, he reaches a hand out to feel for Taehyung’s, finds fingers and broad palm and wrist, the 1827 wrist.

Jeongguk kisses that wrist like a prayer.

And suddenly Taehyung seems to, just maybe, understand.

“Babe,” Taehyung says, voice low.

“Don’t die,” Jeongguk says.

“You know I can’t-”

“I mean it,” Jeongguk says. “When I say I love you. I really, really mean it.”

Taehyung freezes, for a moment. And then a strange look spills into his eyes. A soft look, astonishingly soft, and warm, and wetly painful.

He pulls Jeongguk back close against him. Kisses his hair, then his temple, then the top crest of his ear.

“I,” Taehyung says, words heavy, breath light. “I love you too.”

Jeongguk inhales sharply, trying to make sense of the words. Tries to hold on to them, calm himself down with their red, red presence. He can’t.

“Really?” He says.

“Really,” Taehyung answers. “I mean it, just like you do.”

“Then,” Jeongguk says, voice cracked. “What am I supposed to do?”

Taehyung tightens his hold. “What do you mean?”

“If I lose you,” Jeongguk says. “When I lose you. What am I supposed to do?”

And Taehyung pulls back, just enough for them to see each other, face to face, foreheads together.

“You’ll figure something out,” he says, rubbing the tears from Jeongguk’s cheeks, thumb over wet skin. But the words sound haphazard and hollow, and too, too small. Like Taehyung only chose them for lack of other things to say.

Jeongguk shakes his head. “But,” he chokes out, again. “Taehyung, I love you.”

Taehyung’s expression shifts, into an even heavier one. The old coiling feeling is back in Jeongguk’s chest, barbed and tighter than ever.

“I know,” says Taehyung, and then he kisses him. Hard, pushing his down onto the couch. And Jeongguk kisses back without thinking, and vaguely registers the cushioning against his back, the solid edge of his laptop just barely against his head, and pulls Taehyung closer. Arms wrapping over shoulders, hands then unable to stay still, roaming and touching; trying to commit every square centimetre to memory, shoulders to spine to waist to hip.

And when Taehyung’s hands slide under his shirt, thumbing over nipples, and then changing direction to go low, lower, Jeongguk unbuckles under his touch, ears still ringing with I know, I know, I know.

 

 

By the time Jeongguk feels like he can just maybe breathe again, it is the dead of night, and there is only one thought left in his head. Everything else cried out or fucked away or diffused over dinner, unable to survive the weight of the evening.

The next-step thought, the I-love-you-now-so-what - the one he’d sworn to Yoongi not to think.

But now in the dark of the room, Taehyung’s arms firm around him, space awash in the rhythm of their joint breathing - Jeongguk feels as far away as conceivably possible from the promise he made in Yoongi’s apartment, from the couch and the stray thread and his reflection staring blankly back at him in the flat black of the TV. From the knowledge, and the risk, and any shape of fear. So far, so muffled, that the thought on his tongue sounds much louder than its implications.

He shouldn’t, he thinks. He wouldn’t. But-

In the end, Jeongguk tosses the question more to the ceiling than to Taehyung, even though he can tell from the pace of his breathing that they are, both of them, awake.

“Hey,” Jeongguk says, softly. More breath than words. “Taehyung?”

“Yeah?” Comes Taehyung’s reply, so close that Jeongguk feels the answer as much as he hears it.

“Hypothetically,” Jeongguk says. “If I had a chance to change your counter, would you want that?”

Jeongguk can feel Taehyung’s shoulders tense under his palms. He presses in closer to his chest, as close as he can.

“Jeongguk,” Taehyung finally says. “You know that’s not possible.”

“I know,” lies Jeongguk. “But, just - what if. If I had a chance to, like in some kind of weird gamble. Would you want it?”

A pause.

“But what’s the price?” Taehyung says. “There’s always a price if it’s a gamble.”

Jeongguk rubs a hand between Taehyung’s shoulder blades, feeling cotton over skin, smooth under his fingers.

“Let’s say,” he says. “‘Maybe, there’s a chance my counter goes down.”

“Go down how much?”

“I don’t know,” says Jeongguk. “It’s a gamble. Let’s say it’s really just all up to luck. Probably a decade or two.”

Taehyung pauses. “Would there be a chance that you’d die?”

“Of course I’ll die eventually.”

“No,” Taehyung says. “I mean, like, die immediately. Or really soon. You know what I mean.”

Jeongguk shifts, enough to kiss Taehyung on the chest, softly. Right above where his heart should be. “I guess so, yeah. A chance. If it’s a gamble, there has to be that chance.”

Taehyung’s arms tighten around his shoulders, and Jeongguk feels a hand find its way back to his hair, like it always does.

“Then,” says Taehyung. “No. No way.”

“Really?” Jeongguk asks. “Why?”

“I wouldn’t want you to die, either, dumbass.”

Jeongguk sighs, quiet into the night. The knot in his chest neither tightens nor loosens. “Oh.”

“I mean it.”

“Okay.”

“It’s impossible, anyway.”

“I know.”

“And,” Taehyung says. “Jeongguk?”

“Yeah?”

“After everything is over,” Taehyung continues, a little more quietly. “Don’t be an idiot. Just live, okay?”

Jeongguk goes still.

“Live?”

“Right,” breathes Taehyung. “Finally right.”

But the words still sound too small, too hollow, and Jeongguk keeps on thinking for the rest of the night.

 

 

(The next morning, Jeongguk tells Taehyung about Yoongi over breakfast, and how maybe if he asks hard enough they can borrow his recording equipment for rap. Taehyung eats a lot, and says Agust D is a cool stage name, and can we go today? Jeongguk laughs at that, and Taehyung officially meets Jeongguk’s friends.

Hoseok is ecstatic, and Yoongi is pensive, and Namjoon says something both deeply fond and fondly deep. Jeongguk apologises to Taehyung, again, for already spilling on the five years, but does not tell him why he told them. Taehyung doesn’t seem to notice, and says it’s fine, seriously, and they drink together until Yoongi has to call cabs for everybody, and takes six tries before he stops keying in the number to the pizza place instead.

The day after that, while Yoongi is asleep, Jeongguk “borrows” his studio and calls Taehyung at three in the afternoon and they kick rap off the bucket list. That, and wheelie-chair sex. Which was never on the list, but they jointly feel should have deserved a spot.)

 

 

“Hey,” Taehyung says one afternoon in October, without warning. The sky beyond the window is wet with rain.

Jeongguk looks up from Taehyung’s bed, where he’s wedged himself and his laptop between two pillows of different sizes and a gifted stuffed toy fox. He’s been in the spot for half an hour, after getting a text to come over, right now, just to hear Taehyung announce that he has made no plans, actually, and has a lot of work to do at home, and I just wanted to see my boyfriend, is that really such a big deal?

“Yeah?” Jeongguk says.

Taehyung looks at him, a strangely pensive look on his face.

But only for a moment.

“Move out with me,” Taehyung says. “Like, officially.”

Jeongguk blinks. “Move out?”

“Yeah,” Taehyung says. “It’s a little cramped here, honestly. The place isn’t even under my name. I think it’s one of my distant-er cousin’s.”

Jeongguk freezes. He wonders absently if they have the money for it. Or if, even as soulmates, moving out together is a three-month-relationship kind of decision at all.

(But then again, time counts for nothing when it’s always running out.)

“Okay,” Jeongguk says, smiling brightly. “Sure.”

Taehyung nods, expression shifting to mirror Jeongguk’s. “Good. I have a place in mind.”

Jeongguk blinks. “Already?”

Taehyung laughs and heads over, plucking the larger cushion away from Jeongguk’s side. He sits down, close enough to hook their legs together, holding the pillow over his lap.

“Yes,” Taehyung says. “Actually, I already agreed to buy it.”

“What the fuck,” Jeongguk laughs now, too. He leans into Taehyung, pressing forehead against his temple, even now feeling a warm burst of thrill at the contact. Taehyung’s shampoo smells different from usual, a little more tangy. “Glad to know my decision-making agency has been righteously preserved.”

“I knew you’d say yes,” Taehyung protests. “And they cut a good deal for rent.”

Jeongguk sighs, but weightlessly. Almost a giggle in sigh form. “Fine. When do we move?”

Taehyung grins. “Is next month too soon?”

“Never too soon.”

“Okay,” Taehyung says, clapping a hand onto Jeongguk’s knee. “Let’s do it.”

 

 

When Jeongguk agreed to move out with Taehyung, he imagined a lot more of fun IKEA trips, maybe-romantic home decor decisions, possibly setting up new rules of domestic life, one-on-one.

And a lot less of his soulmate, and the damn dust, and three of his (apparently, fake) friends, turning out to secretly hate and collude against him.

“Yes,” Jeongguk argues, feebly, fighting back another itch at his nose, the combination of dust and unreasonably cold weather proving itself poison to his dignity; and sinuses. “We should put them here.”

“Uh,” starts Namjoon.

“No,” says Seokjin.

“Don’t see it,” adds Jimin.

“Won’t work,” finishes Taehyung, nodding his head like a very exasperating exclamation point.

Jeongguk stares at them in disbelief.

“How the fuck,” he says. “Can it not work? It’s a drawer, and we can put socks in it, and it’ll be a sock drawer-”

He is cut off by yet another sudden eye-watering body-seizing life-replaying Satanic dust-induced sneeze, and Taehyung has the gall to fucking laugh at his expense.

“No way in hell,” Taehyung says, half-through giggles. “Am I letting you use a whole drawer for our socks. We could put so many other things in that.”

“Then where do you expect us to put the socks?” Jeongguk replies.

Taehyung frowns. “Don’t socks just go, like, anywhere? With clothes and stuff? Under the table?”

“He has a point,” says Namjoon.

“Yeah,” says Seokjin, crossing pink sweatered arms. “You can put them in the closet. It’s not like you’d have that many, right? I’m pretty sure Taehyung hates socks.”

“Taehyung hates socks,” Jimin confirms.

“I hate socks,” Taehyung confirms again.

Jeongguk stares, horrified.

“I don’t hate socks,” he says. “I fucking wear them.”

“You can still wear them,” Jimin points out. “Without keeping them in a sock drawer.”

“I can’t believe-” Jeongguk starts, but finishes instead with another embarrassingly loud sneeze. The air might be shaking. Taehyung laughs at him, again, and Jeongguk suddenly starts wondering if the soulmate system might have maybe made a mistake. What kind of working adult human, in the twenty-first century, with the existence of footwear, could hate-

But then Taehyung is ruffling his hair, running his hand through until he finds an earlobe to play with, and already Jeongguk feels warmth spill across his face. Suddenly sock discrimination isn’t much of a problem after all.

“Fine,” he concedes, sniffling. “Have it your way. But what should we put in this drawer, then?”

Taehyung doesn’t even blink. “Sex toys.”

Jeongguk chokes on his spit, and Namjoon laughs, and Jimin laughs but higher-pitched. Seokjin sighs and says something about picking the wrong side of the argument.

“Taehyung,” Jeongguk sputters. “We don’t even have-”

“Or do we?” Taehyung interrupts.

Jimin fake-coughs, loudly. “Is this our cue to go?”

“But you haven’t even done anything yet,” says Jeongguk.

The sea of cardboard boxes and poorly-positioned furniture surrounds them, pointedly present.

“I drove,” Seokjin insists.

“I helped carry Taehyung’s microwave,” says Jimin. “And the movers did everything anyway.”

“I have a broken wrist,” Namjoon points out. “I don’t even know why you asked me to come.”

“Actually, why’d you ask any of us to come?” Seokjin asks. “I mean, I don’t mind. But you had movers.”

“I,” says Jeongguk. Then stops, unable to think of any way to defend or explain himself.

(It had been Taehyung’s idea, really, and Jeongguk never stopped to question it. Always Taehyung’s ideas, almost always beyond Jeongguk’s comprehension. Something about a good feeling, and Jimin being nice company, and a spinster growing old with no one but food as company, do you know how sad that would be.)

Jeongguk glances to Taehyung, helpless. Taehyung shrugs.

“You can go if you want,” he offers, too easily. “Or you could stay, and I can show you our collection of exciting things for that drawer. There’s so much, I don’t know if it’s big enough.”

“No fucking thank you,” says Jimin quickly. “Have fun doing - whatever.” He pauses then, gaze hanging hard on Taehyung for a heartbeat more than necessary. “But text me anytime, got it?”

“Yeah,” adds Seokjin, already gravitating towards the door. “Call us if you need any help.”

“Uh,” says Namjoon. “Bye?”

The door, still unlocked, opens and stays open and then closes behind them. Taehyung calls out his goodbyes and locks the gate.

“Hey,” says Jeongguk. “We don’t actually have-”

“No,” Taehyung says simply. He walks to the couch - bought barely second-hand, still wrapped in plastic, because they’d got the place unfurnished and Taehyung didn’t want to steal the one from the under-some-cousin’s-name apartment he used to sort of own - and lies down on top of the wapping in a small cloud of dust, wherever the fuck it even came from. “Come here.”

Jeongguk frowns, but complies. Something in Taehyung’s demeanor seems to have shifted, imperceptibly quick, or perhaps previously too well-hidden. A change to something heavier, or on the brink of it. Jeongguk can tell that much, by now.

“You okay?” He says, settling on the ground, head aligned to Taehyung’s on the sofa. He reaches an arm out, drapes it over warm stomach.

“Yeah,” Taehyung says. “Just kind of-” He stops, thinking.

Jeongguk waits, but no more words follow. Disconcerting. He shifts closer, nuzzling his forehead against Taehyung’s temple. The dust is getting in his nose again, but it is suddenly the smallest of all concerns. Taehyung turns his head at the touch, a little, just enough to kiss appreciatively at Jeongguk’s hair.

“Tae,” Jeongguk probes. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong,” Taehyung answers. He sounds truthful, in a strange kind of backwards way. “I just kind of felt like being alone.”

Jeongguk smooths his fingers over Taehyung’s stomach, then his side. “Do you want me to go?”

“Alone with you,” Taehyung corrects. He smiles, and something in his eyes is soft, so soft, so meltingly soft but inexpressibly almost-sad that Jeongguk feels a physical clench in his chest; sour.

He frowns. “Hey, I mean it. Is something wrong?”

Taehyung shakes his head, and kisses Jeongguk again. Above an eyebrow, this time. “No. Really. It’s just kind of weird, you know? That we have our own place now. It’s so not weird that it’s weird. I’m happy, though. Really. I am.”

“Are you lying?” Jeongguk asks.

“Lying down?” returns Taehyung. “Yes.”

Jeongguk sighs, exasperated. But Taehyung joking is a good sign, and Jeongguk’s chest feels less constricted hearing it, somewhat, like a bullet wound kissed better. He shifts, trying to adjust his position enough to return all the kisses he just got, because Taehyung seems like he needs them tenfold, when-

His old enemy catches up with him, and Jeongguk has to shove himself clean away from the couch, slamming stupidly hard onto the floor - just so his next violent sneeze explodes not in Taehyung’s face.

Laughter erupts from the couch, and Jeongguk pulls himself back up, offended.

“How are you so cute?” Taehyung says.

Jeongguk sneezes again, indignantly. “This is cute? Are you a sadist?”

Taehyung only laughs harder. “Come back here.”

“I’ll sneeze on you.”

“Whatever, just come.”

Jeongguk sighs, but obeys. He settles carefully, trying not to disturb the dust.

Just for Taehyung to roll his body the whole way around, stomach now flat on the couch, face still turned outward with a smile, and Jeongguk is flung into yet another mini sneezing fit.

“You-” Jeongguk starts.

“Five years,” Taehyung suddenly says, reaching an arm out to curl tight around Jeongguk’s head. “That’s plenty of time, isn’t it?”

Jeongguk freezes.

It’s dark in the hollow of Taehyung’s arm and shoulder.

“Yeah,” he lies. “I guess.”

Taehyung sighs, the sound washing, weighted, in Jeongguk’s ear. “You’re a bad actor.”

And Jeongguk says nothing, because Taehyung is right.

He moves his hand instead, slides hand to the nape of Taehyung’s neck. He likes to touch him, here. It feels familiar - the crest of each vertebra, the rich expanse of skin, the smooth warm swell just before neck opens up into shoulders.

It has only been four months, but Jeongguk’s fingers remember, and Taehyung feels like home.

“How many more days?” Taehyung says.

“1766.”

Taehyung exhales. “Will you be okay on your own, in here?”

Jeongguk stills in his movements.

Something in him wants to scream, or kiss him; just do something-anything to make Taehyung stop talking about it already, stop addressing the slow spreading shadows he’s been trying to turn his back on. As if living on normally, pretending it isn’t happening, can be enough. Just maybe possibly enough; to trick fate like a sleep schedule and push Taehyung’s counter up, up up and up until 1766 becomes 24046 and they match their breaths to the last living second.

Of course, it doesn’t work that way. Jeongguk swallows.

“I’ll try,” he admits. “I don’t know.”

Taehyung exhales, slow. “The place is under your name. But you can move out any time, if you want.”

“I know,” Jeongguk says. “I won’t.”

Taehyung’s fingers rub briefly at the curve of his ear, and Jeongguk tries not to flinch at the too-fleeting feeling.

“I wonder how it’ll happen, when my time’s up.”

Jeongguk closes his eyes, and tries to keep his voice level. “How would you want it to?”

“I don't know,” Taehyung says. “I don’t want to get sick, definitely. But I wouldn’t want, like, a freak accident either. Not too slow and not too violent. I want to say goodbye to everyone, properly, you know?” He smiles. “We can have a huge party before I die.”

And Jeongguk feels his breath leave him, has to fight tooth and hangnailed claw to draw some thread a voice from his crushed-in airless ribs.

When he finds one, it’s impossibly small, impossibly soft.

“I hope it doesn’t hurt.”

Taehyung’s fingers curl in his hair. Jeongguk feels a kiss against his forehead.

“Me too.” Taehyung says, and pauses.

Then he continues, different.

“Hey, angel,” Taehyung instructs. “Take care of my family, will you? My grandpa finally told me; he still has time left. Just a couple years longer than me.”

“Of course,” Jeongguk says - too loud, too fast, to swallow the thinness of his words.

“Maybe kids,” Taehyung adds, almost in a stupor. “If you’re up for it. We can adopt. Or, I guess, you can? I’ve always wanted kids. But I wouldn’t want to just leave them halfway.”

“Yeah,” Jeongguk says. “I think I’d like that.”

“And,” Taehyung continues. “Get a dog for us, or something. You can name him after me if you want. Or something cool, like Destructo Cypher X.”

Jeongguk laughs, thinly. “Destructo Cypher X?”

“Yeah,” Taehyung smiles. “Or, I don’t know, Princess Skullcrusher.”

Jeongguk kisses the curve of his cheekbone, lingering. “Dragon Blood SMASHATHON.”

“Ripperjack of The Night.”

“Blackfire the Second.”

“War Fucker.”

“Godzilla Calls me Daddy Too.”

(That night, they get a call from Seokjin, screaming something about Namjoon smacking him in the face, the clumsy fuck, and his sleeve rolled up, and it was right fucking there, I cannot fucking believe this shit, how in the world are we soulmates, he’s so-

And Jeongguk laughs, and Taehyung whoops fucking called it, and then cheerily tells Seokjin that if he wants a wedding he should have it before September 22, 2021.

He hangs up before Seokjin can respond.)

 

 

love - turn red to orange;

love, stay orange a long time

- please.

 

 

On the night of their first anniversary, Jeongguk and Taehyung sleep in snatches as their friends come, stay and go, then set off on bicycles to kick haunted off the bucket list.

Or, at least, that was the plan.

The plan which starts off that afternoon, as surprisingly many things do, with Kim Taehyung fucking around in Min Yoongi’s apartment.

“I still don’t understand-” Yoongi says.

“Taehyung, not that, please not-” Jeongguk interjects.

“-Why the fuck you had to have your anniversary party - which, for some reason is even a thing - in my apartment.”

Taehyung laughs, and empties an entire quarter-bottle of tomato juice into the cup centred squarely in the middle of their drinking game circle. The so-called king’s cup, or rather punishment cup, or rather amalgamation-against-humanity beer-wine-vinegar-soya-sauce-and-now-god-damned-fucking-tomato-juice death cup.

“Because,” he states, pointedly ignoring the four looks of distressed disgust aimed at him, matched to the last furrowed eyebrow. “You didn’t get us a present.”

“Fuck your petty ass,” Yoongi says.

“Who even fucking drinks tomato juice,” Jeongguk moans.

“Sorry,” laughs Hoseok.

“I hope Yoongi loses next,” Taehyung says decisively, as Jimin reshuffles the cards beside him. “That tomato juice is coming for him.”

Yoongi scowls, and opens his mouth to reply. Something scathing, no doubt - but the expected comeback never makes it past his teeth as the first notes of a Linkin Park song explode loudly from somewhere, hijacking the opening of silence.

“H-holy-” Jeongguk stammers, digging his hands through mysteriously empty pockets, while Taehyung helpfully laughs himself clean onto Jimin’s lap. “Where’s my phone?”

“Why is that still your ringtone?” Taehyung wheezes.

“Shut up, I-” Jeongguk stops, as Hoseok - also laughing, or maybe something closer in resemblance to hooting - finds the offending device half-under the couch and passes it over.

Jeongguk answers the call, frazzled. He’s barely prepared a hello, who are you? When Seokjin’s voice spills through the receiver.

“Jeongguk!” Seokjin is almost possibly screaming.

“Uh,” Jeongguk says. “Hi?”

“Finally,” comes the reply. “Oh my god, I am so glad it’s you - Taehyung won’t pick up his phone, and I never saved your number, and Namjoon could only remember the first seven digits, and we’ve called like five wrong people, and one of them was so pissed, and-”

“Wait,” Jeongguk says. “Is something wrong?”

“Yes,” Seokjin says. “We’re lost, and it’s fucking haunted here or something, and what the fuck is your address again?”

“What?” Jeongguk says. He blinks. “Haunted?”

“Yes,” Seokjin says, at the same time Namjoon’s no floats out among the background sounds. “Address?”

“Uh,” Jeongguk laughs, sheepish. “We’re actually at Yoongi’s place. Namjoon should have his address saved by now. You didn’t get the message?”

A string of swearing comes in response, so loud that Jeongguk has to tilt his phone from his ear.

“But, really,” Jeongguk cuts in, when Seokjin seems to have run out of breath. “Where are you?”

“I have no idea,” he snaps back. “Ask Namjoon’s GPS. It looks like some kind of abandoned factory.”

“Really?” Jeongguk says. He stretches out a leg, and nudges at Taehyung’s back. Switches the call to speaker mode, as Taehyung pushes off Jimin to lean over. “You found a... haunted abandoned factory?”

“Yes,” Seokjin says, above the vague sound of an engine restarting. “Hoseok would wet his pants if he was here.”

“Huh,” Jeongguk smiles, and Taehyung raises an eyebrow back. Behind him, Jimin is looking the beginnings of worried. “Can you tell Namjoon to check his GPS for me?”

 

 

In retrospect, cycling doesn’t make any sense.

It’s past late evening, and far, and an unfamiliar location, and neither of them are actually too drunk to drive.

But it adds an edge to it, Taehyung insists, and they’re maybe a bit too drunk, for driving, anyway, right? And even though he sounds perfectly sober as he says it - Jeongguk can well tell, by now - and anyone too drunk to drive should be too drunk to cycle too anyway, Jeongguk somehow finds himself, as always, convinced.

(“Besides,” as Taehyung reminds a fretting Seokjin, “it isn’t our time to die, not yet. And nothing in a fun cycling trip is actually suicidal enough to make it override of the counter.”

“Yeah,” Jeongguk adds, “we’ll be safe. I’ll take care of it.” Even though, really, he’s thinking only of how Taehyung was grinning in that nearly wild way he sometimes does, saying cycling at night is fucking epic, and there was no bone in Jeongguk’s body that could argue otherwise.

And Seokjin huffs, muttering something about how they could still get paralysed, or something, and don’t come calling for us if you get stuck in a ditch, but starts looking a little excited for them, anyway.)

So it is decided, and even Seokjin helps as they chase shop closing times - to rent bicycles and buy packed food and new batteries for their old flashlights - and set off on cycling two and a half hours to an abandoned factory barely found on a map.

It goes well, for the first two hours, or so. It goes perfect.

The air is cool, and it is dark but there are just enough street lamps to wean them off bright city lights as the buildings dwindle into grey-greenery, and Taehyung looks beautiful - sweaty and tired and with his hair a mess under the helmet, but beautiful just the same - lifting both arms off his handlebars in long stretches at a time, laughing and letting the wind blow back on his face. All grace, and fluidity, and Jeongguk going stone-cold breathless at how effortless he makes it look.

And when the last lamppost-yellows sink away under heavy blue, Taehyung clicks on his flashlight and squints as his eyes adjust to the beam. Jeongguk does just the same, laughing at how in sync they are, twin lights spilling onto empty road in the same unplanned moment. And then-

-Barely ten minutes later, the perfect moment ends in the stupidest kind of way.

Jeongguk notices it first, a sharp coldness on his knees where his shorts leave skin uncovered. Then, as he tilts his head, on his face.

“Holy fuck,” Jeongguk says. “Is it raining?”

Taehyung laughs. “Apparently, yes.”

“Should we stop?” Jeongguk says, even as he starts to slow his pedalling already.

Taehyung purses his lips, then nods. He slows down, too, dragging one foot on the asphalt. He points. “Yeah, okay. Let’s go under that tree. It’s big.”

“A tree? What if we get hit by lightning?”

“Won’t die, that’s for sure.”

“God,” Jeongguk protests. “You’re impossible.” But as he dismounts the bicycle, his feet start guiding it to the tree anyway.

“Well, not like you brought an umbrella-”

“Neither did you-”

“Because we have trees-”

“It’s not even going to work,” Jeongguk protests, guiding his (increasingly-wet) bicycle along to match his pace with Taehyung’s. “If we go back it’d be better. There are buildings. Which are waterproof, unlike trees. I mean, they kind of are, but-”

Taehyung force quits the argument by leaning over and landing a kiss on Jeongguk’s lips, brief but firm.

“It’s worth a shot,” Taehyung says, laughing at the look on Jeongguk’s face. “ We could wait it out under there.”

“Oh,” says Jeongguk.

“Why not?” pushes Taehyung.

“Why not?” Jeongguk echoes. “The leaves are pretty dense.”

And so they duck under the tree, dodging a stray low-hanging branch. Lean the bicycles against the thick trunk and settle against it.

It works. It works.

For a surprisingly long while, it actually fucking works, and Jeongguk watches in amazement as the ground just beyond their leafy umbrella darkens with drips of rain, and a perfectly tree-shaped patch of dryness surrounds them untouched; like a kind of backwards shadow, light amidst dark, raindrops somehow dodging all the gaps between the branches to keep the space beneath them unblemished. A perfect window of balance.

“Look,” Taehyung laughs, aiming his torchlight into the wall of water, raindrops catching the light as they smear into bright streaks straight down into the grass. “This looks so fucking cool.”

“Fuck,” Jeongguk says. “It does.”

“Like shooting stars,” Taehyung murmurs. “Just all the way downwards.”

Jeongguk grins. “Do we still get to make a wish?”

Taehyung opens his mouth to answer, and-

And then the window closes, and the rain gets heavier, and Jeongguk pushes aside thoughts about rain-stars as he shoves his flashlight in his mouth, arms repurposed to pulling off his jacket, as the first cold drops hit him on the head and Taehyung makes a noise as one gets him in the eye. And then Taehyung takes Jeongguk’s flashlight from his teeth, and Jeongguk has his (very un-waterproof) jacket spread up over the both of them like the world’s worst umbrella, and Taehyung is scurrying under too, hugging him tight like the world’s warmest wet person. And they stay like that, drenched by rain, laughing; pressed so close Jeongguk can’t help but wonder if every point where their bodies are touching will somehow stay dry, even as the spreading coldness tells him otherwise.

They stay like that a long time.

By the time the sky is done ruining their anniversary, it isn’t technically their anniversary anymore, and Jeongguk is just about ready to fall asleep right where they’re (by now) sitting - wet back on wet tree bark, lightning be damned.

He doesn’t even realise it when the rain stops, exactly, until suddenly Taehyung is kissing him on the damp curve of his cheekbone, hands rubbing between his shoulder and neck.

“Angel,” he thinks he hears. “It’s not raining anymore.”

Jeongguk opens his eyes. “What?”

“It’s not raining,” Taehyung repeats.

“Oh?” Jeongguk blinks, bleary. “I didn’t notice.”

Taehyung laughs, and leans in to knock their foreheads together. “You were asleep so deep, I had to close your mouth for you so the rain didn’t, like, drown you in your sleep.”

“Fuck,” Jeongguk murmurs. “Really?”

Taehyung just laughs. “Do you want to eat?”

“Is anything still edible?” Jeongguk returns, even as his hands start feeling for the wet zipper of his backpack, where the packed kimbap they’d bought should be - because Taehyung said something about how Jeongguk should be the one to carry it, in case wild animals come after the food, he’s the faster runner, and it was such a desperate excuse that Jeongguk gave in.

His fingers meet wet plastic, and he tugs out the box. Half-squashed, half-soaked, but all things considered still surprisingly well preserved. Or, maybe, only passing as that in the glow of Taehyung’s flashlight.

“Night picnic,” Taehyung announces, sing-song, as he takes a box and pries open the boxes, setting aside the worst-soaked parts of his kimbap.

Jeongguk laughs, again, because everything about eating wet kimbap under a tree in the middle of nowhere at two in the fucking morning is funny. He snaps apart the chopsticks, and shoves a piece in his mouth. “Tastes like desperation.”

“Better than you smell,” Taehyung jabs. “Don’t pick on the kimbap, it’s doing its best.”

“What, I’m ranked below rainwater rice, now?”

“Rainwater rice that’s feeding your sorry ass,” Taehyung scolds. “Be grateful.”

Jeongguk laughs, and pulls Taehyung into the grossest kiss he’s ever given, soaked through with sweat and rain and cucumber still caught in his teeth.

“I am,” he says. “I am.”

(It’s night-dark when they finally make it to the abandoned factory, and still-damp from rain, and surprisingly less scary than Jeongguk expects. Or maybe that has to do with how he never quite lets Taehyung out of the beam of his flashlight, even when he should be watching the slick floor or creaking ceiling beams instead. Always keeping on eye or hand or awkwardly hooked elbow on him, like if he stops for a moment they may both be swallowed by the night.

Taehyung does manage to scare him once, though, sneaking away in a circle to hiss sudden in his ear. Whether the scream that came after was Jeongguk’s, or a cat’s, or a child ghost, is a question he refuses to answer.)

 

 

On Jeongguk’s twenty-sixth birthday, the bucket list, apparently, expires.

When he wakes up that morning, it’s to a kiss from Taehyung, leaned over him already dressed for work. That, and a lot of shoulder-shaking and generalised-slapping, but Jeongguk likes to focus on the kiss.

“Morning, angel,” says Taehyung. “And get up already. You’re covering early shift today.”

Jeongguk squints, and grunts, and tries to remember the date, because Taehyung has to be wrong. The sky is too fucking dark for morning; being awake is an affront to nature. “Since when?”

“You said so yesterday.” Taehyung swats him on the chest, with the end of his tie. It’s the maroon patterned one, the one Jeongguk’s parents gave him on their visit two weeks ago. A son-in-law gift, they’d teasingly called it, even though everyone knew there would be no plans for marriage. “We planned to have breakfast together, at that new place nearby.”

Jeongguk blinks. “Oh yeah.”

Taehyung laughs, and kisses him again. Quick but sweet, on the corner of his mouth.

“Go brush your teeth,” Taehyung says. “You’re too gross to make out with.”

Jeongguk grins, and tries to breathe on Taehyung’s face. Taehyung dodges, sitting up, and hits him a second time with the tie.

“Disgusting,” Taehyung scolds. “And happy birthday.”

“Oh,” Jeongguk says. “Right. It’s my birthday.”

Taehyung scoffs, and tousles his hair, then slides his hand down to tease at Jeongguk’s earlobe. “Don’t act cute now, you’ve been trying to guess your present all week.”

“Fine,” Jeongguk laughs. He catches the hand at his ear with his own. Squeezes it briefly before pulling himself approximately upright, too, and finding one of many good spots for his chin on Taehyung’s shoulder. Taehyung’s shirt smells faintly like detergent and, for some reason, turpentine. “Is it some kind of…book?”

“Boring,” laughs Taehyung. “Keep trying.”

Jeongguk frowns. “Camera.”

“Nope, you have plenty.”

“Camera lens?”

“No, smartass.”

“Goldfish?”

“What the fuck? No.”

“My master’s degree.”

“Sadly, no.”

“Singing Justin Bieber electric toothbrush.”

“You fucking wish.”

“Restraining order against evil boyfriend.”

“I’d keep that for myself.”

Jeongguk laughs, and nips at Taehyung’s jaw. “Fine, I’ll be patient.”

Smiling, Taehyung ruffles his hair again. “Go wash up.”

Jeongguk yawns in response, but shucks the blanket off his legs, anyway, prying himself from the mattress reluctantly but decisively. Taehyung slaps his ass as he stands up, and Jeongguk kicks back in retaliation, laughing.

“Oh yeah,” Jeongguk says. “Should we do another one today? From your list?”

“Of course,” Taehyung says. “The last one. Jeon Jeongguk.”

Jeongguk snorts. “Come on, you know what I mean. What’s left? Paint? Or-”

Taehyung shakes his head. “Jeon Jeongguk.”

“Charity? There was charity right?”

“Jeon Jeongguk.”

“Enough, smartass,” Jeongguk says. “I’m serious.”

“So am I,” Taehyung answers. And there is something in the way he says it - casual, but earnest, looking up at Jeongguk sharp and solid and dead in the eye - that makes Jeongguk realise it is the truth.

He stares. “What do you mean?”

“I mean,” Taehyung says, voice like he’s explaining chiaroscuro to a new student for the first time. “We’re doing Jeon Jeongguk. That’s the only thing on the list, now. The only one that actually matters.”

“But,” Jeongguk says. “That’s- It- No- Wasn’t there more?”

Taehyung shrugs. “I think so, I don’t know. Whatever it was, it’s cancelled.”

“Cancelled? But,”Jeongguk struggles to comprehend. He can’t. Taehyung doesn’t make sense. “Isn’t it kind of important?”

“It was important. Not anymore. It’s been, what, over a year?” Taehyung laughs. “Many things change, baby.”

“But this,” Jeongguk says. “This shouldn’t- Wouldn’t you be-”

“It’s cancelled,” Taehyung repeats. “Gone. Expired. Obsolete.” He’s still smiling, and Jeongguk meets the expression with one of shock.

“Taehyung,” Jeongguk says.

“Brush your teeth,” Taehyung says, patting Jeongguk on the thigh. “I’ll make us eggs or something.”

And the conversation is over.

 

 

The first time Jeongguk talks to a near-stranger about soulmates, it is five days after his first meeting Taehyung; five days after watching his back fold under the blow of 1892; disappear out the cafe door, shrinking smaller and smaller and then gone.

He’d watched through that glass door until Taehyung broke into a near-run and disappeared around a corner. Felt a knot form and harden and coil tight, tight, too-tight above his stomach, strangling in a way he never thought he’d know. And he’d breathed through that knot, somehow, for five empty days alone at the art gallery before he decides to go back to the cafe.

When he slips in through the door, a part of him doesn’t expect to see any familiar faces. Another part wonders if any of the back-turned dyed-blond heads might just maybe somehow be Taehyung’s.

And as it turns out, both parts are wrong.

“Ah,” Jeongguk hears, when he’s made it halfway to an empty seat. He turns, startles, to the source of the sound.

And sees the same barista - Jimin? Jimin - as the first time he came, looking at him over a tray of used cups and saucers. Crumbed and drink-stained.

Jeongguk stares, and Jimin stares back.

“It’s you,” Jimin says.

“How’s Taehyung?” Jeongguk says.

Jimin frowns. “My shift ends in twenty minutes. Can you wait that long?”

Jeongguk blinks, and nods. He’s beginning to become a bit of an expert on waiting.

Jimin nods back, and moves away to clear the tray in his hands. Jeongguk watches, then sits down, slowly. He orders a ristretto bianco from someone else, whatever the fuck that is, and thinks about whether Taehyung would like it.

Twenty minutes passes fast.

“Hey,” Jimin says, apron off, as he sits down at the seat across the table.

“Hey,” answers Jeongguk, the cup before him emptied but still warm.

“So,” Jimin starts. “Hi.”

“How’s Taehyung?” Jeongguk says, again. The words come before he calls for them, and he almost apologises for being rude, to someone he barely knows at all, but Jimin answers too quickly for any kind of sorry to slide out.

“He’s okay,” Jimin bites at his lip. “More or less, I think. He says he is. He went back to his family home.”

“Oh,” Jeongguk says.

“Yeah,” Jimin says.

They lapse into silence, and Jeongguk stares into his cup.

“Is he coming back?” He finally says, the words stiff in the air between them.

Jimin shrugs. “I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Oh,” says Jeongguk, again.

“So,” Jimin says, tone changing. “You’re his soulmate?”

Jeongguk nods. “Yeah.”

“Do you like him?”

“Yeah,” Jeongguk says, a little too fast. “A lot.”

Jimin laughs, mostly to himself; a sort of sad brand of laughter. “Didn’t you, like, only just meet him?”

“Um,” Jeongguk says. He feels his ears reddening even before he can think of a real answer.

Jimin smiles. “It’s okay, he has that effect on people. No idea why.”

Jeongguk shakes his head, down at the table. It’s wood, more textured than he’s used to seeing, lines and arcs of brown in brown. Then he stops, as something else from their first meeting wafts up in his thoughts. What was that Jimin had said, guessing Jeongguk to be another- “Wait, people?”

“Yeah,” Jimin looks confused, in that polite nice-person kind of way.

“Like, other people?” Jeongguk asks, before he can stop himself.

Jimin laughs for real this time.

“I can see why you’re his soulmate,” he says.

“I’m just,” Jeongguk defends, even as he can feel his ears burning a probably very visible shade of red. “Um, curious.”

Jimin smiles. “Curious? Damn, you fell so fast.”

Jeongguk frowns, petulant, but Jimin only smiles harder. He looks genuinely happier, now. At Jeongguk’s expense.

“But, really,” Jeongguk ventures. “Were there other people? I mean, if it’s okay to ask. And not like I mind that, I-”

“Yeah,” Jimin says, plainly. “A few. But never serious. They all knew it wasn’t them.”

Jeongguk exhales. “Okay.”

“Don’t be jealous,” Jimin says. “Really, Taehyung’s a good person.” He pauses. “Mostly. Sort of. When it counts.”

Jeongguk laughs, still down at the table. Jimin smiles, briefly this time, and continues.

“Seriously though,” Jimin says. “He- Taehyung- Sometimes he can act like he’s really casual about things like this, but he’s wanted something serious for a long time. I’m sure of it. He’d be a good partner.”

Jeongguk nods, as an answer, even as he isn’t sure how well he’s supposed to be convinced.

“I think he’ll come back for you.”

Jeongguk nods again.

“Take good care of him, okay?” Jimin says suddenly, tone just noticeably different. He laughs, but only to himself, like he’s remembered some eclectic joke Jeongguk is an outsider to. “He’s an artist, he really needs it.”

Jeongguk freezes. Takes a solid breath. The wooden table surface blurs, a little, in his vision, and he blinks his eyes dry as quick as he can.

“Okay.”

“Promise?” Jimin says. He’s looking at the table, now, too.

Jeongguk rubs his fingers over the whorls in the wood. Age lines, a part of his mind supplies. Funny.

“Promise.”

 

 

“I wrote that bucket list,” Taehyung says much later, voice half-muffled against Jeongguk’s clavicle, as they lie in a dizzy pile on a rubber playground floor. Dizzy, because half an hour into their playground date Taehyung tricked Jeongguk onto the merry-go-round with promises of his birthday present, just to spin it is so hard Jeongguk barely had the breath to curse him six times to Jupiter for it (and back). And a pile, because Jeongguk had somehow summoned enough balance to take revenge, and then Taehyung chose the same spot to collapse boneless onto as Jeongguk did. “Because I needed it at that time.”

Jeongguk blinks, blearily, as his extremely-centrifuged-and-slightly-tipsy brain tries to make sense of the words. Mulls over them as well as he can, trying to crystallize some form of an intelligent reply.

“What?” is all he finally manages. Taehyung laughs.

“The bucket list,” Taehyung murmurs. “Remember? The one I cancelled.”

“Yeah,” Jeongguk says. “Still don’t get why.”

Taehyung kisses him, kind of half-assedly at the patch of skin closest to his mouth. Jeongguk smiles, face warming, anyway.

“When I made the list,” Taehyung says. “I needed it. Some kind of structure to the whole mess, you know? It’s like...Francis Bacon. Some of his work, anyway. Really fucked up shit, but almost scientific in the way he painted them. Like those three Lucian Freud studies, or-” He stops. “Okay, maybe not him. Actually, yes. Kind of, at least. I say so. What were we talking about again?”

Jeongguk laughs, and brings a hand to tighten over Taehyung’s back, shirt fabric pleasantly cool under Jeongguk’s palm. “You’re more drunk than I thought.”

“Shut up,” Taehyung whines. “Your fault for spinning my brains out. Bet the alcohol got mixed into my blood.”

“You started it,” Jeongguk argues. “And that can’t be how it works.” He pauses. “Is it?”

Taehyung full-out giggles, and Jeongguk thinks he might start melting into the ground. He smiles, and wills his ears to catch the sound like a lifeline, remember it note for note.

“No fucking clue,” Taehyung says, still laughing. “This is what happens when two art people turn out to be soulmates. The fuck is a science.”

Jeongguk laughs, and kisses at Taehyung’s hair. Also kind of half-assedly; too giddy for precision. “You were talking about the bucket list.”

“Right,” Taehyung says. “The one I needed. I don’t need it anymore. Most of it, anyway.”

“Don’t skip the middle of the story,” Jeongguk pushes. “I still don’t know why.”

“Does that matter?”

“Yes.”

“Fine,” Taehyung says. “I guess I, just- I thought I needed it. Like I had to do all those things, just so I’d have something to do. Like a plan, you know?”

“A plan to do what?” Jeongguk probes, rubbing his hand along Taehyung’s spine.

Taehyung hums, thinking. “To make life more, I don’t know, full? Complete? Something like that, probably.” He laughs, more loudly this time. “But I don’t need it now. I’m happy. You’re happy. Nothing is missing. You’re the only thing I’m leaving on my bucket list. Only one that matters. You get it?”

His voice is quiet towards the end, edges still muffled by Jeongguk’s skin. Almost less distinct than his usual sleep-talking. Jeongguk breathes, and holds him closer, and listens.

Taehyung continues, more slowly now. The words leave his mouth fully-formed but awkward, like he’s chewed them through over and over, but never considered how to package them as solid sound. “Nothing is missing. Just by living like this, you know? Work and school and art and coming home to see you in that stupid ugly hoodie you never fucking wash. This is fine. Great. It’s better than anything I could have imagined for any kind list. Jeon Jeongguk, that’s all I need.”

Jeongguk stills in his movements, as Taehyung’s explanation settles in his mind. He feels warm; suddenly, strangely. Tries to choose a reply big enough to hold that feeling.

“You’re right,” Jeongguk finally murmurs.

The sky has long stopped spinning, and Jeongguk closes his eyes.

“Told you,” Taehyung says. “I’m always right.”

“But I do wash my stupid ugly hoodie,” Jeongguk says.

“I love you,” Taehyung says.

(And it is only much later, when they make it back home, that Taehyung gives Jeongguk his present. It’s a painting of him - not just in appearance but in, by Taehyung’s words, spirit - barely eight inches, perfectly sized to fit in the book Taehyung delivers it sandwiched in. A poetry collection.

“So it is some kind of book,” Jeongguk argues, as his eyes hover between his own painted face and the last stanza of Ditty of First Desire. Orange-coloured, he reads. The colour of love. “I guessed that. A book was the first fucking thing I guessed today.”

“Shut up,” Taehyung insists. “It’s a painting. The book doesn’t count, it’s just the wrapping paper.”

“Cheater,” Jeongguk says. He laughs. He thinks he might be crying.)

 

 

love, turn orange to white

love, rise white with the moon -

 

 

“Hey, Tae?” Jeongguk says, quietly, one Saturday. Taehyung doesn’t notice, and Jeongguk doesn’t mind. He settles on the chair next to him, and watches. Taehyung’s wrist reads 89 , and Jeongguk does not look at it.

Taehyung is eating chocolates, scrolling through a document one of his students must have emailed him, words framed by his laptop screen. Some kind of proposal, or report, or homework. Jeongguk doesn’t really know, he’s not that interested in the document.

He’s interested in Taehyung, instead. The way he rolls each chocolate out of the packet onto the table, with just one long finger reaching into the crinkling plastic, picks it up and puts it in his mouth without taking his eyes off the screen. How he chews and blinks and swallows, and how he moves his jaw to get at the bits sticking to his teeth, and the small crease that sets in his brow when scrolls back up sometimes to read something again. It’s a little disgusting, and very cute, and entirely Taehyung. Jeongguk tries to turn his eyes into film, or calotype paper, or something like that. Collect as many negatives as he can.

“What are you doing?” Taehyung says suddenly, looking over at him.

“Nothing,” Jeongguk answers, honestly. “Just watching.”

“Watching?” Taehyung rolls out another chocolate, and lifts it to Jeongguk’s mouth. “Why?”

Jeongguk accepts it with his teeth, and answers while chewing around the stickiness. It tastes just as sweet as it is bitter. “I want to.”

Taehyung laughs. “What’s so fun about watching me read my high-schoolers’ late assignments?”

“You’re beautiful,” Jeongguk says. And I want to remember you, he doesn’t say.

“And you’re cheesy,” Taehyung says. But he laughs, again, anyway. Shifts his chair to be closer to Jeongguk’s.

Jeongguk smiles, and leans his chin onto Taehyung’s shoulder. It’s warm, and somehow smells like pine nuts, maybe from the new cologne Yoongi gave him.

“Do you think it’d be better to not know when we die?” Jeongguk says. Softly, and suddenly. Echoing Namjoon’s question from years and years ago, once hypothetical but now very much all-too-real.

Taehyung hums, finger running along the jagged edge of the chocolate packaging.

(Even now, they don’t talk about it a lot. But they don’t not talk about it, either. It’s filled out its own spot in their daily routines, shaped in extra-long hugs and blood-hot touches and, some nights, Taehyung holding Jeongguk under the covers, kissing his eyelids until the tears stop soaking through their pillows. Upsetting, yes, but no longer unfamiliar.

Like it or not, reality has set itself a place at their dining table.)

“Are you happier like this?” Taehyung asks in reply.

Jeongguk leans into the warmth of Taehyung’s neck, exhaling against the skin. “I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking you, wiseass.”

Taehyung laughs. “Fine. I don’t know either.” He moves one hand up, away from the candy to curve around Jeongguk’s jaw. Then pinch him on the cheek, teasing. “But knowing is pretty good, I think. Cute boyfriend, great thighs, eager in bed. What more can I ask for?”

Jeongguk scoffs, and butts his head against Taehyung’s neck. “Why are you always like this?”

“Shut up,” Taehyung laughs. “You love it.”

I do, Jeongguk thinks.

“Pervert,” he says. “Don’t dodge the question.”

Taehyung hums, again. It’s his thinking sound, sometimes, and Jeongguk is weak for it.

“I guess,” he finally replies. “If we didn’t know, it’d be different. I don’t know about better, just different.”

Jeongguk huffs. “That’s not an answer.”

“If you want a straightforward answer ask a straightforward question, first,” Taehyung scolds.

“Aren’t there couples who insist on not checking if they’re soulmates?” Jeongguk pushes. “Do you ever think we should have done that?”

“No,” Taehyung admits. “Honestly, I don’t know if I would have dated you seriously if I didn’t know we were.”

“I would have,” Jeongguk says. “Really.”

Taehyung laughs, and shakes his head. “Really? You’re too easy, baby. My god. I worry sometimes, how ready you are to throw your feelings at people. You’re lucky your soulmate is me, not some kind of asshole.”

“You are an asshole,” Jeongguk says, nipping at Taehyung’s jaw, where it meets his earlobe. “Just a dateable one.”

“Liar,” Taehyung accuses.

“Not,” Jeongguk shoots back. “Besides, I wouldn’t date just anyone. Only you.” He pauses. “And maybe this one guy from school, his legs are so fucking-”

“Enough,” Taehyung scolds.

“I don’t know if I’d be happy like that, though,” Jeongguk continues. “Not knowing if it was you or not you.”

“Then it’s good that we do know, right?” Taehyung says. “Seriously, don’t overthink. It doesn’t suit you. Have you been hanging around Namjoon lately, or-”

“But I kind of wish I didn’t know,” Jeongguk interrupts. “Sometimes. About soulmates at all. And you dying. And a lot of things.”

Taehyung freezes, and silence spills between them.

“Sorry,” Jeongguk murmurs.

“No,” Taehyung says. “Don’t apologise.” He runs the hand on Jeongguk’s cheek up over his ear, and slots it into his hair. More gentle than usual. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“Nothing to talk about,” Jeongguk says. “Just- you know. I don’t know.”

His head is a mess, in the one way Taehyung can’t know.

Taehyung rubs at Jeongguk’s temple. “I’m listening.”

Jeongguk sighs into the touch. Breathes, and shakes his head against Taehyung’s shoulder. “No. It wouldn’t actually be better though. If we couldn’t even be together without this whole soulmate thing. Good tradeoff.”

“But you’re not wrong,” Taehyung says. Words firm, but tone casual. “To feel that way. It would have its perks, if we just didn’t know anything about soulmates. Or the counter.” He musses up Jeongguk’s hair. “Everyone could live day by day on the edge, like they could die any moment, right? That’d be cool, too.”

“But,” Jeongguk says. “Would we really? What about that thing you said? With the shark. The physical impossibility-”

A laugh cuts off his words - that plastic one Taehyung uses on demand. Jeongguk frowns at the sound of it.

“Yeah,” Taehyung says, voice quieter now. “I guess. I don’t know. Maybe.” He pauses, and Jeongguk suddenly regrets starting the conversation in the first place.

“Hey,” Jeongguk says. “Forget what I-”

“If you only had three months left,” Taehyung cuts in. “Like me. Do you think you would do anything differently?”

And Jeongguk slides an arm around Taehyung’s stomach, holding him tight. Presses a kiss into the the hollow of his clavicle, lined up right beside the last fading mark he’d left.

“No.” Another kiss. “I wouldn’t.”

 

 

The first time Jeongguk starts thinking - really, actually re-thinking, right past the yellow warning tape before the back of his mind - about changing Taehyung’s counter, the too-small number reads 721 and the too-old thought is so honest it tastes new; even to himself.

His fevered, delirious, thought-he-just-caught-a-cold-but-now-his-boyfriend-is-about-ready-to-call-an-ambulance-if-he-gets-any-worse self.

“Hey,” Jeongguk thinks he hears, somewhere in the spinning bloating way-too-hot room. His head pounds at the sound, but it’s been long pounding anyway and Jeongguk is done giving a fuck about it. It’s the sinking dipping sliding feeling of the bed under him, now, that’s bothering him the most. Everything is moving and shifting and burning under his head, even if his eyes insist that all is perfectly still. He’s closed his eyes because of this, but the pulsing heat under his eyelids is nearly enough to make it just as unbearable. He feels a hand that isn’t his own cup at his cheek, long fingers rubbing over his ear, cool on fevered skin. “Baby, I’ll be right back, okay?”

Jeongguk groans, and as the fingers start moving away the words rearrange to make meaning in his head. He peels his eyes open to look at Taehyung.

“Don’t go,” Jeongguk rasps. His throat is sticky, and hot, and it hurts to talk.

Taehyung frowns, worry sharp in his eyes. “Just for a bit.”

“No,” Jeongguk mumbles, like his life depends on it. “Stay.”

“I’m just getting us lunch,” Taehyung says. “I’ll be really fast, promise.”

Jeongguk moves a hand as much as he can will it to, fingers curling weakly in the material of Taehyung’s t-shirt. “No.”

Taehyung leans down, and kisses him on the forehead. Then shifts the hand on Jeongguk’s cheek to cradle around his neck, in a kind of awkward hug. “I have to, angel. We can’t starve.”

Jeongguk closes his eyes. He tries to tighten his hold on Taehyung’s shirt, but his fingers are too heavy, and a little bit on fire. “No.”

“Yes,” Taehyung says. He pulls away, even as Jeongguk groans in protest. Brings his hand down to dislodge the hold Jeongguk has on his shirt. “I’ll be back before you know it, don’t be a baby.”

Jeongguk tries to argue, but the strength will not come. He lies still as Taehyung leans over and kisses him, gentle, on the forehead. And then he is gone, smiling over his shoulder as he steps through the door.

Taehyung is not back before Jeongguk knows it.

He tries to sleep, at first, to make the time pass quicker, but it’s impossible when he’s been sleeping all day, anyway, and every inch of him is in sickly discomfort. Fuck germs, Jeongguk decides. He’s going to smear anti-microbial wash on every exposed surface in the apartment, the moment he has the strength to. The thought brings him only a fraction of satisfaction, as another cough rakes through his body.

He tries to wait for Taehyung, turning slowly in the sheets. But his limbs are stiff and aching and everything is so hot, and still spinning, and just how long does it take to get lunch, again?

Too long, apparently. To be sick is to suffer.

It takes another decade, probably, before Jeongguk feels himself slowly re-entering sleep; or, rather, some form of lesser conscious state. Thoughts waft  in his head, all stray, none solid, and everything still burns but more statically now. It still does hurts, though, and Jeongguk misses Taehyung already, and how long does lunch fucking take to buy, and why haven’t doctors invented a better medicine-

Medicine. Jeongguk opens his eyes, slowly. He has fucking medicine for this.

Stopping at intervals, to fight the giddy queasiness rising in his gut, Jeongguk pushes himself into a sitting position. Or, something approximately like a sitting position, but more boneless. He reaches for the bedside table, fumbling fingers on cool wood. Something clatters to the ground, possibly Taehyung’s glasses. Sorry. But he has no energy to spare on those, as he reaches for the tiny plastic bag, tied with a fucking knot - whose fucked up idea was this, Jeongguk can barely control his fingers.

Finally, he gives up and pulls the plastic hard enough to break. Reaches in and takes the - what probably is the - bottle Taehyung had opened earlier, for his first dose of the day.

Jeongguk gets his fingers on the bottle lid. Something nags at him, some stray thought in the slurry of his mind, but the heat in his head swallows all else, turning it inaudible. He can’t remember if he’s had his dose. Doesn’t matter; he won’t die.

It’ll make him feel better, Jeongguk thinks, as he twists open the cap. He’s supposed to-

“Jeongguk,” Taehyung calls, voice like a shotgun. “Stop.”

Jeongguk stops, and slowly turns his head to where the sound seems it may be coming from. Taehyung is in his vision, suddenly, moving over so quick Jeongguk might be sick. Snatching the bottle from his hands. When did Taehyung get there? He looks upset, for some reason. Almost afraid.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Taehyung snaps. “Lie down.”

“Medicine?” Jeongguk says.

“You already took your dose.” Taehyung frowns, pushing him back down into the pillows. Roughly. Jeongguk’s head spins.

“Oh,” Jeongguk croaks. “I did?”

Taehyung frowns, harder. He leans down and kisses Jeongguk on the cheek, action gentle this time. “Yes, you fucking idiot. You did. Don’t scare me.”

“Forgot,” Jeongguk mumbles. He feels exhausted, suddenly, with Taehyung now massaging at his neck.

“It’s dangerous,” Taehyung scolds.

Jeongguk laughs. “Doesn’t matter. I can’t die.”

“Doesn’t mean you can fuck around with-”

“I can’t die, Taehyung,” he says. His eyes hurt; pounding. He doesn’t know where his words are coming from, but it feels so suddenly like he’s been waiting to spit them a long time. “I can’t fucking die.”

“But you’re not invincible, dumbass,” Taehyung scolds.

Jeongguk doesn’t hear him. “Sixty-five, no, four? Sixty-four more years.”

“Babe,” Taehyung is shifting to lie down on the mattress, now, too. Wraps an arm over Jeongguk, following the contour of Jeongguk’s blanket edge. Jeongguk leans wordlessly into the warmth. “That’s a great thing. A good long time.”

“No,” Jeongguk says.

“Yes,” Taehyung says. “Stop scaring me, angel, what are you-”

Jeongguk turns over, as much as he can will himself to, to press his head into Taehyung’s chest. His cotton t-shirt feels cool on his cheek.

“I don’t want it,” Jeongguk says. “I don’t want it. Can’t wait so long.”

“Jeongguk-” Taehyung sounds so upset, and Jeongguk suddenly hates himself. But he’s too far gone to stop being honest; the words spill and stain, beyond his control, delirious, derailed.

“Take it,” he says, quietly. “Too much time.”

“Baby, no.” Taehyung rubs his fingers in his hair.

“Please,” Jeongguk says. “Why can’t you just take it?”

Taehyung rubs circles on his back, soothing pools between his shoulder blades.

“Angel,” Taehyung says, more gently now. “We can’t change things, remember? And I would never, never want you to lose a second of the time you’re supposed to have.”

“But,” Jeongguk says. “I hate it. I hate it. Hate that you have to die. I just want to-”

“Enough,” Taehyung snaps. “You can’t change anything. And if you dare to even think about ending it early for yourself, don’t you dare. Got it?”

“But-” Jeongguk says.

“No,” Taehyung cuts him off. “Jeon Jeongguk, you are delirious. Don’t do anything crazy like that. Please.” He stops, for a moment; collects himself. “I’ll watch you from the sky when my time’s up, okay? And if you dare to fucking join me early, I swear I’ll never forgive you. I don’t know what happens then but I won’t forgive you.”

“But,” Jeongguk says. “I don’t want you to die.”

“Me too,” Taehyung says. “I don’t want you to die, too.”

“Taehyung,” Jeongguk says. No words follow. His throat is too small to fit the rest of any sentence. It burns to speak.

“And you have everyone else, remember?” Taehyung says. “Our families, and Jimin, and Seokjin, and Namjoon, and Yoongi, and Hoseok. You have to take care of them for me.”

“Can’t,” Jeongguk says.

“You have to,” Taehyung pushes. “They’ll take care of you too.”

Jeongguk shakes his head.

“I’m not ready,” Jeongguk admits. Like a confession, like an apology. “I won’t ever be ready.”

“You can be,” Taehyung says. “Five years is a long time.”

“But it’s not enough. I’m not ready.” He speaks into the blankets, and Taehyung’s shoulder, and it hurts to talk but he has to say it. “There are so many things I want to do, with you. You and only you.”

“You can still do them,” Taehyung murmurs, but the words are sharply unconvincing.

“Taehyung-” Jeongguk says.

“You can,” Taehyung pushes. “We’ve talked about this, haven’t we? You can get us a dog. Or kids. Tell them I was superman, got it? I’ll be watching you from wherever I go, so don’t go slandering me in my grave.”

“Taehyung,” Jeongguk says.

“And I,” Taehyung kisses his hair, firm. “I’m sorry I can’t grow old with you. But at least we met. I love you, you know that, right? I love you and that won’t change, even after the time runs out. So you have to take care. You have to.”

“Taehyung,” Jeongguk says, again. Softly, now. “Aren’t you scared?”

The question hangs in the air. And then Taehyung answers.

“No,” he says. “Of course not.”

Jeongguk presses closer. “But I am.”

“Angel,” Taehyung says. “Don’t be. Just live. That’s not scary.”

“It is,” Jeongguk croaks. “I want to-”

He stops, words falling flat behind his teeth.

“Jeongguk,” Taehyung says. “What is it?”

And his voice is so soft, so gentle, so warm that in that one moment Jeongguk actually considers telling him. About the secret tucked in his back pocket, all those years, the one he never thought he would use - the one he had been too scared, too promise-bound, too willing to live to really consider at all. Except now nothing is scarier than the thought of being alone.

There are soulmates who choose to end their lives together. Jeongguk’s seen it on the news. Surely, compared to that, a risk with real possible return is-

“I,” Jeongguk says. “I don’t know if I can do that, anymore.”

“What?” Taehyung’s hand stiffens in his hair.

“Live,” Jeongguk admits. “I can’t remember how I did that without you.”

Taehyung hums. “But you have to.”

“But,” Jeongguk mumbles. “Taehyung. Taehyung.”

“Darling,” Taehyung says, leaning down to kissing him on the forehead, fingers pressing in his hair. “The world is bigger than me.”

“No, it isn't,” Jeongguk says. “It isn’t.”

Taehyung sighs. “It is, dumbass. You have everyone. Don’t forget them.”

Jeongguk shakes his head. Breathes, against Taehyung’s chest. Taehyung readjusts himself, and holds him closer.

Close, closer. So close it’s so easy to forget there is a world beyond Taehyung. When he can feel Taehyung’s breathing more acutely than his own and Taehyung’s fingers are in his hair, kneading in that way only Taehyung knows how to do, and the only thing filling his vision is the expanse of Taehyung’s cotton tee shirt. When his mind is all Taehyung and his mouth is all Taehyung and everything he can touch, taste, feel, hear-see; everything that makes him remember he is real - is Taehyung. Taehyung, just and only Taehyung. The one thing, and everything.

“But no one can be you,” he says, into the sea of cotton.

And that’s it; the scariest part. In two years, Jeongguk will lose it all.

They’ve built a world to last but time won’t give them that chance, and Jeongguk will have to lose everything, and it is the most terrifying thought in the world.

“No one can be you. No one can be you.”

And Taehyung, for once, is out of words to answer.

 

 

Four September 22nds into the relationship, Jeongguk reaches home to find Taehyung crying over a dead shark.

“Sorry,” Taehyung chokes out, before Jeongguk can say anything at all. “I’m just-” Taehyung laughs, and makes a kind of sniffing sound, and Jeongguk has joined him by his desk in a heartbeat.

“What is it?” Jeongguk says, even as already he’s pulling Taehyung into a hug, fingers wrapping around his back, rubbing into the grooves along his spine the way Taehyung likes it. Taehyung tenses under the touch, then melts into it.

“Nothing,” Taehyung says. “It’s really fucking stupid.”

“Hey,” Jeongguk says. “Don’t give me that.”

“It’s nothing,” Taehyung repeats.

“Taehyung,” Jeongguk urges. “Come on. We both know you don’t cry over nothings.”

Taehyung laughs, again. Softly. “No, but, it’s really nothing. Just- It’s just this fucking shark.”

Jeongguk stills, for a second. “Uh, shark?”

“Yeah, just,” Taehyung says. “It’s so stupid, okay? Forget it.”

Jeongguk shakes his head, hard, so Taehyung can feel the movement. “No.”

Taehyung exhales. His arms rise to wrap around Jeongguk’s waist, too, and Jeongguk knows that he’s won.

“I was just,” Taehyung says. “Editing these old slides I made. For teaching the kids, you know? Fucking powerpoint. And there’s this- This goddamn expensive formaldehyde-preserved shark.”  He pulls back away from Jeongguk, just enough to swipe a thumb across the wetness under his eyes, as casual as he can, even as fresh tears continue to slip steady past his eyelids. Then he reaches over, and tilts the screen of his laptop so Jeongguk can see what he’s been looking at.

It takes Jeongguk a moment to make sense of the screen.

Words on Powerpoint slides. Something about found objects, and conceptual art. And a photograph of an honest-to-god literal shark, dead and preserved, mouth stretched open, showing rows and rows of curving teeth in a giant vitrine of, what, formaldehyde? An artwork, apparently. A conceptual artwork. And its title-

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.

“Oh,” Jeongguk says. “Oh.”

Taehyung laughs. “Stupid, right?”

“No-” Jeongguk starts.

“It is,” Taehyung cuts in, “It is fucking stupid. Everything. All I have to do is teach some kids about this goddamn fucking twelve million dollar dead shark. That’s how much it sold for, you know? Why am I crying? Why can’t I stop crying?”

“Honey,” Jeongguk pulls Taehyung closer against him, threads fingers through his hair. Taehyung stiffens, but doesn’t pull away.

“You know what this artwork is about?” Taehyung asks.

Jeongguk thinks, or tries to. “No.”

Taehyung laughs. “That’s right. That’s exactly right. I don’t know either. You can’t know it.”

“What do you mean?”

“The title,” Taehyung says. “Can’t you read the title?”

“I can read it,” Jeongguk murmurs. “But I don’t know if I get it.”

“That’s okay. That’s-” Taehyung sighs, in a strangely breath-light way. “Perfect.”

Jeongguk squeezes him. “Can’t you explain?”

“Do I have to?”

“You’re the teacher.”

“Fine.” Taehyung leans into Jeongguk’s neck. “It’s complicated, though. Can’t say if I really get it, myself.”

“I’ll try,” Jeongguk says. “We can try.”

Taehyung coughs out a short line of laughter. “But that’s the point of it, too, really. The shark, I mean. It’s about how us, living people; we can’t ever really know what dying is. It doesn’t fit in our brains. We think we do, get fucking scared shitless over it, but never really think it can happen. We paint pictures and make movies and write a million goddamn long-ass stories about it, but we still don’t know shit. Stupid, right?”

Jeongguk says nothing.

“And,” Taehyung continues. “I think it’s kind of about what life means, too. Like, if that stupid dead shark is more alive now in its auction records and art catalogues, or back when it was alive in the water. I don’t know. Something like that. I don’t know.”

“I don’t know, either,”Jeongguk says. He shifts his head until his mouth is aligned to Taehyung temple. Kisses it, again and again, until Taehyung turns around and tugs him to his mouth instead, rough and wet.

“I,” Taehyung mumbles, skin still on skin. “I don’t want to die, Jeongguk.”

Jeongguk sucks in a breath. “Taehyung, you-”

“I don’t want to die,” Taehyung repeats, almost like he’s surprised himself by saying it. “I don’t want to fucking die.”

And it’s in this moment that the thought resurfaces, rising between each syllable of I-don’t-want-to-die. The thought he thought he’d buried, but never forgot; more sharp and close than he’s ever tasted. Cutting up unto the air again and again, dorsal fin sharp and arching, rows and rows of wicked curving teeth.

Save him, it says, biting and tearing, teeth and teeth and teeth; Jeongguk is crushed. Save him. Take care of him, he’s an artist. He needs it. And Jeongguk can’t - won’t - die.

And just like that, in that split-second blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment of pure in-between, Jeongguk makes the decision. Whether he knows it or not.

 

 

In the back half of their last year, Taehyung quits his teaching job. He’s found a good replacement, he explains. And he get to focus on making his own art, just for fun. And, besides, the kids have exams after September.

 

 

Barely a minute after the shark-driven confession, Taehyung pulls away from Jeongguk.

“I’m going for a walk,” Taehyung says.

“Honey,” Jeongguk says. He latches a hand out to Taehyung’s wrist, but Taehyung dislodges it as he stands and steps away from the desk. “Listen, I-”

“I’m going for a walk,” Taehyung says, again. It’s not a question, and Jeongguk frowns.

(Don’t go, he wants to say, because have no time left, none at all. They have been living on a page that has just been flipped, and suddenly Jeongguk can see the silverfish-eaten glue where the last thin paper meets the skin of the back cover.  Even though he sees the counter go down, day by cursed day, time never feels real until it has been a year. As if every meeting of those same two numbers, 9 for the month 22 for the day, is the smallest division in the measurement of time. And a year has never felt shorter than it does right then. Don’t go.

But he doesn’t say it.)

“Come home soon,” Jeongguk answers, instead. “It’s September 22.” He pauses, drags his teeth quick over his lip. “And I love you.”

Taehyung looks at him strangely, then. With a kind of bone-deep fondness so intense it’s almost painful to see. And something else; something much more far away. “I will. Want me to buy us dinner?”

Jeongguk smiles a smile like a clip-on bow tie.

“Okay.”

 

 

In the second last month, Taehyung goes home. The number reads 61, exactly, the morning before the evening train he has a ticket to.

Not home to the apartment with Jeongguk, but home home. The one in Daegu, with Taehyung’s family and dog and the trees he swears were there since he was born. Where Jeongguk, in this final Taehyung-decided visit, is not invited.

(“Don’t,” Taehyung says, when Jeongguk asks to join him. “I’ve thought about it. Don’t.”

“Why?” Jeongguk pushes.

“I don’t want to die over there,” Taehyung explains, the admission falling frighteningly easy from his mouth. “And I need someone to come back home to, here. Is that okay?”

He laughs, and smiles, and Jeongguk has no choice but to understand.)

“You sure you’ve got everything?” Jeongguk asks. It’s hours before Taehyung actually has to set off for the train station, but Jeongguk can’t help but ask, anyway.

“No,” Taehyung sighs. “I want to pack you in too.”

Jeongguk laughs, steps up behind Taehyung and slings his arms around his waist, fitting his front against Taehyung’s back. “You’d need a bigger luggage.”

“I won’t,” Taehyung insists. “If you’d just go to the gym less. Those damn thighs make up half your body mass.”

Jeongguk laughs, and nudges aforementioned thighs against Taehyung. “No way, I worked hard for these babies. Besides, you’d miss them, honey.”

Taehyung scoffs, leaning his weight back on Jeongguk. Jeongguk jolts but doesn’t drop him.

“It’s true though,” Taehyung admits. “I’ll miss them. Daegu just doesn’t make thighs like these.”

Grinning, Jeongguk kisses his neck. Taehyung laughs and squirms under the touch; Jeongguk doesn’t drop him.

“But hey,” Jeongguk says. “Since you’re packed, what should we do now?”

Taehyung hums. “Lunch?”

“We already had early lunch.”

“Tea, then.”

“Tea?” Jeongguk blinks. “Like the drink?”

Taehyung laughs, and laughs, and reaches an arm backwards to give Jeongguk’s head a squeeze. “The meal, idiot.”

“Oh, right.”

“I love you,” Taehyung laughs. “Did you know that? Let’s do the drink instead.”

Jeongguk smiles, only half-sheepish. “Okay.”

Taehyung fake-sighs, and puts his weight back on his own feet. Jeongguk still doesn’t let go. Holds resolutely on even as Taehyung slaps at his forearms, and they end up having to make their way to the kitchen counter in an awkward kind of half-waltz, half-waddle, as Taehyung tries to walk with Jeongguk sticking behind him like a human version of full-body armour. Or maybe half-body armour; the back half.

“What is the point of this?” Taehyung whines, as he reaches an arm out to the cupboard door to get a tea bag, just for Jeongguk to match the movement with his own body, hand clasped around Taehyung’s moving wrist.

“You’re leaving for a whole month,” Jeongguk protests. “Let me live.”

“Clingy fuck,” Taehyung scolds. But his voice is soft, and the non-cupboard-bound hand moves to stroke over Jeongguk’s.

“Shut up and make the tea,” Jeongguk says.

Taehyung laughs. “And you’re helping with that, how?”

“I’m, uh,” Jeongguk fumbles. “Keeping you warm.”

Taehyung laughs, and the sound only drives Jeongguk to press himself closer, and Taehyung scoffs but doesn’t resist. Just moves, with some difficulty, to pull the cupboard door open and dig their tupperware of tea bags out.

And, somehow, they manage to make the tea.

(At least, they manage to until Jeongguk fucks up with the sugar.)

“I’m not getting out a spoon,” Taehyung is saying, as he unties the rubber band on the sugar packet - the big one, the one they use for anything that ever needs sugar in the sparse kitchen experiments between them - with Jeongguk still shadowing his arms, fingers now even persistently wrapped over his own. Cute, but in the fucking way. “So you’d better let me pour this in right.”

Jeongguk laughs. “Why don’t you just get a spoon?”

“The spoons are all the way over there,” Taehyung insists, nodding at a drawer. “And it’s hard to move with you sticking to me.”

“But-”

“Shush,” Taehyung scolds, as he lifts the sugar packet, cut-open hole aimed carefully for the tea mug. “Genius at work.”

Jeongguk laughs, and watches, and waits for Taehyung to start tilt the packet, before swiping his tongue out over Taehyung’s earlobe.

Taehyung jolts, and Jeongguk’s tongue slips into the inside of his ear, and all hell breaks loose as Taehyung starts yelling and hitting Jeongguk and Jeongguk has to let go because he’s laughing so hard he can barely stand, and the place dissolves into a mess of screaming and flailing and angry threats to Jeongguk’s future sex life. And only three rounds of arm-punches, two streams of violent cursing and one long kiss of apology later do they remember the tea.

“Holy fucking-” Taehyung starts, as he pulls back from Jeongguk to look at the disaster on the counter.

Jeongguk has no words to offer. Only a sharp intake of breath.

He can’t tell if the mess looks more like a snowy landscape that resembles sugar, or sugar that resembles the fucking Alps. So much sugar the tea looks barely like a drink any more, more of a hideous cross between a solid and slime, liquid only as an afterthought. So much sugar the grey kitchen counter is turned white in patches, and the floor, too, and brown spots everywhere where tea has been spilled. Ready for the hall of fame of hells-to-clean-up, and probably going to attract ants for generations to come.

Taehyung starts laughing. He reaches for the milk, as Jeongguk tries to salvage and re-tie what remains of the sugar packet.

“Milk solves everything,” Taehyung announces, tipping some into the disgusting slurry within the cup.

Jeongguk stares. “It’s not solving that.”

“Milk solves everything,” Taehyung insists. “Besides, you’re the one drinking this.”

“When did I fucking say I would-” Jeongguk says.

“I’m saying it,” Taehyung interrupts, stirring at the suffering-in-the-cup.

“No fucking way,” Jeongguk protests. “This is, like, a crime against human health.”

“You’re still going to live to ninety,” Taehyung reminds, laughing.

“And I want to live outside of a hospital, thank you.”

Taehyung laughs, harder. “I’m going to check if I packed everything. Can you clean up?”

“You’re mean,” Jeongguk frowns, even as his hands start searching for a wash-cloth already.

Taehyung smiles. He swipes some sugar up on his finger tip, sweeps it onto his lips. Leans over to give Jeongguk a quick sweet confectionary kiss. “Love you too, angel.”

 

 

The first time Jeongguk cries, actually full-out cries, about Taehyung’s counter to somebody other than themselves, it is two days after Taehyung has left for Daegu, when Taehyung sends Jeongguk a fucking endearing photo of himself hugging his dog and suddenly Jeongguk’s paper castle is burning, again, and the only thing Jeongguk can bring himself to do is make a video call to Yoongi.

“Jeongguk,” Yoongi greets.

“I need to talk to you,” Jeongguk says.

“What’s up?”

“I’m,” Jeongguk says. “I’m going to throw up.” And then he starts crying, and stumbles to the bathroom, and drops his phone face-down on the tiles and throws up.

Yoongi waits.

“What’s wrong?” Yoongi asks, when Jeongguk turns back to the phone screen. Eyes worried, but tone casual, like it’s just every day that his childhood friend video calls him while shaking and crying and hurling his guts.

And Jeongguk wants to find the words to express why he’s crying, as if spitting it out in sound will make the writhing caustic coil in his chest sheath its fangs. But he cannot find words; he owns none of them.

He shakes his head.

“Hey,” Yoongi frowns. “I’ll call Taehyung, okay? I-”

“No,” Jeongguk says. “No. Please. Don’t.”

“Jeongguk,” Yoongi says.

“He’s with his family,” Jeongguk mumbles. “Don’t call him. I need to talk to you.”

“I’m here.”

“I want to do it, Yoongi,” Jeongguk says. “I want to save him.”

Yoongi looks confused, for a moment. Then his eyes widen.

“Fuck no,” Yoongi says. “Jeongguk, are you-”

“It can’t be him, Yoongi.” Jeongguk says. Because it can’t be, it can’t.

“Stop, Jeongguk,” Yoongi looks worried, now. His voice comes through the phone faster than usual. A little thick, a little muffled. Jeongguk has him on speaker and speaker is always hard to hear. “Don’t fucking do it. We’ve been fucking over this. You’re not some special snowflake, you’re not going to be a hero. This shit doesn’t fucking work. Nothing good can come out of it, and if you die you're just gone. It’s fucking over. Don’t fuck around with this, for the love of god, just-”

“I know that, Yoongi,” Jeongguk says. He tries to keep his voice passably flat. “I know, but - I’m not going to die, okay? Why do you keep saying that? I have time. Way too much. It's a risk I can afford. I’ve thought about this, I know.”

“No, it’s not a fucking risk anyone can afford. You-”

“Just a couple decades, right? Maybe? That’s how it usually goes, isn’t it? I can-”

“There’s no fucking usually with this, usually you don’t fucking play with your-”

“Look, Yoongi. I know.” Jeongguk takes a breath, or tries to. Does he know? Can he? He thinks of the shark. But only for a heartbeat. “It’s just - it can't be him. Yoongi, It can't be him. He’s- He’s so special, you have no fucking idea. He's an artist. I need to take care of him. He just- it can't be him, Yoongi, it can't be Taehyung.”

“Jeonggu-”

He hangs up.

(Later, Jeongguk gets out all the pills he can find. Sleeping pills, anti-depressants, fever medication, everything, even the health supplements he knows would never work. He lines the bottles up on the kitchen counter, military-style. And thinks. He picks up one bottle, and mixes other pills in. Almost like a ritual. Open, take, drop; anything but the supplements. He fills the bottle. Opens it, then closes, then opens again.

He spends the next thirty minutes standing there at the counter, rolling the bottle cap around in his hands. Watching the row of bottles watch him back from the counter. He realises he doesn’t know what half the pills even really are.

He closes the bottle.

Taehyung is coming home, he’ll tell himself. And then tell Yoongi the same, when he shows up slamming on the door.

Taehyung is coming home. Jeongguk can’t die, but Taehyung is coming home.)

 

 

When Jeongguk has cleaned up every grain of sugar he can find around and beside and under the disaster tea cup, he sets it back down on the counter and heads into their room to find Taehyung un packing.

“What the fuck,” Jeongguk says as he steps into the doorway, and Taehyung snaps his head around, freezing in the middle of wrenching a sweater out of his luggage. Apparently not the first, if the semicircle of no-longer-in-luggage sweaters surrounding him is any evidence.

“Hi,” Taehyung says.

“What are you doing?” Jeongguk says.

“Re-packing,” Taehyung states. “I took the wrong clothes.”

“Those are the right clothes,” Jeongguk says.

“Nope,” Taehyung says, pulling free the sweater he was tugging at, tossing it flippantly over his shoulder to join the rest. “These are mine.”

Jeongguk blinks, slowly. “What?”

Taehyung looks at Jeongguk like he’s missing out on the clearest logic in the world. But also fondly; always so fondly. “I’m taking yours. Get it yet, baby?”

“Oh,” Jeongguk says. “Oh.”

“Oh,” Taehyung echoes.

Jeongguk steps into the room, and starts rummaging through his clothes until his fingers find fabric they remember. He pulls out a sweater - soft grey and knitted - and balls it up and throws it to Taehyung, there on the floor. “Take this one, it’s warm.”

“Okay,” Taehyung says. He catches it.

“And this one,” Jeongguk tosses over another. “It’s soft.”

“Okay.”

“And this one,” Jeongguk grins. Throws it over extra hard. “It’s my stupid ugly hoodie I never fucking wash.”

Taehyung laughs, and catches it against his chest, “Perfect. I’ll wear it every day.”

“You know what,” Jeongguk says. He grabs at the bottom rim of the cotton t-shirt he’s wearing, and pulls it up over his head. “Take this too.”

Taehyung whistles, and catches it right before it lands across his face. “What if there’s sugar on it?”

“Even better,” Jeongguk says, as he starts looking for a new shirt to wear. One of Taehyung’s. He picks up a pullover, way too big for both of them, just the size Taehyung likes to buy. “Can I wear this?”

“No,” Taehyung says. “Wear this one.”

Jeongguk turns to look, and Taehyung pulls the shirt he’s wearing off over his head. He throws it over, and Jeongguk smiles as he catches it. Then freezes.

“Hey,” Jeongguk says. “Wasn’t this mine?”

Taehyung laughs, hard enough to fall over on the floorboards, a halo of clothes surrounding him. “Took you long enough to notice.”

“Thief,” Jeongguk accuses, but pulls on the shirt anyway. It smells like Taehyung; he can’t pinpoint what scent makes him think it does, but it does.

“Should I take your socks, too?” Taehyung says. “Even though I hate them.”

“Yes,” Jeongguk says. “It’s winter.”

Taehyung sighs dramatically, and pulls a too-small bundle of socks out of his luggage, tossing them to scatter about on the ground. “Pick out some comfortable ones.”

“They’re all comfortable,” Jeongguk says, as he pulls open the sock drawer he had - with much difficulty - eventually established. “I only buy comfortable socks.”

Taehyung whines, and Jeongguk laughs, and grabs a stack of socks from the drawer at random to throw all over Taehyung. Taehyung hisses, exaggerated, like he’s been poisoned.

“I’ll get you more shirts,” Jeongguk says, turning back to the cupboard. He starts stacking clothes over his elbow, barely needing to choose. Taehyung looks good in all of his clothes. “How many do you need?”

A strange high-pitched voice answers. “As many as you can find. I want to build a nest.”

Jeongguk whips back around, laughing. “What’s with the voice, I- oh my god.”

Taehyung grins, and the socks - sock puppets, now, apparently - on both of his hands do little bows of appreciation.

Jeongguk laughs. Grabbing a few more of his sweaters, he heads over to drop them beside Taehyung. Then fits himself in right by the pile, to drape around Taehyung’s torso. Squeezes him tight, as a kind of warmth spreads hard in his chest. Hard, and pressurized. The kind of warmth you only really get seeing the love of your life smiling up from the floor, hair a mess, hands swallowed by sock puppets.

“If you hold me like this I won’t be able to pack,” Taehyung says. But he squeezes Jeongguk back, socked hands rubbing around his waist.

“Then don’t,” Jeongguk says. “Stay.”

Taehyung exhales, smiling. “You know I can’t do that.”

“I know. But I wish I could come with you.” Jeongguk breathes the admission into the crossroad of Taehyung’s shoulder and neck, warm breath on warm skin, and they both know he’s not just talking about Daegu. “I’m going to miss you so much.”

Taehyung goes quiet, for a breath, and Jeongguk feels hands - no, sock puppets - curling tight at his waist.

“We still have time, you know,” Taehyung says, even though Jeongguk knows they don’t. 61 is not enough time. Never enough time. Jeongguk presses his cheek against Taehyung’s neck. Then pulls back a little to catch Taehyung’s face in his vision.

Jeongguk looks as hard as he can, like he always does, always has, because it is almost the only thing he can ever do, and Taehyung always looks so beautiful.

“I’m still going to miss you,” Jeongguk says.

‘We have time,” says Taehyung, again. “I’ll be back soon, okay?” He smiles, honey warm. “Just in time for your birthday.”

Then he leans in, and kisses Jeongguk, and Jeongguk kisses back. Tastes the lie straight off his lips, sweet, sharp and belatedly bitter.

Jeongguk doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t want to be the honest one.

That night, Jeongguk remembers the tea he ruined, still untouched on the counter. He looks into the cup. The milky surface is flat, but dotted with a few ants drowned in pursuit of sugar. Jeongguk takes a picture, sends it to Daegu, and drinks it anyway.

 

 

In the end, it’s when there are 22 days left that Jeongguk actually does it. 22 by a fraction, minutes past 10.47pm. Twenty-two ounces of whisky, and twenty-two pills, unfittingly light in his hand. Twenty-two for twenty-two days, for twenty-second September.

He thinks of Taehyung, the way his voice sounds deeper in the mornings, the way he talks in his sleep. The special way he smiles, more sideways than upwards; so damn beautiful that Jeongguk sometimes thinks it may just be the only right way to smile, and everyone else is doing it wrong.

He thinks of Taehyung, and of his own counter. 22302, he thinks it is, give or take a day. Enough, more than enough. He won’t die. It’s not that easy. He won’t. And if he does, in case he does, he’s written letters, for everyone that mattered. He’s prepared, like he’s always wanted to. Ready.

Jeongguk cups the pills in a palm for a while, as well as he can hold all of them. He thinks about it, one last time.

But only for a moment.

(Hey, hyung, Yoongi reads, later, when Jeongguk sends the message he’d drafted but never sent, right until he could hold out no longer. Sorry, I did it anyway. Don’t tell Taehyung. I’m at home. Come make sure I don’t die?)

 

 

Jeongguk doesn’t die.

To his surprise, it isn’t Hoseok who spills what happened to Taehyung, but Namjoon. Jeongguk finds out when - three hour into waking up and thanking his lucky stars for not being paralyzed, or poisoned, or in a morgue - Seokjin appears by his bedside, right after Yoongi and Hoseok leave to help with his hospital discharge papers, and slaps him hard in the face.

“What the fuck,” says Jeongguk.

“That’s for Taehyung,” says Seokjin. “This is for me.”

He slaps him again.

“I’d hit you for Namjoon and Jimin, too,” he snaps. “But I’m not here to be thrown out of the hospital.”

“Seokjin,” Jeongguk says. “How did- I wasn’t-”

“Shut up,” Seokjin says. “And take my fucking phone. Taehyung’s been asking after you for hours now, since Namjoon told him what you fucking did, you goddamn selfish asshole.”

Jeongguk blinks. Seokjin takes his phone from his pocket and unlocks it to a homescreen image of a half-squashed cake, one icing-stained elbow blurrily visible in the background.

“Sorry,” Jeongguk says. He takes the phone, and keys in Taehyung’s number, fingers numbly stumbling.

Seokjin sighs, and sits down. “I’m glad you’re okay.”

“Sorry,” says Jeongguk, again. He presses the call button, and listens to the dial tone, and then Taehyung’s voice rings through almost as soon as the call connects.

“Are you there with him yet?” He sounds shaky, heartbreakingly shaky. “Is he okay?”

The strangest flood of feeling floods Jeongguk’s lungs, filling and suffocating at the same time. He tightens his grip on the phone, feeling heat already pricking behind his eyes.

He swallows. “Honey.”

On the other end, Taehyung takes an audibly sharp breath. Sharp, wet, knife-edge on slick wire.

“Jeongguk? Jeongguk? Is that you?”

“Yeah,” Jeongguk says. “It’s me, Tae. I’m okay.”

“Jeon Jeongguk, holy fuck. You’re okay. Baby, you- I swear to fucking god, why would you-”

“It was an accident,” Jeongguk says, as soothingly as he can manage.

“Don’t lie to me, you-”

“Really,” he cuts in. “Promise. I wasn’t trying to die, or anything. I wouldn’t do that. I wouldn’t do that to you.”

“Angel,” Taehyung says again. He sounds like he’s crying, and Jeongguk feels a snapping tautness in his chest. “Seriously? Stop fucking with me. I’m not-”

“Seriously,” Jeongguk says. “I love you. And I miss you. You’re coming home later, right?”

A beat of silence.

“How the fuck do you expect me to believe you’d do something like that by accident?”

Jeongguk sighs. “I was drunk. Wasn’t thinking. Just took the wrong pill bottle, you know how we have so many lying around. I told Yoongi as soon as I noticed.”

The line is silent, for a while.

“Fucking hell,” Taehyung finally says, but his voice is slightly more even now. Hard edge wavering. “I can’t believe you. What the fuck. Are you really okay?”

“Yes,” Jeongguk says. “Really.”

“That’s what really happened?”

“Yes, promise.”

“I was so worried.”

“I’m fine.”

“Do you have any fucking idea how scared I was?”

“Sorry.”

“I love you.”

“I love you too.”

Taehyung sighs. “It was really an accident?”

“Yeah,” Jeongguk replies. “Just bad luck. I’ll be more careful next time.”

“God,” Taehyung says. “I really can’t believe you. Are you an idiot?”

“Yes,” Jeongguk says. “Yes. I’m sorry.”

 

 

The next morning, Taehyung steps onto the train platform and runs straight into Jeongguk’s arms. He only trips once in the shoes he didn’t fucking put on the right way, the bags in his arms knocking onto Jeongguk’s back.

“I fucking hate your guts,” Taehyung says, into the groove of Jeongguk’s neck. “You’re so goddamn stupid.”

“I missed you too,” Jeongguk says.

“Angel,” Taehyung says. “Idiot angel.”

Jeongguk laughs, and squeezes Taehyung a heartbeat longer, then pries himself away. He looks at him, eyes soaking up the face he’s seen only in video calls for a month, the dark eyes and high cheekbones and messy slept-on-the-train hair.

“What?” Taehyung says, and Jeongguk realises he’s been staring.

“Nothing,” he says. “Just seeing if you’ve changed.”

“In a month?” Taehyung laughs. “And you called me, like, every day.”

Trying not to look too nervous, too eager, Jeongguk pushes out a laugh. He looks Taehyung up and down, eyes climbing the contours of his face, hopping from mole to mole on his skin, swinging from each wrinkle in his hoodie - that same stupid ugly one, the one Taehyung insists Jeongguk doesn’t wash. He breathes it all in; liquid oxygen.

And then, only then, does he reach for Taehyung’s wrist. Creeps his fingers to the fold of fabric brushing soft over Taehyung’s knuckles. Gingerly tugs it up, as casual as possible, like he’s doing something perfectly routine. Just checking for the 22 he knows is supposed to be there. He pulls up the sleeve-

And Jeongguk loses his breath all over again.

“Oh,” is all he can manage to say. “Taehyung. You- oh.”

Taehyung is looking between Jeongguk and his own wrist, now, eyes filling quick with confusion. “What? Angel, what’s up?”

“You,” Jeongguk says. “You’re not- the number-”

He can barely get the words out; his throat feels strangely tight. Only when Taehyung’s fingers are brushing under his eyes does Jeongguk realise he’s started crying.

“Baby,” Taehyung says. “What is it? Are you okay?”

“Yes,” Jeongguk says.

“What?” Taehyung says.

“You’re not dying anymore,” Jeongguk finally manages. The words teeter out stumbling from his mouth; he barely dares to say them. As if telling the news might make it stop being real, and the five - five - beautiful digits on Taehyung wrist might peel off into one.

Of course, that doesn’t happen. The digits stay solid and stark, no matter how many times Jeongguk blinks and looks again. Jeongguk cries harder, and Taehyung doesn’t seem to understand.

“What do you mean?” Taehyung is saying. “Why wouldn’t I be dying?”

“Your number,” Jeongguk chokes out. “It’s changed.”

“Jeongguk,” Taehyung says. “Hey, don’t lie to me.”

“I’m not,” Jeongguk says. “I’m not. I would never. It’s right here, right fucking here. 24459. 24459. That's fucking insane, you- you’re- you’re not dying anymore. Not for a long time.”

Taehyung stares. He says nothing, for a while, even as Jeongguk grabs his wrist and kisses him right on the 24459 , again and again before he buries his face in Taehyung’s shoulder, shaking and wet.

“For real?” Taehyung finally asks.

“For real,” Jeongguk says. “I swear on my life, on your life. This is fucking for real.”

“You’re serious,” Taehyung murmurs.

“Of course,” Jeongguk says.

Taehyung doesn’t say anything, but Jeongguk feels his arms come around him, tight. Then the tears. Then the laughter - real, warm, and shy-slippery in relief. Jeongguk smiles.

They stay like that for a while. A perfect, perfect while.

And then Taehyung pulls back, suddenly. “What about yours?”

Jeongguk blinks, and feels a weight drop cold in his throat. He swallows around it. Hopes Taehyung is too joy-blinded to see right through him. “Mine?”

“Yeah,” Taehyung says, still smiling. “We’re soulmates. However it happened, yours might have changed, too.”

“Oh,” Jeongguk looks down at his wrist. He can’t look Taehyung in the eye; he’s too bad of an actor. “Maybe.”

“Let me see?” Taehyung says. Already his fingers are curling over Jeongguk’s wrist where it sits on his waist. Jeongguk’s hands feel cold, all of a sudden.

A few decades, he reminds himself. A few decades can be explained away. And it’s him, not Taehyung. It’s not Taehyung, so-

Taehyung’s eyes have shot wide open. Jeongguk tries to prepare words to say.

“Did it change?” He manages. Mechanically.

Taehyung is shaking his head, but not in the good way. His hands, too. Shaking everywhere. “No, god, fuck. How? Jeongguk. Jeongguk, no. This-”

Jeongguk can see him blinking hard, the way he was just doing himself. Rubbing at his eyes and swiping fruitlessly at mounting tears and suddenly Jeongguk has a terrible feeling about how his story might end.

“It changed?” Jeongguk says.

“Why?” Taehyung says. It’s not an answer.

“Taehyung,” Jeongguk probes. “What is it?”

(The Physical Impossibility, Jeongguk remembers, of Death in the mind of someone living. The number is there, on his wrist, and Taehyung is crying, and it’s beginning to hit him, that this is actually happening, really actually not-a-dream happening. And it’s beginning to be terrifying, except-

Except he’s prepared, like his parents always warned him to. He knew something would happen, and anything could happen, when he took those pills. Or at least, he thought he did.)

“What is it?” Jeongguk repeats. “Honey, tell me.”

Taehyung shakes his head. His hands are cold, ice cold, bone cold. “One.”

Jeongguk stiffens. “One?”

“One day,” Taehyung says. Impossibly soft. He doesn’t look at Jeongguk. His eyes are wet. His hands are cold. “One day.”

 

 

Taehyung cries the whole cab ride back to their apartment. The quiet kind of crying, barely audible but always there. Background noise to the small talk they somehow manage to make, voices soft and low, perfectly sized for the tiny bare space between them. Jeongguk asks about Daegu, and Taehyung tells him about the food, and the weather, and punctuates every sentence with an I love you, so much. Jeongguk smiles, and says little. He doesn’t quite trust his voice.

It’s only when they step through the door of the apartment that Taehyung really breaks down. He drops his bags on the ground just inside the door, and turns and looks again at Jeongguk’s wrist.

And then suddenly they are on the bed, and Taehyung is lying on top of Jeongguk, and crying, crying like he’s lost hold of anything else he can do.

Somehow, Jeongguk manages to smile.

(He feels hollow, not heavy. It doesn’t hurt. He doesn’t quite understand.)

“Honey,” Jeongguk murmurs. “That’s enough. Don’t cry.”

“How the fuck,” Taehyung says. “Do you expect me to do that? When you- you-”

“Hey.” Jeongguk kisses him, on the ear. “You’ll be fine. I love you. It’ll be fine.”

“Of course I’ll be fine,” Taehyung snaps. Or whimpers. Something heartbreakingly in between. “But you won’t. You won’t be fucking fine. And I don’t- I can’t- This was never supposed to happen. Baby, this can’t happen. Why is this happening?”

Taehyung pushes up off him. Looks down at Jeongguk so hard, so close, so desperate that Jeongguk almost cannot hold his gaze.

“Taehyung,” Jeongguk says again. “Honey. Listen. It’ll be fine. Just live, remember? You always told me that.”

“No,” Taehyung says. “No, I- It’s different. You had time. We had time. We had five whole years to get ready but it was always fucking about me , and now- oh, baby. Is there anything you want to do?”

Jeongguk smiles, again. He doesn’t know how he does it but it comes easy, much easier than he expects. Like the only parts of him that actually realise he’s going to be dead before the day is over have all shut down, dropping like ballast and leaving him light.

“Just this,” Jeongguk says. “Just staying like this, with you. That’s all.” He pauses. Thinks, and swallows. “Don’t tell my family, okay? Not until tomorrow.”

Taehyung shakes his head, then nods instead, almost as an afterthought. “Baby, are you sure? Your family-”

“I’m sure,” Jeongguk says.

“Okay,” Taehyung murmurs.

(He’s still looking at Jeongguk, fingers tracing his jaw. He can’t seem to look away. Jeongguk lets him, and smiles like Taehyung is a camera; he knows this feeling well.)

“Jeongguk,” Taehyung says. “I don’t know what I want to say.”

Jeongguk leans up and kisses him. “It’s okay. You can tell me tomorrow. And after that, too. I’ll listen, somehow.”

Taehyung cries harder.

“How are you so okay with this?” He says - the negative of a question so long ago asked. Inverted. “You’re not supposed to be so okay with this.”

Jeongguk shrugs. “Told you, I’m slow with these things.”

Taehyung kisses him, again and again. Slips out words that flit in between the motions.

“It’s your birthday,” Taehyung says, mouth still brushing Jeongguk’s skin. “It’s supposed to be your fucking birthday. Jeon Jeongguk, what am I going to do? It’s your birthday.”

Jeongguk rubs his hands over Taehyung’s back, gentle. “Doesn’t matter.”

“I wanted to bring you somewhere,” Taehyung murmurs. “I wanted to bring you somewhere tomorrow, too. I- We- There was supposed to be more fucking time. What am I going to do?”

Jeongguk leans their foreheads together. “Smile for me.”

“What?”

“Don’t like seeing you cry,” Jeongguk says. “Smile, honey. Like I’m your camera.”

Taehyung chokes out a bitter-tight laugh, and shuts his eyes. Opens them again. He smiles, still crying.

“Beautiful,” Jeongguk says. “So damn fucking beautiful.”

Taehyung can’t hold onto his smile. “Fucking hell, Jeon Jeongguk. I don’t want to lose you.”

“You won’t,” Jeongguk says. “I’ll always watch over you. Or, I don’t know. Something like that.”

“That’s not enough,” Taehyung says. “You fucking know it’s not enough.”

And Jeongguk does know; or thinks he does. He knows Taehyung isn’t prepared, never had a reason to be. Taehyung doesn’t have photos to keep or mementos organised or all the words he wants to say chosen and laid out ready for Jeongguk’s ears. He’s prepared, yes, but all along for the wrong funeral. Jeongguk knows it, knows that it’s his own fault for letting the table turn so sudden under their feet.

And Jeongguk regrets exactly nothing.

“How about this,” Jeongguk says, pressing a kiss to Taehyung’s neck. “We can make a video, okay? So you can remember me. I’ll say everything I want to say to you.”

Taehyung sniffs, and nods quick into his shoulder. Jeongguk gives him a squeeze.

They get a camera set up. Taehyung’s hands are shaking non-stop, but getting the tripod ready takes too much time they don’t know if they have, so they prop it up using book piles on the table, faced to the couch. Jeongguk sits down, first, so Taehyung can be sure he’s captured clear in the screen.

“Is it recording?” Jeongguk asks.

“Yes,” Taehyung says.

Jeongguk smiles. And starts talking. First straight to the camera, and then to Taehyung when he can’t stand afar any longer and comes to press up against him on the couch.

“Kim Taehyung,” he makes sure he says. “I love you. Thank you for making my life full. Please be happy, okay? Don't ever think for a moment that you have to be sad just because I'm gone. There’s nothing in this world I love more than you and your smile. I love you. I love you so, so much. You’re so beautiful, in every way inside and out and if I could I’d tell you that every day until we’re both old so don't you ever fucking forget it. I love you. Eat well, and take care of yourself, and do all the things you told me to do for us, got it? Live. Just live. Get the dog you always wanted. Adopt children. Go after your dreams, for both of us. You’re an amazing artist. I don’t know where I’ll be when you’re next watching this, but I’ll watch you, somehow. I love you. I love you. I love you.”

He smiles, tries to put all the love he has ever felt into his gaze, tries to say everything he has ever wanted to say and put it all straight into the camera. And when Taehyung cries, and kisses him and tells him all sorts of the same things back, Jeongguk tries to put their heartache away into the camera, too.

 

 

When it happens, it’s fast. Sudden cardiac arrest, cause unknown. I’m sorry, the doctors say. There was nothing we could do.

Taehyung isn’t sure if the hardest part is hearing the pity in the doctor’s voice when she tells him the unsurprising news, or the series of phone calls he makes, after. To Jeongguk’s family, and friends, each call starting with a bright hello heard through the receiver but ending with tell us it isn’t true.

Or maybe it’s after that, after all that, when all he has left to do is sit alone in their too-big bed, playing the video over and over and crying like he has never cried before, like his heart has been scooped straight out from his ribs. Like he’s drowning, and burning, all at once, and more than anything is but painfully, crushingly, impossibly okay.

Taehyung cries, and watches it, and rewinds to watch again. Turns up the volume, Jeongguk’s words and Jeongguk’s voice. He listens and tries to come to terms with the rest of not-forever, wondering how this could ever be enough.

 

 

The first time Taehyung learns how it feels to lose a soulmate, it is eleven minutes to midnight and he is sitting in the hospital waiting for professionals to tell him the outcome he already knows, when a stray thought worms its way to the front of his memory.

The first day they met. The cafe. Jimin making the drinks in the back and Jeongguk fiddling with his sleeve, as Taehyung tries to decide if he wants to know how long he has left to live. Telling Jeongguk he’s afraid to know; he doesn’t want to ever find out he only has a day left to live. Hearing Jeongguk answer - so small, so soft - that it’s even scarier to be the soulmate watching it happen.

And Taehyung starts laughing, laughing and laughing all to himself, empty-handed and too-cold in that waiting room. As he realises, only now, that Jeongguk must have been right all along.

 

 

Taehyung gets a dog. He never finishes his bucket list.

 

 

and if the angel sun sets,

so be it.