There are flowers growing on Namjoon’s arm.
They aren’t real flowers, of course. That would be absurd. Impossible. Ridiculous. But Namjoon spends most of his lecture on Kant watching the garden of ink bloom on his skin, beginning at his pinkie and spreading across his wrist, trickling down to his elbow, curling up and around his bicep and out of sight under the sleeve of his shirt. Irises and peonies and roses and sunflowers. Nestled between the spaces of their petals are delicate leaves and vines intricately woven together. Namjoon laughs aloud when he spots a beetle crawling out from under a dragon lily.
The girl who’s sitting beside him is staring, and when caught, gives Namjoon a bright-eyed grin before glancing back to the board. Namjoon spots a faded smiley face inked into the skin of her thumb, what looks to be a grocery list scrawled over the back of her hand. Notes or reminders from her soulmate maybe.
Huh. It looks like Namjoon has one of those now.
“Joon-ah,” Hoseok says as he places Namjoon’s arm back down on the table. His grin is full of casual mischief. “You’re a cradle robber.”
Namjoon chokes on his basil croissant. “They’re three years younger than me,” he says, but Hoseok just jostles his bony little shoulders and pops a corner of a brownie in his smirking mouth like the little gremlin Yoongi is training him to be.
“That means they’re practically an infant,” Seokjin says from his seat beside Hoseok. He cackles gleefully when Namjoon flips him off.
“With a very steady hand,” Taehyung adds as he uses the wrong side of a fork to trace the ink on Namjoon’s skin. The cool metal raises goosebumps on Namjoon’s arm and Namjoon takes a deep breath, then exhales long and slow. “Hyung, this is frickin’ cool. You look so badass. You should get a sleeve for real.”
“Thank you and that’s out of the question,” Namjoon says. “Tattoos have to be consensual.”
Taehyung makes a tutting sound and pushes Namjoon’s sleeve up to look at the rest of the drawings on his shoulder. Hoseok wolf whistles at the bare minimum show of skin. Seokjin’s wearing a smile so infectious Namjoon feels an insatiable urge to return it; Instead he forces a frown and shoves the remaining bit of his sandwich in his mouth. Says, around a loaded mouthful of pesto and chicken, “Where’s Jimin today?”
“Showing his childhood friend around,” Taehyung bemoans, as if he and Jimin don’t live together and share a bed and were a half-hour late to morning coffee because they were fucking in the shower.
Taehyung wiggles up against Namjoon’s side and squeezes his elbow, signaling Namjoon to lift his arm so that Taehyung can squeeze under and braid their fingers together. Namjoon sighs balefully but it’s all for show. Taehyung fails at holding back a pleased grin. “His name is Jungkook. He started his first semester this week. Our new baby. He’s super gentle and I’m gonna love him so hard.”
Seokjin gags the same time Hoseok coos. Namjoon takes a deep drag of his americano. “Is he coming to the party this weekend?”
Taehyung’s nose crinkles. “Nah, Jimin says he’s shy. A big get together might not be best to get him,” finger quotes, “'acclimated’.”
“Is he a house cat?” Seokjin snorts.
Taehyung shrugs at that and Seokjin mimics him before leaning over into Hoseok’s space to show him something on his phone. Hoseok flushes and tilts away, but Seokjin just keeps falling forward until he’s practically lying across Hoseok’s lap.
Namjoon takes another sip of coffee. Taehyung hums and rests his head on Namjoon’s shoulder, watching the awkward mating dance in front of them. “Hey.” Taehyung pokes his arm. “Hyung.” Pokes his arm again. “You should write a note to your soulmate. Introduce yourself. I have a pen.”
Namjoon swallows up a mouthful of ice and takes time to crunch, absorbing this. “I will,” he says. His teeth are aching. “Later.”
Namjoon tries for an old, easy smile and feels it fall short. Taehyung has to see it because Taehyung sees everything; but Taehyung just nods and pats his knee and begins to ask him questions about the last museum exhibit he went to. Namjoon is happy to indulge him, anything to switch the topic away from talk of soulmates. Specifically, his soulmate. That he very much so now has. Yes.
It’s not uncommon for months to pass into years without a mark appearing, but there’s only one reason why someone would go that long with clear skin—their soulmate hasn’t reached their eighteenth birthday.
Namjoon wrote a message along his forearm in the early hours of the morning, just a week into the fall semester of his final year of high school. He gave his name and a few facts. He still remembers what he shared: I like animals I can hold in my palm. I want to write poetry. I’m scared of space, and the ocean, and letting people down.
Days passed without a response, and Namjoon spent the next twelve months stripping every morning and evening, turning circles in the mirror, searching for any sign of a message on his skin. There never was one. And then, after thirty-six months of clear skin, Namjoon had kind of stopped looking.
Had kind of stopped hoping.
There’s only one reason why someone goes without a mark appearing on their skin, and Namjoon didn’t want to dwell on the implications behind it.
It takes four days of casual showering for the flowers to fade to subtle bruises, just the faint suggestion of ink against his skin. Namjoon rubs his thumb over the spot on his wrist where a rose once bloomed and feels this quiet, familiar pulse of loneliness roll through his chest.
There are butterflies fluttering against Namjoon’s throat when he wakes up. He spots them while brushing his teeth, peeking over the stretched out collar of his shirt. Namjoon blearily shucks his shirt off to look closer and almost swallows a mouthful of mint foam because holy shit, his soulmate is fucking incredible.
The butterflies are caught mid-flight and circle his collarbones like a living necklace. Namjoon presses a finger to one of their delicate wings and feels nothing but his overheated skin, a little sticky with sweat. Seokjin keeps saying he should get a new mattress that ventilates, or maybe replace his flannel sheets with jersey cotton, or maybe just invest in a fan. Namjoon can’t afford any of those options, though, and he’s accepted that if he dies of heatstroke this summer, that’s simply what the universe has planned for him, his thesis be damned.
When Namjoon showers he’s careful to avoid his neckline, and he’s halfway through buttoning up a sleeveless flannel when he glances at his closet and then the weather app still pulled open and says fuck it. When he shows up to lunch with a loose tank on and a tremendous amount of skin on display, Hoseok wolf whistles at him and buys him a scone for his moxie.
“Have you written anything to them yet?” Seokjin asks, and Namjoon shoves an entire hotteok in his mouth in lieu of answering. “Namjoon!” Seokjin bleats, beating his palm against Namjoon’s back. “This person has been seducing you with gorgeous, badass tattoos for two weeks now and you haven’t even asked for their name?”
Namjoon sucks in a breath and half his bread. He is groggy and disoriented after pulling two all-nighters. He can feel his heart beating in his ears, his throat. “What am I supposed to say?” Namjoon asks, wiping his sticky fingers on his shorts. He kicks his sandal against the curb of the sidewalk. “Hi, my name is Namjoon. What’s your name and where do you live?”
Seokjin smacks him without any heat again. “Yes! That’s exactly what you do. How else are you going to meet them?”
Namjoon keeps his eyes on the road before them, but his chest tightens. “Maybe I don’t want to meet them just yet.”
His voice comes out about as small as he feels. Seokjin’s head dips towards him. “I mean, that’s fine. Move at your own pace.”
“What if I don’t want to meet them at all?”
“O-k-a-y. Do I need to give you an uplifting, motivational speech? I don’t have one prepared, but I can improv.” Their eyes meet and Namjoon feels exposed under the weight of Seokjin’s stare. They walk in silence for a block and Seokjin’s voice is softer, almost tentative, when he finally speaks. “Tell hyung your fears, Joonie.”
Namjoon’s mouth answers before his brain does. “What if they don’t like me?” He gushes, chewing on his lip, voice too loud in the quiet of the evening. “What if they’re hot and intelligent and really into cool music and stuff and then they meet me and I’m just…” Exhaustion mixed with his own anxiety makes his voice crack. Namjoon rubs at his eyes hard. “What if I’m not what they want?”
“Joon.” Soft. Serious. Exquisite. Seokjin always makes Namjoon feel terribly small and terribly safe. “First of all, you are extremely hot, unreasonably intelligent, and you have phenomenal taste in music.”
“Oh.” Namjoon blinks back tears. He sniffs. “Thank you.”
“Your soulmate doesn’t have to be your lover,” Seokjin says, taking his hand, looping his long fingers around Namjoon’s wrist to stroke the thin skin there. “This isn’t the nineteenth century, you don’t have to marry them. And it’s okay if you don’t like them. But that’s the super awesome thing about soulmates—you do like them.” Seokjin ducks his head to hide his flush. “You are fundamentally created to complement each other.” Seokjin shakes their arms erratically and laces their fingers together. He tugs Namjoon forward so they can start walking again. “So stop being a baby bitch and ask for their name.”
Namjoon laughs and gently bumps their shoulders together, feeling wrung out but strangely still inside. He panics, though, when he gets back to his studio later that night, and instead of simply writing a short introduction in the spaces between the dancing Matisse figures that took form sometime in the late hours while he and Seokjin were out drinking, Namjoon draws a small, lumpy humpback whale instead.
“Why the fuck am I like this?” He mutters to himself and stands to go scrub off his arm with soap, but by the time he makes it to the bathroom, there’s already a small pod of whales twirling around his disproportionate friend.
Namjoon stares down at his arm. “That’s so cute,” he whispers fiercely. “What the hell?”
Namjoon looks at his arm for so long he goes cross-eyed, gaze heavy and eyes smeary, the whales on his skin dancing and winding between each other, a lullaby in motion that guides him into an easy sleep. In the morning he skips his shower, and at the end of the day he pulls his sleeve up, delighted, to share his newest friends with Yoongi on their way to the humanities building.
Yoongi blinks at him. Takes a long drag from the straw of his americano. “You’re flirting through drawings of aquatic creatures.”
“Look at them!” Namjoon thrusts his arm forward, nearly knocking Yoongi in the nose. “My favorite is Chulsoo. He’s a narwhal.”
Yoongi’s face scrunches. Namjoon knows he’s trying to bite back a smile. “You should be thankful for those dimples or else I’d smack you right now.”
Yoongi grunts and then guides Namjoon back to the counter by the wrist. “Hyung will buy you a cake. What do you want?”
That night Namjoon sits at his desk, pen hovering over his palm. It’s felt-tip and non-toxic, the kind developed specially with skin in mind.
There are so many things he wants to say.
Hi, my name is Namjoon. I go to SNU. I study what it means to be human. I like sea creatures, but not to eat. My favorite color is brown because it reminds me of the warmth of wood. I have all the constellations memorized. Sometimes I fall asleep by the river. It freaks out my friends. They think I’m going to get mugged someday.
Namjoon kicks at the floor and rocks back and forth on the chair legs, head tilted back so his neck is crooked towards the ceiling.
What’s your name? Namjoon wants to ask. Do you live in Seoul? How do you feel about global warming? Spiders? The ocean? Do you believe that human beings are inherently good? Evil? What’s a song that speaks to your soul?
Namjoon sighs. Tilts too far and feels his stomach switch places with his lungs. When his feet hit the ground he pats down his thighs. Clenches his hands closed. Recaps the pen.
Namjoon’s night class runs late, so when he arrives at Jimin and Taehyung's apartment, dinner is already in full swing. Namjoon spots two empty bottles of wine on the kitchen counter. Jimin is swinging a third around by the neck as he shrieks “Joonie-hyung!” and torpedoes across the room to slam Namjoon against a wall.
Jimin gives him a wet kiss on each cheek and a slap on the ass and, if anyone else, Namjoon would politely take the bottle of alcohol away from them except Jimin can drink the all under the table twice and this is peak sober Jimin behavior that Namjoon has grown to both accept and cherish.
“Joon-hyung,” Jimin says as he takes Namjoon by the wrist and guides him over to the sofa. “I want you to meet Jeon Jungkook, my best friend from home. Jungkookie, this is Kim Namjoon-hyung.”
“Pleasure,” Namjoon says before the boy in front of him has fully stood. But when he does, oh god when he does—
“Whoa,” Namjoon says, his voice pure wonder.
Jungkook raises his brow in surprise. There are flecks of light in his brown eyes, leftover traces of the stars. He takes Namjoon’s extended hand and gives it a strong and decisive shake. When he smiles, the left side crinkles up a little higher than the right.
“Hello,” Jungkook greets gently, his voice so kind and sweet that Namjoon, for the second time, just breathes out a quiet little, “whoah.”
Jeon Jungkook is the loveliest person Namjoon has ever met in his life.
Namjoon goes to smooth his hair back and realizes, like an absolute fool when Jungkook makes a startled noise and stumbles forward, that he’s still holding Jungkook’s hand and just pulled him in. Jungkook catches himself with a palm on Namjoon’s chest and looks up, big eyes wide open and alive, clearly in awe, and Namjoon has the mortifying impulse to kiss Jungkook full on the mouth.
Instead, Namjoon takes in a big breath, letting it loose long and slow. “Sorry,” he says as Jungkook steps away from him, hand trailing down Namjoon’s sternum with enough force to make Namjoon shiver.
“It’s okay,” Jungkook says, cupping his hands against his stomach. “It was cute.”
Namjoon’s face flushes. Movement to the side draws his attention, and Namjoon looks over to see that Jimin has flown to the kitchen to pull Taehyung into a back hug, leaving Namjoon and Jungkook alone in the corner.
Namjoon feels two sizes too big for his own body. One wrong move and he’ll knock over a lamp or break the coffee table. He clears his throat. “Jimin says you started school this semester?”
“Oh. Yeah.” Jungkook demurely pushes his hair behind his ear. He’s got a row of silver hoops dotting his lobe. They twinkle as bright as his eyes. “I uhm, I’m majoring in video production. I-I want to be a director.”
“That’s phenomenal,” Namjoon exclaims. Jungkook’s eyes bug. “I love story-telling, but the film industry absolutely terrifies me. I really admire those who know how to navigate it. What kind of work do you want to produce?”
Jungkook’s mouth is agape. He snaps it shut. Gnaws on his bottom lip. Says in a hushed tone, “Travel documentaries.”
“Have you seen that new Netflix series? Street Food?” Jungkook nods. “I cried in every episode.”
Namjoon suddenly realizes how ridiculous he must sound, gushing over cinematic cuisine; but then Jungkook’s eyes rove his face, the corners of Jungkook’s mouth curling upward, and Jungkook throws him this jaw-dropping grin and it’s like everything that was tilted in the world has suddenly realigned. “I-I want to tell stories about people and their passions,” Jungkook says. His hands are in tight, tiny fists. “I want to create things that make people feel.”
They stare at each other for a long moment. Namjoon studies Jungkook’s face, filled with nothing but warmth, and says, “I think you’ll be remarkable.”
Jungkook’s mouth parts in surprise. He’s swaying on his heels, like Namjoon does when he feels this buzzing energy building in his body, impossible to navigate and ignore. “Thank you, Namjoon-ssi.”
“Call me hyung,” Namjoon says. And then, “Do you want a drink?”
“Do you think there’s chocolate milk here?” Jungkook voices aloud, and Namjoon doesn’t stop himself when he says, “I’ll go buy some for you if they don’t.”
Laughter. Jungkook’s whole face is alive with it. “You’re really sweet, hyung.”
You are absolutely wonderful, Namjoon doesn’t say. Instead, “Let’s find you a drink. Tell me about your classes?”
They do find chocolate milk for Jungkook and some chilled beer for Namjoon. The sofa’s been overrun by the time they loop back around, Hoseok deciding to sprawl across Yoongi’s prone form, so they sit perched on the island in the kitchen and talk school. Namjoon wants to hear all about Jungkook’s intro video courses and Jungkook is alarmed by the amount of reading that goes into a philosophy masters.
“Why philosophy?” Jungkook asks as he chews on a handful of banana chips.
“You want to tell people’s stories,” Namjoon says, leaning over Jungkook to grab a snack cake. He hears Jungkook suck in a breath at the contact. “I want to know where the stories are coming from. Why we do what we do. How it shapes who we are.”
They talk about interests in dramas and movies and music and art and food and travel, none of which overlap by much. Jungkook likes romance comedies and Namjoon needs a thick plot to hold his attention. Jungkook has the top 40 on rotation and Namjoon prefers b-side gems on underground mixtapes. Jungkook hasn’t been to a museum since he was in elementary school and Namjoon makes time in his schedule to go at least once a week.
Namjoon was worried at first by how they have nothing in common, but it’s a good talk, though. A little wordy, a lot off-topic. They work through two bags of chips and half a case of beer. The entire time Jungkook’s eyes are sparkling. At one point in the night, Namjoon just leans against the wall and closes his eyes and lets Jungkook’s voice caress him.
“You have a gorgeous voice,” Namjoon tells him, and Jungkook sputters and giggles. The sound makes Namjoon’s spine tingle.
Hours pass like that. They work their way down to the floor and stay curled together on the carpet, speaking in quiet tones about life. Jungkook stutters through his thoughts, trips over words and ideas, taking on a lisp when he gets excited and his mouth can’t quite keep up. His eyes shine with magic when he speaks about the things he loves.
Namjoon, for some inexplicable reason, wants to be a thing Jungkook loves.
“What’s your biggest fault?” Jungkook asks from where he’s sprawled on his stomach, propped up on his elbows, the length of his forearm pressed against Namjoon’s thigh.
Jungkook’s shirt is pulled taut across his shoulders. There’s a sliver of skin on his lower back showing and Namjoon traces it with his eyes. There are dimples resting just above the dip of Jungkook’s sweatpants. “I think too much,” Namjoon says without thinking, so quick to speak it makes Jungkook giggle. Another marvelous sound that Namjoon wishes he could record and playback for hours.
Jungkook takes a deep breath. His shoulders lift, fall. “People say I dream too much.”
“I guess we’re always going to be too much of something for someone,” Namjoon sighs and takes a deep drag of water from a bottle. He passes it to Jungkook who takes a small sip. “But that’s what makes us who we are, and I don’t know about you, but it’s taken me a long time to like who I am now. I’d rather not let someone have that control over me again.”
Jungkook studies him with very serious eyes. “That’s really beautiful, hyung.”
Namjoon has the urge to slide his fingers into Jungkook’s hair where it curls against his temple. “Can I tell you something else?” Namjoon asks, feeling dusty and feverish. He swallows thickly. “A fault of mine, I guess.”
“Yeah. Of course.”
Jungkook’s face, so thoughtful and kind and hideously beautiful. If they were in the early Josean Dynasty, empires would fall for that face. “Some days I’m not in the mood to be a person,” Namjoon says, tracing the veins of Jungkook’s wrist with his eyes. “It’s like I need a moment to remember how to function. To be human.”
“I get that.” Jungkook twists onto his side so that he can lean his head on his hand. So that he can look at Namjoon more clearly. “Like your insides get wrinkled and it takes a little bit to iron it back out into something that makes sense.”
Goosebumps rise on Namjoon’s neck. He rubs absently at the space over his heart where a cat lies curled and hidden under the fabric of his shirt. “Yeah.”
“Good thing I’m good at laundry.”
A bubble of a laugh bursts from Namjoon’s mouth, startling them both, and then Namjoon falls into hysterics. He laughs so loud and for so long that Jungkook joins in by instinct, and the two of them just sit together in their corner, in their own microcosm, and feed off each other’s joy.
Namjoon drank too much, but he’s not sure if the pleasant, pooling warmth in his lower stomach is more from the alcohol or an after-effect of Jungkook’s light-filled smile.
“Hey, Jiminie.” Namjoon closes the fridge door where he was hunting for more snacks and wraps Jimin up in a loose hug. Definitely a little drunk, with how easy physical affection is coming to him. But that’s also just the kind of person Jimin is. You can’t help but want to be near him. “You were right about Jungkook, he’s wonderful.”
“Yes, he is.” Jimin’s voice is sad even as he rubs Namjoon’s back. Namjoon pulls back and Jimin looks up into his face, gaze sleep-hooded and wary. “Hyung,” he says, and Namjoon puts a breath of distance between them. “Please don’t take this the wrong way, but I want you to know that Jungkook has a soulmate.”
There’s a strange, unwanted rhythm beating behind Namjoon’s ribs, his eyes, deep within his throat. “Oh,” he says, nodding. “Yes. Of course.”
“I just— You seem really smitten,” Jimin continues, his small hands clenching at his sides, like he wants to hold something, hold Namjoon. “Which makes sense because Jungkook is incredible, but he’s taken. I just wanted to tell you that before you fall for him.”
Hurt blooms in Namjoon’s chest, similar to the garden of flowers that was planted on his skin all those weeks ago. Soulmates. Of course.
Namjoon breathes deep. Slows his heart, his mind. Smiles. “Thanks for looking out for us, Jimin-ah.”
Jimin tugs his bottom lip between his teeth. “Speaking of, Taehyungie says your soulmate appeared?”
“We haven’t spoken yet,” Namjoon says, turning around to do something, anything with his hands. There are a few dishes in the sink, but Namjoon’s not allowed to handle glasses anymore. He exhales hard several times.
“I hope they’re good to you, hyung,” Jimin says with a gentle press against his elbow. “You deserve the best.”
This is fine, Namjoon thinks as he forgoes the filter and chugs a glass of tap water. I’m good.
But then Jungkook curls around the corridor wall, face full of earnest delight when he spots Namjoon leaning against the counter. He’s wearing that ridiculous, charming, light-filled smile, and the hopeless thing in Namjoon’s chest flutters back to life.
Namjoon tries to keep his distance, but it’s as if, now that he’s entered Junkook’s orbit, he just can’t seem to break free.
Be careful, Jimin had told him, but how can Namjoon guard his heart when, every Tuesday morning, Jungkook joins their brunch at the cafe with his hair pulled into a pair of pigtails or tiny space buns or with his bangs clipped back by a row of glittering barrettes. On Fridays he begins sitting next to Namjoon at family dinners at Seokjin’s place, and Namjoon has to watch out of the corner of his eye as Jungkook holds his glass between both hands while he drinks, curled up small in his chair, bare feet tucked together on the top rung. It’s a delicious contrast to his all black ensembles and the corded muscles of his thighs and arms, thick from twice daily workouts.
Jungkook cocks his head to the side when he’s thinking. Talks to a rubber duck when he’s working on editing videos for class. He eats without chewing. Likes to rock back and forth on his heels when standing, always moving, as if at any moment he might need to break into a sprint. He won’t instigate conversation with strangers, but when you get him talking, it’s as if he has a lifetime of words he’s been cradling close, just waiting for the right person to share them with.
They’re small, minuscule details; but Namjoon notices them all, each and every one, because Jungkook is the kind of person who makes the small things feel like everything.
Namjoon is walking home from class when the sadness settles against his throat so heavily he has to stop and lean against a divider wall to catch his breath.
It’s been such a long time he almost doesn’t recognize it, but as the world around him turns to whalesong and his knees and heart and mind begin to tremble, Namjoon remembers, ah. Yes. I am sad and I have been for a long time and I will continue to be for even longer to come.
Seokjin’s at work and Yoongi’s at the station and Taehyung is in class and Jimin at practice and Hoseok sleeping because he’s got the graveyard shift at the library tonight and Namjoon can’t call any of them because they’re busy and he should be busy, Namjoon needs to get home and grab his textbooks and finish this goddamn research paper on virtue ethics versus deontology, but how is he possibly supposed to dive into the morality of human behavior when all he really wants to do is dive in front of the next oncoming bus.
Namjoon gasps and sinks into a crouch, rooting himself to the three by three square foot concrete slab, uncaring of the muffled complaints around him as bystanders swerve to avoid him because he’s spiraling and his therapist said when he starts to fall he needs to ground himself. She meant it metaphorically and Namjoon loves metaphors, they’re a major component of his day to day syntax, but right now Namjoon doesn’t need an idea or a thought or a theory or a concept. He needs something solid and tangible. He needs nails digging into the meat of his neck and breath fluttering on his cheek and someone’s palm rubbing stripes up his spine.
But Seokjin’s at work and Yoongi’s at the station and Taehyung is in class—
There’s an animal in distress nearby. It sounds small and scared and injured, like someone might have a hand against its windpipe and is just watching it squirm and thrash. And then Namjoon realizes that the noises he’s hearing are coming from him, and he sticks his fist in his mouth before another sob can crawl its way out.
Seokjin’s at work and Yoongi’s at the station and everyone is out living their lives and here Namjoon is, shattering on a sidewalk outside a 7-Eleven at four o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon.
Namjoon rocks back too far and lands on his ass. He stays curled in on himself. Rubs at his eyes hard enough for bright spots to flash. When he pulls his hands away a spill of ink catches his attention. It’s Chulsoo and his newest friend Bulgogi the beluga, curled around the thin skin of his wrist.
Namjoon sniffs and drags his backpack into his lap. He has to search the bottom for a pen, stabs himself on a stray paperclip and finds a lone stick of gum. And then, in his large scrawling hand across the soft flesh of his forearm, Namjoon carves a little heavily, Hello. I’m having a panic attack.
Namjoon closes his eyes. When he pries them open a lifetime later, there, written under his scribbled words in three lines of clear blocky letters:
I am with you.
I am with you.
I am with you.
Namjoon’s chest heaves. His face aches from holding back tears.
Tell me what you need, the person continues to write. Tell me how I can help.
Namjoon rests his head in his palms, elbows on his knees. His breath shudders out of him, shaking his whole body.
You can’t help me, he wants to say, but that’s the fear talking. That’s the anxiety coiling in his stomach, ready to strike, telling him that he’s unimportant and no one cares and he’s overreacting and he’s being bothersome. Childish.
No one can help you, it hisses. You can’t even help yourself.
Namjoon makes a sob sound. Curls in further on himself. Wipes his eyes hard with his hands. Red catches his eye, and when Namjoon’s vision stops wavering, he spots a little line of crabs crawling across his ankle.
Namjoon giggles. Coughs. Swipes at his cheeks where his tears are still dribbling. Draw me something, Namjoon finally writes back, and not a heartbeat passes before the strokes begin.
Namjoon hasn’t watched his soulmate work since that first day in class when the garden bloomed. The drawings usually come late in the night, the early hours of the morning, during his three hour consequentialism seminar. Now he watches, enchanted, tucked in on himself at a strange street corner with strange people crawling around him as an evening sky is born on his skin.
Soft colors and broad, sweeping brush strokes. Dreamy, curling clouds of coral and lilac and plum. The clouds grow and grow and grow, expanding outward, seeping into the black crescent moon from this morning and the fading abstract tiger from three days ago. Namjoon watches until his whole arm is nothing but delicate clouds. Until the breaths have stopped stuttering out of him. Until the sun begins to dip behind the tips of the buildings and Namjoon looks up for what feels like the first time in hours and notices that the sky above looks a lot like the one now painted on his skin.
Black catches his eye. In the swirl of color is a simple, Are u okay?
Namjoon shakes his head. The laugh trickles out of him, wet and warm.
How do you miss someone you’ve never even met?
A phone rings nearby and Namjoon realizes late that it’s his own. Four consecutive missed calls from Seokjin. It lights up again and Namjoon lifts it to his ear. “Hyung,” Namjoon says, feeling small but steady.
“ Joon-ah.” Seokjin says his name like a prayer. “Is everything okay?”
Namjoon tilts his head back, limbs unfurling, back creaking as he adjusts his legs out in front of him. A stray breeze blows his fringe into his face. He closes his eyes. Pretends he can feel the press of fingers along his side. “Of course. Why wouldn’t it be?”
“We had dinner plans,” Seokjin states, like Namjoon should remember this. And Namjoon should. He’s good with dates and times and meetings. “Are you still at school?”
Namjoon hums low. His fingers brush along the outer seam of his jeans. “Don’t freak out.”
“What an excellent way to precede an announcement,” Seokjin says. “I am most definitely not packing my bag as we speak to drive to the nearest hospital. Did you break a finger again?”
“I’m not in the hospital,” Namjoon says. “I had a panic attack.”
“Oh, Joonie,” Seokjin sighs, the weight of the world in his voice, and Namjoon knows it’s meant to be a comfort but it just makes his insides feel dusty and shriveled. He suddenly feels very exposed out here in the open, and he reaches into his bag to pull out his flannel. “I’m sorry. How do you feel now? Tired? Are you home? Want hyung to bring dinner over?”
“Dinner would be nice. I’m sitting on a sidewalk,” Namjoon says, now quite aware of the cigarette butts and tacky bits of gum and dilapidating stares of strangers sprinkled around him. Namjoon finishes shrugging on his outer shirt and relaxes when his body is fully covered.
“Just in the middle of a sidewalk?”
Namjoon hugs his thighs to his chest. “Yeah.”
“I’ll call Jiminie. He can come pick you up?”
“Yeah,” Namjoon says lowly and rests his chin on his knees. “Jimin would be nice.”
Namjoon is not a graceful person. He is not a Sunday morning or a Friday night sunset. He is a Tuesday at 2am, a broken window during February, a baby bird with claws trapped within the protection of its own nest. He is filled with this awkward, unstoppable sadness. Filled with these terrible parts that just keep colliding into one another, these bits of light and dark mixing under his skin like a storm.
The others believe that Namjoon doesn’t want a soulmate, doesn’t have an interest, thinks he doesn’t deserve to have someone, anyone, to call his own; but it’s so much more than that. Namjoon wants to love and wants to be loved but Namjoon isn’t the kind of person who can hand over just a piece, or a part, or a slice—He will love someone with all the love he has inside, and he’s terrified of what will happen if he doesn’t save enough for himself.
Jimin shows fifteen minutes later, the collar of his shirt damp and his fringe tied into a little pony. It bobs and bounces against his forehead, nearly identical to the way Jimin approaches with quick, bounding steps, and it’s so absolutely endearing that Namjoon is smiling before Jimin’s even reached his little microcosm of concrete.
“Joonie,” Jimin says. His face is affectionate. He drops to his knees and takes Namjoon’s cheeks in his small hands and squeezes. “My precious hyung.”
“Jiminie,” Namjoon says, voice croaking, muffled to his own ears as he places his hands over Jimin’s. He likes how Jimin’s hands fit neatly into his palms. “Light of my life.”
Jimin’s eyes are bright, smile making his face curl up prettily, and Namjoon feels himself take his first full breath in hours. It stutters back out of him, though, when he looks over the tip of Jimin’s ponytail and catches Jungkook looking down at them in wide-eyed wonder.
Jungkook flinches when caught staring. Looks at his feet, the shop window behind them, a dog in the distance. “Hi, hyung,” he eventually greets, fingers tugging the hem of his stretched out tee, bottom lip caught between his teeth to worry.
“Jungkookie,” Namjoon says, and Jungkook’s face takes on the prettiest shade of pink, but that might just be the glow of the setting summer sun. “My favorite dongsaeng.”
Jungkook bites his lip hard to keep from smiling. His hands still on his shirt and fall back to his sides, still.
“I’m supposed to be your favorite,” Jimin whines, drawing Namjoon’s attention again.
“I just called you the light of my life.” Jimin’s pout says that isn’t good enough anymore. “Sweet Park Jimin,” Namjoon croons, “my heart, my sunshine, my little star.” Jimin melts into a giggly mess in Namjoon’s lap. “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee —”
“Hyung!” Jimin squeals, curling up small, forcing Namjoon to catch him before his flailing weight sends them both tipping. Namjoon laughs, loud and happy, a startling sound in his own ears. When’s the last time he’s made that bright of a sound?
It takes Jungkook’s help to pull Namjoon off the ground, and while Jungkook draws away, back to his own space a few steps to the side, Jimin keeps a firm hold on his hand, like Namjoon is a kindergartner in need of guidance.
Taehyung calls and Jimin gives Namjoon’s arm a wiggle before he jogs ahead to speak with him in private. Namjoon’s limbs feel disconnected now that he’s no longer tethered to something, lightweight, like he’s ready to fly into the various blues and pinks of the sky.
“You’re very good at English.”
Namjoon blinks, looking up at the lights of the city above. “Western thinkers dictate a lot of modern philosophy, so it’s helpful to have a grasp of the original translations for their teachings. I also know Latin and a bit of German. And some French, I guess.”
“Wow. You’re really smart, hyung.”
Namjoon’s chest tightens. He pries his eyes from the sky to look at Jungkook. “Not really. I just like learning. I’m good at studying.”
“I bet you have really good grades,” Jungkook says, his voice growing tiny.
Namjoon clenches his jaw. Looks down at his hands. Shoves them into his pockets. “Grades don’t equate intelligence.”
Jungkook sniffs and Namjoon’s chest floods with sadness. “You even talk smart.”
“Why the sudden interest towards my academic aptitude?” Namjoon asks, and Jungkook just looks away from him. “Jungkook?” Jungkook’s shoulders jog up and down. “Is school going well?”
Jungkook’s eyes finally rest on him and Namjoon’s ribs collapse in on themselves, crushing his lungs and heart. Jungkook’s eyes are bloodshot, misty, like he’s trying not to have his own breakdown. “It could be better,” Jungkook reveals, voice and shoulders still curled in to make him smaller. “I have a few gen-ed courses. I’m not—I’m not that great at math,” he mumbles. “Or history. Or reading.”
Jungkook sniffles again and Namjoon, without thinking, because Jeon Jungkook is someone who should always have a smile hidden somewhere on his face, says, “I can teach you some study habits, if you’d like. I’ve been a TA for a few semesters now.”
The side of Jungkook’s face that Namjoon can see scrunches with distaste. “I don’t want to take up your time.”
“It’s my time and I’m offering it up to you.” Jungkook doesn’t say anything and Namjoon gently nudges their shoulders together. “Jungkook, please let hyung tutor you.”
Jungkook visibly and instantly melts into a softer version of himself. “Okay.”
Warmth blooms from the wreckage in his chest. Namjoon bites the soft spot of his cheek and turns forward again, only to find Jimin watching them from over his shoulder. His blocky brows are pinched together, eyes sad. He gives Namjoon a look that almost withers the bright, fluttering feeling growing inside of him.
Be careful, Jimin had told him. He’s taken. Don’t fall for him.
Namjoon used to fall in love with everything. A boy, a friend, a poem, a painting. But he’s the wiser now. What he feels for Jungkook is simple affection, a subtle endearment. It’s manageable and fleeting and easy to let go. Namjoon just hasn’t chosen to release it yet. Afterall, it shouldn’t hurt to hold on to it for just a breath longer.
Jungkook uses six different highlighters to color-code his readings. His post-it notes are shaped like fat, bug-eyed frogs. He chews on his pen cap, nibbles on his eraser, gnaws on the edge of a file folder. He reads from his textbook aloud, softly, under his breath, tongue tripping over jargon and coming out thick and syrupy with his lisp.
He flushes when it happens, and Namjoon can feel him peeking up to gage his reaction, but Namjoon keeps his chin pressed to his palm and his eyes down as he grades one of Jungkook’s East Asian history reports, careful not to reveal how his whole chest is filled with liquescent starlight.
The night of Jimin’s birthday, Namjoon sticks his phone in a shoe and facetimes Taehyung while holding up two pairs of pants he dug out from the back of the top shelf in his closet.
“Hyung!” Taehyung greets. Namjoon makes a bleaty, alarmed sound at the sight of Jimin naked in the background and Taehyung cackles with glee when Namjoon smacks himself in the face in an effort to shield his eyes.
“You’re so cute, hyung.”
Namjoon sighs deep from his chest. “Can you both please put clothes on?”
“Are you body-shaming us in our own home?”
Namjoon doesn’t dare look up. He keeps his eyes squeezed closed and holds the hangers out again. He knows neither of them have attempted to make themselves decent. “I just need you to tell me what to wear tonight.”
“O-h-h,” Taehyung sings. “Are those your stripper pants?”
Namjoon’s eyes bug. “They are not stripper pants,” he bleats out and makes the mistake of looking at the phone. Taehyung’s still lounging nude on the bed, but most of him is entirely in shadow, only a sliver of his arm and the side of his face visible in the warm, golden light from a lamp nearby. He’s cast in perfect chiaroscuro and looks like a High Renaissance portrait come to life.
“Hyung, are you pulling out your stripper pants just for me!” Jimin shrieks as he falls into frame to get a closer look, nearly gouging Taehyung’s eye out with his elbow.
“They are not—!” Namjoon makes a strangled sound and rubs at his temple. “I’m wearing sweats,” he tells them, already throwing the pants down. “This is what I get for trying.”
“Do the black ones!” Jimin yells as Namjoon advances on them. “And that silky blouse I got you for your birthday two years ago that you never wear!”
“Oh-h-h, the one with the neck plunge?”
“Hyung’s got the best chest—”
Namjoon grabs his phone and holds it up to his face. “I’m hanging up. Goodbye.”
He hits the end button before they can speak, and then he looks at the sad pile of fabric on his studio floor and sighs.
Namjoon wears the leather pants. And the black dress shirt. And a pair of heeled boots he’s not quite sure how he acquired but hey, they complete the ensemble.
He feels like an absolute fool. A clown. A toddler trying on their parent’s work clothes. And then he walks up to the round booth in the back corner of the club they’re celebrating at and watches in alarm as Jungkook promptly spits his drink straight into his palm.
“Hyung, you’re so hot!” Jimin squeals the same time Taehyung shouts, “Stripper’s here!”
Namjoon flips them both off and walks up to Jungkook, who is still hacking up half a lung.
“You okay?” Namjoon asks, kneeling so they’re eye level, and Jungkook’s eyes are glistening and frantically roving Namjoon’s, well, everything. “Kook?”
“Fine!” Jungkook coughs. Sputters some more. Namjoon squats and Jungkook makes a wheezing noise. “Oh my god,” Jungkook whispers, eyes bigger than a pair of eyes should be able to go.
“Oh, Namjoonie, you fool,” Seokjin sighs, a tiny straw sticking out of the corner of his mouth. “Leave the poor baby alone.”
Hoseok’s cackling and Namjoon doesn’t know what the joke is. Is he the joke? Is he making Jungkook uncomfortable?
Namjoon swivels back. Jungkook looks half feral, one hand pressed against the table, like he’s determining whether he can vault it or not, whatever it takes to get Namjoon out of his immediate space.
Namjoon’s heart sinks straight to his feet, leaving him disoriented. He draws away and watches as Jungkook’s whole body relaxes back into the seat. “Sorry,” Namjoon tells him. “I didn’t mean to crowd you.”
“It’s okay.” Jungkook takes a deep breath. His gaze is still jumpy and restless. He can’t match Namjoon’s stare. “Sorry, I’m just—Uhm. Yes.”
Namjoon doesn’t know what to say to that, so he doesn’t say anything at all, and then because he doesn’t speak for the next twenty minutes, his brain has nothing to do but turn over every terrible, embarrassing thing he’s done in the past forty-eight hours as he downs every shot glass pushed in front of him.
Namjoon’s caught up in a particularly detailed recollection of how, when asked how he was doing by the barista this morning, Namjoon proceeded to say “What does it mean to care about something?” and then went on for the entirety it took his espresso to brew about the relationship between caring and the will and why people care about things and how it relates to desire and emotion and policy—
Namjoon blinks, coming back to himself. The others must have gone off to dance because there’s only Yoongi beside him at the table, his hand resting on Namjoon’s thigh, not quite squeezing, just there.
“Hi, hyung,” Namjoon greets. “When did you get here?”
“A bit ago.” Yoongi searches his face. “You doing alright?”
And because it’s Yoongi, his most precious and knowledgeable hyung, Namjoon’s mouth answers, “What if people are only happy with me because they don’t know any better?”
And because it’s Yoongi, the hand on Namjoon’s thigh moves to his neck, Yoongi’s thumb stroking under his jaw as he asks in turn, “Is it fair for you to decide whether someone is happy or not?”
Namjoon wilts, but Yoongi’s touch holds him up. “You’re remarkable, Namjoon-ah.” Yoongi gives his cheek a gentle pat. “I know you have your doubts, but we love you.”
Namjoon feels small and damp and terrible. “What if my soulmate doesn’t love me?” He whispers to his hands, cradled in his lap, and he doesn’t know how long he was carrying that thought, but once the words are out, all the anxious buzzing in his mind goes still and quiet.
Yoongi takes Namjoon’s face in his hands. Says, with such certainty that Namjoon can’t help but believe him, “Life will carry on and you will be okay.” Namjoon sniffs. Nods, the familiar calluses on Yoongi’s fingers brushing his skin. Yoongi’s dark eyes are shiny and sad. “But you also haven’t even given them a chance to try to love you, have you?”
Namjoon doesn’t say anything. Just makes a small sound that could be called wounded. Yoongi looks at him for a moment longer, considering, and then runs his hands through Namjoon’s hair and pulls away. “Why don’t you tell hyung about your day?” He says around the rim of his drink glass. Whisky, probably. “You had that paper due on computable probability theory, right?
When Namjoon was in undergrad, he and Yoongi tried dating for a few months. Namjoon, who hadn’t presented with a soulmate and didn’t think he ever would, who just wanted someone to talk to, someone to see him, had gravitated toward Yoongi like he was the moon. And then there was Yoongi, who was sarcastic and witty and kind and questioned everything and everyone. Who was still recovering from the gory aftermath of having a soulmate who decided that Yoongi wasn’t quite what she had in mind for a life partner.
They fought viciously, both of them too smart for their own good. They’d bicker and argue and yell and then break apart under each other’s touch at night. Their relationship didn’t last, but their friendship was cemented for life.
Namjoon, although he would never say it aloud because it would make Yoongi upset, would absolutely die for his hyung. Would do nearly anything to make him happy. Not that he truly needs to now that Seokjin and Hoseok are in the picture.
“I’m happy you’re happy, hyung,” Namjoon interrupts himself to say, and Yoongi blinks, surprised, before his whole face curves with his smile.
“I’m happy I’m happy, too, Joon.”
Namjoon catches up with Yoongi. Seokjin orders them a snack platter and Namjoon shoves spicy chicken wings and little pork belly sliders into his mouth until he feels like his cheeks and stomach might burst. Jimin drinks him under the table, and Namjoon has just enough alcohol in his system that when Taehyung saunters up to the table to coax him out onto the dance floor, Namjoon just grins and allows himself to be escorted away.
Namjoon’s not a good dancer. He’s not even an adequate dancer. He has too much restless, long-limbed energy. Never quite knows what to do with his hips. He’s filled in as Jimin’s tango practice partner and Hoseok’s tried to teach him the basics of rhythm using Dance Dance Revolution, but Namjoon’s almost certain that the time he hit his head against his bed frame when he was eight gave him lasting hand-eye coordination complications.
That doesn’t stop Jimin from shrieking and pulling him in by the belt loops, nor Hoseok who shimmies up behind him to bump and nudge and guide him into a somewhat sad semblance of a groove. Namjoon’s having fun, though, or at least the closest to fun he thinks he’s capable of being. He is warm, borderline overheating, insides blushy and tongue loose, his mind quickly following suit so it doesn’t get left behind.
The lights in the club lower. The beat drops into something sticky and sultry with a heavy bass. Namjoon closes his eyes and tosses his head back, leans into the hands trailing down his sides to rest on his waist. Taehyung, probably. Big hands, strong grip. He and Jimin have always been comfortable with touch. They give and take it with such enviable ease.
Namjoon likes to be touched. It keeps him grounded. It’s intimate and honest and powerful, which is why Namjoon is confused when Taehyung presses forward so the lines of their bodies are slotted together. Because Taehyung is comfortable with his body but he knows Namjoon is not. Because the body behind him is thick where Taehyung is sharp, firm muscle where Taehyung is gentle give. This body is a little shorter, hot breath just ghosting above the back collar of Namjoon’s shirt.
Namjoon’s eyes flutter open and there, a couple meters away, silver hair tinted red from the stage lights with Jimin rolling in his arms, is Kim Taehyung.
Namjoon blinks, considering. Okay, then. Taehyung is over there and Namjoon is over here with a strange, unknown person crowding in close behind him. A person who must find him desirable, though, because they’re coaxing Namjoon’s body into a gentle roll, their hips flush together, warm palms splayed across his stomach.
Namjoon sighs and melts into the touch. He wore the gauzy blouse recommended to him, so when the hand on his stomach drags up his chest, roaming, curious, it slips under the collar of his shirt and ghosts against his pec, just shy of grazing his nipple.
Namjoon groans low in his throat and the person behind him seizes up, releasing Namjoon like they’re holding something toxic. Namjoon frowns and turns with a stumble, but by the time he’s found his footing, the stranger has already slipped out of sight into the anonymity of the crowd.
His little encounter on the dance floor dries him up a bit, enough that the feeling of being unwanted hits him like a smack of cold water to the face and he has to escape to the bathroom to literally smack himself in the face with cold water.
He does his breathing exercises from yoga. Considers calling Seokjin. Remembers that Seokjin is right outside and Namjoon is supposed to be pissing and not dancing the line of a panic attack in a club toilet stall.
He watches a video of male pufferfish courtship rituals, tidies his hair in the mirror, and then heads back into the wild when his heart and mind and breathing has calmed down. He’s been gone long enough to garner concern from the others, so instead of heading straight for the booth, he makes a beeline for the bar to grab the next round. An excuse, if anyone asks where he’s been.
Namjoon heads for an open sliver towards the middle, politely squeezing between people to avoid touching them, and he’s not sure how he spots him, but one heartbeat Namjoon is avoiding a drink tray and the next he’s staring at Jungkook’s back. Jungkook, who looks like he’s waiting for the floor to open and swallow him hole as an unknown man looms into his space.
Namjoon, as he often does when Jungkook is part of the equation, doesn’t think before acting. He stands to his full height and splits a group knitted together at the bar, interrupting their conversation. One man starts to put up a fight, takes one look at Namjoon’s face, then promptly steps to the side and out of his way.
“I told you, I’m not interested.” Jungkook’s voice is strained when Namjoon comes up behind him. Acid rushes through Namjoon’s chest in quick, hot flashes, and he doesn’t hesitate to slip an arm around Jungkook’s waist and tug him in close.
Jungkook flinches, fist raising as if to strike—Namjoon quickly stoops and hooks his chin on Jungkook’s shoulder before he’s given black eye. Says, with enough force to be heard over the music, “Hey, babe. I’ve been looking for you.”
The change is instantaneous. Jungkook’s entire body dissolves at the sound of Namjoon’s voice, and he relaxes into Namjoon’s hold, going as far as to tilt his chin so that Namjoon has more room to nuzzle in close if he wants to.
Oh, how Namjoon wants to and, oh, how he does. Namjoon drags their cheeks together, dips in further to trail his nose under the warmth of Jungkook’s jaw. Jungkook is soft and heated. Jungkook smells like sweat and laundry detergent and citrus and the sea. He smells like comfort, feels like coming home. God, Namjoon hasn’t had a home in so long.
“Hyung,” Jungkook says, a smile resting between his words. Namjoon’s arms tighten around Jungkook’s waist. Small but with so much hidden strength. “I missed you. ”
Gone is the vulnerability in Jungkook’s voice. Instead it takes on a sweet, lilting tone. Flirty, Namjoon’s mind supplies. This is what Jungkook sounds like when he speaks to someone he likes.
Namjoon has a slew of lines available to diffuse the situation. It wouldn’t be the first time he’s stepped in to help Jimin or Taehyung out with unwanted attention. But Namjoon’s feeling especially riled, Jungkook’s voice buzzing around his head, the heat of his body tucked into the curve of Namjoon’s hold, and Namjoon doesn’t have the words to express how, despite being a pacifist, he will not hesitate to lay this man out on the floor of this club if he looks at Jungkook for one heartbeat more.
The stranger takes a visible step back when his gaze catches on Namjoon’s face. “I was just—”
Namjoon’s eyes slit. He smiles, all teeth, and leans in to place a dry kiss to the juncture of Jungkook’s neck.
Jungkook’s body roils in Namjoon’s arms, but the sound he makes is soft and delectable. The hitch of a breath, fingers digging into Namjoon’s wrist, keeping him close. Namjoon’s whole chest shudders, and he has to count backwards from a hundred by seven to keep from biting down on Jungkook’s throat.
Namjoon makes a low sound. Opens his eyes, which had drifted closed. The man is gone. He’s left his drink behind, only set on putting distance between them. When Namjoon’s eyes scour the crowd around them and come up short, he blows out a huge breath and sinks his full weight against Jungkook’s back, suddenly exhausted.
Jungkook doesn’t budge. He holds Namjoon’s body up with ease. “Wow, hyung,” he says. “That was so sexy.”
Namjoon’s laugh comes out sputtered from surprise, more of a snort than anything, and he groans and rubs his forehead against the wide breadth of Jungkook’s shoulders. His shirt is thin and damp, skin hot under the fabric. Not thinking, Namjoon’s fingers clench around Jungkook’s waist, digging into the meat of his sides.
Namjoon’s neck goes searing hot. His fingers nearly meet in the center of Jungkook’s lower back.
Namjoon blinks, coming back to himself. Jungkook twists in his hold, not stepping away, just moving so that they’re chest to chest. So that Jungkook can look up at him. There’s nothing but earnest warmth in his face.
Namjoon’s fingers flex again. Jungkook’s eyelids flutter. “Thanks for rescuing me, hyung.”
Namjoon should let go. Namjoon should take a step away, be a normal human being with, like, boundaries. Instead he ducks his head to be heard over the music. “You could have taken him,” Namjoon says, staring at the mole under Jungkook’s lip, nearly an echo of his own. Has that always been there? “You’re very fit. And he was a coward.”
Jungkook’s laughter squeaks out of him. Namjoon’s heart soars. His grip tightens again and Jungkook’s breath catches. “I try not to fight strangers in bars,” Jungkook says, sounding winded. His eyes are twinkling under the lights from the bar. He keeps tugging his bottom lip between his teeth. “But you’re right. I definitely could have taken him out.”
“I think you could bench me,” Namjoon’s mouth says, watching as Jungkook’s lip turns red. Glossy. Kissable. Jungkook always looks so kissable. Jungkook should be smothered in kisses every day. As soon as he wakes, as he’s starting to drift to sleep. Always.
“I also think I could bench you,” Jungkook grins, his smile so big the words barely make it out. “Next time I come over we’ll have to test it.”
Huh. Strange. Jungkook’s tone hasn’t lost its flirty edge.
Something clobbers around in Namjoon’s stomach. Butterflies, maybe, except they’re a little large and kind of make him want to hurl. But that also might be the alcohol. Or maybe his blood sugar is dropping from the adrenaline rush.
Namjoon inhales deep. “I think I may puke,” he says, finally lifting his gaze from Jungkook’s mouth. Has he been staring at it the whole time? Jungkook isn’t acting like he has. Namjoon is being weird. Why isn’t Jungkook pushing him away?
“Do you want to get out of here?” Jungkook asks, nodding towards the entrance.
Namjoon nods. “Absolutely.”
It’s a shimmery night. Namjoon tips his head back and takes in a breath so large it aches. He stretches his hands towards the sky and says, with his entire chest, “Hello, moon! Hello, stars!”
Jungkook laughs. “Are you drunk, hyung?”
Namjoon kicks his boot against the sidewalk. He does a little jig, rocking side to side, letting his limbs and mind go loose. “I’ll have you know I’m like this always,” Namjoon says, shutting his eyes as his arms sway overhead, “regardless of my intoxication level.”
“That’s cute,” Jungkook mumbles. At least, that’s what Namjoon thinks he says. When he opens his eyes, hands still raised high, he finds Jungkook staring at him, mouth parted and eyes bright.
Namjoon frowns and drops his arms. Tugs down his shirt, which was riding up on his stomach, then tugs it back up, when the collar drops dangerously low to showing off his nipples to the whole block. “What is it?”
Jungkook’s head snaps up. “Nothing!” His fingers are clenching at his sides. Digging into his thighs. Namjoon watches, entranced, as the muscle and fat there give under the pressure.
“It’s silly, isn’t it?” Namjoon asks, and Jungkook only hums. He's staring again. Drags his eyes up to Namjoon’s face. Hums again, a question. Namjoon gestures to his, well, everything. “Doesn’t really suit me, does it?”
Jungkook is appalled. He looks like Namjoon just backhanded an old woman. Like he’s watching someone eat straight from a jar of mayonnaise. Namjoon laughs, loud and happy, endeared by that face. “What’s that look for?” Jungkook’s shoulders bunch up to his ears and mumbles something and kicks his boot against the sidewalk. “Sorry, I didn’t catch that.”
“I said you look beautiful,” Jungkook replies, voice clear but head tilted towards the road, still refusing to meet Namjoon’s gaze.
Namjoon feels sunlight build in his chest. “Oh.” He has to clear his throat, swallow the heat down. “Thank you.”
Jungkook gives a curt nod. His fingers are dancing at his sides. “Are you good to walk, hyung?”
“I’m great to walk. Walking is my favorite.” Namjoon twists on his heel and heads off in the direction of what he thinks is a park. He needs to see some trees. He needs to move before his heart fills with air and takes off into the light polluted sky above. “Actually, biking is my favorite, but we probably shouldn’t do that at the moment.”
“Let’s walk, hyung. I’ll buy you some hotteok.”
“Hotteok is my favorite,” Namjoon grins, already spinning in the opposite way to move towards the main road where the food stalls will be out.
“I know,” Jungkook says quietly. At least, that’s what Namjoon thinks he says. Or maybe it’s just what Namjoon wants to hear. Namjoon wants to hear Jungkook say many things. Namjoon has a list of words, of beautiful words, he would like to hear Jungkook read from. Poetry. Lyrics. Passages from his favorite novels. Hell, Jungkook’s voice, smooth and light as air, would be perfect for reading his five page course syllabus for his Metaphysics of Reference class.
“You should do a podcast,” Namjoon says. “You have a nice voice.”
“Oh.” Jungkook shoves his hands into his jean pockets. Namjoon’s not sure how since the pants are painted on him. He tries not to stare. He’s failing wonderfully. “Thank you. You—You also have a nice, uhm, voice.”
Namjoon flashes him a smile. “Thank you.”
Jungkook looks dazed. Maybe he had too much to drink. They’re both idiots to be out and about this drunk without a chaperone.
“Thank you,” Jungkook says as they turn a corner, and Namjoon doesn’t remember paying Jungkook another compliment but it wouldn’t be the first time his brain skipped the filter. “Again. For coming to my defense.”
Oh. “Any time.” Namjoon frowns deeply. “Well, not any time. I mean, I hope it doesn’t happen again, but if it does, I am here to defend your honor.” Namjoon’s nose wrinkles. “Well, verbally defend. I do pilates, but I don’t think I could bring myself to punch someone.”
“Don’t worry, hyung, I have a black belt.”
Namjoon drags his gaze down Jungkook’s tight body. “Oh. That’s. Yes.” The outline of Jungkook’s triceps are visible under the thin fabric of his dress shirt. “Very nice.”
“And,” Jungkook continues with casual indifference, “as we discussed earlier, I can bench your weight.”
Namjoon trips over his feet. “Yes. That is also.” His throat closes up and he has to cough to get the mortification out. “Quite nice.”
Jungkook is smiling to himself, a small, hidden thing, and then he’s wearing this awful frown. He bites his lip and drags his foot against the concrete. “I just wish people would learn to accept no for an answer.”
“And not think that the only reason why you’re saying no is because you’re already with someone,” Namjoon nods.
Namjoon only sticks the tips of his fingers in his pant pockets because they’re too tight to get his whole palm in. He fiddles with the inner seam. His bones are shifting beneath his skin in an odd way, not uncomfortable, but as if they’re awakening after a long time spent asleep.
“How’s that going?” Namjoon asks when they pass under the sixth streetlamp in silence. “You and your soulmate.”
Jungkook looks frightened and Namjoon wishes he could pull the words out of the air and shove them back into his mouth. “How do you know I have one?” Jungkook asks, voice tiny and unsure. He tugs at his sleeves, forcing them over his knuckles.
Namjoon looks away. He feels like throwing up again. “Jimin told me at your welcome party.”
“Oh,” Jungkook murmurs. And then, “That explains it.”
“Nothing,” Jungkook says. He’s looking in the opposite direction. Away from Namjoon. Namjoon makes his hands go deeper into his pockets so he can curl his shoulders in. “It’s okay. I mean. I think it’s going well.”
“You sound unsure?”
“I don’t know their name.” Jungkook’s head lags forward. He, too, manages the miraculous feat of getting his hands in his pockets. “We’ve never met. We don’t talk often, either. I…” Jungkook shakes his head. His long hair untucks from behind his ears. “I think I would like them, if I knew them better. I mean… It’s confusing. I already like them, but if I knew them more…” Jungkook gives a minute shrug. “I don’t know.”
“Apparently that’s how soulmates are supposed to work.” Jungkook’s curls brush his cheeks. He still hasn’t put them away. How cruel of him to tease Namjoon so. “You’re fundamentally created to complement each other. Jin-hyung’s words.”
“Oh.” Jungkook glances at him from the side. He’s biting his lip again. “So do you not have…?”
“I have one,” Namjoon says. “I’m…” He’s what? Prolonging the inevitable? Trying not to hand himself over as easily as he did in the past? Unable to approach situations without overthinking them to a sad and messy death?
Namjoon sighs, a heavy thing that leaves him with a hollow space inside. “Things are uncertain with them, as well, but they are…” Namjoon thinks of the intricate drawings and the mindless doodles. The words I am with you, I am with you, I am with you. And with him they were. Namjoon can’t remember the last time someone walked with him out of a spiral with such ease.
“They’re incredible,” Namjoon murmurs. “Lovely. Kind. I’m scared by how much I could end up loving them.”
Jungkook hums, a long drawn out sound. It’s sweet on the ears. Namjoon wants to hear Jungkook sing. And then, as Jungkook continues to make those sweet sounds under his breath, little melodies and riffs, nothing quite of substance but still enchanting to listen to, Namjoon thinks about how he wants Jungkook to kiss him, to never stop. Realizes that he wants Jungkook in the morning in his boxers and bedhead. He wants Jungkook in the storms— rain, snow, hurricane. He wants Jungkook in his arms, in his apartment, in his dreams, in his heart.
“I don’t want to be forced to love someone,” Jungkook murmurs. “I want a choice.”
Please, choose me, Namjoon doesn’t say. Please, pick me. Love me. Stay with me. Never leave.
Namjoon looks away from him. “You can choose to love whoever you want, Kook.” Namjoon’s words come out jagged, choked, clearing the space around them with their volume. He says, softer this time, “Jin-hyung says your soulmate doesn’t have to be a lover. They could be your best friend.”
Jungkook is watching him and Namjoon has no clue what to do, no clue. He keeps his gaze forward. He can’t fall right now. If he does, he’ll shatter for real this time. “I kind of want them to be both,” Jungkook says, the weight of his gaze still tracing Namjoon’s face. “Is that selfish?”
Namjoon swallows thickly. “Not at all.” Namjoon looks down at his feet, then back up. Jungkook is still watching him, waiting for him. “Your heart is probably the one thing you should be selfish with.”
Jungkook nods, like that makes sense. They walk together some more. Namjoon recalls them passing two subway entrances, at least three bus stops. Still, they walk, hands in their pockets and shoulders bumping. Jungkook wore a silky blue blouse and he’s left the top three buttons open. Namjoon thinks he spots a bit of ink on his shoulder and looks away before he can tell what it is. He doesn’t want to know what Jungkook’s soulmate has shared with him.
“I’m scared,” Jungkook suddenly confesses, and Namjoon feels the sadness fill him with the knowledge that Jungkook is anything but happy at this moment. “What if they just like the idea of me?”
“I…” Namjoon tries to think of a less intimate way of saying what he’s thinking, and somewhere between the alcohol sluggishly working through is bloodstream and the way Jungkook’s eyes catch the light of the streetlamps overhead, Namjoon decides he really doesn’t fucking care right now. “Jungkook,” he says, voice even and sure, “you are an exquisitely honest person.”
Jungkook looks pleased and then confused and then he looks away completely so that Namjoon can’t see his sweet face. “I don’t know what that means.”
Namjoon kicks his heel against the curb and almost eats it. Jungkook places a steadying hand on his elbow and Namjoon thinks he might just swoon. “Thank you,” he says gently, and Jungkook doesn’t release his hold until Namjoon is steady on his feet again. “It took me months to open up to Yoongi, even longer for Jin and the others.” Jungkook’s mouth purses into a frown. “I don’t like to share myself with others,” Namjoon explains. “Not like—Well, not like you do. I don’t share the person I become when I’m angry. I don’t talk about all the people I’ve hurt. All the terrible things I’ve done. The fears that keep me awake and, in turn, the joys as well. But you—” Namjoon shakes his head, still in disbelief. “You’re absolutely fearless with who you are, and I think that’s marvelous, Jungkook. There isn’t an idea of you. There’s just…” Namjoon draws in a deep breath. Says, with more certainty than he’s ever felt before in this lifetime, “You.”
Namjoon knows he should stop. This a repeat of his second year of undergrad when he went off in his political theory class about whether or not liberty or equality should take priority in the community. (Equality of course). But back then he had thirty sets of eyes on him just waiting for him to shut up, and now he has only one weighted gaze looking up at him with the same reverence that should be reserved for the halls of a museum. How is he supposed to stop the words from spilling out?
“I think you should get to know your soulmate more,” Namjoon says, because he knows that’s what he’s supposed to say. Because he knows that Jungkook deserves to be loved and adored and seen. That he deserves joy in all its forms. “You don’t have to ask their name or where they live or if they want to meet up, not yet at least, or not at all if you never want to. But if you feel like they could be a good friend to you, a good something…” Namjoon closes his eyes. The wind’s picked up and it’s cold on his sweat-slick skin. “Don’t turn away from that.” A chill runs through him and Namjoon’s voice catches. “You’re one of the bravest people I know.”
“I’m not…” Jungkook’s picking at a stray thread in his jeans. Namjoon wants to take his hand. Hold it between his own. Cradle it close to his heart. “I’m not very good with words.”
“I think you’re wonderful.” Jungkook looks at him, looks right at him, and Namjoon remembers with a throbbing ache in his throat that this is a boy who is promised to someone else. “Don’t use words, then.” Namjoon tells him, pulling away from where they had drifted towards each other, too close. “What’s another way to communicate with them?”
Jungkook looks away. He rubs at his forearm, hidden underneath his shirt sleeve. “I like to draw,” he says.
“Then draw them something. Anything.” Jungkook drags his lip into his mouth and Namjoon has reached his limit. He lifts a hand and pushes Jungkook’s hair away from his eyes, tucking it behind his ear. “I promise you,” Namjoon tells him, careful when he draws away, “They’ll adore it.”
The breath Jungkook takes is large and wobbly. They walk under a blanket of silence for the next couple blocks, thick and untouchable, so unlike the casual, comfortable moments of quiet they tend to share between each other. Namjoon is about to apologize for whatever he did wrong, whatever he said that finally overstepped the fine line he’s been trying to dig into the foundation of their friendship—
Instead Jungkook takes a side step so their arms brush. “Hey, hyung?” He says, voice so weak Namjoon can barely hear it over their footsteps. Namjoon makes a low sound in his throat. “I think whoever ends up being loved by you is a very lucky person.”
Namjoon doesn’t say anything more. He simply walks Jungkook back to his dorm, their arms pressed together the entire time. Neither of them move away once.
Namjoon made a promise to himself a long time ago to only give people a little bit of himself. Just a small portion, to keep them satisfied. Because Namjoon used to fall in love with everything; a boy, a friend, a poem, a painting. The sky, the fields, the birds, the rain.
Namjoon used to fall in love with everything, and then he came out to his parents and was asked not to come home again. Then he switched roommates three times within a school term. Then he went thirty-six months with clear skin.
Namjoon wakes in the morning to a wicked hangover and a garden blooming across his thigh. A peach in light orange marker pops up on his elbow the following afternoon during his Philosophy and Race course. By the time he’s back at his apartment, the peach has the company of a bouquet of wildflowers held by a severed hand along his forearm, an anatomically correct earthworm wrapped around his wrist, the constellation of Orion dotted across the curve of his palm, and the English word for “love” inked in calligraphy across his knuckles.
Hoseok stares at his arms the next day, his mouth making an uncomfortable looking squiggly line. “Is this some kind of weird courting ritual you’ve set up?”
Namjoon laughs. “We’re taking it slow.”
“Do they know that you’re taking it slow?”
Namjoon shrugs. He has a feeling that they do. Doesn’t really care. He told Jungkook that he should get to know his soulmate better. That if they’re good to him, could be good for him, then he should try to let them into his life.
Namjoon’s never given someone advice he couldn’t follow on his own, but that doesn’t change the fact that the mornings Namjoon knows he’s going to see Jungkook still feel breathless and full of possibility.
Namjoon’s on the bus and he’s out of paper but his skull is full of words and words and thoughts and poems and love and he’s so afraid there will be nothing left in his mind by the time he makes it back to his apartment that he asks the woman two seats over if she has a pen. She smiles knowingly and hands him one meant for skin, and Namjoon settles back into his seat with heated cheeks and begins to write.
He’s thick with stories, brimming with so many words that he can’t imagine stopping until each one is written down. So write he does, without pause, until the felt tip of the pen is soft and dry and the sky outside is dotted with stars and his body is more ink than skin.
Namjoon breathes deep. Stares down at his open palm, his forearm, the wide expanse of his thighs where they’re tacky with sweat against the vinyl of the bus seat. He’s not quite sure what his brain just threw up everywhere, he’ll have to interpret it later, but he does know that it was raw and inhibited and completely laid bare for his soulmate to read.
Namjoon groans and sinks forward, chest to knees, and forces himself to breathe. What if his soulmate is in class or working out or at some important interview? Namjoon’s pretty sure he wrote the word fuck at least three times.
He melts further into misery. The rest of his commute is spent with his eyes squeezed closed and his arms wrapped around his thighs. He breathes, and listens to the baby at the front of the bus cry, and overhears a couple arguing over dinner arrangements, and smells someone take out an orange to peel.
It’s not until he’s making the trek up his apartment steps that Namjoon spares a glance down.
There, tucked between letters, right at the bone where his palm meets his wrist, is a single red heart.
When Namjoon wakes the next morning, he finds that his soulmate has left marginalia for him to read.
They’re innocent enough. A simple, “I like this bit” or “This part is really pretty”. But then, hidden neatly behind the crease of his knee, almost like they weren’t meant to be shared, Namjoon spots several lines of blue ink. Some of the words are marked out or rubbed into a blur, but Namjoon can still gather what’s written.
One day, it says, you are going to find a person who understands that loving people so much is a part of who you are. Someone who is ready to love you with just as much and just as hard, with all they have. Please wait for that day.
Namjoon lowers his leg. Walks over to his desk and picks up a red pen. Draws a single red heart beside the last word his soulmate left for him, then goes to the bathroom to brush his teeth.
What are some of your favorite things? Namjoon writes one evening, the words pressed to the fresh skin of his forearm. This morning he finally scrubbed off the squid that had taken residence there for the past several days.
He eats dinner, leftovers from the family dinner at Seokjin’s last night. Yoongi brought whiskey and tried to teach Jungkook how to drink. Namjoon brought Jungkook over a strawberry daiquiri instead, and then spent ten minutes in the bathroom washing his face and neck and the back of his knees with cool water because Jungkook, a little tipsy, had rocked forward and planted a gossamer kiss on Namjoon’s forehead as thanks.
Namjoon can still feel the press of his lips, sticky with balm, skin warm and smelling heavily of fresh cotton detergent.
Namjoon looks down. Underneath his question is a tidy list in green ink.
waking up early before anyone else
visiting stationary stores
talking to you
Namjoon hums. He finishes the last of his japchae. Washes his dishes and the plastic container he needs to return in the morning when he meets Seokjin and Yoongi for coffee.
More ink, this time on the front of his forearm, peeking over the tops of his rubber gloves.
What are some of your favorite things?
Namjoon makes another low sound. He discards his gloves and shuffles over to the coffee table where his notes from class rest in haphazard piles. He grabs a pen, gives it a shake. Writes,
sitting on the floor of the library
the scent of rain
my friends’ laughter
talking to you too
He gets a single purple heart back in response.
When Namjoon walks into Seokjin’s apartment that evening, he’s sweat through his undershirt enough for his button up to go translucent.
“Joon, you look like a porn star,” Seokjin says in lieu of a greeting.
“AC on the subway was busted,” Namjoon groans, hastily undoing the buttons of his shirt the same time he toes off his shoes. “God, I think Seoul is trying to kill me this year. Why does no one take global warming seriously?” Namjoon shucks off his dress shirt and reaches for the hem of his tee to pull over his head. “I think I sweated so much I’m dehydrated. My toes are moist, hyung.”
“Don’t track toe sweat around my apartment,” Seokjin scowls, and Namjoon laughs and uses his shirt to rub off the sweat that’s been pooling in the divots of his stomach and chest. It’s strangely silent in the apartment for the amount of shoes that were in the doorway, and Namjoon turns the corner of the kitchen and finds the others in the midst of what looks to be a card game.
“Oh, Uno!” Namjoon bleats, shuffling over to take a seat beside Taehyung. The impact sends Taehyung toppling into Namjoon’s side, a sweet, giggly mess. “I want in on the next round.”
“Hyung,” Jungkook says in a small voice, and Namjoon looks up from Taehyung’s head on his lap to Jungkook’s eyes wide and roving Namjoon’s bare skin. “Hyung,” he says again, voice cracking on the edges even though it barely rises above a whisper. “Are those tattoos?”
Namjoon forgot that his skin is darkened by stars and flowers and words and words and words. The conversation from the early hours of the morning, smudged but still legible across the skin of his forearms, the wide expanse of his thighs. “My soulmate,” Namjoon says, and he presses a single finger to the cicada perched in the crook of his elbow. “Aren’t they incredible?”
It isn’t the first time Namjoon has foregone a shirt in someone else’s company, neither is it the first time he’s spoken of his markings, his soulmate, with such quiet reverence, longing. But the room is still in a way that Namjoon has never had to adjust to, and when he looks up Jungkook’s face is drawn together in an unreadable expression.
“Can I touch?” He asks, and Namjoon frowns and looks around at the others. Jimin, slack-jawed. Hoseok, mouth pinched, visibly cycling through emotions. Taehyung, currently crawling out of his lap to make room for Jungkook to come over.
“If you want,” Namjoon says, suddenly self-conscious about the lack of time he’s been in the gym over the past few weeks. He’s still loose and lean and long-limbed, but he can barely do twenty push ups, let alone hold a dragonfly position in class anymore.
Jungkook doesn’t mind. He steps over the coffee table straight into Namjoon’s space. He moves forward unasked, using his knee to spread Namjoon’s thighs open so he can stand between them. Namjoon melts under his guidance, the idea of putting up resistance buried so deep in his mind as Jungkook reaches out a trembling hand to graze fingertips across Namjoon’s collarbone where a faded bird’s nest rests, then goes to trace the raven in flight on his sternum, the vine curling under his pec and down his ribs, the bumblebee dipping just beneath the band of his slacks.
Namjoon’s breath hitches and Jungkook’s touch stutters, and Namjoon doesn’t know what his face looks like, just that whatever it is has Jungkook sinking down to take Namjoon’s face in his hands.
“Hyung,” Jungkook says. “Namjoon. Can I kiss you?”
“Oh, absolutely,” Namjoon groans, and Jungkook sinks down to kiss him full on the mouth.
Namjoon sucks in a breath through his nose and grasps blindly at Jungkook’s waist, daring to dip his hands under the untucked hem of Jungkook’s shirt to splay his fingers wide against the warm skin there.
Jungkook shivers violently. “You were so close all this time,” he says, voice low against Namjoon’s lips, almost kissing him but not quite. And then he leans back to pull his hoodie over his head and Namjoon’s face to face with a black rabbit curled around the moon.
The drawing, his drawing, right there on Jungkook’s bare chest, a mirror to his own.
“Holy fuck,” Yoongi says from the direction of the kitchen.
“Holy fuck,” Namjoon echos and drags Jungkook down into his lap.
Jungkook kisses the way he speaks—quickly, thoughtlessly, little stutters here and there. He’s inexperienced and it shows, but Namjoon loves it. Loves how soft and genuine he is. Loves how Jungkook, for all the airs and theatrics, melts so wonderfully under Namjoon’s guiding touch.
“Hyung,” Jungkook breathes. Namjoon sucks Jungkook’s lower lip into his mouth and Jungkook moans, tugs back and says, stilted this time, “Hyung. Hyung, Namjoon, I love you.” He falls forward and presses his mouth over Namjoon’s forehead, breath hot. His cheeks are wet. “I’ve loved you for so long.”
Namjoon draws away. He feels hollow, as if he’s made of nothing but air on the inside, thin skin with missing bones; but Jungkook is looking down at him with only honest affection in his face and Namjoon is stricken.
“I’ve been waiting for you for years,” Namjoon tells him, and Jungkook’s lip wobbles and he drops into Namjoon’s lap, his whole body trembling. Namjoon holds him. Looks over the top of his head. Jimin is bawling into Taehyung’s chest. Yoongi is rubbing Hoseok’s shuddering shoulders. Seokjin is watching them from the kitchen doorway, just simply watching, this kind and lovely smile on his face, like everything is finally right in his world.
One day, you are going to find a person who understands that loving people so much is a part of who you are. Someone who is ready to love you with just as much and just as hard, with all they have.
“Hyung.” Jungkook is thumbing at his cheeks, wiping away the tears falling silently. When did Namjoon start crying? “My sweet, Namjoonie hyung.”
Namjoon used to fall in love with everything. A friend, a poem, a painting. He fell in love with the sky, the fields, the birds, the rain. The forest and piles of books and brown eyes and the moon.
Namjoon takes Jungkook’s face in his hands, runs his thumbs over the highest points of Jungkook’s cheeks. “I love you,” Namjoon tells him, and he hopes Jungkook can hear every unspoken sentiment those seven letters carry with them.
Namjoon’s certain he does. They’re soulmates, after all.