A package comes in at the post office on February sixteenth with Jeongguk’s name written on it.
Jeongguk’s arm is still a little sore from the last inking it took to get the rest of the dragon done, but now he sports a sleeve that he that he can look at, and remind himself that good things will return. He doesn’t recognize the penmanship or the return address. It’s an unassuming cardboard box with the standard air mail stamps and seals, but before he can turn it over in his hands some more, Kisum decides she isn’t having any of his spacecasing today. “Hey, can you grab me an overnight shipping label?”
So, for most of the day, Jeongguk forgets about it. He’s already forgotten that phone call that he’d pushed to the very back of his mind, because he shoves it into his backpack and doesn’t recall it again until later that night. His bag is unreasonably heavy and just for a moment he thinks with a sinking heart that he has a load of homework deserving of two midnight Starbucks runs, could I get a venti with six shots of sugar please, until he unzips it and the package tumbles to the floor.
It’s not like it has changed from the afternoon. The cardboard is still just as beaten up around the edges, tape still shiny with stray air bubbles caught in the adhesive. But the realization hits him now like a blow to the nose and it is the rudest wake-up call Jeonngguk has gotten since the one that screamed him awake the morning of his econometrics final, nearly a year ago.
Jeon Jeongguk, Magnolia Court, East Tower, Room 604.
“Holy shit,” he says aloud.
Whatever it is, every part of him screams not to open it. Are you stupid, asks his self-preserving side, as small as it may be. Respect Taehyung’s wishes, says his moral compass, cutting over the din of his thoughts.
And open it anyway, whispers the saddest, most selfish part of him. What difference does it make now?
It is soft and red, nestled in packing paper when Jeongguk gets the package open. At first he doesn’t know what to make of it, but when he lifts it out, his heart swoops something horrible. Never in his life has Jeongguk been so unhappy to see a red snapback, the one he has been wanting for ages, one that he couldn’t find anywhere. And yet here he is, with his heart in his stomach and a blank check of a brain. When he unfolds the back of the cap, a slip of paper flutters into his lap.
happy valentine’s day!!! ♡♡♡ the bike shop paid commission but then i had to work on days i had off instead of spending them with you :( :( :( but i hope you like this! you wanted it, right? i found it downtown but they were out of stock so the shopowner said he’d custom order it for you~ anyway since i’m done we can kiss a lot and a lot now ㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋ ♡♡ i love you!! ♡♡
The difference, Jeongguk learns, is a headache in his temples and a burn in his throat.
(The cheery sound of Taehyung’s ringtone shakes him awake by the shoulders. For a blurry, disoriented moment, he thinks it is morning, time again to wake up and face another day. Then he recognizes the noise, that it’s a call coming through, and it’s just past midnight on Saturday night.
“Hello?” he says blearily, picking up without even needing to look where he’s tapping on the screen. The life of someone who lives with his phone in his hand.
“I miss you.”
Taehyung feels his heart plummet past his ribs, tumbling over muscle and bone, into his stomach. He knows this voice. He knows it half-asleep and he would know it completely asleep, or drunk, or blind.
“J-Jeongguk,” he says. It doesn’t sound like a question.
“I miss you,” Jeongguk repeats, and the way his words run into each other from behind, tripping over each other’s shoelaces—Taehyung knows he’s drunk. He’s heard Jeongguk talk like this before, too. Jeongguk has said sweet things he’d never say sober with this voice, up against the shell of Taehyung’s ear or with his head in Taehyung's lap or holding his hand like he’s afraid Taehyung will disappear if he let go. “Taehyung, I miss you so much. I can’t feel my face and I don’t know if it’s the alcohol or if it’s because you’re not here to hold it and tell me I’ll be okay.”
“Holy shit,” Taehyung says, and the thick, suffocating feeling in his chest chases away sleep faster than an alarm ever has. “Where are you?”
“Home,” Jeongguk replies. At least he’s still answering questions. “I’m sitting home alone like a loser. Missing you. It sucks. It sucks because I think I finished the Ciroc Bambam and Yugyeom were saving—saving for this weekend? They’re going to kill me. It sucks. I don’t even like Ciroc. I want you here.”
Taehyung sits up in his sheets now, and the scent of Jeongguk wrapped around him, with his voice up against his ear like this—if Taehyung shuts his eyes, and lets the dreamy film of sleep slide back over his them, he can almost imagine Jeongguk here with him now, beside him. Like he used to be, once.
“Don’t just say those things to me,” he manages, swallowing around the thick, dry feeling in his throat. “Why did you call me? Why did you drink so much?”
“I’m sorry.” Jeongguk hiccups. “I wanted to. I wanted to hear your voice.”
Taehyung is silent. Then, “Okay, you’ve heard it now.”
“Wait, don’t go!” Jeongguk says. There is true, unadulterated desperation in his voice. “Taehyung, don’t go. Don’t go.”
“Hey, I’m not going anywhere,” Taehyung says, and hopes Jeongguk is at least drunk enough not to notice how hard he’s pressing down the urge to let the tears slip down his cheeks. “I’m here. Why did you drink so much?”
“Because I thought it would make me forget.”
“You. Us. How miserable I am without you. But it didn’t work, did it? I don’t know why I thought it did. I thought alcohol was supposed to cover pain up, not make it worse. I thought a lot of things and I’m wrong about most of them, because here I am. Here we are. I didn’t forget anything except that I’m not supposed to call you and the only things I can’t feel are my face and my hands.”
Taehyung hugs his blankets to his chest. “Jeongguk, stop drinking.” He has half a mind to hang up and call Jimin right now, even though it’s Saturday night and the chances that he and Seokjin are in bed together right now are through the roof, but someone has to slam sense into Jeongguk and it’s not him right now.
“I’m sorry,” Jeongguk says again. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t going to call you. Fuck, I fucked up again. Hey, that’s something I’m good at. I didn’t want to call you because I know it would make you sad. That’s something else I’m good at, huh? Making you sad. Fucking up and making you sad. That’s all I’m good at.”
“That’s not true, Jeongguk,” Taehyung says, and now the tears really do fall. It isn’t. It isn’t at all.
“Can you honestly say you were ever happy with me, though?” Jeongguk says. “Like, what did I even do for you? What did I ever do for you?” He laughs and it’s the farthest thing from happiness that Taehyung has ever heard. “All I did before we dated was make you sad. All I did after we dated was make you sad.”
“Jeongguk, you were so much more than that, I don’t want to hear any more of this.”
“I’ve never been this scared, Taehyung,” Jeongguk says, and there it is—falling into the stage where he’s starting to talk without really hearing what Taehyung is saying. “Even before, when I broke up with people, I was never this miserable. Or scared, I was never scared. I try to remember how long we were together but I can’t no matter how hard I try, because all I can think about is however long it was, it wasn't long enough.”
“Why are you scared?”
“Because I don’t think,” Jeongguk pauses, and Taehyung’s heart sinks further when he thinks he hears Jeongguk swallowing more alcohol, “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to like anyone again, not the same way I liked you. Still like you. Because I can’t get over you. It’s been months. At night when it’s quiet enough, when the night is dark enough. When I’m alone. I think of you, and it feels like I can’t even breathe. Even if I do end up dating someone else, or many someone elses. Get it? Do you get it? Some part of me will never be able to forget you.”
“Jeongguk,” Taehyung says, and now a sob finally breaks through, and his body is wracked with it. “Jeongguk.”
“I’m not going to remember this in the morning, hyung,” Jeongguk says. “I’m sorry you have to. I’m sorry that you’ve always done more for me than I ever did for you.”
“Jeongguk,” Taehyung says, finding his words. “Do you regret it, then?”
Jeongguk doesn’t answer, his labored breathing filtering through the line. “Do you regret it, meeting me? Dating me? If you’re here now, like this, more miserable than you’ve ever been?”
And all there is is breathing. Harsh, coming in fast, tired gasps. The tears drip off Taehyung’s chin, cold and salty, making dark streaks in the white hoodie as they dampen the cotton. He’s about to grit his teeth, hang up, maybe roll over and wait for the tears to carry him off back to sleep, back to dreams where Jeongguk only smiles, but then he speaks.
“How could I ever regret you?” Jeongguk coughs, in the way Taehyung knows that if he doesn’t stop drinking soon he’s going to throw up so hard he’ll see spots.
“Oh, look. The beast lives.”
“How’re you doing over there, buddy?”
Jeongguk’s surroundings bleed back into form slowly. It begins with the feeling of couch cushions beneath him and something warm and smelling faintly of weed draped over him. Then it’s the sunlight jabbing into his eyes, the breeze on his neck from the window. It’s calm and soothing against his temples, pounding like miniature snare drums on either side of his head. His mouth feels like he dragged his tongue across four miles of sandpaper.
He answers with, “Fine.”
“What a champ,” Bambam says, as if proud.
“Hey, you alright?” This voice is closer now, and Jeongguk groans at the bounce when Yugyeom sinks down into the couch around where Jeongguk’s knees are. “I got you some water. Are you feeling okay?”
“I want to die.”
“Yeah, I can’t say I’m surprised,” Yugyeom says solemnly. “You really threw your liver to the dogs last night.”
“What happened?” Jeongguk asks. He reaches forward blindly for the water Yugyeom promised, and a plastic bottle meets his palm. He sloshes some over his chin but most of it makes it into his mouth, which is a #hangoverachievement for the books.
“You don’t remember?”
Jeongguk is silent.
“Damn, you don’t usually black out, do you? Still. I can’t say I’m surprised. We got back in around three or four AM and you were crying about—”
“Shit,” Bambam says loudly from the kitchen where he is set up with his laptop and what looks like enough paper and worksheets to kill a forest. “I accidentally clicked on one of those ‘fuck busty Russian babes in your area’ ads—”
“Well,” Yugyeom says.
“Dude, come look,” Bambam says, looking over his computer.
“Right,” Yugyeom cottons on, standing up and shuffling away from Jeongguk and into the kitchen, too, to join Bambam behind his laptop. Jeongguk is still too tired to call out this blatant secret hiding to care about design, so he sits up more slowly and asks,
“Was it about Taehyung?”
“Well,” Bambam says, right when Yugyeom squeaks “No!”
The silence is withering. Even with a headache as bad as this Jeongguk manages to look as exasperated as he wants, maybe even moreso.
“You were sad about him,” Yugyeom says quietly. “I mean, we knew that already. You fell asleep pretty soon after, though, so don’t worry. You didn’t tell us too much that you wouldn’t want us to know. Or that we didn’t already know. It’s okay.”
“Do you remember anything?” Bambam asks when Jeongguk sits there and stews in his misery with eyes closed. “Or, what’s the last thing you remember?”
“Maybe my eighth drink,” Jeongguk says. His teeth feel like they’re all wearing individual sticky alcohol sweaters when he runs the tip of his tongue over them. There must have been something else, too. Bambam and Yugyeom wouldn’t lie to his face, but Jeongguk remembers talking to someone. Perhaps his roommates had gotten back at the tail end of the film of memory, because he has no clue what he said. “Fuck, I’m so sorry. I’ll get you guys another handle.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Don’t worry about it? Are you kidding? Ciroc is expensive—”
“Ciroc is overrated,” Bambam says evenly. “Mark hyung has this unreasonable boner for Ciroc but hard liquor all tastes the same fifty shades of regret.” Jeongguk has heard of this Mark, the skinny boy from California that looked like someone Jeongguk would fight in high school.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah.” Bambam, ever the meticulous when it came to repayment between the three housemates, is brushing Jeongguk’s offer off. He wonders how bad he really looks. “Just get us some sangria.”
Getting back on track isn’t that hard. Jeongguk buys the sangria and studies for his third finance midterm and lets Kisum and Hwasa tell him what to do for the rest of the week, not that he’s ever been a follower but being his own leader has never been more exhausting. Also, he finds, a life shaped by strong women doesn’t seem that bad.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you, but don’t answer if you don’t want to,” Hwasa mentions on a warm Thursday evening. Jeongguk’s Stussy tank is damp and he has his bangs swept into his snapback to keep them out of his face, and the rest of the team is on the floor taking a break in their sweaty clothes. “Our year-end showcase is coming up. Is your...boyfriend going to come, or?”
Jeongguk brings his water bottle away from his lips. Well, at least Hwasa is old enough, or smart enough, to at least ask tactfully.
“We’re not together anymore. So I don’t think so.”
“Oh,” she says. “I’m sorry.”
“No, no. It happens, you know.”
“Yeah,” she agrees, and something about the way she says it makes Jeongguk not want to hear what she has next for him. “Sorry to pry. I just noticed that you and Jimin don’t seem to talk as much anymore, and I didn’t want that to be cause of any animosity in the team. I wasn’t sure if it had anything to do with that.”
“He told you, didn’t he.”
“He might have mentioned something.”
Jeongguk can’t even find it in himself to be angry, or even annoyed. No, he cannot blame Jimin for turning away. Not when Jeongguk pushed him away first, but what could he do? Being around Jimin meant being around Taehyung. It was just an unfortunate reality he had to accept.
“Sorry,” he mutters, fiddling with the label of his water bottle. “I didn’t mean to bring my personal life into this.”
“Hey, what are we, business partners?” Hwasa says. “Friends are your personal life. We’re friends. We’re all friends, there’s no reason for you to hide this. It’s probably better, in fact, that we know. Or at least I know.”
Jeongguk grunts. “Thanks,” it sounds like.
The team’s chatter grows louder. Sorn’s voice pierces high over the others’ and then peals of laughter break out over them, bubbling around in the thin space between Jeongguk and Hwasa as they look out of the windows of the dance studio.
“Jimin’s graduating soon, so he’s really worried about you.”
“Oh, is he?”
“Even if you guys don’t talk much recently, that doesn’t automatically mean he no longer cares about you. That’s not Jimin at all.”
Jeongguk hasn’t considered it recently until Hwasa brought it up again now. Graduation. Soon Jimin is going to be walking that stage, and Jeongguk will be the last of them: Seokjin, Namjoon, Hoseok, Jimin. Taehyung, who’ll, come June, walk across the stage in a black gown and satin sashes and wave goodbye to the campus he’s so lovingly talked about for the past four years. And Jeongguk won’t ever have to see him again.
“Yeah, you’re right,” Jeongguk says, admitting it for once. He’s gotten good at that, accepting his fuckups. “But to be honest, he probably will worry about me forever unless I got back together with my ex. And I probably won’t ever be as close to him anymore.”
“Why? It doesn’t have to be like that.”
“Maybe one day,” Jeongguk says. “But being around Jimin is too hard for the both of us. He has to censor his words and I have to pretend I don’t hear it when he slips up. And I’m not going to ask him to leave his best friend because we’re not on good terms anymore.”
Hwasa is quiet now, mulling over something that, for a second, gives Jeongguk the feeling she’ll protest again.
But all she replies with is, “I’m sorry it has to be that way.”
“It’s okay.” And, for the first time, it sounds sincere. It doesn’t feel like a band-aid over a bullet hole. Maybe it is not okay just yet. But it will be okay.
“You’ll be okay.”
Jeongguk looks across the space at her, but she’s standing up already. “All right, punks, break time’s over. Up on your feet!”
There’s a collective groan but the members get up, shaking out their limbs. Hwasa is by the speakers, scrolling through her phone to find the right remix track, when Jeongguk catches Jimin’s eye across the room. His smile is small and sad as if he still has something left to say and knows that Jeongguk does not want to hear it.
The showcase comes and goes.
The theater is full to the brim as nearly every dance team in the school assembles one last time. Jeongguk doesn’t search the crowd for someone he swears to himself he no longer thinks about. Bambam and Yugyeom are there, and even Namjoon drops in to visit, and Jeongguk would be lying if he didn’t launch himself into his hyung’s arms and hold on tight. “It’s been too long, kiddo,” says Namjoon, laughing as he ruffles Jeongguk’s hair.
As summer starts tumbling in in poppies and pool parties, it isn’t hard to play spot-the-senior—the only students among the thousands that don’t look like zombies in the weeks approaching finals. Instead, they’re in the University Center where Jeongguk used to work, buying gowns and sashes and memorabilia before their time runs out.
So Jeongguk thanks his lucky stars that he was transferred to the post office this year, because he still doesn’t know how to feel about it, what Hwasa had said. Instead he hangs out with the last-minute packages in the mailroom, accounting for returned PO Box keys and doing filing in preparation for the summer slump.
“What are you doing over the summer?” Kisum asks, during some downtime in the late afternoon. Jeongguk is lying back in one of the ripped office chairs, the picture of ease.
“Summer school,” Jeongguk says. “If all goes according to plan I’m bouncing by this winter.”
“Damn, good luck to you,” she says, dropping one more returned key in the filing cabinet. The chair she sinks into creaks under her weight.
“Really, I mean, good luck,” she repeats. “You seemed really bummed this past winter. You don’t need to tell me everything that happened, but I hope it works out for you.”
“Jesus. Way to be gloom and doom. It’s not like I’m leaving yet.”
“But I am,” Kisum says, and Jeongguk looks up at this. “I don’t know who’s transferring down to the mailroom for next year, but I found work off-campus. This is the last year here.” She casts her gaze over the package and mail bins, almost empty at this time in the year. “I’m going to miss it here.”
“You’ll do good out there,” Jeongguk says. “Everyone will fear you. But why leave if you like it here?”
“I mean, I like it here, sure,” Kisum says. “But telling myself that isn’t going to change the fact that I’ll be happier elsewhere. This work is something I’ve wanted and waited for a long time, and I didn’t think I’d ever get it, but it never hurts to try again. I had to mess up to know how to do it right the next time. You know, making mistakes.”
The evening is warm when Jeongguk trudges back to his apartment, having foregone his board in favor of walking. The crickets are loud in the bushes and, as the sun turns the sky lavender, he remembers the lecture Namjoon had given him last year around this time that sounded hauntingly like Kisum’s. Maybe it’s a 94 line thing.
It’s a man-eat-man world. If you want something, ask for it.
That’s how Jeongguk had found himself hopping behind the wheel of his then-Hummer, feeling too exhausted to even buckle up, never mind drive. But he had did it, found himself in Taehyung’s front yard, asking for a second chance that he didn’t even know he had.
But Jeongguk has run out of chances and options. Jeongguk has run out of maybes and what ifs, and Jeongguk has run out of tomorrows to wait until. It’s nearly summer, but the breeze is cool against his bare arms, and he shivers as he takes the stairs up to his apartment door two at a time.
Someone is already standing there. At first, wildly, he mistakes the figure for Bambam, who locks himself out their apartment every other week. Then they turn, and Taehyung’s face is thrown into sharp relief in an unforgiving slice of setting sun.
“Oh,” Jeongguk says, feeling the air evaporate from his body. “Uhm.”
“Sorry,” Taehyung says quickly, snatching the silence up in his fingers. He already moving, turning to brush past so fast that Jeongguk’s suddenly water-logged brain has to go into overdrive to keep up.
“Wait.” The word comes out of Jeongguk’s mouth mechanically. He doesn’t even need to look back or down to reach out and grab Taehyung’s wrist—he’s a bit out of practice so he misses and catches Taehyung’s arm more than anything, and a bit of button-up flannel, too, but Taehyung halts.
For a moment, they stand there. Then, “Let me go.”
“Let me go,” Taehyung repeats, shaking his arm a little now in Jeongguk’s grasp. Reluctantly, Jeongguk turns. He’s not ready for this, but he could live a thousand years and never be ready for confrontation.
“The last time I listened to you when you said that, I made the biggest mistake of my life,” Jeongguk says. The words tear the insides of his cheeks bloody as he says them but it feels, finally, like catharsis. “If I let you go this time I’ll never see you again and I don’t know if I can live with that kind of regret.”
“Isn’t that your own fault?”
“I never said it wasn’t,” Jeongguk says, and now he really does let go. Taehyung doesn’t bolt, and even turns around, but his gaze on Jeongguk’s face makes the words fall flat on his tongue again. “I never said I wanted you to leave.”
“You didn’t have to say anything.”
Jeongguk has always thought that the coldest people were the scariest. He’s learned some things in university, he supposes. And today he learns that he is wrong, and it is those who smile the brightest and laugh the hardest whose dry, scathing anger hurts the most.
“You never had to say anything for me to know that you were tired of us,” Taehyung says, in the way of someone who has this all figured out. Dry and rational, like he’s too tired to bring emotion into this again. “You told me from the very beginning you were shit at relationships. I didn’t expect you to magically get better at them just because you were dating me, so you don’t need to worry. It’s not like you were the first person I’ve ever dated, I know what it means to fall out of love. It happens. I’m just sorry it had to happen the way it did.”
“Taehyung, you don’t understand.”
Jeongguk meets Taehyung’s eyes. They’re guarded, more than Jeongguk has ever seen them. There’s a tired curve to his shoulders, propped up on stilts of caffeine, and Jeongguk fights the urge to reach over and pull Taehyung to his body like he used to.
“I never fell out of love. Even if you did, I—whatever you may think, I didn’t.”
“It’s pretty hard for you to convince me of that after,” Taehyung sighs, gesturing wearily, “everything.”
“The phone call.”
“The phone call,” Jeongguk says. “I got your present. The—the one you wanted to send me for Valentine’s Day, right?”
“You weren’t even supposed to get that,” Taehyung says, not missing a beat, but the color in his lips pales slightly. “Forget it.”
“I called you, didn’t I?” Jeongguk says. Sweat beads at the nape of his neck as faint recollection bleeds into the fringes of his memory. “I called you, it was you.”
“And I don’t remember what I said, but I can’t let you leave this place without at least letting you know once that I really—I really did love you. I still do. Even though I told myself every day that I didn’t, I never knew it wasn’t something you could just grind into the dirt and forget about. Maybe one day I finally, finally won’t anymore.”
Taehyung doesn’t say anything, and Jeongguk tries not to be distracted by the way the wind is running its fingers through Taehyung’s bangs. His hair is lighter, Jeongguk notices, and he looks even taller than he used to be—maybe taller than Jeongguk, now, but still just as thin-framed.
“I’m not asking anything of you, don’t think that, or feel any pressure, or anything,” Jeongguk says quickly, when the silence stretches out between them. “It—I know I was stupid. Somehow I got it into my head that you weren’t happy with me. You were always busy, and it just, I don’t know, it felt like you weren’t happy with me anymore. And I could understand that, too, since everyone I work with talked about graduation and you—you’re leaving this place and you don’t need to be tied down to me, you know. I didn’t know how to tell you that you didn’t need to stick around for my benefit, how do you even bring that up to someone? But now that I’ve said it—”
“You’re goddamn stupid.”
“I—yeah, I know.”
Taehyung laughs, runs his own fingers through his hair now. It looks like a habit he picked up from Jimin. “If you love me so much,” he asks, “why do you pretend you don’t?”
Because the easiest way to not have your heart broken is to act like you don’t have one. Jeongguk sighs. Twenty-one years on this earth and he still hasn’t learned the difference between being in a relationship and being single. Taehyung is right, really. He is goddamn stupid. There are so many excuses he can think of and so many roundabouts he could take to explain, but suddenly it seems so clear. It probably has been dancing in front of him all this time.
“I was scared,” he says. “I was scared, I am scared, and I’m cowardly. I’m not good at asking for things I want and I have no one else but myself to blame when I can’t have them.”
“What do you even have left to ask me?”
Jeongguk swallows. His throat is parched.
“Can you come back to me?”
Taehyung exhales through his nose. “Why should I?”
Good question. There are plenty of far more affectionate, far more vivacious people that could make Taehyung smile every moment of every day. Good question, why should he come back to Jeongguk?
“Because,” Jeongguk says, finding his voice in spite of himself, “because I—I know you were happy with me, once. Right? We were happy. I made you so happy, even if I wasn’t sure what I was doing. And I was scared that one day, when I couldn’t keep that up anymore, you’d tire of me. If it weren’t for how stupid I am, we would never have run out of that happy. And—if that’s not reason enough for you, that’s okay. It’s okay. But I just need you to know, Taehyung, that for me—for me, you made me happier than anyone ever has.”
Jeongguk can’t quite be sure. Maybe it’s a trick of the light. Taehyung’s eyes look a little glassier than they did just moments before and he looks away, like he doesn’t want Jeongguk to see the shift in his expression. Then, “You really don’t remember calling me at all, do you?”
“No...no, I don’t.”
“You asked me when you ever made me happy,” Taehyung says, and his voice chokes up on the last word. “As if that was what scared you the most, that I was never happy with you.”
“I mean—I, I couldn’t be sure—”
“Jeongguk,” Taehyung says, and the sound of Jeongguk’s name in his mouth is so soft and well-worn that Jeongguk shivers. “You idiot. It’s the people who make you happiest who have the power to make you the saddest.”
“I know, I know. I’m sorry—”
“They said you were a shitty actor,” and now Taehyung laughs, one that is half relieved, half exhausted. “But I must say, just this once, you actually had me fooled.”
Jeongguk swears Taehyung’s cheeks are wet when he climbs over him in bed, straddling Jeongguk’s hips.
He feels the moisture on his own skin when Taehyung leans in to kiss him, elbows digging in the pillows on either side of Jeongguk’s head as they pull each other close, closer, not close enough. Even with Jeongguk’s arms wrapped like a vice around Taehyung’s middle, and Taehyung’s thigh slotting between both of Jeongguk’s, it’s not close enough.
If they’re both honest, it’s not the sex that gets both of them—even though Jeongguk has missed the feeling of Taehyung’s fingers tightening in his hair, and even though Taehyung comes so hard the second round that he has to curl his body around Jeongguk’s frame, breath ragged at Jeongguk’s ear. They both missed this, sex feeling so right that it just never got better with anyone else. When they lie together afterwards, listening to Bambam and Yugyeom stumble back home from unmercifully long days at the library, Taehyung leans over from where his head is resting on Jeongguk’s pillow to kiss the crest of the dragon’s head along Jeongguk’s collarbone. Jeongguk shivers at the touch, can’t help but smile.
“You got another one?” Taehyung says. He runs his hand down the length of Jeongguk’s arm, loose and gentle, until he can lace their fingers together and bring Jeongguk’s new tattoo up to his face for inspection. “Another dragon? You have a sleeve now.”
“I know. I’ll never be able to wear a short-sleeved shirt to an office job in my life.”
There’s a thud outside and a faint curse that sounds like it comes from Yugyeom. Taehyung shifts, as if to get up. “I should go. You have a lot to study for.”
Taehyung stops. Jeongguk doesn’t mean to sound so desperate, but he realizes it belatedly when alarm touches Taehyung’s eyes.
“What did you think I did all day after we broke up,” Jeongguk mutters. “I’ve got a bit to study for, yeah, but this is probably the first semester in my life that I don’t have to cram, since studying and working are the only two things I’ve been doing anyway.”
Taehyung stares blankly at him.
“I mean, unless you have to, don’t go,” Jeongguk says, even more quietly. But here he is, learning to ask for things. “Stay with me?”
Taehyung is still propped up on one arm, looking down at Jeongguk with a soft smile on his lips. “Okay,” he says, easing back down into the sheets, a little damp from their bodies. “I’ll stay.”
“You don’t have to go?”
“You asked me to stay, didn’t you?”
“And since you did, the answer is no,” Taehyung says, the hair at his temple tickling Jeongguk’s throat as he snuggles in close. “I don’t have to go anywhere.”
Jeongguk slides his arm up Taehyung’s bare back, feels the shiver of Taehyung’s body against his when he does. “Thank you.”
“I love you.”
It takes Taehyung a few heartbeats to answer that. After a few tense moments Jeongguk thinks Taehyung must have already fallen asleep, but then he replies, “Me too.”
Jeongguk finds, however, that he can’t sleep. Not even when midnight really begins setting in, and even Bambam and Yugyeom quiet down outside—not even then do any winks of sleep start settling over his eyes. It’s a strange kind of insomnia. It is not driven not by adrenaline or anxiety but one that makes him too scared to fall asleep for fear that his dreams won’t be nearly as great as his reality.
Not that he doesn’t doze, which he does. He jolts out of it each time only to secure his arm around Taehyung’s waist. Taehyung is a violent sleeper, one that tosses and turns and swims and saves worlds in his sleep, and Jeongguk has fallen out of practice with sleeping through an elbow to the neck. But Jeongguk makes it through the night and feels a watery, weak relief in his bones when the sun rises over Taehyung’s skin. He is still here and Jeongguk isn’t dreaming.
“Hey,” Taehyung says when he comes to, blinking open eye. Even early in the morning, it’s getting warm in Jeongguk’s room, and Taehyung doesn’t move to pull the blankets up higher to his chin. “You’re awake already?”
“Who said I went to sleep?”
Taehyung blinks, raising his head off the pillow slightly with a frown on his lips. “You didn’t sleep?” he asks, voice still sandpapery. “What the hell? Why not?”
“Because I didn’t want to?”
“Jeongguk, you can sleep anywhere in any position. You sleep under the goddamn dining table in your shorts.”
“What if I went to sleep and woke up and found that you aren’t here?” he bursts out, the exhaustion making him honest. “What if I wake up and I’m alone?”
Taehyung settles back into the bed, looking Jeongguk in the face seriously. “You’ve had this dream before, haven’t you.” His voice is soft, unquestioning.
“Go to sleep,” Taehyung says, pressing a kiss to Jeongguk’s forehead—mostly to his hair, but his mouth just barely brushes the space between Jeongguk’s eyebrows. “You’re starting to get honest, I know you’re tired. I won’t go anywhere.”
“Since when were you a fan of promises?”
“Sleep, babe, I’m not leaving.”
“Okay. I love you.”
“Stop it,” Taehyung laughs. “You sound ridiculous saying that so much.”
Jeongguk opens his eyes blearily when he feels Taehyung’s mouth on his. He is not sure how long they kiss, but the sensation of them carries him to sleep.
Jeongguk doesn’t know what wakes him up.
Nothing particularly loud, he thinks. Perhaps it is the heat, prickling at the back of his neck uncomfortably, but he has slept through hotter nights without trouble. But when he opens his eyes, he is met with the empty expanse of his bed.
He nearly laughs aloud. Of course. Of course. Who had he been kidding? His arm drags across the empty space beside him and it is just as cold—or as warm—as the rest of his mattress, and he is alone, just as he had predicted. It sucks, how long it’s been, and he’s still having this dream.
His door opens and closes. He hopes it’s not Bambam coming in to get more printer paper for his study guide because Jeongguk has no idea how to explain why he’s sleeping at the hour he is, which has to be at least something like the evening given the way the sun is orange against his curtains.
But a silhouette blocks out the light for a moment and slips into bed with him again, and Taehyung freezes when Jeongguk meets his gaze.
“Babe?” he whispers.
It is Jeongguk’s turn to lift his head off the pillow. Taehyung is wearing a too-big t-shirt, it’s Jeongguk’s, and boxers.
“Where were you?”
“I went to go pee, but Bambam and Yugyeom distracted me. They made too much Velveeta and told me to eat some.” Taehyung brushes sweaty bangs out of Jeongguk’s eyes. “Hey, are you okay? Why that face?”
“I thought you—I thought it was—you promised me you wouldn’t go anywhere.”
“I didn’t,” Taehyung says, confused. “I’m here. You mean you didn’t want me to leave your side at all?”
Jeongguk is silent, shoving his face into his pillow.
“Wow,” Taehyung says, voice full of wonder. “If I had known you would be so miserable without me, I wouldn’t ever dream of breaking up with you.”
“Then why did you!”
“You never said anything! You didn’t even say no when I suggested it.”
Jeongguk shoves his face into his pillow again. His pillow does not spill straight truth tea on him.
Taehyung’s hand is wide and warm between Jeonguk’s shoulder blades. “Jeongguk, Jeongguk, Jeongguk,” he sighs in one breath. “I left you because I thought you wanted to leave me. You have to use your words, babe, how would I ever have known?”
“You’d have to leave me first,” Jeongguk mutters. “I’ll never leave you.”
A stunned silence settles over them. Then, “You’re ridiculous.”
“But I’m telling you the truth—”
“I know,” Taehyung says, running his hands through Jeongguk’s hair, and he is here, here, here. “You told me a lot of truths over the phone that night.”
“Shit, well. How bad was it?”
“Hmm. It was like you were confessing to me for the first time.”
“But it sounded like I meant it, right?” Jeongguk asks. “Because God knows I can’t repeat it again.”
“You sounded so desperate,” Taehyung says, “that it was like you wanted to reach through the phone that very minute and make sure I heard you.”
Jeongguk’s smile is tentative, but Taehyung gives him, in return, the smile of the sun that he has missed so dearly. “Your circadian rhythm is going to need a lot of work, babe.”
“Well,” Jeongguk says, toying with the hem of his comforter, “looks like we just have to get tired enough to go to sleep again.”
Silver-bodied mischief flickers in Taehyung’s eyes, and he laughs. “You got it.”
“Fuck off! If you blue shell me one more time I’ll blueball you for the rest of your life!”
“Uhh,” Bambam says, but the second he takes his eyes off the screen Yugyeom races past him in the chaos of Rainbow Road. “Wait, fuck—”
“Haha, bye, sucka,” Yugyeom says, tilting his Wii remote. Now Bambam is coming in at a grand tenth place, and Jeongguk absolutely will not live with himself if he comes in second, even to Taehyung.
“You won’t blueball me for the rest of my life, because then you’re blueballing yourself for the rest of your own life!” Taehyung singsongs, zooming towards the finish line in first.
Mario Kart, however, is dirty business, so Jeongguk doesn’t hesitate to use the lowest of blows. He’s a little sorry that Bambam and Yugyeom cannot be spared in this final joust for his pride, and he leans over across the space and presses his lips to Taehyung’s ear. The jolt of Taehyung’s body rocks through Jeongguk’s own, especially when Jeongguk laughs breathily and nips his earlobe—Taehyung’s eyes are huge and liquid when he pulls back, and in the moments his concentration is thrown off, Jeongguk triumphantly guns it past the finish line.
“Bro, that’s dirty, even for me,” Bambam says gravely, pulling in at ninth, and Yugyeom just barely before him in eighth. He eyes Jeongguk. “Now I remember why I don’t play this with you.”
“I let you win when you’re drunk,” Jeongguk protests, but his voice is positively dancing. He can hear it himself, but he feels a hand on the side of his face just then, yanking his gaze back so that he’s looking at Taehyung again.
“Okay, show’s over,” Yugyeom yells when Taehyung plants his mouth on Jeongguk in the middle of the living room, ablaze with light at three AM. Jeongguk laughs between Taehyung’s lips and teeth and tongue and the sound feels like home.
Commencement is unforgivingly warm, in the way where Jeongguk is worried that maybe he should have used his entire stick of deodorant instead of the half he already did use.
“You’re a fashion terrorist,” Hwasa had said to his face. “Who the hell wears a red snapback with a dress shirt?”
“Why are you even wearing a suit?” Sorn points out.
“I have a better question, why are you guys even here,” Jeongguk asks, glaring at Sorn in the mirror. She sticks her tongue out at him in response.
“If it has slipped your memory, Jimin happens to be on our dance team,” Hwasa says, examining a perfectly manicured nail. “And we stopped by to give him a lei and you were on the way back. And Sorn and I went to get smoothies together, so here we are.”
“Just you two?”
“She thinks your housemate is cute,” Hwasa shrugs.
“Which one?” Jeongguk demands. “Oh, God, don’t tell me it’s—”
The look on Sorn’s face makes Jeongguk look over his shoulder, and there Bambam is in his full shirtless, pantsless glory, wearing a pair of violently red boxers. Half of his arm is buried in a Pringles can. Jeongguk can smell the reek of a vodka night from here.
“Oh, God,” he says, turning back. “Please. Please, I beg you, you can do so much better.”
“He’s cute!” Sorn insists when Bambam slouches back out of earshot, probably to sleep off his hangover. Post-finals ragers at the end of the year really take a lot out of a human being.
Jeongguk points over his shoulder. “You thought that. Was cute?”
“Be nice, it’s not like you weren’t a crybaby this entire year,” Hwasa says, and Jeongguk sobers up. “Are you doing alright?”
“Yeah,” Jeongguk says, at the end of all things. It’s a tired yeah, tired but happy. “I’m okay.”
Hwasa nods, smiling a little. Her lipstick is a deep plum wine and Jeongguk wonders offhandedly then if he’s ever seen her without it. It’s odd, how you think you know someone, and turn around and find that you really didn’t know much at all.
“That’s good to hear,” she says. “I’ll see you next year, punk.”
In a stroke of luck, Jeongguk runs into Jimin as he’s taking the stairs down two at a time to the street. Jimin is already dressed in his black gown, collar and tie peeking through the collar. His hat is in hand and the wind teases the edges of his sash, but his face lights up when he sees Jeongguk on the sidewalk.
“Hey, you,” he says. “I was hoping I’d get to see you.”
Jimin runs a hand through his hair. It looks fairly well coiffed for someone who, Jeongguk guesses, must have gotten cross faded out of his mind last night. “Heard the news,” he says, laughing. It’s a little nervous. “So, can we talk like friends again?”
“Well, that’s not what I was looking—”
“No, but I am,” Jeongguk says. He sighs. “I may not have owed you anything but I’m sorry I shook you off and shut you out.”
Jimin’s smile has faded to a softer one now. “You think I don’t know that’s how you deal with things,” he says. “Not that I’m saying it’s a good way, but I knew.”
“Taehyung called me the night after you rang him up in the middle of the night, crying,” Jimin says. “He didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to do, either. He sounded like he was crying himself and he knew you’d never let him in if he showed up at your door. I was so scared for you that I almost asked Seokjin hyung to drive me across campus at that hour, but I realized you probably didn’t want to see me or let me in either, so I called your roommates.”
“I’m not asking for your apology, or your thanks,” Jimin says. “Just—Jeongguk, I swear to God. Open your heart a little and you’d be amazed at what comes in.”
It’s not often that Jeongguk is speechless from emotion, but perhaps this is one of those times. It’s also not often that Jeongguk initiates physical affection with Jimin, but this is definitely one of those times—he reaches out and Jimin pulls him into a hug that Jeongguk realizes has been delayed for far too long. Jimin pulls away first, laughing.
“Okay, this is getting weird. Aren’t you supposed to insult me around now?”
“You were the one who told me to open my stone-cold heart, fuckwad.”
“That’s better,” Jimin says. “Are you wearing that to the ceremony?”
Jeongguk adjusts the bill of the snapback, feeling a tuft of his bangs peek through the opening in the back. “Yeah.”
“You better,” Jimin says. “He worked his ass off to order that for you.”
“I’ll tell him to look for it,” Jimin says, clicking his tongue and winking. “I got you.”
In the end, Jeongguk can’t be sure if Taehyung hears his cheer or not.
It is probably drowned out in the roar that comes from the entire admissions department and the entire troupe of underclassmen tour guides that Taehyung trained his last year here at the university—they’ve gotten good at projecting, Jeongguk is sure, so that their tour groups will hear them over the bustle of the campus. But Taehyung’s gaze sweeps the crowd and he locks eyes with Jeongguk for a moment, and does a little hop-skip off the stage just for him. The tassel of his cap whacks his face but his eyes are glowing and he hardly takes notice.
When it ends, and when the newly recognized graduates are presented, it gets chaotic. It takes a few minutes for Taehyung to fight through the throngs to get to Jeongguk. When he does, eyes alight, he leans back and cheers, “I’m done!”
“You’re done!” Jeongguk shouts back in return, and laughs. “Where’s your family?”
“Way in the back,” Taehyung says, looking out over the sea of folding chairs and shading his eyes. “So I think it’ll be a while before they’ll make it through this crowd.” He looks to Jeongguk in the meantime, laughs again, and throws his arms around Jeongguk’s neck. There’s a rustle of flowers and paper when the money and petal leis are crushed between their chests but Taehyung just hugs Jeongguk harder, gasps a little when Jeongguk hefts him up so that his feet can’t touch the grass.. “I’m so—I’m so glad you came, I’m so happy you’re here—”
Taehyung pulls back, cradling Jeongguk’s face between his hands—raised up like this, he’s blocking out the light so Jeongguk can look into his face properly. When his cap wobbles in the summer gusts, he reaches back to steady it. Taehyung is laughing again, framed in sunlight, looking as though he is at the top of the very world right here in Jeongguk’s arms.
And maybe, Jeongguk thinks, he is.