Paediatric wards are strange places. Taehyung sometimes wonders at the strange bittersweetness of them when he walks out of the hospital with his mind conscious enough to think at all. The colorful posters and pictures of smiling children punctuated with serious warnings and words that terrified the parents that he met through the day. The strange, ugly contrast isn’t lost on him, especially on days that are more tragic than others.
There are strange days in the paediatric ward but some-
Some are stranger than others. And just like the tragic days, you never know it’s one of the strange ones until it is already over.
“- so then Papa bought me a big-” the little boy gestured with his hands, “- balloon because he said I was brave.”
“Youngjae, please hold still. I’m so sorry, Dr. Kim, I don’t know what’s gotten into him.”
The woman in front of him looks so apologetic that Taehyung feels like he has to reassure her that children have a great propensity for talking no matter what shiny pointy tools are nearly touching their faces and dodging their over eager movements is foremost amongst a paediatrician’s talents. The little boy in front of him- sweet and excited ever since he had first caught sight of the pictures of animals on Taehyung’s walls- is no exception.
“It’s okay, Youngjae, that really was so brave of you. I’m just going to need you to wait two seconds while we do some deep breathing, okay? I want to hear all about the balloon right after.”
He leans back on his swivel chair to grab the stethoscope on his desk and turns back to face his patient, who smiles even wider at the sight of it.
“Can I-?” Youngjae starts, wiggling his fingers towards the instrument with interest; Taehyung matches his smile and assures him right after we’re done. He presses the diaphragm to the boy’s chest at different spots, listening for any irregularities and letting himself feel a touch of sadness for the practice with which Youngjae goes through the exercise. Clearly, he has done this far too many times in his handful of years in the world.
“Great job, Youngjae!” He gives the boy a high five and then lets him have his turn with the stethoscope so Taehyung can turn to his nanny.
“Everything’s looking great,” Taehyung assures her, removing the gloves he had worn for the chest examination he had conducted and tossing them into the bin under his desk, “Things look normal when compared to his old doctor’s notes. You said he was facing difficulty breathing? Is there anything in the past few days that may have stressed him out, or made him anxious?”
“Well,” the nanny, Haejin, twists her fingers together, “His father’s been on a work trip for the first time. Youngjae is sweet tempered usually but he struggles with being away from him, that may be what’s happened.”
The four year old- quite small for his age- had walked into Taehyung’s clinic with dark emphatic eyes and exhaustion written on his face from what Haejin had told him was a bad asthma attack that morning. His light brown hair was long and unruly and he had one sock rolled all the way up and one barely visible. In this, Taehyung saw individuality and creativity but it had been hard to coax that out of Youngjae at first.
He had been quiet, withdrawn, until Taehyung had pointed out the animals on his wallpaper and asked whether Youngjae had ever met any of them. The little boy had lit up like a Christmas tree and had spent the last fifteen minutes telling him about the time he had been the only boy in his class brave enough to touch a snake on his class trip.
Taehyung makes a sound of sympathy at hearing Haejin’s words, glad that the boy hadn’t seemed as anxious after meeting him. “Well, try to minimise the stressors in his environment and let him have his fun till his father’s gone to keep him distracted. It’s only a temporary solution and I know an amazing counsellor who works with children if Youngjae’s parent feels that could help him. If the symptoms persist, don’t hesitate to call.”
He turns back to Youngjae, who’s abandoned the stethoscope in favour of playing with the little dinosaur figures on the table and instantly looks up when Taehyung looks at him. “Hyungie!” he exclaims, “I have a dinosaur too. Her name is Rexy and she’s a dip- dipdodocus and I sleep next to her every night and she tells me lots of stories!”
Off the boy goes again and he’s got an empty slot in the next hour, so Taehyung listens with dedication for nearly twenty minutes. Youngjae has many, many stories to tell and absolutely no idea of time and those twenty minutes have Taehyung smiling for the rest of the morning. The four year old makes a quite exhausted looking Haejin promise they’ll never go to another doctor again and only after squirrelling away three lollipops does he agree to leave. Taehyung is is left feeling glad he isn’t a dentist, and with a new name for the diplodocus on his desk. (He’s sure Youngjae won’t mind.)
Three days after Youngjae’s first appointment, Taehyung is at lunch with Jimin on his day off when he gets a text from the automated system at the hospital. Seeing the young boy’s name casts a little frown on his face that he doesn’t even notice until his friend asks about it.
“What’s wrong?” Jimin asks, drawing his attention away from the screen, “Is it Eliza?”
Taehyung shakes his head no, it isn’t the ten year old from London who moved to Korea with her mother just to meet with their specialised team on children with lung cancer. “No,” he repeats out loud, “Her chemo’s still going, no change. This is a new kid who came to me the other day. Asthma attack.”
Jimin raises his eyebrows, taking another large bite of his rice. “I thought the hospital wanted you to focus on the oncology consulting now.”
“Yeah, but I’ve been fighting them every step on that. Plus, the director himself paged me for this one; I’m guessing he was a VIP’s kid.” He listens for Jimin’s sound of assent and then continues. “He was fine physically but I’m guessing it was an anxiety response. I even gave his nanny your card, though I know it’s rare parents who don’t get scared away by the idea of therapy.”
Jimin lets out a dark snort of disapproval at that, raising his glass in a bitter toast. (It’s a glass of iced tea; his best friend really is too dramatic for his own good.) “The taboo scares them away. They’re so afraid of it that there are so many kids out there not getting the help they need.” It’s a sensitive topic with Jimin, his own ADHD gone years without diagnosis or help because his parents wouldn’t even consider the possibility.
“His nanny seemed up for it, not sure about his parents. I had hoped Youngjae was doing better but I just got a message that there’s an appointment in his name tomorrow.” He sighs. “I hope everything’s okay.”
“I’m sure everything is; just a regular follow up. Parents probably want to hear it for themselves.”
Taehyung nods and confirms the appointment, before getting back to the giant platter of pork and beef in front of him and digging in, laughing along to Jimin’s stories of how Yoongi had taken up fixing their ancient car by himself and his older brother’s various grease laden, messy exploits since.
Mondays have never been good days for Taehyung and that morning is no exception. His apartment’s warm water is lukewarm at best, he notices a rip in his shirt right before he’s about to leave and the overcast sky tells him that his decision to forgo an umbrella is one he’ll soon regret. He’s nearly late to his first appointment, just saved by his mother’s lessons- now drilled into his mind- about punctuality and keeping extra time on hand.
Taehyung’s clinic is nearly empty at first appointment, just a few kids and their exhausted parents waiting on the less than comfortable pleather chairs and flipping through the outdated magazines they have to offer. He can barely spare Juhi, his receptionist, a wave and a quick word about the shift in Daehyun’s appointment before rushing into his room, an apology on his lips. One that fades as quickly as it had manifested.
His first reaction is instinctive, childish. Taehyung takes off his glasses (he hardly needs them but he’s been wearing them since college and now he can barely look at himself without them; Yoongi never lets go of a chance to make fun of him for it.) He wipes them, and then puts them back on. The picture in front of him still hasn’t changed.
His eyes first go to Youngjae, who had jumped onto his feet at the sight of him (stumbling a little when his sneakers hit the ground) and now was smiling up at him. “Taehyungie hyung!” he exclaims and even through his confusion and shock, it has Taehyung grinning back, “I told you I would be back!”
Taehyung reaches out to ruffle his hair, “I’m happy to see you, bud, but I hope you’re feeling better now?”
“I’m all okay! But papa wanted to meet you because I wanted to meet you again and so I asked him to bring me here.” Youngjae ends his little speech- somehow not breathless- and looks quite pleased with himself. He looks to his father for affirmation. Taehyung follows his gaze.
It’s Jeon Jeongguk. Jeon Jeongguk sitting in his fucking clinic with one of the cutest fucking kids he’s met calling him his fucking father. Fuck. Taehyung’s mind feels like it’s melting. Jeon Jeongguk is looking back at him.
“Papa,” Youngjae interrupts the staring with the word stretched long, a whiny tone in his voice, “Say hello!”
Jeongguk blinks and seemingly escapes the daze he was in. “Um, hi. Hi, Taehyung.” It’s the first time he’s heard his name in that voice in- god- has it really been five years? It’s achingly familiar but at the same time, different enough to make it a little sad. Jeon Jeongguk once knew every part of him, every story of his. Once, he was the first person Taehyung would tell about the little things that happened in his day. But now, he’s little more than a stranger.
“Hi, Jeongguk. It’s been a long time.” There’s something aching in his chest but it’s not enough to distract him from the blunder he’s just made. Taehyung feels his eyes widen, not sure if the younger man wanted his son to know that they had known each other before. But it’s too late; Youngjae’s attention is caught so fast it’s almost like his ears had perked up like a puppy’s.
“Papa?” he asks simply, voice trusting. It’s the voice of a little boy who trusts his dad and knows that he would never leave him in the dark. And Jeongguk doesn’t. He smiles slightly and says, “Taehyung and I know each other from a long time ago, baby. When we were still in college.”
Well, it was a little after that but Taehyung understands that broke recent graduates living off start up jobs did not translate well into five year old talk. Youngjae’s eyes are wide and wondering. “That’s s- so cool! I’ve never met papa’s friends before. Except uncle Hobi and uncle Namjoon and uncle Jin. Do you know them?”
“Yes, I know them a little, Youngjae,” Taehyung has memories of the three of them, linked to the years he spent with Jeongguk. He remembers Namjoon and Jin being the only ones with an actual home- two years older than them and already inheritors of the Jeon legacy. He remembers Hoseok sharing a two bedroom with three other flatmates, as broke as they were, and nights of ramen and karaoke and laughter. He also remembers that all of them disappeared quickly from his life once Jeongguk broke his heart, like their friendships had hardly existed at all.
“So you can meet them-” Youngjae wiggles his tiny fingers tentatively towards his father. Though he says nothing, Jeongguk seems to understand and hesitates just a little before getting a piece of paper out of his coat and handing it to the boy. “You can meet them at my birthday! I came here to ask you to come to my party!”
Taehyung takes the paper Youngjae eagerly hands him. You’re invited, the wiggly letters declare with bubbles and flowers in bright colors surrounding them, to Youngjae’s Fifth Birthday Party! The text underneath it lists a time and date, a few days later. It’s an address he doesn’t recognise.
He looks at Jeongguk first, unsure. He’s had a few patients grow attached to him with time, even been to his fair share of birthdays. But considering their history, Taehyung finds himself hesitating with the invitation in his hand.
Youngjae asks in a small voice, “Taehyungie hyung?”, confused as to the lack of response. That plaintive note of sadness is enough to make him snap out of it and he fixes a bright smile on his face. He still doesn’t know if Jeongguk will be on board for this but from his end- “Thank you bud, I’ll try my best to be there.” There, he thinks, positive enough to keep that smile on the four year old’s face but open enough that if Jeongguk never wants to see him again, he won’t have to.
He’s graced with a toothy little smile and a you’re welcome, Taehyungie hyung before Nurse Baek comes in to take him to get his weight checked, just outside. Suddenly the space that Youngjae’s words and oblivious happiness were taking up is empty; silence floods it and the two of them observe each other. It’s Jeongguk who breaks the silence.
“I wanted to say thanks for the other day,” Jeongguk says, voice so distant and so unlike the way Taehyung knows it can sound. He has heard that voice pressed up against his neck crooning old love songs under wine tinted breath, has heard that voice saying sweet tender nothings. The notes he hears now are unfamiliar. “Haejin told me that coming to you calmed Yoonie down. He’s not- not comfortable with doctors usually. I was nervous that he had to go see one without me there.”
Taehyung wills his voice to be steady. “I’m glad I could help. He’s so sweet, Jeongguk, he had so many stories to tell. He was super brave the whole time.”
Jeongguk’s eyes soften and there, there’s some hint of the person he used to know. There’s unguarded love in his eyes when he thinks about his son and it’s beautiful to see. He remembers that when the younger man had left- after the pain had become old enough that petty bitterness didn’t grow like mold in Taehyung’s lungs at the thought of him- he had been most afraid that Jeongguk wouldn’t love, and be loved, the same way again. It had been arrogant, he thinks now. Love in its myriad forms had not forsaken Jeon Jeongguk and there is no bitterness in that, only happiness for a person he had once loved.
“He’s very brave,” Jeongguk agrees, his gentle tone then becoming something more determined, “But he shouldn’t have had to be. I shouldn’t have left him and- well, Haejin said you knew a child specialist who could help with his separation anxiety? Was it Jimin?”
Taehyung nods; the pieces had fallen into place easily, he’s sure, once Jeongguk knew it was him. “If you aren’t comfortable with Jimin, I can ask him to recommend his colleagues. Someone you don’t know.” Someone who doesn’t still hold a bit of a grudge against you for breaking their best friend’s heart, though he knows Jimin would never, ever let his feeling towards Jeongguk come in the way of helping his son.
“No, Jimin- if he’s the best, Yoonie should see him. I won’t let our… personal history get in the way of that.”
Personal history, the phrase makes him scoff a little in his mind but he’s grateful Jeongguk’s landed somewhere in the purview of acknowledging the suffocating situation in the room. “Jeongguk-” he attempts. The younger man instantly looks up, able to recognise the tone of his voice as the let’s talk one that he had so hated, towards the end. “I don’t want to make you, or anyone in your life uncomfortable. If you ask it, I won’t come to the party. You can take Youngjae to another specialist I recommend. He’ll forget about me soon enough.” He smiles a little to bring some humour into the last sentence but it just sounds doleful.
Jeongguk breathes in- loudly, deeply- once. He’s considering it, Taehyung can see that list of pros and cons the younger man made for pretty much everything practically running across his forehead.
“No.” He decides finally. “Yoonie, he likes you. I’ve seen him terrified of doctors' offices too many times, afraid of most adults he doesn’t know. He’s been through a lot, too much. If he’s comfortable with you, I’m willing to make this work. Are you?”
It isn’t a challenge, Taehyung knows. Jeongguk is giving him a way out. He’s asking: I broke your heart, I left you behind and didn’t look back. We had time to forget each other and now, can we start from there?
“I made a promise to help as many kids as I can, Jeongguk, Youngjae is no exception. Plus, we’re-” he smiles at Jeongguk hesitantly. It doesn’t feel awkward because now, his chest just feels heavy with how much he’s missed the man in front of him. They were friends after all, before they were anything else. “-we’re all grown up, Jeongguk. I think we can handle this, yeah?”
Jeongguk smiles instantly when he does, almost like an instinct. “Yeah, Taehyung, I think we can do that.” Then they sit there for a few long moments, just looking at each other with goofy grins on their faces. The door swings open and the sound of Youngjae’s little sneakers pattering on the marble floor trails in.
“Papa?” he asks, pausing right in front of his dad and looking between them, unconsciously mirroring their smiles. He reaches up with both of his arms, a universal sign for wanting up in children’s body language. Jeongguk reaches down and picks him up, tucking him securely onto his lap and then facing Taehyung expectantly.
At Taehyung’s complete lack of comprehension as to what that expectation is, Youngjae sighs and rolls his eyes dramatically, never losing the smile on his face. “I want the joke, too!” He says the word ‘joke’ like it is something tangible that he wants his share of, too.
Jeongguk lets out a loud hmm, and then strokes an imaginary beard thoughtfully, making Youngjae crane his head to look at his dad. “What did the ocean say to the beach?”
Youngjae says nothing but twists his neck further, little hands forming into loose fists expectantly.
“Nothing.” Jeongguk says after an adequately dramatic pause, “It just waved.” He winks and is met with a resounding groan from Taehyung and a delighted little clap and giggle from Youngjae. That’s a joke Taehyung swears he’s heard before, likely from-
“That’s one of uncle Jin’s jokes,” Youngjae whispers not at all effectively, “But I pretended not to know.”
“That’s quite smart of you,” Taehyung whispers right back, as inconspicuously, catching Jeongguk’s eye as he looked up from where he had been smiling at his son. The younger man says nothing for a few moments and then stands up abruptly, so sudden that Youngjae starts a little and nearly slides off his lap. Sorry baby, Jeongguk tells him and straightens the four year old up onto his blue and red siren-esque light up sneakers. “We should get going,” he says shortly; not even meeting Taehyung’s eyes and barely giving Youngjae a breath to say goodbye.
Suddenly, as abruptly as they had reappeared in his life, the father and son are gone. Taehyung stands there, bereft, for just a few moments longer than he will ever admit.
Jeongguk’s definitely followed in his parents’ footsteps. That’s the first thing Jimin nudges him and says when they arrive at the massive dark wood door to the younger man’s penthouse in the most expensive district of concrete and glass and smoothly paved roads Seoul has to offer. Admittedly, that had been the third thing Taehyung had thought too, right after how his nervous system feels a bit like an electric circuit dunked into water and how glad he is that he had ignored the lack of mention of a plus one on the invitation to bring Jimin anyway.
There is no way he’ll be able to get through what’s ahead without someone here by his side. He had tried to coerce Yoongi into coming too but his older brother had- rightly- pointed out that plus two to a four year old’s birthday seemed a little excessive. Taehyung had sniffed and simply said that Youngjae was turning five, while letting his brother pretend that the reason he didn’t want to come wasn’t that Yoongi would likely have a few choice words to say in the face of the boy who had broken his heart so entirely.
Hoseok opens the door. Getting right into it, huh, Taehyung thinks to the world with some bitterness. Of all the friendships his relationship with Jeongguk had brought him, and lost him, the older lawyer had been one of the closest. It had hurt when he had disappeared from his life after; he knew it had hurt Yoongi and Jimin too; hurt for his loss and for their own.
“Tae, Jimin,” Hoseok says, arrested at the doorway with surprise in his voice and all over his face. So Jeongguk hadn’t told him. “I- hi.”
“Hi hyung,” Jimin said, voice a pale imitation of the sweet tones it usually held, especially for those he knew, “We’re here for Youngjae’s birthday.” With some contemplation evident on his face, “Hope you’ve been good.”
Taehyung nods along to that. He doesn’t really have anything to add; it feels wrong to feed Hoseok the false courtesies he reserves for strangers but there’s nothing he can ask the man that won’t be out of touch with their new realities. There’s been too many years of silence between them.
“Can we come in?” That ends up being the first thing he says.
Hoseok looks aghast. “I’m- I had no idea you guys were-. There’s a lot- there’s so much we’ve got to talk about.”
“I really don’t think there’s any need, hyung,” Taehyung says, trying to make the words sound less heavy than he knows they do, “Jeongguk and I- we met in my clinic and we’re starting new. No need to bring up old issues now.”
“Taehyung, I’m-” he begins, stopping when Jimin shakes his head firmly.
“Can we come in now? We aren’t doing this if Tae doesn’t want to and we’re certainly not doing this now.”
Hoseok says nothing then, just moving aside to beckon them inside. There’s music playing loudly- too loudly- something candy sweet and heavy on bass punctuated with children’s voices. He can see what looks like a small army of kids inside the room, an animated character dancing across the screen with none of them really paying any attention to it.
Youngjae notices him almost immediately, as does Jeongguk. The father and son swivel in tandem, letting smiles widen their faces- Jeongguk’s hesitant; his son’s, unrestrained- and Taehyung wonders how he didn’t instantly see the similarity in their behaviour when the boy had first walked into his clinic all those weeks ago. He feels himself smiling in response to the pair, the awkwardness and lingering discomfort of meeting Hoseok again slightly tamped down.
“Taehyungie hyung!” The boy exclaims, a complete, refreshing lack of any kind of formality in his voice. The triangle paper hat on his head bounces with him, tilting till it pronounces birthday boy! along the side of his head instead. His birthday clothes are a mishmash of neon colors and two mismatched sneakers adorn his feet; one yellow and one green.
Taehyung waves, and then gratefully receives the boy’s hug. It always scares him a little, how loving children are. Here he is, a near stranger and yet Youngjae had greeted him like they had known each other their whole lives. “Hi, Youngjae!” - the laugh that had been caught in his throat colors his voice- “Happy birthday, angel. How’s the day been?”
“Great!” He stretches his arms wide apart, “All my friends are here! Papa got me a car! That I can drive! We’re going to watch Moana!” Taehyung can almost see little manga-esque bold white arial exclamation points floating around Youngjae’s birthday crown adorned head.
Jimin appears beside him, and Youngjae and him exchanged happy greetings even as he can feel the glare his best friend is sending Jeongguk’s way. Taehyung then bends down a little to be at the boy’s eye level and offers the little polka dotted package he had been clutching since they entered. It is messily wrapped- not out of haste but because of its odd lumpy structure. Youngjae is clearly befuddled.
“Open it!” Jimin chirps encouragingly and the boy carefully takes the package from him, letting Jeongguk help unwrap it with careful fingers, giggling a little when he gets a piece of tape stuck on his thumb and sticking it onto his dad’s face with a conspiratory grin at them both. Inside sits a little plant in the most adorable little pot shaped like a bear cub; Yoongi and Taehyung had both let out matching sounds of joy when Jimin had spotted it at the plant store a few days before.
“It’s a jade plant,” Taehyung informs the boy, who was now looking at it in wonderment, “It’s for good luck and happiness. It’s your plant now, so you have to water it and love it and soon it’ll grow, big and strong.”
Youngjae looks up finally and his face is bright. “Big and strong! Can I name it?” When he nods, the boy says, “It’s name is Maui. Like Moana’s friend. Because I’m Moana and the plant is my big and strong friend like Maui!”
Taehyung shrugs, the logic seems entirely sound to him. “Maui,” he repeats, the word unfamiliar on his tongue, “I love it.”
Entirely satisfied once he gets two thumbs up from his dad as well, the boy drags off Jimin with what looks like a strong grip on his hand to watch Moana with them because, in his own words, I don’t know you and the best way to make friends is watching Moana. Jeongguk and he are left standing there together in a moment that feels far too much like it has been struck by the inexplicable power of deus ex machina.
“A plant, huh?” Jeongguk asks, smoothly stepping away from any heavy conversation, “Finally got that green thumb you’ve always wanted?”
“A jade plant was the first one I managed to keep alive in my first clinic office,” he grins a little at the memory, “I called it Cockroach because, you know, they say that if everything in the world dies, the cockroaches will remain and I had big dreams for my baby. She’s still in my kitchen today.”
“Well, that deserves a congratulations,” Jeongguk has a smile that’s only slightly wry on his face, “No more artificial plants for you.”
Their flat had been full of artificial plants, cheap, plasticky things that were all they could afford but were just real enough that Taehyung’s dreams of an aesthetically pleasing house were somewhat sated. His favorite had been a ridiculous looking set of fake lavender sprigs that were a bright yellow instead of the usual purple that they had gotten on clearance for free with a six pack of air fresheners. The air fresheners weren’t even lavender scented and the shop owner had sold it to them with a mixture of confusion and glee and from then on, there had been a slight who brings home the ugliest plant contest between them both.
“Let’s just hope Youngjae has a better chance at it than I did. One too many plant funerals really do something to a person.” Taehyung says in all seriousness; serious enough that it makes the wryness of Jeongguk’s smile fade.
“Now that he’s convinced the plant is his very own god slash friend, voiced by none other than the Rock, you best hope Yoonie doesn’t have his very first heartbreak,” the younger man says, “But thank you, I think he’ll love it for whatever it’s lifespan is; far more than that car I got him. That kid’s got the tiniest attention span; he’ll forget his fake Mercedes in a week.”
“You know what they say. It’s more comfortable to cry in a Mercedes, money buys happiness and all that good ol’ capitalist propaganda.”
Those words are enough to have them both laughing, thrown back to when they were idealistic college graduates who just wanted to rebel against everything and play out the old school romances they saw at the movies. Jeongguk was an eco major to satisfy his father but his minor in sociology had been his true passion. Taehyung had seen him struggle with cognitive dissonance for years; learning to run a multi-million company on one hand and seeing the consequences of them in their society in another; paying to puzzle through the struggles of those around him off the millions his parents earned. It seems, now sitting in his comfortable penthouse, one of those sides had won. But Taehyung is no one to judge; he’s earned far too much off of struggling people himself; shouldering the debt of medical school made sure he had no way out, either.
“Do you want to-?” Jeongguk breaks off, then gestures towards the balcony. It’s deserted; all the children are back in the living room and presumably, the adults too. Taehyung nods and follows him through the glass door and barefoot onto the stone tiling of the sit-out. The stones are warm against his feet from the day’s sun, even as they quickly cool as the darkness of the evening approached. The younger man procures two beers from a mini fridge- yes, a mini fridge, college Jeongguk would have never- and hands one to him.
“So, how’ve you been Guk?” The nickname- not quite the affectionate word it had once been, but close enough- runs off his tongue easily.
Jeongguk takes a swig of his beer before answering. “Good, I think. It’s not what I had imagined but… Yoonie and everything; it’s turned out good. I can give him everything he needs and that’s all that I need, really.”
There’s a defensive tone in his voice, a challenge: do you dare to call me a sellout? But Taehyung doesn’t feel any kind of bitterness- well, not much, anyway- he understands that Youngjae is the man’s priority.
“Youngjae… how?” Taehyung asks awkwardly, not sure how to voice it in fear that there may be a tragic loss of a lover or someone precious behind it. He instantly regrets it; a mistake, he thinks to himself, stop overstepping, you always overstep.
But Jeongguk doesn’t look angry at the question, maybe just a little jaded. “I adopted him. He isn’t biologically mine but I found him abandoned outside the parking lot of my office. He was so-,” his voice grows unbearably gentle, “He was so tiny. It didn’t feel right to hand him over to officials who wouldn’t care for him so I brought him home. Fed him, washed his face clean. Let him watch some Disney show on the tv while he ate again. Hoseok came over and helped me and when they took him, god, when they took him he fought and cried and I just knew I had to protect him.
“Jin, Namjoon, my parents; they were staunchly against it. They thought I was too young, too powerful but I fought for Yoonie. He’s one of the few things I’ve fought for, at the end of the day.”
Taehyung’s eyes had already been stinging a little at the idea of that sweet boy’s struggles; the things he had seen at such a young age. And that last admission has him biting his lip to stop from crying. Because he knows Jeongguk is tying those words to the same memory as him; their last few nights together, the horrible fights they had before the younger man had disappeared without a word overnight. Taehyung remembers them with some guilt, although he had spoken only what he thought was the truth, the way he had accused the younger man of not caring enough. Of not fighting for Taehyung, for their relationship.
“Jeongguk…” he begins but trails off. He isn’t sure what to say, feeling a little like he’s been caught in some strange, tentative place. Jeongguk just shakes his head, firmly, to say that he isn’t ready for that conversation either. Maybe he never will be.
Just then, the glass door slides open; the dull sound of it brushing against the metal channel in the ground is one that makes Taehyung sigh in relief. It’s Jimin and by his side, Hoseok and Jin, an odd little trio he had thought he’d never see together again. They all look far from surprised to see the two of them together; apparently the little happenings that surprised even Taehyung himself were quite predictable to their friends.
Jin, albeit unsurprised, still pauses at the threshold for a long moment, considering him. It isn’t the open shock that had rippled across Hoseok’s face though, the Jeon family had trained that out of him quickly enough. Instead he walks up to the single remaining lawn chair and pulls out a thin cigarette and uses an ornate metal lighter to make the tip glow red with fire. Jin takes a long drag and as he exhales it, says, “The decibel level inside is why Joon and I decided to never have kids.” Then, as if the nicotine had given him some courage, “Hello, Tae. It’s been so long.”
Kim Seokjin- having taken his husband Kim Namjoon’s last name- had never failed to make Taehyung and Jeongguk feel young and inexperienced and in need of protection. In vulnerable moments, that meant Jin had been a safe haven, a mature voice of reason; the person he went to for advice the most, aside from his brother and Namjoon. But the man could also tiptoe the line of condescension and Taehyung has to remind himself that there’s sincerity in the man’s voice, not disinterest.
“Jin hyung,” he breathes, then regrets it as he inhales a big puff of smoke, “Yes, it has.” He tells himself not to say since you chose him and left me behind. “Hoseok hyung, I’m sorry for earlier. It really is nice to see you guys again.”
Both men look at him with barely disguised emotion, though he can’t quite pinpoint it; is it guilt, awkwardness or something else entirely?
Jimin, who had quit cigarettes with some difficulty the year before after he had had a mysterious freckle appear on his back that had Yoongi worrying for weeks and Taehyung consulting every doctor he knew, looks up from where he had been staring at the cigarette between Jin’s fingers. He nods his assent to that, “I ran into these two while I was looking for the bathroom in this maze of a house; Youngjae was a little preoccupied with Haejin helping them make some sort of crafting thing.”
“Jimin hyung,” Jeongguk greeted hesitantly because he knew forgiveness would be slow to come from Taehyung’s closest friend. It had been years and yet whenever they took a voodoo doll making course (their neighbour’s idea) or bought a cheap Death Note replica off of ebay, Jeon Jeongguk was high up on Jimin's kill list.
The youngest takes the safer route and says, “Taehyung told me therapy may be helpful for Yoonie after… everything that’s happened to him. Just for separation anxiety and symptomatic asthma attacks and things like that. And just… his anxieties. He’s got far too much for such a small boy; he’s been through too much.”
JImin’s eyes soften almost instantly. “I would love to help him, Guk. We do a lot of alternative, fun methods in the clinic; art, music, even having puppies and other animals come in to meet the kids. You don’t have to worry about Youngjae feeling intimidated or scared.”
“I’m not nervous about that, hyung,” Jeongguk assures with a shake of his head, “It’s you. And Tae-hyung told me you were the absolute best in the business, though I know he’s a little biased.” He says the last part with a cheeky grin that has them all laughing and Jimin muttering damn right he is. It feels almost like old times with the four of them; the air has turned cold with the evening but his chest still feels warm from the beer.
They all start when there’s a knock of the door that’s simultaneously powerful- like someone’s banging their whole fist against the glass- but tiring out after just a few hits. It’s Youngjae, now with a- is that a crown made of legos?- a crown made of legos on his head, waving his little arms wildly like a hitchhiker looking for a ride in a rescue film and not a little boy at his own birthday party. Taehyung has to crack a smile at his dramatic enthusiasm for the most simple pleasures life offers.
Jeongguk gets up and unlatches the door, hissing put that thing out, at Jin as he goes. The man herds his son, excited from seeing so many of the adults he knows outside together, away from the glass door so he doesn’t inhale the noxious fumes Jin had been breathing in.
“As a lung specialist, I would avoid against that, hyung,” Taehyung says, standing up too, lingering a little longer to hear the older man’s response.
Jin offers him only a dry look, “Get in line, Joon’s been on a campaign recently. He’s at a conference till tomorrow and when he comes back, I’ve told myself I’m quitting for real. If my mouth feels like it needs something to keep me distracted, I can just suck his-”
“No! Nope, no,” Taehyung announces loudly while Hoseok and Jimin begin singing loud la la la’s in tandem. Jin looks absolutely pleased at this, putting out his cigarette and throwing cologne from a tiny glass bottle around his pressure points and a piece of gum into his mouth with the practised ease of someone who’s smoked for years.
“I’m going in, okay?” Taehyung says, brushing off the back of his jeans from the dust that had collected on the lawn chair before he sat down.
“Should I come with?” Hoseok offers, but both the dancers looks like they’ll be nursing those beers for a little longer, maybe talking the work they’ve done in the past few years- they used to dance together after all- and Jin looks like his trading in for the responsible uncle persona isn’t going to be instantaneous either. So Taehyung shakes his head.
Jin looks up and catches his hand, right before he goes. “Hoseok and I are going to head out soon but…” - there’s hesitation lining his words- “Let’s meet again, yeah? Let’s not be strangers, not again.”
Strangely enough, there’s less bitterness in Taehyung’s chest now than at the beginning of the evening; he’s not sure he’s forgiven them but it seems his body has caught on a little faster than the rest of him. He nods, lets Hoseok hug him close- just a little uncomfortable because the half hearted reception from him- and slides the door open to let himself in, a little less sour than before.
Inside, the music has stopped but somehow it’s even louder than before. It comes to his attention that he can hear a kid crying and Taehyung cranes his head to spot Youngjae and Jeongguk in the kitchen in his periphery, presumably crying over the remains of his broken lego crown on the floor. He wanders away from them, not wanting to intrude, telling a little girl that asks that yes, he can give her another piece of cake and no, he does not have a cat, how lucky that she does and sure, he would love to meet Snowball sometime!
“Taehyungie hyung?” a small, familiar voice that is just a touch louder than usual to mask its quavering appears behind him. Taehyung plasters a smile onto his face before he turns; it takes no effort since apparently, Youngjae has already become an instantaneous happiness-creating presence in his life.
“Hey, bud. How’s it going?” Youngjae’s eyes are still kind of red around this edges and his lips are pushed into the echo of a pout; Taehyung’s heart softens at the sight of it.
“Everyone’s going home now,” the little boy says with sad, sad eyes, “And my lego crown broke.” Taehyung makes a sympathetic sound and ruffles his hair, looking up to see Jeongguk approaching, saying, “C’mon baby, let’s say bye to everyone, okay?”
Youngjae wriggles out of his father’s gentle grasp to plead, “Do you have to go, Taehyungie hyung? Can’t you stay and watch Pokemon with me? You didn’t even come with Chimmy hyung to watch Moana with me.”
It seems the boy’s sadness had given way to just wanting to extend his birthday celebrations and oh my, that pout is a powerful weapon; Taehyung can’t help but nod and Jeongguk does nothing but shrug and smile a little, herding the birthday boy- now placated- to bid farewell to the crowd of tiny children collected in the foyer with return gifts in their hands and parents waiting outside.
Taehyung tries to make himself useful by piling up the used plates, all smudged with electrically bright colored icing and chocolate. Jimin slips back into the house and starts helping him, visibly hesitating a few times before giving in and blurting, “I’m worried.” He knows his best friend far too well; Taehyung had expected this. He tells Jimin exactly this.
“Well, it still stands,” Jimin insists, pulling a disgusted face when a mysterious red sludge smears against his finger from one of the plates, “This- seeing him, Youngjae. Just don’t forget to take care of yourself; you don’t have to erase all your feelings for the sake of others.”
Taehyung’s heart twists at that, just a little. “I promise I’ll try my best not to. This is- it’s a fresh start, Jiminie. I want to be a friend to Youngjae, and Guk, too.”
“I know you do,” Jimin sounds somewhat resigned, “I think I do, too. I was watching the movie with the kid and he said something about wanting to sing his own songs just like Moana and all I could think is Yoongi would love to meet him. But even for me… just meeting Jin, Hoseok, Guk, knowing everything that happened, is- it’s a lot. I can’t imagine what it’s like for you.”
“It’s strange, that’s for sure,” he can admit that, “But it’s not that hard. Maybe because it isn’t just us who found each other again; Youngjae’s like a mediator. Common ground that isn’t our past.”
“You’re right, when did my baby grow up?” Jimin exaggerates his already somewhat permanent pout and coddles him. Taehyung struggles against his hold but half-heartedly; his best friend’s arms are warmth after their slightly unsteady evening. “I’m going to go now, okay? You coming with?”
“Youngjae wanted to watch Pokemon with me.” Jimin doesn’t look surprised at this.
“Wow, that show still exists?” Jimin grunts as he stands up from where they were crouched together, clearing the floor of bits of colorful rubbery balloon shrapnel, bones cracking in a way that always makes him cringe. “Okay then, take care. Call me when you get home.” The older man places a little butterfly kiss onto his hair before he goes.
“Love you!” Taehyung calls after Jimin’s retreating body, watching as he says bye to both Jeongguk and Youngjae before he goes; something light settling in his stomach as the two come towards him now.
“You didn’t have to do this, Taehyung,” Jeongguk looks apologetic as he looks at the slightly tidied up room, “Yoonie and I decided we’re leaving the clean-up for tomorrow.”
“No problem,” he assures, “Plus, I found something even better than Pokemon.” He presents his hidden treasure proudly; a bouquet of plastic flowers that were lying somewhere under the dining table on top of a doll. Jimin was convinced it was a funeral and Taehyung has to admit, knowing how morbidly curious kids can be, that that’s highly likely.
Jeongguk grins, wide and just a little heart stopping. “You’re taking this green thumb thing a little too far, Tae.” Tae.
“Youngjae and I are making flower crowns. If you’re nice to me, I’ll let you have one, too.”
“Crowns!” Youngjae’s face blossoms into something much happier than it had been than just a few minutes ago. Twenty minutes later, they’re sitting on the fluffy white rug (lightly marked with colorful, suspiciously jello-like bits of color) with a bunch of artificial flowers thrown carelessly around them. Youngjae sits in his father’s lap, dozing, just watching as Jeongguk and Taehyung glue plastic stem to plastic stem painstakingly till it forms a tiny fairy ring to place on the little boy’s head.
“Papa ‘m I Mo-” Youngjae sighs happily when his crown is placed on his head, burrowing further into Jeongguk’s hold, “Moana, now?”
“Yeah, baby, you are,” Jeongguk presses a kiss onto his hair, “Sleep time?” He doesn’t wait for the boy- now asleep- to answer, whispering an I’ll be back to Taehyung and walking quietly out of sight. He watches the younger man go; watches the muscles in his back tense with his steps, the quiet folds of his grey t-shirt. He’s caught staring when Jeongguk comes back, their eyes meet and he looks down, flushed.
“Maybe I should-”
“Do you want some wine?”
Taehyung looks up from his focused gaze on the carpet at that. He thinks back to Jimin’s words before he had left but the carpet is warm and his body is tired out and it’s Jeongguk, after all these years. Jeongguk who he loved so much and who was his friend before anything else. He’s missed him so much.
His smile is a little twisty but it’s there, “Oh Jeonggukie, you can’t know me at all if you’re offering me wine.” Because wine is what he drinks to be impressive and classy and to feel like a model wearing a silk slip sitting on the edge of an infinity pool but Taehyung also detests all wine with burning passion and just a little disappointment. He’s invested far, far too much of his hard earned money that could have gone towards his student loans in trying to find a bottle of wine he might like, only to be donated to a joyful Yoongi every time.
The relief on Jeongguk’s face is palpable. “Yeah, I know; that just sounded like the right line to use. I have your hard lemonade waiting in the fridge. I mean, if you still-”
“It’s still my favorite. I haven’t achieved my wine blush dreams yet, sadly.”
“It’ll happen someday. The green thumb worked out for you.”
“I’ll achieve my final form yet, just you wait.”
“You seem pretty final form to me, Doctor Kim Taehyung,” Jeongguk smile is just a little wicked; he always loved that title, loved the power and authority of it. It harkens back to a different time in their lives; more bare skin and well loved marks on soft skin and-
“How about you, CEO Jeon?” He leaves out Jeongguk’s first name on purpose because the boy he remembers hated that association and as much as this older, mature version of him calls to him, he’s not the version Taehyung has most loved. He’s still loyal to that boy and his idealistic, if somewhat hypocritical, beliefs.
“Oh man,” The younger man runs a tired hand down his face, “We’re going to need alcohol to wash that conversation down, Tae.”
Oh. Jeongguk wants to be honest with him, then.
“I believe the gentleman was promised hard lemonade?”
“The gentleman was.”
Taehyung feels like his body’s sunk into another dimension- a warm, soft dimension of bliss- the deeper into the night they go. Jeongguk’s couch is ridiculously comfy, enveloping his body and wide enough that he doesn’t need to perform any of the artful contortionist his own- smaller, but aesthetically superior- purple couch demands. His favorite brand of hard lemonade is just as awful and warming as he remembers and Jeon Jeongguk is still as lovely as he was six years ago, too. Just as lovely as he had looked the night before he left; just as lovely and just as much of stranger, though Taehyung could swear they had known each other front and back once.
“- and then I walked right out, told my dad to fuck off. I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.” Jeongguk ends his story with relish, no regret at all in his voice, “Can you believe that, Tae? I just told him to fuck right off. Fuck off.” He giggles and there’s absolutely none of CEO Jeon in that sound. They aren’t drunk, just warmed enough by alcohol that it’s melted away some of their inhibitions.
“I can’t,” Taehyung wheezes because that’s the best thing he’s ever heard, it really is, “I can’t believe you told Mr Jeon to fuck off. He was so- so pompous, holy crap. Jeonggukie, you remember when he told everyone at that fancy ass dinner party about how deep in debt I was? What a shitty-”
He catches himself. Because Jeongguk is CEO Jeon now, which means he’s definitely not cut his parents out of his life, which means Taehyung doesn’t have a free pass to bitch about his parents, no matter how hellish they were to him. He had been younger when they were together; vulnerable to their awful treatment and tactless in his rage at how they treated Jeongguk. He doesn’t think he’ll ever forgive them for acting that way but he knows his forgiveness isn’t the most important one.
He waits for that expression on Jeongguk’s face; that lost, torn in the middle expression that he used to get whenever his parents were rude to Taehyung. That expression that he learned to read, somewhere into their relationship, as the Jeons successfully micromanaging their son yet again and not allowing him to feel the anger he was entitled to.
He doesn’t see it, now. Instead, “I’m sorry.”
“What?” Taehyung asks, face likely as baffled as his voice sounds. That bafflement seems to etch that expression of- regret? Is it regret?- further onto Jeongguk’s face.
“I’m sorry,” he repeats. “I didn’t- I see it now, how they were. Things I didn’t see before, things I let slip. I’m sorry for letting it slip. I’m sorry I didn’t stand up for you.”
“Jeongguk, I wouldn’t ask you to-” Taehyung didn’t; for all they had done, they were still Jeongguk’s parents. For all the hurt they had caused them, he never expected his boyfriend to cut them out for his sake. That was never his decision to make.
“I know, you didn’t ask me to but I’m sorry I didn’t do it myself. I’m sorry that I let you-”
“Jeongguk, stop.” And now he’s angry. He’s angry because it has taken Taehyung so long- years- to allow himself his anger. To tell himself that he’s allowed to be angry at Jeongguk for breaking his heart and then moving on. A self deprecating apology tinged with alcohol isn’t enough to soothe that old, aching hurt left behind from it all. Both of them deserve better than that.
“I’m going to do this again, when we’re both sober and when I’ve- when we’re both ready to have that talk,” Jeongguk says finally, after a few moments’ silence, “I just couldn’t let you think that I’m still- that I still don’t see things for what they are. Being a father to Youngjae; it changed all of that for me.”
Taehyung isn’t yet bitter enough or drunk enough or honest enough to feel some kind of twisted jealousy of that; of not being the one that changed everything. So he just says, “I’m glad it did, Guk. Youngjae and you both deserve that.” He means it, too.
He’s a little sad- just a little betrayed- that the warm bliss of the night has run empty. “I should-” when Taehyung stands, he wobbles only a little, “I should go.” There’s hurt on Jeongguk’s face at that and maybe- maybe Jimin was right. Maybe the two of them are doomed to fall into the same old patterns again and again and again.
“We’ve been drinking, Tae and it’s too late to be safe to call a cab. Just- just stay here tonight. We don’t have to talk again, just please stay safe, here tonight.”
“I don’t know if that’s a good-” Taehyung breaks off, exasperated, “Haven’t you ever watched a movie, Guk? Things only go downhill from here.”
Jeongguk’s face kind of freezes and then he smiles, just a little but it’s honest. He can see the dim yellow lights reflected in his eyes. “We aren’t going to be like idiots in a movie, okay Tae? Plus, we already managed to fight; we’re clearly not doing things in order.”
He reaches out, gentle, to tentatively place his fingers close to Jeongguk’s, asking is this okay? It is okay, because the younger man reaches out to close the distance. And his eyes are dark and earnest, his hands are familiar. For so many years, Taehyung had imagined this; this reunion, this apology. Always louder, angrier. But now that they’re here- after long years of having time to be angry and stop feeling that anger- it’s a peaceful sort of resolution, something like relief.
“I don’t want to mess this up,” Taehyung tells him quietly, though he isn’t quite sure what this is. He knows that he wants to know Jeongguk again; he knows that he wants to be a friend to him and his little family again.
Jeongguk’s thumb runs against his knuckles softly. “We won’t mess it up. I don’t think Yoonie will forgive us.”
Taehyung laughs a little at that; quiet because they are close, quite close and warm, quite warm. It’s just a little breathless and if you had told him a week ago that he would be here with the boy he had lost all those years ago, he isn’t sure he’d have believed it.
“Sleep now,” Taehyung tells the man in front of him when he watches- in real time- his eyes grow heavy with tiredness. He smiles when Jeongguk yawns, almost in response to his words. Then his smile disappears when his body decides to get inspired and yawn cavernously too.
They stand there and grin at each other for just a few seconds after that and it’s ridiculous; they’re late twenty-something year olds and yet it feels like they haven’t changed at all.
“Get me a blanket and then go to sleep,” Taehyung says again, with more emphasis this time. Pushing away from Jeongguk’s chest and hold on his hands mutinously. Ten minutes later, he’s burrowed under a pillowy white comforter that’s just a touch too warm for Seoul’s fading cold, comfortable enough that he, who’s struggled with sleep for years since those long weeks surviving on barely any sleep during med school and residency, doesn’t even notice the absence of his white noise machine or the warm bath he usually takes before bed.
His last thought goes to the two other boys in the house; one he had thought he would never see again and another he never had expected to see at all. In his own mind, he feels safe with the affection he feels for them already. If Taehyung had stayed conscious for just a few more seconds, he would have felt a gentle hand brushing his ever stubborn fringe away from his face and a whispered word of adoration but love is a difficult game and that would have been far, far too easy.
3 Months Later
Jeongguk has meetings every Friday that go on for hours and hours. He always emerges from those meetings tired, hungry and just a little sickeningly guilty for having not spent the evening with his son as he usually does. He still makes it a point to use his lunch break to drop Youngjae off for his Friday session with Jimin; the little boy’s become fast friends with Chimmy hyung in just a few short months and at this point, Jeongguk worries more for him than Youngjae ever has. For the five year old, it’s just lunch with his papa, time at Chimmy hyung’s center and after that; after is the best part. Because ever since an apologetic Jeongguk had called Taehyung up in the middle of the night before Youngjae’s second session, after is Taetae time and it’s one of the things that makes Fridays one of the best-est days of the week. Or so all the adults in Youngjae’s life have been excitedly told.
Taehyung remembers the first time he went to therapy, a little after he and Jeongguk had gone their separate ways and his nerves felt like frayed cloth for all the pressure of being just a little torn up inside and desperately awaiting responses to his applications for residency and his sleep cycle being utterly destroyed after years of sacrificing his sleep hours to the Korean education system and familial expectations. He had known it was coming sooner or later; Jimin would drop hints at him every now and then of a therapist he knew or how good therapy had been for him or assorted success stories. None had been enough to get him to take that first step, not when he already felt like he was running on fumes and the hours of the day were slipping from his fingers far too easily.
But then Yoongi had sat him down over a shared monster bowl of ramen from the little stall that set up every weekend outside Taehyung’s apartment. They ate like they always did; Taehyung giving his brother the egg, Yoongi returning the favour with the little crisps the auntie running the shop always served her ramen with. But then he had taken Taehyung’s hand and said, “I’m worried about you. I want you to be healthy and I’m worried, I’m so worried, bun.”
Maybe it was the childhood nickname, maybe it was the heart to heart that followed. Maybe it was that Yoongi went to therapy himself and reminded of that, Taehyung couldn’t deny that he owed nearly everything to mental health care and his brother accepting that he needed help for his recovery when the two of them had no clue how to do it themselves. Then, his older brother had been standing in front of him with honest fear in a way that mirrored Taehyung, years ago, and he knew the two of them would never lead the other astray.
Still, therapy had been scary that first day, even with Yoongi waiting outside and Dr. Choi being a friend that Jimin knew well. It was hard to open up at first to someone who was nothing but a stranger and he isn’t ashamed to admit that when the three of them went to Yoongi and Jimin’s apartment after, he cried just a little on their couch. Sometimes, he thinks that the only reason he felt brave enough to go again the next session was because of the blueberry flavored ice lolly Yoongi brought him after.
So every week, as he waits for Youngjae to emerge from the little colorful building that serves as Jimin’s clinic, Taehyung makes sure he has a little treat for the boy. Sometimes, it’s little snacks like a rice roll or barbecue chips or just a classic ice lolly. Sometimes, it’s a rollerblading ground or a cafe with giant monster shakes or today, a butterfly park close to his apartment. He’s secure in himself enough to admit that he’s subject to excitement that some people see as childish but Taehyung can barely hold back his enthusiasm as his watch signals that it’s three and Youngjae’s session is over.
Ten minutes later, Jimin and Youngjae step out of the clinic, the boy’s slightly too big rocket backpack that Namjoon had got him for his birthday held in the older man’s hand. The boy manages an impressive few metres before giving in and running to Taehyung- thankfully they’re on pavement- with Jimin trailing behind him and shouting warnings. He just smiles; this picture is now a familiar one, a beloved one.
Youngjae hits him running, and he has to bend down and cushion the boy with his arms so he doesn’t overbalance. The boy barely seems to notice. “Taetae!”
“Yoonie!” He cheers unironically with excitement that matches the little boy’s.
Jimin lets out a long suffering sigh to signal his presence, “I swear to god, Jeon Youngjae, you will be the death of me one day.”
Youngjae looks completely unapologetic as he offers Jimin his sorry, hyungie. “Can I have an ice lolly?” he asks immediately after, evidently feeling no remorse whatsoever. Jimin weakens in his resolve immediately and tries to produce a note magically from behind the boy’s ear, failing as always and reaching for his wallet instead.
“I’ll get that right someday, just watch,” the older man asserts, following his gaze to where Youngjae is buying three lollies from the cart just a few steps away.
“How is everything going? Therapy-wise?” Taehyung asks, before catching himself, “Oh wait, don’t tell me. Parental rights and all that.”
Jimin rolls his eyes at him, “Yes, parental rights, thank you for reminding me, oh expert of mine.” He dodges Taehyung’s halfhearted punch to his chest with practiced ease. “He’s doing good. I make sure that he does his one on one sessions with Eunha, just because I’m not sure that doing that with someone he knows is the best idea, for me or for Yoonie to get the best out of it. But I oversee his group sessions and he’s doing great, he isn’t as shy with the other kids as before or as panicky right after Jeongguk leaves. I might recommend that Guk take him to some group activities soon and hopefully shift to a bi-weekly routine before school starts, though we’ll have to see how Yoonie adjusts to that, too.”
“So the ultimate goal is to slowly phase therapy out of Youngjae’s life?” Taehyung asks, looking away to offer a smile to Youngjae, who waves at him from across the distance between them.
“It depends,” Jimin sighs, matching his action, “Kids can be mean, and it’s difficult to make sure that Youngjae doesn’t get singled out because of therapy or anything such. I just hope that something that’s meant to help him doesn’t make things harder for him; I’ve seen it happen before.”
Taehyung feels his chest clutch just a little at the thought of it; he doesn’t want Youngjae, who’s already been through so much in his first few years, to ever hurt again. He wipes the melancholy off his face as best he can when the boy toddles back to them both.
Youngjae, predictably, loves the butterfly garden. The boy loves small, beautiful things and the whole place- the thick foliage, the butterflies fluttering around- has him in a rapture. Taehyung contents himself just to take pictures of Yoonie grinning wildly with the little critters sitting on his hands and being an arm to grab onto if one of the butterflies flies too quickly or too suddenly and startles him.
He’s practically chewed his way through the paper ticket around his wrist- dyed slightly blue with his melted ice lolly- by the time his dad shows up. Jeongguk looks, like on every Friday, just a little frantic, like he wants to minimise the spent away from Youngjae as much as possible. The boy’s face lights up instantly, almost as bright as when the first monarch had sat on his outstretched fingers. He runs to him, just like he had to Taehyung an hour earlier.
Jeongguk catches him and lifts him into his arms, waving to Taehyung with a smile on his face, pressing kisses to a giggling Youngjae’s- still slightly sticky with sugar- cheeks. He has a suit on, one tailored perfectly to his body but shaken a little astray by the rush of leaving a day of meetings.
He walks on till he’s right in front of the pair, smiling a hi. His face is a beautiful, open thing; too tired to worry about being vulnerable. Taehyung reaches out and squeezes Jeongguk’s hand, just once, in greeting, like they always do.
“Tae hyungie, can you show papa the pictures? Please!” Taehyung lets the eager boy at his phone, Youngjae blissfully ignoring his father’s gentle reprimands.
They head out of the garden (but not before Jeongguk sees every single picture of Yoonie with his precious butterflies and only after Taehyung gets a picture of the younger man, comically shocked, as a butterfly settles onto his nose) and the evening’s blown a fresh cover of snow into the air. Seoul’s weather has been acting up- temperamental- in the closing days on February. Taehyung walks out and stretches a hand out to catch the little flakes, glad that Youngjae is safely bundled up and warm, appreciating the beauty of their city in snow without the dry cold of their harsher winter months.
He walks up to the sleek black, now familiar, form of Jeongguk’s car, waving at Namjoon and Hoseok inside, likely going to continue the meeting’s discussion at home. They’ve just rolled down the window so Taehyung can bend down and offer them a hi hyungs! when Jeongguk opens the door to sit Youngjae next to Hoseok, buckling him in. Then he herds Taehyung towards the passenger door suggestively, drawing complete innocence onto his face when he turns to face Jeongguk with a single eyebrow raised.
“Gukkie, I can take the bus,” he insists, admittedly half-hearted because they have this conversation every week.
Hoseok is clearly sick of it, too, bending forward in his seat to say, “Tae, just get in, you di-” - they all simultaneously look at Youngjae, oblivious, for a split second- “dill.”
Taehyung sighs dramatically but steps into the car. “I feel bad for making you late every week, Guk,” he says, once they’re both inside the car.
“It’s snowing, you egg,” Jeongguk admonishes; they’ve gotten rather good at the food replacement insults around Youngjae. They both pretend not to hear Namjoon muttering, wonder what excuses they’ll make in the summer and Hoseok snicker in response to his words because they two are immature and have no tact whatsoever.
Instead of paying them any heed, Taehyung and Jeongguk talk in quiet tones about the awful work days they’ve had, about the adorableness of Youngjae’s reaction to the butterflies, with loud music from the local children’s radio station playing at the boy’s earnest request, lingering with their conversation even as he quickly falls asleep in the backseat with his head resting on Namjoon’s arm.
Taehyung has many talents, he likes to think; foremost among them is his voice. He’s charmed an endless stream of aunties and uncles and grandmas and grandpas and nieces and nephews in his illustrious career; charmed girls in his elementary school and then boys there on out, once he figured himself out a little. One of the things that brought him happiness during hard times at med school was the rare nights Jeongguk, Jimin and him got drunk enough to go out and busk on touristy lanes of Seoul in exchange for pocket change and happy memories.
However, as he belts out an old trot song his father loves outside the Jeon household door, waiting for Haejin to open the door with Youngjae’s little self beside her, he makes absolutely no effort to draw on any talent whatsoever. The three of them have this little inside joke now; it makes the boy absolutely overjoyed to see his Tae hyung sing in the worst, most tone-deaf way possible. But the door swings open and-
Taehyung snaps his mouth shut, face turning a bright, burning red.
There’s a few seconds of silence and then Jeongguk laughs, loud and unabashed and bending over at the waist.
“Oh my god,” Taehyung touches his warm cheeks, hoping to transfer some of the cold of outside into them, “Jeongguk, stop.” His voice carries the kind of whiny tone that could challenge even Youngjae’s whenever he’s told it’s bedtime.
The younger man stands up eventually, wiping actual tears from his eyes, face settling into his smile lines in a way that has Taehyung’s heart clenching just a bit. “You just can’t recognise my talent, Jeon Jeongguk,” he tells him pointedly, “Now let me in, you egg.”
Jeongguk bowed, just a little, dripping sarcasm. “Yes, my liege.” They walk, side by side, to the kitchen, Taehyung hopping onto one of the stools by the kitchen island and accepting the cup of tea he is given. His whole body feels warmed by the heating in the house, the plush carpet under his toes and the warmth of the ginger tea- a teaspoon of milk, a teaspoon of sugar, as always- on his tongue.
“Your biggest fan isn’t here to receive you today,” Jeongguk says in between sips of his own tea- no milk, two overflowing spoons of sugar- sitting opposite him when they’ve moved to the couch, “I’ve been told it’s an emergency sleepover situation. Ji-ah got a puppy for her birthday and Yoonie asked me whether he could go and was packed up and ready in three seconds. I’m not even sure if it was a question. I think he just instructed me that he needed his rocket right that instant and that he wasn’t coming home for the night.”
“Bit early for the empty nest crisis, Gukkie,” The exaggerated story makes him grin, though.
“It’s never too early. Is this what my nanny felt like when I was six and hid in the park an hour past my playtime because I wanted to become an explorer?”
Taehyung shoved him a little with his shoulder. “You may be the most dramatic person in the world,” he wriggles a little so he’s settled into a more comfortable dent in the couch, “How long are you willing to bet you have before Yoonie demands a puppy?”
“Tomorrow, my time’s up. And I’m doomed because he has a whole collections of uncles who indulge him and I can’t say no to anything he asks for.”
He nods, offering Jeongguk no comfort with a little hidden smile behind his mug, misting the glasses that are still on from the morning’s shift. “Yeah,” he agrees, “You’re doomed.”
They sit in companionable silence for a few minutes, legs and arms pressed together. Taehyung’s hand grows tired of holding the stone mug and he rests it on Jeongguk’s shoulder and cocks his head a little to side to look at him. The other man turns to meet his gaze.
“Hi,” Taehyung says.
“Hi.” Jeongguk’s smile is something warm. His eyes glow a little with the dim lighting of the room and it catches him off guard. Those little lights in his eyes.
“Are you free today?”
He’s just a little nervous to ask it. Jeongguk and him have woven their lives back together easily in the past few months; sometimes Taehyung’s afraid it’s too easy. He’s felt the hurt of rejection from this man before- in a very different way- and even now, it sometimes feels like they’re tiptoeing a delicate balance and he doesn’t want to risk wearing that down. He knows that this careful avoidance won’t last for long, though, not with the both of them drawing closer everyday. Not when his heart still longs for the myriad ways in which they used to love each other, even now.
“Super free. We’re allowed an emergency sleepover too, aren’t we?” He can see the same kind of tentative energy in Jeongguk’s words, in his eyes. They’re quite close now.
“Do you want to go watch that new piranha monster movie? I hear it’s terrible.”
“Kim Taehyung, I see that genius in you everyone keeps talking about.”
The movie is god awful. One of the worst things Taehyung’s eyes have ever beheld. One of its many demerits is that it isn’t even boring enough to warrant his falling asleep on Jeongguk’s shoulder, which was foremost among the schemes he had hatched in the short time it took for them to throw on jackets and drive to the closest movie hall.
But one good thing about the cold in Seoul’s time between winter and summer is that Jeongguk hands are cold, cold where they find Taehyung’s.
And one good thing about Kim Taehyung is that his hands are always warm. He thinks he gets it from his grandmother, and his hands are warm, warm enough to comfort Jeongguk’s icy ones.
So their hands are together through the movie, and even though the movie is terrible, Jeongguk still starts at the jump scares, blunt nails digging a little into Taehyung’s skin and he laughs at the younger man, loud enough and long enough that the people in front of them turn around to give them dirty looks. They leave halfway through, right when the lead character’s leg is getting mauled by an electric orange colored piranha and Jeongguk snorts, loud and undignified, at the scene and receives the worst look yet.
“Her hair!” Taehyung gasps, wiping tears from his eyes, “Getting stuck in the piranha’s teeth! Oh my god.” He makes a sound that sounds less like a word and more like a series of syllabus accidentally pressed on a keyboard.
“Please, what about them playing the generic youtuber background music during their first kiss in the pool of dead piranhas. Romance at its absolute best.” When Taehyung looks up to respond to Jeongguk’s words, the younger man’s gaze zeroes in on his lips. “Oh, there’s a little-.”
He reaches out and brushes off a little cotton candy mini-cloud from the prepackaged cotton candy Taehyung likes sneaking into movie halls through a multitude of devious methods, some of which actually occasionally work. “You must be some kind of heathen,” the younger man continues conversationally, “to prefer cotton candy to overpriced butter popcorn. I think you can really taste the money you’ve just wasted, and it adds flavour that-”
At this point, he seems to notice that Taehyung is looking at him; really looking at him.
“What’s on your mind, Tae?” he asks, his voice not quite so humorous any more. Jeongguk’s eyelashes are dusted with a fine white powder, the sky making itself known to them. The street around them is empty; the night’s late enough and the weather poor enough that no one but bad movie connoisseurs have made the effort of coming down to the hall this night. Their hands are still held together; loosely, a little nervously but not afraid.
“This is much more romantic than a pool of dead piranhas with generic youtuber music playing in the background.”
“Why, yes,” Jeongguk tugs at their joint hands just a little, making Taehyung do a little bit of a spin-twirl to press against his body. It’s the stuff of all his Paris romance movie dreams, “Yes, I think it is.”
Then Jeongguk lets go of his hand and it’s quite unlike the unrealistic romance movies because their palms are a little sweaty from being held together for so long but he doesn’t mind when that slightly sweaty right palm comes up to cup his cheek. And maybe they really have grown up enough to do this now, to hold each other without bitterness lingering in the touch. It feels like a homecoming.
Taehyung leans a little closer, tipping his forehead against the other man’s. “Is this a bad idea?” he whispers, “What if this is a bad idea.”
“Nah,” Jeongguk repeats, leaning down to press a kiss against the corner of his mouth, “We’ve had lots of bad ideas but I don’t think this is one.”
Taehyung lets his thumbs run soft lines across Jeongguk’s cheeks, “Okay.” He trusts him.
He nudges up, just a little, their lips pressing together. Jeongguk’s breath ghosts his lower lip for a second before a gentle kiss is being pressed to it. Taehyung’s breath hitches and he moves his arms to wrap against his neck, just a little too hard, to pull him closer. Their first kiss after six years apart is a desperate thing, all teeth and tongue, wet and warm.
He bites down on Jeongguk’s lip, gentle, when they part, just for a brief moment. Their eyes are a little glazed when they move apart- barely, though- and their breathing harsh. There’s that one stubborn brown curl tracing a line onto the younger man’s face, dusted pink.
“I missed you,” Taehyung tells him, soft and vulnerable. Jeongguk draws him close again, lined up body to body with no space in between and whispers the same words back. The younger man kisses the corner of his eye, the place on his nose that he knows has a mole and the corner of his lips, again. Butterfly kisses; small, useless, precious. He holds him closer. They are matched; breath for breath.
When they get back home- Jeongguk’s home- he is pressed into the sheets, sinking into the mattress and the other man a comforting, protective weight on top of him. They press close and then move a little apart, but never too far, like the tide with the land; pushing and pulling but always together. There are marks pressed onto skin with teeth, with nails; the sharp edges of their bodies being used to gently mark each other as one’s own. When their lungs run out, breaths are pressed from one mouth into another, just as their whispered words are. Taehyung has not known love, not away from this man, but love feels just the same as it did six years ago. Nothing else has ever come close.
Jeongguk cleans him up when they’re done, first with his mouth and then with a warm cloth. He soothes his hand over his sore, beautifully tired body and tells him I missed you and I love you and yes, don’t be afraid, don’t doubt me, I love you.
Taehyung tells him he isn’t afraid, that he doesn’t doubt. He tells him that he loves him, too. What he doesn’t tell him is that in the past three months, he’s fallen in love with Jeongguk all over again; with the way he sings in the shower, the way he measures out his words but always somehow ends up speaking his mind. The way he loves his son, and the way he’s still the same boy he loved all those years ago but wiser, somehow; less afraid. He doesn’t tell Jeongguk these things, but he thinks he knows. Because in the space between fucking and going to sleep- that space in which relationships end, or never begin at all- Jeongguk asks him to stay.
Taehyung wakes up in a pile of his own limbs that complain of pain like a giant boulder’s just ran over him, sweaty where they meet another person’s skin. His ass and back hurt with all the soreness of a long night of sex and he’s pretty sure it’s far too cold to be completely naked with all the blankets fallen to the floor if the goosebumps trailing up his arm are any indication. He can smell Jeongguk’s morning breath as the younger man snores, dead to the world.
It’s the happiest he’s been in a long, long time.
Just then, he catches sight of the red digital number of Jeongguk’s weird advanced clock that he has told him many times is unnecessary. It’s ten. Taehyung briefly remembers the other man telling him that Youngjae’s emergency sleepover was over at nine thirty.
Suddenly all thought of kissing Jeongguk awake (maybe slipping under the covers and biting his way up the insides of his thighs) fly out of the window and he takes the man by both shoulders and shakes him. Hard. “Jeongguk! Jeon Jeongguk!” he yells, far too loudly in the empty silence of the room, stumbling of the bed to pull on a random pair of boxers and a shirt.
Shirt still half buttoned, he leaps ungracefully onto the bed and sits on top of Jeongguk’s pliant body. His mind recalls a far different context for this origami of their bodies but the clock ticks unforgivingly and Taehyung hops, just once, where he’s comfortably seated on his hips.
Jeongguk startles awake, eyes wide like one of those squishy toys with huge eyes and he looks so sleep rumpled and warm that Taehyung bends down to kiss him, just once, for as long as he can before his lungs burn for air. “Good morning, I’m sorry. But Yoonie needed to be picked up half an hour ago, love.”
If possible, Jeongguk’s eyes open wider and he sits up, till their chests are pressed together. The younger man holds his face in cupped hands and kisses him, “More of this later, Kim Taehyung.” Then he lifts him whole, Taehyung’s legs wrapped around his waist, and it’s all cute and sexy until he groans dramatically and throws him back onto the bed. “Sorry,” he says cheekily, “This old back just doesn’t work like it used to.”
Taehyung waits till Jeongguk is turned around and vulnerable before he slaps his ass, hard, and then flees the scene once the crime is done. That’s how they turn up at Ji-Ah’s house, slightly askew and still laughing.
Her mother opens the door, tired looking face blooming into something of a smile when she sees them; Taehyung isn’t sure if it’s actual friendliness or just play pretend. He can hear the not at all gentle yapping of a puppy from somewhere inside the house, and loud, abrupt kid-noises. Sam invites them in and is just about to serve them tea when Youngjae comes running with the littlest of puppies cradled in his arms.
“Papa!” he looks at Taehyung with a moment’s confusion but smiles brightly anyway, “Tae! Meet Monie!” Then he lays the puppy into Taehyung’s lap and throws himself onto his dad’s lap in a far less gentle way. “Can I have a puppy? Please please pleasie, I’ll take care of him and pet him and love him and-”
“Angel,” Jeongguk says firmly, but soothed by the soft hold he has on his son and the gentle endearment, “We’ll talk about this later, okay? Are you ready to go home?”
“Promise we’ll talk about it, later?” Youngjae presents a pinky that’s trembling just a little with how tightly it’s clenched. Jeongguk intertwines their pinkies and kisses the top of their joined fingers just once, gentle. “Okay, then! Bye Mrs. Yung, thank for having me. Bye Ji-ah!” The last part is shouted with all the lack of grace of a five year old boy and he marches out, leaving the two adults to scramble through pleasantries and thank you’s and collecting the, ever-present, rocket backpack.
When they actually reach the hallway, Youngjae is leaned against the wall and looking much more sleepy and tired and accepts Jeongguk’s lifting him up into his arms with a sigh of relief. He kisses his dad’s neck in thanks, and likely because he’s missed him. Taehyungis so proud of the little boy for going staying away for the night so bravely, and is so glad his anxieties about being away from Jeongguk have fallen into a softer lull. Right before he falls asleep, Youngjae whispers a little too loudly, “Do you think Papa’ll actually get me a puppy, Taetae?”
Taehyung just winks at the boy conspiratorially, and squeezes Jeongguk’s hand as the three of them walk home.
Youngjae’s feeling a lot better after he sleeps for an hour and then shovels waffles topped with an absurd amount of honey into his mouth, good enough to pursue the lead of the puppy. And then ,after he’s coaxed and coaxed and Jeongguk’s practically said yes, he turns his mind to other matters. The little boy has always been too sharp for his own good- or rather, for others’ good.
“Taetae?” he says, completely honest in his confusion. When Taehyung acknowledges him with an mhm, he continues, “Why are you here in the morning?” He can’t help but feel caught out and unprepared, his alarmed eyes meeting Jeongguk’s across the kitchen.
But he knows it isn’t Yoonie’s fault at all- the boy is right to be confused; he’s spent far too many meals in this house but it hasn’t usually been breakfast. Even that first morning after his birthday, Taehyung had fled before the exhausted birthday boy could wake up, unprepared for what that morning might have meant.
“Baby, Tae and I had a sleepover too, like you. I just missed you a lot, so I wanted some company.” Taehyung sends a silent thanks for the other man’s quick thinking and nods, before scrunching his eyebrows in mock outrage.
“So you only asked me over because you had no better option? Jeon Jeongguk!” Youngjae giggles around a mouthful of waffle and the conversation is safely averted.
The boy toddles away to watch Mickey Mouse Clubhouse (likely just going to fall asleep again) on the couch and when Taehyung goes to follow, Jeongguk catches him by the t-shirt and tugs just a little. He could walk away if he wanted, but he knows this is a conversation that needs to be had; they need to write out the boundaries for themselves and be on the same note as to where they want this to go.
So he lets himself be spun around to face Jeongguk, whose face looks far too serious to be comforting in any way. Taehyung is so nervous, almost scared. Some of that eases when the man’s face softens, just enough.
Don’t let me go again, he’s thinking, don’t tell me that last night was a mistake or that this is a bad idea because you told me this isn’t a bad idea and even if it is, we can make this good. We can make it good.
They stand there facing each other, tentatively; both wanting to give the other person their chance to frame everything else, frame where this conversation is going. Taehyung knows that Jeongguk is likely feeling as unsure as him, so he reaches out and holds his hand with gentle fingers. Uncertain enough that he would let go, if the other man wanted it.
“Okay,” Jeongguk bites his lip, “What are we doing about this?”
“I want-” he’s nervous, as he always is when he’s putting himself out there for others, “I want this. I want to do it better this time and I don’t want to hide it from anyone.”
The younger man smiles and it’s brilliant, it’s relieved. “Me too.” Jeongguk presses a kiss right next to the corner of his eye, just a sweet little piece of affection. “I want to tell Yoonie, too. He loves you already, there’s nothing to be nervous about there. But I just- I need you to be sure that you want this, after what I did last time. I don’t want him to have to lose anyone again, not if I can help it.”
It’s a little strange because the last time they were here, they were college kids who had no ties except to their parents and their coursework and paying a few bills for the first time. Now, they have work the next day and for Jeongguk, there’s a whole little human who depends completely on him. They know now, too, because of past mistakes and the oldest hurt, they aren’t looking to have their hearts broken again. They aren’t looking to break hearts, either.
Last time, it had felt like it would be forever but that hadn’t quite happened. This time, forever feels a little more like a choice they can make than an ill fated first love. There’s a choice, and just like the night before, Taehyung wants to stay. He wants to chose Jeongguk.
“I can’t promise-” he pauses, not sure that this- the bright morning light, the boy waiting for them in the living room- is the best time to talk about the bitterness that still sometimes stabs at him, despite himself, “I can’t promise that I’m over what happened, Guk. We need to talk about so many things, things we’ve been avoiding and we owe ourselves better than that.”
He brackets Jeongguk’s waist with his hand, reverent, in comfort, to soften his words. “But I understand now, how hard it was for you. In a way I didn’t back then. And I want to- I want to hear it from you and I want to tell you that I’m sorry too, for the way we hurt each other towards the end. And how I missed you for so long, without even remembering to miss you half the time. I think we can make it work, this time around.”
The younger man is looking at him in a steady, slightly unnerving, way. It makes him hesitant enough to add, “What… what do you think?”
“I think I have apologies to make, and I think maybe the best way for me to do it is to make it up to you by loving you better this time.” He smiles a little cheekily when Taehyung hides his face with a muttered oh my god.
He smacks his chest (softly) in retaliation. “Jeon Jeongguk, you better stop saying stuff like that unless you want me to lose a month’s payment on my student loan to send you a thousand roses because I have no impulse control at all.”
Jeongguk grins and then backs him up against the counter and kisses him, thumbs pressing into the hollow of his hipbones where his sleep shirt rises up as Taehyung reaches to wrap his arms around the younger man’s neck. It feels so good and perfect and- it’s so nice to be here, kissing this man, not in the night where things can be secret and easily forgotten once it’s over but in the morning, open and something here to stay.
“Youngjae, we’ve got something to talk to you about, baby.”
“So you know how Taehyungie hyung and I are really good friends?”
“But I’m your favorite friend, right Taehyungie?”
“Of course, bun.”
“And yours too, papa?”
“Yes, angel. But what we wanted to tell you was that… Taehyungie hyung and I are dating. Like- like Namjoon hyung and Seokjin hyung.”
“Now, don’t worry, you- wait, what?”
“I saw you kissing in the kitchen ten minutes ago. Gross.”
“What? I wanted Jello!”
Everything is silent for a few seconds, before Taehyung gives in and giggles. It’s so ridiculous; it’s so incredibly ridiculous and soaked with relief and love for the little boy in all his obliviousness that he laughs hard enough that he’s bending over. Jeongguk joins in three minutes later and with both the adults laughing, unrestrained, Youngjae does too, though he likely has no idea what they’re laughing about.
Jeongguk hugs the boy and kisses his head; Taehyung can see the relief on his face. Youngjae at this point has clearly lost his patience for the strange emotions the two of them have been undergoing and peers up at Taehyung from over his dad’s shoulder.
“Can I have Jello, now?”
Loving Jeongguk, the twenty seven year old, is different from loving Jeongguk, the twenty one year old. It’s quieter, steadier. But they fall back into each other as easily as they did the first time.
Taehyung can’t say that Jeongguk is the only person he’s ever loved; their world is real and love is more fickle than that. He loved the girl in ninth grade who tutored him for a year in math, he loved the boy in his first year at university who broke his heart for the first time. In their own ways, Taehyung thinks he may have loved the short lived, temporary relationships that came after Jeongguk too, because they helped him heal in ways he never realised, though he knows they didn’t do as well at that as he may have hoped.
Jeongguk isn’t the only person he’s ever loved, but he’s the only one whose love he wants to keep, to feel again. The only one he wants to fight for. Taehyung doesn’t believe in soulmates; in one person destined to hold you forever. He also doesn’t believe in unconditional forgiveness, not when it comes down to something you just can’t forgive. But he does believe in growing, and maybe growing together, all of three of them. Sometimes, he daydreams about it; the three of them like a family doing… family things. It’s more than many could hope for, as gay people in their society. Taehyung isn’t naive enough to believe it’s going to be easy.
Maybe the first time wasn’t the right time. They weren’t the answers to each other’s problems as they might have hoped. But now, steady on the ground, this feels stronger. Like somewhere steady to build.
Jeongguk’s favorite color is still yellow and you can tell when you walk into his house. Youngjae’s been indoctrinated into the cult of yellow too and so the Jeon household is bright like a lemon glaze falling over your eyes right from the rusty yellow sign on the door forward.
Yellow flowers, yellow bowls and cutlery. Yellow napkins on the table and a yellow tile in the bathroom. Youngjae’s little mini birthday Mercedes is a frightful yellow, too. Taehyung likes to think their house could be accepted into that odd American show about people with weird obsessions that he used to sometimes watch as a child in morbid fascination though he understood absolutely nothing, just because it was the only thing that was on in the short time his mom let him watch TV. He tells Jeongguk this but the man only scoffs and burrows under his (yellow) blanket and tells him to go to sleep.
When Taehyung’s walking back from work one day, he spots a flower shop with an aggressive display of yellow tulips. Much to his horror, his chest feels light and he spends an egregious amount of money on them because apparently, being in love causes great preoccupation. Being happy is the best preoccupation of all.
It’s almost worth it when he shows up at their door with an armful of those flowers and Jeongguk- after carefully placing them on the little table by the entrance- tips him over and kisses him like all those old movie stars did to the glamorous women on screen. He drops him immediately after, tripping on one of Youngjae’s remote controlled trucks, and they fall, halfway across the threshold. They stay there until Jeongguk’s neighbour- Ms. Jung- walks up to her flat and her giant Bernard Shepard licks a long, loving stripe across his forehead in greeting.
A disapproving Ms Jung is a frightening thing, so the next time Jeongguk bakes his favorite lemon squares- yes, the yellow kind- he makes sure to drop by an extra batch for her.
The invitation sits in thick card stock that’s almost as heavy as his heart in his chest. It’s unnecessarily expensive, a show of luxury and status and all those things that- Taehyung sighs. He knows he’s projecting.
Jeongguk looks up at the sound, teeth biting down on his lower lip in a way that’s far from gentle. “Well?” he asks, voice all strange and careful and he hates it, just for a moment, because they’re in bed eating the sandwiches Youngjae tried to make out of bread and cucumber and not much else and this place is supposed to be safe. And he’s scared too, because this is how it went wrong last time.
“I don’t know,” Taehyung tries to steady his voice out, “I don’t know how much of a good idea it is. Maybe it’s too soon? Do they even know?”
“They know, okay?” the younger man placates, “When we met them for lunch the other day, Youngjae talked about you so much. I made it clear you’re back in my life, now. They know- that he loves you and that I love you.”
Taehyung puts his face in his palms; he doesn’t know how to say what he’s feeling without being a little harsh but he knows better than to bury it somewhere deep inside him to reveal itself, ugly and withered, later. “That didn’t help last time, Guk. I know we loved each other last time, too, and they still twisted it and ruined it. It was us who fucked it up in the end, I know, but it was them who pushed us there.”
The younger man gently reaches out to take his hands away from his face. They’re just a little wet when they come away because Taehyung can still feel it sometimes, despite himself. It’s the oldest hurt.
“It isn’t like last time, now. I didn’t-” he takes a deep breath, “I didn’t protect you the right way last time because I wasn’t ready. Because I just wanted them to love me and I thought that despite everything, they did. I know now, after Youngjae, I was wrong.”
“Guk,” he sighs, soft and sad; Taehyung hates to see him this way. “I won’t defend your parents but I don’t want to believe they don’t love you. Even when they were… saying things to me, I think in their own way, they were trying to look out for you.”
Jeongguk laughs and it’s bitter, acrid. Taehyung can defend his parents all he wants but he’ll never truly forgive them for taking someone as strong as the man in front of him and reducing him to someone whose feelings and experiences with them can still twisted him into confusion and hurt.
“Don’t bother with that bullshit, Tae. We both know they’re elitist and they treated you badly because you didn’t have money and then treated Youngjae badly because he didn’t have their blessed genes. They didn’t want me because I’m gay and I won’t give them a kid with those genes. They’re awful.”
“But they learnt to accept you and Seokjin hyung being gay.”
“They tolerate us being gay.”
“They care for him now… I think. But I won’t forgot how they looked at him at first. How they looked at a two year old baby and just saw business complications.”
It makes Taehyung feel sick to hear it. “I just- I don’t know.” He admits his defeat. He can’t humanise that.
“That’s why I-” Jeongguk sighs and run his hands through his hair roughly; it’s gotten long and it looks as messy when he’s done as he likely feels inside. “- I really would love to have you there. Seokjin hyung and I get by- we’ve been disappointments long enough- but I’ve seen him go to Namjoon hyung like he’s a breath of fresh air. I remember that’s how you used to feel for me, back when we were together. I remember, even though I know I didn’t do well to show it, that just looking at you made me feel like it was somehow worth it.”
Taehyung abandons the plate with his sandwich on his lap to straddle Jeongguk’s lap, rumpling the blankets around them. “I love you,” he tells him.
“I know. But you shouldn’t come just because of that. Not if you’ll feel uncomfortable.”
“You can ask for things, you know? Stop trying to apologise every time you want something.”
“I’ll be sorry forever.” Jeongguk presses a kiss to the skin of his shoulder.
“Just love me instead.”
Jeongguk kisses him, open mouthed and appreciative, then retreats quickly. “You taste like cucumber.”
“Still don’t have the heart to tell Yoonie you hate them?”
When Taehyung was ten years old, his house got a PC and all he played for a solid year was Club Penguin in all its mid 90’s glory. Youngjae in his little suit looks almost exactly like his penguin avatar in his black tie outfit and even though the reference flies right over the boy’s head, Jeongguk laughs at it appreciatively.
They have to be at the event by eight thirty and he shows up at the boys’ house to get ready at seven. Youngjae’s still in his pyjamas and as Yoongi, who drops him off on his way to his evening service at the restaurant, says, there’s much work to be done. There’s a quick flurry of activity and nearly an hour later, all three of them are in pressed suits and ready. Taehyung and Youngjae’s are a little rumpled already but that’s hardly a drawback.
“Ready?” he looks to Youngjae with a determined gaze. The little boy answers with a just as enthusiastic look and straightens his tie. They had watched an animated spy movie three days ago and all Youngjae wanted was to be like the spy from the movie, now.
There’s just enough time for Taehyung to take a camera roll’s worth of pictures of the adorable father and son in their suits before they have to leave.
Driving to the hotel feels a little like a march towards some kind of impending doom that just keeps growing closer and closer, heavier and heavier in his chest. He had vowed to never let the Jeons make him feel this way after the last time but they still held sway over him in some way; that young version of him that wanted so desperately to be liked by the parents of the boy he loved. Taehyung can only hope that’s not where he longs for validation any longer, because then he’s tied down for disappointment.
Jeongguk holds his hand when they walk in; it’s brave and firm and it means everything. Youngjae presses tight to his father’s leg and they walk in together. The room is dripping in diamonds and all rich velvet and gold details. There’s thick perfume in the air and it smells rich; it smells like people here to drink alcohol and lobby and then pretend that they’re here for the charity. Taehyung wonders out loud to the man next to him, “How much of this money could have been used to donate to the cause instead?”
“Too much,” Jeongguk says, just a touch regretful and he hears the wistfulness in his voice, for that boy he once used to be who spoke against all of this. But years have passed and this is his world now. “I’m not sure I’ll ever forgive myself for it,” he says, and Taehyung knows that he means this; for knowing how wrong and corrupt this place of privilege is, for speaking about it and studying it for years only to end up here.
Taehyung kisses him on the cheek once, not thinking about it long enough to worry what it looks like. His skin tastes a little like his lavender lotion, the oldest of scents, and against that skin, he says, “It’s not our role to feel sorry sitting on our place of privilege, Guk. We have to do, not feel pity. All these people are so busy feeling pity, they’re forgetting to do anything about it.”
“Talk socialism to me,” Jeongguk mutters with a glint in his eye- though that may just be a reflection of the chandeliers overhead- and he can only grin at the younger man cheekily. Youngjae reappears from the food table with a giant glass of ice cream precariously balanced in his tiny hands and Namjoon and Seokjin behind him with far more delicate glass flutes of champagne instead.
“Woah, woah, little man,” Taehyung says, crouching down, “You need some help with that, bun?” And it’s there, crouching on the designer tile with his dress pants all rumpled, feeding a gleeful Jeon Youngjae spoonfuls of ice cream for dinner that he first hears that dry, familiar voice.
First, a throat is cleared. Then, “Hello, Jeongguk. Seokjin, Namjoon. And is that Kim Taehyung?”
He looks up with far less grace than he had imagined in his head. Youngjae follows his gaze and instantly moves just a little closer to Taehyung, letting out a formal sounding “Hello, Grandma,” that doesn’t match any part of the boy he knows, the boy who gave him a birthday day card the second time they met and has treated him like a friend since the first.
“Hello, Ms Jeon,” Taehyung bows his head with all the carefully cultivated respect his parents had drilled into him, “It’s nice to see you again.”
She smiles and her face is just as graceful as it was seven years ago, just as friendly but with not much reaching her eyes. “Lovely to see you, Taehyung. It’s been… six years? Seven? Jeongguk told me you reconnected recently.”
“Yes ma’am. We met at my clinic.”
“Oh?” she raises her eyebrows, “A clinic? That’s quite impressive. And how is that student loan going?”
There it is. For a brief second, Taehyung had thought she was giving him her approval, and somehow, that felt worse than her rejection. “It’s going. I’m grateful that I’m in a secure place now, far more than before.”
Jeongguk’s hand comes up to press against his lower back. “Tae’s doing great, mom. So are Yoongi hyung and Jimin hyung, by the way.” He can hear the fight in the younger man’s voice; defiance in response to the handful of times she had met Taehyung- and the single time she had met the other two- and the way she had condescended their career choices. Taehyung can remember the look of her husband’s face when he had told Yoongi that there wasn’t much of a future in cooking these days, when she had told Jimin psychology wasn’t much of a science at all. At times, when he doesn’t feel angry, he almost feels awe at how careless yet entirely barbed the Jeons’ words always were.
Her face is stuck in what looks like an unnatural grimace; Taehyung wonders cruelly where Jeongguk got his beautiful smile from. He wonders if Jeon Haerin ever smiled like that; he wonders where that smile went. She inclines her head to them, just once, and excuses herself to join the crowd again with an awkward pat on Youngjae’s head.
Namjoon wordlessly hands the both of them glasses of whiskey that are far too dark for their own good, snagged off the tray of a passing waiter. “Welcome to the family, Tae.”
The hotel isn’t quite the soulless bourgeoise hellscape Taehyung had imagined on their way there. The people are ever so slightly unbearable but the food is delicious and Seokjin hyung still has an absolutely wicked sense of humour and the two of them sit around making snarky comments the whole evening, while Namjoon and Jeongguk occasionally interject with some nuggets of wisdom. Hoseok shows up for a brief ten minutes before he has to fly off to the US for a meeting. It’s fun, being with them and Taehyung wishes sometimes that their whole group was together; it would certainly make the whole thing better to have Yoongi commenting on the food and how mediocre and overpriced it is. His brother would be proud to hear his analysis of it, he’s sure.
It’s tedious though, in the way all events where everyone’s masquerading and pushing some or another agenda are. After the presentation and the donation collection is over, there’s a lull in which Jeongguk takes him by one hand and a sleepy Youngjae by the other and leads them somewhere, only telling Seokjin mysteriously that he’s taking them to the rose garden.
The noise fades as they walk further and soon they reach a giant French door that opens up into one of the most beautiful gardens Taehyung has ever seen. He can’t help but let out a sound of awe; there’s barely any light, only the reflection of the hotel’s halls and small lamps here and there that cast a glow over the roses- vibrant, beautiful, healthy- growing all around. The garden is completely empty save for a shallow bed of water at its center, the moonlight reflecting off its marbled, blue-white tiles and the gentle breaks and flows of the water it holds.
Youngjae mirrors his excitement and where Taehyung holds Jeongguk tighter, the boy escapes his father’s hold to run into the garden with abandon, ignoring the roses almost completely in favour of the tiny manmade pond. He’s learnt to love plants more in the past few months, especially with Maui growing stronger and taller every day but they still can’t hope to win Youngjae’s heart over any body of water, no matter its size.
“It’s so beautiful,” Taehyung sighs against the shoulder of Jeongguk’s suit, “Thank you for bringing us here.”
Lips press against his hair. “Mom and dad used to come to this hotel all the time when we were young. All their events, all their meetings. Seokjin hyung and I used to escape to the rose garden as soon as we could, every time. Somewhere here, there’s the body of a dead lizard we found a tried to keep alive by catching flies that we buried lovingly. Her name was Lizzy.”
Taehyung snorts at that. “You were such a weird kid, Jeon.” He feels the muscles in Jeongguk’s shoulder move as he waves at an excited Youngjae who’s mushing the dirt around the pond in his fist confidently. They should probably do something about that but Yoonie doesn’t eat dirt and the little boy just spent an evening in the most sanitised environment possible; Taehyung figures he deserves a little fun.
“I think you would have still been my friend back then.”
“Oh, for sure. I was a weird kid too. I think Jimin and Yoongi hyung are the only ones who didn’t think so.”
“I swear I would have killed for a friend like you back then, Tae,” and there’s loneliness in that confession but also sweetness, and that’s what Tae feels strongest when he kisses Jeongguk, soft and loving. Right there, in the hotel that represents much of Jeongguk’s childhood, in the garden that was his freedom. Jeongguk’s fingers are just a little stained with blue ink from signing things, his skin a little damp with the humidity of greenery. The smell of roses stains the air heady.
“Papa, Tae! Look!” Youngjae waves both his hands in the air to catch their attention and then, while holding their gaze deviously, takes a single step into the pond water. He yells just a little from how- presumably- cold the water is and then stands there, awaiting judgement from them before doing anything else.
Jeongguk slaps a hand over his face and then pads over to where his son is standing. “What do we say, Jeon Youngjae? Never…?”
“Never go in the water without an adult.” The words are said- rather, chanted- through a pout.
“Yes. Now, this is a very fancy party and these are our fancy clothes and…” Jeongguk trails off, visibly struck by an epiphany. He looks at Taehyung and suddenly, the father and son have a very similar scheming expression on their faces. “Fudge it.”
He can’t help but giggle. The imitation swearing is never not amusing. “Fudge it?” Taehyung asks, a broad smile on his face. When the younger man nods his confirmation, he takes off his suit jacket and tie and tosses them onto the grass.
And then the two of them wade into the pond too- they’re far too tall, the pond is definitely not built for anyone as tall as them to use- but they bracket Youngjae and let the overjoyed boy splash them until their dress shirts turn nearly gossamer and muddy. The look on his face makes it seem like this is the best gift he’s ever gotten in his life, including Maui and the tiny yellow Mercedes and his brand new Pokemon towel altogether. And that Pokemon towel is the sole reason the boy is up for bath time, ever; funnily enough considering his love for water in every other form.
They sneak out of event after and Jeongguk changes into his backup suit from his car- yes, he has a backup suit- and gives his finishing address with just slightly damp hair, while Youngjae and Taehyung sit in the car and it all feels like a very elaborate plot of espionage- a secret don’t let grandma see you stratagem- much to the little boy’s excitement.
When Jeongguk makes his escape, the three of them go to his apartment with the windows down, wind drying their hair. His tie is loose around his neck and flaps into Taehyung’s face more than once, which he’s sure would amuse Youngjae greatly if he hadn’t fallen asleep the instant they started driving, abrupt as ever.
He reaches out a hand to press it against Jeongguk’s shoulder, then slides it up to massage the tired muscles of his neck, running gentle fingers against the fuzz of the hair that’s been growing out in the past few months. Jeongguk gives him an appreciative smile, turns to press a kiss to his lips when they reach a slow bend in the road. His eyes are bright from the happiness of the night- unexpected as it was- and from the wind’s welcome onslaught on his poor eyes. The main city is quieter as they approach it in the darkness, more beautiful, even if the stars still stay elusive and city lights dot the horizon instead. The radio hums a quiet song as the night welcomes them home.
Youngjae’s hair is almost completely white when he opens the door to Yoongi, Taehyung right behind him sheepishly. “Hi, hyung,” he offers a little wave, knowing that his brother is going to roll his eyes in three, two, ah, there it is.
“Hi Yoonie, how are you,” he ruffles the white locks of the little boy’s hair, flour creating a white halo around his head.
“I’m old,” Youngjae answers in a dramatically aged voice, hunching over, “We’re cooking for Papa! Because he always cooks for us and Taehyungie hyung felt like trying it because he said that he needs to prove to papa that he can cook even though he can’t really, I think.”
Taehyung raises an eyebrow at the little boy, now picking bits of chocolate off his t-shirt, “Youngjae, we don’t tell Yoongi hyung these things.”
“We don’t. Yoongi hyung’s a meanie and now he’s never going to let me live this down.”
“Live this down?”
Taehyung sighs, “Never mind.” Then he claps his hands together, chop, chop!
Five minutes later and Yoongi’s got the apron on and is pointing out what’s gone wrong with the recipe so far, other than their overall lack of coordination. (“Why do you have chocolate for an apple pastry?”) The counter’s been cleaned up and there’s a new bowl and Youngjae has been tasked with mixing the sugar, flour and eggs together, while Taehyung skins and slices apples. The entire kitchen smells delicious because of the caramel sauce his brother’s making, looking serious as he only ever does while cooking and raising the ladle every now and then to inspect the mixture.
It doesn’t take that long for the little apple pastries to come together and they look far nicer sitting on the plate than anything he would have been able to come up with, that he can admit. Taehyung wraps himself around Yoongi in a giant, grateful hug as he’s always done when his brother has saved him in the culinary department; from the first time he took credit for his brother’s cupcakes as a three year old on Mother’s Day, up until Jeongguk’s twentieth birthday and the giant cake that had, admittedly, been more Yoongi’s work than his.
He manages to convince his brother to stay- though it’s likely it’s Youngjae’s adorable request for karaoke? that does the job. Ten minutes later and they’ve got a ragtag little set up with the tiniest of microphones that Youngjae had left at his apartment at some point, connected to the tv blaring songs that are far older than the boy, yet he doesn’t seem to mind at all.
The three of them are singing- screaming- along to a Seo Taiji song when the bell rings. Taehyung allows himself to grin at the image of Yoongi head banging his bleached blonde hair and Youngjae matching his actions before walking to the door. He has to fiddle with the lock for a good few minutes- he’s been telling him to get that fixed forever- and opens it to find Jeongguk standing there, soft and rumpled in his favorite t-shirt which has, ridiculously, the entire periodic table on it and a giant bowl held between his hands.
“Hi, baby,” Taehyung leans over the- truly cavernous- bowl to kiss him briefly, “What’s that? It smells great but this was Youngjae and I’s cooking night.”
“I know, don’t you worry. This is just my little addition to the party.”
“This better not have been your insurance, Jeon Jeongguk.”
“No way,” Jeongguk raises a single hand in surrender, his face the picture of innocence, “I have complete faith in you and my toddler’s cooking abilities.”
Taehyung looks at him pointedly, though he takes the bowl from the man’s hands. “You better. Plus, we had Yoongi hyung help us. Now quiet,” he presses a finger to his lips, “Magic is happening in my living room right now.”
It’s only then that Jeongguk seems to notice the clamour coming from the other room and his face turns quizzical, letting Taehyung lead him to the living room, where they freeze side by side at the threshold. The two have moved onto that really old Celine Dion song from Titanic, Yoongi belting ‘Near! Far! Wherever you are!’
“Oh my god,” Jeongguk whispers.
Fifteen minutes later, Yoongi and Jeongguk are twirling Youngjae between them while he films them, an apple pastry in his mouth. The pastry is warm and delicious, he has a video to last him and Jimin for the rest of his lives and three among his favorite people in the world are dancing in his living room with a single tiny plastic microphone between them and Taehyung thinks that the tightness in his chest is just happiness, undiluted and warm.
As Seoul schools close for the summer, Taehyung’s clinic gets busier; the change in the season, the pollen floating around the air, the kids playing outside for long hours under the sunlight. He’s tried his best to convince the chief of surgery to let him, at least during the hardest months of the summer, work in paediatrics with kids like he’s always wanted, not stuck in a boardroom or research lab in a way he hasn’t.
Taehyung loves his work, but it also leaves him stuck in the hospital for hours on end- often in an operation theatre- and sometimes it feels like he never sees the sunlight.
He’s just about to go on his break between shifts when he gets a message from Jeongguk, asking if he’s free. Taehyung sends him a rather unflattering picture of his chin to confirm that yes, finally, after eight hours, he’s heading to the cafe to eat.
The hallways are busy, a steady stream of patients and nurses filing around, doctors on their rounds, the ringing of the phones as people call in their appointments. It’s a steady sort of noise he’s used to now, after years of working at the clinic, building it up from an empty floor in their hospital with his team. Taehyung’s proud of every aspect of it.
Rounding the corner to his room to pick up his water bottle, he spots two familiar figures and his heart stops. Taehyung begins walking faster towards where Youngjae stands by Jeongguk’s side; his heart speeding up now that it’s remembered what it’s supposed to do.
“Is everything okay?” he says urgently, in lieu of a greeting. He surveys the little boy- he’s looking a little flushed- though he knows better than to try and assess his condition off of just how he looks. Taehyung takes Youngjae’s face between his hands and turns it left and right, his movements dipped in worry until-
“I’m okay, Taehyungie hyung!” the boy announces through his squished cheeks. Taehyung sags slightly in relief and kisses his forehead, rising up to face a bemused Jeongguk.
“I was so worried,” he sighed, keeping one hand on Youngjae’s head as he accepts his boyfriend’s kiss on the cheek. Being in the clinic for hours on end has his nerves up at arms, always ready for a crisis.
“Hey,” Jeongguk comforts softly, voice soft. His collar is loose around his neck, his sunglasses tucked into the front of his shirt. His cheeks are blushed from the heat too and oh, that was what the color on Youngjae’s cheeks had been. “We brought you home food. It was Yoonie’s idea.”
It’s so sweet and he’s so tired and he can’t help the tears that flood his eyes. And it’s ridiculous because he isn’t really a crier at all but three of things that are always sure to trigger tears are small animals, Yoongi comforting him on bad days and tiny, unwarranted acts of affection.
“Thank you, baby,” he bends down again to kiss Youngjae’s head again, “I love you so much.”
The little boy’s always been so good at sensing others’ feelings and so he hugs Taehyung instantly, patting his back the way Youngjae has probably seen them do to him when he’s sad. “I love you too, hyungie!”
It’s all very warm and nice but they have to get out of clinic- crowded hospital hallways never lead to anything good- and so Taehyung takes them to the rooftop cafeteria. It has a view of the city around them and a bunch of heavy, greasy food that he’s tired of in the long weeks of working but make Youngjae perk up instantly. He piles a somewhat excessive amount of fries and the greasiest chicken out there- for all their love of health, hospitals sure didn’t cater to their employees’- that he and Jeongguk munch on happily while Taehyung takes huge bites of bulgogi, eggs and rice, interspaced with kimchi for some spice, though he’s barely tasting the food with how quickly he’s inhaling it.
Their table draws a little bit of a crowd, people either coming to meet Youngjae, or get a share of the spread Taehyung has in front of him. Somi- the boldest of the hospital’s new residents- tells him with little hesitation, “You have a beautiful family, sir.”
He looks to where Jeongguk has two fries sticking out of his mouth like fangs and the ketchup smeared around Youngjae’s face as he laughs at his father’s antics and smiles at her. Yeah, he really does.
Jeongguk’s birthday is on the first day of September, right when autumn strikes the trees and the roads run red and yellow with the leaves that have fallen. It’s also a Friday, which means Taehyung and Youngjae have a solid few hours to get prepared for the giant meal plan the boy had titled ‘Papa’s Birthday Extravagna’ (the last word had been a little hard for him but the five year old was stubborn in that an extravaganza was exactly what was needed.)
Youngjae is charged with mixing the lemonade- the most essential job of all- and the boy is sat on the counter with the giant bowl Taehyung pilfered away from his boyfriend from that one time he had brought them jajangmyeon. They’ve prepared for many days for this, and he’s got all the recipes from Yoongi lined up on his counter and a fridge that’s more full than it’s ever been, even on the rare occasions his mom has visited with her host of supplies.
Everything seems to be going great. Youngjae may have spilled a little bit of lemonade on the counter but the majority of it is in the bowl, while Taehyung slices up the beef with a- frankly intimidating- knife that came with the set of knives in his kitchen but he has never used. The two of them are talking to each other like they’re judges in a cooking show, whipping out an excessive number of spoons to offer taste tests, rubbing imaginary beards and nodding approvingly. Taehyung is sure that at this point, he’s drank half the lemonade they started out with but seeing the joy on the boy’s face when he deepens his voice and says, “Why, chef Jeon, this is rather delicious,” is undoubtedly worth it.
It goes wrong when he goes to switch on the oven to preheat it for the apple bites, now their favorite thing to eat together. Suddenly, there’s a spark and all the lights go out. The smell of smoke blooms in the air and a small amount of light fills the room as a few weak flame light up.
“Fuck, fuck,” Taehyung hisses, stepping on the flames briefly before twisting when he hears Youngjae let out a panicked sound. “Hey bun, don’t worry, okay? It’s all okay. I’m right here.” He wades his way through the darkness till he’s right in front of the boy, lifting him up in his arms. Youngjae clutches him hard, nervousness in every ragged breath he takes.
Taehyung scrambles to grab the inhaler he’s stashed in his kitchen for Youngjae, carrying the boy to the main door because with his asthma, he needs to get Yoonie out now. He tries not to let any of his panic show as he struggles with the latch of the door, the air is growing heavier now and the boy is definitely having a harder time with it.
When the door clicks- a slit of light opening up in the darkness of the house- he breathes a sigh of relief and lets the boy down outside. Time is precious but Youngjae is even more so, so Taehyung takes a minute to help him breathe in from the inhaler, in, out, in, out.
“You’re doing so good, bun,” Taehyung runs a hand through his hair, “Now I need you to go down to Ms Han’s house, okay? Tell her that there’s a small fire, okay? And ask her to call your papa. Can you do that for me?”
“Taehyungie hyung,” the boy says, lower lip wobbling.
“I’m so sorry, baby. Everything is going to be okay, okay? I’m coming in just five minutes. Five minutes, that’s all.”
Youngjae nods, just once and then turns and flees down the hallway to Ms Han’s door. It’s only when he sees the boy knocking on the door and let inside that he allows himself to go back into the house. Taehyung knows he can’t do much to help and that the boy needs him more than anything right now, but he knows he has a fire extinguisher in his kitchen and he just- he needs to try, just once.
The smoke is thicker in the air, now and his eyes burn. The fire is tiny, not spreading, which has to be a good sign but he knows all too well that smoke inhalation can be just as damaging. He can already feel the symptoms that he’s studied about; the heaviness of his limbs, the wet, harsh coughs that shake his entire body and force him to pause.
His hands find the great relief of the metal of his fire extinguisher, now warm with the growing temperature of the room. Taehyung uses what feels like the last bit of his energy to break the seal and press down on the nozzle, even the reflexive force of the extinguisher enough to send him stumbling back. The fire is gone, but solace is short lived.
Taehyung realises he’s made a mistake in the worst way when he reaches the door and the handle- now uncomfortably warm- refuses to budge. “No,” he sighs, “Don’t do this to me, now.” He struggles for as long as he can, thinking of Youngjae, outside, waiting for him. Thinking of his brother, of Jeongguk, of his parents and friends. Of all the work he’s still got left to do. He really does try- he’s always been incredibly stubborn- but soon his limbs feel like the bones within them have disappeared and he sinks onto the ground.
His lungs feel clogged up and his throat burns and he doesn’t know- doesn’t know if this is just him being hyperaware of things he had only ever seen in textbooks or if his body’s really shutting down from smoke inhalation. If so, his body’s a lot weaker than he had thought it was. He feels like Kim Taehyung, the eight year old, in bed with a cold and insisting to Yoongi that you can die of a cold and of course he must stay home. He feels like Kim Taehyung, the twenty two year old, panicking because his finals were in two weeks and no, Jeongguk, letting him sleep for a whole day- though it helped greatly- was not a good idea and he was fine.
When Taehyung is afraid, he hyper focuses. Details, life is all in the details and yet they barely ever catch his eye until panic has them blown up in his face. He can feel the carpet, the ugly, grainy, grey carpet that he’s hated since he moved in under his fingers. He thinks that although he doesn’t believe in someone up there, he’s going to be pretty mad at them if he dies sitting on this carpet. He concludes that he’s going to lose conscious very soon and then, despite how vicariously he always tries to live his life, he feels some regrets left behind; like those stubborn grains of tea that you can never really strain out.
He wants to live to see his parents retire and take them on that one Europe trip they’ve always planned. He wants to see his patients walk out of his clinic healthier than when they had walked in. He wants to see Yoongi and Jimin get married, because those two idiots separately asked him for advice on what rings to buy months ago and have still not asked the question. He wants to watch Youngjae grow up, wants to see him go to school and wear that one cheddar print shirt they found at the flea market for his first day and awe all his classmates with his fashion and be strong and confident and loved by Taehyung. He wants to be there when they finally, finally coerce Jeongguk into getting that puppy, whom he decides must be named Popcorn. He wants to love Jeongguk with all that he has, for as long as he can, because they’ve spent far too much time being too bitter or too scared and not enough time being together and he had thought-
He had thought they finally had their chance to change that.
Taehyung is famously stubborn and so he keep his eyes open as long as he can, breathing shallow. His eyes burn and they mingle with the tears of frustration at his all too weak human body and its vulnerability, at the fact that it’s his Jeongguk’s birthday and the little boy he loves so much is probably outside, terrified, and he can’t do anything but lie here.
I want- he demands finally of the universe- I want to stay awake. But when his eyes fall closed, he’s far too tired to even feel betrayed that he wasn’t heard.
He doesn’t die.
Taehyung wakes up to the smell of antiseptic and clean and it’s far too familiar for him to have that often fictionalised moment of where am I? This is the place that was a strange kind of home for him when the outside world was too big or too overwhelming or too unfamiliar. He’s alive, and he’s in the hospital.
He lies there for a few moments. It’s dark, but only because his eyes aren’t ready to open yet. His throat burns with thirst and the remnants of ash and other nasty things that had settled into his body.
Yoongi’s talking next to him. Something about an idiot- probably him- and his voice is heavy and sad. His brother is sad. It’s sheer willpower and love and thirst that drives him to open his eyes. That’s painful in itself; his eyelids are stuck together in a way that already tells him that it’s been at least a day since they fell closed.
Taehyung’s throat feels utterly destroyed, like someone’s taken stone to it and just callously sanded the surface, so he wiggles his fingers around. Someone’s hand is around his. He must have started moving slightly while still unconscious, because they don’t immediately react. With a frustrated groan that grates his throat, he jerked his fingers far more harshly.
Jeongguk’s face- tired, greasy, eyes heavy- appears right above him, a welcome sight that brings him such acute relief that his eyes fill up and trail down the sides of his face. With how dehydrated he is, he hadn’t thought that was even possible.
The younger man instantly looks panicked, disappearing from view before a gentle hand is drying the tears off his skin.
“Tae?” Yoongi asks from somewhere next to him, “What’s wrong? Are you hurting?”
He can’t speak but neither of these two know about their clinic’s system of tapping once for yes and twice for no, but Taehyung strikes his finger against the bed once, twice anyway, because he has good faith Jimin is in the room too and Jimin will know what he means.
“He’s fine, he’s fine,” he hears his best friend’s voice, all choked up and miserable and happy at the same time, “Taehyung you absolute idiot. You’re thirsty, aren’t you?”
“Shit, fuck,” Jeongguk curses and soon his bed is being lifted slightly to allow him to sit up. The fact that there’s no tube going down his throat tells him that his condition is far better than he had hoped for. A nurse comes in and the mask around his face is removed, as are the tubes in his nose and he can finally see clearly the room around him.
All the surfaces are covered in flowers, chocolates, the occasional stuffed toy; the usual hospital visit goods. Taehyung is glad the people who visited him know better than to bring him fruit baskets; he would take a stuffed tiger any day. His bed is flanked by the three he had expected to see, his two hands claimed, one by his brother and the other by Jeongguk. The room is warm with the number of people inside the room but he doesn’t mind, not at all.
They fuss and they fuss, adjusting his pillows, giving him small sips of water, kisses on his hair, his cheeks, his hands. Taehyung feels their love like a tangible thing; he feels so incredibly glad he didn’t leave these people behind. He can’t show his appreciation with his voice, but he thinks these people know him well enough to understand. When his throat feels clear enough to speak again, the first thing he says is an I love you, meant for all of them.
There comes a time when Yoongi has hovered and scolded to his heart’s content and Jimin pointedly wraps a (loving) arm around him and leads him out with some hollow excuse of getting coffee from the cafeteria. His brother’s stubbornness matches his own, so Taehyung knows he would never leave unless he understood his boyfriend’s message that Jeongguk and him needed some time alone.
The two leave with Jimin’s parting threat of, “If you ever do that to me again, I will hunt you down myself, Kim Taehyung!” echoing behind them.
Unlike him, Jeongguk is a crier, always has been. Taehyung remembers how refreshing that vulnerability was, when the younger man had cried the first time they watched a Ghibli movie together. In a world of pretence and angry people out to perform masculinity every morning, Jeongguk was the first one who had held him without trying to show how much he didn’t care. He knows how terrifying vulnerability can be; that sweet honesty between them is one of the most beloved things in his world.
So Jeongguk already has tears running down his face when he looks back at him from where the two other men had just left; his boyfriend looks like a mess and it hurts his heart to look at. There’s worry traced into the dark circles on his face, in the dry skin of his cheeks, the puffiness of his under eyes.
“Oh, Gukkie,” he hushes, and his voice doesn’t allow for the gentleness he would have wished for but he hopes it’s understood, “Don’t cry baby, you’re breaking my heart.”
“I was so scared.”
“I was so scared. Yoonie called me in the middle of the day and I just thought, maybe you got caught up and were late to pick him up but-” his voice hitches, “He was scared too, you know? His words weren’t working to well and he was crying and coughing and all I heard was fire and your name and then Yoongi hyung called me and told me what had happened.”
A gentle touch trembles along Taehyung’s temple, before the hand settles on his cheek. He feels almost like he can sense Jeongguk’s terror in that moment vicariously.
“I’m sorry,” Taehyung feels the tears in his eyes overflow again, and he can’t raise a hand to cover them or wipe them. They free fall down his cheeks, a little like his emotions are. “I’m so sorry I couldn’t protect Yoonie. I shouldn’t have put him in that situation. He could have- he could have gotten hurt, oh god. Is he okay? His asthma?”
“Don’t blame yourself Taehyung, I don’t want to hear it. He’s fine. He misses you,” Jeongguk lets out a laugh that’s just tinged with pain, “My two boys, both trying to be all sacrificing and hero-y. Well, you both scared the shit out of me. Five out of ten performance.”
Taehyung laughs and wow, laughing sure does hurt but he’s glad the worst is over. “I’m sorry for ruining your birthday.”
“Oh wait, that too. Four out of ten.” He nudges his head forward as best he can, Jeongguk gets the message and kisses a laugh into his mouth.
Then the door swings open and a tiny, beloved familiar figure walks in. There’s brief silence and Taehyung’s only halfway to a smile when Youngjae- loudly, heartbreakingly- starts bawling.
(“I love you, hyungie”- the words are spoken red faced and miserable- “I love you.”
“I love you too, my bravest boy.”)
Fifteen minutes later, Youngjae is burrowed against his side in the bed, still sniffling occasionally but sufficiently distracted by the soft whispers between them about how Popcorn really is the ideal choice for the puppy’s name. The boy dozes off with his head tucked into Taehyung’s neck and covered up by the thin hospital sheet.
Taehyung feels such a pronounced feeling of relief just looking at him, peaceful and safe. He strokes the boy’s head softly, occasionally kissing his cheeks, warm with sleep. He looks up to find Jeongguk looking at two of them with a little smile turning his lips into the smallest of curves.
“So my apartment is a fire hazard, huh?”
“Just a little bit.”
“Good thing all my stuff was already at yours, isn’t it?”
“Quite a coincidence. That was completely not my plan all along.” Jeongguk grabs his hand, the one not gently smoothing over Youngjae’s head. “I love you. Yoonie loves you. You’ve coerced me into getting a puppy. Do your duty as the coercer and move in with me.”
He’s standing on a threshold- quite literally- looking over into a picture of his future. Taehyung finds he isn’t as terrified as he was a year ago, when he had seen Jeongguk in his clinic for the first time and it felt like he was being faced with something he wasn’t ready for at all, even after years had passed. He doesn’t feel scared anymore. He feels ready. For the first time in a long time, happiness doesn’t just make him scared of losing it.
When he thinks of what he wants to come home to, it’s these two. It’s the ridiculous home filled to the brim with random yellow splashes and Youngjae’s laughter and the warmth of Jeongguk pressed against him, every night. He wants to wake up knowing he’s surrounded by all those things, that he has those things and they have him, every single morning for the rest of his life.
Oh, well. He’s always hated that carpet anyway.
Taehyung takes a breath- a deep one- and with his eyes wide open, his choice is made.