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smoke gets in your eyes

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“It was love for you that set me afire, and isn’t it odd? For in rooms full of strangers my most tender feelings writhe and bear the fruit of screaming.”

― Frank O’hara, ‘For Grace, After a Party’

He doesn’t see him at first.

The bar is stuffy, uncomfortably warm and billowing with thick clouds, the language of a cigar perched between lips. He’s used to it by now. His head is ducked down, ass perched on a bar stool, face buried in a book he must have read ten times by now. A mystery, a murder case. He knows how it goes. He chews at his bottom lip anyway, his fingertips itching to turn the page to reveal who the killer is. There are some stories worth reading again, worth coming back to, even if the ending is always the same.

“You don’t suppose I could get a drink, do you?” a tiny voice tears through the pages of his book, the murder-mystery now becoming a second thought tucked into his back jean pocket. It’s a wonder he even hears the voice, small and drowned out by everything else going on.

He hops over the bar like it’s nothing, and he supposes it’s not when he’s been figuring his way around this particular joint for the better half of his legal years now. He pushes his glasses further up his nose, readjusts himself. Only then does he look up, directly facing the bar-goer; his body lazily slouched over the bar top with his head hung, hair covering his eyes, the shadows of the bar casting the rest of his features in darkness. It gets dark and moody in here and sometimes making out a face is the hardest part of his job.

“What’s your poison?” Taehyung asks, giving him the once over. He’s in a worn-out, black leather jacket, his hair wavy and parted down the middle. It somehow looks effortless for something that would have required deliberate fingers keeping it in place. His gaze doesn’t meet Taehyung’s but he can see the very faint remnants of black eye makeup haloing his eyes. It’s subtle but it only brings out the intensity of his eyelashes. The man seems reserved, his fingers clad in thick silver rings, tapping gently against the bar top. His pinky fingers look to be chipped in black polish, and Taehyung can’t help but make note of this small detail.

That’s when the guy chooses to look up, his hair gently falling against his forehead. That’s when Taehyung’s heart feels like a balloon being pumped with air, threatening to burst, shattering the atmosphere. He’s no longer a silhouette; instead, cast in an orange, dreamy glow, with the outlines of his face lit up. Taehyung blinks once, twice, three times, his body unmoving.

“Hi,” he says, breathlessly.

“I’ll take one of the beers on tap,” he voices, narrowing his eyes, quizzing. Even without his head stuck in a book, his voice still sounds small, but this time he recognises the twang, recognises the way his voice climbs up in pitch. He remembers it.

He slides the pint across the cherry oak top, takes the note the man slides across the oak. Over the sound of everything else, he hears him say to keep the change.

“Thanks,” he squeaks, grateful. He slips the change into his front pocket, blinking furiously, his mouth dry.

He hasn’t changed much, which is a lie, of course—his hair is longer, he seems less controlled by conformities, but his shoulders hunch in the same way; avoidant, like his entire body is against him being here. He doesn’t look up again until he’s tilting his head back to take a drink.

Taehyung gets it, though, why someone would shy away at this scene. At this time of night, premature, you only find the bar-hoppers, the people who use this place as their first stop before hitting the nightclubs. It’s usually the place people stumble upon without a plan, the bar people find while unable to find anything else. Things around here only start to get interesting when midnight strikes and the music is live and felt through the vibrations.

He tends the bar a bit longer, his forehead sweaty and hair falling into his face, sticking, while he skillfully makes cocktails the colours of sunsets. His job is easy; it only requires him to use his hands, have an extensive memory of every drink combination in the catalogue, and flash a smile. An oversimplification of what he does but that’s how most nights go down.

His front pocket grows heavy in tips from foreigners, but not as heavy as the careful, quiet eyes that follow him from one end of the bar to the other for the next hour. Taehyung fights off a smirk when he catches him this time, the guy’s eyes widening like empty wooden barrels. Feigning nonchalance, he stares into his almost-empty pint glass. He’s been nursing the same pint of beer for the past hour, his index finger circling the rim, eyes flickering. He used to wince at the stale, bitter taste. It seems he doesn’t have that problem anymore.

The big hand of the clock is close to striking midnight. It’s the last Thursday of the month, meaning there’s an hour-long event taking place on the small, makeshift stage shortly. He says event because he can’t quite remember what it is. He doesn’t usually work the Thursday shift; however, a colleague fell ill and Taehyung jumped at the opportunity to earn a little extra cash.

It’s when he’s pouring lemonade into a glass of gin that he hears a voice bleed into the rest of the noise, asking, “Excuse me?”, loud and disembodied. When he looks up, he sees that same guy from before, his mouth parted and eyebrows practically in his hairline from how much they’re raised in question.

He finishes serving someone at the other end of the bar before walking back over to him, to this now-stranger.

“What can I get you?” Taehyung asks. He readies himself to pull another pint for him.

“Is the poetry slam starting soon?” he queries, voice tilting. “I’ve got the right place, haven’t I? I just followed the address on the leaflets.”

Poetry slam. Thursday night. Ah, it clicks now.

“Oh, yeah,” he says, remembering now. “It’ll be starting in a few minutes. If you look over there,” he points to the small stage where a colleague of his is centering a mic stand, “They’re getting it set up now. Are you here to watch?”

“Uh, yes and no?” the guy hesitates, but it sounds more like a question than a confirmation. His voice sounds shy now, his hand reaching the back of his head to scratch. Nervous habit. Maybe some things never change. “I was hoping to perform. Watch too, of course, but, yeah…” he replies, waving it off.

Taehyung nods. He never took him for the type. Poetry requires a certain vulnerability with words, with feelings, and with one’s self. He swallows his previous thoughts of things never changing. He definitely doesn’t recognise the guy who sits before him. “Have you signed up?”

He sounds full of uncertainty. “No?”

“That’s fine. I’ll let the guy over there know,” he says, eyes signaling back over to the man busying himself with setting up the stage. The piano sits grand in the corner, a saxophone next to it. “There’s a few lined up for tonight so I’ll try to slot you in at the end, yeah?”

He nods, mouths a thank you, and his face softens. His smile starts off tight-lipped but loosens up at the edges when Taehyung begins to pour him a drink.

“Here,” he smiles softly, sliding the glass across the wet bar top. His eyes linger on the guy’s smile around the same time his throat tightens, his mouth wildly dry. “Drink this. It’ll help with your nerves.”

“I actually came here on my bike so I should probably decline unless it’s water you’re offering me.”

He finally understands the get-up, even if it all feels like a bravado. Maybe this is who he is now; a stranger, a guy who owns a motorcycle and waltzes into bars alone on weeknights.

“There’s this amazing invention called a taxi,” Taehyung explains sarcastically, gaining the shake of a head from the other guy. He seems to huff-out a laugh of disbelief at Taehyung’s easy retort.

“Don’t think I can afford a two-hour taxi ride, sadly.”

At that, he quirks an eyebrow in question. “Not from around here?”

“Uh, not exactly, no,” he replies. Taehyung reads body language well, has a careful eye when studying people. His eyes flicker to the guy’s shoulders, to the way they tense up a little, rigid.

He waits for more but he gets nothing, the pair of haloed-out eyes resorting back to staring intensely at his empty glass.

“Well,” he starts, necking back the drink himself. “We can’t have it going to waste.”

“Isn’t that like, against policies? You’re not supposed to drink on the job, are you?”

“But you bought me that drink so I couldn’t possibly refuse.”

“I didn’t even—” And there’s that look he remembers so well—the wide eyes, so wide he sometimes felt he could fall right through them, his eyebrows drawn in honest confusion.

“I used the change you let me keep so technically you did buy me a drink.”

The guy ducks his head, shaking it. His reply is shy. At least his shyness pushed through the bravado. “I don’t think that’s how it works.”

Shrugging, Taehyung says, “It’s fine. You can buy me a drink another time.”

He doesn’t know where his sudden flirty tone comes from, choosing to ignore it. Sometimes when he’s nervous, his flirtatious mode switches to autopilot, helping him out. Namjoon, a colleague and friend, creeps up behind him with a hug to his waist, saving him from noticing the way the guy’s cheeks burn red.

“You playing tonight?”

Taehyung turns to look at him. “Yeah, I’m gonna play a little.”

“I’m working through the back tonight, sorting out the paperwork,” he groans. Taehyung already knows where this is going. “You don’t fancy playing a little something now, do you? You know you’re my favourite piani—”

“I’m the only pianist you know,” he laughs, poking Namjoon’s side. “You don’t have to charm me to get me to play.”

He fishes the book from his back pocket, throwing it to Namjoon while walking backward, slowly. “Here,” he shouts above the noise of the bar. “Give it a read on your day off tomorrow, and then you can tell me all about how great I am.”

It’s dark, still, but he can make out the creases that form at the corner of Namjoon’s eyes, a smile stretched across his face. They do this sometimes—lend each other books the other has finished reading, sometimes getting together on the days they’re both free to cruise down the aisles of their favourite bookstore.

 Out of habit, or maybe tradition, routine—it’s all the same, really—he cracks his knuckles first, feeling out his fingers before he heads over to where the piano sits.

He shares a look with another colleague, the event manager; one that says, One song, yeah? with pleading eyes. With his nod of approval, he takes a seat at the piano, the keys staring back at him like teeth waiting to tell a story. There’s a warm, inoffensive spotlight on him, a small crowd of people circling small tables around him.

The room is beginning to fill up, with some older men still puffing away at their cigars, glasses of whiskey on the rocks in hand. They tend to stick to the back of the bar; stuffy businessmen in their steam pressed suits, their wives at home. Taehyung likes serving them the least; doesn’t like the thick smell they carry or the cheap smiles they throw at him. Small groups of younger people, mid-to-late twenties, form around the stage area, waiting for the poetry slam, or perhaps the live music that follows. Everyone seems to be in good spirits, with drinks pouring more freely now; the chattering becoming louder, more colourful in language and laughter.

Midnight is when everything changes, when Taehyung’s fingers loosen up, and when he truly remembers why he loves working at this place. It doesn’t offer a dream, doesn’t afford him the luxuries. However, for five nights a week, the deep, sultry, soulful sounds of a saxophone, piano, and a trumpet, speed up the healing process.

Namjoon stands behind the bar, taking orders alongside a colleague, and that’s when Taehyung’s eyes find him again. He’s in the same spot, back now facing the bar top as he faces the stage area. Taehyung gives him the once over, this time able to drag his eyes right down his legs; a dark blue denim pair of Levi’s and a barely-worn-in pair of Doc Martens. He looks effortlessly cool like this; it’s almost alarming how good he looks and how seemingly unaware he is of it. That’s another thing that hasn’t changed much. He was never one to get too cocky with his looks, never carried himself in a way that said I’m painfully handsome and know it.

If anything, he knew so little of his dreamy, chiseled features that still manage to retain a softness to them. Even with a razor-sharp jawline and strong, attention-grabbing eyebrows, his eyes softened every feature. Self-critical is the word Taehyung would use to describe him. Never in a pitiful way, no. He was meticulous in detecting flaws, a damn-near expert at shrugging off compliments without seeming too humble, but it only ever made Taehyung—and just about everyone else—love him more.

It’s easy to let himself stare, easy to watch the way he tucks a piece of hair behind his ear, exposing the silver hoops and studs that adorn so much of his ear. He remembers how some of them got there. He remembers his hair never growing to the stage where he could do this.

He doesn’t miss the way his eyes find his, or how his body tenses up when the guy doesn’t panic and look away this time. It’s unfaltering, his eyes dark and heavy on Taehyung. With his chest tight, he wills himself to look away, directing his eyes back to the keys in front of him. The room doesn’t quieten down for him; this stage isn’t his, and these people aren’t here for him. He presses down on the keys, eyes fluttering closed, and lets himself pretend that he’s more than a backing track for someone’s Thursday night escapisms.

For Taehyung, playing the piano is his way of healing. The enriching, full-body sound he can get from it; the way his fingers glide across the keys with precision and certainty, and sometimes madness. This—this is his Oasis; the one thing, as loud as it is, that quietens down everything else. This is something that has always been true for him, having started out with a bright yellow keyboard perfect for a four-year-old who at the time just liked creating as much noise as possible. His mother, relentless in her quest to find him creative outlets, exposed him to a world of music that could exist under his fingertips. Bright-eyed and excited about everything, this led to long, stretched out days filled entirely with the banging of keys.

Eventually, a bright yellow keyboard turned into a fully functioning electric keyboard with too many features for a nine-year-old to understand. Much to everyone’s surprise, it stuck. What at first started out as a child’s playful curiosity in anything bright and loud, eventually turned into something he couldn’t be without. It was then that the lessons began. He remembers the bus journey he would take with his mother every Tuesday and Thursday, still memorises the way her eyes would shine, prideful, every time Taehyung showed improvement. She would excitedly clap her hands during every recital, telling all the other parents that her son was the one who had them all holding their breaths.

When he lifts his finger from the final key, he’s brought back to the quiet chatter of the bar-goers, the syrupy smell of whiskey gathering on tabletops. He instinctively looks across the bar, finding a pair of eyes on him; big, dark and anchoring. They seem to want to tell a story, but Taehyung looks away while he still can, takes his stand from the stool and makes his way over to the bar again. He accepts a few smiles on his way, a couple of bar-goers sending a nod in his direction, a small gesture of appreciation.

Sometimes, he wishes for cheers, for a whistle or two. Other times, he wants to go by unnoticed, playing to a crowded room of people elbow-deep in conversation, too consumed by laughter and the sloshing of alcohol to put their hands together. Tonight, though, he doesn’t wish for either of those things.

“You know, one of these days you’re going to have to stop seducing me with those piano fingers of yours,” Namjoon jokes from behind the bar. He sends a wink in Taehyung’s direction, his playful tone always resulting in an unconvincing eye roll from Taehyung.

Taehyung gets behind the bar, nudging Namjoon with his hip. “Oh, behave yourself,” he giggles, used to his friend’s easy charm. “Or I’ll tell Jimin you’re trying to chat up his best friend.”

That elicits a bright chuckle from Namjoon, his dimples deepening. “You played well, Taehyung. I’m off to tackle this paperwork now but I’ll find a way to sneak back out later when you’re performing.”

Waving him off, Taehyung gets back to what he does best; he pulls a few pints, stretches his mouth into a pretty smile for a pretty penny, and drag his eyes away from the lone man at the very end of the bar. He would like to believe that he does the latter well, too, but there’s a pulling; a force that eventually finds him at that end of the bar, dish cloth in hand to aid how fidgety he feels.

The far end of the bar top is wiped over with the dish cloth enough times for it to gleam, the sticky residue of alcohol nowhere to be found. He never considered himself to be a nervous person, but right now, with his hands busying themselves and his bottom lip caught between his teeth, he feels a twist in his stomach brew. His heart is rapid in its confines and he can’t do enough to will it to even out. That is until a voice shatters through everything.

“I don’t think that spot could get any cleaner unless you were to bring out the paintbrush and glossy overcoat.”

Taehyung looks up then, eyes wide, round, his eyebrows shooting up as if to say, Me? Are you talking to me? Once he realises what’s going on, his cheeks begin to turn scarlet, his hair thankfully covering his burning ears. It feels like he’s been caught doing something he shouldn’t be, like there’s an accusatory finger being pointed at him. When his eyes find the man’s, though, he realises that isn’t the case at all. The man, this non-stranger—still alone and still painfully handsome—is sporting a twinkle in his eye, one that cannot be accounted for by a burnt, almost-sleazy bar light. His top lip turns up slightly at the corner, the beginnings of a smirk appearing. This is a sight Taehyung remembers well, one that makes him tighten his grip around the damp cloth.

“I’m nothing if not thorough,” he manages to get out, words not entirely failing him. “Do you need anything?”

The guy’s eyebrows shoot up. “No, no! Just making an observation,” he shakes his head. “Do you know if that’s them starting the poetry slam now? It’s super packed, isn’t it? I wasn’t expecting such a full room,” he rambles, voice quavering. His fingers circle the rim of his empty glass. A nervous habit. “It’s getting late. Maybe I’ll come back another night. You know, I’m not feeling too great, actually.”

“You’re nervous,” Taehyung says, matter of factly. He tries to disguise the small, endeared smile creeping to the corners of his mouth. It’s hard for him to watch the way the guy rambles on without being assaulted with memories of scenarios similar to this one. “I do this thing when I’m playing,” he starts, thinking back to his teenage years when he had a bout of stage fright. “I imagine I’m alone in a room with my biggest inspiration. I imagine I’m playing for them, that I have this one opportunity to impress them, to prove my talent to them.”

“I think,” he continues, giving himself a moment to gather what else he wants to say. “I think you need to imagine you’re up there, on that little stage, speaking your truth to that inspiration, whether it’s a person or a feeling that got you here. Does that make sense?”

The guy smiles then, small and warm, one that shows gratitude and understanding. “It does actually, yeah. I’ve tried the whole ‘imagine the crowd naked’ thing, but something about that feels violating,” he chuckles, causing Taehyung to mirror his laughter. “Where did you learn that?”

“Someone I knew once gave me the most important pep talk of my life before a school talent show,” he remembers fondly, thinking back to the time when he was sixteen. Sixteen with a collared shirt, hair parted down the middle like a pair of curtains courtesy of his mother, and a best friend who spoke wise beyond his years at times.

Without faltering, the guy is still smiling, his cheeks puffing up. He seems to have relaxed a little now. Taehyung can see his shoulders ease up a little, his body no longer looking square and rigid. “And who was your biggest inspiration?”

“My mother was—is one of them,” he replies honestly, leaning his elbows on the bar top. The guy nods, signals for him to continue. “She encourages me and believes in everything I do. She never really got the chance to explore or chase her own dreams so she’s always pushing me to explore mine. Not to live vicariously through me or anything; I think she just doesn’t want me having any regrets like she did.”

He shrugs like it isn’t a big deal but it is. Having a positive role model in his life gave him the drive needed to ignite his passion and turn it into something more. His mother had dreams, ones too far stretched for a single mother who had the sole responsibility of keeping a roof over their heads. That something more that Taehyung held onto soon became less of a focal point in his life, with adulthood striking hard. Pursuing a dream eventually seemed too fantastical, feeling more like a pipe dream than something attainable. He still remembers at what point he let it go, knows exactly where he could pick it back up again, but he’s doing just fine working this job full-time now.

Some dreams are better kept as such.

A hum of acknowledgement is drowned out by the sound of the mic check, and then the organiser for tonight’s poetry slam is flooding the room with his voice. “Well, it looks like we’ve got a couple of latecomers tonight so how about we start off with…,” the small, mousy man says, scanning his eyes over the clipboard in his hand. “Jeon Jeongguk! Jeongguk, the stage is yours.”

Taehyung freezes when he hears the man announce the name, so nonchalantly, so… lacking in emotion, in the weight the name deserves. His eyes flash back to the guy, his haloed-out eyes looking directly at him, big and round, and maybe a bit afraid.

Or confused. Confused because—

“Shit, that’s me,” he says, voice taut. “But I—I don’t remember giving you my name to sign me up,” he trails off, confusion shown in the way he scratches his head.

Taehyung doesn’t mean to lie but he’s panicking now, with the expectant crowd growing curious. “You did! I guess your nerves made you forget,” he scrambles to say, twiddling with his thumbs. It’s probably one of the few times he’s lied to him. “It’s go time! I’m sure you’ll do great. Remember what I told you, yeah?”

He feels bad for lying to him—Jeongguk—like this, but more than that, he feels his stomach churn a little at his own words, at the use of his name, something he’s avoided saying for years. His tongue catches fire when he poorly shouts, “Good luck, Jeongguk!” as if there’s a familiarity between them, like they aren’t two almost-strangers meeting in a dark jazz bar.

Chatter dies down when Jeongguk reaches the small stage, his body lit up by the bright spotlight, everything else in the room now a second thought. Taehyung watches from behind the bar, his breath helplessly caught somewhere in his throat. It’s easy to spot all the small telltale signs of Jeongguk’s nerves; they show in the same ways, now just decorated differently. His fists ball up at his sides with only his silver rings showing. His feet, as clunky as they look in the Doc Martens, are pigeon-toed, and the contrast of it with his current appearance doesn’t go unmissed by Taehyung’s careful eyes.

Jeongguk clearing his throat sounds through the entire bar, his eyes going wide when he remembers everything he says or does from this point on, isn’t a secret he gets to keep for himself. Unexpectedly, their eyes meet, both softening, when a small eruption of cheers fill the room, egging Jeongguk on. Taehyung hopes Jeongguk can understand the language his body speaks then. Giving him a small nod, a smile so private it barely crescents, he prays Jeongguk finds his voice, his words.

Taehyung notices two things while listening to Jeongguk’s performance: he takes his time making sure he pronounces every word syllable for syllable, and he distances himself from his poetry, only speaking in second person. It doesn’t take away from how powerful his words are, or from the knack he seems to have for knocking the wind out of Taehyung with words that pack a punch.

Music, more so jazz, is Taehyung’s poetry; the notes, high and low, swooping and deep, take him on a journey of emotions. When jazz speaks, he understands perfectly, his body in tune with the story being told. The rattling lows, heavy and full of drunken sorrow, create a dull ache in his heart. The kind that makes him wish he was sporting a bottle of something his body can’t handle. The sweet highs, sometimes melodic, other times erratic and full-bodied, make him wish he was dancing under the moonlight, heels tapping.

That’s the thing with jazz—there’s always a story to tell, usually of love and longing. Some believe jazz to be the most romantic genre of music, with its bold gestures and, oftentimes, gloomy tales of missing what’s no longer yours. Taehyung is a part of that statistic.

When it comes to spoken poetry, however, he isn’t able to dismantle words or fully grasp the imagery. Despite this, his breath stutters in his throat when Jeongguk casts his eyes over him, voice trembling as he speaks about how the worst heartbreak is when your brain breaks up with the rest of you. He understands immediately, thinks he’s clever for talking about it in a way that could be interpreted metaphorically, even though Taehyung knows it’s anything but metaphorical. Jeongguk doesn’t know that he knows that, though. He probably thinks it’s his best-kept secret, his weapon of choice. An older man taps his empty glass against the bar top but Taehyung chooses to ignore the gentleman for a few more minutes.

The room is receptive, with people humming in appreciation, some even letting out audible gasps. In the last thirty seconds of his poem, he has the entire room under a spell, with a few people up at the front clutching onto the edge of their table. Taehyung scans the room, feels a sense of pride when he sees how captivated everyone is. The easy way he lures everyone in with the gentle breezy sound of his voice, light and alluring, which strikes Taehyung as jarring when compared to his words.

He doesn’t look any more confident as he nears the end, his fingers tightly wrapped around the mic stand, keeping him there. He still wraps his mouth around the last line like he wants everyone to walk home tonight choked on his words. He lets his eyes flutter shut at the right time, too, the action agonising, and Taehyung can tell it isn’t deliberate, that he isn’t doing this for a dramatic flair. He’s watched people get up on this stage before, gesticulating, with dramatic pauses that tell the story as much as the words do, but this performance is different. There is nothing theatrical about the way he goes white-knuckled around the mic stand to keep himself from fleeing.

When he bows his head, signaling the end of his performance, the room erupts into cheers, and Taehyung finds himself amongst them, whistling and clapping his hands together loudly. For a few moments, he forgets where he is in life, who he is and what he has; forgets that he’s cheering proudly for a stranger and not a person who at one point he would have given everything up for. Maybe still would.

He tries not to look too deeply into it when Jeongguk carefully walks back toward his spot at the bar, hovering quietly, not really saying a word unless you consider what his eyes say in the absence of words—big, unsure, a little expectant. Taehyung soon puts him out of his misery.

“You were good up there,” he says, feigning nonchalance. He doesn’t want to scare him away. There’s so much he wants to say, though—words of praise, mostly. He wants to tell him how brave he is for standing up there, baring his soul to a room full of strangers without the help of a lot of liquid courage. He decides to keep all of that to himself, though, guesses it’s easier for the both of them.

“Ah,” Jeongguk responds, shaking his head, almost like he’s shaking Taehyung’s words away. He lowers his head, his hair muddying Taehyung’s view of him. Shy. Always one to shy away from praise, despite Taehyung remembering his need for reassurance and validation.

“I mean it. You had the whole room holding onto their breaths.” And it’s true. Each line had everyone anticipating the next. “I’ve been working here a while and there’s only been a handful of times where I’ve seen people react like that,” he continues, honest.

“And what did you think?”

“I could tell in your delivery that you were nervous,” he smiles, causing Jeongguk to look back up at him. That obvious, huh?, he mutters beneath a shield of hair. “It added a quality to your performance, though. I think it showed conviction in your voice, almost like you were speaking from a place of experience maybe.”

“Yeah,” he huffs, laughing while he stretches his arms out across the bar top. Taehyung wishes he could reach out and touch him, give him that reassurance he needs. “You could say that.”

“Don’t be too hard on yourself,” he consoles, voice quiet and soft. “You have a terrible habit of expecting too much from yourself and too little from everyone else.”

Ah, shit.

Jeongguk quirks a brow, quizzing. His eyes study Taehyung then, tracing his face with a sharpness that leaves him feeling what can only be described as stage fright. It’s that same unnerving feeling he would get up there, the kind that made him want to fold into himself until he was small.

“I could almost swear my therapist was a sweet but very menopausal woman, not a bartender slash pianist,” he jokes, his shyness stored away for the time being.

Taehyung rolls his eyes, burying the feeling of relief by relaxing his shoulders that were beginning to tense up. “Working behind a bar is kind of like being a therapist,” he explains, catching the full attention of Jeongguk when he nods his head, signalling for him to continue. “Most people who come here alone are just looking for someone to talk to. Usually, it’s the recently divorced businessmen or the ones who keep missing out on a big promotion at work. Workaholics whose only lasting and meaningful relationship is the one they have with work. They come in, I serve them, and then I listen to them slur their words around the mundanities of their lives.”

“So you think everyone who comes in here by themselves is just looking to combat their loneliness for a few hours?”

“Not everyone,” he says, leaning his elbows on the bar top, holding his head in his hands. “Some come looking to unwind from the week, and they’ll often sit at the back over there with a drink and a cigar, not really talking to anyone. But the ones who sit up here, on these barstools, they’re usually just waiting for someone to ask if they’re okay. And that’s about the time when I come in.”

“And is there ever an instance where they are in fact okay?”

He responds without giving a second thought, confident. “Almost never.”

Jeongguk hums, cocks his head to the side a little. “So what about me? You think I’m here for that reason?”

“You answered that question when you got up on stage just then,” Taehyung states, smiling amusedly around his words.

Jeongguk laughs with him, shaking his head. “Touché.”

He wants to ask, wants to see if he’s right, if there’s a reason he deliberately dropped by for reasons unrelated to the poetry slam. He has to remind himself that they’re strangers, though, and so instead he crouches under the bar for a moment. He resurfaces with a glass bottle of still water. He skillfully pops it open with the edge of the bar top. “Here, drink this.” He slides the bottle closer to Jeongguk.

A hand tightens around the body of the glass. “God, you really are a therapist,” he jokes, holding the glass up to his mouth. “Thanks. My mouth’s a little dry.” He fishes into his back pocket, tosses a few coins onto the mahogany top.

Taehyung graciously declines. “It’s fine, it’s on me.” Jeongguk leaves the money on the counter anyway and guzzles the contents of the bottle.

Someone else is on stage now, a young woman small in stature, whose energy seems much bigger than she is. Limbs flailing, eyes bulging, and with that Taehyung loses immediate interest in her performance. He thinks he prefers a less obnoxious approach, the kind with the ability to rope him in gently. Everyone else seems to be responsive to her poem, though; Jeongguk even turns his head to catch a glimpse of the performance.

The night continues like that, with each performance beginning and ending in a roar of cheers. Taehyung tends the bar in between watching each brave soul take the stage, smiling sweetly at the old, grouchy men whose patience for the live music to take over is wearing thin. He tries not to bother Jeongguk, tries to push against whichever force it is pulling him in his general direction of the bar.

It proves itself to be hard, though, when it feels as if he has a pair of eyes piercing through his back. Every time he whips his head around, he catches him, eyes caught in the headlights like a dear, small and afraid, static before the realisation that he’s been caught kicks in. He looks unsure of himself, quick to look down at his twiddling thumbs every time Taehyung finds his eyes on him. With all of his might, Taehyung wishes he didn’t feel the small falterings of his beating heart every time he finds a pair of curious eyes on him.

He wonders what he sees now, if his eyes view him differently without years of context behind them. It hits him then, how Jeongguk sees a stranger when he looks at him, how he sees someone whose name he’s yet to learn. Back when things were different, they were always looking for more things to learn, afraid of one day running out. They could have traced the lines on each other’s palms with eyes closed. That was how close their lives ran. A fondness that used to be present in Jeongguk’s eyes is now replaced with what looks like curiosity, and Taehyung wants to press at that curiosity.

That’s what finds him walking back over to Jeongguk’s end of the bar, offering a warm smile to him as he approaches. They don’t speak for a few minutes, both directing their attention toward the stage where the poetry slam is being wrapped up. To bystanders, to his colleagues, he can play it off as him working on his hospitality skills. In his line of work, he’s grown a knack for making light conversation with customers, especially the frequent comers. He’s let forty-something-year-old men talk his ear off, show him polaroids tucked away in their wallets of their children. Besides pouring drinks and offering a smile that can be interpreted in many ways, he also has to be approachable, be professional but also create a familiarity between himself and the customers. It’s what keeps people coming back. It’s also one of the only ways he manages to keep a semi-active sex life.

“One last non-alcoholic drink before hitting the road?” Taehyung asks, raising an eyebrow.

He shakes his head and says, “Planning on staying a bit longer. I saw the notice board outside about live music. Thought I’d stay for a bit and see what that’s all about.”

“Ahh,” Taehyung chimes, a smile growing on his face. “Most people fuck off before they get to experience the music.”

“I don’t know why,” Jeongguk says, voice low. “You sounded good up there.”

“Oh yeah, I sounded good?” Taehyung repeats around a playful smile. It tugs at the side of his mouth and he doesn’t fight it off. “That was just a taster.”

Jeongguk’s eyes widen. “Oh, you’re playing more?”

“These fingers have yet to reach their full potential tonight.”

His shift at the bar ends in approximately ten minutes, and then after that, he’s free to snake his way over to the stage area where the piano awaits.

“In that case, I guess another beer won’t hurt,” Jeongguk eventually decides, pushing a note toward Taehyung’s side of the bar. “Make it half a pint, though.”

Ducking his head, Taehyung catches his bottom lip between his teeth, trying to disguise a small smile. “Coming right up.”

“Thank you…,” he says, trailing off. Taehyung looks up then, sees the way Jeongguk’s eyes and mouth—which is hung open—seem to ask the same thing.

Chest tight, Taehyung has to will away the burning in his throat. It proves hard, hard to ignore the pang that sits heavy at the pit of his stomach, a painful reminder that he’s now just a nameless bartender without a story.

“It’s Taehyung,” he discloses. His reply is accompanied by a tight, stretched out smile. One that only poorly disguises his pain.

And just like that, strangers no more.

He half-expects everything to fall back into place, like his name will be enough to get the cogs turning again. The world doesn’t rearrange itself neatly, though, doesn’t press the rewind button on the cassette player that goes back to the start of their perfect chorus. Everything remains the same. He’s still Taehyung; twenty-five, an ambivert, collects (read: steals) drink coasters, never on time returning a library book. And Jeongguk is still… a crooked half-smile that hangs shyly on his face, and maybe his more obvious features and the nervous habits he has are the only things that remain the same. Those and his age; twenty-three, and somehow only becoming more handsome with time.

“Well, Taehyung,” he starts, his lips quirking as he says his name. “I’m looking forward to hearing you play more.”

Hearing his name come out of his mouth is enough to trigger his memories of how his name used to sound coming from his mouth. How his name would catapult itself across the other side of a room, his voice often so loud and whining when Taehyung’s name was being called. His voice was interwoven into his days. Maybe he didn’t appreciate it then, didn’t appreciate the way each mention of his name was followed by a laugh, a smile, sometimes an incredulous look.

“Got any requests?”

“What kind of stuff do you usually play?”

His reply comes fast, one of excitement. He likes these moments, when people ask him questions about music, about anything that means he gets to talk about something he loves.

“Oh, the classics, you know,” he says, eliciting a shake of the head from Jeongguk which tells him that, no, he doesn’t know. “A lot of Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Art Tatum. Sometimes I’ll arrange a cover of like, an Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holiday song. Oh! I like to do some Jamiroquai on the weekends when the younger crowds appear.”

Jeongguk listens carefully, his eyes warm and glowing beneath the sweepings of hair. Attentive, maybe a bit out of his depth, but he listens with his mouth lopsided.

“Do you compose?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Taehyung scrambles to reply. “I have my piano back at home, so when my neighbour isn’t pounding on the walls to tell me to shut up, I’m usually composing something.”

“Then I request for you to play something of your own.”

“Ah, well, you see—”

Jeongguk interjects then. “I faced one of my fears tonight,” he shares. “If I can do that whole baring my heart and soul shit, so can you. I’m sure there’s something you’ve always wanted to play for an audience.”

He hasn’t played anything of his own in over a year, only ever felt comfortable showing Jeongguk his latest creations. Sometimes it wasn’t just about the familiarity he had with Jeongguk, or that Jeongguk had with his work. Often, he couldn’t decide if he liked a finished piece without seeking out Jeongguk’s reassurance and praise first. Sure enough, there’s only a small chance of anyone catching on; most people will probably listen mindlessly or assume it’s a cover of a song they don’t know. Still, that doesn’t stop quiet insecurities from creeping up again.

This Jeongguk might not be the Jeongguk who whispered reassuring words into his ear before a school performance. He might not sit at the very front, grinning from ear to ear like he hasn’t already heard this same song arranged fifteen different ways, but Taehyung can’t deny his innate need to please him.

Which is exactly why he nods, racks his brain over which song to play, and tries his best to keep himself from biting through his bottom lip.

“I think I’m the one in need of a drink now,” Taehyung only half-jokes. He gets off approximately… now, so the decision to take a quick shot of something red and syrupy is an easy one.

He takes one of the shot glasses from beneath the bar and begins to pour the bright red liquid. Looking to Jeongguk as he lifts the glass, he signals a cheers before necking the contents, wincing terribly at the thick, sickly taste. It’s too sweet, the type to coat the back of the throat and leave a bad aftertaste.

“That seemed more like punishment than aid.”

“Honestly, I think it’s all the same in the end,” Taehyung counters, wiping his mouth, fingers a little sticky. “I think that’s my cue to get up there now.”

Without giving one last look to Jeongguk, he throws the cloth he had tucked in his back pocket over to his colleague.

“Break a leg!” Taehyung hears, voice familiar. He turns a little while he makes his descent, bowing his head slightly in appreciation. His heart feels heavier where it sits in his chest now, his body dragging itself over to the piano.

“Not if I can avoid it.”

“Are you ready to blow everyone away with your talent?” Jeongguk asks, straightening the satin bow tie his dad let Taehyung borrow for the school talent show.

“Jeongguk!” he whines, balling up his fists in a fit of sudden nerves. “No one’s gonna be blown away.”

Done with readjusting the bow tie, Jeongguk levels his eyes with Taehyung’s. “You’re gonna be the next Beethoven or Chopin, or whatever. Swear down.”

He speaks without his eyes flickering or his voice wobbling, as if he fully believes Taehyung could be something great. Maybe even believes that he’s already something great.

“The jazz equivalent?”

“The jazz equivalent,” Jeongguk confirms, offering a closed-mouth smile meant only for him. “Do you trust me?”

It’s an easy answer. “Yes.”

“Then trust me when I say you’re gonna go up there and play like it’s the last time you’ll ever play.”

Jeongguk brings him in for a hug before he gives him a chance to reply. Letting himself be engulfed in Jeongguk’s growing arms, he feels the key that’s kept him wound tight, undo itself, his body sinking into his best friend’s. It’s the middle of June and he smells like pine cones, and Taehyung can only distinguish the smell as such because it’s the same cologne he’s been wearing since Taehyung gifted him it for Christmas. He smells like Christmas in summer, and Taehyung can’t decide if he loves it or hates it. His nose is pressed against the crook of his neck, trying not to go dizzy with the smell. It’s easy to sink into his best friend like this. Every worry sinking, too.

“Thank you,” he whispers against Jeongguk’s neck, voice kept small and personal while they stand amidst the rest of the students and teachers running around trying to create sensible chaos.

His voice vibrates through Taehyung then. “Break a leg for me.”

“Not if I can avoid it.”

He doesn’t have peering eyes on him this time. Scanning over the dark, smokey room, he makes out a few faces. Some of them he recognises; worn-out faces that he’s been serving for months, some even years. The younger crowd dispersed after the last act, with only a few of them still sitting near the front. The chatter is low and thrumming; he could piercing through it with the piano without much of a problem.

With his glasses perched on the tip of his nose, and his fingers cracked, he lets his back slump over. The ivory keys wait for him to tell his story, much like how Jeongguk’s voice did just before. He tries to ignore a small voice echoing in his head, “Taehyungie! Remember your posture!”, but he eventually straightens himself out, shakes the voice away.

He doesn’t start with his composition. He has a whole set in mind, as he does most nights. There are a few songs he plays on rotation; ones cherry-picked by Namjoon, who often makes his demands. Taehyung always laughs, gives him the satisfaction of having some say in what Taehyung performs.

Truthfully, though, he wants to slip his piece somewhere in the middle, have everyone—Jeongguk—guessing which puzzle piece is his own.

His fingers glide across the ivory keys for three songs, piercing through the riptide of people. Eyes closed, they climb up the keys like they’re the spine of a book that holds everything together, moving quickly between chords. He’s always made sure to make use of the entire keyboard, unleashing a succession of notes that spur on madness, a troubling story. Dissonance has always been his favourite way to tell a story.

Carrying on like that, he finds a way to bleed into his composition without so much as a three-second pause. The tempo slows down, the embers of the last piece die out, and his fingers take a stroll down to the more sombre notes. He eases into it, wonders if Jeongguk has caught on or noticed any distinguishable changes in the last minute.

His composition is quiet, gloomy in the way it descends the keyboard. Taehyung holds his breath for this one, feels his finger falter in the second half of it. No one seems to notice; it probably sounded desperate and deliberate. He remembers being eighteen, directionless and confused about the way he was feeling. Back then, most of the kids his age bought a diary, wrote down words that didn’t feel out of place. Taehyung was never as equipped with his words as he was with his fingers, his body more in tune with the sadness a sound could elicit.

Trembling, he steadies the hand that sweeps across the deeper notes. His tempo picks up then, echoes the way his heart ricochets in his chest. This was his first composition that told a story of love, the kind that was unrequited and came without warning.

It started as something small, sweet; a crush brought on by kind words, toothy grins, thumb wars that turned into awkward, clumsy hand-holding. Feelings were passed on by shared ice creams, late-night phone calls that led them astray, seeing them both fall asleep with their snoring racking up extortionate bills. After a few months of innocent bliss, it eventually grew into gnawing pains in his stomach that he couldn’t settle. He was so used to navigating through life with a younger, nonsensical best friend who understood his woes and helped him laugh at the misfortunes of their adolescence. This new feeling, lurching and ugly, wasn’t something he could pass over to his best friend to navigate. Neither did it present itself as a woe they could laugh over while sat cross-legged on Jeongguk’s bedroom floor playing Super Gam*Boy.

His feelings for Jeongguk weren’t a conversation to pass around the table at dinnertime, like after-dinner mints.

So naturally, he sought solace in his piano which sat proudly in his small bedroom. Having his mother work the night shift at the hospital allowed him to stay up through the early hours of the morning, screwing his eyes tightly shut every time he’d hit a wrong key. Maybe a small part of him thought he could will his feelings away by writing them down in the form of musical notes.

Now, he sits in front of a piano, in a bar that pays him dirt; trying to convince himself that he isn’t still eighteen and fumbling his way through a love that he isn’t quite finished with.

He catches his breath again, the notes now breaking into a more familiar sound for many of the bargoers. He plays from a muscle memory that came about when he was looking for ways to confess his feelings to Jeongguk. His arrangement of the song isn’t perfected, but Jeongguk always appreciated the little slip-ups that came with it.

Lips parted, it becomes easy for him to mouth the lyrics that he knows so well. He opens his eyes for the first time since he sat down at the piano. When his eyes readjust to his settings, he’s surprised to find Jeongguk sitting alone at the front of the bar, occupying a table. His eyes find his small, pursed lips moving, mouthing in time with the song.

They asked me how I knew
My true love was true
I of course replied
Something here inside
Cannot be denied

He catches Jeongguk’s attention then, and while it could be a result of the small spotlight, there’s a glint in his eyes. He can’t dismantle what it means—if the music moves him or if light is naturally drawn to his eyes, pooling them with light. Jeongguk only holds his gaze for a few moments before casting his eyes down to his drink. His body language is shier than it was just before. He circles the rim of his glass with his finger. It’s dark but Taehyung still spots the bob of his Adam’s apple.

They said someday you’ll find
All who love are blind
When your heart’s on fire
You must realise
Smoke gets in your eyes

The rest of the song goes by without any hiccups, even if toward the end Taehyung finds himself barely mouthing the lyrics anymore; his lips still parted, though. He finishes up soon after, having caught sight of the stage being set up with brass instruments for the jazz band to play a set.

Once his foot eases off the pedal, he takes a rise from his stool. A few dull claps can be heard coming from the back; he spots a couple at the front raise their glasses to him in appreciation. Taehyung offers a smile in return. He casts his eyes over to the right of the couple, finds Jeongguk bringing his hands together. His clapping cuts through all other noise in the bar. Taehyung ducks his head, shy. With his finger, he signals to Jeongguk that he’ll be over in a minute.

 Underneath the door frame that leads through to the back where the offices are, leans Namjoon. He has that closed-mouth smile on his face, the one that shows off how impressively deep his dimples are. Taehyung snakes through a few people to get to him.

“So, how did I do?”

“You were amazing as always,” Namjoon emphasises. “What was that song you played in the middle of the set? Don’t think I’ve heard that arrangement before.”

Taehyung supposes he could tell a white lie but he doesn’t. “Actually,” he hesitantly starts. Namjoon encourages him to continue with a gentle nod. “It was my own. I thought I’d mix things up a little.”

“As if! Didn’t know you had it in you,” he says, sounding surprised. Namjoon always joked that pulling teeth would be easier than getting Taehyung to play one of his compositions. “It sounded beautiful. Not trying to impress a certain vampire-looking guy who won’t stop looking over here, are you?”

“What?” Taehyung feigns oblivion as if he hasn’t already felt eyes burning through his skull. “Namjoon! I’m at work. You know I keep things professional. And anyway, he’s—”

“He’s what? Dreamy, handsome, pretty, fits every description of your type?” Namjoon interjects, grinning while he nudges his foot against Taehyung’s, teasing. “And anyway, you’re off the clock now. You can do whatever you want.”

“If I like dreamy and handsome, why did I ever let you take me out on a date?”

Namjoon laughs at that. “Because otherwise I never would’ve met Jimin.”

Well, he’s not wrong. If things had worked out romantically between him and Namjoon, Jimin wouldn’t have picked Taehyung up from his date that night, and Namjoon wouldn’t have stumbled over both his feet and words just to greet Taehyung’s best friend. It worked out better for everyone in the end. Taehyung was able to stay friends with Namjoon without things becoming awkward, and he was able to watch his best friend fall in love with someone good for a change.

After agreeing with Namjoon, Taehyung tells him that he should get going. Namjoon wears that same teasing smile when he says, “Yeah, back to Mr. Dreamy Eyes over there,” and all Taehyung can do is bite down on his lip to keep at least some of his composure.

“I’m gonna bounce,” Namjoon confirms, starting to head down the small corridor through the back.

“I’ll see you tomorrow night, Joon,” he shouts above the soundcheck going on behind his back. “Let Jimin know I’ll drop by tomorrow to steal back the movie I rented that he took from me!”

And with that, he turns to find a pair of dark, smudged-out eyes still on him. They flicker when Taehyung catches them, and even from here, Taehyung can see the way his eyelashes and swoopy hair meet, clash. Once Taehyung starts weaving his way through people to get to him, though, his eyes come back with resolute, following Taehyung’s snaking body.

“Hi,” Taehyung breathlessly says. He drags out a chair to sit on, hoping he isn’t crossing any boundaries. If Jeongguk’s eyes have told him anything so far, it’s that he needs to follow tonight through.

Jeongguk pipes up then, clearing his throat. “I love that song,” he says. “I have the record at home. My mother used to play it through the house when I was younger.”

His knee jerk reaction of, I know, that was how I discovered the song, is swallowed down, masking it with a tight-lipped smile. “Good taste your mother must have.”

Had,” he corrects, shadows casting over his eyes as they look down to his hands that sit on the table.

Taehyung’s heart catches somewhere in his throat then. “Oh.”

“Sorry, that was—this is my first time out in a while, so you’ll have to excuse how rusty my social cues have become.”

He wants to reach out, tries to fight the itch that makes its way down to his fingertips. In the end, he has to ball up his fists under the table to stop him from having an adverse reaction. This isn’t his Jeongguk, he has to remind himself. He’s as good as a stranger, as good as a half-hearted, Ah, that sucks. He can’t offer more than a drink, can’t even show any signs of being affected by what he’s just found out.

While he hasn’t so much as heard the mere mention of Jeongguk’s mother’s name in over a year, he feels tiny needles prick at his heart. They jab relentlessly, and all he can do is hope that this Jeongguk can’t pick up on the slightest shift in his mood, much like he used to.

He forces his mouth into a smile. “It’s okay. I’m sorry for your loss.”

Jeongguk nods his head slowly. “I thought your piece was amazing, by the way.”

“Did you figure out which was mine?”

“I had no idea what any of the other songs were,” he admits, looking at Taehyung through his muddy eyelashes. “But it immediately became clear which was yours, I think.”

“Yeah? And what did you think?”

“It was sad but I thought it regained some hope toward the end. It felt familiar, like I had heard it in a dream before.”

“That’s a funny coincidence,” he says, heart pounding. “I guess sadness is a universal language.”

“What’s the song about?” Jeongguk inquires.

“Agh, come on. You don’t want to listen to some stranger slash bartender talk about his woes.”

“We’re on a first-name basis so technically not strangers.”

He’s initially hesitant, afraid that everything is going to somehow come rushing back to Jeongguk as he explains. As if the world would be so cruel as to do that. Well—the world has been cruel, so he doesn’t put such awful timing past it. “It’s a song I composed many moons ago, when I was like eighteen or some angsty age like that,” he says, glazing over it nonchalantly. “It’s about being in love.”

“So then why’s it sad?”

He’s inquisitive, showing no signs of everything coming back to him now. Of course, Taehyung wishes his memories would slowly come back to him, but not like this.

“It’s about being in love with someone who doesn’t love you back,” he clarifies. The memory of it sits bitterly on his tongue when he speaks.

“And who doesn’t love you back?”

“Oh, no, no,” he says, waving him off. “It was… a long time ago. I’m better now. The guy I loved—he isn’t around anymore.”

Better now. He makes it sound like an illness; malignant, something you can easily cure with a dose of medicine. Truthfully, there was—is no cure, not when you’ve spent the better half of your adult years trying to navigate through two types of heartache: losing your best friend for reasons out of your control, and still harbouring feelings for someone who isn’t there anymore.

He would like to say that he’s moved on in every sense, that he doesn’t still have dreams that start out sweet, eventually turning into nightmares, but he’d be lying. Waking up in cold sweats, spending hours after that rummaging through old polaroids he doesn’t have the heart to throw out. It doesn’t keep him anchored in bed for days on end like it used to, but there’s still a hesitation to wake up some days.

That’s how he came to have the job he has now. He became a creature of the night, inhabiting the darkness. When the jazz bar opposite the bookstore he would frequent had signs on lamp posts about looking for new bartenders, he seized the opportunity. He was paid dirt then, and he’s still paid dirt now, but his hours work around his body clock, and it allows him to tease that part of him that still toys with his dreams. Even if those dreams only see him playing in a dimly lit basement at one in the morning.

“And now?”

“Now what?” he asks, confused.

“Do you… is there anyone in your life now?”

“Oh. No, no. No one I’ve wanted to keep around, at least.” He almost doesn’t ask, but he can’t help the prodding curiosity he has. He’s always been a bit masochistic that way. “And you? Are you seeing anyone?”

“Ah, no,” Jeongguk laughs to himself, tucking a piece of his long fringe behind his ear. “I just… meet with people casually.”

“What kind of people?”

“Interesting people.”

“There’s a subcategory of people who think serial killers are interesting,” he deadpans. Jeongguk’s cheeks flush under the orange light. “So I think you’re gonna need to elaborate on that.”

Jeongguk settles on, “I like people with a story to tell.”

“I’m sure there are plenty of girls with stories to tell,” he maintains, trying to drive it further so he can have a grasp on what Jeongguk is into.

Even when they were younger, Jeongguk would never allude to liking anyone, tensing up whenever Taehyung would tease him about crushes.

“And boys.”

Taehyung’s eyes widen in disbelief. He had hoped for it but that doesn’t stop surprise from taking over his features. “Boys?” he repeats, his brain slowly registering Jeongguk’s words.

“A recent discovery of mine,” Jeongguk admits shyly.

He wonders if Jeongguk knew before, if these feelings were ever something his Jeongguk felt. A pang of hurt sits uncomfortably in his chest when he thinks about his Jeongguk maybe having liked boys. Boys who weren’t him. He knows it’s selfish to think about himself but he can’t help but wonder if the problem was always him, and not just the fact that he was a boy.

It’s not like he can be upset, though. He never found the courage to come out to Jeongguk.

“You know, there’s a gay bar a couple of streets down if you’re still discovering that part of you.”

“I think I’m good here,” he rasps.

Taehyung feels himself sink into the chair further. “Yeah?”

He casts his gaze down, nodding sheepishly. “Yeah.”

Taehyung struggles to be an optimist these days, so he shrugs off the possibility of Jeongguk’s response having deeper implications.

“You mentioned earlier you have a long ride back home.”

“I grew up here but then some things happened and so my family and I moved back to Busan.”

It’s a missing piece to the story that Taehyung tried putting together for over a year. He had found out that Jeongguk no longer lived in his small family apartment in Jamsil—their neighborhood in Seoul—when he spotted the moving van parked outside the residence the day of his audition. He had spent those three weeks calling the Jeon landline phone, begging to talk to Jeongguk. In between begging, his mother would place her hand on his back, rubbing in gentle, comforting motions with her thumb. She’d make him herbal tea, one which she said healed all wounds. It was in between the cracks of those three weeks when his mother realised that her son wasn’t only grieving the potential loss of a best friend.

It was a Wednesday when he had his audition; a day that would determine Taehyung’s future, and whether or not he had been fruitless in his attempts at pursuing his dream. He had written a letter, sealed it with a lick of his tongue. He planned to drop by unannounced, something which he had been too afraid to do before. When he noticed the loading of boxes with ‘Jeongguk’s belongings’ scribbled down the sides in black ink, he stopped in his tracks. His body was static on the sidewalk when his heart sank to his feet like an anchor. He can remember wanting the ground to open up and swallow him whole, can remember feeling as if he was watching everything play out from somewhere other than his body.

Everything else from that Wednesday is muddy, even today. When he thinks back to it now, there are chunks missing in the timeline. He remembers only two other things from that afternoon: he never turned up to his recital, and he returned home without the letter.

It came as no shock to him that he had lost more than a best friend that day. Although he stills beats himself up for not turning up to the recital that would have determined his place in a music program, it didn’t hurt as much as losing him. Even if he had turned up to it and wowed the panel enough to secure him a spot, he still doesn’t think he would have accepted it. His dreams only made sense if Jeongguk was there living them out with him; with Jeongguk pursuing his love for filmography. They were naive, that much Taehyung could admit—both of them still figuring out their place in the world, but they knew it was something they wanted to navigate together.

He wonders where the letter is now, the one he had sat up all night writing and rewriting. Inside, he had included a few polaroids; one from when the two of them ventured to Jeju to celebrate Jeongguk turning nineteen. He wasn’t fond of being the centre of attention, nor did he have enough friends to warrant a surprise gathering, which is why they both agreed on Jeju Island in the end. The other polaroids signified snapshot moments of their eight years together, some where neither of them was fully in frame, but something about those made them Taehyung’s favourites. He always appreciated the accidental shots, the ones that didn’t involve the two of them waiting with painted smiles for the shutter to click. There was something special about being able to snap a photograph of Jeongguk mid laughter, with his eyes and nose scrunched up.

Maybe he still keeps those polaroids tucked away in the middle pages of books he keeps on his bedside table.

Their conversation picks itself back up after Taehyung mulls over his words for a few moments. Jeongguk is careful with what he shares, doesn’t divulge too much information. He mentions that he likes Busan, enjoys that he can walk for fifteen minutes and end up with sand in between his toes. Taehyung asks if he ever misses Seoul, and his smile barely curls over when he says, “I think so.”

He lets Jeongguk buy him a drink at the bar after that.

The question comes shyly, barely above a whisper at first. “Can I buy you a drink?”

He doesn’t quite believe what he’s hearing. Situating his elbows on the sticky table, he rests his face in his hands. It’s hard to stop the flirty response from leaving his mouth then. “Are you offering?”

“I am, yeah,” Jeongguk laughs, bringing a hand to the back of his head, scratching. There’s another one of those nervous habits. He should be tallying them up by this point. “So are you gonna let me buy you one?”

Taehyung lets his eyes crease, feels a smile spread over half of his face, and nods in reply. He feels things going in a certain direction, one that has him bouncing his leg nervously, maybe excitedly. He’s so caught up in how Jeongguk has such a dizzying effect on him, even now. He has to once again remind himself that this isn’t his Jeongguk. The reminders don’t do much at this point, though, Taehyung too caught up in the moment to consider it.

“What do you want?”

“Surprise me.”

He watches Jeongguk wind his way through the other customers carefully, giggles to himself when he shyly taps on an older man’s shoulder to ask him to move. He’s disgustingly aware of the grin that sits on his face.

When Jeongguk returns, there’s a coca-cola in one hand and a bottle of something else in his other. He takes his seat again, Taehyung mesmerised by the way Jeongguk’s hair falls into his face every time he so much as makes a move.

“Wasn’t sure what to get you so I went with something fruity. Peach soju.”

Taehyung mouths a thank you, fighting back the smile that threatens to take over his face. He’s not sure how he knew that peach was his favourite flavour.

 “So are there no good jazz bars in Busan, huh?” he jokes, wrapping his mouth around the bottle.

Jeongguk leans back, necking his bottle of coca-cola. He resurfaces moments later, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “Honestly, I’ve never thought to look.”

“Not your scene?”

“You could say that,” Jeongguk huffs, loosening up again. “As I said before, this is my first time out in a while. But even before then… I don’t think so, no. Crowds aren’t really my thing.”

He smiles sweetly in response, memories of a shy, introverted Jeongguk playing in his mind. “Yeah, I don’t get a ‘party guy’ vibe from you.”

The Jeongguk he knew wouldn’t even frequent bars in his first year of university, never mind enter one alone two hours away from home. He’s glad exceptions are being made tonight, even if it all feels too much like fate.

Fate. Something he’s been toying with since the moment his eyes caught sight of Jeongguk.

“I much prefer one on one contact. You know, that sort of stuff.”

“Much like we’re doing now?” Taehyung asks, voice tilting at the end. He looks at Jeongguk with wide eyes, and maybe he knows exactly what he’s doing. Maybe it’s the one sodding bottle of soju fooling him into thinking he’s armed with some liquid courage.

“Yeah. I like to direct my full attention and you can’t really do that if you’re in a group.”

“And is your full attention on me?”

Somehow, in a room full of people and live music, Taehyung can hear a pin drop after he asks that. Everything becomes suspended in time, Jeongguk dragging his attention up from his mouth to his eyes in slow motion. When Taehyung catches sight of the darkness that pools in his eyes, he already knows the answer.

“Yes. Has been all night.”

Taehyung becomes aware of a noticeable shift then. He lets his mind roam wild, much like he did when he was a horny teenager in love with his best friend. Maybe the only thing different now is that he’s a grown man flung into the deep end with not nearly as much confidence as he had back then. It’s hard not to let his mind wander when he catches sight of Jeongguk tonguing the inside of his cheek. He had never seen Jeongguk in a situation like this, displaying body language he wanted to be understood and mirrored. Too blinded by his own desire to take, he doesn’t let himself be talked out of anything that could happen.

He flirts with every possibility, every maybe-outcome of this. Each possibility ends with his mouth finally understanding Jeongguk’s language, the one he imagines he only shares with interesting people. At one point, he had been the most interesting person in Jeongguk’s eyes. He wonders where he lands on that list now.

Conversation after that turns a little slower, with the silence between their words saying a lot more. Their eyes do a lot of the talking for their mouths, too. With the way Jeongguk flutters his eyes throughout the next half an hour, Taehyung thinks he could count each individual eyelash from where he’s sitting across from him. He looks like every bad decision Taehyung could make when he catches sight of the kohl smudgings. The smokey black takes the edge off how doe-eyed his eyes usually would appear. It’s a look he could get used to, a more fitting style for the kind of guys Taehyung finds himself drawn to these days.

Not much can be said when they’re both as nervous as the other. Taehyung lets things happen—they both do. When Taehyung feels a knee knocking against his, the decision to drag his foot down Jeongguk’s leg is an easy one. A game of footsie breaks out under the table but neither of them says anything about it. They both take small, tentative sips of their drinks, scared of what will happen once they run dry. Clouds of smoke still fill the room, people around them staining cigarettes with red lipstick, filling ashtrays Taehyung will spend his next shift cleaning. Everything plays out in perfect clichés, with the music dulling, turning slow and seductive, as if it’s cementing the mood for the rest of the night.

Eventually, their drinks do come to an end.

“I don’t think either of our wallets can handle the prices here for much longer,” Taehyung says, breaking the silence.

“Yeah,” he laughs, holding eye contact. “My wallet is significantly lighter than it was before I got here.”

Taehyung’s confidence runs dry then, panic and the fear of rejection kicking in. “I guess I—”

“I can take you home,” Jeongguk interjects. Taehyung’s mouth hangs open then, the ‘oh’ not quite leaving his mouth. “As long as you don’t mind riding on the back of a motorcycle and holding on for dear life.”

“I think I’d be more worried about getting helmet hair,” Taehyung jokes, feeling his head go dizzy with Jeongguk’s offer. “I’d like that, though.”

Taehyung ends up telling Jeongguk he’ll meet him outside, says that he needs to collect his bag and jacket in the break room before they can head.

On his way out from collecting his things, he finds Namjoon in the office, smoking a cigarette with his legs up on the table. “That’s me going now.”

Namjoon looks toward the door where Taehyung is leaning against it, jacket on and bag slung over his shoulder. “If you hang around for fifteen more minutes or so, I’ll drop you off.”

He shakes his head, considers lying, telling him he’s going to walk because he could do with the fresh air. Of course, he doesn’t, though. A part of him wants to blurt it out to someone, even if these friends he has now don’t know who Jeongguk is, or what he meant to Taehyung. Still means. “Actually,” he hesitantly starts, watching Namjoon’s brow quirk in interest. “I’m getting a ride back to mine from Jeongguk—I mean, the guy back there,” he mumbles, signalling to the main bar area with his finger. “He’s gonna let me ride on his motorcycle.”

Realisation sets in Namjoon’s features. He smiles mischievously. Taehyung isn’t ready for the teasing he and Jimin will give him tomorrow. “Right on. I knew I could sense some tension back there.”

“You could?” He’s so used to having things be one-sided. Maybe this isn’t his Jeongguk to have, but he needs to feel reassured right now.

“The dude couldn’t keep his eyes off you for more than a few seconds,” Namjoon affirms, smirking. “Just make sure you give us a call tomorrow to fill Jimin in. He’ll be dying to get the 411 from you.”

“He’s just driving me home.”

“We both know that isn’t how these things go.”

Taehyung is old enough to not be shy about these things anymore. He’s dabbled in one night stands and casual dating. He talks about sex a lot with Jimin and Namjoon over drinks, is almost too open about his sex life sometimes. He wouldn’t say he gets around—the left side of his bed is usually cold, but he takes what he needs when he needs it. Still, his cheeks flush at the implication behind Namjoon’s words, the very tips of his ears heating up as well.

After saying his farewells to Namjoon, promising to call in the morning, he makes one last pit stop before heading outside. He’s in the staff bathroom, stood in front of the mirrors set behind the sinks. The entire night feels too much like a fever dream, his body in sweats. He half-expects his hand to reach into the mirror when he extends his arm, expects his reflection to grab his hand and pull him through, back into his dreams.

He turns the tap on, lets the water run as cold as it will go. Leaning over, he cups his hands to collect enough water to splash his face with. He’ll wake up any moment now. The shock from the cold water will be enough to shake him out of this.

It’s not. He splashes his face again, bores his eyes into his reflection, watches the water drip down his face. He’s wide awake, still in the bar. Jeongguk is still waiting for him outside. His Jeongguk, or well—

There isn’t enough time to deconstruct the situation, to figure out what the fuck is going on. There’s no explanation for how Jeongguk walked into his bar, or why there was a gravitational pull between them from the get-go. He would have had to ride past dozens of bars to reach this one, stuck in some shoddy basement bang in the middle of Seoul. You don’t accidentally run into people in a city like this. Taehyung doesn’t want to think about how slim the chances are of that happening. He doesn’t know what their odds are which is why he doesn’t want to push it any further. Whatever it is, he doesn’t want to risk jinxing it.

The idea of fate meddling in his life isn’t a foreign concept. When he was younger, he firmly believed that there were events that led up to him meeting Jeongguk. It was troubling back then to imagine what would have happened if certain life events didn’t take place. If Taehyung’s parents had stayed together, his mother never would have packed up their things. They wouldn’t have moved to the other side of the city, to Jamsil. Jeongguk also wouldn’t have moved away from Busan at a young age if his dad hadn’t chased his dreams.

Although he was sad to see his parents split—in some twisted way, he was glad for it. It was during that time, when he was adjusting to surroundings much bigger than his previous ones, that he meant Jeongguk while at a comic book store. When the two of them reached out to grab the same book, with only one copy left, Taehyung didn’t understand it back then as a moment of destiny. Thinking back on it now, though, he knows it was the universe’s way of telling them that it had big plans for them.

“Oh, you take it. I can find another book,” Taehyung says, looking down at the younger boy. He’s not much smaller than him, but his eyes are big and round, and show an innocence that Taehyung would like to think he’s grown out of.

“Really?” the younger boy says, a dumbfounded look spreading across his face. His voice is small, quiet when he next pipes up. “That’s okay. I don’t think I have enough pocket money for it, anyways.”

Taehyung doesn’t have to think twice about what he says next. “How about split it? Like, you pay half, I pay half.”

The boy looks at him through his long hair, a smile now taking over his face. “That sounds cool!” His smile is soon replaced with a frown, though. “But how will we share it?”

“I just moved here so I don’t have any friends yet. Maybe we can hang out at the park and read it together,” he shrugs nonchalantly, hoping the shy boy isn’t taken aback by his proposition.

“My mum’s over there so I’ll have to ask her first,” he says, his words beginning to make Taehyung feel doubtful. He hopes he can make a new friend—his first friend here. The boy perks up again as they walk over to his mother. “Oh! I know the coolest reading spot we can go to.”

“Really? I can’t wait to see it,” he beams, excited to finally have someone he can hang out with. He doesn’t even really care that the boy seems a couple of years younger; he likes how gentle he appears, and it helps that they both already have a common interest. “My name’s Taehyung, by the way. I think I like the nickname Tae more, though. You can call me that if you’d like!”

 The younger boy stops to look at him. “Oh, I’ve never had a nickname before,” he says, his small mouth pursed. “I’m Jeongguk.”

Taehyung’s heart is tugged in all directions when he sees the small pout appear on his face. “Well, I can’t wait for us to be friends, Jeongguk.”

It’s raining when he steps outside. It’s a cold, dark November evening; the city lights reflecting neon reds and blues in the wet reflection of the pavement. The air is thick with the fresh, distinct smell of rain, enough to clear Taehyung’s lungs of all the fumes from the bar. Jeongguk’s hair falls wet against his forehead, swoony eyes and a dreadfully comfortable smile adorning his face. Taehyung urges his feet to move, his body stood still, admiring the sight in front of him.

He’s holding two helmets, and as Taehyung inches closer, he hands one over to him. “Now you’re gonna have wet helmet hair.”

Taehyung laughs, accepting the helmet. “I think the damage is already done.”

Following Jeongguk’s lead, he pulls the big, clunky headgear over his head, using his hand like a windscreen wiper to clear away droplets of rain from the visor. It proves itself to be fruitless in the end, with the rain relentless in its downpour. He chooses to keep the visor up then, letting the rain clump up his eyelashes instead.

“I’m parked just over here,” Jeongguk says, signalling for Taehyung to follow him down the dimly lit side street. He would never venture down these streets with someone he had just met, but he guesses these unique circumstances call for an exception.

Taehyung can’t hazard a guess at what make or model the motorcycle is. It’s black and shiny, a cruiser, with silver detailing that catches the attention of the moonlight. There’s a big, round floodlight to the front of the motorcycle. It looks like something Jeongguk’s dad would have owned in the eighties. It’s one of those effortlessly cool motorcycles, the type only equally as effortlessly cool people ride.

Taehyung always said Jeongguk was the lamest person he knew, but maybe there’s a coolness to it, one he hadn’t considered before.

“Here,” Jeongguk starts, digging in his jacket pockets for something. He materialises a pair of leather gloves, handing them over to Taehyung. “Wear these. It’s gonna feel especially cold when we’re cruising through the streets.”

Taehyung smiles, bowing his head in appreciation.

Jeongguk was always a gentleman, the first to offer a helping hand or to hold the door open. His values are unchanging, which Taehyung is relieved to know. He pockets that piece of information with the rest of it; some of Jeongguk’s finer details and qualities still apparent.

When they’re all suited up, with Jeongguk to the front of the motorcycle, Taehyung hooks a leg over. He’s hesitant about circling his arms around Jeongguk’s waist, instead waiting for him to give instructions. His body is otherwise flush against Jeongguk’s. He hopes there are enough layers between them for Jeongguk not to feel his heart thumping against his back.

Jeongguk turns his head, voice breaking through the rain when he finally instructs, “Put your hands around my waist, and no matter what, hold on tightly. I don’t wanna lose you.”

The last sentence causes Taehyung’s breathing to stutter. He knows Jeongguk is referring to not wanting him to fall off the back, but his mind still rummages through every blueprint memory of Jeongguk saying those words to him during many of their nights together, the type that turned confessional once the lights are off.

Before mustering up a reply, Taehyung pulls the visor down, covering his face in the process. “You won’t,” Taehyung manages to say, his voice muffled by the helmet. He’s grateful for the headgear hiding the way his voice wobbles.

The rain lashes against the visor, but he can’t decide if it’s the raindrops or his tears making everything go blurry.

He wraps his arms around Jeongguk’s middle, letting Jeongguk know that he’s ready when he is. His stomach pools with immediate heat at the contact and he’s instantly hit with a rush of security. It’s for his own safety, it’s to make sure no accidents occur. He knows all of that. It still doesn’t stop Taehyung from feeling an immediate sense of coming home, of relief.

This isn’t Jeongguk. This isn’t his Jeongguk.

It’s getting harder to remember that.

The engine starts up then, growling. Taehyung tightens his grip around his small waist, letting out an excited noise as Jeongguk starts to slowly enter the main street. He can make out the shadows of Jeongguk turning his head then, laughing fondly at his reaction.

They take off after that, cutting through the cold chill of the narrow streets. Somewhere along the way, he turns his head to the right and leans against Jeongguk’s back. From this angle, he watches the world pass by him in bokeh; the vibrant city lights igniting Seoul’s nightlife and making everything feel so alive, even at three in the morning.

Sometimes he misses the brick and mortar he grew up in, the city skylines often suffocating and sterile. Right now, though, he’s grateful to be among the neon lights and the part of the city that never sleeps.

Taehyung’s apartment is in a quieter residential area of Itaewon, close enough for him to make the twenty-minute commute into the main district for work most days.

“Wow, that felt so freeing,” Taehyung says, pulling the visor up so he can see better. The rain has calmed down but it still spits. He doesn’t want to take the helmet off, scared that doing so will make all of this come to an end even sooner. “I’ve never experienced Seoul during the night like that.”

“Yeah, that’s what I like about it,” Jeongguk agrees. “It’s like the simple man’s way of flying.”

Jeongguk leans against the motorcycle now, the engine off. He brings the helmet over his head and places it on the seat, revealing his still-wet hair. He runs a hand through it, trying to bring some life back into the long waves. It sits parted, with some loose strands falling into his eyes, others falling to his cheeks, curling at the ends. Taehyung watches, mesmerised, as he flutters them away with wet eyelashes. He’s not trying to look beautiful, which makes everything about the way he looks right now even harder to ignore.

His eyes. The street lamps make his eyes look like that moment when the sun tries to break through the dark skies. The heavens could open in Jeongguk’s eyes and the world would just carry on like normal, and something about that feels wrong to Taehyung. His eyes are also bolder now, the kohl eyeliner bleeding at the corners. It makes them look impossibly big, feline, almost. It’s jarring against his skin, face paler now that they’re coming into the coldest months.

His lips are distinctively pink, shiny with spit. Taehyung watches them quirk slowly, his smaller top lip something he always found to be cute. He feels himself go shy when his eyes drag back up to Jeongguk’s.

Jeongguk steps forward then, his eyes dreamy on Taehyung. His mouth quirks, “Let’s get this off and see what state your hair’s in.”

He’s taken aback when Jeongguk reaches out and pulls the helmet over his head for him. When it’s off, he lets it fall to the ground as he directs his attention to Taehyung’s hair, which lays flat on his head. The close proximity knocks the breath from Taehyung’s lungs, the sudden closeness of Jeongguk having a dizzying effect on him. He drags his fingers through his hair, ruffling it.

Taehyung giggles when a few stubborn strands of hair bounce back, falling over his eyes despite Jeongguk’s best attempts to stop them. He feels himself go shy when Jeongguk tucks a few wet pieces of his hair behind his ears, his attention to detail something that hasn’t changed. The shyness only grows when Jeongguk’s mouth tugs into a smile then, the boy seemingly admiring his work.

“There we go,” he croons softly, removing his hands and letting his arms fall to his sides. He’s looking straight into Taehyung’s eyes when he says, “Perfect,” just above a whisper.

Only Jeongguk has the ability to disarm him with a smile.

His heart stutters, functioning even worse than it has all night. Taehyung swallows down, reaches a hand out to touch Jeongguk’s face. With his thumb, he gently wipes away a drop of rain that trickles down his cheek. The touch scolds him, his skin soft, cold, wet. He retracts his hand immediately, bringing his arm back down to his side.

There’s a twinkle in Jeongguk’s eye, the kind Taehyung recognises as intrigue. He only ever needed to look into Jeongguk’s eyes to understand what was going on.

It’s almost 3:30 in the morning and they’re standing in the middle of an empty street, with the moon spotlighting them. They’re mere inches apart at this point; Taehyung can feel Jeongguk’s breath fan against his face in gentle puffs.

Taehyung has watched this scene play out in almost every romantic comedy.

The brushing of a hand against his. It stays there, cold, a daring finger curling itself around Taehyung’s thumb. He doesn’t look down, too scared to look away from eyes that used to promise and hold so much. The air around them feels tight and he’s beyond the point of controlling his breathing. He knows Jeongguk can hear how erratic it is, but he doesn’t try to hide it.

There’s a question that hangs in the air. He leans into Jeongguk, into the haze of his deep smell, and finds the courage to ask, “Do you want to come in?”

It comes out as a murmur against the shell of his ear. It’s enough for Jeongguk to tighten his finger around Taehyung’s thumb. Taehyung goes to pull back when he suddenly feels a hot breath against his neck.

Jeongguk mouths a yes. Taehyung feels it against his neck more than he hears it with his ears.

Taehyung isn’t sure how he manages to make it up the stairs to his apartment without issue. There’s still the phantom touch of Jeongguk’s lips against his neck. He can feel Jeongguk’s presence behind him the whole way up, their ascent quiet but not uncomfortable. The same can’t be said for Taehyung’s head, the volume turned all the way up.

“That’s us here. Door number seventy-seven.”

He lets Jeongguk walk in first, closing the door behind them both. Something about having Jeongguk in his home feels exposing. Shoes sit messily at the entrance, dirty pots fill up his sink, and he knows he didn’t bother to make his bed this morning. He doesn’t expect that they’ll even make it to his bedroom, but a small piece of him feels embarrassed about the disarray.

“Your place is exactly how I imagined it to be,” Jeongguk blurts out. Taehyung turns to look at him, having just slipped his shoes off next to Jeongguk’s.

Taehyung offers him a puzzled look then, a small realisation hitting him. “I don’t remember giving you my address…”

He watches as Jeongguk shifts uncomfortably, looking down at his feet, pigeon-toed. “Can we sit down?

Maybe it’s the small traces of alcohol or the fact he’s still in a daze, but it doesn’t hit him then when it really should. Looking back on it now, he should have known.

“Yeah, yeah,” he says breathlessly. “Let’s sit.”

They shuffle their feet towards the small couch that faces the window, overlooking Itaewon. It looks like the perfect backdrop for the memories Taehyung will take from this night. He joins Jeongguk on the couch after switching on a small lamp, enough to provide a warm glow.

“You didn’t give me your address,” Jeongguk confesses, turning to face Taehyung.

Taehyung raises a brow in question. “Oh?”

Jeongguk takes a deep, shaky breath. “Just—” he starts, voice trembling. His eyes don’t seem to focus on Taehyung like they had done all night up until now. They dart around the room, chaotic. He catches sight of his Jeongguk’s hands fiddling in his lap.

It’s at that moment that Taehyung brings his hand closer to Jeongguk, careful in his approach, not wanting to startle him. He places his bigger hand over Jeongguk’s, almost blanketing his clasped hands. Applies light pressure, lets his index finger gently stroke the back of Jeongguk’s right hand.

“I’m listening.”

A hand releases itself from Taehyung’s light grip. He’s rummaging through his deep pocket for something, his tongue poking out of his mouth slightly in determination. Taehyung keeps his hand where it is, only bringing it back to his own lap when he sees Jeongguk pull out what looks to be his wallet.

He frowns, knitting his eyebrows together. Jeongguk opens his wallet, rifling through the different compartments. He gets a horrible, heavy feeling in his gut about where this is going. Taehyung has been propositioned at work before. It’s the 90s, after all; he knows of the ‘juicy bars’ in The Ville, and how popular they are with the off-duty soldiers looking for a prostitute to enjoy the night with. He’s heard many stories, even knows of some that start like this. “I’m not a pro—”

Jeongguk pulls out something rectangular from his wallet. “Tae and Jeongguk, karaoke bar, 1993,” he reads. He turns it around, places it down onto Taehyung’s lap. A polaroid of Taehyung and Jeongguk, drunk at a karaoke bar, in the year 1993. Taehyung remembers taking the photo. He replayed the entire night out in his head many times. On a few occasions, letting his memories of Jeongguk’s heady smell work their way down to where his hand would eventually wrap around himself. He shakes the thought away. “That’s you and me, isn’t it?”

“Jeongguuuuk,” Taehyung whines, drawing out the end of his name. “Sit next to me. Wanna take a snap before I’m too drunk to remember how to use this thing.”

Jeongguk clambers his way over to him, plastered with that devilish half-smile slash quirk of the upper lip he’s been giving Taehyung whiplash with all night. He’s in no better state than Taehyung. Neither of them has quite figured out the art of drinking yet, but it usually makes for a cheap night.

He plops down next to him, loosely snaking his arm around Taehyung’s shoulder. Jeongguk has always been an affectionate drunk, handsy when he loses all inhibition. He becomes a bit more chatty like this, usually spouting nonsensical nothings while gesticulating more than he usually would. His satoori becomes more apparent when he’s drunk, too. Taehyung finds that part infuriatingly sexy.

“Have I told you yet, I mean tonight, that I love you, Tae? Because it’s true.” His words slur together, incohesive but not losing any sincerity.

“I lost count after the seventh time,” Taehyung giggles, leaning into Jeongguk’s warmth. He’s always warm. Taehyung jokes that he’s his furnace, with the sole purpose of keeping Taehyung warm. “Picture time!”

Grabbing the polaroid camera from the table, he positions it in front of their faces with his arm extended enough to get them both in frame. They don’t usually put this much effort into their little snapshots, but Taehyung wants to commemorate this night properly.

Earlier that day, Jeongguk received his acceptance letter to study Film, Television, and Multimedia at Sungkyunkwan University. All his hard work was finally paying off, and they were both in high spirits about their dreams feeling more in reach than ever.

Jeongguk drops his hand down to Taehyung’s waist, circling it, holding tightly. As Taehyung shouts ‘cheese!’, Jeongguk turns his head to plant a wet kiss to Taehyung’s cheek.

The camera flashes and Taehyung lets out a squeal. His cheek burns from the feeling of Jeongguk’s lips against it. Jeongguk removes the camera from his hand, placing it back on top of the table. Only a moment passes but before he knows it, Jeongguk’s turning to snake his other arm around Taehyung’s waist, too, properly hugging him now. Taehyung wraps his arms around Jeongguk’s neck, feeling warmth spread throughout his entire body.

“You’re ridiculous,” Taehyung muffles into Jeongguk’s neck. “And you’re sweaty and smell like the gas from that barbecue restaurant.”

Jeongguk squeezes him tighter, laughing into the embrace. They’re a tangled web of limbs, Taehyung hooking his leg over Jeongguk’s for better comfort. Neither of them is shy of a drunk cuddle in a small, two-person karaoke room. Oddly enough, this isn’t a scene new to them.

“Mmm, true,” Jeongguk slurs, pressing a small to the shell of Taehyung’s ear. “But you love me, anyway.”

The small kiss has the ability to simultaneously sober Taehyung up, and make him feel dizzier than he was previously feeling. “That I do, Jeongguk,” Taehyung admits, holding on to this moment.

“Oh,” Taehyung says, taking in their glassy eyes, Jeongguk’s kissy lips against his cheek. He remembers the euphoric feeling of having Jeongguk drunkenly dote on him all night. “Yeah, yeah that’s us.”

He turns it around, inspecting the scribblings he remembers writing in black marker while hungover the next morning. With shaking hands, he asks, “Where did you find this?”

There’s so much more he wants to say, so many hows and whys roaming around his head. For some reason, though, everything stays lodged in the back of his throat like a persistent tickle.

Jeongguk sighs, fiddling with his fingers. Taehyung looks at him with pleading eyes. “I found it in a box of things my mum kept hidden away in storage.”

Taehyung listens, urges him to continue with a small nod of his head. Words are lost on him right now.

“When my mum died, there was a notice posted in the mail, saying she had a week to collect her things from a storage centre back here in Seoul. They hadn’t received any payments from her in a month since… yeah,” he says, clearing his throat. “So I hired a van, not really knowing what to expect, and I drove through to the address given. I thought maybe I’d be able to take home some of her things that I could keep for memory.”

“There was a box with my name labelled on it. I thought maybe it was a box of old clothes and momentums that my mum couldn’t part with.”

Taehyung watches as Jeongguk’s eyes start to turn glassy. He instinctively moves his hand over to rest it on Jeongguk’s knee, giving it a reassuring squeeze. “Take your time, I’m listening.”

“That’s where I found this polaroid. There were a bunch of photographs and videotapes. There was one labelled ‘Adventures with Taegukkie’, and I didn’t know what any of it meant,” he lowers his gaze, sounding pained. When his eyes find Taehyung’s again, there’s a single tear running black down his cheek. “And then I found a letter.”

His heart stutters then. Self-aware of the hand that sits reassuringly on Jeongguk’s knee, he wonders if now would be a good time to detract it. He’s scared, scared of whatever Jeongguk is about to say next. All of his fears of rejection start trickling back into his thoughts.

“It was addressed to me, and I was confused because I thought I knew all of the friends I once had. I keep in contact with them, or well, I did,” he laughs, rolling his eyes. “And none of them ever mentioned anyone else, so I thought I was clued in on every robbed memory.”

Jeongguk’s hands shake. He rummages through the front pocket of his leather jacket again, materialising a folded piece of paper. Taehyung sees some scribblings, the handwriting he recognises as his own. He waits for Jeongguk to continue.

“I found out that maybe things just… weren’t as they seemed,” he starts up again, unfolding the paper with clumsy hands. “I saw the date at the top of the letter. November 3rd, 1994. I remember that being the day before we moved.”

He wonders how long it took for him to piece everything together, or why he was kept in the dark about Taehyung. It stings, hurts to know that there were years of Jeongguk’s adult life where he didn’t so much as know of Taehyung’s name.

Taehyung takes Jeongguk’s silence as his cue to offer some insight. “I had tried calling you for weeks, and when I would get through, your mum would always say that you weren’t doing too good that day and that I should call back another time.” Memories of those few weeks hurt to touch, hurt to bring up even now. “She stopped answering, though. I guess she saw it was me on the caller ID and I—I thought maybe she was just stressed after your accident and needed some time.”

“And the letter?”

He explains as best as he can, retelling the day through memories. His memory doesn’t serve well, of course, with big chunks missing out of the day. He ends his explanation with, “I must have dropped it outside your house for someone to then put it in one of the boxes.”

Still hung up on the small detail of Jeongguk having possibly read the letter, he hesitantly asks, “Have you um—did you read the letter?”

Jeongguk casts his eyes down to the letter. “I did, yeah,” he nods, smoothing out the creases with his thumb. “I must have read it through and through at least a hundred times by now.”

Confusion sets in the small frown lines between Taehyung’s brows when he hears that. He would understand reading it through once or twice to gain some clarity, but anything more than that? Maybe he’s being hyperbolic. Taehyung at least feels comforted in the knowledge that Jeongguk hasn’t torn the letter to pieces.

“Can I see it?”

He takes the letter from Jeongguk, pushes his glasses further up his nose so he can read his messy handwriting. If there’s one thing Taehyung did try to erase from his memory, it was this. After he had returned home that day, fully thinking his letter was lost to the world, he vowed to never think of those words again. Those words he had stayed up all night searching for, scrapping any and all drafts that didn’t sound good in his head.

Even now, though, he can read the desperation in his own words.

Dear Jeongguk,

I’m writing this on the basis that you still remember who I am, even if only in fragments. I’ve thought of a thousand ways of telling you, and I’ve written and rewritten this letter a hundred of those ways already. I’m hoping this one reigns supreme in the end. There is so much I want to say, so much I’m scared I won’t get to say if I don’t write everything down in this letter to you.

I’m scared, Jeongguk. I know it’s selfish. It’s selfish of me to be scared when I’m not the one going through what you’re going through right now. However, I’m afraid. I don’t want to lose you, and I’m afraid that I’m going to do so regardless of your condition. I will either lose you to your memory, or to what I’m about to tell you.

My hands are shaking as I’m writing this. I’m listening to the Cranberries album you let me borrow a few months ago. I hope it’s okay that I haven’t had the chance to return it to you yet. I especially love the song ‘Linger’ just like you said I would. I also rewatched that foreign movie we rented together. I know it’s overdue but I can’t bring myself to go out these days. I hope they’ll let me off without a fine since we’re their most loyal customers.

I guess I should get to the point, shouldn’t I? Here’s the thing, Jeongguk: I love you. And I know you might be thinking that’s an obvious statement, one that I can apply to the last eight years of our friendship. You’d be right, of course, but I’m not talking about loving you in a friendly, platonic way. I love you, Jeongguk, in ways I feel I’m not allowed to love a best friend, a boy. I hope you are able to read this letter in full without tearing the paper up, without feeling angry at me for developing these feelings. I would like to say that no one is angrier than I am, but that would be a lie as I still struggle to find any reason why I should resent myself for how I feel.

Loving you was not something I had planned, wasn’t something I had intended when I first met you at the age of thirteen. I don’t think thirteen-year-old me could even give you a definition of love that existed outside of familial love, or the kind of love you have for your belongings as a child. The friendship we formed grew into an everlasting bond, with pinky promises acting as the glue. I can’t thank you enough for letting me take you under my wing when you were eleven and just ‘little Jeongguk’ to me. You still are that Jeongguk to me, just an ever bigger kid now than you were then.

So I don’t want you to think that I disregarded our friendship the moment my feelings became more. I cherish our friendship deeply, and it’s still the core of my happiness, even today. I don’t know at which point things started to shift for me, or if maybe these feelings were always there, only becoming clear to me as I grew older. I feel like I’ve loved you for the longest time. I can’t really think back to a time when I didn’t love you.

I think you know you have a slight problem when you start to notice when someone’s about to smile, the way their eyes start to form shadows and crinkles before their mouth has even begun to move. Maybe that’s when these feelings became apparent. Maybe that’s when there was a shift in how I felt. It could have also been the butterflies that would harbour in my stomach when our hands would touch in fleeting moments of bliss for me. Sometimes you would hand me a piece of gum or trace my palm with your pinky because your mother told you about palm reading. It was moments like this; small and insignificant, that would be enough to keep me up all night.

If your memory of me fades, I want you to know that we had the best times together, Jeongguk. I want you to know that we went fishing every summer with your father, that we would lie starfish on your bedroom floor telling each other inappropriate jokes that we would still somehow find funny in years to come. I want you to know that we only ever argued once, and that we couldn’t even properly be mad at each other because we were so awful at being apart. I want you to know about the secret handshake we had, or perhaps about the friendship bracelets we got together in Jeju Island. I’m wearing mine right now. I don’t think I’ll ever take it off.

If your memory of me fades, I hope you know that we had the best years together. I want you to know that I loved you then, and love you now, with a fierceness I will hold onto until my blood runs cold. I hope that even if you lose every memory of me, of my face, of the laughter we shared; I hope you don’t lose who you are at the core of all this. I hope your heart continues to grow big. I hope your love can still extend to those who need it the most. You loved me at my darkest moments.

I love you, Jeongguk. I miss you terribly. I miss you so much that it hurts to breathe. I miss you to the point of tears every single night. I hope you look through the polaroids I’ve attached to this letter. I hope they spark fond memories for you, as they have for me. God, I hope your memories are safe. I hope there are still remnants of me hidden in the places you’re yet to find. You are my north, my east, my south, and my west; and no matter which way you turn, I promise I’ll be waiting at the end.

Please remember me. We still have so much life we need to explore together. You still have to become the most famous and brilliant film director in the world, and I need to be there to compose the soundtrack for your movies.

I can’t do any of this without you, bun. I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.

I love you forever.

Yours always,


Every feeling he was experiencing while writing that letter pushes its way to the forefront of his mind. He sees Jeongguk’s hands approaching his face, gently removing his glasses for him. The action is delicate, something his Jeongguk would have done. Taehyung can’t bear to look ahead; his eyes turning into kaleidoscopes when he rubs them with his fists bunched. When he blinks them open again, it takes all of his power to refocus his attention to the boy sat across from him. Except he’s no longer a boy, no longer little Jeongguk. He isn’t Taehyung’s, wasn’t ever really Taehyung’s to begin with, but at least he still was able to call him his best friend. The difference now is that he isn’t Taehyung’s at all, and it becomes glaringly obvious when Jeongguk places his hand over Taehyung’s.

He flinches, scared of touching what isn’t his. Jeongguk’s eyes are on him, though, and they seem to ask for permission. Taehyung grants him permission by turning his hand around, palm facing up.

It’s then that Jeongguk wraps his hand around Taehyung’s, rubbing the back of his hand in circles with his thumb. It’s small and neither of them acknowledges it with words.

“I was shocked when I read the letter,” Jeongguk starts. There’s apprehension in his voice. “I honestly felt like everything I had been told up until this point had been a lie. When I was recovering, my mum invited people over, people she said I was friends with before the accident. I knew there would be a disconnect, I knew that,” he pauses, laughing in disbelief. He shakes his head, rubs his nose with his free hand. “I just didn’t expect the disconnect to be like, about them and not me. At first, I thought I was the problem, and that it was my shitting memory that needed to come back. It took me a few months to realise that it was them, these supposed friends who I didn’t really feel knew me, not the old me but also the new me. They said they had met me in college and that we had a few classes together.”

Taehyung picks up on how distressed he looks, and so he lets his own thumb gently brush against Jeongguk’s knuckles that stand prominent in Taehyung’s hand. He continues to listen. “It kind of just like, dawned on me then that there was something missing. I was never told about anyone from before college. It honestly felt like something was being kept from me, but I never wanted to ask because my mum was ill and I felt like a burden to her for needing her to act as my brain sometimes.”

“Did you find out why she never mentioned me?” Taehyung asks. It stings to know that his mother kept him from knowing about Taehyung, like he was a dirty secret that could be swept under the rug.

“I asked my dad last year after I had found the letter and all the photographs and videotapes. I was tired of keeping my mouth shut and accepting the life that I had, so I asked him who you were and why they never told me about you.” He pauses then, casting his eyes down to his lap. “At first, I thought that maybe you had done something horrible, like maybe my mum had a valid reason to not tell me about you.”

Taehyung winces upon hearing that.

“But then I realised how ridiculous that sounded considering I had seen the photographs and read your letter. I didn’t know you but I knew enough to figure out that there was something else going on. When I asked my dad, he told me to sit down and so I—I thought maybe you had died. I couldn’t think of any other reason why they would keep my best friend from me like that.”

He rambles when he’s nervous, something Taehyung remembers very fondly. He never did well with confrontation or getting from A to Z in quick succession. Taehyung always found it cute, even if it meant listening to a fifteen-minute story that could have been told in a couple of minutes. This time feels different, though, with too many years gone by for them to summarise things. There’s too much to be said, enough to keep them there until the sun is peeking through the buildings outside his window.

“I got angry when he told me the reason,” he resumes, not breaking eye contact. “He told me my mum had ‘feared’ that you were gay and that you liked me. Apparently, she had been paying close attention to our friendship and thought it was weird how close we were,” Jeongguk laughs bitterly, hurt present in his voice. “She had told my dad that my accident was a ‘blessing in disguise’ and that she took it as a ‘sign’ from God.” He spits out that last sentence, using his two fingers to air quote.

For Jeongguk’s sake, Taehyung does what he can to stay composed while listening. It proves itself to be difficult when he hears that, though. While he was never the fondest of Jeongguk’s mother, he thought she loved Jeongguk enough to never do anything that could hurt him. The pain in Jeongguk’s eyes tells him how wrong he was about her, the way he says her name like it’s dirt in his mouth. He knows that Jeongguk always respected his mother, even if his bond with his father was far tighter. Everything starts to make sense; from how infrequent their sleepovers at Jeongguk’s became, to how he felt ignored and shut out by Jeongguk’s mother, despite having known her for years.

“I’m sorry,” Taehyung murmurs, a small part of him feeling to blame. He casts his eyes down to their links hands, blinking away a few tears that threaten to open the dam. “Maybe if I had—”

“I don’t want you to apologise for anything,” Jeongguk interjects, shifting closer on the couch. He squeezes his hand tightly around Taehyung’s, brings his other hand gently under his chin, lifting Taehyung’s head so that he can see him. “You aren’t to blame for any of this, and I don’t want you to create any hypotheticals.”

Taehyung’s eyes flicker from his lips to his eyes, to the conviction in his voice. He’s hyper-aware of the delicate fingers that hold his head up, and the way he once again uses his thumb to comfort, gently brushing against the soft skin under Taehyung’s chin.

“I didn’t spend a year thinking about this, and months looking for you, for you to start thinking about what you could have done differently.” He’s soft in his delivery but firm in what he says.

“How did you find me?”

“It’s a long story and a lot of dead ends, but I originally found you in the telephone directory. It was outdated information, though, and led me back to Jamsil. I thought maybe you’d still be in Seoul so I met up with one of the guys from my old college classes since I knew he was now working in Seoul for a production company. Apparently, my mum told him not to bring you up because it would ‘upset me’, so that cleared up some things,” he sighs, running a hand through his mostly-dry hair. “He mentioned you played the piano—which I already knew from watching the videotapes I found—and said he remembered you serving him in a bar last year.”

“And you just went off that bit of information to find me?”

“I sounded desperate, didn’t I?” Jeongguk pity-laughs. “I’d ride through to Seoul and spend the entire night in and out of bars. No one ever really wanted to give out information on whether or not they had a Taehyung working for them so I lost hope for a while.”

Taehyung smiles and says, “You used to hate going out. I’d have to drag you out for drinks sometimes just so we could keep friends. One time you said you’d happily lose all of our other friends if it meant never having to go to a bar or club again.”

“Sounds like something I’d still say and do now. I wouldn’t be surprised if I got banned from the Itaewon area for the crime of entering every bar without ever buying a drink.”

“Oh, please,” Taehyung snorts, lightly shoving Jeongguk’s shoulder. “I think you’d take pride in being banned from ever entering a bar again.”

Jeongguk sniggers, nodding his head in agreement. “As long as I could still go back to your bar, I wouldn’t really care about the rest.”

Everything realigns itself for a moment. A minute of back and forth is all it takes for Taehyung to feel like he’s talking to his Jeongguk again. He disconnects from the situation at hand to appreciate the way Jeongguk’s cheeks puff up, his eyes turning smaller to accommodate his ever-growing smile. It’s eerie how everything flows the way it does, how they work together in easy conversation. Jeongguk always felt like an intrinsic part of his existence; and right now, it still feels like he slots right back into place. There was always going to be a hole that no one but Jeongguk could fill.

Their giggling eventually subsides enough for Jeongguk to continue telling his story. He tells Taehyung about how it was a Saturday evening at the end of September when he was handed a flyer for a bar a bit further down from where he was. The flyer was for a place he hadn’t heard of, called ‘Blue Moon’. Jeongguk took it as a sign to check the place out, and so he had scrapped all of his previous plans and rode down a few streets on his motorcycle until he reached the address given.

And that’s where the story took a turn.

“I walked in fully expecting to walk back out. It was really dark and busy, and I felt too stuffy,” Jeongguk recalls, a small smile slowly dancing its way onto his face. He appears to be reminiscing. “For some reason, I couldn’t make myself walk right back out the door, though.”

“Keep going.”

“I stood next to some older man at the back, watching the band play. When he moved, I turned to see where he went, and that’s when I saw you behind the bar.”

Taehyung is fully entranced in the story, in how Jeongguk retells it. For a moment, he forgets this isn’t a fairytale story being read to him by his mother before he falls asleep.

“I froze on the spot. You were leaning over the counter with your elbows resting on it, and you had your nose in a book, much like you did tonight,” smiles Jeongguk, his eyes softening under the warm glow of the lamp. “Literally everyone was watching the band. Everyone except for you. It struck me how out of my depth I was, which is why I watched you for a few minutes, had a freak-out, and then left.”

Without being intrusive, he asks, “Why didn’t you talk to me that night?”

“I sat outside for like, two hours or something stupid like that. At first, I was gonna wait for you to finish work and approach you then, but I was scared shitless so I got on my motorcycle and spent the next two hours travelling back to Busan trying not to think about you.”

Things start to turn confessional then, with Jeongguk not bothering to filter any of his words. Taehyung does his best to mirror that with all of his questions.

“What do you mean when you say you felt out of depth?”

Jeongguk huffs out a laugh of disbelief, like he can’t quite believe Taehyung would ask such a question. “You really want to know why?” he asks, prompting Taehyung to nod in response. “You just—you looked so unbothered by everything, by everyone. Kind of like you had seen what the world had to offer, and that you were rejecting it. You were so wrapped up in your book. I was scared of walking up to you because I thought maybe you had moved on from what happened and didn’t want to be reminded of it.”

Taehyung quirks a brow. “And you got all of that just from seeing me read a book?” he teases, resolutely ignoring the fluttering in his stomach.

“Okay, I might have projected some of my fears onto you,” he admits, Taehyung watching the way his eyes pierce through him.

“So what made you come back?”

“I read about the poetry slam on the information board on my way out. When my mum died, I started taking creative writing classes. I just needed a distraction from everything going on in my life. I was—I don’t want to say that I was depressed but I definitely felt alone and lost, and like I didn’t serve much purpose. Maybe that is depression, though,” he reasons. Taehyung can tell by the way his eyes flicker that he’s distressed. He offers him a small smile, hopes he interprets it as Taehyung understanding exactly what he means. “Seeing you and then the information board kind of planted the seed, I suppose. I started writing more personal stuff. It helped to have an outlet, even if I wasn’t very good at it.”

Taehyung is quick to interject. “You’re good at it.”

Jeongguk is even quicker to brush it off. “There’s room for improvement.”

“Stubborn boy,” he tuts, gaining the mock offence of Jeongguk. “So, so stubborn. You were always so good at everything you put your heart into, and I suspect little has changed in that aspect.”

They squabble back and forth for a few minutes. It’s lighthearted, no actual bite behind either of their words. Something about it feels so familiar; in the way neither of them back down, in the way Jeongguk’s satoori comes through especially strong when he’s fighting his corner. Jeongguk insists that there are many things he can’t do well, and Taehyung challenges that by asking him to name at least three things he can’t do better than the average person. Jeongguk laughs in disbelief, says that he isn’t very good at social interaction. A weak answer in Taehyung’s mind. He says as much, tells him to try again. Jeongguk scratches his head, racking his brain for something.

“I’m not good at making my bed in the morning,” he ends up saying. It’s a poor answer and they both know it. “And—”

“Oh, my god,” Taehyung chokes, throwing his head back in laughter. “No one is good at making their bed every morning unless they, I don’t know, have a military upbringing or something. That does not count.”

Jeongguk huffs, their clasped hands now undone so that he can fold his arms over his chest. “Okay then. Tell me something you’re bad at, Mr. Piano Man.”

“Where do I even begin?” starts Taehyung, bringing his index finger to his chin, pretending to think long and hard about what to start with. “I’m shit at being an adult; I can’t handle even the smallest amount of coffee in my drinks, and the same goes for spice in my food. Oh! I’m fucking awful at picking a decent guy, which is probably why I’m hopelessly single. I’m not very good at—”

“Looking anything less than perfect,” Jeongguk barges in, his eyes widening once the words leave his mouth.

Somersaults. That’s the only word Taehyung can use to describe the way his stomach flips, like he’s at the very top of a rollercoaster, waiting for the drop to come. He looks at Jeongguk through hooded eyes, expecting some kind of explanation. Cheeks red, ears burning at the tips.

“You don’t think that.”

It’s quiet, too quiet. He can both hear and see Jeongguk gulp before he says, “But what if I do?”

Taehyung doesn’t have an answer for that, afraid to entertain it.

There’s a shift in atmosphere. It’s the same tension that sat heavy in the bar a few hours ago, only this time they’re not accompanied by the sound of the band or loud bargoers. A small detail, but one that works to quicken Taehyung’s thumping heart. He reaches behind him to switch the small lamp off, the big window now enough to let in fragments of milky light. It’s somewhere after five in the morning now, the night’s blanket starting to pull itself away from Seoul. Twilight begins to tug at the city, shades of blue beginning to appear against buildings.

Taehyung can make out some of the features of Jeongguk’s face. With only the moon for light, he’s able to catch the most prominent ones; from his big nose that sits bold on his face, to his eyelashes that, in this light, ignite silver. The shadows show his features differently, but he’s still distinctly Jeongguk, just with stronger, more pronounced features than he had at age nineteen. He studies each feature with careful eyes—eyes that archive every blemish, each shade of brown in Jeongguk’s eyes, the upturn of his top lip.

He allows himself the time to do this, unsure if he will ever have a moment like this again.

Jeongguk’s lips part, a breathless, “Taehyung…” escaping them.

“Jeongguk,” he echoes, name kept below a whisper, too.

“Do you miss the me you used to know?”

“Yes,” his voice cracks, speaking honestly. He blinks his eyes closed, feels a stray tear stream down his cheek.

I think he’s still there, though, in you.

“So do I,” confesses Jeongguk, sighing. “I think I would have liked him more than I like me.”

“Don’t say that,” he laments, pleading while looking back into Jeongguk’s eyes. They’re impossibly big, mirroring the moon that sits outside his window. “Maybe your clothes are a bit different, and you’re older now and have lived through some traumatic events that would change anyone, but you’re still… you. There’s still that same Jeongguk in there who’s a bit afraid and unsure, curious, good at everything, stubborn to a fault.”

He means every word of it and more. Over the course of the night, he’s been hit with the striking differences; his appearance, mostly—something which can also be a result of time, growing up and of changes in fashion over the years. There are also similarities—or well, the things that have remained the same. Be it a predisposition or a stubborn trait, there is more of his Jeongguk in there than there isn’t.

It’s scary how easy it is to fall back into the idea of Jeongguk.

“Have you, um,” he pauses, casting a frown down to his lap. He keeps his head hung when he rearranges his words, saying, “Have you moved on?”

“Oh,” Taehyung says, gulping. For so many nights, that’s what he’s longed for. To move on, for his feelings to simply pack up their things and leave. He answers honestly, never one to lie to Jeongguk if he can help it. “It’s still a work in progress.”

Taehyung expects a spell of silence to fall over them.

What he doesn’t expect is for Jeongguk to look up then, eyes shining, framed by remnants of black. He shifts where he’s cross-legged on the couch, comfortable. Comfortable in Taehyung’s home.

“A work in progress?”

“Yeah, like—I’ve been trying but,” he huffs, laughing bitterly. He picks at a loose thread of his jumper. “You’ve thrown a spanner in the works.”

“I hope I can show you that I’m still him,” Jeongguk says, voice tiny.

“You are still him, and he’s still you,” he reassures, shuffling closer to Jeongguk, their knees overlapping. “Do I still look like the same boy you watched in those videos?” Jeongguk shakes his head in reply. “We’ve both gone through change. You may have lost your memories, but if there’s one thing that’s dawned on me tonight, it’s that we can’t dwell on what sits in the past. There was a lot lost, but that can also mean there’s something to be found in all of this.”

“It’s crazy,” Jeongguk starts, his hand gently hovering over Taehyung’s, where it sits on his knee. “It didn’t feel like I was talking to a stranger or to someone I only knew through bits and pieces of memories. I know it sounds ridiculous but it felt like picking up an old hobby, like painting, where your hand just remembers each flick of the wrist, each stroke of the brush. I’m sorry, I know it’s st—”

“No,” interjects Taehyung, laying his hand on top of Jeongguk’s. “It makes sense. I… I felt it, too.”

Taehyung couldn’t have described it better himself. It did feel like there was familiarity, as if they were just two old friends sat in a bar, sifting through the memories of their forgotten youth. Easing up around Jeongguk, listening to the satoori that seeped its way through the night as he grew more comfortable with talking—it all felt like falling back into old habits, into the things that once seemed like second nature.

Jeongguk clears his throat then, peering through his dark eyelashes. “Did I ever used to tell you how pretty you are?”

Taehyung’s breath hitches, getting lodged somewhere in the back of his throat. “No,” he admits, murmuring. “I don’t think that ever crossed his mind.”

“I don’t know how when it’s the first thing that crossed mine when I saw you behind the bar.”

“Yeah?” Taehyung breathes, feeling Jeongguk’s hand slowly inch up his thigh. Jeongguk unfolds his legs, shuffles closer as Taehyung does the same. His eyes stay planted on Jeongguk’s, the two of them staring back at each other, both hyper-aware of the hand. There’s a confidence growing in how Jeongguk doesn’t look away, doesn’t deter from his steady journey up Taehyung’s thigh.

The room feels stuffy, the air too tight even with winter approaching. Heat begins to pool in Taehyung’s stomach when his eyes flicker to Jeongguk’s mouth, his tongue darting out to wet his lips.

“Couldn’t take my eyes off you all night,” confesses Jeongguk, his voice becoming gravelly.

He feels a warm, appreciative hand dip under his jacket, snaking up to find his waist, a strong grip holding it at the smallest point. A few moments later, the other hand follows suit, finding his waist until Taehyung feels himself being pulled closer to Jeongguk.

Things take a heated turn then. Taehyung’s jacket is thrown to the floor in a matter of seconds, his lithe silhouette taken in by greedy eyes, greedy hands. The space between them is minimal now; Taehyung can see specs of gold in Jeongguk’s eyes, can feel his breath fan against his skin.

With one hand still firmly on his waist, Jeongguk brings his other to Taehyung’s face, knuckles gently brushing against Taehyung’s cheek in an appreciative manner. Taehyung feels himself crumble under the touch, his body willing itself not to melt into the warmth of his hands, his breath. A small brush of his cheek quickly turns into Jeongguk once again tucking strands of hair behind Taehyung’s ear. He smiles to himself when he does so, eyes regarding Taehyung adoringly.

Taehyung notices that Jeongguk takes his time with him, savoring every touch, every small detail of him that requires a careful eye. Desperate to feel, to be closer, Taehyung rests one of his hands at the crook of Jeongguk’s neck, appreciating how thick it is.

His eyes take in the details of Jeongguk that he never allowed himself to indulge in before.

Jeongguk’s lips part then, plump and pretty. When his voice cuts through the tension, it’s thick with desire, sounds more like a low rumble. “Wanna kiss you.”

Taehyung’s response comes in the form of a small nod, his breathing too erratic for him to do anything other than ask with his eyes. Big and pleading, the kind that could get him anything he wants.

And it works.

Jeongguk leans in slowly, gently bringing Taehyung in with his hand, until they bridge the gap, their lips meeting. It’s small, fleeting; just enough to give Taehyung an inkling of what he’s been missing out on. When they part, the tips of their noses brush, only a few seconds passing before their lips are colliding again, slotting together like missing puzzle pieces.

Taehyung melts into his lap, giving greedy hands permission to roam the expanse of his body, down to his ass where Jeongguk gives a light, appreciative squeeze. Taehyung hums in his mouth, circling his arms around Jeongguk’s shoulders.

It doesn’t come as a shock that Jeongguk is as handsy as he is. He’s always liked to feel things out, explore to get a better understanding.

His hands, though—they bring a neediness out of Taehyung, each touch echoed by a sigh that falls into Jeongguk’s mouth. He lets Jeongguk drink him up, becomes pliant under his eyes, his mouth, his hands.

“Fuck,” Taehyung hisses, feeling a warm hand creep under his shirt. It’s euphoric. Having Jeongguk touch him in places he never thought he’d have him is enough to ignite the brewing heat in his stomach, his need for me taking over. He shudders when a finger grazes his nipple. “Want you.”

A breathless chorus of, “Me too, me too,” spills from Jeongguk’s mouth.

On instinct, Taehyung sinks into his lap, grinding, when Jeongguk’s mouth finds the junction between his neck and collarbone. His skin feels electric to the touch. He feels adored.

Jeongguk’s mouth climbs up the column of his neck, sealing each spot with a sweet kiss, trailing all the way up until he’s at his jaw, and then his mouth. Taehyung moans at the feeling of Jeongguk’s tongue inviting itself into his mouth, a persistent finger brushing against his nipple. He’s sensitive, so sensitive to every small and insignificant touch, each one more deliberate than the last. When he takes a moment to catch his breath, his head lolls back, Jeongguk’s hands feeding into every latent desire.

It’s not long after that, when he’s panting into Jeongguk’s mouth and feeling his hands become increasingly greedy, that he whispers, “Take me to bed.”

He squeals when Jeongguk stands then, his strong hands finding purchase, gripping the backs of Taehyung’s thighs that wrap around his middle. The journey to the bedroom isn’t without its difficulties. In between kisses, Taehyung instructs him through the hallway, yelping when Jeongguk trips over a stray shoe, almost causing them to fall into a mess of limbs on the floor. They giggle into each other’s mouths.

Once they cross into the bedroom, though, their giggles turn into sighs, moans. They fall onto the bed with Taehyung still wrapped around Jeongguk’s middle. He wants nothing more than to rid both of them of their clothes, desperate to feel Jeongguk’s warm skin flush against his.

In the end, Jeongguk takes the initiative to undress them both. His clothes come off without reluctance, body toned and slim as the waist. Taehyung’s eyes indulge in the sight, lapping up the way the early morning casts shadows along his torso, defining his abdomen even more. Jeongguk’s hands are impatient, clumsy in a way that shows he’s still familiarising himself with this recent discovery of his. He fumbles with the button and zipper of Taehyung’s jeans, but something about it makes him want Jeongguk more.

A lot can be said about how dark Jeongguk’s eyes grow when Taehyung is spread naked on the bed. They become inky pools of want, dragging up and down his body in a way that makes Taehyung feel appreciated, scrutinised. He’s never felt eyes on him like this before, eyes that take their time to roam every expanse of skin. His hands are just as appreciative, landing on his hips after having felt out every dip, every soft plain of skin.

Their hands are greedy with the need to understand each other’s bodies.

They take things slowly.  Not many words are exchanged when Jeongguk’s fingers slip into him, just the sound of their hot breaths against skin, their mouths busy making up for lost time. Taehyung whines when Jeongguk’s finger becomes two, and then three. His head falls back against the pillow when Jeongguk’s mouth trails down his neck, nipping at the thin layer of skin.

Brought close to the edge with just fingers, Taehyung locking his own around Jeongguk’s wrist, tugging. He whines, “Need you. Need—”

Jeongguk nods furiously, understanding. He removes his fingers, sucking on Taehyung’s bottom lip while he strokes his own cock, complying when an out of breath Taehyung tells him to reach into the drawer for a condom.

Taehyung whimpers when he feels Jeongguk’s cock tease him at first, the head brushing against his entrance slowly. He hasn’t felt heat rush over him like this before. The fire that sits wanton in his stomach becomes increasingly hard to ignore when Jeongguk begins to brush past his entrance, his cock slick with lube they found at the back of Taehyung’s bedside table.

The seconds it takes for Jeongguk to be fully in him feel excruciatingly long. Every inch sees Taehyung become increasingly desperate, his small whines filling the room, his hands frantically feeling around Jeongguk’s body for purchase.

“Please, Jeongguk—yes,” he groans, digging crescents into the skin of Jeongguk’s back when he finally pulls out, snapping his hips back into him. Jeongguk works up a rhythm from there, burying his small gasps into Taehyung’s mouth, his neck.

Somewhere along the way, their hands find each other; Jeongguk’s hand clasping Taehyung’s on the bed sheets. They whisper strings of murmurs against each other’s skin, neither of them saying much else. There’s no pretense behind it, no overzealous dirty talk or instructions thrown at the other. They lap up each thrust, each stolen kiss and broken cry.

Taehyung shudders when he feels Jeongguk’s eyes on him as they both start to teeter close to the edge, determination set in the way his eyebrows furrow. His eyes widen when he watches Jeongguk spit into his palm, hand snaking between their bodies. He begins to pump Taehyung’s neglected cock, eyes unmoving.

When they come undone, Jeongguk collapses on top of him, his body sticky with sweat. Jeongguk’s hair falls in his eyes, sticking to his cheeks. A sheen of sweat adorns the highest points of his face. Taehyung looks up at him, already finds his dark, now-lazy eyes on him. He reaches a hand out to push wet strands of hair behind Jeongguk’s ear, the two of them giggling when his gesture turns out to be futile.

Too blissed out to move, Taehyung lets Jeongguk clean his belly with his shirt that was carelessly tossed to the floor. If it was anyone else, he would find it disgusting, would force himself to take a quick shower. He doesn’t mind right now, though, enjoys how hot to the touch he feels, his body glistening.

Jeongguk eventually flops over to the unoccupied part of the bed, lying on his side to face Taehyung. He turns to his side, too, bravely hooking a leg over Jeongguk’s, earning a half-smile from him. They’re still touching, their skin practically flush even with this new position. Taehyung melts into the touch when Jeongguk’s thumb begins mapping out his face, moving slowly from his temple to his jawline, to Taehyung’s mouth where he gently kisses the pad of his thumb.

It’s as if he’s trying to map out Taehyung’s features so that he won’t forget how they look in the afterglow. The gesture is only small but it feels intimate, Jeongguk’s hands paying special attention to the parts of Taehyung no one else ever has.

Taehyung smiles, small. His eyes turn glassy, the sight of Jeongguk lying opposite him; it’s something delicate, something he’s scared to reach out and touch. He wonders if Jeongguk can spot how his smile barely curves.

He does, tracing it with his thumb.

“What is it? What’s wrong?” Jeongguk pouts, eyes round in worry.

The floodgates open.

“I hope—I,” he stammers, feeling Jeongguk’s fearful eyes fall heavy on him. He tuts, gently cupping one half of Taehyung’s face in his hand, the pad of this thumb pressing against the corner of his eye, wiping tears away. “I hope I don’t wake up to find that this was all a dream.”

Jeongguk furrows his brow in confusion, still holding his face in his hand, his thumb now brushing against the shell of Taehyung’s ear, soothing. He leans in, catching Taehyung in a tender kiss, one without any heat behind it. Taehyung knows his lips are wet, salty. Jeongguk doesn’t seem to mind.

The kiss feels real, even if Jeongguk’s lips feel suspiciously soft, dream-like.

When he pulls away, Taehyung blinks his eyes open, catches sight of Jeongguk’s. They’re red, a few tears clumping his coal lashes. His eyes, wet, resemble a starry night sky, dragging every bit of light into them. Taehyung finds his hand, squeezing it.

Jeongguk offers some reassurance. “I promise I’ll be here when you wake, with every memory of the night still fresh in my mind.”

For some reason, he believes him, and would probably blindly believe anything he told him at this point. Jeongguk frees his hand, sends shocks through Taehyung’s body when he feels the warmth of it against the back of his neck, gently bringing him closer. He finds himself nestled in his chest, his senses kicking in when he soaks up Jeongguk’s musky smell that cuts through the saltiness.

It’s enough for now.

Time eventually catches up with them. Not many more words are exchanged, their greedy, curious hands from before having now found a spot on the other’s body to rest for a while. Jeongguk’s hand rests gently on Taehyung’s waist, his index finger drawing small circles into the soft skin. Taehyung feels his eyes grow heavy, Jeongguk’s hand anchoring him to the bed. They both fight to keep their eyes open, and it works for a while; but in the end, they’re both too satiated from the night.

Taehyung falls asleep that morning with a small, lopsided smile on his face. Unbeknownst to him, Jeongguk presses a kiss into his shoulder before falling into slumber, too.

Waking up at midday plastered to another body isn’t something Taehyung has experienced in a while. Most of his hookups involve him running out the front door with a poor excuse to avoid pillow talk, or tiptoeing across creaky floors before sunrise.

So when he had opened his eyes that afternoon, quick to find a familiar face cuddled against him, with their mouth hung open, it took a few moments for last night’s memories to unravel in his mind.

Now, they sit cross-legged on the floor of his living area eating hotteok. Their bare knees touch, both men stealing glances at the other when they can. It feels a lot like being seventeen and eating breakfast together at the table with Taehyung’s mother. She would always prepare them breakfast on a Saturday morning, waking them up with the smell of eggs and meat.

A lot sits heavy on Taehyung’s mind while they eat. Conversation had been flowing surprisingly well so far, light and easy. It felt like waking up to a lover; with sloppy morning-breath kisses and cold, bare feet touching. They had already skipped the awkward stage of the intimacy only existing to be followed up with sex. Even when Jeongguk woke, rubbing his eyes with his fists, he didn’t flinch at the skin-on-skin contact. If anything, he leaned into it more, basking in the shared body heat.

However, neither of them were yet to comment on what happened the night before, both of them skirting around it, waiting for the other to approach it first. Taehyung has spent the better half of an hour waiting for Jeongguk to bring it up, even off-handedly. He doesn’t.

The question hangs in the air, along with all the other ones Taehyung thought up over breakfast. He starts off there, telling himself he’ll lead up to his big question, the one that sits the heaviest on his mind.

He waits until breakfast is over. Somehow, in between clearing off their plates and brushing their teeth—Taehyung always keeps a spare toothbrush at the back of his cabinet—they end up back in bed, this time with the covers pulled over them.

They talk about nothing for a little while, back and forth chatter about recent movie releases and bad fashion trends, Taehyung offering some little anecdotes about funny instances at the bar. Jeongguk talks a bit about Busan, the friends he’s made while living there. With how easy the conversation flows, he doesn’t feel anxious about digging deeper into everything he’s missed out on.

“It must have been hard having to essentially start over.”

“It was, yeah,” he confirms, playing with Taehyung’s fingers. “I couldn’t like, pick up where I left off and go back to college. I had to rebuild a lot of my skills, hone them. A lot of the things my parents told me I loved, I didn’t find myself enjoying. So for a while, I forced myself to enjoy doing certain things just because I felt like I had to be the Jeongguk that everyone loved and missed.”

Taehyung thinks about how he struggled with his identity, forced himself into a lot of uncomfortable situations to fit into a mould he thought people would want for him. His formative years were spent feeling like an outsider, desperately trying to fit in. Adolescence was a string of uncomfortable moments, forced smiles, suppression, and doubt about who he could be and who he wanted to be.

Everything Jeongguk admits to dealing with, echoes the struggles a younger Taehyung had to face. Both of them confused about their place in the world, what role they had to play, who they had to be.

If there’s anything Taehyung has learned over the years, it’s that he has to march to the beat of his own drum if he wants to ever feel like there’s a place for him. He gave up on trying to fit in a long time ago. Jeongguk being here now tells him that he gave up on that idea, too.

“When my mum died, it’s kinda like the façade died with her,” he continues. “I know it sounds cruel but it felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. Like, yeah, I dealt with it badly and grieved a lot but in the process of grieving, I found myself.”

“And who did you find?”

Jeongguk smiles warmly, says, “I found this guy who didn’t fuckin’ know anything. He was a bit aimless, too many passions to pursue just one.” Taehyung giggles, leaning in to plant a kiss to Jeongguk’s cheek. It feels natural to do, and Jeongguk smiles, flustered, but continues. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do or what direction I wanted to go in. I knew I liked writing and I still enjoyed picking up a camera and filming things, but trying to find a distinction between what I wanted to pursue and what felt cathartic and healing was hard.”

“My dreams became smaller. I wanted to get my motorcycle license since I was too afraid to get in a car, so I got a job working in a café and saved up to buy one while I took the test. I wanted to become a better writer and so I took a few creative writing class. I’m working on the dreams I have now because, quite frankly, I don’t know what else life is going to throw at me. I could get into another car crash tomorrow and wake up to find that I have no memories to hold onto. Or worse—I could not wake up at all. I know it’s a cynical way to live but I’ve realised I need to do what feels right in the moment and not worry too much about the future. I have a feeling the old me probably spent way too much time worrying about the future.”

“Yeah,” Taehyung chuckles, blindsided by everything Jeongguk says. He sounds so sure of himself, something the old Jeongguk never was. It’s refreshing to hear. “Yeah, he definitely did.”

Taehyung pipes up again, his mind stuck on one detail. “How…,” he trails off, hesitant to approach the topic. “How did she die?”

His expression doesn’t fall. “She was having difficulties with her heart.”

Taehyung squeezes his hand, sends him a sympathetic smile.

He remembers back to a night when they were lying on Taehyung’s bed. Jeongguk had turned up at his front door, shaking and crying, asking if he could stay the night. It was during one of Taehyung’s mother’s night shifts, and at the time, Taehyung was glad she wasn’t home to witness the state Jeongguk was in. Vivid memories of his red, puffy eyes and swollen nose flash in his mind. Jeongguk was never one to shy away from his emotions, at least not in the physical symptoms. He would cry when he needed to cry, but that didn’t always mean he wanted to talk about why he was crying.

That night, Taehyung had wished he was the type to talk. He was never able to get Jeongguk to open up about the details. All he knew was that there was a fight with his mother, one that resulted in Jeongguk slamming the front door behind him and running straight to Taehyung’s.

Something Jeongguk said that night pushes itself to the forefront of his mind.

“I love my mum but that doesn’t mean I like her. Just like how she loves me… but doesn’t like certain things about me that I can’t change.”

They don’t say anything more on the subject, Taehyung directing the conversation elsewhere. They get to talking about Jeongguk’s accident, something that Taehyung learns wreaked havoc on both of their minds for a long time. He asks if he remembers anything from that day; a silly question, but he’s still wrapping his head around the retrograde amnesia. Jeongguk tells him that his memories of his childhood are still intact and that he’s able to form and retain new memories, but that’s it. Listening to Jeongguk talk about his recovery is eye-opening. A lot of therapy was involved, and even though his motor skills were left unharmed, there was a lot he had to relearn.

Taehyung realises how little he’s done to help himself move on, to cope in healthy ways. While Jeongguk bravely recovered from a head injury, Taehyung was reluctant to tackle the points of pain. Avoidance was his way of self medicating. He doesn’t express as much to Jeongguk, just tells him that he thinks he’s strong for everything he’s been through.

He mulls over everything else in his head, mentally ticks off everything they’ve managed to cover in the last almost-two hours spent talking in bed. There’s still something that niggles at his mind, though. Even more now.

“When did you realise that you were…?” He doesn’t finish his question, trailing off at the last word. Quite frankly, he doesn’t know what word to use.

Jeongguk’s mouth curls into a smirk. “Gay?”

“Yeah, that,” Taehyung shyly confirms, momentarily casting his gaze down to their hands.

“I don’t think gay is the word. I think,” he pauses, jutting his bottom lip out. He looks to be thinking, searching for the right word. “I think I remember someone telling me the word I feel is bisexual or something like that.”

Taehyung perks up, recognising the word. “Oh, yeah! When you like more than just one gender, right? I think I read about that on a few forums.”

“That’s it,” Jeongguk smiles lazily, his top lip quirking. “You might laugh when I tell you how I realised.”

“I would never!” Taehyung exclaims, gasping in mock offence. He nudges his cold foot against Jeongguk’s. “Come on, tell me. I think it’s already obvious how I realised.”

“When I started looking into you, and like, digging deeper and watching the videos and stuff, I became a bit… I don’t want to say obsessed because that doesn’t paint a pretty picture, but I was intrigued and invested.”

Taehyung loses his breath somewhere in the middle.

“And then I saw you behind the bar for the first time, and everything was amplified. I ended up at a 24-hour Internet café, searching for online forums. I knew I felt something but I didn’t really understand it and I knew I couldn’t turn to anyone.”

Taehyung resonates with his words, having felt that same loneliness of having no one to turn to about such an integral part of himself. He’s since found a circle of friends that he can see reflections of himself in. A big part of him hopes that maybe one day Jeongguk will merge into his circle.

“I found some gay bars in Seoul while I was surfing the web. A week later, I came back through to Seoul with the intention of maybe talking to you, but I panicked and ended up at one of the gay bars on a total whim.”

Taehyung clutches his hand tighter, thinks that maybe doing so will help Jeongguk to know that he isn’t alone in this.

He listens attentively as Jeongguk continues, his voice pleasant and soft, perfect for storytelling. “I was so out of my depth,” he laughs, shaking his head. “I still am in a way. I hadn’t ever seen two guys kiss in person, but that night opened me up to a lot of things. There was a group of guys and girls, some of them expats, who invited me over to their table.”

“I bet you looked as lost as you felt,” Taehyung comments, earning bubbly laughter from Jeongguk. He feels a leg hook over his, the action causing him to jolt, before settling into the contact. They’re close, even now; with their bodies tangled, body language open and inviting, but only for each other.

“I must have because they took me under their wing that night, answered every silly question I had.”

“Did you… meet any nice boys?”

“No, no,” he shakes his head, laughing. “I just kept thinking about this one guy from some jazz bar I went to.”

“He must be some guy,” Taehyung beams, playing along.

Rolling his eyes, Jeongguk says, “I think he’ll do for now.”

The back and forth goes on for a while, neither of them backing down from an opportunity to tease the other. Taehyung feels good about things, as premature as they are. Jeongguk doesn’t try to sneak away or find excuses to leave, the two of them too caught up in each other to spare a thought to the rest of the world. They kiss more, let their mouths do the rest of the talking; both of them forgetting about the loaded conversations or the hows and whys.

Jeongguk somehow makes it through the excruciating phone call with Jimin, which ends up on loudspeaker much to Taehyung’s embarrassment. His questions are invasive, explicit. Shy is all he feels, unable to indulge Jimin in the details he wants. Jeongguk watches in amusement, poking Taehyung’s cheeks when they turn bright in colour.

The way they’re able to feel so comfortable with each other, completely stripped back from everything, brings a sense of relief to Taehyung. He had always wondered what would happen if he saw Jeongguk again—if they would walk through life as strangers, two people passing each other in the street, maybe exchanging smiles. Seoul was big enough that they could have gone their whole lives without crossing paths again, and with Jeongguk in Busan, their chances of bumping into each other became even smaller. On his worse days, he imagined never seeing him again. Imagined his memory of Jeongguk’s face fading, his features no longer his features. He’s heard stories about how your memory slowly loses the small details of a person, replacing them with puzzle pieces that don’t quite fit. Sure, he had the polaroids to look back on, but it wasn’t the same as having someone’s face, moving, locked into your memories.

Now, though, he likes to think that they would have met again, even without Jeongguk’s discovery or curiosity. He imagines them meeting on accident, with Jeongguk having no prior knowledge of him. They would lock eyes, find themselves suspended in time, and maybe that’s all it would take. A meet-cute much like the innocent one they had when they were kids, that point in time where two strangers become tethered.

It’s easy to believe that fate has played its part, bringing them together under the worst circumstances, and despite life’s curveballs.

One month later

“Jeongguk! I’m going to fall. I’m—” is all he manages to say before he’s falling back, his ass landing on the cold, wet ice. He huffs, feeling defeated after so many failed attempts.

“Come, let me help you,” Jeongguk sniggers, reaching out a glove-clad hand. He stands proud, his balance unfaltering, like this is something he’s done a thousand times before. And well, it is, but not since his accident. He’s technically a beginner again—all of his previous skills and technique should be too rusty. Taehyung doesn’t know how he manages to make it look like it’s second nature to him.

Taehyung lets him pull him up, steadying himself with a hand gripping Jeongguk’s shoulder. Once finding his footing, Jeongguk clamps a hand around his, slowly guiding him to the sidelines where the less confident skaters are. They weave through people bundled up in thick, knitted scarves and long woolen coats. December came in thick and fast, forcing everyone into thermals and bobble hats.

They’re expected to have a white Christmas, something Taehyung hasn’t experienced since 1992. Jeongguk is just as enthusiastic about snowball fights as he was back then, when he was seventeen and firm in his belief that snowball fights would become a recognised extreme sport, with him as the reigning world champion. Taehyung always laughed along, agreed, knowing full well he’d be eating the snow if he were to doubt Jeongguk’s title of being the best.

He doesn’t hold onto that belief now, but he does still manage to throw snowballs at Taehyung with a precision that has him taking hit after hit.

Being unapologetically skilled, and with a natural flair, doesn’t stop at the snowball fights, though. Taehyung lets himself be guided around the rink by Jeongguk, his beginner’s confidence teetering on the edge of becoming cocky. He glides along the slippery ice, an unsure Taehyung falling behind.

“I’m gonna come behind you, okay?” informs Jeongguk, his hands finding Taehyung’s waist through the layers of clothing.

He already feels more secure, preferring this over having only a hand to guide him. He doesn’t even care that people are watching them, choosing only to pay mind to the feeling of having Jeongguk’s arms safely around him, like a warm blanket. From behind, Jeongguk plants a small, cold kiss to his temple, sending shivers down Taehyung’s spine.

“I hope you know we’re spending our next date on concrete,” he announces, condensation clouding around his words from how chilly the evening is.

Jeongguk chuckles against him, guiding them further into the rink. “I’ll make it up to you with hot chocolate and a walk around the light festival.”

“I think that should cover all the damages,” he says, easily swayed by Jeongguk’s offer.

This is their third date, although to call it their third is to ignore how much time they’ve spent together since that night last month. In between work, most of their time has been spent with each other, with Jeongguk more often than not sitting by the bar at Taehyung’s workplace waiting for him to get off.

They fall into a natural routine of things, spending more time together than any two people usually would after discovering a mutual interest in each other. It might have something to do with the fact that they’ve technically known each other for much longer than a month, but Taehyung thinks that things would be this way even without that detail.

Nothing has been made official yet, but it feels as if there’s already an understanding between the two of them that this thing they have going on, isn’t something fleeting or to pass the time.

For their first official date, they spent an afternoon roaming the secondhand bookstore near Taehyung’s work, their fingers dancing along weathered spines, their eyes meeting in between bookcases. Taehyung insisted on buying Jeongguk a book on Japanese poetry, only later discovering that he had spent the last two years learning Japanese with a tutor. With their pinkies touching under the table of a cute café a little later on, their first official date had felt like an overwhelming success. It had rained hard that day, but it didn’t dampen their spirits. They laughed over warm drinks, listened to the rain in comfortable silence while they flicked through the pages of a book Taehyung brought along. They walked back to Taehyung’s apartment in the early evening. Huddled under an umbrella, they felt close and like nothing could touch them or this.

A trip through to Busan was where their second date took them, with Jeongguk showing Taehyung around, taking him to all of his favourite spots. He shared anecdotes about each place, letting Taehyung in on the more intricate happenings of the last few years. They snapped a few pictures down by the beach; their noses red and sore, neither of them having estimated how strong the winds would be. Jeongguk had put his and Taehyung’s hand in the deep pocket of his winter coat, clasped together tightly. The entire date brought them closer together, found them eating ice cream in freezing temperatures, made Taehyung flirt with the idea of renewed love.

Both dates chipped away at any questions he still had, making way for curiosity, the kind of curiosity he’s missed having for someone. He no longer feels as if he’s having to catch up with the last few years. Instead, he’s happy to let things run their course, learn the ins and outs along the way.

“Jeongguk! I swear to god—” Jeongguk comes from behind him, sticking his tongue out mischievously as he glides ahead, watching Taehyung clamber back to his feet after stumbling due to losing Jeongguk’s support. “When we get off this ice, I’m gonna throw snowballs down your back!” he broadcasts, stumbling back onto his ass when he fails to steady himself on the skates.

Jeongguk’s laughter follows him around the rink. Taehyung does his best to appear genuinely mad, but he drops the act when Jeongguk approaches, the right blade of his skate digging into the ice, his cockiness landing him on his ass after a few failed seconds of his legs scrambling to keep him upright.

Four months later

After four months of dating, Jeongguk moves in. He somehow ends up with a job at the bookstore where they spent their first date. Taehyung knew that some might find it premature, with most people they know not taking this step for at least a year. However, it was a step that made sense for them. The two-hour drives before and after work, and phone bills they were racking up, took a toll on both of them. Jeongguk had mentioned that nothing was keeping him in Busan; his dad having remarried and no longer needing him to stick around as much.

And so the decision to move into Taehyung’s apartment was an easy one.

Their first night together in their apartment is spent playing board games, watching a rented movie that they soon realise comes without subtitles, and feeding each other with their fingers.

In between sticky fingers and small bickering over who won which game, Taehyung feels like he finally has everything he wants.

Or well—almost everything.

One year later

“Oh, god. Let me,” Jeongguk laughs, pulling Taehyung closer by the hips.

Taehyung obliges but not without pouting. “It’s not good?”

Tutting, Jeongguk says, “It’s crooked.”

He adjusts the bow tie for him, concentration knitting his brows. His hair falls into his eyes while he does so. Taehyung watches the sight, chuckles to himself when he thinks back to the last time Jeongguk had to do this for him. The parallels, even now, make him laugh.

History has a funny way of repeating itself.

“What’s so funny, hm?” Jeongguk quizzes, narrowing his eyes. A smile breaks through, a corner of his mouth quirking. He straightens up, smoothing his hands over the lapels of Taehyung’s blazer. “Perfect.”

He’s looking at Taehyung’s suit while he says it, but Taehyung knows he’s talking about him. He doesn’t get tired of the way Jeongguk makes such off-handed compliments, seemingly unaware of the effect they have on him.

He smiles at his boyfriend, tucking dark strands of hair behind his ear so he can see him better. Jeongguk’s hair is even longer now; Taehyung swoons at the mere sight of him. “Nothing, just remembered something funny.”

His name is called then, a man’s head peeking out from behind the black floor-to-ceiling curtains. “Kim Taehyung? You’re up next.”

Taehyung turns to nod, gulping. He wipes his sweaty palms down the black slacks he’s wearing. Jeongguk’s hands appear on his shoulders, giving a gentle, reassuring squeeze.

“You can do this, okay? You just have to go out there and play with what’s in here,” he says, guiding Taehyung’s hand to rest against where he can feel his heart thumping in its confines. “I know you’re gonna do amazing, my love.”

Taehyung watches him lean forward to plant a small kiss to his head. He feels every bit of tension fall from his shoulders then, his body loosening up. Arms envelop him, squeezing him tightly. Jeongguk hugs with his entire body, always refusing to give up until he knows there’s a smile plastered on Taehyung’s face. This time is no different.

Jeongguk lets go then, shares a secret smile with Taehyung. “I can do this,” Taehyung says, mostly to convince himself.

He spins around on his feet, begins the small walk to the stage, where the spotlight sits heavy. He turns his head to see Jeongguk standing in the same place, gentle eyes still on him. Any lingering doubt or worry disperses when Jeongguk mouths, “I love you.”

It’s taken him almost five years to get to this point, but his dream no longer feels like something stored away in a box, on a shelf too high for him to reach. When Jeongguk received an early acceptance letter to Dongguk University for Creative Writing, it gave Taehyung the necessary push to look into his own options. Until Summer of this year, he had resigned himself to a life of pulling pints of beer and playing covers to a crowd of miserable businessmen.

While he wants to take some credit for himself, there is no denying Jeongguk’s part in all of it. Taehyung wouldn’t be about to take the stage now if he didn’t have even a fraction of belief in himself, but Jeongguk was there to offer the gentle nudge he needed. When their celebrations for Jeongguk’s early admission led them to a karaoke room—a night so reminiscent of one they had spent together many moons ago—the drinks kept coming in until Taehyung had made a confession.

“I wish I could play my piano to a theatre filled with a shit ton of people, but like, people who actually want to see and hear me play,” confesses Taehyung, words slurring. “I want my music to mean something to someone.”

“Your music means something to me,” chimes Jeongguk, Taehyung’s half-lidded eyes creasing at the corners, a shy smile appearing.

He’s loose-tongued, finally admitting to the things that keep him tossing and turning at night. “I just wanna be heard.”

“And what’s stopping you from being heard?”

“I don’t know—fear, I suppose. Rejection. I don’t wanna fail or lose everything all over again,” he confesses, casting his eyes down to his lap. He dips his index finger in his drink, swirling it around the glass, then whispers, “I don’t wanna disappoint.”

“Hey baby, no,” Jeongguk consoles, loosely pulling Taehyung into his touch. “You could never disappoint. If this is something you still want after all these years, you owe it to yourself to finally chase it. You have too much talent to be wasting it on hypotheticals.”

“You don’t think it’s too late?”

“As long as you’re alive, it’s never going to be too late.”

The day he gets the letter through the mail is a Thursday. It had been a nail-biting couple of months stuck in limbo, Taehyung uncertain of what awaited him, his future.

“Open it!” Jeongguk squeals, stomping his feet excitedly from where he’s standing in the living area.

“What if—”

“No what-ifs!” Jeongguk butts in, placing his finger over Taehyung’s mouth to shush him. Taehyung sees him give a stern look, but his eyes soften around the edges when he feels Taehyung jut his bottom lip out, Jeongguk’s finger dropping to make way for his lips on Taehyung’s. He gently murmurs, “Open it, baby,” against his lips.

Shaking hands rip open the envelope, the piece of paper with his acceptance or rejection now only an unfolding away. He unfolds the letter, his eyes flickering back and forth between Jeongguk and the paper. A smile expectant smile sits on Jeongguk’s face.

Scanning over the text, he blurts, “I got in! I—I got accepted to my dream school.”

In one swift motion, he feels himself being swept off his feet, Jeongguk spinning him around. They’re both screaming, rejoicing at the news; big, wet kisses being splattered all across Taehyung’s face and neck.

“I fucking knew it, Tae. I knew you’d get in,” Jeongguk enunciates in between each kiss.

After landing on his feet again, Taehyung looks into Jeongguk’s eyes, sees how glassy they’ve become. His reaction is a reflection of Taehyung’s, both of them in tears. Tears of relief, of happiness, pride. He leaps forward, letting himself be taken by the currents of Jeongguk’s strong arms. “I really did it,” he sobs, melting into the embrace, finally letting himself unfold after months of uncertainty.

“I can’t wait to see your glory days.”

“I can’t wait to spend them with you.”

He thought this moment would never come, that he would spend the rest of his life wondering about the what-ifs. Always too afraid to challenge his fears, too comfortable in a life of mundanity. Routine and self-pity became the shining stars in his life, coaxing him into this idea that every dream he could muster up was only something of a pipe dream.

They both still had their hang-ups, lingering insecurities that required more attention; but for the first time in a long time, nothing was missing from either of their lives. Every puzzle piece made sense, and the only missing pieces were the ones that would fall into place over time. Their picture, while incomplete, painted something pretty; something bountiful in colour and promise.

Their glory days were yet to come, but they were both on the right path to achieving even half of the dreams they conjured up over late nights spent drinking too much chocolate milk and reading comics that made them feel invincible.

They wouldn’t be Jeongguk the famous director and Taehyung the famous movie soundtrack composer, but what they would be is a version of themselves that don’t hold onto maybes and what-ifs.

They could be Tae and Jeongguk, and that would be enough.