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Sold My Soul To The Calling

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Yoongi doesn’t have enough caffeine in him to put up with this.

 

The whole cafeteria is buzzing, humming with a million other teenagers. It’s far too early in the morning for the level of noise in the room. He was up half the night cutting cards for his LD case, which is still woefully underprepared. You’d think after four years he’d know better than to put things off until the last minute, but no, he hasn’t. If anything, he procrastinates more than usual, with the knowledge that a shoddy case won’t spell imminent death if he plays it right.

 

But just because the varsity kids do it doesn’t mean he’ll tolerate when the younger kids slack off. You’ve got to earn the right to be a lazy schmuck!

 

“Yah, cut that out! Don’t you two have a debate to be prepping for anyways?” Yoongi calls over his shoulder at their resident chaos-makers. Taehyung tilts his head back, staring at Yoongi upside-down from where he lies on his back on top of a table. Jimin doesn’t look up from where he’s balancing a random collection of books and office supplies on Taehyung’s stomach. Jimin stacks another legal pad on top of Taehyung.

 

“You don’t need to prep for Public Forum when you’re as cute as us,” Jimin quips. Yoongi huffs, turning back to his computer. Was he this obstinate as a sophomore as well? Sparing a moment from his computer screen and the CNN article he’s supposed to be reading, Yoongi glances towards their youngest recruit. Jungkook sits alone on the opposite of Taehyung and Jimin, idly toying with a paper cup and pen. Yoongi doesn’t know the freshmen very well yet, but he always gets glowing reviews from the judges. There’s just something earnest and honest about the way he debates. 

 

Yoongi is not the biggest fan of change. He likes his strict tournament schedule and his morning coffee and winning. The rookies are not a part of this schedule. Jimin and Taehyung’s plain existence is enough entropy for him for a lifetime, let alone a whole weekend. But Jungkook is different. He takes the events just as seriously as Yoongi does, and that’s something the senior appreciates. Even though he gets swept up in the schemes of the Terrible Two, he’s mature for his age, and a damn good speaker. 

 

A sudden flurry of motion pulls Yoongi out of his meditation. He glances up to see Jin power walking towards the team table, glaring at everyone in his path as he heads directly for Yoongi. People practically dive out of his way. Everyone in the cafeteria knows Kim Seokjin. Kim Seokjin, senior debater and terror of the policy debate circuit. Kim Seokjin is a name you never want to see next to yours on postings. He’s Regina George mixed with Elle Woods dressed in a fitted grey suit, and Yoongi’s best friend. 

 

“Yoongi! You’ll never believe what’s happening!” Jin stops a foot away from where Yoongi sits and plants his hands on his hips. Yoongi raises an eyebrow.

 

“Lemme guess, coach just said you couldn’t compete without a partner.” It’s not an unfounded guess. Jin has a legendary disdain for his debate partners, and it just so happened the unlucky soul paired with him had gotten sick the day of the tournament. Due to the short notice, Jin was allowed to debate in the first round by himself, much to his delight, but apparently the tournament directors put an end to his lone wolf tendencies quickly.  

 

“Yes! Can you believe it? I did just fine in the first round.” Jin seems oblivious to the awed stares he’s getting from the rest of the cafeteria. There’s not a lot of people who can maverick a debate, much less policy. Yoongi’s always admired him for his confidence. It’s turning him on a little, truth be told; not Jin himself,, gross, but his winning streak.

 

“What, so you’re disqualified from policy?” Yoongi asks, a little worried. Jin is one of the best debaters on their team, possibly one of the best in the district. Without him, there’s no way they could make it to state. Jin nods, looking murderous. 

 

“Unless I find some sort of emergency replacement partner in the next half hour before the second round, I’m out of the tournament.” Jin narrows his eyes, glancing around like he’s daring anyone to step forward and volunteer. 

 

“Okay, let’s think through our options,” Yoongi offers placatingly. Jin leans his hip against the table and nods for Yoongi to continue. “From our school, we’ve got me and Namjoon, but we’re doing Lincoln-Douglas, Hoseok but he’s doing Public Forum with Nayeon, Jimin and Taehyung-”

 

“-But we don’t want to do policy, even if we weren’t Public Forum life partners,” Taehyung chimes in, sitting up on his elbows where he still lays on the table. Jimin nods in agreement. 

 

“Yeah, and even if we did policy debate, we’d do it with each other. Jin is…” Jimin hesitates looking for the right word. 

 

“Intense,” supplies Taehyung. Jimin gestures in agreement.

 

“Focused.”

 

“Ambitious.” 

 

“Scary,” finishes Jimin, looking satisfied. Taehyung gives him a fist bump. Yoongi rolls his eyes. 

 

“-Jimin and Tae but they’re obnoxious,” he continues, “and Jungkook.” Yoongi finishes rattling off the team roster. Jin sighs impatiently.

 

“The only person you named that isn’t already in a debate event is a freshmen. You really want to stick a newbie into policy? With me?” Jin looks skeptical. Yoongi shrugs again. 

 

“Not like you have a lot of options right now. All you need is a puppet partner to make the tournament directors happy. Just tell him what to say. At least you’ll still be able to compete.” Jin doesn’t look happy, but he’s smart enough to know his choices. 

 

“You make a good point. So that means…” Everyone at the table turns to stare at Jungkook, who’s still toying with the cup and acting like he can’t hear the current conversation. 

 

“Jungkook!” The boy startles and looks up at Yoongi with wide eyes. “Jin needs a partner for policy debate. I know it’s short notice, but do you think you could take one for the team and step up? He’d tell you what to do and say.” Yoongi feels bad, but the team needs to be competitive, and Jin is their best bet at winning state. Jungkook, to his credit, does not run away screaming. 

 

“I mean, I’ll do it…” He bites his lip, and Yoongi fights the urge to mother hen the kid to death. Jin, however, seems immune to the freshman’s charms and stalks closer brandishing a flashdrive. 

 

“Here’s everything you need to know about immigration to the US. Memorize what an H1B1 is, and then start working on the speech. You’ll be reading the 1NC and the 1NR, and you’ll cross-examine the 2AC. I’ll explain what all that means later.” Jungkook hesitantly takes the flashdrive Jin offers. His eyes are wide but his hands are steady. 

 

“I’ll give it my best shot.” Jin narrows his eyes and scrutinizes the boy.

 

“All you have to do is exactly what I say, and we should have no issues, theoretically. You better not screw this up.” Jungkook shakes his head with enthusiasm. 

 

“I won’t! I won’t let you down!” 

 

“Good.” And with that, Jin spins and saunters off to go terrify innocent high schoolers elsewhere. Jungkook seems frozen in his seat holding the flashdrive. Jin Encounters do tend to have that effect on people. Yoongi claps him on the shoulder. 

 

“Ah, it’s less scary than you think. And remember, when in doubt, connect to nuclear war!”

 

-----

 

A second away from dropping all his files, Namjoon sets the tub down on the floor and stops to catch his breath. He rubs at his lower back, and glares at the over-full container of magazines and printed out news articles. 

 

“Why am I in charge of the evidence tub, huh?” He grumbles to himself. “I’m not even in extemp!” But he already knows the answer: Nayeon is far too tiny to carry it, and Taehyung won’t because he’s off galavanting with Jimin. The only other person in an extemporaneous event is Jin, but Namjoon can’t imagine the haughty debater manhandling the large tub of evidence. So the task has fallen to Namjoon, as their team captain, to lug the container of printed evidence to the extemp room. 

 

“People don’t respect us platform speakers enough,” he complains to the empty hallway, then picks the large plastic box again. Might as well complete his Sisyphean task so he can get back to rehearsing his speech. 

 

“Joonie!” He almost drops the tub again as someone screeches his name from down the hall. Huffing, he sets it back down before turning to face whoever is calling him. Running full tilt at him, tie flung over one shoulder, is Hoseok looking like an excitable mess. 

 

“Jesus, you scared me.” Namjoon almost clutches at his chest like a widow with her pearls, but his hands are full with the tub. Hoseok skids to a halt two feet from Namjoon, grinning madly. 

 

“What’re doing with the evidence tub? Don’t you have a prepared speech this tournament?” Namjoon nods mournfully. “Here,” Hoseok picks up the tub with no visible strain. Oh, how Namjoon envies the people who actually work out.  Namjoon trails alongside Hoseok as they walk down the hall.

 

“Tae’s nowhere to be found and Jin’s throwing a fit because they won’t let him debate solo last I heard,” Namjoon laments to Hoseok on the way to the library. 

 

“I think Jungkook’s gonna be his partner, as a placeholder. They were screeching about it back at the team table,” Hoseok shares in a conspiratorial whisper.  

 

“Oh, what?” Namjoon almost stops in his tracks. He tries to imagine sweet, baby freshman Jungkook trying to debate next to the ambitious, scarily competent Jin. “God, that kid’s gonna get himself killed. Policy’s not very forgiving to beginners.”

 

“I know, right? But Yoongi seems to have some faith in him, so we’ll see how it goes.” Namjoon holds the library door open for Hoseok, who thanks him with a nod. There’s no one else in the library yet, and it’s eerily quiet. Namjoon thinks about liminal space and the power of silence, then also how no one can probably hear Hoseok and he right now and blushes. They make their way to an open table, and Hoseok sets down the tub with a thump.  

 

“Geez, how many copies of The Economist do they have?” Namjoon shrugs. Hoseok exhales, shaking out his arms. “Ugh. Anyways, you’re still coming to Twin Dragon afterwards, right?” Namjoon hums an agreement. 

 

It’s been a tradition since the middle of last year, when Jimin had put his foot down and declared that Denny’s was for high white people, and the local Mongolian barbeque place had much better food anyways. With a mostly Korean team anyways, it was no contest. Twin Dragon has been the designated post-tournament location ever since. Namjoon has a lot of fond memories of those post-tournament meals, when everyone is too tired to take themselves too seriously.

 

“Of course!” he answers, wandering back towards the door alongside Hoseok. “I wouldn’t miss team bonding.” Hoseok grins. He loves it when everyone gets together and has a good time. Every team needs a Hoseok , thinks Namjoon. Someone to keep them focused and the morale high. Someone who cares just as much about team spirit as they do about winning. That no one is left behind or lonely. Hoseok isn’t exactly Team Dad (that title goes to Yoongi, though no one says it out loud) but he’s the team’s center. He’s their glue. 

 

“More like team bondage, if you’ve seen Tae and Jimin recently. You’re positive they aren’t hooking up?” Hoseok asks, curling his lip unattractively. It’s kind of cute, if you ask Namjoon.

 

“Jimin told me they aren’t, though it astounds me as well. Have you seen the two of them debate? It’s like watching a very sexy trainwreck with oratory skills.” They walk back to the cafeteria, where the rest of the teams are congregated. 

 

“Good lord, yeah. And you still haven’t told me about your expos speech.” See, this is why Namjoon likes Hoseok. He never forgets a face and he asks genuine questions. Namjoon loves his speech this tournament; it’s one of the best he’s ever written. He’s poured his soul into “My Mixtape is On Fire and So is Our Planet,” and he hopes the judges find the history of hip hop and global warming just as invigorating as he does. 

 

“I don’t think they got my thesis on youth activism and rap culture,” Namjoon admits. As they round the corner to the cafeteria, the chatter of dozens of other high schoolers grows louder and louder.

 

“Ah, all the judges are a bunch of conservative stewed prunes, don’t worry too much about their opinion. You’re too good of a speaker for them to rank too low anyways.” Hoseok complements earnestly and bluntly. Namjoon blushes again despite himself.

 

“Thanks, man.” As they approach their team table, there seems to be an increase in the chaos. Just as a stack of papers goes flying, there’s a loud screech. Hoseok and Namjoon share a look, then walk faster. His work as team captain is never done, so it seems.

 

------

 

“...A major point our opponent had brought up was the lack of job education in other countries, but there’s a lack of evidence to support the idea that the U.S. has any more of a substantially better education system. You don’t see millions of young adults flocking to trade schools, yet we expect unspecialized labor to be done for us anyways. Another argument I’d like to make is the concept of racial profiling for skillsets-”

 

Taehyung fiddles with his pen, listening to Jimin’s final speech. The round is far from over, both he and their opponents still have speeches to make, but Taehyung’s fairly confident they’ve got this debate round in the bag. Their opponents had opened with an interesting but flawed contention, and Taehyung and Jimin have been hammering them with it ever since. 

 

“-As I’m sure my lovely partner will bring up in his rebuttal speech-”

 

Jimin barely pauses to send a wink Taehyung’s way. With only a minute of his time left, there really isn’t time for Jimin to be flirting, but Taehyung can never not indulge his one and only debate partner. 

 

Their opponents, two very white boys, look a little disturbed by the show of affection. The judge hasn’t even noticed, too busy writing on the ballot. Jimin’s too smart to get caught being unprofessional. In an extracurricular with a whole lot of straight, white cis boys, Taehyung, Jimin and the rest of their team stand out. But that’s just how they like it. 

 

“-And that’s why the affirmative carries today’s motion. Thank you.” Two minutes on the dot, Taehyung has to admit he’s impressed. Most people, including him, go slightly under or over the mandatory speech times, but not Jimin. Jimin tells him it’s because Taehyung doesn’t plan his speeches enough ahead of time. Taehyung says it’s because he has too many ideas for a two minute speech. 

 

Jimin saunters down from the podium, smirking at Taehyung. Taehyung leans back in his seat and blatantly stares at Jimin’s ass appreciatively. Their opponents share a dumbfounded look before their next speaker stands to give his speech. 

 

Now, Taehuyng adamantly stands by the fact that him and Jimin do not cheat. And for all intents and purposes, they follow the rules of Public Forum debate perfectly. But there’s nothing in the rules that says you can’t make bedroom eyes at your debate partner from time to time. The opposing speaker glances over and stumbles over his words before regaining his flow. The judge scribbles a comment. Taehyung hides his smile. 

 

Jimin smacks Taehyung’s shoulder lightly, creasing the material of his dress shirt. 

 

“Stop that!” He hisses, but there’s no venom in his tone. He knows exactly what Taehyung is doing, and he’s a willing accomplice in the plan to dominate Public Forum debate through flirting. 

 

The negation speaker finishes his rebuttal, then it’s grand crossfire, and then the second opposition speaker’s final speech. As second speaker, Taehyung doesn’t get a prepared speech like Jimin does. His job is to respond directly to the specific arguments of their opponents. And as final speaker for his team on the proposition side, he also has the last words of the entire debate round. 

 

Taehyung’s not stupid. He knows that by flirting with Jimin in the middle of the debate, it makes people think they’re, well, easy to beat. Distracted. And ultimately, that’s their superpower. 

 

Taehyung stands and makes his way to the front of the room. He clears his throat, sets his timer, and straightens the papers in front of him. When the judge nods for him to start, he tears into the words written in front of him.

 

“For my final speech today I’d like to go over the major points of contention in today’s debate round and reaffirm why the affirmative has the ballot. First, deconstruction. While bringing up points about job security and education, they failed to address our contention about mechanization and the impact on our economy.” 

 

Taehyung sees their opponents faces pale. Not addressing an argument means the opposing team forfeits on that point. Jin has one rule and one rule only for the debaters: 

 

Always address all of your opponent’s points, even if it’s just to ask questions or concede it. If you don’t bring it up, it’s saying you’re too stupid and scared to come up with a response. Do better. Don’t lose.” 

 

It’s a death sentence for their opponents. 

 

Taehyung continues his speech, bringing attention back to the affirmative’s own case and why they should win. It’s difficult, but he manages to hide his shark-tooth grin. He’s not stupid, and neither is Jimin. Just because their opponents allowed themselves to get distracted by some well-timed winks and suggestive glances doesn’t mean they rely on cheap tactics to get the win. Jimin’s a strong debater, and Taehyung’s not too bad if he says so himself. 

 

Afterwards, they shake hands with their opponents and the judge. They won’t know who won until the quarter-finalists are announced later today. Taehyung makes sure to wink saucily at one of the opposition speakers when he shakes his hand. God, he loves this too much. 

 

As they make their way back to the team table, Jimin chews on his lip. Taehyung nudges his arm with his computer bag. 

 

“What’s up?” 

 

“Do you think we went too far last round?” Jimin keeps his voice low. They’re not in a crowded hallway, but they’re certainly not alone. It’s bad practice to talk about your opponents when they could hear you. 

 

“Nah,” shrugs Taehyung confidently, also keeping his voice soft. “It was only a bit of looking. We’ve gone further in round anyways. Remember when you passed me a sticky note and I said ‘thank you daddy’ out loud?  Or when we handed the other team a flashdrive that contained the file labeled ‘SECRET COMMUNIST PORN’?” Jimin giggles, and gives a sloppy salute. 

 

“Aye comrade, harder!” The last bit is spoken loud enough for a girl passing by to give them a weird look, which only makes Jimin giggle harder. 

 

When Jimin giggles, his cheeks puff up and his eyes disappear. Taehyung feels the urge to kiss Jimin’s puffy cheeks, but it passes quickly. Just a leftover from playing the role of sexual tension, he thinks to himself. 

 

Just pretend.

 

 “How do you think Jungkookie is doing in his first round of Policy debate, with Jin of all people?” Jimin’s question breaks Taehyung’s reverie. 

 

“Honestly? I know everyone’s making a fuss but policy isn’t some impossible concept. And Jungkook’s a good speaker. He’s new but he’s already doing really well. If anyone could keep pace with Jin, it’s him.” 

 

“Good point,” Jimin hums his agreement. “I hope it’s going okay for them.”

 

------

 

Things are not going okay for them. 

 

Jungkook’s trying, he really is. But Jin won’t let him deviate from the rough script he scribbled out for him. He’d tried to tell him during the prep time their opponents had taken;

 

“Jin, I think they’re gonna bring up the Waterford statistics, I read about it in your evidence files, and we don’t have a good defense-”

 

“They won’t,” Jin interrupts abruptly. “The statistics are bogus, everyone knows that. They’re going to talk about artist visas, which we have cards prepared for.” Jin is like an entirely different person in round. He’s intently focused, but not so much as to ignore Jungkook completely. Still, it’s hard to communicate with him when he’s so fixated. Jungkook huffs quietly.

 

“Yeah, but I have a really good idea if they do bring up Waterford-” 

 

“Don’t go off the outline, Jungkook. Stick to our case. You’re doing fine, don’t get cocky.” That’s as much of a compliment as anyone will ever get out of Jin. Jungkook supposes he should be feeling pretty good if he’s not screwing up his first ever policy round, paired with one of the best debaters in the state no less. But there are doubts in his head that won’t ease up. If their opponents do bring up the Waterford statistics, there’s no defense written into Jungkook’s outline. It would leave them sitting ducks. 

 

Jungkook tries to focus on their opponent’s next speech, but he’s too busy thinking up counterpoints. He knows he’s just a newbie to both speech and debate and Policy specifically, but he knows he can help them win. He won’t let Jin down, even if it makes the older debater mad at him. 

 

With an ugly smirk, the opposing speaker rambles on.

 

“And, according to a recent study done by Danish statistician Hans Waterford, he connected an increase in immigration to first world countries to climate change….” 

 

Jungkook resists the urge to elbow Jin and say, “I told you so!” but just barely. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Jin clench his jaw. Jungkook leans over the desk to hurriedly whisper,

 

“I’m the next speaker, I-”

 

“I’ll handle it, Jungkook. Stick to the case.” Jin is furiously writing on his legal pad, sharp letters in sharper red ink. The speed of his thoughts is almost frightening. 

 

Jungkook sets his jaw. He knows that if he doesn’t refute the claim, their opponents will take it and use it to run them over. They’re lose over something stupid like Jin’s bland outline for him.

 

Finally, the speaker takes a seat and leaves the front of the room open for Jungkook. Jin slaps a sticky note onto his already full sheet of paper, hissing one last reminder just to stay on plan. 

 

Jungkook fidgets up at the podium. He’s not used to having control of the whole room yet. He glances between the judge and Jin, who’s still writing with great fervor. He glances at the papers in front of him, all in Jin’s spiky font. He knows what he has to do. 

 

“In today’s debate we take firm support behind the motion ‘The United States federal government should substantially reduce its restrictions on legal immigration to the United States.’ First off, I would like to deconstruct my opponent’s case before reinforcing our own. In response to the Waterford statistics brought up by the previous speaker, I’d like to point out the underlying classism by referring to nations as first, second, or third world countries. We’re not in the Cold War anymore, and there are flaws in categorizing country’s possible success by their chosen economic system. This way of thinking only targets non-white countries and countries that do not support the United States.” 

 

Jungkook is sure Jin is glaring daggers into his head. In fact, he’s surprised he’s still alive and talking for this long. He keeps his eyes on the judge, watching for their reaction.

 

“Secondly, blaming an increase in carbon emissions on a relatively small proportion of all the people who live on this planet fails to see the true root of the majority of these emissions: major corporations sourced outside of the United States but funded by US firms. To say that a group of people, mainly comprised of minorities, is to blame for the state of our earth is in blatant ignorance of the facts; most of climate change comes from the actions of wealthy Americans and Europeans. We have further evidence that claims China and India have cut back on carbon output by…”

 

Jin is truly going to kill him after the round. But he can’t stop now, he’s on a roll. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees their opponents with their heads together, frowning. When he’s done deconstructing, Jungkook switches back to the pre-written outline. Hitting most of the points Jin has given him, including the last minute sticky note, he finishes his speech only fifteen seconds under the time limit. 

 

He almost dreads going back to his side of the room. He hasn’t looked at Jin since he started speaking, too afraid of what he’d see. As he takes his seat, Jin leans over, expression stony. 

 

“We’ll talk about it after.” Then, after a pause, “Good job up there. You killed their argument.” Jungkook hides a smile at the praise and prepares for cross-examination.

 

The rest of the debate goes a little smoother. The climate change evidence isn’t brought up again, but Jungkook does slip in a snide comment about China’s carbon emissions in his final speech. Jin, as usual, is truly a sight to behold when speaking. He’s like lightning, all flash and fire. Untouchable. 

 

At the end, Jungkook really can’t say who won or lost. He just hopes he did his part in keeping their arguments afloat. He packs up all his pens and shoves all the loose papers into his backpack before following Jin out of the room. He feels a bit like a child sent to the principal’s office. 

 

Once in the hallway and away from prying eyes and ears, Jin turns to level Jungkook with an intense stare. Jungkook tries to keep his shoulders below his ears.

 

“So. You decided to ignore my advice and stroke your own ego with a counterplan that you did not run by me before reading it in front of the entire room. You disobeyed me during your first policy round and could have cost us the debate.” Jungkook looks at the floor. He hears Jin sigh above him.

 

“But you saw something I didn’t, and successfully defended our position. For a rookie, you’re very well-spoken and well-informed, and I can’t fault you for that. Sometimes, in round, we have to make choices. Whether good or bad, we have to stand by them for the rest of the debate, which you did. I’m proud of you.” Jin sounds almost pleased. Jungkook looks up to see the older debater studying him with a quirk to his lips. 

 

“You’re...I’m not in trouble?” Jin laughs, walking towards the cafeteria. Jungkook jogs to keep up. 

 

“In trouble for thinking on your feet? No, that’s never a bad thing. I’m not exactly happy you refused to listen to your debate captain, but I suppose the gains outweigh the means.” Jungkook pumps his fist in the air, then holds his arm self-consciously. 

 

“Thanks.” Jin gives him a side-eye, amused at his excitement. 

 

“Don’t get too much of a full head. Your genius plan didn’t result in all rainbows and butterflies. From then on, you made the debate about who could provide a solution for U.S. foreign industry. Did you notice how our opponents switched their tactics right after?” 

 

“Oh.” Jungkook hadn’t thought about it that way. Jin is right, the debate had centered around U.S. economics after his outburst. 

 

“Yeah, I thought so. Just remember that each action has a reciprocating action. As long as you’re prepared for a response, then you’re good.” Jungkook ponders on Jin’s words as they walk. For a first ever round of debate, it hadn’t been terrible. Now, only three more rounds to go before elimination rounds...

 

As they arrive back at the team table, they’re greeted by loud shouts and cheers. Jimin and Taehyung are holding out a muffin with a plastic knife stuck into it instead of a candle. Attached to the knife is a sticky note with the words “Congrats on not dying in your first policy round!” They welcome Jungkook with open arms and loud jeers. Jin finds himself on the sidelines, watching the rest of the team crowd around Jungkook. The freshman looks overwhelmed but happy, answering as many questions as he can and dodging playful hands ruffling his hair. 

 

“How was it?” Yoongi comes up behind Jin, sipping on what must be his third cup of coffee. Jin shifts backwards to see his friend better.

 

“Not as much of a dumpster fire as I thought it would be. The kid’s got potential. All he needs is some discipline.” Yoongi chuckles despite Jin’s serious tone. 

 

“Gave you a run for your money, huh?” 

 

“He said everything I told him not to say and we still didn’t do half bad,” Jin complains. “He went rogue on me.” Yoongi’s grin stretches over his gums. 

 

“You’re just now discovering how good our Jungkookie is at debate, aren’t you? Did you even know his name before today?” Over at the team table, Jungkook laughs loudly as he takes a bite of the stabbed muffin. 

 

“I just wasn’t overly familiar with his debate record. I knew who he was!” Jin protests, crossing his arms defensively. Yoongi lays a hand on his shoulder.

 

“I’m just teasing you, dude. I know the underclassmen are a little wild.” As Yoongi speaks, they watch Taehyung unsuccessfully attempt to balance an Oreo on his nose while Jimin shrieks of laughter and Jungkook continues to enjoy his muffin. 

 

“Tell me about it.” 

Chapter Text

“We’re gonna miss awards! Hurry up!” Jimin calls over the stall door. He hears the sound of a zipper and a belt being buckled, before the toilet flushes and a harried looking Namjoon appears. 

 

“Give me a minute, they’re still doing command performances.” Jimin leans against the tile wall as Namjoon washes his hands, the sleeves of his dress shirt unbuttoned and rolled halfway to his elbow. They’re all a little rumpled in their nice clothes after a long day of running around and arguing. Jimin watches his own reflection in the mirror, absently fixing the collar of his jacket. 

 

“It’s a shame your expos speech didn’t get a command. It’s pretty good.” Jimin’s voice echos off the walls. Namjoon shakes the water from his hands and turns to smile sheepishly at Jimin. 

 

“Thanks! I really like it too.” Namjoon’s cheeks color, though his words aren’t flustered. He always did blush so easily. Pushing himself off the wall, Jimin checks his appearance one last time in the bathroom mirror and heads back to the cafeteria with Namjoon. 

 

They don’t talk enough, Jimin decides. Namjoon’s usually running around doing Lincoln-Douglas debate while Jimin is competing in Public Forum with Taehyung. Namjoon’s a year older, but he doesn’t talk down to the sophomores and freshmen. He’s got a strange sense of humor and an introspective manner. Jimin likes that Namjoon stops to listen to the world. 

 

“You should try an acting event, like a Duo. I think you’d do really well with more dramatic pieces.” Jimin would know, he does the acting events. Currently, along with PF debate, he’s running a Dramatic Interpretation script, in which he lays on a table and wails rather loudly about an unfaithful lover. It’s very enjoyable. 

 

“You really think I’d be good at that stuff?” Namjoon looks shyly through his eyelashes at Jimin. The younger nods. 

 

“Yeah, you have great character when you give regular speeches. You just have to be a bit more wacky, and boom, you’ve got an acting script.” By now, they’ve made it to the auditorium where everyone else is already sitting, waiting for awards to begin. Namjoon, ever the gentleman, holds open the doors for Jimin. 

 

“I’ll keep that in mind,” he tells Jimin in a hushed voice as they find their seats with the rest of their team. It’s in between command performances, and there’s a low buzz of chatter running through the room. Nayeon and Hoseok are on Snapchat, cackling over someone’s story. Taehyung is still teasing Jungkook about his trial run at Policy debate, poking the younger in the ribs and scuffing up his hair. Next to him, Jin keeps his composure as he scrolls through his phone, ignoring the chaos nearby. Yoongi pats the seat on his other side, beckoning Namjoon to sit next to him. Jimin predictably goes to sit by Taehyung, easily swept up into Taehyung’s personal hurricane. 

 

“Are you ready for awards?” asks Yoongi, his fingers tapping nervously along the seam of his slacks. Namjoon shrugs with one shoulder. 

 

“I think I did okay. What about you? You’re the one who made it to LD semi-finals.” 

 

“Yeah, but not to finals. I just want above fourth place, you know?” Namjoon nods.  Jimin leans over both Jungkook and Jin to hiss at Yoongi and Namjoon, 

 

“Shhh! Awards are starting!” And indeed, the lights are dimming ever so slightly. The room goes dead silent, quite an accomplishment for 300-plus teenagers who voluntarily do public speaking. 

 

An older man steps onto the stage. He thanks them all for coming to the tournament and giving their best effort. Yoongi snorts quietly, and Namjoon grins. He knows Yoongi’s thinking about all the last-minute research that was done on the bus. Best effort, sure. 

 

The awards ceremony progresses with the debate awards coming last after the speech and acting awards. Jin places first in his extemp speech event, and holds his chin high as he’s handed the certificate. He always does well, but Yoongi knows Jin’s perpetually nervous about his performances. He’s proud of his friend. 

 

Namjoon places second with his expos speech. As he stands on stage, he mouths “My mixtape!” back at Hoseok. Hoseok gives him a thumbs up back. The team cheers loudly as Namjoon accepts his certificate, dimples on full display. 

 

Back in his seat, Namjoon can see Yoongi digging his nails into his palm, the tension mounting. He nudges Yoongi gently. The older debater shoots an anxious glance at Namjoon.

 

“It’ll be okay, promise. Whatever happens,” Namjoon promises. 

 

Finally, the old man onstage gets to the debate events. The man onstage calls for all Lincoln-Douglas semi-finalists to come to the stage, and Yoongi stands on stiff legs. Namjoon knows Yoongi fairly well, after three years on the same team. He knows as a senior, Yoongi expects more of himself than anyone else. Namjoon shuts his eyes for half a second and wishes for only good things. 

 

Just above fourth, just above fourth...

 

“And in third place, uh, Yun-Yoongi Min from-” The rest of the moderator’s words are drowned out by the loud whoops from the team. Yoongi smiles politely as he’s handed his award, shaking the tournament director’s hand firmly. When he makes his way back to his seat, Jin gives him a high five. Namjoon jostles him as he sits back down. 

 

“I told you it’d be okay!” Yoongi elbows him back, but smiles widely. Jimin leans back over the seat to congratulate Yoongi. 

 

“Hey, nice! They always pronounce your name wrong, huh?” Yoongi nods resignedly. 

 

“One year,” snickers Namjoon, “They called for a Yugi Min-eh.” Yoongi groans as Jimin gasps in exaggerated shock. 

 

The next award is for Public Forum. Hoseok and Nayeon place fourth overall, sharing a hug onstage to the audience’s delight. Nayeon may only be a sophomore, but she’s a persuasive debater and very pushy when she wants to be. Hoseok’s helping to teach her, the two making a solid team to contend with. 

 

Taehyung and Jimin don’t place within the top three teams, but Taehyung does win fifth place speaker in Public Forum debate. The loudest person cheering is Jimin, by far. 

 

Finally, at long last, they get to Policy debate. The entire team seems to lean forward in their seats. Jin has his eyes closed, whispering something to himself. Jungkook is gripping the armrests of his seat, chewing his lower lip. 

 

“And for Policy debate, in third place is Jungkook Jeon and Jin Kim.” The room erupts, or maybe it’s just their team’s gross overreactions. Jin and Jungkook are hoisted to their feet and shoved towards the stage. Jungkook’s eyes are wider than a dinner plate, and Jin looks more surprised than anything. 

 

Namjoon, like the rest of the team, is on his feet. Everyone else in the auditorium is giving them strange looks; third place is not the largest award of the night. But Namjoon’ll be damned if he treats this like anything less than an Olympic gold medal of an achievement. There is strength in taking pride in your team. 

 

Jin and Jungkook shake the moderator’s hand amid the noise, then walk back to their team. Jungkook gets practically tackled by the underclassmen and Hoseok. Yoongi and Namjoon don’t quite show the same level of physicality to Jin, but the smile Yoongi gives him is worth more than a dozen hugs. 

 

The rest of the ceremony passes in a blur. Awards are handed out, and the moderator tells them to have a safe drive home. The team bursts out of the auditorium in a flurry of noise. Jungkook has his paper certificate clutched to his chest, crinkling the edges of the paper. 

 

In a haze, they pack up their computers and coats and troop onto the bus that will take them back to their high school.  Once back at the school, they climb into their respective cars, or into the cars of the people willing to give rides, and head to Twin Dragon Mongolian barbeque and buffet. It’s a tradition to eat out together after a tournament, and Jungkook is eager to participate for the first time. 

 

Late into the evening, when the food is long gone and all complaints about ballots and awards have been spoken, Taehyung raises his half-full glass of root beer. 

 

“Here’s to making it to state championships!” 

 

“Here here!” The team toasts each other, Hoseok accidentally spilling his lemonade all over Yoongi’s lap. Jimin falls out of his chair laughing, and Namjoon chokes on a piece of beef. All in all, it’s a good way to end the second tournament of the year.

 

-----

 

Tournaments come once a month, but there’s little time to slack off. After-school sessions are twice a week for preparation and practice, and there’s usually another meetup during the weekend where a couple of them will meet at a coffee shop to research for a few hours. 

 

Jungkook finds himself in a strange state of limbo on whether he continues Policy debate. Since their coach still won’t allow Jin to go solo, Jungkook finds himself as Jin’s full-time partner. Jin really doesn’t ask him either, just sits next to him one meeting and says, 

 

“So, we’re gonna rewrite our case to better handle foreign relations-based attacks.” And that’s that. He’s competing in Policy with one of the best debaters in the state. It’s a little overwhelming at times (read: all the time) but Jungkook does his best to keep his head above the water. 

 

He’s swept into the routine of things. He attends the meetings twice a week, meets Jin and Yoongi at their local coffee shop on Saturdays, and spends too much of his free time looking at reddit memes about U.S. domestic policy. It’s a comfort, falling into place with these people just like him. 

 

There’s a place for everyone, somewhere, and Jungkook thinks that maybe, maybe he’s gotten lucky and found his at 15.

 

-----

 

“...And that’s why Gen X and young adults of today are just as radical, if not more so, than their forefather protesters in history. Thank you, and please recycle.” Namjoon dips his head and smiles politely even as he struggles for air. It’s his smoothest run-through of his speech so far, and he can feel the pride rising in his chest like the sun. He’s going to win, he’s sure.

 

The row of lockers in front of his stand unimpressed. Not that he expected a standing ovation from pieces of metal and teenage angst, but still. Namjoon glances down at his phone timer. Six minutes and 54 seconds. He’s above the time limit, but it’s shorter than he’d like. His timing is good, but he can’t help but doubt just a little...

 

Might as well bite the bullet and get some outside advice. No matter how sporatic the help might be. Namjoon turns and trudges back down the hall. 

 

“Hey ‘Seok?” He sticks his head through the open classroom door. 

 

“Yeah?” Hoseok doesn’t look up from his laptop. Namjoon has to speak up to be heard over the clamour of the room.

 

“Can you give me some feedback on my speech?” He leans his hip against the door, holding his arms to his chest. Hoseok spares a second from his screen, and Namjoon can see that he’s playing the No-Internet-T-Rex game on Google. He’s got a pretty high score going, but Hoseok still nods, eyes darting back to the screen. 

 

“Yeah, sure! I just need a minute…” From his side, Jungkook watches Hoseok’s fingers fly over the keyboard with barely-disguised awe. 

 

“If you’re busy, it’s okay,” Namjoon gestures with a thumb over his shoulder. Even if whatever Hoseok is doing can’t be construed as productive, he doesn’t want to bother the other speaker. 

 

“I’ll help, Joonie.” Jin steps out from behind his desk, all smug-senior and ripped-denim glory. Hoseok and Jungkook both stare wide-eyed at Jin, Google game forgotten. Namjoon pushes himself off the wall as Hoseok’s laptop chirps the T-rex’s death. 

 

“Y-you want to help me?” Jin isn’t an ice queen of arrogance all of the time, but he certainly isn’t the team glue like Hoseok or the jokester like Taehyung. He prefers his space and his privacy. He’s not mean, just a little disconnected from the rest of the team. Which is why it’s such a surprise he’s even made such an offer. Jin shrugs, stuffing a hand in the pocket of his jeans. 

 

“Yeah, I’m always here for my favorite baby orator.” Jin doesn’t look like he’s joking, so Namjoon closes his jaw with an audible click. 

 

“Okay. Um. Can you watch my speech and give me some feedback?” Jin nods and they tread into the hallway. In his peripheral vision, Namjoon sees Hoseok waggle his eyebrows at Jungkook, who shrugs in return. 

 

About fifty feet from the classroom, in a quiet section of the hall, Jin stops and plants himself against the opposite wall. He gestures to the space in front of him. Namjoon swallows and takes the stage in front of the drab-colored lockers. 

 

“Want me to time you?” Jin offers, flipping his phone between his hands. 

 

“If you don’t mind.” Namjoon clasps his hands behind his back, then presses his palms into the sides of his legs, unsure of what to do with them. Jin gives him an encouraging nod. Namjoon begins.

 

“They say we are dreamers. They say we are whiners. They say our music is disrespectful and we are too young to understand. But when scientists say the planet has 18 months until irreversible damage, can the youth of today really be blamed for taking a stand? My name is Namjoon Kim, and today I will be presenting my speech, “My Mixtape is On Fire and So is Our Planet.””

 

The entire speech, Jin doesn’t look like he’s judging Namjoon at all, not even when he goes on his tangent about the lack of Asian rappers in the Western industry. Instead, he just has this look on his face, like he’s watching the rain through a window; like he’s looking at something curious, something bigger than himself. 

 

When Namjoon comes to the end of his speech he stops abruptly, looking terribly awkward. Jin turns the timer on his phone off and holds up the screen to show Namjoon. 7 minutes and 28 seconds. Perfect. 

 

 Jin pockets his phone and leans back against the lockers.  

 

“You want to hear my advice?” Namjoon nods, scrubbing a hand through his hair and making it stand on end. He doesn’t know if he’s ready to have his speech torn apart by one of the best debaters in the state, but it should help him in the long run. 

 

“That was pretty good. You’re at a good time, and you have good structure.”

 

“Really?”

 

“You have a good sense for changing your voice inflection, keeps things interesting instead of monotone. Of course, there are always things you could fix, but nothing that detracted from the overall performance.” Jin’s tone is genuine, and Namjoon beams. 

 

“Thank you so much! I’ll keep working to make it even better for the next tournament,” Namjoon gushes. Jin crosses his arms and smirks at Namjoon from his spot against the lockers. 

 

“Anything else you need my expert advice on?” Namjoon blinks in confusion. 

 

“I don’t...think so? Why? Do you want me to run my speech again?” Shaking his head, Jin jerks a thumb back in the direction of the classroom. 

 

“You sure you don’t need some help wooing Hoseok? Whatever you’re doing doesn’t seem to be working very well.” He punctuates the end of his sentence with a saucy wink. Namjoon’s entire face turns as red as a stoplight. 

 

“I am not - I’m not trying to, to woo Hoseok!” 

 

“Oh please. It’s as obvious as a counterplan in Public Forum. I know he likes you too, so you really have nothing to worry about.” Namjoon just might sink through the floor. Jin holds up a finger in warning. “But you didn’t hear it from me! I don’t support dating within the team; it’s incest and it causes problems.” He waggles his finger in the junior’s general direction. “We’ve got one shot at state this year, okay? But, if you were to ask him out, say, the night after the season ends, I couldn’t have a problem with that. As long as you use protection.” 

 

Namjoon nods hurriedly, anything to get the older to stop talking.  “Got it.” Jin nods in staunch approval. Despite his raging embarrassment, Namjoon’s grateful for Jin’s advice and blessing. 

 

“And now,” Jin spins on his heel, striding back towards the classroom. “Back to the books! Debates don’t win themselves, you know.”

 

----- 

 

There’s a sudden grating noise, then a terrible grumbling shudder. Hoseok clutches his beef jerky to his chest in fear. 

 

The bus rumbles to a halt on the side of the road. With a metal growl, the motor shuts off, leaving them in sudden, unsure silence. Glancing over to the seat ahead of him, Hoseok can see Namjoon chewing on his lip, preparing to take charge of the situation. 

 

“What’s going on?” hisses Jimin from down the aisle. Hoseok shrugs, the beer jerky package crinkling. Heads are poking out from in between seats, peering up towards the front of the bus. Namjoon holds out a hand, telling Jimin to wait a moment. 

 

Hoseok pouts. They’re on their way home Friday night from the third tournament of the season, ready to sleep and return the next day for another full day of competition. This might put a wrench into those plans though. The driver, an old man with a long chin and hairy adam’s apple, gets up from the driver’s seat. He squints at the teenagers sitting nervously in the dark rows. 

 

“Don’t get off the bus, I’m gonna check the engine. Don’t move.” The driver trundles down the bus steps and goes to the back of the vehicle. As soon as the man’s steps fade, people are immediately moving seats and taking Snapchat videos. 

 

“Do you think we’ll make it back to the school?” Taehyung’s voice carries over the seats, a waver to his tone. Namjoon looks back at him reassuringly. Hoseok doesn’t know how their team captain can remain so calm when they are literally stranded on the side of the road in a rusty old bus. 

 

“Of course we will,” Namjoon reassures. “The bus driver’s gonna pop the hood, swear up a storm, kick the side of the bus, and it’ll start and we can go home.” Hoseok squints suspiciously. 

 

“And you know this how?” Namjoon shrugs, nonplussed.

 

“I saw it in a movie once.” Jimin’s head pops over the side of the seat next to Taehyung. 

 

“That’s real confidence-inspiring, Joon,” he complains, pursing his bottom lip. Namjoon throws up his hands. 

 

“What am I supposed to do as team captain? Give up and pretend we’re all about to die?” 

 

“Nah,” Jimin says with a sly grin. “That’s what Jin is for.” 

 

“WE’RE ALL ABOUT TO DIE!” shrieks a familiar voice from the back of the bus. Hoseok jumps and holds his beef jerky tighter. Everyone turns to see Jin sitting up in his seat at the very rear of the bus, eyes wide with manic energy. Two seats back from Hoseok, Yoongi rolls his eyes.

 

“We are in literally no danger, calm down.” Jungkook looks up from his phone. The kid’s probably alerted the entire district through Snapchat about their latest misadventure by now. 

 

“Well, arguably, we’re in at least a little danger. We are on the side of the road after all.” 

 

“Not the time, Jungkook,” sighs Namjoon as Jin lets out another dramatic wail. 

 

“I’m too young and pretty to die! I haven’t even kicked Sunmi’s ass in extemp yet! We’re going to get murdered on the side of the road! They’ll have to cancel the tournament because of us! I never wanted to be in the news posthumously!” He ends with a swoon into the bus seat as everyone snorts with laughter.

 

Jin’s caterwauling may be because he’s a drama queen on the drama team, but his words hit just a little too close to home. Taehyung hunches down in his seat, and Jungkooks’s eyes grow bigger, even as he laughs. What if the bus is good and truly broken? What if they can’t make it back to their high school, or even back to the tournament the next day? Namjoon, the good leader he is, senses this abrupt shift in the atmosphere and tries to soothe his team. 

 

“Alright, we might be stuck here for longer than we’d like. You know what that means.” Yoongi groans, and Taehyung perks up next to Jimin. 

 

“Team bonding?” Namjoon nods. 

 

“We’re playing Never Have I Ever, everyone hold up ten fingers, and be honest!” The team squeezes together to play, hands held at the ready. Yoongi looks a little like he’s being held at gunpoint, but he too holds up ten fingers. Hoseok puts down his beef jerky regretfully. For all he knows, it’s the only food he has until the bus starts or they get rescued. 

 

“Okay,” starts Jimin, “never have I ever...smoked pot.” Jin, Yoongi, and Hoseok each put down a finger. Namjoon shoots Hoseok a surprised look, but doesn’t comment. Hoseok begins to worry. Maybe Namjoon disapproves of drugs? Or maybe just weed? What if he doesn’t approve of Hoseok anymore? There’s no time to ponder on the implications because Taehyung chimes in next.

 

“Never have I ever shaved my legs!” Jimin puts his finger down with a scowl, and so does Jungkook, to their collective shock. 

 

“Kookie! I didn’t know you had it in you!” Taehyung crows. Jungkook sinks down into his seat. Yoongi feels a little bad for him, so he says,

 

“Alright, lay off the kid. Never have I ever gotten drunk and tried to sext my archenemy in debate.” Jin squawks in offence, but Yoongi’s succeeded in taking the attention off of Jungkook.

 

“That was a targeted attack!” He clutches his chest. Jimin giggles, 

 

“It’s still fair play!” Jin puts down a finger with a grumble, narrowing his eyes at the other senior. 

 

“Okay then, never have I ever been found passed out in my room in my underpants surrounded by five empty energy drink cans.” Yoongi scrunches up his face as he tucks his second finger away. Namjoon wiggles his still open palms. 

 

“Never have I ever...huh. I’ve never kissed a boy.” Jin, Taehyung, Yoongi, Jungkook, and Hoseok all put down a finger. Taehyung peers curiously at Namjoon. 

 

“Really? But you came out as bi last summer.” Namjoon rubs the back of his neck sheepishly. 

 

“Yeah, I did, and I still am, I’ve just never, y’know, found someone willing.” Hoseok feels something rise in his chest, but he pushes it away. Now is not the time for internal crises. 

 

“Okay…” Jungkook bites his lip, thinking hard. “Never have I ever...stayed up all night prepping for debate.” Namjoon puts down his first finger, and Jin, Yoongi, and Jimin all do the same. 

 

“Only you and not Taehyung?” teases Yoongi. Jimin huffs. 

 

“He fell asleep in the middle of research! On my bed!” They all laugh as Taehyung shrugs. 

 

“It was warm and it smelled nice.”

 

“Ugh, enough from the Terrible Two. Never have I ever been an animal for Halloween.” Hoseok watches as Taehyung, Jin, and Namjoon put one down. Jin only has five fingers left, while Jungkook still has nine. Hoseok shoots Namjoon a questioning look.

 

“I made a very cute octopus in the third grade,” Namjoon admits. 

 

“I bet I made a much cuter cow last year,” claims Jin, whom everyone ignores. 

 

“My turn again!” Jimin claps and looks around with an evil glint in his eye. “Never have I ever failed a test!” Taehyung, Jungkook, and Yoongi put one down. 

 

“Jesus Jimin, you’re a know-it-all, we get it,” mutters Taehyung, who gets smacked for his troubles. The game continues, each round revealing more and more about each other. Some questions are familiar, meant to drag a story out of an embarrassed victim. Others are surprises, something new about the person sitting next to you. Finally, it’s down to just Jimin and Jungkook, the rest of them having put down all ten fingers. Jimin squints through the darkness as Jungkook. 

 

“Never have I ever joined a high school sport.” Jungkook sighs and folds a finger down, down to his last one. Curse his desire to learn tennis.

 

“Never have I ever...choked on mochi?” Jimin shakes his head gleefully, still in the game for a little longer. He taps his chin in thought.

 

“Never have I ever...huh. Um. Oh, I don’t know! Sucked a dick for cash!” Jimin throws up his hands in frustration, clearly going for shock value than something he thinks Jungkook has actually done. But when Hoseok turns to catch Jungkook’s reaction, the boy is frozen in his seat. He’s clearly conflicted about something, finger halfway down but too afraid to commit to it. Hoseok’s mouth is open to say something, but just then the bus driver stomps back onto the bus. 

 

“We’re good. Back in your seats! We’ll be to the high school in twenty minutes.” Everyone scrambles back into a seat while the bus driver cranks the gear shift and the bus springs to life with a roar. Hoseok gets jostled against his beef jerky, the plastic loud underneath him. The game as good as over, the rest of them go back to their phones or private conversations. Everyone seems to have forgotten Jungkook’s reaction. 

 

Hoseok watches the back of Jungkook’s head, a seat in front of him across the aisle. The freshman is curled into himself, wrapped around his phone and ignoring the rest of the team. Hoseok frowns, unsure of how to fix this. 

 

At long last, they pull into their high school parking lot. With sleepy limbs, they gather their things and trudge off to their own cars. Before he can say anything, even a goodbye, Jungkook is off the bus and climbing into his mom’s car. Hoseok doesn’t like not being able to help, to fix things. It’s what he does. He doesn’t like that Jungkook is suddenly uncomfortable around them. He catches sight of Namjoon, who has not left yet, and jumps on his chance to solve his other dilemma. 

 

“Namjoon!” The other debater turns to face him, the moon reflected in his drooping eyes. 

 

“Yeah?” 

 

“I just...uhhh, I wanted to say I don’t smoke pot that often. Or at all. It was just once, with my brother’s friends. I didn’t really like it.” Hoseok sticks his hands in his pockets nervously. Namjoon blinks.

 

“Oh, because of the game? It’s not a big deal, I don’t care. I may be team captain, but I’m not going to report you or anything.” 

 

“I know, I just...I wanted you to know I don’t smoke, not really.” Hoseok rocks back and forth on his heels. Namjoon’s face breaks into a slow grin. 

 

“Good to know. Thanks for telling me, Seokie.”

 

“No problem.” Has Namjoon always glowed in the starlight? Is he sleepwalking again? “So I’ll see you tomorrow?” 

 

“Tomorrow, yeah, bright and early.” Hoseok takes a step back towards his car.

 

“I better go then. G’night Joon.”

 

“‘Night Seok!” Has Namjoon’s ass always looked good in slacks? Has he always been adorable when he’s sleepy? What is going on?

Chapter Text

Jungkook dives for the cup, barely saving it from falling off the edge of the table and meeting an untimely demise on the shop floor.

 

“Thanks Kookie!” Taehyung says, continuing to type frantically on his laptop, uncaring of his close-call with a spill. He  has a red pen behind his ear and a black one in his mouth. The tabletop is littered with sticky notes and snaking charging cables. From across the way, Yoongi sighs in familiar exasperation. 

 

“Careful with your elbows, Tae.” 

 

“My life is in chaos already!” Taehyung declares, throwing his hands up and narrowly avoiding yet another spill. “My one and only PF life partner isn’t here!” Jungkook laughs, but stifles it as soon as Yoongi shoots him an unimpressed look. 

 

“I’m sure Jimin would love to be crammed in a coffee shop on a Saturday with you rather than attend his cousin’s wedding, but the tournament is next week. You’ve got a whole case to write, right?” Taehyung shrugs. 

 

“Yeah, most of both pro and con.” He looks unbothered by the looming deadline. Yoongi rubs his forehead and mentions something about needing more coffee as he gets up from the table. Next to Jungkook, Jin pokes his ribs with his Pentel 0.38 mm black gel pen. Jungkook’s never seen him use another kind of writing utensil. Jin is very particular about his pens, and only once let Jungkook even borrow one.

 

“I think he’s just confused as to how he ended up with a gaggle of irresponsible children when he’s a gay 18 year-old.” Jungkook grins, picking up his cup of hot chocolate with both hands. 

 

“I think he’s actually an old man trapped in the body of a gay 18 year-old. I’ve never seen a high school senior with more gray hair.”

 

“It’s dyed, disrespectful brat!” Yoongi says as he returns to the table, carrying a plate with two muffins on it. He places one in front of Taehyung and Jungkook. “Split it yourselves.” Taehyung dives for the muffin, trying (without much success) to cut it with a plastic fork. 

 

“Team dad, told you,” Jin smirks at Jungkook. “It’s all about perception, perception, perception.” Yoongi grumbles inaudibly, but seems satisfied with himself. Taehyung leans back in his seat, mouth half-full with blueberry muffin. 

 

“If Yoongi’s team dad, who’s Jin?” 

 

“Well,” Yoongi considers, “Namjoon’s team mom and Hoseok is the team fun uncle.” 

 

“Fun uncle?” questions Jungkook, picking up his own mutilated half of muffin. 

 

“Yeah, you know, the male family member who’s real chaotic, outrageous fashion sense, gives you crazy birthday presents, excetera excetera,” Taehyung explains, swallowing his mouthful. Jungkook has to agree, that sounds an awful lot like Hoseok. And Namjoon is certainly the mom friend, always prepared and with kindness to spare. 

 

“So what am I?” challenges Jin, twirling his Pentel 0.38 black pen with one hand.

 

“The vodka aunt?” Jungkook offers. Taehyung squawks in laughter, causing several other patrons to glance over. Yoongi grins, his gums showing. 

 

“That’s pretty good, JK.” Jungkook feels his chest fill up with warmth, proud for making his teammates laugh. Jin crosses his arms. 

 

“Haha, I actually like that title. I’d rather be an independent middle aged woman with a Karen haircut than have to wrangle a herd of snotty children anyways.” Yoongi rolls his eyes, but a smile still lingers in his laughter lines. Jungkook takes another sip of his drink, this whole moment just as sweet as his hot chocolate. 

 

“Back-” starts Yoongi.

 

“-to work, yes we know,” Taheyung grumbles, directing his attention back to his laptop and the half-blank page in front of him.

 

-----

 

“...And therefore we can see no other ballot than an affirmative one. Thank you.” Jimin flashes a smile at the judge before taking a seat next to Taehyung. His partner scribbles furiously on a sheet of notebook paper, looking for all the world like a focused debater. In fact, only Jimin can see he’s writing a list of Kanye quotes to use in round. Jimin slides over subtly, nudging Taehyung’s paper with his elbow.

 

“Five bucks if you fit more than one in.” Taehyung shoots him a brief boxy grin. 

 

“You’re on.” Up at the podium, the next speaker from the opposing team shuffles her papers. Jimin dutifully picks up a pen and prepares to write a rebuttal. While he’s waiting for her to start speaking, he glances out the classroom window on the other side of Taehyung. It’s December, the ground blanketed with a thick layer of snow. The late morning sun has melted some of the ice on the roof, sunshine catching in the droplets falling from the eves. Jimin smiles, taking a moment to enjoy the beautiful sight. 

 

Competing at a debate tournament is almost like walking into a separate realm of existence. Time passes differently, measured in skipped meals, empty cups, and the half hour breaks between rounds of debate. It’s measured in speeches and conversations and late buses home. It’s a rush, something Jimin has learned to love, but it’s nice to remember that things like snow and sunshine exists once in a while.

 

Taehyung’s pen clicking jolts Jimin back to the present. It’s the December tournament, and he’s in the middle of a debate about whether churches should pay taxes. Their female opponent has just started speaking, deconstructing Jimin’s previous speech. Taehyung raises an eyebrow at one of her more unsubstantiated points. They’ve been debating together so long, it’s like Jimin can read his mind. 

 

Grabbing a sticky note, Jimin quickly scrawls “Church ➞ Lobbyist ➞ convers. therapy?” Taheyung reads the sticky note and winks. Jimin nods and gets to writing his next speech. Time is unforgiving, especially in the middle of rounds. Five seconds can make all the difference in the world. Even so, Jimin glances once more at Taehyung, who’s forsaken his Kanye quotes in favor of writing questions for grand crossfire. In the wintry light from the window, his long lashes are illuminated against his cheek. 

 

A good partner can make all the difference as well. 

 

-----

 

Jin’s hunched over his calculus homework, fighting with integrals, when Sunmi stops by. It’s why he doesn’t see her coming and properly prepare himself. To be fair, he has no other time to be doing his homework. Tournament weekends are full to the brim, and the Sundays they have off are used for sleeping and recuperating. Thus, calculus homework between speech rounds. 

 

Jin looks up at the click of heels on tile. He takes in the navy blue shoes, the black stockings, navy pencil skirt, the starched white blouse tucked in, long black hair pulled into a bun, and eyeliner wings sharp enough to cut a bitch. He puts on a grin. 

 

“Hey Sunmi.” He swallows thickly. “How’re your rounds going?” She crosses her arms, wordlessly studying him.

 

“Good. Hoping to make it into oratory finals,” she says, her eyes still boring into his face. By this, Jin knows she’s absolutely going to make it into oratory finals. He’s known her long enough to know what she really means. He sets his pencil down, tucked into the spine of his textbook. 

 

“That’s good. I’ve got my fingers crossed for extemp.” He can play along too, show he’s just as competitive. Sunmi raises a brow. 

 

“You’ve been debating with a freshman. For three full tournaments.” It’s not a question. 

 

“Yeah.” Jin doesn't know what she’s looking for. It’s true, Jungkook and he have been partners for the last three tournaments, counting this one. The kid’s doing well; he’s a fast learner with a faster tongue. He’ll be in the big leagues with the varsity debaters in no time. 

 

“And you haven’t beaten him over the head with your laptop yet,” Sunmi is unmoved. 

 

“No, not yet, but if he mentions nuclear war one more time-”

 

“Jin,” Sunmi sighs, “the last time we talked about freshmen, you said they were ‘wide-eyed, stupid lambs to be led to the slaughter of debate’. And in the three years I’ve known you, you’ve done your best to alienate and torture every partner they’ve forced upon you. I’m surprised you’ve never switched over to LD.” 

 

“Morals and ethics, ew gross, what are those?” shudders Jin. Sunmi ignores his theatrics. 

 

“So what gives? Has the mighty Jin Kim met his match?” Sunmi’s plum-colored lipstick transforms into a smirk. “Have you gotten...attached?” 

 

“What?” Jin splutters. Sunmi refolds her arms and grins. 

 

“I’ve heard he’s very cute.”

 

“Oh god no. Sunmi, he’s 15. He’s like my protegee. And I don’t fuck freshmen, in any case.” Jin feels a little sick to his stomach at the thought. Sunmi shrugs.

 

“Just thought I’d ask.” 

 

“Yeah, well, Q&A time is over, what’d you want? I have homework to half-ass.” Sunmi smiles sweetly at him, a deceptive picture. She may look like a kitten, but she’s a tiger in business casual. If he hadn’t known her since sophomore year, Jin would have shivered.

 

“I just came to say hello. Good luck in Policy. Say hi to your freshman for me.” She saunters away, and Jin lets out a small sigh of relief. Sunmi is a sweetheart when she wants to be; the key words being ‘when she wants,’ which is only when a judge is looking. 

 

As he returns to his textbook, he can’t help but think further about Sunmi’s prying. Is his untouchable reputation failing? Has he been getting too casual with Jungkook? Has he been slipping? Come to think of it, he hasn’t been winning every single debate of every tournament, but he hasn’t cared as much, reasoning that Jungkook is still learning. 

 

From the other side of the cafeteria, Jin can hear Jungkook’s giggles mixed with Jimin and Hoseok’s laughter. He sounds so happy, so far away. What is Jungkook to him? Who is he to Jungkook? 

 

Jin doesn’t know, but he does know that his calculus homework won’t complete itself without him, and he’s only got 45 minutes till his next round. Sighing, he picks up his pencil once more. 

 

-----

 

In this section of the school, everything is quiet. There are no shouts, the echo of conversation dampened by the long, empty halls. Yoongi sinks with his back against a doorway, hidden from view from the hallway. It’s almost deafening, the quiet. After a whirlwind several hours, the peace is unsettling. Yoongi’s skin is still buzzing, humming with all of the words trapped in his head.

 

It’s always been a problem for him, the flow he can’t stop. Even after the debate round is done, when he’s home and in bed, the thoughts don’t stop. Debate has been a good way to direct the flow, the anger, the conviction. When he’s focused on the debate topic, his thoughts don’t turn down ugly roads. But sometimes, all the people and the noise of the tournaments get to him. When that happens, he seeks out corners and alcoves to take a break; to breathe, recharge, reorganize. Yoongi sighs, the loudest sound in the alcove he tucked himself into. 

 

He feels...unsteady, more so than usual; more than his usual need for some alone time. Maybe it’s the stress of looming midterms, of familial expectations around the holiday season, of college applications. It could be a lot of things. 

 

Yoongi thinks it’s probably because he’s losing.

 

He hasn’t been losing badly, not at all. He’s been within the top four debaters at each tournament so far, which is nothing to scoff at, but just barely. He’d looked at his ballots from the last tournament; he barely made it to finals, clinging on by his fingertips and an argument his opponent had forgotten to address. His judge had left him a comment, “You’re a strong speaker, but you lost me. Be clear with your points. You’ll lose the audience.” That word echoes in Yoongi’s empty head, 

 

Lose

 

Lose

 

Lose

 

He can’t lose. This is too important to him. He’s put too much of his time into this, four years of high school and too many late nights to count. Weekends and weeknights are all piling up on his shoulders, experience weighing on him unbearably. 

 

You should be winning by now .

 

Why can’t he be like Jin, effortless? They’ve been in this program for the same amount of time, but their competition records are very different. Even juniors like Namjoon and Hoseok seem to be having it easier than him. Hell, Jungkook’s picked up one of the most difficult debate events in only three or four months. Why isn’t he winning?

 

Everyone contributes to the team in some way. Namjoon is their leader, with an encouraging word for everyone. Jin may pretend not to have feelings, but he’s their rock, steadfast. There’s Hoseok, their glue, and Jimin and Taehyung, their chaos pair. Even Jungkook, the newest and youngest, is the pride of all of them. What is Yoongi then? Just a loner, a loser, a has-been. 

 

He was never good at keeping out the bad thoughts, the ones that sneak up on him and steal the floor from underneath him. In times like these, he needs someone to come pull him out, to save him from falling deeper. 

 

But in the silent hallway, there’s no one.

 

-----

 

Hoseok stuffs his papers back into his bag. They’ll get crumpled, shoved next to his laptop, but he doesn’t really care. Once the debate is over, the notes he’s taken become obsolete. He tosses a couple pens in besides the papers and zips his computer bag shut, slinging the strap over one shoulder. 

 

Besides him, Nayeon packs up the leftovers of their debate round as well. A contrast to Hoseok’s method of throw-everything-in-a-bag, she’s carefully stacking her used sticky notes into rainbow order and pressing them between the pages of her notebook. On the other side of the podium, their opponents chat as they leave the room. It had been a fast-paced round, and Hoseok doesn’t have any hard feelings about the interesting debate round. 

 

“All ready to go?” Nayeon asks, her own backpack slung over her shoulders. Hoseok does a quick check of the desk. Seeing no stray pens or forgotten flash drives, he nods and follows her to the door of the classroom. They walk back to the cafeteria in comfortable silence. Hoseok has debated with Nayeon long enough to know that she gets lost in her head after a debate, decompressing and figuring out how to improve. He admires that about her, and he respects the silence between them. 

 

Walking ahead of them, their opponents continue to trade quips back and forth. Hoseok doesn’t mean to eavesdrop, but he can’t help but pick up a few key phrases in place of his and Nayeon’s silence.

 

“...State’s coming up pretty soon, huh?”

 

“Yeah, I hope I qualify for the state team. It’s a toss-up to who’s gonna win, though…” 

 

Hoseok takes a moment to remember last year’s state competition. He had been a sophomore, debating in LD debate by himself and in another speech event. He hadn’t made it to any elimination rounds, but hadn’t been too torn up about it. He remembers that Jimin and Taehyung came to watch, neither of them having qualified for the state team as freshmen. Jin had only started rising in the ranks, getting a fair amount of attention of his sudden streak of wins in Policy. His partner, Minho, had been surprised but proud, even though everyone knew Jin was the better speaker of the two. Most of all, he remembers the energy, the fire under his feet.

 

The state tournament is like a shot of pure caffeine, like setting off fireworks, like honey stuck to your ribs that you can’t seem to forget about. It’s a chance to prove oneself, to show exactly how far you can go. In their world, the world of debate, there is no higher honor than placing at a state competition, except for perhaps nationals; a rare feat. Hoseok has never met someone who made it to nationals. When he imagines them, they’re seven feet taller than him, looming overhead. They’re giants, geniuses, mythological figures still in high school. Not for the first time, he feels the alluring pull, the need to win that eats you out from the inside. He wants to grow just as tall. Is this what Jin and Yoongi feel all the time?

 

“Hoseok?” Nayeon’s questioning tone forces him back to the present. “Do you think we’ll make it to state?” She doesn’t just mean the team, she means their partnership.

 

“Hopefully,” he offers her. Luck is on their side this year; they have a good record and Hoseok is an upperclassman. It may be a broad generalization, but older kids have a higher chance of qualifying for the state team, more deserving of the chance and usually better at their events. “I think we can do it.”

 

“Yeah?” She shoots him a glance. She’s not looking for confirmation, she needs this reassurance. Hoseok nods with more enthusiasm. 

 

“Yeah. Jin and JK are gonna kick some policy ass and Yoongi will sweep LD and Namjoon’ll blow the judges away with his speech. We’ll do just fine.” Nayeon studies him a moment longer, then smiles with him. As they reenter the cafeteria, stepping back into the gladiatorial arena, Hoseok sees Namjoon waving at him, a pen tucked behind both ears and dress shirt wrinkled. He feels something hot sink down his breastbone, settling in his chest. He takes it as a sign: they’ll do just fine at state.

 

-----

 

Namjoon fights not to sing along to the cheerful Christmas music as he weaves his way through the holiday shoppers. Though it may be one big scheme by corporations to promote capitalism, he likes the snow and the atmosphere of joy everyone seems to carry all month. Christmas in America is all about joy. 

 

Unfortunately, the boy trailing behind him didn’t seem to get the memo. 

 

“Are you sure we have to go this way? I thought Bath and Body Works was in the other direction!” whines Jimin, looking distinctly un-festive in his hoodie, Santa hat, and scowl. 

 

“I’m sure,” says Namjoon, peering through the crowd in an attempt to spot their destination. Jimin is his moral support on this trek for Christmas presents for the team, though Namjoon is doing most of the moral supporting, if he’s honest. To be fair, Jimin had agreed to go shopping with Namjoon, not to go shopping with Namjoon at 8 am on a Sunday, in a Santa hat to boot. 

 

“You know,” Jimin continues as they approach their destination, “they don’t celebrate Christmas like this in Korea. My cousin said it’s mostly for couples, and everyone goes out to drink and party. It’s like our New Years, but it’s their Christmas.” 

 

“That’s interesting,” Namjoon comments absently, leading both of them into Bath and Body Works’ bath bomb section. Jimin wrinkles his nose at the onslaught of scents, but is quickly distracted by the many seasonal lotions and perfumes. Namjoon carefully studies the brightly-colored assortment in front of him. Choosing a bath bomb is a lot harder than it looks, especially if it’s for someone else. 

 

“What kind do you think Hobi would like?” Namjoon wonders aloud. Jimin raises an eyebrow, holding a tube of Winterberry WonderⒸ body lotion and looking like an elf with an attitude problem. 

 

“You’re shopping for Hoseok, huh?” Namjoon nods, studying the bath bombs intensely. 

 

“Do you think he’d want Sweet Cinnamon Pumpkin or Rose Vanilla?” He tries to imagine handing Hoseok one or the other. Then he imagines Hoseok in the bath and quickly ends that train of thought.  

 

“I don’t even want to know what you’re thinking right now,” drawls Jimin, “you’re as red as my hat.” Namjoon tries to cover his face with his hair, but it’s not a great disguise. Jimin smirks, “Thinking of confessing on Christmas? Maybe it’s the Korean in you.” 

 

“I am not going to confess!” Namjoon gasps. “What is there to confess anyways? I’m just a good team captain and I’m getting gifts for all my teammates.” At this, Jimin perks up, the puffball on the end of his Santa cap swinging.

 

“Ooh! What’re you getting me?” He bounces up and down like a child promised candy. Namjoon ignores his sudden change in mood and primly grabs a Rose Vanilla bath fizzy, heading towards the checkout counter. 

 

“It’s a surprise. You’ll find out at the Christmas party like everyone else.” 

 

“Please? Please just give me a hint? C’mon, I won’t tell anyone,” Jimin pleads as Namjoon hands the employee a couple dollar bills. It’s most of his tutoring cash, but imagining Hoseok’s delight at opening his gift makes it worth it. He exits the store as Jimin continues to wheedle for information. 

 

“I’m not telling you what I got you!” Namjoon admonishes, and Jimin wilts.

 

“At least tell me what you got other people.” They head towards Hot Topic, dodging a small child crying in a full elf costume. Christmas is a strange time indeed.

 

“Well, you’re going to see what I’m getting Jungkook and Yoongi anyways,” Namjoon says, making a bee-line for the Overwatch merchandise. He overheard the freshmen expressing his love for the game, and can think of no better gift. He sorts through a couple tee shirts, nothing catching his interest. Jimin makes faces in the mirror meant for testing the body piercings, adjusting his Santa hat. 

 

“What do you think of this?” Namjoon hoists up a pink and blue beanie, emblazoned with a logo and adorned with a rather large white puffball on the top. Jimin grins,

 

“Please tell me we can use the pictures for blackmail.” Jimin cackles as Namjoon carries the hat with him to the tee shirt section. “A very merry Christmas indeed!” 

 

They exit the mall an hour or so later, carrying a variety of bags between the two of them. Along with presents for Hoseok and Jungkook, Namjoon had bought a band tee shirt for Yoongi, some very specific and expensive pens for Jin, and a roll of polaroid camera film for Taehyung. He had also stopped to get chocolate, the fancy kind, for Hoseok as well. Jimin had leered at him the whole time, making kissy faces when he thought the cashier couldn’t see him. 

 

The cold air makes their breath visible as they walk back to Namjoon’s car, which is really his mom’s borrowed minivan. Jimin turns the stereo to a pop radio station, a female singer behind a bright, bubblegum melody. Namjoon hums along as he backs out of the snowy mall parking lot. All and all, it’s not a bad start to winter break. 

 

 

Chapter Text

Jungkook shifts awkwardly, holding aloft his tray of his mother’s kimchi dumplings and looking uncomfortable in his knit sweater. Next to him, Taehyung looks at ease carrying a basket of cookies. The snow falls behind them softly, dusting their hair with faint flakes that melt just as quick as they land. The front door opens abruptly, the bells hanging on the knocker ringing merrily. The door reveals Hoseok, wearing the most ridiculous Christmas sweater and his usual bright smile. He beckons them inside to the warmth of the house. 

 

“Hey, glad you could make it! You can set the food on the kitchen counter. Everyone else is in the living room with the older guys.” Hoseok disappears into the kitchen, where Jungkook can hear Yoongi, the house’s owner, grumbling about doing the dishes. Jungkook turns to Taehyung for guidance, still holding his dumplings. 

 

“‘Older guys’?” Jungkook asks. Taehyung leads them into the kitchen, setting down his basket and waving to Yoongi. 

 

“Every year, we invite back the people who graduated to our team Christmas party while they’re on winter break. I don’t really know them, except for Hyuna and Minho, but they’re nice, I promise. C’mon, I’ll show you.” Taehyung takes off for the living room, and Jungkook hurriedly sets down his mother’s carefully packed platter before following on his heels. 

 

“Tae!” Jimin calls from a rather worn armchair, dressed in an equally gaudy Christmas sweater as Hoseok. Taehyung bounds over past the small clumps of people conversing, eagerly greeting his best friend. Jungkook follows at a slightly slower pace, conscious of all the strangers staring at him. They all look so grown up! Did all of them once do debate in high school? 

 

“You must be a newbie, I didn’t see you last year,” remarks a deep voice to his right. Jungkook jerks around to see an older man sitting on Yoongi’s couch. He’s wearing a sweater proclaiming the name of some university Jungkook’s never heard of. 

 

“Yes, this is my first year. In high school and in debate, I mean.” Jungkook rubs his elbow nervously. 

 

“Ah, to be young!” The man tips his head back in a dramatic fashion, talking more to the ceiling fan than Jungkook. “To not have midterms! Student loans! To have a future!” He raises a weak fist of protest. Jungkook’s unsure of how to respond, a little (very) intimidated by this broke college student talking to him. 

 

“Lay off Jungkookie, Hakyeon,” comes Jin’s voice from behind Jungkook, an unlikely savior bearing a plate of finger food. He swans in like he planned his entrance. “He’ll spontaneously combust when someone older talks to him. It’s a wonder he survives debates.” The man, Hakyeon laughs and nods, turning to Jungkook to offer a hand in a proper greeting.

 

“I’m Hakyeon, like Jin said. I was a senior when he was just a freshman like you.” Jungkook shakes his hand. It’s hard for him to imagine the infallible Seokjin as small and unsure of himself. He’s mostly assumed Jin came out of the womb complaining and drinking lattes. 

 

“He’s a junior at Penn this year,” Jin explains, taking a seat next to Hakyeon on the couch. He pats the ottoman in front of him, and Jungkook dutifully takes a seat. “So very, very far away.”

 

“Not that far,” Hakyeon insists, folding his arms comfortably over his stomach. “I still come back here for the holidays.” Jin sniffs in disapproval.

 

“When I leave in the spring,” he declares, “I won’t be back except to haunt you from the grave when I die tragically young.”

 

“But you’ll have to be back to ask for money from the rest of us when you spend yours in some designer store,” teases Jungkook, fueled by a sudden burst of courage and his familiarity with Jin. Hakyeon barks a laugh while Jin gasps, his mouth still full of sugar cookie. 

 

“Yah! I raised you, Jeon!” 

 

“Scared to talk to older folks, huh?” Hakyeon remarks slyly, offering Jungkook a high five. Jin looks offended as he continues to enjoy his food. They’re interrupted by a loud shout from the entryway, everyone turning their head to see the commotion.

 

“Hyuna! I didn’t know you were in town!” Hoseok’s cry of joy is followed by a group of people running to the door to see their newest arrival. Hyuna walks into the living room with a posse of debaters both current and former, all talking at once. From the corner, Taehyung and Jimin wave and shout their greetings. It’s almost like a family reunion, except no one is related and there are too many ugly Christmas sweaters. It’s awkward not knowing most of the other guests and with everyone else already so familiar with one another. Jungkook feels out of place, too young, a stranger amongst his friends.

 

The room rearranges as people find seats and greet old friends, and Jungkook finds himself holed up on a corner of the couch, picking at a plate of fried rice and Jimin’s mother’s enchiladas. Jungkook’s considering whether kimchi and sour cream would taste good, when a familiar figure sits heavily next to him. 

 

“Hey, you having a good time?” It’s Namjoon, clad in a Christmas sweater with a chemistry pun on it. It’s very on brand for their team captain, and Jungkook puts a smile on his face for him. 

 

“Yeah, it’s great!” Jungkook offers, then a little quieter, “There are lots of people I don’t know.” Namjoon smiles kindly at him. 

 

“I promise, no one here bites.” Namjoon reassures him, “but it’s okay if you just want to stay on the couch for the rest of the evening. If you get the chance though, you should ask some of the alumni about their time on the team. I’m sure there are some great stories about all of us out there somewhere.” He hands Jungkook a glittery gift bag, which Jungkook takes gently. The tissue paper spilling out of the top obscures what’s inside. “Merry Christmas! From the team to you!” That warm feeling is rising in Jungkook’s chest, so full he can barely breathe.

 

“Should I open it now?” he manages to say around the affection in his chest. 

 

Namjoon nods, “If you want. Everyone is getting theirs soon, and I doubt Jimin and Tae are gonna wait for anyone else.” Jungkook carefully peels away the tissue paper, pulling an envelope free and ripping the seal open. It’s a cheesy Christmas card, with a rabbit in a Santa hat on the front, and inside it has the signatures of the whole team. 

 

“It’s been so great having you on the team! Have a great holiday season <3<3 - Jimin”

 

“You’re a good kid. You’re gonna go far someday. Have a happy holidays, Jungkook . Yoongi”

 

“Dude! I think you’re great! I’m glad I met you and you joined the team because now we’re best friends and it’s awesome! You’re killing it in policy! Love you man! - Tae”

 

Have a great Christmas break JK! Don’t forget your hw over break, haha! ~ Nayeon ;)

 

“Awww Jungkookie! Have a very merry Christmas you rascal! - Hobi” 

 

“You’ve been an amazing debater, and you learn so fast. We’re all so proud of you, for everything you’ve done for yourself and for the team. Thanks for the great semester, and here’s to another and to making it to state! Cheers! - Namjoon”

 

“Ah, Jungkook, my protegee. How far you’ve come in just four months. Maybe someday, you’ll be as cool as me! You are a good teammate and a good debater. I’m so glad I could work with you my last year of debate. Merry Christmas, from your favorite senior Jin”

 

When he’s read them all, Jungkook dives in to give a crushing hug to Namjoon, mostly to hide the tears welling up in his eyes. 

 

“Thank you,” sniffles Jungkook. Namjoon pats his back awkwardly, but with great affection.

 

“Oh woah! You haven’t even seen the present yet, but I’m glad you like the card.” Namjoon smells like sweat and coffee and the spicy-sweet of those gingerbread cookies he swears he’s not addicted to. He smells like home. 

 

After a moment, Jungkook sits back up and discreetly wipes his eyes. He pulls the hat free from the tissue paper, a smile breaking across his face. 

 

“It’s got D.Va on it! Thank you so much!” Jungkook says, and he means it. Namjoon scratches the back of his head, a happy blush growing on his face. 

 

“You’re welcome! Merry Christmas Jungkook!” 

 

-----

 

Yoongi pushes the stack of napkins into a neat pile, straightening all the edges and lines. Then he nudges it on purpose, messing up his work, and starts again. 

 

“You should get out there, say hello,” advises Hoseok from across the kitchen counter, sipping on a can of soda and watching Yoongi’s ritual with bemusement. 

 

“No thanks,” Yoongi mutters, fixing a fold in one of the napkins. From the other room, they both can hear the rest of the team Christmas party in full swing, alumni and current members mingling and sharing stories. 

 

“C’mon, you know all these folks. What’s there to be afraid of?” Hoseok would be out there too, in his element talking to anyone and everyone, but instead he’s back in the kitchen with Yoongi the grouch. Because that’s what friends do. 

 

“I just don’t want to talk right now,” Yoongi grumbles, pushing over the stack of napkins once more. Hoseok sighs, but doesn’t say anything more. That’s why Yoongi likes him; Hoseok knows when not to push. Some days, Yoongi doesn’t like to talk and that’s okay. 

 

“Did you like your present from Joon?” Hoseok asks, changing the subject. Yoongi nods, thinking about the very thoughtful gift he’d received earlier from their team captain. The tee shirt had been very much appreciated but now he just feels gross about it, about accepting Namjoon’s kindness.

 

“Yeah, it was nice.” It had been nice, too nice. Too nice for people like Yoongi, who don’t like to talk at parties and who lose. 

 

“Jungkookie seemed to really like that hat,” Hoseok hums thoughtfully. Yoongi remembers catching a glance of the freshmen’s face flushed with happiness, trying to hide his tears. Jungkook’s a good kid, he deserves a supporting team. 

 

“He hasn’t given you yours yet, has he?” Yoongi asks abruptly. Hoseok shakes his head.

 

“Nah, but he got pulled into conversation with Minho. I’m not worried he forgot me or anything.” Hoseok flashes a bright grin, but Yoongi can see into the worry behind his eyes. Hoseok cares a whole lot what Namjoon thinks, despite his acting otherwise. Yoongi’s so tired of seeing them both obliviously pine he’s tempted of locking them in the bathroom until they figure things out. 

 

“Yeah, don’t worry about it,” Yoongi advises honestly. 

 

“Okay,” Hoseok sighs. They settle back into companionable silence, listening to the ebb and flow of conversation from the living room. It’s soothing to hear the laughter of all his friends, new and old. Hoseok sips his soda and sings under his breath to the radio. Yoongi continues to play with the stack of napkins.

 

A bundle of noise breaks the quiet kitchen as Hyuna walks in from the living room, head turned to respond to a joke. She waves at Yoongi and pulls Hoseok into a one-armed hug. 

 

“Hey you two! I feel like I haven’t seen you in years! How’s your junior year going, ‘Seok?” Hoseok animatedly launches into a story about the time their bus broke down while Yoongi continues to fiddle with the napkins. He can feel Hyuna’s eyes on him, watching his fingers work. She’s only a year older, has been gone for less than a year at her university out of state. Still, it feels as if she’s returned from some other planet called “The Future,” something Yoongi’s mom keeps trying to get him to think about.

 

“And what about you, Yoons? How’s being a senior?” Yoongi jumps when Hyuna calls his name. He moves his hands away from the napkins, forcing himself to meet her eyes. 

 

“It’s going well.” It’s not a lie. Hyuna folds her arms, prompting him further. Yoongi shrugs.

 

“He’s been doing great at tournaments,” Hoseok chimes in. Hyuna raises as eyebrow, looking to Yoongi to confirm. 

 

“Yeah? That’s good!” Yoongi shrugs once again, fingers itching back towards the napkin stack. There’s an awkward silence Yoongi feels unreasonably guilty for causing; if only he could accept the damn praise and move on with his life! It’s the first time Hyuna’s been back for months, and he’s being the wet blanket at their holiday party. 

 

“Hoseokie!” Namjoon’s voice from the living room makes them all turn. The team captain’s face is flushed and his sweater sleeves are rolled up, but he looks happier than Yoongi’s seen him in weeks. He’s the definition of holiday cheer, positively glowing under the string lights. “I haven’t given you your gift yet!” He hoists a candy cane-striped bag in the air. 

 

Hoseok practically trips over himself in his eagerness to stand and approach Namjoon. He shoots a questioning look back at Yoongi as he and Namjoon disappear into the living room. Yoongi gives him a subtle thumbs up in return. Hoseok is a good friend, and he deserves to give Namjoon all his attention. Yoongi knows Hyuna well enough; he can deal with his problems like an adult. 

 

The kitchen is quiet once Hoseok leaves. Yoongi traces patterns in the granite countertop with the tip of a finger. Hyuna studies him in silence, a tilt to her head. 

 

“So you’re doing well in LD?” She’s asking a question she already knows the answer to. Yoongi nods. “Then why are you acting like you’re not?” The chill Yoongi feels up his spine has nothing to do with the fresh snowfall outside. 

 

“I’m not the type of person to gloat,” he grinds out. His fingers still on the countertop.

 

“You’re not the kind of person to act like a kicked dog either,” Hyuna remarks. “What’s up?” She leans up against the counter, hair falling out of her messy bun and into her face. She looks old, older than Yoongi ever remembers her being. Some part of him will always think of her as the bubbly sophomore girl he met when he was a freshman, dressed in that ridiculous beanie and black skinny jeans. Has it really been four years since those days? 

 

“It’s nothing,” he grunts, but she doesn’t let it go. She knows him too well, has known him since he was 15 with his hair fried from too much bleach and worryingly quiet. 

 

“Yoongi.” Hyuna’s voice is quiet, barely audible over the Christmas music from the living room. He breathes in and out, then again, until he has enough air in his lungs to say - 

 

“I’m not winning enough .” Once he starts, he can’t stop. If anyone was going to understand, it would be her. “I barely make it into elimination rounds, and I’ve never gotten first yet this year. I should be doing better, as one of the oldest members. Jin, he always wins. And Namjoon and Hoseok, they’re winning too and they’re younger and it’s not. It’s not fair.” 

 

It feels like a confession, but instead of the silent reverence of a church, the room echos with the quiet hum of the radio playing holiday classics, and his friend’s laughter. And isn’t that just as holy, just as miraculous, the joy of people he cares about? Yoongi may not go to church, but he believes in Namjoon’s dimples and Jimin’s squeaking laughter. He believes in his team. He just doesn’t believe in himself.

 

“Oh, Yoongi.” Hyuna sighs. There is no pity in her voice, for which Yoongi is grateful for. He doesn’t know if he could take pity without breaking in two. “It’s not supposed to be fair.”

 

“But I’ve done this for so much longer,” he protests, his previous hesitance gone in light of her acceptance. “I should be better!” 

 

“If winning was easy, we wouldn’t call it winning.” Hyuna reaches across the countertop, clutches his pale fingers in her palm. “If it was easy, it wouldn’t be this important to you, to any of us.” Yoongi stares at their joined hands; can’t take his eyes off of where his hand is held in hers. She was the second, behind Jin, for him to come out as bisexual to. She hugged him the night before she left for college, wrapped in a colorful scarf that she dried her tears on. Even now, after months of distance, she still holds his hand with easy affection.

 

“Why does it seem so easy for them, then?” He knows he’s whining, that she’s right, but all dark thoughts must be spoken at once. 

 

“I bet they think the same thing about you.” Yoongi looks up abruptly. She’s looking at him with a quirk to her lip, a lesson she’s already learned. He hadn’t thought about that before, that others on the team may actually look up to him. 

 

“And what if...What if I let them down? What if I lose state? What if I don’t even get into college?” 

 

“Then that’s okay.” She squeezes his hand once, letting it go to rest back on the cool countertop. “They’ll still be your team, and they’ll still have your back. There is more to life than winning high school speech and debate, Yoongi.” 

 

“I guess,” Yoongi concedes. There is less weight on his chest, now that he’s forced the words free from his lungs, but a heaviness remains in the corners of his mind. His gift, his burden: too many words for one person to carry with them. 

 

“Hey, it’ll be all okay,” Hyuna assures him. She looks so confident, wearing the title of college student with humble grace. He nods numbly. “You’re gonna do great at state, and you’re gonna get into college, and you’ll be just fine.” 

 

From the other room comes the sudden shriek from Hoseok as Namjoon wraps him in a clumsy hug, still clutching Hoseok’s present in one hand and holding the other debater tightly. Hoseok hugs back, face bright red and his smile as wide as the crescent moon hanging over the snowy landscape. Namjoon just holds on, hands rucked into Hoseok’s Christmas sweater and mumbling something into his shoulder. Hyuna and Yoongi watch the pair, Hyuna grinning and Yoongi with something like the ghost of a smile. 

 

-----

 

Before Taehyung knows it, the string lights of Christmas break have turned into the loud flashes of New Year’s fireworks and school has started once again. As the second semester rolls in, his teachers suddenly decide to give out an overwhelming amount of homework. He starts lugging heavy textbooks to and from the bus stop and Jimin's house, where they both study for chemistry and language arts. Of course, good intentions are entirely different from the actions themselves, and Taehyung finds himself watching the icicles drip off Jimin’s roof rather than read about redox reactions. 

 

“When do you think ‘Seok and Joon are gonna hook up?” comes Jimin’s voice from where he lays flat on his back, balancing a pencil on his nose. Taehyung shrugs, one of his elbows resting on Jimin’s desk. 

 

“I think Joon’s not the hook-up type, y’know? He’d want dinner first, candles, rose petals, the whole deal.” Over on the bed, Jimin dissolves into giggles, disturbing the pencil on the bridge of his nose. It falls over the side of his face, his cheeks spread wide in a smile that hides his eyes.

 

“That’s too true!” The light from the setting sun refracts through the icicle, casting a faint rainbow splattering to appear over the bedspread. Taehyung watches how Jimin’s hands fall in and out of the light, the ring his mother gave him glinting from his third right finger, the blue and greens that trace the lines in his palms and the bones of his wrist. “What about Hoseok?” 

 

“I dunno, Hoseok seems more like the hit-it-and-quit-it type, but maybe that’s just because he just likes people.” Taehyung leans back in the office chair. It’s not his chair, not his room, but the seat is comfortable and the room is familiar; Jimin’s room is like his own at this point. He’s over at the Park’s house twice a week, and Jimin is at his three times a week at least.

 

“I think Hoseok would like the whole rose petals and candles thing if it was the right person, like Namjoon,” postulates Jimin, tracing shapes in the air in front of him with the tip of a pencil. “He’d like the whole slow, monogamous thing if he was gonna do it with Joon.” Taheyung doesn’t know how or why they’re talking about their friends having sex. Admittedly, it’s certainly more interesting than learning about oxidation and electrons. 

 

It makes him feel a little guilty imagining Namjoon and Hoseok moaning on a bed covered in flowers, but not as guilty as imagining Jimin moaning on his bed.

 

“They’re both virgins, right?” Taehyung says, clearing his throat. 

 

“Yeah, I think so. I’m pretty sure Namjoon would tell me if he did anything.” Jimin sits up, leaning back on his elbows with his legs splayed loosely in front of him. “So are you, right?”

 

Do friends ask each other if they’ve had sex before? Maybe Taehyung is reading far too much into this. Besides, it’s not like it’s a very sexy conversation: they’re both surrounded by papers and textbooks, Jimin’s wearing a pair of ratty pajama pants, and Taehyung’s got a zit the size of Russia near his hairline. This is not like the movies at all, where everything is perfectly lit and perfectly timed. 

 

Trying his best to look nonchalant, he nods in affirmation. Suddenly overwhelmed with curiosity, his mouth moves before he can think - “Are you?” 

 

Jimin hesitates, then nods as well, a blush rising in his cheeks. Taehyung’s not sure what the feeling in the pit of his stomach is, or how he would have reacted if Jimin had said he wasn’t. Who could Jimin have had sex with anyways? Most of Jimin’s friends are Taehyung’s friends, and he doubts he would have been left out of the loop on something like this. 

 

Hopefully, the conversation will end here, so he can stop thinking about Jimin and some faceless figure rolling around Jimin’s sheets. Those are sheets Taehyung has slept under too many times for it not to be weird, for it not to rub him the wrong way.

 

“What do you think your first time will be like?” It looks like Jimin’s not going to drop it anytime soon, so Taehyung clears his throat and answers. These questions are too heavy-handed for the last remnants of daylight playing tricks against the wall.

 

“I dunno, good I hope.” Taehyung answers truthfully. “Someone I know, probably. It doesn’t have to be with someone I’m dating, but preferably not someone I just met.” Jimin nods, expression unreadable. The shadows from the setting sun cast long shadows, turning the room and its objects into strange versions of themselves. 

 

“Me too.” The silence grows between them. Taehyung swings from side to side in the office chair, refusing to look at Jimin. He’s not sure what he’ll see if he does. 

 

“Tae.” Over on the bed, Jimin’s half-propped up, looking like temptation and suddenly Taehyung wants more than he’s ever wanted before. “Look at me.” 

 

He does. Jimin scoots over on the bed, offering him a seat. “C’mon, don’t make it weird.” 

 

Taehyung has spent two years, his entire time in high school, taking chances he thinks will lead to the best outcome. He joined debate because Jimin said he wanted to try it out. He introduced himself to the older members because they looked friendly enough and he wanted help with his speech. He dragged Jungkook to a meeting because he wanted to get the shy freshmen out of his shell. He takes chance after chance in each of his speeches, stretching the words to last longer, holding onto every opportunity with white knuckles, his eyes always open for more. He lives on chance. 

 

So when Jimin kisses him on the mouth, tasting like chapstick and Jolly Ranchers, Taehyung kisses him back. 

 

And kisses him. 

 

And kisses him. 

Chapter Text

Bang!

 

Namjoon jumps as another popcorn kernel bursts in the microwave. From the kitchen island, Jimin snickers around his phone. Namjoon shoots him a glare. In the other room, he can hear what sounds like Taehyung shrieking and Jungkook’s hearty laughter. He knows somewhere in the living room are also Jin, Nayeon, and Hoseok, attempting to pick a movie they all can agree on for movie night. It’s a much harder task than it sounds, Jin already puffing up like a chickadee when someone had passed on John Wick, and Namjoon had regulated himself to the safety of the kitchen to make popcorn. Jimin had followed him, claiming he would be moral support, but Namjoon thinks it might be something else. 

 

He jolts again as more kernels burst, and Jimin lowers his phone. 

 

“Are you really this jumpy? Maybe John Wick isn’t a good idea after all,” he remarks. Namjoon shakes his head. 

 

“I’ll be fine, it just startled me. Here, can you grab bowls from that cabinet for me?” Jimin dutifully hops off the barstool to retrieve bowls for the popcorn. Namjoon has learned, over the course of three years of movie nights, that having one or two very rip-able bags of popcorn laying out could only lead to bickering over who ate more and an inevitable mess for Namjoon to clean up before his mother forbade any more movie nights at their house. Single serving bowls are much cleaner in the long run. 

 

Jimin sets a stack of tupperware containers on the counter in front of the microwave just as the doorbell chimes. Before Namjoon can play host and answer the door, a figure dashes towards the door from the living room. 

 

“I’ll get it!” Taehyung calls over his shoulder, already tugging the door wide open and sending a cold January breeze wrapping itself around Namjoon’s socked ankles. He cranes his neck to see their latest arrival, though they’re only missing one person from their team.  

 

“Hey! We’re all in the living room, please vote for How To Train Your Dragon,” begs Taehyung of the person at the door. Shoes shuffle around the corner, and sure enough, Yoongi comes into view of the kitchen. He’s bent over taking off his shoes, but Namjoon can see the stiffness in his posture, the hesitance Yoongi carries himself with. 

 

“‘Kay, Tae.” Even Yoongi’s words out like they’ve been dredged up from the bottom of his lungs. Namjoon wonders what happened to the older boy to make him so uncomfortable; even if Yoongi can be reserved, he’s not usually upset or thrown off-balance. He almost calls out, but stops himself. He doesn’t want to embarrass Yoongi in front of Taehyung and Jimin, so he keeps his mouth shut. Yoongi shuffles after Taehyung into the living room, throwing half of a wave in Namjoon’s direction. Or, quite possibly, he could have been waving at Jimin; it was hard to tell who Yoongi had been directing his greeting towards. 

 

Speaking of Jimin, Namjoon realizes Jimin hadn’t jumped out of his seat to open the door with Taehyung. Usually, the two sophomores were inseparable; he would have expected Jimin to be right next to Taehyung in dragging Yoongi into the other room. Instead, Jimin stays parked in his chair (Namjoon almost laughs at his own joke), toying with the leftover bits of tinsel left out on the counter post-Christmas. 

 

“You doing okay?” Namjoon asks, glancing at the timer on the microwave; 27 seconds left on the popcorn. 

 

“Yeah.” Jimin sounds normal, but there’s something in his face that tells Namjoon there’s something more to this story. 

 

“You sure? Is there a movie you’re uncomfortable with?” 

 

“Nah,” Jimin assures him, waving a casual hand. “I’m just thinking.” Namjoon thinks it’s more than ‘just thinking’. He wants to keep pressing but the microwave beeps, signalling the arrival of hot popcorn and interrupting the conversation. Namjoon’s not religious, but he knows a sign from the universe when he sees one. So he pulls the paper bag out of the microwave, hissing at how hot it is, and pours roughly equal amounts into several bowls. 

 

“I got it,” Jimin says from behind him, taking several of the bowls into the living room. Namjoon follows him a few minutes later with a variety of soda cans piled high in his arms. It’s the weekend before the regionals tournament, and Namjoon had organized this movie night as a chance for them to unwind, relax, before the pressure of regionals and state crept in.

 

It seems like “a quiet night in” is the last thing on everyone’s mind, though, when Namjoon walks into the living room. Hoseok and Jin are kneeling in front of the TV, scrolling through Netflix’s selection of movies. Yoongi has tucked himself into the far corner of the couch that he shares with Taehyung, as far away from the other as he can get. Jimin’s set the popcorn down on the coffee table and taken his seat on the floor next to Jungkook’s armchair. He seems to be pointedly ignoring Taehyung as he talks to Jungkook and Nayeon, his back to the couch. Namjoon really doesn’t know what’s going on with the two, but it’s none of his business. He plops down between Taehyung and Yoongi, leaving a good space between him and the other LD debater, and offers Taehyung a soda.

 

They settle in to watch the movie. Of course, it’s only quiet for the first fifteen minutes before the background commentary begins. Namjoon would rather watch a movie with all his attention, but that’s not the purpose of this movie night. Tonight is about being kids before they have to be debaters. 

 

“Not the dog!” cries Jimin, gesturing towards the TV with an indignant handful of popcorn. Hoseok looks like he might cry any second, and Jungkook is biting his lip, clearing questioning whether he should be watching an R-rated movie. Yoongi’s still in his corner with his arms crossed, but he too looks a little teary. Later in the movie, when the main character has out one a very tight-fitting black suit, the comments become a lot more like cat-calls. 

 

“Keanu Reeves can like, get it,” says Jin through a mouthful of popcorn. “At any hour of any day.” 

 

“Agreed” Taehyung remarks, sharing a significant look with Namjoon involving a lot of eyebrow raising. 

 

“I would pay Keanu Reeves to run me over,” Hoseok claims, “and thank him.” It quickly becomes a game of ‘who can say the craziest thing’. 

 

“I’d pay Keanu Reeves to let me be his doormat.” 

 

“I’d let Keanu Reeves use me as a coffee table, completely naked, for a dinner party with all his celebrity friends.” 

 

“I’d pay Keanu Reeves to let me suck his dick” Jimin looks like he regrets the words as soon as they leave his mouth. The room goes quiet for a moment, and Namjoon glances at Jungkook. The freshmen is uncharacteristically quiet, the laughter gone from his face. Namjoon knows he’s not the only one who remembers Jungkook’s panicked face during their game of ‘never have I ever’ when the bus broke down. The room is awkwardly silent; even the noise of the movie doesn’t break the strain of the moment. 

 

Thankfully, Jin saves them by proclaiming, “I’d let Keanu Reeves tie me to his feet and use me like a snowboard to win the Olympics.” Everyone snorts in laughter, grateful to move on. Jungkook’s smile doesn’t quite reach his eyes, but he’s smiling again. Namjoon shares an uneasy look with Hoseok. Jungkook’s business is his own, but that doesn’t mean Namjoon and the other aren’t worried about him. There’s something he’s not talking about, something that makes his whole face ashen and makes him clam up. 

 

The rest of the movie goes as smoothly as it can after an interruption like that. Yoongi’s the first to leave with Jungkook, having promised to give the younger a ride home. Taehyung and Jimin usually leave around the same time, but Taehyung leaves soon after claiming unfinished homework. Jimin sticks around, looking like he’s holding back tears as he helps Namjoon gather up the popcorn bowls scattered about the room. Everyone trickles out, promising to see each other at the next debate meeting on Tuesday. 

 

In the middle of his empty living room, Namjoon can’t help but wonder about all the people sitting in his home just half an hour ago. He hears the echo of their voices off the walls, the blues and greens of the movie washing their faces in otherworldly colors. In his silent house, surrounded by ghosts, Namjoon does something he rarely ever remembers to do; he prays all his friends find someone in this world to lean on. From Yoongi’s slumped shoulders and Jungkook’s sudden muteness, to the cold no-man’s land between Jimin and Taehyung. He prays for solid ground and for regionals. He prays for the chance to be kids, even for just a second longer.

 

-----

 

Jin knows he should probably feel more nostalgic about his high school’s hallways, but he can’t find it in himself to miss them quite yet. Yeah, he might have spent hours in these halls crying, laughing, moving through life, and he might not have many of those hours left, yet all he wishes for is to be home and in bed. Something about youth being wasted on the young and all that boomer bullshit.

 

At the other end of the table, Jungkook’s messing around on his phone instead of working on their debate cases, but Jin can’t blame the kid for being a little burned out. They’ve been meeting after school like this every other day for the last two weeks, and the pressure is mounting. Even after doing well at regionals, there’s more work to be done before the state tournament. Maybe Jungkook has the right idea after all; Jin’s a little sick of staring at his own writing. 

 

“Who are you texting, Kookie?” Jin rests his chin on his hands, studying the boy across from him. Jungkook looks up from his phone, hair falling into his face. The kid really needs a haircut before state, though Jin thinks his whole ‘kicked puppy’ aesthetic might work to their advantage. 

 

“Tae. He’s upset about...something. I can’t really say.” Jungkook shrugs sheepishly. Jin nods in understanding; Jungkook’s probably been sworn to secrecy and Jin can respect that, even if he’s got an insatiable curiosity. 

 

“Huh. Tae’s a good kid. I hope it gets resolved soon.” Jungkook opens his mouth, but is quickly distracted by his phone once more. Jin assumes it’s more updates from Taehyung. He hopes he finds the advice he needs from Jungkook. They sit in comfortable silence for a minute before Jungkook puts down his phone again, this time with more purpose. Jin doesn’t look up from where he’s been making a Twitter thread about Khalid as different kinds of toasters instead of working. 

 

“Jin?” 

 

“Yeah?” Jungkook’s hesitation over his next words makes Jin actually look at the kid. He’s gained enough confidence over the months than his reluctance is concerning.

 

“Do you think...Do you believe in soulmates?” 

 

Whatever Jin thought Jungkook was going to ask, this wasn’t it. Soulmates? The kid is worried about soulmates? He’s 15, too young to be thinking about boyfriends or girlfriends or forevers! Jin thinks he relates to his parents too much in this moment for his own comfort. 

 

“Not really, to be honest.” Jin rests both elbows on the table, giving his full attention to Jungkook. “I think we find people that change us, but I don’t believe in true love or anything.” Jungkook nods, resting his chin on top of his folded arms. 

 

“I guess.” 

 

“Does this have something to do with Tae?” Jin knows it’s private, but he can’t help but ask anyway. Jungkook scrunches up his nose, weighing how much he wants to tell Jin. 

 

“Kind of. He brought it up, but...I dunno if I believe in soulmates or not.” He looks like a rabbit with his face all screwed up like that, and Jin is lamentably endeared. 

 

“Ah, don’t worry. You’ve got plenty of time for first dates and find out whether you have a soulmate or not, have some fun.” Jin means for his words to be comforting, but Jungkook bites his lip instead. 

 

“What if...What if I’ve already dated someone before? And I don’t know if it was fun.” Jin tries not to let the surprise show on his face. Jungkook’s never talked about a relationship before, and the rest of the team had always assumed he’d never been on a date before. 

 

“Then it’s good you aren’t in that relationship anymore,” Jin says cautiously. “Relationships are work, but it should be fun for both people. Something you want to put time into, to make work.” Jungkook’s still biting his lip, pressing so hard Jin’s afraid it might bleed. When he speaks, it’s in a quiet sort of voice Jin’s never heard him use before.

 

“I don’t think I wanted it to work. So it’s my fault we’re not dating anymore.” The quiet of the empty hall stretches out between them. Jin feels the urge to do something, anything, to keep Jungkook’s lip from bleeding.

 

“Jungkook.” He’s not sure what to say, but he had to say something. It seems to spark something in the boy, snaps him out of his daze and finally stops him from biting through his lip. 

 

“We weren’t soulmates. I think a soulmate is supposed to make you feel safe, and I didn’t...feel safe all the time.” He looks so small in his chair, and Jin wants nothing more to pull him out of his seat and out of the past. But this is Jungkook’s turn to speak, so Jin will listen. When Jin doesn’t say anything, Jungkook glances up quickly, then back down at his knees. He starts to talk slow, but then faster and faster. 

 

“I was in 8th grade. He was a sophomore from another high school. We played with the same soccer program, though I was in a different team than him. He started to pay a lot of attention to me. It was kind of nice, having someone older give you attention, to notice you. He said he could help me get better. I...I didn’t know I liked boys, and then I stayed after practice with him more and more, and…” Jungkook shrugs. Jin feels a little sick. 

 

“He was my first kiss,” Jungkook admits. “He said we needed to keep our relationship secret, or coach would kick us both off the team. He wanted a soccer scholarship...I couldn’t take that away from him. It wasn’t really dating, I guess. He would give me rides home, and we would make out in the backseat in the parking lot. He went a lot faster than I wanted, but I thought that was normal.” Jungkook glances up at Jin, as if asking “ is that normal? ” before continuing. Jin’s heart of ice breaks into a dozen pieces. 

 

“One day, he wanted me to, to, you know, go down on him. I said I didn’t want to, but he said he had spent so much gas money on me, I owed him. I told him no again, but he insisted. He said I needed to repay him, be a better boyfriend. I was scared of him, of what he would do if I didn’t, so. I did. He threw a ten dollar bill at me afterwards and drove me home.” 

 

Jin is going to tear this man limb from limb. He’s going to burn down his house and then salt the earth it stood on. He can’t imagine someone seeing Jungkook, full of the fire of youth, and taking advantage of that earnest naivety. But for now, he’s frozen, forcing himself to keep listening. Jungkook’s still looking at his knees, but his eyes are distant. 

 

“I didn’t tell anyone. I said yes, I could have fought back. It wasn’t r-. Uh. It wasn’t. But I didn’t want to.” He laughs, a humorless little chuckle that forces itself out of his chest. “So that’s why I froze up on the bus, and at Namjoon’s house. Because I wasn’t sure, and now everyone knows there’s something wrong with me-” 

 

“Jungkook.” The forcefulness of his words surprises himself. Jungkook’s head shoots up at the mention of his name. “There’s absolutely, positively, nothing wrong with you.” Jin convinces himself that the burning behind his eyes is purely from dehydration. 

 

“But I got paid for, you know.” Jungkook protests weakly. “No one does that,” 

 

“There is nothing wrong with you,” Jin repeats in a lower voice. “I won’t tell you what happened or how to feel, but what happened to you, it could be construed as coercion and assault. You were underage, and he should have known better. There is nothing wrong with you or the choices you made to keep yourself safe.”

 

Jungkook doesn’t speak for a long moment that weighs heavy across the table, but eventually he sits up straighter and looks Jin in the eyes. 

 

“You won’t tell anyone?” 

 

“I won’t, promise.” Jin wishes he hadn’t promised Jungkook his silence. A rather large part of him wants to find this boy and throw him out of the shadows of Jungkook’s past and into the burning light. Hell, his first instinct is to find an adult. I guess I am an adult in this situation , Jin realizes. 

 

“If you feel like it, you’ll talk to someone right?” he asks abruptly. Jungkook nods, though Jin doubts he’ll actually talk to a ‘real’ adult about this. 

 

“Thank you.” Jungkook is quiet, back to staring at his shoes. “Can we pretend like I never told you that?” 

 

“I don’t know if I can act like you never told me,” Jin admits, “but I won’t act differently around you, if that’s what you’re worried about.” 

 

“It’s all I’m worried about,” Jungkook laughs, and this time it sounds a little more real, if not still self-deprecating. “‘Perception, perception, perception’, right?” Jin’s own words sound odd coming out of this child’s mouth, but then again, he’s not a child is he? Jin ponders. And perhaps, I am not so grown.  

 

There are secrets shared that are never shared again, the end of the road. This may be a secret Jin takes to the grave. He’s not sure whether he can keep his promise. He’s not sure what the future holds, even with all his college applications and plans for world domination. The world used to look dark, alit by only the flashlight Jin held, the past and the future both shrouded in night. But when he looks at Jungkook, he thinks the future coming up behind him might be pretty bright indeed.



-----



In all honesty, Hoseok did not expect his day to end covered in glitter, glue, and the little paper backings from foam letters and stickers.

 

As the unofficial team cheerleader, Hoseok prides himself in his attempts to boost team spirit. He brings Namjoon coffee with little colorful stickers on them (“team captain perks!”), reminds the lady at the front desk to include speech and debate club meetings in her morning announcements, and makes locker posters with their names on them. And. because it’s Hoseok, each poster is covered in enough glitter and craft store decorations to fit in as a Las Vegas billboard. Yoongi hates the posters with a passion, complaining loudly every tournament when Hoseok tacks up a new one, but he doesn’t have the heart to ever take them down. He settles for whining about it for the next two weeks to anyone who will listen. Hoseok knows he secretly enjoys the recognition, especially when Hoseok writes “our best debater!! <3 <3 <3 !!! on his poster. Even Jin knows not to protest that. 

 

So, the Thursday night before the tournament weekend, Hoseok’s ignoring his AP Biology homework in favor of making personalized locker posters. He loves this little tradition this little extra bit of work and recognition. He’s the glue; he keeps his team together.

 

Except, for the past few weeks, it’s been harder than usual. 

 

Yoongi, for starters, has been even more stressed than usual. Ever since December, it seems like he’s been stuck in a rut. Hoseok’s been Yoongi’s friend for three years, ever since he was a freshman and Yoongi a sophomore. He’s familiar with Yoongi’s phases of depression and anxiety, has ridden out the flow of Yoongi’s moods before. He’s never judged him for it either; being a friend means he’s there, thick or thin or inbetween. Some are worse than others, but Yoongi’s mood always swings back to normal eventually, normal being quiet and focused, but content. He smiles again, laughs at Hoseok’s jokes again. But this time, Hoseok thinks it feels different than his usual phases. 

 

He’s not just quiet, he’s mute. He’s not focused, he’s obsessed. He’s hardly sleeping, and Hoseok can’t remember the last time he laughed at one of Hoseok’s jokes. And Hoseok can’t fix this for him, can’t stick him back together with Scotch tape and hot chocolate. This is something that has to pass on its own. 

 

Even still, Hoseok glues on several extra sunshine stickers to Yoongi’s locker poster. Maybe something bright will help? He draws a smiley face on one of the suns, but it just looks like it’s grimacing. He never was a good artist. He covers Yoongi’s poster in white glitter, the same shade as his bleached blonde hair.

 

Yoongi’s not the only one acting strange. Taehyung and Jimin have been drifting apart over the last few weeks. At first, Hoseok had assumed it was because of regionals. Stress and pressure can do funny things to people, and Jimin and Taehyung had been scheming to place at the state tournament this year. They’ve been friends since middle school, debate partners since freshman year, and again, Hoseok hadn’t been worried. But it’s been three weeks since he’s seen them together outside of debate meetings after school, and even those meetings are strained. Usually, the two boys live practically out of each other’s pockets, but now they avoid eye contact like the plague.

 

Something must have happened between them, but Hoseok is at a loss at what exactly could have thrown them so far off-rhythm. He’s tried talking to them both, but Jimin is frustratingly gifted at pretending like everything is fine, and Taehyung wouldn’t tell him anything. The only thing he was able to pry out of them both was that Jimin had been hanging out with some other friends from school recently, without Taehyung. 

 

He’s not sure how exactly to fix it when he doesn’t even know what’s wrong, but just to be safe, he puts extra glitter on their posters, blue and red to make purple. In all honesty, Hoseok’s a secret Pinterest hoe, but that’s okay because he likes making locker posters for his friends.

 

On his own poster, he puts stickers of sunglasses and palm trees, all covered in a healthy coating of green glitter. He’s totally a cool skater boy on the inside, regardless that he’s never stood on a skateboard in his entire life and uses glitter liberally in all things. 

 

On Nayeon’s, he puts turquoise glitter, her favorite color, and writes “the best debate partner ever!” in silver Sharpie ink under her name. He admires his partner very much. She’s never let the fact that she’s the only girl on the team get her down, and is a lot better than most sophomore debaters. Nayeon is too pure for this world, though Hoseok hasn’t seen her much recently. She’s been busy with the swim team, and had been unable to attend the last tournament. Hoseok therefore hadn’t debated at all, and just competed in extemporaneous speech events. He finds he misses debating with her; state can’t come fast enough.

 

Next is Jungkook’s poster. Now that Hoseok thinks about it, Jungkook’s been a little quiet too the last few weeks. Ever since the movie night at Namjoon’s, he’s been on edge, like he’s waiting for the other shoe to drop. Jin seems to be hanging around the freshman more as well, standing close to Jungkook’s side. It seems Jungkook’s been able to confide in one person, at least, what’s been eating at him since that night. Though Hoseok wishes he could help Jungkook himself, he’s glad Jin’s providing him some support. He sticks a dozen golden stars onto Jungkook’s poster, their golden child, and covers Jin's in hot pink glitter. 

 

Overall, Hoseok probably spends the most time on Namjoon’s poster. He draws Namjoon’s name out in glue with the utmost care, covering the letters in a rainbow spray of glitter, so that their team leader’s name shines with all their colors. After barely a second’s hesitation, he adds a few small heart stickers by Namjoon’s name. Namjoon is so full of love, for their team, the club, for the animals and the early mornings and coffee with too much cream. Hoseok loves that Namjoon is so full of love, so full of life. Hoseok may be the glue, the ties that bind, but Namjoon is their heart, their guiding light. Where he goes, the team will follow. 

 

Shaking himself out of his daydreaming of the other boy’s dimples, Hoseok finishes the last of the locker posters and sets them out to dry overnight. Tomorrow morning, he’ll tape them all up on each debater’s respective lockers. He surveys the chaos of his room, which looks like a tornado swept through a Michael’s craft store with more glitter, and smiles. His team has made a mess of his room and his life, but he doesn’t mind so much. It’s a welcome sort of madness.

 

 

Chapter Text

The night pulls on him, but Jungkook’s not sure whether he’s being dragged up or down. 

 

The only light comes from his laptop, and occasionally his phone when he checks for text messages from Jimin. He’s not sure what time it is, or how long it’s been since he sat down at his desk, thinking “Just a little more research.” It’s been a lot longer than a few minutes, but the night is pressing him onward. As soon as the sun rises, he will have promises to keep and battles to win. 

 

Jungkook clicks on another article and takes a moment to stretch while he waits for it to load. He never thought he’d turn into Yoongi, but here he is, prepping late into the night just a few hours before the tournament. The state tournament. 

 

Namjoon had told him not to stress over the state tournament, that it was just a regular tournament with more people than usual. But Jungkook knows differently. They’ve been talking about state for months. He can hear the reverence in their voices when the older team members speak about the state tournament. He can hear the hope, the fire burning in them when it’s brought up.

 

It’s strange; for however often his team expresses elation over qualifying for the state tournament, there is an equal amount of despair and apprehension. It is something to fear as much as something to adore, something great and terrible; the only thing young people hope for, a place to prove themselves. Jungkook wants to prove them all wrong and right, that he is good enough for the team and good enough for Jin. 

 

His cursor blinks up at him, waiting for his next great idea,  but he’s stuck on the thought of Jin. This is Jin’s last tournament as a graduating senior. This is his final high school debate ever, his final chance to prove himself. Arguably, if you ask Jungkook, Jin has proven himself a dozen times over, but he also knows it’s not so simple to the individual themselves. Jin has always held himself with his back straight, no room for error. Jungkook won’t let him down, not this time. 

 

Not when this is the last time they’ll be partners. 

 

He knows it’s normal, expected, incredible that Jin and Yoongi are graduating and leaving for higher education in the fall. They’re both going places and he’s so very proud to have known them for even just a year. But he can’t help but wish to cling onto the memories and beg for more, just one more tournament, one more afternoon, one more moment with the whole family-

 

Because that’s what they are to him now, a family. They may fight, argumentative by nature. They may be a little lost, still trying to find themselves, but they’re lost together. He might have only been on this team for a year, but he already knows his life has been irrevocably changed forever, for good. He can only hope the changes don’t break his heart.

 

Jungkook closes his eyes to the glare of his laptop screen. He is standing on the edge, the coast of some vast ocean. Somewhere ahead of him, Taehyung calls to him, floating a few yards from shore. Past him, the rest of the team waves and shouts his name, comfortable in the futures that Jungkook can’t yet see for himself. 

 

The furthest away is Jin, barely visible on an island at the edge of the horizon. He too is standing on the edge of something, about to drop off the face of the earth. Impossibly, Jungkook can see his grin from where he stands on his coast, self-assured but welcoming. In Jin’s eyes, Jungkook sees himself, the same echo of the fear of the unknown.

 

Jungkook opens his eyes, the mirage of an ocean still wavering behind his eyelids. He’s running out of time. Pushing his computer aside, he pulls out his sketchbook and a pencil. He will not waste a second he has left with Jin.

 

-----

 

Jimin’s an actor, it’s second nature to paste a smile on his face when someone says his name. And yet, watching the hustle and bustle of the state tournament around him never fails to make him genuinely grin. This is the gladiator’s arena, and he’s ready for the lions. Not even Taehyung’s shitty attitude can distract him from his excitement.

 

“Jimin! Hey!” Turning to see who’s calling his name, Jimin’s face breaks into a huge grin. 

 

“Taeyong! Oh my god, I didn’t know if you were coming!” Stepping towards Taeyong, Jimin hugs him tightly. The other debater beams, brushing his shaggy hair out of his eyes. 

 

“Yeah, I’m glad we both made it to state again! It’s really been a whole year, huh?” 

 

“I can’t believe it either. Your hair is so much longer! It looks good!” Jimin flicks a stray strand of Taeyong’s hair out of his face. Taeyong laughs and shoves playfully at Jimin, a hand lingering on his shoulder. A boy in a navy suit stands behind Taeyong, looking unsure of how to introduce himself. Taeyong notices, and beckons the boy forward. 

 

“Oh hey, this is my debate partner Doyoung, he’s a freshman. Doyoung, this is Jimin Park from one of the local high schools. We met each other last year at state when I lost-” 

 

“Lost your laptop charger and asked to borrow mine! I remember!” Jimin interjects, shaking hands with Doyoung. “It’s nice to meet you. You must be pretty good if you’re debating with Taeyong. You should meet our team’s hot shot freshman, Jungkook.” Doyoung smiles nervously at Jimin.

 

“Ah, you’re too nice Jimin!” Taeyong waves the compliment off. “And who are you debating with? Jungkook?” 

 

“Oh no, Jungkook is in policy,” Jimin explains. “I’m still with Taehyung. Hey, Taehyung, you remember Taeyong, right?” Taehyung glances up from where he stands a few feet away, absorbed on his phone. He nods curtly to Taeyong, whose cheer seems unswayed by the other boy’s terse manner. 

 

“Good to see you again! I remember from last year, they kept getting us mixed up on postings.” Taeyong offers his hand, but Taehyung ignores it.

 

“Yeah, I remember.” There’s an awkward pause, and Jimin grimaces in silent apology for his partner’s bad attitude. Taehyung’s face remains unchanged. Doyoung’s eyes flit back and forth between the three sophomores.

 

“Anyways, we should go prep for the third round.” Taeyong concedes, putting his hands in his pockets. “I’m sure we’ll hit you in the prelim rounds at some point. Good luck to you guys!” 

 

“Good luck to you too! See you around!” Jimin wishes sincerely, waving at Taeyong and Doyoung head back to their team table. As soon as they’re out of earshot, Jimin whirls to glare at Taehyung. “What was that all about? Why were you so rude?” Taehyung shrugs, his nonchalance only fueling Jimin’s frustration. 

 

“He’s competition from another school.” 

 

“He’s my friend!” Jimin protests hotly. “And we both know that’s bullshit, competition doesn’t mean you get to act like that,” Taehyung scowls deeply. 

 

“Okay, go debate with him then, if he’s such a good friend of yours.” Jimin’s mouth hangs open in shock.

 

“What is with you today? You’re being an asshole!”

 

“You’re the one ignoring me and hanging out with literally anyone else!” 

 

“What?” Jimin’s taken aback by this accusation. “I’m not avoiding you. You’re the one being all weird. You’ve been weird for like a month now.” 

 

“I’m the weird kid again, huh?” Hurt flashes across Taehyung’s face, replacing anger for just a second, and Jimin gets an ugly reminder of their middle school years. Instead of letting it go, he keeps pushing, too caught up in his own pain. 

 

“Yeah Tae, you’re the weird kid again who eats lunch by himself.” Jimin’s being half sarcastic, but his tone sounds warped, acidic. Taehyung folds in on himself even more, bristling. Maybe Jimin miscalculated how lonely Taehyung was during those months before they became friends. 

 

“Oh yeah?” Taehyung snaps, his tone uncharacteristically contemptful. “You’re still a slut who likes to ‘make friends’ with everyone for validation.” 

 

Slut .

 

The word hurls itself at Jimin and buries itself deep, but he tries not to let the hurt show. He’s more angry than he’s ever been in his entire life.

 

“Shut up! Shut the fuck up!” Jimin can feel tears building behind his eyes, but he won’t let them fall. He won’t let Taehyung see him cry. Maybe he used to trust Taehyung with his life, but not anymore. There is something broken in both of them, starting the night they slept together. 

 

It’s all Jimin’s fault. 

 

“I did not sleep with Taeyong! And what if I did? You don’t control me, you don’t know me at all!” Taehyung snarls, opens his mouth to say something even more hurtful, but a voice interrupts them. 

 

“Hey, um, guys? Take it somewhere else, please? People are looking at you two. You’re being..kind of loud.” Jungkook’s voice is mediative but firm. He stands a couple of few away, clutching a stack of The Economists. Like stepping into a cold shower, Jimin realizes that Jungkook’s right. They can’t be fighting in the open like this, it’s unprofessional. Hell, they shouldn’t be fighting at all, but Jimin’s not the one who started it.

 

“Fine,” growls Taheyung, stomping out of the cafeteria. Now that he’s not arguing, Jimin can feel the prickle of curious eyes on the back of his neck, making him want to curl up and hide. He forces himself to straighten his posture and not cry. Jungkook reaches out, unsure of what to say. 

 

“Jimin, you two have to-” 

 

“Leave it, Jungkook.” Jimin doesn’t mean to be rude, but he doesn’t have the patience for well-meaning advice right now. 

 

Taehyung’s words stick to the inside of his skull, painful and ugly. Slut . They rattle their way around his head as he takes sips of his water bottle, trying to keep his face from turning red. The most hurtful part of all this isn’t the words themselves; no, not even the weapons Jimin arms himself with every debate round, every day. 

 

It’s the fact that they were spoken by Taehyung. Jimin shuts his eyes tight and forces himself not to go running after his best friend. Are they even still friends after all that? Does Jimin still want to be Taehyung’s best friend, his go-to, his partner in crime? He’s not sure. He’s not sure about anything anymore. Will Taehyung still debate with him? It’s state, there’s no way he could back out now! 

 

“Hey, you alright?” That’s Hoseok next to him, his tone carefully carefree. Jimin swallows, not turning around to face his teammate. 

 

“Yeah, just nervous for the next round.” Jimin busies himself shoving his water bottle back in his backpack so that he doesn’t have to face Hoseok. He’s fine. He can get through the next debate round with maturity. He will not cry. “Have you seen Taheyung?” 

 

“...I think he’s down the hall. But listen, Jimin, I think-” 

 

“I gotta run to our round. If you see him, tell him I’m in room 24B. Good luck in your rounds.” Jimin brushes past Hoseok, slinging his laptop bag over his shoulder and heading towards his room. A small part of him feels bad for ignoring Hoseok, but he’s too full of other emotions to process the guilt. He really doesn’t know what will happen if Taehyung doesn’t show up to round, and another small part of him doesn’t care. There is still anger, heavy to hold and hot to the touch, lingering behind his eyes and his tongue but he pushes it as far away from himself as he can. 

 

He’s the first to arrive, but he takes the time to set up his computer and go over some of his notes. Their opponents arrive before Taehyung does, the other boy slinking in with his laptop just five minutes before the debate begins. Jimin feels the most outrage at this, that Taehyung is not only disgusted with Jimin, but that he can’t be bothered to get over it and debate, at least for the sake of the team. When Taehyung sits down next to Jimin, he won't even look at him. 

 

Needless to say, it goes downhill from there. 

 

It’s not a particularly difficult debate topic, nor are their opponents a particularly challenging team. Even still, it’s one of the hardest debates Jimin has ever competed in. Taehyung continues to ignore him, not sparing a glance or even his notes with Jimin. Jimin knows their debate cases well enough that he doesn’t need Taehyung’s notes per say, but the distinct lack of conversation makes his blood boil. He fumes silently throughout the first few speeches, including Taehyung’s.

 

As the debate goes on, Jimin’s irritation grows with each speech. He’s barely paying attention to the actual debate, unable to focus on the arguments at hand. He’s too busy being rubbed the wrong way by every word out of Taehyung’s mouth, a simmering pot about to overflow. In fact, by the time it’s time for his first speech of the round, Jimin is practically vibrating with fury. How dare Taehyung accuse him of avoiding him, of sleeping around? 

 

If there’s anything Jimin has never done, it’s taken an insult lying down. If Taehyung wants to play with fire, he can spark some controversy right back.

 

As he stands at the podium, the eyes of the judge and their opponents on him, Jimin takes a breath to gather himself. If he’s going to burn, he’s going to do it with grace. He clicks the start button on his timer and starts speaking. It’s not the best speech he’s ever given in his life, especially because he wasn’t paying attention, but that’s not his priority at the moment. Right now, he just wants to hurt Taehyung like Taehyung hurt him. 

 

“We negate the resolution in today’s debate. First, I’d like to deconstruct some of my opponent’s points then go over my own case. They brought up the idea that churches offer a community service that is too important to be taxed. I have three responses to this. First, that there are hundreds of non-profit institutions and services in the United States, from health care to food security to education programs and more. To claim that the church is completely non-profit and that it provides a more comprehensive service than all the other programs is ignoring the facts. I would say that my partner will provide more details on these services in his next speech, but apparently I can’t trust him to do anything right, so I’m going to go over them myself.” 

 

Now, all eyes are firmly on him. The judge and their opponents are staring at Jimin as if he’s lost his mind. Taehyung is finally looking at him as well, expression unreadable. Fueled by the desire to make Taehyung’s face crumple, Jimin pushes onward. 

 

“In fact, I can’t trust my partner to even write his own speeches, so I need to write him an outline for his rebuttal as I stand up here because he can’t do it himself.” Taehyung’s mouth is hanging open. Their opponents are furiously whispering, and Jimin thinks he sees one of them with her phone out recording his speech. The judge looks conflicted, as if he’s not sure when to step in. 

 

“Secondly, the idea that churches are purely for non-profit ignores crucial evidence from recent articles on the Catholic and Mormon church. Just like my partner ignored me for a month and a half and then blamed me for having friends besides him.” Taehyung pushes back from the table, the chair legs screeching on the tile. 

 

“What the hell are you doing?” Taehyung hisses. It’s like no one else is in the room. It’s just the two of them: Jimin and the furious furrow to Taehyung’s brow.

 

“Telling the truth,” Jimin quips. Taehyung stands, looking ready to fight. 

 

“I can write my own speeches!” 

 

“Yeah? Then why did I do most of the work on both cases? Why did we lose a third of the debates at regionals? It’s because you can’t debate!”

 

“You’re blaming me? You started this!”

 

“No I didn’t! You called me a slut!” 

 

“That’s-” 

 

“That’s enough!” shouts the judge. The whole room goes dead quiet. Jimin’s chest heaves, trying to catch his breath. Their opponents are frozen in their seats. “I’m not sure what’s going on between you two, but you need to leave. This is a disgrace to debate. I’ll have to talk to your coach because this is the worst display of poor sportsmanship I’ve ever seen in my life.” The judge turns to their still frozen opponents. “I’m giving you the win by default. This round is over.” He picks up his papers and walks out of the room. The whole room is still silent. 

 

All at once, the consequences of what Jimin’s just done catches up to him all at once. They’ve just been disqualified from a round at the state tournament. He just insulted his partner in front of the entire room, then proceeded to outright fight with him in the middle of the debate. Shame rises up in him, so strong he thinks his legs might give out underneath him. What has he done? What has he just ignited? 

 

Their opponents gather their belongings and leave the room quietly. One of them turns to Jimin, who’s still standing at the podium unsure of how to proceed. “You need to figure some shit out,” she says quietly, and shuts the door behind her. Taehyung’s still standing behind their desk, hair hanging over his eyes from his outburst. Jimin feels cold all the way down to his fingertips, a contrast to the boiling anger he felt earlier. 

 

“Tae…” Jimin’s not sure what to say, what to do next. His words seems to break the spell on Taehyung, and he starts packing up their belongings. “Tae, listen.” 

 

“We lost, Jimin.” Taehyung’s voice is hard, devoid of any emotion. “Are you going to blame that on me too?” Jimin winces, hardly believing the words that came out of his own mouth not five minutes ago. 

 

“No,” whispers Jimin, and steps over to close his own laptop. They don’t speak after that, gathering their things and exiting the classroom. The walk back to the cafeteria is silent as well, and though apologies and accusations bunch up in Jimin’s throat by the minute he chokes them all down. There is nothing he could say to take back what he did. 

 

At the team table, Hoseok waves at them, holding a can of soda. “You guys are back early. How did it go?” 

 

Jimin stops and opens his mouth, suddenly unable to explain what just happened. Hoseok’s smile falters. Taehyung adjusts his laptop bag and continues walking. Hoseok’s eyes dart after him, frowning by the time he faces Jimin again. 

 

“What happened?” he repeats again, and Jimin swallows a sob. 

 

“We lost, Hobi. And it’s my fault again.” 

 

The news of the breakdown in the middle of a debate round spreads like wildfire. It seems like everyone knows by the time their coach approaches Jimin, who’s got his headphones on to drown out the whispers and the pointing. 

 

“Where’s Taehyung?” Their coach gets right to the point. Jimin shrugs. 

 

“Outside, I think. He went for a walk after the round.” Coach sighs and rubs his forehead. Jimin can’t look him in the eye, fiddling with his headphones. 

 

“You know what I’m going to say, Jimin. From what your judge told me, it was like both of you lost control.” Jimin nods, shame and guilt making it hard for him to speak. Why is it that anger and hatred make the words so much easier, but emotions like joy and guilt make the words so much more difficult? Why was it so easy for Taehyung to tear him down, and for him to do the same? 

 

“Let’s go find Taehyung,” Coach says, “and I’ll tell you what’s going to happen next.” Jimin nods once again and stands up, doing his best to ignore the increase in whispers. As he follows their coach out of the cafeteria, he wipes a tear from the corner of his eye. In this moment, all he wants is a hug from his best friend; he just wants Taehyung’s comfort again, like how they used to be. Jimin doesn’t know if he’ll ever have that comfort again.



-----



It starts small, with a red striped tie and a cup of fake coffee. 

 

Things are going ok. Not great, not terrible. Yoongi managed to drag himself out of bed that morning with minimal groaning, remembering to tuck in his dress shirt as he ran out the door clutching his first cup of coffee of the day. The bus ride to the tournament had been chilly, conversation kept to a minimum as the tension built with every mile closer they had gotten. Jungkook had practically been vibrating in his seat, Jin’s amusement at his partner’s eagerness hiding his own nervousness. Namjoon had been practicing his speech on climate change for the billionth time, a strangely comforting and familiar chant 

 

So no, the morning hadn’t been bad at all. 

 

The low murmur of anxiety hasn’t been enough to tip him off-balance, kept at bay by constant motion and back-to-back debate rounds. He’s been too busy to think about how slow his words are, how the debates get harder and harder. He tells himself he’s too busy to be sad about this being his last tournament ever. After his first round, he buys a Redbull with a few crumpled dollars he finds in the bottom of his backpack, downs it in three gulps, and keeps going.

 

It’s almost afternoon by the time he stops to catch his breath and eat something. To be honest, he’s been avoiding his teammates for a few reasons. One, they’ll probably disapprove of his caffeine intake and lack of consuming any real food for 24 hours. Two, the mood at the team table has been low ever since the first debate round that morning, and Yoongi doesn’t want to be around that kind of energy. Jimin’s been sitting quietly at the team table ever since Coach came to talk to him. Taehyung is nowhere to be seen, and Yoongi’s not about to go ask Jimin about him. Third, he’d rather not be bothered about stupid things, like “how he’s doing” or “if he’s feeling okay.” No one asks winners if they’re feeling okay.

 

But Yoongi’s stomach has been hollering at him for chugging an energy drink on an empty stomach, so he goes to get something from the team table, hoping to avoid any of the drama his team seems to be filled with and get his organs to shut up. 

 

Unfortunately, it’s not his team he needs to be worried about. 

 

When Yoongi slinks by the table with his flows tucked under one arm, Jimin’s still sitting by himself. He ignores Yoongi, which the older debater is grateful for. Across from Jimin is Namjoon, who’s on his phone, probably tweeting some activist shit. Yoongi keeps his head down and grabs a granola bar. As he’s unwrapping it, he can’t help but overhear the conversation from the table adjacent to theirs. A boy - tall, blonde, and the type to mansplain swimming to a fish - in a red striped tie holds court at his own team table. Yoongi’s never seen him around before; he must be from an out of town high school. 

 

“I’m just saying,” the boy is explaining, “you have to ask the baristas to blend it instead of just plain ice. They never know how to make drinks in the first place, I never tip because they’re shit at their job.” Yoongi spies an overly-expensive, convolutedly customized drink cup clutched in the boy’s sweaty hands. Typical. A few starstruck freshmen stand around the preaching asshole, either too dumb or too afraid to speak up. Yoongi has to squeeze by them to get back to his own team table. It’s a bit of an awkward fit since he still has all his notes and debate flows tucked under one arm. 

 

“‘Scuse me,” he mutters. The freshmen move out of his way easily, but Blonde Asshole sighs, like he’s being terribly inconvenienced by his own choice to stand in the middle of a walkway. Yoongi keeps his head down, not looking for any polite conversation. It’s why he doesn’t see the backpack laying half under the table, half in his path. 

 

Before he knows it, his feet are in the air and he’s falling. He crashes into Blonde Asshole full force, free arm spread to break his fall. One of his hands knocks into the overpriced drink in his hands, and coffee goes everywhere. 

 

He lands on his ass with a thump! Blonde Asshole is still standing, clutching the edge of a table for balance, his expression incredulous. His coffee cup rolls away, the majority of the drink on the floor and soaking through the right side of Yoongi’s suit jacket. 

 

“Fuck,” Yoongi swears under his breath. He can feel the coffee soaking into his pants. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t looking.” 

 

“You weren’t looking, Jesus fuck dude. You spilled my drink!” Blonde Asshole sounds too shocked to be truly angry, like it’s absurd anyone could ever trip around him. Yoongi has exactly no time for this; he’s wet, stressed, and oh shit, all his notes…

 

“Oh shit!” Yoongi’s notes had gone flying in the fall, and they lay scattered, some already soaked in spilled coffee. He scrambles to his feet and starts gathering his debate flows. No, no, no…

 

“Yeah, oh shit is right!” Blonde Asshole makes no move to help him. “That was a six dollar drink!” Is this kid for real? Yoongi would kick his ass if he wasn’t too busy trying to save his notes. 

 

“Sorry,” he says again through gritted teeth. “I tripped.” His jacket is dripping on the floor, and everyone is looking at him. He can feel the panic rising in his chest, and clenches his jaw harder to stop its arrival. Blonde Asshole glares at him, though not a drop of coffee stains his pressed white dress shirt. 

 

“You-” 

 

“Hey, are you okay?” Namjoon’s coming closer, worry crossing his features. He must have heard the commotion, like everyone else in the damned cafeteria. 

 

“I’m fine,” Yoongi manages to growl, shaking coffee from one of his flows. The red and blue ink has already smeared, running down the page and over his neat script. He could cry right now over this paper alone, and this isn’t even the only ruined page. Blonde Asshole scrutinizes Namjoon, measuring how much authority the Korean boy has over him. 

 

“Are you okay?” Namjoon asks the boy as well, because that’s the kind of person he is. Blonde Asshole sniffs, brushing imaginary lint off his slacks. 

 

“I’m fine,” he starts, “but he-” 

 

“That’s great. C’mon Yoongi, we can clean up in the bathroom.” Namjoon cuts Blonde Asshole off, because that’s also the kind of person he is, and shoves Yoongi away from the possible conflict. Yoongi can’t stop staring at his ruined notes. Debate flow sheets aren’t the most important. He’ll be fine without them, the real information he needs is all safely tucked away in his computer (which has a waterproof case, thank you very much). But this is all his hard work. His time, his effort, his ideas. They’re all gone in a flood of coffee that’s too much syrup to really be called coffee.

 

“C’mon,” Namjoon says, pushing him into the nearest bathroom. “Take off your jacket. I’ll try and get the stains out if you get your pants.” Dumping the half-soaked papers on the row of sinks, Yoongi silently begins wiping at his pants with a damp paper towel. Now that the eyes of the colosseum aren’t upon him, the panic and embarrassment clogs his throat and burn his eyes. He just spilled someone else’s coffee all over himself, in front of almost the entire debate circuit. At the fucking state tournament.

 

“Did you get hurt when you fell?” Namjoon’s voice echoes off the tiled walls. Yoongi grunts in response. Namjoon takes it to mean no, the only thing bruised is his pride. After a few minutes of silent scrubbing, Namjoon sighs heavily. “I think this is as good as we’re going to get it. It’s not so bad, and you can always debate in just a dress shirt, right?” 

 

“Yeah.” Yoongi’s not having great luck with his pants either. The coffee stains aren’t very visible, but it’s still uncomfortable. They’ll be damp all day until Yoongi can go home and change. The animosity in Yoongi’s chest is growing like vines, squeezing his ribs and making it hard to breathe. All his notes. His pride. His damn pants. 

 

“Hey, don’t worry about it, okay? It could have happened to anyone.” Namjoon’s trying to be helpful, but Yoongi isn’t in the mood to be coddled. 

 

“I don’t need my ego protected like Jin’s, Joon,” Yoongi mutters, gathering up the remains of his notes. “I’m gonna go throw these away. Don’t follow me.” He wants to be alone right now, so that no one else has to see him break. Namjoon wordlessly hands Yoongi his suit jacket, pressing his lips together into a thin line. Yoongi stomps out of the bathroom, ignoring the rest of the cafeteria and heading for the back doors. This isn’t his high school, but after coming here for four years for tournaments he knows where most of the doors lead. 

 

Pushing his way through a set of double doors located in a secluded back area of the school, Yoongi’s hit in the face with a rush of cold air. Though it might only be early evening, the sun sets early enough in the winter for it to be dusk already. The streetlamps are his main source of light, casting sickly orange shadows over the snow-covered dumpsters slumping against the brick wall of the school. Yoongi tosses his notes into one of the open dumpsters, the papers fluttering down to the bottom of the container. He could try to salvage them, but it’s too late. He’s lost to himself already. 

 

Abruptly, he screams into the sunset, a wordless shriek. It echoes off the rusty dumpsters with a metallic hum, ringing in his ears as he kicks at snow banks and cardboard boxes. His ears are still ringing with Blonde Asshole’s condescencion, from his previous debate rounds, from Namjoon’s concern…

 

And it’s all. 

 

So. 

 

Much .

 

He just wants it all to stop .

 

“FUCK! FUCK THIS!” His obscenities cloud around him like his visible breath, one more thing his mother wouldn’t approve of. “I - I can’t-” He clutches his head, sinking to his knees. His head is too full. “Shit.” 

 

He presses the heel of his palms into his eyes until it hurts. He presses harder. The pavement is ice cold through the knees of his slacks, but it’s a welcome sensation. He feels like he’s on fire, he’s frozen in place, coming apart at the seams, ink spilled and staining his skin. He wants to run, scream, kick more boxes, shout more swears. 

 

But he can’t. He’s just pathetic Yoongi, on his knees in the back parking lot of a high school, crying. 

 

Large tears roll down his cheeks. He hits his hand against the icy pavement, grit and snow sticking to his palm. Pathetic. 

 

“What if this is all I’m good at?” He’s not sure to whom he’s asking all these questions. Maybe it’s his future self, a dark cloud of possibilities slipping through his fingers. Maybe it’s his younger self: a baby-faced, naive punk who didn’t know what he wanted. Does he know what he wants now? Is he any less of a mystery? “What if this is all I’ll ever be good at? What if this is the most I’ll ever get out of life? Fucking speech and debate?” 

 

He’s been questioning his priorities in the last few months, and can’t seem to make his mind up about it. On one hand, this is his passion, his outlet, his veritable art form. It’s been a major part of his life for the last four years, something he’s spent days and nights obsessing over. On the other hand, as soon as he graduates it all disappears. No more high school debate, no more late nights and early mornings spent doing something he knows he’s good at. No more team, no more stability; he’s losing himself as soon as he picks up his diploma. 

 

And if he’s losing all this so soon, did it even matter in the first place? Did he ever have a family with these people? Has he left his mark, made his move, done everything he could have done? Four years used to seem like an eternity, but now it seems like mere minutes. What has he forgotten? What has been broken that cannot be fixed?

 

“What am I,” he chokes out between sobs. “What am I becoming?” Because indeed, he has changed. He’s sad now, sullen and angry. He didn’t used to be like this. When did it get this bad? 

 

“WHAT AM I?” He cries out, voice cracking halfway through. He’s answered only by a cold wind ruffling his hair and chilling the tears on his cheeks. He clenches a fist around the grit and snow on his palm. He wants to soak up the pavement, sink into the earth, never to return. 

 

He barely notices that it’s begun to snow, faint flakes drifting to the ground and wreathing his head in a crown of snowflakes. Soon, the snow will fill all the footprints he left behind him, and leave him without a clear past or future. Yoongi’s hands are cold, the knees of his pants wet from kneeling on the frozen ground. He knows he should go back inside, back to his obligations, but he can’t make himself stand up. 

 

For a moment, in the silence and the snow, he allows himself to consider the brief hope of him actually winning LD debate. He wants it. He wants it badly, so badly it hurts like he’s swallowed boiling honey, hot and sticky and sticking to his bones. Ambition and greed are sinful killers Yoongi is well-acquainted with, but one he’s too familiar with is doubt. Does he deserve to win? Could he win if he tried hard enough? What happens if he does, or if he doesn’t? What does he deserve if he loses?

 

There are no answers for him out here, crumpled on the pavement next to a stack of dilapidated dumpsters. There are no answers for him in the real world. Like Jin, Yoongi has a mask he wears in front of others, though a much less obvious one. It’s kept him safe, but it’s kept him hostage as well, security in exchange for opportunity. 

 

Unfortunately, it seems like he’ll have to take the mask off, to become real, if he wants answers from this cold world. 

 

Yoongi is tired. He is tired of wearing the mask, of wearing his expectations like chains and a badge of honor. He’s tired of being scared, of being sad, of being empty. 

 

“Please,” Yoongi asks the opaque blackness of the sky, sitting up on his knees and tipping his head backwards. “Please, give me something. I don’t have the strength to take it for myself.” 

 

The buzzing burning feeling finally gone from his vision, Yoongi can see the snow for the first time. There are hundreds of flakes falling at once, dusting across his nose and his eyelashes. At last, he truly feels the icy chill that has seeped into his limbs. His fingers feel like stone as he uncomfortably shivers. But he laughs, the sound resounding against the metal dumpsters. At last, he feels something. This, he can work with. 

 

A cold fire is better than no fire at all. Now at least he has a place to start. He gets off of his knees, ignoring the wet patches on the knees of his pants. The cold proves he had fire in him once. His future may remain uncertain, but he has this: the last snow of his childhood.

He will savor it like a piece of candy for as long as he can, until it melts into aftertaste. 

Chapter Text

The fifth time Jimin sniffles, Namjoon sets down his phone and fixes the debater with the most commanding look he can muster. 

 

“Jimin. You have to go find Tae and talk to him.” 

 

“Why? He doesn’t want to talk to me.” 

 

“You don’t know that. And besides, Coach said you could still finish the tournament if you guys get your act together. It’s state! You have to try.” Jimin finally looks up at Namjoon, and it’s clear he’s not changing his mind. 

 

“He stalked off right after Coach got done chewing us out. He only said he was sorry because Coach made him. He doesn’t want to talk to me, and he really doesn’t want to debate with me. I’m sorry, but I don’t think we can compete anymore.” Jimin sniffs again, holding back angry tears. Namjoon rests his elbows on the table, clicking into mediation mode. 

 

“At least tell me what he said. What were you guys fighting about?” At this, Jimin’s expression shifts from dejected to cryptic. His eyes dart back and forth, like he’s looking for someone listening into their conversation. 

 

“He called me a slut,” Jimin mutters. Namjoon’s nothing short of flabbergasted. Of all the things Taehyung could have said, this was not on Namjoon’s list of expectations.

 

“What? Why?” Jimin folds in on himself, and Namjoon softens his accusations. “Did something happen?” 

 

“It’s my fault,” bemoans Jimin. “I wanted...We might have...we slept together before regionals. I uh, mostly started it. I dunno, he started acting really weird. I tried to give him space but then he blew up in my face yesterday and called me a slut.” Jimin wipes his eyes. “The debate round was my fault. I got angry and took it out on him in the middle of the debate round. It was stupid and unprofessional and I wish I hadn’t but I was so mad .” Jimin suddenly looks up at Namjoon in a pleading sort of manner. 

 

“I’m not a slut. Tae’s the only person I’ve ever...ever. And I care about him, obviously. That doesn’t make me a slut, right?” Namjoon’s not a counselor by any means, but he’s very familiar with the insults favored by teenagers. 

 

“Jimin, even if you slept with a dozen people, you wouldn’t be a slut,” Namjoon tells him bluntly. “It’s your body, and you get to decide what to do with it. Tae had no place calling you that for any reason.” Jimin nods, looking down at his hands and picking at his nails. Namjoon stands from the table. “I’m going to talk to him. I think there’s more to this story. It’s really out of character for him to say stuff like that. He cares a lot about you, Jimin. He wouldn’t just give up on your friendship.” Jimin glances up to look Namjoon in the eyes.

 

“Yeah?” 

 

“Of course!” Namjoon stands up, already thinking about where Taehyung could have wandered off to sulk. “And you know what they say.” 

 

“What’s that?” 

 

“They wouldn’t call this Drama, Debate, and Forensics if there wasn’t any drama!” 

 

-----

 

Taehyung isn’t sulking

 

Well, maybe he is a little. 

 

It’s been at least an hour or two since he walked away from Jimin. The next debate round is in half an hour, but Taehyung doesn’t know if Jimin will even look at him ever again. It’s his fault, after all; Taehyung’s the one who caught feelings. Taehyung’s the one who got jealous, who called Jimin a sl-

 

He can’t even think of it. He’s sick to his stomach when he remembers the insult leaving his mouth, a curse, something to haunt Jimin the same way that night haunts Taehyung every day. The night Jimin looked at him like he was special, like he was important, like Jimin felt the same-

 

Well. It doesn’t matter what Jimin had looked like, or how Taehyung felt. Now, the space between them is empty and cold. Footsteps pass by his hiding place, a bench by a window that isn’t well-hidden in the first place, and Taehyung glances up to make sure it’s not someone from his team. The conversation Coach had made him have with Jimin earlier had been painful enough. Jimin’s eyes had been rubbed red, evidence of his tears. Taehyung had been angry before, but the puffiness to Jimin’s eyes had quelled that anger so fast it had left Taehyung woozy. 

 

Now, he’s just taking a moment to collect his thoughts, or so he tells himself. He may willingly admit the fight was his fault, but he’s not about to admit he’s hiding from his team and Jimin. He’ll come back soon, maybe. Maybe he can just run away to Canada, or South Korea. He may not be fluent, but he knows enough to get by. He could always ask Yoongi for lessons, and he could make some cash selling his Nintendo games…

 

His escapist fantasies are broken when another set of footsteps break away from the chatter of the nearby hall and approach his hideaway. Taehyung tucks in his legs and tries not to look like he’s sulking. 

 

“Tae.” Damn it. Namjoon’s got his no-nonsense face on, the one he wears when someone on the team has pushed him too far or when he’s losing a debate. Taehyung gives a brief wave, not sure of what to say. “We gotta talk.” 

 

“Coach already chewed me out,” Taehyung complains, a whine slipping into his tone. One of Namjoon’s eyebrows jerks up his forehead. 

 

“And it’s a wonder you haven’t been thrown out of the tournament altogether.” Namjoon folds his arms, doing his best to look disapproving and authoritative. For being a high school junior, it works too well. Taehyung shrinks down the window he’s leaning against. 

 

“I know it’s my fault,” he mumbles, staring at his feet. One of his shoes is scuffed. One more unprofessional thing about himself.

 

“I don’t know if you do.” Namjoon sounds calm but cross. Taehyung’s fucked if peacekeeper-Namjoon is upset with him. “But I want to hear your side of the story. Why did you and Jimin fight?” Even in his punishments, Namjoon is nothing but fair.

 

“I thought you already talked to Jimin,” Taehyung mutters. “You already know why.” 

 

“Maybe,” Namjoon says, taking a seat on the bench next to him. “But I want to hear your side. It’s like a debate: you cannot decide who is right without hearing both the Aff and Neg.” 

 

“Who’s Affirmative and who’s Negation?” snarks Taehyung. He wishes Namjoon would just yell at him and get it over with. 

 

“Neither. Now, tell me the whole story. Where did it begin?” Namjoon is steadfast in his serving of justice. Taehyung fidgets and wonders how much of his bleeding heart to reveal. 

 

“Last year,” Taehyung admits. Namjoon is quiet, waiting for him to continue. “I didn’t know it, but I’ve been falling for him since freshman year. I always have been, I just...I realized it the night we slept together. I thought, I thought he might love me back.” Taehyung exhales slowly, like he’s breathing out the last remnants of that night in one fell swoop. 

 

“I thought we might be something more, but the next day he acted like nothing had happened. Like he hadn’t just changed my life. I didn’t understand. I wanted him to love me back so badly, I couldn’t see the truth. He just wanted something casual. It makes sense, we’re together almost all the time. It could have been anyone, but it was me.” Taehyung exhales again. “It was me who caught feelings. It was my stupid crush that ruined everything. Because then I got jealous and confused, and I just wanted him to feel what I felt when he broke my heart.” 

 

Namjoon is still silent next to him. Taehyung huffs, a puff of a chuckle. “So yeah. That’s why we fought. I called him a slut and lost us a debate round at state because of my fucking feelings. You can yell at me now.” 

 

Taehyung waits for the almighty judgement from his team captain, but when it doesn’t come, he looks up at Namjoon with a puzzled expression. Namjoon is staring at him thoughtfully. 

 

“You should tell him all that.” 

 

“What?” Taehyung splutters incredulously. Is that seriously all Namjoon has to say? “Did you not hear me? Jimin doesn’t feel the same way! He wants nothing to do with me, especially after what I said.” Namjoon has this infuriating expression on his face, like he’s trying not to smile. 

 

“I’m serious. You should tell him everything you just said. I think both of you have the wrong motives pinned on each other.” Taehyung doesn’t let the hope drip and gather in his chest; he cares too much about Jimin to hope for anything more than a silent truce between them from now. Taehyung looks up at Namjoon through his bangs.

 

“Are you not going to yell at me then?” Taehyung asks. Namjoon snorts, crossing his feet at the ankles. 

 

“No, but you’re still in trouble. You got into a fight with your debate partner in the middle of a debate round. State tournament or not, this reflects badly on the entire team. This isn’t something either of you can do again, ever. You’re still in the tournament because the judge cut you guys off before you said something really bad. In fact, you’re only still on the team because we need Public Forum debaters.” Taehyung’s gut swoops, his stomach at his knees. 

 

“Really?”

 

“No, you’re still here because you just made a mistake. The team forgives mistakes.” Namjoon puts a hand on Taehyung’s shoulder. “Jimin could forgive a mistake if you explain why you made it. Talk to him.” Taehyung jumps to his feet, ready to race back to the team table, before looking back hopefully at Namjoon. 

 

“If I - if we, could we - Is it possible we can still compete?” 

 

“It’s possible,” Namjoon nods. “He should be in the cafeteria. Go!” Taehyung takes off for the main cafeteria, a sudden uplifting strength pushing him forward. 

 

“Thank you!” Taehyung shouts over his shoulder at Namjoon. The team captain waves, then falls out of sight as Taehyung ducks around a corner. He almost crashes into a mousy looking debater, dodging around people who stare after him in confusion. Skidding to a halt in the entrance to the cafeteria, he spots Jimin sitting at the team table by himself. Suddenly aware of all the eyes back on him, Taehyung slows his pace to a self-conscious jog and makes a beeline for his partner. 

 

“Jimin!” He probably should keep his voice down, having brought enough attention on himself and Jimin for one day, but he can’t help it. Jimin looks up, a million emotions crossing his face at once. “ I have to tell you something.” 

 

“You already did,” quips Jimin primly, refusing to look at Taehyung. Taehyung steps closer, his heart ready to beat out his chest. 

 

“I know, and I’m sorry. I really didn’t mean it.” 

 

“It sure sounded like you meant it,” Jimin sniffles. Taehyung presses his fingernails into his palms to keep his heart in one piece and pushes onward. 

 

“I didn’t. I really didn’t mean it. I just felt like you were ignoring me after that night, and because I’m in love with you I was confused and hurt and I took it out on you, so I’m sor-” 

 

“What did you just say?” Jimin’s eyes are as wide as the full moon. He almost looks...hopeful. 

 

“I said I just wanted you to hurt because you broke my heart because I’m in lo-” 

 

“-love with you,” murmurs Jimin, looking as if he’s been handed a great gift or revelation. Then he socks Taehyung in the arm, hard. 

 

“Hey! I know I deserved that, but I’m trying to apologize!” Taehyung rubs his arms, the hope in his chest sinking. Jimin holds his fist like he’s about to hit Taehyung again.

 

“You idiot! You massive idiot! I’m in love with you, dumbass! That’s the reason you’re being weird!” 

 

“I’m being weird?” Taehyung clutches his chest like a widow clutching her pearls. “You’re the one avoiding me because I’m head over heels for you!” 

 

“I was giving you space because you didn’t reciprocate my feelings!” By now, they’re both standing inches apart, a mirror of their previous fight. But this time, Jimin has this glorious grin spreading across his face. Taehyung inhales, and decides to take one more chance…

 

“Jimin, do you want to go out with me?” Taehyung’s voice shakes, but he doesn’t care. He can’t care, not when Jimin’s smile stretches up to his eyes and beyond. 

 

“Taehyung Kim, you beautiful dumbass, I would love to.” 

 

Their heart-to-heart is interrupted by light applause and hooting. They both look up to see Hoseok and Namjoon clapping in appreciation. 

 

“Finally!” Hoseok calls over, beaming and slinging an arm around Namjoon’s shoulders. “I don’t know if I could take Jimin’s sad boi hours any longer!” Jimin laughs, bright and clear, and Taehyung feels himself lifted off his feet. He’s so lucky. He’s so in love.

 

“I really am sorry about what I said,” Taehyung tells him quietly. Jimin smiles gently at him.

 

“I know. I didn’t mean what I said either.” Even as they step apart from one another, Jimin’s hand finds Taehyung’s. 

 

“Want to finish the tournament?” Taehyung asks. 

 

“Together,” Jimin promises, and their clasped hands feel like a future.

 

-----

 

Jungkook twirls the pen between his fingers, faster and faster until it becomes a blur. He feels like he’s about to shake out of his skin. He is more ink than blood, moving too fast to see. 

 

Jin’s up at the podium, in the middle of his 2AC speech. He looks as intensely focused as usual, but from where he’s sitting Jungkook can see the nervous rhythm his fingers are tapping on the side of the podium. Jin’s just as on edge as he is, but who wouldn’t be? It’s the finals round of policy debate. 

 

Really, Jungkook has no idea how he got here. The answer lies somewhere in the mess of his scribbled notes and the words he crams into each sentence. He’s practically memorized all their evidence cards by now, for both sides. He’s been running for so long, barely had a break since quarterfinals. He hadn’t been able to believe that either, making it into the top eight teams at the tournament. He doesn’t feel worthy even now, in the finals round. But he’s been running too fast to let the doubts catch up to him. 

 

This whole weekend is a fever dream, including the nightmare hallucinations that come with the fever. Jimin and Taehyung fighting had cracked the team open. That had been terrible. Jungkook hadn’t been sure anyone could overcome the canyon between them, but they somehow had. Even though they hadn’t made it to the final round due to their disastrous round in the prelims, they seemed content. 

 

Jungkook’s just glad there isn’t a gaping tear down the center of the team now, carefully stitched up with apologies and cups of coffee. As much as they might goof off, Taehyung and Jimin are the soul of the team. Namjoon and Hoseok are the heart, and Jin, Yoongi, and Nayeon the bones that hold them together. Jungkook’s not sure where he lies himself. The liver perhaps? Maybe a foot? 

 

He realizes he’s been doodling a shaky-looking skeleton in the corner of his debate flows for the last few minutes, and quickly snaps back to the present. Jin is still rattling off hard-hitting statistics about pollution, each one a familiar blow. Jungkook knows all this by heart. He knows how the debate works, how to read the ebb and flow of the room. What he doesn’t know is if it’s enough to win.

 

In the last thirty seconds of his speech, Jin catches Jungkook’s eye. The edges of his mouth quirking up into a hidden grin, he gives the rest of his speech holding eye contact with Jungkook. Jungkook fights down his own grin. This might be the finals round, their last round after three whole days of non-stop debates. They might be tired, but they’re alive. They're having fun. 

 

This is how the day is won , thinks Jungkook. Not by running but by staying. In a way they’ve already won then. They’ve stayed in the game longer than anyone else, other than their current opponents, of course. Jin’s smile feels like winning, in its own way. It means Jin is happy despite this being his last debate. Jungkook’s glad he could make it good for him.

 

“...And for all the reasons listed, we urge the judge to affirm today’s debate. Thank you!” Jin clicks his timer off, marking the end of his speech. The judge hunches down to take notes. Their opponents are hunched over their own computers, prepping the next speech. But Jin’s wink and a smile is just for Jungkook. 

 

This is how we win. We stick around for the people we love .

 

-----

 

For the third time in one and a half minutes, Namjoon checks his watch. His legs should be grateful for the chance to sit down for the first time that day, but all he feels is relentlessly anxious, a restless sort of anticipation that eats at him from the inside out. Around him, the tension mounts in the hum of conversation, a hundred hopeful souls crammed into the auditorium. 

 

Namjoon has sat through countless awards ceremonies. Hell, this isn’t even his first state tournament. He’s felt the apprehension, the joy of wins and the guilt of losses. He’s been through all of this before, a routine emotional rollercoaster; he knows there will be dips and turns, climbs and falls. It’s the uncertainty of where they lie, where he will be taken next, that keeps him bouncing his leg. 

 

Next to him, looking equally as restless, is Hoseok. His blue pinstripe shirt is rumpled, half-untucked from his slacks, his hair sticking up in a cowlick from how many times he’s run his hands through it. He looks tired, even with his faint smile. They’re all tired after competing in this marathon of a tournament. The last few hours are just about crossing the finish line, conserving as much energy as they can. Hoseok notices Namjoon’s eyes on him, and offers a reassuring grin to the team leader.

 

In the row behind Hoseok, Jimin and Taehyung are sitting together once again. Namjoon’s glad they’ve resolved their whole mess. He’s still not sure what their relationship is after all the dust has settled, but they both seem content and that’s enough for Namjoon. In all honesty, he’s very glad he doesn’t have to step in again; he had positively hated telling Taehyung off. He might be team leader, but direct conflict is not his strong suit, even when it’s necessary. He and Jimin are talking in low voices, and though they’re not in each other’s laps like they usually are, Namjoon can see their hands clasped tightly together between them. 

 

They’re tired, having been through state and storms of their own creation. They may be a little smoke-stained, but they’re alive, and that in itself is a triumph Namjoon will toast to. 

 

Microphone feedback screeches over the loudspeakers, and everyone sits at attention. An aging woman in a questionable felt vest takes the stage, smiling at the assembled teenagers with benevolence. 

 

“Good evening, and thank you for joining us tonight for this year’s Speech and Debate state tournament awards ceremony.” The audience claps politely, but the applause don’t last for longer than 15 seconds. Everyone is leaning forward in their seats, hungry for the next minute. “I’d like to thank some of the staff and supporters of high school debate who helped this tournament happen. - ” 

 

“Oh good god woman, get on with it,” mutters Jin from the other side of Namjoon. Namjoon grunts in agreement, too busy being impatient to chastise Jin for his rudeness. Next to Jin, Jungkook looks enraptured with her every word, this whole experience new for him. Namjoon softens a little when he sees Jungkook’s wonder, remembering his first state tournament. 

 

“...We will begin with the awards for drama and the interpretation events,” continues the speaker, who by now Namjoon has deduced as some lady from the school district. “When I call for the event, please come up onto the stage if you are a finalist in that event. For debate events, this includes octo-final and quarter finalists. Now, to start us off, Humorous Interpretation.” 

 

On their team, there have only been a few people competing in an acting event. Jimin had competed with his Dramatic Interpretation, which suited him almost too well. The rounds had happened before his fight with Taehyung, but he still hadn’t made it to finals. Hoseok had had his Duo Interpretation piece with Taehyung earlier in the year, but they hadn’t taken it to state. Namjoon settles in to wait through the long list of events he’s not entered in. 

 

As the lady drones on onstage, interrupted by periodical applause as someone accepts an award, Namjoon can’t help but glance around his team. They seem just as fidgety as he is. He cranes his neck to get a glimpse of Yoongi, who’s seated just out of sight two seats away from Jimin. He’s not fidgeting in his seat or gossiping like the rest of the debaters in the room. Instead, he stares straight forward, waiting patiently for the results of his debate rounds. 

 

Namjoon thinks that maybe he will always admire Yoongi for his sharp tongue and his strength. He knows Yoongi doesn’t think of himself as strong, but Namjoon sees Yoongi as the strongest person he’s ever met. He was the first gay person Namjoon had ever met, the first person Namjoon had come out to. He’s been a mentor and a friend, even on his bad days. 

 

Yoongi catches Namjoon staring at him, and sends him a questioning look: everything okay? Namjoon shoots him some affirmative finger guns and Yoongi nods, going back to watching the ceremony. Hoseok nudges Namjoon with the back of his hand as they clap once more for the second place winner for Duo Interpretation.

 

“God, you’re such an awkward bisexual,” Hoseok teases quietly. Namjoon spreads his hands, accepting. 

 

“Hey, finger guns are for anyone cool.” 

 

“I don’t know if I’d call you ‘cool,’” drawls Hoseok. Namjoon snickers, and Jimin shushes them both from the row behind them. Hoseok and Namjoon share a guilty glance before turning their attention back to the stage. By now, the lady is finishing up with drama awards and moving onto speech awards. All of a sudden, Namjoon’s previous anxiety comes rushing back in full force, making his blood cold and his head heavy. He sucks in a stuttering breath. Hoseok must hear it, because he lays a hand on top of Namjoon’s. 

 

“It’ll be okay,” he whispers, and his eyes are so honest that Namjoon feels his growing apprehension ebb from where it would have swallowed him whole. 

 

“Thank you,” Namjoon mouths back, his throat too full to articulate full words. Hoseok squeezes his hand once and doesn’t let go of Namjoon’s hand. After a moment, Namjoon squeezes back. 

 

“And now,” the lady’s voice crackles over the microphone, “For Original Oratory finalists.” Namjoon can see Sunmi make her way onto the stage, her hands clasped carefully behind her back and back held perfectly straight. Namjoon has to smile at her polished image of calm and collected, the impeccable image of sportsmanship. If Namjoon didn’t know any better, and if he hadn’t met Sunmi last year, he would have fallen for her neat pretense. He knows that just under that immaculate mask, she’s salivating like a wild dog after first place just like the rest of them. 

 

“And in the first place, Sunmi Lee!” The audience cheers as Sunmi politely accepts the medal, her smile wide but even her joy is carefully practiced. Namjoon shivers despite himself. Sunmi is an absolute terror of a teenage girl, and he’s a little glad she’s graduating this year. Jin may be friends with her, but Namjoon thinks she’s more of a barracuda in a pantsuit than friendly competition. 

 

“Next, the Expository speaking awards.” Namjoon thinks he might be sick. Does he have legs? He can’t feel them. Somehow, he stands up and stumbles his way out of the row of seats past the encouraging faces of his teammates. He clenches his fist as he lines up with the rest of the expos finalists, climbing onto the stage and into the light. 

 

It’s all a blur from there. Namjoon remembers being painfully aware of all the eyes on him, of the heat of the stage lights and the shared tension of the speakers he’s sharing the stage with. The lady is talking, but he can’t quite make out what she’s saying. The world is a messy, noisy blur, and his heart is in his cheek. He still can’t feel his feet, but his hand is noticeably colder from where Hoseok was holding it. 

 

Hoseok, who’s grinning at him from the middle of the audience. Beautiful and kind Hoseok, sitting next to Jin, and Jimin, and Taehyung, Yoongi, Nayeon, Jungkook. That’s his team out there, on the edge of their seats for him. 

 

Hoseok would put a large grin on his face and shake hands with his competitors, no matter how he placed. So Namjoon does just that; he smiles at the people next to him, shakes their hands as they collect their awards, and tries not to let his excitement grow larger than himself when he stays onstage through fifth place, fourth place, third place…

 

“And in first place Expository, Namjoon Kim.” 

 

He almost doesn’t hear it at first, but then all the noise comes rushing back in. He’s floating on his still-numb legs, shaking hands first with the moderator and accepting his medal, somehow going to rejoin his shouting team in the crowd. He’s done it. Namjoon Kim, the activist Korean kid who trips over his own feet and spends too much time talking about music and politics. It may not be his debate event. It may not ever be his senior year, but this is success. This is what he’s wanted. 

 

As he squeezes himself down the aisle back to his seat, his teammates clap him on the back and congratulate him. Jin squeezes his shoulder, and Hoseok’s smile is so bright that it could be mistaken for a supernova. Namjoon thinks his heart just might explode like the sun, a giant cloud of hydrogen and helium in a fusion reaction that radiates life on the nearby planets. 

 

Awards continue through the rest of the speech events. Next are the impromptu speaking events, of which Jin, Nayeon, and Taehyung are all up for awards in. Still flushed from the stage, Namjoon leans forward, eager to see his friends line up with the rest of the finalists. Taehyung looks so grown up in his suit, though the flush to his ears reveals how shy he really is with all the attention on him. Nayeon stands next to him, smiling nervously at the crowd. Hoseok bites his lip, clearly hoping for his debate partner to do well. At the very end of the row is Jin, every bit the intimidating persona he would have you believe. 

 

In the end, there’s really no doubt who wins Impromptu. Craning his neck, Namjoon thinks he sees a hint of fear in Jin’s place a split second before the 2nd place award is announced. When it’s not his name called for second place, there’s a moment of satisfaction before his self-assured mask slips back into place as he shakes the hand of his runner-up. Nayeon receives 4th, Taehyung 3rd, and Jin 1st, as was expected. Taehyung’s grin is only outdone by Jimin’s, both debaters embracing tightly when Taehyung returns to his seat.

 

And then, at last, it is time for the debate awards. It’s not that the debate events matter more than the drama or speaking events, but that’s exactly what it is. Debate events tend to be more competitive than the other categories, drawing in the more intense and cut-throat participants. While a drama or speaking award at state is no small honor, a debate award is a heavy cross to bear for the rest of one’s debate career. It’s an achievement and a message: do not fuck with this person. The entire room quiets, balanced on a knife’s edge. The lady calls for all the Lincoln-Douglas semi-finalists, the first set of debate awards of the three types of debate. Yoongi shuts his eyes briefly, his last moments grounded here in the shadows, then stands with Namjoon and heads for the stage. 

 

Namjoon would sure like to place highly in the LD awards, but not like Yoongi. Yoongi needs this win, a sign he’s going to make it in the real world. Just like Jin, this is his last chance to prove himself in high school. So instead of wishing for first like all the rest of the debaters on the stage with him, Namjoon prays harder than he ever has for Yoongi. Hey debate gods? Let me get last, not him. Let him win, please. I don’t know if there’s a debate god, but if there is, please let Yoongi win .

 

“In third place, Namjoon Kim.” Namjoon feels something in him both rise and sink. Third place is good, great even, but now he must leave the stage and Yoongi behind. Amidst the applause, Namjoon glances back at Yoongi. The older debater has his eyes shut again, but he looks okay. It’s just Yoongi and another debater left. There is no shame in second place, but not to Yoongi. Namjoon continues to pray as he walks away, feeling a bit like Orpheus climbing out of the Underworld. As long as he doesn’t look back, as long as he keeps moving forward…

 

“In second place is Alyssa Roy-” Namjoon’s ears buzz. His breath catches in his throat, still not daring to glance back at Yoongi. That means, if Yoongi’s the only one left onstage…

 

“First place goes to Yoongi Min!” The crowd erupts into wild whoops and cheers. Namjoon whips his head around to see Yoongi practically glowing under the lights, bleached blonde hair a halo around his surprised face. His mouth was hanging open, his hands held halfway to his face like he’s ready to defend himself, not quite sure why the crowd is roaring his name. 

 

“Yoongi! Yoongi” Namjoon can’t help but join in, swept up in the energy of the crowd. Yoongi’s eyes snap to Namjoon, and he jolts into movement, crossing the stage on stiff legs and accepting the warm handshake from the lady at the podium. When she hands him the medal, he stares at it like it will disappear in a glint of plated silver.  “Yoongi, you won!” 

 

All of a sudden, as if it’s just hit him, the biggest smile Namjoon’s ever seen spreads across Yoongi’s face. His gums on full display, he thanks the lady and exits the stage as the applause fades. Namjoon’s waiting for him in the aisle, and when Yoongi gets close enough Namjoon sweeps him up in a tight hug. 

 

“You won!” Namjoon says into Yoongi’s shoulder. “You’re the king of LD! The undisputed champion! The ruler of all things ethics and morals!” Yoongi pulls back to look Namjoon in the face. He’s still smiling, but his eyes are more serious. There’s relief in his eyes, forgiveness. 

 

“Being a king won’t change me, Namjoon,” Yoongi says, and it sounds almost pleading. Namjoon nods, a little confused. 

 

“Of course. You’ll always be our Yoongi,” Namjoon reassures him, letting his arms drop back down to his side. Yoongi blinks, then laughs loudly, the smile having returned to his eyes. 

 

“You’re right. I’ll always be me.” It’s like a weight has been lifted off his chest, some great world taken off his shoulders. He looks a little like the sophomore Namjoon first met two years ago, but for older and more mature. He looks happy. 

 

When both of them make their way back to their seats, they’re both mobbed by their teammates. Yoongi’s never been a hugger, but he let Namjoon hug him before without complaint, and endures several more from Jin, Hoseok, and Jimin. Jungkook leans over to pat Yoongi on the back. 

 

“I knew you could do it! You’re the smartest debater I know!” Of all the praise he’s received, Yoongi flushes bright red at Jungkook’s words. He rubs the back of his neck awkwardly. 

 

“Thanks, Kookie.” Jungkook beams at the senior, and Namjoon chuckles at Jungkook’s blatant hero worship. Jin sticks his tongue out at Jungkook, looking terribly offended. 

 

“How am I not the smartest debater you know? I’m your partner!” He bats at Jungkook with no real force. Jungkook dodges, giggling behind his hands. 

 

“Yoongi’s actually won a whole debate category,” he quips, “you’ve only gotten second last year.” 

 

“It was a tie, you fucking brat! I should disown you!” A fight is narrowly avoided between Jungkook and Jin, but Jin’s theatrics quiet down when the lady taps her microphone to get the attention of the room. With all the ruckus they’ve been causing, the moderator probably hates their team by now, Namjoon thinks. 

 

“For our second debate category, Public Forum debate,” she announces. Hoseok and Nayeon stand up and head for the stage. Jimin and Taehyung stay in their seats, noticeably quieter than their celebratory whoops before. It must be disappointing to have to watch the awards of an event you didn’t make it to finals in. But the two sophomores don’t look too sad about their loss. Jimin lays his head on Taehyung’s shoulder, and Taehyung leans into him. 

 

“Next year,” he mutters into Jimin’s hair, and Jimin hums in response, cuddling closer to Taehyung.

 

Namjoon switches his focus from the lovestruck duo behind him to the stage, where Hoseok and Nayeon stand waiting for the verdict. They may have been partners for just a year, but they’re an accomplished pair, successful enough to get to state. They may not be best friends, but they’re damn good debaters. 

 

“In fourth place, Nayeon Im and Hoh, uh, Hoh-suk Jung.” Namjoon rolls his eyes as he claps. There’s always someone whose name gets horribly butchered by an announcer who hasn’t heard of South Korea before. Onstage, Hoseok and Nayeon hug before collecting their medals, much to the adoration of the audience. 

 

Now all that’s left is the awards for Policy debate. 

 

When Jin stands, buttoning his suit jacket, he doesn’t look nervous at all. Namjoon never understood how he could remain so collected when something like this happened, something that clearly meant so much to him. Jungkook looks a little green around the gills at the idea of being in the spotlight, but he dutifully follows Jin up the steps to the stage without throwing up over the railing. 

 

Yoongi and Namjoon might have placed first and third in Lincoln-Douglas debate respectively, but the real prize of the night has to be Policy. It’s arguably the hardest debate format, and therefore the most glorious to win. It’s also Jin’s last tournament, just like Yoongi, but this is more than an ending. For Jungkook’s it’s a beginning fitting an urban legend, starting in a blaze of glory that’s managed to keep burning for this long. Jungkook, who is the future of their team. 

 

Namjoon, and the rest of the team, lean forward in their seats as the sixth, fifth, fourth, third places are called, previous exhaustion forgotten. The tension mounts as each pair leaves the stage with a medal, as the stage empties and leaves a no man’s land around the remaining debaters. Jin and Jungkook look very small on the large stage, with only two other people and the moderator sharing it with them. Even Jin, with his big persona and wide shoulders, looks humbled by the lights, not a giant but a boy. Jungkook looks even smaller, but he’s holding his own. He holds his breath, as does the whole room; everyone’s heard of hotshot Jungkook Jeon by now, and Jin’s been an urban legend for years.

 

“In second place, Jungkook Jeon and Seokjin Kim.” The crowd roars again, some in disappointment and some in gleeful disbelief. The two other finalists from another school gape, shaking hands numbly with Jin and Jungkook. Namjoon would have expected Jin to be pissed, or at least discontent onstage. Instead, he looks pleased, ushering a fumbly Jungkook towards the awards podium and shaking hands firmly with the moderator. As they exit the stage, their opponents claiming first behind them, Jin is talking at a million miles an hour in Jungkook’s ear, the younger boy flushed and grinning. 

 

Policy debate is the last award of the night, so there’s no restraint in the crowd in terms of noise. For better or for worse, that means Jimin and Hoseok are unimpeded in their team spirit, whooping and yelling as Jin and Jungkook approach. When he gets close enough, Jimin tackles Jungkook in a hug that looks like it hurts. Jungkook almost drops his medal, saved only by Jin’s steadying hand.

 

“You won! You won! I’m so proud of you!” Jungkook pats Jimin on the back awkwardly, but his pleasure is sincere. 

 

“It’s just second place,” he admits modestly. Jimin removes himself from Jungkook’s arms to glare at the younger. 

 

“Just second?” Taehyung joins Jimin to scowl at Jungkook. 

 

“Kookie, freshmen never place in Policy, much less second place! You’re kind of incredible.” 

 

“Like a rare zoo animal,” Jimin adds. 

 

“Ooh! He’s a red panda!” Taehyung exclaims, ruffling Jungkook’s hair. Jungkook laughs, shaking off Taehyung’s hand. 

 

“Nah, he’s more like a unicorn,” Hoseok supplies. 

 

“That’s not even real!” complains Jimin. Taehyung waggles his fingers in front of Jimin’s face. 

 

“Ooh, Jungkookie’s a cryptid!” The bickering continues as they exit the auditorium, falling into the river of kids and noise and celebration. Namjoon falls back to walk next to Jin, who’s been particularly quiet this whole time. 

 

“So?” Namjoon bumps Jin’s shoulder. “What’re you thinking?” 

 

“Jungkook’s more like Mothman than Bigfoot.” 

 

“No, not about that, about awards.” By now, they’ve reached the cafeteria, standing by their team table. Jin shrugs.

 

“They went as well as expected. Were they shorter than last year’s? I feel like they were shorter than last year’s.” Namjoon gives Jin a look that says “don’t bullshit me.” 

 

“Jin. C’mon.” Jin sighs, and Namjoon sees his mask slip just a little. Except, it’s less like slipping and more like Jin taking off his mask intentionally. 

 

“I’m not going to throw a fit about getting second, Joon.” The room swirls with activity around them, but they’re in their own bubble, everyone else too distracted to pay attention to them.

 

“Still. Are you okay? I know you wanted this, wanted it a lot.” Namjoon’s been hearing Jin talk about ‘dominating state’ for months now. It’s all he’s wanted since junior year, if not sooner. 

 

“Yeah, I know. I don’t know, it didn’t bother me as I thought it would. Second place is still a winner, right team captain?” Jin quirks a grin, and Namjoon finds he believes it. 

 

“Always.” Their little bubble is burst a moment later when Hoseok comes crashing into them, Yoongi held under his arm. 

 

“Yeah!! We’ve got three state champs on our team! Suck on that!” Yoongi doesn’t look happy being tossed around, but he doesn’t try to worm his way out of Hoseok’s hold. He reaches out to pat Jin on the shoulder. 

 

“Look at us. We’ve graduated from debate. We’re so old.” Jin laughs pulling Yoongi away from Hoseok and into a brief hug. 

 

“You kicked ass dude!” Jin crows, positively towering over Yoongi. 

 

“We all kicked ass!” Hoseok shouts, punching the air with a fist. Jimin and Taehyung yell in agreement, Jungkook sandwiched between them and looking at them all with wonder. Yoongi’s still standing next to Jin, the two seniors looking around the room, as if they’re trying to say goodbye to it all at once. 

 

“Where do we go from here?” Yoongi quietly wonders aloud. It’s a rhetorical question, but Hoseok answers him. 

 

“Home. We go home.” Yoongi blinks, then smiles with his gums for the second time that night. Hoseok raises his voice to be heard over the noise of the cafeteria. “Well, eventually. First, we’ve got barbeque to celebrate! Everyone is required to come! Team bonding!”

Chapter Text

Attempting to balance both his laptop bag and a case of Gatorade bottles with only two arms is no easy task. Hoseok tries his best to carry both items without tipping over, lugging the large case of drinks towards the bus. 

 

“Jesus Christ! How much Gatorade did Jimin’s mom bring?” Nayeon remarks from beside Hoseok, keeping pace with him as they walk out the front doors of the school. 

 

“Too much,” groans Hoseok, pausing to readjust his grip and keep his laptop bag from sliding off. Nayeon helpfully grabs it for him before it can fall, tucking it under her arm. He shoots her a thankful grin. His mother would actually kill him if he broke his laptop. 

 

“How’s it feel to be a state champ?” Nayeon teases. Hoseok grunts as he lifts the drink case up the bus steps.

“Y’know, I realize now we’re not getting any monetary gain from this.” He hauls the drinks into the nearest seat, sitting down next to it heavily. Nayeon takes the seat across the aisle. 

 

“What, you want to make a living debating high schoolers about the separation of church and state?” The rest of the team boards the bus, caught up in their own conversations. The atmosphere is celebratory, almost rowdy. 

 

“Well, maybe not that. But I could totally coach when I’m in college.” Hoseok rubs his chin, thinking about the future. He’s been thinking about becoming an education major; being a teacher wouldn’t be so bad, would it? 

 

“‘Seok!” Jin’s yell interrupts his train of thought. The older debater high fives him as he passes by Hoseok’s seat. “Nice job!” 

 

“Thanks!” Jin continues to hold Hoseok’s hand, pulling him in closer to whisper conspiratorially. 

 

“Now’s a pretty good moment, don’t you think?” Hoseok blinks in confusion. 

 

“For what?” Jin winks at him, squeezing Hoseok’s hand once before letting go. 

 

“He’s practically glowing.” 

 

“Who?” Hoseok questions again, even more confused. But Jin is already continuing down the bus aisle, high fiving the rest of the team. He looks at Nayeon, who shrugs. 

 

“Maybe the stress made him snap?” she suggests. Before Hoseok can ponder on this theory, footsteps climb the bus steps and he forgets what Nayeon just said. 

 

Namjoon is practically glowing, just like Jin said, his dimples on full display. He seems possessed by some energy, radiating warmth and light as he clamors onto the bus. He’s got his 1st place Expository award in the crook of his arm, and his LD debate award in the other. Backlit by the streetlamps outside the bus doors, he’s never looked more brilliant. 

 

Nayeon says something more, but Hoseok isn’t paying attention. He only has eyes for Namjoon, stunning Namjoon, his team captain Namjoon. Who has held the team together through the good times and the bad. Who has led them this far, to success, to victory.

 

Before he understands what he’s doing, he’s standing up, blocking Namjoon’s path down the bus aisle. Despite the snow outside the bus windows, Hoseok’s hands are clammy. Namjoon stops in his tracks when he sees Hoseok in the aisle. He smiles at him expectantly, like Hoseok is supposed to be saying something. 

 

Oh shit, he should probably say something. Why is he standing in the first place? What is he doing? 

 

“I uh. Congratulations?” Namjoon doesn’t seem to mind Hoseok’s fumbling phrases, grinning and pulling him into a tight hug. Hoseok’s entire face feels like he’s given himself a face mask made of hot sauce. 

 

“Ah, thank you ‘Seok! You did pretty amazing too!” This close to Namjoon is like being close to the sun, a campfire, a firework. It hurts to look at him directly, but he can’t look away either. He and Hoseok are the center of the universe, surrounded by all the people Hoseok’s come to love. 

 

And then he’s kissing Namjoon, lips pressed together, an awkward, chaste skinship that lasts only a moment before he’s pulling away. His hands have cupped Namjoon’s face, and they stay there even as Hoseok pulls back. There are two bright spots of color on Namjoon’s cheeks, his face flushed with surprise and wonder. 

 

“I...I really…” Hoseok tries to explain, but the words are all trying to come out at once. He’s just ruined everything, hasn’t he? Caught up in the heady rush of winning, of Namjoon, of last chances. “I’m sorr-”

 

“HAHA! I TOLD YOU TO GET YOUR MAN AFTER STATE, BUT NOT THIS SOON!” Jin crows from behind them. But he’s not talking to Hoseok...Namjoon’s blush grows, and he winces. Hoseok feels something like hope growing like a sprout in the depths of his chest, encouraged by the sunshine heat of Namjoon’s blush.

 

“...‘Get your man,’ huh?” Hoseok asks tentatively. Namjoon hides his face in the crook of Hoseok’s neck, forehead pressed into a patch of bare skin where Hoseok’s unbuttoned dress shirt has slipped down his narrow shoulders. Hoseok tries not to startle at the sudden contact. Namjoon is so warm under his hands.

 

“I was going to ask you out after state,” mumbles Namjoon into Hoseok’s shirt. “Jin was...‘helping’.” Namjoon lifts his head, looking up at Hoseok with shining eyes. Hoseok rubs the back of his own head sheepishly. 

 

“I’ve wanted to ask you out since last year,” Hoseok admits. Namjoon’s mouth hangs open in shock. It’s cute. 

 

“Me? Really?” Namjoon asks incredulously. Hoseok nods, looking a bit like a bobblehead toy. “But-but I ramble!” he splutters, his hands still on Hoseok’s waist. “I talk too much about the future and I’m not good with emotions and I daydream too much-” 

 

“Joon.” Namjoon grows quiet when Hoseok interrupts him, his voice full to the brim. It’s in that moment Hoseok realizes the rest of the bus has gotten awfully quiet as well. “That’s kind of why I like you.”

 

“Oh.” They stand there, lost in thought and each other in the middle of the bus aisle until the bus driver shouts for them to take their seats already before the bus engine freezes. Everyone laughs as the two spring apart, scooting as far as possible away from the other in opposite aisle seats.

 

Later, they have their celebratory dinner at Twin Dragon Mongolian BBQ (where else would they go for a meal so important? No, they had to stick to tradition). Namjoon shares his orange slices with Hoseok with a shy, golden smile, and Hoseok thinks to himself that victory tastes of sesame oil and oranges. Victory is here, in the joy of his teammates in their exhaustion and elation, in the sweet, sticky sauce that stain the corner of Namjoon’s mouth, that Hoseok can taste later in the parking lot. 



-----



Yoongi pushes, and the ocean pushes back. It’s uncaring in the way it moves, the way it takes and takes from the shore. It takes people too, steals them away in one breath to the next. Each wave is renewal, recovery. The ocean is so alive, yet so apathetic to the people on its shores. 

 

Yoongi loves the ocean anyways, always has. It’s a shame they live so far from it, a few hour’s drive to the nearest beach. He would have skipped yesterday’s graduation to drive down to the coast with Jin, but both of their parents had refused to let the boys skip the graduation ceremony. Yoongi had let himself be pushed onstage wearing that oversized black gown and stupid flat hat, had let his parents take dozens of pictures and smother him in attention. But today is for him. Him and the sea.

 

Jin and he had woken up at 5:00AM and driven for hours in Jin’s beat-up 1991 Toyota Cressida to the closest beach. It’s mid-afternoon now, and the sun hangs halfway up the sky, making Yoongi squint against the harsh light. The squawking cry of the sea gulls reminds Yoongi of his best friend’s ranting, and he turns to see Jin better. Jin stands a few feet back from where Yoongi is on the edge of the bluffs, his hands stuffed into his coat pockets. It’s early summer, and the days have yet to get truly hot and sweltering. 

 

Yoongi takes a deep breath of the damp, warm, salty air. It stings his lungs, and he relishes the feeling. He’s come a long way from the dark days of winter, when he was immobile and covered in frost. Even his feelings were frozen, held prisoner in the icy corners of his own mind. It’s almost hard to remember the cold here on the bluffs overlooking the ocean, with the wind rustling his bleached hair. His emotions are as free as the gulls that swoop overhead. 

 

“Want a gummy worm?” offers Jin, having to raise his voice to be heard over the crashing waves. Yoongi shakes his head. He doesn’t want to speak over the ocean. Doesn’t want to interrupt its spell. There’s silence for a few more minutes as they both watch the waves. Yoongi gazes out at the horizon. He used to see himself at the edge, the very end of his known future. Now, he can see that he’s just begun; there is still a whole sea for him to cross. 

 

“Are you ready?” Jin asks, his tone more serious than before. Yoongi takes a last glance at the ocean, then turns to Jin and nods. Jin reaches into his coat and pulls out two envelopes from his inside pocket.  He carefully thumbs through them, separating them out, then hands over Yoongi’s. He holds it gently, like it might explode. 

 

“At the same time, right?” Yoongi asks, pressing the pad of his thumb into the edge of one of the envelopes. Jin nods. “Okay, here it goes...”

 

Together, they rip open their envelopes and take out the letter inside. The breeze crinkles the paper in Yoongi’s hands, but does not obscure the words written at the very top. Something as deep as the depths of the ocean grows in the pit of his stomach. 

 

“What’s it say?” Jin’s voice is deliberate, hiding his own emotion. The wave is climbing, about to break. Yoongi’s hands don’t shake where they hold the paper, but his voice is unsteady when he responds. 

 

“I got in.” 

 

“Me too!” The wave crashes onto the beach, rolling the kelp caught in the rocks. Jin does a short victory dance where he stands. Yoongi can’t move, watching the waves move far out to sea. There truly is a sea in front of him, both literal and metaphorical. He really does have the future he’s been dreaming about. 

 

“I knew you could do it!” Jin’s voice comes from near his shoulder, a friendly hand on his back, but Yoongi is caught in the sheer amount of water in front of them. “We’re both going to college!” 

 

Like there was any doubt Jin wouldn’t be accepted by at least two good universities, but Yoongi appreciates his friends sentiments. He’s going to college, will leave this fall for lands unknown. Jin shakes him in his excitement, rocking Yoongi back and forth. Yoongi finds himself smiling, then laughing as him and Jin spin in circles, tripping over the scrubby patches of dead grass that lie along the bluff. Jin’s gummy worms spill out of his pocket, a rain of multi-colored candies lying in the sand. This only makes them laugh harder, stopping to lean against each other dizzily. 

 

The ocean takes, but the ocean also gives. It has so much life inside its arms, the contents of its watery depths yet unknown to man. Powerful, untamable, unstoppable, the ocean heals as often as it destroys. Yoongi will roll with the tidal waves, no matter the tides. There will be typhoons, but he’s ready. He will be unstoppable.

 

“I’m coming for you!” Yoongi shouts to the horizon, leaning heavily against his best friend. They’re both coming for the future, hot on its heels. He waves his acceptance letter in the air, the paper catching the breeze like the wings of a beady-eyed gull. “I’ll get there someday!” 



-----



Watermelon drips down his chin, getting all over his tee shirt. Jungkook’s not too concerned: summer is about getting messy and grass-stained. Watermelon juice is the least of his worries. He saw Taehyung and Jimin sneak away with a packet of water balloons about ten minutes ago, and he fears he’ll be soaked any second. 

 

Playing it on the safe side, he steps through the sliding glass doors leading from the back deck into Jin’s kitchen. The backyard might be fair game for all kinds of water warfare, but indoors is generally a safe zone for whoever doesn’t want to be doused with the hose.

 

Jungkook wanders through the clumps of people to find a trash can to throw his watermelon rind into. He sees Taemin talking with Yoongi in the corner, the two seniors comparing details about their chosen universities. Over by the refrigerator, Namjoon and Big Matthew (thus named because of his status as star high school quarterback) are passionately sharing pictures of their pets, both dressed in tank tops with armholes that show off their sides and chest. A couple other seniors Jungkook has only met in passing, like Jinho, Dean, and Lizzy, are scattered around the house in conversational groups. Jungkook’s much more comfortable asserting himself around older teenagers now, but it’s a little like the Christmas party all over again. Are all these people really going off to college in the fall? It seems like such a foreign concept. 

 

It makes sense for so many graduated seniors to be at the party, it is a graduation party after all; Jin’s graduation party, to be more specific. That’s hard to believe too, that Jin’s leaving in two months to a university over 500 miles away. Jungkook pushes away the sadness that bubbles in his chest. He had known this day would come, but in the haze of summer’s beginnings and the end of the school year, it’s like time has flown him by. 

 

Grabbing another dripping slice of watermelon from the tray of fruit on the kitchen counter, Jungkook heads into the living room. A fan whirs in the corner working to dispel some of the heat. Jungkook takes a seat on the squishy couch, content to eat watermelon by himself and cool off. From the open sliding glass door in the kitchen, he can hear friendly shouts and shrieks, presumably as Taehyung and Jimin toss water balloons with wild abandon into the people sitting on the lawn. Jungkook would join them, but he’s not really in the mood to get drenched. He’s not really sure what mood he’s in, so he takes a vicious bite of his watermelon, spilling more juice down his hands. He doesn’t know how he feels about Jin leaving.

 

“Ah, JK! How’s my favorite tiny debater doing?” Nayeon bounces into the living room, wearing a flowing sundress and sandals. Compared to Jungkook’s cargo shorts and tee shirt, he feels underdressed. 

 

“I’m doing okay,” he answers honestly. “How’s the end of the school year been going for you?”

 

“Pretty okay,” she shrugs, tugging at one of the sleeves of her dress. She smiles then, brighter than he’s seen her smile before. “Oh! Did I tell you? I forgot who already knows.” 

 

“Tell me what?” Nayeon opens her mouth to answer him, but a voice interrupts her. 

 

“Bunny? Where’d you go?” Another girl steps into the room, her hair much shorter than Nayeon’s. Jungkook’s never seen her before around the debate group. Nayeon turns to look at her with a soft smile. 

 

“Ah, Jeongyeon, this is JK. JK, this is my girlfriend.” Jeongyeon wraps a possessive arm around Nayeon, and JK takes a minute for his brain to reboot. 

 

“Oh! Congratulations!” He dips his head politely to Jeongyeon. “It’s nice to meet you.” 

 

“Same here. Nayeon says you’re pretty good for a newbie.” Jeongyeon’s tone is friendly, and Jungkook finds he likes her. He ducks his head shyly. 

 

“Thanks. I uh, had no idea you dated girls.” Nayeon grins, leaning closer to Jeongyeon. 

 

“It never came up, and anyways, someone’s got to break up this ‘boy’s club.’” Jeongyeon kisses her on the cheek. They’re so domestic it hurts Jungkook’s teeth. 

 

“We’re gonna go say hi to Jin and give him a graduation present,” Nayeon says, gesturing over her shoulder. “Wanna come with?” 

 

“No thanks.” Jungkook knows he has to face Jin at some point; it is his party after all. For now, though, he wants to sit in the sun and pretend like this summer will last forever. 

 

“Hey Kookie.” The solitude only lasts half a minute. Jungkook feels the couch dip as Yoongi sits next to him. It seems like he can’t get a moment to himself. 

 

“Hey Yoongi.” The older debater is wearing floral print shorts and a shirt that looks like Yoongi bought it at a roadside booth. It’s the most color Jungkook’s ever seen him wear, and it takes a moment for his eyes to adjust. “How’s packing for Johns Hopkins going?” Yoongi grins at the mention of his chosen university. 

 

“It’s going well. Gotta remember to take all my ties from debate, never know what kind of snob I’m gonna meet over there.” His excitement shines through his blithe words. He’s positively humming with anticipation for the Baltimore university. So far away , thinks Jungkook sullenly, keeping the bitterness out of his words. 

 

“Ah, in just a few weeks, I bet you’ll be a snob just like them! You’ll forget all of us back here at our dinky high school.” Jungkook purposely keeps any bitterness out of his voice. Yoongi laughs and ruffles Jungkook’s hair. 

 

“How could I forget you guys? And I’ll be back for Christmas before you know it,” Yoongi reassures him. Jungkook has a sudden vision of an older version of himself guiding some faceless freshman through the doors of Hoseok’s house, introducing them to all the older members returned to pay their respects to the memory of their time in debate, just as Taehyung did for him. It’s difficult to imagine the cold and snow in the middle of summer, of having Jin and Yoongi return after what seems like an eternity. But Christmas isn’t so far away, right? He can last till then. 

 

“I guess you’re right,” Jungkook concedes. Yoongi leans back, looking like a tourist on vacation in his gaudy shorts. He must have borrowed them from Hoseok, because there is no way he would have bought them himself. 

 

“Y’know,” Yoongi says, eyeing Jungkook with a knowing look, “since two of the team captains have graduated, you have a good shot at being Policy captain next year. You’ll be the most qualified, after all.” 

 

“Really?” Jungkook sits up, already brimming with enthusiasm. “Policy captain? Me? As a sophomore?” 

 

“Hey, you got second at state as a freshman, who knows?” Yoongi smiles slyly at him. “Good work, kid.”

 

“Thank you. You’re going to do so great at Johns Hopkins, I know it.” 

 

“Thanks, JK.” A shriek comes from the backyard, sounding very much like Hoseok getting soaked with a water balloon. Yoongi looks up, sighing with exasperation. “I better go rescue Hobi before Joon sees him in a wet tee shirt and creams his pants.” 

 

“Good luck,” Jungkook snorts, watching Yoongi trudge out of the living room to save Hoseok. Uncouth but refreshingly honest, that’s Yoongi. Jungkook is going to miss that. Now that Yoongi’s gone, he allows himself to sink further into the couch and his head. Jungkook is the sun, the golden child, and everyone revolves around him, never stopping for long. It’s lonely, being the center of the universe. 

 

“Hey, why the long face?” It seems his third visitor has arrived. Namjoon stands with his hands in his pockets. Jungkook shrugs, setting aside his watermelon. It seems like he won’t have a free moment to eat and mope anytime soon. 

 

“Nothing.” Jungkook knows he sounds like a petulant child, but he’s sunburnt and sick of people asking him if he’s okay. Namjoon clearly doesn’t believe him for a second, but he doesn’t push it any further. 

 

“We’re gonna cut the cake in a bit, wanna come to the kitchen?” It’s not exactly a command, but it’s certainly a strong request.  

 

“In a minute.” Jungkook doesn’t feel like obeying his team captain right now, his chance of being Policy captain be damned. Namjoon doesn’t respond and Jungkook ducks his head, ashamed of his sullen attitude. This is a party with all his friends, why can’t he be happy? He hears Namjoon digging in his pockets for something.

 

“Hey, we got something for you. I say we, I mean Hoseok, Yoongi, and I.” It’s so kind of them, and Jungkook doesn’t want it. He doesn’t want any more kindness or any more encouraging words. He’s sick of being shiny and special. He opens his mouth to protest, but Namjoon is already offering him a small, tissue paper-wrapped object. With great hesitation, Jungkook takes it from his hands and tears the paper off. Cradled inside the tissue paper is a simple flashdrive, drab in appearance except for the school years written in metallic silver Sharpie on the side. Jungkook looks at Namjoon questioningly.

 

“It’s nothing big,” Namjoon explains, “just a compilation of pictures and dumb selfies from this year. Oh, and some official pictures from state.” He sits down on the armrest of the couch, the armholes of his loose tank top showing miles of suntanned skin. Jungkook stares down at the flashdrive, unsure of how to react. Namjoon chuckles, “You don’t have to look at them anytime soon. But I wish I had had one when I was a freshman. There was a debater on the team, Hakyeon, who I was close with. You met him at the Christmas party, right?” Jungkook nods. “Well, when he graduated, I was sad for a while. Every year people leave, and I didn’t know how to deal with it. How are you supposed to make friends if they leave in a few months?” Namjoon stretches his arms above his head, his eyes distant. 

 

“But when I looked at the pictures we took, it made me feel less alone. No one’s gone for good, even if you lose contact. You’ll have the memories forever.” Jungkook almost doesn’t hear Namjoon get up and leave. He’s lost in concentration, staring at the flashdrive. He closes his hand around it tightly, the paper crinkling and the plastic edges biting into his skin.

 

Steeling himself, he gets up from the couch and walks into the kitchen with purpose. There are more people milling about now, waiting for the cutting of the cake. He sees Hoseok with a towel slung over his shoulders, laughing next to an equally-as-wet Taehyung, and Jimin who is suspiciously dry. Jin is in the corner with Taemin, his windshield wiper laugh audible over the hum of conversation. Jungkook marches over and stops a foot away from him, suddenly unsure of what to say. 

 

“Hey! What’s up, Jungkook?” Jin’s wearing a baseball cap with his university’s logo stitched onto it. Jungkook swallows, then pulls the envelope with Jin’s name on it from his back pocket. Jungkook winces when he sees it’s a little bent from being sat on, but Jin doesn’t seem to mind, taking the envelope with care. 

 

“Um. This is for you. For graduation. You can open it now, if you want.” Jin studies his name written on the outside of the card, then tears open the envelope as instructed. 

 

Jungkook bites his lip, watching anxiously as Jin reads the card, then opens the folded piece of paper included inside the card. Jin’s face is notoriously hard to read, and Jungkook desperately wishes he knew what he was thinking. 

 

“You don’t have to like it,” Jungkook blurts out. “I drew it at like 1AM the night before state and I thought...maybe you would like it? For your dorm room?” Jin’s staring at the drawing, not speaking, and Jungkook panics. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to-” 

 

“Jungkook! This is the best thing I have ever received in my entire life!” Jin exclaims, clutching the card to his chest. Taemin and a few other people look at him curiously. Jin looks like he might be tearing up, but he’s smiling too widely for Jungkook to tell. He pulls Jungkook into a hug, careful not to crumple the drawing between them. Jungkook leans into the embrace, taking a deep inhale of Jin’s coffee-roses scent that all his shirts smell like. He’d never admit it, but he’ll miss the smell of Jin’s sweaters. “I’m going to frame it, hang it in my future mansion, and tattoo it onto my ass!” 

 

“Ooh! What’s in the card? Is it money?” Taehyung bounces over, followed closely by Jimin. Jin lets go of Jungkook to show them the drawing in the card. It’s a detailed drawing in pencil of Jin, his brow furrowed into a permanent expression of concentration. If one looks closely, they can see the shading is made up of the words of their debate cases. Jimin and Taehyung ooh and ahh over the drawing, making so much of a fuss that everyone else comes over to see what’s going on. Jungkook shuffles on his feet and blushes. Removing himself from the group crowded around the drawing, Jin faces back to Jungkook. 

 

“Thank you Jungkook. It’s incredible.” 

 

“It’s no big deal.” It’s kind of a big deal. Jungkook’s never shown his art to anyone but his art teacher, much less given it to someone.

 

“Even if it is ‘no big deal,’ I still appreciate the time it took you.” Jungkook wants to say something, anything, to explain just how speech and debate has changed him; how Seokjin has changed him. The moment is broken by Yoongi’s loud voice from the doorway of the kitchen. 

 

“Alright you heathens! It’s time for cake! Jin, it’s your party, I’m not cutting this sugar monstrosity for you,” Yoongi calls, wielding a cake knife and looking distinctly bored with the chaos in the kitchen. The cake in question is rather large, decorated with a giant edible picture of Jin’s beaming face in his graduation cap, surrounded by buttercream roses. It’s very fitting. Jin pats Jungkook once more on the shoulder and skips off towards Yoongi. 

 

“Okay, who wants an edge piece?” 

 

As Hoseok and Jimin bicker over who gets the edge piece with the most frosting, Jungkook takes a step back to consider the room. He doesn’t see himself as the sun anymore. And as much as Jin pretends to be, he isn’t the center of the universe either. No one is more important, no more accomplished than the others. Yoongi may have won LD debate, but his most important victory was the battle with his demons. Jimin and Taehyung might not have made it to finals at all, but their triumph is evident in their joined hands, linked together even as they argue over Jin’s graduation cake.

 

They all have their wins and their losses, a record that goes far beyond the debate season. There will be more debates, more times to cry and more times to celebrate. There will be spilled cups of coffee and broken down buses and lonely, silent hallways that stretch on for miles. There will be cake and Mongolian barbeque and watermelon juice in the summer. 

 

As Jin cuts into the cake, dividing his cake-face up into equal squares, Jungkook thinks that life is very similar to cake. It’s messy and too many people take it for granted. Life is a matter of dividing yourself up, of giving pieces of yourself away to the people you love. But you don’t really lose yourself, because they give you their own pieces back in return. 

 

Jungkook used to stick to his own little corner of comfort. He used to hide from challenges, from anyone that could hurt him again like in eighth grade. Speech and debate had forced him out of his comfort zone and into the light. The light can burn, but it can also make you shine like no other. 

 

No, it’s not speech and debate that dragged him from his isolating habits. Jungkook watches Hoseok wipe a smudge of frosting onto Namjoon’s nose and lick it off, ignoring Namjoon’s cries of protest. It’s the people he met along the way who really changed him. 

 

“Hey JK!” Yoongi is staring at him, brandishing the cake knife and helping Jin serve the cake, exactly what he said he wouldn’t do. “You want a piece?” 

 

“Yes please!” Jungkook’s not sure where his road will take him, how far he’ll be pulled out to sea. But he’s not afraid anymore. He’s going to catch fire, burn bright, see how far he can go.