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“I can’t tell him.”

He whispers it into the darkness of his room like a secret. The words curl around him, suffocating. Now that they’ve left him they’re a part of the air. He can’t take them back.

He holds out his fingers and counts off all the reasons he can’t tell him.

  1. The last time he confessed to someone it turned out terribly. (Just thinking about it, just thinking about doing it again makes his hands shake.)
  2. Jimin said he can’t be with anyone after the last time. (He turned down Bobby who he made bedroom eyes at, Bobby who he liked. He turned down Bobby, so what’s Jungkook?)
  3. Jimin doesn’t like him. (Forget the blushes and the laughter and the affection, he doesn’t like him, Jungkook knows it.)
  4. Jimin will reject him. (It’ll ruin their friendship and it’ll be two for two and Jungkook won’t ever confess to anyone again.)
  5. Jimin’s leaving. (He’s leaving he’s leaving he’s leaving he’s leaving.)

“I can’t tell him.”

He turns over and buries his face into his pillow, inhaling a trembling breath. No matter that he wants to. No matter that he’d give anything to be the reason for Jimin’s smile. Because even in a perfect world, if Jimin liked him and he weren’t leaving, it wouldn’t matter. Jimin’s past won’t let him open his heart to anyone.

But how he wants to; oh, how he wants to. How he wishes that instead of whispering a denial into the stifling air of his room, he were whispering a confession into Jimin’s lips. Now that he’s let himself feel it, the want rushes over him until he’s drowning in it. And he knows it’ll only get worse.

Maybe it’s best that Jimin’s leaving.

 

Jungkook dabs a speck of blue paint on the corner of the canvas, covered in a patchwork of old, torn paper. With his tongue sticking out from the corner of his mouth, he blends it carefully into the neighboring green. The sound of someone’s foot kicking the door nearly startles him into dropping his brush. He spins around. Taehyung walks toward him holding two cups of to-go coffee with the Dream Bean logo plastered on the sides, a face mask over his mouth.

“Hey. Here.” He hands him one of the cups. Jungkook peeks inside; it’s an Americano. He wonders if Jimin was the one who made it. “You’ve been here all day. Take a break.”

Jungkook glances around him, suddenly realizing that the small studio is now empty. When he had arrived there early morning (not because he woke up but because he never fell asleep), a girl worked on a tissue paper collage by the window, another sketched a still life, and a boy had been in the middle of a painting. Now it’s just him, standing alone with his canvas and easel in the corner, old t-shirt and sweats covered in stray splotches of paint.

“Oh.”

Taehyung slides into one of the rolling chairs in front of the white table that protrudes from the wall of the studio, stretching from one end around the corner to the next. “How’s the project going?”

“Uh, all right. I’ve just got three more portraits to add, and I’m not really happy with the blending.”

“It looks fine to me.”

Jungkook brushes his hair out of his eyes, leaving a wet streak of paint on his forehead in the process. “Nah, it’s not there yet.”

“Take a break, Jungkookie.”

“I just wanna finish a bit more.”

“Have you even eaten anything all day?”

He scuffs the toes of his Timberlands against the paint-covered cement floor and thinks about it. “I had breakfast. I think. Actually, never mind.”

“Come on, let’s go to the dining hall.”

“In a bit.” He tries not to sound annoyed as he turns back to his canvas.

“Jimin was asking about you.”  

Jungkook pauses in reapplying paint to his brush. So Jimin did make the coffee. “Oh, yeah?” His tone is carefully neutral.

“Jungkook,” Taehyung says it gently, the way his voice gets when he’s actually acting like a hyung. “It’s been a week. He looked upset.”

Jungkook dabs another speck of blue elsewhere.

“He said you weren’t answering his calls.”

He applies too much blue and swears, jabbing at the spot with his pinky to catch the excess and leaving a nasty smear.

“Jungkook, look at me,” Taehyung says very seriously. Jungkook sighs and turns to him. “Stop avoiding him. Stop.”

“What’s the fucking point?”

“The fucking point is that he’s your fucking friend.” Taehyung hardly ever gets like this. Something in his interaction with Jimin must have pissed him off enough to confront Jungkook. “You can’t just run away from shit for the rest of your life. If you’re not gonna man the fuck up and tell him, then at least have the decency to spend his last days here as a good friend. You’ve just wasted a whole week.”

Taehyung doesn’t get it. He doesn’t know what happened the last time Jungkook confessed. Jimin is the only person Jungkook has ever told. So Taehyung doesn’t understand why Jungkook can’t man the fuck up. “Fuck off.”

“Quit acting like a kid, Jeon Jungkook. He’s graduating in one week and if you hurt him like this you’re going to regret it forever. Confess or don’t confess, that’s your problem. But don’t shut him out. He doesn’t deserve that.”

Taehyung grabs his coffee and marches to the door. Halfway there he turns back, grabs Jungkook’s coffee, too, and resumes his exit.

“Where the fuck are you taking my coffee?”

“I bought it!” Taehyung sniffs. “You don’t deserve it.”

“You’re such a fucking baby.”

“Look who’s talking.” At the door, Taehyung sticks his tongue out, blows a raspberry, and leaves.

Jungkook splutters. A minute too late he yells, “Suck my dick!”

But Taehyung’s already gone and he only succeeds in scandalizing a professor passing by.

That night he stands in front of Jimin’s apartment door. He raises his hand to knock. Drops it. Raises it again. Huffs in frustration and runs a hand through his hair, walks to the end of the hall toward the staircase then back again. It’s a stupid idea; he doesn’t have any way to explain the last week. Hey, hyung, sorry I just wasted a whole week we could have spent together because I realized I really fucking like you but it doesn’t matter anyway because I’m scared and you’re scared and you’re leaving. He snorts quietly, spins on his heel, and marches for the staircase. But halfway there he thinks about Taehyung’s stupid disappointed face, the one where he pouts a little and his eyebrows form this weird shape and he just looks like an idiot but somehow manages to make Jungkook feel bad anyway.

And he thinks about the way Jimin looks when he’s upset but doesn’t want to show it. How he gets stiff and quiet but his pretty eyes give everything away, and his lips will quirk in that sad way. He doesn’t deserve that.

Jungkook shuffles back to the door and knocks, three quick raps. He waits for a minute; no telltale noises sound on the other side. With a sigh, he stuffs his hands in his pockets and turns away.

The door opens with a bang. “Jeon Jungkook.”

It’s Namjoon, leaning in the doorjamb with ink-stained fingers and a pair of massive glasses perched on his nose. “Hyung.”

“Are you looking for Jimin?”

“Is he home?”

“Uh-huh.”

Jungkook tries to move past him, taking that as an invitation, but Namjoon takes him by the shoulder and pushes him back. He crosses his arms and stands there, blocking the way. “What?”

“Jeon Jungkook,” Namjoon says again. “We need to have a talk.”

“What kind of talk?” Jungkook sniffs, looking anywhere but at Namjoon’s face. He scuffs the ground with the toe of his boot.

“About you and your coping mechanisms.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You find out Jiminie’s graduating and you hide for a week. Running away isn’t exactly healthy, you know.”

Jungkook sinks into himself, shoulders tight. He feels small. “Yeah, I know,” he mumbles.

“He’s really upset. Thinks he did something wrong.”

“He didn’t.”

“Of course he didn’t. Jungkookie, you can’t run away from things that make you sad. You have to face them to overcome them.”

Half of him wants to say something snarky like thanks, Mr. Philosophy Major. But he knows Namjoon’s just being a hyung. “Yeah. That’s why I’m here.”

“Hey, Jiminie, come here,” Namjoon yells back into the apartment. Then he says to Jungkook, “You should be grateful Yoongi hyung’s not here. He would have kicked your ass to hell and back.”

Jimin steps out of the room in an oversized sweater, hair ruffled and lips swollen like he was sleeping not that long ago. His socked feet slide against the floor. “What—” He sees Jungkook, and he stops. “Jungkookie?”

Namjoon claps Jungkook’s shoulder and slips into the bedroom, closing the door behind him. Jungkook stands in the doorway. Now that he’s looking at him, soft and tired, he doesn’t know how to act. Now that he knows the burst of butterflies he gets every time Jimin looks at him actually mean something after all. “Hyung.”

“How come you haven’t been picking up my calls?” His mouth curves into a frown, his voice pitched high. “Where have you been?”

“I—I’m sorry, hyung, I just—I’m sorry.”

“You’re such an asshole. I only have a week left here, you know?”

“I know. I’m an asshole.”

“Why have you been ignoring me?” His voice gets higher with every question.

“I was just—you caught me off guard. I didn’t know. I didn’t know you were leaving.”

“So you fucking ignore me for a week? Right, that makes so much sense.”

“It doesn’t. I know it doesn’t.”

Jimin’s lower lip wobbles. His nose scrunches up. He spins around, standing there with his hand on the couch, his back to Jungkook. And then Jungkook’s moving toward him with quick steps, sliding his arms around Jimin’s waist and pulling him into his chest. Jimin stiffens, breath caught in a gasp, but he doesn’t pull away. His back is warm against Jungkook’s chest, and in his arms he feels so incredibly small. It’s so easy to hold Jimin like it means nothing, even if it makes Jungkook’s heart thump so hard he’s sure Jimin can feel it.

“I’m sorry,” he murmurs into Jimin’s hair, tickling his cheek. “I’m sorry.”

Jimin relaxes, leaning his weight into Jungkook. Jungkook’s arms tighten, holding him up. The sleeves of Jimin’s sweater are soft against his skin. He thinks it would be nice to stay like this forever. But of course nothing lasts forever, and after a moment Jimin turns around in his hold. They’re close, so close their chests brush. Jimin reaches up and threads a hand through Jungkook’s hair, from his forehead to the nape of his neck. A shiver runs up Jungkook’s spine and he knows Jimin feels it.

“I forgive you,” he says.

His hand stays there, curled in the hair at his nape. It would be easy to kiss him. They’re already breathing the same air. He could just lean down the slightest bit and their noses would brush, and then their lips, too. He could pull his hips against his own and kiss him like he’s wanted to since the first time he saw him, sitting in the dining hall reading an English book that made his brow furrow in frustration. He realizes he’s staring at Jimin’s lips and he thinks Jimin’s staring at his, too. It would be easy.

They pull away at the same time.

Jimin turns back to the couch, holding onto it and clearing his throat. Red spreads from his cheeks down to his collarbones. Maybe it means something, maybe Jimin feels something after all. But in the end it doesn’t matter. He felt something for Bobby, too.

“Have you been studying for finals?” Jimin asks, a rapid change in subject.

“Uh, yeah. Do you—do you want to study together?”

Jimin smiles. It’s a breath of fresh air. It only took one week for him to miss that smile; he doesn’t know what he’ll do when Jimin leaves. “Yeah. Let’s study.”

 

Jungkook sits in the hall outside Professor Kim’s office with the other ten people in his class, linoleum floor cold against his ass. Kim wanted to meet with each student individually to turn in their final projects and talk to them about the semester. He’s nervous. He can’t remember the last time he worked so hard on something for school. The past three days he spent cooped up in the studio with Jimin coming by to study near him every now and then.

One of the girls in class whose name he can never remember steps out of Kim’s office and says, “Jungkook, your turn.”

He hops to his feet and carefully lifts his canvas, carrying it into the office. Professor Kim smiles when he enters, his eyes crinkling. “What have you got for me, Jeon Jungkook?”

Jungkook turns the canvas around and holds it up. Kim looks over it, scribbling down some notes.

“Okay, talk to me. How are you showing courage?”

He props it against the back wall and stands by it, fiddling with his fingers. “Well, um, when I think of courage I think of people. Like, people I know who are courageous. So I made a collage of portraits.”

He looks back at his painting. Over the patchwork of old paper covering the canvas, he’s painted a collage of faces, soft edges in blurred acrylic. There’s his mother because if anyone’s courageous it’s her, dealing with work and two sons and his father’s family. Taehyung for the way he stands up for what he believes in, and the way he would stand in front of Jungkook to take the punches meant for him. Hoseok for all the love he has in him, because it’s not easy loving everyone. His middle school teacher who first encouraged him to pursue art and argued with his parents when they spoke out against it. And Jimin. Jimin because despite everything he’s been through, he still manages to smile and let someone like Jungkook into his life when he doesn’t deserve it at all.

“You’re not on it,” Professor Kim says.

“Huh?”

“You don’t think you’re courageous?”

Professor Kim Seokjin, always meddling. Jungkook has found that he doesn’t really mind it. He shrugs.

“I think you’re pretty courageous, Jungkook.” He beckons, and Jungkook takes the seat across from him. “Just look at how much you’ve grown in one semester.”

Jungkook rubs the back of his head and blushes.

“And the paper you turned in last week was fantastic.”

“Thanks. And, uh, thanks for all your help this semester. If I’ve grown, a lot of it’s because of you.”

Professor Kim beams.

 

He could still tell him.

There’s not much time left, but he could still tell Jimin the truth. That’s what he’s thinking the day they throw Jimin a graduation party—a small affair for the six of them that have somehow become a group over the course of the semester, beer and fried chicken and anime and laughter. It’s nice. For a little while they pretend that things aren’t going to change.

But they are, and when the night’s over Jungkook can think of nothing else. Everyone around him is laughing and happy and so is he, but a part of him is so acutely aware of their impermanence. Jimin will leave and then second semester will come and go and Taehyung and Namjoon and Hoseok will leave, too. Sparked by Jimin’s graduation, he understands with startling clarity the inevitability of change. They won’t be laughing, careless college students forever. Maybe one day they won’t even know each other. Maybe one day he’ll think fondly back to this moment and wonder where everyone else is and wonder if they’re doing all right. We had fun together, he’ll think, it’s been a while. One day he’ll be somewhere different, someone different, and so will they.

After his second year in university ends, Jungkook will be alone. He knows a lot of people on campus. He has people he can call up if he’s looking for a party or looking for good alcohol or good sex. But in the end Taehyung and Hoseok were his only real friends, the only ones he wanted to spend his down time with. Jimin will leave and then they’ll leave and Jungkook will have to learn to fend for himself.

It’s like high school all over again. For the first two years he had Taehyung by his side, and he didn’t need anyone else. Taehyung warded off the bullying and sat with him during lunch and winked from the windows when he passed his classroom. But then he graduated and Jungkook spent the next two years trying to function without him. In the end, he did all right. He broke out of his shell a little and made some acquaintances to pass the time. But it wasn’t the same.

It won’t be the same, after this year. After this semester.

They’re growing up now. At least after high school he had university to anticipate. Now there’s only real life. Struggle and more struggle, like he sees the adults around him endure. And when life gets in the way maybe he won’t ever find friends like these again.

But for the time being he revels in their togetherness. He laughs at the way Hoseok does his best impression of Yoongi, and the way he slings his arm around Jimin’s neck and bumps their heads together by accident when he laughs too hard. He yells along with everyone else when Namjoon almost spills an entire bottle of beer all over the carpet, snorts at the way Yoongi huffs at all of them in exasperation but throws them the fondest glances when he thinks they aren’t looking. Smiles at Taehyung when he gets on the table to dance for his favorite anime opening. And watches Jimin, his bright eyes and offended exclamations when someone teases him, his body-flinging laugh and snarky comments.

But the night ends like all things, and they’re saying goodbye. Hugging and making jokes to ward off the sadness. Jimin holds Hoseok and Taehyung for a while and Jungkook stands to the side, watching. Then Jimin turns to him and says his name, quietly. The air around them grows heavy and Yoongi shifts, Taehyung clears his throat, Namjoon looks away. They step toward each other at the same time, him and Jimin.

He tucks him into his arms carefully at first, but Jimin holds on tight, so he lets himself feel. He holds him to his chest, face buried into his hair, inhaling the scent of shampoo and Jimin. Jimin’s small hands clutch the back of his shirt, breathing into his shoulder. Standing like that he could forget there’s anyone else but the two of them, anyone else but Jimin, so small in his arms. But things are changing, and Jungkook has to change with them.

He had thought, foolishly, hopefully, that it might have been fate that led them together. But in the end it was just a series of stupid coincidences and stupider decisions. Fate hasn’t aligned for them to work out. There are an amalgamation of hesitations, of locked-up hurt and flawed hearts that keep them from each other. It’s not the right time. It might never be.

He lets Jimin go. He could still tell him, but he doesn’t. He lets Jimin go.

 

Timberlands, Jungkook learned quite some time ago, are not good running shoes.

He weaves around a girl on a bike and leaps over some guy sitting on the sidewalk drawing in chalk. His boots pinch his feet but he’s making pretty impressive speed, if he does say so himself. A girl carrying groceries steps onto the sidewalk just outside the apartment building, and Jungkook careens to the side to avoid her, bouncing back to zoom inside. He takes the stairs two at a time, wonders if running like Naruto does will make him go any faster.

Not that he’s on a time limit, not really. Jimin’s bus doesn’t leave for another hour.

He wasn’t supposed to see him today. Last night had been the end. But this morning he woke up and realized he couldn’t let some asshole he made the mistake of liking in high school get in the way of right now. If he lets his fear govern him, then he hasn’t changed much at all. Just look at how much you’ve grown in one semester, Seokjin had said. Jungkook wants those words to be true.

Because even if Jimin says no, at least he’ll have tried. At least he can walk away and say that he didn’t cave into fear. That he was as courageous as all the people he loves.

He skids to a halt outside the apartment door, nearly stumbling over in his haste. He knocks quickly. Yoongi opens the door. He’s clearly seconds away from making a dry comment about Jungkook’s out-of-breath state, but Jungkook beats him to it.

“I gotta—gotta talk to Jimin,” he gasps.

Yoongi gives him a look but lets him in. Jimin’s sitting on top of his suitcase, legs straddling the handle. His eyes widen in surprise as he stands up. “Jungkook, what happened?”

“Can I talk to you? Privately.”

Jimin’s brows furrow, but he points outside the apartment. “Go in the hall.”

So Jungkook goes, still trying to catch his breath. Jimin follows, letting the door click shut behind him.

“What’s up?”

The words spill out of him in a jumble because if he speaks any slower he’ll lose courage. “Hyung I like you a lot.”

Jimin’s never been good at hiding how he feels. The play of emotions is written across his face so clearly. Confusion, then understanding, then the telltale drooping of sadness and frustration. Jungkook pulls into himself. He knows what’s coming. Two for two. “Jungkookie, I thought you understood.” His voice cracks, his eyes trained resolutely on the wall behind Jungkook.

“I do. I do understand.”

“Then why are you doing this to me? I’m leaving in an hour.” He sounds so pained that Jungkook regrets it. Maybe he had only been thinking of himself.

“I couldn’t let you go without telling you.”

“I can’t. You know I can’t.”

He shoves his hands in his pockets, clenching them into fists against his thighs. His shoulders scrunch together so tight it hurts. Even though he expected it, nothing quite prepared him for the way his heart sinks, swooping to his feet like dead weight. “I know.”

He had hoped, anyway.

When he looks up, Jimin is crying. “Hyung, I’m sorry. Please don’t cry.”

“You don’t get it.” Lower lip trembling, red spreading across his nose, lashes wet. “It doesn’t matter how much I like you, I’m scared.”

“I know. Maybe we can—we can work around it. Take things slow.”

“I’m leaving.”

He doesn’t have an answer for that. Defeated, he leans back against the wall, slouching over. “Please.”

“Thinking about—thinking about being with someone again makes me want to vomit.” The words come out distorted through his tears. “You don’t get it.”

It took Jungkook a year and a half just to move past a failed confession. Maybe he’s asking too much of Jimin. “I’m sorry.”

“Go home.” The tremble leaves his voice. He wipes his tears on the back of his hand and stands straighter.

When he turns his back, Jungkook crumbles. “Have a safe trip, Jiminie hyung.”

Jimin pauses at the door. His shoulders shake. “Thanks, Jungkookie.”