Sometimes in the evenings Jeongguk doesn’t pull his curtains all the way shut, and wakes up to a golden slice of sunlight cutting through his bedroom in the early morning when his brain jolts him out of sleep, if only for a dreamstained moment. It’s just making sure he’s alive and well.
This is one of those mornings, a short drop and a sudden stop as his body is yanked out of what Jimin likes to joke is living death. Jeongguk does not find it so funny, but it remains true that he sleeps a slumber that could be mistaken for a coma, and more than once Taehyung has woken him—more gently, softly, like himself—by humming into Jeongguk’s neck until he could flutter his eyes open to the feeling of kisses.
“Rise and shine, sleeping beauty,” he’d say, smoothing Jeongguk’s fiery bedhead down.
This morning is quiet, and the dust motes dance above him, swirling to a tune that Jeongguk cannot hear. He makes a groggy note to himself that he needs to vacuum, maybe, and air out his room, and that is when he realizes he is not alone.
“You have got to stop doing that,” he groans when his heart slows down from the jump of adrenaline that had spiked through him. “What the fuck are you here for?”
“Making a stop by the ICU today,” Jimin says, where he’s lounging on Jeongguk’s desk chair. “Ugh, I hate hospital shift. It’s always the saddest one. Usually Yoongi takes hospital shift.”
“What, so you like the inner city highway shifts better? You don’t seem like one to enjoy gore.”
“Hmm, no, I don’t. I like the nursing home shifts,” Jimin says. “Those are the easiest. Some of the people that I stop by for even see me for a few moments and give me a smile. It’s nice, I guess.”
“A tip for the waiter.”
“So to speak.”
“And you just decided, ‘hey, let’s stop by Jeongguk’s place and scare the shit out of him.’ What if Taehyung had been here?”
Jimin frowns. “I thought you told him that it was sleep paralysis.”
“Yeah, not that I’m sure if he believes me or not.” Jeongguk groans again, theatrically this time. “He might have passed it off that time but I wouldn’t push my luck.”
“Shame. It was easier to fool your parents when you were still a kid and didn’t share a bed with anyone.” Jimin sighs wistfully, probably at the memory of the time eight years ago that he gave Jeongguk a shiner. Jeongguk had woked up to Jimin sitting on his headboard, flailed in terror, and fallen out of bed, but not without smacking his eye on the edge of his nightstand. “They grow up so fast.”
“Fuck off,” says Jeongguk into his pillow.
“I’d wager he’d believe you more if you experience it more than once around him.”
“I’m not going to unnecessarily worry him, Jimin. Unlike you, the living kind of care about health and well-being. Balance of body and mind. You know, that kind of thing.”
“Oh, right,” Jimin says, and he can’t seem to help his smile. The glint of his teeth matches the blade of his scythe and Jeongguk would be more afraid if this weren’t a regular occurrence, and if it weren’t Jimin. “Well, I best be going. Hospital shift starts at the crack of dawn.”
“So you did only come here to sit in my room and scare the shit out of me when I woke up.”
“Hey, maybe I don’t need to care about health, or wellness, or balance of body and mind or chakra or feng shui—”
“Feng shui dictates where to position your dresser for optimal flow of chi.”
“But,” Jimin says loudly over him, “I still like a good joke. Lighten up, dude, it’s Monday.”
Jeongguk grumbles as he sits up, “Lighten up, he says,” grumbling mostly to himself as Jimin disappears with a soft hush and a rustle of fabric through his wall. “Look who’s goddamn talking.”
From birth, Jeongguk has been a deep sleeper. There is no denying it. For years his mother worried over him, ferried him to different sleep psychologists, all of whom said that no, it isn’t narcolepsy. It isn’t not sleep apnea. It isn’t even the purported long sleep syndrome. It has a much simpler explanation than that, but by the time Jeongguk himself understood, it was too late; he was a serial napper and a zombie sleeper.
The long and short of it is: there are things in the waking world that he can’t see when he sleeps, that he doesn’t have to see when he sleeps—because, from birth, Jeongguk has always had the uncanny and abhorrently inconvenient ability to see grim reapers.
Jeongguk blinks and his vision comes back to focus on Taehyung’s face again, and the sensation of a pen in his fingers returns—the smell of the coffee shop around them, the bustle of students coming in and out, the icy blast as the door opens to the snow outside. Taehyung is looking at him with gentle concern and a face like not this again, and Jeongguk’s eyelids flutter once more as he comes back down to earth.
“You’ve just been staring into space for five full minutes. You didn’t get enough sleep again, did you?”
“No,” Jeongguk admits. “Got woken up real early in the morning.”
“Sleep paralysis again?” Taehyung puts his own pen down, reaches across mocha latte and half-eaten croissant to take Jeongguk’s hand in his. His are warm, in that soft, constant way that Jeongguk has come to know well. “I knew I should’ve slept over.”
“It’s okay.” Jeongguk turns his hand in its cradle so he can lace his fingers with Taehyung’s. “It’s nothing new.”
“I know.” Taehyung’s lips are a little chapped when he brings Jeongguk’s knuckles to his mouth, kissing the freezing palm of his hand, and Jeongguk has to swallow down his blush and the urge to pull his hand away—shy, still, even after two years of doing this. At least shy in someplace so public. “But it worries me anyway. What did you see this time? The same old?”
“Same old,” says Jeongguk. “A dark, hooded figure in my room, sitting at my desk. Smoke coming off the train and hems of their cloak as they watched me.”
It’s not a lie. Taehyung probably knows what is the closest thing to the truth that anyone has ever known, in fact—and sometimes Jeongguk has to backpedal so as to not puncture that cellophane-thin boundary between the barefaced truth and the painted one he shares with Taehyung.
“God,” Taehyung murmurs. “I can’t imagine having to experience that.”
“With luck,” Jeongguk says, “you won’t have to.”
Still, Taehyung insists on sleeping over with him tonight. Jeongguk would never complain, only too happy to have him, the weight of Taehyung’s head on his chest a welcome one to the suffocating feeling in his throat that Taehyung must assume he feels every time he wakes up to see Death chilling out in his room.
“What if I scare you more on accident?” Taehyung says where he’s curled into Jeongguk’s side. He presses his fingers into the valleys of Jeongguk’s ribs and laughs when Jeongguk swats his hand away, ticklish. “Is it possible that I’ll look scary to you if you open your eyes?”
“It’s all a hallucination,” Jeongguk says, running his thumb across Taehyung’s bangs so that his forehead peeks out, then disappears behind his curtain of hair again, over and over. “But you wouldn’t scare me.”
“I’m perfectly scary.”
“You made me stand in the bathroom with you when you got up to pee at four AM after we watched Sinister 2, then jumped out of your pants when you saw me standing in the doorway,” Jeongguk says, yawning. “To be frightening one must not be easily frightened.”
“Because you know all about scary things, do you?”
“Mhmm,” Jeongguk says. His voice is but a hum now and he feels Taehyung pressing kisses to the backs of his eyelids as they close. “I sure do.”
Jimin would not be impressed with that claim.
“I’m not scary,” he used to say, morosely, to Jeongguk back during the days of high school when Jeongguk would go out and sit on the swings of the park in the late evening to escape the crushing pressure of academia. “I’m wrongly feared and poorly represented every year on a rainy night in October.”
“You guys are harbingers of death. People fear death. People fear you.”
“All we do is accompany people over the bridge between life and death,” said Jimin, picking at a tear in his cloak. It had been there since the moment Jeongguk could remember him, an eternal blemish in the fabric. “Sometimes if they’re really young or afraid, we hold their hands. I think that it’s rather nice of us, actually. Imagine if you had to go alone. I would be scared.”
Jeongguk pushed himself slightly in the swing, the heels of his feet digging into the cooling sand. “Were you scared?”
“When you went over?”
“I was scared,” Jimin admitted, but he chuckled, and the sound of it was ghostly. “But that’s not saying much, since I was scared of everything.” The swing creaked slightly as he pushed himself a little too, the butt of his scythe making a depression in the sand beneath him, and Jeongguk wondered what this looks like to the regular eye—a boy sitting next to a creaky swing, maybe, talking to himself.
Today he does not drop in for a visit, thankfully. This also means Jeongguk does not wake up until Taehyung does, first with a kiss and then with a blowjob and Jeongguk wonders why he doesn’t endorse this more often.
“See you later, babe,” Taehyung says, giving Jeongguk one last kiss as as Mingyu makes a racket in the kitchen, and Jeongguk remembers why Taehyung doesn’t sleep over more. He groans, rolling over in bed, feeling soft and sleepy from his orgasm. Jeongguk has none of the incomprehensible energy that Taehyung possesses post-morning-blowjob. “Up now! Or you’ll fall asleep again.”
“It’s a travesty that you get all nice and suited up like that only to leave me,” Jeongguk gripes, throwing off his blankets and shivering at the cold air that sinks its teeth into his skin. He catches Taehyung’s hand one more time as he sits up on the edge of his bed, and tugs him in for one more kiss. “You have to come over in it one day.”
“Thought you’d never ask,” Taehyung says against his mouth, and then he’s gone.
The kitchen smells of garlic by the time Jeongguk slouches in, dressed for the most part (his shirt might be backward, there’s an itch at his collarbone) and awake.
“You want some?” Mingyu offers his plate on an outstretched hand
“You just stir-fried a chopped carrot in vegetable oil and put a fried egg on top.”
“Oh, because you’re a Michelin star chef.” Mingyu stuffs carrots in his mouth and promptly gags, and Jeongguk rolls his eyes. “Saw your boy hightailing it out of here. Or was it? He was in a suit. Never seen him in one. I didn’t know you were into older—”
“If you keep talking,” Jeongguk says, closing his eyes, “I will stick this PEZ dispenser up your—”
“Holy shit!” Mingyu says, setting his plate down with a clatter and shouldering Jeongguk out of the way. “I’ve been looking for that everywhere!”
Jeongguk breathes out of his nose, and fights the urge to go back to sleep.
Every Friday Jeongguk has class that ends right before dinner, when the law firm that Taehyung interns at closes. He hops on a bus and takes it downtown so they can get something to eat together, shivering into the scarf that he’s wrapped up to his nose. The fleece is damp with snow that he hadn’t bothered to shake off earlier, and he curses himself for it now.
“Here for Taehyung?” asks the receptionist when he lets himself in, glad to be out of the cold. “He’s in a meeting right now with the other attorneys, but they should be wrapping up soon.”
Jeongguk thanks her and makes for the bathroom. He knows this place well enough now to find it himself, and the office is quiet save for the rumble of heating. The lights of dark monitors blink sleepily at him as he passes, and just as the rounds the corner into the hallway, he jumps.
Jimin is there, standing in the window of the conference room and staring inside. He must have just finished a shift; a handful of butterflies made of nothing more than iridescent color flits around him, sits on his shoulders. One of them goes so far as to come and land on Jeongguk’s nose, softly, but never ventures too far from Jimin. He stares, this hollow kind of look in his eyes, but his expression is not empty. It’s one of the saddest Jeongguk has ever seen.
“What are you doing here?” Jeongguk says, and Jimin jumps. No one but Jeongguk can hear the clatter of his scythe blade against the wall where he’s come to let it rest.
“Finishing up my rounds.”
Jeongguk peers inside the conference room, staying out of sight behind the wall, but he can see Taehyung—in the corner, typing profusely as someone talks.
“You mean to tell me one of those old geezers is going to kick the bucket mid-conference?” Jeongguk says. “Bit rude.”
“No, just dropping in.” Jimin leans the staff of his scythe on his shoulder. “I should go.”
“What, is there someone in there that can see you too?”
But Jimin has disappeared by the time Jeongguk hears the meeting adjourned. None of the attorneys pay Jeongguk any mind as they go back to their desks, but Taehyung’s face brightens when he sees Jeongguk at the door.
“Hey,” he says. “What are you doing in here, aren’t you supposed to wait in lobby?”
“Needed to pee,” Jeongguk says.
“Are you okay?” Taehyung says, and Jeongguk only just now comes to realize how frigid his hands are again when Taehyung takes one in his own. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“I’ve seen worse.” Jeongguk squeezes his hand. “Dinner now?”
“Okay. But seriously, let me pee first.”
It’s not until later—quite later, after dinner—does Jeongguk understand why Jimin might have been in the office. He should’ve known. He should’ve known, because who else but him has ever had the displeasure of saying, ‘Death, I’ve been expecting you’?
“Are you still awake?”
“Hm?” Unfinished bits and pieces of graphic design homework lie scattered across the screen of Jeongguk’s laptop, the overheating underside burning his thighs through the blankets. “Yeah, I’m here,” he says, shifting against Taehyung’s chest, tilts his head back to gaze up into Taehyung’s face. “You want to sleep?”
“No, I wanted to show you this photo gallery I saw on Imgur of an otter that’s crying about eating watermelon but can’t stop eating,” Taehyung says, “check it out.”
“Doing what,” Taehyung laughs, resting his arm on Jeongguk’s shoulder as he swipes down. “You eat anything. You ate that sludge Mingyu made once when he thought it would be funny to—”
Taehyung pauses when Jeongguk cranes his head to kiss him, just barely, a press of warmth on the corner of his mouth. He doesn’t waste any time, though—when Jeongguk pulls away, Taehyung’s phone is already on Jeongguk’s desk, forgotten, as he pulls Jeongguk’s face in again to kiss him in earnest.
It takes some skillful maneuvering, but it’s definitely not the first time Jeongguk has had to get his laptop and tablet to safety first before pinning Taehyung under him. And Taehyung is warm, even through his clothes, startling a little when Jeongguk puts hands on his skin.
“Sorry,” he says, as is custom, kissing Taehyung again, but Taehyung just smiles lazily.
“Let’s get you warmed up,” he says, nipping Jeongguk’s lower lip before he reaches down to the hem of his shirt and pulls it up over his head, tossing it at the foot of the bed. It’s an invitation to kiss, the way Taehyung turns his head so that his neck is exposed, hair falling into his eyes.
It isn’t until later, quite later, does Jeongguk have the displeasure of saying, death, you’re a bit early to the party, aren’t you?
A wreath of of hickies hangs in the soft curve of Taehyung’s neck when Jeongguk moves back up to kiss him, giving in to Taehyung’s soft whines and urging to touch. He sighs, so harshly that it’s more of a quiet moan, when Jeongguk slides his hand into his pants to meet hot skin, and Jeongguk is about to smile into Taehyung’s mouth when he feels a gentle flutter against his cheek. A shadow, with wings so soft that it could have been mistaken for Taehyung’s eyelashes, brushing over his skin.
It sits there, in the circle of purpling skin just above Taehyung’s collarbone. Jeongguk’s mouth still as he stares at it, a butterfly, opening and closing its pearlescent wings as it emits a soft glow onto Taehyung’s skin in the dim light.
But Taehyung’s voice is so very far away. The butterfly flits away from reach when Jeongguk smooths a hand over it, dawdling over their heads for a moment until it flies under the lampshade and vanishes.
“Yeah,” Jeongguk says, thoughts going a mile a minute, brain in overdrive, words garbled on his tongue.
“You all right there?”
“I’m—I’m okay,” Jeongguk says. “I’m fine.”
“You always do that thing that cats do,” Taehyung says, stroking the side of Jeongguk’s face. “Go really still and stare at nothing in particular.”
“I’m sorry,” Jeongguk kisses him again. “Okay. I’m here. I’m here.”
The first time Jeongguk saw the butterflies was when he was seven and still afraid.
His dog had a heart shaped patch on its side. It had been there since as long as he could remember, and on the first day, there was only one butterfly. It was blue and green and pink and soft, and it came to land on her nose three hours before she collapsed.
Three days later, Jeongguk’s parents were scattering her ashes on the shores of Busan as he cried into his hyung’s shirt, and no one stopped to tell him that boys shouldn’t cry.
“They’re spirits,” Jimin said, years later. “That’s what they look like to you, huh?”
“What do you mean?”
“They’re anthropomorphic to me. Human-shaped,” Jimin added when Jeongguk stared at him blankly. “You know, what you guys call ghosts. You’ve never seen death, have you?”
“Only once after Sangchu.”
“You named your dog after lettuce.”
“It was my hyung’s idea!”
“Only once, then, huh?”
“My grandmother, but I wasn’t there when she passed,” said Jeongguk. “I just remember hundreds and hundreds of butterflies in that hospital room. On her hands and feet. Sitting on her IV drip.”
“When something or someone is at the end of its life,” Jimin paused here to lower his hood and ruffle his hair, ashen and sooty after a day in cremation centers. “You’ll see the butterflies first. At least three or so different reapers come by, and all the spirits they bring along can sense it too. You’ll see those reapers on the last day, and they make sure it is a spirit’s time—check the Deathday books, cross-reference, generally ensure they’re not taking it by accident.”
“Does that happen often?”
“It’s a mess when it does,” Jimin said, rubbing soot off the side of his nose. “In an effort to repay the soul of that person we have to reincarnate them in another lifetime and give them another chance. Sometimes it turns out well. Sometimes we think maybe we should have let them come with us.”
“So, playing God.”
“Playing Death,” Jimin corrected, winking. “So if a butterfly ever comes visiting,” he said. “Run.”
Run, Jimin had told Jeongguk over college applications, from the one thing that neither young nor old, good nor evil can outrun.
“You have a good eye for capturing beauty in really mundane things,” Jaekyung says as she goes through his unfinished portfolio of photos. “But Jeongguk, you’ve done better work than this.”
“I know,” he says, unable to meet her eyes. “I know.”
“On the one hand, as your advisor, I’m obligated to tell you that you need to step it up before the end of the year honors seminar,” she says, turning to face him in her office chair, “but on the other hand, I’ve never seen you struggle so much with creativity. Do you know if anything is stunting it? Do you need help?”
“Uh,” Jeongguk says, and tries not to think about the dozen or so butterflies that had been sitting in a lopsided row along Taehyung’s bare arm this morning. “I haven’t been sleeping well.”
“You’re a college student.”
“I know, not that, exactly,” Jeongguk gestures, trying to figure out how to say something that sounds as dire as I think someone I love has three days to live at most without actually saying it. “I have a...manic sleep disorder.”
“Oh,” she says, looked abashed. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize.”
“It’s alright,” Jeongguk says. “It comes in flares, and usually not this bad.”
“Are you taking anything for it?”
“It’s suddenly stopped working and I haven’t had time to go in for more appointments,” Jeongguk says, crossing his fingers that she’ll never ask anyone else about his so-called sleep issues. “On the bright side, I’ve been getting a lot of work done, even if it’s not...to your approval.”
“If it gets any worse,” Jaekyung says, “bring in a doctor’s note, and we can discuss what to do.”
“Damn,” comes a voice the moment Jeongguk leaves the building. “I think she saw right through that one.”
“How much time does he have?”
Jeongguk rounds on him, and Jimin looks as frightened as a grim reaper can, which admittedly isn’t very, but he does stop in his tracks when Jeongguk steps in front of him. “How long does Taehyung have?”
“Oh,” Jimin says, not meeting his eyes. “He’s...overdue, actually.”
Jeongguk frowns. “What?”
“He’s overdue. He should’ve been dead almost twenty-four hours ago.”
“I’m not following.”
“Kim Taehyung should not even be alive right now,” says a reaper Jeongguk does not recognize. He steps out from behind Jimin’s back like he’d been hiding there all along but there’s no way Jeongguk could have missed him—his wings are big and black and look nearly too big for his body. “The roads were covered in ice last night. You guys stayed behind for dessert. Your treat, you said, even though you’re nearly running on empty. And he took one moment too long washing his hands last night at the restaurant before you guys left. And you stopped to give him a kiss outside of the bakery, and the pedestrian light would turn green the moment you guys arrived at that intersection for you two to cross. And all of those things would come together for one clumsy driver who didn’t have chains on his wheels in that same moment he got to that same intersection.”
“And he wasn’t supposed to make it to the other side,” Jimin says, and he looks chastised. “But I—”
“But you were distracted, and the driver managed to stop for them, and you didn’t finish your job,” the reaper says, and Jeongguk feels like he should not be intruding on this, “when will you ever grow wings and leave this half-life, Jimin?”
“I’m sorry, Yoongi, I—”
“Don’t be sorry when there’s a spirit out there still alive when he should be—”
“I’ll pay something,” Jeongguk says. “If it means that he’ll live.”
Jimin stares at him.
“Please,” Yoongi says. “Would you really give up something that’s worth enough to trade for time?”
When Jeongguk stands his ground, silent, Yoongi turns his full body towards him, crossing his arms over the handle of his scythe. “Oh, you do, do you?”
“Hyung, don’t challenge him—”
“What kind of price?”
“Other than that.” Jeongguk takes a breath. “If I stay alive, what’s the next highest price and what can I get for it?”
Jimin casts a glance at Yoongi, who seems stunned by this question. “Does Kim Taehyung mean that much to you?” he says, instead of answering.
“You’ll find out if you name your price, won’t you?”
Yoongi looks him up and down. “Your dream,” he says. “If you can give up your dream, then we’ll delay his Deathday.”
“I can’t tell you that. But it won’t be a trick. We can give him years.”
“So,” Jeongguk says slowly, “does that mean I’ll never succeed in the thing I want to do most?”
“Oh,” Yoongi shakes his head. “No, it means you won’t have the means to even try.”
The reality of the deal he makes with three reapers who bear witness—Jimin, Yoongi, and a tall, looming reaper by the name of Namjoon—does not hit him until he opens his eyes the next morning and finds that the lingering blurriness of sleep does not melt away entirely no matter how many times he blinks.
The column of dust motes above him is still clear, but when Jeongguk makes it out of bed it’s strange to not be able to see every feature on Mingyu’s face with the usual clarity he’s always known. He watches him piddle around in the kitchen, and the note that Jeongguk had left earlier in the week for Mingyu to stop eating all his damn string cheese is a fuzzy smudge from this end of the hallway.
“Hey!” Mingyu shouts. “You want an egg?”
And today, Jeongguk says, “Sure.”
For the most part, Jeongguk likes to sit in the last row of seats in class. One reason, obviously, is that it’s way easier to fuck off on the Internet, and another reason is that he still has nightmare flashbacks to the day someone had come to class supremely hungover, sat right behind him, and decided they needed to empty the contents of their stomach twenty minutes into the lecture. Jeongguk had showered for a full hour afterwards, water conservation be damned.
So for all intents and purposes, the last row has always been his go-to—except, today, he has to essentially crane his entire head into the row in front of him to see what the professor is writing on the chalkboard.
“Here, stop struggling,” Dahyun says, turning her notebook as she’s writing so he can copy off of it. “I didn’t know you were nearsighted.”
“I wasn’t,” Jeongguk says, trying to decipher her scrawl. He wouldn’t care so much about this class if he hadn’t already bombed the midterm and needed all the points he could get on the final. “I guess it’s a recent thing.”
“You should sit up closer.”
“Haha,” Jeongguk says dryly. Dahyun was there for the day Jeongguk was crowned with half-digested dinner. “You’re funny.”
“At least it’s not theater seating in here, and this is the only class you have where the professor still uses the damn chalkboard to write. Straining your eyes will make it worse.”
But what matters the most, now, is that Jeongguk doesn’t know how many days he has that he’ll still be able to see Taehyung’s face.
Death had promised Jeongguk total blindness—a blindness in which complete blackness would be preferable, Yoongi had helpfully supplied—in exchange for time. In exchange for life, and Jeongguk finds that he can’t be bitter about it. Maybe he should get his photography portfolio together for the last honors seminar of his life, because while he knows there are so many blind artists to name, he doesn’t know many that have flourished in the art of photography.
“Have you thought about going to get your eyes checked?” Dahyun asks. “Been working too hard in front of the screen for the past couple of years, now you went and messed them up.”
But she lets him copy off of her for the rest of the lecture and doesn’t give him any more flack for it. Maybe she senses something different about him. Jeongguk used to make a mission to make fun of her for something, even if it was just to cheer her up about a bad grade from some other class earlier in the day, but today he is quiet.
“Get them checked out,” she says when class ends, and he closes his laptop with a sigh. “There’s a lot they can do for eyesight issues.”
“I will,” Jeongguk lies, and she is happy.
The name of the month no longer says February but inches across the top of the paper calendar like an angry black caterpillar, unforgiving and surrounded by dancing pineapples. Jeongguk had gotten it for free at the local supermarket because he knows he can’t jive with the upkeep of a planner.
Taehyung is cross-legged with a lapful of calico cat but he’s peering up at something that’s perched precariously on the top of his head—a victorious smudge of cream fur haloed in the lights of the cat cafe, and Jeongguk laughs.
“How’d it get up there?”
“She just clawed her way to the top,” Taehyung says, and Jeongguk can make out the kitten’s tiny paws that stand out against Taehyung’s hair when he scoots closer. “She’s also digging her nails into my scalp, so get down from there, you,” and she meows sadly in protest when he lifts her small body up and away to settle her on Jeongguk’s knee. “I love this place. Thank you for bringing me here.”
“Of course,” Jeongguk says. “We’ve been saying we’d check it out since it opened, we’ve put it off long enough because of the snow.”
“Okay,” Taehyung says, after the cats have lost interest in them, and he straightens up. “You want to actually go to the coffee part of the cafe now?”
“Sure,” Jeongguk says, and he lifts the tiny kitten—two months old, maybe—up to his nose and she gives it a little nibble. She’s still small enough to fit in his palm. This close her eyes are as deep and clear as open ocean, and he feels a flash of envy for what she can see. “Be good, buddy.”
And, as if she hears some quiet thought that Jeongguk hasn’t given voice to, she licks the tip of his nose.
Taehyung sneezes when cat fur tickles his nose, and Jeongguk follows it up with a string of sneezes that resemble whooping cough as they gather up their coats and shoes. For some time now, Jeongguk has done a good job of feigning that there is nothing wrong.
“What are you thinking of getting?”
And then Jeongguk is faced with a menu on the back wall behind the counter, and an army of fuzz marches across the graphics boards.
“I’m thinking something with matcha,” Taehyung goes on. “You like taro, right? Oh, they have taro lattes! And a taro ice smoothie if you want something cold. You can put taro ice cream in black tea, too.”
“Is there any other taro stuff?”
“Read it yourself, lazy,” Taehyung says, pinching Jeongguk’s side where his arm is looped around his waist, but there’s no bite in his voice. “Hmm. Looks like you can add taro ice cream to any drink you want, really. Otherwise it’s the latte or the smoothie.”
“And what did you want?”
“No, I’m paying,” Taehyung says. “I have the paying job between us now.”
Jeongguk snorts, remembering the days in the past when they would flick dry boba pearls at each other behind the counter at the shop on campus during lazy hours, and how they fell in love in the minutes between. Funny, how they met in a cafe and seem to find themselves always ending back up in them even after promising each other they’d get higher-salary jobs and escape the cafe the second they could. “Okay, okay,” he says. “I want taro ice cream in the black tea.”
“Okay, go get us a table,” Taehyung says, as the cashier opens up and he steps up to the register.
Jeongguk chooses one in the middle of the floor, away from the frosted windows. It’s warm in here, with the extra bodies and cafe-goers, and he shrugs off his parka again to hang on the back of his chair. When he looks out the window, the lights of the streetlamps are tiny, soft suns, hard edges eaten away by the curse over his eyes.
“What are you looking at out there?” Taehyung asks when he sits down. Jeongguk scrunches his nose slightly when Taehyung reaches forward and picks a wisp of cat hair off his cheek. “Something fascinating about the street and not the menu you were reading earlier?”
“Just thought I saw someone I knew.”
“Oh, I took a picture earlier, it’s my new favorite,” Taehyung says, pulling out his phone. “Don’t judge me, I’m not good at all the lighting and focus and all that like you are.”
Jeongguk tries not to hold the phone too close to his face, but Taehyung seemed to have captured the moment the kitten had licked his nose. He hadn’t even realized it, but in the photo, Jeongguk’s eyes are half-closed over his smile, and for a moment he would never believe that he was someone about to lose his ability to see.
“It’s beautiful,” he says, and means it.
“Hey hyung, I know it’s late, so I called you when I knew your phone would be on silent so this could go to voicemail. I was going to ask you about it at work earlier today, but you had to meet a client and never came back in, and I’m not sure if this can wait. And I know you’re busy, and your schedule is lined up back to back, but I wanted to ask just in case you’re willing—in light of the fact that you’re such a big reason that Jeongguk got to where he is today. If you can’t do it, let me know. So, the thing is…”
Seokjin isn’t really someone that Jeongguk expects to be waiting for him after class. For a while it had been Taehyung, until this past year just after Taehyung has graduated and Jeongguk finishes up the last leg of his school career alone.
“Hyung,” he says, recognizing the line and the build of Seokjin’s shoulders before he can discern his face, the straightness of his back and the stillness of his posture giving away that he’s waiting for someone coming out of this class right now. “What are you doing here? It’s work hours.”
“I’m well aware. I need you to come with me, though.”
“This is very Taken starring Liam Neeson of you, hyung.”
“I’m not going to kidnap you and give Taehyung a ransom note,” Seokjin says, rolling his eyes, “though your brat ass really makes me want to sometimes.”
At this, Jeongguk laughs. “But really, where are we going?”
“Secret. You’ll see when we get there.”
Jeongguk wonders what it could be. There’s still some time before Valentine’s day, so it can’t be Taehyung, and he can’t imagine who would try to contact him through Seokjin first—maybe one of Seokjin’s friends, which Jeongguk isn’t opposed to, since they’re fun and he had fond memories of getting drunk at their place in the first years of university.
Seokjin drives steadily, and Jeongguk takes the opportunity to doze off until he feels the car pulling into a parking spot. He can’t see what the sign over the store says, but he can make out what it’s the window—someone standing in a long white coat and dozens of pearly lenses arranged neatly in racks.
“Wait,” Jeongguk says, adrenaline filling his system. “Wait, hold on—who told—?”
“When you came by to the office the other day,” Seokjin says, “I saw you squinting at your phone. You squinted at everything, until Taehyung finished up at his desk, and then you acted like nothing was wrong.” A sigh here. “He doesn’t know, right?”
Jeongguk shakes his head.
“Okay,” Seokjin says. “Whatever the reason is, I don’t want you to let an eyesight issue fester. You’re an art major with emphasis in graphic design and photography, you need those suckers to work perfectly.”
“Hyung, it’s fine. I’m fine.”
“I used gas to get here, Jeongguk, and I am not leaving until it’s worth.”
There really is no use in arguing with Seokjin once he’s decided something, so Jeongguk sighs in exasperation and opens his door. Really, he’s scared to know what the optometrist will say, or what he’ll see through the lenses that the hold up to his eyes.
But when they do—asking him rhythmically, “One or two? Two or three? Three or four? Four or one?” Jeongguk has the same answer for all of them:
“It’s the same.”
And as they shine the hash blue light into Jeongguk’s eyes, his tears have nothing to do with the searing brightness of the bulb; no, it’s not until now, truly, does he understand that no human invention will be able to do anything for his eyesight. It is not a simply health malady, or a something that can be corrected with a pair of fiberglass lenses.
“I don’t understand,” the optometrist says after over half an hour of examination. “Your eyeball is round, no nearsighted or farsightedness. No signs of astigmatism, cataracts, or glaucoma. Your retinas are healthy. All things considered, you should be seeing twenty-twenty.”
“I know,” Jeongguk says. “There’s nothing you can do. It’s okay.”
“No, there must be something. There are other things we can try—”
“No,” Jeongguk says, blinking away the spots in his vision from the light. Jimin’s shadowed figure casts a long, long shadow over the doctor’s face, and the room is filled with butterflies. “I know there is nothing you can do.”
Jeongguk has never wondered, until now, with only a few days left to see him, why Jimin doesn’t have wings like the other reapers. His back is bare and smooth as a worn stone without even a hint of a feather, where Yoongi’s had been threatening, even scary.
It wasn’t a question Jeongguk ever wanted or needed to seek an answer to, but that answer comes none too welcome—a sadness that he wasn’t ready to know when he stops by the law office for the day, finding small comfort that Taehyung had driven to work after the bus schedules had changed on them due to fallen power lines in some parts of the city.
“What are you doing here again?” he asks, and sounds more hostile than he intended to. Jimin doesn’t flinch, and the snow is coming down hard on him, piling up on his shoulders and over his hood. “I thought the deal was enough.”
“Oh,” Jeongguk says. He can’t really make out Jimin’s face very well, especially in the dim yellow light of the streetlamp, but his thoughts seem to be a million years away from here and now. Seokjin is working alone at the conference desk, in the middle of a call, and he seems to be satisfied with something. He smiles. He nods. He is the picture of pleasantry, and Jimin looks so sad. “Then what are you doing here?”
“You know, Jeongguk, it’s not like we rush in and out of all our shifts and clients as the days go by,” Jimin says. “Sometimes we see places we remember, see people that remind us of ones we used to know. There is no timer set for an end when you’re dead. We have all the time in the world.”
“So,” Jeongguk says, and remembers that day that Jimin had been standing inside the office, staring into the conference room when there had been a meeting, looking like he wanted to do nothing more but shout until he was heard. “Does Seokjin remind you of someone?”
“He doesn’t,” Jimin says. “I knew him.”
“But you—” Jeongguk frowns. “You said you passed away decades ago.”
“I did, and he perished with me,” Jimin says, and Seokjin begins packing up his bag now. “We lived near the docks. I worked at the harbor. I caught typhoid from passengers and succumbed to it, but he was meant to survive. The reapers made a mistake. They took away a whole life he was supposed to live, with or without me.”
“Oh,” Jeongguk says, unsure of what to say. “I’m so sorry.”
“So they waited until everyone in his lifetime had passed on too,” Jimin says, “holding his spirit in a place between life and death, until they gave him another chance at life decades later.”
“How—how do you know?”
“Because I was the one who brought him back here,” Jimin says. “It’s what you humans call reincarnation. It’s why you humans believe in it. When a spirit leaves your world before their time, they’re given another chance.”
“Jeongguk, what are you doing standing out here in the snow? Hurry up and go inside,” Seokjin says when as he pushes the door open. “Did you look into any of the eye surgeons that the optometrist referred you to?”
“Yeah,” Jeongguk fibs. “They haven’t gotten back to me yet, though.”
Jeongguk can see the way Jimin watches as Seokjin gives him a pat on the shoulder. “Get it checked out soon, okay? Don’t worry Taehyung.” He doesn’t look away until Seokjin is out of sight, trudging through the snow to his car.
“You told Taehyung?”
“Don’t be silly,” Jeongguk says. “Seokjin said he saw me squinting at everything when I came into the office the other day. I suppose attorneys are good at picking small things up but I didn’t pin him to practically be Sherlock Holmes. But whatever, I’ll see you—”
But when Jeongguk turns his head, he is alone with nothing but the snowflakes on his lips for company.
It’s a scramble in the few days when Jeongguk can still see enough to add as much as he can to his photography portfolio, and Jaekyung has kinder words for him this time.
“But,” she says, “they’re so different from the theme you originally picked.” She flips through the prints, and even just standing beside her desk, Jeongguk can hardly make out her expression. “Your style changed really suddenly, are these really your photos?”
“As original as you’ll get them,” Jeongguk says.
“It’s just not like you to have such cold colors in your works,” she says. “You always used to be vibrancy-oriented. You liked sunsets and fireworks and flowers. You liked anything that looked like it was alive and told a story all on its own.”
“I thought it would be good to have something different for my last seminar,” Jeongguk says. “There are stories in the lonely things, too.”
Jaekyung studies the photo in her hands now; one that he took of Taehyung, facing away from him and flinging a handful of snow so that the particles caught the sunlight and shone like a thousand crystals in the winter cold.
“There are,” she agrees.
But beautiful things are still beautiful even if the lights are off, and Taehyung is one of them.
It’s just a bit unfortunate now that Jeongguk can’t see every detail when Taehyung rides him, the sweat that beads at his temples, the line of Taehyung’s neck when he tips his head back and moans. As long as Jeongguk doesn’t miss Taehyung’s mouth when he slumps forward, exhausted from his orgasm, it doesn’t matter.
“Good?” Taehyung laughs breathlessly when Jeongguk’s cock slips out and Jeongguk moans, too sensitive. “Yeah, that’s what I like to hear.”
“Don’t ask questions you know the answers to,” Jeongguk says, still panting with his eyes closed. He flutters them open when Taehyung kisses him, then kisses him again.
“I was sneaking a peek at your gallery when you were showering last night,” Taehyung says. “Don’t be mad. But why didn’t you tell me you took photos of me for your portfolio?”
“Oh my God,” Jeongguk says. “I didn’t use those for my portfolio.”
“Oh, not the photos of me in the morning?” Taehyung says, nuzzling into the side of Jeongguk’s neck. “I quite liked the one where I was just barely covered up by your blanket and sleeping on my stomach.”
“Very honest,” Taehyung mumbles. “I liked it, because in that moment it felt like you were saying I love you in a medium that you know better than words.”
Jeongguk nearly gets choked up at that, but it’s true; it had been a quiet morning several weeks ago when his eyesight hadn’t been so far gone, and Jeongguk had been jolted awake by bad dreams. They’re more often, recently, like his mind is trying to piece together the fuzzy images he sees day in and day out but can only create something monstrous.
Taehyung had been stretched out beside him, luxuriously, with a pillow hugged to his chest and the blanket just barely draped over the curve of his hips. Jeongguk, ever the vigilant for images he wants to capture, found himself reaching for his camera on his nightstand, adjusting the light settings, and holding it up to his eyes.
“You’re right,” Jeongguk says. Taehyung hums, and the sound makes his chest feel so full. “I love you.”
But there is no beauty to the way that Jeongguk nearly knocks over everything on the counter just to find his toothbrush in the morning, cutting the tip of his finger and cursing aloud when the sting travels all the way down his hand. He stains the sink red with blood.
“Fuck,” he mutters, wrapping toilet paper over the wound.
“It’ll take practice,” Jimin says, uninvited. “The people who have been blind from birth have never known how to function with sight, and the people who lose it later aren’t pros at getting around the first day either.”
“I don’t have the luxury of practice! I have to function just as I did before this happened!”
“What?” comes Mingyu’s voice.
“Jeongguk,” Jimin says, unruffled by the outburst. “You can’t expect to lead a life like a sighted person, without ever letting Taehyung know you can’t see him anymore. It’s just not possible. One day, he’ll see you patting the counter for something you can’t see is right under your nose. And he loves you. He’ll find out eventually. Chances are, he already knows.”
“He’ll never forgive me if he knows why I can’t see anymore.”
“No,” Jimin says softly. “He’ll never leave you if he knows why you can’t see anymore.”
“What is the price of making a deal with death?”
“You should know better than anyone, Jimin,” says Yoongi, “dead or alive, someone will get hurt.”
“Aren’t you going to miss me when you can’t see me anymore?”
“I’m not going to miss you scaring me in the mornings,” Jeongguk says with conviction, holding his notes up to his nose to read them. Dahyun has been writing them for him, even though Jeongguk goes to class—he simply sits and listens, having given up trying to read the board even in the front row several days ago.
“I’ll miss talking to you,” Jimin confesses, and there is genuine truth in his voice this time. “I’ll miss you, Jeon Jeongguk.”
“Hey,” Jeongguk says. “You said it yourself. Death has no time limit. It’s not like I’ll never see you again. Someday, maybe. It’ll be a blink of an eye for you.”
“Yeah, someday,” Jimin says, and seems to be comforted by this thought. “My job contract doesn’t end for another too many decades.”
“You’ll see me again,” Jeongguk says, and adds, “You’ll see Seokjin again.”
“Maybe,” Jimin says. “Listen, Jeongguk. Of all the humans I’ve ever watched—”
“Oh, Christ. Let’s not do this.”
“—you’ve been all right. You made this job less shitty. And I thank you for that.”
Jeongguk smiles despite himself, a small smile that’s loud between them.
The nice thing about it is, at least all of this is happening in the dead of winter, when everything is white and grey and all Jeongguk cares about is the warmth of Taehyung’s hands. If it were spring, he’d feel like he’s missing out on a lot more.
Well, he’s missing out on quite a bit, and though he’s been good at hiding his sadness that he’ll never see some of this favorite things again, he slips a little on his last night. He can’t know for sure it is his last, but something deep in his bones tells him that he will not wake up and see the world with his eyes again.
“Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Looking at you like what?”
Jeongguk feels more than sees Taehyung take his hand where it’s been cupping his face, his thumb stroking over his cheekbone, and they’re warm and reassuring as they always are. “Like the way you’re looking at me right now,” Taehyung says. “I’m right here. You have this face like I’m going to leave.”
“Oh, do I?” Jeongguk says. “I just like looking at you.”
“I know,” Taehyung says. “But you seem so sad lately.”
Jeongguk swallows. He knows it’s futile to hope that Taehyung wouldn’t notice how, day by day, Jeongguk has been getting clumsier. It’s so frustrating, to know that the blind can be perfectly self-sufficient anyway, and yet here Jeongguk is unable to go through the morning without having to grope everything in his closet and counter to find the things he needs to even leave his room.
“Jeongguk,” Taehyung says. “What aren’t you telling me?”
Chances are, he already knows.
“Aren’t you more curious,” Jeongguk blurts, “about why I’m not telling you?”
“Should I be?”
“As long as you can be by my side, and as long as you want to be, if it’s something that I should know,” Taehyung says, “I will know.”
The conviction in Taehyung’s voice shakes him.
“Will you still love me even if I won’t be able to see you anymore?”
“I will love,” Taehyung says, “every version of you. The Jeongguk that is here, the Jeongguk that gets sad about little things like injured birds, and the Jeongguk that gets angry and passionate about the things he loves. The Jeongguk that’s selfish and the Jeongguk that’s kind. The Jeongguk that’s thick-headed and the Jeongguk that places his words carefully. I will love every one.”
Jeongguk’s plan was keep his eyes open as long as he could tonight to look at Taehyung’s blurry face in front of him, but he wastes a few precious minutes letting himself cry. He feels something soft on his cheek later, when Taehyung has pressed his face into Jeongguk’s to sleep, and passes it off as the kiss of eyelashes.
“Hey Taehyung, it’s Seokjin hyung. Yeah, I took him into the optometrist and I don’t think he ever went to the ocular surgery department. The doctors are saying there’s nothing wrong with his eyes. He’s never experienced any head or vision trauma either. I don’t know what it is and I don’t think he’ll tell you why it’s deteriorating, all I know is that he think it’ll burden you if you know...which you already do. Don’t be too hard on him, okay? Whatever happens, all it comes down to is that he’s so scared to lose you.”
Being with Jeongguk without letting him know that Taehyung knew he couldn’t see him, but acting as if he still could, is an acrobatic act in and of itself. It works for two weeks until one morning when Taehyung trips over something in his room in the morning—a morning that he said he’d gone home—and Jeongguk sits upright in a panic, asking, “Who’s there?”
Jeongguk hadn’t been happy to know that this is how Taehyung would find out—with him reaching out blindly until his hands touched warm skin and soft body, and Taehyung pulled him into his arms for a constricting hug. Jeongguk might have sobbed, his body shaking all over as he pressed his face into Taehyung’s shoulder until he felt okay again.
Taehyung wishes he could say that Jeongguk lives as robustly as many of the visually impaired do, but he doesn’t. It’s impossible to watch as Jeongguk touches his laptop less and less, as his camera equipment gathers dust, and as he comes home with more and more reading accommodations, his lectures recorded on his phone and books loaded up as audio files.
“I think I should try sculpture,” Jeongguk murmurs one night as he’s running his fingers across Taehyung’s face. He’s been doing that a lot lately, fingertips lingeringly on Taehyung’s eyelids and the bow of his lips. “Imagine that. A blind art student graduating from art honors in a photography and a sculpture emphasis.”
“What are you going to make?”
“I’m not sure,” he says. “I’ve never quite studied the world without my eyes. It’ll be a new journey altogether.”
“You want to go out this weekend so refamiliarize the world with your other senses?”
“Will you come with me?”
Spring is just around the corner when they do go out, and even the sun on Jeongguk’s skin seems to bring him back to life. The world, as it seems, has done its sleeping, and Taehyung can’t help the swelling in his heart when Jeongguk runs his hands over everything around him with a new kind of hunger.
“God, you really have an appreciation for the edges and curves of everything until you have to rely on touch alone to figure out what something is,” Jeongguk says. “Old sticks of gum feel totally different from fresh gum.”
“Yes, now, could you please not empty the contents of my glove compartment onto the dashboard. At least not the gum. I left it out in the sun one and that’s why that bit there is all scratched up.”
“You got it.”
Jeongguk sighs, sits back in the seat. “Hyung.”
“Hmm? Yeah babe, what?”
“For doing this, I,” Jeongguk shakes his head, like he can’t believe it himself. “I owe you so much.”
“You do not owe the people who do things for you out of love,” Taehyung says. “I don’t believe in it.”
“Hyung, I—” Jeongguk straightens abruptly, sightless eyes staring elsewhere now, and says, “What?”
“What? What’s wrong?”
But then Jeongguk turns to him, and Taehyung might just have imagined it, imagined all of this—a strange, bizarre dream that will end when he wakes up and kisses Jeongguk awake, “Rise and shine, sleeping beauty"—and throws his body over the console.
Maybe Jeongguk had known all along. Maybe this is why he hadn't told Taehyung.
Jeongguk, I love you, too.
“Fuck,” Jeongguk says, sitting up. “I had the worst dream just now and I never remember my dreams—how long have you been here? Holy shit, that dream messed me up, listen—”
“Jeongguk,” Jimin says. “It wasn’t a dream.”
“No, it was—it was, I was blind in it and everything, it was so—”
“The deal was that you would trade us your vision for as long as you lived,” Jimin says. He shakes his head, just once, slow and somber. “It does not do well to make deals with death, Jeongguk.”
Jeongguk’s mouth is still open mid-sentence, and he shuts it with a frown. “I don’t understand.”
“You never saw me coming.”
“Well, I couldn’t have.” Jeongguk blinks once, then, “No, you don’t mean to say—?”
“Of course. You couldn’t have. Taehyung was scheduled to die two months ago. And you, as the world dictated, would try go on with your life as he would have wanted you to.” As Jimin speaks, their surroundings lighten, and images melt into view around them—traffic, the bustle of city life, and the faces of dozens of pedestrians that seem to be staring at him in horror. “You were to visit his grave. You were to cry. You were to leave when it was late and the snow started coming down in earnest. You were to get on a bus that would have a collision with a truck on the highway. You were not to live.”
“I don’t under—”
“You two were scheduled, as written by the Deathday books, to die hardly two months apart from each other,” Jimin says. “But now he is due to live nearly six decades without you.”
“I don’t believe you,” Jeongguk says, shaking his head. “It’s not true, I don’t believe—”
“You don’t need to believe what I say,” Jimin says, words faltering.
“Jeongguk! Oh my God, please—please, someone help him—”
Jimin inclines his head, a ghostly tear dripping from his chin.
Death takes no pleasure in its job, but it’s a job that must be done.
“Just turn around, and see for yourself.”