The house is a vision. Although small, the creamy white of the weathered bricks and rickety set of stairs leading up to the door gives the house character; a bed of flowers, a few wilted, sits right outside the house with a little fence around it. Even the wooden bench swing on the porch sends an abrasive warmth into Taehyung’s stomach. He remembers swinging there so many years ago, watching the blue sky twirl in clouds with blurry edges. Jeongguk's hand around his, flighty, but always a heavy weight he could count on when the world made him want to float away.
It feels like home. It feels irrevocably like Jeongguk.
With a resolute sigh, Taehyung steps onto the porch and raises a hand to knock. Many years have gone by - does this mean he should reserve that right? To simply knock, to clamor in with a hello, as if he hadn't left years ago with regret stinging like a rose’s thorn in his heart? Taehyung shakes his head wistfully, regarding the cracked paint of the door, a little wind chime floating fleetingly in the wind. It's time to get this over with, he knows. This is the end, and with this ending, it will be his beginning.
However, someone beats him to it. The door clamors open with a thud, and when Taehyung blinks in surprise, he sees Jeongguk through the second screen door. Flannel haphazardly strung across his broad shoulders, keys jingling from a ring on his finger - he looks ever image of what he used to be, rushed and scrambling for things by the tethers.
“Hey,” Taehyung says. “Hey, Jeongguk.”
“Taehyung?” Jeongguk frowns, slowly pulling the screen door open. Without the miniscule gray paneling blending his face into something murky, Taehyung can see the little differences in Jeongguk’s face- a little scar, hair cropped just a bit shorter. Cheekbones more prominent with the loss of baby fat, jawline just a bit sharper. “Huh, what the hell are you doing here.” He laughs a little, then opens the door fully and steps around Taehyung. “Close that, will you? Wouldn't want to get too close.”
Taehyung obliges, reaching in to pull the door closed with a click. There's a strange satisfaction in watching Jeongguk stomp down the stairs and make his way through the grass, a peevish angle to his gait that makes Taehyung think this could be very easy, after all. A man in love would not be so angry, he thinks. A man who still cared wouldn't regard him with such finality, walking over to his car without a backwards glance.
“Can we talk?” Taehyung yells out, head tilting to the side. This way, he can just barely see Jeongguk still walking in the direction of his car, purposefully avoidant. “I need to talk to you about something.”
“Funny,” Jeongguk yells back. “Now you wanna talk? That's funny- hilarious, really.”
Not much has changed. Jeongguk's hair is still a sleek black, clothes still casual as ever, words still brash. He's honest, always, sincerely in his tone that unfortunately makes Taehyung think he still doesn't really think before talking. Not really.
“C’mon, be cooperative. No sarcasm, please,” Taehyung practically begs, watching as Jeongguk tenses and hesitates before stopping by his car. He turns towards him now, arm leaning on the roof of his car. He doesn't sigh, but it looks like he wants to.
“So, I shouldn't return to favor, huh? Disappear, not say anything. I should be the bigger person.”
“Sure, if that's the way you want to look at it, I mean-”
Jeongguk rolls his eyes. “I got shit to do. You expect me to halt my day to talk to a person who ditched me. Still selfish as ever.”
Taehyung feels guilty. When Jeongguk illustrates it like that, glaring at him from so far away, it makes him want to shrivel up and crawl back where he came from. But Taehyung is nothing if not resolute, so he frowns and eyes Jeongguk firmly. “Five minutes, okay? That's all I need. Just five.”
Jeongguk thinks. It's obvious that he's pondering, eyes flirting with his surroundings instead of Taehyung, who's standing firmly by his front door with a package of Jeongguk's favorite tea at hand. A gift of sorts, maybe a sorry just dripping off his tongue, manifesting in the little cardboard box filled with a rainbow of colors. Then he's nodding reluctantly, venturing back towards the house with a sigh that finally makes itself apparent. “Five minutes,” he glares. “Then I never want to see you again, okay?”
Taehyung wants to ask why, but he doesn't. He thinks that sometimes you have to give up a few things to gather others, and if this means he doesn't have the ability to visit Jeongguk on the off chance he'd ever want to, then perhaps this is necessary.
“Okay,” Taehyung whispers, watching as Jeongguk opens the door forcibly and waits for him to come inside. “I can do that.”
When competition was high, everyone sought to lower the price of their main dish, and his father was no exception; the “cheap place” is what the town called his father's little divot in a line of vendors, selling fish that still eyed the world aimlessly. He was the cheap one to go to, because his father didn't really care about big money. He wanted enough to care for his family, and that's all.
Taehyung, at the age of eight, was enamoured with the life that had been built for him. In the mornings, he walked down to the frigid docks with his hands wrapped in itchy wool. A scarf was always pulled towards his mouth at his mother's insistence, jacket a heavy pull on his narrow shoulders. He greeted his father before heading off to school, which was in the same direction.
It always seemed blue. The air, the sky, the water- he lived perpetually in shades of soft saffire, and the cold air didn't help. It was always cold, even when it was warm, and his grandpa chalked it up to the lack of humidity. But what really enamoured him was the still water, reflecting that baby blue and gray sky as if a clean mirror, devoid of dips and runs from waves- there were rare times of windiness, the kind that begged to knock him to his knees, but otherwise the water stayed placid and flat, a beautiful land of icy blue.
His school was a quaint little thing, as not many people lived in the village. He had nice teachers and cozy classrooms. Everyone was reasonably nice, although a few rotten apples were always doomed to exist.
Jeongguk - he was not a bad apple. He was Taehyung's best friend, practically from birth, and they were inseparable. So, Jeongguk fit himself into his schedule as well, a younger but still alike figure that blended into his life with the ease of butter. Everything was blue; Jeongguk was not. Jeongguk lit himself up in red jackets and blushed cheeks, lips pink and eyes a warm brown. He wasn't the easiest to get along with sometimes, but Taehyung liked the challenge. He liked existing so close to someone who so closely embodied the sun.
Taught to value fish, Taehyung dreamed of being a fisherman one day. But Jeongguk made him think differently. Some days, he imagined growing up to be best friends with Jeongguk, and even better, he imagined valuing his friendship more than the helpless creatures that littered their small village.
“You and I,” he used to say, watching the ships leave the dock and come back. “We'll be together forever, huh?”
Jeongguk would link his small pinky with his and smile. “Of course, Taetae.” Then, with an almost unreasonable amount of patience, they'd watch the dock shift until the sky turned navy blue.
This is how life begins with Jeongguk. A pinky promise, a hand to hold - and Taehyung doubts they will ever be apart.
“Wait, what?” Taehyung trails after Jeongguk desperately, watching as he digs through his refrigerator before slamming it closed; opens the back door only to stay inside. “You don't want to see me, but you won't do this for me? I need this, Jeongguk.”
“I'm not gonna give it to you,” Jeongguk says scathingly. “No, I can't-”
“Why not?” Taehyung pleads. “I'm planning to get married next year, Jeongguk. Just think before reacting for once.”
Jeongguk sighs. Taehyung can see the way he's changed with age, features sharp and body hardened, years on the docks shaping him up to be less soft and pliant. He finally stops his incessant moving and pushes his hip against the hard edge of a counter, rubbing at his temples with a kind of impatience he didn't know Jeongguk could possess. Or at least possess with him, because they'd never been like that. Never been impatient with each other.
“Listen, Taehyung,” Jeongguk says. “It's difficult - really difficult for me to see you right now. Considering you just ran off and acted like you were coming back…” he glances at the ceiling. “What made you think it'd be so easy? To come and just ask that I divorce you. We were together since we were born, Taehyung. That kind of feeling may be fleeting to you, but it means a lot more to me.”
Taehyung swallows idly, watching as Jeongguk blinks and almost looks upset, face shifting from careless to sad. He stays silent, allowing Jeongguk to collect himself. Jeongguk looks up at him, eyes a ruse of calculation, and before Taehyung knows it Jeongguk is lifting away from the counter and walking out.
“You don't get it, do you?” Jeongguk laughs, and somehow it's not unpleasant. Not sarcastic. He shifts into the living room where piles of newspapers are littered across the coffee table. There's a bookshelf filled with old novels, dog-eared and some pages water stained. Jeongguk regards the room with indifference before meeting Taehyung's eyes again. “Leave. Come back in a week, maybe. We can talk then after I think this over.”
“I need to leave as soon as possible, back to-”
“The city, yeah, I know. If you at least want me to consider this, you should get out.” Jeongguk faces away from him resolutely, idly picking up a stray book on his sofa to stash away with the rest.
Taehyung does as he says, hopeful, and ignores the way the words sting as if a wasp attacked at his thin skin.
Being best friends was a start to something more. Their rocky path in middle and high school led to a few tumultuous fights, but nothing too serious. But by twenty, Taehyung knows something is different. Jeongguk, his sun, his lifelong friend, his everything - Jeongguk means more than Taehyung could ever summarize in late night sleepovers and days at the dock. So, with this knowledge, he confesses into Jeongguk's shoulder one night when the two are nearing sleep that he feels for him in a way boys aren't suppose to like other boys. In the way that boys nearing adulthood certainly shouldn't.
At first, Jeongguk says nothing. He turns his head in sleepiness and raises an eyebrow, neatly reasons it out to Taehyung being the silly, affectionate friend he always is. Upon seeing the way Taehyung's eyes glimmer in the reflection of the stars and moon- upon seeing that Taehyung is beginning to look crushed- he blinks furiously and utters a noise of confusion.
“You love me?” He asks silently, tone ambiguous. When Taehyung closes his eyes and nods softly, he turns in the bed so that they're forced to look at each other. Then, with hesitant movements, he leans forward and presses his lips to the corner of Taehyung's mouth. Accuracy wasn't always his forté in exhaustion. “Yeah, me too. I love you, too.”
At first, Taehyung is worried Jeongguk will wake up and call it all a ruse. A joke. A product of exhaustion and carelessness. But when they wake up, Jeongguk smiles at him shyly and links their fingers together; wraps a leg around his and presses the butterfly kiss of his lashes against a soft, sleep warm cheek. “Still love you,” he murmurs. “Love you asleep, awake - with my eyes opened or closed.”
Taehyung doesn't expect that. It doesn't stop him from being elated though, and it changes the entire course of their relationship in the years that follow.
So maybe finding him is a part of this illusive equation- maybe, somewhere along the way, Taehyung forgot Jeongguk had twice the power to be mean as Taehyung did, had twice the power to be cold, distant, and irregular with his emotions- but finding him seems hard when that’s not Jeongguk at all. Jeongguk was kind, unable to start fights except for when they burgeoned from little misunderstandings and the occasional lapse in correct communication. Who is this, then? Taehyung ponders over this aimlessly when he waltzes by the old lake and peers into its reflective depths. He loved Jeongguk once, and loving requires knowledge, time. It couldn’t have so easily changed like the eroding rocks that surround the lakes, or fallen so deep like the one pier an aunt told him fell into the water with a resounding crack.
In his waiting time of a week, he visits the docks and watches the ships much more than he'd like. At night, he walks around the street market he used to visit all the time as a kid, imagining his past with Jeongguk among the stringed paper lamps. He even thinks he sees Jeongguk once, but as soon as he thinks it may be him he turns and walks away quickly. He doesn't want to interrupt his thinking time lest he get angry again. And that’s the tricky thing about situations like this- something sticky like peanut butter glues his tongue to the roof of his mouth, forces him silent with an unwavering hand, and- he’s confused, distraught over what Jeongguk may be thinking with no inkling as to who he even is now.
Jeongguk was never really a walking bomb. He was always quite silent when mad, not terribly vocal about his anger. Maybe something has been lost in all their years apart. Maybe he doesn't really know Jeongguk anymore, not like he used to. That thought saddens him the most, but it is a fault of his own, brewed from a terrible decision that struck him in fear one night on the docks. The fear that there was something outside of these lakes, and he’d been so sheltered that he’d forgotten to venture to those mysteries and see. What was lost in the ruins may be more than he can ever find retribution for, but he has more now, he thinks. More than he could ever find in fishing poles and boats, in little kids wandering by themselves on blue roads and boys with cheeks lit blood red, cold from the resounding weather of winter.
There was always a festival sometime in the year; perhaps Taehyung had lucked out in finding it among heartbreak and coincidence, falling into step with children and their parents as they walk through the street market turned festival. Each booth has turned from a store into a game, from balloon popping to a miniature version of basketball. God, he wants to complain. Even with all of the bright yellow lighting amongst the starry night sky, the beauty cannot force him to appreciate impatience. All he wanted to do was buy some water. He was out, he had access, and he certainly didn't mean to walk into the storm.
Taehyung had underestimated what exactly that storm would entail; he certainly didn't expect a crowd around one of the shops, the owner throwing out food at a rapid pace in exchange for tickets and money. Just on the edge of the crowd stood Jeongguk, hands shoved into his pockets as he started to near the front of the shop. Before Taehyung even knew what he was doing, he was nearing Jeongguk, siding up to him with a purposefully placed sigh.
“Oh,” Jeongguk says, “you're here.”
“No need to sound disappointed.” Taehyung glances at him, smiling lopsidedly. “I won't ask you about it.”
Rolling his eyes, Jeongguk takes his hands out of his pockets to cross his arms, looking much bigger than he did a few years ago. Now he's intimidating, hardened, and if Taehyung had any inclination that this was his fault, he didn't want to admit to it. “I'm not waiting for anyone like that,” Jeongguk admits reluctantly. “So you can stop right there.”
“Oh really? Well, who-?”
Taehyung had nearly forgotten about Jungha, the little girl who was too small to clearly remember in the recesses of his memory. When he left, Jungha was a mere infant, encapsulated in a baby blue blanket that kept her warm and secure against Jeongguk or his parents’ chests, a sleeping face peeking from the soft folds.
There's something alienating in seeing Jeongguk's face light up when Jungha appears from the crowd, cradling a bag of baby blue and neon pink cotton candy against her chest, a little stuffed dog. She's holding the hand of another girl, just slightly older, and they both make a beeline for Jeongguk.
It's not as if Taehyung goes without pestering; he was all too well aware of the way children's minds jumped from thing to thing, impulsively asking questions that had no answers or, yes, they had answers, but they were not to be said and certainly not to be emphasized. Nor should they be qualified in silence, the way Jungha peers at him in confusion, and Jeongguk merely steers his vision elsewhere without thought. Silence is an answer, more often than not. It says more than Jeongguk ever could.
Jungha grew up as the tides changed. They all grew up. Taehyung took pictures of things before he left, sketched out ideas of who everyone would be if he ever came back and- it's different. There's no concrete way of justifying who anyone will be, he learns. Guessing isn't good enough, and real life is a lot more difficult than a game of “maybe”’s.
A moment of consideration on Taehyung's part leaves him smiling, saccharine like the cotton candy clutched to her hands, and it causes her to smile back, albeit with more apprehension. Their awkward standoff ends in a serene bout of giggles from Jungha, who gives up on questioning Taehyung’s identity to tell something to her other young friend. They both don’t come up to Jeongguk’s hip, but little girls are more terrifying than anything- had Jungha burst into tears or regarded Taehyung with a stifling indifference, he might have thought she had some ill-will towards him, manufactured from her brother’s apathy and her own supreme sense of judgment as a child.
“She’s grown up now,” Taehyung comments.
Rolling his eyes, Jeongguk faces Taehyung with a careful indifference; a look that says no shit, Sherlock embedded on that now cold plane, cheeks no longer warm with sincerity. It's then that he sees it, something that makes Taehyung want to throw up and cry all at once, maybe pepper out a laugh if he had the heart. Jeongguk’s wearing a plain black shirt under a hoodie, but it only seems to emphasize the thin silver chain ladened with a band, a band Taehyung knows must spell out his own initials in sprawling cursive. Jeongguk still carries their engagement ring, yet Taehyung had long since shoved his into a shoebox with the rest of his little town memories, photos and fish hooks and bracelets worn with age.
Taehyung had long given up on the past. It seems as if Jeongguk never let go.
When Jeongguk notices his staring, he glances down, face finally showing some expression. Anger? Possibly embarrassment? Regardless, he shoves it under his collar and leaves with a quick nod of his head, guiding the still-giggling girls away from Taehyung. As they get lost in that bright sea of people, all smiling and laughing to the tune of a song, Taehyung is left alone in the midst.
He'd never thought to empathize, feel the same burn he hurt Jeongguk with. He must be feeling it now in that abandoning rejection.
It's not as if Jeongguk disregarded him as well; in fact, he was all too happy to listen to Taehyung, but Taehyung never wanted to say anything. Always worried Jeongguk would resent him, Taehyung closed up his fears and settled down into the life he was given. Retrospectively, this must have been the damnation of all true possibility, for his box of dreams was sheltered away in a way that wasn't quite safe or content, always blinking at the back of his mind in a game of silent what ifs.
Regardless, life moved on as it always does. No matter who stresses or begs or prays, life moves in steady waves, pausing for no one, not even those who suffer most. Time still passed slowly on the docks, learning day to day how to fish and guide his boat, and everything was- well, it's mundane, but it's his life.
The only thing that changed that was Jeongguk- as always, he was so different than the expectations that he faced there. Jeongguk would dive into the water after midnight and beckon Taehyung, teeth chattering, until the boy relented and climbed in too. Jeongguk would haul in the largest catch of fish and throw them all back to the irritation of the elders, waving goodbye even as he was mercilessly chided. It was this attitude, this cheerful and hidden indifference, that molded Jeongguk into something beautiful to him. Taehyung had lived so hindered by what was expected of him that Jeongguk's indifference taught him something, maybe to live without regard and fly towards his dreams. In the end, maybe Jeongguk was just being himself- stoney on the outside, but carefully soft on the inside.
Still, even as they settled into this relationship as they get older, Taehyung is always yearning to see what's outside. This town, this purgatory he's always held himself to, feels small when he begins to watch the horizon- but it's home. This is home, with Jeongguk's lips pressed to his, and nothing can change that.
Their first date is something scary- they decide on dinner, something they ate together frequently but only needed to be solidified this time with a label. For once, they sit on the same side of the booth even if Taehyung initially protests, and Jeongguk winds an arm around him like it was meant to be there. It's nothing uncomfortable like Taehyung somehow worried it would be. They were best friends, after all, so the worries were unsubstantiated, weak with self contempt.
It's in moments like that when Taehyung felt right on the docks, like he was meant to be there. He had purpose in Jeongguk's arms, some kind of illusion of self fulfillment, and he stuck close to the thought, comforted by it. Even when they kiss again, there's only something soothing in it, like always knowing he was in love with his best friend or waking up everyday to the one person he's ever trusted with everything in him.
Jeongguk is more than his boyfriend, he quickly realized. He's his lifetime love. The beacon in the midst of the fog.
“It’s kinda strange to see you, I gotta admit-” Namjoon stops himself, peering out at the end of the dock. Squinting, his face becomes the quintessential representation of confusion- when Taehyung turns his head the same direction, he finds nothing. Only the same still water, sunny skies reflected in its obsidian depths; deadly waters if fallen into correctly, but always peaceful in his familiar mind. “Sorry, thought one of the guys fucked with one of the panels. Y’see that?”
Taehyung cocks his head and sticks his frosted palms into his pockets, boot tapping absently against the wooden dock. “See what?”
Namjoon points out a panel on the side of the boat at the end of the dock- it’s white, but the edge seems a bit darker, a sign that it needs some cleaning. When they walk closer, it appears to be a shadow. “Oh. Yeah, I see it.”
“Anyway,” Namjoon begins, glancing out towards the water. They stop in the middle of the dock, hands shoved in pockets and mouths tucked away behind scarves, facing a world unknown that’s all too comfortable to them. Even Taehyung, lost from this world, eyes the boats and lined up docks with a bit of a smile, the image of his father working coming to mind for a brief moment. It's bittersweet, these memories, but effortlessly happy; his childhood was never truly bad in a way that affected him for the worse, so he still smiles even when he thinks of the aftermath. “Yeah, it's weird. It's a small town and word gets around, y’know? People said you wouldn't come back.”
Humming, Taehyung takes another step on the side of the dock to stare down into the water. Some days, it was warm enough that you could see fish swimming clear through the darkness, almost mocking. Today, there are none. “Well, surprise, surprise.”
Namjoon lets out a little burst of a laugh in the silence, a puff of frosty air jumping from the soft pout of his lips. “Taehyung, the wanderer. Taehyung, the boy with the free spirit. You never really know what people think of you until you're gone.”
It's true- Taehyung was never conscious of how the elders thought of him, only somewhat perceptive of slight disdain and worry, more aware of praise, however rare it might be. But criticism melted in silence, the kind that made Taehyung forget it even existed until he was moving away, detached, hoping to be forgotten and washed away like each passing wave in their lake. No- Taehyung received a few odd letters, a phone call from his mother that was curious but all too disdainful. Taehyung became more aware of his identity when he left- not only because he followed what he wanted, but because he finally had a grasp on what others thought of him.
Namjoon shrugs. “No big deal. But Jeongguk was torn up about it, obviously.” He shoots Taehyung a look, something obvious that reads of skepticism. “That was a shitty move, Tae. You should know that.”
He does, he wants to scream. There's only so much guilt that he can harbor when he's apologized countless times through letters and phone calls and words and hope and-
It was all for nothing. As soon as he left, Jeongguk built up walls indefeatable even by superheroes- deadly, nasty things- and Taehyung felt almost victimized. A dumb thing, obviously, but he still wonders how much of it is his fault- there's more to the story than what Jeongguk emphasizes so constantly, misunderstandings fledged with hatred and apathy, and they will always revolve around these moments as if they are the sun- Taehyung and Jeongguk mere planets.
“Yeah,” Taehyung says instead, squeaky. “But I apologized. I tried to get him to come out, you know that. He said no.”
“It wasn't his dream,” Namjoon shrugs. “Jeongguk grew up around the docks for the docks. The kid loves the water like he was fuckin’ born in it- hell, maybe he was and I just don't know about it. But you were apart of that. You guys grew up here in this water, watched it freeze up and melt a thousand times over, and when you left it's like part of the fun left too. It wasn't the same, but hell if he'd abandon it to get a fraction of it back.”
“Then I wasn't that important.” Taehyung sighs, frowning in frustration. It still hurts him to know things like this, regardless of Minjae or the wedding- he will always love Jeongguk, even if he's not in love, and that one flame is wavering but never blowing out; all it needs is a little more kindling to get it stable, but Taehyung regards that with the same impossibility as him going into space. “What's his deal-”
“He loved you,” Namjoon says, smiling awkwardly. “Yeah, you were a fraction. But you were the biggest fraction of them all. Forget the numbers, okay- look at it like this. He loved you- you were his lake. You were peaceful days by the docks and blue skies in the cold. But when that disappears, seemingly just to spite you, you have to evaluate how much you love that person when they're willing to hurt you that much. He could support you till the end of time, but the city was never for him. I don't know if it was ever really for you, either. That's why it's difficult for him to see it any other way.”
“I just want to get married next year, Namjoon,” Taehyung whispers, eyelashes feeling heavy as he stares at a lone cloud in the sky. “I wanna get these papers signed, I wanna leave, and I wanna have a happy life. I wasn't happy here.”
Namjoon stares at him. Taehyung’s not even looking, but he can feel the distant gaze, the curiosity. It was the look Namjoon used to always give him in moments he felt were evaluated wrong, the emphasis of a feeling that said “Taehyung, what are you thinking”. But instead of saying that, he asks, “did you ever really try to be happy here?”
The air is sticky with humidity. Watching the rolling waves, Taehyung lies on his side on the beach, hoping to finish some work under a large umbrella; it was a calming scene, helping him to write out a few emails with the help of a portable router. Although the air seems to stick to his skin, Taehyung is happy in the sun, shifting against the heat every few moments to rid himself of the discomfort that the sun brings, intense and bright.
Taehyung wonders how driving a mere forty-five minutes brings you to a sunnier, more vibrant town, beaches and lakes lined with colorful greenery. However, it doesn't keep him from wondering about other things, like Jeongguk- it's been a week, and he has yet to even give notice of what he's thinking. Taehyung doesn't want this to get any more dramatic, but Taehyung has plans, damn it. He needs those papers signed within the next month for things to proceed smoothly, and…
It's frustrating. Taehyung once knew Jeongguk so well that words were never needed, only supplementary. They helped to clear things up, but Taehyung could read Jeongguk like a book, clearly printed type and bold font. Jeongguk can say Taehyung is callous now, different, but it's not as if Taehyung lost his heart; he does remember each inch of Jeongguk, inside and out. He remembers each kiss and each story with the same amount of care he places into all of his passions, they're just murkier now. He hasn't changed much, not on the inside, or at least that's what he likes to think- that moving to the city didn't take something from him in thieving, his soul or a part of it equally as important.
When the sound of children yelling catches his attention, Taehyung glances up and sees a group of them chasing each other by the shoreline, a possible parent following close behind. A ghost of a smile passes his face. This is why Taehyung ended up going to school for teaching once he got out to city- he wanted to be a teacher in a more bustling town, see the lights of the city from some high rise apartment and find something deeper than still waters and rising skies. He did find that in Minjae, who met him when he was supervising his class one day, taking notes as Taehyung did some finger painting with the kids.
”You love this job, huh?” Taehyung remembers Minjae saying, clipboard at hand. The last child had finally cleared out of the room with a gentle smile in Taehyung's direction, latching onto his mother before they disappeared from his view. Cleaning up, making lesson plans, sharpening pencils, grading papers, and having meetings filled Taehyung's other time, but Minjae steals five minutes to talk about what he saw and congratulate Taehyung for such a good job.
“Of course,” Taehyung says with excitement. “I love the kids, I do- they can be a handful, but- I'm just trying to keep the job.” He jokingly raises an eyebrow, and Minjae only chuckles.
“I can't really make you lose your job. But I can assure you I see no reason, even if I could.”
Smiling, Taehyung clears off the last little desk in his classroom. “So I do the job well, then?”
“Fantastically. You work well with the kids, but I didn't really need to brief you, uh-” Minjae idly touches the back of his own neck, glancing at the door. “I was actually wondering if you wanted to get lunch sometime. I noticed you actually didn't move here too long ago, so I could show you some hideouts if you haven't gotten around much.”
Taehyung purposely stays silent, studying the way Minjae nervously worries his lip and cocks his head. When he sees the disappointment begin to shadow his face, he laughs and shrugs his shoulders, Jeongguk's face flashing briefly in his mind. It's been years, Taehyung thinks. He has to move on some time or other. “Yeah, that sounds nice. Let me give you my number.”
Taehyung startles when a rush of water comes, a heavy tide casting a wave up higher onto the shoreline. His phone blares not long after, the tinkling noise of his ringer going off, and he takes a moment to shake his head clear before glancing down. It's hard to see in the sunlight, but Jeongguk's face is shown on his screen, his own shoved up against his cheek. They'd taken the photo when they were a lot younger, sitting out at some restaurant’s outdoor seating. The way his own face seems, a bit reddened and excited, makes him smile bleakly for a moment before he recognizes that it's Jeongguk calling him. Jeongguk, who's been absent for while but is suddenly calling him-
“Hello?” Taehyung breathlessly answers, staring out at the water. It's silent for a brief moment.
“Yeah,” Taehyung says. Obviously, he wants to say, but leaves the sarcasm to rot. “What's up?”
“Where are you?”
“South Marco,” Taehyung answers. His laptop wobbles in his lap, so he shakily picks it up to close it and place it aside. He knows Jeongguk must be thinking- he always stayed silent for these unsteady amounts of time when he was pensive, and his silent breathing through the static-y line makes Taehyung want to close his eyes and fall asleep, maybe think himself into a hole, too. The beach is more silent now, the only noises being the distant call of children and that constant rumble of the waves, like a thunderstorm is continuously knocking at the earth’s ceiling. An occasional seagull will scream with indignance at food on the beach, but it's otherwise calm with complacency.
“All the way out there? When are you coming back?” Jeongguk must be working- Taehyung can hear the splash of water and a sudden whiz before someone's shouting something out, but Jeongguk stays focused on the conversation as the noise suddenly stops with a click. “Sorry, I'm taking a break.”
“It's okay. I’ll be back by-” a kid sprints past him, “-uh, by tonight. About six or so. Why?”
“I need to talk to you. I have a- proposal to make. Something for you to think about,” Jeongguk says. His tone, ambiguous, causes Taehyung to frown, but he still nods nonetheless, willing to hear it.
“I'll be there,” Taehyung murmurs, eyeing all of his stuff on his towel. “I'll text you when I get back.” He doesn't want to break this tone, this content voice that doesn't sound at all angry or sarcastic, just neutral. Accepting, possibly. He's never wanted Jeongguk to be mad at him, not even now. So he eyes the horizon with curiosity instead of pitching it into his voice- this is Jeongguk, anyhow, his Jeongguk, and even if years have gone by, nothing erases the years that made them, cultivated them, and broke them.
In the end, their first fight surprised them as it shouldn't have; it was over something dumb, a bit of jealously from a bonfire gone wrong. It's not as if trust was lost, it's only that insecurity flew high. Regardless of how much Jeongguk may trust Taehyung, he was always quick to jump to conclusions and becoming wary at the thought of Taehyung around people who clearly were romantically endeared towards him, not wanting to keep him to himself but still clinging to Taehyung in small fits of adoration.
That was the problem, really. Jeongguk was inconsistent in affection- one day he could be very touchy, almost on Taehyung's level, the next, he'd barely touch him at all. This led to confusion and even more fights, and they had to learn to avoid insecurities, step over red flags, surrender out of tolerance. A lesson in “adulting”, his parents often called it.
Their first actual fight- the one Taehyung often thinks of with a laugh- was the bonfire mishap. Every year, the teens of their fishing town would put on a bonfire at the South Marco beach. Lugging wood, beach chairs, towels, alcohol, umbrellas, food- the works- the college kids of the area drove out to the clean, nicer beach. The kind that was for all the tourists, not the people who grew up in the fishing town or otherwise.
Jeongguk and Taehyung made their first trip there when Taehyung was in his sophomore year, Jeongguk in his freshman year of college. Things went relatively well for the most part. They hung out with their friends, each other, and tried not to get lost in the mess of alcohol that always seemed to arise when the older kids were involved.
It’s in this setting that people always seemed to lose themselves- perhaps it had something to do with being confined to fishing all your life, but people escaped from their own sense of purgatory through these times, letting loose, saying things they’d never say under any other circumstance, no longer confined to the same boundaries that lingered at home. It was fun to watch, to say the least- Taehyung wasn’t always interested in getting drunk to drown his sorrows, to find something outside of the town- it was dangerous. He’d seen the liquid captivate so many other people that he couldn’t bring himself to blind himself to his troubles for a moment in exchange for a lifetime of suffering.
Of course, he didn’t judge these people. He grew up with them, knew them well, and maybe that was part of the problem. It’s not always fun to know everyone. They know your secrets, the worst parts of yourself, and even if you’ve never told them about it, it seems like the fragile parts always seem to get out as well. This, of course, included the drunken moments of some of the most refined; it was unspoken rule not to let these things get to the actual adults, but the rumor mill of the younger generations was miserable and hostile.
Regardless, it starts like this- Taehyung lost somewhere in the crowd, a moment where he turned his head for, seemingly, a second, only to look back and find Jeongguk gone. He looked around only to find Yoongi talking to Jeongguk, Jimin standing off to the side with a look that clearly showed he was intoxicated.
“Hey!” Taehyung shifted, finding Minho at his side. They began a conversation about something mindless, their classes and the other people around them, how their parents were doing. They were friends, always had been, but the distant kind- they’d talk in class, but never got around to hanging out or developing anything more serious. Taehyung’s barely thinking about it really, not until Minho is throwing an arm around his shoulders and throwing a sloppy kiss on his cheek, one that Taehyung awkwardly laughs at, knowing it’d be the kind of thing forgotten in the morning; Minho just happened to be an affectionate drunk, the kind that blindly sought someone out to lament his days with so and so until it led to tears and misplaced intimacy.
This, surprisingly, didn’t end well.
Taehyung didn’t really blink twice- it was over before he knew it, but the next thing he knew, Minho was being shoved off of him with a noise of surprise, sent sprawling to the ground in shock. Everything flashed with the quickness of it all. Taehyung could barely process how he blinked and found Minho on the ground, looking somewhere between sober and confused now, the quintessential picture of a night gone wrong. This, Taehyung reminded himself, was why he doesn’t drink much.
He glanced up in confusion only to find Jeongguk there, looking only slightly confused himself. It was a familiar look on him- apathy, but this time it reflected in the bleakness of his irises, the way his face seemed to flare in expression from a deep intake of breath, the small frown between his brows, only shallow in darkness. Darkness that swallowed him up in this late night bonfire, back towards the high rising flames; he was cradled by it, shadow falling delicately over Minho, but the intensity in his eyes was long gone. Impulsive.
“Ah,” Jeongguk only said to the chagrin of all the onlookers. Taehyung, snapping out of it, leaned down to offer Minho a hand and say a brief apology on the behalf of his mindless boyfriend. It’s only when he’s patting Minho down that he grows irritated, turning towards Jeongguk and cocking his head to the side abruptly.
Jeongguk followed him down the shoreline, both of them steadily falling away from the crowd to the darker part of the beach. It’s lonely here, devoid of any life, but Taehyung needed to collect himself before he really pointed out what was bothering him about the situation. He couldn’t put his finger on it, being so young- even as an adult looking back on it, it’s hard to recollect enough to think with clarity about how he felt exactly in that moment.
He stopped when they were far enough away for their voices not to carry, turning back and shaking his head at the sudden blast of wind that tousles his hair.
“You know he’s my friend, right?”
Jeongguk seemed confused by this if anything, stunted on how to reply. “No,” he eventually answered, finally appearing to have gained some shame over the way he reacted. “I-”
“Jeongguk,” Taehyung said firmly, “I know you’ve been drinking. Hell, I know I’ve been drinking. But hopefully you’re not so far gone you’d think I was either cheating on you or being bothered by some stranger, which I would have handled myself.”
“It looked like he kissed you from my angle, Taehyung!” Jeongguk suddenly defended, sounding exasperated. “I was barely paying attention, but- I got worried and ended up trying to push him away, but he lost his footing and-”
“It’s not how you did it, Jeongguk. I just don’t understand why you didn’t think at all. I would have processed it, at least, I would have-”
“I haven’t done anything for you to prove that. It’s a lot easier said than done. All I know is that I got worried and reacted, I shouldn’t have done it but I don’t get why you’re overreacting-”
“Overreacting?” Taehyung exclaimed. “Okay,” he suddenly simmered, “let’s just wait to discuss this in the morning. You’re just trying to piss me off at this point.”
Jeongguk leveled him with a look all too serious for his state- both of their states, for that matter- to which Taehyung returned with something equally as hostile.
“Now you want to let this fester.”
“No, I just don’t want to talk while you’re clearly out of your mind. I don’t want this to be bigger than it has to.”
“If it’s not that big, why are you freaking out?”
“Because I could have handled it, Jeongguk!” Taehyung kicked sand in his direction, watching as Jeongguk glanced down before looking back up in bewilderment. “I could have handled it. Jealousy is fine, okay? It’s human. It’s fucking natural. But when you react violently because of it, I have to question who you are! You can make up all the excuses in the world, but I’ll always wonder why you didn’t pull me aside to ask before doing anything irrational that involves physical contact. I could have cleared it up right away as long as you trusted me. Do you? Or what?”
Jeongguk looked positively bummed by this, shoulders dropping. In his pondering, he took too long to respond- searching the water rushing behind them for answers instead of in Taehyung, a person he knew for all his life and more. Just as Taehyung said, he grew speculative. When the tides change in your own relationship, you begin to question different facets of a person’s characteristics, and this was no different. Jeongguk saw Taehyung in a different way, as his partner, and began to show parts of himself that were otherwise hidden behind façades and omission, unnecessary and restrained under the guise of friendship but plentiful in the face of love.
So Taehyung did what he said he would. He waited it out till tomorrow, leaving Jeongguk in his space with anger still in his body, the kind that left his fingertips tingling with knowledge of anxiety; this was his lover, but so carefully had Jeongguk deconstructed a bit of that wall, the perfection that led Taehyung to believe that he could do no wrong. Of course, in their friendship, they had fights of brief misunderstanding- but it always ended quickly in laughter. There was no need to prolong them. Now, it’s as if Jeongguk was blind to himself. It irritated him to no end.
They barely talk for a week. It’s only in passing that they let conversation flow, but otherwise, they pretend as if the other barely exists. This was when the insecurity came, for Taehyung began to scrutinize his decision to start a romantic endeavor with Jeongguk if it would only end in flames, years of friendship shot down in favor of stupid fights with alcohol in their system. It just bothered Taehyung immensely that Jeongguk led himself to an impulsive decision- an immature one, at that- for what was supposedly his sake. He couldn’t bare to think of the consequences if he praised the behavior, and what he wanted was wholehearted understanding. How he could have expected that drunk, he has no idea- but he wanted Jeongguk to say sorry, to tell him he would never do that again, and only got the accusation that he was “overreacting”. A quick, fatal blow to any ethical standing he had against Jeongguk, and a simultaneous rejection of the fight as a whole.
It could have been quick and painless. A smite to the little part of Jeongguk Taehyung had finally seen burgeon in jealousy, but Jeongguk reacted badly. He didn’t want that to effect how he saw Jeongguk forever, but it seemed as if Jeongguk couldn’t see anything but that. He could only see why he was right, why he was justified or excused from his action- it was frustrating.
But time goes slow alone, and healing takes a lot more time when you have time to stew in your anger. Yes, it passes in phases- life moves that way. You go from pain to sadness, anger to relief. And in the end, Taehyung really just realized he missed Jeongguk. The anger numbed that for so long that he began to forget about it, wondering if he should impulsively leave Jeongguk for good- a stupid thought that he thought negatively about days later- but once it was gone, he began thinking about how much he really loved Jeongguk. How he might feel in his situation. He still didn’t think it was right, but the thoughts of all their times together struck something positive in him, and it wasn't something he could just ignore. He wanted Jeongguk back, he just- wished he would apologize.
In about a week, a knock at his door sent him rushing over to the door, knowing his parents weren't home to answer it. Surprisingly, it's Jeongguk- it's not like Taehyung expected they'd never talk again, but sometimes it felt like that. It was dramatic. But Jeongguk's there, holding Taehyung's favorite fast food that he usually has to drive out for- only on special occasions- to get because of the location of their small town. His face was apologetic, a half smile on his face that spoke of empathy, perhaps recognizing the stress their little tiff has been putting on Taehyung as well.
“Can we talk?”
“Why haven't you seen your mom yet?”
“It's hard,” Taehyung admits, watching Jeongguk from his place on his weathered couch. Jeongguk is in the kitchen, and from the open area floor, Taehyung can see him moving around, fetching cups and drinks as he tries to get comfortable in Jeongguk's space. It's not as if this wasn't his space too, once, but everything has been shifted since he left- the TV, which Jeongguk once had to fight Taehyung to leave in the living room because Taehyung would accidentally leave it on in the middle of the night, is now back in the living room, no longer taking up space in the bedroom where Taehyung begged for it to be. The bathroom curtain even shifted from ducks to a random black and white pattern, something Jeongguk blamed away on his mother. There's two additional shelves, the bookshelf he saw before and another one for some random souvenirs Jeongguk must have got while traveling somewhere.
All over the house are these different stories of Jeongguk's life now that Taehyung's not in it, and it makes him distantly curious. Each souvenir has a story he's never experienced, each book laced with crooked edges Taehyung has never run his fingers over; the house is a stranger to him now, and he only finds familiarity in sinking into their luckily thrifted couch, soft and old and funnily squeaky.
“Ever since dad, y’know,” Taehyung explains more, trying not to be distracted by the clear sliding door to the backyard, the way a swing now sits in the center of it, “I can't really talk to her much. Don't know what to say. Kinda glad we aren't as close, sometimes- I used to be so scared I'd lose her too.”
Jeongguk makes a noise, like he's thought of something. “You got distant on purpose,” he mutters, almost to the point of Taehyung not hearing. “Here,” he eventually says when he reappears in the living room. He gives Taehyung the water he asked for, while his own tea sits comfortably in his hand. Jeongguk sits, and they both awkwardly wait out the awkward moment, suddenly unsure what's to be said.
Jeongguk clears his throat, nodding his head for Taehyung to talk. But Taehyung waves it back at him. “Go, I think you were about to answer my question anyway.”
“It's not simple,” Jeongguk suddenly begins. “You make it seem like it is, but it isn't. And there's a lot that hasn't been said- a lot that's been purposely blinded to both of us, unfinished ends and all. I- Taehyung, there's a condition I need to put on this. There's so much that still doesn't make sense, and I can't leave this to fall apart when we never even properly discussed what happened.”
“That's a lot to talk about,” Taehyung whispers.
“Exactly,” Jeongguk says reluctantly. “That's why Namjoon told me, suggested, really- that you stay.”
“Stay?” Taehyung asks incredulously.
“Stay. For however long you want. With me, in this house, to sort things out. I'm not saying we'll fix everything, but, well- we grew up together, Taehyung. I loved you. Something's gotta give.”
“I- do you really expect something to change?” Taehyung asks. He fiddles with the cup in his hand before placing it on the coffee table, mildly disturbed now.
“No,” Jeongguk says. “If you're the same you've always been, you'll run right back to the city.”
“Then what's the point?” Breathing this sea air is different; it's ugly to him with unfamiliarity. How can it so easily blend into something different, he wants to pester. This is nothing to him anymore when the sky is always gray.
Jeongguk pauses, staring out the window, before turning back to Taehyung. “You loved these docks, once. Maybe you can love them again. I'm not saying I will, but maybe I can convince you to see why it's worth staying again.”
Taehyung mulls over it, over the remedial work he's been missing for the summer, how Minjae is waiting for him at home. But Jeongguk is right- so much has been left unresolved, and if this is what it takes to get what he wants, so be it. If he doesn't, who knows if he'll ever get these papers signed and...he wants to finish things off with Jeongguk. He wants to understand what happened between them and why, if he was truly completely wrong for it. If he could be Jeongguk's friend by the end of this somehow, it'd be a miracle. And loving the docks again seems distant- a ridiculous thought, something Jeongguk probably doesn't realize fails to overpower his love for the city. That's his new home. This is no longer where he can run back to.
“Can I think it over? I have work in the city, I have to sort some things out, but- I think it could work. Maybe. If you're willing to be civil.” Taehyung, sitting slightly sideways on the couch, leans back and stares at Jeongguk.
“Yeah,” Jeongguk says silently. “I can be civil.”
The first day is, well, weird.
Taehyung explained that things were getting tricky back at home to Minjae, who merely murmured words of understanding; he decided to push remedial summer classes to the next month, swept any loose ends under the rug, and ended up checking out of his hotel to move back into the guest room of their old house, eyeing the TV in the living room with barely concealed desire. He hated sleeping in silence, but it always seemed to bother Jeongguk when he was wasting the power or keeping the volume up, so they compromised with some kind of noise agreement that worked for the both of them.
Jeongguk is, as promised, civil. He stays distant from Taehyung, less hostile, only helping him to carry in a bag or two and move some things around the guest room that have become crowded with his absence. But there’s still a heavy awkwardness that expectantly resides between them, uncomfortable like the tinge of stickiness in midnight air, cutting like the jagged edges of chips in his mouth- Taehyung is avoidant by this nature, rounding around Jeongguk when possible, staying silent when it’s not.
“Do you-” Jeongguk eventually starts. They’re both in the kitchen, reorganizing some things habitually. “Do you want the TV in your room?” Taehyung jolts, turning around from the small island to think more clearly when he can see Jeongguk’s expression. It seems like a peace offering if there was any, all anger gone from his face now that the initial shock and disgust had worn off. He still sees that look in Jeongguk’s eye sometimes, when he glances down to look at Taehyung’s ring finger to find their old ring replaced and forgotten, sometimes fiddling with the own attached to his necklace. It’s innate yet understandable, this little bit of envy, this part of Jeongguk that obviously still lingers in their years together.
Taehyung does too; Jeongguk’s not alone. If Taehyung was as heartless to throw away a lifetime together, he deserves scorn and disgust, he deserves it if Jeongguk wants to spite him just for the hell of it- but it’s not that simple. It never has been.
“Um, yeah. If you’d help me, I mean-” Jeongguk nods absently, and they both go over to the TV to pick it up and bring it into the guest room. For the most part, Taehyung guides it while Jeongguk hefts most of the weight, a compromise they learned from the years Jeongguk became more physical in school whereas Taehyung focused on his grades. Jeongguk was as logical as he was athletic, but he often let that get ahead of him because something was fun, not because it was necessary, which caused-
Taehyung shakes his head. He has no idea why he keeps analyzing every part of Jeongguk as if it will bring clarity, but they aren’t the same as they were before; they’re wholly different in the parts that matter, so he ignores his rampant thinking and helps more with bringing the TV set into the room. They set it up in a convenient space on top of a dresser, Jeongguk helps him fix his bed, and everything else is already perfect- by the time they should be eating dinner, everything has settled in nicely.
There’s no denying the warmth in Taehyung at this strange familiarity. The low yellow lights of the lamps are soothing instead of medical, warm and golden on the off-white walls of his room; his bedsheets, an old floral set Taehyung’s mother once gave to them, blooms in greens and pinks, fluttering petals filling the full-sized image; the sheer lace curtains flutter gently in the slight wind from the half-open window, through which Taehyung can see the front yard, pitch dark with lateness. It’s humid, but Taehyung enjoys the subtly cool air filling the room, the grassy smell that makes Taehyung feel like he’s- home. There was always the salty smell of the water far off, but it was always overpowered by the way morning dew cloaked the grass and left it smelling freshly cut. Even the distant buzz of a firefly could not bother Taehyung through the screen window, for he knows these beautiful insects cause no harm and only remind him of his childhood.
He takes a shower early, knowing Jeongguk tends to sleep later, and surprises himself with how giddy he feels when he steps out of the steamy room and dresses himself in his comfortable oversized shirt and sweats. It’s weird to be comforted by this. He never thought to visit home because he was scared, but now that he’s here it feels too warm, almost stifling in the best of ways.
Eventually, he sets up his router in the kitchen, which is where Jeongguk finds him fiddling with his computer on a countertop. He eyes him and the table like he doesn’t know why Taehyung is standing instead of sitting down, but eventually just flicks on the living room light for it not to appear so ominous in the house.
“Whatever is okay,” Taehyung answers. “What do you have?”
He can’t see him, but Taehyung can hear him eventually opening up his fridge behind him and shifting around, presumably diving into the depths to find something worth eating. “Uh-”
“Nothing.” Taehyung looks over his shoulder, staring as Jeongguk sheepishly turns and shrugs.
“I don’t shop a lot,” he explains. “Only when necessary, and I’ve been eating with Namjoon lately after work.” He pauses, standing up fully and closing the fridge door; Taehyung doesn’t even realize what he’s looking at until he shifts closer to glance over Taehyung’s shoulder, looking curiously at his online gradebook.
“Teaching,” he murmurs, not really wanting to get into this conversation now. He’s too tired to begin their fight over what happened then, now, forever- he wants to save it for tomorrow, maybe even next week, when the dust has settled and humanity feels replaced between them. “So, what?”
“Two options,” Jeongguk says apathetically, abruptly walking away. “Pizza, or we can walk to the store.” Knowing this, Taehyung distantly recalls their walks to the store, sometimes going to eat ramen or find something simply edible; he thinks about Jeongguk’s empty fridge and how they’ll need things for tomorrow and ends up answering “store” out of some reasonable part of his brain, the part that has aged from screaming pizza out of some hope that Jeongguk will acquiesce to the request every time he asks for it.
“Get your shoes on then, silly,” Jeongguk says, almost smiling, and Taehyung remembers what it meant to be with Jeongguk, for better or worse, without the anger that lingers now.
However, it's in marriage that more problems arise, the kind that come with age. They still weren't out of college, so their marriage wasn't anything extravagant. It was as rushed as you would expect a marriage like this to be- it wasn't cultivated with unhurried, tentative love, but the kind that took by storm. One moment they were childhood friends, the next they were walking the path to adulthood as they felt they were expected to.
It's some time after that Jeongguk starts experiencing strange nightmares and difficulty sleeping. Looking back, it was just a bit of complaining about exhaustion, enough for Taehyung to worry a bit but not excessively, thinking Jeongguk would be able to resolve it quickly by lowering his hours at work to focus more on school. He was overworking himself, Taehyung believed. That wasn't exactly wrong, per se- the only thing he was wrong about was the extent of the problem.
They prescribe Jeongguk dozens of small things. He's recommended some over the counters as “natural” solutions to his problem, some melatonin filled products that were supposed to curb his insomnia within the hour. Jeongguk would nod off with his head in Taehyung's lap while he was doing work, but would quickly reawaken with a grumble, claiming it wasn't working. He could only sleep irregularly, almost painfully. It was difficult to watch only because Taehyung cared so immensely for him, worrying Day after day when Jeongguk woke every hour- if he was lucky, after three hours- and complained of headaches or worse, random aches and pains and continuous exhaustion from working, going to school, doing homework and studying, and failing at sleeping.
Jeongguk's parents decided to let him quit his part time job by way of getting Taehyung's parents- avid lovers of Jeongguk, as parents of childhood friends often came to be- to offer him time on the dock- this way, they could help pay for his education without making Jeongguk guilty in the way he often seemed to be when he was simply “given” something with nothing in exchange. It's in this time he tried to recuperate, and ended up with a solution- ambien. It was a prescription drug that he only needed to take a bit of to sleep easily, and if he took enough, he'd be knocked out firmly until the morning or even afternoon.
It was initially a relief. Finally, Jeongguk was sleeping through the night. Finally, Jeongguk relieved himself from this problem. But it caused Jeongguk to grow more and more dependent. His tolerance eventually went up, and he dared to take more and more of it, until each free moment seemed to be spent in sleep. He'd been deprived of it for so long that he suddenly wanted it all, and this power over himself was addicting in itself; Taehyung, however, struggled with this.
If there was ever a more breaking moment in their relationship besides the more obvious ones, it'd be this. He never quite knew how to bring it up without seeming accusatory, so he let it simmer, fall into a boil, only to melt the pot away. They both got burned in the end.
“Simple questions only,” Jeongguk says, fetching a smaller cart as Taehyung stands to the side, waiting.
Taehyung doesn’t remember the walk being that long; still, it was just as comforting, wrapped around him in a blanket that confiscates his fears if only for a little while, and Jeongguk is holding fast to sincerity, to civility. “Besides fishing, what are you doing?” He eventually settles on, eyeing Jeongguk from his peripheral. Being in the store doesn’t feel as isolating anymore as they wander into sterile lights and customers milling about like sheep, a few tired employees strolling and working.
“I watch after Jungha a lot of the time. She demanded I put up the swing, so-” he shrugs. “She might have to start living with me soon. Long story.”
This, Taehyung speculates, must be the hardest part of meeting someone again, of leaving them, of forgetting why you were with someone. You can only hear their stories from another’s mouth. You lose sight of their life in the background, forgetting that everyone must move on in some way, for they cannot stay still because you’ve forgotten them. The imperfect, human part of Taehyung clenches onto the old Jeongguk, somehow feeling envy for these moments he’s lost in leaving; but it was his choice, how can he complain? It’s not a sane thought, just an understandable one- there are parts of him that probably wanted Jeongguk to come after him or wait for him because he was being selfish.
Berating himself internally for being stupid, Taehyung shakes his head and smiles to clear any confusion. “Tell me sometime.”
Jeongguk nods. “Now you- you’re a teacher now, apparently. What grade?”
“I’m certified for preschool through eighth, but I teach third grade this year. It’s a nightmare for the most part, but I really love doing it.” Smiling, Taehyung gets quickly distracted by the cereal aisle, unsure of what flavor to get now that they’re shopping together instead of apart. Minjae loves frosted flakes while Taehyung likes cocoa puffs, so they usually just get that, but- “Still not eating cereal?”
“I’ll get something else,” Jeongguk waves him off. He seems to ponder something for a moment, tugging on the end of his hoodie’s drawstring while the other hand fiddles with the cart’s handle. “What’s his name?”
Freezing, Taehyung pauses before gently placing the box into the cart, avoiding Jeongguk’s eyes. He’s scared of what he’ll see, but he knows that it’s most likely placid in manner; Jeongguk’s always been good at hiding what he’s thinking, and he doesn’t betray that in the moment Taehyung glances up, face knowingly blank of emotion. “It was my turn.”
“I didn’t know we were taking turns,” Jeongguk explains, cracking a confusing smile. “You don’t have to answer anything you don’t want to, anyway.”
Taehyung rolls his eyes and turns away. It’s funny to think that he knew Jeongguk for so long but could never get a grasp on who he truly is, each appearance of different characteristics passing in phases through every day. He always wanted that comfort, the solidification of a myriad of personalities, but Jeongguk never settled, most often remaining calm and uncaring, a loose kind of person that floated through life without regard for much else beside himself, the few people around him- it’s hard to keep ties with someone who frequently drifted upward, but it was the goofiness, however rare, that kept him different and heavy, stuck to this earth rather than floating away.
“Minjae,” he finally answers, walking in front of the cart to pull it forward by the edge instead of the handles. Jeongguk leans onto the handles, walking forward with Taehyung’s pulling so they can move into different aisles, collecting a few snacks and necessities. It’s not necessarily domestic although Taehyung always thought of grocery shopping as something that was inherently so; it’s more like he’s in a space between reality and a dream, something awfully foreign with disuse. “Does it really matter?”
Jeongguk doesn’t answer, forcing Taehyung to turn back to see what he’s doing- the younger is pondering in front of the bread section, eyes raking over hamburger buns and sliced bread. He eventually turns back and they begin walking again, strangers in this quiet place; this late at night, they only cross paths with a few sleepy customers, the kind that don't even mind them with their sight in their independence. It's a false kind, the kind they all share, as adults with varied stories that pain them all the same.
“It could,” Jeongguk eventually considers. “I guess it doesn't. What else do you need? Did you actually get dinner?”
Taehyung stares down into their cart full of little odds and ends, wary of walking back with too much. “I don't know what to get.”
“Keep walking, then.” They do, waltzing into the next aisle just for the sake of it. It's a frozen food aisle, veggies and fruits lining the front of it. “Your turn.”
“Back to playing by the rules, I see,” Taehyung remarks, staring blankly at the passing food. Now that he was thinking about it, he wasn't hungry for much, maybe something small- he ended up getting much hungrier in the middle of the night, the most inconvenient times. “What's their name?”
“Whose name?” Jeongguk incredulous face makes Taehyung want to laugh out loud.
“You expect me to believe you've been alone all this time?”
Jeongguk looks mildly uncomfortable now, shrugging his shoulders and pushing the cart forward from where they were stilled. “I haven't been getting around. Small town.”
“No,” Jeongguk says, finality laced in his tone. “Not a simple question.”
“Bummer,” Taehyung says under his breath. They finish picking up some last minute things, working their way up to the front of the store, only a few registers open at this hour. They check out with minimal confusion, only now realizing they didn't figure out a system for payment- they eventually decide on taking turns for groceries as long as the price doesn't skyrocket- but Taehyung eventually swipes his card for simplicity sake.
“We need more ground rules,” Jeongguk announces when they walk through the sliding doors to humid air and a sky full of stars, a few people roaming about in the late night. Jeongguk waves to a few with grocery bags at hand, and Taehyung is reminded of the familiarity of this, of waking up and walking and knowing he'd see some people he knew, of not being afraid of new places because there would always be a hand to hold. In the city, so many people meant a simultaneous lack of boundaries and too many to get past, as every person sought for companionship but got lost in this sea of inherent uniformity that cloaked places of high populations.
“Yeah. We barely knew how we'd be doing the whole payment situation.”
“Okay. Don't ask me about Minjae,” Taehyung decides, watching for any oddities in Jeongguk's expression; the man only shrugs and looks at him curiously. “What do you want?”
“Don't ask me about the last few years unless I tell you about it,” Jeongguk shoots back. “Stay out of my room, don't touch anything you think is important, and keep the TV at a reasonable volume. Fair enough?”
“It seems a bit unfair,” Taehyung complains, knocking his groceries against Jeongguk’s.
Jeongguk sighs. “I'm trying- look, I'm turning this around. We were friends since we born, really. And I can't see us being enemies over some dumb stuff that went down, regardless of who's at fault. I'm letting you in for awhile until it's settled, okay? I think it's fair.”
Wanting to argue, the petulant side of Taehyung bubbles up and pouts- but Taehyung thinks of each good memory with Jeongguk, the way he always managed this warmth, and he also can't imagine being enemies with him; it was hard enough, the first day, to see him so closed off, and even this is difficult- to not really know him. So, he eventually shrugs, smiling a bit, and agrees. It doesn't seem too unfair after all.
The first few days continue like this- in this undertone of awkwardness, trying to readjust to living in the same space, continuously breathing the same air. The undercurrent of quiet hostility never really leaves. It's as if everything stays still on the surface, but underneath lies anger, the same thing they never quite fixed- instead, they placed a sticker over it, hoping hiding it would be enough to pretend it didn't exist.
After all, even when things settled, even after the memories faded to light bruises, even when the dust kissed the ground from where it was brushed, even after- the real tumult always lingered underneath. Silence is it's own prison; when left alone, it became so flagrantly clear that the truth always sat underneath like fire eating up floorboard and platform, the initial starting point of house and love crashing after its foundation was sent to ash, dust.
So what do you do when confronted by this? You let it eat you up.
Silence is a lot easier to fall into than confrontation; the finger on the trigger of a gun falters, if only for that tiny moment, and doubt floods in from there; to make it known that they should talk would be a damnation of all progress, as if ripping a single piece of wood from a dam. Just as easily, letting himself speak to Jeongguk about these issues would be the same kind of release, the opening of all that was erased with deceiving progress. But do you really make progress when it’s only in silence? Taehyung doesn’t know, for he shoved those thoughts to the back of his mind; what was important was that Jeongguk treated him like he was fine, and if he could act that way, maybe Taehyung could act that way too.
It’s easier said than done. The first crack in that shiny glass appears just a week later, when Taehyung is brushing his teeth. He’s out of his own, something he realizes with a sigh, and doesn’t think twice before habit it making him reach out and open the medicine cabinet. Inside sits a bottle of ambien, something Taehyung hadn’t seen in years- nonetheless, it opens up a scar, one he’d nearly forgotten about, and he frowns before shakily putting it back.
It’s more than a simple event; this marks the beginning of the suppression, the irritation, and it leads Taehyung to be more silent than he was. Less pliable with the rules. He starts by leaving some spilled cereal on the counter. Then, he leaves the volume too high on the TV. The last straw, he assumes, is when he knocks over Jeongguk’s soap in the shower, watching the liquid slowly ooze out from the now open cap into the water with a blank look. He chooses to leave it.
Jeongguk had always been patient, knowing. It wasn’t as if he truly got angry with a lot of the things Taehyung did; instead, he let them well up, growing steadily irritated by little things he noticed. He was tolerant though, seamlessly so, and let Taehyung get away with a lot more Taehyung ever let him get away with, always pestering him over clothes on the floor and other inconsequential things, spurring little fights that often ended in kisses that were too sweet to be reminiscent of any hostility lingering from before.
So he doesn't address it at first. He waits, not specifically addressing the anger Taehyung just knows he's feeling from odd looks and quirks of the brow. He's rewarded with an initiation just two days later, when Jeongguk bumps into him in the kitchen and stares him down.
“Did you do that?”
“You know what,” Jeongguk says, still staring plaintively.
“I don't,” Taehyung emphasizes, smiling innocently. “What?”
“Don't fuck with me. Tell me what the issue is,” Jeongguk eventually settles on, placing a hand on the counter. Not irritated, always too calm- it took too much to spur Jeongguk on, but once he got there, it took a lot to rein him back in. “You're supposed to be here to fix this. Not play around behind my back because you're too immature to ask me about something you clearly dislike.”
“I'm telling you the-”
“You think I can't tell when you're lying?” Jeongguk suddenly asks, crossing his arms over his chest. “Did you forget who I am? I know your tone, demeanor- everything. What’s up?”
Taehyung analyzes the angry way Jeongguk is holding himself, pensively fighting for words. He had his emotions, he had his thoughts, but the combination of the two did not happily marry into a coalition of beautiful words. Not knowing what to say, Taehyung leans his hip against the counter and shrugs, still acting nonchalant.
“You taking ambien again?”
Jeongguk's face falters before falling into surprise, then swiftly guiding itself into anger. “Were you in my shit, Taehyung? What did I tell-”
“Fuck you,” Taehyung breathes under his breath. There's something imposing in Jeongguk, and it has less to do with his body and everything to do with how he's standing, rock solid. “God, fuck you, Jeongguk. You're so fucking annoying.”
“You're supposed to be here so we can fix this. Not for you to cuss me out instead of telling me what your damn problem is. Or do you want to go down that road again, huh? Get mad when I can't read your mind?”
“Shut up. I asked you the question. Answer it with an actual explanation.”
“Don't tell me to shut up,” Jeongguk says threateningly, but his demeanor is more relaxed now, the way it always got when they would fight over something he felt to be senseless. At this point, he would switch his tone on cue, watching Taehyung with a look too careless to actually be involved, more like a spectator in his own argument. “No, Taehyung. I take it when I need it, but I'm fine now. I just want you out my business.”
“It's my business, and you know why,” Taehyung murmurs, sighing. He falls back against the counter, all fight leaving from him. It was always so infuriating to talk to Jeongguk about serious problems. He could be the sweetest when they were simply talking, but arguments made it seem like talking to a brick wall; too often was he absorbed in his own thoughts to melt just a little, and it was only when he saw Taehyung truly upset- crying, usually- that he would break down and apologize, hold him close. Maybe it was this insensitivity, this callous and often detrimental demeanor, that removed Taehyung from his own care sometimes. It just managed to reflect on him like that, always hurtful.
“If you're upset about something, why be passive aggressive? You decided to mess with my stuff instead of just asking me.”
“I thought you said you knew me,” Taehyung whispers haughtily. Rolling his eyes, he crosses his arms on his chest and fixes Jeongguk with a blank look. “Let's talk.”
“Why does Jungha have to stay with you?”
“No,” Jeongguk quickly dismisses.
“How do you expect to make progress?”
“By getting to things when it's necessary,” he emphasizes. “Right now, if you want to talk, you need to tell me what we need to fix.”
“What?” Taehyung asks, truly confused by the question. Don't they already know? Jeongguk just sends a single nod his way, the anger already gone from his face. He looks peaceful now, quick to switch emotions by the second, but it bothers Taehyung how he can look so composed at the drop of a hat. “This, for starters.”
“Communication,” Jeongguk simply says. “Tough.”
“Yeah, tough. It's tough when I have a blockhead of a-”
He startles, remembering an odd habit of theirs they used to carry; Jeongguk would quickly reach out to gently grab his chin and twist his head slightly to the side or Taehyung would clasps his hand around Jeongguk's jawline so his cheeks softened up like a pufferfish, something they did when they were together as a joke to show they didn't want to hear whatever insult the other was about to peg him with. It was out of habit, the same way Taehyung would lately walk out of his room to get a glass of water and almost walk back into Jeongguk's, or reach out for his hand when they're together as if the other will grab right back without a hitch. But it's still intimate, still an inside joke that simply tells of their history, and Taehyung is suddenly remembering the first time he did it- the gentle graze of fingers on his jawline as he joked around, the quick way Jeongguk made it seem affectionate with the way he pressed a finger onto his chin but eventually pushed a finger into his soft cheek to force his head the other way. He had laughed, full and boisterous, at the shocked, insulted look Taehyung gave him.
Taehyung gulps, recognizing Jeongguk's own apprehension, but he's always been so hard to read. Even when they knew each other Jeongguk put up walls that kept other people from truly seeing, and it causes Taehyung to worry his lip as he begins to contemplate why they can't seem to fit the way they want to.
Jeongguk is his lifeboat, he realizes. It's an uncomfortable thought, a lifeboat, with all it stands for- but it's the comfort that matters, the resilience that comes with knowing there's the trust behind a fall, the ability to live through tribulations.
Jeongguk looks apologetic, at least- like he's thinking the same thing. But Taehyung can't help but think he doesn't need to- this is something that has always been theirs, even as friends, and there's no reason to be awkward about it. It's in this moment he truly mourns their relationship, or rather, the loss of it; there were moments he'd never be able to recreate without underlying sadness or regret, and he's the one who's truly to blame.
He got sick. It wasn't just a cold, no- he was feeling so much pain that they eventually had to bring him to the hospital, and after series of tests and examinations, they figured out he had a tumor. It was easy to remove, they said- it wasn't quite a problem yet.
Still, this put strain on the family; while Jeongguk was more reliant on his own family, a group of doctors that took care of the docks’ health, Taehyung was extremely dependent on his father's fishing business. There was no proper “successor”, and with his dad out of commission, his mom was doing double the work to make up for the loss. This meant that Taehyung had to help, which ended up in more time with Jeongguk but less time to himself.
This wasn't exactly the problem. He could spend a lot of
time with Jeongguk without a hitch. What ended up being the turning point in their relationship was the moment Taehyung's father died in surgery, a slim chance that ended up taking him from them with a shock. The fishing business subsequently went off the deep end for awhile, and Taehyung, suddenly confronted with the demolishment of everything he’d ever known, had no idea what to do.
He could follow in his dad's footsteps, but it's as if his father's death solidified every fear he ever had about fishing. To die, happy, but not completely so; his father never followed his dreams, was always confined to his town, and Taehyung couldn't imagine doing that himself. It was in crisis that he left, imagining that his stay would only be a week but lasted so much longer, in the end. This is how his relationship with Jeongguk falls: in stilted shambles, from talking everyday to questions and arguments of his return, until whispered words of goodbyes are left between them in telephone static, tapering off into nothing. They fell off the deep end, got winded from the way the water snapped them like concrete- it was the worst thing Taehyung had ever done in stupidity, in impulsivity, and it only ever causes him to look back with the question of who they are, who he is.
They were perfect until then. Yes, disagreements sometimes came up, but they rarely fought, did not immaturely spring insults or send daggers each other's way. Taehyung made a decision to find a place in the city and did not know it would cling to him like it did- nor did he think that he'd lose Jeongguk in the midst, but he chose what he thought to be happiness over a lifetime of experience. He wanted new. He wanted exciting. He doesn't know why he never tried to find it in his home.
It's his biggest regret, in some ways. Of course, he doesn't find himself regretting meeting Minjae among other things- he loves his job, as well- but to think back to when he left the catastrophe at home to crumble without him, how his siblings’ and mother’s only consolation was money being sent back home, he feels a deep pain, the kind that settles in your throat- choking you. What is it worth, he often thought. What is it worth to find yourself?
Yet, he has no idea if he ever did.
He can still remember the day he left. When Jeongguk left for the day, Taehyung rounded up all his clothes, still wondering if he was making the right decision to take a “vacation” without any real notice. But he was in such a fragile state, practically crying every night from the memories that kept coming up, that he doubted Jeongguk would blame him much for it. One of their last true conversations, one they had while Jeongguk had no knowledge that he was leaving, became stilted and awkward with Taehyung's own voice. He didn't mean to make it obvious, but leaving Jeongguk felt a lot like death- or at least the death of a part of himself.
Undeniably, he loved Jeongguk with the entirety of his heart, soul. But when Jeongguk told him he loved him on that call, he couldn't bring himself to reply; it felt like he'd be lying about the genuinity for leaving like this, and he leaves with a simple phrase: I know.
Minjae calls while he's on his way to his mother's house.
It had already been a stressful day- he and Jeongguk managed to get into it about the TV again, of all things. It wasn't an argument this time, more of the lingering sprinkles of hostility on top of annoyance, the dash of a menacing tone that led them both to spring into action, defending themselves. Taehyung is still so unsure what it is that leads them to fight so much, and it bothers him that he could end up getting these papers signed only to never talk to Jeongguk again.
And this is where it's tough to draw a line. He could very well force Jeongguk to sign the papers, argue and guilt him into it, but for some reason he doesn't want that; somewhere deep within him, love still lingers. It's expected when they've known each other practically since birth, but Taehyung wishes it was easier to cut himself off and forget any lingering affection.
He knows, though. He knows this is so much his fault, and maybe it's that guilt that keeps him from doing anymore damage. To let their relationship fall to crumbs like any other aspect of his life is cruel, not only to Jeongguk but to himself. They have never resolved anything. He can't let this be another tally in the grievances.
“Hey,” Taehyung answers in a rush, eyeing the red light in front of him. He tugs at his scarf and stares at the lines of small houses down the street, growing increasingly nostalgic as memories from his childhood spring up in small attacks. Adding this to the stress of feeling as if he's hated by Jeongguk only leads to his numb fingers gripping the wheel, mind distracted by his distress as Minjae hums over the line. He feels the familiar warmth he always does when with Minjae- it's a content kind, the one he always seemed to attach blearily with love. With Jeongguk, his feelings seemed to frequently clash- Jeongguk was red and hot, the touch of fire amidst this blue town, and it burned him to be around him. His feelings would claw at his throat with Jeongguk, not simmer into content; this is where Taehyung found the difference in capacity, all of them having their own ways of loving, even if some stood unsafe.
“Hey, baby,” Minjae greets, sounding pleasant. Taehyung hears ruffling, and he smiles, knowing Minjae must only now be getting out of bed. “What's going on?”
“Visiting my mom,” he sighs. He doesn't mean to sound so upset about it, but it's been killing him. If he deserves ire from anyone, it's from her; she could slam the door in his face and he'd accept it with a guilty smile. “You?”
“About to go to work. Remind me of when you're coming back? I miss you.”
“About three weeks,” Taehyung murmurs, tone careful and light, wishing Minjae was here with him. Minjae was his friend, above anything else- he always provided a comforting care that simply calmed Taehyung, led him from being the jumping ball of energy he sometimes was to something more soothed, sometimes even distracted. “Miss you, too.”
They begin talking about something mundane, Minjae apparently getting word that they were hiring more staff at the school and Taehyung was unfortunately missing out on meeting these people in remedials. He misses his class from last year, a group of kids who wiggled their way into his heart a lot of his past students haven't been able to. They reminded him of himself, unaware and confused about life, and this aspect somehow melted any worry he had over a difficult class for good.
“By the way,” Minjae suddenly says when Taehyung is pulling into his old neighborhood, distracted. “Call my work desk if you need something after six. I can't come home as early this week because of examinations.” He sounds tired, so Taehyung frowns a bit in sympathy and hums that he will.
“Okay, I will!” Taehyung says as cheerily as possible, stopping at his house. He merely stares at the older looking bricks now, the same flowers filling the yard, only now a little more wilted. “I have to go now, I'm about to talk to my mom-”
“Okay, bye honey. Hope it all goes well.”
Taehyung ends the call with a smile, tightening his scarf around his neck. He's scared, of course he is- he'll be fine, though. He thinks he will.
That night, they'd crawled into bed with content bellies and even more content smiles, but Taehyung was visibly worried. It was then that Jeongguk pulled him in until his head was resting on his chest, only then able to hear the smooth way his heart was beating. “Are you okay?”
It was too much of a question at the time. After the month he had, he didn't know how answer it- no, he wanted to say, but he didn't want to burden Jeongguk with his problems. He didn't want Jeongguk to begin questioning this or that, his reasoning, whether or not they'd be afford something. Taehyung needed change, and this is where he felt it belonged: in this crisis.
“Yeah,” he hummed, sighing in content when Jeongguk began to run his fingers through his hair. Taehyung tried to distract himself with the low hum of the TV, finding that it wasn't enough. He needed Jeongguk. He always did, but for some reason this feeling burgeoned like the blooming of roses; his heart felt like it was splintering as he began thinking about his father again, something he tried to suppress until everyone was away or asleep. Jeongguk must have felt something, because he cradled Taehyung's neck carefully and attempted to pull him back, frowning at the sight of his tears staining his shirt.
“Why are you crying then, baby?” He readjusted them so Taehyung was sitting up with him, reaching over to the dresser to grab some napkins to wipe his tears. He tried to quell the tears, but once he got to thinking about his father, it's like he couldn't stop. He had so many regrets about the situation that seemed to reflect in his life, and it hurt so much to think he'd lost a part of himself in someone. He'd never be able to talk to him again. Forsaking him so much, Taehyung pretended that their dock didn't matter, that home didn't matter, and it did, he just- was looking for himself, and now he had a price to pay for it now. He couldn't call and hear him speak, not the same way.
“I can't talk to him anymore,” he admitted brokenly, watching through his tears as Jeongguk fumbled for something to do, to say. He’d always been terrible in situations of stress, and in Taehyung’s first moment of true, visible sadness since his father’s death, he struggled with the right actions. He decided to wrap Taehyung up in a hug, unworried about the tears that began to seep into his shoulder. “I don’t know what to do, Jeongguk- I don’t-”
It only made him cry harder when he heard Jeongguk sniffle in his ear, clearly disturbed by Taehyung’s crying as well- he just grabbed Taehyung harder, letting him cry it out until he was merely gasping softly for breath. Jeongguk grabbed a water bottle from Taehyung’s side of the bed that had been sitting there all day so that Taehyung could drink and breathe a little easier. With a soft, almost guilty smile, he wiped what tears he could with his thumbs and pressed a kiss to Taehyung’s lips, still quivering with his anxiety.
“It’s going to be okay,” Jeongguk had said in that tender moment, one hand staying on his cheek while another drifted to his neck. “I know it doesn’t seem like it will, but you have me. Forever. I’ll never leave you alone.”
Taehyung just smiled then, weak, but still happy. He felt as if this was a moment that meant he really would stay forever. However, the next morning he was gone. Fled out of spite, out of impulsivity, out of the part of him that always wished for something more- and once he got a taste of it, he was stuck in a place he had no intention of ever staying, with a broken marriage he had left out of hope that perhaps, one day, it would go back to what it was before. Immaturity works like that, sometimes. You hope for the things you know won’t work.
He hurt Jeongguk. But he felt, in some odd ways, that it was justified from the way Jeongguk never seemed to be there. Taehyung could communicate, but it was the hardest thing to bring up the topics he believed would build in resentment. Figuring Jeongguk would hate him for making him give up ambien or spend more time at home, he let it go. He let them go, and he has cultivated a regret ever since.
Their talk is. Well, it's awkward at best. He wants to say it goes over well, but there's so much lingering sadness and betrayal that Taehyung is practically choking with it. The worst part is the unfamiliar looks his siblings give him, warm yet confused; who is this person they should be calling brother? Why is he here again?
Taehyung ends up leaving after a long hour, one in which they only spend time haltingly catching up on what has been happening while he was away. He leaves with a headache that traps him in himself, throwing his stuff into the passenger seat only to sit down and rub at his temples. He didn't know what he was thinking when he left. Although he's happy where he is right now, being confronted with the wreckage he left behind is tough.
He's suddenly tugged back into his conversation with Minjae, which brings a small smile to his face. His headache seems only to thud harsher at this though, and he attempts to clear his mind of any thoughts to avoid the migraine that's coming on. Sometimes he got them- they usually passed with a bit of Advil or any other pain suppressor, but he isn't carrying any at the time. He roots through his bag for a few minutes before coming up short handed, letting out a groan. It'd be a long drive back.
With nothing to fill the time, he begins to ponder over the irrelevant, thinking about Minjae and Jeongguk. They're both very different- Minjae has always been a persistent kind of affectionate, the kind that smothered him with kisses and hugs just because he could. Jeongguk, on the other hand, was less privy to this kind of love. His capacity was somewhere low, and he would let Taehyung touch him, but struggled with giving affection, thinking it was odd for him to do it. He was raised that way, his own parents being somewhat distant and loving through other ways- materialism, or simply other things, like supporting someone when they're low. It's not like Jeongguk was bad at loving, he just loved differently. Taehyung could see love in his eyes, the way he'd carefully touch his back or side sometimes, how he'd always make sure Taehyung was full and eating right...he did it in roundabout ways, but it's not like Taehyung ever forgot. He couldn't forget.
They only clashed over that once or twice. When relationships fade from friendliness to love, it goes that way sometimes; you have to find the places you match up, the places you don't, and make up for what's been lost. With a bit of conflict, they managed to smooth out the edges and build something comfortable for themselves the way they're supposed to.
Taehyung knew that was expected, the disagreements. He was fine with disagreeing on a few things, like the TV or who was cleaning what or what they should eat for dinner. It'd be crazy if they didn't bicker over these things every once in awhile. But when it came to larger things, like possible addictions and his own selfishness- these were giant issues, the kind that shadowed their entire relationship for not being properly solved. Taehyung knows that they should have brought it up to save their relationship. But he was so afraid that Jeongguk would leave him that he ended up leaving first, and that only seemed to reflect his often pervasive selfishness. He should have relied on Jeongguk more.
But what's done is done, Taehyung thinks as he slows to a stop before a red light. He cautiously leans back and watches the cars pass by, briefly wondering why Minjae seemed so calm about him staying with Jeongguk. He knew himself well enough to know he'd never do something like that, especially when he and Jeongguk seem to get in more fights than they do conversations, but Minjae seemed so calm about letting him stay, and maybe the only reason this confuses him is because of that night at the bonfire. Jeongguk was never angry like that again, but he'd always been silently possessive- another way, Taehyung presumes, he tried to show his love- and it wasn't as if Taehyung didn't have his moments, too. But trust prevailed above anything else after that incident. It must prevail with Minjae too.
He's distracted, he can say as much. With the migraine still buzzing in his head and the stress of everything keeping him on edge, he doesn't know how to sit back, to relax. But he chooses the wrong moment to stop thinking. As soon as the light turns green, he’s quickly hitting the accelerator- something that was right on his part, but wrong for someone else.
As he drives into the intersection with so many thoughts on his head, someone runs a red light. In one second, Taehyung is hit in the crash, and everything turns to black.
Taehyung wakes to a hand cradling his, his world oddly dark before he realizes his eyes must be closed. It feels like it would talk too much effort to open them, though- when he tries, his eyes seem to be stuck that way, but with a little more effort he slowly opens his eyes. Eyelashes fluttering as he attempts to focus, Taehyung blearily looks around in confusion to find he must be in the hospital. Sterile white lights, a jar filled with lavender and creamy yellow tulips, an IV, his heart monitor...suddenly, he remembers the crash, and he jolts briefly before settling down with a gasp at the pain in his leg.
“Taehyung, calm down.” Taehyung snaps his head to the left to find Minjae there, of all people. It confuses him even more. Is he even in the right place? It would have taken Minjae at least five hours to drive out here, how long had he been out? He tries to talk, but his mouth feels like sandpaper; it's only then that he glances up and sees Jeongguk leaning on his doorframe, arms crossed over his chest. He stares at Taehyung, eyes carefully blank, before he's walking over to his table behind Minjae to carefully pour him some water from a pitcher.
“Give this to him,” he says to Minjae, who grabs it with a thanks before helping Taehyung carefully sit up and drink. It's so awkward, even in Taehyung's confusion; he can feel the unsettled tone, Jeongguk's entire body seeming to scream of his own discomfort. “I can see you're curious.”
Taehyung frowns at him over his cup, trying to convey that it's obvious because he just woke up in the hospital with barely any recollection of why he's there. “Stupid,” he eventually croaks, eyeing Jeongguk with barely concealed sarcasm. “Of course I am. What happened?”
“Surprised you don't remember. Car accident,” Jeongguk murmurs. Minjae looks back and forth between them as they talk, hand settled comfortably on Taehyung's the entire time. Jeongguk glances at the display of affection before smiling. “Minjae just recently came down, but he says he has to leave for work soon. You need to change your emergency contact.” He abruptly turns and leaves, presumably to give them some time alone.
“What does he mean?” Genuinely confused, Taehyung tries to put all the puzzle pieces together in his murky brain. Nothing seems to fit quite right about the situation, and even with little pieces of information, nothing's making sense.
“Jeongguk is listed as your emergency contact. Imagine what would have happened if we were back home, Taehyung,” Minjae explains, worry seeping into his tone. “You got in a car accident. Nothing too bad, but you broke your leg since the car was coming from your left and hit the driver's side.” He pauses, grasping Taehyung's hand and rubbing his thumb over his knuckles. “Do you want to come home? It might be too much stress to make sudden changes, huh.”
Taehyung sighs, placing his head in his hands. “No point now. Even if I was home I couldn't do anything, and we’d have to leave one of the cars here because I can’t drive-” Minjae places a hand on his shoulder, patting before leaning in to kiss his cheek.
“You'll get better soon. I'm just worried you might need help. It doesn't seem as if Jeongguk would be open to-”
“He'll do it,” Taehyung finds himself defending. “He's an ass, but not like that. He's just angry right now.”
“Defensive,” Minjae comments. It sounds like he's joking, but it only causes Taehyung to frown and straighten up, pulling his hand from his grasp. “What?”
“Not defensive,” he argues. “I just know he would.”
Minjae let's out a little breath of air, almost a scoff, but it still sounds alight with entertainment. “Okay, Taehyung. But what he's showing me seems different. I just don't want you to get hurt emotionally, too.”
“Don't worry about it. It's fine. I know him better than you do.”
“Of course,” Minjae murmurs. “Of course you do, sweetheart. That doesn't matter, though- we just need to make sure you get better.”
Minjae leaves hours later when the sun begins to set and leaves the room bathed in a warm, golden light- the kind that leaves shadows of the blinds on all the white walls. Some drama is playing on the TV, but Taehyung has been watching it only lucidly, too captivated by his visitors. His mom comes to see him, of course, and so does Yoongi. Jimin even stops by for a few minutes to say hello, but it's unfortunate that the first time they've met since high school is this. Other than that, he's been sitting under his blankets, his leg elevated slightly above him in a cast. His siblings had drawn little figures all over the surface, and they make him smile every time he looks down and sees the ridiculous figures marring the surface.
A silent kind of calm washes over him for the first time in weeks. Jeongguk had been in and out, providing him with help in some areas and avoidance in others. He was basically trying everything in his power to avoid the actual confrontation, of sitting down next to him and actively holding a conversation. Taehyung wasn't very upset by this, knowing they'd be actually forced to talk tomorrow, as the doctor felt he'd be okay to discharge by then.
He'd apparently been out for about a day on sedatives. His pain is minimal now, but they want him to level out before being sent back home, especially so they can examine him one more time and check that everything's been fixed.
“I need to change my emergency contact,” he sighs later in the day when a nurse is checking on him.
She smiles at him in confusion, clearly unsure what to say. “Why? Your husband arrived very quickly after he was called. He seemed so anxious, we couldn't seem to calm him down. Once you woke up, he was fine-”
Tilting her head, she helps him lie back down in a comfortable position as she finishes up. “The more brooding one. I only saw a few of your visitors, but once you woke up he went from scared to quiet. It was funny.”
“Oh,” Taehyung murmurs. “Not exactly my husband.”
“Really?” She gasps. “Sorry! He's listed as-”
“Well, we’re still married,” Taehyung begins. He stares at his absent ring finger, void of everything ever since he placed all his jewelry in a box in Jeongguk's house to avoid losing it while he was roaming so much. “But we shouldn't be. I'm getting married to someone else.”
She's quiet for a while. Finally, she speaks up, staring at the open space of the door before her eyes are darting in his direction. “It's such a shame. He seems like he loves you so much.”
“Sometimes I can't tell,” he confesses. “I wish it was always easy to know that he did.”
Shrugging, she helps readjust his blankets before patting his bed, a smile on her face. “People are strange, aren't they? Sometimes we can't tell what they're thinking, where we stand. It's all a part of the puzzle. No matter what, we’re trusting blindly, because we can't tell who people really are inside- it's their actions that matter most, not expressions or words.”
With that, she requests that he call her if he needs anything, passing his pain medication to him with a soft grin.
The next day, Taehyung awkwardly attempts to put on a spare change of clothes- brought by the courtesy of Jeongguk- only to find Jeongguk helping him. They're the image of discomfort. It's not as if they hadn't seen each other naked countless times before- in fact, the nudity hardly bothered him- but the way they're so unused to the motions. Taehyung has to waddle this way and that to help Jeongguk help him, placing a hand on his shoulder to balance himself while Jeongguk leans down to slip one foot through each pant leg, the cast presenting an issue even in sweats. The pants are the hardest part. Jeongguk just watches Taehyung slip on a t-shirt before helping him into a wheelchair with the nurse.
“Is this necessary? Can't I just use crutches?” Taehyung complains.
The nurse shrugs with a smile. “Hospital policy, Mr. Jeon!”
Taehyung gasps, turning to find Jeongguk practically laughing. “Why-”
“You never changed it,” he murmurs. He pats Taehyung’s head in a way that is practically patronizing. “Calm down, Tae. You can change it soon enough.”
Grumbling all the way to the car, Taehyung finds that it's not as if the name disgusted him. He just found it unfamiliar to his ears. And with the sudden way the nurse said it, quick and unbothered, he almost believed for a moment that it was meant to be; that perhaps, for some reason, he was meant to be called that.
There's something funny in Jeongguk now, almost placated. Like he's realized something Taehyung doesn't understand. It bothers him in how familiar he is with all of this, the way they seem to fit right back into their old routines and dialogues, the only thing absent being the touches. Even then Taehyung doesn't feel particularly lost, as now that he's injured Jeongguk is plentiful in touching. He helps Taehyung get in the car and get out, helps him get into bed, prop his foot up, take his meds. It's only when Taehyung sees his car that he truly feels any distress since he's been in the hospital, but it doesn't look demolished despite his initial beliefs.
“It's fixable,” Jeongguk had shrugged, tugging Taehyung along with an arm around his waist to support him. When Taehyung gave him an incredulous look, he merely shrugged again, tugging him inside to get “proper rest”. “Stop worrying about that for now. You're good.”
Jeongguk even tucked him in when Taehyung showed signs of being drowsy after his meds, pulling up the covers till they bunched around his chin and left him warm and sated. He then turned to leave, but Taehyung murmured a stop before he could walk any further.
“Thank you,” he says, eyes fluttering with drowsiness. Jeongguk turns and nods with a smile, but that's all. That's all he does.
Taehyung was as blind to intimacy as someone who lived in their town could be. When their classmates began to hook up in junior year- and even before then- he stayed sheltered away, listening to these stories with a funny kind of interest that easily turned into curiosity. He didn’t desire it per se, but he wanted to know what made these people fall into lust with other people, how reverence spilled in ways that weren't synonymous with emotion. It was all physical, the tangible weight of certain affection, and it was bound to people in ways that didn't quite make sense to Taehyung.
It's not until nearly a year after he confesses to Jeongguk about his feelings that they actually do anything moderately reflective of this. They trusted each other long before, but the shift from friends to something more startled them both in ways they didn't expect. They had to recut the angles of their identities that weren't quite fitting the same anymore, because being in a relationship doesn't change much, but it doesn't change in ways that are important.
It always seemed to change from then on. One night it could be slow; Jeongguk would kiss Taehyung in every place he deemed soft enough, rounding the soft curve of his neck and down his chest, pressing into the soft skin of his stomach. He would carefully finger Taehyung open until Taehyung was practically begging for it, forcing his head under one of their many pillows to hide his face in a habit that grew too normal to digress from. Only when Taehyung was close to crying did Jeongguk enter him in a languid push, removing the pillow from Taehyung's strong fingers to kiss his cheek, whispering words of love in his ear.
But just as easily as it could be slow could it be something else entirely; stress has a funny way of manifesting in small, typical actions, from saying hello to walking. When it got to their alone time, stress became something else- it was a beacon for release, the red echo of a warning, a listening ear. And with these chances came moments of particular senselessness, starting with a deliberate kiss that seemed to swallow Taehyung whole. He always knew when the tension built too high because it would result in the hasty pulling of clothes, bruise-inducing grips, muttered words of impulse- it always led his heart to beat something strong in his chest when Jeongguk’s hands found their way to his hips, locking him in place when he wanted to wiggle.
On either of their parts, it was a release of frustration. Sometimes Taehyung would tease Jeongguk as a request for impatience, other times Jeongguk would signal with the demanding press of his fingers, tugging him in place with a well placed look. There was not a favorite time for Taehyung, but something about these sessions said much more for passion. Jeongguk could press his cock into him quick and fast, bordering on the edge of punishing, and Taehyung would merely whine into the sheets for more; the angry snap of his hips would melt into the other lewd noises of the room, a careful expression of their distress and love. But even after Jeongguk had led him to a climax with darkening marks on his hips and a hand pressed to the back of his neck as he carefully pressed his hips against his ass, it would always end in a specific tenderness.
Jeongguk was always like that. He had this strange capability to do his worst and smooth it over with the softest of touches, cleaning Taehyung up with eyes that seemed to marvel every hour, every day at what he had in front of him. Taehyung could never doubt that Jeongguk did not love him; it was always there when he wanted it to be, a purposeful sweep of the eyes over Taehyung that seemed to scream a silent thanks. And Taehyung felt the same- he loved Jeongguk in a way that was cleanly effortless, cultivated by years of companionship that remained regardless of tribulations.
They had their issues, but they were the perfect couple. They loved each other in a way that transcended ugly arguments and insecurities. They just knew, and that was what was important to them; they knew they loved each other, which built the foundation for their entire relationship.
When Taehyung thinks back, he can only see the good times. He remembers when Jeongguk took him on a Ferris wheel and bumped his head on the way in. He remembers their trips to the docks as kids, sitting with their feet dangling off the edge of the wooden surface, just a few feet above that blue edge. Hell, he can even remember when he had to practically carry Jeongguk home after he got shitfaced at a party and almost stripped in front of the entire town. It's these moments, regardless of how bitter he feels when he reflects on them, that bring him an inescapable warmth. He assumes that's what happens when you grow up with someone; they wiggle their way in and there's no way out.
He’ll always remember these moments that seemed to epitomize Jeongguk's tenderness, though. The moments that broke from insomnia, sadness, everything- where they sat back from adulthood and watched it brew rather than throw themselves in. There were these little blips in time where they were each other's whole universe, and no other worry existed. It's like they were ten years old again, sitting by the docks, and the lake was sitting so still they could see themselves clearly staring back, always pensive yet beatific. When Jeongguk was clearing his throat to say “I love you” or simply whisper a silly compliment in his ear, his goofy mood settling in moments where he just couldn't shut up, Taehyung never doubted for a second he loved him.
It was the other moments that hurt. The times where Taehyung sat waiting for hours for him to come home. When Taehyung was worried for who he'd become, and Jeongguk was never there to hear it.
Taehyung wonders why they couldn't have stayed there. Why do these moments have to be temporary? Taehyung is sick of living in memories, but when they're all you have, they become a lifetime of reflection. Maybe he's the problem, he thinks. Maybe he never thought to ask, and that was stupid of him. But Jeongguk never asked when things got bad either. Perhaps they'd both be hoping that the bigger problems resolved themselves, that silence was better than outright rejection, because nothing hurt more than the fear of being left behind.
Still, it doesn't nothing to help how it all collapsed anyway. They were too young for this, in the end. Taehyung wishes he saw it coming when Jeongguk got down on one knee.
Taehyung’s world seems to move in slow motion for the next few days.
It sucks, feeling helpless. He’s never broken a bone before- much less get in an accident- so it becomes a battle of wills. He can either call Jeongguk to help with the pain, or muster through it the best he can independently. For the most part, the latter works out fine, but it seems to put this strange indefinite pause on progress. Taehyung refuses to call Jeongguk like he used to, make use of Jeongguk’s persistent willingness to do what he’s asked and do it well, and it makes things like eating seem like giant leaps of pressure.
“Do you need help?” Jeongguk asks when he sees Taehyung attempting to reach for things in the higher cabinets, and Taehyung always resolutely shakes his head, not prone to asking for it.
It’s difficult to deal with this part of himself. He’s obviously not allowed to drive, so he’s confined to the house daily, attempting to work through some of the thoughts he has now that he’s alone. This stubbornness seems to reflect a lot on the way he’s always refused to dig deeper in conversations. There was always a resolute hope that things would work out for the better alone without help and- it was just unrealistic. He has no idea why he always confines himself to helplessness as if there aren’t better outlets, but sometimes he thinks it’s just better that way. He hates to rely on someone too long for what he believes are stressful reasons, the kind that would hurt or confine Jeongguk all the same.
“What are you doing up?”
Taehyung jolts from where he’s carefully attempting to maneuver himself by hopping on one leg, hating the crutches for the noise they often created in the quiet house. It’s past one in the morning, but Jeongguk is sitting at the kitchen table like it’s dinner time, holding a cup of tea while he looks at something on his laptop.
“Couldn’t sleep,” Taehyung sighs, shaking his head when Jeongguk starts getting up. He pauses, clearly deliberating, before standing and walking over to Taehyung. Staying a good distance away, he stares at Taehyung with questions in his eyes. “I don’t know. Do you have chamomile tea? I’m not hungry or anything.”
Jeongguk helps him the rest of the way to the table by practically carrying him with an arm around his waist. The close proximity doesn’t necessarily make Taehyung feel awkward; it’s not as if the actions are any different than what he’s experienced before. But it does dredge up deluges of a strange kind of discomfort, one that marks Jeongguk’s touch as simultaneously familiar and peculiar. He helps Taehyung sit down in silence before walking over to the cabinets, pulling out a box of tea and staring at his teapot in confusion before supposedly deciding the water inside would still be hot enough.
Setting down his tea in front of Taehyung, Jeongguk sits across from him, pushing the little container full of artificial and real sweeteners, pausing before scooting the honey over as well. Taehyung can see the exhaustion in every line of his body, even the bags under his eyes; Taehyung must have stopped noticing after the accident, to concerned with himself to notice. But he does now. He points at them and smiles, unable to articulate more than a laugh in his sleepiness.
Jeongguk rolls his eyes. “I went to therapy, you know. They tried to introduce me to more natural methods, stuff like tea and natural sleeping pills- all that. It’s a lot harder than taking an ambien to knock myself out.”
Taehyung is steadily pouring honey in his tea, but he stops and caps it to look at Jeongguk seriously. Always the same soft cheeks, sharper now with age. A face that looks a little more weary with the years. “Why’d you stop taking it?” Finally, he puts the honey back and begins to stir.
“You know why.”
“I do?” Taehyung sips, sighing when it doesn’t burn his tongue. It only settles nicely in his mouth, warm and sweet with sugar, so he settles back and focuses on Jeongguk. “I left before you stopped.”
“But you didn’t like it,” Jeongguk says, almost harsh. “Sorry. You didn’t like it.”
“Are you upset about that?” Taehyung whispers.
“No, of course not,” Jeongguk decides. “I think we were both really self-absorbed. Maybe still a little too much to talk without butting heads over something. But I wouldn’t be upset that you were upset by it- I was upset you never told me. I only figured out because of the looks you gave me sometimes. You’re so good at being passive aggressive.”
Taehyung hums, glancing down at Jeongguk’s hand, clenched tight around his mug. “What are you angry with me about?”
“The obvious. Mostly I’m upset you never said anything, but you expected me to figure it all out with time, I guess. It hurts more that you never trusted me enough to say anything.”
“But I did?”
“Not enough,” Jeongguk murmurs. He stares at Taehyung then, eyes so soft and full of affection, and Taehyung doesn’t know how to respond. He can feel that familiar tug at his heart; one that screams that it’s never been over, not like he’s wanted it to be. He could fill spaces that Jeongguk took up; distract himself with the feeling of another heart calling for his, but nothing would ever seem to add up the way Jeongguk’s love for him did. It was unconditional and reverent in a way no other love could be.
Taehyung pauses, averting his eyes so he doesn’t have to see that look anymore. “Sorry. I’m sorry.”
Jeongguk shrugs. “It’s okay. I got over it in some ways. I know I must have been blind to you as well, and that sucks, too. If I’d taken a break from work for more than thirty minutes or something, maybe we could have sat down long enough to talk about it. It’s my fault, too, Taehyung.”
They sit in silence for a moment, merely drinking their tea. Taehyung sees now that Jeongguk wasn’t exactly on his computer; one of the windows is open, and the lace curtains are billowing in the breeze, surrounding a night sky filled with stars. There were nights that Taehyung would wake to an empty bed, hand flitting out to meet the cool mattress under his fingers, but Jeongguk wouldn’t be far- he’d always be in the kitchen staring at the stars. Rarely, if ever, would he wander by the docks to stare at the water. He was just that kind of person, needing his alone time in silence and beauty to collect himself.
“Jungha will be coming in a few days,” Jeongguk says suddenly. “My mom left.”
“What?” Taehyung accidentally exclaims.
Shrugging again, Jeongguk fixes him with a resolute look, the kind that betrays no hint of emotion. His mask is on again, carefully fixed. “It was about two years ago. I almost called you, but-”
Taehyung presses his hands against his face. God, he was such a shitty person.
Regret fixates itself on a target in a strange way- it has no regard for wishes of the past, for words unspoken, actions not taken. It hurts in the same way a gunshot does, but much more prolonged and deep; settling in the heart, it wraps around like a vice and doesn’t let go, not until death. The main problem with regret is that it cannot be fixed. It can be atoned for, it can be apologized for, but never taken back- Taehyung doesn’t know how to deal with the deep seeded realization that he, due to a selfishness and unmistakable loneliness, chose to do something that would affect him happily only for a moment. It would not stick by his side the same way love, love like this, would.
“Sorry,” Taehyung says again, lower this time. He attempts to compose himself before speaking more, not wanting to freak Jeongguk out with a breakdown when it’s this late. “Your dad?”
“He’s not doing so well, and I just- I don’t want Jungha growing up around that, you know? I’ve seen it happen to people around me, and I can’t have her with a person who’s only half there.” He sends a knowing look Taehyung’s way, but it doesn’t permeate or stifle him; it seems more like an acknowledgement of his own faults than anything else.
Taehyung can feel himself shaking a bit with nerves. He can’t be sure why it seems like the tips of his fingers are quaking, his skin bristling with uncontrolled emotion that filters through in his expressions. “Sorry I wasn’t there for you.”
“I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you, either,” Jeongguk says sincerely, smiling slightly. “We both had a part in this, didn’t we? And we were too young to properly deal with it.”
Taehyung agrees with a hum. It feels good to talk about this, but it still feels stilted and negative- however, maybe he’d have to live with that for much longer than he’d like. Who knows when it would fully go away? They’d hurt each other time and time again, and one conversation can’t fix what seemed like a lifetime of hurt.