✈ shanghai, china
Jeongguk meets Taehyung on a frittery summer day, the kind of hot that feels like the crackle of fresh popcorn.
He’s in the middle of working on a mouthful of green onion pancake folded in a greasy napkin, pondering the integrity of scallion-infused cooking oil, when he’s leveled with rapidfire Korean. It surprises him enough to choke.
“Sorry,” says Taehyung, who has the propriety to look sheepish. “I saw that your phone language was set to Korean.”
“You were looking at my phone?”
Not the nicest way to address a stranger in a strange land, but seriously. This man, who is admittedly handsome enough for Jeongguk to just let it go, apparently has no problem just confessing that he was (probably) spying on Jeongguk scrolling through his five hundred not-so-comely selfies with the Oriental Pearl TV Tower and the like.
“Yeah, sorry, you were in line in front of me,” says the stranger. He holds out his hand, ignoring the hesitation Jeongguk offers when he comes up with oily hands, and grasps his fingers gingerly. “Taehyung.”
“Jeongguk.” He adjusts his grip on his bing. “You’re Korean?”
“And relieved, to be honest, because I am also lost.”
“We are not lost,” says an irritable voice from around the vicinity of Jeongguk’s throat, and a man with aggressively blond hair appears to hand Taehyung a napkin-wrapped panckae, still glistening with oil from the griddle. “We’re smelling the roses.”
“Not the type to ask for directions, huh.”
Aggressively Blond Dude seems to be caught between punching Jeongguk then and there and admitting to this sin, and Jeongguk wouldn’t really blame him if he went for the punch. The Shanghai heat in late July is enough to drive anyone up the wall, across the ceiling, and down the opposite wall back onto the floor, and Jeongguk has probably sweat his body weight by now. It’s only noon.
“We’re exploring. You’re never really lost when you’re not trying to be somewhere to begin with.”
Jeongguk considers this. In Blond Dude’s defense, this is fairly sound logic if they’re going into technicalities.
“Are you traveling alone?” asks Taehyung.
“Yeah. I’m doing a bit of a solo globetrot, if you will.”
“Oh, that’s us!” He gestures and himself and Jimin, who runs his fingers through his fringe, the fuzzy baby hairs at his hairline dewy with sweat. “Except it’s duo globetrotting, at least up until now. Jimin has to head back to Korea for an internship.”
“Up until now?” Jeongguk crams the rest of his fried pancake into his mouth and scrubs the oil off his fingertips with his napkin. “Where’ve you guys hit already?”
“Pokhara, Nepal,” Taehyung ticks the cities off on his fingers. “Chiang Mai, Thailand. Oh, and Budapest! In Hungary. For my entire life I thought it was in Turkey for some reason, but no, it’s in Hungary. We wanted to go to Reykjavik but it was too out of the way for him.”
“Oh yeah? What does your itinerary look like now?”
“Hmm, I’m not sure. We’ve kind of been playing it by ear and making it up as we go.”
“You’re going to be alone for the rest of the trip, and you easily get lost?” Jeongguk raises his eyebrows. That’s a level of carefreeness that borders on reckless abandon. He’s not sure if he admires it or judges it, but it must be nice not to feel the need to plan everything down to a molecular detail.
“I said the same thing. Jimin, nice to meet you. On the real though, where are we, exactly?”
“So you are lost.”
“I’m just asking for confirmation.”
“The Bund,” Jeongguk says. “Only the most famous part of Shanghai, but no biggie.”
Jimin glowers at him, though Taehyung makes a noise of recognition at the name. “Wait, I’ve heard of a TV show of that name!”
Both Jeongguk and Jimin stare at him.
“No, really. It’s set in the, what, 20s? And there are lots of guns and stuff. Mob boss kind of show. It’s apparently really famous. How did we get lost in the most famous part of the city?”
“Thank you for that piece of trivia,” Jimin says. “You forget neither of us speak the language.”
“Language isn’t as much of a big deal if you can read a map and offer money,” Jeongguk says. “But, really, I can help if you guys need it.”
“Yes!” Taehyung says, at the same time Jimin says “No thanks, I think we’re good.”
Taehyung frowns at him. “We’re making friends, dude.”
“We just met the guy.”
“I hate to break it to you, but usually friends start out as strangers. That you meet. You remember how we met? You were like, seven, and threw up over the backseat of my—”
“Okay! Okay. I get it. Whatever.” Jimin turns to him. “Uh, yeah, how do we get out of here?”
Jeongguk can hardly contain his laughter. “Okay, and where are you trying to go?”
Taehyung and Jimin are staying in a hostel that’s shockingly cheap for how nice it is. It doesn’t belong to a big hotel chain, but it looks even better than your usual Marriott. They have a suite with a kitchen and a stovetop, real bougie.
“This is nice,” Jeongguk says, looking around. Jimin cranks the AC on as low as they can handle as soon as he opens the door. Warm, muggy air settles over their clothes as they wait for it to rattle to life.
“Where are you staying?”
“In an AirBnB. It’s fairly nearby, actually.” Jeongguk sets his backpack down, massaging his neck and joining Jimin under the air conditioner, where he’s holding the back of his shirt up to his shoulders so the frigid air will wash over his bare skin.
“Nice, guys, way to fill up the room with sweat smell,” Taehyung says, scrunching his nose as the both of them sigh when the air conditioner oscillates over their heads. Their bangs flutter in the breeze.
“I put on a whole stick of deodorant before leaving my place every day here, trust,” Jeongguk says.
“Can’t say the same for Jimin.”
“Hoe! I don’t use that much cologne for my own benefit!”
“Hmm,” Taehyung says, sounding unconvinced, and he dances out of the way with a cackle when Jimin throws his shoe at him.
It feels nice to be around two people who speak Korean again, not that Jeongguk hated being around people that didn’t. At once, it’s refreshing to be surrounded by those who don’t know him, who won’t think twice about him, but on the other hand, it’s been about a month on this road and it’s been getting a little abrasive on his nerves to only speak Korean over text. This is familiar.
This is home away from home.
Shanghai is a curious mishmash of unapologetic modernization and a desperate attempt to preserve tradition. In a way it reminds Jeongguk of Korea, of the divide between his hometown in Busan and the flashy, fleeting nature of Gangnam with its new ads every other week. He had parted with Jimin and Taehyung at dinner after exchanging numbers, and as a throwaway attempt he shoots them a text some days later.
i’m hitting up city god temple today. wanna come with if you guys didn’t have anything else planned?
What Jeongguk does not expect is such a swift reply.
wait for real? we were going there this afternoon too! you wanna meet up there? we’re going around 1-ish
That gives Jeongguk some time to get lunch, which is wonton soup from the street cart downstairs. It’s served in a plastic bag with a pair of wooden chopsticks, and Jeongguk doesn’t even need to attempt asking for anything in his broken Mandarin—offer yuan, point, and hold his palm out for his order. The soup sloshes in the bag he’s handed, wontons swimming in the broth like dimpled goldfish.
It’s not as hot today as it was yesterday, though that’s not saying much. The humidity has Jeongguk’s shirt clinging to his back in five minutes flat, and he’s taken to styling his bangs out off his forehead and out of his face with so much hairspray that it’s crispy to the touch in an attempt to prevent it from flattening against his skin with sweat. By the time he meets Taehyung and Jimin at the temple it feels like the heat alone has sapped half his battery life. He thought Korea had prepared him for summers like this, but he is Mistaken.
Taehyung sees him first, even though Jeongguk is wearing the most nondescript white t-shirt with a black baseball cap. Jimin, bless his heart, is armed with a map today.
“How’d you find me?”
“You stick out like a sore thumb,” Taehyung says. “Did you look around yet?”
“Nope. Thought I’d wait for you guys.”
As far as they understand, the City God Temple, or Cheng Huang Miao, honors the three gods of the city, along with celebrating some governmental status that the city was granted decades ago. Dozens of little stalls with merchants line the sides of the temples, with their telltale curved roofs and door signs written in great, gilded gold characters. The architecture is reminiscent of that seen in the Korean temples back home.
“I want this,” Taehyung says, holding a string of satin chili peppers with a gold and red bow on the bottom, complete with a red tassel.
“It’s obviously lucky, plebe.”
Jeongguk rolls his eyes as he picks up an embroidered pouch at the same stall, just to give his hands something to do. It’s satin drawstring, perfumed with the scent of old wood, and by the time he decides he’ll buy it for his mother, Taehyung has fought back Jimin’s judgment and gotten his peppers, too.
“Lots of little peppers for your door, huh.”
Taehyung holds it up to the sun and admires it. “Jimin’s not really one to talk. You know his mother’s conception dream was—”
“Kim Taehyung, if you keep talking you won’t have a pepper left to brag about.”
“I think I can guess,” Jeongguk says, and Taehyung laughs. It’s a hearty sound that reaches down into Jeongguk’s body and shakes the dustiest parts of himself, throwing open the curtains to a dark room he didn’t realize he was sitting in. “You guys want to keep walking around or do you want to get something to eat?”
And so this day passes, tired, well-spent, and really, really sweaty. Tomorrow will be the same, with Jeongguk sporting a graphic Stussy tee, and Jimin exasperatedly fond of Taehyung’s impulsive purchases, and standing under an air conditioner at the end of the day before a shower. Jeongguk had planned on this trip to be solo, but somehow adventure is out there sounds better with them.
“Where are you going next, Taehyung, if Jimin’s heading back to Korea?”
With the way Taehyung looks up in surprise, Jeongguk would think he hasn’t considered this question until this very moment, when he’s asked. Which is apparently exactly the case.
“I don’t know,” he says, picking away the pink iris flower that garnishes their plate of sauteed shrimp. “That’s a good question.”
“Why don’t you go with Jeongguk?”
This time, it’s Taehyung and Jeongguk who stare at Jimin, who clears his throat and folds his hands on the tablecloth.
“I’d be less. Worried.”
“So you admit I’m good at navigation.”
“I just said that it’d be good for my skin, essentially.”
“Right. If that helps you sleep at night.”
“It does! That’s why I’m saying Taehyung should tag along with you. Where are you going next, anyway?”
“Glad you asked,” Jeongguk says, unlocking his phone and holding it across the table. “Destination: Tehran.”
✈ tehran, iran
The inside of Imam Khomeini International Airport reminds Taehyung a quite a bit of Pudong International Airport in Shanghai—the ceiling is a deep blue with white ceiling supports, and the windows along the wall of the arrivals terminal lets him see outside where the next flights are taxing along the tarmac.
“You alright there?”
Jeongguk is wearing a face mask, but his eyes are crinkled a little, so Taehyung knows he’s smiling. He’s a little quiet, and less ready to tease Taehyung for just breathing than Jimin is, but he’s not uncomfortable to be around.
“A little sleepy.”
“After you drooled on my shoulder for some twenty four hours?”
Taehyung takes it back, Jeongguk’s silver rapier tongue is sharper than Jimin’s.
“You said it yourself! That trip took over a full day, I don’t know why you look like you just stepped off the cover of GQ magazine.”
“That was not a compliment.”
“No? I think it was,” Jeongguk says. Still, he’s right; his hair is a mess after their layover in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and they’d taken a five-hour nap against each other at their boarding gate when the plane had delayed three hours. Taehyung had brushed his teeth vigorously in the airport bathroom afterwards, right before boarding, and slathered on as much Chapstick as his lips would humanly allow before getting on their connecting flight.
Taehyung jogs to keep up with Jeongguk’s brisk walk, even though he’s the one with the longer legs—what’s he in such a hurry for?—and elbows him gently. “Okay, so—how are we getting out of here? Where are we going, exactly?”
“There aren’t any buses, so we have to catch the metro. There’s one in about twenty minutes, if I recall correctly. Then it won’t come for another twenty. We’re stay in someone’s home.”
“Wait. Like, a stranger’s house?”
“What, have you never used AirBnB? Well, I booked through another site, but it’s basically the same thing.”
“Well. No, I haven’t.”
“Damn. You really do need to stick with me.”
They required to obtain travel visas available on arrival first before they can go, and Taehyung watches in awe as Jeongguk spits out a couple of stumbling phrases of Persian while pointing to himself and offering his passport. The airport agent doesn’t even blink and takes the little green booklet from him as they pass through customs. By the time they make it—by metro, then a little ways by taxi—to their host’s humble abode, the jetlag is starting to catch up to Taehyung and snap like wolves at his heels.
“Hey, wake up, sleepyhead. We’re here.”
Jeongguk hands rials over to their driver, and Taehyung hauls himself out of the vehicle. Thankfully, they’re just on the second floor of a small, quaint apartment, which means minimal stair climbing. Taehyung has no idea how Jeongguk, self-proclaimed zombie-type sleeper, is awake and not tongue-tied right now. He’s so sleepy it feels like he’s struggling to run through a pool of cold honey.
The door swings open when Jeongguk raps his knuckles on the wood smartly, once, twice, ringing in Taehyung’s ears in the silence. An aging, homely man greets them, and Jeongguk says something that Taehyung doesn’t understand as they’re ushered inside like old friends.
“What did you say?” he whispers.
“Just your standard hi, it’s nice to meet you, we’re your guests,” Jeongguk says. “It’s not that hard when you have Naver dictionary and you’re from a country with an international music industry whose fans know every damn language in the universe.”
“I…cannot argue with that.” Taehyung stretches his arms over his head and rubs his eyes. “Do we need to do anything out of courtesy first before we hit the sack? Is it impolite to just walk into someone’s house and go to sleep? It would seem impolite.”
“Just a little longer, maybe,” Jeongguk says, unhooking his face mask now and stowing it in the front pocket of his backpack, and he steadies Taehyung around his waist when he sways with vertigo. The touch is enough to spark just enough adrenaline in Taehyung’s body to flinch, and Jeongguk snatches his arm back. “Sorry, sorry. I thought you were going to fall for real.”
“No—no, it’s okay. You just surprised me.” No need to mention that the warmth of Jeongguk’s arm was welcome, almost familiar, grounding him more than he thought it would.
Their host is astute enough to know that the both of them are sleep deprived, and simply show them which rooms in the apartment that they have access to, which bathroom is theirs, and where the kitchen is. Taehyung is sure he’ll have to figure this all out again when he wakes up later, because his brain is making sounds like a spitting, dying engine inside the confines of his skull right around now.
“Alright, bed,” Jeongguk says with a groan that sounds like a man revived. “You sure you just want to sleep in your travel clothes?”
“Huh?” Taehyung says, before he knocks out like a light.
On the road like this, Taehyung’s gotten used to playing Okay, What Country Am I In Right Now whenever he wakes up. His first, immediate thought is oh, right, Shanghai until he turns over in bed right into a very not-Jimin body.
Jeongguk doesn’t even budge at Taehyung’s shout of alarm square into his face. At most his eyebrows twitch, just a smidgen, before they smooth out again and his breathing falls into a soft, easy rhythm. Taehyung struggles to sit up, body feel like it’s waterlugged, and tries to figure out what the hell happened and where he is.
Okay, this is someone’s apartment. He’s sharing a bed with Jeong—oh, right. Tehran. They’re in Tehran, after a twenty-seven hour journey, and they’d passed out cold at the first sight of a bed. The sky is just barely starting to lighten. Taehyung makes an educated guess and ventures that they’d slept through the entire day and the entire night until the next morning. It’s quite the record, even for him.
As the world starts to come back, Taehyung sits up properly, body grungy and sore from having fallen asleep in his street clothes. His shoes are off—though he doesn’t seem to recall having unlaced them, and he’s under the covers, warm enough that his skin is tacky with sweat. He looks down at Jeongguk’s smooth, sleeping face beside him.
Taehyung slides his legs out of bed to kick off his jeans and shuck his jacket off, feeling cooler the second the fleece leaves his body, pitter-pattering around their open suitcases and the bed to the window to crank it open a little more. A damp, cool breeze filters in. He shivers at the feeling of it on his overheated skin.
“Morning,” comes Jeongguk’s voice, hoarse from sleeping so hard. “Time is it?”
“Barely sunrise.” Taehyung turns, leaning on the windowpane, still feeling a little dizzy from traveling but well-rested enough to function. Jeongguk is squinting at him with a magnificent bedhead, an unruly black hurricane around his face.
“What are you doing up?”
Taehyung blinks. It almost sounds like Jeongguk is asking him to come back to bed.
“It’s not like you can do anything this early, you’ll probably wake our host if you cook. Go back to sleep.” Jeongguk pats the empty space beside him. It’s a big bed, that’s for sure, but still. Taehyung wouldn’t really write him off as someone who was this ready to cuddle. Or share beds.
“What time are we getting up?” Taehyung asks, climbing back into bed and under the covers. He fans the covers a little so the warm air can escape from between them. Jeongguk grunts, back to him.
“We’re in Tehran. We need to do things.”
“How about nine?”
“Okay, I can do nine. Can you?”
Jeongguk doesn’t answer. Taehyung leans over until he can see his face, and that he’s drifted right back off again.
He shakes his head, pulling the covers back up along Jeongguk’s body, and smooths it flat along his arm.
Jeongguk does not wake up at nine.
Taehyung has no idea how he’s gotten this far on this trip alone, but after traveling with Jimin—who is a fairly light sleeper and easy to rouse—shaking Jeongguk awake is something like an Olympic sport. He’s asleep on his stomach, face almost buried entirely in his pillow, when Taehyung jiggles his arm.
“Hey, it’s nine. We said we’d get up.”
No response. Taehyung shakes his arm harder. “Hey.” Still, no response, and for a wild moment he wonders if Jeongguk had died in his sleep, and holds a finger under his nose. Nope, he’s definitely here. “Jeongguk. It’s nine.”
A sound that sounds like air being let very, very slowly out of a balloon issues from Jeongguk’s mouth.
“Oh my God. Jeongguk!”
Taehyung pairs this with jumping onto his back—gently, he swears, it’s more of an aggressive hug than a bodyslam—and this, clearly, is effective, because Jeongguk wakes up with a startled yell and asks “What the fuck?” in a sleep-thick voice.
“Rise and shine, sleepyhead!” Taehyung singsongs at the top of his lungs.
“Ugh,” is all Jeongguk has to offer. “I can’t get up if you’re sitting on my ass like that.”
“Will you get up if I get off?”
“Debatable. But I can fall asleep like this, too.”
“I’ve been looking up stuff to do. Does visiting the Grand Bazaar hit anything on your list of things to see here? Because I’m starving, and I know you are, too.”
Amazing. Somehow, the mention of food gets Jeongguk out of bed faster than Taehyung can think of another strategy, and he oozes around the room like an Eldritch monster gathering clothes and toiletries before slouching into the bathroom. Taehyung attempts to organize the contents of his suitcase until he comes back out, looking presentable again.
“We should take lunch with our host. They asked us to.”
“As far as I know, it’s not unusual for Iranians to offer. But I think you’re supposed to decline, out of courtesy. Kind of similar to what we do in Korea. Decline enough and then accept, out of politeness.”
In hindsight, they’re glad they’re offered the meal before leaving; Taehyung is so hungry he’s starting to toe the lightheaded stage, and the smell of the food set before them smells heavenly. Lunch takes place on the floor, which is a new experience. He’s served a bowl of speckled rice with fish, and a stew with chickpeas and meat that he guesses is mutton. It costs an arm and leg in Korea.
“I’m going to food coma before our day even starts,” Jeongguk says as they finally get going to make their way to the Bazaar.
“I second that. I might just fall asleep on the bus.”
“Do not. This is not Winter Sonata right now and I’m getting off at the right stop.”
The Bazaar is a mind-boggling combination of things to see: shops, brimming with everything from clothes to jewels, what Taehyung thinks is a bank, and a room the looks like it’s made entirely from crystals where several individuals are praying.
“This is a lot.”
“It’s some ten kilometers worth of corridors,” Jeongguk says, reading a crumpled piece of binder paper that Taehyung has figured is a Swiss Army knife of a map, written directions, and basic local phrases. “Better start exploring if we hope to cover even half of it in one afternoon.”
So, they try. One merchant shop is full of rugs, piled high like embroidered thrones, all unique and big enough to fit whole families comfortably. It’s not like either of them are in the market for rugs, but they go inside anyway, just to admire the handiwork and run their hands along the fabric.
“Rugs and carpet weaving is taken so seriously here, I didn’t realize.”
“Yeah, you know it’s such a big part of the local cultures that politics impact it directly? I read it somewhere,” Taehyung says, when Jeongguk turns raised eyebrows on him. “For a while traditional weaving got fucked over by synthetic dyes, but I think recently they’ve returned to natural dyes and and tribal patterns again.”
“I guess you could say things were heating up in the rug fandom.”
“Never talk to me again.”
“Hey! What are you going to do when you get lost, then?”
Beyond just the rugs, there’s a ton of food to be eaten. Lucky for them walking and sweating is pretty good for working off their lunch (brunch?), so they load up on falafels. There’s a surprising variety of cuisines around Tehran, just from what Taehyung has taken note of, and he definitely hadn’t expected to see as many Thai restaurants as he has. They sit outside in a food court adjacent to a shop selling gold and silverware, so replete with items that it looks like a treasure trove of metals.
“It’s fun doing this with someone else.”
Taehyung doesn’t immediately realize Jeongguk has spoken, having sunken into a jetlagged trance as he chewed on his falafel, and blinks himself back to Earth. “What? Really?”
“Yeah. I hadn’t planned on traveling with another person. I like plans. But I think I like this better.” Jeongguk holds out his falafel-filled pita, down to his last bite. “Trade you for your taboon?”
Taehyung holds his hand out. For a wild moment, as Jeongguk stares at it, he thinks he might simply lean over and eat it out of Taehyung’s fingers, but then he plucks the bread from his hand.
Funny. Taehyung doesn’t like plans, but traipsing across the world with Jeongguk seems like as good an idea as any.
“Can we go to Finland next?”
Jeongguk, who’s perpetually looking down at something—be it his Swiss Army map, or his camera, actually gives Taehyung his full attention at this. “Finland?” he asks skeptically.
“Yeah. I watched a travel documentary for it once. It’s really quaint.”
“I thought you didn’t believe in plans.”
“Well, suffice it to say you’ve inspired me.”
Jeongguk sets his camera down. They’re stuck in a maelstrom of traffic leading into Azadi Square to see the tower that rises tall and proud and spreads it wings over the square. “I was planning to go to Istanbul.”
“Would you possibly be willing to entertain a divergence from your course, captain?”
He doesn’t look like a huge fan of it, but he hasn’t gotten his plane ticket yet. It’ll probably be cooler up there, too, and Jeongguk wouldn’t complain.
“What do you want to do there?”
“There’s a lot to do there!” Taehyung pulls out his phone and opens his notes app to show Jeongguk some of the things he’s researched, then figures he can summarize. “Hiking. And sightseeing! And also, Santa Claus Village.”
“Are you five?”
“Are you fifty? You’re probably better at finding lodging and plane tickets though, so if you’re willing…”
Taehyung looks at Jeongguk hopefully, who seems to already be halfway on board with the idea.
“Let me look at flights and availability,” Jeongguk says, finally. “It might cost us less to make a stop somewhere first.”
There’s something about Jeongguk’s face that Taehyung can’t read. It’s soft around the edges, like the jagged, frayed edges of raw fabric.
“Yeah. Why not?”
✈ mumbai, india
Jeongguk must confess that he’s actually quite happy that they need to make a pit stop in Mumbai. Now they get cheaper tickets and, more importantly, several days in a city that is unapologetically gorgeous.
“Two days,” Taehyung corrects. Their AirBnB is located right by the airport, with a single bed—they’re getting good at the bed-sharing thing. He’s seated on the floor, deep-cleaning his suitcase. “We should make the most of today, since we’re flying out tomorrow afternoon.”
“I don’t know of anywhere, I didn’t plan on Mumbai.”
“Do you ever just, like, live a little, Jeonggukie?” Taehyung says. Jeongguk discovers he doesn’t dislike it when Taehyung calls him that. “Not everything needs to be planned. Just look something up on Naver and pick someplace we can go in a day, that’s not super difficult to go to and return from.”
Jeongguk grumbles, picking up his camera to go through the memory card, because he can’t be fucked to attempt organizing his suitcase. He doesn’t notice Taehyung go quiet, until his voice pipes up, “How about the flower market?”
“The flower market. They’re a big thing, here in India.”
This makes Jeongguk set his camera down in his lap. “You looked it up?”
“I’ve heard about them, so I looked up if there’s one anywhere nearby—there’s one right here in Mumbai, it’s called Dadra flower market. But the prime time is four in the morning to nine.”
“Four?” Jeongguk asks, almost laughing. “I stay up till four, I don’t get up at four.”
“Well, if we go to sleep right now, we’d wake up right in time.”
This isn’t a bad idea, Jeongguk has to admit. He just doesn’t like not being right, but on the road like this, he never exactly complains about extra naps. “Wait, let me see. Dadra flower market, you said? What happens there?”
“Merchants just sell flowers, nothing exactly happens. It’s just really amazing to see.”
“I have debilitating allergies to pollen.”
“Just a little bit,” Taehyung says, wiggling in place from his spot on the floor. “It won’t take that long, we don’t have time to spend all day there, either. I hear it’s amazing for photos. Come on! Please?”
Photos? Jeongguk is sold. The way to his heart is braised chicken and the promise of good photography lighting.
Jetlag is actually kind of cool, when you have no immediate responsibilities the next day, or need to get up at an ungodly hour anyway. Around two AM, Jeongguk wakes up, not really understanding how or why—nothing has disturbed the peace, no noise, no movement. Taehyung’s body is outlined in the covers beside him, still slumbering, the line of his waist rising and falling with his breath.
Jeongguk’s arm feels prickly and asleep, oh, that must be it, but when he tries to move he realizes he can’t. Taehyung’s head is pillowed upon it.
“Tch.” Slowly, he drags his arm out from underneath Taehyung’s cheek, but midway through his extrication, Taehyung makes a sleepy noise of protest and tugs back.
“Are you awake?”
If Taehyung hears it, he pretends not to, though he doesn’t look like he’s acting. Jeongguk watches as he drifts back off, and, succumbing to his fate of being a pillow to this boy, he turns onto his side as well to drape his free arm around Taehyung’s waist.
“We need to get up in an hour,” Jeongguk says, more to the room at large than anything, and falls back asleep.
Waking up this time is a much more embarrassing affair, because the first thing Jeongguk sees is the question on Taehyung’s face. He’s bundled in Jeongguk’s arms, trapped against his chest, and when Jeongguk looks down and registers what he’s looking at he gives a shout like he’s been electrocuted and flails.
“While I expected a reaction like that,” Taehyung says, massaging the spot on his forehead where Jeongguk’s knuckle had smacked him in his alarm, “I didn’t think it would involve krav maga.”
“Sorry, I don’t usually wake up to someone staring at me, sorry,” Jeongguk says. His heart is still racing. “What time is it?”
“Just past four. You want to wash up and head to the market?”
“We were supposed to get up at three, shit.”
“Nah. It’s okay. The sun will look prettier by the time we get there this way.”
And so it does. Jeongguk has only ever seen sunrise in Korea, on nights when he stayed up to see it. Sunrise is such a fucking shitshow when it happens before he’s gone to bed, the sun mocking him as it inches up the sky—but getting up to see it when he’s actually had a good night’s sleep?
“It looks magical,” Taehyung says, and Jeongguk is inclined to agree. It looks richer in the Indian skies, the clouds glittering gold and bronze, turning the skyline of the city ruby-red. “Get it in photo!”
Fortunately, Dadra flower market is just that much more impressive to pull their attention away from the sunrise. Taehyung had shown him photos of it in bed last night, but they hadn’t captured the sheer size of everything—hundred of vendors sit in the center of their flower spreads, surrounded by heaping bushels of blossoms. Just looking at tickles the tear ducts in the corners of Jeongguk’s eyes, but he raises his viewfinder to his face, sniffles, and snaps.
“Are you going to buy something?”
Taehyung is browsing through one merchant’s flowers, holding an orange sunburst of a marigold in his palm. “No,” he says, gently setting the flower down. “Everyone buys by the bag or basket, it would be stupid for me to just buy one.”
“Hey, I mean, I’m sure they won’t complain if you want to give them a few paisa for just one bloom.”
Taehyung rummages through his pockets, unearthing a motley collection of yuan, rials, baht, and forint, and pokes through the mess of international currency in search of rupees or paisa. Their merchant says something that Jeongguk doesn’t catch or understand, though he thinks it must have been English. He nudges Taehyung.
The merchant holds out a white flower with petals as delicate as wedding veils, and Taehyung looks from Jeongguk to the merchant. “But I don’t have money,” he says.
“It’s okay. You can have just this one.”
Taehyung receives the flower and looks stunned for a minute before he smiles, wide, and Jeongguk’s hands move of their own accord. He picks up his camera, aims his lens at Taehyung, whose face is illuminated by a slice of rising sun, and holds down his shutter release. Taehyung laughing with the vendor. Taehyung looking at the flower like it’s something precious. Taehyung holding it to his nose and smelling it, Taehyung exclaiming how lovely the scent it. Taehyung holding it out. Taehyung looking surprised that Jeongguk is taking pictures of him.
“What are you doing!” he laughs, but he doesn’t swat at Jeongguk to stop. “Here.”
Jeongguk flinches anyway when Taehyung brushes his hair away from his temple, and gently perches the tuberose behind the shell of Jeongguk’s ear. He fiddles with it for a few moments, and when it’s clear it won’t fall, Taehyung pulls away.
“There,” he says. “It’s pretty.”
It tumbles from his ear as soon as he begins walking again, and Jeongguk picks it up where it’s fallen at his feet. Dust dots the snow white petals, but all he does it blow it off, shake a little, and pin it back behind his ear.
Taehyung bought it for him, after all.
✈ helsinki, finland
Figuring out Finland is a little more eventful than their arrival in Tehran or Mumbai, purely because 1.) Taehyung and Jeongguk take different flights and 2.) Taehyung does not seem to have an issue with not following directions.
It’s actually not much of a problem, until it is. Jeongguk said that he’d tell Taehyung how to get to where they were staying when he arrived, so all Taehyung would need to do is retrace his exact footsteps and end up in the same place. Get off the plane, go through customs, get on the right bus, and it should be easy from there. He even sends him pictures of every waiting station and check-in point he makes stops at.
So, to absolutely no one’s surprise, Taehyung still gets lost.
“What do you mean, you got on the wrong bus?” Jeongguk says, voice concerned through the phone as Taehyung settles into his seat. He’s by a window, watching the roads race by.
“The one you told me to get one was taking forever.”
“Uh, the one I told you to get on is the one that’ll take you to the right place, no matter how long it takes to get there.” Jeongguk groans. “Dude, you’re going to end up on the wrong side of the country. Which bus did you even get on?”
“You. Don’t know.”
Jeongguk’s voice has surpassed exasperation and sounds straight up angry now, and Taehyung simmers down to talk him out of it. “It’s ok, Jeonggukie. If it looks like I’m going the wrong way I’ll just hop off and take the one in the opposite direction.”
“Oh my God. You know their buses don’t run like the Korean metro does. You can’t guarantee there’ll be a bus in the opposite direction.”
“Jeonggukie, it’ll be fine. Relax. If there are any complications I’ll tell you. Okay?”
“Fine. Call me when you get lost.”
“Okay,” Taehyung says, rolling his eyes and hanging up. He searches up the address of the park that Jeongguk had given him, and to his triumph sees that the bus is driving in that direction anyway. So much for Jeongguk’s concern. He’s saving time, too.
There’s a lot of green in Helsinki—green, and more green, and even more green. Shanghai and Mumbai were buildings, and then more buildings, with a token tree here and there as if city planners were like “Oh wait, we need to put some plants in this city.”
He has no seatmate, and this bus isn’t even half-full, compared to the other buses that had been coming in and out of the Helsinki Airport. No one sits in the row across from him, all the way here in the back of the bus, and the humming rumble of the engine lulls him to sleep.
Taehyung wakes with a start, and shit shit shit what country is he in? Wherever he is, it’s moving, and—oh God, wait, this is the bus he’d gotten on at the airport that Jeongguk had gotten angry about. Fuck. Where is he?
There’s a deluge of texts from Jeongguk on his phone, asking him where the hell he is, and he squints out of the window. It’s nearly dark, and a fog has crept in, blinking sleepily as it stretches out over the land.
where the fuck are you??
god do you at least have an idea?
Taehyung swallows, texting him
hang on, idk. wait i’m getting off.
He jumps to his feet and grabs his suitcase—there’s quite literally no one else left on the bus, just Taehyung alone, sitting in the last seat on the left in the last row. The bus driver jumps when Taehyung appears beside his seat, saying something in Finnish that Taehyung can’t understand. “Off,” he manages, in English. “Get off.”
“I didn’t even know there was someone left on this bus, I’m so sorry—I can let you off at the next station. I can’t drop you off in the middle of a rural road. You can transfer to another night bus at that one.”
Taehyung nods, mostly because it’s polite, because the only other option would be to stare blankly at the drive, and not because he understood any of that except “I,” “sorry,” “you,” and “bus at that one.” He assumes that, when they come to a stop at a quiet stop on the side of the road, that this is where Taehyung disembarks.
“Sorry, thank you,” he says.
“Good luck!” says the driver, raising a hand in farewell.
Now what? Taehyung’s hands are shaking slightly when he fishes his phone out of his pocket again, to another flood of texts.
what? where are you?
are you okay? what happened? do you need me to come get you?
help me out here!!!
Taehyung swallows. It’s dark in earnest now, cold streetlamps winking white and blue like too-close stars overhead.
i don’t know...
i’ll send you my location from maps
He takes a screencap from the app. It tells him he’s nearby a body of water, which would explain the frigid breeze that blows across from it, the moonlight lambent on the rippling surface. Jeongguk doesn’t reply for a full minute.
i’m sorry ;_; Taehyung tries. No reply. It’s not really scary to be out here alone, exactly, but Taehyung does wish he had some company. Not a single car has driven past this lonely stretch of asphalt, and even the sound of traffic is distant at best. There is no one except him, his suitcase, and the rustle of the breeze through the leaves.
stay where you are and don’t budge another step.
okay TT are you going to come here?
Jeongguk doesn’t even see this message, the yellow 1 beside his words taunting him. Taehyung’s phone is about to die, and he hadn’t charged his external battery pack the night before, so he puts it on battery saver mode and slips it into his pocket.
It’s his fault.
Taehyung isn’t one to follow plans, and he’s carefree and reckless, but that kind of thing is probably only advisable when he’s in a country whose language he can understand. Gallivanting through Seoul at one AM in the morning is a much better idea than getting lost in Finland, and he sighs when he thinks about how hard Jeongguk is going to lecture him for not listening to him—and he’ll be right. God, Taehyung hates when he fucks up, gets dealt his proper comeuppance, and has to face the people who can say, told you so, told you fucking so.
The night grows colder, and the wind crueler. Funny how the fog doesn’t seem to budge no matter how hard it blows. It feels like early winter in Korea more than August, but maybe that’s just how things are in the Nordic countries. Taehyung has a modest scarf in his suitcase, buried deep under his satin peppers and Bazaar trinkets. He briefly considers fishing it out and wrapping up in it.
No texts from Jeongguk. His phone battery grows weary. The hour snails by. Taehyung thinks he sees headlights coming down this street, a pair of gleaming owl eyes in the fog, but it makes a left turn far in the distance. In his belly, his stomach yowls, and Taehyung pulls his knees up to his chest to ease the pang of hunger.
Then, just as panic-seasoned concern starts to settle over Taehyung’s shoulders in earnest, a small bus comes rumbling down the street. It slows with a screech at Taehyung’s stop, and he sees a single lone figure inside, hopping from foot to foot in anticipation to get off.
Taehyung stands up, swaying slightly because his feet are asleep and prickling when he puts all his weight on his soles. Jeongguk charges at him like an angry bull, and Taehyung puts his hands up in front of him as though to block his advances.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry—I should have listened to you, I’m—”
The wind rushes out of Taehyung’s lungs when Jeongguk knocks his hands aside and pulls him into a hug that Taehyung stumbles into, briefly treading on Jeongguk’s foot before he rights himself. For a moment, he stands there, arms pinned in Jeongguk’s hug, not understanding.
“I was so fucking worried,” Jeongguk mutters, pressed so tight against Taehyung their ears are squished against each other. “Holy shit. I was so worried.”
“Hey.” Taehyung frees his arms slightly to wrap them around Jeongguk’s middle, and this close, he can feel Jeongguk’s heart pounding. “Hey, I’m all right. I’m sorry.”
“You better be,” Jeongguk says, though his voice is so shaken that there’s no bite in his words. “I thought—I thought something—”
“No, nothing happened. I’m okay. I promise. I’m sorry, I brushed off what you told me to do.” Taehyung pulls back, and Jeongguk looks ill, like someone whose nerves have been deep fried in peanut oil for too long. His face is blotchy and pale. “You look terrible.”
“I wouldn’t have to if you’d gotten on the right bus. There’s one more that’s coming in an hour. We have to catch that one, back to the airport, and take the right one back around.”
Taehyung has the shame to hang his head, all for a moment, because he feels Jeongguk’s hand slip into his and looks up. “Huh?”
“Hold onto me and don’t let go.”
So Taehyung squeezes Jeongguk’s hand, tight. I’m here. Your tiny spot of home in a big, big world.
Their lodging this time is a bit of a departure from the norm.
“A trailer park?”
By the time they’ve made it back, it’s deep night—the dark, impenetrable kind that feels as thick as tar. Jeongguk unlocks the door, to which a small staircase leads up, and yawns.
“Yeah. It’s cheaper than a hostel, and it’s a fun experience.”
“There is no toilet in here.”
“Communal,” Jeongguk says, unzipping his jacket and yawning harder. “Come on, we’re up here.” He gestures vaguely towards a dark corner above the driver’s seat, and Taehyung stares up at it uncomprehending.
“There’s a ledge up there. To sleep. We’ll have trailer mates tomorrow, but they’ll be in the bunks.” A ladder descends from what looks like the ceiling, ghostly and skeletal, but Jeongguk switches on a bulb on the roof of the car and it floods the space with light. A wrinkled mass of blankets and pillows is already stacked up there. “See?”
“Okay, okay. You’re hurting my eyes.”
Jeongguk turns the light off with a chuckle. Taehyung moves slowly as Jeongguk steps into sweatpants and a hoodie, looking like he’d already been dressed for bed as he waited. It wasn’t so cold, but sitting still for so long has made Taehyung’s joints ache.
“Where are we headed tomorrow?”
Taehyung looks up again, where Jeongguk’s nestled into the ledge. It’s a bit like an eyrie, and only a tuft of Jeongguk’s dark hair is visible from here.
“Suomenlinna,” Taehyung says. “It’s the sea fortress. Kind of a cross between a museum and a village nowadays.”
Jeongguk taps on his phone silently as Taehyung unearths his toothbrush from the inches-deep mulch inside his suitcase. “Idyllic,” he says. “Looks like something straight out of Princess Diaries.”
The moon hangs low in the sky by the time Taehyung finally climbs into the space. It’s cramped, but not claustrophobic, big enough for another person to squeeze in with them if they tried. Jeongguk scoots to one side to make room, though they have to share the comforter.
“Are you tired?”
“I was,” Taehyung says. “But after that ordeal I feel like I can’t get the adrenaline out of my system.”
“I’m the opposite,” Jeongguk yawns more. “I’ve been high on adrenaline until now, and now I’m crashing.”
His eyes are closing even as he speaks. They’ve lain together like this many times in the same space, in the same bed like this, so it’s not uncomfortable to curl up in a fetus position face-to-face anymore—and yet, unless it’s a trick of the light, something in Jeongguk’s face is unbearably soft as he blinks his eyes open, closed, open, closed. Hypnotic, and slow as the spread of a butterfly’s wings.
“Thank you. And I’m sorry.”
“Don’t do it again.”
“You took a bus all the way out there just to find me.”
“I almost didn’t,” Jeongguk admits. “Some part of me knew that, at that point, you would follow any directions I told you to. But I know—I know at least for me, if I ever were to be lost, it’s never so scary when you’re lost together.”
“I wasn’t scared!”
“Maybe scared isn’t the right word.” Jeongguk hums, like he’s only making the noise to keep himself awake. “Lonely, I guess. Traveling alone is fun, but sometimes I felt like—sometimes I felt like those photos, where the flow of a crowd is walking against you and you stand in a sea of people by yourself. Not sure where you are, or where to go. I didn’t want you to feel like that.
“Oh.” Taehyung swallows, and it’s so natural to put his hand to Jeongguk’s cheek that he doesn’t realize he’s done it until it’s come to a rest on his face. “Thank you.”
“No world is big when you’re there.”
Suomenlinna greets them with an hour of clear, sunny sky, with a blustery wind that makes the grass ripple like the water it juts into. It’s dizzying, to be able to look right over the side or jump into Gulf of Finland, and he clings onto Jeongguk tight.
“Are you scared of heights?”
“No, I’m scared of that feeling you get when you’re up high and get gripped with the wild urge to jump,” Taehyung says, craning his head to look anyway, but with his hand entwined firmly with Jeongguk’s. “Don’t let me do it.”
“If you really wanted to, you’d probably pull me over and into the water with you.”
But Jeongguk is already laughing, and Taehyung swears they have a good time exploring the fortress, but later at dinner at a place called Bar No. 9, he finds he can’t really recall what they did there.
“What’re you getting?”
“Shawarma,” Jeongguk says, though he doesn’t put his menu down.
“I dunno. Tony Stark talks about eating it in the Avengers movie.”
Taehyung gives him a withering glance. “You’re ordering a dish because a fictional character suggested it?”
“There is a long, long list of things that comic book characters have inspired people to do,” says Jeongguk, with the air of someone who has Seen Some Shit. “Eating shawarma can hardly even hope to make that list.”
As it turns out, shawarma is served a little bit like falafel—in a pita, and the shawarma itself is just the preparation of the meat. Taehyung had very smartly decided to order the same thing and not go with kebabs for the five hundredth time, because the shawarma is what Jeongguk calls “the bomb dot com,” an American slang term he picked up from playing on an international Overwatch server. They leave the restaurant full and sleepy from a day of walking.
“It’s not that late yet.”
“It’ll take a bit to get back to the trailer park,” Jeongguk says. “We should settle in for the bus.”
Sitting at an empty bus stop with Jeongguk, truthfully, is a lot nicer than doing it alone. This street is a lot busier, especially early in the evening, but no one else sits down on the metal bench beside them. Taehyung lets his head come to rest on Jeongguk’s shoulder.
“And you were all, ‘it’s not that late yet.’” He shrugs his shoulder so Taehyung’s head bounces with the movement. “That tired, huh?”
Taehyung makes a noise that’s something between a hum and a grunt because it’s easier than trying to explain the knot that’s been in his chest since they got to Helsinki. It’s not one of anxiety, exactly; it’s one that doesn’t come around often, but Taehyung thinks he recognizes. It loosens when Jeongguk looks away and tightens when Jeongguk looks to him, and it tangles when Jeongguk’s not there at all.
“Hey, I asked you a question.”
He lifts his head. “Huh?”
“I said,” Jeongguk enunciates, looking Taehyung in the face, “if you wanted...to…”
He trails off when the both of them notice how close their faces are, Jeongguk’s lips hanging open dumbly as his gaze slides down to focus on Taehyung’s mouth. Then it ricochets back up to his eyes, like he was caught staring, and stutters.
“You said?” Taehyung prompts.
“I, uh.” Jeongguk looks punch-drunk. “I.”
There are a lot of things that go into this kiss. That bubbling Shanghai heat, sun like daggers on Taehyung’s face when he’d first run into Jeongguk, holding the same green onion pancake in an oily napkin as he was. The soft, velveteen feeling of handwoven rugs in Tehran. The scent of tuberoses and marigolds lingering on their clothes for days. Jeongguk might lean in first, but Taehyung closes the distance, and their kiss is a glowing pocket of warmth in this abnormally chilly Nordic summer.
“Dessert,” Jeongguk says when they break apart. “Uh, something sweet. You like sweet things.”
Taehyung kisses Jeongguk again, as if to make sure they’d just kissed, but mostly because he needs to stop himself from saying anything tooth-rottingly disgusting, like you’re sweeter than sweet, who needs dessert or something equally besotted. And Jeongguk kisses deeper, moving closer until their thighs are pressed together, holding Taehyung’s face like he’s afraid this will end too soon.
“I’m okay,” Taehyung says, kissing Jeongguk’s lower lip when he bites it with belated embarrassment. “I think I’m full, anyway.”
Lies. They look everywhere but at each other when they get on the bus, except for the moment when Taehyung feels Jeongguk take his hand and lace their fingers together, resting their interlocked hands on his own thigh. He stares out the window resolutely, though it’s too dark to see anything except the whiz of city lights streaking past. In that moment, Taehyung looks at him, willing him to turn his face, but he never does.
Walking to the trailer hand in hand, though, that’s the part that makes Taehyung blush. Jeongguk doesn’t even think anything of it, though if he does, he’s doing a damn good job of concealing his brain noise. Lord knows Taehyung’s thoughts are going haywire. He doesn’t even have thoughts at this point. Maybe some questions, a lot of those.
“Uhm, I’ll shower,” Taehyung says, body exhausted but brain still screaming, and Jeongguk nods mutely as he watches Taehyung gather his pajamas. Then, the words seem to register in his head, and he says,
“Oh, shower. Right. Me too. Shower.” He blinks like he’s never heard of the concept, then turns to start rummaging for his nightclothes. This is, Taehyung thinks with a tinge of satisfaction, quite reassuring.
Taehyung finishes first, presumably because Jeongguk is attempting to drown himself in the eco-friendly shower stall, and he sits burritoed in one of the passenger seats as his hair air-dries. There are suitcases that do not belong to them by the bunks, and Taehyung assumes that they belong to their trailer mates, though it appears they’d just dropped them off and haven’t yet returned from the city.
“Are you going to sleep?”
Taehyung peeks out from the hole he’s mad in his blanket burrito when he hears Jeongguk come back in. “Not yet,” he says. “I’m reading webcomics.”
“Okay.” Jeongguk hangs up his towel to try, and stands in the middle of the trailer looking useless, and then says, “Well, I’ll be up in the ledge.”
He climbs up the ladder, body making shk-shk noises as he stretches out on the nylon covered mattress. Taehyung looks away from the screen of his phone, peering up to see that tuft of hair visible from the pillow.
Nothing. Not that he expected Jeongguk to actively approach the topic of whatever that kiss was, at the bus stop, but it’s in pretty poor taste to just move on like it didn’t happen. They still have weeks on this trip together, and Taehyung would really rather not spend all of them in this clunky, awkward dynamic.
Jeongguk startles when he climbs up onto the ledge to join him, pulling the comforter along behind himself like a giant, fluffy cape. “Got lonely down there,” he says simply, when Jeongguk ogles him. Taehyung throws the cover over them both, risks a conservative snuggle up into Jeongguk’s side—they’ve woken up to weirder positions—and lies still.
“Yeah, me too.”
Taehyung processes this, then looks up. Jeongguk still has his eyes trained on his phone but it’s obvious he’s not taking in a thing on his screen anymore.
He clears his throat. “Yeah.”
“Look at me?”
The sky is just clear enough tonight for the moon to gleam through their skylight, and Jeongguk’s eyes are two shards of black glass when he faces Taehyung. They lie together, breathing in tandem, and Taehyung waits—waits and waits—until, like he predicted, like he hoped, Jeongguk rolls onto his side, rests his weight on his elbow, and kisses him.
The one at the bus stop had been shy, warm, comforting. It wasn’t chaste, by any means, but it wasn’t desperate—not like this, the way Taehyung opens his mouth and lets Jeongguk’s tongue meet his, or how his hand finds the zipper of Jeongguk’s black hoodie and yank it down with a rasp of metal.
“Taehyung,” Jeongguk says, without direction or purpose, saying it just to taste it on his tongue.
“I wasn’t done kissing you,” Taehyung murmurs, though he doesn’t make to pull Jeongguk back down, instead pushing at his jacket insistently. Jeongguk lends a hand and tugs it off, and Taehyung runs his hand over the planes of his body, the thin fabric of Jeongguk’s t-shirt soft on his palms. He lets it come to a stop at the hem of shirt, floating just above his crotch. Jeongguk’s face darkens.
“Don’t tease me.”
“Oh, so you do want it,” Taehyung says, unable to help the smile that comes over his face, and wonders if Jeongguk, too, can see the glimmer of mischief in his eyes.
“I don’t have any condoms on me,” Jeongguk says, looking genuinely bummed. It makes heat burn to Taehyung’s cheeks and down between his legs, a polar rush towards opposite ends of his body, and he shivers. “I can jerk you off, if you’d like. I’d offer to suck but it’s dark and I don’t want to knock you off the ledge by accident.”
“Such a gentleman,” Taehyung says, kissing Jeongguk before he has all the words out, so some of the syllables get lost between Jeongguk’s teeth.
Taehyung has had sex before, he won’t lie, and some of it has been good. Really good, even—but Jeongguk is earnest and unpolished. Messy. Not the bad messy, not the kind that makes people sigh and ask where they went wrong in life, but the kind that reminds Taehyung of running through the surf with sandy feet, the kind that’s flour on someone’s nose when they get too much into baking. When Taehyung reaches into the waistband of Jeongguk’s basketball shorts, he feels his entire body shake where it hovers over Taehyung’s.
“You like it?”
“Yes,” Jeongguk breathes. “Wait—you too—”
Taehyung moans, unbridled, when Jeongguk slicks his hand with the precome that’s leaked down the shaft of Taehyung’s cock and pooled a little on his thigh. “Jeongguk?”
“Kiss,” Taehyung says, not waiting for Jeongguk to lean in first.
It’s a fast tumble into their orgasms. A combination of being tired and being so aroused that Taehyung’s chest and head feels clouded with it has his body tightening when Jeongguk quickens the pump of his hand on his cock, kisses at a spot under Taehyung’s eye softly, lips just barely brushing. Determined, Taehyung puts his back into his handjob too, sighing contentedly when he feels Jeongguk shudder against him and slump onto the mattress.
“We just showered,” he says.
It’s not exactly the most romantic thing anyone could go for immediately after a post-orgasm, but they’re not dating. What did Taehyung expect?
“Just wipe up and change out of whatever got wet, I’m not going back to the showers.”
Jeongguk hesitates, and Taehyung feels a warm current of air hush past his face and a sudden whiff of Jeongguk’s scent, a mix of his shower gel and shampoo and something inherently Jeongguk. Then, a soft sound when his t-shirt lands in his open suitcase.
“I. Will deal with that in the morning.”
“Yeah, sex hair gets disguised as bedhead in the morning, anyway.”
“Shit. Our trailer mates could have come back any second.”
“Good thing they didn’t, right?” Taehyung laughs, warm down to the bone. Jeongguk leans, far out over the ledge, and snags a towel. It’s just barely damp from their showers earlier, but the scratch of towel fabric is unwelcome on his skin. Post-coital comedown always makes him crave the touch of skin, and Jeongguk freezes when Taehyung rolls and wraps his arms around his neck.
“Sleep like this?”
Taehyung shivers with pleasure, and before Jeongguk can say anything more, the world goes black.
Thunder claps, loud as the bash of pots and pans, seemingly just outside their trailer. Taehyung jolts awake and nearly sits up, and only remembers in the last second that they’re lying in the hood of an RV and sitting up is ill-advised. Adrenaline burns hot in his chest as he comes down from being woken so unceremoniously.
“Mm.” Taehyung turns his head, flat on the mattress because the pillow fell off the ledge in the middle of the night, to see Jeongguk stirring.
“Shh, go back to sleep. Sorry. Just got spooked by the—”
Taehyung trails off when he realizes Jeongguk is slowly pulling him in where his arm is pinned under Taehyung’s body, and he lets himself be gathered to Jeongguk’s chest until his cheek is pillowed against his skin.
“Said yourself. Go back to sleep.”
Jeongguk’s skin is warm from being bundled in the blankets, and Taehyung tugs them up farther until his entire face is nearly buried in them, so Jeongguk’s arm can be covered where it’s wrapped around his shoulders.
“It’s raining outside,” Taehyung whispers, so as to not wake up their trailermates.
“How did you not wake up?”
“You gonna let me sleep or you wanna talk about the rain?”
Taehyung settles his face into Jeongguk’s neck, where there are twin hickeys by his jugular. “Sleep.”
He’s tired, yeah, but the time difference between Helsinki and Mumbai isn’t big enough for him to be jetlagged—after Shanghai to Tehran, he can take on a baby two-hour difference. Instead, he opts to lie against Jeongguk silently, listening to the rain drip-drip onto the skylight above their heads, occasionally turning his face to race raindrops over the glass. For another hour, maybe more, Jeongguk slumbers on like the dead, not even registering how Taehyung trails his fingers in mindless circles on his shoulder.
“That’s an alarm I could get used to.”
Taehyung lifts his face as the storm starts to taper into a misty rainshower, and Jeongguk is turning his head, a sleepy smile on his mouth even though his eyelids are still glued shut. “What?”
“Tickling my shoulder. Much nicer than being screeched out of bed by a clock.”
“You want me to keep doing it?”
Jeongguk’s eyes are puffy as he wrestles them open. “No, it’s okay. You’re going to lull me to sleep again if you do.”
At this, Taehyung chuckles, and he pushes himself up onto his elbow so he can prop his weight on it. Jeongguk makes a sleepy, unthinking noise of pleasure when Taehyung brushes his bangs out of his face, and it makes his heart do something terrible in his chest.
“Rain’s stopped. We should cram in a hike or lunch, at least.”
“You’re right.” Still, Jeongguk shuts his eyes, and makes no move to get up. Cloudy morning light makes the scar on his cheek stand out, a thin, jagged valley on Jeongguk’s face, and Taehyung does not fight down the urge as he usually does to kiss it.
Jeongguk cracks an eye open when Taehyung’s lips meet his cheekbone, and then smiles when Taehyung kisses at his mouth. It’s so gentle, it’s not much more than a brush of lips.
“Okay, okay. I’m awake.”
“I’d do more,” Taehyung says, looking over their ledge, “if we weren’t sharing this space with two other strangers.”
Taehyung kisses at his forehead. “Later.”
They bump into a fair number of strangers when they wash up in the communal bathrooms. Jeongguk gets his whole fringe wet washing his face, and Taehyung swipes his toothpaste to use.
“You have your own.”
“Yours tastes better.”
“They’re both mint!”
“Yours is peppermint. Superior to spearmint.”
“Oh my God, whatever. Where did you want to go today?”
The answer is the Ateneum Art Museum. Jeongguk hardly looks surprised, and as they hop onto a glistening red metro, Taehyung catches him smiling to himself.
“What do you look so happy about?”
“It’s just funny.”
“Somewhere along the way, you stopped asking me where we’re going for the day. You started telling me to get up because you wanted to see x place, or eat y thing. And it was me who started asking you what we were going to do today.”
“Oh.” Jeongguk’s right. Taehyung hadn’t even noticed it himself, this odd shift of roles, but he can’t say he dislikes it. “You don’t mind, right?”
“I had plans,” he says. “But yours are good, too.”
Taehyung blushes, unexpectedly, and Jeongguk can’t help but laugh at this. The metro is crowded, and Taehyung is simply hugging Jeongguk around his waist while Jeongguk is the one who’s actually holding onto the support bar. Standing this close, Taehyung can feel the rise and fall of Jeongguk’s chest, right up against his and smell the fruity face wash Jeongguk uses.
“What?” Taehyung pulls back slightly. “I didn’t say anything.”
“Oh, I know. You just put your cheek right against my ear, I thought you were gonna—that you had, uh, something to say.” Jeongguk stumbles on the end of his sentence, and it’s his turn to color in his cheeks.
He’s not wrong—no, Taehyung does want to say something, something like, Thanks for coming to the art museum with me, or I want to know what you planned, too or something as traitorous as I love you, I love you. The words are misplaced as they are in a land full of people with blonde hair and water-light eyes, yet maybe that’s why it feels like a better time than any to say it.
No, not now. Not now.
“Which stop are we getting off at?”
“Two after this next one.”
Ateneum is beautiful, with a collection of paintings and sculptures that come together to tell a disjointed but no less meaningful story about Finnish art; it’s everything he loves in one place. Still, though Jeongguk hadn’t said much except his little quip about Taehyung starting to make the plans, and Jeongguk following behind, Taehyung is distracted. He finds himself staring at the back of Jeongguk’s head when he points at something and walks toward it to look at it more closely. He finds himself enjoying this museum but wondering, hard, if it would mean what it means if Jeongguk weren’t here.
He’s in a room full of art, yet the whole time, he looks at Jeongguk.
The rain comes down in sheets by the time they return to their trailer in the park, and they’re drenched making a run for it through the grass. Jeongguk’s shoes get muddy in the process, Taehyung’s hair turns into stringy noodles, and lightning cracks open the skull of the sky just as they get inside.
“Flash storms are worse than they are in Korea here,” Jeongguk says, shedding his damp hoodie and throwing it over the back of a seat to let it dry. Taehyung unlaces his shoes more gingerly, the ties stiff from being wet, and gets a faceful of Jeongguk undoing the buckle of his belt.
“You’re just gonna take your clothes off?”
“I don’t know if anyone told you about this, but,” Jeongguk shoves his pants down to his knees and does the universal dance for shimmying jeans off with his feet, “but keeping wet clothes on is getting on your knees and begging for a cold.”
Taehyung undoes the buttons of his shirt slowly as Jeongguk takes his cap off and tosses it onto the corner of the seat back for it to dry too, mussing up his hair until it stands up soft and fluffy. “Yeah, I’ve heard it. You just.”
“I’m just gonna get into these blankets now,” Jeongguk announces, grabbing his phone and scaling the ladder. “Let me know when you’re done waffling about whether or not to catch a cold down here.”
The thunder rumbles gently overhead, the sounds of rain like a dance on their roof. Taehyung undresses more slowly, taking the time to pull the shades over their windows down. Their trailer mates probably won’t be back until late that night again, but he’s not that much of an exhibitionist.
Jeongguk doesn’t even look away from his phone when Taehyung climbs up onto the sleeping ledge, wordlessly holding the blankets open for him to slide into them. He hisses when Taehyung’s chilly arms meet his bare skin.
“Jesus, you’re freezing. And your toes are icy.” He jumps when Taehyung presses them into his shins. “Stop!”
“Warm me up,” Taehyung demands, pouting, trying to wriggle his way into the circle of Jeongguk’s arms. Jeongguk doesn’t stop him, simply allowing Taehyung to cuddle into him and arrange his arms into a loose cage around his body. A soft breath flutters across the top of his head when Jeongguk sighs. There’s a subtle tightening of his hold, and Taehyung feels a warmth start at his fingertips.
“Bossy,” Jeongguk says, softly enough that the word is carried away on the rolling back of the rain. They snuggle like that, quiet and content, until Taehyung lifts his face and waits for Jeongguk to look down at him.
Kissing in a trailer in the middle of rural Helsinki, with a storm coming down around them, isn’t exactly the picture of romance that Taehyung envisioned when he imagined himself with somebody. Still, Taehyung’s not the one who makes plans. Not until now, anyway.
“Warm now?” Jeongguk asks between kisses. Taehyung has rolled them over slightly, so Jeongguk’s on his back now, with Taehyung straddling him in the narrow space between the ledge and the roof.
“No,” Taehyung lies, spreading his hands flat on Jeongguk’s chest. They’re cool to the touch but nowhere near cold anymore. “Cold, it’s cold.”
It takes a fair bit of maneuvering to get into the right position. Neither of them really want to climb down to grab a towel or a condom, so Jeongguk stretches out perpendicular to Taehyung’s body on their ledge and puts his mouth on his cock that way, holding his waist down with one hand and stroking along the bit of the shaft his mouth can’t cover with the other. Taehyung breathes and gasps more than he moans, shaking upon their sheet, and fights the urge to pull Jeongguk’s hair.
“More,” he says, word caught between his throat and his lips, coming out stuttered. Jeongguk sucks harder, and Taehyung arches off the mattress.
He comes, hard, in no time at all. They’ve gone the blowjob route because this isn’t a hotel bed whose sheets they can simply ball up and toss into the laundry for housekeeping the next morning, but Taehyung’s head still swims with shivery arousal when Jeongguk swallows and licks his lips, swollen and red, before stretching up to kiss him. He hums.
“I think so,” Taehyung says against his mouth.
It’s too much work to attempt switching places, so Taehyung just reaches down into the blankets—to hell with the mess, Jeongguk is hovering over him now so whatever mess he might make will land on Taehyung’s belly. The shiver that courses through Jeongguk’s entire body makes Taehyung smile with satisfaction, and he drops his head low until his forehead is pressed to Taehyung’s shoulder. He moans.
“Good?” Taehyung asks, turning his face to drop a kiss on Jeongguk’s temple. Jeongguk doesn’t answer, at least not with words; he fits his mouth to the curve between Taehyung’s neck and shoulder and sucks, hard, until a reddening hickey is left behind when he pulls away. Then he lets his hips a little lower, just enough that his cock grinds against the soft flesh of Taehyung’s stomach, and comes.
“Good,” Jeongguk says, settling his weight down upon Taehyung’s body, the slick warmth of his come trapped between them. Taehyung wrinkles his nose.
“I didn’t make a mess on you.”
Taehyung runs his fingers through the hair at the nape of Jeongguk’s neck as he comes down from his high. “Can’t argue with that.”
Still, after a while, they rouse themselves to clean off. At this off-hour in the afternoon, the communal showers are mostly empty, so no one is there to judge the fact they climb into one together. Nothing happens, not really; communal bathrooms aren’t exactly sanitary—though they do stand under the spray of the showerhead and kiss until the water grows lukewarm against their bodies.
“We wasted water,” Taehyung laments, standing behind Jeongguk and lathering his hair into a crown of bubbles. “We’re killing the Earth.”
Jeongguk grunts when Taehyung nudges him into the spray, the soap running down his face and over his back. “Worth it.”
They decide to make their own dinner.
“We’re going to cook?” Taehyung asks incredulously as Jeongguk marches the both of them into a grocery store when the rain passes to go bother the neighboring city. “Do you even know how?”
“Contrary to popular belief, I am not that terrible at it,” Jeongguk says, handing Taehyung a shopping basket and taking one for himself. “Here. Take this.”
“What are even going to make? Do we even have pans? I don’t think there are going to be ingredients for anything you might know how to cook here.”
“Well, name something. I’ll try my hand at it.”
“What?” Taehyung reaches for onions as soon as he sees them, because duh, onions. “What if you kill the both of us?”
“I’m not putting arsenic in our food,” Jeongguk says. “How does ojingeo-bokkeum sound?”
Taehyung doesn’t know how he does it, but Jeongguk procures hot pepper flakes, green chilis, and a whole frozen squid, but at this point in their trip he decides not to ask how Jeongguk Does Anything. If Jeongguk pulled an entire fucking twelve-course meal out of his ass tomorrow Taehyung would probably say something to the effect of “Impressed but unsurprised.”
“You know you’re going to have to cook all of that, right?”
“You can mix the seasoning.”
“No, like, you really shouldn’t trust me in the kitchen,” Taehyung says as Jeongguk pulls crumpled euros out of his back pocket. “Once I thought salt was sugar, dumped in a bunch, and set a pan on fire.”
Jeongguk fixes him with a horrified look.
“I know. We had to throw the pan away.”
The kitchen area in their RV is accessible enough, if the both of them were the approximate size of Smurfs. Their trailer mates still aren’t back by the time they return with groceries in tow, and Jeongguk delegates Taehyung to chopping the vegetables on a cutting board outside the entrance.
“Uh, bite size? It doesn’t really matter as long as they’re all the same size, so they cook at the same time.”
Taehyung holds the onion in his palm like a baseball, and then turns back around. “How bite-sized is bite-sized?”
Jeongguk looks over his shoulder. He has his sweater sleeves rolled up to his elbows, armed with a whole frozen squid in hand, and its tentacles flop lifelessly as he shrugs. “Just don’t mince them, I don’t know.”
So, here, in the middle of rainy Finland, they cook a dish from home that neither of them have eaten for ages and know they miss. Sure, it’s a little flat without the sesame oil, and the soy sauce cost twice as much as Taehyung is used to, and it starts raining just as Taehyung figures out a good way to julienne the carrots—but it’s nice. It’s cozy. This is the taste of home that Taehyung has missed without realizing he missed it until the taste hits his tongue and the garlic punches his olfactories out.
“I told you I’m not shit at cooking.”
“It seems that you aren’t,” Taehyung admits, letting his greedy chopsticks do the complimenting. They have to eat out of the pan from the communal kitchen, because no plates, on little stools in the wet grass, and Taehyung feels more at home than ever.
Their time in Helsinki passes by in a rainy, dreamy blur, except for the last day when they decide to go to Santa Claus Village.
“You can stand with one foot in the Arctic Circle and one foot in Europe,” Taehyung says. “And if you don’t think that’s the tightest shit.”
“You sure love the cold,” Jeongguk says, scanning his memory card on his camera for the pictures he took when they went hiking in Etelä-Karjala. “I’m ready to get out of here.”
“I was born in the winter.”
“I hate winter. I get nosebleeds because it’s so dry with the heater on everywhere.”
“Sorry. Just one more day in the ice with me, then we can book it to Hakone.”
“The ice is okay,” Jeongguk says, not even batting an eye. Taehyung looks up into the ledge, where he’s still undressed, hair a mess, just casually looking through his photos as Taehyung’s been pulling on socks and a jacket. “If it’s with you it’s always okay.”
Taehyung swallows. “Hey, Jeonggukie.”
“I was looking at my trip route, and my funds,” Taehyung says. “After Hakone…”
He trails off, and Jeongguk looks over his camera expectantly. Taehyung grasps for words.
“After Hakone?” prompts Jeongguk.
“After Hakone, I think I have to go home.”
Something flickers through Jeongguk’s face.
“If you’re going home, then I will too.”
“You don’t have to!” Taehyung says. “You can keep going yourself if you want.”
“I know.” Jeongguk looks back down at his camera screen. “I don’t.”
✈ hakone, japan
Hakone is rainy, quite a bit like Helsinki, and Jeongguk can’t say he’s particularly in love with looking out the window of the tiny hostel and seeing another curtain of thunderclouds on the horizon.
“Beautiful weather.” His voice is close enough behind Jeongguk that he feels Taehyung’s breath on his neck a heartbeat before arms snake around his waist. “We should go out and explore before it gets dark.”
Raindrops cling to the green needles of the cypress that the hostel is tucked into, a little grove out of the way of the busy main streets. Down the the lane there is a konbini open, lonely and whimsical in the way that urbanization is in the middle of rural country.
“Then it would probably be in our best interests to stop by the convenience store for an umbrella before we do.”
“I want one of the clear ones that I always see in the photos of Japan,” Taehyung declares, hooking his chin over Jeongguk’s shoulder. The bone of his jaw digs into Jeongguk’s clavicle, especially when he speaks again. “The ones that wrap around your whole head.”
“Parasols,” Jeongguk says.
“We won’t be able to share one.”
“We could if we tried really hard.” Jeongguk turns in Taehyung’s embrace, lacing his fingers together at the small of Taehyung’s back. “We’d just have to stand this close.”
Taehyung’s laugh is mostly silent, felt in little tremors through Jeongguk’s ribs up to his heart. He leans forward now to wrap his arms around Jeongguk’s neck, pulling them both close enough to kiss. Only enough, too close yet too far, a contradiction that falls nicely into the desire not to return home that has been eating away at Jeongguk’s nerves for so long. “I wouldn’t mind,” he murmurs.
If there’s anything cliche about kissing next to the window on a rainy day, in an afternoon where the shadows would have been long and watery, then they indulge in that cliche. Taehyung’s mouth is warm and Jeongguk is loath to break away, and though every fiber of his body screams to touch Taehyung more, to run his hands up the hem of Taehyung’s sweater, they force themselves apart before the sky begins to darken in earnest to at least go buy the umbrellas they know they won’t survive without. A dewy misting of drizzle has settled upon Jeongguk’s bangs where they stick out of his hood by the time they get to the konbini, the dry warmth welcome on their faces.
“I want these for dinner.”
Jeongguk eyes the handful of foreign snacks that Taehyung rustles up. Hakone, and then a quick pit stop in Tokyo, is their last stop before heading home. The H word that Jeongguk would rather not think about. Aside from that, though, there should be enough money left for them to split between the sandwiches and onigiri, and the giant manjou that looks like it came straight out of Spirited Away. It isn’t like Jeongguk hasn’t wanted to try konbini food in Japan to contrast it with Korea’s, anyway.
“Okay. Do you want a particular color for your umbrella?”
“Just a clear one.”
So they both get a clear umbrella each, and Taehyung’s assortment of snacks gets bundled up in a plastic bag—not before Jeongguk impulse buys a tray of takoyaki in the counter window, because it just looked that good. Aonori seaweed on top of okonomiyaki sauce is a combination that can’t be beat.
“There are teeny octopi in here,” Taehyung says when he bites into one later, continuing to chew but looking scandalized. “I thought this was a dessert.”
“Oops?” Jeongguk laughs. “How do you not know what’s in takoyaki? Uncultured.”
“I thought it was dango.” Taehyung dips his half-eaten takoyaki into the sauce that’s smeared on the top half of the lid and pops the rest into his mouth. It’s not a grand dinner, but Jeongguk likes it. It reminds him of the night markets in Hong Kong that he had visited alone, of the neon-soaked back alleys that were a microcosmic world of their own. Perhaps there is a world of difference between that and the low table of their hostel, complete with two green-gray zabutons the neutral washed-out color of that hostels have, but the feeling is the same.
“What are you looking at?”
“Nothing,” Jeongguk says, tearing his eyes away from Taehyung’s face and looking down at his own share of takoyaki. In the corner of his tray is his half-finished onigiri and he picks the rest up with his chopsticks to stuff his mouth full in case he says anything about home, or being afraid. He doesn’t want this moment to end, even though that is what moments do.
That is what journeys do, too.
“I know,” Taehyung says, knowingly. The teasing edge in his voice is minimal, as if he wants to agree wholeheartedly without frightening Jeongguk with just how wholeheartedly.
“What do you know?”
Jeongguk doesn’t intend for it to sound so hostile. Or—maybe it isn’t hostile at all, but the surprise on Taehyung’s face is enough for Jeongguk to know that he didn’t expect to be asked this. Perhaps he hadn’t even thought to speak out loud, either.
Put a name to this feeling. You have to do it. It has to be you.
“What—what do I know?”
“Sorry.” Jeongguk glares his food, again, as if it’s the one telling him to run his mouth indiscriminately. Except now, there’s no leftover onigiri to shove in his mouth.
“I meant, I know, sometimes I end up watching people eat.” Taehyung pushes his last bite of takoyaki around in his plastic tray, the picture of someone who no longer has the appetite to finish his food but can’t seem to put down his chopsticks. “Like you were. Even though it’s impolite, it makes you happy in a weird way. It’s why mukbang got as big as it did, right?”
This isn’t what Jeongguk had in mind, but it’s not wrong. Yeah, Taehyung’s right. There’s a strange weight of truth to his words, that at some point the excitement of trying new food had stopped being about the food itself, and more about watching Taehyung’s face transform whether he liked what he bit into or not.
At some point, that’s what everything has become, hasn’t it?
Something about each other.
The irony of it all is that Jeongguk had taken this trip to find himself, or so they say. Some Eat Pray Love journey bullshit to find some sort of satisfaction with himself, because he was convinced it was somewhere in him. And sure, to some extent it was. Somewhere along the way, he thinks he picked himself up from a forgotten bus station in the fog.
“Yeah,” Jeongguk says. The takoyaki has cooled but it still tastes good.
“Sorry, I said something that made you uncomfortable, didn’t I?”
“You did nothing of the sort. I promise.”
Taehyung accepts this answer, but they don’t speak again. Jeongguk gathers the takoyaki sauce with the end of his skewer, licks it off. Gathers, licks it off. The world snails by as the sky darkens. The floor groans quietly under Taehyung’s weight as he stands.
“You should shower.”
“You complained earlier today that your eyelid wouldn’t stop twitching, right? Warm water is good for that.”
Everything in Japan is a hair smaller than Jeongguk is used to it being. The bathroom is matchbox-sized, good for hiding in. Good for disappearing in. He turns the showerhead on, stands under the too-low spray, and lets the water wash his thoughts down the drain. Taehyung, Taehyung, Taehyung sloughs off his skin until it’s a bright, tender pink, and he steps into the yukata the hostel has laid out for them.
The tension in the atmosphere has melted by the time Taehyung finishes his shower, too. Jeongguk is cross-legged on his bed, scrolling with a chin on his knee through the updates on his Facebook. His friends back home seem to be having fun in their new lives, new jobs, new relationships.
How have they found themselves so easily? Or is there nothing to find?
Nothing at the end of this road?
“What do you look so concerned about, buttercup,” Taehyung says, tossing his clothes in a misshapen pile on top of his duffel bag. They’ll wrinkle something terrible by the morning. “It’s bad luck to be glum on vacation.”
Jeongguk lifts his face from his knee and tosses his phone into the blankets near his pillow. “Sit with me?”
Taehyung towels his hair off vigorously, peeking out from his towel. “Miss me that much? I was in the shower for fifteen minutes.”
“And you should conserve more water.”
“Washing off the trials and tribulations of travel, Jeonggukie. Exfoliation doesn’t happen in three seconds.”
A cloud of warmth wafts into Jeongguk’s skin as Taehyung sits down in a heap beside him, patting his cheeks lightly as the lotion dries on his face. “Now, are you going to tell me what you were thinking so hard about?”
“I wasn’t thinking that hard.”
“Oh, so you were thinking, at least. Admission is the first step to acceptance.”
“Just about going home.” Jeongguk shrugs, and the yukata slips over his shoulder slightly. When he turns to peek out of the corner of his eye Taehyung has dropped his hands into the cradle of his lap. He’s listening. “I came out here on this trip all those months ago, hoping that at the end of the road, I’d find something, and. And I guess I’m afraid that there’s nothing there to find. The emptiness scares me.” He fidgets. “Or something,” he adds with a mutter.
“It’s okay to be afraid,” Taehyung says, gathering his knees up to his chest and hugging them. “But what if it’s never been about the end of the road?”
“We all set out on journeys to find something at the end of the road,” says Taehyung. “Yet we always find that what we’re looking for comes not at the end. Isn’t that why journeys are journeys, and not blind races for the finish line?”
Jeongguk stares at Taehyung for so long that the gentle pitter-patter of rain becomes loud and symphonic in his ears. Taehyung remains as he is, cheek pillowed in the valley of his bent knees, smiling softly up at Jeongguk like he’s just shared some secret that he wasn’t supposed to tell.
“Are you afraid?”
“No. I’m not, actually. There’s something comforting about them. Nothing in life is certain, except endings. Being afraid of them doesn’t stop them from coming.”
“And so I enjoy the time before the ending all I can.”
Jeongguk’s heart throbs in his chest. The blanket behind Taehyung is soft where he plants the palm of his hand, leaning in, leaning down. He stops when they’re close enough to feel each others’ breaths fanning across their faces.
Taehyung kisses Jeongguk slow, skin still warm and sensitive from the shower. He always likes to bathe in too-hot water so that he’s pink all over by the time he steps out. Jeongguk has only ever rolled his eyes and said that lobsters were for eating and not for turning into, but Taehyung likes the feeling of fabric on his body when he’s scalded nice and clean.
Jeongguk does not object when Taehyung edges closer, knee catching on the hem of Jeongguk’s yukata when he does. They break away to pull it out of the way, and Jeongguk tips Taehyung’s chin up to kiss again when he fiddles a little too long with the tie of Jeongguk’s obi. Taehyung is only too eager to fit their mouths together again, sliding his arms around Jeongguk’s neck as he lines their bodies up at the foot of the futon. The blanket is wrinkled beneath them but they’re going to be snuggling under it soon, anyway, so neither of them are too concerned.
When Taehyung’s hands roam, smoothing along the plane of Jeongguk’s back to widen the collar of his yukata until one side is hanging off his shoulder, Jeongguk pulls away. Taehyung chases him with his lips and manages to sneak in one more fleeting kiss before Jeongguk’s lips are curving up into a smile.
“Why are you doing that?”
“Doing what,” Taehyung said, impatient in the way that says get back here, I wasn’t finished with you.
“This,” Jeongguk says, shrugging his bare shoulder and feeling the yukata fall lower, brushing the back of his arm. Taehyung reaches out, running the pad of his thumb over the jut of Jeongguk’s collarbone.
“I don’t know,” he muses, sitting back on his heels between Jeongguk’s thighs. Jeongguk says nothing, holding still when Taehyung brings his other hand up to loosen the collar further, tugging the fabric out of the obi until Jeongguk’s shoulders bare under the cool breeze of the air conditioner behind them. “I guess I like to watch the way it slides off your body. Like opening a present, just for me.”
“Holy shit,” Jeongguk says, and silver-bodied mischief flickers in Taehyung’s eyes when he hears how weak Jeongguk’s voice goes.
“I hope you’re done asking questions,” Taehyung says, leaning back in. Jeongguk probably had more to say, something sharp-tongue to defend his dignity, but Taehyung covers his mouth with his own before he can retort. Jeongguk seems content to just kiss, nudging Taehyung’s face to the side to kiss deeper. Taehyung feels one of his hands, broad and heavy, against his neck, sliding up cradle his jaw and the soft rounded edge of his head just behind his ear.
Jeongguk shivers, and it seems to have nothing to do with the icy breath of the air conditioner on his shoulder blades, when Taehyung wedges one of his own hands into the separating collar of his yukata, pressing insistent against his chest. Then, in one moment, Taehyung is still kneeling in between Jeongguk’s legs, and in the next, he feels his head thumping into the pillow with a rush of air, back hitting the futon. For a moment he has to stop and catch his breath, winded. Jeongguk climbs over him, arm and leg, caging him in and Taehyung can only smile, reaching up to yank him back down.
“I’m sorry,” he says, pausing against Taehyung’s lips. “You weren’t supposed to land that hard, I’m sorry. Forgot we’re on the floor here.”
“It’s okay,” Taehyung says, pressing a kiss to Jeongguk’s worried frown to smooth it away. “It was hot, don’t worry.”
“Really, you,” Jeongguk says, but he doesn’t finish his thought in lieu of kissing, which Taehyung approves of greatly—and they kiss until Jeongguk is pressing down on him, erection hot and apparent through the soft cotton of their yukatas. Taehyung, for one, has no shame in communicating how much he wants more, grinding his hips up to meet Jeongguk’s.
“Aren’t you going to take this off,” Taehyung says, shoving at his obi, and Jeongguk breaks away, chuckling. He pushes Taehyung’s hands away with his own, though his fingers aren’t shaking any less, quivering with anticipation against Taehyung’s knuckles. He undoes the knot with one long, fluid tug, pulling the sash away, but Jeongguk doesn’t the fabric aside. Taehyung squirms.
“I thought you didn’t want any questions,” he says, and Taehyung pouts at the mirrored, sly glint of mischief in Jeongguk’s expression. “Or did I hear wrong just a moment ago?”
“You know what I mean.”
“Hmm,” Jeongguk says, dropping a thoughtful kiss to Taehyung’s lips. He presses a finger to Taehyung’s mouth when Taehyung cranes up to follow his mouth as he pulls back. “You give me an awful lot of credit.”
“If you keep talking,” Taehyung says, looking about ready to make good on whatever threat he’s coming up with, “I’m blueballing you for the rest of Japan.”
Jeongguk doesn’t reply to this. Instead, he dips back in wordlessly, kissing Taehyung on the mouth. Then his chin. Then his neck and his Adam’s apple, traveling, low, lower, until he’s nosing apart the curtains of fabric along Taehyung’s chest, his stomach.
“You’re not wearing underwear,” Jeongguk says, lips pausing in one of the dips of Taehyung’s v-line, breath warm and wet. It’s not a question but Taehyung answers it anyway.
“Why put them on when they’re just going to come off?” he says, propping himself up on unsteady elbows. “It’s not like you are, either.”
Jeongguk laughs against Taehyung hipbone, the sound reverberating through bone and blood. “Caught me there.”
Taehyung spreads his legs apart farther to accommodate Jeongguk between them, watching as he reaches over Taehyung’s shoulder—and he doesn’t quite make it, so Taehyung sits up himself and opens the lowest drawer of the nightstand to find a basket packed neatly with condoms and lube.
“How’d you know it was there?” Taehyung says, glancing at Jeongguk as he grabs the lube.
“I found it,” Jeongguk says frankly. He doesn’t waste time now, though, as Taehyung lies spread out before him, naked save for his arms still in the sleeves. Jeongguk gets the message when Taehyung wiggles closer, and scoots in to prop Taehyung’s hips in his lap so he can stretch him open easily. There is so much clothing between them but it makes Taehyung harder than ever so he doesn’t move to yank anymore off—after all, Jeongguk is already plenty disheveled, one side of his yukata slid so far down that half his chest is exposed and Taehyung has to resist the urge to sit up and leave a hickey there.
The stretch goes quickly, and with this much lube on hand Jeongguk doesn’t hesitate to slick his fingers up so wet that some of it leaves clear, thick streaks on the insides of Taehyung’s thighs.
“Okay, okay,” Taehyung says, after Jeongguk has gotten him up to three fingers easy. “Your cock, your cock.”
Jeongguk’s hands are unsteady as he runs them over his cock, then yanks aside the soft cotton fabric, not even bothering to untie his obi. Taehyung feels Jeongguk’s hands curl in the inside of his knees to pull him in, and leaves behind a damp handprint on the skin there when he lets go to hold his cock steady as he slides inside. For a moment they are suspended like that, until Taehyung circles his hips a little to get Jeongguk to move.
“Taehyung,” Jeongguk grinds out, and then he is leaning over Taehyung’s body again, hitching Taehyung’s legs more securely around his waist.
“Mmm,” Taehyung hums in acknowledgement, whimpering a little when Jeongguk’s shifting movements make his cock nudge deeper. He pulls Jeongguk down enough so they can kiss again, but breaks away moaning when Jeongguk finally decides to pick up his pace, snapping his hips forward so quickly that Taehyung slides across the sheets.
Jeongguk is propped up on his hands on either side of Taehyung’s ribcage at first; then he drops down to his elbows, hands curled under and over Taehyung’s shoulders so that he can pull Taehyung’s body down as he thrusts up. Taehyung, though, has other ideas, and he wants to see Jeongguk’s face—pushing him away so he can see it, the way Jeongguk’s chest shudders and the agonized wrinkle of his brow.
They choreograph it well today. It helps that they’re not stuck in a cramped ledge in an RV. Jeongguk reaches in between their bodies to jerk Taehyung off, and just as Taehyung feels his orgasm crest, Jeongguk’s does too—hard and hot, the slam of his hips coming to a stuttering stop against the backs of Taehyung’s thighs. He slumps down, head pillowed on Taehyung’s chest as he pants to regain breath. Taehyung manages to snag the end of the obi, undoing it where it still haphazardly ties Jeongguk’s yukata together. Then he peels it away, flings it aside, and withdraws his own arms from his sleeves. After a while of lying together, breathing each other’s air, Taehyung says,
Jeongguk’s eyes glisten deep and dark when he lifts his face to meet Taehyung’s gaze. He stretches up, shaking off his clothes at last so that they lie naked together, and kisses Taehyung dizzy.
It sounds like, I love you, I love you, too.
“I hope this makes up for today,” Taehyung murmurs, sliding his hands up the length of Jeongguk’s forearm. “Since it rained all evening since we got here.”
“Wherever I am, or whatever I’m doing,” Jeongguk says, stroking a thumb over Taehyung’s cheekbone so soft it feels like a stream of endless kisses. “If I’m with you, I’m happy.”
Even better than okay.
The rain in Hakone lets up by the next morning. The sound of it has ceased upon the overhang above their window, and when Jeongguk rolls over he meets a faceful of Taehyung.
“Good morning,” he says, looking over the top of his phone. “Did you sleep well?”
Taehyung has a shirt on when Jeongguk rubs sleep from his eyes, though he can’t remember him getting up to pull one on after they—had sex, last night. That timeless, trembling bubble they had been in, whatever it was, has popped, and though Jeongguk lies completely naked under the sheets the only parts of their bodies that touch are their ankles.
“I slept well,” Jeongguk says.
“We said we’re going to go see the hot springs today,” Taehyung says. He sets his phone down. “Are you going to get up in the next century or so?”
He stretches his arms over his luxuriously, like a cat, or someone out of an air mattress commercial, and Jeongguk shivers when the cold air hits his bare skin. “Get up, lazyhead,” Taehyung says, nudging at Jeongguk’s knee in the covers with his icy toes. All Jeongguk does is offer him a whine of protest. “Places to see, things to eat.”
“Five more minutes.”
“Yeesh. The way you act in the mornings would make anyone think that you’re getting up for class and not to see the wonderful world we live in.”
Jeongguk can practically hear Louis Armstrong belting trees of green and red roses too. But his eyes fly open when he feels Taehyung’s lips, chapped from sleep, on his cheek. It’s a dry kiss but it’s a kiss all the same.
“I know. I went to the konbini earlier, they have cute little bento boxes. I got you one with shrimp tempura. Doesn’t it look good? And cantaloupe KitKats! I was waiting for you to wake up so we could eat it together.”
“I—wait, what?” Jeongguk sits up dumbly as Taehyung stands up in earnest, running fingers through his hair. He tries not to get distracted by the sight of Taehyung’s butt in his boxer-briefs and fails, predictably, for several moments. “You went already? By yourself?”
A plasticky rustling reaches Jeongguk’s ears as Taehyung rummages through the plastic bags. “Don’t sound so surprised. I’m not a child. I studied Japanese for a while!”
“Watching anime is not studying Japanese.” A nation of weeaboos would have his head for this, but really.
“Whatever, baka. Here, catch.”
So breakfast is a bento of shrimp tempura, sesame rice, smoked salmon, and cantaloupe KitKats. They sit cross-legged across from each other, Jeongguk in his robe on their unmade bed and Taehyung on the untouched bed on the other side of the room, and though every part of this equation would seem like it should be awkward—with Jeongguk essentially naked, and Taehyung’s hickeyed neck on full display—it’s comforting.
“Is it good?”
Though it’s not raining, it’s rainy. A ghost of the storm that had passed by last night hangs in the air, wet and pungent with ozone, and the clouds look heavy as they trek out onto the patchy asphalt. According to maps, there should be a trolley that comes by and stops at the railway that goes up to the Hakone hot springs. A thick fog hangs over the landscape. Just for a moment, they could be in Finland again, with Jeongguk hopping off the bus to find Taehyung at a lonely station.
“Are you cold?”
“No,” says Taehyung, as he shivers. Jeongguk shimmies closer beside him on the bench, until their arms are touching, and thinks too hard about putting his arm around Taehyung’s shoulders. He doesn’t.
The dreariness does not let up even after the trolley comes, dropping them off at a drafty railway station that is surprisingly full of people despite the weather. A lot of them are tourists, like themselves, all touting clear umbrellas and bundled in raincoats. Between the two of them, Taehyung actually does have a better grasp on Japanese than does Jeongguk, so he manages to procure two tickets for them to go up the mountain. They’re slightly damp once they make their way into Jeongguk’s hands, and he pockets the paper.
“Do you think it’s going to be any warmer up there?”
Just barely, is the answer. The hot springs bubble, water milky, like giant vats of steam carved into the craggy slopes of Hakone. A quaint konbini on the mountainside sells hardboiled eggs that have been cooked in the very water of the hot springs, and though they don’t taste any different from any other pan-boiled egg, the both of them nibble at their own as they huddle next to a spring.
“I wonder if it goes down deep.”
“The pool itself probably isn’t too deep, but the trench it comes up from, maybe.” Taehyung shoves the rest of his egg into his mouth and wipes the back of his hand across his lips. Jeongguk stares into the water, a milky aqua blue.
Hakone feels a little like a dream, almost. Taking the rail up here meant disappearing into a land of fog, and it clings around the mountains like lazy dragons. There isn’t much up here to look at—admittedly, the fog obscures everything for miles around—so they stay shivering in each other’s presence until Taehyung speaks up.
“You want to go back?”
“Yeah. My socks are wet.”
In the skyway rail down to the train station, they share the little car with two strangers armed with cameras that look more like weapons than cameras, speaking a language neither of them can understand. Taehyung stares out the window, thinking about something that Jeongguk wants to ask about. Instead, he takes a leap in the dark and reaches out to take Taehyung’s hand.
Jeongguk can feel the question in Taehyung’s expression when he straightens and turns to stare at him, and he can also acutely feel the blush that spills over his cheekbones. He doesn’t have an explanation for himself if Taehyung wants one. Resolutely, he keeps his eyes trained on his knees.
Then, an answering squeeze. Yes, here I am. In an endless expanse of dreamy clouds, so otherworldly it might just be their own little heaven—with two strangers armed with professional cameras. They are so far from home, and yet, here it is.
“I can see the land again.”
There are couple of deer, tiny smudges of fur, hundreds of feet down below. Taehyung’s hand makes a ghostly imprint on the glass when he looks over his shoulder and beckons Jeongguk to look with him. This close he can smell Taehyung’s shampoo.
“I think I want ramen instead of konbini bentos for dinner tonight,” Jeongguk decides once they get their feet on the ground. He might not be afraid of heights, but he’s also not sure he’s the biggest fan of being suspended on a cable so high up without any real idea how far away he is from the ground. “It’s not the most filling.”
“No, you’re right. I woke up so hungry last night. That’s why I went to go buy stuff before you even woke, actually.”
There’s a weird sort of magic about restaurants in Japan, from the quietest rural corners of Hakone to the bustling metropolis of Tokyo. The ones that aren’t multinational chains have fluttering half-curtains over the entrance. The doors always seem to lead to another pocket-sized universe and they choose one with a vibrantly illustrated ramen menu on the standee outside the entrance.
“Let’s go in.”
The seats are arranged in testing format; that is, everyone sits at their own little cubicle, and it almost feels isolated to be sitting at this small dining table alone until Jeongguk takes out his phone and decides that he should get this in photo. Unlike the other two tourists in their cable car he’d elected to leave his camera behind in light of the rain.
Taehyung rises to the occasion, stretching up over the wooden divider and—well, making an expression that is purely Taehyung. Formally it can be classified as a duck face, his lips a smushed pink line over the rim of the wood, and Jeongguk can only laugh and scrunch his nose to capture the moment. “Hard pressed to just smile normally, huh.”
“It’s art. Don’t question it, Jeonggukie.”
Jeongguk’s been wanting to try authentic tonkatsu ramen ever since he first laid eyes on pictures of it on the internet, and it’s amazing, undeniably so. As someone who loves carbs and meat as much as he does it’s pretty much everything he could ask for in a stone bowl.
Yet, curiously, there’s something strange about food when you share it with someone special, and Jeongguk’s not one to be generous with his own portions to put it lightly. Taehyung leans over the divider, chin tickling Jeongguk’s shoulder, and singsongs, “what did you get?”
“Have a taste, you mongrel,” Jeongguk laughs, pushing his bowl closer to the divider on Taehyung’s side. A pair of chopsticks snakes between them as Taehyung does, barely catching a slipping noodle in his mouth, and chews.
“Try mine.” He nods. “Yours is good.”
There are bonito flakes and shrimp swimming in Taehyung’s broth, and it’s more seafood-y than Jeongguk usually prefers, but it is hard to go wrong with ramen in Japan. “We should eat this again before we go,” Jeongguk says, letting his face hang over Taehyung’s shoulder as if he’s considering whether or not to steal another bite from his bowl. He’s just barely arrived at the conclusion that, yes, he will, when Taehyung turns his face just enough so that their lips meet.
It lasts no longer than the blink of an eye, and the whimsical emptiness of this ramen shop means no one could have seen it. Jeongguk’s eyelids flutter, and when Taehyung slides back into focus, he’s already looking away.
“It’s getting dark,” he says, eyes trained on his noodles. “We should eat fast, and go back.”
("Ugh," Taehyung groans, after they finish, rubbing his full stomach. "Itadaki-no-masu.")
The silence between them at the subway station back to their hostel isn’t awkward, but just off-putting enough for them to look at everything except each other—their phones, other people, the kanji that races across the signs as the opposite rail’s subway comes and goes. Wind fills the station every time it does, and here they sit side by side on a cold metal bench surrounded by people they don’t know.
“Tokyo tomorrow,” Taehyung says, when they finally get back to their room. The rain started up again just as they unlocked the door, lucky to escape the storm that pounds down on the dirt outside. “Are you excited?”
“I want to go up Tokyo Tower at night.”
“I hear it’s prettiest then, anyway.”
Tokyo Tower is, admittedly, beautiful. The view from it is breathtaking, and the studded jewel city so many hundreds of meters below feels like a sea of stars that the both of them could swim in. Jeongguk, ever the photographer, brought his camera along, though to his dismay found that most of the photos came out ugly through the thick pane of glass at the highest level observatory.
“It feels like the sky is under us,” Jeongguk says.
“And the world is over our feet?”
“A little like that.”
They’re pressed together against the railing around the paneled observatory, surrounded by curious tourists like themselves milling about and trying to squeeze into empty pockets to see the upside-down sky for themselves. Jeongguk’s face is mostly shadowed in the darkness of the observatory, though his eyes pick up the lights like geodes.
Taehyung stares into the horizon. “We go home tomorrow.”
No answer right away. They’re comforted by the soft murmur of people around them.
“I think I miss it.”
“I miss it, but at the same time it’ll be weird. I don’t know. I haven’t really let myself think about it.”
Taehyung closes his eyes and lets himself float when he feels Jeongguk’s head come to rest heavily on his shoulder. They are too similar in height for it to be really comfortable, and Jeongguk’s head must be tilted at a spinebreaking angle, but he sighs like he’s been wanting to do it all evening.
“You want to go back? You sound tired. Long flight out tomorrow.”
“Hold on. Let’s just stand here for a little more.”
So they do. Taehyung risks reaching out and sliding his hand into Jeongguk’s, feeling the roughness of his palms when their fingers lock, and stares at their upside-down sky like they’re the only ones in the tower.
On this long path of travels, Taehyung has seen many beautiful airports, but Narita is the one that really takes the cake. It even has its own mascot, a little plane-shaped goober that Jeongguk says must be a bird, but after squinting at the characters on a claw machine full of little Unari-kuns, Taehung deduces that “it’s an eel.”
Jeongguk stares at him and drops the plushie in the claw just as it moves over to the drop hatch, and the metal teeth open close around air. “An eel,” he repeats. “You made me drop him.”
“You said you were good at claw machines, too.”
Naturally, Jeongguk takes this as a challenge, and uses up another six hundred-won coins trying to win back his lost Unari-kun. People rush by around them, trying to make it to their connecting flights and gates, but Taehyung watches as Jeongguk sucks his lower lip between his teeth focuses like his life depends on it. He finally gets it, on his seventh try, and holds it up with a triumphant shout.
“It took you something like nine hundred yen to win a two hundred yen toy.”
“But I won it, so what’s your point?” Jeongguk pulls up the handle of his suitcase and holds the little plush in the palm of his hand, regarding it proudly for a few moments, and holds it out. “Here.”
“What, for me?”
“Oh, please, don’t act like you were so invested in me winning one because you just wanted to be happy for me. Yes, it’s for you.”
“I never said that!”
Jeongguk snorts, even as Taehyung takes it from his hand. “You didn’t have to say anything. You don’t usually need to.”
Taehyung comes to a stop in the middle of a wide, busy walkway between two crowded boarding gates to pull his backpack around his shoulders until he’s wearing it like a baby carrier on his chest, fastening the ball-and-chain clasp around the zipper. Jeongguk doesn’t realize he has, walking a few steps ahead, and some ten paces away he realizes Taehyung is no longer walking beside him. He turns.
“Way to hold up traffic!”
“Hold on, I don’t want to misplace it. You did win it for me, right?”
In the midst of a busy throng of people, moving in ebbs and flows around them, each with a little suitcase, some speaking urgently into phones and some to their young children to shh, behave, we don’t want to lose you in this place, Taehyung stares at Jeongguk, just a short ten steps away. He has his hand on the handle of his rolling suitcase, waiting expectantly, face half-shadowed by the brim of his cap, and a sensation that makes his throat thick with emotion bubbles in his chest.
Somehow, going home has felt more and more like he’s leaving something behind.
“You going to stand there and stare at me until we miss our flight or are you going to hurry up?”
“Coming, I’m coming,” Taehyung says, picking up his feet and hurrying along in Jeongguk’s wake. He runs after Jeongguk, who holds his hand out, wordlessly, and Taehyung takes it. No road is long with good company.
No world is big with Jeongguk.
When the plane takes off, Taehyung watches the lights of Japan get smaller and smaller, until it looks like a city of paper. Jeongguk leans over him, so close that his hair tickles Taehyung’s cheek, to look out the window with him. It’s darkening evening by the time the plane takes to the air.
“Goodbye, Japan,” he says.
The lights along the slides of the cabin dim, before finally flickering off, and Taehyung takes advantage of the dark plane to drop a kiss no one else will know on the top of Jeongguk’s head.
He straightens, and in the weak overhead light of their seatmate, Jeongguk’s face is unreadable.
“Thank you.” Taehyung can’t think of anything else to say, and this feels like the most appropriate.
“For seeing the world with me.”
seoul, south korea
The door swings open with a slow, long creak, one that Taehyung doesn’t remember. Watery evening light makes his old apartment look sad and dilapidated, like an old mall that’s been forgotten, where nothing but lonely ghosts live. The clatter when he sets down his keys is loud in the silence.
Home. It smells a little funny, like burnt food. The tenant he’d rented the apartment to moved out at least five months ago, after her work had taken her out of the country. It’s been unlived in until then, and the condition of his apartment looks alright. He pats himself on the back for renting to a single quiet, well-to-do businesswoman and not a platoon of college boys.
Home. It’s just as Taehyung remembered it. The power is running, though his fridge is empty, and there’s some sticky residue in the freezer, like a champagne bottle had exploded inside. A thick layer of dust has settled on all the furniture. He sneezes when he pulls the filmy curtains back in the kitchen and cranks the glass of the window open. Noises of the city settling in for the bustling night filter into his apartment.
Home. His bedroom looks the same too, though the bed is bare. If he recalls correct all his sheets must still be in the closet, folded up primly and wrapped in an old towel labeled Taehyung - white bedsheets so that his tenant wouldn’t mix hers up with his. There’s a note on his dresser, as dusty as the apartment itself: thank you for letting me stay! it was a pleasure.
Home. Taehyung pushes the retractable handle of his suitcase back into itself, and the luggage rolls away from him slightly on its four wheels. His room, too, could use some air; when he opens the windows the crisp evening cuts through the musty air like a knife.
“Home,” he says, to himself. “It’s good to be be back.”
But is it really?
No, it is. It’s good to be back. Taehyung left home on a trip to see the world, so big and cruel and full of possibilities all at the same time, before his life started. On the way he found himself lost, both figuratively and literally, more than once. At the time his life had felt like a room full of balloons, strings trailing down where they were all headbutting the ceiling. Yet it seemed as though, on some crackle-pop hot day in China, someone had come in and tied all the ribbons together.
Taehyung blinks, shakes his head, and focuses his eyes back on the screen of his laptop. Job-searching, right. A page of chicken scratch is pinned under the side of his palm, pencil smudging where he’s rubbed it. His phone hasn’t been completely silent since he’s gotten back, but he’s only gotten one text from Jeongguk.
yeah!!! had been his reply, and they haven’t spoken since. Falling back into the routine of waking up in the same country day after day, with no plans except to buy food, cook it, eat it, and look for jobs, has been numbing on the mind. The only thing that keeps him going is—
What’s he living for, now, exactly?
For the last six months it was always the next adventure—the breathless promise that tomorrow brought. Now, well, now he’s trying to live the life that everyone already knows how to live, and it finds it fits him poorly.
“Are you alive?” Jimin’s voice doesn’t even sound like his when it filters through Taehyung’s laptop speakers later than evening. His hair is a pale shock of grey-blond on his head now—“impulse decision,” he explains, running his fingers through it the way Taehyung remembers. “I haven’t heard from you since the day you landed. Have you forgotten how to speak Korean or cook?”
“Shut up,” Taehyung laughs, laptop bouncing as he gets comfortable in bed. Just the nightstand lamp is on, and Jimin is in nothing but a tank top as he scrolls apathetically on his phone. The fabric practically hangs off his slight frame.
“I have a question.”
“I never did like it when you breached a topic like this,” Jimin says, putting his phone down to look into the screen with undivided attention. “Shoot.”
“Is it weird to miss home, but when you get back home, you find that you miss a place that was never your home?”
Jimin blinks slowly, once, twice, like a leisurely cat. Then he rests his chin on folded fingers.
“You miss the magic of traveling, right? I did too.”
At this, Taehyung looks up and into his webcam as well. He’d let his gaze fall onto his crossed arms where they rest on his belly. “You too?” Taehyung struggles to imagine it, that Jimin had felt this white, hazy gloom of directionless floating, knowing where his responsibilities lie and not understanding the point of doing any of it.
“Sure. It feels like reverse culture shock, kind of, right? You come home, having missed it, and you expect the same comfort and the same place you left. But that’s just the thing. No one who comes back from a journey is the same person who left. The world as you see it has already changed. Home’s still home, it just tastes a little different now.”
Yeah, somewhat. Jimin doesn’t hit the nail on the head exactly but it feels like an excellent attempt at it. Taehyung makes a halfhearted noise of agreement.
“What, did you experience something out there worth leaving home for?”
“I don’t know.”
“Maybe you’re just restless because you don’t want to fall back into a routine. I knew I was.”
“That’s part of it.”
“And there’s another part that you don’t understand, that’s still making you feel upset?”
If it were a real, genuine feeling of upset, that would be more convenient than whatever this is right now. He finds he would prefer it. Taehyung shrugs. “Yes. I thought I knew what I wanted, but now that I’m searching for work I’m not so sure what I want at all.”
They talk about Jimin’s design internship that he’s working at right now, with Etude, because it’s easier than trying to untangle the matted knot of confusion in Taehyung’s chest. He’s better at fighting his feelings to the ground alone, and in silence, anyway, until he’s ready. When they finally hang up he sees a message notification a split second before he closes his laptop and sits up in surprise.
Jeon Jeongguk says the alert name.
He opens it.
bored. i’m craving that green onion pancake we ate in shanghai. do you remember? the day we met.
It’s a whole series of short, fragmented texts, and Taehyung cannot help but smile.
stop, you’re going to make me hungry.
Taehyung chuckles to himself.
is that what you’re doing right now?
yeah. well, i finished it. it’s sitting on my desk and i’m debating if i care enough to get up and throw it away in the kitchen.
They talk about nothing and everything, everything and nothing. Time, which had passed as if through a thick gel since Taehyung’s return, flies by on fast track. It had only been toeing nine when he first saw Jeongguk’s text, and by the time he learns that Jeongguk is working at a bakery run his dad’s friend’s son (Jesus, this fourth-tier mutual friendship is giving Taehyung a headache), that the Korean winter has been harsh on his skin, and that he, too, knows the dreamy haze of feeling lost at home, it is already midnight.
Eyes tired, Taehyung pillows his cheek against the back of his hand as he types out a good night. Before he can send it, Jeongguk’s message appears, beating him to the punch.
it’s weird not being around you 24/7. feels like i forgot something along the way in finland, or japan, or something.
Taehyung stares at the text message for so long, breath frozen, that Jeongguk’s typing bubble pops in and out, tentatively, several more times, before it falls meekly silent.
anyway, uh, good night. we should hang out sometime soon again.
wait, sorry, i was brushing my teeth, Taehyung lies.
me too. i feel weird without seeing you every day too. feels like i lost a part of myself.
He hits send without thinking and stares in horror as those worse race across cyberspace and inevitably into Jeongguk’s phone. Shit. They haven’t spoken about any sort of Feelings at all, and now seems like a bad time to bring it up, after all has been said and done. What were they to each other? Easy sex on a gallivant across the world, sure.
But home doesn’t even feel like home without Jeongguk in it.
oh, thanks for that validation. Pause.
are you free sunday? i don’t have work. you want to grab a coffee or something?
you asking me out?
Jeongguk’s reply is so direct that Taehyung is taken aback.
i guess i am.
His heart does something achy in his chest, a funny jolt, kind of like the feeling of when a plane’s wheel first hits the tarmac during landing.
sunday, did you say? where and when?
They plan on Paris Baguette, a little bit of adventure in the middle of a country called home, and Taehyung lies back on his thin pillow to stare at the ceiling. The sleep that had been hugging him so insistently from behind has vanished even though the hour grows later than ever. He gets to see Jeongguk again, day after tomorrow. It’s enough to keep him awake like a burst of caffeine.
Maybe there’s a little bit left yet, of a home away from home.
Sunday is warm. Taehyung dons a sweatshirt, steps out of his apartment, and immediately goes back inside to change into something less heavy. He feels overdressed, in a floral dress shirt and slacks, but anything casual he owns also happens to be made of thick fleece. Jeongguk’s the one who’s strong in the graphic tee department.
The subway is emptiest on Sundays, though not by much; tourists with maps of the subway lines huddle over their travel brochures full of colorful photos and Taehyung can’t help but see himself and Jeongguk in them. Several months ago they were the same people, lost in the world and found to each other. It was funny, how that time being lost in Norway, Taehyung never for one moment felt that he was alone. Maybe other people would call it a reckless naivete, but Taehyung just calls it faith. Faith in people. Faith in Jeongguk.
“Did you wait long?”
Jeongguk clearly doesn’t have a care for whatever plans weather had in store today, his sweater being black and clearly thick enough for the dead of winter, sleeves rolled up to his elbows. His face lights up when Taehyung appears at the empty table he’s seated at.
“No,” he says, as Taehyung pulls out a chair and sits. “Did you order anything?”
“I got a cake slice.” He waves his receipt. “Chocolate buttercream.”
“Of course, the chocolate.”
“You’re going to get the strawberry fresh cream cake. I almost ordered it for you, but I didn’t know if you were planning to be adventurous today.”
Taehyung looks down at his shirt. Adventure. He misses it. “Yeah, sure, why the hell not? I’ll get the matcha chiffon.”
Jeongguk has his gaze trained on him when Taehyung sits down with his slice of cake, having picked up Jeongguk’s too, and he raises his eyebrows. “What?”
“Nothing. It’s just interesting to see you here at home. Korea, home, that is.”
“I could say the same for you. Have we ever been surrounded by this many people who speak the same language at any one time since we met?”
Jeongguk laughs at this.
“How is being back for you?” Jeongguk asks. “Are you still looking for work?”
“Yeah. And you’re working right now, right? Being back for me is—well, it’s weird. I don’t know if it’s been like that for you, but it feels like home but not at the same time.” Taehyung digs his fork deliberately into the pointed end of his cake slice, pushing down until the tines meet the cardboard plate, pulls it away. He doesn’t feel like eating so much as he needs to busy himself as he talks. “It makes me feel guilty, somehow. That home doesn’t feel like the home I remember. Do I still love it? I guess.”
Jeongguk hasn’t moved to even pick up his fork. “I know what you mean.”
“We’ve been back for a few months now, and I thought the feeling would go away after I got used to living in Korea again. I guess it has, somewhat, it’s gone away a little, but I find myself missing something that—I’m not sure. Something that I don’t have. I asked myself, is it Hakone you miss? Do you miss something in Shanghai? Do you miss something in Finland, or Tehran, or Nepal? I found myself asking those questions every night when it was time to sleep.”
“God, I thought I was the only one,” Taehyung says, relief washing over him. “And I tried communicating the feeling to Jimin, and he said it would go away, and it hasn’t. I don’t know what it is. Somehow, I don’t feel like going back to those places we visited would solve it either.”
“I think I do.”
Taehyung stares at him. “You know why?”
Now, finally, Jeongguk picks up his fork with a kind of manic urgency and shovels a mouthful of extra-dense chocolate cake into his mouth. That’s conflict avoidance if Taehyung’s ever damn seen it.
“I mean, it’s, it’s kind of the same reason I asked to see you today. I—well. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe it’s all in my head, but when you came in and sat down, for the first time, home felt like home again.”
Taehyung opens his mouth to speak and no words come out. Jeongguk seems to sense the weight of his words belatedly, blushes high in his cheeks, but forges on before he loses his resolve.
“I thought I missed home, when I was seeing the world. For a while, I think I did, before I met you in Shanghai. But when I got home, I missed seeing the world, or so I thought. I thought I missed it so much that I booked another flight to Thailand, but even looking at my reservation didn’t seem like enough.
“And then, as these months have passed I found that it wasn’t the cities or the places I visited that I missed. It all made sense, because you became home. In all those countries where it was just the two of us, I knew I could just look to my side and know I’d find home in you. When I got back to Korea I realized it wasn’t the world I missed. It was you. You were, at once, the world and the home I’d been missing in every place we went.”
Taehyung swallows. “Is that what you’ve been thinking about since we got back?”
“More or less,” Jeongguk says. “It’s weight on my mind for a while now. Logically, I knew there was work and opportunities and new people for me to meet here, but I kept finding myself yearning for something. It wasn’t the horizon, exactly.”
The thing is, Jeongguk has had all that time to arrive at this conclusion, and here Taehyung is, receiving a confession but also realizing that this is it, this is the exact feeling that has been sitting in his stomach like a stone. His shoulders hit the back of his chair when he leans back, as if from the impact of the truth.
“I’m sorry, I just dropped all that on you without much of a preamble, and I don’t even know if you feel the same way,” Jeongguk says, opting to shovel more chocolate buttercream into his mouth now. There’s a smear of Italian meringue on his lip and Taehyung fights the urge to reach across the table and thumb it away.
Then he thinks, to hell with restraint, and reaches across the distance.
Jeongguk startles minutely when Taehyung’s knuckle meet his chin, steadying his thumb as he draws it across the soft flesh of Jeongguk’s lip. He decides not to be extra, and wipes the pad of his finger on his own napkin, and he can feel Jeongguk’s shell-shocked expression still trained on him even when he looks away.
“You had some cream.”
“I know, but—”
Dumbly, Jeongguk opens and closes his mouth, like a goldfish, and then redundantly wipes his mouth with his napkin again. “What do you mean?”
Taehyung laughs, self-deprecating, tired, and still relieved all the same. “For everything you just told me.” He picks the shaved curl of white chocolate, dusted with matcha powder and so reminiscent of Japan, from the top of his cake slice and lets it melt on his tongue. “Because, for the first time, this feeling makes sense to me, too.”
“Oh. Does—so you mean—?”
“I miss you,” Taehyung says, and he remembers the morning he woke up beneath a trailer skylight, dozing back off only to be awoken by the pitter-patter of raindrops on his cheek when Jeongguk opened it in the middle of a rainshower they could not hear. He remembers the pungence of flowers in Mumbai, how much Jeongguk had sneezed that whole morning, insisting that he wanted to take more photos. Taehyung had bought a single tuberose and pinned it behind Jeongguk’s ear, white petals more delicate than swan down perched over his helix. He remembers the summer day in Shanghai, lost, fingers oily with green onion pancake, and realizes that every memory of his travels is colored with Jeongguk. His laugh, the way he frowns at the screen of his camera, and his uncanny ability to find his way through a land where he speaks none of the language. “I miss you. It’s not the world I miss. It’s you. Falling asleep and waking up ready to face the uncertainty of the future with you.”
Jeongguk isn’t really one to cry, and he doesn’t appear to have any tears pooling in his eyes, but for a moment his throat seems to it’s too full to speak. “I—I love you, and. Do you want to do this for real?”
Get to know home again, with the whole world by his side?
Taehyung can’t refuse.
Taehyung curls tighter into his blanket, feeling the easy give of fabric around his body that means that he’s no longer sharing it with anyone. Something moves nearby, but it’s cold, the snowy chill of Christmas nosing at his cheeks.
“Taehyung, I saw you move.”
“I’m not awake.”
“Don’t you wanna see what I have to show you?”
Dating Jeongguk for over a year now, Taehyung figures that it’s abnormal for him to be awake and out of bed before Taehyung has even opened his eyes, unless a package had arrived at his door that morning, because hell yes to delivered packages. He forces an eye open and sees Jeongguk hold something up in his blurry field of vision.
“What’s that?” His voice is hoarse with sleep and Taehyung deigns to unearth a little bit more of his face from the blankets. Jeongguk is bundled up in sweats, wearing a pair of Captain America socks. Cheating on his favorite Avenger, Taehyung notes. Tony Stark will hear about this.
Jeongguk lays two thin slips of paper on the bedsheets by Taehyung’s face, a smile playing along his lips, and waits for Taehyung to take it in.
ICN ➤ LAS.
“Wait,” Taehyung says, sitting up. The comforter falls away from his body, and he shivers. He’s wearing Jeongguk’s tattered old pajama tee and nothing else, and gathers the blankets around his lap to trap the warmth in. “Vegas? We’re going to Las Vegas?”
“It’s almost your birthday, and we’ve both racked up enough vacation time. So I thought—I thought, why not? We’ll get to see the whole world on a single street. It’s all a little kitschy, from what Namjoon-hyung tells me, but maybe that’s simply the point. New York, Paris, Egypt, Rome, Venice. I’m probably missing some. What do you say?”
And home will feel like home again, with you.