Outside, people sweat beneath a sunburned sky, heads ducked against a heat that hammers down on their shoulders as they go about their day. Inside, Jeongguk sweats beneath a lack of air conditioning, thighs sticky against the fabric of his shorts as he watches Taehyung dig into an ice cream sundae bigger than his face.
“I made a bucket list last night,” Taehyung had explained twenty minutes ago, when he’d burst into Jeongguk’s bedroom at an unholy hour (nine o’clock on a Saturday) and demanded that Jeongguk get up. He hadn’t clarified what was on the bucket list or what the bucket list had to do with his impromptu visit, just waited for Jeongguk to get changed before dragging him out the door with a promise to Jeongguk’s parents that they would be back soon.
Now they’re in an ice cream parlor, sitting across from each other in a small booth by the window, and Jeongguk still has no idea what’s going on.
Taehyung shovels a spoonful of chocolate syrup into his mouth. There’s ice cream on that spoon somewhere, but Jeongguk can only kind of make it out underneath all that syrup. He says, “Explain to me again why we’re here?”
Taehyung swallows. One corner of his mouth is smudged with chocolate. “Bucket list,” he says. “Last night, I came up with a few things I want to do before I leave for college.”
“Like eat an ice cream sundae for breakfast?”
“Like eat five ice cream sundaes in a row,” Taehyung corrects. “It just happens to be breakfast time.” He plucks the cherry from the top of the sundae and pops it into his mouth for emphasis.
“Why not?” Taehyung counters. He inhales more chocolate syrup; asks, “Are you sure you don’t want anything?”
Jeongguk shakes his head. “You woke me up, like, ten minutes ago.”
Taehyung shrugs. “Your loss.”
He works through his first sundae with alarming speed. Jeongguk waits for him to order his second before asking, “Why’d you want me to come with you, anyway?”
“Moral support. You’re my best friend,” Taehyung says, like duh. “And I thought you’d want to order something. Also, I want you to help me with the rest of the list.”
“What’s left? Five cheesecakes? Five bowls of bibimbap?”
Taehyung shoots him an offended frown over his next spoonful of ice cream. “Give me more credit,” he says. “I’m not that unoriginal.”
With a sigh, Jeongguk shifts in his seat. “Okay, okay. You’re very original.” His shorts, soaked with sweat in the most disgusting way possible, peel from the linoleum with an awful squelch. “In the sense that most people wouldn’t actively try to make themselves sick,” he elaborates, eyeing the remains of the sundae.
As he watches, Taehyung polishes it off, scraping his spoon against the side of the glass to catch the last drops of melted ice cream. “But that’s where you’re wrong,” he says. He brings the spoon to his mouth and licks it thoroughly clean, only looking up at Jeongguk when he’s done. “I’m not trying to make myself sick.”
Jeongguk feels a nudge against his leg—Taehyung’s foot, finding Jeongguk’s shin beneath the table. Their ankles brush. Skin-on-skin contact. They’re both wearing shorts; it’s too hot to even consider anything longer.
As always, Jeongguk’s first instinct is to jolt away, a knee-jerk reaction that’s been honed into him from the moment he discovered his ability. That’s what he does now, moving his leg out of the way before he can even register anything else. Anything else being the fact that it’s Taehyung, of course. Taehyung, who gives back hugs and demands piggy back rides, fiddles with Jeongguk’s hair and insists on having a personal handshake. Taehyung, who sometimes doesn’t seem to understand the concept of personal space.
Taehyung, who couldn’t care less about Jeongguk’s ability and the implications of touching him. The only person Jeongguk knows who doesn’t care about the implications of touching him.
Presently, he’s pouting at Jeongguk. “Rude,” he says. “I was trying to tell you something.”
Telepathy isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Not when you can’t control it. Jeongguk doesn’t have it as bad as the people who pick up on everyone around them, walking radio antennae tuned in to all frequencies, but he doesn’t have it good, either. Telepathy for him is an exercise in caution, because the kind he has can’t be turned off, only guarded against. Long sleeves whenever possible. Long pants, too. Gloves in the winter. Fingerless ones in spring and autumn, because some cover is better none. Days like these, so hot that he has no choice but to dress for the weather, forcing him to be even more vigilant about skin contact—they make him jumpier than usual.
Telepathy isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, but when you have someone like Taehyung, someone who doesn’t mind that a single touch will turn his thoughts into a live feed straight into Jeongguk’s brain—someone who treats it as an advantage, even, a method of nonverbal communication and the only one that is truly private in this day and age—it isn’t quite so bad.
“Sorry,” Jeongguk says. “I was just surprised.”
“I do like to think I’m a pretty unpredictable guy,” Taehyung says. He nudges Jeongguk’s foot with his own. “Permission to hack your brain?” He wiggles his eyebrows, a misleadingly flippant gesture. They’ve been friends for thirteen years, ever since Taehyung first moved into the apartment one floor down from Jeongguk’s; more than enough time for Jeongguk to learn how to recognize uncertainty when he sees it in Taehyung’s eyes.
He humors him. “Permission granted.”
Taehyung shuffles his foot around until his ankle finds Jeongguk’s once more. This time, Jeongguk does not pull away.
His telepathy taps into working memory, and working memory has limited capacity; Jeongguk discovered this as soon as he grew old enough to care about the technicalities of his ability. If Taehyung concentrates on one object, one concept, one activity, then his perception of it will reach Jeongguk with relatively minimal interference. If Taehyung concentrates on getting a message through to Jeongguk, then his voice will filter into Jeongguk’s mind almost—but not precisely—as if he were speaking aloud. Focus is narrow, which is a good thing, because Jeongguk finds it hard enough to cope with his own thoughts sometimes; he doesn’t need sensory overload every time he so much as brushes up against someone else.
He can hear what Taehyung is thinking; it’s a trickle of consciousness that flows over Jeongguk’s own, resounding through Jeongguk’s mind like it comes from everywhere and nowhere at once. Taehyung is thinking, I want to figure out my ability. He’s dropped his gaze back down to his sundae, or rather what’s left of it, fishing around the bottom of the glass even though there’s nothing there.
Jeongguk thinks he understands. Everyone has a power. Most receive theirs in childhood, before the age of eighteen. Some, like Jeongguk, can immediately identify it. Others, like Mingyu, take a few years to deduce it. And still others go into their twenties, their forties, their entire lives, without having any idea of what their ability could possibly be. Without having any idea of whether it’s just too subtle to detect or whether they’re one of the few cases who manifest late or whether they’re an anomaly, an aberration, the exception to the rule that everyone has a power.
At eighteen years and seven months, Taehyung is toeing the line between the latter two categories.
“It would be nice to know what it is before I go to college,” he says. Out loud this time, moving his foot so their ankles no longer touch. He twirls his spoon slowly between his fingers, eyes fixated on the empty sundae glass. “I was thinking it might be one of those weirdly specific ones. You know, like being able to eat as much as you want without getting sick, or being able to catch fish every time you go fishing. Something dumb.”
Jeongguk won’t lie. “That sounds like a shot in the dark.”
“It’s better than sitting around and waiting for it to come to me,” Taehyung says, letting go of his spoon and meeting Jeongguk’s eyes at last. “I have time to kill. I just finished my second sundae and I’m feeling fine. Maybe I’m on the right track here.”
“You gonna order another?”
Taehyung grins. It breaks the tension, dispels the mood. Relief sweeps through Jeongguk unbidden; smiles have always suited Taehyung’s face better than anything else. “You know it.”
(“I should’ve stopped after the third one,” he wheezes forty minutes later, as Jeongguk escorts him back to their apartment building. Taehyung has a solid grip on his shoulder, leaning on him more heavily than necessary and moaning about his stomach as they stumble down the sidewalk like a pair of drunks. His fingers brush carelessly against the skin not covered by Jeongguk’s t-shirt, and the only thing on his mind is how much he regrets everything, but Jeongguk can’t even bring himself to be annoyed.)
Jeongguk finds himself before the base of a large glass structure. It’s disc-shaped, thick and circular with the top edge rounder than the bottom, and it has a stubby cylindrical stem that runs from the center to—he cranes his neck upward and squints—a body shaped vaguely like an inverted cone. It’s filled to the brim with melted ice cream, he realizes, streaked through with caramel swirls and topped off with a generous serving of what he’s guessing is chocolate syrup. The cherry is hard to distinguish from this angle, bobbing along the surface like a red, round buoy the size of Jeongguk’s head, and the only reason he recognizes it as a cherry is that he recognizes this—this entire thing—as a giant ice cream sundae.
There’s someone in it, too, the back of their head just visible over the rim of the glass. A head of dark hair, a peek of bare shoulders. They have their arm slung casually over the rim, presumably for support as they recline in this pool of vanilla ice cream.
Jeongguk says, “Taehyung?”
The person—Taehyung, of course it’s him, Jeongguk would recognize him anywhere—gives a visible start, arm nearly slipping, and peers over the edge of the glass. “Jeongguk?” he says, somehow sounding more surprised than Jeongguk feels. “What are you doing here?”
“I don’t know,” says Jeongguk. “What are you doing here?”
Taehyung looks down at himself, as if noticing for the first time that he’s wading in a giant fucking ice cream sundae. “I was hot,” he says. “I thought this would be a good way to cool down.”
And suddenly, Jeongguk realizes that he’s right. The air is stifling and humid, so uncomfortably oppressive that Jeongguk can’t understand how he didn’t notice earlier, the sun beating down on his back with a vengeance that has him sweating in his Timberlands. Because he’s wearing Timberlands, and also a black sweatshirt, and black jeans, and the black gloves that he wears on a daily basis in colder weather.
Frowning at his hands, he shucks off the gloves and drops them with distaste onto the ground beside him—pavement, because the sundae glass is in the middle of the road and Jeongguk is standing on the adjacent sidewalk. The gloves melt on contact. Jeongguk watches them sizzle and ooze, dark liquid seeping into the concrete via infinitesimal pores. Then he looks back up, using a hand to shade his eyes from the sun, only to find Taehyung regarding him pensively.
“You look miserable,” Taehyung remarks. He’s turned so that he’s facing Jeongguk fully now, arms folded in front of him on the rim of the sundae glass. With the sun at his back, he glows at the edges, tan and glorious and wreathed in light like some sort of dessert god. “Wanna join me?”
Jeongguk eyes the glass dubiously. It looks steep, and slippery, and if there are handholds, they appear to be hiding from him. Or not appearing. Because Jeongguk doesn’t see any handholds.
“How am I supposed to get up there?” he asks.
“I don’t know,” says Taehyung. “Find a way.”
“How did you get up there?”
“I can do anything.”
“Wow, thanks for the help,” Jeongguk huffs. He means to sound annoyed, but mostly he sounds like he’s dying. Certainly, he feels likes it; he’s honest to God going to melt in this heat. The temperature has to have increased by at least eight degrees since he took off his gloves, he swears it.
“Sucks for you if you can’t find a way up,” Taehyung says. “More for me.”
Jeongguk opens his mouth to ask, what do you mean, but Taehyung answers his question by pulling a giant ass straw out of thin air. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what he’s planning.
“Wait,” says Jeongguk desperately, “don’t do that, it’s the only way to survive this heat, you’re going to—”
He watches in horror as Taehyung dips the long end of the straw into the sundae and bends the short end toward his mouth. Then Taehyung is drinking that chocolate syrup-vanilla ice cream combo so fast that Jeongguk can see the sundae level dropping through the glass, a frightening rate of consumption that’s at odds with the leisure in Taehyung’s movements, the way he makes it look like he’s sipping on fine wine or something.
“That was good,” he declares when he finishes. “I’m coming down now.” He uses the straw to vault over the side of the glass like a goddamn track and field athlete, and it occurs to Jeongguk that if Taehyung’s arms and torso were bare, then the rest of him might just be bare as well, which—Jeongguk isn’t sure how he would feel about that.
Then Taehyung is standing before him, damp like he’s just gotten fresh out of a shower and not an ice cream sundae. “Hey,” he says.
“You’re wearing swim trunks,” Jeongguk replies. He’s inexplicably disappointed.
“What, did you think I’d go skinny-dipping in public?”
In public. There are cars in the street now, people all around them. Jeongguk can feel the weight of their stares as they pass, judgement aimed at the boy who’s dressed for winter and the boy who’s in nothing but swim trunks. Someone honks. The sundae glass is still in the middle of the road, and it’s started a traffic jam, but Jeongguk doesn’t look. He can’t; Taehyung’s eyes are on him, bright and teasing as he waits for an answer, and Jeongguk can’t seem to tear his gaze away.
Shame on you, the people say. They don’t say it out loud, but Jeongguk knows it’s what they’re thinking as they push roughly past him, because he’s swaddled in far too many layers but his clothes aren’t blocking out their thoughts. Their voices are all around him, lingering in his mind even after they walk away, building up and pressing in and rising in volume, a crowd of chants so loud he’s sure Taehyung can hear. Shame on you, shame on you. What he doesn’t know is why they’re saying it, what it means.
“No. No, God, I don’t need that mental image,” he tells Taehyung, wrinkling his nose in exaggerated disgust. Taehyung laughs, so Jeongguk laughs, too, glad that Taehyung isn’t the one who’s picking up on everyone’s thoughts here because if he did, he’d know that Jeongguk wouldn’t mind that mental image half as much as he claims he would.
Shame on you, he thinks to himself. He knows full well what it means. Best friends aren’t supposed to look at each other the way that Jeongguk looks at Taehyung.
“Are you sure this is allowed?” Jeongguk asks, casting an uncertain glance around. He’s sitting cross-legged on the stretch of sidewalk just outside their apartment building, Taehyung across from him, a plastic grocery bag between them.
“No,” Taehyung admits. “But I’m not sure it’s not allowed, either, so.” He grabs the bag and turns it upside down, shaking it to dump out the contents with little ceremony. A couple dozen pieces of chalk spill from the opening and scatter onto the pavement. They’re colorful, and that’s about all they have in common; some are vibrant and others pastel, some thick and others thin, because they’ve clearly been compiled from multiple sources, tips worn lumpy and edges worn soft from use.
Jeongguk picks up a stubby red piece and rolls it between his fingers, frowning at the powdery residue it leaves on his gloves. “Where’d you get these?”
“The magic of having younger siblings,” Taehyung replies. He starts to reach for the chalk as well but pauses, pointing at Jeongguk’s hands—Jeongguk’s gloves. “Take those off. You’re with me.”
Jeongguk curls his fingers defensively into fists. “We’re still outside,” he argues. “I’m supposed to wear them whenever I leave the apartment. Just to be safe.”
“We’re so close to your apartment that we’re basically inside it,” Taehyung says dismissively. “’sides, no one’s going to be touching you except me.”
He means it literally, of course; there are people coming from both directions down the sidewalk, but it isn’t like they’re going to do anything but walk a bit faster past two boys who are really too old to be using sidewalk chalk. Jeongguk’s stomach does a funny flip at the wording, anyway. He’s miserable out here, sweltering in a long-sleeve tee that has to be permanently plastered to his back at this point, but he’s grateful for the heat for the first time all summer; if nothing else, it gives him an excuse for how profusely he’s started to sweat.
“Fine,” he says, uncurling his fingers and slowly peeling off the gloves. They’re of the fingerless brand, because as careful as Jeongguk may be, he’s self-aware enough to realize how strange it is to wear full-blown gloves in warmer weather, and this is the warmest weather Busan has ever had.
Taehyung grins at him. “There we go,” he says. “See, that wasn’t so hard, was it? And you look slightly less like you’re going to melt.”
Jeongguk averts his gaze. “The gloves don’t make that much of a difference.” This is a lie; when it’s as hot as this, with temperatures approaching forty and crawling past it, he feels every square centimeter of fabric hot and uncomfortable against his skin.
“You tell yourself that,” Taehyung says, equal parts cheerful and skeptical. He picks up a piece of white chalk and taps it idly against the ground as he considers the patch of sidewalk in front of him.
Jeongguk considers it, too. “What kind of ability are you testing for now?”
The chalk stops tapping. Taehyung blinks up at him. “Who says I’m testing for an ability?”
“You did,” says Jeongguk. He’s about to remind Taehyung that the sundae breakfast occurred literally less than forty eight hours ago, but uncertainty strikes him at the last second, so he adds, “Didn’t you?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Taehyung says loftily. He’s etching a design of some sort, or an outline; it’s hard to tell. “I just made a list of things I want to do before I leave. If I happen to stumble across my ability in the process, then that’s just a happy coincidence.”
Jeongguk distinctly recalls Taehyung telling him otherwise in the ice cream parlor, though now that he pauses to think it over, he realizes that Taehyung technically never said it out loud. Even now, he hears the defensive edge to Taehyung’s tone, so subtle that it would be imperceptible to anyone who didn’t know him as well as Jeongguk does. He doesn’t press the matter; it isn’t his place to ask Taehyung about his power, or lack thereof, when it’s been an increasingly touchy subject lately.
He says, “Can I draw, too?”
Taehyung glances up at him, startled and then pleased. “Knock yourself out,” he says, gesturing to the array of chalk strewn over the pavement between them. “There’s more than enough to go around.”
They draw in silence for a while, the scratch of chalk against pavement the only sound between them. It’s a comfortable silence, content, not awkward like the ones where Jeongguk feels like he needs to say something just to fill the air. For all that he can talk and for all that he likes to talk, Taehyung is a remarkably good person to be quiet with. He’s versatile like that, always has been—able to bend into any situation like he belongs. Maybe that’s his power: fitting in anywhere. Making anyone feel at ease.
“You’re better at this than I am.”
Jeongguk looks up. Taehyung appears to have given up on his own drawing in favor of watching Jeongguk’s take shape.
“That’s not true,” he says. Then he looks at Taehyung’s drawing. “Drawing” is a loose way to frame it, it being a haphazard collection of lumpy-looking lines that are only vaguely joined together. Jeongguk would guess that Taehyung was drawing a cumulonimbus cloud, but clouds don’t usually have black spots on one end, and this one has a particularly curious protrusion from the other— “Is that a ghost?”
“It’s my dog.”
Shit. Jeongguk backpedals quickly. “That’s what I said.”
“No, you asked if it was a ghost.”
“I meant to ask if it was Soonshim,” Jeongguk tries.
Taehyung looks unimpressed. “Whatever. I told you, you’re better at drawing.” He prods at the piece of purple chalk by his foot, sending it rolling in Jeongguk’s direction. Then he does the same for the other pieces on his side, rolling them toward Jeongguk until Jeongguk is surrounded by more colors than he knows what to do with.
“What are you doing?” he asks.
“You’ll make better use of them than I will,” says Taehyung, matter-of-fact. He pulls his knees to his chest and wraps his arms around his legs, eyes on Jeongguk’s work—a face, etched in rough lines and shaded with slightly less rough hatching. “Who is that supposed to be?”
Jeongguk looks down at the drawing. “No one,” he says. “It’s a random person.”
“And here I was, thinking it might be me,” Taehyung says with a mock-wistful sigh. He leans his head forward, props his chin on his knees. “Have you heard about the woman who could bring things out of her paintings? I couldn’t find any paint at home, but imagine having that as a power. I’d have a shitty version of Soonshim. You’d have a disembodied head. It’s probably a good thing that you didn’t draw anyone specific.”
Taehyung talks, but Jeongguk hears only half of what he says after thinking it might be me. He hadn’t been lying when he’d told Taehyung that he’d sketched a random person, but the more he looks down at his drawing, the more he sees the resemblance—sees why Taehyung made that comment, joking as it might have been.
Here, the shape of the jaw, fine and sharp. There, the arch of the eyebrows, strong and solidly defined. It’s far from a replica of Taehyung’s face, but the influence is visible. Jeongguk may not have noticed it at first, but he’s sure of it now. He isn’t sure of the implications, or maybe he is and he just doesn’t want to acknowledge them, but he feels unsettled. Like he did something he shouldn’t have, even if there’s nothing explicitly wrong with drawing your best friend.
“—guk? Jeongguk. Hey, are you even listening to me?”
Jeongguk snaps his attention back to Taehyung, digs around his memory for the last traces of what Taehyung just said. A woman, and an ability, and paint. Something about Soonshim, and heads with no bodies. “But how would it work if she was using chalk?” he asks. “Would the things become real when she pulled them out or would she just have, like, a three-dimensional chalk drawing?”
“Neither of us can do it, apparently, so who knows,” says Taehyung. Jeongguk studies his face carefully, but he looks as serene as he sounds, undisturbed by yet another failed attempt at stumbling across his power. Perhaps the search for his ability really is just secondary to the inherent purpose of the bucket list. Jeongguk is glad for it; abilities are such fickle things, and though it may be possible that Taehyung will somehow find his in the process of fulfilling his list, it isn’t worth hinging his hopes on.
“Are you planning to finish that?” Taehyung is asking, nodding his chin at the drawing. “’cause if you aren’t, we should go back in. This sidewalk is frying my ass.”
Jeongguk looks. It’s only natural for him to look; Taehyung is the one who mentioned it in the first place. At least, that’s the justification he gives himself as he glances over at Taehyung, taking in the sheen of sweat over his forehead and the way he has his knees drawn up to his chest, like he wanted to minimize the area of contact between himself and the ground. His shorts are baggy enough for Jeongguk to see the flash of Taehyung’s upper thighs, paler than the rest of his body but no less glorious, disappearing disappointingly into shadow before Jeongguk can—
Abruptly, he realizes that he’s being really fucking perverted, seriously, friends don’t look at each other’s thighs like that. He tears his eyes away, lets them settle on his drawing. A safer option. He can pick out multiple areas that could stand to be improved—the proportions of the eyes, the shape of the mouth. But that’s because he’s comparing them against Taehyung’s. Anatomically speaking, from a purely objective standpoint, they’re fine. Jeongguk has always been a good artist. He blames the heat for muddling his brain.
Shaking his head, he begins to gather the chalk. “Let’s go back in.”
meet me outside? Taehyung texts Jeongguk, eighteen minutes past midnight that night.
Jeongguk rolls over at the buzz of his phone, louder against the nightstand than it would be in his hand, and fumbles for the device. The glow of the screen is too harsh in the darkness of his room. He waits for his eyes to adjust before peering blearily at the message.
why, he types back.
i dont want to do this alone
Jeongguk frowns. is this about the list?
yes, Taehyung responds. pls come its urgent
For a brief, tempting moment, Jeongguk considers putting his phone back on his nightstand and pretending to fall asleep. Almost as soon as he comes up with the idea, he dismisses it; it never stood a chance against the sheer force of how whipped Jeongguk is wherever Taehyung is concerned.
outside the building? he types.
yesssss :D youre the best i knew i could count on u <3 <3 <3
Jeongguk rummages around the mess on his floor for a long-sleeve shirt and the shorts he wore earlier that day. Then he grabs his phone, stuffing it into one of his pockets, and tiptoes out of his room and through the hall until he reaches the front door. He keeps his gloves on the small table near the entrance, and it’s instinct that moves him to grab a pair of fingerless ones. Common sense dictates that it’s nighttime, he’s with Taehyung, and Taehyung doesn’t giving a flying fuck about whether Jeongguk accidentally touches him. Habit tells him to pull on the gloves, so that’s what he does.
“What’s this about?” he asks when he emerges from the building. Taehyung is already waiting, leaning against the railing of the stairs that lead up to the main entrance, but he pushes himself away when Jeongguk comes to a stop before him.
“We’re going to the beach,” he says casually, like they aren’t approximately nine hours too early for this.
Jeongguk flattens his mouth into the most unamused expression he’s capable of. “The beach,” he says.
“The beach,” Taehyung affirms. “Don’t just stand around. Let’s go.” He turns and starts walking, clearly expecting Jeongguk to follow suit.
Jeongguk doesn’t, not immediately. He stands around for a few seconds longer, thinking about how satisfying it would be to just keep standing around, let Taehyung get halfway down the block before realizing that he’s alone, because no rational person drags their friend out of their home in the middle of the night to go to the fucking beach.
Then again, no rational person would let their friend drag them out in the middle of the night to go to the beach, either, so Jeongguk isn’t entirely blameless.
He falls into step beside Taehyung. “Should I have brought my swimsuit?” he asks. It’s sarcasm, but Taehyung appears to consider it seriously.
“Only if you want to go into the ocean,” he says. “But I’m staying on the sand. Do you want to go back and get it?”
Jeongguk pulls a face. “No, I’m good.” Catching hypothermia isn’t exactly one of his hobbies. “If you’re gonna stay on the sand, what did you need me to come with you for?”
“Company. Moral support. I don’t know.” Taehyung casts him a sidelong glance. “We’ve gone over this before, anyway. You’re my bestie. Do I need a reason?” He says bestie in a high, mocking tone, but when Jeongguk looks at him, he isn’t smiling.
Jeongguk looks away. “Of course not,” he says. He’d follow Taehyung off the edge of the world, probably. Forget Christopher Columbus, forget science; he’d do it if Taehyung asked nicely enough. But that’s dangerous territory, and so Jeongguk leaves it at of course not.
Haeundae Beach is crowded as hell during the day, during tourist season especially. Jeongguk starts to see why Taehyung waited for night to fall when they reach the sea. The beach is far from empty—it’s scattered with groups of people messing around with bottles of beer, and there are pairs of silhouettes walking hand-in-hand along the shoreline at intermittent intervals—but it’s a far cry from the densely packed hordes of umbrellas and people that consume the space by day.
Taehyung takes off his sandals and paces the beach for a few minutes, stopping every now and then to dig his toes into the sand like he’s testing for something. Jeongguk trails behind, watching the process with a combination of confusion and intrigue. The furrow between Taehyung’s eyebrows deepens every time he shakes his head and moves on from a location, apparently having deemed it unsuitable for his purposes; Jeongguk is almost afraid to break his concentration by asking what he’s searching for.
At length, Taehyung sits down. They’re a few meters away from where the waves lap up against the shore, the sand damp but not wet. With a quick prayer for the safety of his pants, Jeongguk sits across from Taehyung just as the latter begins to dig.
“What are you doing?” he says.
Jeongguk watches him work for a minute. Taehyung has pianist hands, all slender and graceful with long, slim fingers, but he’s struggling. The sand is crumbly and uncooperative, slipping through the cracks of his fingers when he tries to condense it into a shape that’ll hold its own. “If you’re trying to build a sand castle,” Jeongguk says, “it’ll probably help to use a bucket or something.”
“I couldn’t find any,” Taehyung says. He’s succeeded in rolling a snowball-sized sphere, and he carefully sets it down in front of him before equipping himself with another handful of sand. “And I’m not necessarily building a sand castle.”
“Then what are you building?”
“I don’t know. It’s improv.”
“You dragged me to the beach so you could build something you haven’t even figured out,” Jeongguk deadpans.
“Isn’t that how art goes?” Taehyung manages his second sphere more quickly than he did the first and sets about flattening it in various places, giving it edges until it looks vaguely like a cube. “You produce your best pieces when you’re not trying to accomplish anything.”
“But you’re trying right now to accomplish something,” Jeongguk points out. “Doesn’t that defeat the purpose?”
“It’s improv,” Taehyung says again. “Spontaneous. What time is it?”
Jeongguk fishes around in his pocket for his phone and unlocks it. “One.”
Taehyung nods to himself in satisfaction. “Spontaneity,” he says. Then, “Have you heard about the guy who can replicate anything in clay?”
“No, what about him?”
“Nothing. It’s just interesting. You can show him anything and give him a block of clay, and he’ll build a copy down to the last detail.” Taehyung works his fingers into the sand, presses his palms together to make a mound of it rise from the ground.
“But what’s the point?”
“It’s cool, isn’t it? And he got famous from it.”
“Are you trying to get famous by making sand art?”
Taehyung lets his hands fall to his sides. The mound of sand has grown into something that might possibly be able to pass for a lopsided turret. “If I do get famous off this,” he says, “it’ll be because everyone will wonder how I managed to keep it from falling apart.” Carefully, he takes the cube from earlier and places it on top of the little tower. It wilts, bending in on itself like it might cave under the weight of its new ornament, but doesn’t collapse.
“That would be something,” Jeongguk agrees, eyeing the sculpture. “What’s it supposed to be?”
“A cube on a cylinder. It’s abstract.”
“Are you going to use that?” Jeongguk points at the sphere, lying all but forgotten by Taehyung’s knee.
“You think I should make it a sphere on a cube on a cylinder?”
“You could try.”
Taehyung tries. He moves slowly, hands steady, making sure he has the ball perfectly centered on the top of the cube before he sets it down with painstaking care. Jeongguk holds his breath in spite of himself.
“It worked,” says Taehyung, sounding astonished. Jeongguk releases the breath, and the whole thing caves in on itself. Taehyung says, “Fuck.”
The cylinder-turret is unsalvageable, broken into little bits of sand and returned to its original state of being. The cube is little better, made nearly unrecognizable by its impact with the ground. Only the sphere remains, near-intact but for a single crack that cuts through its core, balanced atop the wreckage unscathed. There’s probably a pretentious metaphor to be found in that perfect split-second before ruin.
“Reminds me of my life,” Jeongguk says jokingly, and Taehyung barks out a startled laugh.
“Your life when I leave, you mean,” he says. And he’s joking, too, but Jeongguk suddenly isn’t feeling it anymore. Because he’s been doing such a good job of pretending that Taehyung won’t pack his bags in one month’s time and leave for college, for Seoul. For bigger and brighter things than the ones he’ll find at home, louder and brighter friends than Jeongguk. He’s been doing such a good job going along with Taehyung’s ridiculous bucket list, sitting patiently through it all and feigning exasperation that he doesn’t truly feel, such a good job that he almost managed to forget.
It’s hardly fair, he thinks, that Taehyung got to waltz into the apartment downstairs thirteen years ago, into Jeongguk’s life, and refuse to exit it—even when Jeongguk didn’t want to be friends at first, even when Jeongguk tried to push him away because Taehyung didn’t seem to have personal space in his dictionary—only to leave now, now that Jeongguk doesn’t want him to. This is the end of an era, and Jeongguk isn’t being dramatic; just because they’ll still see each other during vacations doesn’t mean that things won’t have changed. They’ll never be the same as they are now, sitting with the ruins of something between them, night air cool on their cheeks and beach sand cold beneath their legs.
He snorts. “Don’t give yourself too much credit,” he tells Taehyung. “I’ll be glad to have you gone.”
He expects a squawk of indignation, an insistence that I’m the light of your life, Jeonggukkie, where would you be without me, something he can butt up against so he can stop feeling like the world as he knows it might just be about to end.
Taehyung doesn’t do either of those things. He says, “Good. You’d better not miss me too much,” and it sounds like an admission of Jeongguk’s worst fears.
There’s no way for Jeongguk to wash the sand from his skin without waking his parents, and since he isn’t up to explaining where he was at half past two, he goes to bed with sand stuck between his toes.
He finds himself standing at the door of a giant palace. There is still sand between his toes. He’s standing on sand, in fact. Hell, everything is sand—the ground, and the color of the sky, and the color of the palace. He reaches out to touch the wall. Sand. It’s a giant sand castle.
“What the fuck,” he says to himself.
He walks in. There’s a hallway directly in front of him, and another one on his left, and yet another on his right. Everything is the same color, and it’s disorienting—the floors, the ceiling, the walls, all built from coastline sand, the tightly packed kind made perpetually damp by the ocean as it washes up against the shore.
It’s dark, too, which makes sense because there’s no way for the ceiling to support a chandelier or lamp or electric wiring, but there’s a source of light coming from the hall to Jeongguk’s right, and that makes even more sense. He doesn’t hesitate to set off in its direction.
The corridors are longer than they look. At the end of each one is another set of entrances (exits?) to choose from. Jeongguk is unperturbed; he follows the light.
Initially, it’s difficult to tell whether he’s making any progress. The light is soft and steady, a warm white-yellow illumination that keeps Jeongguk steady in his course. Sometimes it seems to grow brighter and sometimes Jeongguk swears that it’s grown dimmer. It isn’t until he reaches what has to be his fifth set of hallways that it starts to get noticeably, definitively brighter.
He breaks into a run. Goes down one hall, then two, then six. They’re shorter than the ones from the beginning of Jeongguk’s journey, or maybe he’s just running that much more quickly.
All at once, they end. In one instant, Jeongguk is sprinting, the light so bright that he can barely see anything else, expanding and expanding until it consumes his vision and all he sees is—
“What are you doing here?” says Taehyung.
Jeongguk skids to a halt. He’s emerged into a large room, longer than it is wide. It’s bright, the source of the light that Jeongguk had been following, though now that he’s in it, it seems to be coming from all around. It’s a throne room, he realizes, taking in the sight of Taehyung seated on the dais at the opposite end. He looks impossibly far away, either because of the physical distance or because he’s a king, perched on a throne like he was born to sit there.
“What are you doing here?” Jeongguk asks. He’s getting a strong feeling of déjà vu, but he can’t pinpoint a source for it. He’s fairly certain that this situation is unprecedented; it isn’t every day that you discover that your best friend is actually royalty. Is he supposed to bow? He doesn’t know. He can’t seem to remember what’s proper and what’s not, but Taehyung is compassionate; Jeongguk is sure that he’ll be forgiving.
“I live here,” Taehyung says. “Do you?”
“No,” Jeongguk concedes.
“Then what are you doing here?”
“I’m not sure. Should I leave?”
Taehyung gets to his feet. “No,” he says, “don’t leave. That’s my job, not yours.”
“I’ll leave,” Taehyung says. He makes his way down the steps of the dais and starts toward Jeongguk, covers the distance between them in a few impossible paces. “You can stay.”
Jeongguk blinks, bemused more by the words than he is by the fact that Taehyung is right there when he was on the other end of this room just a few seconds ago. “Excuse me?”
Taehyung is shaking his head sadly. “Don’t you remember? I’m leaving soon.”
“No,” says Jeongguk. “No, you still have another month, you’re not going yet—”
“Goodbye, Jeongguk. Breakfast is calling my name.”
“You’re leaving me for breakfast?”
“It’s the most important meal of the day,” Taehyung says solemnly.
Then he’s gone, and Jeongguk is alone.
Taehyung won’t show Jeongguk the physical bucket list, but that doesn’t stop Jeongguk from finding himself roped into one of Taehyung’s schemes at least every other day in the following weeks. They approach the end of July; Taehyung coerces Jeongguk into letting him try his hand at Jeongguk’s guitar. July gives way to August; Taehyung reads Jeongguk’s future with a cheap deck of tarot cards and tells him that he needs to open his eyes before he faces his problems, whatever that means. They build a bottle rocket and launch it from the yard behind the apartment building. Taehyung borrows his father’s tackle box and rods, and they go fishing along the Nakdong River. It’s easier said than done, or possibly they’re just doing it wrong; Taehyung doesn’t get a single bite and Jeongguk’s fish escapes before he can reel it in, but he considers it an afternoon well-spent when they give up and fall back against the grassy river bank.
“I was so close,” Jeongguk says. Enough time has passed that the sun is no longer overhead, leaving him free to watch the clouds drift across the sky. The worst of the heat has passed and the grass is cool against his back, but Taehyung is warm at his side, and it feels like everything summer should be.
“So close, and yet so far,” Taehyung says.
“Mm.” Jeongguk isn’t thinking about the fish anymore, though. It’s hard to, when he’s pressed shoulder-to-shoulder with Taehyung. No skin contact, but he can feel Taehyung’s body heat through the flimsy fabric of their t-shirts. Jeongguk’s been wearing more of those, lately—short-sleeves, that is. Leaving the gloves on the table by the door. He does it because of the heat, sure, but also because he’s been spending almost all of his days with Taehyung, doing things with Taehyung and no one else, and Jeongguk’s never needed to cover himself up for the one person who welcomes his touch.
Taehyung shifts and sits up. His elbow brushes Jeongguk’s arm. It doesn’t linger long enough for Jeongguk to get a read on his thoughts, but he doesn’t jerk away the way most people would. He’d stay if Jeongguk asked, twine his fingers with Jeongguk just to prove that he doesn’t care about the telepathy. Jeongguk knows this because he used to ask all the time, back when they were in elementary school. He doesn’t anymore, of course—they’ve long since passed the age where it gets weird to hold hands with your male best friend—but that’s on Jeongguk, because Taehyung would probably do it again in a heartbeat.
He doesn’t ask now, but the knowledge is a comfort to have. It’s a fact of life, like this: water is wet. The sun rises in the east. Taehyung will never shy away from Jeongguk’s touch.
Peering hazily at Taehyung through half-lidded eyes, Jeongguk thinks that he could ask. Backlit by the setting sun, hair plastered to his forehead with drying sweat and the edges of his mouth turned down the way they always get when he lets his expression fall neutral, Taehyung watches the Nakdong, and Jeongguk watches Taehyung. So close, and yet so far. How would he even ask? Can you hold my hand for old time’s sake? Just once, so I can remember it when you go.
He scoffs to himself. That would be pretty gay. Jeongguk kissed Mingyu when he was fourteen and trying to figure things out, but this—even considering it—would top the chart.
Taehyung gives him a curious look. “What’s so funny?”
“Your face,” Jeongguk replies on instinct, and Taehyung jabs him in the side.
Times like these, it’s easier than ever to remember that Taehyung has two weeks left. Jeongguk wants nothing more than to slow time to a crawl, cup these moments in his hands and hold on to them. This isn’t to say that he doesn’t try, because he does, but time is slippery. It falls through his fingers faster than the sand fell through Taehyung’s when he tried to build something that night on the beach.
After they go fishing, they go kite flying, and then they go stone skipping and ocean swimming and mountain hiking. Taehyung buys tickets for the Busan Aquarium, claiming that he’d rather see fish alive than dead anyway, but Jeongguk catches him staring intently into the tanks on more than one occasion in an attempt to establish a mental bond with the marine life there.
“It’s no use,” he tells Jeongguk over a bowl of rice noodles when they leave to eat at a nearby Thai restaurant. It’s mid-afternoon, late for lunch and early for dinner, but the place is filled with tourists who’ve come straight from Haeundae Beach, which makes it hard to hear Taehyung’s voice. “I’m reaching the end of the list, and I haven’t come anywhere near to—” He cuts himself off, shakes his head. Takes another bite of his noodles.
And right, the bucket list. Jeongguk keeps forgetting that it’s an actual thing. Partly because Taehyung won’t let him see it, but mostly because he’s stopped thinking of their near-daily excursions as items to be crossed off and started thinking of them as Taehyung wanting to spend more time with Jeongguk.
“You’ll find it,” he says. The words sound empty to his own ears, and from the expression on Taehyung’s face, he’s even less convinced than Jeongguk.
“Whatever. It’s not a big deal. Like you said, a shot in the dark, right?” Taehyung’s tone is casual, flippant. Jeongguk knows he’s forcing himself to sound like he doesn’t care.
“I didn’t mean it like that,” he says, but Taehyung is already shaking his head, smiling the insecurities away.
“It doesn’t matter that much,” he says. “Really. That’s not why I made the bucket list, anyway, remember?”
Jeongguk is sitting on a rubber duck. The rubber duck is floating on water. Not seawater—no ocean is this clear—and not lake water, either. This place is too sterile to be natural. Looking around, Jeongguk can’t see a coastline, or a lake shore, just a blank white expanse that stretches all around him, completely uninterrupted by landmarks.
Where am I? he wonders.
The answer comes to him almost as soon as he asks himself the question: A bathtub.
A sound catches his attention—splashing, faint but repetitive, somewhere in the distance. As Jeongguk listens, it grows louder and louder. He cranes his neck around, searching for the source of the noise, until a movement catches his attention. There’s an animal approaching, traveling through the water in leaps and jumps. A dolphin, Jeongguk realizes, and as it draws closer, he sees that the shape on its back is a human.
He doesn’t need to guess who it is.
“Taehyung,” he calls when Taehyung comes into earshot. His voice isn’t working; all that comes out is a gust of air. He tries again. “Tae!”
Taehyung’s dolphin is moving quickly, so quickly. If Jeongguk doesn’t figure this out soon, they’ll pass him without stopping, and he isn’t about to bet that someone else is going to come along to save him from his duck. He opens his mouth to say something, anything, but it doesn’t matter what words he tries to form because his vocal chords aren’t obeying him.
Taehyung draws near. Jeongguk can see his face properly now. His eyes are closed, mouth curved upward in a soft, beatified smile. He appears unperturbed by the jumping of the dolphin, doesn’t even flinch when they hit the water.
In desperation, Jeongguk tries to scream. He tries until his throat aches and his head grows light, anything to get Taehyung’s attention, but it’s futile. At their closest, Taehyung and his dolphin are a few meters away, too far for Jeongguk to reach out to, close enough to frustrate him into anger. But they leave as quickly as they came, headed for a destination that Jeongguk cannot see, disappearing into the horizon without him.
Jeongguk is left floating alone, same as he was before Taehyung arrived. He scowls at the back of his duck’s head. Its rubbery yellow surface stares back at him mockingly.
“Fucking ducks,” he says, and of course. Of course this is the moment that his voice chooses to return. “Fucking ducks.”
On the Saturday before Taehyung is to take the train up to Seoul, he secures his mother’s car for the day and tells Jeongguk to wear his board shorts.
Jeongguk is good about going along with it. He puts on his board shorts and gets into the passenger seat, and he doesn’t ask where they’re going until a full minute after Taehyung gets them onto Geoga Bridge.
“This bridge only leads to one place, Jeonggukkie,” Taehyung replies. “Really, I’m disappointed that you haven’t figured it out.”
“I know where we’re going,” Jeongguk says, because the entire purpose of Geoga Bridge is to link Busan to Geoje Island, “but, like, where are we going?”
“Ah,” says Taehyung. “That part is a surprise. You’ll see when we get there.”
Jeongguk spends the rest of the car ride wondering what kind of surprise Taehyung has planned and why he won’t tell Jeongguk where they’re going. He starts to get an idea of the answer to both those questions when Taehyung pulls over to the side of a secluded road of dubious legality and gets out of the car, gesturing for Jeongguk to do the same.
“We’ll have to hike the rest of the way,” he says as he yanks open the back door. He pulls out two towels and a small, portable cooler. “Which one do you want to carry?”
“I can take the cooler.”
Jeongguk takes the cooler and Taehyung slings the towels over his shoulder, and they start on their way through the woods at the side of the road. It’s an uphill climb that they complete mostly in silence, because Jeongguk doesn’t have anything useful to say and Taehyung doesn’t begin explaining until they’re almost at the top of—whatever this place is. It isn’t a mountain, and Jeongguk has his suspicions. The roar of the ocean has gotten much louder, but it isn’t until Taehyung starts speaking again that aforementioned suspicions are confirmed.
“I learned about this place from some of the people in my grade,” he says. “The cliffs are higher here than they are in a lot of the other popular diving spots.”
“Oh my God.”
“I thought it’d be fun,” Taehyung continues. “A nice adventure to conclude the summer or whatever. It’s one of the last things on the bucket list. You haven’t been cliff diving before, have you? I haven’t. But I wouldn’t have put it on the list if I had, so.” He’s rambling, which means he’s nervous, but Jeongguk can’t for the life of him imagine why. It’s just the two of them, and Taehyung is the one who came up with the idea in the first place.
“I haven’t been cliff diving before, either,” he says. “You could’ve told me where we were going, you know.”
“I thought it’d be fun,” Taehyung says again, “if it was a surprise.” They finish the climb. The edge of the cliff stretches out before them, but Taehyung isn’t looking at it; he has his eyes on Jeongguk, and there’s that uncertainty again. Jeongguk wishes he knew why it was there. “Are you mad? Was it a shitty surprise? We can go back if you want, I just thought—I thought it’d be nice.” He’s repeating himself now, another giveaway, but Jeongguk doesn’t understand what could possibly have him feeling this anxious.
“I’m not mad,” he says. He toys with the follow-up, weighing the different options on his tongue. It’s cute. I like it. You’re cute. I like you. He forgoes all of them, says instead, “What are we waiting for?”
Taehyung’s shoulders slump in something akin to relief. Jeongguk hadn’t noticed how tense they were. “Nothing,” he says. “Let’s go.”
They strip off their shirts, and it begins. There’s little rhyme or reason to cliff diving. No rules, no regulations. Step up to the edge. Take a deep breath. Taehyung tilts his face to the sky before he jumps, and for the single, suspended instant before he starts to drop, it makes him look like he’s flying. Jeongguk is less content to dive blind; he looks at the waves far below and keeps his eyes on them as he jumps, doesn’t shut them until the surface of the water is rushing toward him and he has to close them out of reflex.
That’s how it goes. Rinse. Recycle. Repeat. They start from the highest point on the cliffs here, but it isn’t a clean drop; after that first run, they see the other rock formations that jut from the water, shorter in height but still good for jumping, and Taehyung decides that they need to try all of them. So they do cannonballs and backflips, and Taehyung tries to mimic an Olympic diving routine. He ends up hitting the water belly-first with a resounding smack that has Jeongguk cracking up, but Jeongguk fares little better when he attempts the same and gets a lungful of ocean for his efforts.
The thrill is addictive. The pound of his heart when he gets to the edge, the sense of vertigo that spins his head when he looks down, no matter how many times he’s done it—the feeling when he jumps, how it seems for that split-second that he can do anything, and the spike of adrenaline when he starts hurtling downward. There’s something to be said, too, for the sight of Taehyung as he climbs out of the sea sopping wet, hair flopping into his eyes. The water runs in rivulets along the lines of his body, drips trails after him as he pulls himself onto the rocks. He’s all angles—sharp elbows and lean limbs, skinny and tan and making it work because he was born to be like this, in the sun—but his face softens into a smile when he catches Jeongguk staring, and that smile is probably his best feature.
Jeongguk looks away.
They have lunch on top of the first cliff, towels draped around their shoulders. Taehyung’s packed sandwiches and soda, and they eat with the sun warm on their backs. It’s the middle of August, and the temperatures in Busan continue to break records every week. Here, though, next to the ocean with the breeze ruffling their hair and water still damp on their skin, the heat is almost comfortable.
“I’m gonna start packing this week,” Taehyung says.
Jeongguk is silent. He likes to believe that he’s come to terms with the fact that Taehyung is leaving, but the closer they get to the big date, the less he tries to think about it. The thing is, he doesn’t remember what life was like pre-Taehyung, and he kind of dreads finding out what it’ll be like post-Taehyung. That’s what happens when someone enters your life and insists on pervading it in every aspect possible, until they exit and leave you with holes in the spots they used to fill. Jeongguk’s childhood is a whirlwind of memories with the boy from downstairs, and now that they’re about to go their separate ways—Taehyung to college this fall, Jeongguk to college next fall, and most likely to a different school, at that—he wants more than ever to hold on to it.
“Are you excited?” he asks at length.
“To leave Busan? No,” Taehyung says, and Jeongguk looks up from his sandwich in surprise. “But I’m excited to move to Seoul. Does that make sense?”
“Aren’t they the same thing?”
“There’s a difference,” Taehyung insists. “I don’t want things here to end, I’ll miss you and everyone and everything, but I’m looking forward to a fresh start. And Seoul is so big.”
“But you can’t have one without the other,” Jeongguk says.
“I can’t have one without the other,” Taehyung agrees. “That’s the problem.”
“You’d better not forget about me.” And Jeongguk’s being serious, but Taehyung laughs.
“It’s not like I’m moving to Mars.”
“Still,” Jeongguk says. I don’t want us to grow apart. “If you forget about me, I’ll never forgive you.”
Taehyung’s expression sobers. “I could never forget about you, Jeonggukkie,” he says, and he sounds so earnest that Jeongguk is taken aback. Then he changes the subject. “Hey, we should try coordinating our jumps. Like one of those Olympic diving pairs, you know what I mean?” He’s smiling again, moving on from the subject with a flippancy that’s utterly at odds with the way he’d told Jeongguk he could never forget him, so effortlessly careless that Jeongguk thinks he might’ve imagined the sincerity in Taehyung’s tone.
“This isn’t going to work,” Jeongguk says, but he’s standing anyway, shedding the towel from his shoulders and letting it fall in a heap beside the remains of their lunch.
Taehyung does the same. “Aw, come on, it can’t hurt to try. Live a little, Jeonggukkie—that’s what summer’s all about.”
They fail spectacularly on their first attempt, and on their second, and on their fifth. Taehyung insists on performing flips and tumbles mid-air (like a true diver, he proclaims), and synchronizing with his arbitrary stunts would require a type of mind-reading that Jeongguk does not have.
In the end, he grabs Taehyung’s hand, claiming that he won’t let them end this day without pulling off at least one successful partner dive. Taehyung jolts, startled, and then he threads his fingers through Jeongguk’s. Palm against palm, Taehyung’s thoughts running through his mind. He’s thinking about how blue the ocean is, how nice the wind feels, how glad he is that he brought Jeongguk here.
This time when they make the plunge, Taehyung doesn’t try any fancy moves, and they hit the water together. Jeongguk holds on until the very end. Holds on tight, grip as strong as he can make it, right up until the force of the impact tears their hands apart.
“I have something to tell you,” Taehyung says.
They’re sitting on a rooftop, legs dangling over the edge. Busan at night is a sight to behold, buildings and roadways lit up in neon, just as vibrant as it is during the day. They’re facing the right direction for him to see the lights reflected in the ocean.
“What is it?” Jeongguk asks. He dares a peek at the streets directly below, ignoring the flip of his stomach as he does so. The height is dizzying, and so is the knowledge of how long he would fall if he were to slip. The cars wouldn’t stop, not immediately. From this height, they look like ants as they crawl across the city. As Jeongguk tracks their progress, the view shifts, and everything grows smaller—no, the building is getting taller. His stomach gives a definitive roll of protest.
He tears his gaze away, looks at Taehyung. He’s the only point of stillness in this scene; it’s easier to focus on him than it is to focus on the way the sky shifts as they rise.
“I—” Taehyung’s eyes drop to Jeongguk’s lips, and Jeongguk knows with the certainty of a dream that he isn’t imagining it, “I—”
Jeongguk knows with the certainty of a dream that Taehyung wants to kiss him. He knows that this is a dream. It’s a matter of practice; he’s been dreaming so much lately that he’s learned how to tell what’s real and what’s not, and because he can tell that this is not real, he can find the courage in himself to lean forward.
Taehyung’s eyes flutter shut. This is happening. Jeongguk is going to close the distance between them, and he is not going to chicken out, because Taehyung leaves tomorrow, and he takes with him the only chance Jeongguk has at doing what he’s been wanting to do all summer.
This is happening. This is happening. This is happening, and Big Bang is playing from the sky, but they’re so high up that everything around them is sky and Seungri’s voice is coming from everywhere—instead of a white heart at school, your heart is in a white envelope—where’s Taehyung, Jeongguk could have sworn he was there two seconds ago—
He wakes up to the chorus of “Dirty Cash” blaring from his phone, alarmingly loud considering that the time on his lock screen reads 2:38. Taehyung set his ringtone to it last year, when Jeongguk made the mistake of letting him get ahold of his phone, but he never bothered to change it back and he’s regretting that now.
Surging for the phone and praying that his parents haven’t been roused by the sound, he takes the call. “What is it?” he grumbles into the receiver, too groggy to be polite. “I was having such a nice dream.”
“Yeah, well, me too,” Taehyung says, “but all good things come to an end. Can you meet me on the roof?”
“The roof. You know, that thing that most buildings have, usually at the very top—”
“I know what a roof is. The fuck do you want to meet there for?”
Jeongguk pulls his phone away from his ear and stares blankly down at the screen, the ticking timer that records the duration of the call, for a solid five or ten seconds. He says, “You couldn’t have chosen a better time?”
“I just woke up and had the idea. And it’s my last night in Busan, you know.”
“This is a guilt trip,” Jeongguk complains, but he’s already sitting up. Everything in his body is protesting—he’s a late riser, likes to maximize the sleep he gets whenever possible, and 2:38 is absolutely the wrong kind of late to be waking up at—but he ignores the weight of his eyelids and the stiffness of his joints as he gets out of bed. It’s Taehyung’s last night in Busan, and if he wants to go stargazing at three in the morning, then Jeongguk will just have to suck it up.
“Does that you mean you’ll be there soon?” Taehyung asks hopefully.
“Give me two minutes.”
“I love you,” Taehyung gushes. “You’re the best, Jeonggukkie, has anyone ever told you that?”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” Jeongguk mutters, hating how his heart stumbles over the words I love you. “I’ll see you soon.”
He pulls a sweater over his head but doesn’t bother with a proper change of clothes. At the door, he doesn’t even spare a glance for the table with his gloves; he steps into his shoes, opens the door as quietly as he can so the hinges don’t squeak, and slips into the hall.
He’s careful as he climbs the stairs, too. They’re metal, the kind with gaps that he used to think he’d fall through if he wasn’t careful, but more importantly, they’ll clang if he moves too quickly. Not that he’s in a rush. It’s just Taehyung. His eyelids are still heavy with the last vestiges of sleep, but he shakes them off as he reaches the top of the stairs and emerges onto the roof.
Taehyung is waiting with his back to Jeongguk, standing near the edge of the roof as he looks out over the city. At the sound of Jeongguk’s footsteps, though, he turns. “Hey.”
“Hey,” says Jeongguk. He crosses the roof to stand beside Taehyung. He doesn’t look down; there’s a difference between the cliffs of Geoje Island, where the ocean practically welcome divers, and the unforgiving drop to the sidewalk here.
“About the stargazing,” Taehyung says. He looks up, and Jeongguk tilts his head back to do the same.
The sky is a blank expanse of velvet blue-black, masked by a layer of smog that’s impossible to discern in the lack of sunlight. Too much pollution. Jeongguk says, “You can’t see the stars.”
“Yeah. Guess you can’t.” Taehyung doesn’t sound surprised, or even disappointed, and Jeongguk finds that he isn’t surprised, either. He’s lived here his entire life, and Taehyung has lived here most of his; they both know that the stars aren’t visible in Busan.
“You didn’t have to make an excuse,” he says. There’s an unspoken question in his words: Why are we really here?
Taehyung doesn’t confirm it, but he doesn’t deny it, either, which is basically confirmation that the stargazing was an excuse. “I wanted to tell you something,” he says.
Something goes off in the back of Jeongguk’s mind—a tug at his memory, a trace of recollection buried somewhere in his consciousness, fleeting like a dream. He looks down, not at his feet but at the streets below. From this height, the cars look like ants. There aren’t as many as Jeongguk would have expected, but there are a few, crawling through the maze of Busan because the city doesn’t sleep at night.
He asks, “What is it?”
Beside him, Taehyung shifts his position ever so slightly. When Jeongguk turns to look at him, he has his gaze fixed on the city.
“I,” he begins, then stops. Shakes his head minutely, more to himself than to Jeongguk, and starts again. “I just wanted to tell you,” he says, “not to miss me too much.” His tone is glib, but it doesn’t sound like it’s what he was originally going to say.
“Who said I’d miss you?” Jeongguk says, forcing the same lightness into his own voice. “We’ve gone over this before. Maybe I’ll just be happy to finally have some peace in my life.”
Taehyung sighs ruefully. “And here I thought I’d managed to grow on you.”
He isn’t wrong. He’s far from wrong, actually. Too far for Jeongguk’s comfort, because Taehyung leaves tomorrow and Jeongguk can’t come to terms with it. He’s helpless against the inevitable, powerless to change the inexorable march of the clock, and though he’s altogether too aware of this fact, his recognition of it does little to aid in his acceptance of it.
He downplays the sentiment. “Okay, so maybe you’ve grown on me a little,” he concedes. “But only a little.”
“Only a little? I’m wounded.”
“Do you want me to tell you that I’ll miss you? ‘Oh, Taehyung, I’ll miss you so much, I think I might die without you?’”
Taehyung laughs quietly. Says, “I’m being serious. Things are going to change.” He doesn’t say, I don’t want you to get hung up over me, but Jeongguk understands the implication. He doesn’t say, I know we’re best friends but you’re going to have to start turning to other people once I’m gone, but Jeongguk knows what he means.
“But you’re coming back for winter break,” he says. “Right?”
“I’m coming back,” Taehyung confirms. “And we’ll text every day until then. I’ll text every day, at least. You have to get better about responding, Jeonggukkie, I won’t let you get rid of me that easily.”
“I do a perfectly good job of responding to your texts,” Jeongguk protests. It’s true. He doesn’t add that Taehyung is the only person he ever texts back in a reasonably timely fashion. Superfluous details.
“But you have to get even better at it.”
“Okay, okay. We’ll text every day.”
“Good. I’m holding you to that promise.”
“I never break my promises.”
“I believe you.”
“Can I touch you?”
“Just—” Jeongguk flounders for an explanation, searching for the words to phrase the request in the least creepy way possible, though he suspects that he’s already botched it, “old time’s sake?” Just once, so I can remember it when you go. “You know you’re the only person who doesn’t really care about—all that.” He doesn’t elaborate, but Taehyung seems to understand.
“You didn’t have to ask,” he says. Then he’s taking Jeongguk’s hand in his own, threading their fingers all casual like they’ve done this a thousand times before. Like they never stopped doing it, like Jeongguk never stopped asking. He relishes the feel of being able to do it now, without the judgment of the public eye, tightening his grip because it makes him feel a bit less like he’s going to have to let go of Taehyung in a matter of hours.
“I lied,” he says. The confession comes out of the blue, spurred by the weight of Taehyung’s hand, the warm press of his palm, the thoughts going through Taehyung’s mind—how he’d missed this, how he’s going to miss this. How beautiful Busan is at night, how beautiful it is during the day and how beautiful it is always, how Seoul will hold up against the city that Taehyung has grown to love so dearly. Jeongguk swallows past the lump in his throat. It’s hitting him in full force, the finality of it all. “When I said I wouldn’t miss you. I will.”
“I know. You’re not exactly subtle. Or good at lying.”
Jeongguk frowns indignantly, but Taehyung squeezes his fingers, sends his response clear and nonverbal through the link that their skin has created. For the record, I’ll miss you, too.
They’re quiet for another minute, watching the cars dwindle on the streets as they approach the other side of this gray area between late night and early morning. Taehyung’s consciousness sweeps through Jeongguk in a steady ebb-and-flow, washes up against his own working thoughts. Impossible to ignore, but not overwhelming. It becomes static noise after a while, background music in Jeongguk’s head. He’s thinking about everything they did, this last summer together.
His confession comes out of the blue as well, even more so than Jeongguk’s had. Or maybe it just seems that way because Taehyung doesn’t mull over it for long before he blurts it out, gives it hardly any time to reach Jeongguk before he says it aloud and catches Jeongguk by surprise. “I lied, too, by the way. About the bucket list.”
“There’s no actual list. I made it up as I went along. And it really wasn’t about the powers,” Taehyung says. “None of it was. Would’ve been nice to find mine, but I wasn’t expecting to. Mostly I just wanted to spend more time with you.”
The revelation goes straight through Jeongguk’s heart the way Taehyung’s thoughts go straight into his head, so sincere. So perfectly aligned, what he says and what he thinks, because Taehyung has never had any reason to hide anything from Jeongguk. It’s probably part of why he has never hesitated to reach out for him.
“You didn’t have to make an excuse,” Jeongguk says, for the second time that night. “I would’ve done those things with you, anyway.”
“Are you sure about that?”
Jeongguk permits himself a second to think about it. Sitting through Taehyung’s fifth ice cream sundae, making the trek to Haeundae Beach in the dead of night. Having a go at fishing just because Taehyung felt like trying, jumping off cliffs because Taehyung wanted his last summer home to be an adventure. “Yes,” he says firmly, and the conviction in his voice is so strong that Taehyung doesn’t even try to argue against it. “Even the stupid things. The stupid things especially. I’d do them all over again if you asked.”
Taehyung’s thoughts are a jumbled mess of would you really and oh and huh when he pulls his hand away. Instantly, the added noise in Jeongguk’s head falls silent. How long had they been touching? Long enough for Jeongguk’s mind to feel empty in Taehyung’s absence.
“You’re too nice sometimes,” Taehyung is saying presently. “Has anyone ever told you that?” He’s looking out at the city again, but when Jeongguk turns to send him a questioning glance, he mirrors the gesture. Their eyes meet.
It isn’t a big moment by any means; thirteen years has provided a wealth of time for them to have looked at each other and gotten used to the sight of each other. But there’s a tension in the air that’s too palpable to be a figment of Jeongguk’s imagination, pressing on him and closing in on all sides until he can’t remember what it was like to live without this strange energy thrumming over his skin. The distance between their shoulders, comfortable; the distance between their hands, too large; the distance between their lips, too small. Jeongguk wonders what Taehyung would do if he leaned in.
“It’s not being nice,” he says. “It’s just being a friend.”
“A friend,” Taehyung echoes. He turns his eyes back to the city, this colorful map of houses and stores and skyscrapers, bleached grayscale by the moonlight. Tracing the lines of Busan as they converge toward the horizon. “Then you’re too good of a friend sometimes. Anyone ever told you that?”
Jeongguk thinks, Friends aren’t supposed to look at each other the way I look at you. He says, “You’re probably right.”
The conversation comes to a standstill. The minutes that they spend standing on the roof of the apartment building drag on long and longer, but Jeongguk can’t complain; he wants to savor these final moments. When the sun rises, Taehyung will go to the train station with his parents, and he will take the bullet train into Seoul with a speed that reflects how quickly everything will change.
But that’s hours away. For now, there is just them and the city and the stars, everything slow with the ambiguity of 3:30, not quite night but not yet morning. Jeongguk shuts his eyes and breathes in deep, savoring the taste of this ending. He couldn’t, he thinks, have chosen a better one himself.
When the sun rises, Taehyung stops by Jeongguk’s apartment to say goodbye. Then he goes to the train station with his parents and takes the KTX into Seoul, and Jeongguk swears he’s been hit in reverse by a bullet train traveling three hundred and fifty kilometers per hour.
“I have something to tell you,” Taehyung says.
They’re on the roof again, legs dangling freely over the precipice. Sprawled before them, Busan is lit up neon. Quite literally, too; when Jeongguk looks up, he sees that the moon is a giant disco ball turning in the sky, strobe lights playing pink and blue and green across everything they touch. Jeongguk waits a second, half-expecting more pop songs to play out of the sky.
Nothing. It’s silent, almost eerily so.
He turns to Taehyung and says, “How many times do I need to keep saying it? I’m going to miss you no matter how much you tell me not to.”
“It’s not that,” says Taehyung. “That’s just—that’s not—I needed an excuse.”
Excuses, excuses. Haven’t they discussed this already? Jeongguk’s had enough excuses to last him a lifetime. “An excuse for what?” he asks, unable to keep the frustration from his voice. “I thought we were past that.” I thought we were better than that, he doesn’t add. He’d thought a lot of things, really, and the past few weeks have been a study in dissecting them, piece by piece. Taehyung’s made a bucket list, Taehyung never has anything to hide from me, Taehyung will never be the one to move away first. Wrong and wrong and wrong again.
“I know,” says Taehyung. He sounds even more frustrated with himself than Jeongguk is with him. “It’s stupid. I talk a lot. I talk so much. It’s not hard, it’s harder for me to stop talking, but I can’t find a way to say this, and I’ve been trying for so long.”
Jeongguk isn’t oblivious, but he isn’t dumb, either. He has an inkling of what the issue might be, for Taehyung of all people to be at a loss for how to phrase something. He has far more doubt about the probability that that inkling is true or even on the right track, because it can’t be. Jeongguk’s been pining like a fucking loser for what feels like his entire goddamn lifetime. It can’t be as easy as this. Nothing is ever that simple.
“It’s okay,” he says. “You don’t need to say anything. I get it.”
“Sure. You’re me. All of this is me.” He didn’t need his dreams to rub it in his face, what he wants and doesn’t have and can’t have, but he gets it. All of this is him, his own mind, a projection of his desires.
Taehyung’s brow is furrowed in confusion. “I’m you,” he echoes, dubious.
“I’m sorry,” Jeongguk says. He doesn’t know why he’s apologizing to a piece of his imagination, but he does know why he’s apologizing, because friends aren’t supposed to look at each other the way Jeongguk looks at Taehyung and friends aren’t supposed to want each other the way Jeongguk wants Taehyung. It’s just that he didn’t have the guts to own up to it before Taehyung left, and he still doesn’t, but he figures that apologizing to Dream Taehyung is better than nothing.
Taehyung asks, “What are you sorry for?”
Jeongguk didn’t have the guts to own up to it before Taehyung left and he didn’t have the guts to own up to it after, and as it turns out, he doesn’t have them in his dreams, either. He doesn’t even want to admit what it is, not in explicit words, anyway, because consolidating it into something explainable will only make it realer.
He doesn’t answer Taehyung’s question. Instead, he faces the city again, jaw set and shoulders squared with the wrong kind of courage, and lets his weight carry him off the edge of the building, knowing that he will wake up before the impact.
Life goes on, mostly.
The thing about Jeongguk’s friendship with Taehyung is that it has always existed mostly outside of school, since the age gap separates them into different grades. The thing about Taehyung is that he’s managed to install himself irreversibly into Jeongguk’s life anyway, because it’s impossible for someone so bright and vocal and there not to bleed into the aspects of your day that they aren’t even present for.
“Something got you down?” Mingyu asks on the third day of school, twisted around in his desk to doodle absentmindedly on Jeongguk’s notebook as they wait for class to start. “You’ve been kinda mopey ever since school started.”
Jeongguk’s phone buzzes with a message. guess who DOESN’T have class for another hr :), it reads. There’s an image attached—a selfie of Taehyung located comfortably in bed, from what Jeongguk can make of the thumbnail. They text every day, more frequently than they used to because the distance between them has expanded from a single staircase to a good portion of the country, and it’s nice. It’s normal. Nothing’s changed that Jeongguk can pinpoint. But it isn’t quite the same, either, because a Taehyung reduced to a string of digital characters is a Taehyung whose entire essence has been packed into something that is by definition incapable of doing justice to the person it represents.
Mingyu peers at the phone in curiosity, but Jeongguk locks the screen before he can read it.
“College stress,” he says. “It’s taken ten years off my life. There’s a reason I’ve been ‘mopey’ since school started.”
Not entirely a lie, but not the entire truth. Mingyu buys it with a sigh. “Same,” he says with feeling, and then the teacher walks in and he turns back around in his seat as class begins.
Life goes on.
Now that autumn has set in for good, the wind off the cliffs of Geoje Island aren’t quite so friendly. Jeongguk draws his windbreaker tighter around himself and steps away from the precipice.
Taehyung is there. Of course he is; these days, Jeongguk’s more surprised if he doesn’t see him in his dreams than if he does.
“Hey,” he says.
“How’ve you been?”
“Good,” says Taehyung. “Really good.”
“That’s good,” Jeongguk says. He thinks, Can’t relate.
“How about you?”
“I’m all right, I guess.”
“Do you miss me?”
Jeongguk blinks, taken aback by the bluntness of the question. “Maybe,” he says. “Why?”
“Just wondering. I miss you.”
“But you’re doing fine without me.”
“Idiot,” Taehyung says, laughing. “That doesn’t mean I can’t miss you. And you’re supposed to say it back.”
“I don’t have to if I don’t want to,” Jeongguk says, mostly to be difficult. “You only have to say it back if someone’s telling you they love you.”
“Then I love you,” Taehyung says easily. Far too easily, but Jeongguk should’ve expected it; he doesn’t mean love the way Jeongguk means it, or the way Jeongguk wants him to mean it. “Will you say it back now?”
Jeongguk licks his lips. They’re wind-chapped and dry, and so is his mouth when he tries to speak. He clears his throat and asks, “Why do you keep showing up?”
Taehyung falters, smile fading from his face. “What do you mean?”
“Why do you keep—I don’t know, coming to me?”
“Do you not want me to?”
“It would be nice if you’d stop.”
Taehyung regards him seriously, eyes dark and inscrutable. “Did I do something wrong?”
“No,” Jeongguk says. He avoids Taehyung’s face, keeps his gaze fixed on a point over one of Taehyung’s shoulders, somewhere on the horizon. “I just want you to leave me alone.” He wants Taehyung to stop invading his dreams while he’s asleep and he wants Taehyung to stop invading his thoughts while he’s awake, and he wants himself to stop pining after someone who used to be his but was never meant to stay his. But one step at a time: I want you to leave my dreams alone.
“I see,” says Taehyung. “I’ll go now, then.”
Jeongguk nods, a tight, jerky movement of his head. “Thanks,” he says, but he’s talking to no one, because Taehyung is already gone.
He allows himself a breath of relief. Then, on a whim, he looks up. It’s night, and the sky here is clearer than it is in Busan. Perfect, he can’t help but think, for stargazing.
Taehyung stops showing up in Jeongguk’s dreams after that. It’s a welcome surprise at first, a respite from mornings that have Jeongguk waking up to shame weighing cold and heavy in his chest. But as September fades into October, the real Taehyung’s messages become less frequent, and by the time they enter November, Jeongguk can accept that they’re not as close as they used to be.
He isn’t surprised. It’s to be expected; for a friendship that sprouted and flourished from the physical proximity of their homes, intermittent texts slotted into the gaps that their schedules allow pale against the ability to see each other face to face multiple times a week. Besides, Jeongguk has tests to study for and grades to maintain, and Taehyung must be busy with all the things that a new school and new city have to offer. He’s moving on, making all these different friends whom he mentions to Jeongguk with excitement that bleeds through his texts, and Jeongguk understands. He knew from the start that things would change. It’s a part of growing up; you form some relationships while you lose others, and those you keep shift with the times. Nothing is static. That’s the way life is. Jeongguk isn’t upset or anything.
“I was talking to Taehyung’s father last week,” his mother says over dinner one Thursday night. “Have you been staying in touch with him?”
Jeongguk pokes at his rice, abruptly interested in the design of his chopsticks. (They’re plain black.) “We text,” he says nonchalantly. “Why?”
“Just curious. The way he said it, it sounded like you haven’t been talking much.” There’s concern in her voice, and for good reason, but all Jeongguk can think is that if she got her impression from Taehyung’s father and Taehyung’s father got his impression from Taehyung, then it isn’t just Jeongguk who’s been feeling the distance. If Taehyung has acknowledged the change, too, then it must really have happened.
“It’s fine,” Jeongguk says. “We’re just busy, I guess. Don’t have as much time to talk as we used to.”
“Why don’t you invite him over for dinner next month?” his father suggests, and his mother makes a noise of agreement. “He’s a nice boy. I’d like to catch up with him.”
Jeongguk shrugs, resigned. “Sure,” he says. He likes to think that the distance has done some good for him. Maybe now, he’ll be able to face Taehyung in the flesh without the memory of his dreams ghosting every movement Taehyung makes. Maybe now, he’ll be able to look Taehyung in the eye without feeling his breath hitch in his chest. Without feeling his heart stutter that treacherous half of a beat.
Most things in life are easier said than done, and sitting next to Taehyung at a dinner table with his parents is no exception to the rule.
Jeongguk stares intently down at his plate, all too aware of Taehyung’s presence at his elbow. It’s the first time they’ve been in the same room since Taehyung got home for winter break yesterday. The conversation is on his phone—Taehyung texting Jeongguk to tell him he’s home (not that Jeongguk didn’t know), Jeongguk asking if Taehyung wanted to come over for dinner (not that Taehyung didn’t used to come over uninvited), Taehyung saying, sure, I’m free tomorrow (not that he used to clear his schedule just for Jeongguk).
It isn’t necessarily awkward. They aren’t estranged; Taehyung didn’t leave on a bad note, and they do still message each other. Hell, it’s only been a few months. Their friendship is so much stronger than a few months of weak communication.
But that was easier to believe while Taehyung was away than it is now that he’s here in person. Now that Jeongguk can see for himself that Taehyung is moving on. Irreversibly, irrevocably. Pulling away from Jeongguk with his sights set firmly on the future, all the things in the world that wait for Taehyung to claim them. It was easier to pin the emotional distance on the physical one while texting was their only mode of communication. Now that Jeongguk can hear the slight detachment in Taehyung’s voice, the way his eyes never quite land on Jeongguk’s for more than a few seconds—he doesn’t know what to pin it on. Something’s wrong, something’s off, and he has no idea why, just has the sinking feeling that things weren’t supposed to turn out like this. That they were supposed to be more than this.
Jeongguk’s parents do most of the talking. Taehyung answers their questions readily, tells them about his major (psychology) and his classes (difficult but interesting) and his roommate (I make his life miserable but he’s my best friend on campus, Taehyung says, and Jeongguk’s mind sticks a little too long on the phrase on campus).
“Have you met any pretty girls?” his father asks, when they’ve exhausted every other conversational topic that he and Jeongguk’s mother can produce, and Jeongguk feels himself kind of die from embarrassment.
“Oh, definitely,” Taehyung says earnestly. Jeongguk glances at him in spite of himself. “All of them.”
It isn’t that funny, but Jeongguk’s parents laugh like this is the best joke they’ve ever heard. Taehyung smiles, too, but his gaze cuts to Jeongguk, and Jeongguk drops his eyes to his food, wondering just how long one dinner can last.
“You can stay for as long as you want,” Jeongguk’s mother says when they finally do finish eating, either because she hasn’t noticed the tension or because she’s determined, in true maternal fashion, to make Jeongguk’s life as painful as possible. “I know you two have a lot to catch up on.”
This is how, five minutes later, Jeongguk finds himself in his room with Taehyung, unsure of what to say or what to do or where to stand. He’d honestly expected everything to at least seem the same while Taehyung was home for break, but here they are anyway, Taehyung sitting cross-legged on the bed while Jeongguk pretends to be supremely invested in the state of his nightstand.
“I never asked you how you were,” Taehyung says suddenly.
Jeongguk looks over at him. “Me?”
“No, the ghost behind you.” Taehyung rolls his eyes, more affectionate than exasperated. “How’ve you been?”
“I’ve been okay,” Jeongguk says. He hesitates. There's no easy way to confront your oldest friend about how you've grown apart. Hey, I noticed that you've stopped texting me every day, what's up with that? Why are you acting so careful around me? What happened while you were gone? But he can't let it lie, either. He's sensed something off since he first opened the door for Taehyung earlier this evening.
He throws caution to the winds, takes the leap. “Did I do something?”
"No, the ghost behind me," Jeongguk deadpans. "I'm just asking because you've—I don't know. Seemed distant, lately."
The confusion eases from Taehyung's brow. "Ah. That."
"Did I do something?" Jeongguk repeats. "Because if I did, you should tell me. I don't want anything to get in the way of our friendship." I want things to go back to the way they used to be, he doesn't say.
Taehyung is the first to break eye contact. Playing with a loose thread from Jeongguk's bedspread, he says, "It wasn't anything you did. I just thought you'd appreciate the space."
And Jeongguk's complained plenty of times about this, he knows—Taehyung's tendency to cling, how touchy he is with his friends but how especially touchy he is with Jeongguk. Or was. Taehyung hasn't so much as brushed against him since he got home. Not a single touch, not even through their clothes. But the complaining was never in earnest and Jeongguk never truly wanted Taehyung to stop, and now that they're this—Jeongguk isn't sure what to call it, this gray area between friends and something less, something more—he wants more than ever to return to what they were this summer.
"What made you think that?" he asks.
Taehyung shifts unnecessarily, uncomfortably. "A hunch?" he says. It sounds like he's asking, not stating.
Jeongguk thinks back to September, when the dreams ended. They're vague in his memory, shapeless and indeterminate. Dream logic never makes much sense out of the setting to which it applies, and Jeongguk can't narrate his dreams the way he can narrate a normal story, but the highlights jump out at him if he thinks long and hard enough. Palaces of sand, an ocean contained within a bathtub. Taehyung on his throne and Taehyung beneath the stars, Taehyung in that giant sundae, wearing swim trunks that Jeongguk was somehow disappointed to see.
Taehyung, face closing off and expression shutting down as Jeongguk told him to leave him alone. In retrospect, Jeongguk supposes that he could have phrased it better. Should have phrased it better, actually. But wasn't it worth it? To finally stop dreaming about his best friend in ways that best friends aren't supposed to dream about each other, to finally stop waking up the morning after with the guilt of the knowledge pressing heavy upon him? All Jeongguk wanted was to get over his stupid crush.
"Well, your hunch was wrong," he says, training his attention on the hem of his shirt as he fiddles with it. No point in beating around the bush. "I still want to be friends. I don't get why you'd ever think otherwise."
"Are you sure about that?" Taehyung asks, and there's something sharp in his tone that makes Jeongguk look up. "Absolutely sure? Because I think I remember pretty clearly that you wanted me to start leaving you alone."
"What?" says Jeongguk, utterly bewildered. "When did I ever say that?"
"Never mind the details." Taehyung waves him off. "It's true, isn't it? You wanted me to give you space. So that's what I did. You could've just told me you wanted to stop being friends, you know. I would've preferred that, actually. Wouldn't have had to come over tonight to play pretend for your parents."
"I don't want to stop being friends," Jeongguk says. If anything, he wants to start being more, but he isn't about to admit that here. Not with Taehyung eyeing him for the first time today, truly eyeing him with the wrong sort of intensity, expression torn three directions among scorn and hurt and betrayal. "I don't—I don't get what you mean."
"You don't have to sugarcoat it. I'm not mad, I swear. I just want to know why."
"Why you wanted me to stop."
Jeongguk could answer this in a number of ways. He could tell Taehyung the truth, that he's been a little in love with him since, like, forever, but no big deal, I've been making an effort to get over it. He could tell Taehyung a lie—but no, scratch that. Lying would be shitty, and it would be a cowardly route out. Jeongguk won't even consider lying; there's only one real way to go about this, and that's to start from the root of the problem.
He says, "I've been dreaming about you lately."
Taehyung blinks slowly. "Huh?"
"It started this summer," Jeongguk says. He already regrets everything. "You kept showing up in these really weird dreams."
"What kind of dreams?" Taehyung's tone is more curious than angry or creeped out. It isn't encouragement per se, but it isn't rejection, either, and that's encouragement enough for Jeongguk to admit to these things.
"Uh, there was one with a giant sand palace," he says. "And one where you were—riding a dolphin? Stuff like that. Yeah." It sounds spectacularly stupid when he says it aloud, even more than it did when he said it in his head. I dreamed that you were riding a dolphin, and it made me want to stop being friends with you. But giving Taehyung the proper context would mean admitting to the sundae dream, and the dreams of them on the rooftop, plural. Jeongguk isn't ready to confess to those.
Taehyung's expression has turned contemplative. He's regarding Jeongguk with his head cocked to the side, and Jeongguk tries not to appear as awkward as he feels, standing by the nightstand of his bedroom because he doesn't know where else to place himself.
"Come here," Taehyung says, scooting back on Jeongguk's bed to create more space. He pats the blanket in front of him. "Sit down with me."
Warily, Jeongguk sits down on the edge of the bed. Taehyung frowns in disapproval at his hands. At his gloves, Jeongguk realizes.
"You never used to wear those at home," he says.
"Must've forgotten to take them off," Jeongguk replies. Actually, he put them on before Taehyung arrived. Because he didn't know where they would stand with each other, sure, but also because they're almost a comfort to have on his hands, the material worn and familiar against his skin.
"Take them off. I want to show you something."
Jeongguk peels the first glove off finger by finger, and then he does the second. When he’s done, he asks, "What is it?"
"Give me one of your hands."
Jeongguk complies, movements halting and hesitant. Taehyung takes his hand in both of his own, palms firm around it like he’s trying to warm Jeongguk up. His gaze is lowered, and Jeongguk takes the opportunity to trace over the sharp line of his brow, the dusting of his eyelashes across his cheeks, the frown of concentration pulling at the corners of his lips—
It’s an out-of-body experience, seeing yourself. Over the edge of an ice cream sundae, and from the other end of a throne room of sand, and sitting next to you on the roof of a building. The reverse of what you see when you look into the mirror, but not quite the same as the photograph a camera captures in its split-second flash. There’s depth, and nuances you’d never notice from studying any two-dimensional representation of your face. Jeongguk sees himself, staring back with doe eyes wide with something, and he just barely has enough time to wonder why the fuck he looks like he’s in love when the images start to change.
They hit him in full force, cycling through visions and scenes and impressions that are simultaneously familiar and foreign, settings so close to Jeongguk’s own memories that he swears he’s seen them before. But they’re off. Shifted. Recognizable, but slick in his grasp, and made all the more discomfiting by the fact that he’s looking himself in the face.
A palace of sand, filled with light. An ocean contained within a bathtub. The same, yet different. Different, yet the same. Dreams that have been plaguing him since summer, and dreams from before then, too—dreams from earlier months, earlier years.
Jeongguk’s, but from a different perspective.
Somewhere back in reality, his lips part in realization, and Taehyung pulls away.
“For what it’s worth,” he says, “I’ve been dreaming about you, too.”
He explains it to Jeongguk like this: there are people who walk when they sleep, and there are people who know they’re asleep, who can control their dreams. Somnambulists and lucid dreamers, respectively.
“And then there are people like me,” he says, tracing idle patterns into the blanket. “We walk when we sleep, but not into the hallway or the kitchen. We end up in someone else’s dream. And we know that we’re in a dream, and we can control it. We can control anyone’s, easy as anything. It isn’t something the scientists have the term for, not like sleepwalking and lucid dreaming.” He looks up then, at Jeongguk. “It’s just dreamwalking. My ability.”
“So what you mean to say is that you haven’t really been dreaming about me,” Jeongguk says. “You’ve just been—what, walking into my dreams and making them about you?”
“It sounds bad when you put it like that.”
“I just have a lot of questions. Every time that I’ve dreamt about you, ever—that was you? Really you?”
“Not necessarily me. If I’m not actually there, then it’s just your brain making up a version of me.” Taehyung’s tone turns teasing. “Why, do you dream about me a lot?”
Jeongguk looks away. He’s thinking about that one dream he had when he was fifteen, the one he’d sworn to forget as soon as he’d woken up the next morning with a raging boner. He highly doubts that that was the real Taehyung, and he’s glad, because Christ, how embarrassing. “So what if I do?” he mutters. He says it under his breath, doesn’t mean for Taehyung to pick up on it, but Taehyung hears anyway and laughs.
“That’s cute,” he says, unabashedly fond. Jeongguk feels something warm in his chest. Even with the misunderstandings explained away, there’s something different in the air between them. Maybe it’s the softness to the curl of Taehyung’s smile, or the way he lingers on Jeongguk’s face, like he’s trying to drink in the sight of him enough to make up for the time they’ve spent apart and more.
Jeongguk likes to think of it as the promise of a new beginning.
He asks, “When did you find out?”
“I got suspicious after something you told me. ‘You’re me,’ I think. So I looked online, read some books. There wasn’t much. It’s an uncommon ability. I still don’t know the details of it—like, how to control where I go. If I can control where I go.”
“You stopped showing up after I told you to,” Jeongguk says. “Doesn’t that count for something?”
“That was more of me knowing where to avoid. In real life, too, with the texts and everything.”
Jeongguk looks down at his hands. “I’m sorry about that. I shouldn’t have—I just didn’t know what to do. To make myself stop dreaming about you.”
“You can start your apology by facing me properly.”
Jeongguk huffs but obliges, swinging his legs onto the bed and scooting himself around until they’re both sitting cross-legged, facing each other fully.
“There we go,” says Taehyung. “Now, do you still want me to stay out of your dreams?”
“No,” says Jeongguk. “But you know something funny? After—that happened, you stopped showing up entirely. Like, my brain stopped making up fake versions of you, or whatever.”
“Probably ‘cause it knew they couldn’t come close to the real thing,” Taehyung says flippantly. He pauses. “Hey, this means I can get into your head anytime I want. You literally can’t get rid of me, awake or asleep.” He’s grinning mischievously, but somehow Jeongguk can’t bring himself to feel dread. There are, he thinks, worse fates than this.
Still, he has a pretense to keep. “I can control my dreams, too,” he says. “I’ll kick you out.”
“You wouldn’t. I saw the way you looked at me when I got out of that sundae.”
Jeongguk pretends that his cheeks aren’t burning. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Mm. Can I kiss you?” Taehyung asks, and Jeongguk chokes.
“I—where did that come from?”
“It’s okay if you don’t want me to,” Taehyung says, sounding nervous. “I just thought—you can tell me if I’m reading this wrong.”
“No,” Jeongguk says quickly. “No, you’re not. You can totally kiss me. If you want.”
“Wouldn’t have asked if I hadn’t been wanting to do it for a while,” Taehyung murmurs, but he’s already leaning in.
As far as kisses go, this one’s a little awkward. Jeongguk keeps his hands in his lap, unsure of where else to put them because he can’t choose the parts of Taehyung that he wants to touch most. And Taehyung can’t be comfortable, halfway out of his seated position as he is with one arm braced in front of him to hold his weight while the other comes up to bring Jeongguk’s face toward his own.
Their noses meet before their lips do. Taehyung huffs an embarrassed laugh, then tilts his head to fit their mouths properly together.
No one with telepathy talks about how overwhelming it is to kiss another person. Jeongguk wants Taehyung with all the longing of a teenage boy who’s spent an embarrassing amount of time trying not to think about how much he wants his best friend. He feels this from the top of his head flush through to his toes. Taehyung wants Jeongguk right back, and Jeongguk feels that, too, because kissing entails an even more intimate kind of skin contact than usual. He feels and he feels, shot through twice over with a reeling resolution to what feels like a lifetime’s worth of waiting and pining and hoping, and he’s never appreciated his ability more than he does in this moment.
When Taehyung draws back, he catches Jeongguk’s dazed expression and grins, looking only slightly better himself. “Wow, I didn’t realize I was that good of a kisser,” he teases.
“Don’t flatter yourself,” Jeongguk says. “I just feel what you feel.”
“But we should kiss again to be sure.”
“Just to be sure,” Taehyung agrees.
So that’s what they do. Again and again and again, and it’s better than anything Jeongguk could have dreamed up on his own.
On a nameless summer night in a memory lost to time, Taehyung asks, “Why do you think we dream?”
They are eight and nine, sharing the same bed at a sleepover because it’s only the natural thing to do when they can both fit so easily. They do it often, too—it’s as simple as going down to Taehyung’s or up to Jeongguk’s, and Jeongguk suspects that his parents are glad to get him off their hands every once in a while like that.
Currently, they are at Taehyung’s place, and though Taehyung’s parents made them go to bed twenty minutes ago, they’re both still wide awake.
“Like, why don’t we just sleep? Why do we have to dream, too?” Taehyung continues when Jeongguk has no immediate answer for him. “What’s the point? Is it so our brains don’t get bored? Do you think our dreams show us real things?”
“I don’t know,” Jeongguk says. “Maybe it’s so we don’t have to be so lonely while we sleep. Nine hours is a lot of time to spend apart.”
Even in the darkness, he can see Taehyung’s eyes brighten with interest. “Hey, you might be on to something. We can play together all night.”
All at once, going to sleep doesn’t seem like a half-bad idea. Jeongguk says, “Will I see you in my dreams?”
“I’ll be there,” Taehyung replies. A promise.
(He keeps it.)