Chapter 1: introductions
The shelter has a heavy air to it, poorly lit by bulbs that seem neither on or off, existing instead in a murky middle. Cracked tiles line the floor and years of leaks have worn grooves into the roof. An old woman, hunched over but energetic, nudges Jaebum down a dim corridor with soft words and pats of her hand.
“My friends told me I should get a dog now that I’m living alone.”
“They’re good friends. They don’t want you to be lonely.”
“I’m not lonely,” he argues, “It’s just quiet.”
“Well, they’re good company in any case.”
Jaebum steps down the hall, slowing to peer into cages. Each animal either sleeps or fidgets anxiously. Some gnaw on old toys, others lick their legs. Only one, a siamese cat near the end, is still.
The cat is poised, sits unmoving, uninterested. He’s struck by how captivating it is: cream fur that darkens at its extremities; svelte limbs and round paws; deep blue eyes fixed to a dark brown face. It doesn’t paw at the door, it doesn’t sway its tail. Its eyes follow Jaebum’s finger when he drags it over the cage.
“That's Nora. She’s pretty, isn’t she?”
“But quiet. You said you wanted a more lively pet. The dog next to her, maybe?”
Though he’s looking for something loud, something to fill up the silence of his apartment, Nora’s gaze enchants him. It has a knowing flicker, gives the feeling of thread tightening into knots, of seams coming together.
“I think I like her.”
“The old carrier she came with is in the back, if you’d like.”
“Does it still work?”
“It’s a little beat up, but should do the trick.”
Nora steps closer to the edge and Jaebum grins. Watching him, the old woman smiles.
“I’ll get the paperwork.”
Carrying Nora makes him careful walking home. He weaves through the small bustle of crowds like needle through cloth, slipping between a group of schoolchildren scrambling to be the first at an arcade, a pair of businessmen mulling over their phones.
The smell of wet streets lingers, as does the promise of rain, but his apartment is still blocks away. For the sake of time he chooses to cut through the park that stretches out in rich clusters of trees and a handful of low, bulging hills. Bright green growing defiantly against stiff, urban grays.
One step in, though, and the carrier trembles against his leg. He blames the wind until he glances down and the door creaks open. Nora springs out a beat later, not hurried or rushed, but determined. Fear leaps into his heart at the thought of losing her, but Nora doesn’t speed, instead moves in neat, comfortable strides into the park.
He mumbles her name as he follows, though she seems unaware of him as she climbs easily up stone steps, heads toward a pair of benches with a thin, wooden roof suspended above them. The space is closed off by trees, almost hidden. She steps beneath and a few drops of water hit Jaebum’s hands, splatter against the watch on his wrist. When he makes it under the awning, it starts to rain.
Someone else is there, too, though Jaebum only notices when Nora leaps into their lap and curls up, just as naturally, on his thighs.
“Nora,” he sounds angry as he sets the carrier on the other bench, “Sorry about her.”
But the stranger doesn’t seem to hear him, or if he does, he shows no sign of it. He’s curved over Nora, his hair messy, tufts of it sticking up near the back of his head, wet trees shivering in the rain behind him. His fingers trace her spine with an unhurried care, a delicate touch. He wears a thin, navy cardigan and loose jeans, white sneakers with no socks. A leather bag sits at his feet. The overcast sky has softened every shadow, every edge, and Jaebum notes how gently time seems to pass over them.
“Sorry, she got away.”
This time the stranger lifts his head, glances at Jaebum with sudden fascination, as though he’s just been woken from a dream. And though his lips form a plush, quiet smile, Jaebum recognizes the sight of someone who’s been crying. He tries to look elsewhere but his eyes are drawn to him, the way metals seek magnets.
With rain all around them, hiding them from the world, hiding the world from them, Jaebum loses himself in the slow-motioned wonder of the moment.
“It’s fine,” the stranger says, quiet.
“I just got her. I didn’t know she’d run off like that.” Jaebum reaches for Nora. She mewls in protest when he grabs her, the first sounds he’s heard her make, but he is too flustered to care. His cheeks warm despite the weather.
“She’s really pretty.” The stranger’s voice sounds soft against the patter of the rain. Unsure of how to respond, Jaebum busies himself with placing Nora back in her carrier and fastening the old latches as best he can. Her protests dwindle.
He hears a zipper being undone, the rustle of plastic, the old creak of a bench then a step. Something nudges at his side. By instinct he turns and by instinct he takes what the stranger offers -- an umbrella. Unused, he notes, the price tag still attached.
“Here. So the rain doesn’t get into her carrier. It’s going to keep raining for a while.”
He says this with so much conviction that Jaebum is left with no other option than to believe him. He wants to believe him because the more he studies him -- the rounded nose, ears that stick out too far, lips soft enough that his smile feels intimate -- the more aware he is of a familiar whir in his chest.
Before he can come to his senses and before he can protest the umbrella, the stranger makes his way down the stairs. He looks at home walking under the rain. Jaebum, in a daze, watches him disappear along the bend, water splashing at his feet. A few minutes later Nora’s meowing paws at his focus enough that he picks up the carrier, opens the umbrella, drudges home.
That evening he has Nora on his mind. He wonders if she’s eaten, if she’s acclimating to the apartment, if he’ll arrive home at four in the morning to find his couches ruined and the scratching posts ignored.
He wonders, too, about the umbrella he’d left at her side, about its owner. He had fantasized about tracking down the store where it was bought, asking questions, demanding footage -- fantasized about elevating the search into a spectacle. Sprinting down a wet sidewalk, fighting rain and dense crowds to find the boy at the end of it, bewildered but grateful. Inevitably charmed.
But life, he knows, is dull. The same drunken buzz fills his skull and the same slew of girls approach him, as any other night. They gawk and ask for pictures with him until he drives them off with a scowl or a flick of his wrist. On good nights he poses and on bad ones he lets security intervene to isolate him there, nestled in the roped off corner, surrounded by the few he’s labeled as friends.
“That blonde one and her friend were cute,” Mark teases, “Too bad Im Jaebum never likes to be bothered.”
Jaebum sighs, “I just have standards.”
“Lower them, then. You’re fucking lonely.”
Jaebum rolls his eyes, sounds annoyed when he says, “Keep going and I’ll get security to kick you out again.”
“You have no humor, shit,” Mark mumbles.
Brian, across from him, starts laughing. He says, “They should give out lottery tickets to talk to him.”
“Isn’t that what they already do? At those fansigns?”
“I don’t know. Is it what you do, Jaebum?” A pause. Mark turns to face him. “Jaebum?”
But Jaebum doesn’t care to listen. His eyes are fixed on a face at the edge of the room, lit by the bar. Rounded, masculine features, stuck somewhere between boyhood and manhood. Ears that demand attention, thick eyebrows, charming eyes that scan the room, not timid but interested. As though he sees something no one else sees. There’s no mistaking him.
“I’ll be right back,” he announces, standing to leave his section. He pushes through the pulsing crowd. The closer he gets, the darker the room becomes, lit only by flickers of light that cut his movements into short spurts of motion. One moment there’s a room between them, the next he’s four bodies away, suddenly he’s standing in front of him.
Jaebum taps his shoulder and their eyes meet. The boy smiles and that feeling of sunlight trapped in his chest returns. Jaebum notices the neatly combed hair and the buttoned shirt, tight dark jeans, black shoes that shine when he shifts his weight from right to left, keeping busy. Soaked in the blue light of the nightclub, he looks just as endearing as before. Prettier, even.
“You’re that guy,” he toys with the tiny straw in his drink, “With the pretty cat.”
“Yeah. Jaebum. Thanks for the umbrella.”
“Jaebum.” He says his name as if it were sugared, as if he were tasting it on his tongue. His head tilts, studying Jaebum. He looks pleased. “I’m Jinyoung.”
“Coincidence that we're both here.”
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence.” He raises his drink to Jaebum’s lips for him to sip. It tastes sweet.
“What do you mean?” Jaebum asks but he’s only met with a shrug. Then Jinyoung takes back his cup to drink it all at once. Jaebum eyes the shape of his neck when he swallows and the warmth in his chest expands. It bubbles inside of him, sharpens his focus so all he can see is the attractive line of Jinyoung’s lips, the slight tilt of his hips. He has the urge to reach out and touch him but Jinyoung is faster.
“Dance with me,” he says, abandons his drink and grabs Jaebum’s wrist, pulls him in the direction of the dance floor. Jaebum, still charmed, complies.
The dance floor is dark except for flashing strobes above them, which make Jinyoung appear in fleeting glimpses of light. A flood of green and his hands are up, his eyes shut. A flicker of blue and his lips are parted, maybe singing along, maybe lost in ecstasy. A flare of red and he’s leaning forward. Jaebum closes his eyes when Jinyoung dangles his arms around his neck. He takes hold of Jinyoung’s waist to pull him close, enough that every sway grinds their hips together.
Lips brush against Jaebum’s mouth then find his ear, Jinyoung’s saying something but his words are too soft. They flatten against the blunt throb of the music. Then he’s pulling away and the growing heat between them unravels. Jaebum opens his eyes to watch Jinyoung disappear into the herd of bodies. He tries to follow but a blonde girl blocks his path. She’s smiling, drunk. Her friend beside her is, too, and they do their best to keep him there, occupied. Laughing when Jaebum tries to push past them, finding pleasure where there is none.
And when Jaebum finally shoves his way out of the crowd, there is no sign of Jinyoung.
They find each other again an hour later, outside. The driver has gone to fetch the car and Jaebum, sober, fiddles with his phone. He veers away from the line of people still waiting to get in, pretends to busy himself as to not attract attention.
But it comes, anyway. Someone calls for him -- not by name, but by description.
“Blond hair! You on your phone!”
He turns to find Jinyoung’s familiar eyes, now excited with liquor. They gleam as he breaks away from a small crowd to join him at the edge of the sidewalk.
“Jaebum, it’s hard to find you.” His words, like his steps, are tipsy. Teeter from side to side, lucid but unsteady. “You disappeared.”
“You’re the one who just left.”
“I was going to the bathroom, I told you.”
“Tell me what you thought. I’m curious,” he says, steps closer.
“I just thought…” He trails off when Jinyoung reaches up to touch his hair. His fingers comb through a lock of it.
“Your hair is so pretty.”
“Don’t do that.” His jaw tenses, defenses rising now that he's in the open, exposed.
But Jinyoung is unphased. In fact, his smile grows. Genuine and reckless -- wrinkles dip into his skin, form tiny shadows under his eyes.
“I don’t even use umbrellas. I just had the weirdest urge to buy one today,” his eyes widen, fascinated, “Then you came along. And you were here, too. Do you think this is fate?”
Jaebum’s car pulls up. Unsure, for the second time that day, of how to reply, Jaebum lets instinct take over. He points at the door.
“Do you need a ride?”
The answer is no, but he only finds out half an hour later when he has to tell his driver to turn around to park back at the nightclub.
“I came with my friend,” Jinyoung explains, running his fingers over the leather seats when the partition in the middle of the car rises. The novelty of it all makes him touch everything in sight. The space where cushions meet, the fixtures on the doors, the roof of the car. “I’m living with her.”
Then his interest migrates to Jaebum. He traces Jaebum's shoulder with his palms, runs his fingers over the slices of his thigh that peek through ripped jeans.
“I just moved from Seattle,” he tells him, inches closer on the seat, shrugs off his coat to let it settle on the floor. Jaebum, unsure of anything except that he wants to be around Jinyoung, if only to satiate his curiosity, to explore the flicker dangled in his chest, gives in to the lull of desire. He takes a hold of Jinyoung’s wrist to pull his hand higher up his thigh.
“Yeah?” A hum slides into his throat when Jinyoung traces the outline of his dick over his jeans, pressed too tightly against his thigh. Jinyoung, as if awed, moves slowly. He feels the shape of it first, gentle with his fingers, before he turns to face the partition and shoots Jaebum a look.
“What if your driver hears?” he asks.
“Who cares? He works for me, doesn’t he?” There’s something in his tone, reckless and brusque, that fans at the growing warmth inside of Jinyoung, like embers heating. Jaebum lifts his hand to run through the short hair on the side of Jinyoung’s head, follows it around to his nape. He’s a bit rough when he pulls Jinyoung forward to press their lips together, a bit forceful when, a second later, he slips his tongue past the seams of his lips, letting it slide between teeth to swipe over Jinyoung’s. The kiss is heated and messy, but slows when Jinyoung starts undoing the buckle on Jaebum’s belt, unbuttoning his jeans.
He slips a hand past the band of Jaebum’s underwear to grab his cock, to stroke with that same, slowed care. Jinyoung squeezes, whimpers wistfully when it twitches between his fingers. Jaebum catches every sound with his tongue, pressing and insistent, mixing it with his own.
He proves to be a grower. The longer Jinyoung strokes, the larger Jaebum swells in his hold, thick and pulsing against his palm. He pulls away to breathe, glances down to where he’s pulled Jaebum's cock from out of his underwear. A bead of precome sits at the the slit and Jinyoung swirls a tentative finger over it, coats the head until it shines.
“Is it supposed to get that big?” he whispers, and the innocence in his voice disarms Jaebum enough that he smiles. Jinyoung, still catching his breath, notices and says, “So you do smile.”
“Do you like it?” he asks, breath hitching when Jinyoung starts stroking again, firmly this time. They share another kiss and Jaebum pulls down his jeans to his knees, does the same with his underwear. Then Jinyoung is folding himself on the seat so he can bend and take the Jaebum’s cock between his lips. The seat creaks beneath him, knees digging into the leather, his back arching when Jaebum rests a hand on it. Still shy, he only licks at the head, sucks the tip tentatively.
But Jaebum has other plans. He threads his fingers into Jinyoung’s hair to push him down. Jinyoung sputters, nearly chokes. He feels his eyes sting but he tries to relax, tries to loosen his jaw, tries to focus on taste, on warmth. Jaebum is all impatient edges and Jinyoung, even then, is there to soften them. He presses his hand to Jaebum’s stomach to feel him tense with every moan, to run his fingers over the trail of hair beneath Jaebum's navel, to linger where it thickens to a bush at the base.
And Jinyoung’s tongue is unbearably slick, his throat just as rewarding, so much that Jaebum’s hips start lifting on their own accord. Each snap sounds wet, and his reach goes further every time. Jaebum alternates between biting down on his lip, his neck tilted, and breathing heavy. His face twists with pleasure. He picks up speed, thrusting while Jinyoung tries to keep his lips rounded, hollowing his cheeks despite a need to breathe.
“Shit, you feel so good.” His voice is low, comes amid small groans and deep breaths, spills into his ears like liquid gold and Jinyoung decides that nearly choking is worth this treasure. The burn in his lungs, the feel of spit leaking at the corners of his lips. Jaebum’s grip on his hair, holding his head in place as he fucks into his mouth, gripping him desperately, like he might fall apart without him.
“Shit,” he pants, “Fuck, I’m close already.”
Jinyoung, as if prompted, tries to suck harder, cleaner. Tries to make the glide smoother, and as much as he hates the idea of swallowing, Jaebum shows no signs of letting up his grip on his hair. His hips slow and Jinyoung readies himself but Jaebum only tugs on his hair and pulls him off. Jinyoung gasps and tries to steady himself, lightheaded from the sudden lift.
“I want to fuck you.” Jaebum’s voice slices into his daze, and before Jinyoung knows what’s happening, Jaebum shoves short fingers into his mouth. Jinyoung runs his tongue over them, holding Jaebum's wrist with both hands, already missing the fullness of him in his mouth. He makes it a point to look him in the eye as he licks over his fingers, makes the sound obscene, paints the air with it.
Jaebum wishes he could linger in this moment: Jinyoung with flushed cheeks, a sweaty forehead; thick lips wrapped tight around his fingers, glossed from his own spit. Humid breaths stretching over his knuckles, the attractive curve of his neck. The deep black of his eyes.
Jinyoung’s phone vibrates from where it’s fallen on the floor and a string of messages parade across the screen. He glances down at it, squints, and his expression grows panicked. He pulls away, lets Jaebum’s fingers drag over his wet lips. Whatever magic lingers begins to fade.
“Shit, shit, shit,” he hisses in neat English.
“What? What’s wrong?”
“I have to go. Shit.”
“Wait, what the fuck do you mean?” Jaebum asks, but Jinyoung doesn't hear him over his own shuffling. He picks up his phone and wrestles on his coat. He turns to face Jaebum, leans forward, presses a kiss to his cheek.
“Sorry,” he announces as he fiddles with the handle until the door opens. He almost falls out.
“Hold on, can’t you fucking wait a second?”
“Sorry,” he says again before the door closes and the sound of his footsteps fades.
Just like that he’s gone. Jaebum can only stare at the window, stunned. He looks around the car for any sign that he’s been there, maybe an article left behind, maybe another umbrella, but nothing remains except for a vanishing heat. After a moment, still dazed as he pulls his jeans back up, Jaebum taps on the partition and tells the driver to head home.
Five days later, Nora goes missing. Jaebum roams around the apartment flipping cushions, looking under the couches, opening the pantry doors. He looks through piles of clothes and the empty guest rooms and he fears that Nora, as most tend to do, has left. It reminds him of being returned to the orphanage after matches gone awry, after being named too combative, too explosive, and it reminds him that these wounds have yet to heal.
It’s only been a few hours but he feels defeated.
“There was a window open,” he grumbles into the phone. A pause. “I’ve already tried that. I’ll just head to your place in a few hours. There’s nothing I can do right now.”
He walks out onto the fire escape, worn from the stress searching, and he lights a cigarette. An hour drags by, followed by another. He loses count of how many cigarettes he smokes. He feels numb, somehow. Hollow.
Evening arrives and makes the air stagnant and chilled. It surrounds him when he steps outside and looks back up at his apartment building. It looms against a violet sky, helps the streetlights wash out the stars with its neat rows of lit windows. Each one glows, holds entire lives inside of them. He tries to make a life for each one, imagines families, couples, loud groups of friends reconnecting. He finds his and wonders what someone else might think of it, what they would make of him.
Then he hears it: a string of meows, insistent but pleased, rising up to prance in his ears. It comes faint and paused but Jaebum follows it down the street. Each step pulls it closer.
In the distance he swears he sees a small, cream body moving along the building, turning the corner. Jaebum almost slips when he sprints along the street and turns around the bend.
"Nora," he calls, "Nora!"
Chapter 2: constellations
just an fyi: the ending scene of one chapter is the opening scene of the next one !
Jinyoung claws his way through another bush, ducks underneath a low-hanging branch. Nora is quick, already at the edge of the forest again, sprinting into the dirt road.
His heart punches angrily against his chest and his lungs crowd with rapid, shallow breaths. She stops in the middle of the road and he leaps over a small bush and out from the forest, ready to dive if need be.
Only when he snatches Nora off the ground does he notice the truck headed his way. It rattles and shakes over the dirt path, a cloud of dust billowing behind it's frame. It's close enough for Jinyoung to notice the peeling blue paint and broken headlights, close enough for him to bring Nora to his chest and brace for impact.
It never comes. The truck slows to a stop just half a meter away from him, though it never hints at danger, never nears collision. Jinyoung, eyes still closed, leg raised as though it would help him survive whatever tragedy he’d imagined, hears an old door swing open and the creak of rusted metal.
The voice pulls him out of his nightmare, pries his eyes open. A young man emerges from the truck, about his age, about his height, though definitely broader. He wears a loose shirt, front buttons undone enough for a toned, tan chest to peek through. Long hair spills onto his forehead, nearly touches his sharp eyes, charming in ways Jinyoung can't explain. In the heat of noon, he shimmers with sweat. Jinyoung finds himself tracing the lines of sunlight strung over the stranger’s collarbones, his cheekbones, the bump on his nose.
"I'm fine," Jinyoung’s voice is still shaky from the chase, "Just spooked."
"I see that," he says and Jinyoung swears the light bends, for a second, to wrap around that smile: thin lips frame a row of bright teeth, grooves form around his lips, and his eyes thin into endearing crescents. It makes Jinyoung nervous, and a bundle of words gather at his throat. The stranger stands there for a moment, a sight to behold in the summer sun, before he fishes into his breast-pocket for a small piece of paper.
"Can you tell me where this is?"
Jinyoung holds Nora in one arm, the cat grumbling, before he reaches forward to take the note. Scrawled on the paper is an address. He swallows the lump in his throat, adjusts his glasses.
"I'll show you," he says, "I live there."
Apart from the rumble of the motor and the rattle of a trunk in the back, their ride is mostly silent. Conversation doesn't spill past names, not that Jinyoung minds. It gives him a chance to study Jaebum. He's quiet, his features are sharper than most he's seen and, in certain angles, they look almost feline. It makes sense to him that Nora pries herself away from his hold to sit next to Jaebum instead, purring every time he strokes her head absently.
Jinyoung only raises his voice to tell him to turn at crossroads and to point out a few signs before his house comes into view. By then, Jinyoung is sure he’s memorized Jaebum’s face down to the pair of moles above one of his eyes.
It's his mother that gives them proper introductions.
"You must be Jongsu’s boy," she says, already smiling when they step in the door, "And you've already met little Youngie."
“Sorry, Jinyoung , he used to be much smaller last summer. And you found Nora, too. She’s always getting lost.”
"Yes, ma'am," Jaebum answers, bending at the waist in a deep bow. Jinyoung takes note of this, too.
"It's such a shame about your daddy’s leg. Why don't you go back out to the old house, the water should be up and going so you can wash up. I'll have Youngie bring some food over. Maybe you two can have supper together."
Jaebum only nods and bows again. The door looks smaller when he walks through it. Then the roar of the truck’s engine quivers through the air before it fades, muted by distance.
"That poor boy," she tells Jinyoung, "He must be so lonely out on that old farm with his dad. I'll give you some food and you go eat with him. Keep him some company, make friends. He can’t have that many living so far out."
"What about you, mom?"
She scoffs, "I'm fine, I have Nora to keep me company."
When Jinyoung sees him again, Jaebum is completely naked.
Jinyoung carries an old pot with a pair of bowls, heads out a few hundred meters to the old house that sits on weary wood. It’s far enough to be a nuisance, but close enough that he can walk, and as he nears it, he hears quiet splashes of water coming from behind it. Curious, he steps around to investigate.
Jaebum’s back is the first thing he sees, a broad shape, wet and glistening, the sun draping neat lines of light over it. The muscles tense and loosen as he pours a bucketful of water over himself and Jinyoung follows the trickle down the curve of his spine, over a pert bottom, in between stout thighs, short but thick. Then Jaebum turns around and Jinyoung closes his eyes.
"I brought food," he announces, a bit too loud, a bit too high-pitched. A rosy heat pours into his cheeks.
"I'll be right inside, sorry," he answers, and when Jinyoung opens his eyes again, Jaebum is staring at him. His presence causes no discomfort, Jaebum doesn’t shy away. He smiles when he rubs at his chest with an old bar of soap. Jinyoung tries not to notice the small bubbles that form.
He nods and heads to the wooden entrance of the house, not before peeking one last time. Jaebum has moved on to lathering the ridges of muscle on his stomach, lowering with each stroke until warm flutters stream into Jinyoung’s middle and he almost drops the food.
They eat mostly in silence, Jaebum hungrily, as though he hasn't in days, while Jinyoung picks at his food. When Jaebum is done, Jinyoung offers his portion, and Jaebum eats that with a grin, too.
“Do you live here?” Jaebum asks, his mouth full. Slips of his accent come through.
“I live with my uncle in the city,” Jinyoung says, plays with the watch on his wrist, “I just come in the summer.”
“You go to school?”
“Yeah, I’m going to start university soon. Do you live with your dad?”
“Not after this summer,” he says.
“Really?” Jinyoung leans forward, interested again, “That sounds like a big change.”
And Jaebum hums, looks pensive for the remainder of the meal.
When they're both done, Jinyoung collects the plates in silence. As he turns to leave, Jaebum grabs him. All of his nerves flock to where Jaebum's short fingers curl around his arm.
"Yes?" Jinyoung asks, hates how small his voice sounds.
"Can you do me a favor?"
"What do you need?"
"Could you tell me what this says," he lets go of Jinyoung's arm but the static remains. Jaebum disappears down the hall, returns with a letter.
Jinyoung abandons the dishes on the table and takes the paper, unfolding it carefully. It has the same rushed handwriting the address was in, loose and messy but easy enough to decipher. Just another set of names and addresses and a few set of instructions. Without thinking, he asks, "Do you not know how to read?"
Jaebum glances at the floor, interested suddenly in the space between his feet, as if the shape fascinates him.
"No," he admits and Jinyoung notices the red of his ears, "I don't."
"You know," he surprises himself, as though his words climb his throat and leap out of their own accord, "I could teach you, if you want."
"You would?" Jaebum looks up and his features gather around a smile. Jinyoung feels the flutters again, wings flapping at his stomach, a light breeze inside of his chest. Jaebum’s attention feels like sunlight warming his shoulders, his nape, inspires a rush of color in his cheeks.
"Of course," he says, "How long will you be staying?"
"Just for the summer."
Walking back to the main house, his steps are light, as though his body has been filled with balloons. Bright, clumsy balloons that gather at the top of his heart, bumping into each other, making small squeaks of music at the thought of an entire summer full of Jaebum.
They build a rhythm in the first weeks. Each morning Jinyoung arrives with a stack of books and a lesson before Jaebum has to go tend to the fields, to the animals, whatever else it is that he tends to, Jinyoung is never sure. He likes to imagine they are grand things: guarding the animals from capture, fighting off thieves, whispering softly to the plants, urging them to grow.
Each evening, after supper, they sit for another lesson. Jaebum is attentive for the first hour, then, night after night, his focus strays and they end up exchanging questions until one of them yawns and their time comes to a close.
“Why did you name the cat Nora?” he folds his arms on the table to rest his head on them, looking up at Jinyoung with interest. His straw hat sits on the table beside him.
“It’s from an old brand of watch my mom had. I liked the name a lot, but I like the name more than I like the cat. She’s mean, but she likes you. Who wrote the notes for you?”
“My aunt. She came after she heard my mom had passed away and gave them to me, told me your mom was hiring help while your dad’s away. Do you like school?”
“Not really, but I like to read, so it evens out. What do you do for fun at home?”
“When I was little I used to run around and make up stories in my head with all the animals. But now I just try to keep busy. My dad gets mad if I’m not doing anything. What’s the city like?”
"There’s a lot of people and so much to do. Lots of lights,” he pauses, studies how longing Jaebum’s gaze is, “You’d like it. Would you want to go someday?”
“I think so,” he says, “It sounds exciting. Would you take me?”
“I’ll be your personal guide,” both of them smile. “What do you do all day out in the field?"
Jaebum gnaws on his lips as if considering something.
"I just lay around sometimes." A moment later. "You should come with me. It might be fun."
Jinyoung appears the next morning dressed as though he were headed to school. Raised in the city, Jinyoung is mostly sharp, neat edges. His shirt is ironed, tucked into pleated trousers; a belt gleams, holds them up on narrow hips.
"You can't go dressed like that," Jaebum tells him, spinning the keys to the truck in his hand.
"What do you mean?" he looks down at his clothes, "These are my work clothes."
"I have some you can borrow."
And they head inside, Jinyoung pulled into the house’s only room. He hopes to see something of Jaebum’s, but other than the trunk in the corner, there is nothing that paints the room as his, nothing distinctive. Just bare, wooden walls, chipped with the years. A dresser sits in the corner with an oil lamp perched on top. Jaebum digs into his trunk and fishes out some worn pants and an oversized shirt.
"Here," he says, hands them to Jinyoung, "Wear this."
Jinyoung is timid as he pulls his shirt from his pants, undoes his belt, kicks off his shoes. Where Jaebum is oblivious of his body, Jinyoung is hyper-aware. More so when Jaebum shows no sign of leaving, instead stands at the door, leaning against the frame. The smile has left his lips and he looks thoughtful as he watches. Jinyoung’s figure is scrawny, lacks muscle, and when he's reduced to wearing only briefs, he's aware of the way his stomach swells and softens. The size of the clothes make him look smaller, more childish.
"I look silly," he says, adjusting the buttons on the shirt. When he looks up, Jaebum is smiling again, a bit wistful, and the tickle of wings in his chest returns.
"You look great.” He steps closer, takes off his hat to put on Jinyoung’s head. Studying him, he grins, “Now you look perfect.”
They head to the corral first where Jaebum, with the excitement of a child, points out each animal for Jinyoung to see. First he puts out fodder for the pigs, then water and hay for the horse, some food for the sheep to share. Jaebum tells Jinyoung about each animal, about their personality, their preferences. Apple the sheep is deathly afraid of Jaebum, never eats food until he’s far away and hidden, while Blue, the pig, has a hard time seeing, often bumps into wooden posts.
“That one’s Star,” he points to a cow by the fence, “And that big one next to her is Little.”
Jaebum is proud of each nickname and of each detail he’s managed to unearth, and Jinyoung is beyond enamored. He listens closely to each story, nods when prompted.
“Little likes to be rubbed like this,” Jaebum says, takes Jinyoung’s hand to press it on the cow’s head, between its eyes. Jaebum rubs their hands together and Jinyoung’s heart races until Little sticks out her tongue, laps at their arms and Jinyoung squirms while Jaebum laughs.
The field Jaebum tends to is small and wet, lined with a forest on one side. Jinyoung sits on the truck bed, his legs dangled over the edge. He watches Jaebum pull at weeds, check the seeds, fix a few dry spots. It only takes half an hour for Jaebum to return.
"Don't you ever get tired? Don't you ever get bored?" The interest in his voice surprises him, as though his words have tilted towards Jaebum without permission, without him knowing.
"No," he answers and looks down the dirt road that wraps along the hill, "Maybe sometimes. But there's always things to see. I'll show you."
He pats Jinyoung's leg, urges him to follow. They slip into the forest. The sunlight is dappled here and branches break beneath their feet. Summer has drawn out the chirp of crickets and it blends with the song of birds, have a choir-like effect. Jinyoung hasn't been this close to the forest since his childhood, and he's surprised by how vivid it feels. Alive, nothing like the noise of the city.
"It's beautiful," Jinyoung says, and Jaebum turns to face him. Here, in the filtered sunlight, with the smell of trees thick in his nose, Jaebum's smile seems at home, as if it were a fixture in the forest.
"Wait 'til you see the ravine," he tells him. They come up on a clearing, the trees have shied away from the downward hill, and a thin river murmurs between rocks. In the distance he can see where it thickens and where it falls from atop the small cliff. From this far away the water looks like it dives in white, twirling ribbons, bouncing off of rocks. Jinyoung is mesmerized.
"It's so -- "
The last word catches in his throat. Distracted by the scene, he ignores the slope of the ground, forgets to lean to keep his gravity. One missed step and he slides down, heads towards the river. He manages to find enough footing to slow his path, but in his tumble, a broken branch slices into his arm. The line is shallow, easily healed, but the red is rich enough that Jinyoung yelps.
"What's wrong? Jinyoung?!" Jaebum doesn't have to think to move naturally in the forest. In a few hops, he's at Jinyoung's side, pulling him up by his arm, inspecting the other.
"It doesn't look bad," he tells him, "Let's clean it up."
Jinyoung is all wide eyes, fearful as they are curious. Watching Jaebum help him up, the line of his neck tensing when he scans the ground they walk on. His jaw sticks out too far when he thinks, when he doubts, and every time he looks back at Jinyoung, his arm still nestled in his hold, his eyes warm. Fractured sunlight swims in their color.
"It's only a scratch," he tells Jinyoung when he puts his arm in the running water of the river. It feels cool as it washes the blood away and only a thin, red line remains.
“See? It’s not so bad,” Jaebum reports, back at the truck. He retrieves a long strip of gauze from a tackle box in the back. He ties it around Jinyoung’s arm with care. His features twist with focus, and his fingers are quick, precise. Jinyoung can’t help but ask where he’s learned to do it so well.
"I get hurt a lot," he says. His expression darkens for only a second before the easygoing smile returns, like a passing cloud blotting out the sun, "But it comes in handy."
"You sure are smiling a lot for someone who's hurt.”
Jinyoung glances up from his spot on the table to look at his mother. He'd been busy writing simple sentences on a piece of paper, things for Jaebum to practice, but now he pauses, notices his smile. He gnaws on his lips, tries to busy them as though, without notice, they might snap back into shape.
"Jaebum said it's only a scratch."
"Well, I'm sure Jaebum knows what he's talking about," she, too, is smiling as she sets food down, wipes her hands on her apron, "I'm happy you two are friends, I won't feel so bad going to visit your sister next week. You keep each other company, okay?"
Somehow, the news elates him, and he relays it that evening during his lesson with Jaebum. They’ve moved the light from his room to the kitchen, and it sits between them. Their shadows sway on the walls from time to time.
“My mom’s going away next week,” he tells him, “It’s going to be just us.”
“Isn’t it always just us?”
“I guess so,” Jinyoung says, discouraged. He looks at the piece of paper between them, points to a sentence in the middle. Jaebum recites it in that thick accent, the slowing and quickening of words. Listening to him, Jinyoung grows frustrated -- his excitement from before, now left with no direction, quickly slips into anger. He pouts, furrows his eyebrows.
“No, say it like this.” He makes it a point to enunciate each word, lips whittling sound neatly, his tongue mechanical as he mimics what he’s learned in the city.
“That’s what I said.”
“No, you’re saying it all weird. Say it how I’m saying it.”
“It’s the same words,” he says, turns his body to face Jinyoung. The corners of his mouth curl with the hint of a smile. Teasing, he says, “You just sound like a stuck-up city boy.”
“And you sound like a dumb, country bumpkin.” He regrets the words immediately, but Jaebum doesn’t seem to mind. He’s smiling still, as though he didn’t hear.
“You look like a duck when you’re mad,” he says and Jinyoung pouts again.
“I do not . Are you going to pay attention or not, I’m tired.”
“You’re doing it again,” Jaebum tells him, leans a bit closer. His voice lowers, but he’s clear when he says, in a near-perfect city accent, “Little duck, Youngie.”
Jinyoung, led by instinct, by that lingering flame in his chest, shoves at Jaebum. He shoves back, and Jinyoung throws a punch, misses, but it’s enough for Jaebum to stand abruptly, his chair rattling on the ground behind him. Jinyoung doesn’t bother to look as he turns and tries to leave -- he’s had his ass kicked enough times to know it’s better to flee.
But Jaebum is much faster, he grabs Jinyoung while he tries to run. They both tumble to the floor when Jinyoung tries to wrestle out of his hold, tries to pry away Jaebum’s hands but his fingers dig into his sides, find his middle, his shoulder, tickling whatever space he can find.
“Stop,” he tries to bite his laughter back but it comes regardless, loud, colorful chuckles, “Stop -- let me go!”
He pushes at Jaebum’s hands, a fruitless fight. Jaebum only takes Jinyoung's in his, pins them above his head, holding his wrists down against the floor. The tile is cool against the back of his hands, which makes him notice Jaebum more, the heat of his palms, the warmth he radiates. He’s on his knees, face hovering above his. His lips part with heavy breaths.
With his back to the light, Jaebum’s features have darkened, his eyes look hungry. Instead of warm flutters, Jinyoung feels heat curl and loop into itself in his stomach, rising to his chest like smoke. Their smiles unravel and Jinyoung swallows heavy.
“I should go,” he says, finally, though they remain that way for a moment. Then Jaebum stands and reaches out a hand to help Jinyoung. His palms, Jinyoung notices, are sweaty. He picks up his books but leaves a paper behind at Jaebum’s request.
“I want to practice some more,” he says. Their parting is slow and Jinyoung dotes too long on the weight of Jaebum’s hand against his shoulder when he sees him off.
That night, when the chirp of crickets pours in through the window, Jinyoung fidgets in his sleep. The mattress creaks beneath him as he twists, turns, dreams of connecting each of the moles on Jaebum’s back with his fingers as if it were a map, each dot a new destination. He dreams of the glide of wet skin, hot beneath his touch. He wakes up warm and breathless.
“Why do you collect stones?”
A few days later they return to the small river again, and Jinyoung notices that Jaebum always takes a few stones each time. Sometimes he throws them back the next day, sometimes he keeps them. Jinyoung sets his book down in his lap, watching Jaebum waddle along the river, his pants rolled up, hands roaming through the water. He picks up a stone, inspects it in the light as though it were gold.
“I don’t know,” he answers, “They’re just pretty. I like looking at them.”
“They’re just stones,” Jinyoung says, resumes his reading.
“Why do you read books?”
“They’re fun to read.”
“So the same reason?”
Jinyoung sits up, defiant. He says, “They’re fun to read. But they have story and purpose. Better than stones.”
“Yeah?” Their eyes meet. “Read them to me sometime.”
Back at the field, they spread a blanket over the bed of the truck. Jaebum rests on his back and covers his face with the straw hat while Jinyoung sits beside him and reads his novel out loud. Most of the time, Jaebum is quiet, and Jinyoung stops reading to stare at the way his chest rises and falls, assumes he’s asleep. But Jaebum's chest slows and his stomach tenses, he grunts.
“Keep going,” he says and Jinyoung, smiling, obliges.
It takes them days to finish the novel. They both look forward to these moments, the breeze sighing over them, the sun warming their wet clothes. Jinyoung even takes to helping Jaebum with his tasks to finish them faster. When they finish, Jinyoung lets the book fall into his lap. Jaebum takes the straw hat off his face, turns to Jinyoung with a frown.
“That’s how it ends?”
“That’s how it ends.”
“If you don’t like it, write your own.”
They smile at each other when Jaebum sits up, stretching to nudge Jinyoung’s leg with his.
“Maybe I will,” he says, “If I did would you read it?”
Without hesitating, Jinyoung says, “It’d be my favorite.”
It's Jinyoung that suggests they go stargazing. He finds his old bike in the shed, shows it to Jaebum excitedly.
"Let's go this weekend," he says, "While my mom is away."
And so Saturday comes around, they bike up the dirt path, head towards a small hill. On the way they race, Jaebum riding with his arms stretched out on either side of him, eyes closed. He seems so at peace that Jinyoung tries to do the same, though his bike wobbles and he panics.
"Just trust in yourself," Jaebum yells, "You can do it."
He manages with a scream, a neat ribbon of sound that flutters behind him. The wind brushes all of his hair from his face, and it feels like floating. He feels weightless when they arrive, abandon their bikes in some thick bushes, so sure that nobody's around for miles. He feels weightless climbing up, now familiar with the terrain, confident in his steps.
He feels weightless when they stretch out on a blanket, Jaebum busy eating a loaf of bread Jinyoung packs for him, their bodies side by side. Jinyoung fits his hands behind his head, looks up to the sky as it darkens from a clear blue to an indigo until, finally, it plunges into a deep violet and the stars emerge. He tries to point out constellations, traces them with his finger, but Jaebum seems uninterested.
"Let's make our own," Jaebum says, "So we don't have to remember them."
So they rearrange the thread of constellations, wrap them around cows and pigs and small stones. They make one of Jinyoung's mother, one of Nora, of Apple and Little. Jinyoung, excited, scans the stars for more shapes, urges them to peek out, to reveal themselves.
"Let's make one of you," Jaebum says, "There are your eyes. Your eyebrows. Your nose curves just a little, your ears stick out. Don't forget your eyelashes. Your cheeks. Your chin. And those lips, we need those, too."
So many details frustrates him -- there are only so many stars, so many lines, so he turns to face Jaebum. He's looking back at him, his whole body turned to the side.
"You're supposed to be doing it with stars," he says, but Jaebum only gazes. It reminds him of that night with the lamp flickering behind him, that unnamed hunger.
"I got distracted," he says, but his eyes remain fixed. Jinyoung turns to his side, too, and faces him.
"What are you thinking of?" Jinyoung asks when the silence continues.
"You," he answers.
Jinyoung has read about attraction in books, about desire. He knows that it crashes into place, heated and urgent. He knows that it digs into thoughts and carves a space for itself, no matter the damage, no matter the cost.
But none of it describes the quiet pull. This slow gravity of stars above them, the grass gentle beneath them. Nothing describes the uneven texture of the blanket under his fingers, or the way its shadows move as Jaebum shifts closer. None of them detail how the breath rushes out of him when Jaebum reaches forward to brush Jinyoung’s hair from his forehead, how he takes off his glasses to trace the slope of his nose with his finger.
It doesn't describe how perfectly his hips fit under the weight of Jaebum's fingers, or how warm his hands are when they slip underneath his shirt. The rough skin, softening at the palms, finding the shape of Jinyoung's stomach, his chest. He runs a thumb over Jinyoung's nipple and his breath hitches. Then he pulls Jinyoung close. Their legs entwine and Jaebum finds the swell of Jinyoung's bottom, slips his hands beneath loose trousers, kneads at the flesh with brute fingers. Jinyoung's eyes close, he presses a hand against Jaebum's chest, runs it up to wrap around his neck.
The seconds don't fall but float around them. One second stretches into an hour. One breath swells into a landscape of sound.
When they finally kiss, Jinyoung is already out of breath. Jaebum lets his lips glide over Jinyoung’s, humid and slow, before he slips his tongue into his mouth, finds his taste. Jinyoung weaves his fingers through Jaebum's hair, hears only his own heartbeat as he melts into the kiss. He fits a thigh in between Jaebum's, rubs it against his groin. Their limbs move by themselves, meet in the middle, pulled by different points of gravity as if, above, the stars were pointing down at them, telling them how to move, shaping their own constellations out of tan skin and tangled limbs.
Jaebum pulls away with a loud breath to sit up. He takes off his shirt and hovers above Jinyoung, who fumbles with the buttons of his until the fabric falls open on either side of his chest.
"Jaebum," he whispers, "Jaebum."
Chapter 3: distance
just as a guide: each chapter is going to alternate between storylines! there's three stories in total, but the 2012 storyline is the main one. the other two are their most recent past lives, and hopefully as i upload more you can see how much each affects the other! thank you so much for reading, let me know what you all think! also, for the people who thought jaebum was getting blueballed, the first part of this chapter is for you. (^:
“Jaebum,” he whispers, can’t manage anything louder other than a stray whimper. His voice quivers in his throat, thinning as Jaebum parts his legs and slicks his fingers with lube.
“Come on,” Jaebum teases and bends down to kiss Jinyoung’s pierced nipple, running his tongue over the metal of it. His kisses migrate south, then pause. “Come on,” he says again, “Keep telling me about you.”
“I’m nineteen,” Jinyoung says. His eyes are shut, embarrassed by how his body writhes and trembles. By how pliant he becomes, his thighs spreading, welcoming Jaebum’s wet fingers when he prods at his entrance. His breath hitches when he slips his middle finger in, cold enough that goosebumps form on his shoulders as static scales his spine.
“My favorite color is blue.” The last word comes out mewled because Jaebum curls his fingers and kisses a spot on Jinyoung’s chest. He likes the toying, likes the sounds he manages to pluck out of Jinyoung. Likes to take him apart only to piece him together, likes how he tightens around his fingers only to loosen. That push and pull of desire, the tepid hesitation overtaken by want. He bites at Jinyoung’s skin, leaves light marks on his ribs.
Nora had led him back to Jinyoung and the gravity that had brought them together so many times had returned, stronger now, vibrant with heat. They had arrived at Jaebum’s apartment with the excuse of returning a borrowed umbrella but that had been kicked on the floor, forgotten along with their clothes.
“What else?” Jaebum urges, slides out his fingers only to put a second one in. The breath rushes out of Jinyoung’s lungs and his lips part, noiseless. Jaebum pushes until his knuckles are flush against Jinyoung’s rim.
“I-I’m a dancer,” he gasps, “I’ve danced for years.”
And Jaebum can tell in the way his stomach tenses and the muscles harden, tan skin taut over thin ridges. He can tell by the slow rock of Jinyoung’s hips, both needy and timid, though still too tight around his digits.
“Relax, baby,” he says, low, spreading his fingers to stretch him out, to hear Jinyoung whimper before he gnaws on his lips, trying to keep quiet, “You need more help?”
Jinyoung nods and Jaebum pulls out, flips Jinyoung over on his stomach. His back arches almost immediately, hips high, his face pressed against his forearms. He’s on elbows and knees and his arms tremble when Jaebum pries his cheeks apart with one hand. He slips inside of him again, only with one finger this time. He bends it gentle, slow.
“Keep talking to me with your pretty voice,” Jaebum says.
“I’m afraid of heights,” Jinyoung pants, his voice sinking into the sheets.
Jaebum does the same with two fingers, pushing and twisting with one hand, the other holding him open. At the third, Jinyoung is louder, though his whimpering is warmer. Pleasure starts to color the noises he makes, heighten when Jaebum leans forward and kisses down his spine, doesn’t stop until he finds Jinyoung’s rim with his tongue. Jinyoung shudders, nearly keels over but Jaebum grasps his hips, holds him in place while he fucks him with his tongue.
Jinyoung melts against him, completely under the spell of bliss, of ecstasy. He doesn’t just see stars, he feels them clatter up his spine, clumsy spasms of pleasure. He feels weak in his legs and his thighs tremble, but he learns that this, too, is delightful. This, too, is part of the experience, part of the climbing, the working up to a satisfaction. It’s addicting, this heat, wet and hot, and he chases it, presses back, searches for more.
Then Jaebum pulls away, sits up on his knees and reaches for the lube again. This time he slicks up his cock.
“You ready?” Jinyoung wriggles his hips in response, the sight exciting enough that Jaebum lifts his hand, brings it down against Jinyoung’s ass in a heavy spank. He watches the skin quiver, watches it redden around the mark of his hand. His cock twitches just watching.
“Fuck,” he says, lowers his voice to a near growl, “Hold yourself open for me.”
And Jinyoung lowers to press his face against the bed. His hands roam back to grab his own cheeks and pull them apart. The cool air against his wet skin makes him shiver.
Jaebum is slow when he pushes in, distracted at the sight of his cock sliding into something so pretty, someone so beautiful that even a red handprint on his ass looks appealing. Then he pulls out nearly all the way, pushes back in to see the sight again, to see Jinyoung stretching around him. His whimpers hit Jaebum’s ear like music, each high-pitched whine a note.
But Jaebum wants an entire symphony. One hand grabs Jinyoung’s waist, the other his hips. He pulls Jinyoung back against him, relishes the mad slap of skin against skin. It’s much too easy to build a rhythm, much too easy to become intoxicated by Jinyoung’s voice rushing out of him like water, poured on to the bed, gathering in puddles of whimpers, of breathless pants.
Jinyoung’s toes curl as he loses track of where he ends and Jaebum begins, where pain blends into pleasure. Jaebum is big enough that he feels impossibly stretched, but he craves it, too. He whines when Jaebum pulls his hair and makes him bend even more, his back twisting. He whines when the drag of Jaebum’s cock reaches that bundle of nerves that flare and crackle with satisfaction. He whines until it isn’t enough and he has to scream Jaebum’s name every time the bed creaks and sways under them.
Then Jaebum grows impatient: he’s glad Jinyoung’s a dancer because flipping him on his back proves to be easy, folding his leg proves easy, too. He presses Jinyoung's thigh against his chest, finds a new angle, always careful never to slip out. He wants Jinyoung full of him at all times, and he already looks lost in bliss, his mouth open, eyebrows furrowed. His cheeks are flushed and sweat glimmers on his forehead. Tiny noises spill out of him, louder every time Jaebum snaps his hips, quicker with every thrust into him.
It’s Jaebum that has to reach down to tug on Jinyoung’s cock, already swollen with need, sensitive and red, throbbing. In a few strokes, Jinyoung’s tightening, clenching. In a few strokes he’s already coming on himself, painting his stomach with white.
“So quick?” Jaebum asks, but the sight exhilarates him. He leans forward to press their lips together and to push his tongue into Jinyoung’s mouth, always insistent. The kiss is warm, though one-sided; Jinyoung still seems lost in his orgasm, glowing but weak. Jaebum takes advantage of how tightly he clenches, fucks him hard and quick until his own climax builds at the center of his hips. It starts to unravel like a hot coil of metal while the bed shakes with each motion.
He pulls out when he's close, strokes himself fast and firm until he comes in spurts on Jinyoung’s stomach. His breaths leave him and his heart pounds against his chest, loud enough that his whole body stutters under the quake. He leans forward, props himself up on his hands and hovers over Jinyoung. His eyes are open now, tired but lucid. He looks beyond pleased.
With their eyes still on each other, Jaebum runs a finger in circles over Jinyoung’s stomach, mixes their come together. He drags it up Jinyoung’s chest, his neck. He runs it over his chin before he presses it against Jinyoung’s lips, glossing them. He watches as Jinyoung laps at his fingers with his tongue, slow and lazy, as though he were savoring.
“God,” Jaebum says, “You’re fucking gorgeous.”
Cleaning up is simple, though Jaebum takes his time. He simmers in the magic of the moment. Jinyoung takes a quick shower then steps out. Jaebum watches him from the bed, the thin frame built with lean muscle. The swell of his ass, full when he crouches down to fish out his underwear from the pile on the floor, to slip it on as though it were the easiest thing to move so gracefully, as if every step were a dance. As if every breath, the tensing and softening of his stomach, is choreographed.
“You know, you don’t have to go,” Jaebum says. Jinyoung stops gathering his clothes to look at Jaebum.
“You can spend the night, it’s kind of late,” he continues, surprises himself by how his voice sounds -- almost warm, almost pleading. Seeing Jinyoung leave feels too familiar for it to be comfortable. This time, he thinks, he can break the pattern. He can break the spell.
They can build a new magic.
And Jinyoung agrees with a timid smile, climbs back into bed with him. Jaebum pulls him against his side and Jinyoung curls into him. Their bodies fit perfectly against each other: Jinyoung with a leg over Jaebum’s middle, his head resting against his chest. Jaebum with his hand on Jinyoung’s bottom, the other one sifting through his damp hair, scratching his scalp gently as though coaxing him to sleep.
“I’m tired,” Jinyoung says, and Jaebum hums.
He falls asleep with Jinyoung’s heartbeat pressed against his side.
He comes over the next few weeks and the process repeats with small variations. Sometimes it’s Jinyoung that gets naked first, sometimes it’s Jaebum. Sometimes they do it on the couch, sometimes in the shower. Sometimes they never make it past the wall beside his front door.
Little by little, a pattern forms. They roll around, have sex a few times. In the minutes between they talk, sometimes endlessly, until it’s time to fool around again. He learns that Jinyoung grew up under the care of his grandparents, that he got on a plane to Seoul without much of a plan, that he’s only had one boyfriend.
“Was he better looking than me?” Jaebum asks.
Jinyoung plays with the necklace dangled around Jaebum’s neck.
“No, you’re a lot more handsome. Were all your girlfriends pretty?”
“Yes,” he says, “But you’re cuter than any of them.”
Eventually, after a few weeks, the time spent between becomes longer than the time spent during. Sometimes Jinyoung comes over and they do nothing but talk, Jaebum naked on his back, his eyes closed, Jinyoung curled up right next to him with Jaebum’s hand in his.
“Practice tired me out,” Jaebum will say, “I thought I had the energy.”
And Jinyoung nods each time, smiling to himself as he unfolds Jaebum’s fist, traces the lines of his palm. He kisses his fingers, his knuckles, his wrist, presses the back of his hand against his cheek. Sometimes Jaebum brushes his thumb against Jinyoung’s nose, sometimes he just watches Jinyoung and tries to pinpoint where the warmth in his chest is born. Rarely does he ask what it is or what it means.
“Are you reading my palm?” Jaebum asks.
“Maybe,” Jinyoung answers, lets his eyes flit shut. His eyelashes flutter against Jaebum’s hand and his nerves tremble. Then, still smiling, Jinyoung asks, “What if I found out all your secrets in there?”
“I don’t have any.”
“And if you did?”
“I would have already told you them.”
“You’ve changed. You haven’t yelled, you don’t even look mad. You didn’t even bitch about Brian.”
Jaebum looks up at Mark and shrugs.
“I’m in a good mood,” he answers with a smile, goes back to scrolling through his phone.
“He’s not even getting mad at you,” Brian chimes in from across the room, “Do you think he’s getting his dick wet?”
Mark nudges Jaebum’s foot, “Is it true? You’re getting laid? You got a girl or something? A friend ?”
“Something like that,” he says, but when he goes back to his phone, his smile unwinds. His mind fills with the question of labels and names. Jinyoung is something, but the specifics get lost in a warm glow of bliss. He can’t see silhouettes and can’t make out shapes, only Jinyoung’s voice in the distance and his soft, tepid touch.
“He’s doing it again,” Mark groans, “Damn, I’ve never seen you smile that big.”
“Oh, he must be getting it a lot,” Brian says before he and Mark start laughing.
“Just don’t get too attached. We got a big tour coming up.”
The question haunts him when the leaves stop browning, when autumn slips cleanly into winter. Jinyoung flits from aisle to aisle, seemingly weightless under the garish lights of the small supermarket while Jaebum quietly follows. Jinyoung picks up each product with care, turns it around in his hands, feels the packaging, reads the label. When Jaebum throws food in, Jinyoung picks through it and inspects it, returning the ones he deems unlucky.
“Omens,” he says, “You have to pay attention to color.”
Jaebum watches Jinyoung sift through rows of nearly identical packages, fingers hovering until they pause over an individual one. Each choice he makes has equal importance, whether it’s gum or meat, oranges or face masks.
“How do you know which to pick?”
Jinyoung leans against the cart and props his feet on the edge so Jaebum can push him around.
“Sometimes,” Jinyoung says, “You just have to let things come to you. It’s like something just pushes you to do something and you just have to follow it.”
“Like following your gut?”
“No,” Jinyoung pauses, turns to face Jaebum. He looks thoughtful with his eyebrows furrowed, his lips pursed, “It’s bigger than that. It’s like a voice but not a voice. Something speaking through you.”
“Like something trapped in your chest?” Jaebum leans in, curious as they head towards the checkout line.
“Yeah, it should be warm. Like a compass telling you what to do. That way you make the right decisions.”
As they empty the cart into the conveyor, Jaebum tries to scour his chest for details. The warmth is there, that light he felt when he’d first met Jinyoung. But with time it’s become hotter. A light-bulb glowing where his heart should be. He imagines the light rising up his chest, expanding. He imagines it breaks up into little beads that, in turn, become words. They sit warm on his tongue, waiting to be let out.
“Can you bag these separate?” Jinyoung tells the cashier, divides his groceries and Jaebum’s.
“No,” Jaebum says, “Put them all together. They’re going to the same place.”
Outside, Jinyoung nudges him with an elbow. The bags rustle in his hands.
“What do you mean they’re going to the same place?”
Jaebum gnaws on his lips, looks distracted. He glances up at the sky as though the stars, behind the wash of city lights, have the answer. But the answer doesn’t come from above, it comes from inside. A heat that drips from his chest, splashes over his bones. Something speaking through him.
“Do you want to move in with me?” he says, “As roommates. So you don’t have to keep looking.”
Jinyoung slows his steps until they come to a pause. He looks at Jaebum with so much care that Jaebum almost feels nervous. Slowly, his lips pull back into a smile.
“I’d love to.”
Jinyoung moves in a week later. He doesn’t bring much, just a few boxes, two suitcases. Most of his things are small, essential items, though he surprises Jaebum with his collection of objects. There is no order to them, no reason, includes a jewelry box with four marbles inside, a bear plushie without legs. They all seem old and outdated but Jinyoung treasures each one, from broken records to books written in languages he doesn’t understand.
“Are those stones?”
“Yes,” Jinyoung says, arranging them carefully, “Aren’t they pretty?”
Jaebum runs a finger over them. They seem like relics of some exhibit lined up evenly on the edge of a shelf. “I guess. Do you collect them?”
“I looked at them once and just felt the urge to have them. They seemed special.”
The more Jaebum looks at them, the more he’s intrigued. He tries to find the magic in them, tries to see what Jinyoung sees but soon there are arms around him, lips on his neck. Jinyoung hugs him from behind.
“Let’s take a bath,” he whispers, lets his words fall as warm breaths over Jaebum’s ear. He makes it impossible to focus on anything else.
“Let’s,” Jaebum answers, almost dizzy with desire.
The answer of what they are, officially or unofficially, doesn’t come until Jinyoung calls him into his room three weeks later.
“Jaebum,” he pats the spot next to him on the bed, “Come meet my mother.”
Jaebum steps inside, already nervous at the thought. Even the semblance of family makes his palms sweaty and his defenses rise, prickling. He takes the spot on the bed and looks at Jinyoung’s laptop.
On the screen is Jinyoung’s mother, he can tell immediately. They have the same eye-wrinkles when they smile, they share an undeniable warmth. An openness that softens Jaebum almost instantly. He feels eased, at home.
“Mom, this is Jaebum. Isn’t he handsome?”
Anything past that is lost on Jaebum. He hears sounds and feels their shapes but can’t make sense of them. Orphaned, his family has been a shadow that creeps at every corner. He doesn’t like family, he tells himself. The space between him and people has always been large, like a forest he grows and maintains himself. Trying to close that gap means wandering in the wilderness, it means losing himself. It means danger.
But with Jinyoung pressing their shoulders together, smiling brighter than he’s seen him smile and with that flicker of heat in Jaebum’s chest weaving in and out of him, threading in his chest like thick yarn, he realizes he’s already started to wander.
“Are you friends?” she asks.
“We’re roommates,” Jinyoung says and Jaebum can hear him tiptoeing around words. He’s unsure too, Jaebum notes.
“No, we aren’t,” he says. Jaebum’s posture unravels, his back curves. For once he’s comfortable and wholly confident when he grabs Jinyoung’s hand, threads his fingers with his. “I’m his boyfriend.”
He isn’t sure when he starts falling for Jinyoung.
Maybe it’s when he returns from practice exhausted to find, without fail, Jinyoung curled up in his bed with Nora at his side. He slips into the sheets with him and runs a hand over Jinyoung’s shape. Jinyoung always turns to him, finds his figure with his hands. Jinyoung rarely wakes up entirely and his eyes only flutter open for a second, but his fingers don’t falter, his leg always lays over Jaebum’s as if, even in dreams, he were waiting for him to come home.
Maybe it’s when Jinyoung dances around the apartment, warming the halls with his presence like a daydream. With Jinyoung, there’s only peace and reality settles with a remarkable softness, miraculous and casual. It makes Jaebum feel like an abandoned house, weary and worn, creaking with old wounds, the paint peeling angrily. But Jinyoung steps in, enamored by the smallest details. He paints every wall, opens every window and turns on every light so the old house glows. He doesn’t shy away from the ghosts that haunt the halls, the holes in the staircase, the broken plates in the kitchen. Jinyoung leaves vases of flowers wherever he roams.
Maybe it’s when he tells Jinyoung his most menial problems. Nobody is an enemy to Jinyoung, no one acts out of malice. When Jaebum complains, Jinyoung always folds his worries into simple solutions. He does it so easily that Jaebum wishes he could place his head in Jinyoung’s lap so he could unravel every tangled knot, so he could do away with the pain, could pull each strand of love out from where it hides.
“Mark keeps pissing me off, he’s always trying to tell me how to fucking dance,” he’ll say, and Jinyoung will rub the wrinkles that form on his forehead, the ridges between his eyebrows. He runs his fingers over every angry shape, soothing every line.
“Maybe he’s insecure,” Jinyoung says, “He doesn’t mean to be mean.”
“You don’t know him, he’s an ass.”
Jinyoung’s face wrinkles with worry, and Jaebum realizes that even a stranger like Mark, by the mere act of existing, has won over Jinyoung’s sympathy. While Jaebum rages at every second, Jinyoung is patient and kind. He can’t help but find the missing pieces of himself scattered inside of Jinyoung, as though when Jaebum was born, formed in a place neither here nor there, where energy ebbs to and from each other, they had been split apart.
Maybe falling for him begins long before they meet.
In these moments, all anger escapes him. He replaces it with devotion and affection. He pulls Jinyoung close to him, traces his ears with his fingers, traces his side, holds his hips.
“You’re beautiful,” he says and Jinyoung smiles, squirms as if hearing it for the first time.
“Aren’t you still mad?” he asks and Jaebum shakes his head.
“I can’t stay mad around you.”
“You should keep me around, then.”
“Every second I can.”
Slowly, their lives entwine until each breath spent apart is a breath spent waiting. Until each parting is only a pause.
“Sometimes, I get so sad when you leave, it’s overwhelming,” confesses Jinyoung one night in the bath, “It’s hard to explain. I know you’ll be back, and I don’t have to fear or anything. I’m not scared, it just hurts. Like there’s all these little plants inside of me with your name, and when you leave it’s like tugging at the roots. It’s such a strange feeling.”
Jaebum only listens while Jinyoung explains what Jaebum feels, too. He moves Jinyoung so that his back presses against Jaebum's chest. Jinyoung settles in his lap.
“I feel like that, too, sometimes,” Jaebum says, leaves a kiss on Jinyoung’s head, “Not to that extreme.”
“I’m just more sensitive,” Jinyoung says, smooths his hands over Jaebum’s thighs, “Maybe it’s just me.”
But two weeks later, Jaebum finds that he, too, is sensitive.
“I have to go on tour soon,” he tells Jinyoung over breakfast, “I’m going to be away for a few months.”
He watches Jinyoung pick at his food, feels the air tense. Something looms over them and Jaebum pushes away his food as hunger leaves him. It isn’t the pain of plants, it isn’t dreamlike. A pain pricks at his skin, like something were trying to claw its way out. Berating him, not in hushed whispers, not in the tangled roots of gardens, but in angry fists.
“It’ll be okay, I’ll be back before you know it,” Jaebum says, tries to reassure them both.
Jinyoung remains silent before he looks up, smiling. It reminds Jaebum of that smile when they’d first met -- a sad shape masquerading as something bright. They finish their meal in silence.
When the time comes for Jaebum to leave for the tour, Jinyoung has a present for him.
“It’s a good book,” Jinyoung says, pressing it into Jaebum’s hands, “It’s my favorite. It’s about two people that keep running into each other. Like fate.”
“Like us?” Jaebum asks, running his finger over the title: In Summer.
“Exactly like us.”
It works for the first month. There is nothing to fear, nothing on the horizon, and Jinyoung busies himself with his job at a restaurant, with friends. He spends time with Nora, keeps up with Jaebum through pictures he finds online, with texts he sends in between performances. He looks forward to their calls the most but these are rare, treasures that keep him smiling for days on end.
“It’s morning here,” Jaebum says, “Show me Nora.”
Jinyoung shifts in bed, points the camera of his phone at Nora. She’s curled at his feet, purring quietly.
“I miss her,” Jaebum says, “And I miss you, too.”
“We miss you back,” Jinyoung answers as he props his phone up on a pillow. His eyes threaten to close.
“Are you tired?”
“Work made me sleepy. But I stayed up, like I promised.”
“You know you don’t have to.”
“I want to,” Jinyoung says, though his words stretch into a yawn. His voice is small, trembles at the edges. Jinyoung crinkles his nose, his eyebrows furrowed as he fights to keep his eyes open. Wrinkles form under his eyes when he smiles until that, too, softens and he loses his battle. Watching him, Jaebum knows that he’s underestimated his feelings.
Jinyoung snores quietly and the sound pours out of the phone like honey. Jaebum’s heart becomes sticky with it, warms with sentiment.
“I think I love you,” he says but Jinyoung has fallen asleep.
One night, Jinyoung’s phone wakes him. He’s fallen asleep on the couch and the TV murmurs in the background when he presses the phone to his ear, still suspended in a dream.
“Grandpa?” he groans, “What’s wrong?”
There's a long pause before his grandfather speaks. Jinyoung's heart rises to beat in his ears, rips his eyes open. He strains against the drumming to make sense of what he’s hearing.
“What do you mean mom’s in the hospital?”
The rest comes blurred and pained. Minutes crash around him, clatter between the folds of his clothes as he tries to wipe away his tears, as he tries to calm the panic. He grips his phone too tightly, stares at it as though it were a dream.
As though, if he stepped into the next room, his mother would be there to tell him it was a joke, that she could never be in a hospital, that she had never been sick. But when he steps into the room, it’s only Nora that greets him. Nora and Jaebum’s empty bed and his chest aches with memory. His fingers shake as he calls Jaebum's number.
“What are you doing, come on, we’re on right fucking now.”
Mark tugs on Jaebum’s arm, tries to drag him out the door.
“Wait a minute, I’m getting a call.”
“You can get it later. We have to perform.”
Jaebum sighs as he steps away. He looks back at where his phone screen has gone dark. The dialing has stopped, and he leaves the room, unaware that thousands of miles away, Jinyoung is about to cry himself to sleep.
Chapter 4: moonlight
Jinyoung’s crying becomes infamous on the train. Though it’s more than just crying, nothing that loud or emotive could ever be just that. It is a cry that has no certain beginning or end, that seeps past the thin walls of his room, spills into the narrow hallway, and like a river running to the sea, flows into the adjacent train-cars.
It gathers in puddles that Jaebum, the lowest on the pecking order of employees, tasked with attending to the most difficult passengers, wishes he could drown in. He steps through them, imagines the sound rising in splashes, falling in drops.
He swears Jinyoung’s door rattles with a particularly loud sob. He knocks once, twice, but no response.
“Sir? Sir, is everything alright?” he shouts, but the racket of the train swallows the sound. He knocks once more, then decides, impatiently, to push the door open and deal with the problem as quickly and cleanly as possible.
The room is wide and spacious, reserved for only the wealthiest. A boy sits at the only table.
Jinyoung had been described as handsome, but nothing to this extent. He looks beautiful in the midst of lamentation. His eyes are closed and tears stream down his cheeks. The sunlight splashing in through the window makes them glimmer. His lips are twisted neatly over a frown, still full, impossibly so.
“Sir,” Jaebum says firmly, tries to ground himself in his task. “Is everything alright?”
And he’s surprised by how much more stunning Jinyoung becomes when his crying stops. Rounded eyes with enough depth that Jaebum feels pulled by a dangerous attraction. He’s sure people lose themselves in them, never to be seen again, only allowed to roam those handsome features. The round nose, the full cheeks. The neat forehead covered in swept strands of dark hair.
“No, nothing is,” Jinyoung dabs his cheeks with a handkerchief, “But I’m sure I’ll survive.”
“May I ask what’s wrong?”
“It’s all upside down, everything.”
The more Jaebum stares, the more he drawn he is, and it terrifies him. He is no doubt attracted, but it is all too impulsive, confusing in its simplicity. He steps forward, like a moth to flame, or perhaps something more gentle: bees lured by the lull of nectar. Yes, he thinks, definitely a bee crawling down the petal of a flower, creeping closer to that sweet middle. Something natural, meant to be.
Jaebum settles on a chair. The small table sits between them.
“Tell me,” Jaebum says, “The other passengers were worried. I was told to make sure you were alright.”
“Well,” Jinyoung smooths a finger over the photograph in his hand, “You see, I’m coming home for the first time in ten years and I’ve just been informed that my beloved Nora has passed away. A few months ago, actually, but I haven’t read a single letter in years.”
“My condolences,” Jaebum says, “But you look so young, too young to have been married an entire decade.”
Jinyoung almost smiles. His lips soften, and his eyes, too, fill with a brightness that makes Jaebum nervous. It makes him squirm.
“Well, I wasn’t married,” he says, turns the picture over in his fingers to hand to Jaebum .
Jaebum takes it: the picture is blurred and worn, and each face has been blotted out with ink. Only one figure remains, prominent in the photograph. An alluring cat with clear eyes and a dark face.
“She was beautiful,” Jinyoung says, sniffles again, “Poor thing, she was only fifteen when she passed.”
“Is this why you’ve been crying?”
“It’s the only reason I need. I missed her,” Jinyoung says, now looking down at his hands, “I must look like a fool.” And he starts to cry again, a few whimpers at first, like a machine struggling to start. Then comes that infamous mourning that tugs at Jaebum’s heart more than it has any reason to.
“Please don’t cry,” he pleads, but Jinyoung can’t hear him. Jaebum reaches forward to take his hands, though it only stutters the crying, startles Jinyoung for a few seconds before he starts again, this time gripping Jaebum’s fingers tightly. Jaebum looks around the room, unsure of what to do, of how to proceed, and he tries to ignore the heat of Jinyoung’s hold.
Even crying, he's prettier than anyone Jaebum has ever seen.
There is no reason to his actions, only an inherent pull. Visceral, warm. The desire to walk around the table, to lean until his face is next to Jinyoung’s, to press forward so their lips meet, feels at once his and not his. The call of nectar and answer of bees.
What surprises him isn’t how soft Jinyoung’s lips feel against his, or how easy it is to fit them together. It isn’t the cold press of his glasses against his nose, or the warmth of their cheeks coming together, the wetness of tears. It isn’t the tickle of Jinyoung’s hair finding Jaebum’s forehead, or the way Jinyoung loosens his hold on Jaebum’s fingers only to tighten it again, more organized this time. What’s surprising is that Jinyoung starts to kiss him back, starts to move his lips, to take Jaebum’s between his.
Then Jaebum pulls back -- the spell of the moment vanishes. He remembers who he is, where he is.
“I’m sorry,” he says, steps backwards and almost falls. Jinyoung still has furrowed eyebrows and his lips are open, though he no longer looks sad, only pensive. A bit confused, a bit pleased, but Jaebum only studies him for a second before he steps out of the room. He stands outside his door for a few deep breaths, opening it after to find Jinyoung in that same position, still gazing at the door.
“My name is Jaebum,” he says before he closes the door again and hurries back to the dining car.
He tries to apologize the next morning after he serves breakfast and he’s free to roam until it’s time for lunch. He runs his fingers through his hair, tries to brush it to the side, to look more presentable as he practices his apology. It was out of line, definitely; a mistake, maybe; but a pleasure, of course.
Jaebum thinks to knock on the door, but he figures he’s disregarded enough rules to break this one again.
“I’m sorry, I wasn’t sure what I was thinking,” he says as the door swings open, no longer aware that he’d practiced an apology in front of a shaking mirror back in his bed, “But you looked so alluring. Beautiful, really…”
The door hits the wall, but Jaebum doesn’t notice. His words begin to thin until they vanish altogether, fall back down his throat, return to his chest where his heart thunders against the cage of his ribs. Across the room, Jinyoung is draped on his bed, the window above him pouring light over a naked back and round bottom, a sheet wrinkled and tangled in between his thighs. Jinyoung lays on his stomach, his eyes closed, looks just as lovely asleep as he is awake.
He closes the door when Jinyoung starts to turn on his side.
This image stays with him for days. His heart skips every time a figure emerges from the far door of the dining car, but it is never Jinyoung, only another old man with another old wife. He tries to pluck out information from the chatter of the diners as he pushes the cart of food along, and he learns that Jinyoung has not appeared, though his crying has subsided.
“A miracle,” a woman says.
“The nuisance has been dealt with,” says another, and Jaebum, without thinking, turns to defend Jinyoung, as though their kiss has tethered their lives together for better or for worse. He turns so quickly, so distracted by the bright flash of anger, that he fails to notice a man behind him. They crash. Jaebum, the scrawnier of the two, is the one that falls to the floor. The cart shakes and a few spoons rattle, drop to the floor beside him.
“What in the world?” says a woman to his right, as does a woman to his left. All their eyes flock to him, and Jaebum is reminded of birds, annoying as they sit and watch, chirping at his demise.
“Watch where you’re walking, you imbecile,” says the man, now towering over Jaebum.
He bends over, kicks at his leg. The anger has painted his cheeks a deep red, and Jaebum fears that his train ride might be shorter than he’d hoped.
“I will have you removed --”
“Step away from him.”
Jinyoung’s voice sounds much sharper than he remembers, but just as familiar. He doesn’t look back, doesn’t have to. Jinyoung steps beside him, walks up to the man in question. From the back, Jaebum can see how Jinyoung has raised his heels off the ground, stands on the tips of his feet.
“Leave him alone,” Jinyoung says, powerful and unapologetic.
“Do you know who I am?” the man growls.
“Do you know who I am?” Jinyoung lifts a hand to pull his coat to the side, reveals something on his chest to the man. He sputters, steps back, bows his head with wide, frightened eyes. On his side a woman gasps, and another, leaning towards her husband, starts to whisper.
“Was just leaving,” Jinyoung says, but he’s not done, steps closer. He presses a finger to the man’s chest and watches him struggle to step backward, almost stumbling, “And if I have to hear your voice one more time I’ll have you removed.”
Then Jinyoung turns, precise in all his motions. He’s lowered to his normal height and steps over Jaebum without looking down.
“Come on Jaebum, let’s go back to our car,” he announces, “And let these people serve their own food. God knows they need to learn how to lift a finger.”
Jaebum scrambles to stand, looks around at everyone’s curious faces. They look appalled, mostly, but intrigued.
“Coming,” Jaebum says as he stumbles after Jinyoung.
Back in the room, Jinyoung locks the door before he sinks to the floor, leans his back against it. His laughter comes in short spurts, bright and lovely sounds that fill the room. Just as when he’d cried, Jinyoung pours himself into it until it is irrevocably his, unforgettable.
“I can’t believe that worked,” he says, almost out of breath.
Jaebum takes a seat, looks worried as he wrings his hands.
“What do you mean?” he asks, but he has to wait for Jinyoung to calm down. Has to wait until he stands and sheds his coat, his vest, tosses them next to his bed.
“God, that awful patch I had someone stitch for me. It’s a fake family emblem of the people that own this train. I forgot who, specifically. I just know it works.”
Jaebum’s mouth hangs open, dumbfounded.
“What do you mean?” he asks again, “What do you mean it’s fake?”
Jinyoung props himself on the bed and starts undoing his shoes.
“It means I’m not related to the man who owns the train.”
“Then why does everyone think that?”
“Well, Jaebum,” he begins, looks up with a smile, “You have to promise me not to tell a soul.”
“I won’t,” he answers, shaking his head, “I won’t tell anyone.”
“I’ll start from the beginning,” he kicks off his shoe, “Get some tea going.”
The story is long but lively. Jinyoung, as Jaebum learns, puts life into all he does. He stands when the story requires him to, acts out each role, from the courting of his mother to his birth. Jinyoung tells him about his unfortunate father, a poor merchant who sold coats in the summer heat and salt near beaches. He tells him about his mother, a woman just as kind, though air-headed enough to run away with his father.
“They were nice,” Jinyoung says, looks fondly at the moving landscape in the window, as if he could see his parents on some hill waving to him, “My childhood was alright. I was hungry a lot, but it was fine. Things were fine.”
“Why’d you leave?” Jaebum asks, pulls apart the bread that Jinyoung orders but doesn’t eat.
“Well, when I was fifteen this old woman came into our little village. One of her eyes was pure white and Nora hated her.”
Jaebum drinks tea while Jinyoung details the arrival of the fortune teller, how he worked countless odd jobs for days just to see her. Just to have his fortune told, no matter how bleak it would be.
“I had no hopes going in,” he says, standing. He goes back into the role of the bent old woman, has even brought cloth around his head like an old shawl, “And this woman, she looks at me -- hunched over, mostly, but one look at me and she jumps. I swear she stands up like this.”
And Jinyoung straightens, mimics her face and voice and Jaebum laughs.
“She points her crooked little finger at me and she’s speechless. I thought she would tell me I would die a sad merchant, marry some woman, have a kid, maybe. Nora is going crazy at this point. She’s scratching at my leg, hissing at this woman. I just wanted to have a little fun but it was overwhelming.”
“Then? What did she say?”
“Oh, what didn’t she say? I couldn’t understand most of it because of the commotion. She pointed at Nora, pointed at me. Then she told me in ten years I would die. ‘When you turn twenty-five,’ she said, and I had no reason to doubt her.”
“How old are you?”
“Twenty-four, I’ll be twenty-five in the fall. I was so scared,” he sits down across from Jaebum, looks wistfully into the distance, “Ten years seemed so short. So I packed up my things and I just left. I traveled far, made sure I met people I would have never met at home. I read, I danced, I sang. I’ve been shot at, I’ve been lost in the wilderness. I’ve done it all in the hopes that when the time came, I would have no regret dying.”
“Those are old wives’ tales,” Jaebum says, goes back to the food, “I wouldn’t believe it. I mean, you’re here now so you must not, either.”
“I missed my mother. I missed my father. I missed my cat, too, but she’s gone. I’m only coming back because I want to die peacefully at home.”
“But that woman doesn’t really know the future. These are just legends. Old fibs.”
“Are they?” Jinyoung asks, quirking up an eyebrow, “Because life hasn’t felt the same since. I feel like I’ve lived everything before. If someone knows when I would die, that means my fate has been sealed. That means that someone, somewhere, is writing a story and I’m tasked with telling it. They want a colorful performance, and I told myself I would give them that. I would live in spite of the end speeding to meet me.”
“You can’t be serious,” Jaebum says, feels that same pull again. Desire hums inside of him, mimics the murmur of beehives.
“I am,” he says, leaning over the table, “When I first saw you I thought to myself, ‘How I’ve missed him.’ Missed! As if we had been together before. I thought I was crazy, I always do, but then you kissed me and I knew. This, too, must be fated.”
“No,” Jaebum argues, “That’s not it, just coincidence. You will live, I’m sure.”
“Jaebum,” he says, and the name falls of his tongue as though he’s said it many times before, “One day you’ll understand.”
The next morning, Jaebum finds himself in Jinyoung’s room again.
“They said I don’t have to work,” Jaebum says, and Jinyoung, perched in the corner with a book in his hands, starts to hum.
“I paid for your wages, for your trip. You’re set until your destination.”
“Where do you get the money?” Jaebum fidgets in the seat. The sunlight from the window warms him.
“Like I said, I’ve met many people, and I’ve made many friends. Plus, no one questions things if you sound confident enough. If you tell someone you’re affiliated with someone important, and provide the right information, they treat you as such.”
“Where will I sleep?”
“Here, with me. I only have a few days left of traveling and then the room is yours.”
Jaebum looks to Jinyoung, finds himself smiling back at him. Jinyoung abandons his book and steps over to him, reaches out to pull Jaebum’s glasses off.
“Has anyone told you how handsome you are?” Jinyoung says and Jaebum shakes his head, rubs his eyes.
“No, that doesn’t really come up.”
“What do you do, Jaebum? What is your destination?” Jinyoung sets his glasses on the table, settles himself on Jaebum’s lap and rubs his hands against Jaebum's cheeks.
“I’m a watchmaker,” Jaebum says, though his words become distorted, marbled by Jinyoung’s fingers, “I’m traveling to my uncle’s store. We’re starting a business.”
“How lovely,” Jinyoung says before he leans in, presses their lips together. The kiss starts warm, tepid. Lips brushing against each other, learning what they already know. Jinyoung is the one to move forward, to slip his tongue into Jaebum’s mouth. Jinyoung tastes as sweet as nectar, feels just as wet. Jaebum’s hand finds Jinyoung’s hip and their heads twist just enough, the kiss deepens so that Jaebum gives Jinyoung his last few breaths.
Someone raps at the door, incessant, annoyed.
“Your lunch is here!” they yell and Jinyoung pulls away with a tiny breath. Jaebum looks into Jinyoung’s eyes, realizes how deeply he’s fallen into them, roaming, searching. There are flecks of something familiar in them, specks of gold that both burn and soothe him. Tell him that, perhaps, this has happened before. This recognition, this falling into step.
“We should eat,” Jinyoung says before he slips out of Jaebum’s hold to answer the door.
After dinner, someone comes to take their dishes away and Jinyoung tasks himself with finding Jaebum new clothes.
“That uniform won’t do, but all my clothes are too small. I think I bought something for my father that might fit you,” he says over his shoulder, busy rummaging through open suitcases, each one a different color. Small objects spill out, clatter around the room, like the pearl that rolls to Jaebum’s shoe and the old stone that follows.
“Magic,” Jinyoung informs him, stepping closer with a change of clothes, “That’s what the natives told me. Luck or something. I bought seven of those stones. Here, change into this.”
Jaebum slips out of his uniform, does away with the tie, the shirt, the slacks. Jinyoung watches, hums with approval as the new clothes hang on Jaebum’s frame with a delicate grace. Then Jinyoung takes Jaebum to the full length mirror, spins him around. Jaebum feels shy under his heavy gaze.
He looks like a different person with the neat white shirt, a gray vest, a dark coat. The slacks are a bit tight but of expensive fabric that accentuates his legs, make them seem longer than they are. Jinyoung runs his eyes over every detail, every lovely curve.
“Well,” he says, “Have you ever seen someone so dashing?”
“I’m pretty sure it’s broken, I tried hitting it a few times but it still wouldn’t work. It’s expensive and new but it was so beautiful. It plays music,” Jinyoung announces, deposits the boxed machine on the table.
“This doesn’t look broken,” Jaebum says.
“I’m sure it is, it doesn’t work for me. You’re a watchmaker, you should know about all the little gears. Please, can you fix it?”
And Jaebum runs his fingers over the edges, gets his small bag of tools and starts to pull things apart to put them together again. There seems to be nothing wrong, just a few misplaced pieces, probably shaken loose by Jinyoung’s beating.
Jinyoung watches him for a few minutes before he goes to perch on the bed by the window. He watches the landscape rush past, points out a few details, speaks out loud.
The room fills with his stories over the next few days, some more animated than others, some somber, some comedic. Each one, Jaebum finds, is just as interesting as the last, and he listens while he works, looks up from time to time to catch Jinyoung’s gaze or to watch him busy himself over small tasks. Jinyoung's lips curl when he reads, his eyebrows furrow when he naps, and when he daydreams, his lips unfold into a wide, wispy smile. Though, when he tells stories, an array of emotions flicker over his face.
“And he pointed this musket at me, without a word. Now we don’t speak each other’s language so I have my hands raised, I think I was crying. He lays the musket on my shoulder, then pushes me out of the way. Then he starts shooting in the distance, turns out we were being ambushed. God, I’ve never ran so fast.”
“Did you stick around?” Jaebum asks.
“Of course not, I don’t know if the poor guy made it out alive. What I do know is --”
The machine starts to rattle in Jaebum’s hands. Then gears start to turn, linking with each other like missing puzzle pieces. Shapes complete each other, curves lay against curves, lines nestle between other lines. Then, quiet at first, music spills from it, an old tune on the piano.
“You fixed it,” Jinyoung whispers, “This song is so beautiful.”
Jaebum smiles, mostly with relief. Then he looks up as Jinyoung rushes to him, runs his hand against the side of his neck. It takes a second for him to lean down, another for them to kiss -- this one heated, excited. Jaebum feels teeth sink gently into his lips. Then Jinyoung is pulling away, letting his fingers glide over Jaebum’s shoulder.
“I missed this,” he announces, starts to spin, starts to waltz with himself around the room.
Nothing prepares Jaebum for how he feels in that moment: a rush of emotion, lovely as it is terrifying, familiar as it is foreign. He has never considered love, but watching Jinyoung lose himself to dance he realizes that love, perhaps, has been considering him. Has been grooming him to receive it all at once, like a train crashing into him, leaving nothing to doubt, nothing to fear: slowly, surely, he's falling in love with Jinyoung.
But he swallows the words, closes his mouth.
They spend their days side by side, share a bed with no qualms. They go well together, their angles bend to fit each others’. From legs to arms, lips to fingers.
Sometimes Jaebum wakes up to the murmur of music, to Jinyoung prancing around the room, spinning nude and free. Sometimes it’s Jaebum that wakes up first, rustles Jinyoung awake when their breakfast arrives.
Jaebum enjoys his time so much that the days blend into one another, form a long ribbon of bliss. Soft as silk, just as dreamlike. No matter how euphoric, though, nothing lasts forever.
“We’ll be arriving in my town tomorrow morning,” Jinyoung tells him after dinner. Jaebum lays on his back, watching the sun sink behind the horizon. The hills become awash in pale blues. Jinyoung watches, too, though his attention gathers around the soft light spilling in from the window and the way it carves out Jaebum’s features: sharp bones, a bumped nose, an angled jaw.
Jaebum is silent, closes his eyes. His chest rises and falls, and the night colors his skin in dull whites and a deep blues.
Jinyoung explores him with the palm of his hand, warm fingertips. Relishes the small tremble of Jaebum’s torso, tensing only to soften when Jinyoung runs his hand down the center of his chest, finds his navel, the hard muscles that gather there. A small patch of hair grows beneath it, a trail that leads lower and lower. Jinyoung traces it with his fingers, watches the goosebumps emerge.
Bathed in moonlight, bright in an otherwise dark room, Jaebum looks divine. He wants to have him, Jinyoung realizes, before his trip ends. Tonight, away from prophecies, from dreams that become realities. Away from that damned prediction.
And Jinyoung has witnessed beautiful things: fires that sizzle and crackle and tear apart the night sky, lighting it as if it were day; has swam in deep lakes covered in falling petals; has seen the sun rise over snowed mountains, has seen it set in valleys. But nothing is quite as stunning as watching Jaebum’s breath hitch when Jinyoung wraps his fingers around him, when he squeezes just so Jaebum’s eyebrows furrow. So he struggles to hold himself together.
Jaebum curls his fingers around Jinyoung’s arm, pleading him in small brushes to continue.
Jinyoung takes his time, enjoys the sight. The warm pulse against his palm, Jaebum hardening in a few tugs. The stutter of his hips, fidgeting with each stroke, always asking for more and more, more friction, more heat, more speed.
He imagines Jaebum as a landscape: the lean muscle of his chest are desert dunes at night, the breaths that clamor up his throat are breezes sighing over sleeping hills. The thighs that tense, taut and stiff as he nears orgasm, are the hard lines of mountains.
Jaebum’s fingers tighten their grip around his arm and Jinyoung watches him unravel. His throat looks long as he throws his head back, comes with a quiet sound. His eyes are shut tight, his jaw tense. His whole body shivers and the moonlight dances over his skin, makes it look as though they’re underwater. His biceps stiffen and his chest tightens and his hips rise from the bed, into Jinyoung’s hand. His cock twitches even after his come coats his stomach like thick rain, and Jinyoung continues to stroke, lazily now, until Jaebum is soft again. Come trickles down into his hand, warm between his fingers, and when he pulls his hand away, a strand of it gleams in the moonlight.
Jinyoung cleans him up, still enamored by Jaebum’s irregular breathing. Jaebum tries to hide it, tries to steady himself when Jinyoung runs the cloth over his stomach, over his hips, between his thighs. To his surprise, Jaebum is hard again.
“It got excited,” Jaebum says and Jinyoung laughs.
The process repeats with Jinyoung nestled between his legs. Jaebum fits both arms behind his head, bends his neck to watch Jinyoung as he works.
He doesn’t last long. He bites back the light, cold pain that arrives after climax, cool against Jinyoung’s warm hands. Hyper-sensitive to every detail, from the shape of Jinyoung’s fingers to the humid line of his lips when he presses a kiss on him. Jinyoung starts at the bottom of his length, trails a wet line up. The head of Jaebum’s cock glides against his lips every time he strokes him. And this time, when he comes, Jinyoung wraps his mouth around Jaebum, tries to swallow every drop, licking him clean with his tongue. He pulls off and Jaebum’s cock falls on his thigh with a small sound.
They meet each other’s gaze, then. Jaebum is covered in a sheen layer of sweat, glowing. The moonlight sculpts him so perfectly that Jinyoung is breathless and awestruck. He is aware, suddenly, that despite their closeness, the small room that holds their breaths like a home, he’s already beginning to miss Jaebum.
“I guess this is goodbye.”
Jinyoung stands at the edge of the station with a bag in his hand. The rest of his luggage is carried off, one by one, until a stack forms behind him. Jaebum takes off his glasses to wipe them with a cloth. His hands tremble.
“Not goodbye,” Jinyoung says, “You’ll come to visit me. You made a promise. Plus, you’ll write to me. And I’ll write to you.”
“I will as soon as I arrive. I have your address in my notes,” he says, puts the glasses back on him. The world settles into clarity again, and he realizes Jinyoung is crying. He reaches forward, wipes a tear away with his thumb.
“You don’t have to be sad,” he says but Jinyoung shakes his head.
“I’m not sad, I’m just happy I met you. I know it sounds silly and you don’t believe in it, but it feels like I’ve waited years to meet you.”
Jaebum pulls him into a tight hug. His hands find the small of Jinyoung’s back, settle there naturally. Jinyoung wraps his arms around Jaebum’s neck and he feels Jinyoung’s heartbeat pressed against his chest, slow and melodic. Like a song. He loses track of how long they remain that way; the seconds melt against their shape and time seems to stand still only for them.
“I believe you,” Jaebum whispers into his ear, “I’ve been waiting, too.”
The train whistle goes off. In the distance, a clock chimes.
“I have to go,” Jaebum says, pulls away, “I’ll write to you as soon as I can. Here, I have a present for you.”
He fishes out a small watch out of his coat pocket, presses it in Jinyoung’s palm. Then he turns to catch up to the train, jumps on a small rail, climbs the stair.
Jinyoung watches him wave as the train picks up speed. He watches him linger in a window, watches his dark hair as he moves across the room. He watches Jaebum until the train is only a dot in the distance, watches him after that, straining against the blurred horizon to imagine him there. The miles stretch frantically between them.
Only when the people start to filter out of the station does he look down at the watch. His fingers unfold and he turns the watch over in his hand. On the back, Jaebum has engraved a name into the silver.
“Nora,” he reads, closes his hand into a fist. He looks up to the horizon again, unaware of the future rushing to meet him there.
Someone behind him struggles with his luggage, calls to him after a minute.
“Sir, where do you want this?”
Jinyoung turns, “What?”
“Where? Where is this going?”
“Home,” he answers, “It’s going home.”
Chapter 5: interlude
"Jinyoung, I'm home," he calls. The door closes behind him and Nora scurries out of his room and heads into Jinyoung's. Jaebum abandons his bag by the front door and lets the hush of the apartment slip into his bones. It settles with ease.
"I think something's wrong with my phone, maybe my calls weren't going through. I tried you a few times, but I think the calls dropped or something," he says and looks around, taking in the clean glow of the kitchen, the quiet of the living room. He takes note of each detail as though he were seeing it for the first time: the scratching post in the corner, now tattered and clawed; the dull shine of the leather couch; the stack of books in the corner next to it. Though he only glances at these and heads to Jinyoung's room in light, eager steps. "I was reading the book you gave me. I like it a lot, but I don't get it. So the train is the last time they saw each other? Or is there something I didn't get? I tried to find more but the author's a mystery."
He pushes the door open and it rattles gently against the wall. Jinyoung's room has been reduced to a bed, the small bookcase Jaebum had put in when he first moved in, and a few boxes in the corner. It looks much bigger without the pile of clothes in the corner and cluttered shelves along the wall. Jinyoung sits on the ground, slowly arranging his belongings into a box.
"Jinyoung?" he says but Jinyoung doesn't respond, doesn't even look his way until he steps closer and nudges Jinyoung's thigh with his foot. He looks up with wide eyes, takes out his headphones.
"What are you doing here?" he asks.
"They let us have a break, I thought I'd surprise you," he says and looks at the boxes, "What's all this?"
"I have to talk to you about something," Jinyoung says. His voice wavers and Jaebum has to strain to hear him.
"Well, you have me for three whole days," he pauses, "I missed you."
Jinyoung stands, though he doesn't say anything. His eyes flit from the space between his feet to the shape of Nora in the corner, everywhere except where Jaebum stands.
"I missed you," Jaebum says again, pulling Jinyoung into a hug. He presses a kiss to his lips, but it's one-sided. Jinyoung stands there, unmoving, looking around at his surroundings as though surprised to see things this way; as though he were waking up in an unfamiliar room. Jaebum holds his face in his hands, rubs a thumb over the curve of Jinyoung's cheek in quiet, tender circles.
"Jaebum," he says, finally. His voice is soft, and his words sound like drops of water that have gathered at the mouth of a faucet, crowding and collecting, clumping together until heavy enough to fall, "I'm thinking of going home."
Jaebum's smile crumbles.
"What do you mean? You are home, this is your home."
"No," he says and pulls away, letting Jaebum's hands fall into the space between them, "I mean... Home to Seattle."
"Seattle? What do you mean?" He reaches out to touch Jinyoung but he steps backwards and turns, lowers himself back to his knees. He busies himself with the box, taking his time folding the flaps, bending them, letting his fingers run over the creases as though fascinated by the cardboard.
"My mom," his hands slow before they pause altogether. His shoulders tense. "She's in the hospital and she’s not doing well."
"Baby," Jaebum softens his voice as he crouches down and rubs his hand over Jinyoung's back, "Baby, I'm so sorry."
They remain this way and Jaebum becomes aware of the room, of its stillness. He can make out the faint hum of the ceiling fan above them, twisting quietly; the books watching him from the shelves. Then he notices Jinyoung trembling and wiping his eyes.
"Baby," he holds his waist, pulls, and this time Jinyoung lets himself be held, lets his arms fold, lets his tears fall. Jaebum runs his fingers over his back as they both sit on the floor, facing each other; he presses quiet kisses on the top of Jinyoung's head.
"Baby, it's okay, it’ll be okay," he murmurs and he holds Jinyoung until his cries quiet down, his thumb rubbing the hair at Jinyoung’s nape. He isn't sure how long he sits there, Jinyoung in his arms, his neck wet with his tears. He can feel his heartbeat, the way it races to slow down, picks up speed each time his body trembles with a sob. Fingers grip at Jaebum's shirt but slowly, surely, they loosen.
Careful, as if pacing around the question, Jaebum asks, "When are you coming back?"
Jinyoung tenses again. His fingers form small fists, but they fall to his sides, press against his legs.
"Jaebum," he says. It sounds like begging.
"When are you coming back?" This time Jaebum's voice is firm, though still nervous, brittle at the edges.
Jinyoung pulls away and rubs at his nose with the back of his hand. His eyes are still wet, but he rubs at those, too.
"Jaebum," he says, takes a breath, then another, "I think we should break up."
"What are you saying?"
"I don't think we should see each other anymore."
"What are you talking about, Jinyoung? Where is this coming from?"
"I've been thinking -- it's not a good idea," he says and stands. He bends down to grab a small box, holds it in his arms. His knuckles are white where he grips the corners too tightly.
"Jinyoung, what the fuck? Why all of a sudden?" Jaebum says, stands just as abruptly. His features flit between anger and confusion.
"It's better this way, I’m no good for you." He struggles to speak, but he manages to straighten his back, to furrow his eyebrows so the rest of his features follow suit. He hardens, looks cold as he tries to walk past Jaebum but fails. Jaebum holds the side of box in his hand, traps Jinyoung there.
"For who? For you? What's going on?"
"For both of us, trust me. You'll be better off."
"Jinyoung, come on, talk to me," his words catch at his throat, "Don’t you want to be with me?”
"I do, but I'm no good, Jaebum," most of his words meld together, only a few are clear as he tries to step forward again, "Jaebum, I don't want to lose you."
"You're losing me now, you're pushing me away. What do you mean, Jinyoung? For God's sake, just fucking talk to me."
Jaebum tries to take the box from Jinyoung but it just falls, breaks open. Pictures spill from the bottom, a stone rolls out. The sound of shattered glass rises to his ears. Jinyoung looks down, crying again, tries to step around him to leave but Jaebum takes his arm and grabs it tightly. Jinyoung winces, shakes himself loose, prying his fingers away until Jaebum lets him go. He heads into the bathroom, locks the door behind him.
Nora meows in the corner while Jaebum follows; his hands shake.
"Jinyoung, I'm sorry. I just -- I don't understand. God, fucking talk to me, please."
He presses his forehead against the bathroom door, taps his head against it gently.
"Please, Jinyoung. We can talk it out. Tell me what's happening," halfway he sighs, presses his hand against the door, "I don't want to lose you, either. I love you."
Through the door, he hears Jinyoung lean against it.
“I love you, too, Jaebum. So, so much.”
He has heard these words before. Sometimes people throw it at him in between heavy breaths, sometimes people hand it to him, wrapped warm, sugared. Sometimes people whisper it and sometimes it hurts.
But nothing compares to the way Jinyoung says it, and nothing comes close to the way it lands in his ears. Jaebum listens with his heart – the space in his lungs.
All his life he’s been chasing a feeling, trying to hold on to light in his hands, trying to feel something that stays – something he can hold and take with him. Something that haunts him.
Because everything comes apart eventually, he knows. The things that remain are usually echoes of what they were: his mother’s laughter fills old rooms and the cries in the orphanage hide in the whistle of trees; his first love’s kiss roams the taste of liquor, his first bloody lip still finds a way back to his tongue. But with Jinyoung it’s always been different, with Jinyoung he isn’t collecting moments.
With Jinyoung, everything glistens in the sun. He feels alive and his emotions swell, escape his command. It's no longer a game of trying to catch a feeling, or trapping the flecks of gold that swirl in the shadows. It becomes an act of opening himself and of letting Jinyoung in, of sharing his fears, his dreams. It is about leaving the shell of his old life to blossom in this new one that they create together. It is about standing there with open wounds, with bite marks, with all his scars.
With Jinyoung, Jaebum is sure, for once in his life, of what love is, and now he feels it all slipping between his fingers.
Jinyoung emerges an hour later, looks small standing at his bedroom door. Jaebum lays on his bed, still clothed, unmoving except for the rise and fall of his chest. When he hears Jinyoung, he sits up to watch him approach. Jinyoung lays on his side on the bed next to him, leaves a wedge of space between them, a valley neither of them dare to cross, though Jaebum turns to his side. Their eyes find each other.
“I think I’m cursed,” Jinyoung whispers.
“What?” Jaebum asks, just as quiet. Light from outside pours in through the window, dim and blue, as though it, too, were keeping quiet.
“Back in Seattle I had a boyfriend,” he starts, “And he was my first everything. We met in high school but he was older and played in a band. I really, really loved him. I had never felt that way about anyone else. I was sure he was the one, you know, the only one for me. I would go watch him play and then we would head home together. There wasn't really anyone like him. He was kind to me, which had never happened before. I was used to the world being so hard but he was never hard.
“One night, though, we fought. It was over something dumb, but he got mad and stormed off. I was mad, too, so I went off by myself. When I got home, his sister called me. I guess he had been looking for me and…”
Jinyoung pauses and takes a breath. His eyes glow with tears in the low lights.
“There was an accident. He passed away a few days later. I didn’t really blame myself. I knew it wasn’t my fault, but his sister and his family thought it was. They had never liked me, which was okay, but they started thinking it was my fault. They wouldn’t go near me. They told me if it hadn’t been for me, he wouldn’t have died. I felt horrible. ”
“Jinyoung…” Jaebum reaches forward to wipe his tears away with his thumb.
“I know you think it’s dumb, everyone did, but I started to believe it. So I packed up all my things and moved here. I thought I would save the people I knew from a made up curse. And I met you and I thought, for a second, that maybe this all had to happen so we could find each other. It felt that way, and it still feels that way, and it scares me.”
“Because what if other things are meant to happen? My mom’s sick now, it feels like everyone around me suffers. I don’t want that to happen to you.”
“Come on, Jinyoung. That’s bullshit. You’re not cursed, those things aren’t real. Accidents happen.”
“That scares me, too. I don’t think two people could be happier than we are, but when you’re away I can’t help but think about it. What if something happens? To me or to you? I don’t want us to go through that -- I can’t go through that again, not with you. I don’t know what I’d do.”
“You can’t live like that,” Jaebum says, “You can’t live being scared. We don’t have to be apart.”
“We have to. It’s better this way.”
“For who?” Jaebum’s voice rises, has the shape of anger but the sound of grief, “Jinyoung, isn’t there something else we can do?”
“I’m just scared. I don’t want to hurt, Jaebum, but I don’t want you to hurt either. Some things aren’t meant to be. Maybe it was fate to meet but fate to split apart, too.”
“God, that fate bullshit. There’s no such thing, you make your own choices. Fate isn’t fucking real.”
He means to argue more as he's used to but, suddenly, his defenses fall. They don't make sense anymore, and Jinyoung is to blame.
Because Jaebum fallen for Jinyoung in pieces. With him, Jaebum finds a place to rest his head, a shoulder to lean on. With him, he learns to measure time in seconds spent together and seconds spent waiting -- in bright mornings and evening shadows, in light and the spaces in between. Part of him longs for Jinyoung, and the other melts into his splendor.
It happens quickly but entirely, makes him realize that at every step of his life, at every age, he would have fallen for Jinyoung just the same.
Six year old Jaebum falls for the way Jinyoung treats Nora and thirteen year old Jaebum falls for those endearing and handsome features. Nineteen year old him falls for the way his reflection looks in Jinyoung's eyes, ten year old him falls for how he looks at Jaebum as though he wasn't broken or damaged or someone to be returned. Sixteen year old him falls for the endless fabric of Jinyoung's mysteries. Jinyoung charms his entire being, as though he were with him throughout his entire life, from start to finish.
So when Jinyoung looks at him, his eyes wet with tears, sad but resolved, all of these years inside of Jaebum start to ache, press every fear and every worry against his skin, his bones. They pull him apart until he, too, is crying. They push him closer to Jinyoung until he rests his face against Jinyoung's chest.
"You don't have to go," a twenty-one year old Jaebum pleads, "You don't have to go back."
Chapter 6: fortune
“You don’t have to go back.”
Jaebum looks at Jinyoung before he turns back to the road.
“What do you mean?”
“When the summer is over, you don’t have to go back to your dad and the farm. You can come to the city. With me. You can go to school. I’m sure my uncle wouldn’t mind having you over. We can share a room.”
Jaebum loosens his grip on the steering wheel and that lazy smile, the one that drives Jinyoung wild, that makes him melt, stretches over Jaebum’s lips.
“That would be fun,” Jaebum says and his words echo in Jinyoung’s head. It would be more than just fun, it would be splendid. It would be the time of their lives, the happiest they could ever be, side by side, learning from one another, growing together. Building a future for themselves.
He can see it stretching out in front of him, like a road twisting through green pastures.
And though his body feels light with affection, Jinyoung feels nervous as they approach the town. It’s the nearest one to them, the one Jinyoung visits every summer, and he fears there won’t be a place for Jaebum and all of his eccentricities. He fears that the people there will gawk at his mess of hair, now past his eyebrows and curling at his nape, so long that he has to comb it back with his fingers. He fears his accent will place a target on his back, that people will label him as less than bright and charming, unruly and bold, unapologetic, anything less than what Jinyoung has come to know him as.
“Don’t feel bad if they don’t like you, they’re just not used to people like you.”
“People like me?”
“You know,” Jinyoung says, “Anyone too rural. They’re all the children of farmers but pretend they’re not, it’s annoying. So don’t worry, and ignore them if they say anything about your hair or anything.”
“What’s wrong with my hair?” Jaebum asks, pushes it back with his fingers, unveils his forehead, “Why would they say anything about it?”
“It’s long,” he says, “There’s nothing wrong with it, they just try to make it seem like they’re a city. And everyone in the city has shorter hair.”
“Yeah, mostly, and they don’t have an accent. Just don’t let it bother you.”
“It’s okay,” Jaebum says and falls back into that languid posture, that unhurried demeanor, “As long as you like me I don’t need to get on their good side.”
He reaches over to press his hand over Jinyoung’s thigh, squeezes it with the exact mixture affection and desire that makes Jinyoung’s heart race and pound. It colors his cheeks with a warm blush. He leans closer to the window to let the breeze slip in, to let it sigh over his face and cool him down.
His heart still races even after the town buildings surround them and Jaebum parks his truck. Races even after they both slip out, quiet as if to not draw any attention. Races when he pulls out the list his mother has made of things for them to buy and they step inside the store.
It only slows when the shopkeeper interacts with Jaebum. Jinyoung narrows his eyes, tries to map out a reaction, an opinion clouding over their features. He expects disgust or disregard, as if someone as lowly as Jaebum deserves none at all. But to his surprise, he finds delight unfolding over the woman’s face. When Jaebum smiles, she smiles back just as wide, maybe wider. She seems enchanted and charmed by Jaebum's manners and his impossibly handsome smile.
In fact, all of the people they encounter react in similar shades of infatuation. Standing apart and removed, Jinyoung realizes that everyone sees the sunlight living inside of Jaebum, the way it lays over them to make them feel brushed by something indescribable but golden. They fawn over him and dote. The women give him fruits to taste, the girls blush and giggle around him, the men nod in his direction. Only after courting Jaebum do they notice Jinyoung and ask about his mother and father, questions that brush him off more than engage him.
He’s glad that people see Jaebum the way he does, but it makes him envious. Not of Jaebum, but of the townsfolk. Watching them try to win Jaebum over, he realizes how much he hates having to share Jaebum with people who don't and will never know the worth of his presence or fully appreciate the magic of his attention.
Back in the truck on their way to the house, Jinyoung crosses his arms and looks out the window.
“You’re quiet,” Jaebum says, “What's the matter?”
“I’m just thinking.”
“What are you thinking about?”
A question fills the space between them but Jinyoung isn't sure of its shape. He knows that he wants Jaebum for himself, that he wants to be sure he will not be replaced, though he feels childish wanting this.
“What's wrong?” he asks.
Jinyoung turns to him and asks, “What am I to you?”
Jaebum pauses, then says, “Everything.” .
“In the city, you won’t leave me behind, right? You won't go looking for someone else?”
“You’re all I need.”
He reaches over to rest a hand on Jinyoung's thigh.
“Are you jealous?” he asks, teasing.
“Maybe a little.”
He leans over to press his lips against Jinyoung’s. Kissing Jaebum feels like home and Jinyoung loses himself into the comfort, the heat. He is only aware of the wet seam of Jaebum’s lips, the heavy press of his hand inching up his thigh. The world is reduced to a pair of warm tongues swiping against each other, of breaths trying to crawl their way out.
When they part, Jaebum looks to the road and notices the rabbit scurrying its way across. He turns the wheel and the truck swerves, almost goes off the road.
“Shit,” he mutters.
“Be careful,” Jinyoung says, gripping the door.
Jaebum pulls over to the side of the road and turns off the truck. Without the bother of driving, he has more time to focus on Jinyoung. He turns, studies him and under his attention, Jinyoung grows timid.
“What are you doing?” he asks.
“Making sure you know where you stand.”
He pulls Jinyoung into his lap and they kiss again, resume what they started on the road. Heat flickers between them, hides in the folds of their clothing, the dips and curves of their skin. It wraps around their tongues, follows Jinyoung’s fingers when he runs them through Jaebum’s hair. He becomes aware of the sounds that rise up from Jaebum’s throat while his hands roam Jinyoung’s hips, his sides, his back. But then the chirps of birds spill in from outside and remind him of where they are: miles away from town, but still miles away from home.
Jinyoung tilts his head away from the kiss, sucks in a breath.
“What if someone passes by?” he whispers, “What if someone sees us?”
He tries, in vain, to pull away, but Jaebum’s gaze is magnetic. There is heaviness to it, a dark gravity that pulls and forces Jinyoung to bend his will to better fit desire. Though, there is no struggle, only submission. He knows that even if he tried to fight it he would still find himself fumbling with the buttons on Jaebum’s shirt so he could rip it open, so his palms could run down his chest. His hands glide over the shape, down his stomach, damp with a light layer of sweat. He pulls away only to stare at him and his glow, trying to memorize the way his body moves with every breath, the way he glistens in the sunlight that spills in through the window.
But there is no room in the truck. His head bumps against the roof and the steering wheel digs into his back so Jaebum says, “Let’s take this outside.”
They spread out the blanket over the bed of the truck, move aside the groceries, and continue without clothes. Jinyoung lays on his back and Jaebum takes control. He lets Jaebum move him this way, nudge him that way. Jaebum spreads his legs so he can slip inside of him, so he can make Jinyoung feel full and stretched. His entire body shivers with a sigh as a sweet sting slithers around his nerves. Jinyoung hides his face with his arm, always embarrassed of how expressive he is, of how his eyebrows furrow and his lips part in silent moans.
Meanwhile Jaebum has no shame about his body. Jinyoung imagines that it’s the language Jaebum knows best, and that each impatient stroke of his hips is a love letter written as the sun beats down against them, as Jaebum’s broad shoulders cast a shadow over Jinyoung. He imagines that each caress of Jaebum’s hand over his chest, his neck, the grip on his hip, is a cursive line. That each hickey is a sudden pause, a dotted line that he makes with wet and open-mouthed kisses from his neck to his shoulder where he bites at the skin until he leaves a mark. He imagines that Jaebum bending his leg, that him pressing Jinyoung’s thigh against his chest, is a beautiful sentence unraveling.
Jaebum runs his hand over his figure as though Jinyoung is all he knows. At least then, in that moment when only they exist, them and the trees around, the still air of summer, the call of birds, the truck creaking beneath them as Jaebum fucks him eagerly. The possibility of being Jaebum’s only experience, of having reign over his heart, excites Jinyoung.
But the faster Jaebum goes, the harder it is for Jinyoung to ignore the ridges of the truck bed pressing against his back. Each snap of his hips hurts until he cries out and Jaebum slows, leans back. He cradles Jinyoung’s hips gently and asks, “What’s wrong?”
“It hurts,” he whines.
“The truck. I don’t want to be on my back.”
Jaebum smiles for a second and everything lightens as they move and twist. Jaebum pulls Jinyoung up by his arms and legs and soon Jaebum is flat on his back and Jinyoung settles on top, still full of Jaebum. Jinyoung is shy and only wriggles his hips and bends his shape so anyone passing by won’t be able to see his head poking out. But Jaebum is bossy, pats Jinyoung’s thighs.
“Sit up,” he says and Jinyoung does as he’s told.
His posture straightens and Jaebum pulls apart the unbuttoned shirt that still hangs from Jinyoung’s shoulders. Jinyoung sits back, flush against him, tries to adjust to the new position and he feels exposed, not from being outside and naked, nor from the breeze that rustles the leaves and brushes against them, but from having Jaebum’s full attention on him.
The heat of summer is no match for the heat that bubbles inside of him and washes over his bones like scalding water. He tips his head back and parts his lips as Jaebum finds the flesh of his ass, pulls him apart until he sinks further just so he can rise and fall again. Soon his knees are rubbing raw against the truck as he bounces on Jaebum’s cock.
They are still new to each other’s bodies and the tight warmth clenched around Jaebum brings him to climax quickly. Jinyoung feels each twitch and spurt inside of him, and he slows down to a light sway of his hips. He strokes himself, too, and it’s Jaebum’s dark gaze, lazy and satisfied, the beads of sweat glimmering over his chest and gathered at his neck, his cock softening inside of him, that brings him to orgasm.
Back at home, Jinyoung helps his mother put away the groceries they bought.
“How did it go?” she asks.
“It went well.”
“Did everyone like Jaebum?”
Jealousy assaults him again and pricks his skin with tiny worries, but then he remembers Jaebum’s words and his promise, his rough hands, his steady fingers, and he’s smiling again.
“Yeah,” he says, “They loved him.”
“That’s a relief. Why don't you take him some food, eat dinner together, I can finish this. I know summer is ending and you two have grown so close, I wouldn’t want you to miss a chance of being together.”
“He was thinking of coming back to the city with me.”
“Really? Now, that would be nice. I’m sure your uncle wouldn’t mind having another boy to raise. That would be good for Jaebum, too. He can go to school with you.”
“Yeah,” Jinyoung says with a sigh, falls into a daydream of Jaebum in the city. He still imagines it when walks over to the small house in the back. He stumbles a bit, teeters off from one side to the other when he isn’t careful -- sex with Jaebum has worn him out and made him sore, though he tries to hide it when he steps inside.
“Jaebum,” he calls, “I brought dinner.”
“Okay,” Jaebum shouts from the room, “Stay right there.”
“It’s going to get cold, come eat.”
“Soon, just -- stay there, Jinyoung.”
“What’s wrong?” Jinyoung calls, looks worried as he steps down the hallway to the room, “Is everything alright?”
“Don’t come inside. Stay out there.”
Jinyoung presses his ear against the door but he doesn’t hear anything. Concerned, he pushes the door open. Jaebum sits on the floor in the corner, scissors in one hand, a small mirror in the other. Clumps of hair are scattered around him on the floor. He turns, obviously panicked, and Jinyoung notices his bangs have been cut at a blunt angle. The rest of his hair looks sloppy and uneven.
“What are you doing?” Jinyoung asks.
“You said people in the city have short hair so I thought I would cut mine since I’m going to be there…”
Jaebum trails off and looks to the floor while Jinyoung’s heart flutters. They spend the next few minutes in front of the mirror as Jinyoung tries to even out his hair, snipping the clumps around his ear, smoothing out the uneven back. It all looks fine except for his bangs, which end right above his eyebrows.
“I still look stupid,” he says. Jinyoung looks in the mirror and leans forward. He brings the scissors to his own forehead, combs down his bangs and cuts them straight across the middle.
“Now we both do,” Jinyoung tells him and they look at each other. Jaebum smiles so brightly that Jinyoung, fleetingly, starts to believe in destiny. Meeting Jaebum has felt familiar, as if they were continuing where they’d left off rather than starting something new.
Then Jinyoung offers Jaebum’s hand and they return to the dining table. They eat dinner loudly, Jaebum practicing his city accent, Jinyoung correcting him. Their laughter fills the wooden house, warms it even after the sun as set and they light the old lantern.
Two weeks before the end of summer, before they are to go to the city, they lay on the truck bed by the forest. Jaebum has done away with his shirt, lies on his stomach. His arms are folded, hide his face, and Jinyoung abandons his reading to stare, instead, at the expanse of Jaebum’s back. The sunset bathes him in gold, and Jinyoung traces his moles with his eyes, though he notes the many scars between them. Some are longer than others, and he leans forward to trace one of them.
“How’d you get this?” he asks
Jaebum groans and his voice is muffled when he answers, “Some thieves tried to steal one of our pigs so I had to fight them off but one had a knife and he slashed me.”
Jinyoung’s finger pauses, his stomach sinks.
“Were you okay?”
“Yeah, just patched myself up. Left a scar, though.”
“And this one?” he asks again, traces a shorter one, “What happened?”
“That one was you,” he says, “When we were by the river. We were kissing and you got excited and scratched me.”
Jinyoung blushes and shakes his head. “No, that can’t be.”
“It’s true, you just dug your nails into me. That’s why I got so hard.”
Flustered, Jinyoung moves on to the next one. He touches the one by his spine, straight except for a small hook at the end.
“How about this other one?”
"Some ducks started attacking me by the pond. They looked cute, though. Friends of yours?"
"Shut up," Jinyoung says, bites back his smile. He finds another one, more prominent than the others. It curves around Jaebum's side and Jinyoung measures it. At least three fingers wide.
“Well, that’s from when we tried to raise elephants back on the farm. My dad bought a baby one, but I guess the mother escaped, chased its child all the way down to our farm. She got stuck on a barbed wire fence so I had to help her out, but in the ruckus she pushed me against it and one of the spikes cut me.”
Jinyoung stares, his eyes wide and full of worry. He leans back.
“Jaebum, what happened after?”
Jaebum is quiet for a second, then his body trembles slightly. Jinyoung watches closely, but it takes a moment for him to realize Jaebum is laughing.
“Why are you laughing?” Quietly, his features flit from worry to anger. “Jaebum, you’re lying. You were lying this whole time, weren't you?!”
He shoves Jaebum onto his side, tries to fight him but Jaebum grabs his wrists and holds Jinyoung in place.
“Did you believe me?”
“Yes,” Jinyoung mutters and looks away, pouting as the air quivers with Jaebum’s laughter. It rises up like music.
The day Jaebum leaves, Jinyoung wakes up late. Sunlight treads slowly across the room, tells the passing of time until it inches over Jinyoung’s face. He groans, squeezes his eyes shut, tries to turn away from it and he nearly falls from his bed. But his room is too bright and he loses the battle. He sits up and realizes what time it is. The morning is close to ending and he knows that Jaebum must have left to tend the field without him.
He scrambles to put on his shoes, wrestles on a shirt. Jaebum’s straw hat lays on his dresser and he wears that, too, as he sprints out of his room, past the door of his house. The truck is gone and his heart falls. He runs to the old house, into Jaebum’s room. He stands by the window, set on waiting, but he sinks to the floor, sits, weakens under the warm haze of noon and naps again.
Jaebum nudges him awake.
“Jinyoung? Why are you on the floor?”
Jinyoung’s eyes creak open and he drinks in the sight of Jaebum on his knees leaning over him. His head tilts and Jinyoung falls under his spell, that endless web of magic where Jaebum roams and Jinyoung follows.
“I was waiting for you,” he says, “I’m sorry I woke up late.”
“It’s fine.” Jaebum sits back on his feet and fishes out a slip of paper from his pocket. It looks small, probably torn from his practice book, but Jaebum looks proud. He slips it into the pocket of Jinyoung’s shirt. “I got to practice writing, you can read that after dinner. I don’t want you to read it with me around.”
“I’m kind of embarrassed. I think I did okay, but...”
He shrugs and Jinyoung presses his hand against his chest, feels the soft bump of folded paper.
“How can I make it up to you?” Jinyoung asks.
At this, Jaebum quirks up a brow, leans forward to slide a finger down the collar of Jinyoung’s shirt. He slips it in, presses it against the skin of his chest.
“I think you know how, “ he tells him.
It doesn’t take long for them to kiss, for their hands to trace each other’s figures. Jaebum is the first to slip off his shirt, to undo the buttons of his pants but he is too excited to do much else, too drunk on Jinyoung to be away from him too long.
He slips his tongue into Jinyoung’s mouth with a tiny sound and they lose themselves into the motions. They kiss so long that Jinyoung’s jaw starts to hurt, so long that he forgets where he ends, where Jaebum begins. So long that his mind has no space for anything but Jaebum’s lips, so long that all of his senses chase Jaebum. The world recedes until it consists of only Jaebum, his hands grabbing at his bottom, his legs settling between Jinyoung's thighs. Jinyoung's hands find Jaebum's hair, scratch down his back.
They kiss so long that neither of them notice that someone arrives at the house, neither of them notice the steps down the hall.
The floorboard near the door creaks and Jinyoung opens his eyes. His body stiffens.
Jaebum, busy kissing Jinyoung’s neck, notices the tensing. His eyebrows furrow and he leans back. Jinyoung looks horrified and his eyes are wide and full of panic but when Jaebum tries to follow his gaze a hand grabs at his hair and tugs him back. His balance falters and he falls back to the ground but the grip on his hair remains and forces him to sit up.
It only loosens so that the hand can punch against his head and so the man can right himself enough to slap Jaebum. The sound echoes in the room. Jaebum sits still, unmoving. He looks terrified but resolved, surrendered. The bright glint in his eyes is gone and only a dull black remains.
The man continues to slap at him, yelling words Jinyoung can’t understand, something about shame, about disgust. After another slap, Jinyoung's limbs awaken. He's scared but his entire body aches to defend Jaebum. He stands and lunges forward.
“Stop,” he yells, “Stop hitting him!”
He tries to pull the man’s arm back but he’s pushed away. When the man turns, Jinyoung recognizes Jaebum’s sharp eyes and his bumped nose, but on the man they look violent, angrily drawn. It takes a second to recognize Jaebum’s father and it takes another for Jinyoung to fall to the ground where he curls up, starts to taste blood as the man kicks his stomach with a heavy boot again and again.
His eyes close and all his nerves flock to the pounding at his stomach. Pain swells, hot, stabbing, until it stops suddenly. He hears glass shattering and a thud, the clatter of the lantern bouncing over the floor. When he opens his eyes, Jaebum is standing over his father. His eyes are no longer dull but they lack splendor. He looks young, so young, and Jinyoung feels another kind of pain. His heart breaks seeing Jaebum cry, seeing tears mix with the bloody gash by his cheek. His heart breaks seeing him quiver and shake and he looks at Jinyoung, then his father, then back to Jinyoung.
“I’m sorry.” His voice cracks as he stumbles back and nearly trips out of the room, scrambles into the hallway.
Jinyoung musters up all his strength to stand and staggers down the hall, leaning against the wall. He gropes at it and makes his way to the door. In the distance, he hears an engine start.
Outside he loses his balance and falls.
“Jinyoung, what’s going on?” his mother yells. He hears her footsteps against the ground, speeding up as she screams his name. He strains against the sound of chickens, of the wind, his mother’s steps, the groans coming from the house to hear the truck rumbling in the distance. He strains against his own heartbeat, the sound of his coughs as blood comes out and spots the ground in front of him to hear Jaebum driving away and escaping, but he can no longer make out the sound.
The silence that rushes to meet him is deafening, makes him realize the sudden absence in everything. Here is the ground Jaebum walked on, he thinks. Here is the sunlight that warmed him, the air he breathed, the house he lived in. His ribs ache, and he thinks, this is where he touched. These are the hands he held, these are the lips he kissed.
Here is the space between them, stretching endlessly, infinitely under a blue, cloudless sky.
His mother falls to her knees, her hands find Jinyoung. She tries to pull him up but he’s heavy and doesn’t budge, stares instead at the tiny note that’s fallen next to him on the ground. Messy, shaky words have been scrawled on it, the handwriting of a child. He reads it four times before the world blurs behind his tears.
All I need is you.
Chapter 7: communication
well... after this one, there's only three chapters left and then nora's diaries ends! weird to think about, but exciting. hopefully you enjoy this. thank you for reading, as always ~
...All I need is you, but I’m starting to think you forgot I’m cursed. You should be here, with me. I want to spend the last months of my life with you and you still think it’s all a joke. You and my mother. She refuses to believe that we don’t have to work anymore, she doesn’t even believe half the stories I tell her. She won’t take the lump of money I brought home. What good is being rich if you can’t even help your parents? You two would get along, I’m waiting desperately for you both to meet.
I told her about you, that is one of the few stories she’ll believe. I told her that ever since I met you, there’s been a clear distinction in my life: a time before you and a time after. It seems strange but I can’t imagine a world without you. That’s silly, isn’t it? For twenty-five years I’ve been living, but all that time, now, seems like I was waiting for something. Waiting for you.
Time is so fast. Summer is already speeding to an end. Sometimes I think of what I have done and what I have yet to do, if given the chance. I see it all stretched out in front of me like a wide landscape. Bulging hills, softened pastures.
You are in every mound. You are in dreams. In music, in dance. The smell of rain. The sway of curtains. The clatter of shoes against the flooring. It’s like we have never been apart...
“And why are you smiling so wide for? Love letter from a girlfriend?”
Jaebum folds the letter and sets it aside. Then he goes back to the small screws and the tiny gears of the watch, adjusting the headpiece on his head. From across the room, Wooyoung, his uncle, continues working on a clock.
“You could say that. We met on the train,” Jaebum says, then his fingers pause, “Uncle, what does love feel like?”
A long silence falls between them, though it’s comfortable, gentle, like leaves falling from trees, sailing down to soft patches of grass.
“Well, that’s a hard thing to ask. I don’t think two people could ever love the same, I don’t think it’s possible. But for me, I knew your aunt was the one because every time I thought of her, no matter how angry I was, or how sad, I would find myself smiling. Just like that, I would feel better. You know I’m moody and kind of an ass, but she always made me feel so damn happy to be alive.
“I had never felt that way with anyone, or not for as long as I did with her, so I knew it was love. I just knew. And I think you’ll know. But don’t confuse them.”
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t confuse a little crush with love. There were a lot of times I thought I was in love, but wasn't. It would be loud and take up all my attention. I felt a need, mostly, and I thought it meant I loved them. But it was nothing of the sort. Sometimes we just need affection or attention. Sometimes the body needs it, too. But when it’s love, well, those things come after. When it’s love, everything just makes sense. You just know -- you’ll know. You think you’re in love?”
“I don’t know yet.” His words stumble forward, short and clipped. He resumes his work and his focus gathers there. At the back of his head, though, he thinks of Jinyoung’s letter, of the multiple letters that arrive every few days. He imagines Jinyoung there, stuck in his house in a dying town, bored out of his mind. He imagines the music that must play in his room, Jinyoung curled up by the window, gazing into the sky as he writes another letter, both spurred by affection but also by boredom. He can picture the turned lip, the wrinkles under his eye. The full, uncovered smile, the quiet horn of his laugh.
“You’re smiling again,” his uncle says.
“Is that a crime?”
“No, I’m glad. You always used to brood. You were so nervous when you were younger. You seem more confident.”
“I guess I changed.”
“People do that, but not that often. Have you thought of a name for the shop, yet? We have to have things open in a few weeks.”
Jaebum leans back, finally done with the watch. He slumps in his chair, looks at his uncle, then glances at the window. The night wears on and he loses himself into reverie.
...You have to name the shop after me, it’s the least you can do after failing to visit on time. My birthday is only months away and you still have not made any plans of coming to see me. Really, I don’t know why you had to choose now to start the shop with your uncle. I swear, I’ll pay you both to postpone it, but you’re so determined. I try so hard to be mad, but I can never be mad at you. I think of you and the world lights up, you’ve got me under a spell, Jaebum. Everything’s so strange when I think of you, so mysterious and unnerving in the best of ways. Like magic.
On another thought, you should name the shop after the girl who brought us together: Nora. If I hadn’t been crying about her, you would have never found me. I was set on not seeing any of those horrid people on that train. I just wanted to arrive at my destination. I was resolved, you know, to not leave my room. That Nora, always looking out for me. And for us, too.
Maybe she knew, you know? Maybe she died so we could meet. Poor thing, I miss her dearly. I might head to the next town over to see if they still have kittens like her. I want another one before that town burns to the ground, too. The fires keep raging, but my mother is insistent that nothing will happen to ours. She still makes me milk our last cow, can you believe it? I’ve dined with royalty and I still have to tend to animals.
If the fires hadn’t destroyed everything, it would be beautiful. I wish I could show you, and maybe I will. In our next life. Do you believe in those? I spent some time with people who did nothing but think of their many lives, and I will believe anything, but I had a hard time believing that. Now, though, with you, I hope it’s true. I hope we meet in our next life, much sooner than now. I want to meet you when everything is still green, I want to show you the animals I grew up with, the plants I learned to harvest. But I want to look like you, and you can look like me. I want to know what it’s like to live inside you, a weird thought, right? It’s just that sometimes I’m so sure that we share a soul, there’s no other explanation…
“Do you believe in fate?”
Wooyoung pauses, looks up at Jaebum in confusion.
“Yeah, things that are meant to happen. Destiny and all.”
“I think that’s another word for coincidence. Things happen, sure, but whether they were meant to or not is out of our understanding. A lot of people believe in destiny because it makes them feel better, more secure. If you know your life is heading to a destination, then anything you do makes no difference. So you do what you want. It’s liberating.”
“But what if you don’t want it to head to a certain point? What if you have to change it?” Jaebum crosses his arms, pushes his empty plate away from him. The shop is still a mess and dust still floats around so he has a hard time making out his uncle’s shape. His lack of sleep messes with his vision, too, but those spells are easier to ignore.
He overworks in hopes of finishing quickly, of opening up shop, leaving for a week or two. He exerts himself so he can make a home of his own where he can bring Jinyoung, where they can live and feel their way around. He does it so they can have time to simply be.
“Well, we make watches. What if we make a mistake and one runs faster and one runs slower? And that makes someone late or early, which then affects their life, and everything after that? Was that fate or human mistake? I think a lot of people that believe they are destined or fated just have a flair for the dramatic. They want everything to have meaning, but sometimes stones are just stones."
Jaebum nods and gets back to work, always aware of the weight and shape of the letter in his pocket, as if Jinyoung were there, his presence, his warmth. They are never apart, he thinks. All he has to do is close his eyes and listen.
...I don’t think your uncle is in the position to say anything about fate. Was he cursed? Is it his fate to die? Until he has been branded with a prophecy, I don’t think he has room to speak. And you, Jaebum, should know better. I know you feel it, because I feel it, too. I think this is love, you know. It’s love that everything I feel, I always know you do. My heartbeat races just reading your writing, just imagining you with a pen in hand with nothing but me on your mind.
It’s cruel, don’t you think? Meeting just to separate. Always aware of time coming to a close, of the seconds going faster and faster. The world keeps speeding but I want to slow down, I want to escape. I want to stand still with you, Jaebum. I can’t explain it, this familiarity. In you, I see remnants of another life, another body, another shape, but still that same soul. That same love.
I can’t wait to see you again, to tell you that I love you. To whisper it in your ears so many times that there is no doubt in your head that we were made to meet. That our fate is much larger than us, than this life. That in the fabric of the universe, we are two threads, stitched together for eternity...
He finds Jinyoung in his dreams. They all follow the same pattern: Jaebum chases him and Jinyoung runs across traincars. He is always too fast, out of reach, but Jaebum still lunges forward, grabbing at the walls to go faster but Jinyoung seems to float.
The sunlight spills in through both sides in large windows, colors everything in rose and gold. Not quite a sunset, not quite dawn, but something outside of the norm. Something that exists only for them. Nothing make sense, but nothing has to make sense. Not when Jinyoung turns around and smiles at him, not when he leans forward, his hair trembling slowly, his eyes thin with joy.
“Catch me,” he says, “Hurry up!”
And his voice always treads the air like music. The laughter that follows, that fills the air like water, forms a pond of emotion that Jaebum steps through in quiet splashes, erases any doubt in his mind.
Jaebum yells, “I love you, Jinyoung!”
But Jinyoung has made it to the next car, already halfway down that one. His figure is slim, always delicate, frail, but undeniably beautiful. He is enchanting even from the back, running, his body a clash of bones, a mess of skin wrapped in drab clothes.
The windows grow wider and longer until the whole train floods with light. Until it glows and Jaebum can’t make out Jinyoung’s shape. Only his voice remains, though it sounds hollow, like an echo of something else.
It haunts him even after his eyes flit open.
… So my birthday has come and gone. My mother gave me a hug, as did my father, but no sign of death. I think the old woman must have lied. That old bitch got me good. Anyway, I’m sorry I haven’t been able to write as much as I used to. I’ve been paying people to deliver these personally, but nowadays with the fires coming closer, there are less and less people passing through. But you know my address, you know where to find me. I won’t leave this place, Jaebum. Not even if the gods themselves come down to take me away, I won’t give up. I’ll fight. Just to see you one more time, at least. That’s all I ask. One final day with you. Please, Jaebum, come quick. I’ve never been so scared of what may come next...
“Uncle, I have to travel.”
They both stand in front of the shop -- its windows are clean and glistening, and two workers put up the small sign above it: Nora’s Watches.
Wooyoung turns to him and shakes his head.
“I don’t think that’s a wise idea, son. We just started. What have you got to travel for, anyway? Weren’t you complaining about wanting to come here? Now you just want to leave?”
“It’ll only be for a while,” he says, rubs his hands together and looks away, looks down, anywhere but his uncle’s eyes, “I just have someone I have to see.”
“What? You’re going to tell me you’re in love?”
“I think I might be,” Jaebum says, looks up. He's hopeful, but he finds what he fears in Wooyoung’s eyes: a stern, cold look. Disappointment, confusion. Jaebum goes back to tracing the sign lettering with his eyes.
“I don’t think you are. And if you are, then it can wait. Love doesn’t fade, but profits will. I need you here, helping me make a business. We made a deal, now you have to follow through.”
Jaebum tries not to cry.
The letters stop arriving. Without his constant writing, Jaebum is left to wander the streets in the little free time he has. He starts sleeping on the floor of his room, he starts searching his belongings for things that remind him of Jinyoung, but all he has are memories and letters.
Jaebum keeps their last kiss under his tongue. He feels it there, pulsing, rolls it around his mouth when the sun sets and the moon emerges, its light spilling in through the window to light an empty room except for his bed, a dresser, the ticking clock on the wall. When he's lonely, he sucks on the taste and presses it against his teeth so it breaks and he has to build it again, slow, sews it with the twine of memory -- tender stitches.
It never tastes the same: on rainy days, it's sea-salt -- the waves crash against the sand, the sound climbs up his legs. Jinyoung's hands pull him close and the kiss tastes like the ocean adventures that he rambles about; his mind becomes a stormy sea. Jaebum drowns happily.
Sometimes it tastes sweet enough that Jaebum cries. Piano music erupts from the gramophone and hides in his chest, presses against every seam, every stitch, and it feels like he'll burst all at once. Those kisses haunt him, laced with the taste of honey Jinyoung pours into his tea on the train -- unhinged and infinite. It fills Jaebum's mouth until it is the only thing on his mind. Until he knows no other taste and the edges of his days lose their clarity and tease him, instead, with a spring that arrives calmly, a summer that leaves abruptly. Trains screeching to a halt in the distance, the quiet murmurs of the station.
He tucks away Jinyoung's laughter behind his left ear and it dangles like jewelry. When he works, bent over a small watch, his fingers slow and sharp, precise in their arrangements, it rings like a bell. It chimes, it excites him. It is the last thing he hears before he sleeps, it is the music that wakes him in the mornings. The tiny, soft blares that form a sweet ribbon of sound, as soft as silk. He closes his eyes, runs it through his hands, ties it around his fingers, and imagines that Jinyoung is there, mesmerized into laughter over the smallest things.
Only then, with wide mounds of land between them, with a distance that never shrinks, does he realize that Jinyoung is right. He looks up at the stars and sees their destiny there, written in small, blinking lights -- the dots of fate. Only alone is he able to understand that some people are made for each other, that he begins where Jinyoung ends and that their breaths, taken miles apart, follow the same cosmic rhythm.
He wishes Jinyoung could be here, in his room, so he could tell him about his discovery. So he could tell him about his dream last night, how the universe has started whispering its secrets into his ears when he sleeps. How, after meeting Jinyoung, he swears he's heard the stars sing and that their harmonies are just as they'd imagined.
He always has so much to say. Like he wishes he could tie his hands to Jinyoung's waist so they can be together in every step, wishes he could measure his breaths when he slept. He wishes he could whisk Jinyoung away from his home so they could escape obligations, their work, their curse -- wishes they could cut each other's hair when the sun hangs high, could draw on each other's skin underneath a full moon.
He wishes he could chase Jinyoung, court him, dance to the harmony of his words, the orchestra of his voice. He wishes he could teach Jinyoung that happiness returns if they wish hard enough, that nothing ever breaks if they're as flexible as water and don't follow the rules. If they dream above the law. He wishes he could spend his life with him, together, collecting old treasures, gathering memories. Sharing breaths and stealing kisses. He wishes he could make Jinyoung breathless the way he did those nights on the train, wishes he could take him back to that fated day they met. Wishes they could spend their time so close to each other that they could become each other's home. That they could live in the architectures of their bones and the valves of their hearts, that he could swim inside of Jinyoung. They could be so close that the universe couldn't tell them apart so they could both sneak past the jaws of fate, ignore the walls of time, defy their rules. He wishes they had forever.
He wishes they could stand next to each other, hand in hand, and love so deeply that the gods tremble, afraid that they could make something so divine. He wishes they could live an easy life where the sunlight curls and rests on their shoulders and warms them with desire, feeds their ambitions.
He carries the hope of seeing Jinyoung again behind his knee, where nobody thinks to look, hidden so well and out of sight that he loses track of it, too. Then it falls one night as he stumbles home, too tired to tell the streets apart, following only flashing lights, and it clatters against the cobblestone. The sound makes him remember that no matter how loud he yells, the world doesn't listen. Fate doesn't care.
His gaze drifts upwards, rises to the stars. He can see Jinyoung there, if he squints, if he strains.
He wakes up alone.
Two weeks later, Jaebum gathers his things, though his belongings are only clothes and old watches. He wears the clothes Jinyoung gave him, looks at himself in the mirror, pushes all the hair from his face. He rights his tie, smooths out his sleeves, adjusts his coat. He desperately wants Jinyoung to think he's beautiful, handsome, wants him to toss another "dashing" his way. For Jinyoung, he aims to be perfect -- there is no room for error, not where fate is concerned.
“I’m leaving,” he tells his uncle that morning when the shop opens.
“The town,” he says, lifts a small piece of luggage Jinyoung had given him, “I’m going to search for someone.”
“Do you know what you’re doing? I’m not going to let you come back if you leave. This business will be my own, and you won’t get to see profit. You can work for me, but the option of owning it with me will be gone.”
“I know,” Jaebum says, “I know all that. But I have to do this.”
Wooyoung shakes his head, waves him off with his hand. Jaebum waits until he’s on the train to smile, to breathe, to let relief stretch over him. His mind fills with images of Jinyoung and the air sweetens. The sound of the train speeding down the tracks takes him back to when he had met Jinyoung, reminds him of his tears, his laughs, the endless smile that punctuated some of the most beautiful days of his life. It makes him wonder if Jinyoung thinks of him as much as Jaebum does, or if he dreams of him.
It takes four days to reach his town, though no one is at the station when he arrives.
“A ghost town,” the attendant tells him, “You sure this is the right place?”
“I’m sure,” Jaebum says and he can picture Jinyoung here the last time they’d seen each other. The smell of smoke comes in waves, makes him cough as he makes his way down foreign streets. Jinyoung had drawn a map to his home from the station, and he follows it now. Turn here, it says and Jaebum follows, notices the small animals Jinyoung has drawn on the sides of the map. Then the roads turn to dirt and the homes start to look emptier. The people that remain in town, that ignore the billowing smoke near the end of it, have locked themselves away at home. They watch him from windows or pass by him in a rush with nothing but a cold glance his way.
Only a cat treads with him. It keeps its distance at first before it nears him, walks at his side. The nose is dark, as are its paws and tail, but the rest of it is cream-colored. Its fur has dulled, no doubt by the smoke. It follows him as he makes seven more turns, turns up on the street Jinyoung has marked with flowers and stars on the map, where he’s marked the fourth house on the right with the words: your favorite person lives here.
He steps past the first and his heart races. He steps past the second and he stops breathing. He steps past the third and his stomach floods with flutters.
The fourth house never comes. In its place are ashes and rubble and the frame of a house stands weakly, beams twisted upwards like the bones jutting out of a corpse, burnt beyond recognition. Jaebum drops his luggage, his letter. He steps into the pile and digs his hand into the mess. His fingers turn black and the stench of smoke fills his lungs, but he searches, digs, though he isn’t sure for what.
Then wet dots form on his hand, and for a second he thinks it will rain but they’re only his tears. The cat meows next to him, as though invested in the search, as if trying to grab his attention, but Jaebum is lost in the rubble. His movements are frantic and the edges of his vision blur behind his tears. He finds the texture of an old rug, a shard of old ceramic. A few steps away he finds a cup, the wiring from a chair, pages of books that fall to ashes at his touch.
Then, in the corner, where almost everything is ash, he finds a stone, almost round, almost glimmering beneath all the soot. He picks it up, remembers the stones from the train, the way they rolled down the room. He remembers Jinyoung's fingers holding them, explaining their meaning and worth and his tears swell. He sits back and lifts his hand, holds the stone against the light as though he were looking at gold.
Chapter 8: incidents
after this, only two left! whoo! was going to post this on valentine's... but i won't. here it is, let me know what you think. as always, thank you for reading!
“Are these fucking stones?”
Mark rolls them around in his hand, then lets them drop on the bed. Brian, next to him, stretches out his arms and closes his eyes.
“I guess he liked collecting stones,” he says.
“That’s fucking boring. What kind of people does Jaebum date?”
“He just dates the weird ones. Maybe that's why he's so picky.”
“I told you guys not to come in here,” Jaebum says. He stands at the door, his jaw tense, pressed forward, “Get out. Now.”
“Fine, we’re going,” Mark tells him, though he smiles as he stands, walks over to him, “We just wanted to see who dumped you.”
“He didn’t dump me, we broke it off.”
“Whatever you say. It’s good, though, the stuff he left is weird. Must have been boring.”
“Don’t say that.”
Mark nears him, still smiling. “Say what? That he’s a loser? You dodged a bullet, man.”
Jaebum reaches forward and grabs Mark by his shirt. His hands curl into tight fists and his gaze darkens. He feels the walls close in gently, as though slowly, surely, he were returning to his old habits. The fits of anger of his youth, the spells of violence, the anxiety of being uprooted.
“Don’t fucking say that.”
He’s been lost these past few months, and he grips onto the familiar shape of anger. He knows every curve, every angle, and it gives him the faintest comfort -- he knows these things will never leave. His temper will always be short and volatile. These things don’t change, and he craves, more than anything, for at least one thing to stay the same, for it to remain.
“Or what?” Mark pushes him back, brings Jaebum back into the present: the dim room, empty except for a small box of things, the one Jaebum had broken months back. The fan turns quietly above them, the lights from outside filter in through the slits of the blinds.
“Okay, come on, the tour ended, we’re supposed to be having fun.” Brian steps in between them. “Calm down, we’re getting laid tonight. Wasted and laid, say it with me.”
But Jaebum is quiet. Even after they leave the room, ready to head out for the night, he stays quiet. Even after Mark sidles up to him, mutters an apology under his breath with a nudge of his elbow, Jaebum has nothing to say.
“I think Jaebum will get hit on first, that’s how it goes. Then I get seconds, then Brian gets leftovers,” Mark announces, louder now. Brian is already at the door and Jaebum trails behind them.
“You think we’ll find somebody special?” Brian asks.
Jaebum pauses, looks at Nora’s bowls near the kitchen. The food container is almost empty, but when he turns to go fill it, Mark grabs his sleeve and pulls him along.
“Maybe,” Jaebum says and their voices fill the hall.
Jinyoung closes the door behind him and the frantic notes of the restaurant kitchen fade into a dull silence. The clatter of dishes, the hiss of the stove, the shouting thrown between the staff like a game of ball recede into muted memories, and Jinyoung looks up at the sky, tries to find the moon. He cleans his hands on his apron, takes off his hat, steps into the hush of the alleyway.
“And where are you going?”
He turns to find Jackson leaning against the wall, lit by old light bulbs that flicker from time to time, that paint Jackson in a wash of harsh yellows and hardened shadows. Jackson straightens himself and puts out his cigarette on the brick. He flicks it over his shoulder.
“I’m leaving,” Jinyoung says, “And you?” His lips nudge into a smile.
“I was waiting for you to leave -- I just got off, too.”
“Yeah. I was wondering if you were finally going to take me up on that date. I’m free, you’re free. We can go down to that bakery you said you liked. My treat.”
Jinyoung’s eyes lift from Jackson back to the sky. The empty violet floods his vision, but his gaze still roams, still tries to rake across its color for any sign of stars.
“I can’t,” he says.
“Why not?” Jackson steps closer, rests a hand on Jinyoung’s arm.
“I’m not going home. I have to do something.”
“You’re going to leave Seoul without letting me take you out.”
Jackson drapes his arm around his shoulders and Jinyoung, for a second, feels smaller than he is, as small as he wishes he was. Small enough to disappear, to fold himself until he were nothing but a glowing speck, free to roam and free to float up and become something else. Maybe a star, maybe the blinking lights of planes racing across the sky. Anything but this frame, these bones, this clumsy heart.
“Maybe I’ll come back and visit,” Jinyoung says.
“Maybe I’ll visit you,” Jackson answers, “I want to see America.” His fingers rub quietly at Jinyoung’s nape.
“Maybe,” Jinyoung says before he peels himself away, always gentle, always careful. One look at Jackson and he is reminded of love, not for anyone in particular but its presence. Here in this alley, in the air, hiding under the smallest gestures. It must be everywhere, he thinks and he hopes that Jackson, now looking at him in mock pain, clutching his heart before blowing him a kiss, is able to find it.
They step in opposite directions as they leave.
“Let me see you before you leave,” Jackson calls.
Jinyoung’s steps pause, he turns. Jackson makes his way down the alley, turns around to give him a handsome smile, then disappears into the street. The night swallows him and Jinyoung hums. He’s pensive, he’s nervous about something that hasn’t happened yet. Something he can’t name, but that he feels, that sits in the air waiting to be noticed.
It makes him shudder, so he looks up at the sky in search of omens.
“In here,” he mutters, fiddles with the door of his room until it opens. Nora meows and Jaebum waves her off with a hand, goes to sit at the edge of his bed. Mina pauses to look around before she slips out of her dress, then settles in Jaebum’s lap.
He makes it easy for her to take off his jacket, for her to tug his shirt off. Her nails rake his back until she pushes him on the bed. She pulls his jeans off, runs her fingers up his thighs before she takes a place next to him. Her hand slips past the band of his underwear and she strokes him in urgent tugs. They kiss as deep as Jaebum can manage, as heated as he knows.
Then she pulls away, looks down to where she’s pulled Jaebum out so the band rests neatly under his cock. He, too, looks down.
“You’re still soft.”
“I don’t know what’s going on,” he lies.
“Maybe you aren’t into it.”
“This has never happened before.”
They look at each other and she smiles -- her lips form a quiet shape, almost apologetic. He wants to explain to her that every time he closes his eyes, every time he feels her touch he’s thinking of someone else. Each time she kisses him, he thinks of Jinyoung, his tongue, his lips. Then realization strikes him and he’s pulled away from desire, he’s reminded that Jinyoung isn’t there, that there might be an entire ocean between them.
He wants to explain that it isn’t her, it’s him getting lost in an empty space, but she is already off the bed, already busy pulling on her dress again.
“You have my number,” she tells him, “Call me whenever.”
“Wait,” he says and stands up, follows her past the door, down the hallway.
“It’s fine,” she tells him, gives him another smile, unreadable at best, before she lingers by the front door, “Really.”
And when she pulls it open, Jinyoung is on the other side. Jinyoung with his white shirt splattered with stains, his sleeves rolled up, his hair messy. Jinyoung with wide eyes that look to Mina, to Jaebum, then back to Mina. Jinyoung who looks scared and confused like a boy who got lost in man’s clothing, with a softened hardness, innocence posing as maturity.
Jinyoung whom he hasn’t seen in months except for dreams, and Jaebum can’t help but think: My god, he’s beautiful.
“Am I interrupting -- I can go,” Jinyoung says, but when he starts to leave, Mina grabs his arm.
“I was just leaving,” she says, then to Jaebum, “Call me.”
She disappears into the hallway and leaves them alone to glance at each other, to stare timidly like children.
“I came to feed Nora,” Jinyoung says, “I didn’t think you’d be home.”
“The tour ended early,” he says.
Another silence rises, this time like smoke, curling and warm. A silence that irritates them, tries to make them cough up their words; a silence that begs for its end.
“Do you want to come in?” Jaebum says, finally.
Jinyoung steps in, silent, careful. His gaze flutters around the room. “A girlfriend?”
“No,” Jaebum says, “I met her tonight. Mark’s friend.”
And Jinyoung nods , slows his steps. He closes the door behind him.
“That’s fun,” he says.
“It’s not what it seems like. I mean, we don’t -- we didn’t.”
“It’s fine if you did, we aren’t together or anything. You can do that.”
“No, Jinyoung, I didn’t -- and I don’t want to.”
“Jaebum,” Jinyoung says and his voice is a quiet beat in the air, the soft nudge of rain against a window, “You don’t have to pretend or anything. It’s fine.”
“I couldn’t even get hard,” he flushes with color, “I couldn’t even do that. I kept trying but, well, all I could think about was you.”
“Really? You look pretty hard right now.” Jinyoung points down and his expression wavers to let a smile stretch his lips. Jaebum looks down at his tented underwear, bites back his own smile.
“I’m just excited to see you,” he says and they both laugh and the air loses its tension. He looks at Jinyoung again, falls into that gentle cloud of emotion that gathers when he’s around. He knows this is how the world should be: all soft, all rose, all feeling. It travels like fog and he lets it caress him, goes breathless at its touch.
“I missed you,” he whispers and Jinyoung steps forward. His focus falls apart when Jinyoung reaches for him, when his fingers trace Jaebum’s cheek. He closes his eyes because he wants to submerge himself in Jinyoung’s touch, the glide of his palm, wants their warmth to spill into each other, wants to stretch this moment into the infinite.
Jinyoung does more than just touch him, he opens Jaebum. Like a new sun charming open a flower, petals stretched warm and wide -- like parted arms waiting for the light to pour in all at once, unabashed and overwhelming, crashing into place.
Then the seconds settle, pry out the old, push in the new. Jinyoung wraps his arms around Jaebum’s neck and Jaebum holds Jinyoung’s hips with his hands. They share a chaste kiss, nothing more than lips pressed against each other, a slight warmth, but it still feels meant to be, still carries that magic. Still gives the feeling of puzzle pieces coming together, curves fit against curves, shapes matched with like.
When they pull apart, Jinyoung is crying.
“I missed you, too.” He breaks into a smile, pulls away to wipe at his tears. Jaebum’s eyes warm, threaten to cry as well because every every hour spent apart comes speeding forward, each heavy with its own weight. It doesn’t matter because Jinyoung is there, Jinyoung has returned, Jinyoung hadn’t left, he’d only been lost coming home. It doesn’t matter because he’s sure, now, that if they were to be separated again, perhaps by their own choices, perhaps by mistake, fate would bring them together again.
But he isn’t sure where to begin – their last ending or their beginning, the light of the supermarket the night he fell in love, or the silent static on the other end of the phone – so he starts somewhere in the middle.
“You don’t understand how much I missed you,” he says, “It’s like you live in my head. I always wonder if you’re sleeping or eating, or if you’re singing, dancing. If you’re crying.”
Though his feelings don’t end there: he carries every moment, every memory, in his head. He carries Jinyoung wherever he goes. They have never been apart, he thinks, and he isn’t sure of how, isn’t sure of when it began. It scares him. It delights him.
“Me, too,” Jinyoung says, but he sounds sad, solemn. He sounds miles away and Jaebum grows nervous. His grip around his hips tighten, he pulls Jinyoung closer.
Jinyoung rests his forehead against his shoulder, hides from Jaebum’s eyes.
“I bought a ticket home,” Jinyoung whispers, “I’m flying out in a few days.”
Jaebum’s fingers fidget and play with the fabric of Jinyoung’s shirt, the smooth surface of his belt. He is stuck between two worlds -- a weightless relief and a sinking grief. He feels, at once, both heavy and light, like stones that have learned to float on the water.
“No,” Jaebum says, “You can’t.”
Jinyoung pulls away and Jaebum’s touch lingers as long as it can before his hands fall at his side. One tightens into a fist.
“I have to,” Jinyoung says.
They stand in silence and it swells with the things left unsaid, with their secrets. With the things they hold back, with the things they quiet.
“Can I see you that day? All day?” Jaebum asks.
“If you want. My flight is at night.”
“Let’s spend that day together,” Jaebum says, almost pleading, “From start to finish. Can I at least have that?”
Jinyoung looks up at him, steps closer. His hands rise so his fingers can trace Jaebum’s nose and smooth over his eyebrows. One fiddles with his ear.
“Yes,” he tells him, “We can do that. I’d like that a lot.”
Then Jaebum takes one of Jinyoung’s hand, presses a kiss to his palm. He is aware, suddenly, of time coming to a close, an end speeding to meet them. The remaining days hang above him until that’s all he can think about. In a few days, Jinyoung will be gone. In a few days, their romance will have come to an end.
It tires him, this waiting. This submission, this surrender. All of his life he has been fighting for a better life, for a happiness that didn’t come with fame or money or sex. All his life he has been waiting for a love that comes in narrow shoulders and full lips and a tender voice and fingers that heal and reach beyond his skin to remind him that beneath it all, under the anger, the false confidence, is a boy still learning to grow.
Always waiting, he thinks, always the waiting. The hours pile up, the seconds clump together, weigh on his shoulders. He is afraid he will have to wait the rest of his life. The clouds don’t clear up, the nights are full of rain. The mornings shake with thunder. Lightning throws itself against the walls. It frightens him.
He wishes he were as transparent as he feels, that he could pull Jinyoung’s hand and press it against his chest to show him where his love resides. There, between the cage of ribs, in front of his lungs, at his heart. There, where a garden has sprouted, where every seed has Jinyoung’s name, where he is the water, the sunlight, the voice that urges them to grow, that beckons them to blossom.
There, where bright, lovely flowers have opened, where the vines curl towards the warmth of Jinyoung’s voice, where they ache for his touch. Where Jinyoung has taught Jaebum about himself, more than he’d ever known, more than he ever will.
He wishes he were transparent so he could show Jinyoung where, in a few days, after his departure, every bush, every leaf, every speck of green will wilt. The garden will mourn, the storm will return, the flowers will drown.
“Don’t you want to stay?” he asks, unaware of his tears, “With me?”
“Jaebum,” Jinyoung wipes them away with his thumb, “Everything will be okay.”
But nothing will be.
The morning of the flight, Jaebum helps Jinyoung arrange his luggage in the backseat.
“No driver today?” Jinyoung asks.
“No driver. I don’t want to share you with anyone.”
They hand each other smiles, kind words, each as genuine as the last. It’s as if the sky has opened itself up, as if Jaebum has learned to breathe again, at least for a few hours. At least until the day ends.
“You’re traveling light.”
“I don’t have much to take home,” Jinyoung says, “You want to come with?”
It takes a second for the question to settle between them, and it takes another for it to sting. Seemingly on both ends since Jinyoung looks away, fiddles with his fingers, presses his feet together as though he were being watched. Jaebum, though, doesn’t wince, he looks at Jinyoung and his jeans that end abruptly above his ankles, the brown sandals, the striped shirt. He looks a mess but, still, Jaebum’s heart races, still he looks overwhelmingly familiar.
He’s always been here, he thinks. Music holds his laughter, flowers carry his scent. The sunlight bends just to rest on his cheeks, to perch itself on the collarbones that peek out from the neck of his shirt.
“You’re really pretty, you know?”
Jinyoung turns to him. His cheeks flush with color.
“Jaebum, don’t do that. I’ll get shy.”
“Get used to it,” he says, “This is our last day. What do you want to do with it?”
“Remember that book I made you read? My favorite?”
“ In Summer , yeah. You want it back?”
“No, keep it. I want you to. It’s the whole reason I moved here, the whole reason we met. It’s special.”
“What about it, then?”
“Their last date,” Jinyoung says and steps closer, “They go to a fair. Let’s go to one.”
“Let’s go then,” he says and takes Jinyoung’s hands in his. He pulls him close, enough that he can take him in his arms, enough that their chests press together. They kiss outside for the first time, in the open, with the sun above them, the roads stretching at either side of them. Jaebum leaning against his car, his arms wound around Jinyoung’s narrow waist, pressing him close. Jinyoung has snaked his arms around Jaebum’s neck and they kiss until breaths separate them, and they come apart with reckless smiles.
Sunlight swims in Jinyoung’s eyes, settles on every eyelash, every stray hair that covers his forehead, and Jaebum is breathless.
He knows, then, that every day -- every hour -- has been a moment of preparation for this, for the inevitable. Every dream, every nightmare. Every smile and every tear. Jinyoung pulls at him like the moon pulls at the ocean, with growing, overwhelming tides of emotion. Though he is only aware of the waves, ignores their path, that final, inescapable crash.
“Can I ask you something?” Jaebum asks.
“Do you dream of me?”
Chapter 9: seasons
aldskjf this is the second to last chapter of nora's diaries! what a trip. enjoy, let me know what you think. and thank u for reading !!!
“To answer your question, I do write about dreams, but they are always dreams about things that have happened. So whether that counts or not is up to you.”
The sound of clapping fills the room and the man sits down, nodding.
“We have time for one more question for Mr. Lee before the dinner begins.”
Jaebum shifts behind the podium, gazing out into the small, seated audience. He turns to his agent, Youngjae, who points out to the crowd.
“You, in the middle. With your hand raised.”
Youngjae turns back to him and they share a smile.
Thirty summers have speckled Jaebum’s hair with gray and thirty winters have etched shallow grooves into his cheeks, lines that tell of years full of wide smiles and spilled laughter. Thirty springs have made him shorter, but his shoulders remain broad, proud, even if a little curved. Thirty autumns have made his gaze wise, though it remains bright, still a mimicry of sunlight. Still overwhelmingly magnetic.
And people still listen when he talks, people still follow him with their eyes, infatuated by the way he moves across rooms, the way he stands, unaware of the effect he has on them.
He remains youthful, somehow. Still bathed in unmatched energy, charisma. Still handsome, resembling a daydream that’s somehow stumbled into the real world. Who now looks out of place and lost, but whose voice sounds like music, whose words sound like notes that dance in the air, that bend and stretch and twirl at his command.
Thirty years have come and gone but Jaebum still lights up entire rooms. And, three rows into the crowd, with two people to the right, four to the left, standing with a small breath, with a hand propped on the chair in front of him, Jinyoung does his best not to cry.
He clears his throat, lifts his gaze to the podium, unable to go higher.
“I have a question about your first book, Mr. Lee. In Summer , what inspired you to write it? What did the ending mean?”
It’s silly, he thinks, to meet again here, in this room, with a crowd of people between them and in the autumn of their lives. Outside, the leaves continue to brown, to fall in piles, rustled from trees by the smallest breath of wind. But inside him, it feels as though every leaf has already fallen and browned and his bones are as bare as branches. His breaths are cold like the fall breeze, tease of a winter to come, quiet but desolate.
It’s silly to think that emotions don’t change for everyone, silly to think that fate brings people together, to think that they were meant to be – that the stars aligned to place him there, standing in a crowd of people he doesn’t recognize, in a city he doesn’t know, all in the hopes of finding closure to something that happened decades ago.
But he finds Jaebum’s gaze anyway, meets those eyes he still dreams about, and his heart races. It feels like coming home.
Jaebum stares back at him with teary eyes and parted lips . Youngjae, at his side, nudges his hand, leans in to repeat the question.
“I heard,” he whispers, then, louder, “I wrote that book while I was studying. I wrote it with someone in mind. I wrote it hoping they would see it, somehow. I told myself I would write the most beautiful story I could for them -- about them. When I finished, I realized that I spent the entire time looking back at one summer. So I flipped the timeline. Their last date comes first, their first comes last. I was hoping that, at least in fiction, I could go back to when it all started.”
Then he blinks, though Jinyoung isn’t sure if he blinks away his tears, only aware of the silence that falls over the room, the way someone fractures it with their clapping. Soon the whole crowd claps and Jinyoung sits back in his seat, unaware of the tears that stream down and curve around his chin. Someone offers him a napkin and he accepts it with a bow of his head. He takes off his glasses and dabs at his cheeks.
Youngjae takes over the podium.
“Each one of you were given a number when you first came in, that will be your seating arrangement for the dinner. Just find the seat with your number and enjoy the food. Mr. Lee will be available for some time after, so don’t fret if you didn’t get your answers. Enjoy the food!”
They sit him on the opposite end of the table where he can only glance at Jaebum from afar. This, he thinks, is his winter -- the seconds fall like sheets of snow, both calm and frigid, and they pile up on his shoulders, on his hands, on his eyelashes until they grow heavy and tired and the boy next to Jinyoung taps his hand.
“Do you need some sleep, old man?”
He turns to find a tall boy with a broad face and an eager smile.
“I’m eating,” he says, “And I’m not old.”
“You were crying when you asked your question earlier. Do you know Mr. Lee?”
Jinyoung looks across the table to where Jaebum sits, where he smiles and talks and people around him lean forward in their seats, hopelessly enchanted. This distance is too cold, too wide, feels too much like ice. The longer he stares, the longer Jaebum doesn’t look back, the more numb Jinyoung becomes.
He turns back to his food with a quiet sigh.
“I’m not sure,” he says.
“Well, I think he got a little emotional answering that. Nobody ever asks him about that book, really, but I heard it’s special.”
“Really?” Jinyoung asks, tries to sound interested.
“Yes, and nobody could ever figure out who it was dedicated to. Personally, I think it must be dedicated to some girlfriend he had when he was young, but nobody knows anything about his life. He’s a mystery. Some people don’t even think that’s his real name.”
“How do you know so much about him?”
“I’m his biggest fan -- I’m Yugyeom, nice to meet you. And your name?”
“What do you do? Are you a writer, too?”
Jinyoung shakes his head and takes a sip of water.
“I always preferred to read. I’m a doctor. I just opened up my practice.”
“Here in L.A.?”
“No, I don’t live here.”
“Where do you live?”
“You ask a lot of questions, you know that?”
“Yeah, my mom tells me I’m really curious,” he says, nodding, “But it’s good. I get to meet more people. Do you have a crush on Mr. Lee?”
Jinyoung’s ears warm and he turns to Yugyeom, scolds him.
“Don’t say things like that.”
“You’re the one who keeps looking over at him. I mean, I did that with my classmate Bambam, and I didn’t notice until he got up from his seat one day, came over and told me to stop. It’s okay to have a crush on him.”
“I don’t, alright?”
“Are you married?”
“Don’t you have food to eat?”
“I finished eating. You would be done, too, if you weren’t crushing over Mr. Lee. Which is fine, you know. It’s the 80s, it’s a new era. It’s cool to be different.”
“I don’t have a crush on anyone, kid.”
“Really? Because from what I can see, the story’s a little different.”
Jinyoung turns his entire frame to face Yugyeom. Anger rises like heat, gathers and clumps at his throat, forms words he means to throw, but one look at Yugyeom and he’s disarmed. He looks naive, innocent, reminds him of himself when he was that age. So much that his words fall back to his lungs and reemerge as laughter.
“I’m arguing with a teenager,” he says.
“I’m not a teenager, I’m nineteen,” he says, which only makes Jinyoung laugh again, more when Yugyeom looks annoyed.
“Let me finish my food,” he says between breaths, “And I’ll answer all your questions.”
Yugyeom makes him forget where he is for a few seconds, makes him forget how cold the room feels, how winter rages inside of him. Makes him forget who he came for, but it doesn’t take long for him to remember, for him to look up and find Jaebum’s eyes.
To his surprise, Jaebum is already looking his way, smiling. They lose themselves in each other’s gaze, and Jinyoung imagines that words flutter between them, like butterflies that seek the sun, silent but full of color. He imagines that spring will come, if only they keep their eyes on each other, if only they wish hard enough. The ice of the room breaks apart and melts, like a frozen pond welcoming a new season. It’s coming, he thinks, tells Jaebum with his eyes, with his thoughts.
But it’s his focus that breaks when Yugyeom leans in and whispers in his ear.
“I think he has a crush on you, too, Dr. Park.”
He realizes later that it has only been an echo of spring. Nothing warms, nothing blossoms, and once the dinner ends, Jaebum is cornered at every second, hounded by people that hand him questions and praise and anything he might need.
Jinyoung stands at the edge of the room, waiting for the right moment, hoping for a sign or a message or anything other than the murmur of piano music that pours out of a speaker in the corner. But nothing comes, nothing arrives. Fate, or his idea of fate, slowly pulls apart and unravels. There is no fate, there is no destiny. There are only choices, and he makes one now as he steps away from the room and heads to the entrance of the building without looking back.
He finds Yugyeom outside, rubbing his arms.
“Dr. Park!” he calls, “Come wait with me.”
They stand next to each other and watch cars speed along the road.
“Are you waiting for your ride, too?”
“No,” Jinyoung says, rubs his hands together, “I have to call a cab. I’ll use a payphone.”
“There are phones inside, you know.”
“I don’t want to go back in there.”
“Did you get to talk to Mr. Lee? See if you really know him?”
“No,” he says. Then he sighs, looks up at the sky, tries to find stars but there is only a low-hanging moon. “I don’t want to, either. Some things should stay buried.”
“I don’t think that’s true. Never leave a stone unturned, that’s why I ask so many questions. I don’t want any regrets in my life. I don’t want to wonder ‘what if’ or anything, no sir, that’s not the life for Kim Yugyeom.”
Jinyoung smiles but says nothing. A beat later, someone calls Yugyeom’s name. A boy emerges from the side of the parking lot with all his hair combed back, his jeans flared at the end, and despite it being dark, he wears star-shaped sunglasses. His sequined shirt glimmers when he waves his arms, screams in their direction.
“I’m here to pick you up!” he yells and Yugyeom takes a step forward.
Then he turns back and leans close to Jinyoung.
“That’s my boyfriend,” he says, “Remember the boy who I couldn’t stop staring at? That’s him right there. I took a chance and it worked. You should, too.”
He takes Jinyoung’s hand in his own, shakes it slowly.
“It was nice meeting you, Dr. Park. Remember: everything happens for a reason.”
Yugyeom walks away and Jinyoung watches, follows his shape as the boys hug and get in a Mustang. The wheels screech when they drive off and Jinyoung catches the sight of a small hand peeking out from the window, waving at him.
It inspires him to wait, if anything. To wait for Jaebum to step out of that door, to wait and tell him everything he has to say, to hear, hopefully, what he wants to hear. To wait for their spring to arrive, for it to pry open flowers, for it to bathe him in youth and green and nectar and that clumsy love that stumbles into his heart, still learning how to walk.
People trickle out of the building, sometimes in groups, sometimes alone, but none of them are Jaebum. Jinyoung checks his watch, half an hour speeds by, grows into an hour. Jinyoung surrenders again, looks to the road, starts walking in the direction of a phone booth he’d seen.
An attempt has been made, he thinks, stepping around the building, heading towards the sidewalk.
Then the rumble of an engine trembles in the air. It draws closer and closer until Jinyoung has to turn as a truck approaches -- its bottom half is painted red, its top white. The passenger window has been rolled down and Jinyoung squints, watches Jaebum lean towards the window.
“Jinyoung?” he asks and Jinyoung smiles, nods.
“Do I look that different?”
Jaebum doesn’t answer, he just smiles wide, bright, and this is how spring arrives: with sharp bones, a pair of moles, with full cheeks that press up against his eyes. With his voice as quiet as the river of their youth, just as strong, telling Jinyoung to get in. With him climbing up into the truck, settling into the seat, ignoring the way his heart races and buzzes like a beehive with joy, with love. With an affection that lasts as long as honey, for thirty years now, waiting to be poured into the air until each second is warm and sweetened.
With a road stretching in front of them, promising a new season, a new life. Though, by now, Jinyoung has seen enough to know that it isn’t new -- each season is the same as the last one, just with different trees, with different clothes. Or at least it has been until now.
They ride in silence and Jinyoung doesn’t ask where they’re going, pleased, instead, with just existing. Here in this moment, with Jaebum a breath away, with a faint breeze sighing over his cheeks.
Then Jaebum says, “I looked for you.”
“After I left, I came back a year later. You weren’t there.”
Silence settles. Jaebum slows at a light, makes a turn.
“We moved out of the countryside. We thought it would be best.”
“I figured. Then I looked for you everywhere I could. I remembered you named your cat after some watch company -- Nora’s watches -- so I looked for that, too. I thought I could somehow track you down with it. But it had all burnt away, I just found scraps of letters. That’s all I had for a long time. I read them over and over again. That’s why I wrote that book about their story on the train. It all reminded me of you, of us.”
The car slows and Jaebum turns to look at him. His eyes are wet with tears, though he smiles.
“Jaebum, don’t cry.”
“I’m not crying because I’m sad, I’m just relieved. I thought I had lost you forever. I thought you had forgotten.”
“I could never, Jaebum,” he says, feels shy suddenly. The light changes and Jaebum looks back to the road while Jinyoung stares out the window. “You were my first love.”
“You were my first and last -- my only love.”
“Jaebum… That can’t be true.”
“I tried so hard to forget, but I couldn’t. Everything leads me back to you. It’s why I went to school. So I could write to you. That’s why I started writing in the first place, hoping I could find you. Hoping you could find me,” he pauses, breathes for a moment, “You know I still love you.”
“Jaebum, it’s been years.”
“Thirty years and one month, I know. So is it your favorite?”
“You said if I ever wrote a book, it’d be your favorite.”
“I can’t forget, Jinyoung. I can’t forget a thing. That’s how I would practice writing. I would write down what happened, how it felt, how beautiful you looked.”
“You’re crazy,” Jinyoung says, smiling as he watches the buildings become darker and more sparse.
“I must be,” he says, “For you.”
They fall into silence, though it’s sweet, full of the smell of trees, of the breeze skittering inside of the truck. Jaebum reaches over to rest his hand on Jinyoung’s and their fingers weave together.
“Where are we going?” Jinyoung asks, turning to Jaebum.
“It’s a surprise.”
His lips twist into a playful smile that makes Jinyoung believe in spring again. In new leaves and young flowers that push past the dirt to blossom, to sweeten the air as they curve towards the sun, the way Jinyoung has curved to Jaebum. All these years, he thinks, there must have been a gravity between them -- they have been plants, growing towards the same love, seeking the same warmth. Their roots tangle, their branches brush together. They share the same water, the same light, the same spring.
This soothes him when his eyes close, when he strains against the rumble of the truck and the wind that spills in to make out Jaebum’s breathing, to feel his pulse against his palm.
Slowly, carefully, he tries to match his breaths, to be that much more tethered to him. To feel their spring as it presses up against them and lets them dream.
Jaebum parks up a small mountain next to a hill. They push open the door to the fence, find a rough trail, and start their way up.
“Let me guess, someone as cute as you got married early, had kids, maybe a teacher?”
Jinyoung snorts. “I’m divorced. No kids, and I’m a doctor.”
“A doctor.” Jaebum hums.
“What did you expect me to be?”
“With me, every single day of my life. But that didn’t turn out as expected.”
It’s dark, but Jinyoung still turns away from him to hide the way his cheeks warm, flare with color.
“And you? Married?”
“No, but I’ve had a few girlfriends. Do you still get jealous?”
“Stop, Jaebum. We aren’t kids anymore.”
“But I feel like one right now,” Jaebum says, steps ahead of Jinyoung to walk backwards, to face him with that bright smile that, even at night, still manages to feel like the sun, “I feel so young. I can do anything with you here. You won’t leave anymore, right?”
Jinyoung speeds up to hold Jaebum’s shoulders, to guide him to the right, then the left, all the way up the winding path. He’s quiet, tries to focus on the trail but Jaebum’s grin is too lively, too wide to ignore. So Jinyoung surrenders to it, gives Jaebum his full attention.
“Why are you smiling like that?”
“You’re still cute, Jinyoung. You haven’t changed.”
Jinyoung shakes his head as the trail ends and they come upon a clearing. Jaebum slips out of his hold and guides him to the center where he sits with a grunt, invites Jinyoung to do the same. They settle on the grass and Jaebum points up.
“We’re far enough that you can see some of the stars,” he says, “Can you believe those are the same stars we used to look at? Some things don’t change, you know.”
He runs his gaze over the stars as Jaebum talks, imagines a life where they are still young, still together. Where they have never been apart. The thought stings, makes the silence uncomfortable, so he lowers his gaze back to Jaebum.
“Why Mr. Lee?”
“When I first left, I took someone else’s name and documentation. I had nothing so that was easier. How did you find me?”
“Someone gave me your book to read. I liked it enough to go out and see what other books you had. Then I saw your face on the back cover of one and I thought my mind was playing tricks. But I kept reading it and something clicked. I had to come to see if it was really you.”
“And here you are,” he says, starts picking at the grass beside him, “We spent so much time apart, I spent so much time wishing for you. Thirty years, Jinyoung.”
“If I was born again, if I had another chance, I would take you away the moment I saw you with Nora.”
“She missed you after you left. Cried for you.”
“For weeks,” he says, “And I missed you for years. Then I thought it just wasn’t meant to be.”
They sit in silence, study the stars, and Jinyoung is aware of a warmth trickling down his chest. He understands it as joy.
“Next time, we’ll have to find each other sooner.”
“In our next life. I thought about it a lot, I don’t think it’s fair that this happened in this one. I think we get another chance -- I begged for another chance. At whatever it is up there, watching us.”
Jinyoung turns to him, smiling. “What is our next life like?”
“I want to meet in the city,” he says, “I never got to grow up in the city with you. I want to try that.”
“What else do you want to happen?”
“I don’t want us to have parents. Except a mother, maybe. Yeah, a mother. That’s it.”
“Will you be a writer?”
“No, but we’ll read. You’ll be on television, I’ll be roaming around. Maybe I’ll be a dancer. But I want to look like you.”
“What do you mean?”
“I want to look like you -- I want to wake up every day and see you in the mirror. To make up for this life, for all this time missing you. I want to look like you, and you can look like me so we can know what it feels like.”
“Do we stay together in that life?”
“Yes, but we have to separate. We have to know what distance is like so we never want to be apart again. We have to take that risk. You’ll be walking in the dark, and I’ll be the light to guide you home.”
“I don’t want to meet here, though. I don’t like L.A.”
“We’ll meet in Seoul,” Jaebum says, “But I want to grow up here. Maybe up north, maybe in Seattle. It’s beautiful there.”
“I’ve never been there,” Jinyoung says, looks back up at the sky, dreams about this new life.
“I can show you. Maybe we can go tomorrow, if you’re free. I’ll cancel the book tour, I don’t need it.”
“Jaebum, I’m flying home tomorrow.”
“You can’t do that, no. You have to stay here with me. I have more money than I know what to do with. I have a house outside of the city, a farm. You’d like it.”
“No, Jaebum, I just opened a practice. I have a life I have to go back to -- what would I do? Move out here with you and grow old together? It doesn't work that way.”
They stare at each other and Jaebum’s eyes go wide, look worried.
“Jinyoung,” he starts, quiet, leans over to press a hand on his shoulder, “Grow old together? You’re already old.”
He pushes Jaebum, who pushes back. They fight again, like kids, like teenagers, until they’re rolling around in the grass, laughing between breaths. Then Jinyoung ends up on his back and Jaebum hovers above him. He has Jinyoung’s wrists pinned beneath his hands and they stare at each other, still out of breath.
Then Jaebum leans down to press his lips against Jinyoung’s, to kiss him and summer returns all at once. The clatter of cicadas hiding in trees, the scent of leaves climbing up his nose. His feet stepping over rocks as the river rushes around his ankles, splashing him, and the shadows of birds blotting out the sun. Jaebum’s laughter rising above the field, his silence while Jinyoung reads to him, day after day, as though the summer were infinite, as though nothing has to end. His slow hands finding Jaebum’s face in the dark, the quiet glide of his fingers between his thighs, the beads of sweat tracing his collarbone down to his chest, his nails digging into his back. The flowers blossoming in the forest and the flickering lamp heating their room as they stay up all night telling stories, building a perfect future for themselves in the city. The sun beating down on them, time after time, heating their necks, making them sweat as they walk down the edge of the dirt road leading home.
The rumbling of Jaebum’s truck on the day they meet, the feel of his palms the first time they make love underneath a wide sky, urged on by stars, lit by a low moon.
When he opens his eyes, he’s eighteen again and hopelessly in love with the boy from the country with long, unruly hair, with two moles above his eyes and the bumped nose, with the most charming smile, the most clever tongue, with handsome laughter and a gaze as warm as sunlight. When he opens his eyes, when Jaebum’s bright stare falls into his, he understands that all this time spent apart, all those months alone, all those years dreaming of him, have been nothing but waiting. For this, for their reunion. He had stopped living and now, as he sits up, as Jaebum settles next to him, it feels like he can start again.
All that time bends like paper, and the longer they look at each other, the longer they spend with their fingers tangled, just breaths away from another kiss, the smaller time becomes until it’s nothing but a bad memory. Nothing more than a crease in paper.
Jaebum leans forward and presses their foreheads together. Jinyoung doesn’t look away, couldn’t if he wanted to -- he loses himself in Jaebum’s splendor.
“What do you say?” Jaebum whispers, “What happens now?”
Chapter 10: destiny
thanks for reading this clumsy story all the way to the end!
“What happens now is we raise our arms and it takes us up the little hill thing and then we start screaming.”
“I know how roller coasters work, Jinyoung,” he sighs, “I was asking about after.”
“We’ll think about it after. Just focus on screaming.”
“What if I’m not scared?”
“It’s not about being scared,” Jinyoung flinches as the staff adjust the safety bar. He wriggles in his seat, settles. “It's about feeling alive, you know? Just letting loose."
"Exactly," Jinyoung says. The car inches forward and climbs up the tracks with small creaks. Jaebum watches Jinyoung prop his arms up, watches him take a breath then close his eyes. His lips move silently.
"Are you praying?"
They stop moving, pull instead into a pout that reminds Jaebum of ducks.
"I want to have fun, but I don't want to die, either."
"Are you scared?"
"A little," he says, then looks up when the roof above them ends and the morning sun splashes around them. His eyebrows furrow and he looks unsure so Jaebum reaches up to take one of his hands, brings it down between their seats. He threads their fingers together and Jinyoung smiles at him. Below them, the car rights itself, the clicking ends. Slowly, it starts to glide over the curve. A second away from the ride starting it stops, suddenly.
"Are you ready to scream?" Jinyoung asks.
"Of course," he answers. Jinyoung closes his eyes, parts his lips into a wide, open smile. Wrinkles form under his eyes and the air between them lightens. He glows in the sun and Jaebum wishes all his mornings could be this way, that he could start his days with Jinyoung’s smile, with his laughter, without a worry of what’s to come next.
He looks to the front when the ride starts, when the car plummets forward and Jinyoung tightens his fingers in Jaebum's hand. They both close their eyes, they both yell, empty their lungs at every curve, at every dip.
He feels more alive than he ever has. His heart pounds against his chest and the dull roar of the wind fills his ears, tangles with Jinyoung’s screaming at his side. And he turns to look at Jinyoung, the air whips the hair from his face, his eyes are shut tight as his voice wades in his throat before it wavers into the air.
He's never heard something so lovely.
He hears Jinyoung yelling from the hallway, though he doesn't rush. The sound flutters between screams and laughter, and he figures he’s excited over a book again. Jaebum pushes the door of their room open. The window has been pried open and the curtains flutter in the breeze. Jinyoung props his feet on the window-sill and clasps his hand around its edge while his entire body hangs outside, trembles in the breeze.
"Jinyoung, what are you doing?!"
Jinyoung looks his way, watches him approach. His features are gathered around a bright grin, his eyes full of color. His clothes sway in the rush of air.
"Jaebum! Come try this. It feels like flying."
"Are you trying to get yourself killed? Come back inside," Jaebum urges, holds a hand out.
"I can't die, Jaebum," Jinyoung says -- his eyes widen before he laughs again, bright sounds that fight the wind to spill inside the window, to settle there, in the room, and to linger. Behind him, the green fields blur into thick lines of color, like brush strokes on a painting. The mountains in the distance glide slowly across, as slow as clouds, in lively shades of blue that frame Jinyoung with so much color that Jaebum wonders if it’s a dream. Nothing this alive, this vibrant, can be real, though he finds himself smiling.
"You're a riot," he says, "That's what people say before they die. Please, come inside?" He pushes his hand further out, shakes it as Jinyoung watches.
"I can't die, Jaebum," he says again, "Not now, I'm only twenty-four. I'm invincible right now. There's so much we have to do -- we are so young!"
He looks to the side once, studies the horizon, the way it glistens in the blue morning. Then he turns back to Jaebum, reaches for his hand. He loses his grip and for a second he stumbles back, towards the blur of the ground beneath him, towards the screech of the train racing on its tracks. But Jaebum is quick and leans forward, takes hold of Jinyoung's arms, pulls him in with enough strength that they both tumble back. Their bodies press close and their breaths clatter around them.
They settle on the floor, Jinyoung on top of him, Jaebum out of breath. His eyes are wide, scared, but Jinyoung keeps his smile intact.
"You saved me, Jaebum."
"Why would you do something like that? That’s dangerous."
"If you keep this up, you'll save me from the curse," he says, ignoring Jaebum, "Then we can grow old together. Would you like that?"
Jaebum rolls his eyes, tries to be angry, tries to be hurt, but he ends up smiling, too.
"You're strange," he says.
Jinyoung widens his eyes, cups Jaebum's face with his hands, rubs at his cheeks with his fingers. He studies Jaebum for a moment, and his heart drums against Jaebum’s chest. His palms feel warm.
"I'm strange? As strange as magic?” he asks before he rolls off Jaebum to rest next to him, still catching his breath. He looks up at the ceiling, wistful and longing, as though he were watching something unfold. The breeze still whistles from the window, fills the room with the rustle of life outside, loud enough that it nearly swallows Jinyoung’s voice saying, “Growing old together, nothing would be more perfect.”
Jaebum opens his mouth to respond but someone knocks on the door, loud and impatient, yelling, "Breakfast is here!"
“Maybe you should be eating a good breakfast. Since you have to fly and everything.”
“It’s fine,” Jinyoung says and waves him off. He sits with his feet on the bench, his knees to his chest, while he bites into his small, sweet pancake. In between bites, he says, “I’m flying at night. And it has to be small since I want to go on that big one.”
He points at the ride in the distance, one that lets the riders freefall from the top. It’s high enough for Jaebum to worry, high enough that he shakes his head.
“That’s a little too much. I don’t think I can do that.”
Jinyoung finishes the pancake and nudges Jaebum with his elbow.
“Come on, I’m here. We have each other. You don’t have to be scared.”
“I don’t like those things.”
“Please? It’s my last day.”
He sighs -- there’s no arguing with Jinyoung when his eyebrows push together, when his lips twist and pout and he looks younger than he is, innocent even. He means to agree, but Jinyoung stands and takes his hand, pulls him to his feet.
“You want to go right now?”
“Let’s get it over with,” Jinyoung says, tugs him more until he steps with him, until they walk side by side, “You know what I used to do when I was scared of something?”
“Run towards it.”
“Why would you ever do that?”
Jinyoung lets go of Jaebum’s hands. His steps quicken.
“When you’re running you have no time to be scared or anything. Then when you get there, you realize you’ve been scared for no reason.”
“I don’t think that’s how it works.”
He turns once to face Jaebum, to challenge him with a playful smile on his lips, full of mischief.
“I’ll race you,” he shouts over his shoulder. A beat later, he starts running.
“Come on, Jinyoung.” Jaebum groans, tilts his head as he frowns. But the longer he watches, the smaller Jinyoung becomes until he has to run to keep him in sight. And, running, he finds that his mind has no room for much. He focuses on his breath, on his heartbeat. Focuses on weaving through crowds without losing speed, on Jinyoung’s frame as he runs, the tiger ears he bought before on top of his head. Focuses on the way they rise and fall with each step.
He focuses on the chase until there is no one between him and Jinyoung, only an empty space. Here he decides to close the distance in a quick sprint.
Jaebum sprints across the cliff and leaps at its end. The world slows for a second as Jaebum leans forward, stretches out his arms, dives against the background of trees and bushes and the soft crash of the waterfall. Jinyoung hurries to the edge, watches Jaebum sink into the small pool of water with a quiet splash. The dappled sunlight on the surface fractures into ripples, then settles. Peace returns, but Jaebum rushes upward again, emerges with a hand first, then his shoulder, then all at once with a laugh. He pushes his wet hair back and looks up.
Sunlight falls in patches here, filtered by leaves, so Jaebum glistens in pieces: drops of water shine on parts of his shoulder , on a piece of his forehead, on the short fingers of his right hand that wave and urge Jinyoung to jump.
“Just jump,” he yells.
“I’m scared!” Jinyoung stands at the edge in nothing but underwear. He holds himself with his arms, takes a step back.
“That’s why you have to get a running start! So you don’t think about it.”
“I don’t think that’s how it works.”
“You never know until you try.”
“I can’t do it!”
“Come on. I’ll be right here, I’ll make sure you don’t get hurt or anything.”
Jinyoung takes a deep breath, takes a few steps back. He takes a moment to look at the forest, suddenly aware that it will never be this way, not after this summer. Everything changes, so he tells himself to remember -- the heat, its humid path, and the birds flitting between branches. He tells himself to remember the water gushing around his ankles, how it slows at the edge of the cliff, how it falls and leaps from rock to rock, gathering in a pool where Jaebum wades. Other moments will come, but not this one. Not this way.
And when he jumps, even with his eyes closed, he can feel the summer pressing up against him, the glow against his eyelids. This is bliss, being weightless, soaring with nothing to drag him down, with the air surrounding him, the sounds of the forest, the promise of meeting Jaebum in the water. Always. The word rattles in his head, makes him warm, makes his heart race, expels the fear from his bones until he feels alive, completely and utterly alive.
He hits the water with a splash and his arms awaken, bring him to the surface, search for a grip somewhere.
Soon, he’s holding on to Jaebum’s arms, his fingers gliding over wet skin.
“I got you,” he says, and Jinyoung laughs, shrieks up into the air.
“I did it,” he yells, opens his eyes to find Jaebum’s gaze. The sun bathes his side in gold, highlights his nose, his cheeks, and the sight takes Jinyoung’s breath away. His hands find Jaebum’s shoulders and he leans forward until their lips meet.
They kiss in the water, their legs kicking gently beneath them in a pool of green with the harmony of the forest around them. It feels like floating, it feels like dreaming, and Jinyoung feels, again, weightless. Then Jaebum pulls away, keeps their foreheads pressed together. Drops of water slide down between his eyebrows, curve around his nose, trace his handsome jaw.
“Let’s go check the animals,” he says, “Before the sun sets.”
The petting zoo consists of a single goat and a few chickens, but Jinyoung is still enamored. He bends down, sits on his feet, and runs his fingers over the goat’s head.
“He’s so cute,” Jinyoung says and Jaebum fidgets beside him, still standing. He eyes the chickens that waddle around them.
“They shouldn’t call it a zoo without actual animals.”
“It’s fine like this,” Jinyoung says, turns to face Jaebum. He lifts a hand to his forehead, shields his eyes from the sun. Jaebum looks down at him, smiling.
“You know I have dreams where we live on a farm,” Jinyoung says, “But I’m always a few steps behind. I’m always watching us. Your hair is dark and long and I wear glasses, but I don’t feel like myself. I always feel like you.”
“Really? What happens in those dreams?”
“Nothing, really. But we’re happy. You show me the animals and I listen.” He pauses, hums quietly as he scratches behind the goat’s ears. “I like those dreams. Everything is warm and sunny. It’s perfect.”
At this, Jaebum squats down next to him. Instead of the goat, though, he only pays attention to Jinyoung. He plays with his earlobe between his fingers, pinches gently. His thumbs run along its edge.
“I don’t think I’d be good on a farm.”
“I think you would be. You’re gentle.”
“You are, and you would be on a farm. It’d be like getting away from the world.”
“Would you want to go with me?”
Jinyoung turns to face him. Though he smiles, the edges of the shape are sad, wilted. Jaebum’s heart sinks.
“I would,” Jinyoung says, finally, “To a lot of places, actually.”
“But you’re leaving.”
“I guess that’s how our fate was written.”
He turns back to the goat, strokes its neck. Jaebum lets his hand fall to his side. It dangles there for a second, fingers slightly curved and loose.
“You don’t have to listen to fate,” Jaebum says, inches closer. He rests a hand on Jinyoung’s thigh, but Jinyoung ignores him. Instead, he stands and looks at the chickens that have crowded around. In the distance, a child starts to cry. A mother tends to him.
“Where else would you want to go?” Jinyoung asks.
“What do you mean?”
“If we had forever, where would you take me?”
“If we had forever, there’s not a place we wouldn’t go. I would be dying to take you to my favorite places, I’m close to tears just thinking about you in front of the ocean. It’s a little scandalous, but you don’t have to wear clothes, either. Not the beaches I went to.”
Jaebum lies on his back, facing the ceiling, though his eyes are closed. Jinyoung sits on a chair by the table, sifts through some of the papers he’s found in his luggage.
“Where was your favorite place to go?”
“I really liked when we went into forests because there would be nothing for days. Just us and the trees. There’s nothing more relaxing, Jaebum, and I’m sure someone as stressed as you would like it.”
“I’m not stressed.”
“You are. You’re tense, all kinds of stiff. You just don’t know it -- it’s a good thing you found me, though. I give great massages, you know. I collected some oils for it, too. I’m a master. Come on, I’ll show you.”
Jaebum turns to his side, opens his eyes. Jinyoung is looking in his direction. They both smile at each other, remain that way for a few seconds, bathe in the familiarity of it all. They’ve done this before, he thinks, in another place, in another body . They’ve done it all before, and they are destined, at least now, to do it again. Burdened with a story they must live, under the weight of some creator’s finger, no matter how dull it may be, no matter how forced, no matter how sad.
“What do you want me to do?”
“Undress yourself, and lay on your stomach,” Jinyoung says. He abandons his papers as Jaebum does away with his buttoned shirt, with the fabric underneath. Soon, he’s on his stomach, his broad shoulders on display. Jinyoung stands beside him, marvels at the map of moles spread over his skin.
“You’re beautiful,” Jinyoung says, sits on the edge of the bed next to him. He opens a vial of oil and holds it over Jaebum’s back, lets it drip down and settle on the ridges of lean muscle. “You’d look even more stunning in front of a beach, you know. With the sea behind you. Maybe even the top of the mountain.”
As he talks, he runs his fingers over Jaebum’s skin. His whole body sways, moves with the warm glide.
“The top of a mountain? A small one?”
His hands start high, where his back is the broadest, move in circles down, linger at the curve of his spine. He takes his time appreciating every dip, every warm mound, every angle. The lower he goes, the smaller Jaebum’s waist becomes. Jinyoung is enchanted.
“The biggest one I can find, we’d be so high up.”
“What if I’m scared of heights?”
“The view will cure it,” Jinyoung says, slips his fingers underneath the band of Jaebum’s pants. He coats his entire back in oil, and it glistens, now, enough that Jinyoung is nearly breathless, “Seeing something so beautiful does that. It heals you, cures you suddenly.”
“I’m still shaky,” Jaebum says, looking out of the locked window to gaze down at the fair. From the top of the ferris wheel, the people look small, like toys.
Jinyoung, sitting across from him, shifts in his seat. He looks left, looks right, before his gaze sinks to the floor.
“It’s not your fault, Jinyoung. I’m just scared,” he says with a quiet laugh. But the air doesn’t lighten. The evening spills in, lacks light, lacks luster, but Jaebum tries to scour the moment for beauty. He leans forward and fits a finger under Jinyoung’s chin, tilts his head up until the lights of the fair shine in his eyes.
“No, I’m sorry about everything.” His voice hides behind whispers, but in such a small space, even breaths are loud.
“Don’t apologize. Things happen for a reason, I guess. I’m just glad I met you.”
The car holds them like a home, heated and cramped, but somehow comfortable. Somehow perfect. Jaebum smiles and Jinyoung does the same. Jaebum leans back and closes his eyes.
“I just wish it wasn’t so high,” he says, then hears Jinyoung move, a small thud. Feels hands running up his thighs, fingers twisting around his belt, unclasping it with ease. He opens his eyes and Jinyoung, on his knees, pulls Jaebum’s belt apart, undoes the button of his jeans, pulls down the zipper. Then, with precision, with determination, he starts tugging on his jeans until they expose his underwear, settle around his thighs. Jinyoung rests a hand at his groin and Jaebum grabs both of his wrists, lifts them off himself.
“What are you doing?” he whispers.
“I’m easing your tension.”
“Jaebum, I’m trying to give you the best goodbye you’ll get.”
Even in the dark, Jinyoung’s eyes glint and Jaebum swallows, ignores the way he hardens with a few words and undoes his hold on Jinyoung’s hands.
“You’re making me miss you already.”
Jinyoung smiles, curls his fingers around the band of his underwear. He looks up at Jaebum as he pulls it down, quietly, slowly .
Jaebum’s pants pool around his ankles under the table. Jinyoung is on his knees leaning forward and his hands rest on Jaebum’s thighs, feels every time his muscles twitch or flinch under his fingers as he sucks him off and Jaebum tries to recite what he’s written.
“Flowers blossom... in summer... but wilt in the winter…”
In the dark of the room, lit only by the lamp on the table, Jaebum’s breaths fill the space. It’s humid, both boys sweating, but Jinyoung relishes how wet it feels, how hot Jaebum’s cock is on his tongue, almost hot enough to burn. Or so he imagines as he lifts and lowers his head, wraps his lips tight around him, still clumsy with desire, still learning. Sometimes he chokes, coughs, has to pull off to catch his breath but sometimes, like now, he only knows the breathless glide, the drip of spit down Jaebum’s length, down to his base. The taste of precome on his tongue, the shape of the head dragging on the roof of his mouth.
His shirt clings to his skin, damp with sweat, so he undoes the buttons, pulls it off, always keeping his lips on Jaebum.
“The water of the river is cool… in summer…”
Jinyoung listens, makes sure every word is right -- that’s the deal: good work is rewarded. He discards his shirt to the side and the shift makes him move right and his teeth graze Jaebum’s cock, scratch gently against the head and Jaebum twitches, suddenly. Jinyoung feels the startled tremble in Jaebum’s thighs under his fingers, the wet skin, the way his muscles shiver, hesitate, make ripples under his skin. He drags his fingers up, feels the soft prickle of hair when he does.
He goes deeper this time and Jaebum moans. The sound travels south, and Jinyoung imagines that it clatters into him, feels it in his spine like liquid.
“I… I love you…”
His eyebrows furrow as he pulls off with a small sound, ignores the string of spit that clings to his lips. Jaebum’s cock remains red and erect, almost proud. Jinyoung wraps his fingers around it, gives it a tender stroke. He studies the shape of Jaebum’s hips, the trail of hair leading to his navel that disappears from his sight.
“I didn’t write that,” he says.
But Jaebum just says it again, with more clarity this time.
“I love you.”
“I just said I didn’t write that -- where are you --”
“Jinyoung, I love you.”
It doesn’t settle for a second. Jinyoung looks at Jaebum’s hips, confused, but then he realizes what Jaebum’s saying. He stands in surprise, forgets about the table, and the whole thing trembles when his head slams into it. Almost immediately, the tears come. His eyes close as he sits back, holds the back of his head.
“Jinyoung? Jinyoung, are you okay?”
He hears the chair clatter behind him as Jaebum shuffles to his hands and knees.
“Why are you crying? Are you okay?”
“Why would you say that?”
“What do you mean? Do you not --”
Jinyoung cuts him off, reaches forward to wrap his arms around his neck, to pull him close so that his tears fall into his shoulder.
“Of course I do, but I didn’t expect it right now, right here. I’m more emotional,” Jinyoung says, hides his face in Jaebum’s shoulder.
“Sorry, I meant it. I just had to say it.”
They stand in the midst of the airport’s bustle. People speed past them, rolling their suitcases along, some lugging it. People part here, reunite, see each other off or welcome them.
“It’s fine.” Jinyoung sniffles, pulls away. He carries a small duffel bag that hangs on his shoulder, rests his hands on the cart behind him. All that’s left is to check in his bags, to board after. “Thanks for today. Thanks for bringing me.”
“No, thank you for letting me see you today.”
“I wanted to.”
“Will you come back and visit?”
“Maybe,” Jinyoung says, but he sounds unsure. Jaebum ignores it, focuses instead on how Jinyoung looks. The wrinkles that gather around his eyes, red from crying, and the pink around his teeth. The thick chin, the round nose that widens when he smiles. He tries to keep it in his memory like keeping photos in albums, every detail, every dip of skin, every bump, every beautiful line. He wants to preserve him like this forever, sure, suddenly, that nothing will feel the same again. It will be similar but different. A world starts to settle between them, like curtains of air, one after the other. Distance he can’t name, but feels, that presses up against him, heavy, makes it hard to breathe.
Then Jinyoung gives him one last smile, leans in for one last kiss that lasts too short, no more than a few seconds. He steps away from Jaebum as though waiting, as though hoping, as though studying him, too.
“I love you,” he says, but Jaebum doesn’t hear him over his own heart beating, only watches his lips form the shapes, the words. He’s sure he says it back but the world becomes a daze. Jinyoung steps away from him and Jaebum can’t pry his eyes away from the shape of his slim shoulders, the thin hips, the skinny ankles. He watches the boy he loves step away, loses him in the crowd, has to imagine the rest of his way down the airport, boarding the plane.
Watching him leave feels familiar, as though he’s done it many times, this the most recent. It feels odd at first, unreal, like a dream, but then all those instances come crashing down at him back in his car. The pain, he realizes, isn’t just his, isn’t born out of this moment. It feels bigger than him, as though their separation is opening a wound that’s been in place for longer that he knows. He straddles it, fights with it, tries to grapple away from it but it consumes him.
He should have stopped him, he thinks, at all costs. Clarity is violent, tells him of his mistakes, but it also tells him of love, of the stars, of the destiny stretched out in front of him.
They’ll meet again, he thinks, he’s sure. If not in this life, then surely the next.
He stays in the car for longer than he should, turns on the light as a few drops of rain hit his windshield. He searches in the back for the book Jinyoung had given him, pulls it open to a random page, starts to read before his eyes water.
He finds ashes where he should find a home. Still, he does not lose hope.
“Still, he dreams of building a future together.”
Jaebum hums, tilts his head.
“That’s in the last chapter, maybe second to last page.”
“I wrote it. Very hard to forget.”
Jinyoung nods, turns the page as he keeps reading. The truck rumbles beneath them as they go off the paved road and onto a dirt one.
“Are we almost there?” Jinyoung asks, looking up from the book as the trees grow sparse but grassy hills stretch on in front of them , almost endlessly.
“I said away from the city, I didn’t mean right by it.”
“Alright,” he says, “I’m just nervous.”
“I don’t know, leaving the practice, coming here. I’m not sure it was the right choice.”
“You’re here now, there’s no going back. Come on, Jinyoung, be happy.”
“I’ll try,” he says, smiles as Jaebum speeds up. In the distance he sees buildings come into sight, though they’re still a ways away.
“Keep reading to me.”
“You wrote it, what’s the point? You already know what’s going to happen.”
“I know, but I want to hear you read it. Sometimes that’s the only way I could write. I imagined you reading it back to me. It’s a love letter to you.”
“Stop,” Jinyoung says and shakes his head, smiling as he finds his place in the book again.
“Still, he carries himself away from disaster, from the bones of another wreck. He goes in search of new life. He follows the cat, begs it to lead him away to a happy ending.”
The truck slows, comes to a stop and Jinyoung looks up. A barn sits in the distance to the right, and to their left is a small home -- not lavish, not elegant, but worn. Still, it looks warm, it looks perfect.
“Doesn’t it remind you of when we first met?” Jaebum asks, turns off the truck.
“We have to stop thinking of the past so much.”
“Why?” he asks, leaves the truck, slams the door shut, “It was perfect!”
Jinyoung does the same, walks around the truck to sidle up next to Jaebum. He looks at the house, smiling, before he turns to the barn. The sun sinks slowly into the horizon, bathes everything in warm colors. He reaches over to take Jaebum’s hand, to hold it in his, to make sure this isn’t a dream. To make sure he hasn’t died, somehow, and made his way to paradise, where everything is gold, where Jaebum is still in love with him, and Jinyoung with him.
He takes a deep breath, closes his eyes, feels the love flit between them -- it feels like summer.
“I could get used to this,” he says when the breeze picks up.
“Well, get used to it,” Jaebum says, “This is our life as long as you want.”
Jinyoung’s lips part, he thinks to speak, but a tiny meow interrupts him. He looks down where a siamese cat rubs its head against Jaebum’s leg, looks up at Jinyoung curiously.
“She looks like Nora,” Jinyoung says.
“She reminded me of you. I found her at a shelter, she always shows up at my door when I miss you the most. Well, when I used to miss you.”
Jaebum squats to pick her up, rubs behind her ears, along her neck. Jinyoung hears her pur, a deep sound of pleasure. He reaches to pet her gently. He smiles.
“It’s like we traveled back in time.”
“Not really,” he says, “I’m still old, you’re still old.”
“It’s true,” he says, leans over to press a kiss on Jinyoung’s cheek, on his lips. Jinyoung returns it, though it breaks when he smiles, when he leans back. He drinks in the sight all at once: the sunset painting Jaebum in the most beautiful reds and yellows and oranges, more handsome with age. He takes in the cat’s eyes, as wise as Nora’s, just as blue. He looks at the truck, the farm in the background, the forest in the distance.
He’s waited thirty years for this, and he would wait thirty more if it meant seeing Jaebum like this again. With the sky warm above them, with the ground firm beneath. With the barn, with the cat, with the truck. Everything that came together to have them meet, to have them reunite for their own happy ending.
Then Jaebum smiles and Jinyoung fills with flutters. He feels young, so young.
“What’s the next line in the book?” Jaebum asks.
“I don’t know, why don’t you tell me?”
“It fits well, I promise.”
Jaebum lets go of Nora, lets her dart towards the barn. They start walking, head to the house, and Jaebum drapes an arm around Jinyoung. He lifts the book up, still smiling.
“In the fading light of a dying sunset, the cat leads him away and they head back to the station.”
There is nowhere else to go, nowhere else to look. Jaebum roams, lost, follows only the insistent meowing of the cat. He follows it into town, follows it through alleys, around corners, down empty streets. He follows it as the sun begins to set, as it blinds him, though he doesn’t cover his eyes. He accepts it all as it comes, without a filter, without defense. He wishes it were painful, even. Something to take him away from here, from this moment, from this shattered heart.
At one point his eyes close as he steps against the slope of sunlight, wonders how it could ever be so heavy. But the meowing continues, and he stumbles in its direction. Then he sees the shape of the station, its outline, and steps on the platform, set on waiting for whichever train might come next.
The meowing ends, then, and Jaebum tries to find the cat. All he sees are silhouettes, sharp lines, blocks. The heat makes him dizzy.
He leans forward and squints when he sees movement, when a figure emerges from the light. Slowly, details settle into place -- a button-nose, full cheeks, curved lips. Slim, proud shoulders, a walk that feels more like a dance.
“Jinyoung?” he asks the figure, “Are you haunting me?”
It moves like a ghost, floats forward from the light, dark against it. Then he comes so close that Jaebum swears he can see the spirit breathe, sees him move, sees him frown in his direction as he strokes the cat in his arms.
“You don’t come visit me for months and this is the first thing you say to me? No kiss, no hug, no kind words? Really, Jaebum? I feel like I made a mistake because I waited for you so long, and then my stupid house burnt down, and then I waited some more at my neighbor’s house until they made me feel like a burden. But, of course, the day I decide to follow you wherever you went to chase your dreams, you decide to return. How rich!”
Jaebum, still squinting his eyes, face still twisted in confusion, tilts his head. He understands what Jinyoung says, but he tries to find another meaning -- something celestial, something heavenly. Advice from beyond. But all he finds is Jinyoung leaning closer, prodding his shoulders with his fingers. Sharp jabs that remind him of reality, of its weight.
“And now you’re going to stand there and say nothing? Do you think this is a joke -- do you think I’m a joke? I feel like a fool, really. I was dying and you waited all this time, I really can’t believe it, I can’t! Jaebum --”
He cuts him off with a kiss, with a hug. Jaebum pulls him into his arms, pulls him in tight enough that he doesn’t have to worry if he’s real or not, if he’ll disappear from one second to the next. Tight enough that every emotion he holds inside of him -- the heavy grief, the prickling anger, the fluttering love -- all spill forward at once. Only when they pull away, only when he gasps, does he realize he’s crying.
“Jaebum, I didn’t mean to --”
He cuts him off with another kiss, this one softer, led purely by joy, by bliss. He pulls away when the cat’s meowing grows louder and it writhes between their chests. Jaebum gazes, his lips parted, his eyes wide, stupefied because Jinyoung looks unreal with the sunset unraveling behind him.
“Don’t look at me like that,” he says, “And say hi to Nora. She had kittens, and I didn’t know what to name them, so I thought I shouldn’t waste a good name. Although I should have named her Jaebum because she just loves to go missing. Really, Jaebum, I love you, but this is too much.”
Love returns, all at once, like a light flickering on. The hope for a future comes back, his life makes sense again. It tastes sweet, as sweet as an orchid, and he, like a love-struck bee, races towards it. He takes Jinyoung’s hand, pulls him close.
“I’m never letting you leave my side again,” he says, “Never, never, never. I love you, Jinyoung. I love you so much.”
And Jinyoung pretends to be shy, acts coy and smiles.
“My entire life will be spent with you at my side. I’m never letting you go.”
“You have to promise me you won’t go missing again. You can’t leave me like that, again. No matter how stubborn.”
He realizes then that he’s never cried, not like this. Not for anyone, but Jinyoung is more than anyone. He’s elusive and extraordinary and mysterious -- strange, beautiful. He’s magic, or the closest thing to it, and Jaebum can’t imagine a world without him, not again. So he lowers himself to one knee, looks up at Jinyoung, their hands still clasped together, fingers still threaded. His heart races, elated that Jinyoung, his beloved Jinyoung, is with him again.
“Never,” he says, “I promise we’ll never be apart -- I’ll never go missing.”
Jinyoung grins in his direction, the shape reckless, beautiful, all teeth and gums and thinned eyes with whiskers at the end. Looking at him, he’s reminded of reading a book he loves, a book that he’s memorized, word for word, line for line. Jinyoung is every lovely letter, every glittering sentence, and Jaebum falls into the space between them, his endless mystery, the gravity that pulls him at every turn.
He finds love in this space and the world pulses with it. Love pours in from every direction.
“I love you,” he says.
“I love you, too,” Jinyoung answers before he looks down to where Nora has sprung and darted. “You have to promise me one more thing, though.”
“You have to let me take Nora with us. And you have to help me find her first.”
“I don’t know, she’s just missing again.” Jaebum pauses, heads to the lobby door. “I said I don’t know. It just started raining, yeah. I have to find her. She might get sick in the rain or something. Cats get sick.”
He unwraps the umbrella -- the one Jinyoung had given him -- and pulls it open. Then he steps outside and it trembles against the rain.
“I’ll call you later.”
He puts his phone away, focuses on rain falling around him. The night makes it hard to see and make out shapes, and the rain makes it almost impossible. It falls light, in thin drizzles. He worries for Nora, wonders if she’s hiding under a car, if he’ll even find her.
Still, he looks anyway. Down the street, around the corner. Past an empty bar, a small, glowing convenience store. He looks down an alley, up a street without a sidewalk. After an hour, he heads back to the apartment, sure, somehow, that she can find a way back home.
Then he hears the quiet sound of her meows, wonders if it’s a trick of the rain pattering down. He looks over his shoulder, looks in the distance, squints in an effort to see. It’s nothing but the trickle of rain on dark, wet cement. Neon lights flicker in the distance, but nothing remotely resembles Nora.
When he turns back, he finds her a few feet away from him. Jinyoung holds her in his arm. He’s propped up his jacket above his head with his other arm, barely enough to keep them dry. He looks uncomfortable as he tries to balance both things, stepping awkwardly over a puddle, his eyes fixed to the ground. Jaebum’s heart stops for a second, but that passes, glides by, and he leaps forward.
“Jinyoung,” he calls, “Jinyoung!”
He looks up in surprise, though it quickly melts into a smile. Jaebum stands in front of him, close enough that the umbrella covers them both.
“You’ve got to stop losing your cat,” he says.
“She keeps looking for you.”
For a moment, neither say a word. The rain falls around them, fills in the gaps, the empty spaces.
Then Jinyoung says, “I couldn’t go. I couldn’t bring myself to. I’m in love with you.”
Jaebum leans forward, lets out a quiet laugh. He reaches to pet Nora, to stroke the curve of her back. His fingers press against Jinyoung’s chest and he feels his heartbeat: slow and melodic, like a song.
It’s Jaebum that shrugs, it’s Jaebum that leans forward, that kisses Jinyoung to pull back and ask, “Do you believe in fate?”
And it’s Jinyoung that shakes his head.
“Someone I love very much told me fate is bullshit,” he steps closer to press his lips against Jaebum’s, to kiss his cheek, his jaw, to pull away with a grin, “And I believe him. And that’s why I’m here.”
They look at each other, almost a year after they’d first met, stumbled upon each other by chance. It all feels different, but entirely the same. There, under the rain, with Nora between them. With entire lives in front of them, full of choices, full of feeling, full of fate.
Jaebum decides to take it a day at a time, enjoys the moment with Jinyoung. He doesn’t know what tomorrow will bring, how today will end, doesn’t know if they’ll be together in a few weeks or if the world ends in a few hours.
All he knows, truly, is that he loves Jinyoung. Then, in that moment, and it’s all he needs.
He leans and takes Jinyoung’s hand, tugs gently.
“Let’s go upstairs,” he says.
“Let’s,” Jinyoung answers.
They move together, united, their fates entwined,
and take the first step into the rest of their lives.