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“A man moves through time. It means nothing except that, like a harpoon, once thrown he will arrive.”

― Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red

 

~

 

The sky is thick with scorn on his last full day.

Jeongguk watches it, watches the way the wind causes the rain to shoot in all directions, forcing people to use umbrellas as shields, blocking their vision in favour of not being blinded by rain akin to thousands of tiny shards of glass plummeting at lightning speed.

The air has a sharpness to it, the sky a thick cloud of smoke, and Jeongguk pretends it’s the end. Maybe even wishes it’s the end. The end of what, he’s unsure of, but while surrounded by a flurry of faces passing by with determined steps—faces he’ll never know for longer than the span of a tangerine summer—he hopes this is it. He’s crouched down, back against the stone wall of a small coffee shop, allowing the rain to drench him right through.

His hands are numb—his mouth and feet, too, if he thinks about it. He’s not sure if it’s the cold slicing through his body with great precision and caution or if it’s the same numbing feeling he’s carried around like a token for years now.

That’s why he’s here though, he preaches to himself every day. 7,000 miles and 13 hours away from somewhere that used to feel like home. Now, home is just a four-letter word that sits heavy on the back of his tongue as a reminder of the hurt he left in his wake.

He didn’t come here to find a new lease of life or meaning behind things he once deemed worthless. He came here to mope with a new backdrop; to escape the source of his numbing while continuing to pursue it. It’s the one thing he’s held on to, the one thing he’s allowed himself to have through all of this. He wanted fleeting faces that blurred into something he didn’t have to hold on to or compress to think of at a later date.

He wanted tattered buildings and surroundings that were a reflection of his insides. He wanted winter weather in summer because he could deal with the chill settling into his bones like home.

This is what he did. He sought out new adventures, new surroundings, and new faces; anything he could find a reflection of himself in. Maybe that’s why, even now, each adventure never lasts longer than the span of a season. Taking up residence in places that echo your insides can only ever last so long before you feel like you’re being haunted by a ghost you’re unsure is even there.

Luckily for Jeongguk, nothing—more so nobody—ever sticks. He doesn’t grow attached or yearn for something decidedly bad for him even though some would argue that he’s led himself down a path of destruction by never allowing himself to find something more permanent or fulfilling. That’s their problem, though.

He’s content with new and short-lived loves and interests that take uproot and then pack their bags in time for his departure. There are never any goodbyes, but even if there were, they wouldn’t be your typical goodbyes that twist at your insides and leave you feeling like you’ve left behind an essential part of you. They’re not the kind of goodbyes with magnetic forces attached to them, pulling you back with invisible strings so you can never find it in yourself to even approach the idea of leaving.

He’s never had a problem with leaving.

He wonders if it’s selfish of him to always leave. Not just to the people who will never get to know him for longer than a few months, but to himself and to his own personal growth. How can he search for growth within himself if he’s constantly running away from something?

He’s heard the front door slam shut enough times in his life to know that he can’t expect to be anything more if he keeps taking the escape route when things become too much.

The rain has slowly eased off, having now chosen to dust the small town in a thin sheet of mist. Jeongguk looks around to see people slowly emerging from their makeshift shelters composed of thin jackets and handbags big enough for two drenched souls to hide under. He watches on as herds of people regroup and resume their day, clad in sundresses and knee high socks that were once white but now soaked a muddy brown.

He sifts through the back pocket of his jeans for a cigarette, only to discover that he somehow managed to chain-smoke the entire pack of 10 while waiting for the heavy downpour to pass.

“Fuck,” Jeongguk curses, picking himself up from where he was crouched down for the better part of an hour.

He feels particularly out of his skin this evening like he’s watching over everyone but in a place far away from his own body. He can’t remember ever smoking a cigarette or what started it. He’s not sure it’s even an addiction for him.

It’s not something he needs to combat stress, nor is it a way for him to fill a void. It passes the time. It allows him to take himself away from conversations he doesn’t want, because who really—as a non-smoker—wants to stand around, inhaling the smoke of someone you’ll never see again in a month? It’s neither pleasant nor necessary, and maybe that’s why he always finds himself making fleeting friendships with people who hate smoking.

It’s not that he actively seeks out non-smokers or avoids people who he can smell the stench of stale smoke on. It’s more so that you won’t find him drunk at some rundown bar in the middle of nowhere making idle chit-chat with a divorced fifty-something-year-old man who won’t stop offering him another cigarette to combat all his fears.

Smoking: another escape from things he doesn’t want to face; a way for him to slide in and out of conversations he’d rather not be having.

It’s later now, although it’s hard to determine from the way the small droplets of water hang low in the sky, making the place feel like a ghost town suspended in time. It’s nearing 8 o’clock, and in most places across the country, the sun is still shining brightly, making the day feel drawn out.

That’s partly the reason why Jeongguk picked this rickety old town over the others. He hates the way summer nights spread out over sandy beaches and crackling bonfires that can’t be appreciated until the sun whispers its farewells. It dares to shine for much longer than he’s used to; it causes the days to feel longer, more drawn out, as if there’s a stopwatch counting down the minutes until the world comes to an end.

That’s how he always pictured it. The sun daring to hang too low, shining too vividly; being too prominent in the sky like it knows this is all it has until the hands of the clock stop their spinning. And so, he gravitates towards the drearier summertimes where the fallen skies make it appear later than it is. It’s all about perception for Jeongguk.

The other reason he came? Yet to be decided.

Although he had travelled the 1,200 miles to get to this place, it wasn’t a decision he made over time. It wasn’t something planned or thought out. Google could only muster up so much about the town, and maybe that’s where the very initial appeal came from. There was nothing. No history to be written in stone. No news articles to imply that anything went on in the small town—or at least nothing worth broadcasting to the world.

It was a rundown beach town, populated mostly by people who were just waiting to die. It wasn’t an observation he made. Everyone in the town knew it to be a place people would swarm to when they felt themselves chasing death. There were still a few who wanted more than what the town had to offer—mostly young people—who actively chose to live instead of counting down the days, but those were the ones who spent their weekends driving to the next town over.

You didn’t stand much of a chance here. At least, not if you chose to stay. You could throw your dreams to the wind and not expect anything back, and that was something the people came to accept.

He starts to make his way across town in search of a store that sells cigarettes. He’s not sure he even wants the cigarettes but—

If it helps, it helps.

“Dude! Is that you?” Someone asks, and their voice is close. Too close not to send shivers through his body. “Jeongguk? Fuck, man. Where’ve you been hiding?”

Jeongguk blinks, taking in a deep breath before turning.

So he’s not quite mastered the art of avoidance yet.

His eyes try to adjust to the person in front of him—it’s Hoseok. Hoseok with the tip of his ears reddened by the cold, the edges of him ignited by the streetlights steadily adjusting to the dark of the night.

“Yeah,” Jeongguk nods, hands in his jacket pockets. “Sorry, it’s been a while. I’ve just been—I’ve been keeping myself busy.”

Hoseok smiles softly. “Don’t worry about it. I get it, man.” He cuts himself off, watching Jeongguk for a moment. “You still getting out of here tomorrow then?”

Jeongguk looks down at his feet, trying to find words that won’t create suspicion. This is the part he hates. He’s done this enough times already but each time he wishes he could fold into himself. “Looks like it. The tank’s full and I’ve handed in my notice. I’m hoping to leave after dinner. Maybe catch the sunset amidst all the driving.”

Tomorrow is the end of summer, at least if you follow it by definition. Here, in this small town, it feels like summer ended before it even had the chance to be something great. The seasons all seem to blur into one, making it harder for him to know when one ends and the next begins.

He could have easily overstayed his welcome.

Hoseok nods, his lips pursed. Jeongguk can sense he’s disappointed but not shocked. “Well, if I don’t see you before tomorrow comes, it was nice knowing you.”

“Yeah, absolutely. I’ll uh, I’ll see you,” Jeongguk says, the words cascading from his mouth before he’s given time to process them; what they mean or the obvious lie they carry. He won’t see Hoseok tomorrow. He won’t see any of this come tomorrow evening, and yet he always finds himself telling people he’ll “see them later” or “catch them another time,” as if each person is a chapter or an old wound he can reopen at any time.

They give each other a final nod—a farewell more customary between acquaintances—before Jeongguk continues walking down the long street, heading for the only pub in town because he remembers them selling cigarettes to paying customers. He may as well have one final drink before he leaves. 

 

 

The pub’s full when he gets there, overcrowded with rowdy twenty-something-year-olds echoing each other’s celebratory cheers while they down glass pints of local beer. It’s outdated; too small for the number of people it holds, but nobody seems to mind when the drinks start flowing. It’s all yellowed wood, dark red booths and bar stools that don’t look safe enough to hold any significant weight. Still, there’s something comforting and familiar about the place. It’s somehow cosy despite its outward appearance, with the lights emitting a warm glow, making the rain outside feel like a distant memory.

He’s still drenched—the ends of his hair dripping from the rain. He’s numb, the pins and needles are slowly making their way down to his toes and he needs a drink or three at the very least. He heads straight for the bar, taking one of the remaining bar stools, indifferent to the already-drunk men spread out around him. It’s not his favourite scene, but it’s one he’s too tired to fight at this point.

He focuses in on the conversations around him while he waits for the bartender to return with his beer. One older man, with his spidery fingers drumming a beat against the bar’s woodwork, speaks of last night’s game; of his late night drunken antics that left him with a scorned wife and another good reason to take up shelter elsewhere.

Apart from the bar area itself, the pub is swarmed with a flurry of young people—all around his own age—talking about an “end of summer house party” that’s taking place at one of the houses on the beach tonight. He assumes this is their pit stop before heading there.

Jeongguk can’t imagine anything worse than a house party filled with horny twenty-year-olds wanting to make the most of their last night of freedom before the autumn leaves start to form a suffocating blanket over the town.

The bartender returns with his beer and Jeongguk clutches onto it with both hands; the action making the beer appear like liquid gold to any passerby. He’s parched and needs something to help him forget about the numbing feeling that’s slowly made its way down the rest of his body.

The pint of beer is gone within the minute. He orders another one, desperate to feel something other than numb numb numb.

He’s shivering. It’s warm—how could it possibly be anything but when there are so many bodies generating heat within such a small space?—and yet his entire body feels like a haunted house with ghosts creeping through the walls and in dusty corners.

It’s almost impossible for him to feel okay these days.

Each passing day feels like a continuation of, decidedly, the worst day of his life, and so happiness—or even contentment at the very least—seems too out of reach, like he’s constantly extending his arms out in an attempt to capture the early, naked moon in his bare hands. Impossible.

Everything good is too out of reach, Jeongguk concludes bitterly.

At some point, he’s on to his third pint, barely feeling the effects of it unless his bloated stomach counts. He’s now, somehow, sitting alone at the bar although he can’t remember anyone ever leaving.

He’s halfway through his third beer when the stool next to him is being dragged a little to the left and then someone’s sitting, adjusting their position to get comfortable. A knee brushes against Jeongguk’s own, sending a shiver down his spine. The touch is warm—or at least the person sitting is warmer than Jeongguk, which isn’t hard these days—and he feels heavy and suddenly too self-aware. Any touch is foreign these days.

He keeps forgetting how to move; how to breathe or talk whenever anyone is too close for comfort as if they have the ability to read everything he’s feeling or has been through, just from being too close in proximity.

It’s a silly, irrational fear, he knows, but it exists and he’s too hyper-aware of it these days, especially when he’s jumping from place to place where the people always see him as shiny and new. Always too curious for their own good.

He shifts on the stool before stealing a glance at the stranger to see if it’s anyone he recognises from around town. The person—a guy around his age, he guesses—is kept hidden under a mountain of tartan—a mostly blue and green patterned scarf concealing his neck and chin. His hair, a light brown, falls into his eyes slightly, causing him to blink away with thick, dark eyelashes casting soft smatterings of shadow against the tops of his cheeks until he sweeps his fringe away with his fingerless glove-clad hands.

The thing Jeongguk notices the most, though, is the delicate but loud slope of his nose. It’s obscene, almost exaggerated in the way it curves dramatically before rounding at the tip, his nostrils flared like he has a permanent tickle in his nose. Jeongguk supposes it’s endearing, the way the tickled effect gives the appearance of a disgruntled kitten.

The guy is too caught up in ordering a drink to notice Jeongguk staring, much to his relief, so he resumes his downward gaze, advertently keeping his eyes focused on his own lap.

He rolls his eyes at the guy’s choice of drink. A “cranberry juice with just a dash of vodka” is what he hears. An obvious emphasis on the ratio of cranberry to vodka being in cranberry juice’s favour.

He tries to go back to minding his own business, which proves difficult considering he’s mastered the art of observing over the past few months. He listens and he listens but never says much in return.

“Hey, do I know you?” Someone asks, and it sounds like the worst, most overused pick-up line he’s ever heard. He feels sorry for whoever is on the receiving end of such a wicked opening line. He chooses to stay still so as to not make it obvious that he’s eavesdropping in on someone’s feeble attempts at wooing.

Someone clears their throat and it suddenly sounds too close. “Did you not hear me?” It’s the same voice he heard before but this time it sounds more direct and Jeongguk finds himself looking up, all doe-eyed and frozen in his seat because it’s the tickled nose guy talking to him.

His eyebrows furrow when he finally pieces it together. “Sorry?”

Tickled nose guy’s mouth tilts slightly, clearly amused at the confusion in Jeongguk’s tone. “I asked, do I know you?”

“No?” Jeongguk blinks, confusion still written on his face.

“Huh. Must just have one of those faces.”

Jeongguk huffs out a laugh, unsure if he’s supposed to take offence to comment. He looks down at his drink, circling the rim of the glass pint. Avoid eye contact, he tells himself. “One of those faces?”

“You know, an ordinary one. The whole ‘boy next door’ look and all that.” There’s humour in his tone but Jeongguk doesn’t feel like playing with fire.

“They write movies about the boys and girls next door, you know that, right? And if I’m not wrong, it’s always boys like you who get burned by boys and girls like me.” Jeongguk quips, surprised by his own ability to come back with something instead of muttering a pained ‘yeah’ like he usually does.

“Woah—steady on there. I wasn’t expecting such a comeback. Obviously I need to work on my approach. It seems I deeply underestimated your kind.”

“My kind? As opposed to what?” Jeongguk throws back.

“My kind. Handsome, charming, humble, somewhat idiotic - just to name a few,” the guy retorts, a smirk flirting its way onto his face.

Jeongguk blushes a deep red, hopefully disguised by the orange glow of the lights. He can feel something akin to a wild storm brewing in the very pit of his stomach. He finally dares to look up at the guy. God. What a mistake. An airy laugh escapes his mouth before he’s able to swallow it down. “You have an appalling way with words.”

The guy beams at the retort, obviously amused by the back and forth. “Yeah, well, your face is appalling,” he deadpans.

“I thought my face was ordinary?” Jeongguk challenges.

Tickled nose guy shrugs, his mouth tugging into an exaggerated pout as if to say eh, who knows before he downs his drink. “I lied. It’s appalling.”

Jeongguk rolls his eyes, feigning nonchalance. He clears his throat and points to the now-empty glass still balanced in the guy’s hand. “You wanting another?”

“Depends. You buying?”

“If it’ll wipe away that smug look off your face then yes.” Jeongguk’s feeling particularly brave tonight, flirting with the devil.

The tip of the guy’s tongue peeks through the corner of his mouth and Jeongguk feels like swallowing his own tongue in retaliation. The smirk is still firmly set in place and Jeongguk wishes he could rip it off. “I can’t promise anything.”

At that, Jeongguk rolls his eyes, hoping it hides the feeling that’s threatening to creep beneath his skin.

He orders them both drinks, with tickled nose guy interrupting to remind the bartender of his preferred ratio of cranberry juice to vodka. (“I order the same thing every time, pal, and you still make me remind you. Every time.”)

“I never did catch your name,” the tickled nose guy starts once the bartender brings over their drinks. He dips his fingers into his cranberry juice, taking ahold of one of the ice cubes and says, “I’m Taehyung.” Jeongguk watches the way the ice cube dances in his hand, a pool of water forming before it disappear into his mouth.

Jeongguk’s muscles feel tense. It’s his last night and he’s buying drinks for a guy who’s teetering on the edge of becoming an uncomfortable itch beneath his skin. He’s not sure why he’s feeling so on edge but he suspects it has something to do with the way the other man burns holes through his skin with his eyes while he sucks on an ice cube, making the most obscene slurping noises.

Jeongguk swallows. “Taehyung,” he bows his head in a last-ditch effort to make himself appear composed while he searches for his words. He doesn’t know why he feels such a sudden and intense need to show gratitude towards this boy—Taehyung—when he doesn’t know anything about him other than his name or his drink preference. Taehyung is staring at him, amusement in his eyes when he finally returns the gesture. “Jeongguk. I’m Jeongguk.” He blinks, tears his eyes away from Taehyung’s slightly parted, wet lips, and instead focuses on his beer.

He wonders what he sees when he looks at Jeongguk. He wonders if Taehyung can read between the lines—wonders if he can see through the façade he’s spent years building meticulously with the intent of never letting anyone tear it down. He wonders if he’s as perceptive as his eyes let on, or whether it’s all just an act to have people melting in the palm of his hand like the poor ice cube did seconds before. He’s more threatened by the idea of Taehyung being oblivious to the power he holds just in his eyes alone.

Nothing is more dangerous than a man who is oblivious to his own seductions.

He didn’t spend all these years building something to have a stranger come along and threaten to destroy it all with just his eyes. It’s like being undressed—stripped bare and vulnerable, like this is the position he wanted you in all along, like he wants your knees folding, wilting. Not in a sexual way but in an ‘I could have you spilling every gritty detail of your life to me in a matter of hours’ way, and that terrifies him. To have his mind and vulnerability seduced so easily, all just to have a pair of deep, quizzing eyes on him for a while longer.

Jeongguk isn’t about to fall victim to the seductions of a man whose innocence can be found in too-tightly-pulled smiles, crinkled eyes, fingerless gloves and tufts of stubborn hair sprouting in all directions.

He’s brought out of his rapid thoughts before they’re able to manifest even more. “So Jeongguk,” Taehyung starts, swirling his finger around in his half-empty drink while he holds Jeongguk’s attention. “You up for going to a party?”

At that, he splutters. “I don’t even know you. And, even if I did, I’m not a party person.”

“So is that a yes?” Taehyung asks cheekily, completely disregarding Jeongguk’s previous answer.

Jeongguk pulls a face. “More like a resounding no.” He’s not going to a party. No no no.

“Aw,” and he’s pouting. How exactly is Jeongguk supposed to reject offers to go to some godforsaken party when he’s pouting? “But you bought me a drink and I have to repay you somehow.”

“And you can do that by leaving me alone,” he snaps.

He regrets the words the second they leave his mouth. More than that, he regrets being too painfully aware of the way Taehyung’s face contorts at them.

“Okay, yeah,” he almost whispers, his downward gaze pulling at Jeongguk’s heart. He gets up from the barstool and adjusts the scarf adorning his neck. “I’m really sorry for bothering you.” He motions towards the door leading out of the bar. “I’ll just—”

“No! Stop!” Jeongguk splutters everywhere, panic setting in. He takes ahold of Taehyung’s clothed forearm, forcing him to look at Jeongguk. “Look, I’m sorry. That was an asshole thing to say.”

“So why did you say it then?” And that wasn’t the response he was expecting. Taehyung is, if nothing else, straight to the point. Jeongguk supposes he’s the type to wear his heart on his sleeve too. A terrifying thought.

“I—,” he starts, still holding onto the other’s arm. “I don’t know. I wasn’t thinking.”

“Right,” he scoffs and rolls his eyes, detaching himself from Jeongguk’s hold. “I really should get going though. A party is hardly a party without me.”

Jeongguk’s panic further settles in, causing him to abruptly rise from the barstool. “Wait! I’m coming with you.”

“I thought you didn’t like parties?” he questions, an eyebrow raised.

“I don’t but one party won’t kill me.”

A mischievous smile creeps its way onto Taehyung’s face. “We’ll see about that.”

Jeongguk grabs his coat and follows an elusive Taehyung who’s now worming his way through bodies, heading for the exit. “And what’s that supposed to mean?!” Jeongguk shouts over the sea of harsh laughter tumbling from the mouths’ of strangers deep in conversation. He doesn’t get an answer until they’re both outside, arms crossed and hunched over at the sudden sharpness in the air. Too cold for this time of year, even for Jeongguk’s liking.

“It means,” Taehyung starts, adjusting his scarf in an attempt to cover his ears from the sharp chill in the air. “It means you’ve never experienced a proper party then. Not one involving me, at least.”

Jeongguk chuckles at his response, utterly amused by the way the other exhibits and exudes confidence in a way that doesn’t at all come off as sheer cockiness. He follows Taehyung down the street, presumably in the direction of the house in question.

Jeongguk’s always been impressed by those who manage to exude confidence without it veering from the path and turning into cockiness. He admires a person’s ability to be sure of who they are and what they represent. In a way, he’s envious of how secure they seem in every aspect of their life; envies the way they’re able to find their purpose in life before the onset of existentialism.

He’s yet to find any purpose at all.

They walk in comfortable silence until Taehyung starts to slow down his pace, seemingly nearing their desired destination.

The wind has picked up and Jeongguk registers that it’s due to their now-close proximity to the beach. He tightens his folded arms around his torso, teeth chattering obnoxiously loud for the quiet of the night. He can feel the sand beneath him, crunching and causing him to be more careful with his footing.

“So, where exactly is this house party?”

Taehyung points towards the sole house situated right on the beachfront. Jeongguk feels the wind being knocked out of him. “Wow, it’s,” he starts, staring wide-eyed at the house in question. “Beautiful. It’s beautiful.”

It’s a seafoam colour, very fitting for being right on the sandy beach that spans the length of the town. It’s easily one of the biggest houses in town; a townhouse made entirely from what seems to be wood from this distance. Although traditional for its background, Jeongguk’s taken aback by how big and beautiful it is even from a distance. It doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the town, what with it obviously being maintained to a high standard. There’s pride in how it’s presented, with hanging flower baskets out on the deck and on the balcony that seems to wind its way around the perimeter.

Jeongguk’s been down this way before, but until now, he’s never paid mind to the juxtaposition of having such a beautiful house set against a town that’s mostly rundown and on its way out. He can almost understand why someone would choose to stay here, if only for the sunrises and sunsets one would see from being in perfect view of the way the ocean begs to be kissed by the sky.

“Thanks,” Taehyung shrugs, taking the path that leads to the house. “It looks better when there aren’t parades of people hanging over the balcony and making out against the woodwork.”

Jeongguk stops in his tracks and Taehyung twists his body, his eyebrows furrowing at the sudden standstill. “Wait—You live here? This is your house?”

“Well, my dad built it for my mom before I was born. It was her dream and this plot of land was the cheapest to build on at the time so…,” he shrugs again, feigning nonchalance. He takes ahold of Jeongguk’s wrist and tugs him further down the path. “I guess it’s hom—my house in a sense.”

Jeongguk tries not to dawn on the fact that Taehyung stops himself from calling it ‘home’ as if living somewhere so beautiful could be a burden or something unhomely.

As they grow closer to the townhouse, Jeongguk finally takes notice of the few drunken people scattered around the front porch, some perched up against the balcony, preoccupied with whoever they plan on going home with tonight. Jeongguk grimaces at the hand snaking up one girl’s skirt. He quickly looks away, directing his gaze to the empty beer bottles and red solo cups left lying around. Taehyung sighs, kicking them to the side to create a clear path as they finally approach the front door.

It’s already open and Jeongguk supposes it’s for convenience as people choose to slip in and out for fresh air—or in this case, for a sense of privacy. They’re met with a loud thumping bass and he’s already wishing for somewhere quieter where he can pick his own brain apart without worrying about potentially stepping in someone’s vomit or bumping into a sweaty, half-naked body.

The scene in front of him is a far cry from anything he’s used to, and it would be quite the culture shock for him if it weren’t for the warm, persistent hand that’s still wrapped around his wrist. In that moment, he’s grateful for Taehyung’s touchiness as they weave through the bodies, heading straight for the kitchen where all the alcohol is kept.

As they enter the kitchen, they’re met with a game of beer pong taking place on the marble island set magnificently in the middle of the expansive space. It’s Jeongguk’s first time seeing beer pong in something other than some terribly rated Zac Efron college movie. It’s definitely a scene he could live without it—the sound of boisterous cheers and clapping at the game in front matching the volume of the bassy music.

He cringes and covers his ears, wishing away all obnoxiously loud noises. He feels frozen in place but toys with the idea of fleeing—mostly from the noise, if his anxiety has any say in it—but he’s soon being swiftly swept past the game of beer pong and towards the back end of the kitchen to a locked cabinet.

Taehyung has a thing for leading people without much warning.

Taehyung lets go of his wrist, digging around in his pocket until he’s dangling a key between his fingers. “How about we grab a bottle of wine and go hide somewhere?” he suggests with a mischievous grin firmly in place. “You looked a little uneasy over there just then.”

“What? No! I was fine. It’s just—” Jeongguk sighs, trying to conjure up an excuse.

Taehyung cuts in. Jeongguk’s kind of grateful for the diversion. “You can tell me all about it once we decide on a bottle of wine.” He opens the cabinet with the key, scanning over the shelves for something appropriate for the occasion.

Jeongguk, although inexperienced in this department, is almost certain that wine is never really the preferred drink for a house party. Especially when said house party has a 5:1 ratio of red solo cups to people.

“Which wine do you prefer?” Taehyung asks, eyebrow raised. “You look like… a red wine kind of man. Sophisticated but likes dessert.”

A blush creeps high onto Jeongguk’s cheeks at the obvious insinuation. “Red’s fine.”

“Huh, you think? Nah. How about—” he trails off, fingers scanning each bottle teasingly before landing on something that is decidedly not wine, “—we skip the wine and go straight for the champagne instead?”

“We don’t have anything to celebrate though.”

Taehyung rolls his eyes, passing the extravagant bottle to Jeongguk to hold while he locks the cabinet. “What’s not to celebrate? The night is young!” he sings, his arms darting out, flailing almost. He’s certainly one for the dramatics, Jeongguk thinks.

“I’m going to look marginally cute once I get this massive coat and scarf off, and well, I’ve had worse company.” He smirks and it’s teasing. Jeongguk hates every bit of it. “There’s every reason to celebrate.”

They move through to another room at the back of the house, one that seems to be off-limits to the party guests. It appears to be a room mostly set aside for clutter. A room to store memories and sentiments that sadly didn’t find their place on top of mantelpieces or in gold frames. It’s as if the room exists solely as a reminder of something that’s since passed. The thought leaves Jeongguk feeling a little unsettled.

He shrugs the feeling off, focusing his attention on the bottle of champagne still cradled in his arms as a promise of a better time to come.

He then spots a small frame in the corner of the room, settled in a dusty armchair with knitted brows. He appears almost as a shadow, if not for the way the brightness of his phone screen ignites the high points of his face. The figure seems to be stray from whatever’s making him smirk and he looks up, squinting as he spots the pair.

“You find a toyboy for the night, Tae?” he laughs, low and guttural.

Jeongguk wants to curl into himself at the comment.

“Fuck off, Yoongi.” There’s no weight behind the words. “Jeongguk,” he turns to face him, a hand finding his shoulder and squeezing gently. It feels like reassurance; it feels like being kept afloat momentarily. “This is Yoongi and he’s a pain in my ass.”

Taehyung frowns, reassessing his own words. “Figuratively, that is.”

Jeongguk hears the other guy—Yoongi—sniggering, words leaving his mouth in something only above a whisper. “Mm, but you wish otherwise.”

“Ew.” Taehyung cries, a bubbling laugh soon following. “Don’t listen to anything that comes out of his mouth. Ever.”

Yoongi appears in front of them, having left the ghost of an imprint in the leather armchair. He stretches a hand out. “It’s nice to meet you, Jeongguk.”

Jeongguk settles the champagne bottle on the table next to him and stretches his own hand out to meet Yoongi’s slightly smaller one.

Formal. Huh.

“Back at you,” he nods, letting go of the other man’s hand to rest his arm at his side.

“I’d watch this one if I were you.” The tone of his voice is playful but Jeongguk silently nods anyway. He lowers his head to look at his shoes, his hands now clasped together behind his back.

The other boy scoffs but brings Yoongi in for a quick hug. “Yeah, yeah. Get out of here and go find that boyfriend of yours before I kick you out.”

At that, Yoongi leaves, a hearty laugh following him out of the door.

Jeongguk turns to look at Taehyung, a shy smile settling in the curve of his mouth. “He seems,” he contemplates, not wanting to offend by using the wrong adjectives, “nice.”

Taehyung huffs out a laugh and walks to the other end of the room where the coat hanger stands. “He’s my best friend. We can’t stand each other at times but he’s like an older brother in that sense.”

Jeongguk can’t remember ever having a friendship like that. Easy and playful but with weight behind it; one you can’t remember not having because it balances on the edge of feeling more like a lifelong brotherly relationship.

“Give me your coat,” Taehyung starts while shrugging off his own. “No one bar a few of my close friends is allowed in here so no one will steal any of your stuff, I promise.”

Jeongguk focuses all of his attention on unzipping his coat and hanging it next to Taehyung’s. He looks up at Taehyung and immediately regrets it.

His collarbone is on full display, jutting out obscenely and in a way that surely can’t be legal in any of the 50 states. His shirt scoops just beneath his collarbone and pools around the rest of his upper-body, making it impossible for Jeongguk to make out his frame. His shoulders are broad and it’s a stark contrast from his big cherubic features.

There are holes in his shirt—deliberate holes, by the looks of it. Some sort of fashion statement. There’s old, dried in paint on his shirt. Blotches of red, orange, and yellow.

“Not done any laundry in a while?” Jeongguk questions, eyes firmly set on the blotch of red paint decorating the sleeve of his shirt. He’ll be fine as long as he looks anywhere other than—

His eyes trail up the cotton sleeve to his collarbone again. He notices the way the material is frayed as if Taehyung had also cut the shirt to deliberately display his collarbone in a soft sweep.

What a little shit.

Taehyung follows Jeongguk’s line of vision to his own collarbone, smirking. “What? You don’t approve of this every day look?”

Jeongguk looks up to find Taehyung staring at him menacingly. “Holes and splatters of paint are an every day look for you?” he quizzes, amazed by his own ability to speak a full sentence after Taehyung’s menacing look from catching his wandering eyes.

“Guess you’ll have to stick around tomorrow to find out, huh?” Taehyung says, a hint of teasing thick behind his voice.

“Oh, I’ll be gone by tomorrow so—never mind.”

Taehyung raises a brow but doesn’t question him further. Jeongguk bites down on the inside of his bottom lip, once again thankful for Taehyung’s ability to understand when some questions require answers he’s not comfortable answering just yet. They have all night for such trivialities and Jeongguk would rather have his stomach swelling with warmth from the champagne before he gives anything away—if he gives anything away.

Taehyung leads him back through the house, past the kitchen and into the hall where a few people stay grouped together, plastic cups in hand while they lean against the banister of the staircase. They talk loudly above the music, having conversation that seems more like gossip.

“So,” Taehyung starts, leaning against the wall. He nods in the direction of the champagne that stays nestled under Jeongguk’s arm. “Crack her open. Let’s get this started.”

“Would it not be more of a pop than a crack?” Jeongguk argues playfully, trying to avoid the inevitable embarrassment that will come when he tries—and fails—to open the bottle.

“Do you always have a biting answer to everything?”

“Do you always answer questions with more questions?” Jeongguk jokes.

“Hm, fair enough,” he replies, signaling for Jeongguk to pass him the champagne bottle.

He does, relieved he doesn’t have to be the one getting probably too-expensive champagne all over his clothes because no one ever taught him champagne etiquette if there’s such a thing. “Do the honours, then.”

And Taehyung does, popping it open without much effort applied. He takes the first drink, letting out a satisfied ah as he wipes his mouth with the sleeve of his shirt, passing the bottle to Jeongguk with careful eyes watching him.

“Classy,” Jeongguk points out before lifting the bottle to his mouth. Sweet—that’s all he can identify in the taste, the bubble fizzing against the insides of his cheek.

“Like liquid stars, isn’t it?” Taehyung says above the heavy bass, the words hitting Jeongguk before the aftertaste.

“What is?” he asks, meeting the loudness of Taehyung’s voice to be heard.

“The bubbles. My m—someone I once knew always said they were like liquid stars, burning out on your tongue.”

“That’s quite the simile.”

“She was full of them,” Taehyung sighs, taking back the glass bottle to take another sip.

“Who was?” Jeongguk enquires.

Taehyung shakes his head, closing his left eye and using his right to peer down into the neck and body of the bottle. So easily fascinated. He looks down into it like he sees something no one else does, as if it holds something more precious than expensive bubbles. Or, so good at avoidance.

“Taehyung…?” It’s definitely loud enough that he knows Taehyung can hear him over the music.

“Let’s play a game,” Taehyung then says, ripping his attention away from the bottle. He hands Jeongguk the bottle and continues. “Let’s play hide and seek. You hide, I seek.”

Jeongguk knits his brows together in confusion. Hide and Seek? He’s certain he hasn’t even thought of the game since he was young enough to hide in tight spaces and scare his mom into thinking he had disappeared, much less play it at the ripe age of twenty-three. He’s almost tempted to scoff and refuse, but something about indulging Taehyung seems to pull him in enough to go on to ask Taehyung the limitations of where he can hide.

“Upstairs is out of bounds for anyone who isn’t a close friend so I guess you have free roam of up there, too,” he says, before rattling on about the time he found the “best hiding spot ever!” and how he dares Jeongguk to find one better. “Oh, and I’m counting to thirty because any more than that and I’ll lose interest.”

Jeongguk laughs softly enough that he’s sure Taehyung misses it. When he watches as Taehyung turns to face the wall, sweater paws in full swing as he covers his eyes to avoid peeking, Jeongguk prepares himself by getting closer to the stairs before he hears a loud Go! coming from Taehyung.

He climbs the stairs fast, but not fast enough to avoid hearing the deep thunder of Taehyung’s voice as he counts. One, two, three, four, five, eight, twelve, seventeen. Jeongguk shouts out “Cheat!” before reaching the second floor and rounding the corner to find a hiding spot.

Jeongguk didn’t allow himself to properly take in the understated beauty of his surroundings, the high ceilings and the tiny details that could only be carefully crafted by hands that worked purely out of love. He heard Taehyung shout a ‘ready or not, here I come!’ from downstairs, and bolted for the nearest room, shutting the door behind him before realising all he had to work with was a guest bathroom with only blueish hues coming from the window as a source of light. He didn’t want to risk opening the door to reach for the light switch, Jeongguk finding himself a lot more invested in the game of Hide and Seek than he initially thought.

He went with his only option: the bathtub. With only seconds to spare before Taehyung figured out he was somewhere upstairs, he quickly toed off his shoes—he liked to remain respectful even when time was against him—and stepped into the tub, lying down flat with his knees tucked in with the bottle of champagne forgotten about by his shoes.

Seconds or maybe minutes later—Jeongguk’s not sure but the hues of blue cast deeper against the white tiling of the bathroom—he’s still waiting in the tub, can still hear the thump of the music beneath him, but there’s still no Taehyung. He wonders if he forgot about him, or if maybe he got distracted or found something—someone better to keep him occupied. Jeongguk wouldn’t rule out any of the options, all of them seeming more and more plausible as the seconds pass until—

The creak of a door. The sound of a heavy bass funneling in and echoing against the tiles and then leaving again. Jeongguk sees the silhouette of a person, ignited by the blue hues like from the center of a flame. He curses himself for not locking the door because now someone’s going to come in, pull their trousers down to take a piss, and get creeped out when they find him lying there.

He’s about to make a run for it, leap out of the bath and praise some higher power for the anonymity that comes with darkness. And that’s when he hears the deep rumbling voice again, but this time it sounds less hollow like it isn’t trying to charm.

“God, where the fuck could he be?” And it’s a low rumble at that, but the echo from the bathroom makes it feel amplified in its thunder. “I bet I scared him off and he ran straight for the door—”

It’s then that Jeongguk starts to feel guilty, like maybe it’s time to flick the switch with a ‘you found me!’, but instead it’s a hiccup that startles Taehyung out of his monologue, and then there’s a curious hand on Jeongguk’s knee and that’s when he knows his time is up.

He doesn’t bother to turn the light on even when he realises he’s found his target.

“The bathtub—really? I thought I’d never see you again.” There’s something in his voice that Jeongguk can’t place. “You couldn’t have made my job any easier, huh?”

“I like to keep things interesting, I guess.”

Neither of them is paying enough attention to hear someone approaching the bathroom, so when the door springs open, Taehyung jumps in the bath without much thought, especially not for Jeongguk’s kneecaps or personal space.

Either the fuse in the bulb went or no one in this town knows how to flick a switch, and Jeongguk’s a little grateful for it right now. He doesn’t want to know how compromising they look in this position. The shadow stumbles around a lot, grumbling low and disjointed in a drunken language only ever understood by those in a similar state.

Jeongguk feels the fan of Taehyung’s breath hot against his neck, and then the fan of a giggle against the shell of his ear when Taehyung shifts up a little to accommodate his long legs. It’s disconcerting how much Jeongguk doesn’t hate the unexpected closeness.

He’s used to building gaps and having them bridged by others; too used to feeling violated by a handshake he wasn’t prepared for, the strange, unfamiliar ghost of a hand at the dip of his back that overstays its welcome.

People mean well, usually, but it’s never enough for Jeongguk to not feel like he’s suffocating at the expense of accommodating someone else’s comfort.

The shadow leaves the room loudly and Jeongguk expects for Taehyung to be back on his feet in seconds. Instead, Taehyung turns and leans over the tub to fumble around for the lock on the door. He twists it, hears the click of the lock, and grabs the champagne bottle by its neck before turning back to face Jeongguk.

“Sit up so we can both sit comfortably,” he says, the two of them quickly sitting on opposite ends of the tub with their legs tangled together.

“Why’d you lock the door, anyway?” Jeongguk asks.

“How am I expected to get to know my favourite party guest if we continue to get interrupted by rude party-goers?” And he’s always so quick, so devilishly charming with his words. His tongue is sharp, and Jeongguk can’t find fault in it.

Jeongguk scoffs. “Is the no-light thing really necessary, though?”

“It’s more fun this way.”

He tuts this time. “And how is that?”

“Aren’t people more honest in the dark?” And are they?

Jeongguk had never thought about it before. He grew up lying. Petty lies. Nothing that could ever be seen as malicious or done with the intent to deceive, but they came easy. He had lied about his age, his interests, how he was definitely no longer chain smoking; about how his day was going and sometimes, if people dared to look between the cracks, he’d choke on the lie that he wasn’t disgustingly lonely.

Some lies he still told and others, he grew out of. They fell from his mouth better than the truth ever did. Over time, he had slowly run the risk of lying to himself, and that was like balancing on a tightrope and falling and losing yourself.

So, he lies. “I suppose so.”

Taehyung shifts slightly, passing the bottle over to Jeongguk for him to take a drink. He’s not sure how he manages to know to take the bottle without Taehyung saying anything, but he guesses it has something to do with their eyes slowly adjusting to the dark.

He takes a drink and waits. It doesn’t take long for Taehyung to work on his theory about the dark.

“So, how come I’ve never seen your face around here?” Taehyung asks, and it’s an easy start… if he can dodge it.

“Maybe you just don’t look hard enough.”

“I’d believe that,” he says, and Jeongguk can already tell there’s a ‘but’ coming. “But—this town is too small for anyone to go by unnoticed.”

“You say that, but I’ve never seen your face around here. So what does that make you?”

Taehyung chuckles. He takes the champagne bottle from Jeongguk and drinks before he answers. “That makes me one of the fortunate ones.”

“And what does it take to be fortunate ‘round here?” Jeongguk squints his eyes at him, quizzing, as if he can see more than the faint outline of his messy hair and big, big features. He’s glad Taehyung can’t see the curiosity he holds in his eyes.

“I got away from this place,” Taehyung says. “Got a one-way ticket and never looked back.”

“Yet you’re here now. Seems more like a return ticket to me,” Jeongguk counters. He tugs on the sleeves of his shirt, starting to feel cold but doing it more so out of nervous habit.

“My dad would never forgive me if I didn’t return during my time off.”

“And your mom?” Jeongguk asks.

“You ask a lot of questions,” Taehyung says, and Jeongguk doesn’t need a harsh light flooding the room to know he’s got one eyebrow raised. “My turn. Favourite colour?”

“My favourite colour is usually what colour underwear and socks I decide to wear that day, so—” He’s not sure why he bothers to check in the first place when he could just bullshit the answer, but something about Taehyung makes him want to not bullshit even the simplest of things. “Red. I guess red is my colour right now.”

“Cute,” Taehyung says, and it sounds teasing. “Personally, I really like lilac, but if I go by your way of method… nude.”

“Why would you wear nu—oh,” He almost chokes on his words. He’s never been more grateful for a dark room and a leg’s worth of distance between two people before. “The joke… is that you’re not wearing underwear. I get it now.”

“You’re keeping up, Gukkie. Good job, but I'm kidding. I just wanted to see you blush.” Jeongguk feels lucky in that moment to not have to bear witness to the smirk that he knows sits smugly on Taehyung’s face.

“God, that’s so patronising,” he says, huffing out a laugh. “You’re a hard one to keep up with.” He vehemently ignores the use of the nickname.

“I like to keep you on your toes,” Taehyung says.

Jeongguk rolls his eyes. “So, how exactly did you get away from here?”

“It’s a long story,” Taehyung says, and Jeongguk can tell from his tone that it’s a question he’d rather avoid. Maybe not enough bubbles left to make him want to tell that story yet. “Why are you so interested in how I got away?”

“Because everyone’s always running to or from something, and—I don’t know. It’s interesting to learn that side of a person, I guess.”

“Are you running to or from something?” Taehyung quizzes.

Jeongguk drinks before answering. He brings his knees up to his chest. If Taehyung had known him longer, he’d probably have figured out by now that Jeongguk was subconsciously putting a barrier between them. “Maybe both. Not quite sure, really.”

“Well, we have the rest of the night to figure it out.”

 

 

They make their way through the champagne with enough questions to match each passing of the bottle. Jeongguk burps and hiccups a few times and blames it on the bubbles—“they’re liquid stars!”—and Taehyung jokes that it just means he’s starting to get comfortable around him. Jeongguk hopes it’s not that.

Taehyung isn’t shy, although Jeongguk was quick to learn that back at the pub. He asks a lot of questions and answers his fair share of them, too. What Jeongguk didn’t realise until the questions quietened down, though, is that he could also dodge his fair share of them. He didn’t want to read too much into it, but from his own experience, he knew that dodging a question usually meant there was something worth hiding.

Maybe that makes them more alike than he originally thought.

Jeongguk’s not sure what a guy like Taehyung could possibly want kept hidden. Before last year, he could count the people he knew well on his fingers alone. In the last year alone, he hasn’t added to that total, but he’s met enough faces to write a book of stories about the people he’s met along the way. Despite them serving only as a memory that fades in time, he’s met witty and he’s danced with charming. He’s ended up in the beds’ of the quiet and the loud, and he’s met the thug in the badly lit street at three in the morning.

So, with certainty, Jeongguk can say that he’s met people and he’s never been wrong about them; never had to spend more than an hour with them to find out a deep regret or a past trauma. It’s always been evasive and he’s never had to follow up with a sad story or pick at the corners of someone until they peel away for him.

And then there’s Taehyung and a layer of him that he can’t pick at.

They start to fizzle out in time with the empty bottle of champagne, Taehyung humming warm and contentedly at the effects.

“We should probably get out of here, don’t you think?” Jeongguk says.

He doesn’t wait for Taehyung to answer before he climbs out the tub, stretching his legs and cursing himself for voluntarily lying in an empty bathtub for an hour. Taehyung follows his lead, albeit a little clumsier and Jeongguk can’t help what comes out of his mouth next.

“Come on, Bambi,” he says, taking a hold of Taehyung’s upper arm to help him out. He steadies him with a hand on his shoulder and he rubs, the action a comfort Jeongguk didn’t know he had in him to give. Still, he doesn’t pull his hand away like he’s just been scorned. Instead, he keeps it there, giving Taehyung’s shoulder a little squeeze.

Taehyung’s features are outlined in silver. The moon had shifted not long ago, bathing the bathroom in moonlight. Jeongguk catches the stretch of glittering silver, a smile stretching across Taehyung’s face, warm. “Do you have the time?” Taehyung asks.

“Why not just get your phone from your back pocket and check?”

“How would you know my phone’s in my back pocket unless you were checking out my ass?” Taehyung quips.

Jeongguk scoffs. “Well, it’s not in your front pocket so I did the process of elimination.”

Taehyung’s either teasing or doesn’t seem at all convinced. Jeongguk can’t figure out which of the two it is, but either way, he refuses to let Taehyung know that he was indeed staring at his ass at moments throughout the night.

Jeongguk still reaches for his phone. “Ten minutes till midnight.”

Taehyung mutters a ‘shit’ and latches onto Jeongguk’s wrist, leading them out of the bathroom. It takes a few moments for their eyes to adjust to the harsh lighting. “Fireworks start in a few minutes.”

Until now, Jeongguk thought he had already been met with the bouncing energy the other boy seemed to possess, but he hadn’t seen anything until he was coaxed into skipping down the staircase with a bright smile and a pair of legs that look like they could cause a fall at any given time. He kicked red cups out of his way and did his best to keep up with the pull of Taehyung. The tug on his wrist was insistent; it tightened and loosened.

They make their way out of the house, both the porch and beachfront empty minus a few people in similar states to the ones from earlier on. Taehyung mentioned something about fireworks, but it seems he’s the only one who got the memo. That or people are too drunk to care at this point.

Jeongguk follows without question until Taehyung bring them both to a stop, their hands now intertwined. It’s warm, and Jeongguk finds that he doesn’t hate it as much as he should. He can’t remember it happening, can’t remember how the clutch on his wrist turned into hand holding. Warmth spreads to the tips of his ears. He blames it on the cold when Taehyung makes a teasing comment.

Taehyung doesn’t let go of his hand, not even once they’re both sat on the damp sand. They sit close enough to the edge that the water rushes up to the tips of their toes and no more. Jeongguk quickly picks up on the way Taehyung shuffles closer, their clasped hands finding a home in Jeongguk’s lap. His leg shakes. Taehyung is kind enough to not say anything.

Jeongguk picks up on the little things. He picks up on both the good and bad habits, on how his body responds to people, how other bodies respond to him. He picks up on the way Taehyung seeks the human touch, how he clings to the concept of skin against skin.

He watches the way Taehyung’s eyes shut blissfully, his mouth spreading to form a smile that makes the moonlight bounce off his inflated cheeks. His body seems to relax against Jeongguk’s, the heat from their bodies melting together to keep them safe from the harsh slice of the wind.

Taehyung breaks the silence that sits over them. “Wish every moment felt exactly like this one,” he says, sighing contentedly. He leans his head against Jeongguk’s shoulder and Jeongguk holds his breath until he hears a bang followed by an explosion of colour.

The fireworks ignite excitement in Taehyung’s eyes. Jeongguk knows this because he spends more time looking at him than he does the firework display. He sees the splashes of red, blue, green, yellow, indigo—he seems them all, but only because the colours saturate Taehyung’s skin, the way his face floods with all the colours of the rainbow.

He looks at everything with such wonder—such innocence, a curiosity—like he’s seeing everything for the first time. His initial excitement can only be described as when a dog comes face to face with the expanse of green, green grass for the first time. Eyes bright, lit up like an amusement park.

Jeongguk ogles more than he intends to, bemused, but the corners of his mouth threaten to turn upward in delight. He’s never been met with such innocence in a tall, maybe twenty-something-year-old angel face. He’s an oddity but no less charming despite his peculiar ways. Jeongguk thinks that his oddities may even add to the charm.

It would be comical if not already frighteningly honest, the way Taehyung meets everything with an excitement that most only experience a handful of times in their life.

Taehyung follows vibrant oranges that rocket into the sky and fizzle out seconds later, and Jeongguk watches the way amber burns in his eyes, glassy. Everything seems more magnificent when staring at him.

Jeongguk swallows down. He forces himself to turn and look at the sky. The colours against the black backdrop don’t look half as breathtaking like this.

The fireworks go on but something rips Taehyung’s attention away from them, somehow. He lifts his head from where it was nestled on his shoulder, and Jeongguk follows his line of vision, watching the way Taehyung’s eyes seem to find their culprit and focus, unwavering. His eyes flicker up momentarily to meet Jeongguk’s, before moving back down, ever so slightly.

Jeongguk exhales through his mouth. It comes out as a huff, a thin cloud proof of how cold it is, proof of how warm he feels inside despite this. He knows he’s in trouble.

He knows he’s in trouble when Taehyung leans in and he doesn’t do anything but welcome it. He knows he’s in trouble when he uses his free hand to cup Taehyung’s cheek, so delicate, the tips of fingers burning. He knows he’s in trouble in those last few seconds where he has the chance to build a wall, but instead chooses to bridge the gap.

Kissing Taehyung is like taking the first bite of an apple: mouth-watering, the inability to distinguish between sweet and sour, the twist in your face that doesn’t deter you from taking another bite.

It takes a moment for Jeongguk to find his footing—it’s been a while since he gave someone permission to kiss him—but once he becomes acquainted with the taste of something sweet, he lets himself properly sink into it, sink into Taehyung. He feels a hand on his neck, and it’s both hot and cold. Spidery fingers absentmindedly tickle at the sensitive skin. There’s no rush to the kiss, no urgency in it. Their lips work together, Jeongguk swiping his tongue along Taehyung’s bottom lip to chase the taste again.

It’s safe. Jeongguk feels safe. He can taste the salty tang of the sea mingling with the sweetness of Taehyung. He can almost taste the liquid stars from earlier, fizzing on the tip of his tongue. Their joined hands tighten and loosen like a pulse as if they’re working in time with each brush of their lips.

When they pull apart, he’s met with Taehyung’s face up close, his eyes crescented and smile stretched and shaped in a way that doesn’t turn up like most smiles do. The smile turns into a gentle tug of his bottom lip, a shyness peeking through. It’s the first time Jeongguk has seen a softness in his eyes, and he suspects it’s a side of him few see. A side tucked away for more intimate moments like this.

At least, it feels intimate by the way the atmosphere stills for them, the way Jeongguk’s heart beats in his chest despite everything else around them slowing down.

His heart beat and the back and forth of the gentle waves are the only constants and it’s the calmest he’s felt in months.

Taehyung’s always the first to speak. “I didn’t even notice that the fireworks had ended,” he says, and they both burst into a laughter that wakes them from their haze.

Once composed, Jeongguk tries to find his words. “That nice, huh?”

After Taehyung finds comfort in resting his head on the other’s shoulder again, they sit there quietly and Jeongguk watches the other draw love hearts and perfect stars into the sand with his index finger. They’re still holding hands.

“I always wanted to kiss someone on the beach… and during a fireworks display.” His words are always earnest. Jeongguk smiles.

“I guess that’s two boxes you can tick from your bucket list, then,” Jeongguk says, the smile present in his tone.

Taehyung turns to face him. “What’s on your bucket list?” he asks curiously.

“Never given it much thought, to be honest.”

“Okay,” Taehyung says, quizzing him with his eyes. “What about dreams? Everyone has dreams.”

Jeongguk ponders the question, for some reason caring about the words he uses when talking to the other boy. He plucks at the words like they’re flowers that sit prettily in spring gardens.

“I used to dream of writing my own music and singing it to anyone who’d listen,” he says, and that’s when he knows he’s teetering on the edge of giving away too much, giving away little tidbits of himself that are meant to remain hidden, or at the very least hard to get to. But Taehyung—he’s made it easy for him to reach into those dusty parts of who he is.

“I sometimes dreamt of performing in smoky bars with instruments all around me and wet floors from drinks being spilled by drunk middle-aged men who didn’t give a fuck about what I had to say through my music.”

“Dream big, eh?” Taehyung teases, but there’s no malice behind it. It’s light and playful, and Jeongguk laughs in agreement because that’s all he can do now.

Only a few seconds pass before Taehyung pipes up again. “You never had dreams of making it big?”

Jeongguk shakes his head. “Too overrated and glamorised.” Another lie.

Jeongguk had dreams, of course he did. He’d be lying if he said he never once fantasised about what it would be like to be someone—not just anyone, but a Someone. Somebody. He let go of those dreams quickly, eventually grew out of indulging in 2 a.m. ‘what ifs’ where he was the shining beacon of light for strangers—fans—who thought they had a connection with him through his lyrics when really they knew shit all.

It’s all fake and phony, and he knew he’d run the risk of losing that drive, that passion for writing if he started charting in the Billboard 100 and resorting to writing number one hits instead of the music that started a wildfire in him in the first place.

“You still writing now?” the other boy asks, voice soft. The distant sound of music rings in his ears. He’s not sure how he didn’t hear it until now.

“Here and there,” he shrugs, deciding not to elaborate further. Unsurprisingly, Taehyung doesn’t push.

“I wanted to be an astronaut,” Taehyung giggles, nudging the other boy playfully.

Jeongguk scoffs. “You and everyone else then.”

“And a fireman.” This time, he wriggles his eyebrows and Jeongguk rolls his eyes in response.

“You just wanted to ogle the buff men and put on a pole dancing show,” Jeongguk laughs in half disbelief. He’s grateful for the change in conversation, for the lighter atmosphere surrounding them now.

He’s grateful for Taehyung’s company on his last night.

Taehyung just mocks offence. “I’ll have you know that’s only 95% true.”

 

 

The playful back and forth carries on until the heavens open, neither of them prepared for the downpour of rain that claims them. Jeongguk regrets leaving his coat inside.

Taehyung, as always, leads the way. As they tread through the gravelly sand, he turns back to look at Jeongguk as if to make sure he’s still there even though their hands stay tightly locked. There are droplets of rain on the very tip of his nose, and Jeongguk fights against the urge to boop, kiss, lick. He becomes acutely aware of the tiny mole that sits polka dotted on the tip of his nose.

Jeongguk can’t help but pick up on little quirks throughout the night. While talking about their dreams, his mind catalogued the fact that the other boy has one monolid and one double lid. Earlier, while going in to kiss him, he noticed how big Taehyung’s ears are, but how they somehow manage to work in proportion with the rest of him. He wonders how that works. Wonders how a person can look so soft and approachable when every one of their features demands unwavering attention.

There are some things he wishes his mind wouldn’t catalogue so easily, and the quirks of a person he’ll never see again once the sun rises are at the very top of that list.

They don’t head in the direction of the front porch but Jeongguk doesn’t question it. Throughout the night, he’s placed a blinding trust in the other boy and from the way Taehyung turns to look at him, he can’t force himself to stop now.

They come to a stop at the side of the house, both of them stood there shivering, drenched. Jeongguk doesn’t know how he didn’t see it before, but he puts it down to how badly lit everything is. They’re standing next to a van of sorts—a Volkswagen?—and when he takes his phone out to turn the flash on, he’s met with a baby pink paint job.

“God, you’ve got to be kidding me. This is yours?” he laughs, disbelieving of what this night has turned into.

He hears the jangling of keys that dangle from Taehyung’s index finger and he takes that as a solid yes. There’s a mischievous grin on his face. “Bought it a couple years back for a road trip a couple of friends and I went on, and just sort of… fell in love with it.”

“You are unbelievable,” Jeongguk says with a smile that mimics Taehyung’s own. “You gonna give me the grand tour then or what?”

He waits for Taehyung to unlock it and make sure everything’s in check before he follows him in. He’s never been in one of these things before, having only ever seen them in movies about hippies. He’s just glad Taehyung’s has a clean paint job and no peace signs or colourful flowers.

Once in, the first thing that catches his eye is all the pink. He was expecting to be met with a seating area on either end with a table in the middle, but it seems he made renovations of his own. There’s a double seat—pink leather with white stitching—when you first walk in, and the back end is all floor space, covered in layers and layers of blankets of all different materials and colours that seem to sit atop a thin mattress. There are at least 10 or so cushions placed around, creating a colourful and cosy looking border.

His eyes scan the small space, taking in the fairy lights that drape from one end to the other, twinkling like stars. It’s mostly soft furnishings and orange, glowing lights with a few paintings adorning odd corners of the walls that aren’t taken up by windows. The windows are covered by sheer, sparkly curtains that don’t allow for much privacy, but he finds he doesn’t care.

He’s surprised by how spacious it is when he takes in the fact that Taehyung and his long, lanky legs look perfectly comfortable despite it still being just a van. He shuts the doors behind him before taking a seat next to Taehyung on the pink leather. He turns to find the other boy with big, doe eyes, and they seek approval.

“I was a little skeptical at first,” Jeongguk admits. He sees a flash of worry in Taehyung’s eyes, wonders just how much this means to him—this van, his approval. “But I must admit it’s pretty cosy. Did you decorate it all yourself?”

Taehyung preens at the praise. “I did, yeah. She’s my pride and joy.”

“She?” Jeongguk asks, quirking a brow.

“Dolly!” he replies cheerily, emitting what Jeongguk suspects to be pride. “I know it seems kind of silly, but she’s… she’s helped me get through a lot.”

He doesn’t push further. He can see how the other visibly tunes down near the end of his sentence, and all Jeongguk wants to do is see him smile again. He rubs his hands together, bringing them up to his mouth to blow hot air into them. The little space definitely lacks insulation.

“We should probably get out of these wet clothes, shouldn’t we?” Taehyung says, and he can’t decipher his tone or the choke in the back of his throat, can’t understand why everything around them suddenly feels weighted.

That is until—

Taehyung’s eyes ask for permission. They’re deep and honest, the kind of eyes that no one could refuse. Jeongguk nods profusely, wordlessly. He shuffles closer and waits for the other to make his move. Taehyung plants a kiss on his neck and swipes his tongue across it, tasting rainfall. Jeongguk shivers, forgets what to do with his hands.

It’s been a while since it meant something.

In the end, he nervously reaches up to brush fingers through damp strands of hair. Taehyung’s eyes flutter shut. Maybe he hasn’t completely forgotten after all.

His shirt is heavy from the rain. He watches the way Taehyung drags the material up his chest slowly—and torturously so—with cold, determined fingers. On occasion, he rips his eyes away from Jeongguk’s own to drag them down to marvel at his chest.

Jeongguk has been in more compromising positions before, but he’s never felt as exposed as he does right now. It takes a while before his shirt is being pulled over his head, Taehyung carelessly throwing it to the front seat so he can get back to what’s important: Jeongguk’s chest. Before doing so, he quickly discards of his own shirt. Jeongguk doesn’t have time to sulk over him not doing the honours because soon enough, a pair of eyes are back on him. Taehyung drapes his fingers over the hills of his abs, and shuffles closer to lean in and swipe his tongue over Jeongguk’s nipple. It’s warm and wet, and it’s welcoming.

Taehyung grazes his teeth over it, watching it harden, before sucking it into his mouth and circling his tongue around it. Jeongguk leans back with his head resting against the window, and takes in the lewd noises Taehyung makes. He lets go and sets his sights on his other nipple, swiping it with his tongue and grazing it with his teeth before getting his mouth on it.

Jeongguk gets his hands to work, tugging on Taehyung’s hair and keeping him steady, not letting him come up for air yet. The other boy doesn’t complain, moaning around it, flicking his tongue over the bud with so much conviction.

“Shit, yeah. Use that tongue, angel,” Jeongguk moans, voice lilting. He’s always been a sucker—pun intended—for having his nipples played with, always been so sensitive and responsive.

Taehyung does his best to look up at him but the angle makes it difficult and once he really gets into it, his eyes go glassy and he closes them over, rocking his hips against the thigh he found himself straddling. Jeongguk decides he’s had enough, wants his mouth on Taehyung, and so he gently tugs on his hair as a silent come here, and soon they’re face to face.

Jeongguk can’t put his finger on it, but the other boy looks positively angelic like this; his hair disheveled, mouth shiny and wet, eyes glassing over, wide and curious about what’s to come.

He can’t help but fully pull him into his lap, and Taehyung whines as the fabric of their jeans drag against his cock which remains confined. Jeongguk is quick to get his mouth on him, his hands now worming their way down to rest on Taehyung’s hips. Too many clothes.

They kiss and there’s urgency behind it this time. There’s just enough tongue and the right balance of sweet and sour, and Jeongguk indulges himself by letting his hands find their way to Taehyung’s perky little ass and squeezing. Taehyung moans into his mouth, lifting his ass, and Jeongguk takes the liberty of giving it a light spanking. He’s delighted when he hears the light vibrations of Taehyung giggling into his mouth, the boy clearly enjoying it.

Jeongguk hasn’t had this much fun with intimacy… ever. He’s always fantasised about what it would be like to have someone giggling into his mouth; to feel comfortable and confident enough to have fun with it, instead of treating it like a mission he needs to complete before the timer runs out. Taehyung seems to make everything fun.

The boy’s a biter, Jeongguk realises, constantly tugging at his bottom lip and watching it plumpen and turn a deep pinkish-red. He trails off, kissing along his jawline until he reaches something he likes.

“So sexy,” he whispers into his ear, and his voice drawls. He uses his finger to gently play with the double helix that adorns Jeongguk’s ear. He’s found a weak spot and they both know it.

Sensitive, sensitive, sensitive. All over.

He keeps playing with his ear, tracing around it with the tip of his finger, and it tickles, makes Jeongguk shiver into his touch more than he wants to admit. In the meantime, he drags his mouth back to Jeongguk’s own and continues working in time with the slow movements of his hips. Their bodies work together miraculously well, and Jeongguk’s sure that if he was to check, their pulses would be beating in time with each other, too.

“Hm, s’cute,” is what Taehyung says the third time he pulls away to look at his work, eyes bright and daring as he marvels at how swollen and pretty Jeongguk’s lip looks because of him.

While the other admires his work, Jeongguk takes the opportunity to unbutton his jeans, somehow managing to shimmy them off without much effort. The rain from before causes them to practically peel off his legs, and he throws them back to the front seat with the rest of their discarded clothes.

He then quirks a brow at Taehyung who sits cross-legged on the leather after having to detach himself from Jeongguk’s lap. He’s still pouting. “May I?” he asks, signaling to the other boy’s jeans with his finger. Taehyung gives him an eager nod sans the pout.

He gets them off in a hurry, not wanting to waste any more time. There’s still the sound of rain lashing against the van, and he can still hear the thud of music from inside the house, meaning he must still have time to waste if people haven’t deterred from their party mode just yet.

He’s still wearing his boxers, but it’s more exposed than he’s ever felt before. There are goosebumps prickling up and down his arms and legs, and he blames it on the lack of insulation.

Taehyung must notice, such a sharp eye to match a sharp mouth. “Let’s get under the blankets, yeah?” he says, and this time he doesn’t sound as hoarse, the heat of the moment paused for now. Jeongguk doesn’t mind. There’s time.

They move to the floor and within seconds, Jeongguk has about four or five blankets separating him from the cold. He shivers, his body needing time to adjust to the change in temperature. They lie on their sides so they’re facing each other and Jeongguk feels brave, so brave. His hands feel cold, so cold, but he snakes one around Taehyung’s waist and watches as he flinches before relaxing into the touch.

They sit comfortably after they’ve found their positions, both of them clumsy, their bodies feeling brand new. Both of Taehyung’s hands end up on Jeongguk’s chest to no surprise, and Jeongguk teases him about it with a, “Can’t get enough of me, hm?”

Taehyung responds by moving one of his hands further down his chest, his eyes fixed on Jeongguk’s. His other hand stays put while the right trails down slowly, tracing circles as it goes. Jeongguk’s breathing turns shaky and he watches Taehyung’s eyes grow bigger and bigger, his bottom lip caught between teeth.

“Is this alright?” Taehyung asks, his hand now touching the waistline of his boxers. “Am I okay to touch?”

Jeongguk gulps, the tension in the air thick enough to cut through with a knife. “Yes, p-please,” he just about says. His hand moves down to rest on Taehyung’s hip. The other boy takes that as a sign to keep going.

Taehyung lowers his hand and Jeongguk inhales sharply. It’s been a while. Too long, in fact. There’s still a thin layer in between what Jeongguk wants and what he gets right now. There are delicate, persistent fingers tracing the outline of his dick and he’s too choked to ask for more. Taehyung’s eyes don’t stray, not once, not even when he starts palming him through the thin material, his long fingers doing more than what Jeongguk’s had in months.

He can feel himself hardening more and more, Taehyung’s hand expertly thumbing at the head where he knows he’s most sensitive. There’s a small pool of precome forming where Taehyung’s fingers are, and he smiles at Jeongguk with his tongue darting out enticingly.

Jeongguk pulls his body in closer, more flush, by the hip and then bridges the gap with his other hand by tugging at his hair. Their lips slot into place perfectly, like they’ve been doing this for far longer than they have, like they know each other better than they really do. There’s the sweetness that Jeongguk has grown accustomed to, but this time he’s the one to tug on Taehyung’s bottom lip with his teeth.

“Please—need more,” he says when he pulls back, his hand momentarily leaving the other’s hip to guide Taehyung’s hand into his underwear.

Taehyung smiles at him, coy. He obliges, though, his hand making his way into Jeongguk’s boxers even after Jeongguk has removed his, the hand that was previously on his hip now squeezing his ass.

And then Taehyung is sneaking his hand into Jeongguk’s underwear, and Jeongguk can feel his heart in his mouth. He’s not ready for the feeling of Taehyung’s long fingers gently wrapping around his cock, taking him in his hand with such delicacy that it makes his heart hurt in the best kind of way.

Taehyung’s hands are cold against him, even when every other part of him is burning up, and Jeongguk shivers around him.

“Is this okay?” Taehyung asks, sounding doubtful. Constantly needing praise, reassurance in his touches.

“Yeah,” he replies, and it comes out sounding like a hiss. He doesn’t want Taehyung to know how heavenly his fingers feel wrapped around him, even as static as they are. Heavenly. Doesn’t want Taehyung to know easily affected he is by even the most simple of touches. “I want. Please, Tae—”

He doesn’t mean for the nickname to slide, doesn’t intend for it to even be a nickname. He gets too choked up that one syllable is all his brain can muster up.

“Shh, I got you,” he whispers back, comforting. Jeongguk’s about to say something, but all words die in his throat when Taehyung starts moving his hand, pumping his cock. “You like this?”

Taehyung keeps grinning. Jeongguk nods, frantic. “I-I like this,” he replies. He doesn’t feel like that’s enough to let Taehyung know, so he adds, “I love it.”

Taehyung giggles, leaning forward a little and pulling Jeongguk in for a kiss. Jeongguk sighs, rejoicing in the feeling of him jerking him off with slow confidence. He notices that his little reassurances seem to make Taehyung braver, the movement of his hand turning more secure and sure. He knows what he’s doing, knows he’s driving Jeongguk crazy.

“Tae…” Jeongguk moans, voice lilting when Taehyung thumbs at the head of his cock, sending waves of pleasure down his entire body.

“Oh, baby,” Taehyung says, words vibrating against Jeongguk’s lips. “Sensitive, so sensitive. I love how sensitive you are.”

Taehyung’s touch takes him to places he doesn’t remember existing, his senses heightened in a way he’s never experienced before. His breath quickens as Taehyung starts pumping him faster, and Jeongguk feels like he’s being properly taken care of for the first time in his life.

“C-can I touch you?” he asks, voice shaking. Taehyung’s eyes turn big, almost completely black. There’s so much they’re saying, so much more behind then than lust or greed. Jeongguk insists, “Please.”

“Yes,” Taehyung replies, one syllable dripping in more desire than Jeongguk has been met with before. “Yes, please. Touch me, Gukkie.”

His hand shakes on the short journey from Taehyung’s ass to his crotch, a nervous excitement he hopes Taehyung doesn’t pick up on. There’s an uncertainty lodged in his throat but he’s too caught up in the moment, and in the way Taehyung’s cock feels under his hand as he palms him through his underwear. He pushes the uncertainty to the side. This doesn’t have to mean more than what it is—a one night stand, a hookup, just like the rest.

“You’re so hard,” Jeongguk sighs in relief.

Taehyung smiles, says, “It’s for you. It’s all for you.”

There’s a delicacy to the process that Jeongguk didn’t know was possible, and he’s sure the other boy can feel it too. It’s palpable, the way everything feels unrushed but too heated for Jeongguk to bring his breathing down to a normal pace. It’s languid and gentle, and every touch feels deliberate. He can feel Taehyung rearranging his skin with his fingers, his hands that look like those of a sculpture.

Taehyung is sculpting something with the way his free hand cups Jeongguk’s cheek, caresses it, smoothes out the frown lines between his brows with the gentle brush of his thumb.

Jeongguk brings the situation back into focus and tugs at one of the legs of Taehyung’s underwear, with the other boy quickly lifting his hips so Jeongguk can tug them down a little to free his cock. He wraps his fingers around it, testing the weight of it in his hand—it’s long, thinner than Jeongguk’s own.

He starts jerking Taehyung off slowly, and Taehyung slows down his own pace around Jeongguk’s dick to match it with the movements of Jeongguk’s hand. There’s something so intimate about the act, about the way they work in time with each other, their eyes meeting once again, never faltering.

They kiss again, breathing into it heavily, heatedly. It’s mostly a tangled web of moans and the grazing of teeth, with Taehyung softly biting down on Jeongguk’s pouty bottom lip when he plays with the tip of his cock, thumbing at the most sensitive part.

“I love how your cock feels in my hand,” Taehyung says, making Jeongguk moan desperately. He feels so taken care of, so wanted in that moment. “You’re so hot, Jeongguk. So sexy.”

Jeongguk can feel his body getting hotter, and the windows of the van get foggier. It seems the rain had slowed down in time with them, too. Or at least, that’s what Jeongguk tells himself. Everything in slow motion, the world letting Jeongguk cling onto this night for a little longer.

Their hands start moving faster, more erratically, and Jeongguk knows that they’re not going to last much longer. He wishes he could keep the tempo down for a while longer, hold onto the feeling for a few minutes more, but he feels so on the edge, so close.

And as if in perfect sync, Taehyung whimpers, “I-I’m close,” as he inches impossibly closer, the heat radiating between them. “You’re so—God, Guk. I’m so close.”

Jeongguk swallows down thickly, pressing a kiss to the corner of Taehyung’s mouth, missing. “Come on, angel. Let go.” He feels overwhelmed, body tensing up as his own orgasm builds up in the pooling heat of his stomach.

“Please, I—” he says, before Taehyung has a chance to reply, his hips faltering as he bucks up and thrusts into Taehyung’s hand, the friction making him squirm.

There’s nothing obnoxiously loud about the scene, no exaggerated moans or cries of each other’s names. Jeongguk comes with a low whimper that turns into a blissed-out sigh as he spills into Taehyung’s hand, some of his come staining his underwear. Taehyung leans forward to kisses him gently but ends up moaning into his mouth when Jeongguk speeds up the pace of his hand, erratic.

“Come for me,” he practically begs, eyes pleading. He wants to make Taehyung come, wants to feel him shake around him with pleasure. An aching part of him needs it, needs to know he brought him undone like this. “Come for me, angel.”

And it’s not long before he does. The fingernails of his free hand dig into Jeongguk’s shoulder as he does, scraping down his chest. His whimpering is low; there’s a gravelly, drenched ‘fuck’ that sends goosebumps down Jeongguk’s body. He spills into Jeongguk’s hand, and the other can’t help but comb his fingers through Taehyung’s hair, whispering little praises into his ear.

Jeongguk feels like he’s eighteen again, discovering skin that’s not his own and stickily coming in his pants. Instead, he’s twenty-two and unable to fight the smile off his face, but Taehyung seems to eat it up. The only thing that remains the same is the mess in his pants.

After a few more kisses and the dancing tips of fingers against Jeongguk’s skin, Taehyung leans over to grab something buried beneath cushions. Baby wipes. They clean each other up and giggle at the mess they’ve made, neither of them seemingly bothered, too sated to really care.

 

 

Their fingertips are cold from drawing their names and shapes in the fogged up windows, and it feels awfully reminiscent of a lost childhood. Taehyung had decorated the windows in love hearts while Jeongguk opted for smiley faces with tongues poking out.

Jeongguk only now notices the fogged up window at the far left corner of the van with their names and love hearts all around them. ‘Tae and Gukkie’ with the ‘i’ dotted with a heart. He wishes he could crawl to the front of the van and collect his phone right now, wishes he could take a photo of the window.

He doesn’t.

They’re lying on their backs now, Taehyung’s head nestled in the crook of Jeongguk’s neck, a protective arm draped over, keeping Taehyung close. Jeongguk’s other hand absentmindedly draws patterns into the delicate skin of Taehyung’s lower tummy while they talk about anything and everything. It’s cute and pudgy—his tummy—and fair hair graces it, making it feel softer to the touch.

And now, Jeongguk doesn’t try to hold back his interest. “You know, I know all these little details about you,” he says, piping up. “Yet I don’t know the most basic things: your age, where you live, what you do. I don’t know—your zodiac sign.”

Taehyung giggles against warm skin. “Well, for starters: I’m nineteen, twenty on December 30th, which makes me a Capricorn,” he starts. “My moon is in Aries and—”

Jeongguk interrupts him, the hand on his stomach coming up to close over Taehyung’s mouth. “Slow down there, angel.”

He pulls his hand away and retreats back to the soft tummy he found comfort in. Taehyung pouts up at Jeongguk and the other raises a brow, trying—and failing—to remain serious before Taehyung bursts into a fit of giggles.

“Did I lose you at ‘my moon’?” Taehyung asks.

Jeongguk exhales on a laugh of his own. “You could say that,” he says, ready to move onto things he does understand. “And where do you live now? Far away from here I hope.”

“Never quite far enough,” Taehyung sighs, looking deflated. He picks himself back up, though, and Jeongguk wonders how he does it—how he wears his mask so well. “Chicago, actually. Moved there at seventeen for college. I love it, especially during the autumn months.”

Jeongguk’s never been to Chicago. He’s always dreamed of going, always dreamed of sipping on piping hot drinks in the middle of winter while he strolls through dog parks, but it’s a faraway dream, cast aside by his limited funds.

He’s seen enough photos, though. He’s seen the way oranges and reds seem to stand out more beautifully in Chicago than they do elsewhere. He imagines Taehyung fits right in. He too brings colours to life in a way no painting ever could.

“And what is it you do at college?”

“Art Education,” he replies, his fingers absentmindedly playing with Jeongguk’s earrings even though the angle isn’t the best for it. “It’s cliche, I know, but I’d love to be an art teacher.” He pauses for a moment. “I want purpose. I want to inspire.”

“Is that your dream? I mean, besides being a fireman, of course,” Jeongguk asks, voice teasing.

Taehyung gives a playful slap to his hip. “Hey! That was a genuine dream of mine for years,” he giggles. “I just gave it up when I realised I’d likely start more fires than I would end them.”

And he’s not wrong, although Jeongguk doubts he meant the kind of fires that start in the pit of your stomach or in the tips of your fingers. Still, Jeongguk can attest.

“But yeah,” he huffs. He sounds wistful. “I’ve always loved art, always loved being able to like, I don’t know, create something that I’ll never be able to mimic completely. You can type words, you can copy and paste them, but you can’t do that with art, with painting. Even if you tried, you could never guarantee the same brushstrokes or the exact colour you created on your palette.”

Jeongguk feels him shrug against him like it’s no big deal, as if his words are just that—words. They feel like more.

They sit in stillness for a few minutes, both of them staring up at the sunroof. The sky is thick with grey clouds, the stars hidden somewhere behind them. Jeongguk wonders if they’re the only thing being kept hidden from him right now.

Being more of a listener than a talker means Jeongguk picks up on things, always the first to clock someone or know what’s being said between the lines. He listens to what’s not said, pays close attention to the questions Taehyung leaves half-unanswered.

In the past when he’s asked questions, it’s always to appease others. He’ll let people run their mouths if it means there’s a smaller chance of him being the one in the firing line. He’s never curious, always too focused on where he’s heading next. He meets people and they let him in.

Taehyung makes him curious. There’s a drive to know more, to know everything. He wishes it could be put down to nosiness or the kind of fascination that wears thin after a while, but he finds himself wanting to know more for the sake of learning about him. He finds that he enjoys the back and forth they have, the way they share equal parts of themselves. He’s made small, petty lies to protect himself from saying too much, but he’s been honest about the things that are true to his character, his personality. He’s been honest when it’s mattered.

That’s why, when he asks about something that’s been playing on his mind all night, he just hopes that Taehyung lets him in and knows that he’s asking because he cares to understand.

“When did your mom die?”

Jeongguk counts the seconds. He wonders if he’s said too much, if the line has been crossed. He never was the best at utilising his words, and he wonders if this is one of those times. Taehyung doesn’t shift from where his head is still nestled, but the gulp is like a pin drop.

“What gave it away?” he asks, voice unwavering.

The van feels stuffy, the air still, tight. Jeongguk can hardly breathe. He wishes he didn’t care.

“The way you answered some questions and how you avoided others—I don’t know—I’m pretty familiar with what loss looks like.”

Jeongguk wonders if the hand he keeps on Taehyung’s stomach is now unwelcome, or possibly even unwanted. Physical intimacy doesn’t mean the door for other intimacies is left wide open for him to wander into. However, in moments like this one, where he’s left to ponder if serendipity is more than just a word that exists prettily, he forgets.

“Dolly—the van—it belonged to her… to my mom.” There’s a pause, and Jeongguk stills the hand that rests on Taehyung’s tummy, waiting for a signal. “I was seventeen and it was the day of my last exam,” he starts. Jeongguk keeps his hand still sans his index finger, it gently brushing against the skin of his tummy.

“It was unexpected. She was okay, and then suddenly she wasn’t okay. My dad phoned me in the middle of my last exam, and it was the only day I had forgotten to turn it on silent. I have a personalised ringtone for my dad and—well, the second I heard it blast through the exam hall, I knew something had to be wrong. So I got up and ran out.”

Jeongguk hears a crack in his voice. He releases his hand, turns onto his side and waits as Taehyung does the same. Fingers drag their way through hair, his other hand cupping his face. He gently thumbs at the tears that threaten to run down Taehyung’s cheeks. He waits.

“It was a stroke. My dad was meant to arrive home an hour earlier that day but the traffic was bad and—hah,” he chokes on a laugh, and Jeongguk can tell it tastes every bit sour. “I don’t blame him but I know he blames himself.”

Jeongguk sighs, planting a kiss on his forehead. The comforting words come easy, not stilted like they usually are when someone opens up to him. “Neither of you could have known,” he says, shhing him when the few tears turn into sobs. “I’m so sorry, love.”

He never really understood why people said sorry or why it felt instinctual to say. Taehyung doesn’t seem to mind either way.

They lie like that for a few minutes, with Jeongguk peppering kisses to his temple and Taehyung’s hands shaking against his chest. He gives him time, momentarily forgets about the world outside of the van. He doesn’t know how much time they have left, so he becomes more insistent with the brush of each finger through dampened hair.

Eventually, the sobs turn into hiccups and Jeongguk moves his hand to Taehyung’s back, rubbing comforting circles into it. He feels him shiver into the touch, his head now ducked down, nestled in his chest.

“Tell me about her,” Jeongguk whispers. “She must have been quite the woman if your dad was willing to build a home for her.”

He feels the soft vibrations of a giggle against his chest and he thinks that, maybe, he’s doing something right.

Taehyung lifts his head to meet his eyes. Jeongguk wonders if he can drink in the sparkle of his eyes the way he did with the sparkle of champagne earlier in the night. They glisten, and all he can think of is how eerily similar they look to the moon’s reflection in the water. He discards the thoughts, allows his mouth to turn up into a gentle, comforting smile, and listens.

“She was my best friend,” he says, this time with a lilt to his voice. “We used to get in this van during the summers and just drive. All of my fondest memories are attached to inside this van, to the summer nights.”

Jeongguk ignores the nagging part of him that wishes he could be one of those fond memories.

“I loved just talking to her about life, about love,” he sighs wistfully. “She never created any boundaries between us. We were mother and son, sure, but we were best friends who shared everything, too.”

A pang of jealousy. He ignores it.

He hums along. “She sounds amazing,” is all he says.

“She is—was. You know the song ‘Diamonds On the Soles of Her Shoes’ by Paul Simon?”

“Yeah, love that one,” he sighs, reminiscing. He hasn’t heard that song in years. He makes a mental note to add it to his playlist for the long drive later on. “Why?”

Taehyung’s eyes turn bright like he’s just remembering something else. “My dad would always sing that song to her. She’d walk into a room, completely light it up with her presence alone, and my dad would start singing out of nowhere. She’d get all shy and tell him to stop but she’d never really mean it.”

He tries to brush it off after that, shrugging his shoulders with a, “God, you don’t wanna know about this. I’m sorry I’m boring you.”

Jeongguk shushes him with a brush of his lips against Taehyung’s. “Not boring at all,” he whispers, lips ghosting over his ear. “And the van? You decided to keep it.”

Taehyung huffs out a laugh, eyes wandering around the small space. “After what happened, my dad didn’t know what to do with it. He couldn’t stand to look at it, so… I spent the whole summer before university renovating it. She always wanted to paint it pink and rip out all the seats so it could be a place where you could just lie and watch the stars through the sunroof.”

“Seems like you followed through with her wishes,” Jeongguk says, voice soft and lilted.

“It was a learning curve. I don’t think I could have gone off to college otherwise,” he admits. “I know it’s just a van to some but it helped me heal that summer. She didn’t get to see me graduate and that hurt more than—”

Jeongguk watches him choke on his words. He rubs a soothing hand over the small of his back, the hand then inching up to his waist, his thumb delicately tucking itself into the faint dip. He lets the sentence remain unfinished.

He doesn’t ask any more questions after that. He doesn’t feel sated after learning the truth, just feels a dull ache ring in his ear. He kisses the tip of his nose and pulls him closer to him, skin against skin, Taehyung’s hand resting on his shoulder. He hears ‘Diamonds On the Soles of Her Shoes’ play in his mind.

 

 

They’re kissing again and there’s familiarity in the way Taehyung gently nudges his mouth open with his tongue, wet and insistent. Jeongguk hasn’t kissed one person this many times, this much… ever. He hates how familiar he becomes, how a few hours is all takes for him to distinctly remember the taste.

Taehyung pulls away, his eyes falling to Jeongguk’s chest, his upper arm that’s exposed.

He almost recognises a pang of longing in his chest for Taehyung’s mouth to be back on his, but it’s gone before it has time to settle when he feels the wet drag of his tongue just behind his ear. He hisses, giving the boy’s waist a light squeeze.

Taehyung lets out a giggle, seemingly revelling in the knowledge that he’s already mapped out the weak spots like he’s been practicing for weeks. He surfaces again after creating a path of kisses from his ear to his shoulder.

There’s a shift in mood. He can sense a pair of eyes wandering, stilling every few seconds with gentle fingers following them. Fingers eventually trace over raised skin, previously a ghost floating above, too afraid to touch. There’s a shiver and then a gulp. Jeongguk considers making up an excuse before the other gets a chance to ask.

He bites his tongue. Maybe it’s about time someone was brave enough to ask.

“How did you get these?” Taehyung asks, gentle and noninvasive. His index finger smooths over the silvering on his forearm, and Jeongguk doesn’t pull away. He lets questioning eyes flicker up and down. He catches worry in them, a plea to understand.

“I had just turned eighteen when I left home,” he starts, forcing himself to think back to the day. “I didn’t have much growing up and my dad wasn’t around a whole lot until my mom invited him back into our home when I was, I don’t know—fifteen? He gambled a lot and he’d drink after every loss, and there were a lot of them.”

Taehyung draws mindlessly into his skin, his eyes going wide as if to say keep going, I’m listening, so he does.

“Every night he’d come home and whoever he saw when he first stumbled into the house, would be the one to get it. It was just me and my mom, you know? She wasn’t perfect but she was all I had growing up,” he says, sighing. The guilt still hangs above him every day. “I’d go to school with cuts and bruises; I was beginning to get really good at lying, so good that eventually, I’d start to believe in them myself.”

He feels redundant in his words, Taehyung offering some gentle encouragement. “You’re doing great, I promise you.”

He digs deeper into his memories then.

“We grew apart, my mom and I. She turned to other things to cope, and soon enough she was hardly ever home and I was always the one who would get the beating.” There’s a bitter taste in his mouth. “Eventually it got so bad that I stopped going to school, and that’s when the depression really started to worsen.”

He can remember buying a lock for his bedroom door one day; can vividly recall his dad slamming at the door with balled up fists until it fell to the floor with a thud. He stayed tucked in on himself in the dark corner of his room, his forehead resting on his knees while he tried to make himself as tiny as possible. He never was small enough to go unnoticed, always found in the end.

“I didn’t get to graduate with all my school friends. I’d go on Facebook and Twitter and see them posting pictures of their acceptance letters,” he says, tone resentful. “One night, my dad came home and was too drunk to make it to bed, like always. He won that night, at the casino. I took all the money from his wallet. It was a few grand, enough to really thicken out his wallet. I just took it all and packed a bag.”

“And where did you go? What about your mom?” Taehyung asks, his curiosity laced with what Jeongguk thinks is worry.

“I went to the bus station and chose somewhere I knew was far away. I sat at the very back of the bus and cried until morning time when the bus driver told me I had to get off,” he laughs bitterly. “I went on Craigslist after that and bought a shitty car from a guy who ended up giving it to me for free. I think he felt sorry for me. I know I did.”

There’s a pause. The other question still lingers in Taehyung’s eyes.

“I didn’t see her again after that. She called out of the blue a little over a year ago. I never changed my number in all that time, and it took her that long to call but—” he trails off, shaking his head. “Anyway, she called one night and told me my dad had died. I didn’t ask why and she didn’t tell me. She said she loved me and I hung up after that.”

He feels the prickle of tears and goes to wipe them away, his hand being pushed aside by Taehyung’s own. He holds his breath while Taehyung wipes away at the tears for him, the pads of his thumbs swiping at any leftovers.

Taehyung cups his face with both hands; he softens in the eyes, and Jeongguk wonders if he could shrink himself down in size, curl up and sleep in the hollows of his eyes just for a little while.

“And where have you been staying since?” Taehyung asks.

“Nowhere—everywhere. I just pack my bags and go. I don't really decide until I'm there,” he shrugs.

Taehyung hums, understanding, or at least trying to. “Do you miss her?”

“I regret leaving her behind,” is all he says.

Taehyung doesn't question him any further on the subject of her. He leaves it to rest and Jeongguk’s grateful.

“Do you plan on staying here?”

He scoffs, and Taehyung rolls his eyes on a ‘dumb question, I know.’

There’s something about telling Taehyung that he leaves tomorrow—today that scares him. The words get lodged in his throat, and he lets Taehyung tangle his piano-like fingers in his own.

“I leave today, actually. I’m heading East, maybe. I haven't fully decided yet.”

He hears a faint ‘oh.’

“Yeah, this is my last night.”

“Spending it in good company, huh?” Taehyung jokes, but there's a tinge of something, and Jeongguk’s unwillingness to decipher it makes his stomach turn.

It's probably nothing anyway.

Taehyung squeezes his hand, gaining the attention of Jeongguk’s eyes on him, and he receives a tight-lipped smile from the younger boy. His eyes always look full of promise. He looks down, catalogues a light dusting of freckles that lay scattered on Taehyung’s sternum. He blinks away the image.

“You could say that, yeah.” His voice sounds softer than he had planned for, the admission sounding pathetic to his ears.

Taehyung just smiles, eyes creasing, nose scrunching up childishly. He reaches out to boop the end of his nose, and when he does, Taehyung’s eyes go soft around the edges. Jeongguk pulls his hand back, scorned.

If Taehyung notices the way he recoils to safety, he doesn't let it show.

 

 

He doesn't remember falling asleep, doesn't remember Taehyung turning at any point, his back facing Jeongguk, but that's where he finds himself right now. An arm is carelessly thrown over Taehyung's body, and he can't force himself to remove it. His mouth feels dry, his eyes sensitive to the light that pours in.

The light.

Instant regret floods him. He regrets falling asleep, and in all honesty, he doesn't know how it happened. They spoke in hushed tones after they managed to steer away from the heavier stuff. He can remember teasing Taehyung about being younger, and he recalls the other boy’s wish to become a saxophonist. They bonded over avante gard jazz—much to Jeongguk’s surprise—and came to the agreement that John Coltrane was and still is the greatest saxophonist of all time. Taehyung seemed to ignite at the conversation, he remembers; his eyes bright, voice turning up in interest.

At some point, they argued over 80s films after Taehyung admitted he cried the most while watching E.T. Jeongguk remembers chiming in to say, “But Stand by Me is the best movie of all-time,” to which Taehyung ducked his head, confessing that he had never even seen the movie, let alone cried while watching it.

He feels his heart clench like a fist when he remembers how he insisted they watch it together sometime.

Jeongguk learned that Taehyung found his love for art through watching his mom paint on the porch during the mornings. He remembers the boy smiling fondly, a sadness in his eyes that was soon replaced by something else when Jeongguk told him his biggest fear.

“And what's that?” Taehyung had asked.

“Birds,” he had replied, embarrassed. He wasn't lying that time either.

If this was a normal hook up—can it even be classified as a hook up?—he’d be tiptoeing around, searching for his clothes and phone right now; he’d be out the door in minutes, making sure to not startle anyone awake.

As it goes, this is completely out of the ordinary, and when he shifts to get more comfortable, the body lying next to him stirs. A warm hand worms its way up to the hand Jeongguk forgot to remove from Taehyung’s tummy, fingers entangling for a moment before he feels him turning around to face him.

Their eyes meet, lock in, and the light shines in just enough for Jeongguk to see flecks of gold. He wonders if anyone ever takes the time to notice. For the first time, he’s met with just how expansive his eyes are, and how they seem to say too much and at the same time not enough. They bore right through him, not analysing or judging; they’re contradicting, both all-knowingly and all-questioning. His eyebrows screw together, but he thinks the frown he wears is a natural one, the kind that keeps people intimidated even though it’s all just exterior.

“Morning,” he hears. Taehyung’s voice is gravelly, smoky. Jeongguk feels it vibrate through him.

“What time is it?” is all he asks, voice curt.

He looks away when Taehyung's face falters. When he comes back into focus, he feels the other boy shift, their bodies no longer threatening to meld. He follows Taehyung with his eyes, the younger boy now bent over the pink leather while he looks for something in the front. Jeongguk tries to look anywhere but his ass. He fails.

Taehyung drops a pile of clothing onto the seat next to him and rakes through his jeans until he finds what he’s looking for. “Quarter past nine,” he reads from his phone.

Jeongguk sits up, the layers of blankets pooling at his middle. He stretches, yawns; his arms reaching over his head, toned body on full display. He hopes Taehyung watches.

“I, uh, I better get going then,” he says hesitantly. “I still have some stuff I need to do before I leave.”

The atmosphere feels stilted. He chooses to ignore it.

“Yeah, of course,” Taehyung nods, like this is all just part of the cycle. “I’ve got to pack, anyway. Heading back to Chicago in a couple of days.”

Jeongguk nods, head lowered. He plays with the loose threads of a blanket. Another anxious habit. He channels most of his anxieties into his hands, always been the type to hide it well elsewhere. The shaking, though—he still has trouble controlling the way his hands shake, his legs, too.

Taehyung throws his clothes over, the still-damp pile glaring at him knowingly. They change in silence, both of them sneaking glances at each other when they’re not looking. In those few moments where his eyes only have time to scan over once, maybe twice; he catalogues every freckle, every bit of fat that spills over the side of constricting material.

Jeongguk checks his phone. There’s a text from his landlord telling him he has until 7 o’clock. He tucks it into his back pocket, leaving it as an afterthought. He had no intention of staying any later than five, anyway. He stands up as best he can—still crouched, body awkwardly hunched—and he feels out of place; it’s sudden, too. He knows there’s been a shift in atmosphere, and he knows it’s his fault; he’s anything but lacking self-awareness, but he needs out.

He knows if he gets comfortable again, lets his skin adjust to the bite in the air and the way his body melts so easily into the outline of the other body, he won’t want to leave. He absolutely needs to leave.

“Well,” he starts, and usually it’s Taehyung who speaks the silence away but there’s a first time for everything, even if it also means the last time, too. “I better… go. It was really nice to meet you.”

The words sound wrong coming out of his mouth, disjointed. They don’t flow easily like they did before all of this. Taehyung opens the van doors, stepping outside and giving a tight lipped smile. Jeongguk echoes it, his eyes drifting anywhere so he doesn’t have to make eye contact.

The house seems to be in tact, still, much to his surprise. There are a few red cups and empty cans of beer lying around, remnants of the night before. Otherwise, it looks mostly how he would expect it to look in the daytime.

Taehyung must study the deep frown between his brows because soon enough he’s saying, “Yoongi, his boyfriend Namjoon, and my other friend Jimin would have kicked everyone out and cleaned up.”

“Huh,” he says. “Good friends you’ve got.”

Taehyung hums in agreement, his hands clasped together in front of him. He looks out of place, and Jeongguk hates that he makes him feel like this without trying.

He needs to leave.

“So, I better…,” he signals towards the pathway that winds up to where sandy beaches end. “...go. My shit won’t pack itself after all.” He takes a few steps backwards, his footing all wrong. He gives an awkward wave of the hand, and everything feels so out of place.

Taehyung bites his bottom lip, his eyes wandering. “Good luck!” he shouts.

Jeongguk takes him in one last time, says farewell to his eyes, to the hair that sticks up in five different directions. He lingers on the sliver of collarbone that juts out, the sun accentuating it, golden and glittering. He turns around before he has time to blueprint the soft swoop of it. And then—and then he’s walking away.

He only looks back once he reaches the top of the path. His eyes search with no luck. He keeps walking, only ever looking forward.

The dregs of sleep follow him back to the apartment, his eyes heavy and weighing him down. He doesn’t know the way, couldn’t tell you what street he’s on or why every storefront he comes across looks sadder than the last. His feet follow a crack in the pavement until he reaches an oil slick at the crossing. The gas station is opposite, and from here, he knows if he turns right, he’ll pass by the pub from earlier on. He takes the left instead, the road back a little longer.

 

 

It’s nearing quarter to five by the time he has everything packed and at the door, ready to be transferred to the car. He gives himself just enough time for a smoke. He’s not meant to smoke inside; he’s certain his landlord would have his head, but he’ll no longer be his landlord once he gets in his car and drives off, so he says fuck it and lights a cigarette. A few minutes go by and he lights another. He doesn’t bother to open a window.

It’s when he’s shutting the trunk of the car that he sees him coming into view. He’s squinting, the sun directly in his eyes on its descent, and he can just about make him out. At first, he’s not even sure it’s him, but then he spots his outline and he couldn’t be more sure.

He comes more into view, the boy shielding the sun with his body, and Jeongguk wishes he was still visually impaired in some way. He doesn’t get a chance to look anywhere else, his eyes focusing in on the boy.

“You forgot your jacket,” he says, and of course.

He hadn’t even noticed the jacket tucked under one of Taehyung’s arms. “Oh, yeah, thanks,” he says, giving a small nod. He takes it from the other boy and throws it to the back seat through the rolled down window. “Don’t know how I managed to forget that.”

Taehyung hums. “Well, we don’t want you getting cold, now do we?” The familiar teasing is back in his tone, and Jeongguk swallows down a lump.

He lets his eyes drag up his long body. He looks different just as twilight comes around. His skin emits a glow; it soaks up all the sun and leaves none for the rest, greedy and gorgeous. Jeongguk thinks he could bathe in his warm glow. He tucks the thought away.

Yesterday, the 22nd of September. Yesterday, the last day of summer; but Taehyung carries it around with him all year-round, with wooly hats and red, red noses. It’s always there; he wears it on his skin and in the conversations he has with people.

“How did you know where to find me?” He can’t say he’s not curious.

Taehyung ducks his head, a shy laugh escaping him. “I asked around. People talk… especially those with the name Hoseok.”

“Ah,” he says, shaking his head. Fucking Hoseok. He can’t help but laugh. A small town has its perks, it seems. Even this one. “I should’ve guessed.”

“I hope you don’t mind, but…,” he sighs, fixing the front of his hair with nimble fingers. A nervous habit. He knows them when he sees them. “I thought we left things a little awkwardly and I don’t really know why? I thought—I don’t know. I thought we hit it off pretty well, and I’m almost certain I didn’t drink enough to make it all up in my head.”

He knows the implications behind his words. I thought we hit it off pretty well. Maybe too well, he thinks.

“No, yeah. I just didn’t know how to act, I guess?” he replies, and it’s the truth. He has no fucking idea how to act. This isn’t how things are meant to happen in Jeongguk’s world. “I had a really nice time, though.”

It’s a confession and a scary one at that. He can’t remember the last time he had anything more than an okay time while traipsing through town after town.

Taehyung’s response is airy. “An unforgettable time.”

He moves closer and Jeongguk reluctantly stays put. He thinks back to earlier in the morning when Taehyung said his fondest memories were ones he made in the summer. Unforgettable.

“W-was pretty unforgettable, yeah,” he stutters, voice choked.

Jeongguk doesn’t remember taking a step forward but he can feel the younger boy’s breath fanning against his cheek, can see all the tiny imperfections he threw into cardboard boxes with antiques and oddities he picked up on his travels. The only difference now is he’s collecting jigsaw pieces of person that over time will become faint in memory, only half-true to the real thing. He wants to curse the memory for losing perfect accuracy over time.

He welcomes Taehyung’s mouth back onto his. His arm winds around his waist, pulling him in, and there’s so much fucking material between them. It’s like the first time they kissed. He speaks of it like it was 17 years ago and not 17 hours ago.

The kiss holds more purpose than all the previous ones. He can’t pinpoint what it is, but there’s no complacency or easiness to it; he feels his tongue ask for permission, and it’s soft but insistent, asking for so much more than Jeongguk can give. He lets him in, and he feels Taehyung sigh into his mouth.

Taehyung’s hand is firm against his neck, and he feels him thumb gently at the ear his double helix adorns. He wants to melt into the kiss, have his body rearranged and reconfigured with each touch.

They pull apart when they hear the screeching of tires. Taehyung doesn’t give him time to catch up with what just happened.

“Maybe we could exchange numbers,” he says, but the tilt to his voice makes it sound more like a question. “And, you know, if you’re ever in my city, I could show you the best place to get churros.”

Jeongguk laughs, biting back a grin. “Yeah, okay. I do happen to love churros, and this place is greatly lacking in that respect.”

They exchange numbers, and it takes Jeongguk a few attempts to type the digits correctly, hands shaking. He’s always let other people thumb their numbers into his phone—he never texts, and phone calls are even worse—but he’s never been the one giving his number until now.

After the exchange of numbers comes the exchange of kisses… again. He tastes the tang of the ocean now, and he wonders if Taehyung spent his afternoon curled up at the edge of the sand with a sketchbook or maybe even a reading book. He never did ask what kind of books he’s into reading.

He pulls away to ask, “What was the last book you read?”

Taehyung stands there with parted lips, frown evident, but soon his mouth stretches into a smile. “I’ve never known someone to be so eager to ask a question,” he says, teasing, “...but, ‘Autobiography of Red’ by Anne Carson. Why?”

Jeongguk makes a mental note of it. “Just curious,” he says, tone sounding menacing. “So—”

“So, you need to get going now, don’t you?” Taehyung says, interrupting. Jeongguk nods. He watches him push his hands into his pockets and start walking backwards, his long legs doubling the distance between them. “I hope our paths cross again, Jeongguk.”

“As do I,” he says, echoing his words. He aches to bridge the distance, maybe bring him closer again; but instead, he watches with eyes that don’t wander. He speaks, again, when he’s too far away to hear. It’s a whisper more than anything; his voice too far, his features too blurred out for Taehyung to read. “I wish we had met at a different time in my life.”

And then he’s gone, just like that. He went as easy as he came, like the waves that come and go, kissing the horizon.  

Jeongguk watches his figure get smaller and smaller until eventually he’s just staring into nothing. And then, he’s in his car with a sixteen hour drive ahead of him and only himself for company.

Usually, he leaves each town or city with a small collection of oddities or vintage shop finds. Sometimes, it’s a book with scribblings inside yellowed pages; sometimes, an old, brass cigarette case with scalloped edges and worn away detailings of flowers. He’s picked up a few keepsakes along the way, always something small that he can safely store in the trunk of his car for when it’s time to move on.

This time, he leaves with something that can’t be thrown into one of the boxes he reseals with tape that lost its stick about three towns previous to this one. He leaves with the one thing that cannot be contained in a box or in a car that’s seen better days.

What he leaves with is something far bigger, something that dares to dance on repeat at the very forefront of his mind. A memory he can’t tuck away with all the other memories that eventually fade to make room for new ones. A figure, a person—a collection of ideas, dreams, thoughts, badly told jokes and stories, and the placement of moles and freckles etched into skin like lost constellations. He leaves with so much more than something he could pick up for a few crumpled up dollars and a ‘have a nice day!’.

He attaches his phone to the aux cord and presses play on the new playlist he curated earlier that day. Music pours into the speakers and he chases the sunset.

She was physically forgotten
Then she slipped into my pocket
With my car keys

Diamonds on the soles of her shoes

 

three months later

 

He’s not sure how his drive brought him to Missouri of all places, but it’s nearing the end of autumn now, and the leaves are starting to frost over in time for winter.

The stay has been underwhelming. He took up a job at a café tucked away at the very back of an old bookstore. It’s his last day and the ticking of the clock seems to be the only thing he hears all day, the sound insistent in its mocking of him.

Closing time isn’t for another few minutes, and it’s slow. It’s always slow. People come for the books, and occasionally, they’ll grab a cup of coffee to keep their hands warm. At least, that’s his theory after tasting the bitter stuff. He knows people can’t be buying it because they actually like it. On occasion, he’s left at five on the dot armed with a coffee cup just to combat the chill that follows him back to his apartment.

“So, where’s your next adventure taking you?” a voice asks, and Jeongguk turns to meet his co-worker. His name is Seokjin and, really, Jeongguk can’t fault him… much. They get along just fine, and on the odd evening where Jeongguk doesn’t feel like rushing back to his place, they head to the small bar opposite where they work for a drink or two.

He asks a lot of questions and Jeongguk does his best to answer without really answering. He nurses a gin on those nights and keeps the glass close to his mouth when he fears certain questions. Overall, though, he’s one of the few people he’s met along the way that he can do more than just tolerate, and that’s enough for him.

“I don’t know,” he says, lying. “Just… wherever, really. However far my gas tank can stretch.”

He sits on one of the stools behind the counter and starts lining up coffee beans. Anything to keep his hands busy, keep his anxieties at bay. He’s excited to get out of this place, but the prickling anxiety that sits at his fingertips keeps him questioning what the fuck he’s doing.

There’s a loud thud followed by an oops and Jeongguk turns to find the contents of his bag on the floor. Seokjin’s picking things up as he goes, an apologetic smile on his face, and that’s when he picks up the book. Jeongguk’s first instinct is to reach out and grab it, take it from his hands because it’s his, but he shakes the instinct away. It’s just a fucking book he picked up on his first day at work here.

“Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson,” Seokjin reads, turning to the back to read. “A novel in verse?” he asks, voice turning up. Jeongguk isn’t sure what he’s asking.

“Yes,” is all he replies.

“I didn’t take you for the type,” Seokjin says, putting the book back where it belongs.

Jeongguk takes it from him, keeping it close. They should be calling it a day now, anyway. He only has to walk out to his car and go. He packed everything into the trunk last night, and he’s already prepared food so that he’s making no stops in dodgy 24-hour convenience stores. It’s only about a five-hour drive away, probably the shortest one since he started doing this.

“I guess people surprise you,” he shrugs, already bored of the conversation.

They’re able to leave not long after that, all the surfaces clean and everything stocked for the next day. They don’t have to worry about staying an extra half an hour to lock up since that’s down to the bookstore employees.

Jeongguk says his farewells to Seokjin, and half-lies when he promises to keep in touch. He leaves Missouri with a small bag of coffee beans and a used copy of a book he kept at his bedside table for three months. He sends a text three hours into his drive while he’s waiting in line at a gas station to use the toilet.

to 904-555-0159:
Thanks for the address and all your help. I’ll let you know how it goes.

 

 

He wakes up in his car, in the car park of the new apartment he’ll be moving into. The owner of the place promises to drop off the keys shortly, and until then, he racks his brain.

He’s not sure how any of this came about, or how he got so lucky. He was at the Internet café one day, just browsing on his laptop when it popped up. It was an ad for a job that seemed so out of his reach, one that played into that dream of his. A company was looking for a talent booker, someone who would book musical acts for bars, events, and venues. It wasn’t the dream itself, but the job description seemed promising, and any way to get his foot in the door was a good one.

The thought of being around music, and being able to scout talent, excited him. He loved discovering a new sound or a haunting voice with equally as haunting lyrics behind it. So, he applied for it, and much to his surprise, the job was his after a Skype interview. And that’s when they asked where he was situated, if he was flexible, and where he would need to relocate to.

He can remember the way his heart squeezed itself tightly in his chest when he heard the voice on the other end say Chicago.

 

 

Once he’s moved in and the few boxes are unpacked, he doesn’t waste any time. It’s nearing 1 o’clock by the time he’s back in his car and driving the few blocks it takes to get there. His heart sits firmly in his throat, and he finds it hard to get a firm grip on the steering wheel, his hands clammy and shaking.

He tries not to think about it, about him.

The maps app on his phone says he’s one left turn away from his destination and that’s when the dam breaks and the thoughts come flooding in. He wonders if he’s changed much, if he’s the type to put on weight during the colder months to save on the heating bill. He wonders if his hair’s grown any longer or if he’s read any interesting books since the first and last time he saw him.

He parks his car in front of the building he recognises from the pictures on Google. He can’t remember ever being this anxious about anything before, and his hands tighten around the steering wheel when he tries to steady his breathing.

Once out of the car, he’s walking up to a bright red door. There’s a panel of buttons and he knows to press number 7. He presses it, his hands shaking, and he waits. There’s a sharp noise and the click of a lock. No voice greets him or asks any questions; he’s simply let in and left to walk up the 7 flights of stairs. There’s the option of an elevator, but he thinks delaying the inevitable is likely his best option.

It would take a normal person a couple of minutes to climb the stairs, but for Jeongguk, it takes fifteen minutes. He’s anything but unfit, but the panic attack that threatens to creep up on him is enough to keep his ascent slow.

He reaches the seventh floor and is met with a small woman behind a desk. “Hi, I’m looking for a Mr. Kim Taehyung?” His words come out strangled and he hopes she doesn’t care enough to notice.

“Oh! Are you here to pick up your child from class?” she asks, tone cheerful. “You’re a few minutes late.”

“I’m late?” he asks, confused. “I haven’t come to pick anyone up, no. I’m just looking to talk to Mr. Kim for… personal reasons.”

She gives him a pointed look. “Ah, well, his art class is the third door to your right. He should be packing up by now, I’d think.”

Jeongguk offers her a small thank you before taking a right turn. He walks down the corridor with only his anxieties and a tattered book in his hand. He’s not sure how to do this. He now regrets having come unprepared with no idea of what to say. To say he did this purely on impulse is an understatement.

He reaches the third door and gives himself a couple of minutes. He rubs the palms of his hands down his black jeans, trying to get rid of any sign that he’s anxious. He knocks. Once, twice, three times.

“Come in!”

He opens the door and takes one step in, and that’s when everything comes swimming into view. He’s met with blotches of paint covering a plain white shirt that swoops over his collarbone, part of his shoulder also exposed. His hair is red now, and it sits prettily just above his eyes. The contrast of the red against everything else is stark but in no way unsightly. He looks striking.

Their eyes meet and the other boy drops a paintbrush to the floor. He comes closer, his steps small and cautious. His eyes look quizzing; they look him up and down, taking him all in. Jeongguk fights the urge to take a step back.

“Hi, Taehyung,” is about all he can muster up.

He keeps walking towards him in small steps. “Hi, yourself.”

His voice sounds just as syrupy as he remembers.

Jeongguk doesn’t say anything else, can’t say anything else. He just watches and waits, and eventually, Taehyung comes to a stop. There’s a safe distance between them, but Jeongguk knows he could reach out and touch if he wanted to. He doesn’t, though.

“So, you finally decided to pass through Chicago?” Taehyung says, and his tone sounds playful.

He’s taken aback by the tone he’s met with. He’s not sure why, but he wasn’t expecting the younger boy to be so… approachable this time around. After he left town, he typed out countless messages to him, each one given the backspace.

“Something like that,” he replies, shrugging.

“How did you find me?” Taehyung asks, quirking a brow.

Jeongguk has one person to thank for that. “Hoseok likes to talk.”

That’s when he hears him laugh for the first time in three months, and the memory of it is nothing like the real thing. His laugh echoes in the room that’s mostly empty minus a few easels and cabinets.

“He sure does,” he says, grinning. His eyes land on the book Jeongguk’s holding, and he looks back up to him with curious eyes. “What’s that you’ve got?”

He holds the book up and watches the way Taehyung’s eyes register the words. “Just something I’ve been reading recently.”

Taehyung plays along, apparently understanding. He takes one step closer. “Care to read me a line?”

Jeongguk nods, words lodged in his throat. Read a line. That, he can do. He clears his throat and pretends to read from the page itself like he doesn’t already know it word for word.

“A man moves through time. It means nothing except that, like a harpoon, once thrown he will arrive,” he quotes, looking up to meet Taehyung’s eyes.

“And has he arrived?” he asks, his tone hopeful.

Jeongguk knows what he’s asking, and for once, he thinks he has the answer, and there’s the promise of something definitive.

“He has, yes,” he replies, his words almost a whisper.

Another step closer, and this time it’s Jeongguk closing the gap. They’re close enough for Taehyung to gently take the book from his hand and place it on the table standing next to them. The same hand then finds Jeongguk’s, their fingers interlacing at their sides.

“Then prove it.”

Jeongguk wastes no time, his anxiety from before turning into adrenaline. His free hand still shakes on its way up, but he cups Taehyung’s face so delicately like he’s holding something that could break so easily.

Their lips brush in soft whispers, and Taehyung sighs into his mouth; the sound a mix of relief and contentment. There’s no urgency to it, their lips mostly retracing previous steps, and it feels like coming back into something that holds more promise this time. Each tug on Jeongguk’s lip tells him that they have time.

They break the kiss and Taehyung takes the opportunity to bring their bodies flush together, his arms wrapping around shoulders. Jeongguk instinctively winds his arms around Taehyung’s waist, holding on to him, on to the hope of all of this just being the start of something.

He no longer smells the saltiness of the sea in the crook of his neck, but there’s a hint of something much more welcoming and promising now. It’s a smell he doesn’t fear he’ll lose by the time the sun sets, and he presses a light kiss to his neck.

They pull apart when Jeongguk starts to miss piecing the puzzles of his face back together. Everything makes sense again when he sees the gentle sweep of Taehyung’s eyelashes as the boy blinks away a tear.

“I mean, it took you three months to finally realise but I’m glad you’re here now,” Taehyung says, giggling as Jeongguk thumbs away any tears.

“How about we get those churros you promised me, hm?” Jeongguk says, teasing.

“As long as you’re paying,” he replies, no joking behind his words.

And Jeongguk thinks that’s fair. He has three months of churros to make up for, and then the rest after that.