The seconds click by on the clock hanging on the colorful back wall of the classroom. He put up all the drawings the kids had been making this week during Art, and the result is a mosaic of stick figures and trees and suns, attempts at recreating scenes from happy home lives. Youngjae watches the red second hand make another revolution, tapping his feet under the table.
It's hard to be taken seriously, Youngjae knows, when all he can offer his students' parents for seating is a chair made for toddlers and a table that comes up to their knees, but still, Youngjae expects at least the respect that other teachers get and for his parents to show up on time.
And this one - Youngjae glances at the name on file - hadn't made it to the last round of parent-teacher conferences, either.
In fact, he's only been able to get this guy on the phone once, when he called to tell him that Junhong, the quiet five-year-old boy in his class, had gotten a small cut on the playground but wasn't crying. "He's not crying?" the guy had said over the phone. There was loud conversation in the background. "Okay, thanks for calling."
And then he'd hung up.
Youngjae had been concerned, but Junhong had been fine, carrying on through the day without a thought about the cut on his hand, even though it made gripping a pencil more difficult.
But still, the call had left an impression on him, and not a particularly good one.
Youngjae shifts in his seat, impatient. This guy even requested to be the last available time slot, and Youngjae had moved around some other parents' times to accommodate.
He stares up at the clock, then outside his windows. The sky is purpling, the street lights beginning to turn on. He sighs.
Footfalls and the sound of paper rustling in the hallway. Youngjae turns to glance at his open door, and a young man bursts into the frame, bringing himself to a sudden halt and doubling over, his hands on his knees as he catches his breath.
Junhong waves from his place on the other's back, his skinny arms around his neck. "Hi, Mr. Yoo," he greets politely.
He slides down from his perch and lands lightly on his own feet, and the other guy straightens.
He's wearing a simple black t-shirt and neutral cardigan that hugs his waist, dark jeans, and a black beanie over his hair. He strides forward as Youngjae stands, a huge smile on his face that seems at once totally sincere and totally fake.
"Hi. Mr. Yoo? I'm Daehyun. Sorry I'm late. Just - got caught up. Um. Should we sit?" They shake hands. He bites his plump bottom lip.
He's younger than Youngjae is used to. Much younger. His large, dark eyes only add to his youth, even though there are shadows under them.
"Yes. Let's sit."
The chairs for the students tend to be uncomfortable for adults. Daehyun gives no indication of discomfort.
"Sorry," Youngjae blurts, a hesitant smile on his face, "I was expecting a parent?"
Junhong climbs into Daehyun's lap, his small body crowding Daehyun's in the chair. Daehyun simply wraps his arms around the kid and rests his chin on top of Junhong's head. "Ah," he starts, eyes on the table. "Our Dad couldn’t make it. Last minute emergency. Sorry to crush your expectations. It's just me."
Youngjae feels his eyebrows rising.
Daehyun starts chewing on his bottom lip again, his arms around Junhong tightening, while Junhong narrows his eyes and pouts.
"I see," Youngjae says, tilting his head and smiling politely. He keeps his voice light. "Junhong's a great kid," he adds.
And Daehyun sits up a little straighter immediately, lips lifting at the corners. "He is, isn't he?"
Junhong squirms in his lap, but only because he's being bashful. He turns and hides his face in Daehyun's chest
Youngjae pats the manila folder in front of him. It’s labelled Choi, Junhong, and filled with various colors and stocks of paper. “I’ll usually just take parents through their child’s file and we can talk about what’s going well and what might be some areas of concern we have or share. Then maybe you can share the take-aways with your father? Sound good?”
Daehyun nods. “Do the kids usually, like, sit here and listen to this?”
“Honestly? Parents don’t usually bring them back to school. It’s a little late in the day. Um. But Junhong can go play on the rug, if he wants to. He has his own notebook, right, Junhong?”
“Oh,” Daehyun breathes, wilting. “Sorry, I didn’t realize. I - had to bring him with me,” he says.
“It’s fine.” Youngjae smiles to reassure, and it seems to work. Daehyun loosens his arms around Junhong and Junhong slides from his lap and onto the floor. “It’s not a problem, at all.”
Youngjae’s classroom is brightly lit during the day, with large windows along one wall and student work posted up on every other. There is a huge area rug that takes up half the room, with rows of circles in different colors large enough for a child to sit in, and in the back are tables for groups of four students. Every student’s own workbooks and pencils are placed in a cloth pocket that doubles as a cover for the backs of their small chairs. Low shelves filled with books ordered by ascending reading level line two walls, and art supplies a third. Near the front, there is another table, where he and Daehyun are sitting now, usually reserved for small-group work with a teacher.
Daehyun watches Junhong go to a table in the back and reach into the cloth pocket over his chair, and pull out a thin book. He then walks over to one of the art baskets along the third wall, flashing a grin at the adults in the room as he does so, and pulls it from its place on the shelf. Then he brings the basket and the book to the rug, and starts coloring.
“He listens really well,” Youngjae says, snapping Daehyun’s attention back to him. “Here, let’s go through some of his work.”
They flip through Junhong’s file. He’s a bright kid, a little ahead of the curve in recognizing his letters, but he has some trouble counting without the use of objects like fingers and toes. This is not anything to be worried about, Youngjae assures Daehyun, when Daehyun glances at Junhong with a panicked expression.
Socially, he seems shy. “He has a tendency to play by himself,” Youngjae tells Daehyun. “Which, again, is fine. But then he also has moments where - I don’t know how else to put this - he really wants your attention. Other kids, other teachers, me. And sometimes he doesn’t get the attention in the best way.”
“What do you mean?” Daehyun frowns. He turns to look at Junhong again. “What does that mean?”
“It’s just a flag. Maybe we can find a way to talk about it with him together. Sometimes he’ll pull some other kid’s clothes, or he’ll tap his marker against his desk when we’re supposed to be listening and quiet. If I approach him, he stops right away.”
“But you shouldn’t have to approach him,” Daehyun mumbles, sighing, still watching Junhong on the rug. “Okay. I’ll talk to him about that.”
“You don’t have to do it alone,” Youngjae says.
“It’s fine,” Daehyun says, turning back to him. He has his lip pulled between his teeth again, his smile small. “He’s probably - it’s probably my fault, anyway. I mean, maybe I should pay more attention to him.”
He freezes suddenly, eyes going wide, and tries to backpedal. “That’s not what I meant. I pay attention to him. A lot. I was just thinking out loud.”
Youngjae nods. “I’m sure you do.”
Daehyun scowls. His face changes so easily.
“Hey, I do. It’s just - I’m his older brother and like, it’s usually just us and our dad is never around. He’s got. Business. So I take care of him a lot.”
That gives Youngjae pause. He wants to choose his words carefully. “You know, the school has a really great social work team. A lot of families use them for a little extra support. I could…?”
“No, thank you,” Daehyun says, clipped. His eyes darken, the corners of his lips tight and pointing downwards.
“Okay,” Youngjae says peaceably. “It was just a thought.”
Youngjae swallows. They resume going through Junhong’s file, but there isn’t much material left. When they reach the end, Daehyun stands and shakes his hand.
Now, Youngjae is certain that the smile on his face is totally fake and not at all sincere.
“It was nice meeting you,” Daehyun says.
“You, too,” Youngjae says.
Junhong cleans up by himself, little feet pattering on the rug, and then they leave.
Youngjae follows them to his door. In the hallway, he watches Junhong take hold of Daehyun’s hand and tug. Without a word, Daehyun stoops low and Junhong climbs onto his back, laughing.
“Hyung is the best!” the kindergarten student yells, his bright voice ringing out within the school walls.
The next time Youngjae sees Daehyun, it’s on stage at the elementary school’s Chuseok Celebration during the school day. The auditorium is crowded with families, and even when the focus is on the program there is murmuring in the audience, as the children file up onto stage by class, sing or perform, and file out again. Enthusiastic applause.
After the round of short performances, teachers pull chairs onto the stage, in a long row, and guide parents up to the seats.
Their children are supposed to line up before them, facing their parents, and perform the traditional bow that they have been practicing in Jongup’s gym class for the past week, to give thanks and to pay their respects.
They go from the oldest class to the youngest class. There’s another kindergarten class that lines up before Youngjae’s, and by then the auditorium is clearing out, as most families want to get an early start on packing for their holiday travels.
Then Youngjae’s class is up. He walks to the stage and stands before the microphone to one side, and the parents sit first, their students waiting before them, but one chair is empty.Youngjae chews on his lips, wanting to stall. Junhong had said Daehyun would be coming, and he doesn’t want to make the kid bow to an empty seat.
He’s about to open his mouth to give the command, when the auditorium doors crash open and Daehyun comes rushing in, down the aisle. A few heads turn, and some of the parents on stage grumble, but Daehyun still strides forward. He has a messenger bag flapping against his hip and a coat and jeans on, while many of the adults on stage are dressed like they are about to sit for a formal photograph.
He takes the stairs up to the stage two at a time, and crashes into his seat, breathing hard.*
Youngjae can’t help the feeling of relief that washes over him, and gives the command.
The children bow.
Youngjae watches Daehyun, his attention rapt on his brother, how his eyes form crescents when he smiles. When Junhong is finished, the way they fall into each other so perfectly seems almost cruel.
After the celebration, families are welcome to mingle in the lobby of the school, where there are a few tables of refreshments and some bright decorations.
Youngjae is caught by some of his students’ parents there, answering questions about their child’s progress and rankings. He answers them with half-truths, because he knows what the parents want to hear, knows they want to be able to brag about their children to the family members they visit over the break.
He sees Daehyun by the door, kneeling before Junhong and swaddling him up in a coat and scarf, and then he clears his throat and says to the mother before him, “Excuse me. Yoona is doing very well. I hope you have a wonderful holiday.”
He turns away from her with a smile, and walks over to Daehyun.
“That was so great,” he hears Daehyun telling his brother. “Where did you learn to bow so well? I definitely couldn’t do that when I was five.”
Junhong giggles, holding his arms out as Daehyun zips up his coat to his neck, over the scarf. “Mr. Moon is fun. Maybe he can teach you?”
Daehyun taps him on the nose. “And who am I going to show off that bow to, huh? You?”
Junhong giggles again.
His eyes widen when he sees Youngjae, and Daehyun rights himself quickly, holding out a hand to shake Youngjae’s. “Hey. Hi, Mr. Yoo,” he says, voice bright.
“I’m glad you made it.”
“Yeah, me too.”
“Sorry your father couldn’t come.”
“Yeah,” Daehyun says, again, the word trailing.
His eyes move past Youngjae, to the other parents chattering away in the lobby, and then he looks down at the top of Junhong’s head, biting his lips.
“I could use some fresh air,” Youngjae says. He nods to the double doors of the entrance when Daehyun looks up at him. “You want to?”
The nod Daehyun offers is small, but he follows Youngjae outside, onto the steps, his brother trailing beside him.
“Thank you for watching over Junie,” Daehyun says, when they’re standing in the crisp air. The conversations happening inside are white noise. The sun is high in the sky and makes the shadow behind Daehyun long.
“Of course.” It’s what all the parents say to him, and his answer is rote. “It’s my pleasure. Like I said, he’s a good kid.”
Daehyun grins, flushing. “No, I really mean it. He has nothing but good things to say about you.”
Junhong kicks at the ground, hiding his face and holding onto his brother’s coat at the waist.
“He likes you, so I like you.” He pauses, seeming to think over his words. Then, he shrugs. “Yeah.”
“Anyway,” he continues, when Youngjae doesn’t say anything to that, because he can’t - he’s used to speaking with parents, offering platitudes and reminders to let the kid have fun every once in a while. “I have to get going. It was nice seeing you, again.”
They shake hands. Youngjae’s fingers tingle.
He leaves with Junhong, and Youngjae’s brow wrinkles as blood rushes to his face and the tips of his ears. Daehyun hoists Junhong up onto his shoulders this time, and it’s adorable, Youngjae realizes.
“I think I’m ready for the break to start, now,” comes Himchan’s low voice behind him. Himchan is the school’s music teacher. Almost all of the student performances today had been prepared by him. “I can only tell a parent so many times how wonderful and amazing their kid is, am I right?”
“Huh,” Youngjae says intelligently.
“Who was that? He was cute.”
“Junhong’s older brother. Daehyun. He’s, uh, what did you say?”
Himchan laughs, and bumps Youngjae with his elbow. “Oh, I see. So, what’s the situation here?”
Youngjae frowns, shoving Himchan back lightly as the other’s eyes twinkle. “What situation? There’s no situation. That sounds bad.”
But then he’s wondering about them. About Junhong’s little family. The absent father and doting brother and baby. His mind tracks back to the file he has on Junhong. He’ll have to read it again more carefully.
Himchan rolls his eyes. He loops a companionable arm around Youngjae’s shoulders and draws him in. “You’re dense. Sometimes it’s really cute, and sometimes it’s just annoying. You. And Daehyun. The situation between you and Daehyun?”
Youngjae blinks. “There’s nothing,” he explains, heat coming to the surface of his skin again when he thinks about it.
“Oh?” Himchan smirks. “I see.” He lets Youngjae go, giving him a hard pat on his back. “Come back in. There’s leftover songpyeon to eat.”
He goes, but by now, the songpyeon is cold and chewy, hard to swallow.
His brother’s face appears, pixelated and image unstable, on the screen of his laptop. Youngjae takes a final sip of the can of beer in his hand and puts it aside onto the coffee table, out of his camera frame, and smooths down his t-shirt.
“Youngjae!” his brother greets, smiling.
“Hyung,” he greets back, not quite as enthusiastic. “How’s Australia? How’s Sunhwa?” His older brother had married a little over a year ago. Sunhwa is just beginning to show.
“Great,” his brother says wistfully. He’s a little red in the cheeks. He’s probably been hitting the beer, too. “So fantastic. Even better when she wakes me up at four in the morning to make her freshly-squeezed tomato juice.”
“Is that a thing?”
“Apparently.” He shrugs. “Mom and Dad are over. You want to say hi?”
Youngjae hesitates. Ever since last year, there’s been a disconnect between him and his parents that has nothing to do with distance.
“You’re not still mad at them, are you?” His brother scowls. The camera distorts his face.
“I’m not mad,” Youngjae says. “I was never mad. Just - disappointed, I guess.”
“They’re old.” His brother shrugs again. There’s noise in the background, and then Sunhwa dips into the frame. She’s rubbing her belly absently, and his brother immediately gives up his seat for her. “They were just surprised, is all. You can’t blame them for being surprised. I mean, you liked that girl in high school.”
“Oh,” Sunhwa says, her voice sweet. Her hair is done up in a loose ponytail. “Are you still mad at them about that?”
Youngjae sighs, dropping his face into his hands. “I wasn’t mad,” he repeats. “Hi, Sunhwa.”
“Hello, Jaejae. So when are you visiting?” Sunhwa asks with a huge smile. “I want to show you around! You know, I met a few guys in my yoga class I could introduce you to.”
She’s trying to be nice, and cute, Youngjae knows. It doesn’t make it any less irritating.
“I’m not interested in meeting your hot Australian friends.”
“Are you interested in meeting anybody?” Sunhwa demands, and he sees his brother throw his hands up into the air and start to walk away. He calls for their parents.
“Maybe when I’ve got stable footing in this job,” Youngjae says, bracing himself for his parents’ faces.
Sunhwa frowns and stands, and his mother sits in her place, his father hovering over her shoulder.
“Hello, dear,” his mother says, with a tight smile. His father waves.
“Happy Chuseok,” Youngjae tells them. “I hope it’s a good one.”
“Are you spending it with any friends? Are you eating well?”
“Yes,” Youngjae replies. “And yes. Thanks.”
His mother tries to say something more, opening and closing her mouth a few times, but the words die on her lips. She nods. “Well, we’re glad you’re well, Youngjae. We love you.”
There’s a lump in his throat. He swallows it down. “I love you, too.”
The video ends with his brother’s face filling up the entire frame. “That wasn’t that bad, right?” he asks. “Right?”
Youngjae bites his lips. “Happy Chuseok,” he says, and exits out of the call.
The leaves have all turned by the time school resumes, and many trees are even bare. As the afternoons grow colder the school decides to be proactive about battling the season for their students at dismissal, and to bring in the late pick-ups back into their classrooms so they don’t have to wait in the chill. Usually, students will dismiss from the sidewalk outside with their parents, and then Jongup and another teacher will stay with the stragglers, starting up a game of tag or holding footraces to pass the time.
The school puts up fliers announcing the small change. They don’t expect any push back - what parent would wish for their child to freeze in the encroaching winter?
Now, Youngjae brings the few students he has left fifteen minutes after the last bell back inside. There are three: Minyeol, Yoobin, and Junhong. They hold hands walking down the hall in a mostly-straight line, their tiny bookbags bouncing on their backs.
The time after school is relaxed. They enter Youngjae’s classroom and Minyeol and Yoobin dash with wide grins and rapid feet to the toy box in the corner, which is only usually taken out if there’s a rainy day for recess. Junhong treads more slowly, and decides to practice his letters in his workbook at his table.
Youngjae smiles at the boy, feeling warmth at the effort.
Yoobin’s mother arrives first. They exchange pleasantries and she apologizes, bowing respectfully and prompting Youngjae to bow back, because he hasn’t quite yet gotten used to his title, and Yoobin giggles as they leave, waving at Minyeol especially enthusiastically.
Minyeol then flops himself over Junhong’s table, earning a squeak, and he laughs when Junhong frowns at him. “Let’s play,” Minyeol demands. “Let’s battle!”
Junhong tilts his head to the side. “With what?”
“With cards,” Minyeol says, throwing his head back in exasperation. “Duh.”
“I don’t want to,” Junhong says.
“Because I don’t want to.”
“You don’t know how?”
Junhong’s nostrils flare, and the grip he has on his large pencil tightens.
Youngjae steps in. “Okay. Let’s decide to do something else. Cards aren’t allowed in school, anyway, right Minyeol?”
Minyeol pouts, but nods, sliding off the table and onto the ground.
With impeccable timing, Minyeol’s mother appears. He shrieks and runs up to her, picking up his bookbag on the way, the brief exchange with Junhong already forgotten. They leave hand in hand, and then it’s just Youngjae and Junhong.
“How’s that going?” he asks his student, taking the seat across from him at the table.
Junhong traces a vowel on the page, neat and slow. “Good,” he says. “Hyung says I need to know my letters.”
“You know a lot of them.”
“I know almost all of them,” Junhong corrects.
“It’s nice when you teach them to your tablemates,” Youngjae says, lips quirking.
Junhong smiles at the compliment, his teeth a straight line inside his mouth. “I like helping them,” he says. “Sometimes.”
Laughter bubbles up from Youngjae’ stomach, and Junhong’s grin widens. He helps the child trace a complicated consonant, and then he checks the time.
It’s twenty-seven minutes past. He chews his lips, considering whether he should call Daehyun or Junhong’s father.
“Who’s coming to pick you up?” he asks Junhong, instead.
“Hyung,” he answers immediately. “Mr. Moon stays with me on the steps. He knows.”
“Is he usually this late?”
Junhong scowls at him. “Yes,” he says, like the word hurts him. He carves particularly deep into the letter he is tracing, ripping the paper underneath the point of the pencil. “No.”
Footsteps in the hallway, and rustling papers. Youngjae is reminded of parent-teacher conference night. He glances at his doorway and Daehyun is standing there, breathing heavily.
“Hi,” Daehyun pants. “Hi, Mr. Yoo. Sorry - I. I thought Junie was gone? I kind of - ran here. He wasn’t outside, and - oh, Jesus Christ.” He hunches over and just tries to breathe.
“You didn’t see the fliers?”
“What fliers?” Daehyun starts to walk in as Junhong cleans up his table, buzzing with renewed energy at his brother’s presence.
“The fliers that say we’re moving late pick-ups into the classroom so the kids don’t freeze.”
“Oh.” Daehyun frowns. “No, I didn’t see those.”
Junhong runs and latches onto his brother’s leg, and Daehyun’s hand drops down to ruffle Junhong’s hair.
“Well,” Youngjae says, at an uncharacteristic loss for words. “Now, you know.”
Daehyun’s lips twitch, like he’s trying not to smile. “Yeah, sure. Sorry, again. I swear I’m not late all the time.” He pauses, rethinking. “Actually, no. I swear I’m not this late all the time. Junie’s usually with Mr. Moon, though? Maybe I can talk to him and see if he can watch him, like before. If this is an inconvenience to you?”
“It’s kind of part of my job,” Youngjae teases. His heart picks up at the flush that spreads across Daehyun’s cheeks. “It’s not an inconvenience at all.”
They shake hands. Daehyun promises to bring cookies or something the next time he’s this late, and Youngjae is certain he doesn’t imagine the brightness in his eyes, the interest.
There is a pattern.
Daehyun is later on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. He learns that these are the days his shift at the cafe does not end until right at the bell marking the end of school. On these days, Daehyun brings Youngjae treats - pastries or buns or little cookies tied up with ribbon.
Sometime between pastries and cookies, Daehyun slides into calling Youngjae by his first name. It’s a good change, one that brings a tingle to Youngjae’s toes whenever he hears it.
One day, they decide to share the treats.
Junhong sits between them and gets powdered sugar on his chin from the doughnuts Daehyun has brought, and Youngjae smiles, the sweetness of the treat making the roof of his mouth feel sticky, when Daehyun licks his thumb and rubs the powder away.
He learns that Daehyun also works at a bar, in the evenings.
“When do you sleep?” Youngjae asks him, eyes wide. Junhong is pressing his fingers together, testing the stickiness of the melting sugar on them.
“Uh,” Daehyun says, chewing on his bottom lip. “Usually a little after right now, actually. And, for a few hours before I bring Junhong to school.”
“Can’t your dad drop him off?”
Daehyun bites his lip. “He’s not usually awake that early,” he says. “So what can you do?”
“You could wake him up,” Youngjae suggests. “And then you could go back to sleep.”
Daehyun laughs. It’s a really nice sound.
“If only everything were that easy, right?” he jokes, but there’s something behind it, something in the way he swallows his words at the end, and looks at Junhong again.
Youngjae opens up Junhong’s file after they go. He’d been meaning to read it more closely for ages.
It tells him nothing new. Junhong’s hometown is Busan, he started kindergarten on time, and he wants to be a skateboard when he grows up. Youngjae takes note that he will very gently shape that wish into wanting to be a skateboarder.
Under contact information, Youngjae recognizes the neighborhood that is listed in the address, and glances at the two phone numbers written down next to it.
The first is Junhong’s primary contact. He shouldn’t be surprised that Daehyun’s number is there. He pencils in Daehyun’s name, though, in the space to its side. The second number is unfamiliar.
He squints at it. Maybe it’s their father’s number? He’s never had a reason to call it; Daehyun has always answered.
Now, though, maybe it would be a good time for Youngjae to reach out. To introduce himself. To see if their father had any interest in Junhong’s progress at school.
Steeling himself, Youngjae dials the number on his cell phone. It rings and rings and rings.
And then it connects. “Hello?”
It’s a woman. Youngjae frowns. “Hi, this is Yoo Youngjae calling from the school. I was wondering if Mr. Jung was available to speak?”
“Who? Who are you calling for?”
“Mr. Jung,” Youngjae repeats. “Junhong’s father?”
“Ah, sorry. I must have dialed the wrong number. Thanks for your time.”
“That’s all right. Have a nice evening.”
He hangs up and examines the number again.
He tries a second time.
It’s the same woman’s voice.
“Sorry. It’s me again. I must have - we must have the wrong information in our file,” he says immediately, flustered. “I’ll have it changed. Sorry for the inconvenience.”
The call disconnects.
It’s not unheard of, that the office gathered the wrong information, but he has a feeling it’s not wrong. That is, he has a feeling it was meant to be wrong.
He closes Junhong’s file.
He’ll have to ask Daehyun about it.
He thinks the call connects the first time, but it really is just Daehyun’s melodic voice prompting him to leave a message. Since it’s the middle of the day and he has thirty children to get back to, he does.
“Hello. This is Youngjae - Mr. Yoo. Everything’s fine, but Junhong had an incident today with another student and I’m going to need to meet with you or your father after school for a few minutes. No one was hurt. It’s - policy. See you in a few hours.”
And then he goes about his day.
After school, when he is bringing Junhong and Minyeol back with him into the classroom for pick-up, he suddenly remembers that he has to talk to Daehyun, and feels a small knot forming in the pit of his stomach.
Daehyun doesn’t need anything else to worry about, and it’s not even something to worry about, but he has a feeling he’ll react to the conversation the same way he did at the parent-teacher conference a little over a month ago - with surprise and concern and a hint of self-blame.
But policy is policy.
Again Minyeol’s mother picks Minyeol up first, prompting the cycle of bowing and respectful terms.
Junhong sits at his table with his head on his desk, staring aimlessly out of the window and sucking on his fingers. He knows he’s in a little bit of trouble. Earlier, he’d shed few tears over stealing a toy car from another student and throwing it in his face, but had been adamant that the other student had provoked him into doing so. When Youngjae investigated, it turned out that the other student had been teasing Junhong and calling him dumb for his quietness in the classroom and around other children his age, and Junhong hadn’t thought - just reacted. Youngjae told him that his family would be notified and that they’d need to all talk together about it. Junhong had nodded and refused to speak for the rest of the day.
Contrary to almost every other time he’s entered Youngjae’s classroom, Daehyun knocks against the frame, almost timid.
“Hey,” Youngjae says, smiling and standing from his desk where he was sorting through student work. “Come in, come in. You don’t have to look so nervous. It’s not a big deal.”
“What’s not a big deal?” Daehyun asks immediately. “You leave this cryptic message on my phone and expect me not to be nervous? No one was hurt,” he imitates, unnervingly accurate, tsking at Youngjae after. His lips are chapped.
Youngjae guides them to the table, where Junhong is already sitting.
“Dad’s not available?” Youngjae asks, keeping his voice nonchalant.
“Yeah. He...couldn’t get away from work.”
Daehyun takes the seat next to him, leaving Youngjae to sit across. He puts his chin in one hand on the table and glances up at Youngjae with big eyes, and Youngjae is struck by how young he looks, even sitting next to his brother.
Junhong sniffs. He ducks his face into his arms.
“What’s wrong?” Daehyun asks, and Junhong shifts and seems to mold himself into Daehyun’s arms, fitting in his lap and pressing his face into Daehyun’s chest.
“Well,” Youngjae says. “What I wanted to talk to you about was - Okay, so today Junhong hit another boy in the face with a toy car.”
Junhong sniffs again.
“Whenever something like this happens I have to conference with a guardian. Eventually, if this keeps happening, we’ll have to take this to the principal. For now, consider this a - an intervention.”
“Why would you hit another kid in the face with a car, Junie?” Daehyun asks his brother, nudging his face away from his chest so that Junhong has to sit back in his lap.
Junhong slumps and snivels and then he whispers, “It was a small car,” nose turning red and tears beginning to roll down his cheeks. He looks up at Daehyun, pleading. “I didn’t hit him hard, I promise!”
Daehyun sighs, his eyes flat, but as Youngjae watches he sees the older’s resolve breaking down as Junhong begins to cry in earnest, knowing he’s disappointed him.
“I’m sorry!” Junhong sobs. “Was I bad? Am I bad?”
Daehyun sucks in his bottom lip. “You aren’t bad, Junie. You just shouldn’t hit people. You find Mr. Yoo or a friend or something, if you need help, but, you know, no more car-throwing.”
Junhong sniffles again, and his crying grows even more steady.
Daehyun looks at Youngjae in alarm before hugging his brother to his chest again, rubbing his small back and humming, “Shh, it’s okay. Hey, it’s okay. It won’t happen again, right? Please stop crying.”
Junhong doesn’t. He latches his wet face into his brother’s neck and tightens his arms around his shoulders like a boa constrictor, and Daehyun sighs again and closes his eyes for a moment, looking like he wishes they could stay closed. “Sorry about this,” he mumbles.
“It’s okay. I’m used to it. Well, no, that sounds awful. I’ve been around kids for a while, Daehyun. It’s fine.”
Normal procedure requires Youngjae to have Daehyun sign a document recording their meeting, and Youngjae will get to that, but right now he takes in the two brothers and the crease in Daehyun’s forehead, how he worries at his lips and holds Junhong tight, calming him.
He asks Daehyun, deliberate and low, “How are you?”
A small noise of surprise.
Daehyun seems to consider the question, his eyes on the table. “Honestly? I could be better. But I’m making it work.” Then he shrinks into himself, as though cringing from his answer. Maybe he’s said too much.
“I tried calling your father the other day,” Youngjae begins, noting how Daehyun tenses. “I thought it would be the second number in Junhong’s file. But a woman picked up. She didn’t know you guys.”
“That’s, ah,” Daehyun stutters out, face paling behind Junhong. “Dad got his number changed recently, so, that’s probably what happened.”
“Is there something going on at home?”
He thinks Daehyun stops breathing. Junhong sniffles into his neck.
“No,” Daehyun whispers.
“If I could help in any way…” Youngjae trails off, not sure what he’d wanted to offer. What could he? He wants the young man who looks so downtrodden before him to be able to carry a lighter load. “I mean, for instance, you don’t have to worry about Junhong after school. I’m here, anyway, doing lesson plans or otherwise. So it’s okay if you’re running late. Again, Junhong usually is a good listener. And I don’t mind waiting for you.”
He licks his lips after he speaks, uncertain how Daehyun will receive the words, but it’s true, isn’t it? Over the past few weeks, Youngjae has grown to look forward to Daehyun’s company in the afternoons, however brief that company may be.
Daehyun's mouth falls open, but he doesn't say anything for a while. Junhong is now silent in his arms, face hidden.
"You're actually really nice, do you know that?" Daehyun asks him, his voice pitchy. "Like really, really nice. I - thank you."
"You're welcome," Youngjae returns, heat rising to his ears.
They talk a bit about the procedure they have to follow, and Daehyun signs the document Youngjae produces for them.
When they shake hands before Daehyun and Junhong leave, it might be nothing, but Youngjae swears he feels the drag of Daehyun's fingers against his, the catch of their index fingers hooked together before he lets go.
In addition to the sweets and treats in the afternoons, Daehyun starts bringing coffee when he drops Junhong off in the morning. It’s just a simple black coffee in a take-away cup but when Daehyun hands it to him with a small smile Youngjae’s stomach kind of flutters the way it used to when he had a crush on a girl in middle school.
“You like him,” Himchan sing-songs one day when they are sharing their prep period together, and squeezing in lunch as well. “You like like him.”
“How old are you, twelve?” Youngjae stabs into his rice with his chopsticks, feeling his cheeks flush.
“Ooh, so defensive. Oh, have you confessed to him yet? How will you confess to him?”
“This isn’t a high school drama,” Youngjae says, but then he does picture it. They are in a school, after all. He wonders what kind of chocolates Daehyun would like. He doesn’t seem the type to like receiving flowers.
“You’re thinking about it!” Himchan accuses.
Sometimes when Daehyun brings coffee he’ll linger and they’ll chat, as other parents come and go, and he wonders what it would be like, to chat somewhere else, to maybe take Daehyun to the cute cafe around the corner and see the way his eyes would light up at all the mini-treats in the display.
“You sap,” Himchan says.
Now he is definitely blushing.
But Daehyun is the older brother of one of his students. Is there a rule against something like that? He’s pretty sure he’s not allowed to date any parents of students, but that’s unspoken. Would Daehyun even be interested? He seems so busy.
He slumps, poking at his rice with less zeal.
“And now you’ve overthought yourself. Okay, let’s talk about something else,” Himchan offers, grinning. “Did you watch the new Scandal?”
He's kind of dreading this call. He's seen how fiercely protective Daehyun can be about his baby brother, and how much Junhong seeks out his brother's touch to comfort him.
Junhong sits on the rug in his assigned circle, miserable, occasionally sniffling, his face red and splotchy and wet, holding onto the sleeve of Youngjae's sweater.
After the other kids left, Youngjae had gotten Junhong from where Himchan had been watching him and guided him back to their classroom, taking a seat next to him.
He is just a tiny bit relieved that this happened at the end of school. He dials.
Daehyun doesn't pick up the first time, and Junhong's wails renew with haste and promise when he realizes that his brother hasn't answered. His timid grip on Youngjae's sleeve turns into a vice claw around his forearm. "Hyung!" he cries nonsensibly. "I want hyung."
Youngjae pulls on his arm and Junhong follows, crawling into his lap and reaching up to circle his arms around Youngjae's neck. It's not protocol, and if their principal walked by now, he'd be in for an earful, but Youngjae allows it, and rubs Junhong's back with his free hand when Junhong buries his wet nose into the front of his shirt.
"I'll try again," he soothes. "Don't worry. I'm sure he's already on his way."
"Wah," Junhong cries. "I -- I -- don't -- like it here."
Youngjae continues rubbing circles into Junhong's back, as his sniffling dies down into hiccups and the phone connects.
Daehyun picks up. "Hello? Oh jeez, I'm late. I know. I'm sorry. We had a rush. I haven't even left yet, god. I'm horrible --"
"Daehyun," Youngjae says firmly, stopping the other from letting his mouth run. "It's fine. I can sit with him. I just wanted to let you know that something happened at the end of the day, and Junhong got upset."
A pause. There's talking in the background, and faint music.
"What do you mean, upset," Daehyun says, quiet. "Is he hurt?"
"He's not hurt. He's -- some kids were teasing him. I intervened, but. Not quickly enough."
There's a clatter on the other end, and more silence. When Daehyun speaks again, he sounds out of breath. "Sorry. I'm technically still on the clock. My manager just surprised me. Um. I'll get there as soon as possible. Is it -- are you able to sit with him? Is he there?"
"Yeah, yeah. Of course," Youngjae assures him. "You want to talk to him?"
Youngjae tilts the phone against Junhong's ear. He's now laying against Youngjae's chest, only occasionally gasping as his body calms down. "It's hyung," he says.
"Hyuuuung," Junhong trails shakily, sniffing.
"Hey, Junie," he hears Daehyun say, his voice higher than usual. "How's it going, big guy?"
"I hate it here. Everyone is mean," Junhong says in a squeak.
"Hey, that's not true. You like Mr. Yoo. He's not mean."
Youngjae tries to ignore the skip in his heartbeat at those words.
"But Mr. Yoo is your friend," Junhong whines. He shifts his face, rubbing snot into Youngjae's shirt.
"He can be your friend, too," Daehyun says. "Right?"
"Right," Youngjae answers, cheeks heating.
"I'll be there as soon as I can, okay? Just - just sit tight, okay?"
Junhong sniffs. "Okay," he says with a pout.
Youngjae brings the phone back to his own ear. "He's going to be fine," he assures Daehyun.
"Thank you," Daehyun exhales. "Thank you, thank you, thank you. For everything. I'm - on my way. I'll be there. Just - thank you."
"We'll be waiting," Youngjae promises.
As soon as Daehyun walks through the door, face drawn and bottom lip between his teeth, Junhong detaches himself from Youngjae and climbs into Daehyun's arms.
Daehyun holds him, breath shuddering, and sinks to the floor next to Youngjae.
"Hey," he says to Youngjae.
"Thanks again," Daehyun says, his voice rough. His eyes are dull and dark, his skin paler than usual, and the corners of his lips are pinched, like he’s been grinding his teeth. He looks tired. He always looks tired, but this time it's more - he's worn, frayed around the edges and fading, like a photograph that’s been left out in the sun.
"It's my pleasure," Youngjae tells him, and he hopes Daehyun knows he means it. This is not just about his responsibilities as a teacher, anymore, he realizes. This is about being there for Junhong and for Daehyun and the strange whirlwind of their lives.
Junhong is sniffling again, into Daehyun's neck. "They were being mean," he explains, breath hitching. "They said - they said - hyung was bad."
"Junie," Daehyun breathes. "It's okay. You know I don't care what they say about me."
"I care," Junhong mumbles. "It's mean. You're not bad."
Youngjae watches the exchange, unsure how to wedge himself into the conversation between them.
"And what happened, after?"
A fresh, wailing sob. Junhong cries, "I told them they were poopheads."
Daehyun chuckles, sharing an amused glance with Youngjae. "We're not supposed to use that word," he reminds his brother.
"I know. I'm sorry."
“Did you apologize to them?”
“No,” Junhong admits in a stuffy voice. He rubs his face into Daehyun’s hoodie, and leaves a wet spot. “They should say sorry to you.”
“It’s fine,” Daehyun says again, eyes closing as he starts to sway with his brother wrapped up around him. “It’s fine, shh.”
Junhong whines but says nothing more, clutching tight.
“So is Junie in trouble?” Daehyun asks. His eyes are still closed, his shoulders slumped. Youngjae isn’t sure who is holding whom anymore.
“No. He’s not in trouble. The other kids might be, tomorrow.” He bites his lip and raises his hand, placing it on Daehyun’s shoulder. “You look exhausted.”
An answering twitch of Daehyun’s lips. He cracks an eye open. “I could fall asleep on this rug right now,” he admits. “Actually, I might need your help getting up. I’m being very serious.”
Taking that cue, Youngjae stands, brushing dust from his pants, and holds out a hand. Daehyun grips it, his fingers warm and dry and bony, and Youngjae pulls him up, grunting.
Maybe he keeps Daehyun’s hand in his for a moment too long, and it puts a bold thought into his brain.
“Let me cook you dinner.”
Daehyun’s eyes widen. He stares, Junhong still in his arms, his hand still in Youngjae’s. “What?”
“Let me cook you dinner,” Youngjae repeats, slower this time, and more certain. “I don’t live far from here. It’s the least I can do. Junhong got so upset because I wasn’t watching the kids properly.”
“There are, like, 30 children in your room at any given moment. I can barely watch one.” He pulls his fingers out of Youngjae’s grasp and hoists Junhong up higher against him. “I don’t blame you.”
“Fine, then let me cook you dinner because I want to,” he says, and once he’s said those words he can’t take them back. Youngjae holds Daehyun’s eyes and will not look away first, will not be embarrassed. Maybe he’s gone too far too quickly. This seems leaps away from their relatively safe morning coffees and afternoon treats. He feels his lips press together in a determined, straight line.
Daehyun stares at him some more, eyes searching, and Youngjae wishes he knew what he was looking for. Finally, his mouth twists into something like a grin. “You’re lucky I have the night off,” he says. “All right, fine. Let’s do this.”
“So I can make really spicy kimchi pancakes,” Youngjae says, pulling out a jar of ripe kimchi from the back of his uselessly bare refrigerator, “or spaghetti.” He pulls out a jar of ready-made spaghetti sauce. He has pasta somewhere, and vegetables he can throw into the sauce, too.
Junhong is sliding along the wooden floor of his living area, twirling in his socks to some music in his own head.
Daehyun says, “Junie can’t eat really spicy things,” from his spot by Youngjae’s elbow in the kitchen. He’s standing very close, and if Youngjae just leaned back, a little…
“Spaghetti it is, then.”
He looks back, smiling. Daehyun returns it.
“Tell me what I can do to help.”
Youngjae shakes his head. “You guys are my guests. You can go sit on the couch and watch your brother and maybe even take a little nap - I won’t judge - and wait for me to finish making world-class spaghetti from a jar.”
Daehyun laughs, and Youngjae wishes he could bottle the sound, keep it somewhere safe.
As soon as Daehyun’s butt touches his couch in the living area, though, he’s out like a light.
He rouses with a touch after Youngjae is done cooking. Junhong only has to link his fingers with his brother’s and tug, and Daehyun is up and pressing the heels of his palms against his eyes, stifling a yawn as Youngjae sets the table with three bowls.
He lives alone, so he doesn’t have an actual area to entertain, just the coffee table before the couch in the living room, a television on the opposite wall.
He sits next to Daehyun on the couch, cushions dipping, and Junhong sits on the floor.
“Sorry I fell asleep,” Daehyun says, a hint of a blush on his cheeks. Junhong slurps up a spoonful of noodles, getting sauce all over the table; Youngjae cuts Junhong’s pasta down so that his noodles are no longer than half his little finger, making them easier to get onto a spoon.
“Don’t worry about it. Junhong, is it good?”
Junhong smiles. There’s red sauce on his teeth.
The time passes too quickly. They talk a little bit about school, a little bit about an interesting customer Daehyun had once at the bar where he works in the evenings, a little bit about Youngjae’s family in Australia.
Junhong finishes and Youngjae gives him a second helping, and Daehyun is unnaturally tense, throughout, like he’s holding his own body tightly. When Junhong gets a bit of sauce on his nose, Youngjae reaches over to wipe it off with his thumb, Junhong giggling, and Daehyun sighs shakily.
“Sorry, where’s your bathroom?”
“It’s right --”
He doesn’t finish his sentence and Daehyun is already walking, hands clenched into fists.
“Yeah, that’s where it is,” Youngjae says, gulping.
His bathroom and his bedroom doors are next to each other. Daehyun enters the bathroom and closes the door behind him, and then Youngjae hears the sound of a faucet running.
Junhong continues to eat, so Youngjae does, too.
It’s only a minute or so later that Daehyun re-emerges, shaking out his hands and coming back to the couch.
Junhong bobs his head around. He’s forsaken the spoon, by now, and is using his fingers to lift pieces of sauce-covered spaghetti into his mouth. “You didn’t flush,” he exclaims.
“Uh,” Daehyun says.
“You’re always ‘pposed to. You said.” He chews loudly, looking at Daehyun with earnest, big eyes.
“I,” Daehyun manages, looking quickly at Youngjae. Now his cheeks are definitely red. And the skin under his eyes is puffy, and his eyes shine; they were recently wet, like he was crying. “Okay, sorry.”
He gets up again and walks over to the bathroom. Youngjae hears the toilet flush, and Junhong hums happily.
When he comes back, he sits on the very edge of the cushion on the couch, back ramrod straight and hands on his knees. “Um,” he says. “That was - I wasn’t, like - I’m not a gross person or anything, so. That was, um.”
Youngjae puts a hand on Daehyun’s knee, and Daehyun stops talking. “I get it. You didn’t want Junhong to see, right? Are you okay?”
The Daehyun he saw walking through his classroom door earlier has nothing on the one he sees now, at his question. His hand is close to the other’s on Daehyun’s knee, and Daehyun reaches out, gripping his fingers like a lifeline, and his eyes are oceans. He breathes, shuddering, maybe on the verge of shaking into pieces, and tightens his hold on Youngjae. “Yeah,” he says, swallowing. “Thanks.”
“Listen,” Daehyun continues haltingly, licking his lips. He exhales. “I need to tell you something. You have to promise - you can’t spread this around, okay?”
Youngjae’s heart picks up speed in his chest. “Of course.”
And Daehyun leans in, close, and his lips brush Youngjae’s ear when he whispers his confession. “It’s just me and Junie, at home.”
He starts to pull away, eyes down, but Youngjae tugs on his hand, keeping him near. “What do you mean?”
“I just - wanted to thank you for everything you’re doing, because it’s. Hard. Dad isn’t around. There isn’t a Dad. I mean, on paper and in real life, he exists. He’s just not around. And I felt like I shouldn’t lie to you about that anymore.”
Youngjae reaches up and swipes the pad of his thumb over Daehyun’s cheek, catching a stray tear. Daehyun shudders.
“Thank you for telling me. For trusting me.” There’s a balloon in his chest and it swells, warm.
It makes a lot more sense. Youngjae had been expecting a busy father, a distant father. Someone who couldn’t or just simply didn’t want to involve himself in the lives of his children. He hadn’t been expecting the lack of one.
“Is hyung crying?” Junhong calls in a squeaking voice. “Why is he sad?”
“I think maybe it’s time for us to go,” Daehyun says. His eyes haven’t left Youngjae’s, though, and their fingers are still tangled together.
He doesn’t want Daehyun to go.
"You should. Stay the night. You look so tired.” He watches a series of emotions work through Daehyun’s face. “I'm worried about Junhong getting home all right."
Junhong smiles hugely, spaghetti stuffed in his cheeks still, but Daehyun flushes, jaw slack.
"But we. I -- no, that's okay. We'll be fine."
"You look like you can barely keep yourself up in your seat," Youngjae says, softly teasing. He's not going to push. He relaxes his hold when Daehyun untangles his fingers from his grip and puts both of his hands into his own lap.
"Hyung hadn't slept for two days!" Junhong chirps excitedly.
"Jun," Daehyun grits, eyes narrowing.
His brother's eyes take on a righteous glint and he puffs his cheeks out, glaring right back. "That's what you said. You said that today so I'm not lying."
"I didn't say you were lying," Daehyun mutters, shoulders slumping. "That's just not -- Mr. Yoo doesn't need to know that."
"I want to stay! This is like when we slept at the hotel," Junhong announces. He wrinkles his nose, grinning. "That was fun."
"Has it really been two days?" Youngjae asks, brow furrowed.
Daehyun scrubs a hand over his face while Junhong takes another huge bite of spaghetti, getting sauce on his chin. "More or less," he admits, shrugging. "It's not that bad. I have half a day on Sunday to kind of. Catch up."
"Stay," Youngjae says again. "Just to sleep. Don’t waste the hour on the bus or whatever at this time of night. You guys can take the bed. Treat this like it's a hotel."
Daehyun looks down, scowling. He picks up his fork and starts twirling spaghetti onto it, but he's barely eaten half of his serving. "You don't have to be kind. You already gave us dinner. We're not looking for pity."
"I know," Youngjae answers, quick. Daehyun's head whips up and he meets his eyes, and he sees the pride there, but also the vulnerability. "I'm not pitying you. But I think it would be nice if you both stayed."
Indecision wars on Daehyun's face. He looks from Junhong to Youngjae to his bowl and, very briefly, to the door. "Junhong doesn't have his pyjamas with him," he protests, but he's smiling, a tiny, private curve of his lips that Youngjae believes is something that not many others have seen.
There’s an extra toothbrush in the cabinet above his sink in his bathroom, so he offers that to Daehyun, and then he leaves the brothers so that he can root around in his bedroom, digging into the bottom drawer of his dresser for extra shirts.
He finds two. One is from high school, old and soft and small on him now, and comfortable. The other is from when he visited his brother the first time in Australia. There’s a hole in the stretched out collar and a kangaroo on the front, but he has a feeling Daehyun won’t mind.
When he emerges from his bedroom and peeks into the bathroom, it is to find Daehyun standing behind Junhong in front of the mirror, making faces like he’s brushing his own teeth while he brushes his brother’s.
“Eee,” Daehyun says, baring his teeth.
“Eee,” Junhong repeats, high pitched. He doesn’t quite have the muscle movement down, so his eyes narrow when he makes the sound.
Daehyun brushes, deliberate and gentle, while Junhong looks a bit like he’s foaming at the mouth.
They are so close. Youngjae isn’t sure how long he stands there with the t-shirts in his hands, a feeling in his chest like someone is massaging his heart.
“Spit,” Daehyun says.
Junhong spits into the sink, sticking out his tongue after. “Water!”
“Yeah, yeah.” Daehyun turns the faucet on, and Junhong dips his fingers under the running water. Then Daehyun cups the palm of his hand and Junhong sips from it, spitting again. “Hey! You spit when my hand isn’t in front of your face, deal?”
“Hey,” Youngjae interrupts, snapping himself out of whatever daze he had stumbled into. “I brought. Shirts.” He holds them up. “This one’s a little smaller.”
Daehyun takes the shirts, grinning. He tosses the smaller one over Junhong’s face, his brother cackling and protesting, and then he unzips his hoodie and shrugs out of it, and strips the shirt he’s wearing off over his head.
His hair fluffs up like he stuck his finger in a socket. His arms are toned, and look smooth to the touch. His waist is tiny.
Then all that skin is gone, covered up by Youngjae’s shirt.
Daehyun pulls the shirt away from his front, looking down at the kangaroo. “Really?”
“It suits you,” Youngjae jokes.
Meanwhile Junhong is almost done with the struggle of changing out of his own shirt and finding the armholes of Youngjae’s and sticking the appropriate limbs through them. He tugs at the collar triumphantly when he’s done. He swims in it, but he’s smiling. “I did it myself,” he announces.
“That you did,” Daehyun says. “What do you say?”
“Thank you, Mr. Yoo.”
“Yeah. Thank you, Mr. Yoo.”
He smiles, and the bottom falls out of Youngjae’s stomach.
In the morning, with the sun barely over the horizon, Junhong cracks the door of Youngjae’s bedroom open and peeks out, his black hair a bird’s nest and Youngjae’s shirt slipping off a shoulder. He pulls it up as he walks over to Youngjae, who opens his eyes blearily on the couch where he’d slept, prone, face pressed into a pillow.
“Good morning,” Junhong whispers. He sits on his knees in front of Youngjae’s face. “I’m hungry.”
“Good morning,” Youngjae whispers back. He takes a moment to think about the next statement. “Should we make breakfast?”
Junhong nods, very serious, his eyes large.
“Should we wake up your brother?”
Junhong looks back at the bedroom door. It is still open a crack, the room a dark sliver behind it. He stands and walks over to it, and shuts it. He shuffles back to Youngjae, frowning. “No. He’s tired. All the time. I’m hard to take care of.”
No one so young should look so guilty.
“You’re not that hard to take care of,” Youngjae says, sitting up. “I should know; I teach you.”
“You don’t live with us,” Junhong says. “You don’t know. Hyung works really hard.”
It sends a sudden shiver lancing up Youngjae’s spine, reminding him of Daehyun’s confession last night. “He loves you.”
“Yeah,” Junhong sighs, looking back at the door. “Can we have breakfast, now?”
He makes eggs and has Junhong pour cereal into three bowls while they’re frying, and Junhong gets cornflakes on the coffee table but pours the milk very carefully, and leaves the third bowl milk-free.
“It will get mushy,” he tells Youngjae when he sets the plate of fried eggs on the table, too. “With milk. For hyung.”
Youngjae can’t help but grin at the kid and ruffle his hair a bit, noting the way Junhong’s eyes light up at the treatment. “Good call.”
They dig in.
Youngjae turns on the television and finds Saturday morning cartoons for them to watch at a very low volume, the sound of cereal crunching in the apartment amplified by the contrasting idleness of the morning.
A short episode ends and another one is halfway through when Youngjae hears a thud from his bedroom, a muffled curse, and then Daehyun is in the doorway with wild hair and Youngjae’s shirt hanging off his shoulder and Youngjae marvels at the similarity between the brothers before taking in the alarm in Daehyun’s wide eyes.
“Good morning?” Youngjae asks.
“Hi,” Daehyun says. “Hey, it’s - late?” He starts moving, back into Youngjae’s bedroom. He pulls off the shirt and looks around for his own. “I have to get to work. Junie, you need to finish up and get ready. We needed to leave, like, five minutes ago.”
“But there’s eggs,” Junhong protests, plucking one from the plate.
“And cereal,” Youngjae adds.
“We can’t - I can’t. I’ve got to, like --” Daehyun pauses, probably pulling on his clothes now inside Youngjae’s room. “I have to bring Junhong to a friend’s and he kind of lives on the other side of town? And then I have to get back and - god, I’m going to be so late. Hyung is going to kill me.”
Junhong stuffs the entire fried egg into his mouth and chews, standing also and pattering over to his brother in Youngjae’s room, retrieving yesterday’s clothes from the folded pile at the end of the bed.
Youngjae stands. He walks over and tries to take in the flurry of movement inside his room - Daehyun slipping the shirt from Junhong’s little body and pulling on his own clothes while buttoning his jeans, rushing to find his phone and hoodie and trying to flatten his hair. “You’ll just have to wash up at Guk-hyung’s, okay?” he’s telling Junhong. “Damn, where’s my phone?”
“Is it really going to make you very late?” Youngjae asks from the door.
Daehyun says, “Is what.”
“Dropping Junhong off and then going to work.”
“Yeah. Yeah, but it’s fine. Probably. I mean, my manager won’t be pleased but he’s never really pleased, so.”
“I could watch Junhong,” Youngjae says, shrugging.
Daehyun freezes on his knees. He’d finally found his phone under Youngjae’s bed. He looks at Youngjae, eyes sharp. “What?”
Youngjae shrugs again. “It’s Saturday. I don’t mind. I don’t want you to be late? So you can just go straight to work.”
“Are you sure?”
Daehyun chews on his lips, looking at Junhong, who is bouncing a bit on the bed now, fully dressed. “How does that sound to you, Junie?”
“Are we going to live here?” Junhong asks.
Daehyun sputters. “No. No, just for the afternoon. Mr. Yoo says you guys can hang out.”
“It’s only until three or so,” Daehyun tells Youngjae. “Four at the latest.”
“It’s fine.” Youngjae grins. “Now do you have time to fix your hair before you go?”
“Ha,” Daehyun huffs. “Ha, ha. You think you’re so funny.”
But he does rush off into the bathroom and when he comes back out again, his hair is much tamer. Junhong has happily changed back into Youngjae’s old shirt, pretending that the sleeves are wings.
“Are you sure about this?” Daehyun asks him as he’s tying up his shoes by the front door, kneeling. “Are you sure, sure?”
“Yes,” Youngjae repeats. “It’s fine. You, go. Don’t be late.”
“You’re kind of a life-saver,” Daehyun says, looking at his shoes. “Thank you.”
Youngjae feels heat rushing from his chest out to his fingers and toes. Junhong comes up beside him, still flapping his arms. “Bye, bye, bye, hyungie.”
“You be good,” Daehyun says to his brother. “Don’t give Mr. Yoo a hard time.”
“Thank you,” Daehyun says again to Youngjae. “You’re, like -- ” He doesn’t finish his sentence right away, ears turning red. “So amazing.”
Junhong flaps his arms and pushes his face into his brother’s, kissing him on the nose. “Bye,” he says again. Daehyun kisses him on the nose back, and Junhong laughs.
“Okay, now Mr. Yoo.”
Daehyun stands, zipping up his hoodie. “I’m not going to kiss Mr. Yoo on the nose.”
Junhong frowns. “Why not?”
“I’m just - not.”
Junhong continues frowning.
Youngjae says, “Then how about on the cheek?”
Daehyun looks at him, lips parted and color rising to his face. “Um,” he says.
Junhong looks between the two of them, frown disappearing, and Youngjae steps forward, and then he places a quick, chaste kiss on Daehyun’s cheek.
When he steps back Daehyun follows him, and his lips are soft against Youngjae’s for just a moment before they are gone, but that moment seems frozen in time.
Daehyun’s eyes are dark and unreadable. He ducks his face and licks his lips, smiling. “See you soon,” he says.
His brother calls from Australia. Youngjae is multi-tasking, putting together attendance reports while trying to talk to his family, so there’s no video this time.
“How’s my favorite brother doing?” his brother asks him.
“Still your only brother,” Youngjae answers, grinning.
“We miss you! Mom and Dad miss you, you know. Here, they’re here.”
A pause. His mother’s voice is bright.
“How’s the weather over there?”
“Wintering,” Youngjae says. “It’s getting colder.”
“And you’re eating well?”
“Yes, Mom.” Youngjae rolls his eyes, glad that she can’t see it.
“Have you met anyone?”
Her words are careful and give Youngjae pause. Should he tell them?
“Well,” he begins, slow and thoughtful. “I mean, there’s someone. I’m interested in someone.”
“Oh?” His mother’s voice picks up, like sunlight breaking through a cloud. “Who is she?”
The sound of a throat being cleared, and Youngjae’s heart sinks.
His dad says, “Or...he?”
He doesn’t want to share if they are not ready to hear. Doesn’t want to subject Daehyun to that at all. He wants to keep him close to his chest, protected.
“He’s just a guy,” he ends up saying, and he could be describing anyone. “Really nice, a little defensive. Caring.”
“He sounds nice,” his mother says. “As long as he’s nice.”
There’s another heavy pause.
“Work is going well,” Youngjae says next, and his parents grab onto that topic like a lifeline. They talk briefly, and the conversation feels a bit like Youngjae is trying to drag a boulder over gravel.
His brother comes back on the line, cheerful.
“How was it?” he asks Youngjae. “Still mad?”
“Was never mad,” Youngjae repeats, as always. “Still, I’m glad they got you, at least. The eldest son with a house and a wife and kids. They know how to talk to you.”
“Is that what you even want?” his brother asks. “Normal life, white picket fence, dumb dog, all that?”
Youngjae sighs. “I don’t know yet.”
His brother sighs, too. “You’ve got time to figure that out, you know. And Mom and Dad are trying. They’ll come around. Things won’t be so awkward after a bit.”
“When Sunhwa has the baby,” Youngjae says. “They’ll forget about me for a while.”
The call ends. He hadn’t been able to focus on the attendance reports, after all.
He isn’t sure if what they’re doing qualifies as dating. They go out when they can. Most of the time, Junhong has to tag along.
Still, it’s nice. Lovely, even. Daehyun doesn’t have many days off, so it makes Youngjae giddy like a teenager when he thinks about how Daehyun chooses to spend his free time with him, rather than doing something else.
The weather makes it a little too cold to go to the park, so instead they walk around Seoul, dipping into cafes and bookstores, and they take turns carrying Junhong on their backs when his feet start to drag.
Youngjae especially likes taking Daehyun and Junhong to the movies, when they can make it. Junhong will watch the screen, riveted, and Daehyun will fold his hand into Youngjae’s and sometimes he’ll put up the armrest, and they’ll lean against each other and sometimes they will kiss, dry and quick, but warm.
Sometimes Daehyun will cancel.
“I’m really sorry,” he says, as Junhong tugs on his jeans. They’re standing outside the school in the hard-packed snow, breath misting in front of their faces. “The other bartender got sick and called in. It was so last minute.”
“It’s fine,” Youngjae says, though he had been looking forward to a whole afternoon with him. “Are you going there now?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m going there now.”
“Can I walk you?”
“Are you serious?” Daehyun laughs. Junhong detaches himself from his brother’s leg and kicks at the snow, chasing the clumps that shoot away, bored.
“Yes?” Youngjae says slowly, tilting his head. “Why?”
Daehyun is smiling. He turns and loops his arm through Youngjae’s, and then joins their hands together. “That’s just so...nice. And cute.”
“Of course you can escort me.”
“Walk you,” Youngjae corrects, lips curving up. “I’m not taking you to a ball.”
“But I’d look great in a ballgown, am I right?”
They start walking, and Junhong skips ahead of them, still kicking at snow.
“Red,” Youngjae says, picturing it. “Sweetheart neckline, cinched waist. Hm...but with your coordination, you probably wouldn’t be able to handle heels, huh?”
Daehyun nudges him with his shoulder.
The bar is in a fancy part of town, where the stores lining the streets for shopping all boast foreign names, and the coffee is the same price as a whole lunch in another neighborhood. There’s no sign above the door, just an elegant, flat plate of its street number.
Junhong goes in first, familiar, and Youngjae follows the brothers, taking in the elegant, minimalist decor and dark lighting. There’s the low-level noise of conversation in the space. It’s just past white-collar working hours, but already the bar is spotted with patrons in their business attire. Opposite the bar is a row of tables, with a bench running the length of the wall, and those seats are mostly full, too.
There’s house music playing overhead, low and unobtrusive.
“Stay for a drink,” Daehyun says, leaning into his ear. He’s got Junhong by his shoulders in front of him. “But hold on a minute, okay? Take a seat at the bar.”
He kisses him, surprising Youngjae, and leads Junhong to the back. There are stairs in the corner, dark and partitioned off by a gate. Daehyun takes keys out of his backpack and opens the gate, and then he and Junhong disappear up the stairs.
Youngjae goes to the bar, finding a seat.
When Daehyun said he worked at a bar, Youngjae pictured some underground dwelling, college students messy with beer, horrible lights and loud music.
This, though? This is nice.
The stools are backed and cushioned, and the countertop of the bar is clean and polished. Youngjae can see his reflection in it.
“Can I get you anything?”
Youngjae looks up. The guy behind the bar is tall and lanky, with jet black hair and narrow eyes. Or maybe he’s just glaring at Youngjae. He has a tattoo curling up the side of his neck that disappears under the collar of his shirt.
Then he smiles. It changes his face completely.
“You came in with Daehyun,” he says, when Youngjae shrugs and waves his hand to politely decline.
“Oh,” Youngjae says, sitting up a little higher. “Yeah. I did.”
“I’m Yongguk,” the bartender says. “This is my bar. It’s nice to finally meet you.”
He extends a hand, and Youngjae shakes it. “You, too.”
He’s heard a little about Yongguk. Daehyun doesn’t really talk much about his friends when they’re together, so all he knows is that Yongguk is this guy who has stuck with him since the beginning, since he had to quit school to take on another job. Yongguk saved him, Daehyun said once.
“He talks about me?” Youngjae finds himself asking, voice pitchy.
Yongguk nods, resting his hands on the bar. “Yeah, sometimes. Babbles, more like. It’s pretty cute.” He smiles again, pausing, staring.
Youngjae bobs his head along to the music. He kind of wishes he had asked for a drink, after all.
“So are you sleeping with him?” Yongguk asks him.
And if he’d been drinking anything he definitely would have sputtered the drink all over the place.
Youngjae opens his mouth, closes it. He’s definitely...thought about it. Quite a bit. But their dates just haven’t really coalesced to that point, yet. How would he initiate something like that? He imagines himself saying to Daehyun, “Hey, why don’t you come over tonight for dinner? Don’t bring Junhong,” and cringes.
“It’s not really any of your business,” he tells Yongguk finally.
He feels a tap on his shoulder. He turns. It’s Daehyun.
He looks - different. He’s wearing a black shirt with a wide collar that dips dangerously low over his chest and collar bones, and black lined around his eyes, and when he turns his cheek his skin shimmers.
Youngjae’s mouth goes dry.
“Is that - are you - are those leather pants?”
Daehyun looks down.
“Ah,” he says, sheepish. “This whole get-up is so ridiculous, right? But the guests like it. We get more tips like this.”
Youngjae’s cheeks are burning. He swallows. “It’s - great. You look good.”
Daehyun laughs. He darts forward and kisses Youngjae on the cheek as Yongguk watches.
“So you guys met each other? Youngjae, Yongguk; Yongguk, Youngjae.” He looks between them, expectant.
“Yeah, Youngjae was just telling me about his work at the school,” Yongguk says, flashing another smile. “I’m going to head to the kitchen, okay? See you in a bit.”
They shake hands again, and Youngjae is left with a strange, tight feeling in his chest.
He decides to ignore it.
Daehyun slides behind the bar, taking Yongguk’s place. He starts fixing a drink.
“Oh...he’s upstairs. In Yongguk-hyung’s apartment. It’s kind of a nice...arrangement. He’s a life-saver.” He balances a wedge of lime on the rim of the glass and places the drink in front of Youngjae, on a napkin.
It’s not the first time Daehyun has called Yongguk that.
Suddenly, he remembers: he’s called Youngjae that, too.
“You’re thinking about something. And that something is weirding you out.” Himchan snaps his fingers in front of Youngjae’s face. They are at lunch again, and this time Himchan has dragged Jongup to join them.
“I’m not weirded out,” Youngjae says.
“You are. You make this face. You’re making it right now.”
“There it is!” Himchan points at him, and then stuffs one of Jongup’s kimbap pieces into his mouth. “What is it? What are you thinking about?”
“That’s never the answer,” Himchan says pointedly.
He chews Jongup’s kimbap in silence. Jongup pushes the tupperware container in front of him closer to Himchan.
“Okay,” Youngjae says, after a long moment of being stared at. “Okay, fine. I’m thinking about this guy I met the other day.”
“You mean Daehyun. We all know ‘this guy,’ Youngjae,” Himchan interrupts, rolling his eyes. “Or, wait - do you mean a new guy?”
“No!” Youngjae exhales in frustration. “No, I mean - I met Yongguk.”
“Yongguk,” Youngjae repeats, but Himchan only squints at him.
“Daehyun’s friend,” Jongup helpfully supplies. “The one who owns the bar.”
The music teacher turns to him. “How do you know that?”
Jongup shrugs. “I listen.”
“Anyway,” Youngjae continues, and they both turn back to him. “I met him and he’s nice - I guess - and, like, what does it mean that Daehyun has the keys to his apartment?”
“Oh,” Himchan says breathlessly. “Do they live together? Is he cute?”
“They don’t live together.”
“This is like, in that drama, where the girl and the boy are dating, and then there’s a twist and the boy is actually --”
“Himchan, my life is not a drama.”
“I can dream,” Himchan says, pouting.
“He called their situation a ‘nice arrangement,’” Youngjae recalls now, and those two words turn themselves over and over in his mind.
“Sounds suspicious,” Himchan says. “Do you think Daehyun’s, you know…on the side?” He makes an obscene gesture with his fingers, and Youngjae’s ears catch fire.
“That’s so - not even - okay. To say. About him,” he manages to grit.
Himchan shrugs, unapologetic.
“It’s probably nothing,” Jongup is quick to say, to diffuse the pair. “He’s probably just a really great friend, right? You should just - ask him. You know?”
Youngjae sighs. He glares at Himchan, but nods at what Jongup is saying. “You’re probably right.”
The mountain of dishes in the sink slowly comes down. Daehyun stands next to him at the counter, drying as Youngjae passes them, clean but wet, to him. It’s a good system. Junhong is coloring in the living room and Youngjae’s put his phone in his speakers, and he’s playing music from this band they both like.
Daehyun’s duffel is in Youngjae’s room. They’re trying something, tonight. Maybe. Probably. If Junhong can fall asleep on the couch.
He’s been thinking about Junhong a lot. About Daehyun and Junhong, together. About how Daehyun can’t leave Junhong alone in his apartment and always has to shuffle along with him, wherever he goes outside of school. Daehyun said that he has a friend who can watch him, sometimes, but he never wants to burden them.
“You know,” Youngjae starts, over the music and the running water. “I was thinking - when you’re, like, working at the bar over the weekend, would you like to leave Junhong with me, instead?”
Daehyun smiles, his eyes on the plate he’s drying. “That’s nice, but it’s okay. It’s just more convenient for me to bring Junhong. We’ve got, like, half our things at Yongguk’s place, anyway. Sometimes we sleep over.”
Youngjae chews on his bottom lip. That hadn’t been the answer he’d been expecting at all.
“What’s wrong?” Daehyun puts the plate away, in one of Youngjae’s cabinets. He closes it as Youngjae turns off the faucet.
“Nothing. I guess. So - sometimes you guys sleep over, huh?”
“Yeah,” Daehyun says, the word trailing off as he looks at Youngjae, eyes narrowing. “So?”
“So,” Youngjae says, hesitating, remembering Jongup’s advice. “So what’s Yongguk to you?”
Daehyun’s lips form a tight line across his face. “Are you serious? Are you really asking me that? I sleep over, I don’t sleep with him.”
He pauses, glaring, two pink spots high up on his cheeks. “That’s what you want to know, right? He’s a good guy and he just helps me out a lot.”
“Is that all?” Youngjae has to ask, because he has to check, because he thinks he’s a good guy, too, and Daehyun’s told him he’s been his life-saver.
“Yes!” Daehyun hisses. He throws the rag down onto the counter. “Yes, that’s all. Jesus, I didn’t take you for the jealous type. You think I sleep around. Is that what you think?”
“No,” Youngjae says, a bark of a word.
He lowers his voice. “No, of course not.”
Daehyun tries to still, breathing heavily. “You think I’m looking for favors,” Daehyun says in a thin voice.
“Daehyun, I don’t think that,” Youngjae tries again.
“It’s okay if you do, Youngjae. I just expected a little more from you, I guess.” His fingers are shaking, his eyes bright.
Youngjae reaches out to him. He’s sorry to have brought it up.
He lays a hand on Daehyun’s elbow, but Daehyun shakes him off.
“Don’t touch me,” he says.
So Youngjae doesn’t.
The brothers don’t stay for the night. In the morning, Youngjae wonders how things could have happened differently.
He spends Sunday thinking about it, too.
His cell rings during prep period on Monday morning. On the screen is Daehyun’s face.
“Hey,” Daehyun says.
There’s a pause.
“You’re not in class, are you? I think I remembered right, but if you’re in class I can call again later, or. Whenever.”
“I’m not in class,” Youngjae says. Himchan is making hand motions at him from across the table. “Hold on. Let me relocate.”
Himchan makes an exaggerated, disappointed face at him, but Youngjae still walks out. He walks with quick steps to another floor of their building, to a room he knows will be empty at this time.
“Okay,” he says, when he’s settled in, perched on a small desk. “Hey.”
“How are you?” Daehyun asks.
“I’m okay. You?”
“I’m - a huge idiot.” Daehyun sighs into the phone. It makes a staticy sound in Youngjae’s ear. “I’m sorry. I totally blew up at you the other night, and you didn’t deserve that.”
Youngjae allows a moment for the apology to sink in. Somehow, it feels like a landmark. Then, he says, “You were upset.”
“Yeah,” Daehyun huffs. “I was. But I should have stayed and explained. Like an adult.”
“That would have been nice.”
Daehyun laughs. Youngjae feels tightness uncoiling from his chest.
“Yongguk is just - he’s like a brother to me, and that’s all. Okay?”
“Okay. And...I’m sorry, too. For assuming. Even just a little bit.”
“I don’t think you’re like that.”
“I get it.”
“Even though, that would be okay. If you were like that.”
“I get it, Youngjae, jeez.”
Youngjae smiles. “So I’ll see you this afternoon?”
“Yeah. I might have stress-baked, like, a hundred brownies this morning at the cafe for you.”
“That’s about eighty more brownies than I can eat, Daehyun.”
He laughs again.
Youngjae thinks he hears him say, “Ah, I like you,” as they’re hanging up, like an after-thought as he’s pulling his phone away from his ear.
One moment the kids are playing by the swingset on the playground during recess and then the next moment, Minyeol is on the ground, howling, holding his hand against his left eye, and Junhong is standing over him with his fist raised.
Jongup is quick to intervene and hug Junhong’s arms against his sides, but Junhong seems to be done. He looks down at Minyeol and says, “You’re a fat liar,” and Jongup frog-marches him to where Youngjae is meeting them halfway.
“Let me go!” Junhong squirms.
“Go check on the other kid,” Jongup says. “I have to report this.”
“Maybe I can--” Youngjae stops when Jongup raises an eyebrow at him.
“Maybe you can go check on the other kid,” he repeats.
Minyeol will be fine. His mother is indignant, but the damage isn’t permanent. He’ll have a bruise on his face for a few days, and bragging rights about it for a while. She comes to the nurse’s office to pick him up and soothe him, and her rage drops almost as soon as she sees her son. She leaves with promises to follow up to get the whole story.
His more immediate concern is Junhong.
He checks his watch. Almost an hour has passed since the incident. There’s another teacher covering his class.
The principal will have tried to reach Daehyun by now.
A hit like that on school grounds - combined with Junhong’s record. He shakes his head, jogging to the principal’s office.
He can look through the little window of the closed door. Daehyun is already inside, with Jongup and Junhong and their principal, and the principal is speaking. It looks like the conversation is almost over. He can make out the words, “Zero tolerance,” from the principal’s lips.
He stops talking.
They sit in silence for a long moment. Daehyun turns to Junhong, who looks up at him with wet eyes, his hands folded into his lap. Daehyun says something.
Junhong looks down again at his lap, and his face scrunches up. He’s crying.
But Daehyun rises. The principal does, too. They shake hands.
Junhong stands on shaky feet, and holds Daehyun’s hand when he puts it out for him.
Youngjae steps away from the door.
It clicks open, and then he can hear Junhong’s sniffles and hiccups, and Daehyun’s sigh.
“Is everything okay?”
Daehyun blinks at him. “Oh, hey, Youngjae.” The corners of his lips are pinched.
“Junie’s suspended for a day. How does that even happen? In kindergarten?”
“It happens,” Youngjae assures him. “It’s not as unusual as you think. Is everything okay?” he repeats, because Daehyun didn’t seem to hear him the first time.
“Yeah, I’m just...going to take him home. I need to - call work - and stuff. And, just. Figure things out.”
He looks dazed. Tired. Junhong cries silently at his side.
“Can I come over later?”
“Sure,” Daehyun says. “Sure, yeah. Whatever.”
He shrugs. “C’mon, Junie.”
Youngjae checks the address again. It’s correct.
The apartment is dark when Daehyun opens the door for him. He steps back without a word and lets Youngjae in, turning away and dragging himself to the kitchen.
It’s small, but it looks cozy, well lived-in.
"Want some tea?" Daehyun whispers, filling up the kettle with water from the sink. "Jun fell asleep in the bedroom."
Youngjae slips off his shoes, steps up behind him, and lays a hand on Daehyun's arm. "It's okay," he says. "I'm fine. I don't need tea."
Daehyun turns off the faucet, and then he just stands there, kettle on the counter.
Youngjae moves slowly, so slowly, and steps a foot in between Daehyun's, his arms coming up to circle his waist, and waits for Daehyun to respond.
He does, sinking back into Youngjae with a sigh. His hands bring Youngjae's arms tighter around himself, until Youngjae's front is pressed flush against his back.
"I don't know what I'm doing," he says. His voice cracks. Youngjae touches his lips to the back of Daehyun's ear. "It's been 3 years and I have no idea. How could he just punch another kid like that? What am I doing wrong?"
"You're not doing this wrong." Daehyun shivers at Youngjae's breath against his ear. "You work so hard and you love him so much. He's five. He's going to mess up. But he's learning because of you."
"What if I ruin him?" Daehyun whispers, voice shaky and thin. "Youngjae, what if I mess him up?"
"Shh," Youngjae soothes, nosing behind Daehyun's ear, down to his neck. He places a kiss there, and his hand rubs circles over Daehyun's stomach. "You won't. You're not."
So Youngjae guides him out of the kitchen, to his couch, sits down with his legs crossed on the cushions and curls himself around Daehyun, their bodies close. Daehyun pulls up his knees, arranges himself in the space on Youngjae's lap, bones digging in.
Daehyun kisses him on the lips, feathery light, and draws back, tentative and unsure, his hands trembling against Youngjae's chest. "Can you just -- " he gasps, trailing his fingers up to cup Youngjae's face, and then back down to tap against his chest. He fidgets. "I want -- "
He breaks off, gritting his teeth and clenching his eyes, and rests his forehead against Youngjae's.
"Yeah," Youngjae breathes. "It's okay. I got you. I have you."
Daehyun surges forward. They have kissed before, but not like this, Daehyun cresting and breaking over Youngjae like a wave, desperate as Youngjae receives him.
His lips leave his skin burning, pebbling, and Daehyun tries to crawl inside Youngjae's skin.
"Let me," Youngjae murmurs against Daehyun's neck, hand reaching between their bodies, under the elastic of Daehyun's sweatpants, grasping him, coaxing him, swallowing the shudder Daehyun makes with his lips against his throat.
It's dry and a little rough, but he spits into his hand and brings Daehyun off, Daehyun's face pressed into the side of his neck, his arms tight around Youngjae's shoulders. He shakes as he comes down, breathing hard through his teeth.
"I got you," Youngjae says, again, kissing his temple, his hair, any part of Daehyun he can reach.
"Youngjae," Daehyun sighs.
There is wetness against Youngjae's neck, on his fingers.
They breathe against each other in the quiet dark of the room.
They steal time together.
Youngjae keeps track of the seconds, the minutes they spend with each other, and he piles them up in his head, counting. He catalogues the smiles, the touches, so he can draw them out again tenfold when he's bracing Daehyun against the sink in his bathroom, filling Daehyun's mouth with his fingers to muffle the noises he makes when he pushes into him because Junhong is sleeping in the next room or watching television.
A dam broke between them and Daehyun floods him with his skin, the need and want he keeps so safe and hidden behind it bursting, and Youngjae builds him back up and breaks him back down, over and over.
Youngjae gets drunk on his sounds and his sweat, when he goes to see Daehyun at the bar and Daehyun smirks at him and licks his lips and taps him on the wrist, and they've got five minutes, and a kiss turns into a bite and a bite into a moan, and Daehyun is on his knees and looking up at Youngjae from underneath his lashes, his mouth red and wet.
And when Youngjae bottoms out and feels it in his toes, in the little hairs on his arms, the slick-slide between them is precious, their breaths cycling between them.
And when they are coming down together, Daehyun shivering out of his skin and Youngjae panting wetly, the stars are shattering, the world breaking, but their hold on each other is strong.
“I love you,” Youngjae exhales against Daehyun’s cheek, and he thinks he means it, lips pressed against the salty skin.
Daehyun hisses when he slips out, teeters on his feet when he slides off the counter, falling into Youngjae and kissing him again.
He pulls up his jeans as Youngjae ties off the condom.
“I’ve got to get back,” Daehyun says, in a voice that crunches like gravel.
The bar is busy tonight.
Youngjae lets him go.
The change is subtle, like one day Youngjae woke up and everything has shifted a single inch to the left - hardly noticeable unless you are really looking, but Youngjae is really looking.
They meet and talk and kiss and sometimes they fuck, and Youngjae wants to believe that maybe Daehyun is just tired - his eyes slide away first because he's closing them, he takes his hand back from Youngjae's because he's trying to cover up a yawn, he doesn't respond with as much enthusiasm to Youngjae's attempts to reach him because he's catching up on sleep.
But inevitably Youngjae's mind always travels back to that moment: the words had flown from his lips like a flock of startled birds, and he'd watched, helpless, as they scattered against Daehyun and dissipated. "I love you," he'd said, like a fool, their bodies against each other in the bathroom of the bar where Daehyun worked. All he can remember now is the griminess of it, the urgency. Daehyun had sunk onto him, eyes rolling back, and winced.
The words had been misplaced, ill-timed. He should have waited, should have made it special.
Now, he feels Daehyun pulling away and does not know how to stop it.
So they meet and talk and kiss and sometimes they fuck, and Youngjae tries to apologize through the surrender of his body.
Junhong has fallen asleep in Youngjae’s living room and the bedroom door is closed.
Daehyun and Youngjae don’t get lazy moments together, haven’t ever been able to take their time with each other, but Youngjae tries, because the gray-purple light of the late afternoon is filtering in through his windows and throwing shadows across their skins, and the noises from the television are muffled on the other side, and Daehyun is underneath him and naked, Youngjae’s blankets draped around both of their forms from the waist down.
It feels like electricity is surging through his blood every time he brushes his lips against Daehyun’s bare, dry skin, only amplified by the way Daehyun arches up to meet him, the way his fingers dig into Youngjae’s scalp for purchase.
So Youngjae drags it out, kissing and gently worrying Daehyun’s skin between his teeth, leaving marks, until they are both dripping and breathless, vibrating with arousal and overheated, and finally, he pushes in, slow and tortuous.
“Ah!” Daehyun cries. It is sharp and unexpected.
Youngjae looks down and Daehyun is gritting his teeth, and blinking back tears. Hastily, he lifts himself out and off of Daehyun’s body, regretting it when Daehyun groans and bucks, his arms around Youngjae’s neck tightening and bringing them back to lay against each other. Youngjae is careful not to crush Daehyun with his weight.
“Sorry,” Youngjae whispers. “I’m sorry. What’s wrong? What happened?”
“I don’t know,” Daehyun says, his breath damp against Youngjae’s neck. “I don’t know. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
“Shh,” Youngjae soothes. He brushes the hair back from Daehyun’s forehead and places a kiss there, and then on his cheek, and then behind his ear. “Did I hurt you? I didn’t mean to.”
“No,” Daehyun says, his breathing growing unsteady, his chest starting to heave underneath Youngjae. Youngjae runs his fingers through Daehyun’s hair, trying to calm him, but it’s like trying to stop an avalanche from careening down a mountain.
“You didn’t hurt me,” Daehyun says. “You didn’t hurt me. I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s happening. I don’t know why I’m like this. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Youngjae says immediately. He shifts them both until they are laying side by side, facing each other. He cups Daehyun’s cheek in one of his hands, and Daehyun’s eyes are glassy and full and wet. Daehyun blinks and tears trail from the corners. “It’s okay. It’s going to be okay.”
“I’m sorry,” Daehyun says again, like a mantra. He can’t seem to stop. His chest breaks and he sobs, shielding his face with his hands and curling into himself. “I’m sorry. Oh, god.”
Youngjae draws his hands from his face and holds him against his chest, and feels pressure building up behind his own eyes, watching Daehyun beat himself up over something he can’t begin to guess at.
“What are you apologizing for?” Youngjae isn’t expecting an answer, had felt his heart clench as his eyes took in Daehyun’s quietly shaking form.
But Daehyun heaves, and he says, in a voice that reminds him of dead leaves in the winter:
In the morning there is another shift, but this one not so subtle. Youngjae can feel it in his gut.
Daehyun's eyes are distant and foreign as he and Junhong leave, like he’s been put behind a layer of glass.
For a week, he waits.
He’s sure he’s done something wrong for their relationship to turn cold so suddenly. He’s worried he did hurt Daehyun, that Daehyun didn’t tell him.
Daehyun doesn’t stay after school to banter, doesn’t arrive early to treat Youngjae to some coffee, doesn’t meet his eyes when Youngjae visits him once at the bar.
Daehyun smiles at him, waving and apologetic, and the smile is brittle and fake and he wants to know what he is hiding behind it, wants to break it to find out.
The thought scares him.
He calls his brother.
“Woah, hey. Hey, this is unexpected. What’s up?”
“Just wanted to say hi,” Youngjae lies, but his brother sees right through it.
“It’s not the usual time you call. There’s something you want to talk about.”
Youngjae breathes into the phone. He’s not sure where to start.
“There’s this guy I really like,” he says slowly. “But I think I fucked up.”
Youngjae sighs. He’s glad he doesn’t ask him to talk about what he’s like, or if Youngjae’s sure he really likes him. He does. “I scared him off. Away. I don’t know.”
“Uh oh,” his brother says. “He can’t handle your weirdness.”
“You’re not helping.”
“Okay, okay. Tell me more.”
So Youngjae tells him more. About how they met and how Daehyun lied about his Dad and then how he’d told him the truth. About Junhong being his student and Daehyun always trying to make the events the school puts on. About their dates. The way Daehyun laughs.
“Sounds...complicated,” his brother says, after all that.
Youngjae wants to slam the phone down.
“But I’m sure you’ll figure it out,” he says next. “It seems like you’ve got something with him, Youngjae. And knowing you...You’ll figure it out.”
It’s not much, but the reassurance calms him. “Thanks.”
“And when you do, you’ll tell Mom and Dad about him, right?”
He ends the call to his brother’s squabbling.
At recess, Junhong flicks Minyeol’s forehead and Youngjae starts in his seat on the bench next to Jongup, ready for tears, but the two little boys laugh. Minyeol shoves at Junhong and Junhong sticks his tongue at him, and then he skips away from the larger group, toward the teachers.
Youngjae holds out his hands to brace for an oncoming collision, and Junhong throws himself into Youngjae’s knees, laughing, padded by his puffy coat.
“Mr. Yooooo,” he sings.
“Junie, what’s up?”
“I want to play with Mr. Yoo.”
Jongup chuckles next to them, his shoulders shaking, and puts his forehead into his hands.
“I see you’re making friends with Minyeol,” Youngjae tries, nodding at the screaming children on the playset.
“Pick me up!”
“Junie, you’ve got legs.”
Junhong pouts. It’s the same pout he uses on Daehyun when Daehyun is trying to be stern with him. Youngjae exhales, long and slow, reminded of their afternoons in his apartment, Junhong coloring at the table while Daehyun leans against him, warm against his side on his couch; of walking to the park together and swinging Junhong between them; of Junhong with pasta sauce on his face.
Youngjae doesn’t stop him when Junhong clambers up into his lap, moving his bony butt around until he finds a comfortable position, cross-legged on top of Youngjae’s thighs.
Jongup says, “Don’t you want to play with the other kids?”
But he’s looking at Youngjae, and Youngjae sighs. He knows he’s being too lenient.
This is unprofessional.
But it’s not Junhong’s fault.
Junhong leans back against him and Youngjae takes a moment - just a small moment - to wrap his arms around the kid and press a kiss to the top of his head, and Junhong squirms, laughing, and slithers down to the ground again.
He runs off, back to the other kids.
“You can’t keep letting him do that,” Jongup tells Youngjae in a low voice. “What are the other students going to think? The other parents?”
“I know, I know,” Youngjae says. “But he’s just a little kid.”
Jongup frowns and doesn’t respond.
Days pass. They are both distracted - Youngjae by the coming Spring and the school break, following up on parent requests and catching up with other teachers on lesson plans. And Daehyun just seems distracted. Fluttering. Like a dandelion that will break into its seeds at the slightest breeze.
He calls him, and sometimes Daehyun will answer. But he’ll inevitably need to take care of something, in that very moment, and he’ll hang up again.
Youngjae is trying. He wants to make this work. But he needs Daehyun to want it, too.
Finally he catches him before school, right as Daehyun is leaving. “Let’s talk,” Youngjae says, but Daehyun shakes his head.
“I’d rather not.”
“Why? Why not?"
“Because I know what you want to talk about. Youngjae, maybe we were never going to last, anyway, you know?”
Youngjae’s stomach plummets.
Daehyun sighs. “I’m sorry,” he says again.
It seemed final. Youngjae is never one to pick at scars, but he does have the tendency to overthink. He stops this tendency on this matter consciously. If Daehyun is done, maybe Youngjae should be done, too.
Still, he misses him, as he tries to focus on work, on his friends, on his students.
Today, they are sharing stories in class based on pictures they draw themselves. The point is to practice sequencing events, and Youngjae lays out his relationship with Daehyun in a series of scenes in his head, but it’s not that simple. They get jumbled up. The beginning and middle and end. The intermissions. The breaks. His head hurts, thinking about it.
Instead the students share their stories.
They are cute and simple, usually about animals or people they know in their lives, and involve mundane things like going to the grocery store or riding an elephant. He calls on Junhong.
“I don’t want to share right now,” Junhong says, shaking his head.
“Will you share it with me later?”
The rest of the class goes. Junhong turns his drawing over on his table, hiding it from view.
“Do you want to tell me about your drawing, now?”
Junhong bites at his bottom lip, but nods, eyes large. “But don’t put this on the wall.”
Junhong takes the drawing out, smooths it against the flat surface of the table. It’s a simple drawing, made stark because Junhong used a single black marker that has smeared in some places.
“This is Junie,” he says, pointing at a figure on one half of the sheet. “And this is hyung.” He points at another figure, this one separated from the other by a thick, straight line.
“Junie is bigger than hyung,” Youngjae observes.
“Sometimes,” Junhong says. “Junie has to be bigger. I met hyung when I was two. I don’t remember Dad. Hyung says he wasn’t a bad Dad. He was just. Sad. And that’s why I couldn’t live with him. And now hyung is sad, see?” He traces the line. “So I put him behind here so no one can take him away from me.”
“No one is going to take him away from you,” Youngjae whispers, voice crackling.
Junhong says nothing. Instead, he turns and digs into the pouch behind his chair, and produces another marker. This one is blue. He uncaps it and starts to draw another figure, bigger than the other two, onto the page.
"I just thought of something," Junhong says, his tongue poking out between his lips in concentration.
"This is Mr. Yoo." He points at the blue figure. "You can help me, right? It’s okay if it’s you. Hyung likes you. You can help Junie take care of hyung,” Junhong continues. His eyes look so bright, a child who has just stumbled into a cave filled with treasure.
Youngjae exhales, feeling like he's trying to push the ocean from his chest.
"I don't know..." He trails off.
Junhong's shoulders tense, and his little mouth puckers. "Why? You don't want to?"
"I think your hyung wouldn't want me to."
Junhong stares at him, mouth open. In that instant he reminds Youngjae incredibly of Daehyun.
"Mr. Yoo," he says, "is dumb. Hyung likes you so much. Maybe as much as he likes me." He gasps. "Sorry."
At Youngjae's shocked silence, he looks down, ashamed. "You didn't know? I'm sorry I said you're dumb. You're not. You're a teacher," like that is a suitable explanation.
Youngjae wishes it were. But he’s a teacher and he feels like he needs to be an excavator, because Daehyun has layered himself behind oceans and glass, and he has to chip away at these things to get back what was once his, but so carefully.
He doesn't have the right tools, he thinks. He doesn't want Daehyun to shatter.
"I don't know," Youngjae says again.
"Hyung doesn't ask for things," Junhong says. "He doesn't ask for things, so sometimes you just have to give them to him, sometimes in secret, and maybe he won't like it or he'll pretend, but it's just because he's scared."
"That he can't pay you back." Junhong squints up at Youngjae. "Did you give him something? Maybe that's why you think he doesn't like you."
Again Youngjae is stunned into silence. Did he give Daehyun something? He thinks back to the moment that he's returned to so often, since Daehyun started to shy away from him. Is that what Daehyun considered those words he'd said to him? Unsolicited and burdensome and indebting him to Youngjae? He'd said I love you because it had been true, in that moment. And they still seem to be true now.
He misses him, so much. He misses the bitter coffee Daehyun brings in the mornings, and his strangely broken laughter, and his hoodies, the way he smells always faintly of vanilla and smoke, the little freckle underneath his eye.
He sighs, and Junhong seems to understand his need for quiet, as he watches Youngjae openly. Outside, the streetlights are starting to flicker on, and Youngjae imagines he can hear them buzzing.
"When he gets here to pick you up," he says finally, "I'd like to talk to him, privately. Is that okay with you?"
Junhong beams, chin nearly touching his chest when he nods. "I can wait outside. Right outside the door. I won't even peek."
A laugh escapes from Youngjae's mouth. "I trust you," he says.
Junhong stands and tosses the marker to the table, running to the door. "Like this! I'll stand right here." He ducks around the frame and out of view.
"Not yet," Youngjae says, his laughing uninhibited now. "Just when your brother gets here."
"But he's here," Junhong's voice shrills. "He's right there."
Youngjae feels the laughter die in his throat. He clears it. A moment later Junhong reappears with Daehyun in hand, dragging him forward like an unwilling dog on a leash.
Junhong looks between them, confusion written upon his face, as Daehyun ducks his eyes and counts the circles on Youngjae's rug. He's wearing a coat and bulky scarf that covers his mouth, and the clothes swallow him.
Youngjae tries to speak, but that laughter is still trapped in his throat, and rapidly changing into something that tastes sour in his mouth.
"Hyung," Junhong whines, tugging on Daehyun's hand. "Mr. Yoo wants to talk to you. By yourself. I'm going to stand over there. Like I said I would."
Junhong lets go, and Daehyun turns with him, silent, but does not follow when Junhong skips to the door and then past it.
A beat passes.
Daehyun asks, his voice low, “What did you want to talk about?”
Youngjae waits for him to turn around.
He does, and adjusts the scarf around the lower half of his face. The dark shadows under his eyes are stark in the harsh light.
“Us,” Youngjae says.
Daehyun’s eyes flicker to him.
“Please sit with me,” Youngjae says.
Daehyun’s body moves slowly to obey, but he trudges over the rug to the tables and carefully arranges himself in the chair across from Youngjae, hugging his arms over himself and burying his chin further into his scarf. Youngjae could reach over and tuck Daehyun’s hair behind his ear.
Instead, he slides the picture Junhong drew across the table and says, “Look here.”
“What am I looking at?”
“Junie drew this,” Youngjae says. “This is you, and this is Junie, and this is me.”
Daehyun’s eyebrows knit together. “It’s nice,” he mumbles.
“It made me realize,” Youngjae breathes, fingers of one hand jumping in his lap. “How much I miss you. And Junie. Junie told me the story around the picture. He said - he cares about you a lot, you know? And...I do, too. About you both.”
Daehyun doesn’t answer for a while. He looks at the picture and at Youngjae and back at the picture, and then he exhales, and his shoulders shake underneath his coat, and he says, “So, what?”
The urge to scream bubbles up so quickly inside Youngjae that he nearly lets it happen. Youngjae wants to scream. He wants to blow the dust that has seemed to settle on Daehyun’s eyelashes so he’ll just open his eyes and see. “So, I love you,” he says, anger tinging his words and making them dangerous.
But then Daehyun gasps, and he bites his bottom lip and looks away, and his eyes glisten.
“I love you,” Youngjae repeats, softer this time. “Okay? And I miss you, and I wish you would give us a chance, because I think - I could be wrong - but I think you miss me, too.”
Seconds tick by without an answer, and Youngjae worries that he’s overstepped himself. Maybe Daehyun hasn’t been thinking about him at all. Maybe he’d meant it when he said they were never going to work. Maybe he believed it.
“I think you’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” Daehyun whispers, chin dipping to show the crown of his head, his words muffled underneath the scarf. “And that’s really fucking scary.”
The world slides out from under Youngjae’s feet. He feels like he’s floating, with Daehyun in control of his tether.
“You love me,” Daehyun continues, pausing to sniff and press the back of his wrist to his eyes. “So what does that mean to you? What does it mean to me? What about Junhong?”
“It means we get to work it out, Daehyun. You and me and Junhong, right? We stick together, and we take care of each other. I just - I want you in my life. The both of you.”
Youngjae breathes, counting in his head to keep the rhythm steady. He’s never felt more like he’s standing on the edge of a precipice, not when he moved to Seoul by himself, not when he came out to his parents.
Daehyun says something. He can’t make out the words behind the scarf.
“What? What did you say?”
“I said, okay.”
“Okay, what?” Before he hears him answer Youngjae is already smiling, already rising. He lifts Daehyun from his seat to his feet as Daehyun says:
“Okay, I miss you. I want you in my life, too.”
Youngjae kisses him, and Daehyun groans into his mouth, fingers coming up to tangle in Youngjae’s hair, and he can feel the weeks of built up restraint behind Daehyun’s teeth, can pull it out with his tongue and savor the way Daehyun shivers at the grateful loss. “I’m sorry I was scared,” Daehyun is whispering between kisses. “I freaked. I’m sorry. I'm still a little freaked.”
“Stop it,” Youngjae demands, holding Daehyun’s cheeks and halting them. Daehyun breathes, open mouthed and eyes glittering, between his hands. “Stop apologizing. I’m sorry. I’m the one who scared you off.”
“No,” Daehyun says, pulling Youngjae forward again to kiss him. “No, no, no.”
“Are you done talking yet?” Junhong yells from the hallway.
They both freeze.
Then they meet each other’s eyes, and Daehyun starts chuckling first, Youngjae following after, and he kisses him on the cheek and wraps his arms around Youngjae and just leans against him, and Youngjae breathes in smoke and vanilla, and it feels good, it feels right.
Hey, Daehyun texts him.
It’s Friday in the late morning.
Hey :) , Youngjae replies.
I have off Sat night can i come over?
Youngjae bites the inside of his cheek. of course!...what about junie?
arranging a playdate, Daehyun responds. confirmation incoming.
His phone doesn’t buzz again for a while, and when it does, it nearly vibrates off his desk. The kids laugh, but they’re supposed to be working on their numbers in their groups, so they hush themselves quickly.
yesss!!! Daehyun has sent.
Saturday night is ours.
Should I bring food?
Oh junie will be at minyeols yeah apparently they are best friends now
oh man jaeeee
The messages stop there. Youngjae snickers.
can’t wait!, he sends.
Saturday night is the best kind of disaster.
Daehyun sinks to his knees in his kitchen when they’re cooking and blows him, and the stew Youngjae is making boils over.
They open up beers and clink cans and by the middle of dinner the food has been forgotten, because Daehyun’s straddling him on the couch, instead, languid and loose, some variety show playing on Youngjae’s TV, and Youngjae’s hands are slipping under the hem of Daehyun’s shirt, running up the smooth expanse of his back.
He works Daehyun open on the couch, and then when it looks like Daehyun will cry if Youngjae doesn’t slip inside him soon, he makes them relocate to the bed.
Daehyun bends in ways that make Youngjae’s toes curl. Moans so breathlessly and perfectly when he pushes into him, leaves scratches on his back and bite marks on his chest. He screams and shakes around him, and Youngjae feels so ecstatic and wild, so unrestrained.
He comes calling Daehyun’s name.
And then they do it again.
His family’s face is pixelated and spotty on the screen. There’s three of them: his brother, his mother, and his father. Sunhwa is missing, likely napping.
“Youngjae!” his brother greets. “How’s it going?”
Youngjae waves at them, sleepy. His hair is probably a mess.
“Good,” he says. “Really, really good.”
His brother beams.
“You look great, Jae,” he says.
“Thanks. You, too. How’s the baby? How’s Sunhwa?”
“Great,” his brother says, still smiling hugely. “So great. I can’t wait for you to see her. She’s beautiful.”
“She’s gorgeous,” his mother says. “She kind of looks like you when you were a baby.”
Youngjae grins. “Must be the amazing genes.”
“You really do look great, Youngjae. What’s new?”
Youngjae pauses. He feels great. Right now, Daehyun is sleeping in his bed and Junhong is napping on the couch. They’ve been coming over on the weekends. Daehyun has his own drawer.
“Actually,” Youngjae begins, exhaling. “I’m doing well. Really, really. I met this guy, right? He’s - amazing. You should see him. You would love him. He’s got this little brother, and he’s so good with him, and they’re so special. They let me into their world, and it just - it feels special.”
His mother is smiling, but his father looks like an image and not a live video. He says, “So...he is gay?”
Youngjae blows his fringe from his face. He recognizes, now, the question for what it is. He can be patient. “I - you know what? I never asked him. He might be gay. Or bi. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. We’re dating.”
His father nods. “He makes you happy.”
“Yeah. More than anything else.”
“Good,” his mother says. “That’s good. We’re happy that you’re happy. That’s all we ever wanted for you. You believe that, okay? Maybe next time we visit, we can all meet him? Um, and his brother?”
A weight slides from Youngjae’s shoulders. In its place is relief. From his room, he hears the sounds of Daehyun rousing, his steps making his floorboards creak. He smiles. “Yes. I would really like that, Mom.”