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the clearing

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October 2008, a Wednesday, clear skies, 55°

 

A forested hill rises up at the edge of the town where Namjoon and Hoseok moved for college and then made their home. It’s been made into a park, but many, many years ago somebody lived up there in a little stone house that’s ruined and grown over in green now. All that’s left between the trees and brush all shady around it are a few crumbling stone walls and some rusted, broken, half-buried remnants of the life that once existed up there.

It’s a strange place: not a part of the newer neighborhood below it, but not yet quite a part of nature. It’s peaceful, quiet. The house stood right at the pinnacle of a hill that slopes down and overlooks downtown’s skyline not so far in the distance. When the ruined house was built, that might have just been horizon.

Namjoon isn’t sure many people even know it’s there. After all, the path that leads to it is almost gone now, and the outline of the building is hard to discern, mostly covered in moss and hidden away. It’s not easy to see unless you’re meandering, walking slowly, braving paths that might lead to nothing, talking and breathing and in no hurry to be anywhere at all. That, at least, is how Namjoon and Hoseok first found it.

When they came upon it the first time, it was from the neighborhood below, up the sidewalk past steadily bigger, more beautiful houses as the view of the city got better. They’d been on a walk that afternoon, a spontaneous decision made when they realized over cafeteria lunch that neither of them had left campus in longer than they could specifically remember.

They’d finished eating and left together, taking the back way off campus: not toward the downtown strip, but away from everything, toward the wide ridging hill that was the fringe of the city. They didn’t want to spend the afternoon weaving through other students trying to find something interesting to do; they didn’t want to sit at the pizza place or go to the movie theatre, they wanted to get away from the big school and small city to which they hadn’t yet quite grown accustomed.

Hoseok led them, and Namjoon tried to pretend he didn’t get winded when they started up the hill. From campus, Namjoon could see the highest trees cutting sharp against purple sky at night, but it didn’t seem so tall until he was chasing Hoseok up the slowly winding sidewalk.

Then, overhung with trees, blocked off with cement barriers, the neighborhood ended at a shady, wide dirt path that sloped up into trees. A sign was staked into the ground that said, Mount Lookout Trailhead, elevation 1200 feet.

“Steep,” said Namjoon, tightening the hoodie that he’d taken off and tied around his waist.

“It’ll be easy on the way back down,” shrugged Hoseok. “There’s a lot of daylight left.”

Namjoon didn’t want to be a downer, but more than that, he’d so far never hung out with Hoseok and not had a good time. So, he ducked under the branch that hung low, its red leaves going thin, fallen onto the ground to crunch beneath Namjoon’s boots as he led the way through the clearing and up the path.

Up the path was shade, and quiet, and a cool breeze, and birds talking in the trees, and this growing distance between himself and all his unwritten papers and un-studied for exams. Namjoon breathed good air for what felt like the first time since he got to college two months ago, and he was happy to be doing this with Hoseok, even though he was up ahead, walking way too fast.

The path flattened out after a while, the slope gentling, and Namjoon thought they must be near the top. Between trees he was catching snippets of the bright sky, grey and cool and fresh. Fall was his favorite season, but he hadn’t experienced much of it yet in between everything else.

The wide dirt path kept winding on until it disappeared into red, yellow, deep fir green distance, but Namjoon saw the little path that led to the right. He said, “This way?”

Hoseok said yes to almost everything, which was something Namjoon found impressive. He raised his eyebrows and said, “Sure.”

They didn’t walk long before entering a clearing with a big view of town below, and Hoseok hurried to the edge. “Wow,” he said. “Joon, this is amazing. Good call.”

Namjoon felt proud that his whim had led them here. The space that opened under trees was pretty, and the bright sky sparkled through the foliage at the edge where Hoseok stood. He went to hurry to him, but on the way over, he found a wall that still stood a few feet high. He found it by kicking it over, thinking it was brush he could walk through.

“Ouch,” he said, and Hoseok flitted over to check on him. Then Namjoon saw mortar crumbling off the edge of a stones, and he said, “It’s a wall.”

That was more interesting than the view for a minute, as they scoured the area for more signs of a past life. Namjoon kicked sticks out of the way and Hoseok looked for more walls. They saw where the outline of the house used to be, and tried to imagine the floorplan together.

“Do you think it was one room?” said Hoseok. “Do you think there were other buildings?”

Namjoon didn’t know then, but they spent a long time contemplating. Back at school, they talked about it like it was a magical moment, and Namjoon wondered if they’d ever be able to find it again.

 

 

March 2009, a Friday, cloudy, 40°

 

“Is this it?” asked Hoseok, pointing the long stick he’d been carrying toward a vaguely outlined path.

“No,” said Namjoon, though he was not confident that he was right. “I think it’s down farther.” He pointed his own long stick toward the place where the path disappeared into the forest, cut through with sunbeams that suggested a warmth that hadn’t yet seeped back into the earth.

“You’re right, you’re right,” said Hoseok. “It’s after that bend.”

It was; they both knew the path as soon as they came upon it, though a big branch had fallen over it right past the entrance and it was hard to step over without catching their jackets on encroaching pine branches.

When they got to the clearing, it was just the same as the first time, though messy again since before, when they had moved all the fallen leaves out of the way. But that was a while ago. That was last semester, before Namjoon finally declared his major as illustration, before he went home over the holidays and had such an uneasy time.

After having been away from home for a while, going back made it strange. A lot of things he’d grown up thinking were normal seemed wrong now, and Namjoon had not enjoyed the winter break that he’d anticipated so greatly. But while trying to describe to Hoseok what exactly had been so bad, Namjoon’s words faltered. He couldn’t say anything more without telling Hoseok what the problem was. So he did.

“It’s weird because they really don’t like queer people,” he said.

“That’s no good,” said Hoseok as he idly picked at a blade of grass, not even like he was fully listening.

“I knew they didn’t, but I think college has affected me enough that they can kind of tell now.”

“Tell that you’re…?”

“Pansexual, maybe. I’m still thinking about it.” He exhaled a thin breath and felt his shoulders relax slightly. It wasn’t so bad to say, just uncomfortable to form the words. “Guys mostly, I guess,” Namjoon had said. “I used to think it was mostly girls, but it’s not.”

First, Hoseok had stiffly said, “Thanks for telling me, man,” and then he’d looked like he was going to say something else but stared at the opposite wall for a long time instead. Namjoon’s stomach started to feel cold and cloudy.

Then Hoseok said, “For me, it’s just guys. But I’m still thinking about it, too. So don’t tell anyone yet.”

“Oh, of course not,” said Namjoon, wondering if his voice sounded as weak to Hoseok as it did in his own ears. “Thanks for um, telling me too.”

Things hadn’t changed much because of that, it was just common ground that brought them closer. It didn’t change much because Namjoon had known from the time he met Hoseok that he liked him, and over all the years, he’d gotten good at holding feelings like that within himself.

He’d known that he’d liked Hoseok since they met on the first day of classes and made friends so naturally, and now, the cold sun that cut through the shade in the clearing and lit up the glassy, purplish shine to Hoseok’s dark hair didn’t make anything different than it was before.

“The wall you kicked over is still here,” said Hoseok, squatting down and looking around. “I don’t think anyone’s been here since us.”

Namjoon knew why. This was a place for them.



May 2009, a Saturday, clear skies, 77°

 

How could someone look like that without even knowing? Hoseok’s posture was so straight, but he sat so loosely, leaned over his legs on the short wall across from Namjoon’s. How was it possible for his mussed-up hair to look so intentional, running hands back through it and somehow making it better? How, when Hoseok looked up at Namjoon from the scratches he was making in the damp earth with a mossy stick, did it make his heart beat so hard that he could feel it? Did he not know what he was doing?

Namjoon was having a lot of trouble keeping himself gathered today. It wasn’t usually this bad, but Hoseok didn’t usually wear tank tops under plaid shirts, pulled off during the trek up the hill and tied around his waist. Namjoon saw Hoseok’s armpit earlier. It changed him.

He didn’t usually have this much trouble holding himself together, because he was always like this, every time he had a crush. He’d let it wrap him up like something that existed in the world, not just smoky in his head, and he’d forget that it was nothing. It was just him, imagining a scenario in which he was the kind of person someone like Hoseok would like to date, as if he hadn’t gotten too tall too fast and never filled out, as if he didn’t talk about things no one cared about without ever realizing that no one cared about them, and keep talking until someone had to tell him to stop. As if he had the social grace to understand what it looked like for a crush on someone to be reciprocated.

He didn’t want to ruin things with Hoseok, so he tried not to think about his armpits when they were together, but today, it was hard. When finals ended next week, they’d both go home to their families for the summer, and Namjoon was stressed from all directions. Finals, his family, how much he’d miss his best friend. The way Hoseok’s shoulders were defined from his biceps. The sweat drop that ran down his neck, his lips pursed in concentration as he went back to scratching in the dirt.

He looked up at Namjoon, maybe saw him startle, and smiled almost like he knew.

 

 

July 2009, a Tuesday, hot, 92°

 

A fawn stood in the clearing, turning around and searching out her way. She had bounded ahead and misplaced her mother, but was not scared yet. While she waited, she ate some flowering weeds. A moment later, her mother came through the clearing, and relieved, they went on together.

 

 

August 2009, a Thursday, humid, 85°

 

“It’s too hot,” said Hoseok for the millionth time. “Why did you make me come here?”

“Stop complaining. This is important.”

Hoseok pushed through the evergreen branches into the clearing with a dramatic movement that only he could pull off gracefully.

Namjoon swallowed. Hoseok went to the little wall at the far end of the clearing, put a full body motion into wiping the crumpled leaves off the top, and plopped down in his usual spot. He was careful, though, not to hurt it.

They'd been laughing up the hill this entire time, catching up about their summers, though they had been in touch a lot over the last few months. Namjoon had spent a lot of time with high school friends, a lot of time reading. He didn't miss Hoseok so much that it was painful, but he did miss him a lot. There were times when Namjoon was doing something fun and thought that it would be better if Hoseok were there. There had been times when Namjoon had thought about Hoseok's shoulders and the slope of his nose, the way he laughed when Namjoon said something that caught him off guard. Namjoon had spent the summer with people who didn't know some things about him that Hoseok knew. He'd spent the summer reading love poems and thinking about it.

"So, why did you bring me here?" asked Hoseok, pretending that Namjoon had to twist his arm. Really, he'd just suggested that they go to the clearing and Hoseok had shrugged and changed his shoes. "The first day we hang out after a whole summer apart and you make me hike ."

"You love hiking," said Namjoon. "You like hiking more than I do."

Hoseok snorted. "But you walk so fast."

That made Namjoon smile down at his shoes. He’d been so weak when he got to college, after spending so much of high school inside alone, studying or drawing or reading or wishing he were somewhere else. Last year, he started to get more active. He had to walk everywhere he went, and in the summer, he’d taken up jogging. He hated jogging, and he'd probably quit, but he'd had this coming moment in his mind since he got on the train back to his family's house in June and he wanted to look his best for it. Maybe it wasn't good to put so much into a moment like this, maybe that was why Namjoon felt his heart being sucked into a funnel at the pressure of it all, but at least it got him out of the house instead of moping all summer.

Hoseok was looking at him expectantly. Namjoon couldn't waste his moment.

He couldn’t waste it. Hoseok pouted expectantly, he blinked.

He wasted it.

Instead of saying the thing he'd been gearing up for, spitting up his heart into the dirt between them, he just said, "I just brought you here because we haven't had like, a minute to ourselves. Since before summer."

Hoseok squinted a little at Namjoon, almost like he knew. But then, he said, "Oh, yeah. True."

 

 

 

September 2009, a Sunday, partly cloudy, 72°

 

"Hoseok, I like you."

Hoseok looked straight up at Namjoon from where he was sitting, in the dirt, with his back leaned up against his little wall for support after a dance practice that had left him sore. Not too sore, though, to walk up here with Namjoon. Hoseok said yes to almost everything, but maybe that was just with Namjoon.

Hoseok looked straight up at Namjoon when he said it, because they'd been quiet for minutes straight, staring at the trees and watching the bright little glimmers of light that the breeze stirred through to the floor of the clearing between them. They were quiet a lot lately, quieter than ever, and sometimes they'd look at each other and then away quickly in the middle of the silence, and Namjoon was starting to think that there was nothing else for them to talk about until they talked about this.

Hoseok looked straight up at Namjoon and his face broke into a smile, so much sweeter and calmer than his grin when something was funny, so much more content than the open-mouthed smile he sometimes molded his face into when he wanted Namjoon to smile with him. His cheeks were pink from the heat and the effort of walking, and it was a warm little smile, melting over his face like he couldn't even help it. And Namjoon knew he had been right all along.

 

 

November 2009, a Friday, cloudy, 39°

 

"Hoseok, I love you." He tried to keep it to himself, but Hoseok's cheeks were flushed in the cold and Namjoon couldn't kiss him enough to give him the warmth that he wanted to.

"Namjoon, I love you, too."

 

 

January 2010, a Wednesday, snowing, 24°

 

There was a tree off to the side of the clearing with a smooth place where the bark had been rubbed off. Around Halloween, Hoseok pulled out a pocket knife that Namjoon hadn’t known he was carrying, and carved their initials into it. JHS ♡ KNJ 09.

Namjoon had weakly tried to stop him. The untouched feeling of this place was part of why it was profound. It was both personal to him and independent from him. He liked the feeling of smallness when he thought about how someone used to live here, and how, before that, so many thousands of years of other, quieter lives went on here, too. How, after he and Hoseok stopped visiting, this place would still exist without them. It scared him, but in a comforting, eternal sort of way.

Now, someone else was looking at the tree. Some kid on winter break who sneaked up here to get high and found this place on his own. JHS ♡ KNJ 09 , he read, and he thought about who those people might be. He pulled out his own pocket knife and carved JJK 2010 right above it, just a little bigger.

 

 

January 2010, a Tuesday, clear skies, 27°

 

Namjoon didn't even know why he dragged Hoseok here. They could have been crammed into Namjoon's tiny dorm bed, they could have been kissing and talking somewhere that wasn't so cold that their lips would freeze together, but Namjoon needed it to be here and this. It was so cold that his breath hurt, it was too cold to sit on the little walls for long without standing up and shaking out limbs and jumping up and down on the packed earth, but Namjoon needed this, and Hoseok wouldn't make him come alone.

"Sorry, sorry," said Namjoon for the hundredth time. "Sorry. I just couldn’t be there anymore."

"It's fine," said Hoseok for the hundredth time, sharing Namjoon’s wall with him, holding onto his arm and cuddled in close to his side. "It's okay."

“I don’t know why it’s this bad,” he whispered, resting his head on top of Hoseok’s, which was resting on Namjoon’s shoulder.

“Me neither,” said Hoseok equally quietly. “But it’s okay.”

Namjoon had fallen into a spiral because of something inconsequential, a math concept he couldn't grasp on his own, then someone at the tutoring center not being gentle enough with him. He knew it wasn't a big deal, but it felt like one at the time, because there had never been something Namjoon couldn't just learn , and on top of that he was embarrassing, and now it had been two days and he couldn’t even sleep, he felt so bad.

Hoseok got up, wiped the frozen leaves off the forest floor with a gloved hand and plopped down. He gestured to the space across from him, Namjoon’s spot, and Namjoon crouched down there, slowly folding himself to the ground as if he were stiff, or being very careful.

Namjoon tried to apologize again, but this was a different kind of place and Hoseok got him to be quiet. Hoseok wasn’t usually a very quiet person, either, but Namjoon was learning that he mostly found the energy that the people around him needed, and right now, what Namjoon needed was to stop it.

He tried. He took some breaths, he listened to the rustling and crunching and the cold, sharp sounds of the frozen forest. He listened to his breath, watched it cloud out in front of him, felt his hands and feet get cold, felt his body there, attached to him. He listened to his heart, and after a minute, even the chaos in his head (as loud in his ears as real noise) faded enough that he could hear Hoseok’s breath across from him as it puffed out in tiny clouds.

This place had some magic. As Namjoon felt the quiet touch him, he thought about the way it was paused in time and the way that time had changed it. He thought about the way time changed him, too, and the places from which he’d never moved.

Hoseok’s lips were bright red and shiny, and the white-grey sun was too far away to cast a shadow, but still something caught on Hoseok’s eyes and made them sparkle. He smiled at Namjoon; it closed his eyes and made him bright.

Hoseok said, “You look like you’re back.”

“I’m getting there,” said Namjoon, hearing for the first time how haggard his voice had gotten.

“You’ve been pretty upset. Hope this helps.”

“It always helps,” said Namjoon. “You always help.”

Namjoon held out a hand across the clearing. Hoseok was too far to grab it from where he was, so he got up and moved close enough to take Namjoon’s hand, and then to sit in his lap, then to kiss him until they couldn’t handle the cold anymore.

 

 

March 2010, a Sunday, chance of rain, 50°

 

“Okay, you were right. It’s never too early to have a picnic.” Hoseok tore a muffin in half and shoved a lot of it into his mouth.

“I know,” said Namjoon, proud of himself. The sun was still low, and it was cold and clean. The air smelled good, it felt good. Being somewhere that felt pristine made the rest of his life seem messy. Namjoon really needed to do some laundry. He and Taehyung needed to deep clean their dorm room. Namjoon took a deep breath and tipped his head back, looking up at the canopy all gently entwined, sliced through with sunlight. “I told you it would be nice.”

“Hey,” said Hoseok, food in his mouth, gesturing with the other half of his muffin. “I can admit when I’m wrong.”

“Are you hungry?” asked Namjoon, smiling a little.

“All the time,” said Hoseok. “Constantly. I thought I was done getting taller, but get ready for a six-foot boyfriend, I guess. Feels like I’m in a growth spurt again. Does that happen when you’re 20?”

“It can,” said Namjoon, but he didn’t really know. He was already this tall when he started sophomore year of high school.

“I’m gonna be taller than you,” said Hoseok. “It’s gonna be hilarious.”

Namjoon snorted, grabbing a muffin for himself and demonstrating to Hoseok how someone polite might eat one. “That’s not possible,” he said. “No one’s taller than me.”

“No one at all,” agreed Hoseok dramatically. “You’ve broken a world record at five foot eleven.” He started in on the baggie of celery they brought. It was not a very luxurious picnic, but anything was better than nothing, and they were broke. Namjoon finished his muffin.

A lot of things floated around in his head, like tiny leaves on the breeze. How graceful Hoseok’s thin hands were as he dug around in the celery bag. How the necklace he was wearing hung at his throat and down the collar of his shirt. How his hair looked when he pushed it out of his face like that. Namjoon and Hoseok hung out every day, but it always felt different here, fresher air in his lungs and a place just to sit while the trees stirred.

Namjoon had something to say, but he couldn’t find the words. Something about how important this felt in his heart, about how he was already sad for the moment they’d have to stand up and go home again, something about the smell of the earth and the way Hoseok looked when he smiled up here. It was a little different, Namjoon thought. Sometimes, he smiled bigger than this, but he didn’t often seem this happy.

 

 

April 2010, a Friday, breezy, 66°

 

A windy, rainy day pulled buds from branches and drowned sprouting flowers. The remnants of a wall, too weak after so long, finally blew over. Bricks lodged on their sides in the mud, and seeds were caught between them.

When the sky cleared and the wind let up, the spring would flourish. Moss and short grass would grow at the edges of the clearing. The same grasses and flowers as always would seed and flourish, but every year in a shifted pattern. Every year new grass would replace the old and new flowers would grow from the ones that died in the winter. Even places that seemed fixed were slowly moving; even still places endured change as seasons passed.

 

 

May 2010, a Wednesday, muggy, 78°

 

“I got accepted,” said Hoseok, not looking up from the pile of lichen he was building in the dirt between his spread-apart legs.

“To what?” said Namjoon, even though he knew.

“The exchange program.” Hoseok glanced up, then back down, wincing. Namjoon didn’t look away from his face. It was too hot to be here; the tips of Hoseok’s hair were sweaty. But he’d insisted that they come, and Namjoon had actually sort of seen this coming, though he’d never admit it until it came true.

“Oh, wow, congratulations,” he said, not meaning to sound bitter. They’d sort of talked about this, how it was something Hoseok wanted to do, how he’d never been far from home, what it would mean to go. Namjoon had mostly pretended it wasn’t happening. “Congrats,” he said again, trying to sound less angry but instead sounding hurt, hollow.

“I’m excited,” said Hoseok flatly. He looked up from his little pile again. Namjoon still hadn’t looked away. “But sorry.”

“It’s okay,” said Namjoon. “I want you to do it.” He took a breath as a breeze blew translucent puffs of pollen through the clearing. “And I’ll still be here when you get back.”

Hoseok winced, visibly recoiled, and something dropped in Namjoon’s guts. “About that,” he said, just breath, to his pile.

“Mm,” said Namjoon.

“I think it would make more sense for us not to try to stay together while I’m away.”

“Oh.”

“It’s a whole year, you know? I won’t be back until next July, but we’ve only been dating for 8 months. If that’s not a rule, it should be. Don’t sign up for long distance that’s longer than the relationship has already been. You know?”

Namjoon should have expected that. It was stupid, he should have known. He hadn’t even thought that they might break up; they loved each other, they didn’t just break up .

“Listen, Namjoon.”

Namjoon groaned.

“I love you. And maybe when I come back, we can try again. But I can’t go to Japan for a year and miss you the whole time. That’s too much.”

Namjoon could understand that the words Hoseok was saying made sense, but he couldn’t feel it. It couldn’t be a good idea, because good ideas didn’t suck.

He got quiet, and eventually they left, and when Hoseok tried to hold his hand on the way back, Namjoon pushed it away.

 

 

July 2010, a Monday, humid, 89°

 

A fat bird dropped from a low-hanging branch to rustle among mulch at the edges of the clearing. The center still looked swept-out, clean, like it had recently been occupied. Nothing good to eat gathered there, so the bird picked around the edges. Leaves gathered at the bases of the standing walls; the air was thick this summer, and not much had stirred in a while.

 

 

September 2010, a Saturday, baking, 85°

 

Namjoon took a deep breath. His hunched-over shoulders moved with it. The stick he was holding was limp in his hand, the book he brought along thrown aside. Too tired to read, or think. He thought about getting up, but the effort of coming up here on his own was twice as much when not shared with another person, and he wasn’t ready to go again yet.

This summer had been so hot, so heavy and oppressive, and he hadn’t been as active as usual. He wasn’t at his physical peak anymore, but he would be again, now that he was back at school. It had just been too hot to do anything this summer, so now the walk was difficult. It was just too hot.

Hunched over his stout wall, looking across the small clearing at no one, he waited for the energy to get up again. To go back down to campus, to his dorm room, increasingly oppressive.

That oppressive feeling was something he’d had since before college, but the last month back at school had been especially difficult. Even over the summer it was probably bad, but he wouldn’t have gone anywhere anyway.

He was having trouble leaving his dorm. It was hard to get to class, he didn’t really like to see his friends, and even his room sometimes didn’t seem to welcome him. He needed more space and quiet than he got, he needed less wooly heat, and he needed more people who would quiet their voices when they noticed that he was overwhelmed.

But he would be fine, of course. This place, for instance, held only good memories, none of the ones in other places that rattled his brain to scare him into leaving. Not like his chemistry lecture, the doorway to which felt every day more like a threshold that he was not allowed to cross. Like a vampire, he joked with his roommate Taehyung, so Taehyung’s new joke was to step through the doorway first and then say, “Please, do come in.”

“Vampires only need to be invited once,” Namjoon mumbled after the third or fourth time, but Taehyung kept doing it, and it was, if nothing else, a routine to grasp.

If what he needed to leave were alarms, routines, someone to invite him, then so be it. But what was nice about this place was that it didn’t watch him as closely as other places. And, alone or not, as long as he had one place to go, he thought that he’d be okay.

 

 

January 2011, a Sunday, windy, 33°

 

A tree overlooking the clearing had been sick for a while, and in the wind it finally cracked, a massive half-frozen branch falling into the brushed-out floor, rattling the earth.

 

 

March 2011, a Friday, bright, 45°

 

Considering this an escape from loneliness was strange, Namjoon thought, unpacking the lunch he brought, laying it out on the beach towel he was using as a picnic blanket. An escape from loneliness , he’d been calling it. All week, he’d been thinking about finding time to run up here.

He wondered if that made sense. Thirty people lived on his floor; he knew most of them. He shared a bathroom with fifteen of them, shared a dorm room with one. He had five classes. Two thousand people went to his school, thirty thousand people lived in town. It didn’t make sense that the escape from loneliness was the only place where he knew he wouldn’t run into someone else.

But, so it was. Namjoon pulled out his sketchbook, but didn’t try very hard to draw. It was nice to feel free from all that for a minute. He ate the sandwich and the apple he packed. He closed his eyes to let a breeze blow through his hair and then rubbed his chilly hands together. He looked over at the wall across from his and wondered what Hoseok was doing.

The missing him wasn’t so bad. Sometimes it was; there were some nights when he lay in his bed thinking he might not be able to bear it another day. He’d do the math in his head, think about what time it was in Tokyo, and consider sending Hoseok a message. But he never wanted to interrupt an adventure, especially not when feeling desperate, so he mostly just took breaths until enough time passed that he found he could bear it again.

Here, it wasn’t like that. A little like him, nothing much changed this place. It was susceptible, maybe fragile, but it had endured. Namjoon nodded to himself; that gave him some hope. He’d be okay until Hoseok came home. He’d make it until then.

 

 

April 2011, a Friday, balmy, 61°

 

Two freshman happened across a clearing in the woods.

“I don’t think anyone knows this is here,” said one nonchalantly to the girl she’d been crushing on all year.

“Then it must be ours,” said the other freshman.

Far below, in a dorm room, a boy re-read a paragraph in his textbook. He’d zoned out over it twice now, hearing the words in his head as a rhythm, a background thrum that forest light danced to, playing over the tips of dark hair, rich brown and sometimes gold and pink in the right light, over the sharp tip of an upturned nose, a wide smile, a tank top hanging off a tight chest. He tried reading again. Many architects conceptualize a particular kind of space first, and then create a structure that will allow it to be realized.

In Tokyo, a boy was asleep in a host family’s tidy little home. He didn’t dream of a clearing in the woods, or a private college in the mountains, or a boy there. His dreams were of new friends, new knowledge, a bigger world than he’d ever known he lived in. He didn’t count days down until his return; he thought of it anxiously, like clothes that no longer fit.

 

 

September 2011, a Wednesday, no clouds, 83°

 

The clearing was different than anywhere else. It was a good place to go to work things out. Namjoon always left feeling better, or so he convinced himself as he fought his way up the hill.

After a wrong turn, he came upon it: a space in the dirt and the two low walls, looking not-so-different. That was a comfort. That it was still here, that something lasted unchanged. He sat on his wall and looked across at no one, like he had for the past year, and maybe it hit him then.

That he’d been waiting, though not really on purpose. But it was always there, wasn’t it? It was always in the back of his mind, that he’d go back to his regular, easier life when Hoseok got back. That because it had once been love, it would be again. They’d pick up where they left off, he was so sure of that. Namjoon had rejected Seokjin of all people.

But Hoseok had come home, all lean and smiley with short hair and an earring, looking very grown-up and telling all their friends all these great stories about Japan, speaking with this directed confidence that made him so much more handsome than he had been as a manic freshman when Namjoon first fell in love with him. They’d tried hanging out like old times, studying at the coffee shop they used to like, and Hoseok had seemed… not exactly bored. Something with more animosity than that.

“So, what have you been up to?” Hoseok had asked, seeming antsy already, though he’d just gotten his drink. They’d kept up a little over the year, but the time difference was frustrating and they’d mostly just said hello every so often.

“You know,” said Namjoon. “The usual. Working on my comic, trying to keep up in school.” It felt like he was updating a distant cousin on his life; it felt like they were strangers.

“Cool,” said Hoseok.

“Yeah.” Namjoon tried to think of more to fill up the space. “Just drawing a lot. Seokjin asked me out.”

“Nice,” said Hoseok. “How did that go?”

“Oh, I said no,” said Namjoon, like it was obvious.

“Why?”

Namjoon didn’t want to say it, because of course Hoseok didn’t want to hear it. But he waited too long to answer, and Hoseok said lowly, “Were you waiting for me?”

“No,” Namjoon answered quickly. “Not really.”

“You were,” said Hoseok, with no emotion.

Namjoon had waited for a year of his life for someone to return, but this wasn’t the person he’d been waiting for. At the coffee shop, they argued. Namjoon went home and cried angry tears about it, and as soon as he was done he came here to sit alone. Still alone, even though Hoseok wasn’t really gone anymore.

 

 

October 2011, a Saturday, windy, 53°

 

This place was still good, even on Namjoon’s wall, even staring across at Hoseok’s, even though Hoseok’s had still been unoccupied for over a year, and Namjoon still couldn’t come here and not feel his absence.

Lonely was how it was everywhere, and all the time, so it was okay that it had started happening here, too.

By all accounts, Namjoon was doing alright. His friends were still his friends, his art just got better, and, last week, he showed one of his professors the comic he’d been sketching and plotting and drawing and redrawing since high school.

“This is very good,” she had said, flipping through the opening few pages that he’d printed off for her. “Who is the poet you’re quoting here?”

“Oh,” said Namjoon, feeling his face get hot. “Not a poet. I wrote that.”

She shuffled the papers closed again and handed them gently back to him. Almost too seriously, she said, “Don’t stop working on this project.”

He promised that he wouldn’t, and it made him feel a little better, gain back a little of the momentum he had been losing. Things were feeling slow lately; Namjoon wasn’t feeling caught up. He didn’t know as much about the world as everyone else. He’d been very sheltered growing up, and he felt years behind everyone else.

Also, it was hard to know all the same people as Hoseok but not even be friends with him. It was throwing him off. He didn’t want to care so much, but he didn’t want anything else yet. He wished he could just date Seokjin and not feel treasonous.

Still, still, this place was good, even alone. The breeze was gentle and healing, the quiet was a nice break from campus, where something was always happening. No one knew he was here, and it felt good to imagine being part of the ruins instead of the real world. It felt good to imagine sitting here until he got hunched over and old, as seasons stirred around him and he wasted away to nothing. It felt good to imagine himself, still here, sunk into the earth, a skeleton in torn jeans and a bomber jacket.

After a while, he moved and stretched, feeling his fingers and toes again and his heart pumping blood, and he put his sketchbook back in his bag and went back down to campus.

 



January 2012, a Friday, clear, 31°

 

Namjoon was drawing well today. It always came at the weirdest times, in the middle of the night or during unrelated classes or for a week all at once and then never again for a month. He didn’t honestly expect to bundle himself up and do anything in the snowy, lonely forest, but he carried a sketchbook everywhere, because he never knew, and because graduation was ticking closer every minute and he was not prepared.

Not that he was drawing anything that would help him graduate, but his favorite professor last term had said that any time spent making art was time not wasted, no matter how it related to any current projects. He was thinking those soothing words as he sketched, tried to perfect the way the snow piled on an upper bough of the pine tree across from him.

He took a break to warm up his fingers and drink from the thermos of tea he brought. Then he drew a little more, then, feeling quiet, he looked for a long time at the wall across from him. He got up and went to the tree that Hoseok once carved their initials into. JHS ♡ KNJ 09. And the other initials carved into it since then, JJK 10 and yg , initials cleverly incorporated into the shape of the 11 . Namjoon went and sat back down. He took another sip of tea from his thermos and crunched it into the frosty earth at his feet. He looked back down at his sketchbook and the snow on the tree was just the right texture, so real that he could almost feel it sitting unsteadily on the bent, frozen branch.

 

 

July 2012, a Tuesday, thunderstorms approaching, 83°


“Thanks,” Namjoon muttered to no one; to the still, humid air. He was feeling strangely contemplative, strangely grateful, big and interconnected about this place today. He spoke it louder, into the air, and the trees and the earth swallowed its echo. “Thank you.”

 

 

August 2012, a Saturday, humid, 90°

 

“Too hot,” said Seokjin. “Too hot to be doing this.”

Namjoon nodded. “Sorry,” he said again, pulling his water bottle out of his bag. He was already rationing water for the walk back down; it was a bad sign. “I don’t know why I thought we should come here.”

Seokjin plopped down on the ground at the base of Hoseok’s wall. “Too hot,” he said.

Namjoon didn’t know why he suggested this. He didn’t know why he did anything anymore. Clearly it was not how Seokjin wanted to be spending the afternoon, and Namjoon should have known that. Seokjin was afraid of the outdoors, and not in the way Hoseok was; not in the fun way. He just genuinely didn’t prefer to be around bugs. It made sense. He looked most at ease in the cut suits his new job made him wear, with his hair all styled. Hoseok liked running around in the sun. People were not all the same; activities were not similarly appealing to different people. Namjoon was out with Seokjin today.

“I think today was a bad day to do this,” Namjoon admitted. “Usually it’s nicer here.”

“It’s so hot,” said Seokjin again, panting and fanning at his face. He threw his head back against the wall, and his neck was so long, and Namjoon could tell that he was supposed to want something with him. But he didn’t right now. Seokjin was whining and drinking all of Namjoon’s water, and Namjoon was nothing much more than uncomfortable. He sat down at the base of his wall and they only stayed until they caught their breath.

 

 

October 2012, a Monday, crisp, 61°

 

What a nice thing, to come up here in the afternoon. What nice colors Namjoon pondered as the leaves on the trees dried up and drifted to the floor of the clearing. The mulchy smell was so comforting, and the solitary walk had stretched him out so nicely. What a nice place to sit alone for a moment, taking big breaths into his lungs after all his work was done. Namjoon thought that he’d live a hermit’s life well, sitting among the branches and the mulch and the chirping of birds, high above the city. He thought it would be the best kind of life.

Though, that fantasy felt less desperate these days. He used to want to bury himself in the forest, just to rest, just to feel the cool earth and the stifled sounds of society through feet of dirt and miles of forest, near him but separate from him. He used to crave solitude in a way that ached, that made it hard to sit still. But it didn’t hurt anymore. He was just happy to be here.

 

 

April 2013, a Sunday, breezy, 65°

 

“Sorry again that it took so long to come visit,” said Hoseok, gently brushing the leaves off his wall and sitting down on it, like he used to. “I missed this. Kept meaning to come, but things have been so hectic.”

“It’s so okay,” said Namjoon, He’d been busy, too. Everything happened quickly after graduation. Life got really different really fast, looking for work and settling into a grown-up apartment and adjusting to being a part of society. Namjoon hadn’t done as complete a job of that as Hoseok, yet, but of course he hadn’t. Hoseok worked in an office now; Namjoon was still just trying to freelance enough to pay his rent. “I’m glad you made it out. It’s good to see you.”

A breeze stirred the growing leaves above them and blew Hoseok’s hair around. He smoothed it back down. “You, too,” he said, looking across at Namjoon with an indistinct furrow. Namjoon was still sometimes surprised at how mature Hoseok’s face had gotten, thinner and smoother and sharper. Namjoon had changed, too (was sometimes called handsome now), but it was different to witness change in the mirror day by day than to see a year accumulate all at once.

Namjoon tried not to be bothered. Hoseok lived with his boyfriend now, they already had a dog, and Hoseok was really doing well for himself. Namjoon kept noticing how much Hoseok had grown up. It wasn’t just the way he’d seemed grown-up when he got back from Japan, poised in a way he hadn’t been before. Namjoon didn’t know Hoseok so well anymore, of course, but he seemed all sanded down. He couldn’t imagine him yelling anymore, or laughing at nothing, or dancing. It was… it was good. Hoseok was established. It wasn’t fair for Namjoon to miss the way he’d been as a kid. Namjoon was the one who needed to catch up, who’d never been as put-together as he should have been.

“I’m glad we can be friends again,” said Hoseok. “I missed this.” Hoseok sat with his hands folded. He didn’t touch any dirt, didn’t seem to be reveling in the open air, the perfect day. The tall trees, the oneness of the universe.

It was good, but it disgusted Namjoon a little bit. He thought it was the fact that he was still adjusting to who Hoseok was now; the image in his head was still college sophomore Hoseok, with the goofy grin and the bad fashion sense. It made him nauseous to try to merge the two people into one. It was hard to imagine.

Namjoon realized he was holding onto a feeling that he’d have to let go if he ever wanted things to be different. He was holding onto a feeling that he’d gotten from this place once, years ago, and never again since.

 

 

June 2013, a Saturday, cloudy, 84°

 

It was nice to see Hoseok again so soon, though something about it made Namjoon suspicious. This place was theirs, but it belonged to a different Hoseok than this one. Just coming here together wasn’t it, he knew now. It was the feeling. He’d almost gotten to it once or twice when he was here alone, a warmth starting in the middle of his chest and growing outward like roots, perfect calm, but it wasn’t like the first time. And here with Hoseok now, he was tense. It defeated the purpose.

“So you’re still just freelancing?” asked Hoseok. He was wearing a starchy baseball cap with the name of his company embroidered on it.

“Yeah,” shrugged Namjoon. “I mean, it’s paid all the bills so far. So I don’t know why I’d need anything else.”

“Yeah, I guess. Are you looking for something more stable, though?”

“Not really,” said Namjoon. He took a bite of his granola bar. “I’m good. I don’t have to be around people that much.”

“I don’t know if that’s good for you,” said Hoseok. Namjoon thought that might have been unfairly blunt. “Humans are social creatures. We’re basically pack animals.”

“Guess I’m a lone wolf,” said Namjoon, knowing how stupid he’d sound before even speaking, but going for it anyway.

“Are you still single?” asked Hoseok.
Namjoon shrugged. He didn’t know if he was the kind of person who was going to end up in any more relationships. He needed his routine, his pace, his space. Looking in on his life with sharp eyes like Hoseok’s, he could see how that looked. He knew it wasn’t good, but he did okay most of the time, so it was hard to think about changing. Establishing himself differently was exhausting to think about.

“What are you doing?” asked Hoseok. “Like, what’s your plan?”

Namjoon shrugged again. Hoseok looked sharp and cruel, his face half in shadow, eyes dark under his hat, half cut through by light. Namjoon had a clear thought: it was painful to still be in love with him. It just hurt.

“I worry about you, you know?” said Hoseok. “I want you to be successful, and I’ve seen you do it. So I don’t know why you don’t try.”

Namjoon said, “I had a stomachache that didn’t go away the whole time I was in college.”

“Wait, what was wrong?”

“I was anxious.”

“That’s all?”

Namjoon shook his head. “Why are you talking to me like this?”

“Because I don’t think anyone else does and I think you need to hear it.”

“I’m not like, a kid that needs advice.”

“It feels like it.”

“I’m just doing things my own way.”

“You live alone and you don’t have a job.”

Namjoon spoke up. “I have a job. I just don’t have to go to it. I’m doing what I went to school for, and what I’ve wanted to do my whole life. Are you still dancing? What are you doing with that degree?”

“I got a business minor, you know I got a business minor.”

“Okay.” Maybe the heat was getting to him. It was too humid, the air was too thick and still, the shadows too cool and the sunlight too bright, but Namjoon and Hoseok didn’t know where to go when they met up if not here.

“It’s hard to see you like this,” said Hoseok. “You were such a bright person.”

Namjoon didn’t say anything. It was weird to be snapped at like Hoseok knew all his secrets, like he knew Namjoon would still love him after this no matter what he said. It was weird to be snapping back. It was hard to bear Hoseok’s frantic energy, the way he talked down to him. It was hot and strange and uncomfortable. Namjoon took a drink of his water bottle so he wouldn’t have to look at Hoseok across from him, shoving hard against Namjoon’s weak walls.

“Can I ask you a serious question?” said Hoseok.

Namjoon shrugged.

“Did I ruin your life?”

Namjoon barked out a laugh. “You’re not that powerful,” he said. “You’re not like that.”

“What am I like, then?” said Hoseok. “You act like you’re still not over it.”

Namjoon didn’t answer.

“Are you not over it?” said Hoseok.

“I’m over it,” said Namjoon through his teeth.

“You’re not over it.”

Namjoon took a deep breath, looked back up at Hoseok. His hair was a little sweaty, but still styled. His cheeks were shiny. His eyes got icier every time Namjoon looked at him. “I don’t know what you want me to tell you,” he finally said. “I’m working on it.”

Hoseok rolled his eyes. He stood up off his wall, too quickly, and part of a brick cracked off the side in a little cloud of dust. Namjoon felt it like a part of him. Back turned, Hoseok said, “I don’t understand that.”

“Me neither,” said Namjoon. He didn’t move from where he was sitting, sagging over his knees a little. Judging himself for his paint-smeared jeans when Hoseok was wearing nice athleisure sweatpants, bright new sneakers. Namjoon still dressed like a college student. “I’m working on it,” he said again.

“I just don’t get it,” said Hoseok, coming to stand in the clearing and look down at Namjoon. “We were kids. I’m not even the same person.”

Namjoon was aware. “I know.”

“I want to be your friend. You make it really hard.”

“Well,” said Namjoon evenly. “So do you.”

 

 

September 2013, a Wednesday, gloomy, 78°

 

When Namjoon stepped through the canopy of overhanging vines, he yelped in shock. He wasn’t alone.

His heart beat fast. Beat too fast as he made eye contact with the man sitting on Hoseok’s wall. He looked too small under the trees. He looked out of place in his windbreaker, an insult to an ancient thing. It smelled like weed. Namjoon knew it was fine, it wasn’t the end, but his heart was beating too fast already and he wasn’t sure if he could stop it.

He stood frozen for a moment. Choosing between staying and going was too much to think about when he was so startled.

The guy stubbed out his blunt on Hoseok’s wall and said, “Sorry man. I was just going.”

“No, no,” said Namjoon, voice faint. “You stay. I’m not in the right place.”

The stranger shrugged, and as Namjoon turned to escape, said, “Suits me.”

 

 

October 2013, a Sunday, clear skies, 71°

 

Hoseok had skipped over the pleasantries. Can we go to that ruined cabin this weekend? He asked over text, with no other context.

Namjoon, try as he might to fill his life with important things, was still always free for Hoseok.

He wondered what Hoseok wanted. After the last time they met, early in the summer, they hadn’t spoken again. Namjoon had felt that a long time coming, and was mostly at peace with it. He agreed that it was too hard to be friends, and that they didn’t know each other anymore. At the clearing now, looking across at Hoseok on the wall that had always felt empty without him on it, he was hardly recognizable. The wall didn’t even feel like Hoseok’s anymore, and Namjoon wondered when he stopped understanding this place.

They didn’t talk about anything important until they were face to face under the trees. They both could feel something coming, but the first time they found this place was six years ago and they both knew how it worked. Walking up the widely curving hill, Namjoon and Hoseok matched pace and talked about almost nothing. Or, Hoseok talked about almost nothing, letting Namjoon catch him up on the languidly flowing mundane changes in his life over the summer. “An indie publisher picked up my comic,” he said. “I don’t know yet, though. It’s not coming out until February. So we’ll see.”

“That’s great,” said Hoseok, looking over at Namjoon with something a little softer than Namjoon was used to these days, something that cut through his serious expression, perfectly trimmed hair, fresh athletic jacket. He looked like he had as a kid again, almost, for just a second. Namjoon couldn’t help but feel like it was magic, or something, as leaves crunched under their feet and a teenager zipped past them down the hill on a whirring bicycle.

Now, in the smell like rain and leaves and earth, as two crows argued in the distance and the space here held them quiet and thoughtful, the cool light played on the many-colored blanket of decomposing leaves, and Hoseok sat straight-backed and proper.

“Well,” said Namjoon, who knew they were here for a reason, because this Hoseok didn’t really do things on whims . “What’s up?”

“Ah,” said Hoseok. “I wanted to talk to you about something.”

“Cool,” said Namjoon. “Well, you’ve got me here. My next appointment’s not ‘til two.”

“Really?” said Hoseok, looking quickly at his watch. “But it’s already--”

“No, not really,” said Namjoon, laughing half at his bad joke and half because he was embarrassed. “Sorry. I never have anywhere to be.”

Hoseok seemed a little uncomfortable. “That’s actually... Yeah. That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”

“What? How I’m free?” Namjoon winced on instinct.

“Yep,” said Hoseok, thoughtful, not accusatory. “I wanted to ask you what that was like.”

“What do you mean, exactly?”

“What’s it like not to do anything?”

Namjoon couldn’t hide a disgusted face at that. Hoseok tried weakly to backtrack, but Namjoon held out a hand for him to keep quiet. He had been thinking about this, a little, at the same time that he had been making peace with not knowing Hoseok anymore.

“First of all,” he said, “I don’t do nothing . I walk every day, I draw or paint every day. And remember in college when we had too much to read for our arts requirements and I said I’d never read for pleasure again? A lie, I read all the time. I wake up at 8 every day, except when I get up to watch the sunrise. Last year I made so much bank doing illustrations for a social studies textbook. Took me like two weeks but I made rent for a year. Also, right. I pay rent. I vacuum. I babysit my neighbor’s kids. I do yoga because my posture’s always been shit and I don’t want to fuck up my nerves and have my hands fail me before I’m done drawing. Every single day I do things all day long. I’m always doing something. Just because I’m not a CFO and I don’t have a dog and a fiance doesn’t mean I’m not doing something, okay?”

He didn’t know exactly where all that came from, but it was good to say. He’d been thinking this summer about how maybe success wasn’t for him like it was for Hoseok. He’d thought about it at the lily pond that he’d been visiting once a week for almost a year, drawing it every time, documenting slow changes, feeling the details grow richer as he started to know individual frogs from one another, to feel how the lilypads all fit together. He’d thought about how he felt successful when he did good work, when he woke up on a clear morning and sat on his stoop with a cup of coffee.

Hoseok blinked across at him. He ran his fingers back through his hair, displacing his perfect part and almost making Namjoon cringe. He said, “That sounds really good right now.”

Namjoon probably expected anger because any other time he talked about his life, Hoseok responded like he was missing some imperative worldly wisdom. But he didn’t sound angry, or even disappointed. He just sounded tired.

“What’s going on?” Namjoon asked.

Hoseok sighed. Pursed his lips so his old dimples showed. Looked down at the dirt in front of him and then back up at Namjoon. “I’m doubting myself a lot lately.”

“Doesn’t sound like you.”

“No, doesn’t feel like me either.”

A pause, which Hoseok scowled into. “I think it’s just cold feet. I’m getting married next year, which feels… too soon, maybe?”

As hard as he tried, those words still made Namjoon feel defeated. “Sure,” he said. He couldn’t imagine being engaged; he hadn’t even tried to date anyone except Seokjin. And that hadn’t felt truly real to Namjoon, though he wasn’t exactly sure what might have changed that.

“My fiance wants to buy a house. I was still thinking of going back to Japan for a couple years, but I guess I can’t if we’re homeowners, right? Then what, adopting kids? Am I ready to be a dad? I’m already exhausted, I don’t want a kid.”

“Have you not told your fiancee this?”

“I didn’t even know I felt like this. Until this week.”

“What changed?”

Hoseok looked at Namjoon a little intensely for a moment before just saying, “I don’t know.”

“But now you’re a foreigner in your own life,” said Namjoon. He got the same way when there was too much going on. He’d find himself floating above it all, looking down into the details of his life and thinking, these things aren’t mine .

“Yeah, I guess.”

“You should talk to him,” Namjoon tried. He didn’t know. “I want to be mad at you for ignoring me for half a year and then hitting me up when you needed a therapist.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I guess I’m glad you trust what I have to say on this.”

“I do,” said Hoseok. “You’re the only person I know who doesn’t work themselves to the bone. I tried to talk to one of my friends, but she told me I’d feel better when the wedding got closer. Just to dive in headfirst. I don’t really think I’ll feel different.”

“Glad I could help,” said Namjoon, feeling this little glowing coal of misery in the bottom of his stomach. He didn’t know why, really. Maybe he was tired. “Do you want to uh, head back down?”

“Can we stay a little longer? It’s beautiful out.” Hoseok looked a little less stiff than he had.

“Oh,” said Namjoon. “Of course.”

 

November 2013, a Sunday, cold, 33°



This was probably the last time that Namjoon would be able to make it up here this year. The snow started early, and it was looking like a harsh winter. He was sad about that; knowing this place was up here did something good for him. It was good to know that if every other place made him uncomfortable, itchy and vigilant, he could always climb up here and find a way to be at ease.

This whole week, he checked the weather daily to plan his final visit until spring. He planned it more closely than most things; even plans with his friends were usually just outlines until the day. But he'd been looking forward to his Sunday walk, and it had gotten him through a week that was not very good. Usually, lately, he moved through days and days without ever getting that deep stomach-sore feeling like something bad lurked above him. He still felt it sometimes, of course. Maybe for a bit in the afternoon, or a whole day once a month. Sometimes he didn't want to leave his house, sometimes he cancelled plans. But he stayed home because it kept him feeling good, not because it kept him from feeling bad. He knew how to listen to himself and be protected. But, he thought, trying hard to find logic through a hazy brain that twisted every thought into self-deprecation, sometimes things were better and other times they were worse. Right now, his mind felt poisoned.

However, good things had been happening to him. His lily pond watercolors were almost done, he was getting steady work, and when he forced himself to go to yoga this week, his teacher told him that his downward dog was excellent. Also, when he texted Hoseok to tell him he'd be going to the clearing on Saturday, expecting a weak apology or maybe no response at all, he received a response in minutes. I would love to join you?

So, he wasn't even alone. An icy bough crackled as he moved it out of the way to walk through, leading Hoseok to the low walls that still somehow stood for them.

But Namjoon's, actually, had graffiti on it since the last time he was here. It hadn't even been long, and it had been cold. It was spray paint, fresh and red, cutting unnaturally sharp and harsh and fresh in this place where everything else was old. But Namjoon had long since realized that he had no ownership here. He was not the only person who came here to feel these things.

Namjoon and Hoseok were old here now. Namjoon felt very worn-down when Hoseok was around. The walk up had been difficult in the cold, and his week had been bad and he hadn't talked to people much, so he'd forgotten how.

He still had to remind himself, often, that Hoseok wasn't the person Namjoon still thought he was. Maybe he never had been. They were both still trying to be friends, but they were both very bad at it. And it was hard, and maybe not good for Namjoon, but that those things weren’t stopping him from trying.

They hadn't talked much on the way up, and Hoseok's skin looked loose, or something. He looked less like all the parts of him were tightly pulled together, flexible trees growing upward. Namjoon thought it was the cold. Hoseok had never really liked it.

"So," said Hoseok, a little quiet, like his voice was frost-numb or like he had forgotten how to talk, too. "How have things been?"

"Fine," said Namjoon. "Everything's still going really well. Since last time."

"Can I talk to you about something?" said Hoseok.

Namjoon sighed. He wished this wasn't this. But Hoseok knew he'd say yes. He said, "Yes."

Hoseok winced like he was sorry. Maybe he saw that Namjoon was uncomfortable. He said, "It's just... you're the only person I can talk to about this. And the last time we talked. I'm still thinking about it."

"Okay," said Namjoon, smacking the ground with a stick that he was holding in a gloved hand.

Hoseok looked up at the sky through the trees that touched overhead. He said, "I think I can't get married."

Because he didn't want to look like his heart suddenly started pumping new blood instead of the old, cold stuff, Namjoon coughed into his hand.

"I can't," said Hoseok again, more confidently. "It's not time."

"Great," said Namjoon. "Don't."

"Are you really happy?" asked Hoseok.

Namjoon didn't know what to do with that question. In this minute, no. This week, this whole month, he'd gone through a period of second-guessing that had not been happy at all. But in general, when he thought about his life, all the mugs that his friend made and glazed for him, and the sunlight that came through the bay window of the little house he'd moved into this year, and the smell of his bed and the little purple flowers that grew in the cracks of the sidewalks in town, he thought that he was happy. Maybe not Hoseok's estimation of happy, or what his parents had hoped for him. Maybe he was single and he stayed at home most of the time and didn't talk to a lot of people. But he lived a life that kept him safe, and he spent his own time. "Yeah," he said. "I think I am."

"I need to quit my job," said Hoseok, not even leaving space for a breath after Namjoon finished speaking. "This week."

"What?" asked Namjoon. Hoseok was a little erratic and a little extreme, but Namjoon knew how he valued the things that kept him stable.

"I keep thinking I'm going to blink and be old and still work there. And still be dating Jimin."

"Well, isn't that the goal?" asked Namjoon.

Hoseok didn't answer, he just groaned. It was plaintive. It was the most human sound Namjoon had heard him make in years, and it made his heart beat all the way to his fingertips.

Namjoon watched him. His spine swelling up and down as he breathed hard, the angles of his shoulders, still sharp even under his thick winter coat, as he rested his elbows on his legs. The back of his neck as he leaned over, the hair that stuck out under the hat he was wearing. Namjoon looked at him until he sat back up and said, "I hate my life. My fiance turned the light on in the kitchen last night, and it was so bright it hurt. His voice hurts. I keep... crying? Almost? At work. I blink and there are tears in my eyes and I'm," he demonstrates, "like, grimacing."

"You sound anxious," said Namjoon. "Overstimulated." Namjoon was not a psychiatrist, but he went to one. And Hoseok was sitting across from him asking him to act like one. So, that was his answer.

"What do you do when you feel like that?" whispered Hoseok.

"Well, I feel like that all the time."

"What?" hissed Hoseok, breathing it out in a quick puff of misty air.

"You know that about me."

"I thought you were just stressed about your grades in college."

Namjoon looked at Hoseok flatly. "No, Hoseok, I wasn't. Are you serious?"

"You never said anything else."

"I used to walk three blocks around to your dorm so I wouldn't have to pass the building where someone saw me trip on the sidewalk once. I withdrew from so many classes that I almost lost my scholarship money. I used to throw up, like, a lot." Namjoon was having a very hard week, and he didn't like how it felt to see Hoseok looking across at him without any recognition. They'd been living in completely different realities; it was like it had only ever been Namjoon who cared and Hoseok was just tagging along. It was hard to see Hoseok hurt, it was hard to see Hoseok at all, it was hard to count the years back (four now) since Hoseok really looked at him. It sucked.

But Namjoon was so weak. And Hoseok was the only person who ever made Namjoon feel comfortable, and this place was the only place that ever felt like it was really protecting him, and he knew it was fake and he could see that it was fake because Hoseok's eyes were flat and sharp and narrow, not like the big, bright, shiny starry eyes that Namjoon remembers. Maybe he made those up, too.

But Namjoon could tell this wasn’t how Hoseok wanted to be acting, either. He could tell Hoseok was embarrassed to need help, and that he was scared, and that he didn’t want this to be how it was anymore.
So, when Hoseok said, "I think I'm gonna quit my job and .... figure it out," Namjoon didn't even try to stop himself from offering. He knew it was wrong, but he didn’t try to stop himself.

"If you need a place to stay, you know... you've always got me."

 

 

November 2013, a Monday, frosty, 3°

 

The cold snap hit hard, and many plants froze down to the roots. When they thawed, the ones that were too delicate would crumble and sink into the earth. But nothing really died here; the ground absorbed everything and made it again.  

 

 

December 2013, a Thursday, snowy, 19°

 

“See, it’s even nice in the winter. We never came up in the winter, did we?” Namjoon was being chatty and optimistic, because Hoseok wouldn’t. He seemed burned-out, like he’d left himself behind. He wasn’t talking much. His eyes were huge, and they reflected the snow in big white shining patches, so he looked almost like a dead person.

“It’s pretty, right?” tried Namjoon.

Hoseok looked over at him and nodded.

“Does this place make you feel peaceful like it makes me feel peaceful?” asked Namjoon. It was a way he’d speak to a kid, but Hoseok was so gone from himself that he seemed like one.

Hoseok nodded agreement. Made handprints in the snow at his sides with gloved fingers.

This was Namjoon’s desperate attempt to get Hoseok to feel something. He’d been staying with Namjoon for almost a week, and the whole time, he’d been gutted. Namjoon understood needing rest after a long period of anxiety; he still took days in bed sometimes. He understood feeling like you’d need a lot of time before you’d feel any better. But he also understood that, after five and a half days inside, it was time to go on a walk. Something easy; Namjoon took Hoseok out for coffee and a bagel, and then they came up here. Just to get his blood flowing back into his hands and feet, so he wouldn’t forget that he had them. Something to remind him that the world wouldn’t wait forever. Gently, it was time to rise again.

Hoseok’s nose was pink as he stared down at the snow between them, and he looked younger, but not in the way he had looked when he was younger. He had never looked this vulnerable in front of Namjoon, not even for the brief time in college when they used to undress in front of each other.

“It’s almost Christmas,” said Hoseok.

“I’m gonna have a couple of friends over,” Namjoon said. “I’ve been cooking more. I’m gonna try to make ham. You’re invited, if you don’t want to do anything else.”

“Jimin and I had something planned,” whispered Hoseok. “People from… our jobs. I guess not my job now.”

“It’s gonna be okay,” said Namjoon. “You’re gonna live through this.”

And then Namjoon saw that Hoseok was crying.

What a time, he thought. Now. He had a week at Namjoon’s house. He had all the time in the world, but it was now that it came, when it was cold enough to freeze to his face and nobody had any tissues. But Namjoon understood. That was how it was.

He went over to Hoseok’s wall and sat down beside him, close, but not quite touching. Slowly, Hoseok leaned against him.

 

 

January 2014, a Monday, chance of sun, 30°

 

A bad storm came in from the coast and battered against the side of the mountain. Under freezing sleet and rain, one of the oldest trees at the top of the hill broke and toppled sideways, taking all its memories of the place it watched over. Memories at first of the slow changing of nature, of the creatures who hid in the tree’s boughs and the things the wind carried. Then, suddenly, the log cabin, later replaced with stone, and the family who made their life here for lots of seasons before their descendants moved down the hill. And then the slow crumbling: first it was the roof that caved in under heavy snow, then the wooden door that rotted off its hinges, and then, slowly, brick by brick as the mortar crumbled, it was the walls.

But the tree didn’t fall on any walls that still stood. With a crack that shook deep and resounding to the heart of the mountain, it fell clear of what hadn’t yet crumbled. Magic or luck, moss-covered and fragile, two stout walls remained.

 

 

March 2014, a Monday, clear, 40°

 

Namjoon thought that it was nice to sit somewhere quiet, even if quiet was a strange word for it. It wasn’t truly quiet here, especially on such a bright, awakening morning. The small tawny rabbit who had come within ten feet of him had been perfectly silent, but all around him the sounds of leaves against leaves, bark against bark, the rustling and the warbling and the territorial chirp of a squirrel were all quite a commotion. It wasn’t really the quiet Namjoon was cherishing, it was the solitude.

Not that spending so much time with Hoseok lately hadn’t been nice. The walks in the afternoon, the dinners together over Namjoon’s tiny old formica table, all the conversations about all the little things they’d missed when they stopped making sense to one another. But Namjoon was usually at home most of the day, and Hoseok hadn’t yet found a job, and the house wasn’t big enough for both of them to be there so much. Even if they shared space remarkably well. Even if Namjoon was surprised at how considerate and clean Hoseok was as a roommate.

Maybe the space they shared wasn’t the issue. Maybe it was what Namjoon carried with him, the thought that took up its own space: Namjoon was afraid. This situation was scaring him. No matter how considerate Hoseok was being right now, he could still do anything to Namjoon, and Namjoon would still say Thank you . Namjoon still had felt no greater pain than over Hoseok.

Namjoon didn’t want to be used anymore. He didn’t want to end up bloodless and alone again.

As a bird sang above him, Namjoon thought, is he using me? And the answer was, Yes.

Farther away, another bird answered. Namjoon thought, do I deserve this? And the answer was, No.

Then he thought, is this okay? And the answer was, Probably not.

But he didn’t want to stop doing it. Like pushing on a wound, like picking a scab, like digging in it. He didn’t think it was going to end well.

On the other hand, Hoseok was trying. Really trying. And he had apologized, a few weeks before. Really apologized. On a rainy afternoon, he’d asked Namjoon if they could talk, and they went to the living room to sit together on the couch.

Hoseok had said, “I’ve been thinking about the way I talked to you.”

“When?” asked Namjoon, just to hear Hoseok say it.

“Well,” said Hoseok, rubbing the back of his neck. “Every time we spoke. From senior year of college, until three months ago. I don’t know who I was for a while.”

Namjoon said, “Me neither.”

“So, I wanted to say that I’m sorry.” Hoseok looked right into Namjoon’s eyes when he said it. His voice could be sharp, but this he said with the blunt side of the knife.

“Thank you for the apology,” said Namjoon.

“I understand if you can’t forgive me,” Hoseok started.

“I don’t forgive you,” said Namjoon, easier than he thought. “I don’t. But I still care about you.”

Hoseok breathed out. “Yeah,” he said quietly. “That makes sense.”

Even if Namjoon didn’t forgive him, he saw Hoseok trying. He had been living his life in the wrong way, and avoiding his prickling worries until they all gathered together and ripped him apart. Now that he was staying with Namjoon, he had started seeing a therapist, who told him that he had an anxiety disorder. When he told Namjoon that, Namjoon said, “Yikes, join the club.”

Hoseok was coming back, his shape filling back in like with saltwater in sand as the tide rises. Namjoon wasn’t safe, but Hoseok wasn’t trying to hurt him. Maybe it would just take time. Maybe that, or maybe it would fall apart. Either way, here they were. Namjoon wished idly that he had more power. Always that. He just wished he knew how to protect himself.

Namjoon looked at Hoseok’s empty wall but thought about Hoseok down at the bottom of the hill, in Namjoon’s house, cutting fruit or dancing in the living room with the couch shoved back against the wall. This was where they were. Hoseok was doing his best to make it up to Namjoon, and Namjoon was doing his best not to melt into the shape of Hoseok’s cupped hands.

 

 

April 2014, a Saturday, still, 35°

 

“Yeah, so she had me prove I could dance and then hired me on the spot. Apparently I just came in on a good day; someone just quit, like yesterday. But it still felt really fortuitous. I even told her that, I was like, ‘This feels really lucky,’ and she was like, ‘We’ll, we’re happy to have you, too.’ God, Joon, it felt really good. I think it’s been years since I wanted to go to work.”

Namjoon opened his mouth to say something, but Hoseok was being so chatty. “So they’re gonna have me work the front desk for a bit, but I’ll start assisting some of the bigger kids’ classes and then eventually I’ll start teaching on my own. They’re gonna want me doing classes for the tiny kids.”

“That’s so cool. You deserve that.”

Hoseok looked up at Namjoon and was already smiling. The light was hitting his face in just the right way, lighting up his irises. His eyes looked almost black a lot, but sometimes Namjoon could see the deep, rich brown of them. Usually only outside, or inside, if they were sitting very close together. Sincerely, Hoseok said, “Thank you.”

“Of course.”

“For everything. Joon, I mean it.”

“I know,” said Namjoon, a little embarrassed.

“For being here.”

“Yeah,” said Namjoon. This was bittersweet, but that was better than only bitter. Namjoon should have let Hoseok figure this out on his own, but he didn’t feel bad that he hadn’t. He didn’t wish that he’d learned to be strong enough to push Hoseok away. He was happy to be the person who was sitting across from this smiling Hoseok. Not the same Hoseok he one knew, but a good one, nonetheless. A good smile and a bright energy that Namjoon could really bask in.

After everything, Namjoon couldn’t bring himself to feel bad about needing Hoseok, just a little. It had been a part of him for so long. Resenting his relentless feelings for Hoseok would be like resenting his elbow, or the freckle on the palm of his left hand.

Hoseok was here , and he was bouncy, easily supported. Like he hung at the shoulders from silk-thin strings, like his weight barely touched the ground. He was here with his sharp eyes, and his quick way of speaking. He was sitting across from Namjoon and talking about how excited he was to be where he was, to be doing what he was doing, how excited he was to be alive. His lust for life was contagious, and he was loud, and Namjoon couldn’t bring himself to resent all the time he had spent waiting for someone like this to be part of his life.

Hoseok took a deep breath, a final breath, a body-heaving breath of joyful relief that punctuated the thing he was saying. He looked at Namjoon and smiled, and Namjoon thought, There will be no time in my life that I don’t love this person with everything I have.

It might not be fair. Hoseok might not have earned it. But it was true. Namjoon’s heart would never not want Hoseok.

He promised himself that he’d be careful. That he wouldn’t let himself be walked over. That he would try to learn not to need him the way he had, try to learn to keep himself. But he saw it clearly for what it was just then. The spring was blossoming, and the trees stirred with a cheerful whistling. And Hoseok was here, not just physically here in the clearing but really here, a mind occupying a body. And he was joyful and exuberant and dazzling.

And Namjoon thought that it was good to love him.

 

 

June 2014, a Friday, lively, 79°

 

“Wow, you’re so loud,” laughed Namjoon. “Shhhh for a second.”

“WHAT WAS THAT? CAN’T QUITE HEAR YOU OVER ALL THIS YELLING.”

“You’re scaring the birds away!” But Namjoon was scaring them, too, arms wrapped around his belly as he laughed and laughed. He couldn’t stop.

“SCARING THE WHOM ?”

“I’ve never met someone as loud as you!” Namjoon was giggling like a kid. He was laughing in a way he’d forgotten it was possible to laugh, and Hoseok was growing physically larger in the glee of it.

“ME, LOUD? NO IDEA WHAT YOU’RE IMPLYING.”

Hoseok was abruptly done, and he plopped down lightly across from Namjoon on the picnic blanket, where Namjoon was setting out their sandwiches. “Are you back?” asked Namjoon, still grinning so big his face hurt, “Or are you still possessed by Yelling Guy?”

“Yelling Guy’s gone now,” laughed Hoseok. “Sandwich Eating Guy is here now.”

“Oh, good. That guy is good,” said Namjoon. “That guy scares less small animals away. Did you know,” he said, taking a break from unwrapping his sandwich to wag a finger at Hoseok’s face, “That when I’m here alone, the birds come right up to me. A squirrel stepped in my paint once and tracked all over something that was almost done. They come right up to me.”

“You come here by yourself?” asked Hoseok through a mouthful of sandwich, somehow his third or fourth bite, while Namjoon was still getting ready to start eating. “When?”

“Often,” said Namjoon. “It’s where I come to chill, since college.”

“I didn’t know that,” said Hoseok. He looked thoughtful for a second, holding eye contact unmovingly, but then he changed the subject. Namjoon thought it was okay that he scared the birds away, because he flitted from one thing to the next and chirped like one himself. “I think I’m having some luck in the housing search,” he said.

“Good, good,” said Namjoon. It wasn’t even hard to say, or much of a lie. He was happy to see Hoseok’s footing so surely found. It was exciting to see his friend feeling successful.

“I’m meeting a landlord tomorrow afternoon to look at an apartment, by the college. I think it’s mostly student housing, but that’s fine, right?”

“Yeah,” said Namjoon. “That’s fine. You won’t stand out, you can go incognito as one of them. Oh, you should be like, a narc.”

“Are you implying that I dress like a college kid?” asked Hoseok, referring to the cutoff jean shorts he made on Namjoon’s floor yesterday, the hat he had on backwards to keep his growing hair out of his face on their walk.

No , never .”

“Okay, good, because, you know,” started Hoseok, but then he took a big bite of his sandwich and had to chew for a minute. “I’m a young professional,” he said glumly, with his mouth full.

Namjoon laughed so hard he fell over.

 

 

July 2014, a Tuesday, too hot, 91°

 

Hoseok dusted off the wall, sat down, and dug in his bag for his water bottle. He unscrewed the black cap and drank half of the now-warmed water very quickly. He used the corner of a sleeve of his t-shirt to wipe sweat from his face. “Too hot,” he breathed, to no-one in particular.

He sat for a minute, seeming antsy. Clenching and unclenching his fingers, idly peeling at a sticker on his water bottle. He pushed his dark hair off his face.

After a minute, he figured out the trick to sitting still, though his head still snapped around now and then, looking after little sounds, looking up at scraps of sky through the canopy.

He drank some more water, then he sat still again. For a long while, he looked over at the empty wall across from him, his brow furrowed in concentration, like he was figuring something out.

After another quiet minute, a bird hopped into the clearing, a little fat finch with a red spot on its head. Its business looked serious. It rooted around for a moment and then flitted off.

The breeze sang through trees, and the smell of it was fresh. A subtle smell, and an easy one to miss when one is always bouncing. So he sat for a while longer to keep listening to small scurryings, and to keep smelling, and to keep feeling the gentle, friendly breeze across his face.

Then he gave the opposite wall a final serious look, eyes lingering on the ugly red graffiti there, which was finally starting to look less woundlike as moss and grime dulled it. He nodded once with a sort of finality, put his water bottle back in his backpack, and bounded back out the way he came.


 

July 2014, a Saturday, breezy, 89°

 

“So, what if I didn’t move out?” asked Hoseok. “What if I stayed with you?”

Namjoon was happy. He was happy. He was so happy.


 

March 2015, a Wednesday, first bloom, 51°

 

“Joon, question.”

“Anything in the world, Hoseok,” said Namjoon, taking a long drink from his water bottle and leaning all the way back. Free. His muscles felt good.

“And I’m aware that this isn’t a fair thing to ask.”

“Can’t be that bad.” Hoseok had asked Namjoon every sort of question. All the worst ones had been covered, and here they were. Best friends again, peaceful and perfect. They made great roommates, and great friends, and Hoseok was happy and Namjoon was happy, and that kind of love between them was just as powerful as anything else and probably far healthier. “Whatever it is, I’ll still love you.” An easy thing to say, now that he meant it in a shared way.

“Okay, well. I’ve been thinking.”

A flower blew through the clearing on a light breeze. Namjoon said, “‘Bout what?”

Hoseok said, “Us.”

Namjoon looked up at Hoseok, suddenly worried that this might not be good. Hoseok winced at the eye contact. Namjoon said, “Alright.”

“I realize,” said Hoseok, pushing through the tension now that he had opened this conversation. “That I have strung you along a lot. And I feel bad about that.”

Namjoon didn’t say anything, just stared at Hoseok with fear written plain across him and braced himself to hear that this was ending again. This time, he’d live, but it would take a long time.

“I know we’ve been over this, but I was wrong. Super wrong. I didn’t know anything. And I feel bad about how I took it out on you.”

“Okay,” said Namjoon, just wanting Hoseok to get to it.

“This has been great. Living with you. Simplifying. I have,” he chose his words deliberately, “Certainly learned some things about what I find important in life.”

Namjoon nodded.

Hoseok met his gaze again. “I find you important.”

But?

“So. Here it is. I want to try again.”

Namjoon hissed out a breath. Nodded in disbelief. And then started laughing.

“What?” asked Hoseok, sort of desperate. “Why is this funny?”

Namjoon counted on his fingers. “Five. Five years.”

“Five years?”

“It took me five years to get over you.”

Now it was Hoseok who looked scared.

“If you’d asked me this four months ago, I’d have kissed you right now. Three months, maybe? At Christmas? At Seokjin’s party? If you’d asked me to kiss you under the mistletoe?” Namjoon snapped his fingers. “Easy. I wouldn’t have thought twice about it. I’d have kissed you for as long as you’d have had me and then I’d have felt disgusting.”

“I understand,” said Hoseok. He sounded like he had come into this expecting to be rejected.

“Fuck you for not wanting me when I needed you,” said Namjoon, tone much gentler than his words. “You let me hurt over you for so long and never wanted me back. It sucked.”

“I’m sorry,” said Hoseok. He sounded like he had come into this expecting to be rebuked, too.

“And then the second you can tell I’m not desperate for you anymore, you want it again.”

“It’s not like that,” said Hoseok.

“I think it is like that,” said Namjoon, nodding seriously, filling with strength and power. “But it’s alright. It wouldn’t have worked when I needed you so much. It would have been fucked up for both of us. For me.”

“I’m sorry I asked,” said Hoseok soberly. “It was out of line. I hope you can forgive me.”

“No,” said Namjoon. “I’m saying yes.”

“What?”

“I’m saying yes. Let’s try again. It’s just not going to be like before.”

 

 

October 2015, a Monday, quiet, 64°

 

When Namjoon fell in love with Hoseok, it did something to his brain. The shape of it, the way it filled his skull, the currents that ran through it. Namjoon didn’t think trees with snags were ugly, or flowers with extra petals. But once those things grew that way, that was how they were. Gnarled, or blossoming twice as colorfully, for as long as they lived.

There wasn’t a way to change it now. A part of him would always be in love with the boy he met in freshman biology, with the shaggy hair and the upturned nose and the graphic shirts, the skateboard under his arm.

Part of him. Another part of him was in love with the man sitting across from him now, still but for a chest that rose and fell with his slow breaths. He was older, sleeker, and sharper. He was hard to read sometimes. His face was serious, unless he was thinking about it. He was shorter than Namjoon, but his essence was much larger. He might have been intimidating, but Namjoon wasn’t afraid of him anymore.

They sat in the dirt across from each other, their backs leaned against their walls. Hoseok was reading a book, and Namjoon was sketching. He sketched a bird, and a flower, and the triangle of light under Hoseok’s cheek. That one was the hardest; there was something Namjoon had never thought about there, about the sharpness in the way Hoseok held his face, but the curviness of his flesh. He looked like a human again, after a long time when he looked like someone carved him out of stone.

Hoseok looked up from his book and saw Namjoon concentrating on his face. He asked, “Are you drawing me?”

“Yeah,” said Namjoon. “The light is good. Don’t move.”

Hoseok nodded once and tried to go back, but the small smile that blossomed on his face shifted the light and ruined the drawing. It was alright; the picture wasn’t going to be good anyway.

Hoseok probably didn’t love Namjoon the way Namoon loved him, but it would be unfair to ask for that. Hoseok did love Namjoon. He loved him in motion,  in moments that stood out brightly lit. He loved by touching. He loved to make Namjoon laugh; he loved their time together. Namjoon’s love was primitive, and stoic, and still. Inflexible and often painful. Hoseok’s was euphoric. Maybe it didn’t go as deep, but it was happier. Namjoon didn’t mind that, when it made his life so vibrant.

He put his sketchbook away and went to sit against the other wall. Easily, Hoseok changed his position to lean on Namjoon, resting his head on his shoulder and pressing into his side without ever losing his place on the page he was reading.


 

May 2016, a Thursday, lush, 74°

 

Namjoon and Hoseok sat on their picnic blanket in the clearing, silly with the bottle of white wine they’d just finished splitting. Hoseok made a brazen show of buttering a slice of baguette.

“I feel so fancy,” he said.

“Would you pass me the cheese?” asked Namjoon.

Hoseok did, his fingers brushing Namjoon’s intentionally over the blanket.

“This afternoon,” Hoseok said in an affectedly posh voice, “has been just marvelous, darling .”

“I’d have to agree, darling ,” said Namjoon, holding up his slice of baguette and cheers -ing it with Hoseok’s.

“Thanks for coming up with me, darling .”

“No problem,” said Namjoon. “I love it here.” He was suddenly self-conscious, but said it anyway. “ Darling .”

Darling, darling ,” said Hoseok, a little more serious now, and tipsy. “My darling.”

“Yeah?” said Namjoon, feeling how pink his face was.

“Yes. It’s you. You’re darling.”

“I’ve never been called that before,” said Namjoon.

“Maybe you’re cuter around me than you are around other people, darling.”

“You think so?”

“Or else you’d hear it all the time.” Hoseok did a complicated, catlike stretch that ended with him lying with his head in Namjoon’s lap and looking up at him. His slice of baguette lay beside him, missing a bite. Namjoon smoothed Hoseok’s hair off his forehead. Quietly, Hoseok said, “Forgive me, but I think this is the best moment of my life.”

“It’s pretty good,” agreed Namjoon as Hoseok reached up to lightly cup Namjoon’s face.

“I think this is it.”

It like, the best moment?”

“Like, I think this is it. You and me. I think this is it for me.”

“I… agree.” It was hard for Namjoon to say things like that, because he still had to work harder than Hoseok not to need this. But it was true, and they both knew it anyway. “This is it for me. You’re the only person for me.”

“I feel, right now, I feel like you’re my soulmate. I feel like you’re inside my heart.” He was still cupping Namjoon’s face, and he was the elfin version of himself that Namjoon had been getting to know lately. If Namjoon was darling when he was really relaxed, then Hoseok was delicate .

“I feel like that too,” said Namjoon.

“I think you’re it for me.”

Namjoon leaned down to kiss him.

 

 

September 2016, a Tuesday, brisk, 57°

 

Hoseok was trying to say something, but a bee was buzzing around his head, and he was distracted.

“It likes me,” he hissed, eyes following suspiciously as it touched down on his shoulder, then ambled away for a moment and came back to linger near a hand that rested on the wall.

“It’s that new shampoo,” said Namjoon. “They’ve been all over me, too.”

“Is it enraged?” asked Hoseok as the bee got close to his face in a friendly way. Namjoon smiled and stood up off his wall to rescue Hoseok, who shied away from the spot where the bee was settling down.

“No,” said Namjoon as he gently urged the bee onto his finger. Softly, to the bee, he said, “You’re not enraged, are you?”

Hoseok made a scared sound as Namjoon gently lifted the bee up and away and went toward the edge of the clearing. Far enough that it couldn’t smell their shampoo anymore, but not so far that it would be confused. He left it in a purple flower a few feet into the woods.

When he came back, Hoseok asked, “Did it sting you?”

“Why would it have stung me?”

“Because it’s a bee.”

Namjoon said, “Do you think bees mainly sting?”

“Well,” said Hoseok. “No.”

“Good.” Namjoon smiled at Hoseok. He looked embarrassed, but Namjoon thought he was charming.

“I’ve ruined the moment,” said Hoseok.

“Which moment?” asked Namjoon. “You didn’t ruin the moment.”

“Are you sure?” asked Hoseok.

“Of course,” said Namjoon. He searched Hoseok’s face for the thing that was making him restless, and realized all of a sudden that something was happening within Hoseok that Namjoon hadn’t seen among all the calm of the day. It wasn’t just the bee. He said, “What’s up?”

“Oh, nothing. Well, something. It’s your birthday next week.”

Namjoon nodded. Beside him, the ground rustled gently.

“I know you didn’t want a party. And I get that.”

Namjoon frowned. He hoped Hoseok wasn’t throwing him a party anyway.

“But I felt bad that you weren’t going to celebrate at all. So I thought, maybe this could be your birthday party.”

“This?” asked Namjoon, now vigilant, worried his friends were going to come out of the brush with party hats on.

Hoseok laughed, a gentle, companionable thing. “You look so scared,” he whispered. “I mean just you and me, here, right now. This can be your party.”

Namjoon wasn’t sure he understood how that would make it different from any other day, so he just said, “Okay, sure.”

“Well,” said Hoseok then, bashful but a little sly. “If it’s your birthday party, I suppose it would be a good time for me to, um, give you your gift.”

Suddenly Namjoon was blushing, but then he looked up at Hoseok, and he was blushing too. Like he was really humiliated. Unsure, almost flickering. Hoseok pulled a small package from the pocket of his jacket. His hand was shaking as Namjoon reached across the clearing to take it.

“Should I open it now?” asked Namjoon. The package was a rectangle, a simple kraft box with a lid.

“That’s why I gave it to you,” said Hoseok, but he sounded completely unsure. No matter what was inside, this was already in Namjoon’s heart: Hoseok’s shyness, and the bee. Namjoon opened the lid.

It was a watch whose unblemished round face reflected the the canopy of leaves overhead. It was simple and well-made, with a dark leather band. There was a piece of cream-colored paper folded and tucked beneath it.

“It’s a watch,” said Hoseok weakly.

Namjoon lifted it out of the box and Hoseok came to help him put it on. His hands fluttered and his fingertips were warm. “Thank you,” Namjoon mumbled. He looked at the way it fit on his wrist and thought it was just like one he’d have picked himself, but more adult. Hoseok sat next to Namjoon on his wall as he pulled the paper out and unfolded it.

It was three or four pages, handwritten in Hoseok’s impatient script, but Namjoon could only skim it right then with Hoseok so anxious for a reaction. Namjoon read, Nicer than anything you’d get yourself and I’ll be here to replace the batteries . He flipped the page and read, thought I should give you some time, too .

Namjoon was still reading when Hoseok said, “Do you like it?” His voice was so small that it cracked into a whisper.

Namjoon nodded as Hoseok’s fingers found his own between them, as Hoseok leaned into his side. He said, “I really like it.”

 

 

May 2017, a Saturday, fragrant, 62°

 

Namjoon thought he knew what was going on, but he wasn’t positive. Hoping was a lot, but some signs were hard to miss. Hoseok’s strangeness this week, how he’d startle, how he’d search Namjoon’s face, and stare when he thought Namjoon wasn’t looking.

They had talked about forever. Not on what terms, but the terms grew less and less important. Namjoon had loved Hoseok for so long that he didn’t know how to do anything else, and now that it was working, it was easy. Easier than it should have been, after all they knew of each other. But once their seasons lined up, nothing was unmanageable. Maybe all the difficult years made it sweeter.

They had talked about forever, but not what Namjoon thought Hoseok might have brought him here, to this place that has always been with them, to do. They hadn’t talked about this, suggested by the odd mix of secrecy and clinginess lately, and the bashfulness in Hoseok’s voice this morning when he very suddenly asked Namjoon to come to the clearing with him. Namjoon, of course, had agreed.

“How are you?” asked Hoseok nervously as a good-natured breeze swirled through the trees above them, tangling in his hair.

“I’m excellent, how are you?” Namjoon sounded stiff, and he couldn’t hide the anticipation in his voice.

“I’m good,” said Hoseok. “Really, really good.”

Then he grimaced and tugged the hem of his shirt down like it needed straightening, and he took a deep breath, so deep that it looked painful, and shoved it out his lungs. And then he did it. He got down on one knee, and he pulled a small dark box out of his pocket. Even after being pretty sure, Namjoon’s heart started running, rushing, speeding forward without a rhythm.

“Namjoon,” said Hoseok.

Namjoon breathed.

“I want to be worth the devotion you have always had for me. I want to be the person you need.” He took a deep, unsteady breath, and said, “Am I that person?”

Namjoon was confused. That was not the question he expected. “Wait,” he said. “What? Of course.”

“I’m serious. Before I do this,” said Hoseok, “I want you to be honest with me. Am I enough for you?”

“Oh,” breathed Namjoon.

“Because,” Hoseok stuttered a little, “you deserve to spend your life with someone who gives you back what you give them. You have this well of endless love and patience. And you deserve all of that back. And more. I want to do that for you, but you have to tell me it’s enough, or I’ll… I’ll put this away and try another time.”

“Oh,” said Namjoon. He thought about the flowers that Hoseok brought him home so often, of the breakfasts in bed and the desserts and the little gifts and all the dates, but also of the quiet they could share, of tea on the back porch at twilight in the summer, and the way Namjoon caught Hoseok looking at him sometimes, with those starry eyes like when he was a kid.

Namjoon said, “Yes. You do enough.” Just asking was enough, he thought; just wanting to be the impossible partner that Namjoon needed.

“That is such a relief, darling,” said Hoseok. Then he straightened his arm, holding the box out again. “In that case, Namjoon. Will you marry me?”

Namjoon could hardly hear himself say “Yes” over his relentless heart.

 

 

September 2017, a Tuesday, breezy, 70°

 

Every year, the clearing changed. Not by much, but by and by. The walls slowly crumbled, of course. Sometimes, there were more birds, or different birds. Last year, the motionless air in the summer kept the pink flower that usually grew from spreading down the mountain as thickly it had in previous years. In those unclaimed spaces, an orange flower now grew instead.

In Tokyo, two boys sat over a small table in a room that looked over the densest part of the city, thinking of different sorts of things. Sleek buildings, speedy transit, crowded streets, their plans for the weekend. They’d talked about getting out of the city soon, but they hadn’t made any real plans to spend time among nature. Anyway, they were in a kind of nature already, one of them had tried to say. Like, wasn’t everything nature, because it was from nature, and built into nature? Couldn’t every space be a natural space, if you looked at it the right way? The other one said something about how he seemed to have gotten his money’s worth on his art degree.

The clearing didn’t wait, but it did sit. The shape stayed the same, even as it filled with different sounds and colors. Even if the pink flowers never came back, there would be a quiet place to rest when they returned.


 

June 2018, a Saturday, sunrise, 80°

 

“Well, cheers,” said Hoseok, toasting with his water bottle.

Namjoon brought his up to Hoseok’s and clanged them together with a dull metallic sound. “To… to what? To us?”

“To the sun and the breeze, and to us,” agreed Hoseok.

They took small drinks, and then Namjoon kissed Hoseok quickly, and then they just sat there, in the dirt in the middle of the clearing, looking at each other. Staring. Studying the last moment of this time in their life. They looked at each other’s faces and thought, husband, husband . Namjoon pushed away anxieties, whether there would actually be enough food and whether his two fighting aunts would be seated far enough away from each other. Instead he looked at Hoseok and tried to be here. Sitting in the dirt in his exercise pants, clutching hands with him across a small space, enjoying this last moment of peace with him before their two lives became the same life.

Their friends had tried to keep them away from each other today. That was a general rule, apparently, though Namjoon hadn’t been to enough weddings to be sure that he wasn’t being pranked. They weren’t supposed to see each other until the ceremony, but Namjoon completely refused to do that. Maybe when they got to the venue, he’d humor it. But he told Hoseok first thing this morning, as soon as they woke up slowly and then very quickly as the day dawned on them, that they were going to the clearing.

“Why?” Hoseok had said, still groggy. “We’re gonna take too long and be late.”

“We’ll be back before noon if we leave soon. I just want a minute alone before everything gets crazy.”

So they’d thrown on walking clothes, excused themselves from breakfast with Hoseok’s parents, who were sleeping on an air mattress in Hoseok and Namjoon’s living room, and run up the mountain together.

When they got back down, they’d spend the rest of the day in the spotlight, and the rest of the weekend with friends and family. Then they’d head out on a honeymoon, then when they came back, things would be calm again, but not exactly the same.

This was their last chance in this life to sit in the dirt and study each other. It was warm, and humid, and Hoseok looked beautiful. He was all the grace and energy and brightness that Namjoon had always known, plus a thousand little human things that he never knew until their love came down from the top of this mountain and became real, and manageable, and fair. Like, when Hoseok gets sick, his voice sounds stuffy for weeks. When he wakes up in the morning, he doesn’t want to kiss until he brushes his teeth. Hoseok likes his coffee weak, so he can drink more of it. He doesn’t like runny eggs. He has an old knee injury that gets sore in the winter, though he doesn’t complain about it. When he’s tired, he can be rude, but he’s working on that. When he’s excited, he can be demanding, but he’s working on that too. The more time he and Namjoon spend apart, the clingier Hoseok gets when they reunite. And the physical weight of a person who is more than an idea. The warmth, the breath, the softness. The strength of a bond between two people who have embarrassed themselves in front of one another and still want to be close.

Their heartbeats have synced up, pulsing through the hand that they hold between them, their eyes locked and their breath fluttering with anticipation for what they’re about to do. Namjoon looks for the place where this is wrong. For the place where this will hurt him. And he can’t find it.