The world began its end with a glitching neon pepsi sign falling from the sky. No one was sure where it came from. There wasn’t much time to think about it either because the comet shower began and there were much scarier things to worry about. Jimin still thinks about it sometimes, though.
He was visiting his grandma in Boseong when it happened. Hills of green tea fields stretched to his right. The sea shimmered in the distance to his left. And Jimin was riding his bike down a dirt country road. The cicadas were loud with summer.
He was coming back from the market, the front basket full of grocery items his grandma requested.
And then this huge blinking neon sign slammed into the ground ahead of him out of nowhere.
The beginning of The End.
Jimin wakes slowly. Blinks open his blurry eyes to rays of dawn sliding over Taehyung’s face like fluffed butter. He’s snoring softly, hugging one of the blankets close to his chest. Jimin leans over and leaves a kiss on his lips. His chest squeezes at the way Taehyung shifts, mumbling something in his sleep.
Jimin gets up from their makeshift bed that consists of layers and layers of blankets. Their summer bedroom is on the second floor of the mansion, the room with half the wall crumbling away. Jimin can see the trees through it. The birds are singing.
Out in the hall, the walls are lined with gilded frames. Some of them are empty of art, some are full of flower arrangements. The grand staircase is half ivy, with vines of climbing roses peeking through. It was a tangled mess when they first moved in but Taehyung trimmed the leaves and the vines to make it look purposeful. Beautiful.
The cool stone under Jimin’s bare feet chases away all the remaining sleepiness as he makes his way over to the kitchen. He starts a fire in the fireplace for the kettle and goes about preparing breakfast. Bread with jelly he’d made last year from the strawberries they grew in their garden. When the kettle boils, he makes some tea in fancy little cups they’d found in the cupboards a few years ago. There’s only one that’s not chipped and he always saves it for Taehyung.
Jimin opens the big kitchen window and lets the fresh morning air inside. It’s around July now, he guesses. Summer. Taehyung’s favorite season.
Jimin sips his hot tea carefully. They have a big day ahead of them today.
“Jimin-ah, why didn’t you wake me?” Taehyung’s voice comes from the direction of the stairs. Booming and still scratchy with sleep.
“You looked cute sleeping,” Jimin says with a cheeky smile as Taehyung enters the kitchen.
Taehyung pouts, eliciting a laugh from Jimin. “I made you breakfast, come here.”
He wraps his arm around Taehyung’s waist and pulls him close enough to place a kiss on his pouting lips. Taehyung’s body is still warm with sleep, malleable as he leans into Jimin’s side.
“I don’t wanna be late to the marketplace,” he mumbles as he hunkers down to hook his chin over Jimin’s shoulder.
Jimin takes another sip of his tea and places the cup on the counter. “We won’t be late, it goes on for the entire day.”
“Yeah, but all the good stuff is gone by the afternoon,” Taehyung says.
Jimin guides them to the oak dining table, shuffling limbs. He pushes Taehyung into a chair and places a plate of bread with jam closer to him. “Then let’s hurry up and eat our breakfast, hm?”
“In a minute,” Taehyung says, wrapping his arms around Jimin’s waist and burying his face in Jimin’s shirt. “I had a nice dream about you this morning.”
Jimin lets his fingers slide through Taehyung’s hair. It’s grown long and Jimin wonders if they should get haircuts soon.
“Yeah?” he asks, untangling a small knot.
Taehyung hums. “I don’t remember most of it but we were running through flower fields and I think you kissed me.”
“That does sound nice,” Jimin says, leaning down to press a kiss to the top of Taehyung’s head.
Taehyung leans away, some of the sleep leaving his eyes, and takes a bite of his bread.
“Jiminie, eat,” he says, pulling Jimin into the closest chair by his arm, mouth full of bread and jelly. “We need to go soon.”
They take the bike. Taehyung sits in the back, holding up his legs so they don’t get caught in the wheel. One of his arms is wrapped around Jimin’s waist and his other arm is holding a crate on his lap.
It takes a while for them to get to the marketplace, sweat glistening in the sun and chest heaving when they finally stop. Taehyung’s mouth bursts into a grin as he looks around, jumping to his feet. Jimin grabs the heavy bag from the front basket and loops his arm with Taehyung’s.
“Let’s go?” he says.
Taehyung nods eagerly. It’s crowded today, people milling about with bags and crates full of things to trade. Some had whole stands set up.
“I wanted to go check out the knick-knacks after we’re done with all the important stuff,” Taehyung says, leaning into Jimin’s side, arms straining around the crate.
Jimin starts pushing them further into the crowd. “Sure, love.”
This is one of the bigger marketplaces around this area. All kinds of things are exchanged. Currency like won is obliterate so people are back to trade. Some people grow food, some sew clothes, some make other things. Labor gets exchanged as well.
Jimin and Taehyung mostly trade with seeds from their garden. They took some vegetables from their garden with them this time as well.
Words float the air, colorful and loud. A cacophony of an organized chaos. The food and produce section is always the busiest. Jimin and Taehyung exchange carrots and cucumbers for eggs and cheese. They always trade with this old lady for dairy products. She always gives them a little extra of something. Says the carrot salad she makes with their carrots tastes best. Taehyung always gives her a flower with some cheesy line like, “it’s almost as pretty as you.” It never fails to make her laugh. Jimin’s heart hurts every time, but it’s muted. He’s learned how to push all thoughts of loss to the back of his mind and move on.
They trade all their strawberry seeds for a bottle of Heeyeon’s homemade rice wine.
“That shit’s really fucking strong, lads,” she warns. “You can have as much as you want if Taehyung comes over to help plant the strawberry field.”
“Is that another project for Hyojin-noona?” Jimin asks.
Heeyeon groans but there’s affection in her tone. “You know it. She’s going through a strawberry phase right now. Strawberry cakes, strawberry pastries, strawberry pancakes.” She tilts her voice in a Hyojin impression. “What am I gonna do with that Paris patisserie certification, Heeyeon? Spent half of my parents’ life savings to get it and for what?”
Taehyung chuckles. “I can come by this week and help if Hyojin-noona makes us a strawberry cake.”
“Even I’ll help for that,” Jimin chimes in.
Heeyeon’s whole face lights up. “Really? We can definitely arrange that, yes.”
“Are you all talking shit about me?” Hyojin asks, sneaking up on them with a box of flour in her hands.
“Of course we are, honey,” Heeyeon replies, reaching over to wind her arm around Hyojin’s waist. They’re wearing matching overalls and it’s cute. “Also, Taehyung and Jimin are coming by this week to help with your strawberry field.”
Hyojin smiles at them, bright and grateful, eyes wide. “I’ll bake you guys a strawberry cake.”
Taehyung glances over at Jimin, eyes crinkling at the corners. “It’s been so long since I’ve had a proper cake.”
Jimin squeezes Taehyung’s hand. “Sounds good.”
Once they get everything they need--food, a new shirt for Taehyung and more candles,--Taehyung guides them to the very end of the market. This is where people trade less day-to-day necessities and more on the side of trinkets, art, anything else that’s considered luxury or just junk. It varies a lot. This is Taehyung’s favorite part.
Jimin follows him around as he goes from stand to stand, from small blankets people set out on the floor, their various goods on display, to people standing and holding up one or two things with a small sign saying what they’re looking to trade for.
Someone is trying to trade an entire vinyl collection, which is useless since there’s no more electricity. Even more useless is a whole row of displays filled with all kinds of electronics, although some people still traded for that. Still trying to put something together, or use it for other things. There’s a whole lot of things of sentimental and recreational value. Photographs, books, pretty china, toys and dolls. Taehyung’s eyes twinkle as they take things in.
Taehyung can be a bit of a hoarder. He keeps things solely because he likes them, despite their usefulness or lack of it. Jimin finds it endearing most of the time.
He picks up a golden spoon from someone’s display of fancy cutlery. “Jiminie, look. It matches our teacups.”
Jimin takes a closer look to find the spoon handle with a similar rose pattern as the fancy tea set they have at home. “It does,” he says.
Taehyung grins and puts the spoon back. “Isn’t it funny how golden spoons have a lower market value than regular spoons do now?”
“Our ‘down with capitalism’ prayers have finally been answered,” he says, pleased at the huff of laughter it elicits from Taehyung.
“We should get a dog,” he says after stopping to look through some lady’s impressive collection of dog posters.
He says this every time he sees anything dog-related and Jimin knows he just really misses his old dog, the one he had before the end of the world happened.
“We will,” Jimin reminds him. “As soon as we find where to get one.”
In truth, Jimin already got them a dog. One of Heeyeon’s friends knows someone who breeds them in the next province and she told him he could pick it up whenever. He paid for it with a working solar battery charger. Taehyung doesn’t know yet because Jimin wants it to be a surprise.
Taehyung’s pout is cut short when his eyes zero in on something on the next little display blanket. He hurries over and squats in front of it, hand reaching out to touch. When Jimin gets close enough to tell what it is, he realizes it’s a music box. A square metal little thing, with a spinning ballerina on the top. It looks in good shape, the gilded paint only peeling at the edges.
Taehyung holds it in both hands like he’s just found the biggest treasure.
“Does it work?” Jimin asks the tired middle aged man who’s not even paying attention to his things. All his items are on a dirty old bathroom mat, mostly dolls with long hair and plastic hair brushes and cheap drugstore makeup.
Taehyung twists the wind up knob before the man answers and the ballerina starts to turn slowly to the tinkle of sound.
“Looks like it,” the man replies, chewing on something. He scratches his thin wispy beard. “Used to be my daughter’s, didn’t wanna throw it all away if i could trade it for something, ya know.”
Jimin has learned not to ask. He’s heard too many stories. Wonders if this is how people feel after wars.
Taehyung is watching the ballerina as it slows down. The tinkle of music, a waltz of some kind, has enchanted him into a daze.
“What do you want for it?” Jimin asks.
The man shrugs. “Whatcha got?”
Jimin glances into the crate Taehyung set down by his side. He looks back over at the man, at the disheveled state of him, the jittery emptiness in his eyes. Jimin pulls out the smaller bottle of alcohol Hyojin dropped into the crate before they left their stand. The man’s eyes jump to it like magnets.
“It’s called Waltz of the Monsters, that song,” the man says, eyes not leaving the bottle. “Some french composer.”
“Waltz of the Monsters.” Jimin hands him the bottle. “We’ll take it.”
The man cradles the bottle in his arms like a baby, no longer paying attention to them. “Sure.”
By the time they get home, the sun is low in the horizon, coloring the air in orange lemonade. It reflects on the thin layer of sweat on Taehyung’s forehead. The rest of the evening is spent putting away all the new things they bought. The cicadas raise their volume as the breeze cools down a notch. Taehyung drops down onto their makeshift bed after they finally came upstairs.
Jimin winds up the music box and sets it on the vanity. Taehyung turns to look up at him, eyes sparkling. The tinkling sounds of the music box gently float through the air and Taehyung’s grin is so impossibly wide.
“I missed music a lot,” he says.
“What, my singing is not enough?” Jimin teases.
“That’s different.” He reaches over to the bottle of Heeyeon’s wine on the floor and pours it into teacups. Passes one over to Jimin.
Jimin chugs the whole teacup in one go and grabs Taehyung’s hand.
“Dance with me?” he asks, their fingers tangling.
Taehyung pulls himself up by Jimin’s hold. “Of course.”
The music box tinkles the beat as Taehyung’s arms slide around Jimin’s neck and Jimin’s arms settle on Taehyung’s hips. He hums along to the melody as they slowly move around the room.
The air smells of summer. Of grass and dirt and nighttime. Taehyung joins him with the humming. His voice is an octave lower than Jimin’s sweet tone, reverberating between their chests.
The alcohol is making Jimin warm. He’s barely tipsy but his chest is starting to bloom with it, with the warmth. Jimin has learned how to deal with hopelessness, with grief. Taehyung had taught him. Instead of focusing on all the things that are gone, he now focuses on the things he has, despite all odds.
He has a place to live, he has a means to grow food, a means for survival. He has a home. He has Taehyung.
“I love you,” Taehyung says, so warm and pliant, leaning half of his body weight on Jimin. He says it in a hushed whisper as the music box slows down, nearing the end of its wind. Like it’s something important, something sacred, even though he says it a few times a day.
Jimin’s arms wind around his waist to his back in more of a hug. “I love you,” he repeats into Taehyung’s shoulder. Turns his head to leave a kiss on Taehyung’s neck.
Taehyung hums. “I’m almost done making another frame. It’s really special because it has all of your favorite flowers together. It looks good.”
Everytime Taehyung presents him with a new flower frame, it takes Jimin’s breath away. Sometimes he makes really complicated ones that look like paintings from a few steps away. Sometimes he arranges them in a way that makes the flowers look alive, popping with so much color, escaping from the the frame onto the walls. He’d always been such a talented artist, no matter the medium.
“I can’t wait to see it,” he murmurs with another kiss.
Jimin is tired, they both are. It really has been a long day. Alcohol makes Taehyung sleepy. So Jimin pulls away a bit and pulls Taehyung down to the bed. They land on their sides, facing each other. In the semi-darkness, Jimin watches Taehyung blink slowly. But there’s something in those eyes, too, something soft and lonely. Jimin recognizes that look instantly.
He brushes Taehyung’s overgrown bangs off his forehead. “Baby,” he says, voice barely audible. “Come here.”
Taehyung scoots closer until he can bury his face in Jimin’s chest, curling his whole body in like a gangly overgrown kitten. Jimin holds him tightly, just the way he likes. Leaves a kiss on his forehead.
“I love you,” Taehyung whispers again, mostly drowned out by the swell of cicadas outside.
Jimin whispers it back, kissing his hair.
They both lost their families and their friends. Everyone they knew. Maybe some of them are still alive but there’s no way of knowing. Not only that, but they lost their lives, their futures, all the plans they built before they knew the world was ending.
But the world didn’t really end, it’s still going. It keeps going, life goes on despite the circumstances. And yet, somehow, they were lucky enough to find each other.
Jimin understands what Taehyung is feeling. He’s felt that way so many times but in his own way. The sheer disbelief that they had each other. Despite all the odds, they found each other. It was like shooting an empty revolver at yourself but later realizing that it was loaded with five bullets. Like deciding to call in sick to work and later watching your office building exploding on the news. That feeling of realizing you’d narrowly missed death without being aware of it. All the what ifs, the fragility of coincidences, swirling in an overwhelming wave.
It’s been a little over three years, give or take. They barely think about it anymore. But sometimes it still happens. Not as bad as it was at the very beginning, when Taehyung couldn’t stop shaking for hours and Jimin had to hold him and try not to fall asleep to escape the nightmares he knew were coming.
Taehyung pulls away a little, eyes glittering dark gems. “Kiss me?” he asks. Subdued and soft but no longer sad.
Jimin leans forward until their lips meet. Taehyung always turns so impossibly soft whenever Jimin kisses him. Everything melts away and it’s just the two of them, without the world existing around them.
And when the kisses start turning heavy, when Taehyung’s eyes start looking like the starry sky on a cloudy night, the happiness in Jimin’s chest threatens to break out of his chest. A painful happiness that comes after too much grief and too much loss.
But when Taehyung kisses him again, it melts away. Melts into the here and now, into Taehyung, Taehyung, Taehyung.
It takes a while to bike to Heeyeon’s and Hyojin’s place. They live in what used to be Hyojin’s parents’ traditional makgeolli brewery house. They’d never been here before even though they’d been friends with Heeyeon and Hyojin for almost three years. They mostly just talk at the marketplace.
Hyojin greets them in an altered hanbok made to look more like a summer dress. She ushers them inside, into the coolness of the house. Taehyung hands her a basket of the peaches they picked this morning with bright words. Heeyeon peeks from behind a screen door, in a tank top and worn jean shorts.
“Honey, you should give them a tour while I try to finish making lunch,” she says, her hair a little wild and harried but her smile big and genuine.
Hyojin gives them the tour. There are four separate rooms in the hanok, with an open living area in the middle. It reminds Jimin of a school field trip his class took to Jeonju, to the huge hanok village. The teacher going on and on about the cultural value and history while everyone fucked around with stupid jokes and whined about food.
This house was a lot more down to earth than what Jimin remembers from the field-trip. Lived in and homey with the same quiet energy as his grandma’s house.
Outside, Hyojin shows them the yard full of huge black fermenting jars and leads them further out to a more grassy area with a few wooden boxes.
“That’s where we keep the bees,” Hyojin explains.
And sure enough, Jimin notices a few bees buzzing around, hovering close to the wildflowers in the grass. Taehyung keeps asking questions all throughout the tour, and Jimin smiles along as Hyojin talks, explaining everything with a note of fondness and pride in the life she created for herself with Heeyeon.
“You know, we traveled all the way up from Seoul with Heeyeon after The End,” she said at some point. “We were far enough away from the impact to stay alive. We drove Heeyeon’s car down until we ran out of gas and walked for the next few days.” Her voice colors with sadness but it’s not fresh. She’d had time to come to terms with it. “I needed to know my parents were okay. Everything was in chaos at the time, you remember. We barely made it here. My parents were okay physically, but my mom fell ill from the stress and shock. My dad took her out to see the ocean like she wanted and we haven’t seen them since.”
There are so many people with stories like that. About how they never see their family again. Jimin and Taehyung aren’t an exception, either. So they nod in understanding and move on to lighter topics. Hyojin shows them the area where she wants to plant the strawberries and they play with the stray orange cat who’d made a home in the fields.
Heeyeon calls them to eat lunch, and Taehyung brings over the cat with them. It had curled up on Taehyung’s chest and refuses to leave.
It’s nice to be in the company of new people when they mostly spend day to day only with each other. Kind of strange but nice. It reminds Jimin of the days before, when he was in college. When he had a vast group of friends and went out every friday night and had study groups on tuesdays. All the times he went out with friends and one of his constantly rotating boyfriends. All that felt like the distant past now, a different lifetime. And this was a faraway echo of what his life used to be like.
Holding Taehyung’s hand, making jokes with Heeyeon, letting Taehyung feed him, and laughing, laughing, laughing. Jimin liked this life better. It was smaller, more tight-knit. Appreciated.
On the way back, Jimin lets Taehyung ride the bike. He sits in the back, arms hugging Taehyung’s waist. He’s the good kind of exhausted. They’ve planted an entire patch of strawberries under the summer sun. And now it’s twilight. The sun is almost done setting and there are empty fields as far as the eye can see. Jimin is glad they settled here in the countryside. It’s the safest place they could be. He’s heard so many horror stories at the marketplace about the city areas.
Something about this dirt road reminds Jimin of just when The End began. He hadn’t thought of it in a while, but with his cheek resting on Taehyung’s back, the balmy summer air rippling through his t-shirt, he thinks back.
The desperate seemingly-endless journey from the burning fields of Boseong to the crumbling mansion he’d agreed to meet Taehyung by. Tears streaming down his face, brain turned to mush from confusion. His grandma was gone. The entire house was on fire when he rode past on his bike. His parents had to still be in Busan but he had no way of contacting them. He saw the comets falling from the sky and now everyone in his immediate proximity was dead.
There was nowhere to go, it was just countryside stretching in all directions. The countryside and fire and rubble. So Jimin got back onto his bike, got onto the empty expressway. His thoughts were racing ahead of him and he had to reign them in before they fell into full-blown panic.
From the moment that Pepsi sign fell from the sky, a deep fear settled. An intuitive type of fear he didn’t fully understand, but it was like his body already knew what was going on. And as he pedaled down the empty expressway, that fear was starting to make so much more sense. It was the end of the world.
One thought that played like a broken tape at the back of his mind was Taehyung, Taehyung, Taehyung.
He only knew Taehyung from the photos on his instagram, from late night calls, and everyday texting. They’d never met before then, they’d became friends online when they were both in high school and since then Taehyung had become the only constant in Jimin’s constantly changing life.
They’d talked about meeting in person so many times but it never worked out. They even set up a meeting spot. A ruined old mansion Taehyung had found on google maps. It was supposed to be only a few hours away by car from Buseong.
The two of them built an entire dream life around that mansion. They talked about it a lot when things were bad. A hope, for when they could finally leave the world behind and build one of their own. How they’d set up the rooms, how Taehyung would restore the flower garden. They could pick peaches every summer, Taehyung would have so much space for his art, Jimin would be able to grow his own vegetables. Most importantly, they’d be away from the world. Isolated in their own private dream world.
And Jimin had known that that’s what it was, just a fantasy, to get them through the tough times. But he’d pored over google maps so many times he knew every single route on how to get there. He’d already imagined and reimagined how they’d fix the decor, how they’d decorate the rooms, how they’d restore the garden.
So that afternoon when the world began to end, Jimin was already riding his bike toward the mansion, unconsciously. It was the only place he could think of.
He hoped against all hope that Taehyung would be there, too.
And it was that evening, twilight settling in, that Jimin pedaled down this dirt road, legs shaking from overexertion and hunger. The only thing that kept him going was hope.
(Taehyung wasn’t there when he arrived. Jimin spent three days trying not to give up, trying to keep living even if Taehyung didn’t exist in this world anymore. But Taehyung showed up eventually. On the verge of passing out, his feet in blisters, but still in one piece, still alive.)
Jimin wakes with a gasp. He’s breathing heavily, blinking the darkness into focus. Taehyung’s head is on his chest, arm thrown over his waist. Jimin slows down his breathing to listen for Taehyung’s.
The air is balmy, almost suffocating. Trees are rustling outside. And Taehyung’s chest is rising up and down in deep regular breaths. Jimin’s muscles relax one by one, hand coming up to stroke Taehyung’s neck.
He’s been having this recurring nightmare, one where Taehyung dies. Where he falls out of the sky instead of the neon pepsi sign, a corpse with strangely angled limbs. The people in his dreams tell him Taehyung is dead in such an offhand way, like it’s not a big deal, and Jimin is at a loss of how to respond because the sudden yawning chasm that opens up in him swallows every emotion.
He’s so lucky, they’re both so lucky they survived and found each other. They’re so lucky they made it this far.
They have a swing hanging on the old branches of the peach tree. It was there before but it was falling apart. Taehyung and Jimin fixed it up together.
Taehyung is swinging on it gently, head resting on one of the ropes. The music box is on the ground next to him, tinkling the waltz of the monsters. Jimin had just come back from picking up the dog. He’s holding the puppy in his arms, sneaking up behind Taehyung.
But the puppy barks and Taehyung jerks around, eyes wide. The moment his eyes land on Jimin’s arms, his whole face breaks into a grin.
“Surprise,” Jimin says, dumping the ball of brown fur onto Taehyung’s lap.
The puppy barks again, and starts licking Taehyung’s face. And Taehyung is laughing, a tinkle like the music box but fuller, booming, and Jimin can’t stop smiling.