"Love is a smoke and is made with the fume of sighs."
The morning was like no other ordinary, tedious and drowsy early day. The air was grey with the smoke from the heavens. It was heavy with the arriving tears of late spring, a season that was ready to wave its petals away and accept the full forms of green, summer trees. The breeze that blew through what remained of this pink nature was cool and fresh, like the water of a lake at the feet of a tall mountain that the explorer splashes against his face.
The sounds of a blue city resonated in the ears of a young student, barely seventeen years of age, who was strolling through the streets of Busan, South Korea. He was tall, brunette, had a transparent line crossing his left cheek and moles that spread through his face. Barely travelling towards adulthood, and about to graduate high school, the young student moved like water would do in a river. The eagerness of the rapids was there – the passion burning behind his large, brown eyes – but the tenderness of youth (of someone who was still not certain of the future) could be felt in the way he stepped; almost as if he walked in the air.
A black bag hugged the broad back of the student, camouflaging with the black uniform he wore; similar to the colour of the early morning in which he walked. His blazer, not thick enough to shelter him from the attacks of the wind, made him shiver with each new current that played with his garments. But he tried to brush these trembles aside and pretended to not feel anything. His mum would have screamed at him until his ears chose to turn deaf if she knew he had left the house dressed in nothing but his uniform.
As the form of a squared and grey building came into view, with a clock encrusted in the tallest tower of blocks, the student began to walk slightly slower. Others like him, people with who he studied, approached the same building with the tranquillity of cats. Most travelled in groups and talked amongst themselves with excited voices and cheery laughter. A sea of folded umbrellas filled the vision of the student who was by himself. It would begin to rain soon.
After changing his shoes and reaching his classroom, the student in his final year of high school took a seat on his usual spot in the classroom. He was next to a large and white window, which he accustomed to using to gaze outside when he became bored during lectures. A hand came to rest under his chin as he waited for class to begin, he was counting the seconds in his head; trying to not fall asleep in the process.
"Jeongguk-ah," he heard his name being called and quickly turned towards the direction of a voice. He was greeted by a picture, his two best friends, smiling widely at him from above his head. One of them was taller than the other one and carried silky, brown curtains for hair. The other one, who had a sweeter and smoother voice and was shorter by noticeable centimetres, had hair as dark as space in a quiet evening.
"What?" the student, called Jeongguk, questioned a second before he was attacked by a new wave of content and energetic cheers.
"Good morning," the others chanted, united, making Jeongguk think about their school choir, as an unpleasant shiver ran down his back. It was, slightly, scary to hear how the voices of his best friends morphed to sing one song; perfectly coordinated and almost, inhumanly, tuned. It was the type of melody one would hear in a horror movie, Jeongguk thought.
"Good morning," he nodded, sparing a second to the pair, and later returning to the window.
He could see the first signs of a shower by now. The sky looked like the night washed in Clorox, losing light and colour with each roll of the clouds. The sun was nowhere to be seen. It was hidden behind the thick layers of gas that were not sufficiently translucent to allow the rays of the star to reach the ground. Jeongguk cursed in his head. At the same time, he heard the reproaching voice of his mother, telling him that he should have taken an umbrella to school, resonating from the very back of his mind.
"Yah, Jeongguk. Are you listening?" one of his friends asked, the one with black hair and with the gentlest smile a person could ever have. His name was Jimin, fellow senior and classmate of Jeongguk. They were the same age, him slightly older than the boy with his head in the clouds, They had known each other since primary school.
"Uh-huh," Jeongguk said, not paying true attention to the conversation that had continued without his presence.
"He's not listening," a second and deeper voice commented. Jeongguk didn't have to turn around to confirm that it had been Taehyung, his other best friend; the one with brown hair, a boxy smile and impressive height.
"I am," Jeongguk defended himself, still refusing to look at his friends.
He quite liked rainy days. The frustrated groans that the chaotic, grey clouds brought to some were nothing less than bliss to the student. He liked this type of atmosphere. He enjoyed the rain and to get soaked in the thick tears that fell from the mass above, despite his mum's arguments against doing such a thing. That was the only condition that Jeongguk didn't like about the contract he held with rain. He would always be scolded by one of his parents if he chose to absorb the melancholic songs of the clouds. A shame, he thought. But he was powerless when it came to giving a voice to his thoughts, as long as his parents were the ones he had to combat to reach this goal.
"Then, can you tell us what we were saying just now?" Jimin asked, poking Jeongguk's arm, impatiently.
"Eh..." the one sitting down hesitated for a second, not knowing what to say. His lack of words drew a wider smile on Taehyung's lips. He began to laugh a little before taking a hold of Jimin's arm – the oldest within the group of friends, who was really older just by two months – and swinging this one from side to side.
"Told you," Taehyung sing-sang, triumphantly, like a child who answers a question right. The other friend sighed, half-rolled his eyes at Jeongguk, and repeated his words.
"We said–" he began his speech but was interrupted by the other eager boy that still held his arm.
"Wait, wait. We have to confirm that he's listening to us. Quick, Jeongguk," the taller said, placing his hands on his sides (palms away from his body) in a dramatic manner as he spoke with a strange urge in his voice, "Tell me, what's the square root of 100?"
"Isn't that ten?" the other brunette hesitated as soon as he gave this answer. He stopped for an extra second to carry out the calculations in his head as a result. However, as soon as he had confirmed his hurried and original reply, he nodded and watched as Taehyung smiled brighter.
"Correct," he almost screamed, pointing at Jeongguk with a terse hand, "Okay, you can proceed Jimin-ssi."
Jeongguk wasn't the best at maths. His friends knew this as well as they knew the back of their hands. Due to this, both often took any opportunity that arose to tease and test him by throwing into the air casual questions that worked with numbers. If Jeongguk answered right, in these instances, it meant that he had taken the time to come up with an answer. Thus, confirming that he was listening to the things his friends were saying and that they had his entire attention.
Jeongguk chuckled but shook his head, disapprovingly, at the same time.
"Anyway, as I was saying before being interrupted and ignored," Jimin resumed, glaring at Taehyung but only receiving fingers shaped like hearts in return, "Rumour has it that Mrs Lee's substitute will start to teach today."
Mrs Lee was their homeroom teacher, who also taught world literature at their school. She was a relatively young woman, who had recently married and become pregnant in the span of a year. Her maternity leave had started last week, if Jeongguk remembered correctly, which meant that they wouldn't see her for the following months.
"Really?" Jeongguk's eyes went big, gaining the silver sparkle that was deposited in his irises every time he heard something of his interest. He quite liked literature and Mrs Lee was a nice woman, who he would miss to have in front of the classroom. But curiosity obtained the best of him. He wanted to know more about this new teacher, "My brother didn't tell me anything of that sort."
Taehyung hummed. Jimin nodded, eagerly, confirming the younger's words.
"Seohyun said she over-heard the headmaster speaking with a man," the black-haired continued, "She said they were talking about classroom dynamics, and how the headmaster was trying to reassure this mysterious man about his potential. It was almost like a motivational talk, or that is what she claims."
"When was this again?" Taehyung asked, not being able to remain still for too long and having started to play with Jeongguk's hair. The younger friend let him, already accustomed to receiving this type of treatment. Sometimes, he felt like a manhandled teddy bear (but that was an exaggeration, and he knew it himself. His friends were nothing but soft towards him).
"Earlier this morning. You know how Seohyun is. She always comes earlier than anybody else, who knows why."
"Maybe to study. Isn't she, like, number one in our grade's ranking?" Taehyung continued.
"Do we know anything else from this teacher?" Jeongguk asked a second later, focusing the conversation on the stranger once again, "Did Seohyun say anything else?"
"Oh," Jimin grinned, his eyes disappearing under stretched, black lines. The image made Jeongguk think about the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland, "Well, she says he looks young. Apparently, he's hot too."
Jeongguk bent his head to the side.
Jimin nodded again. Taehyung, noticing a shadow roaming the corridors outside, smiled a little and pointed towards the tall, fogged windows on the other side of the room with his head.
"You can be the judge."
At the same time as these words left Taehyung's mouth, a door was heard being rolled open. As soon as these sounds reached the ears of the students, that had been scattered around the hazel classroom like acorns in the floor of the woods, everybody ran back to their designated seats as the new figure moved to the front of the room. Once everybody had been seated, and the commotion around Jeongguk had settled down, the student (among the other thirty teenagers surrounding him) was able to have a proper look at the man.
The first thing he noticed was the way in which he carried himself. The adult didn't convey an air of superiority, unlike other people Jeongguk knew. He didn't strut or waddle. He flowed, like water running down a mountain in the river, as his arms swung next to his body as if they were lazy swings. Jeongguk leaned slightly forwards, his back never quivering and keeping a straight posture. The man had caught his attention.
He was wearing black. A black shirt under a black coat, which matched with his hair and the square glasses dressing his brown, sharp eyes. His attire contrasted with his milky skin, which was as pale as a sheet of blank paper. The students couldn't stop staring. Although he did not look menacing, the man who had entered the room could be intimidating in the way that knowledge is. His eyes were hard and firmly set on a goal. He looked as if he already knew everything from everybody else in here. Jeongguk couldn't help but gulp in both excitement and tingling nervousness.
If this was the substitute, he admitted that he had to give credit to his classmate. The stranger was good looking, indeed. Perhaps too handsome for his own good; enough to make Jeongguk's intestines form knots and his head to imitate the form of a whirl.
"Good morning, class," the man uttered in a deep and raspy voice after he had cleared his throat. Jeongguk felt his legs becoming gelatine as the hairs on his nape stood on end, "As you might be aware, Mrs Lee will be on a break starting today. I am here to cover her lessons. My name is," he turned around for a second, took a whiteboard pen attached to a side of the clear surface, and began to write in big, squeaky letters, "Min Yoongi."
Murmurs were exchanged between the students in the time it took the substitute to write on the board. A combination of feelings could be felt floating in the air.
"His surname is Min," someone mentioned, amazed.
"Oh. Don't you think he's handsome?" another voice giggled.
"Wah. I hope he doesn't give a lot of homework," one last voice said before the man in the front turned again to speak directly to the class.
"I will be your homeroom tutor from now on. I will also be teaching those who take world literature. I hope to be able to successfully transmit to you the many messages that literature holds for us to discover, as well as to teach you the art that books and words represent. I will be here to help you with anything you need as well. Please do not hesitate to come to me if you ever feel trouble. I would do anything in my power to aid you."
A small round of applause and acknowledgements went around the room. The teacher smiled a little before starting to answer a few questions that were directed to him. Most of these came from curious girls. Jeongguk was tempted to raise his hand as well. But he didn't know what to say. The only thing he knew was that he wanted to speak to their new teacher. How he would do it, he didn't know well. Besides, he doubted that the pressure in his stomach would allow him to do much. His heart pounded against his chest. His palms suddenly began to sweat... Jeongguk cursed under his breath.
After registration had been carried out, and the first few lessons of the morning had taken place, the students began to talk amongst themselves as they emptied the classroom and went to prepare for physical education. Jeongguk took this opportunity, of solitude and tranquillity, to approach the teacher. At the end of the day, he had been voted as the class representative (almost out of a joke) and needed to make justice to the title.
Taking a shaken breath – he had never been good with new people – the student forced himself to stand up and walked towards the teacher. He was one of the last students that remained behind. Although he did receive a few glances from the people that had been leaving, at noticing it was only Jeongguk and not a pretty girl who had had the nerves to approach the handsome man at the front, many turned away in disinterest and ran outside. Jeongguk didn't know if to laugh or scoff. He caught sight of Jimin and Taehyung cheering him up with wide smiles and supportive thumbs before they, too, emptied the classroom. A second later, he was found alone.
"Mr Min?" he began once he had been close enough, earning the attention of the teacher, who had been reading the list of names of the people in the class. Jeongguk imagined he was trying to memorise them all.
"Yes?" he asked, softly, eyes meeting Jeongguk's for a second and making the student avert his gaze in embarrassment. Due to this, the young man was unable to see the little smile that had settled on the teacher's lips.
"Umm... I..." he swallowed again, "My name is Jeon Jeongguk and I am the class representative. I simply wanted to give you an official and formal greeting. Thank you very much for taking care of Mrs Lee's work for the months that will come. As a class, we welcome you warmly and also hope to have a good time with you by our side."
The student bowed, ninety degrees, for a few seconds after uttering these words. When he looked up again, this time, he was able to notice the soft traces of a tender smile on the teacher's face. It made Jeongguk feel strangely warm for some reason. He didn't spend too much energy in trying to figure out the cause of this feeling, however.
"Thank you very much, Jeongguk. I really appreciate it."
"It's no problem. None at all," he assured, with a timid smile, as his eyes wandered to the side. His plan had not included anything further than the things he had already mentioned. Due to this, he did not know what to say anymore. He had two options, he realised; either try to continue the conversation with a relatively interesting comment or escape. He eyed the door, a scene from an action movie running through his mind.
"Umm..." the teacher continued. This time, he was the one to appear shyer. Jeongguk felt like giggling a little, but he contained these urges, "May I ask about your opinions on this first class we just had? What did you think of it? Was it too slow or fast? Too boring or too much?"
Jeongguk nodded rapidly to deliver an answer. But, at confusing himself and suddenly not knowing how his actions would be interpreted, he shook his head and made his hair dance. However, this only made him hesitate even more. He adopted a troubled look, this one reflected on his face in the same way that the moonlight bounces off the crystalline surface of a pond, and groaned lightly. He, really, was a terrible spokesman. He still didn't understand why his classmates had chosen him to represent their class if he, most of the time, made a fool of himself with his clumsy expressions.
Nevertheless, he obtained another smile and careful laugh from the teacher in front of him. His ears picked up the sound, like a hopeful song at the distance and far away from the chaos of a burning town, which brought some tranquillity to his desperate and tight chest. Jeongguk rubbed the back of his neck before being able to organise his thoughts and provide a concrete answer. The stress evaporated from his shoulders as if it was water on a warm, summer day.
"I think your lesson was good," he said, genuinely after battling with himself and coming to an agreement with his tangled brain, "The things we went over today were quite interesting."
They were studying one of the most important books that had ever been written in history, according to many literature teachers and critics. A book that helped to shape the western world as people knew it today, Mr Min had said, and that remained relevant to the present lives of many as well. Jeongguk had taken note of these things in the notebook he devoted to literature, which was filled with small phrases and diagrams summarising the lessons he listened to. He also kept small ideas on a sole page of this notebook, at the very back, which was reserved for his own ideas that surged in the middle of class for possible stories. He liked to write and had even dreamt of becoming an author once upon a time... That dream was long gone by now, but Jeongguk still did this almost out of habit. Just in case, he often told his friends when they asked him about this specific page. Just in case...
"Really?" Yoongi asked, a hint of surprise behind his deep voice. His eyes had got rounder with surprise too, "Did I not bored you with that lecture about industrialisation and modernity?"
Jeongguk shook his head, gently. A sincere expression engulfed the features of his juvenile and fresh face.
"No, not at all. Mrs Lee introduced us to these topics in the past, but she never went on a lot of detail. Ever since that day, many of us have been interested to learn more. So, we could say that it was a subject of interest of great part of the class," he said, watching Mr Min nodding, "But your way of explaining these things was clear and precise as well, which helped us to understand even better. When you talked about alienation, for example, I was able to grasp the concept immediately and without any issues. "
Mr Min laughed softly at this.
"Thank you," he said, shaking his head slightly; as if he were wanting to erase the smile that had sat on his mouth, "You are not praising me just because you want to be on my good side, right?"
His tone had not reflected true mistrust. Rather, it had been quite playful and inoffensive; like the complaints of a cat that only seeks warmth for a limited period made out of hugs. Jeongguk chose to go along the game, a natural habit of his; trained by his two, extremely teasing, friends.
"Do I look like that type of student, Mr Min?" Jeongguk asked, his head bending to a side as a small pout pushed his lips forward. His eyes, which looked like a pair of full birds, questioned the teacher transparently. There was no malice in there, just a little bit of truth and spirit of inquiry.
Mr Min had to look away. The strength of such a gaze was too much for him to bare, it appeared. He scratched his head with a long and pale finger as his eyes remained on the piece of paper that had held his attention until recently. Jeongguk thought that, perhaps, he wasn't very good with this either. Mr Min looked like a nice man, who could have been nervous on his first day of school and did not know well how to handle pushy students like him. Jeongguk began to feel sorry, an apology ready to be launched by his tongue. But what he heard a second later stopped the teenager from pressing the button and made his breath stutter.
"No. You seem like the brilliant type," was what Mr Min said, no trace of mockery in his voice.
Jeongguk was taken aback, the relaxed act he had built fell and collapsed like a wall made of bricks and dust. He, suddenly, did not know how to speak anymore. He should have been used to praises. Jeongguk was an obedient student and had good, professional, relationships with his teacher; he blamed this on his brother, who constantly reminded him to be polite to everybody who taught him. Yet, something in the way Yoongi had said this, not in the manner that most educators did, made Jeongguk think about familiarity. He had sounded more like a friend, not like the figure of power that he was. And that made the student feel strange. Not awkward, but, maybe, confused and slightly disoriented.
"T-Thank you," he bowed, a conditioned response he, at least, carried out eight times a day, "I–"
Just when the words were about to flow out of his gaped mouth, the student heard the distant cry of the bell that marked the start of a new class piercing the walls of the classroom. He gasped, surprised, not having kept an eye on the time, and cursed for the 100th time that morning. He would be obliged to run ten laps around the running track as a punishment for being late, he thought, his eyes moving to gaze outside. He hoped the rain would hurry up and wash the ground...
"I'm sorry, Mr Min. I must leave now."
"Ah, yes," the teacher cleared his throat with a raspy cough, returning a kind and almost paternal smile, "If you're late, just blame it on me and tell your teacher that I kept you for longer than I should have."
Jeongguk laughed a little and nodded before bowing for the last time. He excused himself. Once out of the range of Mr Min and any other teacher, Jeongguk glanced at the watched chained to his wrist and chose to risk everything. He starting to jog towards P.E, not caring if he was caught and sent to detention for running in the halls...
The first drops from the clouds had begun to stain the sandy field outside.
"Ahhhhh. I'm so tired," Taehyung complained loudly at the end of the day, his arms stretching high up towards the clearing sky as peculiar sounds left his lungs. He sounded like a whale calling for help, Jeongguk thought. He didn't blame him. He felt like one too.
"I'm hungry," Jimin said.
"I want to sleep," said Jeongguk before the three of them broke into a song made of groans and despair, "Why is being a teenager so hard?"
"I don't know," the two others friends screamed, dragging their feet as they walked away from the grey building glistening under the rays of light that had finally managed to perforate the dispersing clouds.
They received a few glares from passing school girls, who conspired with each other against the two boys that clung to each other and tried to physically support their weights as they walked. Jeongguk smiled at them, apologetically, before pushing his best friends apart. More groans filled the air.
"Can you two stop embarrassing me in public?"
"Nah," Jimin said. Taehyung shrugged. Jeongguk sighed.
The three resumed walking normally after this. The shadows that had been missing in the morning followed the students in their walk back home. The sun, now strong and in all its glory, shone over the city of Busan as the seagulls (that were slowly beginning to come back to the shore) played with each other in the currents running in the sky. The pink flowers attached to the branches of brown trees were beginning to be blown away by the gentle breeze that came from the East in this golden afternoon. They would, soon, disappear completely again and be buried under hotter weather and longer days.
Jeongguk sighed before taking in the comforting smell of the sea. It was everywhere in the city, this scent to salt and gleamy waves. It smelt like home and many lost dreams, like everything Jeongguk knew and everything else he still had to discover.
"Would you guys like to..." he let his voice wander away with the breeze, his head pointing at a purple convenience store they always stumbled across when needed the most.
Jimin and Taehyung nodded, eagerly, as happy grins pushed their cheeks against their eyes. Life returned to them. They entered the store after this and separated. Each had a designated task when it came to buying food. Jimin went for the drinks at the back of the shop, Taehyung grabbed the bags they always retrieved from the shelves in the aisles in the middle and Jeongguk went on a quest for triangle kimbap (their cultural variation of rice balls).
"Thank you for your purchase," a young cashier said, almost lifelessly, as she gave the group of friends a bag with the goods they had collected in a span of five minutes.
She did not smile, simply scowled and look as if she could harm the three of them with a simple bat to her long eyelashes. Scared or intimidated (or both), the one in the middle (Taehyung) accepted the plastic bag and smiled nervously. The three, then, ran out of the store as discreetly and fast as they could and sighed once the smell of the sea had reached their nostrils again.
"Girls can be so scary," Jimin cried on the inside as he devoured one rice ball. He was still walking stiffly.
"Never mess up with them," Taehyung warned as he took a sip of his carbonated drink. Jeongguk agreed in silence, sipping on the banana milk his other friend had gotten for him.
The group, then, continue to stroll through the pleasant afternoon. The bags they carried and hung from their shoulders danced slowly as their owners climbed a steep, concrete hill. Their houses were all close by. They were neighbours, were simply apart by five minutes on feet, and always walked back together from school. The only exception was on Thursdays when Jimin–
"Oh, sh–" Jimin began but was stopped by Taehyung, who clasped a large hand on top of his mouth. The shorter of the three stared at his friend in wonder, asking what he was doing through his eyes. Taehyung, in return, grinned.
"We're in public. No swearing. Children might hear you."
At the same time, perfectly synchronised, a group of smaller pre-schoolers were seen crossing the road. Their hands were linked. They looked like yellow, baby ducks.
The black haired rolled his eyes, untangling himself from Taehyung and remaining glued to the floor. He looked behind his shoulder and then drew his phone from one of his pockets. He sighed.
"I forgot I had dance club today," he explained before catching a flavoured water bottle that had been thrown at him by Jeongguk.
"You better run," the younger of the three say, "Unless you want Mr Jung to kill you. He looked pissed during P.E. today."
"Probably because of the rain," Taehyung covered his mouth as another yawn made it out of his body, "So, yeah. Good look, Jiminnie."
"Thanks," the black-haired said, adjusting the stripes of his backpack and jumping a little. He was preparing himself to run, Jeongguk thought with an amused smile, "I'll–"
"Yeah, yeah. You'll text us later. We'll probably stay at my house, though. So, just come around for dinner," Jeongguk finished for him, earning a half smile from Jimin.
"Okay. Bye, guys. See you later."
"Bye," the other two said in unison, making Jeongguk think about the choir again.
He shook his head, trying to erase that memory from his mind. He had had negative experiences with the singing club in the past. Most had been suppressed by his body; a mechanism for him to survive. But he still could recall the pain and humiliation that he had to live through for two years of his early life once. He still had nightmares about it. The mere thought made him shiver unpleasantly.
"So..." Taehyung started, locking arms with Jeongguk. The younger one chuckled.
"Is your brother going to be home?"
"You're unbelievable, you know?"
"So I've been told."
The two had made it to a little house located on even ground. Next to this one were other residences, a few houses and other, short, flats. Jeongguk's house was one of the most spacious one in comparison to his neighbours' properties. Its roof was red and the body was white. It looked a little like a house taken from a movie recorded on the other side of the globe. But it wasn't as refined as those. Just a little bigger in comparison to the ones in Asia.
The inside was mainly made out of wood. The bedrooms were upstairs as well as an extra bathroom, which Jeongguk shared with his older brother. The living room, kitchen and dinner were in the ground floor. The kitchen was hazel and white; large as well, and open. It faced the living room, a white sofa with orange cushions, which in turn pointed at a thin tv and was adjacent to a wall made out of books.
When Taehyung had come to his house for the first time, when both had been nine years old, the taller boy had claimed Jeongguk to be rich. Jeongguk, at the time, had denied the words with pouts and adorable shakes to his head. His family was quite alright, he had to admit, but he wouldn't go to the extreme of claiming to have a large wealth. He came from a family of educators. His brother had started to teach a few years ago and both of his parents were professors. Although, technically, his mom was quite a famous lecturer that often went on tours as well...
"I'm home," Jeongguk screamed into the house once he had closed the door behind him. Taehyung had already been removing his shoes.
"Oh, Gguk," his brother called from the living room. His voice moved through the open door that separated the rooms in which both were, "Come here. I have someone to introduce to you."
The younger brother moved through the narrow and short corridor for three seconds. After this, he turned left and encountered his older brother, smiling at him. His name was Seokjin, or simply Jin. Large, brown eyes, thick lips and honey hair greeted him from the sofa. A lazy hand waved at him.
"Hey," the younger one said, receiving a pat on his shoulder from the taller and broader man once he had taken a seat next to Jin. His face, evergreen and still reflecting the air of early youth, looked relaxed and loosen up. He had been drinking, Jeongguk confirmed when he smelt the subtle smell of beer in the elder's breath. Jin only drank on weekdays when he was accompanied, which meant... "Who were you–"
"Jeongguk?" another voice asked, a deep and raspy question which could not have belonged to Taehyung; who remained by the door and watched the scene unfolding in front of him as if it were a clip taken from a movie. Jeongguk gulped involuntarily and twisted his torso, which allowed him to take a look at his new teacher. Min Yoongi, who had gotten out of the bathroom they kept for visitors, blinked back at him before acknowledging the other figure by the door, "And Taehyung, right?"
"Yeah," Taehyung smiled, happy to have been noticed. Others tended to ignore him easily.
"Oh! You know each other already," Jin clasped his hands before throwing his back against the spine of the sofa, "My job got easier, then."
"He's our homeroom and literature teacher," Taehyung said, leaving his bag by the door and moving to the kitchen island that divided the two sections of the house. He grabbed an apple from a bowl and began to play with it as he spoke, "I assume you already befriended him, hyung?"
Jin was good with people, unlike Jeongguk. He was an enchanter, could make snakes dance without much effort by giving a simple gesture or a by uttering a pair of of sugary words. He was easy going and funny. He was handsome and had a lively spirit. People often thought he had the same age as Jeongguk despite being close to his mid-twenties. He had graduated early as well, held a double major on education and drama, and got a job as soon as he obtained his diploma. He was the family's pride, everybody knew. And, although he was never compared to Jin, Jeongguk couldn't help himself but notice all the differences that existed between his brother and him. The things that separated Jeongguk from the successful teacher were too many to count. They were sufficient to make Jin appear taller, to place him in a pedestal.
Jeongguk wished he could be more like him.
"Yeah, I guess," Jin smiled, patting Jeongguk's thigh at the same time. He accustomed to doing this often, to bring his friends from work to their home. It was on this type of occasions that Jeongguk wished to be swallowed by the Earth. It was still a nightmare for him to have to study in the same school in which his older brother taught. His classmates used to tease him with this in the past. Some still did, mostly those who didn't know the meaning of moving on with life. They irritated Jeongguk. He sighed.
"I never imagined you two would be brothers," Yoongi uttered some minutes later when the questions about their days and other mundane inquiries had all been answered. Jin nodded lightly, as he laughed at the same time; jokes running through his mind.
"Right? I'm more handsome than Jeongguk, that's why people get confused."
"Hey," the younger brother complained, throwing daggers with his eyes at his brother.
"I was thinking more about your surnames. They are different, aren't they?" Yoongi asked, looking entertained. He was trying not to laugh, Jeongguk could tell.
"Ah, well," Jin pretended to sound disappointed. But he was smiling. Jeongguk didn't have to look at the side to confirm this. But, even if he had wanted to do such a thing, he knew that he would have been unable to. He could not tear his eyes away from the teacher sitting across them, on one armchair and with his legs comfortably folded. Outside of the classroom, and without his glasses, Mr Min looked younger to Jeongguk's eyes. He could have been mistaken with a teenager as well, or perhaps with a university student. He would have to ask Jin about his age later in the night, "We're technically half brothers. Same mum, but different dads. She's currently married to Jeongguk's dad."
"Oh. I see."
Jeongguk, not knowing what else to say, nodded and looked at Taehyung; asking for any help that the other brunette could give him. But his friend, who was half listening and half staring at Jin with sparkling and adoring eyes, did not acknowledge his current state. He huffed silently, earning a look from Yoongi – who looked at him as if he was a rare creature that he had never heard of – that told the teenager that he had been discovered. He averted his gaze and turned to his brother again, who began to talk about something Jeongguk couldn't quite grasp.
"Hyung," he asked a second later, "Should I... Um... Start to prepare dinner?"
"Hmm?" he had been busy laughing with Yoongi to pay too much attention to the doe-eyed boy. He nodded, nonetheless, with the limited information his mind had caught, "Yeah, sure. Do you need any help?"
"Taehyung will do," he claimed, getting up quickly and moving next door.
He felt a pair of heavy eyes following him in his journey from the seat to the fridge. He paralyzed under this gaze, and had to pause when he had been about to open the doors of the cooled machine. Jeongguk wondered if this was how a prey felt when being stalked by a predator. Jeongguk wondered why Min Yoongi's eyes were digging holes on his nape. He wondered why it was bothering him so much, why he felt heat running up to his face.
A second later, however, he felt the pressure disappearing and mixing with the air. When he stole a glance at the men speaking in the clean living room, he was able to see that Yoongi's eyes were nowhere near him. He was eagerly speaking with Jin, moving his hands in the air as ideas left his tongue and took the shapes of diverse images in the minds of each other, invisible to the ones outside the circle the two had created. They seemed to be discussing a play. Jeongguk heard a few slurred words proper from this genre as he gathered the ingredients he would need to cook. Irony, stage directions, and monologue were a few.
Jeongguk, however, could not concentrate on these at the moment. He kept wondering if the sensation he had felt had all been in his head. And if it had been, he wondered why his mind had tricked him with such thoughts. Why was he thinking about Mr Min?
"Taehyung-ah," Jeongguk called twenty minutes later. The water that had been poured into a big boiler pan bubbled violently as a creamy soup cooked inside. The cooker, trying to do as much as he could with the limited number of arms he possessed, chopped white radish as he tried to gain his friend's attention, "Tae!"
"What?" the other said lazily, still glued to the kitchen island. The apple was long gone. Only seeds remained seated on a napkin that the eater had, yet, to throw into a bin.
"Can you please stop staring at my brother and help me out?"
The brunette sighed. The kettle began to shriek in the background and the steam that left its mouth fogged the air, making it feel stuffy and humid.
"Oh, but how could I when I have someone so beautiful in front of my eyes? How could I do anything else but to look at such a refined piece of art when everything else becomes as irrelevant as a stone? You're insane, my best friend, at thinking that I could spare even a second of this precious time. I have no minutes to give to your little games. I need to soak into this golden rain and worship the perfect man in front of my scarred eyes, which only heal in the presence of such an angelic face."
"Tae," Jeongguk's voice held a warning, "For the last time, you're not Shakespeare and our dinner will burn if you don't help me. So, decide, Romeo. Keep trying to speak in a pseudo-Shakespearean language or get your arse moving, mate."
Taehyung, again, let a dramatic cry fill the air before removing the equally loud kettle from the fire disk; where it had been enduring pain. He kept mumbling something under his breath, possibly complaining about not being able to keep studying the features of Jin's porcelain face. He poured the water into a cup and dissolved some honey in it. Jeongguk liked to eat chicken with honey, for some reason. But the honey they kept in this house, imported from abroad, was too strong according to the cook. Taehyung, who also had bizarre food preferences, did not question the teenage and simply did as he was told.
Jimin ended up arriving minutes before the people in the house began to eat. He arrived with some company, Jung Hoseok, their P.E. teacher and Jin's friend, who entered the house with a bright smile on his face. This was an image Jeongguk was used to see. Teachers often invaded his home because of Seokjin, who was friends with every single staff member of their school and had no shame to invite them to their house. Jeongguk didn't really mind, in reality. Most people his brother brought home made good company and magically forgot they had met outside of school the following morning, when he saw them in the corridors or classrooms. At least, all were quite professional. Although, at times, some inoffensive and unconscious favouritism would surge among the teachers who were the closest to his brother. This would be expressed in praises or fewer punishments. It was a power Jeongguk liked to hold.
The rest of the evening flew like any other. The adults spent time with each other whilst the students ran to Jeongguk's room. They only shared dinner time, when all were called to eat in a rectangular table that managed to fit them all. At one point, another teacher – who specialised in English – had come along too. He ruffled Jeongguk's hair when he saw him, drawing a happy grin from the young, starry-eyed boy. Mr Kim, as he was known among students, or Namjoon hyung (as he was allowed to call him outside of school) had been his favourite teacher for years. He was the reason he stopped failing English in his first year of high school. Jin and Jeongguk were still grateful.
Dinner was pleasant that evening. The men talked calmly amongst themselves, pushing asides their social titles and treating each other as good, old friends rather than students and teachers. Even the newcomer, Yoongi, looked at peace with the relaxed air that surrounded them. The jokes and the laughter made everything feel lighter, like a feather floating in stale air, and the good food aided to make everybody feel very content. Jeongguk obtained a number of praises that night, as well as subtle smiles from one certain man.
With the fast passage of time, days feeling like rushing hours that became nothing with a few blinks to the eye, Jeongguk came to a conclusion regarding his new literature teacher.
He was a very cool man.
He couldn't explain it. He couldn't say it with words or show it with paintings. He simply knew that Mr Min was the type of person that Jeongguk, in the wildest dreams he saw at the end of tiring days, dreamt and aspired to be. He knew a lot of things and looked at the world in ways that left Jeongguk speechless at the end of a long class.
He was a literature teacher, who, following the stereotype, should have been of a soft nature. But Mr Min did not hesitate to shout at the world when he encountered something unpleasant, or scowl and defend his passion when an arrogant voice spoke with a fake air of superiority. He would not stop to think too much about issues that took others forever to resolve. It only took a low murmur or a vacant stare to scare away those who had taken for granted the teacher's kindness.
Because Min Yoongi was kind as well. He checked on all his students constantly, asked them how they were doing and reminded them that he would always be available to speak about any concern ruminating in his students' head. He was also the type of person that seemed to enjoy their work. Despite being grumpy in the mornings, and being slow and groggy before his cup of dark coffee, Yoongi talked with a feverish enthusiasm about books, art and society as soon as he stood at front of the classroom.
Jeongguk could see the marks left by tiredness and by long days or nights of work. He could see the irritation bubbling in him when one of his unbothered classmates tried to challenge the teacher and his thoughts. But he could also see the fondness in his eyes when he told off one of the kids in the classroom. He could see the traces of a ghostly smile that almost got out of his control when another youthful character made a joke about a famous writer. He could see the love he had for his job and education as a whole. Jeongguk admired that in a person, the ability to adore what they were doing with their energy and time; a rare sight in his world.
However, the thing that also aided Jeongguk to notice all of this could have come from all the hours he had spent with the teacher outside of school. Just like Hoseok and Namjoon, Yoongi became one of the frequent guests in his house. In the month that had passed by, ever since their first encounter, the literature teacher had gone to his house at least ten times. Many of these instances were initiated by his brother, Jeongguk knew. He was always dragging people into their home, but only a few were allowed to visit regularly. Those were the people that Jin liked the best. His friends, in a way.
Jeongguk didn't know what the two did when they were at work. He had seen them together at times, walking through the corridors or discussing the plot of books and drama in the teacher's lounge. They had grown quite close in this period of four weeks. Jeongguk couldn't tell how or when it had occurred. Perhaps, they connected thanks to their mutual interest surrounding literature and art; elements that overlapped in their careers. Or perhaps not, and had only been the result of chemistry. Jeongguk would never know.
Yet, the thing that he knew well was that his brother and literature teacher spent a lot of time together. Hence, the reason Jeongguk got to see him often. At first, it had been nothing out of his extraordinary world. Although amusing to look at teachers outside their main element, school, Jeongguk's eyes adjusted quickly to the mundane profiles that his teachers presented once they grew comfortable with him as well. They were normal people, human beings who breathed and felt; not little robots designed to give repetitive tasks and dull lessons. Those were the people who were beyond themselves, those that had lost faith and even forgotten their own names.
Yoongi was nothing like that. He was a person that knew what he wanted and knew what he was doing. He had that as clear as was the sun in the middle of a glistening mystery. Jeongguk didn't know how he did that, how everything in Yoongi's world was perfectly structured; whilst, in his, every building trembled with doubt... particularly the one connected to the deep roots of his identity.
Jeongguk had questioned this a thousand times in the past. But, after experimenting and trying a few things out, he had managed to convince himself that these doubts had had nothing to do with him but rather with the ambiguity surrounding the world of self-discovery. The media had not helped him either. With each new story published every hour or so, with every new announcement made by the people he followed in social platforms, Jeongguk, naturally, started to dig more into his head. He started to question who he was, and everything he stood up for.
His showers extended almost by double the time. He spent time reflecting on himself and who he was. He kept feeding himself lies and tried to twist and twist the thoughts that attacked his mind. Every time he did this, every time he failed, a bigger emptiness spread through his chest. Everything he knew, everything he had believed in, broke one night when he woke up from a dream; gasping for air. He had tried to suppress the memory and told himself another corrupted and perverted lie with the power of language. He deceived the truth, made it pretty with makeup he stole from the drawer of his mum's bathroom, and attempted to cover the shadows that lived in his frail mind with these colourful and delicate shades.
He denied everything. He smiled when Taehyung, first, confessed. He supported Jimin when he, then, spoke as well. But he remained quiet, said nothing, and continued through life as he had lived it until now.
But the arrival of Yoongi did something to his brain. His senses were numbed and his head was, suddenly, unable to look concretely at the world in which he drifted; imitating the existence of a boat that aimlessly moves through a fragile course, prompted to be influenced by the upcoming storms that roared in its ears. He couldn't say it. He was scared to admit that everything he knew about himself had been fictions and fabrications made up by his coward head.
He kept thinking about this as the hours advanced and he went to bed every night. When the stars were not bright enough to illuminate the patches of the unknown in the sky, and his head tormented him with thoughts that he believed he had buried long ago, Jeongguk stayed awake. He let the familiar weight of the universe fall on his chest. He couldn't sleep, no matter how many times he tried...
That was how he knew he had to accept the truth; curled against a pillow in the silence of the city, thinking about a man that wore the perfume of old hardcovers and spoke like a narrator in a sad story.
"Jeongguk?" the voice of his brother brought him back to the present, making him blink his momentary confusion away.
"Are you okay? You seem a little... off."
"Oh," he smiled, shaking his head vigorously, "Sorry. I got lost in my thoughts. I was... daydreaming. Didn't even realise what I was doing."
The young man laughed nervously, trying to cover up his real reasons; as he always did. Jin, however, seemed convinced.
"What are you even doing?" he asked, then, grabbing the piece of paper on which Jeongguk had been writing. It was his literature homework.
"Something Mr Min gave us for tomorrow," the brunette responded, "But I'm a bit tired and can't really concentrate right now."
"Or maybe the homework is too demanding," the elder said, turning half-way before addressing the man that was resting on their sofa with a book between his hands, "Yah. Yoongi-ah. By any chance, is your goal to make my little brother's brain melt with your homework? This is too hard."
"How come?" the other asked, not looking away from his book. It was a classic volume of Franz Kafka.
"You're asking them to write an essay out of a single phrase."
"It's not an essay. I asked them to carry out a literary analysis. They can choose the length of it, but I recommended at least a page."
"That still sounds like an essay," Jin said, ruffling Jeongguk's hair in the process. The younger one tried to complain, but he could not fight the smile that stretched the corners of his mouth, "You should at least help him out, taking advantage that you're here."
"You were the one who dragged me to your house," Yoongi corrected, closing his book with a def punch and beginning to walk towards the desk in which both brothers had been, "Besides, Jeongguk is very capable of doing this on his own. He doesn't need any help. He's my best student, after all. My brilliant star."
Jeongguk's breath hitched at hearing this last part. His face felt hot and his body suddenly felt light with the weight of the big world lifted from his shoulders. It almost felt like a sweet dream. Listening to Yoongi's voice made his ears feel as if they were submerged in honey.
However, that part was partially true. Jeongguk was good at the teacher's class. He was the most confident and the most shrewd. He was fast and certain, and maybe the most eager and enthusiastic one too. It was a pleasure to teach him, Yoongi had said to him once, when only the two had remained in the classroom at the end of the school afternoon. Jeongguk had felt soft and warm that time, just like he did now.
"Ah, hyung," he said, timidly. Yoongi had asked him to call him like that when they were away from the ears of other teachers and students (not including the group that came often to this home).
"It's true. Don't deny it," the other pressed on, making Jeongguk smile at the table. His eyes remained on this one, not daring to move away. He could feel his stomach grumbling, not only because of hunger, "But, if you ever do need help, don't hesitate to ask me. I would be more than happy to help you."
"Thank you," Jeongguk uttered, eyes slowly meeting the elder's, who had taken a seat in front of him. His book laid at one side of his body, "I'm just a little tired. But I'm okay. I understand what I need to do."
"Well, in that case," Yoongi beamed, lowering his voice, too, so that the younger boy could be the only one to listen to his voice, "I can give you an extension. But don't tell the rest of your classmates."
The student laughed softly, catching Jin's attention; who kept complaining about being left out of the conversation. This was the type of special treatment that Jeongguk often received from Jin's friends, extensions or fewer opportunities to be called out in front of everybody else in the classroom. Life was good when you had connections, Jeongguk thought as he nodded and took a sip from the juice that Jin had placed next to his pens.
Interactions such as this one kept occurring more and more often. Whenever the groups of adult friends came to his house, and Jimin and Taehyung were nowhere to be seen, Jeongguk claimed their dinner table and did his work there. He, usually, preferred to complete his schoolwork in the silence of his bedroom as it was quieter and he could concentrate quicker. But he had to admit that he liked to be distracted a little bit, especially when Yoongi was around. He, suddenly, began to understand Taehyung a little bit better...
Another of the main reasons Jeongguk liked to sneak into this room in their house was because Yoongi would, often, come to sit by his side as well. He did this when the conversation between the teachers moved into a subject that wasn't of his preference, or when he could start to see smoke rising from Jeongguk's head as he struggled to complete an assignment. But this only happened when he was working on a maths problem.
In those occasions, Yoongi would seat next to him and try to help him with the limited knowledge his brain still retained regarding maths. The two of them would, then, stare at the numbers for a few minutes until an idea popped into one of their minds.
"At least you didn't take calculus," Yoongi said one evening, as he showed Jeongguk how to solve a probability question on a separate piece of paper.
"True," Jeongguk laughed softly, coping the method into his own paper, "I can't wait to finish high school and never see maths again."
"I wouldn't say never," Yoongi smiled, placing his pen down. They had finished for the night, "Maths always finds one way to squeeze into your career. I don't know how that is possible but... Anyway, what would you like to study once you graduate? I don't remember asking."
"Ah, well..." there it was again, Jeongguk thought. The shyness that consumed every centimetre of his skin when Yoongi spoke to him or looked at him as he did right now was paralysing. He couldn't think clearly. He could barely focus on the things he taught him when it was only the two of them and quiet conversations in the background over glasses of wine or cans of beer. He took a shaky breath, his eyes remaining on his hands, "I would like to study literature. Not necessarily to become a teacher, but..."
"Do you want to write?" Yoongi asked, "Do you want to become a writer?"
Jeongguk hesitated for a second. He shook his head but also nodded a second later.
"Maybe. I... I don't know."
"What do you mean?"
"I..." another sigh, "I would like to create something that will be worthy of reading, and that could be classified as art one day. But I don't know if I have what it takes to become an author."
Yoongi remained quiet for a second. He laughed later, making Jeongguk look up as his cheeks heated; looking like the burning and last layer of dusk that remains orange until the night engulfs all light.
"You are gifted, Jeongguk," the elder said once he had finished shaking, "I haven't seen much, just that one page in your notebook when you hand in some work. But I can see from it that there are millions of ideas going through your mind and that you have the tools needed to write."
"That was supposed to be private," Jeongguk murmured, words tangling in his tongue and sounding like nothing when heard by foreign ears. His feverish skin was glowing with the colours of scandalised shame.
"I'm sorry?" Yoongi leaned forwards, trying to listen to what he had not understood a second before.
"Nothing," Jeongguk assured, shaking his head and gathering his belongings. He wanted to hide under the safety of the blankets on his bed, "Thank you, hyung. Although I don't really think I'm any good...."
"I wasn't any good either. Not at the start," Yoongi said, grabbing Jeongguk's wrist as he was beginning to leave. The touch carried a message, clearly: stay or, perhaps, wait.
"Huh?"Jeongguk questioned, not only his words but also the pressure on his arm. It was soft, not brusque, but as electrifying as the currents running from generators to light bulbs. His head felt light, his stomach kept roaring with the cries of needy cubs.
"It's something that comes to you with hard work and persistence," Yoongi said, "Talent counts, but effort counts twice."
The younger man could only blink, staying completely still as Yoongi looked back at him with firm eyes; the way he looked like when teaching a class. He wanted to say something, ask anything, but he was mute. The words he loved so much, the instrument there was for him to communicate, suddenly broke with something as simple as a gaze. Yet, Jeongguk was aware that actions were as strong as words. Body language existed for a reason, too...
Laughter boomed in his ears for a second, a sound strong enough to make him turn to the side and break away from Yoongi's intense eyes. His brother and his friends – Namjoon and Hoseok – struggled for air as they guffawed at an amusing remark Jeongguk had been unable to catch. A moment later, however, Jin (still hiccuping and as red as a Jamaican flower) addressed the other man who remained intact on his seat. His hand was still holding to Jeongguk's wrist under the table.
"Yoongi," he began, giggling harder when Hoseok threw himself over his legs, "We wanted to ask you s-something."
The three continued with their games, Yoongi smiled a little.
"We won't judge," Namjoon said next, having been the first one to calm down, "But we just wanted to ask you about your preferences when it comes to dating."
"Why?" the other asked, bending his head to the side; genuinely being curious.
"Because Jin," Hoseok laughed again, "Jin thinks that you would look good with Ms Park, but Namjoon and I strongly believe that Mr Im would be a better match."
More laughter erupted between the three. Jeongguk felt his chest tightening.
"Aren't the two of them, like, near their forties or something?"
"Yeah," the three of them said together, which made them crack up again. They looked like primary children rather than adults. The alcohol was beginning to have an effect, Jeongguk thought.
"Well, to be honest, I don't really have a preference. If I like them, I like them," Yoongi said to the group, who seemed to no longer be listening, "Although, I must say that I would rather date a person who is younger than me," he turned to Jeongguk after this and covered the smirk that had settled on his lips with his fingers. His eyes remained on the younger man. Jeongguk's breath hitched when Yoongi, lastly, said, "And cute, too."
He released Jeongguk's wrist after this. Jeongguk thanked him one last time before running to his bedroom, where he dived under the blankets of his bed. A silent shriek was, later, heard downstairs.