Renjun’s existence so far is divided into his time before the garden and his time in the garden. The former time resides so far into the past it appears like a wavering reflection in a pool whenever Renjun tries to recall it. It became so easy to get lost in the garden from the moment he was surrounded by it.
Though, of course he could never actually get lost. The garden has a funny way about always corralling Renjun back to the lone house no matter which direction he wanders. Renjun grew tired of exploring after the first several hundred times he tried it.
He’s not angry with it. Just bored, even though the garden is kind enough to change scenery every few days, giving new fruit to harvest or tall trees with fresh combinations of branches to climb. Stone sculptures dot the land between the trees and the occasional fountain or pond will appear.
But the days drag on. Every inch of the house he stays in is slowly absorbed by his art. It hangs on every surface and paint fills in the cracks. After the first couple hundred pieces, he started layering them on top of each other. Old ideas of humanity have faded after the second layer, and by the third his house only held foliage. Renjun is considering what pieces must be covered with the one he’s currently working on, a painting of the peach tree that has not moved from beside his house since the beginning of his stay in the garden.
He can’t quite get the oranges and pinks right. He’s so busy mixing he almost doesn’t hear it. Being alone in the garden has made him so accustomed to silence it takes him a while to process the sounds of breathing.
The brush and palette land softly on the grass and Renjun whips his head around. “Who’s there?” He asks. The hidden stranger breathes with great difficulty and manages an indescribable groan. Renjun turns around slowly in a circle, trying to remain calm.
The stranger stumbles from behind the peach tree and collapses at its base. His eyes are closed, and he grimaces, though it doesn’t mar his beautiful features. Even while Renjun is fearful, there are inklings of excitement followed by a wave of pity. The stranger grasps his ribs, which doesn’t stop the red patches spreading through his tunic and staining the tree. Humanity remains a distant memory, but Renjun still has enough compassion and hope to take him in.
The stranger sleeps for two nights under Renjun’s care. It’s strange to count the passage of time again, to notice when the sun dims and brightens. The garden is aware of the stranger in pain and grows flowers that appear to Renjun with foreign names. There are flowers for the blood loss and flowers to stitch the skin back together. While Renjun makes medicine, the stranger is in Renjun’s bed, wearing clothes the garden gifted, wrapped in bandages made from leaves.
The stranger wakes in the middle of Renjun grinding a plant into a thick paste. There’s fear between them. Renjun does not move. Two days has yielded new plants, but it did not yield answers as to what this human is doing here. “Who…” The stranger trails off and Renjun has to focus to decode the foreign language.
“Who are you?” he asks still breathless.
“Injoon,” he tells him, furrowing his brow when the name comes out different than it normally does. Renjun grabs a glass of water from the bedside table. The stranger drink his fill and softly thanks him.
“Where am I?” he asks when Renjun puts the glass down.
“The garden,” Renjun replies. He’s met with a confused expression, but Renjun has no other name for this place.
“Where?” he repeats. He tries to sit up, but quickly falls. He groans in pain and Renjun hurries to find food to eat.
Renjun comes back with a bushel of cherries. He carefully digs the pits out and feeds him. The stranger seems reluctant for the help but doesn’t openly dissent. “What may I call my guest?” Around the fear and worrying, Renjun is excited to have company after the eternity he’s spent isolated.
“Jaemin.” A decidedly more foreign name than what Renjun was expecting, but it fits the strange language. “Are we far from Wiryeseong?” Hs eyes reveal desperation, but Renjun can only shake his head.
“I don’t know.”
“How far we are from Baekje?”
“Very far,” Renjun says. He doesn’t know the proper answer, but even if he did Jaemin couldn’t comprehend the truth. Renjun has never spoken directly to a human and his words are unsure. “You should rest more. I’ll wake you in a while with food.” He looks like he wants to protest, but his body is quick in agreement with Renjun, falling asleep.
Five hours pass, Renjun thinks. The passage of time has become vague for him and hours are an arbitrary measurement. Renjun gently wakes Jaemin after an amount of time he decides to call five hours.
He’s disoriented when Renjun hands him a bowl of soup. Renjun helps him sit up, propping pillows against the wall so he can lean back comfortably. He stares at the bowl, not eating it. Renjun sits beside the bed, waiting. “You should eat,” he says quietly.
“How long have I been here?”
“A few days?” Renjun guesses with a shrug.
“I have to go,” Jaemin insists. Renjun’s heart falls.
“But you’re injured,” Renjun says quickly. “When you’re better, you can leave. You should eat and rest, right now. Whatever it is can wait.”
Jaemin eats hesitantly. “Thank you, Injoon-ssi. But I need to go.”
“You will heal quickly here. It’s worth waiting a few more days at least.” He’s wringing his hands in his lap. Having Jaemin is the first time since being sent to the garden that he’s had something to do, a purpose to make the limping time more than anticipating.
“Okay,” Jaemin relents. Renjun breathes a sigh of relief. He doesn’t know if this is another gift from the garden or if it’s a gift from his brothers. Either way he is thankful.
Jaemin doesn’t say much. He is clearly tormented, but Renjun wants to hold their stilted peace as long as he can. He wants to continue making Jaemin food and changing his bandages. It keeps him busy.
Perhaps after a few days—Jaemin seems to be keeping track much better than Renjun—Jaemin steps out of the house for the first time. Renjun was searching for the right flower to help with healing when the house’s door closes. He turns and sees Jaemin squinting against the sky, bandages gone to bare the nasty scar carved into his side. Renjun is immediately up beside him, arms outstretched in case he falls.
“I’m fine,” Jaemin says politely. He gives Renjun a half-smile that catches Renjun’s breath even without its full glory. Renjun drops his arms and Jaemin looks around the landscape expanding into the distance. “This place is pretty. Where are we?”
“The garden.” Jaemin purses his lips, but changes course.
“Did Injoon-ssi draw on the walls? The art is pretty as well.” He’s so different than before. Jaemin is charming and graceful and it makes Renjun’s breath catch every time the sunlight hits his cheeks just right. “Did I interrupt?”
“N-no. I was… picking flowers,” Renjun says. He reaches out to touch the scar. Jaemin flinches but lets Renjun ghost his fingers over the raised skin. “Salsalikkot would be good.”
“Isn’t that a reincarnation flower?” Jaemin asks suspiciously.
“I wouldn’t know,” Renjun replies. Because he doesn’t. This language is strange to him and the words that don’t translate are even stranger. Renjun turns and follows the faint glowing path to a bush of yellow flowers. “But the garden recommends it.”
“Injoon-ssi talks as if the garden has a mind of its own.”
“I wouldn’t know,” he repeats The line between the garden’s will and his brothers’ will is indistinguishable; he doesn’t know to what extent it is self-sufficient. Renjun’s fingers are guided to the proper flowers and he plucks them off the bushes.
“Isn’t that worrisome? Not knowing so much?” Renjun shrugs.
“I’ve been here a long time, Jaemin-ah. I began painting after being here a long time, thought that eternity was a fraction of my total time here.”
“Injoon-ssi doesn’t look older than twenty years.”
“Define ‘twenty years’.” He stands, flowers in hand, and goes back to the house. Jaemin follows relentlessly.
“Why is Injoon-ssi so enigmatic?”
“You are the one who came here unannounced,” Renjun says. “And I still don’t have a reason as to why it’s so important for you to leave.”
“I’ve been here a week, and I don’t even know where here is!” His voice raises and Renjun frowns.
“I do not know where here is, either. It is the garden. Just that.” Renjun prepares the flowers with hot water, pestle grinding out his frustrations along with the plants. “Perhaps a better question is how you got here.”
“I can’t remember.” The whimper in his voice catches Renjun by surprise. His hand stills in its circular motion and he looks over his shoulder at Jaemin.
He’s staring at the floor, bottom lip tugged between his teeth. His eyes are watery, but he does not cry. Renjun sets the mortar and pestle down. He hesitantly grabs Jaemin’s hands. The contact warms his heart differently than the clinical motions of caring for Jaemin’s health. But it also sets deep despair in his heart. Soon, Jaemin will be leaving him and his greatest wish will be left unfilled as his brothers had said.
“Jaemin-ah,” Renjun says, softly hiding his own anguish. “What do you need to get back to? Maybe I can help.”
“There is… someone,” Jaemin says and his tone is quiet enough for Renjun to hear his own heart shatter. “There was an attack—that’s how I was injured. I was protecting someone. I stumbled away—there were a lot of trees, we were by the river… And then everything was too bright, and I passed out.”
“Someone important?” Renjun asks. Jaemin nods.
“I need to know if he made it out alive, or if…”
“Understood,” Renjun says so Jaemin doesn’t have to finish that painful thought. “I’m not sure what I can do, since I’ve never had any visitors. But I’ll see what the garden wants to do.”
“Does Injoon-ssi like being so dependent on the garden?”
“I don’t remember much before being here.”
“How old was Injoon-ssi then?”
“Define ‘old’,” Renjun says with a cheeky smile. Jaemin sighs, but he smiles as well. Renjun has to look away, to distract himself with the medicine again.
“We’re the same age, right?” Jaemin asks.
“Then I’ll be twenty.”
“What does Injoon-ssi mean with ‘then’?”
“Good question. You’ve gotten your sense back.”
“Aish,” Jaemin sighs but he sounds less depressed than before.
“You should go lay down again. You’ve done a lot of work today. I’ll make mandu and bring it to you later.”
“When does my host eat?” Jaemin asks.
“When I want to,” Renjun answers.
“Will Injoon-ssi eat with me this time? It’s awkward when I’m the only one eating.”
“Of course,” Renjun says fighting the smile that threatens his lips. Jaemin said he needs to return to someone. He did not mention family, so this person must be a romantic interest. Renjun does not have a place in his heart.
The subtle changes to the garden went unnoticed to Renjun until two weeks after Jaemin arrived. Where the unnaturalness of its structures was once prominent, they’ve blended into the plant life as understated formations on the ground. Jaemin remarks such one day while they sit in front of the house, Renjun drawing and Jaemin watching him.
“When I first got here,” Jaemin says. “I wondered who built everything. It was like they were trying to conquer the world, but now it seems in harmony with nature.”
“You’re thinking too deep,” Renjun says. Though he does agree with Jaemin. The garden no longer resembles the ones he always saw at home. The impressive stone structures have faded away and the pools cut into the ground became natural ponds bordered by grass.
“Injoon-ssi said there haven’t been visitors here before. Is it ever lonely?”
“No, never lonely. A little boring. But this garden is merely my state of waiting.”
“Waiting for what?”
“You ask many questions,” Renjun says.
“Because I’m curious. I want to know why the scenery always changes and Injoon-ssi calls the flowers by mythical names.”
“I only call them what the garden calls them. The words are foreign. These words are foreign.”
“Yet Injoon-ssi speaks my mother tongue perfectly and has a native name,” Jaemin says. Renjun does not look from his drawing, but he feels Jaemin leaning closer, perched on his knees from his excitement.
“How do you know it is my actual name?”
“Because… it’s what I was told. Injoon-ssi didn’t lie, right?”
“It’s not a lie. But it’s not my true name,” Renjun says.
“Then what—Injoon-ssi is making me talk in circles,” Jaemin says. He sits back down and cradles his head in his hands.
“Sorry, Jaemin-ah,” Renjun says sincerely. He stares at the light reflecting off of his long, impossibly black hair and his fair skin. His hands flip the paper on their own accord, and he draws man for the first time since the beginning days of his isolation.
His hands are rusty, and Jaemin moves before Renjun can capture the perfect image. But he fills in the gaps easily, drawing from crystal clear memories. When did he memorize Jaemin’s face like this?
“That’s pretty good,” Jaemin comments. His hands freeze, and the air leaves his lungs.
“I’m sorry,” Renjun says covering the picture with his arms.
“Don’t be,” Jaemin says. He’s regarding Renjun pensively, and he can’t quite breathe. But the spell is broken when he looks away. Tension fades away and Renjun tries to go back to drawing, though his hands forgot what lines they wanted to draw. “When will I return home?”
“When you’re ready,” Renjun says.
“I feel ready.” He stares at the sky, sunlight catching on his cheeks.
“The garden disagrees.” Jaemin sighs.
“Injoon-ssi,” Jaemin says. “What was the time before the garden like?” Renjun considers it, trying to recall.
“I was surrounded by love,” Renjun says. He doesn’t know how much he can tell Jaemin about this, so he picks his words carefully.
“How did Injoon-ssi end up here?”
“I wanted something,” Renjun says. “Something apparently hopeless. We made an agreement and I came here to wait.”
“My brothers and I,” Renjun answers.
“Injoon-ssi has family?” Renjun nods. “And they sent Injoon-ssi away?”
“It’s more complicated than that.” Jaemin is astute enough to not press the issue. They sit in silence for a moment and Renjun tries to let go of the tension. He takes a deep breath and goes back to drawing, trying to find the right shapes to capture the look in Jaemin’s eyes.
Another few days pass with no sign from the garden. The only change at all in the garden from the prior week is a small lake within easy walking distance of the house. Yesterday, Jaemin had convinced Renjun it’s a good idea for him to teach Renjun how to swim, and the garden must agree.
Renjun disagrees, but he doesn’t deny Jaemin. “I can’t believe Injoon-ssi is afraid of water,” Jaemin teases.
“I’m not,” Renjun says.
“But Injoon-ssi doesn’t know how to swim.”
“By choice,” Renjun says, though his anxiety has significantly raised during their journey.
“More like complacency. It’ll be okay,” Jaemin says. “Injoon-ssi can trust me.” He throws an arm around Renjun’s shoulder and it startles
him. But it’s easy to settle against him, hips bumping together as they walk.
They reach the pond. Renjun shifts his weight, staring at the clear water like it might hold evil. Jaemin wastes no time stripping to his underwear and Renjun makes a point not to watch. He steps into the pond until the water is at his ribs.
“I can hardly see the scar,” Renjun comments, trying to keep the subject off swimming.
“Really?” Jaemin looks down and runs his fingers up his side, water rippling from the motion when his fingers break the surface. The skin is discolored, but it’s no longer garish. “I suppose I should be thanking my host for treating it so well.”
“Was I supposed to let you bleed out on my tree?” Renjun asks crossing his arms over his chest. Jaemin only smiles at his snarky tone, not put-off in the least by it.
“It would have been easier on Injoon-ssi,” Jaemin says. “And what’s the deal with the tree? That and the house are the only things that don’t change.” Renjun shrugs.
“It’s been there since the beginning.”
“You’re too curious for your own good,” Renjun teases.
“Injoon-ssi,” Jaemin says with a pout. Renjun sighs.
“I don’t really know why it’s always there.”
“Has Injoon-ssi tried to cut it down? Or eat the peaches?”
“Never,” Renjun says shaking his head. “If I want peaches, the garden provides them another way. That tree is different. It’s where you first appeared.”
“At least Injoon-ssi knows about our first meeting,” Jaemin says with a charming smile. Renjun rolls his eyes. “Injoon-ssi should join me, so I can teach him how to swim.”
“Aish, fine.” Renjun turns away from Jaemin and quickly removes his outer clothes. He’s self-conscious under Jaemin’s gaze so he doesn’t hesitate to walk into the water, taking solace in the fact that it will at least provide some cover.
“There we go,” Jaemin says beckoning Renjun until he’s in front of him. Renjun avoids his eyes and wraps his arms around his body. “Is Injoon-ssi cold?”
“Yes,” he lies. But Jaemin grabs his hand and tugs him in to the deeper parts of the water. Renjun yelps and clutches Jaemin’s arm, the floor disappearing beneath his feet.
“It’s okay,” Jaemin says as Renjun panics.
“I want to go back,” Renjun pleads, not caring how desperate he sounds.
“Calm down, I’m not going to let Injoon-ssi drown,” Jaemin says. He grabs Renjun’s other hand while he treads water. “Stop kicking so frantically.”
Renjun tries to listen, but he’s only focused on the nearby shore. Jaemin is relentless, though, giving advice and trying to calm him. Eventually it works, and Renjun is somewhat successful. The moment he can manage, though, he swims to shore.
“No fun,” Jaemin says with a pout.
“You said teach, not trial by fire,” Renjun complains. He futilely wipes the water off his skin, trying to get rid of the trauma along with the droplets.
“I’m sorry,” Jaemin says. Renjun looks over his shoulder and sees remorse on his face.
“It’s not a big deal. I’ll just never trust you again.” Jaemin laughs at him and Renjun forgets the earlier tension.
He walks around the shoreline and Jaemin follows him in the water. Renjun finds a place that’s deep enough and sits on the edge, hanging his feet in the water. Jaemin comes to his side and holds onto the edge nearby. “Aren’t you tired?” Renjun asks exasperated. Jaemin looks up with angelic features highlighted by a perfect smile.
“It’s good therapy after not doing much the past couple weeks.” He folds his arms on the ground and rests his head on them, not taking his eyes off Renjun. Renjun has to look away, instead focusing on the water rippling slightly from Jaemin’s legs kicking underneath the surface. “I’ve been here… what, a week now?”
“Two, I think,” Renjun says.
“Regardless,” Jaemin continues. “Thank you for taking care of me so well.”
“Of course,” Renjun says. “I couldn’t let you die.”
“Because then Injoon-ssi would be without my great company.” Jaemin’s smile falls when Renjun doesn’t laugh at his cheesiness.
“Not for much longer,” Renjun says. Silence wraps around them. Jaemin sets a hand on his knee.
“I’m sorry, Injoon-ssi. But this place isn’t for me. I have—”
“It’s fine,” Renjun brushes off. “You weren’t a part of the original agreement.”
“Can Injoon-ssi talk to the older brothers?” Jaemin asks carefully. “Maybe they would have answers.”
“Yeah. Technically. I haven’t talked to them in a while,” Renjun admits. “But we should head back,” Renjun says before Jaemin can speak again. “Your fingers are becoming prunes.”
“Okay. Help me out?” He holds a hand out to Renjun with an innocent smile. Renjun regards it suspiciously but then, like a fool, grabs it.
A million curses escape his lips as Jaemin pulls him into the water. He only stops when his head goes underwater for a brief moment,
isolated from the sounds and air. Jaemin pulls him above the surface quickly. He’s laughing when Renjun slaps him across the face.
“I can’t believe you!” Renjun hisses out. But all the venom quickly leaves when the panic settles in. He grips Jaemin’s shoulders so hard his fingernails leave indents.
Jaemin is still laughing, one arm around Renjun’s waist to keep him afloat and the other rubbing his cheek. “That kind of hurt.”
“You deserve much worse,” Renjun says. Though, most of his fear is gone. Instead it’s replaced by the weird sensation of having to be dependent on another for once.
“I just want Injoon-ssi to not hate water so much.”
“Get me out or I will drown you.”
“If Injoon-ssi drowns me, then he’ll be alone in water that’s too deep for him.”
“I’m not that short.”
“Shorter than me.”
“I healed your wounds, but I have no problem undoing my hard work.”
“I doubt Injoon-ssi has the constitution to stab me.”
“The garden hasn’t yielded a knife yet, so I assume Injoon-ssi doesn’t have serious intentions to stab me.”
“Since Injoon-ssi asked so nicely,” Jaemin says. He glides over to the shore and helps Renjun out of the water. The moment he’s on the ground he’s walking away from Jaemin.
“You’re sleeping outside tonight.”
“Injoon-ssi,” Jaemin whines. He pulls himself out of the water and it falls off his body in sheets.
“Shut up and get dressed,” Renjun says. He grabs his clothes off the floor and throws them at him. But there’s a smile on his face, so Jaemin relaxes.
They walk back to the house. The thought of talking to his brothers consumes Renjun’s mind. Maybe they have guidance and can explain why Jaemin is here. The garden obviously does not want him to leave yet and it’s no longer because of his health. Renjun doesn’t believe Jaemin being here is part of the original agreement, because the garden was supposed to be a place to wait, not exact the agreement.
Renjun hates that Jaemin is caught in the middle of it. Except he’s too selfish to fix it, to ask his brothers to send Jaemin home. Renjun wants to hold onto his beautiful smile as long as he can. It’s been so long since he has felt these feelings so specifically.