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In Heaven’s Arms

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Part I

 

Seokjin

 

 

I’ll show you good, restore your faith
I’ll try and somehow make a meaning of the poison in this place
Convince you love, don’t breathe it in
You were written in the stars that we are swimming in

—Sara Bareilles, “Orpheus”

 

 

“Kim Seokjin-ssi? Are you listening?”

Seokjin is pulled out of his trance and looks at the man across from him. He says, “Yes, sorry” as he takes in the room.

He’s in an old, dusty, and cramped office, filled to the brim with boxes and boxes of paperwork and antiques. But he is distracted most of all by the obvious hole on the wall, just on the left side of the man’s desk. A newcomer didn’t take the news of his own demise so well, the man explained. It’s covered haphazardly with planks of wood, but the light streaming in from outside is still blinding.

“Kim Seokjin-ssi.” The man snaps him to attention again. He’s a blond young man who looks to be in his mid-twenties, but deep down Seokjin knows he has a few thousand years under his fake Chanel belt. “Why do you think you weren’t sent directly to Heaven?”

Seokjin only looks at the floor, confused and bewildered. It’s a rather heavy question for his first day.

“Let me rephrase that,” the man offers. The wooden nameplate on his desk reads Evaluator. The Evaluator looks him in the eye with a sort of understanding. “Seokjin-ssi, do you have any regrets?”

 

***

 

Death is funny, Seokjin thinks. The very thought of it was a bit morbid, but now that he’s, well, dead, he couldn’t do anything about it. And maybe it’s for the best. He wouldn’t have the energy to enjoy life over eighty anyway ’cause he’d be too busy in bed, collecting all sorts of ailments and diseases.

But what’s funnier than death? The afterlife. Peculiar sort of place, he thinks. It’s hard to believe, as he walks around what looks like an airport terminal, that everyone else here’s another soul in limbo and not irate passengers waiting for a delayed flight.

“This way, Seokjin-ssi. I’ll get your luggage for you.”

“Oh, umm…sure.” He watches as the young woman simply known as the Guide make her way to the baggage carousel and grab his suitcase. She leads him across the terminal, and Seokjin is a few steps behind her as he observes all the signs. Transfer (for International Travelers), To Heaven, and right next to it, Arrivals.

“I’m sure you’ll like it here,” the Guide starts with her impromptu orientation. “We have the best facilities. Most of the time, the signal’s pretty great, so you can watch events unfold in the living world in real time. Your room’s equipped with TV and cable satellite for that. We have an archive of all your earthly memories as well, in case you wanted to…”

He lets the Guide’s voice drown in the hustle and bustle of the crowded terminal, and they make their way to the rooms on another floor.

It’s gets even funnier now as he arrives in another section of what he thinks is just one big windowless hotel the size of Seoul. And although he still has millions of thoughts and questions ready to just explode from within, he can’t help but compliment the hotel’s, or the Middle’s, interior. It’s fancy, it’s classy, and it’s pink. If this was only the Middle, what would Heaven look like? Literal clouds for floors? Unlimited rainbows? Angels stuck in air traffic?

“Your room’s still under repair, Seokjin-ssi. But we did manage to find you a space. You’ll be sharing the room with someone though. Is that okay with you?”

“Oh no, that’s fine. But wouldn’t I be imposing?” he inquires. What if his roommate’s the noisy kind? Or worse, the nosey kind.

“Oh, it’s always crowded here in the Middle!” comes the cheery and nasally voice of the Guide. “That’s why everyone’s sharing a room. Your roomie’s been here for quite some time, actually. But he’ll be on his way to Heaven real soon. You’ll get the room all to yourself.”

“Well, if you say so—” Seokjin’s train of thought abruptly stops seconds after they enter the elevator. He stares at the mirror on the elevator ceiling…and yells.

“I’m…I’m…”

The Guide, taken aback, tries to calm him down. “Seokjin-ssi, it’s okay. I know death is a hard thing to process…we have support group and we can—”

“No…no, it’s not that!” he shouts. He’s shaking the Guide by the shoulders and takes her hand, placing it on his cheek. “I’m…I’m…I’m beautiful again!”

“Oh,” the Guide deadpans.

“But how?!” Seokjin touches his face, his torso, his legs, even squats in the middle of the elevator. His hair’s a silky black again, his face free of blemishes and wrinkles. He twists and jumps around, and his joints don’t protest at all. He’s young and beautiful and twenty-eight once more. “I was a wrinkly old raisin when I died! Now I’m…I’m…”

“Yes, well, it’s perfectly normal, Seokjin-ssi. Souls are all youthful here. Otherwise, we’d be running one big nursing home. I’m surprised you didn’t notice earlier.”

“Well, I was too preoccupied at the thought of me having died today.”

The Guide chuckles lightly as they exit the elevator. “You still looked pretty damn good as an eighty-year-old though.”

Seokjin winks at her. “Oh, I know.”

 

***

 

What’s funnier than death though? Than the afterlife? Than the ghost airport and ghost hotel that he’s in?

The answer’s right behind the door, and Seokjin just hovers by the hallway and sort of laughs at the whole situation. Maybe the gods are playing one huge prank on him. Maybe he’s still in a coma and his elderly brain’s just really high and doped up from all the drugs. Or maybe, right behind the door he was led to, was an awfully familiar voice he has not heard for more than three decades.

He leans back on the door and listens to the muffled voice inside. The deep voice still gave him goosebumps—or should he say…ghostbumps.

Inside he hears “…I miss you too, Hyojin-ah…I can’t wait to see you…”

He takes in a breath and slides the card key the Guide gave him, finally prepared to meet the owner of the voice.

He is welcomed by the sight of Kim Taehyung, eyes wide and mouth agape. He looks as beautiful as he did back when he was twenty-five. Taehyung blinks a few times before he clears his throat, and his grip on the phone tightens until his knuckles turn as white and pale as his face.

“Yeah, no I’ll talk to you later, okay? Yeah…yeah…bye, honey.” And then Taehyung puts the phone down.

There’s an awkward silence as Seokjin makes his way to his bed. The room is spacious and well lit. There are twin beds, nightstands, vanity mirrors, and closets. There’s a small TV with an old VCR player, as well as a DVD player, on a wooden table right in front of their beds.

“Well, this looks comfy,” Seokjin blurts out, trying to break the silence. He walks around and stops in the middle of the room. The smile he gives Taehyung is hesitant and maybe sort of embarrassed. Of all the people in the world, of all the souls roaming the Middle, Taehyung had to be his roommate.

The younger man snaps out of his trance. “It’s been a while…”

“Wow. Yeah, literal decades,” Seokjin muses. “So, how long have you been here?”

“Two years...” Taehyung spots an interesting stain on the wall and seemingly decides to stare at it forever.

“Hey, listen, I didn’t mean to eavesdrop.” He gives Taehyung an apologetic smile before settling himself on his bed. “Was that your wife on the phone?”

“Yup.” Taehyung nods. He still stands there, a little bit awkward. Seokjin is taken back to when they were teenagers. Taehyung had always been shy and awkward around him. “She’s been petitioning for me up there. We’ll get to see each other soon.” A pause. “How long have you been here, Seokjin?”

“That’s hyung to you.”

Taehyung sighs and plays with his hair. It’s the sigh Seokjin hears every time he annoys the younger man. “How long have you been here, hyung?”

“Today’s my first day. Case still pending.”

“Pending?” Taehyung chuckles, brows raised. “You should’ve been sent to the Basement, what with all the crimes you committed.”

Seokjin laughs in response, happy that the tension has somehow broken. “It’s not a crime to be handsome, Taehyungie.”

And he sees it. The sudden change in Taehyung’s expression. Frozen, he looks like he’d been hit by lightning. He’s an open book, even in the afterlife.

“Oh, well, would you look at the time. Nice catching up with you, hyung. There’s somewhere I need to be so...”

And Taehyung bolts out the door.

 

***

 

“…and being dead’s fine, I guess. Free board and lodging. Oh, and the food’s delicious! I sure hope we can all be friends during our stay here.”

Everybody in the circle claps. Seokjin observes the empty function hall and the nine other souls among the group. There’s a sign above them that says Dealing with Death, and in tiny fonts below, The Middle Support Group.

“Thank you, Yerim-ssi,” says the Mediator. She gestures to Seokjin.

“Me?” He points to himself before he straightens in his seat. “Umm…okay. Hello, everyone. My name is Kim Seokjin.”

“Hello, Kim Seokjin-ssi,” everybody choruses.

“I’m eighty years old. I died of heart failure earlier today.”

There’s a collective “Aaaaw,” and the Mediator gives him an encouraging smile. “And how are you feeling, Seokjin-ssi?”

Seokjin doesn’t really want to say anything in fear of exposing himself. For most of his career, he fought to keep his private life exactly as it was supposed to be—private. Then he realizes, What the hell. I’m dead anyway.

“I don’t know, actually. I feel like a huge weight’s been lifted off my shoulders. But there’s…guilt. You see, I didn’t get to say goodbye. I feel like I’ve abandoned the people I love.”

“Pfff, like you’re not used to it.”

Everybody in the circle turns around to see Taehyung with a scowl on his face. He’s manning the snack table, and the print on his apron reads Volunteer.

“Did you say something, Taehyung?” Seokjin asks, one brow raised in amusement.

“Nothing.”

Taehyung turns around and pretends to rearrange the coffee mugs. Seokjin sees it, nonetheless. The way Taehyung’s staring, ready to offer a snide remark for whatever Seokjin’s going to say next. He meets his gaze to challenge him, but the Mediator taps him on the shoulder to bring his attention back to the group.

“Is this about your daughter?” she asks.

The expression on Seokjin’s face softens, his features nothing but delicate. “I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye.” He fiddles with his fingers, not meeting anyone’s eyes. “She’s my child, you know? She’s my everything. She is the light of my life. I know she’s old enough to take care of herself now. And I know we’re here because we have to learn to let go of the people we’ve left behind.” When he looks up, Taehyung is now staring at him, his eyes glassy like the rest of the people in the circle. “But now that I’m dead…does that mean I don’t get to be her father anymore?”

 

***

 

Seokjin and Taehyung walk a slow pace as the rest of the souls shuffle out the function hall. As they walk to the elevator in silence, a sudden rush of nostalgia hits Seokjin like a punch in the gut. He smiles despite himself and thinks back on the comfortable silences he’d spent with Taehyung, back when they were naïve and idealistic children, back when they thought they could conquer the world together.

He’s not entirely sure what Taehyung’s thinking about right now, what with his little outburst during the meeting. He obviously still held resentment, and somehow the guilt creeps into Seokjin’s heart like a disease he never thought to catch in purgatory.

They soon reach the elevator and enter, both a good distance away from each other. Taehyung presses the floor to their living quarters, and they wait. The silence stretches on when they hear a telltale ding. Soon more souls shuffle inside the elevator. They’re a group of noisy and rowdy kids, and Taehyung and Seokjin are pushed to the back of the elevator, bodies pressed against each other.

And amidst the noises and the shuffling, Seokjin feels it. A hand brushing lightly against his. And then a familiar tug on his shirtsleeve. It’s a habit he knew Taehyung had…still has.

When he chances a peek at Taehyung, the younger man turns to hide his face. But even then, Seokjin can tell from the angle that he’s smiling.

He sees two fingers tugging on his sleeve again and imagines Taehyung’s smile the way he always remembers it to be. Randomly, he stops to wonder about the stars, how close heaven might be to them. He wonders if they were reachable from there. And he thinks about Taehyung, with his boxy grin and infectious energy, and how his presence there would soon put all those stars to shame.

 

***

 

“Stop staring you, pervert.”

Seokjin walks the distance from the bathroom to his closet shirtless, feeling Taehyung’s gaze like needles on his exposed skin.

Taehyung scoffs, hiding his face under the covers. “Don’t flatter yourself, old man.”

“Haven’t you seen the billboards? I was a heartthrob even as a senior citizen.”

Taehyung laughs at first. But then his reply is soft, a hushed whisper. “Yeah, you were everywhere.”

The guilt creeps back in, so he finishes dressing up in silence. He’s about to say goodnight but the even breathing under the cocoon of blankets told him Taehyung was fast asleep, or at least pretending to be. So he turns off the light.

Sleep, he figures, would maybe come easy in the afterlife. Surprisingly, it didn’t.

Seokjin’s body feels heavy, oftentimes like he’s floating. Like he had been drifting at sea for a long time and all he’d do for the rest of his life would be ceaselessly floating on a boat across an unknown ocean.

And then it consumes him all at once, but only because he lets it. He lets the feeling hit him, because he’s dead, because he’s somehow alone, because he, like everybody else in the Middle, is a lost soul just trying to move on. The darkness only serves as a reminder, and he struggles to breathe through his sobs and tries ever so hard not to make a sound.

Then he feels his bed dip. Then he is suddenly in Taehyung’s embrace.

“Ssssh, it’s okay. It’s okay,” Taehyung soothes.

Seokjin doesn’t fight it, for once, and lets himself be held. He asks, “Did I wake you? Thought I was quiet.”

“I know. I know you cry when you think no one’s watching,” replies Taehyung, his arms like the welcoming shore after years of drifting at sea.

Seokjin is at home in his embrace. And all at once he remembers the way they were. It’s so dark. He sees nothing but black, feels nothing but Taehyung, hears nothing but his own sobs.

Taehyung moves to turn the lights on but Seokjin stops him. The same way he always did decades ago. Taehyung liked to make love with the lights on. “I want to see your face,” he would say. “It’s the only time I get to see you so undone.”

But Seokjin would often say no. He liked the dark. In the dark they were no more than senses and desire. In the dark he could hear Taehyung’s voice the way it never sounded in the light.

But of course he keeps these thoughts to himself as he’s being held and comforted. Right now they’re only memories of days gone by.

But right now they were also memories they could relive if he’d only tilt his head in the right angle, if he’d only look at Taehyung long enough to convey what’s on his mind. With just a word he could make Taehyung give in. He had that kind of power over him. In a selfish moment, he could once again hear his voice the way he could only hear if he so much as commands. But he does not.

Instead he buries his head in Taehyung’s chest and asks, “When you died, did you ever wish you could go back?”

Taehyung, his voice suddenly gruff like he’s also restraining himself, only says, “You should rest, hyung. You had a long day.”

 

***

 

The next day, Taehyung corners him, face pale but determined, his gaze devouring every part of him. “What if I told you there’s a way for you to see your daughter? Or better yet, visit her.”

Seokjin chokes on his own saliva. “Wha—”

“I’ll tell you on one condition.” In just a second, the younger man’s expression turns mischievous. And Seokjin knows this look all too well.

“What are you saying?”

“You know that I’m leaving soon. I’m not going to Heaven without having a little bit of fun.”

He takes the bait. “What do you want, Taehyung?”

Taehyung grins. “Kim Seokjin, go on a date with me.”

And so Seokjin thinks...death really is funny.

 

 


 

 

Part II

 

Taehyung

 

Hold me in the dark, and when the day appears
We’ll say, we did not give up on love today

—Sara Bareilles, “Orpheus”

 

 

 

“A steak and a bowl of ramen, please,” Seokjin declares. The waiter gives him a curious look before jotting his order down.

“Don’t mind him. He’s weird,” Taehyung says. Still, “But I’ll have the same. And a can of Coke. Oh, and keep the champagne coming.”

 

***

 

“Hey, hey, let’s do EatJin!”

“But we don’t have a phone.” Taehyung chuckles.

“I don’t care. You be my audience. Just because I’m dead doesn’t mean I can’t stay loyal to my brand.”

“Okay fine,” he indulges. “The waiter’s gonna give us the stink eye again.”

“He’ll be our special guest.” Seokjin gestures to the waiter. “More champagne, please!”

 

***

 

“Yah, you should lay off the soda. Didn’t you die of complications from diabetes?”

“Relax, hyung. I’m not gonna die twice. And you’re one to talk. Remember your first stroke? You kept on drinking like you were still in your twenties.”

“Wait, why do you know that?”

“Oh, wow, speaking of drinks…Waiter! More champagne!”

 

***

 

“You know what’s funny? Of all the people I’d run into here, it had to be you. I really thought my wife would be here.”

“Oh?”

“Yep. I mean, I think she visited me a few times at the hospital.”

“Oh really? Was it really her?”

“I don’t know…it didn’t look like her though. But the presence felt familiar.”

Taehyung nods in response.

“Hey, Tae? Maybe meeting you here wasn’t an accident. Wouldn’t the timing be perfect? We can finally let go of all this baggage…together...Tae? Did you hear me?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I did.” He calls for the waiter again and gestures to their empty glasses. “More, please,” he pleads.

 

***

 

Seokjin’s laughter echoes throughout the empty hallway. It’s the laughter he misses, the windshield wiper laugh he became famous for. Taehyung’s own laugh echoes along with it, but it’s not that infectious, not that annoyingly melodious as Seokjin’s.

“Sssshh, quiet down,” Seokjin whispers loudly. “You’re being too noisy.” He’s in a fit of giggles seconds after.

“I didn’t even saaaay anything,” Taehyung responds, his face flushed from all the champagne they’ve consumed.

Seokjin loops arms with Taehyung for balance, and Taehyung sobers up almost immediately.

Half an hour later, though still not entirely sober, Taehyung leads him to another section of the building, much larger compared to their floor. They get off the elevator and enter a room, labeled with a steel plaque that says Memoriae.

Inside are shelves upon shelves of Vinyl records, tapes, cassettes, and CDs—an archive of memories from every single departed soul, neatly organized and complete with labels.

The older man settles himself on the floor, in the middle of one aisle, as Taehyung browses.

“Never knew the Middle had a five-star restaurant…and unlimited champagne!”

“They have almost everything here. Just to make your wait a little more bearable,” Taehyung responds distractedly. He turns left to another aisle.

Taehyung can’t see him, but Seokjin’s voice echoes clearly across the room. “Hey, Tae? Don’t take this the wrong way, but…why are you still here? From what they told me at your funeral, you had a happy life. You had no regrets. You were loved.”

Taehyung comes to an abrupt stop, his heart skipping a beat, then two, and if he weren’t already dead, he’d think his heart stopped completely. “Y-you went to my funeral?”

He hears Seokjin giggle. “Of course, Tae. Why wouldn’t I?”

He all but marches to the older man’s spot on the floor, leaning down so that they’re eye level. “But I was watching from the TV. I didn’t see you.”

“Maybe your eyesight’s gone bad.”

“The dead can see just fine, you idiot. If you were at my funeral, where did you sit? What were you wearing? This is ridiculous. Hyung, I watched my service and I didn’t see your old ass there.”

These are the moments he hates the most. Where its clear Seokjin and him differ. Seokjin could control his emotions, conjure an image he wanted the public to see. Taehyung, compared to him, was a novice, a cup filling to the brim and constantly spilling its contents.

As if fully aware of Taehyung’s thoughts, Seokjin reaches out and grips his arm. A tight and reassuring grip needed to ground him.

“White shirt, navy blue coat, black slacks, and black shoes,” Seokjin whispered. “That’s what I wore. I sat on the left side of the ninth pew. I even spoke to your wife and kids, but I didn’t stay long. I wasn’t anyone important, anyway.”

Taehyung tries to hold back his tears. He fails.

 

***

 

Taehyung hugs the box of tapes to his chest as they make their way to their room. It’s an easier journey now that the champagne buzz is replaced by a dull throb.

They’re entering their room when Seokjin murmurs, “We didn’t get a chance to dance…”

Taehyung hugs the box closer, a pathetic attempt to hide the giddy smile on his face. “I still have a few more days before I leave. Besides, we always used to watch a movie after dinner dates, remember?”

“Yeah.” Seokjin ruffles Taehyung’s hair. “I remember.”

Before he could respond (or even pour his heart out), the telephone rings.

“Better get that, Tae. Must be your wife.”

He sets the box of tapes on the coffee table, reaches for the phone, and clears his throat. “Hyojin!” But then the voice on the other line is not his wife’s. It’s someone else’s. “Yes…he’s here…Hold on.” Seokjin is looking at him with a curious expression, his plump lips forming a half smile. Taehyung’s breath hitches, but he wills himself to look as calm as he can, given the circumstances. “Seokjin-ah, it’s your wife.”

Seokjin’s already beside him in just three long strides, crooked fingers trying to pry the younger’s grip from the phone.

“Hello, is it really you? Miyeon? My Miyeonnie?”

And at that, Taehyung leaves. He runs right out into the hallway. He runs until he’s jamming the buttons of the elevator. He presses again and again, letting the ding, ding, ding of the bell drown out the memory of Seokjin’s voice as he says, My Miyeonnie.

He’s about to press Close when he sees the familiar figure of Kim Namjoon, a rapper and producer he met in his youth, running toward him.

“Hold the elevator, Tae!”

“What’s up, hyung?” he asks once they’re both inside.

“Just gonna go and pack up my stuff real quick. What about you? You done?”

Taehyung raises a quizzical brow and looks at the man with the dimpled smile. “What do you mean, Joon-hyung?”

“Didn’t you see the bulletin board? We’ve been waitlisted! We’re going to Heaven!”

 

***

 

He doesn’t bother to make a formal greeting once he barges inside the Evaluator’s office.

“Why am I waitlisted?!” he asks, furious. Taehyung tries to glower at the man behind the desk. Instead he squints and is distracted by the hole on the wall, the light from outside blinding his eyes from where he stands.

“Isn’t that good news, Taehyung-ssi?” The Evaluator doesn’t look up from all the paperwork he’s signing. Instead he gestures for Taehyung to take a seat.

He shakes his head aggressively and says, “But I thought I had another week!”

The Evaluator looks up this time and heaves a deep, meaningful sigh. He leans back in his chair as he eyes Taehyung in front of him, clearly in a state of panic.

“More souls are coming in, and we’re already overcrowded. Besides, your wife has filed several petitions on your behalf. And I know you, Taehyung-ssi. You’re stubborn, but you’re a good person. So why not?”

“I’m not ready!” Taehyung yells back, because it’s too soon. Way too soon. “I don’t want to leave. I…I love this place.”

“Right. Or you love someone who happens to be in this place.” He moves to arrange the scattered pieces of paper on his desk. “I checked your files. I know you’re rooming with your ex-boyfriend. You’re welcome.”

“Can’t you delay my case? Please?” He knows he sounds pathetic, but what choice does he have?

The Evaluator finally stands up, a sympathetic look on his face, and reaches to pat Taehyung on his shoulder. “I know how it feels to have unfinished business, Taehyung-ssi. But trust me, that won’t matter after today. All of that won’t matter once you’re in Heaven. You’ll be free of them, once and for all.”

Taehyung winces as if he’s in physical pain. “That’s exactly my problem.”

 

***

 

He doesn’t hide the disappointment in his face when he hears Seokjin’s still on the phone upon his return. He plops into his bed and listens in anyway, because Seokjin’s voice is full of affection, of love, and pathetic as it was, he pretends that it’s him Seokjin is talking to.

“…the room had a damaged wall. They’re worried it might pull me through the hole, right into the world of the living. That’s why they assigned me to Taehyung’s room…Yeah, he’s here…he just got back.” Seokjin gives him a smile before turning his back to face the wall, or whatever thing that’s not Taehyung. “I’m so glad to hear from you, darling.” And then, softly, “I love you. I can’t wait to see you.”

When he hangs up, Taehyung musters the courage to ask, “How long have you and Miyeon been together?”

“Fifty-two years,” Seokjin answers.

“That’s a long time.” A pause. “Did you and Miyeon dance a lot?”

Seokjin breaks into a fond smile as he settles himself on his bed opposite Tae’s, hugging a pillow to his chest. “Not as much as we did.”

Taehyung seeks his own pillow for warmth. “Remember when we used to drag everyone along during company events?”

“Of course.” Seokjin scoffs. “And then Hoseok and Jimin would steal the spotlight.”

“But that’s so the managers wouldn’t focus on us.” He hugs the pillow tighter. “So we could dance as a couple, even for just a few seconds.”

There’s a faraway look on the older man’s face. “They were so hard on us,” he whispers. “On all of us.”

“Yeah,” Taehyung agrees. “It was hard for them to accept us. We were…different. Nobody liked different.”

Seokjin whispers, “But love is love.”

“Love is love,” Taehyung whispers back.

The silence stretches on, and when Taehyung sneaks a peek at the older man, he knows he’s reminiscing, just like him.

And it was now or never, he thinks. He stands up and picks a tape from the box on the coffee table. He turns the devices on and slides the tape into old the VCR.  

Remote in hand, he asks, “I wanted to talk about this.” When he presses play, he sees a lone figure in the screen.

Seokjin moves to sit at the edge of the bed, nearer the TV. His brows are knit together as he watches a twenty-five-year-old Kim Taehyung at the train station.

“What’s this, Tae?” In the screen, the young Taehyung is crying, eyes wandering everywhere, searching for someone. When it’s clear no one’s coming, he holds his bag to his chest and breaks down right on the bench.

“Of course, you wouldn’t know.” He presses pause. “But I wanted you to see how I looked like that day you stood me up.” Angrily, he continues, “What? Don’t tell me you don’t remember.”

Taehyung fishes for another tape. Again, he slides it inside the VCR. He presses play.

 

 

“The tour was rough, and I hardly had any time for myself. But hey, I’m back now.” Seokjin plays with a leaf he picked off the ground. Around them, everything is dying: a signal that winter was to come.

When they arrive at a secluded area in the park, Taehyung stops him. “Hyojin’s waiting for me in the car.”

“Hyojin?” Seokjin looks confused. “Your neighbor? Why would she be waiting for you?”

“She wanted to make sure I gave you a proper goodbye.”

Seokjin lets the leaf fall to the ground. “What are you talking about, Taehyung?”

Taehyung tries to hold back his tears. He fails. “We’re getting married, hyung.”

“What?”

“You were gone for more than a year.”

“I was on tour!” This time, Seokjin breaks into sobs.

Taehyung feels like he’d been stabbed in the heart just from the sight of it. But he takes a step back and stands his ground. “You never even answered my calls and messages.”

“So you went off and got engaged?! Just because I couldn’t answer some of your damn messages? Taehyung-ah, didn’t I ask you to wait for me?”

It’s then that Taehyung loses it. Loses all composure and patience. Loses all understanding.

“It was hard, hyung!” He hits Seokjin weakly in the chest. “You don’t know what I’ve been through. I quit being a trainee for you. I quit the company, for you! And you couldn’t even find the time to talk to me. Here I thought, we would fight them all…together. That if we were to be discriminated because of who we loved, we would face it all…together.” He takes a deep breath to steady himself. “I —I just wanted to say goodbye. And to say sorry. I’m sorry for not waiting.”

When he hears no reply, he soldiers on. “We’re moving to Daegu next week. To plan for the wedding. I’m leaving Seoul for good.”

He turns to leave, but Seokjin grabs him by the wrist. “No one’s getting married.”

“Wha —” Before he can say anything else, he finds himself in Seokjin’s embrace. The tighter the hold, the more he fights to be free. But Seokjin has a power over him.

“Meet me at the train station tomorrow at dawn,” Seokjin whispers into his ear. “We’ll go anywhere, everywhere. We’re going to elope.” He kisses the side of Taehyung’s jaw, then his cheek and, lastly, his forehead. “If anyone’s getting married, it’s us.”

Taehyung stops any and all attempts to free himself from Seokjin’s embrace. Instead he buries his head in the older man’s chest and lets himself believes his lies. “Hyung, your career…your music…”

Seokjin sighs into his neck, deep and full of want. “Taehyungie, none of that matters now.” He pulls away only to bring him closer again, forehead to forehead. “Do you trust me?” Taehyung nods. “Will you marry me?”

Taehyung doesn’t nod. He doesn’t say anything. He devours Seokjin in his gaze and pulls him into a kiss instead. And though he believes in no God or gods, he looks up the sky and whispers, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

 

 

He presses pause.

“What do you want me to say, Tae?”

He looks to the other man in the room, incredulous. “God, you’re slow.”

“Slow?” Seokjin scoffs. “You’re the one who couldn’t even wait!

“I wasn’t sure I had anything to wait for!” he spat back.

The expression on Seokjin’s face screams exhausted, shocked, hurt. It’s a flurry of emotions, too many emotions, and Taehyung is taken aback. Because always it was Seokjin who saw right through his disguise. Because sometimes Taehyung forgets he actually has the power to hurt him.

“It’s all in the past,” Taehyung says, trying to take it all back, trying to soothe the ache he wanted to inflict. “I spent fifty-five years with Hyojin. We were happy. Our children were happy. I loved her.”

“And I loved Miyeon,” Seokjin mutters. “Unlike you, she was a patient person.”

“Good for you.”

“I know.” Seokjin stands up and turns to the door. Taehyung lets out a sigh, not relieved in the slightest that the conversation was over. Abruptly, Seokjin turns back and points an accusing finger at him. “You were always so impulsive! You didn’t even wait till I finished my tour. And there you were, about to get married!” A beat. “You’re weak! A year, and you couldn’t even wait for me!

Taehyung stands up and reaches for him. “I’m sorry…”

He snakes his arms around him, trapping him in place.

“This is wrong,” Seokjin murmurs. Still, he rests his head on Taehyung’s shoulders. They rock back and forth in the silence. “We shouldn’t have met here, Tae. It should’ve been in Heaven. You didn’t have to hold on to all this anger.”

“You idiot,” comes Taehyung’s response. He pries Seokjin off him and holds him in place so that he’s looking him in the eye, one hand on his shoulder, the other on the bend of Seokjin’s neck. “I wanted to meet you here! So you’d know how angry…no, how furious I am!” He wants to scream anger, scream injustice, scream how unfair everything has been for them. Instead, “If the things that happened haven’t happened, I wouldn’t have my children and grandchildren. But I just…Seokjin-ah, I just wanted to know…haven’t you ever stopped to think about meeting me at the train station like you promised? Haven’t you ever thought of the life we could’ve had?”

It’s a knock on the door that interrupts the moment. The Guide enters and gives Taehyung a notice of eviction with his name on it. She gives him a rundown of tasks before his journey, things he can pack, things he has to leave behind. To this he fumes. He doesn’t want to leave yet. Why couldn’t they understand? He loses all patience and throws an uncharacteristic tantrum in front of Seokjin. He knows what he looks like to him now. A spoiled child. Rude. Ill-mannered. Not the Taehyung he knows at all. But he has to do this.

The Guide, as though used to this kind of behavior, just shakes her head in disappointment. She gives him a look of disapproval before stating he won’t be on the first flight out due to his behavior. “You’ll be on the second flight a few hours later,” she explains. “Hopefully by then you’ll get your bearings and have everything sorted out.” She gives Seokjin a knowing glance. “Good day, Taehyung-ssi.”

Seokjin shies away from him, almost afraid to trigger another violent reaction.

The older man turns to leave. Before he can exit the room entirely, Taehyung yells out, “There’s a room at the very end of the hallway! The door’s locked, but you can use my card key.” He hands the card to him. “Unlike you,” he says firmly, looking into Seokjin’s eyes, “I keep my promises.”

 

***

 

Seokjin returns fifteen minutes later and hands Taehyung a tape with a folded note.

“That was quick,” he says.

“I had to take a detour to that room”—he gestures vaguely—“with the tapes.” He adds, “Watch it. So you’ll know I was a man of my word.” He brushes past him and slams the door.

Confused and alone, Taehyung puts the tape in and presses play.

The screen shows the train station, and a disheveled Kim Seokjin. He looks around, but no Taehyung in sight. He drops his bag, a manic look in his eyes, and searches every corner, every bench.

Taehyung manages to press pause though his entire body is shaking. He opens the note and reads:

You didn’t wait for me…

 

***

 

This time, Seokjin returns almost an hour later. He looks disoriented, his eyes rimmed red, but there’s a curious lightness to his step. Taehyung doesn’t need to ask. He knows Seokjin’s said his goodbyes to his daughter. He knows how to peek inside the world of the living now.

Taehyung’s too focused on packing—on trying to move on—so he doesn’t realize Seokjin holding two tapes in his arms. The older man slides a tape in the VCR player and sits on Taehyung’s bed, where all his pictures and belongings are strewn, ready to be packed.

Seokjin presses play.

The TV screen glows an eerie gray as it shows a video of an elderly Seokjin in the hospital, numerous wires and tubes decorating his body, with no ending and no beginning.

Taehyung rushes to steal the remote from him, but Seokjin stands up and walks to the edge of the room, expression hauntingly unreadable. He presses pause.

“Where’d you get that?” Taehyung asks, panicked.

“From your old room,” Seokjin replies. Then, “Since when did breaking walls become a hobby of yours, Taehyungie?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Taehyung tugs at the strands of his hair.

Seokjin presses play. In the screen, the doctors surround Seokjin’s old and frail body, murmuring terms and procedures foreign to them.

“That was your old room, right? There’s a hole in the wall. When I looked inside it, I was with my daughter again…in spirit.” His expression goes from unreadable to grateful to unreadable again. “Who were you visiting, Taehyung?”

The screen shows an elderly Seokjin, reaching a weak hand out for someone. Taehyung’s figure emerges from the corner and reaches for him as well. Seokjin presses pause.

“The familiar presence…it wasn’t Miyeon. It was you.”

He inwardly curses. “So what?” Taehyung admits, the thoughts of packing in peace now forgotten. “I just wanted to check up on you. What’s so wrong with that?”

“So that hole in your room…”

Taehyung is found guilty. “Yeah, I was responsible for the damage.”

Seokjin teases, “Couldn’t get enough of my handsome face, right?”

“How can you even joke about that?” he asks through gritted teeth.

There’s an apologetic look on the older man’s face. He takes a few careful steps in Taehyung’s direction, as if he might upset him with any sudden movement. “Taehyung-ah, look at me.” Seokjin purses his lips before he asks, “Why have you been here for two years? What, because you broke walls? Threw tantrums like a child? Is that why you’re still here?”

Once again, Taehyung tries to hold back his tears. Once again, Taehyung fails.

Because I didn’t want you to think I didn’t wait for you again!” he admits between pained sobs.

“Taehyungie…”

“Yes, I damaged walls. Yes, I threw tantrums. I did everything just to delay my case. Because you told me to wait for you. So to answer your question, whether I wanted to go back after I died. It’s a no. And now you know the reason.”

He sees Seokjin’s grip on the remote tighten. He can’t pull his eyes away from the veins on his arms, but he presses on. “Thirty years, hyung. The last time I saw you was thirty years ago. Our parents were gone. Everyone who was ever against us was gone. Our children had lives of their own. Thirty years ago you came to me and told me to wait for you, because we could finally be together. But then, before we left, you saw your daughter and decided she was more important.” Taehyung sobs unapologetically, because all his life he was an open book. Because for two years since his death, he hasn’t been honest to himself. “‘Till death do us part,’ we said. But our vows said nothing about the afterlife. Nothing was stopping me, hyung. I was free to wait for you. So I waited. Here!”

The overwhelmed look on Seokjin’s face is almost as satisfying as his confession. Taehyung feels lighter now, a lifetime’s weight lifted off his shoulders. Maybe…finally, he can let go. Maybe he can move on. Finally…

Seokjin moves in silent steps to his bed and sits in deep contemplation. The silence only urges Taehyung on.

“Would I feel all this in Heaven? No, they told me. They told me I’ll feel nothing but peace. I wouldn’t have any emotional baggage. Well, I don’t want any part of it! You were the only one who made me feel alive…and I’m supposed to give that up? Hell no!”

He wipes his tears away and collects his things in another weak attempt to pack. “I just wanted a piece of what we once had.” He tucks pictures of his family inside his jacket pocket. Pictures of his pets. Of his farm in Daegu. “I wanted to feel it again…how it was to be with you. How it felt to be alive, even for a moment.” He pauses and fixes his gaze on Seokjin, who looks at him with tear-stained eyes. “You don’t have to say anything. To justify everything that’s happened to us. To say the universe wasn’t really in our favor. So I get it. I get it if I’m just another ex to you. But you were it for me. You are the love of my life.”

A tremor runs across Taehyung’s body as he ends his confession. His mind suddenly wanders to decades ago. To a time when he used to hear fans wonder out loud how it’d be like to be with Kim Seokjin the idol. How it would take everything in him to walk away and not scream that he knows. He knows. He knows what it feels like to be the constant receiving end of those lame jokes, and of jokes that sometimes hurt. He knows how much he has to extend his arms just to encase him and his broad shoulders. He knows exactly what to say to break down his formidable walls. He knows everything.

Because once Kim Seokjin was his, and once he was Kim Seokjin’s.

 

***

 

A few hours later, the announcement is made.

“Attention to all travelers departing for Heaven. Please proceed to the main lobby for the final steps of your journey. Thank you and goodbye from all of us here in the Middle.”

Taehyung wonders which parts of this was all predestined. Written in the stars. How one move in the intricate web of his life could have changed the paths he’d taken, the trails he’d trudged. He watches Seokjin with bated breath. And if all he hears is unending silence instead of a farewell, then he accepts.

Then, “Will you dance with me? One last time?”

He does not hide his wide grin.

“If you insist,” Taehyung teases, but the grin is replaced with a sad smile.

Seokjin rushes to grab the second tape he brought in along with the first one. The screen is dark even as he presses play, so Taehyung stands there, confused. Seconds later, he hears the music start and sees a small light by the corner, then two shadows holding each other, dancing in the dark.

“We used to dance to a small flashlight in the studio, when everyone left,” Seokjin murmurs. He brings him close, and they slow dance in the dark. “Remember this song?”

“Hmm,” Taehyung hums. “It’s the song you wrote for me.” He breathes in Seokjin’s scent, unashamed.

“In my every day, you are there,” Seokjin sings. “In your every day, I am there.”

Taehyung hums along. He knows every note, every word, every transition. But it’s Seokjin’s song, and only he deserves to sing it.

Taehyung closes his eyes and breathes him in again. A better farewell than the anticipated silence.

“Taehyung-ah.”

“Hmm?”

“I was thinking about the places we’ve never been to,” Seokjin says into his hair. Taehyung looks up with a wistful look on his face.

“You could have eloped with me.” Taehyung pouts.

Seokjin chuckles. “That’s right. I promised to elope with you.”

“Hmm. You did,” Taehyung whispers softly.

Taehyung rests his head on Seokjin’s shoulder and, with eyes closed, hums to the melody of the song once again. He feels Seokjin’s breath on his neck, his arms embracing him like the sky embracing the earth. He feels alive again.

In that moment, nothing else mattered.

This must be what it feels like, he thinks. To be in heaven’s arms.

 

***

 

“This is the final call for travelers departing for Heaven. Please proceed to the main lobby for the final steps of your journey. Thank you and goodbye from all of us here in the Middle.”

Both of them don’t stop dancing. They sway along to another song. Seokjin pulls them apart only to bring him closer once again, this time forehead to forehead.

“Do you trust me, Kim Taehyung?”

It all stops.

Time. The music playing in the background. The footsteps in the hallway. The changing of seasons. The ticking of clocks. The turning of pages. The gods themselves. A complete stop.

Breaths are held. Taehyung’s universe tilts this way. Tilts another way. A silent waiting.

And then…

“Yes.”

 

 


 

 

 

Part III

 

Guide

 

 

The Guide’s footsteps echo along the silent, narrow hallway. Pressed to her chest, a master key for all the bedrooms.

When she arrives at the designated door, she knocks.

“Taehyung-ssi?” the Guide calls. “Taehyung-ssi, everyone’s waiting for you. You’re the last passenger.”

Silence. No answer.

“Taehyung-ssi?” She knocks again, frantically this time. “Taehyung-ssi? Seokjin-ssi?”

She opens the door in a panic and is greeted by a blinding light in the darkness.

There are scattered belongings on the bed, tapes of earthly memories on the floor. In the far corner, an upturned chair with a broken leg.

The room is dark save for the brilliant beam coming from somewhere.

The Guide lifts her arms to shield her eyes from the blinding light.

She gapes, wide-eyed and horror-struck, as she stares at the hole in the wall.