When Taehyung arrives at his childhood home, there’s no one there to greet him.
The front gate is open, dusty courtyard deserted. The midday sun beats at the back of his neck, pulling sweat from between his shoulders. He marches toward the old hanok, stuffed duffel bag hanging from a hand.
At the entrance, he hesitates.
There's still time to turn back, return to the bus stop and wait for the next ride to the station. He could buy a return ticket to Seoul and be back in his city apartment in less than three hours—ignore the crazy impulse that drove him to return to this place after swearing he would never.
But if he returns now, he may regret it later. Will probably regret it later. This has happened to him many times, especially when it comes to relationships.
Taehyung fits the key in the lock and twists it. The door opens sideways, which feels unnatural to him now.
Climbing the stone ledge up into the elevated home, he ducks to cross the doorway.
Taehyung knows there's no one inside, but he still has to ask. Silence is a rare commodity in the city, and now that he has it, he finds it borderline unsettling. Who would've thought he'd ever miss the drone of cars and stomp of neighbors?
When he receives no response from potential trespassers, Taehyung sets his luggage on the floor and toes off his shoes.
The traditional home is small, a protruding living area connected to a kitchen, two bedrooms, and a bathroom at the back. The mid-July sun is illuminating the whole house, courtesy of a pair of sliding glass-paneled doors. There's a low coffee table at the center of the floor, flat cushions scattered around it.
Against another clay wall is his grandmother's small upright piano, a wall clock hanging above it. This is the instrument that set the course of Taehyung's life, got him into music and art school and out of the countryside.
He approaches it with a tight feeling in the pit of his throat.
A few of the white keys are painted, layers of color and accidental spatters of pink and blue around them. He remembers putting them there when he was about six or seven years old, right when he first started playing. It's color-coding, how his grandmother taught him his D notes.
She was his caretaker and first friend, passing away when he was in his second year of high school. A decade has passed since then, but sometimes the wound still feels painfully fresh. Standing in the home where she raised him, same walls and same furniture, part of him is still expecting her to walk out of some room and say hi.
This is one of the reasons why he ignored this place for so long, he realizes. Too many memories.
He turns away when his eyes start to burn. Coming here was most likely a bad idea. There's the house—his house, as per his grandmother's will—and people in the area that he doesn't really want to face. He came on a whim, and now that it's registering in his head that he's meant to live so far away from the comfort of his apartment and his friends, this feels like an impossible task.
Forcing his eyes shut, he takes a deep, steadying breath, then slowly exhales through his mouth. The cicadas are rattling outside, belting the sound of the summer. He had almost forgotten how loud those bugs got. In the scorching heat, it's easy to think of it as just the sound of the trees, nature creaking under the sun. Eyes closed, he listens to their fluctuating buzz, takes another deep breath.
This is a meditation technique, something he picked up from his best friend, Jimin. All he has to do is close his eyes and focus only on breathing.
In through the nose, out through the lips.
Now, all he can think of is who else cicadas in the summertime remind him of, so Taehyung opens his eyes.
There's one kilometer between the house and the commercial strip in the village. Downtown, he supposes he'll call it, although to him the small cluster of businesses hardly deserves such a title.
Taehyung wasn't planning on heading there on his first day back, but the kitchen has nothing he can eat. All he finds in the cabinets are bowls and pots and pans that have seen better days. He ought to have planned for food considering the property has been empty for several years, but he didn't stop to think about the logistics of the trip as he packed a bag and booked a ticket to Daegu.
—he did all of that this morning.
Luckily, he discovers that his old bike is still at the back of the house, lying on its side in a bed of overgrown weeds. The blue padded seat cover is dark and damp, the bell rusted over pretty badly, but if he rides a bike to and from town to stock up on food and supplies, there's a much better chance that he won't run into anyone he knows.
He pulls off the moldy seat cover and sits down.
His legs have gotten longer since high school, the pedals a tad too close and the seat set much too low. Still, it'll have to do. Pedaling with backless loafers sounds like mild torture, so he decides to skip the shoes. At least here he knows no one will bat an eyelash at him for visiting the convenience store barefoot.
The way into town is downhill. It's a steady slope, not too steep but dramatic enough that Taehyung is half anxious and half excited as he walks out the gate of the home with the small, purple bicycle between his knees. He hasn't been on a bike in years.
He positions himself at the center of the dirt road. When he settles in and slowly starts pedaling forward, the incline begins getting incrementally steeper. The wheels and gravity accelerate him past a point that he can control, and Taehyung is swept along, hair whipping back from his face, loose shirt ballooning behind him like a parachute. It's too fast, too fucking fast, and the bike wobbles as he fights to hold it steady the quicker they go.
When it becomes too much, he squeezes his eyes shut and presses the brakes.
The back of the bike tips over as the wheel is forced to an abrupt halt. Taehyung is sent flying forward, covering his face with his hands on instinct.
He lands on his palms with a grunt, some part of the bike caught between his legs.
He instantly knows that he got them, the painful hand rashes you get from scraping your palms when you fall.
It's probably the first time he's getting hurt like this as an adult, but the burning feeling is unforgettable. This kind of stuff used to happen to him all the time when he was a child.
Grimacing, Taehyung pulls his legs out from under the shrunken bike and sits on the dirt road where he landed. There are no people or even cars around, so he stretches his legs and holds his hands up to assess the damage.
Both of his palms are scraped, blood tipping the ends of the red welts. He frowns and shakes his hands out, trying to chase away the stinging pain.
When his hands and dignity have sufficiently recovered, he stands up, dusts off his pants, grabs the bike by the handles to start walking with it.
Once he reaches the base of the residential hill, Taehyung mounts the bike again. He tries holding it steady and pedaling forward as he did the first time, but now that he's scared of falling and getting hurt, he's a worse rider than before. He loses his balance quickly, has to catch himself on a foot.
So he gives up and decides to wheel the bike the rest of the way. No point in embarrassing himself further.
There are trees, shade, and cicadas along the first half of the route. Houses that look just like his are scattered across the fields, enough space between each of them that he knows it must feel like having no neighbors.
When the dirt path starts evening out, the trees become sparser until only flat fields extend in the horizon. They're rice farms, muddy puddles of green crops as far as the eye can see. It's the village's primary trade, and during the harvest season at the end of each summer, many families in the area help pick the grain. It's a tradition.
The path breaks off into several smaller ones along the way. They lead to side streets and homes, all of which Taehyung is familiar with.
More buildings start coming into view the further he walks. At the end of the farms, dirt gives way to pavement, homes becoming clustered together. Here, individual houses share perimeter walls, each with their own gate. He finally starts hearing sounds of other people, old ladies sweeping dust out onto the street as he passes and kids kicking balls against the walls. A few heads turn in his direction as he goes, but he blames that on the blond hair and tattoos. Those aren't too common around these parts. He keeps his head high and treads forward.
The shop he's looking for is right ahead. It's a small cement building, bright yellow paint weathered where the walls intersect. Weeds and vines grow over the front of it, wiry veins creeping towards the open windows.
Taehyung wheels his bike to the entrance, leaning it against the wall. He steps in, doorway drapes parting for him.
On the other side, he isn't greeted with the mandatory "welcome" that he receives in stores in Seoul. Instead, the shopkeeper at the checkout counter has her head hanging low, apparently napping. He walks in.
Rather than fluorescent lamps, only natural light from the windows illuminates the space. It feels much smaller than he remembers— three rows of wooden shelves, all stocked a little sparsely. The products don't have price tags on them, seemingly organized by color instead of kind.
“Kim Taehyung?” a voice suddenly exclaims from across the room. “Is that you?”
The shopkeeper woke up. He's slightly surprised that she recognized him so quickly. His hair is a different color now, chemically straightened. He's lost weight, shaped up around the jaw and the shoulders, and grown several centimeters taller in the nine or so years since he's been here.
“...yes, auntie.” He bows.
The lady leaves the register with a muttered exclamation. Despite being indoors, she wears a sun hat that covers most of her round face. She hobbles across the room, coming to a stop right in front of him. Propping a meaty hand on her hip, she pushes her big glasses up her nose as if to see him better.
She looks smaller, somehow. Might be just Taehyung's imagination. He's always been secretly terrified of her.
“Well, I can't believe what I'm seeing. It really is you. I have to say, we never thought we'd see your face around here again, boy. Figured you'd flown off like your mother!”
Taehyung smiles, weakly but genuinely.
“How is she doing, eh? Remarried yet?”
Ah. “Not yet,” he says politely, making sure to keep his pleasant smile right in place. “She's been seeing someone she likes, though.”
“Seeing someone?” The woman places an inflection on the word, judgment poorly disguised.
Luckily, Taehyung doesn't have to worry about formulating an appropriate response, because a second later the old woman is laughing it off, giving him an interested once-over.
“Handsome fella, aren't ya?” she continues. “How have you been? How old are you now?”
“Ah, almost thirty, then. Where's the wife? Girlfriend?”
The woman raises her eyebrows expectantly, leans sideways to look around him like there's a wife and newborn hiding behind his back.
Taehyung licks his lips.
“I don't have one, ma'am,” he says. “I'm a homosexual.”
The shopkeeper's jaw drops, her mouth hanging open in an expression of surprise that would never be acceptable in the city.
Taehyung has been dreading this-- coming out. It's what he supposes this is. For all it's worth, anyway.
After she gathers her composure, the woman crosses her thick arms over her chest. She's staring at Taehyung, quiet but with a razor-sharp focus, like she's giving him a chance to take it back or say more.
He does neither. He isn't fifteen anymore.
“Alright,” the shopkeeper heaves after a pregnant pause, stepping off to straighten a can of peach halves on the shelf.
She's visibly ruffled. Taehyung can practically hear the wheels in her head turning, her urge to repeat his shocking revelation to others.
Now he won't have to come out to a single other soul in town. He can just sit back and wait, let gossip run its natural course. It's a relief, really. Soon enough, everyone around will know.
“How can I help you, hun?”
It's a relief. It is.
Back at the house, Taehyung eats lunch by himself at the newly dusted coffee table. Around him, all of the sliding doors and windows are open, letting in a warm breeze from outside.
He slurps at the instant noodles unenthusiastically, legs folded beneath himself.
At home, no matter how busy he gets during the week, he always finds time to cook and eat healthy. No snacks, no frozen meals, definitely no instant noodles. It's what he's used to, since his grandmother never bought him soda or candy when he was a child.
Growing up, he would've killed to eat junk food like this, but now that he can, it doesn't feel all that special.
His grandma would've been so mad if she could see him now, is what he thinks.
With a sad smile, Taehyung lays the chopsticks over the half-finished soup.
There are flowers engraved on the sides of the metal sticks, the ceramic bowl a soft pink. They're his grandma's, everything his grandma's.
Outside, the leaves rustle as a wave of wind rolls through.
After his late lunch, Taehyung sets out to clean every room in the house with the few cleaning supplies he was able to carry back from the store.
He takes care of the bathroom first, stepping inside the old tub to scrub the grout between the tiles, wearing rubber gloves to protect his injured hands. After that, he wipes down the counters in the kitchen until they're sparkling, rewashes all the glasses and utensils that were left out to gather dust. In his old bedroom, he locates the fold-up mattress in the closet and carries it onto the front court to air it out over the fence.
Outside, the sun has grown dimmer. The wind is slightly cool against his heated skin, thick dark clouds moving in to swallow the blue of the sky.
It looks like rain is on its way. Taehyung makes a mental note to retrieve his bed before it hits.
Once he's back inside, he begins sweeping the hardwood floors with a broom he found in a laundry closet. As he works, he can't shake off his unease about the silence.
He lives alone in the city, but it never truly feels like solitude. There are noisy neighbors, cars honking at 4 AM, phantom sounds bouncing off the walls that keep him up at night.
Here, he doesn't even have a working TV.
When the straw of the broom makes contact with the foot of the piano, Taehyung gives pause.
The poor thing is looking worse for wear. There's dust over the case and across the keyboard, where the cover was somehow forgotten open. The white of the keys has yellowed, the wood possibly warped from the high temperatures, and on the painted layers, dirt and dust settled in to dull them.
Pianos need care and protection, and no one's been caring for this one.
Setting the broom against the wall, Taehyung heads to the kitchen and grabs one of the cleaning sprays he's been using. He spritzes it over the surface of the piano, then wipes it with a dry rag. The yellowish-brown of the wood is instantly drawn out. He keeps wiping, collecting accumulated dust on the cloth and turning it over as it becomes dirtier and the piano cleaner.
And just like that, like a magic spell, the instrument starts looking like itself again. Looking familiar.
Taehyung sets down the spray bottle and drops the rag, shaking the moisture off his scraped hands. He brushes one across the keyboard, not applying pressure but feeling it out. He runs a finger over a key that's painted pink, eyeing it for a long moment before he pulls out the bench and sits down.
Closing his eyes, Taehyung brings both hands over the keyboard. The placement of his fingers feels natural, though it's been years since he's last touched a piano.
He went to college for instrumental performance, but couldn't find a job that allowed him to apply that. He figures he was never any good at playing the piano anyway, and the only reason he ever did was to make his grandma smile.
Taehyung's hand gravitates toward the Cs, pressing down when his fingers land on the first three notes in the minor chord. The sound pierces through the quiet, has him snatching back his hand. The piano is very out of tune, but it still sounds like—
Like the song that's been stuck in his head since this morning.
It's a melody he wrote when he was in high school, on these very keys. He feels an impulse, almost irresistible, to play it now. He still knows how to, even without his trusty journal for reference.
A clap of thunder interrupts his thoughts.
The rain. His bed.
Taehyung opens his eyes, and it's almost at the same second that he realizes that he isn't alone in the room anymore. There's a presence behind him.
He slowly twists around to face the doorway of the home.
At the edge of the living room, just beyond the open front doors, stands a dark-haired young man. His threadbare white t-shirt clings to his chest, wrapped snug around his suntanned arms. His brown hair is overgrown, messy and frizzy on his head from the extreme humidity. Parted in the center, it curls past his eyebrows, over his round, dark eyes.
He's bigger and broader than the last time they saw each other, has his arms crossed over his chest in some hostile stance.
It might have looked intimidating if Taehyung wasn't intimately familiar with the look, didn't know it for a defense mechanism.
This is what he's been waiting for.
Taehyung smiles, slowly.
“Hello, Jeonggukie. It's been a while.”
When Taehyung is ten years old, a new boy moves into the old Min house.
The house is creepy, believed by all the kids in his class to be haunted, and has been sitting vacant for several years since the previous family moved to the city.
It also happens to sit next door to his.
Taehyung doesn't have many close friends in fourth grade, so he immediately decides that he'll befriend the new kids and that they'll become best friends. He already knows very much about them from all the town gossip: there's a mom, a dad, a boy who's two grades above him, and another two below. They're from Busan, a city he hears is nearly as big as Seoul. Taehyung's mom is from Seoul— he wonders if they've ever been there?
On the day of their arrival, Taehyung is lying on his back on the doorstep of the hanok. The sliding door is open, the sun bright in the sky, and he's trying to cool down with some help from the oscillating fan plugged into the wall.
There's a huge tree he found down the street from the Jungs' house that he was planning on exploring, but it's one of those scorching summer days that make playing outside for too long impossible. He hates these days the most.
When he hears the sound of a car, Taehyung quickly drops aside his arm and looks out the open door. A car drives past their main gate, rolling up the street in a cloud of dust.
It's been months since Taehyung has even seen a car– not counting the one parked in their garage– and the sight of it has him yelling for his grandmother.
She comes over from the kitchen with a glass in her hands, wiping it down, her pink skirt matching her lipstick.
“Do you think they'll wanna be friends, Gran?”
His grandma looks him in the eye with a smile and reaches down to stroke his hair. Rather than making promises, she suggests they offer the new neighbors a watermelon as a welcome gift.
Taehyung thinks that that's a wonderful idea, since everyone in the world loves watermelon on a hot summer day.
In the kitchen, his grandmother grabs a large fruit they picked up from the market that morning. She sets it flat on the wooden cutting board and slices off both ends as he watches. After she's made triangles out of each quarter, deftly removing the seeds with her knife and fingers, she lines the slices on a long silver platter.
“Off you go, sweetpea.”
Taehyung carries the welcome gift up the road to the fabled haunted house, which is really only a few dozen meters away.
The sun is hot, beating on the watermelon and heating up the back of his ears, and again Taehyung worries about whether he and the new neighbors will get along.
The Min home looms behind a stone wall, much more reinforced and fancy than most of the houses in the area. The entry gates are open, which Taehyung has never seen before. He approaches it slowly, stopping right before the threshold to peer in.
The black car that drove by his house earlier is parked in the courtyard, all of its doors pulled open.
Behind it, the house has a porch wrapped all the way around it, tall white walls and a sloping roof providing shade. Taehyung has only ever seen it from behind a wall, and it looks much more inviting this way.
There's also a woman crouched beside the car, her back to Taehyung. She appears to be speaking quietly, cardboard boxes with labels like 'kitchen' and 'dining room' littering the courtyard around her.
“Mom, there's someone here.”
It's a child's voice, and Taehyung looks over to the source with wide eyes.
The boy who spoke must be a few years older than him, black hair cropped short and spiky. He's wearing shorts, a striped blue polo shirt, and Nike Shox sneakers. He's staring right at Taehyung.
“Hello, i-it's very nice to meet you.” Taehyung bows formally, the offering held in front of himself. “I'm Kim Taehyung from class 4-A. I wanted to come say hi.”
The woman stands up and twists around. Her hair is long and straight, tied back from her face with a white tie. She isn't smiling, but her pale face still looks kind and serene.
“Why don't we all come inside for some tea? Jeongguk, you don't want to keep our guest waiting, do you?”
Jeongguk, as it turns out, is the child still in the vehicle. When the mother moves away to lead the way inside the home, his small body is revealed in the car behind her, round eyes teary and pale face blotchy.
Compelled by some force, Taehyung moves forward into the court, stopping in front of the open car door.
“Hi, my name is Taehyung. Do you want one?” he offers, holding out the tray with the glistening fruit.
The nine-year-old boy looks at the watermelon with wide, dark brown eyes.
His misty gaze flits up to Taehyung, who's still watching him with a smile, before he quickly looks down and reaches for a watermelon slice from the plate. He brings the fruit up to his small mouth, taking a cautious bite.
“Mom, Jeongguk is eating watermelon,” the older brother exclaims.
Later, Taehyung will find out that there's at least one person in the world who hates watermelon.
next one soon maybe :)
“Why didn't you tell me you were coming?”
It's like hearing his voice for the first time, the low thrum he folds his words into.
“I wanted to surprise you,” Taehyung says with a curl of his lips he hopes looks like a smile. He says it because it's true, and says it because he wants to see how Jeon Jeongguk will react.
Jeongguk holds eye contact for just a moment before he glances away like Taehyung had suspected he would. In the sharp line of his jaw, something ticks. “I don't understand why you didn't just call,” he says, arms still crossed over his chest. “People call for this sort of thing.”
It's not exactly a warm welcome, and Taehyung feels his heart take a dip. He turns back to the piano, reminding himself that this is what he'd expected, anyway. It's Taehyung's fault they haven't met in years, and their last interaction was him failing to respond to Jeongguk's letter.
“You're right. I probably should've called.”
Taehyung hears some shuffling behind him and braces himself to feel his old friend leave. He grabs the piano lid and closes it gently over the keys as he listens for it. To his surprise, it's shoes coming off that he hears, Jeongguk sat by the door to unlace his mud-caked boots that he sees when he turns around. He is apparently staying longer. Taehyung feels genuine relief flood through him.
Taehyung spins around on the piano bench, untucking his legs to face the living room properly. There's an urge to reconnect he feels turning in his belly.
“Are you working right now?” he asks Jeongguk hopefully.
“Yes,” Jeongguk says, standing up in thick socks. The seat of his khaki cargo pants is streaked with grass and dirt. Taehyung watches him cross the living room to the open kitchen and grab a glass from the drying rack. Jeon flips it over and sniffs it before filling it up at the tap.
“I see. Then I'm sorry for interrupting,” Taehyung says, watching the guy chug down the contents of the glass in a couple of swallows. He imagines that he's standing up, walking over to Jeongguk to hug him from behind and tuck his face into the inviting crook of his neck. He used to let him do that sometimes. “Are you working on one of the farms?”
“Yes,” Jeongguk says, wiping his mouth with the back of an arm.
Taehyung hums and leans against the piano to picture his old friend helping out the elderly farmers in town. He knows for a fact that there's a shortage of young people in the village, most of them fleeing to Daegu and Seoul as soon as they came of age. Jeongguk, on the other hand, has always been a diamond in the rough. Handy around the farms during the picking season, Jeongguk had then done the unthinkable— return to the country after graduating college in the city.
Jeongguk graduated from H University, just across the river from Taehyung's KN University. In college, they were two years and 13 kilometers apart. Now here he is, fulfilling his destiny as the pride of the village. A whole world away.
“Okay, well. I don't wanna keep you from your job,” Taehyung says, stretching his legs to smile down at his toes. “You go ahead and finish.”
It's past sundown and sounds like it's pouring outside so he can't figure out why exactly someone would need Jeongguk at the farms, but if there's somewhere else he'd rather be, then Taehyung doesn't want to stand in the way.
“Would you be here when I came back, though?” Jeongguk asks. He still has his back to Taehyung, seems to be setting his used glass on the drying rack. He can't see the younger's face, but somehow he can tell that he's frowning.
Jeon Jeongguk has a way of always wearing his heart on his sleeve— it's one of Taehyung's favorite things about him.
“Yeah,” he promises with a small smile. “I'll still be here when you come back, Gukie.”
Jeongguk turns around to face him. His expression is still somber, his dark brows furrowed thoughtfully, but the look in his eyes is at least more open.
“Not before you clean up the mess you made on my floor, though,” he adds, his smile growing teasing as he points to the spot where Jeongguk was standing with his muddy boots earlier. “I finished cleaning right before you came in, and now look at that puddle you left.”
“Oh...” Jeongguk has the decency to look flustered. Taehyung covers his mouth to hide his smile, trying not to laugh at how cute he looks when he's flustered. “H-How do I..?”
Taking pity on him, Taehyung stands up with a grin. He picks up the cleaning spray he set by the foot of the piano, then walks over to the kitchen, holding it out to Jeongguk.
From an arm's length away, Taehyung sees that his younger friend is about the same height as he remembers, just slightly shorter than himself. His naturally pale skin is tanner now, though, a dash of pink across his cheeks and nose bridge from the sun. His eyes, wide, dark, and round, are the same too, staring at Taehyung between a part in his hair that wasn't there before.
“You just…” the words get caught in Taehyung's throat. Jeongguk has always been handsome, but now the way he's looking at him seems fundamentally different. Sometimes he'd glance away and refuse to hold his gaze, but now he seems to have no problem doing it.
Jeongguk curls a hand around the nozzle of the cleaning spray and takes it from his limp hand. Taehyung stares at him blankly and debates whether to throw caution to the wind and ask for that hug that he's been craving. It's entirely appropriate to hug your best friend when you see them again, isn't it?
“I just what?” Jeongguk asks— Taehyung only sees his lips move.
“You just spray it,” he says smoothly, recovering with practiced ease. He makes a helpful gesture with a finger. “I'll get a cloth.”
It's really just an excuse to put some space between them. A hug might not be the best idea for his composure after all, Taehyung realizes.
Taehyung steps up to the kitchen sink and grabs the damp rag hanging over the faucet. Heart pounding, he holds it under the water, wetting the cloth until the cotton is soaked through. Wringing out the excess, he turns off the tap and turns around to walk back to Jeongguk slowly.
His friend is still staring at him; right between the eyes, it seems. Taehyung doesn't know what he's looking at, but the attention makes him burn from head to toe. He hands the wet rag over.
Jeongguk takes the other end, warm fingers curling around Taehyung's. Instead of pulling the cloth away, he twists his hand and flips Taehyung's wrist belly up. When he eases the towel away, the nasty scrape on Taehyung's palm is there, peeling and bloody.
“What's that?” Jeongguk asks flatly.
“Um, I just fell from my bike earlier.”
Embarrassed, Taehyung closes his hand to hide it. He doesn't know how Jeongguk even noticed the cut when he himself barely remembered it was there.
Before he can pull his arm away, Jeongguk grabs him by the wrist. Apparently ignoring his plan to pretend his hands are totally fine, Jeongguk drags him across the room to the sink.
His hand is unbelievably warm around Taehyung's wrist, like a soft heated cuff. When he shifts his grip, Taehyung feels the roughness of Jeongguk's thick fingers.
”—Okay, it's fine, really, it doesn't even hurt,” he tries to reassure with a weak grin.
His heart is beating so fast he can feel it in his ears as Jeongguk turns on the faucet and sticks his hand under the water. When he tugs Taehyung's own under the stream, the temperature is comfortably lukewarm.
“Did you even clean it out? Looks like there's still some dirt on it,” Jeongguk says patiently, turning Taehyung's hand every way under the water to inspect it.
Taehyung is older than Jeongguk by nearly two years, but at times like these, it always feels like the other way around.
“I s'pose I forgot,” he admits in a whisper, then goes quiet as he watches their hands in the water and does his best to ignore Jeongguk's presence right beside him.
Jeongguk's shorter, rough fingers feel surprisingly familiar around his wrist. They haven't done it recently, but they used to hold hands often when they were children.
The colorful tattoo on the back of Taehyung's hand is new though, and he knows that Jeongguk hasn't seen it before. He briefly wonders if he'll comment.
“Is that a butterfly?” Jeongguk asks.
“Yes.” Taehyung's mouth curls up proudly. He wiggles his hand and frees it from Jeongguk's grip when he finally loosens it.
Shaking off the water from his palm, Taehyung forms a fist to show him the blue butterfly perched on the back of his thumb. He got it just over one year ago at a tattoo shop in Itaewon with Park Jimin.
Jeongguk stares at the ink with reticent interest before he reaches for Taehyung's other wrist. Taehyung reluctantly holds it out, lets his old friend pull his second palm under the water for necessary wound cleaning.
He's disappointed that Jeongguk isn't speaking much or telling him what he's thinking, but this is a rare moment of skinship for them, so Taehyung decides to simply appreciate it.
“What about that one?” Jeongguk mutters. He flips his palm up and Taehyung winces when the water catches on something painful. Jeongguk glances back with an apology in his eyes, then his gaze seems to lower to the tattoo on Taehyung's neck.
“Humm, flower,” he mumbles, lifting his moist hand to press two fingers over the black and gray rose stem behind his left ear. “I got this one first. Not too long after you left the city, actually.”
Jeongguk hums. Taehyung waits for his next question to be the meaning behind them, which he never quite knows how to answer. He likes them and thinks they're pretty.
“They're nice,” Jeongguk says simply, glancing away.
Taehyung inhales, staring at the back of Jeongguk's head and wetting his lips. His hand feels clean already, so breaks free from Jeongguk's loose grip and pulls it away to safety.
Taehyung paces over to the living room, shaking off his wet hand and tucking his hair behind his ear. His attraction to Jeongguk has always been relatively easy to disguise, but he feels too out of practice now. He isn't used to it anymore, his quiet voice and forceful grip, unintentionally rough but gentle when he wants to be.
In his anxious inner turmoil, Taehyung realizes his other grave mistake.
“Oh no, my bed!” He rushes over to the front door in a panic, remembering his poor mattress outside.
The summer storm is on full blast now, fat raindrops leaking from the thatched roof and turning the courtyard into mud. There's an old pickup truck parked outside, paint job a familiar light blue. Taehyung's fold-up bed is no longer draped over the fence to get drenched, though.
“I moved it when I came in,” Jeongguk explains from behind him.
Taehyung turns around and sees what he means. His bed is rolled up at the mouth of the hall leading to the bedrooms, miraculously safe and sound inside the house. He glances over at Jeongguk and sees him crouching, spraying the dirt puddle he left on the living room floor.
The younger looks up at him and smiles a little before respraying the floor and wiping it with the towel he was given. His long bangs fall over his eyes when he looks down, and he shakes them back from his face in a familiar, boyish way. When he flips over the rag, veins protrude from his arm as he wipes the floor in a round motion. Taehyung watches from the doorway, then glances away when the younger rises to his feet to walk back to the kitchen.
“Do you have enough food?”
“What are you going to eat tonight?” Jeongguk repeats.
“Oh.” Taehyung blinks. Jeongguk must know this already, if he heard from the shopkeeper that Taehyung was in town. “I stopped by the market earlier.”
Taehyung sees him open the kitchen fridge and cringes.
“Wait, you don't have any power?”
“Seems like it.”
In his defense, the family lawyer who helped him handle the house after his grandma passed away advised him not to keep paying the bills to maintain the utilities if he wasn't planning on returning. Taehyung simply didn't account for any visits.
Jeongguk seems to realize that as well, because he looks at Taehyung like he's hurt by some revelation.
In the letters they exchanged over the years, Jeongguk would always ask Taehyung to please visit him, and Taehyung would usually imply that he soon might. Naturally, it never happened.
Jeongguk closes the fridge with stiff shoulders, and Taehyung knows that he's mad. He's well aware that Jeongguk has always felt like he had to put more effort into keeping their relationship alive, and this certainly doesn't look good for Taehyung.
But how should he even begin to explain that it was never just about Jeongguk?
“Whatever, look.” Jeongguk sniffs, running a hand through his dark brown hair. “Come over for dinner. I'll make you something. And get you some damn band-aids.”
Taehyung's heart gives a hopeful leap. Slowly, he grins.
Chapter 4: the only moment we were alone
While Taehyung has a hard time pinpointing exactly when his feelings for Jeongguk went from friendship to something more, he does remember exactly when he noticed this.
He knows because it was the night of Jeongguk's 15th birthday.
“Jeonggukie, say hi.”
Taehyung is standing holding a camcorder, the lens trained on his best friend sat on a bean bag. They're in the younger's bedroom, watching a DVD rental on his small TV.
“Hyung, you're missing it all,” Jeongguk complains, raising a hand in front of his face to block it from view.
Taehyung begrudgingly turns the video camera on the box screen on the desk. In the movie, the rich protagonist is preparing to get into his jet-powered suit. He knows Jeongguk has watched this movie at least twice since it came out that spring.
“Why don't we try the other one we got?” he suggests gently. The DVD for the new Batman film is still in the plastic bag by the foot of the bed. “Park Hyungsik saw it in the theaters and said it was awesome.”
“I wanna watch this one.” Jeongguk's voice turns pouty, and through the bluish tint of the video screen, it looks like he might be blushing.
Taehyung grins fondly and trains the camera on him, zooming into his big nose.
No one else is in tonight. Jeongguk said his father is on a business trip in Seoul and his mother is still shopping in the city. His older brother Junghyun was supposed to stay back and look after him, but with his college girlfriend in town for the weekend, he left to go meet her long ago.
Taehyung told Jeongguk to invite the rest of his classmates over, but when Jeongguk had answered that he'd rather have a sleepover with only him, there wasn't a single cell in Taehyung that had wanted anything else.
“But it's your birthday, Jeonggukie. We should be celebrating properly,” he insists. He doesn't mind spending this date like a regular Saturday night, but he doesn't want Jeongguk to end up regretting not doing anything special on his birthday. He wouldn't say anything, but he'd sulk for a week. “Come on, Batman would at least be a new thing.”
“I don't care about new things, I care about the things I like,” the younger mumbles.
Taehyung gets an idea and gasps. He slaps the camera display shut and bounces in place with excitement, waiting for Jeongguk to acknowledge it.
His friend's eyebrows furrow, his eyes narrowing like a parent's, though Taehyung can tell from the glint in one of them that he's interested in hearing it. Jeongguk is always open to his ideas.
”...What?” he finally asks.
Taehyung stops hopping. “Your dad drinks beer, right?”
Taehyung knows that he does. He's seen him drinking it multiple times when he's been over.
Jeongguk seems even more worried now, the furrow between his dark brows growing. He sinks deeper into his bean bag and tugs on the drawstrings of his hooded flannel.
Grinning, Taehyung tosses the camera on the made bed and trods with socked feet across the extra futon laid out on the floor for him.
“Come on!” he hisses. “Follow me.”
With no one else around, there's no reason to whisper and tiptoe, though Taehyung does it anyway.
He slides the paper panel of Jeongguk's bedroom door aside and makes his way to the hallway wrapped around the home.
Jeongguk's house is traditional like his, though much bigger and nicer. The ceilings are high up, the straw mat flooring brand new, and the hardwood floors barely creak under their feet as they make their way down the hall. Moonlight and a floor lamp light their path, the natural light coming in through the sliding glass doors that make up the exterior walls.
“Hyung, I don't think this is a good idea,” Jeongguk mumbles as they near the kitchen. “What if my dad notices that something's missing?”
“He wouldn't blame you for it,” Taehyung reasons, fairly confident. Jeongguk has always followed the rules; it's part of why teachers and adults all love him so much. When he glances over his shoulder and sees his friend still looks anxious, he promises, “And we'll throw out the bottles outside so no one can find them in the trash. They'll think it was your brother. It'll be okay, trust me.”
“Alright,” Jeongguk mumbles.
In the kitchen, Taehyung opens the refrigerator, squinting against the harsh light. The fridge is generously stocked with snacks, beef, clear tubs of market side dishes, and two beer packs on the bottom shelf. Bingo.
With a grin, he reaches for one of the brown bottles, pulling it from its slot in the cardboard case.
“Get us cups,” he whispers to Jeongguk, leaving the door open for the light.
“Okay,” Jeongguk returns in the same tone, stepping off toward the cupboards.
Taehyung has had alcohol once before— during his classmate Hoseok's older sister's birthday party a few months earlier. They had a big bowl of tasty fruit punch, which Taehyung had enjoyed thoroughly before he discovered it contained booze. He recalls feeling happy and free that night, then waking up with a mild headache the next day. He wouldn't mind feeling that way again tonight.
When Jeongguk sets two glasses on the counter before him, Taehyung tries to twist off the beer cap. It's very tight, no give to either side that he twists, and he huffs from exertion and tucks the cold bottle under one arm to use his armpit for leverage.
“Let me try,” Jeongguk whispers, holding out a hand.
Skeptically, Taehyung hands the beer over. To his surprise, his friend has some sort of tool in his hand, a metal stick with a hole on one end. He watches Jeongguk fit the hole around the cap and tip it up like a lever. Under the yellow fridge glow, the lid pops open, white foam spilling over Jeongguk's hand and the side of the bottle to drip onto the floor.
“Told you this was a bad idea!”
Taehyung quickly shoots out for the paper towels on a nearby roll. Ripping off a couple of sheets, he kneels on the floor to dab at the effervescent puddle forming on the stone.
After the initial shock of the explosion, the evidence of the accident wiped away, Taehyung stands up with a giggle.
“How did you know how to do that?” he whispers, impressed. After tossing out the trash, he picks up the bottle opener to inspect it more closely.
“I've seen Dad do it before,” Jeongguk admits, shaking off his hand before sucking on the side of it.
The beer successfully opened, Taehyung pours the liquid evenly between the two glasses. It forms a thick layer of foam at the top, bubbles threatening to overflow.
Taehyung eagerly picks up one of the glasses, raising it to his lips to try it. The first long sip is only foam, the flavor earthy and strange. He takes a bigger gulp to try to get to the golden liquid beneath and hums appreciatively to encourage Jeongguk to taste it, too.
Jeongguk picks up the second glass and lifts it to his small mouth. In the dark, Taehyung sees him take a sip, wrinkle his nose in displeasure.
“It tastes horrible,” he groans. There's some foam left on his upper lip, and Taehyung grins and points it out to him on himself. Jeongguk wipes it away quickly with his sleeve.
“Nah, it's not so bad,” Taehyung smiles, closing his eyes and taking another long sip. “Bet I can finish my whole glass first. Since I'm older and more experienced.”
“You've never had alcohol either,” Jeongguk says smartly.
“Yes I have.” Taehyung opens one eye and finds his friend staring at him skeptically. “At Jiwo's party.”
Jeongguk didn't go to Hoseok's sister's birthday party because his mother wouldn't let him. He hates it when Taehyung brings up anything that happened that night, but Taehyung can't help but think it was so eventful.
He ended up meeting new people, becoming closer friends with some upperclassmen, and having an overall great time, even by himself.
Wiggling his brows, Taehyung holds his breath and starts chugging the contents of his glass. It really isn't too bad when he can't taste or smell it.
He feels Jeongguk boring a hole into his forehead in that typical way of his. He doesn't quite get his hesitation, but can imagine that it probably has something to do with not disobeying his parents. Jeongguk really is a good boy— no wonder his folks think Taehyung's a bad influence on him.
“You don't have to drink if you don't wanna, Gukie.” Pouting, Taehyung reaches for his glass, only for the younger to twist away to keep ahold of it.
“I wanna try it,” Jeongguk insists, his voice determined.
Taehyung watches on haplessly as Jeongguk takes a stubborn gulp of the foam, filling both of his cheeks with it. He looks like a squirrel, or maybe a little bunny, and it makes Taehyung laugh. That seems to only spur on the younger, who takes a couple other impressive gulps of the liquid.
“Okay.” Taehyung reaches over and lays a hand on his arm, doesn't want him to choke or vomit in his enthusiasm. There's a warm, giddy feeling blanketing his chest.
When both of their glasses are empty, they glance at each other.
“Do you feel any different?” he asks Jeongguk. The younger hesitates, then shakes his head. “Okay, me neither. Let's open another one.”
This time, Jeongguk doesn't look as worried when Taehyung fishes out a second beer from the six-pack. He wordlessly takes the bottle and opens it with his tool, his pale arms moving strong and efficient in the silver moonlight.
“To your birthday,” Taehyung proposes with his filled glass. “You're fifteen now, temporarily only one year younger than me. Congratulations.”
Jeongguk grins sheepishly, raising his glass to meet Taehyung's in a shy toast.
Taehyung's grin softens. He reaches over to pinch Jeongguk's soft cheek. Jeongguk bats his hand away in an instant, stepping back with a scowl.
“Let's go back to your room and watch your Tony Stark,” he offers, conciliatory. Jeongguk's eyes brighten comically and his hair bounces when he nods.
They retreat to Jeongguk's bedroom with their mostly full beer glasses, Taehyung carrying back the two bottles he promised to dispose of outdoors.
In the bedroom, Jeongguk drops back on his bean bag, Taehyung taking the bed against the wall. This bed sits on a wood frame instead of on the floor, which he very much prefers. He wishes his bed at home were modern like that.
The forgotten camcorder jams into his back when he lies down, and Taehyung pulls it from beneath himself with his free hand.
“You said you'd watch,” Jeongguk's voice scolds. His hand wraps around the top of the camera, tugging it from Taehyung's hand.
Taehyung glances over, reaction time lagging, and sees the younger curling back into his bean bag, the camcorder in his lap. He makes a disgruntled noise at having his distraction taken away, but Jeongguk blatantly ignores him, picking up the remote for the DVD player and rewinding the disk.
Taehyung grabs the pillow from the top of the bed and wedges it between his back and the wall, wiggling to get comfortable.
If Jeongguk wants to do nothing but watch his current favorite movie for his birthday, then that's what he will do.
The film turns out to be satisfactorily entertaining, even more so when every snide comment by the main character is made much funnier by the alcohol.
Taehyung can tell that it's making him giggly, his limbs looser and thoughts cloudier the emptier his glass becomes.
“Don't you think he's kinda hot?” he says.
“Tony Stark.” He grins and covers his mouth. Jeongguk doesn't immediately reply, so he adds, “You don't think so? Look at him. Ignore the mustache.”
Taehyung watches Jeongguk's face as he eyes the man on the television. In this scene, the rich protagonist is arguing with a blond reporter, and in the next, the two are rolling in bed in a violent makeout session.
Jeongguk's eyebrows are furrowed, and he looks away from the TV as he always does during a sex scene, no matter how PG.
“No, I don't think so,” he answers.
Taehyung hums and drains the last of his beer. He tries not to be disappointed by such a little thing, but to him, this isn't just about Jeongguk's opinion on some actor.
They don't speak of this often—or ever—but Taehyung likes boys the way Jeongguk likes girls. He knows that Jeongguk knows because he's always been open on how cute and handsome he finds Junghyun's best friend, Seungyoon, but Jeongguk has never asked any questions or even reacted. Taehyung supposes he should be thankful that Jeongguk at least never judged him for it, but in reality, he finds his apparent disinterest kind of upsetting. Jeongguk is straight, and Taehyung can't comfortably talk to him about being gay. That's what's upsetting.
“It's just too bad,” he laments cryptically, setting his empty glass on the nightstand. Somehow, it falls over and lands on its side, the loud clack making him jolt.
“You're my best friend,” he mumbles, setting the cup upright. “We should be able to tell each other everything.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Nothing.” Taehyung sniffs, stretching out over the bed with his arms and legs on either end. His body is still sore from playing the boxing game on the Wii earlier. Jeongguk made him go too hard, and now all his bones ache. “You're too young to get it anyway.”
“That Iron Man is hot?”
“No,” Taehyung laughs. “Sexuality things. Just forget it.”
Jeongguk goes silent after that, no more questions for him. Taehyung rolls onto his belly on the bed, a mild smile still on his lips.
“I do know about it.”
The answer comes so much later that Taehyung has already half-melted into the mattress. He lifts his head to hear better. “What'd you say?”
“I know about sex,” Jeongguk repeats, louder this time. Taehyung's mouth falls open because it sounds like there's a story behind this. Jeongguk continues to watch the television, only his profile visible. “I've gone to second base.”
“Second base?” Taehyung repeats, his eyes widening. This is news to him. “Like more than just kissing?” The younger hesitates, then nods. Taehyung's ears start ringing. “With who?”
Jeongguk looks over his shoulder, a small grin on his lips. Even in the low light, Taehyung is sure he sees a flush on his cheeks.
A girl from Taehyung's grade. Her long dark hair and fair skin make her very popular in school. Jeongguk has had a crush on her since forever, and with the two of them always sitting together during lunch, they've sat close to Joonhyun's group of friends on more than one occasion. Taehyung wonders if she noticed Jeongguk then, what about him caught her eye.
He wets his bone-dry lips. “Okay… So when was this?”
“A couple weeks ago. Last month,” Jeon recounts, fiddling with the camera in his lap. “It happened one day after we finished cleaning the homeroom after school. She was waiting for me outside.”
Taehyung is disoriented, trying to process all of this. “And what did you do?”
Jeongguk laughs awkwardly, rubbing a hand down his fringe to use it to cover his eyes. Taehyung would have found that attempt to hide cute if it weren't for the sinking feeling in his belly. “We hid in the girls' bathroom and I touched her… Through her bra.”
The image immediately invades his brain— Joonhyun pressed against the sink, Jeongguk's hands on her breasts through her uniform.
“Okay,” he croaks. “Anything else?”
Jeongguk hesitates, and Taehyung knows there is.
It feels a little like someone's stuffed cotton down his ears, muffling the words but still making him hear them.
“She touched me,” he says. “Through my pants. Past the zipper.”
—the girl with her small and pale hand, rubbing Jeongguk back and forth. She'd squeeze and he would whimper, grab her wrist and probably tell her, 'not here, somebody could find us.'
“A-Are you mad?”
Jeongguk is looking at him with a concerned expression, his eyebrows knit together.
Taehyung realizes he is clenching his teeth, balling his fists, shaking like a leaf in a storm. There's a knot buried in his throat and he feels like crying, an uncomfortably hot fire licking at his insides.
“Why didn't you tell me?” he asks, trying to name the feeling of betrayal he feels. “You did all of that and didn't even tell me.”
“I didn't think we had to!” Jeongguk defends, turning more fully on the beanbag to face Taehyung. There's worry and regret spelled all across his face, but Taehyung still wonders how he could even forgive him.
“Of course you should tell me, I'm your best friend,” he cries, frustrated.
“Yeah, but you never tell me about yours,” Jeongguk shoots back, fingers curled around the camera in his lap.
“You never tell me about your hookups,” he clarifies. Jeongguk is looking down now, Taehyung gawking at him incredulously. “Since you don't tell me about yours, I didn't think I should tell you about mine.”
Taehyung's hookups. I n truth, aside from his awkward first kiss with a girl during a Spin the Bottle game in grade school, Taehyung has never come remotely close to doing any of that with someone. He's long discovered that his inclinations make romance slightly more complicated, and he doesn't know a single soul in school who shares his interest in the same sex, let alone who he'd like to be with.
No, Taehyung hasn't shared any details about his 'hookups' because there've been none to report.
“Are you mad at me?” the younger whispers, his soft voice pleading now. “Tae, I'm sorry. Don't be mad. I promise I'll tell you next time.”
Taehyung lies on his back on the bed. Folding his hands over his chest, he looks up at the ceiling and feels a wave of loneliness and self-loathing wash over him.
Does he even want to hear about Jeongguk's next time? Times?
No, he doesn't.
“It's fine, I'm not mad.”
Taehyung nods weakly and closes his eyes. The tears behind his eyelids grow hot, one beading at the corner and spilling down his temple.
The bed dips with another weight and he quickly wipes his face with his long-sleeved shirt. Opening his eyes, he sees that his friend has climbed over him on the mattress, blocking his view of the room.
“Do you promise you're not mad?” Jeongguk whispers again, straight black hair hanging in a curtain around his face. He's had a haircut recently, the trimmed locks falling perfectly at eyebrow level. When he leans over, he smells like the beer they've been drinking and something else. Jeongguk. “Taehyung?”
Taehyung stares up at him. When he opens his mouth to speak, he feels overwhelming nausea.
Widening his eyes, he pushes Jeongguk off with an arm, scrambling up to get off the bed. He makes a run for the bathroom down the hall, rounding a tight corner and nearly thrusting his hand through the paper screen in his haste to get it open.
Dropping to his knees in front of the toilet, Taehyung empties the contents of his stomach into the bowl.
He retches and retches and is so preoccupied with vomiting all the beer he's just had that feeling fingers gently gather his short hair and pull it back makes him jolt.
“Don't worry, hyung,” his best friend's soothing, warm voice says. “I'm here for you.”
Taehyung opens his eyes and stares at the toilet lid, the orange spatter of vomit he left there.
Nothing is the same after that.
Chapter 5: six days at the bottom of the ocean
“Taehyung? What are you doing?”
Taehyung is so out of it, it takes him a full second to focus.
“I said, let's go.”
They're at the front step of the hanok, Jeongguk already with his muddy boots back on. The rain is on full blast outside, thunder roaring in the distance. Right.
He steps into his slides, Jeongguk standing beside him, waiting. Taehyung sees him look down at his shoes and expects a smart remark, but it doesn't come. Jeongguk just heads out first, jogging through the rain to get to his truck out on the street.
Taehyung watches him go, eyes the stretch of mud between the house and the road. Should've packed an umbrella, but of course he didn't. Stepping down from the porch, he turns around to pull the front door of the house shut. Rain sprinkles his back as he locks it with the loose key still in his pocket.
Bracing himself, he turns and steps into the downpour. Rain immediately downs him in cold, but he ignores it and runs to get to the car. He slows only to close the gate, sees Jeongguk already inside the light blue pickup, the headlights casting twin beacons of light in the rain. His window is open, and he's watching him with pursed lips.
Taehyung jogs around to the passenger's side. The rusty door creaks when he pulls it open. The car used to belong to Jeongguk's older brother, he remembers.
“You don't have to lock anything around here, y'know,” Jeongguk says. “We're not in the city anymore.” He disengages the handbrake before rolling the car forward. Taehyung has never seen him in the driver's seat of anything, so it's almost a little jarring. The kid he knew is familiar in the curve of his nose and the small mole on his neck, but not much else.
”—I can't believe this old thing is still running,” Taehyung changes the subject, trying to remember how to interact with Jeongguk after so long. “I bet it was made when you were just a baby.”
He means it to provoke a reaction, but Jeongguk doesn't start complaining about their short age gap like he expected. He just hums, keeps his eyes on the road.
The Jeons' house is right next door, only a couple dozen meters away. Taehyung eyes it as they drive toward it, the large home looming higher than the block walls. But they don't slow to a stop as they approach it.
“You passed it,” he remarks.
“Don't live with my parents,” Jeon answers. “Not since high school.”
Taehyung finds that surprising. He never knew anyone who lived alone in this town, so he always just assumed Jeongguk moved back in with his parents when he returned after graduation. If anyone could live by himself in a village full of families, though, it would be Jeongguk. He'd always been quiet, if a bit of a lone wolf. If Taehyung hadn't made a real effort to befriend him when they were children, they probably would've never gotten close.
They drive up the hill, the rain beating on the windshield and the old engine purring loudly. The farther they get, the denser the forest around them becomes, fewer and fewer homes cropping up between the trees. Taehyung has never been this far up the mountainside, his bike and stamina not built for the trek as a kid. The rain and low visibility make the unlit road dangerous, the wipers squeaking with the effort of pushing away twigs and leaves, but Jeongguk drives silently like he's used to it.
Eventually, there's only lush vegetation on either side of the road. Taehyung can't keep his questions to himself anymore, the silence deafening. “How come you live so far?”
“Far from what?”
“I don't know, stuff.” He means society, people, not necessarily Jeongguk's parents. He doesn't want to offend Jeongguk by implying that he thinks he's anti-social, though. Even if he is, a little bit. “Downtown, I guess.”
“I can go anywhere when I need to with the truck.” Jeongguk looks over at him. “Not as much to do here as Seoul, is there.”
That's hard to deny, and Taehyung goes silent, twisting a ring around his finger. “You must not mind it, then,” he says after a moment, meditative. “Being alone… I couldn't do it.” Jeongguk doesn't reply. Taehyung gets the feeling that he already knew as much.
The road seems to stretch infinitely ahead, just miles of trees and grass. When he's about to ask how far they're going, they signal a turn, slowing down as they approach a path that breaks off from the main road. It's unpaved, little more than deep tire tracks set into the grass.
Taehyung grabs the roof handle of the car, the cabin bouncing as they drive down the trail. After several yards of tracks, a large house comes into view in the distance. It has a sloped thatched roof, stark white walls that contrast with the surrounding vegetation. There are metal fences leading up to it from the road, solar lamps on the gates glowing warmly.
“Is this where you live?” Taehyung asks, staring at the mansion.
“Yeah,” Jeongguk says.
And it is. Despite the isolation, the garden is neat and the lawn well-kept, the fence posts leading to the house so crudely installed it makes the place feel homey.
They slow to a stop. Taehyung feels Jeongguk's eyes on him as he looks at the house, and he nervously tucks his hair behind an ear as he tries to look natural. He isn't used to Jeongguk's looks anymore. He only relaxes when the younger opens the truck door and steps out first.
After a race through the rain, they get to the house. Like all others in the area, it's elevated off the ground, sliding doors and a stone foyer. Jeongguk and Taehyung stand beside each other as they shake off the rain, Taehyung stepping forward after toeing off his sopping slides. The house is spacious, modern-feeling and bright despite the wooden beams and traditional look. Taehyung looks up at the high ceiling and second floor as he cards his fingers through his wet hair.
“You want anything?” Jeongguk asks politely. Taehyung turns to face him in time to see his eyes flit up.
“Maybe a towel?” he asks, peeling the fabric of his shirt from his chest, rubbing a hand over his damp neck. Jeongguk stares at him blankly, then nods and removes his socks before walking up the short set of stairs leading to the upper floor.
Left alone, Taehyung walks in and looks around. The house is more sectioned off than his own, the white walls dividing different living spaces. To one side of the entryway is a living room, dark wood floors and a low table that resembles the one in his house. He walks in, gravitating towards a cabinet against a wall with picture frames on top.
There's a photo of Jeongguk with his brother, Junghyun wearing a graduation gown. Beside it is a picture of Jeongguk on Mrs. Kim's milk cow when they were children, which Taehyung remembers because he was there. There's a faded picture of Jeongguk's parents at their wedding as well, but when Taehyung reaches out to pick it up, he notices the one tucked behind it.
It's of Taehyung, his back turned to the camera as he plays the piano in his grandmother's living room.
Taehyung jolts at the voice, turns around to find Jeongguk standing by the door holding a white towel. He already has one around his neck.
“Oh, thank you.” Taehyung walks over and takes the towel, his heart pounding. It feels a bit like he was caught doing something he shouldn't have, even though Jeongguk is the one who should look nervous. He shows no sign that he knows what Taehyung just saw, though. “This house is lovely,” Taehyung says again, trying to lead his thoughts elsewhere. No use in mulling over old pictures Jeongguk probably forgot were there. Taehyung pats his face and neck dry with the towel. “It feels so modern. When was it built?”
“I built it,” Jeongguk says. Taehyung raises his eyebrows, shocked, and Jeon flushes and looks away. “Not just me, obviously. With help from other builders, when I moved back home.”
Taehyung shakes his head and looks around at the architecture with fresh eyes. Jeongguk had always been talented, went to college for civil engineering on a full scholarship, but accomplishing something of this scale seems like such a grand feat that it's hard to wrap his head around. Two years younger, and there he was, succeeding at everything Taehyung is worst at. And what had he, the musical prodigy, accomplished in the years since he graduated? Nothing substantial, really.
“Wow… You're incredible, Jeongguk.” Taehyung wets his lips, rubbing at an itch in his eye. “I'm so proud of you.”
Jeongguk grunts, stepping away. Still too modest, of course. “Do you wanna change out of those wet clothes?” he asks, jerking his chin in Taehyung's direction. His cheeks are adorably flushed.
Taehyung smiles softly, nodding once. “Yes, that would be nice.”
Jeon turns around and walks up the staircase. Taehyung follows, brushing his hand over the delicate wooden railing and imagining Jeongguk making it. How long did it take him?
The second floor begins with a hallway, sliding wooden doors hinting at other rooms. Taehyung looks over the edge of the railing to see the rest of the house as he follows Jeongguk to the room at the corner.
“This is my bedroom,” Jeongguk explains, sliding open the last door. The bedroom is barren but neat, straw mat flooring and windows on two walls. The younger walks to the doors of the closet and Taehyung steps into the room.
“This is nice,” he comments, walking to the windows. It's still pouring outside, droplets of rainwater racing down the glass. The windows face what looks like the back of the house, a small shed in the fenced-in yard and the forest encroaching on it.
“Here.” Jeongguk holds out some clothes and Taehyung steps over to take them, pulling off the towel from his shoulder. “You can get changed in the bathroom.”
“This is fine,” he assures, stepping to the desk against the windows to set down the stack of clean clothes and start unbuttoning his shirt.
Jeongguk keeps his back to him as he undresses, until he bends forward and pulls his own wet shirt off, revealing a pale back. His arms are tanned from the biceps down, the muscles of his shoulders shifting as he pulls on a clean shirt to hide the t-shirt tan.
Taehyung watches him and feels only mildly guilty. There's a pair of boxers included in his stack, so he pushes his dry underwear off unnecessarily, dropping it with the rest of his stuff. Jeongguk chooses that moment to look over his shoulder, though he quickly turns away when he spots him naked. Taehyung pulls the underwear on, heat flushing his face and his chest. He turns around as well, heaviness settling in the pit of his belly. He pulls the borrowed sweats up his legs and tries not to think about how everything he's wearing smells of Jeongguk.
Once they're both dressed, the younger comes over. Taehyung stiffens and stares at the hand he holds out, his heart racing unevenly, but Jeon simply reaches around him to grab the wet clothes and towel from the desk. “I can wash 'em.”
Oh. Nodding dumbly, Taehyung follows Jeongguk with his eyes as he leaves the room, his legs still not responding. He lingers for a moment, listening to the sound of footsteps walking down the stairs, then follows more slowly, needing some physical distance between them.
Back downstairs, he follows the open doorways to the living room he was in before. Beyond that is another room, and he pushes the door open with a hand to step inside. Like the bedrooms, the dining space is made of straw mats for comfort. There's a square table in the center of the room, flat cushions scattered around it. Against one of the walls is a wooden cabinet, cups and plates behind the glass front. Taehyung takes a seat at the table.
A few minutes later, Jeongguk comes in through another doorway, opening a set of sliding doors to a kitchen. The counters sit along the wall, large steel sink and dark green tiles. Jeongguk pulls a pot from a stack of pans under the counter.
“What are you making?” Taehyung asks curiously. Jeongguk wasn't a cook before.
“Bought a cabbage from the farmers' market this morning, was thinking of making some soybean paste soup.”
“Are you a good cook?” he follows up, folding his legs and watching Jeongguk's back as he rinses the pot at the sink.
“Get by alright on simple meals.” Jeongguk turns off the tap and sets the pot aside with a clatter, stepping out of sight. Taehyung hears him open a fridge. “Not as good as you, obviously.”
Taehyung's grandmother taught him how to cook, always requesting his help in the kitchen when he was a child. He used to make Jeongguk dinner at his place when Jeongguk's parents were gone, which was often. It's been a few years since he's flexed his cooking muscles, though, delivery and takeout too easy to fall back on in the city. He wonders if he even remembers any of his gran's recipes anymore.
“I'm sure you've surpassed me. You always do,” he says, smiling as he idly traces a design on the tabletop.
Jeongguk doesn't say anything and doesn't ask for help as he preps the ingredients quietly, washing the cabbage in a strainer before dicing it at the chopping board. Taehyung listens and finds it soothing, closes his eyes to let the sound of Jeongguk filling a pot with water and turning on the gas range relax him.
He hears it when Jeon joins him at the dining table, but doesn't open his eyes immediately. Sitting across from each other, their crossed legs nearly brush. Taehyung still has both hands at the table, opens his eyes when Jeongguk touches the back of one of them, the one with the butterfly tattoo.
Turning it over, Jeongguk leans in and inspects the scrape he cleaned on his scratched palm. His hand is incredibly warm, like someone who just washed their hands in hot water. Taehyung's heart races unsteadily as he tries to keep his face blank like he isn't affected.
“We should bandage it properly,” Jeongguk comments.
Taehyung swallows, then nods.
He doesn't have to be told twice. Jeongguk leaves the room again and Taehyung drops back, lying on the floor with his crossed legs tucked beneath the low table.
Jeon Jeongguk's touch makes him so hot, every nerve ending on edge from even the simple hand-holding. Taehyung wants him to touch him again, wants him to pull him in and kiss him. He closes his eyes and runs a hand up his chest, skimming his fingers over his throat.
None of these feelings are new, unfortunately.
Chapter 6: paper moons
The worst of it happens after Jeongguk gets a girlfriend. Up until then, they'd barely discussed things like sex and kissing, Jeongguk too shy and Taehyung too inexperienced. After the younger starts dating, though, he opens up to Taehyung and comes to him for advice often.
“How should I touch her when I want her to touch me back?” Jeongguk asks him one day in his room. He's sitting on a beanbag, a laptop on his lap, and Taehyung is sprawled over his bed doing his homework.
“What do you mean?” he asks, looking back at Jeongguk.
“Like, when I want to have sex.” Jeongguk, sixteen, apparently has no idea that Taehyung, seventeen, is still a virgin. It's not like Taehyung has ever implied that he's had sex before, but he hasn't denied it, either. It's just easier to have Jeongguk think he's like him.
“Why don't you just ask her?” he volunteers.
Jeongguk twists his nose, giving him a dour look. “I can't do that. I'm not like you.”
Taehyung scratches his nose, thinking about it. “Why don't you kiss her first?” he tries again. “You know, like foreplay.”
“Foreplay?” Jeongguk says it like he's completely unfamiliar with the concept, his pale cheeks turning pink.
Taehyung nods quickly, latching onto the idea and the thought that there are at least some things he knows about sex that Jeongguk doesn't. “You need to set the mood, alright. When you're alone with her and you wanna do it, you should kiss her slowly and touch her neck.”
“Touch her neck?” Jeongguk repeats, sounding uncertain.
Taehyung nods again, sitting up and crossing his legs. “Yeah, girls like it when you touch their necks. It's an erogenous zone, which means that it feels good to get touched there.”
“Does it?” Jeongguk looks skeptical, runs the back of his fingers over his own neck experimentally.
“It won't feel good if you do it yourself,” Taehyung defends. “Someone else has to do it.”
“You do it then.”
“No!” Taehyung is the one to blush now, squeezing the comforter at his side with a hand. “I'm not gonna touch your neck.”
“Then let me do it to you,” Jeongguk says determinedly, shutting his laptop and setting it on the floor. He rises from the beanbag with no hesitation and Taehyung shrinks back against the wall. “You have to tell me how to do it properly. So Mina will like it.”
Taehyung is terrified of that, but he also wants it really bad. It's not gross if it's serving Jeongguk a purpose, is it? He nods speechlessly, reaching blindly for Jeongguk's pillow to hug against his chest.
The younger stalks toward the bed, sinking down and scooting close. When he twists to face Taehyung, Taehyung squeezes his eyes shut.
Heart pulsing in his ears, Taehyung braces himself but still jolts when Jeongguk brushes over the side of his neck. He uses just the tips of his fingers, points round and soft. He's being obviously cautious, just grazing, and after some deliberation Taehyung decides to be honest.
“With your whole hand,” he instructs, eyes still shut.
Jeongguk seems to get what he means, because he runs the fingers up to his jaw and spreads his hand, curving his palm around the side of Taehyung's neck. His palm is warm and gentle, sends shivers down Taehyung's spine when he slides it to his clavicle. When he strokes Taehyung's Adam's apple with his thumb, Taehyung's eyes fly open.
“That's great,” he blurts. "You can stop now."
Jeongguk's small lips curl up in a smile, and he gets that look in his eye that tells Taehyung he isn't done showing off. He moves closer, and Taehyung squeezes his eyes shut again and holds his breath.
“You should act more like a girl, hyung,” Jeon chuckles, blissfully unaware of his effect on Taehyung. “If Mina was acting this scared, I wouldn't try kissing her."
Taehyung swallows thickly and opens his eyes to ask how exactly he's supposed to act like Jeongguk's girlfriend, but his friend's face is so close the words get caught in his throat. Mirth in his eyes, the younger leans in and kisses his cheek. Taehyung's breath hitches.
Jeongguk looks very pleased with himself when he pulls away.
“Thanks for the tip,” he says, standing up and walking off the futon. “I'm definitely gonna use it next time.”