Baekhyun whistles to fill the silence, an old fishing song that his dad used to sing. He jams his hands into his pockets, and shivers as he weaves through the maze of low stone walls that fill the small field behind the village.
It never seems like it should get this cold at night, even though Baekhyun's spent pretty much his whole life in Jejudo, and knows the weather as well as he knows the freckles that dot their way up his neck.
When his song ends, he doesn't start whistling another, instead straining his ears to hear the waves down on the coast. Looking down to where the fishing boats are tied up, Baekhyun can make out Minseok's dad and his sister. They've got an electric lamp between them, and there's laughter.
Baekhyun lives outside the village. It's sort of a long walk, but he usually doesn't mind. If he puts in his headphones and walks fast, it takes about twenty minutes to walk up to the old guesthouse. The view is gorgeous, too, during the day. He can see out into the distance, across the water. When Baekhyun first came here, to Jeolbyeog-ri, he used to sit out on the grass and watch the fishing ships. Minseok's dad's boat had always looked so small next to the Jeju-do commercial cruise ships, but Minseok's family brings in the fish that makes it to the village tables, so it's big enough.
The lights from the coast get further away as Baekhyun walks. The road turns from pavement to packed dirt, soft from today's rain storm. He can see the low roof and white painted walls of his home growing closer, and he's relieved. The walk has lessened the heaviness of overeating in his stomach, but it's later than he usually likes to make this trek. There's nothing to worry about, really, but old superstitions are hard to let go of.
With a final shiver, Baekhyun ducks into the house. All the lights are off, and he quickly switches the first one on, mumbling a brief prayer to his ancestors that the hall light will work. It's been flickering lately, but he still hasn't gotten around to buying a replacement from the village. He should have picked up one tonight before dinner, but he's always forgetting things like that.
It does turn on, though, so Baekhyun is saved again. When the light goes on, he can stop looking out of the corner of his eye for ghosts.
He leaves his muddy sneakers in the doorway and steps into the hall. He shuffles straight into the back, turning on the sink tap and wetting his toothbrush.
As he brushes his teeth, humming around the toothpaste, he ties up his hair to get it out of the way. He shakes his butt as he stoops down, toothbrush hanging out from between his lips, looking for his face scrub and finally finding it under the sink, next to the big metal pipes that lead to the main plumbing lines.
The knock is unexpected. Baekhyun has just washed his face when he hears it and he hurries to the front of the house, running a hand through his hair.
It's probably just Jongdae, with a bag full of beers and a couple of movies. Maybe he'd changed his mind about spending the night between now and dinner. Baekhyun rolls his eyes. They'd been arguing over baseball stats as Jongdae's brother had played referee, occasionally stopping Baekhyun from kicking his friend under the table. It's been like this since they were kids. Jongdae's calves are probably permanently bruised.
It's not Baekhyun's fault the KIA Tigers are awful. Jongdae always picks underdog teams to like and then complains about fair-weather fans.
Baekhyun's got a few bottles of soju in the fridge too, though, in case Jongdae does want to come inside and talk more shit.
When he opens the door, he's surprised to find a man in a suit, and not Jongdae at all. "I'm sorry," he says. "Is this… I was told there was a guesthouse nearby, just outside of town, and..."
"This is the place," says Baekhyun, opening the door wider. "I wasn't expecting anyone, sorry. Come on inside, where it's light. Even if it's not very good light."
"Thank you," the man says. "I know it's late." It is. Last Baekhyun had looked at the clock, it was after ten at night. But travelers get lost sometimes, and it's not as though Baekhyun was asleep.
"It's not a problem," he says. The man only has a small bag with him, more like a backpack. It doesn't fit with the suit. When he steps into the hall, into the light, Baekhyun can see that his hair is gelled back, and he's wearing wire-framed glasses that sit evenly on his nose. His suit is high quality. Expensive. Silk.
"I'd like to book a room, if you have one," the man says. His voice is husky, soothing. There's no hesitation, now. He's slipping out of his shoes already, shiny leather next to Baekhyun's scuffed up Nikes.
"I do," says Baekhyun. Locking the door tightly behind them, he smiles. "Just a warning, but we don't have any Western style beds."
The man blinks. "That's not a problem."
"Can I get you a cup of tea while I fill everything out?" Baekhyun unlocks the cabinet in the hallway, pulling out his worn out netbook where he keeps the guest information, along with his grandmother's old-fashioned log book.
She'd always liked to have a record, even when they switched to digital. "The computer won't tell you what their handwriting looked like," she used to say, when he'd forget, back when he was still a teenager. "What happens if that computer thing stops working? Are you just going to lose all your records?"
"Nothing's perfect, granny," he always replied. "But at least now we can take credit cards."
"I'd like that," the man says, pushing at his glasses, and then he follows Baekhyun into the welcoming room.
"How could you possibly have heard that already?" he asks, washing his hands, then opening up the rice cooker and pulling out the metal bowl. "What happened to you?"
"Run in with a skittish pony this morning," says Chanyeol. "A wild one got caught up in a torn fisher's net at some point and was interrupting the horseback tours up on the trails." He pulls the towel away, and there's a long scratch up his arms. "Luckily, the tour group seemed to think it was great that we still have ponies wandering the main island free."
"So after playing cowboy, you decided to drop by and bleed all over my kitchen? It looks like you need stitches," Baekhyun says, using his hands to measure the mix of cereal grains. He looks back at Chanyeol, who is nursing his arm with a frown, he adds enough cereal for an extra person. "After breakfast, you should probably get it checked out."
"It does not need stitches, you big baby," Chanyeol says. "It's just a shallow cut. Hurts like a bitch, but it's not deep." Baekhyun can hear Chanyeol grinning as he rinses the mixture of barley, rice and buckwheat, catching wayward grains with his little fingers as he pours the murky water out. When the water is running clear, Chanyeol speaks again. "So tell me about your visitor."
"I always forget how fast news travels out here." Baekhyun adds fresh water, now, and a small amount of salt, before he puts the metal bowl back into the cooker, shutting the lid and turning it on. "At least I'd just cleaned the guest bathroom. Mine is a mess."
"Everything about you is a mess," Chanyeol says, bumping Baekhyun with his shoulder then wincing as it jars his arm. "Don't worry, it adds to that cute thing that makes you a hit with the mom set."
"Shut up, Chanyeol." Baekhyun stabs Chanyeol in the ribs with his index finger, careful not to touch the arm but making his point just the same. Chanyeol yelps and calls for a truce as Baekhyun turns on the stove, making sure he isn't using too much gas.
"Not often we get new people out here in the off-season," says Chanyeol. "Especially not people driving cars that expensive."
They don't live in a touristy area. They're not that far from the city, but they are far from the traps: from the amusement parks and the roped off views of volcanic rock and the bus guided tours. Out here, most of their visitors are people who like to fish or ride horses or hike, and the weather isn't good for recreational fishing or hiking right now, because of the rain. Baekhyun has to wear a coat most of the day, even inside, since he only has heaters in a couple of rooms. Most people come when it's warmer, and when the winds are calmer.
"He's quiet," says Baekhyun. "Maybe he's shy." He cracks four eggs into the skillet.
"Stuck-up city type?" asks Chanyeol, like he wasn't born and raised in a city himself.
Baekhyun rinses his hands again and splashes the water from his fingertips into Chanyeol's face as he moves to the fridge, pulling out soy sauce and the mackerel he'd stripped yesterday afternoon before visiting Jongdae.
"No," he says, thinking back to the man with dark hair and shadowed eyes who'd checked in last night, writing his name with small fingers in childish, uneven letters into the guest book as Baekhyun had picked out his key and gathered a few fresh towels, chattering on about how the lamp switch was hiding around the back of it and how the shower water always took about two minutes to go from freezing to tolerable. He hadn't said a word back, just looked at Baekhyun with big eyes and waited for him to finish before he slipped into the room and locked the door. "Just, you know, regular old quiet."
"He chose the wrong guest house, then," laughs Chanyeol, who stands up to loom over Baekhyun's shoulder. "Let me watch the eggs. You always make the edges all weird and crunchy."
"You're hurt. And I like the edges crunchy."
"No you don't. You're just used to eating your mistakes."
Baekhyun kicks Chanyeol in the calf and sighs, then looks out the window. It's raining again today. He wonders what his guest will think of it. "Why do I even let you hang out around here?"
"Because otherwise you'd start talking to the animals outside," Chanyeol says, dodging the kick this time. "I hope the quiet guy isn't here for the scenic weather, to be honest." He shakes the pan. Baekhyun's never been a good enough cook to own a guesthouse, but he'd inherited it all the same. Jongdae's mother brings kimchi and bean sprouts once a week, from her restaurant, and Baekhyun takes that out of the fridge too, as the mackerel slowly steams.
"I don't know what he's here for," Baekhyun says. "But I hope he doesn't have any food allergies."
"I don't," says a voice from the doorway. "I've never had any allergies." The visitor, Do Kyungsoo, Baekhyun recalls from the guestbook, studies them both through his hair with an eerily intense stare. "I'm not a picky eater, either. Am I early?"
"No," Baekhyun says, after a moment of words not making their way from his brain to his mouth. "You're just in time. Glad to see you remembered the way to the kitchen, Do-ssi. I'm almost done with breakfast."
"I hope you like fish," says Chanyeol, grinning. "That's what we eat around here. Pigs and fish." Kyungsoo's eyes widen at Chanyeol's volume and morning cheerfulness, and then he catches sight of Chanyeol's arm, with the towel draped over it.
"You're bleeding," he says, and Baekhyun thinks he looks caught between bewildered and grossed out. "In the kitchen."
"Wild horses couldn't keep him away from cooking eggs better than I can," Baekhyun says, and Chanyeol laughs, throwing his head back. "Go sit down, Chanyeol." He takes the pan away, and Chanyeol surrenders it easily enough, but then retaliates by tickling Baekhyun's neck, making Baekhyun jerk away quickly and give him the evil eye. "You too, Do-ssi."
Chanyeol flops down in his usual seat, grabbing chopsticks out of the cup on the side of the table and setting them out for all of them on the plastic floral tablecloth.
Kyungsoo clears his throat. "Kyungsoo will be fine," he says. "If that's all right with you?" He looks around the kitchen, eyes lingering on odd things, knickknacks, like the statue of an abalone fisherwoman his grandmother had left in the window, because it looks like Baekhyun's mother, or on the old cast iron skillets hanging from the wall. Baekhyun mostly doesn't use those. They were his grandmother's, too. Kyungsoo wouldn't know that, though, and he stares at them. "Do-ssi… I get that enough, at work. So I'd prefer Kyungsoo."
"That's fine," Baekhyun says. "We don't have much use for being formal out here. I'm Baekhyun."
"I remember," says Kyungsoo. "You introduced yourself last night." Baekhyun grins, and Kyungsoo blinks back at him. Man, those eyes. Baekhyun feels like he's being carefully evaluated. He wishes he'd combed his hair.
"I'm Park Chanyeol." A long arm reaches out across the table to grab a pickle from the dish close to Kyungsoo. "I don't work here. I just drop by to liven up Baekhyun's boring day."
"My days aren't boring," Baekhyun replies, sliding the eggs from the skillet onto a white plate. The edges are perfect. Fuck Chanyeol. "I get up to plenty of exciting things that aren't dangerous." He wrinkles his nose at Chanyeol, pulling a face, and Chanyeol chuckles. "Unlike some people I could name."
"How did you hurt yourself, Chanyeol?" asks Kyungsoo. He sits gingerly down in an empty chair. He's wearing a sweatshirt and jeans instead of the suit he'd been wearing last night, and in the light of day, he seems smaller, with his narrow shoulders and floppy, unstyled hair. Initially, Baekhyun had thought he was older, but now it's obvious he's around their age.
The hard line of his mouth seems softer this morning, too, and Baekhyun wonders if it was exhaustion pulling down the corners of his lips as he'd filled out the guest book, his watch scraping against the wood of the counter.
"I work with animals," Chanyeol says. "Ponies, mostly. I train the ones that do the tours, and sometimes I get called in to deal with the free ones that get into trouble. I really did have a run in with a wild horse this morning."
"He gets paid by the government to keep our UNESCO tickets from biting the hands that feed them," Baekhyun adds, and Chanyeol laughs again. "He gets mauled once a week."
"Baekhyun likes animals, too," Chanyeol says. "Don't let him fool you. He'll feed anything that shows up at the back door."
"I like animals," says Kyungsoo. "Not too many of them in Seoul that aren't tiny house-dogs or cats, though."
"The house dogs out here are a bit bigger," Baekhyun says, setting the pieces of mackerel on the table. The rice cooker starts to sing, and he serves up three bowls as Chanyeol makes small talk about his job.
Kyungsoo's eyes are expressive, even if his face doesn't move much. And Baekhyun was right, when he'd guessed his new guest wasn't that talkative: He responds monosyllabically to most of Chanyeol's queries. Chanyeol is undaunted, but Chanyeol and Baekhyun have both always been famous for being able to hold entire conversations without another person getting a word in edgewise.
"Am I the only guest?" Kyungsoo asks, seeming surprised when Baekhyun sits down with only the three bowls.
"There are more in the spring and summer," Baekhyun says, watching as Kyungsoo picks up his chopsticks. His hands are so small. "It's almost the dead of winter. Not much tourism."
"Of course," Kyungsoo says. He shakes his head. "It's so much warmer here than in Seoul right now, I didn't stop to think about the fact that tourism would be affected by the weather."
"So you're from Seoul, then?" Chanyeol chews with his mouth open, tiny pieces of egg yolk sticking to his lips as he pokes at his fish. "Where in Seoul?"
"South of the river." Kyungsoo looks down at his japgokbap. He's laid a piece of kimchi across it. "I mean, the Gangnam area. It was snowing there, yesterday morning."
"Must have been some drive," says Chanyeol. "That's buckwheat and barley, by the way. Enjoy a traditional Jeju breakfast."
"I like driving," Kyungsoo says. "And I've had japgokbap before." Baekhyun can see him curling in and puffing up just like a hedgehog, like they do right before they stick out their spines and stab his hands, so he interrupts before Chanyeol can make a mess of it.
"We get snow in Jeju, too," Baekhyun says. "Up in the northern part of the island. Not so much down here yet, but later in the year, sure."
"We are pretty far south," Kyungsoo says.
"It's mostly rain this time year. Rain and wind. You're gonna get sick of mud in less time than it took you to drive down here." Baekhyun grins, flashing all of his teeth, and Kyungsoo slowly unfurls.
"Do you think it's too rainy to walk around?" He looks out the window, eyes stopping on the haenyeo statue again before looking out to take in the rain. Baekhyun's guesthouse is out of the way, and the paths are probably muddy.
"Might be too wet," says Chanyeol. He's stopped eating, and he's frowning down at his arm. Baekhyun thinks it looks worse than a cut, but Chanyeol's always tripping and falling over his own limbs, or getting bitten by weird wildlife. He'd know better than Baekhyun, despite his city boy roots. "It's not supposed to rain tomorrow, though, if you'd rather wait."
"I don't mind getting wet," Kyungsoo says. He's looking outside again, one hand pushing back his hair and the other gripping his chopsticks. Baekhyun knows the view from the kitchen window isn't that interesting.
"More like soaked," Baekhyun says, smiling. Kyungsoo looks at him, then, and Baekhyun had thought Kyungsoo's eyes were expressive, but maybe they aren't. He can't read anything in them now. "I can make tea when you get back, though."
"You don't need to go out of your way." Kyungsoo looks down at his food again, and takes another bite.
"So how long are you planning on staying out here, Kyungsoo-ssi?"
"I don't know," he replies. "Is that a problem?"
"Not at all," says Baekhyun. "There's no shortage of rooms, obviously." The mackerel is good. He's pretty sure Minseok's little sister had made this catch. Baekhyun will have to congratulate her, later, when he drops by to pick up fresh for dinner tonight. "You can stay as long as you like."
Kyungsoo sighs. "As long as I'd like, huh?" Something about that is funny to Kyungsoo, but Baekhyun doesn't know what. Kyungsoo sets down his chopsticks. "Please excuse me," he says. "I have to make a few calls."
"Good luck with that," Baekhyun says. "It's hard to get reception out here, sometimes. Service doesn't quite extend to the guest house."
"I'll keep that in mind," Kyungsoo says. "Thanks for breakfast. It was delicious."
"You're welcome," Baekhyun says. When Kyungsoo has left the kitchen, his rice bowl and plate stacked neatly by the sink, Chanyeol looks at Baekhyun with a raised eyebrow.
"Definitely quiet," he says, and Baekhyun chuckles.
"It'll be a nice change from the usual loudmouths I have hanging around here." That's not exactly true. Baekhyun likes the noise. It's comforting. Still, a guest does mean activity in the guesthouse when he'd normally be alone.
"You're the biggest loudmouth of all," Chanyeol replies, before starting to wolf down the rest of his breakfast, as Baekhyun studies the empty place across from him.
Do Kyungsoo, he thinks, absently pushing a piece of egg into his mouth. (It does taste better, without the crunchy parts.) Well, things had been getting a bit boring around here.
His third year of high school, he and Yixing used to race to get them clean, Yixing taking the back windows and Baekhyun taking the front ones. Afterwards, Baekhyun's grandmother would judge, and the winner would get first choice on what they watched that evening on television.
There's no one to race with now, though, and no one to judge, so Baekhyun just squirts glass cleaner in the centers and gives a cursory wipe down. In the spring, it's different, because pollen collects in the corners. Chanyeol is allergic to even the idea of spring, so Baekhyun is more careful.
He can't remember ever having a guest in the winter, at least not since he'd taken over. The dates in his grandmother's log book range from March to October. Do Kyungsoo is a lone entry, his late November entry scribbled in with the wrong pen, one with dark navy ink instead of the uniform black of the rest of it, that he'd fished out of the inside pocket of his perfectly tailored suit.
After Chanyeol leaves, Baekhyun takes off his jacket and rolls up his sleeves. Going out back, he turns on the outdoor spigot, filling the large plastic bucket he keeps for mopping and bringing it inside. Even that short trip outside has left his shirt damp across his shoulders from the rain.
Through the back door, he stands and looks out at the grassy hills, surveying the puddles forming along the trail that leads up into the overlooks. For a moment, he imagines what this storm might look like in Seoul. He and Yixing used to talk about Seoul a lot. Or, well, Baekhyun talked, and Yixing listened, occasionally bugging Baekhyun about unfamiliar Korean words as Baekhyun curled his arms around his knees and thought about universities and noisy neighborhoods and parties like in the dramas.
Then he shakes his head and drags the bucket further inside, and gets the mop from the bathroom.
He starts in the hall, occasionally using the mop as a microphone as he sings along to his music, switching directions at every chorus until the hallways and the kitchen are clean, the winter dust gone from the wood.
Baekhyun is mopping the floors in the main room when he catches sight of Kyungsoo lingering in the doorway. He takes out his headphones, and smiles. "Do you need something?" He wipes the sweat from his brow with the back of his arm. He's hot, but it's better than the chill that lurks throughout the entire guesthouse once November hits.
"You were right about the phone service," Kyungsoo says, pinning Baekhyun with that penetrating stare again as he scratches his neck with his index finger, like it's too much effort to use his whole hand. Then he looks up completely, and the corners of his mouth lift, softening his entire face. The transformation catches Baekhyun off-guard. "I'm not sure why I thought my phone would work when yours doesn't."
"We have a better time with it when the winds aren't so strong," says Baekhyun, stretching his arms above his head to stretch out the tightness between his shoulders. "But signal's usually pretty weak. If you want all the conveniences of home, you'd be better off in a more bustling part of Seogwipo." He laughs, afterward, so that Kyungsoo won't think he's chastising him, or asking him to leave. "It's just the bare necessities, internet-wise."
"I don't particularly want to be reachable." Kyungsoo's sweatshirt sleeves are too long, and they hide half of his hands. Earlier, they'd been pushed up to bare his forearms. "The thought of no one being able to call me is… it's really a relief. I just want to reassure a few people that I'm all right."
"Makes sense," says Baekhyun. It goes against every fiber of him not to ask questions, but Kyungsoo is doing the hedgehog thing again, so he rocks back on his heels and starts dunking the mop, just to give himself something to do with his hands.
Baekhyun's music plays frantically from his headphones, like it too finds the silence awkward, high female voices reaching a chorus that's most likely audible where Kyungsoo is standing. Kyungsoo almost smiles. This time, he's definitely amused.
"Do you know where I would get service?" Kyungsoo scratches his neck as he surveys the room, then runs a hand through his hair. Baekhyun hadn't been expecting anyone at the guesthouse until spring, so there's clutter everywhere, magazines stacked waist high on the low table in the center of the room and cutouts of his favorite girl idol groups taped to the furthest wall. "I really do need to make a couple of calls."
Kyungsoo waves his phone. It's one of those big fancy ones, with a screen that's big enough to be a computer and five hundred applications on it so it works just like one.
"The signal's pretty good in the village," says Baekhyun, after a moment's thought. "It's a twenty minute walk." He thinks about the Lexus in the small lot outside, next to Baekhyun's scooter. "It'd take you about five minutes to drive there, though, if you were worried about the mud on the upper end of the path." It would be overkill, but the mud might be treacherous for someone who is unused to navigating it. "Or you could walk along the wider paved road instead of taking the path, the way you drove up." He hums. "Just be careful. The weather on this island can change without warning."
"Oh," says Kyungsoo. "I did get signal when I stopped there last night to check the map on my phone. I ended up asking a local about nearby hostels and guest houses, and someone recommended this place. An older man, smoking on his porch. He said it was family owned."
"It is," Baekhyun says. "My family." He sticks the mop in the bucket and puts his hands on his hips. "Everything around here is, really. The convenience store, all the markets. Even that little theater by the convenience store is owned by the same family that rents the boats, down by the water. This particular village doesn't have a lot to offer tourists, really. We get hikers, mostly, making their way across the Olle Trails, and that's about it." He rubs his hands on the front of his jeans. "Mostly this village is just the people who work with the tamed ponies, and the fishers and divers."
"Like the statue in the kitchen window, right?" says Kyungsoo. He isn't wearing socks, and his feet are as small as his hands. Despite that, and all his quiet contemplation, Kyungsoo does not feel small to Baekhyun. Instead, his presence spills out into the air and fills up the room. "Abalone divers. The haenyeo are pretty famous outside of Jeju too. My mom used to talk about them. About the lady divers."
"There are hardly any of them anymore," says Baekhyun, as he plays with one of his headphone buds, tapping his foot to the beat. Kyungsoo's gaze drops to it, and Baekhyun stops until Kyungsoo looks back up at his face again. Then he starts tapping again. "There aren't as many fishermen's widows these days, and it's dangerous, you know? Diving ten meters down into the water without oxygen tanks or anything like that, especially with all the rocks. Plus, everyone young wants to move away from small villages like this, to the city, or up north, to Jeju-si. It can be too quiet, out here, if you're not used to it."
Even if you are used to it, really. Sometimes, at night, when the wind blows through the trees and grass, it sounds like someone whispering. Baekhyun always sleeps with music playing to drown it out.
"It's nice," Kyungsoo says. "Peaceful." He turns to leave, but pauses, looking back at Baekhyun. His eyes are brighter than they'd been at breakfast. "Honestly, as loud as you were singing, I don't think it'll ever be too quiet."
That surprises another laugh out of Baekhyun, who still has music blasting out of his headphones where they hang around his neck. He's still laughing as Kyungsoo gives him a jaunty little wave, disappearing and leaving Baekhyun to his mopping.
Kyungsoo goes out a little while later, with his sweatshirt hood pulled up to cover his hair and holding onto his big computer-phone, and Baekhyun watches out the window as he picks his way down the wide dirt path, slowly and carefully jumping the puddles. When he's out of sight, Baekhyun goes back to organizing his magazines, but he watches the clock until Kyungsoo comes back home, just to make sure he gets in safe.
There's nothing dangerous in sleepy little Jeolbyeog-ri, but Kyungsoo is new around here, and he's not getting lost on Baekhyun's watch.
When Kyungsoo returns, the sharp lines around his mouth are back, and he goes into his room, turning the lock, and doesn't come out for dinner. Baekhyun eats alone, and as he rinses the dishes, scrubbing out the metal bowl from the rice cooker, starch collecting under his fingernails, the rain finally turns to drizzle, then stops.
The water's mostly shallow in the inlet, a meter deep at the far edge but half that where they sit above it, on the rocks, and it licks at the sand every once in a while as the wind tries to blow Baekhyun, Jongdae, and Soojung back from whence they came.
When Baekhyun was just a kid, maybe nine, he and Jongdae used to sneak off by themselves and draw in the sand with their hands, artistic masterpieces that would get washed away. The silt would scrape at Baekhyun's hands, scraps of shell leaving nicks in the skin, and they'd eventually have to go chasing the empty Hwanta bottle out into the water. Soojung, when she'd started to follow them out, taught them to put small rocks through the neck of the bottle to weigh it down so the wind wouldn't blow it out to the water's edge.
As they got older, lost plastic action figures turned into first tries at cigarettes and singing folk songs at the top of their lungs into the wind where no one could hear them until they went hoarse. When they brought Yixing along, he'd play guitar for them, old trot numbers he'd picked up the tune of from listening to 90.9 on the FM radio with Baekhyun's grandmother all day while Baekhyun was at school.
Now… now they come out here and just talk, and Baekhyun can pretend he's still fifteen, and that he's not already halfway through his twenties and looking at the rest of his life being more of the same.
Today is overcast, much like the rest of the week has been. Jongdae had shown up at the guesthouse that afternoon with Soojung in tow, mouth stretched cat-like. "We're going out to the inlet," he says. "You in?"
"Don't you have work?" Baekhyun had joked, even as he'd slipped his arms into his coat.
Soojung is home for the weekend from university. She comes back once a month, full of stories for Baekhyun and Jongdae about her lab partner for biology class and the new PC game everyone is obsessed with. She bubbles over with excitement about the professor from Busan who wears bright colored blazers to every science lecture, and about how she made foreigner friends at a concert and gets to use her English all the time now. She'd always been the best at it, in high school: even older students like Baekhyun had taken advantage and gotten her help with homework. Baekhyun bets she fits right in.
It's not anything different than her sister Sooyeon had talked about, but that hadn't felt the same. Sooyeon was older, rivals with Baekhyun's forever crush Kim Taeyeon, and up on a pedestal nearly as high. With Soojung, it's different. She's younger than him, but she's already talking about graduate schools, and studying marine biology overseas.
It leaves a taste saltier than dried octopus on the back of his tongue.
"You haven't been around this week," says Jongdae. "It's weird eating dinner with people who don't have horrible opinions about everything."
"Your voice has been giving me digestion problems," Baekhyun says. "I needed some time to recover." Jongdae grabs him around the shoulders in a chokehold that's more like a hug, and nuzzles his cheek against Baekhyun's hair, gathering static electricity, and then sputters as the hair sticks to his mouth.
"You love me," he says, after he's disentangled himself and walked back over to the rock, climbing up to a higher one covered in sea moss. "So what's up?"
"You know I have a guest," says Baekhyun. "I've got to stay around and, you know, feed him and make sure things are going all right."
"You have a guest? In the winter?" Soojung runs a hand through her hair. It streams like a banner behind her when she pulls her fingers free. Jongdae stares at her, and then blinks and looks back down at his feet. "Weird."
"Yeah," says Baekhyun, sitting back onto his butt so he can stick his legs out in front of himself. "Kind of."
"I saw him on Thursday," Jongdae says. "Walking down past the post office. He's got eyes like serving plates. It's intimidating."
"He wanted signal for his phone. He said he needed to make a few calls."
"You really ought to call the phone company, oppa," says Soojung. "It's practically criminal that you don't get reception up there."
"It's not a big deal," Baekhyun says. "Especially since…" It had been a bigger problem, before, when his grandmother had been sick. Baekhyun had learned how to turn the twenty-minute walk to the center of the village into a seven minute run.
"You could die up there and no one would know for days," Soojung says. "That's creepy."
"What's creepy," Baekhyun says, "is that you think about shit like that." He squints at a particularly strong gust of wind. "I'm not alone up at the house right now, though, so at least for now, you can rest at ease."
"Speaking of not being alone," Soojung says, raising an imperious eyebrow, "what's he like?" With that expression, and the wind in her hair, she looks like a warrior queen or something. Baekhyun wishes he had a fancy phone, just so he could take a good picture.
"Chanyeollie says he's super quiet." Jongdae's moved over another rock, to a flatter surface. He's squatting down, digging at the moss with a stick. He has the open bottle of soju in his other hand, which Soojung snatches from him. He grabs her wrist and tickles the inside of it, and when she laughs he relinquishes his hold, stretching across the rocks when he looks over at Baekhyun. "Or at least, that he doesn't talk much."
He doesn't. Since that first day, when Kyungsoo had come back from his long walk into the village drenched, his brow furrowed, Baekhyun hasn't seen too much of him. He comes out for breakfast, sometimes, and always for dinner, but he mostly stays in his room, doing goodness knows what. Four days have passed, since then, and Baekhyun's curiosity, at some point, will eat him alive. "He's not a bother," says Baekhyun. "Not everyone comes out here to make friends."
"The divers will scare him, then," Jongdae says.
The divers always want to make friends. Baekhyun feels like he knows most of those old ladies well enough that they'd list him as next of kin on a hospital form. Old ladies have always liked Baekhyun, because he flirts with them outrageously and lets them do whatever they want with his hair as long as they don't cut it.
"I wonder what he's all the way out here for," says Jongdae. "There's literally nothing to do."
"Maybe that's why," says Soojung. "Maybe he's the opposite of us, you know? It might be that he needs a break from all the noise. Sometimes…" She rubs her hands on her knees. "Sometimes I miss how nice the air is, out here. Or how I can hear myself think."
"What I think…" Baekhyun grabs the soju from Soojung, and takes a long swig. The ocean is louder in the winter, breaking harder against the coast. He should have worn a thicker jacket, since it's ever nearing 0 Celsius as the afternoon wears on. "Is that we gossip way too much in this village."
"Not like there's much else to do," Jongdae says. "You coming over tonight? When you're over, my mom doesn't obsess over my brother being single so much because she has you to distract her."
"No," Baekhyun says, pulling a face at the thought of eating his own cooking again. "I have a guest, remember?"
"You're not shackled to the place," says Jongdae. Baekhyun looks down at his sneakers, with their scuffed toes, and at the gray of the rocks beneath them. "Bring him with you. Mom won't mind."
"He might mind," says Soojung. "I'd mind. Eating with you two is like eating with toddlers. All that yelling and leg wrestling and crying." She stands up from her squat, dusting off her pants. "The birds are coming in to roost." She grins. "That's our cue to leave. Wouldn't want to be here after dark."
"I really should go, anyway," says Baekhyun. He has things to do, back at the guesthouse. He should start dinner, for one thing. He also promised Minseok that he'd take a look at the roof and make sure it'll be good through the rest of the winter rains, so that he can come over to fix it if it won't. He should write an e-mail to Yixing, as well, to save for the next time he takes his netbook into the village. "Stuff to do." He hands Jongdae back his soju bottle, then accepts Soojung's hand up.
There's moss stuck to his butt, and when he wipes it off it sticks to his fingers. He holds them out into Jongdae's face. "You're gross, cut your nails," Jongdae says, and Baekhyun pretends he's about to grip Jongdae's cheeks as Jongdae squirms backwards, falling hard onto his butt and almost slipping from the rock.
"Behave," Soojung says, linking her arm with Baekhyun and starting to walk, leaving Baekhyun no choice but to follow.
"Is that a ‘no' on dinner?" Jongdae asks, and Baekhyun laughs. "Soojung is going to join me."
"I can't," she says. "Family night." Jongdae pouts at her, and Baekhyun grins.
"Yeah," he says. "It's definitely a ‘no'. I wouldn't want to subject Kyungsoo to your terrible taste in baseball teams, anyway."
"It's not even baseball season," Soojung says. "Can we give it a rest until March?"
"Soojung," Jongdae says, laughing as he drinks the last of the soju, "it's always baseball season in our hearts." His cheeks are flushed, either from the wind or from the alcohol, and he wobbles as he stands, the wind choosing that moment to gust.
Soojung's long, silky hair blows into her face as she laughs, catching on her lips. She's so pretty, when she laughs, and Baekhyun remembers being a little in love with her in high school. Jongdae was too, and he'd always wondered which one of them she'd choose. The answer had ended up being neither of them. That had been so long ago. "What a shame," she says, "since the rest of us could use a respite."
"You get a respite for most of the year now," Baekhyun points out, as Jongdae links himself through Baekhyun's other arm, and Soojung gives him her patented deep frost look for daring to contradict her.
"Funny how that isn't long enough when I'm dealing with you losers," she says, and Jongdae and Baekhyun make kissy faces at her as they step up from the rocky beach to the grass, and start back toward home.
They walk back precariously along the rocks instead of climbing up to solid ground, Jongdae shrieking every time the waves lap at his feet but tiptoeing back into the water's path anyway, only to shriek again as another wave crashes in. He has the empty green plastic Chamisul bottle clutched in his hand for dear life, which is probably the only thing that keeps Soojung from grabbing it and clocking him upside the head for his antics.
They split up when they get to the main road in the village, Jongdae going back around his house to spray down the grills, since after dark is when most people show up for black pig samgyeopsal at his family's restaurant. Soojung waves goodbye as she splits off to go to her place. Sooyeon is home for the weekend as well, and she and Old Man Jung are standing out front, leaning forward onto the uldam. "Baekhyun-ah! You should get home quickly," Old Man Jung yells out to him. "It's about to rain."
Baekhyun quickens his pace, because Old Man Jung's always right about the weather. He doesn't make it home before the sky opens up and does its best to drown him, and he's chilled to the bone by the time he gets all the way up to the guesthouse.
When he steps out of his wet shoes and into the hall, he hears the sound of something frying. Frowning, he leaves his wet socks stuffed into his shoes, and then walks barefoot to the kitchen.
Kyungsoo is standing over the stove. He has food cooking on both burners of the stove, and several plates full of things Baekhyun's never even tried to cook spread out on the table behind him. There's a big dish of tofu, at the center of the table, in a brown sauce, and Baekhyun would steal a piece if there wasn't beach all over his hands. "You got the burners working?" Even Chanyeol has trouble with them sometimes. Baekhyun's touch, Chanyeol has assured Baekhyun, works some kind of supernatural magic on the old stove.
Startled, Kyungsoo almost drops the long cooking chopsticks he's using to flip whatever's in the pan. "It was tricky," he says. His voice is dry, like Baekhyun gets when he's talked either too much or too little. "How old is this thing?"
"Well," says Baekhyun, "it's definitely post-war?" That's a vague window, but all Baekhyun knows is that it's older than he is. "But it's been here since before I was born for sure."
"I hope you don't mind me using it," Kyungsoo says, without turning around. "I felt like cooking." The back of his neck is flushed. Is he embarrassed? That's really… cute, Baekhyun thinks. He likes the way Kyungsoo's voice gets a little higher when he's not as sure, and he especially likes the way his ears go dark at the tips.
"Ah," Baekhyun says, still stunned. Kyungsoo hadn't even emerged for breakfast this morning, so seeing him all domestic in front of the stove is strange. He's wearing soft black cotton pants that drag on the floor, too long for his short legs, and an unremarkable T-shirt in a gentle maroon. He's a shadow in this room of pastels and florals. He also looks pale and thin, under the yellow kitchen lamp. "No, I… you went shopping?"
"Everyone is so… talkative, and friendly," Kyungsoo says. "Back in my neighborhood—" He stops, and then fusses with the burners. Baekhyun waits, but Kyungsoo clearly isn't planning to continue.
"Did you… find everything okay? If you'd told me, I would have gone with you." Baekhyun watches as Kyungsoo expertly pulls crispy dumplings from the pan and sets them on tissue to drain.
"I didn't know where you were," he says.
"Went down the coast with a couple of friends," says Baekhyun, chewing on his lower lip. "Wasn't sure if you were coming out of your cave today or not." He immediately slaps his hand over his mouth. "Sorry, I'm so used to…"
"My cave?" Kyungsoo pushes at the last of the dumplings, checking to see if they're cooked through. "Do I look like a bear to you?" Baekhyun's not sure if there's a right answer.
"Maybe a teddy bear," he says, shrugging. He wants to tell Kyungsoo he reminds him more of a hobbit, like from Lord of the Rings, but he doesn't think that'll go over better than the bear comment.
"I'm a lot grumpier than any teddy bear you'll ever find," says Kyungsoo.
"Caves down by the shore are much more likely to have crabs in them than bears, anyway," Baekhyun says. "Sorry I wasn't around to help."
"I don't expect you to wait around in case I want to go somewhere on a whim, in any case." Kyungsoo looks up at him, and smiles lightly. The dark circles are gone, from underneath his eyes, and his shoulders are less slumped. "It wasn't so bad. The walls of piled stones made me feel like a rat in a test maze, but they really do block the wind. I have to say, though…"
"What?" Baekhyun moves to the sink and soaps up his hands to clean them, digging sand and moss out from under his fingernails as he closes his eyes and takes in all the different smells. This is how the kitchen used to be, when his grandmother cooked everything.
"Sometimes, I think the people in Jeju are speaking another language." Baekhyun looks over his shoulder at Kyungsoo, whose brows are knit together in consternation. "It took me some time to get used to the dialect that the older people were speaking. Yours isn't that strong."
"My generation grew up with, you know, a television," says Baekhyun. "We watch most of the same shows and stuff you watch up there in Seoul, so we speak in a mix. The older folks have a lot stronger dialect than we do. It is a different language, almost."
"I see," says Kyungsoo. "I… knew a person from Jeju, once, but they didn't speak with all of your special Jeju lingo." He's starting to do the hedgehog thing again, so Baekhyun takes over the thread of conversation.
"With tourism," says Baekhyun, "and that new navy base they're building, there's a lot of incentive to learn to speak like mainlanders."
"That's a shame," says Kyungsoo. "I like the way Jeju-speak sounds."
"Even if it takes some getting used to?" Baekhyun teases, and he's rewarded with another quirk of Kyungsoo's lips.
Kyungsoo picks the dumplings up with careful fingers, and moves them to a plate. He brings it over to the table. "It feels...strong." He raises and eyebrow, and Baekhyun is expecting him to explain, but he doesn't. "You should change your clothes, right?" He talks like someone who is used to being in charge.
"Right," Baekhyun says, drifting down the hall to his room. He strips out of his wet clothes and changes into a pair of soft Pusan National sweatpants he'd stolen from his brother more than six years ago, pockets gone threadbare and lettering starting to peel. He picks up his towel from the back of his desk chair and dries his hair as the smell of food makes his stomach growl. "Hush, hush," he says, patting it. "I'll feed you in a minute."
He accidentally drips all over the Learn Chinese! book on his desk, and frowns as he thinks not like I was actually learning anything, anyway.
When he walks back out, Kyungsoo has already dished up rice from the rice cooker. "I think you made enough to feed ten people," he says. "Luckily, I can eat enough for seven, so I'm counting on you to take care of the last three portions. Not that I'm telling you that you have to eat more food than you want to, or anything like that, so don't get the idea that—"
Kyungsoo pins him with a stare. "Has anyone ever told you that you talk too much?"
"Someone tells me at least once a day," Baekhyun says, laughing. "And if I don't see anyone, I tell myself."
Kyungsoo looks down and sighs. "Then I probably shouldn't waste my breath." He says it blandly, avoiding meeting Baekhyun's gaze again, but Baekhyun doesn't get the impression that he's actually bothered.
As they sit down across from each other at the table, Baekhyun watches Kyungsoo, noticing the way he straightens the plates, and the way he's carefully arranging them so they can both reach everything equally.
There's so much. Looking at all the food on the table, Baekhyun wonders if Kyungsoo got bored today.
Or maybe lonely. Baekhyun swallows. Loneliness is something Baekhyun sometimes knows all too well, out here alone at the guesthouse. There's no reason for his guest to feel it, when Baekhyun is right here. He can try harder, and treat Kyungsoo more like he treats his friends than like he treats guests.
"Do you have plans for tomorrow?" Baekhyun asks, picking up a dumpling and putting the whole thing in his mouth. It's too hot, and scalds him, so he puts a hand up to hide his open mouthed chewing. As it cools, he can finally taste it, slightly spicy, little pieces of minced ginseng coming alive on his tongue, and he grins. "You're almost as good as Chanyeol."
"I wouldn't know," Kyungsoo says, but the tips of his ears turn red. "I like cooking, occasionally. Not something I usually do just because, I guess."
"Given the choice," admits Baekhyun, "I'd live entirely on junk food if left to my own devices, and when I wanted the nice stuff, Jongdae's mom owns a restaurant, and she's always ridiculously happy to feed me, you know? So I never really got into cooking." He clenches his jaw to stop the flow of words.
"That's why you think this is any good. It's not. I never really had the time to get better at it."
Baekhyun tries a piece of the tofu, and wrinkles his nose at how spicy it is. "Well you have time now?" He licks at the sauce on his lips. "I mean, I don't know why you're here, but you can use the kitchen whenever you want."
Kyungsoo blinks at him, surprised, and then gives him the smallest half smile. "Yes," he says, "I guess I do have time."
"So are you busy tomorrow?" he asks again, and Kyungsoo swallows.
His hair falls so dark across his forehead, soft and clean, and the look on his face makes Baekhyun want to fluff it. He doesn't think a guy like Kyungsoo would take too kindly to that from anyone, let alone a virtual stranger. "Because if you're not, I could show you around. It's not supposed to rain, tomorrow."
"I walked around today," Kyungsoo says. He eats a bite of tofu, smudging brown sauce across his lower lip. "You can walk Jeolbyeog-ri end to end in less than ten minutes. So…"
"Population is less than two hundred. It's not like we need a bigger village." Baekhyun shrugs. "But I wasn't talking about the village. There are shrines up in the hills," he says, wiping at the sauce with his little finger. Kyungsoo is looking at him again, evaluating. "I could show you one. And an amazing view of the area."
"Shrines?" Kyungsoo scratches his neck again with that single digit, all the while searching Baekhyun's face. "What kind of shrines?"
"You interested?" Baekhyun favors Kyungsoo with one of his biggest grins. "Could be fun~"
Kyungsoo crosses his arms. "Would it take all day?"
If they go all the way to the end of the trail, it might. Baekhyun hasn't gone all the way up in a couple of years. The last time had been at the end of winter, over two years ago. The spring blooms were on the verge of peeking out. He still remembers the way, though, as easily as if he'd climbed to the top just last week.
"Most of it," Baekhyun says. "And I'm a very noisy tour guide, since sometimes, on that hike, I'm tempted to think too much." He wriggles in his seat. "Well, I'd probably be noisy anyway."
"You do seem to have a lot of… extra energy." Baekhyun laughs, not taking offense. "An entire noisy day, huh?" Kyungsoo plucks a dumpling from the pile. "Well, I think I could survive it."
"Who knows," Baekhyun says, selecting another dumpling for himself as he grins at the man across from him. "Maybe you'll even enjoy yourself."
"Maybe," Kyungsoo says, and Baekhyun gives himself a mental pat on the back at the way Kyungsoo relaxes through the rest of dinner, chiming in with small tiny questions during Baekhyun's longwinded anecdotes, and smiles softly as Baekhyun washes the dishes, his hands wrapped around a warm mug of tea.
"Not really," he mumbles, then repeats it in a mainlander dialect when Kyungsoo gives him an odd look. "Morning is so rude. I'm sleeping, and it shines the sun right into my eyes."
"How dare the sun come up," Kyungsoo says dryly. "Coffee?"
"Blech," Baekhyun says. "I'd honestly rather drink the mud outside." He rubs at his eyes again, and yawns, sticking his tongue out as he stretches his arms above his head.
After breakfast, Baekhyun fills a small backpack with snacks, and makes sure to tuck a piece of thin white paper into his coat, in the inside right pocket, so it presses against his chest.
Kyungsoo is waiting for him in the hall, and he doesn't have anything with him at all, his phone left behind. He's wearing jeans and another sweatshirt, this one with SNU in large-font letters across the front. Again, the sleeves are too long, and Baekhyun clicks his tongue behind his teeth. "Do you have a coat?" He has an extra piece of white paper with him, and he wiggles it impatiently between his fingers.
"I packed light," Kyungsoo says. "I brought my wool coat, but it doesn't do much against this wind." He licks his lips, slowly. "It'll be fine."
"It won't, you'll totally die," Baekhyun says. He sets down his backpack, puts the white paper in his jeans pocket, and shucks his coat off, draping it over Kyungsoo's shoulders. At first, Kyungsoo tries to duck away from the touch, but then he realizes what Baekhyun is doing and helps, sliding his arms in. "It'll be a little big." Kyungsoo looks up at him, and Baekhyun realizes how close he's standing. Kyungsoo's skin is clear and soft, with small pores and not a single freckle or blemish. Baekhyun is jealous. "Sorry," he mumbles, his face going hot, and he steps back. "I'm going to go grab another coat."
"Thank you," Kyungsoo says quietly, zipping up. He pulls the hood out of the collar and up to cover his hair. Baekhyun's coat swallows Kyungsoo up. At least he'll be warm.
Baekhyun goes back toward the rooms, and instead of entering his own, he pulls the master key out of his pocket and opens up his brother's. There's a thick layer of dust on the desk, and the bedding is stacked in the corner, blankets folded neatly on top of it. On the back of his brother's desk chair is a coat just like Baekhyun's, one size larger and smelling faintly of cigarette smoke, although the scent has faded since the last time Baekhyun had worn it.
It's been a really long time since Baekbeom's been around the guesthouse long enough to even use this jacket, let alone go out for a smoke in it. Baekhyun frowns.
"Just gonna borrow this, hyung," he mutters to the empty room. He looks around, at the bare walls and the spider's web growing at an odd angle between the desk leg and the floor, and breathes out. The heavy exhalation makes the dust rise, and Baekhyun sneezes. He sneezes again, once he's out of the room, and a third time as he locks the door. He shakes the coat out as he walks down to the end of the hall and turns the corner.
Kyungsoo's hands have found their way into the pockets of his borrowed coat. Baekhyun hopes he hasn't left anything weird in there. "Okay," Baekhyun says. "Let's go."
He grabs his backpack with one hand, and the water bottles in the main pocket bounce against each other as he adjusts the straps so they sit more comfortably on his shoulders. Then he gets the paper from his jeans, and tucks it into his inside pocket. Kyungsoo looks at him curiously, so Baekhyun flicks lightly at the coat Kyungsoo is wearing, right over his heart. "You've got one, too," he says, and Kyungsoo brings his hand up to check, but doesn't ask any further. Baekhyun sighs. "It's for the shrine."
Nodding, Kyungsoo slips into his sneakers, bending down to tie them tightly, using two elephant ears, like an elementary schooler.
They leave the guesthouse, Baekhyun guiding the way around to the back, where a path leads up further away from the village, half-collapsed batdam on either side of them, and into the still green hills.
"Are there a lot of these trails?" Kyungsoo asks. "I noticed another couple, down in the village proper." Each step he takes is careful.
"The word around here for them is olle," says Baekhyun. "That's what the long ones for tourists are called, too: the Jeju Olle." He laughs "We have them all over the island, leading out to the roads. There's one from the front of the village that leads all the way out to the coastal highway."
"Do people not… drive locally?" Baekhyun decides he likes the way Kyungsoo speaks. It's sort of like he thinks about each and every word so carefully before he says it, and his consonants are so sharp in comparison to Baekhyun's soft lazy ones.
"We do," Baekhyun says. "But not for short distances. Walking is nice, and the buses between villages are pretty frequent. They'll take you most of the major places." He kicks at a bush that's grown out onto the path. The branches are on their way to being frozen, so they snap underfoot. "It's beautiful, anyway. Why would I want to drive quickly past it?"
He looks back over his shoulder, and watches as Kyungsoo uses his arm to balance on a rock as he climbs up a steeper part of the trail. Luckily, the ground is mostly dry, so Kyungsoo's feet aren't slipping. Baekhyun's used to the mucky winter trails, but Kyungsoo's probably much more used to climbing in and out of taxis than he is climbing hills.
He doesn't fuss, though. Baekhyun had known that he wouldn't, somehow, not like Chanyeol had, the first time Baekhyun had taken him hiking down by the cliffs. The cliffs, in Chanyeol's defense, are a harder challenge, but the hills walking in toward the center of the island look deceptively mild, more like ripples mimicking the surface of the ocean than real inclines.
When they reach the end of the agricultural fields, where the last of the summer crops have long been taken in and the rock walls give way to unfelled trees with vine-choked trunks, Baekhyun runs his hands up the bark of a camphor, winter rough under his palm. "We'll never cut these ones down," he says. "As kids, we used to think the adults never cut these trees down because the forest was haunted." He laughs. "Camphors repel spirits, you know? But the truth is simpler. They repel the bugs and the birds from the fields in the spring. They'll kill the insects if you burn the wood."
Kyungsoo reaches out too, running fingers along the tree trunk and looking at Baekhyun. The strings of his sweatshirt hood sway, sticking to his lips. "Haunted by what?"
"One of the big massacres during the Jeju uprising happened here," says Baekhyun. He ducks under a branch. "And these trees are high enough that in the winter, when the wind blows the hardest, the branches rub together. It sounds like screaming, kinda, at night. My friend Jongdae and I used to scare Soojung—she's a friend, too—by telling her if she came down this trail alone, the trees, possessed by the spirits of the dead villagers, would reach out and grab her, thinking she was their child." Baekhyun chuckles. "She still believes it, too, even if she pretends she doesn't. Jongdae's not afraid of anything, and he always wanted to come out here at night and see if there were really any ghosts."
Kyungsoo reaches out to touch another tree. "I like ghost stories."
"There are plenty of them around here for you," replies Baekhyun. "This island is full of ghosts."
Baekhyun's grandmother had loved ghost stories.
"Is that why I'm shivering?"
"You're shivering because it's almost December," Baekhyun says, stepping over another branch. There's another field up ahead, cleared land and a few abandoned houses. One of them had belonged to a potter, back in the 1940s. Shards of handmade pots stick up like archeological artifacts up from the ground, and an old outdoor kiln made of stone has survived better than the house, which has one caved in wall and holes in the traditional thatched roof. "What made you come out here on the cusp of real winter? Did you think it'd be like Hawaii or something?"
"I'm not quite sure how I ended up here," Kyungsoo says. "I got dressed to go to work, and then I got in the car, and started driving south on the Gyeongbu Expressway." That explains the suit. "I already had the bag in my car, from a halfway cancelled trip to visit a friend last week that had been superseded by overtime at work, so I just stopped for gas, somewhere in Daegu, and just drove."
"Just like that?"
"Just like that. When I got to Busan, I wasn't ready to stop driving. I wanted to keep going. So I..." Kyungsoo shivers, and pulls at the hood of his sweatshirt so it covers his ears again. "I bought a ticket for me and my car, and got on the ferry."
It sounds like something out of a drama. Baekhyun can remember hundreds of times, though, that he's wanted to just get on his scooter and drive away, all the way to Jeju-si, and get on the ferry going in the other direction. He can't. He belongs here, in Jeolbyeog-ri, and without him, there would be no one to take care of the guesthouse. "Must have been a pretty drive."
"I…" He's watching his feet, not Baekhyun, and he stutters slightly as he continues: "I don't remember much of it."
Something tells Baekhyun he should stop asking. "Well, don't forget anything you see here," he says. "Jejudo is too beautiful to forget." This field, the old potter's field, stretches out before them and in the distance, Baekhyun can make out the gamgyul grove that is just beginning its miniature tangerine season. They won't walk that way today, but maybe Kyungsoo would like to go there next week, when they start to get snow instead of rain. If he's still here, of course.
"I won't," says Kyungsoo, following Baekhyun's gaze to the grove. Baekhyun plucks at his coat to catch his attention, nodding that they have to cut back into the forest, through more batdam. "My mind is clearer now than it was when I was driving down here." He purses his mouth. "Would I get lost, if I tried to find this shrine by myself?"
"No." Baekhyun stops and gestures to a piece of wood stuck into the ground, which stretches up to his mid-thigh. "Look for the guides." The path is marked with thin wooden poles with white painted tops, though most of the paint, over the years, has worn away, and no one has bothered to repaint them. "My grandfather marked this trail," he says. "In the 1950s."
"Has your family always lived here?" For every step Baekhyun takes, Kyungsoo takes two. His cheeks are flushed, so Baekhyun slows his pace.
"My mother's family," says Baekhyun. "They've spent generations in Jeolbyeog-ri, even before it was called Jeolbyeog-ri." He laughs. "So yeah, pretty much forever. Most of the history of this village is oral, and my family has always been a part of it. There's a legend—" He stops. "I'm rambling again."
"Yes," says Kyungsoo, "but this is more noteworthy than what you usually ramble about."
"What do I usually ramble about?" Here begins the incline, up between the thinning trees. The air smells strongly of camphor, here, like Baekhyun's grandmother's hands had always smelled. She used to burn the bark, in the summer, and mix the ashes with malojumdae to make a paste for the arthritis in her hands. "It keeps away the fireflies."
"I don't know," says Kyungsoo. "Usually I stop listening."
"You sound like Jongdae." Baekhyun frowns at him playfully, gently bumping him with his arm. "You'll get used to me."
"Will I?" asks Kyungsoo. A smile plays about his lips again as he looks up at the sky. "The weather's nice."
"For now," Baekhyun replies, looking up as well. "There are a few clouds, though, so let's hope they blow in the other direction." He drops his gaze back to Kyungsoo. "Are you getting tired?"
Kyungsoo licks his lips. "How far do we have left to go?" He looks tired, in Baekhyun's opinion. Baekhyun's not in great shape, but walking and climbing is part and parcel of living in the hills around here, and he's used to the terrain.
"Not that far," Baekhyun prevaricates, holding out a hand to steady Kyungsoo as he trips over a tree root that has grown out into the path. "This is actually a pretty easy trail, just long, but we're coming up on a flat part."
Kyungsoo takes Baekhyun's hand and hauls himself up. He's stronger than Baekhyun expects, and he almost pulls him off balance. Then he lets go of Baekhyun's hand and straightens, looking around.
The trail widens here into a tiny section of level land, and Kyungsoo pauses to catch his breath. Baekhyun winks at him. "You were fooled by how flat it looks, weren't you?"
"The cliffs look much more difficult to navigate than this," says Kyungsoo. "And Seoul is built in the middle of the mountains. It's not like I'm unused to inclines."
"Jejudo was made from volcanoes," says Baekhyun. "The whole frickin' island was made from eruptions. You don't expect an island made of lava to really be tame, do you?"
"I wish I could expect it to be warm," Kyungsoo says. He rubs at his nose. "It's so cold, but everything is so alive. It's a trick."
"The grass grows even in the winter here. When we get a little higher, you'll be able to see the flowers."
"Flowers? In the winter?" The trail is even wider here, so they walk side by side. Their arms brush, the plastic of their coats squeaking together. Baekhyun studies Kyungsoo out of the corner of his eye as they trek. Kyungsoo's hands are in his pockets again, concealed from sight. Baekhyun flexes his own hand. He'd expected Kyungsoo's hands to be soft, but they are as rough as Baekhyun's own, and small enough that Baekhyun had been able to curl his fingers all the way around.
"Yeah," Baekhyun says. "Must be the mountain spirits that make them grow." He grins, and Kyungsoo blinks at him. "Don't give me that look. Who do you think the shrines out here are for?"
"I never really thought about it," Kyungsoo says. "I mean, it's not like there aren't still shamans and stuff around, but it's not…"
"Most of it was destroyed, yeah?" Baekhyun shrugs. "My grandmother said there are more shamans than you'd think, still, but it's nothing like Jeju."
"I saw a Buddhist temple, on my drive out here."
"Jeju is… well, we've always been stubborn about change." Baekhyun laughs. "We keep a lot of old traditions here." He shivers at a particularly strong gust of wind. "We build our houses low and stone walls around them to protect us, we eat millet and buckwheat and barley with our breakfast even though we can buy rice from the store. Stuff like that. So Buddhism got added on. It didn't replace mugyo, not really."
He pulls on his backpack, slipping it off one arm and pulling until it comes around in front of him. He unzips the main pocket and pulls out a couple of tangerines - from the grove they'd seen a few minutes ago, actually - nicking the skin of one of them with his fingernail so it'll be easier for Kyungsoo, with his bitten down nails, to peel, and then handing it to his companion.
Kyungsoo takes it, holding it in his left hand and picking at the skin with the other.
"So even after Confucianism and Buddhism and all that came around, lots of people kept leaving gifts for the spirits. After all," he peels a long strip of orange skin away from his tangerine, "we wouldn't want them to get angry at us and tell Yeongdeung to send stronger winds."
The wind whips at their faces as soon as he finishes the sentence, and Baekhyun laughs, settling the weight of his backpack evenly on both shoulders.
"So this is the wind… when the spirits aren't angry?"
"Exactly," Baekhyun says. "A gentle breeze." He turns to look directly at Kyungsoo, and he's finally gotten his fruit peeled.
"Who is Yeongdeung?" Kyungsoo is carefully pulling the tangerine apart into halves as he speaks.
"The wind goddess of Jejudo," Baekhyun says. "We have a festival, in February, when she's here on the island. That's when the winds are the strongest, so we have a ritual, in order to protect the fishermen and the divers from her and the Dragon King." He pops a slice of tangerine into his mouth. The juice is sweet, but it stings his chapped lips. "That's how we safeguard the health of the ocean and the people who fish in it."
Kyungsoo eats like a hedgehog, too, nibbling at his tangerine whenever he thinks Baekhyun isn't looking. Eventually, in a hurry to plunge his hands back into his pockets, he pushes the other half of the fruit all at once into his mouth, puffing out his cheeks as he chews. "Is it windy all year round?"
"Well, you know what they say about this island, don't you?" Baekhyun says. "We have a wealth of three things: women, rocks, and wind." Kyungsoo's eyes crinkle up, lips twitching again, and Baekhyun has a brief flash of satisfaction at the relaxed line of his brow. "But I'll admit it's much windier in the winter than any other time of year."
"Still the same amount of rocks and women, though? Or do those, too, multiply when it's colder?"
"If you keep making jokes, I'll think there's a sense of humor buried somewhere behind those intimidating faces you make." Kyungsoo trips over a wooden step, really just two logs dug into the earth to make the climb a little easier when the ground is wet at this steep part, but he catches himself this time, one hand on a tree and the other on his knee. He glares at the step, and Baekhyun laughs at him. "My heart is aflutter."
"There isn't," Kyungsoo says. "Don't get your hopes up." Baekhyun laughs again, unfazed by Kyungsoo's bluster now, and keeps leading the way.
For a few minutes, they hike in quiet, until the wind blows hard enough that the tree branches rub together. "That's the sound," Baekhyun says, "that scares all the kids."
"It sounds more like singing than screaming," says Kyungsoo.
Baekhyun looks at him dubiously, rubbing his cheeks as he stares at Kyungsoo. The wind has definitely chapped them. He should have rubbed a thick layer of lotion over his face before he left the house to protect his skin, but it's too late now. It doesn't really matter, since only Jongdae's mom will mention it. "What kind of singing are you listening to?"
"Better than that crap you had blaring out of your headphones the other day." He trips, over rock, and falls to his knees. "Are there spirits of trashy pop music lurking out here too?"
"Careful there, city boy," Baekhyun says, and he laughs as Kyungsoo picks himself up and rubs at the mud on his knees. "Don't hurt yourself."
"I'm going to hurt you," Kyungsoo says. "An easy hike, my ass."
"We're almost there," Baekhyun says, helplessly amused. Kyungsoo's face is flushed, and his hood has fallen back to reveal sweaty hair. The wind is blowing harshly, and Baekhyun is in that strange place between cold and hot, where his nose feels like it'll fall off from the cold and his chest feels like it's on fire from exertion. "There's a great view just past the shrine, so it's worth it."
The trail peters out as they start to dip downward again, an easy declining slope. The trees thin as the ground beneath them turns more to grass. There is a smattering of chamomile blossoms: it's not quite the season for them, but sometimes the seeds blow from the inland farms and the flowers grow anyway, if the soil is right. Baekhyun swoops down and catches a couple with slightly spread fingers, and offers the palm full of blooms to Kyungsoo.
"Chamomile," Baekhyun says. "Have you never seen it? City boys."
"Have you ever seen Namsan Tower, then?" replies Kyungsoo, with an arched eyebrow. "Country boys."
Smiling, Baekhyun waves him off. "I've almost never left Jejudo, except when I did my service. Even then, I was in the navy. Most of my time was spent seeing the lower deck of ships," he says. "I'd like to see Namsan Tower, though. Someday."
"It's a different kind of lovely from this, but you can see the entire city."
Up ahead, Baekhyun spots the halmang-dang, a thick tree growing out from its bed of rock. The tree, decorated in hanging strings filled with colorful strips of cloth, has grown more twisted since Baekhyun's last visit, the branches sprawling out further than they used to. Underfoot, the earth has become stone.
Baekhyun remembers being so young and coming to this shrine for the first time with his hand clasped carefully in his grandmother's. Back then, the stone altar had risen almost to his waist instead of just past his knees, and when he'd bowed to the goddess, he'd wished for impossible things, instead of the small ones that he was supposed to. "This is a shrine dedicated to Jeolbyeog-ri's local goddess."
"How many gods are there on Jeju?" Kyungsoo asks. "Yeongdeung, the Dragon King..."
"The Dragon King's wife protects the haenyeo," Baekhyun says. He pulls his bag around to the front of himself again as they approach, and pulls out two more gamgyul, and an apple, setting them on the naturally formed altar of tilted stone. The colorful ribbons of fabric blow and the branches of the goddess tree growing out from the rockbed whistle like the divers coming up for air. "Beyond that? A lot." He moves closer. "Almost every village has their own, although some villages share."
"It feels like everything here is stuck in time," says Kyungsoo. "Like stepping a hundred years into the past."
"We're not," Baekhyun says. "We've just brought a hundred years ago with us into the present."
Kyungsoo blinks at him, and Baekhyun wants to laugh, remembering Jongdae likening his eyes to serving platters. "I wish I knew more about this kind of thing. But I…"
"Well, you don't hear it every day, most likely." He remembers Kyungsoo's silk suit, on the night he checked in, and his slicked back hair. "I get the feeling your life has been a lot different to mine."
"Probably," says Kyungsoo. "How often do people come up here?"
"These days?" Baekhyun tugs on his hat, pulling it back down over his ears. It feels like December's come early. "Not that often. It's mostly older people, now."
Kyungsoo drops down to investigate the stone altar in front of the tree. Someone had left eggs there, recently, and it's only thanks to the winter air that they haven't gone rotten. One has fallen from the altar and down to the ground, cracked, white spilling out around it and chilled to a thick clear jelly. By tomorrow, it'll resemble glass.
"You're supposed to come and say your prayers before the sun comes up," says Baekhyun, rubbing again at his nose. "After that, she isn't here, she's out around the area, looking over things, you know? But it can be dangerous to climb these hills in the dark, unless you've memorized every rut and rock."
Kyungsoo looks up at Baekhyun, tongue peeking out to wet his lips. "I think we're late for leaving prayers, then," Kyungsoo says, "as it's probably much closer to sunset than it is to sunrise right now."
Baekhyun takes off his backpack and sets it down at his feet. The wind rustles the cloth and branches again, red, pink and blue. "We still can," he says. He takes the paper he'd tucked into his pocket and pulled it out. "You just have to leave it for her, so she can check it out later."
"Do goddesses have voice mail?" Kyungsoo asks, taking out his own piece of paper and eying it speculatively, then clutching it tighter as the wind tries to blow it out of his hands. "Why did you give me this, exactly?"
"That's all your worries from today so far," Baekhyun says. "You carried the paper up here against your heart, and it absorbed them all as we hiked."
"Is ‘worries' a metaphor for sweat?" Kyungsoo asks, and Baekhyun wags his finger remonstratively.
"We leave the paper here for the goddess of this shrine," he takes it from Kyungsoo's hold, and wedges it with his own between tree trunk and rock, with a few similar sheets, "and then she takes care of it when she comes back."
"Ah," Kyungsoo stares at his paper, and Baekhyun's. The expression on his face is one that Baekhyun can't figure out, but his eyebrows are furrowed with consternation and his mouth tightens.
"There aren't too many villages left like this one," Baekhyun says. "With old buildings, and the uldam and batdam still standing. Most of them were burned, back when Jeju was occupied." Baekhyun tugs again at his hat. Kyungsoo looks cold, and he should have given his guest a hat, too. He hopes Kyungsoo doesn't catch a headcold. "The older generation of this village prayed for that salvation, so even if it seems silly, it's a comfort to continue the tradition."
"It's still intriguing." Hands are back in pockets again. "You're like an experienced tour guide."
"I wanted to teach this stuff," Baekhyun says, before he thinks better of it. It's not something he talks about. Pipe dreams are better left unmentioned, in the back of his closet with his old uniform and the love letters he never really got up the nerve to leave in Kim Taeyeon's shoe locker. One day, his closet is going to be too full to hold any more dreams that Baekhyun's given up on.
"What?" Kyungsoo's voice has gone rough. Definitely in danger of a headcold.
"I wanted to go to teachers' college," Baekhyun says, lightly. "Or maybe get a graduate degree in history. Maybe become a professor or something. Since getting a degree in Starcraft isn't really possible." He vigorously pats his cheeks to warm them as Kyungsoo tries to look through him or something. It's unnerving, sometimes, the way Kyungsoo stares. Baekhyun makes sure his tone stays carefree. "Only I was never really good at school, and teachers' college is really selective. Some of the hardest exams, and there's no way around something like that." He swallows. "I have to stay here anyway. So I guess I'll settle for teaching you."
"Do you believe in all of this?" Kyungsoo gestures to the halmang-dang, to the cracked egg, to the tree with its tiny cache of folded blank white paper. "The prayers and stuff?"
Baekhyun laughs, hefting his backpack over one shoulder. "It's a part of Jeju," he says, finally. "Does it matter?"
"That's all?" Kyungsoo says. "You trust a piece of paper that will probably blow away with all your hopes?" He pushes a hand through his hair, fingers peeking out from the sleeve of Baekhyun's coat.
"Well," says Baekhyun, looking back at the tree, "despite the wind, none of the others have blown away." The wind chooses that moment to gust ferociously, sending Baekhyun's hair into his eyes. When it calms, another egg has fallen from the stone altar. All of the white paper remains. "That's a little magical, isn't it?"
Kyungsoo's lips tighten at the corners, curling down, and he looks again at the paper folded and placed with Baekhyun's. Then he turns away. "I can easily imagine you as a history professor," he says. "You seem like the type who'd love to have a rapt audience to listen to you jabber on for hours, unable to stop you or talk back."
Baekhyun snorts, and bumps Kyungsoo with his elbow before he thinks it through. Guiltily, he starts to apologize, but Kyungsoo just smiles at him, and Baekhyun figures that means he hadn't minded. "I wanted to be different," he says. "I wanted to be the sort of teacher who wouldn't find a student like me unteachable." Pushing his luck, he grabs at Kyungsoo's sleeve. "We can go up a little higher," he says. "There's a great view of the village."
Picking up his bag, Baekhyun leads Kyungsoo past the shrine, up a final crest, until they're overlooking everything. Yixing had loved sitting here and eating tangerines, one after another. Sometimes, he used to hike up here with his guitar, and Baekhyun would come along, humming the tunes to Chinese pop melodies only half-remembered.
From the top, there's nothing to protect them from the wind, but they can also see straight out, all the way to the coast.
"So what do you think?"
Kyungsoo grins, the first true full one Baekhyun's seen from him. His mouth forms a heart, when he smiles, and Baekhyun had thought Kyungsoo was a good looking guy before, but now he knows that's a total understatement.
"I can see the guest house," he says. "And the ponies." He sneezes, and Baekhyun sighs, reaching out and tugging Kyungsoo closer by his sweatshirt hood. Kyungsoo's smile drops as he looks up at Baekhyun in surprise. Pulling the hood up over Kyungsoo's hair, Baekhyun smoothes his hand over the fabric and pulls at the strings, cinching it, before tying a loose bow under Kyungsoo's chin.
"Your ears looked cold," he says, brushing off the odd tightening in his stomach as he steps back.
Kyungsoo's giving him that bemused look again, and then another brilliant smile. "Thank you," he says, "for the view. Not for the hood. Do that again and I'll break your fingers."
"You're teasing me, aren't you?" Baekhyun turns to look out across his village: quiet, unassuming Jeolbyeog-ri. He can make out Kim Taeyeon's house from here, and holds out one hand and pretends to pick it up. When he opens that hand, though, it's naturally empty. Baekhyun is only pretending to be larger than life, up here.
"Maybe I'm teasing you," says Kyungsoo. "Or maybe I really do break bones. Want to take the chance?"
"Always," Baekhyun replies. "I like to live dangerously."
"Is that another Jeju thing?" Kyungsoo asks, and Baekhyun gives him his broadest smile.
"No," he says. "That's just a Baekhyun thing." He makes a ‘V' with both of his hands, and bends the fingers, like bunny ears. "Buing buing."
"Disgusting," Kyungsoo says, but he's still smiling.
The hike down the mountain is easier than the hike up. Kyungsoo's face is softer, under the late afternoon sun, and his steps are steadier as they wind down the path.
"We should go to Jongdae's mom's restaurant," Baekhyun says, when Kyungsoo stops to pick up his own small handful of chamomile. His face is so relaxed. Baekhyun hadn't realized how tight the skin around Kyungsoo's eyes was until it, well, wasn't. "It's black pig samgyeopsal."
"I'd like that," Kyungsoo says, closing his hand around the small yellow-beige blossoms and putting his hand back into his pocket. "The ticket collector at the ferry said Jejudo was famous for seafood and black pig, and I'd have to try both."
"Smart guy," says Baekhyun. "We can get fresh shellfish at some point, if you'd like to try it."
"Don't you have other things to do besides entertain me?"
Baekhyun kicks at a loose stone. They're already back down as far as the potter's house, on flat ground, so it doesn't roll very far. "Life around here is very sleepy, for me. I just take care of the guesthouse, and help out at the restaurant when it's busy. Other than that, I'm left to my own devices a lot."
"So I'm helping you be less bored?" Kyungsoo is looking up, at the branches above them, at the treetops that obscure the cloudy winter sky.
Baekhyun studies Kyungsoo's profile. His heavy brows and full, soft mouth. "Something like that," he says. "More like less aimless."
Kyungsoo is silent for a few moments, and Baekhyun kicks another stray rock.
"Well," Kyungsoo says, finally, "seeing as I am finding myself with more free time than I've ever had in my life, I guess I'm glad to have a tour guide."
"You guess?" Baekhyun gives into temptation and bumps his arm into Kyungsoo's. "Anyone would be lucky to have me as a tour guide."
"I think that correlates directly with how much you like white noise from the television," Kyungsoo says, and Baekhyun lightly slaps his arm. He's beginning to figure out Kyungsoo's sense of humor, and he finds that he likes it. It's different from the way Jongdae or Chanyeol tease him. It feels rougher, somehow, like Kyungsoo isn't used to teasing people.
"You're going to get along way too well with Jongdae," he says. "Maybe we shouldn't get black pig at all."
They walk for a little while in almost silence, just Baekhyun singing under his breath as they walk. "Baekhyun?" Kyungsoo says, suddenly, and Baekhyun turns to look at him. "Thank you. For the shrine."
"You're welcome," says Baekhyun, winking at Kyungsoo playfully. "Anything for my favorite guest."
"You're so familiar with me," Kyungsoo says, thoughtfully. "We're almost strangers."
"No, we've gone on an adventure together." Baekhyun grins. "That means we're already friends."
"I see," says Kyungsoo, lips doing a slow upward curl. "You're very..."
"Friendly?" Baekhyun prompts.
"Forward," counters Kyungsoo. "I'm surprised, but I… I don't hate it."
"Good," says Baekhyun, "because I've been this way so long that I don't know how to be any other way."
Making friends is his survival technique, after all. It's easier to avoid being lonely if you can surround yourself with people.
Kyungsoo has switched from jeans to black athletic pants, Baekhyun notices, when he walks into the kitchen to find the other man drinking a glass of water poured from the bottle. Sunset's light shines through the window, onto the counter, and makes the water sparkle in the glass like a commercial when Kyungsoo sets it down and pushes at the sleeves of his sweatshirt. Baekhyun's coat, the one Kyungsoo had borrowed, hangs over the back of the chair.
"No one would have cared if you wore the muddy jeans," says Baekhyun, watching as Kyungsoo tries to tame his hair, using both hands to push the bangs back from his forehead. It's really a soft floppy mess when it's not slicked back from his face, and Baekhyun wants to mess it up. "It's obvious we've been hiking."
"It was uncomfortable," Kyungsoo says. "Sticking to my skin." His lips are super chapped from the walk, and his nose is still red. "Don't worry, didn't change for you."
"You're not dressing up for our first date?" Baekhyun slinks closer, opening the refrigerator and pulling out a tiny bottle of Vita500, opening it with the slight crack of the metal cap separating from the safety seal. "Wow, after that great friendship-forging adventure we had, too. I'm disappointed."
Kyungsoo gives him a long stare, and Baekhyun knows he's won again at the twitch of Kyungsoo's lips. "Sorry," Kyungsoo says, "I don't go for the noisy type."
Baekhyun takes a long sip of his drink, finishing half of it, then licks the corners of his mouth to catch more of the orangey taste. "I thought we were starting something special."
Kyungsoo turns on the faucet, rinsing his glass. He rubs his thumb around the rim, to clean where his lips touched, and sets it on the spread out dishcloth next to the sink. "I'm a taken man."
"Oh?" Baekhyun finishes his drink, and then drops the brown glass bottle into the recycling bag. "You married or something?" He can't really imagine it, but for all his lofty claims of friendship he doesn't know much of anything about Kyungsoo at all beyond his name and the make of his car.
Kyungsoo dries his hands on his tracksuit. "Yes," he says, picking up the coat on the back of the chair and putting it back on. The black collar of it sits just under his ears, brushing the lobes. "To my job. For better or for worse." There's a touch of bitterness in his voice. Maybe Baekhyun's just imagining it.
Baekhyun chuckles, reaching into his pocket to grab the spare knit hat he'd grabbed from the pile of them on the floor in his closet. He holds it out, and Kyungsoo looks at it blankly for a moment before taking it, his fingers brushing Baekhyun's as he digs them into woolen yarn.
"Me too, sorta," Baekhyun says, gesturing around them. "Married to this guesthouse, and married to this village, I guess."
Kyungsoo puts the hat on, covering up his adorable ears, and Baekhyun laughs at the way the edge sits too low on Kyungsoo's brow. Shaking his head, Baekhyun steps into Kyungsoo's personal space, giving Kyungsoo the chance to stop him before he reaches up and folds up the edge of the hat.
Kyungsoo's hair is as soft as it had looked, before, and the skin of his forehead is smooth and warm. As he folds the hat up in the back, his knuckles brush the nape of Kyungsoo's neck, and Kyungsoo freezes, before forcibly relaxing. Baekhyun can hear his breath hitch. Kyungsoo is staring at his face, Baekhyun can tell, but he keeps his eyes on what he's doing, making sure his fold is even because Kyungsoo seems like the type who cares about things like that.
"You're very touchy, too," Kyungsoo says. His breath his hot on Baekhyun's chin, and Baekhyun realizes he's standing way too close, even for his standards. "Not just forward, but forward and touchy. Do you have a fetish for dressing people?"
"I know," says Baekhyun. "If it bothers you, you can let me know." He drops his hands, and steps back to admire his work. Kyungsoo's hair clings to his cheeks where it peeks out from under the hat. "I don't know why I feel so comfortable around you."
Baekhyun thinks it's because Kyungsoo is so calm. There's something steady about him, and the way he banters with Baekhyun has Baekhyun falling into the patterns he has with Jongdae and Chanyeol.
"It's not that it bothers me," says Kyungsoo, reaching up to rub his neck before zipping up his coat, eyes still trained on Baekhyun like he might step into his personal space and pet him again. "I just don't make new friends that often, and I spend most of my time at work, where that kind of thing would be inappropriate."
"I don't meet a lot of strangers," Baekhyun says. "Must be why I want them to be friends so quickly when I do. So I know how to treat them."
"Hmm," Kyungsoo says, touching the new fold in the hat tentatively. "It doesn't bother me."
"That's good," Baekhyun says, zipping his own borrowed coat back up. He walks toward the door, expecting Kyungsoo to follow him.
"I don't know what I was expecting," Kyungsoo says, "when I chose to stay out here. But it definitely wasn't you." Baekhyun looks over his shoulder, but Kyungsoo doesn't seem like he's going to say anything else on the subject. Baekhyun slides into his muddy sneakers, and Kyungsoo does the same, following him out of the guesthouse. "You never lock the door."
"I don't have to," Baekhyun says. "This place isn't even in the village, but most people in the village don't either." He shrugs. "The individual doors lock, to the rooms. That's enough."
"Why isn't the guesthouse closer to everything else?"
"I don't know," Baekhyun replies, starting down the familiar trail that leads into the village. "Maybe whichever of my ancestors built the place didn't like people. Maybe they liked the quiet and isolation."
"I guess that wasn't genetic," says Kyungsoo.
"Not really," Baekhyun agrees easily, rolling his shoulders back in an abbreviated stretch. "I love people, for the most part."
"I can tell," says Kyungsoo. Baekhyun waits for more, but nothing is forthcoming. Baekhyun wonders if conversations with Kyungsoo are always going to feel so unfinished, like there are words that got stolen by the wind before Kyungsoo could say them.
The night is chilly, but the lower they get, the less harsh the air. Kyungsoo is keeping pace with him, this time, and he looks significantly less cold with the hat.
As antsy as it makes Baekhyun, to walk without saying anything, Kyungsoo seems perfectly content. Baekhyun starts to whistle again, to fill the silence. He thinks Kyungsoo might be laughing at him, but in the winter, days are shorter, so in the fading light it's hard for Baekhyun to see. He'd like to think he is, though, maybe with one of those big pretty smiles.
"This is the place," he says, abruptly turning. He grabs Kyungsoo's arm to jerk him along, and Kyungsoo stumbles a bit, his feet already continuing forward as Baekhyun pulls his body sideways. "Mom, I'm here!"
Baekhyun steps into the entryway and slips out of his shoes, making sure Kyungsoo follows suit before continuing inside. They walk in socked feet across the rough wooden floor, back to Baekhyun's favorite table, where the familiar figure of Soojung sits. The restaurant lights are already on, two oversized swinging lamps with the same old light bulbs Baekhyun uses at the guesthouse, even though it's only dusk, and two grills are going over in the left corner of the restaurant, a group of elderly men. There are a half dozen gamgyul peels littering the table, and it lends a slight citrus to the smell of grilling pork fat.
It's Jongdae, and not his mother, who peeks around from the kitchen. "Stop trying to steal my mom and sit down, Baekhyun," he says with a grin. "Soojung told me you'd show up today, but I didn't believe her, since you've been playing ghost at mealtimes. We've missed your thrice weekly visits." He turns to Kyungsoo, and blinks in surprise. "You brought your guest?"
"Yeah," Baekhyun says. "I thought he'd earned pork belly today."
"Didn't think you were planning to bring him around." Then Jongdae's gone again, back into the kitchen.
"That's my usual table," says Baekhyun to Kyungsoo.
"You have a usual table? Do you eat here that much?" Kyungsoo asks, pulling off his hat as the heat starts to set in. It's always hot when the grills are on, even if it's just a couple of them, since the place isn't that big.
"I practically grew up in here." Baekhyun peels off his coat and throws it on the ground on the opposite side of the table from Soojung, who smiles up at him in greeting. "Long time no see, Soojung," he jokes, and she narrows her eyes.
"What oppa means by ‘grew up in here' is that he almost ate the Kims out of business," says Soojung. She sits with her legs folded neatly beneath her at the table, one elbow on the table. "All the food he ate went into his feet, and that's why he wears clown shoes."
Baekhyun unceremoniously plops himself down at the table, stretching his legs out under it, avoiding the grill mechanisms with a practiced ease. He smiles at Soojung, then turns to watch Kyungsoo kneel down, carefully fold his borrowed coat, and then arrange himself into a folded cross legged position, as neat as you please. He looks uncomfortable, and Baekhyun wonders how often Kyungsoo comes to places like this back in Seoul.
"This is Do Kyungsoo." Baekhyun nudges Kyungsoo with his shoulder, and Kyungsoo does a sort of partial bow in place, like they're at a business meeting instead of at Jongdae's mom's neighborhood restaurant.
"Nice to meet you, Do-ssi." Soojung tosses her hair over her shoulder and offers him a small smile. "I'm Soojung. I see that Baekhyun hasn't talked you to death yet." She taps her chin. "He said you were quiet, so I feared he would manage it, but it's good to see he hasn't."
"Not for lack of trying," Kyungsoo replies, almost robotically, and Baekhyun crosses his arms, leaning back against the wall behind them, eying Kyungsoo carefully. "And it's Kyungsoo."
"It's not my fault that I'm bursting with so many wonderful things to say." Baekhyun wriggles in place, trying to both take the attention off Kyungsoo, and get comfortable on the thin cushion he's seated on. He pulls his legs in, and leans forward, resting his weight on both elbows.
"When I was in the second grade," says Soojung to Kyungsoo, "Baekhyun-oppa was in the fourth grade, and he used to always have to stand outside in the hallway between his classroom and mine, with his hands holding a ruler up in the air, because he got sent out by his teacher for talking during lessons."
"That is the least surprising thing I have heard today," says Kyungsoo, and Soojung laughs, quietly but genuinely.
"Oh," she says, "I like you. You'll fit right in."
Kyungsoo gives her a small smile, running a hand through his hair, and Soojung raises an eyebrow. She thinks Kyungsoo is attractive, Baekhyun can tell - he's always been able to tell with her because she defrosts, her smile softer around the edges and her posture going less stiff.
Back when he and Jongdae had both liked her, that's the way she'd looked at Kim Minseok, and it had always made his stomach ache like someone was squeezing it in a balled up fist, or sometimes like he'd drunk milk just on the edge of going bad.
Now, of course, Soojung is definitely more like a sister than a crush. He doesn't care what kind of guys she likes. But there's a tiny thread of something possessive threading up through his chest, like Kyungsoo is his guest, which is silly because Kyungsoo is just a guy staying at Baekhyun's guesthouse, even if he is a lot more exciting than the guests Baekhyun usually has, during those longer summer months.
Baekhyun looks down at the table, his mouth dry.
"She had it in for me," says Baekhyun, scratching at the tabletop with a long nail. "I didn't even talk that much in her class." Baekhyun had been ten, maybe, and he'd just started to make friends. He'd been quiet the year before, that first year, and none of the other kids had paid much attention to him after the first couple of thrilling weeks of a new student in a nowhere place like this. "It wasn't my fault her lessons were boring."
"She was kind of boring," says Jongdae, and Baekhyun looks up as Jongdae seems to collapse into the space next to Soojung, setting a huge tray of side dishes on the table with a sigh. "I think I must have taken more naps in fourth grade than every other year without Baekhyun constantly kicking my chair like the annoying little shit he is." He hands out moist towelettes to them all, to clean their hands, and Baekhyun sets his aside after he's used it, knowing he'll need it again.
"See? I was doing our teacher a favor, keeping Jongdae awake." He and Jongdae share a conspiratorial grin, and whatever weirdness Baekhyun had been feeling fades in the wake of Jongdae's easy smile. "Long day?"
"Not really," says Jongdae, moving the side dishes from the tray to the table. Baekhyun immediately takes four sets of chopsticks out of the container on the edge of the table and passes them around. "Not a ton of customers here. Soojung and I helped her mom pick tangerines today. I brought home a basket of them but they got demolished pretty quickly." He tilts his head back toward the table Baekhyun had noticed when he walked in. Two old men are bickering over the last piece of pork. "It's not like there's any shortage of them, so no big deal. I'll pick more later."
Leaning forward, Jongdae starts the grill, turning the gas beneath halfway to high so that it can start to heat up the surface. Then he picks up a kimchi radish with his fingers and eats it. Baekhyun follows suit, and Soojung looks at them both with disgust that Baekhyun is used to disregarding.
"There are way more than my aunt and uncle can pick this year," Soojung says. "If you have time, Kyungsoo-ssi, see if you can drag Baekhyun-oppa's lazy ass out there to pick some. I think Jongdae-oppa's used up his usefulness for the week."
"I will," Kyungsoo says. He's uncomfortable again, like he'd been when he first sat down. He grabs an anchovy with his chopsticks and eats it, and Baekhyun considers Kyungsoo's variable mood.
It could be how quickly Baekhyun and Soojung and Jongdae always talk, words stumbling over each other in their haste to one-up. The familiar rhythms of conversation come naturally to them, but it's more than enough to drown out someone quiet like Kyungsoo.
Surreptitiously, Baekhyun leans into Kyungsoo, letting just a little bit of his weight rest against him. "Too loud?" he whispers into Kyungsoo's ear, as Jongdae and Soojung argue over whether or not Jongdae is lazy, and Kyungsoo shivers, but doesn't really move away.
"Not really," Kyungsoo murmurs back, reaching out to prod a side dish plate into place, a little straighter. "It's just… It's different to what I'm used to."
Baekhyun chuckles, resting his elbows back on the wooden surface. "By the way, Jongdae," he says, raising his voice and interrupting the spat across the table, "I forgot to introduce you. This is Do Kyungsoo."
"I'm Kim Jongdae." Jongdae tilts his head to the side. "I saw you walking around the village the day after you got here, looking for signal on your phone."
"Baekhyun's… mentioned you," Kyungsoo says. His hands have wormed his way into the sleeves of his sweatshirt, and Baekhyun should stop staring at Kyungsoo, but he's fascinating, with all his strange little quirks and impassive facial expressions.
"Does Baekhyunnie talk about me a lot? How sweet."
Baekhyun snorts, eating a piece of tofu, which falls apart halfway to his mouth and he has to catch in his cupped hand and lick off his palm. Soojung rolls her eyes at him, and mouths animal. Baekhyun grins at her unrepentantly.
"Nothing he's said about you is sweet," Kyungsoo smoothly responds, and Jongdae sputters with surprise as Baekhyun delights in the devious twinkle in Kyungsoo's eyes. That's Kyungsoo from earlier today, at the zenith of their hike. "Except for the fact that we both think he talks too much."
Picking up her chopsticks and plucking a few bean sprouts, Soojung nods. "Well, that's just stating the obvious."
"Haha," says Baekhyun. "Kyungsoo's been at it all day, so there's no need to gang up on me." He has better luck with the potato than he'd had with the tofu, and it makes it to his mouth in one piece.
Jongdae goes back the kitchen and comes back with a tray of lettuce leaves and genip, shot glasses, and a plate piled high with enough pork that he has to hold the tray with both hands, as well as tongs and a pair of scissors. He has two bottles of soju tucked under his arm that Soojung takes from him and puts on the table out of his way as he carefully sets down the tray.
"So, Do Kyungsoo, what brings you to Jeolbyeog-ri?" he asks, as he lays the pork belly cuts across the grill. Baekhyun uses his chopsticks to move them into an elaborate arrangement to maximize the amount grilling at once.
"Nothing interesting," Kyungsoo says, straightening the side dishes in front of him so they form a line. He looks at the ones in front of Baekhyun, too, and Baekhyun waits to see if Kyungsoo wants them straight enough to lean across him to fix them. He doesn't. "Just ended up here."
"Baekhyun's attention span is about forty seconds, so you, at least, must be somewhat interesting."
"I'm not sure about that," Kyungsoo replies, stabbing a piece of kimchi with his chopsticks and bringing it up to his mouth. "I just wanted a break from Seoul." And there it is: that hedgehog thing Kyungsoo does whenever a question edges too personal.
"My attention span is not that short," Baekhyun says quickly, keeping an eye on Kyungsoo. The way he chews is so cute. Baekhyun's hat had left Kyungsoo's hair full of static, and his habit of tugging fingers through his hair has only made it worse. The strands in front of his ears are slightly damp with sweat now. He looks boyish and disheveled, tonight, and Baekhyun thinks it suits him. "How old are you even, Kyungsoo?"
Kyungsoo picks up the metal tongs from the table and flips the meat. His hands are steady, and maybe Baekhyun was wrong, about how often he does things like this. "Old enough for you to pour me a shot of soju," Kyungsoo says, and Jongdae laughs. "So don't worry about it."
"He's just wondering who should be doing the pouring," Jongdae explains. Jongdae snips a piece of meat from the edge of one long cut with scissors, a small one, and nibbles at it. "Almost," he says.
"I'm probably still the youngest. I don't know why I even hang out with you guys." Soojung is looking at Kyungsoo again, not staring, just looking every once in a while. Jongdae notices, and frowns, twisting a piece of her hair around his middle finger and lightly pulling. She turns to glare at him, but then smiles: a tiny one that Baekhyun can't decipher.
Disconcerted, Baekhyun bites down on his lower lip, and reaches out to pull up the sleeve of Kyungsoo's sweatshirt, which is getting in his way as he uses the tongs. He tugs until the cuff is behind Kyungsoo's elbow, and then lets go, picking up his chopsticks again as Kyungsoo fixes on him with an unreadable gaze. His hand has stilled with the tongs, like he needs a moment to process that touch, and Soojung gives Baekhyun a fleeting curious look.
"Because you never have to pay for anything," Baekhyun says. "I'm on to your game, Soojung." He folds his hands together and smiles back at her.
"You never pay for anything, either," says Soojung. "You always push the responsibility onto Minseok-oppa or Jongdae-oppa."
"It's revenge," Baekhyun says, "for how many months I had to wait to buy liquor."
"It's been five years," says Jongdae, whining. "Let it go."
"So," Soojung says, "how old are you, Kyungsoo-ssi?"
"Twenty-four," he says. His sweatshirt sleeve slides again, down the smooth pale line of his forearm, and Kyungsoo pushes it up again on his own this time, catching his lower lip between his teeth.
"Twenty-four," Baekhyun repeats. "Right in the middle." Kyungsoo looks twenty-four, tonight. Not like the night he'd arrived, five days ago, with his silk suit and glasses and stress like tiny weights at the corners of his mouth. Years have lifted from his narrow shoulders.
"Damn," says Soojung, picking up the soju bottle. "He's got me by one year." She twists the cap off, and Baekhyun unstacks the shot glasses in front of her so she can fill them before she passes them around. "Another oppa."
"At least you're old enough to drink with us now, kiddo," Jongdae teases, and Soojung gives him one of her best wintery glares.
"I don't know why I miss you, when I'm away at school," she says.
"You don't live here?" asks Kyungsoo. His eyes flick up, quickly, to look at her.
"Not anymore," Soojung says, pushes a soju glass over to Jongdae as Baekhyun does the same for Kyungsoo, going under Kyungsoo's arms as he cuts the meat in even pieces with the scissors like a pro. "I have an apartment in Seogwipo-si, near the university. But my parents still live here. I come back once a month."
"Pretty soon, she won't come back," says Baekhyun. "Even to visit. Sooyeon almost never comes back."
"I'm not Baekbeom-oppa," Soojung says, almost sharp, and Baekhyun licks his lips.
Kyungsoo's gaze flicks to Baekhyun, and Baekhyun smiles. "Do most people our age leave?" he asks, still looking at Baekhyun. Baekhyun curls a hand around his own knee.
"Yeah," Jongdae answers. "There are only a few of us left around here, now. Back in our parents' generation, everyone just followed their family into a trade, like diving or fishing or farming, stuff like that. But now most people go away, to college, and they don't come back except on holidays or to visit their parents."
Baekhyun thinks about the welcome desk at the guesthouse, and his grandmother's logbook. He thinks about Soojung, and her foreigner friends and her graduate school applications. He grabs a piece of meat that's burning on the edge of the grill, fatty bits charred black, and eats it. Kyungsoo is still watching him, he can feel it.
"This is a small village," continues Jongdae. "So there's not much to do. It's not... exciting, except for the ghosts."
"There aren't any ghosts," says Soojung. "Shut up, oppa." She turns to Kyungsoo. "Don't let them lie to you. It's just the camphor trees."
"You're still scared," teases Jongdae, walking two fingers up Soojung's arm in a slow creep that makes her shiver. "A little ghost story never hurt anyone. There are more than just the ghosts in the hills."
"I got a taste of that today." Kyungsoo leans back, until his back rests lightly on the wall behind him. "Baekhyun took me up into the wilderness to see the shrine of Jeolbyeog-ri's local goddess, and we hiked through those trees."
"That was not the wilderness, city boy," Baekhyun says. "That was a mild path through mostly farmland. Next time I'll take you up on the cliffs, and then we'll see how hard today's trail was."
"Next time?" Kyungsoo says. "What makes you so sure I'd spend another long day with you?"
Opening his mouth to reply, not quite sure what he's going to say, yet, Baekhyun is cut off by Jongdae.
"Baekhyunnie took you up to see our halmang-dang?" Jongdae's eyebrows rise. "That's…"
"He invited me yesterday," Kyungsoo says. "I was curious."
"I just thought if he was going to stay awhile, he might as well get to know the goddess," says Baekhyun, casually, ignoring Jongdae's piercing gaze, which is now trained on him instead of his guest.
"Have you even been up there, since…" Soojung stops, tucking a piece of hair behind her ear and elbowing Jongdae, who hisses at her. "Well, there is a great view, just past the shrine."
"Right," says Baekhyun, grabbing another charred piece of meat. "It's a nice hike."
"Except for the camphor trees," mutters Soojung. Jongdae is still watching Baekhyun with curious eyes, rubbing at his arm where Soojung had hit him, so Baekhyun focuses on Kyungsoo, taking the tongs from his hands.
"Stop working so hard," he says. "Eat something."
"Are you planning to stay awhile, Kyungsoo?" asks Jongdae. Baekhyun fumbles with the tongs as he flips the meat one last time.
Kyungsoo winds the string of his sweatshirt around his finger, thoughtfully, then uses his crumpled moist towelette to wipe his hands again, reclaiming the tongs from Baekhyun. "Yes," he says. "I think I might." He starts to pull pieces of the meat off the grill and put them into the empty ceramic bowl next to the one with leaves. "After all, I have yet to receive a tour of the cliffs."
"Baekhyunnie's an expert at talking a lot about anything," says Jongdae, "but especially the area." He grabs the piece of meat Baekhyun has been eying, and triumphantly dips it into the sesame sauce before eating it slowly, with a pornographic moan. Baekhyun bares his teeth at him.
Kyungsoo is giving him another look, and Baekhyun wishes he hadn't said anything at all about the teaching, if Kyungsoo's going to look at him like… like however he's looking at him. Baekhyun eats another anchovy, and all he can taste is the salt of it.
"You should take him out on a pony, Baekhyun," Soojung says.
"Do you like horses?" Baekhyun asks, taking a piece of meat himself and putting it into a piece of lettuce. Water from the freshly rinsed leaves is cool on his fingertips. He's starting to get the sheen of sweat that always comes from sitting in front of the grill "Chanyeol would love to take us out on the horses. He's always trying to get me to go riding more."
"I don't know," Kyungsoo says. "I don't think I've ever ridden a horse."
"Well," says Soojung, "I'm sure Chanyeol-oppa won't put you onto an excitable horse. He's not mean, like Baekhyun-oppa."
Jongdae chokes, coughing on the bite of kimchi he'd just snagged. Soojung slaps his back until he's laughing instead of choking, and Kyungsoo is watching, rather alarmed, until Jongdae smiles up at them with watery eyes. "Oh man, that's a good memory."
"I'm not mean," says Baekhyun around his own mouthful of food. "That guy was bragging about how good he was with horses. I was just trying to save a few more novice riders from a tougher mount."
"You wanted to teach him a lesson," Jongdae replies, drinking a long pull of water, and making another lettuce wrap with at least three pieces of pork belly in it. "We all did. Notice none of us stopped you." He shoves it into his mouth.
Kyungsoo calmly picks up a piece of pork and sets it on a genip leaf. "I don't know how reassuring this anecdote is."
"Live dangerously," Baekhyun says, leaning until his arm touches Kyungsoo's, like he'd done earlier. He expects Kyungsoo to lean away again, but Kyungsoo pushes back, giving him a slight side-eye. But his lips twitch.
"I'll leave the living dangerously to you," he says. "I think… I'd like to see the horses, though, at least."
"Great," says Baekhyun. Kyungsoo smiles again, and Baekhyun grins back at him, wrinkling his nose.
"It's a nice way to see some of the island, too," says Jongdae. "The trails are pretty extensive."
"I think everyone in Jejudo is an experienced tour guide," Kyungsoo says, and Soojung delicately adds kimchi to her lettuce wrap as she smiles.
"It's the pride," she says, holding the wrap to her lips. "We think Jeju is beautiful."
"It is," agrees Kyungsoo. "I can't wait to see more of it."
Jongdae picks up his shot glass. "To Kyungsoo enjoying Jeju," he says, and they all clink their glasses, throwing back the shot. Baekhyun licks his lips, after, and tastes the bitter rice liquor on his lips, all while looking at Kyungsoo, whose eyes glimmer in the light from the overhead lamps.
Later, after both bottles of soju are empty and a third round of meat finishes cooking on the grill, Jongdae's mother comes out with two bowls of soup in black stone bowls, one made of bean paste and the other one of fluffy egg. She carries soju tucked under her arm like Jongdae does. He probably learned the trick from her.
Baekhyun looks around the restaurant. It's fuller now, people from all over the village here to eat on a cold Sunday night.
Jongdae's mother smiles, setting down the soups and then the bottle of soju. "Are you treating Baekhyunnie's guest well?" she asks, meeting Baekhyun's eyes and then Jongdae's pointedly. Soojung preens at the assumption that of course she is, and Baekhyun's nose is starting to go numb from the liquor.
"Of course we are, Mom~," Baekhyun says, batting his eyelashes at her, and she laughs, just like Jongdae does, with that same sweet feline smile.
"I've known you too long for that trick to work on me, Byun Baekhyun," she says, hands on her hips. Her ponytail falls across her shoulder. "So don't even try it."
Her gaze finally lands on Kyungsoo, and her eyes widen. "You must be the guest staying with Baekhyunnie," she says, and Kyungsoo nods.
"Yes, Kim-ssi," he says. "I'm visiting from Seoul."
"Well, whenever you get tired of Baekhyunnie's cooking, you make him bring you down here and I'll feed you," she says, and Baekhyun pretends to pout as Jongdae cackles. Kyungsoo's mouth twitches. "We have more than just samgyeopsal."
"I think we're working things out," he says, bowing politely, wobbling a little. It's the first sign that Baekhyun's caught that Kyungsoo is starting to feel the alcohol. He's jealous, since after one shot Baekhyun goes a fierce red and his tongue moves slower than his brain thinks it should, tripping over consonants he says easily otherwise. But Kyungsoo's speech and gestures had remained steady. "But I'll keep that in mind."
"You do that," Jongdae's mom says, tilting her head. She suddenly narrows her eyes, giving Kyungsoo a searching look. "Have you ever"— she stops, shaking her hair out of her face –"No, never mind, it was a silly thought."
Baekhyun licks his lips at the strange atmosphere that descends on the table, and slams his palms against the wood. "Jongdae, pour me another shot!"
"Boys," Soojung says, giggling despite herself, and Jongdae's mom gives Kyungsoo another odd glance before she shakes her head at them.
"Try not to get too drunk to walk home," she says to Baekhyun, and Baekhyun grins at her.
"No problem," he says, beaming at her. "You're the best, Mom."
"She's my mom, not yours," Jongdae says. "Stop trying to steal her."
"She likes me best," says Baekhyun. "It's because I'm so much cuter than you are."
"Bullshit," says Jongdae, jamming his spoon into the egg soup.
They bicker, with no malice and reused jokes, and Soojung pours them each another shot, even though they all have probably had enough. Kyungsoo wipes the edge of his glass carefully with his thumb, catching a stray drop of liquor, and then brings it to his mouth to suck it clean. Baekhyun's stomach twists, and he wonders if he's had too much to eat.
"Hey, Kyungsoo," Jongdae says, when he and Baekhyun have emerged, victor-less, from their squabble, "I forgot to ask what baseball team you like."
"Baseball?" Kyungsoo blinks sleepily, and Baekhyun's drunk enough that he almost coos at the way Kyungsoo pouts. This isn't Chanyeol, who would giggle at Baekhyun's prodding and then try to tickle him. This is quiet Kyungsoo, with glassy eyes and pink cheeks, and Baekhyun has gotten away with a few things so far, but he probably wouldn't get away with that.
"Yeah," Jongdae says, "you know, the most important sport to have ever existed. In the universe. I bet aliens watch baseball here on Earth from their home planets and wish they had something that important of their own to watch."
"Here we go," Soojung says, propping her cheek on her hand in a pose reminiscent of the one she'd had when they'd first walked in, only sloppier.
"I don't…" Kyungsoo runs his hand through his hair, "follow baseball?"
"Now you're really in for it," says Soojung. "You should have just said you liked the Doosan Bears."
"Kyungsoo," Jongdae says solemnly, then ruins it with a hiccup, "let me tell you about the best team in the league, the KIA Tigers."
"Gross, don't lie to him," Baekhyun says, kicking Jongdae under the table. "You're my guest, you have to like Nexan."
"I don't have to like anything," Kyungsoo says. "I don't have time for baseball."
"You have time right now," Baekhyun says, like he had last night, and Kyungsoo's eyebrows draw together. Baekhyun wants to smooth them straight with his thumb.
"I have to go back eventually," Kyungsoo says. "To Seoul." He shifts. "I can't stay here and have time for all these things forever."
"Eventually isn't tomorrow, though," says Baekhyun. "Or the day after that."
"Plenty of time to learn about baseball?" asks Kyungsoo. "Is that what you're saying?"
"Don't learn about the KIA Tigers, though," Baekhyun replies, needing to move. His stomach is so full. "They're a shit team."
"Noted," Kyungsoo says, looking up at Baekhyun through his hair, and Baekhyun sighs as Jongdae expounds on Im Junseob's superior pitching technique, and how DJ Houlton is an upcoming talent, or whatever other mess Jongdae tells himself so he can sleep at night when he likes such an awful team.
"We should head back," Baekhyun says. It can't be past nine, but the restaurant is already almost empty. It is Sunday night, and Baekhyun knows Soojung has to catch the bus early in the morning to head back to her city apartment and classes. "I don't want to overexpose Kyungsoo to so many negative influences."
"Then maybe he should stay here," says Jongdae, and Baekhyun stands up, stretching his hands above his head, interlocked. Kyungsoo stands too, and bows quickly to Jongdae.
"It was nice to meet you," he says, and does the same with Soojung. She smiles as she stacks the glasses.
"I'm going to stay and help Jongdae clean up," she says.
"You mean sit there and order me around," Jongdae replies, and Soojung laughs.
"I think it's helpful," she teases, and Jongdae shrugs.
Baekhyun picks up both coats on their side of the table, and puts the larger one on, before he holds up Kyungsoo's and drapes it over his shoulders. Kyungsoo's drowsy, and he's unsteady on his feet as he slides his arms into the sleeves, so Baekhyun holds on to it until he's pulled it up and on. Then he rests both of his hands on Kyungsoo's shoulders. He bets his chin would sit right on top of Kyungsoo's head, if he got up on his toes.
Kyungsoo doesn't shrug him off, just zips up his coat, and Jongdae pulls on his own ear lobe as he watches them.
"You should be careful, Kyungsoo," says Jongdae. "If you're letting him get away with that already, he'll start to cling to you like an abalone on the rocks."
Baekhyun makes a squawking noise of protest, but he's too sated and heavy with meat to put up much of a fight.
"I've noticed," Kyungsoo says. "I've already threatened to break his fingers. It doesn't seem to have been a deterrent."
"Baekhyunnie-oppa seems to think people will disappear if he's not holding on to them," Soojung says, and Baekhyun flinches. Kyungsoo notices, and leans into him slightly. "He's always been like that."
Baekhyun closes his eyes, and licks his lips. His mouth is fuzzy, and there's a gentle throbbing behind his left eye.
"You'd better not fall asleep, Baekhyun." Kyungsoo's voice is low and silky, and with nothing to look at, Baekhyun can just listen to the cadence of it.
"I won't," Baekhyun says. "Not until we get back to the guesthouse." He opens his eyes again, and grins at Kyungsoo. "Have a safe trip, Soojung."
"Later, oppa." She waves, and then she looks at Kyungsoo again. "Take good care of your visitor."
"No wild ponies," Baekhyun vows, as Jongdae starts to pile side dish bowls up into a stack on the end of the table.
"I like your friends," Kyungsoo says.
"Me too," Baekhyun replies. "I've known them for a long time."
"I guess that's what happens when you spend your whole life in one place."
"I moved here," says Baekhyun, "when I was nine, to live with my grandmother." He hooks his fingers in the pocket of his coat. "But yeah, most of my life."
"Oh?" Kyungsoo shrugs. "I don't have a place like this. We moved around a lot for my father's work, so I mostly went to international schools."
"International schools?" Baekhyun laughs. "Where did you live, then?"
"Lots of places in Europe," says Kyungsoo. "I finished elementary school in Switzerland, and then we lived in Germany. I was in Scotland, for a while, too. That was a boarding school, and my brother and I were only there part of a year." He pauses. "Canada, too, and Japan. I was in Japan the longest. More than two whole school years."
"That's a lot of languages to learn. Do you speak Japanese? Or German, and, uh, what language do they speak in Switzerland?"
"All my classes were in English," Kyungsoo says. "I wasn't… I learned it quickly, when I needed it."
"I can barely speak Korean," jokes Baekhyun. "I'm impressed." He's gotten through two chapters of Learn Chinese!, but it's just like school, and anything he's tried to memorize is gone as soon as he's learned it. He has memorized a bunch of Japanese from anime, though, even if he's not sure how useful it is. "Sounds exciting. You've been all around the world." Germany? Scotland? The furthest Baekhyun has been, aside from his time in the navy, is out into the ocean on Minseok's dad's fishing boat, face slick with tears as numbers came in on the radio, grid calls from other boats. "Must have been amazing."
"In some ways." Kyungsoo sighs, and the wind blows, then, maybe in sympathy. "But it also means that I only have one childhood friend," he says. "And nothing like…" He gestures around them, at the village. "I used to see my family once a year, at most. So this… This is nice."
"It is," Baekhyun says, taking a deep breath. Salt and brine and wind. He stumbles, the world going momentarily wonky, and Kyungsoo grabs his arm, firmly. "Sorry, my alcohol tolerance is notoriously low."
"You'd be in trouble at my company," says Kyungsoo. "Half the deals we make are conducted over bottle after bottle of wine."
Baekhyun wrinkles his nose. "I've never liked wine."
"Me neither," Kyungsoo admits, and then he laughs. "But I've learned to tolerate the expensive kind." He lets go of Baekhyun's arm, and Baekhyun plods forward on autopilot, up toward the guesthouse, Kyungsoo close behind him.
"Why do you drink it, if you don't like it?"
"A lot of reasons," Kyungsoo says. "None of them are interesting."
"I think," says Baekhyun, as he skims his fingertips along the rock wall to his right, nails scraping stone as he walks, almost in a straight line, "that we need to reevaluate your definition of interesting."
"Maybe," Kyungsoo says, and Baekhyun looks at him, trying to make out his features in the dark.
"We'll work on it while you're here," he says. "Along with showing you the best parts of the island." Baekhyun rubs at his eyes, but it doesn't make Kyungsoo any clearer. Of course it doesn't.
"You don't have to," Kyungsoo says. Baekhyun prefers his authoritative voice to this unsure one. "I'm only paying you for a room, not all your time."
"Didn't I already tell you? I want to."
Baekhyun might not ever go to Europe, but Kyungsoo is a dash of excitement that's come here, to Baekhyun, and Baekhyun wants to know so much more about him.
"As long as you know there's no obligation," says Kyungsoo. He steps up first, to the guesthouse door, and pushes it open.
Baekhyun follows close behind, slipping out of his shoes, and then turning them at the door so that the toes face neatly out. Then he bumps into Kyungsoo again as he reaches for the hall light switch. He mutters his customary prayer as it flickers: once, twice, three times, and then it comes on. "I really need to get a new light bulb."
Kyungsoo takes off the hat, and hangs the coat on the back of the chair again. Then he fills the same water glass from earlier, and Baekhyun watches him blearily from the doorway. "You should have some water, too."
"I don't get hangovers," says Baekhyun. He runs his tongue along his teeth.
"Lucky you," Kyungsoo replies. He takes the glass with him, and walks past Baekhyun back into the hall. Baekhyun follows Kyungsoo's progression to his room with blurry eyes.
"Riding tomorrow?" Baekhyun asks. When did his voice get so hoarse?
"Only if you promise not to put me on a mean pony."
"You're going to write poetry about how beautiful the horseback trails are."
"I'm not a big fan of poetry," says Kyungsoo, hesitating in the doorway. The ruddy pink of his cheeks and the shine in his eyes is proof he's still feeling the liquor. "Not my thing."
"You'll be moved to sijo," says Baekhyun. "It's just that inspiring. Good night, Kyungsoo."
"Good night, Baekhyun." Kyungsoo pauses, leaning heavily against his door. "I had fun today."
"I'm glad," Baekhyun says.
"It's been a long time since I've had fun," he adds, so quietly Baekhyun barely catches it, and then he closes the door, leaving Baekhyun alone in the hallway to stare after him, wondering, yet again, why Do Kyungsoo had come here, to the middle of nowhere village of Jeolbyeog-ri.
He stretches out in his blankets, wiggling his toes as his jaw cracks, and then sits up, running fingers quickly through his hair and pulling on a T-shirt, a souvenir from high school when he and Jongdae had driven up to Jeju-si to see After School perform at some hallyu wave concert at the stadium.
He shuffles into the bathroom and quickly brushes his teeth, sighing as he notices a new pimple on his chin and then rolling his eyes at himself in the mirror because he's got no one to impress.
He doesn't bother with his hair, and walks out into the hall toward the main room of the house.
Kyungsoo is sitting on a cushion in front of the window in the center room, a mug of coffee in his hands as he looks out at the sea. The wind and the rain make it look like something out of a movie.
"So, ready to go out riding?" Baekhyun asks, and Kyungsoo startles, turning his head sharply, eyes big like a deer in the headlights. "I'm just kidding. No need to be so alarmed."
"I didn't hear you come in," Kyungsoo says.
"That may be the first time anyone's ever said that to me. I should write this occasion down in my planner."
"You keep a planner?" Kyungsoo takes a sip of his coffee, and smiles.
"No," Baekhyun says. "I struggle enough with the log book."
"Why do you keep it then? Tradition?"
"My grandmother was particular about it," says Baekhyun. "She always wanted to keep written records of everything. Didn't trust computers." He shrugs. "I know she'd want me to keep using it, so I do. The computer records make it easier to accept credit cards and do my taxes."
Baekhyun had taken over with the taxes when he'd graduated. That was right before Yixing had left to go back to China. The two of them had dug out all the paper records, organized in cardboard boxes with mold at the corners, and put everything into some software Baekhyun's older brother had recommended that slowed Baekhyun's netbook down to a crawl. It had been exhausting, but Yixing had made it fun, sounding out words he'd never seen before on old tax returns and Baekhyun having to grab a dictionary because he didn't know half of them either.
"So it's sentimental?" Kyungsoo nods. "Handwritten things make better memories?"
"Yeah," Baekhyun says, grabbing another cushion and pulling it next to Kyungsoo. When he sits, their knees brush. "I like to do things the way she preferred. You can remember people in the small things."
"You were close to her?"
"She raised me, mostly," Baekhyun says. "My brother and I." He laughs. "And Yixing."
"You have a brother?" Kyungsoo sets his mug down on the floor between them, empty.
"Older," says Baekhyun. "He graduated and never looked back. I see him twice a year. Seollal and Chuseok. He lives in Busan, near where Jongdae and I did our service. Went to university there." Baekhyun plucks at the faded, peeling letters on his sweatpants. "He's the book-smart one in our family." Maybe all types of smart. After all, he'd left Baekhyun here and gone out and gotten himself a life.
"What are you, then?" Kyungsoo asks. "The annoying one?"
"I'm the pretty one," Baekhyun says, fluttering his eyelashes. "Isn't it obvious?" Kyungsoo sighs, like he was expecting Baekhyun's answer but hoping he wouldn't get it, and it's so exasperated Baekhyun laughs. "Okay, okay, I'm… I don't know. I'm just the other one." Baekhyun folds his arms around his legs, pulling them up to his chest. "I'm the funny one."
Kyungsoo starts to pluck at his pants, and looks down at his socks. "So who is Yixing?"
"Yixing is…" Baekhyun wonders how to explain. "He lived with us for awhile. A few years, I guess." It had been after Baekbeom had left. One day, Baekhyun's grandmother had come into Baekhyun's room while he was strategically doing anything but his homework, and told them someone would be staying with them for a time. "Take care of him, Baekhyunnie," she'd said. "He's a good friend. I need to write him an e-mail, but I keep forgetting."
"Yixing," Kyungsoo says. "That's a Chinese name?"
"Yep," Baekhyun says. "Yixing's Korean is the cutest. It's like every letter is excited to jump out of his mouth." He rests his forehead on his knees. "He plays the guitar, too, and remembers the weirdest songs."
The rain is coming down even harder now: Baekhyun knows without looking up because he can hear it on the roof.
"When was this guesthouse built?" Baekhyun lifts his head. Kyungsoo isn't looking out the window anymore. No, he's looking at Baekhyun, and Baekhyun swallows and wishes, all of a sudden, that he had combed his hair.
"Do you remember the house we passed yesterday?" asks Baekhyun. "The old potter's house?"
"The abandoned one," Kyungsoo says. "Yes, I do."
"That house is newer than this old guesthouse." Kyungsoo's lips part in surprise, and he looks around as if seeing the place in a new light. "Of course, we've had more renovations done here."
"Just a few," Kyungsoo agrees.
"This house has been in my mother's family for generations. There's only hyung and me left now. A few uncles, too"
"But you were left with the guesthouse."
"Yeah," Baekhyun says, blowing his hair out of his face in a futile gesture, finally giving in and using his fingers. It really is getting too long and shaggy. He'll ask Taeyeon to cut it for him, the next time he runs into her. She has the steadiest hand, besides Soojung. "Might as well give it to the kid with no plans, right?"
Kyungsoo doesn't reply to that, just stretches out his short legs until his toes barely touch Baekhyun's thigh. They're quiet for a while, but then Kyungsoo speaks. "Does it get much colder than this?"
"Only a little," Baekhyun says. "We might get some snow, if it's a chilly year. Mostly it snows up on the north part of the island, but nowhere is safe."
"I was wondering if I should drive into the city and buy a coat for December," Kyungsoo says. Baekhyun puts his arms back behind him and rests his weight on them. "Or January. I don't really like to be cold."
January. That's a long time. Baekhyun's afraid he might get used to living with someone again, and that would be…
"You should be all right," says Baekhyun. "You can keep using mine, if you want. I don't mind using my hyung's. They're the same coat, really, only his is larger. My grandmother always bought him a size larger, even when we were the same size."
"So it's okay, then?" Kyungsoo's feet retract as he switches to sitting cross-legged. He looks back out the window, but Baekhyun's not sure he's actually looking at anything. "If I stay that long?"
"This is a guesthouse," Baekhyun says. "You can stay as long as you want." He rolls his head around on his neck. He's still got kinks in his back from sleep. "Do you want some breakfast?"
"I can teach you the trick," says Kyungsoo, "for getting the eggs perfect, without the edges."
Baekhyun studies the way Kyungsoo's tiny hands draw patterns on his thigh, the only sign of nervousness peeping through his complete composure, and grins.
"If you can teach me to do it before the next time Chanyeollie drops by for breakfast," Baekhyun says, "you can stay forever."
Kyungsoo turns to him and smiles, soft and a little wistful. "I have to go back to work eventually," he says, and Baekhyun presses his lips together, and looks out at the rain.
"Of course it's wet," Baekhyun says, wiping his hands on his jeans and squatting down to mess with the spigot. He sets a bucket under it and finally gets it to turn left. Water pulses out too quickly, splashing on the black and white plastic shoes he keeps by the back door and getting his socks wet. "It's been raining for two days."
"What have you been doing, then?" Chanyeol asks. "I know the television never really comes through clearly when we get the double combo of wind and rain. I thought my truck was going to blow sideways yesterday when I was driving home from work."
"The wind goddess must be angry," says Baekhyun, as water starts to fill the bucket. "The wind's been much harsher than usual."
"You sound like my mom," says Chanyeol. "Can't we just chalk it up to global warming like everyone else?"
"How would global warming explain the cold?" Baekhyun replies.
"Well," Chanyeol says, gearing up for one of his long, involved, science-y explanations that will undoubtedly make Baekhyun feel like he's back in school, "basically, it involves the Polar Vortex, and the force of--"
"Never mind," Baekhyun interrupts. "I actually really don't care. All I care about it that it's been raining non-stop."
"It's stopped now?"
Baekhyun sighs and turns the spigot wheel right again, stopping the water. Then he flicks Chanyeol's knee. "Move, you oaf."
"Just because I'm tall and handsome," Chanyeol says, standing up and rubbing at the now wet butt of his jeans, "doesn't mean you need to call me names."
"You're in my way." Baekhyun slips out of his shoes and past Chanyeol, carrying the heavy bucket with both hands.
"You're being awfully industrious this morning," Chanyeol says. "Haven't you had two days to inexplicably decide you're not a slob?"
Baekhyun had ended up spending most of that first rainy day wasting every egg in the house, Kyungsoo watching judgmentally with crossed arms every time he burnt the edges. In the end, they'd had a miniature feast of eggs, even if Baekhyun ate three to every one Kyungsoo managed, since Baekhyun rolled his up with his fingers and ate it while Kyungsoo had cut his into weird geometric bites, cutting around the yolk and then eating that last in one big messy bite. Baekhyun had laughed at Kyungsoo until he'd licked the yolk from the corners of his lips. Kyungsoo had smiled a lot, and even if Baekhyun's stomach had hurt, it had been worth it.
The second day, Baekhyun had ended up going into the village in the downpour, with his umbrella keeping the rain off the top of his head but the wind blowing it toward him as he walked, soaking the fronts of his jeans. He'd run into Kim Taeyeon as he picked up another eighteen eggs and enough fish for dinner. Taeyeon had been gorgeous, as usual, hair wavy from the rain and pulled back in a loose ponytail behind her neck. She'd looked up at Baekhyun and asked if he'd gotten taller lately, and Baekhyun had smiled at her and told her he definitely had, and that she'd better watch out because soon he'd be as tall as Chanyeol.
"The truth is," she'd said, as she handed four 1000Won bills to Old Man Lee, who tucked it away in his old green apron, "we're all getting too old to grow physically any way but out."
"That's not true," Baekhyun had replied. "I think your hair is definitely longer than it was a few weeks ago." They'd both laughed, but the whole way home, Baekhyun had let his wet cloth shopping bag bump into his knee, and eventually, he'd given up on his umbrella, too, pulling it closed and letting the rain plaster his hair to his face, and thought about how many years he'd walked the same path to and from the guesthouse, and how many times he'll walk it in the years to come.
"I need to mop the entry-way and part of the hallway," says Baekhyun. "Mud." He sets the bucket on the floor just inside the front door, and then walks into the kitchen, where he'd left the mop earlier, after breakfast. His eggs had turned out perfectly for the third day in a row. "Plus..."
Chanyeol throws an arm around Baekhyun's shoulder and pulls Baekhyun into his side, nuzzling at his hair. "Plus what?"
"Kyungsoo doesn't really say anything," Baekhyun says, "but he's kind of..." He searches for the word. "Clean," is what he settles on, even though it doesn't quite encapsulate the way Kyungsoo had absently started alphabetizing the magazines Baekhyun had chosen to leave on the table in the main room, or the way he'd taken the cactuses and put them in a neat line against the wall in the kitchen at some point while Baekhyun was out.
"I get it," Chanyeol says, releasing Baekhyun when he starts to squirm. "It's so weird, you having stuff to do in the winter up here."
"Yeah," says Baekhyun. "It's..." The past few winters, Baekhyun has spent most of his waking hours away from the guesthouse. It's too big for one person. Instead, he spent most of his time picking tangerines or helping Chanyeol with the ponies. Sometimes he'd spend hours down at the shore, watching the divers go in even when the seas were too rough for diving. Often, he'd end up taking long bus rides out to the cliff, and watching the waves from a new vantage point until the sun started to dip below the horizon. "I like it."
Chanyeol looks at him, starts to speak, and then changes his mind, ruffling Baekhyun's hair instead. Baekhyun huffs at him, picking up the mop and putting it into the bucket. He really should invest in one of those scrubber things, with the changeable wipes on the bottom, but they leave a chemical smell in the air that doesn't sit right with him. The smell of old wood and chamomile is worth the extra effort of mopping like this.
"Speaking of your guest," Chanyeol says, "where is he?"
"He went out for a walk earlier," Baekhyun says. "He doesn't seem to get as anxious when it rains, like I do, but..." He laughs. "Maybe he needed a break from me!"
"Is he as quiet as we thought?"
"Yes and no," Baekhyun says. He starts the familiar slow pattern, back and forth with the mop. Chanyeol gets in his way as usual, standing with his back against the wall and arms crossed, watching Baekhyun work. "He's... I don't think he's used to dealing socially with a lot of people? At least not... without other motivations, like business or something."
"Ah," says Chanyeol. "So he's used to making deals and bossing people around."
"I don't know," Baekhyun says. All he knows is that it involves a lot of wine.
"Jongdae liked him," Chanyeol says. "Had dinner with him yesterday. He made fun of me for looking like a drowned rat the whole time, but in between the insults he mentioned you had taken Kyungsoo up to the halmang-dang."
"Is that really such a big deal?" Baekhyun stops mopping, and looks up at Chanyeol, whose usual wide grin is replaced with a sloppy half smile. His eyes are penetrating, and Baekhyun fidgets under that gaze. "I just thought he'd like to see it."
"You haven't been up there since your grandmother died."
That's not true. Baekhyun had spent hours up there, in the following weeks after the funeral, trying to leave all of his sadness in the sheets of white paper he tucked between tree and rock. It had almost worked.
"I didn't really think about that," says Baekhyun. "I mostly thought..." He sighs, and drops down to his knees, using his hands to wring out the mop. "He looked like Yixing did, when he got here. You never met him, but when he showed up..." Baekhyun blows his hair out of his face, and wipes his hands on his jeans again, leaving wet grayish brown handprints on his thighs. "Kyungsoo looked lost. So like with Yixing, I took him to the halmang-dang. That's all."
Chanyeol nods, and turns his baseball cap sideways again. Baekhyun had given it to him, last year on his birthday. Nexan Heroes. Chanyeol doesn't like baseball at all, but he humors Baekhyun more often than he humors Jongdae. Baekhyun thinks Chanyeol just likes the way Jongdae whines when he's put out. "You know, I've still never been up there."
The door opens, and Kyungsoo is standing there, hair in complete disarray. His eyes are clouded, and his mouth is tight. He has his phone in his hand, grip white knuckled.
"Did you get signal?" Baekhyun asks.
"Yes," Kyungsoo says. "I had to call my brother. He's been trying to reach me for a week, apparently."
"Oh," Baekhyun says. "Was he worried about you?"
Kyungsoo's eyebrows furrow. "No," he says. "Not really." He sighs, and walks into the guesthouse. His shoes are clean, meaning he'd taken the road and not the back path. His nose is red. His movements are stiff, and maybe it's because he's cold, but in Baekhyun's opinion, it's more like Kyungsoo is upset. He wishes he knew Kyungsoo well enough to tell. "I should've called in and taken care of a few things at work before I came back up here." There's a but lingering at the end of the sentence.
Baekhyun wonders what kind of job you can take off from for three months without warning.
"Baekhyunnie really should get the lines fixed out here," Chanyeol says. "It would only take a day."
"But then jerks like you would be able to call me," says Baekhyun. "No thanks."
"Then guests like Kyungsoo would be able to make their calls without taking a hike," counters Chanyeol.
"Then," Kyungsoo says, mouth still tight, "I wouldn't have an excuse not to answer my phone."
Kyungsoo's voice is odd, slightly husky, and so Baekhyun laughs louder to distract all of them from it. The sound is jarring, even to Baekhyun, and Kyungsoo licks his lips.
"See, Chanyeol, I win."
"You always win," Chanyeol says linking his fingers behind his neck, elbows stretched out to either side. "It's your guesthouse. You can make it as unwelcoming as you'd like." He beams, showing, like, five-hundred teeth, and winks at Baekhyun.
"Yeah, you just drop by all the time because it's unwelcoming." He talks fast, and he thinks it's working, because Kyungsoo's forehead is smooth, now, in that unreadable expression Baekhyun is beginning to think is his default.
"The things I do for our friendship," Chanyeol says, putting a hand to his forehead dramatically. His low voice carries throughout the guesthouse, warming it up.
Baekhyun steals another glance at Kyungsoo, who has bent over and begun to methodically untie his shoes, loosening the laces with just his index finger, like when he scratches at his scalp. His huge phone sits next to his feet, blinking low battery. "I wanted to take Kyungsoo out on the horse trails," Baekhyun says. "When is a good time for you?"
"None of my tours over the next few days are full," says Chanyeol. "So if it doesn't rain today or tomorrow, I'd say the day after that. Tomorrow the ground is still going to be too soft. It just won't be as pleasant."
"We could go to the tangerine grove tomorrow," says Baekhyun thoughtfully. "Soojung's mom is swamped with more than she can pick again this year."
"I don't think I've ever picked anything in my life," says Kyungsoo, straightening up. His mouth has gone soft again, and his eyes no longer resemble yesterday's storm clouds. He unzips his coat, or, well, Baekhyun's coat, to reveal his soft SNU sweatshirt.
His shoes look so small next to Baekhyun's, just like his hands. How can someone so small have such a big presence?
"It's not too bad," Chanyeol says. "It's fun the first few times you do it." He twists his hat again. "Then your fingers get sore, but the tangerines taste better when you pick them yourself."
"My mother says that too," says Kyungsoo. "She..." Lifting a hand to his hair, he pushes it back from his face. His Adam's apple bobs as he swallows. "She really likes tangerines."
"Really?" Baekhyun hums, and scratches his stomach. "Our special ones, or just tangerines in general?"
Kyungsoo shrugs. "I don't know." His hair falls back across his forehead, and in front of his eyes again. A few pieces stick out from his crown, like wayward tree branches. "Please excuse me."
He walks between them, and down the hallway, closing the door behind him.
There's an awkward silence, and Baekhyun coughs. "I'll get back to you about the day after tomorrow."
"Sounds good." Chanyeol pulls his phone out of his pocket and presses the center button to summon the time. "It's almost noon," he says. "I promised to be around for a tour group stopping by at one, so I'd better get a move on."
"Yeah," Baekhyun says. "Do you think the weather's going to last? I want to wash clothes, but not if it's going to rain."
"We aren't supposed to have any more rain this week," Chanyeol says. "At least, that's what my weather app says."
"Cool," Baekhyun says. He rubs the outsides of his arms, the heat he'd generated from mopping fading as they stand there. A T-shirt isn't warm enough out here in the hall, without a heater, the winter seeping in through the crack under the door. "I'll get to it."
"I don't think he's shy," Chanyeol says. "Kyungsoo, I mean."
"You don't?" Baekhyun picks up the bucket and carries it into the kitchen. Chanyeol follows him. "What is your esteemed opinion, then?"
"I think he seems sad," says Chanyeol bluntly. Chanyeol's always blunt, even when he's on his best behavior. "I don't know, never mind."
It's been a long time since I've had fun.
Tell Baekhyun something he doesn't know.
"Maybe," says Baekhyun. He lifts the bucket again, pouring some of the water into the small chasteberry plants he takes care of. Soon it'll be time to move these ones outside into the yard, so they can sprawl out and grow. Baekhyun's just letting them ride out the winter here in the kitchen. He splits the rest of the water between the cactuses and the tiny wildflowers he grows in equally tiny pots, the same ones his grandmother had grown just because his mother liked them. "Didn't you say you had somewhere to be?"
"Yeah," Chanyeol says. "See you when you come out to the field. You can meet the new horses."
"Looking forward to it," says Baekhyun, setting the empty bucket down as Chanyeol yells goodbye from the entryway, sliding into the massive boats that pass for his shoes and heading out to his old red truck. The engine is loud as he roars away, down the driveway and out to road 1132.
Baekhyun washes his hands in the sink, the mint smell of his soap clinging to his fingers and wrists as he heads into his room and starts to gather up all his dirty clothes. He thinks about it, then shimmies out of his handprint marked jeans, too. He quickly puts on his Pusan University sweats and picks up the armful of laundry, walking to the kitchen and squatting down to open the washer. He drops everything onto the freshly mopped floor and starts to separate them, shoving in everything that isn't white and leaving the whites in a pile in front of the washing machine.
He stands up just as his thighs start to cramp, and walks out of the kitchen and left down the hallway, to rap his knuckles on Kyungsoo's door.
"Come in," he says, and Baekhyun pushes open the door, peeking in. Kyungsoo's room, as expected, is completely tidy, shirts and pants folded in the open closet, and his suitcase zipped neatly in the corner. He's folded up all the bedding, too, in even squares in order of thickness, pink then green then white. "Yes?"
Spread out around Kyungsoo are what look like plans, detailed drawings that Baekhyun can't make heads or tails of. "Do you want me to wash anything? I'm doing colors first, then whites."
Kyungsoo blinks at him, and then rises, carefully stepping over the half unrolled oversized papers and walking toward Baekhyun. The room is small, but there's an entire portion covered by the door that Baekhyun can't see. That's where Kyungsoo's dirty laundry is, apparently, and Baekhyun holds out his arms and takes it. "Thank you," Kyungsoo says.
"I thought you only had a backpack," Baekhyun says, and Kyungsoo looks up at him witheringly.
"I drove here, Baekhyun," he says. "In my car. I just had one night's worth of clothing in my backpack. I always do that when I travel, in case I'm required to check my luggage and it gets lost."
"Right," Baekhyun says. "So all this was in the trunk?"
"The back seat," Kyungsoo says. "I was only planning to go to the office with them."
"Ah," Baekhyun says. "What… are they?"
"I work for an architectural firm," Kyungsoo says. "We design and then build functional family apartment buildings in the Seoul suburbs."
"Oh," Baekhyun says. He tries to put that information with all the other things he's learned, and in the end, it forms a picture that makes sense to him. "Are you the boss?"
"Kind of," Kyungsoo says, giving Baekhyun a small smile. "I'm a boss. I'm in charge of the projects I work on." He steps away from Baekhyun, and back into the center of his plans, which Baekhyun has just realized are arranged like Tetris blocks. "This is our team's current project. We've got a contract to build a new luxury building in Gyeonggi." He frowns. "These are old plans, though. Not new ones."
Baekhyun looks down at Kyungsoo's boggling plans, and then at the neatly folded laundry in his arms. "Do you like Tetris?" he asks, and Kyungsoo gives him an odd look.
"Ah, nothing, nothing," Baekhyun says, backing out of the room. "Should I close the door?"
Kyungsoo has settled himself back down, legs folded up, and now he has a pencil in one hand, an expensive looking mechanical one, and sticky notes in the other. He looks up at Baekhyun and licks his lips, before snagging the lower one with his straight white teeth. "No," he says, as Baekhyun shifts in place, waiting for an answer. "You don't have to."
"Okay," Baekhyun says, and leaves the door ajar.
He puts Kyungsoo's muddy jeans and lots of socks into the washing machine. Every pair is black, as is all of his underwear. Baekhyun laughs, completely unsurprised.
Starting the machine, Baekhyun leaves a pile of white in the middle of the floor while he goes to look for his laundry basket. He finds it, with the laundry cords carefully wound up and a floral cloth bag of yellow and pink clips at the bottom. That's not Baekhyun's doing: he bets Chanyeol did it one day, while Baekhyun was off looking for his PSP charger or something. Chanyeol's always fooling around with stuff. He likes using his hands. Old Man Jung's teaching him how to whittle.
The washing machine is noisy, but hopefully not enough to disturb Kyungsoo, who has opened the door to his cave for the first time while he's working in there.
Baekhyun sets the laundry basket by the machine, next to the pile of white clothes, and takes the line out, leaving the clips for now. Slipping on his back door sandals again, Baekhyun goes out the back door.
It's gotten warmer and sunnier as the day's worn on, which is good. On days when it's cooler than 10 degrees and overcast, like yesterday and the day before, it's too cold to do laundry outside. That means hanging up clothes all across the main room for nine to ten hours. He already has to do that most of January, and it's not as much fun as it had been when he was ten and he could pretend they were lasers and he had to dodge them, when he wasn't semi-obediently hanging socks with plastic clips by their toes from the line.
But on nice, warmer days like today, the laundry will dry in three hours, especially if the cool wind behaves.
He hangs the line from the posts that have always been set up for clotheslines. The cord is meant to stay up, but Baekhyun's grandmother always worried about the wind. Baekhyun doesn't, but he also doesn't mind winding the clothesline each time. He makes sure there are two lines this time, because he has twice as many clothes. He hasn't done that in a while. Even when he does laundry for guests in the summer, it's usually just one or two things. Hikers passing through and spending one night who want to wash their spare shirt, or something like that.
He tugs on the center of the line, to make sure it's sturdy, and is satisfied when there's barely any give. The sun's fully out now as it nears one in the afternoon. It's too late to start laundry, really, but Baekhyun's hoping it's bright enough and warm enough that it'll still dry before sunset.
When the washing machine beeps, Baekhyun pulls the wet clothes out and puts them haphazardly into the basket, setting the cloth bag of clips on top of the load as he jams the whites into the machine.
Carrying the basket outside, he starts to hang the laundry, just the way he'd learned how to as a child. He starts with the undershirts, turning them upside down and using two clips for each, one on each side. He sings as he works, a pop song he'd liked in high school about getting dumped, or something. He whistles whenever he forgets the words, which is fairly often, and sings loudest at the chorus where he's surest of the lyrics.
He's starting the third shirt when he sees movement out of the corner of his eye. It's Kyungsoo, carrying his sneakers in one hand. He sets them down at the bottom of the back step and puts them on carefully, tying neat little bows as Baekhyun watches.
"Going for a walk?" Baekhyun asks.
"No," Kyungsoo says, "I came out to see if I could help."
"Have you ever hung clothes out to dry before?"
"I have an indoor rack."
"That's not the same at all," Baekhyun teases. "Apples and oranges."
"Jejudo and Seoul," Kyungsoo corrects, and Baekhyun laughs. Kyungsoo pushes up his sleeves. "I think I'll get the hang of it."
"The clips are in the bag," Baekhyun says, picking up another shirt. He starts to hang it, watching out of the corner of his eye as Kyungsoo picks up a sodden pair of jeans and walks under the clothesline to go to the second one, on the other side. Between his After School tee and a plain black undershirt that is undoubtedly Kyungsoo's, he stares as Kyungsoo stands on his toes, struggling to hang Baekhyun's jeans.
Quickly finishing with the shirt he's on, Baekhyun ducks under the hanging clothes to come up next to Kyungsoo. "Let me show you," he says. He takes the jeans from Kyungsoo's hands. "You have to hang them by the back part of the waistband with two clips." Kyungsoo holds out the clips in his small hand, and Baekhyun takes one. "If you try to clip the front and the back, it's too thick, and the inside will take longer to dry." He clips the left side to the line. "Do the other side?"
Kyungsoo steps closer to him, his left arm pressing fully to Baekhyun's right as he rises onto his toes again, clipping the right side of the jeans. He teeters, and Baekhyun snakes out with his right arm, wrapping it around Kyungsoo's waist to steady him. Kyungsoo leans into him easily, and for a moment, Baekhyun's mind goes sort of blank as Kyungsoo's hair tickles his chin. Kyungsoo's sweatshirt had risen, with his stretch, so Baekhyun's slightly damp fingers touch bare skin, making Kyungsoo shiver in his grasp.
"Your hands are cold," Kyungsoo says, falling from his toes back to a solid stance, and Baekhyun drops his arm quickly, swallowing roughly as he moves away from Kyungsoo, enough that he can no longer smell Kyungsoo's soap.
"Wet clothes in the winter," says Baekhyun. "Sorry."
"Better a cold hand than falling, right?" Kyungsoo looks at the jeans. "I think I've got it now. At least for jeans."
"Then I'll leave those to you," says Baekhyun, going back to his side of the clothesline. His heart is beating faster, for some reason, and his throat feels tight as he pushes the basket in between the two lines. He watches Kyungsoo's feet, as he moves down the line, and even as Baekhyun hangs another shirt, this one long sleeved and trickier, he feels Kyungsoo's soft skin instead of rough wet cotton.
He licks his lips, and starts singing again.
"I liked that song in high school," Kyungsoo says, as Baekhyun picks up the empty basket to go and get the load of whites. There's plenty of space left on the line for them, and they'll dry fast. "I had it on my mp3 player." He smiles, and Baekhyun's heart, which had finally slowed, speeds up again. "Your version was pitchier."
The words snap him out of whatever weirdness he's in, and he lightly slaps Kyungsoo's arm. "I'll have you know I won two talent contests in high school."
"Only two?" Kyungsoo raises both eyebrows. "Your village has a population of two-hundred, Baekhyun. Surely you could have done better than that."
"Had to give everyone else a chance," he replies, shucking his sandals and stepping into the guesthouse. "Don't take off your shoes. I'll be right back with the whites."
Kyungsoo smiles again, bigger, and nods, and Baekhyun loves the shape of his mouth, the downward dip of his upper lip, when he smiles.
Later that afternoon, when Kyungsoo has retired back to his plans with chapped hands and noise complaints, Baekhyun washes rice for dinner at the sink.
"I think he seems sad," Chanyeol had said, and maybe Baekhyun has seen it too, that familiar sadness lurking in Kyungsoo's eyes whenever he's left to his own thoughts. But this afternoon, Baekhyun thinks, hanging laundry out back, Kyungsoo had briefly lost those shadows under the afternoon sun.
The water for the rice runs clear, and Baekhyun puts it into the rice cooker and starts the timer.
Baekhyun comes in to Kyungsoo standing in profile at the stove, eyes closed as he holds his shirt up to his nose. A thick stripe of his pale belly is visible, a barely noticeable dusting of hair leading down from his navel and disappearing into the elastic waistband of his tracksuit pants. Baekhyun thinks about how smooth that skin had felt under his fingers briefly before he shakes his head to clear the thought away along with some of the other morning fog before he looks back up at Kyungsoo's face, half buried in cotton. His eyelashes are so dark. On the stove, some kind of stew cooks over a low flame.
"Good morning," says Baekhyun, and Kyungsoo lets go of his shirt.
"My shirt smells like the ocean," says Kyungsoo.
"That's where the breeze comes from," says Baekhyun.
"I thought it came from Yeongdeung." Kyungsoo takes a spoon from the counter to taste the broth.
"Who comes to the island following the currents," says Baekhyun. "Try to keep up."
"You say so many things." Kyungsoo puts one hand on his hip and peers into his pot. "It's hard to figure out which things are important."
"They're all important," says Baekhyun. "You should pay attention to everything."
"Hmmm," says Kyungsoo, and Baekhyun's sleepy enough to give into temptation and fluff Kyungsoo's hair, soft strands sliding easily between his fingers. Kyungsoo bats lightly at his hand, giving Baekhyun a wary look.
"Would you like to go to the tangerine grove today?" Baekhyun asks. "We can take the scooter if you're not up to the walk."
Kyungsoo dips the spoon back in the broth, and holds it up to Baekhyun's mouth. Baekhyun obediently opens his lips for a taste. "Yes," he says.
As Baekhyun swallows the stew broth, he closes his eyes. It's weird, he thinks. He's been living alone so long now, with just guests he greets one evening and then says goodbye to on the following morning, that having someone awake here before him, moving around the house and breathing life into it before he even opens his eyes, is like… It's like a warm blanket across his lap on a chilly afternoon. He opens his eyes again. "Not enough salt."
Kyungsoo makes a noise of disapproval. "That's because Jejudo food is all salty. I think you've killed your taste buds."
"We like our food to taste like the sea," says Baekhyun, laughing. He rubs at his eyes. When he drops his hand, Kyungsoo is staring at him oddly. "What?"
The tips of Kyungsoo's ears go red, and he averts his gaze. "And for your clothes to smell like it, and the wind, too."
"Yes," Baekhyun says. "You're in the territory of the Dragon King now." He grins, and Kyungsoo turns down the gas. The red tinge fades from his ears, and Baekhyun can still taste the broth on the back of his tongue. "It's good," he says. "The stew."
"Rice is in the cooker," replies Kyungsoo.
Over breakfast, Kyungsoo is quiet, and so Baekhyun fills the silence, teasing smiles out of his dining companion, ankles brushing Kyungsoo's under the tables.
"You're so fidgety," Kyungsoo says, as Baekhyun winds down on a story about how he and Jongdae had followed Soojung on her first date, trying to be sneaky only to be confronted by her later, their heads knocked together in her wrath.
"That's the real reason I was always sent out of class, no matter what Soojung tells you," says Baekhyun. "It distracted our teacher."
"It distracts me too." Kyungsoo takes a bite of rice. "I can't look at anything but you."
"That's the way I like it," says Baekhyun. "I should be the star of a drama."
"More like a sideshow act," Kyungsoo says, when he's swallowed his rice.
"You love it," Baekhyun says around a mouthful of kimchi, purposefully rubbing his ankle against Kyungsoo's.
Kyungsoo rolls his eyes, then fixes them on his stew. "Stop talking with your mouth full," he says, but he doesn't pull his legs back, leaving them linked with Baekhyun's under the table.
"Right, right," Baekhyun says, taking his canvas bag and punching down at the bottom to create a flat surface. Kyungsoo mimics him, and Soojung's mother laughs, handing them each a pair of gloves.
"It's easy," she says. "Just be careful with the knife. I have shears, if you'd prefer."
"That's a good idea," Baekhyun says.
"The knife will be fine." Kyungsoo pulls the worn pocketknife out of the pocket of his coat, where he'd put it a few minutes ago when Soojung's mom had handed it to him from the farm cart.
It's the purple safety plastic one, and if Baekhyun recalls correctly, it was Sooyeon's, back when they were younger. Sooyeon had been the one to teach Baekhyun how to cut the gamgyul loose, as seven-year-old Soojung had trailed behind them, her hair cropped short back then, and she'd been put out about not being quite old enough to help. "You'll get the hang of it quickly," Sooyeon had said. "My mom says you already are good with gutting fish—this smells much nicer than that."
When Kyungsoo and Baekhyun are left to their own devices, Baekhyun takes Kyungsoo to a back part of the grove, where the low trees are laden with unharvested fruit. "Looks like no one's been back here in a month."
"That can't be good for profit," says Kyungsoo.
"Both of the Jung kids are gone," Baekhyun says. "Sooyeon and Soojung both went to university. Soon, Soojung's moving abroad. She wants to go study marine biology in California, or something, I dunno." Baekhyun shrugs, setting his bag down on the ground between his feet. "So it's just Soojung's mom and dad, and then they pay the local kids to help out."
"And you and Jongdae," Kyungsoo says. Baekhyun chuckles.
"You think we're not still kids? We're considered kids until we have kids of our own."
"I've been an adult since I went to college," Kyungsoo says. "And I wouldn't have taken kindly to anyone implying I wasn't."
"Ah, it's not so bad," says Baekhyun. "Kids can get away with a lot of things adults can't, because we're still kids." He takes out his knife. "I'm supposed to tell you not to cut toward yourself, when you cut the oranges, but that'd make me a hypocrite." He grabs a branch that's level with his chest and cuts off three gamgyul in quick succession, catching all three with his left hand, his fingers barely long enough to hold them. Then he sets them in the bag. "You need to set the bottom layer, so that the tangerines don't get all squished hitting the ground, but after you get a few deep you can just drop them into the bag on top of the others."
Kyungsoo nods, setting down his bag. He scratches at his hair, one index finger, and Baekhyun studies him for a moment, in his jeans and black coat and black sneakers, his hair dark against pale skin. He looks out of place here, among the gamgyul, with his delicate grip on the knife and his small square hands that don't fill the fingertips of the gardening gloves.
"This is the perfect kind of fruit picking for you," Baekhyun continues, grabbing another branch and gently pulling it toward him. A green leaf tickles at his nose, and he sneezes. "All the trees are short like you. Just the right height." He smiles teasingly at Kyungsoo, even though Kyungsoo isn't looking at him, knowing the other man will hear it in his voice.
"You're just the right height for me to punch you in the kidney," Kyungsoo replies, slanting his face toward Baekhyun's. His lips twitch.
"You've still got time to grow," Baekhyun says, with false lament, and Kyungsoo surprises him by smacking his arm. "Wow, you're like a wasp, so small, so dangerous."
"I have a knife," says Kyungsoo, easily, and Baekhyun laughs.
"All right, all right," Baekhyun says. "Your height is perfectly fine. Actually, when we were in high school, the guy who got the most girls was around your height." Minseok has always, always had girls half in love with him. Soojung had been unbearable when she'd had a thing for him, although part of that might have been Baekhyun wishing she would pay more attention to him. "Make sure you cut close to the fruit, though, you don't really want to cut too much of the branch."
"Okay," Kyungsoo says.
As they work, Baekhyun tells Kyungsoo about how in middle school, he and Jongdae had spent hours here on the weekend, earning money to buy games for their Gameboy Colors and because Jongdae's mom was tired of them getting underfoot. "Jongdeok—that's Jongdae's brother—he was dating one of Sooyeon's friends at the time, so he was always here too." Baekhyun laughs. "This place was full of kids earning pocket money in exchange for clearing out the groves of ripe tangerines. The best part is that the tangerines keep growing until near the end of December, and there's only three months where it's too cold for them, so even Jongdeok would sometimes fill a bag or two, if he wanted money to take his girlfriend on a date."
"What about your brother?" Kyungsoo is working at half the pace Baekhyun is, and he does cut away from himself with the knife, the way he's supposed to.
"Baekbeom…" Baekhyun stops, and folds closed his knife, putting it in his jeans pocket. Then he grabs his back with both hands, and leans back in a stretch. "He was too busy studying, usually. He got really into studying, back when…" He licks his teeth, running his tongue across their surface. "Well, back when we moved in with Grandma." He drops his arms, looking at the bags. His is almost half full, and Kyungsoo's is getting there. "So he never had time to come out and play with us."
Baekbeom had always been so different from Baekhyun. He'd never…
"I studied a lot too," Kyungsoo says. "Not a lot of friends, so…"
"Did your parents put a lot of pressure on you with academics or…" Baekhyun squats down and starts to rifle through Kyungsoo's bag of tangerines. Maybe if he doesn't look at Kyungsoo, he won't do that hedgehog thing.
"No," Kyungsoo says. "My father is an art restorer, and my mom teaches dance." He drops another two tangerines into the bag. "They don't really care what I do, as long as it's my passion."
Baekhyun takes off his gloves, palms a smaller gamgyul, and stands. "So the apartment building thing. Is that your passion?"
Kyungsoo frowns, and watches him with round eyes. "What are you doing, Baekhyun?"
"One of your tangerines," he says, stabbing his thumbnail through the navel and quickly peeling it. "Taste tests are a necessary part of gamgyul picking."
"That's another Baekhyun rule, isn't it?"
Baekhyun lets the peel fall to the ground, and breaks the tangerine in half. It's a good one, with not much stringy white remnants of growth between the slices, and seeds in only some of them. "Try it," he says, holding a piece up to Kyungsoo's lips. Kyungsoo takes it, his eyes on Baekhyun's, and his lips brush Baekhyun's fingers as he takes the fruit between his teeth. He eats the tangerine slice, still holding on to Baekhyun's gaze, and belatedly, Baekhyun realizes he can drop his hand. "Doesn't it taste better when you've picked it yourself?"
Kyungsoo's tongue darts out to lick his lips, and Baekhyun's stomach clenches. His fingers are warm, from just that brief touch of Kyungsoo's lips, and he curls his hand into a fist as he holds the rest of the gamgyul in the other. "It does," says Kyungsoo, so softly. "Much better."
Baekhyun can feel a heat crawling up his neck, and he suddenly breaks their shared gaze, looking back down at the fruit. He takes his own slice of it, and eats it in one bite. It's sweeter than usual, he thinks. A lot sweeter.
He takes a deep breath, and offers Kyungsoo the other half of the tangerine. "Split it with me?"
"Sure," says Kyungsoo. He pulls off his gloves and takes it, carefully. He starts to pull the pieces apart, pushing them easily into his mouth, one after another, cheeks bulging. Baekhyun doesn't know why he can't look away.
"I really do like these better," Kyungsoo says. "Than the ones I get in Seoul." He eats the last slice and licks his lips again. "The taste is different."
"Yeah," Baekhyun says. There's a gust of wind, and it tosses his hair into his eyes. He tries to blow it out of his face, but he's less than successful, and Kyungsoo laughs, a full laugh, deep and throaty and enough that Baekhyun can only stare at him, surprised at the sound.
Kyungsoo's grinning. "That's not going to work," he says. He reaches out with his cleaner hand, the one less sticky from gamgyul, and pushes Baekhyun's hair out of his face. His fingers drag through the strands, and Baekhyun's breath catches in his throat at how close Kyungsoo is standing, the toes of his shoes bumping Baekhyun's as he cards through his hair, parting it with his fingers so it lies on either side of his forehead but doesn't obscure his vision. "That's better."
"Thanks," Baekhyun says.
Kyungsoo steps back then, and puts his gloves back on. He lifts up his bag. "Are these full enough?" he asks, and Baekhyun shakes his head.
"Not quite," he says. His voice is scratchy, so he tries again. "Not quite. We have to get them full enough that Soojung's mom doesn't have to re-bag them later. I'll help you figure out the right weight."
"Okay," Kyungsoo says. "I guess we should keep picking, then?"
"Yeah," Baekhyun says. He still has almost half of the tangerine in his hand, and he quickly eats it all at once, juice sliding down his face. He wipes his chin with the back of his hand. Then he lifts his own bag. "Back to work."
"I like picking tangerines, too," Kyungsoo says, after a while of standing side by side, grabbing gamgyul by twos and threes from lower hanging branches if they've reached a full orange color. "I can do this and think at the same time."
"I usually do this a lot in the early winter," says Baekhyun. "It's always given me something to do with my hands while my mind wanders."
Kyungsoo looks at him. "It's funny," he says. "I usually keep myself so busy I don't have time to think, but out here, it's all I do."
"Is that a bad thing?" Sometimes it is, for Baekhyun. Sometimes, as he's mopping floors or hanging clothes or watering the plants, he starts thinking about all sorts of things he'd rather not think about. Sometimes, up in the guesthouse, when he's all alone, Baekhyun feels like it's haunted, and that the ghosts of his grandmother and Yixing and Baekbeom are waiting in different rooms to remind him that now he lives there all alone. "Because I can always keep distracting you, if you ask nicely."
"I don't have to ask," says Kyungsoo. "You'd do it regardless." Baekhyun makes a victory sign, and Kyungsoo cuts another tangerine from a branch. Instead of dropping it into his bag, he throws it softly at Baekhyun's chest. It bounces off harmlessly and falls to the ground. "Annoying."
"You're really cute when you smile," says Baekhyun. "You should do it more often."
"I only smile when I mean it," replies Kyungsoo. He hefts his bag again, comparing his and Baekhyun's.
Baekhyun shoves his hands back in his gloves. The red rubber on the inside of the thumb has a small hole in it. He'll need to be more careful with his knife. "Guess I've got my work cut out for me, then."
Kyungsoo's hands have become surer. He's clipping the gamgyul faster now, and dropping them into his bag without looking. Not so out of place, then, after all.
"Guess you do," Kyungsoo says, and he drops another three tangerines in the bag.
He doesn't use the netbook for much. Just keeps guesthouse records on it, and connects his mp3 player every month to scrobble new music. He also uses it to check his e-mail.
He's owed Yixing an e-mail for going on three weeks now, and tonight, now that Kyungsoo has barricaded himself into his room with a bowl full of tangerines, a mug of coffee, and his plans, Baekhyun has no more excuses.
It's not that he doesn't like writing to Yixing. The truth is, Baekhyun doesn't much like writing anything. He wishes he could call Yixing, and he does, sometimes, when they both managed to make a date two weeks in advance. Yixing is so busy now. He plays in a band with some of his friends from college, and he spends his nights in composing music in apartments all around Beijing with his roommate Lu Han, who seems to dote on him pretty insistently, the same way everyone does once they get to know him. He seems happy, in all in his busyness, and so Baekhyun writes e-mails in simple Korean about his mundane days and waits for Yixing's far more exciting replies.
Or maybe it is that Baekhyun doesn't like writing to Yixing, because writing to Yixing always makes Baekhyun remember when he still lived here, keeping Baekhyun up way too late at night playing melancholy songs on his guitar and singing made up Korean translations of the Chinese lyrics with his extremely round vowels and strangely metered conjugations.
Baekhyun misses Yixing the most when he writes him e-mails.
Still, three weeks is longer than he usually puts off replying, even if he has been occupied with his guest.
His web browser takes an eternity to load. The internet is almost as bad as the cell phone reception, but it works, mostly. It's just slow. Baekhyun impatiently clicks his nails on the edge of his desk. When it finally loads, he logs into his e-mail. Three spam messages, and another one from Yixing.
He clicks it open. It just says heyo heyo are you alive dongsaeng, and Baekhyun laughs.
The e-mail he writes to Yixing is longer and more scatterbrained than usual. I have a guest he writes. In the winter. Random, right? He describes Kyungsoo: the way he'd looked when he showed up, all slick in his suit and his gelled back hair. Like a chaebol from one of those dramas we watched, hyung. It was so bizarre.
He tells Yixing about today, about picking gamgyul in Soojung's family grove, and about teaching Kyungsoo how to hang laundry on an outdoor line. He laughingly mentions Kyungsoo teaching him how to not burn the edges of his eggs. Finally, he winds down to talking about hiking with Kyungsoo up to the halmang-dang.
It was odd, Baekhyun says, fingers hesitating over the keys. Even though I haven't gone up there-- he stares at the screen --in a while, I felt like I should take him there. Because he reminds me of you. Those first few weeks, anyway, when Yixing smiled and said thank you and sang as he watered the herbs growing in the front of the guesthouse but somehow never seemed completely there. Yeah. So anyway, this winter is more interesting than last winter. And definitely better than that weirdo hiker that showed up with a deer on a leash a few months ago.
He sends the e-mail, and then stretches his arms above his head. He's thirsty, so he heads to the kitchen to get water. He ends up heating water, instead, and pouring cocoa powder into it. After a moment of deliberation, he pulls down a second mug, and mixes it for Kyungsoo, taking extra time to break up the lumps with his spoon because Kyungsoo would probably freak out if the texture was uneven.
Carefully walking with both mugs, he goes back out into the hallway and shuffles down to Kyungsoo's door. Both of his hands are taken, so he can't knock. He starts to call Kyungsoo's name, but he pauses when he hears a sweet melody coming from the other side of the door. At first, he thinks it's the radio, but there's no music. It's just Kyungsoo, he realizes, singing the song Baekhyun had sung while they hung the laundry.
Baekhyun just stands there and listens, for a minute. All the things Baekhyun likes about Kyungsoo's speaking voice are magnified in his singing voice. The hot chocolate mugs are warm against his palms.
When Kyungsoo tapers off, Baekhyun clears his throat. "Kyungsoo? I made hot chocolate~!"
The door opens, and Kyungsoo is looking up at him owlishly. He's wearing a sweatshirt, but just his underwear, black and tight and stopping just above mid-thigh. His legs are more toned than Baekhyun had expected, and he quickly looks up, back to Kyungsoo's face, and forces his gaze to stay there. He holds out one mug, the better mixed one. "I knew you were still awake since your light was still on."
Kyungsoo takes the mug. "Thank you," he says. He takes a sip. Baekhyun looks past him, and there's nothing on the floor now. He looks over at the desk, and the rolls are covering the surface. "Was that all?"
"Do you want another desk?" Baekhyun wrinkles his nose, gripping his mug with both hands. "I could bring in the one from my brother's room." He laughs. "Not like he uses it. You could push the two together and then you'd have a bigger surface to work on."
Taking another long sip from the mug, Kyungsoo watches Baekhyun over the rim. Baekhyun feels strangely hot under that stare, a slow creeping heat that starts in his gut and climbs up his chest like malojumdae vines, coating the insides of his ribs.
"You have a pretty voice," Baekhyun blurts out. "When you sing. I mean, when you speak, too, but when you sing, it's…" He laughs, feeling silly. "Sorry. I guess."
"I would like another desk," Kyungsoo says. "If it's not too much trouble." He's giving Baekhyun an amused grin when he lowers the mug.
"We can do it tomorrow, if you want. No sweat." Baekhyun scratches at his belly and tightens his grip on his mug. "Maybe a little sweat, actually. These old desks are pretty heavy. I think my grandfather made them. If not, his father did. They're sturdy."
"This guesthouse is steeped in your family's history," Kyungsoo says. "That's really, well, nice."
"It is nice," says Baekhyun. Kyungsoo leans his weight against the doorframe. Kyungsoo's calves are round, and hairless. Baekhyun thinks he might have burned the roof of his mouth drinking his chocolate too quickly. "Oh, and the router is turned on, if you wanted to send some e-mail or whatever? The wireless should work, but you know how it is, this place is a dead-zone, and eventually we'll all be on the smart-grid system I guess but we're not there now so… So if the wi-fi doesn't work, just come into my room and you can use the ethernet cable."
"Sure," Kyungsoo says. Baekhyun slips his hand into his pocket and bites down on his lower lip as Kyungsoo takes another sip. "Thank you for the hot chocolate."
"No problem," says Baekhyun. "Really."
Kyungsoo starts to close the door, but then he stops. "Baekhyun, I…"
"I really like this place," he says. "Your guesthouse." There's an unspoken ‘you' implied that makes Baekhyun want to beam, so he does. Kyungsoo looks taken aback, but he offers a genuine grin in return.
"It likes you," Baekhyun says. "Especially the stove. The stove is really temperamental." He laughs again, too loudly for late evening, but it's not jarring, this time. Kyungsoo seems to soak it up, his spines completely retracted for the evening.
Baekhyun returns to his room and lies down on his bedding, setting down his mostly empty mug of chocolate and picking up his Learn Chinese! book from his desk, sprawling out on his belly to read lesson three. He falls asleep on the first page. When he wakes up, he's covered with his blankets, and his book has been closed and rests neatly beside him. The mug, when he looks up, is gone from his desk.
He figures Kyungsoo must have had to use the ethernet cord, in the end. Still, he hadn't had to cover Baekhyun with a blanket. Groggily, Baekhyun doesn't think too hard about the flash of giddiness that makes his heart beat faster, just lets himself fall back asleep.