In summer, the island comes alive.
For a small village at the edge of a narrow country, fall and winter are a practice in slumber. Fishing boats float out onto the grey sea, hooking weary feet over the worn roads until they've scraped their heels into the drowsy wake of spring. One by one, the flowers bloom, darting between the bushes with their shy new buds.
Then before you know it: summer. Subjectively, Donghyuck's favorite time to be here, though really, summer is the only time he’s ever visited the island. This town was his grandmother's home, his mother's too, but not his.
He was born and raised in the city, in a neat apartment at the heart of a new suburban block, a far cry from the old wooden houses that wove in a winding path through this tiny town. In the city, he usually spends summer days flitting between the bustling market street, stuffing himself sick at the vendor stalls, and his icebox room, a fever patch pasted to his forehead as he curses through his headset.
Summer here, though, he thinks as he steps out of the convenience store, a half-empty bottle of soda swinging in his grip, is something different. Green galore. There’s a strange violence to it, the way the trees and shrubs protrude from the mountain sides, like a thick mossy blanket jabbing up against the horizon. Nature in its finest, straining against the sea salt wind.
On his bike ride up the mountain, he peers out at the coast, watching the waves crash against the rock bed in amnesiac routine. Far away from the bustle of the city, it’s easy to fall into the rhythm of island life, an ebb and flow like the melodramatic whir a grandfather clock, hazy clouds churning across the bright sky.
The train ride down this time around made him wearier than it had in past years. Maybe it was the fact that he was no longer a kid, bouncing with sugar fed energy off the carriage walls, but the hard seats had left his butt sore and his neck stiff. He’d spent the whole way gazing out the window, watching as the cityscape gave way to rolling hills and sharp cliffs, and eventually, ripples of ocean blue that flung far to the horizon and glittered like shards of glass under the summer sun.
Despite the exhaustion, a feeling hummed under his skin at the widening sight of the coast. He knows it now, has a name for it, singing through his veins as he pedals uphill. It's why he's here, following his mother's prescription to a T. Salt, sea, sun, wind.
All the ingredients of the magic that runs through his cold blood.
Past the stretches of open sky and warm sun, the ancient trees toss their shade upon him in a tight-knit mosaic. He leaves his bike by a familiar stump and flops to the mossy ground beside it. The bottle is still cool against his neck, condensation washing away the heat of the afternoon sun. Closing his eyes, he cranes his neck towards the breeze, heartbeat slowing to the gentle cacophony of cicadas, the rustling weaves, the snapping twigs. Thump, thump, thump—
Then a roar crashes through the forest, like a clanging cymbal, jolting Donghyuck awake.
Heart drumming, Donghyuck abandons the bottle on the ground and stands to his feet. He sidesteps the stray branches and nestles of leaves, weaving his way around a cluster of trees to a clearing, only to stop short at the sight that greets him.
Gun metal scales, a sweeping tail, and a sharp, jagged jaw. Yellow eyes that blink at him slowly, in surprise.
There is a dragon in the middle of the woods.
When he was younger, in his summers here, he would often spend his evenings lounging out on the porch across from his grandmother, watching the lights on the horizon dwindle as she told him stories of the island folklore. His favorite story was the one about how the island came to be.
Long ago, the people of the island were engulfed in a war. Stricken by the people's pain and grief, the heavens sent down a family of dragons to aid them. The creatures turned the tide on the war, and in turn, the villagers revered the dragons, worshipped them. Growing attached to the kindness of humans, the dragons began to yearn for life amongst them and when it was time to return to the heavens, some stayed, taking on the forms of humans. They fell in love with villagers and started families. Shape-shifters, sea monsters, witches, all folktale names for the same children with dragon magic flowing in their veins.
Centuries have passed since then. As cities expanded and families moved, the bloodlines became murkier, drying out into narrower and narrower vessels as skyscrapers shot up against the heavenly skies.
Donghyuck had thought he was the only one left on this island where dragons once slumbered. The boy sitting in front of him begs to differ.
“I think you’re good,” he says, smoothing out the bandages he’s wrapped around the boy’s bleeding arm. “But I’m no doctor. You might want to get it checked out at a hospital.”
Jeno nods, the rest of his body still as a statue as Donghyuck’s fingers linger on a stubborn wrinkle in the thin cloth. That’s his name, Jeno, traded in a sheepish voice as he rode on the back of Donghyuck’s bike, fingers curling into the side of Donghyuck’s t-shirt as they sped down the hill. He’d been awfully quiet since then, the politest guest, toeing his shoes off at the door and arranging them on the rack even as he gripped his bleeding arm. It’s hard to believe that this boy is the same towering creature that fixed him with its narrow pupils in the woods.
Not that there haven’t been harder stories to believe.
“Thank you,” Jeno says. “I think I’ll be fine, after a few days.”
“This happens often?”
“Not too often, but I guess I am pretty clumsy,” Jeno admits, scratching at his temples with his free hand. “Don’t worry, my wounds tend to heal quickly because of. Well, you know.”
Donghyuck nods, clicking the first aid kit shut.
“Dragon blood,” he says, the words strange and round like an orb in his tongue, especially when Jeno stares at him with an unreadable look. The same look he’d given Donghyuck when he’d approached him in the closer, hands outstretched instead of darting away.
Of course Donghyuck knows. How could he not?
But there is other knowledge he’s not quite privy to. Like what to say when there’s a boy in his grandmother’s kitchen looking around with curious eyes, lingering on the dusty knick knacks stacked on the windowsill, the plants he’s forgotten to water again, the small pile of dishes soaking in the sink. He’s out of his element, no blinking club lights, no overpriced shots to ease his ego.
The city is so far away, but Jeno is right here.
Getting to his feet, Donghyuck wanders off to the cabinets on the excuse of putting away the kit and loiters in front of the fridge. A carton of eggs, a mackerel he’d been nudged into buying by a lady down the pier, some side dishes his mother had sent down on expedited shipping. Two cans of beer, initially intended to be cracked in front of an old gag show rerun by Donghyuck and Donghyuck only.
He peers over the fridge door and pretends not to startle when he finds Jeno’s eyes gazing back at him, the corners of his mouth lifting. “Hey, do you want to stay for dinner?”
For as long as Donghyuck can remember, his grandmother had lived on this island, in this house perched at the foot of the rolling hills. Their family have been here for generations, so long that Donghyuck wonders if the spirits of his ancestors have permeated the stone wall that lines the perimeter, carving their essence onto the fine grains.
Donghyuck doesn’t believe in ghosts, not in that way, but he swears he can feel them here. As he’d packed for the trip here, he imagined his ancestors, roaming in this empty house, old stone, old wood, no wi-fi, smack dab in the middle of nowhere. Were they floating between the laundry lines in the courtyard, slipping between the dusty panels, riding the wind that creaks the hinges?
These questions had haunted him when he laid in bed those first few nights, holding his breath under his grandmother’s old quilts as the house came alive, its wooden frame exhaling under the force of the breeze.
“Do you think there are ghosts here?”
Jeno pauses, chopsticks stilling over a plate of steamed vegetables. “Like, on this island?”
“Yeah,” Donghyuck nods, shovelling a small mound of rice into his mouth. “You don’t think they’re real?”
Shaking his head, Jeno picks up a piece of carrot and lays it on top of Donghyuck’s bowl. “We’re dragons. I think the possibility of ghosts existing are just as likely.”
Donghyuck tenses, looking around, but no one else in the restaurant is paying them any attention. A table away, a lively drinking game has ensued, with the restaurant owner herself leading the charge. Loud cheers bounce off the old wallpapers and metal tables, drowning out their conversation.
Setting down his bowl, Jeno fixes Donghyuck with a smile. “Why? Are you being haunted?”
Donghyuck snorts. “No. It just feels like… my grandma’s house is so old, I feel like my ancestors are clinging on to its foundations or something.”
“Maybe they are,” Jeno shrugs. It’s a habit of his that Donghyuck has picked up on in the past week of their acquaintance, or really, a week of following Jeno around the island. If Jeno is bothered, he hasn’t let Donghyuck know. He takes every single invitation, every question Donghyuck extends in stride.
Consequently, Donghyuck has learned a lot about Jeno. How his family are fishermen, how they moved here from an inland village, how he used to sneak out to harbor with classmates during school days and drink rice wine from soda liter bottles.
“You’re not scared? Your house is pretty old too.”
Another tidbit: the way Jeno holds his index knuckle to his bottom lip as he thinks, humming. Donghyuck takes note of it and files it away. “In a place like this, there are ghosts everywhere. Not just the dead.”
Condensation drips onto the table as he picks up the glass of iced water. He thinks of the nights curled up in his bed, staring up at the ceiling. The history, written into the frames, and the expectations that follow them. “And you’re not scared of them?”
Jeno smiles, wry. “Why would I be scared of old friends?”
There is a mango tree in the backyard of the house. When he was much younger, just the height of his grandmother's torso, he would tiptoe into the garden with a stool and bat at the fruits with a fallen branch until one fell into his eager hands.
Now, Donghyuck realizes as he approaches the branches, that he’s tall enough to pluck them from the tree without a need for the stool. They just fall off with a flick of the knife, right into the basket he balances on one hip.
“You’re a natural,” Jeno muses next to him. Their shoulders brush on the path back to the patio, setting their baskets on the table.
“Thanks, I had a lot of practice with a wooden stick,” Donghyuck laughs.
Jeno has expert hands. Donghyuck watches him with a mix of delight and envy , remembering the way the point of the knife had once slipped through a peach and nicked his palm. With Jeno, there was no awkwardness, no fumbling. Just ease, gliding the knife under the mango skin like a hand through brook water, sweeping the flesh off the pit and onto the plate.
"I help out in the kitchen a lot," Jeno explains, laughing when Donghyuck marvels at the perfect cuts. "Side effects of being a middle child."
Instead of the slices, Jeno goes for the pit, grabbing it from the plate and sucking it between his teeth. A trail of juice drips past his wrist and down his elbow as he asks about Donghyuck's day, what he'd been doing. Nothing, other than sleeping into the afternoon and waking up to do laundry, Donghyuck tells him, gesturing at the clothesline strung across the fences.
"What about you?"
The whole time Jeno is talking, Donghyuck tries to pay attention, he does. But in the afternoon light, Donghyuck can't take his eyes off Jeno's lips, slick and shiny with the remnants of juice. Some of it has dribbled onto the corner of his mouth, down to his chin. It should be gross, but instead a strange heat pools in Donghyuck's chest, tightness.
He acts without thinking, reaching out to wipe away the juice with his thumb, and grazes Jeno's bottom lip. Abruptly, Jeno stops talking, the middle of a sentence drifting off into the breeze, as he stares at Donghyuck. Donghyuck doesn't pull away and neither does Jeno. In Donghyuck's head, the film reel clicks into action, the climax of a Western film filling up the back screen, two lone rangers with their pistols cocked, slow motion standoff.
Then, something shifts behind the liquid of Jeno's eyes. His mouth parts, pink tongue swiping against the pad of Donghyuck's thumb. Breathe hitching, Donghyuck inches forward, slipping his thumb into the cavity of Jeno's mouth. It's warm, wet, ticklish when Jeno licks against him. Slow, tentative, curious. He can't break his eyes away from Jeno's, the heat falling to the pit of his stomach, sparking a wildfire. It burns and burns and burns, until at last, Donghyuck pulls away with flushed cheeks.
It’s not until a week later that Donghyuck learns the taste of Jeno’s mouth. It’s a week of pretense, feigned amnesia, brushing things under the rug in hopes of never speaking it again.
It doesn’t work. The rug is lumpy. Donghyuck’s bed is lumpy, the mattress old and in desperate need of replacement, giving at awkward places in his spine as he tosses and turns. He’s used to the sleeplessness, but not this. When he closes his eyes, all he can think of is Jeno and that moment on the patio. The flush heat of his tongue against Donghyuck’s skin and the way he’d look at Donghyuck with a mischief so startling it felt like a reflection.
Jeno, Jeno, Jeno, looping between his glimpses of dreamscape until, with feigned resignation, he pushes his hands past his waistbands and gives into the want.
If Jeno notices Donghyuck’s frustration, well. He probably does. In that week, Donghyuck learns a new side to Jeno, one that ripples beneath the doughy surface to reveal a surprising cheekiness.
On Friday, Jeno shows up at midday unannounced. Donghyuck is still in his sleep clothes, spitting out his toothpaste and rushing to the door at the knock that echoes through the house. Jeno carries the smell of the sea into the kitchen, setting down a pack of beer and his mother’s side dishes on the table.
“She insisted I deliver it to you today,” he offers, drawing Donghyuck from his hesitant post under the door frame. “Have you eaten? I can cook lunch.”
It’s all horrifically, or maybe delightfully, domestic. Jeno throws on the apron hanging on the hook, and in a matter of minutes, there is fried rice sizzling on the stove, swirling in the pan to the tide Jeno draws with his chopsticks. Donghyuck gulps it down, hungrier than he thought he’d been, and Jeno watches him from across the table with a soft smile.
After, they settle on the couch in front of the TV. A drama rerun is playing, some inane, heart wrenching plot of a rich heiress who ran away from home to pursue a farm boy. Donghyuck keeps his eyes on the screen, but his mind is on Jeno, sitting next to him with criss-crossed legs, a can of beer sweating on his knee.
“My sister loves this drama,” Jeno says. On the screen, the heiress is squatting on the road, sobbing as the rain drenches her from head-to-toe, save for her perfect makeup. “She makes me watch it all the time with her.”
The scene cuts to a commercial break. Donghyuck sighs, sinking back into the couch and daring himself to look at Jeno from the edge of his vision. “What happens next?”
“He finds her in the rain and proposes to her. Then they kiss and get married.”
“Well that escalated quickly.”
Finger toying with the tab, Jeno smiles. “There are things that are harder to believe.”
Donghyuck drains the rest of his beer, letting the words sink in. Jeno is right. There are harder things to believe, but somehow, he believes in them anyways.
He turns to Jeno. “And what do you believe in?”
Humming, Jeno places his can down on the low table and leans in, inching towards Donghyuck. “This,” he murmurs and presses a kiss square on Donghyuck’s lips.
It escalates quickly.
First, a chaste kiss, Jeno’s lips brushing against Donghyuck’s like they’re petals, a gust of wind away from falling off the stem.
Then, a better kiss, a deeper kiss, one where Donghyuck pushes back and Jeno parts his lips to let Donghyuck in. One where Jeno’s fingertips trail the constellation of freckles on Donghyuck’s arm up to his shoulder, his neck, to where he holds Donghyuck’s jaw between his hands. One where they end up with Jeno straddling Donghyuck’s hips, craning his neck to let Donghyuck latch his mouth against the expanse.
“So?” Jeno gasps out as Donghyuck’s hands trail the waistband of his pants. “How do I compare to the city boys?”
“There’s no comparison,” he mumbles, and is rewarded by Jeno’s little smile as he takes Donghyuck’s hand and guides it past the hem.
He’s not lying. There is no comparison. He thinks about the warm bodies he’d fallen into in the city, at parties, on second dates and first meetings, mouth rushing to seek the heat, the fast and heady high. With Jeno, he wants to slow down on borrowed seconds. Wants to savour this, drink in the sight of Jeno with his saltwater skin, drawn in tan lines and sinewy muscles.
Time moves like taffy. This is the irony, Donghyuck supposes. How something so quick can feel so slow, like sand trickling down an hourglass. Every gasp Jeno breathes out as Donghyuck strokes his fingers into him loops into an eternity, even when he knows by the length of shadows that it’s still the afternoon.
“This is not your first time, right?” he asks Jeno.
“No,” Jeno says, back arching into the cushions. “Although if you go any slower, I might start to think it’s yours.”
Donghyuck laughs, following Jeno’s whines for him to get into him, quickly. He still takes his time, pressing into Jeno like a slow tide and delighting in the moans he draws from Jeno’s lips.
Between the hazy, strung-out spells of lust, his curiosity gets the better of him. His thumb nudges the corner of Jeno’s mouth, breath stilting, only to release when Jeno opens his mouth and sucks him in. It’s madness, the flush of Jeno’s skin, his lidded eyes as he works his down to meet Donghyuck’s thrust. Jeno moves, and Donghyuck sees fire, sees plumes of lilac smoke rising over village roofs, sees the world laid under heaven’s feet, ashes and ruin.
Yet, despite that, there’s a gentleness. He runs the pad of his thumb over Jeno’s teeth, the sharp incisors, flat mound molars, and thinks about the ancient blood that flows through their veins, the rugged jaws sculpted to precious jewels. How Jeno could bite down and draw blood, but he doesn’t.
Jeno just looks up at him, eyes like obsidian, and smiles.
“I found out when I was ten,” Jeno tells him later, tucked up in a corner of Donghyuck’s bed and smelling like Donghyuck’s shampoo. The last wisps of the afternoon sun is fading through the windows, trailed by a deep chemical blue. Donghyuck rests his head on Jeno’s shoulder and sinks into the timbre of Jeno’s voice as he talks.
“In some ways, I think I knew all along. There are stories in my family, you know, about ancestors generations and generations past. My great grandmother, they thought she was the last one. After her kids didn’t show any trace of dragon blood, everyone thought it was gone, wiped clean from our lineage like some kind of slate. Who would’ve guessed I’d show up?”
It was the same in Donghyuck’s family. Whispers around the patio tables at family reunions, bite-sized bed stories, exaggerated ghost tales swapped with his cousins in a broom closet. Only his grandmother had fed him the real stories, out there on the porch, slipping them between memories of her youth and the local catches down on the pier.
“There was this one night, where I was lying in bed and I thought I was being burned alive, inside out. My parents, they panicked and called my uncle, he’s a doctor. But by the time he came, I was gone. They found me out by the cliffs. Wings and teeth and all. Some villagers passing by saw me, and by the next morning, the town was convinced there was an apocalypse happening.”
A wry smile hooks on Donghyuck’s lips as he thinks of his own feverish night, breaking out into the cool night and rolling hills, dodging skyscrapers through the hazy film of unconsciousness. “Is that why you moved?”
Jeno hums. “Maybe. My parents never told me. I came home one day from school and all our bags were packed away on the truck. Next thing I knew, we ended up here.”
Closing his eyes, Donghyuck imagines a younger Jeno, chin propped on his knees as he stared out at the rolling landscape. “Were you sad about it? Moving away?”
Jeno pauses, and Donghyuck takes that opportunity to card through Jeno’s hair, warmth flooding through him when Jeno leans into his touch. “Not really? I always thought it would be cool to live out by the ocean. The village I grew up in, it was all grass and land and mountains. No water, middle of nowhere.”
“This is also the middle of nowhere,” Donghyuck points out and Jeno laughs.
“To some people, maybe. But for me, this place was the beginning. It’s the home of our ancestors. A place we’ll always belong to.”
Our ancestors. Donghyuck mulls over the words, letting it slide around on the tip of his tongue. Our ancestors, our home. The nexus of that statement: us and the centuries of history we belong to.
It’s a big thought, one too big for the space between the throw blanket and their warm bodies. So instead, Donghyuck pushes it to the corner of his mind.
He picks an easier question. “Aren’t you worried about the people here?”
“No,” Jeno says. His words are slowing down now, syllables floating away like helium balloons into the silence of the room. “These people, they grew up with those legends, just like us. They’re the people of this land and they’re more open minded than you might think.”
In the city, the summer had meant sleepless nights for Donghyuck. He’d dawdle in the streets, swinging from club to club with university friends, then stumbling back to the dorms piss drunk. They’d always end up sprawled on the bed, the floor, but for him, the sleep would never come. The alcohol would sink like lead in his veins, weighing him down against the furnace sheets. He’d listen to their snores as a fire licks its way through his chest and taste ash in his dry mouth.
At the start of this summer, the night fevers had grown so bad he’d grown into something of an insomniac. Light headed days followed by sleepless nights, tossing and turning in sheets until he was convinced he’d wear a hole through the frame. It was enough to push him to finally bite the bullet and take his mom up on the offer she’d be pushing across the dinner table every time he came home.
Take some time away, Donghyuck. It’ll do you good.
Now, a soft breeze flits past the curtains and Jeno curls into Donghyuck’s side. He’s gone quiet, words traded for the rise and fall of his chest.
Donghyuck closes his eyes. For the first time in months, sleep comes easy.
The days float away like leaves in the wind, so fast Donghyuck worries that he’ll miss one in a blink. After claiming territory on the right side of Donghyuck’s bed, Jeno takes on a personal mission to show Donghyuck every nook and cranny of the island. As it turns out, there are more places to learn the shape of Jeno's mouth without a curious spectator on this small floating rock than Donghyuck had expected.
Some of Donghyuck's favorites: the alley behind the convenience store where the local stray cat brushes past their tangled legs, the train station at the foot of the mountains when the rails are empty. The edge of the pier on quiet, moonlit nights, water lapping at their feet.
Every time Jeno's mouth brushes against his, a desire blooms in Donghyuck's chest to hold on, to tuck away each memory like a coveted jewel.
“We’re hoarders,” Jeno sums it up easily one afternoon. He plucks up a pebble from the stream, and holds it up the light.
“So you collect rocks?” Donghyuck asks, thinking of his own shoe boxes back home, filled to the brim with arbitrary newspaper clippings, headlines he’d wanted to savour on for no inexplicable reason.
Satisfied with whatever he’s seen, Jeno slides the pebble into his pocket and looks over at Donghyuck. “Not really. I just collect whatever I find pretty.”
Donghyuck laughs, but he can feel heat rising on the back of his neck, sharper than the warmth of the afternoon sun. They meander along the stream, Jeno picking up more pebbles along the way and offering them to Donghyuck for inspection. Eventually, they reach the clearing, bracketed by towering laurel trees, their branches stretching like webs.
“Come here often?” Donghyuck quips, setting his backpack down.
Jeno shrugs off his own bag, laughing. “I used to, but someone’s been awfully distracting.”
Donghyuck wrinkles his nose. “Who’s this person? I’m gonna need to have a talk with him,” he insists, though pliant as Jeno pushes him to rest atop a flat rock.
“He’s not very good at playing nice,” Jeno murmurs, pressing a slow kiss to Donghyuck’s mouth.
“Are you sure we’re talking about the right person?”
Donghyuck leans forward to chase Jeno’s mouth, but Jeno is already pulling away with a cheeky grin.
“Like I said. Distracting.”
Donghyuck whines as Jeno loosens himself from Donghyuck’s grasp and steps into the center of the clearing. Sunlight slants through an opening in the foliage, concentrating in a spotlight that splits Jeno into two. Dark, light, rippling into new valleys as Jeno shifts, skin to scale, boy to beast. Donghyuck can’t look away. Breathe caught in his throat, he watches as Jeno launches from the ground, wings blooming from his long back like spring petals.
It’s the roar Jeno lets that shakes Donghyuck from his reverie. He feels the laughter bubble from up from his chest, echoed by rising wonder as Jeno dislodges a few branches and slashes through the sky.
“Fuck,” he whispers, eyes trailing Jeno’s gunmetal body as it dips across the blue, blue sky, sun glinting off his scales. It’s like watching a storybook come to life, except Donghyuck has to pinch himself to remind himself that this is real.
Just like the knowledge that the same blood pushing Jeno’s sprawling form across the sky also runs through Donghyuck’s veins. Jeno flies and Donghyuck remembers toy sized skyscrapers, golden clouds. The joy of soaring and the fear of falling, all in one.
When Jeno asks, Donghyuck explains it like this: a midsummer night last year, woken up by the inexplicable desire to see the tallest building from a satellite view, or as close to it as he could get. In hindsight, he knew his wings weren’t wax, that there was skin there, and bone, and muscle, but it had felt like it anyways, like fire melting away underneath him as he crashed into a junkyard on the outskirts of the city.
The words find themselves in his mouth, the simple truth so plain it’s practically a lie. “Fear of heights, I guess.”
In reality, it’s a multitude of loose end answers.
For starters, acrophobia is a blanket name, one far easy to slip under when he’s staring out the window of a city skyscraper and one of his friends murmurs, “Wow, imagine falling from this height.” Donghyuck does not have to imagine. He can recount the exact details of when his wings had spasmed and froze and succumbed to the ancient pull of gravity.
In truth, it was not the fall that had shaken him. It was the aftermath of the aftermath, the vice grip feeling in his chest months after he’d laid in that junk yard and thought he’d stared death in the eye. That day, he’d limped home with only a sprained ankle but oddly enough, it felt like a different part of him had bruised, mottled like the flesh of an overripe fruit.
To Donghyuck’s relief, Jeno doesn’t ask more hard questions. Instead, he slips into a recollection of strange catches he’s witnessed out on the fishing boat, his hand latching onto Donghyuck’s hand like a puzzle piece.
It’s something like magic, Donghyuck thinks, as he lets Jeno pull him out the door. He lets Jeno pull him down the dusty roads, the inky alleys, the open pier. He lets Jeno pull him to his dinner table, where Jeno’s mother scoops him a mountaintop of rice and tells Jeno she finds Donghyuck to be very handsome.
He lets Jeno pull him in with no resistance and finds that at the very least, he has no fear of falling deep into Jeno’s abyss.
His mother calls on a Tuesday.
The funny thing is, Donghyuck had forgotten the creaky old house even had a landline until its rings jolt him from a quest to map out every beauty mark on the expanse of Jeno’s neck.
“Hello?” he rasps into the receiver before clearing his throat.
There’s a brief pause from the other side before his mother’s voice floods the line. “Donghyuck? Did I catch you at a bad time?”
On the couch, Jeno sits up, straightening out his wrinkled shirt, and tilts his head curiously. Donghyuck shakes his head, before realizing that his mother couldn’t see him. “No,” he mutters. “Sorry about not calling earlier, I’ve been… sidetracked.”
His mother laughs, the sound crackling in his ear. “I’ll admit I was getting antsy, but I’m glad to hear you’re having fun. You are having fun, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” Donghyuck says, looking up at Jeno with a smile. He hops onto the counter and dangles his legs as he tells her about the house, the village, local stories he’d gleaned from dinners with Jeno’s family.
“And I’ve made a friend,” Donghyuck tells her. Jeno’s head pops up from where he’s bent over the kitchen sink, scrubbing away at an empty lemonade pitcher. “He’s pretty special,” he says and watches as Jeno’s lips quirk into a smile.
“I hope I get to meet him someday,” his mother says earnestly, before bridging into a rant about the current state of their neighborhood’s affairs. Someone’s kid getting married, a PTA mom on a power-trip, new neighbors from foreign places and old neighbors moving out. Humming along, Donghyuck is reminded of how fast the city moves, turning over new leaves like playing cards.
“Of course, you know that I miss you. Your friends, they miss you a lot too. I ran into Renjun at the grocery store the other day and he sounded half convinced you were dead.”
She laughs, but Donghyuck can imagine the threat-based texts piling up on his phone back in the city. Maybe it wasn’t the best decision to make himself virtually impossible to reach, but then again, he wasn’t thinking so clearly in those months leading up to the summer. At least he’d given his friends a heads-up that he was going away.
“I miss you too,” Donghyuck echoes and finds that it’s true. A part of him still continues to cling onto those neon lit skyscrapers, no matter how high they seem to rise.
His mother sighs into the phone. “I just hope you’re getting better.” She doesn’t have to elaborate; at the base of his chest, a fresh wave of guilt churns. The reminder of what he’s here for, really here for, burns from the corner of his mind. To get over it, to get better. Baby steps, right?
He catches Jeno’s eye as Jeno settles back on the couch with a book he’d picked up from the living room shelf and mulls over his mother’s words.
“I am,” Donghyuck says at last just before hanging up.
He drops back on the couch next to Jeno and curls into his warmth. It feels like the right thing to say, sitting here next to Jeno, even if he hasn’t flown for months.
Baby steps, is what Donghyuck reminds himself, day in, day out. One foot in front of the other as he trails Jeno up into the thick of the forest, abandoning their bikes at the foot of the mountain. Slow progress is better than no progress, he tries to think when he watches Jeno sweep across the sky, tracing chemtrail paths like the afterimage of an aircraft.
Slow progress is better than no progress, but still, Donghyuck is impatient.
“Would you mind,” Donghyuck asks one day when they’re pushing through the branches, his feet dodging familiar stray roots. “Would you mind letting me ride on your back?”
Jeno stops, knowing eyes peeking through a smattering of leaves. “Not at all.”
This is how Donghyuck finds himself pressed against Jeno’s ridged back for dear life, holding in a scream as they brush past tree tops. A flock of distressed birds disperse through the air, a shrieking cacophony, and Donghyuck’s grip on Jeno tightens. Below him, Jeno flattens his wings and arches upward, higher.
Panic rising in his chest, Donghyuck squeezes his eyes shut. All he can imagine at this height is falling. One rough dip, one vicious blow of the wind, and he would become a victim of gravity again, slamming through the branches.
He’s wondering if it would hurt more around this time when Jeno lets out a roar. His eyes flutter open, concern bursting pass the suffocating fear, and then he sees it.
The ocean spreads out under him, an endless crystal floor stretching as far as the eye can see and all of it a ridiculous, sparkling blue, like the liquified insides of a gem. From this distance, the village becomes as small as a pebble, slotting easily in the circle Donghyuck forms between his forefinger and thumb. It’s like seeing the world through a telescope, or maybe a kaleidoscope, the earth reforming under his view, scaling the looming mountains into ant hills over the horizon. The eagle’s eye shrinks the world beneath it, and Donghyuck realizes that he’s missed this perspective, this grandness coursing through him.
Jeno is a solid island beneath him. Donghyuck knows that against all the odds, Jeno would catch him if he falls. Sucking in a breath, he lets go of his grip and reaches for the last wisps of an ancient heaven.
“The last time I was on a boat, I was ten and threw up on the railings.”
“Is this a threat?”
“No,” Donghyuck says, before breaking out into a smile. “Only a funny story.”
On the deck of the fishing boat, he can feel the salty mist as the wind brushes over the water. This boat is bigger than the one his parents had placed him on as an overzealous kid, and it rocks with less vigour under his feet, placating any memories of seasickness.
Jeno drops a coil of rope onto the deck and grins. “What a shame, I kind of wanted to see it in action.”
Before Donghyuck could wiggle his eyebrows and suggest he show Jeno a different kind of action, Jeno is distracted by the yell of another fisherman on the boat, beckoning him for help on a knotted net. Donghyuck sighs and turns back to the railings.
For the past week, he’d viewed the mountains like one would dirt mounds, growing more and more accustomed to seeing the world from the vantage point of Jeno’s back. It’s startling now, to be out on the water and realize in comparison to the grand scale of the world, he is still small enough to be insignificant. The mountains tower above him as he peers towards the skyline, sloping like the form of sleeping giants. Brackish water laps at the sides of the boat, no longer blue under the early morning skies, but a faded grey that belies the murky depths.
The discrepancy serves as a reminder that even here, the world marches on. Some forces are unstoppable, like the ticking hand of time drawing the end of the summer close.
“It’s getting cooler these days,” Jeno remarks as he sidles up next to Donghyuck. “Less catches, at least until fall.”
“That was fast, you fixed the net already?”
Jeno shrugs. “What can I say? I’m good at my job.”
A part of Donghyuck is eager to get snarky, but then the boat rocks and he lets out a yelp, stumbling back into Jeno’s sturdy arm. Jeno’s laugh rings in his ear and Donghyuck grumbles, but he makes no move to step away.
For all the myths and magic Jeno seems to be made of, he’s not bluffing. Donghyuck delights in watching him sweep around the boat, feet sure of his every step on the bobbing deck like a trapeze artist on a tightrope. It’s far too easy to gawk at the broad lines of Jeno’s shoulders or the strength of his tapered waist as he leans over the deck and hauls up a net. Too easy to get lost in the way he grins against the wind, barely brushed hair whipping around him.
Donghyuck imagines Jeno in the city, hair slicked back, body pressed against Donghyuck in a dark corner of a nightclub, and flushes. A dangerous thought to be thinking before the sun is fully above the horizon.
“And when did you get this good?” Donghyuck asks instead.
“The first thing I wanted to do when we got here was jump on a boat. I didn’t start coming out this much until high school though, when some of the older kids moved away and they needed more help.” As he speaks, Jeno’s eyes move out towards some indefinite point in the sea. His voice follows, somehow, words tapering off into the distance. “That’s just what happens in a place like this. People move away and don’t come back.”
Donghyuck hums, remembering his own childhood petulance at being dragged out to the island by his parents every summer. “I used to hate coming back here. I would sulk the whole ride down and beg my parents to let me go back home. But the moment I got here, I wouldn’t want to leave again.”
Jeno opens his mouth, then closes it with a smile, looking away from Donghyuck and out into the horizon.
Leaving. That word hangs between them like the frayed pinpoint of a rubber band. Stretching, stretching time.
Donghyuck stands at the edge of a cliff on a windy afternoon and hopes for a miracle.
One feet away from where he stands, the dark soil and tepid grass gives away to air. Then nothing. Then the surface of the ocean, which he imagines might feel like a moving sheet of iron, then the endless, endless blue, air escaping from his lungs, until at last, all light gives way to the deep, dark sea.
"You got this," Jeno says, one feet away, hand hovering over the back of Donghyuck's back. He can feel the ghost of his touch, warm, gentle. Hesitant, if just for Donghyuck's mortality.
Donghyuck sucks in a breath and thinks, no, he does not have this. This, being whatever seed of an idea that had wormed its way into his head ever since that call on his mother. The end of summer hangs on the thinning branches of the island's trees, and Donghyuck is reminded every time he looks out of the window that he is only here for so long.
I just hope you're getting better.
He hadn't noticed his hands were balled up until Jeno's fingers slip against his. It's a welcome sensation, his shoulders deflating as Jeno rests his other hand on the rigid muscles.
"You got this," Jeno says again. "Ready?"
Donghyuck closes his eyes and nods. Then opens them again when he feels the shove of Jeno's hand against his back, brief warmth registering, before he's passing through the air with no resistance.
Jeno was skeptical of the plan at first.
"You want me to push you off the cliff?" Jeno had asked, shifting from where he'd been resting against Donghyuck's chest. They're watching that same drama again, but this time it was the season finale. Donghyuck pulled his eyes from the screen, where the farm boy had just woken up to the heiress' teary face after throwing himself in the path of a car to save her.
"Yes," Donghyuck said, matter of fact.
On the screen, the farm boy stared at the heiress blankly and asked her for her name. The tinny cries of the heiress echoed in the dark living room. Next to Donghyuck, Jeno rested his chin on his knees and stared up at Donghyuck, missing the moment when the farm boy broke into a laugh and pulled the sobbing heiress into a hug. Fooled you, didn't I?
"Because I trust you."
The soundtrack swelled.
Twenty feet from the water surface, Donghyuck spreads his wings and learns how to fly again.
There is a question Donghyuck needs to ask. It’s a very easy one, not like the vague one page prompts of his university papers, sprawling paragraphs without ever quite saying a thing. This one is much simpler. Point blank, A to B, crossing a chasm from one universe to the next on the light rail.
He’s just not sure he’ll arrive at the destination he wants.
The humid days have mellowed out. Now and then, small pockets of rain visit the island, skipping on the surface of the ocean like pebbles. Today, Donghyuck wakes up to the sound of droplets drumming against the flat roof of the house, running the mile down the drain pipe.
The spot on the bed next to him is empty, occupied by only smoothed over sheets, the work of careful hands. Yawning, Donghyuck pads into the hallway, blinking away the remnants of sleep when he hears a telltale laugh.
“Because you weren’t in bed,” Donghyuck mumbles, fumbling his way into Jeno’s arms. Through the clearing veil of sleep, Donghyuck sniffs the air, startling when he hears his stomach grumble.
“Good thing I was making food then,” Jeno laughs.
Donghyuck lets Jeno tug him towards the kitchen table, limbs falling into the seat like putty. He’d forgotten how much energy it took to fly, especially for the first time in forever. The exhaustion that had settled into his bones long after his feet touched the ground again, long after the adrenaline rush.
Not that the rush was gone, completely. Rather, it felt like the rediscovery of a dried up river vein, only now there was water. There was a flow here, an ebb and tide that Donghyuck clung onto and didn’t want to ever let go.
He wanted to grow it, that vein, until it was larger than he could ever be.
“Jeno,” he says later, melting against Jeno’s thigh as Jeno’s fingers combed through his hair. His eyes are half shut, but in his mind, he can see the unzipped suitcase lying in the corner of the bedroom, waiting to be filled.
“Will you come visit me in the city?”
Jeno’s hand pauses its ministrations and a part of Donghyuck’s chest locks up in protest when he feels Jeno draws his hand away. His eyes flutter open, desperation popping his lungs like a soda tab, words ready to bubble up and fill the silence.
But Jeno is smiling. He closes the cover of a dog-eared paperback on his index finger and looks at Donghyuck, a gaze that reflects back on him like the glassy surface of the sea on a clear afternoon. Underneath the low table, their ankles brush as they shift closer, unconsciously, automatically.
“Yes,” Jeno says before he closes the distance, like clockwork. “I would love to."
(In the fall, the city sunset blooms beyond the matchstick skyscrapers. Donghyuck tugs Jeno past the railings, crooked fingers sliding against rough palms.
They don’t fall.)