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AUGUST

Yeosang was above all a creature of habit. He feared change in the same way dogs chased cars – there was no real reason to, but he found himself doing so anyway.

That was exactly why he was relieved to find that the new school year began much as it always did, with Yunho sounding his horn impatiently in the driveway while he scrambled for his bag, stuffing his calculator into one of the side pockets on his way out. Of course, it had been Yunho’s mother who had driven them all to school the year before, and she hadn’t been so free with the horn either, but Yunho had been insisting on driving everyone everywhere ever since he’d managed to get his license, so Yeosang supposed it wasn’t too surprising that he’d taken over morning ferrying duties as well.

“Hey,” he gasped out, breathless, as he threw himself into the backseat. “Sorry, I snoozed my alarm too many times.”

“Wow, already slacking off just because we’re graduating, huh?” Wooyoung twisted around in the front passenger seat, his grin as radiant as ever. Wooyoung was annoying like that – he was a morning person, an afternoon person and a night person all bundled into one, endlessly bubbly even when everyone else was suffering from lack of sleep and too much homework. Still, it was a lovable kind of annoying, at least in Yeosang’s opinion.

Yunho chuckled as he peered into the mirrors, reversing carefully out of Yeosang’s driveway. “Slow down. It’s only the first day of school,” he said peaceably. “We’ve still got the whole year ahead of us.”

Yeosang made a soft noise of acknowledgement as he leaned back and watched the familiar streets roll by, the leaves of the trees still a couple of weeks from turning every shade between yellow and brown.

They picked Mingi up less than five minutes later, looking dishevelled and still half-asleep when he tumbled into the car, but he was at least on time.

The school building, worn but tidily upkept, with students already bustling in through the front gate, was exactly how Yeosang remembered it to be, and he wasn’t sure why he had expected otherwise. San strolled up to the carpark just as Yunho was parking, his tie loosely knotted and his dark hair stylishly tousled. Wooyoung hooted in excitement at the sight as if they hadn’t all gathered less than a week ago, and Yeosang felt quietly content with the predictable familiarity of it all.

It had always been the five of them, stuck together like glue ever since they had somehow been dumped in the same class in their first year of middle school.

Mingi had been new not just to the school but to the entire county of Namhae, and had thus been seated beside Yeosang, the unwilling class representative. The moment he learned that Mingi liked to dance, Yeosang had quickly foisted him off onto Wooyoung, who had in turn dragged Yunho into the mix, another dancer whom Yeosang had only known peripherally before then. San, who had once collaborated with Yeosang on an art piece in elementary school, and who had probably also distantly known Yunho and Wooyoung simply by virtue of them all being in the same grade, ended up rounding off their little clique at some point in time that Yeosang could no longer quite remember.

Having fewer friends than he could count on one hand probably wasn’t anything to boast about, but Yeosang had always been easily content.

“Morning!” Wooyoung said, as chipper as ever, slinging an arm over San’s shoulders the moment he was within reach.

Yeosang brushed past them, slapping Wooyoung on the back as he went. “Hurry up, we’re going to be late,” he complained. He heard the others falling into step behind him as he hurried over the dew-damp grass, Yunho a flash of colour in the corner of his eye as the other’s long legs ate up the distance between them.

They parted ways in the hall – Yeosang, Mingi and San to one classroom, and Yunho and Wooyoung to another. There was no fuss involved, no post-summer break dramatic reunions or promises to meet for lunch. They all knew they’d be seeing each other again once the school day came to an end anyway.

The thing about Wooyoung was that he was rich. Not that the rest of them were dirt-poor, but his house was more of a mansion than anything else, as opposed to their own dime-a-dozen, red-roofed homes. He even had a private tutor, whom they all took terrible and shameless advantage of whenever they needed to, all of which basically made Wooyoung’s house a perfect alternative to the expensive cram schools the rest of their peers trudged to once classes let out for the day.

Even in the afternoons when the dance club met, San and Yeosang would cheerfully waltz into Wooyoung’s house without a care in the world, calling a greeting to his smiling mother before scrambling up to the privacy of his room.

“That’s how you know you’re really friends,” Mingi had pointed out once, his voice deepening with amusement. “When they’re not home but you visit anyway just to say hi to their parents.”

What the others didn’t know was that Wooyoung’s parents actually paid the tutor more to entertain their additional academic queries. It was something he had told Yeosang in confidence, because Yeosang was the only one who would see the humour in the situation rather than wallowing in acute guilt.

There was very little that Yeosang and Wooyoung didn’t tell each other.

It wasn’t about trust or favouritism. It was about comfort, or perhaps just habit, and the fact that the two of them had existed as a pair long before the other three ever came into the picture. Sometimes thinking about it boggled Yeosang’s mind a little – the fact that eleven years was more than half his life, which was also just about the length of time that Wooyoung had plagued his life.

“What’s first period?” he wondered out loud as he swung his bag down onto an empty desk.

San had already sauntered over to another group of friends in the corner, so it was up to Mingi to hem and haw his way uncertainly to a tentative conclusion. “I dunno. Math?” he guessed, squinting slightly as he collapsed onto the chair beside Yeosang’s with a drawn-out yawn.

The corner of Yeosang’s lips twitched slightly as Mingi put his head down on the table, looking for all intents and purposes as if he had already given up on life. Pulling his calculator out of his bag anyway, Yeosang spent the next two minutes on his phone until the bell rang.

It might be their last year of high school, but it seemed that some things just never changed.


NOVEMBER

One of the things Yeosang liked about Namhae was how green it was.

He didn’t have to live in a cramped, high-rise flat the way Seoulites did, and he could actually see rolling verdant fields if he looked out of his bedroom window. Even having grown up with the same view for eighteen years, it was still as picturesque as a postcard to his eyes, and it really was nice to be able to think that about his own home.

Even better than the view was the quiet – the way it was possible to have a small skatepark just ten minutes from his home that literally no one else ever used. It was Yeosang’s spot now, his and Wooyoung’s, and even then it was a grudging co-ownership, because Wooyoung had been there to laugh at him the first time he’d skinned his knees after trying out his very first board at said skatepark.

“So what do you want for your birthday?”

Perched atop the ramp, Yeosang glanced across at Wooyoung for a moment before tipping his board forward. The wheels of his skateboard rumbled across the rough ground, the winter wind nipping harshly at his uncovered face, and he let his momentum carry him forward until he came to a stop.

Sprawled carelessly on the freezing concrete, wrapped up in a padded coat with one elbow propped against the ground, Wooyoung looked for all the world like a particularly fat dumpling. “I don’t know,” he whined, following Yeosang’s trajectory with his gaze. “Just treat me to a meal or something.”

Yeosang snorted. “And then have you complain about how we never put any effort into your presents?” he scoffed, flipping his board up and catching it with one hand. “Save it, rich boy.”

Wooyoung laughed, low and exasperated in the way he always did every time Yeosang called him that. “I really can’t think of anything right now,” he insisted, pushing himself to his feet and stuffing his hands into his pockets. “Just get me whatever. You know I’ll like it.”

“Another lie,” Yeosang said mildly, but he quirked a small smile at Wooyoung anyway.

The sky was all but pitch black by then, and only the streetlamps overhead lit their way home. Half of Wooyoung’s face was plunged into dark shadow as he walked with his head down, humming quietly to himself. Yeosang let the familiar melody wash over him, his mind comfortably blank and their elbows brushing with every step.

There was never any time for leisure these days. If it wasn’t his parents discussing his university prospects, it was his friends groaning about studying or his teachers talking about entrance exams. It hadn’t felt unmanageable at first, but it had become draining over time, the exhaustion creeping in inch by inch until all of a sudden it was too much.

“See you tomorrow.” Wooyoung grabbed the back of Yeosang’s neck in an affectionate hold, his cold thumb rubbing against the sore muscle in the juncture of Yeosang’s shoulder and neck for just a moment.

Yeosang nodded, making a soft noise of acknowledgement in his throat. He watched Wooyoung go, his chest filling with warmth just from the simple sight of the other boy kicking idly at nothing as he moved further and further away. His breath puffing white in front of him, Yeosang finally turned in the opposite direction and made for home.

It was completely stupid, of course, given the weather, but Friday nights had always been theirs, just Wooyoung and Yeosang’s alone. It was only an hour or two at the skatepark after dinner, with Yeosang too cold and stiff to really try any tricks, and Wooyoung just sitting on his behind the entire time, but it was the time of week that Yeosang looked forward to the most.

No pressure, no overbearing conversations – or at least not the kind of overbearing that he couldn’t handle.

It started snowing the week of Wooyoung’s birthday. The others left before dinner after their usual study session, but Yeosang stayed, and they spent that Friday night thrashing around wildly on Wooyoung’s bed as they tried to beat his newest video game.

“You’re so bad at this!” Wooyoung grumbled, nudging his shoulder roughly into Yeosang’s. Yeosang shoved him back half-heartedly, brows furrowed as he glared at the flashing TV screen in consternation.

Wooyoung’s avatar died seconds later, and he flung himself backwards with a muffled shriek of frustration, his head landing on Yeosang’s stomach and driving all the air out of his lungs. Yeosang felt as if the life had also been crushed out of him. He stared at the ceiling of Wooyoung’s room, panting slightly from the force of the assault.

“You almost killed me,” he said accusingly, his fingers winding through Wooyoung’s dark hair, just long enough to get a firm grip on.

Wooyoung only whined in response, turning over so that his cheek was pressed comfortably against Yeosang’s stomach instead. Yeosang sighed, his fingers loosening until he was running them lightly through Wooyoung’s hair, nails dragging along his scalp with every alternate stroke. He could feel the gradual softening of Wooyoung’s weight against him, as Yeosang soothed the bitterness of losing a game away.

All of a sudden, it reminded him of that brief period two years ago, when Wooyoung had developed a completely random and comically short-lived crush on Yunho. He had cried pitifully on Yeosang’s lap the day Yunho had started dating a girl from his class, sobbing so dramatically it was as if his world had ended. Yeosang had felt his own heart crack in aching sympathy, but a week later, Wooyoung had been as right as rain once more, the heartbreak nothing more than a lingering echo.

They had all been such children back then.

“I have to go. It’s getting late,” Yeosang murmured.

Wooyoung turned to face him, blinking sleepily like a dozing cat. “But it’s almost my birthday,” he wheedled. “Just stay till midnight.” His bottom lip jutted out into a pout, and Yeosang rolled his eyes but made no move to get up.

In the end, they both fell asleep even before the clock struck twelve, Yeosang’s head on Wooyoung’s pillow and Wooyoung still curled against Yeosang’s torso. He vaguely remembered waking sometime in the night, shivering from the winter chill when Wooyoung rolled away from him. Reaching blindly out in the dark, patting past Wooyoung’s feet, Yeosang dragged the covers over them both before closing his eyes once more.

The four of them treated Wooyoung to lunch the next day, but Yeosang also gifted him a cookbook of traditional Korean cuisine recipes, and even Wooyoung could find nothing to complain about that.


FEBRUARY

Truthfully, Yeosang hadn’t thought very much about university. He knew that he wanted good grades, much like the rest of his cohort and probably every other student in the country, but he just didn’t know what he wanted to achieve after that.

He wasn’t Yunho, who had talked about being a reporter for as long as Yeosang had known him. He wasn’t Wooyoung either, who had hobbies upon hobbies and was good at all of them. Nor was he San, who had his father’s taekwondo studio to fall back on if whatever he decided to pursue didn’t work out. Most of all, he wasn’t Mingi, who didn’t seem to know what he wanted to do either but didn’t care half as much as Yeosang did about what others thought of him.

It all made him feel rather cornered, another reminder that this limbo they were existing in wasn’t going to last forever. One day, they wouldn’t all live a half-hour radius away from each other, and that day was approaching faster than he would like.

“I’ve been looking into culinary schools overseas,” Wooyoung said lazily one day, as casual as could be, like he hadn’t just blindsided Yeosang with whatever the hell had just come out of his mouth.

“Cool,” Yunho said, clearly only half-listening. He was squinting at his laptop, bottom lip caught between his teeth as he struggled to rephrase his sentences in order to pad his wordcount just that bit more.

San’s reaction seemed to reflect Yeosang’s thoughts a little more accurately. “Huh,” he said, sounding surprised, and then, “Where?”

Wooyoung shrugged. “No idea yet. I’ve been looking into a couple of options – America, Switzerland, whatever. As long as it’s a good school, you know.”

“You’d have to take that English test then,” San pointed out. “That – whatever it’s called.”

“Yeah, the TOEFL.” Wooyoung grunted as he turned over onto his front, laying his head down on his textbook like a pillow. “It’s an entrance requirement. I’ve been studying for it.”

Yeosang stared blankly at his phone as he listened to the conversation flowing around him, his thumb tracing uneven circles on the black screen, the corner of it cracked from that one time he’d tripped over Mingi’s bag and went sprawling. Even when he’d known that someday they’d all scatter to the winds, somehow he had never really imagined Wooyoung being half a world away.

“Hey, Yeosang.” San crawled over to flop across his back, making him groan at the sudden weight. “What about you?”

“What about me?” he wheezed, limbs flailing uselessly as Wooyoung cackled in the background.

“What are you gonna study,” San said impatiently.

Yeosang shrugged uncomfortably. “I haven’t decided. I mean, it’s not like we have to decide by tomorrow.” He shifted sideways and San slid off him cooperatively, patting him on the head with a small grin before redirecting the conversation back to Wooyoung.

There had always been a universe of kindness in San, affection bursting out of him in eye-crinkling smiles and warm hugs, and Yeosang adored him for that.

San was family-oriented first and foremost. It was different from Yunho’s news reporting ambition and Wooyoung’s passion for cooking, but it was a love that was undeniable. He was the only one of them who already knew that he would be staying in Namhae for university, to remain close to his aging grandparents.

Often, Yeosang wondered what it was like to feel so strongly about something that you could see yourself doing it for the rest of your life. It wasn’t that he didn’t enjoy things – he liked drawing and robotics, and he didn’t even really mind math all that much – but most of the time Yeosang felt like a generally lukewarm person. He tended not to feel particularly strongly about most things, and none of that was very conducive to picking a direction for his future.

They all left Wooyoung’s house after dinner, tidying their books and heaving their bags onto tired shoulders with subdued sighs. Wooyoung stood backlit on his own doorstep, waving half-heartedly as San hooked his arm into Yeosang’s and pulled him down the driveway.

Yeosang looked back at Wooyoung for just a moment longer, trying to picture his bright-eyed, big-hearted friend alone in a foreign country, charming strangers with his smile alone. Wooyoung thrived off compliments and affection in the same way a sponge soaked up water, but he was sensitive too, far more than what his frequent faux sulks might suggest. Would his new friends understand what he needed? Would they be able to understand the insecurities that Wooyoung hid beneath his brash exterior?

San squeezed Yeosang’s arm then, drawing his attention back to the other boy’s dimple-popping smile. “Hey, you’re frowning,” he said playfully, nudging his shoulder into Yeosang’s. “Everything’s going to be fine. We’re going to be fine.”

Yeosang chuckled weakly and wished with all his heart that he could believe it.

A week later, Mingi decided quite out of the blue that he was going to study to be a flight steward. Yeosang was gobsmacked. Of all the future possibilities he had considered, playful, bumbling Mingi working in customer service had not been one of them.

“But why?” he asked, confused. Mingi might not have been someone he spent a lot of time with one-on-one, but he had always struck Yeosang as someone who was rather easy to read, and hence rather easy to get along with.

Mingi shrugged, which seemed to be an increasingly common response to such questions these days. “I mean, my grades aren’t that great, plus it doesn’t sound too bad. I’d get to travel the world,” he said carelessly. “Anyway, my parents don’t think there’s any future in dance or music, so –” He shrugged again, and once more Yeosang marvelled at Mingi’s ability to allow near anything to roll right off his back.

“Will you be staying in Namhae then?” San seemed to perk up at the prospect of having someone stick around with him, but Mingi wrinkled his nose, his round-framed glasses slipping slightly at the movement.

“I’d rather not,” he said with a laugh. “My parents hover over me enough as it is.”

“I don’t know how you live with them,” Wooyoung muttered from where he appeared to have completely given up on the concept of studying. “I remember it took them ages to get off your back about being a doctor. You’d probably accidentally leave a scalpel in your patient or something.”

Grumbling, Mingi tossed a thin exercise book at Wooyoung, but it fluttered sadly to the ground by San instead. Yeosang glanced between the two of them, baffled. He didn’t feel excluded – merely bewildered at how much he had apparently missed over the years. He couldn’t even remember Mingi’s parents ever coming up in conversation before.

It was a little unnerving for Yeosang to realise that in all the years they had known each other, he had never actually given any thought to the part of Mingi’s life that extended past the sliver he was privy to. Maybe this was normal when it came to groups of friends, he thought, or maybe it was pure selfishness on his part.

Yeosang didn’t know. It felt like there wasn’t much he was sure of nowadays.


JULY

Even before the thought ever crossed Yeosang’s mind, it was San who brought it up for the first time, on one of the days they were both alone together at Wooyoung’s house. They were done with exams and done with studying – done with high school – but some habits were hard to break.

“Are you ever going to tell him?” San asked suddenly, as if it was something that had been nagging at him for a long time. “Wooyoung, I mean. He’s going to leave, you know, whether it’s to Europe or somewhere else. He’s already started applying to all those culinary schools.”

Yeosang spun the swivel chair around to face San, looking up from his phone with his lips pressed together in confusion. “Tell Wooyoung what?”

San stared at him, his dark brows furrowing. “Yeosang,” he said quietly, his expression melting into something that looked a lot like pity. “That you’re in love with him.”

“I’m not in love with Wooyoung,” Yeosang said automatically, largely because he had no idea how to even begin processing that entire sentence. “Why on earth would you say that?”

San blinked, looking wrong-footed for the first time that day. “I don’t know,” he said. “Just the way you look at him, I guess, and the things you do for him. It’s kind of a combination of everything.”

Yeosang shook his head, still too taken aback to even protest. “We’re just friends,” he said, and for the first time he could remember he felt mild annoyance at San’s interference.

The thing about San was that he was good at reading people. That was what made him so extraordinarily kind, because somehow he could see exactly what his friends needed from him, and took care to act accordingly. Yeosang had always been just a little closer to San than Yunho and Mingi because of that – because he had never been good at making his opinions known, but San always managed to understand him anyway.

Not quite as well as Wooyoung, but Wooyoung had the advantage of time after all.

That was what annoyed Yeosang, and possibly scared him a little too – the fact that he knew San was very, very good at reading him.

“I’ve seen too much of Wooyoung to ever fall in love with him,” he said after a moment, with a small laugh, just to ease the sudden tension that had settled over the room. “You know how whiny he is.”

But it was irritatingly impossible for Yeosang to stop thinking about the whole idea of it after that. He thought about it when he and Wooyoung went out to their favourite sushi place on a Friday, just the two of them, and then headed over to the skatepark as usual. He thought about it when Wooyoung asked him for a layman’s opinion on his latest choreography, and Yeosang said with complete truthfulness that he thought Wooyoung was the best dancer he had ever seen. He thought about it when Wooyoung tugged him into a hug and laid his head on Yeosang’s shoulder, and he realised that he didn’t dislike it half as much as he always pretended to.

The worst thing was that Yeosang suspected he wasn’t actually thinking about Wooyoung any more than usual. He was merely becoming aware of how much Wooyoung lingered in his mind on any given day.

He wondered how it was that everyone else seemed to know so easily where the line between platonic and romantic love fell.

“You know what?” Wooyoung said one evening, when the air was cool and balmy against Yeosang’s skin. “We should go on a trip. All of us, before we go off to uni. I mean, we’ve got to travel together at least once in our lives, right?”

Yeosang snorted lightly. “You know that they say travelling together can make or break friendships,” he said idly. “I guess I have been looking for a way to get rid of you. Where do you want to go?”

Wooyoung let out a sputtering snort of laughter, his already-wobbly balance on Yeosang’s skateboard completely flailing out of control with his sudden movement. Taking a quick step forward, Yeosang grabbed Wooyoung’s hand, his other finding a firm grip on Wooyoung’s hip to keep him steady. For such a proficient dancer, Wooyoung certainly had negative skateboarding talents.

“Don’t accidentally kill yourself before we even start planning the trip,” Yeosang muttered, squinting up at Wooyoung in annoyance.

Wooyoung flashed him an affectionate grin, his fingers tightening around Yeosang’s. “Let’s not go too far,” he said at last. “I’d rather stay close to home before I leave.”

Yeosang couldn’t help smiling a little at that. Wooyoung was undeniably larger than life, made for adventure and risk-taking and everything else that Yeosang was not, but so too was he in love with the quiet comfort of home and the ease of predictability. Yeosang loved him for that, for the parts of Wooyoung that he understood, and also the parts that he didn’t but accepted as uniquely Wooyoung anyway.

In the end, they settled on a week-long trip to Jeju Island, which was indeed so close to home as to be laughable, but really it was the idea of an extended holiday together without parental supervision that excited them the most.

“Look, this apartment has three bedrooms,” Yunho said, hunched over as he scrolled through Airbnb, “but it’s a little far from the nearest bus stop, and it doesn’t have free parking.”

Mingi looked over from where he was leaning against Yeosang, both of them researching popular attractions and how much they cost. “What about the one with the sofa bed? It’s cheaper too,” he suggested, and Yunho hummed thoughtfully in response. Wooyoung, bored now that he had left San alone to figure out what exactly they were going to eat for the week while still staying within budget, crawled over to nestle his head against Yeosang’s back, a warm weight right between his shoulder blades.

Resting his cheek against his palm, Yeosang watched Mingi buy their ferry tickets with the click of a mouse – “No going back now!” Mingi called triumphantly, and San laughed. He usually left the unfailing optimism to people like Yunho and Wooyoung, but right then, even Yeosang couldn’t help thinking that this would truly be a trip to remember.


AUGUST

The five of them left for Jeju Island shortly after Mingi’s nineteenth birthday passed, and they had exactly three days of fun in the sun before San and Wooyoung, of all people, had their first major argument over laundry.

“Come on, let’s just go for dinner first,” Wooyoung insisted, already bending to pull his sneakers on. “We can hang the clothes when we get back.”

Staring at Wooyoung from across the room with a look of disbelief on his face, San said sharply, “We can’t just leave the clothes to sit in the machine for a couple of hours. They’ll start to smell.” His tone had a definite are you an idiot cadence to it, and Yeosang’s gaze darted over to Yunho, who was beginning to look mildly concerned over the exchange.

Wooyoung frowned. “Well, some people are hungry,” he complained, and there was still a distinct whininess to his tone that told Yeosang San was definitely the more genuinely upset of the two. “We’re only here a week. We didn’t even really need to wash our clothes.”

“Trust me, you would not have wanted all of our dirty clothes stinking up the apartment at the end of the week. Dirty clothes may seem like they disappear into thin air at your house, but that doesn’t happen out here,” San scoffed, and Mingi let out a soft hiss from between his teeth at the unexpected jab.

Wooyoung took an aborted step forward, anger flashing so quickly across his face that even the stubborn set of San’s scowl flickered warily. “What exactly do you mean by that, Choi San?” Wooyoung said softly, at the exact same time Yunho stepped between them.

“Come on, guys,” Yunho said loudly, letting out an uncomfortable laugh as he set a hand on Wooyoung’s shoulder, as if to prevent the shorter boy from charging at San. “This isn’t an either-or situation. Some of us can go get a table for dinner first, and the rest of us will catch up once the laundry is done and we’ve hung it all up.”

A moment of dead silence fell across the room before Wooyoung let out a disdainful sniff and spun on his heel. “Fine,” he snapped.

Yeosang sighed and stood up, because he doubted anyone else was adequately equipped to deal with an explosive Wooyoung right then. San might be mad too, but he cooled down far more quickly than Wooyoung did, whose anger ran hot and took a long time to burn out.

Yeosang found Wooyoung waiting for him just outside the front door, his face deceptively and intimidatingly wiped clean of emotion. “I hate it when people say things like that,” he burst out as soon as Yeosang reached his side, and almost immediately his expression crumpled into one of deep hurt. “You all know that. San knows that.”

Yeosang didn’t know what to say. “You know San didn’t mean it like that,” he tried. “It just…came out wrong. He doesn’t like leaving things done halfway. You were both frustrated.” He reached out, fingers brushing Wooyoung’s elbow gently, but Wooyoung jerked away with a huff, and Yeosang had to hold back another sigh. Wooyoung had a short fuse about certain things, but for him to get into a spat with San – that wasn’t common at all.

“Come on. You wanted dinner, right?” Yeosang stuffed his hands into his pockets and nudged at Wooyoung, waiting for the other boy to fall into step beside him.

“I wanted us to have a good time,” Wooyoung said irritably as they started down the stairs. Yeosang glanced over but said nothing in return, giving Wooyoung’s thoughts time to settle. There was more on Wooyoung’s mind than just that single sentence, he was sure.

“I’m excited,” Wooyoung said after some time, letting out a long breath as he looked up at the darkening sky. “I can’t wait to learn new things and experience a new lifestyle. I can’t wait to travel to all the places I’ve never been to before. But I’m also going to miss you guys. I can’t even imagine life without any of you right now, and we’re going to be separated for years. I don’t know. I really wanted this trip to be great.”

Yeosang could feel the emotion welling up in his throat at the fresh reminder that their time together was finite, a countdown reaching its end. He twitched in surprise when he felt Wooyoung’s hand grope for his, their fingers interlocking tightly together, two parts of a whole.

“It will be a great trip,” he said quietly. “Everything will be fine. San doesn’t hold grudges.”

Wooyoung snorted at that, and then he sighed, “What will I do without you?”

Yeosang almost stopped right in his tracks as he turned to stare at Wooyoung. He had always thought of himself as Wooyoung’s, but never the opposite – not till now. Wooyoung was everything Yeosang had wanted to be as a child – outgoing, sporty, energetic – and he supposed he had never quite grown out of that mindset, that Wooyoung would still be Wooyoung even without Yeosang by his side.

“Then why are you leaving me?” he asked quietly, a question that had festered within him for months.

Wooyoung faltered for only a moment. “I’m going because – because I want to try something new. I’m not leaving you behind – there’s a difference,” he said firmly. “I’ll come back. I’ll always come back to you.”

Yeosang thought of protesting. He thought of saying, Words are wind. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Three years is a long time. But in the end he wanted to believe Wooyoung more than he wanted to pretend he didn’t care.

San, Yunho and Mingi stumbled into the restaurant an hour later dripping wet from the sudden summer shower that had caught them off guard, and it was that more than anything that shattered any remaining tension among them. It would probably be funny in the future, to recount their petty argument over laundry, of all things, but right then Yeosang was simply relieved it was over.

It was a good trip, of course. They climbed Mount Hallasan and explored the depths of the Manjanggul Lava Tube. They ate fresh seafood almost every day, and bungled breakfast spectacularly the one morning Wooyoung decided to sleep in. They all climbed onto a banana boat and lost Yunho to the waves when it curved into a particularly tight turn, and Mingi laughed so hard that he toppled into the water as well.

When they returned to Namhae, buoyant and significantly tanner than a week ago, it was to find reality waiting for them in the form of Wooyoung’s acceptance letter to Switzerland’s Culinary Arts Academy.


DECEMBER

It was getting increasingly difficult to meet as a group of five.

San had started working part-time at his father’s taekwondo studio after returning from Jeju Island, and Mingi had found a short stint at an ice-cream place, ostensibly because he wanted the customer service experience for his degree. Yeosang figured it was more that the idea of being around ice-cream all day just appealed to Mingi.

Wooyoung too spent more and more time with his family as the day of his flight approached, packing and unpacking, fretting and panicking needlessly over the logistics of his stay in Switzerland.

Yeosang found himself spending most of his time with Yunho instead, who was largely applying to the same schools as him. If anything, he would at least have Yunho with him in Seoul for the next couple of years.

“Do you really think they read all of these? Every single word?” he muttered, staring at his half-completed personal statement with exhaustion. “How different can everyone’s academic interests be? How much can they enjoy reading about a hundred different kinds of volunteer activities?”

Yunho groaned, slapping his palm against his forehead. “I’m more worried about the recommendation portion. I mean, no one’s going to ask for help from someone who’s going to submit a negative recommendation of them. This is so stupid, and I don’t even know who to ask.”

“Just ask my mother,” Yeosang said, one corner of his mouth tilting up into a smirk. “Didn’t she teach you in elementary school? She’ll write something nice for you.”

Yunho looked over at Yeosang slowly, eyes widening in amazement as he considered the option. “You’re a genius,” he declared, and Yeosang snorted.

“Yeah, tell that to the universities I’m applying to,” he said dryly.

On the last Friday before Wooyoung’s flight, he stayed over at Yeosang’s house. As always, they made their way over to the skatepark after dinner, but this time Yeosang didn’t have his skateboard in hand – it was much too cold for that now.

“I’m going to miss this the most, you know,” Wooyoung said as he sat awkwardly down on one of the concrete steps, his breath misting before him as he exhaled.

Yeosang sank down beside Wooyoung, hunched into his coat as he rocked back and forth slightly. “Miss what, this place?”

Wooyoung laughed softly. “No, I mean this. Our Fridays. Just us hanging out. The skatepark is only one part of it.” He looked over at Yeosang, and his eyes were very bright in the dimness. “You’re so dense sometimes, you know.”

Yeosang frowned. “Shut up,” he said grumpily, and Wooyoung laughed again, more of a giggle this time.

“You don’t have to say it. I know you’ll miss me too,” Wooyoung said, sounding indescribably content as he leaned his head against Yeosang’s shoulder.

I already do, Yeosang thought, with a sinking hollowness in his gut. You’re right beside me and I already miss you.

But all he said was, “Of course I will,” and then, after a moment of stillness, “I’m going to miss you a lot.”

They sat there in subdued silence until their faces were pink and numb from the cold, and then they stumbled back to Yeosang’s house and whiled the hours away with board games they hadn’t touched in years, as if they could pause time right there just by refusing to sleep.

The following Monday dawned inevitably anyway, and Yeosang felt a strange sense of unreality seize him as they entered the airport with Wooyoung dragging his suitcases along behind him. Tomorrow, he would wake up and Wooyoung would no longer be on the same continent as him, and he couldn’t quite imagine what a tomorrow like that might entail.

San was clinging on to Yunho, looking just about as shaken as Yeosang felt as they watched Wooyoung say his goodbyes to his family. His mother, who would be accompanying him to Switzerland for a week to help him settle in, would probably have an even harder time letting go when it was time to leave, and Yeosang didn’t envy her one bit. It was one thing to see Wooyoung walk away; it was quite another to have to be the one leaving him.

Wooyoung said goodbye to Yeosang last. He didn’t know if it meant anything, but he thought it would be nice if it did.

“So,” Wooyoung said, sucking in a deep breath as he blinked at Yeosang, his mouth twitching as if he had too many words itching to escape, and then quite abruptly he seemed to give up on verbalising entirely. Instead, he pulled Yeosang into a crushing hug, his arms wrapping tight around Yeosang’s torso, and Yeosang sank into it gratefully. He pressed his face against Wooyoung’s shoulder and inhaled the familiar scent of the Jungs’ fabric softener, and had to resist the choking urge to start sobbing right there and then.

Pulling back, Wooyoung ducked slightly to smile up at Yeosang’s downturned face. “Why do you look like you’re never going to see me again?” he teased. “I’m not moving away forever, you know.” One of his hands came up to cup the side of Yeosang’s jaw gently, but Yeosang shook it away impatiently.

“Do I look sad enough for you be moving away forever?” he snapped, but even he could hear the unmistakable tremble in his own voice.

“Yeah,” Wooyoung whispered, his own eyes glimmering with emotion as he wrapped Yeosang up in yet another hug. “Yeah, you do.”

“Don’t you dare cry,” Yeosang said, his voice emerging muffled against Wooyoung’s coat. “You’re supposed to be happy.”

“Wait for me,” Wooyoung murmured, and Yeosang froze when he felt the soft press of chapped lips against his cheek. “I’ll come back to you, remember?” He squeezed Yeosang’s fingers once more, and it felt to Yeosang as if Wooyoung took his entire soul with him when he pulled away.

So this was what it felt like to be in love, he thought, as he watched Wooyoung move further and further away from him – this ache and emptiness coexisting perfectly with the luminance of hope and anticipation. San had been right after all.

Yeosang wondered if he had missed his chance for good, or if there had never been any chances to miss, only the path he had chosen to take.

Just past security, Wooyoung turned and waved, jumping up and down in little hops, his arm moving wildly, and Yeosang grinned as he waved back.

Maybe everything was going to be fine. San had said that too, he remembered, and San was, after all, usually right.


FEBRUARY

Mingi was the next to leave.

His bus to Busan would leave early afternoon, right after lunch. It turned out that a two-and-a-half-hour ride from home was the perfect distance for him after all – not too close to home, but not too far either.

Yunho and Yeosang were due to fly to Seoul just two days later.

“I feel like I’m losing all of you at once,” San complained over lunch, his voice high with indignation, and Yeosang reached over to pat him sympathetically on the back.

“Mingi will come back and visit you since he’ll be the closest,” Yeosang said dryly.

“Or you could come and visit me,” Mingi countered, teeth flashing as he grinned at San. “I’ll bring you around Busan.”

Of them all, Yeosang was the least worried about San. San was just San – a little shy, but mostly fearless, and so magnetically likable that it seemed almost supernatural at times. San could handle himself just fine.

Mingi’s departure was utterly unlike Wooyoung’s. Mingi himself seemed thrilled to be getting on the bus, and his family appeared just as casual. Yeosang only gave Mingi a quick, perfunctory hug before he stepped back – neither of them had ever been particularly demonstrative, and he figured he’d already said all he had to say at lunch.

“Well, I’ll see you guys when I see you,” Mingi said, with a two-fingered salute in typical Mingi fashion, before he turned and boarded the bus without a backwards glance.

“He really can’t wait to leave, can he?” Yunho muttered under his breath, looking amused.

The day Yunho and Yeosang left was comparatively gloomier. San was noticeably loud, but it was the forced kind of cheeriness that meant he was trying very hard to keep his own spirits up.

“Don’t go missing us too much,” Yeosang said with a small smile, as he let San wiggle his way into a hug.

“Stop being mean,” San muttered in a small voice, and Yeosang chuckled as he pulled San just a little closer. Beside them, Yunho patted San’s head like he would a dog’s, his face soft with an immeasurable fondness.

When Yeosang glanced back over his shoulder, just before they turned the corner, San looked very lonely indeed.

They were an hour into the flight when Yunho said all of a sudden, “I don’t feel like someone who’s going to university.” He paused and glanced at Yeosang pensively, and then sighed. “I mean, university is for people who kind of…have it all together, you know. Grown-ups. People who know what they want in life. But I don’t feel any different – I just feel like me.”

Yeosang closed his eyes, almost relieved to hear those words from Yunho’s mouth. “Yeah,” he said, leaning closer to be heard over the constant rumble of the plane. “I know exactly what you mean.”

Seoul itself was everything Yeosang had expected, but also so much more.

It felt advanced. Everywhere Yeosang looked, he saw tall buildings and concrete roads. Even on the street, everyone moved quickly, as if they were all collectively rushing for an appointment they were late for. Even more disorienting was the Seoul dialect that everyone all around them was speaking, one that Yeosang had largely only ever heard on the television.

Moving in was, thankfully, relatively simple – Yeosang hadn’t brought much with him, and his roommate, another freshman by the name of Jongho, seemed amicable enough when they discussed how best to split the limited space of their room. Truthfully, Jongho seemed a little solemn and quiet, and their exchanges were somewhat awkward.

That was when Yeosang came to the bizarre realisation that he had never actually had any quiet friends. Mingi, San, Wooyoung and Yunho were not what anyone would call quiet by any stretch of the imagination.

Wooyoung called him a couple of nights later to demand that Yeosang tell him every single thing that had happened ever since his plane touched down in Seoul, in painfully minute detail. “What’s SNU like?” he asked excitedly, his face pixelating on the screen for a moment before the connection cleared up. “It’s SNU, man. I can’t believe both you and Yunho got in. I’m friends with geniuses!”

Yeosang rolled his eyes, feeling his cheeks heat up at Wooyoung’s effusive excitement. “Stop it,” he muttered, and brought Wooyoung on a virtual tour of his room instead to distract him.

Wooyoung had changed in a matter of months. He had grown his hair out, and now often tied his dark locks up in a small ponytail on the top of his head. At times, Yeosang even heard him speaking English to his friends on the side, the sounds of the unfamiliar syllables coming from Wooyoung’s mouth always throwing him off for a heartbeat. He spoke frequently about cooking too, describing with delight the latest seasonings or dishes he had learned to make in class.

He was still Yeosang’s Wooyoung, of course – there would always be things that he could only ever say to Wooyoung – but Yunho had recently become the most frequently contacted person on his phone, and Jongho was now the one Yeosang turned to for help with minor problems. His Friday nights were no longer comfortably predictable, and the nearby skateparks were always far from empty.

“No one knows me as well as you do,” Wooyoung would say, every time he got maudlin or homesick, and Yeosang didn’t doubt it. What he didn’t know was if that fact would remain true.

Yeosang could feel himself changing, and so was Wooyoung, nine thousand distant kilometres away, but Yeosang wasn’t there to witness it.

“Didn’t you say you were invited to a party last week? Did you go?” he asked, and the crinkle of Wooyoung’s eyes as he grinned and began to speak was still warmly familiar. It was still Wooyoung who occupied his thoughts, and Wooyoung who made his heart leap in excitement every time his name appeared on Yeosang’s screen, but they had, after all, only been apart for two months.

Yeosang only hoped that they would still recognise each other at the end of it all.


3 YEARS LATER

“Isn’t this crazy?” Yunho grinned, as excited as a retriever being brought out for a walk as the Now Boarding sign for their flight began to flash. “I can’t believe we’re really going home. I can’t believe everyone’s going to be there.”

Yeosang resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “We’ve been planning this reunion for months. If they were anywhere else, I would have some very choice words for them,” he snorted, and Yunho laughed at that, as good-natured as ever.

San was, of course already waiting in Namhae, along with Mingi. Yeosang and Yunho’s flight would land sometime before lunch, but they were only expecting Wooyoung back in the evening, since he had delayed his return after graduation to continue his rather ambitious quest of exploring as much of Europe as possible.

“You know, I never would’ve thought it’d be so difficult for the five of us to meet up,” Yunho mused after a moment. “Not a single time in three years. There was always at least one person missing for one reason or another.” He shook his head, amazed.

“Welcome to adulthood,” Yeosang said sourly, before letting out a yawn.

When it came right down to it, Yeosang was glad to be going home for good. Seoul was wonderful, but it wasn’t Namhae. Every time Yeosang had to leave after returning for the holidays, he missed it a little more. He missed the greenery and the view from his window, and the smell of the sea and salt, but most of all he supposed he missed when their lives had been simpler.

Once upon a time, the most significant event of the week had been the bickering that took place over what gift to buy for San’s upcoming birthday. These days, birthdays were a text-only event, accompanied by a flood of celebratory stickers in their group chat. It really was true that getting older sucked the fun out of everything.

Yeosang was only mildly surprised to see San and Mingi waiting for them at the airport, standing side-by-side with Yeosang and Yunho’s families. Mingi looked taller than ever in his big buttoned shirt and oversized pants, but his voice was certainly exactly the same when he let out a yell of excitement upon spotting Yunho sticking out of the crowd.

“Welcome back!” Mingi shouted before they’d even passed through the sliding doors, and Yeosang felt a wide grin spread across his face as he was lifted almost a foot off the ground in an exuberant hug. It really was good to be home.

They met Wooyoung with similar fanfare hours later, only the third time that Yeosang had laid eyes on Wooyoung in the flesh since the day he’d left for Switzerland for the first time. He looked thinner than Yeosang remembered, and he found out why when Wooyoung slung an arm comfortably over his shoulder – the softness was gone from Wooyoung’s body, replaced with lean muscle instead.

“Being back is amazing,” Wooyoung declared with relish as they stepped out of the airport. He breathed in deeply, tipping his head backwards as if he could taste the difference in the air.

“Let’s go straight to the restaurant,” San suggested as they all piled into Yunho’s family car, the very same one that had ferried most of them to school for six years straight. “I’m starving.”

Dinner was not a quiet affair.

Yeosang was almost astounded by how quickly the time passed, by how effortlessly they all fell back in sync with one another. Of course, their conversations were different now – they all were, and Yeosang could no longer imagine the five of them chattering over silly things like homework and tests. Instead, they discussed the whereabouts of old classmates they hadn’t seen in years, and the jobs they had been applying for, and what the future had in store for them.

It was lovely. It was comfortable.

And Wooyoung was there, of course, as ready as ever to turn his smile on Yeosang and drag him unwillingly into the conversation with a perfectly-posed question, just as he had always done, more times than Yeosang could remember.

In the end, that was what Yeosang had loved most about Wooyoung when they were apart – that he had always made things easy, that he was able to gloss over any lingering awkwardness as if it didn’t exist, and perhaps to Wooyoung, it didn’t.

By the time night had fallen, San, Yunho and Mingi were thoroughly tipsy from all the soju they had ordered. Wooyoung had appointed himself the designated driver, claiming that he had drunk plenty back in Switzerland, and Yeosang got horrible headaches anytime a drop of alcohol entered his system, so he too had abstained.

“I’ll just walk back. I live the nearest anyway, and you look like you have your hands full,” he said with a laugh, unhelpfully watching Wooyoung struggle with a stumbling Mingi.

Wooyoung grunted as he heaved Mingi into the backseat, deliberately ignoring the fact that he had faceplanted right into a dozing San’s lap. “Yeah,” he sighed. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” He squeezed Yeosang’s shoulder as he walked past, his attention already fixed on a cheerily humming Yunho.

“Still think it’s good to be back?” Yeosang teased.

Wooyoung turned to face him, his grin bright with amusement. “Home is home,” he said simply, and Yeosang watched the car’s taillights disappear down the street before he began his stroll back. His path brought him past the skatepark, a fact that had completely slipped his mind until he stumbled upon the small arena, so insignificant compared to what he’d experienced in Seoul.

Slowly, he made his way to the very middle of the skatepark, looking around at the dull concrete with a growing warmth in his chest. He had created memories upon memories here – the first time he had tried to teach Wooyoung how to use his skateboard; the first time he had gotten drunk and ended up vomiting into the bushes while Wooyoung panicked and patted his back half a hundred times; the last time he had sat here with Wooyoung on a cold winter’s night, with a multitude of unfathomable emotions between them.

But three years had passed, and both of them had emerged from the other side changed. There was a surety in Yeosang now, of himself and his feelings.

Yeosang didn’t know how long he stood there, only that the faint footsteps that sounded behind him came as no surprise. Maybe that was why he had stopped, knowing that Wooyoung too would have to walk home after leaving the car at Yunho’s. Maybe he had finally decided that he was ready to take a chance.

“Yeosang?” Wooyoung’s steps came to a halt some distance away, and the confusion was clear in his voice.

“You told me to wait for you,” Yeosang said softly as he turned, “so I waited.”

Wooyoung’s eyes widened a fraction, and then the bewilderment faded and he smiled, radiant enough to light up the entire night.