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i carry my love for you like my teeth

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Some nights Joowon finds himself in the reeds, sewn right into the middle of the light brown, feathered landscape. The late autumn winds are frigid, and they slice through him one by one.

He keeps running, and running, because the mud keeps kissing him, sucking him in deep to hold him in its embrace six feet under.

Joowon dreams of silver, imitation stones and magpies that snatch it off of pale, elegant fingers.

When he meets the edge of the field, there’s navy blue and old leather jackets and tanned, sturdy hands that pull him to safety – away from the voices that sing to him from beyond the tall grass.

They’re his mother, and on some nights they are his father, and each song sounds like a lullaby or a curse, calling to him; let the walls hold you close, they tell him.

Joowon’s still dreaming when he gets the call, and the vibration cuts his nightmare short.

His bedside clock reads 1:46 am, and Joowon bemoans the fact that his alarm is going to ring in less than three hours.

It’s Kwon Hyuk on the other end of the line, and his voice is too awake for such a late hour. He stutters at first, and it’s the most unsure Joowon has heard him in a long time.

“The Commissioner,” Kwon Hyuk starts, and then clears his throat. “Han Kihwan has passed away,” he says, turning the air in Joowon’s lungs to ice.

“How? Why?” Joowon demands, suddenly fully alert. He sits up on the bed, reaching to the side to flip the bedside night lamp on. “Could it be– ” And then Joowon has to stop himself. His father had enemies, but the thought that dies on his tongue seems too absurd. Or maybe it’s because it’s a possibility he feels too guilty to entertain.

But Kwon Hyuk beats him to it, cutting him off. “No. I don’t think we need to worry about anything of the sort,” he says. “It’s too early to tell exactly, but it looks like cardiac arrest.”

When Joowon doesn’t respond Kwon Hyuk calls his name, “Joowon-ah, will you… be okay?” And Joowon wants to laugh at the absurdness of the question. “Don’t worry about anything, hyung is going to handle it. I’ll come see you once I get my hand on the report. For now, just– take a day off.”

After their call ends, Joowon thumbs at the indents of the buttons on the side of his phone.

There’s another phone call he needs to make, but there’s a piece of glass in his throat that he can’t put a name to, cutting into the muscle that hurts too much that he doesn’t trust himself to speak.

 

—————

 

For once Joowon decides to take Kwon Hyuk’s advice.

His own thoughts are too muddled that if he has to endure the entire morning at the station accepting condolences he doesn’t even want, he doesn’t trust himself to not burst at the seams.

There’s a delicate balance he’s maintained for himself: equal parts self discipline holding the pieces of himself together and trying to bury memories as deep within as he could.

And for the first time in a long time, he feels himself slipping.

Kwon Hyuk calls him again about the cremation and after telling Kwon Hyuk that he has no intention of ever collecting the body, Joowon switches his phone off for good.

Maybe it’s guilt, or maybe he’s angry; or maybe it’s actually because unlike the texts Oh Jihwa had sent him because he hadn’t answered any of the calls he’s been receiving for the past three days, he can’t see the poetic justice to this ending.

And finally, she had texted Joowon: You should talk to him. Call him back.

He uses the free time to visit his mother, and her marble cross gleams at him under the sun; a greeting, a smile.

It’s been a long time since he had told her how sorry he is, and this morning, it only feels right that he tells her again. Because he had wanted to ensure that his father – Han Kihwan, suffered. Joowon had tasted metal at the back of his throat with how much he had wanted Kihwan to feel the walls closing in on him – like Joowon sees in his nightmares sometimes – where his mother calls to him: hold my hand, Joowon-ah.

There are grass stains on his trousers, and the sky is bruising orange and purple when he finally arrives back at home. His lungs turn to stone, when he walks into the lobby and sees who awaits him.

“You’re a hard man to find, Inspector Han Joowon.” Dongsik smiles, all teeth, as he rises up from the plush couch.

“Dongsik-ssi,” Joowon says, not really surprised anymore. He bows belatedly, as an afterthought. “Let’s talk upstairs.”

The short elevator ride churns Joowon’s stomach, the way the silence presses against the back of his head. And the shine of Dongsik’s metal jacket zipper bounces off the silver inside the small space.

Dongsik rocks on the balls of his feet waiting for Joowon to punch in the security code and open the door – always moving, just the way Joowon remembers.

Once they’re inside Dongsik surveys the apartment, eyes flitting across every surface, but even without having to turn and look, Joowon knows he’s casting it into his memory. Finally Dongsik says, stepping into the living room, “I like it. It’s much cozier.”

Joowon can’t help but grin a little proudly about the small home he had built. “Thanks, I finally decided monochrome just wasn’t my thing.”

Dongsik hums, and steps around him to face Joowon finally. Lingering eyes, less fleeting this time, looks at him from head to toe, and Joowon shifts feeling like an ant under a microscope. “You do look much better in colour.”

The corners of Dongsik’s eyes crinkle, spreading like a field of sun flares, and Joowon feels his pulse pick up, but he swallows and prays the beige turtleneck he’s wearing hides the warmth creeping up his neck.

He takes a measured step back and asks Dongsik to take a seat, and then if he would like something to drink. He’s stalling but that’s okay because so is Dongsik, because he accepts, and then follows Joowon to the kitchen.

Eventually, just before the kettle starts to sing, Dongsik says, “I heard the news. I’m sorry.”

Joowon blinks. He stares at Dongsik. “What?

Dongsik stares right back, and Joowon feels cleaved in half by how piercing the gaze is. Maybe it’s too much to hope that this way a light will shine through, but still, he lets himself be laid bare by the man in front of him.

“He was still your father,” Dongsik says, finally looking away.

“He’s no one to me!”Joowon grits his teeth, the edges of his eyes burning. “He wasn’t supposed to die,” he chokes out, feeling the way the thick words get wrapped around his tongue. “Kihwan deserved to rot in a jail cell. Death is too easy of a way out for that bastard! Are you seriously telling me that you came all this way to offer your condolences for a murderer?” he demands in disbelief.

Dongsik smiles at him then, but there’s no amusement to it. Joowon feels the hair on his arms stand upright, because it takes Joowon right back to cold autumns, and reed fields.

“Do you want me to say that I drove all this way because I wanted to see you, Han Joowon?”

The kettle clicks off loudly in the silence. Joowon lets out a shuddering breath.

“Just–,” Joowon starts, even as he feels his heart clench wetly inside his chest. “Don’t say things you don’t mean. I hate when people do that.”

Dongsik nods, a quick jerk to his head, the way he always does — like a bird caught in a net, and Joowon finds himself mirroring the gesture, putting a pause to the trajectory of their argument even though all he wants to do is ask: did you mean it? Was it really me?”

“Tea?” he asks instead, opening up the cabinet overhead.

Dongsik glances at him, raising an eyebrow at him in surprise; this time there’s real amusement in his eyes. “Sure, but I thought you hated that stuff. Am I remembering your affinity for caffeine and distaste for tea all wrong?”

Joowon can’t help but bite back a smile, and shrugs. “It grew on me.” And it makes Dongsik laugh.

Afterwards, once Dongsik’s cup is empty, and all of Manyang has been shared with Joowon so vividly that it almost doesn’t matter that he hasn’t seen Jihoon, Jaeyi or Jihwa in so long, Joowon offers to make dinner.

And Dongsik shakes his head. “I should really go,” he says, his nails catching on the painted pattern on his tea cup.

Joowon is about to insist that it’s too late to be driving back home when there’s the sound of the front door being unlocked, and he startles at the beep it makes.

Kwon Hyuk’s voice drifts in from the hallway, calling out for Joowon before he comes into view.

“Oh,” he says, stopping in his tracks when he spots Dongsik on the couch. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know you had visitors. He nods at Dongsik and then glances at Joowon.

Joowon glares back.

“Hyung, we’ve been over this. Haven’t you heard of ringing the bell?”

Kwon Hyuk rolls his eyes. “If you really didn’t want me barging in here you would’ve changed the passcode already. Cut the crap, Joowon.”

Joowon scowls. “It’s happening right after I kick you out,” he mutters quietly.

“What was that?” Kwon Hyuk carries on, and his tone makes it clear that he doesn’t actually care. He thrusts out a hand. “Dongsik-ssi, it’s nice to finally meet you properly, uh… under better circumstances.”

Joowon steals a glance at Dongsik, and the man has his eyebrows so high up on his forehead that they’re half covered by the hair sweeping his forehead. He shifts his eyes curiously between Joowon and Kwon Hyuk, before rising to his feet and shaking Kwon Hyuk’s hand.

Dongsik smiles. “Of course. Thank you for all your help, Kwon Hyuk-ssi. We couldn’t have done it without you”

Kwon Hyuk waves his hand in dismissal even as Joowon tries his hardest not to roll his eyes at how pleased he looks at the praise. “I was just doing my job. And I was glad to have helped our Joowon,” he says, reaching over to clamp a hand down on Joowon’s shoulder.

Once again, Dongsik glances between them, and his eyes linger on the touch that bridges the two younger men before looking away quickly.

Kwon Hyuk’s fingers rub circles on the back of Joowon’s shoulder blade, and he’s known the older man long enough that there’s probably a reason for his visit; Kwon Hyuk, even though prone to be a slave to his emotion than Joowon had ever been, there’s still a method to his sentimentality.

But Kwon Hyuk rustles the plastic bag in his hand and says, “I got you dinner and booze. Thought you might need that.”

He looks at Joowon like he can read Joowon’s mind, and gives him a small smile and shakes his head as if to say: maybe, just maybe, Joowon should consider that people can walk into his life because they want to make sure he’s not rotting away in his apartment.

Before he goes into the kitchen to put out the plates, Joowon snags his fingers in the sleeve of Dongsik’s jacket, and says, “Stay.”

Kwon Hyuk leaves first — a lightweight as always, and because Joowon is sober enough, and grateful for the food, he offers to guide him all the way down to the parking lot.

He feels the way Dongsik watches them leave, tangible weight on his shoulders the entire time.

Kwon Hyuk stumbles into the taxi with an empty threat: “Answer my calls, you punk!”

 

—————

 

Dongsik’s digging into a leftover cup of ramen when Joowon returns. Disgusting; Joowon crinkles his nose at the sight. But because there’s a long drive Dongsik’s avoiding — one that Joowon wants him to avoid, Joowon sits down on the couch chair opposite to the couch, and reaches over to pour Dongsik another shot.

“You know, Kwon Hyuk reminds me a little bit of you,” Dongsik says, reaching for his glass.

Joowon bristles at the audacity of it all. Dongsik takes one look at Joowon’s face and laughs. Joowon huffs, a little annoyed but not really, because he’s more distracted with the openness in Dongsik’s expression, how he’s laughing with head thrown back at one point.

“Explain,” Joowon demands.

“Relax,” Dongsik says, finally calming down. “It’s just that it reminds me of all the times you’ve barged into my house unannounced.”

Joowon flushes, heat flooding his face. “I was conducting an investigation!” he exclaims.

Dongsik tuts. “Technicalities.”

“You’re still crazy. That was nothing like Hyuk hyung having no sense of personal boundaries.”

Dongsik looks thoughtful for a second. “You’re right. It’s different. I don’t think you’ve ever called me hyung.”

Joowon simmers. His fingertips go numb at the thought – that’s not something he had been prepared to discuss when he’s toeing the line between being slightly buzzed and completely inebriated.

“It’s… just not something I’m used to. I don’t do that with anyone,” Joowon says.

“Except for Kwon Hyuk?” Dongsik asks.

Joowon can’t help but smirk. “If I didn’t know any better I would’ve thought this is jealousy.”

“Tsk. That’s absurd!” Dongsik scowls, looking off to the side, eyes fixed on the twinkling skyline just outside the windows. “You just hurt my feelings, Joowon-ah,” he lets the name spill from his tongue, and it falls between them like magma dripping into cold water – boils, and festers right underneath Joowon’s skin. “We were partners, and we were playing with fire just a few years ago, so am I still really just anyone?

And Dongsik’s right; sometimes Joowon lays it all out in black and white – how reckless he had been, to walk into the line of fire for a man he barely knew.

He could unfold it in fragments: at first every move he made was judicial; it was his sense of duty that made him want to solve the case, and of course, guilt. Then he was spurred on by anger, and desperation — wanting to to prove himself. Finally, towards the end, when he was so ready to throw everything he had built for himself away if it meant that Dongsik recieved closure, that was near stupidity, but he doesn’t regret that. That would require motive, and still, Joowon doesn’t exactly know why he was so ready to commit career suicide.

Maybe it’s because even though there’s almost two decades worth of deceit and spilled blood between them, there’s a golden thread that runs through, chaining him around his ankles and wrists and then his throat – he had clawed his way in through Dongsik’s defenses, and wet with sinew and tendon lay the loneliness – shiny, reflective, and all too much like Joowon’s own.

“Forget it,” Dongsik huffs eventually, when the silence stretches too long. He stabs at the air between them with his chopsticks. “Want to know what was so interesting about you, Joowon-ssi?” Then he leans forward on the couch, elbows balanced on his knees, trespassing into Joowon’s orbit. “You were a little too perfect.”

Joowon almost drops the shot glass in his hand. “Excuse me?”

Dongsik grins, his lips cutting across his teeth sharply, fine tuned – diamond edged. “Don’t be so quick to flatter yourself,” he says. “You spent all your life striving for perfection: moulding yourself to be the perfect weapon, and your father knew it. I knew it. It was almost too easy to figure out at first. That’s why it’s not a compliment. Perfection makes people want to take – fools them into thinking they can break things apart and make something new – something better.”

Even after he’s done speaking, Dongsik doesn’t move. He sways a little, not completely immune to the beer and the soju as Joowon had thought, and the movement brings Dongsik closer to him. He cocks his head up at Joowon, like a dog waiting for a head pat; or a tiger flexing his shoulder blades, hiding in the reeds, ready to pounce.

The alcohol in Joowon’s system burns, disintegrating his veins. He leans forward, mirroring Dongsik, bony elbows on bony knees; too fucking close. “So, what do you think? Have I been made into a masterpiece or a monster?”

Dongsik shakes his head. “You’re a survivor, Han Joowon. Whatever Kihwan did to you, you didn’t deserve that.” Then he bites his lip, and Joowon tracks the movement, the way the pink flesh goes bloodless under sharp, white edges. “And everything I did to you, you didn’t deserve that either. And I am sorry — I mean that. ”

Joowon’s heart claws at his ribs, ribbons his lungs with its teeth, trying to break out of his chest. His head swims from the alcohol, and with how low Dongsik’s voice is — it’s grinding, and stretching across the small space to wrap around his neck like a noose — tugging him closer.

The floor is cold underneath Joowon’s knees when he slides off the leather. Dongsik looks at him, and he keeps looking, with eyes like broken headlights. Joowon hears his blood roar in his ears at the sight.

He feels his skin light itself on fire from the inside out. He feels the energy leak out from under his nails when he places his hands on Dongsik’s knees; the stitches get caught under his blunt nails, and the noise it makes is entirely too loud.

The overhead golden light casts shadows under Dongsik’s eyes. With Joowon’s already blurry vision, Dongsik’s eyes are depthless. Joowon feels like he’s swallowing the ocean — it weighs him down until he’s resting his forehead on Dongsik’s thigh.

Dongsik exhales above him, letting out a shuddering burst of air — like he’s being punched in the gut.

Joowon holds his breath when there’s a gentle touch at his jaw; his knees ache, but there are fingers trailing fire all the way up to the corner of his mouth and then his temple. His lungs stutter, trying to fight against the drowning.

“Han Joowon,” Dongsik breathes; Joowon shuts his eyes even tighter at the reverence in his voice.

“Don’t,” Joowon says. “Stop speaking,” he grits out thickly. “You say these things, and I just can’t– I can’t think when you do that. I don’t know what to do with any of it.”

“Joowon-ah,” Dongsik starts. “Joowon-ah.” Dongsik keeps saying, and his fingers press to the sharp jut of Joowon’s cheekbone with each syllable. “What people tell you, it’s not your burden. You don’t have to do anything. Not everything is a riddle you have to solve, Joowon-ah. More often than not it’s because people care about you, and that‘s a good enough answer, isn’t it? That it’s because I care about you?”

Joowon feels the words slice through him like hollow-point bullets. He reaches for Dongsik’s other hand blindly, and then pulls the hand on his face down to Dongsik’s lap; pulse points press against each other, trapped between Joowon’s hands. Joowon presses his forehead to Dongsik’s hands, like a prayer, like it’s already become a habit; the low-lit memory that flashes through his mind burns.

There are no tears tonight, only too much heat in the pit of his stomach. He presses his lips to the top of Dongsik’s wrists this time.

 

—————

 

Joowon wakes up with his head feeling like it’s being bashed in with a mallet; too little food and sleep paired with soju and beer is almost as deadly as taking a blank cartridge to the side of the head.

At least he’s in his own bed, and his back feels just fine. Fragments of the previous night flash whenever he closes his eyes — hard floor digging into his knees, warm hands pressed to his skin and pulse points fluttering under his lips. Joowon flushes, feeling mortified.

Fucking Kwon Hyuk, Joowon curses to himself, digging into his throbbing eyeballs with the back of his knuckles.

Joowon rolls out of his bed when he hears a noise from the kitchen.

Dongsik’s got his head almost entirely inside his cereal cabinet, and he’s muttering to himself about how disgusting Joowon’s bran and oats cornflakes are.

The sight is so absurd that Joowon has to smother a smile behind his hand. He clears his throat loudly, startling Dongsik who jumps around to face him.

“You!” Dongsik says, pointing an accusatory finger in Joowon’s face. “Why do you have this…. abomination in your house? And why do you have an entire cabinet for cereal if this is all you keep in it?”

Dongsik had gotten rid of his jacket overnight, and his grey t-shirt is all crumpled. The stretched out collar of it lies balanced on the blades of his collarbones. Joowon averts his eyes. “Because that’s actually good for you. Shouldn’t you start being more conscious about things like that?” Joowon mutters under his breath, feeling a little personally offended; mild annoyance is a welcome distraction from his embarrassment.

Dongsik narrows his eyes at him from across the kitchen. “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that. Now sit down, I’m making us real breakfast.”

What follows is mild anxiety the entire time Dongsik uses his stove to make them rolled omelettes. Joowon cringes each time the spatula scrapes the bottom of his non-stick pan.

But Dongsik beams at him when he slides a plate across the marble counter towards Joowon. He watches expectently as Joowon takes his first bite, and fuck, it’s kind of annoying how he’s good at cooking too.

Dongsik never brings up what happened, and it reminds Joowon about a night spent in the rain, and how his knees had ached just the same the morning after, and how they had never addressed that either — how they had decided to focus only on the details that had mattered.

When the silence gets suffocating, Joowon speaks. “I’m sorry about last night, I don’t know what came over me, I guess I was a little too drunk.”

Dongsik doesn’t stop shoveling food into his mouth for the next few seconds. His shoulders are caved in — posture abysmal enough that it makes Joowon ache. But because Joowon knows – because it’s been his job to watch, built in his system to pick apart people the way you’re supposed to disassemble machinery, Joowon sees an animal protecting what’s theirs – someone who’s had things dangled in front of him only to be ripped away, trying to devour when he could.

It makes his stomach twist with something so close to anger, and a little left of intense desire to reach out and ask him to slow down.

Finally, Dongsik looks up at him. He cocks his head to the side, peering into Joowon’s eyes. “Joowon-ah, we shouldn’t say things we don’t fully mean.”

And he’s right; Joowon supposes he shouldn’t be so surprised about that after all. Joowon didn’t mean that — he’s not sorry at all actually, because if he was ever going to lay himself bare in front of someone else, it would’ve been Dongsik anyway.

Joowon shakes his head, and considers his options: stuck between honesty and the anxiety claws under his skin. He lets his fork scrape against the flowers painted on his plate, meets Dongsik’s gaze head on and and asks: “Do you want to meet someone before you go?” instead.

 

—————

 

Joowon makes a sharp left at the intersection: a near perfect turn of the steering wheel that melts under his hands.

“Bad habits.” Dongsik tuts his disapproval from the passenger seat, and the leather in Joowon’s hand squeaks when his grip turns deadly.

The white lines chase behind them. Joowon presses down on the accelerator just to feel the way the SUV thrums with power and picks up speed. And because it makes Dongsik scoff and look away from Joowon.

He had never gone back for the shiny blue Chevrolet – not surprisingly, the black jeep had grown on him.

Flashy cars were never a good combination for stealth and all the ways he had gone rogue anyway, he had learnt the hard way. And now, some of the older folks he has to drive back after they’ve wandered too far from home can lie down in the backseat a lot more comfortably.

He slows down once they enter through the tall iron gates, and the vehicle crunches the gravel as it cruises down the wide pathway. Dongsik sits up straight, and looks around in mild surprise.

Later, Dongsik follows Joowon silently, past rows of crosses that shine like teeth under the morning sun. The cemetery is empty at this hour; Joowon’s got the schedule etched in his mind now. Lunch time is always a time to avoid, something about hunger seemed to remind the alive of the dead. Joowon could never understand why.

They stop in front of the last cross down the line. The pink bouquet lying on top of the tomb looks heavy with the dew trapped in its curled up day-old petals.

Joowon lays a hand on the point of the cross and whispers a promise to bring in fresh flowers soon.

Dongsik walks up to stand beside him, and lays his hand next to Joowon’s on the tomb, and bows his head. Joowon can’t help but stare at his side profile for a moment.

Dongsik traces a finger over the carved letters, painting his mother’s name anew. Joowon watches the way his fingertips smoothes the edges. “It’s nice to meet you, mother.” he whispers.

Joowon smiles. “She would’ve liked you,” he tells Dongsik. “You remind me of her sometimes.”

Joowon laughs softly when Dongsik side eyes him and warns him, “That’s the second time this morning.”

“You know I never mean it that way. But let's just say you two would’ve gotten along great.”

Joowon feels himself flush when Dongsik turns to smirk at him. He looks so damn pleased with himself. Joowon can’t think straight, but he knows that this feels too much like the point of no return for the both of them.

Dongsik bends down to tug at a few weeds that were starting to grow at the bottom of the cross.

Joowon bends down to help, digging his fingers into the soil. The dirt gets in between the crooks of his fingers and the backs of his hands. “I didn’t visit her for almost fifteen years after we buried her,” he tells Dongsik.

He can feel the way Dongsik’s gaze lands on the side of his face.“I used to be so angry — because she was supposed to take care of me, but she was never there. Because I let them take her away.” The words spill out of him, tangled and messy —something akin to a sob that rips out of him, surprising him at its suddenness and violence. “That bastard, he locked her up, and I couldn’t save her. And then she was dead. No, Han Kihwan killed her.”

The stem of a wildflower cuts a path down rhe middle of his palm when he yanks at it angrily. “He ruined so many lives, Dongsik. Her’s and yours — you could’ve had everything — you could’ve had a life, but he killed that too. And I’m sorry, I’m so fucking sorry that he got to escape so easily.” His apology gets muffled because suddenly Dongsik is reaching out to squeeze Joowon’s shoulder, and pulling him into a tight embrace.

Joowon stiffens, and then sinks like a cloth in hot water — he lets himself sink to the bottom of Dongsik’s warmth. Dongsik presses his hands against Joowon’s spine, and his ribs against Joowon’s own, pushing, and pushing until the dirt on Dongsik’s hands start to polish all of the sharp points of his bones.

Dirt smears on the side of his face when Dongsik cups his face in his hands. “You still don’t get it, do you, Han Joowon? At the end of the day, none of this crap about justice matters. Do you think the fact that Kihwan got a jail sentence stops me from seeing Yuyeon everywhere I look? No, because it’s not about him anymore. People like us, we will always have to carry our ghosts with us, but now we also get to breathe. Do you understand?” He presses his thumb to the corner of Joowon’s lips to collect a tear.

And then, slowly, Han Joowon lets his lungs expand and spread like butterfly wings for the first time in a long time.

They walk back to the parking lot in silence, and Dongsik trails a little bit behind. “I was right,” He calls out to Joowon, making him stop in his tracks, caught between the cool shadow of an oak tree, and hot asphalt. “You do look more beautiful in colour, Joowon-ah,” Dongsik says, repeating himself, louder than last night.

Joowon stares at him, and Dongsik watches him right back, standing his ground. Joowon wonders if it’s possible to swallow the world whole in the time it would take for him to cross the distance between them.

It turns out that the eternity it takes him from then, to pulling Dongsik in by fisting his hands in his coat lapels to kiss him is more than enough time for it.

He walks them both backwards until Dongsik’s back hits the trunk of the oak tree, and then he uses it to bind themselves closer.

Dongsik presses himself up against the rough surface and bares himself to the branding of Joowon’s palms on his face, over his chest, and to the trail of Joowon’s fingertips up the side of his neck and kisses him back.

 

—————

 

The dawn breaks over Manyang slowly, and then all at once, like the sun tips over and spills liquid gold all over the small town.

Three years ago, Joowon had never noticed this. The air in Manyang had only borne down on his shoulders like deadweight, but that was then, and this is now, and everything in between is still stuck to his fingers like gossamer threads.

He passes the butcher shop, and thinks he catches a glimpse of Jaeyi through the fogged up windows. Or maybe she had seen him first. He doesn’t stop, though, because muscle memory overrides etiquette and he cruises past the heart of the town to the outskirts; the bumps in the road greet him like the calluses on his palms, and there’s a pothole that fits the shape of Joowon’s tires almost perfectly that he makes sure to avoid on habit.

He stands on the porch of Dongsik’s house, and there’s a welcome mat and a potted plant that’s as tall as Joowon’s knee now.

Joowon hesitates once before rapping his knuckles on the door twice – things have changed, and it catches him off guard that this is what drives it home – like a nail in a coffin.

Joowon wonders if Dongsik still leaves his side door unlocked, or if he finally replaced the lock to it, because there’s no point doing otherwise anymore.

When the door swings open, Dongsik freezes on the spot when he sees Joowon, like he doesn’t fully believe that Joowon’s standing on his doorstep, breath curling up in the cold morning air.

Joowon smiles. “Hyung, aren’t you going to invite me in?”

Dongsik smiles back, and pulls him into the pool of sunlight in his hallway — holding him close, welcoming Joowon home.