Of all the stupid meetings Hyunjin has been in in his career, this one takes the cake. He’d sat through presentations about making a line of Hyunjin-themed dolls. He’d heard a three hour pitch on why he should write his entire next album from the perspective of a socially-conscious mermaid. He’d endured a four-part training course on appropriate in-flight behavior when traveling on commercial planes. And, still, this was the stupidest meeting he’d ever been in.
“You have to realize the way you’ve been behaving lately isn’t true to you or your brand.”
Hyunjin holds back an eye roll. His brand. What did that even mean? When did he stop being a person and start being a brand?
“If it comes from my brain, it’s true to me,” Hyunjin quips. He looks up at the executives in the room and offers them a fake smile. His manager, Bang Chan, elbows him directly in the ribs. Okay, he deserved that one.
Still, it was hard to take any of this seriously. His last album hit number one on the charts. His tour sold out. What else did these people want from him? He’d been sitting in his agent’s office being belittled by record company executives for half an hour. Did anyone actually care what he was in the headlines for? What happened to any publicity being good publicity?
“Look, I just don’t get what the big deal is,” Hyunjin adds. “If the album sold well, why does it matter what people write about me?”
“Brands used to jump at the chance for you to use their products or appear in their advertisements,” a marketing executive (whose name Hyunjin had long forgotten) explains. He wasn’t even important enough to get a seat in the office, instead being forced to spend the meeting doing his sniveling while standing behind Hyunjin’s agent. “They’re not calling anymore.”
“Who cares about some toothpaste ads?” Hyunjin groans. There’s a quiet sigh from his agent, who clearly seemed to be giving up on Hyunjin altogether.
“Hyunjin,” one of the executives says finally, “this is your chance to clean up your act. We don’t want to have to do something extreme.”
“Meaning...?” Hyunjin practically sneers. He wasn’t going to be threatened by some suits who clearly had never had fun in their lives. Hyunjin regrets this, though, when he sees the panic in Chan’s eyes next to him.
“Meaning that we do not want certain qualities associated with our label, and you have repeatedly displayed those qualities,” he follows up. Hyunjin scoffs, shaking his head.
“Okay,” he says simply. He stands up and marches out of the room. There’s some disgruntled grumbling from behind him, but he doesn’t look back. He just keeps stomping forward until he reaches the elevator. He didn’t need this. His album went platinum. He wasn’t going to be spoken to like that.
Just as Hyunjin is about to board the elevator, he sees Chan running to catch up with him. Hyunjin tries to frantically push the close button, but Chan sticks his arm between the doors before they can shut.
“Sorry,” Hyunjin grumbles weakly. He stares straight down at the bleak, brown carpeting beneath their feet. Hyunjin couldn’t face him after attempting to leave him stranded waiting for another elevator.
Chan had been there for him since he was posting covers on YouTube. New on the scene and desperate to build his own reputation as an artist manager, Chan had been looking for a diamond in the rough he could mold into a breakout star when he’d stumbled across Hyunjin’s music. Chan sent Hyunjin a message, then drove three hours to see Hyunjin perform his songs live. Within a couple of months, Chan had secured a meeting with Hyunjin’s current record label. Over the years, Chan had become Hyunjin’s closest friend. They’d toured entire continents together, living in buses and pulling frequent all-nighters. Chan kept Hyunjin sane through everything and, without him, Hyunjin would have no career.
“For trying to smash my fingers in the door or for how you acted in front of every important person this label has to offer?” Chan asks.
“I’m not apologizing for that,” Hyunjin snaps. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Of course, even Hyunjin knows that’s a lie. He didn’t think he deserved to be berated in what might as well have been an intervention meeting, but he wasn’t exactly proud of how many times he’d landed himself on the cover of tabloids recently.
“Hyunjin,” Chan says sternly, “I am someone who knew you before the record deal, before the money. I want you to remember that and really take what I’m about to say into account.”
“Okay,” Hyunjin whispers in agreement.
“The person you have been the past year isn’t who you are,” he asserts. “The Hyunjin I met back in his hometown who had bright eyes and a songbook filled with ideas would never have smashed a camera or stormed out of an early show interview. I can barely recognize you anymore.”
“Cool. Another person worried about toothpaste ads,” Hyunjin decides. He wasn’t a different person. He didn’t feel any different. Just because he’d made a few mistakes didn’t mean he was crazy.
“I don’t care about the ads,” Chan claims. Hyunjin raises an eyebrow at him. “I mean, I do, but I am most concerned about you.”
“Sure,” he grumbles.
“And about how you haven’t written a song worth showing the label since your last album was released,” Chan admits hastily. Hyunjin’s eyes dart up, suddenly panicking. He knew it had been a long time. In fact, it was practically all he thought about. He’d sit down to write, and no words would come out. He’d play his guitar, and the chords would be to songs he already released. It was tormenting him. He hoped Chan hadn’t noticed. “Your tour ended three months ago. They’re itching to hear new material. You don’t have any.”
It’s all Hyunjin can manage.
“So, which one of your albums had the best critical reception?”
“My debut,” Hyunjin responds without missing a beat.
“Which one are you most proud of?”
“My debut,” he repeats.
“Which one did you write when you were just a small town kid whose head hadn’t swollen to the size of Neptune yet?”
“I get it,” Hyunjin grumbles, trying not to disintegrate hearing all the snark in Chan’s voice. “I’ll try to be more down-to-earth or whatever.”
“You’re not gonna try. You’re gonna do it,” Chan informs him. “The label has agreed not to drop you if you spend some time out of the limelight to give the public a break, and I think it’ll be good for you, too, so you can write some songs that mean something.”
“Okay. I just said–”
“Your flight home is tomorrow morning. Go back to your apartment and pack,” Chan orders. The elevator dings, and the doors open on the bottom floor. Chan starts to hastily exit before Hyunjin can process what he just said and fight him on it.
“Excuse me?” Hyunjin snaps, chasing after Chan as he hustles toward his car. “Chan, I haven’t been back home since I signed my record deal.”
“I know. I called and talked to your grandpa this morning. He told me he’s going to make sure your room is ready,” Chan assures him. Hyunjin’s eyes widen.
“I’m staying with my grandpa?”
“Anyone else,” Hyunjin begs.
“This is non-negotiable,” Chan says simply, resting a hand on Hyunjin’s shoulder. “You need to remember who you are so that we can see who you are reflected in your music again.”
Hyunjin sighs. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe it would just be a vacation. How bad could his hometown be, really?
“How long do I have to stay?” Hyunjin asks.
“Until we can tell you’ve changed,” Chan dictates.
It was going to be a long summer.
• • •
Hyunjin has been back inside his grandpa’s house for roughly an hour, and he’s already sick of living at home again. Hyunjin loved him, but there was a reason he hadn’t looked back after moving out. His grandpa’s strict attitude made Hyunjin feel like he was suffocating.
In high school, Hyunjin’s grandpa had a million rules about what he was allowed to do and who he was allowed to see, even having particulars about table manners Hyunjin was expected to follow. It was part of why Hyunjin hated to come home; his grandpa was just too overwhelming.
“And you better not be planning on staying out late,” his grandpa lectures, following Hyunjin around as he desperately tries to escape the nagging. “Chan told me about your partying.”
“He’s exaggerating,” Hyunjin insists.
“You’re on drugs, aren’t you?” Hyunjin’s grandpa decides.
“No,” Hyunjin replies.
“How long have you been on drugs?”
“I’m not on drugs, gramps,” Hyunjin assures him, “and if I were on drugs, I wouldn’t have any idea where to get them in this town, so you don’t have to worry.”
Hyunjin quickly makes his way up the stairs to get away from his grandfather. That was the one nice thing about his grandfather getting older; he couldn’t get up the stairs as easily, meaning going up to his room was an easy way for Hyunjin to find himself some peace. Hyunjin makes his way down the hall and pushes open the knicked door at the end of the hallway.
His room might as well have been a time capsule. His grandfather hadn’t touched anything beyond dusting and washing the sheets. The walls still adorned Paramore posters, and his desk was a cluttered mess of sheet music from his high school band days.
Probably the most interesting part of the room to Hyunjin was the bottom of his bookshelves. He kneeled down next to them, tracing the spines of the row of journals with his fingers. They seemed like relics now, but whenever Hyunjin had actually lived in this room, he’d write in one of these every single day. Hyunjin liked to write down his experiences for song inspiration. He grabs the most recent one and flips through it.
The contents of the worn, weathered pages certainly don’t surprise Hyunjin. His writing is a bit messy and hard to read, but there’s one name he can still make out over and over and over again: Seungmin.
Kim Seungmin had been Hyunjin’s first love. It sounded cheesy, and maybe it was, but they’d been inseparable as teenagers. Hyunjin had been drawn to Seungmin because he was quiet, reserved. Hyunjin had always been the opposite, a loud mouth who could talk to anybody about anything. The difference in their personalities intrigued Hyunjin, and the more they hung out, the more Hyunjin realized Seungmin was more than just a cute, shy boy. He was complicated, more so than the straight-forward Hyunjin could ever even pretend to be. If Seungmin was an open-book like Hyunjin was known to be, that book was written in Sumerian, and Hyunjin dedicated all his time to translating it. That was how his first album came to be.
The rest of his room regrettably mirrored the journals’ sentiments. Hyunjin had polaroids of the two of them together pinned to his bulletin board and notes they’d exchanged in class, usually despite Seungmin’s resistance, shoved into his nightstand. Even the chipped paint on his windowsill was a result of Seungmin climbing into his window past Hyunjin’s grandfather’s curfew.
Suddenly, he had an idea of how to entertain himself for the summer. Chan wanted him to go back to his first album, didn’t he?
Hyunjin decides to avoid his Grandfather and his inane rules completely by taking the ‘Seungmin Exit’ out of his window. It’s easy enough due to the fencing his grandfather had set up for his garden. Once Hyunjin gets out of the window, he just scales down to the railing and, when he can balance on the fence for a few seconds, he’s on the ground without issue. Hyunjin thinks Seungmin complained about this too much when they were teenagers.
Hyunjin could still remember the day he told Seungmin he was leaving so clearly. He knew that was probably because it’d been so traumatic for both of them, but it was easier to just think he had a good memory.
It was late summer, meaning it was way too hot and sticky to be outside, but Seungmin hadn’t wanted to climb the side of Hyunjin’s house to get into his room, so they’d opted to hang out in Hyunjin’s old treehouse instead.
Seungmin was in the middle of doodling Hyunjin in chalk on the treehouse wall when Hyunjin had cracked and told Seungmin about signing his record deal. Seungmin had been really happy at first, wrapping Hyunjin up in his arms and kissing his head and telling him how proud he was. Then, Hyunjin had dropped the bomb that was moving to the city. It was more awkward, contemplative as Seungmin tried to come up with a reasonable way they could stay together. Of course, Hyunjin had made up his mind days before he even brought the issue up to Seungmin.
After half an hour of yelling at each other, Seungmin stormed out. Every bone in Hyunjin’s body was screaming to follow him, to apologize, but Hyunjin ignored it. He had one goal, and Seungmin wasn’t a part of that anymore. Hyunjin hadn’t seen him again after that.
Until now, that was. Hyunjin had trekked the two blocks down to Kim Grocery, and he could already see Seungmin through the glass, restocking the shelves the same way he’d been doing since he’d learned to walk. Seungmin’s family had owned and operated the only real grocery store in town for longer than Seungmin’s dad had been alive. Since Seungmin’s sister had taken the easy way out and gone to school to be a doctor, Seungmin had been left to take over the store one day. It’s why Hyunjin had been so certain the only option he and Seungmin had was to break up. There was something inherently incompatible about the life paths of a musician and a local grocer. Hyunjin was sure Seungmin knew that now.
Still, Hyunjin spends longer than what is probably normal standing outside the grocery store, watching Seungmin. It didn’t seem real to see him again, especially considering how it was like nothing had changed. Seungmin had the same messy, overgrown hairstyle Hyunjin had both loathed and adored when they were teenagers, and he was wearing a t-shirt Hyunjin was almost certain he had personally purchased for Seungmin as a gift. And, of course, he was still working at his family’s store. Hyunjin supposed that really would always be the case.
A part of Hyunjin thinks he should just head back to his grandpa’s house and resign himself to spending the summer doing puzzles with his grandpa. The rest of him is desperate to talk to Seungmin, to hear his voice, to see what he’s like. If there was one thing that had defined Hyunjin’s recent life choices, it was his impulsiveness. He hadn’t genuinely thought through a single decision he had made in the past six months. That’s why he’s already made up his mind. That’s why he’s pulling open the door to the Kims' store. That’s why he’s melting under the fluorescent lighting as he heads straight for Seungmin, who had his earphones in while he restocked the canned foods aisle.
Before he can make his way to where Seungmin is kneeled down in the back corner of the store, though, he’s cut off by a sparkly eyed, white-haired boy he’d swear he’d never seen before despite the close-knit, incestous nature of this town.
“Hwang Hyunjin! Hello! Welcome in!” Sparkly Eyes says excitedly. “It’s so good to see you!”
“Hi, um…,” Hyunjin trails off, craning his neck to look at Seungmin a little ways behind his captor. “I’m sorry, do we know each other?”
“Jeongin! We were in the drumline together!” he explains. “It’s okay if you don’t remember. I’m sure you meet so many cool people everyday.”
“Right, sorry,” Hyunjin nods. He squinted, realizing Jeongin was wearing a name-tag. “Do you work here?”
“Yes! Part-time,” Jeongin confirms, “I’m actually going to college in the next city over, you know? It’s kind of a long drive, but it’s not a big deal.”
Hyunjin doesn’t think he’d ever had someone who wasn’t a fifteen-year-old at a meet-and-greet try to overshare this much with him in such a short amount of time.
“Mr. Kim is getting older, so he mostly stands behind the register now, you know? I help Seungmin out,” Jeongin explains finally. Hyunjin nods. “Like now! Is there anything I can help you with?”
“I actually came to talk to Seungmin, so,” Hyunjin says, trailing off as he tilted his head in Seungmin’s direction. Jeongin’s eyes widened.
“Right! Right, your muse!” Jeongin enthuses. Hyunjin raised his eyebrows.
“My muse?” he repeats.
“I mean, it’s kind of obvious, no? The bike, the prison of a grocery store…”
Hyunjin immediately thinks his music could’ve used more metaphors, less concrete examples.
“Of course, yeah,” Hyunjin acknowledges, “so, I’m just gonna… talk to him now…”
“Yes! Go ahead!” Jeongin steps aside and gestures for Hyunjin to continue toward Seungmin. If Hyunjin had learned one thing today, it was that that guy was weird.
Once Jeongin has been distracted by Seungmin’s dad calling him over to the other side of the store, Hyunjin finally approaches Seungmin. Prior to today, Hyunjin would’ve told you that there wasn’t a single guy on this earth that he was afraid to talk to. He would’ve been wrong, judging by his clammy palms and heartbeat in his ears.
“Hey,” Hyunjin says softly. Seungmin doesn’t even glance in his direction.
“Hi,” he murmurs as he turns a can so the label is showing. “How can I help you?”
Hyunjin just clears his throat loudly in hopes Seungmin will look up and see him. It works, and Seungmin pulls a headphone out of his ear as he turns to meet Hyunjin’s eyes. As soon as Seungmin’s brain is able to process who he’s looking at, Hyunjin can feel the entire store get a little colder.
“What are you doing here?” Seungmin says dryly, pulling his other headphone out of his ear.
“I wanted to see you,” Hyunjin whispers. He didn’t know if Seungmin had ever spoken to him with that much disdain. When they were together, Seungmin would always come crawling back with an apology, even if Hyunjin was the one who had been in the wrong.
“No, I got that. What are you doing in this town? Don’t you have a car that costs more than this store to total or something?”
Hyunjin pauses. He didn’t exactly want to admit to Seungmin that his manager had essentially grounded him like a disobedient child.
“I wanted to see you,” Hyunjin decides to repeat, taking a step toward Seungmin. His best option was just to distract Seungmin by flirting with him, Hyunjin thought. Seungmin crushes this dream by rolling his eyes.
“Seriously, Hyunjin,” he says sternly.
“I was homesick. I missed this place and my grandpa and you,” Hyunjin lies. Truthfully, he hadn’t thought much of this town in recent years. When he first left, he really had missed it constantly, but he’d long gotten used to being away from such a self-contained place.
“Why now?” Seungmin asks. Hyunjin hadn’t been prepared for that question, but maybe he should have been. Seungmin had always been the inquisitive type. He never took the things Hyunjin told him at face value.
“Why does it matter?” Hyunjin asks, gently touching his arm. Seungmin pushes his hand away, just like that. Hyunjin sighs. “I was talking with my label and decided that if I want my album to be more me, then I need to write it back here, where I’m from.”
“Talking with your label,” Seungmin repeats under his breath like it’s the stupidest combination of words he’s ever heard.
“What else am I supposed to say when I discuss something with my management?” Hyunjin snaps as he crosses his arms across his chest.
“Oh, my god. You don’t even sound like you’re from this planet anymore,” Seungmin groans. For Hyunjin, Seungmin’s reaction to him is foreign. It’d been a long time since he’d hung out with someone who wasn’t enthralled by mentions of Hyunjin’s record label. Sometimes, when he was first starting out, he would bring up the fact he had an agent just to impress people. It always worked. “Can I give you some advice?”
“Sure,” Hyunjin agrees hesitantly.
“You can’t write music that’s more you if you’re not in there anymore,” Seungmin informs him harshly.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he barks back. It was presumptuous on Seungmin’s behalf to assume anything about who he was. They hadn’t seen each other in years. All he knew was what he read online.
“Nothing,” Seungmin replies. He grabs his box with the rest of his cans and moves over to another display. Hyunjin clenches his jaw and follows after him. Who did Seungmin think he was? Hyunjin hadn’t done anything wrong, and he was definitely above hanging out in some grimey grocery store.
“Why are you treating me like persona non grata?” Hyunjin snaps, watching Seungmin kneel down at the base of another display and continue to stack cans.
“I’m treating you like an outsider,” Seungmin says without even so much as looking up at Hyunjin, “because you are one.”
“I grew up here. I lived here my entire life,” Hyunjin reminds him with a huff.
“You don’t know anything about this town anymore,” Seungmin argues.
“What do you mean? Nothing’s changed,” Hyunjin insists. “You’re literally wearing a shirt I bought you.”
There’s a beat of silence, then Seungmin just shakes his head like this conversation serves no real purpose.
“You really don’t get it,” Seungmin decides.
“What’s there to get? Explain it to me,” Hyunjin begs. He was afraid at this point he was starting to sound a little desperate. It was hard to swallow that someone like Seungmin, who had been his original admirer, didn’t seem to want anything to do with him. The entire appeal of being successful was being able to flaunt it in the face of people who knew you before you were. Still, Seungmin sighs, clearly fed up with Hyunjin.
“Can we have this conversation literally any other time? I’m working,” Seungmin reminds him, gesturing to his box of cans. “If you already think nothing’s changed, you should hear my dad yell at me for slacking off.”
Hyunjin bites back a smile. He’s flooded with memories of dropping by the store when Seungmin’s dad was forcing him to work all weekend. During the summer, Hyunjin would go see Seungmin at the store everyday on his lunch break. They had a spot in the park nearby where they’d sit, and Seungmin would always insist they head back to the store five minutes early because he didn’t want to be scolded for being late by his dad. Things were so simple.
“Okay,” he says finally. The happiness those memories gave him was fleeting as he remembered that Seungmin didn’t feel that way about him anymore. He didn’t even know if he felt that way about Seungmin anymore. He just wished he had anything in this town to make him as happy in the present as Seungmin could when they were younger.
Hyunjin leaves the store and begins his walk home. He felt like he’d been rejected. All he could do was stare at his phone in hopes nobody else like Jeongin tried to talk to him before he could get back into his grandfather’s house.
“Hyunjin? Holy shit!”
Hyunjin looks up, and feelings of relief practically capsize him when he sees he is face-to-face with Han Jisung. The pair had been really close friends before Hyunjin had been signed. Hyunjin had tried to keep in contact afterwards, but it’d been hard. He had an album to record and promote. He had concerts to play. They talked everyday at first, then a few times a week. A few times a week turned into a few times a month, and eventually their only contact was around their birthdays. Still, Hyunjin always left guest passes for Jisung when his tour came nearby. Jisung was a friendly face, and he probably should’ve been the first person Hyunjin went to see when he came to town.
“Jisung! Hey!” Hyunjin squeaks back excitedly.
“I’d hug you, but I’m sweaty,” Jisung explains. Hyunjin gives him an understanding smile. Jisung had been going on daily jogs around town square since they were in high school. “Your gramps mentioned you might be coming to visit last time I saw him, but I expected a head’s up first.”
“It was kinda a spur of the moment decision,” Hyunjin alleges. He hadn’t had much of a decision, but it’d definitely been spur of the moment.
“Well, that’s cool,” Jisung says with a soft smile. “It’s gonna be great to have you around, even for a little while.”
“Thanks,” Hyunjin murmurs. After his conversation with Seungmin, it felt good to hear somebody assure him he was welcome here.
“I see I was not your first stop,” Jisung teases with a laugh, waving a hand toward the grocery store from which Hyunjin had come.
“My grandpa asked me to pick up some things,” Hyunjin insists. Jisung purses his lips together.
“Where’s your shopping bag?” he counters. Hyunjin narrows his eyes, never one to be defeated by Jisung.
“They were out of what I needed.”
“Whatever,” Jisung laughs, pushing his hair out of his face. “I forgive you. I, too, would be curious about what my first love is up to. He still sucks at mopping, just so you know.”
“Thanks. That’s exactly what I wanted to know,” Hyunjin jokes flatly. Jisung laughs, playfully punching his shoulder.
“Oh!” Jisung exclaims suddenly. He grabs his phone from his pocket. “We’re having a party at sunset to celebrate the first day of Summer. You should come. Everybody will be excited to see you.”
“That sounds really fun,” Hyunjin agrees. Surprisingly enough, he meant it. His hometown had a lot of faults, but whenever it came to parties, he loved it. They were cozy and laid-back, with every single event feeling like a family barbecue. He missed that environment more than anything else about his home. All the parties in all the cities he visited on tour were chaotic and high energy. They took a lot out of him.
“It’s on the beach by the old barn,” Jisung explains. “I’ll text you the address. I’m not sure if you rememb–”
“I remember,” Hyunjin says adamantly. He thinks back to the party they’d held on that area of the beach after their senior prom. Halfway through the night, he and Seungmin had escaped into the barn in what Hyunjin thought would be a romantic tryst, but it had actually just been a lot of talking and laughing and picking hay out of Seungmin’s hair. Hyunjin had an entire song about it.
“Awesome,” Jisung sings. “I should head back so I can shower before, but let’s catch up tonight, okay?”
“Yeah! Can’t wait!” Hyunjin exclaims.
When Hyunjin returns home, he regrets sneaking out of the house because, now, he has to figure out how to get back in. He ends up having to pull his entire body weight onto the roof, which was easier said than done. Seungmin had a point about this after all.
Hyunjin spends the next two hours psyching himself up. It seemed ridiculous, but it had been a long time since he’d been around these people. He was nervous they’d think he was an asshole the way Seungmin did. So, he decides to style his hair meticulously while listening to Blink-182 and constantly reminding himself that he is cool and successful and any normal person would flip at him showing up to some random party.
In the interest of not having to participate in a round of Ninja Warrior to get back into his room, he elects to simply tell his grandfather he’s leaving this time and suffer the consequences.
“Going out!” Hyunjin announces as he tries to rush out the front door before his grandfather can stop him.
“With who?” his grandfather shouts, making his way into the front room as fast as he can.
“Jisung,” Hyunjin replies.
“Jisung!” his grandpa repeats. Hyunjin holds back a laugh at the utter glee in the old man’s voice. He’d loved Jisung since they were kids. Hyunjin had never fully understood why. Jisung was similar to Hyunjin in that he’d never been academically inclined or particularly well mannered. Still, his grandfather would always agree to let him go see Jisung. He’d always say he had spunk that set him apart from the other kids.
“Yes,” Hyunjin confirms. He declines to mention all the other people that will, of course, be present.
“Such a nice boy,” his grandfather remarks. Hyunjin nods along. It wasn’t the first or second adjective Hyunjin would use to describe Jisung, but he wouldn’t shatter his grandfather’s illusions either. “Have a nice time. Be back before late.”
“Okay,” Hyunjin agrees, though he has no intention of paying attention to when he comes back or what constitutes late.
The walk down to the shores is oddly peaceful. Hyunjin usually didn’t like silence, but it felt nice to just stop and think for a minute. In general, it was easier for Hyunjin to think when he wasn’t in the city. Hyunjin loved all the people and events and sounds and commotion, but sometimes he couldn’t process an intellectual thought with all the distractions. Sometimes he couldn’t process an intellectual thought without the distractions, either.
“Hyunjin!” Jisung sings when Hyunjin finally approaches the group on the beach. He gives everyone a little wave. He’s not really surprised he recognizes most of them. This town was small.
“Hey!” Hyunjin replies. Everyone was sitting in a circle around a tiny fire Jisung had undoubtedly made. He takes a seat next to Jisung. He was the only person Hyunjin knew didn’t hate him.
“I’m so glad you came!” Jisung sings. “I’m sure you remember everyone.”
Hyunjin looks around, and for the most part he does. He hadn’t seen or thought about them since high school, but they were friends at one point. The only one he doesn’t quite recall is a freckled boy who was sitting next to Minho, one of Seungmin’s hard-headed friends. Minho and Hyunjin had never really seen eye-to-eye. Granted, Hyunjin didn’t think Seungmin and Minho saw eye-to-eye, either.
Besides that, he sees a burly guy a little older than Hyunjin who loved to tease Jisung and Hyunjin when they were in school. Changbin. He was happy he could remember that name, at least. The boy from the grocery store, Jeongin, is there, too, along with a couple of other people they’d gone to school with.
“Yeah, of course. It’s good to see you guys,” Hyunjin says with a smile. He was racking his brain trying to remember the last guy’s name.
“Likewise!” Changbin bellows with a big grin. Minho makes eye contact with Hyunjin for a few seconds, and Hyunjin can feel a chill from how icy it is. Minho just rolls his eyes and looks away.
“Where’s your sister, Changbin?” Hyunjin asks, shocked to see the two separate. They’d always had opposing interests and personalities, but Hyunjin thought they sort of enjoyed bickering back and forth.
“Paris,” Changbin replies with a dry little laugh. “She’s been gone almost as long as you have. She got into fashion school and got the hell out of here.”
“Lucky,” Minho mumbles underneath his breath.
“That’s really cool!” Hyunjin enthuses. “What are you up to, Minho?”
“I work at the cafe in town,” he replies. He sighs softly, then takes out a cigarette and places it between his teeth. He reaches across the freckled boy to hit Changbin’s knee.
“Not nearly as glamorous, I know,” Minho adds after Changbin fishes a lighter out of his jacket pocket and gives it to Minho. Hyunjin wonders how he understood Minho nudging him to be a request.
“No, that’s cool, too. That sounds chill,” Hyunjin insists.
“It is,” Minho decides.
It’s quiet for a second, and Jisung decides it is his personal responsibility to fix that.
“Did you know Changbin owns the bar in the square now? He bought it and renovated it a ton,” Jisung explains. “It’s really cool.”
“So much better than the old place,” the freckled boy adds in agreement.
“Yes,” Minho says, shaking the ash off his cigarette.
Hyunjin is about to admit he’d never actually been inside the bar before renovations, on account of that he hadn’t been back into town since he turned 21, but he’s distracted by noticing someone approaching out of the corner of his eye.
As soon as Seungmin realizes who he’s looking at, he starts to try and figure out how to leave.
“Oh, my god. Guys. I just realized I have something I really need to do—”
“Sit down,” Jisung orders. Seungmin does as he’s told.
Hyunjin takes note of the fact Seungmin had put on a completely different outfit since they’d last seen each other. That seemed deliberate to Hyunjin.
“How was work?” Jisung asks, passing Seungmin the graham cracker box the rest of the group was using to make s’mores. Hyunjin holds back a laugh, remembering Seungmin’s tendencies to just eat the graham crackers from the box instead of making a s’more at every campfire they’d had growing up.
“Work,” Seungmin replies with a shrug. “Someone knocked over the entire display I spent half an hour on.”
“I said I was sorry!” the freckled boy sitting near Minho yelps. “I told you I would put it back together.”
“Yeah, my dad was definitely gonna let you put a display together,” Seungmin says sarcastically.
Seungmin and the freckled boy start to argue, and Hyunjin tunes them out, trying to remember the freckled boy’s name. He looked so familiar, but Hyunjin couldn’t place him. They’d probably gone to school together, of course, but who was he?
“Have we met?” Hyunjin blurts out suddenly. He couldn’t take it anymore.
“Yes,” the freckled boy laughs, turning to look at Hyunjin instead of Seungmin. “I’m Felix Lee.”
Hyunjin’s brain goes into turbo mode trying to place him. Felix. Felix. Felix. Finally, it comes to him, like his brain has finally powered all the way on. Felix was the same age as Hyunjin. He’d left town for college before Hyunjin had even escaped. Hyunjin wondered why he bothered to come back.
“Right. Sorry,” Hyunjin apologizes. He gets an eye roll from Minho in response. “Your grandmother’s the librarian, right?”
Hyunjin had fond memories of being dragged to the library by Seungmin in their middle school years. Seungmin would hunt for books. Hyunjin would bother Mrs. Lee, forcing her into games of tic-tac-toe and categories.
“She was. She died a few years ago,” Felix explains. Hyunjin feels his entire throat dry up. Had his grandpa not told him about that? Had he simply been too far up his own ass to care?
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Hyunjin manages. Felix smiles softly at him.
“It’s been a while,” Felix says, presumably to let Hyunjin know that mentioning his grandmother was fine.
“Felix’s the librarian now,” Jisung interjects, hammering his way through the tension in the conversation. “He’s great at it. He’s already modernized the place so much. We have so many services that our library didn’t offer before.”
“You say that like you’re using them,” Felix notes with a laugh.
“I’m not,” Jisung says flatly, earning a chuckle out of Minho and Changbin, “but I do think you’re good at what you do, Felix.”
“Agreed,” Minho adds, patting Felix on the back affectionately.
“Oh, hey. Speaking of the library, do you still paint, Hyunjin?” Changbin asks, turning his marshmallow in the fire to toast the other side. Hyunjin thought it was funny he could ask such a disastrous question so nonchalantly, but he supposed Changbin didn’t know any better. Jisung, on the other hand, cringed immediately at the question.
Hyunjin’s only interest in painting had been a result of his interest in Seungmin. Seungmin loved to draw and paint and sketch, and Hyunjin loved to have an excuse to be around Seungmin. Whenever he and Seungmin’s relationship had ended, so had Hyunjin’s interest in art.
“Um, not as often. It’s hard to find time,” Hyunjin lies. Truthfully, the hardest thing about keeping up with his painting was that, every single time he picked up a brush, he was reminded of Seungmin. It was fun to do, but it wasn’t worth reliving their breakup.
“Well, now that you’re on vacation,” Minho interjects suddenly, clearly catching on to wherever Changbin was working toward. He pauses and glances over at Seungmin, who just narrowed his eyes in Minho’s direction. “If you’re wanting to get back into it, Seungmin is working on a mural for the library. I’m sure he could use an assistant.”
Seungmin scoffs next to Hyunjin. Changbin simply raises an eyebrow at him in response. Hyunjin could tell Seungmin was embarrassed because he quickly covered the transgression up by clearing his throat.
“I don’t need help. It’s a one man job, really,” Seungmin insists. Changbin shakes his head.
“I’ve seen you out there on your ladder! If Hyunjin doesn’t have anything else to do, I think you could use the help,” Changbin deduces. “You work so slowly, too. Every time I go by there, you haven’t painted a damn thing.”
“It’s going to be on that wall forever,” Seungmin snaps. Minho scoffs.
“Not if you never finish it,” he taunts.
“I don’t need help,” Seungmin repeats sternly, looking Hyunjin right in the eyes as he emphasizes every word. Hyunjin takes that as a warning; Seungmin wasn’t going to tell Hyunjin he wasn’t welcome in front of all these people, but he also was going to be pissed if Hyunjin actually showed up to the library. It had taken Hyunjin a long time to develop the well-honed skill that was understanding the annoyed looks Seungmin gave him.
“You’re in a pissy mood, Seungmin,” Jisung declares. “You should have a drink. Eat a s'more. Take the stick out of your ass. Aren’t you excited for the summer?”
“Why would I be excited to do the same things I always do, just sweatier?” Seungmin counters. Jisung rolls his eyes.
“You used to love the summertime,” he reminds him. Hyunjin remembered that, too. Seungmin would count the days until the start of summer. They’d celebrate every year, whether it was altogether like this or just Seungmin, Jisung and Hyunjin. Hyunjin always figured it had something to do with having more free time. The rest of the year, Seungmin had to balance working at the store and school. In the summer, they got to spend more time together.
“Then I grew up,” Seungmin states plainly. There’s silence for a few seconds. Hyunjin supposed no one was willing to poke the bear that was Seungmin when he was feeling sensitive. “Did you say there’s alcohol?”
Jisung nods excitedly, sitting up and tugging on Changbin’s arm. He leads him back to the parking lot toward his car. When they return, Changbin is lugging an ice chest.
“Courtesy of me and Changbin!” Jisung sings.
Once the drinks have been distributed, everyone starts to break up. Jisung challenges Hyunjin, Changbin and Minho to a game of volleyball, while Felix sits by the water nearby. Jeongin and a few others attempt to build a sandcastle, though it’s getting dark fast. Hyunjin can’t help but keep an eye on Seungmin, even as he’s attempting to focus on the game. Seungmin just sits alone by the fire, staring off into the water a ways away. After his and Changbin’s third consecutive loss to Jisung and Minho, Hyunjin decides to break away from the group to go talk to him.
“Hey,” Hyunjin whispers as he approaches Seungmin.
Seungmin doesn’t reply. He just sighs, taking a sip of his drink as Hyunjin sat next to him a few feet from the fire. Hyunjin knew he probably should’ve taken the hint that Seungmin didn’t have any interest in talking to him earlier, but that feeling of happiness Hyunjin felt just before he had left the store had convinced him this was worth pushing.
“Who invited you?” Seungmin asks finally.
“Jisung. Guess not everybody hates me,” Hyunjin concludes. Seungmin rolls his eyes.
“I don’t hate you,” he insists.
“Then why’d you change your shirt?” Hyunjin retorts. Seungmin’s cheeks immediately flushed red.
“I showered after work,” Seungmin claims. Hyunjin shrugs.
“Sure,” he says leisurely. “Why won’t you just admit you’re still mad?”
“I’m not mad.”
“It’s okay to be mad, you know.”
“Sure, but I’m not mad.”
“If you were mad, you’d admit it?”
“Of course not,” Seungmin clarifies. Hyunjin laughs, kicking at the sand near his feet. “You know me better than that.”
“I do,” Hyunjin admits quietly, “which means I also know when you’re angry.”
“Hyunjin,” Seungmin says, “I’m not mad. I just haven’t seen you in years. I’m trying to hang out with my friends. You aren’t my friend anymore.”
“Way harsh,” Hyunjin replies. He tried to say it playfully, but he felt defeated.
“Sorry,” Seungmin grumbles. “It’s just the truth. You’re not one of us anymore, Hyunjin.”
“Oh,” Hyunjin whispers. He didn’t know what else to say. It wasn’t a lie. He hadn’t been back home in a long time. He hadn’t regularly talked to any of these people in a long time. He couldn’t really consider himself part of their friend group. He couldn’t really consider himself one of them, whatever that meant. But it hurt just the same.
Hyunjin spends another hour or so playing around with Jisung and Changbin before excusing himself and making his way home. Maybe it was silly to be wound up about what Seungmin thought of him, but it was virtually the only thing on Hyunjin’s mind.
As Hyunjin lays in his bed, he stares up at the dark ceiling above him and wonders what Chan would do if he booked his own flight home tomorrow morning. He could hang out in his apartment for a few weeks and Chan would probably never know. He wouldn’t have to face Seungmin, and all the executives really wanted was for him to keep his face out of the tabloids.
Of course, even the thought of manipulating Chan makes him feel guilty, and soon, he’s opening his FaceTime app in hopes of actually talking to him. His call only rings a couple of times before Chan picks up.
“Hello?” Chan says. He was perched on his bed, clearly about to go to sleep, but he actually had his life together enough to turn the lamp in his bedroom on before answering.
“Hi,” Hyunjin replies. It was comforting just to look at Chan. He’d been more consistent in Hyunjin’s adult life than anybody else.
“Does something have to be wrong? Can’t I just call my dear friend?” Hyunjin asks dramatically. Chan just waits for him to get to it. “I saw Grocer Boy today.”
“Oh, god, Hyunjin,” Chan groans. “I should’ve made some ground rules for this. What business do you have talking to someone like that?”
“An ex I’ve written half my music about when I haven’t finished a song in months? Huh, I wonder,” Hyunjin says sarcastically. Chan scowls.
“What else is there to say about him?” Chan asks.
“How he looked through the glass windows today,” Hyunjin replies. “How he acted like I was an inconvenience and it made me want to talk to him more. How no one else has made me feel the way he did ever.”
“Just… don’t do anything stupid, okay?”
“What am I gonna do? Kiss a boy I’ve already kissed a hundred times? C’mon. Who would care about that?”
“I didn’t mean stupid for publicity reasons,” Chan warns him. “I meant don’t get your heart broken, dumbass.”
“You’ve heard the songs, Chan. Nobody’s ever broken my heart,” Hyunjin insists.
“Breaking your own heart counts too,” Chan says nonchalantly. Hyunjin rolls his eyes. You couldn’t break your own heart. You made the decisions that you wanted. “I need to go to bed. I have a big meeting tomorrow.”
“How can you have a big meeting when I’m here?” Hyunjin snaps. He’d become a bit possessive over Chan. At the start of his career, Chan had focused only on him, essentially abandoning his other artists. They spent almost every waking hour together. Now that Hyunjin was successful, Chan had started branching out and working for other people. It made Hyunjin a little jealous. He missed the days when he and Chan would spend all night on a tour bus together, playing Uno or Solitaire until Chan begged Hyunjin to just go to sleep already.
“One of the munchkins could be signing a three album deal tomorrow,” Chan explains. The munchkins was a not-so loving nickname Hyunjin used for the three teenagers Chan had discovered in hopes of finding his next Hyunjin. Personally, Hyunjin didn’t think any of them had what it took.
“Three albums? Isn’t that a lot?” Hyunjin says, scrunching up his nose in distaste.
“Your initial deal was for three,” Chan reminds him.
“Yeah, but I had talent,” Hyunjin says.
“Okay, you’re being a baby today, so I’m gonna hang up. Text me if you need me,” Chan instructs, completely ignoring Hyunjin’s attempt to berate his other artists.
“I’m gonna FaceTime you. I need to see your face!” Hyunjin threatens as Chan ends the call.
Even once Chan is gone off his screen, Hyunjin continues to stir about what he said. What else is there to say about him? Plenty, Hyunjin thought. If an album like his debut is what the record label wanted, Hyunjin certainly had an idea of how he was going to write it.
• • •
The next day, Hyunjin awakes with a plan. He starts his morning by pouring every single thought he had about the night prior into the pages of his journal. It was future inspiration for his lyrics.
Around an hour past noon, Hyunjin leaves the house and walks down to the Kims' store. When he gets there and Seungmin’s bike isn’t out front, he silently thanks Seungmin for remaining so predictable, even so many years later. Seungmin liked to take his lunch at exactly 1 P.M., even when they were in high school. If there was one thing Seungmin was dedicated to, it was routine.
Hyunjin enters the store and wanders around aimlessly until he spots Jeongin’s white hair out of the corner of his eye, restocking a drink cooler.
“Jeongin! Hiya!” Hyunjin greets, skipping straight up to him. Jeongin’s eyes light up as soon as he realizes Hyunjin is speaking to him.
“Oh! Hyunjin! Hello!” he squeaks. “Seungmin isn’t here right now.”
“That’s okay!” Hyunjin says. He realizes he sounded a bit too eager and clears his throat before continuing. “Is he at lunch?”
Jeongin nods in confirmation.
“Do you know when he’ll be back?” Hyunjin asks fakely. He was thankful his career of choice was musician instead of actor.
“Probably half an hour,” Jeongin decides after a couple of seconds of thought. “I can tell him you dropped by—”
“No!” Hyunjin yelps. Jeongin cocks his head to the side in confusion. “I mean, no, that’s okay. Thank you, though.”
Jeongin nods hesitantly.
“Um, do you know what time he gets off?”
“Oh, around five,” Jeongin informs him. “Seungmin usually leaves early so he can work on the mural before the sun goes down.”
“Right, of course,” Hyunjin nods along like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. Jeongin is still staring at him like he’s an alien. “Well! I better go!”
Just like that, Hyunjin leaves the store. He immediately realizes he could’ve been more subtle. Was he an idiot? Hyunjin thinks he probably was. He was almost sick of how impulsive and reckless he had become. Almost.
Hyunjin walks through the park to get home. It wasn’t a shortcut by any means, but he had something he wanted to see.
He follows the sidewalk until he finds a big oak tree at the end of a short stone trail. The nostalgia hits harder than one of Jisung’s sucker punches. Hyunjin spent hours under this tree with Seungmin. He’d written song after song, thinking about the two of them curled up here. His very first song to chart was titled “Autumn Leaves,” a track entirely about how he’d sit under that tree with Seungmin forever.
He stares at the bark of the tree, tracing his finger along the mediocre outline of his and Seungmin’s initials Hyunjin had carved into the wood when they were juniors in high school. He’s so distracted by his memories he jumps a little when he hears someone call out his name behind him.
“Hey loser!” he calls again. Hyunjin turns to find Minho and Changbin near the sidewalk, brandishing skateboards. Hyunjin is a little shocked they still rode those around. He thought it was cool when they were in high school, but wasn’t that the type of thing you grew out of?
“Hi, Minho,” Hyunjin replies, quickly disconnecting himself from the tree and moving to be closer to Changbin and Minho. “Hi, Changbin.”
“Hey,” Changbin replies with a big smile. Hyunjin was thankful for how he was able to make Hyunjin feel comfortable.
“What are you doing?” Minho asks.
“Nothing. Just on a walk,” Hyunjin lies. Minho narrows his eyes.
“Isn’t this the tree?” he says, clearly calling Hyunjin’s bluff.
“Yup,” Changbin confirms, not even giving Hyunjin a chance to deny it.
“Oh? I guess it is. Funny,” Hyunjin practically squeaks in an attempt to cover the embarrassment overwhelming him.
“Don’t worry,” Minho assures him, “I won’t tell Seungmin.”
“Thanks,” Hyunjin mumbles. “I think it would just piss him off.”
“Definitely,” Changbin agrees.
“I don’t know,” Minho shrugs, reaching his hands up to his hair and carding through it. “I saw you two talking last night. That’s a good sign, I would think.”
“Um,” Hyunjin begins. He didn’t have the heart to admit that it definitely wasn’t a good sign. “Yeah. Maybe.”
“Just be nice to him, okay?” Minho advises. Hyunjin scrunches up his face in response.
“I am nice to him! He’s the problem!” Hyunjin whines. Minho rolls his eyes.
“He’ll come around, Hyunjin,” he promises. “Just be the bigger person.”
“Good advice from someone who is never the bigger person,” Changbin laughs. Minho elbows him in his ribs. Changbin pushes him back, then skates off to avoid retribution. Minho quickly follows.
Hyunjin heads home. He had to get ready to commence his operation to get new material for his album.
The hardest part of his plan to date is choosing an outfit. For Hyunjin, jean shorts are the old, reliable choice, but this was his one opportunity to really lean into overalls. And was it okay to wear yellow? Did it fit the vibe of the occasion? Ultimately, Hyunjin decides on the same red hoodie he always wore. If he got paint on it, so be it.
Hyunjin begins his journey down to the library, and he’s starting to realize Seungmin was onto something with his biking. Walking everywhere sucked. Hyunjin had become too used to Chan driving him around.
When he arrives at the library, he immediately spies Seungmin across the parking lot. He was working diligently, sketching out his design in chalk, but Minho was right. He’d barely put any actual paint on the massive wall. Hyunjin is thrilled by this revelation. This was a perfect opening.
“Expert artist assistant Hwang Hyunjin reporting for duty,” Hyunjin declares as he approaches the mural. He grins at Seungmin, who just scoffs.
“Didn’t I tell you last night that I don’t need help?” Seungmin asks. He returns Hyunjin’s smile with a scowl. Hyunjin nods in affirmation anyway.
“But Minho and Changbin were right. Now is the perfect time to get back into art,” Hyunjin argues. Seungmin rolls his eyes.
“You must be really bored,” Seungmin decides. “None of your cool friends want to visit?”
Hyunjin pauses. He’d called them. Some hadn’t picked up. Others had claimed they really had a lot going on. One flat out laughed. He understood. For them, being seen was part of the job. No one was getting any attention in this town. That’s why Chan banished him here in the first place.
“They’re busy,” Hyunjin lies.
“Sure,” Seungmin replies bitterly. “That’s the best thing about people in this town, I guess.”
Hyunjin just squints at him in confusion.
“They will always be here,” Seungmin clarifies.
“That’s a curse more than anything,” Hyunjin concludes. Seungmin turns like he’s going to say something, only to decide against it.
“Are you really not gonna leave?” Seungmin asks. Hyunjin nods adamantly. He wasn’t going anywhere. Seungmin just sighs. “Can you at least mix some paint for me, then? I need you to add some white to my green.”
Hyunjin’s eyes light up.
“You trust me to do that?”
“One of the only things I trust you to do,” Seungmin snips. “You’re good with color.”
Hyunjin takes his task very seriously. He didn’t want to disappoint Seungmin, and he didn’t want to be banned from helping in the future. He mixes paints and presents them to Seungmin like his life depends on it. Seungmin continues to treat Hyunjin coldly, but it doesn’t deter Hyunjin in the least.
After a while, Hyunjin is sitting on the gravel cleaning Seungmin’s brushes in a bucket. He didn’t mind; he would do whatever Seungmin wanted.
“So what’s it like?” Seungmin asks. Hyunjin doesn’t immediately understand the question, furrowing his eyebrows in thought.
“Being a celebrity?” Hyunjin asks. Seungmin scoffs out a laugh.
“No,” he replies firmly, “getting out of this town.”
Hyunjin paused. He wasn’t sure Seungmin would like the answer. Truthfully, it was amazing. There was so much to do and see, so many people to meet. Compared to all Hyunjin’s nights of playing chess with Seungmin, you could never get bored in the city.
“It’s nice,” Hyunjin admits, but then his thoughts linger a little too long on the memories of Seungmin destroying him in board games. “But I get homesick sometimes.”
“Really?” Seungmin asks.
“Yeah,” Hyunjin confirms. He hadn’t felt that way when he was in the city. Maybe it was because he had been too far removed from all the good things about coming home. Now, he yearned for the past he’d walked away from.
“That’s funny,” Seungmin says dryly. “You used to always say that, once you left, you’d never look back.”
“I didn’t know what I had,” Hyunjin offers as an excuse. Seungmin purses his lips together in thought but declines to contribute further to the conversation. He returns to chalking out the rest of the mural instead.
Hyunjin and Seungmin continue to work for the next couple of hours until the sun starts to set. Hyunjin keeps up a steady conversation, yammering on and on to Seungmin about anything that pops into his head, from TV shows to movies to sports to memories from the past few years. Seungmin tries to feign annoyance, but Hyunjin manages to steal a few smiles out of him anyway.
At nightfall, it’s too dark to work with only the porch light of the library, so Hyunjin helps Seungmin pack up all his supplies for the day. They wheel everything into the library storage shed, then Hyunjin walks Seungmin over to the bike rack.
As Hyunjin prepares to say goodbye, he notices Seungmin is walking the same way he is.
“Your house is the other direction,” Hyunjin points out as Seungmin continues to roll his bike alongside Hyunjin toward his grandpa’s house.
“I know,” Seungmin replies.
“Why are you coming this way, then?” Hyunjin asks.
“It’s late,” Seungmin says simply. “We’re safer in pairs.”
“You think I’m gonna get mugged?” Hyunjin deduces.
“No,” Seungmin snaps, “but if you did get mugged, I don’t want it on my conscience.”
“Sure,” Hyunjin replies, mimicking Seungmin’s tone from earlier.
“I just don’t want your grandpa blaming me. He doesn’t like me anyway,” Seungmin reasons.
“Trust me, Seungmin, if that happened, Gramps would only blame me,” Hyunjin says, “and, besides, he doesn’t even dislike you.”
“Then why did we always have to hang out in a fucking treehouse?” Seungmin asks.
“Because if Gramps caught me so much as holding hands with someone, he would kill me,” Hyunjin explains. “It wasn’t you. It was the fact I liked you.”
“No, seriously,” Hyunjin insists, going on to theorize. “My dad was a fuck-up who left Gramps to deal with me, so now Gramps tries to make my life hell to make up for it.”
“That’s not true,” Seungmin asserts. “If there’s one thing I know about your grandpa, it’s that he loves you more than anything.”
“Whatever,” Hyunjin grumbles.
“You should hear the way he talks about you and your music to my mom when he comes by the store,” Seungmin recalls. “He’s hard on you because he feels like he fucked up with your dad. I wish my dad loved me the way that old man loves you, Hyunjin.”
Hyunjin bit his lip. He supposed his grandpa had always been supportive of his music and career.
As they approach Hyunjin’s grandpa’s house, Hyunjin’s eyes fixate on the treehouse. He and his grandfather had built it together one summer when Hyunjin was little. Hyunjin, of course, hadn’t actually done anything, but he’d insisted to Jisung and Seungmin he’d built the entire thing all by himself. Even now, he felt all warm inside thinking of handing his grandpa all the right tools and helping him measure the planks.
“Do you want to go up there with me for a little while?” Hyunjin asks. Seungmin scoffs.
“The death trap you dumped me in? Pass,” he snarls.
“No. The treehouse we hung out in everyday after school in middle school with Jisung, where I played you the first song I ever wrote on my guitar. Where we had our first kiss…,” Hyunjin trails off. He can see Seungmin is flustered at the mention of a time where he and Hyunjin openly liked each other. “All I’m trying to say is that you shouldn’t remember a place with so many happy memories by one bad thing.”
“Only for a minute,” he declares.
Hyunjin grins, excitedly pulling him by his arm toward the big tree behind the house. Hyunjin climbs up first while Seungmin props his bike against the base of the tree. He’s thrilled to find all their decorations and old mementos still there.
“Jeez, this place is musty,” Seungmin complains.
“It’s like a time capsule!” Hyunjin enthuses.
“For a time no one would ever go back to,” Seungmin decides.
“I would,” Hyunjin admits.
“Because I got to hang out with you and Jisung everyday,” Hyunjin explains with a shrug.
“You’d give up being rich and famous for me and Jisung?” Seungmin asks with an eyebrow raise.
“I don’t have to stay there forever. Just go back and appreciate it a little more this time,” Hyunjin elaborates. Seungmin nods.
Seungmin’s eyes fixate on something behind Hyunjin, and Hyunjin watches the light behind his eyes die out.
“It’s really late,” Seungmin announces. He climbs out of the treehouse faster than Hyunjin can vocalize a sentence to stop him. Hyunjin turns around to see the faded remains of the drawing of Hyunjin that Seungmin had been working on the night they broke up.
• • •
The following morning, Hyunjin wakes up at seven sharp. It was too early for him. He didn’t think he’d been up before nine since he’d graduated. Still, Seungmin’s words the night before had stuck with Hyunjin. The idea that his grandfather liked his music enough to listen to it, much less talk to other people about it, was a shock to him. He thought maybe he misunderstood his grandfather’s intentions after all.
Hyunjin makes his way down to the kitchen a few moments after getting up.
“Why are you awake?” his grandfather asks. He doesn’t even bother to greet him.
“Wanted to eat breakfast with my gramps,” Hyunjin says plainly. He can see how taken aback his grandfather is as soon as he finishes his thought.
“Are you in some sort of trouble?” his grandfather wonders suspiciously. Hyunjin rolls his eyes. The old man made it hard to be sincere with him.
“No,” he says. “I just thought it would be nice to talk for a while.”
“Talk,” his grandfather mumbles under his breath like it’s the most insane thing he’s ever heard. Hyunjin realizes he’s been a horrible grandson. For most of his life, Hyunjin’s family had been just the two of them, on account of his dad rarely being around. With the way he’d been acting lately, he wouldn’t have any family at all.
“We should go fishing this weekend,” Hyunjin decides.
“We haven’t gone together since you were little,” his grandpa recalls.
“I know, but it was fun when we did,” Hyunjin says. “I want to spend time together to make up for when I was gone.”
“Okay,” his grandfather agrees after a moment. “I’ll wake you up at five o’clock on Saturday.”
“Five o'clock? In the morning? A.M.?” Hyunjin yelps.
“Gotta get up early to get the good stuff, Hyunjin,” his grandfather reminds him. Hyunjin groans, but he’s excited to hang out with his grandfather anyway. He couldn’t stop thinking about what Seungmin said, regretting the lengths he’d gone to to avoid his grandfather the past few years.
After breakfast, he spends some time attempting to work on his music before inevitably giving up and resorting to watching TV. In the afternoon, he goes down to the library to help Seungmin with the mural. Soon, this becomes his routine. He got up in the morning, he ate with his grandfather, he spent the morning staring at his lyric book blankly, then, in the evening, he would go work on the mural with Seungmin until sundown.
Hyunjin largely does work on the mural that Seungmin could’ve done himself. Still, Hyunjin prides himself on reducing Seungmin’s workload. In truth, it was a lot for one person, no matter how many times Seungmin insisted he didn’t need help.
“Seungmin,” Hyunjin says, staring down at the can of paint he’d just opened. That morning, he’d driven to the next town over to buy Seungmin more supplies while Seungmin had been at work. “I don’t think this is the shade of blue you wanted.”
“Let me look,” Seungmin requests, climbing down from his ladder.
Hyunjin walks toward him, but stumbles over a crack in the pavement. He falls face first into the concrete, and paint goes flying everywhere. Hyunjin swallows hard when he looks up and sees Seungmin freshly painted blue. His scraped knee was no match for Seungmin’s fury.
“You did it on purpose,” Seungmin decides.
“Why would I do that?” Hyunjin asks, scrambling to his feet.
“You tell me!” Seungmin demands. He crouches down and dunks each of his hands into what remained of the bucket of paint Hyunjin had been carrying. Hyunjin takes that as his cue to run.
He races around the parking lot, narrowly avoiding parked cars and sign posts. Seungmin doesn’t let up, chasing Hyunjin relentlessly.
“It was an accident!” he screams.
“Let’s make it even then!” Seungmin barks back.
The statement sets off a lightbulb in Hyunjin’s head. He was willing to sacrifice his outfit if necessary. He slows down enough for Seungmin to grab him by the back of his sweatshirt, effectively smearing paint all over it. Hyunjin twists around until they’re facing each other, pulling Seungmin’s grip loose.
“Happy?” Hyunjin asks.
“Not even close!” Seungmin snaps back. He takes a step forward and squishes both of his paint covered hands against Hyunjin’s cheeks, then rubs his thumb across Hyunjin’s nose for good measure.
Hyunjin just stares at him for a second. He could feel his heart pound, looking into Seungmin’s eyes and feeling his palms cupping his face. He can practically see the exact moment Seungmin realizes what he’s done. Seungmin anxiously pulls away thereafter and practically power walks back to the mural.
“We have work to do!” he insists. Hyunjin just smiles softly to himself.
That night, as he lays his sweatshirt to rest, he thanks it for its service.
• • •
The more days Hyunjin spends with Seungmin, the more Hyunjin yearned for the days when he and Seungmin were constantly together. Hyunjin wanted to eat lunch with him everyday and keep him company on his 45 minute drives to the next town over to buy specialty paint. He wanted to make Seungmin a picnic and take him to the beach and desperately clamor every Friday trying to figure out how he was going to take Seungmin on some semblance of a date that weekend.
It was silly, but Hyunjin couldn’t remember the last time he was so desperate for someone. He keeps reminding himself that he’s going to leave this place for good at the end of the summer and the feelings will subside, but Hyunjin had a tendency to listen to his heart, not his head. That meant that he kept going to the mural, and he kept flirting with Seungmin, day after day.
On Hyunjin’s umpteenth day as Seungmin’s useless assistant and companion, he sits on the hot concrete in the parking lot, eating a popsicle and scrolling through his Instagram feed while Seungmin paints nearby.
“One day, Jennifer Lawrence is going to make one of these,” Hyunjin announces, “and when that day comes, I will be prepared.”
Seungmin rolls his eyes. He doesn’t even turn to look at Hyunjin.
“I thought you were on a social media detox,” he alleges. Hyunjin groans. He’d told Seungmin it was a choice that he hadn’t been posting on any of his accounts lately.
“I’m just not posting. Looking is fine,” Hyunjin declares. Seungmin scowls.
“I don’t get the radio silence,” Seungmin admits. “It just makes people make up rumors about you. My sister read that people think you’re in rehab.”
“Rehab?” Hyunjin gawks at the idea.
“Yeah,” Seungmin confirms. “So, I don’t know. Maybe a post or two wouldn’t hurt.”
Hyunjin pauses. He didn’t exactly have it in him to admit to Seungmin his management had barred him from posting, leaving him no choice but to ride this out. Instead, he decides to take the conversation in a different direction.
“Who would even believe that anyway?”
“Oh, people definitely do. Even my sister thinks you have, like, a serious drug problem,” Seungmin confesses. “She’s always reading me stories about you in the paper and saying I’m lucky you left when you did.”
“A drug problem?” Hyunjin exclaims. “My grandpa thinks that, too. What is up with that?”
“It’s honestly not a bad theory,” Seungmin says, wiping the paint onto his hands off onto his shirt as he turns to face Hyunjin. “I couldn’t explain to her why you do the shit you do either.”
“I’m the same person I’ve always been,” he insists. He really did mean that. Maybe he’d made some off-decisions. Maybe he’d been reckless in the name of having fun. Maybe he’d surrounded himself with less-than-upstanding people. But his morals were the same, and his personality was the same.
“Maybe. I don’t think I ever really knew you anyway,” Seungmin admits with a sigh.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Seungmin doesn’t say anything for a while, allowing Hyunjin’s thoughts to wander.
“It means that the Hyunjin I thought I was in love with cared about people more than anything else,” Seungmin says finally. “Literally every thought he had and every choice he made was centered around his grandpa or his friends. And you are nothing like that.”
The assertion immediately makes Hyunjin feel like his insides have been put into a blender, destined to become a smoothie of bad thoughts and anxiety. Whether he believed it or not and whether it was true or not didn’t really matter. The fact Seungmin said it hurt more than anything. It hurt more than when Chan said it or when his grandpa agreed with it even though it’d been years since he and Seungmin had seen each other.
“Am I really selfish for following my dreams?” Hyunjin squeaks out. Seungmin scrunches his face up in confusion.
“Hyunjin, you’re talking to the original president of your fan club,” Seungmin reminds him. “I was the first comment on every YouTube video you posted. I sat through every set you played for Live Music Mondays. I drove you three hours to meet with your manager on the one Saturday off my dad gave me that entire summer.”
“Yeah, but now that I’ve done what I needed to to have an actual, legitimate career, you don’t know who I am anymore.”
Seungmin just scoffs.
“What?” Hyunjin asks.
“You never asked what I wanted whenever you signed your record deal,” Seungmin points out.
“What?” he repeats. It was true, but Hyunjin didn’t know what it had to do with the situation at hand. Hyunjin knew Seungmin had to stay to run his family’s store. He’d known that before he’d even signed the contract.
“You wrote me off as collateral damage without ever trying to make it work,” Seungmin clarifies. “I was in love with you. I wanted to put your dreams first. I would’ve done whatever it took. I would’ve gone with you. I would’ve abandoned all of this. And you never even gave me the chance to do that.”
“I didn’t want you to throw your life away,” Hyunjin reasons. “I was thinking about your feelings, just like how the Hyunjin you were in love with always did.”
“How is running away from me thinking about my feelings?” Seungmin asks. Hyunjin could see the fire behind his eyes that hadn’t been there before. Lately, it was a lot easier to make Seungmin mad than it had ever been before. “You broke my heart, and you left me here to restock paper towels.”
Hyunjin’s heart sinks. He never doubted that he did the right thing when it came to him and Seungmin. They were young and stupid. He had no idea if they would’ve worked out.
“I did what was best for both of us–”
“You did what was best for you,” Seungmin snaps, “just like the new Hyunjin always does. It’s always about you.”
“Look, I’m not saying you owe me an apology or you should regret the choice you made. If you think it was worth it, fine,” Seungmin adds, knotting a hand into his hair as he thought. “It just really sucks to find out maybe someone isn’t who you thought they were and something isn’t what you thought it was.”
Hyunjin feels himself shutting down. He had to go. He just had to.
“I need to go home,” Hyunjin replies simply, pulling himself to his feet. He felt like a dork, holding a melting popsicle and bolting from a conversation that was too hard for him to handle, but he didn’t know if he could take anything else Seungmin still had to say.
“Gramps needs me for something and I totally forgot–”
“I didn’t mean to–”
“It’s fine,” Hyunjin says, forcing a fake smile at Seungmin. “I just need to get home.”
“It’ll be dark soon. I’ll walk you,” Seungmin insists.
“I’ll be fine,” Hyunjin repeats. “I’ll see you at Changbin’s party tomorrow.”
“Uh, yeah, sure,” Seungmin agrees with a nod. He watches as Hyunjin storms off.
Hyunjin gets about halfway to his grandfather’s house before he can’t take it anymore. He had too many thoughts pounding inside his skull. Hyunjin wasn’t the type of person who could keep his feelings inside. When he was upset, he needed to talk. He needed to talk to as many people as he could. He needed to write it down. He needed to siphon every last ounce of the feeling from inside him and put it into the universe instead.
He collapses onto the curb and takes out his phone. There was one person Hyunjin always knew he could talk to, regardless of how much he resisted. He navigates to Chan’s contact and attempts to FaceTime him.
“Chan,” Hyunjin mumbles when Chan finally picks up the call. “Do you think I’m a bad person?”
Chan sighs heavily.
“Hi,” Hyunjin says weakly.
“Can we have a philosophical discussion about your morals some other time?” Chan requests. “I’m in the middle of something—”
“It’s just that Seungmin said some stuff that got me thinking maybe I’ve done some things I should regret and maybe I’ve hurt some people I love,” Hyunjin elaborates. He speaks quickly so he can get it all out before Chan tries to hang up.
“Hyunjin,” Chan says firmly, “there are complicated choices in life. You are not a bad person because you had to make one of those choices and it hurt someone’s feelings.”
“I know. It’s just that—”
“Are you happy?” Chan asks. Hyunjin cocks his head to the side. “Are you happy with the life you chose?”
Hyunjin hesitates, but still, even knowing how Seungmin felt, he couldn’t help but let his mind wander back to the crowds of people chanting his name.
“Yes,” he affirms.
“Then don’t regret it,” Chan advises. “Be proud of what you’ve accomplished and what it took to get here.”
“Okay,” Hyunjin agrees, though he isn’t sure how to be proud he broke Seungmin’s heart. “Thanks, Chan.”
“Mhm,” Chan mumbles, running a hand through his hair and anxiously glancing at something off screen. Hyunjin can tell he’s frantic to get off the call.
“You look handsome, by the way,” Hyunjin teases. He’d figured out what Chan was in the middle of fairly quickly based on how Chan was dressed. Chan had been so overworked that he barely had time for a love life in recent years. Hyunjin was a little relieved that his vacation meant Chan was finding time to date. “Tell whoever you’re with I said hi.”
“HI Hyunjin!” a voice squeaks off camera. Suddenly, all Hyunjin can see is a blur of hair on his screen. Chan sighs, moving his phone so it’s just him on the screen again.
“I’m hanging up now. Bye,” Chan says, and, just like that, he’s gone.
Hyunjin walks the rest of the way home wondering why, if he shouldn’t regret the choice he made, he felt so damn bad.
• • •
Changbin’s party is very much like the beach party in that Hyunjin went to school with every single person in attendance. When Hyunjin arrives and discovers this, though, he’s hardly disappointed. Hyunjin would never take walking into a room and knowing everyone there for granted again.
“I’m a little surprised you and Seungmin didn’t come together,” Jisung admits as he pours Hyunjin a drink. “Felix says you two hang out basically everyday.”
“We’re not hanging out,” Hyunjin insists. “We’re working on the mural.”
“That’s interesting. I heard there was paint fighting, cheek stroking,” Jisung taunts with a smirk.
Hyunjin narrows his eyes, then turns to glare at Felix across the room. He was talking at Minho, and, as usual, not getting much of a response back.
“You’re a creep, Felix Lee!” Hyunjin yells. Felix just laughs, clearly already knowing exactly what Hyunjin was referring to.
“I can’t help it! Don’t do it outside my window!” he warns playfully. Hyunjin scoffs.
“It’s not like that,” Hyunjin declares, turning back to Jisung.
“Why not?” Jisung asks. Hyunjin furrows his eyebrows. “You’re still into him, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” Hyunjin answers. He doesn’t pause to think or consider his feelings or wonder if he should admit that to Jisung. It’s how he felt, so he said it. “The problem is that he is not still into me.”
“Really?” Jisung says as if it's the most surprising thing he’s ever heard.
His tone makes Hyunjin stop and think for a second. It was kinda surprising, wasn’t it? Hyunjin wasn’t sure he believed in soulmates or anything like that, but he’d always believed he and Seungmin were connected in some way. Maybe it’s because they grew up together, because there was history that Hyunjin would never have with anybody else. Whenever Hyunjin was in-between romantic interests and whenever he was alone, his mind always went back to Seungmin when he was writing. It was just how he was programmed. It was how it would always be, as far as Hyunjin was concerned. Hyunjin hated to admit it wasn’t the same for Seungmin.
“Guess not,” Hyunjin replies miserably.
Hyunjin takes his drink and goes to sit by Changbin. Hyunjin was grateful for Changbin in that he was a casual friend; he didn’t care to discuss the complicated matters of life. He just wanted to joke around and tell funny stories. Hyunjin needed people like that to keep him sane sometimes. He spends a long time sitting next to Changbin, laughing and detailing to him and Minho and the others all the crazy things he’d done since he’d left town. They have a good time, with the exception of Felix, who is horrified by all of it. He had thought the stories about Hyunjin were exaggerated.
The room feels like it goes completely still when Seungmin invites himself in, hours after the party had actually started. He seemed so nonchalant, taking off his shoes and not even bothering to knock. Hyunjin felt any good emotions inside him evaporate. Chan’s words from that first night pound inside his head. Breaking your own heart counts too.
All Hyunjin really has it in him to do is excuse himself out to the backyard. He needed fresh air. He needed to remind himself this town was not his life anymore. None of this matters. None of this matters. He sinks down against the brick wall onto the surface of the deck, staring off into the distance as he thought.
He doesn’t know how long he sits there in thought before Seungmin jiggles the sliding door open and joins him.
“Hey,” Seungmin whispers, sitting down next to Hyunjin on the wood of the deck.
“Hi,” Hyunjin replies. “I think this is the first time you’ve spoken to me unprovoked all summer.”
Seungmin bit his lip softly.
“I’m sorry,” Seungmin mumbles, hardly making a sound at all. “You told me you came back here because you missed how things were, and all I’ve done is punish you for letting things change.”
“You don’t have anything to be sorry for,” Hyunjin suddenly promises. The more he thought about it, the more guilt he felt. “I just want you to know I mean it when I say I’m sick of the parties and revolving door of friends and shallow everything. I want to be around people who are real. I want to write about something that’s real.”
“I believe you,” Seungmin assures him, “and I feel like an asshole for losing it on you for no reason. The stuff I said was uncalled for.”
“No, it’s okay,” Hyunjin insists. “I want to move on. If you have something to get off your chest, I want to hear it.”
“I think I’ve said my piece now,” Seungmin admits sheepishly.
“You think?” Hyunjin laughs. Seungmin nods.
“Yes,” he confirms. “Don’t write a song about it, though.”
“Who’s to say I haven’t already?” Hyunjin teases.
Seungmin acts like he’s going to slap him, and Hyunjin flinches. Their conversation quickly devolves into an argument over whether or not Seungmin would ever actually slap Hyunjin, then Hyunjin starts to tell a story about a fan who did slap him.
“Hyuuuuuuuunjin,” Changbin calls after a while, sticking his head out of the door to look at the two of them on the deck. “Wanna get your ass kicked in beer pong?”
“Yes,” Hyunjin agrees automatically. He couldn’t turn down a challenge.
Changbin disappears back into the house, presumably to set the game up, and Hyunjin hops to his feet to follow. He pauses when he realizes Seungmin is still sitting there, alone.
“C’mon,” Hyunjin says, taking Seungmin’s hand into his palm and tugging him up. “I need a partner.”
“You know I am terrible at beer pong,” Seungmin reminds him. Hyunjin nods in confirmation.
“That’s okay. I’ll do the tossing. You do the drinking,” Hyunjin instructs. Seungmin tries to resist, but Hyunjin continues to pull him by his hand until they’re inside, ready to challenge Changbin and Jisung.
Unfortunately for Seungmin, Changbin is really good. It gets to a point where, after they have already suffered multiple losses and Hyunjin has already demanded multiple rematches, Hyunjin starts to grab the cups and drink the contents before Seungmin can on account of Seungmin being noticeably drunk. Hyunjin feels guilty for dragging Seungmin over thinking they were going to win; Seungmin feels stupid for agreeing knowing they were going to lose.
After their pitiful losses, Hyunjin takes personal responsibility for walking Seungmin home. It was the least he could do. It was his poor aim and bad judgment that had gotten them into this mess in the first place.
“C’mon,” Hyunjin says, lacing his fingers with Seungmin’s and pulling him along. “You need to go to bed. Work in the morning.”
“What about my bike?” Seungmin asks. Hyunjin bit his lip softly. Yeah, what about his bike?
“I will bring it to you tomorrow morning. I promise,” Hyunjin pledges. Seungmin just nods, barely moving his feet along as they journey the two blocks home.
The entire way there, Hyunjin has to remind himself to stay cool. So what if Seungmin was holding his hand? So what if Hyunjin wanted to talk to him all day everyday? So what if he made Hyunjin’s heart feel like it couldn’t keep consistent time? So what?
When they get to Seungmin’s house, Seungmin tries to keep walking.
“Seungmin,” Hyunjin says, tugging on his arm. “We’re here.”
“This isn’t your house,” Seungmin points out.
“Nope,” Hyunjin confirms with a laugh.
“Then we aren’t here,” Seungmin says decidedly. “I’m walking you home.”
“I walked you home,” Hyunjin informs him. “Go upstairs. Go to sleep.”
“I don’t want to go to sleep unless I know you made it home okay,” Seungmin argues. Hyunjin sighs.
“I will text you,” Hyunjin offers. He can practically see Seungmin debating with himself whether that’s good enough for him or not.
“Okay,” he agrees, “but walk quickly. I’m tired.”
Hyunjin does a little salute to confirm. For a few beats of silence, Seungmin doesn’t go anywhere. He just stares expectantly into Hyunjin’s eyes. Hyunjin feels genuine panic. If it were any other person, Hyunjin would’ve just kissed him. He would’ve done it because he can’t help himself. He would’ve done it for the thrill, and he would’ve done it because he prides himself on not being afraid of anything. But it’s Seungmin. So, he clams up and leaves without making a move at all.
Even when Hyunjin drops Seungmin’s bike off at his house in the morning, as promised, he can’t help but think maybe he should’ve just done it.
• • •
Days begin to fly by for Hyunjin. Now that Seungmin was talking to him like he didn’t hate his guts, it felt just like old times again. They could work on the mural and talk about nothing for hours, and Hyunjin would be perfectly content. He didn’t want to do anything else. He didn’t want to see anybody else.
The best part of Hyunjin’s day, everyday, is being walked home by Seungmin. He didn’t think it was necessary. He’s told Seungmin a hundred times he didn’t have to do it. But he looked forward to it anyway. He liked walking in the moonlight, stealing glances at Seungmin whenever he could. He liked finding stupid reasons to hold Seungmin’s hand.
After their dozenth walk home, Hyunjin is about to go inside when he decides to finally say what he’d been thinking for days.
“Do you want to, like, do something sometime?” Hyunjin asks. It takes all his courage to even say that. The past couple of years, anyone he’d dated or hooked up with had always sought him out first. There was no chase or nervousness or sweaty palms. Hyunjin had forgotten what it felt like.
“Huh?” Seungmin gawks.
“You, know, like, go see a movie or get dinner. I can borrow my grandpa’s truck if you want to go, like, rollerblading or bowling. I’ll drive. I’m actually still pretty good at driving–”
“What?” Hyunjin practically whimpers. He felt his face go warm.
“You’re rambling,” Seungmin observes. Hyunjin nods hesitantly. “Why?”
“Because,” Hyunjin grumbles weakly. He takes a deep breath before continuing. “I like you. I want to hang out with you. I don’t know how I’ll handle the humiliation if you say no.”
Seungmin smiles at him, and Hyunjin wants to melt.
“Let’s take a break from the mural tomorrow night,” Seungmin suggests. “We can do something together.”
“Okay,” Hyunjin agrees, trying to contain his excitement.
“Okay,” Seungmin repeats back.
Hyunjin practically floats up to his room. He needed to call Chan and update him. New music was coming! Hyunjin couldn’t remember the last time he was this happy.
As soon as Chan picks up, Hyunjin can tell he’s in a rush.
“What is it, Hyunjin?” he asks.
“Guess who’s going on a date tomorrow? Well, I don’t know if it’s a date. It’s definitely ambiguous but leaning toward romantic–”
“That’s great,” Chan says with a deep sigh. “Be careful.”
“You worry too much,” Hyunjin complains, rolling over onto his stomach and fixing his hair using the tiny preview in the corner of the FaceTime window. “Why can’t I have fun here?”
“I just don’t need another thing on my plate right now,” Chan explains. “I have all this going on with the munchkins, and I’m constantly worried about all the trouble you’re getting into. It’s stressful.”
“What are you going to do when I finish my album and I have my tour? You have all these obligations now–”
“I’m going to hire a tour manager,” Chan says plainly. Hyunjin feels like his tour bus has backed up over him.
“A tour manager, Hyunjin,” he repeats. “You know, someone whose job it actually is to run your tour.”
“I know what a tour manager is–”
“Then you realize that I do the job of like six people for you, right? I am basically your personal assistant,” Chan points out. “I’m tired, and this isn’t what I imagined for my career, you know?”
“Sorry, managing a best-selling artist isn’t what you planned for yourself?” Hyunjin snaps. He immediately wishes he could take it back. Chan would never believe he was starting to change after hearing that.
“No, managing a best-selling artist is exactly what I wanted,” he states, “but babysitting one wasn’t.”
“Oh, so that’s why you signed a bunch of children to focus on instead,” Hyunjin snarks back.
“Those children are less dependent on me than you are,” Chan insists. “Those children don’t have to be dragged out of bed to meetings. They don’t need me to make copies of the keys to their apartments. They don’t need me to make sure they eat an actual meal everyday. There’s a reason I put you up with your grandpa instead of at the inn, Hyunjin, and it certainly wasn’t money.”
“I’m a fucking adult–”
“And you don’t act like one,” Chan yells.
It’s silent for a moment as Chan tries to calm back down and Hyunjin tries to process that Chan had, for perhaps the first time in Hyunjin’s life, really yelled at him.
“I have to go. One of my children is playing a gig tonight, and I promised I would be there.”
Chan hangs up before Hyunjin can resist.
• • •
The next morning, Hyunjin wakes up thrilled despite his conversation with Chan the night before. He has breakfast with his grandfather. He goes for a walk, and he takes the long way home through the park and stops and stares at their tree for maybe just a second too long. He passes time by playing his guitar, then his keyboard. Every second is just waiting and waiting until he can see Seungmin. When the time comes, Hyunjin heads to the library. It was the perfect meeting spot, even if they weren’t painting tonight.
Hyunjin arrives at exactly 5 o'clock. Maybe he was a little eager. Seungmin never showed up perfectly on time. Hyunjin understood. He had to make sure everything was in order before he left the store with Jeongin for the night.
As five minutes becomes ten and ten becomes half an hour, Hyunjin feels himself losing all the excitement and happiness he’d held onto all day.
Still, Hyunjin isn’t giving up. He knew this was probably just some sort of hiccup with the store or Seungmin’s dad. He decides to take matters into his own hands. If Seungmin couldn’t meet up with Hyunjin, Hyunjin would go to him.
“Seungmin? Seungmin, where are you? I haven’t been stood up since middle school formal, you know!” Hyunjin calls as he enters Kim Grocery. He goes up and down a few aisles before finding Seungmin at the back of the store, sitting behind the register. “There you are. What happened? Did Jeongin not show or something?”
“No, I just didn’t want to be around you,” Seungmin says flatly. Hyunjin furrows his eyebrows.
“Ha. Ha. Seriously, what’s wrong?” Hyunjin asks, reaching out to touch Seungmin’s hand. Seungmin scowls, then grabs a magazine from the rack behind him and thumbs through the pages.
“A source close to Hyunjin’s management revealed exclusively to Pop Weekly that Hyunjin was given an ultimatum: take a break from the spotlight or risk losing his record deal,” Seungmin reads aloud. Hyunjin’s face falls. Seungmin slams the magazine down on the counter. “You lied to my face. You told me all that shit about how you missed your grandpa and you missed this town and you missed me. It was all bullshit.”
“It wasn’t bullshit. It was real,” Hyunjin insists.
“You told me you came back here because you were sick of partying and you wanted to write an album that was real,” Seungmin reminds him. “That was a complete lie. You came back here as a punishment. You only came to see me in the first place because you didn’t have anybody else to talk to since your famous friends don’t give a fuck about you if you aren’t helping them climb a social ladder or throwing money around.”
“Tell me I’m wrong.”
“It doesn’t matter why I came here–”
“Yes, it does,” Seungmin barks. “It matters because that was the only thing convincing me that this selfish, egotistical thing you have going on was all a front. Now I realize that this is just who you are.”
“It’s not who I am–”
“Isn’t it? Because I know you didn’t think about anybody but yourself when you wrote those stupid fucking songs,” Seungmin asserts.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Hyunjin snaps. He’d gone from panicked and ashamed to infuriated in seconds. Seungmin could question his character, and Hyunjin couldn’t blame him for being mad he lied. But the songs Hyunjin had written about him? For him? They were pieces of Hyunjin’s soul that he’d put on display for the entire world. They were tributes to everything he loved about Seungmin, and he wouldn’t change a thing about any of them, not for a second.
“Did you ever think about how I have to live in this town?” Seungmin yells back. Hyunjin just stares at him, unable to process what that even meant. “When your first album came out, people started coming by the store. Some of them were people I knew, and some were total strangers who had driven to the store to see me like some sort of exhibit in a zoo. I just had to live like that. People would take pictures with my bike and by the store front. They’d ask me where to find our fucking lunch spot. It was like as soon as you wrote those songs, our relationship wasn’t ours anymore. It was theirs.”
“It’s still ours–”
“It’s not,” Seungmin says firmly, “and I really thought after you commercialized my heartbreak in your first album that you couldn’t possibly have anything else to say, but lo and behold, your second album comes out–”
“And do you know how hard it is to date when this entire town is convinced we’re soulmates because you wrote so many songs about how you see the universe in my eyes and whatever the fuck else?”
“I’m sorry, okay?” Hyunjin cries. Seungmin stops, clearly not expecting Hyunjin to react so volatilely. “I’m sorry every song’s about you, but who else am I supposed to write about? Nobody has ever made me feel the way you did.”
Seungmin swallows so loudly Hyunjin can hear it.
“I don’t care who you write about. It just can’t be me anymore,” Seungmin says calmly.
“Okay,” Hyunjin whispers.
He exits the store as fast as his feet can take him and escapes back into the park in a desperate attempt to get away from spectators before he sinks into the earth and lets his tears start to fall. Chan had warned him not to get his heart broken, and he hadn’t listened. He really did need a babysitter.
• • •
After Hyunjin barricades himself in his room, playing guitar and listening to Linkin Park all hours of the day for almost a week, Hyunjin’s grandfather reaches his limit. Hyunjin was certain the only reason he had gotten away with it for as long as he did is because of his grandfather’s bad knees, but he’d finally made his way up the stairs and was ready to interrogate Hyunjin, just like when he was a teenager.
“Hyunjin,” he whispers, creeping through Hyunjin’s door and into the room. Hyunjin sets his guitar down impulsively. He didn’t want anyone to hear the absolute musical abominations he had been writing lately.
“Hi,” he says back, anxiously tapping his guitar pick against his desk.
“Do you want to talk about why you haven’t gone to work on the mural the past few days?” he asks. Hyunjin shakes his head. “Chan hasn’t called me to check on you in a while, either.”
“Good,” Hyunjin snips. “He has better things to worry about.”
“That’s probably true, but I’ve never known him to think so,” he admits. Hyunjin just scoffs.
“All he cares about is his career,” Hyunjin alleges. “It’s like he thinks I’m washed up. Up until now, he put everything into managing me.”
“Or maybe he thinks you can stand on your own without him holding you up now,” his grandfather reasons.
“Doubtful,” Hyunjin replies grimly.
“You know, you may know Chan a little better than I do, but I don’t see him letting someone he has spent so much of his time building up crash and burn,” he says. Hyunjin bit his lip. He wasn’t sure if Chan believed in the sunken cost fallacy. “And it’s a bit greedy to want him all for yourself, huh? Don’t you think some other small town kid playing to audiences of ten people needs him a little more than you do nowadays?”
“I hate when you make me feel guilty,” he groans.
“It’s my job,” his grandfather says, crossing his arms across his chest. He shifts uncomfortably, trying to decide whether to bring up the other pressing issue in Hyunjin’s life or not. “So, do you want to talk about whatever happened with Seungmin...?”
“Absolutely not,” he states. “Never, as long as I live. In fact, please act like you have never heard my music.”
“That works,” he concedes, starting to exit the room.
“Um– wait,” Hyunjin calls. His grandfather stops, turning back to face him. “If somebody writes a song about you, is that a compliment?”
“How do I feel about the person who wrote it?”
“Doesn’t it matter more how they feel about you?”
“No,” he says with a little shrug. He leaves Hyunjin’s room, closing the door behind him.
All Hyunjin knows is he has a lot of writing to do.
• • •
The next few weeks, Hyunjin, for the first time all summer, manages to both work on his album and leave his house.
Every Saturday and Sunday morning, he goes on jogs with Jisung. They’d done the same thing in high school, but now it’d been years since he’d regularly run. Long gone were the days of Hwang Hyunjin, god of fitness, lapping Jisung. Instead, his lungs feel like they are going to collapse every time. Still, he shows up again each week because he couldn’t remember the last time he and Jisung had regularly hung out like that. They always got coffee after and would laugh and talk. Hyunjin finally felt like he and Jisung really knew each other again, as opposed to acquaintances who absentmindedly clicked through each other’s SnapChat stories.
Every other day, he gets breakfast at the cafe where Minho works. Hyunjin realizes Minho is a lot wiser than he lets on. He had advice about things Hyunjin didn’t even know he needed help with, and he also remembered every little thing Hyunjin told him. He’d ask about Hyunjin’s grandfather and joke about how they needed to go visit Changbin’s sister in Paris in honor of the year and a half of French they’d taken together in high school. Honestly, Hyunjin wanted to take Minho up on that, but he figured, if there was one thing he learned from Seungmin, it was that people here didn’t seem to take very kindly to his passive attitude toward money.
Hyunjin spends most of his afternoons at the library with Felix and Jeongin to provide them moral support as Felix tries to teach Jeongin enough algebra to pass the Chemistry class he was attempting to take over the summer. Hyunjin, of course, related more to Jeongin on the math front. When Felix taught them scientific notation, Hyunjin had been so mind blown that he and Jeongin had started practicing for fun just to prove to each other they could do it. Hyunjin didn’t think a person could look both defeated and relieved at once until he’d looked at Felix after that.
He also makes sure to spend time with his grandfather. They liked to go on evening fishing trips on weekdays, when the lake wasn’t too crowded. Hyunjin never caught anything good and his grandpa nagged often, but the time they spent together was somehow relaxing and meaningful anyway.
Finally, Hyunjin’s nights are dedicated to his music. He occasionally went out drinking with Changbin, Minho and Jisung or caught an old movie at the drive-in with Felix and Jeongin, but his nightly routine was to eat dinner with his grandfather before locking himself in his room, writing.
The happier Hyunjin was, the better his music sounded. Words came easier to him. Chords seemed simple. Even the keys on his piano were more welcoming. He had ideas and plans and he could work far into the morning without getting tired or frustrated.
“I’m telling you guys. This is going to be my best album yet,” Hyunjin insists, drumming his fingers against the mahogany of the library table where he, Jeongin and Jisung were seated as they waited for Felix to officially be off work so they could go meet up with Changbin and Minho. “I can feel it in my bones.”
“When are you going to actually play us something?” Jisung urges. “What’s the point of hanging out with a famous musician if he doesn’t offer sneak previews of his music?”
“I don’t know. I like to have a reason to play my music. It’s complicated,” Hyunjin explains.
“If you need a reason,” Felix says enthusiastically, slipping from behind the checkout counter over to the group’s table. He’d been eavesdropping while pretending to be busy. “Is there a better one than this library?”
“Felix, you need to explain yourself better,” Jisung advises, nudging Felix with his elbow. “Some of us are stupid.”
Hyunjin and Jeongin both point to themselves for emphasis.
“What I mean is that this library is super run-down and gross,” Felix elaborates. “If our friend Hyunjin would play a little fundraiser show with a couple of new songs, we could redo the ceiling. Asbestos is generally frowned upon now, you know.”
“Asbestos is gross. Who asked for a sauce made out of leaves?” Jeongin rants with a scowl.
“That’s pesto, dumbass,” Jisung laughs. “Asbestos is a mineral.”
“Okay, nevermind. I don’t know what asbestos is,” Jeongin admits.
“Hush, Jeongin,” Felix orders. Jeongin pretends to zip his mouth shut with his hand. “So, will you do it, Hyunjin? It would be really fun. Seungmin should be finishing the mural soon, too, so it could be like you play your songs at the mural unveiling–”
“Aaaah,” Hyunjin says softly. He wasn’t sure if anything would piss Seungmin off more than stealing his thunder on the painting he’d been working on all summer. “I can’t do that to Seungmin.”
“Do what? Attract a bunch more people than usual to look at his art?” Jisung scoffs.
“Trust me, as Seungmin’s best friend,” Jeongin says, holding a hand across his heart. Hyunjin doubts the legitimacy of this claim, but he doesn’t voice his concern. “He will forgive you when someone besides me and his sister is looking at his art.”
“It’s complicated, guys,” Hyunjin insists.
“I will make it simple, then,” Jisung says decidedly. “Play your music. Don’t worry about anything else.”
“I… will think about it,” Hyunjin offers. “Maybe if you asked Seungmin, Felix.”
“Why can’t you ask him?” Felix says, crossing his arms. Hyunjin bit his lip as he tried to come up with an answer to that. Jisung scoffs.
“You are oblivious!” he decides. “That’s like your defining personality trait!”
“What?” Felix snaps. Jisung rolls his eyes.
“Why do you think Seungmin never comes around anymore?” he barks. Hyunjin immediately feels guilty. He hadn’t really considered that. Of course he noticed Seungmin didn’t really hang out with everyone else anymore. He just didn’t want to be the cause.
“He’s busy lately, so what?” Felix reasons. Jisung can’t believe what he’s hearing.
“He’s avoiding someone,” Jisung points out. Hyunjin points to himself with a loud sigh.
“No, he’s not. He told me he’s over it,” Felix insists. Hyunjin can tell Jisung’s reaching his Felix Limit. They’d been like that since high school. Jisung would threaten to slap him over how naive he was or how he took everything at face value. He’d call Felix simple like it was the worst insult he could think of. He did the same thing to Hyunjin.
“He’s not,” Jeongin chimes. All three of the others stop and stare at him. “What? It’s the truth.”
“Did he say something?” Jisung asks. He’d told Hyunjin a hundred times that Seungmin wasn’t over anything, so Hyunjin supposed he wanted to be proven right.
“Not to me,” Jeongin clarifies.The other three just stare at him for a second before it clicks in Jisung’s mind.
“His sister?” Jisung queries. Jeongin nods in confirmation.
“I overheard them talking about it at the store. Apparently he likes to bike down to the park and listen to Hyunjin’s songs about him,” Jeongin explains. Hyunjin feels his heart stop. “His dad called it pathetic, and they were fighting about it.”
“It is a little pathetic,” Jisung decides.
“That’s so mean, Jisung,” Felix frowns.
He and Jisung start to bicker. Hyunjin doesn’t have the mental capacity to listen to them with all the thoughts swirling inside his skull. For the past few weeks, he had told himself that Seungmin hated his music. Seungmin had told him it had done nothing but caused him problems. How could Seungmin just go around listening to Hyunjin’s songs, then?
“Fuck it. I’ll do it, Felix,” Hyunjin announces suddenly, cutting Jisung off mid-insult. “I have songs I want to play anyway. You still play the drums, Jisung?”
Hyunjin doesn’t think he’s ever seen Jisung look so pleased.
• • •
Hyunjin and his friends’ days quickly turn into endless planning for the mural unveiling. Felix had become quickly overwhelmed by trying to figure out how to set up the library for a concert. Minho had taken to advertising the event and selling tickets, both through posting on social media and hanging up flyers around town. Changbin joined Felix’s ‘stage building’ task force, though neither of them had any idea what they were doing. Even Jeongin had put his skills to work, taking over for Hyunjin in helping Seungmin finish his mural. Everything slowly started to come together.
Seungmin had been surprisingly open to Hyunjin playing his music at the mural opening. He and Felix had planned to set up a gallery walk of his other work inside the library as well, which had more than thrilled Seungmin. Hyunjin supposed he actually was excited for someone besides Jeongin to look at his paintings.
One night, after a long day of planning and rehearsals, Hyunjin decides to take the long way home and walk through the park. He’s not surprised when he sees a figure wrapped up in a black hoodie down by their tree and Seungmin’s metallic blue bike chained to the fence by the path. He didn’t know for a fact Seungmin was listening to Hyunjin’s music like Jeongin had said, but the odds seemed pretty good.
“Seungmin,” Hyunjin says as he approaches the tree. Seungmin turns, and Hyunjin melts at how gentle he looks.
Seungmin was an intense person. Everything he did was serious, thorough. Hyunjin had a tendency to rush through things, to jump to conclusions. Seungmin never let him do things like that. It’s part of why Hyunjin liked him to begin with, so, for Hyunjin, seeing Seungmin wrapped up in a hoodie, with soft eyes and ruffled hair, was different. It was the opposite of the Seungmin he’d built up in his head.
“Are you okay?” Hyunjin asks. Seungmin furrows his eyebrows, yanking out an earphone and freeing himself from any melancholy he’d felt before.
“Why wouldn’t I be?” Seungmin asks.
“You’re sitting under our tree by yourself at night and you look sad,” Hyunjin explains. Seungmin cracks and smiles at Hyunjin’s sincere response to his rhetorical question. Hyunjin takes this as an invitation to sit next to him.
For a while, it’s silent. Hyunjin looks up at the stars; Seungmin stares at the grass and dirt under their feet.
“I have a question,” Seungmin suddenly announces.
“Shoot,” Hyunjin advises.
“Do you mean all the stuff you write?”
Hyunjin cocks his head to the side.
“What do you mean?”
“There are songs about me on your last album,” Seungmin points out.
“Yes,” Hyunjin confirms.
“You had to have written those years after we broke up,” he concludes.
“Yes,” Hyunjin repeats.
“They’re love songs,” he adds.
“Yes,” Hyunjin responds once more.
“So, did you mean what you wrote?” Seungmin says. Hyunjin pauses. He never asked himself that question before. It seemed obvious to him; he wrote what he felt.
“Why would I write something I didn’t mean?”
“I– I don’t know,” Seungmin stammers. “To tell a story? To sell albums?”
“I wrote what I know,” Hyunjin says simply, “and what I know is you.”
“Oh,” Seungmin whispers. Hyunjin feels panic overwhelm him, realizing Seungmin had already told him once not to write about him anymore.
“I’m trying to work on writing about other stuff, though,” Hyunjin assures him. “Just like you said! There are other people I care about. I want to be like the old Hyunjin and put them first.”
“Good,” Seungmin replies. A tiny smile dances across his face, so fleeting Hyunjin isn’t even sure he knew he was doing it.
“Listen,” Hyunjin blurts out, “I’m sorry I didn’t think about how you’d feel when I came back.”
“It’s okay,” Seungmin replies. “It’s not like you wanted to be here.”
“I didn’t have to seek you out or force myself into helping with the mural or steal your friends,” Hyunjin says, criticizing his own behavior. Seungmin shrugs.
“They’re your friends, too,” he insists.
“Yeah, but I didn’t treat them that way for a long time,” Hyunjin reminds him. “They’re too nice to tell me to fuck off, but I know you’re not the only one who wanted to.”
“Minho told me he wanted to,” Seungmin admits, unable to hold back a laugh.
“I could tell,” Hyunjin corroborates. “I think I’ve been an asshole.”
“You? An asshole?” Seungmin declares with a fake, sarcastic gasp. Hyunjin just laughs.
“I know. I know,” Hyunjin acknowledges. “You shouldn’t believe everything you read online.”
“So you didn’t do all that stuff?” Seungmin ponders.
“No, I definitely did,” Hyunjin confesses. “It’s just that if you hadn’t read about it online, you wouldn’t know about it, and I think that’s unfair.”
Seungmin shoves him, and they both laugh.
Seungmin and Hyunjin sit under their tree for a while after that, laughing and talking about seemingly nothing, just like before. Hyunjin entertains Seungmin for a good ten minutes just rambling about a really cool bird he’d seen outside the library earlier in the day.
Eventually, Seungmin laments on how late it is getting before saying goodbye and hopping on his bike to return home to rest before work the next day. Hyunjin goes home, too, but he doesn’t sleep. He writes.
The only thing Hyunjin was still unhappy about leading up to the big day was that he hadn’t spoken to Chan about any of this. Chan wasn’t taking his calls. He’d reduced their communication to e-mail, in what Hyunjin thought was his attempt at pettiness more than anything. Hyunjin decides to keep Chan in the loop using his preferred method of communication:
HELLO. ALBUM IS MOSTLY FINISHED. JUST NEEDS TO BE RECORDED. IM GOING TO PLAY MOST OF IT LIVE FOR THE ENTIRE TOWN THIS WEEKEND.
He receives a call from Chan within five minutes.
“Are you insane?”
“No,” Hyunjin replies simply.
“Why the hell are you doing that then?”
“To help raise money to renovate the old public library where my friend works,” Hyunjin explains. He can hear Chan sigh over the phone.
“Is that really why?” Chan asks.
“Yes,” he confirms.
“You can’t just write him a check?” Chan suggests.
“I could,” Hyunjin admits, “but I’d rather do this.”
“Because nobody asked me for my money. They asked me to sing,” Hyunjin reasons. In truth, Seungmin was part of the reason, too. He was so excited for people to see his art. Hyunjin couldn’t take that away from him.
There’s a moment of silence.
“Okay. I’ll book a flight now. I’ll be up there by tomorrow afternoon. I have something I have to take care of first–”
“Don’t,” Hyunjin says sternly.
“Don’t rush out here. You’re busy. Do what you need to do. I can handle this,” Hyunjin assures him.
“What? Hyunjin, I’ve never missed something like this before,” Chan reminds him.
“It’s not a big deal. It’s an eight song set in the parking lot of an old library,” Hyunjin insists. “I’ll be okay.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah. I think I need to start getting used to not being your only priority,” Hyunjin decides.
“I- okay,” Chan agrees hesitantly. Hyunjin knew Chan didn’t want to leave him alone, but it was inevitable. Hyunjin had been upset that Seungmin was mad at him for focusing on his career. Wasn’t Hyunjin doing the same thing to Chan? “My ringer will be on all day. Call me if you need me.”
“I will,” Hyunjin promises.
“And be ready to play it all for me when you’re back in town,” Chan orders. “I can’t wait to hear it all.”
“I can’t wait to play it for you,” Hyunjin responds.
After he hangs up, Hyunjin finally feels content. He felt like he was setting a caterpillar he’d raised since it was a larvae free from its cocoon. Chan was a good manager. Other people deserved to have him manage them.
• • •
On the day of the concert, Hyunjin’s nerves are driving him insane. Every bad thought he could possibly have had crossed his mind. He usually felt like he lived to perform, but all of that had gone out the window as soon as he’d decided to add a last minute track to the ones he’d been working on for the album. He wasn’t sure he liked the song, and he wasn’t sure he was ready for the person he wrote it about to hear it.
“Should we play the song about him?” Hyunjin asks, tapping his guitar pick incessantly against the wall of the library. He and Jisung were technically backstage in that they were standing behind the stage Changbin and Felix had built in the parking lot, right near the back of the library. People had started to pour in, and they were due on stage in fifteen minutes. “I should cut it, right?”
“No,” Jisung snaps. He slaps him upside the head. “We’ve been over this.”
“He told me he doesn’t want me to write about him anymore,” Hyunjin reminds him. He hits him again.
“I think,” Jisung declares, “that, if a guy spends the night making googly eyes at you under a tree with your initials carved into it, he has consented to having a song written about him.”
“I know what he said. I also have never known Kim Seungmin to say what he means or feels. The song is good. Play it. Don’t think about anything else,” Jisung orders. Hyunjin nods, swallowing back all his fears. He couldn’t back out now. Minho and Jisung would never let him live it all down.
Hyunjin feels the nervous word vomit coming on as soon as he steps on stage.
“Um, hello,” Hyunjin says, looking out into the crowd. So many more people had shown up than he had expected. It was like the entire population of the county and then some had come to hear him play. “My name is Hyunjin.”
There are a couple of cheers from the crowd.
“First of all, I want to thank my friends, Jisung and Changbin, for accompanying me today,” he says, pausing to give the crowd a chance to clap as he gestures to Jisung behind his drum set and Changbin across the stage with his bass. “They learned all my songs on short notice like champs and they play like professionals, so thank you.”
He turns to smile at the pair, and Jisung gives him a little thumbs up in return.
“A lot of you guys probably know that I grew up here. I used to come to this library as a kid, and one of my other very good friends, Felix, is the librarian now,” Hyunjin explains. “He’s really, really good at what he does. I have been in town all summer, and he has taught me so much using only the resources this place has to offer. So, when he asked me to play a show to help restore the library, there was no way I could say no. Thank you for loving your job and this town more than anybody I know, Felix.”
Again, the crowd cheers. Felix beams at him from the side stage.
“But speaking of people who love this town, I can’t think of anybody better to have painted the beautiful mural we unveiled today than Kim Seungmin,” Hyunjin continues. “It’s really, really nice and really, really encapsulates what makes living here so special. Please, if this is your first time in our little town and you aren’t familiar with Seungmin’s work, go check out the gallery he and Felix set up inside after the show. You will not regret it.”
Hyunjin glances at Seungmin, who mouths him a tiny thank you. Hyunjin felt a tinge of relief.
“Alright, alright, I know you guys came to listen to music, not to hear me talk, so I’m gonna start playing my songs soon,” Hyunjin announces, “but first I just wanted to talk about what I’m gonna play for a second.”
Hyunjin hesitates. He couldn’t remember the last time he was this nervous on stage. Then, he glances over at his friends and remembers how hard they worked to make today happen.
“I didn’t want to be here this summer,” he confesses suddenly. “A lot of you probably know that. You probably read it on Twitter or in the tabloids or whatever. I really had not been back here for a very long time. But I also hadn’t been myself for a very long time. And I didn’t know that until I got here. This summer, I reconnected with some old friends and made some new ones. They all taught me so much and helped me find who I am again and find my inspiration to write music again. They are the only reason I could write this album.
“This is going to sound so, so cheesy, but I’ve realized that home doesn’t have to be a place. It can be the people I’m with. Someone told me a while ago that the best thing about the people in this town is that they’re always going to be here, and I realize now what exactly that means. So, every track on this album is dedicated to someone in my life who inspires me.
“One for my grandfather because he has believed in me every single day of my life. Even if it doesn’t always seem that way.
“One for Chan because he is the very best manager on the planet and I owe him a really, really big apology at the moment.
“One for Jisung because he picks up our friendship right where we left off no matter how long it’s been.
“One for Minho because I couldn’t have gotten through this summer or this album without his advice and not-so-subtle meddling.
“One for Jeongin because writing this album was almost as hard as passing Chemistry.
“One for Felix because his hard work and selflessness are two things you can always, always count on.
“One for Changbin because his imagination and outlook on the world would make you want to write a song about him, too.
“One for Seungmin. Because it’s hard to write not even one.
“Thank you guys, I love you all very much.
“Okay, I’ll shut up,” Hyunjin says finally. “All eight tracks are a part of my upcoming album Home. It’s my first time playing these songs for a crowd, so be gentle.”
As Hyunjin begins to play, he starts to remember why it’s been so long since he was nervous on stage. He felt completely comfortable playing his guitar and singing the songs he’d poured his heart into. He knew his music was meant to be shared. He knew he was meant to perform it in front of crowds like this. It just felt right.
When Hyunjin’s set is over, he sneaks in through the back door of the library and spends the next half hour hiding out in the back storage closet. It made him feel ridiculous to do such a thing. It wasn’t that he was trying to avoid the people who’d cared enough to come see him, but rather that, even with Seungmin’s blessing, he felt guilty that he’d stolen so much of the attention from Seungmin’s mural. He just wanted anyone who cared enough to wait around to at least look at Seungmin’s paintings.
The longer Hyunjin sits alone, thinking about how many people came to see him and how much he’d loved every second of performing, the more excited he is to return to the city and properly record all his new music. He almost forgets for a minute what he’s leaving behind at the end of the summer. Almost.
By the time Hyunjin re-enters the library, much of the crowd has cleared out. He takes a few selfies and signs a few CDs to appease the ones who had stayed, then wanders around in search of Jisung or Changbin.
He’s about to give up when he hears someone calling his name. He feels his throat swell up when he turns and sees who’s coming his way.
“Hyunjin!” Seungmin calls again. Hyunjin swallows hard in anticipation of Seungmin chewing him out. “Hi.”
“Listen, I’m sorry. I know you said no more songs, but I just wanted to play it for you once. I won’t put it on the album if it’s not okay with you,” Hyunjin rambles before Seungmin can so much as yet a word out. “I just realized I really haven’t moved on. I’m working on it, though, I swear.”
“Okay,” Seungmin says simply. Hyunjin furrows his eyebrows.
“Okay? That’s it?” Hyunjin asks. Seungmin nods.
“I liked it,” Seungmin adds, “and I’m really sorry for making it seem like I don’t like the other ones, too. I like all your songs, especially the ones that are about me.”
“I thought you didn’t want me to write them anymore,” Hyunjin recalls. Seungmin sighs, fidgeting with the poster tube in his hands.
“It’s not that I don’t want you to write them. It’s just that– I don’t know,” he explains. “It was hard to hear you sing about how you supposedly loved me so much while knowing that you didn’t choose me.”
“I’m really, really sorry,” Hyunjin whispers. “I’m starting to realize I owe a lot of people apologies.”
“It’s okay, really,” Seungmin assures him, “and, um, there is something I wanted to show you.”
“What?” Hyunjin asks. Seungmin takes a deep breath, then pops the top off the tube in his hand and carefully pulls out a rolled up piece of artwork.
“After you left, I started painting a lot. It was a distraction, I guess. I used to spend my lunch breaks and my days off and my nights with you. Instead, I spent them painting,” Seungmin explains, “and I thought a lot about you.”
Hyunjin bit the inside of his lip to keep from smiling. He really, really liked the idea that they’d both been each other’s muse.
“This is the first painting I ever had displayed in a gallery,” Seungmin notes. He carefully unrolls the painting. Hyunjin sighs softly when he sees it’s of the park, of their lunch spot. There was a single figure sitting under their tree, presumably Hyunjin, though Seungmin’s style didn’t allow for that much detail. “There are so many more like this. I know it seems random for me to tell you about this now, but after we got in that fight, I was talking to Minho about what I said to you. I feel bad about all of it. I don’t want you to think I don’t understand making music about our relationship. You inspire me, too.”
“You’re really talented,” Hyunjin whispers. Seungmin smiles at him, and Hyunjin just melts. He was truly doomed to write a hundred albums about Seungmin if every time Hyunjin looked into his eyes or saw his smile he felt like this. Though, the more he thought about ‘getting over’ Seungmin, the more he hated the idea. He didn’t ever want to go back to barely knowing anyone in this town. “Seungmin, I… I don’t want to be strangers again. I don’t even want to be acquaintances.”
Seungmin pauses for a minute.
“What do you want me to say, Hyunjin?”
“That you want to be in my life, too,” Hyunjin answers. He didn’t even have to think about it.
“Do you really want to have a serious discussion about this?” Seungmin asks. Hyunjin nods.
“More than anything.”
Seungmin rolls up his painting and puts it back in the tube before working up the courage to respond to Hyunjin.
“The answer’s no, okay?” Seungmin whispers.
Hyunjin had written a lot of words in his life. He’d written short stories and letters and e-mails and poems. He’d turned those poems into songs, and he’d sold millions of copies of those songs. He considered himself a master of assigning emotion to words, but he didn’t think he’d ever come up with four words that could break somebody’s heart so quickly.
“I don’t hate you, and I don’t resent the decision you made anymore, but I’m also not a teenager anymore,” Seungmin explains. “You broke my heart, and that’s made me realize how delusional I was. I had all these plans of ditching this town with you after we graduated and going to art school. But that was stupid. Running the store is what I’m meant to do. This is just my hobby.”
“What does that have to do with me?” Hyunjin asks softly. Even Hyunjin himself could hear in his voice how upset he was.
“You were a fantasy to me, Hyunjin,” Seungmin admits. “You represented all these ideas about getting out of this town, and now I realize I want to be here. I want to run the store. I want to take care of my mom. I love the people here. I’ll probably be here for the rest of my life, and I’m okay with that. This is my home. It’s not yours anymore, is it?”
Hyunjin paused. The past few years, he’d thought of his home as his apartment in the city. He’d lived there since he’d left town. He’d avoided coming back here completely. For a long time, Hyunjin had felt completely removed from his hometown.
“Yeah. I thought so. Even though it hurt me a lot, I realize now that you leaving and ending this point-blank was the right decision for both of us. I never would have forgiven myself if I had abandoned my family for you,” Seungmin continues. “I needed you and our relationship at that point in my life, but that’s not who I am anymore. It’s not who you are either. That’s okay.”
“But this is my home,” Hyunjin concludes. Seungmin just blinks at him. Hyunjin could tell he had resigned himself to Hyunjin agreeing with him, abandoning him again. “I know I haven’t acted like it since I left, but being back here, I have felt more like myself than I have in years. I have been overjoyed seeing my grandpa all the time and reconnecting with Jisung and getting to know Jeongin and Felix. I’m proud of where I’m from. I want to be here as much as I can. That’s what the album is about. This is my home. You are my home.”
Hyunjin knows Seungmin wants it to be that simple. He can see it on his face. He can see his lip quivering as he tries to decide what to say.
“So, what, you’re gonna live here?” Seungmin asks. Hyunjin pauses. He hadn’t thought that far ahead. He wanted to see his friends and his family more, for sure, but living here full time? He didn’t have that answer yet. “Are you going to keep your place in the city? What about when you go on tour? Is Chan going to be okay with you being so far from him?”
“I– I don’t know about all that yet,” Hyunjin admits, “but it’s not gonna be like last time. I want to hear your opinion. I want to do what is best for both of us. I want to do what lets me be with you.”
“Really?” Seungmin asks. Hyunjin nods.
“Yes,” Hyunjin swears, “I can’t promise you that there aren’t going to be times when we’re apart, but please trust me when I say I understand your commitments here, and I would never ask you to choose me over your family. That’s why I didn’t ask you to come with me the first time.”
Seungmin sighs, shyly wrapping his arm around Hyunjin’s waist.
“I want to be with you, too,” Seungmin confesses finally, “so badly.”
“I knew it,” Hyunjin teases with a laugh. Seungmin grins, leaning in and kissing his cheek swiftly.
“I’m that obvious?” Seungmin ponders. Hyunjin nods. “Good.”
They both laugh, and Hyunjin feels comfortable for the first time in a long time. He felt like he was right where he was supposed to be. He was home.