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Hyunjin is thankful today is his last day of high school band. He’d never cared to be in the marching band at all, but he’d always liked music, and his grandfather had been adamant he put his skills to use at school. Now, years later, Hyunjin was stuck leading the drum line, counting down the days until he would never have to put that stupid uniform on again.

A part of Hyunjin had always thought maybe his last day would be bittersweet, but he was wrong. Instead of counting days, he was sitting in the back of the classroom counting seconds. He couldn’t wait for the bell to ring, officially signaling his freedom from high school and the shackles of this small, pathetic marching band.

“Hyunjin! Front and center!” the director calls. Hyunjin holds back a sigh. He supposes he could humor the poor man one last time.

“What’s up?” Hyunjin asks, swinging his backpack over his shoulder and walking toward the front of the band room.

“Hyunjin, you know Jeongin,” he says, gesturing to a bright eyed boy with high cheekbones standing to the left of him. Hyunjin didn’t. They had been in the drum line together all year, but Hyunjin certainly hadn’t bothered to speak to him. It wasn’t Jeongin’s fault, of course; Hyunjin hadn’t bothered to speak to most people in this town.

See, Hyunjin had always had bigger dreams than this town could fulfill. He was an avid songwriter, convinced he could make a living singing his songs. He yearned to tour the country (or maybe even the world, if he let himself get that far), sharing his music with anyone and everyone who would listen. He couldn’t do that here. Because of that, he didn’t bother building relationships with people like Jeongin. If his ultimate goal was to leave, as quickly as he possibly could, it would just be a waste.

To make sure his disconnection from the other people in the town wasn’t in vain, he’d been working hard to accomplish this goal. He started posting covers on YouTube during freshman year and, the following year, had upgraded to sharing his original songs, too. Last winter, a budding manager, Chan, had reached out to him about working together. Since then, Chan helped Hyunjin book a few gigs and build a pretty decent fanbase online. Chan worked constantly, trying to find the right fit for Hyunjin to sign his first record deal. They both yearned for him to finally start releasing his music officially, and Hyunjin convinced himself that day was coming.

“Sure,” Hyunjin confirms. For now, though, he was still stuck here, and he didn’t need to come off like an asshole just to emphasize that he hadn’t bothered to actually learn the names of the other kids in the band.

“He’s going to be taking over for you next year. Any advice?”

Hyunjin exhales softly. He wants to say no, but Jeongin looks so proud, excited. Shouldn’t Hyunjin humor them, at least a little?

“Just try your best to stay on time and have fun,” Hyunjin offers. It was the fakest, most useless bit of advice he could come up with, but Jeongin seems pleased anyway.

“Thank you,” he says with a big smile. “Hyunjin, I actually love your music. I saw you play your set at Live Music Mondays last week and—”

Hyunjin feels nothing but relief when the bell rings, freeing him from this conversation with Jeongin. He could do without compliments from a random junior trying to make friends with a senior so he could get invited to better parties.

“Thanks,” Hyunjin says, then he turns and exits the band room for the final time.

Hyunjin enters the hallway and seizes up the brick walls. He’s reminded of the past four years he’s spent here, mainly with his closest friend, Jisung, and his boyfriend, Seungmin. Conversations on the stairs and bickering in the hallways fill his brain. He had good times in this school, even if he was ready to move on.

He continues his pace through the hallway, eventually crossing paths with Jisung, who immediately hooks an arm around Hyunjin in celebration.

“We’re finally fucking out of here, dude,” Jisung says. He was practically bouncing off the walls, ecstatic to be out of school for the summer and potentially forever if his parents allowed it.

“Are you on something?” Hyunjin jokes. He pushed Jisung away, and Jisung dramatically twirls into the faded, navy lockers to the side of them, acting as though Hyunjin had mortally wounded him. “Seriously, Jisung.”

“I’m high on life!” Jisung yells, snapping back up. “Does it get any better than this, Hyunjin? We’re free.”

“I can think of a lot of ways it could, yeah,” Hyunjin admits with a laugh. A summer trying to find stupid ways to entertain himself with Jisung wasn’t the first thing on Hyunjin’s bucket list.

“Are you gonna go to Felix’s going away party tonight?” Jisung asks between obnoxious smacks of bubblegum. Hyunjin always found Jisung’s manners, or lack thereof, amusing due to the fact he was his grandpa’s favorite of his friends. Hyunjin got whacked with a newspaper if he forgot to say sir, but Jisung could act like he was raised by wolves and his grandpa thought he was a nice boy.

“Eugh,” Hyunjin groans. “Aren’t we outgrowing townie parties?”

“No?” Jisung says through laughter. “Townie parties are for life, Hyunjin.”

Hyunjin knows it’s true. Everything in this town was repetitive. The only chance you had at fun was drinking on the beach with the people you went to high school with. Even the adults did it.

“I don’t know. I’ll have to ask Seungmin,” Hyunjin concludes. Jisung groans in complete disgust.

“Is he your keeper?” Jisung spits.

“Sorry that I like to spend time with my boyfriend when he’s not working,” Hyunjin says with an eye roll for good measure. “Sue me.”

Seungmin was diligent and decidedly overworked for an eighteen-year-old. His family owned the grocery store in their small town, and Seungmin had been working shifts in the store after school and on weekends since elementary school. His dad had always said the only way Seungmin would learn responsibility is helping his family in the store. Hyunjin had never known Seungmin to complain about helping his parents out, but his commitments made it hard for them to see each other outside of school.

“You know, you two used to be my best friends. Now, you just frolic around together in the park, and I have to hang out with Changbin and Minho,” Jisung complains. “Whenever I start smoking and wearing dangly earrings, it’s on you.”

“That would be an upgrade for you,” Hyunjin taunts. Truthfully, he did feel a little bad for making Jisung a third-wheel before removing him from the vehicle altogether, but not enough to stop. Besides, Changbin and Minho were cool. They were a year older, so they’d always seemed distinctly adult, and they had a definite style to them. Hyunjin admired that.

“Noted,” Jisung says with a grin as he pushes open the school door, signalling the official end of their senior year. The sentimental part of Hyunjin, who wrote in his journal every night and composed a song for virtually every major event in his life, felt sad for a second. But only for a second.

The pair walk along the cracked sidewalk leading to the bike racks to wait for Seungmin. As they walk, Jisung greets a few classmates in passing and talks about the party happening on the beach tonight, but Hyunjin tunes it out. With the exception of Jisung and Seungmin, the activities of his classmates didn’t concern him.

“Have a good summer!” the junior from the drum line, Jeongin, says with a wave as he sprints past. Jisung just scoffs.

“Do you know him?” Jisung asks. Hyunjin shakes his head, running a hand through his hair as he watches Jeongin make haste through the parking lot and away from the school.

“He’s taking over center snare next year,” Hyunjin explains. “Guess he thinks we’re friends.”

“Not surprised he’s a band geek,” Jisung says playfully. Hyunjin takes two fingers and jabs him in the side as payback for implying Hyunjin, too, is a geek.

A few moments later, Hyunjin’s boyfriend and the third in their trio, Seungmin, as bright eyed as ever, skips up to the bike rack to join them.

“Hey guys.”

Seungmin’s words are for both of them, but he only looks at Hyunjin. Hyunjin grins at him, immediately reaching out and circling an arm around his waist. Jisung gags.

“You two have no morals,” Jisung complains. “No decency! No consideration at all!”

“Get a room, love birds!” a fourth voice calls. Hyunjin looks up and sees Changbin and Minho rolling up to them on their skateboards, a typical scene for the two of them. Hyunjin secretly wishes he had one of his own.

“Are you allowed to be on campus? You’re like 30,” Seungmin snaps. He still pushes Hyunjin’s arm away, clearly still embarrassed by Minho’s comment. Hyunjin didn’t mind what other people thought, of course, but it’s not like he could argue with Seungmin about it.

Minho dismounts his board and flips it up under his arm before raising a hand to flip Seungmin off. Seungmin just rolls his eyes. The two had been friends for a long time, but Hyunjin had never actually seen them be nice to each other. If Hyunjin ever had anything negative to say about Minho, though, Seungmin wouldn’t hear it.

“How’s it feel to be done with high school?” Changbin asks. He was grinning from ear to ear, radiating pride. He’d taken Jisung, Hyunjin and Seungmin under his wing their freshman year after seeing Jisung attempt to throw hands with an upperclassman who called Seungmin a nerd. Until he graduated last year, he’d lovingly bullied the trio while also showing them the ropes around town and beyond. Now, Changbin’s little fish are all grown up.

“Amazing,” Jisung replies. “Fuck this place.”

“Ditto,” Hyunjin echoes. He glances over at Seungmin and can already tell he doesn’t agree. Seungmin was a monster of habit; he resented change once he found comfort in how things already were. If he could keep one schedule for the rest of his life, he would be happy.

“Any big plans for the summer?” Changbin wonders.

“Don’t worry, guys, I got this one,” Jisung announces, clearing his throat like he’s about to pass on very important information. “Seungmin is going to work in the store. Hyunjin is going to lock himself in his room and play his guitar. Then, they’re going to meet up and make out in that stupid, wobbly treehouse behind Hyunjin’s house in the dead of night.”

“You know us so well,” Hyunjin jokes. Despite his playful tone of voice, though, Jisung had pretty much described Hyunjin’s exact summer plans: a whole lot of songwriting and a whole lot of sneaking around with Seungmin.

“What about you?” Minho asks behind a raised eyebrow. Jisung just shrugs.

“I like to live life in the moment,” Jisung insists. Hyunjin doesn’t call him out to save Jisung the embarrassment in front of Changbin and Minho, but Hyunjin is fairly certain Jisung will spend the summer trying to cuddle with his mom’s cranky, elderly cat while watching B movies on the TV.

“Cool,” Minho replies. Hyunjin has to actively work to keep from saying something.

“Are you guys going to the party tonight?” Changbin says. Jisung nods, full cheeks only getting more prominent as he grinned in confirmation.

“I’ll be there,” he announces.

Hyunjin looks over at Seungmin in an attempt to telepathically ask him if they were going or not. Seungmin bites his lip in uncertainty.

“The store closes at nine,” Seungmin says, “but I have to clean and lock up, too, so—”

“We’ll play it by ear,” Hyunjin decides, redirecting his words to the rest of the group. “You guys will probably be there late anyway.”

“Come. Don’t. We don’t care,” Minho says. Seungmin scowls. “Did I lie? Hyunjin will probably have to crawl out of a window to get there anyway.”

Hyunjin groans in annoyance. His grandfather was notoriously strict. There was no chance in hell he would let Hyunjin out of the house to attend a party on the beach that was almost certainly going to include underage drinking and smoking. Hyunjin knew that; he just wished everyone else didn’t.

“You are the devil,” Seungmin tells Minho.

“Thank you,” Minho replies, placing a hand over his heart like it’s the most sincere compliment he’s ever received. Hyunjin almost doesn’t think he’s kidding.

The conversation about the party continues, but Hyunjin and Seungmin excuse themselves so Seungmin can get to the store on time. His dad was expecting him right after school, as usual. Hyunjin pushes Seungmin’s bike along next to them as they walk the two blocks to the store, just like he did everyday.

“Seungmin,” Hyunjin says quietly to get his attention. Seungmin had been zoning out, marveling at the last of the spring flowers still gripping trees as summer rushed in.

“Hm?” Seungmin mumbles, glancing back over at Hyunjin. Hyunjin always thought he looked the best when they were walking together like this, hair tousled and mind elsewhere.

“Are you happy we’re graduating?” Hyunjin asks.

“Of course,” Seungmin insists. “Aren’t you?”

“Of course,” Hyunjin mimics. “I don’t know. You just didn’t seem happy before.”

Seungmin sighs softly. He messes with the strap on his backpack just to have something to do with his hands. Hyunjin thought life would be a lot easier if he could read Seungmin’s mind.

“It’s not that,” Seungmin says. “I just— Do you ever think maybe it’s not gonna get better than this?”

“No,” Hyunjin admits with a laugh. Seungmin bites the inside of his cheek in defeat. “C’mon, Seungmin. It has to get better than this. It just has to.”

“I don’t know if for me it can,” Seungmin argues. Hyunjin furrows his eyebrows.

“Seungmin, you are a lot better than high school,” Hyunjin promises. “This is the start of our lives, you know?”

“I guess,” Seungmin says quietly. “It’s just... I like school. I like learning. I like seeing our friends. I like getting to eat lunch with you every single day.”

“I will still eat lunch with you every single day,” Hyunjin promises. “I’ll come down to the store for your lunch break, just like I did last summer.”

“Promise?” Seungmin asks. Hyunjin nods, then stops pushing the bike long enough to offer Seungmin his pinky finger. Seungmin readily locks his own finger around Hyunjin’s. “I guess I don’t have anything to worry about.”

They continue their walk to the store, past all the rest of the buildings downtown until they reach a small, all glass facade on the corner of the square block that contains all the town’s businesses. Seungmin takes his bike from Hyunjin and locks it up against the pole by the corner of the store. When he’s done, Hyunjin encircles his waist, pulling him close.

“Call me when you get off and we can make plans, okay?” Hyunjin says. Seungmin nods. “It doesn’t have to be the party. I don’t care if we go or not.”

“Okay,” Seungmin whispers. Hyunjin starts to lean it to kiss him, but he hastily pulls away when he hears someone aggressively tapping on the glass window of the store. Seungmin groans loudly when he sees his dad. “Fuck my life.”

“I love you,” Hyunjin mouths. Seungmin quickly presses his lips against Hyunjin’s cheek anyway.

“I’m gonna pay for that,” Seungmin whispers. Hyunjin just laughs. “Bye.”

Hyunjin spends his entire walk home thinking about Seungmin kissing him even though his dad was watching. He starts to think that maybe, in a way, Seungmin was right. He certainly thought he could upgrade in several aspects of his life (where he lived, how he lived, who he hung out with), but the one thing in his life he was certain was perfect was Seungmin.

“I’m home,” Hyunjin announces as he takes off his shoes and sets them by the door. The house was oversized for just him and his grandfather, but Hyunjin knew his grandfather would never live anywhere else. It was the house where he’d raised Hyunjin’s dad, along with his four other kids. Hyunjin would probably have to hire a medium or even a ghostbuster to get Hyunjin’s grandfather to leave after he died.

“You’re late,” his grandfather barks from the kitchen. Hyunjin rolls his eyes.

“Sorry. I should’ve walked faster, greeted less people on my last day of high school,” Hyunjin remarks sarcastically. His grandfather exhales softly. That was the only sign of apology he ever offered Hyunjin, a quiet admittance that he agreed with Hyunjin and would drop the subject.

“How was your day?” he asks. Hyunjin shrugs. “Are you happy about tomorrow?”

“Sure,” Hyunjin mumbles. He couldn’t be excited about a graduation ceremony knowing he wouldn’t have anyone there to cheer when he walked across the stage. “Have you talked to dad? Last time he called, he told me he was going to come.”

His grandfather pauses, pursing his lips together. Hyunjin already knows that’s a no. He’d spent his entire life hoping his dad would show up and being disappointed every single time. He didn’t know why he still asked, why he was still chasing the ghost of a man he barely knew.

“It’s okay. I don’t want him there anyway,” Hyunjin insists. “He’s an asshole.”

“Don’t talk about your father like that,” Hyunjin’s grandfather snaps. If there was one thing Hyunjin hated about his grandfather, it wasn’t that he was strict or that he made Hyunjin participate in stupid activities he didn’t want to. It was that he always, always had to defend Hyunjin’s dad.

“He’s not my father. He’s barely your son,” Hyunjin tells his grandfather. “Maybe we both need to work on accepting that.”

“Hwang Hyunjin—”

“I know. I’m going,” Hyunjin says. He knew the drill. He climbs the stairs to his room and shuts the door tight. There was no way his grandfather would be letting him out of the house tonight.

When Hyunjin gets back to his room, he takes a second and looks around. It had been his father’s room before he fucked off to wherever the hell he was now. Whenever his grandfather had allowed Hyunjin to move in following his first year of middle school, he’d taken great pride in tearing down his dad’s poster of The Eagles and replacing it with his own tastes. Hyunjin’s grandfather always swore Hyunjin’s love of music came from his dad. Hyunjin thought it was a coincidence.

Nowadays, every inch of the room reeks of Seungmin. The journals Hyunjin used for inspiration, the polaroids Hyunjin pinned to his bulletin board, the notes scribbled on ripped pieces of notebook paper. Hyunjin was certain his dad wouldn’t like that his old room had basically become a love letter to his teenage son’s boyfriend, but he certainly wasn’t coming around to see it. Instead, the memories of Seungmin around the room Hyunjin kept him moving forward, giving him inspiration and reminding Hyunjin he wasn’t alone. He wishes he could return the happiness Seungmin gave him.

He returns to his desk and starts writing. Maybe it was a little conceited, but Hyunjin always thought the best way he could comfort Seungmin was by writing him songs. It was easier than a conversation and more romantic, too.

The words and chords come easy to him when he’s thinking about Seungmin and their futures. By the time Seungmin calls after closing up shop, the song is basically done, with the exception of a few parts he wants to revisit when he’s further removed from the moment.

“Can we go to the party after all?” Hyunjin requests.

Hyunjin resents the fact he does, in fact, climb out of a window in order to attend the party. He also resents the fact he does it while carrying his guitar on his back, throwing him off balance and making him look like an idiot in front of Seungmin, who is waiting at the bottom of the fence for him.

“You’re better at that than I am,” Seungmin jokes once Hyunjin is safely on the ground. “What’s with the guitar?”

“You’ll see,” Hyunjin says. He takes Seungmin’s hand securely into his own and pulls him toward the sidewalk so they can begin their trek down to the beach where Felix’s going away party is being held. Hyunjin didn’t know Felix that well, but a party was a party. Hyunjin was looking for an audience.

They follow the smell of burning and the light of the fire toward a corner of the beach where a group of party goers, including Changbin, Minho and Jisung, are huddled around a fire, eating s’mores and talking. Hyunjin is a little surprised to see that the junior from before, Jeongin, is there, too. Hyunjin guesses that sucking up to the seniors had worked for him after all.

“Better late than never,” Minho snips as Seungmin sits down next to him. Minho hands him a graham cracker from the packet he was using to construct his own snacks anyway.

“Next time, I’ll tell my dad to fuck off,” Seungmin jokes. Everyone knew that Seungmin would eat a brick whole before he disobeyed his parents, especially his father.

“We were just talking about you, Seungmin,” Felix, a freckled boy in their grade, chirps. Hyunjin felt a bit of a kinship with Felix because he had always been intent on getting out of this town, too. Felix had never so much as said that to Hyunjin, of course, but when Seungmin would drag Hyunjin to the old library, where Felix’s grandmother worked, Hyunjin would always see him reading and studying. Felix’s grandmother had once mentioned to Hyunjin that Felix had applied to a lot of different colleges. Hyunjin didn’t ask what he wanted to study, just silently took Felix’s determination to attend any college as a clue that his real goal was the same as Hyunjin’s: get out of here.

“Good things?” Seungmin asks. Felix nods with a big smile on his face.

“I was telling everybody about that stupid painting you’ve been slaving over for the ceremony tomorrow,” Minho explains. Hyunjin thought that sentence alone summed up Seungmin’s relationship with Minho. Even though Minho was bragging about Seungmin’s painting when he wasn’t around, he called it stupid to Seungmin’s face.

“I worked really hard on it,” Seungmin admits. He worked hard on everything he painted, just like how he worked hard at the store. “Hopefully you guys who are graduating like it.”

“We’re gonna pretend like you’re fucking Basquiat no matter what it looks like,” Jisung theorizes. Hyunjin raises a hand and smacks Jisung as punishment. “Did I lie?”

“No,” Minho confirms. Hyunjin just glares at Minho on account of being too far from him to hit him. Hyunjin always thought Seungmin was talented, probably more than he ever had been. He’d been carefully planting seeds in Seungmin’s head about applying for art school in the city for the past year, but Seungmin had yet to give in.

The group continues to talk about graduation tomorrow, complaining about how they’d rather die than hear their corny principal or try-hard valedictorian give speeches about the joys of high school. The graduating class was small, but the town was so close-knit that basically everyone would be in attendance. Hyunjin found the entire concept of the occasion to be nerve-wracking, but he couldn’t say that in front of Felix and Seungmin, who considered it to be an honor, or Jisung, who thought it was a joke and a waste of time.

“When are you gonna play us a song, rockstar?” Changbin teases when the conversation starts to die down. He gestures to Hyunjin’s guitar case to accompany his query. Hyunjin mentally thanks him for giving him the opportunity he was looking for.

“I mean, I can if you guys want me to,” Hyunjin says. He had fully intended to play a song that night, but he feigns resistance anyway in order not to come off like a showboat.

“You brought a whole fucking guitar, loser,” Jisung points out. “Play whatever you were wanting to play already.”

Hyunjin picks up a graham cracker and hurls it at Jisung, who happily catches it and takes a bite out of it.

“Gotta do better than that,” Jisung teases, continuing to crunch as a way of mocking Hyunjin. Hyunjin thinks about throwing another one, just to try and get him in the face this time.

“Play the song!” Felix enthuses.

“Fine,” Hyunjin agrees. He unzips his guitar case and pulls it into his lap, softly strumming a few chords to make sure it's in tune before he begins to play.

It isn’t until he’s about halfway through playing the song, reminiscing on all the time he spent with Seungmin in high school that he starts to get a little embarrassed. He barely knew Felix and was making his going away party about himself. Jesus, he could be self-centered. At that point, he can’t stop, though, so he just continues, hoping nobody else thought he was as big of a tool as he felt he was.

He finishes the song by repeating the key part of the chorus one last time, looking right at Seungmin and singing that no matter how good right now feels, it’ll always get better than this.

When it’s over, there are mixed reviews. Jeongin and Felix fawn like it’s the coolest thing they’ve ever heard. Jisung groans in disgust. Minho acts like it didn’t even happen.

Hyunjin doesn’t notice. He only looks at Seungmin, whose eyes sparkled with affection every single time he heard Hyunjin play anything on his guitar, no matter if it was a love song he personally crafted for Seungmin or Sweet Home Alabama. Hyunjin starts to lean in to try and kiss him when Jisung loudly clears his throat to stop them.

“You guys really walked right into that one,” Jisung complains. “He used us to flirt with Seungmin.”

“I thought it was nice. It applies to all of us, you know,” Felix insists. “Aren’t you guys a little scared of the future?”

“No,” Jisung replies. Hyunjin wishes he had his confidence.

“Do you know any cool songs?” Minho asks, darting up his eyes to look at Hyunjin. Hyunjin nods hesitantly. He knew a lot of songs, but he wasn’t convinced any of them would satisfy Minho. “Play us something.”

“Here’s Wonderwall,” Hyunjin jokes. They all groan. Instead, Hyunjin plays them Smells Like Teen Spirit and Is This It, two sure crowd pleasers. Everyone sings along and makes requests after. Hyunjin hates to admit it, but he has fun attempting to play everyone’s favorite songs and listening to their off-key singing.

After the group calls it a night, Seungmin walks Hyunjin home. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary; any time they went anywhere past sundown, Seungmin would insist he take Hyunjin all the way to his grandfather’s house so he could ensure he arrived home safe. He liked to hold Hyunjin’s hand tight and kiss him goodnight, and he would gladly add an extra block on his wall home to be able to do that.

“You should come inside,” Hyunjin whispers once they arrive at his house. Seungmin shakes his head. “My grandpa’s asleep. We can go in the front and just sneak upstairs.”

“My parents will be mad,” Seungmin maintains.

“It’ll be fine,” Hyunjin promises. Seungmin pauses for a second, looking at Hyunjin as he thought the decision over. Hyunjin could tell he wants to say yes based on the way his cheeks flush. “C’mon.”

“Fine. Not for too long, though,” Seungmin says.

Hyunjin barely hears him. He drags Seungmin up the stairs and past the deck furniture into the house, and he doesn’t stop pulling on Seungmin’s arm until they’ve reached the safety of his bedroom.

“If we get caught up here and I don’t get to see you all summer, I’m gonna be so upset,” Seungmin warns as Hyunjin puts his guitar away. Hyunjin just laughs. Seungmin flops down onto his bed, realizing Hyunjin is never going to take his concerns seriously.

“We’re not gonna get caught. Besides, I’m technically grounded right now anyway,” Hyunjin admits. Seungmin furrows his eyebrows in confusion, as though he’s actually going to bother asking Hyunjin how he came to the party tonight if he was in trouble. “I think.”

“For what?”

“Calling my dad an asshole,” Hyunjin says. Seungmin stifles back a laugh. “It felt necessary.”

“He is an asshole,” Seungmin agrees.

“I know,” Hyunjin whispers, sitting next to Seungmin on his bed. He was desperate to talk about anything else, so he takes one of Seungmin’s hands into his own to distract him, carefully interlocking their fingers. “Did you like the song?”

“You know I did,” Seungmin confirms. It was true; Seungmin was Hyunjin’s undisputed biggest fan. Granted, he didn’t have a lot of competition, but he was meticulous about commenting on and liking everything he posted. Plus, he had never missed one of Hyunjin’s live shows. “It was kinda evil, though.”

“Evil?”

“Yeah,” Seungmin says. He carefully pulled his hand away from Hyunjin’s and matted it into the back of his hair. “You just wanted me to cry in front of all our friends.”

“I did not!”

“It seemed blatant to me!” Seungmin insists. Hyunjin continues to declare that he wasn’t doing anything until they’re both laughing and Seungmin is threatening to send Hyunjin to prison for his crimes.

When they bore of arguing, Hyunjin lays down next to Seungmin and knots their hands back together. After a while, Seungmin sighs, turning over on his side to look at Hyunjin.

“I feel really guilty,” Seungmin admits.

“What? Why?”

“Because you talked all year about how I should apply to school so we can move to the city in the fall, and I never did it,” Seungmin confesses quietly. “How’s it gonna get better than this if I’m too scared to try?”

“There’s no deadline, you know,” Hyunjin argues. Seungmin squints at him.

“There’s literally a deadline for applications,” Seungmin replies. Hyunjin rolls his eyes.

“I meant for leaving this shitty town. It doesn’t have to be this fall. It doesn’t even have to be in the fall. It could be this spring!” Hyunjin insists. Seungmin just nods softly in response. Hyunjin can’t help feeling like maybe Seungmin didn’t want to go.

• • •

The next morning, Hyunjin wakes up to find Seungmin trying to sneak out of his window.

“Where are you going?” Hyunjin asks groggily. He could barely string together words because he was still so close to sleep.

“I have to get back before my dad realizes I was out all night,” Seungmin explains. “He’ll kill me.”

“Gramps can drive you–”

“And Gramps will kill you for having a boy over. Nice try,” Seungmin reminds him. Hyunjin just bites his lip in response, searching for any way he could convince Seungmin he didn’t need to rush home first thing in the morning. He comes up empty.

“I’ll see you at the ceremony,” he says in concession.

The car ride to graduation is Hyunjin’s worst nightmare. He was wear a stupid dress shirt and tie that his grandfather had personally chosen for him, and his grandfather kept trying to make small talk like nothing was wrong. Hyunjin mumbles replies as short as he can without getting yelled at. How could his grandfather just pretend everything was fine when their family was nonexistent? Hyunjin swore his life was a cruel joke sometimes.

The actual graduation ceremony takes place on the same football field Hyunjin had been begrudgingly attending band practice on every Saturday morning for the past four years. Hyunjin thinks the venue was a simple but effective and personal fuck you from God himself. When Hyunjin arrives, he makes sure to stop and admire the mural Seungmin had painted for the event at the entrance. It was in the shape of a tiger, the school’s mascot, and Seungmin had carefully written the names of everyone graduating into the stripes on its face. Hyunjin adores it, just like he adores everything Seungmin paints. He’d told Seungmin a million times he’d get into any art school he applied to if he would just submit the application.

Hyunjin is relieved when he sees Seungmin and Jisung lingering around together instead of having already taken their assigned seats in front of the stage.

“Ready to get this over with?” Hyunjin asks. Jisung nods, tugging at his tie underneath his gown. Hyunjin was certain this was the first and last time he would ever see Jisung in a get-up like this. Jisung would probably wear a white t-shirt and vans to his own wedding.

“Definitely,” Jisung confirms.

“You two are so pessimistic,” Seungmin grumbles. “This is a really important event in our lives, you know.”

“Maybe for you,” Jisung scoffs. “I’m here so my mom doesn’t threaten to evict me.”

“Sorry, Seungmin,” Hyunjin says, “but I’m with Jisung. As someone with no family, this is my personal nightmare.”

“You have a family,” Seungmin corrects. Hyunjin shakes his head.

“I have a grandfather,” Hyunjin explains, “and you two are my only real friends, so try not to notice how quiet it is when they call my name, okay?”

Hyunjin notices Seungmin and Jisung make eye contact for half a second before the principal gets on the microphone and instructs them to all report to their seats. To Hyunjin’s dismay, there is exactly one person between him and Jisung in the seating arrangements. Jisung tries to goad their barrier into switching seats, but he refuses. As a punishment, Hyunjin and Jisung spend the entire opening speeches from their principal, valedictorian and class president talking to each other over their classmate as if he’s not even sitting in between them.

As their row lines up, it starts to dawn on Hyunjin that high school is really over. What did he even have to show for it? He had four friends if you were generous, and the only time he had ever attended any sort of extracurricular activity was if his grandfather forced him to. Hyunjin wishes he had been more friendly or adventurous. Maybe then he wouldn’t be worried that nobody would cheer for him now.

When Jisung’s name is called, he makes sure to put on a show. For someone who loved to hole up alone in his room, Jisung also loved to draw attention to himself. He stops mid-stage to take a bow, blows someone in the crowd a kiss, and throws up a peace sign when he gets his picture taken with their principal at the end of the stage. The kid who had been sitting in-between Jisung and Hyunjin seems horrified by all of it.

Before Hyunjin crosses the stage, he takes a deep breath and reminds himself that it’s just high school. Who cares if no one cheers? Hyunjin had the rest of his life in front of him.

Reassurances to himself aside, the flutter in his chest when his cheers are nearly as loud as Jisung’s couldn’t be ignored. He looks out to the crowd and sees Minho and Changbin making a scene. Hyunjin is fairly certain they were instructed to by some combination of Jisung and Seungmin, but it makes him happy to hear anyway. He wanted to hear people cheering his name more often in the future.

After the ceremony, Hyunjin elects to ride back home with Jisung instead of being driven home by his grandfather to avoid diving back into the tension he and his grandfather were currently swimming in. He just wants to shower and change before lunch time rolls around. He had promised Seungmin the day before he would eat lunch with him every day, and today was no exception.

Still, on his way out, Hyunjin stops and lingers by the foyer until his grandfather comes out to interrogate him. He could’ve just run out of the house and ignored his grandfather’s calls, and it wouldn’t have even been the first time he did that, but he wanted to talk to his grandfather. Despite everything, he was the only true constant in Hyunjin’s life.

“Congratulations,” his grandfather says quietly. Hyunjin felt overwhelming guilt for essentially ignoring him before. He hadn’t deserved that. Hyunjin wasn’t sure anybody deserved that. “I know you don’t think so, but I’m proud of you.”

“Thank you,” Hyunjin replies. “It means a lot to me.”

The silence in the house is so uncomfortable Hyunjin thinks about leaving without telling his grandfather what he intended. It was intimidating and overwhelming, and it was so quiet that even their breathing registered as a sound.

“Hey, um,” Hyunjin begins. He didn’t know how to talk to his grandfather. He’d never known how. “I’m sorry about yesterday. I shouldn’t have said that.”

“He wanted to be here, Hyunjin,” his grandfather insists. Hyunjin just shakes his head.

“If he wanted to be here, he would’ve been here,” Hyunjin concludes. He doesn’t say it to hurt his grandfather’s feelings. He doesn’t say it because he hates his dad (even if that was at least partially true). He says it because he really did think it was time they both moved on. “It’s okay. We don’t have to pretend he’s a good father, Gramps.”

“I’m sorry,” his grandfather says softly. Hyunjin shrugs. It hurt to hear his grandfather actually apologize. He didn’t like that word. He didn’t like admitting he was in the wrong even if he knew he was.

“I’m not gonna let him make me sad. You shouldn’t either,” Hyunjin advises. He takes his jacket off the rack near the door and shimmies it on. His grandfather just watches him, pain in his eyes and words unsaid still lingering on his lips. “I’m going to go see Seungmin.”

It’s not a question or request. Hyunjin is done asking his grandfather for permission, done being denied the things he wanted to do.

“Be home before dark,” his grandfather orders just as Hyunjin pulls the door shut behind him.

As soon as Hyunjin steps onto the sidewalk in front of his grandfather’s house, he hears his phone ring. He reaches for it, expecting to see Seungmin’s name on his home screen. Instead, it’s Chan, Hyunjin’s well meaning manager. Hyunjin had e-mailed him a video of him playing his new song the night before, but he hadn’t expected a call in response.

“Chan? What’s up?” Hyunjin asks, beginning his walk toward the store anyway. He didn’t want to be late and have to explain to Seungmin he was talking to his manager.

“I have huge news,” Chan says enthusiastically. Hyunjin holds back a sigh. The news was probably that he had a YouTube video pass some sort of milestone in views.

“Me, too. I graduated high school an hour ago. Congratulations to me,” Hyunjin replies playfully, rhythmically bouncing his shoes against the sidewalk as he makes his way through the neighborhood.

“Oh, shit. I totally forgot,” Chan admits. “That’s great. Everything’s coming up Hyunjin today.”

“Why’s that?” Hyunjin wonders.

“I found a record label for you,” Chan informs him enthusiastically.

The rest of the phone call feels like a dream to Hyunjin. Chan goes on to describe how he and the lawyer Chan had hired had arrived at a “verbal agreement” on the deal, and all they needed was Hyunjin’s approval before they could meet with the executives and make everything official. Earlier in the day, Hyunjin had been thinking about how he was going to spend the summer seeing movies at the drive-in with Jisung and learning how to ride a skateboard from Changbin, and now, more than likely, he was going to spend it recording his debut album. For Hyunjin, this meant his dreams were going to come true.

As Hyunjin waits outside the store for Seungmin, he starts to fantasize about life in the city. Here, there was nothing to do. Trying to come up with dates to take Seungmin on was like an olympic sport. Plus, he’d been surrounded by the exact same people his entire life. There wasn’t anything wrong with the people here, but they were all the same. Hyunjin yearned to live in a fancy apartment with a view and take Seungmin out to do something different every single time they went on a date.

“You’re not going to fucking believe the call I got,” Hyunjin sqwaks as soon as Seungmin steps foot outside of the grocery store. “Like, you’re really not going to fucking believe it.”

“Stop messing with me,” Seungmin says, narrowing his eyes in disbelief, just like Hyunjin predicted.

“I’m not,” Hyunjin exclaims.

“Oh my god,” Seungmin squeaks back.

Hyunjin leads Seungmin into the park near the store, telling him all about the phone call and the very real possibility he would be signing a very legitimate record deal very soon. They settle down in the grass underneath the tree where they ate lunch together all last summer, and Hyunjin continues to go on and on about the phone call. He tells Seungmin about the other artist signed under the label, about how Chan said they couldn’t wait to get his songs recorded and to start releasing singles. Seungmin does his diligence, acting like every single thing Hyunjin says is the most interesting thing he’s ever heard as he eats his lunch.

“God, this is going to be great,” Hyunjin enthuses. Seungmin smiles at him in agreement.

• • •

The next week, Chan drives into town to pick Hyunjin up so they can make the drive to the record label’s offices together and officially put ink to paper. Hyunjin, superstitious and a little afraid the deal would fall apart and he’d be left with nothing, lies to both his grandfather and Seungmin about his whereabouts throughout the day. He tells Seungmin he’s helping his grandfather do errands, and he tells his grandfather he and Jisung are cleaning out his mother’s garage. Both were convoluted and probably unnecessary lies, but Hyunjin was terrified of the embarrassment that would follow if he didn’t actually sign a record deal.

Halfway through their drive to the city, Chan pulls over at a rest stop, insisting he needed to stretch his legs if he was going to keep driving. As Chan jogs around, like a fool, Hyunjin checks the time. It was half past noon, which meant Seungmin would be going on break soon. He opens up his messaging app and types to Seungmin.

sorry i’m missing lunch today. i’ll make up for it. i promise.

Just as Hyunjin hits send, Chan comes up behind him and grapples an arm around his shoulder. Hyunjin almost drops his phone in surprise.

“Texting your boy?” Chan asks. Hyunjin nods. “Have you put any thought into how you’re gonna handle things after you’re signed?”

“Handle what?” Hyunjin asks, dumbfounded. He was going to sign the record deal, record his songs and become a rockstar. It seemed straightforward enough.

“Him,” Chan replies simply. Hyunjin furrows his eyebrows. “I mean, c’mon, Hyunjin, don’t you think it’s going to suck being so far away?”

“He can come with me,” Hyunjin reasons. “That town sucks. There’s a million more opportunities in the city.”

“Does he think that town sucks?” Chan wonders. Hyunjin wanted the answer to be yes. He’d talked to Seungmin so much about how badly he wanted to get out, and Seungmin had never tried to convince him otherwise. Still, Seungmin was hardworking and committed during his shifts at the store, and he loved parties like the one on the beach from the other night. In truth, Hyunjin couldn’t remember Seungmin ever complaining about where they lived, at least not in the way Hyunjin always did.

“I don’t think so,” Hyunjin admits quietly.

“So you’re going to ask him to give up his home for you?” Chan concludes. Hyunjin just blinks at Chan in response, like the words were something he’d never so much as considered. “I’m sorry. I’m not saying this to freak you out. I just think it’s something you may want to think about.”

And think about it, Hyunjin does. In fact, it becomes basically all Hyunjin can think about the entire rest of the drive. Chan tries to talk about the scenery and what they should get for lunch, but Hyunjin hardly replies. He’s too worried about how he and Seungmin can do long distance, if they even can. It would never work, would it? How could Seungmin, who lived his life in definite routines, ever accept Hyunjin being hours away, sporadically returning? Wouldn’t it just end up with both of them heartbroken? Hyunjin never wanted to break Seungmin’s heart.

The alternative, asking Seungmin to leave the store and his friends and his entire life behind to chase Hyunjin’s dreams, seems even worse. Everything Seungmin cared about was within the limits of that tiny town. Was Hyunjin supposed to just take all that away from him?

Halfway through the lunch Chan was enjoying and Hyunjin was simply staring at prior to their meeting with the label executives, Hyunjin decides Chan is basically the only person in the world he could talk to about this.

“What would you do?” Hyunjin asks. He was too nervous to elaborate further, hopeful that Chan would understand without any other detail. He’s thankful Chan catches on.

“Do you want my honest opinion?” Chan asks. Hyunjin nods. “I would save myself the heartache and break things off now. If it’s meant to be, you’ll find your way back to each other.”

After that, Hyunjin just feels numb. It was the biggest moment of his life, and he just felt like he was completing a chore. His entire life, he’d wanted this. He wanted to be in the city, signing his record deal and getting on with his life. Actually doing it felt worse than he could’ve imagined.

“We cannot say enough how excited we are to get that last song recorded in a proper studio,” one executive remarks to Chan as Hyunjin finishes initialing the last few pages of the contract.

Better Than This? It’s one of my favorites, too,” Chan agrees with a smile.

Hyunjin can’t help but scoff under his breath at the irony.

• • •

Hyunjin spends the coming days on constant phone calls with Chan and his label, planning his move and recording schedule for the album. He gets lunch with Seungmin everyday, as promised, but he doesn’t say a word about the record deal. He didn’t know how to tell Seungmin, and he didn’t want to ruin the very limited time they had left together.

A few days before Hyunjin leaves, he and Seungmin make plans to hang out in the treehouse after Seungmin closes the store. Hyunjin resolves himself to tell Seungmin then, as he was rapidly running out of time. He put off telling Seungmin so long that, at this rate, he would be spilling his guts while Chan loaded his boxes into the car if he didn’t come clean now.

Hyunjin climbs the ladder to the treehouse knowing Seungmin is already inside, and with each rung he advances, he feels more nervous and unsure of what to say. He’d practiced in the mirror what to tell Seungmin over and over, but nothing could’ve prepared him for the real thing. He was shaking so much he was afraid he was going to topple the entire ladder over.

“Hi,” Seungmin enthuses once Hyunjin finally climbs onto the landing. He had his chalk with him and was looking through the colors trying to decide which one he wanted to use.

“Hey,” Hyunjin replies. He hates how happy Seungmin looks to see him. Why did he have to make this so hard?

“Guess what I’m gonna draw?” Seungmin asks. Hyunjin just shrugs. “You.”

“Me?” Hyunjin says. Seungmin nods affirmatively.

“I’m sick of you being the only one who ever makes art about us,” Seungmin asserts. He chooses a soft grey piece of chalk from his carrier and begins to sketch the outline of a face on the wall of the treehouse. “I’m an artist, too, aren’t I?”

Hyunjin’s heart flutters, in reluctance and resentment. He wanted Seungmin to make art of him. He wanted to spend as long as they could, exchanging songs and drawings. To Hyunjin, that would’ve been perfect.

“Seungmin,” Hyunjin says finally. He knew he couldn’t just sit there, watching Seungmin draw without a care in the world forever. In a way, it seemed a little cruel to let Seungmin believe nothing was wrong. “I need to talk to you about something.”

Seungmin tilts his head to the side in confusion, putting his chalk back into the tiny plastic container he stored it in and pivoting to face Hyunjin. He looks perplexed. Hyunjin knows he should’ve given Seungmin some sort of heads up before then.

“Are you okay?” Seungmin asks.

“I signed a record deal,” Hyunjin confesses. Seungmin’s entire face becomes brighter with excitement. “It’s for three albums. Chan set it all up for me.”

“That’s amazing, seriously,” Seungmin says. He crawls over to Hyunjin’s side of the tree house and hugs him tight, squeezing Hyunjin with all the warm affection in the world. Hyunjin hates that they can’t stay like that, that this could be the last time Seungmin ever held him like that. “I’m so proud of you.”

“Really?” Hyunjin whispers back.

“Duh,” Seungmin laughs. “You deserve this so much. You’re so talented.”

“Thank you,” Hyunjin barely chokes out. The more time that went by with Seungmin’s arms wrapped around him, the more guilty he felt.

“I can't wait for the whole world to hear your songs. They’re so, so—”

“I’m moving to the city,” Hyunjin blurts out suddenly. He couldn’t hold back anymore. He wasn’t even thinking about what he was saying. All he could focus on was the feeling of dread in the pit of his stomach.

Seungmin pulls away from Hyunjin so they can look at each other, as though Seungmin wants to see the expression on his face before deciding how to proceed. Of course, Hyunjin knew there was only one way for this night to end, but Seungmin hadn’t had the time for forethought; he still had the stages of grief to go through that Hyunjin had long processed.

“To record the album?” Seungmin asks.

“Forever,” Hyunjin responds. His tone is definitive, final. Seungmin had to have known that’s what Hyunjin meant. He’d said it a hundred times over the years. He was getting out of this town, away from his grandpa and the other townies who called this place home. This was his opportunity to actually do it.

“Right,” Seungmin confirms softly. Hyunjin could hear the pain in his voice. He didn’t know if he could do this. He thinks about calling Chan and cancelling everything. He could tell Seungmin it was just a joke, a delusion. “Well, it’s not that far. And you know I was thinking about art school, so I would have to move, too, and—”

“Seungmin,” Hyunjin says, “you need to stay.”

“I’m sorry?”

The crack in Seungmin’s voice is deafening.

“Think about it,” Hyunjin advises. “You have the store and your mom to look after. You can’t just uproot your life because I’m leaving.”

“You don’t get to make that decision,” Seungmin tells him. Before, he was sad. Now, Hyunjin could tell he was angry. “It’s my life.”

“It’s what’s best,” Hyunjin argues. “You belong here.”

“I belong here?” Seungmin repeats like it’s the worst insult he’s ever heard in his life. “I’m meant to be a stupid townie my entire life?”

“You know that’s not what I’m saying,” Hyunjin says quietly. He didn’t know how to protect himself from Seungmin twisting his words and making assumptions.

“That’s what it sounds like,” Seungmin snaps. “You think you’re some brilliant talent that’s above this town, and I’m destined to spent my life working in the fucking grocery store.”

“That’s not what I meant,” Hyunjin insists.

“Then what did you mean? Because it sounds like I was just somebody to entertain you while you were stuck here, and now that you’re leaving, you’re throwing me away just like everybody else,” Seungmin barks. Tears were rapidly filling his eyes as he got angrier and angrier. Hyunjin wasn’t ready for the dams to break, for Seungmin to cry in this stupid, creaky tree house because of him. He would’ve done anything to stop that from happening.

“I’m not throwing you away,” Hyunjin whimpers. It was all he could manage, a small, pathetic rebuttal. When Seungmin was mad, he was a force to be reckoned with.

“You told me a hundred times you never want to come back here once you leave,” Seungmin reminds him, “so if you not only expect but want me to stay, how am I supposed to interpret that?”

“Seungmin—”

“You know, I always knew you thought you were above the other people in this town, but I didn’t think that included me,” Seungmin admits. He brings a hand to his face and pushes a spare tear from his eyes with his thumb. Hyunjin wants to reach out and wipe his tears himself, to hold him until the tears slow down altogether.

“I don’t think I’m above you,” Hyunjin promises. “That’s not why I’m doing this.”

“Then why, Hyunjin? Explain it to me,” Seungmin begs. “Convince me otherwise. Genuinely, I want you to.”

“Don’t you think it’s easier to walk away now?” Hyunjin asks. “Isn’t stopping things here, before you’ve made sacrifices to be with me, the best thing to do? What happens when you miss your parents and you realize you want to come home but you’ve given all that up for me?”

Seungmin doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t even give Hyunjin the courtesy of a response. Hyunjin doesn’t know if that means Seungmin agrees with him or if he made things even worse.

“When do you leave?” Seungmin asks simply. Hyunjin takes a deep breath before he responds, knowing that the argument is about to erupt worse than anything Seungmin has said to him so far.

“Saturday.”

“Saturday?”

“This Saturday,” Hyunjin confirms.

“You are a dick.”

The fight doesn’t stop there. Hyunjin gets angry. He says things he doesn’t mean. Seungmin uses the opportunity to get a lot of things off his chest. They both yell and scream and cry until Seungmin reaches his breaking point and climbs down out of the tree house, gets on his bike and leaves. Hyunjin wants to run after him, but he holds himself back.

Seungmin was the one thing tethering him to this town, the only person that could convince him to come back.

And now he’s gone.

• • •

On Saturday, Chan shows up at Hyunjin’s house with his van, and they load the few belongings Hyunjin cares to take with him into the back, mostly clothing and a few random sentimental items.

Hyunjin couldn’t exactly say he was excited. He’d spent much of the last few days locked in his room, crying and writing. The lyrics were coming to him faster than he could get them on the page, but he would’ve traded all that inspiration just to have been able to kiss Seungmin one more time.

After they finish packing the van, Chan lingers around before getting in, like he thinks Hyunjin is forgetting to do something.

“Are you sure you don’t want to go see him?” Chan asks. Hyunjin was a little embarrassed that he was so obviously in shambles that even Chan could sense it. He was trying his best to seem enthusiastic, but it was hard.

“And say what?” Hyunjin asks, barely holding back a sharp tone. It seemed pointless. He couldn’t ask Seungmin to come with him. He couldn’t even really ask for forgiveness.

“I don’t know,” Chan says. He exhales quietly, like he’s not quite sure what he should do now that he’s essentially in charge of a moody, heartbroken teenager. “I know you care about him, though. I’ve heard the songs.”

Hyunjin realizes that a lot of people are going to hear those same songs very soon. Every single song he’d ever written was a confession of his feelings to Seungmin, line after line describing every little detail about him and why Hyunjin loved him so much.

“He’ll hear them, too,” Hyunjin decides. He turns back toward the house and takes one last look at his home, the place where he grew up. He’d never known anything besides this house. The squeaky steps leading up to the front door and the faded paint on the deck furniture had always welcomed him home, no matter where he went. Now, he was going to have to find new comforts, familiarity in a place he’d hardly ever visited.

Still, Hyunjin knows he’s making the right decision. He wanted to be more than this town. He wanted to write music people actually cared to hear. He wanted to do something meaningful with his life. He was never going to do that living in his grandpa’s house and doing whatever mundane job he was currently on path for.

“We should get going before traffic sets in. There’s nothing left for me here.”