The boy’s hair is too bright a blot in the grey colors of dawn, and Jeongguk has to blink once, twice, to readjust his vision. It’s a lush orange and looks soft in the light wind. He swears the taste is almost there on his tongue.
Early hours of another directionless Monday have found him on a mostly deserted Gwangalli beach, ass planted right on the cold sand and his camera lying idly in his lap. It’s been tough this semester, to the point of his mother being convinced he turned into a first-generation hermit.
October has never been kind to his restless mind.
But that bright blot is in his line of vision, drifting, because the boy is pacing back and forth, barely escaping the gentle waves with his bare feet. It’s too cold to be only wearing a loose sleeveless shirt but there he is, drifting near the sea with his sneakers dangling uselessly between his fingers. Jeongguk thinks he can see glitter on the boy’s tan skin.
The autumn clouds are low, a cool dark pattern that disperses the light just right for the shot. Jeongguk adjusts the exposure, inhales, takes the picture. When the boy turns to catch his eye through the viewfinder, Jeongguk’s breath stutters, but he’s already pressed the button again.
Shit. He’s coming. Counting the boy’s steps, Jeongguk feels his skin begin to tingle with upcoming worry. Suddenly, it’s no longer chilly.
Calm down, Jeon, it’s just another dude. But what a dude, though.
“You should ask permission, you know,” the voice is soft, a little teasing, but not unkind.
Jeongguk stares at the boy’s knees that are now very close, exposed by the rips in the dark jeans, and starts to fidget with the camera, “Sorry.”
“I’m joking,” comes a chuckle then. “People rarely ask.”
When the boy joins him on the damp sand, Jeongguk is engaging in a staredown with his own heavy boots to avoid any sort of embarrassing contact. This vital life strategy has gotten him so far after all.
“Why?” Jeongguk finally looks to his left and sees that he was right. There on the boy’s cheeks and neck — glitter. So much glitter.
“Six in the morning on a Monday? Only tourists or dog owners end up on a beach.”
“I’m just—” suddenly, he’s too embarrassed to say.
“Skipping school?” After Jeongguk gives a reluctant nod, the boy hums. “What year are you?”
“Second at PNU.”
Thinking to what might happen on the university’s campus in his absence, Jeongguk realizes he’s tugging on the thick strings of his hoodie. Like he’s an actual twelve year old. Get yourself together, Jeon.
“Gonna be a photographer then?”
“No, actually, um…” Um. How much more awkward can you get. Come on, dig up your balls. Um. “A journalist? Hopefully.”
Licking his dry lips, Jeongguk composes himself for a communicational leap, “What about you?”
Holy shit. That was cool, actually. Very fresh.
“Not my scene,” he smiles, flicks his hair. It looks even brighter from up close and only slightly curly. Then the boy offers him something — a ticket. A single journey green. “Yesterday’s. Turned out to be lucky.”
“Lucky?” Jeongguk searches the square for any signs of—whatever luck would look like on paper, he supposes.
“The second set of digits, see? And the last one. Add the sets individually, and if their sum is identical — then it’s lucky.”
“That’s—a bit of a stretch? What if there are letters, like in the third one?”
“Well, then it’s just not lucky.”
“This is bullsihit.”
Jeongguk has never been punched over subway tickets before.
But the boy just laughs in agreement, and Jeongguk hopes he isn’t gaping too bluntly at the sparkling skin of the other’s exposed neck. At lips that are plump and look soft to the touch but a little irritated at the corners. The gentle skin there looks damaged. When the boy looks at him again, Jeongguk finally notices the eye makeup, mostly smudged now but looking like it was pretty heavy in the night.
The stranger’s eyes are calm and a little curious to match the subtle smile that lifts the corners of his cracked lips.
Jeongguk’s hands itch to take another shot. “Can I take your picture?”
“Sure,” the boy smiles and falls back to settle on his elbows. “What should I do?”
“Just… dunno, whatever you usually do.”
The laugh that follows is different somehow. Rough and maybe bemused, Jeongguk supposes, and shakes it all off. It’s not his place and, besides, he’s never been that good at reading people.
“You come here often?” It’s such a horribly bland thing to ask, Jeongguk already mentally sets himself on fire as he keeps adjusting the settings.
But he is surprised to hear: “Second time actually.”
“Dunno,” the other shrugs, drawing Jeongguk’s immediate attention to his collarbones. Even there the skin sparkles. “Got myself through life of almost zero beaches. Takes a skill, huh?”
Through the viewfinder, Jeongguk can see the even color of the skin and white teeth pulling on the bottom lip, the gesture looking almost painful, short eyelashes glued together with cheap mascara, and then, right there under the jaw, a patchwork of reds and soon-to-be blues. It looks like fingers or something heavier or both, Jeongguk isn’t sure, but all of it finally starts falling into a full picture.
His new friend loves to party, maybe a little too hard.
After a solid twenty minutes of near crawling around his new model, Jeongguk falls down on his back with his head close to the other’s thigh and sighs, dirty and content. “Aw, shit. The lighting is changing too fast,” he says.
“You look weird,” the boy chuckles somewhere above him. “So excited.”
Of course Jeongguk would be riled up. His first proper model and in the best lighting a morning could’ve provided. For like ten minutes tops, but still. He’s even had a not entirely assed up conversation with someone new. “Gonna be a good day for shooting. Shit, you’re, like, the best person for the camera. The best I’ve ever had, to be honest.”
“Happy to be useful.”
Blinking his eyes open, Jeongguk catches the boy staring back with a soft smile, hand up in the air as if he’s been considering what form of contact would be appropriate. It turns out to be a boop to Jeongguk’s nose. Immediately covering it, Jeongguk makes a face that apparently turns out to be really funny, if the boy’s giggling is any indication. From this angle everything about that hair and the glitter, tiny moles on the expanse of his neck and broad shoulders — all of it seems surreal. Jeongguk thinks that those smiling eyes are the prettiest thing.
Loud noise of a message alert cuts into their odd comfort, a sudden new solace between strangers, and the boy has to lean back in his struggle with the tight jean pocket. No wonder, is Jeongguk’s immediate thought, that shit looks more like paint.
“Shit,” and for some reason it sounds like a very sad type of ‘shit’ to Jeongguk. “Gotta blast. Sorry, uh… you can keep the ticket.”
He’s up and running so quickly, it’s barely enough for Jeongguk to scramble up to his feet while almost dropping the camera. Shaking the sand out of his hair, Jeongguk is surprised to find himself shouting: “What about the pictures?”
But he has already crossed the road.
When the filthy depths of online wank bank eventually failed to satisfy what he called the Thing — the one that had been happening to him for the past couple of years — Jeongguk started to rely on a study of nightlife. The Thing was his current status of being not strictly speaking straight; in fact — not at all. And the study was only that of an idle drifter. For him, it was that stage of all things shaky.
It all began with a question, really; how to stop being unsure about the ways he’d been feeling.
Busan proved to be big on all sorts of intense forms of nightlife where his type of attraction was concerned, even though still kept pretty much under the covers. The hippest gay dance club in town was a pleasant enough place, with its bright lights and tamed attitude. He’s been going there long enough for bartenders to remember his face even though he kept to himself on most nights.
He isn’t one for clubs or crowds or smoke filled corners, isn’t about them so much it teeters on the edge of hate, but at this point he has to learn how to get into the vibe of it all.
And when Choi Minki, the known enthusiast for everything pervy and exciting, drags him to a recently boomed stip club called the Backdoor, Jeongguk doesn’t expect to see the October boy there at all. Not at the bar or down at the lounge, but on stage, moving with the beat in a way so explicit that Jeongguk’s feet stay glued to one spot till the very end of the shift, and Jeongguk’s parched mouth can’t be helped with anything. Because of course there’s leather, too much leather and tight straps hugging the stripper’s body tight. His skin glistens under the hot lights, no glitter and heaps of oil.
Later, Jeongguk learns that his name is Jimin and that the boy on the beach and that on stage are two different worlds.
It wouldn’t have been a thing at all if Jimin hadn’t seen him first. Swerving through the dispersed early morning crowd, Jimin seemed to shine even in casual cotton that sat too loosely on his tired frame. He leaned over the counter just two chairs from Jeongguk, whispered something to the bartender and shoved a small package that had been passed to him into a worn leather backpack.
“Oh,” he said then, finally noticing Jeongguk looking.
And there was that smile again.
“The journalist,” he gave Jeongguk a full once over and showed his teeth. “Interesting.”
The club is called the Backdoor; not for its direct relation to butt action, but because you had to enter through a narrow back alley. The walls there crawl with street art, the actual pretty sort, and it all feels almost cozy in the red lights.
They smoke outside and talk of something Jeongguk has long lost track of. Dancing, music, how stupid football is, international currency of bad shit, Jimin’s favorite drama. It’s good, though, keeps his mind so weirdly composed. He doesn’t want Jimin to know it’s actually his third time smoking. Everything about his suddenly spiking awkwardness that already is showing itself whenever Jimin is near seems ridiculous.
“Shit,” Jimin clicks his tongue and frowns at the filter tip between his fingers, third one in a row. “I’m not supposed to do this.”
“‘Cos of dancing?”
“That. And fuckin’ company policy.”
Not really getting of which company this is all about, Jeongguk just coughs in reply.
“Anyway, you’re fun to talk to,” Jimin considers something while studying Jeongguk’s entire being. “Why haven’t I seen you here before?”
“It’s just Minki. Uh, my friend…”
“Ah, the hot one. Comes here often, actually. Nice tipper,” he hums, keeps looking Jeongguk over from head to toe. “Hotties often have hot friends, huh?”
To Jeongguk’s own surprise, he doesn’t get too red this time. At least it feels like a medium shade of pink in his face at the moment. “You’re a bold one, aren’t you?”
Jimin laughs, patting him on the back, “Relax.”
They end up walking to the station together, sharing the nice type of ease that Jeongguk is still unable to explain. It just can’t happen that easily, he is convinced. Them keeping up with the idle chatter, feeling so warm in the chilly morning air. At a convenience store, Jimin offers to share breakfast. Inside it’s warm and yellow, as if almost meant to make up for the rare sun. They shuffle around the aisles, nitpicking at every instance of horrible marketing.
With cup ramen, hot water bottles, and mint gum (four packs too many) in their possession, they land at an empty bus stop to quickly deal with impromptu breakfast.
Once they’re done and there’s no reason to stick together anymore, Jimin says, “You look a little lost,” and coughs awkwardly. “Sorry if that sounds weird.”
“No,” shaking his head, Jeongguk realizes he’s smiling.
Just as he’s more or less composed himself to start another conversation, Jimin’s phone pipes up, just like the last time. It’s a disposable one again.
“Sorry, Jeongguk. Gotta go,” after putting on his backpack, Jimin bins the cup and looks at him. “I’d give you my number but I don’t have a proper one… anyway, thanks for this morning. Come by more often, okay?”
He shrugs, “Okay.”
Watching Jimin disappear down the station, he feels two kinds of full.
It might’ve been in the Backdoor, or Blue Lizzy’s, or Mezzanine, Jeongguk isn’t sure. What started as following through on his promise to come by more often suddenly shifted to a weekly club hopping. Always sticking to Minki who, in turn, was sticking to that new crowd, the one Jimin was a vital part of.
For two months Jeongguk’s been swimming through the half-underground nightlife of buzzing colors and grating music, stuffed bars and clubs which managers stop you before entering to make sure you know the sort of place you are about to dive into. To make sure you aren’t a threat.
Jimin always looks at home in those places, and people know him and his crowd, because he’s been drifting through that submarine life for years. It’s his natural element, and he moves through it, dances off work as well, and it’s a thing of many wet wonders for everyone involved. Jeongguk has never seen Jimin go beyond flirting, though, no restroom quickies or sucking face on the dancefloor, none of the things he’s seen the others doing.
He keeps seeking Jimin almost blindly, on every dancefloor and amid strobe lights. He follows Jimin’s crowd to bars and gets better at it, the talking and drinking, at being more sure in his own body and with recently revived dancing skills. Maybe even at the way his smiles could work on people.
Somehow Jimin talked the management into letting Jeongguk use his camera at the Backdoor. During most of Jimin’s shifts, two times a week, Jeongguk captures all of the club’s stories, the only non-employer with a lense. But in the end, it’s always about Jimin.
Jimin who moves in perfect accord with the music and shines the brightest; languid when needed and sharper during angrier nights. He goes through the sequences at the right pace, with the grace Jeongguk has never seen before. Never seen anything like it. It’s not something to compare to water, because he hears people doing just that, but Jimin’s control seems surreal. With his skin exposed and glowing, beads of sweat trickling down his neck and chest, Jimin looks like something molten. With his parted mouth a soft pink and dark eyes watching the regulars who tip well. He works like he means it. Artful, fitting it all perfectly. Always, always fitting it perfectly.
Jeongguk captures it all and shows the shots he deems good enough to Jimin later, when they have their sleepless early morning snacks. Loitering around vending machines, talking shit. Showing the contact prints one morning, he realizes that he allows Jimin to drape a possessive arm around his neck more often than not. Allows to be pulled down to Jimin’s height and be dragged further up the street.
“You make me look nice,” Jimin often says, after looking at the proper prints.
“Does my face really look like that?” he adds and scowls at a picture of his sleeping form.
Once, while helping Jimin remove the night’s makeup in some random public bathroom, Jeongguk feels it all shift somewhere in his chest. Bare-faced and content, Jimin smiles up at him and then lets out a very gross sound. He coughs and spits into the sink, complaining about the amount of lipgloss he has to eat per night. “You should hear me snoring. Not too loud but very annoying, or so they say.”
Jeongguk suddenly has to grab for the shoulder bag to whip out his camera and take a picture. Pale tiled walls, blue lights, and a very bright Jimin.
“What?” Jimin says, confused by the action.
“When you smile,” he explains and looks down at his fidgeting fingers, “your eyes are pretty.”
Jimin squints then. “Jeon Jeongguk,” pretends to pout, “what have you done?”
Jeongguk supposes it all really goes to shit at his first party in one of those clean suburban holes on Yeongdo. All of them already very drunk and endearing, the girls drag him there through collective blackmail. To be fair, he isn’t protesting that much, because the hives of apartments will always be better than loud neon-soaked basements.
“Whose place is that?” he asks, struggling to take off his shoes in the cramped hallway.
Choi Jinri is one of those soft-looking girls with hard eyes and the strongest air about them that had Jeongguk smitten on many occasions, another reason for the group’s gentle teasing. Looking around, he notes that she must’ve done everything to make this blank loft appear cozy. Through the light blue beads he can see her in the kitchen, preparing some sketchy shots with Eunji and Sooyoung.
“Lizzy, just—don’t touch anything, okay. Stop touching stuff. Just—go sit somewhere in the room, dunno, just don’t block the light.”
“I’m your noona,” huffs Sooyoung and slaps her butt none too gently. “Rude ass.”
“Which you aren’t touching for a week with those hands.”
“Who says I need hands for that?”
Somewhere near the speakers that already croon some new electronica, he hears Jimin giggle and can’t help but catch it as well.
“How’s your coal mining article going?” Jimin asks two hours later, bottle in hand, in the relative privacy of the balcony. Out in the chilly air, it smells sharper of the sea. Stronger than in summer.
They escaped the too loud room as soon as someone offered a kush hour, for a short break from dancing and too much collective sweat. It’s a little cold in the night wind and, seeing Jimin shiver, he can’t help himself and reach over to drape his jacket over the other’s bare shoulders. There’s a fresh pattern of blues again, on the ribs, visible through the low cut of Jimin’s tank top.
“It’s… not? Coal mining,” he scoffs, “my mission in life. Dunno, it’s really hard to focus with all this, um, this—and mom’s been worried. Thinks I’ve gone all out on the dating or something. You know when they think they’re subtle, like, when they hint they wanna meet your girlfriend?”
Jimin only smiles.
“Hyung, but… are you okay? I mean, like. Lately.”
“Sure, Gukkie,” the smile is one of those that make Jimin’s eyes disappear and show off his cute teeth. “Worry about school instead.”
Ducking from Jimin’s attempt at petting his hair, Jeongguk whines a little at the affection but still feels at his very best, his softest even though most vulnerable.
“No boyfriend yet?” comes the next question. “Girlfriend?”
“Ah, I—I don’t know, I mean no, but I wouldn’t know how to deal with it… yet. Besides, if I had someone, you’d have been the first to know, hyung.”
Jimin throws him a curious look. “See, you’ve got this mysterious broody thing going on for ya. Like, people buy into it, even though I know you’re just a giant nerd,” he sips on his drink, ignoring Jeongguk’s indignant noise of protest. “A sequoia, if you will.”
“I’m not that much taller, shut up,” he warns, one ominous finger already set to poke Jimin in the side.
Jimin tries to escape the lethal tickle wrath and bats off Jeongguk’s sneaky hands, almost dropping the bottle in the process, “As I was saying—”
He’s still giggling like crazy from the teasing touches under his ribs, “As I was saying, you’ve got the vibe down. And you dance well. I’ve seen people looking at you, even at the Backdoor, you know.”
Why would Jimin pay attention to these things is beyond Jeongguk’s immediate understanding, but the thought of being watched by the boy he might be not so lightly crushing on is enough to bring a rush of blood to his cheeks.
“You know it yourself, Jeon Jeongguk, can’t fool my ass. Quick pick-up flirting is the thing you got down just perfect.”
Jeongguk scoffs, suddenly recalling all the instances of watching a half-naked Jimin on stage and pretending to be in it for the highly extreme bro support, just as everybody else.
“Which brings me to—” looking into the room through muddy glass, Jimin lets out an amused noise, always so sweetly adorable, “—these ballsacks. They already put on that reggaeton shit from last night. Let’s show them how it’s done.”
In the end, they do actually show “it” to whatever “them” but, if he’s being completely honest, he doesn’t expect the lowkey fun to shift into something completely lurid. Like the entire small crowd breaking into some Ugly Coyote inspired dirty dancing in the dim smoke-filled loft, with everyone completely off their balls and Daehyun commenting on it all loudly, football-style, as he watches the scene unfold from his place on the sofa.
“This is a place,” he drawls into the pillow and wiggles a finger at himself pointedly, “a vessel devoid of sin.”
It looks a little funny. Maybe Jeongguk does too, allowing Jimin to move him around like that to the techno-throb of music, pull into another type of sweating entirely. Satisfaction in distraction. On the periphery, he can see Jinri sucking some new girl’s face. He would go on and outright talk shit about PDA if not for a sudden change in the mood. Because the next song turns out to be some actual real life slow dance cheese, into which he is immediately pulled by Jimin’s strong arms.
He turns stiff maybe a little too soon.
“Relax,” comes a soft laugh right next to Jeongguk’s ear, “I’ve got you.”
With his sweaty hands now settled firmly on Jimin’s hips, Jeongguk exhales, says something, maybe even nods. Jimin guides him with sure movements and encouraging smiles, his eyes almost shining in the dark with something Jeongguk can’t pinpoint.
In this light it might look sad or curious. Wistful? Something. Jeongguk is shit at this.
They’re almost chest to chest, drifting slowly, and by the end of it Jimin is breathing down the crook of Jeongguk’s neck, fingers softly petting short hair at the back of his head. Smiling against Jeongguk’s skin, touching with no subtext at all. Then pressing his body impossibly close and sighing, almost fond. As if he is finally able to do so, or is sure enough. Jeongguk learns of the heat of Jimin’s firm back, counts the vertebrae through the flimsy fabric of his shirt and touches so carefully. A barely there contact that still makes his own skin tingle; he touches and soothes, with his palms open and warm, until there’s another content sigh in his ear. With his hands now on the small of Jimin’s back, he starts humming to the music.
“You’re way too gentle,” whispers Jimin suddenly, voice fond.
“Shouldn’t I be?”
“No, I mean… you’re already good at this. Gonna be very useful. Get ‘em, loverboy.”
Jeongguk can only laugh, gently squeezing Jimin’s sides. “Sure. I’ll keep you posted.”
But right then, as the last of the song fades, holding a very quiet Jimin in his arms, he senses the change so clearly, almost a physical shift in his chest. No longer a crush but something much more serious now. Looking into Jimin’s kind eyes, still so bright in the dull light, he realizes that it’s scaring him shitless.
The best hours of winter have been drifting by in the dark room, with heaps of new negatives to develop, most of them literal to exquisite garbage and only a couple of treasure shots every other roll. But that’s the only way photography works, Jeongguk knows. It’s this horrible post-exam period that tends to be cramped even in the first weeks of new semesters.
He uses the room at the campus, his mother’s apartment being as stuffed as it is, even though they never really lack money. For the past couple of weeks, Jimin has been dropping by to watch the work. His hair is a very rich black now and it honestly works best for Jeongguk’s winter cityscapes. They walk a lot despite the drizzling weather. But hours in the darkroom are nice too. The soft shame of having the pictures done in front of their actual subject falls back into something quietly comfortable, something Jeongguk has learned is only his Jimin-specific mood.
And Jimin seems to be different with him too, calmer, more open, which comes with another weird air to it. Something akin to a buzz, long-term disquiet.
Jimin drops his bag near the table, “Which ones are you doing today?”
“Cardboard city,” Jeongguk pauses, suddenly nervous about an idea, “wanna try?”
“God, no. I’ll fuck them up.”
“Hyung, come on. There’s nothing to fuck up, really.”
It doesn’t take long for Jimin to agree, though.
After giving a few words for every step of the process, Jeongguk guides him through it and hopes to avoid sounding too pretentious. They go through most of the contact prints in peace; with the negatives they move to the enlarger where Jeongguk shows the ways of exposure and smiles at Jimin being completely blown by plastic filters. Like little shells of color.
Scrunching up his nose, Jimin huffs, saying how he can’t get used the room’s strong vinegar smell. Once the paper is done, they move to the developer, where Jeongguk thinks he might be upgrading to another form of meditational blue balls with Jimin’s body so close and scent too nice to ignore. Even under all those chemical vapors. But then Jimin drops the tongs into the bath, letting out a loud squeak and covering his face, probably very annoyed with himself.
“Shit,” he sighs, “sorry.”
“It happens. Just don’t get a burn, hyung. Here,” shifting to stand right behind him, Jeongguk puts his hands over Jimin’s for another try with the second set of tongs, together. “Hold like this and don’t shake it too much.” It’s a miracle his own voice isn’t shaking.
“Why do you need so many?”
“One for the fixer, one for the developer, a spare,” hearing his heart so loud in his ears but almost burning in his chest, he hopes Jimin can’t feel it with their bodies so close.
Jeongguk lets out a nervous breath, giving in to the strain, and puts his chin on Jimin’s shoulder.
“Ow,” Jimin giggles, “why are you so sharp everywhere? Gonna cut me one of these days.”
He feels Jimin’s laugh with his chest, warm skin next to his cheek, and realizes his face is starting to hurt from smiling.
Out of twenty shots Jeongguk likes only five. Most of them are of shabby city corners that look drawn in. He already regrets the wasted paper and cash. Those five are good though, a coloring book of pale blues, pink, light grey.
“It’s not the same,” hums Jimin, studying them in the daylight. The prints are laid out on cheap red plastic of the corner table. The diner is loud during lunch, drowned in hot clouds and sharp smells. “The ones you usually do… dunno, they have different colors.”
“‘Cos I fuck around with exposure and filters too much. Some other things, like processing chemicals. I used to make lotsa foggy photos. It’s not always good. And these are just, like, your normal stuff.”
“Looking for your own style?”
“Maybe I don’t have one. I’d better stick to writing anyway,” he scowls at the picture closest to him and swallows a giant piece of beef, hoping it would kill his annoyance.
“Well, I like them,” Jimin takes a sip of his lemon water and taps at one of the prints. “Oh, I know this. We had a—”
Something about the way he trails off is so unsettling, creeping Jeongguk out a little. “Hey, Gukkie, do you still have those pictures from the beach? When we met?”
Jeongguk nods, thinking back to his bright red autumn folder that was, to his shame, mostly filled with Jimin.
“What’s their name?”
Every set, no matter how small or unnecessarily thick, has its own title. All of the prints arranged neatly in folders with yellow sticky tape on top, for dates and side notes to keep better track of the seasons, places or people.
People as places, places as people.
Jeongguk looks down at their hands on the table, pinkies almost touching, “Lucky.”
The floor of Jimin’s one-room apartment is terraced against the odd slope of the first-level roof. There’s one window that takes up the entire far wall that turns out to be another way to the actual rooftop. He sleeps on a thin mat and a mess of patchy blankets, all of which is laid on the wide windowsill that can easily fit two people. The place itself is narrow and so tiny, it’s hard to even wrap your head around how all of the shitty kitchen and a wardrobe fit there. Black cloth is tied above the window and Jeongguk guesses it’s to keep the sunlight away, to sleep better after night shifts and all.
“Make yourself at home,” Jimin sits up on the windowsill and looks groggy from sleep. It’s four in the afternoon. “Bathroom is behind the ironing board, just—sorta—lift it—yeah.”
Soon they drink horrible instant coffee on the roof in the fading sunset that hurts Jeongguk’s eyes. Gravel crunches under his shoes as he fidgets in his plastic chair, trying not to stare at Jimin’s naked thighs. It’s fucking winter, Park Jimin, where is your mind floating?
“How do even you fit all your friends in there?”
“I don’t,” says Jimin and looks at him. “Nobody comes here.”
Jeongguk thinks he can hold this feeling forever, of being special to this cheap geometry and Jimin’s trust. In the lego of rooftops, watching the color of Jimin’s exposed skin, he feels in the right place. The two of them look through his latest set of cityscapes, this time he did all in black and white, and talk about the busy days.
Back on the windowsill, they settle for an evening in, back against chest, and keep marvelling at the pictures. Holding a half-naked and sleepy Jimin like that, his chin on the other’s solid shoulder, Jeongguk thinks they could be a world of their own. A place of something ordinary but miraculous, turned luminous by his focus. Jeongguk doesn’t know everything about Jimin, has never spoken to his family, but he’s come to know him the best, he supposes, in more ways than anyone ever had or would.
His mother didn’t know his father this way, or him his own brother. It’s not about the facts or shared apartments. Only stalkers are about facts, he thinks, and laughs at himself.
“Where did you take this?” says Jimin suddenly. It’s good to feel the voice like that, with own body.
“Not sure about the one on the left,” Jeongguk looks over the street view in the shot in question. “But this here is Seoninjang. It’s supposed to be like mini-spas or something? Not too expensive, I guess. Health center with boarding or whatever.”
Complete bullshit covered by slick signs and spa-fronts, the place exists exclusively to relieve the paying customers of nagging erections. Closeted businessmen are said to go to the Cactus sometimes to indulge in the little down and dirty. He knows this because he was loitering there for a reason, chasing places with hidden purpose all over the city.
Right then Jimin shifts uncomfortably, bites on his fingernail. But then he relaxes, says: “Gives me weird vibes.”
Jeongguk can only agree.
“You free tonight?” Jimin is near the stove and currently improvising some magical combo from the few things he had in the mini-fridge.
“I’ve got like two papers due Thursday. Fuckin’ ecology class… ”
“Goddamn global warming, am I right?” he finally puts a bowl of a weird-looking stir fry in front of Jeongguk. “You can stay over, have an all-nighter or something. Whatever you smart kids call it.”
Jeongguk really could stay the night. The laptop is with him and the camera, some textbooks as well.
“Okay,” he says, happily chewing on rice. Too much soybean paste.
“I’ll have to ditch your ass later though. Like, around twelve-ish.”
“Did you switch shifts?”
Watching Jimin wash the dishes, he zones out for a good twenty minutes. It strikes him as strange that these questions are shrugged off more often than not.
They spend the evening in bed, each to their own task, with radio crooning softly. “Built-in,” Jimin had explained before Jeongguk could even ask. “From the 80s.”
Jimin slips out just when Jeongguk puts finishing touches to the first paper and talks explicit shit at the photography department's new rates. He has half a mind to not kiss Jimin goodbye, on the cheek or worse.
To his surprise, the hours drift by with ease. He manages to sort out his notes and finish some readings that he swears he won’t open ever again because Western Philosophical Thought is just not his fucking jam at all. He’s on his fifth mug of coffee when Jimin comes back.
The laptop shows that it’s five in the morning.
He pays Jimin no mind, soothed by the even sound of water coming from behind the only door of this plastic place, and keeps drinking the instant poison. When Jimin settles under a free heap of blankets, Jeongguk finally looks up. It’s all been quite amazingly comfortable, but Jimin is curled in on himself, shivering. He hisses when Jeongguk leans over to touch him and then lift the blankets.
Shirtless and still wet, Jimin smiles, pulls at one of his white socks. His smooth skin is littered with soft bruises, from neck to stomach. A couple of long fresh scratches on his upper thighs. The cut on his bottom lip has split again from smiling. It looks like he’s been in a mild street fight. Mild is the word for it, but Jimin seems to be very tired, hugging his body for warmth.
“I’m just tired, Jeonggukkie, I—I’ll take care of it to tomorrow, okay?”
And then Jeongguk sees the crust of blood on his ankle, his sock, probably the bits he failed to wash off. It must’ve come from a skinned patch on the right shin, looks like a burn of sorts, the one you’d get from carpeting or asphalt. Jeongguk is on his feet in an instant, rummaging through every shelf for any sort of first aid. He then plasters the visible scratches over with bandaids from the professional-looking first-aid kit he found in the bathroom. Jimin doesn’t protest but looks incredibly guilty.
“Thank you,” he says. “Really fucking stupid… It’s nothing bad.”
“You’re always stupid,” Jeongguk sighs, pleased to see that it really is nothing bad, that Jimin is smiling. Tired, softer than usual. “But, hyung… ” He doubts there's anything he can say.
“Tomorrow. We’ll do stuff tomorrow. Good?”
After Jimin falls asleep, drifting off on a mix of painkillers, Jeongguk pulls out his notes again. Dates, numbers, history of another era. He’s still relieved off his ass that there is no math this year. Softly reciting these numbers as he stands on the roof, its black surfacing sticking to his rubber flip flops. It’s fucking winter, after all.
Everything is looking so hazy but crisply illuminated, in these first moments of a Busan dawn.
March has blown up in a mix of school torture, never-changing blue balls, and his self-induced pain of another photo project. Downtown science, it’s called, and is supposed to be another map of the city, this time guided through what he imagines sound looks like.
He stays over at Jimin’s more often now, helping him with the place and the bruises that have been the result of what looks like more pointless fighting, and sorts through the project’s contact prints. All of it ends up in him almost completely forgetting of this year’s actual all-important paper. It’s supposed to be an observational thing on the city’s homeless problem and he doesn’t know where to even start.
He shelves it and ditches a week of school in favor of chilling on the last road trip with his brother who is supposed to be leaving for Marine Corps in May.
“Hundred and fifty thousand a month,” he tells Jeongguk proudly. “Almost two for a sergeant.”
Compensation can be a good thing. Jeongguk still hasn’t told him.
In the first weeks of April, he’s convinced of his sanity slipping forever. Because there is still no direction to his work, not a single vibe of getting out of the procrastination’s bottomless ass. And then there’s midterm looming all too close.
Lately he’s been skipping on Jimin visits because of that and also recent developments on the fuckbuddy front that emerged out of the blue. As rushed as most of the bright little things happening to him this year. In a vast world of friends with benefits, Jeongguk manages to get two real people to like him enough to stick to his dick for occasional sex. To be fair, they’ve been fucking all over the place. This fact brings Jimin more genuine excitement than him personally. But Jimin just keeps telling him to go “get ‘em”, all “two of ‘em”.
Daehyun’s car always smells of stale sugar and warm electronics. They don’t fuck in it that often but today seems to be one giant waterfall of intense shit washing over Jeongguk’s drained being. It’s pleasant and rough, a little too rushed, and afterwards Jeongguk watches him rub at the small of his back with a half-pleased kind of grimace and smoke through the rolled down window. It’s cute.
“Tell me, bro,” says Daehyun as he pulls out of the driveway, “are you, like, completely kink-less? Is there anything to know?”
Shrugging, Jeongguk opens the glove box to look for more wet wipes, “Not really, hyung. But I like lace. Like, on boys.” Daehyun shoots him a curious look and only laughs.
They’re at an intersection when Jeongguk’s phone pipes up.
“Jiminie?” mouths Daehyun, motioning to pass the call to him.
Nobody has Jimin’s number because he still hasn’t found one, sticking to disposable phones like another form of style. Jeongguk knows that in his bag, along with spare clothes, makeup, and three kinds of condoms, Jimin carries a tiny notebook. It’s filled with all the numbers he needs.
Daehyun talks to Jimin of something Jeongguk doesn’t understand at all, switches lanes like an asshole which isn’t really characteristic of him. Then he swerves to the side, making an abrupt stop at a subway station.
“As long as you’re sure,” he says and ends the call. Passing Jeongguk the phone and the bag from the backseat, he adds, “Whip his ass if he pulls one of those things again. For me. Okay?”
Not knowing what to say, Jeongguk just nods. Strange weekend, stranger weeks to come.
Jimin is sprawled on the bed, propped up on the maximum available number of pillows, and Jeongguk sits at his bare feet with laptop in hands and ready to smash his skull against the window. The homeless article just won’t come.
“Have you tried looking at it another way?” says Jimin suddenly. “I mean, you could use your camera first. You know, visual stuff that you’re naturally good at. You’ve been doing Cardboard city for ages.”
This is actually the best idea they both have had where this half-dead assignment is concerned.
“But I wouldn’t know where to… God, everything seems so fucking stupid at this point.” Point of no point at all.
“You should start with the subway. I can go with you,” Jimin sits up, arms hugging his bare legs, and fits his chin between the knees. “Fucking around under the earth and all.”
And a week later they do just that.
Through the tide of faces unregistered and the crowd swarming like a single giant insect in the station’s airless space, they come with no plan or direction and only two bags on their hands. The camera and the changing bag.
Accustomed to dealing with the jostle of the crowd, like all city kids, they run through almost submarine acoustics of the subway, through the tiled corridors and down parallel escalators, under dust-furred vents and smoke detectors.
Scratchy voices from loud speakers follow them to every station.
Somewhere under downtown’s circle, they come up to a little cardboard city. Against the far wall, behind central columns cased in dirty ceramic, there are shipping cartons made into an improvised shelter town. They don’t dare approach, suddenly overwhelmed by all the sea clutter of the commute.
Jeongguk’s sense of mission comes back then and he follows Jimin to the shelter. The third one on the right is barely the height of his chest, bigger than others and reminds him of a coffin, a flap of some stray cardboard serving as a door.
Maybe the people living inside won’t see them. Just as the rest, him included, never paid attention to those migrating underground with their cardboard shells. Away from the services and the cops, ever failed by the state. But some sketchy dealings of other sort somehow allow these structures to exist in places such as this station.
He’s a bad swimmer in sociology, so everything about this is reminding him how much he’s out of his depth.
“You gonna come in or just stand there like idiots? Kids these days. Heads full of shit,” comes the voice from behind the cover.
He hesitates, debating whether to take off his shoes and put right next to a dirty pair of flip flops left at the door. Adjusting the camera bag, Jeongguk drops to his knees and then crawls inside. He freezes in a sudden wave of light and heat. It reminds him of a tank.
“Go on,” says the old man. “Don’t leave your ass hangin’ all the way.”
The man is seated cross-legged on a thin mat with an old manga issue in hand. Clean face, long hair, and very thin frame. He is wearing huge glasses with lenses that catch the dull light of a portable lamp.
“I see larva way too often but nothing like your sort. So what do you want?” When Jeongguk fails to even breathe, the man barks out a laugh. “You one of those students on a mission?”
“Not a mission…”
“Ah, so a teacher’s whim. You wouldn’t care otherwise, then?”
It’s a lie but Jeongguk still isn’t sure what to say. Drawing a deep breath, he begins with his less than fascinating academic story and carefully watches the man’s facial expression shift. From benign annoyance to something akin to apathy. There’s that dog-like laugh again but now it’s a good-natured sound.
“Poor kids, am I right, Tokki?”
A woman of vaguely similar age appears from behind another flap that presumably leads to the next house, her face a sickly yellow but eyes calm.
“What’s that?” says Tokki, showing her teeth that are unusually big and yellow with nicotine. Must be the reason to her name.
“I’m sayin’, poor kids these days. Some self-obsessed pricks sending them on charity chases for personality points.”
“Nothing’s changed,” she says and disappears.
After crawling back, she throws them a notebook. It’s thick and brown with time, filled with red ink and all of it is some heavy scientific shit Jeongguk doesn’t understand.
“Tokki there,” laughs the old man and picks up his manga again, “was smart once.”
“Shut up, don’t disturb your crust,” she squints at Jeongguk’s camera. “You gonna take pictures? Oh, boy! And here I am, bare face and all. You should call about these things, kid.”
They are fucking with him, Jeongguk knows, but there is nothing to be mad about. But in spite all of his fears, they do end up helping out with whatever stories of the past and present. Whatever they have tucked in that insulated cardboard between them.
They end up telling him and his phone’s voice recorder of other spots, places of interest for someone on an empty mission, including social offices that got rotten through. Where it’s better to learn of the corruption within. They end up talking a lot, actually, for reasons beyond him. Jimin stays silent the entire time.
By the end of it, the man hums in deep thought, “You’d want this to be in black and white, kid. Feel me? Sorta underlines the dirty testicles of it all. Those suits love shit like that.”
Jeongguk can’t help but get the odd feeling from this long-haired hunched little dude, “What—what are you?”
“I used to be many things,” he says vaguely. “Now I’m just someone in a box.”
The air here is still hot, thick. Jeongguk forces himself to breathe. Changes the rolls and thinks of the appropriate settings for this light. He takes only around ten or so, satisfied with what already has been offered to him, and bows deep. It’s cramped and foul, but he makes sure his nose touches the floor.
“Hey, kid,” says the man, “don’t waste it.”
First on his way out and already halfway through the flap, he barely catches the faint voice of the rabbit woman who used to be smart. It’s addressed to Jimin, “Next time come alone.” And then, over the rustle of plastic packaging being passed and then shoved into what sounds like Jimin’s bag, the one with the broken zipper, “You ain’t lookin’ too fresh, Jimin.”
Later Jeongguk stands in the colors of Seomyeon, staring at the walls of animated light, pop up visions of commerce and everything plenty. Faces on the screens, selling beauty and weirdest foods imaginable, coffeeshop signs and other tourist clickbait. Somewhere below his feet, the man and the rabbit huddle and cough in their dim boxes, ready to move places and engage in whatever shady shit that keeps them almost legal.
Not far from the station, he finds Jimin at a kiosk that sells disposable phones. Jimin is already using one. Looking up at Jeongguk, he smiles.
This picture right there is so close; a smiling Jimin in the middle of April, a good start for the future summer session, his own heart loving like it has never loved before. All of it — a mellow yellow.
When the project is finally sent to be graded months later, Jimin asks about the title.
“Away with words,” Jeongguk tells him, feeling nervous for some reason.
“Suits you even more, actually,” Jimin taps at his full lips, deep in thought. “Your ways.”
A way with Jeon Jeongguk.
Mezzanine has been in the top hippest holes for them to cluster. Get trashed on whatever substances happen to be in dealing after the weekend’s re-supply. The management’s concern for the neighborhood safety was truly mind-blowing. All that security personnel standing nightly outside with the instructions to be friendly and sensitive to “local culture”.
“You aren’t eating,” says Eunji, after cleaning her own plate of cold risotto that had the sketchiest look imaginable.
“Noona,” he tries to shout over loud 90s techno, “it’s literally two in the morning. At a gay club.”
It’s Daehyun’s birthday after all. Jeongguk sighs and sips on the pink-tinged drink Jimin has left on the table before prancing off to the dancefloor. After that he disappeared completely, no trace of him in the restroom or at the bar, at the back door. Jeongguk gave up on the search, knowing that Jimin has his reasons. Of which Jeongguk better stay completely unaware.
He sees Daehyun drift off with some new guy, both of them loud-mouthed and on their toes from E, and flashes him a thumbs up.
All this post-finals summertime has been too humid for him to process shit. For example, his aced exams, however impossible it seems with his recent lifestyle. It’s also a little bit harder to keep track of Jimin’s increasing absence. Although these nights proved to be more interesting than Jeongguk would have ever imagined.
Which doesn’t explain, really, why he ditches Mezzanine and is now alone in one of the streets that lead to the quay and already touched by the dull light. Jimin used to love fucking around in hazy dawns. Alone and dragging his feet down the sidewalk, Jeongguk feels his head begin to buzz with mild hangover.
At a corner store, he stops for a smoke. Then buys cup ramen, a hot bottle, and two packs of mint gum. He loiters outside with only vending machines to keep him company. Vending machines, he thinks over his breakfast of instant beef noodles, are their own type of place.
Could be a secret city of solitude.
“You know what kinda people hang in front of marts at four in the morning? Kids on mixed speed, tripping off their balls, seeing monster movies. Are you one of those kids, Jeon Jeongguk?”
“You’d know better than anyone, hyung,” Jeongguk smiles, finally feeling relief wash over him. “How’d you end up here?”
Jimin crosses over to stand next to him, puts his heavy head on Jeongguk’s sharp shoulder. He looks painfully sober. “I know things,” he smiles cryptically, arm snaking around Jeongguk’s waist.
“Let’s go to the beach.”
They are walking along the water’s edge with their feet bare and chilly from wet sand. There are fading lights to their right and ahead — the ones still lit in a distant harbor. Jeongguk doesn’t remember the last time he’d seen any of the things he used to love as a kid.
The sand gives under his weight, a dirty greyish-brown, and the water licks at his feet. Stopping at a cluster of small rocks, they just stand there, now ankle-deep in water and hands locked tight together. Silver-green sea flicks with whitecaps, warm morning breeze catching in their hair. Jeongguk feels its caress on his skin, the air salt-rich and smelling of oil. Ships down the harbor.
“Do you still have it?” Jimin asks and splashes his foot around.
“My lucky ticket.”
Of course he does, it’s safely tucked away in his October folder between the dozens of glossy prints, all of them Jimin. Calm faces, naked shoulders. There was so much glitter. “Sure. Why?”
“You shouldn’t waste someone’s gifts, you brat, why else?”
Jeongguk laughs, tugging Jimin in a warm back hug, “I still can’t believe you didn’t tell me it was your birthday, hyung.”
“Yeah, how do you imagine that? ‘Dude, I know we just met but I’m, like, super sad, right to my balls, and it happens to be my shit-ass birthday, so care for a quickie?’”
Jeongguk decides to ignore the last part of the comment, “I mean later. Why do I have to find out this shit on my own?”
“Cos I trust you with digging up important stuff. You would know all that’s relevant.”
“What about your job?”
“The one I don’t know shit about. Is that relevant?”
Jimin turns his head slightly, shoots a tiny grin, his eyes wrinkling at the corners, and touches Jeongguk’s lips with his fingertips. The angle is weird but there is no other way but to take them in his mouth. They taste of salt and cheap chocolate.
What the fuck is happening?
After the fingers are gone, he can only blink. “Hyung—”
“Jeonggukkie,” Jimin then turns in his arms, fingers getting comfortable behind Jeongguk’s belt, and sighs into his warm neck. “You’re important. Okay? You are.”
Jimin’s dark hair is soft, easy to get tangled in with his shaking fingers, with all this wind. He touches behind Jimin’s earrings, thumbs at the tiny mother-of-pearls. Leans in, breath caught in his lungs, feels Jimin sigh softly at their parted lips touching.
The kiss turns out far from gentle, because Jimin suddenly snaps, gripping roughly at Jeongguk’s hair, the pull painful and the teeth sharp and could be drawing blood if one of them doesn’t chill the fuck out. Jeongguk pulls him closer, nails digging hard into Jimin’s soft sides, and licks the inside of Jimin’s sweet mouth. Moaning at the press of knee on his crotch, Jeongguk pulls back and gasps for air.
“Hyung,” he can’t breathe but can still hold onto Jimin’s shoulders.
Touching their foreheads together, he feels a soft sigh of pleasure. And then Jimin’s sure hand is sneaking under his shirt, caressing the heated skin and tracing Jeongguk’s stomach. And down, trying to undo the belt. The buckle just won’t budge, they’re too close and so fucked in the head.
“Shit,” Jimin gives up and simply palms him through the fabric.
“Jimin,” the moan dies in his throat, his mouth full of Jimin’s tongue again. “Hyung, not here.”
“There’s nobody here,” Jimin whispers hotly, his eyes a brilliant black. He looks off his balls after all.
“What are you on?”
“Nothing. Nothing, Gukkie, it’s just—it’s just me. It’s what I’m good at.”
“Okay,” he breathes, catching Jimin’s hand in his. He thinks of a better place to disappear to and whose home is closest. “Let’s go home first. My mom’s at her folks… Okay?”
Jimin takes a step back. It looks as if he’s collapsing in on himself, shrinking. Going away. He rubs at his face, looks around and back at the sleeping buildings. “Sure.”
That morning they end up doing nothing at all, instead passing out on Jeongguk’s bed with little to no touch. Jeongguk wakes up at noon, alone.
In two weeks of Jimin’s absence, Jeongguk has probably walked a hole in the concrete, in front of the apartment’s door. He knows there’s nobody inside but what little choice he had, had died that morning on the beach, in Jimin’s rough and sweet mouth.
In two weeks of this radio silence, Jeongguk has gone through all possible options or scenarios, has practiced several speeches and picked around seven flavors of lube. Condoms, ultra thin. Another pack of dotted, scented so weirdly it’s unbearable even through the packaging. Even a pack of Night Light make-your-dick-glow-in-the-dark. He laughs at himself, if only a little. It starts to dawn on him that Jimin might be skipping long time.
On a very annoying Monday in July, just as Jeongguk is ready to fall asleep on the floor, someone’s footsteps shuffle right up to him. Rubbing his eyes, he squints one open and sees a boy with keys in hand and a giant candy bar stuffed in his mouth.
“Come in,” the sudden visitor muffles through food and unlocks the door.
In the kitchen, he brews a potful of some weird infusion to Jeongguk’s sudden annoyance. Jimin’s never had proper tea, or pots, or any wise-ass infusions. Jeongguk still drinks it though, but gulps too quickly, immediately burning the roof of his mouth. Great, now it’s going to peel like a bitch.
“You shouldn’t be so pissed,” says the boy.
“And you’re who?”
“Jihyun,” he smiles, wiping chocolate on his basketball shorts. “And you’re Jeongguk.” After licking his thumb clean, Jihyun sighs. “You’re in love with my brother.”
All of this sends a jolt of something electric and heavy through Jeongguk’s body, a hot prickle to his cheeks.
Jihyun looks him dead in the eye and says, tone careful, “Do you know what he does?”
Shaking his head, the boy procures another candy bar, bigger this time, and unwraps it.
Jeongguk feels very embarrassed for some reason, “He, uh—is he okay? He’s been getting into fights…”
“He had to leave for a while. Dunno where,” the boy looks reluctant for just a second. “Jimin-hyung doesn’t fight. ”
“I know,” he sighs, finally able to voice his unease. Jimin's bruises are from something else.
Right before him a single square of carton is laid, and he sees some numbers and tasteless graphic design. Above it all, in tacky print, the word Seoninjang. But then it’s nothing shocking, because Jimin never lied. Jimin doesn’t like lying like that. It isn’t relevant, Jimin told him, and it was the truth. It isn’t.
Licking his lips, Jihyun finally starts to look a little nervous. “The stuff you saw… it’s not—uh—out of boundaries? Like, it’s his—specialty? It’s all paid for, consensual. Hyung says the, um, management treats them well. Protects them properly. Safety first, he says.”
Then why did he refuse to take care of it back at the Cactus? Park Jimin, his own very fucked up oddity. Do they pay by hour to hurt him or the level of damage? Even if it's a safe place, how much does it cost to give someone pain while you fuck them? Another minute passes, maybe ten, Jeongguk’s head is buzzing so loudly, and his ears are filled with the frantic beat of his heart. “What about your parents?”
It’s all in the pointed look Jihyun gives him, all of the usual coming out failures within the quiet families. “They’ll come around, I’m sure. It’s been years, though.”
They drink in silence for a while, Jihyun probably letting all this fresh meat digest properly in Jeongguk’s head. Jimin’s been dealing with it alone for years, doing God knows what on the side of his love hotel job. If all those sketchy packages and homeless networks are anything to go by.
Satisfaction in distraction. His brother was probably the only accepting person left.
“You know,” starts Jihyun again, “I was sorta jealous at first. Jeon Jeonggukkie this, Jeon Jeonggukkie that. Doesn’t feel that cool when your brother starts slipping away? But then I chilled, like, very hard. Because he wasn’t. He needs people. And also realized that hyung is just in love with you or something. It’s like hours of endless ‘Jeon Jeonggukkie this, Jeon Jeonggukkie that, Jeon Jeonggukkie doesn’t feel the same, Jeon Jeonggukkie needs a better dude.’ Gave me literal headaches.”
“You’re too tiny to have migraines.”
“I’m literally the same year as you,” he says it with the overblown confidence that all people their age tend to have, making Jeongguk laugh, “and you can have all sorts of shit at any age, genius. And I’m taller.”
The brat is actually taller and this fact ends up ruining Jeongguk’s life completely.
After seeing Jihyun off to a bus stop where they eventually exchange numbers, Jeongguk wonders of his own brother, his family. Of what might happen when he finally decides to tell them.
Jeongguk looks out the small window, to the dark street where it’s raining. Night summer showers always brought him an odd peace of mind. He’d been gathering the courage to visit the Cactus for days, going through his words over and over, looking for the right ways to let Jimin know that it was all okay. He thinks it’s been days, but it took him almost a month.
He’s long passed the lobby and the face control and now is pacing in front of the corridor’s window. He had to get in touch with the manager first, who he supposes is now opening the door for him.
“Kyungri,” she says with a soft smile. “You’re the one on the phone just now?”
They chat idly on their way through a series of narrow corridors until the end of what looks like one block of the premises. And then Kyungri tells him something odd. That she is surprised by him. Because it seems that they are accustomed to a whole other sort of clientele.
“That whole swelled cockhead macho thing,” she tells him. “Mostly.”
She says that her and the others would make fun of it. But if the typical cockhead was fierce enough, an over the top instance of toxic masculinity, they’d do it from behind the practiced poker faces. Kyungri says she never knew what to make of those people; them being the majority of men, even the ones who push themselves towards it or are drastically misread. Especially if you’re big enough.
“It’s like their personality… they don't have one, you know.”
She says that the regulars call this place a casino. The old meaning of the word, not some enormous sort of mall where people go to get fucked up in other ways entirely. Something that reminds Jeongguk of the way Jihyun talked about love hotels. Like people have cosy homes where they live, safe and proper, but these casinos, these secret little apartments, littered all over town, are where they go to be with other people.
And then he is inside a room and Kyungri is gone.
He stands there in the light of tacky fake candles and sees Jimin sitting on the bed, his expression unreadable. Jimin opens a small drawer that was built into the low bed’s pink headboard. He’s wearing black leather that hugs him tight and shines even in this light. His eyes are heavy with thick makeup and neck circled by a choker Jeongguk recalls seeing at his place once or twice. The skin under the collar looks a little red.
Jimin takes the little dish with the remnants of something on its mirrored surface, the one he’s been balancing on his knee, and puts it in the drawer. “I hate our designer,” he says, fixing up his inky hair. “So many ways to make sex ugly, but it’s kinda hard to make it look this ridiculous.”
“No shit,” Jeongguk laughs, “it’s like 2003 or something.”
“2003? You’re being generous, Jeonggukkie.”
The name does it. Jeongguk is over there before his mind can catch up with his stupid ass, hugging Jimin close to his chest, but careful not to ruin his styled hair. They stay like that for while, as if remembering each other’s edges.
“Did you actually pay for four hours to talk?” Jimin pulls away, his eyes smiling. “What even for? Did you have some kinda plan, like, rewatch Secret Garden and cry about the future and the universe and all that shit?”
“Four hours isn’t enough for Secret Garden, hyung.”
I just wanted to see you, idiot. You don’t even have a number.
“So, you wanna fuck, then?” Jimin smiles wider, almost to the point of hurting. It looks so fake Jeongguk wants to laugh or punch him, or maybe himself. “Tips are the real deal in this biz, you know that?”
It’s okay, Jeongguk thinks. “You know it’s okay, right? Hyung. You in this. It’s okay.” He is sure that Jimin knows this but, somehow, needs to hear these words only coming from him.
“Sure it is. It’s not about the job, I mean… not like that. Ah, the isolation that comes with it… I’ve been pulling something anyway, might be able to get off soon, but… ” Jimin looks at him, searching for something in his calm expression. “You don’t need this.”
Of course he would go there, Jeongguk groans inwardly. Takes a moment to compose himself, “But I want you.”
Jimin looks puzzled, but seems to put whatever it is out of his mind. “I don’t understand any of this,” sighs, rubbing at his face caked with makeup. Then softly touches his fingertips to Jeongguk’s cheek. “It just scares me.”
“You like things back alley,” Jeongguk is trying to pick his guess.
“No,” he is smiling a little shyly. “Sex is an itch you can just scratch. But what’s left once you do? That shit underneath has never been enough. Or too much?”
They sit like that for while, touching at the knees and searching for better words. Jimin exhales softly with lips ghosting over Jeongguk’s neck. “Sometimes it reminds me of that children’s story—of being in a lighthouse. Keeping the fire alive, the light lit, you know?”
Jeongguk nods, breathes in deep. It hurts under his ribs.
“But a thing about lighthouses,” Jimin leans up to press a soft kiss to Jeongguk’s fluttering eyelid, “you see them and you have to avoid them, don’t you?”
When the pause starts to seem like it might go on forever, Jimin chuckles and leans back to give him one of those wise-ass teasing looks. “Well, since you’re here for some reason,” he then leaves a kiss just behind Jeongguk’s ear, a soft trail down to his jaw, “let’s scratch that itch. Got any specific requests?”
“Some shit that turns you on? We’ve got lotsa shit. I’m supposed to be a special dude here.”
“Yeah, uh, actually. Nothing too… intense?” At that Jeongguk has to look away and then lean down to rummage through his backpack.
After pulling out a small package, he looks up nervously, worries his bottom lip, “Is this okay?”
Jimin lets out the brightest of giggles. “Wow,” he says, “Jeon Jeongguk, you did have an actual plan.”
Jeongguk is staring at the round pink furry bed. Looks like what they make stuffed animals out of. The wall-to-wall is shaggy and a horrible tacky red, the combination reminding him of those horribly sweet shortcakes from the tiny overpriced place on campus.
Plastic bag makes that ripping sound. He turns to see that Jimin has finished putting on that cheap garter belt Jeongguk bought on impulse. White lace, almost translucent, no panties and thigh highs that look a size too small. It was supposed to be a present, actually. For something, he doesn’t really remember.
Already completely naked, Jeongguk looks down at his feet, the white socks that he put on after shower for some reason. While he’s deciding whether to take them off or not, he is pushed towards the bed. The fur does actually feel almost plush under him. The socks are tugged off his feet for him.
Sliding into his lap, Jimin sighs. Lifts his arms slowly to drape over Jeongguk’s shoulders and then just stops.
“Your fetishes are cute,” he says, biting on his bottom lip.
They stare at each other for a moment, a little shaken in the disquiet, and then shift closer. With his fingers light on Jimin’s spread legs, Jeongguk bends down a little to plant a wet kiss somewhere on his chest, up to his jaw, move down to neck and bite. Tugging with his teeth at the choker, he feels a little lightheaded. It earns him a moan and a sensual sway of hips that grows into something fast and impatient very quick. The friction feels almost heavenly as they start to slide together and then faster; with every touch that Jeongguk leaves on the soft flesh of Jimin’s thighs, every minute grip that follows right after and turns harsher, the teeth and the tongue on the hot skin of Jimin’s neck.
Falling back on the pink fur, Jeongguk lets out a breath, braces himself before dragging Jimin up again, the other already having lost himself somewhere down, mouthing at Jeongguk’s stomach and then the hard cock that lays against his lower abdomen, a heavy throbbing weight. Jimin licks down the length, ready to work with his deft hands.
“Hyung,” his chest feels weird from the way Jimin moans when he is being tugged by the hair, “let me see you.”
And Jimin obliges instantly, moving up to settle himself so nicely on Jeongguk’s hips and letting his arms fall almost limp by his sides; allowing to be touched and looked at for as long as needed. It reminds Jeongguk of all the instances he imagined tracing Jimin’s exposed sweaty skin, covered in glitter and thin ropes of leather, and looking so hot under the lights. So hot now, Jeongguk marvels, tracing his neck and chest, thumbs pressing at the dark nipples and then skimming over ribs, as if counting seconds or breaths, until he reaches further, to the small of Jimin’s back and to the white lace of the belt. His hands must feel too warm because Jimin gasps at the rough grip on his bare ass. It feels so firm but soft against Jeongguk’s hot cock. Jimin moves his hips in slow circles, ass slipping up and down Jeongguk’s erection, teasing.
“How do you want it?” Jeongguk asks, mesmerized by the dark red of Jimin’s lips.
Turns out, Jimin wants it against the pink plastic of the headboard. Watching Jimin rearrange himself properly, thigh highs stretching under the pull of his hard muscles and garter clasps digging into his skin, Jeongguk rolls on the condom and begins to stroke himself slowly. Traces Jimin’s back, sighing at the softness of skin and letting his nails scrape just slightly; traces down to the cleft of Jimin’s ass, tries not to moan at the heat that soon envelops his lubed fingers.
Carefully, Jeongguk bends over him, wants to find that red mouth and taste it. They kiss wet and loud as he works Jimin open, not thinking that there isn’t much need for it, not thinking about anything else at all, but only the sounds that still won’t escape his throat or the shivers that run over both of them when he does something right with his fingers.
“Come on,” Jimin breathes into Jeongguk’s mouth, his neck craned painfully, and falls forward onto his elbows.
Some part of Jeongguk can’t really believe the reality of it when he pulls Jimin closer by the hips; things like the unreal image of Jimin on all fours, spread wide by Jeongguk’s rough hands. Jimin on all fours, so open before him, with back arched and ass up in the air and smeared with precum from earlier and now the lube, the gauzy fabric a stark white against tan skin. Jimin looking back from behind his arm, muscles shifting under the strain. Dark eyes, soft mouth, and tongue slipping out to lick over the lips’ deep pink.
“Shit,” is the only alive thought in Jeongguk’s brain.
That same part of him still can’t believe it’s happening, but then the mind catches up, and he pushes in slowly, palms gripping Jimin’s ass in a way that allows him to see everything, the slightly red skin under his nails and all of his length slipping inside.
“Fuck,” comes from somewhere near the pillow.
Once fully seated, Jeongguk has to pause for a bit, suddenly feeling the need to gape at the contrast of white lace against Jimin’s skin, the strain of fabric that looks close to bursting around the thickness of Jimin’s thighs. His broad shoulders and strong arms that bulge more than usual from holding his body up.
“You gonna move or nah?” Jimin looks back again and huffs in fake annoyance.
Jeongguk can barely resist an urge to stick his tongue out. Focus, for fuck’s sake.
Firsts thrusts are shallow and too careful, almost painfully slow, as if to match Jeongguk’s hands that keep drawing patterns all over Jimin’s back and sides, to the dip of his stomach. All of it is so easy to get lost in, because Jimin sighs with curses under his breath, pushing back impatiently until giving out under the strain. He seems to be talking shit into the pillow now, trying to reach behind to catch Jeongguk by the arm or whatever else body part is closest. Fumbles a bit, still moving in time with the even pace.
“Tug on it,” Jimin rasps and it takes Jeongguk a moment to get what the request is about.
With one finger hooked under the black satin of the choker, Jeongguk pulls, very carefully, and then harder on the next deep stroke. He can’t take his eyes off that image, can’t miss the way Jimin’s eyes roll back in pleasure from the added up pressure on the throat. Jeongguk tugs harder, making sure not to hurt him, and groans long and almost desperate, feeling the walls clench tighter around him.
Shit. He has to let go, he just wouldn’t last like that.
“Pull me up,” Jimin gasps out and then hisses when Jeongguk slips out.
Cheek pressed against the wall above the low headboard, Jimin lets out a loud moan when Jeongguk thrusts rough and deep, a moan so filthy, it wipes the last bit of rational thought in both of their lust-filled heads. After a few deep strokes that send Jimin even further up the bed and make his chest hit the cold wall, Jeongguk picks up the pace, taking in the obscene sounds of slapping skin and low groans, all of it muffled by the rush of blood in his ears.
It almost fits that ridiculous picture Jimin mentioned earlier, when the bed starts to shake, the headboard colliding with the wall, Jimin’s lips meeting the wallpaper.
“Come on, Jeongguk,” Jimin riles him up and curses from the taste.
Stale paper with faded flower print. He is gasping against it, starts hissing when the rhythm gets too much to handle, and tries to get a hold of something, anything, but his nails just scratch at the surface and he can’t seem to reach down and deal with his own arousal, restricted by the weight on top of him and the frantic pace. The headboard’s hard edge is digging into his stomach. Unable to do anything in this position, he is left untouched and leaking precum, desperately gasping for any sort of better pressure.
He decides to reach back, pull Jeongguk in by the hair into a sloppy kiss which turns into an awkward clash of teeth and tongues that ends too quickly, leaves them breathless, mouths parted and glistening with spit, and then back to sharing the air again.
“Fuck,” Jimin whispers and bites down, teeth catching Jeongguk’s bottom lip. “Wanna ride you.”
It’s not a request, more of an order, really, and Jeongguk has never done anything faster than obeying to those words right then. With back now flat on the fur that feels somewhat ticklish, he helps Jimin get comfortable and sees that the garters have come off and the flimsy belt has been pushed higher. It looks like it might be sticking to Jimin’s sweaty skin in a not entirely pleasant way, so the only reasonable thing that comes to mind is to reach and rip it off.
“What the fuck?” asks Jimin, a little dazed as he tries to roll the stockings back up.
“I was—it was—I was lazy, okay? It’s cheap anyway.”
“You’re an ass. Just you wait and see me getting some gross rash from this nylon.”
“We’ll get some—” Jeongguk still struggles to breathe, dragging Jimin down so he can lick and bite that neck all he pleases, “—some stuff, some—ointmenty shit.”
“Ointmenty shit,” laughs Jimin as he reaches between them to grip at the base of Jeongguk’s cock, fisting it just right, “says the future award winning writer, laying right under me, spitting wisdom—that is, ugh, bound to go down in literary history.”
There is no time to fire anything back, because Jeongguk’s hands are suddenly busy with feeling up Jimin’s straining thighs, groaning at the way his palms slip over white nylon, at the press of hands on his chest as Jimin lifts himself up. Before easing down, Jimin clicks his tongue loudly, “Ointmenty stuff, my ass.”
It’s not a gradual thing at all, Jimin pushes down so quickly that Jeongguk’s mind barely has enough time to register the movement. “Nice,” is all Jimin says with his eyes closed and ass wiggling a little to feel the fullness. Jeongguk can only groan, his lids squeezed tight, and his brain finally shut down and broadcasting static.
“You’re so,” he finally croaks, feeling Jimin start to move slowly, “you’re so.”
“Telling ya, Jeonggukkie,” Jimin halts for a while before slamming down hard, pushing all air out of Jeongguk’s lungs, “you’re going for Yi Sang this year. Probably Yookwoodang, for the poetry of cock.”
“I can’t do this, oh my God.”
“Sure you can.”
Grabbing for Jimin’s hands to thread their fingers together and lock them tight, Jeongguk opens his eyes to the sight of Jimin’s exposed neck, already painted nicely with bites, Jimin’s head thrown back in bliss as he bounces up and down, gasping at the thickness, whispering something about how perfectly full it feels with every other rock of hips.
Then Jimin exhales, very content, and picks up the pace with the newly found support of their locked hands. The nylon sticks to Jeongguk’s skin at the points of contact, Jimin’s thighs pressing firmly on his sides with every push. It’s a mess, really, too hot a room and sleep-deprived the mood, but Jeongguk loves the strain in his arms that hold Jimin upright, the almost painful grip of their hands. And then the sound changes with Jimin finally letting his moans of pleasure out, and in a way so dirty it shouldn’t really be allowed, ever, because Jeongguk is ready to come just from that alone.
He lets Jimin ride him until his vision becomes fuzzy and ears almost start to ring from all the filth that’s being whispered at him through the strings of moans, in the pools of heat and sweat between them, until he is forced to unlink their hands and support Jimin by the hips instead. There are hands clutching on Jeongguk’s shoulders, then moving to the neck and settling there, light and soft, just a simple touch of affection. Jimin’s muscles are straining so prettily as he pushes himself again, chest heaving, and then falls back down when his muscles finally give out on him.
“So good,” he rasps out, completely filled, and starts moving his hips just slightly, in circles.
It must be a good thing, to hear it from someone who’s done it all.
Sitting on top of him like that, Jimin looks almost glowing. So smooth and wet all over, sweat glistening on his expanding chest, on his thick neck with the veins now more apparent under flushed skin. It’s trickling down his stomach that’s pulled taut and almost quivering from the strain. And the thighs, so hard and thick in Jeongguk’s grip, are sticky under the fabric. It’s too much, all of it. Jimin is so tight around him, hot and clenching. Smiling in that annoying smartass way of his. The best way.
With eyes half-lidded, Jimin looks down, the gaze so dark and feeling almost physical, drags his nails in one quick movement over the sensitive skin of Jeongguk’s chest. The view might be the best thing that Jeongguk has ever seen but they need to move.
He has half a mind to flip them over and push Jimin’s legs wide apart, watching with quiet amazement the extent with which Jimin is able to stretch.
“You good?” Jeongguk breathes, thrusting back in, hard but slow, feeling the bliss of being enveloped so well.
Some of the lube somehow has gotten all over Jimin’s inner thighs and the stockings, even his stomach where it’s now mixed with precum. What a mess. Stroking himself almost lazily, Jimin whines long and deep, he’s clearly not into verbal communication right now.
But then he sighs, free hand fisting his own damp hair, “Top of the world.”
“That’s good,” Jeongguk says, wanting to say something, anything.
After a couple of particularly deep stokes, Jimin lets out another whine and wiggles his ankles free to wrap his legs around Jeongguk’s waist and tug closer, struggling a little from all the slippery white nylon that gets in the way. He pulls until they’re flush against each other, chests pressed together and sticky all over. “As you like it,” he whispers, gentle fingers combing through Jeongguk’s hair.
The kiss is impossible to keep up with, and they end up just breathing into each other’s mouths. Fingers skimming up and down Jimin’s thighs, Jeongguk drags his cracked lips over Jimin’s jaw and down the crook of his neck. It tastes good, smells even better, and Jeongguk bites down, pulls at the skin a little, and inhales the scent. Sweet, a little musky, intoxicating. With thumbs now hooked under the lacy edge of thigh highs, Jeongguk keeps rocking into him, moves with the force that makes the bed creak, hips eventually finding the perfect pace. It’s fast and wet, and Jeongguk just breathes, breathes, breathes.
He is revelling in the shaky moans right next to his ear, in the stinging drag of nails over his back. Everything is hot, almost burning. But then Jimin isn’t as vocal anymore, instead just holding on tight and gasping quietly as Jeongguk rams into him, almost crushing him with the weight.
All of it is in the past fall, and nipping winter, the burning change. It’s not too long until Jeongguk comes, with cock buried deep inside and filling up the condom. After collapsing on top of Jimin, he keeps rocking into him almost leisurely, riding out the orgasm. Like warm waves washing over him. Jeongguk feels a soft kiss pressed to his temple. Familiar hands on either side of his head, soft voice telling him something.
He props himself back up and pulls out, hearing Jimin hiss harshly from being oversensitive.
“Toss that out,” is the first thing Jimin says once he’s able to breathe. “And come suck me off.”
Finding Jimin’s hand, Jeongguk lifts it carefully to his still dry lips and smiles through the soft kiss. Wonders if it comes off as quiet as it feels.
“Mouth,” says Jimin, “on my dick.”
Jeongguk ditches the condom and does just that.
August turns out to be rich with shitty articles that Jeongguk has been able to do for small websites and a lot of new pictures. Most of them of Jimin dancing at the Backdoor, others taken in little bright boxes all over the city, and only two on the roof of Jimin’s—their place.
After that heavy evening at the hotel, Jimin took him home, sat him on the windowsill and pulled out another notebook, different from the one reserved for phone numbers, to show a list. The list, he said. All of it in some weird code with the most ridiculous names attached to each set of digits along with a flight number.
“Sometimes I have to fly places,” he said. “Not far.”
Jeongguk had known for some time already but he still found himself asking, “Doing what?”
“One interesting thing about selling your body,” Jimin tucked the notebook away, “is that we happen to be the easiest mules out there. It's perfect for customs. All that tight airport security. Funny how vital it is to the trade, those small batches.”
“Dope,” Jimin smiled then, very lightly, and climbed into Jeongguk's lap, quick fingers already working the buttons. “I’ll have to fly soon. Can’t tell you when and where. Just a couple of days, but… you’ll have the time to think about this, okay? Things.”
“You know, like. Us? How you don’t need this. How you need to study and also get two WPO awards, when you’re all famous. All that stuff.”
Jeongguk had to sit up then, putting Jimin’s hands away and then around his own back. He could feel Jimin’s legs wrapping tight around his waist and fingers tapping out some anxious rhythm.
“Hyung,” he began, lungs full of nervous air, “listen. If we were anywhere else, or I were a better talker… And if we weren’t talking about smuggling shit for low-level scum and public houses, I think I’d probably tell you that it’s easier to chase and deal with the attention of total strangers than to accept the love and honesty of those closest to us,” he paused, trying to remember the rest of his notes. “Safety, loyalty, dunno. ‘Cos I’m yours, no matter what. And we could—we could be together.”
“Yah, Jeonggukkie,” Jimin chuckled. Then he leaned forward, arms almost suffocating around Jeongguk’s neck. “Have you been rehearsing?”
“Totally,” he laughed and squeezed Jimin’s naked thighs, “too rushed?”
“No, it was cool. Almost natural. Very grown up, like. Got me all fluttery and shit. Quoting literal song lyrics was a bit harsh though.”
“Shut up,” smiling into their soft kiss, Jeongguk thought of the freedom that felt so close then, right within their reach.
He still thinks of it now, chilling his already numb butt in one of the hard chairs of the concourse. Airports could be spooky places sometimes, early in the morning. They managed to be full of this hollowness that could infect you with something sad and empty. But he’s waiting for someone.
For the very man, he thinks, scoffing at himself.
Another hour and he is standing in a small crowd before the arrival’s, he tries to not blink. He can’t miss anyone. But he craves coffee like nothing else. There is one cup, still full, back in Jimin’s empty apartment. Which he should’ve cleaned, because now it will go moldy and gross.
When a new line of arrivals start to drift from the corridor, he ends up being distracted by a cab driver pushing to the front. What an asshole. Jeongguk is on a goddamn mission of the heart here, actually. Still very annoyed, Jeongguk looks up and sees him, at the back of a shuffling mass, his bag over his shoulder and passport still in hand. Jeongguk watches as Jimin makes his way through the first row of welcoming sign holders. Jimin seems a little dazed but then meets his eyes, becoming somehow instantly bright, like a lightbulb flickering to life, with a big smile that makes Jeongguk want to cover his face or take a picture. Both.
Grinning, Jimin comes up to him and pulls him away and out of the building.
“How the hell did you know?”
Meaning, how did Jeongguk know the flight, the day, where to look. Jimin wasn’t allowed to share any of this.
“I know things,” he smiles cryptically, arm snaking around Jimin’s waist. “How did it go?”
“Still alive, as you can see,” he scoffs and stops at the sight of the car to which Jeongguk is directing. “Daehyun is being weirdly generous… and you can’t drive.”
“Yeah, but you can,” Jeongguk throws him the keys and winks.
“Stop breaking the law, it’s my job.”
Jeongguk looks at Jimin’s grazed knuckles. Watches Jimin putting his feet down firmly as he walks on.
Walk like a man. You fought the law. Hands in pockets, the right clutching the keys.
And the law won.
In the car they indulge in some excessive kissing while still stuck in the convenient parking.
“Thought about those things?” Jimin asks and starts the engine.
“Yeah. Hyung,” Jeongguk pauses, rolls down the window to get a whiff of humid air, “on your laptop. Your browser’s home page says ‘BEAUTY BRAIN’S FABULOUS PUSS.’ What’s up with that?”
When they reach the bridge, Jimin tells him that it won’t take long to wait. For a new apartment and a new schedule. Because that dude in Osaka, more than anything else, needs Jimin to stay put for some new local thing with the dope. Something to do with ports. And it doesn’t matter that he won’t be out of the Cactus for a while, because he’d made that person up, and that was just as real.
Just wait, Jimin says, because somebody else will turn up, somebody new, and we will get better at being together. And Jeongguk smiles and thinks about that, beside Jimin in this huge car that reeks of sex and smokes.
“We’re gonna get you a place at Donggang, just you wait,” says Jimin when they stop at a traffic light. “Gonna show all that filth you’ve been shooting. Art, he says… more like horny dadaism. But we’re so gonna get you a spot. Or maybe you could start making these pretentious movies and win, like, seven New Currents at BIFF or something.”
This hyung, Jeongguk wonders, hearing Jimin creak with his leather jacket, this hyung has never been able to dress for the weather.
Leaning over the gearbox, Jimin plumps up his lips with a ridiculous smooching sound and Jeongguk can simply oblige, meeting him halfway. They share a soft kiss until the yellow finally switches to green above them.
Lucky, Jeongguk thinks. Two kinds of full.