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Clair de Lune

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Prologue

From the darkened window of his car, Jeongguk watches the moon follow him all the way from  Busan, rolling over hills and ducking behind skyscrapers. Here and there it fades from sight, only to emerge in a flickering stillness over the roof of their new home.

They live on the first floor of a tall skyscraper, and Jeongguk feels like he can just stick his legs out of the window and make a run for it. That is until he sees the bars, thin metal spikes keeping him caged in.

The urge to run lasts him about a month. He learns to be fascinated by Seoul, the shops, cinemas, malls and so many other places to play around in, even though he can’t go anywhere special because his mom doesn’t let him. And there are so many people, even foreigners, and the locals don’t even seem to be that surprised by them.

Still, Jeongguk misses the beach and the mountains. It’s hard, moving from one place to another, especially when you find out that your accent is too thick and everything you do seems a little too strange to other people.

When it all gets too hard for Jeongguk, he goes to sit on his window sill, pulls his window wide open and talks. Sometimes, he sticks his feet through the gaps in the bars, just to see how far he can go.

On these nights, sometimes he sees the moon, shining bright in the sky. To him, Jeongguk can speak in any accent he wants to, even in complete gibberish. He can ask about Busan and his old friends, or tell him how the boys here don’t accept him at all and the girls are scary and the teachers constantly tell him to speak properly.

Jeongguk can even cry sometimes, if only a little. He’s a big boy, after all.

On his ninth birthday, the moon is missing from the sky and Jeongguk tells him how much he misses him. When a couple of days later, a half-moon shyly peeks out from behind the cover of the velvety sky, Jeongguk thinks it looks that much brighter. Almost like he’s smiling down at him.

Jeongguk didn’t have a big birthday party or receive many presents at all, but he thinks that having just this one friend is more than enough for him.

 

 

1

“Hello, Mr. Moon,” Jeongguk looks up to the sky, a smile on his face. “How’re ya?”

The window frame digs into his warm palms where he touches it. The grass in the small flowerpatch just in front of their apartment rustles, footsteps made by unseen people skittering down the long, empty street.

“I’m just okay,”  Jeongguk says, taking in a deep breath.

He searches for something in the tranquil line of the sky, then down the dark street.  The lamplight casts phantoms over the asphalt and Jeongguk tightens his grip on the frame, swaying his legs.

“So,” he says, putting an effort into sounding cheerful. “How’s it in Busan?”

“Oh, super warm!”

Jeongguk starts and almost falls backwards into his room. He pulls his legs out of the bars, feeling like his feet are about to get grabbed by the voice emerging from the dark.

Jeongguk stands on top of the ledge, and with a thundering heart, looks over to the left. Nothing.

“Over here,” calls a cheerful voice from the right.

Jeongguk swivels around and in the flower patch by the front door, his eye catches on dark hair, shimmering a deep purple in the darkness.

“Hi!”  the older boy smiles when Jeongguk meets his gaze.  “Come down?”

His skin looks strange, Jeongguk notices, giving off a faint glow underneath his loose beige sweater and tattered jeans.

 “Who – who are you?”

“Me?” he looks up, screwing his mouth in contemplation. He then gives a great beam, full of straight, white teeth. “A friend!”

The fondly spoken word makes a pleasant warmth spread in Jeongguk’s chest. Then, as the boy shifts, Jeongguk remembers where he’s sitting and notices the shapes of crushed flowers underneath his crossed over legs.

He bites down on his lip. The boy seems very comfortable and Jeongguk doesn’t want to be a spoilsport but he still remembers how much trouble he got in when he pulled a single red rose out , even though he only wanted to plant one in his room and make it his friend. He didn’t know that you had to remove the root with it for the flower to live, or that he wasn’t allowed to do it at all anyway, because the flowers weren’t his.

His mom wasn’t mad at him or anything, but the man living a couple of floors up was. He came down to yell at her and say other bad words, while Jeongguk had to stand by her, holding onto her apron mutely. He really doesn’t like to think about it.

“Hm? What’s up?” the boy prompts him, voice light and friendly, and Jeongguk takes in a breath. Courage comes hard but he doesn’t want the boy to feel the same as he did, no matter how bad it makes him look.

 “Um, the flowers… we’re – we’re not supposed to touch them.”

“Oh?” the boy looks down and he doesn’t seem put off by his remark, rather confused.  The boy pushes down on the already crushed petals and Jeongguk takes in a quick gasp.

“Ah, don’t-”

“Yah, don’t worry,” the boy says, just as a silvery glow starts to spread underneath his open palms. It washes over the ground, spreading to every corner of the picketed fence, and suddenly all of the flowers around him open up in vibrant petals.

“Woah,” Jeongguk gapes, almost tumbling out of the window. “Sick!”

The boy’s head shoots up, a satisfied smile on his face. “Told ya not to worry.”

“How’d ya – How did you do that?”

“Come down and I’ll show ya!”

Jeongguk looks away, to the dark asphalt underneath the window. He looks to the side again and finds the boy, glowing flowers curling over his lap. He waves him over a little impatiently, a couple of wispy sparks dancing from the tips of his fingers.

They drift over to his window, carried by the light breeze and Jeongguk suddenly smells a mixture of salt and wet sand in the air, even though there’s no sea around for miles, only the muddy Han River. While he’s thinking about the boy lets out an impatient sound and stands up from the flower patch.

As soon as he steps out of it the flowers retract back to their initial state, red and white roses. Jeongguk watches the boy walk to the front of the window, hair curling under his slightly protruding ears.

“Here,” he holds out his arms wide. “I’ll catch ya if you’re scared.”

Jeongguk frowns. “I’m not.”

“Then why aren’t ya coming down?”

“I- I am.”

The boy’s smile turns a little mischievous. “So, when?”

“R-Right now!”

The boy lets out a small laugh and takes a step back, still holding his arms out.

Jeongguk stands up on his window sill, holds onto the bars with damp fingertips and swings one leg over the edge. He’s now sitting only on the thin top bar, clutching it with shaking hands.

He looks down to the boy. The boy clucks his tongue and puts his hands out. It only takes one second for him to conjure up a thick light from his palms, making a cottony cloud under Jeongguk’s window.

“There.”

Jeongguk stares at the cloud and the boy pushes him on with a little, “Ah, please hurry.”

Jeongguk closes his eyes. The fluffy white structure underneath him looks a bit too immaterial for safety but the boy will most likely leave if he doesn’t come down from his window and Jeongguk really doesn’t want that.

An inhale and he pushes away. The thrill of the fall lasts only a short second before lands onto the soft and fuzzy cloud, like a cotton blanket.

“Oh,” Jeongguk intones, just before the boy in front of him lets out a small “oomph” and the support underneath him disappears.

Jeongguk smacks down on his butt softly, amidst quiet snickers. He throws the boy a vindictive look but he just grins at him.

“My bad. Bit heavy, aren’t ya?”

Jeongguk doesn’t entirely believe that he didn’t drop him on purpose, not with that big smile, but the boy’s accent reminds him of Busan and he stands up in polite silence. He dusts his behind and when he looks up, finds out that the boy is at least two heads taller than he is.

He cranes his head up and squints.

“How old are you?”

“Fourteen,” the boy gives him an even brighter grin, reaching out to grab his hand. “I think!”

Jeongguk doesn’t know what there is to “think” or not about your age, but he still feels considerably flustered for the consistently disrespectful way he’s been talking to the much older boy. He’s too embarrassed to further the insult by refusing the skinship and so he finds himself with his fingers interlocked with a boy.

“I’m very sorry, I didn’t know… ah….”

“Oh, what is it?” the boy leans down to his level, big eyes and a pleasant smile on his face. His palm is very big and Jeongguk thinks that it feels familiar in a way, even comforting.

“I - I didn’t know that you were that much older…”

“Oh? Haha! That’s what’s bothering ya?” the boy smacks a free hand onto his own face, prodding at his cheek with a satisfied look. “It’s just my face, I think! But hey, you don’t have to be all weird just ‘cuz I’m a bit older, ‘kay? Let’s talk like friends!” 

Jeongguk blinks and mutters out a couple of disconnected words. The boy lets out a boisterous laugh, tugging on his hand.

“Hey, hey, relax!” he points at a larger patch of carefully cultivated grass on the other side of the street. “Let’s go over there!”

“Um-”

“Hey, want a piggyback ride?”

“I - N-No.”

“Hmmm,” the boy gives him a slight pout. “Suit yourself.”

He closes long fingers over his and starts pulling him to the patch of grass, and Jeongguk follows, socked feet padding after bare ones.

“U-Um, hyung. Can I ask you a question?”

“Sure!”

“Where - Where do you go to school?”

The boy purses his lips, patting a finger on top of them. Then he gives him a slightly reproachful look and says, “That’s not a very fun question.”

“A – Ah, I’m, um, sorry.”

They reach the patch of grass and the boy sinks down to it, pulling Jeongguk down as well. 

“No, it’s fine,” the boy unwinds their fingers and places his palms over the ground.  “Hey, look at this.”

His fingers start to glow with light again, hair going electrified, the light casting shadows onto his grinning face.

Flowers bloom all around Jeongguk, in deep blues, reds and purples, with soft leaves that brush along the skin of his bare arms. They knot around them like walls, hanging over their heads to create a green roof. Jeongguk feels like he’s sitting inside of a castle made entirely out of glowing flowers.

Jeongguk laughs and the boy laughs too, hair frizzy and hands ashy from dirt. The light tapers out, only lightly illuminating the stalks around them.

“So awesome,” Jeongguk breathes out. He touches the green stalks gently and feels them warm up his fingers.

“Thanks!” the boy beams, thin light trickling away from his hands and feeding into the structure around them. There are small flowers blooming up by their feet, and Jeongguk plucks up one with a long green stalk.

“Oooh,” the boy braces his elbow on his knee, leaning on his fist with a curious smile. “What’re ya doing?”

“You’ll see, hyung,” Jeongguk says, poking a thin hole in the stalk. He plucks a red flower and treads it through the main stalk, making a hole on that one.

When he runs out of different colors to use the boy produces more, each time in a different shade.

Soon Jeongguk has the entire circlet garnished with tiny flowers. It’s a lot of stalk and a little messy, but before he can regret not practicing more the boy leans closer to him and peers into his hands.

“What’s that?”

Jeongguk lifts the crown up, stretching his arms to lay it on the boy’s head.

The boy sits up straight like a broom and his eyes shoots up, squinting like he’s trying to see to the top of his head. Jeongguk laughs at his expression.

“It’s a flower crown.”

“A – flower crown?”

Jeongguk nods. The boy feels the edges of it then plucks it off his head to inspect it more closely. At his scrutinizing stare, Jeongguk ducks his head.

“I only did it once with mom, and with different flowers, so…” he mutters.

“I never got a flower crown before,” the boy cuts in with a bright voice. When Jeongguk looks up he sees the flowers glimmer even brighter in the boy’s hands, lighting up the giddy smile on his face.

“Oh,” Jeongguk smiles back. “Hyung, you can be a flower king now.”

“Woah, cool!” the boy says with a huge grin. “Hey, you can crown me!”

He comes closer and hangs his head, offering Jeongguk the crown.

Jeongguk takes it out of his fingers, shivering at the spark that passes through the tips of his fingers when he touches the silvery light emanating from the boy’s palms. They spin around his hands while he lays it on top of the boy’s purple curls.

“Hey,” the boy prompts, looking up suddenly. They are close enough that Jeongguk can see the peculiar shapes of some of his freckles.

“Hyung, this one looks like a snowflake.”

“Hmm?”

Jengguk blinks and scoots back a little. “Nothing.”

The boy frowns but quickly smiles at him again, tiny flowers blooming around him. He picks them and starts trying to tie them together by the ends with clumsy fingers.

“Hmmm,” the boy hums, frowning at his flower crown.

Jeongguk picks a flower and the boy looks at him, round eyes narrowing. Jeongguk makes a slit with his stubby nail and threads a stalk through it carefully.

“Hm,” the boy repeats, smiling in a way that reminds Jeongguk of comic book drawings, eyes closed and a wide grin.

He then tries it by himself, but it doesn’t go as very well. His fingers are clumsier and bigger, and he can’t quite manage to press it carefully enough to make a small hole.

“Yah,” he looks up at Jeongguk with a sad look on his face, mouth turned downwards. “How’re you so good at this?”

 “Yours – Yours is good too, hyung.”

The boy squints his eyes and leans forward. “Yah. Are you laughing at me?”

“N-No,” Jeongguk looks away, biting into the inside of his mouth.

“Yah. Look here and laugh at my face, you punk.”

Jeongguk presses a hand onto his mouth and shakes his head a little.

“I’ve been laughed at,” the boy sighs.

Jeongguk giggles into his hand and the boy lets another dramatic “Ahhh.”

He ends up tying up the loose ends and the result is a makeshift crown that reminds Jeongguk a little of preschool in Busan, but he still likes it. Then the boy closes his fingers around the crown and makes it evaporate in silver mist.

“Hyung! Why’d you do that?”

“Huh?” he blinks at him. “I didn’t like it.”

 “I did, though,” Jeongguk says, still pouting a little.

“Hm,” the boy smiles at him, poking one bony finger into his cheek. “What a cute kid.”

“I’m ten,” Jeongguk mutters sulkily, and the boy laughs and pokes him on the cheek once more.

“Wow, what a man.”

Jeongguk frowns at him but the boy only chuckles.

“Hey, look at this.”

When Jeongguk gives him a mystified look the boy says, in a hushed voice: “Stars.”

With a smile, he braces both hands on the flower floor beneath them. A flash and more light comes out of his hands, racing up the stalks and to the roof, making the vines part and bloom.

Stars spill over them and Jeongguk thinks that he’s never seen a sky so bright in his life. For some time, he just sits there, gazing up at the twinkling clusters of stars and the pale light of the Milky Way.

“Hyung?”

The boy tips his head to the side to look him in the eye. “Hm?”

“Can I ask you another question?”

“Only if it’s a fun one.”

“I – I don’t know about that…”

“Ah, jus’ kidding,” he says with a quick grin. “Ask away.”

“Are you from Busan?”

“Mm?” he crooks his head, light dancing down his sharp features. “Does it seem like I am?”

“How you talk – it feels that way, since, um, I’m from Busan. You - You aren’t?”

“Well,” the boy gives him a half-smile. “Guess you could say I am. Or not.”

Jeongguk doesn’t really understand.  “I - If you are, hyung, I don’t think you should talk like this.”

“Hm? Why?”

“Because,” Jeongguk puffs his cheeks up and then exhales heavily. “It’s weird. People won’t like you.”

 “You don’t like me?”

“No!” Jeongguk blurts out, swiveling his head around to look at the boy. At first he looks shocked by Jeongguk’s outburst, but then his face stretches into a huge beam.

“Aw. I like you too.”

“That’s-” Jeongguk looks down at his fingers, heat rushing to his cheeks. “Hyung just – other people, they won’t. They won’t let you play and – and they’ll - c-call you bad names.”

Jeongguk bites the inside of his cheek, trying to quell the trembing of his jaw. Suddenly he feels fingers in his hair, mussing it all up.

“Are you worrying for my sake?”

Jeongguk sniffles, rubbing the balls of his fist against his eyes. “It’s just that hyung – hyung is really cool and… and…”

“What?” he hears a soft laugh. “How cute.”

Jeongguk hiccups into his hands, and the boy prompts him with a silent, “Hey, Kookie.”

Jeongguk feels too embarrassed by his very obvious crying to look up, but the boy tugs on his hair slightly and teases, “I’ll tickle you if you don’t look up.”

“Don’t-” Jeongguk blurts out, head snapping upwards. The boy, grinning at him, pulls his sleeves over his hand and rubs down Jeongguk's cheeks roughly, making them chafe.

“That’s better. You were all snotty and wet.”

“I wasn’t-”

“Next time dust gets in your eye, just tell me, ‘kay? I’ll help you get it out.”

Jeongguk stares at the boy, who nudges his shoulder with a playful smile and then holds out his pinky.

“Y'know what? Let’s make a promise.”

Jeongguk squints at his hand through swollen eyes.

“Well? D’ya hate me now?”

“N-No,” Jeongguk says, wrapping his finger around the boy's.

Taehyung laughs and Jeongguk draws in a sharp breath when a white flare bursts between them, the space around their fingers glowing. Jeongguk feels like he’s slowly warming up from head to toe, almost like he’s holding his hand against a heater during winter.

“Let’s promise to always protect each other out, hm?”

“O – Oh. I promise, hyung. I - I’ll definitely protect you.”

The boy lets out a loud laugh, eyes small but grin enormous. Jeongguk isn’t really sure why he’s laughing, but he still likes the sound of it.

“I’ll be counting on you, Kookie-yah.”

When they let go the light snaps back like a rubber band, and the boy rubs the back of his hand over his forehead.

“There you go.”

Jeongguk doesn’t know why, but there is a very good feeling in his arms and legs. It feels like the Saturdays when he can sleep in until late and play on his Nintendo, but even better.

“Oh, and, Jeonggukie-yah?” the boy grins at him. “I like you, accent or not, so just talk however you-”

There’s a sudden flash of light and the boy flinches, his words cutting off. Jeongguk watches as the steady stream of light coming out of the boy’s fingers starts to fizzle and fade in colour.

The castle falls in around them, petals withering and crumbling away, the vines holding the roof collapsing down. Jeongguk holds his arms above his head but before they can touch him they evaporate into silvery dust.

The boy looks at his hands, the glow enveloping them dissolving completely and leaving only a couple of errant sparks behind.

“What’s – what’s happening?”

The boy gives a quick smile, frown smoothing out. “Nothing.”

The boy jumps up to his feet, vines clearing beneath his feet and soaking up into his body, leaving ordinary grass behind.

Jeongguk is shocked to find some of it gathering around him, and he tries to pat his body down with his hand when the boy laughs.

“Yah, don’t try to put it out, silly.”

“Ah,” Jeongguk says, lifting his hand up. When he moves his fingers there’s a spark of silver rustling between them. He watches it dance between the gaps.

“But don’t do that too much, either. It’ll run out.”

“Oh.”

The boy offers him his hand and Jeongguk accepts, letting himself be pulled to his feet. A current passes through their joint palms, leaving goose-bumps on Jeongguk's skin.

They walk back to his open window, the boy swaying their arms with playful hoots. Jeongguk likes the feeling of his palm nestled in the boy’s big, dry one.

When they find themselves in front of it, Jeongguk realizes that he really doesn’t want to let go. He clings to the boy’s hand with both of his and the boy crooks his head down at him, one of  his hands tucked away in his pockets.

“Kookie-yah? Are you scared again?”

“I – a little.”

Jeongguk thinks that it’s not a big lie; he is scared, just not of climbing back up to the window.

“I’ll do something, then,” the boy says. He shakes their joint hands a little but Jeongguk keeps clutching as firmly as possible, until the boy lets out a short laugh.

“Hey, Kookie, you gotta let go. Nothin’ bad will happen, promise.”

Reluctantly, Jeongguk lets go of the boy’s hand. The boy puts his hands together, a torrent of light errupting from his palms and forming a silver stairway leading all the way to the top of the bars.

Jeongguk stares at it, feeling like his legs were made of lead.

“Well,” the boy breathes out, voice a little strained. “Up you go.”

Jeongguk feels like he has to listen, so he makes his way slowly to the stairway and climbs up, one step after another. It’s a little rickety, trembling beneath his feet, but Jeongguk feels safe enough. He climbs over the bars and lands down on his windowsill.

When he looks back to the boy behind the safety of his bars, his skin seems a sickly, pallid purple in the light of the rising dawn. There are even tired lines under his eyes and with a jab to his stomach, Jeongguk wonders if he bothered him a bit too much.

“Jeongguk-ah, you be good, okay?” the boy says, giving him a pale smile. “I’m – I’m happy I could see you today.”

Jeongguk doesn’t like the sound of his voice, like he’s telling him goodbye.

“Hyung, you-” Jeongguk starts hesitantly. “You’ll come again soon, right?”

The boy looks away, eyelids drooping heavily while he shifts on his legs.

“We - We can play games. If you come while it’s day mom – mom will make cakes and… And…”

The boy clears his throat and says, still looking to a spot somewhere to the right, “I don’t know if I can.”

“Oh. That’s – that’s okay. I’ll wait,” Jeongguk gulps in a breath. “I’m – I’m good at that.”

The boy doesn’t seem to be too happy, jerking his leg impatiently and refusing to look at him.

Jeongguk really hopes that he’s not boring him or something else, because he really, really wants him to come back. He doesn’t really know how to do that, so instead he blurts out the first thing that comes to his mind.

“Hyung, you – you didn’t make me a crown yet! So you definitely have to come!”

The boy looks up at him, frozen completely still. Jeongguk feels a flush run up to his cheeks, terribly embarrassed by his sudden outburst.

“I - um -”

 Suddenly, the boy lifts up his hand and stares at it. A weak fog gathers around his fingers, fading with a couple of erratic sparks.

“H - Hyung?”

The boy stares at his hand for a little while longer, face all crumpled up in a frown, like his mom when she finds him playing games until late in the night. Then, suddenly, he offers his hand to Jeongguk.

The boy nods towards it, a crooked smile playing about his lips.  “Let’s shake hands. Like real men.”

Jeongguk doesn’t feel that much like a man but he doesn’t want to disappoint the boy, so he crouches down to his knees, reaching out between the bars. Jeongguk feels fingers close around his, thin and familiar, and then a warmth like the glow of campfire between their palms.

“Don’t worry, Kookie-yah,” he says. His voice sounds a little sad but Jeongguk can’t see his face, not without letting go of his hand.

There’s something else he says but it gets lost too quickly, drowning in the fatigue that suddenly wraps around Jeongguk’s limbs, knocking his breath out in a small exhale. His vision blurs out, all feeling fading away from his legs and -

Sunlight hits his face, making his bleary eyes water.

“Ah,” he stretches, trying to remember the dream he had.

There’s a strange feeling of urgency within him, like he has to remember it, but the more he tries the more it slips away from his grasp. His body aches from having fallen asleep on with window sill, so he jumps down from the window sill and throws himself into bed.

Maybe later, he can have the same dream again.

 

 

It’s a clear night and the moon is burning into the night sky, but the street is too bright for Jeongguk to be able to see any stars. He makes an “o” with two of his fingers and slots it over the moon, squinting on one eye.

He’s home alone today as well, his mom busy with her night shift. It feels lonely, his dark room full of omnious shadows and creaking noises.

“I wish something fun would happen,” Jeongguk sighs, dropping his hand to find a person sitting on the window ledge next to him.

 “Oh, hello-”

The rest of the stranger’s words are swallowed by Jeongguk’s scream. He  backs up from the stranger, spine hitting the wall. The guy jumps, looking around him in a fit of panic, like he’s wondering what might have caused all of that screaming. Then he looks back to Jeongguk and presses a finger onto his lips.

“Shhh, shhh! I’m sorry!”

Jeongguk halts his screaming to stare at his eyes, icy blue in the bright lamplight coming from outside the window.

“I didn’t mean to scare you!”

The familiar sound of his voice, warm and deep, is distracting enough to make Jeongguk stop shouting for dear life. He leans away and the boy drops his hand.

 “Who - Who are you? How – how did you-”

“Boring questions later,” the boy sings out with a grin and reaches behind his back.

He pulls out a flower crown with two neat rows of flowers - big  ones with pale red petals that look as thin as lace and below them, tiny silvery ones, emitting a faint light on brilliantly green leaves tucked beneath them.  

At the familiar flowers, Jeongguk feels an overwhelming nostalgia flood his chest, drowning the panic of seeing a stranger in his room; instead of it, he feels an almost excited tingle in his stomach.

He reaches out to touch the corner of the silvery one and lets out a gasp at the current he feels, the heat spreading through his arms and filling his entire body with white warmth.

Jeongguk looks up, at odds at himself for how to react. The stranger’s eyes flicker from the flower crown to Jeongguk’s face.

“Do you like it?”

Jeongguk’s eyes catch on the freckles on the stranger’s face, which here and there give off a star-like sparkle.

“Well?”

Jeongguk shakes his head a little, expelling the image, the reasonable side of his brain finally turning on.

“The – the flowers. Where did you find them?”

“So, you like them?” the boy grins, completely ignoring Jeongguk’s question. “I’m glad! I chose these because they kind of look like roses.”

Before Jeongguk can ask him where he found them again the boy nudges the crown forward with a chipper, “Here!”

When Jeongguk just stares at him the guy gives him a funny little smile and points to his own wilting flower crown, resting on coppery hair.

“It’s for you. Wear it!”

Jeongguk feels a jolt in his stomach at his words, but he ignores it and pushes on: “I – um. What? For – me?”

“You like it, right?”

“S-Sure, but… I wouldn’t really – wear it, I guess, anyway, who are-”

 “And why not?”

“- What?”

“Why wouldn’t you wear it?”

 “W-Well, that’s – not really important –”

“It’s important to me.”

The honest affection in his voice rubs Jeongguk the wrong way, feeding into the overwhelming warmth in his stomach against all reason. Instead of smiling, Jeongguk presses his lips together and retorts: “I just – I just don’t want to.”

The boy visibly deflates, the smile on his lips going plastic. Jeongguk’s chest feels uncomfortably tight at the expression on his face and he wants to take the words back but he doesn’t let himself.

“Ah,” the boy breathes out. “Got it. I’m sorry.”

He closes his fingers over the flowers, as if to crush the petals, and Jeongguk lets out an alarmed noise.

“Don’t - Don’t crush them!”

The boy looks up, eyes wide.  “Why not?”

Jeongguk feels as surprised as he is, but his mouth forms more words, seemingly without his volition.

“I – I want to keep them.”

The words feel right just as they leave his mouth, even though Jeongguk thinks that they shouldn’t.

“Keep them?”

Jeongguk nods and extends his hand towards the stranger, who places the crown into his hands.

He takes a moment to appraise the elaborate weaving, much too intricate for him to even recognize the pattern. He would’ve loved to see something like this when he was younger, Jeongguk thinks. Something like out of a fairytale book, a strange boy on his window sill gifting him a flower crown.

The thought makes him feels stuffy, like he can’t get enough air even though he’s sitting right next to an open window. A niggling feeling in his head, like he’s missing something but just can’t – remember.

During his reverie, Jeongguk accidentally plucks out a carefully tucked in piece of stalk and two flowers come loose, tumbling into his lap.

“A – Ah,” he swallows, cheeks heating up. “I’m… sorry...”

“For what?” the boy asks, sounding genuinely confused.

“For – messing up your crown.”

“Oh,” he gives Jeongguk a smile. “It’s fine. It’s yours to mess up anyway.”

“Ah.”

The nonchalance in his words is a little alarming and Jeongguk feels slightly bothered by it. Still, he doesn’t think expressing it would make much sense, not with knowing that his person is a complete stranger, even though a peculiarly familiar one.

He still wants to keep the flower crown but the gaping hole in its side makes him unhappy, so he decides to salvage the parts as best as possible.

Jeongguk throws a furtive glance at the boy, who really doesn’t seem to be upset at all, before lowering himself from the window sill.

“Where are you going?”

“To turn the lights on,” Jeongguk replies, treading through his dark room with only the faint light of the flowers lighting his way up  through the clutter on the floor.

He feels the walls for the light switch, until he finally finds it and flips it.

He swivels around at a distressed sound, the boy on his sill looking up to the ceiling, squinting. He looks less strange in the bright light, dressed in a stretched-out sweater and ripped jeans.

“Sorry,” Jeongguk says quietly, as an afterthought, going to his desk to take some newspaper. The flowers he’s cradling in his hands look almost dull in the stark lighting, the only ethereal quality left to them the seeming frailty of the petals.

“Need help?” he hears behind his back.

“Ah!” Jeongguk jumps, barely managing stop the flowers from tumbling out of his hand. The boy takes a step back, his eyes innocently wide.

“Sorry! Scared you again.”

Up close, his hair looks less bronze and more a rich shade of brown and Jeongguk wonders if he imagined the sparks on his cheeks before, because his skin is completely unblemished now.

“Uh. It’s… okay,” Jeongguk lowers the flowers onto his desk and carefully separates two connected pages of the newspaper.

 “What are you doing?” the boy asks, a cheerful lilt in his voice.

 “I’m just – I’m going to put the flowers in newspaper.”

“Why?”

Jeongguk throws a quick look at him. The smile the boy shoots back at him seems sincerely interested.

“It - absorbs the moisture.”

“Oooh,” the boy exclaims. Jeongguk places the flowers between the papers before picking it all up and carrying it to the bundle of encyclopedias and other thick books at the corner of his closet.

He’s closely trailed by the boy who watches as he slips them between two of the books.

“And now?”

“I’m pressing them,” Jeongguk says quietly. “You need to put them between thick books or else it won’t come out good.”

“Hmm, I see. You’re really good at this.”

Joengguk looks up at the boy in surprise. “I – It’s pretty easy.”

“No way,” the boy shakes his head, shedding a couple of petals with the movement. “I don’t think I could do it.”

Jeongguk looks away, cheeks feeling toasty warm. He takes his herbarium in his hands and stands up, flipping it from one hand to the other.

“Do you – do you want to look at this?”

“Oh? Look at what?”

“M – My - herbarium.”

“Oh!” the boy’s face transforms into a grin so enormous it almost feel exaggerated. “Sure!”

Jeongguk swallows and goes to sit on the foot of the bed. The boy is still standing in the middle of the room, his hands clasped together, looking around himself like he’s a bit unsure.

Jeongguk pats the spot next to him.

The boy makes a funny noise and half-skips to the bed, which creaks when he plops down on top of it. Jeongguk opens the book on his lap with stiff fingers and tries not to feel like he’s about to jump out of his skin.

“Ooooh!” the boy exclaims at the first page. “What kind is it?”

Throat feeling a little scratchy, Jeongguk points at the annotations he’s written in the corner of the page. The boy leans over Jeongguk’s shoulder, unaware or uncaring of the way Jeongguk immediately stiffens up, and reads off, “Dai-sy.”

Clearing his throat, Jeongguk gives a brief nod. “They – they bloom in spring.”

“Hmm,” Jeongguk feels the boy’s shoulder press up against his back. With shaky fingers, Jeongguk flips to another page.

“Violet,” the boy reads. “Smell desensitizes the receptors – of the nose?”

Jeongguk nods again. “You can only smell them once.”

The boy reaches out as if to touch the petals but Jeongguk grabs his wrist before he can do it.  He looks at Jeongguk, eyebrows raised, and he’s so close that Jeongguk can see the small mole on his nose.

Letting go of his wrist, Jeongguk mumbles out. “They’ll break if you touch them.”

“Oh. Sorry. They’re really pretty.”

“Yeah,” Jeongguk lets out a small cough. “I - I like violets too.”

Jeongguk looks at the boy from the corner of his eyes, the sharp line of his jaw as he looks down at the book in Jeongguk’s lap with a smile.

“Next page?” the boy prompts, looking up suddenly. Jeongguk immediately turns his head away.

They slowly go through the pages of the herbarium, the boy treating every single one with equal amounts of enthusiasm. Jeongguk feels himself relaxing in his presence, the heat he feels tapering into a comfortable glow.

Even though he knows that he shouldn’t feel so much at ease with someone who materialized on his window sill, Jeongguk decides to give in to the feeling - he hasn’t gotten along this well with another boy ever since he came to Seoul.

“How old are you?” Jeongguk asks as they’re admiring a red carnation. “We - We’re the same age, right?”

“Probably,” the boy purses his lips. “How old are you?”

“I asked first, though.”

“Don’t be stubborn. That’s not very cute.”

“Who’s being stubborn?” Jeongguk frowns to hide his smile. “I really did ask you first.”

“And I answered, so you should answer me now.”

“When did you even answer me?”

“I said probably. Now you.”

“That’s not even-”

“Hmmm,” the boy shakes his head, a disapproving curve to his lips. “So stubborn.”

Jeongguk blows out of his nose. “I’m fourteen. Now will you tell me?”

The boy jerks back, the teasing expression wiped off his face. He blinks at Jeongguk, eyes looking up and down his face.

“What?” Jeongguk mumbles, lifting his hand to fumble with his bangs. They seem to be in order.

“Nothing. I just,” the boy gives him another bewildered look. “Are you sure?”

Jeongguk looks back at him with an equally confused expression. “Of – Of course I am.”

“Woah. I – I’m really sorry.”

The boy mumbles something else under his breath that sounds vaguely like “makes sense”, which Jeongguk finds a little funny because it really doesn’t, not his shocked expression nor his apology.

“Then, are you - are you younger than me?”

Shaking his head, the boy says, “No, I’m – I’m your hyung.”

“My hyung?” Jeongguk raises a doubtful eyebrow. “So, how old are you?”

“Six – sixteen,” the boy looks at him like he’s not really sure about it either.

“Really? Then–” Jeongguk gives him a slightly startled look. “I’ve been talking down a lot.”

“No, it’s fine. We can just talk like friends, okay?”

“That… doesn’t make sense…”

“Hm, it doesn’t?” the boy repeats after him absentmindedly, then smacks his palms together. “Next page?”

Jeongguk thinks that he should probably demand some sort of further explanation, but he also has a nagging feeling that any further questioning would only serve to make him more confused.

“I – I’ll just call you hyung, then.”

“Sure,” he grins at him. “I like the sound of that.”

Jeongguk coughs and turns to the next page. The boy shimmies closer to him again, chin brushing against Jeongguk’s shoulder.

“This - This is a gardenia,” Jeongguk says, immersing himself in flowers to forget the boy's nearness. “It’s a symbol for secret love.”

“Hmm,” the boy looks up at him through his lashes and Jeongguk quickly flips to the next page.

“J – Jasmine. Cheerfulness and – and stuff.”

Soon they reach a loose page, inserted inside of the herbarium. Jeongguk can feel Taehyung sit upright when he sees the flower taped to the middle, a dark red blossom with thin, delicate petals.

“I named this one myself,” Jeongguk says quietly. “I can’t find the name anywhere.”

“Anna-tae,” the boy reads, the volume of his voice matching Jeongguk’s. “Moonlight blossom?”

“The Latin name means ‘the first blossom of the year’. I – I found it a little after my birthday, so…”

“Annatae. Tae,” the boy nods. “I like it.”

Jeongguk swallows and looks at the boy, unable to interpret the frown on his face as he looks down at the blossom.

“Y-Yeah. It’s really fragile. When I touched it, the stalk – fell apart. Like, like sand.”

The boy looks back at him, a solemn curve to his lips.

“Where did you find this?” he asks Jeongguk.

“That's - That's what I'd like to know too. Where did you find these?”

“I just saw them,” the boy says offhandedly. “When I walked.”

“Where?” Jeongguk fires back. “How did you manage to make a flower crown out of them?”

“I just – did.”

Jeongguk takes in a sharp breath. “You’re not going to tell me anything, are you, hyung?”

The boy looks at him, the curve of his lips lifting into a wry sort of smile. Jeongguk huffs, moving away from the boy to leave a sliver of space between them.

I found it in front of the apartment,” Jeongguk mumbles. “In one of the flower beds.”

The boy looks at him, an impassive expression on his face.

“I thought my neighbour got a new sort or something and I almost got a heart attack when it fell apart but… he never noticed.”

“Yeah,” the boy says, playing with his fingers. “That’s because-”

He cuts off then, pressing his lips tightly together.

“That’s because what?” Jeongguk pushes, but the boy just shakes his head and swallows hard enough that Jeongguk can see his throat bob. “What is it-”

 “Wanna see something cool?”

“I – what?”

The boy jumps off the bed and stands in front of Jeongguk, hands spread open.

With a crackle of static, a faint light blooms out of his palms. It circles around his hands slowly like smoke, then stretches out in front of Jeongguk in a wisp. One by one, the smoke expands and forks out to create petals and leaves, until there is a moonlight blossom in his fingers.

The boy holds it out to Jeongguk with a small smile, eyes deep and icy.

“I -” Jeongguk lets out a nervous laugh. “What kind of a magic trick is that, hyung? How did you do that?”

With a snap of his fingers, it vanishes into thin air. With a tired smile, the boy wipes at his forehead and goes to stand by the window, holding his arm out of it.

If Jeongguk squints, he thinks he can see a glimmer of silver, like the one the boy conjured to pull the flower out.

“Hyung, I –" he starts weakly. "I don’t even know your name.”

The boy turns around, bracing his elbows on the window sill.

“Mr. Moon,” he drawls and Jeongguk feels himself go red all over. His confusion is quickly replaced by the coiling of shame in his stomach.

“How – how do you know about that?” he insists, voice rising in pitch. “Are you – Are you some kind of a stalker?”

The boy shrugs.

“How can you just-”

Jeongguk stumbles on his words and the boy laughs at him. Jeongguk feels even more irritated, anger spiking up.

“That’s – stop laughing at me!”

Still chuckling, the boy says, “I’m really annoying you this time around, aren’t I?”

Jeongguk presses his lips together and glowers at him. “If you know that, just stop.”

“Okay,” the boy gives him a self-contained tilt of his lips. “Guess I’ll go, then.”

“Wait,” Jeongguk jumps off the bed and grabs the boy by his wrist. “You still didn’t tell me your name.”

“Stubborn, aren’t you? I didn’t notice that before.”

“Huh?” Jeongguk gives him a scandalized look. “You - You really are a stalker.”

The boy lets out a breathy laugh. “Hey," he starts, the somberness of his tone ill-suited to his previous mirth. "Even if you don’t like me anymore, I’m glad I could come tonight, too.”

“What are you talking about?” Jeongguk’s hand starts feeling sweaty where he’s gripping the boy’s arm. “Have we met before?”

“Nope. But if you close your eyes, I’ll show you another cool thing.”

“I don’t want to. What if you try to mug me or something?”

The boy lets out a snort. “Close your eyes already.”

“Or what?”

He grabs both of Jeongguk’s hands, dry fingers against Jeongguk’s slightly damp ones. “Here, I can’t do anything funny now.”

“Right,” Jeongguk clears his throat. “You’re already doing something weird, though.”

The boy looks down at him, long lashes and dark blue eyes. “C’mon.”

“R-Right,” Jeongguk squeezes his eyes shut, hyper-aware of the boy’s proximity and hands around his. He feels warmer by the second, hands heating up like he’s holding them under the sun.

He peeks and finds a glowing haze around their joint hands, the boy frowning with his jaw tightly set.

When he catches Jeongguk’s eye he shakes his head with a pale smile, the warmth receding back into his hands.

“You just don’t behave at all.”

“Neither do you, hyung.”

The boy gives a giggle. “Guess we’re perfect for each other, then?”

Before Jeongguk can react in any way, the boy leans downwards and places a peck onto his cheek. With a yelp, Jeongguk jumps back, tearing his hands out of the boy’s grip.

“What – are you crazy?”  Jeongguk rubs against his cheek, skin burning against his fingers. The boy must’ve done the magic thing to him again. “Why – all of a sudden-”

“You’re just too cute.”

“Cute-” Jeongguk chokes on his words, face flaming. “I – don’t come closer to me.”

“Yeah, yeah,” the boy grabs him by the hand and Jeongguk feels that warmth again.

“I’ll… ”

Jeongguk’s legs wobble and the boy catches him before he falls. Just then, Jeongguk takes note of the deep, purpling circles under his eyes and the almost translucent quality to his skin. Before he can see more, his eyelids taper closed, and just as if they were glued shut he doesn’t have the strength to open them anymore.

Jeongguk doesn’t want to sleep yet – he didn’t get to know the boy’s name or find out whether he’s coming back, so why, why does his body feel so heavy all of a sudden-

“No one else can see the flowers, Jeonggukie,” he faintly hears, as if from a great distance. “Because they are only for you.”

What do you mean, Jeongguk thinks as he snaps awake. How do you know my name?

Who? Who does?  

Like sand, the answer slips through his fingers, leaving a tickle in his head.  His herbarium is resting by his bed, and Jeongguk gets up slowly and puts it back in place.

 He thinks that he must have fallen asleep while looking through it again.

 

 

It’s already well past midnight, and the world is quiet around Jeongguk.

He exhales deeply, tearing his eyes away from the notebook in his lap. From his open window, the light sheen of the moon pours inside his room.

Instead of closing his book, he places it on the bed facedown, gaping on its spine. He goes to the window and leans his hands against the dusty window sill, expelling his fatigue with an exhale.

“Hello, it’s Jeongguk. It’s been a while.”

Brisk air makes his cheeks prickle, the taste of fog lingering on his tongue. He rocks back and forward on his heels.

“I can’t sleep tonight.”

Jeongguk doesn’t know what he expects when says it. He gazes up at the dark sky; the stars are nowhere to be seen, but the full moon shines down at him in all of its glory.

His palms feel gritty and there’s a heavy weight on his eyelids, head feeling thick. He follows the tops of the skyscrapers, counting down small, square windows all to their base. He traces the ground, right to his driveway, and what he sees there is a boy, sitting down with his legs crossed over.

He looks up when Jeongguk meets his gaze, cupping his hands around his mouth. For a second, his hair flashes as bright as the burn of the sunrise and there are galaxies shining down his cheeks, clusters of stars sprinkled around his wide smile.

“Come down?”

The smooth voice hits Jeongguk like a jolt in the stomach, followed by slight vertigo. Still reeling, he dons on shoes and tiptoes past the hall and to the front door, hurrying to unlock it with fumbling fingers. He almost flies down the staircase and bursts out into the night.

He approaches the figure with calm steps, and only when he’s right in front of him does the boy look up, gazing at Jeongguk from under artfully disheveled bangs.

Jeongguk opens his mouth at the same time when the boy holds up his hand and says: “Help me up?”

Jeongguk stares at it and then reaches out his own almost mechanically. Cold fingers wind around his and he helps the boy onto his feet.

“Hello,” the boy tells him, a small smile on his face. His eyes are dark and rimmed by black eyelashes, golden bangs swooping over his eyebrows.

“You… who-”

“My name is Taehyung,” he gazes at Jeongguk with bright eyes, eyes flitting up and down his figure. “Man. You’re really tall, aren’t you.”

Taehyung stands a couple of centimeters taller than him, with slender shoulders and a narrow waist, the first couple of buttons on his dress shirt undone. Jeongguk suddenly feels very conscious of his pajama pants and baggy white t-shirt.

Jeongguk looks up from the lines where his neck meets his collarbone and Taehyung meets his gaze with an immediate smile. Jeongguk swallows on a dry throat.

“H-How old are you?”

“Eighteen,” Taehyung tells him, pushing his hands into the pockets of his pants. “And you?”

“Uh, seventeen. My – My birthday was a week ago.”

“Right,” a flash of perfect, white teeth. “Sorry, I didn’t bring you a present.”

“Um? N-No, that’s-”

With a quick movement Taehyung sidles up next to him and slings an arm over his shoulder. With one hand, he pats him on the side of his head.  

“Happy birthday, Kookie-yah.”

Jeongguk presses a hand on his neck, where he feels Taehyung’s breath, and stares up at the circles of light reflected in his pupils. He feels a mixture of queasy, jittery and confused, all at the same time.

“Ah – thank you?”

Taehyung looks at him for a while longer and then gives him a cryptic smile before looking up.  

“Nice night.”

“Um. Sure,” Jeongguk says, even though it’s the coldest and foggiest summer night they’ve had so far.

“Perfect for a walk,” Taehyung crooks his head to the side and looks him in the eye, a half-smile on his face. Jeongguk stares back at him, at a loss for how to reply.

“So,” Taehyung looks away before looking back at him. “Go for a walk with me?”

At first, Jeongguk feels heat climb to his cheeks, acutely aware of the weight of Taehyung’s arm around his shoulder and the side of his body pressed up against him. He almost blurts out a quick answer before he catches himself and through the daze taking over his head, remembers the late night hour and the strange way in which Taehyung just showed up.

“Like – right now?” he says hesitantly.

Taehyung nods.

“It’s like, what? Two a.m.? Also, I still don’t really know-” he cuts himself off, at the earnest look in Taehyung’s eyes, almost childlish in its innocence. Something about it makes Jeongguk want to mince his words, speak more kindly, but the more he thinks about it the more confused it makes him.

Instead of what he wanted to say, he asks: “Are you – Are you my neighbour?”

Taehyung purses his lips, eyebrows slightly furrowed. “You could say so.”

Now it’s Jeongguk’s turn to frown. “What do you mean?”

“That you could say so.”

Before Jeongguk can get frustrated at earnest Taehyung gives him an apologetic smile. “I don’t want to be annoying, really, but… sorry.”

His voice drifts off, small in the silence of the night. Jeongguk takes in a deep breath before coming to a decision.

“If I go on a walk with you, will you tell me?”

Taehyung stills, eyes guarded when he looks up.

“Really? You’ll go?”

“Well – if you tell me.”

Taehyung shifts on his feet, letting go of his shoulder.

“You might not like the answers, though.”

“I still want to know.”

Jeongguk holds his gaze with conviction and after a couple of seconds, Taehyung exhales.

He throws his arm around Jeongguk’s shoulder again, reaching for his head with the other. Jeongguk’s ducks on an instinct, but he still doesn’t escape the fingers mussing his hair up.

“As stubborn as ever,” he says, and Jeongguk can hear the smile in his voice.

When he glances up Taehyung really is smiling and he’s looking at him again with an incomprehensible light in his eyes. They stare at each other for a moment longer before Taehyung’s grin widens and he exclaims:  “Walk with me, then.”

He lets go of his shoulder and starts to walk, a playful skip in his step. There are no cars in the street this late at night, and almost all of the windows are darkened.

“Where are we going?”

Taehyung puffs his cheeks up, swaying his arms. “I’m not gonna tell you.”

“Why?” Jeongguk asks, narrowing his eyes.

“Because it’s a surprise and I don’t want you to ruin it.”

They’re moving towards the end of the street and Jeongguk knows that if they keep walking a little further they will reach a small park, a burst of green nestled between the high rise buildings.

Predictably, Taehyung walks straight into the park, trampling all over the carefully cultivated grass without regard for the pathways, all the way to the swings.

He plops down on one and jerks his head to the red one next to him.

“Sit next to me?”

“Sure,” he crosses his arms over. “When you tell me.”

The lighting is weaker here than on the street, but Jeongguk can still see Taehyung roll his eyes.

“Sit first.”

“I walked first. Now it’s your turn.”

Unexpectedly, Taehyung lets out a small laugh, rocking back and forth on the swing.

“Okay. Ask me one question.”

“This isn’t spin the bottle,” Jeongguk says, frowning down at him. “You said you’d tell me everything.”

“Oh?” Taehyung’s grin is white in the darkness. “Did I really?”

“I -” Jeongguk’s frown deepens. “You did.”

Taehyung clicks his tongue. “Don’t recall.”

“You-” Jeongguk has the need to stamp his feet and whine, but instead, he grits his teeth. “Alright. Why do your freckles glow?”

“Oh?” Taehyung crosses his legs over, fingers still curled over the chains of the swings. “Freckles?”

Jeongguk points to his own face, indicating where freckles would be if he had them.

“They glow?”

“Yeah?” Jeongguk says, starting to feel a little annoyed. “Hyung, haven’t you ever looked in the mirror?”

Taehyung furrows his eyebrows. Then he grins up at Jeongguk, lamplight spilling over his light hair and down his cheerful face.

“They’re happy to see you.”

Jeongguk gapes at him, cheeks heating up. “That’s – you’re not even being serious.”

“I am.”

Jeongguk can’t tell if he’s teasing him or if he’s being honest, and at this point, he doesn’t even know which one would be preferable.

“Sit down already,” Taehyung says lightly, oblivious to Jeongguk’s inner turmoil. “My neck hurts like this.”

“Not - Not until you promise to answer me honestly.”

“I promise.”

Jeongguk plops down on the swing next to his, the plastic cold through the thin material of his pajama.  “You promised way too quickly.”

Taehyung leans forward and smiles at him.  “You finally sat down though, so it was worth it.”

Jeongguk wants to be mad but the cheer in Taehyung’s smile is almost infectious and it takes all of his willpower not to smile back like an idiot.

“Fine,” he huffs. “I’m sitting. Did you dye your hair?”

“Hm?” Taehyung gives him a blank smile. “Nope.”

“Then, are you a foreigner?”

“Aha,” Taehyung lifts two fingers up and wiggles them.

Jeongguk frowns. “Your first answer wasn’t even good, hyung.”

Taehyung stretches his legs and leans backward on the swing, gazing up at him from an almost horizontal position.

“Ask me something more fun.”

“I’ll give you fun,” Jeongguk mumbles. “What were you doing outside, sitting on the ground?”

“Oh, that's better,” Taehyung sits back up.  “But it’s still not your turn.”

“You really think we’re playing spin the bottle, don’t you.”

Completely ignoring him, Taehyung asks, “What’s your favorite color?”

“Seriously?”

Taehyung raises his eyebrows, nodding at him in an impatient manner.

“It’s red.”

“Hmmm,” Taehyung hums while looking away, the soles of his shoes scraping against sand.

“So, why are you awake right now?”

“I was waiting.”

“Waiting for whom?” Jeongguk fires back immediately.

Taehyung looks back at him, mouth open, and before he can complain Jeongguk cuts in with,”Alright, fine.”

Flashing him a brief smile, Taehyung asks: “What’s your hobby?”

This time Jeongguk raises both of his eyebrows, but Taehyung responds to it with another light-hearted smile.

“I – I like like to collect flowers,” Jeongguk clears his throat. “For a herbarium.”

“Ah.”

When Jeongguk glances at Taehyung there’s a small smile playing about his lips.

“What? I - I know it’s kinda weird but-”

“It’s not weird at all,” Taehyung gives him another grin, one that makes his entire face light up. “I think it’s a really nice hobby to have.”

“Oh,” Jeongguk scratches at his cheek, playing with the soft sand under his soles. “I also – I like photography.”

“Hmm. That’s really nice.”

Jeongguk throws a cautious look at Taehyung, gauging the surprisingly tender look on his face.

“Who were you waiting for?”

Taehyung looks at him, still wearing that precariously affectionate smile, and Jeongguk wonders if Taehyung’s thinking about that person right now.

“It’s my turn.”

“What? No, no it isn’t-”

“You asked what,” Jeongguk raises his eyebrows at him and Taehyung elaborates, “Before, when you were talking about your hobby.”

“That -” Jeongguk wrinkles his nose. “That’s just cheap, really.”

Taehyung laughs, the sound draining away quickly into the silence around them. His dark eyes turn to Jeongguk, a solemn twist to his lips.

“I dare you to close your eyes.”

“Huh? Since when are we doing dares?”

A slow, teasing curve of Taehyung’s lips. “Are you scared?”

“No,” Jeongguk huffs. “I’m just  - I’m not doing that.”

“Then if you won’t, you have to pay the penalty.”

“Hyung, we’re not playing spin the bottle, no matter how hard you’re trying to make it happen. We don’t even have a bottle.”

Taehyung’s eyes narrow for just a fraction, lips pursed as he drags out: “I’ll - answer any question you have.”

Jeongguk gives him an irritated look. “You were already supposed to do that, though.”

“Then I’ll tell you something really important.”

Jeongguk takes in a deep breath, the swing creaking under him as he gently sways. He has a feeling that Taehyung will never tell him anything honestly, not really, not unless he goes along with his terms first.

“Fine.”

Taehyung claps, looking a little too excited for Jeongguk to feel good about his decision. “The penalty or the dare?”

“What’s the penalty?”

“Closing your eyes.”

Jeongguk turns his head slowly, giving Taehyung a flat look. He sniggers in return, smacking his knee with one of his hands, looking like he just pulled off the gag of the century.

“You’re unbearable,” Jeongguk mutters, looking around himself. He can’t spot any suspicious vans or people around him and even though Taehyung’s a little taller than him he also seems to be more slender, so Jeongguk’s pretty confident that he could take him on if he tried anything fruity.

“Close your eyes and don’t peek. I’ll tell you when you can open them.”

Taehyung jumps off the swings in one smooth movement and Jeongguk levels a testy look at him.

“What are you doing?”

“If you peek I’ll give you another penalty, okay?”

“You and your penalties,” Jeongguk mumbles into his chin, lifting his hands and putting them over his eyes.

He keeps his ears peeled for any noises, nerves standing on end at every rustle and creak.

“Taehyung-hyung?”

“Keep your eyes closed.”

Taehyung sounds a little out of breath. Before Jeongguk can cook up a reason for why Taehyung’s voice would be labored in the middle of a deserted park, he senses a strange scent – it reminds him of summer at the seaside, standing on the beach with salt on your skin and the song of cicadas in your eyes.

He spreads his fingers, just a centimeter because he wants to know where the scent is coming from. Just as he’s about to peek through he feels hands settle over his and a deep voice in his ear.

“Your penalty,” he hears, and then soft lips brush against his cheek, in a fleeting sort of kiss. He doesn’t even have time to register it because Taehyung lowers his hands and when he opens his eyes, his breath gets taken away.

“Happy birthday, Kookie-yah.”

The field in front of him, previously filled with strands of grass, is now bursting with red flowers that look like roses but aren’t quite, with petals translucent like lace, reflecting off the light of the moon. Small sparks of silver crackle over the blossoms, like glimmering particles of dust, and Jeongguk thinks that he’s stepped into a dream.

“Sorry, I lied,” he hears, and the voice drags him back into reality, hands holding his in midair. “I got you a present after all.”

Taehyung’s fingers are slender against the back of his hands, soft and warm like a summer day. Jeongguk wants to see what kind of face he’s making right now, but he can’t tear his gaze away from the flowers.

“Hyung,” he says slowly, unable to control the trembling of his voice. “How did you-?”

“Do you want to know?”

Jeongguk takes his hands out of Taehyung’s and slowly turns around. Spots of light dance across his vision as he blinks rapidly, eyes tearing up from his wide-open stare.

“You can ask me. I promised I’d answer you this time.”

Jeongguk looks up at him, the serious line of his mouth and the pale fringe, falling into his dark eyes.

“Then I want to ask you one thing.”

Taehyung’s hand twitch by his side, lips pressing together like he’s bracing for impact. Jeongguk exhales.

“Come see me again?”

The nauseous feeling in his stomach doubles and Jeongguk looks down at his hands, thinking what kind of face to make when he looks up at Taehyung again.

He doesn’t get to decide because he feels fingers cupping the sides of his jaw. The touch is unexpected but still - comfortable.

“Jeongguk-ah,” Taehyung looks at him, gaze as sharp as the edge of a blade. “Are you sure?”

Jeongguk presses his lips together and nods. “I’ll ask you everything next time you come. So you – you better show up.”

Taehyung’s eyes widen, the sharpness dulling into something mellow and quiet.  He looks young, like years have been stripped off his face, and when he speaks his voice is small and fragile.  “I really – I don’t know when - I can.”

Nausea twists Jeongguk’s stomach in knots, the niggling in the back of his head transforming into painful throbbing. He feels like he’s looking at Taehyung through a coloured, dream-like lens, like neither of them are really here.

“That’s -”

“Don’t say that it’s okay just because you’re good at it,” Taehyung  interrupts, looking away with the smile on his lips wobbly and all wrong.  “Waiting.”

“How did you -” Jeongguk feels a wetness on his lips and when he licks them, the gritty taste of iron on his tongue. “How did you know that… I’d…”

Jeongguk reaches under his nose and finds red blood over his fingers, spilling out.

“Are you – Are you okay? Kookie-yah?”

Taehyung lets go of his face and Jeongguk looks up from his bloody fingers to see Taehyung, pulling a pristine white sleeve over his hand to dab at his upper lip. 

A crystalline image resurfaces through the recesses of Jeongguk's mind, sending a cold tingling down his spine. A purple haired boy scrubbing at his cheeks, wiping his tears away and promising him, pinky promising him- what?

Jeongguk’s vision blurs. The strain of trying to remember overwhelms him, threatening to drown him in waves of shimmering constellations and red petals. He wants to stop thinking but he feels like he's falling deeper into a sticky mass of gristle and bile that rises up his throat, the sound of voices, yelling his name and then-

Salt and morning dew wash over him, leaving a pleasant taste on the back of his tongue. The comforting warmth courses through his body and the white noise recedes, pain withdrawing like it was never there.

 “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I - I messed up, again.”

"What," Jeongguk mumbles, feeling silky fabric between his clutched fingers. He recognizes this voice, but it's only a faint niggling that is all but gone. "...hyung?"

“I’m sorry. I’ll make sure. I promised, right?”

“Hyung!”

Jeongguk sits straight up in bed, breathing heavily. His sheets are tangled up around his body, hair in a disarray around his face.

This time there is no recollection, not even a feeling of what he dreamed of the night before. His head is completely blank, apart from a couple of echoing words that fade into the sunlight.

 

 

4

Jeongguk searches his pockets, holding a cigarette between his lips. He plucks it out of his mouth when he comes up empty handed, dialing on his phone with his other hand.

It takes a couple of rings for him to get through and he already feels irritated when he hears Jimin’s high-pitched: “What do you want?”

“Did you take my lighter?”

“No, and also - Wait, did you lose my lighter? Jeongguk, seriously-”

“I didn’t lose my lighter, I just misplaced it.”

“-you always lose my stuff, I swear you’re not gonna see an inch of my new-”

“I’m gonna hang up now,” Jeongguk says with a lilt in his voice. “Bye, bye, Jimin.”

“You brat, call me hyung-”

Jeongguk lowers his phone and presses the end call icon with gusto. He slides it into the back pocket of his pants and tries to remember where Jimin’s lighter could have gone – the rounds of drinks he’s had during the night make it hard to remember, certain moments shrouded in a hazy mist.

He flips the cigarette from one finger to the other, gazing down the empty street – it’s too residential to have anyone milling about at this time of the night, four in the morning.

The sky is still dark but Jeongguk knows that it’s going to be brightening up really soon, in just an hour or so. The thought doesn’t make him too happy, all in all; it’s harder for him to sleep when there’s light peeking through his blinds.

He snaps out of his reverie when he sees a man standing by the driveway, his back turned to Jeongguk. It’s his lucky day, he thinks, approaching the man.

“Hey, sorry.”

The guy turns around and Jeongguk’s words catch in his throat – black hair falling in a soft swoop over dark eyes, tanned cheeks and perfectly arched lips. The edge of his white turtleneck reaches all the way to his v-shaped jawline, a stark contrast to the colour of his hair.

“Uh-” Jeongguk concentrates on looking at the man’s eyes, trying not to let them stray down to his slender torso. “Got a light?”

Jeongguk lifts up the hand with the cigarette and the man looks down to it, expression still blank. He reaches into the back pocket of his black jeans and holds out a black lighter, flicking the fire on.

Jeongguk props the cigarette into his mouth and leans close to the fire, lighting it. He leans back and drags in a smoke.

“Thanks.”

The guy nods at him, mouth still set tight. He regards him with quiet eyes for a moment but Jeongguk doesn’t miss the way his gaze quickly trails up and down his figure before he looks away.

This would usually be the moment when Jeongguk would walk away and cut off all contact. However, he’s still high on the buzz of the night, the drumming of the bass running through his veins and alcohol making his tongue loose.

“Sorry, do you live here? I haven’t seen you around.”

The guy turns his head to look at him. “I just moved in.”

“Oh! Me too. I mean, I live here too. I’m Jeon Jeongguk,” he says, and the corner of the man’s mouth twitches in response. “What’s your name?”

“Taehyung.”

“Taehyung? Nice to meet you. How old are you?”

“Twenty.”

“Oh, really?” Jeongguk grins, exhaling smoke through his nose. “Call me hyung, then. I’m twenty-one.”

Taehyung keeps quiet at that, just eyeing him up and down. Jeongguk feels a bit awkward at the sudden silence in their conversation and says the first thing he can think of.

“Back from a party?”

Taehyung jerks back a little, eyes finding Jeongguk’s again.

“No, I was just – waiting for someone.”

“Ah,” Jeongguk gives him his best comforting smile. “Stood up?”

Taehyung exhales, tongue darting out to lick at his lower lip. “I guess.”

“Someone like you, stood up?” Jeongguk muses.

 “Someone like me?”

Jeongguk flinches, not realizing until now that he voiced the sentiment out loud. Taehyung gives him a frowny look and Jeongguk realizes how weird it must sound for a guy to hear something like that, especially a guy who was probably waiting for a girl.

Taehyung’s still looking at him and Jeongguk gives him a quick smile, mouth working faster than his brain.

“You probably don’t know, but there’s a really decent place to sit around here," Jeongguk says and gestures behind his shoulder, to the alleyway between two apartment complexes, with a small cement wall separating them.

Taehyung gives him a perfectly unimpressed look and Jeongguk thinks that he can definitely tell that he’s trying too hard. His brain is putting up bright red alarms for him to shut up already, but his mouth keeps running on like it has a mind of its own.

“I’m not trying to hit on you or anything! Just so you know that, if you’re waiting, you can sit there next time. Yeah. So I’m gonna go sit there right  now. I don’t - I don’t mind if you join, though.”

A moment of excruciating silence and Jeongguk flicks the ash of his cigarette so hard that it almost flies right out of his fingers.

“Alright, so I’m go-”

“Sure.”

“Really?” Jeongguk exclaims, voice cracking at the burn of the smoke in the back of his throat. He clears his throat, coughing a little, the heat in his cheeks half from exertion and half from embarrassment.

“Really,” Taehyung repeats. Jeongguk thinks that he hears his voice waver, almost like he’s trying not to laugh, but when he looks up Taehyung is as straight-faced as ever.

Jeongguk clears his throat again before he turns around and gestures for Taehyung to follow him.

He leads him to the dimly lit alleyway, about three meters wide, sitting deeper into the alley and leaving the better lit space for Taehyung. He lifts the ashtray Yoongi left by the wall, a nondescript white one, and stubs out his cigarette.

Taehyung sits down next to him, hands poised on his knees and back straight. He’s close to Jeongguk, not close enough for them to actually touch, but close enough so Jeongguk can see his puffy under eye bags, the only imperfect thing on his face.

Jeongguk takes out another cigarette and puts it between his lips.

“Taehyung-ah,” he prompts and Taehyung startles, head snapping to Jeongguk. “Got fire?”

“Ah,” Taehyung blinks, eyes wide, before he reaches for his pocket and takes the lighter out. He flicks it on and Jeongguk can feel his eyes on him as he lights his cigarette.

He leans back, watching Taehyung slide the lighter back into his pocket.

“Do you smoke?”

Taehyung shakes his head. Jeongguk thinks it’s a little strange that he carries a lighter on himself when he doesn’t use it, but then he thinks that maybe it’s for that person, the one he’s waiting for.

Suddenly, Taehyung holds his hand out, fingers spread apart. Jeongguk looks from his hand to his face confusedly.

“Can I – try?” Taehyung asks.

“Oh," Jeongguk carefully places the cigarette between Taehyung's fingers. It looks elegant in his long fingers, even though he holds it a little awkwardly. "You’ve never smoked?” 

Taehyung shakes his head again, bringing the cigarette up to his mouth and placing it between his lips. He halts like that, brow furrowing, and Jeongguk laughs a little.

“Now you breathe it in.”

Taehyung does as he says, albeit it in a stilted, unnatural fashion. He lowers the cigarette and stares off into space, then exhales a gust of smoke. He looks to Jeongguk as if he’s asking for appraisal.

“Did you drag it in?”

“I – Probably?”

“Since you didn’t cough, I’m thinking that you probably didn’t,” Jeongguk smiles at him, handing him the ashtray. “Flick the ash off.”

Taehyung does as he asks and hands him the cigarette back, obviously done with smoking.

“Well, you probably shouldn’t smoke anyway,” Jeongguk tells him, huffing smoke out in circles. Taehyung follows them with his eyes.

“Why not?”

“It’s bad for all sorts of things, you know. Health-wise.”

Taehyung pierces a circle with his index, watching the smoke wrap around his finger.

“So why do you do it?”

“Me?” Jeongguk flicks ash off and thinks about it for a moment. “Habit, I guess? Most of my friends do it.”

“Do you have a lot of them?”

Jeongguk glances at Taehyung, huffing another row of smoke circles in his direction.

“Friends? Um. Not that many, I guess, but they’re good ones,” Jeongguk smiles. “Real idiots.”

Taehyung gives him an unreadable look from under his bangs. Jeongguk thinks that he got a bit too ahead of himself, again, but then Taehyung offers him a small smile.

“I’m glad.”

Even though he’s smiling, he looks like his heart is not really in it. Jeongguk stubs his cigarette out and sets the ashtray back on the ground.

He clears his throat, feeling uneasy now that he has nothing to do with his fingers. He resorts to picking at the skin around his nails.

“You can come here, sometimes. It’s just me and a neighbourhood hyung, Min Yoongi-ssi. He looks a bit cold at first but he takes good care of me,” Jeongguk frowns.  “Well, sometimes it’s Jimin too but that’s just because he has nothing else to do.”

Jeongguk takes in a breath. Taehyung is quiet by his side and Jeongguk starts to feel like he just misconstrued everything and Taehyung’s just downcast because he doesn’t like him all that much.

“You really think so?”

Jeongguk looks to Taehyung, who’s looking down at his lap with a blank expression. It’s a strikingly familiar sight – Jeongguk thinks of himself when he was younger, with no friends except for the one in the sky to take care of him.

Even now, years later, he was doubtful when Jimin excitedly approached him, having heard about him being from Busan from Yoongi. It took a while for him to actually believe that Jimin wasn’t messing around.

He wants to be Jimin for Taehyung right now, so he puts on his best grin, even though he doesn’t think he’s any good at cheering people up.

“I really do!” Jeongguk pats Taehyung on the back, feeling a bit awkward as he does it. “I think the guys would like you a lot!”  

Taehyung looks at him for a moment that feels longer than just a couple of seconds.

Instead of answering, he leans closer to him, gently leaning his head against his shoulder. They barely touch but Jeongguk still feels like it’s a very intimate gesture.

 “Hyung,” Taehyung suddenly says, voice as calm as the night surrounding them. “Do you ever get this feeling in your chest, like – it’s too tight, and – it’s hard to breathe?”

Jeongguk looks at Taehyung's bony fingers, folded in his lap.

“What do you mean?”

With an exhale, Taehyung sits back up again. “I – don’t know.”

Jeongguk breathes out, then breathes in again, looking at the white paneling on the building.  

“When I was small, sometimes… it would feel a little like that.”

“How did you make it go away?”

“I – I didn’t really,” Jeongguk answers. “It’s just that one day, I - I had this dream…”

He stops himself, feeling like he’s talking too much again, but Taehyung urges him onward with, “What kind?”

Jeongguk takes in a deep breath and says, “I - I was in a field, or something like that," the faint images filter in one by one as he continues to talk. "There were these huge, beautiful flowers blooming all around me. It was amazing," he smiles lightly. "There was someone sitting there with me, too, but I could never remember the face or anything, just – just the feeling of being warm.”

“You – you saw someone?”

Jeongguk nods. “Yeah. I – I actually…”

Jeongguk hesitates. When he glances at Taehyung, Jeongguk sees a tense expression on his face, almost like he's holding in a breath.

“I’m going to open up a flower shop one day,” he admits. “The biggest one in Seoul, to make my mom proud.”

Jeongguk exhales, limbs feeling somehow light, a small smile settling over his lips.

“And - And hopefully… I can make that person proud too. Whoever they were.”

They sit in silence for a short moment, Taehyung looking in front of himself with the strangest look on his face.

Just as Jeongguk’s about to blurt out something, just to break the awkward silence, Taehyung turns to his side. He gives Jeongguk a smile, as soft as flowers in bloom.

“Can you close your eyes? Just for a second.”

It’s an outlandish request but there is such an honest look in Taehyung’s eyes, brimming with affection, that Jeongguk can’t say no.

In the dark, Jeongguk hears the rustle of clothes and feels hands, cupping his face and turning it to the side, and then – a kiss on his cheek. It’s as gentle and brief as a summer downpour.

When he opens his eyes Taehyung’s looking at him through his lashes, with dark, beautiful eyes.  

“I couldn’t help myself.”

Before he can think about it, Jeongguk leans in. He feels a whiff salt, lashes and white skin and then lips slot against his, soft and warm, and Jeongguk closes his eyes again. Taehyung’s lips taste a little like cigarette smoke. They kiss for a while, languidly, until Jeongguk runs out of breath and moves away,

“I couldn’t help myself either," he tells Taehyung.

Taehyung breathes in and out with his lips parted, eyelashes fluttering. On an impulse, Jeongguk takes one of Taehyung’s hands off his face and kisses his knuckles before holding it tightly in his.

Taehyung gives him a breathy laugh, jet black fringe rustling as he shakes his head.

“I never learn,” he says, a bitter undertone to his voice.

“Hm? Learn what?”

Taehyung’s gaze falls, a strange smile on his lips.  Before Jeongguk can press him for an answer, Taehyung leans forward and kisses him again. His fingers slip away from Jeongguk’s cheek to close over his hand.

It’s warm, unnaturally so, but Jeongguk’s too distracted by the feeling of Taehyung’s lips against his, nipping at his lower lip before licking at the tender spot. When Jeongguk leans back, surprised at the tingle of pain, Taehyung kisses down his jaw, to his neck.

Jeongguk throws his head back, a hazy, floating feeling in his body.  The light scraping of teeth against his skin is even stronger like this and Jeongguk feels a sweet sting when Taehyung bites lightly, right where his neck meets his shoulder.

“Don’t forget,” he feels the words murmured against his skin, cold breath fanning against the kiss marks on his neck. Taehyung sucks at the spot he bit before, gently, and Jeongguk feels a grounding sort of pleasure heading downwards, before he’s lost to a fuzzy whirpool again. “Don't forget this."

A hand holds the back of his head because Jeongguk can’t lift it anymore. Still, it’s so warm, so comfortable, arms embracing him, holding him tightly and he feels Taehyung’s lips against his neck, his breath down his shirt.

"Please."

Jeongguk wants to tell him that this can’t be their last time but he feels like he’s swimming in a warm pool full of cotton clouds and he’s just so sleepy and hazy, so what exactly happened last ni–

“Hey – Jeongguk-ah? Jeongguk-ah!”

Jeongguk startles, Yoongi’s face by his side filtering into his vision.

“Huh?”

“You’re ashing yourself.”

“What?” Jeongguk looks down and finds his cigarette burned down almost to the filter, the ash falling down onto his jeans. “Aw, crap.”

Jeongguk brushes the ash off his pants, the corners of his eyes misty from sleep.

“Spacing out a lot today, aren’t we?”

Jeongguk drags in a long smoke, the chemicals in the filter leaving a gritty taste on his tongue.  “Just tired.”

“Right. Have anything to do with that chew mark on your neck?”

Jeongguk flinches, the second time in a single morning. He clasps his hand over his neck and Yoongi snorts, smirking at him from behind his cigarette.

“Who was it?”

“I don’t – remember,” Jeongguk admits quietly, ducking his head in a guise of stubbing his cigarette out.

“Charming,” Yoongi echoes, sounding completely unimpressed. “Well. Just don’t let Jiminie see.”

“Jimin?” Jeongguk squints at Yoongi. “What’s he got to do with anything?”

“Oh, nothing. Nothing at all.”

“It’s obviously something.”

“For stupid boys like you,” Yoongi drawls, punctuating his words with a cloud of smoke in Jeongguk’s face. “It’s nothing.”

Jeongguk coughs, waving the cloud of smoke away.

“Hyung, come on-”

Jeongguk’s interrupted by a buzzing from his pocket. He takes his phone out and finds a text telling him: You better have a new lighter for me.

“Is that Jiminie?”

“Yes?”

Yoongi gives him a knowing look. “Tell him I said hi.”

“Right,” Jeongguk pushes his phone back inside of his pocket. He stands, stretching out for a moment.  “Hey, hyung. Can I borrow your lighter?”

 

 

5

It’s pouring outside and the breeze sends the cold up Jeongguk’s thin sleeves, making goose-bumps raise on his arms. He lights his cigarette on the front steps and opens up his umbrella before venturing out into the rain.

His feet take him to his usual spot, the small alley between the two buildings. He knows that it’s too rainy outside for him to be actually able to sit on the wall there, but there is a routine familiarity in smoking at that place.

However, when he approaches the spot he halts in his steps at the sight of a person already sitting there. The man has his eyes closed, head tipped back a little, wet clothes clinging to his thin frame.

Jeongguk isn’t sure what he should do. He’s never thought of himself as a particularly friendly person but this stranger must have heard the wet splash his shoes made on the asphalt. It would be strange to just walk off and it would be equally weird to keep standing in complete silence, pretending nobody is there after all.

“Um. Hello?” Jeongguk tries, hoping that he gets no answer so he can go back to his apartment in peace.

The man starts at the sound of Jeongguk’s voice and faces straight ahead. Raindrops drip from his sodden bangs, streaming down his greyish skin. He squints at Jeongguk and gives him a brilliant smile.

“Hi.”

An impulse pushes Jeongguk to step forward and hold his umbrella over the stranger’s head.

The stranger tilts his head upwards slowly, like he’s surprised at the rain stopping. He looks younger up close, features slightly rounded but jaw sharp enough to indicate maturity.

He’s handsome, Jeongguk thinks, but in a slightly uncanny way – his skin looks almost too smooth, eyes too sharp and defined, like he’s been permanently airbrushed.

“Are you alright?”

“Me?” the boy gives him a confused look, blinking water off his long lashes. “I’m fine. You?”

Jeongguk opens his mouth and closes it again. The boy looks up at him with polite curiosity, lips a blueish hue.

“What are you doing in the rain?”

“Oh, I was just waiting for someone.”

Jeongguk gapes at him. They stare at each other for a couple of moments and Jeongguk becomes acutely aware of how unprepared he is as an adult to deal with this.

“Your cigarette,” the boy suddenly says and Jeongguk follows his gaze down to his hand. He finds a sodden cigarette butt between his fingers. He looks around to see where he can get rid of it, and just ends up shoving it into his back pocket. He’ll throw it out later, probably.

Jeongguk sighs, leaving this slight moment of normalcy to look back to the strange boy. His hands are clasped together, a perfectly relaxed smile on his face.

“Why didn’t you take an umbrella?”

“It’s fine. I like the rain.”

Jeongguk feels sticky, the back of his white tee wet from how he’s tilting the umbrella, and even though it’s not that cold outside it still doesn’t feel comfortable. He can’t imagine why anyone would like this feeling.

He clears his throat, trying to emulate Namjoon's mature mien when he says: “It’s fine to like it but this is a bit excessive.”

The boy gives a quiet laugh. “It’s fine. I’m not staying for long, anyway.”

There’s a strange light in the boy’s eyes compared to his amicable expression, but the more Jeongguk looks at him the uneasier he feels – like he’s staring down into a deep, dark well, with murky water glistening at the bottom.

Jeongguk feels a prickle of urgency in his gut. He clears his throat, trying not to sound too inquisitive as he asks: “Do you live here?”

The boy shakes his head, raindrops scattering all around him.

“The person you’re waiting for, then - do they live here?”

The boy halts for a moment, teeth digging into his lower lip. The umbrella casts a heavy shadow over his face, highlighting the hollows under his eyes.

“So they do?”

The boy stonewalls him. Jeongguk thinks that he knows that he’s trying to pry information out of him, and the more that he tries the more likely he is to clam up. He racks his brain for what to do and tries again.

“I’m Jeon Jeongguk,” he says, and sees a small twitch of the boys mouth. “What’s your name? How old are you?”

“Hyung,” the boy says suddenly, a weird lilt in his voice. “I have to go soon.”

“Really? But you don’t – you don’t have an umbrella-”

“I’m fine without it. Really.”

Jeongguk gets an eerie feeling, like wet fingers creeping up the ridges of his spine.

“Where are you going?”

The boy keeps the same frozen smile on his face, the look in his eyes heavy.

“Can I ask you a question?” the boy asks quietly.

Jeongguk’s back feels completely wet now, down to the bone. Instead of saying anything he looks down at him, feeling like he’s tiptoeing along the edge of a high precipice.

“Did you become a florist?”

 “I–” Jeongguk breathes out, nerves standing on end, prickling down the skin of his arms. There's no mistaking the weirdness of the question, yet Jeongguk can't put a finger on what exactly it is. “I did. I mean, I am. A florist. Have you – Have you visited the shop before?”

Completely ignoring his question, the boy says: “I’m – I’m really glad.”

Even as he says that, the small smile on his face fades away, revealing a heavy weariness. The emptiness in his eyes has a name, somewhere along the lines of sorrow or loneliness. If the boy stays for just a moment longer, Jeongguk thinks that maybe he can find out and help make it go away.

Just as he thinks that he feels a loud vibration from his front pocket, jerking him out of his thoughts.

Jeongguk takes his phone out of his pocket and sees Jimin’s contact name. He stares at it, the name almost seeming unfamiliar, like a sudden burst of reality during a garish dream.

“You should answer that,” he hears. “Your friend will worry.”

Jeongguk looks up. The spell behind the boy’s eyes seems to have vanished now, a subdued smile back on his face.

Jeongguk doesn’t really know what to say. He thinks it would be strange not to pick up and that his hesitance must look even stranger.

In the end, he presses the accept icon and brings the phone up to his ear.

“Hello, Jimin?”

“Did you drown or something? Where are you?”

“I’m fine,” Jeongguk glances at the boy, who’s looking to the side with a blank expression. “I’m just smoking.”

“It’s been, like, ten minutes.”

“What, have you been timing me?”

“You brat.”

Jeongguk gives a faint laugh.

“Well, come back already. Yoongi-hyung is getting Hobi-hyung super drunk and none of us want that.”

“Ugh,” Jeongguk grimaces. “Right. No crying tonight.”

“No crying,” Jimin agrees with a low chuckle.

“Right. I’ll come up soon.”

“Yeah, do that,” Jimin says before hanging up.

Putting away his phone, Jeongguk realizes that he’s smiling to nothing in particular. He looks back to the boy, who’s playing with his fingers and looking down at his lap.

“So, you have to go, too.”

“Oh, well,” Jeongguk scratches at his nape. “I think it’s okay, really. Jimin says that now but he’s always super late to everything, so.”

“Hmm,” Taehyung exhales, something about his expression slightly off. “You have really good friends.”

“Uh. Yeah, I guess.”

“Well,” he shoots him a bright smile. “I guess I’ll go now.”

Before Jeongguk can say anything the boy stands up. They are about the same height, Jeongguk just a centimeter or so taller than him. Jeongguk holds the umbrella over their heads as the rain pours around them, dripping off the rim.

“You don’t have to,” Jeongguk tries weakly. “We can talk for a while longer.”

The boy shakes his head. “It’s fine.”

“And the person that you’re waiting for?”

“Hmm,” he gives him an opaque smile. “I don’t think I need to wait anymore.”

Jeongguk can’t find the right words to say. There’s an inexplicable sadness in his body when the boy smiles as gestures him closer, inviting him to lean in.

When he does, the boy whispers into his ear: “We kept our promise. Now it’s time to let go.”

When he leans back there’s a twinkle on the boy’s cheeks, like a shooting star just fell from his dark eyes. Jeongguk is perfectly still as he feels fingers on his cheeks and suddenly, his body warms up.

“From now on, with all of your friends, all of your flowers,” the boy tells him, a heart-wrenching smile on his face. “Be happy, always.”

Sparkling dots appear and extinguish on the boy’s cheeks, hair glimmering in deep, rich shades of the setting sun. Jeongguk feels a tearing in his chest and a heavy headache settling in between his eyeballs, a feeling so strong it makes him want to break something around him because he’s missing something important-

"Jeongguk-ah."

The white heat engulfs him completely, washing over his body in waves.

“I’m really proud of you.”

And Jeongguk blinks.

He’s sitting in front of the door to his apartment building, umbrella overturned by his side. He feels the aftermath of a headache in his skull, grainy vision and a tremble in his waterlogged body.

He can’t remember anything after coming down the stairs, and straining his memory only makes him a little sick to the stomach. He thinks he must have slipped on the porch stairs and hit his head.

He gets up in a daze, holding onto the railing as makes his way inside the apartment, then up the staircase, to his front door. He tries the knob and finds the door unlocked.

Jeongguk steps inside, the creaking of the door announcing his arrival.

The hallway is dark, bathed in shadows, the only light the faint, warm glow coming from the living room. There’s complete silence except from the pitter-patter of the rain hitting the roof and a strange tittering that sounds like it belongs to Hoseok.

“Shut up,” he hears someone hiss, in what’s probably an attempt at being quiet. Jeongguk thinks that they’re probably trying to pull some kind of lame prank on him.

“Uh, guys? Are you-” Jeongguk pokes his head into the living room and finds his friends seated around his coffee table, laden with small candles. “… Here?”

“One, two, three, and,” Seokjin begins, jumping to this feet. “Happy birthday to you-”

All of the other boys join him, starting at various places of the song and getting the lyrics jumbled. Seokjin moves his fingers like a conductor, frown deepening as the singing goes more and more haywire.

 Hoseok starts dancing to a non-existing beat, not even trying to keep up with the song. Yoongi’s giving a lethargic half-clap, mumbling the song with a raspy voice while on the other hand, Namjoon unabashedly and very loudly misses the pitch of the song.

Jeongguk feels a tap on his shoulder and when he turns around, finds Jimin smiling at him, cheeks flushed and hair in a slight disarray. He’s holding a platter with a round cake on top, two lighted candles in the shape of the numbers ‘95’. It’s a perfect depiction of the moon, slightly glowy with darker and brighter splotches representing the uneven surface.

“Happy birthday, our Jeonggukie,” Jimin sings out, with a sweet but slightly pitchy voice. “Happy birthday to you.”

The guys finish up the song, clapping and cheering after the ending. Jeongguk can’t find the words to say, all of them stuck in the middle of his throat, so he lets out a weird noise and covers up his face with his hands.

Amongst raucous hoots, the light switches on and he hears a lot of chattering, most of it endeared exclamations.

“What?” he hears Jimin’s high-pitched voice by his ears, broken up by giggling. “Are you crying?”

“Who’s crying?” Jeongguk mumbles into his hands, digging the heels of his palms into his wet eyes. “I’ll kick your ass.”

“Guys, Jeonggukie is crying!” Jimin bellows, and Jeongguk registers loud thudding, almost like the sound of horse hooves.

“Aw, our baby Jeonggukie,” Jeongguk hears Hoseok right next to him, letting out feigned sobbing noises, and bends over so Hoseok can’t try and pry his fingers away from his face.

“Indian bob!” he announces, and Jeongguk feels  a zesty slap to the middle of his back. The other boys pitch in and soon his back is burning so much that Jeongguk starts crying from the pain rather than from the touching gesture.

“Okay, okay, enough,” he hears Yoongi say and the slaps subside, ending with a smack to his butt, most likely from Seokjin.

Jeongguks straightens up, wiping at his eyes, “Ow, guys.”

“Blow out the candles,” Hoseok urges him excitedly, all bouncy like he’s standing on springs.

Jeongguk leans forward and thinks of a quick wish before blowing the candles out. The guys cheer, the loudest one of them being Hoseok, and Jeongguk feels hands on his shoulders and on his hair. He feels full of warmth, like he’s a little kid again.

“Hyung, did you do the cake?” he asks Seokjin, marveling at the intricate design.

“Oh, yeah,” Seokjin replies, giving him a cheerful grin. “I did it at the shop tonight and brought it over.”

“How – how did you get it in?” Jeongguk looks around at his friends. “I didn’t even notice.”

“Oh, while you were drinking,” Seokjin says, and Namjoon adds: “We actually had to cheat because we knew you wouldn’t lose.”

 “Do you know – how many rounds I drank?” Hoseok whinges, smacking him on the shoulder.

“It’s your fault,” Yoongi says smoothly. “You don’t keep track of the game at all.”

“I was focused on acting,” Hoseok retorts. He throws his arm around Jeongguk’s shoulder and very seriously tells him: “I tried so hard, really.”

Jeongguk laughs, nodding at Hoseok in his most appreciative way. He catches Yoongi’s eye and Yoongi gives him a long-suffering look, but Jeongguk doesn’t miss the faint smile on his lips.

“Let’s go eat the cake before this idiot passes out,” Yoongi says.

“Yeah,” Jeongguk concurs, gently unwinding Hoseok’s arm so he can walk. Hoseok then attaches himself to Seokjin, who leads him to the coffee table with a very indulgent smile.

They all settle around it, sitting on small cushions, Jimin placing the cake in the middle. He cuts it and gives Jeongguk the first and biggest slice, then hands everyone equal servings of the rest of the cake.

As they eat, forks clattering and the boys praising the cake to a very proud Seokjin, Jimin leans close to him and asks quietly: “Why are you all wet?”

Jeongguk swallows a mouthful and answers him in the same covert tone: “I kind of slipped.”

“You slipped? Really?” Jimin shakes his head, eyes worried. “Are you fine?”

“Yeah. My back kinda stings, though. You guys killed me over there.”

“Hey, don’t look at me. I just held the cake.”

Jeongguks smiles and eats another piece of the cake, sugary cream melting on his tongue.

 Across the table, Hoseok gets some cream onto his finger and tries to smear it down Yoongi’s face, Namjoon and Seokjin worriedly observing Hoseok's impending doom.

Jeongguk leans closer to Jimin’s ear, the clean scent of lilac detergent rising from his knit sweater. “The cake was your idea, right?”

Jimin leans away, cutting into his slice with excessive care. His ear looks slightly red, evident in contrast with his small silver hoop earring.

“I really loved it,” Jeongguk nudges him with his elbow. “Thank you, hyung.”

“That’s-” Jimin clears his throat, voice almost completely overridden by Hoseok’s screech as Yoongi stabs him in his ribs with his fork. “That’s okay.”

Jeongguk smiles down at his cake.

They eat the rest of it, Hoseok finishing his piece with a theatrical sight before throwing himself down on the floor with a hand over his stomach. Namjoon gives him a disdainful look, picking up his beer and earphones and going to the window.

 Yoongi stays on his pillow, playing around on his phone after having ordered Jimin to take care of the mess of plates on the table.

When Jeongguk tries to get up from the table to help, Seokjin stops him with, “You should probably go change.”

“Ah… yeah.”

Seokjin gives him a kind smile and continues helping Jimin gather up all of the utensils. Jimin grumbles something under his breath about the other hyungs never helping and Jeongguk goes to his room with an amused smile on his face.

He pulls the wet shirt off, slinging it over his chair with his slightly damp jeans to change into sweatpants and a dry white shirt.

When he throws a cursory look around his floor for some clean socks, he sees something strange under his chair. When he bends down to pick it up, he realizes that it’s a flower with beautiful white petals, in full bloom. A gardenia.

Jeongguk puzzles over it for a second, and comes to the solution that it must have fallen out of his jeans. Maybe one of the guys put it inside his pocket as a joke and he just hadn’t noticed.

He places it onto his window sill, the least cluttered place in his room. He’ll put it in a vase first thing tomorrow.

“Okay,” Jeongguk announces in the hallway, waltzing into the living room. From the kitchen, he can hear the sound of running water.

“Attention, please.”

Hoseok lifts himself up on one elbow, looking like a beached whale. Namjoon throws a cursory look over his shoulder, one earbud in, while Yoongi gives him an impassive look over the display of his phone.

“Who’s ready to drink? Like, a lot?”

Hoseok groans and lies back down on the ground. Yoongi gives a completely predatory smile, shutting his phone and putting it away. “Let’s get the party started, JK.”

Jeongguk grins back at him and goes to fetch Jimin and Seokjin from the kitchen, dragging them away with the promise of doing the dishes some time tomorrow.

When they are all seated around the table again, Yoongi clears his throat. Jeongguk notices Jimin’s agitated squirming and the much too solemn look on Namjoon’s face, but he still can’t really tell what’s going on.

“Oh, by the way, Jeongguk-ah,” Yoongi says lazily, stretching with his hands behind his back. He brings them forward and presents Jeongguk with a wrapped up box.

“Surprise.”

“What - What the heck?”

Hoseok gives a high-pitched laugh, jumping up from the table with energy Jeongguk didn’t know he possessed after having eaten so much cake. “Take it, take it!”

Jeongguk accepts it, mouth still hanging wide open. “You guys… you got me a present?”

“Open it already,” Jimin mumbles by his side.

Jeongguk swallows down a thick throat, feeling another swarm of heat rising to his eyes. He unwraps the slightly clumsy packaging and finds a brand new camera, all packed up. It's a good one, an expensive one at that - Jeongguk had shown it to Seokjin once when they were shopping together.

“No way,” Jeongguk exclaims, fingers going numb. “No way.”

“Yes way,” Hoseok claps, grinning at him. “Take it out, I wanna see.”

“Guys…” Jeongguk holds the box tightly, trying not to tear up again. “This… this costs so much money.”

Namjoon clucks his tongue, leaning across the table to pat him on the head. “It’s fine, Jeonggukie. You’ll pay us back in memories.”

“You’re really good at it, too,” Seokjin pipes in. “We want to see you become ever better.”

“Guys, I…” Jeongguk cradles the box in his arms, holding it against his chest.

Jimin spreads his arms and exclaims, “Come into my arms, Jeonggukie.”

Jeongguk is pretty positive that he’s just joking around but he doesn’t care and shifts closer to Jimin, pressing his face into the crook of his neck. He breathes in deeply, soaking up the sunshine-like warmth imbued into Jimin's body.

“Aw, man,” he hears Hoseok say through quiet laughter. “You’d think we were hosting a funeral here, not a birthday party.”

When Jimin laughs Jeongguk can feel the slight vibrations of his shoulders. His arms come around Jeongguk’s back, one hand holding the back of his head.

“He’s halfway to fifty,” Jimin says protectively, faking an offended tone. “You know old people get emotional. Right, Hobi?”

“Ya, ya, you little-” Hoseok hollers, suddenly switching to his heavy accent. “Don’t get too familiar, hear me?”

Jimin giggles again, fingers carding gently through Jeongguk’s hair. His cold rings feel a little weird against his scalp but it’s Jeongguk still feels his chest fill up with an almost painful warmth.

 “Is he fine?” he hears Yoongi remark. “He’s not moving at all.”

“He just doesn’t want to leave my loving arms,” Jimin replies lightheartedly.

Jeongguk responds to that by going completely slack, rolling his head back with his mouth open.

“Good God,” Yoongi deadpans. “Your stink is killing him.”

Hoseok goes wild with cackling, probably breaking the sonic barrier with the frequency of his laughter and Seokjin joins in, clapping like a seal.

When Jeongguk leans away, Namjoon’s just rubbing at his forehead tiredly while Yoongi has a carefully neutral expression on his face, acting like he’s indifferent to the explosive reaction.

“You betrayed me,” Jimin mumbles, crossing his arms over. “Unbelievable.”

His full lips are jutting out in a pout, slanted eyes narrowed and petulant. Jeongguk grabs Jimin’s face, fingers digging into his soft, round cheeks, and brings him closer to plant a big kiss in the middle of his cheek.

“Thank you,” Jeongguk says, voice ringing out in the sudden silence. Jimin stares at him with wide eyes, then goes as red as a cherry tomato.

Namjoon lets out a little cough.

“Hey, ” Hoseok says suddenly, his upset voice cutting into the charged atmosphere. “I gave you that present, too. Am I gonna get a kiss or what?”

Jimin’s face goes into a wide grin, and he folds almost in half from the force of his giggling.

Hoseok practically leaps across the table to attack Jeongguk, winding his arms around him and making kissy faces. Jeongguk pushes his face away with one hand, stomach hurting from laughter.

Inside his head, Jeongguk repeats his birthday wish over and over. That now that he’s found his family, he can keep it forever and ever, and they can always laugh, just like this.

He wants nothing more than that.

 

 

Epilogue 

Jeongguk’s home is Seoul, on the first floor a tall skyscraper.

He lives close enough to the ground that he someone could climb up and into his room, if it weren’t for the bars keeping him safe inside.

By the building complex, there is a small cement wall, where he meets up with his neighbour Yoongi for a quick smoke every morning. After, he makes his way to his small shop, opening up and tending to the flowers. Sometimes, a hyung called Hoseok drops by on the way to dance practice, to look at his sunflowers and make small talk. Here and there, Jeongguk gets a call from Namjoon, asking him about the symbolism of flowers - for his music, he says.

Sometimes, Jeongguk misses his birth town - the beach, the waves, hiking in the lush, green woods. When he tells his friends, they make a promise to go see it one day, together. When he thanks them in his Busan accent, they laugh and pipe in with their own. Some of the things he does are still strange to people, but they are always followed by a gust of laughter and sometimes, even stranger things.

In the nights when Jeongguk dreams, he sees flashes of red flowers and sparkling freckles appearing across his vision, and he goes to the open window. And on clear nights like these, sometimes he sees his old friend, shining bright in the sky.

He tells him about his life in Seoul, how he plans to branch out his business and make a contract with Seokjin’s patisserie, how he fell in love for the first time and how it was reciprocated.

On his twenty-eight birthday, Jeongguk thanks him for bringing him happiness when he needed it the most. With a fond smile on his face, he bids him goodbye. The moon twinkles down at him, and Jeongguk thinks that he’s telling him goodbye as well.

Returning to his bed, Jeongguk brushes hair off Jimin’s forehead before nestling in next to him, throwing an arm around his waist.

 

It’s up to him to make his own happiness now.

 

 

(the end)