There’s a way Soonyoung sleeps sometimes, but only very rarely.
If Hoseok sees it at all, it’s usually in the morning. It’s flushed cheeks and little hands balled up into sheets and a chest rising and falling evenly, bedsheets thrown all about, hair a mess. It’s complete chaos with a peaceful child tenderly resting in the midst as if placed there to accent it. If he tiptoes in very softly and stays silent, Hoseok can almost hear Soonyoung’s sweet dreams, soft and flowing like clear water.
This is the way he is sleeping on a morning when it’s cold and bright out the window, almost jarring. The winter so far has been wet; maybe this will be the first day it doesn’t rain.
This is the way Soonyoung sleeps just for a moment, on a greyish, light-skied morning when the air in the house feels clean and fresh, when Hoseok opens the blinds in the living room and a beam of strange, crisp light cascades onto the red rug and the sleek black coffee table, reflecting just a little on the dark wood floor.
This is Soonyoung sleeping like waking him up would be wrong.
Hoseok stands over him just for a moment. He thinks about reaching out to smooth his hair or sitting at the edge of the bed with him, just while it lasts, but he decides it would be best to let him keep it. He turns around silently to leave.
He gets to the door.
He turns around.
Soonyoung is still sweet. He’s still laying there, like he’s been in a fever that’s broken and left him so calm. One puffy eye is half-open.
Hoseok goes to him. “Yes, honey.”
Soonyoung puts his arms around Hoseok’s neck. Hoseok lifts him out of bed. Soonyoung starts crying.
He doesn’t stop.
He doesn’t stop when Hoseok smooths his hair, or when he puts a shirt on him, because Hoseok likes to at least have him dressed before the nanny arrives.
He doesn’t stop crying, either, when 8:15 passes and the nanny does not arrive. She’s only been watching Soonyoung for a week and a half, so it’s still early enough that she might not show up, he might just never hear from her again.
Soonyoung is still crying when 8:30 comes and goes and Hoseok calls his mother to try to ask her to watch him last minute.
She doesn’t answer, which Hoseok can’t even be mad about. Hoseok wouldn’t answer a call from himself at 8:30 on a weekday either, after everything.
He thinks about his options as he alternates between holding Soonyoung and letting him run around. The beam of light that fell on the rug and the floor and then shifted to the stainless steel countertop is now shining off the mess Soonyoung’s making.
Soonyoung dumps a box of toys out onto the living room floor and bashes them against each other while he continues to sob, for so much longer than makes sense. He must need water. Hoseok is on the verge of crying as well.
It’s about time for him to leave for work now.
He isn’t dressed. He isn’t showered. He usually does those things after the nanny gets here. Usually he has a week at least to find a replacement. A nanny has never just not showed up, though they often quit with short notice. He thinks, looking to his child, who is in the act of trying to rip the head from a stuffed bear while screaming, that it might have something to do with Soonyoung’s behavior lately.
At 9:13, after he’s supposed to already be at work, right when Soonyoung is starting to calm down, the nanny calls.
“I can’t come in,” she says.
“That’s obvious. Are you quitting? “
Hoseok can’t even be mad. He sighs. He thanks her for calling.
A little before 10:30, Hoseok gets to his office. He didn’t shower, he just got dressed. He has Soonyoung with him.
They get all the way to the elevator in the high-ceilinged entryway to the building, white marble tile shining, before Soonyoung makes him pick him up. They get all the way to the hallway in the 16th floor before Soonyoung starts struggling in his arms.
“I can’t let you down,” Hoseok tries to say. He tries to be soothing. “We have to be good now.”
Soonyoung isn’t crying anymore, though, or acting like he’ll start again. He’s trying to get down, probably so he can run around and knock things over. He’s only been to the office once before, so he’s interested. He was bad the first time, and it was embarrassing, so Hoseok has avoided it since.
Today he’d like to quickly grab his work laptop and a few papers and leave again. He’ll also have to apologize to his boss. She’ll probably be really understanding, and it will only make Hoseok feel worse.
Soonyoung wrestles his way out of Hoseok’s arms when Hoseok is trying to introduce him to someone. Her name is Elaine, he’s managing her on a project right now, and they’ve been working very closely for the past several months. He’s apologized to her and told her he’ll be available all day, but she doesn't seem upset. She knows her work and she thinks Soonyoung is adorable. She’s saying, “Hi, Soonyoung! I’ve heard a lot about you!” right at the moment when he squeals and catapults himself out of Hoseok’s arms onto the hard grey carpet. He cries loudly, and Hoseok tries to scoop him back up while Elaine looks on like she doesn’t know what to do.
Hoseok successfully wrangles Soonyoung into his office and gives him a piece of recycled paper and a blue pen and an orange highlighter, which calms him down a little, though he still keeps ripping the pages and making Hoseok replace them.
Hoseok packs up some work that he thinks he’ll be able to get done while keeping Soonyoung from breaking everything nice in their house. When he’s just about ready to go, his boss knocks on the door.
She asks how it’s going, letting herself in. Soonyoung doesn’t say hello, even though he can. He just makes a screeching sound at her.
“We’re good,” Hoseok tells her. He says he was just about to check in with her. His nanny quit last minute.
“Alright,” she tells him gently. “You still have to have that proposal in by Monday, you know that. And your team is a little behind.”
“We’ve almost worked it out. I’ll work remotely all day and try to be back in tomorrow.”
She nods encouragingly, like it really is okay, and then she says she hopes it goes well. She says bye to Soonyoung and then to Hoseok.
Hoseok slings his bag over his shoulder and coaxes Soonyoung back into his arms so he can take him to the car.
“Soonyoung, you’re hurting me.”
“Soonyoung. Don’t pull my hair.”
“Buddy. Come on.”
Soonyoung says, “Appa, love you,” while he’s trying to yank two of Hoseok’s fingers so far apart that they break.
“I love you, too.”
When Hoseok gets home, he switches between the code he’s working through and the ads he’s putting up on all the websites he knows of. He sounds desperate.
Nanny Needed. Asap. Experience Negotiable.
He used to require 2 years, like most of the better ads on the better websites did. He paid well enough.
Eventually, he kept the pay rate but lowered the experience to a year, thinking maybe a bright-eyed youngster trying to build a resume in childcare would more easily form a bond with Soonyoung.
Until now, he looked for a nanny who had, at least, been paid to care for children before.
Today, he just wants someone who has met a four-year-old and can put up with verbal and physical abuse, as long as they can start this week.
He loves Soonyoung. He does. He loves Soonyoung enough that it breaks his heart to see him act this way, knowing the wonderful kid who lives somewhere in there.
He sees the sweet Soonyoung sometimes. Lately, for a few minutes a day, at most. When he’s sleepy, or when he ate about an hour ago and doesn’t have to go to the bathroom yet. He smiles at Hoseok and lets himself be picked up, sometimes kisses his cheek, though Hoseok is still wary of that because he bit him so hard once that he had a little mouth print over his cheekbone for a full week.
Sweet Soonyoung will say “Love you, Appa” without trying to trick Hoseok into giving him something. Sweet Soonyoung will fall asleep sitting next to Hoseok while they’re watching a movie and will let Hoseok carry him to bed. Sweet Soonyoung is the reason Hoseok hasn’t gone insane yet.
Taehyung is in trouble.
He’s just gotten off the phone with his mom, whom he mistakenly thought might choose his side in this.
She didn’t. She told him he was an idiot. He’d heard his dad in the room say, “Is that Tae? How is he?” and he could almost feel his mom bat him away, scowling.
She said that he had to come home. Leaving his internship like this was irresponsible; how was he going to survive? He shouldn’t have left home in the first place. “Can you go back?” she said. “Beg them.”
“I had to quit,” he told her. She didn’t know what he was going though. It was too much pressure; they weren’t forgiving. She didn’t know how they were treating him, or how quickly it was making him wonder if he really loved his work. “If I can't stand what I’m studying,” he told her, “My degree will be a waste.” That seemed ever more logical as he entered week three of digging through internal samples, doing the same tests to get the same results and not even getting to see any cool skeletons. Why was he doing any of this, then?
He told her that he had to leave, or he would die. He stayed for so long, even though after the first day he knew he hated it. He did his best. He couldn't cut it, he explained, falling back onto the low bed, sweeping hair back off his face with his free hand. He missed his siblings, he wanted to come home.
But, his mom brought up a good point. His semester’s loan money had been retracted, and the lease he signed held him responsible for six months’ rent even if he moved out.
“I kind of,” he said meekly, “didn’t think about that.”
She told him to figure it out, and he’d never heard her sound so disappointed.
She hung up. Now he’s left on his twin bed in the tiny, cement-floored furnished apartment for which he is financially responsible until mid-May. Only now does the severity of what he’s done fully hit him.
He needs to get a job. One that pays really well. Today. And he can’t go home. He blinks at the stained ceiling.
He doesn’t have a lot of ideas, off the top of his head. The only ready ways he can think to make a lot of money all at once make him cringe. He can sift through the contents of old guts for three weeks straight, apparently, but he’s still a fairly squeamish person.
He opens some tabs online to help him think of ideas. He’s made coffee before; he could try that. But he stops after clicking a few links. Of course he couldn’t pay for a thousand dollar apartment with barista money.
His future is over. The decision he made today, not to die in the short term, will only make his death slower. He should have accepted it bravely.
He opens a new tab to a local website. Right at the top, posted 13 minutes ago, is an ad for a nanny.
Taehyung has cousins, and of course his younger siblings. He’s never thought about watching a stranger’s kids before, but he’s willing to try anything, and the pay looks, well. Suspiciously good. Good enough for what he needs.
Because of this, he almost doesn’t apply. Some moneyed family paying that much for a nanny probably doesn’t want somebody like him. He just looks like he’s poor. His clothes fit that way. He has no work experience and he couldn’t even hold down an unpaid internship at a lab where he used to think he wanted to work someday. It’s sinking in, now, that he’s done something huge and prideful that he can’t take back, and he’s so disgusted with himself that he almost doesn’t respond to this ad that seems like exactly what he needs.
But he does.
“Hey Soonyoung, I got a reply.”
“Barbie and Batman kill each other.”
“Why don’t you try to make them be friends?” says Hoseok absently, opening the e-mail.
“No, they fight.”
RE: Nanny Needed ASAP.
Hello. My name is Taehyung, I’m 22 and a junior in college. I’m in town through May to work an internship that fell through, so my availability is immediate.
My experience is unpaid, but I help raise my younger siblings.
I’d love to meet your little one!
Looking forward to a reply,
“Hey, buddy. I think it’s a Korean dude. Should we meet him?”
“I’m gonna give him a call. You keep playing, okay?”
Hoseok’s got his laptop and a small pile of work and scratch paper on the coffee table (from which it’s easiest to watch Soonyoung), and a bigger pile in his office where he’s actually capable of getting anything done. He calls Taehyung from the office, away from Soonyoung, just in case he starts to yell.
“Hello?” comes a mellow, low voice.
“Hello, my name is Hoseok. I posted an ad for a nanny that you responded to.”
“That was really fast.” The guy sounds big.
“I’m looking immediately.” Hoseok is too tired, these days, to care if he sounds desperate. He is.
“Okay,” says the big guy, Taehyung. He doesn’t really sound fazed.
Something crashes in the living room. Soon, Hoseok won’t own anything nice anymore. He ignores it. “I’d like to set up an interview with you, as soon as you’re available.”
Big Taehyung makes a thinking noise. “Uh, today?”
“Yes. Please. Today. Could you really?”
“Sure. I’m free.”
“We live uptown, can you meet us somewhere close?”
“Oh,” says Taehyung. “So do I.”
Hoseok is relieved. Big Taehyung even sounds sane, so far. “Let’s meet at Red Brick coffee at 2pm. Does that work for you?”
“Yes,” he says. “I’ll see you then.”
The walls are exposed wood, the ceiling is low, the lighting is warm, and Hoseok and Soonyoung are almost not late. It’s a good place to get out of the cold, but Hoseok is mostly here for the covered patio, and because it’s the closest coffee shop to their house. They’ve been walking places lately, since Soonyoung’s been screeching and fighting when Hoseok tries to help him into his car seat.
When he walks in carrying Soonyoung, a boy who is not very big looks up from an open paperback book and a position that looks relaxed into.
“Hoseok?” he asks, standing up, closing his book without anything to mark his page.
“Taehyung?” says Hoseok, eyes narrowing just a little.
Well, he’s got the right voice, but the shadowy, imprecise image Hoseok had in his head was not of a thin, tall, fluffy-haired, very pretty boy in an oversized coat and thick glasses.
Taehyung's smile when they shake hands makes Hoseok want to trust him.
Hoseok says, “This is Soonyoung. He’s four. It’s nice to meet you. Can we sit outside? It’s quiet in here.” Soonyoung is too precarious and distracting to be in a place like this, full of people with laptops and low acoustic music, baristas in vests and every surface gleaming.
Taehyung nods, slings a bag over his shoulder and goes through to the patio while Hoseok scoops Soonyoung back up.
“What do you want?” he asks, going to get in line. “Hot chocolate? Apple juice?”
“No,” says Soonyoung.
“You pick or Appa’s gonna pick for you.”
“No,” repeats Soonyoung, in a tone like Hoseok should have heard him the first time.
“Okay. I’m gonna get you apple juice. Hello. I’ll have an Americano with four shots and a small apple juice.”
“No,” whines Soonyoung.
Hoseok tries to set Soonyoung down while he digs for his wallet, but Soonyoung grapples at him, plops down on the floor and starts crying. There are better days and there are worse days, and sometimes there are days that just need to be survived.
The barista takes pity on him. “I’ll bring these out to you,” she says.
“Thank you so much,” whispers Hoseok. He’s embarrassed. He looks like such a shitty dad.
He picks Soonyoung back up again, even though now he doesn’t want to be touched. He wrestles him outside. Taehyung has already claimed a table in the corner of the patio. He looks cold, but he smiles. Soonyoung, in Hoseok’s arms, is crying and leaning away. Maybe he’s coming down with something. Maybe it’s the weather.
“Hello,” he says, trying to save face, sitting down across from Taehyung and trying to arrange Soonyoung in the chair beside him. “We’re having a cranky day today, sorry.”
Taehyung does not seem affected. He smiles at Soonyoung. “That’s okay,” he says, big voice.
Taehyung is graceful. He makes eye contact easily. He starts talking to Soonyoung, including him in the conversation even though he doesn’t say anything but No and is wary and mad. At least the new person paying attention to him holds his interest well enough that he stops sobbing.
Hoseok asks Taehyung what brought him here, but he seems a little disgruntled when he talks about his internship, so Hoseok doesn’t press. Taehyung doesn’t have any questions for Hoseok, but he keeps talking to Soonyoung. Even when he pushes back, Taehyung keeps trying. He does well.
Still, Hoseok is unsure. He doesn’t want to hire an unqualified college student to watch his difficult child. But he doesn’t have so many other options, and then he asks Taehyung if he speaks Korean, and Taehyung says, “Yeah, of course.”
“That’s really good,” says Hoseok. “I don’t even put that in the ad anymore.”
“Why not?” asks Taehyung, covering his mouth with a long hand while he chews a bite of muffin.
“Because,” Hoseok starts, but then he doesn’t want to say it’s because he can’t be picky, because he’d hire anyone who speaks any or no language at this point, and so he just says Because.
“Cool,” says Taehyung. “Yeah, I can definitely speak to him. Though I might need to brush up.” He grins, and if the cultural connection weren’t enough to make Hoseok decide to give this guy a chance (or the fact that he’s available to start now, or the fact that he seems smart and genuine, even though he doesn’t have the qualifications that make Hoseok comfortable) it’s really that smile that does it. Hoseok does trust him. He hopes Soonyoung won’t ruin him.
“Well. I’d like to offer you the position,” he says, like he hardly ever says, because he usually waits a day and calls because he tries to pretend he’s a professional person who is going over many messages, conducting many interviews, and selecting the most qualified applicant.
No, he doesn’t have so much pride. His nanny quit today because after ten days of dealing with Soonyoung she couldn’t bring herself to show up anymore, and Hoseok can’t even be mad because he knows how Soonyoung treats nannies.
Taehyung says, “I’d like to accept.”
“Are you sure?” says Hoseok. “Sorry, I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Why don’t you come over and spend a couple hours with Soonyoung before you say yes for sure.”
Taehyung nods. “Sure. Now?”
Hoseok doesn’t deserve this. He says, “Are you free now?”
“Sure.” He looks at Soonyoung. “Can I come over and see your stuff?” he asks.
“No,” says Soonyoung, but it doesn’t sound so much like he means it.
There’s a level of wealth that Taehyung understands. For instance, he understands the kind of wealth where a family can survive on a single income. He understands wealth that allows people to fix their cars as soon as they break, and pay extra for faster wifi, and keep their house as warm as they like it all winter long.
That seems far away from him, but he understands it. He understands how people get there, how they stay. Anything above the level of financial security where one doesn’t have to eat plain rice every once in a while, however, is beyond Taehyung’s understanding.
People who own multiple cars or houses with extra bedrooms, who take extended time off to travel, who shop at Whole Foods for things they could buy at Woodman’s and spend a hundred dollars on single articles of clothing are beyond even Taehyung’s big imagination. He’s tried to fathom it before, and gets too caught up in the details to make sense of the whole. Excess isn’t something he has.
Taehyung has never been so poor that he was hungry or scared. His family has never lost a home or worried much about that, as far as he’s aware; he’s always had clothes to keep him warm, even when the heat was off. When Taehyung was small, he had his own room, but when his brother got old enough to sleep on his own, they started sharing. Taehyung doesn’t think he knows poverty, but he’s also never had anything that anyone wanted to steal.
His family has always scraped by. His parents work weird shifts and they come home tired, but they make it. They’ve always barely made it. This is why Hoseok’s building perplexes him.
It’s surreal how fancy it is. There’s a market on the ground floor that a well-dressed couple walks briskly out of as they pass by, carrying the crisp smell of fresh vegetables. The building is tall; maybe, Taehyung doesn’t know, six hundred stories. It’s so tall that when he looks straight up the side, his glasses fall back from the bridge of his nose to his forehead and the uppermost balconies turn into little red-brick blurs.
They walk around to the side of the building, and Hoseok keys something into a pristine keypad. A light turns green and they go inside. Then, Hoseok presses the button for the elevator, and even the way it glows while they wait seems expensive. Like every other elevator button Taehyung’s seen has been a copy of this one. He’s worried that he shouldn’t be here, and that someone will catch him, but Hoseok smiles and chatters all the way up while Soonyoung blows raspberries and interrupts. Taehyung is surprised by his own reflection in the shining, perfect mirror on the inside of the elevator. He looks so rumpled next to well-ironed Hoseok, in a black turtleneck, and little Soonyoung in nicer jeans than Taehyung’s.
They go up eight floors, and Hoseok picks up Soonyoung, apparently to keep him from bolting the wrong way down the hall (with the floor-to-ceiling window at the end open to flat grey sky and chilly light all the way down to the end, where Hoseok, in a stiff black coat and nice shoes, is heading).
Hoseok’s door is red. There are two deadbolts.
When they get inside, Taehyung can’t say anything for a moment. The ceiling is high, higher than it was in the emerald-carpeted hallway, which must add to the rent price in a building like this, right? There are floor-to-ceiling windows for two walls in the living room, with flowy, silky white curtains drawn mostly over them. Through the gaps, Taehyung sees the floor-to-ceiling windows of a building across the street, and the top of a smaller building beside it, on which a small park has been built. Between buildings, he sees skyline. A small mountain into which are built big, peak-roofed houses, telephone wires crossing over streets, and, to the right, which Taehyung thinks is north, more tall buildings, brick and grey and black, and a pale green bridge over a river.
The trees lining the streets this time of year are all bare, light brown bark almost grey in light that washes everything out. Everything is grey, and the sky is so flat here that he can’t tell if it’s all one whole cloud or if there are no clouds at all.
Looking down and out at the roads that slowly climb upwards, the evergreens that start a little higher up looking soft and almost black, cutting in and out of fog, it’s beautiful. It’s cold and strange here and Taehyung doesn’t know his way around very well, but the view is very nice. A commuter train passes by, somewhere a few blocks up, and it reminds Taehyung a little of home, though he's still disoriented.
Hoseok is talking and Taehyung is missing it. He looks up when Hoseok comes to stand next to him. The furniture is sleek and dark, and the open kitchen is chrome. The toys thrown around seem out of place; this apartment is too nice to be meant for children. It’s just barely too cold to be comfortable.
Hoseok says, “So this is the house.”
“It’s really nice,” says Taehyung, dryly, though he’s not sure that’s what he means.
“Thanks,” says Hoseok, setting Soonyoung down. Soonyoung does some kind of scuttle to the other side of the room, where he starts digging through his toys.
The living room must be as big as the house that Taehyung’s mom and dad and grandma and brother and sister all live in together.
He kind of hates it. He can’t stand here and not be thinking about what it must cost. If his little apartment (in the neighborhood, but really just a glorified closet, stained, with a falling-apart showerhead and no storage space) costs 970 dollars, this must be, he doesn’t know. A hundred billion dollars a month. But Hoseok probably doesn’t rent it, right? Places this nice are condos, and Hoseok probably owns it. It must cost so much more money than Taehyung has ever even thought about.
Soonyoung stomps around and starts dumping things out of boxes from the cubbies that line the back wall. Taehyung thinks he’s angry about something; this is like an ill-behaved version of the way Jaeseung acts when he wants to be asked what’s wrong.
Hoseok goes to the kitchen to dig around in the shiny refrigerator. He says Soonyoung needs a snack. It seems out of place that there’s string cheese inside.
Taehyung goes and sits down near where Soonyoung has plopped on the ground and started yanking at a soft doll.
He picks up a different doll, slowly, so Soonyoung can see it.
Soonyoung says, “No. Mine.”
Hoseok says, from the kitchen, “Be nice, Soonyoung-ah.”
Taehyung says, “Are you sure you don’t want to play together?”
Soonyoung glares for a second but doesn’t say anything else, so Taehyung keeps playing.
He scoots a little closer to Soonyoung.
Then a little closer.
Then he whispers, “What’s he doing?” gesturing to the doll that Soonyoung is yanking around.
“Dancing,” says Soonyoung.
It doesn’t look like dancing. It looks like he’s trying to kill it. But Taehyung says, “Oh, cool,” and tries to make his doll dance, too.
Soonyoung says, “No.” Apparently the way Taehyung’s got her swaying is not what Soonyoung likes.
He tries to yank it from Taehyung’s hands, but Taehyung pulls back. “I’m using this,” he says. “Do you want it?”
Taehyung decides that’s good enough; he’s not sure if Soonyoung knows how to say please. He hands it over.
“So, here are the bedrooms,” says Hoseok, leading them down the hall. Soonyoung is being loud, apparently just for the sake of it.
“This is Soonyoung’s room,” says Hoseok, taking them in. The wood floor, the high ceiling, and the big windows all make Soonyoung’s racecar bed and plastic shelves look very small.
“Cool,” is all Taehyung says.
Soonyoung says, “My bed a car.”
“How do you drive it?” asks Taehyung.
“Oh,” says Hoseok, smiling down at Soonyoung, “You have a steering wheel in your closet, I think.”
Soonyoung goes to dig for it, yelling and throwing things around, crashing, and while he does, Taehyung says, “This is a really big apartment. Or is it a condo?” He’s got to know. He hasn’t been able to let go since he had the thought.
“It’s a condo,” says Hoseok. “My ex and I got it before Soonyoung was born.” He says that like he’s explaining, like he can tell that Taehyung thinks it’s weird that he’s raising a kid in a place like this. This is where childless starlets live, not where a dude raises a toddler. A single dude, apparently.
Taehyung is surprised to hear that Hoseok isn’t married. He just assumed Soonyoung’s mom was at work or something. It must be a hard adjustment, for Hoseok to have divorced his wife but kept the kid and the house. It sounds touchy. Maybe it’s why Soonyoung’s obviously spoiled rotten.
Soonyoung comes out from digging, not with a steering wheel but with a big foam sword. He gets two good whacks into Hoseok’s chest with it before Hoseok is able to wrangle it out of his hands. Soonyoung screams. He kicks and hits the floor. Hoseok tells Taehyung, “His grandma got him this. Every time I try to get rid of it, he notices.”
Taehyung says, “Ah.”
He is beginning to understand that Hoseok is paying what this job is worth. He wonders if taking the position will be any better than the internship he foreswore this morning.
He’s going to take the job, though, because he has to, and kind of because he feels he owes it to Soonyoung to be a single voice of reason, sanity, frugality in his little life. Not really because he thinks it will be fun.
“So, are you in?” asks Hoseok. “Soonyoung-ah, shush.”
Soonyoung stops screaming and runs at Hoseok’s legs. Hoseok picks him up. Soonyoung yells gibberish into Hoseok’s ear so loud that he winces.
Taehyung says, “Yeah. I’m in.”
“Do you want to start tomorrow?” says Hoseok, as he walks Taehyung toward the door. Taehyung nods. Soonyoung is squirming and babbling in Hoseok’s arms. Hoseok says, “8:15? Or, if you want to get here a little earlier for any questions you think of,” Soonyoung catapults himself out of Hoseok’s arms and hits the ground running, “We’ll be up early.”
“Is eight alright?” asks Taehyung.
“Perfect,” says Hoseok. “This short notice is amazing. I appreciate it so much.”
Taehyung says, “Don’t mention it.”
He waves goodbye to Soonyoung, who blows a raspberry, and then he lets Hoseok close the door behind him and he goes back to the big mirrored elevator and down and then out the heavy side door to the cold, bustling street.
He starts walking back, hands shoved into pockets, canvas sneakers not enough protection from the cold as they slap against pale sidewalk. He tries to place the sick feeling in his guts.
This will pay well. And Hoseok knows he’s only here for a few months; it’ll go by quickly.
Taehyung is just so different from these people.
The fact that they’re Korean doesn’t seem to be bridging many cultural gaps here. When Taehyung was Soonyoung’s age, he lived in a bustling house that smelled like food all the time, he hardly spoke any English yet because he spent so much time around his family, he wrestled with his cousins and played in the mud and knew to behave when his parents were speaking. His siblings didn’t grow up totally different.
Soonyoung is nothing like that. Soonyoung lives alone with his tired looking father in a huge, cold house. It breaks Taehyung’s heart; it makes him so homesick. Even three weeks has been too long to be away. It’s hard to think that he’s here for five months.
He moved out for college because he got a good scholarship to a school half an hour away, but he’s always gone home for weekends and breaks and sometimes just for the evening when he misses Jisoo and Jaeseung. This is the first time in his life that he’s really been away from home (so far that he can’t catch a bus to his grandma’s dinner) and the distance hurts. He’s been calling his siblings every day.
On his uncomfortable little bed in his frigid little apartment, as soon as he gets there, he does that.
“Tae, what is it?” his mom says. She sounds like she’s mad at Taehyung, but of course she is. She’s mad at him for leaving at all, so of course she’s upset that now he’s here for no reason and nobody can calm down Jaeseung as well as he can or talk to Dad when he’s acting like a cheap problem is the end of the world. And, of course, he quit his internship today because he wasn’t feeling it and didn’t think about his bills. Of course she’s angry with him. He’s angry with himself.
“Hi, Eomma. I got a job.”
“You got a job in two hours?”
Taehyung looks at the time on his laptop. It’s 7:30, he last called her at noon. “Yes,” he says. “It’s watching some rich kid.”
She sighs. “Well, if you can’t watch your siblings, at least one kid will be safe.”
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I wanted to come home.”
She sounds like she’s been thinking about it. “I know,” she says. “They just miss you. I don’t know why you had to quit. Will you talk to them?”
Taehyung can hear them run across the room to take the phone from her. “Tae,” says Jaeseung.
“Oppa,” says Jisoo.
“Hey, you two,” says Taehyung. “What did you do today?”
“Played,” they both yell. “Grandma took us to the market,” says Jisoo.
“Great. Did you get anything nice?”
“No, just candy,” says Jaeseung.
“Sounds nice to me,” says Taehyung, smiling despite himself, closeness to the people he loves most making his hard day feel small already. He’s alright, isn’t he? He only has to do this for five months, almost just four now already, and then he can go home to them.
At three minutes before eight in the morning, the buzzer goes off for just a fraction of a second. So short that Hoseok’s not sure he didn’t just hear it because he was expecting to. Sleep deprivation makes reality different, but Soonyoung stomps in from the living room and says, “Appa, what is that?”
Hoseok says, “I think Taehyung is here. We have to wait for him to call again and then unlock the door so he can come up.”
“Taehyung?” says Soonyoung.
Hoseok nods. “Yeah, Taehyung. Your new babysitter. You played with him yesterday.”
“I hate him.”
“Try not to say that to his face.” Poor Taehyung.
Soonyoung likes to do things he’s been told specifically not to do. He yells, “I hate him! I hate him!” until Taehyung figures out how to work the buzzer again and doesn’t hang up right away this time.
He’s still screaming it in the background when Hoseok says, “Taehyung?”
“Yeah?” comes the crackly voice. “Did I do it right?”
“You did. Sorry it’s confusing. I’ll let you up. Hang on.”
He hangs up and presses the button to unlock the door downstairs.
Soonyoung has stopped yelling by the time Taehyung gets upstairs, but when Hoseok lets him into the apartment, Soonyoung starts again.
It’s so rude and embarrassing. Hoseok looks like such a shitty dad. He tries to be graceful as he tells Taehyung, who is wearing a green shirt with a small rip near the collar, jeans, and the same well-worn blue canvas coat from yesterday, that he’s sorry.
“It’s okay,” says Taehyung, but he looks uncomfortable.
Hoseok says, “Thank you for coming early. I have the binder out on the counter for your reference. Usually in the mornings, I’ll take a shower after you get here. It’s hard for me to find time otherwise.”
“Sounds good,” says Taehyung, who is leaning at the bar and eyeing Soonyoung a little suspiciously.
Soonyoung is telling a stuffed tiger, “I hate him.”
“So I’m gonna go do that,” says Hoseok, “if that’s okay?” God. He’s such a shitty dad. He’s so far from being able to get his kid to stop telling his brand new nanny that he hates him that he doesn’t even try, he acts like it’s not happening, and that can’t be helpful for Soonyoung. It can’t be helping him learn to stop. Hoseok just needs to take a shower.
Taehyung nods. He’s a little wide-eyed, like he’s unsure if coming here was the right choice, and Hoseok understands. His nannies are often afraid on their first days. No one really wants to do this.
As Hoseok heads down the hall to his bedroom, he hears Taehyung say, “Soonyoung. Hello. It’s nice to see you again.”
He closes the door as Soonyoung says, “Go away.”
Hoseok showers quickly. He’s a little worried that by the time he’s done, Soonyoung will be fully attacking, though he knows it won’t get really bad until he leaves for work.
Soonyoung is a smart child. Soonyoung knows that once Hoseok leaves, he can do whatever he wants to the person who’s watching him, and half the time they won’t even report back to Hoseok.
Half the time Hoseok only knows how bad Soonyoung has been because of how eager his nannies are to leave at the end of the day, or because of what they omit when they report to Hoseok. “We went to the park today,” they might say.
“How was it?” he’ll ask.
“Just fine,” they might answer, with a wild look and practiced shrug that makes clear all the stuff Soonyoung threw at them or all the times he almost got hurt on purpose.
Hoseok knows when Soonyoung has done something evil or humiliating. He expects it. Soonyoung is sometimes hard to love the amount that Hoseok loves him.
Hoseok hurries out at 8:45. He offers a kiss to Soonyoung, which is easily rejected, and his tired smile only falters for a second before he says, “Alright then. Taehyung, I’m gonna be by my phone all day, please call me. For anything. The binder covers a lot but I’m sure you’ll have some questions. So I’ll be completely available.”
“I’ll call,” says Taehyung, aware that his voice sounds a little tense. He is worried. He does not know what to expect today.
So Hoseok, who is dressed so well (deceptively business-casual, like his job doesn’t require him to wear stiff office clothes but pays him well enough to look perfect, in a cream colored turtleneck and a thick grey wool coat, a smooth leather bag thrown over his shoulder), waves goodbye and leaves Taehyung alone with the unpredictable child stranger.
It is not surprising to Taehyung that Soonyoung flips out as soon as Hoseok is gone. He almost knew it would happen.
“You know where he is,” says Taehyung. “He’s going to work.”
“Why?” says Soonyoung, crying. His face is all red, he seems really sad, and Taehyung would go to comfort him if he weren’t worried about making it worse.
Taehyung says, gently, “I think you know why. Because he’s a grown up and he’s got to work to take care of you.”
Soonyoung punches the rug and sobs. He says something Taehyung can’t make out. When Taehyung asks him to repeat himself, Soonyoung screeches in frustration, but Taehyung waits for him to try again. “You don’t work,” he says.
“I do,” says Taehyung. “My old job was figuring out where old animal skeletons came from. My new job is playing with you.” He tries to pick up a doll to demonstrate playing, but Soonyoung screeches at him until he puts it down. He doesn’t seem to like that answer, it makes him cry even more.
Taehyung kind of assumed he’d be playing with a tantrumy kid all day. No manners, no friends, no family except his tired father, no reason not to screech and make a mess all day. Taehyung is a stranger and Soonyoung is spoiled. He assumed it would be bumpy. He is barely fazed.
Taehyung gets up from where he’s sitting to let Soonyoung cry it out. He flips through the binder on the counter. Soonyoung yanks at the rug and tries to rip the ear off a soft teddy bear with his teeth, and then he smashes two barbies together until one of them loses an arm. He cries about that, but he did it, so Taehyung lets him sob while he reads up on what he’s even supposed to be doing today.
He’s not surprised that there’s no rigid schedule, just a series of suggestions based on Soonyoung’s mood. He flips through until he finds one about a park. He thinks that would be a good thing to do in a little while.
The note says, “The park is Soonyoung’s favorite place when he’s on good behavior. He does not always play well with other children and often tries to run into the street. Please text Hope if you are taking Soonyoung to the park.”
Taehyung pulls out his cracked phone and texts Hoseok. I am taking Soonyoung to the park.
Hoseok calls within ten seconds.
“Hello,” says Taehyung.
“You’re taking him to the park?”
“Yeah. He needs to run around.”
“Is he being good?”
Taehyung takes the phone off his ear and holds it out to the living room, where Soonyoung’s struggling to his feet, screeching “Appa! Come back!” while snotting everywhere.
Hoseok says, “I don’t think you should.”
Taehyung says, lowly, “Why is that? Because of the note?”
Hoseok says, “He’s hard to keep track of. He doesn’t play well with other kids.”
Taehyung says, “If I promise to keep really, really good tabs on him, can we just go run a lap or something? He’s got so much energy. He’s broken two toys already. Oh. Well, he just broke a third one.”
Hoseok sighs. He says, “There’s a park a block away. It’s not in the binder, it doesn’t have any play structures. It’s up on 13th. You can run him around there. It’s gonna take a lot out of you.”
“I’m prepared for that,” says Taehyung. No use in lying.
Hoseok gives Taehyung instructions on getting back into the building, and then says “One moment,” to someone in the room with him before telling Taehyung he’s going to let him go. “I’m still available,” he says. “Call me.”
“I’ll call you,” says Taehyung. Then he hangs up and turns to Soonyoung and says, “When adults are talking, it is customary to shush.”
Soonyoung’s only response is to get louder.
The park is not very big; that’s what they get for living downtown. But it’s what Hoseok described. A solid block, trees, a path, and crisp, clear edges to everything in the flat morning light.
Taehyung put Soonyoung in a big stroller to get here. It was hard to wrestle him into, hard to get it in and out of the building, but it would have been harder to try and hold his hand on the walk over. Soonyoung’s also been wrestled into a puffy jacket and a little hat, but he’s still telling Taehyung that he’s cold. Taehyung’s breath is a cloud in front of him.
When they get there, to the smallish patch surrounded by big buildings on all sides, Taehyung takes Soonyoung out of the stroller. He says, “Let’s run.” He thinks watching Soonyoung might be easy.
Soonyoung seems overwhelmed for a minute, and then, suddenly, he bolts.
For the street, of course. Dangerous. Taehyung catches him by the wrist before he gets to the edge of the sidewalk. He leans in and whispers, “If you do that again, we’re going straight home.”
Soonyoung growls, turns around, and hits Taehyung in the stomach.
He struggles and screams the entire time Taehyung straps him back into the stroller, and he’s sure if Soonyoung’s motor skills were good enough to undo the safety belt, he’d throw himself onto the sidewalk on the way home.
Taehyung thought this might happen. He says, “So, that’s what happens when you hit.”
Soonyoung doesn’t respond to anything, he’s too busy freaking out and wailing, but Taehyung keeps talking to him as they walk home.
“If you hit me, we stop doing fun things.”
Taehyung needs him to hear it even if he doesn’t respond. At least, by the time they’ve been home for a few minutes, Soonyoung has yelled himself tired, and doesn’t get another rush of energy until lunchtime.
The phone doesn’t go off nearly as much as Hoseok expects. Or, honestly, as much as he wishes it would. The fact that Taehyung is watching Soonyoung and has only contacted him twice (once to say he was going to the park, and, of course, once a few minutes later to say that he had just gotten home from the park because it had not gone very well) just makes Hoseok nervous. Hoseok has been checking his phone every ten seconds. He took it to the office kitchen when he got more coffee, and to the bathroom. He had a meeting with a client and warned her before they started talking business. “Just so you know,” he said, “I may have to take a call. I have a new nanny at home today and I promised I’d be available for any questions.”
She had seemed less put off and more endeared. She said, “Oh, you have a kid?”
He smiled, grabbed the picture of the two of them off his desk and showed her. “Soonyoung. He’s four.” Somehow, in that picture, the photographer had been able to capture a single shot in which they looked happy to be together. Hoseok looks manic, and Soonyoung broke down right after, but it’s cute.
She said, “Oh my god, he’s precious. It’s just you two?”
“Yeah,” said Hoseok, and smiled big and moved on to business so he wouldn’t have to talk anymore about that. “So, integrated social media.”
When they eat lunch, Soonyoung throws all his apple slices at Taehyung and doesn’t eat a single one. Taehyung supposes that if Soonyoung wants to go hungry, that’s his choice. He begs for a snack later, but Taehyung tells him, “You threw your lunch at me instead of eating it. We’ll have a snack in an hour.”
Soonyoung yells, “You’re hurting me,” and it’s convincing; Taehyung almost believes that he’s starving this child, until he texts Hoseok about it. Hoseok’s response is, He’ll be fine until snack time. Good call.
The afternoon is hard, but Taehyung’s resolve falters very little. He thinks it’ll take a week for him to establish himself as someone who doesn’t accept nonsense, and maybe another for Soonyoung to adjust. By week three, they’ll be friendly with one another.
Still, he is very tired when Hoseok gets home. They have a quick conversation in which Taehyung assures Hoseok that it was alright and that he’ll be back in the morning, and then he steps out into the now-dark, too-cold street and can’t get to his apartment soon enough.
Back at home, it’s already almost 8, and Jaeseung and Jisoo will be starting to get ready for bed soon, so Taehyung has to hurry if he wants to talk to them tonight. And he does; after a day with a kid like Soonyoung, he really wants to catch up.
“How are you two?” he asks when he gets them, trying to make sense of the chaos on the other end that happens when they put him on speaker in the living room.
“Our hole is getting really deep,” says one little voice (he can’t always tell them apart on the phone). “Maybe 90 feet deep.”
Another little voice says, “Maybe a hundred.”
Taehyung knows about the hole they’re digging. It is three feet deep at best, and they’re already hitting old foundation. They really want to get to the Earth’s mantle, though, ever since Taehyung got them a book at the library about tectonic plates.
“Keep digging,” he tells them. “You’ll get through the crust soon.”
“And then the core,” says a little voice that he is sure is Jisoo’s, because she’s a know-it-all and Jaeseung isn’t.
“The core might be too hot,” Taehyung says, “But I bet you could do it.”
Jaeseung suddenly changes the subject, as rambunctious fourth graders are wont to do. “Hey, Eomma says you’re a babysitter now.”
“Yeah. My internship was too hard.”
“You gave up?”
Taehyung laughs. He readjusts on the bed. “I guess I did. Sorry.”
“Who are you babysitting?”
“A little boy named Soonyoung. He’s four.”
“Is he nice?”
Taehyung thinks about it, and says, “Not as nice as you are.”
On the second day, Taehyung is picking up the mess Soonyoung made in his room, and Soonyoung is coloring in the kitchen.
The door, when open, carries a lot of sound, and Taehyung is one and a half seconds away from Soonyoung at all times. He’s starting to relax a little, letting Soonyoung fill his own space every once in a while, because he knows now that he’s going to make the same mess whether or not Taehyung is watching. In fact, the mess might be even smaller when Taehyung’s in the other room.
So Taehyung has left Soonyoung alone for ten or twenty second intervals to pick up the toys that he littered everywhere during the time he was supposed to be napping, and Soonyoung is being good and coloring and drinking his juice, and Taehyung gets a little comfortable.
Ten or twenty seconds turns into thirty, and then forty, and then Taehyung’s almost done so he decides to finish picking up and then he’ll go check on Soonyoung.
When he goes back into the kitchen, after what must not have been a full minute, he finds a mess.
Which is not a surprise. Soonyoung is sitting on the ground under the table pouring apple juice out onto the floor from the mouth of his sippy cup and rubbing it in with his grubby little hand.
Taehyung goes over there and scoops him up. Soonyoung says, “Oh no, sticky,” and then he cackles.
Taehyung washes Soonyoung’s hands in the bathroom sink, and it makes him start crying, and he doesn’t really stop again until his appa gets home.
Soonyoung is mean.
There’s no way around that. Soonyoung is a mean, nasty little kid. He is mean to Taehyung in smart, subtle ways, and it doesn’t take until the end of the first week for Taehyung to start feeling like Soonyoung is chipping at him.
Soonyoung doesn’t play well, ever. He doesn’t eat well. He is loud, and he spits, and everything makes him cry, and scream, and he hits, and he doesn’t talk much or very well but he knows how to word things so that they sound cutting and insidious.
By the fourth day that Taehyung shows up to watch Soonyoung, it is a struggle. When he wakes up, he thinks he might not go to Hoseok’s at all. He thinks he might stay in bed.
Afterwards, he entertains the idea every morning, for a few minutes, before he gets up. He fantasizes about just going back home and pretending he was never here.
Taehyung sees glimpses of a nicer kid in there, but mostly only when Hoseok gets home after a long day. He sees Soonyoung’s commitment to causing a ruckus break for a second of genuine excitement to see his dad. It makes Taehyung feel worse.
Soonyoung doesn’t have the kind of vocabulary yet that he should have at his age. He can’t recognize all the letters in the alphabet, he can only count to eleven. Taehyung’s supposed to be speaking to him in Korean sometimes, but Soonyoung’s responses are so small (even in English) that there’s really no way for him to tell if Soonyoung understands a word of what he’s saying. So, more often than not, if he speaks Korean, it’s directly followed by an English equivalent, and he has no idea if he’s doing this for any reason at all other than to make Yuppie Hoseok feel warm that he’s raising a bilingual kid.
Soonyoung has been raised for so long in an environment that allows him to act badly that Taehyung wonders if it is too late for him to learn to be nice.
Yet, the thing where Hoseok comes home and Soonyoung gets sweet and clingy for a minute makes Taehyung wonder if Soonyoung is really as abrasive and stupid as he acts. Taehyung picks up signs here and there that Soonyoung is behaving this way specifically to make Taehyung miserable, not because he doesn’t know better.
That helps, logically. Because logically, the reason Taehyung is doing this (past needing money, past needing to stick this out or else go home with his tail between his legs, presenting debt to his family) is that Taehyung is really good with kids, and he knows about taking care of rowdy little children because he helped raise three, and he was (and still kind of is) one. Because Soonyoung needs someone other than half-assed parent Yuppie Hoseok (whom Taehyung resents more as days pass) to take care of him if he’s ever going to grow up well. There’s something logically comforting about the fact that Soonyoung might have a heart inside the screaming, thrashing, almost tireless little bundle of negative energy that he is. But there’s something, in practice, that’s heartbreaking about that.
Soonyoung might know better, but he’s working as stubbornly as Taehyung has ever seen anyone do at making Taehyung want to leave.
Soonyoung is not as stupid or mean or hopeless as he wants Taehyung to think he is. And though Taehyung tries everything he knows to access the nice kid that he thinks is hiding, weak and wilted, he mostly just sees the furious energy that Soonyoung throws out.
It is hard.
Taehyung takes Soonyoung to the park every day, and every day when Soonyoung hits him or tries to run the wrong way or otherwise makes a menace of himself, Taehyung straps him right back into the stroller and walks him home. Every day he says the same thing, first in Korean, then in English. “I’ve made it very clear how you’re supposed to act when we go to the park. We have to leave when you break the rules.”
Taehyung thinks Soonyoung might be testing him to see when he’ll give up trying to take him anywhere at all, but Taehyung is just as stubborn, and he thinks it’s wrong to keep any kid cooped up all day.
His first weekend, Taehyung doesn’t do anything but sleep. He clicks around on the computer, deposits the handsome (but not so glittery anymore, now that he knows it's earned) paycheck that Hoseok wrote him, and takes a bath in the ugly, lonely apartment. It’s always too hot or too cold in this apartment; utilities are included, so he can crank the heat, but there’s no way to make it comfortable. He keeps waking up in the night to change the thermostat.
He misses his family. Soonyoung makes him miss them even more. He misses his siblings, who are handfuls, so close in age that they are always either fighting loudly or working together to cause trouble, but who know how to listen and play, not just cause chaos. They are messy, but they know respect.
He misses his grandma, who is around a lot, who is involved. He even misses his parents. They’re tough sometimes, they’re not always perfect, but at least Taehyung’s house has always felt like he lived in it. Even when things were really, really hard, he knew he could go home. Even when their family almost broke, he had his place.
Taehyung thinks it might be very lonely for Soonyoung to live in this cold house that he doesn’t really fit into. On his little twin bed, clicking around on the internet just to spend time, so far away from the people that he loves, Taehyung thinks he understands a little.
Hoseok was a millionaire when he was seventeen.
Looking back, it’s not anything he really earned. He coded a website in high school and was offered a lot of money for it. As things happen, it became obsolete almost immediately, because it was ugly and glitchy and being able to send audio to a chatroom became ubiquitous almost as soon as it first happened.
The company that bought the website shut it down by the end of the year, but offered Hoseok a high-paying job right out of high school. “While your project didn’t ultimately stand the test of time,” they told him in a letter, “Your intuition, entrepreneurship, and ingenuity at such a young age show great potential.”
Hoseok doesn’t really like his job. He doesn’t really like what he does, but he is very good at it and they pay him so much money. So much money that it’s a little scary and perplexing, so much money that he thinks if he ever outweighs his usefulness, they’ll get rid of him quickly. So much money that he’s sure he’ll age out before he’s thirty-five.
But he’s good at this, and now, at twenty-six, he’s led projects that have created websites that actually haven’t failed, so he supposes he’ll never really want for anything.
Well. He’ll always be rich, but maybe he’ll want for some things. His life doesn’t feel very worthwhile a lot of the time. Mostly, he is tired, and no NASA-approved mattress and no siphon coffee brewer has been able to fix that for him yet.
Taehyung is a person. He has to go to the bathroom sometimes.
He tries to time it so Soonyoung is distracted; if he tells Soonyoung where he’s going, he’ll come back to something ruined. He tries to slip away and go fast and then come back before Soonyoung notices. That is not always possible.
On one hand, Taehyung thinks he’s walking on eggshells to appease a child when he shouldn’t be. On the other, he knows that if he just walked into this kid’s life and started treating him like he knew manners, it would make it even worse.
One day, Taehyung comes back from the bathroom to find Soonyoung digging through his bag. He’s got Taehyung’s notebook out, the nice little leather-bound one that he carries around, and he’s ripped out some pages and has found Taehyung’s pen as well and is scribbling.
That is the first time Taehyung raises his voice.
“Do not,” he says, snatching it out of Soonyoung’s hands and folding it gently back into his bag, “Ever do that again.”
Soonyoung seems startled; his eyes go wide and Taehyung wonders (for the shortest second) if yelling would have solved all his problems from the start.
Soonyoung cries, of course, but he refuses to apologize, and he acts like he didn’t know what he was doing. He's so cunning about it that Taehyung spends about an hour convinced that Soonyoung is truly evil. Not a good kid after all. Nothing inside him to nurture. He’ll always be like this.
It’s a weird afternoon after that. Soonyoung is a little hesitant, a little less aggressive, but not in a way that’s comforting. It’s like he’s scared now.
Taehyung can never tell if Soonyoung is pretending in order to make him feel bad or if he’s really that upset, but this feels legitimate. There's a distance between them that wasn’t there before. Not that there was ever love between them, only anger, but at least it was something.
Soonyoung is a little quieter and a little more reserved, and later, when Taehyung lightly takes Soonyoung’s wrist to stop him from coloring on the table, Soonyoung winces away and the crying he does is quiet.
Taehyung decides that Soonyoung isn’t evil. He decides he doesn’t know what Soonyoung is, or why, but he’s probably not evil. He decides not to yell anymore.
On the second day of Taehyung’s second week watching Soonyoung, Hoseok comes home to find Soonyoung just screaming at Taehyung. Berating him. “I hate you,” he says. He looks up when Hoseok walks in, but doesn’t stop. Almost like he’s performing this.
“I hate you. Don’t come back.”
Taehyung is sitting on the ground, looking at Soonyoung stoically, lips pursed. He tells Soonyoung, “It’s too bad you hate me, because I’m not leaving.” Then he looks up at Hoseok, offers a curt little smile, and says, “Hello. We’re having a cranky day.”
“I see that,” says Hoseok hesitantly.
Taehyung gets up. He looks at Soonyoung and says, pleasantly, like this just didn’t happen, “I guess I lied. I am going, but just for today. I’ll see you in the morning, Soonyoung-ah.”
Soonyoung is red faced and teary-eyed, and he runs to Hoseok for a hug. “I hate him,” he screams.
Taehyung snatches his bag off the hook and says, “Am I good?” like he’s in a rush to leave. Hoseok would be, too.
“You’re good,” says Hoseok. “I’m sorry. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Okay,” says Taehyung. “Bye, Soonyoung.” Then he pulls the door open quickly but presses it gently closed behind him.
Taehyung cries when he gets home a lot of days, but just because he’s tired.
Maybe, a little, too, because he’s homesick. He misses Jaeseung and Jisoo more every day. He’s never been this far from them for this long, and he wonders if they’re getting what they need without him. And he hates it here.
And he’s so frustrated. He’s done nothing since he got here but his best, and nothing has been kind to him in return.
He spends a lot of the time he has to himself at home just crying, or staring out the window, or waiting to fall asleep.
There are so many restaurants here and a great bar culture. The public transit is good and there are a lot of places to walk around. Before he got here, he even joined an online group for people new to town or passing through looking to make connections. But he doesn’t do anything. He just lets a four-year-old walk all over him and then he comes home and he is so tired, homesick, and frustrated that he cries.
The smallest thing happens.
It’s the end of Taehyung’s third week watching Soonyoung, and Taehyung feels like he’s aged years. His back and feet hurt. He’s always just a minute away from it being too much.
But the smallest thing happens.
Soonyoung isn’t calming down. Usually he’s not calm, but they’ve almost gotten into a routine when it comes to the park. They go, Soonyoung does something ugly, they come home, Soonyoung has a fit, and then he makes himself tired and is able to color for a little while without eating the crayons or drawing on the walls or ripping the paper to shreds.
But today, Soonyoung is not calming down.
Taehyung sometimes wonders if there’s something wrong with Soonyoung’s health. He sometimes wonders if he’s in pain. He wails like he hurts, sometimes.
He’s not stopping, and there are tears in Taehyung’s eyes, too. Soonyoung is crying like his heart is broken.
Usually, it’s best to let Soonyoung get it out; he doesn’t like to be touched. But that’s when he’s angry, and right now he sounds like he needs someone to comfort him. His crying hurts Taehyung, too.
So Taehyung goes to him, slowly, sits next to him, slowly, and puts a hand on his back, slowly.
He doesn’t know what he expected. Soonyoung starts angry-crying again and hits Taehyung in the face.
Taehyung takes the deepest, slowest breath. He breathes out everything painful that this child is trying to give him. He says, calmly, “I’m taking you to your room. When you hit, you get in trouble.”
Soonyoung thrashes while Taehyung carries him there, but Taehyung is just as stubborn and he puts Soonyoung in his bed. His little race car bed, so small in this big room with these high ceilings. He says, “I’m going to come back in three minutes and see if you’re ready to be nice.”
As he leaves, Soonyoung blubbers something that Taehyung doesn’t understand, so he leans back in and says, “What was that?”
Soonyoung says, “Don’t go.”
Taehyung takes a deep, slow breath.
He almost stays.
But he doesn’t. He says, “You’re in time-out for three minutes. But I am not leaving.”
Soonyoung has never liked a nanny so far. He always tries to make them leave, like he’s proving something. Sometimes it feels like he’s trying to get Hoseok to leave him, too, so he can be all alone forever and destroy everything until the world crumbles under his feet.
But Soonyoung hates Taehyung. It’s all he talks about. Hoseok is going to give Taehyung a raise for what he must be dealing with. Taehyung doesn’t lie or omit like his nannies sometimes have, but he words everything so impersonally that Hoseok can tell he’s having trouble. In the notes he leaves, he says things like, “Soonyoung was grumpy all day today. He quieted for a few minutes while eating lunch.” and “Today, Soonyoung and I had a conversation about spitting.” and “Soonyoung lived in time-out today.”
This is why Hoseok is surprised to come home one afternoon and find Soonyoung and Taehyung quietly coloring at the table together.
No, not quietly, Hoseok realizes. There’s no crying, but they’re not silent. Soonyoung is telling Taehyung about his picture.
Of course, he sees Hoseok walk in and immediately jumps down from the table and runs up to him. He says, “Appa. Make him leave.” But Taehyung smiles over almost warmly.
On the third day of the fourth week, Soonyoung runs at the park.
Taehyung has a mark near his elbow from yesterday, when Soonyoung scratched him while struggling out of his arms. There are regular joggers who know them now, and look at Taehyung like he’s crazy for continuing to do this. But they don’t understand. They don’t get why it’s important. And it’s been worth it, because today, Soonyoung runs.
Taehyung lifts him out of the stroller, and Soonyoung stands there, hovering, wide-eyed, for a moment. Then instead of bolting for the street, he wails and runs down the path.
Taehyung is startled. He was bracing himself to run the other way, and has to readjust his plan.
He rights himself and chases after Soonyoung, who does a great job staying on the path.
When Soonyoung sees Taehyung run up behind him, he squeals, “No!” but in a different way than the one Taehyung is used to. This is the fun way, this is Soonyoung pretending to be chased by someone he’s not really scared of, and this is where Taehyung thrives.
“Yes!” he howls. “Grrr! I am Megafaunal Wolf!”
Soonyoung squeaks and pants and giggles and keeps running. Taehyung slows his pace to stay just a bit behind and pants more dramatically than he has to. “I’m gonna eat you!”
“No!” squeaks Soonyoung, and he sounds a little afraid, but he keeps running around and laughing.
He tries to run off the road once, but just because the path splits, and Taehyung (knowing it will end badly) touches Soonyoung’s shoulder to guide him back.
It does stop Soonyoung for a second. He says, “Ow. Why’d you do that?”
Taehyung says, leaned over his legs, breathing hard in a silly way like Soonyoung’s fully tuckered him out, “Because you were going the wrong way. I wanted to keep you on the path so I could catch you better.” He does big scary claws.
Soonyoung goes “Eep!” and starts running again.
It is the happiest Taehyung has been since he left home.
In the end, that only makes it harder when Soonyoung acts like a monster again.
The next afternoon, Soonyoung is so mean, like he’s trying to make up for the fun they’ve been able to have in small doses lately. He’s reminding Taehyung that he isn’t welcome, and the wound feels fresh again, but this time Taehyung is too tired to bear it.
Soonyoung is being so mean when Hoseok walks in, telling Taehyung not just that he hates him but that he really thinks no one loves him. It’s getting to be the kind of verbal abuse that makes Taehyung think he should put him in time-out, but if Soonyoung went to time-out for every nasty thing he did, he’d never leave, and if Taehyung acts hurt by the things Soonyoung says, it teaches him that being mean is effective.
But Hoseok comes in, a few minutes early, and as soon as Soonyoung sees his appa he just bursts into tears.
And it’s the hurt ones, not the angry ones. It’s crying that makes Taehyung worried that Soonyoung might be in pain. He sounds so, so sad. So hollow, and the sudden change is confusing.
He doesn’t mean to, but Taehyung is sensitive, and the whiplash makes him start crying, too. He feels it coming at how deep and empty Soonyoung’s crying is, and as soon as there are tears in his eyes, he loses control of them. It’s sudden and embarrassing. Taehyung is so tired and so beaten down. Soonyoung has been chipping at him every moment of every day, so tireless, and here it is, the moment that he crumbles. Soonyoung is small, but he is so good at hitting Taehyung where it hurts. Taehyung sits on the ground next to weeping, confusing, mean little Soonyoung and he cries into his hands. He thinks he will probably quit now.
But then, Hoseok sets his bag down, and comes to sit with them, and he cries with them.
They are all so tired.
They are so lonely.
Soonyoung crawls into Hoseok’s lap, and Hoseok cries onto the top of his head, and Taehyung leans over himself.
The first one to stop is Soonyoung. He says, “Appa. Tae. What happened.”
Hoseok wipes an eye and laughs through it, but Taehyung’s still sitting there shaking into his hands, covering his eyes up under his glasses. Hoseok says, wet, “I think we’re all having a hard day, huh?”
Hoseok reaches over and puts a hand on Taehyung’s back. He rubs his shoulder comfortingly until he stops crying.
Taehyung gathers himself, gets his things, waves goodbye and leaves without another word, and from then on he struggles to remember what he used to dislike about Hoseok.
“Tae plays with bones,” Soonyoung tells Hoseok one evening, after Taehyung leaves.
That is an alarming thing to hear, but Soonyoung tends to make things up to paint people in negative light. Hoseok says, “Really? What did he tell you about that.”
“He likes bones. He keeps them safe.”
Hoseok tries to imagine what that could possibly mean. Soonyoung says, “He looks at them all day.”
It’s just a little alarming to hear that. Hoseok didn’t ever do a background check on Taehyung; he didn’t have time, and he hasn’t talked to Taehyung about anything except Soonyoung, they haven’t talked about anything. All Hoseok knows about him is that he’s starting to trust him, and he’s been too busy, tired, overfocused to even realize until right now that his new nanny is basically a stranger.
He goes over a list in his head of things he knows about Taehyung. Low voice, messy clothes, lives nearby, has siblings, Korean family, college student, very pretty. That’s all he knows. He doesn’t even remember how old Taehyung is, wow, he’s such a shitty dad.
He wants to know, so the next morning, before he leaves, he tries to hang out with Taehyung.
He’s ungraceful (in general). He says, “Soonyoung told me that you... play with dead animals.”
Taehyung startles. His face falls to nothing, he blinks at Hoseok a couple of times. He pushes his thick-lensed glasses up his nose. He says, “Well. I guess that’s not wrong.”
“Um?” says Hoseok, worried that he’s unwittingly hired a witch or something and let him be alone with his son for a full six weeks without even thinking about it. Without even seeing the signs. Taehyung had his nails painted purple the whole second week he watched Soonyoung; could that be related? Probably not, right?
“It’s mostly just the bones,” says Taehyung, like that’s supposed to be comforting. “Well. The guts too, if they’re, you know.”
Hoseok doesn’t know.
“I’m not sure I know what you mean," says Hoseok, very slowly.
Taehyung takes a deep breath like to center himself. “Sorry. It’s. I study zooarchaeology.”
“Old skeletons and stuff. From like, the ice age. Well, the Quaternary glacation, obviously. I mean, the earlier ones are great, but I prefer mammals, so, you know. Pliocene onward.”
Hoseok is relieved, though he doesn’t understand a word Taehyung just said. He says, “Soonyoung said something about mummy squirrels.” He’s smiling. That’s not nearly scary. He’s actually interested.
Taehyung is smiling, too. It seems like that’s so easy for him; he does it a lot. Since they all cried together, Taehyung seems lighter. Soonyoung is coloring, one of the rare activities that can sometimes hold his focus for more than thirty seconds at a time, and Taehyung is relaxing, leaning on the counter a little. He says, “Yeah! Mummy squirrels. My internship, the one I came here for and quit, it was a… a squirrel thing.”
“Compelling,” says Hoseok, when Taehyung makes a face at Hoseok like it has to be a joke.
“I didn’t really know that going in. I didn’t get a lot of description, it was just with this company that’s really good, doing work I wanted to go into someday. But yeah, it ended up just being a squirrel thing.”
Soonyoung is still coloring, but he looks up like he’s paying a little bit of attention.
“They had me comparing the bowel contents of this really, really beautifully preserved little guy with modern squirrels. Of course, there were some content differences,” he starts, looking intent, gesticulating a little with his long, graceful hands, “Because the weather patterns have changed a little and trees have evolved to match it, which is really-really interesting actually but I’m not a botanist so it’s hard to interpret like, how acorns have changed?”
He takes a big breath. “But. It sucked. I was there for three weeks just essentially digging through squirrel poop, and every day I’d tell them, ‘squirrels are all the same, modern squirrels just eat more garbage than Old Smokey,’ but instead of listening they just got on my case for naming him Old Smokey, and I tried to tell them that half the reason I got into archaeology at all was to name old skeletons and how dare they try to take that away from me, but they didn’t really listen. They just thought I was obnoxious.”
He flashes a bright smile at Hoseok, but it falls quickly when he sees how taken aback Hoseok is by the barrage he’s just received. But it’s not that it’s bad (it’s not, it’s very interesting), it’s just that Hoseok hasn’t heard Taehyung talk that much before. His voice gets a little higher and rougher when he talks that fast; less like the deep, smooth, rich wood that Hoseok’s almost gotten used to.
“Sorry,” says Taehyung, smaller, voice back to normal. “I uh. I like science.”
“No,” says Hoseok quickly. “I’m just surprised. That’s so interesting. I didn’t even know what you were studying in school.”
“Yeah,” says Taehyung. “Old bones.”
The natural history museum in Taehyung’s home city has a free day twice a month, and Taehyung thinks his dad took him to every single one for about three years straight as a kid. He has so many vivid memories of that place, crowded and loud, just him and his dad when Dahyun was tiny, before Jisoo and Jaeseung were born. It’s the most vivid memory he has of his childhood; it influenced him a lot.
He liked the whole museum, of course. He was fascinated with all of it. But his favorite part was always the bones.
Walking into the room with the dinosaurs and megafauna was different than seeing the skeletons of animals he knew. Those were interesting, but the extinct ones were profound.
The floor changed from slate grey to light polished wood when you walked in. There was a chandelier over the entranceway. Peter was last around a loop, and Taehyung would always, even as a child, even after they knew each other well, slowly, slowly walk around, savoring the moments leading up to meeting him face to face.
On the way around, he became very familiar with a giant ground sloth. It was a hundred times as big as him at the time; still is. He’d look into its eye sockets and back at the landscape into which it was set up, swallow heavily, feel a moment of real fear. He dreamt about the sloth sometimes, but never had nightmares. The sloth was always a skeleton, and sometimes Taehyung would ride it or walk alongside it in golden, knee-high grasses.
Then he’d look at the giant horse, imagine what it would be like to see something so big, alive, in front of him. Though, he always pictured the horse as a skeleton, as well. His mental image of prehistory still sometimes looks like a bunch of enormous skeletons, though he knows now that when they were alive they had skin, too.
Before he could read well, he’d have his dad read him the blurbs about each animal. He’d always do it in this voice that was kind of mysterious, kind of quiet and mystical, and Taehyung remembers sometimes even feeling terror at how real it felt to be here with animals so long gone. When he got old enough, he’d read them himself, imitating the same voice.
Around the loop, then, so slowly, so light-footed, as if stepping too hard would shake the fragile bones and send them crumbling to the floor, he’d step around into the dinosaur room, and he’d come face to face with Peter.
Well, not face-to-face. Face to toe, maybe. Taehyung could look straight up, 90 degrees, and Peter would look taller than buildings. His huge teeth, his huge claws, his huge legs, his long tail. T-Rexes seemed taller than Taehyung could imagine, even while he was looking at one. Maybe this one was ten thousand feet tall. His dad would read the blurb and Taehyung’s mouth would go dry.
Taehyung tried once to jokingly place the blame for his lifelong obsession with old bones on his dad’s insistence on these trips throughout Taehyung’s most impressionable years, but his grandma just shook her head, smiling. “I can’t believe,” she told Taehyung, “that you don’t remember how often you used to beg him to take you there.”
Soonyoung likes hearing about it. Taehyung is afraid to take Soonyoung to the library, because he does not know gentleness or silence, so Taehyung stops off there alone on his way home one day and picks up a couple kid’s books about dinosaurs, archaeology, and megafauna. He also brings a couple of his own books over, and it turns out Soonyoung is very impressed.
He’s impressed enough that, one afternoon, he sits still for the better part of an hour helping Taehyung turn pages without ripping any, letting himself be read to.
It’s amazing, actually. It’s amazing to see something holding Soonyoung’s interest, to see Soonyoung listening. Soonyoung is very smart, it’s so obvious to Taehyung that he is, but he’s behind because he’s spent so much of his life so far having this one long tantrum. Taehyung doesn’t often see a side of Soonyoung that is inquisitive, and it is exciting to see him wanting to hear everything Taehyung has to say about his own greatest passion. Taehyung loves this stuff so much, and Soonyoung actually sits on his lap for a few minutes one afternoon to hear about a mummified young girl they found frozen at the top of a mountain, about how they could still see what she had been eating, about how she looks peacefully sleeping even after five hundred years. Soonyoung acts like sitting on Taehyung’s lap is an accident, and hops off quickly, but Taehyung notices.
Because it seems to be so interesting to Soonyoung, Taehyung suggests to Hoseok that they go to the local science museum.
The thing is, Taehyung wants to take Soonyoung, but he absolutely will not take him alone. And he’s sure Hoseok would want to go, though he’s sure Hoseok would also like to have backup. So Taehyung suggests that he work an extra day, on Saturday, and they all three go together.
“I couldn’t ask you to do something like that,” says Hoseok, shaking the idea off.
Truthfully, Taehyung doesn’t mind Hoseok. He didn’t like him at first, but he kind of gets it now. Something is going on with Soonyoung that Taehyung is too nervous to ask about, and Hoseok is genuinely… well, Hoseok is a pretty good dad. Hoseok is a very tired man with a very rowdy child and the two of them are ruining each other and Hoseok is clearly trying his best. Taehyung can tell that he doesn’t quite understand their situation. He doesn’t understand why they’re so alone, he doesn’t know where Soonyoung’s mom is, doesn’t even know how Hoseok makes all his money. They don’t really talk past the day-to-day; that’s all there’s energy for. Either way, Taehyung thinks Hoseok is nice, and isn’t really upset about the idea of spending an extra day with him. He says, “I think it would be good for Soonyoung. We’ve been reading a lot, you know, he seems really interested. But it might take both of us to watch him. I wouldn’t want you to be alone.”
Hoseok’s face drops so low for a split second that Taehyung’s worried he’s going to cry, and he doesn’t know why, but then that bright, inoffensive smile comes right back up. Hoseok says, “That really sounds amazing, if you’d be up for it.”
Taehyung was sure Soonyoung would want to spend all day around the bones. Though the collection they have here isn’t as overwhelming as the one back home (or maybe it’s just that growing to almost six feet and studying this in college has taken away some of the wonder), but it’s still incredible. They have a good collection of birds, a nearly-complete dodo that makes Taehyung quietly gasp, a room of sea life with seals, a dolphin, and even a big shark that makes Soonyoung say “wow.” In another room, they have a taxidermied bison with huge eyes. Soonyoung lets himself be lifted to its level and coughs quietly on its face.
Soonyoung has one small tantrum, but it’s close to a patio at which Taehyung and Hoseok are able to work together to calm him down. “We can only go to the museum if you’re on your best behavior,” they say. It makes him scream horribly for a minute, but Taehyung tells him seriously, “We’re going to take you back to the car if you don’t stop.” Soonyoung knows that Taehyung really will take him home, no matter how much he kicks and screams and no matter for how long, so he lets himself be comforted back to quiet.
Taehyung is sure that Soonyoung will love the bones most. It’s what they’ve been talking about all week. He was sure they’d skip geology and space almost completely. But it’s in the big, dark room that the museum calls an observatory, full of models of planets and facts and fun interactive displays, that Soonyoung goes fully quiet.
It’s the quietest Taehyung has ever seen him. He just walks around with huge eyes, taking it all in. He takes his turn. It reminds Taehyung of his own slow, ritualistic walk through the loop of skeletons all leading up to the moment of truth, the silent conversation with Peter the T-Rex whose empty eye sockets (angled down from the ground where tiny Taehyung stood) stared blackly, deeply into the inside of his soul.
Taehyung is not religious, but he feels like he accessed something like spirituality in conversation with Peter, and he thinks Soonyoung might be having a similar experience standing on a scale that tells him how much he’d weigh on different planets.
He comes back to where Taehyung and Hoseok are standing, close, watching, ready to jump in, because they know Soonyoung well enough to be vigilant every single second.
Soonyoung walks slowly back to them, hands by his sides, and he bashfully says, “Shim-nyuk?”
“Um, sixteen what?” says Hoseok.
Hoseok looks at Taehyung, and they share a moment where they are very impressed. Then Hoseok turns back to Soonyoung and says, “You weigh sixteen pounds on Mars?”
Hoseok hasn’t seen Soonyoung this interested in something in such a long time. It’s kind of amazing, and he has to thank Taehyung for allowing this to happen at all.
He has to thank Taehyung for a lot, actually. Soonyoung says he hates Taehyung, but Hoseok hasn’t had a nanny before who knew how to wrangle him so well. That is why Soonyoung’s so angry. He hates being successfully wrangled.
Together, they go to where Soonyoung is standing for a minute to try and read the blurb on the presentation about Mars, but Soonyoung presses a red button on the display and a video starts instead. They hang back, and Hoseok says, “This is amazing.”
He looks over to Taehyung, and Taehyung looks just as impressed. “I know,” he whispers.
Hoseok says, “You’re really, really good with him.”
Taehyung scoffs good-naturedly. “He hates my guts. But thank you. I’m trying really hard.”
He looks over at Hoseok, and they smile at each other again. They’re just marvelling at this moment while it lasts. Soonyoung is watching the video about Mars, and then it ends and Hoseok tenses and so visibly does Taehyung to go grab him, but he’s in a group of a couple other kids and he walks right over to Jupiter.
Taehyung says, “Not to pry, but I’ve been wondering.”
They’re in this big room and everything, the floor and walls and ceiling is painted this velvety black; the only things illuminated are the displays and a beautiful map of the stars that glow in clusters on the ceiling. It’s dark, and quiet except for the voices from the videos and the hum of families. Hoseok looks over to Taehyung, and Taehyung’s eyes reflect light, and he asks, “Where’s Soonyoung’s mom?”
That’s a hard question to answer, and Hoseok thinks about it. Taehyung takes his pause as reluctance to answer at all, and he quickly says, “I’m sorry. I just wonder. Where everyone else is.”
Hoseok says, quickly, placatingly, in the voice he puts on that really, really convinces people he’s okay, “It’s alright. Don’t worry. You should know anyway.” He says, “Soonyoung’s mom is my sister.”
Taehyung looks horrified and Hoseok realizes how that sounds. “Oh, oh my god. No. Sorry.” He barks out a laugh. “I adopted him. From her.”
Taehyung pouts. “Oh,” he says. “That’s surprising.”
Soonyoung is done with Jupiter now, and he moves calmly on to Saturn. Hoseok puts a hand on Taehyung’s shoulder to guide him down a little farther on the walkway, to be closer to Soonyoung in case he spits on someone. It could happen at any second.
Taehyung says, a little disbelieving, “I thought you just… divorced your wife and kept the kid.”
Hoseok can’t help but laugh a little. “No. Nope.” Now he feels he has to explain. “I was engaged when Soonyoung was born. But my fiancee didn’t want to raise him. So he left me.”
Taehyung blinks at Hoseok a few times, and Hoseok doesn’t know what he’s thinking. It’s not like that’s a secret. People don’t often know anymore, unless he tells them, because single gay dudes in their twenties don’t often have little kids, but Hoseok, well. He had figured his pretty male nanny might relate.
“Oh,” says Taehyung. “I really didn’t know that.”
“Now you do,” says Hoseok. And then, “Oh,” because Soonyoung has his little hands on his hips and is starting to get in another kid’s face, and Hoseok has to swoop down and lift him out of trouble.
Soonyoung can’t finish the planets after that, even though he begs to go back. The planetarium room is so dark and quiet and Soonyoung has used all his calm for the day, so it is time to go home. “We’ll go back,” says Hoseok while Soonyoung bawls in the backseat. “I know you love the planets. Tae and Appa will take you back soon.”
He realizes as soon as it’s out of his mouth that that’s presumptuous and maybe Taehyung won’t ever want to do something like this again, but just as quickly, Taehyung turns back to Soonyoung and says, “We will. We’ll all come back so soon. And in the meantime we can read about the planets, right?”
There’s not a lot that can make Soonyoung feel better, but if the calm, sweet Soonyoung sticks around for just one minute more every day, it’s a win, and Hoseok’s not sure he’s ever seen Soonyoung as reverent as he was when telling them how much he weighed on Mars.
“Can I request a day off?” asks Taehyung, in the afternoon on a Thursday in early March. He’s been sticking around a little later to talk to Hoseok this past week. Maybe just giving him a chance to put his bag down and catch his breath before leaving, Hoseok doesn’t know. Whatever the reason, Taehyung’s leaning on the counter with a glass of water and Hoseok’s holding Soonyoung, and they’ve been catching up a little, and then Taehyung asks for a day off like he’s afraid to.
“Sure, of course. Some notice would be good, but I can work around you if you need me to. Honestly, Taehyung,” and the words start tumbling out of his mouth like he hasn’t spoken in days, “your availability is amazing, you’re always here when I need you, of course you can have time off.”
“Okay,” says Taehyung. He takes a drink of his water and keeps looking into it when he says, “March 27th, it’s a Monday this year.”
Hoseok says, “Oh. Sure. That’s actually Soonyoung’s birthday.” He wonders if Taehyung is asking for it off on purpose. But why would he do that? Hoseok is being paranoid.
“Oh,” says Taehyung, looking up at Hoseok in an odd, strained way. “I didn’t know it was Soonyoung’s. It’s my sister’s birthday, too.”
“Jisoo, right?” says Hoseok. He’s remembering.
“Not Jisoo,” says Taehyung slowly. “Dahyun.”
Hoseok has been trying to keep track of Taehyung’s family members, but he can’t really remember anyone called Dahyun. “Cool,” he says. “How old is she turning?”
“This year would be fifteen.”
Hoseok starts to talk before his mind meets him there. “Would be?” he asks, but he knows what that means, and Taehyung’s looking at him with no expression on his face at all, and Hoseok says, “Oh. Wow. I’m so sorry.”
“That’s okay,” says Taehyung, the fakest Hoseok’s ever heard, and then he puts his glass down on the counter and says, measured, “I’ve gotta go now. I’ll see you.” Then he moves stiffly to slip his shoes on, tie them, grab his coat and bag, and leave without looking back over at Hoseok, who stands there unsure if he should say more or if he should have said less.
Before Taehyung goes out the door, Hoseok says, “You can have that day off, and the next one, if you want it. I’ll figure it out over here.” It’s the one thing he can comfortably give Taehyung right now. He wishes he had something better or more to say.
Taehyung looks up and Hoseok can’t really tell if he’s okay. He says, “Thank you. I'll see you tomorrow,” and then he leaves.
Hoseok invites Taehyung to stay for dinner one night. He says, “I used to cook almost every day, but I don’t really have time anymore. I could make something nice if you wanted to watch Soonyoung.”
This is Hoseok’s way of asking Taehyung if he wants to hang out, and it’s not really subtle, but it’s also not hard for Taehyung to say, “Oh, sure.”
So, the next night, Hoseok gets groceries from the market downstairs after work and cooks for the three of them. Soonyoung is picky, though, so Hoseok makes him mac and cheese, stirring pasta on the backburner while he braises the chicken for Taehyung and himself.
They talk a little while Hoseok cooks, but mostly Taehyung plays with Soonyoung. Soonyoung, even though he and Taehyung have been getting along better these days, is noticeably better behaved when Hoseok is around. He lets Taehyung read him most of the library book about the planets that he brought today.
Soonyoung likes talking about space a lot. He almost knows all his planets now. Taehyung taught him a song about them, and he sings along to a lot of it now instead of ignoring Taehyung while he sings it by himself. In fact, Taehyung tries the song when they finish the library book, and Soonyoung says, “Tae, shh.”
“You wanna sing it?”
“Yeah.” Soonyoung tries. He gets all the way to Uranus before he slips up. It’s impressive. Taehyung offers a high five that Soonyoung doesn’t take.
Dinner is really good. Hoseok wasn’t lying when he said he used to be a pretty good cook; it’s the best meal Taehyung’s eaten since he left home. He’s been living on apple slices and frozen pizza for most of the last month.
“This is incredible,” he says, when he can bring himself to stop eating for a second.
“Thank you,” says Hoseok. “Thank you for staying.”
“Oh, of course,” says Taehyung. He’s glad to have an excuse to hang out with Hoseok, really. Hoseok is an interesting person, and Taehyung sometimes wishes they knew each other better. He wishes it a lot lately.
Soonyoung says, “Appa, I want some.”
“You want some?” says Hoseok. “You might not like it, but you can definitely try.”
He makes Soonyoung a little plate. Soonyoung eats it and goes, “Oh, good.” When he finishes, he goes back to his mac and cheese. Hoseok and Taehyung just stare at him.
Then they look at each other, and they share the same disbelief. They are the only people who can see why it matters, Soonyoung quietly eating a meal without throwing anything or saying it’s disgusting, and the look between them ends in a little smile from Hoseok that crinkles his eyes up.
After dinner, Taehyung offers to do the dishes while Hoseok and Soonyoung talk about their days. Taehyung knows it’s a rare minute that Hoseok gets to just sit with Soonyoung and not worry about a task at hand. He wants to give Hoseok that. It’s not just because it’s nice to see them sit together when they’re both relaxed and in sweet moods, happy to be near each other.
Taehyung finishes and comes to sit at the other end of the couch. He’s comfortable. He spends so much time in this house, it doesn’t really feel like he’s a guest. He doesn’t have to think very hard before plopping down.
Hoseok, after a minute, kind of awkwardly, says, “Do you want to help me put Soonyoung to bed?”
“Bed?” says Soonyoung. “No. I’m not tired.” He shakes his head and frowns.
“Good thing it’s not your bedtime yet then, dude. But we’re gonna get ready soon.”
“I don’t want to,” Soonyoung says, starting the pout that means he’s gonna cry.
“Yeah, I’ll stay,” says Taehyung quickly, before everything has a chance to fall into chaos.
“I’m not tired,” says Soonyoung, and he’s crying now. But, really, it’s not so bad. He hasn’t had a tantrum in hours, and it’s been refreshing to see him so well behaved. Taehyung doesn’t feel the usual bone-deep exhaustion sinking in when Soonyoung starts acting like he’s getting ready to flip out.
“Everybody has to go to bed sometime,” says Hoseok reasonably. “Did you even take a nap today?”
“I hate naps,” yells Soonyoung.
“How could I forget,” smiles Hoseok. Soonyoung doesn’t share any of the humor of the moment but it’s alright, because Taehyung and Hoseok do, and, just for this one moment, they’re in it together and this hardly even affects them.
Of course, that makes Soonyoung just act worse, and it gets really bad when they start to get him ready. Hoseok walks Taehyung through the process, helps Soonyoung into his pajamas and offers to read him a story if he can be quiet enough to hear it.
He wants a story, but he won’t stop screaming, so Hoseok offers him a kiss, which he refuses, says goodnight with a sigh, and leads Taehyung out of the room while Soonyoung screams for them to stay.
“Is that every night?” asks Taehyung.
“Yep, of course,” says Hoseok. By the end, he does look tired. Even the help from Taehyung can’t make it easy to leave a sobbing child alone in his room. Taehyung knows that feeling with Soonyoung. It is so hard to leave him when he cries like he needs something so badly but refuses to accept anything.
“Would you like to stay for a glass of wine?” asks Hoseok, when they get out to the living room and have stood awkwardly for a few seconds, unsure what to do next.
It’s all in an order that’s acceptable, but it’s clear that Hoseok doesn’t want him to go, and Taehyung wants to stay, so he says, “Of course.”
Obviously, it’s nice wine. Taehyung wants to say that he can’t tell the difference, that it’s a waste of a nice bottle of wine and he might as well just be drinking the $2 stuff he gets at Trader Joe’s and unceremoniously drinks through a crazy straw with his friends back at school, but Hoseok’s got these nice glasses and he’s pouring it like a professional so fast that saying so would be rude. The walls here are thick, but Soonyoung’s heartbroken sobbing still carries, muted, to the high-ceilinged kitchen where Taehyung leans against the bar and Hoseok pours their wine.
They sit at the bar across from one another. Taehyung takes a sip, and has to admit that it goes down easier than his usual stuff. Less like dark syrup, sharper and smoother. He says so. “Good wine.”
“This is my favorite,” says Hoseok. “I’m a big cab guy.”
Taehyung doesn’t exactly know what that means. He knows about red, white, and pink. But he nods.
Hoseok says, “Tonight was really smooth. You’re so good with Soonyoung. I appreciate it a lot.”
“It was great to see him happy this afternoon,” says Taehyung. “He’s nicer when you’re around.” He’s not sure if that is too much to admit, but it’s true. When it’s just Taehyung and Soonyoung alone, Soonyoung acts like he’s beyond reproach, like he wants to make Taehyung feel bad. With Hoseok, he’s more careful. Which makes perfect sense, of course. Hoseok’s his dad, he’s had him since… A while, probably. Taehyung still doesn’t know much about how they came to be together.
“I’m sorry,” says Hoseok, “That he’s so awful to you all the time. He’s such a hard kid.”
Taehyung nods. He is a hard kid. But he’s a good kid, too. “We’ve been doing a lot better.”
Hoseok repeats himself. “You’re so good with him.” He says, “You stand up to him but you’re still nice to him. He needs that.” He downs his wine and pours himself another glass. Taehyung notices his lips are stained a little. It’s nice looking, and Hoseok’s wearing a loosened white button-down and his dark hair is a little messy, he just looks nice right now. He’s a handsome guy. Tired, but very handsome.
“I try,” says Taehyung. “My little sister was a handful when she was smaller. Not,” he admits, “as much. But she tried to control everything and it took a long time for her to stop freaking out when she didn’t get her way.” He takes another sip of his wine. “My grandma would always give up and let her have what she wanted, so she thought she could have it all the time. You have to be consistent, I guess.”
“Completely,” says Hoseok. “He needs a little consistency.”
“Yeah?” says Taehyung.
“He’s just, well.” Hoseok starts, but then he starts to get up. “Sorry, I need to make sure Soonyoung’s in his room. He usually gets up.”
Taehyung waits at the counter while Hoseok goes and peeks into Soonyoung’s room, now quiet. He comes back. “Wow,” he says. “He passed out.”
“We had a busy day,” says Taehyung.
Hoseok says, “I don’t like talking about this in front of him. He knows enough as it is, I don’t want him to think I tell everyone about it. I don’t really want him to know.”
“Hm?” says Taehyung, who poured himself another glass of wine while Hoseok was checking on Soonyoung. The bottle is empty now.
Hoseok takes a big drink. He says, “So, I told you he’s adopted, right.”
“‘Course. Your sister had him?”
“Yeah. My sister. She’s three years younger than me.”
“Wait, how old are you?” asks Taehyung. He doesn’t know at all. He guesses Hoseok is a good looking thirty.
“So I was 22, and my sister was nineteen. She was dating this guy who got her pregnant and she um,” Hoseok lowers his voice even though Soonyoung is asleep, “She didn’t want to keep him.”
“Oh no,” says Taehyung. No wonder Soonyoung isn’t supposed to hear about this. That would be such a hurtful thing to know about yourself.
“Her boyfriend convinced her to keep him, but then then he got scared and left her before he was born. And it was too late, at that point, to, you know.”
“That’s so sad,” says Taehyung. So sad.
Hoseok nods, it looks like it hurts him to talk about. But like he wants to talk about it, too. He says, “So she had him and we thought it might change things and she might want to keep him once she held him, but she didn’t. My parents took him home.”
“Does your sister know him at all?”
“No,” says Hoseok. “It really,” he sighs, “It changed her, I think. To go through that. She moved up north and she’s trying to start again. I don’t really know what she’s doing. We don’t really talk.”
“She just left?”
“I’m not mad at her,” says Hoseok. “I’m really, really not mad at her. I love her so much. I hope she’s okay.”
Taehyung wants to ask if Hoseok is okay, but he gets it. That’s the kind of thing Hoseok can’t entertain. He doesn’t get to see Soonyoung as a reason he might not be okay.
Hoseok says, “So my parents took him home, but they’re getting old and my dad’s blind and it just didn’t make sense for them to have a baby. And,” he breathes. “Yeah. I was who was left.”
“You don’t have more family?” asks Taehyung.
“In Korea, we have a huge family,” he says. “But here it’s just us. We couldn’t like, send a baby over. I don’t know.”
“So it just had to be you,” says Taehyung, getting to the bottom of his second glass of cold, smooth wine.
“Yep,” says Hoseok.
“Your parents don’t help?”
“They did until a little while ago. My mom used to watch him sometimes. But he uh,” Hoseok looks down, swallows, and his lips flatten out and little dimples form for a second, “He hit her pretty hard one day and she told me she was afraid of him.”
“Oh my god,” says Taehyung.
Hoseok is frowning, and he’s out of wine and he’s looking around a little like he might be thinking of opening another bottle. He says, “You know. I don’t talk about this stuff in front of him, but he knows.”
“Yeah,” says Taehyung. Soonyoung acts like he knows.
Hoseok is a little glassy-eyed. He says, “It’s really hard, sometimes. That I can’t do more.”
Taehyung used to think Hoseok was a yuppie. He is a yuppie, sort of; he has a perplexing amount of money, enough that he pays Taehyung more than he’s ever made at a job before, but Hoseok is also a really good person. Hoseok’s a good person in a situation that’s hard.
Hoseok says, “I really hope you don’t take this as me saying I don’t love him or want him.”
“I don’t,” says Taehyung, and it comes out so sincere that Taehyung blushes at himself.
“I love him so much.”
Taehyung doesn’t know what to say. Poor Soonyoung. Poor Hoseok. They only have each other.
They don’t drink more wine, but Taehyung does stay for another hour or so, sitting at the bar, and they just talk. Hoseok tells Taehyung about his work as a web designer, with a lack of passion that makes Taehyung feel more for him.
Taehyung doesn’t really say much. He just lets Hoseok talk about himself in this way like an exhale, like he’s getting something out he’s had inside for a long time with no way to free it. Taehyung listens to him talk about his family, and his son, and his work, and his ex-fiancee, with whom he bought this big cold house.
“I was 19,” Hoseok says, “And I’d just moved from the suburbs for this job and I took him with me. We didn’t really think about it, we just moved into the nicest place we could find. But he left me when Soonyoung was little. He didn’t want kids, I don’t know, he wanted to be the only thing I spent my time and money on. Good riddance. He sucked.”
Taehyung smiles in a slow, wine-warmed way. “You’re great,” he says.
Before he leaves, still loose, he gives Hoseok a hug. Big, and full, and he hopes it conveys what he wants it to. That, even though all he can do is keep showing up at 8:15 and keep making sure Soonyoung survives from day to day, he hears Hoseok. Hoseok gives him a squeeze and they hold it there for a little longer than might be appropriate for a nanny, but is still okay for a friend.
Taehyung’s paycheck the next week is bigger than it should be, and he asks Hoseok about it. “This is like, five extra hours?” he says. “Right?”
Hoseok, doing his tie, says, “I don’t think so. You were here all week and you stayed for dinner on Friday. So that’s like 55 hours, right?”
“Why did you pay me for dinner?”
“Because you helped me put Soonyoung to bed and you watched him while I cooked?”
“No,” says Taehyung. “That was not work.”
“Oh,” says Hoseok hesitantly.
That makes Taehyung feel so cheap. “That was hanging out.”
“Okay,” says Hoseok. “Do you want to keep that as a bonus?”
Taehyung shrugs. He’s saving so much money from this job that he might not have to take out loans next term. He wonders if it even makes a dent in Hoseok’s bank account. It’s weird to think about. Taehyung says, “Okay. I’ll keep it as a bonus. But don’t pay me for my friendship anymore. I hate that.”
Hoseok’s smile looks half discomfort, but he nods and he says, “I won’t.”
Taehyung stays late for dinner two days the next week. The first night, they put Soonyoung to bed together, and he lets them read him a story, and the second night Hoseok takes a long shower while Taehyung puts Soonyoung to bed by himself. It’s rocky; Soonyoung asks for his appa a bunch of times, but he lets Taehyung read to him and only cries for a minute before falling asleep.
Both nights, when Soonyoung is asleep, Hoseok and Taehyung share a bottle of wine and just talk.
Taehyung looks back and wonders what he ever thought about Hoseok was unapproachable and stuffy. Hoseok is like a rubber band pulled taut in the way that a man who hasn’t had a chance to sit down and take a deep breath, to sleep through a night or let his guard down for a moment in years is bound to be; he’s tired and he’s a little grey, Taehyung notices when his lips stain red from the wine, but no part of him is stuffy.
Though he and Taehyung have very little in common, their conversation comes easily. On the first night, they get to laughing so hard about something inane that Soonyoung wakes up and comes into the living room, where Hoseok and Taehyung have migrated to the couch. “Shh, Appa. Tae. Quiet,” he says. He crawls into Hoseok’s lap and falls back asleep while they whisper, and though he stirs when Hoseok lifts him, he lets himself be brought back to bed.
On the second night, they sit talking for so long that they lose track of time, and they find that it’s 11:30, and Hoseok says, “You know, Tae, you just have to be back here in eight hours. Why don’t you stay in the guest room.”
“I would,” says Taehyung, “But I don’t have clothes.”
Hoseok looks like he’s going to offer to loan him some, but that’s too much for a nanny and even strange territory for a friend, so he says, “Good point. I’m sorry it got so late.”
“No problem,” says Taehyung, smiling, comfortable, sleepy.
Before he walks out the door, Hoseok says, “Feel free to bring a change of clothes over in case it gets late again.”
Taehyung helps with bathtime a few times over the next couple weeks, and he starts staying to put Soonyoung to bed so often that it almost becomes regular. Taehyung does bring a change of clothes, and he does sleep in the guest room one night when it gets really late and he’s just got to be back in the morning.
It would be easy to feel like Hoseok was taking advantage of Taehyung’s kindness in asking him to stay late so often, if not for how nice it is for Taehyung, too. He’d be alone otherwise, missing his family, eating bland food by himself, if not here. It’s good to feel close to someone, and to get closer with Hoseok, and better with Soonyoung.
By the tenth week after Taehyung starts watching Soonyoung, a routine establishes itself which involves Taehyung staying over two or three nights a week. Hoseok cooks most nights, Soonyoung tries some but mostly sticks with his baby foods, they do bedtime together, and then Hoseok and Taehyung hang out. Taehyung sometimes still goes home to sleep, but just as often he stays, and he starts to bring clothes every day just in case. It is more convenient this way, and no matter how cold this house is, how unfamiliar the guest room, it’s warmer than the cement studio he’s paying for a few blocks away.
There’s a Friday night when Hoseok is staying late at work to finish something that he absolutely cannot put off anymore. The three people working under him on this project have finally figured out how to get past a huge obstacle that stumped everyone for almost a week, and now Hoseok’s got to catch up quickly if he wants to stay on track. He asks Taehyung if he’d stay late and put Soonyoung to bed, and of course Taehyung agrees.
Soonyoung is a little weirded out by the idea of going to bed without his appa, he seems a little afraid, even though Taehyung puts him to bed quite often these days. Because of this, Taehyung suggests that Soonyoung go to bed in Hoseok’s room.
It works. They go into Hoseok’s clean, high-ceilinged bedroom and they lay down together in Hoseok’s big bed and read stories for a long time. Soonyoung is scared quiet; Taehyung thinks he might be worried that Hoseok is not ever coming home. So he lays with him on top of the covers and reads stories until Soonyoung falls asleep.
He isn’t aware of falling asleep himself, nor is he aware of Hoseok coming home, or Soonyoung, somehow, being transferred to his own bed. He is only aware of waking up first confused and disoriented, and then for a moment terrified, in an unfamiliar place.
Natural light on his face, bloated discomfort because he slept in jeans, and he remembers where he fell asleep last night. He blinks around the room for a couple seconds before he hears breathing beside him.
It is not Soonyoung. It’s Hoseok. He’s sleeping. He looks young; not like a good looking thirty, not so tired, just 26. Hardly older than Taehyung. Younger than the last guy Taehyung dated, actually, though why is he thinking about that? He shouldn’t be, right?
He sits up slowly, but Hoseok still stirs. He blinks an eye open a crack and grunts mirthfully. He says, “Morning.”
Taehyung says, “Morning?” He doesn’t know where his glasses are. He feels around and finds them on the nightstand. He’s not sure he remembers putting them there.
“You were dead asleep last night.”
Taehyung just lets out the smallest, weirdest laugh.
“You looked like you needed it. Waking you up would have been wrong.”
Taehyung doesn’t know whether to thank Hoseok or lock himself in the bathroom to think for a while. He just says, sounding so tired, “What time did you get in?”
“Before eleven,” grunts Hoseok, eyes closed again.
Taehyung looks at his phone, which he can feel in the pocket of the jeans he wore all night. It’s nine. Late. Taehyung hasn’t slept that many hours in one go since he started watching Soonyoung. “Cool,” he says. “Can I take a shower?”
“‘Course,” says Hoseok, starting to sit up and stretch himself, in a light grey v-neck t-shirt that looks so much less starched and well-made than most of the things he wears, and, though Taehyung is aware that Hoseok is just a person, and the more they talk the less he feels like Taehyung’s boss and the more he feels like his friend, but he looks so much like he’s just a boy that Taehyung’s fond of in that moment that it scares him. He goes out to the guest bathroom to take a shower without saying anything else.
When he gets out of the shower, in the spare clothes he brings every day now, Hoseok and Soonyoung are out in the living room. There’s music on, some kid musician, but one of the good ones, with songs that Taehyung finds himself singing even when he’s not here. Soonyoung is laying on the carpet on his belly, propped up on his elbows, crashing two toy cars into each other and making mouth sounds. The curtains over the huge windows are mostly open and the light of the early-April morning (cloudless, crisp) lights up dust that hangs in the air, falls on Soonyoung’s bedhead and his turtle pajamas (his favorites) and all the way over to the clean chrome kitchen, where Hoseok, in the grey t-shirt and shorts, so Taehyung can see all the way up to his thighs, is puffy-faced and making breakfast. It’s bacon or something, it smells buttery and delicious. Taehyung’s stomach growls.
Hoseok turns to him from the pans and says, “Hello. I’m making enough for everybody if you want to stay.”
Taehyung does. He says, “Sure.”
Hoseok says, “There’s coffee ready.”
Taehyung goes to the kitchen to get some. He stirs the creamer in, and Soonyoung yells for him.
“What’s up, bud?” says Taehyung, taking the biggest drink of hot coffee he can handle before setting his mug down on the coffee table and sitting cross-legged next to Soonyoung.
Soonyoung shoves one of the cars at Taehyung. “Crash this.”
Taehyung says, “Okay. Let’s crash them. Everybody inside is wearing seatbelts, right?”
“Nobody inside,” says Soonyoung, after a moment of thinking. “Everyone is safe.”
Hoseok and Taehyung do the look across the room at each other that happens when Soonyoung says something nice.
They eat breakfast, and Hoseok showers while Taehyung helps Soonyoung get dressed, and it starts to reach a time when Taehyung should start heading home.
That’s what a nanny would do, and even a friend, at this point, would start thinking about going away to spend his weekend on his own things. Taehyung doesn’t know what he is to Hoseok if not a nanny or a friend, so he supposes that even if he doesn’t want to go home, it’s what would be right.
So he says, “I guess I’ll go soon.”
Hoseok says, “You can.”
Taehyung says, “Should I?”
Hoseok looks at Taehyung curiously, with big, unwavering eyes. He says, “You can stay. I’d like you to.”
Taehyung swallows and it feels loud. Soonyoung is playing so nicely this morning, he’s arranging dolls in some way that seems purposeful, and Hoseok and Taehyung are a little bit close.
An employee wouldn’t do this. And a friend, maybe, wouldn’t be this close. So maybe that’s not what they are. Maybe they are something else. Hoseok kisses Taehyung.
They go to a park with a big playground later.
Soonyoung runs, and Taehyung follows him, earning squeaky peals of laughter and garbled giggly pleas. Taehyung comes back to sit next to Hoseok while Soonyoung plays in the sand, and he puts his hand on top of Hoseok’s. It feels like it’s supposed to be there.
Hoseok follows Soonyoung to the play structure and helps him go down the slide, and they both stay close when another couple kids come to the park, because they know how Soonyoung can be.
But he’s nice for a good long while. He loudly sings to a girl a little bit younger than him until she runs off and he swings very well next to another little boy while Hoseok pushes him. He gets in an argument over a stick at one point that ends in tears on Soonyoung’s part and embarrassment on Hoseok’s, but nobody gets slapped or kicked, so it’s a win. It’s a trip to the park in which Soonyoung behaved himself.
On the walk back, Hoseok and Taehyung each hold one of Soonyoung’s hands and praise him on a job well done for so long that even Soonyoung gets bored. He says, “Appa, Tae. I know.”
Taehyung looks up over Soonyoung’s head at Hoseok and says, “What about some i-c-e-c-r-e-a-m?”
“I-z-e-z-m?” says Soonyoung. “What?”
Hoseok says, “Soonyoung-ah, I love it when you spell. Tae, great idea.”
There’s an ice cream place not far out of the way, and they steer Soonyoung there. Soonyoung is excited to the point of anxiety about taking a route he doesn’t recognize, and Hoseok tries to forgive himself for having socialized Soonyoung so badly that he whines and squeezes his hand when they turn left instead of right.
It’s worth it, of course, to see the look on Soonyoung’s face when he realizes what they’re doing. Hoseok stays back with Soonyoung while Taehyung orders for the three of them. Soonyoung is a little too loud and wacky, but it’s only because he’s excited. He’s a mess with his ice cream and so excited to be eating it that he sings into his cup.
“What are you singing?” asks Hoseok, when he tries to hear what Soonyoung’s saying through the mouthful of vanilla melt that he hasn’t swallowed yet.
He sings it louder. It’s half planet names and half the word “ice cream.” He seems embarrassed about it, but Hoseok says, “Awesome song, Soonyoung-ah.”
“Why do you keep saying awesome Soonyoung-ah?”
“Because you’re being really nice today,” says Hoseok. “It’s fun to spend time with you when you’re being so nice.”
“I know it,” says Hoseok. “Sometimes you just don’t act that way.”
Soonyoung slurps more ice cream into his mouth and says, “I know.”
Taehyung spends the rest of the day with Hoseok and Soonyoung and sleeps over again at night. It’s different now, but not in a way that feels very significant. Taehyung and Hoseok put Soonyoung to bed, just like they usually do, and then they sit together and drink and talk for a while. Though, not for as long as usual, and when Hoseok mentions wanting to go to bed, it seems easy for him to take Taehyung’s hand and lead him into his own bedroom.
Sitting at the edge of the bed in Hoseok’s room, with the lights off but the windows open to let in damp summer night air, and distant echoes from the street, stories below, and white light from the buildings around them, they kiss. And it feels right, and it does feel significant.
In the dark room, Hoseok pulls off his shirt. The lights from the city outline his profile, the edges of his chest, the place where his hip pulls in a little, the tone of his stomach, the gleam of his hair, and Taehyung loses his breath.
Taehyung follows, pulling off his long sleeved shirt, and Hoseok pulls him in and they lay close, getting a sense of each other like this.
Nothing else happens; they’re both so tired. It’s not even worth it right now. They have so many more nights to do anything they want, but right now they just lie close, and it feels good.
The funny thing is, the more they take Soonyoung out, the better he behaves. Hoseok always knew that would be true, but any energy past day to day survival is more than he often can readily access. Taehyung helps with that. Taehyung helps with a lot.
One night, they take Soonyoung out for dinner.
It’s a kid-friendly restaurant, unappetizing to Hoseok (but apparently not to Taehyung, who will eat any amount of anything at any time, Hoseok is coming to realize) but it’s more of an experiment than anything. It’s great, being able to leave the house with his kid sometimes, and it feels nice to be out with Taehyung, even if there are scary animatronic animals singing over their limp pizza.
Soonyoung can’t stay for long; it seems like he’s overstimulated, and he starts crying, but it’s getting less and less violent. This time, he’s got the words to tell Hoseok that he wants to go home.
They go back to the museum and Soonyoung gets all the way around the planet room before he does anything inappropriate.
Taehyung takes Soonyoung to the park with the play structure regularly enough now that he’s starting to get to know a couple of the other kids, and, though he’s a little strange with them and Taehyung has to stay close, it’s nice to see him playing with children his age.
Soonyoung’s sentences start getting longer. Sometimes, when Taehyung speaks to him in Korean, he understands well enough that Taehyung doesn't have to repeat himself in English.
Soonyoung draws a picture of the solar system and lets Taehyung help him label the planets. They read enough books that Soonyoung is able, one evening, to confidently explain supernovas to Hoseok.
He is still mean to Taehyung. Most of the day is unsalvageable, most of the time. But most of the day is better than all of the day, and there’s one afternoon when Soonyoung offers Taehyung a hug and says, “Don’t go.”
“I won’t,” says Taehyung.
Hoseok and Taehyung only kiss or touch when Soonyoung isn’t around. They haven’t discussed what they’d tell Soonyoung about it. They haven’t discussed what it is between themselves.
It’s easy, certainly. For Taehyung, it isn’t stressful, and he doesn’t have to think very much about it. Hoseok feels good to him, Hoseok is very attractive, and being close with him feels like, all along, what was supposed to be.
After Soonyoung goes to bed, Hoseok and Taehyung usually end up in Hoseok’s bed. They lay close, and they kiss, and Hoseok strokes Taehyung’s hair and they tangle fingers and legs.
The only time Taehyung is confused is when he wants to tell Hoseok that he is beautiful. It overwhelms him, once, when Hoseok pulls off his shirt and the only light is the dim, warm floor lamp by Hoseok’s bed. His shoulder connects across his straight back, his hips, the line of his spine. He’s sturdy but light, limber, and Taehyung wants to tell him, but something stops him. He doesn’t know what. He just kisses Hoseok instead, and touches all the parts of him that he can reach.
Usually, Hoseok wakes up first. Taehyung doesn't set an alarm anymore, he just waits for Hoseok to come get him.
Hoseok is a good person; usually he brings coffee with him. Sometimes, as soon as Taehyung peeks open a sleepy eye, Hoseok laughs at him like he thinks he's sweet. It's one of Taehyung's favorite things right now. Hoseok's hair is usually still really messy that early; he usually doesn't do much to groom himself until Taehyung's up and watching Soonyoung. His smile is so big and real and it feels like Hoseok loves him.
Usually, Hoseok brings Taehyung coffee, and laughs at him when he's half asleep, and sometimes he leans down and kisses Taehyung's cheek or his forehead, or once, all over his face until it was overwhelming and Taehyung made a squawking noise that just made Hoseok laugh harder.
It's remarkably easy to fall into a routine like this; it's like they've always done it.
It's remarkably easy to go days and days and then weeks without ever talking about what has changed.
Taehyung talks to his friends at home almost every day. He likes their updates, and it seems like they like his. And even if they don't, it's nice for Taehyung to be able to talk frankly about some of the preposterous nonsense he deals with.
Soonyoung ate a crayon and I had to call poison control, how's your day?
want to know how long it's been since i last knew silence? (3 hours)(that's longer than it sounds)
guess who choked on yogurt and somehow puked it under the rug?
Occasionally, in the beginning, he'd send a selfie featuring Soonyoung at his worst, when he'd go bright red and cry and snot and spit and thrash on the ground, inconsolable. It was so upsetting that he had to laugh about it sometimes.
Namjoon would reply with pictures of himself at various pool parties and picturesque getaways. He brags a lot, but never takes for granted his beautiful, wealthy boyfriend.
Jimin's in pre-med, so he’s always tired, and when he's not studying, he's in his pajamas with alcohol. Taehyung gets pictures to prove that, too.
He's known the two of them since his first year of college, so he's known them through almost everything. They've been with him while he learned to live on his own for the first time. They watched him grow up.
So, they know him really well.
He tries to keep the thing with Hoseok from them, in the beginning, because it seems odd, doesn't it? That he's sleeping with his boss? That Hoseok is sleeping with his nanny?
But they're not really sleeping together. Literally, they are, they're sleeping in the same bed, but they haven't done anything else. It’s just that they're both single and gay and Hoseok's only a couple years older than Taehyung, and they're both here, and they really get along, they really click in a way that feels very important.
Taehyung tells them eventually, because they can tell something is up and he has to tell someone. Namjoon, at least, should understand. His parents are married now, but when they met, his mother was the other woman, his dad was cheating with her.
But Jimin tells him to get some, and Namjoon's the one who thinks it's strange.
be careful, he says. don't let him take advantage of you.
Taehyung tries to explain. It's not like that. There's no advantage being taken; no one has an advantage, but Namjoon tells Taehyung that with that much money, Hoseok will always be in charge. Hoseok writes his paychecks. It’s dangerous.
It's kind of true, Taehyung admits. He doesn't think about the money so much anymore. He doesn't act like he has a lot of money, he tells Namjoon. He doesn’t act like he’s my boss.
Namjoon sends back, But he is.
And it’s true, but even Taehyung’s big imagination can’t grasp what it’s like to be Hoseok, so he just tries not to get caught up in the details.
Time passes, and that complicates things.
As soon as it happens that Taehyung and Hoseok have become comfortable here, as soon as Taehyung gets used to spending the night, there’s only a month left before the lease is up on Taehyung’s apartment. That’s almost empty now; he didn’t bring much with him here in the first place, and most of his clothes fit in one drawer in the dresser in Hoseok’s guest bedroom. It’s just easier this way. Taehyung’s hours are long, and it’s nice to avoid the walk home and back. It’s warmer at night in bed with Hoseok, though they never do more than kiss and sleep.
They talk about that, once. Taehyung wants to do more, and Hoseok says he doesn’t. Not, he is sure to say, because he is uninterested, but because Taehyung has to leave and he doesn’t want to get too attached. Even as he says it, Taehyung knows that that won’t stop this from hurting in ways he isn’t ready to access. And, as little as they talk about it, the imminent end hangs over them.
Other than that time, they don’t mention it. They just do it. Taehyung begins to worry that if they ponder too much on whatever this is, they’ll have to ponder all of it. And Taehyung is alright with living in this world for a while longer without acknowledging its realities. He’s alright with this big square house, its shiny surfaces, the oft-screaming child whom he has come to love; humid, pretty, late-spring walks around the neighborhood, Hoseok coming home in the evenings and making dinner for them almost like they’re something else. Almost like they are the family that Taehyung always imagined having someday.
But he’s too young for that now, and he doesn’t really live here. He lives two time zones away in a cramped little house by the train tracks, and in a month this will pass and he’ll go back to the life that he’s used to. He’ll go back to his actual family, the actual children he’s supposed to be watching grow up. His real friends at home, and he’ll probably realize that all of this just happened because he had nowhere else to go to feel warm.
One day, four weeks before Taehyung leaves, one of the people on Hoseok’s team says, out of the blue, “Hope, you’re looking really good.”
“Okay,” he says, a little confused, but flattered.
They work in this open office, at a big table. Hoseok has his own office, but he’s discouraged from spending too much time there. If he had his way, he’d always work alone, because all this open office plan thing does for him is make him feel like he’s being looked at. It keeps him on edge, he gets less work done. Though, these past couple weeks have been surprisingly successful. They’re a month ahead of schedule, and his boss doesn’t let the team forget for a second that it’s mostly because of Hoseok’s ingenuity.
He’s got three people he’s managing right now, and they’re currently all here, the four of them, him and Sebastian and Gia and Elaine, at a big table with their laptops open against one another. Gia says, “Yeah, I agree. I’ve been noticing. You seem like, fresh.”
They’ve all been working really closely for a couple months now, and this false sense of friendship is ubiquitous here. The three of them regularly go for beers after work. It's kind of them to invite Hoseok too, even though he always says no.
Finally, Elaine pulls a headphone out of her ear and says, “What are we talking about?”
Sebastian says, “That Hope seems good lately.”
“Are you like, on a diet or something? Your skin looks good.”
Hoseok says, “No, I’m just sleeping better.”
“Oh yeah? Kid quieting down?” Gia asks like she knows him so well, and it makes him strangely upset, though he supposes she does. They’ve worked together for two years, he doesn’t know why he thinks she doesn’t get to know that his child is a noisy person, all of a sudden.
“I have a really great nanny right now,” he says finally. Nanny feels like a weird thing to call Taehyung, but that’s what he is. Hoseok pays him to watch his kid. No other terminology has been established.
“Oh shit, finally found a good one?”
Hoseok smiles. He doesn’t mean to, but he does, and Gia sees it. She goes, “Wait, it’s a dude?”
Hoseok has lost. He says, “Is it obvious?”
“Oh my god, scandal,” says Elaine.
“Can we get to work?” he says, but he’s still smiling to himself when he pulls his headphones back on.
Later in the day, his boss pulls him aside.
“So, you’re ahead by almost a month, right?” she says when he looks at her expectantly after she sits down in the chair at the other side of his desk.
He smiles. “We’re doing really well,” he says. “We couldn’t figure out the facebook integration thing, but since we got that it’s been really smooth.”
“You know how great this is to hear.”
“We’re pretty excited, too,” he says.
“I wanted to start you thinking about your next project.”
“Oh,” he says. He doesn’t know if he’s ready for that yet. He was just starting to feel like he had this one understood. Hoseok is good at starting with an idea and creating it from nothing, like taking a crochet hook and a little ball of yarn and making a huge blanket, big enough to be thrown over a house. He can focus and he can work and pick until it’s done, even when he hooks something in wrong and days, weeks unravel in front of him. But he doesn’t like it. Beginning is hard. Having nothing to work with but a difficult problem and what’s already inside him is hard. He’s tired.
She introduces a couple ideas to him, and one thing about being a prodigy is that he gets to choose, but none of them sound appealing. Keeping doing this doesn’t sound appealing. He kind of just wants to go home and hang out with his kid and Taehyung.
Being in bed with Taehyung is one of Hoseok’s favorite things, and it’s not just because he cherishes any moment that he is able to spend idle and comfortable. Taehyung isn’t the ideal bed partner; he moves a lot in his sleep and can get noisy when he’s dreaming, but he’s also warm and clingy and he usually smells really good (silky and sweet), and Hoseok’s sleep is getting a little better lately, even though he’s sleeping a little less.
Hoseok missed having adults in his life, but Taehyung also isn’t just any adult. Hoseok hasn’t trusted someone this much this fast since before Soonyoung was born. Taehyung is someone special. He is a unique person. Hoseok likes him quite a lot, and he also knows this is the only time he’ll feel like this (exactly like this) about someone. He knows Taehyung goes home soon, in just weeks now, though he ignores that fact whenever possible. He knows this is going to end, and he’s sure someday he’ll care about someone else, but it won’t be just like this.
He knows they’re not discussing certain things. It’s hard for him not to talk all the details to death; it’s hard for him not to speak when there’s something he wants to say. He’s done very well letting this exist in space without turning it over in his hands, feeling around for all the dimensions, looking for cracks and imperfections. He’s done well with that. But there’s a morning when it’s hard to stay quiet, when Taehyung’s just woken up and his eyes are still mostly closed, when he’s pouting and not really talking yet. It’s a Saturday, and they don’t need to be up for any reason other than making sure Soonyoung’s being properly observed, and Hoseok has got to say something or he’ll wilt and die.
“You’re very special to me,” he says, in a way that sounds a little loud so early, a little strained and out of place.
Taehyung cracks an eye wider across the space between them.
“Not just because you’re good with Soonyoung. I mean, obviously not. I just like spending time with you and I like sleeping with you.”
Taehyung might be trying, slowly, to form a sentence, but now that Hoseok’s started talking, he doesn’t think he can stop. “Sorry if that’s too much. But you know what I’m saying? It’s just been really nice, right?”
Taehyung still looks like he’s getting his bearings in consciousness, but he’s looking at Hoseok now for sure, and Hoseok is certain in that moment that he’s ruined everything by saying anything at all. “Sorry,” he says again, wide awake and anxious. “But you get what I’m trying to say?”
Taehyung reaches out and puts a warm hand lightly around Hoseok’s wrist. He guides it down and tangles his fingers with it. He says, “Shh.”
“I’m sorry,” says Hoseok again. “I just like having you around, is that weird?”
“Chill out. It’s just me,” says Taehyung, in a husky, sleepy voice. He brings his other hand up and trails fingertips up and down Hoseok’s arm. “Breathe.”
“I’m sorry,” says Hoseok, quieter.
“You’re special to me, too,” says Taehyung, more clearly. “It’s okay.”
That quiets Hoseok’s anxiety, the little fear in him that no one really wants to spend time with him or his son. Taehyung moves closer and Hoseok adjusts, too, so they’re sharing warmth. He tries to adjust his instincts to let what Taehyung shows him about how much he cares hold more weight than the platitudes he shares.
They cuddle close, warm and drowsy under the plush comforter. Hoseok doesn’t know how to snooze, but Taehyung comes in and out of sleep and Hoseok is comfortable to rub up and down his back.
They stay like that until Hoseok starts thinking he should go check on Soonyoung. But then, to his surprise, just as he’s figuring out how best to displace Taehyung without it being jarring, Soonyoung peeks his head into Hoseok’s room.
“Hi,” says Hoseok quietly. “You want to come in here?” Soonyoung usually goes straight into the living room and starts quietly destroying things.
Soonyoung comes in. He looks really sleepy, his hair’s still sticking up everywhere and he’s dragging a blanket behind him. He comes up to Hoseok’s side of the bed and says, “Are you still sleeping?”
“No, I’m up. I don’t know about Tae, though.”
“I’m up,” says Taehyung unconvincingly.
“Can I get in?” asks Soonyoung.
“Of course,” says Hoseok. He and Taehyung scoot to make room for him.
It doesn’t last very long. Soonyoung doesn’t really want to be still, he wants to talk and he wakes up quickly, like Hoseok. By the time Hoseok decides to stop bothering cute sleepy Taehyung and start breakfast, Taehyung’s awake, too, and they all get up and the moment passes. Still, it was nice to have had it.
Taehyung’s homesickness is so much better than it was when he first got here, but it still hits him hard sometimes.
Like on his third-to-last Saturday in town, when he splays out on top of the covers of Hoseok’s guest bedroom and calls his siblings.
It sounds like something is off, and he lets that anxiety stew for a minute, sure he’s just imagining an edge to the tone of his grandma’s voice. But then, she says, “I don’t want you to worry too much, but,” and it hits him suddenly. He’s already about to cry. He is worried. In all the moments when he’s not with Hoseok and Soonyoung, he’s worrying, and fighting guilt for finding comfort away from them. His grandma says, “Jae broke his leg the other day. He fell from a tree.”
Taehyung says, “Why didn’t you call me? When?” Why is he finding out days later when he could have been comforting his brother when he hurt? God, he’s glad Jaeseung isn’t dead, but Taehyung just should be there.
His grandma says, “Tae, he’s going to be fine. We didn’t want to worry you when it happened. I’ll put him on.”
She does, and he sounds fine. He tells Taehyung all about his blue cast and tells him that Grandma said he’ll be home in time to see it, and Taehyung feels like he’s being torn apart.
He wants to be there to care for his brother. He wants to have been there, like he has always been there, when Jaeseung got rowdy and wanted to wail and run around the park across the neighborhood. He’s sure that’s where it happened, he thinks he even knows which tree it was. In their yard, all the trees are young and weak and bare, and it’s not safe to play around the house. The park is the closest place with a tree that he’d have found to fall from. Jaeseung says it was Grandma who went with him and Jisoo, and Taehyung feels sore and far away. Grandma wasn’t able to help him. Taehyung would have been.
He wants to have been there to keep him safe so badly. He wants to protect them. He needs to. But Taehyung, also, has been here, keeping Soonyoung safe. He’s been preventing Soonyoung from getting into scary disasters on a multi-daily basis. Soonyoung really needs him.
Taehyung cannot be in both places at once. He can’t be with all of the people who he wants to look after. He can’t keep everyone safe from everything all the time, he’s never been able to, and it is hard.
Hoseok finds him in the guest room a little while later, curled up in the corner, his tears almost dry now, but a puddle in the pillow under his head.
He comes to try to comfort Taehyung, and for a minute, he wants to push Hoseok away. Taehyung being here is the reason Jaeseung broke his leg. He shouldn’t be doing this at all, he shouldn’t be so comfortable here, especially right now.
But then Hoseok is so soft, and he smells nice, and even though his voice usually carries across the house he talks to Taehyung so small, and Taehyung lets him stay wrapped around him from behind until Soonyoung loudly knocks something over in the living room.
They go on a hike one afternoon. It’s an easy one, kid-friendly, hardly out of town, and it could either go very well or very, very badly.
But, according to the trend lately, it’s almost just fine.
It’s been raining a lot, but this weekend it’s dried up, and there’s moss growing on everything. The sun breaks through the clouds and the trees occasionally. Birds chatter happily above them. Hoseok and Taehyung hang back a little, holding hands and meandering while Soonyoung takes it all in. He alternates between running ahead fast and stopping for a long time to look at things that interest him. Hoseok and Taehyung try to maintain a pace as much as possible, but sometimes Soonyoung leaves their sight and they have to chase after him a little.
Soonyoung shows them cool leaves once or twice, and squats for a good long while to look at a slug, slowly making its way down the side of the path, in the same direction as them. Taehyung wants to get his phone out and look up some slug facts to tell Soonyoung, but there's no service over here, so they ponder together and decide to get a book later.
Soonyoung is remarkably well behaved. He screeches at one point, maybe just because he can, because he wants to hear how much it'll fill up the space between the trees around them, but he stops quickly and it sounds more like power, fresh air filling up his little lungs than any kind of pent-up rage.
Soonyoung runs too fast and falls down, right at the lookout that marks the farthest point from the entrance to the trail, and Taehyung and Hoseok look at each other like they knew this would happen, but they're both prepared to deal with this now, and more so together.
Though, Soonyoung doesn't cry for long. Hoseok has a small first aid kit in his bag as well as a bunch of water and sunscreen and a change of clothes for Soonyoung because there is no such thing as being quite prepared enough. He cleans the dirt out of his knee (lightly scraped, ultimately perfectly fine) and Taehyung tells him he's being brave. Soonyoung takes Taehyung's hand and squeezes it when Hoseok says, "Alright, this might sting." He's still crying, he's being loud, but he's sitting still and he's not throwing a scary, spitting tantrum. He's just scared. Hoseok and Taehyung being there with him seems like a big comfort.
They sit for a minute, as long as Soonyoung needs, but then Soonyoung does the sort of eerie thing where he calms down very suddenly, and he says, "Appa, Tae, can we go? Walk more?"
"Of course we can, Soonyoung-ah," says Hoseok, and he holds out a hand and Soonyoung takes it and lets Hoseok help him up.
It used to frustrate Soonyoung when Taehyung and Hoseok would speak to him in Korean for any length of time, but the two of them together get into a swing with it, even when Soonyoung isn't there. Sometimes he tells them to stop, but today he joins in, a little. Monosyllabically, mostly. He's picked up so much, though, in such a short time, that Taehyung's sure he had most of it inside him all along.
Maybe next weekend they can go on a longer hike, they decide.
But the next weekend comes and they're busy the whole time. The week was hard, they need a day to rest, the three of them. Then on Sunday, Taehyung clears out his apartment and moves the rest of his things over to Hoseok's house.
So they plan to go on a longer hike the next weekend. Soonyoung itches for it; now that he's been out in nature, free to run around on his own, the park bores him. Taehyung likes the feeling of fresh air, too. Where he's from, they don't have trails like that, and for the first time since he got here, he wishes he'd taken more opportunities to explore the natural beauty before it was almost time to go.
But Saturday comes around, and there are only two weeks left, and he's still pretending that it doesn't feel like the earth is quaking and falling apart under his feet. He's still pretending it's nothing, but it's something, and then Hoseok mentions to Taehyung that he's started looking for nannies to replace him.
And that hurts Taehyung.
He doesn't know why. It shouldn't. For the first six weeks, he couldn't wait for this to end. The finality was the only thing that kept him going.
But it's different now. Of course it is. Soonyoung is doing so well. He's speaking. He's reading, a little. He's demonstrating symbolic thought. He hasn't hit Taehyung so hard that it hurts in weeks, he hasn't broken anything nice in even longer. Taehyung is invested now, in watching the way Soonyoung grows up. He wants to see him get bigger and do better and eventually become a good, strong, caring person, like his dad.
Taehyung is going to miss Hoseok a lot.
Of course he is. When he thinks about the ending, something like an ice cube grows in his throat. It hurts.
Hoseok is warm. Hoseok is good to him. Hoseok is so easy to be close to.
Taehyung is homesick, but he’s worried he’ll be homesick for this place, too. Hoseok is warm and comfortable, and being with him makes him feel close to the things he loves most.
The approaching end is felt long before it’s mentioned.
On the Friday before Taehyung’s last week watching Soonyoung, it makes him tense, and he finds himself fighting with Hoseok.
He doesn’t know why. He isn’t angry with Hoseok. But they’re both on edge, maybe because the week has been long or maybe because the weeks are going by too quickly. He and Hoseok start arguing about whether Soonyoung needs to be put in time-out for a particularly offensive comment, but they never get to an answer. Instead they bicker in a way they haven’t before, and Hoseok makes some underhanded comment about how Taehyung doesn’t really have a right to make parenting decisions. Taehyung responds too strongly.
“I’m the one here with him while you’re at work all the time,” he snaps. “He only listens to me.”
Soonyoung is looking up at them with wide eyes. He’s scared, and Taehyung knows they shouldn’t be doing this here, because Soonyoung’s fragile and this is about his well-being anyway. Fighting in front of him won’t fix what hurts him, but Taehyung is angry, his head hurts, and Hoseok won’t hear him.
“That’s not true and you know it,” says Hoseok, equally tense, frowning at Taehyung.
“Who is caring for him if not me?” says Taehyung, but as soon as it’s out of his mouth he knows he worded something very fragile very badly. It’s not what he means; he means that he’s put a lot of himself into making sure Soonyoung is okay, and that he’s tried to be here for Soonyoung during all the time Hoseok can’t.
But it’s too late, and Hoseok hears something hard, and he looks so angry that Taehyung is scared. His lips are a tight line, his body is tense, and right then, he looks like he hates Taehyung.
He doesn’t yell, and that’s worse because he yells about everything. He yells when mildly startled, he screeches for Taehyung across the house, he’s noisy and irreverent. But now, in this anger, he speaks slowly and clearly. “You are not his parent.”
Taehyung knows. But that’s why he’s mad; in a different world maybe he could be, maybe he’d want to be, maybe he could think about it, but in this world it’s slipping like cold water through his fingers and he doesn’t want it to. He wants to take some of the weight of this heavy responsibility from Hoseok’s shoulders and carry it with him, but they don’t have time, and however close they have become, Hoseok still doesn’t trust him.
“I know,” says Taehyung. He’s not angry now, just sad. Just frustrated, sore over how little say he has in anything. Just sorry for doing this in front of Soonyoung, for being so cranky that Hoseok’s angry now, for hurting something that was good.
“I think I should go,” he says, choked up. He lives at Hoseok’s house now; the apartment down the road is just there, paid for, waiting for Taehyung’s time to be over, but Taehyung thinks he should go there.
“Fine,” says Hoseok, but very quickly he changes his mind. “No,” he says. “Actually, wait.”
But Taehyung shakes his head. He’s made his mind up; he’s got to go. He shouldn’t be here. He goes to Hoseok’s room and takes some clothes out of the drawer he’s claimed, grabs his toothbrush from the second sink in the big bathroom, shoves it all in his old grey backpack and comes out to the living room, defeated.
“I’ll be back by Monday,” he says. He doesn’t know how much time he needs, if this is the end, if his last week will just be business. He doesn’t know what he needs except to go.
Hoseok says, “Fine.” He’s sitting with Soonyoung on the floor now, and he doesn’t look up.
So Taehyung goes, and almost loses the way to the cold little apartment after weeks, but gets there with hot tears still standing in his eyes.
He flips the lights on. It feels dead here. Cold, unoccupied, worse. Maybe Taehyung should move his flight up and leave this weekend. He thought there was something here for him but he isn’t sure anymore.
He gets in the bed and plugs his phone into the outlet beside him. It lights up with three messages from Hoseok.
you’re welcome back whenever you’re ready, says one.
sorry i yelled, says the second.
let me know you’re safe, says the last one.
Taehyung is still angry, but not sure anymore what about. It felt important at the time, but now he just feels like he’s running in circles and never feeling any less lonely. He’s no less confused than he was; this tears him apart now no less than it did at Hoseok’s house. He’s not angry because of Hoseok. He wants to go back.
He doesn’t; he spends the night in the cold, hard bed (nothing like the plush pillowtop he’s gotten accustomed to with Hoseok) because he’s not sure he’s ready to admit he was wrong yet. He does text Hoseok back to tell him he’s okay, and he hopes that’s enough.
In the morning, as soon as he wakes up, he walks back to Hoseok’s tall, shining-windowed apartment building with the market on the first floor. He goes inside just to waste time, because his stomach hurts and he’s not ready to go upstairs just yet, and comes out a few minutes later with an expensive chocolate bar for Hoseok.
He walks around to the side of the building to the clean door with the steady red light on the keypad. He types in the combination and it turns green and he lets himself in.
In the big mirrored elevator with the tiled floor, he makes strange eye contact with himself, and fixes his glasses. Then he walks down the hall to Hoseok’s red door and knocks. It sounds impersonal, like maybe he's here to do an inspection.
Soonyoung is yelling; Taehyung hears it unmuffle as Hoseok opens the door. He's still in his pajamas. He looks as tired and apprehensive as Taehyung does, but his deep-etched frown lightens when they make eye contact.
“Hi,” says Taehyung. “I brought you chocolate.” he shoves it in Hoseok’s face.
“Come in,” says Hoseok. He takes the chocolate and puts it on the counter. Taehyung isn’t sure yet if he should act like he belongs here, so he keeps his shoes on and holds onto his backpack, into which he crammed his things before he left the old apartment empty again this morning.
“Are you staying?” asks Hoseok hesitantly.
“Can I?” asks Taehyung.
Hoseok looks at him softly.
“Is Tae here?” screams Soonyoung, and he barrels in from the hallway that leads to his bedroom.
Taehyung gives Hoseok a small smile, and then he says, “I’m here, Soonyoung-ah.”
Taehyung puts down his bag and toes off his shoes where he stands. Hoseok comes in to hug him and Taehyung takes it.
They stand like that for as long as Soonyoung lets them. Taehyung presses his face against Hoseok’s shoulder, and Hoseok rubs his thumb on Taehyung’s back, and they don’t say they’re sorry but Taehyung thinks it’s understood.
The weekend is spent quieter than weekends have before. Soonyoung is chaos, but Taehyung and Hoseok are stiller together and feel more entwined than they used to be.
It’s almost worse this way; the closer they become, the closer the end feels, and in the evening, Taehyung finally acknowledges it.
"I don't want to go," he says offhandedly, laying in bed with Hoseok, in the small moments before they fall asleep.
Hoseok doesn't say anything, he just breathes it out slowly. Then he breathes back in, against Taehyung's back, and it flutters at the top.
After a long moment, Hoseok says, "I don't want you to go."
"I have to," says Taehyung. "My ticket, and my siblings, I,"
"I know," says Hoseok, comforting. He strokes Taehyung's side. "You have to."
"I wish I could stay," says Taehyung, and he really means it. It's not against his family, it's not against school or his friends. It doesn't make him feel guilty to say it. He wishes he could have it both ways, but he can't.
Hoseok says, "You know you're welcome."
"I know you can't stay. But if you did stay, you'd be welcome."
"Thank you," says Taehyung.
That road is appealing; the one where he stays and doesn't go. The one where he and Hoseok and Soonyoung stay this way forever, but Soonyoung just keeps getting better and bigger and making them more proud. The road where he doesn't have to sit on his feelings for Hoseok, afraid to let them out, afraid that if he tells Hoseok what he feels for him it will only make this harder.
But this is hard. And Taehyung does not get to have everything he wants. He can't.
The end comes.
Taehyung's taking a plane in the morning, back to his family's house. Back to Jaeseung, still in a blue cast, with a special place reserved for Tae to sign it. To Jisoo, who told him sweetly last week that she's been working on a gift for when he gets home.
To his mom and dad, whom he cares for, and his grandma, who needs him.
A big part of him can't wait.
A big part of him misses the cramped room he shares with Jaeseung when he's at home, and his college with its old limestone arches and gardens.
He misses Jimin and Namjoon and his studies. He should graduate this year, if everything goes alright, and he's looking forward to working hard and finishing what he's been chipping away at for the last five years.
He misses his close friends. He misses people his age, he misses how school feels, especially at the beginning, when no one's beaten into the ground by their work yet.
He misses a lot. He loves his home. He loves the life he's always had. He's lucky; he feels so lucky to be going home to so many people whom he loves so dearly.
A big part of him is excited to go home, but another part of him can't bear to leave.
It's his last night with Hoseok and Soonyoung, and all the time Taehyung didn't acknowledge as it passed hits him at once, over dinner.
It's quiet. Even Soonyoung is quiet. The refrigerator whirrs on, echoing, and it startles all three of them.
They pick at their food. Hoseok made something special, but no one is hungry.
Soonyoung goes to bed easily, and for once, it hurts Taehyung to see him go so sweet. No more time. No more tantrums. Nothing else.
In Hoseok's bed, Taehyung tries hard not to cry. This hurts him physically, the same way it hurt him to leave home in January for the internship he barely remembers having started and quit to do something that feels much more important. He tries not to cry, but, in Hoseok's bed, on the cusp of a deep breath, the tears let themselves in.
Hoseok pets his hair. He kisses above his ear. His warm hands rub up and down the fabric of Taehyung's sleep shirt.
Taehyung can't hold it by himself anymore.
He's been sitting on all the things he wants to tell Hoseok, because he's been afraid. Getting too close wouldn't be fair, would it? They only had months, it’s not enough time to really come to care about or know someone.
But that hasn't helped. It hasn't. There is something between them that is significant, and it grew strong and pulled them together despite time and distance. Taehyung has never felt like this about someone before. Holding back from Hoseok, being chaste, keeping sweet words to himself, it hasn't kept him from falling in love.
It doesn't seem fair to be here now.
Taehyung doesn't know what else there is to lose, if he just has to leave in the morning.
"You're beautiful," he says. "You're really beautiful."
Hoseok sniffles, airy, like it just hit him in an instant, and he says, "You are, too."
"You're a good person."
Hoseok hiccups into Taehyung's head. "So are you."
Taehyung groans quietly, tears coming too hard for him to speak properly. He doesn't have control of them. They're coming between him and some of the last minutes he has to be warm and close and tell Hoseok that this is important to him.
"Thank you for everything," says Hoseok. "I'm gonna miss you so much."
Taehyung doesn't get to anything else. He breathes in and out and holds Hoseok as close as he can and tries to breathe around the tearing apart feeling in his chest, and they fall asleep.
Jimin tried to comfort him about it. He said that social media is amazing these days, that they'll be able to talk as much as they always did and that there's no reason for them not to stay close when Taehyung gets home.
That's wrong, though. There are so many reasons it won’t work when Taehyung leaves.
The first of which being that Hoseok's life will always be here, and Taehyung's will always be there. Staying close with Hoseok would mean signing up to miss each other until it tears them apart.
And right now, Taehyung hasn't even left yet, and he misses Hoseok quite enough to kill him.
This is the end. They won't see each other again. They won't ever know what it might have been like to love each other for a long time.
It hurts, but it is the truth. And there's nothing that will solve it.
When Hoseok drops him off at the airport, Taehyung leans into the backseat and kisses Soonyoung on the forehead, and Soonyoung kisses him right back. His goodbye to Taehyung is stunted, but it’s clear he knows what’s happening and it’s clear he’s hurt by it. A hot tear falls from Taehyung's eye onto the strap of Soonyoung's car seat and Soonyoung doesn't even tell him to stop it.
Hoseok steps out of the car, and they hug, and Taehyung tries so hard not to sob, not to just let himself be ripped in half and left here. Hoseok kisses him, and Taehyung kisses back, and then they laugh because they're crying so much on each other.
Taehyung holds the hug for as long as he can, memorizing the stiff fabric of Hoseok's shirt, how it feels against his bare arms, and the smell and the heat and the shape of Hoseok's cheek against the tip of his nose.
It hurts so much that Taehyung doesn't know if he can bear it. But there is nothing to do but know that it hurts too much, and know that he will have to live through it anyway.
He pulls apart from Hoseok and gets a last look at his face. He’ll never forget it, pink-cheeked and wet, tears streaming down his cheeks, but smiling at Taehyung with the kind of love and pride he’s never seen from anyone short of family.
He will forget the weeks afterwards that he spends lightheaded, because his chest hurts too much to take a deep breath. He’ll forget how easy it is to make him cry, how little he can bring himself to love his home like he always has. He goes from being homesick for Jisoo and Jaeseung to homesick for Hoseok and Soonyoung, but he’ll forget the way the weight of it feels in his stomach.
Those things will all fade, but he won’t forget Hoseok’s bright, teary face the last time he looks at him before the doors part for him and he walks into the airport.