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Without You, I'm Eyeless

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“Only what is entirely lost demands to be endlessly named: there is a mania to call the lost thing until it returns.” - Gunter Grass



“Earth to Brian,” Sungjin says as he finds Brian staring out the window at one in the afternoon on a Thursday.

He puts the heavy box of records down on the desk in the back office. The plastic cases make a clacking noise. He flicks Brian’s ear jokingly.

“Ow.”

The record store is relatively quiet this time of day--just after one o’clock, everyone going back to their offices right off of their lunch breaks. Stacking time, record-keeping time. The new Daniel Caesar record plays in the background.

“I’m dying here. A little help would be nice--you know, from my assistant.”

Sungjin tosses Brian one of the scanners, a roll of sticker-tags.

“Sorry,” Brian says, grinning, turning away from the window in time to catch the equipment. “I just thought I saw--”

But he doesn’t really quite know what to say. He was staring out at the main road, watching the first snow as it billowed from the sky: the first breath of winter, white against the auburn hues of autumn. Brian’s always loved that first flurry, less because he likes winter itself, but because it reminds him of the promise of Christmas and holiday cheer--of his birthday and the rustling of wrapping paper as presents are unwrapped, warm fires, cozy things. Things aren’t quite like that these days: for one thing, he’s 31 and there aren’t really presents anymore, not the way there were presents when he was younger, anyway, but his life is passionate if somewhat smaller in scale than he’d thought it would be. There are the underground gigs that he lives for, there’s his job at the record store where he thrives on recommending awesome music to their customers, there’s his small group of musician friends--Brian makes do.

He’d looked out the window to watch for the first snow but his eye had fallen on something else entirely--or rather, someone. It was only a glimpse: he was crossing the street, quick as a tear down a cheek, but slow enough that there was no room for doubt that it was him. Brian would know that tall, lanky frame anywhere. The hair is dark now, ebony in contrast to that sunshine-filled vacation’s pale blonde, pink hoodie given up for a charcoal-gray trench coat billowing in the wind, glimpses of a dark suit underneath, but it’s him alright. The pedestrian light turned green and he disappeared into the throng of people: gone again.

Brian’s heart is racing.

He’s here. In Seoul. Jaehyung Park is in my city.

“--what? Did you see a ghost?” Sungjin asks, studying Brian’s face. He looks paler than usual, keeps looking back out the window as if to make sure, as if double-checking for the absence of something.

Brian grins, pulling the first sticker from its tab and laying it flat onto one of the CDs. Daniel Caesar croons something romantic through the speakers.

Flashes of memory: hot breath, smooth hands, open-mouthed kisses that taste like honey and liquor, soft lips--the crescent moon in the distance, shining above them through Venetian windows. Brian smiles sadly.

“Something like that.”



“Yo, anyone sitting here?”

It was the smile that got him. Sunshine poured in through the train windows--Brian, hung over and still half-asleep looked up to see one of the cutest guys that he’d ever seen hovering in the aisle beside him. Platinum-dyed blonde hair falling into bright eyes under round, gold-framed glasses. Pink hoodie, ripped blue jeans.

“Nah, be my guest.”

He grinned, trying to look cool despite the fact that he was sure he had eyebags deeper than the Marianas trench--and couldn’t quite guarantee that the sweatshirt he was wearing was a fresh one, let alone that it didn’t smell like the gutter he’d puked in the night before. He thinks he might have taken a shower, vaguely recalls the taste of too-minty mouthwash, but not strongly enough to be absolutely sure.

It was the summer after he turned twenty-one: a euro trip wasn’t one of those things that he ever thought he’d do but his mom had gotten a promotion at one of the bigger firms in Toronto, had given him a chance to travel, a belated highschool graduation gift--the timing was perfect, really: right before undergraduate thesis and on-the-job training began, before he got too busy to take time for himself, before it got harder to procure a tourist visa on the fly. And so he’d accepted, dove into it headfirst: a three-month euro trip, going by train from Germany through France, and into Italy before taking a plane back home. Go see Venice before it sinks, his mom had said. Brian intended to do just that--and then some.

The rest of the trip was pretty much what he’d expected: hot, hostel nights spent with a new array of like-minded, fun-loving friends, the company changing up almost nightly as people came and went. It was casual, it was fun. There were slightly dangerous but ultimately harmless shenanigans that they got up to: smoking joints on Parisian rooftops and nearly sliding into the gutter as they played truth or dare, going skinny dipping at a lake along the French countryside, dancing at clubs in Frankfurt, high on something new every night--and most recently, getting pissed drunk in Hamburg and vomiting everything he’d eaten that day onto a concerned police officer’s shoes.

Brian could have left earlier, was supposed to if he was going to see Rome and some of Tuscany but he’d missed his train the day before last, had decided to stay to have another night out with friends he’d never see again--at that point, he’d had enough good times to sustain him the rest of his adult life, as far as he was concerned. As tempted as he was to stay a little longer and skip Italy altogether, he knew his mom would want photos of Venice, would want something touristy and cute. Seeing as how he’d forgotten about Versailles and the Eiffel tower, Lake Constance and the Monument to the Battle of the Nations, Brian figures he could do at least that as a way of saying thank you. And so despite his headache and the fact that his vision was swimming, he’d gotten up at half-past seven, checked out of the hostel, and was on the train with plenty of time to spare.

He watched as the cute guy in the pink hoodie settled in, putting his thermos of hot coffee on the pull-out tray, pulling a book out of his backpack. Brian snuck a look at the cover--Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. Brian grinned, straightening up in his seat. Cute and smart. Maybe this was some sort of karmic retribution, the world’s way of rewarding him for being on time.

The PA system announcements came on, the train rumbled to life beneath them before pulling out of the station.

“That’s a pretty good book--”

Brian realized too late that his earphones were still on, the music in his ears blaring on top volume. He was yelling. The guy started, a gawky elbow hitting his thermos, the warm coffee spilling onto Brian’s lap. It took him a moment to register what was happening, the liquid soaking his jeans, underwear, his sweater. Brian’s earphones were tugged out of his ears as he made a useless attempt to avoid the already-spilled drink.

The cute guy leapt out of his seat, eyes wide. “Oh fuck--I mean fudge--I’m so sorry. Oh my god, oh my god, I’m so sorry!”

There was a flurry of hands in motion--long, pretty--as old paper towels were pulled out wrinkled from jean pockets and dabbed uselessly somewhere in the general vicinity of Brian’s lap. Brian laughed.

The cute guy looked at him, raised an eyebrow.  “Don’t tell me you like strangers spilling stuff on you.”

He grinned. “Not especially. But it’s kind of funny to hear a grown man censor himself. Did you just say fudge ?”

The cute guy smiled at that, shrugged. “I try not to be profane if I can help it. I usually can’t help it but when I can--I try.”

Brian shrugged. “Well. If it makes you feel any better, my balls are wet and warm and I am now very, very awake. Plus it looks like I pissed myself and all of my other clothes are dirty so I have nothing to change into--if anyone should be saying fuck it should be me.”

“Good point. Say the f-word enough for both of us, then.”

“Fuck. Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck.”

Bright eyes, sunshine, the city flashing by in the background. A call for refreshments, the hum of the train steady underneath their feet.

“Jae Park, by the way. Or Park Jaehyung, depending on what side of which ocean you’re from.” The cute guy stuck out his hand--slender, pale.

“Brian Kang--or Kang Younghyun, whatever you wanna call me, really.” Brian shook Jae’s hand with his broader, calloused one. “Nice to meet you.”

Jae smiled: fully, eyes crinkling at the corners, the whole fifty million dollars. Brian’s heart lurched in his chest.

Jae let out a little snicker. “So you do like when people get your balls wet.”

Brian laughed--sober, genuine, loud laughter: for the first time since he’s been away, high on nothing but the company.

That’s your idea of not being profane?”

“Like I said, I usually can’t help it.”



Fuck. Jae hurries across the street, back to his corner office: the view overlooks the design plaza, the shopping center a little white block in the corner of his vision. Brian was there, he thinks to himself, blinking at his reflection in the glass window. He was there. The past few months since he’d moved here, Jae had thought that maybe it was just a trick of light, some kind of apparition sent to torture him after all of these years, after everything that he’d been through, after everything that had happened--or rather, everything that hadn’t.

Jae had first gotten a glimpse of him during his first week, after deciding maybe his colleagues were right--that maybe he had to get to know the area a little better and he’d fall in love with the city, that maybe given some time, he’d feel right at home. He’d reluctantly moved to Seoul after getting reassigned at work--he loved California (in many ways, it’s all he knew) but was also grateful to get away especially after the fall-out with corporate, after his recent divorce. It wasn’t home but at least it was somewhere else.

That first week, he’d gone to the shopping center for lunch, had a meal by himself at one of the smaller restaurants--had looked up from his food and there he was, seated in one of the corner booths, slurping ramyun and reading a comic book. Jae couldn’t make out the title, the cover folded over as he held it close enough to his face to obscure most of his features. Jae craned his neck but the restaurant was packed, it was lunch hour. All he’d need to see were the eyes and he would know. You don’t hold onto the thought of someone like that for years and years without somehow memorizing the windows into their soul. Jae had finished his food, his break was up. The man and the magazine stayed in place.

If Brian was here, he’d thought to himself. He’d sing me that song of his.

I’m a man in a movie--when our eyes meet, it’s like we’re film stars. It’s beautiful. If only this moment were endless.

Jae knows it in his gut. Even now, ten years later, he would know.

He’d never seen him at the restaurant again. Maybe he worked nearby? Maybe he had a different shift? Maybe--well, maybe it just wasn’t him. Days came and went.

Until today: Jae had passed by the record store accidentally. Since deciding to focus more on business, he hadn’t really bought records except online. But that song had been playing--the one he’d heard blasting from one of the young couples’ boomboxes while he walked home along Cheonggyecheon stream that Sunday. Daniel Caesar--something about angels and falling and not wanting to let go. And so he’d walked in.

The manager on duty--Sungjin?--was nice enough, had rung up his items quickly, had been polite. As he handed over his credit card, Jae’s gaze fell on the employee board, and there he was: 1x1 tacked to the corkboard, name printed out plain: Kang Younghyun (Brian), Purchasing Assistant.

It was him. Brian Kang is here, in my city.

Jae looked around but the store was pretty small: there was no one else there, the door to the backroom shut.

“Thank you sir, please come again,” Sungjin had said politely, handing him his paper bag.

Jae had taken it and, checking the time, had hurried back to the office.

He sighs, leaning his head against the clear, glass window. It fogs up. He traces a question mark onto the condensation. Outside, the snow starts to fall faster. Soon, the entire city will be freezing cold. Jae closes his eyes. A flashback: Brian’s neck strong, lean, throat shuddering as he gasped under Jae’s lips as they worked their way lower and lower still, whispered tenderness in a slightly too-hot room on a summer evening. Somewhere below them, a gondolier sings a song about lost love.

Jae opens his eyes, traces the outline of the shopping center with a finger.

What now?

Chapter Text

“Venice, huh,” Jae said, tapping his pen against the map that Brian had spread out in front of them. He encircled a couple of places he recalled not hating--a Gelato shop, a couple of bookstores.

The train sped through the  Italian countryside, scenery rolling by like a painting drenched in too much water: the color bleeding and bright in hues of greens, yellows, blues. It had been an interesting few hours. Brian was funny, smart--in the span of time it took the train to chug through the remainder of France, they’d exchanged corny jokes, weird puke stories, a couple of childhood anecdotes, but also managed to somehow talk about racism in the study of art and literature, the political landscape in Europe versus Canada versus the US, versus South Korea.

And although he hadn’t chosen the seat because Brian was cute, Jae couldn’t quite deny it (try as he might): Brian was cute. Very, very cute. It was something about his eyes--there was a depth to them (cheesy as it might sound) that drew him in. Even when he was laughing, it seemed like he was taking a step back, thinking about something that he wanted to say but wouldn’t or not for a while. When Brian had told him he was heading to Venice, Jae’s curiosity was piqued: he’d been there once before, on a trip with his older sister that he hadn’t particularly enjoyed. It was pretty but there was something about it that he hated--like it was expecting people to just find it beautiful simply because it was itself.

The line that came to mind was cliche but true: what’s a guy like you doing heading to a place like that?

“Well, just don’t go riding in the gondolas--I know it looks romantic on screen but they’re called canals for a reason. The water isn’t the best. Unless you find sewage as romantic as you do spilled coffee seeping into your underwear.”

Brian let out a chortle, a smirk playing on his lips.

“Hey, I’m not the one who keeps insisting your little accident was somehow romantic. Something you wanna tell me, Mr. Norwegian Wood? Did you pick this seat because I’m a looker? You maybe into me or something? It’s okay. Be honest. I know it’s the eyes. I’ve been told they look like they’re seeing into the depths of one’s soul.”

“HAH.” Jae guffawed, hoping to god that he wasn’t blushing. He glanced at Brian who was grinning, smug. It was definitely the eyes.“Fat chance! I picked the seat ‘cause you didn’t look like you would mug me. The hungover, smelly ones never have enough hand-eye coordination to do anything, let alone pick someone’s pockets.”

“I could still surprise you.”

“And what’d you steal? My passport? Maybe jerk to it in the bathroom?”

“Profanity: 50 million, Jae: 0.”

Jae let out a laugh. “I mean it about the canals though. Venice--well. It’s beautiful but it’s sinking into the sea and it just--let’s say that it isn’t my favorite tourist destination. Something about it is just--it’s like it knows too well just how precious it is, you know? Like, sure, you’re sinking into the sea and don’t have a lot of time left. But who does, you pretentious asshole? All of us our just sitting here, contemplating our doom, not all of us want to be given a goddamn trophy for it.”

Brian raised an eyebrow. “And Padua, I’m sure, is just killing it with the non-pretentious places to go and things to do? Top of the list on Lonely Planet or something? The fact that we’re of migrant heritage and going on this eurotrip is in itself a kind of weird inversion of privilege, mind you. We are literally being given a goddamn trophy for being ourselves--”

“--no, we worked for that. Our parents worked for that.”

“Fair point. So what’s in Padua, anyway? I mean, not that I’m being obnoxious. It just--well, it didn’t pop up on the top of the list on Lonely Planet.”

Jae sighed. “Well. It’s an alright city. I’d say that I like it but I’m not sure I do, these days. I’m heading there to give my ex-boyfriend his things back. Mostly books with notes in the margin, that kind of disgustingly sentimental crap.”

Brian’s eyes widened. “OH. Oh shit. Fuck. Fuck, that’s terrible. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be an asshole.”

Jae shrugged. “I know.”

Brian pretended like he was winding back an imaginary clock, fingers pretending to turn the dial. “So, Mr. Park. Our therapy session starts now. Hit me. What’s the story with ex-lover boy?”

“Are we seriously doing this right now?”

“Well. We’re probably going to get off of this train in a couple of hours and never see each other again--so why not? The best person to tell your secrets to is probably a stranger on a train.”

Jae frowned. Right. Was it too forward to ask for an e-mail address? A phone number? Would this encounter probably be better off left to the imagination anyway? To whatever romanticized, hypothetical future they could probably conjure if none of it unfolded into anything?

“He was my highschool boyfriend. We were together for the entirety of Senior Year but then I got into UCLA and he got accepted to a fancy piano internship in Padua under a hotshot pianist. So we did the long distance thing for a while. It worked out pretty well; I’d spend my summers here and he’d stay with me over Christmas break when he’d be back in town to visit his family. But then. Well, things get complicated. I started getting busier and busier with school and he just kind of stopped replying, we fell out of Facetime rhythm. And even when we started talking again, things just weren’t the same. There was an underlying resentment. This trip was supposed to be for our fifth anniversary but he broke it off last month. He met someone else.”

“Oh,” Brian’s eyebrows furrowed, a little upset at the thought of Jae travelling all the way to Europe just to return someone’s books. “Is it hopeless, though? You don’t think that you could get him back somehow?”

Jae smiled sadly. “I thought about it for a while. People aren’t property, you know? Maybe I could have a couple of months ago--when I still had the right to, as his then-boyfriend. I could’ve made more of an effort to reach out, to keep up with his schedule. But I didn’t. Maybe I didn’t want to, deep down? Who knows. Either way, things aren’t like that anymore. Whoever he’s with now, that’s who he chose to be with. Whoever the new guy is, he definitely liked or loved him enough to break things off with me and I want to respect that. Of course it fucking sucks but what the hell am I supposed to do? Life isn’t a damn sitcom. I’m not about to beg someone who clearly doesn’t want to be with me anymore to be with me.”

Brian nodded. “I get you. The thing I’ve always hated about being broken up with is that bit where you think or hope or delude yourself into thinking that they’re thinking about you--when deep down in your gut you know that when you’ve broken up with people in the past, you really felt relief more than anything else. For what it’s worth I think you’re making the right decision.”

“Well,” Jae said, smiling. “It’s not everyday that you sit next to a guy who offers you his free therapy services. The real question here is: Jung or Freud? Who would win on Celebrity Death Match?”

“Jung, absolutely.”

“What? No. Freud because everything is animal instinct to him. He’d probably be like “okay, time to mate” or whatever.”

“Yeah but Jung believed in reincarnation. That guy would die and fucking find a way to put his soul into a cockroach or something and carry poison into Freud’s tobacco stash.”

“Do you mean ant ? Cause I don’t think cockroaches can carry things.”

“Potato, Po-tah-toe.” Brian waved his hand dismissively.

The announcement came over the PA system. They were pulling into Padua station. Jae looked at Brian--Brian looked at Jae, a sudden realization and subsequent panic filling them both as they realized what that meant. Back to their itineraries, their original plans: right on schedule.

“I guess--” Jae made to stand up.

“--truth or dare,” Brian said quickly.

“What?”

The engine ground to a halt, the doors opened. People began to take their things from the overhead storage compartments.

“Truth or dare.”

Jae looked at Brian: jaw set, determined, eyes luring him in with that quality of depth, that sheen behind their chocolate darkness.

“Dare."

“Come to Venice with me.”  



Brian looks out the window of the record store, waiting for some sort of sign of him: glint of glasses, maybe the wind ruffling a scarf or the hem of a coat--anything. He focuses on the stoplight, tries to pick out the faces of passersby. None of them are him. It’s an old game that he never thought he would play again: ten or years ago, after the thing that didn’t happen, he used to do this a lot. Would be at the University or at his internship at the firm and wonder: what if he was here? Where could he be? He used to think about Jae, holding onto the idea of him like some sort of tether to a better could-have-been.

He thinks about that old John Mayer song he liked back in highschool: I could’ve met you in the sandbox, I could’ve passed you on the sidewalk. I’m tired of being alone. So hurry up and get here. Brian sighs, thinking about the demo that he’d just sent out to one of the recording companies at which Sungjin had a couple of connections. Was that where he’d pulled his proposed title track from, subconsciously? Why am I alone?

He pushes it out of his mind: was it futile to hope that maybe, just maybe, he would see Jae again? What would he say anyway? Would they talk about what happened? Or what didn’t? Would things be different? What is there left to say?

He turns his attention the all-consuming anxiety of not knowing whether or not his demos would make it--were these years spent chasing music for nothing? Was his mom right about saying he should’ve finished up that masteral program, should’ve gone with the corporate internship?

“You okay, Bri?” Sungjin asks him as he walks into the back office with his instant ramyun, the entire place smelling like spicy noodle soup. He puts on some Coldplay, the piano on Trouble trickling into the small room.

Oh, no, what's this?
A spider web, and I'm caught in the middle,
So I turned to run,
The thought of all the stupid things I've done

Brian nods, turns away from the window. “Yeah. Snow just turns me into a sentimental idiot. By the way--hear anything from the record company people?”

Sungjin shakes his head as he lifts the tin foil cover on his ramyun. “They said next week--I’m sure they’ll call by next week. Don’t think about it first. Wanna help me sort the vinyls after this?”

Brian nods, the knot in his stomach refusing to undo itself. “Sure.”



Venice sparkled like a bead in the late afternoon sunshine: it wasn’t so much the city itself as it was all of the light running through it, reflecting off of the old palazzos, the mismatched, colorful tiled roofs, the wide piazzas, the canal waters lined by the foam left in the wake of speedboats, gondolas. It was one of the most beautiful places that Brian had ever seen--no doubt about it--and yet all that was on his mind was the tall drink of water crossing the street with two Gelato cones, licking up one of the cones as he made his way toward him. The sunset played games with the hues of Jae’s hair, turning the flax gold like something out of a fairy tale: spinning one beautiful thing into another.

I can’t believe he stayed.

“So,” Jae said, handing one cone to Brian. “That one is default yours because I kind of had to keep the ice cream from melting off of this other one and licked it already. Tough luck if you like Vanilla better.”

Brian took the cone, grins at the mingled sensation of the cool sweetness of the chocolate on his tongue with the warmth on his hands as his and Jae’s fingertips brush against one another. “Thanks. I’ll seriously eat anything.”

“So. What’s the great Venetian plan? Do we drop our things off at the hotel first? Go feed pigeons at the Piazza San Marco while you artfully sip an espresso? Maybe we can get you one of those serious coats and you can flip the collar, look all brooding.”

“It’s literally the summer solstice tonight.”

Jae waved his hand dismissively. “You won’t remember that years down the road. You’ll look back on the moment fondly and be like--yes, I remember it was cold and the bread was the only thing that I had to warm my hands.”

(Brian will remember: it was summer of his twenty-first year, the hottest day, the most beautiful night.)

Brian looked at Jae. “I wouldn’t put it past myself. I don’t talk a lot. They say that memories are coded in language, the more you speak or read or listen or think in terms of verbal cues, the easier it is for your brain to store things. That’s why kids can’t remember anything before they learn to talk.”

You don’t talk a lot? What do you think we’ve been doing all day, then?”

“No, that’s because you’re talkative. It’s literally impossible not to talk you. It’s like trying to unhear a fire siren.”

Jae grinned, licked at his gelato, sucking a little bit on his lower lip at a dollop of vanilla. “Actually, I identify as an introvert, you might be surprised to know. I can be pretty talkative when you first meet me but after a while, I kind of retreat into myself.”

“That’s weird.” Brian’s eyebrows furrowed in thought. “Maybe it isn’t so much talking, then, as it is communicating with other people. You a big Beatles fan?”

“I do alright. I mean, I don’t know a lot about all of the gossipy-Maharashtra-LSD stuff but  it’s kind of my business to know about them music-wise. I’m taking up sound design, if I didn’t mention that before.”

“Well, then. I’ve always believed in that Lennon lyric--god is a concept by which we measure our pain.”

“That’s terribly sad.”

“Is it? It might be strange to bring this up while we’re standing across the water from a church but I think that religion has the concept of God all wrong.”

Jae smiled. “I’m interested in what you have to say about that. Why do you think they got it wrong?”

“Because they think of God as a concept that’s divorced from humanity. They see it or him or her or whatever you believe as this entity that’s watching over everyone, kind of hovering up there in the sky. I don’t think that’s how it works. I think Lennon was right in that we only ever talk about salvation when we talk about the things that we hold within us that we think will be cause for damnation. Yin and Yang. So if God exists, it’s probably in the attempt to communicate with one another, to understand people. There’s beauty in that Sisyphean task. I’ll never know but it sure as hell means a lot for me to try if it means alleviating someone’s pain--or in the case of art, my own pain.” Brian punctuated his sentence by biting through the cone, the crunching sound filling the air.

“Hmmm. That makes sense, I guess. But I find it kind of comforting to think of God as this catch-all, this bigger being that knows more than us. Even if it’s improbable. I was saying my main qualm is how people portray the concept of God--and what I mean is that they think of it or him or her as a repository for their problems. This is going to sound strange but I think that God is a choice. If you want him to exist, and maybe at this point, by him, all I mean is “good” or a “good thing”, then you have to become a way for that good thing to happen. Be nice, be kind.”

Brian sighed. “That makes sense too, in its own odd way. But if I believed that, I’d be terrified. Look at how many people have chosen to become the devil: and all for what? Money? Fame? Oil? I’m in business administration and some of the people in my course--they’ve really reduced humanity to a number. Fifty percent is worth this many dollars, this person’s life is worth this much of the market share.”

Jae nodded sadly. “I have to agree with you there. And with Lennon, I guess. Even if I’m more a George Harrison kinda guy myself.”

“You play guitar?” Brian asked, plopping the last of his cone into his mouth.

Jae looked at him as if startled. “How’d you know?”

Brian rolled his eyes. “All guitar guys go for Harrison.”

“Glad to live up to the cliche--but Brian? These books are fucking heavy. Are we stopping by somewhere to drop off our things?”

“Actually,” Brian looked at him sheepishly. “I booked a midnight check-in because I thought I’d be going alone. So. We have around six hours until we have anywhere to put our things.”

“Oh.” Jae took a deep breath, put on a grin. “Whatever, it’s fine. The pain isn’t too bad. Where do you wanna start? Piazza? I was serious about the pigeons thing.”

God is a concept by which we measure our pain.

Brian took off his backpack, opened the zipper wide and stuffed some of his clothes down toward the bottom.

“Let me lighten your load?”



Jae walks past the record store for the tenth time in the past hour, trying to resist looking inside--but very much wanting to. He wants to see him, half out of desire, half out of curiosity. Would he be angry? Would he be carefree? Would he want to see him or would he turn him away? He thinks about Brian--business major, sharp-as-a-knife with his wit, sardonic but sweet--working at a record store and can’t help but wonder what happened along the way. Purchasing Assistant. What happened in the story after their arcs missed one another? How did it end?

The coffee in the cup that Jae’s been holding for the past hour or so has gone cold. He walks by one more time, catches a glimpse of someone at the counter but doesn’t have the courage to go and see who it is. Instead, he goes up one of the escalators toward the far end, circles back on the top floor. The department store is already playing  Christmas songs even if they’re barely into November, strange when taken in combination with the garish Halloween decor they still haven’t taken down.

Jae walks aimlessly toward the other end of the hallway, his mind filled with memories of Venice: being there with Brian had changed his perception of it so completely. Up until then, he’d remembered abhorring it and its romantic reputation--especially so fresh from his break up with Wonpil (the first one)--but Brian had turned all of that on its head, had filled him with stories and laughter, had looked at him that way that Brian looked at him, had made him fall in love not just with him but with that moment, that place, that gem he’s held inside him like a precious stone is held inside a museum. Now, when Jae thinks of Venice, he finds himself pining: the sun was so beautiful as it hung heavy in the sky, slowly sinking into the city’s prized waters. The gondolas were bright, sailed smooth past them. And of course, Brian. He was beautiful. It was all beautiful.

With that, Jae discards his coffee cup at a nearby bin, checks his reflection in one of the shop windows and takes the escalator back down to the floor which the record store is on. Every step closer that he takes feels heavy with the weight of a decision being made. Not everyone gets a second shot. He takes a deep breath, puts a hand on the steel door handle and pushes. The chimes ring.  



It wasn’t that Jae didn’t know things would end up here: it’s just that he’d been enjoying himself too much to really give a damn if it did. The entire evening was more fun, more laughter, more conversation than he’s had in a long, long time. They watched the rest of the sunset from the Piazza San Marco where Brian had gotten all of the gratuitous tourist shots that he’d promised his mom: he’d posed with the loaf of bread and the pigeons, had gotten another Gelato which he’d held up enthusiastically to the camera, had even asked one of the gondoliers if he could take a photo of him making as if to get onto the boat (Jae was right--the water stank).

They’d had dinner at one of the outdoor restaurants--had split a pizza and the first bottle of grappa. They talked about everything: music and books and life and love and their families, past lovers, life mottos, dead pets. They sang each other a couple of sappy songs they'd composed themselves, each wishing they had a guitar--or any instrument, for that matter--on hand. And then, well, they’d stumbled upon a place with a rooftop balcony that served amaretto for happy hour: a couple of amaretto sours and more failed attempts at tying cherry knots later, they’d decided to finally go on that damn gondola ride. Giggling and hoping like hell neither of them accidentally toppled into the water. And then there was the gondolier’s song: something about the moon and an eye and a pizza pie. They ended up giggling as they steered toward the small hotel at which Brian had reserved a room. Jae didn’t notice the canals or how tacky the velvet upholstery in the boat was. All he could think about was Brian: how he made his head swim with how handsome he was, how smart he was, how he’d unconsciously started singing along to the gondolier’s song. His voice was beautiful.

(Jae would never forget how it sounded. Over the years to come, he would often buy records of people who sang with a similar timbre and find them wanting.)

But now they were in the hotel room just the two of them, suddenly silent. Jae glanced at his watch. Two hours past midnight. Their bags and the books and the little souvenirs that they’d gotten throughout the day lay discarded on the floor.

They’ve just finished showering, both of them smelling vaguely of soap and vanilla. The venetian windows were open, the moonlight pouring in, drenching the entire room in silver light.

There was a single bed.

Brian stood in front of it, as if contemplating. His hair was still damp, the edges of it clinging to his temples, his nape. He pulled the duvet off, laid it out onto the floor.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Jae was surprised at his own voice--it sounded more hurt than he’d intended.

Brian looked up. Wide eyes. Jae’s vision swam a little. I feel eyeless. “You can take the bed.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“Well, not really. I mean. You’ve pretty much told me everything about yourself--”

“--yeah but would you be comfortable with--”

Jae didn’t answer, only walked toward where Brian had laid out the makeshift bed on the floor. He picked it up, tossed it back onto the bed. The fabric was heavy, made a puffing sound as it hit the bed. They stared at each other, both bewildered by the sudden motion. Outside, the sounds of vessels moving through water--a song about lost love.

Brian licked his lips. He thought that Jae looked incredibly handsome with his hair swept off of his forehead. Jae swallowed, his Adam’s apple emphasizing the hollow of his throat. Brian felt heat coil in his gut. He looked at his tall frame, his lean arms showing through in his baggy cut-off shirt.

Jae took a step closer. Brian followed suit until they were both standing almost nose-to-nose-. Jae took Brian’s hands in his, tugging him forward slowly. Brian wondered if he was still breathing. Jae kissed him slowly: began with the shell of his ear and then the lobe, taking it softly between his lips, letting it brush against his tongue before he kissed Brian’s neck as it tensed against his touch. He sucked slowly as he moved lower, hoping that bruises would bloom there in the morning. Brian’s hands circled around Jae’s slender waist, holding him closer. He slipped his hands underneath Jae’s baggy shirt, letting his palms slide flush with the thin skin of Jae’s ribs, his back, his chest.

Jae paused to look into Brian’s eyes before tilting his chin up toward him and closing the space between them with a kiss. Brian sighed into it, lips parting as Jae’s tongue flicked against the roof of his mouth, moved tenderly against his own tongue. He sucked on Jae’s lower lip. Jae licked harder, hungrier. They tasted like liquor and sugar, vanilla and honey.

Jae settled his hands on Brian’s hips, pressing down softly on the hollows, enjoying the way that Brian’s breath hitched at the suggestion of them moving closer, moving against--into each other. Brian moved a palm up against Jae’s cock through his pajamas. Jae let out a hoarse moan at the sudden friction

“Brian--”

Brian stroked closer, used the fabric and pooling pre-cum to make the glide smoother, slick.

Slowly, Jae steered them toward the bed. He pulled away to whisper in Brian’s ear.

“Sit down.”

Breathless, Brian plopped onto the edge of the bed, reluctant to let Jae go but watching dumbfounded as Jae kissed him once more before slowly getting onto his knees. Jae kissed Brian’s nipples through his thin undershirt until they stood. He kissed lower, pausing at the hollows of Brian’s hips to lick figure-eights. Brian bucked his hips, legs tensing as Jae’s hands softly tugged at the waistband of his pajamas, his boxers, slipping them off until they fell to pool at Brian’s ankles. Brian braced himself against the bed. Jae’s hair caught the moonlight, looked beautiful, ethereal almost, with his lips kiss-swollen, spit-slicked.

Brian was half-hard, not yet fully erect but already leaking against the fabric of his boxers. Jae kissed the tip of his cock, letting the pre-cum string as he parted his lips, licked down Brian’s shaft. Brian let out a cry as Jae abandoned his cock to kiss at the tender flesh of his inner thighs, licking at the crease of his pelvis before moving back up to take him into his mouth fully, keeping his tongue flush with the underside of Brian’s cock.

“Fuck. Oh god Jae--”

Brian watched as Jae went, lips plush against his cock, going closer and deeper, taking him in until his cock hit the back of Jae’s throat, the wet sound of it the only other thing resounding in the room. He thought he would lose his mind from how good it felt--and then Jae looked up at him: dark eyes through gold frames. And Brian knew what he wanted.

“--Jae--I don’t want to cum like this--”

Slowly, Jae let off, kissing Brian’s knee before standing up to join him on the bed.

“How, then?”

“Do you have any condoms?” Brian asked slowly.

Jae nodded. “Yeah. Well--you know--it was supposed to be a visit with you know--”

“--Right.” Brian smiled, held a finger up to his lips. “I want to ride you.”

A blush made its way up Jae’s neck like a sunrise, sweat beading on the tip of his nose, along his upper lip. He stood, taking the packet of condoms and a small sachet of lube from the pockets of his jeans which hung on the back of the chair by the dresser. He undressed in the moonlight, aware of Brian’s eyes taking him in. Brian tried to memorize every movement, every instance of fabric giving way to skin. He thought of the birth of venus: of love, a shining pearl inside the hardest of things. Pale hair and porcelain skin--the milk to his honey.

They configured themselves carefully, like they were dancing precarious steps which could go wrong anytime. Jae lay back against wall. Brian stroked Jae’s cock until he was fully hard again, Brian’s name escaping from his lips, his hands gripping the sheets. And then he tore at the condom wrapper and unrolled the condom onto Jae’s cock before lathering it with lube. He straddled Jae, arms resting on his shoulders, kissing him full on the mouth--all tongue, teeth.

Jae squeezed some lube onto his hands, warmed it up before circling Brian’s hole until it was puckering, blooming against his fingertips.

“I’m okay,” Brian said softly, replacing Jae’s hands on his waist, and lowering onto Jae’s cock. “Just be slow.”

Jae mewled into Brian’s mouth as he slipped into the hot, wet, tightness of him. Brian let out a moan, a deep breath, full of gravel. Jae rubbed Brian’s lower back, easing him into the stretch. He kissed his shoulders, looked up at him: dark hair, golden skin, eyes seeping into his very being. And then Brian began to ride, bucking his hips in a way that made Jae’s head spin, that drove all the profanities he tried so hard to keep in on a daily out of his mouth. With one hand, Brian held Jae stead against the wall and with the other, he stroked his own cock, working hard, close, furious with desire.

“Oh, fuck Brian--goddamn, you look so fucking good like that. You’re so fucking hot and tight--”

Brian mewled, voice cracking as he went faster, harder, deeper still. “--Jae--oh fuck--Jae, you feel so good--”

Jae held onto Brian’s hips as tightly as he could, holding him down, enjoying the way that Brian bucked and thrashed above him like a beautiful storm, his face flushed with passion, arousal. Jae leaned in to suck at Brian’s nipples, moving Brian’s hand away from his cock and replacing it with his own, stroking close, using the flesh of his palm to tease at the head of Brian’s already-throbbing cock.

“Fuck. Fuck--Jae--” Brian tensed against his touch before cumming onto Jae’s belly, his own hand. Frantically, Brian took Jae’s hand, still covered in his cum, and licked slowly, watching Jae watching him.

“Goddamn, you’re so hot--”

“--cum in me.” Brian moved closer, brushing Jae’s nose with his own.

Jae licked into Brian’s mouth, looping his arms around Brian’s waist and fucking into him relentlessly, bucking his hips fast, chasing his own orgasm until he spills himself into the condom, both of them collapsing against each other.

Brian kissed Jae slowly, softly--between the brows, on the closed lids of his eyes, and finally, his lips.

They lay like that for a while, skin against skin, both only listening to the sound of each other breathing, revelling in their hearts beating against each other through their pulsing bones, muscles. Outside, the sun was rising: both of them were thinking of the inevitable, of the day to come with the train that would take them away from each other.

It was Brian who brought it up. “What if we met again?”

Jae blinked once, twice. “What do you mean? Like--hypothetically?”

“I mean. Say, when you’re done with your sound design degree and become a super successful musician and I am on my way to becoming an awesome businessman, let’s meet again.”

Jae grinned, ruffled Brian’s hair. “That’s too far off. I’m impatient.”

“How about in six months?”

“Where?”

Both of them watched the early sunlight slowly begin to flood the room, like sands of sleep come to fill minds with dreaming.

“Somewhere that’s not pretending to be anything else. Somewhere we’ve always wanted to go.”

Jae smiled, kissing the hollow of Brian’s throat. “So back here?”

Chapter Text

“Brian!” Sungjin’s voice comes in through the closed back office door as Brian’s sealing the box of recalled vinyls the distributor is picking up in half an hour. The packing tape screams in its holster as he pulls it taut over the crack, pulling until it snaps and pressing it firmly into place. Brian sighs, tired. He puts the tape dispenser down, scribbles For Return to JYPE onto the cardboard in bleeding, blue felt-tip pen. Behind him, the blinds are drawn over the window.

“Hold on! Is the delivery guy there? Can you tell him to come in here with the pushcart or something? This box is fucking heavy and there’s no way I’m going to be able to drag it all the way there--”

He’s interrupted by the door to the backroom squeaking open. He sighs impatiently--he hates it when Sungjin is in a bad mood: he’s stubborn, he gets really demanding, tells Brian to lighten up, just grin and bear it. Of course, Sungjin isn’t the one who had to lift a box roughly the weight of five tire trucks so what did he have to be so cranky about?

“--hi.”

Brian stops short, almost tripping over the box. It can’t be. The voice is still soft but deeper, more hoarse, a little bit of gravel in it that hadn’t been there the last time that he’d heard it--like a gem seeped in the seas of time: worn down but infinitely more beautiful, the luster worn down to instead give it shape, character. Brian isn’t sure that he’s still breathing, takes a moment before he looks up and there he is.

Jae is standing by the door, still tall and handsome but thinner, somehow weathered, in a white button-down shirt tucked into slacks worn under that charcoal-gray coat he’d seen from the window a few days prior. His glasses are different but similar: still round, gold frames replaced by less shiny silver ones. And the smile. The smile is the same. Brian puts the tape holster down on the desk.

“Hey.”

Both of them are speechless for a while. Sungjin puts on a cheesy love song from the front desk. Brian keeps from rolling his eyes, imagines Sungjin’s small, teasing smile as he hits the play button.   I’ll kill him later. Brian wishes that he’d paid more attention to getting dressed earlier this morning. He’d thrown on a Beatles shirt tucked into jeans, thrown on a leather jacket that now hangs on a hook behind the door.

Jae looks around the backroom, studying posters on the wall--The Rolling Stones, CNBlue, Janis Joplin. His gaze falls on an acoustic guitar set on its stand toward the far corner.

“May I?”

“Be my guest.”

Jae smiles a small smile, picking up the guitar, hesitating before sitting on a nearby chair and strumming it once like someone who hasn’t played the guitar in years. (He hasn’t.) He plucks the notes to the song softly. Both of them are smiling now as the sound of it fills the small room.

 

If I hadn’t gone there,
We probably wouldn’t have become a “we”

 

Brian himself has forgotten the chords to this song despite the fact that he’d written it but the words come to him quick as Jae hums the melody. Hearing it again brings back the brightness of the Venetian sky in the summer, all those years ago.

 

It feels like time’s stopped
And you’re all I see.

 

Brian’s palms are clammy, his voice cracking. He tries to keep it light, to keep his voice from wavering but falls short.

“Nice song.”

Jae laughs--a soft sound that Brian had thought he would never have the privilege of hearing again.

“Only a true genius could’ve come up with that.”

Brian looks at his shoes. “Sure. Or you know, a kid backpacking through Europe in his twenties, romanticizing every little thing when maybe he shouldn’t have.”

Jae’s smile falters. “Or someone who had the right idea but the guy he was with was a jerk.”

Outside, he hears the delivery man arrive, hears Sungjin asking him to please wait a while. Brian walks to the door, takes his jacket and puts it on before pulling the door open to call the delivery guy in.

Sungjin peeks through the doorway carefully. Strains of a cheesy Stevie Wonder love song come spilling into the backroom.

“Sungjin, I’ll take my break.” Brian adjusts his jacket, puts his hands in his pockets.

“Sure.”

Jae looks up at Brian.

Brian nods toward the door. “Let’s take a walk.”



Venice in the morning was bright, like a luminescent obelisk rising out of the sea. They had breakfast at one of the corner cafes, their backpacks sat on the sidewalk. Two more hours--and then a train ride. Brian tried not to think about it, turned his attention to the hot coffee, the warm bread. He wanted to focus on enjoying the present moment: he could lament and internalize for six months after this. He would. He would write all the songs in the world.

Jae set his backpack down, started unpacking books, laying them on top of one another: mostly books to do with piano music and composition, Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, some J.D. Salinger.

“What’re you doing?” Brian frowned. They’d spent a good amount of time that morning trying to fit all of the maps and souvenirs that they’d bought into Jae’s bags along with the ex’s books. (Brian refused to use his name.)

“Lightening my load,” Jae said, pulling out a post-it and scribbling a quick note on it before tacking it to the book on the top of the pile. “Permanently.”

“Are you sure you want to do that?”

“Why the hell not? Not like Padua shows up at the top of the list on Lonely Planet, right?”

Brian grinned.

Jae took a bite out of his French toast, sipping from his cup of espresso. The mingled sweetness and bitterness lingered on his tongue, reminded him of Brian--emotional, carefree, smart, cynical, sweet Brian. He promised himself to re-make this meal as often as he could when he got back home. Every fucking day until they met again. He grinned into his coffee cup, looking forward to the end of six months, to being back in Brian’s arms. He had come to Europe anticipating heartbreak--had found something else, something wonderful: the exact opposite.

Brian grinned, reading the note.

Free books, go do yourself a solid and take one. It’s lit(erature), fam.



“So,” Brian says, pulling his scarf closer around his neck as they step out into the cold afternoon. Snow clings to trees, lampposts, the tops of cars. The sun is still up behind the clouds: it’s a bright darkness--the sky is a pale, unending gray. “What brings you to Seoul, Mr. Park?”

Jae puts on his gloves, doing up the small, shiny buttons before flipping the collar of his coat to shield himself from the cold. “Work, mostly. I was reassigned to our Seoul office a few months ago. And poof, here I am.”

Brian nods, leading the way as they start to walk. He has no idea where to go, really, just kind of follows the road in the direction he usually takes on his lunch break: basically anywhere away from work. He tries to keep things lighthearted, his mind still a bit bleary with different emotions--joy, anger, excitement.

“You like it so far? Have you gone to Hongdae on the weekends? Maybe checked out the National Museum? The Contemporary Art museum? It can be a bit of a big adjustment. But there’s also something kind of relaxing about it. Life is simpler, everything’s laid out for you.”

Jae’s eyebrows furrow. “It’s--it’s different but it isn’t bad different. I like work--I mean, I’ve been doing it for the past ten years so I ought to be used to it by now. But there are days when I’d like to be able to hang out with my friends or have someone to play basketball with or just have coffee with. It gets lonely, I guess.”

Brian raises an eyebrow. “I get that. You’ll make friends for sure. I’m sure you’re probably pretty entertaining to work with. Or are you not Mr. Talkative anymore? Mr. Sing-At-The-Top-Of-Your-Lungs-Even-If-A-Billion-People-Are-Watching?”

“Sure,” Jae says, smiling a bit. “And even if I’m significantly less chatty than I used to be, to be honest, at this point, I’d live anywhere that isn’t California.”

“How come? Is it something like that cheesy Augustana song everyone used to love? I’m tired of the weather, some snow would be nice ?”

Jae laughs. Brian watches the smile spread across his face, reaching his eyes even if his mouth is partly covered by his upturned collar. His heart does a little dive into its own tidal pool of desire.

“Something like that.”

They turn left at the corner, the street opens up onto a wider road lined with cafes. Brian makes for his favorite one: an Italian-themed cafe that has paintings of gondolas, gelato, lillies in bloom lining the walls. Maybe something warm would do them both good.

“You wanna get coffee? I know a place up the street--”

“--sure--Brian--hey, wait--” Jae reaches a gloved hand out to tug at Brian’s wrist.

They both remember hands slipping into hands, a gentle tug, the meeting of skin against skin. A night long ago, the light spilling in through the open window, a sinking city, a lost love song.

“Mmm?”

“Were you there? Like, did you show up? Six months after? In Venice?”

Brian watches as Jae’s eyes search his own, watches the guilt and sadness color his brown eyes. He gives Jae his biggest smile, his most nonchalant wave.

“Nah.”

“Seriously?”

“Yeah, I mean come on. Let’s be honest. A lot happened in those six months, you know?”

Jae heaves a sigh of relief, smiling wider now. “Oh thank god. Thank fucking--freaking--god. It’s killed me a bit inside all these years thinking about that you know? I really wanted to be there but stuff happened and I had to--”

“--don’t sweat it,” Brian says, patting Jae on the shoulder. “I wasn’t there either. So it really doesn’t matter, does it? Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be.”

Jae blinks, realizing what Brian’s just said. “Wait. Wait hold up. You didn’t show up--but why? What if I’d been there? I would’ve gone if the thing hadn’t--”

“--ah, the nameless reason why you couldn’t be there of course, I’d expect no less--”

“--hey, you don’t get the right to be annoyed unless--”

Ouch. Brian smiles sadly, doesn’t say anything, just kicks a stone into the gutter where it ricochets off of a kid’s bicycle. Brian looks up at Jae. The realization settles on Jae’s face like sand at the bottom of an hourglass.

“--oh fuck.”

They reach the cafe. Warm light and the smell of coffee waft out from under the doorway. Brian looks at Jae, the snow falling slowly around them: touches of light.

“You were there, weren’t you?”

Brian reaches over to ruffle Jae’s hair, still not used to seeing it dark. It feels different but familiar--cool against his fingertips when he’d only ever felt it warm in the heat of passion and the summer but still just as soft, still moving like something out of a dream. Jae trembles a little at the contact. It’s been so long since anyone’s touched him--to hug, to hold, to pat on the back. Brian grins, pushing the door to the cafe open.

“Of course I was there, you idiot.”



“Ah, fuck, this is ridiculous.” Brian pulled Jae in for another kiss, grip tight on the thick fabric of Jae’s sweater. The PA system announced the last call for both of their trains as they pulled apart.  Jae closed his eyes, grinned against Brian, trying to hold onto the memory of how Brian’s lips had felt against his.

They stood on the platform of the train: they were heading in opposite directions, Jae going back north to catch his flight from Padua and Brian heading south to Rome where he’d finish the last leg of his European itinerary.

“Stop saying fuck and then kissing me with that filthy mouth,” Jae said, running his hands through Brian’s hair before settling on his nape. He rubbed their noses together before closing the space between them again, searching for Brian’s warmth.

“You first.” Brian said, pulling away from the kiss but refusing to part from Jae, their foreheads pressed close together, both of them knowing that after this they would be apart for a long time.

The announcement lights on the platform turned red. Passengers passed by in a flurry, shoes scuffling against the concrete, briefcases and travelling cases rustling against clothing, being tossed into baggage carts.

“Maybe we should exchange numbers? E-mail addresses at least?” Jae found himself digging into his pockets for something--a piece of paper, a pen, his 3310 with the cracked LCD screen.

Brian waved Jae off. “Ah, come on. I thought you were supposed to be the optimistic one here? It’s more romantic this way. It’ll be like one of those stories that we’ll tell people whenever they ask--”

Jae grinned. “--already looking to the future, are we, Mr. Kang? I know it’s not my fault that I’m this handsome but--”

Brian rolled his eyes but kissed Jae’s hand. “I trust you. See you in six months.”

With that, they slowly let each other go, walking to opposite ends of the platform.



Jae orders an Americano, the heat of it fogging up his glasses. Brian has a hazelnut latte, powdered with extra chocolate powder on top. They’d ordered one of the holiday cakes but it sits between them untouched, neither of them quite in the mood to eat.

“So what do you do now?” Brian asks, giving him a once-over. “Are you like, an A&R guy or something?”

Jae snorts, taking a sip from his coffee. “No, I’m a lobbyist for one of the tech mediator firms. Basically a private equity negotiator. We’ve done stuff for you know, bigger conglomerate companies--I can’t name them but they rhyme with shmoxconn, shmamsung, you know. Stuff like that. I’m basically the go-between between them for partnerships, mergers, that kind of thing.”

Brian’s eyebrows furrow. “So it has nothing to do with music whatsoever?”

Jae nods. “Absolutely zero.”

“How’d that happen?” He pushes the cream down into the coffee with a teaspoon, swirling it into the black liquid.

“Well,” Jae says slowly. “I found myself sitting there on the last day of my internship and thinking what the hell am I doing with my life? I mean, alright so I’d always loved music you know? But I started thinking about what it meant to choose to become the kind of person that you wanted to be? Did it really mean chasing your dream? Or did it mean owning up to whatever the world needs you to be at the moment? The world doesn’t need more A&R or Sound Production guys. What the world needs are people who are going to be looking out for the interests of others. If you think about everything that’s happening out in the world now, these aren’t things that pop musicians can solve by campaigning against whichever orange-skinned shithead is going to be sitting on top of the ‘Giant, Imperialist Government’--these are business matters, political matters, sovereignty matters. We need negotiators, we need to be informed.”

Brian grins. “Sure. But wouldn’t you also argue that there’s a roundabout way to do that through music and the so-called useless stuff? The election wasn’t won on merit--we already know that. The election was won on the hesitation of people to speak up and use their platform for something other than what would make them money. This might be an unpopular opinion but I feel like we grew up in a generation that prided itself in being apolitical. It was in the water, the Kool-Aid, the pop music, the shows, the cartoons. We drank it up because we loved that comfort, we wanted to think that the wars were all over. I think that to change the state of wakefulness, we have to accept that popstars and their sound guys, the people at the labels, need to change their priorities. They have to stop just thinking of the money and start thinking about the bigger picture. We need woke people in that because people aren’t ever going to ingest the politics side and the “hard” stuff willingly. Music, culture, art, films, TV--those are the things that people want to take in so that’s where you hit them with consciousness, with proper information. Are there lobbyists for that? When was the last time you saw a music company not trying to milk the hell out of its audience?”

“Touche. You’re right about that bit, I guess. I don’t know, you know? It’s what I told myself at the time. These days, my motto is something closer to Nike’s. Just fuckin’ do it.”

“Mr. Profane scores again.”

“I aim to please.” They smile at each other for a moment. “Wait, but what about you? I saw Purchasing Assistant on the corkboard of the music store but that can’t be right can it? Is the shop something you co-own?”

Brian shakes his head. “Nope. You got it right. Kang Younghyun--”--he makes air-quotes--”--Brian, Purchasing Assistant at the Euljiro Tower Records branch.”

“Tell me how that happened, Mr. Business Administration.”

Brian laughs into his coffee, taking a sip and licking the froth off of his top lip. “Well, to take a page from your book: I decided what the world needed wasn’t more business men. And I sort of realized that the one thing that I loved the most was my music. Do you know the story about John Lennon and Elvis? About how he would watch Elvis on TV and be like ‘Yeah, that’s the job I want to do’?”

Jae shakes his head.

“Well that’s what I felt like. I mean, business people--there will always be business people. Everything is a goddamn business. But do people get business people’s words tattooed because they mean something to them? Do you look at a business and go alright, I’m done being an asshole ? Not really.”

“Well, if you’re Steve Jobs--”

“--Jobs was an ideas guy, he just knew the right business people. And I don’t know about you, but I haven’t met a lot of people who have the Apple logo tattooed on their right buttcheek or whatever. I wanted to touch lives, I guess. I dunno. Who am I to say? I’m a 31-year-old man working at a record store.”

“You probably do a bigger service to people than I do, if I’m being honest,” Jae says, smiling at Brian. He watches the determined way that Brian’s jaw is set from talking so passionately, the way that his leather jacket hangs off of his frame. “I mean seriously. I’m not just being an idiot about it. How many kids have gone in there, looking for reprieve from the outside world? How many pencil-pushers sick of the everyday humdrum? Then you recommend them some music and it literally makes them happier. They go on living better lives because of you.”

“Or I could recommend them some Creed and have them lose their faith in mankind.”

Jae bursts out laughing. “Or that. With great power comes great responsibility, as one Peter Parker was once so fond of saying.”

Brian pauses, thinks about whether or not to bring up the demos. Maybe later. “You ever have kids? A family? That kinda thing?”

Jae pauses, nods thoughtfully. “I got married. No kids, though.”

“Oh yeah?” Brian cuts into the slice of cake. He feels disappointment bloom in his chest. “Who’s the lucky guy?”

Jae hesitates before answering. “Wonpil? You remember--”

“--the guy from Padua?” Brian takes a bite from the cake, the bittersweet chocolate enveloping his tongue. “I’ll take it he wasn’t so pleased about his books never making it back.”

“Yeah he was mildly pissed off about that,” Jae smiles a little sadly. “He came home that Christmas and we ended up working it out. He’d apologized for the whole thing and I kind of understood it, you know? He brought up some valid points. He said that the affair he’d had in Italy had happened mostly because he was lonely but that love was a choice, a commitment and in the end, he was choosing me. And what was I supposed to say? I’m the guy who ran off with a stranger I met on a train.”

Brian nods slowly, wishing more than anything he’d paid more attention to Jae’s hands. If he’d seen the ring, maybe he wouldn’t have had to put himself through this.

“Glad to be the one, big mistake that brought you clarity, then.”

“It wasn’t a mist--”

“--no, I mean it. I’m happy for you. Congratulations--even if it’s belated. Why’d you say you get lonely, then? Didn’t he move out here too? Or are you guys still doing the long-distance thing? In which case, I hope you know I think you’re a masochist.”

“Oh,” Jae says taking a bite from the cake as well. “Well. We’re getting divorced.”

“Oh.” Brian says, trying not to smile. It’s not polite to be happy about that kind of stuff. “I’m so sorry to hear that.”

Jae catches the hint of gladness (relief?) pass over Brian’s face, feels a stirring in his chest. (Hope?)

“Maybe I should’ve lead with that, huh?”

Brian smirks. “You think?”

“I just kind of forgot about it. Strangely enough--I’m not sad about the divorce bit. Or not as sad as I feel I ought to be.”

“Why’s that?”

“I changed my mind about love simply being about commitment or about making a choice. I think there has to be a kind of impetus to it too. And in some regard, a part of me will always love Wonpil--we know each other, you know? But I’m not sure if I can love him the way that he needs to be loved. Some things are just like that, I guess. I don’t feel like we fulfill each other. It’s like we’re constantly trying to make this thing work but what if the thing just doesn’t work that way? It was a long time coming and I feel like the best way that we’re learning to love each other is to do the best for one another and maybe accept that we are supposed to find other people who make us happy? Or who can make us the happiest that we can be? Life’s too short. That’s already seven years down the drain.”

“You shouldn’t think about it like that,” Brian says. “I mean the seven years down the drain part. All experiences, even if they seem useless or are terrible, contribute somewhat to giving you clarity about life. Maybe the Wonpil thing didn’t go as you’d liked but in the end, here you are, miles from home, sitting in a cafe with me.”

“Brian?”

“Hmmm?”

“Is that your way of saying you think destiny’s brought us back together?”

“You wish.” Brian smiles at Jae. Jae’s heart thunders in his chest: those eyes, dark as a night sky salted with stars.

“I do.”

Jae watches as a blush works its way across Brian’s cheeks.

Brian nods toward the door, the flurry picking up outside. “You wanna get out of here?”

Chapter Text

“Really?” Jae gestures to a copy of Taylor Swift’s 1989 sitting open on top of Brian’s desk, holding the open glass casing up. Brian’s apartment is a couple of blocks away at one of the older walk-ups. It’s spartan--single bed, one desk, small kitchenette--save for the extensive collection of vinyls and CDs that take up an entire wall, old crates turned into makeshift shelves filled from floor to ceiling. One window lets all the light in.

Brian rolls his eyes. “Okay--come on. It was a study in product design. She had these awesome faux-Polaroids and I swear, if you had no idea that mass printing and nostalgia as currency was a thing, you’d think they were legit.”

“Right,” Jae says, hitting play on the CD player. Pulsing bass under violin melody comes out through the speakers--Taylor Swift’s vocals curling over the melody. He said let’s get out of this town, drive out of the city, away from the crowd.

Brian laughs. “Fine. You caught me.”

“You know that this sounds like a Lana Del Rey song?” Jae asks.

Brian raises his eyebrows. “I didn’t think you’d be the type to get into Lana Del Rey.”

Jae shrugs, eyebrows furrowing as he tries to think of the name of the song. “Her stuff is nostalgic. The shtick gets old but it has merit in itself. It’s a song called--”

“--Without You,” Brian finishes, nodding to the kitchen table on which Lana Del Rey’s Born To Die album sits open, with the inlay opened. “I agree. But even if I like the musical quality of the Lana track better, I find myself coming back to the Taylor track, as insidious as I think she herself is.”

“Why’s that?”

Brian shrugs. “I relate to it more.”

I thought heaven can’t help me now, nothing lasts forever.
But this is gonna take me down--he’s so tall, and handsome as hell.

“Hrrrrm,” Jae says, letting the lyrics fill his mind. He tries not to glance at his watch where he knows the clock ticks closer to when they both have to be back at work. “Fancy that.”

“You want coffee? Tea?”

“We just had coffee.” Jae grins, sitting tentatively on the bed. The fabric is soft, the springs squeak under his weight.

Brian takes a seat at one of the chairs by the kitchen. Jae’s gaze lands on the guitar lying on the kitchen counter.

“You still play?”

Brian nods. “Yeah. I’m kind of nervous actually. Not to get all dark films on you but--you met me, well, again, at a very strange time in my life.”

“How so?”

“I just sent a demo record to one of the biggest management companies in South Korea and am waiting to hear back from them. Sungjin used to be a trainee but then he got super passionate about producing music and selling records, kind of reviving music culture in the digital age? So he left to help set up franchises, that kind of thing. He did the mixing for the demo and also helped get my demo into the for review pile. I’m so nervous. He got it for review under Yoon Dowoon too--he’s like, super young, but definitely the talent scout that you want if you’re coming up with anything blues-rock inspired. I’m trying not to die from anxiety waiting to hear back. They said next week, but you never know with these things.”

“That’s amazing,” Jae says, wistful. “I think it’s incredible that you’re chasing your dream.”

“Thanks. I really hope it goes well.”

“Well, once you’ve done your best, I’d say take Kevin Hart’s advice--”

“--the comedian ?”

“Hey, if you can’t trust someone who makes people laugh for a living, who else are you going to trust, right?”

Brian grins. “Touche. So what does Mr. Hart say?”

“Once you’ve done your best, just shoulder-shrug it. Do everything that you can and then let it go. Set it to the sea, let the wind carry it away.”

“I guess that makes sense. Harder said than done, though.”

“Definitely.” Jae looks at Brian, wonders what would’ve happened if he’d shown up all those years ago, thinks of all of those late nights he’d spent thinking about Brian, holding onto that night they’d spent in the city by the sea, replaying it again and again and again, each time coloring it with more nostalgia than the last. “So. Are you gonna play me one or not?”

Brian grins and takes the guitar, pulling the strap over his chest, leaning onto the counter for support. He strums, the melody fills the air.

“Alright. Um. So do you want  the kind of angry one, the melancholic one, or like, the sort of sentimental but uplifting but regretful one?”

“The last one.”

“Okay. Don’t laugh at me.”

“I would never.”

Brian starts to play, plucking the first few lines of melody, using the flesh of his wrist to thump out a melody with the guitar. He closes his eyes as he starts to sing the first verse.

“In the middle of the night, I always think of where you are. By now? Do you think of me too? The smiling you, I’ll keep that image inside of me. Now, in front of me, whatever’s there, whatever happens. I don’t give a damn. Night or day, when I’m outside or inside--there’s nobody and I’m all alone. Night or day, when I’m inside or outside, my day is covered with darkness.”

Jae’s eyes start to water. He refuses to blink, to miss a moment, in case the tides of time sweep them away from each other again. He takes in the way that the frail sunlight cuts a square into the middle of the room, shining on Brian like nature’s spotlight. The snow outside swirls, blows past like the grain on an old photograph. Brian’s eyebrows furrow in concentration as he plays into the chorus. A tear slips down Jae’s cheek. Brian’s eyes flutter open, they’re glassy too.

“Without you, I’m eyeless. My day is sightless. Even if I wanted to see, nothing is visible. Without you, I”m speechless. All day long, silence. Even if I wanted to say something, I can’t make a sound. I just wanna be with you.”

The hairs on the back of Jae’s arms prickle--that night, Brian’s skin against his. That night, the pinnacle: the point to which they’d been headed, the point from which everything since had flowed. I feel eyeless. A thought thought so long ago. A line in Brian’s song. Unspoken between them, like a tether across time. How did he know?

Brian’s stopped singing, the sound of his breathing against the strain of his crying the only thing audible in the entire room.

“Kang Younghyun.” Jae stands, crosses the room to where Brian is standing, tears spilling freely down his face, tears caught like pearls in his lashes, shining in the weak light. Slowly, he takes the guitar, slips it off of Brian before laying it gently down on the counter. He wipes Brian’s tears away with his thumbs. Brian sniffles, bringing his forehead softly against Jae’s. “Please don’t cry.”

“Why didn’t you show up?” Brian asks, voice cracking. “I was there. I--I was there early, I bought flowers, I saved up so we wouldn’t have to scrimp--I--asked them to page you. I stayed the entire two weeks, coming back every afternoon just in case.”

Jae swallows, tries to breathe through his own stream of tears. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I was stupid--”

“--why weren’t you there?” Brian shakes his head. “I need to know. I just need to know. I put so much of me into that night, into that hope that you would be there again. In some way, I think I lost all of my romantic senses and hopes when you didn’t show. I’ve had flings but all of them blur into one another, all of them are faceless, nameless--you blinded me, Park Jaehyung. And I need to know why you weren’t there. Why wasn’t I enough to bring you back?”

“I was scared,” Jae says, his voice small. “I wish I had a better reason and I hope you never forgive me for it because I was an asshole--but it’s been, I mean, it is, the biggest regret of my life. Being with you that night in Venice made me feel alive for the first time. It reduced all the things I’d thought were love into facsimiles, replicas. I was terrified you wouldn’t be there. I was terrified that you wouldn’t show. I didn’t realize that not showing up would be even worse than that--I was thinking about you all the time, I lived in Canada for a while, hoping that maybe I would run into you there. I changed degrees, working my way up, trying to get accelerated so that I would be ushered into the business world as quickly as possible. I looked for you on Facebook, on Twitter, anywhere. All that came up was a graduation photo--by then, already so many years old. I’m sorry, Brian. I’m so sorry. On my wedding day, I almost didn’t make it because I saw someone at the 7/11 who looked like you. I stopped the car and ran outside but it was someone else. And I remember thinking I deserved it. If I wasn’t willing to be brave for love, how dare I hope I would be given a second chance? I’m sorry, Brian. I’m so, so, so, so, sorry.”

Brian doesn’t say anything, but his gaze is soft. “Asshole.”

“I know,” Jae says, the faintest hint of a smile tugging at his lips. “I know. Please let me make it up to you. Please.”

“It’s not like I have a choice. I already wrote a whole EP."

“Consider all the time a sunken cost,” Jae says, standing so close now that their lips all but brush against each other. "It doesn't matter, we'll make it up."

Brian shakes his head a little, their noses grazing each other. “Accounts receivable. A long time coming.”

With that, he closes the gap between them, letting their eyes flutter shut as their lips meet in the softest kiss.

Chapter Text

It isn’t like the first time--it’s slower, more tender, each movement a discovery, every touch holding more weight, as though the tides of time and its unexpected turns, the grief and loss and longing endured, had worn them down, but in exchange had given the other infinitely more value: here is the lost thing you called for, here is the unexpected return, don’t fuck it up. They are older, weathered, but more beautiful to each other than ever before like a sunset in the middle of a blizzard, everything else forgotten for now: the jobs to be returned to, the lives to be dealt with, the decade’s worth of stories to tell.

Not sunrise or daydream--sunset, wakefulness.

This is real.

Brian brushes away a lock of Jae’s hair, holds him close as they fall onto the bed and it’s like catching a shooting star--he kisses him soft but deep and every lick, nip, caress of slicked lip against lip is like falling into the deep, blue sea after years of dancing for rain: the impossible dream, that one true, thing. Jae holds onto Brian for dear life like a great ship loves a storm, mast raised and hard against him, sails flung out, body ready to be carried to safety or destroyed--or both. They undo each other slowly: fingers releasing buttons from the holes in which they’re sat, setting clasps free of their locks, liberating skin from cloth.

You’re here--with me.

They watch each other, take their time, here, now, in the broad daylight: nothing left to mystery, nothing hidden by shadow or surrendered to romanticization or nostalgia. No romantic songs, no silver moonlight, only the quiet hum of the refrigerator, only the whistle of the wind as the flurry rages on outside, only love made plain as day. Brian takes in Jae’s thin frame, still lanky but no longer spry, his thinness having taken on a kind of sturdy quality of its own as age filled him out--it’s beautiful: Jae’s eyes, his trembling lips, this moment, being able to see him, being able to find a moment of stillness in the eye of the storm. Brian’s heart jumps a little in his chest, that age-old ache pooling in his gut at the sight of Jae, that visceral attraction: winter passing, coming to stay.

Jae studies Brian, is suddenly struck by how much more manly he’s become--gone is the hunger-pang frame: the lean sinew of muscle is still visible under this new, glorious skin, but there’s something about the subtle swells of flesh that age had put on Brian that lights a fire in Jae: he has the urge to hold close, to hold down, to be held down, as if the weight of all their years apart could be cured by having and holding each other as best as they can.

He runs his hands down Brian’s torso, coming to rest on his hips, fingers digging into the flesh. Brian lets out a hum of pleasure against Jae’s ear. Jae kisses the mole on Brian’s neck, letting Brian take the lead this time as Brian nips at the lobe of his ear before whispering his request and Jae nods--this time, he spreads his legs, lets Brian take his time slicking him up, meanwhile stroking Brian with his long hands, deft fingers. They keen from the pleasure, the friction of each other that they’d tried to look for and failed to find in other people throughout the years.

When they feel each other on the cusp,  Brian’s desire pulsing like a heart in Jae’s palm, Jae’s hole fluttering against Brian’s fingertips, they let up and crash into each other, Brian pushing into Jae and both of them crying out into each others’ mouths. Brian goes slow, kissing as he whispers reassurances into Jae’s ear, trying his best to soothe him, to rock them into a rhythm: slow but steady. Jae lets himself be moved, lets his arms tighten around Brian’s shoulders, lets himself lick into Brian’s mouth, savoring the taste of him--the sweet and the bitter--as he runs his fingers through his dark hair, offset a dark brown in the afternoon light.

The mattress springs squeak. Their bodies grapple for space. A pillow falls onto the ground, the sheets tangle in their limbs, rustle beneath them as Brian thrusts into Jae: deeper, faster, closer still. They make love to one another for who they are, who they have been, who they might still become--every birthmark and freckle and wrinkle, every mole and stretch mark, every calloused fingertip, every minute elapsed without the other, every laugh and every tear, every sigh and moan and kiss.

They go fast, deep, crying out each others names.

Brian’s sweat drips onto Jae's chest.

Jae squeezes Brian’s ass. Brian goes faster, deeper still, pleasuring Jae with a free hand while dragging the head of his cock flush against Jae’s prostate again, again, again.

The snow blows outside the window, harsher still.

Brian braces himself against the bed, pushes himself against the coveted bead--more, more, more.

Jae tenses under him, crying out, knees buckling. He climaxes first, spilling himself onto his belly, holding Brian close as he kisses him harder, swooning at the sight of the crease forming between Brian’s eyebrows from concentration as he braces himself against the bed. Jae lifts his hips to help Brian get a better angle, hears his voice crack as he reaches his tipping point, as he spills hot and white, pulsing into Jae.

They kiss slow as Brian pulls out but settles between Jae’s legs, holding him tight, kissing his forehead, the lids of his eyes, his lips. When they open their eyes, they both realize their cheeks are streaked with tears--neither of them can tell whose.

“You’re here,” Jae says, voice dripping with disbelief. “You’re actually here.”

“I saw you once,” Brian says, brushing Jae’s hair back off his forehead.

Jae wipes a tear from Brian’s cheek. “Do tell.”

“California,” Brian whispers. “It was right after I graduated and started working as a clerk at a law firm. I picked California for the possibility--but I don’t think I knew what I was asking for. It was torture. I was miserable. I saw you standing on the corner of South Olive Street. You were wearing a red sweater, had a cap on, but I’d know you anywhere. You were holding hands with someone. I didn’t look because it stung too much but I’m guessing that was Wonpil. I thought alright, you have your answer. And I asked someone else out the next day--and we were together for two years but it didn’t work out. There was just something missing. The thing I realized is that I don’t think you can really replace anyone? You can give them the shelf space, flowers, a ring, a place in your bed, but every person is unique. Everyone deserves to be seen for who they are. When you love someone, what is lost is lost forever.”

Jae smiles. “And what about what’s found? The lost things that show themselves to us?”

Brian kisses him, soft. “We hold onto them or else they slip away again.”

Epilogue

Jae is probably more nervous than Brian which doesn’t quite make sense--but it’s something else hearing the crowd cheer for someone you love, someone you know has slipped through the eye of a needle to be standing on that stage. The entire theater is dark, simmering with anticipation, the crowd chanting YoungK! YoungK! YoungK! The first solo concert. Jae’s heart skips a beat, his own dream of once becoming a musician roaring to life inside him as the piano intro to Brian’s first song fills the room. Jae closes his eyes, listens for the first lines--he’s listened to the track more than a thousand times by now, knows the album by heart, but he always listens for those first few lines, loves Brian’s voice, never gets sick of hearing it, never loses that little jolt through his system.

Hello there, is anyone there?

The crowd goes wild as the lights come on to reveal Brian standing in the middle of the stage with his guitar. The piano melody goes on, the audience singing so loud that Brian pauses for a moment to take it all night, eyes tearing up. Jae’s heart swells with pride.

He watches the small smile on Brian’s face as he poises himself to head into the chorus with the guitar.

“Sing it with me--”

The crowd roars, incredible back-up against Brian’s strong vocals.

Why am I alone?
Among all the people surrounding me.
Why am I alone?

The lights shift, lights going from blue into a deep, golden amber. Jae grins as Brian glances offstage at him. He flashes Brian a thumbs-up. Brian winks at him, mouths something simple: I’m not alone anymore.

Jae blows him a kiss. Me neither.