Chapter 1: coming home
“I made you a ring,” Brian announces, holding his chin high as he thrusts a chubby fist out towards Jae, a strand of knotted grass held rather delicately between his first finger and thumb.
Jae pauses from where he’s been drawing in the playground sand with a long stick, eyes framed by oval rimmed glasses secured onto his head with multi colored elastic. He sniffs, and Brian almost drops his treasured creation as he reaches into his pocket for the travel pack of tissues. (Jae always needs them but is too proud to carry them; Brian likes to be prepared.) Jae drops his stick in favor of accepting the tissue, dabbing at his running nose before crumpling it up and shoving it deep into the pocket of his shorts.
When Jae’s finished, the ring is still waiting.
“What’d you do that for?” he asks. Brian takes a deep breath, pudgey baby cheeks flooding with color as he launches into an explanation.
“My mommy said that she and daddy wear rings because they promised to stay together forever, and I want to be your friend forever but I couldn’t find any ring pops at home so I just made you a ring instead.”
Jae’s eyes narrow behind his glasses. “Don’t rings mean we’re married?”
“What’s married mean?”
“Married is like you said, when people stay together forever,” Jae answers, chest puffed out a bit in pride. He likes being older than Brian ‘cause it means he knows more stuff and can show off a little.
“Then let’s be married!” Brian grins wide, showing off the tooth he’d lost just last week when they were out on the playground.
Jae considers it for a moment. Married means they’d be best friends forever, and Jae doesn’t have a lot of friends to begin with. There was Kevin who moved away, and then Jimin who ditched him for the snooty girls who all sit at one end of the lunch table eating their matching white bread sandwiches. He’s got to lock Brian down while he’s got the chance.
“Okay,” he agrees, and Brian’s smile only seems to widen. “We can be married.”
The handmade grass ring falls off on the playground just ten minutes after Jae receives it and he has to comfort a sniffling Brian on their walk back inside, assuring him that they can still be married even without rings. The next day, Brian comes to school with ring pops for the both of them, and that’s when Jae decides that he’s a fan of the married life.
A sense of home washes over Jae as soon as his feet hit Southern California ground, sending a small cloud of dust and sand to settle across the tops of his shoes. Sungjin wrinkles his nose, reaching down to brush the offending particles off the shiny leather of his loafers that are so expensive it makes Jae’s head spin.
“This is it?” he asks, appraising Jae’s childhood hometown with a glance.
“This is it,” Jae confirms, trying to ignore the insinuation that his hometown is small (even though it’s definitely true).
“It’s cute,” Sungjin offers, “quaint.”
He’s lying, so Jae doesn’t bother with a response. Nothing about this place is quaint; it’s old and rundown, air dryer than Jae’s bleach fried hair and surrounded on all sides by an ocean of sand. The houses are small town houses and the people are small town people, and those are just a few of the things that drove Jae out and to New York City in the first place.
They’ve stopped at a diner Jae used to frequent as a teenager, not because the food is good (it’s average at best) but because Jae is trying to delay his arrival home as long as possible. It’s an odd sight for Jae, Sungjin sitting across from him in a sage green button up with ketchup dripping onto his hand. Jae takes a long, noisy slurp from his shake, which he is most definitely drinking so he’ll feel a little sick later and can go to bed early in order to avoid a long conversation with his parents about his upcoming wedding.
His ring clicks against the laminate of the table top, a steady beat Jae taps out as his eyes dart around the place. It hasn’t changed in the ten years since he’s last been here, tile as dingy and shake as chunky as ever. It’s nice. Sungjin seems to be a fan of his burger, so thus far their visit appears to be going well. Jae wonders how long he has before that changes.
"You nervous?" Sungjin asks, snapping Jae's attention before it floats away for good. Jae snorts; his fiancé is dabbing delicately at the corner of his mouth with a paper napkin. Sungjin had been born and raised rich, and it shows.
"Shouldn't I be asking you that?" Jae counters, taking another long, slow sip of his milkshake. "You're the one in my hometown to meet all my family for the first time."
Sungjin shrugs. "We're already getting married, so there's not much they can do if they don't like me. I'd imagine it's more stressful for you to worry about how your family is going to react to you bringing home your secret lover for the first time after three years."
Jae's nose wrinkles. "You can say fiancé. Or just boyfriend. Lover sounds weird."
"Okay, lover," Sungjin taunts. It's going to be a long three weeks.
Once they've got their bill paid they bid farewell to the portly waitress, who insists on squishing Jae's cheek since she hasn't seen him since he was "about knee high to a grasshopper". Sungjin takes all too much pleasure in Jae's pain, and doesn't stop chuckling about it the whole way back to Jae's childhood home. It's only about a fifteen minute ride, but it's so hot they're sticking to the Cadillac’s leather seats and all Jae wants to do is say a quick hi to his mom so he can go shower and get dust and sand out of places dust and sand should never be.
Jae swears his mom has superpowers because she's already waiting on the porch when they pull into the driveway, hair blowing around her face in the light desert wind and a big smile on her face.
"Did you get even taller since I last saw you?" she asks, quickly coming down the steps to give him a brief hug before stepping back to take his face in her hands.
"I'm 26 mom, so I'm going to say probably not," Jae replies, but he can't stop the smile from spreading across his face. The novelty of his arrival wears off, though, as soon as his mom gets a glimpse of Sungjin getting out of the car behind him. Jae is unceremoniously tossed aside and his mom goes to envelop Sungjin in a bone crushing hug.
"You're so handsome in person!" she exclaims as she pulls back to get a good look at his face, and Jae has to choke back a laugh because of course that's the first thing out of her mouth. (He can't say she's wrong though.)
Before she can get started talking Sungjin's ear off, Jae interjects. "Hey mom, how about we go inside? It's hot out here. And where's dad?"
"Out running errands, he'll be back soon," she answers with a wave of her hand, much more focused on guiding Sungjin inside by his forearm like he can't see the front door only a few yards in front of them.
Jae feels like he’s holding his breath the entire time his mom is talking to Sungjin, but nothing seems to go obviously south. She asks him about his job and he tries to explain, though Jae’s not sure his mother ever wanted a rundown of what happens on Wall Street and how Sungjin fits into it all. At the very least though, she’s impressed by Sungjin’s pinstripe suit and clear, unaccented English, which is good enough.
(Jae’s dad seems to have little interest in participating in his wife’s interrogation of Sungjin; when he arrives he simply drops the shopping bags on the counter, greeting Sungjin with a handshake before asking if he wants a beer.)
Eventually everyone moves into the living room, Jae's dad kicking his feet up on the recliner as they watch a football game that no one has any real interest in. It keeps the conversation light though, which Jae is grateful for--no one seems to be taking their anger at Jae and his secrecy out on Sungjin, which is about as ideal as things get.
Jae doesn't really feel like he can breathe again until he's safely behind the closed door of his childhood bedroom, Sungjin occupying the bathroom as the two of them get ready for bed. "Today went well," Sungjin remarks, leaning up against the bathroom door, damp towel draped around his neck to catch the water still falling from his hair.
"Yeah," Jae replies, more of a sigh than anything else. "Hopefully things stay this easy." Sungjin simply hums his agreement, disappearing once more to hang his towel over the door before slipping into bed. It'll be a tight squeeze in Jae's old twin bed, but Jae thinks there's something a little romantic about that.
"Can you get the light?" he asks, and Jae responds wordlessly, reaching up to flip the switch before climbing in next to Sungjin.
"'Night," he whispers, leaning across the blue-dark to press a soft kiss to Sungjin's mouth. He misses, hitting more of his chin than anything else, but it makes Sungjin laugh.
"Goodnight," Sungjin returns, leaning into Jae to kiss him properly, slow and sweet.
Still, when Jae rolls over to sleep, he feels a small knot of anxiety finding a resting place in his gut.
Sungjin’s always been more of an early riser, so Jae is not at all surprised to find him already in the kitchen, showered and dressed as he sips on fresh coffee across from Jae’s mom while Jae is just barely alive. He drags a hand through his bed head and down his face, hoping that it’ll wake him up a bit more. It doesn’t.
"Nice of you to join us," his mom says, giving him a closed mouth smile of the rim of her coffee cup. Jae returns a sarcastic smile, pouring himself some coffee and taking a seat at the counter next to Sungjin. His mother doesn't seem to get the memo that it's too early for conversation.
"You should go into town this morning," she says, pushing a chicken scratch shopping list towards him across the countertop. "Your father forgot to stop for anything edible other than beer." Jae squints up at her, and she shrugs. "He’s very forgetful now, you know. We’re not young like we used to be.”
"Yeah, I'm sure that's it," Jae replies, voice dripping with sarcasm. He has a sneaking suspicion his mom orchestrated the lack of edible food in order to force him out of the house and into town to see people he hasn't seen in years. She's kind of a genius like that. "I'll go out after I shower. You coming, babe?" Jae asks, turning to Sungjin.
It takes a second for Sungjin to look up from his phone, and when he does he purses his lips. "Sure," he finally answers, but Jae's mom has a say in that too.
"No Sungjinnie should stay here with me. We can talk about the wedding! He seems like he has such good taste Jaehyung, I want to see what he thinks of my ideas." Sungjin falls for it, smiling graciously at her before turning back to Jae.
"That sounds like a good idea. Just be quick and then you can come back to help with wedding planning," he says, and Jae doesn't have the energy to argue.
He finishes his coffee quickly, heading for the bathroom to wash up and change before heading out. Sungjin and his mom are still in the same place when he goes to leave, and Jae bids them a quick goodbye. The faster he can get this outing over with, the better.
Only problem is, the car won't start. Smoke starts to come out from under the hood, leaving Jae to curse as he scrambles out of the driver’s seat in an attempt to not die in his parent's driveway. He casts a forlorn glance towards the garage--his parent's truck is gone, his dad having taken it early that morning to go to work. His mom's vintage Bug sits next to the house under a tarp, and he has no desire to dig it out. Biting his lip, he heads back inside, screen door slamming shut behind him. It’s only been about 18 hours back here, and Jae already wants to tear his hair out. But he takes a deep breath, squares his shoulders, and walks back into the kitchen where his mother and fiancé are still sitting.
"I think there's something wrong with the car," he starts, and Sungjin's brow furrows.
"Is it the lights on the dash again? I told you, you have to keep your foot--"
"There's smoke coming from under the hood and it smells awful," Jae interrupts, not bothering to care about how bad it might look in front of his mom. Just because Sungjin's first car was a Lexus and Jae's was stick shift doesn't mean he's any better at driving their damn car than Jae is.
His mom looks up, setting down her mug and adjusting her reading glasses from where they've slipped down her nose. "Call the Kangs, they can tow it in for you and take a look."
"They're still in business?" Jae blurts without thinking.
Almost immediately, the memories return; running around Kang's Autobody as a kid, and then again when he's a teenager, sitting in cars he can't afford to wreck and borrowing (stealing) the keys to others, driving out to an overlook and turning to the passengers seat to wake up--Brian. Jae sort of wishes he could say he'd nearly forgotten about Brian, but that's not quite true. It was more of a forceful affair in which he refused to think or worry about the guy who broke his heart for the first time.
"Is old man Kang still running it?" he asks tentatively, hoping his mom won't pick up on his underlying worry.
Luckily, she doesn't seem to notice. "Of course! He's got this cute kid working for him now, can't be much older than 17."
In reality, Dowoon is 22, which Jae learns when he backs a tow truck into his driveway with practiced precision.
"It happens," Dowoon jokes as Jae's mom apologizes for asking when he was graduating high school. "The baby face will serve me well when I'm older, I'm told."
"You'll go with him to the shop?" Sungjin asks, hand resting on Jae's shoulder. "I have a call to make and I'd rather not have to do it in a car shop."
"Yeah," Jae replies, trying to not be too annoyed. It's still early and he's perfectly capable of talking to Brian's dad on his own--he just really, really doesn't want to. It's always awkward to see the parents of people you used to know, and Jae would go so far as to say Brian and him were a little closer than just "knowing" each other.
Jae rides shotgun next to Dowoon, who lets Jae fiddle with the stereo and doesn't seem too bothered by his passenger's nervous energy.
"How long have you been working for the Kangs?" Jae asks, attempting to make conversation and also figure out what he's in for.
"About a year now," Dowoon replies.
Jae has to swallow before asking his next question. “How is Mr. Kang doing these days?”
“He’s doing good.” Dowoon nods, eyes fixed on the road ahead.
“That’s good,” Jae replies awkwardly, and the car falls into silence for a while, before Dowoon’s curiosity appears to get the better of him.
"What brings you back into town? I've met your parents but they said that you lived out in New York."
"I'm planning my wedding," Jae admits, though he doesn't know why it feels weird to tell this stranger. Maybe it's just the effect of being home. Still, he pushes on. "The other guy in the driveway with the light brown hair, that's my fiancé."
"Congratulations," Dowoon replies easily, and Jae breathes a sigh of relief. At least strangers can't give him shit for not bringing Sungjin home earlier. They reach the autobody shop quicker than Jae would like, and the dread starts to build as he steps out of the truck cab, shoes imprinting in the gravel.
"I'm gonna get your car inside, you can head to the office and someone will bring you back once we take a look at it." Dowoon points Jae in the direction of the office, but Jae's already on his way. The blue paint of the building's exterior has faded with time, chipping in some places, but it still looks as much like home as it did when Jae was a kid. He's pleasantly surprised to see that the interior has been redone, clean tiling replacing what used to be dingy carpet, and a shiny new vending machine in place of the old pac man that used to stand in the corner.
Jae breathes a sigh of relief when he sees that the woman behind the counter isn't Brian's mom--she used to spend most of her time in here, but he supposes that she might have retired sometime in the last ten years. Instead, there’s a young-looking girl perched on the vinyl covered stool, bangs obscuring her eyes as she leans over the counter and flips through a magazine.
The door shuts behind Jae a little harder than he's expecting, and that gets her attention. He's a little taken aback when she looks up--her eyes are doe-like half moons, and they remind him a lot of Sungjin's.
"Dowoon towed my car in this morning and told me to wait here till they take a look at it," Jae explains, and she gives him a sweet smile.
"Make yourself comfy," she says, gesturing at the chairs lining the wall opposite the vending machine. "My name is Jihyo, just let me know if you need anything."
"I'm Jae Park," Jae replies, because his mother raised him right and he knows it's only polite to introduce himself. However, he quickly realizes that was a mistake when he sees Jihyo's eyes narrow.
"You from around here?" she asks, tone light and conversational. Jae knows what she's really asking. Are you the Jae Park who’s got his name carved in the cement out back?
"New York, actually," he answers, and it's not really a lie, considering how long he's been living there. Even so, that's enough for her to put the pieces together--everyone in this tiny shit hole of a town knows that the Parks have two children, one who's a teacher in the bay area and the other who had to move across the country to get away from this place.
"Well I hope you enjoy your stay here," she says, and that's Jae's cue to take a seat. The chairs are no more comfortable than the last time he was here, which is surprising considering how much the rest of the place seemed to change. He is also considerably larger than last time, and he slouches a bit, stretching his legs out in front of him in an effort to feel a bit more like a kid. Again, he can't help but remember when he was slouched in these chairs as a teenager, anxiously awaiting for his mom or older sister to pull into the gravel driveway and come in ready to tear his head off for attempting to hot wire his principal's car or setting something on fire that probably should have been left alone.
Since Jae's family all worked it became commonplace for him to go to the Kang's after class, which always gave the school administration enough time to call home and tell on him before someone came to pick him up. When he wasn't in trouble it wasn't bad at all, though--just him and his best friend Brian, running around outside or eating homemade kimbap from behind the counter before killing hour after hour playing on that pac man machine.
He pulls out his phone, as both a distraction from uncomfortable memories and to kill time. The shop looked relatively empty so Jae hopes he can get out of here quickly, but he knows it’s better to prepare for a wait. However, he’s only been there about fifteen minutes when Dowoon’s head pops through the door that leads into the shop.
“You can come back and talk to the mechanic now,” he says, and Jae nods, standing to stretch before following Dowoon back.
The shop is busier than Jae expects, employees bustling around with tires and oil and other things he doesn’t recognize. Dowoon leads him to the Cadillac against the far wall, clapping Jae on the shoulder before leaving him to fend for himself. The hood is still propped open as the mechanic rummages around underneath, which means Jae can’t see much of the guy besides long legs in ripped, stained jeans and a pair of scuffed work boots. He clears his throat to get the guys attention, and a head of messy black hair pops up from behind the hood.
“Hey, husband,” Brian says, a wide grin on his face.
Jae really, really wishes he’d stayed home.
Chapter 2: the reunion
in which old friends return.
Even ten years later, Brian is unmistakable to jae. His fox-like eyes and sharp nose are still the same, though some of the baby fat has melted off his face (among other places, but Jae’s trying to keep his eyes strictly above the waist). His panty dropping smile is still the same as when they were teenagers, all white teeth and shallow dimples. His voice is a lot deeper now though, much different from the soft, squeaky Brian that Jae remembers. Still, the moniker he used is a familiar one: Jae couldn’t count all the times Brian has teasingly called him “husband” throughout their school days even if he tried. The name, plus the fact that Brian Kang is standing in front of him in a black wife beater and a grease stained bandana, sends Jae reeling.
Brian’s smile fades slowly, and Jae finds himself mourning the loss. Then he realizes it’s probably because he’s been standing there, staring, like an idiot.
"Hi," he says, dumbly. Then, even more dumbly: "I didn't think you'd be here."
Brian's laugh is awkward, but no less bright. "Well yeah, I sort of figured you didn't know it was me when Dowoon said you weren't actually dragged here kicking and screaming."
Jae wants to protest, but Brian is right--had Jae known he'd be running into him, he would have just let the car sit in the driveway and combust.
"It's good to see you," Jae lies, wanting the encounter to be over as soon as possible.
"You too! I heard you're in town planning your wedding, congratulations!" Brian's so sincere it gives Jae physical pain to watch. (Probably because after all these years he still hasn't really forgiven Brian for what happened, and hadn't exactly wished him the best.)
“Thank you,” Jae replies, unsure as to where to go from there. He should ask about what Brian’s been up to, but that would be a stupid question--clearly he’s been working here. Other than that, he knows exactly nothing about Brian’s life nowadays, not even enough to guide questions.
Luckily, Brian saves him from further embarrassment. “So, should we talk about your car?”
Jae’s relief lasts for about five seconds before he remembers Brian’s fixing his goddamn Cadillac. Brian, the kid Jae used to drive around in a beat up old Toyota that had permanently changed color to blend in with the desert dust. God, he feels like one of the annoying guys from out of town they used to make fun of, who stopped through in their fancy cars because they got lost on their way to an equally fancy hotel.
It’s almost like Jae’s in a trance the entire time Brian is talking to him. Brian uses a lot of big and mechanical sounding words that do little to explain what’s wrong with the car, and as a result Jae ends up focusing on the way Brian’s mouth moves, on the subtle tilt of his head and the motions of his hands as he talks. Jae does his best to hum and nod at appropriate times, but he’s sure he still looks like a creep just staring at Brian.
“...so it’ll probably take about a week before I can get your car back to you. In the meantime we can lend you something to drive around, as long as you’re okay slumming it with a stick shift like we used to.” Brian ends with a bright grin, and Jae is forced to actually process what’s been said.
The gist he gets is that they don't have the replacement parts and need to order them, which is why Brian mentioned the loaner.
"Yeah," he rushes to say in an effort to shorten the already awkwardly long pause. "That's fine. That sounds good."
"Okay," Brian replies, "Dowoon can pull around a loaner for you, and Jihyo will ring you up at the front."
"Okay," Jae parrots. He's sure his nervous ticks have resurfaced--the heavy blinking and the bouncing of his leg--but there's not much to be done now other then escape as soon as possible.
There's another awkward pause, and then. “We should catch up, you know. While you’re back in town and all.”
Jae’s mouth feels dry. “That’d be great,” he starts, tongue nearly tripping over the lie. “I’m gonna be busy with the wedding and everything, but we should definitely find a time to catch up.”
“Sounds good.” It’s like Brian hasn’t stopped smiling this whole time, and that makes it hurt even more when Jae lies to his face. Truthfully, he’d rather spend these next two weeks holed up in his childhood home, avoiding anyone and everyone who might want to talk about before he left or what’s happened in the meantime, but now he’s got Brian looking forward to a lunch date or something equally painful.
"I'll see you soon," Brian says, a sweet promise that makes Jae's chest constrict.
"See you," he copies again, accompanying it with an awkward wave before he turns his back on Brian, heading for the door that leads back to Jihyo and a Brian-less room where Jae can more or less start the freak out that's been creeping up on him for the past ten or fifteen minutes.
Jihyo ushers him through the process of paperwork with an easy smile, which makes Jae feel a little bad because he absolutely cannot concentrate on what she's saying, just hands over Sungjin's card when she asks and lets her take care of the rest. He taps his fingers against the counter, eyes darting around the room as if he's expecting Brian to pop back in at any second. When the door does open with a pleasant jingle, Jae's heart jumps up into his throat.
He relaxes when he sees it's just Dowoon, handing Jae a set of keys. "Boss said you'd like this one," he says, and Jae's already dreading going outside. He chides himself mentally--it's a damn car, how bad could it be?
Pretty bad, apparently.
It's a red pickup, the same kind they used to drive around when they first got their licenses and thought they were hot shit that the world couldn’t touch. The kind of car they used to sit in and have their long talks about life and family and where things are headed, the kind of car they planned their future in. Their future away from here.
Jae gives a small shake of his head. Brian probably didn't put this much thought into the car selection--he's probably just trying to remind Jae that they were friends before and they can still be friends now, if even that. Jae just needs to stop turning everything sour with old memories and regret.
He takes the keys from Dowoon with a quick thank you, and watches the kid retreat back into the office before he actually gets in. Driving the pickup is like riding a bike, practically second nature to him though he's only driven small cars as of late. The truck rumbles to life beneath his feet, and he starts off.
Jae gets about five miles down the road before he pulls over, sending a plume of dust to settle over the hood as the wheel screech to a halt. His palms slam against the stitched leather of the steering wheel and he takes a sharp inhale through his nose, trying to push back the sting creeping up behind his eyes. Everything feels hot, too hot, and he can't tell if it's the dry air outside or this wave of emotions or both. Probably both.
It's a weird feeling, almost like his body isn't his own. Jaehyung Park does not cry, except here he sits, in a borrowed car on the side of the road with tears threatening to well. And for what? Because he saw someone from his past? Because he’s angry that Brian’s still happy here when he couldn’t be? If he could laugh at himself without feeling ridiculous, he would. He knew this was an inevitable side effect of coming home, and he came home anyway.
Part of him (most of him) wishes he hadn't. New York was a little bubble, perfectly curated to fit Jae and only Jae (and eventually Sungjin, but he came later). Coming back means that the bubble’s burst--all his shit is out here for the world to see. There’s no more running from your past when it’s staring you down across the kitchen table or giving you blinding smiles in a car shop. Somehow, it’s like the past decade hasn’t happened because Jae’s expected to fit right back in like he never left, squishing himself into a mold he’s long outgrown. Except he did leave, and no one lets him forget it.
No tears have fallen, and the urge begins to subside as Jae regulates his breathing. He leans as far back in the seat as the car allows, eyes focusing up and out onto the blue skyline in front of him. His vision clears, and he takes a final deep breath before putting the car in drive and pulling back onto the road.
Despite being able to push it down for now, Jae knows the frustration he's feeling is going nowhere fast. He hates this, feeling like the same angry teenager he was when he left this place, lonely and scared but needing to get out more than anything else. All he wants is to return to his bubble, just him and Sungjin in their apartment surrounded by friends who never knew him before his fancy education and good publishing job. Jaehyung Park reinvented himself, and now even that feels like it’s being taken from him.
He arrives back home quicker than he would like, though a little over two hours have passed since he first left with Dowoon in the tow truck. The borrowed truck sputters to a stop in the driveway, and it's hard work to force his legs to move, to carry him up to the doorway. After his impromptu reunion with Brian Jae doesn't really want to talk to anybody, but he knows what he wants goes out the window as soon as he walks through the door.
He does it anyway, because despite what his mother says, he's trying to be a good son and fiancé.
The house is surprisingly quiet, and it takes Jae a minute to actually figure out where everyone is. His mom is crocheting, the only sound coming from the click of her needles and the low hum of a TV talk show in the background. She gives him a small wave of acknowledgment, and Jae is pleasantly surprised when she doesn't press him for details. Then he remembers that she sent him out to the Kangs' probably knowing that he would run into Brian, and it makes a bit more sense. She's giving him space. If he wasn't so damn annoyed, Jae might think it's sweet.
When Jae opens the door to his bedroom, he's greeted by Sungjin's wide eyes and his finger over his lips to shush Jae before he even has a chance to open his mouth and say hello. Jae’s eyes immediately go to where Sungjin’s phone is pressed to his ear--he’s on a work call. Lovely.
Wordlessly, Jae backs out of the room, closing the door behind him. He’ll just have to fill Sungjin in later.
He’s not sure what he should do now. His dad won’t be home till past 7, and Sungjin’s work calls usually take awhile. That leaves him with two options: hanging out with his mother, or going back out into town.
The decision is easy, almost tragically so.
“I got a loaner truck from the Kangs, I’m gonna take it into town for a bit,” he says as he swings back through the living room, dropping a kiss on his mom’s head so she can’t complain about him not saying goodbye.
“Have fun,” she replies, and when she smiles up at him Jae is reminded of how much he looks like her.
Shaking off the thought as quickly as it comes, he heads for the door, letting it slam behind him on his way out for the second time that day.
Jae supposes he should do what he was originally sent out for in the morning and swing by the grocery store, but the grumble of his stomach suggests a more urgent need for food. He balks at the idea of eating alone here, but only until his stomach rumbles again, making it clear that eating is more important than saving face. Not like he’s got much face left to preserve anyway.
It’s a little scary how he can still turn on autopilot, thinking of anything and everything as he drives down the same road he’s always taken to get to the little diner he visited yesterday with Sungjin. Though it’s only his first real day back, Jae finds that the longer he stays here the more he finds himself at home again. It’s easy to fall back into old rhythms when nothing’s changed except for him.
Swinging into the diner parking lot for the second time in 24 hours, Jae appreciates how the red truck blends in much better than the Cadillac did. He’s the talk of the town by virtue of being the only thing worth talking about in such a small place, but this little change helps him feel just a little bit less like the fish he used to have as a kid, bowl set out on the table for all to see.
Walking in again feels different, both from when he was a kid and coming in yesterday with Sungjin. Now, it's like he has a chance to breathe and be himself in an all too familiar space, instead of focusing on his teenage brain running a mile a minute or worrying about his fiancé and family. Jae picks out an empty booth in the corner, sitting up against the window despite the amount of free space he has for his limbs to stretch out. He runs the pad of his finger along the stitching surrounding the laminated menu, flipping it open with an easy flick.
The same portly waitress from yesterday comes to take his order, a smile scrunching up her rouge red cheeks. Jae goes for the classic fried chicken and soda; nothing like that combo to make him feel like himself again. As much as he loves nights out eating lobster tail and creme brûlée with Sungjin and their friends in New York, there's no avoiding the fact that Jae was raised on diner food and it's to diner food that he will always return.
Jae's quickly left to his own devices again, the waitress bustling off to the kitchen and then to maker her rounds on the few other customers populating the place. He's not alone long, though--shortly after she leaves, he's startled out of the daze he'd fallen into gazing out the window by a very solid presence sliding into the booth next to him.
"Well look what the cat dragged in," Matthew drawls, slinging an overly muscled arm over Jae's scrawny shoulders.
"More like what the Cadillac dragged in, if my sources at the Kangs' are to be believed." Sammy slips into the empty seat across from Jae, folded hands resting on the table top and an easy smile on his face.
Matthew snorts. "Dude, you have got to stop bothering Jihyo. She could snap you in half if she wanted to."
"Then I just have to make sure she doesn't want to--"
"Guys," Jae interrupts, a laugh bubbling up from his chest. "What the hell are you doing here?"
He looks back and forth from Matt to Sammy, taking in both of their faces and how they've changed. Facebook is such a shitty way to keep up with people, he thinks, because it's done Sammy no justice--he looks good now that he's aged a bit, filled out what used to be a scrawny teenager body into something that could be a grown man in the right light. And Matt--well, Matt always was always the best looking friend. Every friend group needs one.
“We just came to eat and saw your sorry ass sitting all by yourself.” Sammy’s grin reminds Jae of the Cheshire cat, and it’s a sight for sore eyes.
“Long time no see, my friend,” Matt chimes in, clapping Jae on the back hard enough to send him forward and bumping into the table. “How’s it feel to be back?”
“Weird,” Jae answers, as truthfully as he can.
“Like a good weird?” Sammy asks, head cocking to the side, making him look even more like a puppy than he does normally.
Jae considers it for a moment. “A neutral weird,” he says decisively.
Matt nods, thoughtfully. Then again, he kind of always looks thoughtful. “How’s your fiancé?”
Jae balks at the question--it’s awkward, really, considering that Matt and Sammy probably only know about the engagement through their mothers (who found out through Facebook), and didn’t find out from Jae himself. What a shit friend he is.
“Sungjin’s good,” Jae answers, covering the awkwardness with a cough. “He’s working right now and I haven’t gone grocery shopping so I came to eat by myself.”
“Well now you have us,” Sammy chirps, settling back into the seat of the booth.
Jae doesn’t get a chance to reply before the waitress is back, fussing over Sammy’s messy hair and pinching Matthew’s cheek like they aren’t grown men. The two of them put in an order (cheesy fries and a burger, respectively), and then she’s off again and it’s just the three of them.
“How long are you back for?” Matt asks, though Jae suspects he already knows the answer.
“Two weeks,” he replies anyway.
The two of them nod, almost creepily in sync, and Jae thinks he catches them sharing a look.
“You know,” Sammy starts, and Jae tries to mentally prepare himself for whatever scheme they’ve got up their sleeve. “There’s supposed to be a little get together tonight at the Shack. Maybe you wanna come, bring your fiancé so we can meet him?”
Jae considers it for a moment. The Shack is the only half decent bar in town, with good food and live music that make it worthwhile despite the fact that it seems permanently stuck in the 70s. He tries to picture Sungjin in the glossy wood interior that looks like it was designed by Jimmy Buffet and nearly laughs out loud. A night out for the two of them usually consists of button ups and dress shoes, sitting with Wonpil and Bernard in one of the many upscale bars that seem to crop up every other week in New York. But Jae supposes this is what he signed up for, coming home. Everything is different here.
"We'll be there," he says, before he has a chance to think too hard about it.
Sammy tries to play it off like it's no big deal, but Jae can see the smug look of success hiding beneath his typical easy smile. Matt makes no such effort, jostling Jae's shoulder in excitement.
"Who else is going?" Jae asks, trying to get a feel for how prepared he needs to be.
Sammy shrugs, responding with a cryptic hum. "Just you know, the old crew we used to hang out with."
"What does that mean?" Jae nearly sputters into laughter again at the evasiveness, but Sammy is saved from answering the question by their waitress, who arrives with drinks.
When they're left again, Sammy quickly changes the subject. "So, is there anything else you want to do while you're back?"
"No no no, go back," Jae laughs. "What am I in for tonight?"
"The usual people," Sammy repeats, looking to Matthew for help. Jae turns to stare Matt down, and Matt gulps.
"Matt," Jae starts, voice even and calm. "Come on man. I need to know who is in the firing squad."
"You know. Us. You, obviously. McKay, maybe Jackson and Mark." Matthew is definitely leaving people--or maybe just one person--off the list, and it's enough evidence that Jae doesn't need to press it any further. The only reason for the two of them to act like this is if they're expecting Brian to show up.
"I already saw Brian today." Better to bite the bullet and tell them so they stop dancing around it, Jae figures. He tries to keep his voice as level as possible, and he thinks he does a pretty good job. As long as Jae can pretend he's fine with being around Brian, his friends should stop acting so weird and making it even harder on him. Keyword being should.
Sammy nearly chokes on his drink. "Where?"
"The shop," Jae answers, knowing they'll recognize what he's referring to. "But shouldn't you already know that? You said you talked to the girl who works there, Jihyo."
"I mean yeah, I knew you were there, but I had no idea you actually talked to him. She said Dowoon was the one who helped you."
Jae shakes his head. "Dowoon just towed my car in. Trust me, I wasn't expecting to see Brian today either, but he was the mechanic."
"That's weird--" Matthew starts, before he's cut off by a scuffle under the table and his own muffled grunt.
"Great! You've already got your awkward reunion out of the way so tonight should be fine. Has he met Sungjin yet?" Sammy brightens again, eager to get things back to normal.
Jae shakes his head again. "I went in by myself."
"It'll be a good time to introduce him, with everyone there. Just get through all the awkwardness in one go," Matthew points out.
"Like ripping the bandaid off," Jae says in agreement. "Yeah, I'll have to ask him but we should be there.” He presses his lips together, trying to not think about everything that could possibly go wrong.
Luckily the conversation turns as their food arrives, switching to topics such as Sammy’s latest venture into clothing design and the girl Matthew took out to a drive in movie theater two weeks ago (“What is this, Grease?”). It’s more comfortable with Sammy and Matt than Jae is bracing for; they slip back into the same easy banter they had as teenagers, like no time passed at all. Jae has a fleeting thought while watching Sammy attempt to lodge a waffle fry into Matt’s carefully styled hair: this is the most like himself that he’s felt in a long time.
The three of them leave with a promise to meet up again at the Shack, Sammy and Matthew heading for Sammy’s little Honda that he’s been driving since dinosaurs still roamed the earth. Jae resigns himself to the task of grocery shopping while avoiding human interaction as much as possible, but the universe seems to smile down on him: there’s no one who recognizes him in the local food mart (or if they do, they keep their mouths shut). He’s done faster than he expects, and is soon heading back down the familiar dirt road towards home.
Though Jae’s been gone for at least two hours, not much seems to have changed at home. His mother is now washing dishes instead of crocheting and Sungjin is working on his laptop instead of over the phone, but other than that everything is just as quiet as before. He sets the groceries on the counter with a quick promise to put them away in a minute before ducking into his bedroom, wrapping his arms around Sungjin's shoulders where he sits at the desk.
Dropping a kiss on his fiancé's head, Jae spins the desk chair around until he's leaning over a slightly disgruntled looking Sungjin. "You feel like going out tonight?"
Sungjin leans back, the chair squeaking in complaint as his eyebrows furrow together. "Where are we going?"
"Local bar." Jae shrugs, taking a step back. "A lot of my old friends are gonna be there tonight, and they'd like to meet you."
"You want to go?" Sungjin asks, and Jae snorts. Like he would even bother asking if he didn't want to go.
“We don’t have to,” Jae offers, heading for the bathroom. “I just thought you might like to meet some of my friends, is all.”
“I thought you were stressed about seeing everyone again, so I guess I’m just a little confused,” Sungjin replies.
Jae turns, resting his shoulder against the door frame. “I mean, I was, and I still am, but don’t you think it’s worth it?”
“We can do whatever you want.” Sungjin shrugs.
“Wow, never thought I’d hear those words. Who are you and what have you done with Sungjin Park?” Jae replies, tone dripping with sarcasm but face splitting into a smile.
Now it’s Sungjin’s turn to snort. “Just tell me when I need to be ready.”
Chapter 3: an intersection
in which two worlds come together for the first time, and jae is very, very afraid.
The nerves start to build in Jae’s stomach as they pull into the parking lot of the Shack but he swallows them down, glancing over to Sungjin in the passenger's seat. He looks calm as ever, profile illuminated by the neon signage despite the fact that the sky is still a sort of azure blue color, sun just barely peeking out above the horizon.
“Nervous?” Sungjin asks as Jae puts the car in park.
“Me? Never,” Jae scoffs, and it makes Sungjin laugh.
“Let’s go,” he says, and Jae obediently follows.
The live music grows louder and louder as they approach, and Jae’s pleasantly surprised when he realizes they’re playing a song he actually likes. He’s also surprised to see that the decor has been updated; the light varnished wood is still omnipresent, but overhead hang strings of little lightbulbs.
It’s not difficult to figure out where everyone is; as soon as they cross the threshold, Jae sees a cluster of familiar faces. There’s Sammy, chestnut brown chelsea boots perched on the foot of his barstool. Next to him is Matt, laughing loudly at a joke Jackson just made. Then there’s Jaebum, whose family runs a farm not too far outside the city limits, and between him and Jackson is someone Jae doesn’t recognize.
“Is that them?” Sungjin asks, following Jae’s eyes to the rowdy group in the corner. Jae nods, and Sungjin stands up just a little straighter. “Then what are we waiting for?”
Jae trails behind, letting Sungjin make his own bold first impression as he walks over. Sungjin has this incredible ability to demand attention wherever he goes—like you can’t help but look at him. It’s something Jae’s always been envious of. Despite being six feet tall, sometimes he still feels like a kid who has to fight for people to take him seriously. The envy spikes a bit as he watches Sungjin’s charm in action, the chatter of his old friends dying down as they turn to appraise the newcomer. Eyes flash from Sungjin to Jae and back again, realization dawning on everyone. Still, Sungjin introduces himself, because he’s a gentlemen like that. Jae just sort of hovers behind him as they go around the circle, only bothering to really pay attention when they get to the one face he doesn’t recognize.
“This is Jinyoung,” Jackson introduces, slinging an arm around the good looking man. Now that they’re up close, Jae can tell he’s well put together—not a spot on his white dress shirt or a hair out of place. “Jaebum’s city boyfriend. Jinyoung, that’s Jae standing awkwardly behind Sungjin like he didn’t practically grow up in this place. He’s been gone for a while, but he finally had the good sense to come back.”
"Good sense my ass," Jaebum snorts. "If I got out of this place, I don't think I'd ever come back." He takes a swig from his beer, and Jinyoung laughs, throwing an arm around his boyfriend's shoulders.
"Don't listen to him, he's just grumpy." Jinyoung's got a gracious sort of smile, the kind that Jae thinks you learn when you're just a kid and your mom tells you to behave in front of company. Not that he would know. That's more of Sungjin's territory than his.
It's kind of odd, Jae thinks, to look at Jaebum and Jinyoung and see what he and Sungjin could have been. Still, in Jae's mind, Sungjin and his hometown are totally incongruent, not capable of existing within the same realm of possibility. If he'd come back to stay, there's no way he would have ended up with Sungjin.
"Yeah, well," Jae smiles, albeit half-heartedly. "I put it off for long enough."
“What do you think of this place, Sungjin?” Sammy asks, leaning forward far enough that he threatens to tip off his stool.
“The bar or the town?” Sungjin asks.
“Is there really much of a difference?” Jaebum cracks a wry smile, and it makes everyone laugh.
“Quieter than I’m used to. Both the town and the bar,” Sungjin answers, returning Jaebum’s smile with ease.
“That’ll change soon, don’t worry,” Jackson says, reaching out to pat Jae on the shoulder now that he’s moved more into the circle. “I’m just waiting to see if Jae is still the life of the party like he used to be.”
Jae snorts, and Sungjin shoots him a sideways glance. “Yeah, because I was the one who wanted to hang out with you all every day of our senior year,” he responds, and Jackson laughs.
“I forgot, you only ever wanted to hang out with Brian.”
Jae tenses, ready for awkwardness to settle over the group, but everyone just seems to laugh along—Sammy and Matt are too distracted by a comment Jinyoung’s made to recognize what’s been said. Jae thinks he catches a hint of something flash over Jaebum’s face before it settles into a more neutral expression again, but he couldn’t say what exactly. Pity, maybe.
The moment passes, but now Jae's reminded of something he never really forgot about in the first place—he'll be seeing Brian again. This time, with Sungjin in tow.
Is it weird to introduce your fiancé to your first love if neither of them know you used to love him?
Jae swallows that question down with a sip of the beer Jackson's shoved into his hand—he doesn't particularly like to drink, but he'll do it if he's out. Everyone he's surrounded by already knows his tolerance is shit, so it's not like he's got anything to hide here.
It’s easy to relax a bit more now that he’s drinking, leaning some of his weight into Sungjin beside him. Sungjin’s drinking too, a beer looking almost foreign in his hand after years of drinking wine almost exclusively. Still, Jae feels Sungjin tense at the contact—he’s never been one for PDA. Jae straightens again, pressing his lips together as he steadies himself.
Of course, this is when the next wave of people begins to arrive. Jackson waves them over, and Jae puts off turning to see who it is until the very last possible second.
Of course, it’s Brian.
There’s other people with him, namely Dojoon, one of Sammy’s closest friends, as well as a younger kid named Chris, but Jae’s eyes are practically fixed on Brian even though it’s only been a matter of hours since they were last face to face. He cleans up well, Jae notes—black hair slicked back, noticeably void of the bandana from earlier. Brian’s wardrobe hasn’t changed much since high school, which Jae finds sort of endearing: he’s wearing a black tee with a Deadpool graphic on it and black combat boots. At least the grey ripped jeans are new.
Thankfully, Jae doesn’t have the same physical reaction as he did earlier in the day. Maybe it’s the fact that Brian’s appearance was expected, or that they’ve already done the whole awkward, painful reunion, but he finds it almost easy to keep his heart rate in check instead of sending it through the roof like he usually does. There’s still the introduction to Sungjin to worry about, but Sungjin’s good at taking care of things himself. It’s one of the things Jae likes most about him.
Brian’s face lights up when his eyes catch on Jae, and it sends a warmth spreading in Jae’s chest. As he approaches, he’s greeted by slaps on the shoulder and nudges from their friends, but it’s like his gaze is stuck on Jae the whole time. Jae thinks he should feel weird, like he’s under inspection, but he doesn’t. It feels good to have Brian’s eyes on him—to feel like he’s worth looking at. And surprisingly, it doesn’t make him nervous. Well. That nervous, at least.
Brian’s steps become more hesitant the closer he comes to Jae, like he’s treading around an invisible boundary line drawn between them. Ripping off the bandaid, Jae repeats to himself before stepping forward, crossing that boundary in one easy movement.
“Hey,” he says, and the smile that crosses his face doesn’t feel forced at all. Brian smiles back, bright and blinding.
“I know I said we should catch up but I have to say I didn’t expect to see you again so soon,” he says, voice still surprising Jae with how low it’s become.
“Please, you know you can’t get enough of me.” Jae sinks his teeth into his bottom lip as soon as the joke leaves his mouth—it’s a bit too much, he thinks, considering the current state of their relationship, but Brian allows him to relax by letting out a joyous laugh.
“I keep expecting you to have changed so much but you’re still you,” Brian says, and it makes Jae tense. He doesn’t think it’s all that noticeable, but it must be because Brian picks up on the change almost immediately. Or maybe Brian just knows him that well, still. But Jae doesn't really want to think about that.
“I don’t mean that in a bad way,” Brian assures him quickly. “I mean. I like you. Your sense of humor. I missed it.” His awkwardness makes Jae laugh, and all is well again.
Sungjin chooses to make his entrance then, stepping up beside Jae and reaching out for a handshake.
"Hi, I'm Sungjin, Jae's fiancé," he says, and it's straight to the point even as introductions go. Brian reciprocates quickly, taking Sungjin's proffered hand.
"I'm Brian. It's nice to meet you."
They step apart again, and Jae is left to watch as Sungjin asks, “So you grew up with Jae too?”
Brian shifts his weight awkwardly, and it’s almost surprising—Brian was never one to be easily thrown off, and when he was he always recovered quickly.
“Yeah, we’ve known each other a long time.” It’s a bit of a cop out, in Jae’s opinion, but he supposes that Brian answered what was asked.
Sungjin nods, seemingly content with that, and moves on to the other newcomers, leaving Jae and Brian essentially alone once again.
Jae keeps expecting to feel awkward, to feel like he did that morning, but somehow he’s relieved to just be with Brian again. They’ve got all these familiar faces surrounding them, but the only person Jae really wants to talk to now is Brian.
“So how’ve you been?” Jae asks, jumping right off into the deep end. Well, in his eyes at least.
“I’ve been good,” Brian smiles easily, nodding along. “Took over most of the mechanic work at the shop so my dad can sort of retire, hired some new hands to help me out. I know you met Dowoon and Jihyo, but there’s a few more.” Brian trails off, still nodding. “I’ve been good,” he repeats, softer.
“That’s good to hear,” Jae says, and a warmth rises in his chest when he realizes that he means it—it feels good to move past the bitterness from that morning. Maybe it’s the alcohol or the fact that he’s sort of starting to remember what it feels like to belong here, but he is happy that Brian found peace here.
“But what about you? What’ve you been doing all these years?” Brian asks, cheerful smile ever present and eyes sparkling as he looks up at Jae. Their height difference is the same as always, just a few centimeters between them.
Jae presses his lips together for a moment, before launching into the condensed but still lengthy explanation of how he went to school for political science and came out a journalist. Brian lets out a low whistle when Jae says he works for the Times, which Jae knows is out of courtesy considering his mother probably told the whole town about it before Jae even started his first day there.
“Fancy,” he jokes, and it’s enough to make Jae feel a bit embarrassed. It’s not bragging, but it might as well be with how uncomfortable he is talking about it. They fall into an awkward silence, and Jae’s eyes trace the lines of Brian’s face. God, he could look at Brian forever.
Maybe it’s just the time they’ve spent apart, and the fact that he’s a bit clearer in the head than he was this morning, but somehow just looking at Brian’s face feels like coming home. It truly hasn’t changed all that much—the lines are still the same, just sharper. There’s a few new crinkles at the corners of his eyes that Jae thinks just make him look even more mischievous and fox like than ever, though if he said anything Brian would just make a joke about how they’re practically old men. Not that he would say anything, because it’s weird to study the face of someone you’re not in love with anymore. Not that Jae would know much about that.
“Your fiancé seems to be getting along well with Jinyoung,” Brian comments, pointing with the neck of his beer bottle towards where the two of them stand, probably talking about what a waste it is for them to be here. Jae feels guilty as soon as he thinks that--it’s unfair of him to push his own feelings and agenda on to them. Maybe they’re connecting over their mutual appreciation for pocket squares.
“I’m glad there’s someone here he can relate to,” Jae answers.
For whatever reason, this makes Brian laugh. “Yeah, he’s a little more sophisticated than this crowd is used to.” Jae doesn’t have time to think of a response before he feels Brian’s eyes on him, and then Brian’s speaking again. “Then again, I guess you are too, now.”
Jae snorts. “What makes you think that?”
“You mean you’ve been living in New York all these years and you haven’t become a sophisticated city boy?” Brian jokes, eyes glinting with mirth in the low light of the bar.
“I was always sophisticated, what are you talking about?” Jae smiles back, barely holding down a laugh. Surprisingly, this sobers Brian up a bit.
“Yeah,” he replies, voice soft. “You always were.”
“Don’t worry BriBri,” Jae says, after a moment of silence, and Brian perks up again at the old nickname. “You were too.”
Brian doesn’t seem to have a response for that, but he gives Jae a smile that makes all the pain and anxiety leading up to now completely worth it.
Their attention shifts a bit when there’s a clatter at the bar; sometime in the past fifteen minutes a very drunk Sammy has acquired two beer bottles with spoons inside, and they watch as he attempts and fails to get Matt to sing with him, attempts and succeeds in getting Dojoon to sing with him, and somehow finds himself perched back on a bar stool, leaning heavily onto Dojoon as they warble drunkenly into their makeshift microphones.
Sungjin sidles up beside Jae, eyes trained on those two as he sips from his beer bottle.
“Maybe it’s time to go home,” Jae comments, lightly bumping Sungjin’s shoulder with his own so Sungjin will get the message.
Thankfully, Sungjin’s gotten good at reading Jae’s signals over the years. “Yeah, I’m feeling a little tired,” he chimes in. Leaning forward a bit to see around Jae, he gives Brian a winning smile. “It was nice meeting you.”
“You too,” Brian returns, raising his drink in a salute of sorts. Sungjin nods in acknowledgement and then looks to Jae, who falters a bit. Though it was his idea, leaving still feels like something he doesn’t want to do.
Still, it’s what he should do.
Jae moves to start saying goodbye to everyone, but Brian doesn’t let him leave that easily.
“This won’t be the last time I see you, will it?” he jokes, and it should fall a little too close to home but Brian’s sweet smile makes Jae forget about all of that.
“Of course not. You can’t rid yourself of me that easily,” he returns, and Brian’s smile widens.
“I guess I can say see you later, then,” he replies, and Jae nods.
“See you later,” he parrots, and with that, Brian turns to keep Sammy from falling off his stool, allowing Jae to leave. Jae supposes when he thinks about it that way it sounds a bit like he was being held hostage, but really it’s because the teenage boy still deep down inside of him that loved Brian more than anything won’t allow him to go when Brian still wants to talk to him, to be around him. It’s a little pathetic, really. Jae doesn’t want to think about it too much.
He and Sungjin make their way back to the car in relative silence, the only sound coming from the fading music of the bar and the chirping of distant crickets. Sungjin drives home, leaving Jae to prop his head up on his palm, elbow resting on the passenger’s side window. He’s distracted, watching Sungjin’s thick fingers tap against the steering wheel when Sungjin finally speaks.
“Do you and that Brian guy know each other well?” It’s sort of a repeat question, but Jae supposes Sungjin just wants a better answer than what he got the first time.
“Yeah,” Jae answers quietly. Truthfully. “We were best friends for a long time.”
Jae thinks about it for a moment. He doesn’t want to throw Brian under the bus—though he’s been doing it for years in talking to Wonpil, the only person in his life that knows anything about Brian or Jae’s past in general, it feels wrong now that they’ve been reunited. Maybe because Jae’s finally forced to face that Brian’s a real person that he loved instead of the antagonist he’s been building up in his head for the past ten years.
Finally, he settles on an acceptable answer. “When I moved to New York we stopped talking, and that was the end of it.” It’s not a lie, not really. He’s just sort of omitting that it was against his will.
Sungjin hums, thinking for a moment. “You two patching things up now that you’re back?” he asks, and Jae doesn’t really know what to say to that. Sungjin glances away from the road for a moment, and their eyes meet. Sungjin’s eyes are usually so expressive, but right now Jae has trouble reading them. He doesn’t like that.
“I don’t know. We’ve talked more than we have in the past decade, so I guess that’s something,” Jae jokes, but it falls flat. He clears his throat awkwardly. “He wants to hang out some I think? So maybe.”
“Sounds like that would be good for you,” Sungjin says, and Jae snorts.
“What does that mean?” he asks.
“C’mon, Jae, you and I both know you’ve got a lot of unresolved issues about your history and this place. Maybe if you fall back in with an old friend, you might be able to help a few of those.”
Sungjin’s right as usual, but Jae has to suppress a bitter laugh at the choice of “fall back in” as a phrase. It’s a little close to how one might say “fall back in love.” Not that Sungjin knows that Jae loved Brian in the first place. Sometimes, Jae thinks that even just Wonpil makes too many people who know.
“Fine, I’ll hang out with him again,” Jae says, and Sungjin settles back further in the seat with a content hum, feeling like he’s won.
Jae, meanwhile, feels like he’s just done something terribly wrong, but he can’t put a finger on what it is.
Jae wakes up the next morning to a text from an unknown number. Rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, he squints at the screen.
Hope you made it home ok last night~
Sniffing, he types back.
i did. who is this?
It’s Brian! I pulled your cell from your paperwork, hope you don’t mind.
He ends the text with a sheepish looking emoticon. Jae doesn’t know how to feel about that.
Still he can’t help the smile that creeps onto his face as he texts back.
it was nice talking to you last night
Then, after a beat of hesitation.
i missed you
Sitting up, Jae takes a deep inhale as he puts his phone face down on the bedside table. Sungjin, who is surprisingly still asleep, stirs at the noise, and Jae winces. He goes to get up, but before he can even attempt to think about something other than Brian, his phone vibrates again.
I missed you too
Over breakfast, Sungjin breaks the news that Jae is going to be alone all day.
“I’m sorry, there’s a big project I have to work on,” he apologizes through a mouthful of bagel, and Jae has to resist the urge to roll his eyes. There’s always something with Sungjin.
“You do remember we came here to plan our wedding. The one we’re having together,” Jae replies dryly, even though he’s not even really upset. He learned early on that getting over coming second to work was the key to being happy with Sungjin.
“Just pick whatever you want, I’ll love it,” Sungjin offers, before turning his attention to the newspaper’s financial section.
Pick what, Jae wants to ask, but he knows Sungjin’s face when he’s lost in whatever he’s reading and Jae is looking at it right now.
At least his parents are both out, Jae thinks, with his father at work and his mother playing bridge or mahjong or another related game with her friends.
“Promise me you won’t just stay in the house all day and do nothing?” Apparently Sungjjn wasn’t as engrossed as Jae previously thought.
Jae rolls his eyes. “I do still have friends here, you know. You met them last night, remember?”
Sungjin just hums and turns back to the paper—apparently that was enough of an answer for him.
Jae turns to his phone, thumb hovering over the messages app. Impulsively, he clicks it, going to the first conversation at the top of the screen.
hey, are u busy today?
While he’s at it, he takes the time to add Brian’s contact into his phone, debating for a few moments what he should put in before settling on an old favorite: bri bri.
Jae gets a reply faster than he expects, which is almost an answer in and of itself.
Sort of, but I guess I could make some time for you~
This brings another smile to Jae’s face—the easy teasing reminds him of the way things used to be. He doesn’t have to think long before making a suggestion about what they should do.
let’s go to the beach
They have a beach spot; a favorite destination from when they were kids, where the sand is rough and the water is cold but you can sit for hours and hear nothing but the crashing of waves and the distant shriek of seagulls. Jae’s honestly been thinking about it since they first decided to come back here--it wouldn’t feel right if he didn’t go. And if he’s being truthful, it wouldn’t feel right if he didn’t go with Brian.
His phone buzzes, and Jae’s face lights up with a smile.
I’ll pick you up at three
Sungjin’s long been locked up in Jae’s bedroom on a phone call when the tell tale sound of tires against gravel has Jae jumping out of his seat, bag swinging behind his shoulder as he lets the screen door slam closed on his way out. Brian honks his horn playfully, arm slung out the open window and a smile on his face as Jae climbs into the passenger’s seat.
“This is a nice change,” Jae teases, “I’m not used to seeing the right side of your face.”
“Shut up,” Brian laughs, starting the car up again. “I work with cars, I was bound to get my license eventually.”
“When was that, last week?” The smack on the arm Jae gets for that one is admittedly well deserved. Still, Brian’s nice enough to let Jae aux, which is a complete disaster because although his music taste is impeccable, he can’t stop bouncing back and forth between old classics and new favorites.
He catches Brian singing along to a few from both categories, and that puts a smile on his face.
“Don’t be shy,” Jae eggs him on, “it’s not like I don’t know you can sing.” That earns him a shy smile, but Jae doesn’t miss how Brian sings the next line a little louder.
It’s still hot enough for sweat to stick Jae’s shirt to his back, but with the windows down and music playing he can’t bring himself to care. Brian laughs loud and vibrant as Jae attempts to rap along to some Aminé, but he sings the bridge like it’s the last thing he’ll do.
They get to the beach faster than Jae remembers, though that could be due in part due to how much fun they had just on the way there. Looking out over the dunes feels like coming home all over again, but this time with all of the good feelings and none of the dread. Jae can’t help the sigh that escapes his lips, and Brian has to stifle a laugh.
“You tired already?” he asks, and Jae rolls his eyes.
“Says the guy that slept through our entire junior year,” he bites back, but Brian just shrugs.
“I was a growing boy. You’re just getting old.” Jae retaliates by kicking sand at Brian’s ankles, and Brian flicks sunscreen onto the collar of Jae’s tee shirt. Just like old times.
Then Brian strips his shirt off, and Jae’s mouth goes a little dry. Brian used to be soft in a childish way, round cheeks and hips and everything in between. He’s matured now--still soft, but in a way that hints at the firm muscle beneath. His board shorts are riding a little low from sitting in the car, and Jae finds his eyes fixed on where smooth, tanned skin disappears under peach-colored fabric.
When he realizes he’s been staring, Jae blanches. He averts his gaze to the sand at his feet instead, trying to think about anything except Brian. Teenage Jae would have been thrilled--he’s just not sure why current Jae feels like this too.
“Race you to the water,” Brian says, and the awkwardness is shattered.
Jae wins, because his legs have always been longer than Brian’s, but he pretty much loses right after that because Brian crashes into him at full speed, sending both of them tumbling into the incoming waves.
Jae swears as he flounders, definitely getting salt water all in his mouth and ears and hair, but all he can hear is Brian’s joyous laughter and the crashing of the waves, and that makes everything worth it. Jae can feel his skin getting warm with Brian’s weight still on top of him, Brian’s arms wrapped around him as he pulls the two of them upright.
“Asshole,” Jae laughs, and Brian grins bright enough to blind.
His skin gets burnt and his hair dries from the salt and the sun, but the few hours they spend splashing around and then sitting in the warm sand are some of the best of Jae’s whole life. They end up flat on their backs on the beach towel Brian brought, passing a bag of salt and vinegar chips between them as the sun starts to disappear behind the waves, turning the sky the color of an orange creamsicle.
“This was a good day,” Jae announces, just as Brian takes a particularly loud crunch.
“It’s not over yet,” he replies through a mouthful of potato chip, which should be gross but isn’t because it’s just so normal for them.
“Close enough,” Jae snorts. “Hey, we should play one of those old games we used to do all the time.”
“What, like twenty questions or something?” Brian asks, and Jae shrugs as best he can while laying down.
“Sure,” he answers, and Brian makes a content hum.
“I’ll go first,” the younger offers. “What’s your favorite thing to eat in New York?”
“The same thing as it is here, pizza. Ask a better question,” Jae answers, and Brian laughs, flustered.
“Mmm, okay. Who did you miss more, me or Sammy?”
“Your mom and her kimbap. Next question.” Jae earns a punch on the shoulder for than one, and he cedes. “Alright, fine. Obviously it was you.” He doesn’t say anything about how the fact that they didn’t stay in contact was in large part due to Brian—it’s not the right time. Honestly, Jae doesn’t know if there will ever be a right time. He likes the way things are right now.
“It’s your turn,” Brian prompts softly.
“Alright, I have a question for you. Did you know you were gonna see me yesterday morning?” It doesn’t occur to him until he says the words, but Jae didn’t realize their awkward reunion was only just yesterday. It feels like it was years ago already.
Brian coughs awkwardly, sitting up to answer. Jae follows suit, because it would be weird otherwise. “Truthfully? I wasn’t supposed to work yesterday, I just stopped by early to drop off some paperwork. Then Dowoon called to say he was towing someone in and I asked for the name and...I couldn’t go home, after that. Not without seeing you.”
“I’m glad you didn’t,” Jae says, and an awkward sort of silence settles between them.
“You can ask me anything, you know,” Brian says, almost out of nowhere. “Game or no game. There’s a lot of answers you deserve that I haven’t given you.”
Then, Jae asks the question that’s been at the back of his mind since he first saw Brian in the car shop. “Why are you still here? What happened?” He wants to keep going but his throat threatens to close, so he keeps his mouth shut. Brian understands anyway.
“I should’ve told you when it happened,” he starts, sifting sand through his fingers and avoiding Jae’s eyes. “But even when I got into the best music school in the country, my parents didn’t seem too happy. That’s when I realized that there was no way we could ever afford me going to New York, even if they worked 24/7. So,” he takes a deep breath, finally looking up at Jae. “I declined all my offers and stayed here. I did night school for six years to get a bachelors and,” he shrugs, “that’s it. I know I should have told you instead of just cutting you out, but I just didn’t know how.”
There’s so much that Jae wants to say, so much he never got to tell Brian, so much that’s been weighing on his chest for ten years. Instead, he just settles for, “You would have done so well.”
Brian laughs, but it’s bitter and hollow sounding. “Thanks, but music was always pipe dream anyway. I’m better off here, where I’m actually needed.”
“I needed you.” Jae’s voice is so soft he’s surprised Brian can even hear him, but Brian’s head jerks up in surprise when he says it, eyes widening almost comically. Jae’s almost embarrassed, but Brian’s looking at him like he just pulled a star out of the sky and handed it to him, so he continues. “When I first got to New York, I needed you. And for a long time after that, too.”
“I’m sorry.” Brian’s voice is thick and low, but sincere all the same.
“Me too,” Jae answers. There’s a bit of silence after that—Jae thinks the two of them have probably had enough revelations for one night.
“We should head back soon,” Brian says, and Jae’s forced to remember that he’s got people and a house to return to. It’s sad, he thinks. He sort of wishes he could be here, with Brian, forever.
“We should,” he agrees. Still, neither of them get up to leave.
Jae hopes it’s because Brian just wants to stay with him too.
Chapter 4: a splintering
in which realizations are made and paths are changed.
so we're nearing the end!! i just wanted to use these notes to thank rosa, my beta and loml who's gotten me through writing thus far, and for everyone who commented or left me a cc message!! seriously, the comments and messages gave me the motivation i needed to get this chapter out in two weeks, which i honestly thought wld be impossible so i just wanted to say thank you ;;
The rest of Jae's first week back home seems to pass in a blur. Sungjin works, and Brian works, but somehow Brian works less than Sungjin which means that he has more time to spend with Jae. In just those few days, they develop a routine of sorts: Brian goes to the garage in the mornings, to do administrative stuff and handle some of the more involved repairs, and then Jae heads over and they eat lunch together in what used to be Brian's dad's office but is now just Brian's office. All of Brian's old school awards still hang on the walls from their teenage years, but now hanging next to them in neat wooden frames are his diploma and bachelor's degree. Jae's mom insists on making them lunches like they're still school kids, which Brian loves, swallowing pieces of kimbap whole.
Then, they take the afternoon off, going to their old hangout spots or Brian's house (just down the street from his parents so he can still look after them). Jae complains about things like centerpieces and the price per head of wedding receptions and Brian makes fun of his choices for everything, steering him gently in the direction of what some might consider a more sophisticated style of decor. In Jae's defense, though, he was left to make choices unsupervised. Really, he can't be blamed if they're bad before Brian helps to fix it.
It's comfortable, between them. That night at the beach cleared the air and allowed Jae to let go of a lot he's been holding on to for the past decade, and he feels better than ever about being home. If he's honest, he's almost starting to dread returning to New York and his job and Wonpil nagging in his ear all the time (even though the kid insists it's out of love).
They're at Brian's house early Friday evening, Jae just having received a text from Sungjin that he'll be on a call for the next few hours and to bring him back food from the diner if he goes. Jae's all sprawled out on Brian's ugly old couch, socked feet slung over the back and head threatening to slip off the edge of the cushion and hit the floor. "I could just elope," he says, to no one in particular.
Brian hums from the armchair across the room where he's stuffing pringles into his mouth. "I don't think Wonpil would let you live if you did that," he says, and he's right. Brian and Wonpil have never met, but Jae's already had to mention his best friend in New York many times, because whenever something amusing happens, Wonpil is always involved. Brian's caught on to the general trend of Wonpil's personality very quickly, and he is completely correct about this: Wonpil would not let Jae (or Sungjin) survive eloping.
Jae just lets out a groan in response, and Brian laughs. "You've done too much planning already, it would be a waste anyway."
"Yes but it would be easier," Jae insists, swinging his feet down so he can sit up straight and look Brian in the eye. He looks kind of ridiculous: black hair falling flat and into his eyes, tee shirt bunched up from how he's slouching in the arm chair, and pringles crumbs clinging to the corner of his mouth. Unaware, or perhaps aware but unbothered, Brian shoves another chip into his mouth.
"It's your life. If you wanna elope and then die at the hands of your best man, it's up to you," Brian shrugs.
"Wow. You care so much about my survival, what a great fake husband you are," Jae scoffs, sinking back into the couch cushions again. The springs have seen better days, but he's still sat on worse.
Brian snorts, crunching a chip loudly. "Well you're about to marry someone else, what a great fake husband you are."
Jae narrows his eyes at Brian, who just smiles. "Well played," he replies, before closing his eyes and letting his head fall back and relishing in the stretch of his neck.
“Do you need to go home soon?” Brian asks, and Jae spares a glance at the red numbers of Brian’s clock. They blink angrily at him, and he scrunches his nose when he realizes that it’s already past 6 p.m.
“Probably should,” he answers, pushing himself to his feet and reaching his fingertips as high as they’ll go until his back cracks.
Brian makes a face. “Gross,” he says, and Jae sticks his tongue out in response.
“See you tomorrow?” he asks, and Brian nods.
“I’ll text you when I’m done work,” he says, and Jae shoots him finger guns before heading for the door. “Drive safe!” Brian calls after him, but Jae can barely hear over the sound of his feet hitting the creaky wooden steps.
Jae stops at the diner and gets takeout, because he’s a good fiancé (and also because he’s kinda starving—he definitely sneaks a few fries on the drive home).
Sungjin, surprisingly, isn’t holed up in the bedroom when Jae gets home. He’s moved his set up out to the kitchen, laptop open on the counter in front of him as he scrolls, eyebrows all scrunched together.
“Hey,” Jae greets him, giving Sungjin’s waist a brief squeeze. Sungjin leans into the touch, which is about as much as Jae can ask of him when it comes to physical affection. “What are you doing out here?”
“Your mom’s using your room to iron,” he explains, and Jae sighs. Everything makes sense again.
“Sorry about that,” he apologizes, “but you can’t be too put out because I brought you dinner.”
“Thank you,” Sungjin hums, shutting his laptop with a satisfying click as Jae settles down across from him. “So what'd you do all day?" he asks, accepting the styrofoam container that Jae slides across the counter.
"Not much," Jae answers with a shrug. "Called the venue to work out some of the details for lighting in the morning, had lunch with Brian again, and then hung out at his house for a bit. Briefly considered elopement before Brian correctly guessed that Wonpil would kill me and then you immediately after."
"Like Wonpil could kill me,” Sungjin jokes, and Jae laughs in agreement. “You've been hanging out with Brian a lot this week," Sungjin notes after that, biting into a now lukewarm french fry.
Jae snorts. "Well it's that or hang out here and play bridge with my mom, and I don't know about you but for me that's a pretty easy choice."
"I just kind of miss having you around, that's all," Sungjin says, and his tone is more serious than Jae is expecting. "And besides, I don't really know Brian all that well. It's kind of like I'm missing out on being here with you."
Jae hums in response, bracing his elbows against the counter. "Maybe we could do something together, the three of us?" he suggests, raising his eyebrows in question. "I think it'd be good for you two to get to know each other, you didn't really get a chance to talk much that night at the bar."
"That sounds good," Sungjin nods in agreement.
"I'll talk to Brian about it," Jae smiles, and Sungjin returns it.
They eat the rest of their take out dinner talking about everything and somehow nothing at all: how work is going for Sungjin (but a simpler version that Jae can comprehend), how the wedding planning is going on Jae's end (but a long, exhaustive version that Sungjin probably doesn't really listen to). Jae goes to bed feeling content, happy with how everything is going, happy with where he and Brian are, where he and Sungjin are. It's hard to remember the last time he felt this happy.
In the end, the three of them agree on having dinner together at the Diner, because it’s classic and easy and no one has to think too much about it. Except Sungjin does anyway, because he’s Sungjin and that’s just how he is.
“Yes, a tie is too much,” Jae sighs, exasperated, from where he sits slumped in his dad’s arm chair.
“What about the—” Sungjin starts, and Jae doesn’t even need to hear the rest of the question before he answers.
“Yes, the button up is fine, but roll your sleeves up and please for the love of God just wear jeans and your grey sneakers,” he says, and Sungjin smiles at him dumbly from the doorway of the bedroom.
“Thank you,” he replies, and Jae just nods, letting his head fall back against the worn cushion.
Ten minutes later, Sungjin’s finally ready, shirt unbuttoned at the top to show a little bit of skin and hair falling soft and unstyled across his forehead.
“Good?” he asks, and Jae stands, suddenly feeling like he should have told Brian to dress up a little.
“Good,” he confirms, swallowing the nerves down and snagging his keys off the coffee table. “Let’s go.”
Brian’s early, waiting for them outside the door. Jae drinks in the sight of him as soon as they pull in the parking lot, and immediately realizes there was no reason to worry about the impression Brian would leave on Sungjin; he’s got his hips pressed against the side of the building, long legs clad in black skinny jeans stretched out in front of him and a loose, untucked pinstripe button up hanging off his shoulders, showing a bit of collarbone and the flash of a silver necklace in the hollow of his throat. He looks up when he hears the familiar rumble of the truck’s engine, and he straightens with a smile on his face.
Sungjin parks, and Jae takes a deep breath before stepping out of the car. Brian walks towards them, meeting them halfway between their car and the door with a friendly half hug for Jae and a handshake for Sungjin.
“I know we met a few nights ago but it was pretty busy and you met a lot of people so I figured I’d reintroduce myself, I’m Brian,” he says, and Sungjin accepts the handshake, returning a gracious smile.
“I remember you,” he reassures, and then a beat later, “and even if I didn’t, Jae mentions you too much for me to not know who you are.”
Brian laughs awkwardly, shoving his hands into his pockets and rocking back a bit on his heels. “All good things, I hope,” he says, and Sungjin nods.
“All good things,” he echoes, and Jae should feel reassured by their reintroduction but really, he’s got an uneasy feeling settling in his gut and he can’t for the life of him figure out why.
It hangs around as they slide into a corner booth, big open windows letting the neon signs from outside illuminate their faces. Brian sits across from Jae and Sungjin, orders fried chicken and sips on his cherry coke with a smile on his face, red light glinting of the sharpness of his nose, the jut of his brow.
“So what do you do, Brian?” Sungjin asks, and it’s a simple enough question.
“I actually took over my father’s autobody shop a few years ago,” Brian answers, setting his glass down with a clink. “So I do some of the work on the cars myself and then I do most of the administrative work as well. Which, speaking of, I should tell you that the parts for your car came in. I need to get in the shop to take a look at everything myself but I should have it fixed within the next few days.”
“Great!” Jae interjects, a little too enthusiastic for the general mood of the conversation, Sungjin sort of side eyes him before turning his attention back across the table and clearing his throat.
“That is great,” he says, much softer and flatter in tone than Jae just was. “So do you have a lot of free time then, being the boss?”
“Enough,” Brian shrugs. “A lot of the admin stuff I can do from my computer at home which is nice, but I’m in the shop or the office every morning, no matter what.”
Sungjin just nods at that, tongue running over his teeth as he takes a long sip of water. Jae looks back and forth between them, noting Brian's furrowed brows: he's just as confused as Jae is, which means that he too has picked up on the fact that Sungjin's questions are kind of weird.
"So what do you do, Sungjin?" Brian asks, pressing his lips together and leaning forward a little. He's trying, and Jae can't help but think that it's cute.
"Statistical analysis and data reconfiguration," Sungjin answers shortly, not bothering to elaborate. Brian nods along like he understands, but Jae knows Brian, was in school with Brian for years, and he can tell when Brian is faking like he knows something to save his pride. Jae's sure Brian's seen the same look on him time and time over.
"That seems to keep you busy," Brian comments awkwardly, reaching for his glass again. Sungjin just shrugs.
"It's not awful," he answers, and leaves it at that.
Their food comes, and even the waitress seems to have caught on to the awkward atmosphere, because she shoots Jae a look of pity. Sungjin dips a spoon into his chili, clearly having no intentions of furthering the conversation. Jae is about to jump in and attempt to salvage it, but Brian’s got it covered.
“Are you originally from New York?” He asks, and Jae lets out the breath he’s been holding. Sungjin loves talking about where he grew up.
“No, from Busan in Korea,” Sungjin answers with a shake of his head. “But my parents moved me here when I was seven, and I’ve lived in the North East ever since.”
“You ever visit Busan? My parents are planning to move back to Incheon in a few years and they’ve been bugging me to visit Korea,” Brian says.
“I went back a few years ago, but I don’t go often,” Sungjin replies. Their conversation is finally going somewhat well, but Jae can’t stop himself from butting in.
“You didn’t tell me your parents were moving,” he says, and Brian gives him a sheepish look.
“They haven’t even told your parents yet,” he admits, “I think my mom is worried about how your mom will take it.”
Jae snorts. “My mom will probably ask to move back with her. Honestly, the only thing keeping her here is the vague promise of grandchildren sometime in the near future.”
Brian shifts, looking a little uncomfortable in his seat as he gives Jae an awkward laugh. Silence falls over their table, and this time Sungjin is the one to break it.
“So tell me, Brian, what was Jae like when he was young?”
Brian’s eyes light up at the question, like it’s what he’s been waiting for all night. Jae settles in, preparing for the worst.
“He was so loud,” Brian starts, and Jae groans. “Like, take however loud he is now and multiply that by 100, and that’s still not as loud as he was when we were kids. He used to always talk even when the teacher didn’t call on him, and they all hated him for it. Oh, and they hated him because he used up all of their tissues.” This brings a smile to Sungjin’s face, and Brian returns it; Jae thinks that maybe he can endure this, if it means that the two of them are happy.
“Oh! When we were kids, we used to take old cars from my dad’s shop and drive them out to this overlook where you can see the whole damn town, just a random spattering of lights in the desert. We would sit up there for hours and talk about all the things we wanted to do when we grew up.” This particular memory is bittersweet, but it brings a smile to Jae’s face anyway. He imagines Brian doesn’t remember it quite like he does, because Jae remembers it like this: laying in the truck bed of a “borrowed” car, shoulder to shoulder with the boy he was in love with, a confession on the tip of his tongue but never quite making it past.
“And when we got home, he let me take the heat for it because he was his parent’s precious only child who could do no wrong,” Jae teases, and Brian gives him a smile that feels tailor-made.
“Not my fault you had an older sister to set the bar high,” Brian replies airily, and Jae tosses a french fry at him in retaliation.
Sungjin watches their exchange in silence, only snorting in amusement when the fry finds its target. “Tell me more,” he prompts after that, and Brian looks to Jae with wide eyes. Jae grins around a mouthful of food, and Brian launches into another story about the time they almost lit their science teacher’s dress on fire, and then about how they used to sneak food from Jae’s mom’s kitchen and she would pretend to not notice even when they walked past her with cheeks bulging and stray rice grains clinging to their chins. Sungjin laughs when it’s appropriate, but as the night goes on, Jae can tell that his mind is somewhere else. His eyes have this far off look, like he’s thinking about everything and nothing all at once. Jae wants to chalk it up to worrying about work, but something tells him that’s not it.
Their meal winds down, plates emptying and glasses being drained and refilled and drained again. Sungjin’s stopped asking for stories, just watching in relative silence as Brian goes on and Jae laughs, eyes nervously flitting back and forth between the two of them. The check comes and goes as another story winds to a close, and Sungjin clears his throat.
“Well,” he starts, and Jae tenses. “I think it’s probably time to call it a night.”
“Oh,” Brian says, recovering quickly. “Of course, yeah, it’s getting late.”
It’s not, really.
“This was,” Sungjin starts again, pausing as he searches for a word, “enlightening.”
“‘Fun’ would have worked too, you know,” Jae teases, and Sungjin fixes him with a look that makes him go still.
Brian clears his throat, drawing both of their eyes back to him. “I’ll walk out with you guys.”
“You don’t have to,” Sungjin says quickly, gesturing to Brian’s still half full glass of soda. “We know where we’re going.”
“I’m sure you do,” Brian replies smoothly. “But I should be going to, I have work in the morning.”
Sungjin just nods, standing up and making for the door without bothering to check if Jae is following him. He does anyway, sparing a final glance at Brian still sitting in the booth before chasing Sungjin down. He corners Sungjin outside the diner, blue neon lights casting a sort of deathly glow to both of their faces.
“What the hell was that?” he asks. “I thought things were going well.”
“It was fine,” Sungjin answers cryptically,”but I heard all I wanted to hear and now I want to go home.
Behind them, the bell on the door jingles, and Brian steps out, heading down the sidewalk in the opposite direction without so much as a word.
"Can you just wait for me in the car? I need to talk to Brian for a minute," Jae says, trying to keeps his voice low and calm. Sungjin nods, eyes distant as he turns on his heel, shoe scraping against the loose gravel of the parking lot. Brian's still making his way down the sidewalk, hands shoved deep in his pockets and head down. Jae using long strides to catch up with him quickly, calling his name and trying to steady the jump of his chest when Brian turns, eyes wide. His expression steels quickly, and Jae stops in his tracks.
Brian takes a deep breath before he asks "what's up?", but Jae can tell he doesn't really want to know what's up.
"I'm sorry," he apologizes quickly. "Sungjin--he's just stressed, and he's not so good with meeting people, this was just a bad time--"
Brian holds up a hand to stop him, and Jae falls silent. "It's fine," he says, voice flat and emotionless.
"It's not--" Jae starts again, but the look on Brian's face stops him again. "I'm sorry," he repeats, softer this time.
"You don't have to defend your fiancé to me, Jae," Brian says, and Jae's stomach drops. "I'm just your fake husband. What I think of him and what he thinks of me doesn't matter." He gives Jae a jaded, weak sort of smile before turning around again, leaving Jae to watch the swing of his shoulders as he walks away. Jae just stands, watches, as Brian gets into his car and pulls away, finally turning back when he hears the truck's engine rumble behind him. Sungjin's waiting in the driver's seat, face just barely illuminated by the dim yellow headlights. His expression is unreadable, but Jae knows that whatever he's walking back to, it's nothing good. Nothing easy.
Heavy silence hangs between them in the car on the way home, both of them aware that this is not the time nor the place. Sungjin’s eyes never stray from the road, hands held tight at ten and two.
The dread builds and builds and builds, amplified when the gravel of their driveway crackles beneath the truck’s heavy wheels. Jae inhales deep, in through the nose, out through the mouth. Whatever happens, he’ll survive. He just has to think that way.
Sungjin turns the car off but makes no move to go inside, and Jae realizes that the lights are on inside; he can hear the hum of the TV, see the shadow of his mother flitting between the kitchen and living room through their ancient beige curtains.
So they’re doing this here.
Jae wants to say something, to shatter this curtain of glass that hangs between them, but Sungjin beats him to it.
“You have feelings for him.” Flat, toneless. A statement, not a question.
“I did,” Jae answers, turning in his seat to look at Sungjin. Sungjin doesn’t look back, eyes remaining unwavering as they stare at the happy home in front of them. “When we were kids. That was a long time ago, Sungjin.”
“Don’t lie to me,” Sungjin replies, and it’s so soft it’s almost a whisper. There’s no anger in his tone—just something akin to defeat. “I see the way you look at him, and the way he looks at you. We’ve only been here a few days and you two look at each other like that’s your whole world right in front of you.”
Jae opens his mouth to argue, but it’s too dry to speak. He swallows loudly, wetting his lips, and Sungjin looks at him for the first time in what feels like years. His hands that were still resting on the wheel fall into his lap, and the lines of his face are soft, weathered. He’s Sungjin, Jae’s reliable, dependable Sungjin. Reliable, dependable Sungjin that doesn’t give Jae half the fire that Brian does.
“I’m sorry.” Jae’s said that a lot tonight, but this one feels the most raw. “I should have told you.”
“You should have,” Sungjin agrees, “but you didn’t have to.”
Jae doesn’t know what to say to that, so he just sits, fighting the urge to apologize again. He knows that, at this point, it will do no good.
"You don't want me anymore." It's another statement, and one that breaks Jae's heart in two.
"I still love you," Jae replies, and it's not a lie. He does love Sungjin, just maybe not in the way that he's supposed to.
"Loving and wanting are not the same thing," Sungjin counters, and Jae nods, pressing his lips together.
"No," he agrees, "no they're not."
Wordlessly, Sungjin reaches down, and the next thing Jae knows there’s a soft sound and a glint of light off the center console. When he looks over, he sees, and his gut twists: Sungjin's taken off his engagement ring, the one they bought together. The one that matches the ring sitting on Jae's left hand, above the fourth knuckle.
"You deserve better than me anyway," Jae says, trying to say something, anything that will help.
Sungjin fixes him with a look, the one that he gives when he thinks Jae is being ridiculous. "Don't think that this means either of us wasn't good enough for the other," he chides, and Jae feels like a child again. “That’s not what this is. When we got engaged, we said we were in love and wanted to spend our lives together. But shit changes, and now it doesn’t make sense for us to be together anymore. That doesn’t change our worth, or how good we are, it just means that we aren’t the right people for each other. Don’t make this something it’s not.”
“Okay,” Jae replies, and that’s really all he can say.
“Okay,” Sungjin echoes, and with that he opens the car door and gets out, leaving his ring behind.
Jae reaches over and picks it up, running the smooth metal between his thumb and index finger. It’s still warm from Sungjin’s palm, and for the first time that night, Jae has to swallow back tears.
Chapter 5: the overhaul
in which things don't work themselves out, and jae is forced to actually deal with his problems.
she's finally here!! i'm sorry it took me so long to finish this but i just want to say a super huge thank you to everyone that's stuck with me and this fic despite that ;; your comments, cc messages, tweets, and dms are the reason there's even a fic to read and i rlly could not have finished this w/o ya'll. love you :* <3
Jae can’t sleep. Blankets tangle between his legs as he turns for what feels like the thousandth time that night, old couch springs creaking under the shifting of his weight. He can’t stop thinking about Sungjin, just on the other side of a thin wall, and Brian, further away than that but somehow never really absent from Jae’s mind.
He loved Brian when they were kids. That much is undeniable. And the way he feels when he’s with Brian now is incomparable to anything else he’s every felt, with Brian years ago or with anyone else more recently. Even Sungjin.
Jae holds back a groan, turning again till his nose is pressed uncomfortably against the couch cushion, arm thrown up over the back and hand dangling off the edge.
Thinking about all this only confuses him. It’s hard to classify feelings, and Jae’s gotten no better at it over the years; he was so afraid to admit that he thought he loved Sungjin, so unsure, that Sungjin had to do it first. Which is saying something, because Jae’s pretty sure Sungjin was never hugged as a child or taught how to properly express real human emotion.
If Sungjin says Jae’s in love with Brian, then Jae’s inclined to believe him.
Even admitting it to himself in his head gets Jae’s heart racing, but he can think of no better word, no other word at all to describe the way he wants to look at Brian forever, burn the lines of his profile into his retinas, feel the soft skin of Brian’s wrist under his own guitar-calloused fingertips. Is there another way to describe wanting to kiss someone goodnight and kiss them good morning again every day, forever? Is there another word that means still getting butterflies like it’s a first date when you’ve known them for your whole life? Is there another way to say that?
If there is, Jae doesn’t know it. Brian would say it’s because Jae doesn’t know many words to begin with.
So. Jae is in love with Brian, and he's not with Sungjin anymore, which means that maybe, if he can pull it together, he can tell Brian how he feels.
There's a lot that kept him from saying it, back then. He was young and afraid—afraid to tell his parents he was gay, afraid to be himself in a place that he felt like he would never fit in. Afraid that Brian wouldn't want to be his friend anymore. So he kept it in, and went away and never heard from Brian again, didn't get the answers he so desperately wanted until earlier this week.
But now—now everything's changed in the blink of an eye, and Jae doesn't know what to do.
Eventually, he drifts off to sleep despite it all, probably more from exhaustion than anything else. If he dreams, he can’t remember.
There’s not much to say, in the morning. Jae folds the blankets that he used for a makeshift bed as Sungjin loads his stuff into the taxi he called to bring him to the airport. There’s still a lot for them to talk about—they have their shared apartment back in New York, and the car still sitting in Kang’s Auto Repair, but both of them agreed those could be left for later, when the break isn’t as fresh.
It comes time to say goodbye, and Sungjin turns awkwardly, hands in his pockets as he looks up at Jae, unsure of what to say.
“I guess this is it,” Jae says, and Sungjin nods. “Just. Take care of yourself, okay? Take a break from work sometimes.” Jae presses his lips together nervously, but Sungjin’s expression softens at his words.
“You too,” he replies, giving Jae an gentle smile. “Don’t be a stranger, either. I know right now we probably shouldn’t see each other but eventually…” he trails off, and Jae understands.
“I’d like that,” he says reassuringly, and that’s all they really need to say. Jae walks Sungjin out, then stands on the porch and watches the taxi until it’s too far down their little dirt road to see anymore.
His mom’s come out of her bedroom by the time he’s back inside, and she looks at him with sad eyes, arms held awkwardly by her sides. Jae knows what she wants, and it’s what he wants too, so he doesn’t protest. She embraces him easily when he comes up to her, arms looping around waists and his head falling to rest on hers.
“This sucks,” he says, and she hums into his chest.
“I know, baby,” she replies, hand reaching up to stroke the back of his head like she did when he was young. “I know.”
Jae doesn’t know how long they stay like that—all he knows is that tears fall and then dry, and by the time he finally steps back to go splash some water on his face to try and feel like a real human being again the sun’s made its way all the way up over the horizon to cast bright white beams across the kitchen floor.
"Want me to make you some breakfast?" Jae's mom asks, and he can't help but nod. In the meantime, he showers, running a comb through damp hair and leaning in close to the mirror to inspect his puffy eyes and dark circles. He doesn't look good, but he supposes there's not really anyone here to care.
His mom doesn’t ask questions, doesn’t press when he comes back out, which is very unlike her. She just watches in a sort of quiet wonder as he eats, coffee cup clenched in her hand but never raising to her lips. It’s only when Jae’s scraping the last of the fried egg off of his plate that she speaks.
“It was because of Younghyun-ie, wasn’t it?” Jae’s head jerks up, and the movement is almost too harsh when everything about her is soft—the tone of her voice, the look in her eyes, the set of her mouth. He's surprised for a moment, but then everything makes sense. His mom watched them grow up, had probably seen Jae fall in love with Brian long before Jae realized what was happening for himself. Of course she knows.
“Yeah,” he admits, averting his gaze back to the plate in front of him. “Yeah it was.”
His mom hums in response, a sound that brings him back to when he was younger and she used to do that every time he answered her questions, just to make him think about what he said just a little longer. This time more than ever, Jae doesn’t want to.
“He’s a good boy,” she says, like its ten years ago and she’s talking about how he’s just destined to take over his family business, even when Jae and Brian didn’t believe it themselves. “Not that Sungjin wasn’t good, but Younghyun-ie’s always been good to you, Jaehyung.”
Jae has absolutely no idea what that’s supposed to mean.
“Thanks for breakfast,” he deflects, a skill he’s perfected after nearly thirty years of speaking to his mother and sister. Jae gets up, looping around the bar to drop his plate in the sink and a kiss on his mother’s head. “I think I’m gonna go find something to clean.”
“Jaehyung,” she says, a warning laced in her voice that makes Jae stop dead in his tracks. “You should talk to Younghyun-ie. Tell him what happened.” When Jae’s eyes widen, she’s quick to add on. “Not right now, but soon.”
“Okay,” Jae replies, with no intention of actually following through.
Still, it’s enough to satisfy his mother, and that’s what matters. For now.
After that, Jae doesn’t do much.
He spends most of his time in the house, and most of that time in his room, and most of that time in his bed. Work won’t give him anything to write because he’s still technically on vacation, and he can’t bring himself to write anything just for himself. He’s cleaned about as much as he’s willing to, and watched as many episodes of Friends as he’s willing to, and now he’s just sort of given up, laying on his back on top of the covers and staring at the ceiling as Death Cab for Cutie blasts from his phone speakers.
Three days into this, the call comes, and Jae picks it up without bothering to look at the caller ID.
“Jae Park?” a deep voice asks, cracking over the phone, and it takes Jae a moment to recognize it as the technician who towed his car in on their first day here. Dowoon, his name is.
“That’s me,” he answers, voice low and rough from disuse over the past 48 hours.
“Your car is ready, you can come pick it up any time this afternoon,” he says, and Jae’s stomach drops.
“Okay,” he says thickly. “Can I ask you though, is your boss in today?”
“Brian?” Dowoon asks, and Jae makes a noise of confirmation. “Yeah, he said he’ll probably be here late today. Did you want to talk to him?”
Jae makes a sort of strangled voice. “No, I was just curious,” he replies, “someone will come by to get his car this afternoon.”
“Sounds good,” Dowoon says. “Just leave the truck keys with Jihyo at the front when you come.”
“Yeah,” Jae answers in confirmation, and then Dowoon hangs up. Jae sits in bed, staring down at his black phone screen for a little while after that. Then, he gets up, running a hand through his hair to push it up and off his forehead, and goes to look for his dad.
Enjoying his day off, Jae’s father is reclined in his arm chair, a soccer game on TV seemingly keeping him enraptured. Jae disrupts that fairly easily, snagging the remote and putting the volume on mute before placing himself directly between the chair and the screen. His father makes a noise of protest, and Jae just gives him his best winning smile.
“Dad,” he starts, and his father already knows what he’s in for, because he settles back and purses his mouth. “Would you do your only, beloved son a great favor and go pick up my car from the shop this afternoon?”
“Why can’t you do it?” he asks, raising an eyebrow in question though his tone tells Jae he already knows the answer.
Still, Jae sticks to his story. “I’ve got a lot of stuff to get done here this afternoon, it’ll be so fast I promise.”
“No,” his father replies shortly, peering around Jae’s shoulder to try and keep an eye on the score.
“Dad,” Jae tries again, but his father just shakes his head.
“You’re avoiding your problems, Jae. You have to face them,” he says, and Jae groans.
“Mom talked to you, didn’t she?” he asks, and his father ignores the question.
“Go pick up your car so I can watch my game in peace, kid,” he says, and Jae gives up. He gets his stubbornness from both of his parents, but his dad’s had a lot more time to practice—he’s not winning this one.
“Fine,” he grumbles, and his dad gives him a smug smile. Jae drifts to the kitchen, pulling a water bottle out of the fridge and nearly drowning the whole thing in one go, letting his cheeks fill with water as he tries to reason out the likelihood of actually running into Brian at the business that Brian owns and runs.
There’s a chance—a small chance, but a chance—that Brian will go home before Jae gets there, or that he’ll be in his office. Or, he could stay back in the work space where Jae might not have to go.
But Jae knows himself, and he knows his luck. Unfortunately, there’s not much he can do about that, and Dowoon’s probably already passed it on that he’ll be coming in today.
Well. That’s it then. Jae squares his shoulders as best he can and heads for the bathroom, because he may be a walking disaster but at least he’s got the sense to go shower before possibly (probably) seeing the man he’s very likely been in love with for the past ten plus years of his life.
Showering and shaving really does wonders for his mood, which Jae can’t really say he’s shocked by. The bags under his eyes have faded a little thanks to the absolutely incredible amount of sleep he’s been getting, and with the dark shadow of stubble gone he’s starting to look like an actual human being again.
He spends much too long deliberating over what to wear, which really shouldn’t mean anything but somehow means so much. What kind of outfit conveys “I just broke off my engagement because I’m still in love with you but I’m totally fine”?
In the end, though, he settles with what he picked out first: jeans and a comfy XXL tee shirt, big enough to hang nicely off the curve of his shoulders and disguise the thinness of his frame. Jae’s got his wallet in his pocket and the truck keys in his hand, building the confidence to walk out of the door when something occurs to him. He splays his left palm flat on top of his dresser, eyes fixed on the smooth metal still resting on his ring finger. Then, with one decisive motion and a bitter finality, he slips it off, tucking it into the bottom of his sock drawer.
Now he’s ready.
Jae feels surprisingly calm on his way to the shop, which should have been his first clue. There’s no sign of life when he first pulls into the parking lot, but once he steps out he can hear the sound of echoing voices and clanging metal coming from inside the garage. He doesn’t bother to listen for Brian, just shuts the noise out and heads for the office.
Jihyo’s behind the counter again, legs crossed as she flips through what appears to be an old issue of Cosmo. She looks up when the bell on the door chimes, glossy hair falling into her face before she reaches up to tuck it behind her ear, smiling.
“Hey Jae,” she says politely and Jae gives her the customary head jerk of acknowledgment, fishing the truck keys out of his pocket. He places them on the counter as Jihyo reaches down, fumbling a bit before producing the Cadillac keys from the hooks that Jae knows are under there.
“Your car’s going to be around back, we can have someone bring it around or you can go get it. I assume you know your way around here well enough,” she tells him as he takes the keys from her, and he nods, lips pursed.
“I can get it,” he replies, and she gives him a cute little head bob.
“See you around,” she says as he heads for the door, and he returns a half hearted “see you” before turning his back in a way that feels oddly final.
The cars that overflow out of the garage are parked behind it in another makeshift lot, made of some gravel but mostly just packed dirt that sends up little dust clouds around Jae’s heels as he walks.
He spots his car easily, a small, shiny black dot against a landscape covered in dust and scratches. Jae heads for it, wanting to get out of here as fast as he can. Of course, nothing in his life is ever that easy.
"Jae?" He turns instinctively at the sound of his name, and regrets it immediately. Brian is standing at the entrance of the garage, hair pushed back out of his face with a backwards baseball hat and wearing a huge pink tee shirt covered in grease stains and paint. He finishes wiping his hands on a towel and then waves, which Jae returns because his mother didn't raise him to be rude no matter how heartbroken he may be. Brian starts towards him, and Jae clutches the keys in his fist like a lifeline. He wants to leave, to bolt, to run away—which is all he's ever been good at, really. But his feet don't let him. Maybe because it'd be too hard to walk away from Brian, after the last time.
The next words out of Brian's mouth are "I'm sorry," and Jae's whole body goes still. He should have known news would travel fast, damn it, now there's no way for him to control what Brian hears about him and Sungjin—
"I'm sorry about how I acted the other night," Brian apologizes, giving Jae a sheepish smile. "Sungjin—he's your fiancé, and he doesn't know me and we'd been spending a lot of time together, so I should have been more understanding. I hope everything's okay with you two, I figured since I hadn't seen you in a few days you were trying to spend more time with him." Oh, Jae thinks. So he doesn't know.
"Yeah," Jae replies, the lie easily slipping off of his tongue. "Sorry about that, I should have texted you."
"Yeah, you should have," Brian teases, reaching out to lightly smack Jae's shoulder. His smile is too bright, too much—he thinks everything's okay when it isn't.
"I have to go," Jae says quickly, jerking his thumb back behind him in what he thinks is the general direction of his car. "My parents want me home to talk some things over."
"Ah, wedding stuff," Brian nods like he understands, and Jae feels like he's drowning.
"I'll text you soon," he promises, knowing that it's hollow.
"Okay," Brian nods. He gives a little half wave and a "see you soon Jae" before he turns to head back to the garage, and it's like he takes all the oxygen out of the air as he goes. Jae has to stop himself from watching Brian walk away, forcing himself to turn and walk towards the car like a body on autopilot.
Nothing really hits him until he's in the car, leather seats smelling like Sungjin's cologne and a card with Brian’s name on it tucked in the cupholder. Tears of frustration work their way up his throat and sting at the back of his eyes with an all-encompassing heat that won't leave no matter how many deep breaths he takes. He keeps glancing to the side, making sure the door of the garage stays shut.
It does, and eventually he can open his eyes without tears welling, which is his signal to finally start the car and get the hell out of there. Jae keeps one hand on the wheel and uses the other to push his too long hair up and off of his forehead, even though it falls down immediately after. Representative of how the rest of his life is going, he thinks bitterly.
Even when he gets home, something keeps him rooted in his seat. Jae looks out the windshield at his childhood home, and it brings a bitter taste to his mouth.
A week ago, he was exactly here with Sungjin by his side, and he knew exactly what was going to happen.
Now he’s alone and he has no goddamn idea.
It’s enough to make Jae want to put his head through a wall, but that would require going inside, so he settles for reclining the seat a bit and letting his head hang off the back. He would just settle in for the rest of the afternoon, mentally rearranging his schedule full of “moping” and “complaining” to include three-ish hours of “sitting sadly in car,” but he’s interrupted by the rude buzzing of his phone in his pocket.
His heart skips, and he thinks for a second that maybe it could be Sungjin or Brian, but then he checks the caller ID and just groans. Wonpil’s name, complete with all the emojis his friend had added after it, feels a bit like a slap in the face at this point. Jae silences the call and goes right back to moping.
It buzzes again, not long after, to tell him that Wonpil left a message.
Jae takes his lower lip between his teeth before deciding to press the phone to his ear, bracing himself for what he’s about to hear.
“Jaehyung.” Wonpil’s tinny voice starts over the recording, and Jae already wants to make it stop. “Why did I have to hear that your life is falling apart from Sungjin Park? Getting information from that man is harder than pulling teeth, and that’s what you leave for me? Some friend you are. Anyway, I’m guessing you probably didn’t answer because you’re busy sleeping or feeling sorry for yourself, in which case I’m here to tell you to stop and call me back so we can actually talk and you can let out all your gross pent up feelings. So yeah, you should talk to me or I’ll come down to California to find you, which I would really rather not do because the air dries out my skin. Call me when you get this.” Wonpil’s redundancy sort of drives Jae crazy, but he gets the message loud and clear—he’s supposed to call Wonpil back.
He won’t. Not now, at least. Wonpil’s specific brand of friendship involves a lot of talking and feelings and occasional crying, the latter of which Jae tends to avoid at all costs. Jae doesn’t really know what it is about Wonpil, but he has the uncanny ability to make anyone spill their guts (which is why it doesn’t surprise Jae that he was able to pull the story out of Sungjin). Jae really, really doesn’t need that right now. Actually, he’s fairly certain that he needs exactly that, but he just doesn’t want it. Which is what actually matters.
But Wonpil is persistent, and actually more so than Jae’s previously given him credit for. He calls once more before the sun sets, and then again the next morning. He doesn’t leave another message until the fourth call, two days after Jae had been to the garage.
“Jae, you have to stop this. Call me so we can talk, please. I’m worried about you.”
Something about that message, despite how much shorter it is than the first, snaps Jae out of his weird stupor. Maybe it’s the tone of Wonpil’s voice, or the affirmation that somewhere out there is a friend who cares about his well being (maybe more than Jae himself does), but the message works. Jae plays it again as he’s getting out of bed for the first time that day despite the fact that its well past 11, and sets his phone on the dresser as he heads for the shower. There’s a certain amount of preparation he needs for this phone call, and Jae figures that following a morning routine can only help in this particular situation. Also, he’s probably starting to smell.
One shower and cup of coffee later, Jae hunches over the kitchen counter, phone out flat in front of him with his contacts open. Wonpil’s name feels like it’s staring back at him through the screen, and it’s with a racing pulse and bitten lip that he presses call.
The phone rings once, twice, and then half of a third time before Wonpil picks up. “Hyung?” he answers, and Jae lets out a breath that he’s not sure why he was holding.
“Yeah it’s me,” he answers, and he can just picture Wonpil’s wide, boxy smile that he’s sure is on the other end of the line in New York.
“How are you?” Wonpil asks without preamble, and it’s such a loaded question that Jae doesn’t know how to answer.
“You know, I’ve been better,” he says, the ghost of a laugh escaping along with the words. Wonpil just tuts at him over the phone.
“Tell me what happened,” he says, and so Jae does. It always comes back to this, with Wonpil—it always comes back to your story. Jae thinks that’s why Wonpil is the only person he talked to about Brian. Wonpil listens, and he helps. Most of the time, anyway.
It takes Jae awhile to get through it all, and Wonpil listens diligently the whole time, humming when appropriate to reassure Jae that he’s still there, and that he still cares.
When he finishes, there’s a beat of silence before Wonpil speaks. “So you’ve just been sitting in your house avoiding Brian?”
“Well…” Jae starts, trying and failing to find a way to rationalize it, “yeah.”
“I don’t know,” Jae replies, as honestly as possible. “I just—with Sungjin going home, I can’t take another hit like that. I can’t lose Brian too. Not when I just got him back.”
“But you still haven’t told him what happened,” Wonpil states, and Jae hums in acknowledgement. “Jae Park, you have no idea what you’re doing, do you?”
“Actually I’d like to think I’m fairly experienced in the heartbreak department,” Jae replies sarcastically, and the noise Wonpil makes is half laughter and half annoyance.
“If you don’t talk to Brian, you are going to lose him,” Wonpil says.
All Jae can think to reply with is, “ouch.”
“Jae,” Wonpil starts, and Jae just knows that he’s in for the lecture of his life. “Don’t let this be a repeat of ten years ago. I don’t know if you’re still subconsciously mad at Brian for shutting you out but you can’t do the same thing to him, even if you think he’s nice enough to not mind. If you’ve forgiven him then you have to show him the respect of not doing the same thing, and there’s a difference between taking time for yourself and whatever it is you’re doing now.”
“Pil—” Jae starts, but Wonpil cuts him off.
“I’m not done. You’re treating telling him about Sungjin like it’s telling him that you’re still in love with him, which are two different things. You can tell him that you broke up with Sungjin without telling him about your feelings, if that’s what you decide to do. But it’s just going to hurt him if you don’t tell him what happened.”
“What am I gonna say, that we broke up because of irreconcilable differences?” Jae asks, slight annoyance bleeding into his voice. Wonpil remains unfazed.
“He’s not a lawyer, Jaehyung,” Wonpil chides, and Jae rolls his eyes, glad they’re doing this over the phone so Wonpil can’t see him. “Just make something up! Tell him Sungjin’s parents changed their mind about you, or his ex wants him back, or that he has a secret you just found out about. It doesn’t have to be the truth, it just has to be a believable reason. He should know, Jae.”
Jae doesn’t say anything for a minute, just presses his lips together and considers what Wonpil is saying.
“Or,” Wonpil says, and Jae braces himself. “You could do the right thing, and tell him the truth. That you’re in love with him.”
“I already told you,” Jae replies crossly, “I don’t want to risk losing Brian.”
“So your plan is to just never tell him and continue to be friends with someone you’re in love with? Watch as he falls in love and gets married to someone else? That’s how you’re going to play this?”
Jae groans, loud enough for Wonpil to hear over the phone.
“Come on, Jae,” Wonpil tells him, and his voice is softer this time. “Assess your risks. Either you lie to him, come up with a fake reason in the hopes of saving your friendship, or you tell him the truth and potentially get something great out of it.”
“It wouldn’t work out that way,” Jae says weakly.
“Hyung, don’t you think you’re somebody that he could love too?” That one question hits Jae like a bag of bricks. “You’ve either been scared or angry all your life. Don’t you think it’s time to let go of that?”
“No,” Jae answers petulantly, but his voice is too soft for Wonpil to take him seriously. Wonpil stays quiet after that, just letting Jae think for a moment.
He supposes it should feel like a betrayal to even think about it, an insult to the memory of him and Sungjin. But it doesn't. Thinking about the possibility of him and Brian, together—it feels right, like the final piece of the puzzle you find after years of digging between the couch cushions. Like a sigh of relief as you sink into your bed after a long day, like the feeling of your feet moving from hot sand to cool water. Like it's meant to be this way, all this time. Like everything else was just a placeholder.
That thought leaves a taste like vinegar in the back of Jae's mouth. It's not fair, what he did to Sungjin, to his other boyfriends—to himself. Maybe even to Brian. He didn't lie, necessarily. But isn't refusing to admit the truth just as bad?
"You figure it out yet?" Wonpil's voice crackles through the line, and Jae sighs.
"You're right," he admits, voice low and defeated. Wonpil makes a noise that sounds something like a dog toy that's been stepped on, and Jae has to hold the phone six inches away from his ear until it stops.
“So you’ll tell him that you’ve been in love with him for the past ten years?” Wonpil asks, voice giddy with excitement.
“Yeah,” Jae says, and it feels shockingly good to say that and mean it. “Yeah, I will. I’m going to tell Brian.” His confidence grows as he says it out loud, determination settling in his chest.
“I’m proud of you,” Wonpil tells him sincerely, and Jae feels a little bit of warmth rise in his throat.
“Thank you,” he says, because it’s all he can say. “For everything. Thank you.” It’s a little too grossly sincere, but Wonpil seems to appreciate it all the same.
“Unclogging your emotional backup is what I’m here for,” Wonpil replies cheerfully, ignoring Jaes under the breath utterance of gross. “Now go out and get your man.”
“Please stop,” Jae says, but Wonpil just laughs. They hang up shortly after, Jae placing his phone back on the counter in front of him as it hits that now he actually has to come up with a plan; he can’t just go storming back over to the shop. Can he?
No, he decides. He needs to figure out what he’s doing first.
That delays things another couple of days. Jae thinks himself into corners, in and out and back into the same circles of uncertainty and fear. Still, he pulls himself out of it everytime—just never enough to actually go through with telling Brian.
Eventually, it’s Brian who pulls him out of it, which Jae finds fitting. All it takes is one text to send Jae spiraling, biting his lip hard enough to draw blood as he reads and rereads the message, fingers hovering over his keyboard, unsure.
hey, i don’t want to bother you but i was just wondering when you were going back to ny. miss you, man. maybe you, me, and sungjin can get together again before you two leave?
Lying by omission is still exhausting, Jae thinks, and it’s just after that when he decides he’s had enough.
Taking the inside of his cheek between his teeth, he taps his screen a few times till he’s got his thumb hovering over Brian’s number, only hesitating a moment before pressing call. Jae blows out a long stream of air as it rings, a whole swarm of butterflies taking over his gut and twisting it in knots as he waits for Brian to pick up.
“Jae?” Brian asks as the ringing suddenly stops, voice audibly laced with concern even over the phone.
“Are you home?” Jae blurts, eyeing the car keys hanging by the door, a plan forming already as he waits for Brian’s answer.
“Yes,” Brian replies. “Did you wanna come over? Is Sungjin coming? Do I have to clean?”
“It’s just me and I’ll be there in five,” Jae says, and he hangs up before Brian can ask any more questions. It is a bit of a dick move, but he knows himself, and he knows that he has to do this before he loses the nerve again.
Jae knows that the drive to Brian’s should take ten minutes on a normal day, but he told Brian five and today is not a normal day. Besides, there’s no one to bust him for speeding on the dirt road connecting his street to Brian’s. He can barely hear himself think over the sound of the Cadillac’s engine, and Jae prefers it that way. It’s best if he can prevent himself from overthinking, and just be honest when he gets there. At least he hopes so.
Brian’s actually waiting outside when Jae pulls up, which is something Jae wasn’t expecting. Arms crossed over his chest and shoulders stretching the fabric of his black tee shirt, Brian’s eyebrows are scrunched together as he watches Jae throw the car in park from his front porch.
Well, Jae thinks. No turning back now.
“Hey,” he says as he gets out of the car, Brian’s face relaxing slightly.
“You’re being weird,” Brian replies in lieu of a greeting, waiting for Jae to join him on the porch. He makes no move to go inside, which Jae figures is just as well. There’s no one around, so out here is as good as anywhere.
“I’m sorry,” Jae apologizes, even though he knows Brian probably isn’t aware of just exactly how many things he’s apologizing for. “I’m sorry I was weird today, I’m sorry I’ve been ignoring you, and I’m sorry for lying to you.”
“Lying about what?” Brian looks more confused than upset now, brow softening slightly and arms pulling in a little closer, like he’s protecting himself from something.
“Sungjin and I broke up,” Jae says quickly, watching as Brian goes from confused to shocked in a split second, mouth forming a perfect pink ‘o’.
“What—” he starts, but Jae holds up a hand to stop him.
“I’m sorry,” he repeats, “but I’ve got a lot to say and if I don’t get through it I might never say it.”
“Okay,” Brian answers, giving in easier than Jae expects with a simple nod.
Jae takes a deep breath, shifting in his stance and clearing his throat before he can finally get the words out. “Sungjin and I broke up over a week ago because both of us realized that I’m in love with you and that I have been since we were in high school.” He presses his lips together as soon as the words leave, like it’ll stop him from saying something he shouldn’t. Like he hasn’t already said all there is to say.
Brian’s silent for a second, eyes widening and arms falling to his sides until he finally squeaks out: “high school?”
Jae just nods, heart feeling like it’s about to beat right out of his chest.
“You’ve been in love with me,” Brian starts slowly, making very intense eye contact that kind of makes Jae want to slither away and hide, “since high school.”
“That is correct, yes,” Jae answers, finding a little bit of joy in the way that seems to rile Brian up.
“You were engaged,” Brian says in a deadpan, somehow looking at Jae down the bridge of his nose despite their height difference. “I thought you were engaged until like. Two seconds ago. And now you’re telling me that you’re in love with me?”
“It sounds bad, I know,” Jae says, and really, he does know. It’s all he’s been able to think about, and he feels like it doesn’t bode well for him that Brian is fixating on this. So, he decides to spill a few more truths. “Being back here, with you, just made me realize that,” his voice breaks a little, and Jae has to stop to collect himself before continuing, “that I don’t want to get married unless it’s to you.” Brian is silent for a second, so Jae is quick with the disclaimer. “And it’s okay if you don’t like me like that. I can fuck off back to New York and we can pretend like I never said any of this or like this trip never even happened. We can do whatever you want. But I had to tell you the truth.”
“Did you just propose to me?” Brian asks, and Jae flushes, because of course that’s what Brian got out of all those words.
“Well you did it the last time, so I figured it was my turn,” Jae answers sheepishly. “Sorry I didn’t make you a grass ring, I was a little short on time.”
“You’re an idiot,” Brian says, and before Jae has a chance to protest Brian is stepping forward, taking Jae’s face in his hands and kissing him like it’s the last thing he’ll ever get to do. Jae is a little slow to react, but eventually instinct kicks in and he kisses Brian back, arms wrapping around Brian’s waist as he melts into the warmth of Brian’s body pressed against his.
When they pull apart, Brian just keeps talking. “‘Short on time’ you had ten years, Jae Park, how much more time could you possibly need?” Jae just laughs, and Brian pulls him back down to kiss the sound from his lips.
“Wait,” Jae says, pulling back as he tries to keep a smile from forming on his lips. “So do you like me, or do you like like me?”
Brian rolls his eyes, leaning in to nip at Jae’s lips and retreating when Jae tries to chase him for a real kiss. “I love you too, stupid. Honestly, I’m a little miffed you were going to marry someone else after you already accepted my proposal,” he sniffs, and it should hit too close to home except that it doesn’t—it just feels right. The last puzzle piece fit back into place, the final reveal at the end of the movie that makes everything else make sense.
“If I get you a real ring will that make it better?”Jae asks, and Brian nods, wiping away the fake tears from his eyes.
“I guess,” he replies before he drops the act and lets his face split into a grin. They can’t even really kiss after that because they’re both smiling too much, giddy from the release of everything, the culmination of ten years into this one moment that seems too good to be true. Everything about Brian is too good to be true, and Jae’s has to keep gripping at Brian’s waist to reassure himself that this isn’t a dream, that it’s actually happening. He sighs against Brian’s lips, and Brian gets it too.
“Married means we stay together forever,” Brian says, resting his cheek against Jae’s shoulder. “You ready for that?”
Jae wraps his arms around Brian’s shoulders, pulling him in even closer than before. “I think I always have been, even when I didn’t know it,” he answers, and Brian gives a contented hum against Jae’s neck.
“I am glad you realized it though,” Brian jokes, and Jae has to resist the urge to squeeze him in close as revenge.
“Yeah,” he agrees, pressing a chaste kiss to the side of Brian’s head. “Me too.”
Puzzle pieces, grass rings, Jae and Brian—the way it was always meant to be.