Jaemin arrives on the island on first day of summer. The sun is high up in the sky, and both the heat and strong gust of wind ambush him when he steps out of the ferry. He adjusts the strap of his backpack, then spots a familiar face waving at him from a distance.
His aunt ruffles his hair gently and notes how much he’s grown. The gestures feel strangely nostalgic to him, what his grandmother used to do when she was alive. Jaemin smiles.
Jaemin remembers looking forward to summer every year when he was little, because summer meant making trips to spend time with his grandmother on this island. That stopped after she passed away, and summer became a dreadfully long season that he’d spend alone, and was no longer something he looked forward to.
His aunt shows him to the only other room in the house his grandmother used to live in. It’s the room she used to occupy. “Get some rest,” her aunt tells him. It’s not a long travel from Seoul, but he falls asleep as soon as his head hits the pillow. When he wakes up, the evening has almost collapsed completely.
After dinner, he catches a glimpse of the night sky when he walks by a window and sees the stars. There’s a whole bunch of them, so much more than he’s ever seen in his life.
On the second day, Jaemin picks out a book from the shelf and spends the whole afternoon curled on the veranda that overlooks the yard reading. The sun feels good on his skin, not too hot despite the season.
He never spends that much time in the sun anyway. In Seoul, his daily routine is commuting between home and school, school and cram school, cram school and home, back and forth, sometimes not necessarily in that order. The weekly PE class is the most time he spends outdoors.
“Go out for a walk,” his aunt says the next day just as he empties his bowl of rice. The clock hanging on the wall above the old television set points at the number one. “It’s a small island. Not many kids your age, but you’ll find a few around.”
“Okay,” he says, remembering the two boys who cycled past the house when he was reading and the way one of them slowed down and peered at him curiously.
The clock reads half past five when Jaemin finally pushes himself off the wooden floor and slips on his slippers to head out. His memory of the island is as foggy as the view of Namsan Tower from the overpass he takes on the the way to school on most days, but it’s a small island. He squints at the passing airplane in the sky and wonders if it used to be quieter in the past before the airport was built on the other island in the north.
Jaemin walks past a short row of shops that seem to have been around for a century, and notices everything on the island are as old as most of the people he’s come across. Pretty much all the residents have lived here their entire lives, just like their parents, his aunt told him. Except for the younger generation who most of them have moved to the city. “Like your mother.”
Funnily, despite the trips he’s made here as a child, Jaemin has always thought his mother has lived in Seoul her whole life.
Fifteen minutes into his walk, the beach finally unfolds before him. Vast and beautiful, and to his surprise, vacant. He sticks his hands into the pockets of his knee-length khakis as he pads towards the shore, and feels the salty sea breeze and the warm sands beneath his feet, where his slippers have submerged into.
The ocean in front of him glimmers under the sun. Jaemin can't remember when is the last time he's ever seen or gone anywhere near a sea, but this one right here is unlike anything in his memories.
Jaemin stands there for a moment, taking in everything he can see and hear and smell, and then he looks to his right and catches a silhouette of a boy from a distance who is sitting on the rocks, arms perched on his knees, staring far, far ahead. Jaemin can't make out his face and doesn't approach him, but instead watches the waves that never stop coming and the foamy waters that lap at his toes.
When Jaemin glances at the boy's direction again later, he is already gone.
Jaemin turns around from the reds of peppers and sandy browns of potatoes to find a boy with a pair of round eyes, heart-shaped lips and bronze skin on a bicycle. One of his feet rooted to the ground and the other on the pedal. Jaemin raises his brows. “Me?”
“Well, there’s no one else here.” The boy shrugs. “I’ve never seen you around. Did you just move here?”
"Nah, I'm just here for the summer," says Jaemin. He fetches the small basket containing the vegetables he's picked out and hands it to the old lady who owns the stall. He's here on an errand, and he's also been thinking of getting an ice-cream. Lying down in front of the electrical fan only does so much to the heat.
The boy is still there when Jaemin leaves the stall and trails beside him while dragging the bike as he walks. "Are you staying at Junghye ahjumma's house? Why?" he presses further, brows furrowed.
"Aren't you a curious one?" Jaemin can't help but laugh. "Is everyone here a busybody? Or is it just you?"
"It's just him," says another voice. Another boy zips from a different direction to catch up with the two of them, also on a bike. Jaemin blinks, and realizes he recognizes this boy as the one who cycled past the house the other day. “Sorry about that. Donghyuck never really mastered the concept of boundaries.”
“What’s wrong with asking a lot of questions if you’re curious?” Donghyuck frowns, then turns to Jaemin and frowns harder. “Speaking of which, you haven’t answered any of my questions.”
“I answered one question,” replies Jaemin. “And I’m staying at Aunt Junghye’s house because I’m her nephew.”
“Wait, you’re Grandma Sung’s grandchild?”
“You know my grandmother too?”
The other boy chuckles. “You’d be more surprised to know what he doesn’t know,” he says, eyes crescenting as he smiles, and offers a hand. “I'm Jeno, and he's Donghyuck. Where are you from?”
Jaemin accepts the handshake and offers an easy smile. “Jaemin. I'm from Seoul.”
“Oh, city boy,” Donghyuck notes, but without malice in his tone. “I bet you find this town boring. Don't worry, we'll hang out with you and keep you entertained.” He pats Jaemin on the shoulder climbs back onto his bike.
“I never asked,” Jaemin says.
“You didn't have to.” Donghyuck winks and flashes a mischievous grin before he pedals away, and Jaemin can't help but laugh.
“Well, that's Donghyuck for you,” Jeno says, smiling the same pleasant smile. “See you around, Jaemin.”
As it turned out, both Donghyuck and Jeno are his age, and it doesn't take long for them to become friends.
“I never invited you over,” says Jaemin as Donghyuck helps himself to another slice of watermelon that his aunt has cut out for them.
Donghyuck spits out the seeds skillfully and scoffs. “Ridiculous. In this town, nobody needs any invitation to visit each other.”
They're sitting at the same veranda that has become Jaemin's permanent spot since coming to the house. The electric fan he's been using spins noisily in their direction, back and forth.
“How come you never visited your aunt before?” asks Jeno.
Jaemin shrugs. “I guess my parents were too busy to take me here and I wasn't old enough to travel by myself.” It is true for most part, he thinks, recalling all those summers he spent gazing out the window of their high rise apartment when he got bored of his game consoles.
“Shame,” Donghyuck says, licking his fingers. “Jeno and I took Old Man Park's boat and made an attempt to get to Somuuido on our own last summer.”
Jeno is laughing at the memory. “Made an attempt is the keyword. The thing is we never ask for permission, and the boat is as old as Old Man Park himself, so we never made it that far before we got caught.”
“What's there in Somuuido?” Jaemin asks.
Donghyuck shakes his head. “Nothing. Jamjido is on the other side, and Incheon's too far away. You can take a bus, but we just wanted to go there by ourselves,” he says. “Our teenage rebellion phase.”
“The year before that we went to Silmido. Walked there. But it was right before high tide, so we were stuck there for a while, until the police found us,” Jeno adds. “The entire town went looking for us. No kidding!”
“Yeah, but then our parents didn't let us out of the house again for the entire season.”
Jaemin snorts, then lies down on his back and props his left arm up behind his head as a makeshift pillow, and closes his eyes. When he opens them later, both the tray and the boys are gone, the sun is dipping down, the fan is still spinning noisily, and his hands are still sticky from the watermelon.
His aunt brings home an old bicycle one day, which she said she got from one of the neighbours who doesn't need it anymore.
Jaemin takes it outside that same evening and goes all the way to the other side of the island. He only stops when he reaches the same beach he went to the first time, drops the bike and collapses on the shore. It's been such a long time since he last rode a bike, he's forgotten the exhilaration of speed and the feeling of wind brushing his face.
With his arms spread out, his whole body covered in sweat and his chest heaving in a steady pattern, Jaemin stares up at the pale blue sky.
But then a figure approaches him. “Oh? I thought it was a dead body.”
Jaemin's eyes find a boy standing on his side leaning over him. He pushes himself up and sits with his legs crossed at the same time as the boy settles down next to him.
“Saw you on your bike a while ago, cycling away like a maniac. Didn't think I'd find you wound up on my beach,” the boy continues. His voice is light and airy, and he's smaller than he seemed earlier now that they're sitting on the same level, Jaemin realizes. Jaemin also realizes that this is the same person he saw here previously.
He raises his brows. “Your beach?”
“Well, not legally, obviously, but this beach is too out of the way and the water's too rough, so everyone else usually goes to Hanagae or Silmi where the tourists are,” the boy explains. There's a certain kind of gentleness in the way he forms his words, the soft curves of his mouth. Jaemin can't keep his eyes off of him. He turns to meet Jaemin’s gaze. “So usually I’m the only one here.
“Oh,” Jaemin replies simply. The sun is orange in the horizon, and the sky the colours of the slushie he’d sometimes get from the convenience store. His throat suddenly feels dry. “I saw you before,” he says.
“Yeah? I saw you too.”
Jaemin doesn’t ask about it, and the boy doesn’t speak more. They settle into a silence, apart from the sound of the waves.
After a while, Jaemin gets up. “Gotta go,” he says. He doesn’t wear a watch and hasn't been carrying his phone everywhere since he came to the island, but thinks he’s been gone for hours now and his aunt would be worried if he doesn’t go back soon. He picks his bicycle up and starts pushing it away. Then he turns around. “Hey,” he calls.
The boy glances at him.
“Forgot to ask your name.”
He presses his lips together in place of a smile. “Renjun.”
“Renjun,” Jaemin repeats, and beams at him. “See you later, Renjun.”
“It's unfair,” says Renjun the next time they see each other at the same beach. “I told you my name but you never told me yours.”
“Oh. I guess I forgot.” Jaemin stares at Renjun's face, trying to figure out if he's upset or disappointed or just something else entirely, but it offers no answer. “It's Jaemin.”
“Oh. Nice to meet you, Jaemin.” Renjun offers a small smile. Jaemin immediately returns it, ten times brighter.
“Are you always here?” he asks.
They're walking along the shore instead just sitting idly today. Having ditched his slippers earlier, Jaemin zigzags back and forth between the dry sand and the wet while Renjun is determined to keep his distance from the waves.
“On most days. Sometimes at night,” Renjun answers.
Jaemin gives him a look. “Night?”
“You can see the stars clearly here,” Renjun tells him. “They're very pretty.”
“You like stargazing?”
“I like the space. There's a whole universe out there that we know nothing of. Don't you find that interesting?”
Jaemin stops to look at Renjun, fingers grasping around a funny shaped shell he picked up earlier. They're standing a few feet apart. He feels the cold waves crashing against the back of his legs all the way up to the calves. “I've never given it much thought before,” he admits.
“I see.” The glint that was in Renjun's eyes as he talked earlier has now disappeared, and something tugs inside Jaemin's chest when he notices the way Renjun's face falls.
Slowly and carefully, Jaemin closes the gap between them. “I don't know anything about the space or the name of constellations,” he begins. There's a line between their feet that indicates where the wet sand ends and the dry sand begins. He takes a step forward, crushing the line, and glances up at Renjun. “But if you could teach me—”
Renjun blinks at him. Lips pressed together. Blinks again. Then the straight line stretches and blooms into a smile. “Of course.”
“We came the other day,” says Jeno. “Donghyuck and I. But you weren't here.”
“Oh. I was at the beach,” Jaemin replies, lifting his gaze to meet Jeno's, except Jeno isn't looking at him.
The two of them are sitting facing each other on the veranda, but instead of watermelon they have a large bowl of anchovies between them which his aunt has asked them to help clean. It turns out Jeno has a knack for it since he's always done it for his mother. “What were you doing at the beach?” he asks, hands skillfully splitting an anchovy into two and removing the guts before putting it into another bowl.
Jaemin does the same but with half the speed. “Just… collected some shells, then scattered them back,” he tells Jeno, and thinks about the coarse texture of damp sand between his toes and the soft slopes of Renjun's mouth. He doesn't know why he's leaving Renjun out.
“Why did you collect them if you were going to scatter them all back?” Jeno is looking at him now with a frown on his face.
Jaemin shrugs in return. “I don't know. It just didn't feel right to keep them,” he says.
“You're weird,” Jeno returns, laughing.
“I'm going to tell on you to Donghyuck,” Jaemin fake-pouts, but the corners of his lips are curled.
“Oh, please do,” Jeno says, still grinning. “He's going to make fun of you even more.”
Donghyuck is away with his family on a trip to visit some distant relatives who live near Pocheon. It’s a long drive from here, and he’s probably going to spend more than just a couple of nights like he said he would before he left, since his brothers mentioned of wanting to visit Seoul as well. “It’s weird that you’re here without him,” Jaemin had told Jeno when he came, to which Jeno huffed: “We’re not joined by hips.”
“You two are ganging up against me, a stranger with no blood relation and also a non-local. That’s so unfair, and not to mention rude,” Jaemin complains.
“This is how we make you feel welcomed,” Jeno tells him. His eyes are curved upwards into perfect crescent shapes, reminding Jaemin of the emoticons in text messages. Jaemin wonders briefly if Jeno is popular in school. He’d probably be in Seoul.
They’re just halfway done with the anchovies when Jaemin’s aunt says they’ve done enough, and rewards them with two bowls of patbingsu. She’s dug up the old manual ice shaver machine from the store yesterday and was pleased to find out that it still works fine, although it requires more effort to turn it.
When they’ve emptied the bowls, Jaemin lets Jeno play with his handheld game console that he brought from home while he reads another book, and they spend the evening quietly just like that.
Jaemin stops at the mini mart on his way back from the market and stands in front of the huge ice chest, eyeing the ice-cream assortment. Summer is almost at its peak, and wearing a loose sleeveless tee does little to help. Although he usually prefers a warmer weather over the cold winter, the heat has been almost unbearable that just walking around for five minutes is enough to make him feel like melting away.
He hasn’t decided on an ice-cream when a pair of hands reach out to push the glass sliding door, takes out the fish-shaped Samanco and places it on top of the glass after sliding it shut again. Jaemin glances to his side and finds Renjun flashing a small crooked grin. “I’m having this one,” he says.
“I’m not paying for you,” Jaemin says.
Renjun makes a quiet tch sound under his breath before grabbing his ice-cream and heads inside. Chuckling, Jaemin quickly picks a grape flavoured popsicle, follows Renjun inside and pays for both their ice-creams.
“Feels weird running into you here. I’ve only ever seen you at the beach,” Jaemin remarks while chucking their ice-cream wrappers into one of the plastic bags from the market he’s carrying, after they come out from the store. They fall into step and naturally walk the same pace, their feet moving almost in sync.
“I don’t live there, you know,” Renjun laughs, eyes crinkling up as he takes a bite of his ice-cream. He starts with the tail instead of the head, and Jaemin watches in amusement.
“I was starting to think that way,” he replies. He’s looking at Renjun’s hands now, the thin fingers and short rounded nails, holding the ice-cream with much care.
“What are you doing tomorrow?” Renjun asks all of a sudden.
“Tomorrow?” Jaemin’s eyebrows rise. They’ve seen each other almost every other day in the past weeks, but none of their meetings were ever planned ahead. It’s either he’d be there first and Renjun arrives a while later, or the other way round. Sometimes they just missed each other. “Nothing.” He pauses and meets Renjun's gaze. “Why?”
“Do you want to go to the breakwater?”
“There's a breakwater here?”
“Yeah. Gwangmyeonghang Breakwater. It's near the bridge to Somuuido, and there's a bigger town there,” Renjun explains. “I want to take you to the watchtower. It's small, but very pretty.”
Jaemin halts his steps, turns to Renjun and favours him with one of his biggest grins. “Are you taking me on a date?” he asks in a teasing tone although his heart is hammering in his chest.
Renjun punches him in the shoulder, laughing again. “Are you coming or not?”
“Of course,” Jaemin says, eyes creasing up into a smile that is more careful and earnest than before. Renjun smiles back, soft and warm.
They manage to catch the village bus just barely a minute before it departs, and Renjun doesn't stop taunting Jaemin about it even 15 minutes after they've settled into their seats.
“You're not going to stop making me feel bad, aren't you?” Jaemin says, not feeling offended even by the slightest, knowing Renjun is all bark but no bite.
“We would have needed to wait for half an hour the next bus,” Renjun huffs, at the same time trying to tame his hair that got messed up from running with his fingers. There's a single strand that he missed, sticking out funnily like an antenna, so Jaemin reaches a hand up to flatten it for him.
The two of them are occupying the seats in the farthest back row, and Renjun has let Jaemin have the window seat so he can have a better view of the island's landscapes. Besides them, there are only a couple other people with them in the bus. Jaemin stifles a yawn. “Sorry I'm not really a morning person,” he says. “Who wakes up at 7AM during a summer break anyway?”
It’s not completely a lie, but the real truth is Jaemin couldn’t stop thinking about this trip that he hadn’t been able to fall asleep.
“Trust me, it's worth it.” Renjun is flashing that crooked grin again.
Jaemin returns it with a sunny smile, and turns to stare out the window. For a small island, Horyonggoksan Mountain surely is a massive mountain. It's all he sees everywhere he goes, and it's still there now in the background even after the bus has taken them far away.
About 20 minutes later when they arrive at their stop near the Gwangmyeong Port, they hop off the village bus to the view of the sea, and Jaemin’s eyes are trained on the long bridge that connects this island with the one right across them. He's heard from his aunt that the bridge wasn't built yet the last time he was here.
“We're not going to Somuuido today, so don't dream about it,” Renjun says.
“I'm not,” Jaemin returns, beaming at Renjun while adjusting the strap of his backpack on his shoulder. “Let's go.”
Renjun takes him through the Badanuri-gil trekking course that's built around the coast. Maybe it's the season and the fact that it's just a little after 10 in the morning, but there's not a lot of crowd. As the view of the sea gets clearer, it's Renjun who gets more and more excited.
“Look over there. If you squint hard enough, you can see Haenyeodo,” he says, one hand on the wooden railing and the other pointing out to one particular direction where the island is probably located. “I went there once when I was little.”
Jaemin frowns at it for a while. “I can’t see it,” he says, then glances at Renjun. “It’s funny that you don't think you're still little now, because you are to me.”
Renjun lets out a scoff, and holds out his hand, which Jaemin dodges, thinking he’s going to punch him again. “Give me your phone,” Renjun says instead. “I’ll take a photo of you.”
“Oh.” Jaemin fishes out phone from his pocket, but instead of pressing it into Renjun's open palm, he pulls Renjun close and throws one arm around his shoulders. “Let's take it together,” he says. He stretches the other arm to hold the phone out, thumb hovering over the snap button.
His hand a little unsteady, he accidentally presses it while trying to find a good angle, resulting in a weird snap that includes too much of the sky and only the top half their faces. Renjun laughs at the photo. “I like it. Can you send it to me later?”
“Sure,” Jaemin chuckles, then stretches his arm out once more. “Let's try again.”
They exit the course after walking for another hour and make their their way to the town center to fill their hungry stomach. Jaemin lets Renjun pick a small seafood restaurant that overlooks the port and filled with people who seem to be regulars rather than tourists. They sit at a table near the window, and Jaemin keeps watching Renjun who's leaning over the table with his chin cupped in one hand while looking at the other patrons.
“Why are you staring at me like that?” asks Renjun when he finally noticed it, his ears red.
Jaemin only smiles and shakes his head, and instead of answering, he asks, “I thought you said you're taking me to a watchtower?”
“After this. It's prettier in the evening.”
“You know a lot about this place,” Jaemin notes, taking out two pairs of chopsticks and spoons from the small container on the table and setting them up for both of them.
“This island is my mother’s hometown. I've been here before with my parents before they passed away,” Renjun says slowly with a tiny smile, catching Jaemin off guard. He knows that Renjun lives with his grandmother, but Renjun's never talked about his parents and Jaemin felt it's rude to ask. “I've always wanted to come again.”
“How long have you lived on this island?” Jaemin asks carefully.
“Not that long. A little over one year?” Renjun tilts his head to a side, thinking. “I lived in a city called Jilin before that. It's where my parents met. I guess you can compare it to Seoul in a way, even though Seoul is probably busier. There’s a famous river there as well, and in winter the fog freezes and forms ice crystals on the trees along the river.”
“Did you miss it?” Jaemin regrets his question as soons as it escapes his mouth, because as harmless as he intended it to be, he realized a little too late that it could be interpreted the wrong way. But Renjun gives him another smile.
“A little,” he says, sounding wistful. “But I can see the stars so clearly here.”
Jaemin remembers the night sky he’d seen on the day he arrived on the island, the faraway golden specks that strangely made him feel like he’s not the only person in the universe, so contrary to Seoul’s pitch black sky he’d see walking back home every night, and all he could see was the neon signs of restaurants, karaokes and PC rooms. He blinks, lost in thought, and when he lifts his gaze to meet Renjun’s again, Renjun is still smiling at him.
“I—” Jaemin opens his mouth to say, but it goes unheard as their food arrive right at the same time, Renjun’s eyes forming crescent moons as he murmurs a soft thank you at the lady who served them, and Jaemin watches him. He’s always liked the shape of Renjun’s eyes when he smiles, the scrunch of his nose, the soft slope of his mouth, the small gap between two of his teeth that’s only visible when he’s laughing hard.
He presses his lips together. I like it here too, I like being here with you are the words he wants to say, but he lets them dry in his throat.
They meander through the streets for a while, shifting away when other people appear from the opposite direction and the pavement becomes too narrow for them to walk side by side, and weaving back together like a formation, a grape flavoured popsicle and a fish-shaped ice-cream in their hands before they catch another bus to finally head to the breakwater.
Renjun hums quietly to a song as he looks out the window from the bus, his hair fluttering gold in the sunlight. It’s less hot now that the sun’s already making its way down, and the wind no longer carries heat from the sea.
“We’re here!” he says happily when they get off, closing his fingers securely around Jaemin's wrist and beaming at him.
Jaemin can't help the grin on his face. He looks down at his wrist, then peels Renjun's fingers off, which causes Renjun to frown in confusion, only to hold his hand up and wrap his own fingers around Renjun's, palm to palm. This time it's Renjun who's staring down at their hands, but his smile quickly returns to his face as Jaemin tugs him forward towards the coast.
The watchtower finally appears before them, standing quietly by itself at the tip of the cape. It's a small tower, just as Renjun has described to him, nothing like the grand lighthouse that's usually in movies, but there's something intriguing and almost moving about it. “Pretty,” Jaemin breathes out, marvelling at that it stands proudly against the glimmering sea.
“Right?” Renjun is grinning broadly, looking proud. “This is my favourite place on this island, besides the beach. I've only been here once— well, twice now, and I only have good memories here.”
Jaemin turns to him. “Am I also a good memory?” he asks.
“Of course,” Renjun answers, the corners of his mouth curling up. Over in the horizon, the sun is slowly setting, bathing the whole place in a soft glow. Renjun looks even more beautiful like this, and Jaemin can't take his eyes off of him. He's never been able to.
Jaemin opens his mouth to try again. “Renjun, I—” he begins, but can't find a way to continue. There are the words he wanted to say from earlier, words that he never got to say, words that have been there from the beginning.
Renjun's looking up at him through his lashes, waiting patiently for him to find the right words.
And when Jaemin drops his gaze to the ground, he realizes that Renjun still hasn't let go of his hand. He gives it a gentle squeeze, and smiles. “I really like you.”
Renjun returns the smile, so soft and warm, more brilliant than the setting sun. “I'm glad,” he says. “Because I really like you too.”
They leave before the sun dips down completely, sitting in the last row of the old village bus with their hands still clasped together, the ends of their hair bouncing and fluttering in the air, Renjun humming another wordless song until he falls asleep on Jaemin's shoulder.
Jaemin is not sitting in the seat by the window this time, but that's alright, all he's looking at is Renjun.
“Dude, you’re tanned!” Donghyuck points out when Jaemin raises his head and turns to him, sounding amused. “You’re even tanner than me? I’m so impressed, city kid.”
“Shut up,” Jaemin mumbles, then goes back to stick his head inside the ice chest in his attempt to become one with it. Except Donghyuck reaches for his shoulder and pulls him back.
“The ice-creams are gonna melt. If you’re not gonna help the business at least don’t ruin it,” he says with a dramatic sigh, shutting the glass door and looping an arm around Jaemin’s shoulder to drag him away from it.
Donghyuck doesn’t have his bike with him today, and neither does Jaemin, so both of them walk together in the direction opposite to his aunt’s house. “Where are we going?” he asks.
“The real question here is where have you been?” Donghyuck deadpans. “I feel like I never see you anymore? You’re always out when I come by with Jeno, and not even your aunt knows where you are? What’s this, I thought we’re your only friends here. Do you have other friends that we don't know of, Jaeminie? What are you hiding from us? Hm? Hmm?” he bulldozes on, making it a point to sound as annoying as he can and leaning his face in as close as possible.
If anything, it's just making Jaemin laugh. He raises his brows at Donghyuck and grins charmingly. “Would you believe me if I said you're the only one?”
Donghyuck's own brows pinch as he puts on his thinking face. “Well, while I do believe in my deadly charms, there's that week when I was away, so Jeno could have sneaked his way up and stolen my throne,” he says.
Jaemin chuckles. The truth is, he's been spending every day with Renjun ever since their day trip, simply talking and sharing stories as they sit or stroll down the coastline together, like the beach offers a new scenery every time. And then he would walk Renjun back home, his hand clasped around Renjun's tenderly. Some days, Renjun would invite him inside to meet his grandmother. Some days, they don't even go to the beach.
He licks his dry lips and smiles at Donghyuck. “I've been hanging out with Renjun,” he tells him.
“Renjun? You mean Huang Renjun?” Donghyuck’s eyes widen, and Jaemin doesn’t miss the way Donghyuck pulls back when he frowns at him.
“Unless there’s another Huang Renjun here, then yes, that Renjun?” Jaemin replies in uncertainty. “Why?”
“Uh, don’t get me wrong, okay?” Donghyuck begins with hesitancy. “Renjun is fine. Nice, and really quiet. Maybe too quiet. At first I thought it’s just because he’s just moved here, and… maybe he’s still sad? But he still doesn’t really talk to anyone and spends all his time alone,” he explains. “That’s why I’m surprised. Really. That’s all.”
Jaemin looks at Donghyuck for a minute, whose face is crumpled with worry and looking apologetic. This look doesn't suit Donghyuck at all, so Jaemin beams at him. “I know you mean well,” he says.
Donghyuck exhales a sigh and pouts. “Now I'm definitely not your favourite friend.”
“Don't worry,” Jaemin chuckles again and slings his arm around Donghyuck's shoulders. “I never said you were.”
Clicking his tongue, Donghyuck glares at Jaemin and shoves him away in mock annoyance, but it doesn't hurt.
Summer comes with occasional showers that last a couple of hours at most, it rains particular hard today.
Legs stretched out and back leaned against one of the wooden sliding doors, Jaemin sits facing out the veranda staring blankly at the yard and the puddles that have formed on the ground. For a moment, he thinks about home.
Seoul is so different when it rains. Everything is so fast paced, but rain forces people to slow down and take cover somewhere, and all they do there is click their tongue and glance at the screen of their phone restlessly, as though not a single second should be wasted just waiting for the dark sky to clear up.
There’s nowhere to rush to here. The rain only chases the heat away and cools the weather down, and Jaemin almost wishes it never stops.
His aunt sets a bowl of red bean porridge down beside him and takes a seat across him. Steam rises from the porridge, still so fresh out of the pot, and the scent fills his nose. Crossing his legs, Jaemin gives her a sunny smile and takes the bowl with both hands.
“It’s like grandma’s,” he says.
“You still remember the taste?”
“Vaguely,” he admits with a slight shrug. “But I remember she used to make it on days when the weather was particularly hot, and we would sweat so much while eating. I asked her why didn’t she make something that cools you down instead, like naengmyeon, and she said the best way to beat the heat is to eat something hotter.”
His aunt lets out a small laugh. “That sounds like her,” she says. “It’s raining now, though.”
“It still tastes good,” he tells her, their eyes locking when he glances up to look at her. He notices now that they all have the same eyes — his grandmother, his aunt and his mother. Not him, though. People always tell Jaemin he has his father’s eyes.
Jaemin flashes another smile.
The wooden front doors slide open slowly and quietly, and when Renjun emerges out from the house and sees him standing there, Jaemin's eyes immediately crinkle up into a smile.
“I thought we promised to meet at the beach?” Renjun asks in almost whisper, just in case, even though he's already checked that his grandmother is asleep.
Jaemin's mouth stretches wider into a grin. “I know. I just wanted to see you earlier.”
If Renjun's face is flushed, the darkness hides it well. Jaemin doesn't mind. Not when his hand still manages to find Renjun's as they fall into step, shoulders bumping against each other. Aside from the sound of cicadas from a distance, everything else is quiet around them, as if the whole town is asleep and they're the only ones awake. Maybe they are.
It hasn't rained the past few days, with not many clouds, so the sky has been clear. No moon in sight either. It's perfect to see the stars, Renjun has told him excitedly.
Ironically, and funnily, this is the first time they're going out to stargaze, despite it being almost the only thing they've talked about since they met.
And as Renjun had told him, and promised, there's a whole bunch of them. Golden sparkles dusting the dark canvas of a sky like the shells spread out all over the shore. Jaemin can't tear his eyes away, head tilted up and mouth agape, not until he feels a squeeze in his hand and the soft chuckle from next to him.
“You’ll snap your neck like that,” Renjun says, amused.
They lie down side by side on the mat Renjun’s brought with him. Compared to the warm sands they feel on their back, the breeze is cold, colder than Jaemin remembers. He doesn’t think about how it’s signalling the approaching season, because that means summer is soon coming to an end, and he doesn’t want to think about that.
“Do you always come here all by yourself?” he asks quietly, afraid his voice might break the stillness of the night. Renjun doesn’t reply, but Jaemin knows the answer from the way he presses his lips together. “Why?”
“I like being alone,” Renjun finally answers.
Jaemin’s brows pinch. “Don’t you get lonely?”
“I got used to it,” Renjun replied, giving a little shrug, “after coming here.”
“Why?” Jaemin asks again, remembering what Donghyuck had said.
“I don’t know. I find it easier to be on my own. No one expects anything from me. No one I’d expect anything from. No one… leaves, and no one gets left behind. No one gets hurt.”
Jaemin glances aside at Renjun for a while, biting his lower lip, and tries to imagine this boy who was forced to pack up his life and moved from a big city to small town on a small island in a foreign country all by himself, who learned to deal with grief and began to shut people out in the process. “Then why me?” he blurts out without being able to stop himself. “You know I’m not going to—” stay . He lets the rest of the sentence die his throat. You know I’m going to leave .
Renjun smiles in spite of himself. “I wonder why,” he muses aloud, his eyes never meeting Jaemin’s. Instead, they’re fixed on the blanket of stars above them.
“I hate it,” Jaemin says in a low voice, hesitating. “Being alone.” Over the time they’ve known each other, Renjun has shared so much of himself that he probably never did with anyone else, and willingly opened up and let Jaemin into his hidden valleys. It’s time that Jaemin does the same. “I’m always alone at home because my parents are always away, working. Sometimes I don’t see them at all. But sometimes I hate myself even more that I prefer it that way, because when they’re home at the same time, they just end up fighting.”
It’s Jaemin who keeps his gaze straight up now, even when he feels Renjun reaching for his hand, afraid that if he looks into Renjun’s deep clear eyes, he might actually start crying, and he’s never even cried.
“Oh,” Renjun suddenly says, sitting up and pointing at the sky. “I didn’t think we’d see it at this time of year, but look, it’s the Ursa Major.”
He turns to Jaemin, looking all excited now. Jaemin sits up as well, follows his gaze and tries to find the constellation. It takes time, and Renjun does his best to explain, and eventually Jaemin sees it. Seven dots that particularly stand out from the rest.
“It's a pair, the Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. Mother and son who were cursed by Zeus. There's a legend about it. But now they help lost wanderers find their way,” Renjun explains, a gentle smile blooming on his face. “I think they're here for you.”
And if Jaemin was afraid he'd cry then, he's not afraid anymore. He places a palm on the side of Renjun's face to cup his cheek and finally leans in to kiss the soft lips he's spent his entire summer staring at. His heart is pounding so loud against his chest, it thunders in his ears.
“Jaemin,” Renjun calls, opening his eyes and pulling away. His eyebrows are knitted with concern as he looks at Jaemin. “Jaemin, you’re crying.”
“Yeah, I'm just—” Jaemin cuts himself off. Too many thoughts are running through his mind and he can't find the right word. But when Renjun reaches out with both hands to brush away the tears, there's a sudden moment of clarity and Jaemin finally understands what he's feeling. He presses his lips and lets them blossom into a smile. “I'm happy. Right now,” he says, voice near whisper. “Really, I'm—”
And if there's more that he wants to say, he doesn't get to finish because Renjun's the one leaning in now, cupping Jaemin's face between his palms and pressing his lips against Jaemin's. Jaemin brings a hand up to rest it behind Renjun's neck and brushes his thumb along the nape. And if the kiss feels a little salty, a little sweet, tinged with loneliness and peppered with hope, it doesn't matter.
Jaemin never wants to stop kissing Renjun.
Everyone is gathered around the low table in the dining area that doubles as the living space, sitting close together even though there’s more than enough space for everyone. On the table, there’s more food than he can actually name.
Jaemin keeps staring at the food, astonished, like he’s never seen anything like it before.
“Oh, god, I actually wondered if you only do that to people,” Donghyuck says. “I thought it’d be creepy if you only do that to people, but now that I know you do that to food as well, I think this might be creepier.”
Jaemin blinks. “Do what?”
“Stare at something like you’re going to burn a hole in it. Do you not realize it?”
“No.” Jaemin shakes his head, then glances aside, quirking his eyebrows. “Do I do that?” he asks.
Renjun is chuckling. “Yeah.”
“In the beginning I thought Jaemin had a crush on me, which makes sense because who wouldn’t have a crush on me? But then I noticed that you do that with everyone else, even Old Man Jung from the butcher. It hurt my pride,” Donghyuck adds, sighing dramatically with a feigned offended look.
Next to him, Jeno is just quietly laughing, eyes forming crescent shapes. Donghyuck is opening his mouth to say something, but he's interrupted by Jaemin's aunt who appeared from the kitchen holding a huge plate which she sets at the center of the table. It's the rice cake she's been working on all afternoon, layered beautifully with different colours.
Jaemin can't help gasping at it. “It's so pretty.”
“It's the least I can do for you,” she says.
“It's already—” he tries to find the right word. “I can't thank you enough.”
She only smiles at him, reaching a hand out to ruffle his hair gently, then turns to the rest of the boys. “Eat up. No one's leaving before you finish everything here,” she tells them.
“Aunty, are you trying to turn us into pigs since this island doesn't have them?” Donghyuck says in protest, although his voice carries no malice or sarcasm. His heart-shaped lips quickly stretch into a grin when she pinches his cheek.
“Can we eat now?” Jeno asks Jaemin after she's left for their neighbour's house.
“Rude. Lee Jeno, I taught you manners,” Donghyuck says, hitting Jeno's shoulder with the back of his spoon. Jeno whines loudly in protest, but he simply ignores that and sits up straighter as he flashes a charming grin at Jaemin. “So, we are gathered here today to celebrate our one and only Seoulite, Na Jaemin, getting old,” Donghyuck begins, talking formally like he's hosting a television show. “Please say a few words, Jaemin-ssi.”
“Shut up, Donghyuck,” Jaemin laughs.
Donghyuck is undeterred. He turns to Renjun this time, pursing his lips. “Do you have anything to say as the honourable guest, Renjun-ssi?” His tone is a tad more polite, and it makes Jaemin even more amused, remembering Donghyuck's flushed face when he saw Renjun earlier and Jaemin told Renjun “he's wanted to be your friend for the longest time” upon their introduction. In return Donghyuck had kicked Jaemin in the shin.
Renjun only blinks. “I'm the honourable guest?”
“What about me?” Jeno raises a hand.
“Interesting party we have here. Let us proceed to cake cutting ceremony,” Donghyuck concludes like Jeno hadn't said anything, and Jeno eventually resorts to slinging an arm around Donghyuck’s neck and putting him in a headlock. They only let go of each other when Jaemin threatens to chase them out of the house.
“Wait!” Renjun stops him when Jaemin picks up the knife. “We might not have a real cake or candles, but you still should make a wish.”
“But before that!” Donghyuck says, and starts singing the happy birthday song. Both Jeno and Renjun quickly joins in singing, all looking at Jaemin with the biggest smiles on their face, and Jaemin can't help the way his face flushes with heat.
“Make a wish, Jaemin,” Renjun tells him.
“Yeah, make a wish!” Jeno echoes from across the table, still clapping for him.
Jaemin looks at them, all of them, and a smile finds its way on his face. Clasping his hands together, he closes his eyes and takes a deep breath.
“What did you wish for?” Renjun asks him as they walk together later.
The night is as quiet as every other night, the empty roads and dim lamp posts and sound of cicadas from far away, but everything feels different at the same time. Jaemin’s overgrown bangs that are starting to cover his eyes, Renjun’s palms hidden beneath the sleeves of his cardigan, the nostalgic smell of rain in the air. Jaemin wishes to remember every single thing.
“If I tell you about it,” he says. “Then it might not come true.”
Renjun makes a tch sound and chuckles as Jaemin flashes a grin. The glint of mischief in it slips off of his eyes a little too quickly, but he keeps the smile frozen in place like a force of habit.
“I talked to my mum on the phone yesterday,” Jaemin starts carefully. “I was going to call her, actually, but she beat me to it. Since I came here, all we did was send each other short and brief text messages, and yesterday was the first time we talked. And she talked about a lot of things,” he pauses for a moment, inhaling the salty sea breeze. “She said so many things that I can't really remember all of them. But I think that was the longest we've talked to each other in years, and it felt nice.”
“And at the end, she wished me a happy birthday. And then I said to her, ‘my birthday is actually tomorrow’ . She felt silent for a while, but then she started laughing so loudly and said, ‘I know that’ . Then she laughed some more.”
Jaemin stops walking. Renjun looks at him. “Renjun,” he says, almost a whisper. “She's coming to pick me up this Saturday.”
“Oh,” says Renjun. He looks down to his feet. “I see.”
Cold wind blows, tousling their hair and stinging their cheek. Jaemin has always preferred the warmer weather.
For all that Jaemin wills for time to slow down, the hands of the clock continue ticking away mercilessly.
On Wednesday, Donghyuck, Jeno, Renjun and Jaemin hop on a village bus and head to Hanagae Beach together.
“That’s the Yellow Sea,” says Jeno, pointing towards the wide stretch of ocean ahead of them as they stand near the saltwater pool by the coastline, looking over the colourful wooden resort bungalows which have become floating houses now that the tide is high, then they race each other to the waves. Renjun insists on staying dry when the rest pull off their shoes and scream their lungs out when their feet come in contact with the cold water, so Donghyuck sneaks behind him to push him forward, and quickly sprints away for his life.
When all of them are equally soaked and out of energy, they settle down on the beach and start building a sandcastle. The tide has gone out, the crowd is thinning and the sun is dipping. Jaemin collects enough seashells to decorate their castle, but it collapses just as they doing their finishing touches when a little kid accidentally throws a ball at it.
They stare at the destroyed castle in silence for a while, and don’t stop laughing even as they part ways and head home later.
On Thursday, Jaemin helps his aunt tie peeled persimmons with rice straw ropes and hang them outside the house.
It’s a little late to prepare them now, but they’ll be great autumn snacks when they’re ready, she says before telling him about the folk tale he’s never heard of before. Then she points out his overgrown hair and gives it a trim as he sits at his usual place at the veranda and looks out at the view that has been carved in his memories. The leaves of trees in the yard are starting to turn golden, he notices, and thinks it’s a little quiet without the noise of the spinning fan.
Jaemin cycles to the mini mart on Friday and grabs two ice-creams: the fish shaped Samanco and a grape flavoured popsicle, and makes his way to another house he’s grown to memorize. He’s received his aunt’s permission to spend his last night on the island at Renjun’s.
After dinner, Renjun’s grandmother lets them have a sip of makgeolli that she made herself that day by fermenting barleys and yeast together. They scowl at the bitter taste, and she laughs in the kind, grandmotherly way that reminds Jaemin of his own, before replacing the content of their bowls with sikhye.
And later after she's gone to bed, Jaemin and Renjun quietly slip out from the house and head to the beach. The temperature has dropped significantly in the past week, so the night has gotten a lot colder.
“There aren't any stars tonight,” Renjun says.
“That’s alright,” Jaemin replies with a grin. “There’s me.”
“You’re so annoying,” Renjun lets out a small laugh, rhythmic as the waves.
There's so much that he wants to say, words that he's been keeping all day, all summer, but as Jaemin stares out at the waves, he realizes that none of them matter anymore. He turns to Renjun and looks at him for a long time, like he’s never looked at Renjun before. “I’m really, so happy I came here,” he says.
Renjun smiles at him, all soft and beautiful, then reaches down to link their fingers. “I’m happy, too.”
And that’s enough.
Jaemin's bags are all packed. He didn't bring with him a lot of things when he arrived here, but now he's going back with twice as much since his aunt insisted that he takes home all the food she's prepared.
His mother arrived early that morning. Her car looks out of place in the front yard of her childhood house, but she looks right at home when he finds her sitting by the veranda with her sister, where he always sits. “This is my favourite spot in this house,” she tells him, and he smiles.
“Hey kid,” calls a voice when Jaemin is putting his bags away in the car, and when he turns around, Donghyuck is grinning at him as he and Jeno cycle into the yard. “I guess this is why you suck at riding a bike, city boy,” he says, nodding at the car.
Jaemin grins back. “Shut up, Donghyuck.”
“You say that now, but I bet you’re gonna cry yourself to sleep from missing me so much,” Donghyuck laughing, punching his shoulder.
“Are you leaving now?” Jeno asks.
“I am, just…” Jaemin trails off, looking away, then his eyes catch on the small figure rounding the corner at the end of the road, jugging in his direction. His smile stretches even broader.
“I was afraid I wasn’t going to make it,” says Renjun, sounding a little breathless. He's carrying with him a something large, almost larger than he is and wrapped in brown paper. He pauses to catch his breath, then hands it to Jaemin. “I’ve spent the last few days working on this. It's a present for you.”
Jaemin blinks at Renjun, whose face is a little flushed and he can’t tell if it’s from the running or if he's feeling bashful. Whichever it is, Jaemin can't stop looking at him, can’t help the grin plastered on his face, can’t put to words the way his heart feels so full, it could just explode.
“Are you ready?” his mother asks when both of them have gotten in the car.
Jaemin glances outside and takes one last look at the house, his aunt, and his friends—all he’s grown to cherish and love over the season. But summer has come to the end now. He grins wider. “Yeah. let’s go home.”
That night, back in his own bedroom that feels a little strange now, but a lot like home, Jaemin unwraps his present, ripping the brown paper as quickly yet as carefully as he can. And when it’s finally unveiled, he takes a step behind to admire it, the most beautiful painting he has ever seen.
Seven twinkling stars forming the constellation they had seen together that night, one that will always remind them that they’re never lost.