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the road ahead

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A breeze slips down the collar of Jimin’s jacket and he shivers, wrapping his arms more tightly around himself and wishing not for the first time this morning that he had a scarf. The hotpacks he shoved into his pockets back at the hotel have long since turned lukewarm. When he exhales, his breath forms a cloud that is swiftly whisked away by the wind. The tip of his nose is slowly but surely turning numb.

This will be worth it, he reminds himself as he burrows down into his coat. Just gotta hang in there a little while longer.

There’s just enough light in the sky now for Jimin to make out the shape of the rock formation that stretches out around him. Seongsan Ilchulbong. The sunrise peak. A volcanic cone on the east coast of Jeju-do; stone rising from the ocean to cradle a verdant crater. A beautiful jewel in its own right during the daytime, but most famous for the sunrises for which it is named.

When, barely a week and a half ago, Jimin and Namjoon laid down the shaky framework for their trip, Seongsan Ilchulbong was one of the very first places they had marked on the map. Truthfully, it was one of the only places on Jeju that Jimin knew of. Before this trip, he had only visited once before—an ill-fated family vacation the summer Jimin was ten. He’d had a nasty cold, and spent the entire trip miserable. His only clear memory is being taken to a farm to pick tangerines, in hopes the vitamin C would help cure his congestion.

Namjoon, on the other hand, has been to Jeju before—including a cycling trip a few years ago, back before construction of the scenic bike path along the shoreline had been completed. He was the knowledgeable one, and Jimin had been content to let him make most of their plans. But Seongsan Ilchulbong was Jimin’s suggestion. The one place he wanted to be sure he would see no matter what.

At the time, coming for the sunrise had sounded romantic. And maybe Jimin had let himself get his hopes up, just a little bit. He was looking forward to this entire trip—seven days of cycling around the Jeju coast, stopping along the way to admire Jeju’s natural wonders—but seeing the sunrise at Seongsan Ilchulbong was going to be the icing on the cake. It was to be the start of the fifth day of their trip, which allowed Jimin not only enough time to build up his nerve, but also provided him with the perfect setting for a confession.

So, yes, Jimin had gotten his hopes up. Unfortunately he had failed to take into account that seeing the sunrise would require arriving before the sunrise, climbing up approximately five million stairs, and waiting in the early October chill.

He and Namjoon hadn’t been the first people to arrive here at the lookout point, but close to it. The sky had still been inky black when the two of them began to stumble up the trail with the aid of the light fixtures along the steps and their phone flashlights. Now, the sky has faded to a dove gray, and there are probably around twenty people gathered on the wooden benches. The still silence of pre-dawn has given way to hushed, excited chatter as the sky lightens and sunrise draws near.

“Cold?”

Namjoon’s voice is deep, rough from the early hour. Jimin shivers again.

“Not really,” he replies. His eyes are well-adjusted to the muted light, and when he turns his head he can easily see Namjoon—a soft shadow among other shadows. There is the familiar angle of his jaw, the slope of his nose, the disbelieving quirk of his eyebrows.

“You sure?” Namjoon asks. He raises one arm, as if to wrap it around Jimin and pull him closer, then hesitates. His arm hovers awkwardly in the air between them.

Jimin of three weeks ago would have deflected and diffused the situation with gentle laughter. Jimin of three days ago would have wavered, and then possibly deflected anyway. Maybe it’s the chilly morning air, or the early hour, or the weird mix of anticipation and uncertainty swirling in his gut, but Jimin of now is struck with a surge of boldness. He scoots closer, until their sides are pressed together and Namjoon’s hand rests lightly against Jimin’s back.

“No, I’m not sure,” Jimin says. “It’s fucking freezing out here.”

Namjoon laughs quietly. He shifts his arm so that Jimin is tucked more firmly against his side. “Sorry,” he says.

“For what?” Jimin asks. With their coats between them, it actually isn’t that much warmer being this close to Namjoon, but the sensation is still nice, and Jimin lets himself relax into it.

“Dragging you out here into the cold.”

Jimin immediately stiffens, pulling away far enough to give Namjoon an indignant look. “You didn’t drag me anywhere,” he says. “I want to be here. Besides, coming for the sunrise was my idea to start with.”

“Yeah, but—” Namjoon frowns and uses his free hand to gesture vaguely around them. “Jeju, this whole thing, it was my idea.”

A pipe exploded at the bookstore and swamped the first floor. They’ve given me two weeks off while they clean up and sort out insurance, Namjoon texted him early last week, followed by, Want to go cycle around Jeju?

“A good idea,” Jimin insists fiercely. “You needed this trip, and so did I. I’m glad you asked me to come.”

Jimin has never considered himself a particularly spontaneous person, but he hadn’t even stopped to think before sending back: yes!!

For the past month Jimin has been stuck in an endless loop, scouring the internet for job postings. Running his fingers through his hair until the strands stand on end, feeling sick with desperation to find something, anything that can fill in the gaping chasm that appeared when the job he’d been counting on was ripped out from under his feet.

Namjoon was the first person Jimin called when he found out that the research position he’d been promised after graduation would instead be given to the nephew of a good friend of the department head. At the time, Jimin had been too embarrassed to even tell Taehyung—not after all the boasting he’d done about the job. He and Taehyung had already had a celebratory dinner at a fancy restaurant and gotten giggly-drunk on champagne and everything.

So Jimin had texted Namjoon instead. They met a cheap bar and got drunk on shitty beer while Namjoon listened to everything and politely ignored the angry tears running hot down Jimin’s cheeks.

That’s probably part of why Namjoon asked Jimin along. He knows just how much of a mess Jimin has been, just how much he needs a break. But Jimin knows, too, that Namjoon needed this trip just as badly.

Namjoon doesn’t often talk about the manuscripts he buries himself under; the rivers of words that flow into an ocean which sometimes buoys him up and other times threatens to drown him. Jimin can see it, though, in the dark circles beneath Namjoon’s eyes, and the way he throws himself into his work at a small independent bookstore.

The past few weeks, in particular, he’s been looking more and more exhausted, like the weight of everything has become a riptide pulling him under and away from shore. Jimin had felt helpless in the face of it—especially when he was only just barely keeping his own head above water. Since they arrived on Jeju, though, Jimin has watched Namjoon slowly recharge as if receiving energy from the sand beneath his feet and sea breeze on his face.

Jimin is thankful he’s had the chance to be part of that process; that this haphazard, spontaneous trip has given them the opportunity to lean on each other as they recover their footing.

“I’m glad I asked you, too,” Namjoon says, startling Jimin from his thoughts.

“Good.” Jimin grins up at Namjoon.

Namjoon is smiling back.

Around them, the excited chatter begins to swell. The gentle peach of the horizon is deepening into a rich gold. Jimin breathes in deep and lets the anticipation, palpable on the air, fill his lungs. For a second he can imagine he’s back at the Han River, riding bikes with Namjoon through the velvety darkness of a summer night. There was one night when they’d gone out alone, and Jimin remembers the effervescent excitement of cycling down a familiar pathway and not knowing where it would lead. He feels that same giddiness now, waiting for the momentum of the sunrise to pull him into the unknown.

This will be worth it, he reminds himself again, and shivers.

“What’re you thinking about?” Namjoon asks with amusement in his voice. “You’ve had your thinking face on all morning.”

“It’s not even morning yet,” Jimin grumbles. It makes Namjoon laugh, just as Jimin hoped it would.

“Since we left to hotel, then,” Namjoon says. “What’s up?” He squeezes Jimin lightly, gentle and teasing, and Jimin’s heart gives a pathetic whump.

Jimin never would have imagined that joining a bicycling group back in June would have led him here. He’d been in the final throes of his Master’s thesis and desperate to find an activity that would let him clear his mind. When he first contacted the group, he’d expected the other members to all be at least twice his age—and, for the most part, he’d been right.

But then he’d shown up to the first meeting of the month and there, against the backdrop of the sunset on the Han River, had been Kim Namjoon. Tall and dimpled and wearing entirely too much spandex for Jimin’s peace of mind, and also warm and friendly and utterly likeable.

At the time Jimin had been looking for an escape from stress; he ended up finding a friend as well. It’s something he’s incredibly thankful for, a sort of serendipity. Sometimes, though, Namjoon knows him a little too well. Like now, with the knowing look he still has pinned on Jimin. It makes Jimin want to squirm.

“It’s nothing, really,” Jimin insists. “Just. Do you remember that night we rode along the Han River in the dark? Not with the rest of the group, that time when it was just the two of us.”

Namjoon expression turns thoughtful. “Yeah, I remember. Why?”

“You almost fell off your bike.”

“There was a speed bump!” Namjoon says with incredible dignity.

“Yeah, there was,” Jimin agrees easily. “It almost made me fall, too.” He giggles at the indignant look on Namjoon’s face.

“So why am I the one being teased?”

“Because it’s fun.” Jimin grins cheekily, and Namjoon immediately softens.

“You’re a brat,” Namjoon complains, but there’s no heat to it. “Why’d you ask, anyway?”

Jimin freezes. He doesn’t know how to explain it, the confusing mix of apprehension and hope. “I—” he starts to say. His eyes dart around Namjoon, toward the ocean, and he gasps. “Hyung, look.”

The sun rises above the horizon to a chorus of clicking camera shutters and delighted exclamations. Namjoon pulls his arm from around Jimin to get out his phone, too; Jimin barely notices the loss of touch. His eyes are fixed on the sunrise: a strip of vibrant pink along the ocean, fading quickly into yellow, and then into the turquoise of the morning sky. It’s beautiful, it really is, but—

The sunrise isn’t that different from a sunset. Somehow Jimin had still been expecting more. Something earth-shattering, or life-changing, that would make him feel like he was standing on the edge of a precipice, about to jump into the unknown. He’d still somehow, impossibly, been waiting for a moment.

This isn’t a moment, not like that, but it’s a moment nonetheless. Namjoon is still by his side. The wind is still trying to sneak down the neck of Jimin’s jacket, and Jimin’s butt is still numb from sitting on cold, hard wood. Jimin’s big moment is actually not much different from the smaller moments of delight he experiences every day: an empty seat on the bus, sun reflecting just right on the sky scrapers, a touch that Namjoon lets linger.

The realization is as much a relief as it is a let down.

“A brand new day,” Namjoon murmurs to himself. Jimin turns toward him on reflex and finds Namjoon, bathed in gold, staring toward the horizon. His hands are resting on his lap, his phone cradled in loose fingers.

Jimin has taken hundreds of photos on this trip. The white sands and aquamarine waves of Hyeopjae beach, the warped rock layers that make up the cliffs of Yongmeori coast, the waters of Jeongbang waterfall cascading down to meet the ocean. He’s taken photos of Namjoon—framed against the ocean, standing next to his bike, buying sea urchins from an elderly haenyeo even though neither Namjoon nor Jimin can stomach raw seafood—and photos of himself, and photos of him and Namjoon together.

But out of all those beautiful memories and breathtaking scenes, he thinks this is the one he would most like to preserve: Namjoon, windswept and glowing in the ambient light. Jimin looks at him and sees—

Namjoon, on the first day they met, looking like an invention of Jimin’s gay dreams as he enthusiastically welcomed Jimin to the cycling group and then promptly fumbled the helmet in his hands and sent it skidding across the concrete.

Namjoon, bent over a notebook, fingers covered in ink from a burst ballpoint pen, scribbling down lines of inspiration before he forgets, while his neglected americano drips condensation all over the table.

Namjoon, smiling at his phone as he shows Jimin pictures of his family’s dog. He barely tolerates me, Namjoon says fondly, but I love him anyway.

Namjoon, video calling Jimin on the way to work specifically to show him the tiny frog he found on the sidewalk.

Namjoon, who will flirt openly with Jimin and lean into his embraces, yet hesitates to initiate touch on his own.

Namjoon, who, despite that, wordlessly wrapped an arm around Jimin’s shoulder as Jimin cried silent, bitter tears into his shitty beer.

Namjoon, whose friendship Jimin is endlessly grateful for; Namjoon, who Jimin would really like to date.

Jimin isn’t clueless. He’s good at reading people. He’s certain that Namjoon feels the same way—fairly certain, at least. At least 90% sure. It’s just that last 10% that holds him back and keeps him waiting for the right setting, the right atmosphere, some kind of sign.

Maybe, if he kept waiting, that moment would come. Maybe, when they’re back in Seoul, there will be the perfect romantic night, or the perfect lead in during a conversation. Maybe Namjoon will confess first. Or, maybe, nothing will happen at all, and while he’s waiting Jimin will miss his chance completely. Maybe this, a normal moment spent together, is just as good as a grand gesture.

“Hyung,” Jimin says. The word gets stuck in his throat and comes out quiet, a little desperate.

Namjoon hears it anyway.

“Yeah, Jimin-ah?”

“Hyung, I like you a lot.”

The sun is higher above the horizon now, the intense colors of early sunrise faded into something more mellow. Pastels and watercolor, painting the sky with gentle daylight. It’s easy to see, now, the way the Namjoon’s eyes go wide as he turns to Jimin. There’s an unspoken question there, one that Namjoon doesn’t need to voice—or perhaps is afraid to.

“Romantically,” Jimin clarifies. “I want to date you, if— if you would like.”

Namjoon’s lips part in a silent oh, and then he breaks into a smile; a sunrise over a calm sea.

“I would like that. Very much, in fact.”

“Oh,” Jimin says. “Oh, good.”

No one is paying them any mind, all eyes still on the sky. Jimin places a gentle hand on Namjoon’s cheek. His skin is warm despite the cold, and there’s a rough patch along his jaw from his haphazard shaving job earlier. Jimin doesn’t realize how close they’ve gotten until he asks, “Can I?” and Namjoon’s answering nod brushes their lips together.

They can’t kiss for long, not out in public like this, but even so Jimin draws it out longer than he knows he should. This is real, he thinks as he pulls away. It’s really real.

Namjoon looks as dazed as Jimin feels, eyes a little wild even as he smiles helplessly. “Wow,” he says, and then breaks into laughter.

“What?” Jimin asks, bewildered.

Namjoon just shakes his head and laughs harder. He makes himself small, until he can hide his face against Jimin’s shoulder. Then, lips pressed against the collar of Jimin’s jacket, he says, “I was going to ask you out on the last day of the trip, when we hiked up Hallasan to Witse Oreum.”

What?” Jimin asks again, more loudly.

“Yeah.” Namjoon pulls himself upright enough to smile sheepishly at Jimin. “I figured that would be the best timing. If things went well then it would be a good end to our trip. And if not—well, we’d be flying back to Seoul in a few hours anyway.”

“You—” Jimin gapes. “Really?

“Well, I mean. It’s not like that was the reason I suggested this trip. I wasn’t trying to, like, lure you out to Jeju and then force my affections on you, I promise, it’s just that while we were planning I thought— it seemed like a chance, so—”

Namjoon’s ears are red and his eyes are heartbreakingly earnest.

Jimin swallows.

“I know,” he says. “I had the same idea, after all. My timing was just different.”

“Yeah.” Namjoon huffs out a laugh, part relief and part fondness. “You beat me to it. I think this works better anyway, though. We’re more of a sunrise couple than a mountain one, don’t you think?”

A sudden gust of wind cuts through Jimin’s padded jacket and sets him off shivering again. “Can we be a sunset couple instead?” he asks plaintively. “It’s basically the same thing as a sunrise, just in reverse, and we don’t need to get up at like 4 a.m. to see it.”

Namjoon laughs, a little too bright and a little too loud, a burst of happiness. “Sure. We can be a sunset couple.”

“Good.”

Jimin darts in and plants a fleeting kiss on one of Namjoon’s dimples. When he pulls back, Namjoon looks astonished but pleased. Jimin’s cheeks are warm despite the wind.

“Let’s take a picture together before the sunrise is completely done,” Jimin says, breathless and suddenly a little shy.

“Oh, good idea,” Namjoon says. Jimin preens a little under the praise.

They stand and position themselves so that they can take photos without ending up in the background of anyone else’s memories. The lighting is difficult to work with, but they manage to get a few good shots. In Jimin’s favorite one their cheeks are smooshed together and the sky behind them is a cotton-candy blur. It will look nice printed out and pinned to the string of polaroids hanging above his bed, Jimin thinks.

By the time they finish taking their pictures, people have started to pack up and leave the observation deck. They all have somewhere else to be, other things to do. Jimin thinks of the bicycles and packs waiting in his and Namjoon’s hotel room; of the ferry they’ll take to Udo later, the peanut ice cream they’ll eat and the touristy photos they’ll take. He thinks of the forty kilometers they’ll cycle to Hamdeok beach in the afternoon, and the two days of trip they have left after that.

He thinks of all the moments he’ll have together with Namjoon in the future, both big and small. He finds that he doesn’t really mind leaving this one, happy as it is, and moving onto the next. There’s no rush, though. He can spend five more minutes here, with Namjoon by his side and the natural beauty of Jeju all around him before they, too, pack their bags and start off down the next road, together.

After all, this is only the beginning of their adventure.