They meet when they’re five. Too little to notice any differences. Too little to care. (At least as far as Taeyong is concerned. He doesn’t find out until much, much later that Yuta had always noticed, even if he tried not to care.)
Yuta is fun and funny, a little rambunctious, and everything he could ask for in a friend. Taeyong is used to lunch get-togethers with his mother and her friends, dressed in clothes picked out for him that he had to keep clean, playing with children he didn’t particularly like. He’s used to fading into the background until spoken to, playing the role of the model son even then. With Yuta, though, it feels like Taeyong is at the center of the universe, burning like the sun, there to be seen and heard.
Yuta smiles and laughs and talks to Taeyong, gives him attention and listens the way Taeyong always thought friends should. They run around Taeyong’s neighborhood together, crawling through the trees and bushes of the local park as if it were their own personal forest, coming up with games and stories. They cast each other as daring knights, or world weary warriors on a quest to defeat evil, running amongst their small piece of nature until the sky begins to shift, orange bleeding into blue.
After school they would race each other back to Taeyong’s house, the elementary school close enough, and neighborhood safe enough, that two little boys sprinting along, laughter dancing in the air, wasn’t considered odd or unsafe. Yuta always making sure not to leave Taeyong too far behind. Taeyong smiling until his cheeks hurt, doing his best to keep up.
Taeyong’s mother doesn’t like it. He knows she doesn’t like it. Having to clean grass stains out of his perfect clothes and dirt off his once pristine sneakers, seeing Taeyong running everywhere, laughing “inappropriately loud” .
Taeyong, five and fearless, doesn’t care.
For Taeyong’s seventh birthday his parents throw him a birthday party in the park. There are balloons and water guns and a swarm of about twenty seven-year-olds running around playing a giant game of tag. It’s a beautiful, clear, sunny day, the smell of food barbecuing lingering in the air. It’s almost perfect. Almost.
“I don’t think it’d be a good idea,” his mother says, nose scrunched in a rare show of outward distaste. “It’s not really the right,” a brief pause, “ company for your little friend.”
“No,” his father tells him, plain, simple, and to the point — like he was with everything in his life. “He can come over another day if you’d like.”
Taeyong feels tears prick at the back of his eyes, the burn spreading down his nose. He should’ve cried. Down the line, Taeyong would regret not crying. Not throwing a fit like a child of seven was allowed to do when told they couldn’t have their best friend at their birthday party .
His mother offers him a smile, pats his hair. “It’s just better this way.”
Taeyong breathes in shakily. Blinks. He ducks his head and nods.
He’s rewarded with a kiss on the forehead and a firm squeeze of the shoulder.
The beginning of the end.
At ten, Taeyong knows that their town is small, and split. There’s the East side, where Taeyong lives. Pristine homes with well-manicured patches of green out front. And then, past the middle of town, where the school and everything else business oriented was, there’s the West side. Taeyong had never been, wouldn’t have been allowed regardless. He’d seen it, looking out the window of the car when his parents drove past on the way to visit family out of town. Homes that looked worse for wear, no Neighborhood Association regulated grass growing along the sidewalks, and a general impression of bone deep exhaustion that Taeyong couldn’t understand just yet.
Yuta lives there, though. And so, naturally, there was an allure to it. A child’s curiosity about the place his friend called home.
“Why don’t we ever play at your house?”
Yuta looks over at him from where he’s lying on his stomach. They’re both on their bellies in Mrs. Kwon’s front yard, trying to lure a kitten they’d seen dash under the bushes out with a bowl of milk. The sun’s out in full force and Mrs. Kwon’s yard has no shade, but Taeyong’s not about to be the first to complain.
“It’s messy,” Yuta says, dismissive. “You wouldn’t like it.”
“You don’t know that,” Taeyong pouts.
A shadow of something Taeyong can’t quite place flashes across Yuta’s face. His eyes dim, the corners of his lips drop, he looks almost...bitter, angry. It’s gone as quickly as it comes, though. Yuta giving him a teasing smirk from one blink to the next.
He shuffles a little closer, putting his face next to Taeyong’s as he pokes his forehead. Taeyong’s heart jumps in his chest, a foreign fluttering starting in his lungs.
“You won’t leave your room unless we put away all the toys we played with.” Yuta laughed. “And that’s fine, but my room is definitely not that clean.”
It felt like an excuse, but Taeyong was already getting antsy at the image Yuta had planted in his head, the mess he was imagining getting more and more exaggerated by the second.
“Fine,” he concedes, dropping his chin onto his crossed arms.
Yuta laughs, eyes curving up, the smile that Taeyong was secretly jealous of on full display. “This is funner anyway!” He bumps their shoulders together, rolling onto his side to do so before flopping back on his stomach. “We’re on a hunt!”
Taeyong glances over at the kitten that had been crawling cautiously closer without their eyes on it, unable to stop the smile slowly spreading across his own lips. Yuta had that effect.
“See?” Taeyong looks back to Yuta, taking in the way the sun seems to make his dark hair shine . The fluttering in his chest spreads to his belly. “This is much more fun!”
At ten, there are a handful of undeniable truths in Taeyong’s life. One of them, is that the town they all call home is split down the middle between the East side and the West. The other, is that he has a crush on his best friend.
Taeyong didn’t care about the differences between Yuta and himself. In sixth grade, as kids get older and meaner, displaying the habits they picked up from their parents, he’s more than aware that they exist. Taeyong’s clothes have always been more expensive, newer, where Yuta’s looked more well-worn. Taeyong’s parents were twin helicopters fussing over every little aspect of his life, including his friendship with Yuta. Yuta lived with his aunt and uncle who never seemed to mind their nephew disappearing for the entire day to play across town.
Even then, it only fully hits him when, one day, he turns to Yuta to sit together at lunch to find Yuta already sitting with someone else.
Taeyong knew who Ten was even if he’d never really talked to him before. He knew he was a West sider, at the very least. He was pretty, with delicate features even for a kid, eyes sharp and tongue even sharper. Ten and Yuta would whisper through class, heads close together, alight with mischief and understanding, all while Taeyong watched from what felt like miles away.
It hurt, in a way Taeyong would never be willing to admit to Yuta, never be able to admit to anyone else. It hurt .
The more Yuta hung out with Ten, the more he seemed to drift away from Taeyong, entering each other’s orbits less and less. Taeyong had always been the only one of the East siders Yuta had ever been particularly friendly with, none of Taeyong’s own friend group overlapping with him or any of the other West siders. It made sense.
Taeyong hates it.
But, when Ten and Yuta show up to school with matching piercings, one each, earlobes red and smiles wide, people talk. Rumors spread like wildfire and everyone in their elementary school knew about it by the end of the day.
Gangsters, dangerous, West siders , the kids whispered, excited like sharks smelling blood in the water.
Trouble, no-good, irresponsible, the parents said, eyes judging, words harsh and disapproving.
Taeyong, distanced from it by Yuta’s own choice in company, felt something dark and unfriendly curl in his gut. Bitter, ugly hope that, maybe now, Yuta would come back.
Taeyong hates himself.
Middle school starts with a warning.
“Remember what I said.” Taeyong’s father isn’t yelling. He isn’t even frowning. Both behaviors are unsightly to him, usually. Taeyong has a sinking suspicion that pressing this point might bring out that rarely seen side. “No more hanging out with that boy. He’s not good for you. You have a future, he doesn’t.”
Taeyong bites the inside of his lip, resisting the urge to duck his head. His father speaks about Yuta with the cold sort of detachment someone might talk about a pest.
Words bubble up in Taeyong’s throat, so many emotions filling his chest at once that it’s almost suffocating. He thinks of Ten, Yuta’s new friend who seems to get along with him so much better than Taeyong. Who seems to just get Yuta.
He thinks of the biting comments and dirty side eyes Yuta gets just for hanging out with someone “outside of his class” , a bitter suspicion growing that his father has it backwards. He’s the one not good for Yuta.
Taeyong doesn’t say anything, though. He never does.
He just nods, like the good son he is, wondering if he’ll get a chance to talk to Yuta at school. Wondering if it just wouldn’t be better to leave him alone instead.
The part of him that was harboring an ever growing crush, something that could bloom into more if he let it, broke a little at that thought. He could admit it to himself. He likes Yuta. A lot. Far more than as just a friend.
It breaks a little more when he sees Ten’s arms slung around Yuta’s waist at school, laughing at something the other boy said. Too close for friends. Or, at the very least, closer than Taeyong had gotten to be in a while.
(Later he’ll learn how wrong he was, staring at Ten stick his tongue down Johnny’s throat with absolutely no shame what-so-ever. But at the time, he was jealous .)
Taeyong forces himself to walk away, his father’s words and something like petty anger tumbling through his head.
He doesn’t talk to him. In class, when Yuta does approach him, Taeyong brushes him off with a weak smile and half-hearted excuse. He does it again, and again, until Yuta doesn’t try anymore.
It hurts, so much , but when his parents seem happier with the company he’s no longer keeping and his friends seem less tense without the possibility of Yuta pulling him away, he can’t help but think this might actually be for the best.
Maybe dad was right.
They say you don’t notice what you have until it’s gone. Taeyong thinks that’s bullshit. Anything — anyone — important enough in the first place feels like a phantom ache, a thorn settling in your chest, the moment it’s out of your life.
Taeyong isn’t entirely sure what hurts more. The fact that he lost one of his best friends — the boy he liked — or the fact that Yuta let him go, let him fade away.
It was dramatic, Taeyong knew. The type of thing he didn’t have time for, according to his parents. Whenever he felt like that, Taeyong took a breath and let himself go numb, losing himself to the constant stream of homework, projects, and extracurriculars.
“It’s never too early to start thinking about college applications,” his mother told him with a smile the single time Taeyong made the mistake of complaining about everything. “Every little thing counts.”
He’d been in eighth grade at that point. Almost a year since he’d last talked to Yuta. Almost a year since Yuta had looked at him with anything besides cold anger masked by indifference.
Taeyong gave her a small nod, smiled like he understood, like he thought it was fair.
He goes to school and tries to pretend Yuta had never been a part of his life in the first place.
Taeyong runs for the Student Council his first year of high school. It’s what his parents want and everyone expects. Taeyong is top of his class, after all. Has been for the past three years. His parents credit it to the Yuta shaped hole in his life, say that his new friends have been a good influence on him. Taeyong thinks of the nights he’s spent at Doyoung’s place, drinking from the Kim’s liquor cabinet while they were out and knows that’s not it. At least, not entirely. Studying was a way to fill the gap that hadn’t quite closed after having to walk away from his friend and first love. He was bound to see results.
He wins. It’s less surprising than he thought it would be, having run for vice president on the ticket of a popular senior who’d been soft on him — something he discovers when that senior tries to kiss him one day, many months later, cornering Taeyong in the Student Council office after one of their meetings.
He wouldn’t have tried that if Yuta had been around , Taeyong finds himself thinking when he’s curled up with Doyoung in the other boy’s room, Doyoung ranting in a low, frighteningly serious tone about all the horrible things he was going to do to their school’s “precious president”.
Taeyong doesn’t tell anyone else about the incident, doesn’t want to blow it out of proportion, even when the senior starts giving him the cold shoulder.
He concerns himself instead with the new piercings glittering in Yuta’s ears, how soft his newly dyed hair looks. A much better use of his time and energies, in Taeyong’s opinion.
The year passes, the senior who’s name Doyoung told him to forget — “An asshole like that doesn’t deserve to be remembered.” — graduates, time moves on.
Taeyong’s time in the Student Council gains him some popularity, some recognition. The fact that he picks up dance gets him even more. It’s nice. On the rare occasions that he makes eye-contact with Yuta in class or in the halls — if he doesn’t ignore Taeyong completely — he glares, naked hostility flashing in his eyes. That...that’s not nice.
Still, time moves on.
Taeyong isn’t really sure what possesses him to accept Jaehyun’s offer to hang out. He isn’t sure what comes over Jaehyun for the other boy to even offer in the first place. But he did, and Taeyong does, and now, with Yuta glaring at him, he isn’t sure he should’ve.
Anger and hurt are building on Yuta’s face like a brewing storm as he watches Taeyong step out from behind his friend. Taeyong, for a dangerous moment, can’t breathe. Uncertainty fills his lungs while something more than longing, but marginally less potent than want, blazes through his veins.
Maybe , he thinks, forcing himself to pull air into his lungs and not fidget with the buttons of his uniform in the face of a very angry, very shirtless Yuta, Maybe this was a bad idea.
But then Jaehyun is pulling Taeyong to sit between him and the tallest of the group, a giant of a boy Taeyong’s relatively sure is named Johnny, who offers him a beer Taeyong doesn’t think he has the stomach to drink.
Yuta rolls his eyes at him when he politely declines it, swiping it for himself instead.
Jaehyun goes through the motions of introducing him to the group even though Taeyong is sure they all know who he is already. Still, he appreciates it when Johnny shakes his hand and Yuta doesn’t pretend like they didn’t know each other.
Taeyong isn’t sure he’d be able to take that.
Taeyong stares, because he hasn’t been this close to Yuta in so long and he can’t help himself. Yuta, likely feeling his gaze burning against his skin, doesn’t sit still for long, eventually giving in to the antsy energy visibly coursing through him and jumping into the lake again, the other two following shortly after.
Taeyong feels awkward and out of place, sitting alone on the lake’s dock while the three West siders frolic in the water, but, at the end of the night, Taeyong doesn’t regret his decision to come.
Yuta pulls himself out of the water when he spots Taeyong sitting at the edge of the dock, laying back against the dry wooden planks, close enough that all Taeyong would need to do is reach out and he’d be able to touch. Taeyong feels uncomfortable in his own skin, the need to say something, anything , to Yuta scratching at his throat.
“I’m sorry,” he eventually says, voice soft, so low he almost thinks Yuta doesn’t hear him over the sounds of roughhousing and water splashing coming from Johnny and Jaehyun.
“Don’t worry about it,” Yuta tells him with a dismissive wave of his hand, and Taeyong wonders what he’s saying ‘don’t worry’ about, wonders what exactly he’d been trying to apologize for in the first place when there’s so much it could’ve applied to. Yuta closes his eyes and Taeyong’s heart flutters at the small display of trust. “Just don’t let those two idiots sneak up on me.”
Taeyong made a mistake. He can acknowledge that. He was driving on the wrong side of town, at the wrong time of day, in the flashy car his parents had gifted him as soon as he’d gotten his license. He might as well have been waving a sign saying “Trouble? I want it!”. It didn’t mean it was any less terrifying being cornered by Hanbin and his gang. It just wasn't a surprise.
Yuta coming to his rescue, though? That, was a surprise.
He can’t quite believe the scene unfolding before his eyes, Yuta holding a knife to another boy’s neck, bringing everything to a tense standstill.
“Taeyong,” he says, calm, firm. “Come over here.”
It’s a command Taeyong follows with hesitant steps, worried that the second he moves too far the group will attack. They don’t. He reaches Yuta’s side.
“You know you’re violating the Code right now,” Hanbin warns.
Yuta’s expression is tight around the edges when he says, “I know.”
He takes Taeyong’s hand as they finally walk away, Taeyong trying his best not to let his heart flutter at the gesture. It’s not the time or place.
He tries to apologize once they’re far enough away. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know—”
“You can’t just do that,” Yuta snaps, taking a breath when Taeyong visibly flinches back. “Listen, I know that you’re best friends with Jaehyun or whatever, but you can’t just come over here whenever you want.”
Taeyong tries to deny that, tries to explain. I’m here for you, you idiot. Always you.
“You should go back,” Yuta tells him, exhaustion washing over his features as he steps back towards his old but well-kept motorcycle. Guilt wells up in Taeyong’s gut, bitter and burning.
He knows. Yuta’s right.
Taeyong tries to thank him, arm reaching out even though he knows he won’t reach, finding himself cut off again. Shut down.
Yuta pauses by his bike, turning enough to face Taeyong, eyes unreadable before he gives him a small wave. “Get back safe.”
Taeyong’s heart thuds hard in his chest, eyes wide and fixed on Yuta’s back as he drives away. He still needs to drive back home without running into any more trouble, but he can feel a smile pulling at his lips, a flicker of something that feels like hope beating in time to his pulse.
“Get back safe.” It’s not an olive branch, but it’s something, and Taeyong can’t reach for it quickly enough.
Stumbling on Yuta at the diner is an accident. Waiting for him at the store isn’t. He stays at school much later than necessary, first catching up on things he had to look over as class president, then doing homework. He told his parents he was planning to go to an after school study session that would probably run long. They didn’t even question it. Haven’t even called since he sent a text saying “working hard :)” even though it was nearing three in the morning.
It’s fine. Better than fine, really, since this way he gets to wait for Yuta mostly worry-free, willing himself to keep a straight face when Yuta just about jumps out of his skin in response to Taeyong announcing his presence.
“What are you doing here?” Yuta asks, eyes wild, hand over his chest.
Taeyong considers what he could say, the pros and cons of the truth versus a lie, eventually settles on something in between. “I left school not long ago, so,” he shrugs, “I thought I’d stop by.”
Yuta seems to buy it, anyway, eyeing Taeyong’s school uniform, the perfect piece of evidence that Taeyong hadn’t been anywhere else.
Taeyong watches Yuta watch him for a beat before speaking again, with a nod towards the vehicle behind him, offering what he’d been planning to from the start. “Get in the car. I’ll drive you back home.”
His words have an immediate effect, Yuta’s hackles rising, eyes narrowing. He advances on Taeyong with quick steps, backing Taeyong up against his car, sending his heart hammering in his chest both at Yuta’s clear agitation and sheer proximity.
“What do you want?” Yuta asks, sharp, a wild energy wicking off him, cheeks flushed with emotion. “Why are you trying to force your way back into my life?”
Taeyong swallows, everything he’s wanted to say building up in his throat, vying for freedom. “I’m sorry.” For everything.
It’s not enough. Not really. But it makes Yuta’s eyes glow for a second, viciously victorious, before his expression shifts and something like guilt dims it. Worry flashes through Taeyong lightning quick, having him raise a hesitant hand, reaching out for Yuta, letting it hang there like his apology.
“Aren’t you tired?”
Yuta closes his eyes, exhaustion clear in the lines of his face, the tension in his body. Taeyong flinches forward, unseen, wanting to be ready to catch him if it looked like he was about to fall.
Yuta doesn’t. He opens his eyes, looking at Taeyong with an emotion he can’t parse, taking a step back. Taeyong’s chest tightens for a moment before he sees that Yuta’s just going for the passenger side door.
“Do you even know how to get to my house?” he asks, going back to Taeyong’s initial offer.
Taeyong smiles, relief washing over him like a balm. “It’s past the bridge, right?”
“On the right side,” Yuta says, getting into the car while Taeyong tries not to skip his way over to the driver’s side.
Yuta looks half asleep already by the time Taeyong’s buckled in and starting up the car, melting into the leather seat, eyes closed again. A blend of giddiness at Yuta agreeing to the offer and pain at how tired he looks swirls in his belly, all underlined by a slow sizzling of want that had never quite left over the years, Taeyong’s crush having gone dormant, not dead.
The need to say something into the silence slowly surfaces, the direction of his thoughts dangerous with the fragility of whatever... this was.
“Is it just you working at the store?”
In his periphery he sees Yuta turn towards the window, tries to will away the small pinch in his chest at the action.
“At this time, yeah,” he sighs, and Taeyong wishes he could see his expression, figure out if he’s pushing his luck. “Mark leaves after ten. There’s not many customers around anyway.” Taeyong glances over to see Yuta tapping his fingers against the window like a child. Cute . “How did you know I would be here, anyway?”
And there it was, the question Taeyong thought he’d managed to dodge.
He presses his lips together. “I’ve seen you working there a few times before,” he says, the admission burning on his cheeks. “And,” he shrugs, unseen, “I just thought— it’s a pretty long trip back to your house, isn’t it?”
“Yeah.” It’s said with the air of a sigh from someone used to the trek. Yuta pauses, and Taeyong can tell he’s about to say something he’s not entirely comfortable with. “You’ve never…” more hesitation, “You’ve never been to my house before, have you?”
Taeyong’s grip on the steering wheel tightens. It’s an opening, a chance, a door for Taeyong to walk through and touch on something neither of them have talked about in years , large-in-part because they haven’t talked in years.
He takes a deep, slow breath, preparing for the plunge. “No, I haven’t,” and then, “We always used to hang out at mine.”
Sun drenched and happy, before everything changed. Before Taeyong’s heart broke.
The tension in the car spikes, laying heavy over them like a blanket. There were so many things they’d left unsaid, so many things to address and unpack. The fact that they’d never gone to Yuta’s house, that the other boy had never invited him over — a reasoning Taeyong understood now, but had been painfully, shamefully, oblivious of then — only the tip of the iceberg.
The silence grows and grows, until…
“Why are you being so nice?”
Yuta sounds genuinely curious and that hits harder than Taeyong expected. He knew what he’d done hadn’t been kind, but he’d never been outright mean, or, at least that’s what he thought.
He flexes his hands, palms sweaty, trying to ground himself in the feel of the smooth leather of the steering wheel. “What do you mean?”
Yuta doesn’t answer, just waits. Despite being energy incarnate, he’s always known when to wait, when to be patient. A trait Taeyong had valued so dearly, not used to being able to say what he wanted from the start.
Now, though, it was just nerve-wracking.
Taeyong breathes through his nose, piecing together what he wants to say. There were too many things that could accidentally start a fight if not phrased correctly.
“It’s hard for me to fall asleep at night,” he starts, voice low, fragile. “Even when I’m done with all my work, I just can’t stop thinking . And— I don’t know,” his voice wobbles, cracks. He has to pause. Breathe. In, and out. When he continues, his voice is even smaller. “I don’t know why, but being on this side of town makes it easier for me to breathe.”
He hears Yuta shift around, feels his gaze burning against the side of his face. He wonders if the other boy can see all the things Taeyong chose not to say. I feel closer to you here. I’ve missed you so much and that’s all I want. To be close again. To not have to hide my imperfections. To just breathe. To not be tired. I’m so tired. So, so tired.
He keeps his eyes on the road.
“The college entrance exam is in a few weeks, isn’t it?”
Taeyong’s smile is faint as he turns to look over at Yuta, curled up and sleepy in the safety of his car. “Even you know?”
Yuta snorts lightly. “Please, I’d have to be deaf and bllind if I didn’t.”
Taeyong’s smile turns a touch more genuine, a touch wider. Yuta’s lips twitch, and Taeyong knows there’s a smile hidden there, too.
“Eyes on the road,” he chides, the ghost of a smile still there, snapping his fingers as if breaking a spell. “Keep going and—”
“Turn right,” Taeyong finishes. “I know, you already told me.”
“I’m trying to give you directions, Mr. Class President,” Yuta says, teasing.
It earns him a dry chuckle from Taeyong and he smiles. Taeyong tries not to show how that expression has his breath catching in his throat, body flooding with warmth from his head down to his toes.
Keep it together.
After crossing the bridge, it doesn’t take much longer to get to Yuta’s house. Taeyong pulls up slowly, fully appreciating how quiet his car is when he takes in the lack of lights on inside all the houses. He wants to stare and look around, take in as much of the neighborhood where Yuta grew up as he can, even if it’s too dark to really see, but Yuta’s turning his eyes on him and Taeyong can’t help but meet them.
“I’d invite you in now, if it weren’t so late,” he says and Taeyong blinks at the honesty he hears in Yuta’s tone.
Taeyong, possessed by the moment — because that’s the only explanation for what he does — reaches a hand out to rest on Yuta’s arm, wanting to comfort and reassure.
“I know,” he pauses, slightly thrown by the fact that Yuta hasn’t shaken his touch off. He glances at Yuta’s house. “You should go back, it’s getting late.”
Yuta doesn’t, though. Doesn’t even make a move to.
Instead he tells Taeyong, voice quieter than Taeyong has ever heard, “I’m always out really late.” It’s said like an admission as he absentmindedly runs his fingers over the the leather upholstery of the car seat. “Sometimes,” he stutters, pauses, starts again, “Sometimes I feel like it wouldn’t matter if I never came back.”
Taeyong’s heart aches . He can’t fathom why Yuta is opening this to him, telling him as if they haven’t been in a cold war the past few years. Taeyong isn’t about to bring that up and turn him away, though. Not when this is more than he could’ve ever hoped for. A peace offering.
“Of course it would. Your aunt and uncle love you,” he says, filling his words with as much conviction as he can.
“But not in the same way.”
Not in the same way as my cousin , he doesn’t say. He doesn’t have to. Taeyong knows. Remembers from when they’d been children the way Jaemin had been favored.
“I’m sorry,” he tells him. Yuta looks up, eyes sharp and mouth already open for what Taeyong can only imagine is a rebuttal or refusal. He’d always hated pity. Taeyong continues before Yuta can interrupt or jump to conclusions. “It’s just— hard, to realize that you’re hurting someone sometimes.”
Taeyong can’t quite place the flurry of expressions flitting across Yuta’s face, but he does recognize the edge of determination he eventually settles on. “Middle school?”
Taeyong nods, ducking his head, his hands suddenly very interesting.
“I don’t think I realized what I was doing until you stopped trying to talk to me, and then I was too stubborn to apologize.”
It’s not the whole truth, but it’s not a lie either. Taeyong had known what he was doing when he let Yuta go, he just hadn’t thought about how much it would hurt Yuta also, too busy wallowing in the decisions he was being forced to make.
Yuta stares for a beat before turning his gaze to a large, old tree in his front yard. “It’s not entirely your fault. Your parents didn’t want me to hang out with you, did they?”
Taeyong bites back a huff of a laugh. Of course. He didn’t need to sugarcoat things when Yuta was plenty observant on his own. Not that Taeyong’s parents had ever been particularly subtle.
Yuta turns back to him with a smile. “Well, your parents weren’t completely wrong. Look at where I am now, and look at where you’re about to be. I would’ve been such a bad influence.”
Hearing Yuta use such a self-deprecating tone has frustration building up in Taeyong’s lungs, tears burning behind his eyes and down his nose, threatening to fall. His parents, the whole damn town— even Taeyong , and the way he’d turned his back on him, had all played a role in putting that self-doubt and deprecation there. Things that had no place dimming Yuta’s smile, his glow.
Taeyong reaches out again, confident in the knowledge that he wouldn’t be shaken off, curling his fingers delicately around Yuta’s forearm. “It must’ve hurt a lot.”
His parents’ thinly veiled disdain that shouldn’t have been directed at a child. Taeyong pushing him away, abandoning years of friendship in a moment of weakness. Growing up in a family that was yours but not. Everything.
“I know,” Yuta says, a soft, reassuring smile, as if Taeyong was the one that needed to be comforted.
Considering he felt like he was about to cry, Yuta probably wasn’t all too far off, but still…
Taeyong was getting lost in his own thoughts, the silence stretching, when movement from Yuta draws him back.
He’s leaning forward, eyes dark and glittering where they rest on Taeyong’s face, searching. He’s moving slowly, carefully, coming closer. His eyes flick to Taeyong’s mouth before looking back up, telegraphing his intentions loud and clear.
Letting me know , Taeyong thinks, Giving me the chance to back away. To say no .
Taeyong was done backing away. He was done giving up what he wanted.
Pulse thundering in his ears, he closes the distance, meeting Yuta in the softest kiss.
Taeyong has kissed other people. Most were okay, a few were bad, plenty were deeper than this. This kiss, though, is perfect , if only because it’s with the boy he’s liked since he was ten.
It’s soft, and warm, and so, so sweet . Happiness and hope sings through Taeyong’s veins with an intensity that would probably scare him later, but that had him practically floating out of his seat now.
Yuta pulls back first, eyes searching. Whatever he sees on Taeyong’s face must satisfy him, because he raises a hand to tuck away a strand of hair from Taeyong’s eyes with the gentlest of touches.
“I’ll see you tomorrow?”
Taeyong’s heart soars. He squeezes his hand where it’s still curled around Yuta’s forearm before letting go, nodding. “See you.”
He watches Yuta climb out of the car and get into his house safely, mind reeling. He’s smiling, uncontrollably wide, a disbelieving giggle escaping before he can stop it. Once Yuta is out of sight he drives off.
It’s nearly four-thirty in the morning when he finally gets home, sneaking past his parents’ rooms to not wake them, but he couldn’t care less.
For the first time in months, maybe even years, Taeyong sleeps like a baby.
Yuta is happily asleep, drooling on his desk when Mr. Park’s class ends.
Taeyong takes a moment to appreciate the sight before reaching over and poking him awake with his pen.
Yuta wakes like a disgruntled cat, eyes narrow as he bats away Taeyong’s pen. “What do you want?”
“Math is over,” he tells him, reigning in an amused smile. “Do you want my notes?”
“It’s not like I’d understand anything anyways,” he says, propping his chin on his palm, eyes half-lidded from sleep. It decidedly does not make heat swirl pleasantly in Taeyong’s gut. “Aren’t you not supposed to interact with me in public, Mr. Class President?”
It’s teasing, not insulting, Yuta looking over at him with mirth twinkling in his eyes.
Taeyong doesn’t snort, because that’s been disciplined out of him, but he does roll his eyes, choosing to ignore the comment. “Did you sleep well last night?”
“Yup,” he says, popping the ‘p’, “I did.”
The tension in the air spikes, Yuta’s gaze heavy. They should talk about last night. Clear the air and figure out where they stand now. Before Taeyong can open his mouth to say that, though, Yuta continues.
“You should worry about yourself, your eyebags are way worse than mine.”
He leans across the aisle and pokes at Taeyong’s cheek to emphasize his point, bringing all of Taeyong’s thoughts to a screeching halt. It takes more effort than Taeyong would like to admit to reel his focus back in and formulate a response.
“At least I’m not the one falling asleep in class.”
“You can’t tell me you actually find Mr. Park’s class interesting ,” Yuta scoffs.
Taeyong purses his lips, not answering because, yeah, he actually does . Math was hard until you understood it, then it was simple and straightforward.
Yuta blinks, understanding Taeyong’s silence for what it is, groaning in disbelief. “Taeyong—”
He doesn’t get to finish what he was about to say, much to Taeyong’s disappointment, because Doyoung pops in, calling Taeyong’s name, coming up short when he sees Yuta and Taeyong talking.
Taeyong opens his mouth, begins to say something — a proper introduction, maybe, since after last night, after that kiss, there was no way he was letting Yuta slip away again — but before he can get anything out, Yuta is jumping up out of his seat.
“I’m going to fill my water bottle.” He looks at Doyoung, cheeky grin twitching at his lips. “Don’t go around looking too important.”
Doyoung primly and promptly flicks him off, turning to watch as Yuta all but skips away.
“Is a congratulations in order?” he asks, turning back to Taeyong, eyebrow raised.
Taeyong huffs out a laugh, rubbing at the back of his neck. He knows he’s turning red, heat creeping over his skin, engulfing the tips of his ears. “I don’t know. Maybe?”
Doyoung snorts, perching himself on the desk in front of Taeyong’s. “That means yes. You gonna tell me about it?”
The memory of the kiss flashes through his head, fresh and vivid. The blazing trail of want that follows is startling, but not-unwelcome.
Doyoung watches all of this play out on Taeyong’s face with sharp eyes that see far too much. “Do I even want to know?”
Taeyong winces. “Well…”
“I’ll take that as a no,” Doyoung says with pursed lips and a decisive nod. “You can talk about it anyway, though, since you sure as hell can’t go to anyone else with this. They’re already weird enough about you becoming friends with Jaehyun, and he’s kind of like Switzerland. Neutral territory because of his, well, everything.”
Taeyong doesn’t deserve Doyoung ( “No, you don’t, but you’ve got me anyway.” ).
“You know you’re my best friend, right?” Taeyong asks, eyes shining, smile blinding.
“I beat out Yuta? Sweet.”
Taeyong laughs. “Only because I’m hoping he’ll be something else.”
Doyoung groans, rolling his eyes, hard. Taeyong laughs louder. When he calms down a little he notices Yuta coming back into the class over Doyoung’s shoulder, Johnny’s arm around him, the two of them chatting.
He looks happy. When he makes eye-contact with Taeyong, he looks a little happier.
Taeyong feels himself falling all over again.
Taeyong never particularly liked heights. There were too many variables involved that he couldn’t control. Variables that could lead to devastating results. So, sitting on the railing of the bridge that crosses the lake is, simply put, terrifying.
Yuta is with him, though, so it’s not as bad. Taeyong trusts Yuta. He trusts that Yuta cares about him, and that he would never suggest something life-threatening to him. He trusts the strong arm wrapped firmly around his waist, pressing him into Yuta’s side, and the warmth seeping through his school uniform. He just...trusts him. Maybe more than he should, but Taeyong could care less.
“You good?” Yuta asks, leaning a little closer, concern clear in his voice.
Taeyong is white-knuckling the railing with both hands, but he’s stubborn, for better or worse.
“Yeah.” He inhales, breath wobbly, and exhales, equally shaky. “I’m just slightly afraid of heights. It’s fine.”
Mostly, he doesn’t tack on, because he’s happy where he is, in a spot Yuta chose to share with him.
He’s probably not all too convincing, but Yuta just hums and lets it go, letting his gaze trail down to the water below. “Where do you want to go after this?”
“You mean next year?” Taeyong asks, curling closer into Yuta’s hold. He mulls it over, as if it isn’t the only thing he’s been thinking about for the past two years. “I want to go to the city for college. I’ve been preparing for it almost my whole life.” My parents made sure of that. He turns to Yuta, so close that he can see the sun freckles dotting his skin. He kind of wants to kiss him again. A lot. “What about you? Are you going to stay here?”
Yuta nods, fingers tapping out an absentminded rhythm against Taeyong’s hip. It’s casual, and intimate. Taeyong doubts Yuta even fully registers he’s doing it as he thinks, eyes unfocusing.
There’s a distance between them despite being physically closer than they’d ever gotten to be before, having split ways before they could act on any feelings they’d both clearly been harboring. Being able to touch, now, didn’t change the contrast in their positions, didn’t erase the ocean that existed between growing up on the East side and the West.
“I’ll finally be done with school, so mainly just work. I’ll probably start at the factory for something steady.”
“I’ve never thought of staying,” Taeyong admits. He tips his head back, looking up at the night sky, the stars, the infinite space hanging over their heads as a reminder that there was so much more out there than just their small, divided home. “This town always seemed like something I should be escaping from. You’ve never been outside of this town, have you?”
It’s a question he shouldn’t have asked. It just further presses the inherent differences that exist in what they grew up expecting out of life. Taeyong to leave for something better, Yuta to try and survive.
He gets the answer he knew he’d get once the words left his mouth in the form of a tight smile. Yuta telling him that no, he’d driven to the outskirts, but never beyond that. The edge of their town acting like an invisible barrier, keeping its inhabitants in.
Taeyong knows he shouldn’t keep pushing the point, but he does, unable to help himself, wanting Yuta to want more for himself. “Haven’t you ever wanted to go? I could—”
“It’s fine.” The words are sharp. “We don’t owe each other anything.” His follow up is even sharper, cutting deep. Taeyong resists the urge to retreat.
No more running away.
Yuta, ever observant Yuta, seems to realize the harshness of his own words. Visibly swallows the frustration Taeyong had unearthed.
“If you ever come back, though, we’ll be here.” We. Yuta, Jaehyun, Johnny, Ten.
It’s not much as far as concessions go, but it’s something.
The only reason I’d come back, anyway , Taeyong thinks.
“I’ve been here my whole life, but it doesn’t feel like I’ve really lived here.” A ghost in his own life, too wrapped up in the past and too stressed over a future that was planned for him. “I’ve probably experienced more these past few weeks than I have in years.”
“You almost experienced getting beat up by a whole gang,” Yuta grins, laughing at the week old memory. Taeyong shivers, not as amused by that incident even if it did play a part in bringing them back together. “You spend so much time reading and studying that I’m surprised you’ve experienced anything at all.”
Taeyong frowns, lips pushing forward into an unconscious pout. “It’s not that bad.” He takes a deep breath. “You have a home here, don’t you?” He doesn’t know if he’ll be able to leave otherwise, not now that he’s been allowed back into Yuta’s life. “Ten, Johnny, Jaehyun…”
“I’d trust them with my life,” Yuta completes, firm with the conviction of someone stating an irrefutable fact. Yuta pulls back from him, then, giving Taeyong a rakish grin, looking every bit the troublemaker his parents feared he was. “Do you want to jump down or what?”
Somehow, over the course of their conversation, lulled by the security of Yuta’s arm around him, Taeyong managed to forget where they were sitting. He shakes his head emphatically, eyes wide. “Absolutely not.”
The fact that he’d show up at his house soaking wet if he did being the least of his worries.
Yuta stands, carefully pushing himself up with a palm on the railing, and for one horrible moment Taeyong thinks he’s about to jump anyway. But, then he’s landing back on the bridge, feet firmly planted on solid ground. He holds his hand out to Taeyong.
Taeyong accepts it, Yuta holding tighter when Taeyong tilts a little to the side, not nearly as steady in his climb over as Yuta had been.
He holds it, and he doesn’t let go.
It took Taeyong a solid two tears of his college life to get used to living in the city, but now, moving amongst the crowds of people, navigating the busy streets, it’s all second nature.
“It’s because you were so pampered,” Yuta says, blunt as ever, sprawled out on their couch with their cat curled up on his chest. “Of course the city was a lot for you.”
“It’s not anymore,” Taeyong grumbles, shuffling his way over to join them, squeezing into the remaining space.
Not everyone could be as adaptable as Yuta was, taking to new environments like a fish in water.
Yuta, used to reading Taeyong’s expressions — just used to Taeyong, really — snorts, placing their cat onto the floor with tender affection and soft coos before wrapping his limbs around Taeyong like an octopus to give him the same treatment.
“I know, I know.” He pecks Taeyong’s cheek, leaves a trail of kisses along his jaw, nuzzling softly against the sensitive skin by Taeyong’s ear. “You’ve come a long way.”
Taeyong smiles, tilting his head to give Yuta a kiss of his own.
They both had, really, in the time since graduating from high school. Taeyong had gone to college, graduated, grown. Yuta had stayed, moved out of his aunt and uncle’s home and into a cramped apartment with his friends, worked. Taeyong came back to visit during his breaks, Yuta went into the city to visit when he had money. Somewhere along the way they started officially dating — “Married!” Johnny yelled, Doyoung nodding in grim agreement, “You guys are basically married!” — stealing moments of privacy when they could.
It was everything they couldn’t have while living in their town growing up. Everything Taeyong had ever wished for.
At some point Taeyong had realized he was living a Stable Adult Life, and Yuta decided college might be something he could do, could afford, and they’d moved in together, splitting a small but cozy apartment. They shared a bed, cooked when they could, adjusted to sharing a space in a way that was completely new for them.
Three years later, at twenty-seven, here they are, tangled together, lives intertwined, sharing an apartment with the world’s judgiest — “Sweetest,” Yuta insists — cat.
“Did you ever think we’d get here?” Yuta breathes, now laying on his side so Taeyong could snuggle close.
“Honestly?” Taeyong hums. “No. I couldn’t think past high school, for a while. The future had always been so murky. Didn’t feel like I had any say in it so I just couldn’t,” he struggles for the right word, “ see it.”
“Mm.” Yuta presses a kiss to the top of Taeyong’s head, the arm he’d flung across his waist pulling him flush to his chest, their body’s lining up. “Well, you do now. The future’s ours to do whatever we want with. Ours to live and burn.”
Taeyong smiles, letting Yuta’s scent fill his lungs, his heart beat soothe him after a long day at work. “Damn right it is.”
Yuta laughs, loud and happy and free.
It’s theirs to burn, and burn it would. Brilliantly, vibrantly, fiercely, until the very end.