After Sungjin is born, his mother gets her tubes tied. Sungjin, obviously, is unaware of this. However, it does dawn on him at some point during his teenage years that he’s probably what many people would call a “happy accident”. He has two sisters, both of whom are significantly older than him – the younger of the two being fourteen when he’s born – and although his parents love him dearly they really are a little on the older side to be raising another baby.
Kang Younghyun is the only son of the girl that his mother babysat when she was in high school. He lives just down the road, and, on account of their mothers maintaining a friendship, they spend quite a lot of time together. Younghyun is younger than Sungjin by almost a whole year and Sungjin, who doesn’t yet understand why he’s not going to get a younger sibling of his own, is happy to play hyung.
On Sungjin’s first day of school, Younghyun cries so hard that snot runs down his face and his mother keeps apologising on his behalf. Sungjin’s parents want a first day of school photo outside the front door, Sungjin dressed smart in his new school uniform, bookbag in hand. But Sungjin only agrees if Younghyun can be in the picture.
“Are you sure, honey?” asks his mom, “we can take one without Younghyunie, too, if you want.”
“Don’t want that,” says Sungjin firmly. His parents give each other a look, but agree. So Sungjin’s first day of school photo, which hangs framed in the hallway for most of his childhood, features a red-faced and snotty-nosed Younghyun frowning beside him. Sungjin finds it hilarious. Younghyun hates it.
Sungjin’s in Younghyun’s first day of school photo a year later. This photo, which has pride of place in the equally embarrassing location of over the fake fireplace at Younghyun’s house, is significantly cuter.
Younghyun is wide-eyed and nervous, his knuckles white with how hard he’s gripping the straps of his new school rucksack. Sungjin is smiling widely next to him, a front tooth missing, his arm slung over the other’s shoulder in a pose that would becoming increasingly familiar to the two of them in birthday and holiday photos to come.
Sungjin doesn’t have a lot of close friends at school, falling into that little-kid habit of declaring a best friend one day and having a different one two weeks later. He likes a lot of the other kids, and he’s not bullied, but he’s also never been invited to another child’s house except for the kind of birthday parties where the whole class gets invites.
This changes when Younghyun starts school, because even though he’s the year below and some of the kids in his class question why he’s friends with one of the babies, the two are inseparable.
“This is Kang Younghyun,” he says to his teacher on Younghyun’s first day. He’d dragged Younghyun across the playground the second he saw her coming out with her cup of coffee to watch the students, gripping his hand tightly so the smaller boy doesn’t get lost.
His teacher smiles. “Lovely to meet you,” she says to Younghyun, “how do you know our Sungjin-ah?”
Younghyun doesn’t answer, because he’s got his fingers in his mouth, and has no interest in meeting Sungjin’s teacher beyond the fact that Sungjin had told him that was what he was going to do.
“He’s my best friend,” says Sungjin proudly, “amma says he’s my little brother even though we’re not related.”
“That’s nice,” says Sungjin’s teacher, who likes Sungjin as much as any of her students but was really hoping to just drink her coffee and plan lessons in her head for the next twenty minutes. “How about you go and be a good hyung and give Younghyunie a tour of the playground?”
Sungjin puffs out his chest and nods importantly. “Yes,” he says, “come on, Younghyunie, I can show you everything. I know this place really well now.”
By the end of Younghyun’s first week, it’s well known amongst the teaching staff that wherever Sungjin is, Younghyun will be following.
When Sungjin is nine and Younghyun is eight, Younghyun falls over in the playground and scrapes up his knees and the palm of one of his hands. He doesn’t even sit up, just lies on the concrete where he’d fallen and bawls his eyes out.
Sungjin is too panicked to think to find a teacher. He sits down on the floor next to Younghyun and tries not to cry too, because he is nine and nine-year-olds don’t cry about everything like eight-year-olds do. But Sungjin is an empathetic nine-year-old, and hot tears run down his cheeks even though he doesn’t want them to.
The teacher on duty finds them pretty quickly, and initially thinks that Sungjin’s been hurt, too. He wails when she tries to get him to stand up, but it’s only because he wants her to help Younghyun first.
“He’s hurt!” he says, his voice loud and panicked. “He fell over and he won’t get up and I didn’t know what to do!”
“Younghyun-ah,” says the teacher, who doesn’t teach either of the boys but knows his name by a streak of luck and staffroom chatter, “will you let me help you up?”
Sungjin hovers next to the limping Younghyun all the way to the first-aid room. The nurse kindly tells Sungjin that Younghyun will be fine, nothing that a few band-aids and some antiseptic won’t fix, and would Sungjin like to go out and enjoy the rest of his lunch break now?
Sungjin shakes his head. “I have to look after him,” he says solemnly, “I told his mom that I would.”
The teacher and the nurse share a look and Sungjin is allowed to stay and hold Younghyun’s sweaty palm as the nurse fixes up the grazes on his knees.
“That can’t happen again,” says Sungjin seriously when Younghyun comes to his house after school that day. Younghyun is cross-legged on his bed, eating the popsicle his mom had bought him when she’d seen his bruised knees. He’s practically already forgotten about what happened at lunch.
“What can’t happen?” asks Younghyun. Sungjin is standing up, arms folded.
“You getting hurt,” says Sungjin, “the nurse almost didn’t let me stay to look after you.”
“But she did, though,” says Younghyun.
Sungjin stomps a foot. “But she might not next time!”
Younghyun considers this. “I don’t think I’d like being in the nurse’s office without you. It smells weird in there.”
“Exactly,” says Sungjin, “so we need to make it so that they always have to let me in.”
Sungjin has been thinking carefully about this ever since he got sent back to lessons at the end of lunch. His mom and older sister had been watching a drama on the tv in the living room the night before, and Sungjin had been playing his DS in the same room. He was pretty sure that if they had realised he was kind of watching it too, they would have sent him out, because it was really grown-up and had a lot of adults shouting at each other.
But he pretended he was focused on his game, even put his headphones on without the sound, and kept glancing at the screen out of the corner of his eye. There was a particular moment that stuck with him. One of the characters had got hurt really badly, and his love interest had been crying really hard, but the doctors wouldn’t let her in.
(“Is he your husband?” one of the doctors on TV had asked.
“No, but I’d marry him in a heartbeat, please let me see him.”
“Sorry, unless you’re direct family, we can’t let you in.”)
Sungjin knows that Younghyun isn’t really family. His parents like to say things like “practically family” and “almost like brothers” to describe him. If Younghyun gets hurt again, they might not let Sungjin see him if they’re only practically family.
“We need to get married,” says Sungjin firmly. “That way, if you get hurt, they have to let me see you.”
“What?” says Younghyun, and Sungjin sighs. He forgets that Younghyun is so much littler than him and needs things like this explained. So he tells him about the drama and about how if they’re married they can look out for each other better, and by the end Younghyun is nodding enthusiastically.
“I think it’s a really good idea,” says Younghyun, “but can’t only grown-ups get married?”
Sungjin thinks that at nine, he’s already perfectly grown up, but he gets where Younghyun is coming from. Eight-year-olds might not be able to. “We can just decide we’re getting married now,” says Sungjin, “and then actually do it later.”
“Can I wear the suit?” asks Younghyun, “I don’t like dresses very much.”
Sungjin doesn’t want to wear a dress either. “We can both wear suits,” he decides. “But that’s not now, anyway. For now, we just need to promise.”
“Ok,” says Younghyun. The remains of his popsicle are dripping onto Sungjin’s Spiderman bedding, completely forgotten about.
“No, you need to promise,” says Sungjin, “say ‘I promise’.”
“I promise,” Younghyun parrots back.
“Good,” says Sungjin. There’s a pause. He doesn’t quite know what you do after that. “Do you want to play Mario Kart?”
Sungjin asks his oldest sister the next time she visits what it’s called when you’ve promised someone that you’ll get married to them, but you haven’t done it yet.
“That’s called being engaged,” she says, “but I’m not engaged to Hyunwoo-oppa, Sungjinnie.”
Sungjin hadn’t been thinking of his sister’s smelly boyfriend who tries to relate to him by talking about videos games that his mom would never let him play, but he pretends that he is. “Good,” he says, quoting something from another of his mom’s dramas, “you can do better.”
His sister shrieks with laughter.
On his last day of primary school, Sungjin gives Younghyun a mood ring. It’s actually quite a nice one, Sungjin thinks. It’s got real metal and a little paper booklet that tells you what the different colours mean. He spent his pocket money on it while his dad made stupid dad comments about how Sungjin had never shown an interest in jewellery and that he didn’t know he was raising someone with such discerning tastes.
Sungjin had gone to the register to pay for it himself, feeling very grown-up and also embarrassed. “Do you want to try it on?” the cashier had asked, “make sure it fits?”
“It’s not for me,” he’d said, and the cashier had squealed and said something about how cute he was that Sungjin had ignored.
It’s been a long time since he and Younghyun had agreed to get married, and they’ve never actually talked about it since. Sungjin is hopeful that Younghyun is still up for it, because he still very much considers himself to be engaged.
In a dramatic role reversal from when he had started school, it’s Sungjin who’s the more anxious about their impending separation. While Sungjin is moving up and leaving his one friend behind, facing a new school alone, Younghyun is just facing school without Sungjin. A prospect he can apparently handle quite well, considering that unlike Sungjin he has friends in his own year group. Specifically, Kim Wonpil, who is short and a bit cross-eyed and has recently been spending lunch with them.
(Sungjin likes Wonpil well enough. He’s quiet and nerdy and laughs at all Sungjin’s jokes. He just gets a bit jealous sometimes, because Wonpil gets to see Younghyun in lessons as well as at break, and he and Younghyun have jokes that Sungjin doesn’t get. And Younghyun thinks that Wonpil is really cool even though he clearly isn’t and Sungjin is right there, learning guitar and knowing about football and actually on his way to coolness.)
All of which is to say that it’s Sungjin who gets a bit tearful at the end of his final day of primary school, not Younghyun, which is humiliating. And he accepts the ring with a shy smile and says thank you in a slightly confused voice, and Sungjin knows he’s forgotten about the engagement already, which is even more humiliating.
The first year of middle school is awful. It’s all the same kids as primary, and they all already have friendships that don’t involve him. He has people to talk to in class, but lunch time is lonely.
Almost every day after school, he gets off the bus and walks in the opposite direction to his house, spending the time before his parents call him home for dinner at Younghyun’s. A lot of the time, Wonpil is there too, and Sungjin is getting used to him. He and Younghyun are becoming kind of a joint package, something that Younghyun’s mom likes to joke about and makes Sungjin feel ugly and jealous, like he’s being forgotten about just because he’s a year older.
“Do you like Wonpil more than me?” he says one day, when it’s just him and Younghyun in his room.
Younghyun looks surprised. He supposes the question did kind of come out of nowhere.
“I like Wonpil differently from you,” he says eventually. Younghyun is better at words than Sungjin these days, and his answer is diplomatic and evasive in a way Sungjin would never be able to pull off.
Younghyun bites the inside of his cheek. “It’s like,” he says, closing the maths textbook he wasn’t reading anyway, “Wonpil’s my best friend at school, but you’re my best friend period.”
Sungjin nods, feeling a bit better. He doesn’t have a best friend at school, though. He’s just got Younghyun.
In his third year of middle school, Sungjin gets his first girlfriend. She’s called Dahyun. They don’t have any friends in common, but she’s got a goofy smile and fox-like eyes. They share one slightly awkward cafeteria lunch together, hold hands once, and then break up because Dahyun doesn’t want to miss out on lunch with her friends to spend time with him. Younghyun teases him and Wonpil informs him that as a first year, she was too young for him anyway. The whole experience makes Sungjin feel off-kilter and weird, and he doesn’t know it at the time but Dahyun is the only girl he’ll ever date.
The local high school is much further from home than his middle school and takes in kids from all the surrounding towns. This makes it scary at first, because it’s huge, but it turns out to be a good thing. In his first year of high school, he meets the first person he likes even half as much as Younghyun.
His name is Im Jaebum, and he has two piercings in each ear and says he wants a nose ring, and by some bizarre twist of fate he thinks Sungjin is cool. They skip gym together and smoke behind the bike shed, and do all kinds of teenager things that Sungjin thought only happened in movies.
His parents don’t like Jaebum. They think he’s a delinquent, which he is on the surface, but not really. He likes animals and is studying hard because he wants to be a vet, and he’s actually really nice to people he thinks deserve it. Sungjin’s not sure what he did to make that list, but he doesn’t question it.
His dad doesn’t want him hanging out with Jaebum at all, calling him a bad influence, but his mom talks him down, saying it’s important Sungjin has friends his own age. Still, it takes ages for them to agree that the two of them can hang out at the house, and Sungjin suspects its only because they don’t want them wondering the streets causing trouble instead.
He doesn’t realise it’s been weeks since he’s seen Younghyun until the boy in question shows up on his doorstep when Jaebum’s over.
“Boys,” his mom calls, “come downstairs, you’ve got a visitor.”
Jaebum is lounging in Sungjin’s desk chair, trying out his guitar, and he looks at Sungjin in confusion.
“It’ll be Younghyun,” says Sungjin, getting up from the bed, “come on.”
“Younghyun,” says Sungjin again, “my friend from middle school?”
Jaebum looks at him blankly for a moment before slight recognition flashes over his features. “Oh yeah,” he says, “think you’ve mentioned him.”
Sungjin frowns. He’s surprised at himself, honestly. Back in middle school, he’d talk about Younghyun all the time – he didn’t realise he’d been doing it less.
He goes downstairs with Jaebum on his tail and, indeed, it is Younghyun who’s waiting for him. He’s standing sheepishly in the hallway – his mom has clearly told him to come in, but he’s too polite to move deeper into the house.
“Hey,” says Sungjin, throwing thumb over his shoulder, “this is Jaebum. Jaebum, Younghyun.”
Younghyun’s eyes widen when he takes in Jaebum in all his glory. Sungjin supposes it must be kind of a shock, since this is possibly the first time ever Sungjin has introduced a friend to Younghyun rather than the other way around.
Jaebum bro nods. “’Sup,” he says, “you here to hang out or what?”
Younghyun’s eyes dart between the two of them. “I didn’t realise you had a friend over. I can go.” Sungjin’s heart clenches.
“Nah,” says Jaebum, “stay – more the merrier, right?”
Sungjin feels out of his depth. “Yeah,” he says, “more the merrier.”
Jaebum and Younghyun don’t get along. After that first meeting, where Jaebum had been his usual brand of blasé friendliness and Younghyun had been outright cold, Younghyun had started texting to make sure Sungjin was alone before coming over. They continued to not get along when Younghyun and Wonpil started high school. Sungjin, reluctant to abandon his friend just because his other friend didn’t like him much, found that he and Younghyun didn’t hang out together much at school anymore.
They were still close. They’d lived in each other’s pockets for long enough that they always would be. But it was different, their time spent together mainly being at weekends, or on the bus to and from school. They weren’t Sungjin-and-Younghyun in the way they’d once been.
Sungjin is in his final year of high school, and Younghyun hasn’t said a word since they got on the bus home except a muttered greeting.
He’s clearly agitated, scrolling his phone but not staying on any app for long, his knee bobbing up and down. When Sungjin asks if anything is wrong, he just shakes his head.
If this were a few years ago, Sungjin would have poked him in the side and or annoyed him until he caved and admitted what was bothering him. But he’s almost eighteen now, and there’s a wall of self-consciousness between he and Younghyun that wasn’t there when they were younger. So he leaves him to it, putting his earphones in and staring out of the window.
They get off at the same stop and Sungjin doesn’t even pause his music to say goodbye, just pulls out an earbud and waves before turning on his heel, his house in the opposite direction to Younghyun’s. A hand reaches out and grabs his jacket. He turns.
Younghyun’s fingers twist deeper into the fabric. “Can you– do you want to come round mine?”
The expression on his friend’s face is nothing short of pained and it hurts Sungjin’s heart to see. He’s agreeing before he’s even thought it through.
They don’t talk on the short walk to Younghyun’s house. They don’t talk as Younghyun fishes the key out of his school bag to unlock the door. They don’t talk on the way up to his room, either, besides Younghyun muttering something about his mom being at work.
Sungjin hovers in the doorway of Younghyun’s room. “Is everything ok?” he asks.
Younghyun sits down heavily on the bed. “Nope.”
Sungjin edges a little further into the room, glancing around for somewhere to sit. Younghyun’s desk chair is the obvious choice, but it’s covered in clothes. “Do you want to talk about it?”
Younghyun throws himself back on the bed, feet still on the floor. “Yes and no.”
Deciding there’s not really any other option, Sungjin sits down gingerly next to Younghyun on the bed, shuffling back until he’s leaning against the wall. His weight makes Younghyun roll slightly, so he’s facing him. “Do you know Yoon Dowoon?” says Younghyun, looking up at him.
Sungjin shrugs, “I know of him. He’s in the year below you, right? You’re friends.” He’s pretty sure he’s seen Yoon Dowoon at Younghyun and Wonpil’s table at lunch. He’s never really talked to him, though.
Younghyun sighs deeply. “He’s dating Wonpil.”
Sungjin didn’t know Wonpil was into guys. “Oh,” he says, “good for him.”
Younghyun sits up on his elbows, glaring at Sungjin, who is starting to feel lost. “How can you say that, hyung?”
“Wait,” says Sungjin, “are you mad at Wonpil for dating a guy?” He and Younghyun have never really talked about sexuality, but given that Jaebum is openly and loudly bisexual, he figured Younghyun at least guessed he didn’t have a problem with gay people.
Only Younghyun is looking at him like he’s stupid. “What?” says Sungjin defensively.
“You’re really dense sometimes.”
Sungjin makes a vague noise of protest. Younghyun sits up properly, shifting so they’re side-by-side.
“I’m not upset because he’s gay,” says Younghyun, “obviously. Wonpil’s been out practically since middle school.” This is news to Sungjin.
“Then what’s the problem?” asks Sungjin, “are you worried you’ll be left out?”
“Oh my god,” says Younghyun. “This is not what I expected when I invited you over. You’re meant to be pissed off on my behalf.”
Sungjin sways slightly, nudging Younghyun’s shoulder with his own. “Tell me why I’m supposed to be mad and I promise, I’ll defend your honour or whatever.”
Younghyun still looks kind of upset. “You really don’t know?”
“I like Wonpil,” says Younghyun, and he looks away as he says it, pink dusting his ears.
Sungjin is momentarily speechless. He doesn’t know what to respond to first – Younghyun liking a guy, Younghyun liking Wonpil, Younghyun thinking that Sungjin was already aware of those two things. He settles for the main issue. “That bastard,” he says, “picking Yoon Dowoon over you.”
Younghyun lets out a startled laugh.
“No seriously,” says Sungjin, getting into character, “fuck him! Who does he think he is? You’ve given him all your teenage years and then he dates a scrawny first year instead?”
Younghyun is laughing outright now. Encouraged, Sungjin continues, “I always knew that Kim Wonpil was a player. Stringing boys along. I knew it from the second he wouldn’t give me a sip of his juice box in primary. Rotten to the core, that boy.” He wags his finger disapprovingly and Younghyun loses it, pitching forward and clutching his stomach with laugher.
“I knew his cuteness was an act,” says Sungjin darkly, “his eyes probably aren't even naturally like that. It was a ruse from the start to make you trust him.”
“Ok,” says Younghyun, still chuckling, “you’ve made your point.”
“What point? Kim Wonpil is dead to me. He’s a terrible person.”
“No, he’s not,” says Younghyun, and his voice is verging on sad again, “he’s lovely. He just doesn’t like me like that.”
Sungjin lets the overprotective hyung act drop. “That’s his loss, Younghyunie,” he says, patting his shoulder. “For what it’s worth, I really am sorry.”
Younghyun’s lower lip wobbles. “I’ve liked him for ages,” he says, “but I don’t think he’s ever thought of me as more than a friend.”
Something about that really tugs at Sungjin, even though he’s never been in the same situation. “I’m sorry,” he says again. “he’s an idiot. You’re definitely a better choice than Dowoon.”
Younghyun shakes his head. “Dowoon’s nice,” he says, “and Wonpil really likes him. They’ll be happy together, I think.”
“Jeez,” says Sungjin, “you have to give me someone to be mad at, Younghyun. They can’t all be nice people who did no wrong.”
“They are though,” says Younghyun, “that’s what makes it hurt so much.” Sungjin can tell he’s on the verge of tears.
“What time does your mom get home?” asks Sungjin.
“Not until late,” says Younghyun, “why?”
“Want to order pizza and complain about how single we are?”
Younghyun nods, his smile thin-lipped.
“I can’t believe Wonpil’s your type,” says Sungjin as he pulls his phone out to order. “This whole time, I thought you had good taste. I’ve never been so wrong before.”
Younghyun slaps his arm, but he’s laughing again, which was Sungjin’s goal.
Younghyun and his mom come with Sungjin and his family to move Sungjin into his college dorm. They’ve become closer since Younghyun told him about Wonpil, finishing their last year in high school together as close as they’d been in middle school, if not primary. Sungjin knows it’ll make the separation harder.
He’s not met his roommate yet, but their side of the room is already decked out. Based on the posters and memorabilia, his roommate is a nerd with good taste in music. Could be worse. He wanted to room with Jaebum, but at the last minute Jaebum decided it would be better for them not to live together so they didn’t get too co-dependent. It hurt a little, but he didn’t hold it against him. Jaebum was just like that.
His sister only stays long enough to help get the boxes out the back of the car before she vanishes to go back to work. His mom doesn’t last much longer. She starts getting teary when she realises Sungjin’s left his plushies on his bed back home, and Younghyun’s mom whisks her away to “explore the campus” before she can start crying outright.
He unpacks the rest of the big stuff with Younghyun and his dad. Younghyun is understandably quiet and his dad isn’t much of a talker, so it’s not exactly a lively affair. Eventually, his dad brushes off the front of his pants and nods at the two of them. “I’ll go and see where your ma’s got to,” he says gruffly, “I’ll leave you two to it.”
Younghyun is slotting Sungjin’s small collection of books onto the even smaller shelf above the desk. Sungjin had been deciding on the best place to store his guitar, but he stops to watch Younghyun work.
“I can tell you’re staring at me,” says Younghyun eventually. “I’ll be fine, hyung.”
That hadn’t been why he was looking, but he goes with it. “Of course you will,” he says, “it’s only a year.”
Younghyun puts down the book in his hand. “I’ve got Wonpil and Dowoon and Jinyoung.” Jinyoung is Wonpil’s friend turned Younghyun’s, and Jaebum’s new boyfriend.
“Jinyoung will be here all the time to see Jaebum,” Sungjin points out, “you can hitch a lift to see me.”
“Who says he won’t be getting a lift with me, not the other way around?” says Younghyun, turning to look at him. “A decade of friendship beats six months of dating.”
“More than a decade,” says Sungjin, “technically.”
Younghyun’s lower lip actually wobbles. “I’m going to miss you so much.”
“One year,” says Sungjin, “and I’ll see you all the time.”
Younghyun darts forward and pulls Sungjin into a hug. They’ve been friends for a lifetime, but Sungjin can count the number of hugs they’ve shared on one hand. That’s on him though, he’s just not much of a hugger.
He pats Younghyun’s back awkwardly. He can feel his eyes stinging, and he really doesn’t want to cry. He’s been doing so well at keeping it together so far today.
Younghyun steps away and takes a deep breath. “We’re not saying goodbye,” he says, “because that’s dumb.”
“Not saying goodbye,” Sungjin agrees.
“I’m going to put the rest of these books away, and you’re going to unpack that last box, and neither of us are going to say goodbye or cry at all.”
They actually manage it, too. They don’t cry while they finish unpacking, or on the short walk around campus, or during the meal his parents treat them to at the restaurant before they leave.
He hugs his parents and pats Younghyun on the back before he gets into his mom’s car. It’s not until they pull out of the visitor’s car park, leaving Sungjin on the curb, that tears start to fall.
He scrubs them away, not wanting to start his university life off as the guy who cries when his parents leave. But he knows that really, it’s not his parents he’s crying about.
He realises, as Younghyun waves at him frantically from the passenger side of his mom’s car, that he’s a little bit in love with his childhood best friend.