As soon as he gets his eyes on Seokjin, Taehyung needs to shove his hands into his pockets, pace forward as if he doesn't want to skip into the older boy's arms, kiss his cheeks.
It's been 8 months since Seokjin left town. 8 months since he traveled to the city for university, never coming home for the holidays, barely writing letters. The last one came around the New Year in February, and he'd coloured in the extra space with fish cartoons and bright red strawberries. Just like the ones he left Taehyung to tend, on his uncle's farm.
“Good morning!” Seokjin chimes, waving brightly at Taehyung when he bounds up. It seems impossible that he could look so different after less than a year, but Seokjin's skin is lighter than Taehyung's ever seen it, since he's spent more time studying indoors than picking berries outside. His hair is longer, too, but it's slicked off his forehead with some sort of grease Taehyung's seen on sale at the department store in Daegu's city center. A very American style, like in the movies. Next Seokjin will say he traded in his pickup truck for a convertible, bright red with tailfins or something. Taehyung can picture it, his hyung behind the wheel and racing through the backroads, rock 'n' roll blaring on the radio, waking the barn animals. That would be a first for their hamlet near Daegu, with just its schoolhouse and corner store and a whole lot of farms (though they are thinking of building a library— Taehyung's had his fingers crossed for weeks!).
He stops in front of Seokjin, presses his heels into the ground to prevent getting any closer. “Good morning? Is that all you say to your best friend in the whole entire world?”
Chuckling, Seokjin shoves playfully at his shoulder, leaves his hand there. “Yeontan is my best friend.”
“First of all, he's my—”
“Taehyung-ah.” They both pause, catch their breath. Seokjin reaches out and snaps Taehyung's suspenders, too gently to hurt him. Laughs, “I missed you.”
It's a perfect, sunny day, with just the right amount of wind blowing sand through the dirt roads next to the Kim Family Farm. The entire town is filled with Kims, and almost none of them related, except for Seokjin's family. Effectively, they run the town, his appa mayor and his eomma very active at the local school. His brother went to medical school, works at the hospital, but Seokjin... wants to be a farmer. Loves the lifestyle, waking up early and sowing the fields. Getting to know the animals. Fishing for food and fertilizer. He's taking some General Arts course right now because his parents insisted, but everyone knows he's next in line to his uncle's farm. He'll be great at it, one day. He's always had a passion for putting food on people's tables.
If not for Seokjin, Taehyung would never have gotten the job at the farm. He loves the work: loves spending time outdoors and tasting fruits as he picks them. Loves helping sell at the market and meeting customers who came all the way from the city just for something fresh. He may not be the perfect farmer, but he tries to take pride in what he does.
Not to mention, with Seokjin home... he really likes the company.
“Did you get my letters?” He wrote at least once a week.
“You know I did.”
The funny thing about Seokjin is he doesn't reach out very often, but when he does, it's so in-depth. He'd answer months of letters at a time, responding to every piece of news and answering every single question. Quality, not quantity, he likes to say.
“I do, but it's polite to ask.” Seokjin snorts at that. They begin their walk to the field. “How's whats-his-name?”
He can't see Seokjin roll his eyes, but he knows it must be happening. “Yoongi. And he's fine. Might come visit on the way to seeing his family.”
Yoongi. The city boy who lives just out a few kilometers, but who Seokjin met all the way in Seoul. Yoongi, who apparently comes to his shoulders (Seokjin has very notable shoulders) but can beat anyone in basketball. Yoongi, who plays piano, and who's just a few months younger than Seokjin.
Taehyung misses the old days, when they were just two kids at school. Two kids working in the strawberry fields. When it was easier, because their 3-year age gap didn't seem so monumental. Seokjin is the type of hyung who doesn't need control, but he's not a pushover, either. They used to fight all the time, and he almost never pulled the hyung-card. He taught Taehyung respect in the mutual sense, taught him how to earn it. Things shouldn't feel so different, now, but Taehyung still has two years of high school before he can escape, and Seokjin's practically a grown-up.
“What about your other friends?” Taehyung asks him. “Your cousin's out there, isn't he?”
Seokjin nods. “Namjoonie's doing well. He's already a year ahead of me, did you know that? He's going to put Korea on the moon.”
“Wow.” Namjoon is a genius. He hardly visits his family down south, but everyone in town knows about him, knows how he raced through school and learned to speak English, because he wants to move to America. “He's incredible.”
“Yoongi seems to think so,” Seokjin murmurs, barely audible, and Taehyung gets his hopes up.
Which he shouldn't, but what can you do?
They make it into the strawberry fields, picking up their usual supplies and getting to work pruning runners, spreading compost. Normally, Seokjin would do other jobs around the farm, but today he's promised to stay in the fields with Taehyung, catch up on all the gossip he's missed. Taehyung tells him everything. New teachers, engagements, babies. Tells him about the baseball game against that school in Busan, where some kid player got nothing but home runs and totally annihilated their team. Tells him about the waterboy that came with them and wrote Taehyung a letter afterward, thanking him for cheering for their team. Tells him about the new stall at the market, with the smiling boy from Gwangju who taught Taehyung how to swing dance. They got in trouble for their antics, but the market customers loved their performance, bought out every basket of the Kim's strawberries and all the Jung's watermelons! What a day!
He doesn't tell Seokjin about his haraboji's cough, or about the foxes that attacked all the best chicken coops, or about the letters he gets from his military father that grow steadily more frightening. After all, it's been a good year, considering all the hoopla at the border. The town is doing okay, and Taehyung... he's okay, too.
The sun beats down hard, sweat beading on Seokjin skin, and Taehyung thinks if they put their arms together, the elder would look like a ghost. “You'd make a good vampire,” he adds, after pointing it out. By now, their hair is matted over their foreheads and Taehyung's suspenders are hanging limp at his sides. “Except you're obsessed with your reflection.”
“Yah!” Seokjin smacks the back of his head, but also runs fingers through his own hair, trying to salvage it. He's the first to joke about his beauty, but when someone else says it (and the old ajummas in town talk about it often, smile fondly when Taehyung joins in), he freezes. As if he doesn't know he's one of the most handsome men in Korea. “As if you're not!”
Admittedly, Taehyung doesn't think he's unattractive. At least, the ajummas don't think he is. “I'd be a terrible vampire. I'm terrified of blood.”
“Like this?” Snapping a strawberry off the bush they're working on, Seokjin squishes it between his fingers. Red juice runs down his wrist.
Taehyung cringes. “You just wasted perfectly good fruit.”
“Well here, save it.” Seokjin grabs Taehyung's hand, opens his palm, and slams the berry into it.
It's all he can do not to gag. “That's not nice, hyung.”
“I'm always nice.”
He is, really. It's so annoying.
But Taehyung can be annoying, too. “I'll show you how it's done. Open up!” He plucks a fresh strawberry off the bush and holds it in front of Seokjin's mouth expectantly. The elder pauses, lips slightly parted, like he doesn't know if Taehyung's joking. So, Taehyung nods, grins, and when Seokjin takes a slow bite out of the fruit it's like watching a flower slowly turn toward the sunshine, blooming all the while.
“You're right. That's better,” Seokjin agrees, ears bright red at the top. He turns away and they return to their work, picking off rotten strawberries and watering the bushes. It hasn't rained in a couple of weeks, so the colours aren't as vibrant as they should be, and still the farm feels as alive as ever.
Because he's here, Taehyung thinks. Because he's back, at least for a while.
Their laborious day ends with little more conversation, both boys working hard to make it home for sunset, earn their keep. When Seokjin is across the field, Taehyung fills the hours singing songs, or picturing faeries hiding in the bushes, telling him stories. Maybe it's childish, to play pretend, but it helps the day move faster, and it's not like he's naive. He knows it's just a fantasy, knows to separate the time spent inside his head from the time with other people. Halmoni calls him a creative, and he's proud to agree. Dreams of sharing his stories with the entire town, or beyond it. Maybe even writing them in books, or plays, or even making movies! But even if that doesn't happen, if Taehyung's fancies are forced to live only in his circle, then that's okay. His dreams have always been of happiness, not acclaim. It's just... nice, to play around. Nicer when Seokjin plays with him.
“Do you think the strawberries know the difference between the rain and a watering can?” he asks his hyung.
Seokjin rolls his eyes, but not unkindly. “I think they appreciate the drink either way.”
“That's good. I'm glad we can do that for them, since the sky can't lately.”
He's been quiet, today. Seokjin is usually sweet and polite, but that doesn't mean he's silent. If anything, he's usually the person to spur Taehyung on, to play games. Maybe he's still getting used to being back. Or maybe...
Maybe he's more changed from his time away than Taehyung anticipated. “When does your next semester start?” he asks.
Seokjin answers, “It doesn't.”
“That's great!” Taehyung cheers before he can hold back, so pleased. “You don't need a diploma for all this, you already know everything about the farm!”
There's no responding grin, no nod. “Actually...” Seokjin scratches the back of neck, sheepish, and reveals, “I'm enlisting.”
Taehyung's own father is at the border now, and the clashes between North and South have been the only news on his halmoni's radio, in the papers. They're saying it's a war, or that it will be. That the North plans to advance into Seoul, take over. It's a dangerous place either way, but, “You're not a soldier.”
“Not yet.” With a heavy sigh, Seokjin pauses, lets a cart pass by. “The university is shutting down, and they sent out flyers. The best way to get things back to normal is to fight.”
“Or to stay here!” They're so far away from where the battles, safe in the South. Halmoni insists that the tension won't last, that it's been half a decade since the country split, and, “If something was going to happen, it would have by now.” Taehyung feels his bottom lip tremble. “Wouldn't it?”
There's a hand on his shoulder before the tears well up. “The more men up there, the better chance of peace.”
“That's backward, hyung.”
“Well, then I'm going to make sure the fighting stays at the border. I don't want anyone coming down here, hurting my family.” The hand on Taehyung's shoulder moves to his temple, brushes down his (long, halmoni keeps complaining it's too long) hair. “That includes you, Taehyung-ah.”
It sounds nice coming from Seokjin's sweet lips, still half-stained in strawberry-pink. And it hurts, because Taehyung knows how Seokjin is unyielding once he sets his mind to something, knows he couldn't talk him out of fighting if he tried. He's the type of person determined to do the right thing, no matter what the cost. An older brother type. Ironic, since he's the youngest in his family, but he's so mature, thoughtful. Taehyung tries to learn from that, learn to be a better big brother to his siblings, to be a person they can count on. He doesn't see Seokjin as a brother, necessarily— that ship sailed at puberty, and shows no signs of coming back. But he does think of Seokjin as a truly decent boy, a good man, even. He wants to worthy of a person like that. A person who fights for the things he believes in.
Besides, Seokjin said he already enlisted— no way he'll get out of that easily. “Does my father know?” Taehyung asks.
Seokjin nods. “I'll be in his regiment.”
“That makes me feel better, at least.” Then it occurs to him. “Will Yoongi be there?”
A laugh. “Aish, Yoongi is a pacifist. It's why him and Namjoon get on so well.”
Hm. Maybe this Yoongi guy isn't so bad, after all? “So, you're not just going because he's going?”
“Why would I do that?” Seokjin raises his brow, and he's leaning into Taehyung still, even if they aren't touching. “You're the only person I want to impress.”
“A uniform doesn't impress me.”
“It might when you see how handsome I look in it.”
Taehyung makes a face, but Seokjin has a point. Not that he'd ever admit it— can't, when the boy he loves is just embarking on a new adventure and needs time to soak that in. They're both still growing, and so is the world, and there's no point rushing when it would only lead to lives half-lived.
Seokjin leaves, but he always comes back. Taehyung will there when he does.