Taehyung tapped his knuckles against the outside of his leg, rubbing the bone into the rough denim. Workers cloth, the kind that lasts for years and years even under the wear and tear of whatever manual labor he got up to next. His hands were cold, the tips numb and tingling, but he didn't allow himself any greater comfort than the soft chafing against the outer seam of his pants, back and forth, back and forth, till the skin felt sensitive and raw. Patience never really was one of his virtues.
“Your total will be 2800 won, whenever you are ready,” the cashier droned politely once Taehyung got to the counter and asked for one small hot coffee, please . He dutifully rifled through his pockets to count his coins together while she turned to the row of coffee pots behind the register.
A quiet heaviness caught in the back of his chest, unbidden and trembling as a newborn bird aching to take flight, as the woman behind him cleared her throat and sighed at the sound of coins fumbling and clacking together in his hands. His fingers felt too big and too clumsy all of a sudden, his whole body did, and the dirt caked into his nail beds, staining the hems of his workers pants, smudged onto his cheeks stubbornly no matter how he scrubbed at them, suddenly felt like open, bleeding wounds.
His ears burned in shame. It was the minor humiliations that still caught him by surprise.
He murmured a quiet apology to the barista as he pooled the change onto the counter, itching to leave the counter but staying dutifully while he waited for her to count it out for what felt like an agonizingly slow minute. The sharp, persistent tap of heels against the tile floor behind him was all he could hear, echoing like shattering glass.
The air outside was gray and throbbing, like the soft ringing thrum of a baritone cello through an empty auditorium. Cold rain had been pooling at the edge of the overcast sky for close to a week, yet the pressure just built and built and never broke. Empty yet overflowing, just like Taehyung.
He normally hated going into the middle class district of Seoul, did everything in his power to stay neatly within the slums to avoid this exact circumstance. Being poor didn’t matter when everyone else around you was poor too. But here, it made him stand out, made the barista announce his exact change ceremoniously before handing over his coffee while the woman waiting behind him tutted, and normally it didn’t matter, it didn’t, it really, really didn’t, but here and now he felt branded, flayed open, caught on the edge of a fishing hook and just sinking, sinking, sinking.
“You have a good day now, sir,” the cashier said, nodding goodbye and already turning to the woman behind him who let out a gusty “Finally!” as she came to rest her bag on the counter while reciting her order, effecting hedging him out of the way.
No matter where he went, there just wasn’t ever enough space for Taehyung.
The thing about Seoul that nobody told Taehyung about was the smog. It hovered over the city like a shroud, choking everyone within it, yet they all carried on with their days like it was normal. Like it was just the way things were.
The poverty was like that too. Even though everyone breathed the same polluted air, there were some that felt more entitled to it than others. Taehyung remembered the open valley of Daegu, filled with the inescapable heat of summer like oil in a frying pan. How tall the buildings rose into the sky, how sharp and clean cut everything looked when compared to the small cottage he shared with his grandmother in the farming fields a bit outside the city, where everything was half-broken and half-homemade and covered in dirt.
He used to go into the city every weekend during the height of the season, bringing the best of the crops that he and his halmeoni had forced from the soil to the farmer’s markets that popped up on the outskirts. He remembered how all the mothers and fathers took their children round to pick up fresh vegetables for dinner while the old women gathered together at the far corner of the square playing card games, betting loose coins. Powdery chalk stained the asphalt from where groups of teenagers gathered around colorful pictures, crawling on their hands and knees with the nub-like sticks as they drew. There was a part of Taehyung even then that had wished to join them, to smudge neon color up to his elbows and scrape his knees open on the rough ground, snacking on greasy street food and laughing, laughing through the oppressive heat like it didn’t even bother him, not when he could be so bright and free in the summer sun.
But that was never Taehyung’s fate. He and his grandmother could barely afford the clothes on their backs and new seeds for the next season, so no matter how much his stomach curled in want, he never got to try the fried chicken stalls or buy chalk sticks of his own. He stayed solemnly behind the worn cart he wheeled his produce down in, collecting money in a little satchel on his hip while handing off heads of lettuce and bundles of carrots to customers.
Seoul wasn’t like that. There were no groups of ahjumma betting pennies on poker, no young couples swinging toddlers between their arms as they walked, there weren’t even any farmers markets that popped up in the summer. Taehyung would know - when he first came to the city, he spent days trudging through the heat trying to find even one. There were just more convenience stores or, if he was lucky, a tent style market of imported goods, which cropped up periodically before being shut down by city officials. But never anything grown from the land; at least, not from anywhere nearby. Even the ground in Seoul was too toxic to bare fruit.
The only permanent fixture in Seoul, as far as Taehyung could see, was money. Fast money, cheap money, dirty money. Big money, little money, no money. He counted at least two “ghettos'' for every “decent” neighborhood, and he would know because he’d spent the last couple months sleeping in their alleyways, working on their streets. His hands, which were rough and strong already from a lifetime of farm work, were split open and raw within weeks, and still he only scraped together enough to sleep on more curbsides and count out change for more ‘ one small hot coffee, please’ es.
Some days, he felt as if the sadness would burst out of skin like sweet raspberry juice from overflowing drupelets. His chest sometimes felt so hollow and aching that he wished to close his eyes and sleep, sleep, sleep forever and return to dust as he was always meant to be, nothing more than life essence sunk back into the Earth in hopes of becoming something other than this soul of unending winter.
But that was never his fate. He wasn’t meant to get the easy way out. If he stopped now, if he ceased fighting forward for even a second, he would die just like a still jellyfish in open water. So he braved the manual labor of Seoul’s streets and counted the loose change in his pocket and remembered to breathe, breathe, breathe , until he felt human enough to keep going. Downed his coffee and rubbed his knuckles into the rough denim of his work pants in an attempt to forget how cold he was in Seoul’s creeping winter, and tried not to be scared by the way he could count the harsh jut of his ribs against his skin whenever he didn’t catch himself in time and stuck his hands underneath his arms for warmth.
Sometimes, he would find himself hacking out black, grimy pollution onto the street corners of Seoul, and it would make him remember those golden Daegu summers that smelt like grease and laughter and sweating out in the beaming yellow light, where he would return to his grandmother’s calloused palms that swept over his cheeks in a fond caress that felt like home , and his chest would sting with heartbreak like an bloody wound that had it’s stitches ripped open.
Taehyung woke up suddenly, like he always did, blinking sluggishly through the crust in his eyes for only a moment before snapping to full awareness. Slow mornings were a luxury he did not have.
“Da fuck ya lookin’ at, ya shi’ head?” An aged, rasping voice spat at him, and Taehyung brought his hand up to rub at his eyes, once, twice, in the weary, exhausted way that the elderly were prone to, and tipped his head back against the concrete to give a tight upside down smile to the old man leaning against the building next to him, wrapped in layers of old coats and missing most of his teeth.
“Oh, come on, ahjussi ,” Taehyung tried, feigning brightness, “I think I’m secretly starting to grow on you.”
Said man snarled at Taehyung, a nasty flash of chipped fangs, before spitting at the ground next to his face. The saliva was tinted yellow and flaked with black, a mixture of tobacco tar and city air. Taehyung almost counted it as win, considering two weeks ago the spit was aimed at his actual face rather than the ground. He and Old Man Lee (as Taehyung had taken to calling him in his head, since he never got a name) had been sharing the same block as a sleeping spot for the past couple weeks, and the ahjussi made no secret of how he resented Taehyung for it.
“Jus’ ge’ da fuck ou’a ma sigh’, ya fuckin’ Vir Daegu ass-” at that point Old Man Lee’s complaints diminished to wordless grumbles, his eyes squinted in a fearsome glare that maybe, in some other time, in some other universe, might have made Taehyung afraid. In the here and the now, all he could feel was unbearable grief, right in the pit of him, for the life that this old man had been robbed of. For the life that was slowly being robbed of Taehyung, too. It sat unmoving and weighted within his stomach like polished marble; shining and unbearable.
“Yah!” Taehyung brushed off as he clambered to his feet, faux-juvenile, “such language coming from a Seoul Vampyre!”
He rolled his sleeping bag up neatly after tucking his extra blanket and toiletries inside, binding the outside with twine. He slung the whole bundle over his head and around his back, so the makeshift strap crossed his chest diagonally. He shivered even inside his winter coat, the wool worn through at the elbows even before he snagged it from a thrift store bin. It cost him ten whole dollars and was one of his most prized possessions, for all that the cold still found its way to him through the stressed seams.
Old Man Lee let out a sound like he was descending into an asthma attack, short, stuttering hacks that could barely be counted as laughter. There was something so painful about watching him try to smile that made Taehyung’s heart ache in his chest.
“Been a fuckin’ while sinc’a-” Old Man Lee wheezed out before clearing his throat to go back to his usual growling timbre, “-been called a’Pyre.”
Yeah , Taehyung thought, lost somewhere in his head, lost somewhere along the way, just lost, lost, lost. He turned and headed toward the mouth of the alley, not really knowing anymore what the point of trying to survive to see another day was when each and every single day just looked like this . It’s been a while since I’ve been called a Vir, too.
My name is Kim Taehyung , Taehyung repeated to himself in his head, over and over again until the words turned into formless syllables on his tongue. My name is Kim Taehyung. I am a farmer from Daegu. I have been in Seoul for a few weeks now and would like to apply for a job here.
My name is Kim Taehy-
“I am sorry,” the woman frowned at him, looking genuinely puzzled in the calculated, beautiful way that Nymphs tended to. “There must have been a mistake…”
“You had a sign posted at the window,” Taehyung managed after a beat of silence, forcing his hands to stay loose at his sides, digging the backs of his knuckles into the rough denim, back and forth, back and forth.
Her eyebrows moved up in a faint impression of surprise, but her features seemed otherwise frozen in an expression of cold beauty. Nymphs, Taehyung hissed in his head, knowing how he looked with his workers clothes and dirty hair but praying, praying, hoping and praying against all the odds life has set out against him.
“Yes, but…” She trailed off for a moment, looking conflicted, before deciding to just blurt out what she’d been holding back since she first laid eyes on him, abandoning any semblance of social nicety, “well, we are not looking for your kind of help.”
Ice wrapped around Taehyung’s nape. That quiet heaviness was back in his chest, sinking like a stone in a still tide. Heartbreak stung at the sharp bones of his ribcage. It was the minor humiliations that still caught him by surprise.
“You’re looking for a gardener from Daegu,” Taehyung argued back evenly, putting every single ounce of will into keeping his face and voice as impassive as stone. “I am a farmer from Daegu. I think that is close enough.”
Her eyes, a smoky grey color, flickered up and down, and not even her Nymph beauty could stop the ugly, almost involuntary curl of her lip. Something small and vulnerable within Taehyung that had been kicked down so many times that it was more hurt than human reared up angry and searing as smoke within his lungs.
My name is Kim Taehyung, he thought to himself, again and again even though he’d already given his lackluster introduction but needing something, anything to focus on to keep back the bite of tears swelling within his throat like a swarm of hornet stingers, leaking venom as they tore into the softness still hiding within him.
“What is the meaning of this?” A new voice cut in, deep enough to be male but soft, soft, so tender and warm that is wrapped around Taehyung's chest like velvet. Just those few words triggered alarms in Taehyung’s head, because Nymphs didn’t have voices like that, not even the Fae spoke with such easy magic, not unless they were old, old, older than even the ancient, ratty coat Taehyung dwarfed his skinny frame in.
Fuck , Taehyung cursed internally, his head a mess of light and noise and fuck fuck fuck , shitting fuck, fuck me so hard, no no no, fuck-
“Mr. Kim!” the receptionist gasped, sounding as close to dismayed as she could make herself without having to appear undignified, “Sir, I am so sorry, I was just telling this-this delinquent to be on his way.”
Taehyung kept his eyes on the floor, begging himself not to cry. Please, haven’t you suffered enough humiliation for one day? Just hold it together...Just a little longer more...
He didn’t dare look up from his torn, stained shoes, which were maybe once leather or suede but were so damaged that not even he was sure anymore. He knew that he was an eyesore, a misfit, a penniless gutter rat with too much misplaced audacity, thinking he could even step foot within such a nice building, way over the line of the middle class district, where poor things like him did not belong. But his fingers were so, so cold, had been cold for months since he left Daegu, and Old Man Lee only ever cursed and spat at him, and he had just thought, what’s the harm in trying? Except now he saw, very precisely, what the harm was as the newcomer, Mr. Kim , who was obviously old and powerful and magical , magical beyond mortal comprehension or belief, turned his gaze onto Taehyung and he felt like he was being burned alive.
“What is your name?” Mr. Kim asked, his warm voice washing over Taehyung like a simmering hearth, like hot coffee after a rainstorm, like the Daegu summer heat begging Taehyung to dance, dance, please, won’t you come dance with us?
This time, Taehyung couldn’t help clenching his fists, tight enough for his nails to dig painfully into his palms and for his knuckles to go white under the tension. Shit , this was strong magic. The tears still stung at his eyes, fragile and humiliated, and he kept his eyes on the floor, not daring, not again, not after being so acutely reminded of what he was, what he would always be.
“K...Kim Taehyung,” he finally managed after clearing his throat painfully, right when he thought the silence would swallow him whole. The man didn’t ask again, didn’t tap his foot impatiently as he waited for an answer, just….just let Taehyung have the time he needed to find his voice. “My name is Kim Taehyung, Mr. Kim.”
“Really, Mr. Kim,” the receptionist tried again, even sliding her legs out from where they were tucked prim and proper underneath her desk as if to stand. “You should not worry yourself with-”
“I will decide what I shall worry myself with, Miss. Yang,” Mr. Kim cut her off, his voice suddenly severe, admonishing for all that the warmth stayed rooted within Taehyung’s chest like sunbathing out in the daffodil fields during those rare lazy summer days that sometimes appeared between harvesting and selling crops. Taehyung had never seen a Nymph spoken to in such a dismissive way before, but even if he had been a Nymph, he wouldn’t have tried to speak to this Mr. Kim the way that she had.
“O-Of course, Mr. Kim,” the receptionist tried to recover valiantly, but her face had gone pale and frightened around the edges of her frozen, doll-like features.
“I think Miss. Choi will gladly take over for you while you visit HR,” Mr. Kim said smoothly, still perfectly amicable and pleasant to Taehyung’s ears for all that Miss. Yang let out a horrified sound. But whatever argument she was thinking of voicing, she wisely bit her tongue as she shakily managed a, “ yes, Mr. Kim ,” and slipped away from her desk.
“I sincerely apologize for such a rude welcome from our receptionist, but why not tell me what you were looking for, Mr. Kim Taehyung?” Mr. Kim hummed, turning his full attention to Taehyung. It felt like being looked at by a star, a sun, all those big and bright and blazing cosmic things that mortals are not meant to get close to, no matter how much want cracked through their hearts like a broken rib to just reach that little bit closer.
“I…” Taehyung began ineloquently, feeling unbalanced and like something just happened that he hadn’t fully comprehended. Just like he rehearsed, almost robotic, he managed to say, “I’m a farmer from Daegu. I’ve been in Seoul for a few weeks now and would like to apply for a job here.”
“Oh, how wonderful!” Mr. Kim exclaimed, but in the controlled, precise way that Nymphs and other high-class creatures exclaimed things. He even clapped his hands together in a little show of excitement. “I see the sign outside got your attention? Well, since I am available now and we have already gone through the hassle of introducing ourselves, what do you say to an impromptu interview, hm? That way we can skip the paper application.”
He leaned forward and lowered his voice into a low, sugar-sweet hum, as if sharing a secret that was just for Taehyung’s ears. “Not to sound like I am cutting corners, but it will save me some paperwork later on, you see.”
Taehyung hesitantly dared to lift his eyes from the pearly white grout between the polished slate tiles, first focused on Mr. Kim’s polished leather loafers, then his neatly pressed slacks which looked custom tailored, before stopping at his hands. His large, nimble hands that looked like they could wrap around Taehyung’s waist and almost touch.
Even the past few months in Seoul couldn’t erase the deep Daegu tan from Taehyung’s skin. Comparatively, Mr. Kim’s big, elegant hands were pale, the bold green of his veins peeking through the skin. His fingers looked slightly crooked from the second knuckle on, a surprising imperfection that most high-class creatures wouldn’t be subject to, not with potions and glamours and magic at their disposal. Taehyung couldn’t make his eyes go any higher.
“I-If it wouldn’t be...an inconvenience to you, Mr. Kim,” Taehyung finally managed to gust out, “I don’t have anywhere else I have to be.”