"And then it's gone.
Makes you sad. All your friends are gone. Goodbye
Goodbye. No more tears ."
-Richard Siken, 'Snow and Dirty Rain'
The great sense of how large the world was did not dawn on Renjun until he saw Seoul — or at least what he thought was Seoul — at the tender age of eighteen, peering through the plane window as the last licks of the sunset tumbled over the edge of the ocean.
Later he would realise the circuit board grid of buildings was actually Incheon — all interconnected islands and peninsulas filled with concrete skyscrapers, billboard lights glittering along the edges of the highway junctions in cross shapes, car headlights like specks of dust caught in mid-evening shadows, long winding bridges, flat topped houses on the islands in the harbour, and spits of neon colours as the nighttime light show began to wind up. Seoul was more inland, more northward, still fighting the banks of the river but with a greater sprawl.
There was a dirty darkness to Incheon — endless grey and white — but more than anything there was a scale to it that he had never seen before. There was a sense of a world, of people. A sense that he was alone, well and truly, all by himself in a foreign country.
Yanji was a city of six hundred thousand, maybe, and though he’d been to Jilin city a few times to see the rime in the winter, great spears of ice hanging from the tree branches — and to Beijing once — he’d been so small back then, he'd been unable to comprehend size beyond the fact that that everything was bigger than him. He’d been so enchanted by the mysticism of it he hadn’t stopped to stare and wonder at all the lives passing him by — at the size that humanity could grow to.
Taking off from Yanji, the greenery that framed the city’s edge was obvious — grass spotted with patches of muddied snow, thick clumps of forest trees, mountains rising like sleeping giants from the ground. The Buerhatong river like a great blue slab of concrete, most of the buildings only a few stories high and painted soviet colours — all reds and blues like lego bricks. It made landing in seemingly endless Incheon something that Renjun felt the weight of.
All these lights and bodies and cars stuck in highways and boats kicking up seafoam, kids on push bikes and joggers in their million-won-kit on the harbour’s edge — he realised this was his country now, too, for how ever long. Maybe he’d only be here a semester, a year, or a few more. He hadn’t planned for that far, only a movement. Yet, even with an indeterminate amount of time to become buried amongst the city lights, it was still his.
At first, for months, there was so much going on it was impossible not to feel like he was always missing out on something — a concert or one of those bands his new friends liked playing at an underground bar. Just drinking on the street, crouching against a graffiti splattered wall with someone else’s cigarette smoke in his hair and the spring air biting kisses against his bare neck. Jaemin hosting a party. Countless opportunities to get shitfaced until he couldn’t remember how to speak any language and just let it all run out of his mouth like overflow. Nights that began the same way: a stuttered voice message at ten pm that drew him out of his apartment and into the sea of strangers, Donghyuck’s hand on his shoulder, Jisung’s laughter, pyrotechnics exploding into the smoky sky, an elbow in the ribs — diverging into hundreds of branches like a choose your own adventure story, the only common theme the buzzing presence of life and people.
It was like the crash of the drumstick on the cymbal, when the song hits the chorus, an explosion of sound and joy. Spring nights under burning prismatic lantern light, filled with chatter, stories to tell later, spitting rain showers and huddling inside convenience stores. Donghyuck smearing water across the back of Renjun's neck, his laughter loud in his ear. So many things he thought only existed in movies — here at his fingertips. New friends, new names, new voices.
Here and now, the light flared out around him from the naked bulbs and hot coals were lowered into the centre of the barbecue table, glowing the colour of a wildfire sunset. Donghyuck's hand sat warm on his knee, his other free to clack the tongs under the nose of anyone who displeased him. Jisung poured drinks, and their glasses clattered together, pregaming slurring thick in Jaemin’s voice as he shouted ‘ konbae!’ and lifted his glass to the ceiling.
And in the night, later —
“Do you wanna come with me?”
Renjun blinked, clearing the tears that had been swelling at the corner of his eyes since some five minutes earlier, when Donghyuck’s long-winded tale had ended with a roar of laughter. Jisung and Jaemin had split off from them earlier and his voice was hoarse, throat scratchy from the good one-two-three hour session of Noraebang they’d just wrapped up.
It was midnight, maybe, and they were thirty minutes from home, a skip and frolic through the late May night, surrounding music humming like a livewire through the air, puddles rippling with neon lights, the tarot readers smoking cigarettes on the balcony above — ash dropping like the embers of a burning city. A scooter flew past, oven mittens wrapped around the driver’s hands sporting a bright pink Hello Kitty pattern, back basket filled with cardboard and restaurant produce, the driver weaving expertly through the throng of the crowd.
“Where?” Renjun asked. He’d missed another thread of conversation at some point, amongst sore ribs and the blink-and-spin of the traffic lights, eyes focused on the way the girl in front of him tossed her hair over her shoulder, how her friend wobbled on her impractical heels, an overstuffed purse thrown over her arm.
“Jeju,” Donghyuck said. “Next month during the holidays. Were you even listening to me? God, I had a whole pitch and everything. I can’t believe you weren’t even listening — I’m not repeating myself, I’ll tell you that much.”
Renjun raised an eyebrow at Donghyuck. A simple challenge — better than any outright mention for getting what he wanted. Donghyuck’s competitive streak was easily exploitable, and Renjun knew him well enough to know exactly how to push his buttons — if he felt like it. If he wanted him to answer. And judging by Donghyuck’s face — judging by the subject — he was absolutely going to answer. Donghyuck had mentioned Jeju to him more than once — mostly as a kind of self-recognition thing whenever it came up on the news, sporting the same enthusiasm a dog gets when it sees another dog. A ‘hey, that’s a thing and I am that thing’ sort of wild rush. Renjun knew he was from there — and that it held all his childhood memories, the warm glow of long summers and days at the beach, held a sense of pride that Renjun could relate to. The 'this place made me' pride — because home was home. And he'd be a liar if he said that didn't interest him because what kind of place would make a person like Donghyuck? How would rainforests and beaches and volcanoes (he'd heard someone say, once, that Jeju was great if you had a fetish for lava tubes) work into the multicoloured canvas that was the portrait of Donghyuck — an impossible whirlwind of a human being.
How had someone like him grown up in a tiny village? No, Renjun was curious. Jeju was already on his to-do list. To add unpacking the mystery of Donghyuck to that trip made it irresistible.
“Well. Whatever," Donghyuck said. He ducked his head. "Do you want to come to Jeju during the holidays? Just for a few days — I’m going back to see my family and they said you can come too. It’s right on the coast, horses everywhere, like 20 minute bike from Seogwipo. You said you liked swimming, right? The beaches in Jeju are amazing and the food is so good — so much better than the seafood we get in Seoul. You can literally buy it straight off the beach. You’ll love it. Promise. I mean, I’ll be there, of course you’ll love it.”
The same rush. The same brightness he had whenever he got really dug in to an idea. A sure sign that Donghyuck had already thought about this — planned the conversation and the pitch out in his head. Curious, revealing in a way that Renjun didn't understand at the moment, but filled away for later. In front of them the lights changed, their deep green glow turning the puddles pooling in the potholes on the pavement edge into emerald waters, dotted with the pink fairy lights hung over the balcony of a photo booth shop three floors up.
“You know I’ll hold you to that promise, right?” Renjun said. An ahjumma at a hotteok stall glanced at him as he walked past, pointed to the sign indicating prices, and he shook his head, bowed and mouth a thank you. Turned back.
“So that’s a yes?” Donghyuck said. He hadn’t been looking at him, had been staring somewhere over his shoulder, eyes unfocused. Now they flicked back to him, sharp and curious, just the slightest hint of relief flashing over his face.
“Of course it’s a yes. Better sweat my ass off on a tropical island than in a city, right?”
He didn’t examine the look Donghyuck gave him. Didn’t examine the butterflies in his stomach — not too closely anyway. Excitement, surely. Somewhere new to explore, and with Donghyuck at this side it was natural to feel that rush of nerves that signaled a dive into something new.
Donghyuck was — in the simplest words — his best friend. They’d met in the first class of the semester, Intro to Literature, the both of them late and forced into the overflow lecture theatre. Renjun’s excuse was the misreading of a sign that sent him to another building. Donghyuck never gave one, but he was holding a 4 cup coffee holder tray — though only one cup remained. His hair was dyed a faded caramel with obvious dark roots, and he was dressed in a thrift store cosplay of hippie punk rocker — black jeans and a jacket that looked like a Jason Pollock knockoff, paint-smeared all across it. Topping it all off with sunglasses, designer brand, probably fake (definitely fake), still on his face despite the fact they were seated inside — making him look like an absolute bellend.
Renjun told him as much and Donghyuck told him to fuck off. For a minute he thought he’d ruined it, that this was the start of a lifelong rivalry — and then placated himself with the thought that he probably didn’t want to be friends with the kind of person who wore designer sunglasses inside anyway — but Donghyuck leaned over to him and told him his (actual real and neccesary to make the words on the projector more than a gross blur) glasses were fucking stupid. Renjun took the opportunity to dig in — and somehow that formed the basis of a friendship.
Now the way he and Donghyuck communicated had formed a language in and of its own — an unwritten dictionary of glances and touches and shrugs of the shoulders. Months and months spent together had entangled them — the way your quirks became theirs and their turns of phrase became yours, little twists off the end of your tongue or the drumming of your fingers on the table to the tune of their favourite song.
Before their takeoff Donghyuck had confessed, in tiny words, that he was afraid of flying — only a little bit you see, only a little bit sometimes it just really scared him — and then when they speared through the clouds, soaring over Seoul, he’d looked deathly, about to expire.
Shuddering through the tropical rainstorm that lashed the north edge of Jeju, the colour drained from Donghyuck’s cheeks, sunshine red faded when he looked over to Renjun. Renjun didn’t think twice before he looped their arms and pressed their palms together until they were almost one, allowing Donghyuck to clutch on to him for dear life. Their plane swerved and shook, tossed them around and then slammed them into the runway, teeth rattling in their skull, Donghyuck’s breath shallow and his knuckles white.
“You’re okay,” Renjun said, running a finger against the back of his hand in the way one might stroke a cat’s head. Outside the rain shattered against the tarmac, spilling from the dull grey sky.
Donghyuck's mother picked them up outside the terminal, and Renjun found himself shocked at how quickly Donghyuck's comparably palatable Gyeonggi accent fell away into Jeju dialect, every second word clipped off and incomprehensible, or tangled with a belly laugh, turned into something that needed translation, which he mostly happily relayed. The rain was almost forgotten, replaced with laughter, and Renjun felt like he was tripping over himself to catch up.
She was a tiny woman, even by Renjun's standards. Maybe 145cm at most, her wiry black hair — shoulder length and mostly tied up by a rubber band — streaked with salt and pepper. She was covered in sunspots and thick laugh lines had worked into her dark skin; they creased with every chuckle she let out, holding an umbrella for Donghyuck to wheel their suitcases out. Their faces were similar, round and welcoming, lips full, and even her laugh resembled his, just on the right side of teasing. She wore the outfit of a farmer, denim overalls and a faded shirt that must have once been violent red but had turned near pink and her boots were thick with mud, and no jewelry save for a carved bone necklace. There was a quality to her that seemed ageless, Renjun had initially placed her in her mid-fifties, but she moved with the weight of someone much younger, and her eyes seemed bright, still sparkling with youth.
They stopped outside a black four-wheel drive parked a few rows deep amongst other monochrome coloured cars, the only standout feature the mud and dust splattered around the cage, and loaded their suitcases into the boot. Donghyuck climbed into the backseat beside Renjun, a stack of half-filled canvas bags and trays of produce blocking the front seat, and then they were off, headed through the rain slick city, sunshine slowly breaking its way through the clouds and forming lazy heat waves that rolled off the road.
By the time they had left the city, headed towards the wooded highway curving across the edge of Hallasan, the only sign that it had ever rained at all was the glossy sheen that coated the road and the brown puddles forming on gravel driveways that snaked far off into the fields.
Donghyuck’s mother asked questions of Renjun, mostly about China, the ice festivals, how he dealt with the snow, complimented his Korean and asked what was wrong with him to want to spend so much time with her son. After the initial rush of getting to know each other the conversation lulled, and Renjun was happy to sit in silence, watching the scenery rush by, rolling fields of produce, farmers tilling the land. Hills coated in thick forests, where the birds flitted to and fro from the branches in a sun-fueled hyperactive dance.
Once — twice — he turned to Donghyuck, mouth half open, sentence half formed, then stopped when he saw him. Face leant against the window, eyes tracking the run of the powerlines, sunlight dusting his cheeks in a warm glow. The strands of his hair were gold with their coronas and it seemed almost like he was an imprint of a long lost piece of history, a photo on a degrading piece of film come to life. Something lost — now found.
They dropped their bags off and set out from the house on foot, the sunlight close to fading, everything painted orange, postcard-perfect. The sea stretched out forever and the sand was rough and golden, shells not quite ground up, moss-covered black rocks littering the shoreline. It was strange and desolate, and held the feeling of a town that only existed in certain months, alive in the summer but curled into hibernation as the temperatures dropped. There were plenty of people going about their business, and Renjun felt that he stuck out like a sore thumb amongst them, most of them wearing clothing that looked like it had come from a thrift store rack: denim overalls, baggy shirts that showed obvious pit stains, khaki shorts with sandals, floppy fishing hats to match a pole slung over a shoulder, bright yellow waders or hiking boots. Children ran through the streets and grandparents sat on porches, talking in a loud satoori he could only catch every twentieth word of. On the way down to the shore they passed a group of four or five old women in wetsuits, lugging buckets full of shellfish over their shoulders in the opposite direction.
“Haenyeo,” Donghyuck explained. He’d changed into something a little more beach appropriate: sandals and shorts and a large straw hat with a chunk missing from the brim. “Diving women. They don’t use air, just freedive and collect things from the ocean floor. It’s a Jeju tradition, though they’re dying off. Used to be that the women would have to work because all the men died at sea fishing, but now with modern technology, there’s no real need for them anymore, so they’re all old. No-one these days wants to spend 8 hours a day diving in cold water for food. The government is subsidising it but still — it’s a dying art.” A car cruised past, windows down, music floating out into the warm air like a bard in the midst of a midsummer festival.
“Everything here is dying, really," he continued. "The language too. No-one is really fluent anymore, just old people. I can’t write a single word, even if I can speak a fair amount. That’ll go extinct too, eventually.”
“Can’t they preserve it?” Renjun asked. It left a strange feeling in him; agony for the loss of something he’d barely known, sadness that something that should have lasted forever would fold and fade away. A tradition that had survived generations and the rise and fall of kingdoms — gone, only to be read about in history books or seen in videos online.
“They want to,” Donghyuck shrugged, “but it’s easier said than done. Everyone just speaks Gyeonggi Korean online, so people are forgetting. Grandma said it used to be you’d always speak Jeju everywhere you went, but now it’s just a mix. Or nothing. There’s kids these days that just don’t know it at all. Fucking sucks, dude. Globalisation is cool but it’s killing all these tiny communities all over the world. There’s whole parts of history that are just dying. A mass extinction of culture.”
“It’s happening in China too,” Renjun said. “They want everyone to speak Mandarin and the schools in other provinces won’t teach local languages anymore. They’re lucky in Yanbian that they still do, but even our Korean is different to yours. Apparently we stole a lot of words from the Russians.”
“You do say some funny things,” Donghyuck said with a nod of agreement, “but I think it’s cute."
"Shut up," Renjun said.
"Hey. I like the differences." He bumped his shoulder. "Shit sucks when we’re all the same. I think there’s going to be a big realisation sometime in the next few decades, that destroying all this culture was a terrible idea. We’re losing so many relics. It’s like — it’s like burning down a thousand year old temple, you know? Destroying a piece of history. You can experience it from recounts but — why do that when the real thing existed for so long. Trying to modernise means we’re losing what makes us us.
“And that’s —” Donghyuck paused, kicking sand across the roadside. “I don’t know. That just seems like a tragedy.”
It felt like the world ended here, on the southern coast of Jeju Island, where the Yellow Sea crashed against the hundred thousand year old fingers of volcanoes and the salt wind tried to carry Renjun into the heavens.
They ended up on the beach together, standing in front of a bench painted yellow, a bent sign painted with the image of a camera beside it, grass stomped flat from hundreds of feet passing by. The gulls circled high in the fire streaked skies and the sea grass that ringed the edge of sandy dirt danced in an endless performance, clinging to the Earth. Donghyuck stood beside him, flecks of the sunset in his eyes. Brown eyes. Brown skin from the sun's kisses, edges of his sandals trimmed in brown faux-suede, even the colour of his hair — when the light hit it just right — betrayed a shade that was ultimately a deep brown. Salt of the Earth, child of the sea.
"I used to come out here when I was a teenager," he said. When they were in Seoul, Renjun could be fooled to think they were alike, but here it had become apparent he and Donghyuck were from different worlds, strangers connected only by the city. Renjun was from the cold north, ice down to the marrow of his bones, and Donghyuck was from lava and surf — sunborne.
"We used to drink,” Donghyuck continued. He was on fire, a boy that burned at the end of the world. “Fish, too. Grandma would sometimes show up with the other haenyeo and we’d pop the abalone out of the shells and eat them on the shoreline. Used to carry a knife just to dig the meat out. It’d always taste like you swallowed a teaspoon of salt, took me a really long time to get used to it. If you want we can head down on Wednesday, they usually open up a little shop where you can sit on the beach and eat it.”
Sunset over the waves and Donghyuck turned to him, a burning in his eyes. Renjun’s heart seized with a pitter-patter inside his chest and it seemed for a second the golden flecks echoing over Donghyuck’s skin were real, like he could reach across and smudge them with the tips of his fingers, steal the precious quality that suddenly infused with him, an otherworldly sheen.
Donghyuck’s mouth curved into a smile, every part of him painted in brilliance, and Renjun wondered if this is how the first humans felt when they created fire. When they felt the warmth burst across their skin and saw the raw beauty of it dance in the air.
“They’d send the baebangseon off from here,” Donghyuck said, and his eyes shifted, falling from Renjun’s face to over the horizon, to where he pointed with a raised finger.
“Where?” Renjun asked, turning towards him. The black rocks were slick with water, outlined in amber, and Donghyuck’s hand fell on his cheek, pushed him to the right, so that his gaze followed where he traced out the shape of the widest tip of the coastline.
“Out here,” he said, and he was close, parts of him pressed against Renjun, mismatched skin and fabric, wind tousling his hair. His voice in Renjun’s ear, almost stolen.“We’d load them up with tributes for Yeongdeung,” he said. “Rice, fruits, offerings for a plentiful harvest and favourable seas. Last time I was here for Yeongdeungnal it was fucking pouring. Mum always said that means the dragon king had his daughter-in-law with him — that the rain stained her skirts, and that it would persist for the year round. It was supposed to be a good omen but — I always remember I had to go scatter the hwangto — that's like, yellow clay shit — outside the gates, and that year I just got completely soaked. Oldest child’s privilege, I guess. Keeping the spirits away and drowning in the process.” He sighed, resting his weight against Renjun. “It’s good to come back. It’s home, you know.”
“I know,” Renjun said. Not here but… Yanji would always be home, no matter where he went.
It might not be the home of his grandfather’s grandfathers, but it was his home. It’s where his mother and his sister were, where his grandmother sung songs over the hearth, where the formative years of his life unfolded amongst blinding blizzards and rime that sprayed the trees like plastic snow. The mix of Chinese and Korean blended and separated like a particularly finicky recipe, chatter humming through the city streets and bright lights that pinpricked and swirled into infinity. The air tasted different, and though Yanji was small, it was boring at times, it would never leave him. He might leave it, but it had left an imprint he would carry forever.
“The big city is good,” Donghyuck continued. “Seoul is good. It’s what I needed but — I didn’t expect this. It’s like everything is coming back all of a sudden, all these memories I didn’t know I had. All these feelings, like I buried them or something. It’s almost overwhelming.”
Renjun leaned into him, drunk on the fading heat. The sun sank further to the edge of the earth, crashing into its reflection where it burned amongst the waves, and there he swayed, wind buffeting his limbs, seagulls cawing from on high.
“We should get back to the house.” His hand wrapped around Renjun’s front, holding him close, two of them fit together like interlocking joints.“Sunshine’s packing in. Mum’ll be looking for me. She’s missed me.”
“You’ve missed her,” Renjun said.
“Of course. She’s my mother. I’ve missed everyone here,” he continued. “My brothers and sisters, all my family.” He started listing off the names, fingers tapping against Renjun’s side with each syllable. It was good and fond and warm, the way listening to Donghyuck talk always was. He had a nice rhythm with his words, a perfect cadence, a lyrical quality to everything he said, like he was only a beat away from bursting into song.
Like the world was a musical, and Donghyuck was the lead character.
Donghyuck held his hand on the way back, fingers clasped around Renjun’s wrist, his other arm free to point out landmarks. The gold had faded and everything was washed out shades of blues and greys, like the last dregs of an artist’s palette, shadows cast in dark ink.
An arm raised — here’s where he smoked cigarettes when he was fifteen. White clay brick set alight by the sunset; near here, up the hill and along a track that zigzags across a sheer slope — that’s where he got kicked by a horse after skipping school — Jeju is full of wild horses, you know. Yes, I know, Renjun said, because he’d seen them from the car, outside the house grazing on the grass, dappled brown and white, raising their heads to see if you were bringing food.
Here’s where his mother used to buy her tangerines from an old man who shut up shop and moved to Jeju city. This is the town hall, where the grandmothers who weren’t haenyeo would teach them for primary school, walls plastered with scallops and the iridescent rainbows of abalone shells.
This is where the kids met during long summer days — a windswept grass circle with a single rusted basketball hoop that had once been painted gold but was now closer to the colour of margarine. This was the only bus stop in the village, metal roof dented and green paint chipped, timetable turned into a mess of bright colours from year after year of summer rain worming through the plastic casing. Deep trenches with imprints of tyres cut through the soft mud.
That's Doyoung’s house, over there — “He bought me alcohol, once or twice.”
Renjun raised an eyebrow. The wind tugged at his hair and the ocean crashed at his back, last licks of sunshine on his nape. Donghyuck pulled him closer, like he could crush the words in the space between their bodies.
“Okay, okay,” he said, their arms looped at the elbow, “it was a lot of times.” Laughter, so rich and free. “Mum hated it. We’d get smashed and take his dog down to the beach, throw sticks until the little bugger was worn out and then argue over who’d carry her back home. His house was always empty — parents worked a lot. It was a good place to drink until you pass out.
"Literally — we’d be so plastered we’d just sit and stare at the TV for hours on end, hoping some storm didn’t come through and knock out the signal.” Readjusted, pulled Renjun closer, head down, shirt whipping out behind him. Big step over a log blown onto the path, the last point before it turned into gravel, pavement falling away and exploding into the mud like aftermath of a giant sneeze.
“It doesn’t really happen as much as it used to, but every summer for a few years there there’d be at least one hailstorm that just blasted out half the village and we’d all end up in each other’s houses, whoever still had signal to watch whatever it is we had been before the gods dumped all this rain our heads. You know like, 2012? Summer Olympics, middle of a massive storm. Ended up in — “ Donghyuck tilted his head, like a dog who had heard the beginning of the word ‘walk’ “Shit. Can’t remember. Years ago, anyway. We ended up in someone’s house, at least twenty of us, aunties and uncles and kids all crammed on the couch and the floor, people bringing over their own cushions because there was just nothing else to do, all watching the archery. Felt like the thunder god himself landed here when we won the gold. Room went nuts. Someone smashed an entire bottle of beer against the wall and we ended up picking glass out of our feet for weeks. He carried me around on his shoulders while everyone was cheering and I knocked one of the light fixtures off the roof. Made it even worse.”
A wistful sigh, sound carried away on the wind, howling through the gaps in the fence as they zig-zagged up the side of the hill. “Doyoung was like the big brother I’d always wanted.”
“What happened?” Renjun asked, picking his way around the broken steps. There was a funny feeling that accompanied the words, like a ghost has taken residence inside of his guts.
“Huh?” Donghyuck said, glancing across at Renjun, as if he had forgotten he was there. “Oh, nothing. He just moved away. People usually do. His family relocated permanently, once Doyoung decided he wanted to go to University. Better than flying back and forth to Jeju a few times a week, you know.”
He kicked a rock, sending it spinning into the ankle-deep grass that covered the hillside. The path here was paved, at least, but it’d turn to gravel again soon, before flattening out to an unmarked road, thick asphalt like a black tar pancake across the landscape, another half kilometer into the hills until they reached the muddied driveway to Donghyuck’s family home. He wished he’d taken up the offer from Donghyuck’s mother to ride on the bike now — it was still warm and hazy, but there was a tiredness in his bones, something strange — he just wanted to sit down and eat, maybe, and walking the distance seemed almost too much.
“People don’t stay here much,” Donghyuck continued, “‘cause there’s really nothing happening except drinking, fishing, and swimming. If you can make a living guiding all the tourists around, great — that’s what mum does — but it’s pretty boring otherwise. I don’t know anyone under forty who wants to stay here anymore.”
The ghost had evacuated, escaped by the way of his mouth in a breath that curled into the twilight sky. Renjun, in truth, was unsure if it was ever there at all, so brief was its presence. So fleeting. But he’d encounter it again, later, as the thousand year old statues stared down at him with piercing stony eyes, as Donghyuck spoke to him against a backdrop of insects buzzing and birds leaping from branch to branch. It followed him.
Against his side Donghyuck was warm, emboldened by the sunset, retaining his glow in the fading light like it was impossible to punch the starshine from his bones. Renjun caught himself staring for too long and earned a smile, a rare one that was reserved just for him — one that came out when there was no-one around and Donghyuck was safe to show him the small parts of himself. Bits hidden behind little doors, now cracked open with whispers at Renjun to ‘hey, come here and look at this.’ A secret that only he would know.
Beautiful, beautiful smile, like he’d swallowed a falling star, packed it into the confines of his body.
“Why not stay?” Renjun asked, attempting to distract himself. A rabbit ran across the path up ahead, stopped and stared at them, white tail twitching, nose in the sky, sniffing them out. He went to point it out, but before he could react, it was off again, headfirst into the grass.
He closed his fist again and stuffed it into his pocket. Donghyuck squeezed his arm.
“Why not stay in China, Renjun?” Donghyuck asked.
“Yanji’s a city,” Renjun said, “not a tiny village. It’s different.”
‘It’s hugely different ’ he thought, but how was he supposed to explain. Sure, Yanji was a city, but it was tiny compared to Seoul, it was a footnote in the corner of a drawing. Seoul sprawled, something new around every corner. Some strange sense of belonging, that the world was so much bigger than you could ever even imagine.
“It’s the same though, still, in principle. For most people, the boredom — it’s inescapable. A tiny little village, all the way at the bottom end of Jeju. There’s nothing here, and a whole big world out there. That’s why I left. That’s why so many people do, they just want to know what it’s like on the outside. Or they already know there’s nothing for them here.” Pace halted, Donghyuck turned him around. “Look.”
His feet scraped against the concrete steps, sand in the tracks of his sneakers and oh — he remembered this view from when they’d come down.
Then: it was bright and coated in afternoon sunlight, details easy to pick out through the crisp light, almost Hollywood lit with its long golden drips across the brickwork. Washing hanging in backyards, charms to ward the spirits off, driftwood clattering in the wind, monochrome cars parked on the roadsides. A perfect picture of rural Korea, not quite modernised yet — bird’s nest internet cables wrapped around power poles and strung out over the streets like black spiderwebs, roofs painted blue and green and red, or just left terracotta orange, a mosaic of coloured tiles against the concrete and thick grass.
Now: the sun had gone, off to warm another country, and gloom smudged every edge, cast long shadows where the lamps hanging on the back steps didn’t reach, gave the laughter rising from the T-shaped intersections of the wide empty roads a sinister edge, like it came from childish sprites lurking just beyond his vision. The seafoam was coloured dull grey, a silvery froth spitting across the beach like a rabid beast — splattering against the teeth of the rocks and spilling out onto the sand.
All the windows of the houses were aglow, filled with silhouettes of families, television sets casting colours like a broken lava lamp across the grass, strange shapes warped into fever dreams. Dogs barked, a cat slinked through a streetlamp, tiny black cutout with its tail in the air, child chasing after it, last traces of the fire like embers on the edge of the navy blue ocean, stars coming out, all the world transforming as night fell, lights flickering on, darkness not quite there but approaching, still sluggish under the commands of summer.
Sea wind, grabbing at Renjun’s clothes; Donghyuck, grabbing at his arm. Everything was untamed.
“Would you stay there forever?”
The lights tessellated in the humid darkness, wind whipping at his sleeves, and he didn’t know.
How was he supposed to answer when he had no evidence, no knowledge of what this was like? To be born here would make him fundamentally different as a person, would erase his history with broad brushstrokes and force him to turn this story on its head. He would cease to be himself and be someone else entirely, and maybe that someone would want to stay here.
A breaker exploded across the rocks, spitting silver flake into the faded sunset glow, and Renjun took a long breath, thick with salt and mud. Donghyuck might as well have asked him if he would live on the moon. Renjun had no evidence, no idea, no history. Just stories of stories, and what his two eyes told him.
Dinner was in the process of being served when they got back, and Renjun found himself hustled to the table, pushed through the wood-paneled halls to the dining room to where Donghyuck’s eldest sister — Donghee — sat scrolling through Instagram with one hand and idly eating radish slices with her other. She looked up at the scrape of the chair and grinned and waved, mouth full.
The resemblance between the two of them was uncanny, and for a second Renjun stared.
She sat the same way as him, lazy and assured, phone held loose in her hand. She was round-cheeked with a warm presence — though she definitely had height on him that wasn’t just in her long legs. Her nose was flat and wide, and her round eyes give her an almost sprite-like appearance, aided in part by the tips of her shoulder-length hair — dyed a bloody red. She seemed like the kind of girl who waited for surf season, who did paintings and smoked menthols, with her billowing blouse, white denim shorts, nails painted in chipped gold and colourful bracelets hanging off her wrists. A local in a tourist town.
“Hi Donghee,” Donghyuck said. He snatched the last piece of radish from the dish, had his chopsticks halfway to his mouth before he looked at Renjun and smiled sheepishly. “Do you want it?” he asked.
“Kind of,” Renjun said, though he was absolutely sure that —
Donghyuck ate the last piece and smiled. “Too bad, Gotta be quick.”
They settled in at the table, Donghyuck loading up on whatever side dish his sister reached for, Renjun just trying to take everything in. The entire day had felt like a whirlwind from start to finish — from takeoff to landing, meeting Donghyuck’s family, dropping off his bags and then walking around the fishing village that Renjun now knew Donghyuck had called home for eighteen years. It was like it was his memories he was unearthing, not someone else's, so visceral was the aching feeling of nostalgia he felt sitting in Donghyuck’s childhood home.
The house was built on the side of a hill, long and narrow with a hanok style roof, the sliding doors of the living room open to let the sea breeze circulate through the interior. In the darkness it was impossible to see much of the outside, but the wildlife came through loud and clear, crickets chirping and birds singing, the sway of trees in the wind and what Renjun thought, far off, might be the crash of the waves on the shore. On the interior was a sensory overload — every surface so steeped in memory. Childhood photos of the Lee siblings — two girls, two boys — medals, surfing competition awards and cross stitches adorned the walls. The main colour palette was brown, owing to the naked wood walls and hardwood floor, but it was not a dull brown, it was something warmer and richer, infused with sunshine and the trinkets that left splotches of colour like an abstract painting.
Dollar store stone statues that would be kitschy otherwise — but here had the air of a gift given by a friend who could afford little else — and wooden carvings, a rusted crab pot with a hole punched through the front that had been repurposed into a magazine holder. A bag of flour sealed with a giant wooden pin, postcards pinned to the fridge with flower-shaped magnets, a whole door of thank you letters in English and Korean (and a few more in Chinese — all starting with “Thank you Sookhee for…”), high school diplomas and top of the class certificates with Dongjin’s name in neat print. A set of knitting, half-finished and terracotta orange, hung over a chair arm, children's drawings pinned to the walls amongst photographs and hand-drawn maps. Everything seemed to be in progress, in the midst of being transformed into something else — children growing up, a half-finished project of some kind that had been moved to lean on a bookcase overflowing with crime novels, a stack of receipts held together by a Kakaofriend clip, a dust-covered puzzle set up on a side table, a recipe that had been cut out of a magazine and pinned beside a newspaper article about snow in Jeju city.
Steam floated through the air, which — combined with the warm glow that spilled from the lightbulbs hung haphazardly in the chandelier — made everything felt hazy. Through the open door he could hear the chirp of crickets outside and the far off sound of the waves on the shore, a soft accompaniment to the old trot music drifting from the kitchen. It felt like an old time movie scene, something from before he was born.
Frozen in time, gilted and brilliant. Something that should be celebrated — the persistence of things long after you’d forgotten them, buried only to be discovered years later.
The food came out, and the ache faded from his chest, replaced by the kick of the spice that had been laden all over it. The seafood was so fresh he thought to check in the kitchen for a live tank, and everything that accompanied it had that homegrown goodness that Renjun hadn’t even realised he was missing — that quality that was hard to find amongst the dime a dozen restaurants that swarmed on the streets of Seoul.
Donghyuck picked choice cuts of mackerel from Renjun’s plate in exchange for his seafood soup, while Donghee wolfed down rice at an almost inhuman pace, seaweed sticking the edge of her mouth.
“I see where you get it from,” Renjun said, watching her cheeks bulge as she shoved another spoonful between her lips. Donghyuck was a fast eater too, had a tendency to overfill his mouth until he could barely chew, or end up with first degree burns from drinking soup that was far too hot.
“Big family,” Donghyuck said. “Eat fast or you don’t get seconds.”
“Why do you do it at a restaurant then?”
“Habit.” Said around a mouthful, muffled slightly. “Mum’s got four brothers. She does the same.”
“Dad was an only child,” Donghee added. “He used to bribe us to save things for him because he couldn’t eat as fast as we did. When we went out to eat it sucked because we’d all be waiting for him to finish and he’d just be taking his time.”
“God, do you remember that time in Busan?” Donghyuck said. “When we were rushing to catch the train back and he was just taking his sweet fucking time?”
Donghee groaned. “No sense of time either, Dad has. He’s hopeless. Mum’s the one who keeps everything going, I swear.”
“Where is your father?” Renjun asked.
“Dad’s a pilot,” Donghyuck answered. “Does big long haul flights. He won’t be home for a while. Shame. You two might get along. He has a big newspaper collection, wanted to be a writer when he was younger. A journalist, like you.”
Renjun felt a pang at that. He wasn’t a journalist yet — he was a student — but to hear someone call him it, even so casually, was a strange twist in the chest. Like seeing a dream come true before your eyes. It had been his dream for his entire teenage life — to break the stories that needed to be told, to give voices to those who couldn’t speak. He ran a blog of people pieces that he’d written mostly in Yanji, and he’d submitted to the university magazine twice but — hearing Donghyuck acknowledge it felt special.
“And he’s a pilot now?”
Donghyuck shrugged. “Grandad was well off. Paid him through school. Didn’t really like it when he married a Jeju girl with a farmer for a dad but — what can you do?”
“We almost moved,” Donghyuck’s mother said. Renjun jumped at the sound of her voice, looked up to see her carrying a steaming bowl to set down in the middle of the table and join then. There was grease on her apron and sweat on her brow, the same rubber band still holding her hair back, and when she smiled at Renjun it sparkled a little. “But he was insistent. He wanted us to stay on Jeju and raise the kids here. So we stayed.”
“And thank god for it,” Donghyuck said, reaching over to ladle soup into his bowl. “I think I would have suffocated. Don’t know who I would have been if I was a city kid.”
"So,” Donghee asked, “Is this your first time on Jeju?” He had a distinct feeling she was sizing him up, judging him, trying to work out just how her brother's new friend worked. A brief anxiety flashed through him, a surge of fear that he swallowed along with another mouthful of rice.
"Yeah," he said. Donghyuck's fingers brushed his elbow. "I haven't actually had much time to even go outside of Seoul, to be honest."
"Oh God," she said. "I'm sorry. Korea is beautiful, you know — way more beautiful than just Seoul anyway — but Jeju is the most beautiful part. Can't say Donghyuck will be the best guide but — if you need any suggestions let me know. I didn’t abandon the family, so I actually know about the island."
"Ya, don't get cheeky," Donghyuck said. He bumped his elbow against Renjun’s side, leaning into him. “She thinks she’s better than she is but she actually spent half her teenage years inside.”
“And you were drunk, what’s your point?”
Donghyuck's mother continued to offer dishes to Renjun even as she ate her own food — more steaming fish, rich boiled tofu that seared the roof of his mouth, and a swift tap to the wrist of Donghyuck for trying to take salad before Renjun could choose.
"No, really, it's fine," he said, laughing. He and Donghyuck always shared food — an unspoken rule that had resulted in Renjun catching a lot of colds, a bunch of jokes about him and Donghyuck rubbing tongues from Jaemin and a generally easier time ordering at restaurants. Donghyuck didn’t even ask if he could take some these days — just dug in and expected Renjun to do the same if he wanted to. Having to explain this again — it was weird. Like they’d stepped out of their little world into the real one and had to document all the things between them that otherwise they just intrinsically understood.
"It's rude." His mother said.
Renjun shrugged. "I'll just take it off his plate if I want some."
"Oh, he shares with you?" Donghee said, peering over at her brother. She spoke in the same pattern as him, slightly lyrical, and the longer Renjun spent in her presence the more he could see the resemblance — the more he could see it in both of them — a windy grit infused with the sun's rays and a laid-back warmth that only came from the tropics. Sunborne, all of them. It made Renjun's heart ache, realising what Donghyuck had here — seeing how this was his home, that he had a family that loved him — and teased him — as much as Renjun did. More, surely.
"Only because I've trained him well," Renjun said. He took a slice of radish off Donghyuck's plate and put it in his mouth, smiling at the whine Donghyuck let out. All for show. Donghyuck’s hand found his knee under the table and squeezed and they shared a look, warm and inviting, just for the briefest of seconds.
"He never shares with anyone," Donghee huffed, then turned in her chair. Renjun didn’t see what she did — but evidently it was rude enough to cause Donghyuck to flip the bird, a move that somehow evaded his mother’s eye. “I can’t believe we’re related.” Donghee added.
“Me neither. Clearly I got all the looks, too.”
“Robbed straight from the womb,” she let out a stage sigh, covering her forehead dramatically. “I got the personality though. And the brains. Doctors can make me pretty, but they can never fix how stupid you are, Donghyuck.”
“Yah, yah,” Donghyuck started, a precursor to a playful flick of the ear, stopped only by Renjun sitting between the two of them. “So rude." He turned to his mother. "This is your daughter?”
“This is my son?” his mother answered. Renjun choked a little on his water, and Donghyuck deflated, looked back at him with pursed lips and a stiff smile, as if to say ‘can’t catch a break in this house, huh?’
Dongjin and Dongjoo were staying with their grandmother in Seogwipo, and his mother had offered them their rooms, but Donghyuck had refused, citing a wish to have a space to himself. His old room had been converted into an office of sorts, childhood memories packed in boxes in the garage, leaving no space that was uniquely his. The guesthouse that his mother rented on occasion then became the first choice.
It was nice, actually, to Renjun’s surprise. He wasn’t sure what he was expecting — maybe a treehouse style hut or a single room where they’d be forced to share a bed like they were some kind of antagonistic couple in a romance story, but it was much better than that. A hundred or so meters from the main house up the hill through a tunnel of trees, it was wide and squat. The front porch had a single seat and an empty water bowl for a dog set upon it and flowers grew all up the wood of the railing — blooming in whites and violent pinks. A few stone statues — not unlike the idols that seemed to be everywhere on the island — sat in the dirt, wide eyes staring unblinking at the two of them, eerie in the automatic light that had flicked on as they’d approached. There were seashells attached to the door frame, mother of pearl and rainbow shimmers that glittered as he approached, deep orange scallops like fans and small pointed spiral shells all laid out next to each other like the peaks and dips of a city. Sand on the doormat, remnants of the beach come to them.
Inside the decor almost perfectly matched the main house — same hardwood floor and wood panelling on the walls, the same sense of lived in clutter — though in this case it was on the side of more ordered. Tapestries, maps, brochures and guides to the island in English, Korean and Chinese. More stone statues, terracotta sculpts of spirits, an unfolded fan with a three colour taeguk painted on it, houseplants hovering in the corners, mugs filled with paper clips and pens. The curtains were open and despite the heavy glare from the lights inside Renjun could see glimpses of the view — looking down into the bowl of the valley and then out towards where they had been earlier that evening — blinking lights of the village reflected off the black waves of the sea, a pale sliver of the crescent moon hanging waxy in the clear night.
Renjun slid open the ranch slider and stepped out onto the deck, yellow light pooling around his feet. He hadn’t noticed it climbing up the driveway but here — going back from the inside to the outside — the buzz of the wildlife was obvious. Crickets chirruped like a choir, owls hooted and beat their wings, chattering to the doves cooing in the treetops somewhere behind him. Below it, consistent as always, was the waves, booming as they broke against the shore, tangled with the faintest hints of indistinct chatter — people going about their lives in the warm summer night, something that gave Renjun comfort in a way he couldn’t quite describe. The sky was scattered with stars — not the weak pinpoints like he was so used to in Yanji, but actual real stars, burning bright in the inky black — and Renjun realised if he squinted and turn that he could see the Milky Way, the faintest dusting of thousands of galaxies lit in a great belt above his head.
“You can see the stars out here?” Renjun asked, more to himself than anything, though he jumped when Donghyuck answered, standing right behind him in the threshold.
“Facing south like this where Hallasan blocks most of the light pollution, yeah. It’s nice isn’t it. I used to know all the constellations at one point. Now I think —” he paused, took another step and nestled himself against Renjun, a hand around his waist. “— I think that’s the turtle?” He raised a finger.
“The turtle’s on the other side of the house, idiot,” Renjun said. He didn’t even need to follow where Donghyuck had pointed to disprove him — he knew his constellations well enough, knew what direction they were facing. “Xianwu is in the north quadrant. Not down here.”
“Just testing you,” Donghyuck said, booping him on the nose. “Had to make sure you paid attention in class.”
“You’re really full of it, you know that?” Renjun said. He jostled Donghyuck, elbow glancing off his ribs, but there was no response, not verbally, just Donghyuck squeezing his waist, pulling him closer. Holding him for a second, the two of them floating in the moment — countryside soundscape, galaxies turning above their heads, the small of damp wood and raindrops dripping from the forest leaves rising through the air.
They headed back inside, Donghyuck digging into the depths of his backpack to pull out his laptop and set it on the magazine covered coffee table. Renjun got the movie choice, because Donghyuck had lost all rights to it after he’d forced Renjun and Jaemin to sit through Kissing Booth — which they’d both agreed was unanimously awful.
Renjun picked a horror movie — partially because he knew Donghyuck was an absolute coward, partially because it was something he wanted to watch. The side benefits of Donghyuck being scared for 2 ½ hours were enjoyable, both through sheer sadism and the way Donghyuck clutched at him — burying his face in his shoulder and asking ‘is it over yet’ while Renjun worked his way through the snacks they’d picked up from the store. A welcome wind-down to the day.
They barely talked before they slept, just idle chatter about the island, about what Renjun thought of the family he’d met so far (god, they were also so uncannily similar — yes, well, she is my twin — your mother too — half my DNA), what he wanted to do tomorrow.
Anything. Anything. Bike to the beach. See all the things Donghyuck remembered. Go fishing. Hike the mountain — okay maybe not, he didn’t want to spend an entire day sweating his ass off.
No concrete plans, but the promise of something new. Sheets piled around him, sleeping under the clutter of a well loved home. Donghyuck’s warmth, his presence. Owls hooting outside the window, wind in the trees and a splattering of rain. All the potential of somewhere new, and Renjun was ready to dive in.
It was hot and breezy when they finally left the house. Their departure had been delayed by Donghyuck’s mother’s insistence on feeding them, and then Dongjin had showed up — though the tiny firecracker of a boy had shown little interest in Donghyuck, much to his disappointment. Watching Donghyuck try to cover the heartbreak at being ignored was amusing, and Renjun had to placate him by reminding him that he was probably as much of a little shit at 14.
“I’m his brother!” Donghyuck had said.
“And that’s why he hates you.”
They’d made it out close to noon on borrowed bikes from the garage. Donghyuck had his own — fire truck red, pegs clipped on to the spokes of the back wheel that clattered when he pedaled, a headlight hooked up to the front and peeling stickers on the frame — and Renjun got Dongjin’s, which looked almost dead stock — gunmetal frame, manufacturer’s stickers still on the seat, a basket attached to the front. Renjun had had to ask if Dongjin had ever even rode his.
“Maybe?” Donghyuck said with a shrug. “Dongjoo usually just rides tandem with him. Come to think of it I don’t even know if he actually knows how to ride a bike.”
“He owns a bike and can’t ride?”
“Maybe. How should I know. I’m the absentee, remember. He still had training wheels last time I saw him. Are you complaining, anyway? That’s a pretty good bike.”
“I’m not complaining. My bike back home was just — from a thrift shop. Would kill to have something like this.”
He lifted it up — it was easily half the weight of his one back home, though that wasn’t much of a feat. Renjun could have used his bike in Yanji for weightlifting, if he’d had any desire whatsoever to work out.
Donghyuck shrugged. “I’m sure he’ll learn,” he said. “He can’t rely on his sister forever. He should be getting to the age he hates her, anyway.”
“Maybe he’ll just spend all of it inside instead.”
“Maybe he’ll get a scooter,” Donghyuck said. He’d been fishing in the garage all this time, and had finally found the bike pump, pulling it from a heap of discarded boxes like it was the sword from the stone. Though the only thing Donghyuck would crown him was king scaredy cat.
Tires inflated, lunch packed in a bag thrown into the basket on the front, the two of them flew down the hill together. Cars raced past them like racers they’d never outrun, and Donghyuck whooped — a long shout that was caught and snatched away. It was childish and stupid — and Renjun felt more free than he’d known in years.
They’d forgone stopping in the village to keep riding along the coastline, following the bike path on the snaking highway that dipped in and out of the water’s edge. The sea crashed into the black rocks, glittering with the iridescence of the mid-afternoon sun, waters dotted with fishing boats, and the highway was surprisingly calm despite the holiday season warming up. Fishermen on the docks, fishing poles meters high dug into the sand, children building sandcastles, Hallmark perfect families with candy-striped umbrellas, couples riding on scooters or taking photos while they sat on brightly coloured benches. When they rode past cafes they were heaving, filled with patrons looking to escape the heat and becoming distracted by iced coffee or the view — a pure pristine paradise.
There was no draw to them in the towns — no draw anywhere, really. They did stop at a beach to buy abalone from a group of haenyeo who seemed eager to show Renjun how to eat it, and who sold him a shot of soju to wash down what felt like a teaspoon worth of salt that came with the raw shellfish — but that was their only detour, the two of them content to just keep rolling on. Renjun was happy to see the scenery, happy to just experience things, trying to piece together the bits of the island, wonder how many times Donghyuck had been along this road. What his memories were. Had he sat on that bench and ate ice cream? Did he know the couple selling tangerines from a stall that looked so ancient it was practically falling apart.
Renjun, of course, could have just asked for a comprehensive explanation — almost did — but it was Donghyuck that started up the conversation himself, as the road dipped away from the coast and the ocean was less a roar and more a muted crash, like someone hitting a cymbal with a pillow.
It was Donghyuck that started the conversation and Renjun that steered it into an inevitable disaster zone.
“Have you ever stolen anything?”
Where the hard left turn that took him here had come from — well he wasn’t quite sure. They'd been going back and forth like this, like strangers on a first date, asking questions about pasts — though Renjun suspected the question of the prettiest bathroom he'd shit in (for Donghyuck: an excruciatingly described private art gallery in Tokyo; for Renjun: a mirror store in Gangnam) was not high on a list of romantic gestures.
“No,” Donghyuck answered, almost indignant. Renjun had almost expected a cheesy answer about stealing hearts, but to get something serious made him almost worried he’d caused an affront. Donghyuck paused, coasting along, feet not moving on the pedals, then added — “Okay, I stole a skateboard from an abandoned house once but I felt so fucking guilty about it I went and put it back. I don’t know why! It was missing a wheel! No-one wanted it!”
“Oh my god,” Renjun said. He laughed. “You’re such a goody two shoes.”
“You stole things?”
“Duh,” Renjun said. Like it was obvious. “Like. Candy. Chocolate. Nothing big. Oh, spray paint once. To paint my friend’s bike.”
“What the fuck,” Donghyuck said. “I’m friends with a criminal.” He started pedaling faster, like he was trying to get away from Renjun, before easing back, laughing. “Police!”
“Come on you fucking snitch. What happened to ‘be gay, do crimes?’”
“The crime was stealing from the rich, not candy from some poor guy who owns a store.”
Wind whipping in his ears. “How do you know the owner wasn't some capitalist bastard, huh?” Accusatory finger waved in his face. “Your turn, anyway.”
Donghyuck groaned, hands off the handlebars, arms folded across his chest, a feat Renjun would have never pulled off on his bike back home. Just seeing it gave him anxiety — before he remembered Donghyuck existed in the here and now — not in the time of fourteen year old Renjun — and probably had experience doing this
“Who was the first person you kissed?" he asked. Unexpected.
Renjun scoffed. “That's easy. Girl called Mingming. In middle school.”
"Was she niiiice?" Donghyuck teased, hands back on the handles. The beach scene had faded — they were turning inland, climbing up a steady incline, scrub building up on their sides and trees rising up like pop-up props. Signs advertising business started to show up — the self-proclaimed best coffee in Seogwipo-si was apparently right here.
"We were 13. It was about as nice as mashing lips can be."
"That's why you're gay huh?" Donghyuck said. "Bad kissing experiences?"
"Ya, fuck off."
Donghyuck let out a bark of laughter. "Okay. Last person?"
“That’s two questions,” Renjun said.
“Oh, we’re playing by the rules now, little criminal?”
“Fuck you,” Renjun said. A cyclist passed them, pop music warbling from a speaker attached to the front of his bike frame, followed by flatbed ute with a mosaic of crates packed in the back, a few feathers detaching themselves from the chipped blue paint of the back gate.
"Mingming in middle school," Renjun said, after the sound had faded away. It made him a little embarrassed, actually. Admitting to Donghyuck about his past crimes: fine. But admitting he'd been kissed once , in something that felt like a joke? It took him a second to question why it would have even affected him — but surely it must have seemed pathetic that all these years later he still hadn't had so much of a chance.
“What about you?” he asked, trying to shake the thought from his head.
Probably not the best idea, because he really didn’t want to know about Donghyuck’s exploits. That thought let to another thought, and then — why didn’t he want to know, though? Introspective and out of place but — they were best friends. Best friends talked about this sort of stuff, right? It was normal to talk about romance — crushes, sex, that sort of stupid shit. Jaemin talked about it all the fucking time. Even Jisung did — though unlike Jaemin’s obviously manufactured bravado and moon eyes at any guy with so much as six pack (Jisung — very much not Jaemin’s established type, but also very much the perfect match for Jaemin, because god knows Jisung was the only person in the world who could actually put up with Jaemin’s saccharine act and showers of kisses) Jisung was shy and stuttering, mumbled about who he thought was cute, how he’d been flirting with a girl for weeks and not even realised it because he was the true stereotype of oblivious gay.
It was normal to talk about romantic encounters, flirting. First kisses. Sex, if it came to that. That’s what friends did, right? God. Renjun was running himself in circles, digging up justifications and then needing more and more, like the evidence he had wasn’t quite enough. Running himself around for something that was just a simple throwaway question, like every other question he’d asked.
“No-one,” Donghyuck said, pulling him out of the messy web of thought he’d become trapped in.
Donghyuck opened his mouth like there was a bite following the question — a joke to tell or something witty that would diffuse the strange energy — then sighed. “Really.”
He looked — almost forlorn. Eyes out, over the horizon. The road dipped down and they curved back to the ocean’s edge, blistering blue dominating their field of vision. The balusters of the guard rail were painted alternating colours — seafoam, eggshell, ochre — and as they rushed past they blurred into one, a long smudge of a kindergarten palette framed by the endless glare of the water.
The wind picked up, gulls screeching overhead. Renjun tried to come up with a joke, maybe the one Donghyuck had swallowed, but he had nothing. Cursed his wit for always failing him at the worst times, the times when he really needed it, because that was who he was supposed to be — snarky, closed off Renjun. Not this affected by something so simple.
It was the same argument he’d had with himself just before. Why did it matter, anyway? They were young. There was still all the time in the world. It shouldn’t be something he really cared about. It shouldn’t put thoughts in his head — it shouldn’t matter. And yet — Donghyuck had brought this up after all. He must have known Renjun would ask the same question back to him, surely, and yet he’d still — had he wanted to divulge the information? A roundabout way of letting him know. A roundabout —
"This is kind of weird but," Donghyuck said. “I mean — no, nevermind. It’s really weird.”
They were back at the house, exhausted after riding back uphill. They'd spent the evening in Seogwipo — eaten at a seafood restaurant on the shorefront, sitting on the balcony and watching the pedestrians walk through the sunset coloured spotlights on the waterfront. Fishing boats pulled in and out of port, crewed by old men with faces more wrinkles than skin, and out across the harbour the lights of the buoys bobbed like phosphorescent jellyfish, glittering reflections broken up by the ripples of wakes churned up around them. They’d lingered for longer than necessary, conversation never finding a break, just meandering on and on until it was late. Later still, when they stopped to listen to a band playing in a parking lot. Cables leading into the house behind them, it was a full group — guitarist, keyboardist, bassist with a waxed moustache upturned at the ends, amps all set up, a cosy tune like a cup of coffee on a rainy day, or maybe your favourite bar on a Thursday night — familiar and comforting, just the right touch of uplifting to help you carry on.
Up front a mosh of six years old danced along to the saxophonist and the singer crooned, clutching his microphone like it was the last thing keeping him from fading away. Renjun and Donghyuck stood back, the glow of the streetlamps washing over the toes of their shoes, and in the dark Donghyuck’s hand found his, squeezed tight as he interlaced their fingers. Renjun glanced at him and Donghyuck stared back, defiant — as if it to ask ‘what are you going to do about it?’
The sky had packed in on the way back, full moon obscured by thick clouds, and no sooner had they put their bikes under shelter had the rain started to fall. It was a tropical storm, a roar on the tile roof, battering the walls, fists of thunder pounding against the earth like a trapped beast. Occasionally a white bolt of lightning would flash through the blinds, film shutter bright, holding the world in stasis. The inevitable comfort of being inside while the elements raged war around you.
“You’ve said some really weird stuff to me,” Renjun said. He threw a card down on the coffee table, as casual as he could considering his heart had suddenly decided to take up residence in his throat. He was struck with an urge to pound a fist on his chest to try and dislodge it, but he felt like that much skip the casual air he was trying to carry here. He had an inkling of what Donghyuck was thinking about, and it was a road he wasn’t sure he wanted to go down. “It can’t be weirder than the infinite soda conundrum.”
“It’s weirder than the infinite soda conundrum,” Donghyuck said. Brows downturned, staring at his hand of cards like it contained an answer.
Renjun laughed. The whole point of the infinite soda conundrum — a drunken invention of Jisung and Donghyuck — was that it was the weirdest, stupidest thing you knew. It was a benchmark for all other stupid ideas — a mythological tale that had long since lost it’s original meaning, or any semblance of sense — except for that nothing was weirder than the infinite soda conundrum.
“Okay, Donghyuck. What’s weirder than the infinite soda conundrum?”
He said it as if he was asking Donghyuck to prove the existence of god — could have probably drawn a wisecrack or two from the question itself but his impatience and curiosity got the better of him. This dread — swimming in the pit of his stomach like a particularly starved shark — got the better of him. Asking the question was like charging at it with a harpoon — either Renjun was about to lose a limb, or he was going to be a shark slayer. Either way the result was likely bloody.
“Do you want to,” Donghyuck started. Nervous. “Do you want to try?"
“Try what?” Renjun asked, though he knew. He fucking knew, and it set off bells in his head, a siren blaring. Things he’d tried not to think of — stupid ideas, a long-simmering feeling that he’d never examined too closely, just tried to lock in a box and push to the back of his mind. The shark was fucking circling and Renjun wasn’t entirely sure about this fighting it thing. Felt more like he’d looked at his weapon and realised it was a rusty fork rather than the harpoon of legend, good for a bit of eye gouging and not much else.
“Kiss. I — it feels stupid to ask, I’m sorry. I just.”
“No,” Renjun swallowed. Felt his heart slip from his throat. Felt something else replace it, a hundred colours swirling like oil on the surface of as puddle. “It’s okay.”
“You’re my best friend. If I wanted it to happen it would be with someone I trust, you know? As practice. Or whatever. It feels so stupid to ask, I’m sorry. You can forget it if you want. I can go practice on my pillow or Mark’s dakimakura or something”
"Wait," Renjun said, feeling the situation slipping away from him. Trying to comfort Donghyuck and not jump for joy at the same time. “Yeah. I mean. If you want. I don’t want you to catch anything from Mark. That pillow probably stands up on its own, right? We can if you want.” He laughed, awkward.
“I wouldn’t have asked you if I didn’t want to, idiot.”
There was playfulness in it, part of the Donghyuck he knew — but it was also the Donghyuck he knew to underlie that with a sense of seriousness, with hints of his intentions. And his intentions — Renjun couldn’t help but feel a little played, but maybe in the way he liked. Walking into a trap you knew was there all along — playing obvious just to be rescued.
His heart pounded. Donghyuck looked up at him and — though it could have been a trick of the light or an infusion of the thunderstorm — Renjun could have sworn he saw his eyes flash with something rich and dark.
They ended up on the couch together, sitting side by side, pillows thrown to the floor, Donghyuck chewing on his bottom lip as he stared at Renjun.
“This is kind of weird isn’t it?” he asked, though Renjun wasn’t sure if it was actually directed at him or the greater power that had put them in this situation. He answered anyway.
“Only weird if you make it weird.”
“Shut the fuck up.”
Okay, it was weird. But Renjun wasn’t about to admit that. He wasn’t about to admit a lot of the thoughts that were coming into his head — half formed ones that usually only hit him when the loneliness became unbearable when he let himself drift too far.
Donghyuck placed a hand on his cheek. “Do I just…” he started. Scrunched his nose. “How does this work? What the hell.”
“Just. I don’t really know either. Just kiss me?”
“I’m trying to remember how it looked in the dramas,” Donghyuck said, “but my mind is completely blank. I’m just worried about — you know, what if I headbutt you?”
“Then I’ll fucking headbutt you back.”
Donghyuck smacked him with an open palm against his shoulder. “Should we just beat each other up instead?”
“No, we should not,” Renjun said. Donghyuck was always physical — always slapped his knee, elbowed him in the ribs, punched his shoulder when he made a joke at his expense. Always had to touch to understand or to communicate — even though his loud mouth worked perfectly fine.
Donghyuck pouted, lips rosy. “You’re so unfun.”
“Why do you always equate affection with violence?”
“Because love is violent, baby.”
He blew a kiss, far too close to Renjun’s face for him to laugh it off. Weighted by the implications of the moment.
“Do you want to just — just do it?” Donghyuck said, after a short pause.
Donghyuck shut his eyes, lashes fanning across his face. Picturesque, age-old beauty. Breathed like he was trying to pull himself together and opened them again. “Alright.”
Renjun tried to shut the voice in his head up, just for once — the one that was telling him a hundred little reasons why he shouldn’t do this, the one that told him Donghyuck just felt sorry for him, that it would be terrible, that he would hate him forever. But no — it was. It was nice. Gentle. Donghyuck was soft and warm — hesitant, but comfortable. Enough that the voice in his head did shut up, just for a second, was replaced by another that loudly informed him he was kissing Donghyuck, and good god. He enjoyed it. Comfortable enough that when Donghyuck pulled back Renjun chased him. Put a hand on the back of his neck and held him close. A renewed fervor, and Donghyuck dived into it.
The quickly apparent fact that neither of them had any idea what they were doing did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm nor quench the fire that Donghyuck had started within him, like a lit torch to dry tinder. Donghyuck pushed against him, hungry, and Renjun pushed back, committing this all to memory. The soft noises Donghyuck was making almost drowned out by the rainstorm, the feel of his hands on his face, the way he moved. How stupid soft his lips were — that was the real surprise.
It escalated quickly. Renjun — well, if he said he was anything less than stupid horny, he’d be lying. He was dumb and operating on auto pilot, and he climbed into Donghyuck’s lap and pinned him against the couch, pushed his tongue into his mouth, a gesture laden with sloppiness — spit on his chin, red flush on his cheeks. His knees bumped against the wicker and he almost lost his balance. Donghyuck almost slid onto his back, and the two of them tried readjusting with their mouths pressed together and almost fell off the couch. Fell back into rhythm, rutting against each other, stars bursting in the corners of Renjun’s vision. His hand up Donghyuck’s shirt, strange heat in the pit of his stomach. Feeling his skin, how hot he was. Fingers brushed over a nipple and Donghyuck let out a hiss — practically a stamped invitation for Renjun to do it again, though his attempts to work out the exact reaction his movement had were stamped out by Donghyuck’s tongue in his mouth, destroying his focus.
Honestly, it was hard to concentrate on almost anything. Renjun was — he liked to think he was a smart person — but in this moment he was reduced to almost primal instinct, just grinding against Donghyuck’s leg, trying to dig in and get more. They were falling and falling, and Donghyuck wasn’t letting go, he was pulling Renjun with him, pushing at his shirt. Throwing it on the floor. His too, landed on top of a magazine rack, covered it like the roof of a tent. Donghyuck pushing back his hair, biting kisses onto his jawline, trail of spit on his skin like fingerprints at a crime scene. Renjun all over him, touching and learning and —-
“Have you ever?” Donghyuck asked. He was breathless, surfacing for air, shaky in his touch, heat rolling off his skin in waves. End of the question left off but — Donghyuck’s hand on his chest, lips kiss bitten — his eyes blown wide. Renjun’s heart thudded in his chest, a swift drop like he’d jumped off a cliff — the ocean hurtling towards him at terminal velocity, wind clawing at his body.
“Do you know what I’m asking?”
Yes. Renjun thought, but it came out longer, an explanation, wild and spinning with the pulse of the blood that sung through his veins. “I’ve never done it. With anyone. Ever. I’ve barely kissed anyone, Donghyuck.”
Palm splayed against his abdomen, nails digging in. Butterflies bursting in his stomach. “Do you want to?”
Renjun didn’t think. Renjun answered. Hands on Donghyuck, warm skin beneath his touch, both their hearts pounding, breath heavy.
Donghyuck’s mouth found his, and there was something heavier behind it now. Intent. Heat, molten, running through him. Two crossed wires, melting wax mixing together. Hands on chests, kisses, the two of them conduits, lightning striking the Earth outside. More and more. Soft touches. Donghyuck’s hands on him, dipping lower, lower, fingers digging into muscle. Between the kisses — Donghyuck kept laughing, something pure and unbridled.
“It’s just funny,” he said, when Renjun asked about it. “You’re so cute.”
Another giggle. Off the couch. Stop in the doorway to kiss, a tangle of limbs and bodies. Donghyuck’s hands on his belt — his hands on his own. They fell over trying to get into bed, Donghyuck’s feet occupying the space Renjun’s should have. His body cushioning Renjun’s when they slammed into the floor. Donghyuck cackling with laughter, and Renjun had to check — ‘no, it’s fine.’
It was joy. It was happiness. Awkward touches diffused, because Renjun knew Donghyuck and Donghyuck knew him. Because he trusted him more than anything in the world, and it scared him — just a little. It scared him but it was okay because Donghyuck was here. Both of them clueless. Hands on each other, laughter and secrets passed between them like notes in a classroom. Do you like me? Check: yes / no.
And Donghyuck ticked yes with a red marker and giggled, rolled Renjun over, touched him, just there — no, like this. Hand on hand. Renjun made a noise he didn’t even know he had in his body. Everything sliding in to one, then out, like an expanding breath. Like they filled the room with their presence, the two of them suddenly everywhere. Taking over.
It was strange and vulnerable and Renjun had his hands pried from his face one too many times, looked up to the glow of Donghyuck’s eyes in the gloom. Rain bursting against the windows, thunder calling.
“Are you okay?”
Renjun gasped. Affirmed. He was okay. He was okay. Everything was so much but Donghyuck was touching him, Donghyuck was there, kneeling beside him, hands on him, awkward and strange and unfamiliar, but familiar all at once, like a puzzle that he’d been solving for months but had never looked at the box for. He had no idea what the end result should look like, but now he knew. Now he knew and it was something he had never considered, never dreamed about, never known was possible. Not beautiful like it was in the movies, not perfect and shiny — he was sweaty and hot and muscle groups he didn’t even know he had ached but — it was him and it was Donghyuck and maybe it was a little bit better because it was real.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” Donghyuck said, lips pressed to his chest, tongue on his skin. Nipple caught between his fingers. Renjun’s hands running along the plane of his back, feeling out his bones — the knobs of his spine, the jut of his shoulder blades, the way his muscles shifted beneath his touch.
And then Renjun laughed. “Do you think I’m reading from the manual? I have no idea either.”
Everything diffusing, then crackling against as lightning flashed and an explosion of rain fell, a tyrannical roar of wind that Renjun felt might carry them away. Petering out as Donghyuck kissed him, noses knocking together, lips finding his chin, jaw, the corner of his mouth — wet and deep, bodies pressed together. Renjun felt everything, hot skin on hot skin, sweat pooling in the small of his back and trickling down his neck. Lost his train of thought, constantly.
He had never imagined this — not in his wildest dreams. Hadn’t even thought about it — not really. Donghyuck was his friend, but he was never more. Never fantasised about, all the faces that he conjured in his fantasies intentionally blank. But now he was here and it was happening and Renjun let loose. Allowed himself to commit this to memory. Every touch. Every movement. The way Donghyuck rumbled against him when he laughed. Little jumps when the thunder struck with the sound of iron sheets being torn in two.
Donghyuck touching him. Hands — everywhere. Stroking him, sloppy. Gentler now. Just a little, no, here — Renjun come on. He sighed and — Renjun was sure of it, he could barely see, just outlines in the gloom, thin line of blue light spilling out from the television left on the living room. He was sure that Donghyuck rolled his eyes.
And then — and then.
“Wait, how do we do this?” Donghyuck asked. His voice was absolutely wrecked, hoarse and throaty, and it made Renjun kind of a little mad, sent shudders through him. It was like they were standing at the precipice, climbed back to the top of the cliff again.
“How the fuck should I know? Maybe you should Naver search it.”
“Yes, well, isn’t that what we’re trying to achieve?”
And Donghyuck laughed, music to Renjun’s ears. “Seriously, fuck you. Okay. Fine. Okay. Tell me if it’s —”
Renjun never worked out what the end of the sentence was — though he could guess. Never really had to. Donghyuck was there and he was fumbling in the dark, cursing under his breath, drawing laughter from Renjun, lightning and rain booming around them.
“It’s okay, Donghyuck,” Renjun said. It punched itself out of him, broke in the still air, his voice shaky. “It’s okay, you know? I trust you.”
Donghyuck’s hand on his hip. Fingers rubbing tiny circles into his skin. A long breath, the two of them still, and then — Donghyuck's hand sliding up his side. The gentlest of touches. Body draped over his, kiss pressed to his neck. Kiss pressed to his mouth. I trust you.
He did. He really did. Donghyuck held him, turned him over. Walked his fingers across his skin. Gentle and yet — strange. A rawness, a neediness. Renjun trying hard not to think about how vulnerable he was right now, about that shark in the depths. Trying not to think about anything else except for Donghyuck, the unsurety that spiked through everything he did. Told him it was okay. Donghyuck — asked him if he was okay in turn. Hand linked with his. Renjun squeezed so hard he thought he might break his fingers, let out little breathy gasps, his entire body re-adjusting.
Donghyuck’s skin on his skin, sweaty touch, their hands still together, anchoring Renjun. There wasn’t much to it, just fumbling, just a push, just the thunder and rain and the sound of their breath, Donghyuck asking him if he was okay, repeating his name.
He was okay, he told him. He was okay.
Renjun woke in a gentle gloom, wrapped in the pale light that came just before the sun had risen. Everything was still and for a moment he didn’t move, just breathed in the air and sank into the sensation he was the only person in the world — that he could be anywhere and anyone — before he floated back into his body. Dull ache in his bones — every part of him, really.
Donghyuck was lying spread eagled with his ankle poking out of the blankets, facing away from him. There was a softness to his face, an absence of stress — an attractiveness Renjun hadn’t noticed before. He was struck by a desire to brush the hair falling in his eyes away and almost did so, before he caught himself and left their makeshift bedroom to head through to the kitchen.
It was mostly pristine, only a few dishes they’d used the night before sitting in the sink where Donghyuck had washed then. He stood still for a second, awash in the glow of the morning stillness, then took a tub of ice cream from the freezer and grabbed a spoon. Hopped up on the counter to eat.
Looking back through the living room he could see the top of Donghyuck’s head, and the aftermath of the night before. Donghyuck’s cup on the table, bruised purple and blue. Caramels spilling from a red bag. The couch where he’d kissed him, cushions pushed to one side, throw blanket slipping from the back. Memories so fresh they had barely formed like the movie hadn’t finished yet. They were still midway through, this was the part where they talked about their feelings. Reel still rolling, projector hot to the touch.
The thought of kissing Donghyuck had barely crossed his mind before, only maybe when he was drunk and wanted to kiss everyone. But now — now it was there, it was front and centre. It was blaring to him like a siren, doing a full on musical production. Maddening. Siren song. Calling out to him and making him rethink every action, everything he’d done with Donghyuck. Him inviting him here, posing the questions as he did.
God, he’d done more than kiss Donghyuck. So much fucking more, and now it was all tangled up inside him. It was like someone had poured plaster down his throat, like someone had replaced his blood with pure electricity — he was a different being, turned inside out. Held up and shown to the world, except the world was Donghyuck. Donghyuck was the only one who knew. Donghyuck was the one who had seen him, naked as he was, vulnerable and so — so what?
It was a feeling Renjun had never examined too closely before. A feeling that ran as an undercurrent between everything they did, sparking and threatening something more. Threatening to squeeze him tight until everything burst from within, light leaking from the holes in his body, all these words and actions and touches and glances Renjun had never read into. All these things he had never thought twice about but was now being forced to.
Was he being forced to? As far as he was concerned, he could keep going on. He could act like this changed nothing, even though he knew, deep down, that it changed so much. It was a point of no return, and Renjun hadn’t just crossed the line — he had smashed it, took a running leap and blasted through. This was uncharted territory and — amazingly — he didn’t find himself afraid. Not now, anyway.
Renjun sat in the kitchen, eating ice cream while the sun rose. The birdsong began to filter through and the world began to wake up, but Donghyuck slept on. His lips turned numb and he put the tub back in the freezer, opened the ranch slider and sat in the swinging chair inside, warmth of the first rays soft on his skin, wondering what this was all supposed to be about. Wondering if there was any point to it, or if he was just supposed to guess.
Or maybe there was no point at all and that was the beauty of it all.
It rained. Again. Renjun was used to it. It always rained in Seoul, too, the same scattered bursts, a few hours of sunshine gleaned here and there, though in Jeju it felt more extreme, the sunshine blistering and tropical, the rain a downpour only to vanish twenty minutes later.
"Here’s the summer weather for you," Donghyuck had said, as the sky had started to pack in, long streaks of ruddy charcoal on the horizon, earth rumbling. "Hope you don’t mind getting wet."
He’d led them up a hill, through a track only marked by footprints and the occasional red cloth piece tied to a tree trunk. The rain had spit and scattered at their feet, but the canopy mostly provided cover, and the relief from the heat was welcome. Under the cover of the trees it was stifling, but now there was a coolness to the air, released from the handfuls of water held in the broad tree leave,s fading slowly as the sun peeked its way through the clouds again.
Donghyuck had promised, today, to show him his childhood. The first stop was the forest — fifteen minutes ride from his house — and the stream that run within. He’d led Renjun to where he and Donghee used to catch frogs, pointed out the tadpoles swimming in the glittering depths and all the tiny fishes, and now they were headed upstream, to where it coalesced in a deep pool — icy cold, completely alone.
Renjun dived, crashed in the water, its sleek hands caressing his skin. Below the surface the world was silent, the water crystal clear fading to a murky green in the distance. Dark shapes of tiny fish with glittering silver scales oscillated in circles, mossy boulders patterned with sunbeams piled on the edge of the pool, and the gentle current of the stream tugged at his hair, his body freezing for a second at the frigid temperature of the water.
He stayed under, just for a moment, let the bubble of peace linger before he surfaced into cicada buzz and birdsong. The sunshine was dazzling, water droplets prismatic when they flew through the air, and then Donghyuck was beside him, hair still dry, wading up to his chest, every part of him aglow — the perfect picture of summer.
“You’re either stupid or brave to just dive in like that. This is fucking freezing,” Donghyuck said. Renjun shrugged.
“Didn’t I tell you I used to go ice swimming in Yanji?”
“Ah, so you’re stupid,” Donghyuck said, like he was making a mental note of it. Renjun flicked the water from the ends of his fingertips at him. It was cold, but it was tolerable, the humid air easily contracting any temperature changes.
"I can’t get over how clear the water is," Renjun said, cupping his hands to pour the spring water over his head, washing away the film of sweat he'd worked up on the hike.
"Our pure paradise. Pride of Korea," Donghyuck said. “Didn’t you read the signs at the airport?”
Laughter, ringing. Renjun threw a handful of water at him and he fell backwards, whining that he was wounded.
He floated for a second then struck out, swimming back towards the centre of the pool and then spinning to dive down and surface again beside Renjun. It was a little less Baywatch and a little more slice of life — his hair plastered to his forehead, naked chest barely defined save for the soft jut of his ribs. Dark nipples, freckles kissed against his collarbone, pressed into all the places Renjun's fingers might fit.
Renjun’s throat went dry and he looked away. “How long do you want to stay?” he asked, his voice coming out thin.
“Dunno,” Donghyuck said. Water trickling through the rocks, a cuckoo calling from somewhere high above. Splash of his body hitting the surface. The ripples of the impact echoed out over the pool, and Renjun tried not to look. Tried being operative, because Donghyuck was in front of him, floating on his back again. “What else do you want to do?"
"I don't know."
"We have time," Donghyuck said. The same bird, drowned out by a wet rush as Donghyuck stood, water running off his elbows and trickling down his back. “No-one’s gonna rush us. We don’t need to do anything except what we want to do. That’s the beauty of it, right?”
He walked forward as he spoke, stones shifting under his feet. He was in front of Renjun now, hair slicked back, eyes dark, sunlight at his side. He had to look. He couldn't avoid it, and his stomach dropped out as Donghyuck reached a hand out, smeared a chill across Renjun's cheek when he cupped it and chuckled. "Why are you in a rush? You got a bus to catch?" he asked. Thumb running along his jawbone.
"No, I —" Renjun started. Stopped and thought of something else — though that would imply the thought had ever really left his brain. In some surge of madness, head spinning, he leaned forward — heart pounding, every part of him shaking, sending minute waves through the water — to kiss Donghyuck.
Silence amongst the trees. The rush of blood in his ears. Donghyuck's lips were colder than he had remembered, though maybe it was the water lingering on them, a touch of freshness, hundred year old rain filtered through the volcano's frozen blood.
His hand tightened in Renjun's hair, and then he was kissing him back, summer heat heavy around them, lips wet. Renjun's hands found his sides, droplets collecting on the edges of his palms, and the sound faded back in, all the insect buzz and wildlife, the gentle crack of tree branches in the wind, soft smack of their lips. There were no words exchanged, just kisses, open mouthed, a bump of the nose, Donghyuck pushing at him with a sloppiness that Renjun tried to adapt to. Laughter when Donghyuck pushed a little too hard and Renjun almost fell. The two of them backing out of the water to stand in the shade of the bank, ferns overhanging their heads, twin cuckoos calling in the distance.
It was a moment out of time that should have felt frozen, but Donghyuck kept it moving. He kissed him again, rivulets trickling off the tips of his fingers, edge of desperation sending everything careening forward. A nascent desire Renjun couldn't quite place, and then Donghyuck's hand on his waist sent a hot surge through his body, just the slightest brush against the waistband of his shorts, and Renjun understood.
A desire that bloomed and unfurled in the heat that flowed through his kisses — though he was so afraid, afraid to misinterpret. Donghyuck's mouth wandered, pressed kisses on his jaw, fingers tracing the shape of his lips, pulling gasps from Renjun's lungs, other hand dipping ever so slightly. Testing, pushing. Renjun's hands still settled in the curve of Donghyuck's waist, soft skin warm beneath his touch, humidity thick and heavy. He missed the cold of the water, and yet here, shaded at least from the sunlight, there was a dreamy quality to everything, like he was moving through a haze, like this was a fantasy.
Donghyuck's mouth found his again and his hand dipped inside Renjun's waistband, flattened against the thin jut of his hip bone. Skin to skin, and Renjun surged, pressed against him, all limbs and bones and the strange sensation of Donghyuck's body against his, the sloppiness of the kiss, pulling him in. He was operating with so little judgement, just on instinct, just on want. He wanted more. He wanted Donghyuck, wanted to hear him gasp again.
A few droplets of rain fell and Donghyuck shifted, pushing his hips against Renjun's.
He was hard — god. He was hard and he was rubbing against Renjun and it made Renjun’s head swim, his limbs giddy with this heat that erupted through his body. It made everything burst sharply into focus, like someone had spun the dial on the telescope and suddenly he could see, crystal clear and so sure. It was more than last night — this was here and real, no midnight gloom to hide behind, no thunder to mask his words.
“Renjun,” Donghyuck said. Raindrops again, a light drizzle through the canopy. The stream trickled behind him and the birds sang like a choir, and Renjun pressed a kiss to Donghyuck’s lips, open mouth and wet, let it go on for far too long before Renjun finally asked what he’d been mustering up the courage to say.
“Can I touch you?”
It came so thin and needy that Renjun almost couldn’t believe it was him speaking. He’d always thought he had a hold on himself, but clearly he was losing it. Donghyuck had an effect on him, and it was something potent, something to only be used in an emergency.
Permission. Something else that coursed through Donghyuck’s voice, turned it raspy and rough. Renjun’s heartbeat was so fucking loud, and he did it anyway, he didn’t listen to his heart — he let his body take him over. Pushed at Donghyuck’s waistband, wet fabric clinging to his skin, dipped his hands underneath and brushed his fingers against him.
There was heat rising from him, not the wet humidity that filled the air but the heat of blood thrumming below the surface, the heat of arousal. Donghyuck shuddered against Renjun and Renjun chased the sensation, a spike of lust that ran through him and emboldened him. He fumbled with Donghyuck’s shorts until Donghyuck got the clue — helped him to push them down and then stepped out of them.
And then it was just Donghyuck, naked in front of him, skin peppered in droplets of water — just the two of them. Renjun swallowed hard. He couldn't help but stare — thousands of fleeting thoughts flashing through his mind, each of them causing a jolt in his gut. He wrapped his hand around him and Donghyuck let out a noise between a sigh and a gasp, pressed a kiss to his cheek. His whole body tensed and Renjun felt it flush through him: a hot blast of heat that radiated through his body.
It was a strange sight, familiar and yet something completely new, the difference in their skin tones, Donghyuck’s body, faintest outlines of muscle under his skin, hip bones jutting out. Renjun lost his thoughts when a bird screeched right above his head — causing a bright laugh to burst forth from Donghyuck — but everything fell straight back into focus when he stroked him and found a reaction in turn, smile still ghosting along Donghyuck’s lips, something dark and strange behind his eyes.
He was aware of Donghyuck’s want to kiss him, made urgent by the press of his mouth against Renjun’s neck, but Renjun was fascinated with just watching, seeing how someone else’s body that wasn’t his own reacted. Seeing where the source of heat in his palm was coming from, how Donghyuck’s hips stuttered into the circle of his hand, how his body seemed to flush rosy all over.
“Renjun,” Donghyuck said. “Holy shit, Renjun.”
Renjun laughed. It seemed ridiculous. All of this. That this was happening. It seemed strange, seemed incredible, something he wanted to commit to memory but he couldn’t because it was passing by too fast. Hot sun on his back, prehistoric world rising around him, everything endless and untouched. A whole world just for them, Donghyuck panting against him — his name in his mouth like a drug.
It poured into his chest, and he felt it strike him, whatever it was, this feeling he couldn’t quite name, this want for more, to know Donghyuck inside and out, all the little pieces of him. It was more than want, it was something intrinsic and deep. The need to understand why he was who he was — what this place had made of him. To know that and then more, how the person standing in front of him had become exactly that. It was like reading a book you loved and discovering there was a prequel — suddenly Renjun was aware that there was something more, something he’d missed out on, pages and pages to read back on.
There was so much of Donghyuck than what he knew and Renjun — Renjun wanted to understand. Had to. He'd known his vulnerabilities — in ways — but this was something else. This was in the daylight, naked as the day he was born, not fumbling in the dark and falling over each other. This was where they couldn’t hide.
This was him and Donghyuck. This was something new, and terrified as he was — Renjun kept going.
“You know, I think my old fort is around here somewhere.”
They were headed back through the woods, back on the path, a tiny line of bare dirt worn down by the thousands of feet before them. The trees were less crowded in this area, the grass dappled with the sunlight filtering through the huge canopies above them, the occasional glimpse of deer or horses trotting through to graze on the volcanic scrub. A group of stone idols lay against a signpost pointing them back towards the road, round heads covered with moss, like someone had cracked them open and instead of blood nature had spilled out.
“Fort?” Renjun asked.
“Yeah.” He’d stopped at the sign, was crouching down and staring at the tiny idols. “We hammered it together when I was like eight. Me and my dad. Donghee tried to help, but she actually just hit her thumb like five times until she was banned from the hammer. I kept dropping it on my toes instead. Actually, come to think of it, I guess he did everything and we just chased each other around until it was done. Should be this way. ” He stood up, then cut off the path into the grass. “I used to play with my friends in the woods here all the time. It opens up into the paddocks up the back here. We used to come after school and climb trees or play ssireum or tag or just do the dumb shit. Donghee and me got water guns for our birthdays once and then it was all about water fights.”
They beat through the undergrowth until the foliage started to thin out, sunlight bright and hazy, pollen floating through the air outlined in gold foil, the trickle of a stream running faint in the distance. The grass was ankle deep and lush green, spotted with fallen leaves and wildflowers, the trails cut through it looking more animal than man made.
“There’s so much history here, you know?” Donghyuck was saying. “I mean there is all over Korea — well, you’re from China so I’m sure it’s even more but — it feels like no-one knows anything about Jeju. We’re so different. Even Jeju dialect itself is barely Korean anymore — like you speak Jeolla satoori and maybe someone who only speaks Gyeonggi understands you a bit, but you speak Jeju and it’s just something else. We’ve been so isolated we’ve become something of our own.”
“There’s places like that in China. I mean, all over, everywhere has their own dialect. But they say Wenzhounese is the devil’s language — there’s still elements of classic Chinese in it, and the region was locked off by mountains for so long that it became completely unintelligible.”
“Right,” Donghyuck said. “Exactly. It’s like — I feel like I’m repeating myself but it really is like our geography determines so much of ourselves. It makes us so unique. Like for you, growing up in a city was so different from my childhood, right? We’re made ourselves because of a random roll of the dice that placed us in some part of the world. We’ve only met each other because of happenstance, we only like these things and have these experiences because I was born here and you were born there and we navigated the world’s craziest choose-your-own-adventure story in a certain way. There has to be a thousand different versions of how this story could have gone. Like what if we had never met? What if I wasn’t late to class on that day? What if we hadn’t talked to each other, or the seat next to you was taken or I’d just skipped class? It’s so maddening. To think of how close we were to never being here together — if we’d just made the wrong choices.”
“We didn’t though,” Renjun said. Careful, careful. Golden light floating around him, patches of spotted glare, birds in the treetops. Ochre and lavender wildflowers, crushed beneath the heel of his shoes, the scent of chlorophyll and snapped stems, muddy ground and running water soaking into the lava bed beneath them. “I don’t think there was ever a wrong choice to make. I think —” he stopped. He’d said too much and yet — Donghyuck was staring back at him. Dark brown eyes rich in the sunlight, brows pressed together, like he was expecting more. Waiting for the next page.
“I think we were always going to meet,” Renjun said. He tried to play it off as casual but failed, tumbling somewhere in the middle, the end of the sentence jumping in pitch like it was on a seesaw where a ten tonne weight had been dropped on the other end. “I do believe in fate, you know.”
Crack of sticks. Feathered wings thrumming. Water and wind and insect buzz, cicadas clutching on to the bark. Donghyuck nodded and looked away, leaving Renjun to wonder if he’d overstepped and said too much, if Donghyuck thought he was lovesick or mad, head in the clouds wishing this was a fantasy story, like they were made to meet and not two people who had somehow become tangled up in each other by chance. Left him hanging, standing beside a fluttering cloth tied to a branch, red as a murder on a holy day.
Red as his heart, a thunderstorm in his chest.
The fort was built under one of the biggest trees in the area, its arms spread high to the skies, half the branches overhanging a clearing that was almost blinding with the intensity of the sunlight shining through. There was a wooden ladder nailed into the trunk and a rope swing hanging from the branch. On the other side a sign blew gently in the breeze, a cloth banner painted in green paint that read ‘Donghyuck (and Donghee)’s castle.’ It was built of wooden boards, nailed together with a corrugated roof, brightly coloured fabric pooling on the ground outside, walls painted in what must have once been vibrant shades. There were names written in dripping strokes, rainbows and flowers and faces painted over each other, so much that where there wasn’t paint it was obvious that there was at least a good 2cm of layers built up over the top of the wood. The door was slightly ajar, a smiley face carved into the front by what Renjun could only assume was a pocket knife, grooves deep and faded with time. Donghyuck let out a bark of laughter and pushed it open, passing from the sunlight into the cool shade.
Inside was two rooms, a much larger one they were standing in and a second one attached, the doorway looking like someone had hacked through the wood with a hatchet, a shower curtain thick with grime and dirt serving as the door. Renjun peered in and found the room almost empty — the only contents a workbench with half assembled slingshot lying on top of it, a chest with a rusted padlock and an upturned wooden seat, legs sticking into the air like the prongs of a fork.
Ducked his head back out. Everything was thick with dirt and dust, sprouts growing through the floorboards, paper long since melted nailed to the walls, stagnant water filled tin cans and sunbleached super soakers left haphazard on the floor. On the table — hammers, a bucket of rusted nails, some kind of paper creation that had turned to pulp in the rain, a plastic bag that crumbled under his touch and spilled seeds across the floor, film photographs turned sepia. Untouched, a time capsule of years before, and they were the ones to crack it open. It wasn’t hard to imagine Donghyuck and Donghee here — it played in his head like a film reel. Donghyuck sitting on the bench, super soaker in his hands, Donghee sitting on the table, fiddling with the transistor radio. The two of them bantering, Donghyuck snapping away, Donghee constantly one upping him. Him squirting her with the water gun and her screaming.
“It feels like it’s been forever since I was last here,” Donghyuck said. A great hand to reach and pull Renjun back into the present. “Everything’s all — forgotten. It's like I'm standing in a photograph.”
He’d picked up the radio. It was clearly broken — antenna bent at a 90-degree angle, strap snapped in half and dangling in the air. “Like this — I used to listen to this every day,” he continued. “Shit, I used to come here every day. After school, when I wanted to be by myself, or when it was just too much at home. I wrote my first story in here, on a journal I’m sure mum wanted me to use for school.” Fingers raking a track in the dust heaped on a wooden shelf nailed to the wall. "I can’t believe I just — left it.” He fiddled with the dial on the radio, though it was less an attempt to get it to work and more what seemed like a busying of his hands while he looked over the rest of the room. “All those memories stagnating.”
“It’s okay,” Renjun said. Something was choking him all of a sudden. The amusement at the scenarios he’d made up in his head, the warmth of what must have been hundreds of memories. Swollen and stuck in his throat. “It happens, right?”
“I thought I’d never grow up,” Donghyuck said. “That’s the thing. I thought I’d never grow up or grow out of these things. I promised people that we'd be friends forever. Shit, Renjun — I don’t even know where half my friends from then are now. I promised them, and I broke that promise."
Renjun swallowed. It was that familiar feeling. This strange longing for the people he could have been, the people he could have known. "It's okay. I know this your home but,” he started, “being here reminds me of Yanji. When I was younger — you said our childhoods were different but I understand — summer was something ageless for me too. Where everything felt like one adventure after another because you were young and had no responsibilities. I was thinking about my best friend back then — Dahye. I was thinking about her and then I realised that we just stopped talking, too. We used to do everything together. She had the worst fucking potty mouth you could imagine — just hated everyone and everything. We used to smoke cigarettes together, ride around on my bike. I pierced her nose for her when we were fifteen with a fucking sewing needle. And then she moved away. I promised her too — we’d be best friends forever. And then we weren’t."
“It sucks like that.” Donghyuck set the radio down in the table again and smiled softly at Renjun. “I really did think I’d just stay the way I was. That everything would, because I didn’t know how life worked. But I guess we all move on, whether we like it or not.”
“I didn’t want to,” Renjun said, so soft, so quiet. Donghyuck had started this, but he was continuing it. More revealing than he’d liked, but it was out there now, impossible to withdraw. I don’t think I have, lingering on the tip of his tongue, snuffed out like a wet candle flame as Donghyuck continued to speak.
“It's so raw, isn’t it?” The wind whistled through the treetops, a sudden gust that clattered around them, shook the walls of the hut, carried leaves into the air and made the swing outside knock against the trunk. “I thought I'd buried it all,” Donghyuck continued. “but it’s still there. It’s like being back here — like there's some kind of magic that I can't see anymore. Like all this stuff once held something powerful and I just — because I forgot about it, it left."
He picked up a stick leaning against the wall and held it out, fencer's pose, swiped at the dust that floated in front of them. "Used to think this killed monsters," he said. It was a dime a dozen stick, stripped of bark — unimpressive to an adult, but something a child would find war ready. "Me and Donghee would spend hours chasing them through the woods, slaying them and saving the world. Now, though.” He sighed and put it back down, shaking his head. "I feel guilty for just leaving all this behind."
Renjun, legs tired, sat down on the chair beside him. It was softer than expected and he sunk, sending a cloud of dust into the air like a smoke bomb, a soft woosh that filled the air. Donghyuck started to laugh and didn’t stop, laughed and laughed, everything golden, infecting Renjun with his happiness until he was crying — until they both were.
“You really know how to diffuse a situation, don’t you?” Donghyuck said. Renjun was crying, dust in his eyes, laughter scratching up his throat. He shook his head, trying to hold it in and failing miserably. The particles fell down like dirty snow, like ash from a bonfire, settling against the floor, his view clearing, until it was the two of them again, Donghyuck’s dark hair streaked with grey, green smudges on his bare knees, moss on his shirt. Donghyuck stepped forward and everything turned into focus.
"Perfect comedic timing, Huang Renjun."
Donghyuck kissed him.
Donghyuck kissed him and Renjun kissed back, and there was dust and dirt everywhere and they were surrounded by these relics of the past. They were swimming in it — and Renjun could almost pretend that they were there, that he and Donghyuck were teenagers and he had been here before — that this was some alternate timeline where they skipped school to make out like they always did. Hiding in the shadows of the forest and discovering each other in the sunlight.
And then maybe he didn't, because Donghyuck was kissing him with ferocity, like he had years to make up for. Like it was a here and now and yet he was still moving forward, no part of him left behind, the two of them splitting in the present movement — Donghyuck driving into the future and Renjun knee deep in quicksand of the past.
It all ballooned in Renjun’s chest, pushed against his lungs and started to choke him, and he missed it, he missed it so badly, though he didn’t know what it was — nostalgia for a moment he’d never had, for Donghyuck’s childhood, for having a secret hut filled with water guns and memories, for moments like this, wild joy that seemed to grow from nowhere and bloom like spring flowers — it hurt so much it felt like he’d been staked through the heart.
He kissed him, hands cupping his face, and the words were still on his tongue, betrayal in such a simple sentence. A thought he’d never found the ability to express — one that would nag him for quite some time, he’d come to realise.
Renjun supposed — in essence — the summer days he spent in Yanji were no different to those he was spending now. Mostly they started like this: biking down to the Dahye's house and knocking on her door furiously while yelling her name until she stumbled out, her bag half packed and pockets rattling with change, cursing him in whatever language she'd chosen that month. Russian, Mongolian, some dialect she'd picked up from a trip. She had the foulest mouth of any person he’d ever met — adults included. He wasn’t even sure how her own family put up with her — if there was a permanently full swear jar sitting on the counter, if they turned the other cheek or (this felt the least likely) she simply didn’t swear at home.
The veritable torrent of dirt that was her speech meant most other families were less than happy to have her around, least she teach their children how to call each other pissdrinkers. Renjun however — they'd known each other since they were kids, both their houses so close that his mother almost didn't have a choice.
“It’s like any kind of collecting hobby,” she explained. “Some people collect cards or those figurines. I collect words. Nasty words.”
Renjun had thought there would be an advantage to knowing curse words in languages people didn't understand, but he quickly realised it was the intent behind it, not the words, that tipped adults off. If he looked angry while he called someone a bitch, his mother would furrow her brow and knock him on the back of the head. However —
"You have to say it with a big smile," Dahye explained. "Like this —" she let off a long string of curses in Mongolian that Renjun only half understood, face the picture of innocence. The gist was that someone, somewhere was being called a ten-cent swine fucker and — combined with her fluttering lashes — Renjun couldn’t help but laugh. "If you smile they don't know what you're saying. They just think it's pleasant. Easiest way to get away with it, until you run into the Russian kids anyway — but that's great because they can just teach you more."
— he learned quickly. Adopted her skills, found himself employing them every now and then. Even years later he’d smile as he told Donghyuck to go piss himself after the latter had stolen his food.
Dahye's parents, despite letting her swear like a sailor — wouldn't let her have a bike. Renjun had always wondered what kind of aneurysm would have resulted from them realising that she rode on the back of Renjun's every day. Laughed at the thought of it, because it was probably half the reason she even agreed to ride on his metal death trap of a bike.
Shit, Renjun wasn’t even sure why his mother let him ride his bike. For one: it was far too big for him — purchased from a thrift shop by a well-meaning uncle — weighty and rattling. For two: it was hard to control, hard to pick up speed with — and then, three: a battering ram when it did get going.
And man, did it get going.
When Renjun was on his bike he would swear he was faster than the devil. The route to midtown took him down past one of the streams that drained into the Buerhatong, and as he raced down the footpath, residential high rises at his sides, Dahye clinging on to his waist, he’d imagine he was racing a river monster lurking below the surface, and if he was too slow it would burst from the water and swallow him whole. The speed required, of course, was always just enough that he could outrun it — but it was through trial and error he’d learned just what the limit of that speed was. Unlike most of the other kids, when he didn’t want to risk braking and sending himself head over heels over the handlebars, bailing into a bush didn’t quite work for him. At the speed he travelled he was liable to punch right through it and ram someone’s fence, or end up in a ditch, coated in cuts and scrapes.
But that was all part of the learning process — lessons taught with blood and bruises, scars that told a story. Renjun got a handle on it, eventually, and then there was nothing that could stop him — literally. Him and Dahye, racing through the back streets, cats snoozing on fences opening a single eye when they shot past. Risky maneuvers to cross the road, headed down for the park. The bright sunshine, all the possibilities of the day.
Renjun was never sure who would be waiting there for them — but that was half the fun of it. Whoever managed to escape from extra study work or just jumped out their bedroom window, and there was always someone who said they were ‘just ten minutes away’ for an hour. Always someone who wanted to wait for them and was left sitting in the shade of the pines while everyone else gave up and divided into teams. Renjun's oddball combination of size and speed meant he was favoured for football, but often last pick for basketball — though half the time whoever was captain (Minghao, mostly, a lanky boy 2 ½ years his senior who Renjun had decided was basically the coolest person ever purely on the fact that he had once shown him his nunchuck tricks) would pick Renjun because they liked him.
They'd play until mid afternoon, team members rotating in and out when their parents called. Everyone forgot how many goals they scored — and no-one thought to keep tally — and then there was the inevitable argument over who won, with the winner being decided mostly by who was the loudest — or who was willing to argue for the longest. Another advantage Renjun capitalised on (that and his pointy elbows).
"You truly are a stubborn little pigshit," Dahye would say, sitting on the grass with her sneakers off, shaggy DIY haircut framing her wide face.
“Ah, but this pigshit is a winner.”
“Blyat. Carry me to the store, winner. I have 15 yuan and a sweet tooth.”
They wandered across the packed roads, tar melting under their soles, Dahye with her two feet firmly planted on the ground. Piled into a much too small convenience store and spend their pocket money on Melona and Pepsi. Dahye bought her and Renjun chocolate bars that had already begun to melt before they even made it halfway back to where he’d left his bike.
Repeated this, over and over, with different faces each day. Most of Renjun’s friends went to summer camp — half the school went to summer camp — but he stayed home. A huge relief, despite the insistence that education mattered the most. He’d spent enough fucking time in a classroom.
On some of the hottest days he’d brave the community pool and remembered he hated crowds — or the artificial kind anyway, hated all the tiny kids screaming and throwing inflatable toys. The crowd of the city was tolerable — more than tolerable, it was made for him to melt away in — but the crowd of people he vaguely knew was suffocating.
In the summer he made friends he’d never seen before, and would never see again — a temporary covenant forged under sticky heat. Told secrets. Forgot them. Someone was always smoking a cigarette, someone always forgot their lighter. There was a strange bond between them, a knowledge that this might be all over soon, that they were running on limited time, and yet none of them acknowledged it. Just swam through it without a care in the world. Day after day after day, endless until it wasn’t, until it was one week until school again and the spell was broken.
Then one day he went out to play with his friends for the last time.
He wished, now, that he had known in that moment what was to come. Wished he could have savoured it instead of just assuming that they would be young forever. Wished he was still ignorant of the future, living in the shine of youth. He didn’t know how it would end up — that people would get girlfriends and boyfriends, that people would spend their summer studying — that, like Dahye, they would move away and become a jumble of characters on a screen. Had thought everyone would always know each other and now had to grapple with the fact that that simply wasn’t true. That things had changed — that they had changed.
Time had passed him by and he hadn’t even noticed it.
Back in the woods, leaves soft underfoot, trekking through the underbrush. A few deer galloped past like lost sailors amongst the sea of green, and Renjun swung Donghyuck’s dragon slaying stick at the vines hanging overhead. The radio was slung over his shoulder, strap fixed with a simple knot, bouncing against his side with every step he took. Still broken — but Donghyuck made up for it by singing, his tune something timeless, branches snapping in the wind providing the static over his voice the colour of polished brass.
They passed a shrine that looked all but abandoned — overgrown with moss, decaying offerings sitting on rain slick black wood, multicoloured clay lanterns hanging from the tree branches like planets in the night sky — and Donghyuck bowed to it.
“For the Dragon King,” he explained. “He looks after the island and we look after him.”
“Are there lots of shrines?”
“Yeah,” Donghyuck nodded. “Same thing with the stone statues you see everywhere. And the rock piles. Bangsatap. All asking for fortune. Keeping the spirits happy, enticing the good ones back, warding the bad ones away. That stuff I was telling you about at the beach, sending off the boats — it’s all part of it. It looks run down but you bet some family somewhere — maybe just a grandfather or a child — leaves their offerings there regularly. They’ve probably done it for generations.”
It reminded him of standing in the temple in Jilin, staring at thousand year old texts that had impossibility remained through conquest and war and biting winters, preserved on polished wood to impart their knowledge so far in the future. Things that lived and breathed, reminders of who they once were. The sense of touching someone else through time — staring at an object that had been carved in a time so inconceivably different to your own and feeling it echo out.
"That’s so cool.”
Donghyuck laughed. “You think?”
“You’re proud of it. Yeah — it’s pretty awesome. Like you said, it makes you you. One of those geographic things."
“I guess. I never really thought about it. It’s just something you do, you know? That you grow up with.”
“I wish I could have grown up with you.”
Renjun didn’t know what possessed him to say it, only that it had been ruminating in his head for a while. All these glimpses into Donghyuck’s past, basking in the glow of the nostalgia that dripped from him like honey from fresh bread — it had left a hole in Renjun’s heart. One that felt like it was being pulled apart every second by two hands inside him, prying his ribs apart, digging deep within him and hollowing him out — for whatever reason he didn’t know yet. It was like he was suddenly aware of their diverging timelines — eighteen years apart, two together — and the terrifying question of when they would part again.
Were they destined to be like so many other friendships? Destined to drift apart at some point, only meant to meet for a few years. Would they become like his school friends — the kids that he smoked cigarettes with under a sky polluted inky blue by the lights of the city, their talk of taking on the world never to come to fruition.
Was everything repeating? Was this another moment he’d look back on in five years time and wish he’d treasured longer? Getting older scared him. The idea of growing up and having responsibilities — no-one had talked about that in school. No-one had talked about the horrifying realisation that the people he loved might not be around forever, or that there simply wasn’t enough time for everything he wanted to happen.
“You think so?”
“Maybe,” Renjun said, backpedaling. Donghyuck smirked.
“Oh come on. I mean. Yeah. Sure. I wish I could have experienced it with you. All that wild untamed energy. I wish we had more years together but — it’s perfectly fine that we met right now, right? We still have time.”
“But it’s not the same as it was then.”
Sticks cracked under his heel. A dove flew overhead, cooing softly. The path wound to the left, climbing uphill, and suddenly the forest fell away and they were in the blinding light again. It was a long pause in conversation, almost so long Renjun thought it had been dropped. Worried he’d overstepped again. Then Donghyuck shrugged.
“No, I guess not. But we can make new memories. Live new moments. It doesn’t have to be how it was.”
He picked up his bike where he’d left it leaning against a signpost and threw the radio into the basket and looked back at Renjun. The wind blew through his hair and behind him the sky was a canvas of blue, strokes of white clouds surrounding him, sunlight glowing on his skin. He looked unreal. He looked like warmth and comfort, and Renjun nodded. Didn’t say anything, just thought it — how he wished, almost, that it still could be.
Renjun found himself leaning on the sunbaked concrete wall of a changing room at the back of an old farm, somewhere Donghyuck had worked when he was younger, now run down and abandoned. The fences had crumbled in on themselves, wood thick with a slimy film of mud and scum, and the paddocks had become overgrown with ivy and knotweed, but the paths were still present, gravel spotted with prickly weeds and puddles of brown water. A few horses galloped away as they wandered closer, and Donghyuck told his stories — milking shed, old kennel (dog toys still sitting on the roof), chicken pen. Pond — dried up and framed by wilting reeds — where they used to feed the ducks. Shed where the tractor was kept — a rusted out hunk of iron now, engine stripped, seat missing. Up the hill, not too steep, rabbit warrens threatening to twist their ankles. Spot under a sprawling tree where a few sheep huddled in the shade — Donghee smoked there. Shared the owner's pack, before he died.
"They'd light up like little fireflies after dark, these two cigarette ends in the gloom. Funny to see, like glowing red eyes. Then she got lung problems and they made her stop — or rather no-one would give her them anymore. So it'd be just one eye in the darkness. Her phone light, sometimes. Then no-one."
The land dipped and sloped — was nothing but green, rolling grass for kilometres, humps of hills spotted with scrub, darkening as the forest thickened and rose up at the base of Hallasan. Far in the distance they saw flashes of colour from cars passing on the road, heard a faint hum of electric engines. Fat bumblebees perched on thistle flowers growing up fence posts. Crows cawing, magpies with flashes of iridescent plumage.
The remnants of a pool, blue paint chipped and worn, pond scum floating atop the considerable amount of water stagnating in the bottom.
"Wanna go for a swim?" Renjun asked, though the words were knocked out of his mouth as Donghyuck kissed him. Wound his hand around the back of his neck and pulled him closer. Heat buzzing in his ears, mouth soft, fingernails on his skin. "Guess that's a no."
"Shut the fuck up."
Pulled him flush against his body, sweat sticking between his shoulder blades. Renjun was easily influenced, kind of drunk on the feeling, drunk on Donghyuck, grasping at his hair, tongue in his mouth. Donghyuck's hands on him, backing him up.
And now here, warm concrete at his back. It was exposed but hidden, nestled in the crook of the valley, where anyone who walked past could see them — but that was the beauty of it, that no-one was here, only the insects and birds, only the soft breeze. Straight ahead of them his view was of an empty paddock, overgrown with grass and vines and shrubs and persimmon trees, but to call that a view really did a disservice to Donghyuck — hair mussed, eyes dark, mouth pink. Down on his knees, no technique to it really. No finesse, just raw arousal — lit by an edge of desperation, by something that sparked through Renjun and took root in his chest. A great hand clenching at his heart — one he didn’t want to examine too long.
"You know you don't have to do that," Renjun said, afterwards, heading back over the field, grass soft beneath their feet, gulls circling overhead. A fistful of daisies in his pocket, palms smeared with green viscera.
"I wanted to." Donghyuck said with a shrug. The sunlight highlighted the sweat on his brow and his eyes were bright and beautiful, staring at Renjun with an unabashed adoration, the kind that almost hurt to be the subject of. “Isn’t that enough?”
Renjun opened his mouth, then shut it again. So many things surprised him about Donghyuck — he was a photograph come to life, a film character jumped straight off the screen. Wild and free, heart on display. It made him shine even more to Renjun, so much that he was blinding.
Donghyuck held out his hand for Renjun to take and smiled.
“C’mon. I’ll show you how I broke my foot.”
And Renjun followed. Into the late afternoon, into the pastel sunset, the whole world cast in pink. Into the waves, crashing and breaking around them. Into the past and out again, through the lens of a toy camera. Sand between his toes, seafoam spit into the sky, crystal droplets of the ocean suspended like stars. Hair soaking wet on the ride back home, the collar of his shirt damp when he threw it on the floor, amongst the pile of the rest of their dirty laundry. Donghyuck's mouth tasted like salt when he kissed him, after he'd slipped into the shower. Sand swirling down the drain, hands in his hair.
Lights on. Nowhere to hide.
Sunshine bright, glittering skies. They spent the next morning with Donghyuck’s mother, helping pull weeds from the overgrown flower beds and watering the glossy-leafed bushes, acting some semblance of put together and responsible before Donghyuck turned the hose on Renjun and soaked him from head to toe. In the heat of the sun he was dry soon enough, only a lingering dampness in the folds of his shorts, and then they were back on the road, back on their bikes, smeared in dirt and mud and the scent of flowers.
There was a destination — Cheonjeyeon, and before that Jusangjeolli — but as with all plans that involved Donghyuck they were liable to a non-linear sequence of events — or just a massive detour. In this case the sidetracking was merely the lack of urgency they felt, the slow sticky warmth that surrounded them. There was no need to rush, no need to be stressed, and Renjun was happy to go along with it. Any time spent with Donghyuck — whether it was sightseeing or just sitting on the side of the road and watching the storks wade through the wetlands — was worth it. It wasn’t time wasted if it made him happy — and how could Renjun not be happy?
He was light of heart and free as two of them rode around Jungmun, sticking mostly to the shade of the apartment buildings. The entire town was painted in shades of pastels and primary school colours, on street parking marked by solid rectangles of blue and yellow, buildings the colour of peach, sand and sunset glows, eggshell blue roofs and terracotta brick walls. It made Renjun feel like he was riding through an Instagram story, the world shaded by a filter that turned everything sunbleached and lazy.
They stopped at a convenience store to grab soft drinks, where Donghyuck spent an inordinate amount of time with his head in the fridge, um-ing and ah-ing, asking Renjun's opinion and then — to his annoyance — telling him he was wrong when he answered.
Maybe he had been wrong. Renjun had chosen a can of Chilsung — his old favourite from Yanji — and to his dismay it overflowed when he cracked the tab, spraying liquid all over his shirt like an erupting geyser. His brain switched off and he cursed violently in Chinese, sticky soft drink dripping down his chin. Donghyuck started to laugh, though he hid it behind his hand, eyes crinkling at the edges.
“Did you fucking shake this?” Renjun asked, even though there was no possible way for Donghyuck to get his hands on it.
Donghyuck let loose, barked a thunderclap laugh that caused a dog to bark back at him — a tiny little thing that probably would have lost a fight with it’s own shadow, running excitedly down the narrow side road. “Hey!” Donghyuck called out, mimicking its bark, though it didn’t give him so much as a cursory glance. Its claws skittered on the concrete, free as the wind, and then it hopped the stone wall into the neighbour’s yard.
“Should we tell someone about that?” Renjun asked, wiping off the drink with the napkins Donghyuck had pulled from his bag. On the other side of the wall the dogs white ears bobbed along in the tall grass like twin shark fins.
Donghyuck shook his head. “Someone will know who it belongs to. Probably does it all the time. If it’s not supposed to be out they’ll call the owner, but chances are he likes exploring.”
Renjun could understand that. He knew most of the neighbourhood pets back home, knew who to call if a great big Golden Retriever wandered into his backyard (though if he delayed calling to get some choice belly rubs in, well, no-one would ever know). The sense of community here, though, seemed thicker than it had been in Yanji. Everywhere he went there seemed to be people standing on the roadside, stopped in the middle of their errands with shopping in the basket of their bikes or a tiny dog running circles around them, just talking. Catching up, asking about plans or inviting someone over for lunch.
“Everyone knows each other, huh?”
“Unfortunately.” Donghyuck wrinkled his nose. He glanced over at Renjun and made a face, pursed lips, eyebrows raised. “It’s not all you think it is. Yeah it’s nice to feel like everyone is a part of your family but — really you can’t do anything here. Everyone around here knows my mother, and it feels like everyone on the goddamn island knows my grandmother. Do you know how much old ladies like to gossip? Especially haenyeo. God. Poor Donghee. She went on a date once, with a boy from Jeju-si. Hadn’t even finished eating lunch with the guy before mum had texted her asking how her date was because someone had recognised her and told mum about it. That’s what it’s like. Or they hear your name is Dong- Lee and the first thing you get is ‘Oh, you’re Sookhee’s kid?’”
Renjun laughed. “Alright, not what I was thinking of. It must be good knowing that people will always help you, right?”
“I mean. Korea’s kind of like that in general. People are good here. But Jeju is the best for that, you’re right. There’s still that sense that things haven’t quite modernised, that people still look out for each other. I do miss that, sometimes. Not enough to want to come back, though.”
A second of silence, wind whistling.
“Do you want to go back to Yanji, Renjun?”
Another beat, another moment.
To how things were in Yanji? Maybe. Maybe yes. To the carefree joy of summer, yes — though he had found something of it here. To having no worries, no responsibilities. But to the city itself, tiny as it was. To that small part of the world? He missed his family, his mother, his sister, his grandparents. Missed the food — missed speaking Chinese. But did he miss Yanji?
“No,” he said. “I miss my family. But I like it here. I don’t think I could ever go back to somewhere so small. Not after being in Seoul.”
Donghyuck gave him a look: small smile, eyes shining, cheeks rosy. Renjun’s heartbeat picked up, pitter-patter like raindrops on a roof, and he reached across the table to squeeze his hand. A single moment, something strange, like time converged on this point, Renjun’s lips sticky with spilled soda, radio warbling from someone’s balcony, Donghyuck’s skin warm beneath his touch.
“Big city magic, right? You can be anyone. Or yourself.”
They mounted up again, pockets full of candy, and pedaled towards the beach. Cars drifted past, snatches of music leaking through open windows, and Donghyuck rode in a lazy pattern, drifting across the footpath — left to right, over and over. He was singing — on and off — and it struck Renjun as something bizarre and beautiful. It struck him straight through the heart and for once he didn’t feel ashamed when Donghyuck looked back at him and caught him staring. Flashed him a wild grin and threw his head back, belting out the next lyric. Almost hit a road marker, swerved at the last second and screamed. A gull perched on the fence screamed back at him and Renjun mimicked it, catching up to Donghyuck and cawing at him until he started hitting him, tears streaming down his face, bike wobbling.
Renjun let out one last caw and peddled ahead of him, cutting a sandy corner and shooting out across the intersection onto the path headed down towards the beach. The highway here was wide, palm trees hanging over each side, a proper footpath owing to the tourist village that surrounded the beach. It led down through the town, uphill for a brief moment — buses rushing past them and dropping off gaggles of middle school kids armed with scooters and skateboards — then to the carpark for Cheonjeyeon waterfall. They dismounted — Renjun unwilling to run over the numerous small children stumbling around the park — and wheeled their bikes towards the bridge.
He realised, very quickly, that most of the families here were Chinese. Felt a strange pang in his chest. Familiarity in a place that wasn’t his own — a language he knew so well.
The bridge was a great blood red arc through the rainforest, curved like a brushstroke, baluster painted bone white, white nymphs running along the foundations with musical instruments clutched in their hands. Stone lanterns were mounted along the edges like wardens and at the apex he and Renjun stood together, leaning on the guardrail with their arms over the edge, staring at the waterfall crashing into the gulley below. There was no protection from the blistering sun, save for the straw hats Donghyuck had bought them at a convenience store in Jungmun, but Renjun found he didn’t mind. The wind was cool and strong, carried over from the ocean on the horizon, and up here he felt free. He felt on top of the world.
Donghyuck stood against the edge and made Renjun take pictures of him, peace sign thrown to the sky, pressed against his cheeks, grin wide and silly — then called over a middle aged American couple to take one of them together. Renjun ducked away, suddenly shy, but Donghyuck pulled him back, pleaded with him. Threw his arm around his waist, and leaned into him. The rush of the waterfall boomed behind him and — far off — the ever present background music to his trip — birdsong and insect buzz, waves ever crashing into the shore.
It was Renjun's luck — or his often abused susceptibility to caving in to Donghyuck — that meant instead of going to the beach they ended up in, of all places, a teddy bear museum.
"It'll just be twenty minutes, c'mon," Donghyuck said, pointing at the sign in the carpark on the other side. There were various other attractions listed on it — botanical gardens, beaches, museums each stranger than the last — that made Renjun wonder why Donghyuck had chosen teddy bears, but he conceded anyway. Didn't need much to convince him.
“I always come here,” Donghyuck explained. “Dongjoo has like five bears from here. I was gonna get her one for her birthday but I don’t know if she’s grown out of it yet. So I thought maybe I’d get one for myself.”
It wasn’t that bad. The building was air conditioned and Renjun found a strange fascination in all the bears dressed up and posed — ballerina bears, recreations of famous paintings, a Van Gough bear with a missing ear. The terracotta army, the Mona Lisa — even the moon landing was present, every event in history reimagined as if it were a part of Toy Story. There was a cute kitschiness to it that tugged at Renjun’s heartstrings — and in the end it was him who ended up buying a bear, a simple one with fluffy cheeks and wide eyes that reminded him of Donghyuck, one he handed to him as they walked back out into the sun.
“Since you said you wanted one,” Renjun said, though his cheeks were burning. He hoped the heat would let him play it off — though if Donghyuck noticed he didn’t say anything. Just smiled, warm and fond. Punched his arm and took it from him, cuddling it to his chest before he put it in the basket of his bike, best seat in the house as they went back towards Jusangjeolli cliff.
When they arrived it came with him, tucked against his chest with one arm, the other bumping against Renjun’s, their hands knocking together with every step. The sun fell into the waves and they leaned against the fence, staring out to the ocean, to the basalt columns that pierced the water’s surface like alien tendrils, hexagons of frozen lava in beeswax patterns, climbing up the cliff’s edge and gleaming with seawater spray. Streaks of gold and orange cut through the ripples like jeweler’s foil, and everything burned. Everything shone, and Renjun was struck, once again, with a strange feeling like time was running away from him.
Donghyuck’s father and his younger siblings — both of them (another set of twins, he’d find out — Renjun felt sorry for his parents) — turned up for breakfast the next day. The younger twins took after their father — it was like someone had hit reverse on Donghyuck, realised that his legs were far too long and pushed the slider to the other direction. Even though Dongjin and Dongjoo were much shorter than Donghyuck, sitting at the table beside each other it was impossible for Renjun to tell — so long were their torsos. They shoveled food into their mouths, washed it down with juice and waved goodbye to everyone, barely sharing a word once again.
“How did you raise such rude children,” Donghyuck said, the echo of the door slam still ringing in the room.
“Do you really want to ask that question again,” Renjun said. He’d finished eating, the bowl he’d taken considerably smaller than Donghyuck’s. “You’re her kid too, remember.”
“She knows I’m polite though.”
“Wrong,” said his father. He was sitting at the end of the table, a newspaper in front of him serving more as a placemat than actual reading object. Like his mother, Donghyuck’s father was an uncanny copy of him, at least in the face — wide nosed, smile that showed his teeth, a hint of mischief behind his eyes. He was tall and thin, cheeks still rosy and round (an omen — Renjun realised — that Donghyuck would likely never grow out of looking like a bastard cherub), obviously aging but still retaining signs of a handsome youth. His laugh, too, was the same as him — Renjun wondered if it was his mother or his father who had laughed that way first, or if it was just a coincidence they all sounded the same.
Before this he’d made small talk with Renjun, asked him about Jeju, about Donghyuck, how he liked Seoul — the common questions — but as was with Donghyuck’s mother, it was easy to talk. It was pleasant — made Renjun feel like he’d always been here, like he was always welcome. Not that it was his home, but that it was somewhere he’d always find a helping hand.
“How is that wrong? I'm nicer than Donghee!” Donghyuck protested. “And at least I talk to you, I’m pretty sure your son is turning feral actually. Have you heard Dongjin? All he does is grunt. Me PUBG, me schoolwork, me need dinner.”
“Honestly Donghyuck that sounds a lot like you most days of the week,” Renjun said, stoking the fire. It was so delightfully easy to get under Donghyuck’s skin, and he still hadn’t forgotten having the hose turned on him yesterday. Quick to forgive, but not to forget.
“Thank you Renjun.” His father gave a smile. “Honestly, I’m not sure if I prefer your brother being non-verbal as a teenager to how you were. You never did know how to stop talking.”
“I’m a people person,” Donghyuck said, proud, chest puffed out. Shoved another spoonful of jeonbokjuk into his mouth. “And I know when to stop now. That’s character development. You should be proud of me.”
Renjun snorted, his eyebrow raised. Made eye contact with Donghyuck and grinned, knowing full well he was winding him up. Knowing full well it was working when Donghyuck narrowed his eyes at him and mouthed something that no doubt involved physical violence.
“We are proud of you, dear,” his mother said.
“Now please stop talking,” Renjun added.
“Fine,” Donghyuck said. Another spoonful into his mouth. “You’ll miss me when I’m back in Seoul though! Think of the vibrance I add to your lives!”
“You can use the car today if you want Donghyuck,” Donghyuck’s father said, after Donghyuck had stopped whining and had gone back to focusing on scooping the last of his food from his bowl. His head shot up, eyes wide. “I won’t need it.”
“You can drive?” Renjun said, as they stood in the driveway, Donghyuck clearing out the back seat of his father's silver Kia to throw his bag into. “I thought your father meant he was going to drive you somewhere, not you drive me. What the fuck?”
“I mean, not legally?” Donghyuck said. Shrugged. “I have a basic license but — yeah. I’ve been driving since I was like fifteen.”
“You’re taking me on an illegal drive?”
“What happened to ‘be gay, do crimes’?” Donghyuck said, voice almost a perfect imitation of Renjun’s. “It’s fine. No-one cares. What’re they gonna do, tell my mum on me?”
“I don’t know, fine you? Arrest you?”
Donghyuck raised his eyebrows at him then — when he realised Renjun was serious — just started to laugh.
“Fuck you,” Renjun said. Opened the passenger door and hopped in, slamming it for effect. Donghyuck, still laughing, joined him on the driver’s side.
“You’re so mean to me. I can’t believe this,” he said, pouting as he pulled on his seatbelt. Key tossed into the console, the engine purred to life beneath them. “You can pick the music if you want.”
“Wanker,” Renjun muttered under his breath. Another laugh from Donghyuck, gravel of the driveway crunching under the wheels. He purposefully didn’t look at him, just stared at his phone and picked out the most inoffensive music he could imagine that would still allow Donghyuck to sing along — Troye Sivan, Sufjan Stevens — the kind of songs that they’d lie together in the park and listen to, Renjun’s head in his lap, eyes shut and mind drifting. Windows down, sky streaked with grey clouds, sheen of rain still shimmering on the road.
One last day together. They headed out to Seongsan peak, jutting out from the very eastern most tip of the island, laboured up the never-ending steps, sea wind pulling at their hair. Sat at the top and stared out over the ocean, the waters a crystalline shade of azure Renjun’s eyes refused to believe. Black rocks jutted out from the shore and below them the entire island stretched out — green fields, coloured roofs of Seongsan township, the brown wood of the zigzagging staircase, brightly coloured dots of tourists climbing their way up at the bottom. The crater of the mountain was like a great green skating bowl, dipping gently into the middle, edges unfenced and seemingly falling off into the sea.
He imagined driving through it — flying off the edge, soaring into the sky. Being carried away, wind in his hair.
Imagined it as again as their plane took off from the airport, a jolt when they left the runway. Sky much clearer, but Donghyuck’s knuckles still bone white, clutching the armrest beside him. Renjun tangled their hands together and leaned on the window, watching the buildings fall away, the island getting tinier, Hallasan piercing the clouds and disappearing behind them. A strange feeling lay in his gut, a nagging sensation he couldn’t quite place. Like he was passing through a window on to the other side, and just didn’t know it yet.
They parted at the subway station, Renjun a stop before Donghyuck. His last sight was Donghyuck with his luggage in front of him, his teddy bear sitting on top of it and his phone in his hand. Hair sun bleached and wild, a melancholic smile on his face.
It would be three weeks before he saw him again.
The next half year passed without much event, or hullabaloo, or any mention of what had transpired on Jeju. It was like their time spent on the island was some kind of shared dream, and upon landing at Gimpo they had made a silent agreement to never speak of it again, lest they seem mad. It was the last summer of last summers — a belated realisation that his wish to relive the moment of youth slipping away had come true, and that he could not change the ending.
Donghyuck got a job working part time for the University radio, and Renjun tried, and failed, to make some kind of living from his blog. The two of them slipped away from each other, spent less time in orbit. It was like someone had flipped the poles on the magnets and suddenly they were opposed to each other instead of attracted, a great invisible hand forcing them apart.
And yet there were moments where it seemed like none of this were true. There was Donghyuck in his bed, Donghyuck with him in the library, dropping in to bring him coffee and snacks, playing with his hair, winding his hands around his waist and clutching him to his chest. Marathon gaming nights at the PC Bang beside his apartment, surrounded by energy drinks like goblins in a junkyard. More nights — neon lights and clinking bottles, shouts and cheers, grinning at Donghyuck from where Jaemin was giving him a piggyback, his smile madcap, eyes clouded over. Receiving one back in return. Four am moments that blurred into an indescribable darkness, like someone had recorded over the tapes of his memories and left only footnotes — murky glimpses of reflections in a foxed mirror, the wet taste of Donghyuck’s mouth, summer skin and butterfly touches. Waking up with a pounding headache and crawling into class, blood smeared across his cheek from where he’d cut his lip.
Things that had once been normal now came with an air of uncertainty and confusion. Gestures that were unconscious were read into, conversations dissected, and Renjun started to believe he was going a little mad with it all. Everything was seeped in their history, in all the things they knew about each other.
The absence of contact had the strange effect of both sharpening and blurring everything that crashed down around him the past summer. Some things turned into smudges of colours — swimming with Donghyuck in the forest spring, his mother’s bright pink rubber gloves, the shades of the flowers that grew from the garden in the front yard. Endless blue skies and rippling waves of emerald grass, tropical leaves and wild horses, Jeju dialect that rolled around Donghyuck’s mouth.
His mouth. His mouth was clear. Brilliant and sharp, all these months later, pink lips Donghyuck’s body, the expanse of his skin, his star map of freckles, how he’d felt beneath his fingers. Holding him in the ice cold water. It ached with familiarity, and Renjun had to stop himself. Had to let it go. It was unhealthy.
Yet it was just as he had feared. Childhood all over again. People drifted apart. People lost contact. The magic of summer faded and the real world had swept over him like a tidal wave, and Renjun was sure that Donghyuck had realised it was too much. Or that maybe it had meant nothing at all. All the secrets they shared, all the kisses and glances. Pointless. Misinterpreted. He was reading too much into it, like usual. He was riding through the streets of Yanji on his great big bike, fast as the wind, monster on his heels. He was a child again, and like every child, he was afraid — afraid of the strangest things: the feelings ballooning within him, and his best friend. Afraid that by being open and allowing himself to be known he had fucked everything up.
He heard from Jaemin that Donghyuck was dating someone. Felt it spear through his heart, black and sickening, spreading through his veins with unmatched speed. A kind of pain that felt like he’d been poisoned, that he felt he had no right to feel. It wasn’t his to know — they had promised each other nothing.
He heard from Jaemin that they broke up, that maybe it was nothing after all. Heart broken, moping around his apartment. Donghyuck invited him over. They got piss drunk and Renjun didn’t do anything. Just slept in Donghyuck’s bed, woke up in the middle of the night dizzy and terrified, something soft beneath his face. Donghyuck sleeping beside him, and he was still so fucking scared, until his hands fell on him, soothing and soft, drunken voice lulling him to sleep. Telling him that it was okay, that he was here. Renjun didn’t know what he was afraid of — the monster in the river, the monster in his heart, the poison that somehow he’d found the antidote to — only that Donghyuck could kill monsters. Only that it was okay, just then and there. Found in the morning that his pillow had been the teddy bear Renjun had bought from the museum — and tried not to think too deep into it.
Jaemin said Donghyuck was distant. Jaemin said Donghyuck wanted to hang out. This frustrating game of telephone — their interactions pleasant enough, but it was like being forced to drink through a tiny straw when you were fucking parched. Renjun just wanted more. Renjun just wanted to know, but he was embarrassed at the same time. He’d shown so much to Donghyuck — given him a part of him — and now it was coming back to bite him.
On late nights, sometimes, he'd lie in bed and tune into the student radio. Listen to Donghyuck's voice cracking jokes and introducing tracks and just being stupid — just being himself. Following his dream, disembodied and distant, but so close to Renjun’s heart. It wasn’t getting better, but he didn’t know what else he could do. This tear in him that he couldn’t stitch up. That he almost wasn’t willing to, because he’d looked at those feelings, those ones he’d meant to keep boxed up. He’d looked at them and he’d realised.
He’d known all along what they were, had been so unwilling to stick his foot in it and realised, belatedly he’d missed that point, that he was waist deep, chest deep, buried in them. He was living in this mess and there was nothing he could do anymore. Nothing he really wanted to do. Just drifted endlessly, going through the motions because it was all he knew how to do. Preoccupied and listless, mind wandering constantly.
More than anything, he missed that feeling of youth Donghyuck had gifted to him again. He missed the wild emotions he’d sparked in him, longing soothed by his warm kisses like a salve. Now they were replaced by an ache in his chest, hollowed out, blood echoing in his ears. An ache to be wanted — an ache to be touched. An ache not to care, to have no direction, to just want to spend time with someone. It wasn’t like Renjun was lonely — he had Jaemin, had Jisung, had friends of friends — his whole world did not revolve around Donghyuck. And yet it was like he had realigned himself to him, like they had begun to orbit each other and suddenly that movement was thrown out of balance, knocked straight off its axis.
He was hopelessly lost, more than ever.
"Renjun," Donghyuck said. Renjun looked up from his phone to an empty table, just him and Donghyuck sitting on the side of the booth against the wall, the heavy pulse and pull of the bar laid out in front of him. Neon lights, thick bass, a DJ who kept asking 'are you ready for this' even though it was barely past ten and most of his patronage would just be waking up for their night out. A cloud of cigarette smoke that leaked into the inside rooms when the door to the smoker's balcony swung back and forth on its hinges.
They had been a party of five just before, but somehow Jaemin, Mark, and Jisung had faded into the crowd. Calculated, surely, because Mark Lee never quite did anything without a sendoff, perfect balance of nervous and careless as he was. Jaemin. A schemer. Sometimes the smartest person in the world, sometimes he left his brain at home. All plans, no consequence. Jisung probably the only thing that kept him in check — all that stuttery confidence and curiosity bundled into his lanky body. Boyish smile, quick hands, a determination that burned, made Renjun sometimes wonder how it might be to reach out and touch. What Jaemin dealt with when this engine really got going.
So they had left, all of them, without words, forced Renjun and Donghyuck together. Someone’s scheme, he thought.
As it was now, Renjun was prepared for the worst.
"What did Jaemin put you up to?" Renjun said. Eyes narrowed. He was stone cold sober, though Donghyuck was likely less so, his words running together a little. His eyes went wide and then the blustering confession spilled out in one uninterrupted line, almost drowned out by someone screaming in the distance. It wound and twisted, and as it went on Renjun felt his stomach drop, do flips, his heart pound like a trapped prisoner, chills raking his body.
"It wasn't Jaemin. Well. I recruited him to get you here and get everyone else out of here but — you really aren’t gonna give me credit for my own plans are you? Jesus Christ. Renjun, no. It’s just — I mean I didn’t have to be elaborate did I? But that doesn’t matter anyway. What I am doing is I’m trying to say that this is stupid. This. What I did. What we’ve been doing. This weird little in and out dance, right? Like what, we have a semester left of university, isn’t it? We’re wasting fucking time. We’re — okay that’s not the big point. But let me talk okay —” Renjun opened his mouth and Donghyuck raised his eyebrows.
“You always fucking talk, idiot,” Renjun said. He was supposed to be upset at Donghyuck, probably — for forcing him here, for giving him the runaround — but Renjun was once again struck by this stupid fondness he held within him, embers still smoldering in the hearth somehow enough to keep him warm.
“Right,” Donghyuck said. Smile nervous. “Anyway — all this shit. It’s pointless. Like I just kind of realised life is passing by and I’m sitting here nervous and scared and running over all these what-ifs and so fucking scared by my feelings that it’s affecting me and making me worse and it’s — I’ve been avoiding you. You! Of all fucking people in the world — it shouldn’t be you. I mean of course it’s you because no-one has ever made me feel like this and of course it’s you because we’ve shared so much but it’s because of that that it scares me — listen Renjun — listen. Okay. Put it in the history books. I’m scared. Of fucking this up. Paralysed. When we were sitting on the train home it just kind of all hit me, the weight of everything that had happened and I completely panicked and pushed you away and then I realised I wanted you in my life so badly and I’d already messed up and —”
He took a deep breath. Renjun’s head was spinning, recalculating the past year’s worth of interactions, all the thoughts that had plagued him. All the worries. Adrift in the world, trapped with all these feelings inside of him, hollowed out and feeling like he’d lost a part of himself — stolen in the summer heat between midnight kisses and the crash of the ocean waves. Faded memories that smudged with every recall — so much so that he was afraid of losing them, though it didn’t stop him from clutching them to his chest, feeding them to the fire to keep him warm.
“Can we start again? Not again, again but — Renjun. I want you in my life and I’m an idiot. An idiot who kind of fucked up the best thing that could have ever happened to him,”
Donghyuck grinned, a rictus, frantic smile, wild nerves jolting through him. And Renjun —
“You’re a fucking moron.”
— he saw stars.
Renjun saw his bedsheets, pristine white after he'd spilled Pepsi on them and had to buy a new set. Renjun saw the city lights melting under the condensation running down the windowpane. Renjun saw sticky notes and his journal left open on the desk and six pairs of shoes near the doorway and the Inglorious Basterds poster he'd traded Jaemin for doing his Intro to Chinese quiz and flashlight glimpses of rescue services running along the main road — and Donghyuck — god.
Renjun saw Donghyuck.
Renjun saw Donghyuck, and he saw Donghyuck's hands. Open palm on his shoulder. Renjun on the mattress, springs shaking. Donghyuck's knee in his ribs. Gentle, not to injure. Like when they sparred together. Renjun knew his body, knew Donghyuck's body, how he moved. He could smell the cigarette smoke clinging to his jacket. Holy shit, Donghyuck was here, not an afterimage on the backs of his eyelids, but here, touching him. Not a dream of a summer night but real and solid, warm skin on warm skin.
Teeth on his lip, scraping, so close to hurting him that if it was anyone else he would be afraid — but with Donghyuck it was that a switch was flipped and it flooded through his senses. He trusted him enough to let go. To be brave and vulnerable, just like the first time. Just like so long ago when they'd spoken questions with their eyes and answered with their lips, when Donghyuck had held him and laughed, shaking so badly that Renjun thought he might fall apart.
“I wish I’d said something,” Donghyuck said, and it trembled like a prayer in the chilly air.
"I wish I did too." As if it was enough. "You — I thought it was just. I thought it was just another moment we’d forget. I kept replaying it in my head and I was so scared I’d lose it, or that I’d made it up. I just wanted to keep living in it and not have to bury it."
"Why would I ever bury that?" Donghyuck said, and he was sitting on top of Renjun, straddling his hips, hand kneading the fabric of his shirt. "You made me — you scared me, Renjun. You scared me because I scared myself. I’d wanted you for you so long and then I had you and you were in my home, you were in my past like you’d always been there. All the places that had made me, you were there too. You made me again, made me someone new. It’s like I was being reshaped again, and then we left and I just — " his fist closed around the fabric of his shirt and tugged. “I was so fucking scared and you just drifted away from me.”
Renjun's skin flushed hot, heart pounding. "I thought. I thought you were done. I never meant to."
"We never do,” Donghyuck said. He seemed far away, like a painting copied over and over until it was just a ghost of the original. “Isn’t that the point? That we just live through moments until suddenly they’re no longer the present. We just let ourselves float away. We just fall in love without knowing where the starting point was, because we never realised it was happening until it hit us in the face.”
Like a sign, like the heavens ripping in two, thunder sounded through the room, a thick, heavy peal that was followed by the rattle of rain bursting against the windows. A car horn honked, far off, and Donghyuck let out a laugh.
“Until we feel a divine sign and the world falls into place.”
Rain burst against the side of the building, an echo of a year before. He wondered if he could close his eyes and pretend — then realised he didn’t need to. Donghyuck was here and real, and he was looking at Renjun, staring at him, like he was so unsure, like everything might shatter if he moved wrong. Probably how Renjun looked to him. Terrified of fucking this up, of his feelings spilling out like blood from a cut artery.
"Every choice we've made led here," Donghyuck said. "They might have been stupid but we made them, right? I believe in fate, too."
Renjun shivered and it bled through him, a taste like iron in his mouth. God, he was trembling. Hearing his words, the way they sounded on Donghyuck's tongue, it was like breaking the surface again. Coming up for air and feeling it flood through his aching lungs. He was trembling and filled with fear, of the then and the now, of what might happen.
Donghyuck kissed him — what the answer always seemed to be. What felt like a comfort, felt like summer days and beachside bike rides, sand caught between his toes, sunset gilt. The world fell into nothingness, fell into the glow seeping through the room, fell into Donghyuck's warmth, his hands on Renjun, peeling back the layers of his clothes.
Kiss after kiss after kiss, a slow slide into madness, rain and thunder and stark lightning shaking the foundations of the world. Renjun's hands on Donghyuck's bare skin, running along the faded pink scar on his chest, fingertips walking the constellation of his freckles.
Shaking off the last of his clothes. So fucking vulnerable — something that had never left. Gooseflesh pricking across his arms. Touch — always so much touch. Donghyuck's hands were always on him in some way or another, guiding him, maybe a palm pressed against his cheek, thumb on his lower lip, in Renjun's mouth now, a mounting sense of urgency. He wanted to explore but there was a sense that there was no time, a current of desperation that sparked along the edge of their movements. A fistful of Renjun's hair, his name gasped. The barest, naked touch of reverence in the way he said his name.
Donghyuck’s mouth on him, wet and hot, looking up at him through his lashes, raindrops in his hair.
Renjun ended up in his lap, Donghyuck’s back against the wall, shadow cutouts on his face. Kisses on kisses on kisses, and Donghyuck looked at him in the most terrifying way, like he was so sure the moment would shatter and end without warning. Eyes full of lights, pleading, a glowing reflection of the past, of the way he’d looked at Renjun before, morning light dusty, sunset golden, fire on his skin. He seemed to be filled with a light, though Renjun was unsure where it was coming from — only that it haloed out around him in an old movie glamour, like he had just stepped from the silver screen.
Renjun cupped his face and ran his thumbs over his cheeks, a long repeated gesture. A nonverbal promise and — “I’m not going anywhere” — a verbal one too. Donghyuck’s smile, weak with relief.
In that moment he thought of Jeju.
Prehistoric treetops and lava rich soil, the cool air conditioning on the sheen of sweat that sat upon his skin. The sea breeze and the crash of the waves, sensory memories that followed him everywhere. Dirt under his fingernails, Donghyuck’s hands on his, brown eyes, tan skin, deep rich brown of his hair in the high noon sunlight.
He thought of Donghyuck’s home and his mother’s cooking, thought of riding his bike down the melting roads in the summer heat. The faded glamour of youth, the world moving without him knowing. Memories buried like time capsules to be unearthed years later. Salt in his hair. Kisses on his skin.
It hurt in the way that only something so beautiful could hurt — the realisation that he had lived through a moment that shone so bright, and that he had no way of knowing it at the time. No way of telling himself to savour it. The realisation that it was okay. There was more inside of him. He had not missed anything, and there was so much time left. The prime of his life — it was now, as it had been then.
“I promise you, Donghyuck,” Renjun said. “I’m not going anywhere.”
It speared through him like pure sunlight, and he understood — keys fitting into locks, doors slamming open. All the shards of the past held within him, and he still had kilometers to go on this road, still had decades of his life before him. Being young was not eternal but this: Donghyuck and all his friends, all the adventures that had yet to be started, all the things he had yet to learn, all the corners of the cities unexplored and mountains that weren’t climbed.
He would never be the person he was when he was thirteen again, would never have the same friends, would never ride through Yanji again with the devil on his heels. Those exact moments in time would not repeat and things could not be the way they once were. There was nothing he could do — he was not that person anymore — being young was not forever. But all of this — all of the things he treasured, all of the memories he kept wrapped up inside of him — youth.