Title: lost in the fire
Tags: Mature, NCT (Band), Kim Dongyoung | Doyoung/Lee Taeyong, Kim Dongyoung | Doyoung, Lee Taeyong, Jung Yoonoh | Jaehyun, Suh Youngho | Johnny, Alternate Universe - College/University, Alternate Universe - High School, Music, Radio, Depression, ex-lovers, Coming of Age, Slow Burn, M/M, No Archive Warnings Apply, Mark Lee (NCT), Lee Donghyuck | Haechan, Recreational Drug Use, Kim Donghyun | Gong Myung
The earth has gone four times around the sun, and still, after all this time, Doyoung and Taeyong come to find their lives irrevocably intertwined in a city too small for the two of them.
(a 'youngest fires' 2020 remaster)
This fic has some history, but I'd like, more than anything else, to be able to start anew. For details, please check end notes!
Wow...first, I just want to bask in this magical moment. Truly, like a phoenix reborn from the ashes, this piece of my heart was able to take on this new form and exist, alive once again in this world. Words can't describe how happy and full of hope I am! 🥺
This story is a remastered/rewritten version of a story titled "Youngest Fires" that I'd written in 2019 under the pseudonym snapspark. The remastering began in March/April of 2020, and despite there being hardly a year in between this version and the last, there have been some MAJOR changes made throughout the rewrite that made me feel like this has become, in essence, a different work from its previous publication, and that it was no longer fitting to continue publishing it under its old name.
To make it simple for old and new readers, these are the changes that have been made:
1. First and foremost, the characters of Taeyong and Doyoung have become VERY different people. They retain the necessary traits to hold this plotline together, but in character they have become very different.
2. Both Taeyong and Doyoung have become a lot less aggressive and antagonistic. Instead, they've become more in touch with their own feelings, and a lot more empathetic towards others. As a result, they are both softer, which is more accurate to their real life counterparts in my opinion.
3. Taeyong as you can see is no longer in denial at all. He knows exactly what he wants.
4. Almost ALL the prolonged dialogue between Taeyong and Doyoung have been rewritten.
5. The story itself has gained a new sense of warmth and love that was absent in the cold, unforgiving tone it was in before. This was done through making numerous small changes to many scenes.
6. I have become a very different writer--my style is no longer heavy on paragraphs of prose/descriptions, but has become more demonstrative through interactions and dialogue.
7. Having had more time to digest this story as well, rather than writing as I process, I'm able to better shape and form how I want to present it, and I think I do it more masterfully than before!
8. Specific to this chapter, the major changes that were made start from Jaehyun's conversation with Doyoung, and continue until the end of the chapter.
9. The general plot and the actual events that take place have stayed more or less the same. Still, I cannot emphasize enough how different these characters are, from their speech to actions to their inner reflections!!
I'm super excited about this rewrite. I have many many thoughts about it, but I won't overload, and I'll let the story speak for itself. Maybe you'll start to understand a sense of my intentions as you read along. More importantly, maybe you'll develop thoughts of your own about the story! If you do, I would love love love to hear what you think in a comment.
I'm very driven to finish this story (currently four chapters have been written, and two remastered) but I would love any form of encouragement I can get ♡ if you enjoyed this, let me know!
Thank you so so much. I'm so happy you're here with me as a part of this journey. I hope to put nothing but more love into this story from here on, in every sense, and I hope that's something you can feel too 🥺 I love you! Thanks for reading.
"Good evening everyone, and you're listening to Mixtapes with DJ DY. My name is Doyoung, and we are live on air Monday and Friday evenings at 7:30, for two and a half hours of mixtape fire."
[background music amplifies, dies down]
"Today I'm here with JaeD to welcome you to the first day of another semester."
"Hi. I'm Jaehyun."
"And when can they find you, JaeD?"
"Tuesdays at 8 AM for some energetic breakfast tunes. Right here at our local, student run radio."
"We're located at the top floor of the student rec building if you feel like dropping by. If you've been directed here by your orientation leaders for the scavenger hunt, the word you are looking for is “pudu”. While you're here, I hope you can stay with us for some great programs throughout your first semester!
"If you're returning from the summer you might be wondering, gee, where did my favorite DJs go? Actually, over the course of summer, I took over the mixtape show from the two of them, Johnny and Jaehyun—this is actually our 30th episode with me already! Don't be sad, I’m sure I can fill the hole in your heart and the empty space in your playlists just as well. If I don't do it for you, you can still catch JohnD on Tuesday and Thursday nights, same time, running a brand new electronic program, and also, you can catch both JohnD and JaeD at 8 AM on Tuesdays for some eclectic breakfast tunes."
"Well, I dropped by just to say hi and better head out soon, but I'm confident leaving our show up to you, DJ DY."
"Thanks as always, JaeD, but before that, why don't we introduce our first mixtape of the year?"
"I think it's only fitting for our first broadcast of the semester that our theme is 'fresh starts'."
"Who doesn't love the sound of that? It's hard to deny the allure something new holds, and that itself I think deserves celebration. Whether you're a new student or a continuing student here, a new semester offers the chance to reinvent yourself and detach from all the failures of the past. Things like past grades, failed classes, bad papers, professors and acquaintances from last semester, it feels like there's nothing that's too hard to leave behind."
"For better or for worse."
"And you can feel the excitement in the air. Anyone who's been through the dread of final season at least once knows the difference. Everyone's refreshed, energetic, ready to tackle a higher level, they've got their new clothes on, and it's not just superficially as well. For the benefit of personal growth, there's never a better time to make resolutions and fully bring out your potential for change—into someone better, someone you want to be, someone you're proud to be. These are just some of the wonderful ideas associated with a theme like ours this evening.
"All of that said. Here are, finally, some tunes to lift up your Monday night commute. We're kicking it off with a fresh song I've been into lately, something a little dreamy. It's got the perfect end-of-vacation energy—or, if you're like me and stuck around the summer terms too, it's good vibes for just another Monday evening. Without further ado, here's Lazy Wonderland by Broken Bells.
lost in the fire
You are coming home
Are you still alone?
Are you not the same as you used to be?
As the sun grows high
And you serve your time
Does each day just feel like another lie?
Now you know
Is it just for show?
Just a foolish game that you hide behind?
Don't forget the nights
When it all felt right
Are you not the same as you used to be?
Used to be
On Saturday morning, Doyoung wakes up to some troubling texts from Johnny.
I have a confession to make…
Yeah? He replies.
You'll find out soon enough.
…This was not worth waking up for.
Immediately after he hits send, he receives an incoming call from Jaehyun.
“Hyung, I’m coming up.”
And the call ends.
It’s one thing to wake up to Johnny vague texting him, but it's entirely something else when he opens the door at 9 am, and Jaehyun from downstairs barges in.
“Good morning. I have two pieces of news.” He says, like he's just walked into the office and not Doyoung's home.
Jaehyun kicks his shoes off by the door, and walks to set down a stack of papers on Doyoung's dining table. Before Doyoung can get a good look, Jaehyun is speaking again.
"Okay. The first thing is that I can't host the Halloween show this year because I'll be performing. So I'm asking you for a favor.”
"You mean…the arts department show?"
"My band is. Don't worry. After we wrap up in the afternoon, we'll have time to get ready for the evening premier for your show." He says smugly, like he's already done the calculations going through Doyoung's head.
"Uh, okay. Why are you asking a business student?"
"Because…I'm desperate. Joy said she refuses to host alone, and nobody wants to volunteer for these events except our club."
Doyoung pauses to think. The early morning hit-and-run culprit suddenly comes to mind. "What about Johnny?"
"Johnny has a group performance. I know, it's hard to believe. I think he's trying to make the most out of his last year."
Doyoung chews on his lip, taking it all in.
He’s never MCed for the school fest. Anually, in front of the arts building, the arts department hosts a live Halloween show for students, one of the biggest cross-campus celebrations of the year, with programs put together by students and other invited local talents. Last year Johnny had coached Jaehyun, their best catch yet, to co-host the show. The planning committee had trouble finding MCs, so they asked the radio club to pinch-hit, which ended up boosting their popularity quite a bit. Jaehyun, after all, had been on his way to becoming somewhat of a campus celebrity, for being the heartthrob vocalist of Peach Horizon, which had amassed a cult following among the students.
Compared to the low-key medium of a radio, Doyoung doesn't think this is his kind of gig, having to showcase himself. It's kind of awkward being a business student among the arts kids, not to mention having to dress to look like one. Johnny let him off easy last year with his jeans and a button-down, forcing a fest T-shirt over his clothes, along with a bandana, and some specs.
For three years now he's watched the radio club throw themselves into a frenzy over coordinating with the arts department, and he can't say he's ever envied them. If it wasn't for the recognition and public relations with the student association, the sole reason their radio can exist in the first place, Doyoung doubts any of them would volunteer their sanity to such a hectic festival. He struggles to find any benefit to be gained for himself from taking the job on. Though, as he counts the numbers of reliable people in the club, the feeling that he really has no choice begins to loom over him.
"What's in it for me?" He taps his fingers on the kitchen counter.
“Uh…arts council has tons of budget and pays well? Plus it leaves a good impression with the department? Er...not that you would need it.”
Doyoung flips through the stack of programs and scripts that Jaehyun dropped on his counter. It’s a hassle, but it’s not impossible. It’s entirely up to how willing he is. “Why couldn't you have told me this before I signed up for group presentations?”
“Sorry, hyung. If you do decide to save my ass, you'll have ten days at least to get ready and rehearse, though you'll have to let me know now if you'll do it. It's not hard, you don't have to coordinate, all you have to do is appear on stage and read and look pretty. Also I might need you to help carry some EQ over on the day of, my trunk isn’t large enough.”
Doyoung’s eyes are narrowed, squinting at the script.
"Mmm…not really selling me on this one, Jaehyun."
“I owe you one, big time. Please?”
Doyoung snorts. “You’ve been owing me since you were 15.”
He drops the stack of papers. He'll think about it later.
"So, what's the second thing?"
"Oh, yeah. Johnny says to tell you that you don't have to lock up anymore, because someone started booking 2B1 until 11 pm."
The radio club is entrusted with the task of locking up the building each night, though mainly as a precautionary measure, since the locks shut down themselves at midnight. If he recalls correctly, 2B1 is one of the dance studios a floor below their offices, and if Johnny has given this person the keys, they must be a close acquaintance. Doyoung can only assume whoever it is is staying to practice for their performance.
Suddenly, a recollection hits him.
Hunched over the bathroom sink.
Shoulders trembling in the fluorescent light.
An invisible barrier around him, a line so hard to cross, cast by the solitude of his music.
“Yikes. I think I saw him last night,” he says, under his breath.
“You saw him?” Jaehyun’s eyes go wide.
Doyoung rubs his temples. “Yeah, briefly. Thanks for letting me know.”
Against his will, he sinks into that moment again, the feeling of being in that oppressive air, being forced to act in a suffocating moment.
Jaehyun is saying something. From the image lingering in his mind, Doyoung is pulled back into the present.
"I said I'll leave you alone now. But let me know later if you'll help."
"Alright. I'll text you after I think about it."
"Thanks a million."
The door locks behind Jaehyun. Doyoung takes a deep breath.
After all, it seems, he has a hard time forgiving himself for that encounter.
The next time I saw you, you were breaking down
A million years had gone away
You looked right at me, and I just turned around
There was still nothing I could say
But I'm gonna keep you in love with me for a while
I'm gonna keep you in love with me
“Tune in again this time next Monday! Goodnight.”
Doyoung leans back into the chair, rolling out his spine.
Half an hour ago, during the last brief commercial break, he had turned off the lights from the monitoring room outside. Now, there is only him and the recording studio, the last signs of human presence in the building.
He hangs there off the back of the chair, arms by his sides, eyes dilating, absentmindedly watching the digital clock on the table flicker green as the seconds blink by.
It's just past 10 PM, but Doyoung feels a deep lethargy radiating outwards from within, like he had just awaken in the middle of a deep slumber. It's a bone-deep exhaustion he's become familiar with over the years. Unobtrusively, it calls its presence to attention. When Doyoung follows the beckoning, resting his concentration on the feeling, he discovers the shadow of something sitting atop all other thoughts on his mind. Faint, yet omnipresent. Like a paperweight that can't be removed, a stone in the shoe tumbling around with each step, a rattling coin in a washing machine. At night, when the On Air sign goes off and Doyoung disconnects his mind from the task at hand, he finds that this miniscule weight amplifies, filling out the corners of his head where his other volitional thoughts have finally retreated for rest.
Kim Doyoung breathes deeply. Swallows, before it consumes him.
The sensation, rather than subsiding, settles itself comfortably like a silk sheet over his consciousness. Numbed by its lull, he could easily surrender himself to sleep here. But Doyoung brushes it off. Instead, with the last of his willpower, he gets up and cleans the studio, puts the last of the equipment away.
The headset, the papers, the cards, the cords, lamp, everything is returned as it should be for another day.
The headset comes off, papers tumble into mesh baskets. The cards he binds with a rubber band and sticks in a drawer under the table. Cords, unplugged, wrapped and stored. He kicks the outlet power board, tugged back and forth by the connections, till it’s close enough to his hand to switch off.
He imagines it from the outside when he pulls the plug. From the alleyway, gazing up at the sky, the last light of the building biding farewell.
Doyoung unseals the soundproof recording room, leaves through the layers of doors following the fire exits. He's headed for the rooftop, where he always likes to go after his nightly broadcasts, a back-alley, open-air platform overlooking the luminous streets and avenues of the city. There is a garden up here upkept by someone unknown. Among these plants, Doyoung finds his only place to breathe.
It's nearing the end of October. The outside world, as it stands, runs the business of seizing warmth in exchange for what feels like freedom, and besides that, unaffiliated with any schemes of equivalent exchange, the leaves fall by serendipity, as quickly or as slowly as they individually desire. Autumn is a lonely season, one that makes you feel alone in a crowd of people—even the birds are leaving, one after another. There is no other time like autumn for Doyoung to find himself weighed down by all the thoughts jostling around his mind.
The past, the present, the future. In the reverberating silence of the night, all of it gets to him.
He grips the railings.
Doyoung looks down past his feet, at the world below him. As he does, from behind blows a fierce gust of wind, pushing his torso far over the edge. Doyoung stays like this, enthralled by his trepidation. Staring down, he measures the depth of the darkness beneath him.
A distant wind chime jangles. A bike bell rings from the alleyway.
It pulls him back. Something does, every time.
Doyoung lowers his face into his hands for a brief moment, to find his bearings. Yes, he’s here on the rooftop. He had just finished his show. It is time to go home, sleep, get ready for another day. "C'mon," he mutters to himself. There's no reason to feel this way right now, he tells himself, even if he can't deny that he does.
Go back in, he urges. Wash your face. Go home.
He walks back down the fire exit, hand trailing along the handlebars of the stairs. At this hour, when all souls have gone, the whole student recreation building belongs to him. He relishes in the silent hall before his feet. It’s his place to be alone, his place to doze off, dance around, scream.
Which is why it jolts him to wakefulness when he finds the bathroom light still on.
Doyoung slows down as he approaches. By the turn past the threshold, in the reflection of the mirror, Doyoung can see someone's hooded figure hovered over the sink.
He can only assume it's a student, studying here late into the night. The stranger wears a black hoodie and jeans, his form small, swimming in his clothes but noticeably masculine. At first glance, he seems frozen, form bent over the counter as if curling into himself.
Doyoung doesn't think more about it. It could be anyone, but it's no one that has anything to do with him.
He walks into the light of the bathroom with his head up, gaze barely trailing over the other man as he heads for another sink down the counter. The water splashes on. He cups some water, lowers his face into his hands.
By the time Doyoung straightens, the figure hasn't moved. Peeking over, Doyoung observes that the man's head is shielded from sight by the large hood of his pullover, strands of blond hair jutting out from within. More than hovering, his arms are stuck stiff to the countertop, hands clutching the edges as if he was going to fall down, should something make him let go.
Behind his glasses, Doyoung squints. He realizes for the first time that he's shaking. It's faint, but there's a visible tremble to those shoulders.
The automatic faucet shuts itself off, leaving Doyoung in the dead silence, alone with this stranger and his erratic, heaving breaths.
Doyoung wonders if he can't breathe.
He takes a step back, about to step forward to ask if he's okay when he sees the cord to a pair of headphones extending from within the hood, down into the man's pocket.
Ah, he thinks.
This person doesn't want to be disturbed.
Maybe, he reasons, he is only following the beat to some piece of music. Maybe he is crying to himself. Maybe he really is having a panic attack. Either way, Doyoung's reaching hand withdraws, before the gesture can be noticed.
Momentarily, Doyoung is unsure what to do. There's a familiar voice in him, a voice that feels right by all measures, that tells him, go. Ask if things are okay. But Doyoung is seized all over by another sensation that tells him, leave. It's okay to walk away. Everyone has a fair share of struggles, and what other people go through are none of his business.
He only has a few seconds to decide, before the stranger surely will turn and notice him hesitating by the counter. So, briskly, he decides: there is nothing for him to do here.
He’s seen this scene before.
He’s been there, many times.
In the hallway, waiting for the previous class to empty the room. Standing in the deli line among the sea of famished students. Countless mornings and nights on the transit, before his brother gave him his old car. Doyoung was like that too: hiding from the noises and visions of the outside world by plugging in and retreating into the solitary world of music. In this moment, he knows nothing about the stranger before him, except that they have one thing in common, and that is an aversion towards sharing their world, something Doyoung knows better than to disturb.
He’s not the type to involve himself in something he doesn't have to. After all, Doyoung reasons, he trusts in the natural, restorative power of the universe. Like how ripples in water will eventually smoothen themselves, the problems faced by this stranger too will likely resolve on their own, in time. He had been fine without Doyoung's help before he came in, and he will be fine without it. If nothing is asked of him, Doyoung will not offer. Everything is easier when there is no one taking care of him, and no one to take care of but himself.
Over the years of university, this is the kind of self-preserving person he had become.
Doyoung walks out the room, leaving the stranger in the very back of his mind.
He leaves the building through the entrance. He starts up his car and waits on idle for it to heat. He drives home focused on the road without a worry. He strips down his bags and clothes and sits down at his table, before the vast world of the internet, ready for the nightly ritual in which he distracts his higher awareness into oblivion.
But for some reason, when he blinks away his concentration, he sees the stranger's trembling shoulders, again and again.
When the lights go out, when he's settled in his bed, Doyoung finally realizes why this particular encounter refuses to leave him.
His brother’s voice rings in his ears.
If you never drop your guard, you will never make connections.
He wanted desperately to remember. But he had forgotten again when it mattered.
Belatedly, Doyoung wishes he hadn't stopped himself.
He wishes he had reached out to him.
Jaehyun had evaporated out of the apartment. The empty space now suddenly feels too big for one person.
He wills his mind to let go. The regret, the concern, the tinge of shame, he lets it all go.
Instead, being a busy person, Doyoung gets to work waking up properly, brushing up and getting dressed, fixing himself some breakfast.
He steers his thoughts towards things truly requiring his attention. His in-class quiz Monday morning. His group project in the afternoon. His duties as PR officer for the business association. It’s about time they made contact with other clubs in his school and outside it. He thinks about the posters he'd been paying attention to on the bulletin boards, all the contact slips he’d gathered, whether he should reach out to some of the opportunities posted. Every commitment takes away time from something else, he understands, and time is a valuable resource for a third year business student preparing for interviews with firms. Doyoung thinks about how much more he could be dedicating his time to networking for the association or for himself, and how much good that would do for his resume. Regardless of the potential benefits and his own inclination, he wonders if he even has time for Jaehyun's request.
Dropping some eggs into the pan, he stops this long-winded train of thought.
It’s no good, thinking like this. It’s a phrase tossed around by students too often—“I have no time”. Doyoung thinks, from experience, that saying something like this is the same as saying “this isn’t worth making time for.” What is worthwhile and deserving of time is a matter of personal judgment, something he himself is still sorting out. Somehow, Doyoung always has trouble saying no to the radio club. He still hasn’t convinced himself that it’s an entire waste of time, however much of an outlier those activities are to his vision for his future.
Hosting a live show on stage is much different from sitting behind the anonymity of radio. Not that he’s afraid of being nervous in front of people—he’s never had stage fright, and gets more than enough practice with public speaking in his major. It’s more like…
Doyoung closes his eyes and tries to remember the last time he was on stage, with the choir during their high school graduation, how it felt then. It feels like light years away, a past life.
The script sits like a challenge in front of him. Doyoung chews his eggs, really taking time to eat and slowly resign to his fate.
Once he’s done his breakfast, washed the dishes, checked his emails and schedule, he opens his phone.
I’ll do it, he writes simply.
Minutes later, Jaehyun responds with the OK emoji and prayer hands.
On the morning of the show, Doyoung drives with Jaehyun to the apartment of their drummer, and helps carry some of the drum set for him to school.
Over the last week, it’s become the talk of the campus: Peach Horizon is releasing another Spotify single. Doyoung hasn’t heard it yet, but he knows that’s all Jaehyun’s been thinking about, besides English. The more he learns from his literature classes, the more he articulates into his music—it’s a growth Doyoung witnesses firsthand. Doyoung hears even Johnny sang some backup vocals for this song. He doesn’t know when Johnny gets time being a 4th year, but it seems plausible considering he’s trying to drag out his school experience for as long as he can.
Currently, Doyoung is sitting backstage in a folding chair, rubbing his cold hands and running his eyes over and over the cue cards by force of habit.
Joy had left to the front for mic testing and to figure out some last minute logistics. Jaehyun is in the second floor waiting room, inside the student building where the rest of the acts are getting ready. Johnny and his lungs had been recruited to blow up balloons. All around him, people are scrambling from place to place, zooming in and out of the backstage area.
Apparently, according to the cards, Johnny’s dance crew calls themselves SR15B. The song they’re performing to is called “Bassbot”.
He’s blowing into his hands when a small head peeks around the white tarp.
“Excuse me,” a crisp voice calls out. “Have you seen where Johnny left our case of water?”
Doyoung spins around, pointing. He notes the outfit the person is wearing, a smaller version of what he had seen on Johnny earlier.
“Yeah, it’s under the stage over there.”
He watches the kid, not too tall in height, scurry to pick up the bottles.
“You look familiar…?”
The guy looks up at him with a sideways smile. “Yeah, Doyoung. It’s Ten. We used to go to the same cram school.”
Doyoung remembers Ten. A long time ago, in the middle of one semester, he had transferred back to Thailand.
“I thought so. I didn’t know you were back in town.”
Ten smiles at him. He had always been a kind person, in Doyoung’s memory. “Yeah, I am now. Have you said hi to the rest of the crew yet?”
Doyoung shakes his head.
“No, not yet, we haven’t been introduced.”
Ten raises an eyebrow. Then his mouth quirks up at the edges. “I’ll let you be surprised, then,” he says before ducking around the tarp.
Doyoung tilts his head. Whatever that means.
“Our next act is quite a powerful combination. They are a five member dance group sweeping across stages over the past year, having recruited only the most capable dancers from schools across the region.”
“I hear they’ve won multiple street dance competitions in the area.”
“That’s right, Joy. As our first and last dance group of the night, I’m sure their performance and energy will rock the stage and heat up our spirits on this chilly evening. Please, everybody, give it up for SR15B.”
Doyoung doesn’t know what’s funnier, the one shrill scream of “TEN!” that rises above the lukewarm cheer of the crowd, or the sight of Jaehyun in his ripped jeans, tattered top, black studded choker, standing like a death god among the sea of orange-clad students holding Johnny’s big phone for him while he records. He thinks he’s going to have to join him, not to watch the performance, but to take a picture of Jaehyun taking a video like this.
Grin on his face, Doyoung leaves the stage from the left side with Joy behind him.
Their descent down the stairs happens in the span of a few seconds. Doyoung steps down steadily, just as Johnny pats his shoulder while he leads the climb onto the stage. The difference in energy from the two opposing sides of traffic is viscerally palpable. Momentarily, Doyoung is awed by the dancers’ presence.
Within seconds, Doyoung is narrowly dodging the stream of boys climbing onto the stage. They squeeze by, shoulder to shoulder, hardly paying attention to one another. In their midst is someone with an eye-catching head of bleached blond hair. Doyoung has a millisecond to stares at the vaguely familiar figure. Right beneath eye level, he sees him brush by, in profile. When he finally comes to realize whose face that is, all the blood drains out of his body, and his feet jam abruptly into the cement floor.
Joy bumps into him from behind.
He has to keep walking. Keep walking, he has to tell himself.
The dance crew climbs onto the stage. Doyoung lets Joy off the stairs. In a daze—he decides to sit down right where he is.
Past the thumping of his heart, he hears someone fumble with the mic behind him.
“Hi. We are SR15B, and this is Bassbot,” Lee Taeyong says, into the microphone. “Please look forward to us.”
The music starts.
Doyoung sits stiffly on the steps.
Jaehyun must be recording by now. If he doesn’t move soon, he’ll miss him.
But he can’t find the strength to stand.
Slowly, Doyoung takes a deep breath. His heart is leaping, but his limbs feel utterly paralyzed. He’s never felt it before, never this vividly—all in a glance, the weight of so many memories crash onto him like a heavy balloon full of icy water.
What is he doing here?
Joy comes around, looking down at him with concern. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” he breathes. “Just needed a moment.”
Doyoung looks up. Joy offers a hand, but he pushes himself back to his feet.
He joins Jaehyun in the crowd at the front of the stage without a word. He watches the performance through the small screen of Johnny’s phone, too afraid to look up at the stage.
Even on the tiny screen, Doyoung can tell. Taeyong is an exceptional dancer.
He almost doesn’t make it backstage in time to go up again. When he comes down, having introduced the next band, he finds Johnny waiting for him with the rest of the team.
“Introductions,” Johnny announces, grinning.
Doyoung smiles weakly back at him, his eyes strained on him. Johnny is still positively glowing with his stage energy and adrenaline rush. Doyoung watches him dab the sweat off his neck with a towel.
“This is Hansol. This is Yuta. They’ve both graduated.”
“Nice to meet you both.”
“This is Ten, he’s in the same year as you.”
“We know—” They say at the same time.
“We know, Johnny.” Ten elbows him. “We went to prep school together for like, a year. All three of us know each other.” Ten reaches out to tug Taeyong’s arm.
Doyoung swallows hard. He doesn’t look.
In his periphery, Taeyong is also still as a statue.
“Wait, really?” Johnny asks quietly, eyes going wide.
Doyoung catches it, only because his gaze still hasn’t left his friend. Johnny is looking back and forth between Doyoung and Taeyong as inconspicuously as possible, with big question marks in his eyes. Doyoung knows then, instantaneously, that he knows something. Johnny makes the mistake of meeting Doyoung’s eyes. Whatever face Doyoung has on, it wipes the curious smirk off his face in an instant.
“Um. I guess I won’t have to introduce you guys then. My dance crew, this is Doyoung from radio. Second best DJ in the house.”
They greet each other.
For the first time in five minutes, Taeyong moves.
He bends down to grab his bag. “I better go, I have evening classes.”
Johnny pauses a moment before replying. “You’ll be back later?”
Doyoung doesn’t know what that means, but he feels a chill down his spine.
Against his will, the pieces are coming together in his head.
After the show is over, at precisely 6 pm, Doyoung hunts down Johnny and properly demands some answers.
He finds him in the cafeteria, next to a bake sale table with black and orange cupcakes on display for $2.
“So,” Doyoung demands, before he’s even in earshot. He taps Johnny’s shoulder and spins him around. “Johnny Seo.”
“Hi.” Johnny gives him a rigid smile, with too much teeth, half bitten muffin in his hand.
“Which of your sins exactly were you going to confess when you texted me last Saturday? Because right now I can count…”
He starts counting with his fingers. When he’s curled all ten fingers, he straightens them and counts again. “This many.” He stares Johnny in the eye with mock offence as he keeps going, basically clenching and unclenching his hands into fists at this point.
“Okay, okay, you got me. Hey, it’s not a crime!” Johnny throws his hands up, feigning innocence. “I just wanted to tell you…that…I found out by accident Taeyong on the dance crew knew you. And it seemed to be a…how should I put it…”
Doyoung raises an eyebrow.
“Very...passionate kind of know.” Johnny scratches his head.
Doyoung swallows. Whatever that means.
“It was nothing, really. Taeyong saw a photo of the radio club on my Facebook and asked me in person if I knew you. It seems like you lost contact?”
Doyoung dodges the disguised probing. “What did you say to him?”
“Yes was all I said. I didn’t know the deal, so I didn’t say anything else. I didn’t know you were school mates?”
Doyoung laughs dryly. “It’s…more complicated.”
Johnny quirks a brow. “Go on?”
Johnny makes some fists, waves them in the air. “What, did you fight?”
Doyoung snorts. “You could say that.”
Johnny whacks him on the arm. “Now I’m so curious.”
Doyoung takes a deep breath. There’s this sinking feeling in his heart again, clouded by dredged up emotions. “I just don’t want to see him,” he states, with a tone of finality.
Disillusionment. Anger. Resentment. Does Taeyong still remember? Doyoung certainly hasn’t forgotten. It’s hard to forget about pain like that. As if time had been collapsed, he catches now onto the tail of end of these old emotions that belong nowhere but in the past, glad it’s nothing more than a dull ache. He wonders briefly, for Taeyong, if those feelings have subsided by now. Doyoung has no plans to stay around to find out the answer. He doesn’t want to be involved again, not at this point in his life.
“I don’t want to see him again,” he speaks down at his feet, “I’m sure he feels the same.”
“Oof. I didn’t think it was like that. Sorry.”
“It’s fine. Tell me, the one booking the dance room below us, is that him too?”
Hunched over the bathroom sink.
Shoulders trembling in the fluorescent light.
Doyoung sucks in a deep, deep breath through his nose.
“Doyoung,” Johnny sighs, voice laced with concern. “You look really stressed. I’m sorry for making you feel like this, I didn’t know.”
“Don’t worry, I’m fine. But I think it’s best we don’t get any closer.”
“Got it. I won’t make this meet up happen.”
A text pops in from Jaehyun, updating his status: grabbing dinner, then will get ready to play. Before his 7:30 pm broadcast starts, Doyoung decides to get some food too, tagging alongside Johnny as they squeeze through the crowd. Johnny comments while they wait in the taco line. “It’s a bummer you’re not friends. Taeyong makes the most delicious food.”
Doyoung rolls his eyes as hard as he can. “Thanks. I didn’t ask.”
Once every month, Mixtapes with DJ DY opens the two and a half hour show with a live performance. The guests are usually student talents or local artists—Jaehyun and his band count as both. As usual, Doyoung is tasked with amassing a playlist following the theme of the song being played live. Tonight’s theme, as suggested by Jaehyun, is breakups.
“If it’s true that there’s nothing as relatable as a love song, then I can think of something that’s almost as relatable.”
“And what’s that, DY?”
“A breakup song.”
“That’s right, isn’t it?”
“I feel like…despite how much more popular love songs are, the two really go hand in hand. After all, all but one of the romantic relationships we will ever have in our lives will inevitably go through a breakup.”
“That’s if you’re lucky, too.”
“That’s very true. Sometimes we just get tired of the flowery, sunshiney feelings from love songs, especially when we’re feeling somber ourselves. If we’ve just gone through a breakup, or we’re alone watching everyone else enjoy being with their partners, it must feel especially bad to overhear a love song in those moments.”
“Sometimes, rather than having my mood lifted by a song, I would just rather vent. Pour it all into something dark and depressing and call it a day.”
“Absolutely. And nothing solves the problem like a breakup song, or a good scream at a KTV. Maybe both at the same time.”
“Are you single right now, DY?”
“Me? I am. Why do you ask, JaeD?”
“I wanted to ask if you would scream our song in a KTV during your next breakup.”
“Not sure I appreciate you wishing a breakup upon me, but I’ll definitely keep it in mind, JaeD. Speaking of—isn’t it about time we introduced your song?”
“Thanks, DY. Tonight I’m not here as JaeD but as Jaehyun, vocalist of Peach Horizon. If you don’t know us, all of us in the band are currently students or alumni of this school. The song we’re performing tonight, ‘Endtroduction’, is our third single after our debut mini album last year. It’s an electropop track with an addicting synth and lyrics you will hopefully find relatable. So…yeah, I hope you guys enjoy it.”
“Thanks, Jaehyun. We’ll talk extensively about it after you’ve warmed up your vocal chords.”
“Of course. We’re ready any time.”
“So, in true mixtape fashion, here is ‘songs to break up to’. Kicking it off with a live performance from Peach Horizon of their new single, ‘Endtroduction’.”
“Tell me, Jaehyun. Aside from the production aspect, who composed the lyrics this time?”
“Well, we all pitched our ideas in, but I was the one who finalized our lyrics.”
“I see. It's definitely poetic, as usual, and leaves room for interpretation. Whether we understood it or not, we can definitely more or less get an idea from the tone of your performance. Can you talk to me a bit about the lyrics?”
“Sure. When we wrote the lyrics, we wanted to capture a very special moment in time. A turning point. It’s something to be sad about, but it’s also a rare and precious opportunity, because to break up, to end is to start anew. Essentially, the song is about gently breaking it to someone you love that your relationship is about to be over. It’s about introducing your loved one to the end of the relationship. But there’s room in the title for us to play with, and we liked the implications a lot, so we rolled with it.”
“’Endtroduction’—it’s also about parting as a way of introduction. By parting, you’re leaving room to learn more about each other.”
“So this breakup is very temporary.”
“Well, I wouldn’t say it’s temporary. I would just say we leave some healthy ambiguity.”
“Interesting. I’d say that can be debated, whether ambiguity is healthy. Because it gets in the way of moving on, doesn’t it? And that kind of ambiguity is torture for someone with leftover emotions, a slow burn.”
“Really? I think it’s totally fine to keep someone in mind, while keeping a reasonable distance from the memory of course, and leave the rest up to fate to decide.”
“Okay, let’s put it this way. In my experience, there are all different kinds of breakup songs. There are ones where it’s all about regret, the person is not ready to move on and wants to start all over. Another is where it’s completely ended. For eternity. Getting back is impossible. And the person accepts that and is okay with it. From what you’re saying, it seems ‘Endtroduction’ is most relatable to those who are not yet ready to surrender?”
“I would say it’s somewhere in between. I mean, you never know who might walk back into your life at what point, and what they’ll look like by then. And you can’t know how you’ll feel about it until it happens, right?”
“Are you of the belief that cutting it clean would be better?”
“Precisely. I think we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one.”
At 9:30, during the show’s last 10 minute commercial break, Doyoung cleans up the studio and finds that Jaehyun is still hanging around the building. He’d been reading his novel for class in the small coffee lounge of their office. He still hasn’t changed from his getup, and all his equipment is stacked at the door. It’s just him here.
“Good performances today.” Doyoung tells him, pressing the button for some hot water. “Really in the zone.”
“Thanks,” Jaehyun looks up from his novel. There’s a smirk in his voice. “I didn’t know you felt that strongly and specifically about breakups.”
Doyoung laughs. “Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to dispute with you over your own song." He shrugs, “I mean, what do I know? I’ve been single for years.”
For a moment, Jaehyun looks like he wants to say something else, but stops himself.
Doyoung sips his water. “Were you waiting for me?”
Suddenly, something occurs to him, and he narrows his eyes.
“…Is this about Taeyong?”
He has a feeling he’s right…about a few things.
“You knew too, didn’t you? That he was going to be here today. You knew he was locking up for us.”
Jaehyun looks away. The rest of his face is buried in his book, hiding his expression.
“I wish...I wish you'd told me.” He sighs deeply. Honestly, the day has been exhausting for him. If he had known beforehand, it would have minimized the shock, wouldn’t have thrown his head into disarray, and he could have prepared himself. “It would have made things a lot easier. For both Taeyong and I.”
“If I told you, you wouldn’t have accepted the position.”
Doyoung thinks about it, laughing dryly. “You’re right about that.”
Jaehyun’s eyes are trained on him. Doyoung gets the uneasy feeling that he has more to say.
“I thought things would go differently, now that it’s been years.”
Doyoung feels like he’s being chided, and he doesn’t like it.
“Well, what did you expect?” He says impatiently, pretending to read the bulletin on the board. “I wasn’t about to gasp in delight and throw myself into a hug. I was not amused, Jaehyun. I don’t like being set up.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know any other way. You were bound to meet eventually, it’s pretty inevitable. It felt like no matter how it happened there was a fifty fifty chance how you would react.”
“I would appreciate being told, though. Yes, I would have declined, but that’s my choice to make. Why are you trying so hard to make us meet anyway? We’re not friends. Not even close. Things in the past should stay there.”
Jaehyun goes silent.
“Again,” he says quietly, “I thought things would be different by now.”
Doyoung feels irritation rise to his head. “Well, they’re not. They’re not going to be. Maybe I’m just this petty, Jaehyun. Maybe this is a grudge I refuse to let go, and frankly there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Jaehyun doesn’t respond. After a minute, Doyoung goes on, more quietly, “You were there, you remember how shitty it was. I hated being there, I don’t want to be there again.”
“Then move on,” Jaehyun looks at him. “Nobody is stopping you but yourself.”
Doyoung’s eyes go wide. He drops his cup down on the table with a clunk. Just move on? How could he? As if it were really as easy as he says, as if Doyoung didn’t feel like he was still living in the aftermath every day. How could Jaehyun understand?
He wets his lips, trying to suppress his irritation, quickly turning into anger. “No offence, but please don’t meddle in my business.”
Jaehyun looks up. “You really think I’m uninvolved?”
“Yeah. This is between Taeyong and I.”
“Can you really say that after all you put us through? Sejeong and I?”
Doyoung shuts up for a while. “You didn’t have to stay. You practically offered yourselves as collateral damage.”
Jaehyun shakes his head. “Of course you would think that.”
“I don’t know what that means. If you have any more complaints can you save it for another day? I’m exhausted. Seeing him made me feel all kinds of shitty.” He looks over at the clock.
“I’m sorry. I just thought maybe you were ready to—”
“I get it. Thanks for trying, but I don’t really know why you bother. You know how bad it feels to be set up with your ex?”
“No, I can’t understand because I don’t hate my exes,” Jaehyun says, looking into his eyes.
Doyoung stops himself, clamping his mouth shut.
Eyebrows furrowed, he crosses his arms. Why they’re having this conversation at all right now is inconceivable to him.
“And he was more than that, wasn’t he?”
Doyoung rubs his temples. “I don’t know where you’re going with all this.”
“Look…I’ve been waiting a long time to have this talk with you.” Jaehyun takes some steadying breaths.
“Oh.” Doyoung freezes. He glances at the clock again—five minutes. How bad can it get? “Okay. Shoot.”
Jaehyun stares at him for another minute, before sucking in a deep breath.
“I wish you wouldn’t say things like I’m not involved. Our friend group fell apart because of it, you know.”
“Listen, I’m sorry. It was an awfully dramatic fight to have to watch. But you had every chance to keep being friends without me, and I see that clearly isn’t the case.”
“That’s not it. I didn’t keep in touch with Taeyong hyung because he was inconsolable for a whole year. After you dropped out he stopped talking to any of us. I didn’t start talking to him again until half a year ago. He never asked about you and I never said anything. I didn’t even tell him you were also doing radio.”
It’s true that if Jaehyun wanted to he could have revealed he was in contact with Doyoung any time, but he didn’t. In the end, Taeyong had to find out through Johnny.
“But okay. This is besides the point.” Jaehyun continues. “All of this in the past—it doesn’t matter. I want to talk about what you’re doing now.”
“What am I doing?” Doyoung has no idea what Jaehyun’s talking about. “What brought on this talk to begin with? Especially for you, you never go out of your way to voice your opinion on things.”
Jaehyun rubs his temples. “Because…this is your one chance to make things right, and frankly, hyung, I think you’re blowing it.”
Doyoung’s eyes darken. “I don’t want to make things right.” He spits out, before thinking.
“Really, though? Do you really believe that?”
“Thanks for the offer, but I don’t need your concern.”
Jaehyun’s tone drops, too. “I’m trying to talk to you as a friend. Something you haven’t treated me as for years.”
Doyoung has to close his eyes to regain his composure.
He wants this conversation to be over.
“Taeyong and I have problems. Yes, I have problems. But don’t concern yourself with our problems, Jaehyun.”
For a while, Jaehyun is speechless. When Doyoung looks up again, he thinks it almost looks as if Jaehyun is about to cry.
“When you recruited me last year,” Jaehyun grits out. “Why do you think I joined the radio club? Because I particularly care about radios?”
Doyoung stares at him, unable to answer.
“I joined to keep an eye on you because I was worried. Because I’m your friend. I’m here to help if you ever want to talk. In fact I wish you would talk to me more.”
Doyoung looks away.
“It feels like at some point in grade 12 you just shut off. Just dropped off the face of the earth, and none of us could reach you again. Why did you stop communicating with us? Even now I don’t have a clue.”
Doyoung’s hands are clammy and cold. He clenches them by his side.
There’s nothing he could say to Jaehyun as he’s lectured, can only listen to the onslaught of accusations.
“You should’ve been here, you know. You should be where I am, on stage. The one with the mic, not the cards. I still think you made a mistake. Taeyong hyung did, too. We were so disappointed you gave up music. It made it feel like none of our opinions even mattered to you. You gave up everything you loved to—”
Doyoung’s annoyance, boiling up until now, reaches a tipping point.
“Are you me, Jaehyun?” He steps up, glaring at him. “Do you know me better than I do? Who are you to judge me on what I decide to do with my life?”
Jaehyun speaks as though he’s fighting tears, and it’s getting hard for Doyoung to look at him. “No, I don’t know you better. Some days I wonder whether I know you at all. But I need to say this, because I don’t think you can see yourself clearly right now. Are you really not miserable living your life like this? Do you really believe you’re happy?”
“I’m not miserable like you think, Jaehyun.”
“I think you’re lying. I think you’re not ready to admit that to yourself.”
Doyoung’s hands are shaking. He’s suddenly exhausted to the bone. This feels like the longest day of his life, and he hates it. He’s so close to begging for Jaehyun to stop when they both hear the sound of the waiting room door click open.
“Whoa, okay. I think that’s enough.” Johnny announces, pushing past the glass door.
They both turn to him, staring while the air cools down and they each catch their breaths. Doyoung feels dizzy and wants to sit down.
“This, my friends, is a good time to stop. Doyoung has a show to wrap up. Jaehyun, the elevators stop in fifteen minutes, if you want to move your equipment down to your car before then.”
They both stand there, unable to speak for a minute.
Jaehyun tosses his book into his bag, wiping at his eyes. He knew it would be a rough confrontation, but he had to do it, his job here is done. Throwing his bag on, Jaehyun strides past the still motionless Doyoung towards the door. "If you ever wanted to talk…”
Jaehyun doesn’t turn around when Doyoung speaks.
Doyoung takes a deep breath.
“Thank you for caring about me. I get it, I really do, but…me and music, there’s nothing predetermined about it the way you think there is. As for me and—and him. Don’t try anything anymore, please. I’ve made my choices, and now I’m living with the consequences. Just let me live.”
It’s a moment before Jaehyun speaks. “If you say so. Just so you know, you can always change your mind.”
Johnny stuffs his keys in his pocket and gets to work helping Jaehyun move. When all the drum sets have been safely transferred, he comes back for his jacket.
When he returns, Doyoung is at the end of the hall, holding a cup of lukewarm water in his hand, staring out the small side window in their studio. He looks like a painting, frozen in space and time. The sheets pinned to the bulletin board waver where the air conditioning blows against them. On the table before him, the water heater is boiling, its push button twinkling green. Doyoung stands stiffly behind a stack of cups, a pot of plant on the table, swirling his drink robotically.
He looks like he needs a hug, more than anything else.
So Johnny gives him one.
“Holy cow…” He whispers, pulling away. “I’ve never seen Jaehyun like that.”
Doyoung sighs out the long breath he had been holding. “Me either.”
“What did you do to him, Doyoung?”
“Not my fault!” Doyoung grumbles, “he started it…”
Johnny gives Doyoung a solid pat on the arm.
“He’s right about one thing, though. You like to think you’re entirely fine on your own, and then push everyone away. You should stop that and talk to someone sometimes.”
“Please, not you too.”
“I’m just saying. Good night, dons. Please take care on your way home.”
“…and this has been Mixtapes with DJ DY. As always it’s been good to be with you. Signing off now, take care, good night.”
With that, Doyoung wraps up the radio.
Afterwards, he doesn’t get up from the chair for what feels like hours.
The minutes tick by. With every flicker of the clock Doyoung sinks deeper and deeper into his inertia.
Get up, he tells himself. You have to move, he tells himself.
Working off of muscle memory alone, he tidies up the place, cramming all his things into his bag before shutting off the lights.
He doesn’t have the energy to make it to the rooftop, so he takes the fire exit down the emergency staircase. There is too much to process about the day, too many emotions arising, waiting to be straightened and compartmentalized. Until then, Doyoung feels like he can’t breathe.
He drops down onto the stairs, clutching the handlebar. Against the cold wall he slumps, head falling slowly until it meets the wall.
Something about what Jaehyun said had flipped him inside out. His soft organs contained and protected by his shell have been left out to dry, and he’s forced to watch his own innards put on display for him, his deepest feelings laid out on the table. He doesn’t even know if he agrees with half the things that have been said, but he does know that it took an extraordinary amount of energy to go through that confrontation. On top of what had happened earlier in the day, Doyoung feels thoroughly emptied.
These are words chiming in his mind.
He doesn’t know if he’s miserable, but truthfully it has been getting harder and harder to get through the days lately, in a progression so subtle it had somehow slipped entirely past his notice.
Third year is a far stretch from second year. Doyoung doesn’t know if it’s true of his classes, but it certainly is true for his mentality. All of a sudden, he’s on the other side of the half way line, closer to a working adult than a high school student. Classes are, as a concept, somehow entirely unappealing, and he has trouble convincing himself to go sometimes. Midterms have been an unending headache. Job search is a land of anxiety he tries not to touch. Maintaining his GPA, networking, revising his resume. The pressure from his parents. The encouragement from his brother that makes him all the more afraid to disappoint him. Not to mention the layer of silt weighing down his mind that he doesn’t understand, accumulating with time, and he can’t make it go away.
He’s far from where he’d been years ago. He’d fought with all his might to reinvent himself. Yet, even now, Doyoung hears the pattering footsteps of his distant past catching up to him. In moments like this, the weight on his chest feels all the heavier. Makes it feel like the world is ending, like he is running out of time.
As a reflex, he tries to suppress the sources of stress in his mind. He tries to think about the solid steps of what he has to do next. He has to drive home. Has to make it back safe. Has to clean up his mess of an apartment, something he'd been putting off for a week for no good reason. He has to shower, and then dry his hair, and go to bed and wake up, make breakfast, go to school again and sit through classes.
Nothing difficult. Except he has no energy left for any of this. None of this sounds like anything he wants to do.
Incapacitated on the ground, he can't pick himself up, has no willpower to even try.
Get up, he thinks. But his body doesn't listen, not this time.
I can't, he realizes. And the realization makes him angry at himself, makes him feel so pathetic and useless. He feels frustrated at his own weakness. Even for a tough one like Doyoung, there are times when everything is just too much to handle.
All of a sudden he misses his brother. He’s not sure why, what it is. He misses something about the way things were, about childhood, about simplicity before any of this became something he had to consider. An idealized past, he knows, but the craving to return somewhere continues to throb in his chest. Above all Doyoung misses himself, the version of himself that existed not so long ago, full of drive and purpose, whose life he had felt had been reinvigorated with meaning by his own hands. Nowadays he feels so out of control, like he had fallen off the tracks and couldn’t find the motivation to get back. What was wrong? He didn’t know. He didn’t think there was any good reason for anything to feel wrong, yet the word miserable rings in his head. And when he thinks about where he started in first year, now everything feels…devoid of substance, stolen from him in the past few years of university, and now he had been worn down to the bone carrying out the bare minimum of a meaningless existence.
Happy. When he traces back even further, to a time when he could have used this word to describe himself—four years. Has it really been that long?
What would it take?
Will he ever feel that way again?
—reeling from the force of the memory, he stops himself before he really, really remembers.
Is it really his fault that the wounds still feel too fresh to touch?
Thinking about all this, about all the ways he’s failed himself, Doyoung feels so sad and so pathetic.
Overloaded and overwhelmed, from the bottom of his chest, he starts to cry. Quietly at first, then the sobs break out. He doesn’t try to stop them.
He covers his eyes with a hand, and the warm tears roll over his fingers, carrying with them an enormous, ineffable anguish.
Doyoung wants to feel mad at all these people telling him he’s living his life wrong, but he can’t find the anger within himself. Obstinate as he may be, he’s not unreasonable enough to be able to deny something resonating when he hears it, and he admits that there must’ve been something right about what Jaehyun said for him to have deteriorated to this.
In the end, there is nothing more to the state of his life than cause and effect. Even the inertia that he’s numbed by, the stalemate he’s found himself dawdling in is not the remnant of a past decision but an active choice being made moment to moment. To stay here, to be this way, even if he doesn’t have the energy to move is a choice only he makes and he solely is responsible for. Doyoung had made the decision to fight it out alone, not once many years ago, but still does on a daily basis, and now he finds himself receiving the full brunt of its consequences.
I’m all alone, and it’s my fault.
The truth is, no one is sadder than himself that he’s become like this.
This agony—could it have been what Taeyong had felt? Shaking before the bathroom mirror. Waiting for someone, anyone with a helping hand to reach out. If he had, things would be so different. The regret hits him like a wave, and his tears burst forth once again.
The door to the hallway cranks open. Doyoung’s head jerks up.
In the dim light, above him stands a familiar, blond haired figure.
In a cruel reversal of roles, the boy who had been crying by himself in the bathroom a week ago now walks out onto the platform of the stairs. Phone in his hand, he has his earbuds in, his backpack slung across his shoulder. There is a trace of shock in the way his limbs freeze, but aside from that, Doyoung reads…apathy in his eyes. Not that he can see in this light, but Doyoung would like to imagine that’s what it is staring down at him dispassionately from above.
He’d lost track of time, and Taeyong had finished practice. What a sick joke the day has been.
Caught red handed, he lowers his head, letting out a weak chuckle. It’s just too much. He shrinks into the walls, trying to cover his face, but the nervous sniffling doesn’t stop. It would have been clear to anyone that he was crying uncontrollably. Doyoung closes his eyes, and wishes he could melt into the wall.
The presence of another person.
Sits down, beside him.
He feels a gentle touch on his shoulder.
Feels a set of warm fingers pry his hand away from his face, unable to offer any resistance. Taeyong holds on for a little too long; Doyoung pulls his hand out of the uncomfortable grip.
“Are you okay?”
Doyoung doesn’t answer. Instead, he concentrates all his efforts on breathing, to stop the sound of his crying before he embarrasses himself further. That’s enough for now, he’ll find a way to let it out later on his own. If he can’t disappear with Taeyong watching over him, he’ll just leave. Suddenly he finds the energy in himself again to collect himself back together. A drive that, ironically, comes from his sudden desire to get as far away from this place and this person as possible.
They sit for a minute in silence while he calms down, Doyoung hugging his arms to himself and staring straight ahead, avoiding all eye contact, though he’s aware that Taeyong is watching him.
Amid the sound of their even breaths, Taeyong speaks. “Better now?”
“I’m fine. Just go ahead.”
“I…I have to lock up,” Taeyong says quietly.
So Doyoung gets up on his feet. Without waiting, he starts walking down the stairs. Taeyong follows him. Doyoung watches their shadows on the floor morph as they round the staircase.
Once he’s outside, Doyoung deeply inhales the brisk air. His mind feels a little clearer.
He doesn’t wait for Taeyong to lock the door. Without another word, he starts walking away in the direction of the parking lot.
He hears Taeyong’s footsteps closely behind him, the sound of his jingling keys. Doyoung stops walking.
Neither of them move for quite some time.
Leave, he thinks. Now’s the time.
It’s Taeyong who comes around to stand in front of him.
At the sound of his voice, Doyoung lifts his eyes off the ground. Taeyong is watching him with a trained expression. Doyoung meets his gaze steadily, thinking to himself that there should be nothing challenging about this, he’s come way too far for this to still elicit any emotion in him, theoretically…yet he finds out painfully quickly that he’s wrong.
Gazing down at these striking features he knows so well, Doyoung is sent reeling back in time.
Maybe it’s the moonlight. Maybe it’s the way he can see Taeyong’s breath in the cold air, or the eerie quality of witnessing in actuality an image that had, for so long, existed only in the domain of his imagination. Within breaths, all the fragments of memories lying dormant in his bloodstream reawaken upon the beckoning of a ghostly emotion, so familiar yet not quite what he used to know.
Every sensory detail reemerges from slumber from the pile of sediments at the bottom of his brain—
The sound of his silvery voice when he whispers.
The upturned corners of his furtive smile.
The fragrance of his laundry soap, mingled with the earthy scent of his body.
The feel of his smooth skin. The taste of his soft mouth.
—suddenly Doyoung could remember every reason why he felt the way he had towards this person.
But this, too, is a dull and distant ache.
Doyoung doesn’t move. Instead, he just looks at Taeyong, not knowing what to expect, what to think.
Inevitable. The word Jaehyun had used. It’s because he feels this way that he feels, somehow, he can’t escape this moment the way he desperately wants to. It’s bound to happen, he always knew, in a city too small for the two of them. This would happen again. If it had to be tonight, then so be it.
It’s because he feels like this that, even though it exhausted him, he doesn’t protest when Taeyong asks, “Will you come with me for a bit?”
Taeyong reaches out—but stops himself, retracts his hand, looking away.
Doyoung shifts awkwardly on his feet, fingers unconsciously curling into a fist.
“Well. Just come.”
Taeyong starts to walk. To where, he doesn’t know, but Doyoung follows, hands in his pockets, mouth entirely clamped shut and no thoughts, no words on his mind.
He’s really not thinking, because in minutes they’re at the train station, and he wonders if it’s too late to tell Taeyong he drives.
“So…how long are you going to pretend you don’t know me?”
At the convenience store in the station, Taeyong had bought him a cup of warm milk tea.
Leaning against the telephone booth, Taeyong’s gaze is somewhere up in the sky, searching for the moon among the wisps of clouds.
Doyoung realizes, belatedly, that Taeyong must have recognized him that night in the bathroom. Wants to explain that he didn’t mean to, he didn’t leave him there on purpose, but he thinks these words are worthless to Taeyong right now.
Eyes on his feet, cup held tightly between his stiff hand, Doyoung sighs.
He laughs dryly. “As long as possible.”
Taeyong turns to watch him.
“I’ll walk you home.”
“What? No, it’s fine.”
“No, it’s not fine. You look like…you look really bad.”
“I want to talk.”
Doyoung stops arguing. Exhausted by the day, weighed down by uncertainty, tired from the responsibility of making his own decisions, Doyoung decides to just let everything go. Whatever wants to happen can happen, he refuses to make any more decisions that would dictate any kind of meaningful outcome. He’s already surrendered. Whatever wants to happen tonight can happen, he’s already stopped giving a fuck.
The train is loosely scattered with people. Doyoung wonders what they look like to others, Taeyong standing in front and Doyoung sitting down. His eyes remain on his knees. Taeyong’s silhouette blocks the light for him. “Next stop,” that's all Doyoung says. Taeyong nods.
In silence, Taeyong follows him home. Doyoung doesn't have the strength to stop him.
“Can I come in?” Taeyong asks quietly.
Doyoung turns his keys, back to him.
No. That’s all he has to say. Please leave. I’m so tired tonight, he wants to say. But the words don’t come out.
He knows it’s already too late. He didn’t stop Taeyong in time, had already let him follow him here.
“I mean,” he says, voice devoid of emotion or strength. “You’re here. You came to my home for some reason, Taeyong.”
“I could leave…”
Doyoung spins around.
Taeyong meets his eyes, gulps. “…you alone.”
“I mean it,” he hurries to add. “I was really just concerned because you looked like shit, I didn’t want to—”
“It’s already midnight. You’re already here. So just.”
With a long sigh, Doyoung pushes his way past the door, leaving it open behind him as he kicks off his shoes.
Taeyong takes a moment to follow him, but he doesn’t ask twice.
He doesn’t know how long Taeyong plans on staying, and doesn’t feel safe sending him home alone in the dead of night. Belatedly, he regrets not driving back, not being able to drive Taeyong home. If Taeyong decides to leave later, Doyoung will have to walk him to the station, or offer up his sofa. Doyoung doesn’t know what will happen if he stays, if he will force him to talk, if he has to fight for the second time in a day, or worse, if Taeyong will ask to be friends again, if he’s here to make up. Doyoung’s mind is a blank. He hasn’t thought this through at all.
Taeyong lines his shoes up by the door, dropping his bag by the closet. He softly patters in his socked feet into the small living room, turning around to give the place a thorough onceover. Doyoung follows his gaze, belatedly realizes the mess that the place is in, which had become so normalized to him that it hadn’t crossed his mind how uncomfortable it might be for someone else.
It doesn’t matter, he thinks. It’s my house. Taeyong can think whatever of him, he doesn’t care at this point.
From where he stands stiff by the sofa, Doyoung watches Taeyong wander into the kitchen. Watches him examine the bottle of rum in the corner, beside the toaster.
Taeyong holds it up, “do you mind?”
“I’m asking if I can have some.”
“I thought you wanted to talk.”
“Yeah, that’s the plan.”
Doyoung thinks this entire interaction is a little surreal, completely out of the norm, considering where they are, who is here, what is going on. It’s entirely surreal that Taeyong doesn’t recognize how preposterously intrusive he is being, so much so that Doyoung is starting to question his own judgment of normality.
“Don’t drink too much.”
“Do you want some?”
Doyoung wants neither a drink nor to talk. “Just help yourself.”
Taeyong shrugs, finding himself a cup. He brings over two to the coffee table, and sits down on the couch across from Doyoung.
Doyoung shakes his head.
“Well, cheers,” Taeyong says, clinking his glass with Doyoung’s empty one and downing the contents like it’s water.
Doyoung takes a deep, deep inhale of breath. Unless he’d had as much practice drinking at social events as Doyoung had, Taeyong should suck with alcohol. Even a beer can get him drunk. He imagines what would happen if…and he’s already having a headache. If he had known—and he should have known—he would have stopped him. Shouldn’t have let Taeyong have the rum. If he had the resolve, he wouldn’t have let Taeyong into his door, or let Taeyong walk him to the station.
Taeyong sinks back into the seat.
“It’s a nice place you have. It’s just the right size. A kitchen here, a bathroom there…nice lighting, cute plants. And you get to be alone. I have two roommates, and…anyway. Um. Nice place.”
Taeyong smiles awkwardly with one side of his mouth.
“What are you doing here, Taeyong.”
Taeyong chews on his lip, swirling the leftovers around the glass.
“I wanted to make sure you got home safe.”
“Okay. Thank you. For your,” Doyoung raises his eyebrows, “help. For the record, I really didn’t need it.”
“You sure? Your state of being was concerning.”
“Not sure why it should concern you.”
“I’m concerned about you.”
Doyoung has nothing to say.
Taeyong kicks his feet back and forth. “I guess you can say it’s…force of habit.”
They sit in the silence. It’s loud in Doyoung’s ears, screaming at him.
“So…what made you cry?”
Doyoung racks his brain for something to say, some way to evade the question. He’s too tired, and decides stating the truth may be the easiest way to appease him. Besides, there are…worse things to be talking about.
“You know. People.”
“I had a fight with a colleague.”
Taeyong arches a brow. “It’s not like you to shed tears over workplace conflict.”
“What was it about?”
“Alright, look. This is getting a little personal.”
Taeyong looks up. “You wanted to have an impersonal conversation?”
I don’t want any type of conversation, he thinks, but decides against saying it.
“I mean, personal or not, I don’t know what to say. What is there to say?”
“Well, I have things,” Taeyong winces. “Quite a lot of things. Doesn’t seem like you particularly want to hear them though.”
Doyoung smirks. “You might be right.”
Doyoung watches Taeyong’s chest rise and fall with a deep sigh. He pours a little more alcohol. Doyoung can’t be bothered to stop him.
Glass in hand, Taeyong leans back. “Then why did you let me in? You didn’t have to.”
“Right. Kind of regretting it.”
“I can leave if you want.”
“Are you testing me?”
“No, no. I’m not trying to. Just letting you know.”
“I want to reiterate,” he says with impatience, “why are you here?”
Taeyong stares at him in the eyes for a second, before downing his drink.
“Because. It’s good to see you.” He puts the glass down, laces his fingers on his lap. “It’s been so long. Don’t you think so?”
Doyoung wonders. “I don’t know. Can’t say that thought has crossed my mind at all tonight.”
“Oh.” Taeyong says, after a pause.
Doyoung crosses his arms. “We don’t talk for a reason.”
“You think so?” Taeyong says.
You don’t? Doyoung wants to ask, but he just nods.
“What’s the reason?”
He thinks about it noncommittally. “I don’t know. But I know it’s a good one. You’ve seen me now, is it enough? Have you seen enough to make your conclusions about me?”
“It’s nothing like that. Doyoung.”
“Then why are you here? To see if your theories were right? To demand some answers? I already told you I have nothing to say. Unless you want to tell me about myself too?”
“What do you mean?”
“Apparently I don’t know myself.” Doyoung rolls his eyes. He gestures to the state of his room, and in a tone a little more flippant than he intends, says, “when you look at me and all this, do I look miserable to you?”
“I—I don’t know.” Taeyong stutters, dumbfounded by the question. “I wouldn’t know. Are you?”
Doyoung doesn’t answer.
What about you? How are you doing? Why are you getting drunk on my couch? He wants to ask.
Taeyong breaks the silence. “I’m not here to—it’s not that complicated.”
“Then what is it?”
Taeyong sighs. Slowly he picks up the glass and tips it. He downs the drink. Winces a little bit at the burn. “I missed you.”
“I see,” Doyoung says flatly.
Doyoung doesn’t know what to say. I haven’t thought about you at all. No, he didn’t have to lie. I don’t want to hear that from my ex, he thinks, but he’s aware of how mean that sounds, how wrong it is in his own ears. Jaehyun was right, after all. They were more than this.
“Do you…like your classes?”
“Are you…” Taeyong gulps, “seeing anybody?”
Time ticks by in silence. Taeyong straightens uncomfortably. “Be honest. Do you want me here? Or are you just being polite?”
Doyoung rubs the bridge of his nose. “I’m really tired. I want to be alone, but you decided to come.” Taeyong opens his mouth, but Doyoung stops him with a hand. “Yeah, it’s my bad I didn’t stop you. But you insisted on talking and I…you must’ve known I’d. You know I’m weak when it comes to—.” He stops.
He sighs. “You. I have a fondness for you. Okay? Because we used to be friends. Maybe it’s good to see you, you’re right. I’m glad to see you’re doing well. I’m fine, too. I hope that’s good enough for you. I’m fine with seeing you once every few years, just to catch up, see how things are. But to me there’s no reason for us to get any closer than this, or to get involved in each other’s lives again. To that extent I let you into my house. But any longer and it’ll just be me being polite.”
“I’m sorry. I thought you would want to talk. Do you want me to leave?”
Doyoung swallows. “I’d appreciate it if you just said what you mean.”
Taeyong chuckles softly. “You still dislike small talk.”
Doyoung shrugs. “Some things don’t change, I guess.”
“Okay. I’ll just…say what I mean.”
Taeyong chews on his lip for a while, fingers tapping against the glass cup.
“I’ve had a lot of time to think,” he says slowly. “And I think I can understand you a little better now. Actually, more than understand, I think I can accept things a lot better now. I wanted you to know I’m sorry for the way things had been, for the way things had turned out. I have some regrets about them. That’s what I came to say today, what I wanted you to know. There are no hard feelings anymore, I’ve moved on from that.”
Doyoung nods slowly, eyes trained on his hands, holding his breath.
Taeyong goes on.
“For you though, it seems…well. I’m not going to draw conclusions. Selfishly, I want to know how you feel about me now, but if you don’t want to tell me, that’s okay too…”
Doyoung has no idea how to respond—for one, his brain is overworked, and second, he has no idea what he feels towards Taeyong. He hasn’t actively thought about it in a long time, just buried the concept entirely. He has no idea if he’s “moved on”. He feels like he has; certain things still bother him, but he’s not entrenched in the idea anymore, but Jaehyun seems to think otherwise. Seems like Taeyong is at peace with things, too. Good for you, Doyoung thinks bitterly. He feels frustrated that everyone but him seems to have left the past behind. Why does it seem so easy for everyone else? It makes him feel useless, stagnant, and childish in return.
“If you’ve moved on so perfectly, why does it matter what I think?”
“I haven’t…” Taeyong’s eyes shoot down to the cup in his hands. “It’s for closure.”
Doyoung narrows his eyes. “I’m sorry to tell you, but sometimes there is none. Life’s just like that. Sometimes things fall apart and they never get resolved, and you can’t just come here demanding answers for the past. I don’t want to think about something like that. I haven’t had anything to do with it for years now.”
But he’s aware that he lied, and it doesn’t feel good.
“I know it’s selfish. But I just feel like…unless I know, I can’t move on.” Taeyong’s brows are knitted, “It’ll always be an ache that sits on my chest.”
Doyoung swallows hard.
He hadn’t expected these words. Thought Taeyong had come to terms with everything already and gracefully proceeded to live the rest of his life, leaving Doyoung light years behind him. Every day he feels trapped in the nets of the past, like a shadow following him that wouldn’t leave. Doyoung knows what makes him feel stuck here, but what does Taeyong have to hang on to? Still, for a moment, he feels sympathetic. So I’m not the only one still fucked up by this. Doyoung feels something akin to relief. He doesn’t really want to question it right now.
He lets out a long sigh. “What do you want to know?”
Taeyong’s eyes light up. “Why was it so hard for you to tell me anything after I came back?”
Belatedly, Doyoung realizes that question has been rehearsed, on the tip of his tongue all night, waiting to be invited. Taeyong goes on, “what happened in a year that made you so different? Will you never tell me? Will I never know?”
Doyoung feels a pang in his chest. It’s a dark feeling, a mass of something, thrumming with the ghost of emotions. These are the remnants of a time of despair, something he doesn’t want to remember. The sinking feeling, the endless darkness he had crawled out of. What Taeyong was seeking from him now, as he had been so many years ago, was some explanation for a pain that had felt to Doyoung so piercing and so ineffable.
Bitterness. Sadness. Abandonment. Aloneness. These emotions he had been ashamed of. It’s not as easy as saying he should have just shared them. Plagued by these negative feelings, Doyoung had become completely closed off even to the one person in the whole world he thought he could be honest with. It didn’t help that Taeyong appeared before him in shambles, fragile and ready to fall apart. He didn’t want to break him, to burden him more with his own grudges and issues. So Doyoung had just shut down.
A thought crosses his mind. Maybe I could tell him now.
Taeyong seems…put together. At least, a lot more stable than the last time he saw him, but Doyoung couldn’t understand, watching Taeyong pour some more rum into his cup, why he couldn’t have this talk without drinking.
Besides, what would be the point in explaining? At this point, this shouldn’t matter to either of them.
“A lot happened while you were gone. You weren’t there, so—you don’t need to know.”
“That’s—” Taeyong stops. “That’s so unfair.”
Doyoung knows it is. He drew this line once, three years ago, and he feels compelled to uphold it even now. A petty grudge, he knows. His own bitterness, he knows.
“I know you think I’m unreasonable, but have you thought about yourself?” Doyoung says instead. “How was I supposed to share my problems when it looked like you were in no condition to be hearing them? You would have collapsed from the weight of a feather. You were depressed, you were smoking, drowning your time in video games—you couldn’t even take care of yourself.”
“It’s because I—I felt so worthless, you know? I came back thinking you would be there for me, only to find out you became a whole different person. You closed yourself off to me. Then I find out you pushed away our friends, too. Next thing I hear you’ve decided to give up singing and—”
“Stop, please. Wasn’t it enough that I tried to help you?”
“You did try to help me. But you wouldn’t let me do the same, you stopped letting me in. I didn’t want a one-way relationship like that.”
Doyoung bites on his lip, at a loss for words.
Taeyong’s eyes are pained. “I know I couldn’t even handle myself back then, but I would have always held myself together for you. If you were suffering too, I wanted to listen and be there for you, but you wouldn’t let me anymore.”
Doyoung, frankly, can’t handle any more of this conversation. He wishes Taeyong could disappear, wishes he could be alone, doesn’t want to talk with him. This talk is making him experience again some dark emotions he hasn’t felt in a long time. Somewhere deep inside, Doyoung is aware how many layers of bandages he’s slapped on over this particular scar. How he just keeps piling them on, every time the memory strikes, every time his resolve is challenged, burying it deeper and deeper inside his mind. And now, without precaution, without giving him the chance to protest, Taeyong’s tearing open the scabbed wound again, his red blood trickling once more along with their frozen time.
The pain feels real, it gives him conviction in his choice. Why scratch the wound open and hurt when they don’t have to?
But something else is working within his body. Something crying out, and this time, Doyoung is keenly aware of how hard he is suppressing it.
This loneliness. It overwhelms him a little bit.
Thinking about the past overwhelms him a little bit.
Deep down, he knows how much he lies to himself, how much he conveniently pretends he doesn’t understand.
Oblivious to Doyoung’s unravelling, Taeyong goes on. “I know you have your reasons. It must have been something that really hurt you. I wish you told me. You can always tell me, even now. If not me then I hope you’ve told somebody.”
“I don’t want to,” Doyoung says reflexively, but his words are starting to lose meaning. “I’m not ready.”
The pain and trauma of losing your identity. Struggling to find himself without an anchor, alone in the dark. How could he put it into words? Even now he can’t think about it without involuntarily crying. Somewhere deep inside, Doyoung is reaching a point of realization. There is something wrong with the way things are—he is not miserable, but he feels like he is slowly heading there, heading in the direction opposite of happiness.
In his guts, he feels like he knows that to resolve the problems in the present, he would have to first untangle his past.
But there is so much pain in the past.
Why feel it, when he doesn’t have to?
Taeyong leans forward, hands on the table now. “Then, when you are, whenever you are ready, Doyoung—”
But Doyoung has already started to cry.
Taeyong stills from shock. He takes his hands off the table, but doesn’t know what to do with them. “Oh…god. I’m sorry—this isn’t what I wanted to say.” He exhales, deep and bitter with frustration at himself. “I’m sorry. This isn’t how I wanted this to go at all.”
Tears continue to gush from Doyoung’s eyes—he’s resigned, knows there’s nothing he can do to stop them. He hides his face behind his hands. Doyoung feels humiliated, having been reduced to this in front of the one person to whom he wanted to prove he was okay.
Taeyong pulls over the tissue box from the end of the table, holds one up for Doyoung. Doyoung doesn’t move to take it.
Doesn’t move…until he hears a sob from across the table. He stops wiping his eyes.
Taeyong’s hunched over his knees, hands over his face. He’s started to cry, too.
“I’ve hurt you so much in the past. I don’t want to hurt you anymore,” he cries with a strained voice, barely coming out straight, “I just wanted to know if you’re doing well. None of these things in the past matter now. Please forget what I said.”
“I’m sorry, Doyoungie. I just want you to be happy. I wish you were happy, unlike me.”
Somehow, Doyoung starts to cry harder.
“I should leave. I’m going to leave.”
From between his fingers, Doyoung sees Taeyong move to stand up.
He opens his eyes. Doesn’t find Taeyong for a second, and then sees him on the floor, clutching a corner of the glass table. It’s inches from his face. Doyoung witnesses the panic in his eyes transform into pain, and he curls into himself clutching his knee.
“What happened? Are you okay?”
“Yeah…ugh. I tripped.”
“Are you okay? You almost lost an eye—”
“I drank too much.”
Doyoung whips his head around to squint at the bottle of rum. Shit. He completely lost track—Taeyong’s trying to get up now. Swaying on his feet. Doyoung shoots up at the same time, ready to steady him.
“I’m fine. Just gonna go home.”
Frozen stiff, Doyoung watches him wobble towards the door, limping. He picks up his backpack without strength. In a minute, he’s crouching down again, sitting back against the closet, crying.
Doyoung swallows. He hadn’t realized there are so many unresolved emotions in Taeyong, even after all this time. Maybe even more than within himself.
“Just stay,” he says, before thinking it through, “you’re in no condition to go. I can’t send you home like this.”
Taeyong shakes his head. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe it’s best we don’t see each other.”
Doyoung walks over.
“It’s one in the morning. No matter how fast you run, you’re going to miss the last train. And I can’t let you outside like this. Just stay. Why did you drink so much?”
“Because,” Taeyong sniffs, “it hurts to think about this…”
Doyoung doesn’t reply, just pulls Taeyong to his feet by the arms.
“Drink some water and go to sleep. We can…talk in the morning.”
“I didn’t think this through,” Taeyong says, staring at the water Doyoung pushed into his hands. “I should’ve known better than to come.”
“It’s fine to come. You have things you wanted to say. You shouldn’t have drank.”
“I can’t help it. I wasn’t brave enough. I have a problem, Doyoungie…actually I have so many problems…”
Doyoung sighs. He goes to find his spare blanket from the closet while Taeyong prostrates himself on the sofa.
“Thanks,” Taeyong takes it, “I’m sorry. You probably don’t want to see me anymore…is this the last time I’ll see you?”
Taeyong looks like he’s about to cry again. Doyoung lets out a curt sigh. “Do me a favor. Stop talking, stop thinking. Can you do that?”
“Yeah…” Taeyong lets out a long breath. Arm covering his eyes from the light, he sinks into the sofa. “I’ll talk to you…some other time.”
By the time Doyoung has finished brushing up, Taeyong is fast asleep, curled up into a ball on the sofa, hugging the cushion to his chest. Doyoung watches him sleep for a second, unsure of how to feel about this turn of events.
He turns off the lights, turns up the heat in the living room.
Finally, Doyoung gets to be alone. Words cannot describe how long this day has been for him. Good thing he doesn’t have to feel or think anymore, and is free to pass out on his bed. Taeyong…will probably be fine, he thinks as he dives face first into bed. He can deal with him in the morning.
Doyoung decides, all things considered, that this went okay. He’s thoroughly ready to pass out. Thank god he doesn’t have morning classes tomorrow.
Doyoung has a decent place, Taeyong decides, staring up. The ceiling is white. The walls are yellow. The clutter feels homey and lived-in. It’s messy, but it’s okay.
He wakes up at 5:30 AM. Once he wakes and takes in where he is, recalls what happened last night, he’s unable to keep his eyes closed for a second longer.
Behind the closed door of his bedroom, Doyoung is soundly sleeping.
Beyond the mauve pink curtains, past the glass sliding door of the balcony, Taeyong stands on slippered feet with the blanket wrapped around him, breathing grey clouds into the morning air. The sun has yet to rise, yet to announce the coming of another day.
In the small hours of the night, Taeyong’s mind is clear.
He feels, viscerally, the gears of time turning. Last night, seeing each other for the first time in three years, something had been broken open. The doors to an ancient tomb. A lost spring buried by the shifting dunes. It felt as if the sands in their hourglass flowed again—but in what direction, to what end?
Where is their place, the two of them, in the natural flow of the world? Where do they belong, in the endless stream of time that waits for nobody? What are they meant to be for each other?
Just a momentary blip?
—a glitch in the system?
—a skip of the heartbeat?
—a statistical outlier, outsides the bounds of the standard deviation?
—a spark that ignites, bright enough to be seen from space, a twinkle in the dark universe that disappears as quickly as it came?
Is that all they would be for each other?
Back inside, Taeyong compulsively cleans up the whole apartment. He knows he’s overstepping, knows he’ll get scolded, but he doesn’t care. The textbooks overlapping like dominoes on the counter are arranged into a pile. The scrap papers of scribbled writing are pinned to the fridge. The dishes in the drying rack go back onto their shelves. Bottles and cans and milk cartons, rinsed and arranged in a box beneath the sink. Styrofoam boxes, plastic bags, packs of unused chopsticks. Jackets he forgot to hang and slung across the chairs. Flowers that have long dried in their vase. The grease on the stovetops, the hair on the floor, Taeyong cleans it all. Taeyong knows, better than anyone else, what it’s like to live in filth, how much it says about your state of mind. He wonders what Doyoung must feel like every time he decides he can’t be bothered, just can’t be fucked to throw the wrapper of a granola bar in the garbage can.
In this life without him, he wishes Doyoung would take care.
Doyoung wakes up when Taeyong is just putting the broom back into the closet.
“Hey,” Taeyong gives him a smile, hoping it looks apologetic. “Sleep well?”
Half asleep, Doyoung is squinting hard behind his glasses. “Barely,” with a rasp, he says, “where are you going?”
“I was about to head out.” Taeyong bends down to the pick up the bags of garbage in his way.
“Wait. What did you—”
Then, through sleep, it hits him. The organized table, the shining counters. Doyoung looks around the room, and glances back at the guilty look in Taeyong’s eyes.
“Force of habit,” Taeyong winces.
“Thanks.” He sighs deeply. “But please never do that again.”
“Got it. I’ll disappear.”
“Hang on. If you’ve already done all this, at least stay for breakfast.”
Let me help, he says. Doyoung doesn’t fight him when he strides into the kitchen. They don’t speak much to each other. No words are said about the events of the previous night. Instead, they work together and around one another with ease and familiarity, but they don’t speak about that, either. Doyoung chops the potato, washes the spinach, slices the mushrooms for Taeyong. Taeyong makes an egg frittata for breakfast, and he serves a slice to Doyoung and a slice to himself. They eat side by side along the island, in tall swivel chairs.
To share a meal—it feels so normal, feels so much easier than having to communicate with words. Doyoung could almost imagine this was high school again. They could be anywhere. In Doyoung’s home. In Taeyong’s home, after a sleepover. “Breakfast is ready!” Taeyong would squee while he dragged them out of bed. To eat together is timeless. The act of sharing a meal will always feel the same, carry the same warmth and intimacy that Doyoung just doesn’t have the strength to resist, doesn’t have words for right now.
Across him, Taeyong sends the eggs into his mouth one forkful at a time. Bathed in light, he looks tired, but admittedly beautiful. Studying the small contented smile on his lips as he eats, Doyoung wonders what he’s thinking. If his mind is racing, or if it’s blank like his own, blank like he’s still in a dream that he’s yet to wake up from.
When they’re done, Taeyong wraps the leftovers in film and stores it in the fridge.
He’s stopped by a hand on his shoulder. “Why did you do all this?”
His back to him, Taeyong slips his shoes on.
He smiles simply. “I want you to be happy.”
Doyoung pulls his hoodie tighter over his chest.
“Thank you,” he smiles back sadly. “I wish you all the best, too.”
By the door, Taeyong looks back. There’s a sad glint in his eyes.
“Will I ever see you again?”
“I don’t know.”
“Okay. Farewell. One last thing.”
Taeyong lifts a hand, cups Doyoung’s cheek for a moment before letting it fall. Their eyes meet, briefly, in the place of a thousand buried words.
“I haven’t forgotten. About any of it.”
Note: content warning for recreational drug use.
I've come to realize over the past months that this fic is...going to be a long journey. We're in for the long haul, but we'll definitely get to our destination, I truly believe it!
I love these characters. I'm so fond of them. I don't ever want to give up telling their story because it moves me.
For the time being, please enjoy chapter 2, rewritten. For detailed changes, please see end notes.
Rewrite changes: minor changes were made throughout the chapter, and major changes were made to Taeyong/Doyoung's conversation on the balcony.
I dreamt we spoke, I dreamt we spoke again
It'd been so long, it'd been so long my mind filled in the blanks
Is anything, is anything the way it used to be?
I dreamt we spoke, I dreamt we spoke again
But when I awoke, when I awoke I could not remember
Anything you said
He’s not aware of it himself, but Doyoung is having a nightmare.
They’re camping in a tent in the woods. Around them, the pine trees stretch for miles, layers and layers of trunks and leaves fading in a gradient into the distant darkness. Below, tall golden grasses tickle their knees, and above, the sky is littered with blinking stars and a full moon, radiant like a halo. Doyoung finds himself outside sitting on a folding chair by the embers of the campfire. With whom he’s speaking on the phone he doesn’t know, but he’s saying something as the zipper to the tent is pulled open.
Lee Taeyong emerges, stumbling out into his slippers. He has on a thin T-shirt, and shorts that end at his knobby knees. He runs a hand through his hair, unruly from sleep. Doyoung hangs up when he notices him.
“What are you doing here?”
“I really have to pee,” Taeyong whispers. He glances in the direction of the toilet. It’s down a winding footpath of about 300 meters. Hidden among the vegetation, engulfed by the shadow of night, the trampled grasses of the well-worn path are the only indication of its existence.
“Aghh…I’m really scared to go.” Taeyong whimpers, coming to huddle by Doyoung’s side. He stamps his feet impatiently, rubbing his arms in the cold. “Come with me?”
Somewhere in his consciousness, Doyoung thinks this is familiar. He knows, for a fact, that it’s true. I’ve been here before.
He’s not surprised when Taeyong takes his hand. He’s pulled along in the direction of the toilet, and he lets out a chuckle as he’s led by the hand, just like he remembers.
Together with their flashlight, they find their way forward through the tall grasses. In this nightmare, they walk for what feels like hours. In this nightmare, Doyoung is so enraptured by Taeyong’s hand in his own and the look of his small back that it takes him a while to realize they’ve lost their way.
“Yong,” he tugs. “I think we should go back.”
But there is no answer.
He calls out for him again.
Taeyong’s hand is clamped around his own. He leads the way with urgency, for what Doyoung doesn’t know, like he’s marching into battle. “Please, Yong.” It feels like they’re speeding up. He trips over a root, cuts his knee on a rock, but Taeyong doesn’t stop, yanking him forwards by the arm.
“We’re going down the wrong path. We have to go back.” He pleads.
At last, Taeyong stops walking. Only for long enough to let go of his hand.
Doyoung is out of breath, kneeling at Taeyong’s feet. Taeyong doesn’t turn around to face him. Doyoung’s knees are weak. He can’t stand up to turn him around by the shoulder. He wants desperately to see his face, to look into his eyes once more. He knows if he could just do that, he could convince him it’s not too late to turn back. They can start all over.
“Then go.” Taeyong spits, before he marches into the fog of darkness alone.
Just like that, he’s gone.
There’s only one thing Doyoung feels when he wakes up from this nightmare: wrong. Everything feels wrong. He feels out of breath. He’s covered in sweat. His yellow-walled room, spinning from the speed at which he sat up in his bed, looks for a moment different from how he remembers. The sunlight splashing across his blanket from the blinds feels wrong. Had the lights on his ceiling always looked this way? Were his walls always this ugly, dirt color? The time, the place, the organs in his own body, everything feels misaligned. Above the nauseating physical sensations, something feels out of place, a detail in his vision that’s corrupt, inaccurate. He knows the nightmare came straight out of his memory. He had been there with Taeyong at his summer grad trip. He had been led by the hand down a dark path. What happened afterwards, he can’t remember. The images from his dream are already evaporating into white, like a Polaroid developing in reverse.
He runs a hand down his face. This is reality, he thinks, clenching his fingers through the sheets piled around his legs to assure himself of their material existence. The sensation of the rough fabric grounds him, wakes him up. This is reality.
He hasn’t slept this turbulently since the night of the Halloween fest. He had needed one day of skipped classes and three days of rest to recuperate from that particular occasion. He hasn’t really thought about Taeyong for a few weeks now. It surprises him that the image of him would creep back into his unconscious. It feels so bad, to wake up like this.
Something sits heavily on his chest. His dream, while fleeting, had cast a dark stain on his mind early in the day, and he’s unable to shake it off. His whole body feels like lead. His mood, his vision, his entire worldview feels overcast by this overwhelming darkness. He knows what it is, but he doesn’t know what it is. The frustration makes his blood boil. Succumbing to it would be a testimony of his own weakness. Fight it, he thinks. Get up, don’t be weak. It’ll get easier, if he can just make it out of here. Get the fuck out of bed.
Everything feels…so bleak. Every thought his mind touches is tainted by the outreach of this pervasive gloom, already spread far beyond the contents of the nightmare. The prospect of having to live another day feeling dead inside like this has no appeal. The world outside of bed feels simultaneously menacing and dull, numbing to the senses. The things he needs to do seem so tedious and meaningless. For a minute, he hates everything about where he is, where he’s gotten himself—his lifeless classes, his callow classmates, exhausting social obligations.
Stop. This has nothing to do with it.
But it has everything to do with it.
Everything is a part of it, and it is a part of everything.
I’m doing what I wanted. I’m good at what I do. So why am I still so unhappy?
Doyoung lies lifeless in his bed. His head hurts. He wants to sleep, without dreaming about people he doesn’t want anywhere on his mind.
Among the cacophony inside his head, a kinder voice emerges.
You can stay here as long as you need. But you will get up.
Some days, he’s okay with being not okay. Today, he needs to be okay.
You have to live.
He knows he has no choice. The end result is the same. He just has to find a way to get there.
So he tries to get up. If he can’t command his mind, he can at least command his body. He tries his hardest down to the muscles in his forearms, the joints in his wrists, pushing up his torso with sheer strength until he’s slouched but sitting upright. Then he swings his legs out from the sheets. His feet touch the cold floor. He straightens his back. Straightens his legs. Suddenly he’s standing. Once he’s here, he knows he can do it. He’s already done it. He remembers how to function.
He takes a deep, deep breath. Wills the life back into himself. Same drill, every time. It’s not long before his sense of duty and responsibility takes over, drives him forward on autopilot.
After a glance at the time, Doyoung goes swiftly about his routine. He has plain toast for breakfast. He shaves with an electric razor. He fastens his cufflinks and tie in the mirror. Today is an important day. He has a social event to attend and networking to do. As he brushes his hair, the feeling and blood start to return to his clammy hands. He’ll be okay. He’ll make it through this. Once he’s over the speed bump, he can race ahead again without having to spare a look behind him at this morning. Once he’s over the ditch, he can black it all out from his mind, because he’ll have succeeded again, he’ll have something to be proud of.
When he’s recovered enough, Doyoung sets out to school in his car, tuning into Jaehyun and Johnny’s morning radio, relying on the sound of their familiar voices to push him through the hell of early morning.
Idle by a red light, weighed down by fatigue, Doyoung’s eyes shift out of focus.
In his most vulnerable state, when his awareness is an open field, the contents of his dream and memory begin to roll, like a film on the big screen in the theatre inside his head. He allows the images to flicker by. There’s nothing he’s afraid of anymore. He’s already made it out of the worse there possibly is.
Besides, if there’s one thing he gained from his encounter on Halloween night, it’s the ability to detach emotionally from his experiences. Perhaps he had woken up from a period of denial due to Taeyong’s explicit reminder. Rather than suppressing all the associated emotions and rejecting the existence of certain events, Doyoung now finds himself able to objectively examine his past from the perspective of an outsider, and he finds that it doesn’t disturb or upset him as much as he had imagined.
It no longer fazes him to think about the things that had gone on between them. What it had been like to spend the whole night with Taeyong while everyone else went crabbing by the lake. Huddled in the tent, wrestling on the air mattress, they had made out deeply for hours. Doyoung felt ignited, felt himself come alive. He couldn’t fall asleep at night, heart pounding while he played with Taeyong’s fingers under their aired out sleeping bags. Like the typical teens, once they’d discovered the world of intimacy, they went crazy for each other. Then it was at Taeyong’s birthday party. Then it was on a park bench in the dead of night. Then it was in the back of the movie theater, on some cliffs by the ocean, in a sticker pics booth, and finally in Doyoung’s bedroom. Over and over again, they spent the whole summer attached to one another.
And then Taeyong got scouted, and that was the end of that.
Doyoung lets the memories fill his head. He’s not afraid of them anymore. In time, the wound had scabbed over; he trusts he has healed enough to peel the bandage off. They were in love, but it was four years ago. Now, these are nothing but fond memories to him, who’s become, in every measurable way, a different person.
The rest of the day passes uneventfully. Doyoung is grateful for the break. His classes and his meeting pass by smoothly, disaster of a morning already at the back of his mind.
The party tonight is at a hotel lounge downtown, a low-key company year-end celebration for a management consulting firm that Doyoung has had his eyes on for a while. He’s lucky enough to be attending as the plus-one of an upperclassman he’d known back in school, who had gotten hired here two years ago, and had recently helped introduce him to the director of the HR department. Doyoung’s job here tonight is to warm the waters for when he properly applies this year or the next. He has confidence in his ability to socialize and make an impression, if his stunning academic record and extracurriculars haven’t done so already.
They’re seated at a long table, one of five or so, off to the side of the stage where live jazz is being played.
The night has been going well so far, Doyoung thinks. The director, a self-composed woman in her late thirties, has proven very welcoming and easy to converse with, bearing none of the affectations he’s often associated with her male counterparts. This isn’t his first choice consultancy, but she’s definitely making a great impression on him right now. This would be someone he would like to work with, should he decide to join their human resource consulting team.
“What’s your area of interest?”
“I’m becoming familiar with a range of subjects, but I’m personally most interested in human capital and organizational development. I find it easiest when I’m able to directly engage with the clients.”
“Have you had much experience so far?”
“I’ve just begun dipping my hands in applying knowledge. In one of my classes right now, with my team, I’m working on the case of a local food manufacturing company that’s trying to self-finance a new facility. So far, it’s been helping me appreciate all that goes into what we do.”
“Oh, that’s impressive. You said you were third year?”
“Yes, I am.”
“You’ll surely have more chances at hands-on experience from now on.”
“I hope so,” he flashes a smile. “I’m looking forward to it. By the way, I had some questions about your auditing services…”
In a few minutes, the service staff come around serving drinks and bites before the dinner proper. Doyoung is still engaged in conversation when a plate is placed before him. Tonight’s appetizer: seared scallops with hollandaise sauce.
“Would you like anything to drink?”
“Some water is fine,” he says, looking up, and promptly goes stiff.
Standing behind him, just barely recognizable in the dim light of the hall is a head of familiar blond hair. Unlike the loose tuft he remembers, tonight Taeyong’s hair is slicked back chicly, with just a few strands hanging neatly before his eyes. He has his serving tray politely tucked against his chest, black vest neatly hugging his torso over his crisp white dress shirt. At first glance, Taeyong looks like a butler one would find in an upscale hotel somewhere in a French riviera, one that would converse with you in a sultry and melodic voice, and serve you cheese and cocktails for breakfast.
It’s Lee fucking Taeyong, smiling with nothing more than professionalism just a moment ago—except now he had noticed Doyoung staring, and instantaneously his own eyes light up in recognition.
Taeyong, too, goes stiff, the smile on his face wavering.
Doyoung quickly turns away like he had seen a ghost.
As if meeting him in a bad dream wasn’t enough. Maybe it had been a forewarning.
Why do I have to see this guy everywhere? For a minute, Doyoung seriously considers moving out of town.
The cozy atmosphere carried by their conversation from earlier is shattered by his newfound sense of unease. Taeyong works here. This is his territory Doyoung has just stepped foot in, without anything to arm himself with, and by the look of discomfort on Taeyong’s face, neither of them seem too ecstatic to be bumping into each other here tonight.
“And anything for yourself?” Taeyong turns rather rigidly to Doyoung’s senior next to him. Doyoung clears his throat. He resists the urge to clutch his head and internally scream.
How many hotels are in this city? How many professions are there in the world? Of all the days, all the shifts—what are the fucking odds?
Doyoung resigns to his fate. He feels a headache lurking around the corner. Though, he notes, the negative reflex kicking in within him is not nearly as strong as it had been when they’d seen each other a few weeks ago. Evidently, some sort of tension had been evaporated during their last encounter. He’s glad that this occasion isn’t their first meeting instead.
Taeyong takes drink orders, then quickly disappears back into the kitchen. Doyoung lets out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding.
He engages himself with listening to the conversation between his senior and his coworkers for a while. It turns out to be mostly idle chatter about the workplace, or about their later plans to go drinking after the official party ends. When he decides they’re not going to be mentioning anything noteworthy, Doyoung pulls out his phone to check the email he’d received half an hour ago.
A glass of water is set down before him.
Doyoung thanks his waiter curtly.
He doesn’t care who it is. Doesn't bother to look away from his screen.
“Not drinking anything?” His senior nudges him.
“Hm, I’m not in the mood for anything in particular.”
“Why don’t I recommend something for you? Excuse me,” he waves to their waiter behind them. Now Doyoung’s forced to know it is in fact still Taeyong. Taeyong stands prim and properly between the two, presenting them with the drink menu.
“We’ll take a glass of pinot for this gentleman here. Noir, please.”
Off he goes again, disappearing behind the bar. A minute later, he’s back with a bottle of red wine in hand.
Doyoung moves away to let Taeyong pick up his glass.
He wonders how many times he would have to see him tonight, coming back to their table with something new every time.
“What’s your name?”
“I’m Sangmin. Nice to meet you.”
Taeyong flashes a blinding smile down at Doyoung’s senior. It’s an unusually bright smile for Taeyong. He seems to be in high spirits.
“Have you been working here for long?”
“No, just a couple of months. I’m here as a part of my apprenticeship.”
“Oh, you’re still in school? Where do you go?”
Taeyong tells him the name of his culinary school.
“Your hair looks gorgeous, by the way. Do you style it yourself?”
“I do when I come to work.”
“It looks great. I’ve been thinking about getting mine dyed, but I just haven’t had the time…”
Despite his professionalism, Taeyong is a shy and nervous waiter. His smiles are bashful, and there’s an innocence to the way he responds honestly as he’s bombarded with question after question about himself. Doyoung wonders why his senior is going out of his way to make conversation, whether Taeyong even has time to chat, if he’s too polite to interrupt their conversation and return to his duties.
It takes Taeyong a few trips back to the table for Doyoung to figure out what is going on.
First, it was more drinks. Then it was napkins, then it was toothpicks. Sangmin keeps calling Taeyong back to the table with any trivial excuse. Taeyong looks, for the most part, oblivious or patient. When he leaves to bring the entrée, Sangmin turns to Doyoung with a searing look in his eyes.
“Do you see him?”
Doyoung has, in fact, been observing with a sinister amusement.
“Who?” He holds back his grin.
“That waiter. He’s beyond hot.”
Doyoung has nothing to comment to that. “Sorry, I haven’t been paying attention.”
Sangmin sighs, turning back to his wine. “Of course you wouldn’t know, Kim Doyoung. You don’t have the genes to feel this kind of attraction.”
Doyoung tries to chuckle at the irony, but he thinks it sounds somewhat strained. He coughs.
“In fact, what have you been doing these days? Still involved with the freshman from club?”
“Like I’ve said before, hyung, that’s a misunderstanding. We were never involved.”
“Yeah, I know. You’re the one missing out. I saw her a while ago, and you would not believe how wild she gets at parties. Plus she’s pretty cute with makeup on,” Sangmin winks, “you would’ve changed your mind.”
In truth, Doyoung couldn’t give less of a shit about the person they speak of, or about this conversation.
“She just had a thing for tall guys in glasses.”
“Yeah, well, she chose the most uptight one anyone could find.”
He thinks he must be imagining it, but behind them Doyoung hears what he thinks is Taeyong holding back a snort. When he turns around looking for the source, muffled in the room full of chatter, he only catches a glimpse of blond hair retreating back behind the partition.
When the food finally arrives, Taeyong positively comes alive.
His favorite part of his job is serving a well-cooked, well-plated dish. It doesn’t matter if no one else understands the work that goes into such subtle sophistication, because Taeyong sees the expertise of his respected chefs and feels honored to be tasked with its presentation. Not only does he learn how to prepare food in school, he also learns the importance of presenting it, something he values greatly. In the time-limited environment of a kitchen, plating food requires prior planning, and accuracy to perfection—there is little room for error, as once the food is on the plate, it's on there for good. The sizes of cuts are as deliberate as the arrangement of ingredients, as deliberate as the shape and size of the plate that is chosen. Sometimes the contents are plated asymmetrically, to showcase all components of the dish and give a visual edge. Most often, the dominant portion of food is placed on the right, the direction the eyes move. A well-balanced dish does not duplicate taste; textures, temperature, colors on the plate should contrast. He’s learned how to introduce each dish in an appealing way, developed the habit of gesturing with his hands delicately to express certain flavors. He continues to learn, every chance he gets to be in the kitchen.
He loves it the most when people ask him to introduce the food they’re about to eat. It’s a blessing that Sangmin takes interest, because he asks for dish introductions, and the table actually shuts up to let Taeyong do his job. Doyoung can tell he’s delighted, explaining the delicate details animatedly. He doesn’t memorize all the dishes for nothing, Doyoung reckons. Or, maybe he’s really as enthusiastic about them as he seems, which knowing him is more likely. It’s different from the way he used to regard cooking. There’s a professional finesse that’s bloomed out of his love and talent. It’s…somewhat heartwarming to see.
In spite of it all, Doyoung thinks nothing could ever get him drunk enough to sit through this flirting happening right behind his head.
“What did you say your name was again?”
“That’s a pretty name, Taeyong. I come here for conferences sometimes, hope to see you again. What days do you work?”
Doyoung raises his hand. He asks for another glass of wine, sending Taeyong away so the chatter can stop. He wonders if his senior is starting to make Taeyong uncomfortable. In the meantime, he starts up a conversation again with the director, continuing his inquiries into the firm from earlier.
Taeyong returns with the wine, and asks for Doyoung’s glass again. This time, when Doyoung hands it over, Taeyong’s pinky brushes over his forefinger, and the touch sends a shiver down his spine.
Taeyong looks unperturbed, eyes on the task. Doyoung drops his gaze to Taeyong’s hand wrapped delicately around the curve of the glass, protective as if he was holding a small animal.
Something behind them draws Doyoung’s attention, along with the gaze of the whole table. It seems someone had come to visit from another table, someone evidently important from the way many along the table rise to greet him. Taeyong’s doing a perfect job pouring the wine when Sangmin stands up and knocks into his arm. With a sharp gasp, Taeyong loses his grip.
Abruptly, the wine spills.
The crimson runs all the way down Doyoung’s legs along his light grey suit. Within seconds, Doyoung feels the wetness seeping into his socks and shoes.
“Oh god—I’m so sorry!” Taeyong apologizes immediately. “I’m so sorry, I’ll be right back to clean up. Please give me a moment.”
They’re starting to draw attention. Half the table has turned to look at them. The last thing he wants is to make a clown of them both in the presence of some big boss. Quickly, Doyoung swipes the handkerchief and dabs the stains himself. “Don’t worry. It’s fine. I can handle this.” He stands up, ready to excuse himself from the scene.
“Please wait here.” Taeyong pleads, “I’ll be right back.”
He’s not waiting. Doyoung finds his way into the bathroom to assess the damage, but mostly to get away from the attention. He takes a deep breath when he sees. It wasn’t obvious in the dim lounge, but his legs look like a crime scene.
There is nothing he can do, at this point, but to wear it home like this. It’s a good thing he drove here. Maybe his suit is ruined…maybe he can get it dry cleaned? The only plus side is that it gives him a good excuse to skip out on the drinking afterwards that he would’ve inevitably been dragged into.
Doyoung lets out a sigh. It could be worse.
The door swings open. Taeyong looks in, panic evident in his eyes. He must’ve chased him here. When he finds Doyoung wetting some paper towels, he breathes a sigh of relief.
Doyoung turns off the tap. “Calm down. It’s okay.”
“Let me see. Please. We have this stuff in the kitchen in case something like this happens.”
Taeyong slowly approaches with a spray bottle and a towel. Doyoung gives up resisting and turns towards him to show him the stains.
Swiftly, Taeyong comes up and kneels down on one knee before Doyoung’s legs. He starts to spray him down from every direction.
Doyoung tries to sniff the substance, but he’s too far to smell. “What is this?”
“Hydrogen peroxide and dish soap. Let it soak for at least 30 minutes before you wash it out.” Taeyong’s voice is serious. “If you treat it correctly, you can wash it out. I’m so sorry. I don’t want your suit to be ruined.”
Doyoung’s not sure how to respond. He feels awkward, having Taeyong knelt at his feet, tugging his pant legs around. “I see. Thank you.” He says simply.
“Don’t thank me, it was my fault.”
It definitely wasn’t, but Doyoung stays quiet. The room itself, shut out from the ambient noise by the thick door, is awfully quiet, echoing with the sound of spraying and their voices.
“If it still doesn’t rinse out thoroughly, drizzle lemon juice over the stain and sprinkle salt on it. Then rinse with cold water. My sister taught me.” He says proudly, looking up at Doyoung as he’s finally done with the spray.
Doyoung meets his gaze, unsure how to process Taeyong’s smile.
“How…how is noona?” He asks quietly.
“She’s good.” Taeyong replies after a pause. “She’s married now.”
Taeyong stands up. Suddenly, the air between them is constricted again.
Neither of them, it seems, know how to act around one another.
Before it gets awkward, Taeyong looks away first, towards the door. “You should go,” he says. “You have something important to talk about, right?”
Doyoung’s eyes widen a little bit. He’s caught off guard by these words. Something important. He’s right, but he would never expect Taeyong to say it.
Without looking back, Doyoung strides back to the lounge. At the table, he makes a smooth joke of himself and the mess of his pants and salvages his reputation. The director, silently observing the interaction, seems humored by the end, and finishes pouring him the half filled glass of wine herself to compensate.
Doyoung skips out on the after party and goes home. He had done what he needed to today, nothing less, nothing more. He lived, and he can breathe easy now. That’s an accomplishment worth celebrating.
After a cycle of the laundry, Doyoung notes that Taeyong’s magic concoction just about removed all but a faint trace of the wine from his pants. Thus he finds himself, in November, trekking in slippers over to the farmer’s market to buy a lemon.
In line for the checkout, he thinks lazily back on the night’s worth of events. He had been embarrassed and disgusted on Taeyong’s behalf by Sangmin’s advances. Now, seeing how little Taeyong gave a shit, his senior’s unsightly flirting felt awfully hilarious. In some ways, running into Taeyong had taken his mind off of any real causes for anxiety. It was good to find out he is doing well…or is capable of doing well, he thinks, recalling his alcoholic behaviour. Besides, thanks to the accident, Doyoung is now deemed as someone with a sense of humor.
Outside the market, by the McDonald’s, some teens congregate with their skateboards, puffing white smoke into the air from behind their Marlboros.
Spinning his lemon in his hand, Doyoung passes by a man on the phone, makes room along the sidewalk for a mother and her stroller.
Beneath the street lamp, a beggar calls out to him.
“Any spare change, sir?”
Uncharacteristic of himself, Doyoung stops in his tracks. He feels around his pocket for the change from the lemon, slides it into the chewed up paper cup on the ground before the man.
“God bless you, man. Have a good night.”
All things considered, it has been a good night. It has been a long day, but not a bad one. He wishes he can be allowed to continue just like this.
He prays for another good day tomorrow.
"There’s been something on my mind lately, and I thought I should share it, because I think it’s a pretty incredible discovery. An apt lesson for my age, I think. I've been thinking about the power of music. It’s really amazing to me that music can unite people or separate them at the same time, depending on how you use it.
“I think about it often, but I feel like I don’t express it enough: there are a lot of reasons why I love my job as a DJ. One is that I get to put together my favorite music and share it with the world, and, miraculously, I find that there are people who are willing to listen. Each mixtape I compile is like a creation; it’s something I make with my own hands, and there's artistic freedom in choosing which songs belong in what type of theme together.
“Two is that along with each theme, I have the freedom to chat like this with you. Sometimes it’s with friends, sometimes it’s with guests, or sometimes by myself, I get to share what I know about life and the topic at hand—and sometimes that means admitting how little I know about something. More often than not, I find that people can find something relatable in what I say. These evening conversations are a learning experience for us all.
“But what I love the most about this job is receiving postcards and letters from my listeners. By the way, if you didn't know that was possible and are interested in sending one yourself, look for our address in the contact section on our website. Anyway, these really kind messages come from students but also adults from the working world, adults older than me, and I’m able to read things like ‘I consider you a friend’ or ‘your program gives me so much strength’ or ‘I feel like your music really understands me’, and when I do receive something like that, I feel very grateful and very honored. I wanted to say that you are my strength just as much as I am yours. It’s amazing knowing we have formed a connection over something we share in common, even though we are two strangers who will likely never meet. This, I think, is the power of music to connect people together.
“But at the same time, I think music has a lot of power to help people disconnect, which is not inherently a bad thing, but I think it’s something that should be used in moderation. Say you’re a fan of my broadcast, or you are a fan of an artist. Either way, something about a piece of music—be it the lyrics, the story of the artist, the sound—it really gets you. I think there’s a lot of strength to be gained from that. I know on days when I’m feeling my worst, it’s my favorite music that has kept me on my feet and gotten me through the day.
“But say you’re so connected to the music that you’re wearing headphones all the time. On your way to school, on your way to work, in between classes, you’ve got your earbuds in, especially nowadays when there are noise cancelling ones, then you're entirely in your own little world.
“I think when we get too absorbed in...the solitude of it, of our music, we don't realize how much we're missing out on that’s happening on the outside. Being plugged in all the time gives you peace and quiet, but it can also make you feel really separated and alone; you start disconnecting from others. I know we hear it all too often, but I really do think sometimes our generation just needs to unplug. And I know it can be hard, especially when the outside world is so full of triggers for anxiety.
But, if I'm qualified in any way, I want to give a word of advice to anyone who is scared of opening up. Even if you’re not, I’m sure we can all benefit from letting go of our barriers time to time. I’ve learned lately that it’s okay to step outside of your own head sometimes and exist physically in the outside world. It's okay to hide behind a wall, I think we all have to do that to a certain extent, but it's also okay to leave your attention and perception open without letting the intake get to you. You never know what you'll find. There’s no reason to be afraid, because the world is interesting, that’s what I think. When you do that, and only when you do that, sometimes life changing things can happen.
“Good evening. My name is Doyoung, and you are listening to Mixtapes with DJ DY. Thank you for tuning in. Tonight’s playlist is titled ‘courage to be’. I've put together some tunes that I think frame our world in a gentler and kinder light, as a reminder that there's nothing to be afraid of. I hope these tunes give you courage to continue simply being yourself, in whatever capacity, but also the courage to come out and discover the joy of sharing yourself with someone else, so that in the end you can say music has helped you connect, more than it has made you feel alone in the world. Kicking off our evening is ‘come out and play’ by Billie Eilish. I hope you enjoy.”
Wake up and smell the coffee
Is your cup half full or empty?
When we talk, you say it softly
But I love it when you're awfully quiet
And I know it makes you nervous
But I promise you, it's worth it
To show 'em everything you kept inside
Don't hide, don't hide
The mic before him is shut off as the program runs on its own, but Doyoung remains sitting before it, biting his nail as he spins in his computer chair.
It had taken a lot out of him to share so much of his thoughts on radio, but he has the faith that it was for the better. As he always believes, if one person can benefit from his words, then it will have been worth it to say them.
It’ll be a shame, on the other hand, if he didn’t follow his own advice.
It’s Friday, 7:45 PM. Off air, the broadcast tonight makes him awfully pensive, has him reflecting deeply on himself in one of those rare moments when it actually feels okay to think about the state of his life.
There are a lot of unreasonable things that Doyoung feels inside his body. For example, though he’s not allergic, he’s extremely put off by the smell of cucumbers. Another one is that when he’s nervous, he feels it the most in the form of violent butterflies in his stomach, and his hands don’t stop sweating cold sweat until he’s calmed down. Another is that he feels there is a perpetual blanket laid over his mind, like a filter in which there is no sun and the world does not ever stop snowing, and as a result, he often sees everything through grey-tinted glasses.
Another one is that some days he wakes up and he feels entirely okay, but some days he’ll wake up not wanting to be alive. One day he’ll look in the mirror and think, this is the life I want to live, I’m happy to be where I am, and another day he’ll wake up resenting everything but most of all himself, hating everything about being where he is. One unreasonable part of this is that there is almost no way to help it, no way to know how each day will go, when it will stop or start up again. The best he can do is try to live within a structured routine, mapping out his time to achieve a regular daily rhythm in order to not upset this irrational beast or trigger it in some way. Another unreasonable part is that he has come to believe those times when he’s capable of being fine is the default state he should be in, which means that surely it’s his own fault that half the time he’s not.
But the most unreasonable feeling inside himself, more than the greyness, more than feeling there’s something wrong with him, is that he feels alone. Doyoung knows this one to be particularly untrue, because he has proof. He may feel disconnected from the people around him, and disconnected from the things he does everyday, he may feel lonely, but he certainly isn’t alone. There are always people willing to offer help who are around him, and it’s his own mistake that he doesn’t see them half the time. Even if it isn’t how he imagines the help to be, even if it isn’t perfect, they are there. There is always someone there. But the loneliness dictates how he interprets these people and their kindness. ‘They’re only being polite’, he would feel. ‘They don’t mean it.’ ‘They wouldn’t be able to help, because they don’t understand.’
With Jung Jaehyun, it’s like that. They’ve known each other since he was 16, but the amount of times they’ve seriously conversed about what they mean to each other are so few that sometimes Doyoung forgets Jaehyun cares about him. He forgets that Jaehyun has been with him through thick and thin and stuck around, that Jaehyun considers him one of his closest friends. He should remember, should have the faith to believe him, especially when Jaehyun spelled it out loud for him in plain words despite his usual reticence, the way he did on Halloween.
Outside the recording studio, Doyoung can hear the wind howling. Finals season has just begun. Besides his class obligations, as usual, Doyoung makes time to keep up his radio program, because he knows there are people who need him in these coldest and toughest days of the year. At this point, most of the other programs are set up on reruns or prerecorded episodes, but Doyoung makes the effort to come to the student rec building every Monday and Friday, and continues sharing a piece of his mind with the quiet, snowed in campus.
For a few weeks now, Taeyong has stopped coming to dance. Doyoung wonders whether the season is getting to him too, wherever he might be, whatever he may be doing.
The first weeks of December are the biggest test of his willpower. Good thing he has learned a few tricks over the years to arm himself against the harsh winter. One of these involves keeping his friends close, never losing sight of them, lest he wants to spiral into a bout of depression right when all his projects are due, when he’s forgotten how to write, sleep, or remember that he has people in this world who care about him.
Doyoung stops biting his nail. One thing, this year, is already overdue.
He pulls out his phone. In his contacts, he finds Jaehyun, and opens up a new text.
I know it’s out of nowhere, but I wanted to say sorry and thank you for what you said to me on Halloween.
You were right. We should talk more.
Half an hour later, setting foot into his apartment, Doyoung receives his reply.
It’s okay. You don’t have to thank me.
But I’m glad that you are.
Within minutes, he receives another text.
If you’re ~really~ sorry though, come to our year end barbecue !!
That’s not fair, he replies. That’s extortion.
Hmm…guess I’ll just pretend you never sent this then…
Fine, I’ll go. Give me the details.
The barbecue is on the 19 th , the first day after finals should be finished for all schools. His band will be there, that’s as far as Jaehyun says about attendance. It’s a bring your own beer, bring your own things-to-be-grilled kind of barbecue.
I was thinking I could drive us over, but you can drive if you want.
I’ll take the ride. You owe me one.
Alright. But you better not change your mind when we get there :-)
For two weeks, Doyoung lives with the knowledge that he had no idea what Jaehyun means. On December 19th, driving into in the parking lot of Taeyong’s art school residence, he finally understands.
“Explain what?” Jaehyun’s grinning with mirth.
“What we’re doing here.”
“Okay…do you have a conveniently sized backyard for a barbecue? Because Taeyong hyung lives here, and he sure does.”
Doyoung opens his mouth to argue, protest, whine, but there’s nothing he can say, so he opts to just accept his fate and help Jaehyun carry in the groceries.
Lee Taeyong lives in a shared house in a chain of shared houses that make up the international student side of residences. As a result of the lack of space in the upper year dorms, he’s been squeezed in with two first years by the names of Mark and Haechan. Haechan is a visual arts major with a knack for painting in the abstract. Mark is a creative writing major from Toronto who dreams of being a crime novelist. The two had never met before, but quickly hit it off within the week Taeyong moved in. Now, every time Taeyong is home, he finds them chatting in the kitchen, Mark eating the food Haechan cooked for them both, the two of them bickering about the décor in the common room.
Walking through what feels more like a hookah lounge than a college residence, Doyoung wonders whose idiosyncratic taste it is that there are, among other things, sheer drapes laced with fairy lights hanging from the ceiling. If it hadn’t been obvious from the half nude student doing a performance piece in the snow outside that he’s currently at an art school, Doyoung could instantly tell the moment he and Jaehyun walked through the door into Taeyong’s home.
Candles in jars and small lamps of all shapes, light hues, and sizes decorating every corner dimly light up the entire common space. As they walk through the household, half finished paintings, some as high as his waist, line every hallway they pass. There is newspaper laid beneath their feet everywhere, and paint inlaid in every nook and cranny of the house. In the living room, instead of chairs, there are earthly colored beanbags on the floor. Artful magnets of all sorts scatter the fridge, some looking like they had been hand sculpted and fired in a kiln. On a minimalist table, barely three sticks and a piece of wood, there comes the soft whirring of a humidifier, and on the kitchen counter, three sticks of incense are being burned in a lotus holder. There are many possessions stuffed into the cupboards, but it’s a homey, organized chaos. Unexceptionally, Taeyong’s room is neat. So is their kitchen.
Besides Mark who had come to get them by the door, no one else is in sight. Doyoung and Jaehyun follow the sound of music out the back door to find everyone already gathered in the yard, smoke going up into the night sky from the barbecue pit affixed to the dirt floor outside. Beside it, someone is fanning the fire all around the smoldering logs of firewood.
Because the sun sets early, Haechan had given everyone glow stick bracelets of different colors to help identify people easier in the dark. Doyoung is pink. Jaehyun is purple.
It’s not a large party, just a few friend groups merged together. Besides the ones who had gone indoors from the cold, and the ones who have been diligently tending the grill for everybody, he thinks he can count around 12 people, so he puts his estimate at 20. Beneath the clear night sky, they make themselves comfortable standing around the open yard. Snow had been painstakingly cleared away from the space, piled up along the perimeters. Either way, there is enough body heat and heat from the grill that temperature isn’t an issue. There is chatter, and above the chatter, there is the sound of music being played from speakers on the food table. The music coming out is an eclectic mix, from Justin Bieber to house to R&B within the span of a few songs. Doyoung can’t say he’s feeling it just from the genre whiplash, but he can only imagine the fierce battle happening right now for the aux cord over at the source of the music.
He and Jaehyun had brought pork belly, but Doyoung’s favorite of the night ends up being the buttered corn, apparently a contribution from Johnny, whom he has yet to see. After dinner, Jaehyun disappears to find his band mates, and Doyoung is left on his own to try to guess the people from the colors on their wrists.
“Are you Johnny Seo?” He taps someone, glowing yellow, on the arm.
“No, I’m Winwin.”
“Oh, sorry!” He shouts over the noise.
“No, this is Moon Taeil. Johnny Seo is by the door.”
Doyoung locates Johnny pretty easily after that. He’s leaning against the wall, his head almost hitting the gas lamp hung up under the roof. There Doyoung finds the rest of Johnny’s dance crew as well, minus Taeyong, sitting in a circle around a small table, cans of cider in their hands. Ten is resting his chin on his arm. Yuta, in a bun, sits comfortably in Hansol’s lap.
Johnny catches Doyoung approaching, his eyes on the two-man configuration fitted in one chair.
“They’re gay,” he explains gratuitously.
“Thanks. And I’m Doyoung.” Doyoung says, his own smile broadening by the second.
“Yo, Doyoung,” Ten sits up to greet him.
“Hi, Ten. Hi Yuta, Hansol.”
“Sorry they’re such an embarrassment,” Ten points towards the other two. He gestures at them with a hand. “Is this how you want to be remembered?”
“Sure. This is the do-what-we-want corner.” Yuta says, lazily slinging an arm around his boyfriend’s neck and the back of the chair.
“I’m just a piece of furniture,” Hansol adds in a quiet voice. He nudges the red haired boy in his lap. “Think of your reputation, superstar.”
“What’re you talking about. I have none to speak of. Nobody knows me and nobody cares, and I like it that way.” He yawns, leaning fully into his seat.
“I support you,” Doyoung grins.
“See, Ten. You should learn.”
After chatting with them for fifteen minutes, Doyoung decides Johnny’s friends are really chill. Maybe it’s because they’re a little older, just a little bit. Maybe it’s because they really do what they want. There’s no judgment here, nothing that’s too crazy in this universe. They’re all really nice, and he feels accepted; he feels at home, at ease around them. Doyoung doesn’t have to pretend to be aloof or uptight, doesn’t feel pressured to laugh at cold humor.
He barely sees Taeyong the whole night. Taeyong is allegedly working hard by the fire, grilling everyone’s meat for them. Once the food is gone—cleaned up, Taeyong made sure—Ten drags him away from the fire pit and into the crowd to freestyle on the dried up lawn. Everyone parts in a circle around them, cheering them on when they bust out some serious moves. It’s a duo dance sequence. Johnny informs Doyoung that Ten choreographed it himself.
Someone moves a low table out from inside the house.
“What’s happening?” Johnny asks the kid standing beside him, someone with an orange bowl cut.
“Beer pong I think.”
Johnny decides that’s where he wants to be.
“—had enough and I’m leaving!”
Doyoung hears Haechan before he sees him. Haechan pushes through the crowd towards the door, passing by their table as he marches inside, a stubborn looking pout on his lips. He really looks like a kid with that expression on. Doyoung wonders if they all looked like that in first year, too.
After a moment, he comes back the opposite way with his own set of wireless speakers in hand.
“Why are you leaving, Haechanie?” Yuta asks, amused.
“Because Mark is a pleb!” Haechan informs him, pointing up at the gas lamp by Doyoung’s head. “Can you grab that for me? Anyway, Mark’s taste in music is rudimentary.”
“I heard that,” Mark comes out of nowhere.
“Hurry up and get your jacket.”
Canada Goose in hand, Mark follows Haechan away from the crowd. “We’re smoking my dope, so we’re listening to my music,” Doyoung thinks he catches as they disappear. Surely, he must have heard wrong. What goes on in art school? Maybe he’s the one who should stop being surprised at this point.
Right after the two freshmen are gone, Jaehyun too passes them by, and comes back out with his own coat.
Suspicious, Doyoung stops him. “Whoa, whoa. Where are you going?”
“Some people said they were going to get high,” Jaehyun’s eyes twinkle.
Doyoung gapes at him. “You do drugs?”
“No, but I’m about to. Wanna come?” Jaehyun has on a devious grin. His eyes are wide with anticipation. Doyoung wants to bury his face in his hands. This must be a sophomore rite of passage.
“No I don’t, but I’m coming. Stay here.” Doyoung isn’t going to let Jaehyun run off with some strangers. Jaehyun is his ride home, not to mention his responsibility. Why he feels that way, he doesn’t know either. Doyoung quickly swipes his own coat from the rack and comes back to join him. Jaehyun points at the group of people walking away from the yard into the edge of the forest, led by the lantern. The two of them follow.
“Hyung, you do drugs?”
“No, but I’ve done it once. And I know better than to let you try for the first time on your own.”
Jaehyun chuckles. “If I get too baked, you’ll have to drive us home.”
“I hope that’s not why you invited me,” Doyoung grumbles. He gets a light punch on the arm.
They follow the light of the gas lamp into the woods. The path beneath their feet crunches with snow, but the moon is bright, and they find their way easily enough. As they start to approach the core, Doyoung notes that there’s a small lake at the center, with some thick logs scattered around the banks that are being used as benches. Doyoung makes out the silhouette of five people, three lined up shoulder to shoulder and two standing across them. At their feet, the gas lamp burns. Above, the sky is vast and open.
Whoever it is DJing the portable speakers has good taste, finally. “Good music,” Doyoung calls out as he sits down with Jaehyun on the log, next to the small gathering.
“Thanks,” Taeyong replies, and Doyoung shuts up.
He hadn’t noticed him, sitting on the other end of the log hiding behind his roommates. Doyoung sees now, there’s a joint being passed down the line, starting from Taeyong where he’d just lit the thing up and flicked off the tip.
“No thanks,” Haechan says, bending down to pick up something by his feet. “I brought my bong.” Skipping over him, the joint lands in Mark’s hands.
“You brought your bong?”
“Yeah, bong life. My throat can’t handle this scalding shit.”
Mark shrugs. He takes a hit, then passes the dope into Jaehyun’s waiting hands. Joint pinched between his fingers, Jaehyun turns to Doyoung, looking for some guidance.
Doyoung sighs. “Your parents would hate me.”
“As if you give a fuck. Quick.”
“Draw air slowly. Do it a little bit at a time,” he says softly.
“Ok, now inhale deeply. Get it into your lungs.”
“Relax, and don’t worry about anything, okay? I’ll drive us home. You might get anxious, but you need to remember to relax and enjoy, otherwise there’s no point.”
Doyoung takes the joint out of Jaehyun’s hand and passes it on. It’s just a matter of time before he starts to feel it.
They all shut up and stare at the moon. It all feels very familiar, like a scene from Taeyong’s grad trip, except everyone is high, absorbed in the trip hop beats or in their own thoughts while they share a comfortable silence.
In about ten minutes, Jaehyun beside him starts having a moment. “Whoa. I feel it,” he says. Doyoung hasn’t seen him smile so wide in a long time. His eyes narrow into crescents, his full grin revealing his dimples and pushing up wrinkles by the sides of his nose. Jaehyun’s speech is slowing down, and it’s taking him a long time to convey a cohesive thought, but he seems to be enjoying himself. Once he finds out Mark is a writer, he starts piling questions onto him, and they enthuse about crime fiction and Agatha Christie together.
Silent on his feet like a cat, Taeyong comes to sit on the other side of Doyoung.
Doyoung’s heart skips a beat. Taeyong comes wrapped in a thick, fluffy blanket. Doyoung assumes he uses it intimately, because it smells exactly like Taeyong, exactly like how he remembers. For a second, he’s overwhelmed.
“How’ve you been?”
Doyoung isn’t sure if he’s talking about the past weeks or last three years. “Um…good.” He pauses. “You?”
“I’ve been fine. Really busy though.”
“Got a lot of finals?”
“Yeah…and other things.”
They sit awkwardly. Doyoung can feel Taeyong radiating body heat. He’s hyperaware of his physical presence next to him, and Doyoung doesn’t know what it means. He gulps.
“How’s he doing?” Taeyong nods at Jaehyun.
“He’s okay. I have my eyes on him,” Doyoung assures. He’s doing his job dutifully as the older friend. Taeyong, on the other hand, is a questionable guardian.
“I can’t believe you’re letting these children smoke.”
Taeyong shakes his head. “It’s art school. I can’t stop them.”
Doyoung doesn’t respond, crossing one thumb over the other in his lap. Taeyong receives the joint again, and this time he hands it directly to Doyoung, looking into his eyes.
“I can’t.” Doyoung swallows. “I need to drive.”
“It’s not gonna knock you out. Take a little? C’mon…I don’t like to be high in the presence of people who aren’t.”
Doyoung thinks that’s not really his concern. The joint continues to burn in Taeyong’s outstretched hand.
He hates to cave to pressure. But he knows this is not something Taeyong would ultimately force on him.
Doyoung tried weed for the first time last year, at a frat party in a frat that he almost lived in. He had smoked with an acquaintance and been left on his own for half an hour, back pressed to the wall, completely lost inside his own head. Doyoung thinks the feeling makes him rather anxious, because he gets paranoid about whether he’s making sense, and it feels like he loses control over himself, something he’s afraid of doing at all times. He wonders what it feels like, to let go instead. To trust the feeling enough to loosen his grip and let himself enjoy the oblivion. The danger of the thought gives him chills. He wonders what kind of a person would emerge from the shell of him that he always wears.
Doyoung hasn’t tried it enough to know, but he wants to understand the appeal. He wants to know what it feels like to enjoy it, to surrender to the feeling, to feel high, as opposed to low. He wants to know the science, wants to test in what ways exactly this substance acts as an antidepressant. He has a feeling someone like him might benefit.
“Don’t worry, I won’t talk much tonight,” Taeyong says, just loud enough for him to hear. “So just get high and enjoy the music.”
Doyoung swallows thickly, feeling like he’s been read through.
But it’s a different matter if he really doesn’t have to worry about pushing conversation.
He takes the waiting joint from Taeyong. It’s been a long time. Finals period has been long and tedious, but it’s over now, and he can afford to let go for a while. Fuck it, Doyoung thinks. He takes a small puff, hoping the smoke doesn’t penetrate fully into his lungs. Maybe it’ll be just enough to help with the anxiety. If anything, it’ll have faded within an hour or two, and he can have his head back to himself when he needs to take them home.
“Since when were you a stoner?” He hands the joint back.
Taeyong laughs. It sounds light and clear, like bubbling water in a fountain. “I’m not anymore. Not nearly as much as I was in first year.” He inhales the smoke, long and slow. Taeyong doesn’t seem to act any differently from usual. Doyoung wonders whether this much weed has any effect on him at all. “I was so high that whole year that I failed it.”
Okay…that is news to Doyoung. They had been so entirely out of touch that besides the fact that Taeyong attended this school, Doyoung knew next to nothing about how his time in university has been.
Doyoung turns back to staring at the moon.
There is so much he and Taeyong don’t know about each other, he realizes. He wonders, at this point, whether there are more things he doesn’t know about Taeyong than things he does. After all, these are formative years in each other’s lives they missed out on.
It’s one reason Doyoung hesitates to cross the distance between them—he wonders, after four years, if their differences have become irreconcilable. Doyoung is no longer the carefree, talkative, sarcastic kid from back then. For one, he had learned that without the constant presence of friends and acquaintances the way it had been in high school, it is his most natural state to live in a calm, quiet solitude. In four years he has taken on a sense of responsibility, which comes along with certain self-imposed restrictions, within which he finds ways to comfortably live. He’s wary of Taeyong; among other reasons, he believes there’s a crucial gap in Taeyong’s understanding of him. After all, their time had paused, and the world, meanwhile, resumed turning without them. Now, Doyoung is starting to see that in much the same way, there is so much about Taeyong that he too does not know.
It makes him question how much of the static image of Taeyong in his mind is still valid. He tries to get a grasp of this new person, lists down mentally some observations about who he is.
Waiter, he thinks.
Likes his job.
He’s so absorbed in thought that he doesn’t realize at what point exactly the high hits him.
It takes him a minute to reacquaint himself with the feeling, this world in which time and space flow differently. When he focuses, he can feel his heart beat. Strangely, this awareness of the presence of the boy beside him doesn’t leave.
He turns to observe him.
Taeyong looks youthful and beautiful tonight. His sandy blond hair is puffy, loosely styled and hanging long off the sides. Absentmindedly, Taeyong runs a hand through the soft mass, fluffing his bangs until they all but block his eyes. Doyoung thinks, and has always thought, that Taeyong really suits dyed hair. The color accentuates his stunning features, brings out the dark depth of his large eyes. Not to mention how well the pastel color goes with his pale skin and pink flush. In a moment of weakness, Doyoung admits: when he first caught sight of Taeyong at the restaurant, he had needed a moment to catch his breath.
Taeyong is not in a mood to talk. He hugs his blanket around himself and the thin layer of T-shirt underneath. He’s scrolling his phone, chewing on his lip as he skims social media with a faraway look. He looks different now from all the other places Doyoung’s seen him. Not a courteous waiter. Not a commanding dancer. This is the Taeyong he knows and remembers, just a boy one year older, a grown man with childish inclinations.
He wonders how Taeyong is doing. He thinks back on the smiles, the argument in his apartment, the night in the bathroom, trying to put the puzzle pieces together.
He watches Taeyong out of the corner of his eyes.
A word comes to mind. Inevitable.
Doyoung doesn’t know what to think about this sudden association—Jaehyun had been the one to plant this seed in his mind. Nothing about this should feel this way, yet it does. With their friend groups merging, he feels ambivalent about how much Taeyong now shows up in his life. How should he proceed with this relationship? Should he let things be, or make an effort to…do something about it? If it doesn’t turn out well, will he have to accept the responsibility of having tried again, despite his better judgment? It’s not so much that he wants to be friends, Doyoung reasons with himself. For now, he is simply observing, letting things happen. Regardless, there are reasons that he can think of to resist the way things are developing. There are things that scare him deeply about this relationship, things he’s not ready to admit.
His head feels light. Thoughts zip by across his mind, like cars in a four-way intersection, coming from every direction without end.
Who are you? He sends his thoughts into the night sky.
Who have you become? How have you been?
Doyoung feels a head fall onto his shoulder. It breaks him out of his thoughts.
It’s Jaehyun. “Hyung,” he sighs. “I’m sooo stoned. This music sounds 3D and everything in my vision is wavy. See him?” He points at Haechan, swinging before Mark’s eyes like a pendulum, grooving to the music. “He’s moving at five frames a second.”
“That’s what happens, idiot,” he pats Jaehyun on the head. “I don’t know what you expected.”
Noticing them talking about him, Haechan comes over with an open box of chocolate biscuits that he offers. He sits down on the other side of Taeyong, who looks up for the first time in...Doyoung has no idea how much time has passed.
“Mark is actually a bore. I want to hang out with the cool kids.”
“Did you want your speakers back?”
“It’s fine, I like your music.”
Taeyong gives him a pat on the knee. His hand stays there. Haechan reaches down to grasp onto his fingers.
“How are you feeling right now, hyung?”
Taeyong doesn’t look up, but a small smile finds its way onto his lips.
“Hm? Why do you ask?”
Haechan squeezes his hand. He’s looking up into the sky.
“Because I’m happy. I love my life. I am really happy right now.”
Caught off guard, Taeyong’s smile is delayed, but genuine.
“That’s good. Hyung is happy that you are happy.”
Doyoung had been thinking for a while that Haechan reminds him of his past self, but now he finds himself amazed by the kid instead. Doyoung wonders if most people are able to say something like this out of nowhere with so much conviction. How does he know? He finds himself questioning. How does he just know? What does happiness mean, anyway? He wonders what kind of a life Haechan is living for him to feel so strongly about the matter. Maybe he loves painting and is living his best dream. Doyoung wishes he could say the same, about loving or living.
“Let’s have some meaningful conversation.” Haechan turns to the two of them seriously. “Let me tell you about…oh I know. The time Mark ate Taeyong hyung’s midterm project.”
Taeyong shakes their joined hands on Haechan’s lap. “Don’t mention it. I’m still bitter.”
“So Taeyong hyung was trying to dry some fruits for garnish on a rack…”
“You know what. You have fun telling him. I’m going to the bathroom.”
A wound up mass of blankets, Taeyong pushes himself to his feet and treks back through the snow.
“And basically…Mark, that fatass, comes home and sees and is like, what are these conveniently peeled and beautiful looking fruits doing on the counter? And without a second thought he just eats it up—whoa!”
Tired of the slander, Mark shoots out from his seat and tackles Haechan’s midriff, nearly tripping him. Doyoung watches them wrestle until Mark’s knees knock into the log. Both of them lose balance and topple over backwards onto the snow.
Arms propping his weight up on top of Mark, Haechan stares at Mark, then glances up at Taeyong’s retreating back. Then he looks down at Mark. Doyoung just happens to see it. In a split second—Haechan leans down. He gives Mark a soft peck on the lips.
Doyoung can’t see Mark’s expression behind Haechan’s arm, but moments later, Doyoung thinks he sees Mark crane his neck up for another one.
Ah. Doyoung thinks. So it’s like this.
I love my life. I am really happy right now, he thinks.
Truth be told. He knows the feeling.
Taeyong’s music is interrupted when a call from “Mommy” shows up on his screen.
Haechan is flailing in Mark’s arms locked around his waist. “Pick it up pick it up pick it up can’t you have fun for once!?”
Escaping the cage, he swipes the call button before anyone can stop him.
There are six people present to witness the disaster. No one has the balls to respond. Maybe because everyone but Doyoung is high out of their minds.
“Hello?” Taeyong’s mother’s static voice rings out, on speaker.
“Hello this is Pizza Hut, how may I help you?!” From the other end of the log, Haechan nearly shouts into the phone.
Haechan’s toppling over in Mark’s arms again, laughing breathlessly at himself, and Mark is smacking him across the shoulder, whispering, “dude!”
Another few seconds, and Doyoung decides he can’t bear watching this.
“Hello, aunty.” He calls out into the phone.
“No, aunty. Taeyong is not here right now.”
“Not here? Who are you?”
He swallows. “This is Doyoung, aunty.”
To his dismay, everyone is listening intently to the phone call.
“…Kim Doyoung? Is that you?”
There’s a delay from the other side. Doyoung is freezing up with trepidation.
“Oh my…it’s been so long, child. How are you? How is school? I haven’t heard from you in so long.”
“It has been a long time,” he laughs pathetically.
“Are you doing well? Still singing lots? When will aunty get to hear you on the radio?”
Doyoung takes a deep breath. This conversation breaks his heart a little. He doesn’t mention that she can, in fact, hear him on the radio now, albeit not for the reason she anticipates. “I’m doing great, aunty. I hope everything is well with you, too.”
“Hang out with Taeyong more often, ok?” she says instead, chuckling. “Taeyong is a lonely boy.”
Doyoung decides that’s enough of her on speaker. He picks up the phone and holds it by his ear. One after another, everyone turns their attentions back to something else.
“Okay. I’ll do my best.” It’s all he can promise.
In a few minutes, Taeyong returns.
“Your mother called.”
“Oh god.” He groans. “Parents always just know when their kids are up to no good, huh? What did she say?”
“She’s asking you to come home on the weekend.”
“That’s all? Nothing…nothing else?”
From the other side of the log, Haechan stands up abruptly, claiming he’s out of snacks to munch on. “I’m gonna grab some cheese balls. Mark, come with me? Hyung, you too.”
“Me?” Doyoung points at himself.
Thoroughly puzzled, Doyoung stands up and follows. “I’ll leave Jaehyun to you,” he says to Taeyong, who looks equally confused.
Following Haechan back through the trail, Doyoung has a feeling something is up.
“How high are you, Mark?”
“Out of 10? Like a 3.”
“How about you, hyung?”
“I’m not really.”
“Good,” Haechan says, his back to them as they walk. “Me neither.”
Doyoung knows he’s right when Haechan drags Mark back into their house, past the party in the yard simmering down, and locks the door behind them.
“Come,” he calls out to them both. Doyoung follows him into the living room, standing awkwardly. “Take a seat,” Haechan gestures at the beanbags as he takes a drink of water from the tap.
Behind the kitchen counter, Haechan opens a cabinet and pulls out a small bottle. With the lid off, he shakes it over what Doyoung now sees is a fish bowl. A small goldfish flutters its pretty fins. Before the food pellets hit the water, it’s already scampering to the surface.
“I actually wanted to talk to you about Taeyong hyung.”
On the other beanbag, recognition lights up on Mark’s face.
“Are you sure?” Mark looks at Haechan. “I don’t know if Taeyong hyung will appreciate it.”
“Well fuck what he thinks. You’ve seen him.”
Mark’s lips are pressed thin. Doyoung looks between them.
“Once I’m done asking this hyung, I’m going to ask Ten. Once I’m done asking Ten I’m going to ask all his friends, because I’m tired of him pretending like he doesn’t have any.”
“Basically,” Mark explains, “he’s been under a lot of stress.”
That makes…a little more sense to Doyoung. Haechan and Mark must have called him here out of some sort of concern.
“Why, what’s going on?”
“All kinds of stuff. How long have you known Taeyong hyung?”
“Sorry. Not trying to interrogate. It’s just that it seemed like even his mother knew you well, so I thought…”
“I see. Yeah, I’ve known him for a while. Maybe five, six years.”
“Then you have to help him,” Haechan decides, coming around to lean against the counter, crossing his arms as he tells him everything.
“He’s a nice guy in every way. I didn’t think that when I first met him, but now I know. He’s very understanding and caring to the people around him, when he’s in the mood to be. But as you probably know, Taeyong hyung can be really unstable.”
Doyoung thinks about that word, unstable. He can certainly use that word to describe Taeyong, when he’d seen him at his worst. Like a house of cards…
“Sometimes he’s loaded with energy and gets excited about every little thing. Like…he’ll dance around the house with a mixing bowl in his arms. He’ll clean the whole house and do meal prep for the week until midnight then pass out for a healthy ten hours. But then sometimes he walks around like a zombie and doesn’t eat. He looks exhausted and dead in the eyes. I know that means he’s in his own world, dealing with his own negative feelings. When he’s like that, I try not to touch him. In those times, he gets really distant, doesn’t seem like he cares about anyone else or wants anything from them. When his own feelings are too hard to control, he can get snappy and easily irritated—I mean, he’ll apologize for it afterwards every time—but I try not to risk playing with that fire. And he doesn’t talk to anyone when he’s like that, he games for hours on end. Taeyong hyung doesn’t open up to anyone, really, at any point. Past the level of friendliness, nobody really knows him here, I feel.
“I know he probably looks fine to you now, but truthfully, from what I’ve seen, I think he’s nothing more than a high functioning alcoholic. Lately, Mark and I both have been waking up at 3 am to the sound of retching in the bathroom.”
“Not always,” Mark says. “Sometimes when he’s that drunk he just…cries…”
“Yeah. It’s not pretty. I don’t know if it happens every finals season. I think it might be seasonal depression, because he used to get out of the house a lot more at the start of fall. Ever since it started snowing, it just doesn’t feel like he’s had a good day.”
Yikes. Doyoung swallows a lump in his throat.
It’s a lot to take in. He’d been wanting to know—and he can’t deny it now, he admits, he wants to know—how Taeyong’s been doing. But he didn’t expect to have his questions answered like this. Doyoung recognizes the urgency behind their explanation. Doyoung himself has…felt depressed, but he’s never wrecked himself over it, at least not his physical body the way Taeyong is doing. Now he thinks he must have been right in noting that Taeyong had lost weight. Had he been drinking himself to death, during the times when he hadn’t come to dance?
But he can remember back further. That night in the bathroom, he had been going through a similar kind of moment, and that was back in October. The week after that, he had followed Doyoung home and gulped downed his liquor. Doyoung can be sure that whatever is happening has been happening, or at least brewing, for quite a while. This revelation, however useful, doesn’t make the situation feel any better.
He wants to ask. “Just to make sure. Why are you telling me this?”
“Because Mark and I have been trying to find help for him. We’re very concerned. I don’t want to see him deteriorate like this alone, but I don’t know him well enough to say anything.”
Doyoung can understand. Maybe he’s projecting himself, but if he were Taeyong, he would feel like two innocent freshmen in love would never be able to understand what he’s going through.
“We thought maybe you could help him.”
Doyoung looks down at his hands.
He’s at a loss for what to do. Inevitable, he thinks again. If he extends his help, he would inevitably entangle himself in Taeyong’s life again. He cares about Taeyong, insofar as to wish him a healthy and happy life—one that doesn’t require his own involvement in it.
Realistically, even if he wanted to help, what could he do? There remains the monumental rift between them. It’s not like in high school, when they could talk to each other about anything. Taeyong wouldn’t just open up like this on command and let Doyoung guide him by the hand out of whatever is troubling him, not when they still can’t even have a serious conversation. Besides, Taeyong had said he didn’t want a one-way relationship, and Doyoung is not ready to open himself up too.
Doyoung looks between Mark and Haechan, finds his heart caving under the looks of concern in their eyes.
He finds himself torn.
Is this something only I can do?
Does Taeyong not have other friends?
Taeyong is a lonely boy, he recalls his aunty’s voice.
The thought makes him sad.
Looking at Mark and Haechan, chatting amongst themselves now, Doyoung wonders why Taeyong feels this way when he has caring people like this so close by in his life. Yet he thinks…he can understand. Is he himself not much the same?
“Thanks for talking to me,” Doyoung says, getting their attention, “I’m glad you did. I’m glad Taeyong has people like you guys in his life.”
Haechan smiles, a little pained.
“I think you’re doing a good thing, by the way. I do think you should talk to the rest of his friends too. You don’t have to tell them so much detail. I’m sure they’ll understand and know exactly what to do if you just tell them that Taeyong needs help.”
“But I don’t know if I,” he takes a deep breath, puts a hand on his chest, “I don’t think I can help you much. Taeyong and I aren’t exactly friends. We’re…in a tight spot.
“I’ll do what I can, but I think if you want results, if you want someone who can come over and stop him, you would have better luck asking someone else. I’m really sorry.”
Haechan and Mark glance at each other, taking the information in.
“I see.” Haechan says quietly, after a while. “That’s a shame.”
Doyoung gives Haechan a pained smile. For a second, he agrees. It really is a shame.
Before they could head back to the woods, the party had brought itself back, having decided that was enough smoking or partying for the night.
Jaehyun is still a little high. Allegedly, Taeyong and the other two smoked another joint after he left, but Doyoung doesn’t sense anything different, better or worse, about his mood. Taeyong wanders around the house with an absent look. When he looks neutral like this, it really is hard to imagine what he’s going through internally.
Feeling sad about how little he can offer the two earnest first years, Doyoung stays behind while the party files out to help them clean up the yard, scrub the grill, throw away the trash. Jaehyun waits in the car, fast asleep in the passenger’s seat.
At the door, Mark and Haechan each give him a hug.
“Thanks for having me tonight.”
“Thanks for coming. And thanks for listening.”
Taeyong wanders over too, to say goodbye.
“Bye, Doyoung. Thanks for coming.”
A million things cross his mind. Things he wants to say, but has lost the right to.
Doyoung watches him. Taeyong watches him back. Haechan and Mark are watching the two of them intensely.
“I’m…” Doyoung starts, swallows hard, “I’m willing to talk more. If you want.”
“Oh.” Taeyong’s eyes go wide.
“But next time, we’ll do it without any substances. Deal?”
Taeyong looks taken aback. “Next time?”
Doyoung resists the urge to look away. “Yeah. Alright?”
Taeyong nods, eyes getting wider. Sparks find their way back onto his iris, like he’s coming to life again.
Doyoung sighs. “Goodbye, hyung. Take care.”
December is a land of white.
Winter is a season of muted sounds and colors. Doyoung thinks there’s something appealing about the way snow erases the hard edges of the world outside. The barren, jagged tree branches wound up with Christmas lights are embellished with elegant, reaching limbs of white. The arbitrary partitions of space between the road and the sidewalk disappear, transforming the hard-set boundaries into a fluid ocean of movement. When the snow falls, everything is set in motion. Fathers pull children in toboggans down the sidewalk. People emerge out of their homes to salt the road. In yards, snowmen spring up overnight. The soft crunch beneath boots and footprints mark the inevitable traces of human and animal life, a comprehensive documentary of all of the paths that have been crossed—and missed—through nature’s various interactions.
Doyoung sees the appeal. But he doesn’t want anything to do with it.
For him, winter is the hardest season to get through. There’s something smothering and oppressive about the grey sky, the constant downfall of snow driving him indoors, the late mornings and early nights. The blanket of snow reminds him acutely of the blanket on his mind. Every year, for a period of time, he feels safe and comfortable shut up in his home until the banality and perfunctoriness of his hibernation becomes too much to bear, and he feels his life force dwindle until he gathers the courage to go outside. To do what, he doesn't know, and it doesn't matter, as long as it's some sort of interaction with the outside world. When he goes, he’s greeted with snow in his shoes, the harsh wind against his face, and the ache from the lack of a purpose in his day-to-day activities without the demands of school. Everything feels more grey than usual. Doyoung misses the sun.
There is, however, one thing that gets him up and about this winter.
After two years, his brother is coming home.
It’s December 24 th . Doyoung is wandering around the shopping district, picking up some last minute year end presents for his family and his few friends, all the while running errands for the business association party on the weekend. It’s the worst day to be out shopping, with people shoving into each other and store clerks jangling bells and yelling over each other. But there’s a grin plastered on his face. Nothing matters, because his brother is coming home.
He passes by a crowd of people huddled around a street dance competition. On the cold hard floor, in the thick of winter, the dancers continue to do what makes them feel alive. Doyoung admires their tenacity. Briefly, he wonders if he could have passed by Taeyong like this a thousand times in the past years and never known.
In the center of the city, the hubbub of life, Doyoung finds himself with his head spinning. The metropolitan life is convenient at times, but mostly disorienting. At the jam-packed crossing, Doyoung feels isolated. He wonders why he chose to live here in this big city, so big that everyone feels lonely instead. Among the sea of people, all busy avoiding each other, how many connections are really being made? When he stands among the crowd for too long, he starts to get thoughts like this. Doyoung knows it’s an irrational feeling. Maybe he’s the only one who feels this way. Either way, to avoid being consumed by the collective loneliness, he makes sure before leaving the house that he knows what he wants, and knows where to get it.
Doyoung pushes his way past carts of hot food, serving plates of individual portions. He pushes past kaleidoscopic storefronts selling something for everyone. He pushes past the music festival happening in the center of the square, pushes past the crowd jumping to the beat like trying to kick his way through the ocean. Locals. Tourists. Store recruiters. Street stall vendors. Buskers, dancers, idols with dreams trying to make it big. Clothes, accessories, music, art, all together spinning in circles around him. It’s overwhelming. He wishes he could get this over with and get out of here.
Bags packed into his trunk, Doyoung drives to school to record his last radio broadcast of the year.
He’s not sure anyone is still listening. But it’s something that he has to do. The recording studio will be his final resting place for the night. Everywhere his voice reaches is his home. Anyone his voice reaches is his friend.
He needs to do this for himself, the same way the street dancers need to keep dancing.
“You’re listening to Mixtapes with DJ DY. My name is Doyoung. Thank you for tuning in and joining me this Christmas Eve.
“At a time like this, where are you now? Are you in your car, on the way home from work? Are you in the comfort of your home, having a feast of a dinner? Are you tuned in from the internet, somewhere halfway across the world? Are you happy where you are, or do you wish you were somewhere else? Are you with your family, or are you alone? And if you are alone, do you like it this way, or would you rather have someone beside you?
“Wherever you are, whoever you are with, I hope you can spend this night with only positive feelings in your heart. I hope you can look back on this year and think, ‘I’ve worked hard, I’m proud of myself.’ Maybe not all 365 days, but I hope you find what you’ve done is enough. I hope you find strength to make it through the winter, and faith for a better next year. Most of all, I hope you find gratitude, for the ups and downs you’ve gone through, and gratitude for the people who have been there with you.
“Sometimes it kind of floors me, because out of nowhere I would remember that we only have this one short life on this planet. The other day I was walking down the street, and I caught the light glimmer on an icicle from the eaves of a store, and the experience of that moment knocked the wind out of me. It felt a bit like a wakeup call. It’s impossible to know who will be here one day and be gone the next, yourself, myself included, so, while you have the chance, I hope you can find appreciation for all that makes up your life. Your cell phone, your pet, your job, your family and friends. Your self, your virtues and flaws, your powerful mind, youthful and healthy body, exhausted sometimes but still got a bit of kick left in it. Your food, your clothes, your home, your education. I think it’s not really about stopping to appreciate the finer things in life. You don’t have to stop. It’s always here, I think, in any moment, the magic of it all, whenever you are ready to realize.
“But at the same time, I totally understand that it’s hard to see that sometimes, when you’re experiencing the mundaneness, the greyness, the boredom of the present moment. It’s fine to not be able to always see the bigger picture. After all, we can only experience life day by day. I’ve been feeling that way a lot lately, so I wanted to remind myself that there is in fact another perspective, even if it feels so out of reach, and a little lost to the me of the present. It’s really a journey.
“Anyway, the theme for tonight’s special playlist is ‘dedications to you’, compiled from the titles sent in from listeners dedicated to unknown special someones in their lives. Regardless of whom these songs are for, this mixtape is my gift to you.
“On a night like this, I hope from the bottom of my heart that you won’t feel alone.
“So, please be happy…”
When Kim Doyoung leaves the building, it’s pouring rain outside. It had started raining part way through his program, and Doyoung had found himself in the coffee lounge during breaks with his forefinger pressed to the cold glass of their small side window, tracing the trajectories of the droplets being whipped across the polished canvas by the wind outside. Already, the rain is penetrating the mounds of shoveled up snow in the parking lot, and by the morning, they will have left little craters in the formation where they struck, and returned half of the snow’s volume back into the dirt.
Just like this, Doyoung finds Jaehyun and Johnny parked a couple spots away from himself, the only other car in sight, waiting for him by the trunk of Jaehyun’s car.
The rain pelts against their shared umbrella as they wait. Approaching them, Doyoung feels a warmth spread across his chest. Something he did not anticipate.
“What is this.” Doyoung demands as soon as he sees them.
Truthfully, he already knows.
He’s already touched, seeing them here like this.
“We could ask you the same thing, Kim.” Johnny says, with eyes that look ready to fight.
“Flipped through the radio and guess who we found disseminating life advice. Give yourself a break, will you?”
“You don’t understand.” Doyoung smiles to himself. Jaehyun doesn’t understand, because radio is not his lifeline. “I am giving myself a break.”
“Sure. Where are you headed off to?”
“Good guess, but you’re coming with us.”
Johnny grabs him by the arms and moves to hold them behind him like he would a hostage. He starts walking them towards Doyoung’s car. “Get in the car and drive, Kim.” Johnny whispers theatrically. Doyoung rolls his eyes, putting up with their foolish antics.
Behind the wheel, he gives Johnny a look. “So, what? You want to come home with me?”
“Why go home when you can have the ~night of your life~?!”
“No thanks,” he declines unceremoniously, switching on the ignition. “I’m not being abducted to some mystery party again. Where are we going, Seo? Talk or I start driving.”
Johnny throws his hands up. “Relax, it’s just my place. There’s only a handful of people, nothing you can’t handle.”
Doyoung does relax a little bit. He’s fine with going somewhere familiar for the night; it’s not like he had any particular plans to spend Christmas Eve alone. He scoffs, though, at the comment, setting the car in reverse. “I can handle anything,” he replies through a self-satisfied grin.
After about ten minutes on the road, Johnny remembers something.
“Don’t worry if not, but do you have anything on you that would make a good gift? Something of about 10 dollars in value. We’re doing a Secret Santa, thought we would wait for you on the off chance that you actually agreed to come with us.”
The party must have been going on for a while, given it’s already 10:20. Doyoung breaks out a small smile. They were waiting for him. He thinks about it, about all the things in his trunk.
“I think I have something.” It’s something small he bought for himself, but nothing he can’t donate.
They stop at an intersection. Doyoung lets his mind wander off, eyes going out of focus watching the mechanical wipers clear his field of vision over and over.
“By the way,” Johnny’s voice goes quiet. “Taeyong is going to be there.”
For a while, all they hear is the soft rumble of the car and the patter of the raindrops. Doyoung chews on his lip, tapping his fingers lightly on the wheel.
Johnny turns to him. “Are meetings between you two okay now?”
Staring up into the red light, Doyoung is smiling slightly.
“To be honest with you, I’ve given up trying to escape him.”
Johnny nods slowly. This development seems to surprise him.
Indeed. What changed? Doyoung thinks.
“I don’t know. Both of us.”
The light turns green. For a moment longer, Doyoung’s eyes linger on two rivulets of rain running in near parallels down the side of his windshield. Angled slightly towards one another, they are bound to converge, even if the wipers erase all evidence of their existence before they can.
Doyoung steps on the gas again.
They find a parking spot beneath Johnny’s building. Jaehyun, they see, is already parked and inside.
When Johnny unlocks his door, he finds the music in the background subdued, all sounds and signs of life evaporated out of the empty living room. The only indication that there is a party at all is the scattering of shoes by the door, and the collection of bottles of all shapes and sizes by the foot of his fridge. At the sound of the jingle of his keys, Jaehyun alone walks out from around the corner. Something is up with the mood, Doyoung can already tell as he walks through the door.
“What’s going on?”
“Accident,” Jaehyun reports, pointing towards the bathroom.
Four heads are blocking the view to what’s inside. Haechan, Mark, Yuta, and Hansol are crowded around the entrance to the bathroom, and they turn with concern on their faces when Johnny parts the way. Ten is inside, knelt on the cold tiles beside the figure of someone throwing up over the toilet. It’s Taeyong. He’s nearly blacked out, his knuckles white from his hard grip on the ceramic, puking with the last of his strength by the edge of the toilet bowl.
Ten is patting his back, smoothing his palm up and down the length of his T-shirt. Taeyong’s face is drooped over the edge, his brows scrunched with effort. Sporadically, he hacks, then gurgles, then pukes out some more content from his stomach that sinks to the bottom of the toilet.
Johnny had only left for thirty minutes. He feels careless for letting the situation devolve into this. He should have known this might happen, can already see how it proceeded in his mind.
He’s mostly angry at himself. Hand on the doorframe, he speaks above the whispers trying to comfort Taeyong. “How come nobody stopped him?”
With a hand, Yuta stops him outside his own bathroom. “He got to the drinks before we noticed. Seemed like he was feeling really bad.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet.” Johnny knew he should have trusted his guts. Something felt off about Taeyong the moment he arrived. Mark and Haechan had both given him a look, but he hadn’t understood what exactly they meant. By the looks on their faces now, Johnny guesses maybe all they had was a feeling, too. Taeyong has learned a few tricks to hiding his condition. By nature of being volatile so often, it’s hard for anyone to tell when he’ll get over something and when he’ll blow up instead.
Half way through regurgitating his dinner, Taeyong spits a few times and looks up. Doyoung can barely see, but he sees now: his eyes are red-rimmed and dilated as he stares all around, trying to locate the new voices. With a heavy rasp, he speaks. “Who’s that?”
“It’s Johnny, Jaehyun, and Doyoung.”
Doyoung watches the recognition spread across his features in slow motion.
“John…Jae…Doyoungie.” Taeyong moans pathetically, before returning his attention to the toilet.
There are tear tracks glistening down Taeyong’s face. Once he registers who is here through the thick fog of his mind, the hot tears still falling again of their own accord, rolling down his chin and pattering onto the edge of the bowl. He wipes at his own eyes again and again, but seems not to know how to stop them.
“C’mon, Taeyong. We just got through this. It’s not your fault. Why are you crying again?”
Taeyong dry heaves over the toilet once more. The sound of his retching makes Doyoung’s heart hurt.
“It's my fault.” Taeyong cries, and cries. When he can’t stop his tears, he closes his eyes. Ten pries him away from the toilet and pulls him back into a tight hug. He stays there limply, unable to move. Quickly, the tears devolve into full on sobbing.
“I’m sorry...” His words come out slow, slurred. “I feel so fucked up and it’s my fault. It’s my fault we’re not friends…if we didn’t stop being friends I wouldn’t be like this…I’m sorry.”
“Taeyong, whatever it is, it’s not your fault,” Johnny says, though Taeyong doesn’t acknowledge that he’s heard it at all.
The room remains quiet, waiting for him to speak more. But Doyoung’s heart thumps heavily. His own brows knit, lips press into a thin line.
Leaning back into Ten, Taeyong opens his red eyes, scanning the crowd until he finds Doyoung’s gaze trained on him. He meets it through his own blurry vision, but he’s sure Doyoung can see him, and he’s content. Like that night outside his apartment, a sparkle gleams on his iris.
“I'm so,” he has to take a deep breath, "so tired of fighting." He leans back over the toilet, his face just about falling in. Tears continue to fall, dissolving into the surface of the water. “And being alone.”
“Nonsense.” Yuta speaks up. “You have us, always.”
He throws up some more, Yuta’s words going in one ear and out the other.
Slowly, Jaehyun turns to Doyoung. Doyoung swallows. He finds he can’t meet Jaehyun’s telltale gaze. It speaks the same words that run through his own mind. Go and help him.
He wants to. Just an urge, from somewhere he can’t control, wants to move, wants to put a hand on his shoulder like a friend, wants to make it all hurt for Taeyong a little less. There are so many things he wants to say. Don’t blame yourself. Don’t hurt yourself anymore. You're not alone. But he feels like he can't—because of this distance between them, because Taeyong isn't listening. He doesn’t want to speak these heavy promises just to appease Taeyong, not like this. Doyoung wants to mean, with his whole heart, every word he says, and he wants Taeyong to receive and believe in his sincerity. They need to have this conversation when Taeyong’s sober, when Doyoung can decide for himself without pressure that he can promise they will end their stalemate, when he can decide for himself that he wants to be friends again.
Feeling stupefied and helpless, he turns at last to Johnny. Johnny knows, but doesn’t look at him.
“He’s not listening. Nothing is getting through to him,” Johnny says quietly. “He should feel better soon, he’s thrown up a lot. There’s not much we can do for him at this point except get him to lie down soon. We should have just avoided getting here at all.”
“Is there anything we can do for you, Taeyong hyung?” Jaehyun asks.
Taeyong looks up.
Doyoung’s heart leaps. He’s aware of everyone’s attention turning to him.
He only hesitates for a second. “I’m here.”
“Can you come?”
He practically has no choice. Ignoring all eyes on him, Doyoung squeezes in by Taeyong’s side, sits down on the floor beside him. Ten moves out of the way.
“I’m here,” he says, taking a steadying breath. “How are you doing?”
Taeyong shakes his head slowly. “I feel so bad right now.” He looks ready to fall apart at the joints. His hands are barely clinging to the edge of the toilet, face descending closer to his hands, like he’s about to close his eyes and fall asleep on the rim.
What do I do?
There’s a pain in his chest that he can’t deny. He feels for Taeyong, wants to help him.
Doyoung is keenly aware of Taeyong’s attention on him. He’s noticed by now how abnormally much his words and actions have an effect on Taeyong when it seems like nobody and nothing else will, for whatever reason.
It’s dangerous, this feeling…so dangerous.
His heart—he can feel it thumping.
Tentatively, Doyoung reaches out.
He lifts his hands. He reaches out, and cradles Taeyong’s toppling head, pushing the stray hair out of his wet and reddened eyes. “Don’t think anymore, ok? Don’t cry anymore.”
Taeyong leans into his touch, letting Doyoung carry the weight of his heavy head for him. He smells of alcohol, but his breath is warm, and the hair tickling Doyoung’s fingers is soft. Taeyong lifts a cold hand to touch the fingers on his cheek.
Eyes closed, he whispers. The whole room is listening. “I regret a lot of things. You and me, we...could've been...”
Doyoung gulps. “We can chat later. For now, don’t think anymore.”
After a few moments, Taeyong lifts his head. “Yeah…help me up?”
Like handling glassware, Doyoung and Ten carefully help Taeyong stand. Taeyong rinses his mouth clutching onto the edge of the sink, then surrenders his weight back to the arms of his friends. The rest of them part the way, clearing the entrance. They take Taeyong to the sofa, where he wraps himself in a blanket and closes his eyes.
“Get some rest.” Doyoung doesn’t have to say more. Taeyong is fast asleep in minutes.
About half an hour later, Taeyong wakes up to a hand gently shaking his shoulder.
“Slept well? It’s time for the gift exchange, thought I’d let you know,” Johnny tells him.
Groggily, Taeyong cracks open his eyes, wincing at the pain in his head. He gives himself a moment to process Johnny’s words. He’s no longer halfway unconscious, but the intoxication remains in his bloodstream, dulling his every movement. A hand on his knee, Taeyong forces himself up and wanders over to his bag. He pulls out a small rectangular box, fastened with a blue ribbon.
They pile all their gifts on the kitchen counter, standing all around. There are boxes and gift bags of varying sizes and colors. Doyoung’s comes in a light yellow, standing paper bag. He didn’t have time to wrap it, but it’s the perfect size and blends in well among the rest of the presents.
On the count of three, they all pick a random gift from the table. Hands rush out to snatch at the items. Taeyong and Haechan fight over a box with Hello Kitty wrapping paper. Johnny picks the smallest thing after some deliberation. Doyoung goes for a flat looking box. He shakes it—no sound, and it weighs very light. Doyoung watches as Yuta picks whatever is closest to him—Doyoung’s gift.
Johnny unwraps the delicately packaged item, only to drop to his knees.
It’s a small, standing, glass ornament of a bear. It looks delicately made and painted. Doyoung absolutely bursts into laughter.
“What’s wrong with it?” Ten asks.
“Nothing is wrong with it,” Johnny chuckles, getting up from the floor and walking over to his bookcase. “It’s just I already have two of them.” There he lines up the bear with two other bears of different colors, making sure they face the same direction.
“That wasn’t supposed to go to you,” Jaehyun can’t control his own laughter. “When I saw you pick it up I almost lost it.”
“I know. It’s okay, I love it. Thanks, Jae.”
Taeyong undoes the Hello Kitty wrapping flap by flap, until he pulls out a box filled with miscellaneous Japanese sweets. Doyoung thinks he must be ecstatic, having somewhat of a sweet tooth. He watches Taeyong smile down at his find, but otherwise not say much else. Snacking must be the last thing on his mind.
“What did you get?”
“A really thick novel…” Hansol turns the tome in his hands. “I think it’s about vampires. You?”
“I got…” Yuta reaches into the bag. “Some gloves.”
It’s a pair of light grey gloves, woollen, with cream-colored touchscreen tips.
Overhearing them, Taeyong turns to the conversation. His eyes light up at the sight.
“I’d die for some gloves,” he tells them. He shows Yuta his hands. Without having to touch them, Yuta knows they are freezing.
“Do you want to trade?” He offers easily.
Taeyong nods. They swap, and Taeyong sticks his hands into the soft wool, lets out a contented sigh.
Hansol looks down at the box in Yuta’s lap. Doyoung just catches his whisper. “Isn’t this your own gift?”
“Shh,” Yuta says, smile wide on his lips.
Doyoung opens his package. It’s not a box at all, but a small canvas. On it, painted in oils, are some oblong shapes of orange, yellow, and green. Before he can make his guesses, Haechan comes over.
“They’re sunflowers,” he informs him. “Count yourself lucky, hyung. This will be worth way more once I’m famous.”
Doyoung gives him a smile in return. He thinks, oddly, that it would fit well with his apartment. “Thanks, Haechan. I needed something like this for my walls.”
“Look what I got. I think it’s from Johnny.”
For the next fifteen minutes, Haechan, Doyoung, Yuta, and Hansol huddle around the table, trying to piece together a small, cubic wooden puzzle that’s supposed to end up being a keychain by the end. They fit about half the pieces into a rough shape, but have no idea where the other half are meant to go.
Doyoung leans back, rubbing his eyes behind his glasses in the dim light. He looks around the room to find Jaehyun approaching their table.
Jaehyun carries the fresh air of the night with him. Doyoung can feel the cold radiating from his jacket.
“What are you guys up to?”
Doyoung holds up the half completed cube by the ring. “We’re putting together a puzzle. What’ve you been up to?”
“Chatting. By the way, Taeyong hyung’s on the balcony,” Jaehyun informs him, “if you wanted to talk to him.”
“Is he feeling better now?”
Jaehyun shrugs pointedly. “You could ask him yourself.”
Doyoung takes a moment to gather up his thoughts. Before long, he’s giving up his seat to Jaehyun, even though he feels…as if he were heading into battle without a plan.
His heart speeds up.
The idea of putting himself in Taeyong’s proximity alone makes him nervous.
Why? I have nothing to be afraid of.
A part of him wants to run in the opposite direction. He knows it’s just the aftereffects of having avoided him vehemently for so long. Still, he had offered himself up to talk more, for Taeyong’s sake or his own, he didn’t know. Doyoung didn’t understand how it’s possible to hold such conflicting emotions of willingness and unwillingness inside himself at the same time.
By the sliding door, he sticks his feet into Johnny’s slippers. Taeyong turns around at the sound of the door opening, and when he sees who it is, turns back without greeting him. For a moment, there’s the sound of muffled music permeating the balcony, before Doyoung slides the door closed again, and it’s just the two of them and the pitter-patter of the diminishing rainfall, splattering against the railing.
“Hi,” Taeyong says absently, looking straight ahead, “hey, I’m sorry for being a mess to take care of.”
Doyoung settles in against the wall beside Taeyong. Taeyong’s words abruptly interrupt any trains of thought he had been rehearsing in his head. Doyoung lets out a powerless laugh. “Have you been apologizing like this to everybody?”
“Only Jaehyun so far, and you.”
Doyoung is quiet for a moment. “Your friends would be upset hearing this.”
Taeyong turns to look at him. “I know, but I am sorry.” He’s got glassy eyes, shaking his head. “I really killed the mood, huh.”
Doyoung doesn’t deny it, but he’s sympathetic all the same. “Gotta do what you gotta do,” he just says.
A pause. One minute turns into two, turns into the two of them listening to the quiet falling of the rain as time drags on in what seems like a separate reality.
It’s hard to say whether it’s a comfortable silence. Doyoung doesn’t know how Taeyong is feeling, whether he’s feeling anything on top of how worn out he should be. It’s hard to assess him, here in the dark, and Doyoung is afraid to steal anything but furtive glances at him.
He wants to talk, but where does he begin? It feels like there are a hundred things on his mind.
So maybe he was wrong. Maybe he does have things to say to Taeyong, if not things related to the past then at least questions about the present. He’s curious, he’ll allow himself that much. Anyone would be, right? Anyone would have the urge to measure themselves and their own progress against the progress of an ex. For Doyoung, it’s not so much about outdoing Taeyong, not really a competition to spite each other. There’s just a certain image he wants to uphold before Taeyong—why it matters, he truly can’t justify. He wonders whether Taeyong feels the same, about maintaining an image. He thinks about how little you can know a person by what you witness of them in public. At their hotel encounter, Taeyong seemed fine, yet here he is drinking himself to the point of puking. Taeyong had confessed to ‘having many problems’, but that too is a relative self-perception. How serious are these problems, objectively? How did they compare against Doyoung’s problems? How is his life, how is he doing?
Doyoung is interested. Just a little bit.
A part of him would like to know Taeyong is okay…out of guilt. Out of concern.
Taeyong takes a deep breath, rubs his face to wake up.
Doyoung breathes, too. One step at a time.
“How’re you feeling?”
Taeyong wets his dry lips before replying. “Um…my head is still pounding. But I can think now, at least.”
“Do you feel okay enough to talk?”
“Yeah.” He looks over at Doyoung, expression hard to read. “We can talk…I wanted to do this without substances like I promised. I’m sorry.”
Doyoung shakes his head. “Take your time. It doesn’t have to be now.”
Taeyong nods, sinks into the granted silence for a while.
“It’s raining…” he observes, gaze faraway.
Doyoung studies him, not sure what he finds. “Yeah.”
“It’s too bad…I like the snow. It makes me feel at peace, but it makes me so sad, too. Maybe it’s good that it’s gone.”
“Do you like winter?”
“I like summer more. I have very…” Taeyong looks down, “fond memories of summer.”
Doyoung just listens.
Pitter, patter. The rain continues to fall. Between them drifts a hushed ambience. Doyoung feels calmer.
“Last time,” he starts gently, “you asked me a lot of questions. Can I ask some of my questions back?”
“Sure…” Taeyong answers hesitantly. “You want to know? About my life?”
“Can I ask something?”
Taeyong runs a hand through his hair. He turns around to look at Doyoung. “Did Haechan ask you to help me, too?”
Doyoung meets his eyes. “That did happen, yes.”
Taeyong nods, turns back to staring ahead. “How strange. He’s never met you before. I wonder what made him choose you.”
“Your mom, she…recognized me over the phone.”
“Ah,” Taeyong sighs. “Mom still asks about you sometimes.”
“You never told her?”
Taeyong shakes his head slowly.
Doyoung doesn’t know what to feel about it. “You tell your family everything.”
“I didn’t want them to worry.”
Doyoung feels sad all of a sudden. He wonders if Taeyong knows what his mother thinks about him.
“Haechan and Mark, they’re kind hearted people,” Taeyong sighs. “A lot of people have come to talk with me ever since they asked, and it’s definitely helped and changed me. So, you don’t have to feel obligated. To help me, I mean.”
“That’s not the only reason I’m here,” Doyoung says.
Taeyong turns to watch him.
“I want to know you’re doing fine. It would give me peace of mind. Because you said there are still things in the past that haunt you, and I feel somehow responsible for them, even when I know I’m…technically not,” Doyoung swallows.
Taeyong thinks about it. “You’re giving me closure.”
Not exactly. In a sense, that’s what it is, flipping the page on a past chapter, but Doyoung can’t help feeling like the courage of doing this takes opening some kind of door, rather than closing it. “Sure.”
“It’s not your responsibility.”
Taeyong takes a deep breath. “I mean it when I say that. Moving on—that’s on me. That’s something I have to do for myself, no one else can do that for me. I’ve been trying all this time, but never too seriously. I guess you can say I’ve never made up my mind until now.”
Doyoung feels his breath stop.
There are abstract theories in his head, taking on more tangible shape as he listens to Taeyong’s explanation.
“I kept looking in the future for something that belongs in the past, and I was blind to everything else. It’s been really hard to see past it. That’s why I didn’t want to make you cry anymore, I didn’t want to dig up these old wounds when you’ve already buried them and built a life on top of them. I know it’s kind of pathetic, but I haven’t done that yet, I couldn’t. I know how hard it is to do that. I appreciate that you’re willing to talk about it, to whatever extent you’re comfortable, trying to give me closure.”
“It’s not only for you,” Doyoung says, barely audible, “I’m asking because I want to know, for me, too.”
“Well,” Taeyong says, lacing his gloved fingers together. “You can ask me anything.”
Doyoung peeks at him. “Why did you drink so much tonight?”
Taeyong laughs, not expecting it. “I was feeling really, really sad.”
“On Christmas Eve?”
“Yeah, I was lonely.”
“At a party with all your friends?”
“Huh…” Taeyong seems to be considering the fact for the first time.
“Well. Recently I’ve started drinking again and I can’t seem to stop. And I heard you were coming and I…I’m sorry.”
“Yeah…you make me…no, it’s my fault. So don’t feel guilty about coming or anything.”
Doyoung’s mouth feels dry. Inside, he feels very complicated. He shifts his feet. A clump of snow pushes off the side of the balcony, disappearing forever into the depths beneath. “Do you drink very often?” He asks instead.
“Yeah.” Taeyong says, regrettably, “my tolerance almost never goes up no matter how much I have.”
Doyoung sighs. “It’s not a competition. You don’t have to push your limits.”
“I’m not trying to. I just drink to get drunk,” Taeyong mumbles, purses his lips.
Something about the way he looks is familiar. Doyoung smiles fondly.
“Why do you do that?”
Taeyong wets his lips. He hugs his arms around himself. To him, the answer is obvious. “Because life is difficult, and I want to escape. Isn’t that always the reason?”
Doyoung can agree. Life is difficult. Early twenties is difficult. But this isn’t the way to solve problems, not in the long term. Doyoung can’t say he understands this escapism—but he’s not unaware that he has his own fair share of coping mechanisms. Still, seeing Taeyong that night at the hotel, the one who had been full of life and love for his art, he had thought Taeyong had turned out okay, minus the alcoholism he couldn’t fit into the picture. It’s far outside of his comprehension, yet close enough he can grasp him as intimately as reaching towards one’s own hand in a mirror.
“I wish you were happy, unlike me.” He remembers Taeyong had said.
Are you unhappy?
Why are you so sad? Is your life as unfulfilling as mine?
Doyoung takes a deep breath, tries to remain grounded in the problem at hand. “Have you considered healthier coping mechanisms?”
“Oh, I know…meditation, counselling, I know. Haechan tells me all the time.” Taeyong sighs deeply. “When I feel bad, coping healthily is the last thing I want to do. It’s hard to control my urges and emotions, I just give in to them,” he laughs dryly at himself. “And when I feel fine, I don’t think there’s anything wrong, so I don’t go out of my way to seek help.”
“Nothing. It’s just relatable, I guess.”
Doyoung thinks back to all the mornings when he couldn’t get out of bed. They always make no sense to him. He always blames himself, because so many other mornings he has no problem getting up. Because those mornings exist, he knows he’s okay. Always believes he doesn’t really need help, in the end. “Yeah. Something about what you said.”
Taeyong stews on it for a little bit. “I’ve been meaning to ask why you had half a bottle of rum on your table in the first place.”
“That…honestly, I would drink more if I wasn’t drinking socially all the time anyway, if my tolerance wasn’t fucked to shit.” Doyoung chuckles.
He looks down at Taeyong’s outstretched hand. “This is nothing to fist bump over.”
Taeyong grins. “It’s good to know we still have something in common.”
Doyoung shakes his head. He doesn’t reciprocate, and Taeyong drops his arm with a noise of disappointment.
“So…what are you coping with?”
Doyoung thinks for a long time. “No substances…more like overworking myself.”
“No, I mean…what’s hurting you?”
“Let’s…talk about you tonight.”
“Okay,” Taeyong says in a small voice, “we can do that.”
Taeyong stamps his feet, blows warm air into his gloved hands, though Doyoung thinks it must hardly penetrate the material, or carry much heat given how much of his life force Taeyong emptied out earlier.
“Are you cold?”
“Not really. Maybe a little.”
“I’ll grab you a jacket—”
“Don’t. It’s fine.”
“Then here,” Doyoung shucks off his own coat, pressing it onto Taeyong’s shoulders. “You just threw up all your energy. It’s easiest to catch a cold when your immune system is down like this.”
Taeyong doesn’t protest, looking straight ahead at the building across from them. He laughs upon hearing Doyoung’s explanation. He sticks his arms through the sleeves. Doyoung doesn’t know what’s so funny. Maybe he’s just too tired to argue.
“Doyoung, I don’t want to make it seem like I’m falling apart. I’m functional, I’ve found my way to hold it together. It’s not foolproof, but I get by. I don’t want you to feel responsible for…it’s not all about…what I mean is I’m not looking for anything from you. I said closure, but even that wasn’t the truth. I just wanted to see you one last time, that’s alone is enough.”
“I understand. But I think you should let me decide what I want to do.”
“Okay,” Taeyong whispers.
“I wanted to ask,” Doyoung says. He takes a moment to gather the words. “Does the reason why you feel so bad have anything to do with…the way our relationship ended?”
Doyoung watches Taeyong swallow hard. He opens his mouth, but nothing but the cloud of his breath comes out for a while.
“There are…um. There are a lot of reasons.”
Taeyong stops. He’s chewing on his lip, brows furrowed. Doyoung waits for him.
After a long time, he speaks again.
“This is really—it’s hard…for me to explain. It kind of hurts to think about, it’s hard enough living with it.” He pauses again. He looks like he’s really struggling.
“It shouldn’t impact me so hard for so long but I—um. Do I have to answer this question? Ugh, even if I don’t answer it now you must’ve already figured it out.”
“Hyung, we don’t have to talk about this—”
“I’m afraid of telling you. It’s really hard, telling this to you. It’s embarrassing. I’m afraid you’ll laugh at me or find me pathetic. You’re the last person I want thinking that about me.”
Doyoung swallows. I won’t think that, he wants to say reflexively. But he holds himself, thinks about these words. They sound…eerily familiar to some thoughts he’s had himself. He knows this feeling, knows what it’s like to feel like he would rather die than have to admit certain things about Taeyong to Taeyong.
“I see,” he decides to say, gently, “you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”
It’s hard to be honest. They don’t have to be honest, not right away. They can get there slowly, one step at a time. Yeah, it’ll take time, it’ll take effort, a lot of talking, a lot of reintegrating back into each other’s lives…and Doyoung is scared of it, but he’s given up pushing Taeyong away. He’s willing to try—grasping at some closure, grasping at something else, he doesn’t know.
Doyoung’s aware of how hard Taeyong is trying, and in turn how hard he himself is trying, too, to stay honest and open. For a moment he’s floored by the difference in their communication; they haven’t always been able to talk like this. This feels foreign, yet so familiar. Foreign to the last image he had of them, yet familiar to an even older point in time, the evolved form of something they used to practice.
Honesty. Maybe what it took was time. Maybe it’s something only achieved with age. Maybe, they just needed the distance from one another. Regardless, at this point in time, Doyoung finds it much easier to be calm, objective, and open with Taeyong about things. He almost can’t remember how their communication could have deteriorated to what it had been back then—the fights, the misunderstandings, but most of all, the silence—but he also knows that the younger version of himself had his reasons, and he respects that, too.
Maybe this is what truly marks the end of moving on. All the grudges let go of, all the mental and emotional blocks gone until all that’s left is the truth, in reflection.
For a moment, Doyoung feels…sad.
He understands now that he’s never quite let things go as cleanly as he wished. He’s lived with this feeling—this passionate rejection of Taeyong—for so long, it feels like it’s become a part of him.
Like a bubble bursting in the air, Doyoung feels the invisible threads linking them together unravel…all of a sudden, he feels more alone than ever.
Without this last, meagre, tenuous connection, what will be left?
Hollow memories, ghosts of emotions, to be recalled but not re-experienced? The continuation of these muted days, turning into muted years? Will there ever be another who could make him feel so colorful, will he ever be a person capable of embodying color again?
What he sees up ahead, is it merely a future without each other, or the start of something, too?
“So yeah,” Taeyong says, jerking him back to the present without a moment to breathe. Doyoung’s head turns to him. For a split second, he is so glad that Taeyong is still here. “You can say it has something to do with our breakup. But everything in the past has something to do with everything in the present, right? One thing always leads to another. Until here we are.”
“Here we are,” he echoes, eyes going wide. They’re here. For the first time, it feels real, it hits him. Taeyong is here. Not in the shape and form he imagined—neither of them are—but they are here, and there is something substantive to this knowledge.
They stand side by side in silence again, taking turns breathing white clouds into the air.
“Don’t feel guilty for your emotions, Taeyong. Don’t punish yourself for them. You don’t deserve to hurt yourself by drinking like that.” Doyoung whispers, marks of sadness in his voice, “it’s not worth it.”
Taeyong looks up at the sky. “I don’t know if I’m rewarding myself or punishing myself, or just trying to make this all a little more bearable for myself…”
“Don’t drink anymore, hyung.”
It must be nearing midnight. The rain is slowly receding, coming down in a quiet shuffle and sticking to their skins like mist. Doyoung tucks his cold hands into his back pockets.
Taeyong is staring far off into the distance at the lit up cityscape just visible behind the apartment building across from theirs. Doyoung follows his gaze, notices for the first time all the holiday lights that have been put up on the balconies standing across from them.
Doyoung can’t find it in himself to ever decorate like this. The act feels so foreign, even though he knows people who would eagerly lend themselves to such mood-making. Maybe, it’s because there is no festive energy in him; he doesn’t even have the will to create some for himself. Celebrating these annual landmarks, surrendering oneself to these seasonal moods takes an effort in appreciating the conventional rhythms of life, an effort at grasping these arbitrary chances for creating joy—being happy for the sake of being happy—an effort that Doyoung has no energy to make. He knows friends who would make a big deal out of things like holidays and birthdays. To him, they are all in essence so meaningless.
He stares at the blinking lights wrapped around the railings of one apartment unit. Inside, beyond the balcony door, he can see an equally decorated Christmas tree. Truly, on a night like this, these things make the difference between a home and a place to sleep. In this jam-packed city, in these buildings made up of meagerly portioned spaces, each resident lays claim to their share of four walls to call home. Merely concrete boxes, all identical, in the end, yet it remains somehow significant that people claim their own square of space as their own, breathing life and personality into them.
Doyoung thinks about his barren place, thinks about how Haechan’s sunflowers are going to be the first piece of decoration he’ll have put up in a year. He recalls the band posters that line his walls in his family home, remnants of high school times when displaying such things, for himself, for others, felt like it still counted for something.
But he also thinks about his plants, decorating his own apartment. A source of comfort, marks of life in their own right. Having them makes Doyoung feel like he can grasp it better, his place in the universe. Makes him feel like he’s doing something right, reifying the abstract concept that is living one’s life.
Doyoung wonders when life lost its vibrance. When the city lights became overbearing, more than inspiring. Wonders whether he’s finding ways to help himself hang on, whether hanging on is his state of being, wonders…how long?
How much longer will I feel like this?
“Taeyong,” he sighs into the quiet, “I’m not as put together as you’d think, either.”
The phrase echoes in the silence. Taeyong turns to observe him. “What do you mean?”
“I mean…I’m only twenty,” Doyoung laughs at the absurdity, “I don’t have my life together, either.”
It’s an admission. Honesty, of sorts. It’s the first time Doyoung’s saying it, even to himself, even if it’s noncommittal, with very loose implications.
At least to him, this phrase doesn’t mean much. He’s heard it all too often before. People in university love to praise others for how “put together” their life seems, presumably in contrast to their own, and people love to deny it out of fake modesty. Doyoung doesn’t understand. What’s wrong with admitting you are fine? Students seem obsessed with having problems, start to believe they’re depressed at the slightest setback. Everyone wants to think they’re suffering from something, no one wants to admit that their life and their struggles are normal, no more special than the problems of their neighbours.
“I’m not as put together as you think.” Doyoung thinks back to all the times he’s been told this by his peers who seem to be thriving and, by his judgment, have no outstanding problems. It’s another subjective, relative evaluation; there is no objective standard of wellbeing that everyone agrees upon. In university, everyone seems to think they’re falling apart, and Doyoung can remember those times he’d feel deeply skeptical hearing this from someone he had judged has everything going for them. He understands that everyone has problems they don’t express, yet the frequency with which he finds his peers judging themselves to be abnormally messed is just statistically impossible and unrealistic.
What does it even mean to be put together? Is there a set of external criteria to be ticked, or is it an internal comparison to one’s idealized state of being? In both senses, how can anyone be absolutely put together all the time? If that is an unrealistic expectation, what value remains in the judgment that one is not put together?
Still, that can’t mean everyone is suffering to the same degree. If everyone felt as awful as Doyoung did—which is the only gram of truth prompting this admission in the first place—then that must mean Doyoung, too, has less problems than he allows himself to pity himself for. That must mean that, surely, Doyoung too has no right to claim he’s not “put together”. Doyoung is average, his problems are normal. This is why he has refrained from the believing there’s something truly wrong with the state of his life all this time.
Yet, now he finds himself replicating these vapid words. Caught in the tender, confessional mood of their conversation, encouraged by Taeyong’s openness, he had…thought that he would want Taeyong to know that he is not alone. Wanted him to know that he wouldn’t judge him, for his presiding issues related to their past. Wanted him to know that Doyoung isn’t looking down on him from a place of superiority, that he too is not as tightly bound together as the image he’s been trying hard to uphold—even if it feels like an admission of weakness.
But he wonders what the words might mean for Taeyong, wonders if Taeyong will feel like, on the scale of wellness relative to himself, Doyoung’s problems are not significant enough to make him “not put together”.
It turns out Taeyong just chuckles. “You do realize the first time I saw you again, you were crying on the staircase? That’s my first impression of you, Doyoung.”
Doyoung bites his lip, feels his cheeks heat up. It’s a fair point. “I mean. Okay. But of course I’m not like that every day. I just wanted you to know I have days like that, too. Fine—I’m not as put together as I try to look. I’m just trying to empathize.”
“I know, I know what you mean. We both have some struggles, right? We both turned out not-so-fine.”
Doyoung doesn’t know if he agrees, but he doesn’t argue.
“I’m not…” he starts, some sort of clarification he feels necessary, “I’m not falling apart, though. I also found a way to keep things together. You don’t have to worry about me,” he says, and instantly regrets it, “you should…worry about yourself.”
Taeyong takes some time before turning to Doyoung. “I feel like, in the past, once upon a time, I didn’t make this clear enough, so I want to do this now. It doesn’t matter how messed up I am. If you ever wanted to share your problems with someone, I’m here to listen.”
Doyoung thinks about it: he wonders, by doing so, who has more to gain. Himself, or Taeyong? Doyoung is an independent person, he’s perfectly capable of handling himself. The concept of sharing his problems seems so foreign. What does it achieve? “I’ll think about it. I appreciate it, hyung.”
Taeyong looks over slowly, as if appraising him. “You know…you’re really different now. That’s for sure.”
“Yeah…you’re very different from how I remember.”
Doyoung doesn’t know what to make of this. “What makes you think that?”
He knows he’s changed a lot, but he wonders what Taeyong thinks.
Taeyong pauses a moment. “Can I be honest?”
“You’re not…shining anymore.” Taeyong stops to think.
Doyoung raises an eyebrow. Is it…an insult? An observation? He doesn’t know what to think.
“You used to be the life of the class to me. And I don’t mean you were loud, just that you had this welcoming energy to you. You’re a lot more low-key now, I think, you stand out in a different way. But that’s fine, of course, I know there are many reasons behind that. Growing up, calming down, my own perception changing. But you feel…how do I put it? More…”
Doyoung listens intently, waits for him.
“Distant,” Taeyong decides, brows furrowing a little. “Colder, to be honest.”
“Hm,” Doyoung hums.
Taeyong’s watching him for a reaction, as if afraid he could hurt his feelings. Doyoung doesn’t know what he feels, is still processing the information.
“I would’ve thought going into business would bring you closer to people, but it seems like now you’re even more introverted.”
Doyoung chews on his lip. “I am closer to people, I have to be.”
“Doesn’t…really feel that way.”
Doyoung looks over. They seem to have different definitions of the word ‘closer’. “Just because I’m friendly to people, doesn’t mean I feel anything towards them.”
Taeyong winces. “Ouch. That’s really cold.”
Is it? Doyoung doesn’t know. But saying it, laying it out like this is making him feel a certain way. Is this what he wanted? To have all these acquaintances he’s friendly with, a network to support his future? Sure. But what about this superficial ability to impress, but never truly connect? It’s not a revelation of any sort, but moments like now, talking to Taeyong truthfully about these matters makes him realize all the more that it’s having to deal with people all the time that makes him feel conversely more alone next to them.
So really, is it him that lacks warmth, or the environment he’s found himself in?
Suddenly, Doyoung becomes aware of how cold he actually feels. He had given his coat to Taeyong, and now is left shivering out in the winter in two layers of a sweater and a turtleneck.
“It doesn’t have to be,” he suppresses a shiver, “cold. It’s just the truth.”
Taeyong’s expression is complicated. “You say things like this now…no feeling, just facts.”
Doyoung shrugs. Nothing he can do about it. If Taeyong has a problem with it, that’s his problem. “Like you said. I’ve changed.”
“It’s not a bad thing, per se.” Taeyong finally exhales. “Just different.”
Each absorbed in their own thoughts, retracing the conversation, they’re quiet for a while.
“But some things about you haven’t changed at all,” Taeyong finally says.
Taeyong’s watching him. “You’re still…extraordinary.”
Doyoung chuckles once, incredulous. “You used to tell me that, too. Till now I still don’t know what it means.”
Taeyong laughs softly.
“Just something about you. You’re thoughtful, deep. I want to know what you have to say about things.”
Doyoung shakes his head. “How do you know? We haven’t talked in so long.”
“When I listen to your radio…I get the feeling that, in the end, you’re still the same person as I used to know.”
“You…you listen to my radio?”
Eyes wide, he turns to Taeyong, but Taeyong has already looked away from the force of this particular confession.
“When I listen to your radio…it makes me wish we were friends.”
Slowly…the understanding, the words themselves enter Doyoung’s mind, and he’s left momentarily speechless. It’s never occurred to him that…but it only makes sense. He is live on air in the public domain after all, makes his radio program accessible to all. But the fact that Taeyong has been paying attention to him—for how long?—that he would pinpoint specifically this as the link between Doyoung’s past and present…it makes him emotional in ways he doesn’t understand. Momentarily, by force of habit, the thought returns to Doyoung that maybe he should be leaving this self-serving hobby behind, should he truly wish to reinvent himself the way he wants to. But something about the way Taeyong speaks of this fact, as if it’s utmost precious to him that he still finds pieces of the Doyoung he used to know embedded in this now-stranger, makes Doyoung think that maybe there is something here that’s holding his identity together, throughout disjointed time, like threads running across an open wound.
“Can we be friends again, Doyoung?”
Doyoung turns to his voice. He observes Taeyong in profile, in the dark, with nothing but the backlighting of the apartment making out the shapes of him. Taeyong’s eyes are focused on him, wide, intent. Beautiful and dark, limpid pools. Inside them, something is swirling. Doyoung imagines it’s the same wisps of hope that his voice carries.
“Is that too much to ask? You can say no…just…pushing my luck here,” Taeyong looks down.
Truthfully, he had been expecting this. Ever since they crossed paths again, today or tomorrow, he knew this day would come.
He knows that all the resistance he felt against Taeyong had already dissipated. What’s left at this point is a wariness, a necessary hesitation. How close…how close should he be letting them be? What is the appropriate distance, for now, and how much closer are they going to get? These are questions that hold Doyoung back from jumping in. Doyoung is monumentally afraid of…many things, some he’s not willing to admit to himself. Being around Taeyong feels like playing with fire, something he hasn’t felt about anybody in a long time. Above all, he feels it in his guts that having Taeyong back again will irreversibly shake up his life, and he’s afraid of this impending change, afraid to be shaken at the foundations.
A cut rope can never be mended, but Doyoung wonders if it’s worth something for them to try to tie these severed ends back together.
It would be nice to have another person to call friend, he reasons.
People commit to relationships all the time, even while they don’t know each other well. Yet, there are certain parts of them, the core of them that hasn’t changed at all, things that Taeyong understands about him without him having to explain. Having someone from the past back is convenient like that, and this too Doyoung is afraid of falling into, of relying on.
Still, he has to admit to himself—he does want to be friends again. There’s a curiosity there. There’s an excitement, some sort of anticipation in his chest. Something is changing, and it thrills him and terrifies him at the same time. What Doyoung is chasing after, he doesn’t know…a feeling of some sort, a possibility, a vision…
He’s willing to try.
“Yeah, we can be friends,” he replies at last.
Taeyong’s eyes go wide, innocent like a child, gaze betraying all the emotions he had been trying hard all this time to contain. It makes Doyoung cautious, and the following thought comes out before he really thinks it through,
“But you know things are going to be different, right? It’s not going to be like before…”
Taeyong’s expression falls. He looks affronted. “I know. Of course I know. I’m not…I’m not delusional. I get it.”
Doyoung feels bad. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine…I get it.”
After a moment, Taeyong turns to him and holds out his arms, looking a little…pouty.
“Can I have a hug?”
Doyoung laughs. “Yeah, okay.”
He steps into Taeyong tentatively, feels Taeyong’s arms wrap around him. Taeyong is actually warm; Doyoung feels his body heat through his own coat. It’s the smell of him that hits him. Something so familiar, something etched deeply into the crevices of his brain—all of a sudden he’s unable to deny it any longer: he’s missed this person. There is something here in this kind of embrace that is tender, the understanding wrapping softly around him…everything that this means, everything it used to mean. Doyoung feels it gently, the thawing of something that occurs when Taeyong leans onto his shoulder. A familiar fit. They’ve both grown a little taller. It frightens him. It makes his heart pound.
It’s been so long since he’s hugged someone like this.
Against him, Taeyong’s chest rises as he inhales deeply.
Doyoung pats his back a few times, and then they let go.
The handshake of friendship—completed.
The end to conflict, the end to three years of stalemate, a new beginning.
The balcony door slides open, and both of them turn towards the sound. Johnny peeks his head out, a warm glow to him.
“Merry Christmas, guys.”
Doyoung pulls out his phone for the time. Silently, the point of midnight had slipped past them.
“You too,” Taeyong smiles. “Thanks for everything.”
“I’m not kicking you guys out, but it’s late. Taeyong, you three should get home.”
Inside, Mark and Haechan are piled on top of one another, fast asleep on the sofa. Neither Doyoung nor Taeyong had noticed when everyone else left.
Johnny nods at the sleeping first years. “They didn’t want to interrupt.”
“Aww,” Taeyong exhales. “That’s very sweet.”
“You should stop giving them such a hard time.”
“I know, I know.”
Taeyong gives Doyoung back his coat. It’s warm when Doyoung puts it on.
Finger by finger, Taeyong peels off his gloves, carefully placing them in his pocket. He pulls out his phone and starts typing into it. “I’ll call a cab.”
Doyoung puts a hand on his shoulder. “Come. I’ll drive you.”
On the drive back, each are absorbed in their own thoughts, their own ways of processing everything that's been said, and everything that hasn't been said tonight. When he's not paying attention to the GPS, Doyoung's mind is galloping like a race horse, tired but wide awake, thinking about their past, present, and future.
In the parking lot of Taeyong’s dorm, with the engine on idle, Doyoung struggles to find a way to say goodbye.
“Well…it’s been good talking,” he looks over his shoulder. Taeyong meets his eyes.
“Do you…” Taeyong’s voice is quiet, “do you want to talk more? You can come inside.”
Doyoung smiles. There’s a kindness behind it, something genuine. “Thanks. Maybe another time.”
He lifts a hand across the armrest, places it gently on Taeyong’s arm, just a moment.
“Hyung, let’s take it slow.”
Taeyong meets his eyes with recognition and understanding in his own.
The touch falls, but the warmth lingers.
“This time…I promise I’m not going anywhere.”
Taeyong says as he cranks open the door. Doyoung has no time to interpret the words—Taeyong pulls open the door to the backseats and wakes up his roommates, who had fallen asleep amidst the gentle jostling of the ride.
“I’ll catch you in the new year,” Taeyong says, hand on the door.
“See you next year.” Doyoung smiles, feeling kind of helpless. “Take it easy. Take care.”
“I will. You too.”
loving reminder to check out this fic's playlist!
Note: content warning for brief mention of suicide.
Check end notes for the parts that have been rewritten!
In this story, Gongmyung is 4 years older than Doyoung as opposed to their irl age gap of 2 years.
As a side note, I hope to post part 4 fairly soon (the first four parts combined sit at 82k words), as I don't plan on changing it much. However, the trade off for having it available is that I don't know when I'll be able to update next. Part 4 is as far as I've written before I decided to remaster the story. From here on, it will truly be a new beginning. I am nothing if not utterly excited!
For now, here is part 3. I hope you enjoy!
This chapter had some mid-scale changes made to it, mostly during Doyoung's first dialogue with Gongmyung, his dialogue with his mother, and a small bit of his dialogue with Gongmyung in the car. Other small changes have been made here and there. Taeyong's letter remains unchanged, and the reflection that comes after is mostly unchanged as well, except for one somewhat important detail...if you want to know, search for the word "addicted".
Gongmyung is coming home.
It’s the only thought on Doyoung’s mind Friday morning as he packs his bag and eats a hasty breakfast. He has been waiting all week for this day. His brother would be home in time for the New Year, that was the news he heard before Christmas. Suddenly his winter break seemed to be saved from monotony, at least for the few days Gongmyung can spare to be at home. The night before, he had cleaned the apartment, getting ready to leave the city behind for an indefinite amount of time and dive into the familiar embrace of the suburbs. By 10 in the morning, he’s out the door, freshly shaved and spirits refreshed. Hyung is coming home.
In the blink of an eye, the first semester of third year wrapped up neatly along with the end of the year, and winter break welcomes home itinerant travelers from all over the world. His brother, among those abroad, is set to land early morning, with a good chance of him already being home by the time Doyoung finds his way across the city. Gongmyung never specified which flight, refusing again and again Doyoung’s offer to pick him up at the airport, insisting that they’ll see each other soon enough.
Key in the ignition, Doyoung lowers the brakes, cranks up the heater and lets it slowly defrost the ice on his windshield. He’s in a bit of a weird mood. He’s giddy from excitement, like a child, so much so that he’s somewhat anxious. There’s a spectrum of emotions associated with going home, with seeing his family, and he’s sitting above them all at the moment, trying to maintain a blank state of mind. Instead of finding some suitable music from his phone, Doyoung leaves his mood to be determined by the ambient sounds of the news from the morning radio.
Doyoung’s family home is a forty-five minute drive from the city, situated across the shimmering river that bifurcates the landscape, a neat geographic division between the residential areas and the commercial centres. To get to the suburbs, one would have to take one of many bridges, respectively colored and arching magnificently over the water. Doyoung likes the drive there almost as much as he likes the drive back. With his window open just a crack, he can feel the breeze across the water ruffle his hair, smelling fresh of petrichor, fresh like a kind of freedom. At the zenith, there waits for him a sweeping view of the city in its entirety, houses melting into the low line of distant mountains and hovering clouds at the horizon.
Feels like a different life, across the bridge. Doyoung feels like he can taste it in the air. Close, yet so far, a world whose gears churn on its own daily just outside of Doyoung’s periphery. He grips the wheel tighter. He’s lived here all his life, but the slow vibe of the town no longer gives him the comfort of returning home. Rather, it feels empty, the ghost shell of what it used to be now devoid of essence, lingering with nothing more than the holographic imprints of people associated with the places from his memories.
During his time in university, Doyoung can probably count the amount of times he’s gone home on two hands. The longer he’s away, the more the number of these visits dwindle. He can’t say he doesn’t like being there, but there is an almost imperceptible atmosphere at home that always feels mildly oppressive. Even without its inhabitants, the house itself in all its well-kept regality looms over him like an upright, towering bear. Doyoung finds that sometimes he can’t look the house in the eyes. With his parents gone half the time, he has even less reason to return to the beast’s judgmental scrutiny.
Each and every time he’s gone back after he started university, the air at home seems more and more constricted. Doyoung gets the irrational feeling that the place as a living and breathing entity gets more and more hostile towards him as time goes on. He isn’t certain why. Nor is he sure who ousted who, who cast who off first, the house or himself. It’s as if all the lovingness permeating the space had been sucked out and stored somewhere else. Maybe it began when the family structure slowly fell apart after Doyoung left for university, when his father decided that, with child rearing finally out of the way, it was time to pursue more projects overseas. Since then, he’s been in and out of the house, sometimes taking Doyoung’s mother and sometimes leaving her to her volunteer activities around the city. Their house became a transitory abode, with people coming and going all the time that the sense of it being a home has become buried as the dust collected on the windowsills.
It’s gotten harder and harder to talk to his parents. Doyoung dislikes this development, but he blames no one but himself.
The drive can’t pass by slowly enough for the anxiety to ease, and sooner than later, Doyoung finds himself turning onto the familiar stretch of road that leads to his front door.
When he opens the door, he hears the sound of slippers frantically slapping against the staircase.
His mother calls, and rushes down the stairs to pull him into a tight hug. She looks, as usual, like she hasn’t aged. Her petite figure is warm to hold. Her big smile makes Doyoung smile in return. Doyoung has missed her.
“How’d you know I was here?”
“I heard you pulling up in the driveway.”
She gives him a once-over.
“It’s been so long. Did you lose weight again?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“You’re eating well?”
“Yeah, I cook sometimes. I eat and sleep fine. I’m healthy!” Doyoung feigns a flex. It makes both of them laugh.
“You can’t make me believe you exercise now.”
“I do at least one sit up a day. Half in the morning when I get up and half at night when I lie down.”
She smacks him on the arm. There’s a twinkle in her eyes as she watches him.
“If you ever get tired of your place, you’re always welcome home, you know that?”
Doyoung’s smile stretches across his face. “I know, mom. I like living on my own.”
She sighs. “You and your brother both. You siblings like being on your own too much.”
“Where is hyung?”
“He was in the study just now. Hey, do you want some breakfast?”
“No, I’m good. I had some food already.”
Doyoung leaves her to look for his brother upstairs. He passes by his own room and stops by to drop off his bag.
Not much has changed about his room since the last time he’s been here. Band posters line the walls, their corners losing adhesion and upturned with age. Miscellaneous writing utensils and books remain on his table. Some childhood plushies, along with the rest of his comic book collection line the shelves. His closet is full of clothes that have gone out of fashion, now half a size too small. His room had once been full of signs of life, much more cluttered than his apartment ever was, but Doyoung feels little attachment to this place now. This, too, is the ghost shell of a time and place he tries not to think about.
Just around the corner, there is one room in the house that always feels timeless.
Taking a deep breath, Doyoung pushes open the doors to his father’s study.
Unexpectedly, Gongmyung is nowhere in sight, although his phone has been left on the table. Doyoung decides to wait around. Meanwhile, he lets himself sink into the familiar, permeating atmosphere of this special room.
His father’s study. When Doyoung was younger, in his elementary years, this room had been his favorite hangout and playground. He used to sit on the plush leather computer chair, his legs dangling off the floor, and his father would spin him round and round the way they would sit on the floor together and spin the big globe model. As a child, Doyoung spent countless afternoons taking countless naps in the rocking chair in the corner. He didn’t understand the purpose of this majestic room, only knew he loved the warm mahogany walls and iridescent vaulted windows, felt bathed in sunlight every time he was allowed in. For hours, Doyoung would sit on the carpet reading a book, watching the light catch off of specks of dust dancing in the air. It felt like he was transported to another world in this classic Western style room that seemed so out of league of their otherwise humble Korean lifestyle.
As he aged, there came a point when, after hearing enough times from his mother “not now, your father’s having a meeting”, that he understood that this study existed not just for display. It was a locus of business, of work, a place where his father and brother discussed important things into the middle of the night while he watched through a crack in the door, isolated entirely from their grown-up world.
For the longest part of his life, Doyoung had nothing to do with the business that went on behind these closed doors. His mother insisted that they had been shut on him to protect him. It’s a complicated world, she had said. It’s an exhausting life your father and brother had chosen, she said. Helpless to stop her other loved ones, she wanted desperately to keep her youngest son away. Don’t worry about them, she had said, don’t you have a recital coming up? And so Doyoung, at fifteen, learned to stay in his lane, his world of music, even if the burning curiosity never left.
Now, standing here as who he is, even without the people to corroborate his status, Doyoung feels proud to be at one with this world he had desperately wanted to understand.
A momentary buzz from Gongmyung’s phone calls him back to the present.
It’s been a long time since he’d been here. Doyoung takes a deep breath. The room smells woody and not unpleasant. Absentmindedly, he trails his fingers across the issues of The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, The Economist lying on the table. Years’ worth of these magazines and more lined the bookcases embedded into all four walls.
Everything is as he remembers. Behind the desk is a fireplace, above which hangs his father’s favorite piece of art of all time—a big painting of the ocean. The analogue clock on the table, a gift from a distant uncle. A calendar from the previous year, a telephone set. Olive green armchairs around a coffee table. Sconces on the walls and antique lamps in the corners. A paper knife in a tray with opened letters. His brother’s trophies reaching the top of the shelves, along with his own just beneath from past singing competitions. Family photos. The stale air.
“Look at you.”
Doyoung hadn’t noticed when Gongmyung came in.
He spins around, almost losing his balance. “Hyung!”
Standing in a ray of light, Gongmyung is smiling ear to ear at him. “Hey.”
Doyoung rushes over to throw his arms around him, burying his wide grin into his brother’s shoulder. Gongmyung hugs him back with the same vigor.
“You scared me. When did you arrive?”
“Just before you did.”
“Really, hyung.” He pulls away to thoroughly study Gongmyung. He doesn’t look much different from his memory at all, only that his hair is now permed. Noticing him dressed in one of his old t-shirts, Doyoung doesn’t know why he had almost expected to see his brother in a suit on a Friday morning. “I can’t believe you’re back.”
“Yeah.” Gongmyung says, warm smile in place. “Miss me?”
“Do you even have to ask?” Doyoung lets go of his brother’s arms. “What’s that?”
Gongmyung is holding up a photograph. It’s a picture of the two of them. In the photo, they’re in elementary school. Doyoung has on a t-shirt and is eating a slice of watermelon, sitting on the porch of their house. Gongmyung stands behind him, holding an identical slice of watermelon, but instead of eating it he is looking far off into the distance. Their asymmetrical poses give the candid photograph an artistic composition. Doyoung can’t remember the photo being taken, or who it was that took it.
Gongmyung puts the photo back onto the shelf. He gives a few solid pats to Doyoung’s shoulder.
“You got taller.”
“Then you did, too!”
“You’re almost as tall as me now.”
“What do you mean? We’ve had this height gap for years,” Doyoung pauses. “Actually, I wouldn’t know. I haven’t measured myself in years.”
“I don’t know…maybe you just felt smaller. It’s the vibe you give.”
Doyoung hums. “Feels like it’s been forever since I saw you.”
“It hasn’t been that long.”
“Two years already since you went to New York.”
“Yeah,” Gongmyung says, “I hope you remember my promise.” He smiles.
“I said I’ll take you there when you graduate. Next year.”
He had said that years ago, when Doyoung sent him off at the airport. Doyoung quite honestly forgot about it. He has no interest in New York or Wall Street, though he does have every interest in his brother and his life.
“If all goes well,” Doyoung laughs.
“How’s school? I bet you’re owning your classes.”
Doyoung tenses up a little. “I don’t know about that. I’m busy, more than anything else.”
“No kidding. You barely replied to my messages last month.”
“You have no idea how much I had to do, for class, for clubs, work…but I’m fine now.”
Gongmyung laughs. “That’s good to hear. Are you having fun?”
Doyoung licks his lip. “Of course,” he lies.
Gongmyung stares back at him. Doyoung feels his heart speed up. It’s the same exchange they always have over phone—there’s no reason his brother should suspect anything is amiss. Still, this conversation makes Doyoung infinitely nervous. It’s a lot harder to tell a lie, even a half-truth, in person, especially under Gongmyung’s incisive inspection. Still, Doyoung prides himself on being good enough at masking his emotions to get by.
After a moment, Gongmyung smiles back at him. “I’m glad. Good to hear you’re doing okay.”
“I am. School is going pretty well.” It’s no longer a lie, in a sense. “I’ve been kept alive by coffee for the past month, but it’s worth the results.”
“What? Straight A’s?”
“Well.” He grins. “At least it’s nothing to worry about.”
“Good on you. Have you been looking into places to apply to next year?”
“Yeah, I have. Only locally, but there are a few that are fine with me.”
Gongmyung gives it some thought. “You know, Doyoung.” He says, eyes absentmindedly scanning the row of their family photos on the shelf, “If you wanted, you could go anywhere. You are more than capable.”
Doyoung smiles. “I know. But I’m fine here.”
“You say that because you haven’t lived anywhere else. How about it? I could set you up with an internship next summer.”
“It’s okay, I can look for one myself. I have too many obligations tying me to this place.” He adds, as an afterthought, “I’ll have to do something about the radio before then.”
“The radio,” Gongmyung turns around to look at him. “You’re still working at the school radio? I thought you were going to stop in third year.”
Doyoung’s heart seizes up. He hasn’t mentioned the radio to Gongmyung in a long time. Doyoung can’t tell what he means. Is he just asking, or does he mean to say more? What if Gongmyung thought he is fooling around, wasting time? Did Gongmyung want him to stop? If he were ever confronted, would Doyoung know how to defend his own choices, did he even…believe in them himself?
“I’m still there.” He swallows. “Twice a week.”
Gongmyung’s eyes widen for a second, before he turns back to the shelf. He hands Doyoung a photo of himself making an ugly face at the camera. Doyoung chuckles, but it comes out sounding strained. “I’m just amazed you still have time. When I was in school, I only had time for club or work, not both. I thought it was great to have a hobby when you told me about it in first year, I just didn’t think you kept going with it. Are you going to do it for much longer?”
“I don’t know.” Doyoung sighs. “I haven’t thought about it.”
Gongmyung is watching him again. It’s a look he’s been subject to all his life. Doyoung doesn’t fear it, because he knows Gongmyung will come back to him smiling, knows Gongmyung would never call him out on any of his lies if he ever detects them, but it still makes him nervous.
“That’s fine. As long as you have time. I’m sure you’ll find a way to manage.” Gongmyung laughs. “I mean, look at you. You’re independent now, living on your own, making money, all the while doing so well in school…”
“Hyung.” The grin on Doyoung’s lips is small and sweet as he sidles up to Gongmyung. “Have I changed much?”
He stands still, back straight to give his brother a thorough look. Gongmyung looks him up and down, from his lifted chin, proper smile, down to his outward pointing feet. The longer Gongmyung examines him, the more Doyoung wants to smile.
After a moment, Gongmyung laughs again. “You must have. But you’ll always be the same to me, Doyoung.”
Doyoung stands there, pouting. “But I’ve worked so hard!”
“But you’ve always worked hard.”
“I haven’t, though.”
“Give yourself some credit,” Gongmyung nudges him. “You haven’t really changed, you’ve just grown. You’d have to go and tell me something like you got a girlfriend for me to really think you changed,” Gongmyung says through a smirk.
“Why is that the measuring standard?!”
“Because it’s so unlikely! I know you’re not that interested, but have you even tried dating people? I hope you’re at least going out time to time.”
“Please. I do go out with people. I go on dates…! They just don’t go anywhere, and then…then I get bored. There are better things to do.”
Gongmyung appraises him. Doyoung wishes Gongmyung would drop the topic, but he seems to take this talk seriously. “All I’m saying is there’s a whole world out there. Have you considered dating at least?”
Doyoung really is allergic to this topic. He hears it from Johnny more than enough. No, he doesn’t ever consider dating. Frankly, it’s the last thing on his mind. He barely has time to keep his own life in running order, how could he possibly have the energy to share that with someone else? Besides, Doyoung is aware that he would make an awful partner. He feels like he has nothing positive to contribute when he’s already struggling to find positivity in his own life.
“I don’t think I have time to date,” he says honestly.
Gongmyung sees his shoulders deflate, and his tone shifts, no longer sugarcoated by the teasing, giving way to the real concern underneath.
“I think you should take your lifestyle more seriously, Doyoung. You work so hard…it’s important and healthy to have a social life, you know? As long as it doesn’t compromise your studies, you should go out and—you know?”
“I don’t want to go out,” Doyoung pouts stubbornly, “and doing all that with my schedule is impossible. I’m just prioritizing here.”
“But I could do it,” Gongmyung says. “When I was in school, I mean.”
The words run by his head, and he feels…his guts twist in a way that feels all too familiar.
He bites his lip.
“Yeah, but…you’re you.”
Gongmyung gazes at him with recognition, all of a sudden understanding. He lifts a hand and, looking solemnly at Doyoung, gently grips his arm.
“There’s nothing I can do that you can’t, Doyoung.”
Doyoung swallows hard.
There are so many things that cross his mind, so many things he wishes he could say, but doesn’t. The phrase Gongmyung utters passes by emphemerally, like a train, hurrying by before he could read its destination. He doesn’t believe it, doesn’t not believe it, or maybe it’s both at the same time.
“I know,” he says at last. “It’s—it’s just hard.”
“I know, it is. I’m concerned about you, that’s all. I just think you’re wonderful and want to sell you to the world. Of course you’re doing fine the way you are.” He comes up to give Doyoung a hug, and an apologetic smile. “It’s okay to take it easy. You don’t have to push yourself.”
Gongmyung hugs him, but inside his arms Doyoung feels their distance, just a little bit. It’s just he does push himself. Gongmyung doesn’t understand that. That’s all he does. He can’t say that to him, it’s not fair, he can’t both encourage him and tell him to rest at the same time. Doyoung doesn’t want to be told to take it easy, he wants to be recognized for how hard he works. It hurts to think he he’s failing Gongmyung’s standards, but he would rather have someone expect too much out of him than expect too little. It feels like that’s all he’s ever known, pushing himself. He knows—if he just works hard, he’ll get there.
Yeah, but…you’re you.
Gongmyung is a different person. He’s better at certain things, too. Gongmyung doesn’t feel exhausted. Gongmyung is efficient. He’s driven, energetic, passionate. Warm, friendly. It’s how Doyoung frames him, in his eyes, someone shining, the opposite of himself, some sort of protagonist. Gongmyung he loves, with all his heart. Doyoung is not envious. He knows his own worth, his own capabilities, and besides, there’s a comfortable place there for him in his brother’s shadows.
Gongmyung lets go of him.
Doyoung doesn’t know what expression he has on, but slowly Gongmyung’s lips stretch into a helpless smile. “Forget about what I said, Doyoung. It’s not important.”
“Alright,” Doyoung finally breathes.
Another moment, and Gongmyung is chuckling through his nose. He pinches Doyoung’s cheek. “Don't take me too seriously.”
“I’m not.” He pouts, rubbing his face. In another moment he is laughing at himself.
Doyoung smiles softly. “I’ve missed you.”
Gongmyung nudges him. “I missed you too. Come, I’ll show you all the things I brought back. I have gifts for everyone.”
“What could New York possibly offer me?” Doyoung mumbles, following him out the door.
“No, it’s from when I went to Japan.”
“I bet you got mom some more hojicha.”
“Don’t ruin my surprise.”
“You didn’t even try to hide it.”
“You’re right,” Gongmyung mutters as he closes the doors. His hands linger on the handles, and he stares down at them, sighs. “Wish dad were here.”
Dinner is a simple affair. Doyoung helps his mother in the kitchen, and Gongmyung cleans up. His mother makes their favourite dishes to welcome them home. Over the warm food, the three of them catch up, reconnect, reminisce about old times and share what is new in their respective worlds. Doyoung smiles and laughs while his mother and brother joke around. It’s not perfect, nor is it complete, but the three of them are a family.
A short while after dinner, Doyoung’s mother comes out carrying the smell of incense from the praying room.
She finds Doyoung by the dining table with his laptop out in front of him, screen dimmed while he reads one of his father’s books. Coming around with the laundry, she peeks at the cover.
“Ah. Your dad left you this book before he left,” she informs him. Doyoung had found the book on the desk in his room, and picked it up assuming something similar. It’s a thick, hard covered tome, titled Capital in the Twenty First Century, by Thomas Piketty. “He’s sorry that he can’t be here this time.”
It aches a bit, to think his father had tried to connect with him in this shape and form, even if he's reaching out to an outdated version of his son. Doyoung is no longer the child he knew, doesn't like reading anymore. Doesn't retain any interest in the subject matter, no less.
“It’s fine. Where is he now?”
“He should be in London. Maybe he’s on his flight to Amsterdam now.”
“The Netherlands? What’s he doing all the way there?”
“Meeting an old friend, I heard.”
“Hmm…” Doyoung goes back to skimming the book. Around the bend, in the laundry room, Doyoung hears his mother load up the machine and set it for a spin. She comes back, but lingers by his side again, setting the laundry pail on the chair beside him.
“Listen, Doyoung-ah.” She pinches his ear affectionately. When he looks up, his mother is wearing an expression hard to read.
She takes a moment to speak again.
“How are you doing?”
Instinctively, Doyoung smiles up at her. “I’m good, mom.”
“Are you happy?”
“Why do you ask?” He says instead of answering.
“Because mom really wants to know.”
Doyoung doesn’t hesitate. “I am happy, mom.”
Hugging her arms in front of her, she lets out a short sigh.
“It’s good if you are. It’s okay if you aren’t, too.”
“I know. But I’m happy.”
And in a sense, he is. He is happy right now, seeing her and seeing his brother. It may be the lack of obligations and stress over the winter break, but Doyoung is in a good state of mind at the moment. He is capable of seeing the happiness in his life, in his present condition. Objectively speaking, his life is going more than smoothly. Doyoung finds no trouble doing what he does as long as his mind is in the right place. Some days, he doesn’t hate it, he just doesn’t love it, and that is reassuring for him to admit. He counts himself lucky that he is in such a cultivating family environment that allows him to grow easily into this role, feels grateful to the help and encouragement he gets, and grateful to himself for his socializing ability, business acumen, intelligence and determination. He’s doing what he wanted. Sometimes he has trouble getting out of bed, but that’s…a whole other issue.
He wonders if there's some kind of occasion, for her to suddenly ask him something like this, wonders if he's given her some reason to worry.
“I’m happy sometimes,” he clarifies, when she doesn’t budge, “just like everyone else.”
His mother is not convinced.
“I don’t know…I’m always happy,” she throws back, sitting down squarely across from him.
Doyoung puts his book down. Briefly, he’s reminded of the last time someone stated something as bold as this, like it’s simply a matter of fact. I’m truly happy right now.
He can’t hold back a chuckle. “Now you’re just lying. How can anyone always feel happy?”
“It’s not a feeling, Doyoung.” She continues seriously, looking into his eyes. “It’s an attitude. A state of being. It’s a state of mental wellness. You know, even when I was going through design school pregnant with your brother, when your dad and I had so little money and we lived in a one-bedroom box. When he was having trouble finding a job and we were dirt poor. I had never once been unhappy.”
Doyoung leans his chin on his hands. “Hmm…because you were in love with each other?”
“No, although that was certainly a part of it. It’s because I was doing what I loved, and he was doing what he wanted.”
Doyoung remembers his mother’s passion, remembers the whole house dressed up in her textile designs, remembers as far back as sitting in her lap while she sketched up pattern after pattern on a notepad. He doesn’t remember witnessing first-hand his father’s ambition, having been born only as a result of the family having already made it, but he hardly needs proof to believe they were both doing exactly as they wished.
“Because of it, life feels like that. Happy, Doyoung. Is that what you feel too?”
Good for you, the thought enters his mind. It’s not the way he feels. It’s not the way most people feel. Doyoung can’t help but envy his parents. It’s an unproductive emotion, because he knows the way they work doesn’t work for him, because he is a different person. Still, this talk about doing what he loves leaves a bitter taste in his mouth.
“I’m happy for you, mom. But I don’t think it works like that for everyone.”
Across the table, Doyoung’s mother looks baffled.
“Huh. Why do you say that?”
“Well, for the average person, there are other ways of feeling fulfilment. That’s what I believe,” Doyoung tells her. He’s believed it this entire time. It’s driven him on.
“Other than doing what you love?”
“Yes—not just that. Other than happiness, even.”
His mother studies him hard, her brows scrunched, pushing wrinkles around her eyes. “You don’t want to be happy?”
“That’s not what I said. Of course, being happy is the ideal. If you do what you love, you’ll be happy. But that’s the best case scenario, and it doesn’t happen for everyone, right? There’s more to the meaning of life than just being happy.”
His mother seems to be seriously considering his words, though her concerned frown doesn’t go away. Doyoung goes on, regardless. “Don’t you think that sometimes, in the grand scheme of things, emotions don’t really matter? I’m sure a lot of people live this way. If I can’t be happy, at least I can be satisfied getting something else. And besides, I’m not unhappy, mom.”
His mother lets out a long sigh. She rolls up her sleeves, runs a hand through her short hair.
“Your worldview…I can’t say I agree, even though I can understand, Doyoung.
“You have to realize…you’re so young still. I understand if right now all you can see is what’s directly in front of you. It’s okay to dive into things now without consideration, but when you get to my age, when you’ve lived through all kinds of things, you get to wondering what it is you’re really fighting for. You start to question why it is you are really alive, and to me, the purpose of life is to be as happy as one possibly can. There’s almost no time to waste on being unhappy.”
Doyoung looks at her askance. “That sounds awfully self-indulgent. I thought you taught me to always work hard above all.”
“Yes, work hard doing the right things.” She takes off her glasses, rubs the bridge of her nose. “I’ll put it this way. This is just a hunch. Your dad, your brother, they love money. Money makes them happy, and they know it,” she says with a sigh. “Can you honestly say the same?”
Doyoung can’t answer the question.
He glances at his mother, watching him patiently. It’s a warm, gentle gaze, yet it makes him shiver.
“You’re so hard on yourself, boy. You don’t have to fight your emotions all the time, you know? They matter when it comes to important things.” His mother smiles encouragingly. “It’s ok to do things you love, you don’t have to avoid it.”
“What if I don’t have anything I love?”
It rushes out of him, carried by his growing annoyance. The question hangs in the air, resonant within the four walls of the spacious room. His mother stares at him, shocked at the force of the sudden confession.
Doyoung tries to calm himself, reel his emotions in. “What do I make out of life then? I can’t just sit around and do nothing.”
His mother takes a moment to think.
“Then you look for it,” she finally says, “what you really love. And you keep looking until you find it, not give up on the search entirely.”
Doyoung finds himself unable to respond. He hasn’t thought of himself that way. He had thought this whole time that he was doing the best he could to remain positive, but in reality, had he already given up? Is that the state he is in? Is he merely settling now, after having given up on the hopes of achieving something that would mean more to him than this? Doyoung had felt…abandoned by this ever-elusive “dream” that would grant him a sense of purpose. He felt empty. He felt betrayed. He felt like he is missing something everybody received from the heavens as a child. A dream? He didn’t have that. Not yet.
His voice is small when he speaks again. “I know what you’re thinking.”
“What am I thinking?”
“That it would have been better if I went into singing.”
“You made it clear you weren’t interested in that…anymore.”
Doyoung chuckles. “Yeah, I did.”
“I still find it hard to believe sometimes.”
“Yeah, I know that, too.”
His mother looks over at him. “You have so much talent, Doyoung. Sometimes I can’t help but wish you were more proud of them…But you just love your brother and your dad so much, you are his son after all. All of you, chasing the same dream.”
“It’s not a dream,” Doyoung mumbles, “not for me.”
“I know that…I always have. I know you have your reasons. I know I can’t stop you.”
“I just don’t like the idea, mom. Chasing something indefinite like a dream. I would rather work to build something solid than wait for something to come to me.”
“There’s nothing wrong with doing that.”
Doyoung smiles. For the first day that day, he feels like something in him has been acknowledged.
But then his mother goes on: “You’re so ambitious…I hope you’ll find something you love some day.”
Doyoung feels a lump form in his throat.
“You…you don’t think I’ll continue this in the future? You think I’ll abandon it for something else?”
“What’s wrong with going for what makes you happy?”
Doyoung lets out a sigh, a little bit frustrated. He rubs his temples.
“Do you think there’s something wrong with the way I’m currently living, mom?”
He is half challenging her, half seriously soliciting her opinion.
“You would know that best, wouldn’t you?”
Doyoung swallows. “I know. I think I’m fine, I’m just fine like this. I want to know what you think, though.”
She purses her lips. “No, I don’t think there’s something wrong with what you’re doing now. As long as it doesn’t take a toll on you, Doyoung. I just don’t want you to unnecessarily suffer while you’re still figuring yourself out.”
“Figuring myself out,” he parrots. “What if I’ve already figured it out, though?”
His mother is silent.
After a while, Doyoung sucks in a deep breath. “It’s not about what I figure out, mom. It’s about me deciding to do this. I have volition, and I am choosing this for myself.”
Briskly, she responds. “If you feel you have no options, it’s not as much of a choice as you think.”
For some reason, that hits him hard.
Doyoung isn’t even sure he understands what she said, but it feels like it really gets to him.
“Your dad, your brother, they never mean to make you feel like you have no options.”
Doyoung’s heart skips a beat.
Suddenly, this conversation just got too real. He doesn’t know how they got here, considering he’s been denying all his mother’s concerns. He doesn’t want to go there, doesn’t want to think about it; nothing prepared him for this. Doyoung honestly can’t remember the last time he had a serious talk with her since he last sat them down in grade twelve and told them he wasn’t going to sing anymore. They were always joking about things that didn’t matter, and he can’t decide if he likes that better than this. He’s only been in her presence for a day. How is he that easy to read?
His heart starts to beat faster.
“If I were,” he breathes, “hypothetically speaking, reconsidering my career. What would you think?”
His mother’s eyes go a little wider. She takes a moment to respond. “What would I think? I think it’s fine. What I think doesn’t matter. I—you should do what makes you happy.”
He’s heard it all his life growing up, but somehow he never believes it.
“What about dad? What would he say?”
“What he thinks doesn’t matter either.”
Doyoung shakes his head adamantly. “No. It matters to me.” It matters a lot to him. It matters so much, because he loves his father. He would never want to disappoint him.
“Well, maybe it shouldn’t, what your dad thinks. Especially what your brother thinks. Forget about them. You need to live your own life, Doyoung.”
Doyoung has nothing to say in response. It’s nothing he doesn’t know himself. It’s all too easy for parents to say this. He wonders, briefly, if she could ever come to understand how he feels as the child, the bearer of all their unintentional expectations.
Under the white light of the kitchen, Doyoung feels put in the spotlight, overexposed. Somehow, his mother had coaxed a lot of out of him, uncertainties that he didn’t necessarily want her to know. To him, a decision like this feels like the end of the world, takes the courage it would take to delete an entire essay knowing you can write something better. He doesn’t know how she can treat it as if he is doing nothing more than picking dinner off a menu.
“Well, you don’t have to worry. That’s exactly my point: I am living my own life.” He laughs, finding it awfully funny. When he looks up, his mother is not smiling.
She looks him dead in the eyes as she speaks. “Have you been reconsidering?”
Doyoung doesn’t cave in to her glance, even though he has a hard time swallowing all of a sudden.
“Doyoung. If you are thinking about changing your path, I would like to know,” she goes on. “I would like to help. I would…be happy for you.”
“I know that, mom. But I’m…”
He can’t say it. He doesn’t want to lie.
Doyoung takes in a deep, shaky breath.
“There’s no point considering it,” he exhales. “It’s already too late.”
“You’re wrong,” she sighs. “Right now, you have nothing but time.”
“It’s not so simple, mom,” he huffs, more for himself. Gets himself back together. “But you don’t have to worry. Don’t worry about any of this.” He taps a finger on the cover of Capital. “This is what I’ve decided to do, and I’ll keep going as long as I can.”
She meets his gaze with clouded eyes. “…I see.”
“Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Because,” she sighs, “people always change, Doyoung-ah. You don’t have to fight it.”
Doyoung takes in a breath, gives her a helpless smile. “I wish you would just support me on this, mom. Instead of trying to talk me out of it.”
She takes his hand, lying limp atop his book. Her touch is warm. “Of course I support you boy, I support you in whatever you do…”
Doyoung turns his hand palm up. His mother’s lithe hand rests fully in his own, delicate and well manicured, yet starting to wrinkle on the back and around her knuckles. Idly, Doyoung brushes the back of her hand with his thumb.
“Thanks, mom. That’s all I ask for.”
“Still, you should look for it in the meantime. Something you love, anything. You don’t have to dedicate your life to it, but it will make things a lot easier.”
“Hm. I’ll keep it in mind.”
“Doyoung?” He looks up at her. “Thanks for talking with me. I mean it.”
Doyoung smiles gently at her. He wonders, at this point, how much she understands. Doyoung feels…lighter, happier to have arrived at a better point of mutual understanding with his mom. He doesn’t always agree with her, but she leaves him things to ruminate over, and more often than not he finds thinking about what she says helps him solve his problems on his own.
When his mother is at the door, laundry pail under her arms, Doyoung calls out to her.
“About what I said. Please don’t tell hyung. Or dad.”
There’s no need to plant the seed of doubt in their minds. “I don’t want them to get worried over nothing.”
His mother stops at the threshold.
“If you ever have any doubts on your mind, you should try talking to them.”
She pauses, half way around the corner, and peeks back in.
“I’m not sure what’s on your mind, Doyoung. But you know you can always talk to me about anything.”
“I know, mom.”
“Don’t think too much now. Good night, child.”
On January 1 st , Doyoung’s mother tasks him with switching out the calendar on his father’s desk with one for the new year. Thus begins her annual ritual of cleaning the entire house as if purifying it from the past year’s worth of bad spirits, throwing rugs into the washer, dusting off all the shelves and electronics, replacing the mothballs in the closets, on and on. From the open windows in all four directions, melodious classical music pours out onto the streets, while the crows on the telephone wires watch, glassy eyed, as the Kim family bound about their home with as much vivacity as the house sees in a year.
The night before, the three of them had gone down to the water to watch the fireworks on the beach. When the winter cold bit into their jackets, they retreated back to the warmth of their home, and with the TV muted in the background, Doyoung and Gongmyung sat across each other on the sofas nursing beer after beer, talking into the night about anything on their minds.
All too soon, Gongmyung’s vacation is coming to an end. Doyoung volunteers to drive Gongmyung to the airport. At their mother’s insistence that they spend more time together, Gongmyung eventually comes to agree.
Before they left, while Gongmyung was in the bathroom, Doyoung’s mother had pulled him aside.
“What’s this about?”
“Have you thought about what I said?”
“Talking to your brother. You should talk to him.”
Doyoung laughed. “We talked all night last night.”
“Yeah, but you should talk to him about school. You might not see him again until you graduate.”
Like lightning, the thought had sent a chill down his spine. She was right. He had somehow overlooked this detail. Time really is going to fly by like this. If he didn’t take the chance now—if he could only meet his brother in another two years’ time, where would he even be by then? What kind of person did he want to be, standing before his brother then?
The thought fills him with a sense of anxiety, of urgency. He knows, to do right by himself, he should talk about his doubts with Gongmyung. It’s not that Doyoung had ever meant to keep things from him. It’s just that time goes by in a flash when you’re focused single-mindedly on accomplishing one task without giving yourself time to reflect. As things developed, it was almost like he had gotten here without noticing his changing feelings himself, so used to suppressing all the stress that he couldn’t notice something was wrong. Step by step, as each droplet of time trickled, there was never an occasion so drastic for him to notice, or to bring it up with his brother. Somehow, these small white lies over the phone piled up to the difference in their understandings that now stands like a rift between them.
Doyoung feels helpless, as if he doesn’t possess what it takes to bridge the gap. Where and how would he even begin? He isn’t even sure of his feelings himself, is still working through them day by day, conversation by conversation. If there is anyone he could tell, it should be his brother, but there are so many tangled emotions in the way. He’s scared. Immensely scared. He’s ashamed to be failing his own standards. He feels guilty for the lies he has already told, for making Gongmyung believe he is someone else. He doesn’t want to let him down. But he knows, with a kind of certainty in the back of his mind, that Gongmyung loves him, wants him to be happy, even if other negative emotions at the forefront might surface before they give way to this unconditional love. Doyoung wonders how long it would take for Gongmyung to forgive him.
They’ve just left the vicinity of their town, and pulled up onto the highway towards the airport. Today, the sky is grey. The sun is nowhere in sight, hidden by the rolling mass of clouds pressing down against the earth. Outside their open windows, the air is humid, saturated with the premonition of the oncoming rain. Doyoung finds his mood discoloured by the downcast weather, finds himself gnawing on his lip as he drives, brooding over a lot of things on his mind.
All things considered, Doyoung believes he is a relatively self-aware person. It’s a skill and a side of him he’d started to develop in his late teens. He doesn’t necessarily live in his head—he’s not obsessed with deconstructing the very fiber of his being like some people he knows, but he likes to make sure his understanding of himself aligns with the factually observed reality, just for ease of getting things done. Introspection is an important function for him, to constantly evaluate his state of being and recognize whether it’s the condition he wants to be in. I want this life—it’s something he decides in front of the mirror every day. Doyoung is capable of self-assessment, but he feels lately it’s been getting harder to understand himself, to be sure of himself.
It’s not a lack of ability on his part—it’s simply that it’s hard to know the objective meaning of an emotion, if something like that exists at all. There are no guidebooks to the human heart, not when everyone feels emotions differently, and each individual must navigate their inner worlds entirely from interpretation. Realistically, people can and do believe in their misconceptions for years, takes years for truth to morph into or reveal itself as lie, takes even more years to come to realize this, even more years to act upon it. Sometimes it’s involuntary—once you’re living a reality, it’s difficult to transcend it and see it from outside the frame. Sometimes it’s volitional—deciding on one interpretation that suits you best and rejecting all other possibilities. Because of this, it’s so easy to feel complacent with one understanding of something that the reality completely slips past you, until something within the framework becomes so misaligned that you can no longer convince yourself to keep trying to jam the round piece of puzzle into the square hole.
When he reflects on himself, Doyoung finds that there are things he knows, feelings he identifies but is scared to admit, hiding themselves at the bottom of his consciousness. For instance, his own dissatisfaction with his current state of life is something he is slowly trying to acknowledge, even if he doesn’t understand. It’s not that he feels no fulfillment or satisfaction: he can’t shake the pride he feels in being good at what he does. Being successful, having a stable future to look forward to, there’s nothing that feels dissatisfying about this. It’s the emptiness inside him at the end of the day, and the lack of motivation to get up the next morning that he has a hard time understanding. You have so much going for you. Why do you feel so empty? What else could you possibly want?
Across the armrest, Gongmyung reaches over to pick a piece of lint off Doyoung’s stiff shoulder.
Almost like he’s reading his mind, he says, “You’re quiet today, Doyoung.”
Doyoung glances over with as much of a smile as he can manage. “I’m thinking, hyung.”
“A lot of things.”
“Well. Put on some music?”
“You choose something.”
Doyoung takes his phone off the stand on his dashboard and hands it over. Gongmyung unlocks it with ease.
There’s a knot in his throat. He doesn’t know where to begin this conversation, how to keep it as ambiguous as possible without letting on too much about what he’s feeling.
Do you think the purpose of life is to be happy? Is it fine to live unhappy? Do you think that could ever last? Sometimes I’m happy, and sometimes I’m miserable. Do you feel like that too? Is that normal to feel? I’m proud of what I’ve achieved, but at the same time I feel so empty. I feel conflicted all the time. The cons seem to outweigh the pros when I think about what I do. I don’t want to stop here and let it go, because I’ve already come so far, and I think I haven’t worked hard enough to hold on. Sometimes, I feel like I can’t stop. At times like this, do you listen to your heart, or do you listen to your reason?
“Can I ask you something?”
“Go for it.”
Doyoung is staring straight ahead. “Do you like your life?”
“Of course,” Gongmyung answers easily. From the screen, he picks a song Doyoung didn’t know he had on his phone. Acoustic chords fill the space between them. Doyoung turns it down a bit, thinking he might have preferred the silence instead.
“How do you know you love what you do?”
“Finance? I’ve always loved it. I just know.”
“Huh,” Doyoung huffs. So it’s possible after all. There are people who truly feel this way.
“Why? Do you?”
Doyoung takes a moment. He knows his answer, because he knows he can’t lie to his brother, but he needs some time to prepare the words.
“What?” Slowly, Gongmyung sits up in his seat. He retracts his arms from behind his head and puts them down. “Since when? I was under a different impression. You were so eager before.”
Gongmyung pauses. “Yeah! You used to go through all of dad’s books on this stuff, remember? Business analysis, finance, investment, Rich Dad Poor Dad, shelves of these books. You asked me so many questions.”
“It was interesting,” Doyoung replies. “It still is. It made a lot of sense to me. I thought it was useful information to know about the world.”
“I agree that it is.” Gongmyung nods slowly, working out what he’s trying to say. “So what’s the problem?”
“I don’t know. I just don’t…”
“Don’t love it.”
“I’ve never loved it.” He says with a grin. It’s exhilarating to finally say this. God, does he feel good finally saying this out loud. “And I guess I just burned out.”
Gongmyung seems perplexed. Doyoung doesn’t blame him.
“That’s fine, I guess. It’s rare for anyone to feel the way I do about money—unless you’re dad. Do you enjoy what you’re doing at least?”
Doyoung lets out a puff of air. He doesn’t want to answer that, doesn’t know what to say because the truth is too pitiable. He lets out a low laugh, doesn’t say anything else.
“What?” Gongmyung sits up. “This is news to me, Doyoung.”
“Yeah. But it doesn’t matter, does it? I still want to do this.”
“Even when you don’t enjoy it? Why?”
Doyoung chews on his lip. A thousand things run through his mind, none of which he wants to slow down and examine. He knows none of them would make a good reason to Gongmyung.
“I—” He sucks in a breath. “I can’t let it go. I don’t want to.”
Doyoung makes the mistake of turning to his brother right there and then. His brother’s eyebrows are scrunched, a deep frown etched on his face. Their eyes meet, briefly, before Doyoung turns back to the road. But it’s enough for his blood to run cold.
“If you don’t like what you’re doing now, you should just stop.”
His foot almost falters over the gas pedal.
His heart gives a particularly painful thump.
It’s the same, dreadful feeling from their conversation days ago all over again. Take it easy. You don’t have to push yourself.
Doyoung is stunned.
“I’ve never said this before,” Gongmyung goes on, “but I’ve always felt like you would be more suited studying arts, Doyoung.”
He can barely talk.
“How can you just say that to me?”
Doyoung looks over for a split second, blinkling rapidly. He can feel his throat tightening.
Gongmyung is visibly caught off guard.
“What you just said.” Just stop.
“Why? I’m serious.”
Why? How can he possibly start to explain? Sadness. Disappointment. Devastation. A hint of anger. Did Gongmyung really not expect his words to make him feel any of these things? He tries to calm down. Instead of defending himself, Doyoung makes himself listen.
“Okay.” He steels his nerves. “What do you mean, I should stop?”
“There is too much to sacrifice, and it won’t be worth it.”
“Because it’s not easy at all. Not this. Not if you don’t enjoy it.”
“I know that.”
“No, but listen. I don’t know what direction you intend to take after graduating, Doyoung. But if you plan on doing anything remotely like what I do, you should stop. I hardly have to tell you what it’s like, right? Some days I have to get up at 4 in the morning for a conference. I’m jetlagged for weeks on end. I hardly have time for one meal a day. I get to see you once every two years. Some days I genuinely think this is not a job for humans, Doyoung. If you turned out like me, you would hate it.”
Doyoung is biting his lip. “I can handle this, hyung.”
“What’s gotten into you, Doyoung? Of course I believe you’re capable. That’s not the point.”
“What do you mean then?”
“It’s not about what you can do, it’s about what you want to—”
“What if I have nothing else I want to do?” Bitter anger flares up in him. He doesn’t want to be told to follow his dreams again. He feels, suddenly, entirely overwhelmed. The force of Gongmyung’s words shook him to the core, and all the resolve he had stacked up inside crumbles like a house of cards. Suddenly, his palms are sweating. Suddenly, his vision goes blurry. Suddenly, he has to blink back the wetness rimming his eyes.
“That can’t be true. I know that for a fact.
“So many people in the world live lukewarm lives doing things they have no passion for, Doyoung. You’re not meant to be one of those people.”
Uncontained now, a stream of tears rolls down his cheek. Doyoung has to wipe his eyes with his sleeve.
“Look—what about music? What about radio?”
The thought honestly hasn’t occurred to him.
He had always accepted the impermanence of this piece of happiness, had thought of it as a coping mechanism for something else.
Gongmyung’s voice softens when he speaks again. “I don’t care what you do, as long as you enjoy it. I know you’ll do great, and I’ll be proud of you. I just want to see you happy, Doyoung.”
Stop, he wants to beg. He needs to drive. He needs to not break down. He needs Gongmyung to stop, needs him to say it again, and again, and again, so he knows his ears haven’t deceived him. Doyoung feels like someone has just slit his artery and he’s driving to the hospital with one hand, holding down the wound. The knot inside his heart tightens—he’s holding on for dear life, terrified that everything will start unravelling for him here and now on the highway.
I just want to see you happy.
Why is it so hard to believe?
“How could you just say that—” he rasps, voice thick, through his tears.
“I’m sorry…did I say something wrong?”
He shakes his head, wiping his tears again.
Why couldn’t he have said this earlier?
He takes a deep breath before speaking again. “The day you asked me to ‘come to your world’—you know, I—
“I felt like finally you trusted me. I felt like you acknowledged me. You were finally letting me in, you believed I could do it. And all this time, I felt like I had to live up to that. And I tried my best, I’m trying my best, hyung, but it’s so fucking hard. If I let myself fail, I’ll feel like I’m losing your trust, like I’ve disappointed you. You believed in me, and I can’t—I don’t want to—”
The burden of Gongmyung’s words: he took it all upon himself. Doyoung knows—it’s all in his head, in the end.
Even if Gongmyung had never said these things back then, Doyoung should have known the way he felt. He wondered how they’d come to miscommunicate so badly on something so important.
“Doyoung, listen. I said that back then because you looked like you were so lost. You were looking for a direction, and I wanted to offer what I knew. If you wanted, you could come, and I could help you, that’s all I meant.”
It’s all Gongmyung meant, but to Doyoung, it meant so much more. The vigor with which he threw himself into learning after that should have been no surprise. His brother, seeing his eagerness, had encouraged him further and further, until somewhere along the way Doyoung himself changed his mind. After that, praise became pressure. Trust became burden. Curiosity became obligation, until finally, here they are.
“I know.” He knows now. “It’s not your fault. I took it the wrong way.”
“There’s no way—Doyoung. You should have known there’s no way I wanted anything except for you to be happy.”
Doyoung laughs. It sounds like a sob. “Would you believe me if I said that’s hard for me to believe?”
Silence follows. Gongmyung sinks heavily into his seat. “All this time?”
“Not always. Slowly it became like this.”
“You know how much I feel like I’ve failed you right now?”
“Don’t say that.” He grips the wheel. “None of this is your fault.”
“If you’ve found a better direction now, you should take it.”
Doyoung shakes his head. “It’s too late.”
“No. Not yet.”
But he keeps shaking his head. It’s too late to tell him these things. He had already built his life around a whole other understanding. It doesn’t matter now if there is a monumental divide between his interpretation of his family and their intentions, this is the product of their misunderstanding. It’s too late for him to decide he’s off the path, because they’re already in the aftermath of it all.
“You know what,” Gongmyung reaches into the back seat, pulls to the front his travel bag. He goes through it, and takes out a photo album.
“I wanted to take this with me, but I think you should have it. I don’t want anything else from you, Doyoung,” he pleas. “I just want to see you happy. You were so happy back then. Promise me you’ll do what makes you happy from now on.”
Doyoung glances over his shoulder at the photo framed in the cover. He recognizes the album. It’s one of his own. In the photo, he is smiling wide, hanging off his brother’s back.
Tears rush forth again. This time, he’s laughing through them, because it’s just so awful. It’s so awfully funny. His brother would do exactly this.
At the sound of his awkward, choked laughter, Gongmyung eases back into his seat too.
“Silly kid.” He opens the glove compartment, hands him a tissue. “Why are you crying again?”
His brother was going to take it with him. It’s from something as trivial as this that reality finally hits. That’s how Doyoung knows. It’s all true. Gongmyung loves him. Wants to see him happy.
“Sometimes I’m so sad there’s so much you don’t tell me,” Gongmyung says.
Doyoung takes in a shaky breath. “I can’t. It’s hard.”
“I can’t believe…” Gongmyung trails off, looking at his watch. They’re almost at the airport, another fifteen minutes at most. “I can’t believe you’re telling me this now—don’t get me wrong, I’m so glad that you are. Is there anything else I should know about you?”
Sometimes I’m so sad, hyung. He can’t say it.
Gongmyung reads the hesitation on his face. “Doyoung. For once, tell me exactly what’s on your mind.”
Gongmyung is waiting. Now would be the perfect time, wouldn’t it? But Doyoung is still biting his tongue.
“Don’t think about it. Just say whatever comes to mind.”
Whatever comes to mind? That’s easy to say. Where would he even start? I can’t get out of bed. I’m so tired and I don’t know why. I have a constant darkness sitting over my chest. There’s almost nothing I enjoy. I’ve lost interest in everything I used to like. I hate everything I have to do. I’m sick of pushing myself and pretending I’m happy. I feel so trapped inside your expectations. I love you so much but you hurt me so much. I’m tired of feeling this way about our family. I’m tired of being alone with no one who understands. I want to restart, I want it to be over. I want to fall off the roof. I want someone to end it for me.
“I think I have depression,” he blurts, before the thought even reaches his head.
It takes a moment for the words to sink in. Because he already knows—it hits Doyoung first. He grips the wheel tight, afraid he may start shaking. An enormous surge of energy had deflated out of his body, as if the spirit of a dragon had escaped through his mouth. He said it. Now he’s named it. Now Gongmyung knows. And now there is no taking it back. In the silence, every thumping heartbeat is a reminder.
“Turn the car around.”
“Take the next exit. Look. 85, right there.”
“I’m not going to.”
“I can handle it.” He grits, knuckles white against the wheel. “I’m handling it. Please trust me.”
His eyes are fixed on the road. Without trouble, Doyoung switches lanes. He’s aware of Gongmyung’s eyes on him, can hear him thinking in the passenger seat. His own mind is blank. Waiting. Waiting.
What will he say? How does he feel? Is he sad? Angry? Panicked? Disappointed?
Will he push? Will he step back and give him space?
Behind his line of vision, Doyoung hears Gongmyung breathe a shaky sigh.
“Is it bad?” He asks, in half a whisper.
“I don’t know. I don’t know what’s bad.”
He really doesn’t. He doesn’t know how much more he can push himself for him to truly believe it’s bad enough to seek help.
“What I mean is—do you think of things like hurting yourself?”
He thinks back to what it feels like to stand at the top of the student rec building, the leaves of the garden brushing his bare ankles, the feel of the wind blowing at him from below. When he starts to think about jumping down, the thought that he would have hurt his brother and his parents hits him, and the terror of such a thought seizes him for a moment before it fades to an apathy so strong no one else in the world possibly matters besides himself. I want out, he would think. I don’t want to think about other people anymore. I want to be freed.
But it’s always that stupid wind chime. That clear, metallic jingle, cutting through the cloud in his mind. He can’t find it anywhere, doesn’t know where it comes from, but it pulls him back, every time.
“Don’t worry, hyung.”
“Doyoung, my god. Please answer me.”
“Sometimes I do. Did.”
“Hurting yourself? Or thinking about it?”
“Thinking about it. About ending it all.”
Gongmyung lets the fact sink in. “…why?”
“Why I want to die? Because I just don’t care. I don’t care about any of this anymore,” Doyoung tells him.
Gongmyung shifts his weight to lean against the window, arm propped up on the ledge and hand carding restlessly through his hair. He thinks about what Doyoung said. Really thinks about it. Doyoung is depressed—the thought alone makes him want to cry. He can’t bear the knowledge that his little brother is in so much pain. Whether he intended it or not, he had instigated something that now leaves Doyoung hating what he does to the point of wanting to end his life. He doesn’t know how long it’s been like this, wonders how long his own actions have been fueling this misunderstanding, how long it’s been making Doyoung feel worse. He’s always known Doyoung has admired him, followed him. He never knew that by offering his world, he was inadvertently locking Doyoung up in his own shadow.
“Is it because of me that you feel like you can’t let it go?”
Doyoung knows he’s put two and two together. He doesn’t answer.
Gongmyung puts a hand over his eyes. It takes Doyoung a moment to realize that tears are slipping past the edge of his fingers.
Doyoung reaches over, takes Gongmyung’s hand firmly in his own.
He wants Gongmyung to know that there’s nothing to fear now. They are in this together.
“Don’t cry, hyung. It’s alright.”
“If I had known…”
“It’s alright now. You don’t have to say anymore.”
Doyoung squeezes his hand. Gongmyung squeezes back.
Up ahead, the sign overhead signals the start of the exit towards the airport terminal.
“This is not a conversation we can finish in a car, is it?”
Doyoung shakes his head.
So Gongmyung takes it with him—everything unsaid, everything yet to be said.
Idle before the international departures terminal, Doyoung gets out of the car and helps Gongmyung pull out his only suitcase from the trunk.
Standing on the curb now, Gongmyung swings his travel bag out of the way and pulls Doyoung into a hug.
Hugs him so tight.
“Promise me you’ll call.”
Gongmyung pats him on the arm, smiling though he looks like he wants to cry again. “The worst will soon be over,” he says. His voice is quietly assuring, the sound of his words carried off by the whistling wind. “It can only get better from here.”
Doyoung doesn’t know if it’s true. But he wants to believe it.
“Goodbye, hyung. Take care.”
“You too, Doyoung.” He looks like he wants to say more, but is struggling with his words.
“Please.” It’s all Gongmyung manages to say.
Doyoung laughs. “Don’t miss your flight.”
“One day you’ll worry me to death,” He sighs, but he preps himself to go at last, pulling the handle of his suitcase into his hands. “Time to go. Cars are waiting.”
Inside the car, Doyoung waves to him one last goodbye.
All the way home, he drives in silence. His mind empty of thoughts.
All there is is the absent weight of something in his body, and the warmth that’s been left in its place. Something that reaches his frozen extremities. Something that makes his heart pound, slow and steady. Something warm enough to melt the snow of winter.
I've been watching you walk
I've been learning the way that you talk
The back of your head is at the front of my mind
Soon I'll crack it open just to see what's inside your mind
Inside your mind
For a few days, the talk with Gongmyung rests solidly upon Doyoung’s mind, without much opportunity to process. As it turns out, he would find himself preoccupied for the next few days, helping his mom clean the house, starting and promptly giving up on reading Capital, being a hospitable host to some distant relatives and cousins while they drop by. The album that Gongmyung gave him sits on a corner of his table, something Doyoung has mentally noted he would take a look through when he can. In the end, that day doesn’t come until he has to cross the bridge again back into the city and resume life on his own. The days of dallying around are over; school is starting again. Doyoung bids farewell to his mother for a long time—in two weeks she’ll resume traveling with his father, this time across the southern hemisphere. Before leaving, Doyoung skims his room for things to bring, almost missing the album, having gotten so used to seeing it on the table. In the end, deciding that he’ll dedicate more than some hasty attention to it, he packs it into his bag and takes it home.
Home greets him with outdoor temperatures when he opens the door on Sunday evening. Toeing off his shoes by the entrance, Doyoung briefly observes the lone painting decorating his barren walls, the small rectangular canvas of sunflowers from Haechan which he’d hung right by the entrance, washed grey in the dim light. The night casts blue shadows across the walls, and the air feels coagulated, lacking a week’s worth of ventilation. The first thing Doyoung does is turn on the light. The second, he turns up his heater. The third, he opens his windows—or tries, fighting the icicles that have glued them shut from the outside.
He waters the plants in his room. He fixes himself some simple bowtie pasta. He takes a shower, shivering on the way out. Doyoung doesn't bother unpacking his bags, calls it a night and slips into his cold bed, waiting for sleep to take him, letting his bones sink into the mattress, and his mindset sink back into the routine of living alone which he has gotten so used to. It’s a relief, in a sense, to be back. Being on his own, managing his own life feels good. It feels like he had finally gained control over something.
In the morning, Doyoung empties out his backpack, setting down his laptop and throwing his clothes in the laundry pail. All morning, over coffee and a bagel, Doyoung checks his email and social media, sending out messages on behalf of his business association—busy preparing for clubs day again—making some phone calls regarding some bills he’d received in the mail, and checking out the syllabi for his new classes, ordering on Amazon what he could of the required textbooks. The table is a mess of torn open envelopes and paper, and within an hour and a half, in a burst of energy Doyoung manages to clean all the obligations off his hands.
At lunch, Doyoung goes out to buy groceries. Only when he’s eaten, when he’s scrubbed his pans clean does he finally sit down at the kitchen table—mess cleaned—and sigh deeply to himself in exhaustion and satisfaction.
Head cocked to the side, slumped in his chair, Doyoung just sits there for a while, not really thinking, listening to the ambient buzz of his heater.
His eyes drift across the table, notices the inconspicuous photo album sitting in the corner. Reminded of his curiosity, he pulls it towards him.
The album is not large, a medium sized square. It’s bound in dark green fabric, reminiscent of evergreen trees, with a pink accent ribbon running across the binding. His family, particularly his mother, likes to keep track of their lives, so even when digital cameras and libraries rolled around, she still made an effort to get photos archived and printed. Doyoung vaguely remembers compiling this album himself after being given a stack of photos. He runs the pads of his fingers over its slightly dusty surface, circling around the photo in the window. In it, he is still smiling, still hanging off his brother’s back.
He doesn’t know why Gongmyung chose this album to take. Maybe it was this photo, maybe it was purely picked at random, just something to remember Doyoung by. Or maybe—and this thought is the source of his curiosity—there is something visibly happy about the younger Doyoung in these photos that made his brother want to take it with him, made him want Doyoung to see, too. Is he no longer like this? Is the gap between now and then a palpable difference even Gongmyung can notice?
He flips open the first page with a degree of apprehension.
It’s a picture of him in a paper birthday hat, with icing smudged onto his cheeks and the corners of his mouth. The opening scene to the story. The main character. In the bottom right, a label indicates the contents and timeline: “Doyoung”, it says. “Grades 10 to 12”.
Memories of his past, especially of high school are not something he thinks of fondly. Year by year, Doyoung feels an urgency to detach himself further and further from the past image of him. He knows it’s not all uncommon among his classmates to change unrecognizably in university. From what he hears, there have been all kinds of unimaginable transformations to the children he knew and grew up with. People have gotten married, people have broken up and never been the same since, people have dyed their hair and gotten tattoos and changed their style 180 degrees; some people have even changed their names and genders. Doyoung has heard of happy people brought down by depression, inconspicuous people now with blooming personalities, quiet people in the corner of the room who are now successful in their own niche fields, and people whose lives look put together on social media but are a huge mess in reality. Bullies who are now losers, losers who are now socialites, and socialites who are now loners—like him.
Doyoung no longer feels comfortable being associated with his past image, maybe because it’s always been too connected to singing. People knew Doyoung from the school choir, from his band Heart Track, from the voice of the announcement singing the anthem every Monday morning. Everybody and their moms knew that he was going to major in vocal performance, at least that was the plan, and he’s bound to get questions about it that he doesn’t want to answer.
The simple unadulterated happiness he felt back then no longer exists, not something he can ever get back, doesn’t feel like his current self is even capable of harbouring such emotions. The happiness in the summer of grade 11, the peak of his emotions, is something he might even actively block out of his mind. He doesn’t want to face his high school self. On one hand, he regrets the way he had slacked off and daydreamed, wishes he had done better, had tried harder sooner. On the other, he regrets the way he’s become, doesn’t know if he can justify his current state of being to the innocent kid full of hopes back then.
But Gongmyung had wanted him to see this, for whatever reason, so he will.
Doyoung flips the page. There are two pockets for photos per album page, back to back. Some of the pockets have more than one photo slotted in, duplicates of a better one that he keeps at the front to display. The album is compiled from a mix of media, some taken with film, some taken on digital cameras, and some taken on a cell phone.
As much as his mother tries, Doyoung feels like these albums never quite capture the zeitgeist of the times. Maybe because so much of daily life, the mundaneness of it all is omitted in lieu of memories from more ceremonious occasions, times that Doyoung would come to remember the least when he thinks back on his life.
Most of the photos of Doyoung are taken for him by his mother at events. He knows it’s her doing, because it’s her style to frame the subject of a photo off center. His birthday party. Halloween dressed up as a vampire. Him singing in the talent show. Him with his band. Him performing at a joint recital with his vocal teacher. Him volunteering at the community center. Him in Hawaii with his family. Him at family gatherings on Lunar New Year making dumplings. Petting his cousin’s dog. Giving his niece a piggy back. There’s one photo he particularly treasures, and it’s him sitting pensively in his father’s chair doing homework. On the contrary, all the photos that Doyoung took are candid, and they stand in stark contrast to the photos of their family posing in front of some landmark taken by a passerby. Because he had been tasked with orchestrating the album, the pages are filled with these kinds of shots that he likes best. Most often, they are of his brother in various parts of the house, caught in the middle of some unidentifiable action. Outside on the porch. In the study. On the sofa playing with his Xbox. Interspersed with photos of his brother are photos of his friends, people who used to be important, and a few who still are.
It’s about this period of time that Taeyong, Jaehyun, and Sejeong walked into his life, in this order. Friend, then friend of a friend, friend of that friend, until they all came to know each other. Because it’s compiled chronologically, Doyoung knows that the first photo he ever has with Taeyong is them at a neighbourhood BBQ. He’s not sure if it’s the first time he and Taeyong met each other, before their parents signed them up for the same cram school. It’s a long while until he shows up on the album again, some more time until Jaehyun shows up, then Sejeong. Then it’s the four of them, the complete picture.
Doyoung gets to a photo of the four of them taken by his mother outside the cram school. It’s the middle of grade 11. They’re all in different uniforms, save for him and Sejeong in their school’s navy blue. It’s one of the only ones with all four of them. Another one is of them in the van on the way to Taeyong’s grad trip, taken from the front seat by his brother. On the immediate next page of four photos, there is one of each of them, laid out by design by Doyoung. He himself is staring down at his phone in boredom. Jaehyun is sleeping with his arms crossed. Sejeong is drinking water from a bottle. Taeyong is looking out the window with his back turned.
Looking at this photo in particular, something strikes him, and Doyoung flips through the following pages with haste.
Unlike what he’d expected, there are, rather than an abundance, no more photos of Taeyong. It’s the last photo of Taeyong on the album. He doesn’t know if he should feel relieved. It’s a family album, after all, Doyoung thinks. It’s not even close to the last photo of Taeyong he’s ever taken, but the rest sit heavily in the privacy of his photo album, on an old phone that he now keeps in his drawer. He doesn’t ever use it, won’t ever use it again, doesn’t even have battery, but it’s not something he can’t revive should the time and occasion come for him to want to do so again.
From then on, there are photos of other friends from school, of his band mates, and of the three of them, but Taeyong disappeared from his life. Grade 11 slides seamlessly into grade 12. The last of his singing competitions. His prom. His graduation, his own grad trip—none of which have Taeyong in it. Not that he means to dwell on his absence, but it almost feels surreal that there are no more pictures of him, given how much time they had spent together. The objective representation of his time documented from a third person perspective is so different from his unrecorded memories that Doyoung feels almost disappointed to have his life represented in such a dissatisfactory way.
Doyoung flips through the rest of the album. He’s not sure why he does it, but he goes back to that photo of Taeyong looking out the car window.
That’s when he notices it. There’s a sheet of paper tucked behind the photo.
Unlike some other pockets, it’s not a stack of eliminated photos stashed behind the face, but a bulky piece of folded paper.
Immediately, his curiosity is piqued. Doyoung has little memory of compiling this album, and no memory whatsoever of this stack of paper. Carefully, he slides it out of the pocket. It’s a stack of simple lined paper, looking like it was ripped out of a notebook. Two sheets, by the looks of things, and it looks brittle and weathered, like it’s been handled quite a few times. There is writing on the other side, handful of characters crammed into the lines like sesame. The backside of the thin page feels bumpy from the pressure exerted into writing. Doyoung unfolds it, unsure what it is.
Just as he does, two pieces of dried, yellowed leaves tumble out from between the pages.
Doyoung bends to pick them up at his feet. Under the light of the kitchen, he holds them up to look at them. One of them remains intact throughout aging, but the other has snapped crisply in the middle.
What are these doing here?
How come he can’t quite remember where they’re from?
He can’t put his finger on the species, but these leaves look like they come from a familiar type of tree, something he’s used to seeing all the time. They are long and thin, the type of leaf one would hold between two thumbs and blow whistles with. In his mind’s eye, Doyoung can imagine these dynamic leaves billowing in the wind, flowing through the air, falling down with a pirouette from somewhere high, high above…
All at once, it suddenly hits him. What this paper is.
Within a matter of breaths, all the blood drains out of Doyoung’s body. The weight in his palms feels like it’s a solid block of dry ice, burning his hands. His heartbeat picks up, pounding against the insides of his ears.
With a racing heart, he opens it.
I know you must be shocked to be receiving this letter. I know, I can’t believe I have to resort to writing a letter to communicate with you, but rules here are rules and they are strict. I know you already know, but it’s really not that I don’t want to talk with you. I hope you can promise me that you don’t misunderstand.
How has grade twelve been so far? You must be busy. I imagine the first semester is almost already over. Is it time for your audition yet? Best of luck with that, I know you’ll kill it. Here we have monthly evaluations, and every month it’s like I have to audition all over again. It’s really nerve wracking, and I’m terrified I’ll fail and get sent home every time, but somehow I’m holding on.
I’m sorry I can’t share with you more details about my life. I know you must want to know how I’m doing, because it’s been three months since we last talked. Don’t worry. Lee Taeyong is doing well! He is healthy and fighting with his life! Truthfully, trainee life is hard, but it’s nothing he can’t handle. I’m sure you’ve heard the horror stories. Exhausting practice, nightmare trainers, pitiful diet, all of that is somehow manageable to me. It’s hard though, not being able to get much sleep. I think the loneliness is really the hardest. I haven’t really made any friends here, but being on my own, it’s not so bad sometimes. Some days I want to cry at night from how much I miss my family, and you, and Ruby, but it’s a pain that only drives me on. If I’m here instead of there, then I might as well make the most of it. Besides, I know you are half way across the world working hard to pursue your dreams. When I think that you are fighting alongside me, I no longer feel so lonely.
So don’t worry about me. Ok?
I know I am breaking some serious rules. I know, too, that I am breaking our promise. But it’s hard not to when I see you in everything. I walked past a sticky pics booth, and looking inside reminded me of you. An eyelash fell on my cheek in the morning and it reminded me of you. Last week, I heard a song that reminded me of you, and I don’t even remember which song, isn’t that stupid? At the mall I saw a tshirt that said ‘super broccoli’ and I thought you would wear it, I almost bought it even if they didn’t have my size. I don’t have much money left over from my part time job, but my roommate uses a humidifier too, and I bought him some essential oils as a gift one day, but I really did it because the eucalyptus one smells like your room. Also, you’ll be pleased to know I can find your stinky Old Spice shampoos in the supermarkets here. Crazy that men all over the world find this stuff enticing. Maybe I should try, or is that too much?
What is your life like, without me? Are you still going out with Jaehyun to karaoke? Has Sejeong finally surpassed your stupid grades? I hope she has. You’re smart but lazy to the point where it doesn’t make sense. I hope your succulents are still alive, especially the one you named after me. I hope you take good care of him, and yourself. I hope you’re not cooping yourself up again this winter. I know you think you’re better than a succulent, but you too need to go out sometimes and soak up the sun. Winters here are colder than they are back home, and I’m always freezing when I commute. Are you still taking the bus, or do you drive now? I’ll be honest, I don’t miss going to cram school at all, but I miss the places we used to eat at after school is over. There’s a place here near the company that sells malatang just as good, and I always go thinking of you. When you pass by the food stall downstairs, tell the aunty there I miss her. I crave her ice cream red bean bread even in the winter, and I really hope her little puppy came back. It’s crazy, but I’ve worn out the sneakers we bought together. They’re so battered now from dance, but I can’t bear to throw them away. I think I can understand what you feel now towards your dirty pair of converse. Do you still wear them? Did you wear them to prom like you said you would? Have you decided on where to go next year, if you’ll move out? I think you should raise that rabbit you’ve always wanted. What do you look like now, anyway? Have you tried growing a beard? Did you really dye your hair blue? Have you met someone else? Has anyone told you lately how beautiful you look without your glasses?
The willow leaves here are falling. Are they falling for you too? I caught two pieces today right as they fell. Only you, me, and god know what went on between those weeping branches back in summer. They reminded me of picking leaves out of your hair, so here, you can have them.
I want you to know that I’ll be back some day. I don’t know how long it will take. I’m not telling you to wait. I’m just telling you you can’t get rid of me that easily. Or, maybe before that our futures will collide again. I can see it in my head, Doyoungie. You and me, we make it. We travel the world. We stand on the same stage—you sing, I dance. At night, by candlelight, we meet in an upscale hotel. When you catch me in the lobby, will you pretend I’m a stranger? Or will you hug me right there and then? I don’t know. Just a thought. Maybe that won’t happen, and I’ll be back before long. Some days when it gets too hard I think “ending here, going home, it wouldn’t be so bad.” But I really shouldn’t think like that. I need to give it my best. You would agree, wouldn’t you?
I’m writing this on my windowsill, by the moonlight, thinking of you. It’s 4 in the morning and my roommate is asleep, and he sounds like he’s having a nightmare. I don’t know why I would rather tell you that than the millions of things I still want to say. They’re no good, Doyoungie. Once I say these words, I feel like I can never take them back. So, for now, I will simply bury them deep, deep inside my mind.
I carry a piece of you with me, Doyoungie. They could never find you if they flipped me inside out. You are safe. You are here. You have never left.
I miss you.
I miss you, I miss you, I miss you.
Please don’t write back. Please don’t send anything to this address.
PS: About what you said at the airport. Of course I do. Idiot.
Doyoung finishes reading the letter, and he has to recoil a little bit from the force of the memory that hits him.
God, this hurts.
At some point, his brows became furrowed. A look of pain had creeped onto his face, and he only realizes he's been glowering at the pages when he tries to breathe and remembers to relax.
Doyoung takes a deep, deep breath.
Sitting here now, coming back to the present, Doyoung feels a myriad of emotions swirling inside him. These emotions are...alive. Interweaving. Painting the monochromatic space of his chest with streaks and smears of prismatic colors. They don't overwhelm him quite as bad as he expected. These feelings are still raw at the edges, outlines burning with light, but they stay respectfully within the bounds of this cavity Doyoung has allowed them as he read the letter. It feels...somewhat like an echo, encapsulated in time, doesn't quite tear through the silken barriers like hungry ghouls ravaging the tender parts of him alive like they used to. He can tame them now. They listen to him, they don't hurt him.
There's a lot of pain, but Doyoung feels okay.
He remembers now, vividly.
The coming and going of his emotions when he first found this letter waiting for him on the desk in his room.
In this order:
And then, at last, love.
Nothing but effusive love, too great for his small body, nothing his resolve could have possibly done to contain.
When he had put down the letter, tears overflowing, there was nothing on Doyoung's mind and in his heart but his love for Taeyong. Something inside him broke open. A vault he had been trying to shut the doors on. Everything he had been trying to move on from, to forget, to repress for the last three months burst forth like an explosion from within. And when he rubbed his eyes raw, wiped his tears until the backs of his sleeves were wet, it was as if finally he could see all the things that had faded in his blurry vision. How could he possibly have convinced himself that he was anything but in love? How did he come to hold the conviction that his life could resume unmarred by Taeyong’s sudden disappearance? How could he have forgotten that Taeyong was capable of moving him to this extent, at any given moment?
He felt Taeyong’s love so immensely behind every sentence, every painstaking word written in the dark.
He knew instantly that he had felt the same. Their hearts were still beating to the sound of each other. Nothing had changed inside him, no matter how hard he tried to forget. Still. After all this time, it was Taeyong.
Taeyong, his best friend, his greatest love, the love of his life.
Doyoung had wanted to go to Korea. He wanted to find Taeyong, all rules and promises be damned.
Of course, he never did. It’s a foolish thought to remember, even now, but Doyoung forgives himself, because he understands precisely the desperation he had felt back then. To make things right. To return things to the way they should have been. To find a path out of the darkness he had seen up ahead. A feeling as strong as this doesn’t come every day, and he’s learned to cherish the times he still manages to feels alive, even if these moments are stupid.
He puts down the letter, folds the pages half way before he gives up and drops them onto the tabletop. He hasn't really thought about Taeyong at all over the break, being wrapped up in family and their complicated affairs, and now suddenly he is reminded that here in this part of the city Taeyong exists. Remembers the reality that this person who had penned this is now back in his life, remembers all the things he had used to feel towards this person, something that had been so potent that the aftershock three years later still takes his breath.
But they're not the same people, he thinks. This is someone else. This is something else entirely.
He hadn’t realized it—acknowledged it—until now, but in this moment it’s crystal clear. Doyoung feels so much, so strongly when he’s around Taeyong. Positive or negative, it doesn’t matter; there is so much emotion when it comes to this person. It’s absolutely dangerous, because to him who has been sinking into a dull and numb existence, any feeling is better than no feeling at all. It occurs to him suddenly that all of this anguish makes him feel alive. He’s afraid he might become…addicted.
Is he…so attached to these feelings of the past because he’s lonely?
How much is he actually feeling towards Taeyong himself? Doyoung isn’t sure. But he knows that he’s afraid to dehumanize this person down to a concept for his own purposes. I miss him, it’s a thought he can’t push away after reading this letter. But I don’t even know him anymore.
Doyoung sighs. He stands up, but his legs feel unsteady. It takes him a moment, but when he decides, he goes to lie down on the couch, his mind swarmed with thoughts and memories.
He lies there, letting them overtake him.
Maybe it's time. Maybe he's ready.
Doyoung tries and tries to think. He can’t really remember the start of grade 12 very clearly. He’s always avoided thinking about the time from September to November, afraid of what he’d find there, in the hypersensitive liminal time between the end of his dreams and the beginning of his nightmare. The memories are muted; he simply went through the motions of living and wiped the rest from his mind. Even after the storm had passed, he was afraid to think back on it, afraid to come to the conclusion that he had put himself into an utterly unsustainable and unhealthy state of mind, afraid to think that maybe the seeds of depression had already taken root as early as then.
Those were perhaps the most hectic months of his life. There were many things that had to be done all at once, and even for someone as capable as he was, stress was amassing in a way he’d never felt weighing down on him before. School tests, projects, cram school, extracurriculars, provincial exams, university applications, and the most daunting of all, his audition in December. He had progressed methodically through the necessary steps. He did everything he needed to do, interacted with the people in his life normally enough that nobody could detect anything was amiss, but inside he was empty, living like a ghost.
Taeyong had left. Taeyong was gone. Taeyong took his soul with him.
The time he spent with Taeyong changed him irrevocably as a person. He had just begun to understand what it felt like to be in love and alive when the summer came to an end. As the barren, dreary months of winter approached, it felt as if the world was reverting to an inferior, less vibrant version of itself, and Doyoung felt that he alone stood, a sole anachronism, among the black and white world with his hands bleeding color where Taeyong had once touched him. He felt as if there was nothing to look forward to anymore. He felt dead inside, depressed. The ache in him for something palpably absent was overwhelming and ineffable, so he kept it within and hid it from the outside world.
It wasn't hard. Doyoung had always been an actor.
Even he himself could recognize how pathetic he had become. It felt somehow unacceptable to himself that one heartbreak could reduce him to a hopeless mess. To combat these counterproductive emotions, he decided he would get his shit together. That entailed reasoning with himself and his irrational feelings until they could be relatively subdued.
You were fine before he came along, you can be fine again.
This is heartbreak. This is normal. You can and will get over it.
He is only one person. You will meet many more that can make you feel the same.
You have other priorities. You have to stay strong, especially now.
These were things he told himself.
After Taeyong left, Doyoung rarely cried. He spent most of his time reasoning with himself, telling himself things until he believed them. It took him a few weeks, but his recovery seemed miraculous and surprised even himself. Am I really okay now? He thought. In the mindset his rationality had put him in, he could achieve a state of blankness. It was empty of happiness, but also empty of pain, so he came to assume that it meant he really was feeling fine, didn't doubt himself further. As a result, Doyoung became detached from anything but the most reflexive, superficial emotions, and kept away from any form of self observation. He became out of touch with his own feelings, because experiencing the pain of missing Taeyong would otherwise be too much to handle, in a time when he couldn't afford to break down. It worked fine, because things were starting to get busy, and he could distract himself by focusing on accomplishing all the things he had to do. He didn't have to question his motivation, didn't think about why he was doing the things he did. What he knew was that there was a sense of security waiting for him at the end of the goal, and all he had to do was keep going forward.
Do well on tests. Write a strong application. Ace the audition and go to music school. These were the only things on his mind. For three months, he persevered. And then Taeyong's letter came.
Suddenly, Taeyong was here. Taeyong was real. Taeyong was reminding him what passion really felt like.
It threw Doyoung's life into chaos. All of a sudden, it was all he had on his mind. During the first handful of days, Doyoung felt resurrected. He felt invincible, with Taeyong by his side. It was proof that summer had been real, it had all indeed happened, and Doyoung had really come to life and felt the inklings of a new worldview opening up in him, one that knew what it was like to truly love someone. For months he had felt like he was wandering this black and white world alone, and he had finally found Taeyong again, Taeyong who could also see color. He wanted to shout on the rooftops—Taeyong knows, Taeyong loves me, Taeyong is real.
He read the letter so many times he had memorized the way certain words looked in Taeyong’s handwriting. Doyoungie. Idiot. I miss you. For a week, Doyoung took the papers with him everywhere he went. Not only because he was scared from his conscience that someone would find it lying around the house—it had became a source of life for him, something that embodied a time when he felt more...human. He read it in private in the school courtyard, in the bathroom, in the gym locker room, anywhere he could find a place to be alone.
It didn't take long for him to realize what was happening. Doyoung was badly distracted. He continued through the motions of every day, but his heart was entirely out of it. When he realized how sidetracked he had gotten and tried to reorient himself back onto the tasks at hand, he found it incredibly hard to do so. What had changed? Had Taeyong's letter shattered the pretense of being fine that he had put himself under? He had built up his resolve to pretend to be okay for three months, like a sandcastle, and one tide from Taeyong washed it all away. Doyoung realized he could never feel the same again, could never go back to lying to himself. All the feelings he had buried spilled out uncontrollably, and suddenly he was crippled by a bone-deep sadness at the absence of his best friend, of someone so important in his life.
The more time Doyoung spent with the letter, the more pathetic he began to feel. He was rendered powerless yet again. Where did all his willpower go? This was nothing more than some pages of paper. Empty words, empty promises. There was no future here. Taeyong had sent this as a replacement, because he couldn't offer himself. Taeyong had purchased a one-way ticket; this letter was much the same. Doyoung began to wonder whether one night, seized by his own emotions, Taeyong couldn't control himself and poured out his thoughts just like this, without consideration of how it would make Doyoung feel when he received it. Of course Doyoung was happy to know he still felt this way—he himself did too—but he also blamed Taeyong for his selfishness. He resented the letter a little bit, for so easily tearing down the future he was starting to build, even if the clarity it offered him was for the better. Doyoung felt like his feelings were being toyed with, like a fish on a hook, and Taeyong won't reel him in or let him go. Reality dawned on him. He felt for the first time a devastation that he hadn’t really felt when they first parted. The letter now, rather than giving him hope, cemented it in his mind: Taeyong was gone. He was gone for good, he’ll be gone for years, as good as forever. And it was entirely up to him to decide over the following years of his life how he was going to feel about it.
And so, before he could come to resent this letter, before he would ruin this piece of Taeyong’s heart forever with his own bitter feelings, he had decided it was time to put it away.
Doyoung couldn’t decide what to do with it. He wished he had a box of precious things to store this in like Taeyong did. When he was ready to move on, he had hidden the letter somewhere he decided would be safe, where he would remember, but would be out of sight enough that he didn't have to think about it all the time.
As it turned out, he had made some decisions about how to feel towards the matter that made him forget about its existence entirely.
Doyoung shifts on the couch, reaching down to pull a pillow to his chest.
It shouldn't come as a shock to him, but it still does. It’s different, this time around. Three years later, reading this letter now gives him a new understanding and perspective Doyoung struggles to come to terms with.
He had not expected to feel so much gratitude. Reading this with three years of distance between them, Doyoung feels grateful that once upon a time he had been the recipient of so much love, feels grateful to Taeyong for having composed something like this for him. He really sees now, when he's not so caught up in the tangle of emotions anymore, how much Taeyong must have loved him when he wrote this, how much Taeyong must have loved him when he came back. Taeyong had fought him, because like his family, he just wanted Doyoung to be happy. The fault falls on both their shoulders. Back then, they couldn’t communicate to each other what they really felt, and he let their differences tear them apart in the end. They could have worked it out together. He sees this now, and he feels regret over the way things transpired.
Doyoung closes his eyes. He dwells on it for a moment longer. He knows it’s no use. What has come to pass is the present reality he has to work with. Finding this letter again doesn't fix any of their past or current problems...but Doyoung would be lying to himself if he said it didn't change how he felt about Taeyong even a little bit.
Against his leg, Doyoung feels a vibration. He rolls over onto his back, pulls out his phone to find Jaehyun has texted.
Heard you’re back in town.
He takes a deep breath, and brings himself back to the present.
Yeah, just got back.
Then, as an afterthought,
How’ve you been?
Bored. You didn’t miss much. You?
Automatically, Doyoung starts typing "I'm fine, the same as usual", but something stops him. He pauses, staring at the screen, wets his lip.
Doyoung deletes it. Puts a little more thought into the question.
How is he, really, anyway?
The past week has been an emotional roller coaster. He had had some difficult conversations, had said some things that has taken a lot of courage to say, and he is feeling emotionally spent, even though there is so much to think about, so much suddenly on his mind. It’s hard to say if he feels lighter or heavier after having confessed to his brother about his condition. He knows it’s not over, the conversation, and he’ll have a lot more communicating to do once they find time to call each other. Suddenly, he wonders if there is any way Gongmyung found this letter—it’s unlikely that he would take something like that with him if he knew. Still, maybe it wasn't so much of an accident that Doyoung has to discover its contents at this point in time. Now, on top of the unravelling tension with his family, he has to be reminded of another loose end waiting to be tied.
Truthfully, Doyoung feels exhausted. Maybe he's not fine. Maybe it's okay not to be fine, when so many pieces of his life plastered precariously in place feel like they're finally starting to fall apart.
Without answering a perfunctory "I'm good", Doyoung feels like he's almost speechless. There are so many secrets inside of him that he doesn't know how to begin to explain to Jaehyun, to anyone outside of those involved. His usual instinct would be to hold it all in, but he feels like he's finally bursting at the seams, falling apart at the binding edges, like he had already begun the process of his own decomposition when he let on his uncertainties to his mother, and in a mood like this, it's so easy for him to want to spill everything, to wish for someone who would listen and share the burden with him of everything, down the the last ounce of truth left in his body.
Maybe...maybe Jaehyun wouldn't mind. Just this once. Because, he's Doyoung friend.
Before he can regret it, his fingers are typing.
I'm feeling kinda fucked up, honestly, he sends.
Moments later, Jaehyun texts back.
What's up? Did something happen?
Yeah, a lot of stuff.
Lol. That’s why I don’t go home. But you should tell me about it. Wanna hang?
Now. Any time.
Now is fine.
Nice. Come over?
Wait, he types. Meet me at a bar. Somewhere quiet.
You know that’s an oxymoron, Jaehyun supplies. But you’re lucky I know a place. Meet you downstairs in ten.
Jaehyun is quick and decisive. Doyoung loves that about him.
He leaves everything scattered on the table, grabbing only his keys and wallet before he’s slipping on a coat and sticking his feet into his shoes. He’s had enough of facing his feelings for a while. He wants to be drunk, and for the first time in months, he doesn’t want to be alone.