Title: Sinews of the Heart
Summary: Just a sappy story about two boys who shared the gift of friendship.
Word count: 13,300 words
Warnings: some cursing, homophobia, bullying
Notes: I had originally planned for this to be 3k words…Also, idk why it’s set in Korea, I just felt like it, call me out on any cultural inaccuracies..
“I have–had a friend once, a best friend, a hyung. He was one of those people who cared so much it physically hurt everyone around him. In truth, I kind of hated him because of it. We first met at sixteen years old in the first year of high school, he was a transfer kid from Donghae, by the sea, you know. Coming from a suburban seaside town straight to the center of Seoul must have been tough, especially in his condition but they had to. It’s where the best hospitals are after all.
“He made me really happy, you know. And he made me promise I’d be happy for him. Made me promise to spread my happiness. That’s how much he cared.”
The frosty morning of March third, in a high ceilinged classroom at the end of the chandelier lit hall on the second floor is where they first meet, he sits on Seo Minhyuk’s left, by the tall window. Before class starts, he stares through the glass. What he’s looking at, Minhyuk doesn’t know. The boy who observes cold March air and the grand estate of the school would become the new plaything of the students, spotlight of ridicule, root of all rumors. Walled in by elites and hundred thousand won notes tossed like autumn leaves. They are of such abundance, artificial leaves, oozing wealth and class.
For now, he is ignored.
Everyone already knows each other from the middle school buildings, rough years of finding cliques and adjusting to puberty. Step in the high school buildings and it’s decided, who you are, your status, your clique. Girls are categorized by beauty and popularity and richness, decked in the newest trends and finest powders and gloss to shine their greasy appearances. Boys are divided into opulent and refined and sexy. They don designer fabrics, flammable and toxic but worth hundreds of thousands of won and that’s really what counts. Anyone new is doomed to isolation unless they’re rich enough to buy their own clique and style. They usually are. This is how it goes in the richest schools of South Korea, Academy of Seoul, Private and Elite in fine print beneath. From elementary ages through high school, the school caters to sons and daughters of people with money, namely business CEOs in picturesque grass fields, marble halls, plush classrooms, and extravagant dorms.
When he stands, he stutters and his classmates snicker. “My name is Han Jaeho. N-nice to meet you.” The judgmental scrutiny of the class, the rise of plucked eyebrows, and the roll of eyes clouded in Night Series navy and dapplings of gold is met with wide, hopeful eyes, innocent and pure and a dark, lovely brown.
Within the day, rumors roar like wildfire about him. Minhyuk learns by word of mouth that Jaeho is most likely gay, taking drugs, is the son of an underground mafia leader, has a prostitute mother, and cheated his way into this school by sleeping with the vice principal who then put in a good word for him and faked his entrance exam scores. In one look Minhyuk would have pinned him as a nerd in love with some lame manhwa character.
Whether these rumors are true or not, he doesn’t care anyway.
“Dongsaeng, let’s catch a movie then have some bulgogi. Congrats on making it into high school,” Daehyuk waltzes into his new dorm bedroom, diving onto the bed and stretching his leg out to nudge insistently at Minhyuk’s desk chair with his big toe.
Minhyuk spins around kicking Daehyuk’s foot away, uninterested, “I can’t. I’m busy.”
Daehyuk gives him a flat don’t bullshit me look and a heavy sigh, “I’ll pay then.”
“Okay, let’s go,” he tosses his pencil aside, grabbing the leather jacket off the back of his chair and marching out the door. He glances back at Daehyuk, “What are we waiting for?”
Daehyuk chuckles and follows, “Nothing, nothing at all.”
The homeroom teacher asks for volunteers as class president. No one is interested. A majority of students from this high school are accepted into university just from the won notes waterfalling out of their pockets, between Gucci handbags and Michael Kors finest wallets. Performance, excellence, or effort never factors into this unequal equation. When you’re elite, it’s easy. Jaeho, after waiting a moment for someone to speak up, stands with less of a quiver in his voice, “I volunteer.” Again all eyes on him spark more rumors. He spends all waking hours studying in his rundown shack of a house. His father whips him if he gets lower than a ninety-seven on his tests. His prostitute mother feeds him multiplication table sheets instead of dinner and packs English flashcards in his lunch. Instantly he falls under two categories of people, the overachievers and the socially inept. It becomes an unspoken taboo to be near him or risk social expulsion.
He is no longer ignored, but bullied. “We’re just playing around,” they’d say innocently with blinking eyes and cocked heads. He often disappears for lunch but when he is around, he is tripped, spilled on with milk, soiled with leftover quality bibimbap from the anorexic girl’s lunch, his things are strewn, stolen. Teachers have enough ten thousand won notes in their pockets to overlook it. Money carefully hides the rich dirty secrets. Jaeho doesn’t say a word.
Minhyuk might pity him. But he really just doesn’t care.
“Hyung,” he pauses looking at his feet, cheeks flushing.
Daehyuk faces him amused. “What? Spit it out. You can’t hide anything from me.”
“I-I want to dye me hair. Brown, light brown.” He still avoids Daehyuk’s smirk.
“Didn’t you say that dying your hair was gay–”
“Hyung,” Minhyuk’s whining now, eyebrows furrowing and lips pushed out in a deep pout. “I take it back. Let’s go now, I want to get it done before high school starts. Please, hyung.”
“Yeah, yeah, but you’re paying for your own hair dye, it costs enough to dye mine, no way am I paying for yours.” Daehyuk herds Minhyuk out the door.
Jaeho’s hair is what stands out the most, dyed a shining dark wine red, long enough to pin back with bobby pins and brush his nape, falling into his eyes. Gossip says he is emo and depressed because of all the studying and turns to expressing his melancholy through his hair. His father probably tortured him for it. His mother wanted to involve him in the prostitute industry as well, a sex slave for the men and women willing to take advantage of his body, slender and soft.
Minhyuk’s pity for him barely increases. At some point he just starts tuning them out because he doesn’t care. “Maybe I don’t want to hear them,” is his excuse. To which Jeongah drawls while applying fresh eyeliner and excessive dabs of glitter to lilac eyelids, “You can’t possibly like the guy.” He protests, of course he doesn’t like him. (But he can’t deny the seed of interest that has planted itself into the recesses of his conscious.)
The third week of May, during math, Jaeho had poked Minhyuk with in pencil and gestured to Minhyuk’s hair dyed light chestnut, “I like it,” he had said. Like any person of status, Minhyuk bowed and continued working. He speaks to Minhyuk again, a question this time, which he answers out of sheer politeness. Their brief exchanges over the next few weeks hover in school related topics, what is the word for help in English again? and which questions were we supposed to complete by Tuesday? but it’s mostly Jaeho asking unnecessary questions he probably already knows the answers to, and Minhyuk replying somewhat stiffly. He’s built up a reputation, he reminds himself; being caught with garbage is a chance he is not willing to make. But, he couldn’t bring himself to straight out ignore him, that would be rude.
“What’s on your mind?”
Minhyuk blinks and looks over at Jaeho who is holding a small lollipop with vibrant swirls. “Nothing,” is his automatic reply.
“Lying is bad for your health,” Jaeho persists, tilting his head and licking his lollipop, abnormally large eyes bore into Minhyuk’s pupils.
“I have to go to an engagement party tonight with my family for some CEO but Jeongah and Yonggi’s group wants to swing by the mall and I still have that Physics worksheet to complete…” he trails off and frowns, eyebrows drawing together. He hadn’t intended to spill so easily. “But that’s none of your busi–” Jaeho doesn’t seem to be listening now, instead nodding pensively, chewing his bottom lip.
“I see, do you want help? With physics homework? I could help you at least?” His eyes are unsettling and Minhyuk chooses to look at his textbook instead.
“It’s fine, thanks,” he dismisses, flipping a page. He reads but does not comprehend in the slightest. Jaeho only hums in response, returning to sucking the lollipop he’d sneaked into class and pulled out on break.
When he drops into his seat the next day looking sleep deprived and a little rumpled he sees a lollipop being dropped onto his desk. Jaeho gives him a cheeky grin and continues to his own desk, sitting down and tucking a hand under his chin as he props an elbow on the desk and leans towards him, Minhyuk leans back, maintaining distance. “Did you know that the heaviest lollipop weighs like 1800 kilograms?”
Minhyuk is confused. “No?”
Jaeho shrugs, “Well you do now.” Homeroom begins, leaving Minhyuk bemused and yet the tiniest smidgeon pleased at the colorful candy now hidden in his bag.
Daehyuk flings upon the door, with a loud, “So, dongsaeng, I hear there is a new kid in your class? This is quite rare, tell me all about him.”
Minhyuk can barely contain a frustrated yell when Daehyuk squishes him with bony limbs into the couch, blocking his view of the drama he was watching. “Move, hyung, I can’t see,” he flails, elbowing Daehyuk in the ribs.
“Not until you tell me about this Han Jaeho. What’s he like? Are you friends? Is he cute?”
“I don’t know him, no, and no. Now go away.” He manages to push Daehyuk’s head away at an awkward angle that allows him to see.
“Yah dongsaeng, tell me–”
“No.” Daehyuk pokes his cheek, a habit that Minhyuk especially dislikes, along with every other thing about Daehyuk. Daehyuk was always a clingy hyung, talking incessantly about the latest action movie or newest game or a new song released by Girl’s Generation. “They’re my life,” Daehyuk cries, passionate and clutching a hard version of their first album to his chest. “My bias is Taeyeon,” he pauses, “but Yura is really sweet too, and Jessica, oh,” he sighs. “Have you seen Sunny’s adorable haircut? I love it, I love her. I love them all.” But his most unattractive characteristic, Minhyuk thinks, is his nosiness.
On a hot and humid August day, ties are looser, sweaters strewn over chairs. Minhyuk had fought with his brother earlier in the morning when crossing paths in the male student commons about attending another of their parent’s part party part convention gatherings that was whole parts itching and uncomfortably formal. Daehyuk demanded that Minhyuk attend simply because he was bored, Minhyuk technically wasn’t required by their parents so he refused. His mood is low, lower than its regularly apathetic state. Much to his frustration, Jaeho decides to ask him another useless, “Does x equal eight? Or negative eight?” Perhaps Minhyuk would regret being so cold with him but at the moment, he doesn’t care.
“Stop fucking asking questions if you already know the goddamn answer!” It’s a hissed outburst that is lost in the teacher’s overzealous voice ranting on about exponents and their wonders.
Jaeho looks taken aback. As Minhyuk glares in his eyes, they soften. He isn’t stung, he is empathetic. Minhyuk doesn’t pity him anymore, he hates him. Hates his clear, innocent eyes, gazing eerily into his soul, as if they know something. He almost misses Jaeho murmur, “You should meet me on the roof for lunch sometime. I want to tell you something,” before he turns away to look out the window, vacant. In his peripherals a swirl of artificial color disappears into Jaeho’s mouth and a gentle bulge appears in his cheek.
Minhyuk doesn’t go. He continues to pretend Jaeho doesn’t exist like the rest of the student body, he shuts out the lingering thoughts because Jaeho is a new kid, a social outcast, a stranger, he isn’t doesn’t care about in strangers and their mysteries. Jeaho’s questions stop and yet, beneath the thin veneer of detachment, curiosity simmers, mulling what Jaeho wanted to tell him.
The first week of September, after returning to school from summer break, has him reluctantly taking the elevator up to the top level of their building, then climbing the last flight of stairs to the roof, his backpack in tow. As he pushes open the door, the wind rushes into his lungs, free of chemical hairspray, new plastic, and crisp won notes. He spots Jaeho leaning on the railing, wine colored hair riding the breeze beneath the pins. His charm is disarming and oddly feminine, despite the uniform and masculine square of his shoulders. Jaeho turns at the door slamming shut and smiles. Minhyuk has never seen such a genuine smile, lips pulled up not by slyness or deceit but by gentle surprise.
“What did you want to tell me?” Minhyuk asks, cautious.
“Let’s get dakkochi,” Jaeho is quiet as he says this, sliding one hand in his pocket and slinging his bag over his shoulder with the other. Minhyuk is perplexed as he watches Jaeho approach him and gaze, hopeful, into his eyes. “Please?”
Minhyuk stumbles for a second because dakkochi is not for the elite and ditching school isn’t looked well upon, despite the already poor participation of the students in all areas other than attendance. He’s caught in Jaeho’s inquisitive bright eyes, “But–school?”
“Can wait,” Jaeho finishes for him, shrugging.
“Is this what you wanted to tell me?”
“Nope.” Jaeho is already wandering away, standing to wait for him by the roof door. “You coming?”
Much to Minhyuk’s dismay, they manage to sneak off campus very easily, tiptoeing past staff members and ducking between the clipped hedges. There is a street vender a few blocks down towards the abundance of cozy restaurants and markets. They each have a skewer of grilled chicken, standing off to the side, chewing and watching the people go by. Their school uniforms give away their obvious hookey playing but no one approaches, the irrational fear of being sued holding anyone back.
As they finish up, they stroll towards the nearby park, still chewing, Minhyuk struggling to avoid dirtying his uniform while Jaeho doesn’t seem to care at all. “So my mom told me I should make some friends,” Jaeho starts, flourishing the skewer around beside Minhyuk. Minhyuk doesn’t respond. “And I think we’d be great friends, so let’s hang out more, yeah?”
Minhyuk stops and Jaeho turns to look at him, their eyes meet. He’s tempted turn down Jaeho’s offer, it’s the right thing to do since Jaeho’s social rank is below the preschoolers that take their morning walk through the miniature hedge maze every day. “I…” he falters, eyes dropping to the sidewalk.
He isn’t thinking when he blurts, “Yeah. Let’s be friends.”
Jaeho brightens, beaming and punches Minhyuk’s shoulder. “Awesome!”
“But,” Minhyuk interrupts, this time he thinks for a moment. “We can only be friends after school, we can meet places and hang out, okay? Just,” he takes a breath, “don’t talk to me during school or in the dorms. We have to pretend, or people will think…things.” And looks away.
He forces himself not to care when he catches Jaeho’s crestfallen face in the corner of his eye. They exchange phone numbers, dubbing Jaeho “Hanjae” so his friends won’t know who he’s texting. Minhyuk is satisfied though, this is the right thing to do, and he may reap the benefits of their friendship in the future for all he knows. His parents would never approve of him befriending a supposed pauper turned nouveau riche who happened to get into the school by either giving up his body or his mother selling her body, another running rumor. Still, Minhyuk doesn’t know if this is true, but he doesn’t want to ask.
Their friendship is concealed. According to the rest of the school, Minhyuk is third most popular male in his year, surrounded by rings of girls and boys, rich, wealthy, and richer. Jaeho is a commoner outcast, disappearing (to the roof, Minhyuk supposes, but never mentions to anyone) during lunches and quiet during classes. For the remainder of the semester they meet and hangout, talking, eating, wandering between the downtown streets. Jaeho tells Minhyuk his mother is happy that he’s found a friend. Minhyuk can only smile weakly and avoid Jaeho’s large brown eyes.
It’s over spring break before the start of their second year, only a measly two weeks, that they really start to hang out more, what with no school. They meet at the arcade or the skatepark or one of the food courts in the many nearby malls. They chat for hours, or not at all and Minhyuk learns six things about Jaeho.
One, Jaeho hates lemons, “They’re too sour,” he’d complain with a scrunched nose and desperate flail for water but he loves playing basketball.
Two, he’s the kindest person Minhyuk’s ever known, helping kids retrieve their football from the tree or walking the struggling elderly lady to the bus stop and carrying her groceries. Jaeho does it all with a smile and soft, bright brown eyes.
Three, Jaeho is extremely smart, this is why homework and presidential duties do not stop him from hanging out with Minhyuk. Luckily, Minhyuk knows his lessons well enough to get homework done swiftly as well.
Four, every single rumor is false. Jaeho lives a average life, nothing extraordinary or high class, with his two parents, a doctor and a secretary. His father, a surgeon at the top of his field, worked enough to fund Jaeho’s education at this school, and he was able to receive a minimal scholarship because of his intelligence. “Which is stupid,” he’d say ,”because I’m not really that smart, the entire school is just dumb.” And Minhyuk would laugh because it was true, the school was filled with fake airheads of human beings.
Five, Jaeho has a habit of disappearing. Over the course of their friendship, Jaeho has left him hanging mid text or canceled plans or not shown up to school for days at a time. Jaeho’s lousy apology, “sorry, I guess I lost track of time,” with a grin and a hand raised to scratch awkwardly at his neck.
Six, he had moved to Seoul for a very special reason, not only his father’s work bringing him here. Jaeho refused to tell Minhyuk what is was, no matter what he did to get Jaeho to spill. “Why?” Minhyuk would frown and pout.
“Because,” Jaeho responded every time. At some point between the after the fourth and before the fifth time, he lets the question go, it sediments in the crevices of his thoughts, beside the lingering suspense of what Jaeho was really going to say that day on the roof, something he’d also insisted to know but was never given the answer.
(And seven, Minhyuk looks forwards to the time he spends with Jaeho more than he’d like to admit.)
The new school year begins and flies at 12,000 rpm on a purring, well-oiled engine Minhyuk is gifted for his 17th birthday, but he technically isn’t allowed to drive yet. On a weekend when he and his brother visit home, he invites Jaeho over in secret and they sit inside and marvel at the smooth black leather, pristine design, and carbon finish humming beneath their fingers.
“So,” Jaeho looks mischievous, eyes twinkling in the afternoon glimmer. They’re hanging out by a skate park, just walking and looking at the graffiti spattered on gray cement.
“So what, hyung,” Jaeho corrects, looking smug. “I’m your hyung, so call me hyung.”
“What? No way. When is your birthday?” Minhyuk denies with a vehement shake of the head. “That can’t be, you look like a five year old it’s impossible for you to older than me. Nope.”
“I turned seventeen in January, January 15th, to be exact. I know your birthday is February 19th, therefore, I am your hyung.”
Minhyuk groans, leaning back against the concrete wall, “how could it be,” he whines.
“How could it be, hyung,” Jaeho corrects again. “Ah dongsaeng, if I knew the answer, I wouldn’t tell you anyway.”
“It’s official, you have been lying to me, you are friends with Han Jaeho,” Daehyuk throws open the Minhyuk’s bedroom door with a flourish and Minhyuk crosses him, slamming the door shut. He stands before Daehyuk watching as he flops back on his bed, arms lifted to cradle his head.
“Shut up, hyung,” he hisses.
“What? I think Jaeho is cool, plus he can sneak in and out of our parent’s house pretty well. I’ll give him that.” Minhyuk’s nostrils flare and he gives him a murderous stare.
“Nobody is supposed to know.”
Daehyuk’s playful expression hardens. “You’re keeping your friendship a secret.”
“You know umma and appa would destroy me if they knew someone like him was in this school, not to mention ruin my image. Have you heard the rumors about him? They’re vicious, they’ll only worsen about the both of us if they knew we were hanging out. Ignorance is bliss.” Daehyuk is rising from the bed now, stepping forward.
“Seo Minhyuk. If you think hiding a friendship is a good idea then I refuse to be called your hyung.” He sidesteps Minhyuk, voice colder than he’s heard it since Daehyuk refuted his parent’s egging to get a girlfriend, claiming he would do things his own way and, “It is fitting that I am being forced into a relationship by the two people who can’t even hold one of their own.” Unease had seeped through the room, pressing deep into their bones. He’d never seen his father so ready to curse and disown his own son. But that was a while ago, something ironed and tucked between thin sheets of it never happened and your father and I are in a very loving marriage, exchanged looks and tightened lips.
Minhyuk is left staring at the slow motion image of his brother pushing past and the echoing sound of a door opening and shutting.
Jaeho drags him to noraebang on a Wednesday on May, it becomes a weekly thing. “Noraebang is lame,” Minhyuk huffs, pouting at the microphone sitting ever so innocent upon the table. “Can we leave. Hyung.” He adds the last word begrudgingly.
Jaeho only laughs and plays Apink’s NoNoNo in response, pulling Minhyuk up to dance with him. Jaeho throws up a gangster sign while rapping to G-Dragon’s Crayon and Minhyuk follows up with an awkward stumble through Shinee’s Lucifer choreography. Minhyuk hasn’t been so out of breath from laughter the last memorable time being witnessing Jeongah’s hideous third grade disaster involving 70s retro makeup, heavy baby blue eyelids and alarmingly cerise lips. His brother’s words dissipate in the back of his memory.
Finding a lollipop on his desk every now and then when he knows the bags under his eyes are especially deep or right before a big test, kindles a flame in his heart, a warmth in his chest. The feeling is foreign but it can’t keep the little smile off his face.
“Stop smiling, it’s creepy.” Jeongah is giving him a flat look then returning to her mirror. “Ugh, we need to go back to the mall, that lady gave the wrong size and told me it would fit, I can’t believe her. I should sue the company.”
“Maybe you’re getting fatter.” The boys guffaw, the girls gasp.
“You douchebag,” Jeongah is exasperated, swatting at Minhyuk’s head with a smile playing on the corners of her lips, “it was a size too big.” Another squawk of noise, and chatter erupts, but it’s haze compared to Minhyuk’s rainbow flavored tongue and the guilty twinge in his stomach.
Time has moved quicker and smoother than Minhyuk ever thought it could, filled with stifling parties, redundant homework and Jaeho’s silly chortles. He has also picked up the habit of dropping a mini size box of pepero on Jaeho’s desk.
“Jeongah and I are going out.” The July mugginess sweeps through the streets of Seoul and cicadas buzz nonstop in clumps of vibrant green trees. They’re safe in the air-conditioned family restaurant, plates of cheap but flavorful ddeokbokki and kimbap before them. Minhyuk knew he’d have to mention it sometime, he chose now.
“Huh?” Jaeho pauses with kimbap in stuffed in his cheek.
“We’re dating, Jeongah and I.” Minhyuk sets down his chopsticks and leans back on the bench.
Jaeho tilts his head and squints. He swallows and says, “Why?”
“You asshole,” Minhyuk punches him in the shoulder and they both break into soft laughs. “Jeongah’s been waiting for me to ask her out for a while apparently. About time, don’t you think?”
“Minhyuk,” Jaeho grabs his forearm and deadpans, “you realize you’re dating the daughter of Satan, right? Satan, I tell you.”
Minhyuk laughs louder this time, pulling Jaeho’s grip away, “Hyung, she’s not that bad. She’s kind of cute, actually.” Jaeho only rolls his eyes. “What about you? Is there any girl that’s caught your eye?”
Jaeho looks uncomfortable and gulps, “no.”
“Lying gives you pimples.”
“Then you’d have the worst complexion ever,” Jaeho huffs, crossing his arms. “I’m serious, there’s no one I like.”
Jaeho sees it more since Minhyuk had mentioned it. Minhyuk throwing an arm around Jeongah’s shoulders, bringing her a bouquet of lilies, kissing her lightly on the cheek. He watches them exchange embarrassed smiles, pink in the cheeks from the summer heat and the stutter of their hearts. Jaeho felt his heart stutter too, but for an entirely different reason.
The year carries on, pressure to start considering colleges has befallen the procrastinating third year students and gentle hints have been made by their homeroom teacher to start now and not become one of those irresponsible third years even though they’re still second years. “You can never start to early,” she says with a hand on her hip. Midterms loom upon them all; cram time becomes lonely when Minhyuk apologizes by text saying he’s spending time with Jeongah instead. So Jaeho sits in the family restaurant with his books open by himself, something he’s growing used to as Minhyuk fades away.
He doesn’t want to disturb the peace, stir more rumors by confronting Minhyuk at school, that would only hurt both of them he knows. He takes the path that comes easiest to him, he ignores him.
And it’s a Wednesday when Jaeho registers the fact that they haven’t been to noraebang in over a month. Two months. Three months. Seeing Minhyuk a few times a month is what their friendship has become, usually ending in Minhyuk running back to the station early saying something about Jeongah and shopping or other friends and calling, “sorry, we’ll hang out more later, yeah?” to which Jaeho would simply nod and half wave.
The winter holiday feels empty to Jaeho, only meeting his parents for dinner and calling a friend from home.
“How is Seoul? Holding out in the big city?” It’s teasing but laces of concern and worry slip through the receiver.
“Yeah, Seoul is great. A little lonely, but great,” he’s breathing out as he pauses on a bridge, gazing down at his moonlit reflection in the gentle current of the water.
“Hey, you’re not spending the holiday without friends right? If they’ve ditched you, they’re not friends, you know that right? I’ll just come up myself,” a loud huff, he thinks he hears a pout over the line.
He laughs, “It’s fine, I’m fine, okay? You enjoy your holiday, I sent you a gift by the way, so expect something in the mail.”
An excited, “oh, I can’t wait! Thank you. Of course, I sent you something as well,” he knows Yoona’s smiling on the other end because he’s smiling himself. From there they say their goodbyes and eat wells and stay safes. Jaeho considers her words, if they’ve ditched you, they’re not friends, you know that, right? He does know but he can’t bring himself to accept it. He shoves it away, a brooding idea threatening his faith in their friendship.
Minhyuk is surprised to say the least when Daehyuk knocks on his door instead of unceremoniously throwing open the dorm door and barging in claiming it was dongsaeng time like usual. Minhyuk feels small under Daehyuk’s scrutiny, he tightens his grip on the door knob, not bothering to invite him in.
“What do you want?”
“Still keeping secrets, Seo Minhyuk?”
Minhyuk doesn’t answer, glancing nervously down the hallway.
“I’m going to Japan. For college.”
Minhyuk stills, Daehyuk’s third and final year at high school is drawing to an end and now he’ll be leaving, it hits him like a truck. It takes a moment to sink into Minhyuk’s skin, Daehyuk, his obnoxious brother going overseas. The door falls open a little.
“Five days after school ends. In a month or so.” Minhyuk is in shock.
“Why? Why didn’t I know? Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” Minhyuk is hurt, straightening and stepping towards Daehyuk, extending a cautious hand but pulling back almost immediately.
“I was going to but I couldn’t find the time. And we seemed to have disagreements about things,” a pointed look. “Let’s get bulgogi tonight, yeah? I’ll even pay for my favorite dongsaeng. I still don’t think what you’re doing is right. But you’ll figure that out on your own. As your hyung, I’ve got your back. Don’t do anything even more stupid, yah, dongsaeng.” Daehyuk looks reprimanding but beneath that Minhyuk sees the soft, caring hyung that’s always understood him.
Minhyuk almost weeps with relief and realizes that the past school year, what with Jaeho and Jeongah and school and avoiding his parent’s functions, he never spent much time with his brother. It was always Daehyuk stampeding into Minhyuk’s schedule and screwing up his plans but as of late he’d gotten more accustomed to declining and guiding Daehyuk to the door or, like their last encounter, ending in sour disapproval. Daehyuk has friends of course, but Minhyuk should’ve known that these frequent visits were to spend his last year with his brother instead of just bother him like it was every other time.
“No, no, I’ll pay,” Minhyuk murmurs, retreating and grabbing his jacket and wallet. “What are we waiting for…hyung?”
Daehyuk’s parted lips and worried eyes soften into a smile, “Nothing, nothing at all.” Minhyuk grins half-heartedly back, still shaken from the news that his hyung would be gone so soon.
Minhyuk makes plans to meet Jeongah near the Han River in Gangnam where a mall with minimalistic designer stores and exotic restaurants, interiors of gray concrete and harsh lights, stands tall and regal in the explosive nightlife. They sit at dinner in a high-end sushi restaurant, chewing delicate bites of rice and fish and eye-watering wasabi. Minhyuk sips ice water then clears his throat.
“My brother is leaving to Japan for college after school gets out,” he says quietly.
Jeongah looks up through heavy eyelashes and weary features with a pause. Then, “so?”
They’re eating dinner at Umma Oh’s Finest Diner the Sunday before finals. Jaeho and him are sharing dishes of samgyeopsal and jjajangmyeon with a side of kimchi in a small restaurant on the outskirts of Seoul in celebration of end of year finals. Upon arriving, Jaeho had asked how Jeongah was, to which Minhyuk replied with a simple, “She’s good.” Silence had ensued. Pernicious thoughts creep stealthily through the thick air, Minhyuk distracts himself with eating as best he can.
“Can you believe it?” Jaeho says through a mouthful of noodles. Minhyuk relaxes into the conversation almost instantly, glad Jaeho had broken the quiet. “We’re going to be third year high schoolers soon. Do you think the dorms will get better?” The dorms they had occupied their first and second year had been shared with roommate, Minhyuk hardly ever saw his, and consisted of a cramped shared living room space, two bedrooms, and one bathroom.
“I think we actually get TVs this year,” Minhyuk replies, reaching for some noodles too.
“Seriously? Sweet,” Jaeho sits back, patting his stomach. “I’m stuffed.”
They sit for a little while longer, Minhyuk still picking at small strips of pork and noodle. Minhyuk, with a tentative glance at Jaeho’s calm expression, tries the same line he’d shared with Jeongah. He doesn’t know what response he’ll get, he hopes it won’t make his heart sink again.
“My brother’s leaving to Japan for college after school gets out,” it’s a soft murmur as Minhyuk drops his eyes to the red flecks of chili pepper on the kimchi.
Jaeho stops spacing out, looking at Minhyuk and says, “You should get one of those stuffed yellow dinosaurs at the arcade, you know? I don’t know you’re brother well but from what you’ve said I think he’d like it.”
Minhyuk lets out the breath he was holding with a slightly more upbeat, “yeah, I think he would.”
They clear their plates and saunter over to the rundown movie theatre, it’s a Thursday night and the theaters are close to empty. Films are one of the few things Minhyuk holds onto as entertainment. Minhyuk likes getting caught in the story, drawn into the action, spinning through fight scenes. He is startled when Jaeho clamps down on his arm, knuckles taut over pale skin, at a particularly frightening plot twist and hisses in his ear, “Holy shit that guy was the assassin? The fuck?” In the end, the two lovers reunite, only for one to die. It’s a bittersweet ending, Minhyuk doesn’t like that part.
“Why’d one of them have to die?” He complains, when they’re heading back to the station.
“That’s life,” Jaeho shrugs.
He sees off Daehyuk at Incheon International Airport with parents that stand at a distance while Daehyuk hugs Minhyuk and Minhyuk hugs back, squeezing around Daehyuk’s bony ribs.
“Here,” he shoves the dinosaur into Daehyuk’s chest. “I got you something, to poke when I’m not there.”
Daehyuk snorts and places it in his backpack, leaning forward to muss Minhyuk’s hair, “Thanks, dongsaeng. I didn’t know you were the sentimental type. I actually know for a fact that you are not.”
Minhyuk shifts, uncomfortable under Daehyuk’s spotlight finally mumbling, “Jaeho might have given me the idea.”
The older hums and adds a small, “I see.” He collects his things “Well, I’ll be back around the holidays, don’t worry,” Daehyuk says, chuckling, and poking his cheek.
Minhyuk gives him a look. “That’s in like ten months.”
Daehyuk is laughing when he boards the plane, handing over his boarding pass then turning for a final wave. “No stupid decisions, dongsaeng,” he calls.
A sixth text message vibrates on the table and the nurse looks over. “Do you want your phone? It looks like someone’s trying to contact you.”
“No,” he turns on his side, away from the lit up screen, exhaling heavily. “If you could turn it off that would be great, thanks.” The nurse switches it off for him as she leaves.
Their final school year starts abnormally hot and more work along with applying to colleges weighs on his thoughts. He’s had to meet with more businessmen over Friday night dinners with his parents, Daehyuk’s absence leaves the atmosphere hollow and empty. He barely finds time to finish schoolwork before Jeongah drags him off to hang out with friends or make out in public benches, something he’s sure she takes pleasure in but he’s not so fond of himself. Jaeho slips out of his mind, only surfacing for the occasional text, I didn’t see you at school today, are you okay? and reply, I’m fine. He let’s it go there because it’s usually Jaeho who initiates conversation anyway.
Minhyuk rendezvous with Jaeho in the sweltering rays of the July sun, beneath blue skies and green trees in a shopping center with little gift shops and boutiques. He says he’s looking for a scarf for Jeongah, tells him their relationship is going great and by the way, where have you been lately? Jaeho doesn’t say much in reply, wandering away to examine a pink cardigan or suggest an ugly orange scarf to which Minhyuk had declined because it would clash with Jeongah’s color theme of the month.
“Shopping for girls is too hard,” is his complaint, but Minhyuk knows he doesn’t care and would probably rather be at the arcade or eating.
“T-thanks for coming with me,” he says softly and he thinks Jaeho might have missed it since he doesn’t look back or respond, again.
The next time Minhyuk gets away from Jeongah and her never ending plans is the end of November. They hang out on the public basketball courts before the scramble for midterm finals. The air sears their lungs, in a park on the northern side of Seoul, relatively far away from the Academy in more lower class agricultural areas. They attempt lousy basketballs maneuvers, Jaeho’s double clutch missing miserably and Minhyuk’s reverse layup off by a meter or more. Minhyuk passes the ball towards Jaeho, who goes for an alley-oop. Before catching the ball on his fingertips, Jaeho drops to the court, a thud emphasizing the fall.
Minhyuk thinks he can hear Jaeho’s heart flutter to a frightful stop in the raw quiet of the setting sun. The heavy drop in the pit of his stomach tells him that this isn’t normal, that Jaeho may in fact be on the brink of death. The loud rush of adrenaline roars in his ears, deafening.
Minhyuk rushes to Jaeho’s unmoving body and fumbles for his phone to call an ambulance. This is the first time ever that Minhyuk feels his hands shaking, tears springing into the corners of his eyes as he presses despairingly on Jaeho’s chest. “Jaeho, Jaeho,” he says, over and over.
The ambulance arrives, pulling out a defibrillator, and they bring him to the emergency room. At barring white doors Minhyuk cannot breach, he paces and paces and pushes away the worry, until a nurse tells him to go home and that Jaeho’s parents have been contacted and are on their way.
He thinks he sees them on his way out, a tall man with Jaeho’s ears and a petit woman with Jaeho’s delicate eyes and nose. He has never met them and Jaeho has never met his parents, this is what they agreed on long ago in days of bad decisions and foolish thoughts.
Like the hole left when Daehyuk had flown to Japan, another part of his heart strains when his eyes catch Jaeho’s empty desk everyday as he walks into class. He feels as though the sinews of his heart will snap in the freezing weather. No one bats an eye at Jaeho’s fourth day of absence, not even the teacher, just continuing role call with a dull, nasally voice.
While sitting with Jeongah at lunch, the topic of Jaeho bubbles up, starting with something along the lines of, “Hey, where’s that emo kid been? Think he got expelled?”
“I bet it was because they found out he slept with the vice principal,” a girl with pigtails and caked makeup sneers while inspecting her nails. “I can’t believe someone would be that desperate to get in with us. I mean,” she tosses a curl over her shoulder, “who even does that?” The group nods, remarks on his hair and his parents are tossed back and forth before a loud slam is heard on a table.
Shocked, everyone turns to face Jeongah, leering over the table, knuckles biting the wood and other hand strong on her hip. “I don’t see the point of talking about that piece of trash anymore,” she snarls, “He’s probably gotten in some gang fight and is hospitalized right now. Anyway, we all agree he should go die in a ditch. Along with his nonexistent friends. Right, Minhyuk-ah?” She swings her glare around to meek Minhyuk, who’s sitting beside her, staring at his silver chopsticks. The cutting blades of dread swoop low in his stomach as his nods noncommittally, eyes still trained away from Jeongah’s.
He manages out a shaky, “Yeah.” The conversation, on Jeongah’s lead, turns towards the newest Coach design and Sephora possibly hosting a rare brand of eye shadows that do wonders to the irises.
“Hey.” Minhyuk’s head snaps up from where his eyes had gazed at Jaeho’s lifeless fingers.
Jaeho laughs, which turns to hacking coughs, and Minhyuk starts. “Yeah–I’m fine. Did I–” he breathes heavily through his nose, “Did I–uh–”
“You went into cardiac arrest.” A tense pause. “I think I deserve a proper explanation.” Minhyuk is sharp words and narrowed eyes and furrowed brows. A face full of concern and hurt blended together and below that, guilt and I’m sorry.
Jaeho looks away, out the window and transports Minhyuk back to the day when Seo Minhyuk first saw a wine red haired boy observing the frosty March air through high arched windows. “I have Brugada syndrome,” he says, slow and measured, eyes trailing over the floor, the walls. “Which means, I have an increased risk of sudden cardiac death. So, usually I just faint but sometimes…this…happens.” He gestures vaguely around the room, trailing off and carefully evading Minhyuk’s frown.
“This is why you moved to Seoul, isn’t it? Not because of your father’s job, because of you. You said Seoul had the best hospitals in all of Korea, didn’t you?”
Jaeho’s answer comes in the form of silence.
He continues to visit everyday, discreetly bringing Jaeho his homework, “Only because I’m bored after school and no one else will do it,” was his rushed explanation to the teacher in the privacy of the teacher lounge, away from eavesdroppers. It’s lame, he knows, and his teacher had given him a strange look, but handed over the worksheets anyway.
“What did you get for number nine? I got thirty point zero two…” Minhyuk looks up. “Jaeho?”
Jaeho is looking at his own sheet, brown eyes wide and blank, blurred and unfocused.
“Jaeho? Yah, Jaeho,” Minhyuk waves a hand in his face. “Earth to Jaeho,” he’s poking him in the shoulder.
Jaeho shudders out of his reverie, his eyes drop to his hands, “I’m getting tired. You should go.” Minhyuk’s hand drops, it’s rare to see Jaeho so despondent, the slump of his shoulders and pale skin sharpening distinctly in his gaze. What throws him off the most is the stinging look of detachment, emptiness, in his once innocent, laughter-filled eyes. The air is cold on the back of his neck.
Minhyuk leaves with a small, “See you later,” which Jaeho doesn’t return.
He might have heard a choked, “No, you won’t,” as he closed the door, he isn’t sure. But he’s too afraid to ask.
Minhyuk feels the stares burn his shoulder blades the second he steps into the hallway from his dorm room. His roommate had left before him, not bothering to wake him up like usual. He is used to the attention, he would like to say, but these stares aren’t their usual auras of awe. He never knew until now how cold and piercing a gaze could become.
As he walks, he hears the wisps of conversation curling by and a crease appears between his eyebrows. A careful radius around him has been sidestepped by enough people he’s growing suspicious. He walks into the classroom and faces from the huddle of gossipers before him look around to stare, they fall silent as he approaches. He notices Jeongah at the center desk, sitting like a princess in her solid gold throne, her head bowed, whimpering and hiccuping sounds emanating from under her dark blonde fringe.
“What’s going on, Jeongah?”
“When were you going to tell me, Minhyuk?” She sobs, raising her head. Hidden beneath bangs is the curl of her lip, coy, deceptive lines only seen by Minhyuk, who stands directly before her. Minhyuk blood chills, his heartbeat quickens.
“What?” A chorus of titters from the clump of girls.
“You think I wouldn’t find out about your little friend? Han Jaeho, remember him? You’ve been cheating on me, Minhyuk. We’re finished!” She wails into a dainty handkerchief. It scares him how well she can trick those around her with fake tears. “Send him my deepest regards, will you?”
Minhyuk’s fist clenches, furious eyes clash against glittering ones, flashing, poisonous.
“It’s alright, really,” she lowers the hand clutching her handkerchief to gaze through tear stained makeup straight at Minhyuk. “I won’t tell anybody you’re a fag.” Another wave of titters and tiny gasps. “But that’s probably because everyone already knows.” She cries into her hand again and Minhyuk turns, murderous on his heel.
The echoes of angered footsteps, magnified by multiple hundreds of decibels in deep ceilinged hallways and the dead silence, the gazes burned into his back, pounding in his ears. He doesn’t hear, the rushing is too loud, too overwhelming, the sudden urge to scream, the chocking, the suffocating, the betrayal.
Minhyuk returns to his dorm room, chest heavy, constricted. It isn’t until a teacher comes in and tells him he needs to attend class or risk expulsion that he steps into class one week later. He finds an old box of pepero in the side pocket of his backpack when he’s pulling out his pens. Tucked beside it, a vibrant lollipop.
The next week, Jaeho returns to school. He wears the same cold detached look Minhyuk remembers from white hospital walls and frigid air on the back of his neck.
Minhyuk chooses to avoid and ignore Jaeho, the quiet “no, you won’t,” rings in his ears licking at the edges of fake bawling and he grips his head, it feels like he’s going mad. Rumors explode about that Jaeho and Minhyuk, how he took part in a fistfight ordered by his mafia leader father and egged on by his prostitute mother. He had broken his left arm and three ribs, say very accurate sources. Minhyuk’s included too. He doesn’t hear about himself, but he can guess the monstrosities rolling off velvet tongues into an abyss swarming of lies and ruin.
The school days shorten with December nearly up and January rolling around. His preoccupied mother gives him an overcoat of blue cashmere and a gray scarf wrapped thickly around his neck with space to nestle his chin and nose. Brown, muddy leaves float to the ground beside scattered capital and liquid gold nobody needs. Inevitably, hundred thousand won notes drift between biting gusts and icy footprints. Under all the layers of warm, expensive fabric and the metallic scent of money Minhyuk is frozen, hollow.
A flood of nostalgia at the flow of students through the corridors, decked with bright winter colors and powdery winter makeup, sends Minhyuk back to sitting on a swing set with Jaeho. It had been warmer then, the end of July creeping in and the first semester drawing to a close, just before their meetings became less frequent. He recalls the gentle squeak of rusted metal, kids preferring to take up video games or computers instead.
“What, do you think,” Jaeho had murmured with an elegiac manner and vacant eyes. “Is the point of being rich?” His eyes caught Minhyuk’s face, inquisitive.
Minhyuk was silent for a moment, frowning. “To be happy, I suppose.”
Jaeho gave him a funny look. “To be happy,” he repeated this flatly, an eyebrow raised. “And how do you become happy by being rich?”
“You buy things that make you happy.” He replied, smooth without missing a beat and Jaeho’s brown eyes narrowed.
“So,” he said slowly. “You buy your happiness.”
“Yes.” Jaeho raised both eyebrows now. Minhyuk felt hot in the cheeks and shifted on the swing. It squeaked.
“Are you happy?”
“What–yes, of course,” Minhyuk was confused, he certainly wasn’t unhappy. “I have everything I could ever want. And at least I’m not starving on the streets.”
“Can happiness only come with wealth?” Jaeho asked this time, looking away. Minhyuk couldn’t help but feel like he’d disappointed his friend, eyes following the line of Jaeho’s tense jaw.
“I don’t see how starving people could possibly be happy,” Minhyuk was careful as he answered.
“I believe they can.”
Minhyuk visibly frowned, cocking his head. “Explain.”
Jaeho sighed, a mixture of morose and despondent. “I think you’re wrong. Happiness cannot be bought.” Minhyuk wanted to protest but Jaeho gave him a silencing look. “I think people surrounded by people they love and who love them and doing things they love are truly happy people. It is not measured by what a person has in his bank account or how many diamond rings they can buy.”
Minhyuk was speechless; he could not form a response that would back his previous claim without making him seem obviously imprudent.
“Now tell me,” Jaeho locked eyes with Minhyuk. “Are you happy?”
Minhyuk resisted the words Jaeho fed him, but now, standing in flurries of snowflakes and clumps of spoiled, self-centered people, he accepts what Jaeho had said. He isn’t happy, he never was. Not with his parents, not with Jeongah. He isn’t surrounded by people he loves and who love him. He was drowning in people wanting his money, his wealth by association. And now, drowning in rotten lies and a flurry of insults ranging from homophobic catcalls to death threats. His parents kept him and developed him but when he asked if they loved him they had responded with a distracted, “now isn’t the time, get dressed for dinner, the Kims are coming over and we want to look our very best. And don’t wear that ugly blue button down shirt, choose something nice this time.” That was his favorite shirt, he thought it accentuated his shoulders.
At seventeen almost eighteen years old, Minhyuk isn’t the most emotionally expressive teenager but he is struck by the dismissal in his mother’s answer. Shocked and burned and shriveled at the realization that not once in living memory had anyone ever told him, “I love you.”
Two infinitesimal flickers remind him of Jaeho and Daehyuk, the bright flames of warmth he’d clung to like a moth. With them, he was happy.
Minhyuk is past miserable lurking under clouds of wintery isolation, a pariah, constant talk of the school. His mood is brittle and sleep-deprived filled to the brim with hateful silences, freezing glares. Students scamper out of his path, melting away when his eyes dare rove near, fear of catching some fag disease or another. Jaeho sits forever by the window, lips sealed, and ignores him. And Minhyuk ignores Jaeho.
Daehyuk is late on visiting in December, coming instead a week into January on a weekend and it hits him with the force of a meteor that he’ll be packing up and moving out for college. That this is the last he’ll ever see of anyone where for years, if not forever. The Seos had sat down together as a family, the crushing disapproval clear in the hard crinkles in his father’s worn face.
“We were thinking of sending you to America for college. Or China, whichever you prefer.” His parents set down their silverware, dabbing the corners of their mouths with starched white napkins.
“Why do I have to leave Seoul?” Congealed silence. A breath.
“We’ve been hearing things Minhyuk.” His mother, stern and crisp. “Are you familiar with a boy named Han Jaeho?”
Daehyuk stiffens beside him, he’d told Daehyuk everything that had happened, from Jaeho’s collapse to Jeongah’s reveal, he is still puzzled as to how anyone had found out. “Yes,” Minhyuk replies, training his eyes on the golden chicken artfully drizzled in delicious gravy.
“Have you been seeing this boy?”
He almost says no, but he swallows and continues, “As a friend, yes.” Daehyuk exhales through his nose.
“We are taking preventative measures then,” she settles it like a business contract. “You will be leaving the country for college. You will never speak to or see this boy again. You understand, I’m sure.”
A beat. Daehyuk grips his fork tighter, biting his lip.
“You understand, I am sure.”
“Yes, I understand.”
“Minhyuk-ah,” Daehyuk throws an arm over his shoulder, hipbone digging painfully into his thigh but the older pulls him close anyway, blanketing him in the warmth from his skinny bones. They’re tangled on the soft couch in Minhyuk’s bedroom at home before a 162 centimeter plasma TV, set into the wall and accessorized with minimalistic monochrome artwork and limited edition framed magazines. He leans in, rests his cheek against Minhyuk’s shoulder.
A Korean drama is playing about two lovers on mute, both sick in different ways and promising their eternal love to each other, is drifting through Minhyuk’s sullen eyes. He doesn’t respond to his brother’s embrace, doesn’t shrug it off either.
Daehyuk’s voice is soft. “It’s okay to cry.” He begins to pet Minhyuk’s head, smoothing down the crumpled chestnut hair, pilling it out of his face. He hums the EXO ballad about December that he can’t remember the title of while he goes. It isn’t till his collar becomes wet that he realizes he is crying. His heart clenches and burns, he wants to reach up and scratch it out of his chest, tear it out, throw it away. He curls into Daehyuk’s warmth and stays there for a long time.
The vibrations of song die down in Daehyuk’s chest, tapering off in a slow, “Seo Minhyuk, I love you so much, my dongsaeng.” And he falls into dreamless sleep.
Minhyuk doesn’t know what to do with himself after school these days. Two years, however disjointed, gave them enough time to explore the whole city, any reminder stings at the lacerations in his heart. Lacerations probably from trying to stop the pain, sever the sinews. The taste of lemons is strong and sour in the back of his throat.
He ignores the chauffeur that pulls up along the curb, wandering towards the street vendor selling dakkochi. The ahjussi looks at him, as if he remembers the months ago when he stood beside another boy with wine red hair and big brown eyes. “Just…one?” The ahjussi hesitates to ask this and Minhyuk’s eyes flicker away.
“Yeah, thank you.” He doesn’t know why he’s come here. As he takes a tentative bite of his dakkochi, he isn’t sure what to expect. Not the burst of sweet salty flavor and strong scents of chicken. Not the avalanche of Jaeho’s lopsided grins plastering themselves before his eyes. His nose stings, he blinks and coughs. The ahjussi is concerned, “Hey…are you alright? Was it too hot?”
Minhyuk vigorously shakes his head, bowing with a stutter, “It was just how I remember it, thank you so much, ahjussi.” He takes off, down a familiar path towards the park with abandoned an abandoned swing set and little yellow slide not one meter off the ground. He sits at the top of the slide, his breath clouds in the evening light, everything is so peaceful, so quiet.
“Hyung, hyung, can you go down? I want to go next,” a young boy nudges his shoulder. He’s got a round face, soft with baby fat, and beautiful angled eyes.
Minhyuk manages a tiny smile, sliding down and turning to watch the boy follow. “That was fun, wasn’t it hyung?”
“Yeah,” he’s exhaling as the boy dashes around and up the ladder, a delighted laugh, and slides down again. His small toothy grin is intoxicating and Minhyuk can’t help but smile along.
When he checks his watch it’s nearing five and the boy is stilling playing, now swinging with gleeful shouts as he gains height and momentum. “Hey, are you happy?”
“I’m so happy hyung!” He is breathless from the surge of air but he still spouts loud peals of laughter.
“Do you have someone who loves you?” Minhyuk just stands, hands stuff in his pockets, exhaling warm puffs.
The kid looks down at Minhyuk, “My umma loves me, I love my umma. Hyung, can you help me stop? I have to go home now.”
Minhyuk rushes forward, catching the chain and steadying him so he can hop off. “Be safe when you’re walking home.”
He hugs Minhyuk and takes off across the playground, “Bye hyung! See you later!” A little wave and the boy’s messy hair disappears down the residential street.
“No,” Minhyuk murmurs softly, “you won’t.” And disappears into the thickening night.
He goes at lunchtime, climbing the last few steps to the roof. He’s scared out of his wits but his feet won’t stop so he grips the small box in his hand to stay sane. The door opens, Jaeho’s wine red hair riding the breeze, a crashing wave of déjà vu.
“What do you want?” Jaeho’s voice comes out harsh in the February skies, pure nontoxic freshness, his back to the rail and past that the colorful explosion of flowers. A year ago, they’d been accepting death as a fact of life. Now, death doesn’t seem so scary anymore.
“Hyung.” His voice cracks, he knows he looks miserable but Jaeho’s eyes remain glassy. And he musters up enough energy to ask, “What happened?” A look of confusion surfaces on Jaeho’s scrunched features. He opens his mouth to speak but Minhyuk interrupts. “What happened, that day at the hospital. You were hiding something from me then, what was it?”
Jaeho withdraws, turning away, facing the railing, and observing the flowers. Minhyuk has to strain his ears to catch what Jaeho says next.
“Jeongah stopped by the hospital before you did. I don’t know how she found me but she did. She said she knew, knew everything. Knew I was a fag–” Minhyuk flinches at how crudely Jaeho says it “–and that I’d convinced you to cheat on her. She said you weren’t like me, that I was deceiving you, poisoning you and she threatened me, said I shouldn’t go near you and that she’d kill me if I did. Then she said she’d spread the word about us, that we are gay and we are disgusting. That you hated me. That you’d only made friends with me for my money, to take advantage of me. Some parts I knew were wrong. But most of it, sounded right.” Minhyuk is astonished, shocked beyond words.
Jaeho plows on. “And then you never came back to visit. I started to worry. When I did go back to school, you ignored me. Like I wasn’t even there. But I saw you were going through the exact same thing I was. But I was hurt. How was I supposed to know I meant anything, even a friend, to you? What with all this secretly meeting, huh? For two, three years now we’ve been sneaking around just because we weren’t allowed to be friends in public. What was I supposed to think?” He sounds desperate and the wind, Minhyuk can see, guides the trails of tears back towards his hair, soaking into the wine coloring.
The silence had never been as loaded as it was now.
“I’m so sorry, hyung. I’m so sorry.” And it’s a whisper of a prayer, a spill of guilt into the hard concrete.
The younger drops to his knees; hands limp at his side as he says to the sky, “Remember that day, we-we were sitting on the swings. Remember how you asked me if I was h-happy? Well I wasn’t. You probably knew that, but I wasn’t happy. I was-am fucking miserable. I hated hiding our friendship, Daehyuk and I even argued about it. And god, I’m sorry. I fucked up, I shouldn’t have thought about when they said, about money, about popularity. Not-not if it meant loosing you.” Tears follow paths behind his ears disappearing into chestnut, it darkens into a faded mahogany. The sky looks sickly hues of gray and blue and purple, like fading bruises, thick and explosive.
”Hyung, I was happy with you. I was so, so happy when I was with you.” He sets the box of pepero with a lollipop taped to the front before him. “Happy birthday, hyung. Happy 18th birthday.”
Jaeho doesn’t reply, only wipes his tears away and passes Minhyuk’s form, leaving him alone on the rooftop. He feels the excruciating sinews drawn taut in his bleeding heart snap as the door slams shut.
He wonders if this is depression, walled in by elites and money, too much money. He can’t sleep, the sheets twisted and chaffing on his skin, cold sweats causing him to throw off the covers and lie staring at the ceiling. He doesn’t like thinking about anything anymore, only barely getting through homework, already preparing for finals. He’s filled out his application for New York University, yet it sits in a drawer untouched. The days become long and hours painful, just sitting, watching as Jeongah wraps Yonggi around her finger as the semester closes. It’s amazing how quickly people loose interest, Jeongah had dated him for a little over a year, he’d spent a little more money than he should have but had fun nonetheless. Then she had torn a rift between Jaeho and him too wide to cross, to jagged to sew back together. And she left without a backward glance.
Minhyuk sits at his desk in class now, staring out the window, looking through the thin glass. He sees ice and mounds of snow, sunlight refractions and dew drop suspensions. He sees the trees, barren and rugged, dappled with scars. He sees the beauty in the sparkling water, the pain in dense mists of unknown and ignorance.
He looks over at Jaeho, large brown eyes also gazing out the window, filters of sorrow, grief, hurt, pain, and worry clouding them, making them appear foggy.
It’s no freight train crashing into him when it comes, no eruption or epiphany. He simply knows what he wants and he knows nothing else.
He wakes up with a headache but four solid hours of sleep under his belt, an improvement. He is slow to change and clean up, heading to the café beside the student commons for breakfast. He gets a coffee and heads to class. Still people avoid him, but it doesn’t matter now. It’s not apathy, but self assurance. He doesn’t need to care, he doesn’t need to not care. He simply needs to be.
Jaeho is already there, along with the rest of the class but separated by invisible barriers a distance away. He skips his seat and approaches Jaeho’s, who looks up, blinking through wine red hair with large brown eyes.
“Can we,” he inhales. “Can we get dakkochi for lunch today?” The class hushes, pairs of eyes on them, illuminated by the light streaming through the window.
Jaeho doesn’t hesistate when he says, “Yeah.” And a smile that crinkles the edges of his eyes, sweet and friendly and for the first time in days he feels happy.
The ahjussi recognizes him when they walk up and he smiles kindly at the two of them. “You know what is the strangest thing,” he says while turning skewers on the grill. “First you two come as youngsters together then you each come separately years later looking ready to cry a sea of tears. I’m happy to see you two together again.”
Minhyuk turns to Jaeho, “You came here?” and Jaeho looks equally surprised. Wide smiles and bows of thanks have them on their way with a stick of skewered chicken each. Minhyuk decides to confront the scrambled thoughts as they settle down on a creaky swing set.
He speaks first and Jaeho listens, “So I don’t know why or how Jeongah decided what our relationship is,” he hesitates. “For me, it’s been the best and only friendship I’ve had and will treasure forever.” He stops again, glancing nervously at Jaeho.
Jaeho nods, “I would have to say the same thing.”
“So it’s a friendship, right?”
“Right.” With Jaeho’s comforting smile, relief washes over Minhyuk and he throws his arms around Jaeho, pulling him close.
“I love you as a friend and hyung. Because I’m so happy to be around you,” he says over Jaeho’s shoulder into soft wine red hair.
“Hey,” Jaeho yelps pushing Minhyuk off. “If you get dakkochi sauce in my hair I’ll kill you.” He looks suspiciously at the younger, “and since when did you become such a sap?”
Minhyuk shrugs, “my best friend rubbed off on me I guess.”
Things get better. Their friendship is no longer hidden but public with shared lunches on the roof and splitting boxes of pepero. People staring disgustedly at their laughter doesn’t bother Minhyuk one bit, the rumors become irrelevant and disappear from his thoughts entirely. The ever looming finals and the excitement for graduation has them talking about plans after high school. Jaeho has applied and been accepted into Seoul National University. Minhyuk’s stomach lurches as he struggles to find the words to tell Jaeho at they’re sitting at the café after class.
Minhyuk’s blurts out, “I’m leaving to America after senior year.”
Everything stills and another strange sense of déjà vu washes over him. He remembers this. He remembers how this goes. He anticipates Jaeho’s next words, his shocked face, mouth agape and brown eyes wide.
His grits his teeth and looks down, “April 15th, in about two months.”
Jaeho looks up, torn, “Why? Why America?”
Minhyuk’s gaze rests on his caramel colored coffee swimming with specks of cinnamon and swirls of cream. “My parents–they–it was their decision.”
Jaeho falls silent, sipping his green tea latte instead. After a quiet of thought he says, “Let’s go to Umma Oh’s tonight? And catch a movie afterwards?” His brown eyes are hopeful with pools of worry in dark chocolate patches.
Minhyuk nods, “Yeah, let’s.”
The movie is about a gang leader whose parents die and pass on their wealth. He becomes torn between the underground life he lead and the high end life left upon him, a responsibility and burden he didn’t want. It ends with a dawning sun, rays of warmth spilling over the screen and circular refractions of light glinting off the camera lens. It feels hot and the shot pans around to show him standing by the Han River, framed in light and lost in the ebb and swell of the flowing water.
“That was good,” Minhyuk says, stepping out of the cinema.
“Yeah, it was.” Jaeho inhales the sharp scent of February frost. It tastes sweet, slightly bitter, but more sweet.
Time becomes precious, between exploring Jaeho’s university campus like giggling five year olds and nailing Girl’s Generation’s I Got A Boy choreography at noraebang and frantically reviewing material they’ll forget within a week but thankfully after finals is over. Graduation isn’t a big ordeal, but Minhyuk, to no one’s surprise but Jaeho’s pride, makes valedictorian and gives a short speech. No one looks interested, but Minhyuk thinks they’re listening anyway.
He starts. “As Coco Chanel once said,” some people look up at that, eyebrows raised, “‘I don’t care what you think about me. I don’t think about you at all.’ I am happy and for me, that’s what counts.” He smiles and he can see Jaeho beam back from the audience. “Thank you,” and bows and leaves the stage.
After the ceremony, his parents approach him, rigid and serious. His mother hands him a bouquet and smiles tightly. His father nods and he nods back. No words are spoken, Minhyuk only watches them walk away. Jaeho watches from afar, underneath the smothering embrace of his mother and father. Minhyuk turns and their eyes meet through the crowd, he waves Minhyuk over who approaches without hesitation.
“So you’re Seo Minhyuk,” Mrs. Han says delightedly, taking up Minhyuk’s hand in her own. “I’m so glad you guys became friends and your speech as really uh great.” She smiles and hugs Minhyuk.
Minhyuk bows and says, “Thank you, your son is a great friend, you should be proud of him. He has taught me many things. Also, I am so glad to finally meet you.” He shakes Mr. Han’s gentle hand, bowing again.
Already they’re moving out of the school, Minhyuk is helping Jaeho move into his university dorm room and Jaeho is helping Minhyuk haul boxes to his parents home before he prepares for America. Minhyuk and Jaeho apply for jobs as waiters at one of the restaurants in Myeong-dong, lively and bustling with tourists and shoppers and families. They celebrate Minhyuk’s birthday by drinking in Jaeho’s half occupied dorm, his roommate has yet to arrive. Of course, they’re drinking underage but neither of them care. “It doesn’t hurt to break the rules once and a while,” Jaeho nods firmly, swinging back a shot of soju. They watch a movie on Jaeho’s laptop, guffawing at the tiniest things and slurring with permanently pink cheeks at each other.
Morning comes with headaches and a rushed walk to the nearest convenience store for a bottle of painkillers they swallow down with some coffee from the neighboring shop.
Minhyuk is going through the boxes of high school memories, mostly junk that he collected with Jaeho or useless items Jeongah insisted on giving him, when the phone rings.
“Minhyuk-ah?” Mrs. Hans voice sounds breathy, strained. He straightens, clutching the phone to his ear.
“Ahjumma? What happened? What’s wrong?”
“It’s Jaeho, h-he’s in the hospital.” She tells him which, the same one as before, he remembers, then Minhyuk’s barreling through the large empty house and out the door towards the garage, where a chauffeur is finishing up his lunch.
“Take me to Seoul National University Hospital, quick,” he pants, getting into the back of the car. The chauffeur tosses his lunch on the seat beside him and shoots out of the gravel driveway, racing towards the hospital. A rushed thanks is all he manages before leaping out and hurrying to the front desk who points his way to the third floor.
He sags with relief against the wall when Jaeho’s heart monitor is moving and beeping, a bit abnormally but working all the same. He hugs Mrs. Han, who sits beside Jaeho’s unconscious form and joins her, pulling up another chair.
“The doctor says he’ll be stable enough to wake up soon, thank heavens,” she cries into Minhyuk’s embrace. “I’m sorry I just–I don’t know what to do. I wish there was a cure, anything, rather than just living in fear that my son might–might–” she raises a collection of tissues to her nose and eyes.
Minhyuk, who had been struggling with a decision he had to make before entering New York University came to an answer, he didn’t know why he hadn’t thought of it before, but sitting beside his friend’s sleeping form, he’s sure it’s what he wants.
The next few days leave Minhyuk haggard, watching over Jaeho who’s woken for fleeting moments before falling asleep again and comforting Mrs. Han and covering both his and Jaeho’s shifts at the restaurant. He also takes breaks to return home to pack while ignoring his parents. He worries over Jaeho’s heart, his own twisting in anxiety. The spring semester for Seoul National University has already begun, but Jaeho remains absent from his classes.
His heart is still unstable, the doctors say in passing, we’re keeping him just until we know he’ll be good to go. Minhyuk wants to know what he can do, wait, they say, have faith and wait.
And he does, he sits by Jaeho watching the drama he’d been following sporadically, utterly confused now because the bits and pieces he’d seen didn’t match up.
“Hey,” Jaeho’s eyes are lidded and heavy.
Minhyuk reaches for his hand, “How are you?”
“Tired,” Jaeho croaks back. Nothing is said for a moment and then, “Minhyuk-ah, I-I’ve been wanting to talk to you about this before you leave,” he takes a slow breath squeezing Minhyuk’s fingers lightly.
“You and I both know that I could die any day, tomorrow, in twenty years, who knows,” lines on Minhyuk’s face deepen between his eyebrows and the corners of his lips at he looks down at Jaeho on the bed. “And when I die–”
“–if you die–” Minhyuk interrupts.
“–if I die, I want you to be happy okay? Please, please be happy. Please, spread your happiness, yeah? As my best friend and dongsaeng I ask this of you, my dying wish.” Jaeho smiles and Minhyuk blinks away wetness and forces a smile back.
“Do we have to do this hyung? You’re not gonna–”
“–promise me, Minhyuk, please–”
Minhyuk looks into caring brown eyes. “I promise, I’ll try to be happy. And spread it. Now you have to promise me too.”
Jaeho laughs, “I promise to be happy. Wherever I am, I’ll try to be happy too. And spread it.”
He gets another call at 2:38 in the morning on March 12th, “Is this Seo Minhyuk speaking? I’m calling from Seoul National University Hospital, we ask that you come to the hospital now.”
When he gets there he sees Mrs. Han under Mr. Hans arm, leaning into his chest, standing before a bed.
The sheets are stark against Jaeho’s pale, cold skin.
The monitor displays a flat, green line and a low monotonous note.
He drops to his knees beside Jaeho, reaching for a lifeless hand. Tears cascade down his cheeks as he looks down at Jaeho’s face, calm. And happy, Minhyuk hopes.
The hospital staff stand off to the side, heads bowed and the doctor steps forward, “His heart rate dropped suddenly and no matter what attempt we made, Jaeho wouldn’t wake up. We’re so sorry for your loss. We’ll give you a moment.” The doctor bows and steps back and files out with the rest of the staff. One of the nurses steps forward and disconnects the monitor.
“Han Jaeho, time of death 2:38 am, March 12th…” The words fade into blackness. The beeping stops.
Minhyuk thinks the silence is worse.
He takes a breath, pulling at his collar then folding his hands in front of him. He looks over at Mr. and Mrs. Han. Jaeho’s friend from Donghae, Yoona. A collection of relatives, all with familiar wide brown eyes and small nose and ear shapes.
“I had a friend once, a best friend, a hyung. He was one of those people who cared so much it physically hurt everyone around him. In truth, I kind of hated him because of it. Now, I don’t think I could love him enough. We first met at sixteen years old in the first year of high school, he was a transfer kid from Donghae, by the sea, you know. Coming from a suburban seaside town straight to the center of Seoul must have been tough, especially in his condition but they had to. It’s where the best hospitals are after all.
“He made me really happy. And he made me promise I’d be happy for him. Made me promise to spread my happiness. That’s how much he cared.
“Han Jaeho, you’ve changed my life so much and I wish I could have saved yours. Your smile will be missed by me, your parents, your family, your friends. And I want you to know that we all love you very much and hope that you are happy, wherever you are. Thank you.”
He steps back and sits down and watches as the lacquered black casket is lowered gently into the ground.
He calls Daehyuk when he get home and drenches the phone in salty tears. Daehyuk listens and tells him he’s sorry he couldn’t be there and he speaks of Jaeho so reverently even though he’d never met him it makes Minhyuk cry even harder. He loves both of his hyungs, it hurts. It’s a good kind of hurt, the kind that makes his chest tight and makes it hard to breathe because he’s feeling so much more than he could ever put into words. He tells Daehyuk about his decision who tells him he should tell their parents. He decides to follow his brother’s advice.
He sits down at the dinner table. It’s a large mahogany table draped in a creamy table cloth, ironed to perfection and decked with a center candle and silver array of utensils.
“Umma, appa, I have an announcement,” he waits. They set down their forks and knives and give him their full attention. “I know I haven’t been the best at complying to your wishes, attending your conventions, befriending people you think I shouldn’t have, but I don’t regret it. And I’m here to tell you now that as a student of New York University, I will be majoring in the medical field and I will study very hard to become the best doctor I can. I ask for your support in my decision.”
His father remains quiet, impassive. His mother speaks up, “Minhyuk, we support your decision to become a doctor. If you need any money, just ask us okay?”
Minhyuk nods, “thank you,” he exhales and pushes on. “But I want to hear it from appa.”
His mother looks at his father, expectant. His father’s eyes move from avoiding Minhyuk to direct eye contact. “Minhyuk, I support your decision. I expect you will become a very fine doctor and uphold the Seo family excellence.”
Minhyuk blinks, gulping, “Thank you appa, umma. Thank you so much.”
“Minhyuk?” He’s walking back to his room from the living room later that night when his mother calls out to him. She approaches, setting and arm on his shoulder which slides down to grip his hand.
“I heard about Han Jaeho’s passing. I’m sorry, I know he meant something to you but your father didn’t approve. And I wanted to say that yes, I do love you. I love you very, very much. And although your father doesn’t show it, he loves you to. We love both Daehyuk and you.” She looks close to tears and Minhyuk pulls her into a hug.
He boards the plane, service to New York City. With one final look back, his parents stand together, his mother waving, his father nodding. He feels the end of something happy and heartbreaking, sweet and sour and salty like lollipops and lemons and many, many tears. The sun is hot on his arm through the window, the blinding glint of the airplane wing, exploding circles of bright light that remind him of wide, kind brown eyes. He sees the trees, budding tiny green leaves riding the wind something like wine red hair on a September breeze.
In the distance he can see the Han River sparkling and glittering as it winds through the tall buildings of Seoul. The rumble of a engine below his feet, the stream of colors as they lift off. The clouds fluffy and peaceful. The sinews in his heart are mended now, scarred and stitched, still weak from loss and pain but nonetheless, his heart is whole and beating. He feels the beginning of something exciting and new, scary and unknown. It tastes sweet, slightly bitter, but more sweet. He remembers Jaeho’s simple shrug and, “That’s life.” Minhyuk would have to agree.