Disclaimer: I own nothing.
Summary: Howon helps his mother cook dinner and thinks about the stack of audition tapes in his room and whether or not it's worth it to send them out. He thinks about his father, and his brothers, and about the new young man in town with the stage mask smiles.
Howon is ignoring his father, who is sitting at the work desk in the living room and watching as his son searches in the basket by the doorway for his best shoes.
“I thought you were too cool to wear those,” his father comments, his eyes narrowed. “Your mother spent a lot of money on them for your birthday and you never even took them out of the house. You were so ungrateful.”
In Howon's ear it sounds like buzzing, a little fly fuzzing around in his hair and annoying him. The fly used to bite and sting, but now it just fumbles around and makes noise.
“I just never figured out how to wear them,” Howon responds simply, and digs the nice brown oxfords out of the basket, disheveling Hojun's sandals and his mother's everyday heels in the process. He puts them on and makes sure his shirt is neatly tucked into his nice jeans, then grabs his keys from the bowl by the door.
“I'll probably be back late,” he says, turning to look at his mother as she folds tea towels at the kitchen table. “Or I might stay out until tomorrow.”
“Okay,” she smiles. “Have fun.”
He closes the door behind himself and imagines his father asking his mother where he's going dressed like that, who he's staying out so late with, but he trusts her to make up something clever.
His mother knows about Sungjong. They met at the restaurant one evening about a week after the kiss at the studio, when Howon was stuck flipping pajeon and couldn't get away. Sungjong had come to hang out there instead, and spent most of the evening talking to Howon's mother and helping her clean up tables despite her insistence that it was fine, really, you should just relax. Howon had learned by that point that Sungjong rarely liked to do what he was told he should.
Once Howon's shift ended he'd taken his coat and keys, and Sungjong left to wait for him outside. His mother had told him, so simply and gently, “he's a lovely boy,” and it was the exact tone and wording she had used with all of Howon's girlfriends, aside from the noun. There was nothing about it that implied that she was disappointed or worried.
Sungjong really does feel like forgiveness. Like the world is telling Howon that everything works out and is okay eventually, even if he wants to throw bricks through windows sometimes, even if he can be so sure of himself and yet only ever seem to fail.
In the first weeks, Howon learns enough about Sungjong that he forgets things about himself. Sungjong's favorite singer is Michael Jackson, and although Howon had never really paid attention to the singer before, soon he's singing all the words to 'Bad' when they study the choreography together in the old studio.
Howon learns that Sungjong studied multimedia for a year and thought it was boring, and that he is completely unafraid of animals, even the freaky looking fish at the market that Howon himself hasn't ever gotten used to. He learns that Sungjong never checks his phone like he should, and that his clothes never look wrinkled for some unfair reason. He learns all of Sungjong's sensitive places – the back of his neck, the inside of his thigh – and the kinds of sounds he makes when Howon focuses on kissing those spots in particular.
Some of their days together are so insane and unforgettable, and others so calm and ordinary that Howon can't even recall them a week later. Sometimes they break into old buildings and drink beer, sometimes they watch TV in Sungjong's hostel room bed before saying, the hell with it, and going to sleep for the entire day instead.
They spend entire nights out on the beach until Hojae calls at one in the morning, looking for his car, and they drive back to Howon's place where Howon parks and goes inside and waits for Sungjong to climb in through his bedroom window. There's an occasion where Howon's father shouts at him for missing work in order to run off to 'who knows where', but Howon realizes as he's being screamed at that, truthfully, he's completely free, he doesn't have to get reprimanded as if he's a child, and for two days afterwards he doesn't come home, just lives out of Sungjong's room as if they're vacationers without a care in the world.
Howon looks at Sungjong sometimes and wonders where they will be in a few weeks' time. Hojae's going back to his trade school in a month, and one night Howon gets on the computer and looks up Gwangju's colleges to see when they commence again, despite the ricocheting nerves in his stomach that tell him that he really doesn't want to know.
Most of them start back up in a month, too.
He doesn't want it to end, but after the first month passes, he begins to realize that nothing has really been fixed. He's still working at the restaurant he hates and he's still failed in his attempt at a career, and this thing with Sungjong can't last forever the way it's going.
Sungjong kisses like he's known Howon for years, as if he knows him inside-out. Howon's terrified that Sungjong will realize how little he has to offer and will go back to his family and his normal life, and he hates that his insecurities are creeping back so easily. But he figures they were never really gone to begin with, just covered up for a little while.
In a way, deep down, Howon wonders if things have gotten worse instead of better. Despite telling himself not to worry about it, he imagines Sungjong leaving one day, and the thought makes everything else so much harder to deal with. Sometimes he looks at Sungjong and that awful little flare of resentment creeps its way back like a devil onto his shoulder, usually when he remembers what Sungjong said on the waterfront about being fickle. About his habit of not seeing things through.
Howon sees the flyers for new dance teams at the gym and spends some time online searching for listings. He makes lists of all of the group names that he wants to apply for – the best ones with the most acclaim – and sends tapes and letters out every few weeks.
He looks for ones in Gwangju and sends his audition tapes there first.
The plastic bag Howon is carrying holds two dress shirts, some slacks, and a blazer that he is bringing back from the dry cleaner at his father's request, all made of that light-as-a-feather fabric that he's grown used to (his family is big on hand-me-downs).
Sungjong is back in Gwangju for the day to see his parents, so Howon has spent the day working and running errands for his own. He feels like he's testing their patience, even his mother who is usually nothing but accommodating to him. For the past week, he's tried to help them as much as he can, and has tried not to look so relieved when his shifts at work end and he can go and meet with Sungjong again. He wants to help out more, wants to become more responsible and useful. He's once again starting to feel that he's just wasting everyone's space.
As he turns the corner to his street he sees that there's an odd car in the driveway of his parents' house. In the upstairs window above the kitchen, he can see Hojun peeking down curiously at it, clearly wondering who has parked there. But Howon knows instantly, and he grins, and breaks into a run, the plastic bag rustling in the breeze as he goes.
“What are you doing here?” he exclaims to Dongwoo, who is leaning against the trunk of the car, and Dongwoo just grins so brightly and cheerfully that Howon almost stops smiling because he knows his own smile can't possibly compete.
“You look like a housewife,” Dongwoo giggles, and kicks away from his car to wrap Howon in a one-armed hug. “My new girlfriend's from here, so I'm here to visit,” he explains when they break away quickly after. “I wondered if you'd still be staying here with your family, so I checked and here you are!”
“I'm glad you're here,” Howon says sincerely. “Do you want to come inside?”
Dongwoo nods and takes the bag of clothes from Howon politely and follows him inside, where he pulls up a seat at the kitchen table and waits as Howon sets up a pot for coffee. Meanwhile, Dongwoo jabbers on as if there hasn't been a six month break in their conversation – for anyone else it would be because of it that there would be this much talking, but this is signature to Dongwoo, and Howon feels as if they haven't spent more than a week apart.
He's only had a few months being Dongwoo's friend, but it feels like forever. Dongwoo's one of the nicest, friendliest people he's ever known, he was the first one to introduce himself in Daegu. Howon can't remember how many nights he spent one-on-one with Dongwoo in the practice room, learning moves together and feeling for most of the time that they were an unstoppable team.
“When you left you looked really disappointed,” Dongwoo says, taking a sip from his mug. “I guess you haven't found a new group yet?”
Howon shakes his head and adjusts the placemat in front of himself on the table so that it sits straighter.
“That's weird, you know. I thought if any one of us would get snapped up, it'd be you.”
This sort of placating, encouraging statement from Dongwoo is easy to brush off. He's just saying it to make me feel better, Howon thinks, and reaches across the table for the sugar.
Dongwoo doesn't seem to notice the silence. “I actually brought you something,” he pipes up again, and Howon watches as Dongwoo reaches into the pocket of his bag and brings out a stack of flyers, some with nearly the entire phone number strips ripped off from the bottom of the paper. He hands them to Howon and then leans back in his chair.
“My team leader found them for me. The brand new ones are things the groups themselves haven't even distributed yet, so you and I are some of the first people to know about their auditions. I bet if I helped you film the right video that showed off your talent, you would look irresistible.”
There are just enough blank DVDs left in the little box upstairs to equate the flyers laid out in front of him. Howon feels elated.
He looks up at Dongwoo and they grin at each other, knowingly, as only friends can.
“Can you film them tonight?” he asks, and Dongwoo just huffs as if he expected more from Howon than questions with such obvious answers.
After weeks, when he hears nothing back, Howon starts asking Hojae what it's like to go to his trade school.
Sungjong's still there, living out of his hostel and meeting Howon after work, kissing him even if Howon doesn't feel like smiling when they greet.
It's Thursday, mid July, and Sungjong has been in Busan for six and a half weeks. Howon has slept at Sungjong's hostel room a total of eleven nights, in the creaky little double bed that groans almost like Sungjong does when Howon moves against him.
Sungjong is wearing just his underwear when he comes out of the en-suite bathroom into where Howon is lying on top of the covers, tired but not really. He thinks he could get up and go do something if he wanted to, but he's kind of bored, and it's so hot outside.
Sungjong combs through his wet hair with one hand and walks to the bedside, pushes open the window to let the ocean breeze filter in through the curtains. He clambers onto the bed and winces as it squeaks, then sits cross-legged on top of the messy sheets.
A playful tune begins to play when Sungjong's phone rings out of the blue. The device buzzes as it vibrates around the top of the side table, and Sungjong reaches over to grab it before it falls off the edge.
“Hello,” he says, answering it in the soft voice Howon's noticed he gets when he's on the phone. “Ah, umma.”
For the past ten minutes, Howon's been pretending to sleep. He shifts his face into the pillow and makes the sound of Sungjong's voice easier to hear.
“No, I haven't moved, I'm at the same place. It's cheap. Are you alright?” There's a long pause as Sungjong's mother speaks, and Howon keeps his eyes so tightly shut that they tremble. “I'm doing great, I love it here.”
It feels like Howon's heart is flying, he's so relieved. Sungjong hums into the phone.
“I met that boy, remember? I don't know how long I'll be here, I really like him.” Another hum. “I don't know, I'll figure something out.”
Sungjong gets off the bed, walks over to the window and looks out. He talks for five minutes more while Howon hides a smile in his pillow, and hangs up before his mother seems to be done talking to him, saying goodbye with a simple, “I gotta go.”
Howon feels the bed wiggle when Sungjong climbs back onto it, and he turns his face and opens his eyes. Sungjong is leaning right up close, their faces only inches apart, and Howon can count the eyelashes on his lids and see the beauty spot on his nose as clear as the summer air outside.
“I kind of want to go out,” Sungjong tells him contemplatively.
Howon says nothing, just reaches up and pulls Sungjong down into a kiss, long and hot. Sungjong gasps into Howon's mouth but reciprocates quickly, moving to lie down so that Howon can move on top of him and press their bodies closer together.
Sungjong breathes out, “I was thinking of finding a place here,” as Howon shifts to peel the underwear off of his body.
It's the best thing he's heard all day.
It takes Sungjong a few days of searching before Howon is spending the weekend helping him move his stuff into a cheap little apartment block about a ten minute walk away from the restaurant. Sungjong has a bed, a couch, bookshelves and a closet full of his beautiful clothes, and he buys a welcome mat with part of his first paycheck once he lands himself a job at a bank downtown.
Howon's stuff starts to pile up in Sungjong's place, until all the things that he took with him to Daegu are now in Sungjong's bedroom and closet. They spend most evenings there together, and Howon feels perfectly at home in the tiny space.
Sometimes Howon talks about applying for dance teams while Sungjong is bustling around doing something, like putting away the stacks of used books he's just bought, or gathering up his dirty clothes for the laundromat. Sungjong always has this buoyant sort of reaction; smiling and nodding and encouraging endlessly.
“I'll send some out this week,” Howon will say, and Sungjong will look up from where he is sitting and smile.
Then Howon shrugs. “Four or so.”
Howon feels bad for talking about it so much, so usually the subject gets dropped. Sungjong doesn't really talk much about his dance team days and Howon can't help but feel like he's being selfish, maybe opening up old wounds. If he is, Sungjong doesn't show it, but there's just enough of a possibility that it makes Howon stop talking about it so much, just a brief mention now and then.
Though he says little about it, he thinks about it all the time. At work, serving customers, he imagines guys in Seoul opening his letters and watching his tapes and it makes him so excited that he can't stop grinning, to the point where his father loses any reason to tell Howon to look more enthused to be working there. He comes home to Sungjong and talks about a whole world of things, and sometimes he can't resist and he tells Sungjong about how completely elated he feels at the idea of just dancing again, in a team, doing what he loves more than anything else in the world.
It takes him a couple of months to learn and decipher all of Sungjong's expressions, each one like a stage mask that he puts on at will. When Howon talks about dancing, Sungjong gets a certain look. There are teeth shown, his eyes are creased over, and his cheeks look like they're stretched so far that they hurt.
Howon hasn't figured this one out yet.
In an email that Dongwoo sends, there is a mention of one group that Howon has known about since before his stint with the Daegu team. It seems foolish to even dream of applying there, the team is so well known. But Howon starts thinking about it more and more often, like in school when he'd think about certain girls or boys, the idea of joining this club becomes like a new crush.
Dongwoo's platitudes shrink in Howon's mind until they're nothing, and Howon starts thinking he can do it, that he is good enough to audition. He practices at the gym any chance he can get, a new choreography with some of Sungjong's signature moves that Howon has worked hard to learn for himself (he wants this audition to be original, and Sungjong's dance style is one that isn't often seen in this kind of team, so maybe, just maybe...)
Howon films the tape at the old dance studio and sends it out and he doesn't tell Sungjong about it.
Meanwhile, Sungjong keeps buying books and clothes and houseplants and pots and posters. His moving boxes finally reach the dumpsters out behind the apartment block, the ones that sit beside the mailbox that Howon uses when he sends out his tapes.
Sungjong leaves for work early one morning and Howon wakes to a little note on the pillow that says, hello, have a good day! I love you so I'll bring home beer for you, and Howon thinks this is as good an incentive as any to get out of bed and fix the sink in the kitchen that Sungjong has been asking him to look into. He thinks, distantly, that Sungjong probably meant for it to work this way, but the thought only makes Howon feel fond.
It's a day off from work and the mood in the city is uplifting. This isn't a day Howon wants to spend lazing around in bed. He fixes the dripping sink by ten, and as he's starting to put on his jacket to go out, his phone starts to ring.
Howon's mother is calling. “A letter came for you at home,” she says. “I'm here if you want to come and pick it up.”
What if-, Howon dares to think, because he put the return address on his audition for his parents' home, and the thought is enough to have him almost forgetting his keys in his rush to leave.
She hands him the envelope when he arrives. The hope in Howon's belly has him already bubbling with excitement, and when he sees who the letter is from he almost cries from it.
dance group based in Seoul...
are impressed by your talent...
discuss the possibility....
joining our team...
The words fly by in a blur, even when Howon reads the letter again. He had nearly given up even dreaming about the responses from dance teams, but now here is something no dream could possibly compare to. And it's thrilling, because this is the best one there is, the one all the clubs copy the routines of, the one Howon has even heard them talking about on the radio.
His mother insists she know what has gotten him so excited, so he hands her the letter and watches as she reads it over, her eyes flickering back and forth over the page. Howon imagines her, standing in the kitchen to cook the family dinner, and looking up at the reporter to see Howon, front and center in that team, right there on her little TV screen.
“It's a really good team, umma,” he says softly as he watches her read. “Really, really good.”
There's something sparkling in his mother's eyes, and he can't tell if it's the reflection on her glasses or something else altogether.
“I always knew,” she says and pauses, and now Howon knows there's no mistaking her tears. “I always knew you would make it like this.”
The letter says for him to come to Seoul as soon as possible because the leaders want to meet him in person and really see what he can do. Monday, Hojae isn't going to be at school, and then Tuesday is a slow day at the restaurant. Howon is determined to leave by then.
He arrives back at Sungjong's apartment and sits, staring periodically between the clock and the letter until Sungjong's lunch break arrives, and then Howon is reaching for his phone and calling the number he now knows by heart.
“Hey! Did you fix it?” Sungjong says in greeting. There's happiness in his voice, and Howon figures the day's uplifting mood must not just be relevant to himself.
Howon can't find it in him to drag it out, so he just says, “I got a letter from a team in Seoul. They want me to come and audition in person.”
“Wow,” Sungjong says before Howon finishes his sentence, and then he starts chanting it tonelessly, wow wow wow wow wow, until all the syllables mesh together into one dim little noise. Howon's smile slips. “Oh, that's amazing. Wow.”
“Yes,” Howon drags. “You're excited, then?”
“I didn't know you had auditioned,” Sungjong replies awkwardly. “But of course, it's amazing.”
“I'm gonna pack and go up there day after tomorrow, I think.” He opens the letter as he speaks and looks over the words again, as if to check they're still there. “Is your suitcase empty? I need to borrow it.”
“Yeah, it's in the linen cupboard, behind the hardback books.” Sungjong sounds a little distracted, and Howon can hear the chatter of his coworkers at the bank.
Howon says, “okay, thank you,” and goes to hang up, and right as he presses the end call button, he hears a sharp inhale of breath from the other line, and an uttering that sounds slightly like a fuck, wait-
But it's too soft to be sure, drowned out by all the muttering and laughing in the background.
Howon pulls the suitcase down from the cupboard and sets it on the living room floor. He kneels down and unzips it the whole way around, then flips it open so that one half of it lands with a soft thud onto the carpet.
The suitcase isn't empty.
Inside, there are at least two dozen untouched letters, every single one addressed either to or from himself. His heart almost stops as he sifts through them, one by one, and lays them all out onto the floor.
Somehow, Sungjong has managed to acquire every single application Howon has sent out within the past few months, and every single reply before that, and he never said a thing about any one of them.
Howon opens one of the replies, then another, then another, and reads the weeks-old letters that tell him over and over again the same brilliant words; congratulations, Lee Howon, we would love to have you aboard. Letters he knew absolutely nothing about. It's not every club he's applied for, maybe a quarter of them, but it still feels like a collection of missed chances.
Heartache and anger fizzes in his chest and he feels sick. He stands up weakly, walks to the bedroom door, and rips the note from that morning to shreds before finding his jacket again.
Howon leaves the letters lying on the living room floor. Sungjong can drink the beer alone tonight.
On Sunday morning, the day after, Howon wakes in his childhood bed and turns on his phone for the first time in ten hours. He listens to Sungjong's apologetic voicemails until he can't stand it anymore, and finally hits the redial button.
“I'm so sorry-” he hears Sungjong begin frantically, the moment he puts the phone up to his ear.
“You encouraged me so much,” Howon cuts him off instantly. He has to speak while he's still calm with sleep, while his heart isn't beating rapidly against his chest. “You told me non-stop about how much you believed in me, how great it was that I was trying to find another team.”
“I know I did.” Sungjong exhales shakily, and Howon really wants to know what he looks like. Sungjong is poised and level-headed always, never frantic or shaky. Howon is having a hard time imagining him otherwise.
“So you were lying to me that whole time.” There's clinking from the kitchen downstairs where the rest of Howon's family is having their breakfast meal.
Sungjong makes a little noise of anguish over the line.
“No, god, of course I meant everything I said-”
“Then why did you hide them from me?!” Howon snaps. The clinking pauses and there are murmurs from downstairs as he begins to rant. “I don't understand! All this time I thought I wasn't good enough, and even through everything good with you, I never stopped hating myself for it. Dancing is all I've ever wanted, more than anything else in the world. You could have ruined all my chances... you wanted to ruin my chances.”
The idea that all of this time he was beating himself up over the letters, yet they were there right under his nose... it's the worst part, and he just can't fathom it. Was Sungjong jealous of Howon's determination? Hurt and petty at the idea of him succeeding in something that Sungjong himself had failed at? But that doesn't seem right, or true to Sungjong's character.
Sungjong betraying him like this is so hard to believe; Sungjong, who seemed to have everything balanced within himself. Howon always imagined that he himself would be the one to fuck them up eventually and beg Sungjong for understanding, and now that he's here playing the opposite role, it's overwhelming.
“Just give me a reason why,” he adds quietly. “I don't know how to hate you and I need a reason.”
Sungjong waits a few seconds before he speaks, his voice shaking still.
“When I first met you, you said that same exact thing to me. That it was all you ever wanted. I guess I didn't take you seriously, and I thought if I took your chances away that I could change your mind and make it me instead.”
“You wanted me to give up?” Howon asks.
Sungjong breathes into the phone, so clearly that Howon can almost feel the breath rustling against his hair.
“I just wanted you to settle with me.”
Howon takes the time of the bus ride to Sungjong's to think over what he wants to say. When he unlocks the door and finds the living room tidied up with the suitcase sitting closed on the sofa, Sungjong comes out from the bedroom to stand in the doorway.
He's still in his work clothes, he looks barely disheveled at all aside from his expression. His clothes are too neat where they are settled against his skin, and Howon doesn't think that's fair. Although the features on Sungjong's face are swollen and his eyes are red, like he's been crying, that doesn't seem fair to Howon, either.
“Please forgive me,” Sungjong pleads, just quietly, and for the first time ever, Howon thinks he looks almost plain. The look on his face is so unguarded and hopeless and while Sungjong is still elegant, his eyes are too wet, his cheeks too sallow, and he doesn't look so pretty anymore.
But Howon will be damned if he isn't still beautiful. More beautiful than the old dance studio, or the kind words in the acceptance letters. He doesn't quite understand how he feels, but he thinks understanding can wait. Until tomorrow, or maybe on the train ride home from Seoul.
He wants to say, I'd have chosen you if you had just asked me.
He wants to say, I know I'll come back.
He wants to say, I forgive you.
Howon doesn't see the point in lying, and none of that matters now anyway. So he just takes the extra steps he needs, presses Sungjong against the doorframe in a kiss, and doesn't say anything at all.
On the following morning, Sungjong makes sure Howon has packed well, with everything he needs and then some. The morning of the trip is so busy that Howon barely registers Sungjong is even there at all, he just rushes around the apartment gathering his best clothes while trying not to forget to eat something before he leaves.
It's when he's on the train that he finally stops to think about Sungjong. Opening his backpack to find a little container of chobap tucked in against the return train ticket, he pauses and hums to himself, then leans his head against the train window and watches the hills and trees of his hometown hold still as he travels further and further away from them.
Howon closes his eyes against the sunlight, and has no trouble at all picturing Sungjong's face.
• I swear I didn't write this just so that I could write about chobap.
• 'that painting by Manet' is this one of Berthe Morisot.
Thank you so much for reading, any comments are appreciated! ^^'