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.
The lady at the office store looks at Howon in happy curiosity as she's ringing through the stack of blank DVDs. They're costing him a week's worth of his tip money, just like they always do.
“Do you make films?” she asks kindly. Howon shakes his head.
“No, they're for dance auditions.”
She nods, looking a little disappointed. Howon frowns, thanks her and takes his bag, then heads back out through the entrance to where a green station wagon is waiting for him in the parking lot. He opens a door to the back seat and slips in after giving the bag to Hojun to hold, who takes it with disinterest.
“You done now?” Howon's father asks from the front seat, sticking the key into the ignition.
“Yeah,” he replies with absolutely no feeling. “Thanks for waiting.”
Howon's father rolls his eyes and turns the key.
The buzzer by the front door sounds at five thirty, just as Howon finishes drying the last glass and stacking it back onto the cupboard shelf. He glances up from the kitchen and watches as a skinny young man glances around the empty store, and he chants inside his head, go away go away go away because I want to get out of here, but says nothing.
Howon is twenty-two and learned two decades ago that not saying what you want gets you nowhere, and so he watches the young man pull a chair out from a table near the front door and sit down, glancing downwards at the menu layered beneath the tabletop and the glass.
Closing the cupboard door, Howon sighs and wipes his hands on the rag tied to his belt, then exits the kitchen and steps out into the dining room. “What can I get you?” he asks, his voice betraying the exasperation he feels in order to sound cheerful and accommodating.
The young man doesn't look up from the table, but reaches a long finger over the top to trace down the menu listings. “Where are your drinks?” he asks in a Gwangju dialect, clear and high-pitched.
Howon leans against the bar and sighs, waits another few seconds. Then the young man looks up.
“What's easiest for you to make? Chobap?”
Howon's unsure if this is an insult judged on how bad of a cook he looks like he would be (but he's the best out of his brothers), or a kindness bestowed due to how unwilling he probably looks to be there. He furrows his eyebrows. “I'm not going to serve you chobap. You could get it anywhere.”
“What if I like chobap?”
“Am I packing your lunch for elementary school?”
“Are you insulting your customer?” Though the guy is smiling, Howon suddenly feels like a jerk. It's a bit too late for him to realize he's let his weariness get the best of him, but then again maybe not.
“I'm sorry,” he sighs. “Take your time, okay?”
The young man nods, still smiling, and studies the menu some more. Howon looks tiredly around the restaurant. His mother had been talking to him that morning about things she never noticed about the place before, about that beam (she pointed to the slab of wood right by the ceiling fan) that she had just noticed that day. Howon felt irritated but said nothing. Maybe because he'd grown up in this store, he'd had more time to notice all the details. As it is, he feels that he can close his eyes and still see every bit of grime in the tile grout, every scuff on the floor. He can't remember what his last girlfriend looked like this easily, but the restaurant he can't erase.
He hates this place.
The young man finally orders one of the stews with some rice and tea, and Howon retreats back into the kitchen to make it. He brings the tea out and sets it on a napkin on the tabletop, then goes back to the stove. He feels like an ant, going back and forth, and the young man thanks him only the first time, then pulls out a book and for forty-five minutes he says nothing else. Howon sits at another table, half-asleep with his jaw resting on his palm, and waits for the guy to finish and leave. His eyes slip closed and he sees the refrigerator and the kitchen counters, then he hears the buzzer and a “thank-you,” and opens his eyes to see the door closing again gently and the back of the guy's pink button-down shirt.
There's twelve-thousand won on the table, tucked under the foot of the bowl, and a little note written on the back of the title page of 'Travel Busan' that says, make chobap if I come tomorrow. I really do like it.
Howon's not really supposed to work tomorrow but, he figures, what else is there for him to do? He cleans up the dishes, locks the doors and goes home, where he avoids family dinner and ignores his father yelling at him to stop when he dances for three straight hours, stomping down on the wood floors of his room as if he depends his life on it.
The calendar on his mom's desk says it's June, 2013, and there's a sweet picture of Busan beach on it, and Howon thought for two weeks that it was somewhere in the tropics before he looked at it closer and realized, just because this sweet picture of Busan doesn't really look like Busan at all. At least, not in the way he's used to seeing it.
He turned twenty-two three months ago, the date turning over to the 28th while he was drinking soju on his friend's couch in Daegu. It was his best birthday in years, even though the only thing he got from his family was a text message from Hojun telling him to have a good day.
None of Howon's friends seemed very happy that day, but Howon felt free for the first time in his life, so it didn't matter. He was five months into being a lead dancer in Daegu's finest underground dance team, and his father looked like a moron for all those years of telling Howon that his passion would get him nowhere.
The director announced the team's disbandment about two days after Howon's birthday (so that's why nobody had smiled), and a week later he took the train home with nothing but his clothes and books, not even a high school diploma. It'd almost be funny, but his father laughed enough for the both of them as he was packing his stuff back into his old bedroom and putting on his waiter's clothes again.
Howon used to think he didn't want anything else other than to dance, but now it's changed a bit. Now he wants to get the last laugh, too.
He looks at the calendar on his mom's desk as he searches through the drawers, finding envelopes with which he can send applications to dance teams as far away as he can get.
The young man comes back the next day, earlier at lunchtime when there are barely any tables left. Howon doesn't notice he's there for a while, and finally looks up from where he's taking an ahjussi's order to glance up and see the guy standing by the door, his arms crossed over his chest.
He's wearing another button-down shirt, tucked into nice blue jeans, and he quirks a little smile when Howon finally notices him.
“You did come back,” Howon says, rather observantly.
The young man grins, showing off a row of little curved teeth. “Just waiting for a table.”
“Sit here by me,” a nearby old woman says, one of the regulars, and the guy thanks her politely and bows before folding himself into the booth beside her. She smiles sweetly and talks to him about all kinds of inane things as Howon finishes taking orders, and the guy doesn't complain or get impatient, just sits there nodding and commenting every so-often. Howon looks over from time to time and sees the young man trying aimlessly to read the menu over her chatter, before he gives up and just looks at the old woman attentively instead.
Howon passes his order pad to Hojae and makes his way over to the table, finally.
“So you're here on vacation?” he says. The young man quirks an eyebrow, confused. “You wrote that note on a travel guide book, didn't you?”
“Oh, right,” he replies. “Yeah, I guess I am.”
“How long are you here for?”
The young man shrugs noncommittally. Truthfully, Howon doesn't care, but he figures he owes it to the guy to be polite after his rudeness the night before. “I'm not sure yet, it's open-ended.”
The old woman looks between them and smiles innocently as she waves her chopsticks between crooked knuckles that look like pond ripples. “He just told me he was here on his own,” she says. “he's from Gwangju.”
“I figured,” Howon says. He doesn't really know what else to say.
“You should show him around!”
The guy looks awkwardly pleased by this, and he looks up at Howon with an expectant sort of gaze, even as he tries to speak over the lady and tell her that it's unnecessary. Howon feels uncomfortable all of a sudden.
He likes me, doesn't he? he thinks, as redness starts to tinge the guy's cheeks. Howon had forgotten what it was like to be liked or to have a crush, on boys or girls, but this feels so inconvenient and suddenly he wishes he'd taken his day off like he was supposed to.
“I'm kind of busy these days,” he says, even though the only thing he ever does outside of work is avoid his father by making practice videos of himself at the gym. He knows it's a shitty excuse, and he knows the two at the table see through it like window glass.
“Sorry,” he adds, but he doesn't really mean it.
“It's totally fine,” says the young man, waving a hand dismissively. His cheeks fade back to a pale beige and his eyes dim and he looks serious all of a sudden, even though he's still smiling brightly in a way that leads the old lady to believe that everything is fine, but Howon can see right through it.
“I'll have what I had yesterday,” he says, and Howon expects him to avert his eyes and look away awkwardly, to seem upset, but he doesn't. He just looks at Howon dead-on, smiling so completely fake that it's almost condescending in its clarity.
It's a cliché how it's only now that Howon looks at this guy and thinks he's beautiful - that he's exquisite, actually - but that's how Howon works. He realizes his failures the minute it becomes too late to avoid them.
A tiny speck of red flashes on his camera, and Howon groans in frustration, pausing mid-step to watch the device make that god-forsaken whirring noise and spin the shutter closed. He sighs and walks across the gym's dance room to where he's propped the thing up on his bag and snatches it up, curses at it as if that'll help anything, then shoves it into the front pocket of the bag.
He wasn't planning on practicing today, and as a result, his camera only left him with half an hour's worth of battery life. It probably recorded the first half of his easiest routine, and he may as well have not even bothered to come.
Howon leaves and turns in the opposite direction of his house, instead heading towards the downtown. There's about enough in his pocket to buy himself dinner or a few drinks, but he feels like neither.
Part of him wants to fuck something up. To do something so bad, he'll really give his father a reason to call him spineless, brainless, worthless. He sees a piece of concrete coming loose from the sidewalk, and nudges it with his foot, then watches it tumble onto the street in one big chunk.
He imagines picking it up and walking it back to his parents' restaurant and lobbing it through the front window, shattering glass over everything he hates so much. Instead, he picks it up and puts it where nobody will stumble on it and get hurt.
Howon walks back home without spending any money. His mother asks him to come watch baseball with the family, so he sits there and watches and feels so guilty and fucked-up that it makes him ill.
Every time the restaurant's buzzer sounds, Howon looks up and hopes it won't be the young man about as much as he hopes it will be. For two days, it's just the regulars, the ones who know him and his family as if they are all related. On the third day, the buzzer sounds and the young man is back, and Howon can't tell if the queasiness in his stomach is from anxiety or relief.
It's a slow time of day, right after two when all of the lunch crowds have gone and there are just a couple of tables occupied. But the young man doesn't wait at a table, just comes right up to the counter where Howon is and pulls up a stool, and he is speaking out his order before Howon can even open his mouth to apologize or say hello.
Howon figures he's just in a hurry at first, but the guy eats very slowly, and with nothing better to do, Howon finds himself staring. He watches as the young man licks his puffy lips free from the foam of his coffee and cups the sides of his bowl with the most beautiful hands Howon's ever seen.
He catches Howon staring three times and while before he was so easy to read, now his face hints absolutely no emotion. Howon half-hoped he would look so smartly confident again, but he doesn't. He almost looks bored.
The young man finishes eating and after he pays he says with another polite smile, “see you around, then. I'm Sungjong, by the way.”
“Okay,” Howon says, and Sungjong stares at him, his smile wavers, and then he's gone.
Howon helps his mother make dinner in the family's kitchen, where two years ago Hojae convinced their parents to set up a tiny little TV set. The news is on, the same reporter that's been working since Hojun was two, and there's some story about an actor getting married. It's a slow news day.
“Are you going to practice after the meal?” his mother asks, passing him some slices of carrot to add to the soup.
Howon hums. “I don't know, probably.” It's the first time in weeks that Howon has agreed to join the family for dinner; usually he avoids the entire downstairs of the house and takes rice and beer up to his room as soon as he gets off of work, and doesn't come down again until morning.
“Your father was complaining to me about you last night, said that whatever you do in your room makes you sound like you're trying to suspend yourself in air but without any profit.”
She's glancing at him with this tiny little smile, the same one she gave him when he got a good grade on an essay in high school, and when he told her (before anybody else) that he was accepted into the Daegu team.
“It's a new move,” he smiles, and she nods, looking rather pleased. “I'll get it eventually.”
“I know you will,” she says, just looking at him for a moment before she hums and looks back to the cutting board. “You're a good boy,” she adds, like an afterthought only she needed to hear.
Howon stops stirring the broth and looks at her, down at her hands where she's still chopping vegetables.
“You're a talented boy, you're helpful, and you aren't jealous or unkind.”
It sounds almost like she's trying to argue with a person in her head, and Howon can't quite understand it.
“I'm sorry I make you so sad, umma,” he mumbles. She just shakes her head.
“But it's not like you think.”
The man on the news is talking about it being the warmest and nicest night in weeks. His mother studies the TV as if it's truly fascinating information, then she looks at him with that tiny smile again.
“You are good. Please believe it.”
Howon nods at her even though he's unsure, but he's happy to see her look content with his agreement. They continue to cook for a few minutes, and Howon listens to the sound of the TV and his mother's chopping before he speaks again.
“You know, I might not practice tonight. I might just go out for a walk.”
His mother nods, and leans over to taste the soup.
“Is it alright?” he asks, watching for her reaction. “Should I add more pepper now?”
“No, it's just fine,” she replies, and smiles up at him again.
For the past few months, nights in the city have been cold, windy to the point where scarves fly like streamers in the breeze, but today is temperate and perfect. Howon walks down the sidewalk along the beachfront, and sees specks of house light peppered all over the city and streetlights shining yellow beams down on the sand, where people have poured out of their homes to enjoy the evening.
He stops and leans against the railing, listens to the gulls and the horns of ships out in the harbor. Sometimes, Howon wishes he has someone he doesn't know standing there beside him, someone he can pour every feeling he ever gets onto and have them spit it back out in a logical bundle and tell him exactly what to do to fix it.
He wants to fix himself, because he feels too many things. Mainly disappointment in himself and the way his life turned out, and anger towards his father's lack of faith in him, and resentment in the fact that he's working at the restaurant, still, when he thought he was out of there for good. He looks out at the families on the sand and thinks he feels a little lonely, too. It's not something he feels often, or even something he worries about when he does. But he realizes now that he hasn't got anybody that he can turn to, on a night like this where he for once feels compelled to do so.
Howon spends the evening walking further along the railing, until he winds up at the wealthiest part of the road where the fancy homes and bistros are. The backs of the houses look out over a stretch of the public beach that carries on for another mile or so, and there are only a few other people out on this part tonight.
Howon finds one of the wooden post fences that line the shoreline by the sidewalk and sits on top of it, watches the water that comes in and out and fades the blackened horizon line into the night sky. A few minutes later, someone exclaims behind him, and he doesn't pay any attention until they call out again, this time in a full sentence, and he gets that it's directed at him.
“I barely recognized you without your apron.”
Howon looks over his shoulder and watches as Sungjong, standing on the sidewalk, takes off both of his creepers and hops down onto the sand, swinging the shoes by the hook of his fingers.
“Hi,” Howon says as Sungjong walks towards him.
“Hello. You aren't going to tell me you're too busy?”
Sungjong leans his body against the wood and smiles, but the crease of his eyes doesn't change. “I feel lucky then.”
Howon thinks this is kind of a stupid joke, whoever is up there, knowing he feels pathetic and lonely and sending Sungjong his way, but he hopes they're at least laughing. He's glad that Sungjong is talking to him, and he still looks beautiful even dressed in shorts (his white legs almost glow in the dark) and some old drama club t-shirt, but all he does is feel guiltier for the terrible way he handled himself in the restaurant.
“I'm sorry about before.” Sungjong looks at him fully, the right side of his face highlighted by the moon, and Howon is reminded of that painting by Manet that he studied in school. The only thing he was ever taken by in art class is now breathing in front of him. “I feel really stupid.”
“Don't worry about it,” Sungjong says. He studies Howon's face, and his eyebrows knit together. “Are you okay? I can sit here, right?”
Howon nods, though he's unsure as to which question he is replying, and moves down the wood a bit to let Sungjong sit down.
“What's your name?” is the first thing Sungjong asks him. “I've sort of just been calling you 'Eyebrows' in my head.”
For the first time in days, Howon laughs out loud, and subconsciously reaches up to rub one of the brows in question. “It's Howon,” he says. He looks at Sungjong, who's smiling contentedly. He looks almost grateful.
“You need to get a nametag.”
“I had one, I just lost it,” Howon says, winding down the laughter. He chooses to leave out the part about throwing it away in triumph when he got the offer from the team in Daegu.
Sungjong hums, kicking his feet. The wood wiggles a bit as he does so, but he stops when he notices it. “What do you do besides work at the restaurant? Do you go to school here?”
“No,” Howon says simply. He contemplates for a few seconds, thinks, I should just say, and then adds, “I dance, though.”
“Oh!” Sungjong's face brightens instantly. “Me too.”
“Are you in a team?” Howon almost hates to ask the question. The idea of Sungjong having something he doesn't... he hates himself for feeling so scornful already, but there's no use denying the emotion.
“I was but I left,” is Sungjong's response. This is at once relieving and confusing to learn. The statement makes no sense to Howon, how on earth anyone would choose to leave... but Sungjong looks content when he speaks, so there must just be something that Howon doesn't understand.
Before he can open his mouth to ask more, Sungjong continues, and the curiosity leaves him.
“What about you? Have you got a team?”
Howon considers mentioning Daegu but thinks twice. There's something awkward about describing the end of a team to someone who has willingly left one, so instead he just says, “I'm trying to join one.”
Sungjong nods in understanding. Howon has a lot of questions all of a sudden, specifically if Sungjong actually does like him. He wants to ask, but Sungjong seems more intent on asking the questions tonight.
“You can't be all that interested in me,” he says instead, because he wants to say something. Sungjong is just sort of staring at him.
“I've been here for two weeks,” Sungjong replies. “I've seen beaches and temples and parks, and you're the most interesting thing there is so far.”
“That's an insult to my hometown,” Howon says, but it's like his cheeks can't keep down a smile. He knows it's dark and that Sungjong can't see him get flustered, but he looks away still.
Sungjong laughs. “I have an idea. Meet me here tomorrow for lunch, if you can?”
This place is at least ten minutes away from Howon's place by car. The taxi tonight is going to cost as much as his lunch would tomorrow, and he also promised his father he'd take the midday shift.
But he just nods, and says, “okay.”
The morning goes by too slowly, making the day feel like it's hours longer than usual. He tells his older brother that he's going out for a lunch break and tries not to feel too much like a jackass when he hangs up his apron, takes his keys and leaves without any intention of coming back.
Howon waits in the same exact spot he was in yesterday, only closer to the road in case Sungjong can't see him and thinks he's backed out. Sungjong shows up ten minutes after Howon, carrying a plastic bag. He's wearing shorts again, and Howon tries not to give his brain enough time to evaluate (stare at) Sungjong's legs in the daylight. But then he figures that he'd just end up doing the same to Sungjong's face instead, so he does it anyway.
Sungjong sits down on the edge of the sidewalk after saying hello, and drapes his legs over the side. He sets the bag down and Howon watches, his expression turning a mix of incredulous and amused, as Sungjong pulls a container of chobap out of the bag and sets it down on top of the plastic.
“Are you serious right now?” Howon asks. “Is this revenge of some kind?”
Sungjong laughs, this gaspy little thing.
“What have you got against chobap, man?” he says, then pulls Howon's lunch order towards himself to investigate it. Sungjong takes a few of Howon's chips and uses his takeaway container lid as a sort of makeshift plate to put them on. Howon gives him some more.
He watches Sungjong eat, though he's seen him do so before in the restaurant. Sungjong eats like he's in the middle of a conversation, putting the food in his mouth with a contemplative expression, as if he needs the time it takes to chew to mull over what is being said to him. He does this even though Howon hasn't really said anything yet, certainly nothing worth mulling over.
“Do you live close to here?” Sungjong asks. “The hostel I'm in is just down the street.”
Howon shakes his head. “It's a few miles to walk. I got a ride today.”
Sungjong's eyes widen, and they don't go back to normal until he stops chewing his bite and swallows. “But you walked here yesterday night? You must do it a lot, then.”
Sungjong puts down his drink bottle, setting it on the concrete so that the glass makes a slight grinding noise against the grit. “You didn't look quite right yesterday. Are you alright?”
Howon feels a bit pathetic – rather, a lot pathetic, sitting there getting offered consolation from a young man he barely knows. Sungjong can't be older than nineteen, and he's the kind of guy Howon's friends would rip apart in a minute flat (before they got to know him, because Howon has a feeling that Sungjong would rip them right back). But there is something about him that Howon is enamored with.
He had wanted someone to speak to. Maybe a stranger wasn't quite the answer, and Sungjong doesn't feel like a stranger.
He hums. “I think I'm depressed, if that's even the word. I'm just never really happy.”
Sungjong does the thinking face again, but this time it seems justified. “How come?”
“Because I've failed to make anything useful out of myself?” he replies, then laughs, as if Sungjong is stupid enough to also laugh at a joke that isn't there. He sighs. “I put all my time and energy into something, it fell through, and I had no back-up plan because I was so sure of myself. And now I feel just constantly disappointed, for my parents and myself.”
“Was it your dancing that fell through?”
“But you haven't given up, you told me about it yesterday. If you can still have the desire for it, I think that's rather amazing. It means you did the right thing.”
Howon stares out over the ocean, the sun dancing on it and casting white reflections on top of the water. “Really,” he says, turning to look at Sungjong, who hums lightly.
“It's never wrong, going after what you really want.”
“Even if it's completely aimless, even idiotic?”
He thinks he just quoted his father verbatim.
Sungjong looks at him deeply for a while, his eyes sparkling like the water, and then shrugs with a little smile.
“I'm an optimist, and I've got plenty of reasons not to be. Would it help you to get out of your head for a bit? You can ask me some questions if you like.”
Howon has plenty of them. Like from the night before, if Sungjong does like him somehow, if he wants to go somewhere after lunch, if he's going to be in town long enough for any of this to even matter. Howon feels compelled to let those questions answer themselves, so he pares it down.
“You're here on a vacation?” is what he asks instead.
“Kind of.” Sungjong wipes his hands on one of the napkins he brought. “It's like an indefinite break from college. My parents split up, too, so there's that. I just wanted to break away and be irresponsible for a while, I guess, because everything at home seems suffocating.”
Howon thinks it might be okay to feel good about what Sungjong's just told him, like he can allow himself to take it and commiserate with it and let a tiny little part of him heal, because Sungjong isn't perfect either, he gets sad, too.
“Why did you leave your dance group?”
Sungjong sighs lightly and looks out over the water, his profile settled in the foreground with the curving view of the city behind him. He shrugs, kicking his feet so that the heels of his shoes smack rhythmically against the concrete.
“It really wasn't fun anymore,” he states. “The environment was so critical and it was really hard to stay happy after a while, so I just left and went back to school instead. But that's started to make me unhappy, too.”
Sungjong says it all with a simplicity that makes Howon feel amazed. When Howon's ambitions didn't work out, it felt like the end of the world. Sungjong seems to see his setbacks and disappointments as unconcerning little blips.
Sungjong turns to Howon then, a quizzical look on his face. “Do you ever feel like your only problem is that you're too fickle, that you set yourself up for disappointment because you give up on things so quickly?”
“Not really,” Howon says, shaking his head. “Dancing is all I've ever wanted. It still is.”
Nodding receptively, Sungjong looks away again. “That makes us different, then, I suppose,” he says.
Howon looks at Sungjong and can't see a single similarity between them, and he wants to find something tangible.
A couple of gulls are creeping closer to where the two are sitting, and Howon could never resist them. He throws a couple of chips their way, then asks, “so what do you do here? Besides have lunch, I mean?”
Sungjong tosses the birds some little clumps of his rice. “Have early dinner,” he says after a minute, then grins to himself over his own joke and Howon finds the whole scene rather stupidly endearing.
“That's all you do?”
“And all you do is dance and take orders for seafood stew?” The grin fades as quickly as it came. Sungjong looks away from the bids and begins to pack away his food, after asking to see if Howon wants any more of it, and he's clearly thinking his words over carefully as he does so.
“We're both sort of in the same boat, right, with wanting to do things differently than we currently are. So, maybe we should occupy ourselves a bit more.”
Howon says nothing, just waits. Sungjong exhales.
“Will you show me around now? I want to go out with you, if you want that as well.”
Some questions really must answer themselves, then.
Howon looks down at his hands and nods. Suddenly he has an idea, a thought coming to him for the first time in a long time, the memory shrouded in weeds and narrated by the sound of a repetitive beat.
Sungjong is following behind Howon as he leads them through uncrowded suburbs of the city, where they've been walking for what feels like an hour. He's weary but doesn't complain, because he can't get a word in over Howon anyway.
“That's where my best friend from middle school lived,” he says, pointing up at one corner of a little apartment building. Howon spins around as he walks, then points to another house on the opposite side of the street. “And that's where my nemesis from preschool lives to this day.”
Sungjong rolls his eyes and continues trooping up the hill. “You have a nemesis?”
“One for every phase of my life,” Howon replies with a laugh.
“Who's your current one now, then?”
Howon kind of wants to say his father, but he doesn't want to talk about him, so he just laughs again and says, “right now it's this stupid hill.”
There's a reason Howon wanted to come up here, all this way to the outskirts of the city where it gets less like something he'd see on his mother's calendar and more like something out of a memory. His parents had a house up here, before they bought the restaurant. They moved when Howon was five, when his mother was pregnant with Hojun, because the house wasn't big enough for three boys.
Howon remembers it mainly because he used to come up here when he snuck out as a teenager, taking the whirring buses away from his school and heading up the hill instead of down like he was supposed to. Sometimes he'd come up here and sit on the corner by his old house and think, I remember this view of the city, even though he couldn't possibly, he would have been too little to have seen up that high. But it felt good to pretend there was a memory.
The main incentive for sneaking away to the hill was because of the old square of a building that sits out in the field by the park. It used to be an old auditorium, but the area outgrew it quickly and left it sitting there, untouched, until someone got the bright idea to tear out the chairs and turn it into a dance studio instead. Howon spent endless days there as a boy. He found himself there.
Howon turns the corner at the top of the hill, Sungjong walking close enough to him to bump into his shoulder, and he half-expects to see the building gone. He hasn't been up here in almost a year, the last time he went was a month before he moved to Daegu. He was told then that it had been closed officially, with maybe plans to remodel it if they could get permission from the neighborhood. It wasn't exactly a pretty building, he figured, just slab upon slab of brick. But then again, most people never cared to look inside.
Around the hill is a strikingly familiar view, and it brings a smile to Howon's face so wide, and suddenly his legs aren't tired anymore. He beckons Sungjong forward as he breaks into a jog, running past truly familiar old apartment blocks until he reaches the rickety gate that encircles the old brick building.
Sungjong's dragging his feet along the pavement, not indulging Howon by running too.
“This is it,” Howon says, shaking the chain-link fence. The 'no trespassing' sign that's hooked to it rattles as he does so. “This is my favorite place.”
He looks over to see Sungjong surveying the place with an inscrutable expression. He looks neither impressed or repelled, just glances around the lot to take it all in.
“But we can't go in,” he eventually says.
“Let's see,” Howon muses.
He tugs on the gate. The fasteners holding it to the fence stay solid on the bottom, but give freely on the top links, leaving the top corner of the gate to hang awkwardly in the air. He tugs at the links again and again, and breaks one of the weak metal fasteners. Beside him, Sungjong is whispering and laughing in his ear, telling him to hurry it up in case somebody catches them. Howon kicks at the difficult bottom fastener and it breaks, sending the gate crashing to the ground and rattling the metal links like an echo.
Howon waits a beat once the rattling has died down into silence, then grabs Sungjong's wrist and pulls him into the yard. They run, laughing, towards the building while kicking away the overgrown grass that wraps around Sungjong's bare legs, until they get to the structure itself.
Letting go of Sungjong, Howon leads them around the back of the studio to locate the double doors, the ones that never properly locked. They creak when he pushes on them, slowly drifting open and letting sunlight pour into the room that swirls with dust.
It's amazing how little has changed, as if nobody has touched this place in a year, not to evaluate it and – blessedly – not to harm it. Howon goes inside and opens each and every window that lines the wall with the back door, sending streams of window-print sunlight highlighting the shiny wooden floors. From the street, the windows in the front are still closed, and hopefully this way nobody will see them inside.
Sungjong follows behind and walks into the middle of the room, glancing up to the high ceilings and twirling slowly around. Howon watches a smile grow onto Sungjong's face, small and honest.
As it is, Howon's never found a place more beautiful than this one, even in the studio's abandoned state. There's character here, drawn into the beams and old patterned walls as if the designers were sketching a person instead of a box. The room cuts out all noise aside from when there's music playing, or someone is talking, or laughing.
Sungjong laughs quietly. “So, what do you do in here?”
Howon reaches into the pocket of his jeans and pulls out his phone, stands out of the stream of light so that he can read the screen. He finds his dance playlist and puts it on and turns up the volume to the highest point possible.
Sungjong moves out of the way and watches Howon as he dances to the first song's choreography, which he knows completely by heart (the music is even unnecessary, it just makes him look good). Howon's body moves and bends to the music like there are strings connecting his limbs to pulleys on the walls, and when he finishes he feels wonderfully alive. Even with Sungjong watching and appraising, even after the long walk and the unhappy week.
He dances to half of the next song before he stops, and Sungjong begins clapping loudly and walking up to him, cheering and hollering in a way that's totally overdone, but kindly so.
“You approve?” Howon huffs, amused, while he pulls the hem of his shirt up to wipe the sweat off of his forehead.
“I'm really impressed.” Sungjong looks at him, eyes sparkling, and the song ends. Howon waits for the next hip-hop beat, but when he hears the opening of the bubblegummy third song, he freezes.
Sungjong's eyes brighten like it's New Year's Eve, but instead of the laughter that Howon expects to hear, Sungjong exclaims happily and gets exactly into position for the girl-group song that has suddenly filled the studio with its melody.
“You know this?” Howon asks, hurrying to get in the same formation as Sungjong, then gives up after a few seconds because he decides that watching Sungjong will be a lot more entertaining. Sungjong says nothing to the rhetorical question, just studies himself in the mirror as he follows the steps to the song, moving his thin body precisely and naturally to the beat.
And he's good. Better than good, actually, and his figure forms the shapes of the choreography better than even Howon had managed to do. Sungjong dances for a good minute and a half, up past the dance break of the song, until he gives up and turns to Howon, laughing out loud at the look of amazement on his face.
“Give me your phone,” Sungjong demands, so Howon hands it to him without argument. He watches as Sungjong scrolls through the music list with a curious expression on his face.
“Ah,” he says finally, and sets the phone on another feminine track. Then he kicks off his shoes, sending them flying across the floor to land by the doorway, and pulls Howon into the middle of the floor by his hand. They dance together for most of the playlist, Howon showing off when he can and Sungjong doing the same.
Howon doesn't think he's smiled this much, laughed this much in months, and his cheeks ache from it. But when Sungjong picks a slower and more sensual song and walks off by himself to follow it, suddenly Howon can't manage to do any sort of laughing at all.
From his spot in the corner of the room, he watches Sungjong move. There's a look on his face so elegant and peaceful, and all of his pretty features settle into something truly beautiful, breathtaking. Sungjong is so gorgeous in the way he holds himself and in the way he moves, with his lips that are smiling just slightly, barely lifting up at the corners.
Howon says Sungjong's name without thinking, but Sungjong keeps dancing as if he hasn't heard. He looks like he's in a trance, and Howon knows the feeling. Instead of speaking again, Howon just stands and watches, and tries to imagine why on earth this beautiful person could ever like him back in the way that he does.
When the song ends, it's like Sungjong becomes a whole other person. He brightens, spins around to look Howon in the eye and takes a few large steps forward so that they're only an arm's distance away.
“Beat that,” he says, and he sounds so sure of himself. His eyes haven't stopped sparkling, and Howon thinks that might just be how they are, so clear and beautiful always.
Sungjong feels like a kind of forgiveness.
Howon doesn't allow himself to question or think, even though usually that's all he would let himself to do. He reaches up to cup both sides of Sungjong's face and then leans forward, placing his lips on Sungjong's lips that are still slightly parted as he pants to catch his breath after the dancing.
Sungjong kisses back instantly, stepping forward so that his toes touch the tip of Howon's sneakers. It's unlike any first kiss Howon has ever had, there's nothing timid or testing about it, just an assured sense of wanting and excitement. Sungjong puts his arm down to wrap half-way around Howon's waist, rolling a section of the thin, sweat-damp fabric of Howon's shirt in between his fingers as they move even closer together.
The thrilled fluttering in Howon's stomach is killed when there's a call from outside, and they break apart in fear to listen to the sound of someone yelling and storming their way towards the building. Howon curses, and Sungjong sort of yelps, and then they're running for the door, Sungjong grabbing his shoes without any time to slip them back on. Howon grabs Sungjong's hand and pulls him in a sprint past the shouting caretaker and through the broken fence, down the asphalt street until they're back around the corner with the view that Howon remembers but not really.
They run and run and Sungjong is laughing, almost tripping over his own feet. Howon feels a rush in the wind as they race downhill and in the exhausted beating of his heart and in the way Sungjong doesn't let go of his hand.
He keeps thinking he feels better than he has in months. How much greater of a feeling can it grow into? He wonders if it's even possible, because right now he feels like his heart might burst.