The Lees arrive in a swirl of sunlight like they do every summer, scaring the peaceful shadows away like a broom taken to cellar spiders. Mrs. Lee kisses Dongyoung’s mother on the cheek with her unpainted lips and says that she looks healthy (she does—she’d been sickly thin the previous year) and presents a basket of goods that are an adventure to find up on the mountain. Dongyoung sees the chocolate roses and tries to imagine successfully nabbing one for himself (it’s difficult).
The Lee girl has brought a friend—their two children always do—with dyed crimson curls and a watered-down smile. Their son has two.
Dongyoung feels himself sink into what’s left of the shadows.
One is taller than anyone else in the entrance room. The other has a smooth face and skin.
The son, though, has a lot more (he has always thought). His hair is a washed-out teal this year, big eyes bright, slinky white shirt tickling around his elbows.
“Hello,” he says to Dongyoung, somehow finding him behind all the bodies greeting and welcoming. It’s all he says before he’s pulled back into the throng, but Dongyoung still claims a portion of the curious smile the Lee boy always sends him.
He always says hello, but they’ve never talked beyond that.
Sometimes, Dongyoung manages to say hello in return. Usually, though, he can’t find the word fast enough.
The day is hot, so his father makes cold, hand-pulled noodles steeped in an ice broth. Gongmyung serves the patrons while Dongyoung dishes everything out in brown bowls, watching through the gap in the door for the table the Lees sit at.
They are not the only family that visits their inn during the summer. There’s a family of Kims with a slew of children that are more familiar with dirt on their faces than a bath. They’re bright, too, but louder about it and mix with the shadows well, somehow. The youngest is always determined to wheedle a second helping out of his father like a tiny gremlin. More peaceful are the Parks, who don’t scare away the shadows and like to read up in the loft at different times of the day.
“Do you want to serve the Lee table?” Gongmyung asks, offering back the same bowls Dongyoung had given him.
Dongyoung shakes his head, heartbeat nipping at his skin.
“You could say hello to them,” Gongmyung tries again. Dongyoung gives him the last bowl for their table as an answer.
“Cat’s always got your tongue when they come around,” says his dad as Gongmyung leaves with the bowls on a platter. “Too bright for my son?” he asks, reaching out with a wiped-dry hand to ruffle his hair. Someday he’ll be taller than his dad and will miss the ease with which he manages to make his hair worse than ever, but at fourteen, Dongyoung is still small.
Yes, Dongyoung wants to say, but he can’t figure out how to word it from the muddle inside his chest. But I don’t want them to leave .
His father understands anyway.
His mother gives him a chilled chocolate rose and he peels off the petals delicately with his lips. They melt under his tongue.
“What’s your name?”
Dongyoung startles and loses a petal between his thighs—he tries to retrieve it before it marks his skin. One of the Lee boy’s friends has set his chin on the back of his stacked hands, the rest of his body hidden below the loft as he stands on the ladder.
This boy does not brush away the shadows. They creep under his arms like dusty kittens. “Doyoung,” Dongyoung says, because that’s what everyone calls him, tongue loosened by the familiarity of another Shade.
“Hi Doyoung,” says the boy, and he balances out a hand for Dongyoung to take. “I’m Johnny.”
Dongyoung looks at the melted chocolate petal between his fingers and the rose in his other hand, then at the hand Johnny is offering and stares helplessly.
Johnny laughs and removes the dilemma by taking back the offer, though not unkindly. “Can I join you?”
“Yes,” Dongyoung says, but feels very lost with his chocolate-covered fingers. Is it impolite to put them in his mouth now that he has company? It feels like such a stupid problem to have, but it’s spinning webs in his brain in disorganized tendrils.
“You can eat that. I don’t mind,” Johnny says. “I just came up here to read. I heard it’s peaceful.”
He watches the shadows follow Johnny like ducklings skidding after a mother as he lifts himself into the loft and crouches his way to rest against one of the walls. Dongyoung quickly sucks the chocolate off his fingers.
“You’re the innkeepers’ youngest, right?” Johnny asks, sliding a small book out of the shadows—the shadows can’t hold anything too big for anyone. The biggest things they can hold are secrets.
It looks like a book of poetry.
“Yes,” Dongyoung says, feeling young and stupid in front of this Shade who can already ask the shadows to keep things for him.
“Taeyong says you’re really shy,” Johnny says gently, but just the name hits Dongyoung in the stomach like a winter stone. He almost wheezes.
He talks about me? Dongyoung wants to ask, but it gets to be too much, so he says nothing at all.
Lee Taeyong and his family had been coming to their inn all fourteen years Dongyoung has been alive, and the most he’s said to him is “Hello.”
Johnny sits in the loft, thumbing through the pages of his book without insult to Dongyoung’s silence or peace.
Dongyoung cannot get past the idea of Lee Taeyong calling him shy.
Lee Taeyong chases the sun, and Dongyoung simply can’t find the courage to reach for him.
The Lees are a family of Sparks, and like all Sparks, they slow as the sun falls. Dinner is scattered for Sparks like breakfast is for Shades.
Taeyong comes down anyway, though, with Johnny and his other friend, looking tired but still so bright, his eyes aglitter under the lights of the dining room. Nights are cool on the mountain, so he’s wearing a baggy jacket the color of midnight over his slinky white shirt.
Dongyoung’s hands feel clammy as he brings over their dinner for the night.
“Good evening, Doyoung,” Johnny says before Taeyong can so much as say hello, and Dongyoung’s face burns. The bottoms of the plates wheeze against the woodgrain for him.
“Evening,” Dongyoung says, and he can’t meet Taeyong’s eyes. He thinks the boy might be staring, though, because when Taeyong looks at him, it feels like standing under the sun at midday.
“Do you want to eat with us?”
Dongyoung’s head snaps up, and then he chokes on the offer. Johnny looks kind, like his words aren’t enough to give Dongyoung anxiety for weeks.
“No,” he blurts, then turns tail before his face can get any redder. He can’t stop how he curls into himself on his way back to the kitchen, though, and it doesn’t matter whether the moon is awake or not for him, apparently.
He’s still not brave.
It’s harder to sleep at night for most Shades, which provides ample opportunity in Dongyoung’s case for midnight walks. He can’t have slept well anyway—anxious as he is after how badly he reacted at dinner—and so he pushes himself out the storage room window and lands in the garden. The smell of mint wafts up as he crushes a few leaves underfoot, and normally he is more careful, but his head feels funny and he simply needs air.
The inn his family owns upholds a reputation of well-kept peace and privacy, which is generally why it maintains a decent crowd year-long. Dongyoung is a good son and works well. His parents are proud of both him and Gongmyung, their work ethic, their responsibility. Dongyoung has worked hard to be an addition rather than a detraction, but he struggles to see himself outside the walls of their home. Off the mountain. Elsewhere.
He doesn’t know where Lee Taeyong comes from. Even with glasses, he can’t see that far down the mountain.
Dongyoung pulls himself to the lake and can feel the cold of the waters waft off it like a haze. Shades, too, are less sensitive to the cold, which, Gongmyung likes to joke, explains how frigid Dongyoung can come off (“I know you’re not actually, but it wouldn’t hurt to smile, Doie.”).
He usually sings across the waters, and the inn residents like to call him the Shadow Lark, which Dongyoung likes. It’s pretty and makes him feel like he actually has something beautiful to give.
The pebbles and soft dirt shift underfoot as he walks, and the moon drinks up the sky like dark wine. He stops before he can get to the edge, however, soft voices trickling up and around off the placid shore.
Not many Shades come to the lake this late in the night, so the idea of people startles him, though the idea isn’t entirely unwelcome. What’s his is theirs, if they’re residents, so he can’t be upset.
Still, he is curious, and he can’t (won’t) sing for a visible audience, so he seeks to listen in. Dongyoung has never been brave, but he can listen.
He approaches quietly, hugging the deepest darkness where the moon can’t kiss his skin, and is startled to see the Lee boy and his friends. Even more so is he startled when he watches as they peel off their clothes, revealing skin and teenager bodies. As a Spark, Taeyong is dark with sun in the moonlight, but his shoulders glow and his hair looks like soft moss.
Dongyoung’s face burns belatedly as the last pieces of clothing come off, and he cringes at the position he’s in, floundering silently.
Johnny and the other boy push each other, playful, almost gentle, laughter hushed, and there’s a smacking sound as Johnny’s ass is hit with the palm of his friend’s hand.
Then again, after a moment of laughter, they kiss.
So maybe they’re more than friends.
Either way, Dongyoung feels himself shrivel, horrified, entranced. Petrified, certainly.
“Oh suns. It’s cold,” Taeyong says, and his voice is soft and floats in the night. He withdraws his toes from the water, skin darkly aglow.
It’s only then that the flags go up, and it’s with horror that Dongyoung realizes he has to do something—stop them somehow, because the lake isn’t meant to be swam in. It’s a delicate ecosystem, and they might get sick, and—
He stumbles out of dark.
When he speaks, it comes just shy of choking. “Stop! Don’t—don’t go in there!” His heart throws itself against his ribs, scared, and he feels close to breaking under its abuses as the boys turn and stare. With a gasp, he covers his eyes, wishing he could eat his own terror just to get it out of his body. “You can’t swim in the lake,” he nearly cries. It’s not safe for you or the water.
He’s shaking so badly he almost collapses as he blindly pushes himself back and away from them. They’re silent. Maybe they’re stunned, or angry, or maybe they’re laughing and he can’t hear them because his fear is too loud in his ears.
He turns, and trips, and doesn’t stay long enough to see if they comply. He runs back home, holding his breath in intervals so he doesn’t throw up, and cries instead because Taeyong will probably never, ever say hello to him again.
Dongyoung is right, as he often is. He sees very little of Taeyong and his friends for the remainder of their summer stay, the sunlight wheedling by like a secret rather than a flashy show of colored ribbons. He sees more of the Lee parents and sister than he does their own son, but it’s not a difficult thing to manage. As usual, he does his best to avoid them, and the evident combined effort results in nothing between them.
“It’s been such a pleasure to have the Lees back,” his mother sighs, and their well warbles it in an echo like Dongyoung’s lost agreement as she pulls up more water. The former bucket is heavy in his hands, and the sun is warm against the backs of his bare calves. “Their son was so cute with the Kim kids out in the garden the other day.”
Dongyoung doesn’t want to know this, but even less does he want his mother to know that he doesn’t want to know this. He keeps quiet as she heaves up the bucket with her strong arms and says a few more words on how she’ll miss them when they leave. He doesn’t miss how his mother gives him glances as they walk back to the kitchens, and he tries not to squirm in his own skin.
They leave, and Dongyoung watches from the stairwell for only as long as he’s able to ascertain the intention because even less than seeing them does he want to be seen.
A year passes, more or less, and Dongyoung’s there for their arrival a little older and a little less anxious, but doesn’t stay long enough to find out if Taeyong will say hello or not. He knows his hair is black and that he’s brought the same two friends as he had last year, though Dongyoung can no longer remember the Shade’s name. His sister is not with them this year, now studying for an apprenticeship, apparently.
Dongyoung climbs back up the stairs for his books and waits for the ruckus to die.
“Do you want to serve the Lee table?” Gongmyung asks, and offers up the platter.
“No,” Dongyoung says, and his brother lets out the same careful exhale he’s been giving lately around Dongyoung.
He’s very aware of the conversation Gongmyung had had with their dad one night. It had been teasing—about how he’s fifteen and how Gongmyung, too, had been like this (“Though chattier,” their father had joked.).
Dongyoung knows about the conversation because he had just recently figured out how to listen to the shadows. For most of his life, the shadows’ whispers had been sheer nonsense, but in the midst of a panic attack after the Zhang girl had tried to flirt with him at the beginning of the year, their words had seemed quite comprehensive.
Unlike people, the shadows tend to be a lot more blunt and a lot more gentle, so he listens to them. Their voices are more soothing renditions of the ones he already knows, and it comes easier to him that way.
“I’ll do it then,” Gongmyung says, still careful, and shoulders through the swinging door. Dongyoung neither watches nor listens.
At sixteen, he’s thought about the lake incident some, rather than avoiding it. He writes in his journal about it, and feels more disdain than humiliation.
After years of the Lee family visiting their inn, Taeyong would have known without a doubt that the lake was not to be swam in. He should have known, and yet had decided to attempt what he did anyway.
That summer, the Lees look a lot less bright to him, and he avoids them for other reasons.
It’s the last summer Taeyong accompanies his parents, and Dongyoung finds he doesn’t care.
At eighteen, Dongyoung is sent down the mountain. It’s something he is prepared for and had been for at least a decade, but it still scares him. He is warned by Gongmyung that being at lower altitudes will make him sick, which he is bound to experience upon his descent—especially if he is to use the gondola.
While he enjoys taking walks, and he loves the mountains, he doesn’t want to take a three day journey that will prolong his anxiety.
He takes the gondola with his bulky bag and general shakiness and a pit in his stomach that will not digest no matter how much water he swallows. Gongmyung will meet him at the bottom, and his parents saw him off at the top, but he still feels bare under the aggressive morning light through the gondola windows.
His mother had hugged the stale, anxious air right out of him, which allows him to replenish the loss with vigor as he attempts to stave off panic all the way down.
The tops of trees shy by, getting stranger and stranger as the minutes tick by. There’s a woman just older than him on the other end with her purse pressed to her belly, watching the places they leave behind. She is the only other one there this early in the morning, and he admires her fortitude or else assumes she’s not saying goodbye to home. He has to look forward, because looking back will only make his eyes sting.
“How old are you?” she asks twenty minutes into the ride. She does this, he thinks, because his fidgeting is starting to look desperate, and he’s hugged all of the shadows that are available to him. She has a soft voice, so he answers.
“Oh,” she says, “are you starting your apprenticeship?” Her posture doesn’t open up—she’s not looking to get in his space, it seems. Just calm him down.
“Yes.” He feels the opposite of detached. He’s too tuned in. He can hear the cords creaking above them.
“May I ask about it?”
“Yes.” He thinks his voice sounds choked. He doesn’t like the gondola. It teeters. Teeters from side to side. Teeters with the winds. He’s going to be sick.
“What will you be apprenticing in?”
“Oh, that’s lovely. I’m a singer.”
“I sing. Would it help you calm down if I sang for you?”
Dongyoung presses himself to the cold metal walls of the gondola. It teeters. The trees look different down below. He closes his eyes and swallows, and she starts to sing very quietly. The kind of quiet that’s searching for repulsion.
He does not move. Will not. He is panicking but not repulsed.
It takes minutes for the tune to sink in through his blood, and he realizes, belatedly, that it’s laced with light.
A minor key, it resonates just right against his edges, and rather than forcing his shadows to pale, it enriches him like a shadow growing bolder. Slowly, it makes him feel less wispy, for shadows, when touched just right, become stronger in the sun. He feels the better parts of him turn denser, darkening peacefully, and he nearly wheezes out a breath he’s been holding too long at the relief.
When he opens his eyes, she’s glowing, and it’s been a while since he’s thought kindly of a Spark.
She glows, and he feels stronger, and he’s thankful.
Gongmyung is pleasant upon meeting him, but immediately pulls him under his arm to share some shadows because even with the Spark’s help, Dongyoung is still shaking like a leaf. He can feel a headache forming, and the air is strange and heavy in his lungs. He decides he hates it. He hates the valley. He already misses his trees.
“Maybe I’ll see you again,” says the Spark as she leaves the gondola. She passes them with a smile, and Gongmyung freezes like he’s seen a hunter. The Spark does not intend to hunt, however. She simply nods with a pretty smile at his brother and moves on, purse held at her side now.
“She’s pretty,” Gongmyung says, sounding like a sack of flour.
“What?” Dongyoung says in turn, but he knows what his brother said—he’s hugged too closely to his chest not to hear his voice’s reverb. He just thinks it’s an odd thing to say.
“She’s pretty,” Gongmyung repeats, though now he sounds more pathetic, and Dongyoung almost shrugs him off. “Wait here,” Gongmyung says, and Dongyoung wrestles with a feeling of disbelief as he watches his brother act like a meek puppy trotting after the chance of acceptance.
He doesn’t understand how people can move like this—he’s had only one crush in his life, and he knows that even now he would rather die than speak with someone he likes.
All the same, his brother acts polite, and he supposes that if he were to move like him, he would want to be like this. The weak shadows whisper his pardon, and his apology, then his reserved flattery—“I think you’re pretty. Your hair… is really nice. I just—”
Dongyoung rolls his eyes and checks out of the shadows, shooing them away so he can focus on assessing the weird heaviness he’s starting to feel in his body and head. He can hear his heartbeat. If this is the sickness he’ll be feeling for the next few days, he knows, assuredly, that the valley will have to work three times harder to gain his acceptance.
As is, it’s sparse and weedier. He stands just aside from where the gondola ends, and the builders have chosen to have an open view for the docking site. He sees buildings, and some trees, and some green, and he’s not too endeared.
When Gongmyung trots back, Dongyoung rolls his eyes so he can see, and he looks sheepish. “Did it work?”
“She told me where she sings,” he says. “I told her I didn’t want her address or anything. Because. I’m a stranger. That would be inappropriate.”
“Right,” Dongyoung says, and is at the very least endeared to his brother.
Gongmyung and Dongyoung would not be staying in the same district, which would be difficult for Dongyoung, but if Gongmyung could do it on his own the first time, so could he.
Together they locate the house he’ll be staying at, the owners his mentor’s cousins who have more boarding room than she does. It’s a blue-and-white two-story with flowers on the sill and garden beds. The owners are a couple with one smidgen of a child who totters along like a bumble bee. They’re Sparks, but they’re mild, and he doesn’t feel unwelcome, so Gongmyung leaves with one squeeze and a detailed note for how to get to his district.
Dongyoung heaves his luggage up the stairs and collapses quietly on the blue bedspread, staring at the bare-minimum layout. There are some potted plants on the desk and the head of the bed, but everything else is smooth and clear. This is the farthest from offensive to him, but his head is pounding and the hosts invited him to do whatever he needed to do to settle in.
For Dongyoung, that is simply passing out under the thick comforter and soft sheets.
He has three days to acclimate and relearn how to use his limbs as well as shake an odd sickness that just makes him feel like he’s dying rather than make an actual attempt at killing him.
Over those three days, he finds the town is friendly to Shades with a penchant for nighttime walks, the lighting dim but sufficient. He does the most mapping at night during these walks, figuring out just which paths and streets lead where, and by the time the last day rolls around, he’s already walked back and forth from his apprenticeship greenhouse some half-a-dozen times.
In the dark, the greenhouse is so rich with darkness it seems to breed the heaviest of secrets, and the thick air is weighed down with myriads of personalities from the flora within.
He’s already met his mentor, who introduces herself over a dinner she shares with her cousins and himself. She has masses of curly hair and narrow, intelligent eyes, and she’s more of a Shade than Dongyoung has ever seen. The shadows cloak her like an old, homey quilt, and she has a soft and confident smile.
Despite his predictions, he finds himself settling much faster than expected. The valley feels unnatural on his bones, but he figures out its ways and bends as quickly as he can manage, and by the morning his apprenticeship starts, he feels like he can survive.
Though the plants are strange, he understands their general language and quirks, and he takes as easily as he had hoped to the tasks and lessons his mentor presents him. His fingertips are stained green as an occupational hazard and signifier, and he’s never smelled himself so ripe with plantlife and dirt as now.
She laughs when he starts wearing black shirts every day and promises him an allowance that will make up for the cost. He can stand sweating, but not the visual that accompanies it.
He learns he cannot manage to clip his nails short enough to avoid the thin crescents of dirt, so he gives in and only washes his hands thoroughly to make up for it as best he can. He also prepares his own corner of the greenhouse over the first week and finds the earth a complicated mixture of shadow and light.
When he asks her about this subtlety, she’s curious about how his family kept their earth at home, and then invites him to replicate their shadow-rich earth in his own corner.
“Most plants thrive best with a mix of the two,” she tells him. “I can provide the shadows—they follow me naturally. But I receive soil from sun-sources to maintain the balance.” She promises him he will meet the other apprentice under her care who maintains the light in her soils.
Earth takes nicely to the leanings of its caretakers, and he watches his soil turn nearly as black as the garden at home. It’s an effort on his part, and he has to pour much of his reserves into the soil to manage it, but his mentor whistles with curiosity as he manages it.
“I’ve done it before, but there’s no research to suggest shadow-rich soil is beneficial, so I’ve never pursued it for long. The earth naturally bends toward a balance, so you’ll have to teach it to be happy this way. Your family soil has probably been used to being that way for decades, so you have to convince yours that this way is best,” she says, and he tries.
It’s in the midst of the third week that her other apprentice returns from their home visit, and Dongyoung almost lets the soil swallow him whole when he realizes who it is.
“This is Lee Taeyong,” she tells Dongyoung as Taeyong burns sunlight through Dongyoung’s sternum rather than look at eyes.
Dongyoung says nothing, too occupied with the odd, sour taste in his mouth to say anything polite.
“Do you know each other?” she asks, and the brightness in her voice is ill-matched with her nature.
Taeyong has brown hair. He’s sharper than Dongyoung recalls him, but also stronger than he remembers in the way his big eyes fit his face and hands seem fit for his wrists.
Taeyong is also less bright than he remembers.
“No,” Dongyoung says. In part because he does not want to know Taeyong, and also because he believes he has never known Taeyong.
It’s not a good first meeting.
They do not talk.
Taeyong has a wall rather than a corner like Dongyoung—two years of apprenticeship allowing him greater space. From the looks of it, he specializes in long, wild plants that climb and twist and swirl in graceful curiosity. His soil is more golden than their mentor’s, but is not the polar opposite of Dongyoung’s.
By the fifth week, Dongyoung’s soil looks like wet coffee grounds, and his chosen plants have peeled their leaves above the darkness. Unlike Taeyong’s plants, Dongyoung’s will never be tall. His will be reserved, and occasionally sprawling, but never tall.
Their mentor is the perfect balance between them, and seems almost amused by their desire to avoid proximity to each other.
“You’re living with my cousin alright?” she asks him one day, and Dongyoung says yes because he has. They let him watch over their tot the other day when they wanted to go on a date with each other, and it went quite well. “It’s just. You don’t have anything against Sparks, do you?”
He does , somewhat. He hadn’t always, but he can admit that he’d always struggled with Sparks. His shadows had been sensitive, and he hadn’t been sure how to organize them in front of the right (or wrong) people until around his seventeenth year. “No,” he says anyway, because he thinks maybe it’s not so much Sparks as Taeyong .
His mentor hums and reapplies herself to her plants. He does the same.
In the third month, Taeyong breaks the unspoken vow of silence, chasing after him when Dongyoung leaves the greenhouse for the evening.
“Doyoung,” he says, and it makes Dongyoung’s blood cringe.
He turns anyway, and nearly balks at the eye-contact. In the dying light of sunset, Taeyong’s eyes are colorful and aglow.
“I think—” Taeyong begins.
“I’m not interested in speaking with you,” Dongyoung interrupts for his heart only, and leaves Taeyong only a few steps outside the greenhouse.
“Do you—would you mind,” Taeyong says the next day, stepping into Dongyoung’s corner of the greenhouse like he never has before, “if I experiment with light soil?” Taeyong is fiddling with his fingertips, gnawing at the inside of his bottom lip by the looks of it. Dongyoung realizes that Taeyong’s voice is deep, then wishes he wouldn’t notice anything at all. “I don’t want to copy you. I’m just curious.”
Dongyoung slides his notes into the shadows cupped under the wooden bed’s lip, looking up at Taeyong from where he sits on the cobblestones. “If you’re going to take credit for the idea, I’d rather you don’t,” Dongyoung says, and watches Taeyong go slightly pink.
“I won’t—I wouldn’t. Do that,” Taeyong stutters, and his fingers lift to his mouth so he can, almost unconsciously, bite at any hangnails. “I’ll share my notes with you,” he promises, “if you’re willing to talk to me.”
The feeling in Dongyoung’s chest is unpleasant. He recognizes Taeyong is trying, and it makes him feel ugly and small for holding onto something even smaller.
His next words are worse. “Why should I want to talk to you?”
He watches Taeyong flounder, a complicated flash of emotions pushing across Taeyong’s pretty features, and Taeyong pivots sharply to leave Dongyoung with the words he wishes he hadn’t said. Didn’t mean.
Taeyong does not attempt light soil, and seems to pretend as if they’d never spoken at all.
Dongyoung thinks about the conversation too frequently to focus.
What plants he had managed to propagate and raise suffer some over the next few days as he struggles with regret and discomfort. It’s annoying, especially when he’s attempting to carry out an experiment and is almost positive these effects are not from the soil but from their caretaker.
When he approaches Taeyong on his own terms, he can see Taeyong dim like a shrouded star. It makes Dongyoung want to disappear.
“You should do it,” Dongyoung says once, then again when the first attempt comes out gritty and unusual. “I’m sorry for being rude.”
The little shine Taeyong gives off is glittery, but guarded. “It’s okay. Thank you for letting me try.”
The anxiety in Dongyoung’s stomach is fluttery and stupid, so he says nothing more and returns to his corner.
He’s surprised, to his annoyance, that Taeyong approaches him to share his progress. In a clear cup, he provides some of the soil he’s treated. “It needs more water than the mixed soil,” Taeyong admits, and the light earth is nearly gold.
Dongyoung hesitates, then breathes through the messy, awkward hatred he has for being in this situation. “Mine can’t be watered as much,” he says, and ignores how the Spark brightens very slightly. He can feel it, but makes the attempt anyway. “It needs a draining layer beneath or the roots will rot.”
Taeyong’s fingers tap on the sides of the cup. “I’m going to try keeping some pots in bedded water,” Taeyong says.
“I hope it works,” Dongyoung says, though his voice is thick with something he doesn’t want to name and he wants to turn away.
Taeyong smiles, and Dongyoung looks back at his plants, which is the best he can do.
Taeyong converts a section of his wall to his experiment, bedding some of the soil and potting others in flooded drainage plates. For the bedded flora, Taeyong shares that he plans to attempt arid-climate plants. In this case, too, Dongyoung wishes him luck and receives a smile.
His stomach seems to cramp whenever he gets a smile from Taeyong, and he doesn’t much enjoy it.
His own plants adapt interestingly to this soil type. He’d never subjected the plants he is attempting now to the soil at home, where his parents kept to the same cycles of greenery that had long adjusted to those methods. These plants are unfamiliar to this system, being clippings or seeds from his mentor’s strains.
“They’re much darker,” she notices, and if it weren’t for the notes Dongyoung had taken on what he planted where, he would have no idea what he was growing. Not only are many of the leaves darker, but they are thicker as well, and he thinks it appropriate to describe his mentor as just short of vibrating from curiosity.
Taeyong is too early on in his own experiments, but he shares what he has, and Dongyoung attempts to reciprocate, and he receives a smile that gives his stomach a cramp and haunts him the whole day through.
The year passes through winter and spring, and Dongyoung cannot return home out of the sheer anxiety of leaving his plants. Gongmyung goes instead, and brings him a care package with some of his father’s own seeds.
He plants a quarter and saves the rest.
When Taeyong’s plants gain life, they’re wispy and fragile where Dongyoung’s are sturdy and stubborn. He feels this is both appropriate and extreme, because he’s found that Taeyong is not very fragile. He’s determined in a way that’s gotten under Dongyoung’s skin, and he can’t decide if he regrets it or not.
“What if we combined our soils?” Taeyong pitched one afternoon on their break. The iced tea Taeyong had prepped for them is strong on Dongyoung’s tongue.
Dongyoung’s at a loss, so he grimaces and tries to say anything at all. “We could just try it. I have soil to spare.”
“Do you think it’ll just—” Taeyong makes a strange noise and threads his fingers together in a mixing motion. “—like just stay separate?”
“I don’t know. It’ll either stay separate or blend or mix,” Dongyoung says, because clearly Taeyong wants to conjecture, but there are only so many things that could realistically happen. He gets up from the wire seat they’d pulled up to collect some of his spare soil. Taeyong parts to do the same with his, but brings one of the clear cups with him.
“We should put yours on the bottom,” Taeyong says, and hands over the cup. “Have a layered one, then a mixed up one.”
“Alright,” Dongyoung says, and avoids Taeyong’s fingers when taking the cup.
With the layered soils, the place where they connect goes kind of strange and grey, and he and Taeyong stare at the result for at least twenty seconds before putting the cup back on its shelf. The mixed cup is bizarrely fragrant in a way Dongyoung can’t place, and has turned a strange bronze.
“I don’t know what to make of this,” Taeyong says.
“Light and darkness doesn’t mix well,” Dongyoung proposes, and Taeyong huffs.
“That’s not true and you know it. Standard soil is mixed.”
“ We don’t mix well,” Dongyoung corrects, and Taeyong freezes. Dongyoung can look at his profile, the graceful angle of his nose and ashy hair. There’s a breath before Taeyong shakes himself out.
“Not with that attitude, we don’t,” Taeyong says, and it’s so stubborn of him that something bubbles up in Dongyoung’s chest and he gets all backwards and muddled and can only watch Taeyong leave him at the shelves.
He doesn’t sleep well that night.
It’s only when their mentor leaves them in the greenhouse alone for the entirety of the day that Dongyoung cracks.
“Why did you think it was okay to swim in our lake? Four years ago?” he says across their mentor’s plant beds, and Taeyong goes rigid at his wall. When he turns, his light is defensive and cowed somehow all at once.
“People do dumb shit when they’re young,” Taeyong says, almost like he’d had those words ready for far too long, and Dongyoung had personally never heard Taeyong swear, so he was really processing too much very suddenly. “Please tell me that’s not why you were mad at me for so long.”
It’s Dongyoung’s turn to be defensive. “You’re one to talk. You never said a single word to me again after that night.”
Taeyong sticks his spade in his earth and looks genuinely annoyed. Dongyoung wishes he hadn’t started this conversation. “I was embarrassed! I’d gotten caught by the innkeeper’s boy butt-naked. You wouldn’t have talked to you either.”
He feels like he’s dying—quite like when he’d first arrived in the valley, actually. “You knew I liked you,” he blurts, and automatically wishes he were brave enough to spade himself in the stomach.
Taeyong pinks and his light is vivid and aggressive. “I did not . I just knew I liked you.” With a vexed breath, Taeyong turns his back on Dongyoung and this time, it’s Dongyoung burning and floundering and upset.
He thinks he deserves this.
Taeyong says very little to him for the next few days, which Dongyoung thinks is probably simply his penance for Taeyong realizing he was holding a grudge for a mistake he’d made four years ago.
It’s only when Dongyoung slides a packet of his father’s seeds Taeyong’s way that he gets the first eye-contact he’s had from him in a while. “Can—” Dongyoung hesitates. “—can you do me a favor?”
Taeyong raises an eyebrow at him, and this is another characteristic Dongyoung is learning as a part of Taeyong. He’s sassy. It’s difficult.
“These are some of my dad’s seeds. I’m wondering how they’ll react to your soil. They might not grow, but they won’t grow in mine, either.” He shoves his stained fingers in his pockets before they can give away the awkward tremble.
“I can do that,” Taeyong agrees, and when he smiles, Dongyoung almost sighs with relief, but holds his tongue.
“Thank you,” he says, and backs away.
“They aren’t sprouting,” Taeyong tells him, plopping down on the edge of Dongyoung’s plant bed. He’s wearing deliberately-stained pants and one of the breezy shirts that he seems to like so much. It’s almost transparent.
It’s not unexpected, but Dongyoung is still disappointed somehow. “Thank you for trying,” he says, though it feels stiff and awkward in his mouth.
“I was thinking,” Taeyong continues, as if ignoring Dongyoung has said anything at all, “We could try putting some in our experiment soils. There’s nothing to lose, right?”
Dongyoung pauses, wiping his hands on one of the damp rags he keeps. “I guess,” he says, and Taeyong smiles. Dongyoung tries not to drown.
“Do I have permission, then?” Taeyong sparkles at him, and Dongyoung thinks that though he’s sure he’s acclimated to Taeyong’s Spark antics, he has not acclimated to what there is of just Taeyong .
“Yeah,” he says, and watches Taeyong leave.
They both witness his father’s seeds sprout from the strange bronze dirt in wiggly, cramped tendrils. It doesn’t look anything like what his father said the seeds should have been. The leaves look strange and rippled, and the stalk is thin and red.
“Huh,” says Taeyong, and straightens his spine, leveling his gaze against Dongyoung. “Look whose soils can grow things together, but not apart?”
Dongyoung does not even try to clamp down on his hiss, but it’s kind of frothy and happy, and he starts to say something he almost immediately regrets. “If you were as smart as you’re sassy—” He cuts himself off.
Taeyong raises his eyebrows, then laughs. “Then I’d be smarter than you, huh?”
Dongyoung blushes for the first time in years and hates it.
Their mentor has no idea what plant it is they’re growing in their frankenstein soil. “It’s kind of awkward,” she says.
“That’s just Doyoung’s influence,” says Taeyong, and Dongyoung sighs, just resisting the urge to elbow Taeyong in between his ribs. The day he manages to touch him is the day he’ll turn immediately to ash.
“Well, if it grows leaves too big for its stem to support, we’ll know where it got its big head from,” Dongyoung says, and Taeyong pouts. Dongyoung nearly loses all his breath in a single moment.
Their mentor gives them both a strange look and leaves them alone.
Taeyong’s light soil grows plants nearly translucent, and they’re delicate and sun-seeking. At near-maturity, it comes to their attention that they glow very slightly at night.
Comparatively, Dongyoung’s are quite plain, but they’re incredibly fragrant, and the herbs make overwhelmingly flavorful teas.
“Decorative versus practical,” their mentor says, as if such words are fitting for their personalities, and Dongyoung is offended.
But he’s not offended for himself. He’s offended that Taeyong is apparently “decorative.” He’s certainly absurdly, grossly attractive, but there’s a certain uselessness that “decorative” communicates that Dongyoung hates.
“You’re not just decorative,” Dongyoung tells him later, and Taeyong looks confused, so Dongyoung wanders back to his corner feeling stupid.
“You liked me, then?” Taeyong asks one evening after the sun has dropped. They face Taeyong’s light plants and their soft, bereft glow.
“I would never,” Dongyoung denies, and swallows a scalding mouthful of tea, wincing it the way down.
Taeyong’s laugh is so… stupid. Dongyoung doesn’t know. He knows he’s being made fun of, though, and yet he doesn’t feel humiliated. Just kind of silly.
“I thought you were cute. You would never talk to me,” Taeyong says, bowling through as if Dongyoung had actually confessed anything and it was Taeyong’s turn to reciprocate. “And I thought that was kind of… endearing, I guess?” He sips his tea at a much more appropriate speed. He has chosen to drink mint, while Dongyoung has a cup of rosemary steeped. “I really didn’t know you liked me. I thought you hated me, so when you caught us skinny-dipping, I thought I was going to die.”
In the glow and moonlight, Taeyong looks almost like he had that night. Older, but not so different, Dongyoung would suppose. “I was scared of you,” Dongyoung admits with a breath. “You were so handsome, and really bright, and—” Dongyoung sighs, pulse feeling weak. “—I was sensitive to lots of light. It made me anxious. Still can if I’m not ready for it.”
“Huh.” Taeyong taps his fingertips against the porcelain of his mug. When he inhales and says what comes next, Dongyoung feels like the seat of his chair has given out from under him. “I still like you.”
Dongyoung swallows the rest of his tea all in one go and ends up coughing into his elbow as his throat nearly starts flaking from burn.
“Suns, Doyoung.” Taeyong sounds bright, but tense, and when Dongyoung realizes he has a hand on his knee, the warmth of Taeyong’s palm radiating through the fabric of his pants to his knee, he’s sure he has to be experiencing some sick daydream.
“I’m so sorry,” Dongyoung chokes, then panics when Taeyong’s expression twists into something rueful. “No—not like that. I’m dying. Hold on.”
Taeyong delicately starts to remove his hand from Dongyoung’s knee, and Dongyoung almost drops his mug in order to slap his fingers over Taeyong’s to keep his touch there. “I like you too,” he nearly throttles from his own sore throat. He feels like the whole greenhouse is spinning, but he does not want Taeyong to think that his affections aren’t reciprocated. Sure, they’re reciprocated by an awkward crab of a nineteen-year-old, but he’s being honest.
Taeyong hiccups a laugh so bright, Dongyoung should have felt anxious. Instead, he finds himself smiling, and then he actually does drop his mug because Taeyong has gone and moved into his space and kissed him.
They both jump at the clunky sound of the mug dropping, but it falls on Dongyoung’s foot, so it doesn’t shatter. He doesn’t even wince, stunned as he is.
“Kiss me back,” Taeyong says, breath warm on Dongyoung’s face as he leans in, and even as Dongyoung’s malfunctioning, he manages to do so.
Taeyong’s light breaks through into Dongyoung and swirls in his chest, warm and bright enough to make him feel bolder and bright in his own way.
He’s almost as good a kisser as he is a botanist, but they can work on both things together, Dongyoung thinks.