The thing about getting the house was that it was a house for Tae Joo, not really a house for Tae Joo and Guk. It wasn’t that Guk had expected to be taken into consideration, but because he hadn’t been, it didn’t seem like anybody realized that his sleeping options were ... limited.
“What are you talking about,” Tae Joo had said, looking at him with an expression of befuddlement. He tilted his head to the side, as if looking at Guk from a different angle would show him what was underneath the words. “You’ve always slept with me.”
Guk had sighed, and said nothing, and now here he was, laying beside Tae Joo in the dark as he had done for the past twelve years. But it felt different, here. In the house that was only theirs. He didn’t know how to explain it except to say that every night for all twelve years had felt like a sleepover, and this did not.
It didn’t feel like him sleeping over at Tae Joo’s house, it felt like him sleeping in his own. His own bed, which was Tae Joo’s bed, too. Their bed, together.
Guk had long known this was not the kind of thought he could have out loud, so he lay still and let Tae Joo curl up against him like he always did. He was tracing doodles on Guk’s bicep, bored. He did this sometimes when he couldn’t sleep. It kept Guk awake, veins thrumming, but he never complained. He didn’t ... not like it. He just. Well, it kept him up, was all.
“Guk-ah,” Tae Joo whispered. “I can’t sleep.”
“Close your eyes,” Guk instructed, keeping his voice low. “Count to a thousand.”
Tae Joo poked him petulantly. “You always say that. It never works.”
“You’ve never tried it properly. It might work.”
He sighed, giving in and rolling onto his side, slipping an arm under Tae Joo’s neck and drawing him in. He drew patterns on Tae Joo’s back. Tae Joo nestled his face in Guk’s neck, nosing along the edge. He pressed in close, moving up to Guk’s jaw, then backwards and up, toward his ears. Guk paused his hands, and Tae Joo craned his neck up, and up, until his mouth clamped down gentle on Guk’s earlobe.
Guk froze. His body felt like it had gone up in flames.
“Tae Joo,” Guk managed warningly after a moment, jerking his head away, but just a little. He couldn’t make his neck obey him. It didn’t want to move. It didn’t want Tae Joo’s mouth to go away.
The breath Tae Joo huffed against him curled up behind Guk’s earlobe and stayed there in the shape of a soft tingle. “You’re so sensitive,” Tae Joo complained. He shifted again, legs twining with Guk’s, and this time Guk could feel that he was —
Panic settled in his stomach. “Guk-ah,” Tae Joo murmured, “we’re going to be happy in our house, aren’t we?”
He nuzzled in again, and Guk knew what he was asking for, even though he’d never asked it. He wasn’t sure if Tae Joo knew what he was asking for, wasn’t sure if Tae Joo even realized that they were both — that if the Chairman were to see them —
This was the problem with Tae Joo. He did what he wanted, and he didn’t think about it.
All Guk could do was think about it.
He disentangled himself, rolling out of bed. Tae Joo lay, rumped and annoyed, in the space Guk had left. He shifted again, seeming to only now notice that he was ... compromised, Guk’s mind supplied.
“It’s hot,” Guk said. “That’s why we can’t sleep. I’ll shower.”
He went into the bathroom without waiting for an answer and turned the water on, dipping his head into the water and then pulling the footstool over to the door. He sat down on it, dropping his head into his hands. It stayed open a crack, because it had to, because Guk could not take his eyes off Tae Joo, not even when he wanted to. This was how they had always done things, when things needed to be done and neither of them had any of their own space. Guk would said It’s hot. I’ll shower, and by the time he came back, they’d be okay again. He tried not to listen, tried not to look, just sat and let the shower run and closed his eyes and counted slowly to one thousand.
By the time he re-entered the room, Tae Joo was asleep.
“My friend comes too,” Tae Joo said, and Guk thought but did not say I don’t want to. They were at a bar they shouldn’t have been at, in a neighborhood that Tae Joo at least had no business in, but he’d wanted to go somewhere “real people went.”
“Rich people are real people,” Guk had told him tiredly, even though his evidence for this was slim. Tae Joo was real, but was Tae Joo a rich person, or just the son of one? It was hard to say. Sometimes Tae Joo just felt like an extension of Guk himself.
Tae Joo had waved this off dismissively. “But they’re boring. Let’s go to where you’re from.”
I’m from where you’re from, Guk had not said, because he’d been taken in by the Chairman when he was only three. He didn’t know why Tae Joo thought he’d be any more knowledgeable about neighborhoods like this than he was, just because it was technically where he was born. He assumed. He didn’t really know that either. His dad had worked as the Chairman’s bodyguard, and he had died, and the Chairman had let Guk stay to become what he was now. That was Guk’s whole life. There hadn’t been a lot of time for exploring his — whatever passed for a heritage.
Anyway, now here they were. In a bar they were too young for, being flirted with by women they were too inexperienced to impress. But Tae Joo had something to him, a certain glow of spirit, and he was making them laugh. One of them would go home with him, probably.
Guk would go too, because that was their home, and even if he wasn’t Tae Joo’s bodyguard, where else would he go?
“It’s a bad idea,” he told Tae Joo, knowing it was pointless.
Tae Joo grinned. “Yes,” he agreed, “It’s terrible. Isn’t that the fun of it?”
“For you, maybe,” Guk muttered, but nevertheless stopped arguing.
The women looked both of them over critically. “Are you — ?” one of them asked, and raised her eyebrows a few times, gesturing between them. “That’s cute.”
Guk felt himself flush and stared hard at the floor. “It’s not like that,” he mumbled.
“It’s exactly like that,” said Tae Joo cheerfully, seizing on this excuse rather than admitting that Guk was his bodyguard. He was smart enough not to tell people here that, at least. He tossed a careless arm around Guk’s shoulders and reeled him in, planting a big kiss on his cheek that made him want to — to — he didn’t know what. Die, maybe. “My little Guk-ah. Gukkie. My handsome boy.”
“Stop,” Guk scolded, pulling away. He wiped at his cheek. Tae Joo made an offended face, and the two women laughed, sharing a glance with each other.
“Well, all right,” one of them said eventually. “He can come. He’s cute.”
Tae Joo frowned. “But not as cute as me,” he clarified. “People always say I’m cuter.”
The women laughed again, and the one closer to Tae Joo reached out to pat his cheek. “No one is as cute as you,” she promised, and then took Tae Joo’s wrist and led him out. Guk followed, hands shoved into his hoodie. He climbed into the front passenger seat.
The woman not holding Tae Joo in the backseat turned to look at him. “Where am I taking you?” she asked. She glanced over her shoulder with a wry grin, then leaned in conspiratorially. “I think it will be a drop-off. I don’t think our friends are going to wait to get home.”
Guk’s eyes flicked to the rearview mirror. Tae Joo was getting kissed. One hand was tangled in her hair, and the other tugging at her waist until she climbed into his lap.
The woman laughed at him. It didn’t sound unkind. “Poor thing,” she said. “Give me the address and you can have him all to yourself once we get there.”
In the backseat, Tae Joo made a sound that was going to haunt Guk for the rest of his fucking life. He did not want to know that sound. He was old enough now to know why it made his ears flush, why it made his palms sweat. He was old enough now to know why his eyes kept flicking up to the rearview mirror, why he wanted to climb over the armrest and into the backseat with them, and why he couldn’t.
He gave the woman their address.
Guk didn’t really drink. In part because one of them had to stay sober and it certainly wasn’t going to be Tae Joo, but in part because he didn’t trust himself not to say or do something that he couldn’t take back. Something ungentle.
Or, worse, something too gentle.
But he had a beer, because they were at a party, and that’s what you did at parties. He always tried to make it look in public like he and Tae Joo were just normal friends. It would be easier, probably, to tell people he was the bodyguard; maybe then they’d let him sit in peace. But Tae Joo didn’t like people knowing, so Guk accepted drinks from their classmates and said, “Yeah, yeah,” when they teased him about how hard it must be to be best friends with a guy like Tae Joo.
“How many is that for you, Guk-ahhhhh?” Tae Joo asked, tumbling down onto the floor beside Guk and settling with his head in Guk’s lap. He was drunk, but not so drunk that Guk needed to drag him home. He wished he were; Guk wanted to go home. The room was getting a little fuzzy. He could feel himself getting too comfortable, and that was always a mistake. “Are you drunk yet?”
Beside him, a senior Guk had never spoken to before laughed, “Your man Guk is a boring drunk. He just gets even quieter than usual. I didn’t think it was possible.”
“He just doesn’t like talking to you,” Tae Joo said impudently, taking Guk’s hand. Guk shook him off. He didn’t push Tae Joo off his lap because he didn’t want to. “He only likes talking to me.”
Guk sighed, making a show of rolling his eyes so that everyone could know that Tae Joo was being stupid and drunk. “I don’t like talking to anybody,” he said. “I don’t even know you.”
“You know me,” Tae Joo told him simply, and then rolled off, getting to his feet and disappearing back into the house. Guk watched him go, gave it a few minutes, then excused himself and followed.
The party was big, its rooms packed. Guk was drunk enough not to mind, exactly, but he didn’t like not knowing where Tae Joo was, especially when he’d been drinking. Tae Joo was an idiot sober; Tae Joo drunk was a menace.
He turned a corner, and found him.
Tae Joo was pressed against the wall, a figure towering over him. The senior. How had he gotten to Tae Joo first? Hadn’t Guk left him behind? But here he was, one arm on the wall beside Tae Joo’s ear, head bent. Their mouths were — they were kissing, Guk realized. Tae Joo had his hand on the senior’s stomach, flat against his belly-button. Sometimes when they wrestled, Tae Joo ... touched Guk, like that. Palm pressed to his abdomen. Sometimes his hands shook when he did.
Oh, Guk thought.
The senior brought his free hand up and around Tae Joo’s waist, dragging him in close. Tae Joo laughed. He wound a hand up over the senior’s shoulders and grasped his fingers tightly in his hair, pulling his head down and to the side so he could attach his lips to the place where the senior’s neck met his shoulders.
Guk heard himself make a sound. Tae Joo’s eyes flicked up. They met Guk’s, widening for a moment, then wrinkling into a smile. He did not stop sucking, but nor did he look away, shifting his leg between the senior’s, moving against him.
Guk felt — frozen. He wanted to move. He wanted to look away.
This was different, he thought. Different from the girls, from the woman at that bar, different from every time he’s seen Tae Joo’s mouth get bruised.
He’d thought Tae Joo hadn’t known about this part of himself. He’d thought it hadn’t been a big enough part for him to pay any attention to, not the way Guk did. He was casual and needy and physically affectionate because he didn’t care about it. He didn’t spend hours and hours and hours overturning everything in his mind, reminding himself that he couldn’t. That getting what he wanted would ruin everything.
But then, when had Tae Joo ever not taken exactly what he wanted? When had he ever spared even one thought for consequences?
Without conscious decision, Guk felt himself moving, watched his own hands reach out to yank the senior off. Watched himself grab Tae Joo by the wrist and drag him out into the cool night air, where the driver had been waiting all night.
“Kang Guk!” Tae Joo protested. “What’s wrong with you? I was having fun.”
If I can’t have it, you can’t have it, he thought viciously, hating himself for it. Of course Tae Joo could have it. Of course Guk couldn’t stop him. This was why he didn’t drink.
He shoved Tae Joo into the car and climbed in after him, glaring out the window. Too angry to look at him.
No, not angry. Angry wasn’t the right word. Guk didn’t know the right word.
“There were people,” he grit out, when Tae Joo whined at him again. “They might have seen.”
Tae Joo snorted. “So?”
“You’ll thank me when you’re sober,” Guk muttered at him, shoving his shaky hands into his pockets. He didn’t want to talk about this in front of the driver, who he knew reported all their goings-on to the Chairman.
“But I wanted — ”
“You can’t always get what you want,” Guk snapped finally, and his voice was so rough that Tae Joo’s mouth snapped shut with a clicking sound. When Guk finally turned to look at him, his eyes were wide, staring at Guk with an expression Guk didn’t like. He was too drunk to be insightful about this, Guk decided. He just hated being scolded.
Tae Joo slumped forward until his head was resting on Guk’s shoulder. “Don’t be mad at me, Guk-ah,” he murmured, and nuzzled against him.
He knew the driver was paying attention, but Guk lifted a hand to Tae Joo’s hair anyway. He threaded his fingers through it. Too gentle, he thought, but didn’t stop.
“I’m not mad,” he promised, too honest but not able to stem the words. “I’m doing my job. But if you — if you keep doing that. I might not be able to.”
I can protect you from everything but me, Guk thought, but as with most things, he didn’t say it.
4. angry kiss
Guk stood at the window and didn’t look away. He wasn’t allowed to, not even when that feeling came, the one that clawed up from his stomach into his throat, the one that yelled at him that they were in pain and he could make it better if only he’d step back.
The gift that Tae Joo had given both girls was on the grass beside them, forgotten as they stumbled back against the building. He hadn’t even picked them out; he’d had one of the housekeepers do it. They’d been nothing to him, those gifts, those girls.
For Guk’s own birthday, Tae Joo had given him a watch. He’d felt happy about it until he remembered that they were always together, and they had not gone to buy it. Tae Joo must have done the same for Guk as he did for the girls he flirted with. Pick him out something nice, he probably said. I don’t care what, just make it expensive.
And that was — in the courtyard, Tae Joo was unbuttoning her shirt, running his hands through her hair, murmuring something that Guk could not make out — that was a form of love, Guk supposed. But it wasn’t the form he wanted.
Of course, the form he wanted was also not the form he wanted. He knew how Tae Joo loved, when love came alongside desire, and Guk didn’t want to ... to be another name on a list somewhere in Tae Joo’s head. They were as close as they could get.
Tae Joo would go as far with her as she would let him, and then he would come inside and ask Guk to make him a snack and play video games with him on the floor, would joke with him, laugh at him, let himself be gently teased; he would climb into their bed in their house and demand to be held and Guk would do it, even though he — even though —
The girl let Tae Joo lower her onto the grass. Guk took off his birthday watch and set it on the windowsill.
“Am I a pervert?” Tae Joo asked, smiling a very little. “To kiss someone whose lips are bleeding?”
Guk relaxed his grip, setting Tae Joo back down onto the pillow. If it hadn’t been for the all-encompassing ache of being alive, he would have laughed. Instead he looked at Tae Joo’s face and didn’t look away. Didn’t want to.
For so many years he’d thought he was not allowed to stop looking, but the pain of that was nothing compared to the pain of not being able to see.
“I’ll be able to see you again, right?” he asked, over the lump in his throat. It hurt to swallow. It hurt to do almost everything except lay there.
He expected Tae Joo to make a joke, but there was no laughter in his voice when he said: “Look for another delicious rice cake place. I’ll come back.”
Guk shook his head. He had been right, of course: they had talked about it, and now it was the end of their forever. But still, he was glad. Glad to know that Tae Joo loved him. Glad to have said it himself.
After all, could he have stayed and watched Tae Joo marry someone else? Could he have been bodyguard to Tae Joo’s heirs that weren’t also his own?
Could there be such thing as forever in a world where time was so relentless?
“You shouldn’t,” he said quietly. It would be better for Tae Joo overseas, where his father was not so close, where Guk was not so close. “You and I have different paths to walk. Just enjoy your time over there — ”
“My dream is to live happily,” Tae Joo interrupted. His eyes were soft, and serious, and unblinking. “But I’m the happiest when I’m together with you. So I’ll come back.”
The thing in Guk’s throat unravelled like a ribbon, down into his stomach where it sat in a knot. He was going to cry, probably. There were so many things he wanted to say, and none of them were enough, none of them could hold all of the feeling Guk wanted to put into them. He’d never been good at talking. He’d gotten too used to saying nothing.
Tae Joo waited. He brought a hand up to brush Guk’s bangs aside. Guk thought I love you, thought don’t leave me, thought let’s run away, thought you are my home, thought I can protect you from everything but me, thought oh, thought oh, thought oh, said, “It’s hot. I’ll shower.”
Tae Joo blinked, looking startled, but before he could say anything Guk curled the arm under his neck and drew him in again. He did not try to kiss him, but instead used his other hand to undo the button on Tae Joo’s stupid khaki pants, tracing the line of his boxers. Tae Joo inhaled sharply.
“Guk-ah,” he murmured.
Guk shook his head. “Let me,” he begged, because he couldn’t say it, because it would break him to say it only now, at the end.
Tae Joo studied him for a moment, then pushed his hand away. “I won’t give you closure,” he said, and curled in against Guk like he had so many times before, pulling him in with a hand around his waist and closing his eyes. “No. You can’t have it. Because then you — because you can’t.”
“Tae Joo,” Guk heard himself say, in a voice he’d never heard from himself before, almost petulant.
“No. I’ll come back. Ask me then,” Tae Joo said again, and turned out the light.
+1. this too is love
Tae Joo did not tease Guk for his small apartment, or the fact that he’d clearly rented it furnished because he had nothing of his own to bring, or the single bed which did not yet have any sheets on it. Tae Joo had bought his airfare at the airport, for a flight three hours after Guk’s but which had a stopover. Guk had landed in Tokyo and gone right to the apartment and then sat, perfectly still, waiting.
The Tae Joo who had left three years ago would have spent half an hour poking around and finding out everything he thought Guk might have been hiding, but this Tae Joo walked inside and dropped his backpack and simply said, “Come here.”
Guk did. Tae Joo pulled him in by his jacket lapels and kissed him, hard. There was none of the gentleness from the park; Tae Joo kissed him like he was trying to make his mouth bruise. Kissed him like they were having a bout.
Guk gentled him, reaching up to unhook Tae Joo’s grip on his jacket and instead linking the fingers on both their hands. He walked them back slowly, kissing Tae Joo the whole time, until the backs of his knees hit the bed and they went down together. Still Guk stayed gentle, kissing his cheek, then his brow. Tae Joo pulled back with a furrowed brow.
“What, tired? My flight was longer,” he teased, but nervously, like he thought Guk didn’t — like it was possible that Guk would ever not want him.
Guk leaned down, keeping Tae Joo trapped between his legs. “You always said you had to teach me dating,” he said. “But I think it was me who taught you. I think I gave you the wrong lesson.”
Tae Joo frowned. Guk could see the argument building in his mind, the mouthy comeback pushing against his lips. Guk kissed them to swallow it.
“The angry kiss,” Guk reminded him. “That’s how I taught you love. On the gym floor. But that’s not all it is.” He let go of Tae Joo’s hand and bright his own to Tae Joo’s cheek, stroking it softly with his thumb. Returning again and again to the place where Pil Hyun had hit him, all those years ago. Guk hadn’t known then, either. What love could be, if it didn’t hurt.
“This, too, is love,” he murmured. “Tae Joo. This too.”
Tae Joo froze, and Guk waited. He had waited so long already, and would keep waiting as long as he had to. Guk could be a patient teacher.
“But,” he said, swallowing: “you said that was the only place ... that you could tell me the truth.”
Guk smiled, leaning down to nudge his nose against Tae Joo’s, softly, softly. They could fight later. He knew there would be many days where love was like fighting on the gym floor. He didn’t think that kind of love was bad. He only thought that it was not the whole of how Guk could love him, now. That it was not even the whole of how Guk had loved him before.
“It was the only place that I could tell you certain parts of the truth,” he agreed, and pressed his lips to Tae Joo’s cheek, his jaw, his neck. He smiled against his collarbone as Tae Joo gave him a sharp inhale. As Tae Joo’s hands tightened and then relaxed against Guk’s biceps. Guk kept his mouth pressed lightly to Tae Joo’s skin as he said: “But I did tell you the rest. You just didn’t notice.”
Tae Joo’s frown was almost a pout when Guk lifted his head lightly to look at him. “No,” he argued, half at Guk’s words and half, he thought, at the distance between him and Guk’s mouth. He would always argue, Guk knew. Tae Joo didn’t know how to lose with grace. “I would have remembered.”
Guk said, “I told you with chocolate milk. I told you with statuettes. I told you with shampoo. I told you with hugs. I told you and told you.”
Tae Joo breathed in, long and slow. He brought a shaky hand up to Guk’s mouth, touching the corner where his father’s men had once made Guk bleed.
“That too was love,” Tae Joo echoed, voice soft, marveling. “Will you show me, Guk-ah?”
Guk remembered: I’ll come back. Ask me then.
“Will you let me, this time?” Guk asked him, and turned his head to capture two of Tae Joo’s fingers in his mouth. Tae Joo’s hand tightened around his chin, firm but not painful. Guk pushed his tongue between them and captured the ring finger in his teeth, giving it a gentle shake until Tae Joo’s smile broke open.
“Yes,” Tae Joo said, and lay back against the pillow. Tae Joo is always above me, Guk remembered thinking, but that wasn’t it now, was it? Not here in this moment and not anymore, because here Tae Joo was, having given up — everything. Everything except for Guk. Everything except for this thing between them.
Guk leaned down again and kissed him, hand resting on his cheek. He kissed his mouth, then his chin, then his collarbone, then his chest, unbuttoning his shirt as he went. He kissed him and kissed him, kissed all the spots that he had once hit, all the weak points, the flesh of his hip, the inside of his wrist. He pressed his mouth to Tae Joo’s nipple and smiled against the gasp he was given in return, ran a hand up his chest and down to where Tae Joo’s watch was cold against his hand.
He pulled back to take it off and paused. “Is — this mine?” he asked, confused.
Tae Joo, eyes hazy, blinked down at his own wrist. “No,” he said. “It’s mine. It was ... in England, it was like. A token. Anyway, you didn’t like it so I took it back.”
“I liked it,” Guk said.
“You took it off. I spent a long time trying to find one you’d like, that wouldn’t break if it got hit and then you just left it on the window.”
Guk remembered. The girl in courtyard, the gift in the grass. “You — did?” he asked. “I thought ... I thought maybe you just told someone to get me something nice. Like you did for everyone else.”
Tae Joo frowned, looking miffed. “You’re not everyone else,” he muttered, and Guk had to kiss him again, couldn’t stand to hear these things from Tae Joo’s mouth, not all at once. It was too sweet, made him feel too much. He had to parcel them out.
He left the watch on, kissing its face once, and then going back to Tae Joo’s pants, unbuttoning and tugging them down just far enough that he could lift Tae Joo’s dick free. Tae Joo made a sound and Guk smiled, giving him a gentle stroke, soft, as soft as he could be. This too, he thought, kissing first the head, then the shaft, then taking the whole thing in his mouth. He looked up to watch Tae Joo looking at him, above and below at the same time.
“You’re not allowed to take your eyes off me,” he said, pulling off. Tae Joo reached down to trace the outline of his cheek, nodding. “Even when you want to close your eyes. You can’t.”
“I like you,” Tae Joo murmured, and Guk felt something arise up within him, something he couldn’t name, drawing up to kiss Tae Joo’s mouth again. Tae Joo kept his eyes opened, as promised, even as his hands went to Guk’s pants, even as he got them around Guk’s dick, even as both of them stroked in time with one another, he pressed his forehead to Guk’s and kept his eyes open, looking at him, looking at him, said, “Guk-ah. All those times.”
His voice caught, and he swallowed.
“In — in bed and in the taxi and, and, that time at the party — ah, I — I always wanted it to be — ”
“I know,” Guk interrupted, and bit down gently on Tae Joo’s ear. “I knew.” Tae Joo shivered beneath him, hand stuttering before finding its rhythm again. They could — do more, Guk thought, would do more, but for now, he wanted to be like this, as close as this, as close as they had been the day that Tae Joo said no, I won’t give you closure. He wanted closure now, because that part was over, the sad part, the hard part, the part where neither of them was sure.
That part was over and now they were here, and Guk wanted to send those boys off gently, wanted their story to end with the type of kindness that had rarely been afforded to them.
“Kang Guk,” Tae Joo murmured.
Three years without him, but a whole future ahead: Guk ducked his head and sucked a kiss onto Tae Joo’s neck, firm enough to redden, firm enough to be visible. That’s how they would start, he thought, as Tae Joo’s hands sped up, as his own matched tempo.
“Together,” he said, a command and a memory and a promise, and Tae Joo smiled, his free hand coming up to stroke Guk’s ear, and that was all it took. Tae Joo followed, rolling inward until his mouth captured Guk’s again, not quite a kiss, just breathing the same air, wet and warm between them.
His eyes were open. He did not look away.
I love you, Guk thought and then, remembering that he could, pressed a kiss to Tae Joo’s brow and said it out loud.