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A Cat Who Writes ([personal profile] acatwhowrites) wrote2017-04-15 01:09 pm

Country Manners, or Softer than a Summer's Night

title: Country Manners, or Softer than a Summer's Night
players: Kim Jongdae/Chen, Oh Sehun
rating: PG13
word count: 8,570w
warning/s: mentions of referenced homophobia
summary: Sehun doesn't think being sent to the rural Korean backcountry is going to change him in any way, but the boy he meets might.
a/n: Originally written for the peachenhun event. (Prompt #4 Sehun is the city kid dragged to a farm stay when he could be continuing to live the life in the city instead, partying with his friends. It suddenly becomes super exciting when he accidentally bumps into a shirtless Jongdae emerging from a swim in the valley.) I went for a looser interpretation of the prompt and wanted something more emotional than what I'd immediately thought of when I claimed it. It still didn't go where I'd intended, but I think I like it. It's definitely longer than I'd planned, which worked against me along with time. orz
Half of the title comes from Lou Reed's This Magic Moment.
Read on: AFF || AO3 || LJ

Sehun's summer-before-college plans are squashed and reorganised, courtesy of his mother. She presses a bus ticket into his hand--a physical, printed ticket; she didn't just email it to him--and wordlessly hovers as he packs a suitcase. He moves too slow, he supposes, because there's a thud as another suitcase is dropped on its side on his bedroom floor, and his mother starts emptying entire drawers.

He lets her, finding opportunity in her single-minded mission to make sure his computer, chargers, and other necessities are stowed beneath his pile of hoodies and jeans.

The next day, his mother kisses his cheek roughly and actually looks a little sad when he folds himself into the back seat of a cab. She waits outside their house until he can't see her out the back window, anymore, and he types a message in his friends' group chat.

I'm going to my aunt's for a while. I dunno when I'll be back.

There are a lot of questions, from the handful who are awake; he puts his phone on silent and waits out the remainder of the ride in silence. The cab driver must be the only one in the city who doesn't feel the need to talk their patrons' ears off, and Sehun's grateful. He doesn't feel like talking. His head feels stuffy, and there's a pounding in his temples that won't go away, no matter how much he pushes the heels of his palms against his head.

The bus station is a hive of activity. People coming and going and picking up and dropping off. He's a little lost at first; he never travels by bus outside the city, much less by himself. All he has to do is look up and follow the signs, though, and he checks in with plenty of time. He stacks his suitcases and props his legs on them to wait out the few minutes for his bus number to be announced.

It's enough time to let his mind wander, again, and he zones out while staring at his knees poking out from the rips in his jeans. How long is he expected to be gone? His mom gave him a one-way ticket. Does that mean she doesn't want him home anymore? She did kiss him before he left, but was it just a goodbye kiss or a goodbye kiss?

He should call her, but he'll wait. His mom takes a hot bath and glass of wine to calm down.

His bus pulls into the terminal, and a stream of passengers disembark. Sehun waits a bit, then drags his luggage along to hover nearby until it's time to board. The driver loads everything beneath the bus, and Sehun finds his seat near the front. He slouches a little to get comfortable, scrolling through his SNS feeds while he still has Wi-Fi.

A speaker spits and hisses a bit overhead, saying they're ready to go. The doors close with a click, and Sehun feels the hum of the engine as the bus pulls out. Sehun lets his head loll to his shoulder and stares out the window.

Nothing really seems to change once outside the city. Skyscrapers, convenience stores at every corner, and sidewalks full of people shrink to suburbs. Sehun loses interest in looking out the window about twenty minutes after leaving the bus station. He plugs earbuds into his phone, pulls up his hood, and dozes.

He switches buses a couple times. None of them get crowded enough for him to have to share his seat, and he's grateful for the space to spread out and stretch his legs.

With each bus, the skyscrapers wither to clustered suburbs and then the occasional small town or village with greater pockets of time between their neighbours. Grass grows taller and greener, bending with the breeze and dipping lower with a small bird that chirps at the fluffy clouds.

Foxes slink through the foliage, tracking rabbits and ground birds and frogs. Farmers' wooden fences lean with age and weather, but the cows and sheep are content to remain inside their paddocks.

Nearly four hours after leaving Seoul, the sun's high in the sky and Sehun checks the train times on his phone and pushes himself upright. An older woman across the aisle eyes him uneasily, only seeing a large, secluded city boy. She puts her arm around her son and looks straight ahead.

Before leaving, Sehun's mom gave him the address and phone number of his aunt. "Call her before you get in, so she can be there to pick you up. And be nice," she warned, "or you'll be walking the whole way." The train station is an hour's drive from his aunt's house, and if he didn't know cell reception is awful and the area is super remote, he'd not care so much and call a cab or something. But his aunt's a good woman; she'd pick him up, regardless.

The bus settles with a hydraulic hiss, and a handful of passengers stands up to gather their bags and jackets from the overhead racks. Sehun drapes his earbuds around his neck and shuffles behind everyone, ducking to avoid hitting his head on the racks. He thanks the driver with a bow as his suitcases are tugged from the underbelly of the bus and walks a short distance away to look around the station.

There's not much there. A small, squat building to buy tickets and check bus times and buy basic necessities. It's less than a convenience store, really. Between it and Sehun are a couple covered waiting areas. The parking lot is beyond the building and shows three cars. He sees a woman walking across the pavement; he walks to meet her partway.

"Sehun-ah!" His aunt looks a lot like she does in Sehun's memory--his mom's height, short hair pulled back in a ponytail, and neither thin nor curvy. There's more grey to her hair, though, and her face shows more lines. She opens her arms, and he tenses at the sudden hug. It's been years since he's seen her. "Welcome! You've grown so much! Oh my goodness... You were still smaller than your mom last I saw you. Must be eating well. Do you have your things? Come on, car's this way."

The car is an older truck, with rust starting to eat away the rims and paint flaking off around the edges of the hood, but it turns over right away and idles with a powerful purr. Sehun tosses his suitcases and backpack into the truck bed and climbs into the cab. He automatically reaches to his shoulder for a seatbelt, but the plastic loop is empty.

"No belts, dear. They were eaten through by some rats, and we haven't replaced them, yet. Just hold on; it'll be fine. We haven't had any heavy rains or anything."

Sehun nods and subtly holds onto his seat and door handle with his hands as his aunt peels out of the parking lot and navigates onto the main road that leads someplace between Nowhere and Fuck All.

The radio is busted, so there's only static silence between them and heavy road noise. It's been years since he's seen her, but he's sure his mom has talked about him, so there's an imbalance of knowledge that he doesn't know how to bridge. He's not sure he even wants to. If all goes to plan, he'll be on a bus home in a day or two, so he thinks about the choreography his dance group had started and taps the beat on his seat as he watches the supposedly urban scenery of gas stations and greasy restaurants make an easy transition to rural woods and hills.

"Sehun-ah, see that on the road?" Something long and dark is flattened to the gray pavement. "There are a lot of snakes around here--I don't know if you remember from when you visited last--so be careful when walking alone. Don't just wander with your head in the clouds."

They're quiet again, the only change coming from pulling of the main road onto something older and more pothole than pavement and finally dirt and gravel. His aunt drives up a makeshift driveway between trees so close their trunks nearly scrape the side of the truck.

Finally, after rattling along for a minute or two, the trees fall back to a bare dirt lot big enough for his aunt to drive in a loop and park in front of the large porch Sehun remembers helping to paint when he was little. Maybe his handprint is still on the side of the back steps.

The truck gears grind when shifted into park, and Sehun has never been so glad to get out of a car before. He feels like he's vibrating after riding over uneven road for so long and thinks he sees his hands shaking as he gets his luggage from the truck bed.

His aunt doesn't lock the truck or even take the keys from the ignition. She takes one of his suitcases and pushes open the front door. "The girls are at a birthday party, so you'll see them later tonight. Follow me, and I'll show you your room." It's the same room he shared with his mom when they used to visit. It was repainted at some point, but he can still see the crayon on the bottom of the wall opposite the window where he'd drawn some dancing dinosaurs. "Unpack, relax, feel free to wander around a bit--remember about the snakes, and don't just eat anything you find growing on the bushes. We eat about seven, so just be sure you're back by then, okay?"

"Yes. Thank you." She leaves with a final look around the room, probably assuring herself it's not too dusty and is suitable for a teenage boy, and he drops his backpack onto the bed. It squeaks; the frame is old. The floorboards are old. Everything is just old, and he doesn't remember the magic he saw in it as a little kid.

There are drawers and a closet for his things, but he leaves everything packed. Maybe he can convince his mom to pay his way back in a couple days, once she's cooled off.

With nothing better to do, he decides to go explore. He leaves his phone and wallet in his backpack, because it's not like he'll need them for anything, although he does grab his phone in case he sees something pretty and needs to photograph it for his blog.

Outside, a couple of cats are dozing in the sun but raise their heads to look at him through squinted eyes. He takes a picture of them, and they accept his extended fingers but make no effort to get up, happy to lie in the sun and be pet. Sehun sighs at the feel of soft fur and murmurs, "I hope Mom remembers to walk Vivi." He kind of wishes he'd brought his precious puppy along, but the little dog is even more of a city slicker than Sehun himself.

He follows the long driveway to the compacted dirt road and stands in the middle of it. Left and right look the same, hedges and wildflowers with bumbling bees and fluttering butterflies.

Sehun shoves his hands into his pockets and kicks at some rocks as he walks along the road. It's the only unpaved road he's ever seen; it's dusty and kind of red with dried clay and only a very occasional glass beer bottle or candy wrapper. Otherwise, it's pristene and actually very pretty.

For no reason, Sehun walks straight. It's forested and gets dark quickly. His phone has no cell service but lights the ground with its flashbulb. Tiny insects and lizards scuttle out of the way. Goosebumps rise along his arms and neck, as though he can feel their tiny feet on his skin. Even as a kid, he didn't like spiders and snakes like some of the other boys. He enjoyed being inside watching anime and playing video games.

Something sparkles to his left. The trees end abruptly, and the ground slopes down into a sort of valley with a pond. Sunlight hits the subtle waves made by the light breeze, throwing sparkles and shimmers like it's covered in sequins.

The hill slopes down at an easy angle. Sehun follows a worn path, probably from surrounding wildlife that relies on the pond for water and food, and is at the edge of the water within minutes. There's no beach, per se, no sandy or rocky area. The grass becomes reeds and cattails growing right in the water.

A splash makes Sehun jump. Rather than a giant fish or sea monster, there's a boy in the water. He shakes his head like a dog and whips his hair from his face before noticing Sehun; he raises an arm in greeting. "Hi!" It's too late for Sehun to leave without appearing rude, so he stands at the edge of the water and waits for the boy to swim to him.

Sehun has flashbacks to Ning Zetao hauling himself out of the Olympic swimming pool on TV, but as the kid stops swimming and gets his feet under him, Sehun's mind snaps to Honey Rider, the original Bond girl, walking out of the ocean. The sun's behind him, which just makes the effect that much more dramatic as the water droplets on his skin sparkle and glisten as rivulets down his neck and shoulders, but then something hits the grass at his feet and breaks his daydreaming trance.

A fish. This guy caught a fish with his bare hands. What kind of Crocodile Hunter lifestyle do country people really have? "You're the city boy Auntie's watching, right?"

"Yeah." There can't be many city boys around. "I'm Oh Sehun."

"Kim Jongdae. This," he says, holding the fish up by its gills, "is Dinner." It wriggles in his hand, tail flapping against his wrist. Sehun's never seen a dying fish before. It stares at him dully with lidless eyes and pupils so dark he feels himself zoning out again when Jongdae laughs.

"Wow, you're a big boy." He's just about eye-level with Sehun's nose and tilts his head back to look in his face.

"Thanks?" Sehun's tall. It's a fact. He doesn't think it's anything to comment about, but it seems like everyone he meets has to remark over his height or build. He can't help that he's so handsome and well-proportioned.

Jongdae squints at the sky, spotting the sun through gathering clouds. "There's still time."

Time for what? Sehun wonders.

"C'mon." Jongdae waves with his fish hand. Its wet body leaves a smear of slime where it touches his arm. "My house is just on the other side of the pond. Grandma wants to meet you."

"Did my aunt tell everyone I was coming, or something?" When he visited as a little kid, he'd play with the local kids, but he doesn't remember anyone specifically. He's pretty sure he'd remember someone like Jongdae.

"Nah. She probably told a friend, who told another friend or neighbour... News travels fast. You're the most exciting thing that's happened here in years."

"Oh." That's kind of sad, but he won't say it. How much excitement could the rural backwoods really get, anyway? Floods, maybe. Locusts eating the crops. Maybe someone bringing home a newborn baby. There's a sudden tightness in his chest, because what if they expect something from him and are disappointed? Or what if they find out why his mom bussed him out here and are creeped out? He's pretty athletic, but running from a pitchfork and torch-wielding mob sounds exhausting and more than a little terrifying.

"Don't look so stressed," Jongdae says. He's flung his shirt over a shoulder. There are little scabs from insect bites across his shoulders, as well as delicate brown moles and sun-kissed freckles. He's trim and attractive, and Sehun makes an effort to not stare at his butt as he follows Jongdae, but it's hard when he's looking down to watch for snakes and random holes in the ground. "Most everyone here is just curious to meet you and maybe hear about what's happening in the City." The way he says city implies capitalisation and importance and a hint of condescension. "Once they've retired here, they pretty much never leave. Here we are." He holds back a springy tree branch, and Sehun sees a modest house made of weathered, unpainted wood with an actual thatched roof. A porch hugs the front and sides, set with handmade chairs and tables. Stacks of cut wood flank the house, sheltered by the overhang of the roof.

Sehun steps into the clearing that makes up the front lawn, mouth hanging open. He's only seen buildings like this in photos. The aged wood making up most of the construction looks like a dangerous fire hazard. There probably isn't even plumbing or running water. Definitely no Wi-Fi or cable TV.

"Not what you're used to, huh?"

Sehun blushes pink. He doesn't mean to stare like it's a bad thing. "Sorry."

Jongdae's still smiling, like he understands exactly what Sehun's thinking. "It's not so bad once you're used to it. This was my grandma's grandma's house, so it's pretty old but in good shape, considering." He holds up the fish, which has stopped gasping and flapping. "Ever clean a fish before?"

His stomach rolls; he shakes his head.

"The stream goes around the back. I'll teach you a valueable life skill." Jongdae leads the way over a worn dirt path and grabs a knife from a sheath hanging on the outside wall and a metal brush from the floor. He leaves his shirt on the porch floor, laughing when Sehun comments how it'll get dirty.

The stream is narrow, shallow, and completely clear. Tiny fish seem to hover, suspended in time, but scatter when Jongdae holds his catch in the water flow.

"The key to this is to not be timid," Jongdae comments, looking over his shoulder at Sehun, who hovers a safe distance away. "Hold the head with one hand use this thingie," he brandishes the scaling tool, "to kind of rake the scales off, moving from the tail toward the head. Careful around the fins; I used to cut myself all the time." He's slow on the first side, demonstrating for his captive audience. The other side goes quicker, and he rinses it again in the stream. "Grandma leaves the skin on, otherwise you'd make a couple cuts and just pull it off before gutting it."

Sehun swallows thickly. Gutting it. He really hopes the poor thing is entirely dead.

Jongdae continues his cooking show commentary. "Stick the knife up its butt, basically, right near the tail, and cut toward the head of the fish." Bright red guts ooze from the cut. Blood seeps into the water and is swept away like smoke in the wind. "Stop at the base of the gills, open it up, grab its guts, and pull them out." Jongdae grins at Sehun. "Wanna try?" His hands glisten with watered down blood and bits of scales.

Something rolls in his stomach; Sehun shakes his head jerkily. "I'm good, thanks."

"You sure? It's really not that bad."

"I'm sure. Please continue. You're doing great."

Jongdae laughs but doesn't push him, making quick work of the rest of the fish. Soon, he has a gleaming, thick, white fillet of fish in his hand. "I'll grill this after we get Grandma. She's in her garden." He takes the fish inside and then waves for Sehun to follow him away from the house.

"You're not going to close the door?"

"No need to." Jongdae shrugs. "Bugs are in there no matter what, and I've covered the fish, so it'll be fine for a little bit. No one's going to, like, break in or something. That's just not a thing out here. In the country, you can pretty much do what you want. News travels fast, sure, but it's pretty easy to keep to yourself, and most people are working in the fields during the day, anyway. Best thing is when it's hot out,” Jongdae grabs his T-shirt from where he'd carelessly tossed it, “dress code doesn't count.” He shakes it out and slips it over his head. Sehun feels he can breathe a bit easier without so much tanned skin to distract him, but there's still a feeling of heaviness on his chest just being near Jongdae. His very personality has an almost physical presence that's impossible to ignore.

And if he feels so effected just in the first day of knowing him, he can't imagine what the future will be like. Maybe it'll be like building up immunity, so after a week or two he can breathe normally and not feel so self-conscious.

"Follow me." Jongdae tilts his head, and Sehun follows him wordlessly.

There's a sort of path, worn smooth by years of walking over it, that leads to a larger clearing of trees. The trunks and roots end and vibrant green and purple cabbage bursts from the earth in even rows. An elderly woman is bent at the waist, pulling weeds up and dropping them into the sling she's made of her apron.

"Grandma!" Jongdae steps over the leafy vegetables with practised ease, but Sehun watches his feet as he follows. "I have lunch at home. Come take a break."

"Eh?" The woman looks up, face immediately breaking into a warm smile. She straightens as much as she can, but her spine is bent with age and years of tending to her garden. "Oh, Jongdae. Is it that time already?"

"Yes. And we have a guest." Sehun bows and offers a wave. "This is Sehun, the kid Auntie's hosting." He carefully removes the apron from his grandma's shoulders and twists the ends around his hand to keep the weeds from escaping. His other arm steadies the old woman as they pick their way out of the cabbage patch.

Sehun ducks his head when she pats his cheek. Her face is heavily lined and as tanned as her grandson's, even wearing a wide-brimmed hat. "So handsome."

"Hello, Ms. Kim. It's nice to meet you."

"Such manners, too. Just call me Grandma. At my age, I've earned it." He follows them back to the house. Jongdae carefully helps her step onto the porch and onto a chair. He passes Sehun to unfurl the apron over a pile of other green, wilted weeds and dirts.

"I'll make some tea," he says, hopping onto the porch. Sehun sits on the porch and unties his shoes after debating if it's worth it or not. When he looks back at Jongdae, lighting a fire in a wood-burning stove, he notices the soles of Jongdae's feet are darkened with dirt and debris. He hadn't worn shoes at all.

The floor looks clean enough, for being so exposed, but Sehun tucks his socks into his shoes and sets them aside.

"Come sit, Sehun," Grandma Kim says, patting the chair beside hers. "How long are you planning to stay?"

"Um, I'm actually not sure. I'm just visiting a family friend. My mom asked me to." In a way, it's not a lie; it's more a different perspective on the truth.

She nods, smiling. "That's nice." Jongdae returns with mugs of tea. "Oh, thank you, dear." Sehun thanks him quietly. Jongdae kneels at his grandma's feet and gently lifts her feet to remove her sandals. Her feet look swollen and pink beneath the dusty dirt.

"I'm grilling the fish, now. It'll be ready in a few minutes."

"Have you ever had fresh fish, Sehun?"

"Yes, but not this fresh," Sehun admits.

Grandma tuts like he's been missing out. "You're in for a treat. Jongdae cooks the fish just right, and you don't need any sides or sauces or anything."

"Because I learned from you, Grandma." Jongdae grins and stands up on his knees to kiss her cheek.

When he returns to the kitchen, Sehun sits back in his seat and sips his tea. "Did you grow this?"

"My neighbours did. It's good, isn't it?"

"Yes." He's used to store-bought tea and bubble teas from cafes and street stands. This is unlike he's had at home.

"I'm glad. I've always believed in fresh ingredients being better for your body and soul."

They hear the crinkle of aluminum, and the smell of grilled fish wafts from the open door. Sehun's stomach growls.

Jongdae returns carrying a small table. The fish is unwrapped and golden, sizzling a little on its sheet of foil. He hands out chopsticks and sits cross-legged on the floor.

"You want a chair?" Sehun asks, leaning forward to stand. Jongdae shakes his head, perfectly content, and picks at the fish with his chopsticks.

"He's always sat on the floor, even as a small child," Grandma Kim explains, and Sehun relaxes. "We never knew why; we never asked. If he gets stepped on, then it's his own fault." Jongdae grins and doesn't respond when Sehun accidentally brushes his thigh with his foot.

Seasoned only with salt, the fish is delicious. It's large enough

Sehun bows. "It was nice to meet you."

"Likewise, Sehun. Please visit again. It's been so long since my Jongdae's had someone his age to play with."

Jongdae steps off the porch with a little hop. "Grandma likes you," he remarks. "She's a good judge of character; I think I got it from her." Sehun ducks his head, nervously licking his lips. He jumps when Jongdae ruffles his hair. "You're cute. Even if you do that, you don't seem any smaller." He waves to his grandma. She's staring up through the trees at the pockets of sky through the canopy.

The birds squawk at one another and fling themselves through the trees, seeking insects and fruit to eat. There are so many birds that aren't pigeons; it's weird.

Jongdae drops some filthy sandals to the ground and steps into them. "I'll walk you back. Can't have you getting lost on your first day."

"Thank you." Sehun doesn't watch his feet as much as he follows Jongdae, but Jongdae looks back every once in a while to be sure he's not lost him. He starts singing, something Sehun's never heard before, and it's too pleasant to even disturb the birds, that seem to provide backup vocals.

They break through the trees onto the unpaved road. "Here we are!" Jongdae announces. He points left. "Head that way, and you'll find your aunt's driveway on the right. It'd take me about three minutes to walk, but with your legs, I'd say a minute and a half."

"Thanks." He offers a small wave. "Be seeing you."

"Don't be a stranger! You know where we live." Jongdae beams brightly but doesn't waste any time in returning to the trees, disappearing within seconds. Sehun hears him singing again and slips his hands into his pockets.

It really does take less than three minutes to find his aunt's driveway. The truck is still parked in front of the house, and another car is parked behind it.

His cousins gleefully greet him at the door and herd him into the front sitting room, throwing questions at him about everything and feeling very deprived of outside influence, although they all attend schools in a nearby metropolitan town. His aunt finally tells her daughters to give him a break, because he's had a long day of travelling and exploring the area, and he gratefully excuses himself and climbs the stairs to his room.

After a shower, he feels more like himself and stares at his phone. Is it too early to call his mom? He'd emailed her, just to let her know he'd arrived, but there's no reply.

He decides to wait, but he feels like talking and opens his contacts to a familiar name. Setting it on speaker, he opens his door and only barely hears his cousins chattering downstairs.

Finally, the call connects. "Hi, Sehun."

"Hey, Baekhyun hyung."

"Where are you?"

"My mom gave me a one-way bus ticket to her friend's house. She's like my aunt but not."

"One-way?" Sehun hears the shuffle of bedsheets. Baekhyun must be sitting in bed. "You're joking."

"No... I'm not sure when I'm coming back... if at all, if this is her way of saying she doesn't want me anymore."

"That'd be really shitty, but I really think she loves your whiny ass too much to just cut you off like that."

"I hope so."

Baekhyun's silent for a bit, which is unusual. He eventually sighs so heavily the speaker crackles. "I'm sorry, Sehun."

"It's not your fault, hyung."

"Yeah, it is. It's because of me you're halfway across the country. I shouldn't've―"

"Hyung. If it really bothered me or whatever, I would've said something or pushed you away. It's not us. My mom's just..." Intolerant. Old-fashioned. Close-minded. "Surprised. She's not used to it is all and probably didn't expect it."

"Which is why she sent you away." He sounds sad. "She wouldn't even look at me when we passed each other in the store. She talked to my mom, but it's like I'm invisible. I'd apologise, if it'd help any, but there's nothing to apologise about!" Now he's upset. Sehun can imagine him slouching against the wall, sitting on the corner of his bed and chewing his fingers. "I mean― C'mon! All I did was kiss you. Not even, in the photo she supposedly saw!"

"It's not like we were dating, though. Maybe it's that."

"Okay, that's just prudish. People kiss people they're not dating all the time." He doesn't sound convinced.

"Maybe you're just too old for me. Or too short?"

Baekhyun snorts. The mood lifts a little. "I'm the best anyone could ever hope for, alright? And I'll have you know I am at a respectable average height for a man; you're the one too freaking tall. But hey. Tell me about where you are. You said it's your aunt's place?"

"Yeah. I haven't really seen her in years, but she's pretty much my mom's best friend." Sehun sighs and sits on the floor beside his bed, stretching his legs beneath it and arms over the blankets. "It's pretty, I guess? Really open, lots of grass, unpaved roads... I don't think I've ever seen so many cows before. It's not like going to the ocean."

"Everyone a bunch of elderly farmers, or is there someone cuter than me?"

"No one's cuter than you, hyung." Baakhyun coos at the compliment. "But there may be someone nearly as cute."

"No way!" he laughs. "Escaping one illicit gay affair for another. Sehun, you harlot."

"All I said was there was someone nearly as cute as you."

"Impossible. I'm a diamond in the rough." Sehun can practically hear him flip his hair. "So who is he?"

"Local kid. About your age, I guess?" He hadn't asked, but Jongdae had that air of maturity around him that Baekhyun actually doesn't, so perhaps he's even older.

"I see," Baekhyun hums. "Another older man. You have a type."

"Short, old, and noisy." Jongdae sings a lot. Baekhyun talks a lot.

"I said you have a type, not taste."

"Sehun!" his youngest cousin hollers up the stairs. "Time to eat!"

"Hear that? I gotta go. I'll try to call you again sometime, but reception here is pretty bad."

"Okay. Take care of yourself, Sehun. You'll be home soon."

"Yeah... bye, hyung."

"Bye bye."

Sehun's not sure if he feels better or worse after hanging up and leaving his phone on his pillow, but he puts on a neutral face to make his dinner appearance.

The days pass faster than Sehun expects them to. Every day, his cousins leave for school or cram school or summer jobs, and his aunt makes scheduled shopping trips for set things on whatever day. It's so regular Sehun learns the day by what fresh produce he finds in the refrigerator or what laundry is hanging outside.

He walks up and down the roads and naps in the grass--he's yet to see a live snake--and just meanders throughout the day, really. It's weird to walk and not have an actual destination at the end of the walk, but it's kind of nice, too. No destination, no expectations, just himself and the barely-landscaped fields. He passes some rice paddies, cabbage patches, wild fruit brushes and trees, but he can count the number of cars he sees on one hand.

He sees more of Jongdae than he does cars. The boy is always climbing a tree or swimming or napping on the grass, and sometimes he notices Sehun, sometimes he doesn't. Sehun's still not sure what he necessarily thinks of him, someone so bold and forward.

A few nights into his stay, he's still heard nothing from his mom and is moping after checking his phone for the nth time.

He's in bed and nearly asleep when something taps at his window. It's not uncommon for birds to poke around, he's found, trying to find food or mistaking their reflection for another bird, but that's more normal during the day, and this tapping is more rhythmic and dulled.

He rolls out of bed, turning on the bedside lamp. Pulling the curtains aside, he swallows a scream as a very human face peers at him and shoves the window open.

"Jongdae! What are you doing?" he hisses. He wants to be quiet, because he doesn't know what his aunt would say to boys climbing into his room in the middle of the night, but at the same time, he is very tempted to yell at Jongdae about the dangers of climbing to a third-story window. "How did you even get up here?"

"The tree." Jongdae reaches towards him with an arm. "Help me in."

Sehun lets him grab around his shoulders and helps him inside. "Did you want to see me that badly, or what?"

"I was catching lightning bugs. You're not out at night, and this is the only time to see them."

"You climbed a tree in the middle of the night to bring me bugs?"

"Lightning bugs, Sehun. Fireflies!" He points to the lamp. "Turn that off."

Sehun flips the lamp off and waits. The bluish moonlight barely illuminates his room and casts strange shadows. He hears the zipper of a backpack being opened, and a yellow-green glow warms the cool night.

Something like a dozen lightning bugs fly in lazy circles in a glass Mason jar in Jongdae's hand. Some land and crawl on the glass, rear ends flickering on and off like tiny lightbulbs.

"Pretty, right?" Jongdae asks. He sets the jar on the floor and sit on Sehun's bed. "They're not all that common in the city. They belong in forest and fields."

When Sehun had visited as a little kid, he'd play inside, sticking close to his mom, but run out once the sun set to chase lightning bugs.

Jongdae shifts to the floor and pulls the jar towards him. The small lights look like he's casting magic spells. "They don't live long, you know? Just from mating season to mating season as larvae and then long enough to mate and lay eggs as an adult--so maybe two years, total--but I like to catch them for a while. I used to think they were made of actual lightning," he admits, a bit sheepishly. "What a life, though. It's kind of sad." He unscrews the lid of the jar even as Sehun hisses a protest, Don't open it inside!

The bugs don't rush to leave, flying easily and dispersing around the room but obviously moving towards the open window. A couple rest on Jongdae's knuckles, signalling with their lights--perhaps in thanks, maybe cursing him out for keeping them in a jar--and then fly off into the night.

"See?" Jongdae says. "All gone. They won't hurt anything." He replaces the jar in his backpack and yawns widely, slumping with a smack of his lips. "You mind if I crash here for tonight? It's gonna rain, or I'd head out again."

"It's too late to really be going anywhere, isn't it?"

"Not if you know the way. Which I do. Seriously, do you mind? Just for a nap."

"No, it's fine. Do you want blankets and a pillow, or--" He cuts himself off. Jongdae's climbed onto his bed again and is sitting cross-legged beside the wall.

"We can share. I don't kick."

Sehun feels like he should argue, but he also feels that even if he did, he'd lose, so he gingerly sits on the edge of the mattress and tucks his legs beneath the thin blanket.

"Even if I don't kick, you're going to fall if you're so far away," Jongdae chides. Sehun sees him move in the dark, feels fingers under his waist, and he's dragged to the middle of the bed. "There." As if that solves everything. Now Sehun can feel more than just his hand. His feet are warm at his ankles, and he has no reservations about wrapping himself around Sehun's arm and cuddling him. "Do you actually fit on this bed?" He sits up suddenly. "Or do your feet hang off?"

Heat rises in his ears. "I burrow," Sehun mumbles. There's at head a head-long space between the top of his head and the headboard, but it's how he's always slept. Jongdae can sleep on the floor, if he's just going to tease him.

He doesn't, though, only laughing and saying something like That's adorable. Sehun removes his arm from the other boy's hold and scoots to roll onto his stomach. A flash outside breaks open the sky, and rain falls steadily. Thunder rolls far away.

Jongdae sits up for a little while, but he eventually settles down and once again claims Sehun's shoulder as a pillow. He's like a pushy cat, but they left the window open, so it's cooler inside, and Sehun doesn't mind the added warmth.

Between the first streak of lightning and the next, Sehun falls asleep. When he wakes up, it's morning, warm sunlight pooling on his exposed feet. He stretches, remembers his visitor, and sits up.

Jongdae's nowhere to be seen. Sehun's just about ready to believe he had dreamed the boy climbing into his room, but he never leaves windows open at night, and as he rubs his eyes, he sees dark lines on his forearm.

You sleep soundly. I couldn't find paper, but I wanted to thank you again for letting me sleep with you. I checked before I left, and there are no more lightning bugs in your room.

He couldn't find paper, but he found a pen just fine. Sehun licks the pad of his thumb and rubs at the ink. It smears but doesn't come off entirely. Even after scrubbing at it with soap and water, his arm is just pink and tinged enough to look bruised. Oh well, he thinks; it has to come off eventually.

He greets his aunt and sits at the kitchen island with a glass of milk.

"Morning, dear. I'll be doing laundry today, so toss down whatever you have. Are you hungry? I can make some eggs or something."

"I'm good. Thank you." His aunt is a lot like his mom. It's impossible to be around them and not immediately think This woman is a mother. Her first instinct is always about her children--which extends to Sehun--and her solution to just about everything is food if a hug doesn't help.

"What's on your arm?" She's frowning at the pink and black, Mom instincts on alert.

"I'd written a note to myself; it's not washed off, yet."

"Paper was invented for a reason, Sehun."

"Yeah, well..." He shrugs and chugs his milk so he doesn't have to say anything else.

"Will you be seeing Jongdae again today?" Sehun's surprised. He didn't know she knew he was hanging out with him. "I've seen you boys a couple times, and I buy cabbage from his grandma. He only moved down here a few years ago, but he's very dedicated to his grandma. He's a sweet boy."

He is, Sehun agrees. Kinda weird and pushy but sweet. "I dunno if I'll be seeing him today, why?"

"You just seem happier when you do." She pauses in her task to dry the dishes she'd just washed, towel ready and right hand poised to grab another wet glass. "I don't know why your mother sent you down here, honey, but if it helps being around someone your own age, talking or just hanging out, then I encourage it." She sighs. "That's what it's like with my girls, too. They don't seem to talk to me about much, anymore."

Sehun leaves his stool and rinses his glass, kissing the woman's cheek. "Thank you."

She smiles and hands him an apple. "You need to eat something. Take it for the road."

He tosses the apple into the air and catches it, stopping to pet the sunbathing cats on the dirt driveway. There's no destination in mind, but his feet take him through the trees again. There's a partly uprooted tree with carrot-orange roots that serves as a marker. If Sehun turns right and walks relatively straight, he'll be at Grandma Kim's house or her garden.

He hears singing and follows the sound to the little stream, then follows that to where Jongdae is crouching by the water and picking minnows from the stream. A filthy, tiny kitten crouches beside him, devouring the little fish with gusto. It notices Sehun first, licking its lips and sounding the alarm with a reedy meow.

Jongdae looks up, smiling immediately. "Hi."

"Hi. Who's this?"

"I found her under the porch. I think her mom and littermates are gone, so I'm just helping out until she can help herself." He runs his fingers lightly down her spine. Sehun can hear her purrs. She tucks her feet under herself and closes her eyes. "Oh, I think she's done." Jongdae picks up the last tiny fish, still flopping, and her ear merely twitches towards the sound. He releases it under the stream water and wipes his hand on his pants.

His stomach growls as he stands. "I fed the cat before myself; I'm starving."

"Apple?" Sehun holds out the fruit, and Jongdae visibly brightens.

"Thanks!" He takes two bites and hands it back. "We can share." Sehun's grateful he used the hand he wasn't fishing with, at least.

They sit on the porch and watch the kitten doze. Sehun wants to laugh; he would sit on the steps of his friends' apartment buildings, passing a cigarette back and forth and people-watching. Sharing an apple and cat-watching is like a bad parody of his life.

Jongdae bites through the rest of the skin, leaving only shiny white meat clinging to the core. He wipes an escaped bead of juice from his chin and offers the rest of the fruit to Sehun, who shakes his head. The kitten stretches her forelegs and walks towards them to curl up beside Jongdae's feet.

The core flies through the air to the pile of weeds when Jongdae chucks it and wipes his sticky fingers on his jeans. He leans back on his hands, and they sit in easy silence. It's not really silent, though; Sehun's gotten better at picking up the sounds from the trees and animals and running water. It's a subtle almost-silence, when they're not talking, unlike in the city, when even their silence is loud with cars and produce peddling and trains and construction and hundreds of advertisements on billboards and televisions.

Jongdae starts humming softly; the kitten leaps onto his lap and curls up again with a cat-like smile towards Sehun. He feels like he's being challenged, somehow.

"Where are you from?" he asks.

"Outside of Seoul, south of the Han River."

"Why did you come here?" Sehun offers his hand to the kitten. She sniffs him, ponders a little bit, then parks her chin on his fingers to be scratched.

"Things weren't going as well as I'd wanted, and someone needed to stay with Grandma." He lifts the kitten to Sehun's lap. She meows but pushes her feet into his thighs and settles again with a purr when Jongdae rubs her nose. "Why are you here, city boy?"

Sehun shrugs.

"Can I kiss you?" Jongdae's looking at his eyes, not his mouth, gauging a reaction or just forward. Sehun doesn't mind either way and shrugs again.


Jongdae grins. It's a dry kiss, but he chases Sehun's lips for a single chaste peck that has heat flooding Sehun's ears. "You're adorable." He licks his lips. "I don't suppose that's why you're here?"

It was a trap. Sehun still doesn't mind. "Kinda... My mom saw a photo of one of my friends kissing me on the couch at this party I shouldn't have been at."

"Scandalous. She didn't like that, huh?" Sehun shakes his head. "Awfully narrow-minded of her. So why send you out here?"

"The lady I'm staying with--not my aunt by blood, but whatever--has four daughters, so I guess the hope is I'll be influenced or something? I dunno. The girls and I all agree that it'd be super weird and gross, because we grew up as cousins, almost siblings, before they moved out here for their dad's work." He shrugs and slouches a little. "It's not like I chose to like guys."

"You could choose not to."

Sehun shrugs again.

"That'd be dishonest, though, and unfair. You'd probably never be happy. That's no way to live." Jongdae leans into him again, and Sehun closes his eyes, but Jongdae just kisses his cheek with a smile. “Let's go swimming.”

"What?" Sehun sits back, and the kitten gives him a dirty look for jostling her.

"You haven't been swimming at all since you got here, so let's go!"

“I don't have a suit.”

“So? Neither do I.” Jongdae gently removes the kitten from Sehun's thighs and takes his hands to pull him to his feet. He slots their fingers together, and Sehun can't talk his way out of it, so he follows Jongdae through the trees to the valley where they first met.

“I don't think that's a good idea. If my aunt finds out...” Clouds are still moving from last night's storm, but they're white and harmless looking.

“C'mon, city boy. Don't be scared." He grins and swings their arms. "If anyone sees, I'll take responsibility.” Sehun blames the heat in his face on the sun. “Everyone around here knows my way with animals.”

“I'm not an animal.”

“I bet you could be,” Jongdae grins. He pulls his shirt over his head and then shucks off his shorts and underwear in one go. With a whoop of laughter, he runs to the water's edge and cannonballs into its depths.

Sehun's more reserved about stripping in public, but a little voice in his head tells him that this public is very different from the public at home. So what if a deer or squirrel sees his bare ass?

He doesn't barrel into the water like Jongdae, easing into the cool water. He gleefully swims up behind Jongdae and pushes him underwater. Jongdae makes like a raccoon and tries to climb onto Sehun; it eventually turns into a splash battle. Their laughter fills the valley, bouncing off the water and clouds the entire morning and through the afternoon.

Once exhausted and barely able to tread water, they dog-paddle to shore. The sun is starting its descent; they use their shirts to dry off and throw them onto the grass to dry before pulling on their underwear and shorts. Sehun doesn't know about Jongdae, but he peeks at least once and feels his mouth go a little dry at the glimpse of smooth, sun-kissed thighs and butt. No tanlines.

Jongdae drops onto the grass with a satisfied sigh and stretches his arms over his head. A dragonfly tickles his bare belly as it alights briefly, shifting to a finger when it's offered as a perch.

Again, Sehun's struck with how weird Jongdae is. He's very nice, open, and forward, but there's a kindness that's always just behind his playful smile and the mischievous shine to his eyes. He takes care of his grandma, feeds stray kittens, catches lightning bugs, and sings with wild birds.

"Hey." He pokes Jongdae's arm. The dragonfly flies away, and Jongdae looks at him, eyebrows tilted. "How long have you lived here?"

"A few years. I don't really keep count."

"Do you like it?"

"I love it." Sehun wrings out his shirt and pulls it on. It gets cool at night. Goosebumps rise along his arms and legs as a breeze whispers over him from the north. "What do you really wanna ask? Why I kissed you?" Sehun shrugs, nods, stares at a line of ants marching between his heels. "You said I could."

"But you asked, first. Why even ask?"

Jongdae sits up on his elbows. "I wanted to know what you wanted." His eyes are still bright in the sleepy sunset. "When your friend kissed you at that party, did he ask?"

Sehun thinks back. It was supposedly a graduation party, celebrating the end of high school, but he hadn't known most of the other people and only knew some classmates by name and not much else. There was booze, and when Baekhyun said something about sitting down, Sehun could smell the tang of beer on his breath. They hadn't talked; he laid down when Baekhyun nudged him and just closed his eyes.

"No, he didn't. It's not like he forced me or anything!" He holds his hands up, palms forward, to stop whatever assuming thoughts that might pass through Jongdae's mind, but his expression doesn't change from calm thoughtfulness. "I didn't mind."

"But did you want it?" He talks over Sehun's mumbling. "Not minding something and actually wanting something are different. I think that's what you need to learn." He's not usually so serious; he doesn't like being so serious. Something about Sehun brings it out in him, though. He's not a child anymore, not quite an adult; Sehun's that in-between emotional transition that too many people don't recognise in others.

"You should get home; I'll walk with you." Jongdae's shirt is dry, and he pulls it on after flicking a couple bugs off the neckline. "No one can say I keep you out past curfew, then."

"I don't mind," Sehun says. He smiles when Jongdae looks at him. "I want to see the lightning bugs." He takes Jongdae's hand when it's offered and lets himself be pulled to his feet. He laces their fingers together.

Jongdae returns his smile. "I know just the place."

Sehun thinks he gets it. Most of his life, he's lived pretty passively. Whatever happened, happened, and whatever. It's his life, though, and he should be able to do what he wants because he wants to. He'll find the strongest signal at his aunt's house and call his mom. He wants to talk to her; he wants her to understand, and he wants to understand her, but it can't happen if he doesn't say something.

For now, he wants to follow Jongdae to where the lightning bugs are brightest.

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