It was two weeks later when they finished the school, and a few days after that when they held the open house. Chanyeol had invited Ji Hyo, Baekhyun, and Kyungsoo to attend. Ji Hyo had declined as Baekhyun was sick at the time, having a terrible cold. The child was insanely whiney while ill, and Ji Hyo looked about ready to collapse from exhaustion. Yet even when Kyungsoo volunteered to watch his nephew so she could attend, Ji Hyo wouldn’t hear of it.
“I think it is better if you go,” she replied.
Chanyeol had been at the school all day, working with Jongdae to ensure that everything was set for the grand opening. They had help of course, Ji Won the village head dropping in with a few others to help set up the classrooms.
Chanyeol had to pause a few times and just take it all in. The classrooms, the desks, the approaching school year. Soon the sound of children’s footsteps would echo in the hallway and their chatter would fill the time in between lessons. He smiled at the thought.
The doors opened around seven, late enough for most people to have eaten. They had small snacks, nothing spectacular since food was still hard to come by in bulk – not to mention that inflation made everything much too expensive.
Chanyeol bowed and greeted each guest, explaining the school to parents and students as they filtered in. When he heard Kyungsoo approaching he felt an indescribable rush of happiness. He greeted him with a smile, noticing how Kyungsoo had put on a neatly pressed shirt and pants for the event. His hair was even carefully combed. He looked like a different man, his handsome features more prominent. Chanyeol tried not to stare.
As the next hour passed Chanyeol spotted Kyungsoo sitting at one of the desks, not talking to anyone. When they moved the celebration outside the school to tables Ji Won had set up, Chanyeol walked beside of his landlord.
“Thanks for coming,” Chanyeol said quietly, earning a grunt from Kyungsoo.
As the evening wore on alcohol appeared, some of the older men bringing bottles of soju to the makeshift tables. It was both bizarre and fitting at the same time – this impromptu drinking party outside the newly built school. It was fitting because with each building that was rebuilt the sense of normalcy was returning, which was something to truly celebrate. It was bizarre because people were becoming increasingly drunk in front of a public school house.
Chanyeol was busy, everyone wanting to talk to the new teacher. He had barely seen Jongdae, which meant he was similarly inundated. As the people who wanted to speak to him thinned out, he finally spotted Kyungsoo.
He was sitting at a table with another person. Chanyeol realized the other occupant of the table was Seungyoon, the farmer’s daughter they had encountered a couple months back. It was obvious that she was half drunk, leaning across the table towards Kyungsoo, every movement she made was an obvious attempt at flirtation.
And the anger that rose in Chanyeol’s chest was the definition of unwarranted, but it was there. He didn’t like what he was seeing, especially when Kyungsoo let the woman pour him drinks. The moment he was free he strolled over to the table, taking a seat on the other side of Kyungsoo.
Seungyoon didn’t acknowledge him, her hand on another cup. “You should drink to be healthy is what my father says.”
Kyungsoo took the glass and drank, slamming it on the table. He smacked his lips, then glanced at Chanyeol. “I need to go to the bathroom.” With that he was up and walking away, leaving a beyond awkward atmosphere as Chanyeol stared across the table at Seungyoon.
“Oh, hi.” She smiled like she had just realized he existed.
Chanyeol could smell the alcohol radiating off of her, the thick scent of soju mingling with whatever cheap perfume she had poured on herself.
“It is a nice night,” she tilted her head side to side. “I don’t usually get to spend this much time with my fiancée.”
Chanyeol felt like he had been slapped. “Fiancée?”
“Well, not official but soon.” Seungyoon clarified, slumping a little on the tabletop. “We are destined for each other,” she giggled.
Chanyeol should have gotten up and found something else to do but part of him wanted to understand her train of thought. Part of him needed to know why she thought they would get engaged soon. Part of him needed to know his heart wasn’t breaking into a million pieces even when he didn’t want to think about how invested he was in the situation.
“Why are you destined?” He asked, folding his hands on his lap as he watched the woman sway slightly in her seat.
“Chunhyang!” She said loudly, earning a few looks from those seated around them. She lowered her voice. “Because Namwon is the city of lovers.”
The folktale again. Chanyeol hadn’t thought much of it, even though people had mentioned it more than once. Perhaps it was time he heard the story, considering he didn’t remember it. “Tell me the story,” he prompted. “The Chunhyang story. I am not from around here.”
She hiccupped before launching into the tale. “A handsome nobleman came here with his father, a magistrate, and the moment he spotted Chunhyang he fell in love. Isn’t that romantic!”
Chanyeol failed to see how this simple story was popular much less what it had to do with her and Kyungsoo, but he bit his tongue.
Seungyoon continued, lowering her voice even more. “Chunhyang’s mom let them get married but it was secret since a magistrate’s son can’t marry the daughter of a gisaeng. But then,” she frowned, “he was called away with his father, back to the capitol and had to leave her.”
“But she gave him a ring,” the girl sighed dreamily. “And when the new magistrate came he wanted Chunhyang for himself so he tried to force her, but her husband returned to save her. He was in disguise so he could catch and trick the magistrate, but she knew because he had the ring. And then they lived happily ever after.”
“Which is just like you and Kyungsoo….” Chanyeol couldn’t see any relation to be honest.
“The Dos are like royalty here since they own their farm. And Chunhyang means spring fragrance and I smell like a flower.” She got lost in her daydreams as Chanyeol wanted to laugh.
What happened next took him completely by surprise. She leaned across the table. “But papa doesn’t want me to marry him, so it would have to be secret like the story. Papa thinks he likes men, which isn’t true, but he won’t believe me.”
Chanyeol let out a loud and biting laugh. “That is ridiculous!” Was he just adding fuel to her delusions? Probably. But at the same time being serious about this would be a very bad thing. He would never get dragged into her insinuations.
She laughed with him, hiccupping mid-giggle. It was at that time Kyungsoo came back to the table, looking utterly perplexed at what was going on.
“Ready to go?” Chanyeol stood up.
“Can you go yet?” Kyungsoo looked around at all the people still gathered.
“Yeah. Jongdae is–“he caught sight of Jongdae laughing and drinking at a large table, “here it will be fine.”
“Okay. The truck is out front.” Kyungsoo walked away, throwing a ‘bye’ at Seungyoon. She looked dejected but also too drunk to get truly upset.
Chanyeol found Jongdae and told him he was leaving, which earned a momentary whine from his fellow teacher followed by an “I am going to be so hungover tomorrow.”
Chanyeol walked to the truck, climbing inside he sighed in relief that the event was over. After making sure Kyungsoo wasn’t actually drunk and able to drive he muttered, “Let’s go.”
Kyungsoo drove in silence for a few minutes before saying, “I was surprised to see you laughing with Seungyoon.”
“Why is that?” Chanyeol asked absentmindedly. He was staring out the window, his brain and body both exhausted.
“No reason.” Kyungsoo cleared his throat.
Sometimes, Chanyeol thought, there were things that just couldn’t be said.
Chanyeol spent more and more time at the school, handling the paperwork for the newly enrolling students. They also were looking for a few more teachers to help out, there was no way that Jongdae and Chanyeol could handle the upcoming class size.
They interviewed plenty of people, finally settling on a woman and two men to join the staff. It was a busy time for him and it was a busy time back on the farm, with Kyungsoo working all day and into the night maintaining the crop.
They rarely sat out on the porch anymore, both too tired to spend an evening in the ever present humidity. They would chat inside after dinner, but it was never very lively. Even Baekhyun seemed unusually tired, his youthful energy no match for helping his uncle in the fields.
When one morning Ji Hyo mentioned an upcoming festival, Chanyeol was only half listening. He was still tired, his fatigue never really going away.
“Will you come?” Kyungsoo asked over breakfast. When Chanyeol saw the hope in his eyes he agreed to it.
“What is the festival for?” Chanyeol asked.
Kyungsoo looked down at his plate as he answered. “It is the festival of Chunhyang, the festival of lovers.”
Chanyeol couldn’t be sure, but he thought Kyungsoo’s cheeks were tinged pink as he said it.
The call came the day of the festival. The entire city was gearing up for the celebration - it would be the first since the war. Chanyeol walked through town, marveling at the decorations and festive mood. He had planned on ducking into the school for a few hours and helping to arrange the newly arrived desks for the science room, but his plans were cut short. As he passed by the post office one of the workers ran out, waving a telegram.
“Park Chanyeol, right?” he shoved the telegram into his hand. “What fortune, they said it was urgent.”
Chanyeol looked at the telegram, feeling dread. He walked over to a small alley and opened the paper, afraid what it could be and not wanting everyone to see him reading it.
Father is ill. Stop. Mother is ill. Stop. Sending driver for you on tomorrow. Stop
Chanyeol stared at the piece of paper. His parents were ill?! How ill? He turned and stalked back to the post office. Entering the building he spotted the public telephone. He had a few coins in his pocket, which he put into the slot. With a few turns of the rotary dial he was connected to his parent’s house in Seoul.
“How bad is it?” He gripped the receiver tightly out of fear.
“The doctor isn’t sure how long the might make it, but we need you to come back. To be with them...and the business.”
Of course. The business. Even on his potential death bed, his father was worried about the business.
“I’m going to send someone tomorrow to bring you back, it is the soonest I can get someone.”
“I...tell them I will come home.” Why did his words sound so empty?
“I will.” Yoora sounded tired, her voice raw. “Take care, little brother.”
When the call ended Chanyeol cradled the phone in his hand. He was going back. He needed to go back.
Chanyeol found Kyungsoo tending to the fields, a large straw hat protecting his face from the sun. He knew that walking through the fields in his new boots would be foolish, but he wasn’t going to wait to tell him. He plodded through the paddies, the telegram still tucked into his front pocket.
“Chanyeol?” Kyungsoo smiled brightly, eagerly maybe. Or perhaps it was Chanyeol’s imagination. “What are you doing back?”
“I…” Chanyeol’s voice cracked. There was no easy way to say it, especially since he felt like there was a huge unknown attached to it. Would he come back? Maybe. Did he want to come back? Absolutely. Would his life allow him to? Probably not. “I’m leaving tomorrow. My parents are ill.”
Kyungsoo furrowed his brow. “Leaving? What happened, are they going to…”
“I’m not sure, but it sounds bad. I need to return to Seoul, for the business and for my parents.”
“For the business.” Kyungsoo repeated slowly.
“Yeah, at least for a while. It isn’t that I want to, but if I don’t go….Kyungsoo, there are things I have to do whether I like it or not.” He didn’t hate his parents, maybe he hated their lifestyle. But did he want to not help them when they needed him? No, he wanted to help.
“I see.” Kyungsoo went back to tilling the field.
“Say something other than I see.” Chanyeol had no right to demand it, but he needed it.
“I’m not sure there is anything else to say,” Kyungsoo said quietly.
After standing in silence for a couple minutes Chanyeol turned around and walked back towards the house. He felt physical pain.
This thing, this feeling, whatever it was – unspoken, gnawed at him more than ever. Because soon, he reasoned, it would be no more.
Kyungsoo drove them into town for the festival, a bouncy ride over the country roads as tension hung in the air.
Chanyeol had told Ji Hyo he had to leave, watching as she frowned and looked upset. But she swore she understood and Chanyeol believed that she did – more than Kyungsoo probably. She had offered to send something for his parents, but he politely declined. He knew they would look down on anything she sent, and Chanyeol didn’t want to see her hard work disrespected.
When they arrived at the festival the place was bustling, like the entire town had turned out for it. Many people were dressed in hanboks, even Ji Hyo had worn one of her more colorful ones (but not her pink one, thankfully). There were performers dancing and the scent of food was heavy in the air.
The festival grounds were colorful, full of life and the overwhelming sense of happiness such celebrations bring. Despite his own dark cloud, Chanyeol couldn’t help but smile.
As soon as they were out of the truck Baekhyun got lost somewhere in the throng of people, his energetic self-darting to and fro among the stalls selling all types of treats. Ji Hyo trailed after him, leaving Kyungsoo and Chanyeol to walk side by side in silence.
“Chanyeol!” Jongdae appeared from the crowd, one hand full of a treat from one of the stalls.
Chanyeol waved, then stilled as he realized he needed to tell Jongdae he was going. Kyungsoo kept walking while Chanyeol hung back.
“Did you just get here?” Jongdae asked, munching on his snack.
“Yeah.” Chanyeol took a deep breath, knowing it was as good of a time as ever to tell him. “Jongdae, I am going back to Seoul tomorrow. My parents are sick.”
Jongdae pursed his lips. “I am sorry to hear that.”
“Yeah, I know it leaves the school in a bind but I can’t help it.” Chanyeol felt guilty.
“No problem. I mean, you have to go. Family is more important. Just let us know how things are going, okay.”
“I will. Thank you Jongdae. Thank you for everything.” Chanyeol felt himself choke up, the sense this might be a final goodbye too overwhelming to ignore. Jongdae hugged Chanyeol with his free arm.
“Keep in touch. Come back if you can.”
“I will, I will,” Chanyeol promised.
Jongdae wiped a tear and then faked a smile. “I gotta go.”
Chanyeol watched he enter the crowd, knowing he didn’t want to stick around and cry about it.
With a deep breath Chanyeol walked forward, looking for Kyungsoo and Ji Hyo. He finally found one of them, his height letting him see over the crowd.
Kyungsoo was leaning against a tree, watching a group of performers. When he spotted Chanyeol coming towards him he stared, his expression unreadable.
“We should go for a walk,” Kyungsoo said quietly.
“Okay.” Chanyeol was happy that Kyungsoo was talking to him. If this was the last time he saw him he didn’t want it to be silence and anger. Disappointment and hurt. They walked for a while, the path that led through the festival grounds finally snaking into nothing more than a barely maintained cart track. But they kept walking, neither suggesting leaving the festival behind was a problem. Darkness fell and finally they stopped.
Crickets. The warm night air. The distant noise of music coming from the festival. Their breathing.
Chanyeol’s eyes had adjusted enough to the darkness to make out Kyungsoo’s outstretched hands. He was holding something, pushing it towards Chanyeol.
Chanyeol was confused, opening his larger hand and letting something fall into it. The object was cold. When he smoothed his fingers over it he realized it was some sort of stone. It was one of the stones Kyungsoo kept hidden away, the tiny little treasures he found on the farm. It was a piece of the beauty Kyungsoo treasured and kept away, protecting it from the harsh reality he saw all around him. And now it laid in Chanyeol’s large palm, a token of trust, of giving, of letting a piece of what mattered go. It was, Chanyeol realized, the most important thing Kyungsoo could have given him.
“It is from the farm. I found it while tilling,” Kyungsoo said slowly. His voice was raw, the emotion audible.
Chanyeol closed his hand, squeezing the small stone in the palm of his hand. As the sounds of the pansori of Chunhyang filtered through the night Chanyeol gripped the small token. As the people of Namwon listened to a tale they knew by heart– of two lovers who could only be together in secret– Kyungsoo and Chanyeol stood in darkness, hiding the simplest of things.
“I don’t want to go,” Chanyeol was crying now, it was too much for him. “I don’t want to leave you, but I have to.”
Some things couldn’t be said but some things needed to be said.
“Thank you, Chanyeol.” Kyungsoo was crying too, his voice choked as he turned to the taller man. “Thank you,” it was barely a whisper, a simple thing to say as tears flowed.
Some things couldn’t be said but some things could be done.
Chanyeol didn’t care, not now. If this was it he needed something, he needed this. His heart, his soul needed this. He faced Kyungsoo and without hesitation he put his arm around his waist and pulled him to him, leaning down to capture his lips with his own.
Kyungsoo didn’t struggle, protest, or fight back. He kissed Chanyeol back, their lips parting as they tasted each other for the first and very likely the last time. Their tears intermingled, the salty taste ignored as they explored each other’s mouths.
Time stopped as everything that had been left unsaid was communicated with their actions. As every what-if came down to this moment. Chanyeol felt his heart beat like it would come out of his chest. He felt dizzy, intoxicated even though he hadn’t had anything to drink. But above all of that he felt an acute sense of loss knowing this would probably be it. When they parted both of them were breathing raggedly, panting as they slipped away from each other.
Chanyeol let Kyungsoo go, stepping back.
“We should get back,” Kyungsoo sounded breathless.
“Yeah, we should,” Chanyeol agreed, drying his tears with his sleeve.
They walked in the darkness back towards the festival just as the pansori finished. Applause rang out as they reached the edge of the festival grounds, the colorful paper lanterns lighting their way.
Chanyeol in a deep breath. In his hand he still held the stone. He would treasure it forever.
Nothing much more was said as they returned to the farmhouse an hour later.
When Chanyeol got up in the morning Ji Hyo was up to see him off. Kyungsoo didn’t appear all day and when the driver came to pick Chanyeol up he was still absent. In some ways Chanyeol was glad for it. They had said their goodbye the night before.
As the car pulled down the road Chanyeol looked behind him, capturing the image in his mind. He watched until he could no longer see the farmhouse. Until he could no longer see his home.
As June turned to July, Chanyeol left Namwon behind.