Lee Kwanghee steps off the plane and tries desperately not to vomit.
The bile is in his throat—sharp and sour—and he wonders what the cause is, why the violent attack now? Nerves, most likely—the air hit his face when he was clear of the plane door, grounding him to the reality that he’s here. Maybe it’s the smell—familiar, summer and river water, cleanser and ginger mixed in one. After all these years, he’d forgotten the scent.
Kwanghee tightens his grip on his backpack strap, lips clamped shut as he scoots down the line of other exiting passengers. An elderly woman with greying hair shuffles before him, holding a suitcase as large as she is tall. The nausea wiggles into his brain and muddies his senses, makes him sway on his feet like a tattered flag caught in a breeze.
It’s hot under his long-sleeved sweatshirt, and he has to catch himself as he stumbles forward, tip of his sneakers catching the heel of the woman’s sensible shoes. When she turns, it’s with a frown.
“Careful, young man. You’ll topple over the whole line. Are you sick?”
The dam cracks, and he throws up right there and then, with the eyes of the world watching.
The old woman had been kind enough, considering Kwanghee lost his airplane breakfast all over her massive suitcase. She’d yelled at him in front of airport security, but Kwanghee understood. He would have been mad, too. Still, she’d clammed up when he offered her all the cash he had on him—thirty euros—and promptly made her way to the currency exchange counter.
Kwanghee made his way to the restroom.
Even after rinsing out his mouth, the nausea doesn’t fade, nor does the dreadful sense of panic. Kwanghee tugs the backpack strap over his shoulder and heads for the terminal’s exit. He tries not to think about the warm air or the familiar smell or the reason he’s here, tries not to be overrun by memories and sights and sounds—and then he turns the corner, and sees someone waving.
The young man waving at him from the passenger pickup side of the barrier is his carbon copy. They share the same rounded cheeks, sharp jaws, and soft eyes. Even their hair is the same shade of honey brown, and Kwanghee huffs a laugh—he only dyed it a week ago.
“Hyung! Over here!”
Kwanghee rounds the barrier, immediately crushed by two muscular arms. Funny—last time he saw them, they’d been sticks. Kwanghee pats the man’s back. “Hi, Taehee.”
His twin brother pulls away just enough to smack his shoulder, hard. “Hey, Lee Kwanghee, I think you’re taller than me!”
“It’s something in the German water, little brother.” It’s really his shoes—but Taehee doesn’t need to know that yet. “Fuck, it’s good to see you.”
Taehee jumps at the swear, chuckles. “Be careful, Hyung, mom and dad will cut out your tongue if they hear you speaking like that.”
Kwanghee hooks the inside of his elbow around his brother’s neck and destroys his hair. “Who’s gonna tell them, you?”
For a few seconds their laughter echoes among the other hitches and bumps of the Seoul airport, almost drowned out by footsteps and chatter, casual, light. They could be any two people in the world, reuniting after time apart. Kwanghee’s struck by fear—he’s afraid, actually scared that things can feel normal between them so fast. It isn’t right, it isn’t natural, not after so many years. Maybe Taehee sees it, but Kwanghee doesn’t look back to gauge his expression again, heading for the doors instead.
Don’t notice. Don’t see. Not now.
“Where are mom and dad, anyway?”
“Ah, they’re at work. Finishing up a big case. But they should be home now, I think. Mom wanted to make a big meal for you tonight—you don’t mind sharing a room with me again, do you? I know you used to complain that I snored too loudly and—”
Taehee stops dead, lips parted, eyes wide. Staring, waiting.
Kwanghee smiles. “How is it possible we've been apart for six years and you’re still the same?"
“I wanted to be the brother you remembered, Hyung. Now that you’re home, everything is going to go back to normal. Our family will be together again. You’ll see.”
Kwanghee’s father, Lee Youngpil, is a man made of all squares and lines. His mother, sharp edges and angles. There is none of the softness, the roundness that he and his brother have. Their parents look tired, always thinking about something of grave importance. A permanent line is etched into his father’s forehead, subtle disapprovement, quiet judgement. Taehee shuts the front door of the family home with his back, a smirk on his lips as he takes in the reunion. Kwanghee knows he’s expecting tears and smiles, hugs and we missed you’s.
There's a pause.
Youngpil's voice is deep, steady.
"Hello, father. Hello, mother."
His mother doesn't greet him, her unfamiliar eyes scanning the ground, instead.
“Dinner is ready,” Youngpil says. “You and your brother can take your bag up to your old room. Join us in the dining room when you’ve rested.”
And that’s it, all the love and affection Kwanghee’s father has for him after all these years. He turns, and Kwanghee watches his father’s wide back disappear into the living room. He used to think his dad could carry the world on that back. Kwanghee clenches his teeth and spins on his heel.
Halfway up the stairs, Taehee touches his arm.
"Hyung, are you okay?"
He doesn't speak.
"You're acting strange. Mom and dad, too."
Their eyes meet, the same shape and shade. Kwanghee forces himself to smile, but it’s disingenuous, twisted—the pain is written all over his face, and Taehee’s eyes widen when he sees it.
"Taehee-yah. It's not going to work, after all."
--- --- ---
Kwanghee’s mother is not an excellent cook.
She's made kimchi stew—a favorite of his, and perhaps a peace offering, however basic of a meal it is. The few Korean restaurants in Berlin had never quite mastered the flavor, and he’d be lying if he said he didn’t miss it. His mother’s soup, of course, is a little too sour, not quite spicy enough, and has a strange, permeating aftertaste akin to too much sesame oil. Still, he won’t complain.
Kwanghee never thought he would have his mother's cooking again.
“How is it?” She leans forward over the dinner table, sharp eyes twinkling.
It's the first thing she's said to him in years. A rush of tears bead in his ducts, hot and sudden—he’d forgotten what her voice sounded like. Kwanghee fights them back, swallows his too-sour soup and forces a smile.
“Just like I remembered it, mom."
The edges of her gaze soften, and she motions to the spread of side dishes and still-bubbling pot of stew. "Eat lots, son. Help yourself."
A warm familiarity tickles Kwanghee’s skin—were it not for his father's silence, he’d think things were normal. He sniffs, trying to hide his smile. He dips the ladle into the steaming pot, but Taehee is reaching for something—their arms cross, Taehee’s elbow jabbing into Kwanghee’s forearm. The chili-red stew splashes out of the pot, spattering over Kwanghee’s long sleeves. It burns, soaking through to his skin on impact. Like hot coals on his face, or a warm gush of summer air, sticky, unavoidable.
"Hyung!" Taehee's hands are on him in an instant, tugging at the sleeve. "Hyung, I'm sorry, I didn’t see your hand—does it hurt? Let's get your arm under cold water!"
The words catch in his throat and Kwanghee stares, powerless to stop it, as his brother yanks the cuff of his stained sleeve up to his forearm. Thick, jagged scars run along the skin. They’re wide, gleaming like white snakes twisting around his wrist, vanishing under the fabric. Taehee stares, grip slack. Their mother covers her mouth with both hands. For a moment, no one moves.
“Hyung, what...is this?”
Kwanghee rips his arm away. His skin blisters under the heat of the stew, seeping into his flesh, but he just rolls his sleeve back down his arm to hide the scars. Youngpil sets his chopsticks down with a clink.
"Lee Kwanghee. Did you learn nothing from your time in Berlin?"
He clenches his teeth—maybe it’ll stop the rattling in his skull. "Six years. Dad, you sent me away for six years."
"We could hardly let you remain in the country and stain our family name."
His mother stands, her chair screaming against the wooden floors. "Dear!"
"You were out of control, Kwanghee. Your mother and I had important court cases coming up—we couldn't allow you to be a distraction, to us or to your brother's studies."
"It's time he hears it, Sohyun. He left us a boy, but now he's a man."
"I don't understand," Taehee cuts in. "Hyung, you went to Berlin to study." Taehee’s pupils dart between them, expression clueless, unaware. There’s a pinprick of resentment there, and Kwanghee swallows it, strangles it, snuffs it out.
Youngpil lets out a chilling laugh. It’s uncharacteristic, strange and almost uncanny for such a serious man. "To study? Your brother never held a candle to you, Taehee-yah. No—we sent him to Berlin to meet with a psychiatrist. Your mother and I agreed, after hearing the doctor's diagnosis, that it would be safer for our family if he remained abroad."
Kwanghee’s worst nightmares are realized—he wants to shout and scream, beg and plead that it ends here, but all he can think is that he never, ever wanted Taehee to learn the truth. Their eyes meet, both wide with horror. Taehee licks his lips.
"You went to Germany to meet a psychiatrist? Why?"
"Dad, that’s enough!”
"He told us he saw dead people."
Kwanghee slams his fists into the table with a primal, guttural yell. The stew trembles, and several pairs of chopsticks bounce, clattering to the floor. "You sent me away for six years because you were afraid of me, because you thought I was crazy! But dad, you never once thought to believe me. I’m not crazy, and I’m not a liar. I’m your son!"
Youngpil is calm, even now. "I don't have a son like you."
Kwanghee repacks his backpack in under a minute. The room he used to share with his brother still has traces of him in it—old posters of his favorite girl groups, middle-grade math and science textbooks badly in need of dusting on the shelves, a worn, sun-bleached baseball glove lying on a side table like a shrine. His mother’s sobs penetrate the floor, audible even as he knocks over a stack of CD’s in his haste to empty the drawers he just filled. The plastic cracks under his socks as he steps on them on his way to the stairs.
Kwanghee doesn’t intend to look back, not this time. The only obstacle in his way, quite literally blocking the front door, is his twin brother.
"I'm leaving, Taehee. I won’t stay here another minute." It’s easy to shove past him and fling open the door. His mother’s sobs turn into wails as the sound of the lock unlatching echoes down the hall. Taehee grabs his wrist.
"Hyung, y-you're sick. I didn't know, but mom and dad—they shouldn't have sent you away. I’m angry. I’m so angry I could burst—I wish I knew, what happened, what you were going through. Let me help you, Hyung. I'll get you to a good doctor—"
"I'm not sick, Lee Taehee!"
Taehee’s fingers tremble. Kwanghee inhales, hesitates.
"Would you believe me if I told you it was real?"
Water brims over Taehee’s waterline, splashing down his cheeks. “Hyung. Please. I can help you.”
Kwanghee reaches out, embracing his twin tightly. But only for a moment. When he pulls away they stare at each other, and it feels for a moment that they’re the only people in the whole world, with different hearts but the same face.
Then Youngpil's shadow looms in the hallway. Kwanghee turns, shutting the front door behind him without a second thought and disappear into the night.
"Well, that didn't go well," Gu Jaewook murmurs by his side.
“I knew it wouldn’t. I should have fucking known, Jaewook-ah—you’re the only one who knows the truth.”
Jaewook glances up at the moon as it crests the city skyline, and moonbeams cut through his translucent body. “True.”