The café isn't crowded. "It's weird that you're not at work on a Tuesday morning," Baekhyun says. "Aren't you arranging something right now?"
"I'm working on something for Hero Jaejoong, actually," Joonmyun says. "His concert was the first one I ever went to."
Baekhyun gives a low whistle. "Wow," he says. "So you've never worked with him before?" He sticks his finger into the copious amount of whipped cream on top of his hot chocolate.
"No," Joonmyun says, as Baekhyun puts his lips on the edge of his mug without picking it up, because it's overly full and he doesn't want to spill it. "I've met him, of course, but he writes and produces most of his own music. Baekhyun, don't do that."
"Do what?" He lifts his head, and comes away with a tiny mustache of whipped cream. Joonmyun could reach across the table—
"Burn yourself on that hot chocolate," Joonmyun says. "You're always so impatient." And cute. So cute. Joonmyun will save this image in his mind, for later.
"It's called hot chocolate, not lukewarm chocolate," says Baekhyun. "So what's the deal? Not that I mind seeing you on a Tuesday morning, I'm just curious."
Joonmyun stirs his coffee. No sugar, the way he likes it. "I needed… to talk to you."
"About what?" Baekhyun is more alert, now, searching Joonmyun's face. "Is something wrong?"
"I don't think I should see you anymore," he says, and he wants to look away. But he doesn't. He looks straight into Baekhyun's eyes, and tortures himself as realization suddenly floods them. "I don't think we should… be together, anymore."
Joonmyun wonders if this is what dying feels like. Baekhyun still has that whipped cream above his lip, nestled right at the bow, and he's gone pale.
"You're… you're breaking up with me?" Baekhyun's hands shake around the mug.
"Yes," Joonmyun says. "I am."
"Why?" Baekhyun asks. "Don't you dare say ‘It's not you it's me'." It's a terrible joke. Neither of them laugh.
"What am I supposed to say, then?" Joonmyun replies.
"I have no idea," Baekhyun says. "Maybe that I wasn't what you thought I was. Or that we just don't fit each other. Or that you're still in love with Yixing, or—"
"But none of those things are true," Joonmyun says, quietly, and Baekhyun swallows.
"Then what is true?"
That Baekhyun is an umbrella over Joonmyun's head, protecting him from rain he didn't even know was falling until he knew what it was like to be dry. That Joonmyun can't be who he needs to be to have Baekhyun, no matter how much he wants him.
"That I want you to be happy, and I don't think I can make you happy."
"Who are you to decide what will make me happy?" Baekhyun asks. He's glaring at the table, now, and his knuckles are white as he holds the mug too hard. The nails on his left hand are longer than the nails on his right. There are paper cuts along his left index finger. "How would you know?"
"I just…" Joonmyun is suffocating. "I can never be…"
"You never looked at me as though I was anything but an equal," Baekhyun says. "Never like I was that kid with no future, or someone you wanted to fix. You don't know how nice that felt. How wonderful it was." He laughs. It sounds like broken glass, or like Joonmyun's grandmother on the phone, when she'd called to tell him that his grandfather had passed away in the early hours of the morning. "That made me happy. So, thanks for that, I guess."
Baekhyun's looking up and smiling at him, this tiny crooked horrible thing that makes Joonmyun feel like he's being torn apart.
"You are my equal," Joonmyun says. Baekhyun isn't the one who needs to fixed. "Or my better, maybe."
"Don't say nice things," Baekhyun says. "I don't want to hear them."
"I don't want to hear that, either." Baekhyun wraps his arms around himself. It's warm in the coffee shop, but Baekhyun looks like he's freezing. "I have to go to work."
"You're off today," Joonmyun says, and Baekhyun looks up at him, eyes wet and mouth curled with anger. His baseball cap is on backwards, and there's still, still foam on his lips, and Joonmyun has never felt so empty. "That's why—"
"Of course you remember that." Baekhyun shivers. "Can't you even fucking let me leave?" he asks. "Before I start crying in front of you?"
"Yes," Joonmyun says, and it's like he's talking from a thousand miles away. He can barely hear his own voice. "I can." He shuts his eyes.
"Bye, Kim Joonmyun-ssi," Baekhyun says, and his hand brushes Joonmyun's where it sits on the table. There is the scent of blueberry and mint. Baekhyun's hands are cold.
"Wait," Joonmyun says, opening his eyes again, and Baekhyun pauses where he stands. Joonmyun unwraps his scarf from around his neck and wraps it around Baekhyun's. "Don't get sick, brat."
Baekhyun's hands shake as they come up to brush the cashmere. "Right," he says. "I'll do my best."
Baekhyun is gone, then, and only his full mug of hot chocolate remains. Joonmyun's insides are collapsing, and he just stares at that mug of chocolate until his own coffee has gone cold.
He tosses both drinks on his way back out into the January cold.
When Kris arrives at Joonmyun's favorite bar, one close to his house with a friendly bartender and an overpriced drink selection, he immediately walks over to Joonmyun and puts his hand on the back of Joonmyun's neck.
"What's the emergency?" Kris asks. "We haven't been here in a while… Are you drunk? It's barely four in the afternoon." He sits next to Joonmyun at the bar.
"I broke up with Baekhyun today."
The bartender knows to bring Kris two fingers of Scotch. He sets it down in front of Kris and Kris grips it like a lifeline while Joonmyun peels himself up off the bar.
"I broke up with Baekhyun," Joonmyun says. "You were right. He deserved better. Just like Sunyoung did, and Yixing." He laughs, and it turns into a hiccup. His face is numb. He doesn't usually drink this much, but every drink fills in a little of the empty space in his chest. "I'm a horrible person, and he deserved better."
Kris looks at him, incredulous, before he massages his temples with frustration. "Joonmyun, that's not… That's not what I meant."
"What did you mean, then?" Joonmyun asks, as the bartender sets a fresh glass in front of him.
"I meant that you should push yourself!" Kris takes a swig of his Scotch. "I meant that you should become the boyfriend that isn't ashamed of him!" He purses his lips. "I meant that maybe it was time for you to come clean with yourself, and with your friends."
"I don't know if I can," Joonmyun says. "Baekhyun is so much younger than I am, but he has so much more figured out."
"Lu Han said that Baekhyun's had it rough," Kris says. "It makes sense that he's learned how to tough things out."
I'm not going anywhere, Joonmyun had said to Baekhyun. He wants to have meant it.
"Kris," Joonmyun says. "I'm—"
Joonmyun takes a sip of his vodka cranberry, and it tastes like heartbreak.
"It's your life," Kris says, "but I think you're not being fair to yourself. How long can you live for other people, Joonmyun?"
"As long as I have to," Joonmyun replies, and he doesn't have to look at Kris to know he's disappointed him, too.
It is not as though life stops when he ends things with Baekhyun. The calendar marches sluggishly forward, approaching the Lunar New Year, and Joonmyun goes to work and makes music, same as he always has.
He quietly packs away the extra set of slippers, though, and he turns up the heat in his condo, and he puts the magazine with the article on the Peking Opera in his closet, back behind his grandfather's old forty-fives.
Maybe this isn't the year to go to China.
He puts the song he hasn't finished into the back of his folder, and tries to forget about it, but Joonmyun never forgets.
He drops by ComicsPlease on a day he knows Baekhyun isn't working. Zitao seems shocked to see him, rubbing his hands on his apron as Joonmyun walks up to the counter. "Hi," he says.
"What brings you here?" Zitao asks coldly. "Baekhyun isn't in. Not that it should matter to you."
Joonmyun pulls his bag around in front of him, taking out an old Kyobo plastic bag. "These things… belong to Baekhyun. I was wondering if you would give them back to him?"
Zitao takes the bag as he stares hard into Joonmyun's eyes. "Sure. Is that all?"
"Can you…" Joonmyun hesitates. "Can you make sure Baekhyun wears a scarf? February is the month that most of our artists catch chest colds, and they can't sing, and I…" His voice is wavering, so he stops talking, and the cold look on Zitao's face fades into confusion.
"I'd usually kkt him," Joonmyun says. "Every morning. To tell him to wear a scarf, and half the time, he'd still forget." He's rambling. "But I doubt he wants me to chat him and I don't want him to get sick because I won't be able to take care of him and…" His eyes are burning again. He takes a deep breath.
"Okay, hyung," Zitao says. "I'll try to remind him." He holds up the bag of stuff. "And I'll give him this, too."
"Thank you, Zitao," replies Joonmyun. He closes up his bag, and turns to leave.
"You know, Baekhyun's had people giving him up his whole life," Zitao says. "That's his biggest fear, even if he's never told me so. That people find him easy to give up. I didn't think you'd be one of those people." Joonmyun looks over his shoulder. Zitao's narrowed eyes are intimidating. "I don't think he did, either."
"I'm not giving up on him," Joonmyun pulls at the sleeves of his coat. "I'm giving up on me."
Zitao blinks slowly, dark eyelashes against tanned cheeks. "That's… really sad," he says. "Because you were really good together." His mouth curls down. "Really good."
"Don't forget about the scarf," Joonmyun says.
"I won't," Zitao says, and Joonmyun leaves the comic book shop for the last time.
Three days before Joonmyun has to go home for Seollal, Lu Han sends a text to both Joonmyun and Kris that says: we're having drinks tonight. this is not optional.
The first thing Lu Han does when Kris and Joonmyun show up at his apartment is punch Joonmyun in the shoulder, hard. "What the fuck is wrong with you, asshole?"
Joonmyun massages his shoulder. "Well," he says, "where should I start?"
"Go easy on him," Kris says, as he leaves his massive shoes in the doorway. "He's beating himself up already."
"Baekhyun cancelled a gig," Lu Han says. "Yesterday. He never cancels a gig. Especially not a Saturday night one."
"Baekhyun only mentioned it once," Joonmyun says, "but I know it bothered him. That I try to hide my… That I can't talk about, you know, my…"
"Your what?" Lu Han asks. He opens two beers and passes them to Kris and Joonmyun. His own is already half empty. "Your what, Joonmyun."
"I should never have let myself…" Joonmyun bites his lip. He looks at his feet, at his soft black socks, and feels the nausea start to swell. "I've always been afraid of being a disappointment. My life was falling apart my last year of college, and all I could think was that there wasn't any way I could make myself happy. But if I chose music, at least I could have that, and it would be enough. I would get married, and I would have two kids, a boy and a girl, and I would be okay, because I had music."
Lu Han looks horrified, when Joonmyun looks up at him. "Joonmyun, that's…"
"Then I dated Sunyoung, and I thought to myself, maybe I can't do this?" He takes a long drink of his beer. "I'd just… be alone. No wedding, no kids, but no scandal, either."
"A lifetime is a long time to be alone," Kris says.
"I know that," Joonmyun says. "But it didn't seem impossible." He yanks at the collar of his sweater. It doesn't help him breathe. "Then I met Baekhyun, and… He's like me, in so many ways. He tries to keep people out, too."
"Both of you are extremely stubborn about needing someone to listen," Lu Han agrees.
"And I…" The beer bottle is about to slip from his hand, so he sets it on the table. "I don't think I've ever met someone who understood me like that."
"Then why the hell did you dump him, Joonmyun?"
"Baekhyun… knows who he is." His hands are clammy. "He knows what he wants. Everyone who matters to him knows about…" His tongue tastes like chalk. "I'm afraid to let him show affection to me around half of my friends, because I don't want.... And it hurts him. His face, that night…" The dimness in his eyes. Joonmyun cannot forget it. "I can't do that to him, Lu Han. He deserves more than that." He looks at his beer. It doesn't have any answers. "It's better this way, right?" Joonmyun asks. "If I let him go? Everyone will be happier, in the long run."
"Everyone except you," Lu Han says, bordering on a shout, and Kris puts a hand on Lu Han's arm to keep him from yelling. "Joonmyun, you can't make everyone happy. There will always be people who don't like something about you. You have to figure out what you want the most. Whether fitting the best you can into some image of you that other people have made is worth your happiness."
Joonmyun stares at Lu Han. "It's not that simple."
"It is that simple," Lu Han says. "Some people are going to care that you like to fuck dudes," and Joonmyun flinches, "but that's not who you are."
Joonmyun shakes his head. "No," he says, "don't you see? It's made me who I am. It has defined most of the choices I've made since I was sixteen years old. And it will continue to define them for the rest of my life." He hides his hands in the sleeves of his sweater. "So don't say it's simple. Because it's not."
The room is quiet. Joonmyun can hear his own breathing, close to a pant, and it echoes in his ears. He's wrung out, everything on the table, and he wants to curl up into a ball and disappear.
"I can't imagine what it's like to be in your position," Kris says, into the silence, "but will you hear me out?"
"Yes," Joonmyun says. "I'll hear you out."
Kris smiles at Joonmyun. "I don't think I've ever seen you happier than you were with Baekhyun," he admits. "Do you want to spend your life never feeling like that again, because you're afraid?"
"You keep saying there's something wrong with you," Kris says. "But there isn't. Not really. But, Joonmyun, imagine never seeing one of Baekhyun's shows again. Imagine never looking down to seeing a message from him on your phone again. Imagine him never invading your personal space again." Kris raps his knuckles on the table persistently with each example. "Imagine never seeing him again. Is that going to be okay with you?"
"I don't know," Joonmyun says. "I don't know." Kris and Lu Han… they don't, can't, understand. But the things they're saying...
Lu Han pushes his beer towards him. "Finish your beer," he says. "Before it gets warm."
Joonmyun puts the can to his lips and drinks, but he doesn't taste anything at all.
Joonmyun goes through his daily routine and does not think about Baekhyun. He gets drinks with Kris, and does not think about Baekhyun. He chats with Minseok and watches Jongdae's final rehearsals, and he does not think about Baekhyun.
Smiles at Jongin. Does not think about Baekhyun. Passes Sunyoung in the hallway. Smiles at her too. Does not think of Baekhyun.
When Jongdae does his follow up track performance on M!Countdown, Joonmyun watches with steady eyes on the monitor and does not think of Baekhyun. When it's over, Jongdae flawlessly hitting every note and never going flat and never starting to yell when he has to sing a long note, Joonmyun goes into the bathroom and vomits stomach acid and water into the sink and feels the steady, painful throb of his heart, a pansori performance with no lead singer.
Maybe Sunyoung was right, and Joonmyun never knew what heartbreak was really like before.
He knows now.
He does not think of Baekhyun.
He cleans his apartment just before the holiday, because he's off work. He picks all of his clothes up off the floor, dividing them into piles for laundry and dry-cleaners, and he puts all of his jeans and sweaters onto his shelves.
He saves his bedroom for last, piling up undershirts that have snuck their way under his desk and socks that have lost their mates by the doorway to be sorted out in the living room.
Surveying the empty floors, he catches sight of something peeking out from under his bed. He doesn't sleep on the left side, so he hadn't looked too hard there, but the patterned fabric catches his eye. He gets down on his hands and knees to pull it out.
It's Baekhyun's Wonder Woman shirt. The gold foil letters rub against his fingers as he clutches the shirt in both hands, holding it up to his chest.
Imagine never seeing him again, Kris had said, but it's more than that. It's never waking up again to Baekhyun's groggy pouts or falling asleep to his raspy humming. It's never feeling Baekhyun's lips on his neck again, or smelling the Xylitol on his breath. It's never hearing him teasingly call Joonmyun seonsaengnim as he tries to convince Joonmyun to have sex with him in the living room and it's never, ever making music with him in the middle of the floor on that flashy red keyboard in Baekhyun's officetel.
It's days like the past two weeks, where Joonmyun feels like he's caught between being dead and alive, listening to the sgg.mp3 all night and pretending like he doesn't ache all day.
It's that, for a long time, or for the rest of his life, and Joonmyun holds the shirt so tight it nearly rips in his hands as he starts to cry.
It's like when his grandfather died. Joonmyun has held it in, let it suffocate him, let it weigh him down, and now he lets himself sob, burying his face in that stupid shirt and finding Baekhyun's scent hidden in its folds.
When there's nothing left for him to cry out, Joonmyun stretches himself out on the floor and looks at the ceiling. There are no stars to ask for guidance, only the pale white he'd insisted on with the painters before he'd moved in, Yixing standing next to him and laughingly suggesting lavender.
"I'm in love with Baekhyun," he tells the white ceiling. The shirt is still on his chest. Saying it aloud feels like opening the door to his cage. "I'm in love with him." It isn't something he's ever said, to or about anyone, but the truth of it allows him to breathe for the first time in days.
He knows, still, that as he is now, he can't make Baekhyun happy. He knows that. But…
But he wants to, more than he's wanted anything in a long time, and he thinks, maybe, just maybe, he could.
After a hot shower, Joonmyun picks up his phone. He opens his kkt with Baekhyun. The last message Joonmyun had sent, free for coffee on Tuesday morning? glares up at him.
I know this is asking a lot, Joonmyun wants to type, but selfishly, could you give me some time? His fingers hover over the onscreen keyboard. He doesn't write anything. It takes a long while for old dogs to learn new tricks.
In the end, he doesn't send anything at all.
Joonmyun has spent so many years caught in other people's expectations. He wants, though, to be happy. He wants to be free.
Do you want to spend your life never feeling like that again, because you're afraid?
The answer is no.
He presses the doorbell outside his parents' house. His father answers the door. He has his reading glasses on, but he seems to have put his marking away for the day, because he doesn't retreat into his study.
"Dinner is almost ready," Joonmyun's grandmother says, giving him a hug. "I've missed you."
"I've been busy," Joonmyun says. "I'm sorry. I'll be better about it."
"You're forgiven," she says. "Now take your coat off and stay awhile."
Dinner is calm. No one raises their voice and Joonmyun's dad asks him to pass the kimchi, and Joonmyun's grandmother asks his brother's fiancé, Sujin, all about the plans she's made for their wedding in the late summer.
Joonmyun's mother does not look at him once, even when she sets a bowl of rice in front of him, and Joonmyun smiles politely and says ‘thank you' as he should.
He stays at the table only long enough to be polite, excusing himself with "I have to make a call," and leaving his brother and Sujin to bear the brunt of the attention. He exhales only when he's closed the door, and opens his childhood closet to pull out the pieces of his hanbok so they have time to un-wrinkle before he has to wear them.
When he's finished, he pulls out his phone and opens up the new backing track Ryeowook has sent him, popping in one of his mini headphone buds to give it a cursory first listen because he'd forgotten his studio-quality ones at home.
He's startled by a loud knock, audible over the music, and his door opens to reveal his brother.
He stands in the doorway, shifting anxiously. "Am I interrupting you?"
"No," Joonmyun says, taking out his earphones. "It's fine." He's lost his train of thought, anyway. He will have to find it again later.
"Could I talk to you?" Joonmyun nods, and his brother steps into the room. "So dinner was a little awkward."
"Just a little," Joonmyun agrees. "Probably because our mother tried to pretend I don't exist."
"She doesn't know what to say," his brother says. "She's never been good at apologizing."
"She doesn't owe me an apology. I'm the son that ruined everything, right?"
"I feel like I owe you an apology, though," his brother says. "I know I… haven't been the most supportive brother."
"I disappointed our parents," Joonmyun says, "but I never understood what I'd done to disappoint you."
"Because you had everything I wanted," his brother says, "and you threw it away like it was nothing."
"I'm the oldest," he continues, leaning against Joonmyun's closet door, "but you were the smart one. The handsome one. The one who charmed all our parents' friends and acquaintances at those university parties. That was you, not me." He laughs. "I wanted it to be me, but at least you weren't arrogant about it. But then one day, mom calls and says you've dropped out of college and moved into some condo you paid for yourself and she didn't know your forwarding address, and my first thought was ‘doesn't he know what he's giving up?'"
"I didn't," Joonmyun says, "but I also knew what I couldn't handle."
"Business isn't such a bad field," his brother says. "You make a lot of money, and the work doesn't thrill me, but I'm not miserable."
"At the time," Joonmyun says carefully, "I was under the impression that everything else in my life was going to be miserable, so I needed something for myself that would make life worth it. I thought it could be my job."
"Why would everything else be miserable?" His brother sits next to him on the bed. "You could have gotten married and had a couple of great kids, and never disappointed anyone. It's not like beautiful women aren't constantly falling in love with you. Man, Sunyoung was gorgeous and cool. Even my college girlfriend had a crush on you, and you were all of sixteen at the time."
Joonmyun looks down at his knees. The denim is getting thin. He'll have holes there, like Baekhyun. "I can't get married," he says.
"I used to think that," his brother says, "but then you meet the right girl, and—"
"I'm gay," Joonmyun says. He keeps staring at his knees.
"I'm gay," Joonmyun says again. It's odd, like someone else is talking, and Joonmyun is watching this conversation play out from nosebleed seats at the opera. He isn't nervous, or scared. He isn't anything. He's just here, waiting for judgment. "I expected to spend my entire life pretending not to be, so I thought that at least… at least I could have my music. At least life could let me have that." Joonmyun scratches at the denim where it has worn the thinnest.
His brother is quiet for a long time. It feels like an eternity, but it's probably only a minute or two. He starts to speak and feelings slam into Joonmyun. His heartbeat quickens, and he's not nearly as numb as he'd thought. "What about Sunyoung?"
"I wanted to be in love with her so badly," Joonmyun says, "but in the end, I wanted her to be happy more than I wanted to be normal."
"I need… I need to think," his brother says, standing up and walking rapidly to the door. "I'm not… I just need to think."
"I understand," Joonmyun replies, as his brother lingers at the door, unsure. "I've had about ten years to think about it, so I have an unfair advantage."
"Hell, Joonmyun, how do you keep a secret like this for a decade?" Joonmyun looks up and finally meets his brother's eyes. He's bewildered, and he looks a little lost.
"It helps when you know it's wrong and everyone might hate you when they find out," Joonmyun says, with a brittle laugh, "but I found something that means more to me than fear that people might hate me," and his brother closes the door, leaving Joonmyun alone inside his childhood bedroom with too many familiar fears crushing him down into the bed.
An hour later, there's another knock on his door. Joonmyun wipes his eyes and stands up to open it.
His grandmother's standing there, balancing on her cane. "Can I enter, or are you dedicated to brooding alone tonight?"
"You're always welcome," Joonmyun says.
"That's good to know," his grandmother replies. She sits down on Joonmyun's bed and pats her lap. "Like the old days," she says, and Joonmyun laughs, lying down with his head in her lap so she can pull her arthritic fingers through his hair. "I overheard part of your conversation with your brother."
Joonmyun freezes, every muscle in his body turning to ice. "Which part?" he asks, and his grandmother sighs.
"All of it, really. I was worried, so I…" She coughs, and Joonmyun immediately sits up grabbing the folded upthrow at the end of the bed and wrapping it around her shoulders. "You're such a good boy, Joonmyun."
"Not that good," Joonmyun says, and his grandmother grabs his hand, holding on to it.
"Maybe it's because I'm old," she says, "but I think life is too short to waste." She smiles at him. "Your grandfather always regretted not being able to pursue music. He was so happy when you chose to, since you loved it."
"Me too," Joonmyun says. "Making music is wonderful. So why isn't that enough?"
"Because," his grandmother says, pressing her other palm to Joonmyun's chest, "you make good music with your head, but you make great music with your heart."
"Baekhyun told me that I wasn't really living my life, and that's why I was having trouble making music." Joonmyun laughs. "He told me I needed to find my inspiration."
"I like that Baekhyun," his grandmother says. "Though I dare say not as much as you do."
Joonmyun realizes, all of a sudden, that he's shaking. "I never…" His voice is choked up. "I never thought I would tell anyone about this. I never thought I could."
"I love you," his grandmother says. "And just between the two of us, you're my favorite." She squeezes his hand again. "Now I know why you never noticed all those girls with crushes on you in high school."
"They didn't have a crush on me," Joonmyun says, pulling away so he can smile at her. He isn't shaking anymore. "They just wanted help with their homework."
"You're a good boy, Joonmyun, and don't let anyone tell you differently." She gives him a considering stare. "Although I suppose you're a man now."
"Get some sleep," she says. "Tomorrow we have to get up early to prepare charye. Your grandfather will roll over in his grave if we're late with the rites."
"Okay," Joonmyun says. "Halmeoni?"
He looks at her. She's smiling at him the same way she always has, and he marvels at it. "Thank you."
"For what?" she asks.
Joonmyun has trouble sleeping. After tossing and turning for a few hours, he gives up, putting on a shirt and wandering out into the kitchen. He pours himself a cup of water from the pitcher in the refrigerator, and leans back against it. It's cool, and so is the floor.
His brother stands in the doorway, his arms crossed over his chest.
Joonmyun sets his glass down on the counter. "No. Do you want something to drink?"
"I don't," his brother says. "I wanted to talk to you."
"Oh," Joonmyun says. "Here I am."
"Here you are." He takes a deep breath. "I'm not going to lie to you and say I get it."
"I don't expect you to," Joonmyun says. "I'll understand, if it… is something you'd rather not deal with."
"I'm not finished," his brother says. "Do you remember when we were younger, when I used to look out for you?" He scratches his neck. "I sort of forgot, for a while, a long time, that you were my little brother, not my competition. And I'm sorry about that."
"It was never supposed to be a competition," Joonmyun says. "I just wanted to do what everyone expected from me. I wanted… I didn't want to disappoint anyone." He laughs. "But I guess that's not going to happen. No way to avoid it, really."
"It's weird," his brother says. "The gay thing. It's weird." Joonmyun looks at the floor. There's nothing interesting there, just his toes. "You're still my brother, though. You'll be my brother for the rest of our lives."
"I'm sorry about that," says Joonmyun.
"So I'll get used to it." His brother frowns. "Do you have, like, a boyfriend or something? Do you have boyfriends, or do you call them something else?"
"I had a boyfriend," says Joonmyun. "Baekhyun."
"The kid?" His brother's face crinkles up. "That… makes sense, actually. He did look a little… infatuated with you." He clicks his tongue against the back of his teeth. "I wasn't even thinking that, then. I don't know how I missed it."
"I broke up with him," Joonmyun says. "Because I was still trying to be something I'm not."
"You don't have do that," his brother says. "I know I was part of making you feel like you did, and I…"
"It was me, too," Joonmyun says. "It was easier to say nothing than to face the truth."
They stare at each other across the kitchen. The table's between them, but Joonmyun feels closer to his brother than he's been in years.
"I'm going back to bed," his brother says. "Charye will come early."
"You were the first person I've ever said it to," Joonmyun says as his brother turns to go back to bed. "That I was gay. I've never said it aloud before today. Not even to myself."
His brother is surprised. "Really?"
"Yes," says Joonmyun. "Really."
"Then it was a long time coming." His brother pauses. "I might not get it, but I'm glad you told me."
Joonmyun smiles. "Are you?"
"You've never talked about your feelings much," his brother says. "So I know it must have been hard. I'm glad that even after everything, you trusted me with that."
"Even when I was close to hating you, I still never wanted to lose you."
His brother smiles. "You won't." He disappears into the dark, and Joonmyun slumps against the refrigerator door, letting the chill seep into him as he stares at nothing at all.
He meets Kris on Thursday, at a wine bar in Apgujeong.
It's no different to the countless Thursdays they've shared a drink before. At least, it shouldn't be, but Joonmyun feels different. Slightly stronger. Braver, maybe.
Kris tells Joonmyun about the messages Soojung sent him over the holiday. He looks confused, and Joonmyun doesn't blame him. Soojung is hard to read on the best of days, and Kris has his hands full.
"How was your Seollal?" Kris asks. "You seem to be in one piece."
"I told my brother and my grandmother I'm gay," he says, right as Kris lifts his glass to take a drink.
"You did what?" Kris sets his glass down and looks at Joonmyun like a third eye has just appeared on his forehead.
Joonmyun clenches both of his fists in his lap, and thinks about Baekhyun's expression, that night at Club FF. "I told them I was gay." It still makes him sick to say it, but slightly less.
"You… you said it," Kris says. "You actually said it?"
"You asked me," Joonmyun says, "when we were at Lu Han's, if I could imagine never seeing Baekhyun again."
"Yeah," Kris says. "I did."
"I can imagine it." He can taste the wine on the insides of his cheeks. "It's a really awful thing to imagine."
Kris looks at him, measuring something Joonmyun can't see, and then he grins, tiny mouth stretching wide. Joonmyun had been in love with that smile once, but now it just fills him with a comfortable warmth. "You want to keep him, don't you?"
"Yes," Joonmyun admits. "He might not want me, but whether he does or not, I won't continue like this. Scared all the time." He licks his lips. "I kind of… want to be happy, whatever that means."
"Good for you," Kris says. He raises his glass. "To looking forward?"
"To looking forward," Joonmyun says, clinking their wine glasses together.
"What's this I hear about you taking a vacation?" Minseok asks, startling Joonmyun into dropping his coffee on the counter.
"Are you talking to me again?" Joonmyun smiles. "I thought I was getting the silent treatment for my recreational idol smuggling."
"I am granting you a reprieve to assuage my curiosity."
"I'm going to see a show in New York," says Joonmyun. "Performance art stuff."
"You used to do that with Sunyoung, if I recall correctly?"
"I did," Joonmyun says. "I'm going alone this time." He pulls tissue from the roll and mops at the spill, soaking up the coffee.
"Why would you want to take a vacation alone?" Minseok fills two new paper cups with fresh water.
"To think," Joonmyun says. "Clear my head. Write some music."
"I only heard because Song Qian said Jongdae wasn't recording next week, and told me it's because you weren't going to be here."
"Now you know," says Joonmyun, handing Minseok two packets of coffee. "Curiosity assuaged."
"Jongin's hangover lasted two days," Minseok says. "I really should give you the silent treatment for a while longer."
"I saw you talking to Kris in the hallway last week," Joonmyun says. "Why am I so special?"
"Kris looked like he was about to cry after the first day." Minseok laughs. "He's a sensitive soul." Minseok takes one cup of coffee and walks out toward the lounge door. "Have a good trip," he says.
"I plan on it," Joonmyun says. "See you when I get back."
Joonmyun has never taken a trip alone.
All of his childhood vacations had been in trips of four, his mother and father taking he and his brother to expensive restaurants, spending the day on a strict and rigorous schedule to maximize their time. Vacations had been exhausting, if educational.
After, the only trips he'd taken were with Sunyoung. Vacations with her had always been caught between hectic and still, evenings sprawled out in hotel hot tubs juxtaposed with frantic album photo booklet shoots and high-end fashion appearances for Vogue. Joonmyun had planned leisurely shows and early nights in, and it had been fine.
His first day in New York, he checks in at noon. He leaves his bags in his room and immediately heads back out into the city, a folded up list in his pocket of places he means to go and no general idea of when he'll head back.
The thing about travelling alone is that it gives Joonmyun so much time to think. Being left alone like this, with his thoughts, would have been terrifying even a few months ago, but now Joonmyun has plenty to think about. Everything that has happened to him, and everything he has made happen. His family, his friends, Baekhyun.
The last time Joonmyun had come to New York, he'd decided to give something up. He'd brought Sunyoung with him, to share this city with her, and the light in her eyes when she looked at him had been enough to make him see that he could never, ever, look back at her the same way. This time, he's come to find something. Himself, maybe. Who he might be when he isn't afraid.
He spends his days wandering around music specialty stores. Two of the owners direct him to a coffee shop where the afternoons are dedicated to showcasing local musicians, and it's easy for Joonmyun to get caught up for hours sipping on a double shot espresso to combat his jetlag. He spends some of his nights at Broadway and Off-Broadway shows. He sees ‘Two Boys' at the Metropolitan opera house on Thursday, and Shostakovich's ‘The Nose' on Saturday.
He eats sandwiches with no mayonnaise and writes song lyrics on napkins and finally takes out all the feelings he's put away, always telling himself later, you can think about this later. He finishes two songs that might be for Jongdae at his desk, more creative and innovative than he's done in years. He goes to toy stores and presses all the buttons on the dinosaur figurines to make them roar, like he knows Baekhyun would, and buys useless souvenirs, and spends way too much money on Starbucks.
As he walks through the streets, he takes notes of all the things he loves, not worrying, for the first time in a long time, about pleasing anyone but himself.
On his last day, he finally does what he ostensibly came for, and goes to the MoMA to see ‘Meta-Monumental Garage'. The exhibit is a large-scale American style garage sale in the Marron Atrium, things upon things spilling from tables onto the floor, the artist wandering around haggling over prices and taking pictures of her customers with their purchases.
He finds, on a table in the back, a large collection of forty-fives jammed tightly into too many boxes.
"Interested in a purchase?" Joonmyun jumps, looking up to find the artist herself, a big camera in her hands and a smile on her face. "I'm Martha Rosler. This is my exhibit."
"I know," Joonmyun says. "I came from South Korea to see it." He fumbles for his wallet, pulling it from his pocket.
"Korea?" She smiles. "That's pretty far. Why?"
"It made me curious." He searches for words. "That's why I like this kind of… participant art? It makes me curious." He turns back to the records. "My grandfather collected forty-fives. When he died, he gave me all of them."
"Then these are perfect for you," she says. "Two dollars for the smallest box of forty-fives in the front."
"Just two," she agrees. He pulls two dollar bills out of his wallet and hands them to her. She folds them up and puts them into a satchel clasped around her waist. "May I take your picture?"
"Yes," says Joonmyun, lifting the box into his arms and smiling for her. She snaps the shot, and then grins.
"Thank you," she says, and she goes to leave.
"Wait, please," Joonmyun says, and she stops. "Can I ask you a question about the exhibit?"
"Sure," Martha says. "Ask away."
"Who did all this stuff belong to?"
"Me," she says. "Some of it was given to me by my neighbors when they moved. Some of it was donated back in California and I had to ship it out here. Some of it was stuff I've had for years and years. It's all the things that have kept me from moving to a new home the past few years." She sweeps her hand out, like this installation in the atrium is her kingdom. "My art is all about the everyday. About everyday social interactions and the beauty found in the commonplace."
"I see," he says.
"Don't you think," says Martha, "that this is way too much stuff for one person?"
"Definitely," says Joonmyun.
"This garage sale is me, giving out pieces of the heaviness on me," she says. "It represents getting rid of the things that pull us down, and sharing small parts of them with people who won't find it nearly as daunting a weight to bear." She absently fixes her ponytail. "Making it possible for me to move forward."
"Like secrets," Joonmyun says, and the artist smiles.
"Exactly," she says. "Or fears. Or dreams." A shrug. "Something as ordinary and everyday as a conversation."
Joonmyun wraps his arms around the box of forty-fives. "I'm glad I came."
She disappears back into the milling crowd toward the middle of the installation, and Joonmyun watches her go with something like awe.
Back in his hotel room, Joonmyun takes the forty-fives out of the box. There are a couple of Rolling Stones records. The AC/DC ‘High Voltage' album and an early Sinatra. There are a few artists that Joonmyun doesn't recognize, but he can listen to them when he gets home.
Spread out in his suitcase, across his sloppily folded clothes, they don't take up much space at all.
He wonders if life really works like that. If sharing tiny bits of himself, with Kris, with Lu Han, with Yixing and Jongin and his brother and Sunyoung, has really made him lighter. Amazingly, he thinks it has.
Sharing secrets with Baekhyun had made Joonmyun feel like one day, he could be floating on his back at the top of the ocean, all the water beneath him and an endless sky above.
He watches the sunrise again, alone. His room is quiet, and so is his heart. Late February means a partially clouded sky, the clouds turning purple and then orange as the sun comes up to slightly warm a cold, cold day.
He checks out of his hotel at nine, and is at the airport by eleven. At thirty minutes past two, he leans back in his window seat on the plane, looking out at the JFK runway.
After takeoff, he puts on his headphones, and listens to Baekhyun sing ‘Sugungga'.
He has one more secret he would like to share with Baekhyun, if Baekhyun would like to hear it.
Waiting in his overstuffed mail slot are two bills, one flier, three catalogues, and an ornate invitation. He waves to the security guard as he drags himself and his suitcase upstairs, the sunlight punishing to his tired eyes.
It's an invitation to his brother's wedding. It's a formal invitation, the kind his mother would have helped pick out. High quality paper and finished edges. But inside is a tiny, messy handwritten note from his brother. Talked to S, and you can bring B if you want, it says.
He slides the invitation back in the envelope with trembling, disbelieving hands.
He's physically exhausted, but he isn't sleepy. He hates that, because it would make it so easy to climb into bed and pull the covers over his head and ponder the invitation and the note and what he intends to do about it.
He forces himself to be productive instead, unzipping his backpack and pulling out his laptop and his music.
"You're back," Sunyoung says, when he calls her, empty suitcase on his bed and a pile of clothes on the floor. The records are in a neat stack on his night table. "When did you get in?"
"About an hour ago," he says. "I'm unpacking."
"You mean you're throwing things around your bedroom," Sunyoung corrects, and Joonmyun laughs.
"Yes, that." He sits down on his bed. "Are you home?"
"I brought you a souvenir," Joonmyun says, "and I wanted to talk to you, so I thought I might drop it by today."
"I'll be home all this afternoon," says Sunyoung. "No schedule today."
"Great," Joonmyun says. "I'll be there in about an hour."
He showers quickly, pulling on a fresh sweatshirt and jeans after he washes the travel off. It's as biting cold in Seoul as it was in New York, and he makes sure to cover his head with a wool cap before he heads down to his car. He wonders if Baekhyun wears his scarf.
Sunyoung answers the door with her hair down. She has no makeup on her face, and a casual sweater that slides down off one shoulder as she beckons him to come inside. "So you still know the way here, huh?"
"Am I known for my forgetfulness?" Joonmyun asks.
"Would you like some tea?"
"No thank you," Joonmyun says. He hands her a wrapped package. "For you."
"You could have just taken me with you," she says lightly. "Then you wouldn't have needed to get me a souvenir."
"I needed to go by myself." Joonmyun sits down in one of the cozy armchairs in Sunyoung's living room. "I had some things to figure out."
"Oh?" She tilts her head, catching her lower lip in her teeth. "Did any of that have to do with me?"
"Yes," Joonmyun says. "Some of it." He gestures toward the package. It's lopsided and round. "Aren't you going to open it?"
"I'm more interested in what you figured out," she says. "I'm assuming you came here to tell me."
"A lot of people at work seem to think we're going to get back together." Joonmyun's mouth is dry. He shouldn't have turned down the tea, but Sunyoung might… not want him to stay to finish it. He doesn't want to waste her time. He's done enough of that. "You know… that's never going to happen, don't you?"
She flinches back, like he's hit her. Then she takes a calming breath. "I think a part of me does. The rest of me still kind of hopes."
"Why?" Joonmyun asks.
"I thought you loved me." Sunyoung looks down at her nails. Powder blue for upcoming spring. "Sometimes I think you still do."
"I do love you," Joonmyun says, "but I was never right for you, Sunyoung."
"I love you. You're important to me, and that's why I didn't marry you. That's why I…" He takes a deep breath. He's still breaking her heart, he thinks. He breaks it every day. He can't ignore it anymore. "I had to end it. Because I cared about you, I still care you, but not the right way. You deserve more."
"You don't get to decide what someone else deserves. That's not how it works." Sunyoung looks, finally, angry at him. Mad. It's about time. In a way, it's a relief. Her anger is good. It's overdue.
"You're smart and beautiful and funny." There isn't enough air in the room. "You're kind and helpful. You're an amazing singer and my parents love you, anyone's parents would, and you're going to have kids that love you and a husband that adores you and you're going to be so happy."
"Then why not with you? What's wrong with me?"
What's wrong with me? Nothing is wrong with her. And maybe… maybe there's nothing wrong with Joonmyun, either, he hasn't figured that part out yet. But there is definitely nothing wrong with Sunyoung, who is the closest woman to perfect that Joonmyun has ever known.
"When we went to New York," Joonmyun says, "when we went to go see that exhibit at the MoMA. Do you remember that evening?"
"I remember," Sunyoung says. "That last night, we talked until dawn and watched the sunrise from the window of your hotel room. I'd never felt so in love with you."
Joonmyun thinks about how he and Baekhyun have never seen a sunrise, but they've seen the most magnificent sunset. He thinks about the hours he and Baekhyun spend tangled together on Joonmyun's bed, or Baekhyun's bed, talking about nothing and everything. About how much he secretly wants to hold Baekhyun's hand at a Beijing night market like he'd held Sunyoung's that morning in New York when they'd walked down to breakfast. Baekhyun would have let him, because Baekhyun isn't scared of anything. Joonmyun wants to be Baekhyun's kind of fearless, where he knows things are scary but he does them anyway.
"I knew, then," Joonmyun says, "that I couldn't do it." He's shaking. He's sitting across from his mother at the kitchen table all over again, knowing he's about to crush her, and she's looking back at him with eyes filled with disappointment. Only this is Sunyoung, one of his dearest friends, and he's lied to her for so long. "I'm…" He tries to breathe in, but he hasn't breathed out yet. Everything is out of order. "I like… men." It doesn't get easier. "Gay. I'm gay."
Her eyes widen, and she looks for words inside herself and must find none, because the silence that stretches between them is absolute. "You…"
"I didn't know," Joonmyun says. "At first I thought it was, that maybe it was just… " That maybe it had just been Yixing, with his soft mouth and softer eyelashes, and Kris, with his big warm hands and warmer smile. That maybe it could just be Sunyoung, too, if he tried hard enough. "You were so wonderful, and you were everything I'd imagined as my ideal type."
"But I'm not, am I?" Sunyoung isn't really asking.
"You were another box," Joonmyun says, because he has to tell her all of it. He has to tell her the whole thing, so she can slap him and maybe hate him and stop aching over him when he isn't worth it at all. "Another chance to do something right. To salvage the plans my parents made for my life that I'd already messed up."
"A box," Sunyoung echoes. "I was a box."
"But people... aren't made to fit in boxes. That's no way to live. And you should have the world. Every person on this planet deserves someone who will give them the world, but especially you. You didn't… don't deserve to be the four walls of my self-constructed prison."
"Joonmyun, you're so damn selfish." She's crying. He hates to see her cry. Every time he's seen her cry, it's been because of him. "You should have told me a long time ago, so I could stop…"
"I never thought I would tell anyone," Joonmyun says. "But I've been learning that lying to myself and to the people I love will only make us all more miserable."
"You're just now learning that?" she asks. "I thought you went to prep school."
"You sound like Baekhyun," Joonmyun says. He wonders if she might let him wipe her tears away. He holds his hands steady in his lap.
"Baekhyun? The one that was curled up sick in your bed with the puppy face?"
"Yes," Joonmyun says. "I… He told me nothing good ever happens to him. I want to be that. I'm trying to be a person that could be something good happening to him."
Joonmyun has tried so hard for so many years to hide himself beneath the masks he's made. Like forcing his wants and needs to fade away would serve as some kind of an apology for the one time he couldn't. There are boxes everywhere, from how he dresses, to the car he drives, to what he lets himself say over drinks with his friends.
He's breaking those boxes apart, now, bit by bit.
Baekhyun is not a box. Baekhyun is the open sky, and standing next to him, for Joonmyun, had been a breath of fresh air.
"I might not want to talk to you for a while," Sunyoung says. "Or look at you."
"I understand," Joonmyun says. "I'll leave."
"Not forever, though," Sunyoung says. Her face is shiny with tears, and she's pretty when she cries. "Just for now."
"I hope you like your souvenir," he says, standing up. He hears the paper crinkling as he laces up his shoes.
"You brought me a teddy bear?" she asks, and Joonmyun laughs lightly.
"I saw it in FAO Schwarz. You remember the big toy store with the keyboard you can step on? On fifth avenue?"
"I could tell how much you wanted to step on it," she says, "but you've always been too subdued for that."
"This time, I taught a six year old how to play ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star'," Joonmyun says. "The bear was on a shelf in the back that said ‘the perfect gift for someone with lots of love to give'." He grins at her. "The first person I thought of was you."
He leaves, closing the door behind him.
He doesn't stop moving until he gets into his car, resting his head against the steering wheel as he organizes his thoughts.
Now, he thinks, there's no turning back. He doesn't want to, anyway.
February becomes March. It's still so cold, and Joonmyun wraps himself up in his coat and just… continues.
He has lunch with his brother halfway through the month, Chinese food, and his brother talks about his job and asks Joonmyun about his, and Joonmyun gives him actual answers. Joonmyun tells his brother about his trip to New York, and his brother shows him the brochure for the Bali trip he and Sujin are taking for their honeymoon.
As they say goodbye, easily, like Joonmyun is fifteen again, he tentatively asks: "Did you mean it?"
"Did I mean what?" his brother asks, searching his pockets for his car keys.
"The note, in the invitation," says Joonmyun.
"I work with contracts," his brother says, pulling the keys out of his coat pocket triumphantly. "I never put it in writing if I don't mean it."
And at the end of the month, he gets a call from Yixing.
"Hi, Yixing," Joonmyun says. "How are you?" Yixing has been spending more time back in his studio, teaching classes while Jongdae makes the music show circuit. "How's life in the slow lane?"
"A pleasant breather," he says. "How are you doing?"
"Not bad," Joonmyun says.
"Are you free on Friday?"
"Sure," Joonmyun says. "Do you want to get a couple of drinks, or something?"
"Actually, I've heard through the grapevine that there's a show you might want to see, if you're game."
"I trust your judgment," Joonmyun says. "I haven't seen a live show since—"
"Yeah," Yixing says. "I know. So come out with me on Friday."
"I'd love to," he says. "Really."
"See you at Itaewon at ten, then," Yixing says. "I've got to get back to class."
That Friday night is the warmest evening in ages. Joonmyun still wears his coat, but the breeze is only chilly, not freezing. Yixing is wearing a tank shirt under his coat, and Joonmyun gets déjà vu as the first thing he does when he comes up out of the station is zip up Yixing's coat.
"You're always cold," Yixing says in his defense. "I'm not."
"You always have a cold," Joonmyun replies. "Where are we going?"
"RUFXXX," Yixing says. "There's something cool I want you to watch."
"Tell me about the group playing?" Joonmyun asks, as they get to the door. He pays the cover, immediately walking in and toward the back stairs.
"It's a duo group," Yixing says. "Two friends. They don't usually perform together." Yixing stops at the top of the stairs, and Joonmyun pauses to look back at him. "But I know how much you like pansori."
"Yixing?" Suddenly the open roof is suffocating. Joonmyun can taste the cigarette smoke in the air and the laughter of the table of women on the other side of the roof has become so loud in the vacuum.
"You've done really well," Yixing says, walking with Joonmyun to his favorite spot in the back, "on your own. You've come a long way. But we—"
"Lu Han and I," Yixing replies. "And Chanyeol, too."
"Yeah," Yixing says. "And Chanyeol. We thought you might need a little bit of a push."
Yixing puts a hand on each of Joonmyun's shoulders, and shoves, lightly, just enough to make Joonmyun lean back. "So here's your push."
"It's hard watching both of you," Yixing admits. "You've broken something only you can fix."
The sound of a drum. Chanyeol warming up, beatboxing into a mic. Baekhyun humming to test the sound.
He looks up toward the stage. Baekhyun won't see him. Joonmyun is too short, especially when he stands in the back. He can barely see Baekhyun, but he sees his red cap, and the slope of his forehead. As the crowd pushes in, he also hears his voice.
Joonmyun could leave now. He could go home and pretend he isn't running away. He doesn't know if Baekhyun will even want to see him. He'd planned on asking first. Maybe finally sending him a chat message and asking him if they could have a do-over on that hot chocolate, maybe at a different place. Someplace quiet.
"I'm glad you all could be here tonight," Baekhyun says. "Chanyeol and I have finally finished our rework of ‘Sugungga'." his voice drops lower. Sadder. Joonmyun notices and his stomach drops with it. "We're excited to play the second half for you tonight."
When Baekhyun starts to sing, Joonmyun knows he isn't going anywhere.
The second half is faster. More harrowing. Baekhyun's voice, as the hare bids farewell to the tortoise and the palace, is playful and wise. Joonmyun will never, ever have enough of it.
The applause is loud as the performance wraps up. As the crowd starts to thin, Joonmyun looks for Yixing. He's gone. Joonmyun is alone. He works his way to the bar.
"Jinho," he says. "Did you like the show?"
"I always do," he replies. "That's why I still work here. Can I get you something to drink?"
"Not just yet," he says.
"Waiting for someone?"
"I am," Joonmyun says. He watches as Chanyeol packs up his buk drum, thrumming with excitement and adrenaline. Baekhyun is usually like that too, but today he's curled forward, hat obscuring his eyes. Chanyeol looks over Baekhyun's shoulder, meets Joonmyun's eyes, and smiles, before quickly looking away.
It's going to be fine, Joonmyun thinks. No matter what, it's going to be fine.
Baekhyun punches Chanyeol in the arm after Chanyeol says something, and Chanyeol bursts out laughing. "I'm headed home," he says. "I'll see you next weekend?"
He doesn't hear Baekhyun's response, but he sees him shake his head with affirmation. Then Baekhyun walks over to the bar, leaning against it. "It's too cold for outdoor performances."
"It's definitely too cold," Joonmyun says quietly. He's not sure if it's audible, but apparently it is. "You'll get sick."
Baekhyun grabs the edge of the bar, and his eyes widen like he's seen a ghost. "Joonmyun?" His lips are chapped, faded purple from gum he'd chewed hours ago, and Joonmyun has given himself so much time to think about it, and nothing about how he feels about Baekhyun has changed. He is totally and completely in love with him, still.
"Yes," Joonmyun says, and he gestures with two fingers to Jinho. "Two cranberry-vodkas, please."
Jinho grins. "Coming right up."
They sit in silence and sip their drinks. It's almost closing time, but Jinho doesn't ask them to leave. The roof empties out, people gravitating downstairs for their abandoned coats and bags.
"What do you want?" Baekhyun asks, finally. His voice is husky, all sung out. Pansori is a test of vocal endurance, straining even strong singers. This might be how Joonmyun likes Baekhyun's voice best. It's how he thinks of him, when he closes his eyes. "It's been a long time. I thought you were done with me."
"I want to tell you a secret," Joonmyun says. He wants to look away from Baekhyun, but he can't. Baekhyun's soft gasp is more visible than audible. His canines are sharp as he bites into his lip, and if Joonmyun gives him the chance, his words will be sharper. "My biggest secret."
"What if I don't want to hear it?" Baekhyun asks. He sips at his drink, condensation on the edge of the glass, nails clinking as he aimlessly taps fingers against it. "What will you do then?"
"Then I'll have to tell it to someone else," Joonmyun says. "Everyone else, until you hear it somehow."
Baekhyun's eyes search his own, looking for answers. Joonmyun stands there, and lets him search, hiding nothing. He has never needed to wear masks for Baekhyun, and he won't start now. "What kind of secret is that, old man? Or were secrets something different a decade ago?"
"Can I tell you, or not?" Joonmyun asks. "It's a secret I haven't told anyone before."
Baekhyun's eyes flicker between Joonmyun and his drink. "What makes you think I like vodka-cranberries?" He takes a sip. Ice rattles in his glass because his hand is quivering. "Don't expect me to listen to you because you remember something silly like my favorite drink."
"I don't expect anything," Joonmyun says. "But I'm asking. Hoping."
"Okay," Baekhyun says. "I'm listening."
"Sticky Byun Baekhyun," he says, "I have lived twenty-nine years pushing aside most of the things I wanted in life, and I was prepared to do it again. Tried to do it again." He trembles. "It turns out, though, that I've never wanted anything as much as I want you."
It is the closest Joonmyun has ever come to saying, to Baekhyun, what Baekhyun is to him. All the things Joonmyun is afraid of, and yet all that he needs. A contradiction made of blueberry-mint and an unforgettable voice.
Baekhyun just looks at him, eyes bright. Joonmyun's diamond, glittering so brightly here on the roof, where it all started.
"Well," Baekhyun says finally, and for the first time, he seems at a loss for words. But then he's smiling. It's some parts that smug, familiar grin that sends tingles down to the tips of Joonmyun's toes. It's some parts hopeful and other parts scared. But it's there. Baekhyun is smiling at Joonmyun.
Maybe it's okay to breathe, now. "Well?"
"It's only natural," Baekhyun says. His voice shakes, but the look in his eyes dares Joonmyun to mention it. "I am extremely cute."
"You're still such a brat," Joonmyun says. It surprises them both, maybe, because Baekhyun's lips are parted in shock for the briefest of moments before he laughs.
"Yeah," Baekhyun says. Time between them crumbles into nothing as Baekhyun's eyelashes flutter at him. "But you like me anyway."
"More than I like anyone else," Joonmyun says. A gust of wind blows Joonmyun's hair into his eyes. Baekhyun hesitantly reaches forward to brush it off his forehead, and Joonmyun does not flinch away. "There's only one Baekhyun, after all."
"The bar is closing," Baekhyun says. "But I know this great bench, in this small park along the Cheongyecheon."
"Do you?" Joonmyun pushes an empty glass forward on the bar. Jinho is making his way back up the stairs, having given them all the time he could. Joonmyun will write him a thank you note, the way his mother had taught him to do when someone does something nice.
Baekhyun reaches out and takes Joonmyun's hand. Their fingers still fit together so nicely, thin sliding between thick. "Let me show you," Baekhyun says, pulling Joonmyun up. Pulling Joonmyun after him. Pulling Joonmyun closer.
"Yes," Joonmyun replies, because there's no way he would ever refuse.
Baekhyun looks down at their linked hands, and then back up at Joonmyun, like he can't believe Joonmyun is letting him do this. "Are you drunk?"
"Haven't had anything but a sip of that," Joonmyun says, pointing to his mostly untouched drink. "I wanted you to be sure I was being serious."
"Then…" Baekhyun runs his thumb in a slow, exhilarating circle along the back of Joonmyun's. "An eye for an eye."
"Does that mean you owe me a secret?" Joonmyun asks.
"Yes," Baekhyun says, letting go of Joonmyun's hand when they get to the bottom of the stairs. "I guess it does."
"I'll save it for later," Joonmyun says.
"What makes you think you get a later?" He pulls on the bottom of his coat.
"So what have you been doing with yourself?" Joonmyun asks, as Baekhyun flags down a taxi.
"Working," Baekhyun says. "Singing." He kicks at the ground. "Moping."
"Yeah," Baekhyun says. He fishes into his coat and pulls out a box of Xylitol, pouring out a handful and then jamming it into his mouth. "Moping."
A taxi stops and they get in. It isn't a long drive, but it feels long because they don't talk. Baekhyun sits next to him though, their arms brushing with every jolt of the car. After a sharp turn to the left, Baekhyun falls into Joonmyun, and Joonmyun puts an arm around him to keep him there.
Baekhyun doesn't pull away from him. He's so warm, in Joonmyun's grip.
After they get out of the taxi, they walk past the convenience store, down the railed stairs, to a bench they sat on before. Baekhyun takes the left side, and Joonmyun takes the right.
Joonmyun waits. He's always been more patient than Baekhyun.
Baekhyun's hands clench in the fabric of his puffy coat, and his exhale is so loud.
"You can't just come to my gig and expect me to forgive you just like that," Baekhyun says. "Because if you left me so easily last time, after you said you weren't going to, what's to stop you from doing it again?"
"I know that," says Joonmyun.
"You said you saw me as an adult but you treated me like a child," says Baekhyun. "You said you couldn't make me happy, and just—" He chokes on his words.
Baekhyun leans forward, wrapping his arms around himself, just like he did when Joonmyun had broken up with him. Now, without a table, Joonmyun realizes Baekhyun is curling up like he expects to get hit, not with fists but with words, and he's trying to guard against them.
"I know," says Joonmyun. "I was scared."
"I'm scared, too," Baekhyun says. "I always tell people I'm not afraid of anything, but I'm afraid of bugs and the thunderstorms and of not being good enough to keep around." He pulls his knees up, wrapping his arms around them instead, and rests his forehead on his knees. "I was scared I was asking for too much from you."
"You weren't," says Joonmyun. "I just wanted to give you more."
"So you thought nothing was a better choice?"
"You didn't ask me what I've been doing," Joonmyun says. "The past two months."
Baekhyun looks up at him. His mouth is dark, and he's so pale. He looks thinner, Joonmyun notes. And tired. "Tell me, then."
"I went to New York," he says. "I wrote two completely new songs, and arranged a dozen more written by someone else." He scoots closer to Baekhyun. "I cleaned my whole apartment. I found your Wonder Woman shirt."
"I'd wondered what had happened to it," Baekhyun says. "Sounds like you were productive."
"I told my brother I was gay," he says, and Baekhyun's eyes widen. "And my grandmother. And Sunyoung, too." Joonmyun runs a hand through his hair when the wind pushes it back into his eyes. "I might as well take out an ad on Nate."
"What… what happened?"
Joonmyun can't read him. He soldiers on. "My brother said it was weird," he says. "But that he'd get used to it. My grandmother said she still loved me, and seemed surprised that I thought it would change anything between us. She likes you so much, by the way."
"She did strike me as a woman with excellent taste," Baekhyun says. He drops his arms, uncurling his spine to lean back against the bench.
"Sunyoung said… she said she didn't want to see me for a while." It prickles, the memory, but it doesn't ache. "That's understandable, I think."
"Sounds like you were really productive."
"Kris told me, on the way home from Club FF that night, that you deserved a boyfriend who wasn't ashamed of you." Joonmyun sighs. "I knew he was right. I knew I was being selfish. I thought the best way to deal with it was for me to let you find that person, because it wasn't me."
"Are you positive that you're the older one, here?" Baekhyun asks. He lets his feet fall from the bench, back down to the concrete.
"But once you were gone, and I realized… and I realized how much I'd…" He gathers himself. "Baekhyun, I can live without you. I did it for a long time, you know?" He laughs. "But I don't want to. I want to be someone that can make you happy, and I'm doing my best to become that person, because I miss you so much. The world is so quiet without you." He grabs Baekhyun's arm, lightly enough that Baekhyun could throw him off if he wanted. "And it turns out I like things noisy."
"Hyung…" Baekhyun looks like he's waking up from a long sleep. He grabs the front of Joonmyun's coat and drags him the rest of the way across the bench. "All of this… was for me?"
"No," Joonmyun smiles. "It was for me. But it was because of you. Because I want you to have good things. You should expect good things." He rests his forehead against Baekhyun's. "I can't promise you I'm entirely comfortable with everything yet," he says. "I'm new to this whole ‘being honest with myself' thing. But I can promise you that eventually, I will be."
"That's a better promise, anyway," Baekhyun says. "Gives me the chance to make it worth your while." He tries to leer at Joonmyun, but it's ruined by the tears in his eyes.
"You want to?" Joonmyun asks. "Really? Even though I hurt you?"
"I think the fact that you could hurt me so much," Baekhyun says, "means I might be a little in love with you, Joonmyun."
"Just a little?"
"Well," Baekhyun says, his eye makeup running and leaving tracks down his cheeks. In the dim light of the bench, Joonmyun can see the way his eyes shine. "You dress like the dad in an SBS drama from the nineties." He laughs. "You can't expect miracles."
Joonmyun grabs Baekhyun's face in both of his hands. "Brat," he says, and he doesn't check to see if anyone is around. He just leans forward and kisses him. Baekhyun opens up to him, softer than Joonmyun remembers but exactly as warm. "I missed you."
"I missed you too," Baekhyun says. "And if you break up with me for my own good ever again I'll rip your balls off."
"That seems unfair--" Joonmyun begins to say, and Baekhyun grins and kisses the words right out of his mouth.
April showers bring May flowers, and Baekhyun's smile gets brighter as winter fades into true spring.
Joonmyun spends his days in the studio, recording tracks new tracks with Jongdae, and his nights with Baekhyun, playing the keyboard while Baekhyun sings, or going out to drinks with Chanyeol and Sehun and Kris, or curled up on Joonmyun's bed, listening to the records he'd brought back from New York on his grandfather's old Victrola.
Some nights, like tonight, Baekhyun works the late shift at ComicsPlease, so Joonmyun drops by as they're closing to pick him up.
"You're wearing my scarf," Joonmyun says, pulling on it lightly as he stops in front of Baekhyun, who is already wearing his zip up sweatshirt and the black cap Joonmyun had borrowed once, like he's ready to go.
Baekhyun bats his hand away. "It's my scarf now."
"Oh well, I guess I'll take you then," laughs Joonmyun, hooking an arm around Baekhyun's waist as Zitao closes his cash register. He plants a kiss on Baekhyun's cheek, and Baekhyun flutters his eyelashes. "Or maybe not. I'll cut those eyelashes off one day, I swear."
"Joonmyun-hyung might as well be twelve when you two are together," Sehun says.
"Not all the time," Baekhyun says wickedly, and Sehun laughs.
"I'm making up for some of my lost adolescence," adds Joonmyun. "I should have a birthday party, with hats and cakes."
"Wait," Baekhyun says, "when is your birthday?"
"Sixteen days after yours," Joonmyun says, pinching Baekhyun's nose. "The twenty-second."
"Oh," Baekhyun says. "Good. As long as I didn't miss it."
"You didn't," Joonmyun reassures him, and Baekhyun pinches him until he lets go of his nose. "Ow!"
"And how do you know my birthday, hyung?"
"Oh, you know, I picked it up somewhere…" He winks at Baekhyun, and Baekhyun scowls back.
"You think it's so cute, how you remember everything."
"No," Joonmyun says, "you're the cute one."
"You should have a birthday party," Sehun says. "It would be fun."
"Maybe I will," he says. "Aren't you guys ready to close up yet?"
"I am," Zitao says. "But someone has been too busy flirting to close out their register…"
"Okay, okay," Baekhyun says, and Joonmyun laughs as Baekhyun purposefully steps on Zitao's foot as he starts punching things into the computer. Zitao chuckles and squeezes him in a one-armed hug.
Baekhyun finishes with an exaggerated sigh, and they all head up the stairs out into the evening.
It's only a little chilly, but Baekhyun pulls his scarf tighter around his neck. "Did you drive?" he asks Joonmyun, and Joonmyun nods.
"I did," he confirms. "Sehun, would you like a ride home?"
"No," he says, looking at the man locking up. "I'm going home with Zitao today."
He and Baekhyun exchange a look when they get in the car. "Sehun's quest continues," Baekhyun says dramatically, and Joonmyun laughs.
"So it does," he says, watching Zitao drape his arm around Sehun's broad shoulders as they wait at the crosswalk. "So it does."
Joonmyun starts the car.
"You should teach me how to drive," Baekhyun says. "Someday."
"Really?" He turns to look at Baekhyun. "Me?"
"You're the only teacher I've ever listened to," Baekhyun teases, and Joonmyun laughs.
"Can't beat that argument," Joonmyun says, and Baekhyun buckles his seatbelt. "Are you telling me you know how to hotwire a car but not how to drive away with it?"
Baekhyun laughs. "You know what, Joonmyun-hyung?"
"I'm…" Baekhyun grabs Joonmyun's arm, lightly. "I'm really happy."
Joonmyun's heartbeat is probably audible, it's so fast and loud. "Me too," he says, and he sneaks a look at Baekhyun as he slows for the red light. "Me too."
The extra slippers are out again in Joonmyun's doorway.
They order takeout, eating until they're both too full, then lounge around on the sofa, talking about Jongdae's second mini album and the Park Yura show that Joonmyun got tickets for next month.
"We should get ready for bed," Joonmyun says, "before I'm too sleepy."
"You first," Baekhyun says. "I plan on lying on the floor for a little while."
"Okay," he agrees, and he disappears into the shower.
A half an hour later, when he emerges in a cloud of steam, he finds Baekhyun doing exactly what he said he would. His legs are so long, stretched out in front of him like that.
Joonmyun towels his hair as he steps into the living room. Baekhyun, in just his Batman shirt, sweatshirt abandoned on the couch, is on the floor with Joonmyun's folder of music. Joonmyun doesn't mind. He'd left it out, after all, and he has never kept the things he's working on from Baekhyun.
He's more interested in the faint trail of hair below Baekhyun's belly button that disappears beneath the elastic of his underwear.
"What's this?" Baekhyun asks, holding up the song that Joonmyun had started when Baekhyun was sick. "You never finished it?" He's nibbling at his lower lip. They aren't as chapped, now that the weather is nicer. He still licks them just as much.
"It was never right," Joonmyun says. "The second verse isn't meant for the same kind of voice as the first."
"So it's a duet," Baekhyun says, and Joonmyun sighs. "Do you mind if I work on it?" He scratches at his stomach, pushing his shirt a little higher. Joonmyun's mouth goes dry.
"No," Joonmyun says. "If you want to, you can."
Baekhyun stands up. "Okay," he says, and he sets it down on Joonmyun's keyboard. "I'm going to go take a shower."
"I'll be in my room," Joonmyun says, carefully, and Baekhyun's lazy expression sharpens. His gaze drops to the V of Joonmyun's undershirt, and then back up to his face.
"Hmm," he says, offering a tiny dangerous smile. "I'll come find you when I'm clean."
"I'll be waiting," Joonmyun says.
When he hears the shower turn on, he slowly sits down on the edge of the bed, taking off his underwear and his shirt, and grabbing the lube from his night table.
He scoots to the center of the bed and spreads his legs. He doesn't know how long he has until Baekhyun gets out of the shower.
Spreading his legs, he presses a dry finger to his entrance. He shivers, tracing small circles until he stops flinching at the touch, then with trembling hands, he squirts lube into his palm, enough to slick up both of his hands, and wrap his left hand loosely around his cock as the other returns to his hole, this time pressing harder, dipping in with his middle finger and closing his eyes at the penetration.
He stretches carefully, making sure he's more than ready for the second finger before he pushes it in. The angle isn't great, but it's good enough to start opening him up. He pushes both fingers in as deeply as he can, knuckles brushing across his prostate but not hard enough for more than a faint shiver of pleasure, and scissors them gingerly. He doesn't add a third finger until he hears the shower water stop, hissing at the intrusion. He bends his fingers, trying to find his prostate again. When he does, he lets out a heavy sigh, thrusting his fingers quickly as the bathroom door opens.
Baekhyun comes into the bedroom with his hair dripping wet and a towel wrapped around his waist. He looks at Joonmyun, eyes trailing up from his spread legs to his face, and then back down again. His mouth is parted with surprise, and the freckles that dot down his neck stand out against the flush from the hot water that extends down the center of his chest.
"Are you just going to stand there?" Joonmyun asks, and Baekhyun chuckles, walking up to the edge of the bed and then crawling up until he's between Joonmyun's legs. He pulls Joonmyun's hand out gently, and Joonmyun swallows as Baekhyun licks his lips.
"What do you…"
"What do you think?" Joonmyun asks. He feels strangely empty, muscle clenching around nothing as Baekhyun continues to stare instead of touch.
"I didn't know you wanted me like this," Baekhyun says, pushing his own fingers into Joonmyun to search for his prostate. He locates it easily, faster than Joonmyun had, pressing into it repeatedly as Joonmyun rides his hand. His fingers are thinner than Joonmyun's, and he adds a fourth. It's the fullest Joonmyun has ever felt, and his thighs burn with how tightly he has them tensed. "Are you sure?"
"I want you in every way," Joonmyun says, and Baekhyun kisses him, slowly, sighing into his mouth.
Baekhyun opens the drawer and pulls out a condom, ripping the edge off the wrapper with his teeth and hastily rolling it down on himself. He grabs the bottle of lube still next to Joonmyun and squirts enough to slick himself up, swearing as he takes his lubed hand and jerks himself quickly before he moves to cover Joonmyun's body with his own. Joonmyun pulls his legs up, shuddering as his cock brushes Baekhyun's stomach. He can feel the sticky smear of precome from the head of it across the soft skin.
"How many people have taken you, Joonmyun?" Baekhyun asks, pressing the head of his dick and pushing lightly at Joonmyun's stretched entrance.
"One," Joonmyun says, as Baekhyun slowly pushes forward, in, groaning low in his throat as Joonmyun takes him deeper. "Including you."
Baekhyun stops when he's in as far as he can go, and his cheeks are red, mouth full and parted. "Oh," he gasps. "I'm going to kiss you now."
"Okay," Joonmyun replies, breathless as Baekhyun shifts inside him. He feels like he's melting, everything focused on Baekhyun sucking his upper lip into his mouth, and the slide of Baekhyun inside him. The long, drawn out moans Baekhyun makes as he pulls himself most of the way out and then thrusts hard back in.
The next thrust nudges Joonmyun's prostate, and Joonmyun bucks his hips into it. After that, it's just dizziness, and the prettiest whines as Baekhyun peppers his face and neck with kisses, arms trembling as he increases his pace. "Joonmyun," Baekhyun says, high in his throat, in a sweet, even note that echoes in Joonmyun's ears long after it stops, and Joonmyun has to close his eyes to find his breath.
Tangled up in Joonmyun's sheets, some time later, Baekhyun leaves kisses along Joonmyun's collarbones. "I'm calling in my secret," says Joonmyun. "Tell me why it matters." He doesn't need to be specific. Baekhyun will know what he means.
"I wanted to be your first something," Baekhyun mumbles.
"Why does it matter?"
"We trade," Baekhyun says. "Secret for secret. Kiss for kiss." He licks down to Joonmyun's nipple, taking it into his mouth and laving his tongue across it as Joonmyun digs his hands into Baekhyun's still damp hair. "So you owed me a first."
"What first did you give me?" Joonmyun asks, as Baekhyun drifts lower, mouthing along the line of Joonmyun's abs. Arousal stirs as Baekhyun's lips close around the head of his mostly soft cock. He circles his tongue around the head, and then lets Joonmyun fall from his mouth, looking up at him with serious eyes.
"You were my first love," Baekhyun says, and then he licks a line up the underside of Joonmyun's dick. He smirks as Joonmyun moans. "I guess it's fitting that I get to be the first person to fuck you."
Joonmyun doesn't know whether he wants to laugh or cry because he's so happy, and it's disconcerting to be thinking at all when Baekhyun's lips are so close to his cock.
"Well, if you want to be my second, too," he says, as Baekhyun slowly pushes his fingers back into him. It's sore, but nothing he can't handle. "Then I'd suggest you hurry up."
"Do you have a bedtime, old man?" Three fingers, and a maddeningly slow pace. "Because otherwise, I think we have all night."
They stumble out into the living room a few minutes after six in the morning, after a short shower that consisted mostly of Baekhyun taking a nap on Joonmyun's shoulder while Joonmyun made sure they were both clean enough to sit on the living room furniture.
"This is the first sunrise I've seen in a long time," Baekhyun says grumpily, shifting on the couch. "I blame you."
"Me?" Joonmyun laughs. "You must be kidding."
"It's your fault. You and your sexy secret abs." He stretches his legs across Joonmyun's as they take up the whole couch. "I think I've used muscles in my body I didn't know existed."
"Now who's the old man?"
Baekhyun grunts. "You're taking off from work and we're sleeping all day."
"Okay," Joonmyun says. "That sounds nice to me."
Light pours in as the sun comes up. "You really do have the best view of the sunrise," Baekhyun says. "I could be convinced to see another one." He smiles, that same mischievous smile that had captured Joonmyun's attention all the way back in September.
"Baekhyunnie," he says, running his hand lightly up Baekhyun's calf, "you're not my first love." He tickles at Baekhyun's knee and enjoys his laugh as he squirms. "But you'll be my best love."
Baekhyun bites his lip, chewing at it thoughtfully before he speaks. "I think I could live with that."
For Baekhyun's birthday, they drive out to the ocean.
The beach is almost empty, because the water is still too cold to dip toes in, but since they're alone, Baekhyun can sing as loud as he wants into the salty sea air. Joonmyun laughs at him, taking video with his phone as Baekhyun mugs for the camera. Joonmyun has never had a particular fondness for the beach, but he develops some, between getting pushed into damp cold sand by Baekhyun and getting his shoes drenched by the rising tide.
Sometimes he thinks his life used to be a broken record, stuck on the same line of track playing over and over again. Baekhyun has moved the needle. Now, Joonmyun can listen to all these songs he's never heard before.
They make a mess of Joonmyun's car, and he has to get it professionally cleaned to finally get the salt smell out of the seats, but it's worth it when he remembers Baekhyun's noisy laugh every time he gets in to drive.
His guests start arriving at his condo around seven.
Lu Han and Yixing show up first, with five pies from Mr. Pizza, followed by Jongin and Minseok. Song Qian and Kris come at about the same time, and look to have spent about the same amount of time on their hair.
Baekhyun is the last to arrive, fifteen minutes late with two big plastic bags full of makgeolli and beer. "Happy Birthday," he says, when Joonmyun opens the door, and seeing that there's no one in the hallway, he bends forward and gives him a brief kiss on the mouth. "Are you going to let me in?"
"Of course," Joonmyun says. "Everyone else is already here."
"Wow, it sure is lively," Baekhyun says sarcastically, looking into the living room to find everyone caught up in an intense discussion about the upcoming presidential election as they eat pizza.
"Well," Joonmyun says, "you do have the alcohol."
They take drinks into the living room, along with more napkins and eight cups.
"Put on your party hats," Lu Han says, "it's time to play games."
"Do I have to wear a party hat?" Minseok asks Joonmyun. "Because when you invited me, you also mentioned party hats, and I could really live my whole life without the experience of being a thirty-three year old man in a party hat."
"No," Joonmyun says. "You definitely don't have to."
"You should have gone with Sehunnie's theme," Baekhyun says. "The am I turning thirty or three?! party."
"It would have been fun," Joonmyun says, "but I really wanted Kris to come." Everyone laughs. "I thought something small and intimate would be better," Joonmyun says. "I'm glad you guys could make it."
"It was a close call," Lu Han says. "One of my much cooler friends called, and said he was having his birthday down in Hongdae, but…"
"Then I appreciate your sacrifice," Joonmyun says, as Baekhyun sits on the arm of Kris's chair.
Song Qian grins. "It's a rare occasion when you let your friends mix like this," she says. "It's fun."
Joonmyun sits next to Jongin on the floor after making sure everyone has something to drink, and they play.
Joonmyun doesn't think he's played this many drinking games since college. He can barely remember the rules to some of them, but Jongin is the king of games, and Lu Han knows how to engineer things so that Joonmyun and Kris lose them all.
"I think we should have cake before I can't see straight," Joonmyun says, and Baekhyun laughs, disappearing into the kitchen.
"He acts like he lives here," Jongin says, laughing, and Joonmyun smiles at him, not replying.
Baekhyun comes out with one of the two cakes Joonmyun had bought from the bakery, the chocolate one with white creamy icing, and sets it onto the table. He has a stack of paper plates under his arm. "Eight people, eight pieces," he says, slicing the cake fairly even. His face is red from the alcohol, but his hands are steady with the plastic knife.
He hands everyone a piece of cake, and plastic forks, until there are only two slices of cake left on the table. Then Baekhyun turns to Joonmyun, picking up one of the two remaining slices.
"And a piece for the birthday boy," he says brightly, dangerously and he takes the paper plate and smashes it into Joonmyun's face.
All chatter stops as Joonmyun tries to process, through the haze of alcohol, the chocolate all over his face, and how cute Baekhyun looks with his eyes narrowed evilly like that. "Baekhyunnie," Joonmyun says, wanting to be stern but trying not to laugh.
"Oops?" Baekhyun says, and Yixing cracks and laughs, which starts everyone laughing.
Joonmyun wipes some of the cake with his fingers, and puts them to his mouth. "It's good cake," he says, and Baekhyun runs his index finger right down the bridge of Joonmyun's nose before tasting it for himself.
"It is," he says, licking his finger, and Joonmyun's brain is slow in telling him not now. "You should go wash up."
"Whose fault is that?" Joonmyun is unsteady, when he pulls himself up from the floor.
"Do you need a hand?" Minseok asks, looking worried, but Joonmyun waves him off.
"I can find my way around my own home," Joonmyun assures him, even if his head is spinning.
Everything is in slow motion, but he makes his way just fine to the kitchen sink, where he uses a clean towel to wipe at his face after scrubbing quickly with water and face soap.
When there's no trace of cake or icing on his skin, he turns off the water. About to head back into the living room, he grabs a kitchen chair and takes it out with him.
"Yixing tells me it was mean of me to waste your cake," Baekhyun says. He's moved to sit on the arm of Kris's chair again, but he's turned toward Lu Han and Yixing and Song Qian on the sofa, clearly having been talking to them as Kris looks between Minseok and Jongin as they bicker about something, like it's a tennis match.
"You're always mean to me," Joonmyun says. "I'm becoming immune."
"You can have some of mine," Baekhyun says generously, getting up from his perch on the arm of Kris's chair to walk over to Joonmyun, who has set the kitchen chair next to Song Qian and sat in it.
"Generous of you," Joonmyun says. He takes Baekhyun's fork when it's offered, and spears a bite of cake. Instead of eating it, though, he quickly bends forward and smears it on Baekhyun's cheek. "An eye for an eye."
Baekhyun makes an outraged squawk, and lifts the plate as though weighing his love of chocolate against his desire to decorate Joonmyun's face again, but Joonmyun catches his waist and pulls him down in his lap. "Just because you're stronger than me—"
The alcohol makes his mind fuzzy. He likes Baekhyun, and he likes chocolate, and that's all he thinks as he leans forward and licks the cake right off Baekhyun's cheek.
Baekhyun stiffens in his arms, and the world catches up to Joonmyun as Song Qian gasps. The chocolate is rich on his tongue, and it tastes even better with Baekhyun's skin.
"Oh," Song Qian says. "That explains a lot of things."
"No it doesn't. He's just drunk," Baekhyun says, trying to stand up. Joonmyun holds on tighter, and Baekhyun looks down at him in shock. "Hyung?"
"Now is as good a time as any," he says to Baekhyun, before looking at Song Qian. She just looks at him, shrewdly, like she's putting the puzzle pieces together in her mind. "Baekhyun is my boyfriend," he says, to the mostly silent room.
Baekhyun's hands tighten on Joonmyun's arms. His nails dig into the skin.
He finds Minseok's gaze first, but his face is impassive, and Jongin looks shell-shocked.
"You already told Sunyoung, right?" Song Qian asks. "That's why she's not here."
"She's mad at me for not telling her sooner," Joonmyun says. "She's not wrong to feel that way." He sighs. "You're all rather calm."
"What reaction were you expecting?" Minseok asks. "For one of us to run screaming and yelling out the door?"
"Maybe," Baekhyun says. "I had to defend myself, when my brother found out I was gay." He loosens up his fingers as he speaks, leaving tiny marks on Joonmyun's forearms. "My parents kicked me out. The only friends I managed to keep were Chanyeol and Zitao. So don't make it sound like telling people is easy."
"But Joonmyun-hyung is still Joonmyun-hyung," Jongin says, shrugging. "And Baekhyun is still Baekhyun? You're not different people than you were five minutes ago, just because you like each other." He stares forlornly at the empty cake platter, looking more upset that there isn't more dessert than at the fact that Joonmyun and Baekhyun are dating each other.
"Running and yelling takes so much energy that could be better spent on another round of Nunchi," Minseok adds. "Kris is still sitting mostly upright so clearly we can play again."
"Told you to give your friends more credit," Yixing says, and Lu Han looks extremely pleased.
Joonmyun hugs Baekhyun as he slumps back into Joonmyun, and smiles at him. "Let me up," he says, and Baekhyun slips off his lap and takes Joonmyun's chair when he stands.
Joonmyun retreats, into the kitchen, and Song Qian follows him. He can hear the others, in the living room, laughing and shouting numbers. He pours himself a glass of water, and silently pours Song Qian one as well.
"Of all the reasons I'd come up with for you breaking my friend's heart, this one hadn't even occurred to me." The water wakes him up, cool in his mouth and down his throat.
"That was purposeful," Joonmyun says. "I thought I wasn't going to tell anyone." Baekhyun yells with victory as Lu Han shouts "Asshole!" and then there's the carbonation sound of someone opening a new bottle of makgeolli.
"Here you are, though," Song Qian says.
"Here I am," agrees Joonmyun. He opens the refrigerator again, this time to pull out the second cake. "Should I make Jongin's day?"
She laughs. "I'll carry it," she says, taking the box from him, and as he hands it to her, the door buzzes.
"We might be too loud for my neighbors," Joonmyun says. "I'll get it."
He opens the door with an apology on his lips, but it isn't one of his neighbors at the door. It's Sunyoung, carrying a plastic bag and smiling at him. Her makeup is stage-worthy. Maybe there had been filming.
"Sorry I'm late," Sunyoung says, casually, as though it hasn't been two months since they've exchanged a word. Joonmyun had included her on his e-mail invite because it had felt wrong not to, not because he'd thought she would come. "Got held up at a shoot."
"That's…" he opens the door wider, and beams at her. She smiles tentatively back. "That's more than all right," Joonmyun says. "I just brought out another cake, so as far as I'm concerned, you're right on time."
The hangover the next day is worth it, because Baekhyun actually feels sorry for him and helps him clean the whole living room. They get distracted a few times, making out like teenagers against the wall in the hallway, but for the most part they're done before it's even time to think about lunch. Baekhyun has work today, so Joonmyun ponders places that serve haejangguk in the Hongdae area.
"I can't believe it's almost summer," Baekhyun says, looking out the window. His hair is messy, sticking up in every direction. He smiles back at Joonmyun, over his shoulder. "It's almost time to turn the heating off."
"Almost," Joonmyun says. Summer. "Baekhyunnie, would you…"
"Would I what?"
"Be my date for my brother's wedding, in August?"
Baekhyun frowns. "How would your brother feel about that?"
"He already gave me permission," says Joonmyun. "You can say no. You can always say no."
"Do you really…" Baekhyun rubs at his eyes, looking like a lost little puppy. Joonmyun's heart swells. "Do you really want me to?"
"I'll be bored unless you come," Joonmyun says with a tiny smile. "My family is kind of stiff. I don't know if you've noticed."
"I do want to see your grandmother again," Baekhyun says. "Do I need to get a suit, or something?"
"Yes," Joonmyun says, walking over to the window so he can wrap his arms around Baekhyun from behind. He muffles his laughter in Baekhyun's neck, and Baekhyun's ticklish there, so he shudders. "You'll definitely have to get a suit."
He finishes the last track for Jongdae's full-length album on the last day of May. It's a collaboration track with DoubleK, and it's the easiest song they've recorded yet.
"We're really pushing the deadline, don't you think, hyung?" Jongdae teases. "Song Qian-noona was kinda nervous." He grins. "I don't know how I calmed her down."
"I do," Soojung says. "You used your tongue. I caught those two sucking face in front of the third floor bathrooms."
"You and… Song Qian?" Joonmyun can't help it. He laughs. Jongdae blushes, a bright red across his high cheekbones, but he smiles unrepentantly. "A talent-manager romance. How starcrossed."
"Maybe I should date younger," Soojung says. "It seems to be the trend these days." She looks not-so-subtly at Joonmyun.
"You should date older," Jongin says pointedly. "I happen to know someone who'd be interested. You know him, too. Tall, blond, hands like a basketball player." He grins when Soojung shifts uncomfortably. "Plus, I'm not dating younger. It isn't a trend unless DoubleK's Kai does it."
"I don't know," Jongdae says, "I think your relationship with manhwa geared at children five to ten is pretty intimate—"
Jongin kicks out at him, landing a good hit to the shin.
Minseok clears his throat loudly to get their attention. "Sorry to interrupt, but the boss would like to speak with you, Joonmyun."
"Right," he says. He saves the file of their newly completed song, and pops the master onto his thumbdrive. "I'll see you guys later."
Lee Sooman's office is as cold and unwelcoming as it always is. This time, there's no one else there. The chair directly in front of his desk is empty.
"Come in," he says. "Sit down.
"Is something wrong, sir?" Joonmyun asks. "I have the last track of the new Chen album for you."
"I listened to the other new songs," Lee Sooman says. "They're good, Kim-ssi."
Joonmyun takes a relieved breath. "Thank you, sir."
"Everyone told me you were the right person for the job." He raps his knuckles on the desk. "Now I agree."
"Chen is going to debut in China this winter," he says. "So I need you to start preparing tracks. We'll hire a Chinese lyricist to work with you."
"Yes, sir," Joonmyun says, and he smiles as he excuses himself.
It's a reminder, he thinks, about China in the fall.
Joonmyun takes Baekhyun to buy a suit.
He's not a patient shopper, infuriating the tailor as he whines about pins and it being hot. Joonmyun tries his best not to laugh, smoothing the lapels on the suit jacket when the tailor goes into the back to look for a different type of fabric.
"You look really handsome," Joonmyun says, and Baekhyun's lips curl upward in a tiny smile as Joonmyun drops his hands.
When the tailor comes back, with the lighter summer fabric Joonmyun had inquired after, Baekhyun is much more pliant, letting him measure and tuck without complaint.
Afterwards, Baekhyun complains about feeling cooped up, and drags Joonmyun to Yeouido. There's a pleasant breeze, which means kids flying kites and couples on bikes, and Baekhyun's hair blowing fiercely in the wind because he'd left his baseball cap at work.
It's warm, though, and Baekhyun glitters just as brilliantly under the sun as he does under the lights on a live-club stage.
"So you're going to stay with your parents this weekend?" Baekhyun asks.
"I am," Joonmyun says. "I can't spring something like this at the wedding."
"I guess that would be horrible," Baekhyun says. "Hey, I know this is your oldest son's wedding, but surprise! Your younger son is never going to have one."
We could have a wedding if we wanted, Joonmyun thinks. "It wouldn't be kind."
"You're sure you don't want me to go with you?" Baekhyun picks a spot of grass and sits. Joonmyun sits next to him, stretching his legs in front of him. "I have experience facing parents, you know. I'm the biggest expert you've got."
"My brother will be there," Joonmyun says. "And my grandmother."
"Yeah," Baekhyun says, flopping back into the grass. He digs his hands into it, pulling up pieces. "I guess I wouldn't help."
"It's not that," Joonmyun says. "It's just that you've already been rejected by one set of parents. I don't want you to face another."
"What will you do? If your parents don't accept you?"
Baekhyun has plucked lots of grass now. There is green under his fingernails, and a pile of sad grass on his stomach, where he collects the pieces after he snaps them off.
"I'll be sad," Joonmyun says. "Hurt." He smiles down at Baekhyun, brushing the grass off his stomach and letting his hand rest there for a moment before he pulls it back. "But I won't be alone." He has people who know him, now. Know who he is, some of his scariest secrets, and they still like him.
"You won't," Baekhyun agrees, grinning at him.
He has Baekhyun, too.
It will be enough, even if he loses his mother and father. It's like ‘Sugungga'. Kris had thought it was sad, when Joonmyun had told him about the story's end, the hare escaping the palace and leaving the Dragon King to die. Joonmyun just knows that most types of happiness have some kind of cost.
This kind of happiness, Joonmyun thinks, as Baekhyun lies on his back in the grass in his Superman shirt, smiling up at the clouds, is worth anything.
This kind of happiness, Joonmyun decides, lying down next to him, feeling the grass tickle his cheeks, is better than any cage.
"No matter what," Joonmyun says, "I'm not going anywhere."
He means it, and Baekhyun looks like he might be starting to believe him again.
On Saturday morning, he drops Baekhyun off at work. "I'll see you tomorrow," he says. "Or maybe tonight. It depends on how it goes."
"Good luck," Baekhyun says. He leans across the center console, pulling Joonmyun into a lingering kiss. He moves away when they're both breathless. "Either way, I'll be waiting."
He gets to his parents' house around noon. His brother is already there, and it's he who answers the door.
"Our mother is freaking out about the flowers for the reception," he says. "So you're right on time."
"I don't know anything about flowers," Joonmyun says. "Sorry."
His brother shrugs. "Either way, we'll split her attention." Joonmyun laughs and carefully puts his shoes on the shoe-rack. His stomach is all twisted up. He feels nauseated. "Are you going to do it today?" his brother asks.
Joonmyun nods. "Yes," he says. "I've put it off as long as I can." His brother must hear the panic.
"Then she'll really be off my back about the flowers," he jokes, and Joonmyun forces a laugh. "Sorry, it's not really funny, but you're the funny one."
"No," Joonmyun says, smiling, "we both got split pretty even on that."
"Pity," his brother says, and they both laugh a little easier at that.
He walks into the living room, where hundreds of photos are spread across the table and floor, and walks over to his grandmother to kiss her on the cheek, and smiles at his mother. His dad's office door is closed.
"Joonmyun," his mother says, demandingly, "come here."
"Okay," he says. He sits next to her on the white sofa, relishing the smell of her perfume and trying to memorize the fall of her hair across her shoulders.
"Do you like the white one or the pink ones?" she asks, showing him two pictures, and Joonmyun's brother laughs as Joonmyun tries to figure out which one she already likes.
They have an early dinner. His mother makes a soup with leeks and potato. It's always been one of Joonmyun's favorites. It's also his father's favorite, even if he'd never say so.
Everything is always so hard.
His brother seems as on edge as he is, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Joonmyun searches desperately for his courage.
"I have a date for the wedding," Joonmyun says, after dinner is over. His heart is pounding, and his mouth is as dry as the desert. His mom has brought tea out, and Joonmyun, as the youngest, pours for everyone. No one takes any sugar.
"Oh?" his mother asks. "Who is she? Someone you work with?"
His brother coughs, shifting awkwardly in his chair. His grandmother stirs her tea.
"He," Joonmyun says, "isn't someone from the company."
The only sound in the kitchen is his father's teacup setting down too hard on the table.
"You're bringing a friend?" His mother frowns. "I suppose that's all right, though people might get the wrong idea, if you know what I mean."
"I think," his brother says delicately, "that they would be getting the right idea."
"He's not a friend," Joonmyun says. "He's…"
"You're a… homosexual?" Joonmyun's mother sets down her tea. "Is that what you're telling me?"
"Yes," Joonmyun says. "You already met my boyfriend. Baekhyun."
Joonmyun's father takes his glasses off and folds them on the table next to him. Joonmyun has his full attention, the one time in his life he doesn't want it. He could laugh, if he wasn't trying so hard not to shake.
His mother turns to his brother. "You knew this?"
"I did," his brother says. "I told him he could bring Baekhyun to the wedding, if he wanted."
"You will not shame our family at your brother's wedding like that," his mother says. He hands are clenched, but her tone is even. "It isn't too late for me to call in a matchmaker." She reaches for her tea, picking it up white knuckled. "We'll find you a nice girl from a respectable family."
"No," Joonmyun says. "I don't want a nice girl from a respectable family. I want Baekhyun."
"A rude man-child with no manners?" She sets her tea down again without taking a sip. Joonmyun's grandmother squeezes his arm reassuringly, and his mother notices. "You knew as well? Why didn't you say anything?" she asks his grandmother, and his grandmother smiles.
"I like Baekhyun," she says mildly. "He's interesting."
"He's loud," his mother snaps. Joonmyun's father sighs. His brother looks trapped. Joonmyun doesn't blame him.
"When I was younger," Joonmyun says, "I was afraid to be loud, unless I was with my grandparents." He bites his lip. "I really like noisy things."
"You're not… bringing him here," his mother says. "I'm not going to watch you throw your life away any more than you already have."
"I'm sorry you see it that way," Joonmyun says. "But for the first time in my life, I'm…" He runs a hand through his hair. "I'm not clinging to one thing to help me get through everything else. I love going to my job, and I love coming home from it, too."
"I'm not discussing this with you anymore," his mother says. "I'll speak to the matchmaker in the morning."
"No," Joonmyun says, with a sinking feeling in his chest. "I'm not going on any arranged dates."
"You will," she says, "or you won't be coming back to this house." Ice runs through Joonmyun's veins. His brother gasps. His father starts to massage his temples, and his grandmother is still reassuringly holding on to his arm.
Everything is quiet. It's the sort of ultimatum Joonmyun used to give himself.
"Okay," Joonmyun says, and his mother relaxes. But Joonmyun looks at his brother. "If I give you a list of personal items that are in my room, can you ship them to me?"
His brother's expression is grim. "I'll drop them by myself," he says. "You don't live far."
His mother grabs the tea again, like it's a lifeline. "Are you… are you choosing that boy over your family?"
"No," Joonmyun says. "But I'm choosing him over you."
"But…" His mother's face is dark red, even if she hasn't raised her voice. She also seems confused. He has never seen her so angry, and disappointment and hurt and sadness curl up so tightly in him that he feels like he's gone back in time, to when he curled up on the floor of his half-unpacked apartment crying all over again, a box of his grandfather's forty-fives next to him as he thinks about what he's giving up.
Only it's been almost a decade since then, and Baekhyun is waiting back at Joonmyun's apartment, playing Joonmyun's keyboard and wearing a backwards baseball cap. No matter what happens here, Baekhyun is going to smile at him.
Sometimes, Baekhyun still looks at Joonmyun like he thinks Joonmyun is going to leave him. But Joonmyun isn't. Not ever again.
"I'm choosing Baekhyun because he knows what this is like," Joonmyun says. "Because his parents kicked him out and made him put himself back together afterwards. Because Baekhyun thinks I'm…" He wipes angrily at his eyes. "Because he thinks I'm amazing, just the way I am, and he isn't disappointed in me because I can't fit into some mold he made for me before I was even born, where any kid would've done as long as he was smart and obedient." His father's frown becomes more pronounced. Joonmyun notices out of the corner of his eye, but he keeps his eyes on his mother. "But most of all, I'm choosing Baekhyun because he understands how even after everything, years and years of self-punishment and inadequacy, you're still so important to me, and he'd never, ever, ask me to choose."
He stands up from the table. His knees try to lock up, but he forces himself to push back his chair. His grandmother stands up too, hugging him firmly in her frail arms, and he returns it. He meets his father's eyes over her shoulder, and he's looking back at Joonmyun like he's never seen him before. He probably hasn't.
"I'm not just choosing Baekhyun, though," he says, when his grandmother releases him. "I'm also choosing me." His mother doesn't look up as Joonmyun walks out of the kitchen and then straight out of his childhood home, into the balmy early summer night.
Baekhyun opens his door after a single knock, grabbing Joonmyun by the front of his shirt and pulling him in as close as he can. "I'm so sorry," he says, into Joonmyun's neck. "I'm so sorry, hyung."
They stand there in the doorway of Baekhyun's officetel for a long time, Joonmyun's hands clutching at Baekhyun's back as he tries not to shake apart.
Baekhyun sings to him, through most of the night, indistinguishable words that calm Joonmyun's racing thoughts enough for him to fall asleep.
It doesn't feel real until a week later. Someone knocks on the door early in the morning, and when Joonmyun opens it, his brother is standing there with a box of Joonmyun's things. The pretty sky blue silk of his hanbok is visible where the top of the box is askew.
"Do you want to come in?" Joonmyun asks. "You haven't been here before, have you?"
"I'm on my way to work, actually," he says. "On a Saturday. It's terrible."
"Oh," Joonmyun says. "Okay." He takes the box. It's light. How can everything fit so neatly into a single cardboard box?
"Halmeoni says to call her," his brother says. "And I'll bring her over to visit whenever you guys want."
"Thank you," he says. "Really, thank you. I know this isn't something…"
"It's fine," his brother says gruffly, looking away. "This is all so stupid. You're Joonmyun. You're just Joonmyun."
"I remember that time you busted up your knee when you were in second year of elementary school because you were trying to run away from that mean kid in fourth year, and our mother reamed me a new asshole for not looking after you." Joonmyun still has the scar. "I felt so bad, because you were my little brother, and I'd been too busy with the other sixth years to notice."
"I didn't want you to know," Joonmyun says. "I've always been like that."
"This is just like that, though, for me," his brother says. "I should be looking out for you, but I've spent the past few years not really doing that." He swallows. "Even if you have a boyfriend or whatever, it doesn't really change the fact that you're Joonmyunnie." He reaches forward and ruffles Joonmyun's hair. He's thirty. He should be far too old for that to be reassuring, but it chokes him up anyway. "I'm just following mom's directions, okay? Looking out for you since she's not here to do it."
"I'm sorry I can't come to your wedding," Joonmyun says. "I'm really sorry."
"What are you talking about?" His brother gives him a hard stare. "You'd better come to my wedding. I invited you and Baekhyun-ssi, and it's not her wedding. It's mine. Sujin and I agreed that it was fine long before I sent the invitation."
"I don't want to cause problems."
"If you don't come," his brother says, "I won't ever forgive you."
"You're playing dirty," says Joonmyun.
"Yes," his brother says. "Is it working?"
"Maybe," Joonmyun says, gripping the box tighter. "Thank you for bringing this by."
"You know," his brother says, turning to leave, "she's going to come around. I don't think our dad really even cares that much as long as it doesn't change your handicap for golf."
"If she doesn't, I'll understand," Joonmyun says. "It's hard, to find out that your son is none of the things you wanted him to be."
His brother nods. "Well, I'd better get going, or I'll be late."
"Thanks again," Joonmyun says. "I'll see you… soon, I guess."
He closes the door, and takes the box over to his living room table.
"Who was that?" Baekhyun asks groggily, leaning against the doorframe to the bedroom.
"My brother," Joonmyun says. "He brought some of my stuff from my parents' house."
"You okay?" Baekhyun asks, and Joonmyun stares at the box.
"I think I will be," he says. "You are."
"Yeah," Baekhyun says. "I guess." He walks into the living room and comes to stand behind the sofa. "I used to think I wouldn't be. I wondered, a lot, if my parents missed me. If my brother thinks of me in jail. But…" He bends down to press a kiss to the side of Joonmyun's neck. "Do you want a distraction?"
"Depends on the distraction," Joonmyun says. Baekhyun pulls away from him and walks toward the front door.
He bends down and digs into his backpack, pulling out a folder. The edges are wrinkled, but it says for joonmyun-hyung on the cover in thick black sharpie.
"What's this?" Joonmyun asks, and Baekhyun grins.
"It's your birthday present," Baekhyun says.
"My birthday was in May," Joonmyun says. "It's July."
"You know how I'm always late," Baekhyun says.
"Your worst quality," Joonmyun says, and Baekhyun laughs.
"You like me anyway." He nudges Joonmyun. "Do you want it or not?" Joonmyun takes the folder from Baekhyun and opens it. There's a CD in the left pocket, and carefully handwritten music sheets on the right. "The CD is Sugungga," he says. "Since it's finished."
"I told you you'd get the rest of it for your birthday or Christmas. This is close enough to be in-between, right?"
"It is," says Joonmyun, pulling the music sheets out. Baekhyun's music is sloppier than Joonmyun's, but his lines are bolder, like he's more sure that he's putting the notes exactly where he wants them, the lead leaving impressions in the paper that Joonmyun can feel when he brushes his thumb across the page. "And this?"
"It's our song," Baekhyun says. "All the parts you wrote… Those parts were all suited to my voice." Baekhyun leans his head on Joonmyun's shoulder. "But that second part, that you were struggling with…" Baekhyun pushes the first sheet aside, "those parts are for yours."
It makes sense. The song makes sense, the way Baekhyun has put it together, and Joonmyun doesn't know why he didn't see it before. "Should we sing it together, then?" Joonmyun asks.
"That is exactly what we should do," Baekhyun says, standing up and pulling Joonmyun toward his keyboard. "What are you waiting for?"
The first day of August, it rains. "It's too early in the year for torrential rain," Baekhyun says. "I should have three more weeks of perfect weather."
"Perfect?" Joonmyun laughs. "I thought it was too hot, Baekhyun."
"Hot is better than wet," Baekhyun replies. "Unless, of course, we're both naked and in the shower, in which case both hot and wet are very good."
Joonmyun kisses Baekhyun's cheek. "Are you still going over to Chanyeol's tonight? I'm thinking about having dinner with Kris."
"You should," Baekhyun says. "Chanyeol wants to tackle a new pansori. ‘Chunhyangga'."
"Sounds fun," Joonmyun says.
"You just like it when I sing pansori," Baekhyun says. "You'd better come and see it when we're finished. Maybe September?"
"I like it when you sing anything," Joonmyun replies. "Of course I'll come see it. What else would I do?" A smile. "Are you going home first, before you go to Chanyeol's?"
"Yeah," Baekhyun says. "It's a Superman kind of evening, I think." He's wearing another one of Joonmyun's shirts right now. Joonmyun thinks Baekhyun looks cute in his clothes. Baekhyun looks cute in anything. "I'll see you tomorrow maybe?"
"Sounds good," Joonmyun says, and Baekhyun winks at him before he leaves.
He picks up his phone to call Kris, but before he can scroll through his contacts, his phone starts to quack in his hands. He answers it automatically.
"Joonmyun?" asks his mother, and Joonmyun nearly drops the phone.
"Yes?" His voice is not steady. His mother never calls him. She shouldn't be calling him now. "Did you mean… to call me?"
"I wasn't sure if you would answer," his mother says, hesitant. "Do you have time to meet with me?"
"You want… to meet with me?" Joonmyun's chest hurts. He wants to say ‘no'. To end this call and hide under his covers until tomorrow. "Why?"
"Do you have time, or not?"
"Do you remember the bakery your brother liked, when you guys were kids? The one with the red-bean muffins."
"I remember," Joonmyun says. "You know I remember." My Joonmyun did the best in his class on the high school entrance exams. His teachers say he has an excellent memory.
"Then there," she says. "In an hour."
She's already there when he arrives, ten minutes early. She's wearing a pretty silk dress in pale green, and cream high heels. She's perfectly put together, but clutching her handbag like she's nervous. Joonmyun is nervous.
"Can I get you a cup of coffee?" he asks, and she nods at him to cover her jump.
He goes up to the counter and gets two cups of black, and one of the muffins for them to share.
He sets the tray between them, and she looks up at him.
"Your grandmother told me to talk to you."
"You don't have to," Joonmyun says. He's holding the mug too tight. It's burning his hands, but he doesn't know what he'll do with them otherwise. "I won't force you to do anything."
"You've already forced me," she says. "Thirty years old and pulling the rug out from under me all over again."
"It's not about you," Joonmyun says. "It's about me."
"You were such a happy child," his mother says. "I don't understand what I did wrong."
"It's not what you did wrong," Joonmyun says. "It's who I am. I made sure you didn't know how tired I was. I didn't want to disappoint you."
"I am disappointed, though. You're so smart and handsome, and you always excelled at school."
"But I love music," Joonmyun says. "Not business. I like nightclubs and fast, loud music, and people who sing in the park." She flinches.
He drinks, and she stares at him before echoing the motion. "I knew you liked your music classes best. I could tell. It was fine, because your grandfather liked music too, but he'd started his own business, so it couldn't be a bad hobby, I thought."
"I love it," Joonmyun says. "It's not a hobby. It's my career." He smiles at her. "And I'm really good at it."
"I know," she says. "But Joonmyun, I could deal with your job. But the boy…"
"His name is Baekhyun," Joonmyun says. "And he's a grown man."
She's surprised at his vehemence, and she recoils some, and then she exhales heavily.
"You didn't grow up to be the man I'd dreamed you would be," his mother says.
"I'm sorry," Joonmyun says. "I really am."
"But in the end…" she breaks off a piece of the muffin, but she doesn't eat it. She just sets it back down on the plate. "In the end, you're still my son."
She looks small and lost in front of him, expensive pearl earring glinting as she turns to look out the window. It's still raining. "What are you saying?"
"I wanted so much for you," she says. "I don't know why it never occurred to me that you might want things for yourself."
"I tried so hard not to," Joonmyun says, "but I was so miserable. I didn't even know how miserable until I wasn't anymore."
"I'm not going to lie to you, Joonmyun. I am not your grandmother, or your brother. It's not going to be easy for me, to accept your… lifestyle."
"It's not a lifestyle," Joonmyun says. "Being in love with a man isn't like turning to a life of crime."
She looks down at her hands. She's pulling on the sleeves of her jacket, just like Joonmyun does. "I'll see you at your brother's wedding," she says, before standing up and grabbing her purse and the big pink umbrella she's had since Joonmyun was ten. "Him, too, I suppose?"
"Baekhyun too," Joonmyun says.
"Okay," she says. "I don't have anything else to say." She leaves Joonmyun alone at the table, and Joonmyun watches her go.
He clears away the tray methodically, pouring the coffee out and stacking the mugs, throwing the uneaten muffin in the trash. Then he walks out of the bakery and into the street, not bothering to open his umbrella. The rain is warm, and it soaks through his thin shirt in moments.
He doesn't mean to call Baekhyun. He can hear Chanyeol laughing when Baekhyun answers the phone.
"What's up, old man?" Baekhyun asks, and Joonmyun smiles, the knot inside him loosening some at just the sound of Baekhyun's voice.
"I just had coffee with my mom," he says.
"Hmm," Baekhyun says. "Maybe meet you at my place in twenty?"
He can hear Chanyeol's groan of protest, and Baekhyun shouts at him to shut up without covering the mouthpiece of the phone.
"No," Joonmyun says, when he has Baekhyun's attention again. "It's okay. I just wanted to hear your voice."
"Hyung, I can…"
"No, I mean it," Joonmyun says. "I'll see you tomorrow."
"Okay," Baekhyun says. "You better not be sick. I don't take care of sick people."
"Yes, brat," Joonmyun says. "I'll go home now. I'm going to get a drink with Kris."
In clean, dry clothes, Joonmyun meets Kris at a wine bar.
"I don't think I could have imagined things being this mixed up a year ago," he says to him, as they sip a bottle of some dessert wine Kris had chosen without even really looking at the menu.
"Me neither," Kris says. "Do you have any regrets?" He smiles at Joonmyun.
He thinks about his mother's face, as she looks at him flush with rage from across the table. It's replaced the disappointment from nine years ago as the image that haunts him. He thinks about Baekhyun's face in the café, tears on the verge of falling into a cup of hot chocolate. He thinks about Sunyoung holding a wrapped teddy bear from FAO Schwarz, hair falling into her face as he says goodbye.
"I do," Joonmyun says. "I have a lot of regrets." He takes a long sip of his wine. "But if I had the chance to do this year over again, I would do everything exactly the same." The wine is sweet on his tongue. "Because where I am now… this is better than I ever imagined things could be."
"Why, Joonmyun," Kris says, clinking their glasses together, "that sounds almost like you're becoming an optimist."
He laughs. Everything will be all right. "Maybe I am."
Weddings, in Joonmyun's opinion, are new beginnings.
The ceremony is beautiful, and his brother looks so happy. Joonmyun would have hated to miss this.
Joonmyun sits between his grandmother and Baekhyun at the reception, and when his brother makes a toast, to his family and his new bride and her family, too, Joonmyun raises his glass and smiles at him, broad and sincere. He grabs Baekhyun's hand under the table, desperately tight, and holds on.
He catches his mother staring at their hands, a few minutes later, and she startles when she sees that he's noticed. She smiles at him, wan but sure, and Joonmyun licks his lips and smiles back.
New beginnings for more than just his brother, maybe.
"Baekhyunnie," Joonmyun whispers, as they lie in bed that night, "I'm not going anywhere."
"I know," Baekhyun says, and Joonmyun can hear his smile in the dark. "Me neither."
"It's fine," Baekhyun says. "Really. I do this every other week." He laughs. "The first time is always the scariest."
"I don't think I can do this," Joonmyun says. "I'm not…"
"You can," Baekhyun says. "You absolutely can. Do you know why?"
"Why?" The crowd at DGBD is loud. Louder than Joonmyun's thoughts. He thinks he can hear Lu Han and Yixing's raucous cheering above the rest of the crowd, and he imagines Kris looking distinctly uncomfortable next to them. It helps some.
This was a horrible idea. Baekhyun had talked him into it, and Joonmyun, somehow, had agreed, thinking maybe he should tackle one last fear, but now, in the moment, it's terrifying.
"'Cause you're doing it with me," Baekhyun replies. There's BB cream over the zit he'd discovered this morning along the line of his jaw, and he's wearing the blue-gray eye-shadow that makes his eyelids shimmer in the dim lights. "We wrote this song together. It's our duet."
He holds out his hand, and Joonmyun takes it. "Right," Joonmyun says. "Our duet."
Joonmyun takes his place behind the keyboard, adjusting his mic. And when he starts to play, Baekhyun singing the first note of a song Joonmyun had written thinking of Baekhyun and Baekhyun had written thinking of Joonmyun, he takes one last look at the cage that had been his life, and leaves it behind.
"I want to eat everything," Baekhyun says, pulling at the cashmere scarf Joonmyun had insisted he wear this morning as they left their hotel. Baekhyun had put up a protest, but a few kisses had changed his mind, Joonmyun slipping his tongue into Baekhyun's mouth as he'd looped the scarf around his neck.
Joonmyun laughs. "That seems ambitious," he says, looking at all the stalls around them. "But if anyone can do it, Baekhyunnie, it's you."
They're pushed together as a large cluster of high school girls brush by them, already in autumn uniforms, laughing and joking as they eat meat from a stick. Baekhyun takes advantage of the closeness to grab Joonmyun's hand, lacing their fingers together and holding on. "I have to try," Baekhyun says, lips still purple from gum discarded hours ago, and Joonmyun squeezes Baekhyun's hand once before he has to let go. "Who knows the next time we'll be in Beijing?"
Tomorrow, Joonmyun thinks, they'll go see the opera. But tonight, he'll just enjoy the blush from the wind in Baekhyun's cheeks, and the sticky sound of Baekhyun's laughter.