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Aestiferous

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Baekhyun had never been a master of the language of flowers.

 

Truthfully, Baekhyun didn’t even understand flowers. 

 

He didn’t know much about them. He could look at a pretty blue flower, be told that it was named forget-me-not by a person who hadn’t even earned the right to name it, he could listen as someone uttered to him the symbolism, the meaning. Yet, he would still feel utterly confused about how that meaning had somehow been anchored into that beautiful flower.

 

The only thing he knew for sure was that flowers were beautiful. Some of them had thorns, some of them didn’t. Some people braved against the sharp threat of thorns  to graze their fingers against a velvety, enchanting petal, and some people took a look at those sharp thorns, scrunched their faces, and walked away, fingers shoved into their pockets, safe from any prickling. Some people didn’t even notice the thorns, too mesmerized by the beauty seemingly offered to them to even look more carefully before reaching towards it and leaving a drop of blood for the pretty flower to feed on.

 

Baekhyun had never been a master of the language of flowers. What he believed in, however, was that some flowers did have a meaning he could link to them according to when they chose to bloom. What he knew was that flowers represented beauty, delicacy, and maybe perfection but on his skin, they represented a fault. What he had earned out of long observations was the knowledge that flowers weren’t only a creation of nature. They could be mimicked, imitated, both the ephemeral beauty of their velvety, colorful crown and the long-lasting sting of their honed swords.

 

Blossoms sprinkled from the sky grazed skin in an ephemeral, silky kiss, before the wind swept them away. What Baekhyun had mastered was to make his touch equally fleeting and pleasant, only for it to leave scratches and stings in its wake.

 

“I have brought you the rose of love, and you have crowned me, in these dark hours, with their thorns.” 

 

The man sitting across him was dressed in a suit. His hair was cut at a perfect length, not too short but not too long either, swept up and away from his forehead, not a single strand standing out of place. He had obviously shaved in the morning. His skin was smooth and stretched evenly across a jaw that Baekhyun could imagine held clenched and tensed through most of his life. His dress shirt was perfectly ironed, not one wrinkle visible to the naked eye, the white of the fabric almost glowing under the bright lights of the empty coffee shop they had met in a bit more than half an hour ago. His suit jacket was black, his tie was black, not crooked, perfectly straight as it hung over a chest that Baekhyun knew was sculpted under those plain, boring, but expensive clothes.

 

He looked perfect. Baekhyun let his eyes slide back up to Junki’s face. His eyes were sharp but melted away the tiniest amount as soon as he met Baekhyun’s gaze. He looked firm, in control, confident whenever Baekhyun pictured him alone in his daily life, at work, in the office, in his home, amongst colleagues or family.

 

Baekhyun painted a delicate smile on his lips and he caught Junki’s lips quivering a little.

 

"Those aren’t your words," he said, voice dipping towards mock reproach.

 

Junki let out a light chuckle, shaking his head, barely even surprised that he was caught.

 

"They’re from Kristian Goldmund Aumann's The Seven Deadly Sins but I think they’re pretty fitting in this situation."

 

"I wouldn’t expect a lawyer to read that kind of book," Baekhyun quirked an eyebrow, leaning forward a little over the small round table. 

 

His cup of tea was half empty, Junki’s cup of coffee was still full. He hadn’t let go of Baekhyun’s hand since they had arrived, as if the touch of Baekhyun’s skin was worth letting a hot cup of his favorite coffee grow cold.

 

"I’ve read it after we met," Junki clarified, lips carrying a proud smile.

 

When they had first met, Junki hadn’t been smiling. In fact, he even used to have a hard time smiling, as if it hadn’t happened to him for years, as if courts, judges, and clients had hardened his face into stone. This development wasn’t something he was uncomfortable with.

 

When Junki wasn’t with Baekhyun, the latter knew that he didn’t smile. Smiling wasn’t something lawyers liked to do, Junki had once said. 

 

I have no reason to smile when I’m not with you, had been his following words. Baekhyun had given him a big, genuine grin. It had never been the same reason tugging the corners of their lips upwards.

 

"Sounds like I bettered your life," Baekhyun chuckled as he felt Junki’s thumb grazing the skin of his knuckles, as if he was caressing the most delicate petals he had ever laid his eyes on. "It also sounds like you suddenly grew interested in everything about flowers after seeing what’s on my neck."

 

Junki’s eyes flickered to Baekhyun’s neck and the latter tilted his head the slightest bit, to allow him a better view. His dark eyes brightened when he saw Junki’s own gaze clouding a little as he stared at Baekhyun’s neck, searching for the plum blossoms painted into Baekhyun’s skin in permanent black ink. He wouldn’t find them, however, Baekhyun had carefully concealed them with makeup this morning. 

 

Junki still spent a few seconds staring, his eyes sliding down from the left side of Baekhyun’s neck where the tips of the branches along with a few small blossoms would normally peak above the collar of his shirt. The other had already seen it entirely and as his gaze slid down over Baekhyun shoulder, then down the edge of his collarbone, before landing on his pectoral, Baekhyun knew that he was retracing it in his memory. He had traced it with his fingertips only a few days ago, the silk of his bedsheets embracing Baekhyun’s body as his fingers trailed over his bare skin, his nudity disrupted by the dark lines of a single branch decorated with plum blossoms.

 

Baekhyun liked plum blossoms. They were pretty, simple flowers that bloomed in spring, right at the end of a harsh, cold winter. They might be the only flowers he understood.

 

"Why did you hide it today?" he asked when he seemed to finally snap out of his memories, his grip on Baekhyun’s hand a bit tighter now.

 

"Not everyone sees tattoos positively in our country, you know," Baekhyun said, pressing his lips together a bit and furrowing his eyebrows as if he felt a little upset about that fact. He really couldn’t care less about it.

 

"Well, that’s okay," Junki instantly said, smile soft and reassuring. "Those flowers will never be as beautiful as you anyway."

 

Baekhyun sunk his teeth into his bottom lip as if to conceal a smile, letting his gaze drop down on the table but not tilting his head down enough for his hair to cover the bashful expression he offered to an enamored man. He glanced at him and saw the beam splitting his face into two, the confident glint in his eyes, as if he was well aware of the effect he thought he had on Baekhyun. He was completely oblivious to the grip Baekhyun had on him.

 

The shrill cry of a ringtone suddenly called for attention from Junki’s pocket and instantly, the enchanted expression he had on shattered and he let go of Baekhyun’s hand to grab his phone. A frown twisted his now hardened features, a clear sign that it was a call from the office. 

 

The sudden, clear switch in his behavior as he picked up the call was a satisfying show to Baekhyun’s eyes. His voice lost all of its honey-flavored, gooey touch as he engaged into a cold, seemingly unpleasant conversation with whoever was on the other end of the line and barked orders to them. He hung up after not even a full minute and his hand gripped Baekhyun’s tighter, his eyes meeting Baekhyun’s curious but carefully dampened expression. 

 

His shoulders dropped, his features withering. He leaned forward like a flower seeking for sunlight to draw life from, suddenly turning into a whole other person again. All of it was the source of the delight spreading through Baekhyun’s chest.

 

His expression remained curious however, none of the emotions crafted into his eyes and features quivering the slightest bit.

 

"I need to go back to the office again. Something came up with a client," he muttered, visibly upset.

 

Baekhyun gave him a small, understanding nod of his head. He didn’t let go of Junki’s hand.

 

"It’s alright. Go be a big, scary, and powerful lawyer," he teased the other, satisfaction tinkling in his mind at the sight of what that big, scary, and powerful lawyer turned to in front of him.

 

Junki sighed, taking a few more seconds to smile at Baekhyun before finally letting go of his hand and standing up. His coffee remained untouched, now cold. He stepped around the table to stand in front of Baekhyun and then leaned down until their lips pressed together and he could convey longing, regret, and love through their kiss. Baekhyun mimicked those emotions, one of his hands gripping the other’s jacket, the other feathering against his neck, the pulse under his fingertips fluttering a little.

 

"I’ll miss you," Junki muttered against his lips.

 

Baekhyun gave him a tender smile and brought their lips together for another chaste kiss. Those words echoed in his head like the most delectable of melodies.

 

"Will you?" he whispered against the pinkish petal of Junki’s bottom lip, voice perfumed with despair, longing, and a faint hint of desire.

 

"More than anything else," Junki whispered back before catching Baekhyun’s lips for another deeper kiss. He felt him breathe in. Baekhyun was wearing the perfume Junki had bought him last month.

 

"I’ll miss you too," Baekhyun eventually replied.

 

It wasn’t a lie. He would miss the contentment and fulfillment provided by Junki’s love, dependence, and belonging to him.

 

"Drink a lot of water and hydrate yourself. The August heat is unforgiving," Junki said and Baekhyun gave him a look that he knew the other would understand as him not having taken even a single sip of water since this morning.

 

He nodded then, quickly, grinning like an obedient lover who felt blissful at the fact that his significant other was there to remind him to take care of himself and tell him exactly what to do to lead a healthy life. That was the kind of lover Junki wanted. He liked feeling in control.

 

Eventually, Junki detached himself from Baekhyun and walked out of the coffee shop, constantly looking over his shoulder as if part of him was left in the hand that Baekhyun had gripped his jacket with seconds ago. Baekhyun watched him, returning his wave and smiling as Junki walked farther away from him.

 

Once he was out of sight, Baekhyun let out a light sigh. He felt filled up, as if he had been offered an entire meal from his favorite restaurant and each bite sliding down his throat had dragged contentment into his core.

 

He reached for his cup of tea, savoring the last colder drops he had left in there before tugging the sleeve of his dress-shirt up. His expensive watch glinted under the coffee shop’s light. He took in the time and let out another sigh, this one longer and heavier as he remembered he had a meeting to attend soon.

 

He stood up and left the coffee shop, an effortless smile still on his lips as he felt the wicked warmth of Junki’s hesitation to leave him lingering with him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The subway was crowded. Baekhyun felt in his element, lost in a wave of people, the aftertaste of the tea and Junki’s warmth lingering in him.

 

It was hot in the train too. Baekhyun didn’t mind, he dedicated all his attention to his surroundings. There were many faces to see and lives to draw in his imagination.

 

The train came to a halt soon after a stop was announced. Two stops to go. He looked down at his watch, adjusted it so the cadran was centred on his wrist. He looked up again to the people flowing out of the doors.

 

One of them stood out.

 

He was tall, taller than most people around him. All Baekhyun could get was a glimpse before the sight was obscured by people stepping into the train. It was a pleasant glimpse. He had caught one big ear sticking out. Big eyes that looked almost round in that short glimpse. It was adorable.

 

The train resumed its course and Baekhyun looked at his watch again, the ticking hands his sole distraction through the rest of his ride.

 

Junki wasn’t really adorable. He was handsome but his features were sharp, pointy. A familiar sight that now prickled Baekhyun’s eyes. They had lost their novelty.

 

He should go for something else. Something less sharp. Someone cuter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Despite having spent most of his life in the corridors of this company, Baekhyun still felt a wave of discomfort flowing down his whole body as soon as he stepped foot into 4C’s headquarters. 

 

The building was wide and tall, each of its many floors occupied by a different branch of the cosmetics brand, the hallways buzzing with life and stress. The floors were sparkling, spotless despite the harsh treatment afflicted to it all day long. Dress shoes and high heels clacked on its surface all day long, without a break, when their owners rushed to get to wherever they were called, sent, or needed. The only time people stopped was to bow to Baekhyun, who had learned not to return the gesture long ago, both because he was much higher than everyone in the company’s hierarchy and because it would kill his back or his neck to bow to everyone crossing his path.

 

He had walked the same path in the entrance hall, greeted the different workers welcoming him behind the counter of the reception, took the same overworked elevators, and  had stood in front of the door to one of the company’s many meeting rooms hundreds of times in his life. And yet, Baekhyun still felt like a foreigner, a reject in the middle of the buzzing energy of a company that he had never called his. 

 

It didn’t belong to him, it never would.

 

He pushed the door open without knocking, giving a friendly smile to the dozen of high rank employees standing up to greet him as he made his entrance. They weren’t surprised to see him but as he took a seat at the head of the table, he still gave everyone another light but firm smile.

 

"My father can’t attend the meeting today, unfortunately, so I’m here in his stead. Let’s proceed," he said, forcing himself to mutter those words clearly despite the wave of repulsion that lurched through his chest.

 

There were very few whispers concerning the chairman’s health as everyone was already aware of the situation, and the meeting started the next second when the head of the marketing branch proposed the new commercialization plan for their brand that dealt not only with makeup products but also skincare products and everything in between.

 

The discomfort remained in Baekhyun’s chest all throughout the boring meeting, despite having attended this kind of meeting for so many times now.  He still forced himself to pay attention to everything, making sure that every issue would be addressed and that no flaw could be found in his way of dealing with his job.

 

Not that this was his job exactly. He was only here because his father couldn’t be and his older brother was overseas on yet another business trip. Halfway through the meeting, Baekhyun felt like this was all useless and a waste of his energy. This wasn’t even his company, his father never even addressed him as someone working in this company despite having an office for himself in one of the endless floors of this vastly constricting building.

 

He didn’t particularly care about their brand’s future. His name had never really been on it. Despite often working here, he had never truly gotten involved in the grand aspects of the brand. He had never attended their launches, had never even gone on a business trip in one of their branches in the rest of Asia. It had always been his father and truthfully, Baekhyun didn’t mind. If he could, he would never set foot into this company. He felt stifled in this place that carried traces of his father’s hard work everywhere. He felt confined in this meeting, where everyone looked at him with the same gaze they looked at his father.

 

He felt suffocated by the knowledge that this is the one use his father considers him having. A replacement for when he couldn’t step into his own company.

 

He zoned out when a woman sporting the brightest shade of 4C’s signature lipsticks started giving a report concerning their ingredients supplier, his gaze on the blank sheet of paper in front of him, fingers holding onto a chic pen decorated with their brand’s logo, but his mind already away in a way messier place.

 

The only thing pulling him back to the present after a few minutes was the light vibrations he felt in the pocket of his jacket. He let his eyes wander around the table, noting that everyone was paying attention to the same woman debating over something with the head of marketing. Once he was sure that everyone was absorbed into the argument, he slid his fingers into his pocket and grabbed his phone, pulling it out and carefully placing it against his thigh, under the table in order to be as discreet as possible.

 

It was a message from Joohyun. His expression remained blank as he slid his thumb over the screen and opened the notification up, his eyes taking in the short text.

 

Can you pick me up from uni this evening? I miss you T^T

 

He read the message a second time, and then a third. His head cleared up a little bit, his throat loosening, and his lungs emptying in relief before absorbing air a bit more easily than a few seconds earlier.

 

They had seen each other only last night. They had met up at a club and danced together before Baekhyun had made sure to bring her home like the caring, kind hearted person that Joohyun had always wanted to have in her life. The kind of person she had fallen in love with. She hadn’t said it yet but she didn’t need to word it out for Baekhyun to know exactly what she was feeling.

 

Happiness and satisfaction soothed him as he typed a quick reply to her.

 

You just picked my heartrate up,  I can only hope to do the same.

 

(*≧∀≦*)

 

Cheesy hehe

 

You’re the best

 

Her answer was quick, as if she had been clutching her phone while waiting for Baekhyun’s answer to her message. Baekhyun knew that had been the case.

 

Baekhyun gave his entire attention back to the meeting after that, tucking his phone back into his pocket and putting an end to the still ongoing argument with a decision that he judged would be the best for the company.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"Why don’t you ever take the car to travel?" Joohyun asked that same evening as they stood in the cramped subway car, her beautiful almond eyes looking up at Baekhyun curiously.

 

He had left his car at the company for someone to drive it back to his apartment later before picking her up a few minutes ago in front of her school like he so often did. She seemed to be in a chatty mood today, her clear, light voice dripping on him endlessly. Baekhyun suspected he could drown in it if his answers weren’t chosen carefully.

 

Baekhyun didn’t particularly hate driving, it was just that he simply liked taking the subway because despite it being too cramped and uncomfortable most of the time, it was still the easiest and fastest way to travel in this big, crowded city. There were too many people in each wagon but with many people came many faces and many lives Baekhyun could observe and figure out throughout the journey. Moreover, he had two cars and both of them were very obviously expensive cars that the plain office worker Joohyun believed him to be would never be able to afford.

 

"Because I can’t look at your pretty face while driving. Why would I put myself through the torture of having you so close to me but not being able to look at you?" he muttered softly, giving her a smile as his hand reached to delicately tuck a strand of her silky hair behind her ear.

 

His words dusted her cheeks with a pale pink tint and his smiled widened, matching the joyful yet timid arch of her lips. That was enough for him to know that she would never direct that question to him again.

 

"I like it better this way too," she whispered quietly, stepping closer to him and circling his waist with her arms, her head resting against his chest.

 

He let out a soft chuckle, that single note carrying fondness to Joohyun’s ears as he wrapped an arm around her frail shoulders to keep her against him. He was caring in her eyes and of course, a loving gentleman should make sure that no one bumped against her and that she was safe from any possibility of slipping or losing her balance. He had his back pressed against a window anyway, there was little chance for him to lose his balance.

 

"How was your day? How was class?" he asked after a few seconds of comfortable silence, earning an excited perk of her eyebrows.

 

Joohyun wasn’t exactly shy per se, but she was a bit closed off and didn’t open up easily, nor was she overflowing with confidence. They had known each other for two months now, after meeting out of coincidence in the street market. Baekhyun had been visiting and looking around until his attention was caught by this really pretty girl trying out some handmade jewelry at a stand while giving the mirror unsure looks. All it had taken was for Baekhyun to tell her that the pink one looked the best around her neck after figuring out that it was that one that she really wanted.

 

"It was alright, as usual. I’m really hardworking, after all. So even if third year is tiring and there’s way too much competition, I still manage." Baekhyun patted her head in a show of pride, earning another wide, satisfied smile. She was so easy to satisfy. Her lips then twisted into a small frown. "But there was this senior who basically made me trail around her for an hour because she had to make copies and then go see a teacher and then make more copies or whatever. I mean, she’s my senior so of course I should help but it kind of felt like abuse of power. Does that happen to you too? In the accounting firm?"

 

"It does," Baekhyun sighed, frowning a little as if he felt the tiniest bit concerned over her words. "That kind of thing happens everywhere and even if it’s difficult, you should try saying no when it inconveniences you too much. But don’t be too rude either, that would only worsen things. Just be careful," he said reluctantly, tightening his hold around her shoulders as if he wanted to protect her from the world.

 

The smile she gave him this time was a bit smaller but there was a blinding emotion tucked on the corners of her lips.

 

She was very beautiful. Her skin was smooth, pale but always had a pink tint to it under the summer heat. Her eyes were sparkling as she looked up at Baekhyun and she had a small button nose that scrunched up a little when she laughed too hard. She was short, not too short, but she was dainty and looked tiny to Baekhyun who wasn’t even much taller than her. A bit like a beautiful doll. The kind of doll that probably would be every little child’s first choice as soon as they ran into the aisle full of different options.

 

Her frailness wasn’t even entirely physical either, it was just her aura. Her smile and her exquisite gaze attracted people to her and fueled the urge to protect her from anything bad in this world, maybe fold her and carefully hide her into their pocket. At least, Baekhyun supposed that was the way others felt when looking at her. In his eyes, she wasn’t really a doll. Just another source of warmth, perhaps.

 

"What about you? How was your day?"

 

"It was alright. I got called into my boss’ office and I thought he would scold me or something but actually I got praised," he said, lightly squeezing her shoulders as he boasted about a life he had crafted only for her ears to hear.

 

"Really? I’m so happy for you!" she beamed, leaning to press a dainty, chaste kiss against his cheek as some kind of recompense or celebration. Baekhyun ran a hand down her back and returned her smile. "What did he say?"

 

"That I was one of the most hardworking employees and that if I kept it on, I could get a promotion soon," he replied, raising his voice a little bit as if the joy he felt at the prospect was too much for him to even control his tone anymore. He got a few irritated looks from people around him but it was worth it when Joohyun shushed him and gave him an infatuated smile. "I really couldn’t wait to share this with someone," he explained in a sheepish mumble.

 

"I’m the first person you shared this with?" she asked softly, looking at him as if Baekhyun had just told her he wanted to share the rest of his life with her.

 

Baekhyun nodded, watching as her smile split her face into two and left a reddish tint on her cheeks.

 

"We should celebrate that!" she chirped, pulling away from him a little bit. "Well, not today because I have to go to work but as soon as we can," she added begrudgingly. 

 

"Alright," Baekhyun agreed eagerly. "How would you like to celebrate it?"

 

"We could go for ice cream. I’ve been craving something sweet lately," she hummed softly.

 

"It’s not good to eat sweets," he chided her, albeit not so seriously.

 

"How do you never even crave anything sweet?" she huffed, giving him a mock weirded out look.

 

That wasn’t true. Baekhyun did like sweets, he could eat anything as long as it was strawberry flavored, even if nothing ever came close to actual strawberries for him. He supposed there was no way for Joohyun to know that, though. She didn’t know him half as well as he knew her and she never would.

 

He didn’t comment on it, however, bringing a hand up to poke the tip of her nose the same way he would boop the nose of a small puppy.

 

"Why would I crave anything sweet when I already have the sweetest treat right here?"

 

She lets out a delighted chuckle at that, scrunching her nose a little bit. Baekhyun laughed along with her, taking in the way she looked at him as if he were the most precious person in her life.

 

She parted her lips to say something but before she could, a robotic female voice announced the next stop and she furrowed her eyebrows a little bit instead.

 

"That’s my stop," she said, mood visibly dampened by that fact.

 

"I heard," Baekhyun said, the tiniest bit of regret tainting his voice.

 

"It’s alright," Joohyun said comfortingly, as if she could sense it. "We’ll see each other soon and I’ll call you after work. We can even message each other, there’s usually less people at the store in the evening."

 

"We’ll do that," he nodded firmly, pulling her close to him again for a last hug.

 

He felt her sigh in content against his collarbone before pulling away and stretching on the tip of her toes to press a kiss against his lips. It was a simple one, their lips barely even moving against each other. Joohyun didn’t know any other way of kissing yet.

 

The train stopped and she gave him a last smile before pulling away and stepping out of the car when the doors open and the crowd pushed her out. Once outside, she looked towards the wagon she had just left to catch a last glimpse of Baekhyun and waved at him. He returned both her smile and her wave before turning to look straight in front of him again as soon as the wagon moved forward, features slackening a little.

 

He wondered if she would believe him if he ignored her messages later on tonight and told her that he had fallen asleep as soon as he had gotten home, too tired from a full day of work. She would, there was nothing he would say that Joohyun wouldn’t eat up as long as he coated it with sweetness and a loving smile.

 

He shifted a bit to lean against the window more comfortably, letting his gaze trail around him. The crowd had considerably diminished since they had first gotten in. There was even a seat available a few meters away but Baekhyun didn’t move, remaining where he was as he pulled his phone out of his pocket. It was stuffy in the wagon. The summer heat was thankfully made more bearable by the air conditioning but it was evening and he knew that the air would feel damp as soon as he would get off at his stop and walk the short distance to his apartment building. 

 

He had a message from Junki asking him how his day had went. He quickly wrote him a reply, something about his classes being boring and missing him all through it, before shutting the messaging app and wandering through the internet instead. He wasn’t too interested in the news but it would at least help him while the time away until his stop.

 

It was only a few minutes later that Baekhyun felt something tingling his face. It didn’t take him more than a second to figure out that it was nothing but the impression of someone’s gaze on him. Slowly, looked away from the article he was reading and tilted his head up to look around. There was a group of female students right in front of him, all of them standing in a circle, holding onto the handles or each other in order not to lose balance. On his right, an old woman was sitting at the head of the row of seats, blinking slowly as she read the newspaper that she was holding in her trembling hands. 

 

He continued studying his surroundings, eyes trailing over the faces around him until eventually, it wasn’t features that he was looking at but intent eyes. Eyes that seemed to have lost their path across Baekhyun’s face and couldn’t figure out how to find a way out. Round eyes. Intense. Foreign.

 

The stranger was on the left, a few steps away from him, seated between an older business man and a teenager bobbing his head to the music in his headphones. His gaze jolted away from Baekhyun as soon he realized he was caught. Baekhyun took the occasion to take a proper look at him, trailing his curious gaze over the ruffled, messy strands of black hair that fell over his forehead, right above his attentive, doe eyes. Familiar. 

 

It was the tall stranger from two days ago. The one who had stood out while stepping out of the train. The cute one.

 

All Baekhyun remembered was thinking that his eyes were round, the rest of his features carrying out a similar vibe in that fleeting glimpse he had caught of him. Now, as Baekhyun could see him properly, he noted that it wasn’t exactly the case.

 

His features weren’t sharp but they weren’t too soft either, his eyes naturally big, his nose carved perfectly at the center of his face, and his lower lip plump and cushiony. He was handsome. It was an endearing kind of handsome, highlighted by the way his ears were sticking out. He looked youthful, maybe around the same age as Baekhyun, but comfortable and soft, just like the fabric of his slightly oversized hoodie seemed to be.

 

It took a few seconds for the man to look at Baekhyun again only to realize that Baekhyun hadn’t looked away from him. Surprise widened his eyes the tiniest bit and he looked flustered. Baekhyun felt his lips twitching once before he pulled them into a light smile. The stranger seemed to catch up on it, immediately looking away and straight in front of him instead, as if nothing had happened.

 

The robotic female voice from earlier announced Baekhyun’s stop after the few seconds Baekhyun spent studying the man further. He didn’t look back at Baekhyun again. Amusement curled against Baekhyun’s nape and tickled a quiet chuckle out of him when he noticed the pale rosiness dusted over the man’s cheeks, barely visible yet an unmistakable sign that Baekhyun’s smile was appreciated.

 

When he got off at his stop, it was with satisfaction still pulling the corners of his lips up at the knowledge that this encounter of no more than a few seconds might linger in the stranger’s mind through part of his evening.

 

The summer air was damp and heavy around him but Baekhyun breathed it in easily.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"You have to blow on it first, you’ll burn your tongue."

 

Baekhyun gave Junmyeon a look to let him know that he wasn’t a nine year old who needed to be taught how to eat like a human being rather than a puppy. Junmyeon reciprocated it with a quirk of his eyebrow, a clear sign that he knew Baekhyun tended to be patient for anything but food. He had witnessed Baekhyun accidentally burning his tongue too many times to believe him.

 

He dipped his spoon into the stew, still boiling in the earthenware pot, and leaned down to blow on it, making sure to look at Junmyeon insistently through it. The latter laughed and only then did Baekhyun bring the spoon into his mouth, humming at the delicious taste. He was almost grateful that Junmyeon had woken him up so early this morning with a phone call to demand they have breakfast together. Had he been home and not in this small, hole-in-the-wall restaurant, he would’ve either skipped breakfast or ate plain rice and he’d take the seolleongtang served in this place over it any day, even if it meant a trip of half an hour to Cheongjin-dong.

 

"So, how’s work?" Baekhyun asked after a few seconds of silently savoring their first mouthfuls.

 

"Well, the usual," Junmyeon said behind a hand, finishing up the rice he was chewing on before continuing to speak. "I might have to go to Busan soon, there’s a tiny problem with our branch there and my father’s sending me."

 

"What kind of problem can even come up in a hotel that you’d need to go there to solve it?" Baekhyun asked.

 

He knew any kind of problem could suddenly emerge in a company, especially in the hotel chain Junmyeon’s family owned. He just didn’t see the use of his father sending Junmyeon there. Or maybe he just didn’t like the thought that Junmyeon would be away for a while, even if he would never voice that out to the other.

 

He reached for the small bowl of eggs that had been served to them earlier and grabbed one of them, bringing it up to his dish only to hover over it for a few seconds, both hands holding onto the raw egg. He hesitated for a bit but before he could even figure out how to crack the egg without shattering the shell wrong and making a mess, Junmyeon snorted and reached to take it away from him, swiftly cracking it into the boiling soup.

 

He leaned back into his seat properly once done and Baekhyun caught his gaze, narrowing his eyes a little bit at the familiar smug and mocking glint in his eyes. He didn’t bother thanking him for something that had been repeated so many times between them that it had become a habit for Junmyeon despite the judgement always accompanying it.

 

Instead, Baekhyun leaned closer towards his soup and narrowed his eyes further.

 

"You sure you didn’t drop any piece of shell in this?"

 

Junmyeon snorted again, the sound tainted by a huff this time. "Not all of us are incompetent in egg cracking. Just eat."

 

Baekhyun chose to ignore his words to pay attention to something much more pleasant instead. He grabbed the pair of tongs from the drawer at the side of the table and used them to pluck the meat apart from the bones in his soup.

 

"Anyway," Junmyeon said, continuing right where they had left off before the egg dug a crack into their conversation. "You know my father, he wants me to take care of everything already. He’d rather stay at home and do his work from there while I run around for him," Junmyeon sighed. Baekhyun knew it wasn’t a puff of air full of irritation or anger that he pushed out of his mouth. Junmyeon never got angry, especially not at his parents. Baekhyun’s chopsticks clinked once against his bowl of rice and eggs before Junmyeon spoke again. "My mom’s inviting you for dinner whenever you’re available."

 

"Are you parents aware that they don’t have to constantly make sure we’re still friends? It’s been ten years, we’re not fifteen year olds they have to force together," Baekhyun chuckled softly, no trace of irritation in his voice either. 

 

Junmyeon’s mother was a sweet woman. She had her moments but she was sweet. She sometimes seemed to forget that they were best friends now but Baekhyun couldn’t blame her either, he did too. It was difficult to call Junmyeon his best friend when he was the only person Baekhyun even considered as a true friend.

 

"She knows," Junmyeon laughed. "It’s just her excuse to get me to go home. I’ve been avoiding it for the past few days."

 

"Why?"

 

"She started talking about marriage and it’s freaking me out," Junmyeon said, wrinkling his nose in displeasure before washing the taste of his own words by sipping his stew.

 

"Why, though?" Baekhyun asked, offering the other a knowing look. "You’re the perfect man to marry. You’re at the perfect age, you have the perfect background, you even have the perfect face. You’re kind and meticulous in your work," he continued, narrowing his eyes as if he was analyzing Junmyeon who looked very unimpressed at his words. "You’re the perfect mix between the cute boy next door and the handsome bachelor."

 

"You sound exactly like my mom whenever she’s introducing me to one of her friends who has a daughter at one of those business parties," Junmyeon deadpanned, shaking his head and shoveling another mouthful of rice.

 

He looked like an upset bunny as he chewed on his rice and Baekhyun couldn’t help but laugh at the sight. It was somehow both adorable and comical.

 

"Well, if I wanted to sound like myself, I’d just say you’re a handsome asshole who fucks around," he retorted.

 

"I’m not an asshole!" Junmyeon protested, disbelief palpable in his muffled voice. The only time he spoke with his mouth full was when Baekhyun said something absurd.

 

"You did break a few hearts. I witnessed it," Baekhyun retorted, knowing that he was entirely right and that Junmyeon didn’t mind being confronted with the truth in this kind of nonchalant manner.

 

"Never on purpose," Junmyeon grumbled before giving Baekhyun a look. "At least I just sleep around, I don’t feel the need to make everyone fall in love with me."

 

His voice had the same teasing lilt as Baekhyun’s had and yet, it was fainter, shadowed by the truth in those words. Baekhyun had stopped denying it a long time ago. He had decided to show himself to Junmyeon a long time ago. And Junmyeon had seen, but hadn’t fled.

 

"That sounded very asshole-y for someone who just claimed not to be an asshole," was Baekhyun’s only reply, his words prompting them both to chuckle lightly.

 

Junmyeon’s phone vibrated once, rattling against the table loudly and cutting them off. Junmyeon looked at it. Baekhyun read on the jerk of a single corner of his lips that it was about work. He studied the screen until it darkened before looking back at Baekhyun again. 

 

"Anyway, how’s it going for you?" Junmyeon asked and he had that glint in his eyes. The one that helped Baekhyun figure out what exactly he was asking every time he was asking it without ever actually wording it out.

 

He knew it had nothing to do with Junmyeon judging him, or feeling upset or disgusted by what Baekhyun did. He just never really knew how to word it. Or maybe he didn’t really want to word it out. It didn’t matter, he still asked and he still knew everything about what he sometimes playfully called Baekhyun’s Love Fountains.

 

Baekhyun shrugged, scraping up the last grains of rice in his bowl before calling out to the ajumma for another serving with a polite voice. He brought a piece of radish and then meat into his mouth, savoring the way they melted deliciously against his tongue. This place made the best seolleongtang and Baekhyun could probably eat it for every meal of the day if he had to.

 

"Joohyun’s still very cute. She always messages me and calls me as if she can’t go a minute without me," Baekhyun chuckled, remembering that despite telling himself that he would ignore her messages last night, he had still indulged her for close to an hour before actually cutting it off. Junmyeon hummed, taking a sip of his water. "Junki is growing kind of tiring to maintain, though. Pretty boring." 

 

Junmyeon seemed intrigued at that.

 

"How so?"

 

"I don’t know. It’s been almost three months. He’s very dependent on me but thinks I am very dependent on him and it’s kind of boring to play the shy, fragile lover now. I haven’t decided how to cut it off." 

 

A wrinkled hand put a brimming bowl of rice in front of him and Baekhyun looked up to the kind old woman with a happy smile. Used to serving him this particular dish a few times a month, she lovingly patted his head like she would to her own grandchild. He felt his smile splitting his face into two and complimented her on her culinary talents for what felt like the hundredth time.

 

"Don’t you usually just disappear on them after making sure they can’t live without you anymore?" Junmyeon asked once she was gone.

 

It took Baekhyun a second to remember what they were talking about as he was too busy vigorously blowing on the stew to cool it down a little more. There was a familiar crumble of sarcasm in Junmyeon’s voice, nothing Baekhyun wasn’t used to hearing when they had this kind of conversation. That same note of disapproval was also hidden underneath his words but that was another thing Baekhyun was accustomed to. 

 

That was the only form of disapproval Junmyeon ever showed him. He never openly criticized Baekhyun or voiced out how ridiculous or bad he thought this was. Junmyeon understood him and that was the exact reason why Baekhyun was sitting in this small restaurant, having breakfast with Junmyeon ten years after a first meeting scheduled by Junmyeon’s family and their will to get their child closer to another wealthy heir.

 

Sometimes, Baekhyun wondered if Junmyeon’s parents had ever regretted doing that after noticing that Baekhyun’s involvement in his father’s company stopped at being a substitute that worked as hard as any other ordinary and non-privileged employee from time to time. The way they still occasionally invited him for dinner would suggest that they didn’t particularly mind. Title and appearances were everything, after all, but Junmyeon was still lucky enough to have good parents.

 

"I don’t think that would be enough to get him to give up. I’ll probably directly break up with him," he said, knowing full well that it wouldn’t really be a break up. He had never uttered Junki words of love, nor had the other ever explicitly asked a relationship of him. Even if they seemed to be together in Junki’s mind.

 

"Oh, so you want to actually witness him breaking down for you?"

 

"He wouldn’t. He’s a lawyer and, most of the time, in control of himself," Baekhyun easily replied.

 

Junmyeon looked at him for a few seconds while Baekhyun took another spoonful of stew into his mouth and sighed in content.

 

"You want to see if you can make him lose control of himself entirely."

 

It wasn’t a question. It was a statement voiced out with no accusation. Maybe a hint of disapproval still lingered but it wasn’t as loud as the amusement. Baekhyun’s own amusement was louder, flashing on his curved lips as he chose not to give out an answer that Junmyeon already held.

 

The other shook his head softly, used to all of this without ever losing the dislike he could never hide from Baekhyun. Sometimes, he wondered why Junmyeon kept on asking him those things if he disapproved of them so much. Sometimes, he thought it was just Junmyeon trying to understand him and accepting him despite everything. Sometimes, that mere fact was enough for Baekhyun to seek the other out on days that he wanted to spend alone but not lonely.

 

When Junmyeon went on to talk about his niece’s piano recital that he would have to attend in a few days and wasn’t too excited about, Baekhyun listened to him while laughing at his demise. He grew a bit quieter and more serious when the topic dived down to Junmyeon’s struggles with his family. 

 

If Junmyeon had been staying by his side for ten years out of his own free will, the least Baekhyun could do was be a decent friend to the other from time to time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A few hours later, still gratified from the delicious breakfast and Junmyeon’s uplifting presence at the other end of the table, Baekhyun found himself alone in a taxi, heading home.

 

Junmyeon had been the one to pick him up this morning and he had offered to drive him back home as well since he had to go to the office but Baekhyun had refused, wanting to run a few errands and mostly just wander around. He didn’t regret his decision, he had enjoyed his long walk amongst shops and crowds, the many people he had watched, and the general pleasant sensation he always got from weaving through a crowd. 

 

It was way past lunch time now and he hadn’t eaten yet, deciding that it would better for him to go home and find something to eat there. He had to work a bit anyway and even if the mere thought made him feel chained and used, Baekhyun also couldn’t allow himself to slack off. It was for the best.

 

He shooed those thoughts away for now, simply enjoying the drive back home as he let his gaze run around the streets that flashed behind the car’s window. The sun was high up in the sky, already at its peak. As Baekhyun looked up to it, one eye closed because it was too bright for him to actually look at it properly, he couldn’t help but appreciate the sunlight dripping on his skin. Simultaneously, he wished the sky was cloudy and grey instead. He had always preferred winter over summer.

 

His short spell of tranquility was interrupted by his phone vibrating in his pocket and he shoved his hand inside to grab the device. He took a look at the name displayed on the screen, his eyebrows furrowing and confusion washing away the harmony this drive back home had ignited in him. After a short while spent looking at the screen of his phone, Baekhyun finally swiped his thumb over the screen.

 

"Hyung," he greeted his caller, that single word scratching at his throat as if it was unwilling to be pushed out of his chest where it had been buried for what felt like an eternity.

 

It felt almost unfitting and unfamiliar to call Baekbom with the title he rightfully should be addressed with.

 

"Baekhyun," a familiarly foreign voice answered to him from the other end of the line. Two silent breaths passed before Baekhyun heard Baekbom clearing his throat. "How have you been?"

 

"Great," he said, looking at the back of the driver’s seat and away from the window. "And you?"

 

"Great," was his brother’s reply.

 

All of a sudden, Baekhyun felt the unexplainable urge to laugh. It had been more than three months since their last conversation, maybe four, and he remembered it to be the exact repetition of this one. Awkward greetings from the other end of a line separated by long, uneasy blocks of silence. 

 

However, he didn’t laugh. He had gotten used to this years ago. The funniest movie ever created wouldn’t pull laughter out of an audience that had watched it more than ten times and learned every single line by heart. Though, Baekhyun wasn’t even sure he had talked to his older brother ten times in the past year. Maybe if he added another year or two, he could reach that number.

 

"Father was taken to the hospital last night."

 

Suddenly, it all made sense. Baekhyun had to actually bite onto his lower lip to keep a chuckle locked in his throat that contracted as a result. There was no particular emotion in Baekbom’s voice. Or maybe there was no emotion Baekhyun could name. Or maybe he had never known his brother enough to be able to figure out the timbre and pitch of his voice depending on what emotion it carried out.

 

"Why?" he asked after a few more silent seconds.

 

It was ridiculous but Baekhyun couldn’t really figure out why Baekbom was informing him of that and what exactly he wanted to hear from him. That was only mildly irritating. Baekhyun usually always knew what someone wanted to hear from him before that person even knew it themselves.

 

"For treatment."

 

"He usually comes back from those quickly, doesn’t he?" Baekhyun said, hoping that those words were enough to pull an explanation out of the other.

 

"It’s worsening," Baekbom said, voice dropping an octave lower. Sadness? Indifference? He wasn’t sure. "But he’ll get better. He just needs a little more care and a longer treatment than usual this time."

 

"It wouldn’t be worsening if he had stopped smoking the second he was told he had lung cancer."

 

He caught the driver flinching and glancing at the rear-view mirror. Baekhyun realized that he had uttered those words out a bit too coldly. He met the driver’s gaze in the mirror and stared until the middle-aged man looked away and back to the road.

 

"Baekhyun," he heard through the phone. 

 

It was that tone. The only one he could recognize in Baekbom’s voice. That low, quiet tone that mingled a warning, exasperation, and indifference altogether. Sometimes, Baekhyun also heard understanding but it always took him less than a heartbeat to realize that it was only wishful thinking. They would never understand each other.

 

A spike of silence cut through them again.

 

"I’m at the hospital. You don’t need to come."

 

This time, Baekhyun didn’t even bother holding back the dry, bitter chuckle that crashed against the receiver. 

 

"Did he find the strength to get you to tell me not to show up even in that state?"

 

Silence was his only answer. As usual. Silence was always Baekbom’s answer.

 

"I got it. I’ll cover for him at the company until he’s back. I’m going there now," he eventually muttered into the phone and hung up before giving Baekbom the occasion to say anything else.

 

He wouldn’t have said anything anyway.

 

He took a deep breath in, phone clutched tightly in his hand. 

 

He looked out of the window. He supposed his plans were ruined now. He would have to go home and change before heading out again.

 

He looked up at the clear summer sky, the wide spread of blue and the sun swimming amongst it. It wasn’t sunlight that he saw, but a cold spell that he felt wrapping around his body.

 

He supposed the saddest of movies didn’t rattle your chest with a sob anymore long before your tenth time watching it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That same night, Baekhyun found himself in the subway again, leaned against another window, surrounded by another crowd, and grateful for yet another ride made bearable by the air-conditioning. 

 

Exhaustion pressed down on his shoulders and he wished someone would get off and empty a seat so he could crumble on it and maybe doze off until his stop. That was only wishful thinking, however, and a while later, when a seat was made available, he made no move, chin held high and back straight against the window as if he hadn’t spent a suffocating day in a suffocating office. Exhaustion had piled up on him through the whole day, so heavy now that he couldn’t even muster the will to drag himself to that seat. He breathed in through his nose. The air was dry, artificial, it tickled his nose the wrong way, pricled it. He would get off in a few minutes and then take a fresh breath of air on his way home. He couldn’t wait to drown in his sheets until the next morning.

 

He could’ve taken a taxi, it would’ve been much more convenient but Baekhyun didn’t like how quiet, monotonous the journey felt despite the music that always whispered into his ears through the speakers in the car. He knew Seoul like the back of his hand, looking through the window was never entertaining and the car wooshed by people too quickly for him to make out any faces. He preferred the hushed conversations around him, the rattle of the subway car driving through the tunnel, and the robotic voice announcing stops once in a while.

 

His hand glided towards his pocket, he grabbed his phone and just like last night, he spent the next few minutes navigating through articles, pictures, and whatever his screen displayed to entertain him through the remainder of his journey. He had two messages sitting in his inbox. Junki had messaged him a few hours ago and Joohyun had done so as soon as he had stepped into the subway station, fortunately not present with him as she didn’t take this line when she didn’t have to go to work. Both messages had shown a similar voice in the short preview given to him by the notifications and Baekhyun had judged himself too tired to deal with it right now.

 

That was when he felt it again.

 

The same intensity grazing his face. The same warm sensation as yesterday evening. He looked up from his phone and this time, it took him less than two seconds to meet the source. 

 

Unlike yesterday, the stranger looked away as soon as Baekhyun caught his gaze. He felt his lips tugging into a pleased smile at the prospect of the other still remembering the embarrassment he had probably felt yesterday when he had met the eyes of a stranger for more than a second. That also meant that he remembered Baekhyun. He felt satisfaction slowly scattering some of his exhaustion away.

 

He looked more tired this time and Baekhyun curiously looked at him, wondering what had happened today that had been harder for the stranger than yesterday. Perhaps he had worked the whole day or woken up earlier. Maybe his day had been anything but pleasant and he, too, couldn’t wait to reach his bed and let himself go in the arms of a delicious slumber. He wasn’t dressed too differently, a dark blue shirt was snug on his chest and black denim shorts reached just above his knees, revealing his bowed legs and giving off a youthful, endearing vibe. The clothes had changed but the style wasn’t entirely different from yesterday, contrary to Baekhyun. He had been neatly wearing a similar suit then but was now holding his jacket in a hand and had unbuttoned and rolled the sleeves of his dress shirt up to his forearms. The office had started stifling him way too much and keeping his appearance spotless had been a challenge he lost.

 

Judging by the way the stranger dressed, he had no job to dictate his clothing style. Or had one that allowed him to dress so casually. Baekhyun eventually looked away and turned his attention back to his phone. This was a first. Baekhyun was very good at remembering faces, names, and personality facts and he had never seen the same face twice in the subway, especially not two nights in a row. This one, it was his second time seeing it. It was a handsome face.

 

After a few seconds, when the next stop was announced, he took another look at that handsome face out of curiosity. The stranger seemed to feel it for their eyes met again. There was no blush dusting his cheeks tonight. He had felt embarrassed yesterday evening then, not shy. The stranger was the first to look away again. Baekhyun smiled to himself, appreciating the attention and basking in the satisfaction that lapped up his soul, drenching him in the cooling sensation he had desperately sought all day.

 

Their eyes met once more after that, the handsome stranger had been staring at Baekhyun again and the latter had waited a few seconds before meeting his gaze for the third time that evening and the fourth time in two days. This time, it was the announcement of Baekhyun’s stop that broke their eye contact as soon as it started.

 

A bit regretful that his entertainment had come to an end, Baekhyun slowly pushed himself away from the window and made sure not to look at the stranger again. It would be useless, Baekhyun had noticed him standing right next to the doors anyway so he’d have to walk right past him to get off the car. Once the car stopped, he moved towards the door.

 

As soon as he was only a few centimeters away from the stranger, Baekhyun pushed himself forward all of a sudden as if the young woman behind — who was actually almost pushing him forward to get out quickly — had collided into his back and caused him to lose his footing. He felt his shoulder bump against an arm and when he looked up, it was to meet the stranger’s surprised gaze.

 

As if they hadn’t spent most of the ride staring at each other, Baekhyun acted casual and gave the other a small apologetic smile.

 

"Sorry," he said, looking away from the stranger afterwards and heading back towards the door in a rush to get out.

 

From the corner of his eye, he had still caught the stranger’s answer. A slow shake of the head and a faint smile, maybe a beat too late.

 

That night, the short walk home wasn’t a bother, the damp summer air wasn’t too difficult to breathe in, and the exhaustion had almost entirely faded away by the time he stepped into his apartment.

 

Baekhyun went to bed with the delightful knowledge that he might have spent part of the evening in a handsome stranger’s mind yet again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"I have to leave, Baekhyun."

 

Confusion. That was the only thing registering in the little eight year old boy’s mind as he looked up at the beautiful woman. Beautiful? She didn’t look as beautiful as usual this time. 

 

Dark. She looked dark. Dark circles under her eyes. Dark hair. Dark gaze boring into his. Dark expression smothering him.

 

The darkness faded into a blur. He blinked. 

 

She wasn’t crouching down anymore.

 

She was on her feet. She was standing straight, chin held high, pale fingers clenched around the handle of her luggage.

 

Panic. He could feel it sneaking into his mouth, through his trembling and parted lips, seeping down his throat, flooding his lungs, and squeezing his heart almost hard enough to burst it.

 

A blur. A darker blur. 

 

She was talking. Saying something. To him. Screaming. He couldn’t hear her but she was screaming.

 

It was foggy all around them. 

 

As if the entire house was burning down and thick wasps of smoke were climbing up the staircase right behind her. He couldn’t feel any kind of heat or flames around him. He couldn’t feel anything but the cold fog biting his small body.

 

He stepped towards her. 

 

The fog on the staircase thickened, almost enough to take her away and hide her from him forever.

 

He shook his head, quick, fast, abrupt, enough for the world around him to swirl.. She screamed harder. He couldn’t hear her.

 

He stepped towards her.

 

The fog thickened. 

 

It surged up. All of a sudden, it snaked around her wrists, her ankles, her waist, and her head. All of a sudden, it pulled her down, down, down the steep flight of stairs.

 

He took a step forward.

 

She wasn’t there anymore. 

 

The fog still was. It thickened. 

 

The fog thickened.

 

Suddenly, it surged up again.

 

Suddenly, it engulfed him, seeped into his lungs, into his heart, into his soul.

 

Suddenly, he stopped breathing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A loud gasp echoed in the wide room as a trembling body suddenly surged up from the bed, eyes wide open, body stiff, lips parted like a drowning man gasping for his first intake of breath after long seconds of deprivation.

 

His chest heaved, his heart throwing itself against his ribcage like a wild, frightened animal attempting to flee the rumbling danger. He looked around, bleary gaze jumping from place to place, traveling through every nook and corner of his room, the closed door, the closet, the window, before finally falling back down to the trembling hands gathered on his lap.

 

There was no fog.

 

It was just a dream. That same, recurring dream.

 

After a few seconds spent breathing in and out regularly, slowly enough for his heartbeat to slow down its wild pace the tiniest bit, Baekhyun let himself fall back against his pillow, eyes burning and staring up at the ceiling. 

 

It was silent all around him. A cold silence, the kind he could almost feel breathing against the bare skin of his chest. It was silent. There was no one. No fog, no luggage, no scream.

 

He felt his body tensing up with a shiver and he pulled his sheets up to cover himself. It was cold. Summer nights were unbearably hot but Baekhyun felt locked up in a cage of cold. The air-conditioning. It was just the air-conditioning, he told himself.

 

Shaking his head, he tried dissipating the fog gathered in his mind. He looked out of the window. The starless sky stared back at him, denying him any kind of comfort. He took a deep breath in, inhaling the frozen air around him until he felt like his lungs were on the brink of bursting before finally exhaling and sitting up at the same time. His throat was dry. He needed a glass of water.

 

The short journey to his kitchen was silent. The water he poured into his glass was cold. The icy flames in his stomach barely melted away when he gulped it down. It didn’t fill him up at all. He put the glass back down and dragged himself back to his bedroom, the sound of his bare feet pitter-pattering against the floor his only company on the journey back. He tweaked with the air-conditioning to make the room less cold and crashed on his bed again.

 

He took another deep breath in, waited five full minutes that he almost entirely counted in his head, hands clutching his sheets. He couldn’t go back to sleep. He brought his hands up to his head and ruffled his hair, tugged at the mussed strands, scratched against his scalp in frustration. Or maybe it was an attempt to dissipate the haze, get it out of his mind. He didn’t know.

 

Giving up, he reached for the bedside table and grabbed his phone, pressing against the home button and sighing when he caught a glimpse of the time. It was barely past three in the morning. He laid back down properly on the bed, wiggling a bit until he was comfortable, phone still held in hand. He had a notification from Junki and he furrowed his eyebrows a little, opening up the message. I miss you, was the only thing it said, sent only two hours ago. The blanket slid down his chest a little when he shifted. Breathing wasn’t as uncomfortable anymore.

 

He chose to ignore the message, not in the mood to deal with it. He locked his phone again and looked up at the ceiling, the nightmare still clear in his head. It wasn’t exactly a nightmare, more of a distorted memory that kept haunting him even after what felt like his thousandth time watching it unfold in his mind. 

 

Agitation still rattled his ribcage, clinging to it stubbornly, preventing him from falling back asleep. It wasn’t even a problem, Baekhyun didn’t have to wake up early tomorrow morning to go to the company. He just felt that same chaffed spark as usual slowly flaring in his mind at the fact that even after seventeen years, this still happened to him. He took another deep breath in. Exhaled. Inhaled. Exhaled, and then decided to recount his entire day in detail, hoping that those memories would at least calm him down like they often did in this kind of situation.

 

He had woken up to the sound of his ringtone, Junmyeon’s voice asking him if was available for breakfast. They had gone to that same restaurant as always, he had greeted the old lady with a wide smile and thanked her when she had served him his favorite dish to have for breakfast whenever he was eating out. He had talked with Junmyeon, it had been nice as always. They had talked about work, Junmyeon’s family, Baekhyun’s life, and then Junmyeon’s hesitation to attend his niece’s piano recital.

 

Piano. Baekhyun opened his eyes and stared at the cloud of darkness covering his ceiling. It had been almost an entire year since he had last played piano. 

 

There had been no reason for him to stop. He liked the piano, he liked the fact that he was good at it, and he also liked how soothing the melody always was. He had simply stopped, out of boredom maybe, and he had gotten rid of his keyboard a few months ago, not seeing the point in keeping it if it wouldn’t be used. He missed playing the piano.

 

He brought his phone closer to his face again, unlocked it, and opened up his SNS account, scrolling through his feed leisurely and not even bothering to like any picture. The entertainment lasted barely a full minute before he navigated to the search page and typed ‘piano’. 

 

There were many pictures of the instrument, sometimes taken as a simple aesthetic shot, sometimes taken by eager parents who probably wanted to immortalize how nice their child looked with their tiny fingers on the vast expanse of the keyboard. There wasn’t anything interesting enough and Baekhyun sighed, scrolling down, down, down endlessly before stopping and furrowing his eyebrows. He scrolled up a little bit until he found the image that he had just skipped through and brought his phone even closer to his face, intrigued. It was a video of someone playing piano but that wasn’t exactly what had piqued his interest.

 

He opened up the post it led to and let the music play softly from his phone’s speakers, eyes focused on the video. The melody was soothing, joyful even if the notes dancing away from his speakers spread a breeze of longing with every single swirl they did in the air. Baekhyun took a deep breath in and slowly exhaled again, eyes fluttering shut for the rest of the one minute video to allow him to take in the music and let it tangle around the icy flames in his stomach to gradually melt them away. The video ended, his eyes fluttered open again, remaining hooded as that single minute had almost been enough to lull  him into a serene slumber.

 

However, he didn’t fall back asleep. He pressed his thumb against the screen to replay the video and as the melody once again cradled his ears, he kept his eyes open and stared at the man whose head and shoulders were the only parts of him Baekhyun could see. The device he had used to record the video seemed to be placed right on the lid of the grand piano, most of the shot showing that part of the instrument and the musician himself in a room with walls painted a baby blue color. 

 

Baekhyun recognized the piece he was playing, it was Yiruma’s River Flows in You, a very trendy piece that Baekhyun liked for its calm flow and the sadness hidden beneath the melody, voiced out through delicate notes rather than sorrowful words. 

 

That wasn’t the only thing he recognized in the video. The face focused on the keyboard was a familiar one. 

 

It was the stranger he had locked eyes with in the subway two days in a row and Baekhyun felt pleasantly surprised by this coincidental discovery. Out of all things, piano was the last thing he would’ve associated to the stranger. His pleasant features seemed even softer and more appealing as he let the melody created by his own fingers and the emotions it carried engulf him whole. His eyes were closed, his features at peace. Coupled with the piano’s voice, it was an almost dazzling sight, sweeping his breath off its feet and away from the the smog clutching at it.

 

After a third time playing the piano, Baekhyun had forgotten all about the cold and the silence and the ghosts, curiosity taking over instead and pushing him tap on the account that had posted the video. It led to a page that was filled up with instruments right at the first glance and Baekhyun took a look at the short description under the account name, lingering on the words ‘Allegro Music Studio’.

 

He figured out that the stranger worked in some kind of music academy whose students were mostly children of all ages, only very few adults appearing in the pictures and videos shared. There were all kinds of instruments, guitars, violins, traditional Korean instruments, and even a short video of what seemed to be a choir. The stranger’s face appeared a few more times, mostly in videos where he played the piano. The page seemed to be rather popular as well, comments and likes flooding most of their posts, their captions always giving out the name of the students appearing in them or some kind of promotional message to appeal to even more potential students.

 

Baekhyun scrolled back up to the account’s description. There was an address, the studio was located in Seoul which wasn’t too surprising. He stared at the address for a few seconds before a notification called for his attention. It was another message from Junki. Irked by the disturbance, he ignored it yet again in favor of taking a last look at the address.

 

He locked his phone after a few seconds, watching the screen switch off.

 

He felt his features morph into a smile at the memory of his encounter with the stranger in the subway, the way he had looked dazzled when Baekhyun had apologized to him after accidentally bumping into him on his way out. He was handsome, might be kind since he seemed to be a teacher in a music academy, and he didn’t seem to be shy but didn’t look outgoing either.

 

He unlocked his phone again and looked at the notification in his inbox. Leisurely, he thought that he had to put an end to Junki’s presence in his life. It was growing to be just a tad bothersome and stale.

 

He missed playing the piano. He didn’t feel like investing in a new keyboard, even if he had the means to afford a few of those if he wanted to. What he could invest himself into, however, was a handsome stranger who liked playing pacifying melodies and whose rendition of a sorrowfully beautiful song Baekhyun listened to five more times before letting himself flow in the river of sleep.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next morning, after yet another savory bowl of seolleongtang from the same place, Baekhyun found himself standing right in front of the small building in which the stranger from the subway seemed to work.

 

It wasn’t anything special, just a small building with wide windows and a huge sign right above the glass doors that read Allegro Music Studio. The  surface was clean, painted in a pale, joyful but welcoming yellow shade. A melodious name for a melodious studio, Baekhyun thought as he looked up at the few black notes dancing around those three words.

 

Without hesitation, he stepped forward and pushed the doors, opening them into an unfamiliar place that he hoped he would get a familiar feeling out of. The entrance hall was occupied by a row of seats stretched right in front of a wide window, the walls painted white. The counter was of a mahogany, deep color, and the smile given to him by the young, pretty woman standing behind it and looking up at him was welcoming.

 

"Welcome to Allegro Music Studio! How can I help you?" she asked in a light, melodious voice that was fitting to the environment they were in.

 

Baekhyun stepped closer to her until he was standing right in front of her, separated by the counter, and gave her a friendly smile.

 

"Hello," he greeted her back with an easy smile. "I was wondering if you could give me a bit of information about the classes and the academy as a whole."

 

"Of course," she chirped, obviously used to receiving people with this kind of request. She didn’t have a name tag on but Baekhyun had seen her face in one of the videos on the academy’s SNS account last night as she plucked the strings of a gayageum. She must be a teacher. "How old would the student be?"

 

"Twenty five," he replied, smile turning impish when her eyes widened comically at his words. "It would be for me," he added for clarification.

 

"Oh," she realized before letting out a soft chuckle, not an embarrassed one but a few notes that made it seem like she was aware of how comical she had looked in this situation. She gave him an apologizing smile. "I’m sorry, I didn’t realize. We’re so used to parents coming up to us that I didn’t even consider the possibility."

 

"Actually that was part of what I wanted to ask," Baekhyun said, smiling back to let her know he didn’t mind. "Do you accept adults as students?"

 

"We do! There’s no age limit," she nodded, filling Baekhyun up with a faint feeling of relief. That had been the only obstacle he had considered. "You can be our second adult student after an adorable grandma whose dream has always been to play geomungo."

 

Baekhyun laughed along with her heartily, although it was ignited by the thought that his motivation was far different from that old lady she was talking about.

 

"What instrument would you lean towards more?"

 

"I was thinking of taking piano classes," he answered, letting a little bit of hesitation infuse into his voice.

 

"You came at the right moment then," she grinned, prompting Baekhyun to give her a confused look. "We have a piano teacher available right now and I’ll let you talk to him since you seem a bit hesitant and he’d be much better at explaining the functioning of his own classes. I mostly teach traditional Korean instruments so it would be better for you. Would you like that?"

 

"Sure," he agreed.

 

"Alright! Please wait a moment," she said before leaving from the small opening at the corner of the counter and heading towards a door right on the left.

 

Baekhyun felt anticipation building in slowly when she disappeared into what he supposed was some kind of teachers’ room and he smiled to himself. Everything was going smoothly. He hadn’t expected anything less than that but it still was pleasant to see that his sudden decision might not have been a bad one.

 

A few seconds later, the door opened again and this time, it wasn’t a petite, smiley woman that reappeared but a tall, handsome stranger whose eyes Baekhyun had already met a few times in the past few days.

 

This time, his hair was swept up and away from his face, each black strand styled perfectly on top of his head, baring his handsome features and his doe eyes that widened even more as soon as he laid his gaze on Baekhyun. The sight ignited yet another flame of entertainment in Baekhyun’s chest. The stranger seemed to carry every single one of his emotions on his face, and while Baekhyun usually judged that kind of person a bit too easy to read for his liking, he could only find entertainment in that quality on this particular man.

 

His clothing style was entirely different from the two other times Baekhyun had the chance of seeing and yet, it still didn’t look out of the place. He was sporting black slacks that hugged his long legs generously and a white dress-shirt decorated with thin, light blue stripes. Only the top button was undone, giving him an air of nonchalance that wasn’t too over the top. It was enhanced by the way his cuffs had been unbuttoned as well, his sleeves rolled up to his forearms in the same manner Baekhyun’s had been the last time they had seen each other.

 

He was still handsome, obviously not as young as Baekhyun thought he was, but he didn’t mind. Age rarely mattered for him when the person looking at him had surprise and attraction obviously nestled deep into their eyes. He couldn’t really see any kind of attraction in the other’s eyes this time, the surprise overshadowing anything else, a sign that he recognized the man he had ogled more than once in the subway only last night. On the other hand, Baekhyun made sure to keep his features void of any recognition or surprise, giving the other the same friendly smile he had given to the woman from earlier instead.

 

"Hello." Baekhyun was the first one to greet him, causing the other to finally blink and get back to his senses. The sight was very comical and Baekhyun forced himself not to laugh or let anything spill into his expression, wanting the other to think that he didn’t recognize him. "You’re the piano teacher, right?"

 

"Right," the stranger said after clearing his throat and Baekhyun found himself yet again pleasantly surprised at the timbre of his voice. It sounded deep, almost velvety as that single word he uttered was carried to Baekhyun by the air and wrapped around him like the doting embrace of a soothing bath at the end of a harsh day. "Park Chanyeol," he introduced himself, bowing his head a little.

 

"Byun Baekhyun," he said, returning the gesture with a light smile.

 

Chanyeol looked at him for a second, no particular emotion on his face but his gaze almost insistent, as if he was expecting Baekhyun to recognize him and say something. Knowing that this was exactly the case, Baekhyun said nothing, waiting for the other to prompt the conversation into continuation as it would be expected from someone who was supposed to be a teacher.

 

"So you want to take piano classes," Chanyeol eventually said, his lips curved into a friendly smile that he probably gave to anyone who wanted to be a potential student.

 

"It was kind of a spur of the moment decision so I’m not entirely sure yet, actually," he said, tone not betraying a sliver of the intrigue he still felt towards Chanyeol. "I’m just here to gather information about enrollment and classes and what not. Just to get an idea of how it would be if I did enroll for classes."

 

Chanyeol hummed at his words and moved towards the counter, not stepping on the other side through the opening, but bringing himself a bit closer to Baekhyun. 

 

"That’s alright, it’s best to know what exactly you’re getting into before actually doing it. How about we just take a look around the place together first? That’s what we do to familiarize children with the academy when their parents want to enroll them in but they’re a bit apprehensive," the other explained, one corner of his lips faintly lifting up into a youthful, almost playful smile that somehow still remained neutral and rather professional at the same time.

 

It was interesting. Baekhyun was glad to have stumbled on the video that had helped him sleep last night.

 

"We could just do that. I guess I really am like a child enrolling into his first piano classes anyway," he chuckled softly, not against the idea of spending a bit more time with Chanyeol through a visit that would help him make up his mind about the place. Even if he knew it was Chanyeol that he would consider in order to take his final decision and not the place.

 

With that, he followed Chanyeol around as the latter gave him a small tour of the building. It ended up being bigger than Baekhyun had thought. The establishment offered many rooms of various size that were all soundproof, according to Chanyeol. His enjoyment about his work was obvious through the way he had a lot of things to say about every single room they visited. It was charming.

 

There were tiny rooms with instruments that students who couldn’t afford to have an instrument at home yet could come up anytime during the day and use to practice on their own, something that was intriguing to Baekhyun as he knew this wasn’t really something usual in every music studio. They walked through clean, long, and tastefully decorated hallways, Chanyeol opening doors to bigger rooms used for small groups of younger children who were taking class all at the same time rather than individually to make it more enjoyable for them. Some rooms were apparently already occupied so they couldn’t go in but Chanyeol still pointed at them and explained what they were used for.

 

"Why piano?" Chanyeol asked after a while, when the tour was finished and he had declared only having one last room left to show Baekhyun.

 

"No particular reason," he said at first, looking up at the other. He was taller than Baekhyun and had to tilt his head down a little to look at him. Baekhyun had to tilt his head up as well, the faint stretch on the front of his neck came with an enjoyable tingle. "I’ve always wanted to try the piano since I was a child but never really got around to it. Even if I’m an adult now and I should’ve started much earlier, I just want to experience it once so I won’t regret it for the rest of my life."

 

"Well, that’s okay," Chanyeol smiled. He seemed to smile a lot. Even more than the woman from earlier whose name Chanyeol had revealed to be Seungwan a few minutes ago. "Music is a really good way to cope with stress and relax a little bit. Unless it’s something that stresses you out more," he added as an afterthought, laughing softly.

 

He had a nice laugh. Baekhyun could tell it wasn’t a real laugh yet, just something that Chanyeol probably gave to everyone by default, especially students and parents, but that only fueled in Baekhyun the desire to hear a genuine laugh from the other.

 

They stopped in front of the last door and Chanyeol pushed it open into another room painted in the now familiar baby blue color. The only difference was that this room displayed a grand piano right at the center of it and instantly, Baekhyun recognized the decor from the video he had watched too many times last night.

 

"This is the room where our classes would take place," Chanyeol informed him as they stepped inside. "It’s nothing special. There’s another identical room right across but it’s currently occupied by Jongdae, another one of our piano teachers. You’re lucky enough to have me as your teacher, by default," the other continued, smiling him a wide beam that haloed him with jest.

 

A bit of a realer smile. But not quite. Baekhyun would work towards it.

 

"Maybe you’re the one who’s lucky enough to end up with me as your student," he retorted, returning an equally as playful smile to Chanyeol who didn’t seem to have expected that coming from him, going blank for a second before laughing good-naturedly.

 

They approached the instrument and Chanyeol motioned for him to take a seat on the bench. Baekhyun gave Chanyeol a curious look when he settled beside him.

 

"This is how it’s going to feel to play the piano," Chanyeol explained, reaching towards the ivory and black keyboard with a hand and pressing a few fingers on the keys. He whipped a controlled stroke towards the left, lacing notes together in a thickening melody. "It’s kind of intimidating, isn’t it?"

 

Baekhyun had sat in this same spot hundreds of times in his life. He had pressed his fingers against a keyboard hundreds of times in his life. He knew dozens of musical pieces by heart, some much older than others. He had stopped finding this majestic instrument intimidating almost seventeen years ago.

 

"A bit," he confessed, letting his gaze rest on the keyboard, taking it in, blinking at a more rapid pace as if he was impressed by the amount of keys presented to him. "It kind of makes me feel really small."

 

Chanyeol chuckled as lightly as the first note of his weaved melody from earlier, he had probably heard those words dozens of times in his life. Baekhyun wasn’t sure he looked at every single person who had uttered those words to him with this kind of gaze, soft, maybe a bit mesmerized.

 

"Soon, your small self will be able to guide the notes out of this big bad instrument," he said, his deep voice caressing Baekhyun’s ears in a joking breeze as he looked back down at the keyboard and patted it in a feathery, silent motion. "If you decide to take classes, that is."

 

"Maybe it would help me make up my mind if you play me something," Baekhyun suggested, a faint undertone of mirth in his own voice.

 

Chanyeol glanced at him before silently bringing both his hands down to the keyboard, fingertips resting against the ivory keys so gently it almost looked like he was about to scoop up feathers and offer them to Baekhyun. Chanyeol started playing the same song that served Baekhyun as a lullaby last night and he felt those feathers gliding down his back, tickling every dip on his spine.

 

The song was still dreamy, still soothing, it still whispered sorrowful words of comfort to Baekhyun’s eager ears. However, none of it was as appeasing as watching Chanyeol let his fingers valse on the ivory and black ballroom that came to life with every single step of each fingertip. Chanyeol’s eyes weren’t closed this time, only heavily hooded as he looked at the keyboard. Calm and peace flowed out of his expression, his handsome features were once again relaxed and he faintly moved his head from time to time to the rhythm he created on his own, as if he, too, was part of the melody. Maybe he was. Baekhyun thought that no other rendition of this piece would feel as complete when it wasn’t those particular hands playing it.

 

Baekhyun’s gaze zeroed in on the fingers giving life to the instrument. Chanyeol’s hands were big, the back of it broad enough for Baekhyun to feel a sense of wonder at how agile he still managed to be on such an instrument. In proportion, Chanyeol’s fingers weren’t too long, a bit chubby and thick. His nails were cut short, clean, maintained with care, and the nail of his right thumb was left a bit longer. Baekhyun wondered if he played guitar as well. The shifting of his tendons grabbed his attention.

 

They were prominent, almost bewitching as they danced in rhythm to the air Chanyeol created with his own fingers. They weren’t as eye-catching as the veins streaming down the back of his hands, like rivers taking their source on the cavity between the massif of his knuckles. They were protruding, carved beneath his skin. He had nice hands. Agile, delicate, but sturdy-looking.

 

Those hands abruptly stopped playing for a second and Baekhyun looked back up at Chanyeol’s face in confusion only to realize that he was only switching songs when much more joyful and perky notes filled the air around them instead. It was definitely a happier piece, not one that Baekhyun knew, however, and he watched the other’s long fingers knead that melody into the keyboard, an odd itch suddenly crawled down his arms. He missed playing the piano. He hadn’t played in a long time and now, when he was seated right in front of a beautiful grand piano, almost able to feel the air vibrating with every single note, it was difficult for Baekhyun to stop himself from taking over and playing one of the pieces he knew by heart.

 

After a few seconds, he couldn’t hold himself anymore so he gave in, reaching towards the keyboard with a single finger and the hesitance of a child touching snow for the first time. He pressed his finger against a key on the right half of the keyboard and Chanyeol didn’t stop at the sudden intruding note, continued playing, but Baekhyun could feel his gaze on him. He met it with his own almost innocent, mostly curious one and the teacher smiled and nodded, as if telling him to go on. Inwardly, Baekhyun rejoiced at his victory and pressed the same note again, and again, and kept pressing it until the very end of the piece in a rhythm that he made sure molded into the rest of the song but not perfectly.

 

When the music died down, silence took over for a few seconds. Chanyeol’s eyes lingered on Baekhyun’s hands for a fleeting moment and Baekhyun basked in the attention before their eyes met again and the taller smiled.

 

"That was a really good addition. Looks like you might be innate at piano."

 

That was obviously just an encouraging sentence, something that wasn’t surprising coming from a teacher who dealt with children on a daily basis, but the playful smile it was accompanied with prompted Baekhyun to mirror it back.

 

"If I were innate at piano, I wouldn’t need you."

 

Baekhyun watched as Chanyeol looked away after those words, the corners of his lips twitching into another smile. It was a sweet and appreciated smile, especially when his gaze fell back to Baekhyun’s hands. He was staring at them.

 

"What do you think?" he asked after a few seconds of silence.

 

That seemed to snap Chanyeol out of his staring and he quickly looked back up at Baekhyun’s face, eyes widened the slightest bit like a child caught stealing from the candy jar.

 

"About what?" 

 

"Do you think I could try piano lessons?" Baekhyun explained, forcing himself to show apprehension instead of anything else.

 

"Oh," Chanyeol said before chuckling softly. "Definitely. It might be difficult at first but isn’t everything difficult until you get the hang of it?"

 

"You’re right," Baekhyun hummed softly. "Thank you. This definitely helped."

 

Baekhyun had already made up his mind by the time they walked back out to the counter in the entrance hall. He carefully listened as Chanyeol handed him out the paperwork and talked about inscription fees and lesson hours that they would later on talk about more in detail, if he did decide to enroll into the academy.

 

"I’ll come back as soon as I’m sure," Baekhyun smiled at him as he gathered the few paper sheets into his hands.

 

"Take your time. Everything you need to know is in there anyway," Chanyeol smiled back, nodding towards the paper.

 

"Thanks. See you soon then. Or maybe tonight, in the subway," were the last words Baekhyun uttered to Chanyeol before leaving, plans of coming back already almost entirely made up in his mind.

 

The taken aback look on Chanyeol’s face, dusted with faint hints of pink on his cheekbones and crowned red with ears that stuck out, was the endearing prize for a right decision Baekhyun had taken. 

 

It was his fresh breath of life for the day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next time Baekhyun found himself in the subway, he wasn’t standing against a window but seated right below it, something he was grateful for.

 

Usually, he didn’t mind spending the short journey home from the station on his feet, even if the subway was sometimes crowded and he had people breathing down his neck or accidentally digging elbows into his side, but tonight, exhaustion had pushed him into this seat as soon as he had caught sight of it. His body had simply crumbled on top of it and he didn’t even mind hearing the faint buzz of the music the young man sitting next to him was listening to through his earphones.

 

The worst thing about it was that he hadn’t even had a harder day than usual, he had been at the company for the past two days, spent most of those two days locked up in that place and crushed under paperwork and meetings and marketing plans to approve and packaging to check and everything he was so used to doing that it didn’t even feel unpleasant anymore. That wasn’t what had exhausted him, Baekhyun was well aware of it.

 

What had sucked the energy out of him was the fact that it was in that place. He had had to relocate into his father’s office for practicality, something that he had strongly refused to do yesterday only to realize that it was a burden for everyone he was working with to go down five floors each time they had to find him in his own office, including his father’s very own secretary. The poor woman had to work with him as he was still taking over his father’s duties, the man probably still prisoner of a hospital bed and drowning in treatments. Baekhyun wasn’t entirely heartless to people he knew worked hard all day and he had accepted to work in his father’s office this morning.

 

It wasn’t an unpleasant office per se, it was just a place that didn’t belong to him. It was a place that wasn’t meant for him, just like the rest of that company, but his father’s office was the part of it Baekhyun hadn’t even stepped into in more than two years. There were still lots of pictures on his desk. Pictures of his mother, of Baekbom, of the three of them together before Baekhyun was born, pictures of his father and Baekbom alone, more recent. 

 

He took a deep breath in, hoping that it would soothe the exhaustion out of his soul. It didn’t work one bit. He looked around him. He was surrounded by a lot of people, he wasn’t alone in the subway car even if no one paid attention to him. He had left his car at the company yet again. He sighed softly and reached for his phone. He had yet another message from Junki whom he hadn’t contacted at all for three whole days. He opened up the conversation thread and typed a quick message to the other, inserting a small sticker along with his apology for not having replied to the other because of how busy he had suddenly gotten.

 

The answer came less than a minute later in the form of understanding and words about how much he missed Baekhyun. He felt his lips twitching up as he read over those words a few times, a small flame of joy lighting up in his chest and melting the exhaustion away the slightest bit. The conversation went on for a few minutes, Junki was always much more open with his feelings whenever he missed Baekhyun, showering him with more than a single message at once and even a few urgent typos when usually, his messages were very formal and well-punctuated. He let the satisfaction spread within him at that thought before opening up another conversation thread he had ignored for the past two days, or rather had no choice but to ignore when work had been so hectic he even had to skip lunch today.

 

Joohyun was obviously upset at him for not having contacted her in what felt like forever to her but a few sweet words and compliments were enough for her to shower him with childish emojis and whiny words about missing him. Baekhyun promised to take her out on a date tomorrow, knowing that he deserved a break from that cold, entrapping box that was his father’s office. The company could survive without anyone supervising it for a day. He could just swing by in the evening to check up on everything. He had never really felt entitled to give so much work into something that didn’t belong to him.

 

As soon as he sent her a message, Baekhyun felt his skin tingle with a now very familiar sensation. His lips jerked into a smile, warmth melting their harsh corners and molding them upwards even before he looked up.

 

This time, it took him less than two seconds to find Chanyeol and less than one second to feel his face splitting into two with a grin.

 

He was standing across Baekhyun, a bit to the left on the opposite side of the car and Baekhyun almost felt a little disappointed for not having noticed his recent source of entertainment on his occasional evening subway rides earlier but the sight Chanyeol offered to him made it impossible for him to feel anything but amused. He looked a bit stiff, in his ripped jeans and black sleeveless shirt that revealed arms that were far from being scrawny, his hand gripping the handle on the ceiling tightly. He had turned his gaze away as soon as Baekhyun looked at him and was now staring out of the window. Or rather, seemed to be forcing himself to stare out of it, as if he was giving his everything into not looking away and at someone else instead.

 

Baekhyun stifled a chuckle in his mouth and looked back down at his phone, choosing not to glance at the other at all for the rest of his journey and simply enjoying the delectable sensation provided by Chanyeol’s gaze resting back on his face again as soon as he looked away. 

 

It was their first encounter since their first real meeting at the music academy. Baekhyun had carefully avoided taking the subway that night, choosing to go back home with his own car after spending the last hours of the evening at the company. He had also been unable to actually visit the academy again to enroll into the classes because of work, having completely forgotten all about it. He supposed that wasn’t too bad, however. Chanyeol might have expected to see him that same night in the subway, or maybe the next morning at the academy for his inscriptions. That was a pleasant thought.

 

He avoided looking at the other until the very moment his stop was announced, only raising his gaze from his phone and abruptly meeting Chanyeol’s eyes when he felt the subway car slowing down to come to a halt. Chanyeol didn’t turn his gaze away this time, he didn’t seem to mind being caught even if the small twitch of his eyebrows in what was probably surprise didn’t go unnoticed by Baekhyun. The latter let his lips spread into a smile as they looked at each other and stood up to walk towards the opening doors.

 

"See you tomorrow," he said lightly as he walked by Chanyeol, smile still lingering on.

 

As Baekhyun stepped out of the subway car, glee still fluttered in his chest at the late reply that reached his ears in a tone that was made louder by bewilderment and maybe, astonishment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"Good morning! How can I help you?"

 

The smile that accompanied these words as soon as Baekhyun stepped into Allegro Music Academy the next morning was wider and toothier than Seungwan’s. It was also quickly replaced by a look of surprise. Baekhyun wondered if Chanyeol had really expected not to see him today despite Baekhyun telling him they would see each other before leaving the subway last night.

 

Chanyeol’s emotions seemed to always be openly displayed on his face. Baekhyun did his best not to betray how entertaining it was. 

 

"Good morning," Baekhyun greeted him back. "I’m here for my inscription."

 

"You’ve made up your mind?" Chanyeol asked as he grabbed the papers Baekhyun held out to him.

 

"Yeah, I think I’m ready for you to be my teacher," Baekhyun replied.

 

Chanyeol didn’t look at him but his smile widened even as his gaze remained on the paperwork that he was checking for any missing information. Baekhyun had filled everything in last night as soon as he had gotten home, quite efficiently, once he had made up his mind to proceed with this entire play. As Baekhyun observed Chanyeol’s focused expression, his raised eyebrows as he read through the forms, he couldn’t help but think that he had indeed made the right decision. So far, Chanyeol had been nothing but a treat to his eyes. This would be a breath of fresh air, something lighthearted and distracting. 

 

He took the occasion to note that Chanyeol was wearing the same hoodie Baekhyun had once seen him wearing in the subway, probably to protect himself from the chilly morning air of summer days. Perhaps he was a little sensitive to the cold. Baekhyun had gotten rid of his jacket on his way here, finding the weather already too hot for him to wear anything but a plain, white shirt and light washed jeans.

 

The whole process of signing up took a bit longer than Baekhyun thought it would. Chanyeol often opened up more than one drawer to look for things he needed, whether it be a pen, a stamp, or anything similar and soon, it was obvious to Baekhyun that Chanyeol usually didn’t work at the counter.

 

"I’m not used to taking care of the paperwork," he explained eventually when it took him almost a whole minute to find the classes’ schedule. Cute. Baekhyun shook his head, passing it off as  a trace of understanding.

 

"It must be my lucky day then.” Chanyeol gave him a surprised look. "I get to watch you fumble around. It’s very different from how confident you were when you gave me a tour of the academy."

 

Chanyeol laughed softly.

 

"Maybe it’s my unlucky day to be here when someone who wouldn’t hesitate to make fun of me is visiting," he said, giving Baekhyun a look that was professionally polite but still gave out hints of amusement and accusation. Baekhyun smiled as if he had won something and Chanyeol shook his head, sighing a little. "Truly a bad coincidence."

 

Baekhyun caught him tapping his index finger against the counter as he uttered those last words and wondered if that was the telltale sign of a lie. He tucked the detail in a corner of his mind. Maybe Chanyeol had made an exception and decided to man up the counter today.

 

"Are you trying to say you wanted to impress me?" Baekhyun chose to say instead of anything else. He had pleasant reactions.

 

Chanyeol looked at him and let out a soft chuckle.

 

"We always aim to impress any potential client or new student."

 

That was a smart answer, not something Baekhyun had expected. He thought the other would either splutter or deny everything. Maybe this would be even more interesting that he had thought.

 

"Well, the cute sight definitely impressed me," Baekhyun casually said before nodding towards the schedule Chanyeol was holding. "Can I take a look at that? To figure out when would be the best slot for me."

 

Baekhyun had to hold back a smile and keep his features blank, even if he could feel the other’s gaze on him while he studied the schedule and compared it to his own personal schedule.

 

"Two classes a week is the recommended schedule," Chanyeol explained. "They shouldn’t be too close either, not two days in a row, but spread over the week so you don’t forget what you learned after, say, five days without any lesson. You can, of course, take up to four lessons a week but that’s the limit."

 

"I think two would be enough for now," Baekhyun hummed as he gave Chanyeol the timetable back. "Wednesdays and Saturdays would be perfect for me."

 

"Alright, I’ll put you on these days for the rest of the month. We usually start planning classes right before the start of a new month so I’ll be asking you if these days are still good for you. Would afternoons be okay?"

 

"Perfect," Baekhyun said as he watched Chanyeol write his name on an entirely free Saturday.

 

They took care of the payment before Chanyeol gave him a few more details about the dynamics of the classes, Baekhyun carefully listening to him because even if he didn’t need those classes, he still would attend all of them and spend as much time here as possible. Maybe by the time he’d get tired of acting like he knew nothing about piano, they would be close enough to meet up outside of the academy.

 

"And here’s my personal number," Chanyeol said as he slid a yellow post-it decorated with the academy’s logo to Baekhyun. A few digits were scrawled on it, tiny and unpleasant to the eye. The row was askew, the numbers a bit forked together and barely intelligible, an obvious sign of rush rather than poor penmanship.

 

Baekhyun raised an eyebrow and tamed the smugness away from his features.

 

"Doesn’t the academy have a phone number?"

 

Chanyeol’s lips remained parted for a while as he stared at Baekhyun, as if he hadn’t expected to be asked such a thing.

 

"We do have a phone number that you can find right here," he eventually said in a soft voice. The tips of his ears were redder than a few seconds ago, his black hair blending in with the vividness. He wasn’t looking at Baekhyun but pointing to the phone number under the academy’s logo on the contract he had just printed out and that was resting on the counter separating them. He tapped his index finger against it a few times. "But just in case it’s urgent and no one picks up the call here. There isn’t often someone waiting at the counter since people usually don’t come when it’s not class hours, you know. So just in case you have to cancel a class and you can’t reach us at this number, you can just call my personal number. Since I’ll be your teacher anyway."

 

Baekhyun hummed in understanding. Maybe it wasn’t an excuse, maybe he did give his personal number to every student. Either way, it allowed him to see a flustered Chanyeol even for a split second and that was cute. Chanyeol was cute.

 

"Thank you then," he smiled and Chanyeol returned it, although the curve of his lips was fainter than it had been earlier.

 

Chanyeol gave him just a few last particularities, along with short pamphlets that promoted stores in case Baekhyun wanted to buy his own instruments.

 

Baekhyun’s last words to Chanyeol that day were see you on Wednesday, uttered with the knowledge that the promise was now bound to be kept. The smile Chanyeol gave him in reply was wide, youthful, and bright.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unfortunately, that smile had been so bright his mind flashed back to it even long after Baekhyun had left the academy.

 

There was just something intriguing about Chanyeol. He wasn’t anything special. He wasn’t the most handsome man Baekhyun had ever took an interest in. He wasn’t the most difficult person Baekhyun had ever chosen. Baekhyun wouldn’t have to cleave his way into him with the determination of a thorn piercing skin even through the rough fabric of clothes. Chanyeol wasn’t someone who had shown any obvious, undeniable desire to turn his interest for Baekhyun into something more either. He had made no move so far.

 

He simply piqued Baekhyun’s interest, made him wonder all kinds of things about him. How did he dress when alone at home? What dish would he cook for someone he held close to heart? What did he greet his close friends with? How did he gaze at someone he was deeply, madly in love with? Baekhyun wanted to find out the answer to every single one of those questions. He would find out the answers to those questions and much more, no matter how long it would take.

 

Chanyeol wasn’t the first person he had wanted to invest in so much either. Baekhyun had preferences. Chanyeol was handsome and tall. He seemed kind, as someone who worked with children and music. He smiled like he had another kind of softness. A kind that was novel to Baekhyun. Different. 

 

There was just something about Chanyeol, something that made Baekhyun reminisce their last encounter even as he held a soft, small, and gentle hand in his.

 

"What are you thinking about?" 

 

The voice that pulled him out of his thoughts was usually just as soft as the hand he was holding but at that exact moment, it sounded too harsh. The tugs on his hand to call for his attention were a bit too strong. He turned his head towards Joohyun, contemplating the way sunlight gleamed in her silky hair and drew shadows on her cheeks in the form of her long lashes. Her eyebrows were furrowed and her features were stained with visible cracks of disappointment and irritation. She had never liked being ignored and Baekhyun supposed her last few words had gone completely unheard to his ears.

 

"Nothing in particular," he replied with a light smile that aimed to soothe her.

 

It seemed to work, the irritation faded away to leave more room for the disappointment in her voice as she squeezed his hand tighter. She looked down at her feet as they continued walking through a row of shops, cafés, and bubbly people buzzing around the popular Itaewon streets.

 

"We already didn’t see each other for three days and now that we’re on a date, you’re not even paying attention to me," she mumbled, her eyebrows still furrowed and her lower lip jutted out the slightest bit.

 

It wasn’t just a show, Joohyun didn’t really bother acting cute or childish to make herself more appreciated. This was nothing but a natural reaction and it pulled a light chuckle out of Baekhyun. It was nice to know she liked his attention so much.

 

"Maybe I did it on purpose to see this cute pout," he singsonged, poking her slightly puffed cheek with the tip of his finger and watching as she laughed before he could even pull it away.

 

Relief blew through him. He wasn’t in the mood to argue with her or listen to her heavy complaints about lack of attention.

 

"You’re mean," she still huffed afterwards, looking away from him but not letting go of his hand.

 

"Am I? How about I try winning you a teddy bear from there to make you forgive me?" he offered, nodding towards the claw machine a few meters away.

 

"A teddy bear?" she repeated, her interest pricked. She looked towards him again, eyes narrowed with just a little bit of suspicion. "You’d really do that?"

 

"Of course I would," he said. “Anything for you.”

 

A smile gradually flowered on her lips. It never really took much for her to forgive him. She held his hand with both of hers and then started pulling him towards the claw machine. 

 

Before she could really step forward, Baekhyun pulled her back and prevented her from bumping into a young boy skating down the street and swooshing right past them. She let out a startled sound, her widened eyes watching as the skater didn’t even glance back at them. She looked up at Baekhyun and melted against him in a swoon.

 

"Be careful, silly," he mumbled, frowning a bit.

 

Her cheeks grew rosy.

 

Eventually, after many failed tries, Baekhyun managed to pull one of the smallest plushies out of the machine and gave it to her. 

 

"You’re the best, I love you so much!" she chirped as she looked at the pink, fluffy teddy bear she was now holding. Its oversized, crafted smile paled next to hers.

 

He laughed at that. He wasn’t surprised to hear those words. He didn’t return them however. Nothing pushed him to. They weren’t together, at no point in their constructed friendship had Baekhyun uttered words about a relationship or love, or anything remotely close to that. 

 

Things had simply happened. They had met two months ago and she had been the one to shyly initiate a kiss, almost two weeks ago now. She had failed an exam and Baekhyun had taken her out on a date to distract her from it. The day had been spent buying her all the food she wanted and letting her recite how nonsensical it was for her to fail that exam. Baekhyun had taken her to the cinema to make sure she wouldn’t be able to speak there.

 

She must have felt better at the end of their date. She had promptly reached on her tiptoes to press her mouth against his. He had acted surprised and embarrassed, like the caring and kindhearted man she saw him as, but he hadn’t pushed her away. Neither of them had ever put a name to this, they simply spent time together and exchanged short kisses from time to time but Joohyun had never tried to ask whether they were in a relationship or not. And she wouldn’t get the opportunity to, Baekhyun would put an end to this before it could happen.

 

Joohyun had not even noticed what had escaped her own mouth, too busy ogling the plushie Baekhyun had offered her. Even if she had noticed, nothing pushed Baekhyun to offer her that kind of lie. He never did, to anyone.

 

The only thought in his head as he watched her hold it in her arms as they headed to the nearest ice cream shop, was that he wanted to know what kind of reaction Chanyeol would have were he the one to be gifted that small teddy bear.

 

He definitely would have to make more time in his schedule for Chanyeol if he wanted to have that answer sooner rather than later.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The further Baekhyun stepped into the hallway that he had been frequenting for the past few days, the tighter his tie felt around the neck.

 

He reached for his phone in the inside pocket of his jacket and scrolled through his notifications as he headed towards his father’s office that had become his cage for as long as he’d have to work here. His lips quirked up as he opened the five messages Junki had sent him since this morning, each of them growing gradually more insistent and whiny. They hadn’t seen each other at all since their last coffee date a few weeks ago and Baekhyun supposed his absence was starting to be overwhelming in the lawyer’s life. He glanced at the desk right outside his father’s office.

 

It was empty, the secretary must’ve either ran down to the cafeteria to get coffee or was running around still trying to get everything ready for his day at work. It was still rather early and Baekhyun didn’t mind her being late - she was an employee, not a machine. He sighed as he stepped towards the office’s door, eyes still running through his messages as he pushed it open and entered.

 

As soon he breached the threshold, he froze in place.

 

It wasn’t cold, they were still in the first few days of the year’s hottest month and the fall that would come with September was still very far away, and yet, Baekhyun felt prickles of ice scratching down his back.

 

As soon as Baekhyun’s eyes met his father’s, he found the trigger of that polar storm.

 

It had been almost a year since they had last seen each other. Baekhyun was really good at avoiding him despite working in the same building and being rather high  in the hierarchy. 

 

The man looking right into his eyes without any remorse looked like death itself. It wasn’t because that was exactly how he made Baekhyun feel with a single glance, it was simply what his pale, wrinkled, and leathery skin made him look like. It was the cancer smoking his very own being and the aura he exuded, the frown, the dry, parted lips, the wheeze Baekhyun could almost hear, could imagine, as his father breathed air into his rotten lungs.

 

He frowned, a sour expression twisting his already bitter features into something even less pleasant to look at. As if he had just accidentally caught glimpse of a single, tiny, disgusting bug and suspected the whole place to be crawling with copies of it.

 

At that moment, he felt tiny ants crawling into his throat and eating him from the inside. Baekhyun found himself wishing the man sprawled on an expensive seat behind the massive desk did not only have the appearance of a corpse.

 

His father turned his gaze away, expression growing sourer by the second, and that was enough for Baekhyun to figure out the same exact thought was screaming in the man’s head.

 

"Father," he croaked out after a few seconds, when it was made obvious that the man wouldn’t break the silence first and that Baekhyun did not have the option of simply turning his back to this situation he had stupidly walked into.

 

His eyes darted to the secretary standing right next to his father, paper sheets in her hand. She gave him an apologetic look. Baekhyun forced himself to look back at his father.

 

"You’ve returned early," he said when no answer was given to him.

 

A little voice in his head told him to shut up, to stop trying, to leave because he knew what this would turn into. That was the only voice in his head that Baekhyun sometimes had a hard time taking into account.

 

"I have," the man’s hoarse voice replied, snapping in the air. Baekhyun’s throat tightened as he heard the small wheeze that followed those irritated words. His father wasn’t looking at him, his gaze focused on the pack of Marlboros. He pushed the lid open before grabbing a long stick. There were only three other sticks left inside. The snap of his lighter echoed boisterously in the silent room. "You’re not needed anymore."

 

He breathed out smoke as he spoke and the room was wide, there was at least three meters separating him from the fuming, sick old man yet Baekhyun could feel every single waft of the ghostly swirls escaping his father’s mouth breaching into his own being. His throat stung, the need to crinkle his nose to get rid of the sting was overwhelming but Baekhyun had fought it for years, he had never lost the battle yet.

 

Or had he not?

 

He wasn’t sure. Maybe it was the smoke. He felt himself shrinking, as if he was the tiny, fragile stick his father sucked the life out of.

 

You’re not needed anymore.

 

Those words echoed in his head, ghostly, thin, but dark and heavy.

 

Baekhyun knew he was right. He had acted as nothing but a replacement while his father was being treated like he so regularly was because of the illness. He knew it but a self-deprecating snort escaped his lips, choked up, tight, as tight as the grip he had around his phone. He could feel his knuckles fading into white, into a ghost.

 

"I’ve been here to replace you and make sure nothing was wrong while you were away when nothing entitled me to do so and you don’t even bother thanking me?" he threw at his father, voice holding much less force then he would’ve liked. It sounded fluttery, like the smoke his father wheezed out along with a dry, mocking snicker.

 

"This place is where you get all that money from. That’s what entitles you to work for it. I’m the one who pays you," the old man croaked and for a second, Baekhyun wondered if that was how a helpless employee felt against a harsh employer. "And why would I thank you?" he continued, his cold, empty gaze finding Baekhyun’s amidst thin curtains of smoke. "I’m just relieved that you didn’t destroy the company in my absence."

 

"I’m not stupid," Baekhyun mumbled, hating himself a little when he sounded anything but sure of himself.

 

His father snorted, a greasy sound followed by an even greasier cough. Baekhyun heard disdain in every single rattle of his voice.

 

"You destroy everything you touch," he retorted, voice growing louder with each word. Baekhyun glanced at the secretary still standing beside his father. She seemed to be embarrassed, looking down and doing her best not to hear anything. But she did. She heard every single humiliating word thrown at him. "That’s what you did to her, isn’t it?"

 

He froze at those words. He felt stupid, weak, helpless, anything that Baekhyun knew he wasn’t but turned into whenever those two black holes stared into his own eyes. Humiliation clawed at his chest, peeling his skin off, filing his ribcage bit by bit.

 

Before it could crumble down, Baekhyun stepped back and turned around, walking out through the door again without any other word.

 

As he strode through the hallways, took the elevator, and was greeted by too many people, he couldn’t hear anything. He couldn’t hear the clicking high heels, the clatter of busy bees breezing past him, or the boring song whispering through the elevator ride. He couldn’t hear anything but a greasy, rusty, and icy voice.

 

He stepped out of the building after what felt like an entire day, chest still stinging a bit. He took a deep breath of what should be fresh air. It felt like nothing but a short, incomplete inhale. There was no room in his lungs anymore. As if the smoke from his father’s cigarette had invaded his entire being and left no room for anything else.

 

It stung.

 

He loosened his grip on his phone and glanced at the device.

 

He had one missed call from Junki.

 

His chest rattled when he attempted to take another deep breath in.

 

He called him back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A few hours later, Baekhyun found himself breathless for a completely different reason as he laid in a bed that wasn’t his own and in a tight embrace that diffused solace into his core.

 

Junki’s hold around him was too tight, almost uncomfortably so, but at the same time, Baekhyun felt it hold his whole being together and for the moment, he had no intention to break it or ask the other to loosen it. He had a feeling Junki wouldn’t agree anyway, he could figure it out from the way the other was holding onto him too tightly.

 

That wouldn’t happen. Junki was supposed to think it wouldn’t happen. He knew that Baekhyun was neither a ghost nor a memory. The numerous marks he had been able to carve into Baekhyun’s body for the past few hours they had spent together could attest for it. 

 

Baekhyun felt spent but energized. It was a good kind of exhaustion. The kind that left his bones aching but his mind patched up.

 

"I missed you," Junki whispered after a while, when they had both recovered and weren’t panting too hard. His words were airy against Baekhyun’s chest, his damp hair tickled Baekhyun’s chin. His head was tucked right under it as he held onto Baekhyun tightly.

 

"Really?" Baekhyun breathed out softly, his fingers carding through the other’s hair absentmindedly.

 

He could barely hear what Junki was saying, his head still echoing with smoky words that had been thrown into his body earlier, infesting his soul and turning him into a haze. It was back. That voice. Those words. He could hear them again now that Junki’s hoarse moans and his words of love, despair, and need weren’t there to drown everything else out.

 

You’re not needed anymore.

 

He felt Junki nodding a little, bumping his head against Baekhyun’s chin with no real strength. Maybe the sight would’ve been adorable to someone else. To Baekhyun, it felt like a soothing caress.

 

You destroy everything you touch.

 

"I don’t think I can function without you anymore. I think I need you too much. I’m not myself when you’re not around," were the words kissed into the bare skin of his chest, his lips barely even grazing Baekhyun before he heard a dry chuckle and Junki’s hold tightened around him even more. "What have you done to me?"

 

A smile spread on his lips at those words. He closed his eyes for a second and remained silent, breathing everything in, the soft whiffs of perfume he could smell from Junki, the heavy scent of sweat and sex in the air, the fast-paced heartbeat he could feel against his chest, and the subtle hint of an incoming storm swirling in the air.

 

That’s what you did to her, isn’t it?

 

He could still hear it. That voice. That damn voice. 

 

It was getting fainter, it was fading into nothing but an old memory the more time he spent in this bed, in this embrace, in this love. 

 

It wasn’t enough.

 

He took a deep breath in, a last one. He inhaled until he felt his head clearing up from any lingering ghostly smoke, until he felt himself on the brink of exploding into tiny little pieces he would never be able to gather up again. He slowly exhaled, breathed out until every single hint of that voice was pushed out of his head.

 

Slowly, with delicacy and care, Baekhyun untangled himself from Junki.

 

As predicted, it wasn’t easy for him to give his hold up around Baekhyun but Junki loved Baekhyun, he would never hurt him, not even the slightest bit. Baekhyun sat up and stretched his neck a little bit. He tilted his head to the right, then to the left, fading a few knots away, as if he had spent hours bent down over a desk, working on painting, crafting, tying, molding, and taking.

 

He could feel Junki’s gaze on him as he reached for the shirt that had been discarded on the floor hours ago. He pushed his arms through the sleeves and adjusted the fabric on his shoulders, dusting it off and straightening a few creases. 

 

Rustling could be heard from behind him as he grabbed his underwear from the foot of the bed, the mattress dipping a little bit as Junki sat up. He could almost see the confusion on his face despite having his back facing the other. He had seen that look so many times in his life, on different faces, on different people, at different levels, but always so identical.

 

"What are you doing?" he heard the other question him, voice carrying out disorientation and a small hint of frailness. As if he already had the answer to his own question but thought it was better to ask. Maybe that was the case. Junki was a smart man.

 

Baekhyun stood up once he had his underwear on and turned to face him, taking in his wide eyes, his furrowed eyebrows, and the marks scattered over his chest. He had drawn a little bit of blood from his shoulder. Baekhyun had noticed when he caught a glimpse of red under his nails while dressing up.

 

It wasn’t Junki’s scratched shoulders that he was looking at. It wasn’t his bare chest either, nor was it any of the marks on his skin. Those weren’t the bruises Baekhyun was looking for. Instead, he let his gaze dive into Junki’s, never once looking away as he shook his head and parted his lips to draw another deeper mark on Junki.

 

"I think we should call it quits."

 

It was a familiar sight that unraveled under Baekhyun’s eyes. First, confusion darkened Junki’s gaze and he didn’t blink for three whole seconds, before his gaze started jolting back and forth between each of Baekhyun’s eyes, a clear sign that the gears in his brain were working on producing more panic with each passing second.

 

"What?" was his small, pathetic answer.

 

Baekhyun leaned down to grab his pants, shoving his right leg in first, followed by his left one.

 

"I’m not doing this anymore. I’m ending it," he explained, fingers working on buttoning his slacks as his voice carried no hint of emotion to Junki’s ears but nonchalance.

 

It took a few more seconds of silence for things to finally dawn upon Junki. Baekhyun calmly waited, looking at  him from a few steps away as he started buttoning his shirt up. It was a sudden change. Junki’s eyes grew wide, his lips parted and his bottom one trembled uselessly. It was as if he wanted to speak but couldn’t find the words hidden deep inside of him, somewhere under the panic. And maybe the pain. Baekhyun supposed that was when it started hurting, maybe somewhere around his chest. It only stopped at his imagination though, that pain was associated to nothing but satisfaction to Baekhyun. 

 

"Are you breaking up with me?" Junki suddenly spat out and Baekhyun hummed softly, gaze falling to the way the other was clutching the bedsheets between his hands, knuckles fading a bit into white and contrasting with the black silk of the bed. Junki seemed to be the kind of person whose first reaction was to get angry in this sort of situation. It wasn’t really surprising, he had always melted into a soft puddle under Baekhyun’s gaze but he was a firm, strict, and aloof person usually.

 

That thought almost sent shivers of pleasure down his spine but Baekhyun didn’t let it show, simply shaking his head.

 

"Not really," he answered, watching as the anger on Junki’s face was once again overshadowed by confusion. He chose not to torture the other too much and got to the point quickly. "We can’t really break up if we’ve never been together."

 

"What the hell are you saying?" Junki burst out, voice growing louder and stronger, a complete opposite to how he looked in a bundle of bedsheets, entirely naked and weak.

 

Baekhyun didn’t flinch.

 

"We are together, Baekhyun," he continued but this time, his voice wavered the slightest bit with hesitation. When Baekhyun breathed in, the air was scented with sweetness.

 

"When have you ever asked me to be yours?" he suddenly asked, tilting his head a bit, voice cold, chest easing as he looked at Junki slowly crumble down with every single word leaving his mouth.

 

He spluttered, shook his head, spluttered again and fumbled with his hands in grand gestures that amounted to nothing except for an obvious sign of his growing frenzy as he realized that maybe, just maybe he had been wrong about their relationship.

 

There was no answer. Junki had never asked him to be his boyfriend, his lover, whatever he wanted to call it. Baekhyun had never told him he was his either. He stepped closer to the bed, watching as hope ignited in Junki’s eyes for a split moment before dying down when Baekhyun simply grabbed the thin jacket half hurried under the bed. He didn’t even know how it had managed to get there.

 

That seemed to be enough for Junki to get back to his senses. His voice was shaky when he spoke again.

 

"But I’ve told you I love you!" he argued and Baekhyun almost winced at the volume of his voice. it was too loud, irritatingly so, and cracked on the last word.

 

"And when have I ever returned those words to you?"

 

That silenced Junki, who seemed to start piecing everything back together, his gaze falling away from Baekhyun and to his hands instead. He was still clutching onto the sheets tightly and Baekhyun wondered if he felt something clutching the same way into his heart, enough for it to leave long-lasting dents. He hoped so.

 

He wasn’t even lying to the other, merely laying down facts for Junki to pull his own answers from. Even if his gaze and his touch and the tone of his voice might have suggested the contrary in the other’s eyes, he had never ever felt any kind of love for Junki. He had never told him he loved him. He admired the marks on the other for a last second before turning around and stepping towards the door. He would find his way out alone, he had been to Junki’s house many times before, left traces and memories in a few nooks and corners. Those would remain even if Baekhyun wasn’t planning on stepping into this place ever again.

 

 Before he could even reach the bedroom’s door, a bump and footsteps rose behind him, followed by a louder bump before he felt something latching onto his wrist. He turned around and looked down to see Junki on his knees, one hand clutching onto Baekhyun’s wrist tightly. He had visibly slipped and fell in his haste to catch up to Baekhyun. He was naked, bare under Baekhyun’s gaze, revealing every single emotion, every single mark to Baekhyun who took it all in, breathed it all in, devouring every single glimpse.

 

It was almost funny, how Junki had gone from confused, to angry, to confused, to angry, to sad, and then to desperate. Love was such a merciless player, almost as merciless as Baekhyun’s black eyes looking into Junki’s wide, bleary ones.

 

"You can’t," he suddenly said, shaking his head, shaking Baekhyun’s wrist, voice shaking even harder. "You can’t leave me. You’re lying. You love me. You’ve loved me since the beginning, I know it. I just know it. I felt it, Baekhyun. Don’t do this to me. Please. Please, please. Whatever it is you’re trying to do, just stop it. You can’t leave me. Stop lying to me."

 

"I’m not lying. I’m being as truthful as I’ve ever been," Baekhyun calmly said.

 

"No!" Junki yelled. Baekhyun could feel his nails digging into his skin. He didn’t look away, taking it all in and carving the sight into a little shelf in his head. "You can’t leave me," he muttered and suddenly, the anger seemed to fade away again. He leaned his head against Baekhyun’s leg.

 

It was almost pathetic. People usually didn’t beg him. He had never imagined Junki to be the kind to go to such extremes. He wondered what his colleagues at the law firm would think if they saw him like this, naked, on his knees, begging a mere man to love him. He held back a smile and sighed softly instead.

 

"Why?" he simply inquired.

 

"Because I can’t live without you," Junki muttered weakly, looking up at him again, eyes glistening.

 

"Why? You’ve lived without me before we met."

 

"That was before you," Junki snapped, looking away. Maybe he was embarrassed of himself. The despair seemed to be stronger than the shame. He looked up into Baekhyun’s eyes pleadingly again. Or maybe it was more of hysteria rather than plea. "You’re my life now. I have nothing but you. You can’t leave me. You can’t take it all away like that, Baekhyun."

 

Baekhyun simply curved his lips into a soft smile, one that seemed to soothe Junki a little bit because as Baekhyun crouched down in front of him, he said nothing, simply watched, still pleading, still begging, still holding onto Baekhyun tightly. And Baekhyun leaned forward, delicately, carefully pressing his lips against Junki’s for a short kiss. He felt Junki’s breath hitching. The joy exploding in his chest was almost overwhelming. He breathed his last words out to Junki against his lips.

 

"I’m not taking anything away from you. You’re the one who’s given everything to me willingly."

 

There was no answer to that. Junki remained in a daze, either because of their last kiss or because he himself knew that Baekhyun had never stolen anything from him, had never forced anything out of him. Baekhyun had just painted, crafted, tied, molded, and took what was willingly given to him forever. 

 

Because this heartbreak would last forever to Junki. It would fade with time, the pain would be barely even noticeable after a while.But even ten years from now, if Baekhyun suddenly popped into Junki’s mind, there would be a sour taste in his mouth. A tiny, broken, scarred piece of his heart would always belong to Baekhyun, even if Junki himself would forget it.

 

And when Baekhyun successfully got out of the apartment only seconds after that, he couldn’t help but think that life was a monstrous, cruel concept. It was odd sometimes, how a broken heart could mend another back into a single piece. 

 

As soon as he stepped out of Junki’s apartment, he was breathing much more easily than when he had walked into it. There was no more smoke.

 

His phone buzzed for the rest of the day, Junki’s name endlessly displayed on the screen. It buzzed and buzzed and buzzed and Baekhyun wondered if that was what heartbreak or love felt like. An incessant buzzing that couldn’t be stopped unless you shut your phone off entirely.

 

That wasn’t what he did, though, because that night, the still ongoing buzzing of his phone made him sleep a bit more easily, as if the desperate call of his name from someone’s lips was as soothing as a replenishing lullaby.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"Why are we always eating whenever we’re together?" Baekhyun couldn’t help but wonder out loud as he looked for the cucumber strips in his cold noodles and transferred them to Junmyeon’s bowl.

 

He had knocked on Baekhyun’s door a while ago and they had hung out together as usual. Junmyeon wasn’t too energetic whenever he came back from work. After some time, they had both grown hungry and Baekhyun had argued to order takeout but Junmyeon had insisted on wanting to eat naengmyeon and not wanting to get out of the house either.

 

When he had started cooking, Baekhyun had remembered that Junmyeon sometimes liked to fill Baekhyun’s fridge up with food and anything needed to cook proper meals just for himself rather than for Baekhyun.

 

It wouldn’t even be upsetting if at least, Junmyeon agreed to cook according to Baekhyun’s own tastes when using Baekhyun’s own kitchen. He could’ve at least taken the cucumbers out of the recipe but no, Junmyeon always tried tricking Baekhyun into eating cucumbers and always failed but never gave up.

 

"Because we’re going to be eating alone if we don’t eat together?" Junmyeon replied as he eyed the growing lump of cucumbers in his bowl before grabbing one of the strips, shoving it into his mouth, and making a show of chewing on it loudly just to spite Baekhyun.

 

Sometimes, Baekhyun wished he could kick Junmyeon out of his apartment but he was right. He liked eating with Junmyeon. Only because it meant he didn’t have to eat alone.

 

"Sounds about right," he chuckled, a victorious sound following out of his mouth when he was finally done digging into his noodles for weird green gooey strips. They probably only looked that way to Baekhyun. Everyone else somehow seemed to like cucumbers. Weird. He grabbed his spoon and brought a bit of the cold broth into his mouth, humming in delight. 

 

Maybe he never kicked Junmyeon out because of how good he actually was at cooking too.

 

They ate quietly for a while, both enjoying the cold dish. It was refreshing. 

 

When Junmyeon started talking about work, Baekhyun heartily laughed at his random anecdotes, going completely quiet when he cracked lame jokes from time to time to let Junmyeon know that kind of attempt at being funny should never be done again.

 

"Are you okay, though?" Junmyeon asked after a while, when a few seconds of silence had followed his story about the new intern at his father’s company breaking one of the printers and offering to pay for it with their life if it meant not being fired.

 

Baekhyun stopped slurping on his noodles and cut them off with a bite, straightening his back again and taking the time to chew and look at the concerned frown on his best friend’s face before replying.

 

"How do you always know when something’s wrong?" he couldn’t help but wonder, once again out loud.

 

Junmyeon’s lips curved into a wide smile, his cheeks bunching up a little bit and his eyes disappearing into crescents that looked full of pride. He wasn’t going to reveal the secret to figuring out how Baekhyun felt. Baekhyun knew it because he had asked more than once before. Maybe he didn’t want to know either, maybe it felt nice to have someone knowing him as well as Junmyeon knew him.

 

"Your guard’s always down when you’re with me," Junmyeon assured.

 

"Is that a flattered tone I hear?" Baekhyun teased him, narrowing his eyes a little bit.

 

"Yes, I’m very flattered that you see me as a normal human being and not a sack of love you need to fool and appropriate, Baekhyun," he replied, with a very serious voice that Baekhyun had learned to associate to anything but seriousness a long time ago.

 

He hummed. "That, on the other hand, sounded like a jealous tone," he playfully noted before twisting his features into an exaggeratedly seductive expression and sliding his leg under the table until he could trail his toes against Junmyeon’s leg. "If you want me to make you fall in love with me, just say so."

 

They were both sitting on the floor, eating on the coffee table in the living room, and he had to twist his leg a bit painfully to be able to touch Junmyeon’s but the unimpressed raise of both his eyebrows was worth it.

 

"That kind of thing doesn’t work on me, silly," Junmyeon huffed before laughing along when Baekhyun burst into laughter and pulled his foot away from him.

 

He let out a small grunt of pain and Junmyeon had the audacity to snort at him and shake his head.

 

He took another mouthful of cold broth by tilting the bowl into his mouth a little bit. The broth was cold rather than icy, Junmyeon had only let it cool down in the freezer for an hour — because Baekhyun had complained too much about being hungry — and there wasn’t much ice but it was tasty nonetheless. He wouldn’t complain when he hadn’t been much of a help to Junmyeon while cooking and especially not when he would’ve never been able to cook this on his own. Junmyeon handed him a napkin when a bit of the broth dripped down his chin.

 

"I ran into my father a few days ago," he eventually explained, the pear flavor that lingered in his mouth diluting the bitter taste of those words with sweetness. Junmyeon stopped eating and gave him his full attention.

 

"What happened?"

 

"Nothing much," he sighed, looking down at his dish. "I didn’t know he had returned to the company so soon so I kinda walked into the office and found myself facing him and his secretary. He let me know he didn’t need a replacement anymore."

 

He could feel Junmyeon’s gaze on him. Not sad, not pitiful, because Junmyeon wasn’t a stranger who pitied Baekhyun’s rather miserable life, but understanding and maybe a bit comforting.

 

"What did you do?"

 

Baekhyun let out a small, quiet chuckle and met the other’s eyes.

 

"How do you know I did something?" he asked, voice as light as earlier albeit this time, it was much fainter, emptied out.

 

This time, Junmyeon didn’t smile with pride.

 

"I know," he said softly. "You always lean back against others when your father does this. Even if it means you need to drain them out to feel better."

 

There was no accusation this time either, just even more understanding, maybe a bit of sadness.

 

Sometimes, Baekhyun really wished he could just tell Junmyeon everything that he felt. Why he did this, what he gained out of it, how it made him feel, but sometimes, when Junmyeon looked at him like this, with acceptance and concern, Baekhyun didn’t mind that those explanations never managed to leave his mouth. Maybe, just maybe Junmyeon already understood everything.

 

He took a deep breath in and decided that he wouldn’t let anything ruin the naengmyeon that his best friend had cooked for him with care. Even if he had sneaked in cucumbers into it, and rather openly at that.

 

"I ended things with Junki that same day," he started. Junmyeon nodded, not appearing surprised. "But something more exciting happened before that," Baekhyun grinned, wiggling his eyebrows a little.

 

Junmyeon narrowed his eyes but Baekhyun could see that he was fighting off a smile.

 

"What is it?"

 

"I accidentally saw a video of a cute piano teacher and decided that I wanted to enroll for piano classes. So I did. My first class is tomorrow."

 

"But you used to give me piano lessons when we were sixteen and my mom was going crazy because I still couldn’t play Für Elise despite having been taking classes for a whole year," Junmyeon frowned.

 

"Oh, I’m not after the classes. I’m after the cute teacher."

 

"You’re really going to take piano classes as a beginner just because you want to seduce the teacher," Junmyeon repeated, eyebrows raised. It wasn’t even a question, Baekhyun knew he was barely even surprised about it. "What drew you to him?"

 

"The piano," Baekhyun replied after a few short moment spent thinking. "He looks handsome when he’s playing the piano."

 

"Did you already meet him then? What kind of person is he?" Junmyeon continued questioning him like he usually did whenever Baekhyun had a new person to work on.

 

"He’s very kind, I feel like. I’ve talked to him only twice so far but he seems like a nice person," he said.  Instead of being happy like anyone should be when they were told that their best friend had met someone nice, Junmyeon pursed his lips in concern. Not for Baekhyun, the latter knew, but for Chanyeol. "He’s very gentle and very lovely. Funny too and I think he might be as playful as I can be? He has a nice voice as well. And a nice melody when he plays the piano. Very soothing."

 

"You have the tendency to turn soothing melodies into broken notes," Junmyeon mumbled.

 

"You’re especially judgmental tonight, I think you might be a bit too stressed out," Baekhyun concluded, shaking his head at the other in mock exasperation. He wasn’t being judgmental, Baekhyun knew it very well. Junmyeon was the only person he could talk about things like this with and even if Baekhyun could never find the strength to tell him outright how he felt most of the time, Junmyeon understood. 

 

"I think you might be right," Junmyeon laughed, cheeks bundling up with that smile that Baekhyun knew was only meant for him. Junmyeon might be his only real friend but Baekhyun was Junmyeon’s only real friend too.

 

And that was enough for Baekhyun to give the other a mischievous smile before letting go of his chopsticks and quickly rounding the table on his knees until he could sit next to Junmyeon and invade his personal space at once.

 

"Want me to help you get rid of the stress?" he whispered into the other’s ear, once again with that overly seductive voice that pulled laughter out of his best friend. He felt affection blossoming on his own lips in the form of an equally wide smile of his own.

 

"Stop trying to find lame excuses for your own horniness," Junmyeon accused him but never once moved to push him away.

 

It wasn’t the first time this happened, it wouldn’t be the last either. After a few seconds of silently looking at each other, Junmyeon leaned to press his lips against Baekhyun’s. He felt every single hint of affection that Junmyeon nurtured for him flowing into him easily.

 

Junmyeon melted against him a little bit and Baekhyun pushed him down until he was laying on his back, moving to straddle him as his fingers already pulled on his shirt to take it off.

 

Sometimes, Baekhyun wondered if it was a bad idea. Sometimes, he wondered if, unconsciously,  he used even his best friend to satisfy his endlessly starving need for affection. Sometimes, he was scared that this would one day put a strain on their friendship. However, all those thoughts always vanished away whenever Junmyeon trailed his tender fingertips on his nape. Like he did now when he pulled Baekhyun closer again, laughing when Baekhyun bumped his shoulder against the table as a result of the slight jolt his body always shook with whenever someone touched his nape.

 

Most of the time, it felt nice to know that there was no intricate feelings, that he didn’t need to calculate his every move and choose his every word carefully whenever he was with Junmyeon. Most of the time, it felt delightful to know Junmyeon loved him like this, to feel his best friend’s affection through every heartfelt touch, every kiss. 

 

Most of the time, Junmyeon was the only person Baekhyun could be himself with.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was with a merry air that Baekhyun stepped into Allegro Music Studio the next day, on Wednesday afternoon.

 

It was a seamless reflection of that merriment that greeted him and oddly, Baekhyun found himself thinking that he had missed the luminosity of that wide, toothy smile that revealed small dimples on Chanyeol’s cheeks. He wasn’t alone this time but he seemed to have been waiting for Baekhyun, judging by the way the shorter man standing on the other side of the counter wiggled his eyebrows at Chanyeol as soon as Baekhyun stepped in.

 

They exchanged greetings and Chanyeol even introduced him to the wiggly-eyebrowed man whose named turned out to be Jongdae. He was apparently another piano teacher that Baekhyun could’ve had instead of Chanyeol but who mainly gave vocal lessons in the academy and only worked as a piano tutor who traveled to students’ home. Baekhyun was a bit disappointed to find out that Chanyeol, on the other hand, only gave classes in the academy itself. He could’ve brought him home quite a few times and quickened the pace of the whole process. Not that he was thinking of letting hastiness and eagerness get the best out of him. 

 

They headed towards the classroom and Baekhyun could even feel himself growing a little giddy at the thought of finally seeing what kind of person Chanyeol would turn into when slipping into his piano teacher persona. They always ended up so different from their professional or personal life whenever they were with Baekhyun and that was probably the most satisfying part about this. However, he couldn’t even say that that was the most prominent thought in his mind right now, not when he could almost feel his fingers twitching at the prospect of actually playing piano after such a long time. It might even be a bit difficult to act like a true beginner but Baekhyun trusted himself and the jubilation he would get out of Chanyeol explaining to him things he already knew by heart.

 

"Here is your battle gear," Chanyeol said as they stepped into the classroom, voice serious and grave but playfulness unconcealed beneath the deep velvet of his tone. 

 

He was pointing to the piano with a flourish and Baekhyun fought back a smile. He really was rather adorable.

 

"Well, the battle’s still kind of intimidating right now but I’m excited to throw myself into it," Baekhyun replied with an excited smile.

 

"Please don’t literally throw yourself into it. This was expensive as hell," Chanyeol laughed, pulling Baekhyun to laugh along as they stood in front of the grand piano, before he took a deep breath in and clapped his hands together. That was the cue. "Now, we should start. The first thing we need to work on is posture."

 

"Posture?" Baekhyun repeated with confusion, as if he had expected to immediately dive into the keyboard.

 

"Posture," Chanyeol repeated, nodding once with that boyish, youthful smile of his. He seemed to remain his usual self even as a teacher. "It’s a very important part of playing piano. Not only because your posture is the first thing people will see when they’re watching you play but also because it holds a big part in how you actually handle the instrument. So, in order not to make a clown out of yourself in front of an audience and not tire yourself out while playing badly, you need to have a good posture."

 

"Did you just assume I’d play badly?" Baekhyun asked, narrowing his eyes a little bit at the other as he let mock displeasure settle on his voice.

 

"I just meant that a bad posture meant a bad melody."

 

Chanyeol’s smile was crooked this time, a corner lifted up higher than the other, and its curve faint but unapologetically amused. Baekhyun liked the sight of it.

 

"Now, try sitting the way you think you should sit and I’ll correct you if needed," he suggested, gesturing to the velvety piano seat.

 

Baekhyun had the overwhelming urge to take the perfect position, just to wipe off that smile. He didn’t, as not only did he actually enjoy looking at it, but he also did not want to ruin everything he had built until now just because of that competitive part of himself. 

 

Therefore, he sat down and made his posture as bad as a beginner’s should be, back slouched forward, arms folded in front of him until he almost felt his elbows grazing his sides, hands flat on the keyboard, and legs pulled in together under the bench. He looked up at Chanyeol expectantly and caught one corner of his mouth twitching a little bit as if he was trying to keep a smile away from Baekhyun. That worked. That was either a sign of entertainment or endearment and at this stage, Baekhyun was willing to accept either of these options.

 

"Well, I’ve seen worse," Chanyeol hummed. Honesty. That could be a good thing. "Could you slide a bit aside to make some room for me?"

 

Baekhyun held back a smile and slid to the right a little bit, glancing Chanyeol who settled in next to him while keeping his posture as bad as he possibly could. He caught a whiff of a pleasant, spicy scent as Chanyeol moved. He didn’t remember having smelled perfume on the other the last two times they had met.

 

"Alright," Chanyeol said, clapping his hand together once again. It seemed to be a habit of his, a cute one. "We’re going to start with the bench first. You’re sitting way too far away from the keyboard right now, your arms are almost entirely stretched out to reach it. It’s better to sit on the front half of the bench, almost on the edge," he explained, demonstrating it to Baekhyun as he slid a bit towards the edge of the bench.

 

Baekhyun watched him attentively, taking the occasion to actually take a look at the other’s thighs. He was wearing ripped jeans again today, the washed out blue fabric stretching around his bare knees. For a second, he wondered if it was even appropriate for him to dress like this to work but figured that the owner of the academy must allow this kind of outfit if Chanyeol was confidently wearing it.

 

Without letting the other notice that he was paying more attention to his body rather than his posture, Baekhyun looked down at his own legs and moved until he could slide a bit more towards the edge of the bench in a position that he knew would be comfortable for him and allow a great control of his movements.

 

"Like this?" he asked, looking up at Chanyeol.

 

"Perfect," the other smiled. "Looks like you’re a fast learner."

 

"All I’ve done is slide towards the edge of the bench. I think you’re too generous with your praises," he said with a playful smile to which Chanyeol chuckled softly.

 

"Sitting like this will allow you to be a bit more centered and control the rest of your movements," he explained, rather than replying to Baekhyun’s words. "Next step is your back. Your back is very important. Not only because a slouching pianist isn’t pleasant to look at, but because you’re going to spend a long time playing piano. It shouldn’t affect your health and make your back ache," Chanyeol explained, Baekhyun’s eyes never once leaving him. 

 

He could hear the passion in the other’s voice. In the way words slid out of his mouth so easily. He was in his element, no trace of shyness, embarrassment, or even fluster left to Baekhyun’s eyes. Nothing but a very attractive air of confidence Baekhyun wouldn’t mind breathing in for long minutes.

 

"The piano is also an instrument that should be played with dignity and without a straight back, the audience won’t be able to see the confidence and the dignity in you. Of course, I’m not asking you to act cocky either," Chanyeol added quickly, pulling a chuckle out of Baekhyun. "You should look dignified but not pompous, you have to find the right balance. Now, try straightening your back."

 

Baekhyun did as told, straightening his back but pulling his shoulders back a little too much. He looked at Chanyeol with what probably looked like an expectant gaze but enjoyement was the feeling coursing through him as soon as he noted the slight twitch of Chanyeol’s eyebrows when he saw Baekhyun’s bad posture.

 

"Not like that," he laughed. "Your shoulders are pulled back too much. Just keep your back straight like you usually would."

 

This time, Baekhyun slouched forward a little bit, still looking at the other expectantly.

 

"Then like this?" he asked, voice shimmering with the hope of a debutant eager to learn.

 

Chanyeol simply shook his head, the light, comforting smile lingering on his lips. Baekhyun saw him raise a hand and victory grinned in the back of his head as soon as he felt that same hand resting on his lower back, where Chanyeol put a little bit of pressure until Baekhyun straightened up.

 

"Like this," he said, voice a bit quieter than earlier.

 

His touch felt gratifying even through the thin fabric of Baekhyun’s shirt and he caught on the way his hand lingered there for longer than necessary. That, coupled with the soft voice and the way Chanyeol was looking at his back rather than at his face, was enough for Baekhyun to know the attraction the other had shown in the subway was still very much present. 

 

"This is actually more difficult than I thought," Baekhyun laughed as he kept his back straight, almost regretting the warmth of Chanyeol’s hand leaving his covered skin when the other pulled it away.

 

"I told you it was," he laughed, glancing at Baekhyun’s back probably to check that he was keeping the right posture. "You have to keep your back straight whenever you’re playing. Keep that in mind."

 

"I’ll try!" Baekhyun chirped.

 

"Now, we’re almost done correcting your posture," Chanyeol smiled, very attractive. "What else do you think we need to correct?"

 

"My legs feel kind of uncomfortable right now so maybe that?"

 

"Exactly, your legs feel uncomfortable because you’ve placed them wrong," Chanyeol answered, looking at his legs. "They’re under the bench. They should never be under the bench because it’ll mess with your balance and make it harder to keep your back straight. You should place your feet near the pedals," he explained, tapping his feet against the floor to call for Baekhyun’s attention there. 

 

"I didn’t even know there were pedals on a piano," Baekhyun hummed, raising his eyebrows a little.

 

"That’s okay, we’re here to learn," Chanyeol instantly reassured him, not overbearing or mocking but comforting and kind. "Try stretching your legs out."

 

He did as told until he felt the tip of his shoes hit something and a clunk was heard. He tensed up, looking at Chanyeol with his best imitation of apologetic eyes.

 

"I think I hit them."

 

"It’s okay," Chanyeol said, unable to keep his laughter in this time. "Now, you know where they are and that you can reach them. You should keep your feet near them. Children usually can’t so we give them magazines or books to rest their feet on. I’m glad to see we won’t have to do that for you," he continued, mischief nestled in the corners of his smile.

 

Baekhyun narrowed his eyes a little.

 

"Tall people always think anyone who’s even two centimeter shorter than them is a midget. Newsflash, you’re not the tallest person on earth and shorter people are just average height, not too short," he huffed in mock offense.

 

"I don’t know, that just sounds like jealousy to me," Chanyeol retorted, grin widening even more. He seemed to understand that Baekhyun wasn’t really offended and it was a bit fascinating how he could go from a serious, attentive teacher to a playful, casual person so quickly. Baekhyun wondered if he was so friendly with everyone or if he simply felt comfortable around him. "Now position your average legs correctly."

 

Baekhyun did as told, placing his feet a correct distance away from the pedals.

 

"Am I not going to use the pedals?"

 

"Beginners don’t but later on, you might," he answered before wiggling his fingers under Baekhyun’s eyes. "We’ve now reached the most important part. Hands and arms," Chanyeol said with so much enthusiasm that Baekhyun had to bite back a laugh. "Usually, people always raise their shoulders too high at the beginning but I see that it’s not the case for you. That’s a good thing."

 

"Maybe I’m going to be natural at this," Baekhyun grinned even if his body falling back to a pianist’s habits had just cost him a potential touch from Chanyeol. He could’ve pressed on Baekhyun’s shoulders to adjust their height. He reminded himself to be a bit more careful from now on.

 

"Confidence is good," Chanyeol nodded. "The reason why shoulders are important is because if they’re raised too high, it’ll create tension in your hands. Which is terrible. You want to avoid that. Same thing for the elbows, they need to be kept at a bit of distance away from your body."

 

Like the eager student that he was supposed to be, Baekhyun immediately corrected his posture and widened the distance between his arms and his body too much.

 

"No, that’s too much," Chanyeol said softly, the balminess of his hands oozing back into Baekhyun when he grabbed his arms to push his elbows closer to his body, his grip strong but in no way entrapping. His body pressed against Baekhyun’s a little bit as he wrapped one arm around him to reach Baekhyun’s right arm. "Just like this. Try to remember this distance. It allows you to reach the entire keyboard without any problem."

 

Baekhyun nodded a bit, looking up at Chanyeol whose face was a bit closer to his now. Chanyeol met his eyes once before slowly pulling away. Once again, no trace of fluster, embarrassment, or redness on his cheeks.

 

"Elbows should remain flexible too, to prevent tension again. That also comes back in how you should keep your wrists," Chanyeol said and Baekhyun watched as his long fingers reached for the keyboard, his wrists tensed up. "It’s weird but the way you use your wrists can actually change the way sound is produced." He pressed on a few notes heavily, wrists still tensed up. "Pay attention to the difference with relaxed wrists," he said before pressing on the same keys again, this time with relaxed, curved wrists. "Heard any difference?"

 

"It definitely sounded better the second time," Baekhyun hummed softly. "Not sure why exactly, though."

 

Chanyeol nodded, seemingly satisfied with his answer. "It sounds more brutal with tensed wrists," he said, repeating the notes with tensed and then relaxed wrists again. "Let’s now focus on the pianists’ most important tool, the fingers," he said, wiggling them again. "Try putting your hands on the keyboard."

 

Baekhyun took the posture Chanyeol had just ‘taught’ him again, pressing his fingers against the keyboard, knuckles drooping too much and back, once again, not straight enough. Chanyeol seemed to notice that as well, his hand coming back to press on Baekhyun’s lower back to straighten his posture.

 

"Sorry," he gave him a sheepish smile to which Chanyeol shook his head understandingly and focused on his fingers again.

 

"Your wrists aren’t relaxed," Chanyeol noted and Baekhyun adjusted until only his fingers remained tensed up. "That’s a bit better, much better than some people are on their first lesson. The only thing you should keep in mind is that your hands should form something like a dome," he said, showing the right formation to Baekhyun who imitated it. "The roof shouldn’t crumble either," he added, letting his knuckles droop a little before getting back into the right posture.

 

Baekhyun mimicked him and caught glimpse of a satisfied smile in return.

 

"Yes, just like that!" he beamed. "That’s about it for the posture. It might be a bit difficult and uncomfortable at first but I promise you’ll get used to it. You even caught the hang of it much quicker than the average people."

 

"I guess I have a good teacher," he grinned, watching as Chanyeol returned it shyly, that emotion surfacing for the first time today. It was a good look on him.

 

"We have a bit more than fourty minutes left," he hummed, checking his watch. He had nice wrists, Baekhyun noticed, not for the first time. "How about we start learning a song?"

 

"I’m ready for the battle," Baekhyun said, wiggling his fingers against the keyboard. Chanyeol smiled then grinned when Baekhyun put his fingers back into the right posture. "What are we going to learn?"

 

"It’s a really nice song that you’ve probably heard dozens of times before," Chanyeol said as Baekhyun took his hands away from the keyboard to watch the other get into position. "It’s usually the first musical piece piano students learn. It’s a classic but also essential, in my opinion. It’s called Für Elise."

 

Baekhyun held back a smile at that, recalling the way he had talked about the particular piece only yesterday with Junmyeon. He wondered what would his reaction be if Baekhyun told him that he was learning Für Elise from the very first notes when he used to be the one to teach them to Junmyeon years ago.

 

Chanyeol played part of the song for him and later on, when he started teaching those notes to Baekhyun, the latter found himself holding back more than one smile through the rest of the lesson. There was just something winsome about the way Chanyeol went from confident while teaching to almost too cautious and timid whenever he held Baekhyun’s fingers to place them correctly on the ivory keys. His eyebrows often furrowed a little bit in concentration and he pursed his lips from time to time, revealing the small dimple digging into his cheek.

 

When he walked out of the academy later on, Baekhyun caught himself thinking that it might be nice to, one day, make that dimple play hide and seek with him according to his own will.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

His phone buzzed again that same night. Junki’s name was displayed on the screen in the form of missed calls or dozens of unanswered messages that would remain so until the end of time.

 

It would be easier to block the number or change his own. Baekhyun had never really faced a situation where someone he cut things off with was harassing him with calls and messages before but he knew that the best thing to do would be to put an end to it himself rather than waiting for Junki to give up. And yet, he couldn’t deny the fact that it felt nice to glance at his phone from time to time and notice a notification or a name calling to him in despair. Each call and each message meant that he was still on Junki’s mind. That was the only result that Baekhyun had ever sought in anyone he surrounded himself with for as long as he wanted.

 

He had seen a few of those messages through the previews on the notifications, a lot of them carried anger and despair, pleas and regrets, words of love and signs of ruin. Occasionally, he’d catch another I can’t live without you and smile to himself. 

 

Each time those words flashed in his mind, through different voices and different facial features, Baekhyun couldn’t help but wonder how someone could even reach that kind of mindset. It wasn’t even a judgmental reaction, Baekhyun wouldn’t mock what felt essential to him, but rather, a lack of comprehension. 

 

Maybe it was also a frightening feeling, knowing that someone could center their whole life around a mere human being and choose that without them, everything else would lose its meaning. Maybe he also shouldn’t be thinking like this when he was the one doing everything in his power to lead people to feel that exact way about him. Maybe he was curious. He had never loved someone so much he couldn’t live without them.

 

Or maybe he had. He had loved his mother so much, sometimes his heart pumped pain through every single drop of blood in his veins whenever he saw a mother smiling at their child and thought that this was the only thing he could never have, no matter how hard he’d work for it.

 

And yet, he had survived. He had lived without her. He was living without her. He wasn’t really sure whether that was the right thing to do or not, but he was surviving. 

 

Sometimes, he wasn’t sure whether he had actually survived or not. Sometimes, it was hard to find in himself any crumbles of humanity left. 

 

That night, the thought that kept him awake was whether having to depend on people’s love and affection to keep the cold away from his body and the madness away from his mind could really be called surviving or not.

 

Sometimes, he thought that this was the life that he rightfully deserved to live.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Come next Saturday, Baekhyun was prickling with excitement at the prospect of his next lesson with Chanyeol.

 

Time seemed to run in slow-motion during the few days that separated their two lessons and Baekhyun, despite having seen Joohyun in that timespan, felt incredibly bored while waiting for their next meeting. It wasn’t unusual, Baekhyun always felt a bit of childlike enthusiasm at the beginning of this kind of new relationship, always impatient to see the other person and spend as much time with them as possible.

 

There wasn’t even anything too novel about Chanyeol. He was still trying to figure him out. Apart from a few flirty words and a few touches here and there while playing the piano, Baekhyun wasn’t even pushing Chanyeol as hard as he usually would. He just wanted to take his time with him, he felt like this excitement could possibly linger on for months. He wouldn’t mind taking a lot of time to build something if it would belong to him even after Baekhyun took it down again brick by brick. 

 

Perhaps it was the way Chanyeol never acted on it despite obviously feeling some kind of attraction towards Baekhyun. Or maybe it was just because there was something soothing about Chanyeol. It was probably the entire piano situation.

 

Either way, it was with a sunny smile that Baekhyun greeted Chanyeol on their second lesson. Baekhyun returned it with equal shine, making small conversation with him as they headed towards their classroom. 

 

Baekhyun put care into his posture but not for the right reason, pushing himself to slouch forward a little bit and keeping his wrists relaxed but his elbows too close to his body. It was with a patient hand that Chanyeol pressed against his lower back to straighten him, keeping it there for a few seconds until he was sure that Baekhyun would keep the posture in mind. Baekhyun knew it was probably something that Chanyeol did to every one of his students but he just enjoyed the weight of the other’s hand and how big it felt against his back.

 

They practiced Für Elise again, Baekhyun mixing up the notes and letting out frustrated sighs from time to time. The result was satisfying, Chanyeol seemed to find it at the very least funny, judging by the way he was struggling to hide a few smiles through the lesson.

 

"Do you give classes for other instruments?"Baekhyun asked about halfway through, when Chanyeol allowed him to take a small break to stretch his fingers out. They didn’t hurt at all but Baekhyun remembered how they easily tensed up after even half an hour of focused practice at the beginning so he stretched them out and gave Chanyeol a grateful smile.

 

"I do," the other replied as he curled and uncurled his fingers to show Baekhyun the proper way to stretch them. He mimicked him. "I give lessons for guitar and drums too."

 

"You can play that many instruments?" Baekhyun asked, the wonder in his voice actually genuine this time.

 

Chanyeol smiled that boyish, confident smile of his while shrugging as if it wasn’t a big deal. 

 

"That’s amazing," Baekhyun added when Chanyeol didn’t give another verbal answer. "I wish I could be so talented."

 

"Talent is rarely the most important factor in music." This time, he wasn’t speaking with pompousness but with reassurance instead. "Hard work matters much more."

 

"But still, even while working hard, it must take lots of talent to be able to play three instruments well enough to give classes for them," Baekhyun said, voice neutral, not high enough to let the other think it was just a compliment for the sake of complimenting him but not low enough for Chanyeol to think he was just brushing him off.

 

"I just like music," Chanyeol muttered, voice losing its volume as he looked away from Baekhyun. He did that a lot whenever Baekhyun complimented him and this time, the tips of his ears went a bit pink.

 

Baekhyun beamed.

 

"Maybe you can teach me how to play guitar once I master this baby," he said with confidence while playfully letting his fingers drop on three notes that didn’t sound nice together at all.

 

"Maybe you’ll get tired of my nagging by the time you master it," Chanyeol laughed, a lovely dimple peeking at Baekhyun from his cheek.

 

"I don’t think so," he smiled.

 

Chanyeol looked at him for a fleeting second before returning the smile.

 

"Shall we get back to Elise?"

 

They continued practicing for the remainder of the class and truthfully, it required a lot of focus for Baekhyun not to let his fingers give Chanyeol an entire, perfect rendition of the song. The joy bubbling in his chest came mainly from the fact that he was playing piano again.

 

Given he knew this piece by heart, it should’ve been boring to sit there and learn it from the very first note but fortunately, Chanyeol’s teaching made it anything but boring. He constantly reminded Baekhyun of the right order of those first few notes that looked so easy to play but that required good finger coordination. He never got angry even when Baekhyun messed up the same note over and over again on purpose for ten minutes straight, showing an impressing amount of patience. 

 

Chanyeol’s hand occasionally pressed against his back when Baekhyun reminded himself not to make his posture too perfect and he still smiled a lot whenever Baekhyun made brutal notes and looked at him in apology. They laughed a lot too, whenever Baekhyun said something that wasn’t even intended to be funny, or when Chanyeol himself said something Baekhyun found genuinely funny.

 

Baekhyun didn’t even force himself to laugh in order to make the other feel interesting or appreciated like he usually had to do. Chanyeol was a truly interesting and humorous person. Even if he seemed to have dimmed down on the transparency of his interest towards Baekhyun.

 

It was just tiny, subtle hints that Baekhyun had to pay close attention to in order to catch. He barely even flirted with Chanyeol and he figured out that, despite being a mildly confident person, Chanyeol probably wasn’t the kind to directly show interest in anyone. The only sign Baekhyun could rely on was the fact that sometimes, he’d catch Chanyeol staring at him while he was focused on playing the piano. Sometimes, he looked away. Sometimes, he let Baekhyun meet his gaze.

 

By the end of the lesson, Baekhyun came to the conclusion that the best way to proceed would be to aim for a friendship with the other first and then gradually layer things from then on.

 

"So? How do you feel after two sessions of piano?" Chanyeol asked enthusiastically at the end of their lesson, when Baekhyun finally managed to get the hang of the opening melody of the song.

 

"It’s a bit difficult to coordinate my hands," Baekhyun replied, wiggling his fingers a bit to loosen them. He had put too much tension into them but the way Chanyeol’s sturdy fingers had touched his to carve them into the right posture was worth the slight discomfort he felt in his knuckles. "But I’ll get the hang of it soon, I hope."

 

"You’ll get better with time," Chanyeol reassured him as they walked out of the classroom and headed towards the front desk. "You’re not even that bad. Usually, I always have a headache after the first two lessons because of how brutal the melodies played by beginners are."

 

Baekhyun laughed softly at that.

 

"With a teacher as nice as you, I’m sure I’ll get better soon," he returned the compliment, smiling at the other appreciatively.

 

His words brushed a light, beautiful rosy sheen on Chanyeol’s cheeks and as he left with a small wave to Chanyeol who returned it with a grin. Baekhyun noted in a corner of his mind to compliment the other a little more often to paint him in that soft color again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"You’re late," were the first words Junmyeon muttered to him as soon as he opened the door to his parents’ house. Only relief palpable in his voice, however.

 

Baekhyun checked his watch and quirked an eyebrow at the other.

 

"By two minutes."

 

"Two minutes that my mother spent pressuring me to accept going on a blind date with one of her friends’ daughter," Junmyeon hissed between gritted teeth and his eyes had that wild, panicky width they always grew into whenever he talked about his mother pressuring him to get married.

 

Baekhyun bit onto his lower lip to muffle his laughter. The main reason why he had accepted Junmyeon’s mother’s invitation to dinner a few days ago was because he knew it would be an entertaining one. He also knew Junmyeon had a hard time dealing with the situation and barely ever visited home because of it so he thought it would be nice to accompany him. But mainly, Baekhyun was here for the entertainment and the food. Junmyeon’s mother was a nice cook, she was the one who had taught Junmyeon everything after all.

 

"You should’ve just joined me at my place. We could’ve come together," Baekhyun huffed. "Oh, but I forgot. You’re not a guest. This is technically your house."

 

"Just come in already," Junmyeon scoffed, grabbing his arm to pull him inside.

 

The Kims’ house was wide, way too wide for a family of two parents and an only child but Baekhyun knew wealthy people had a thing for owning much more than they needed. It was a disease and seeing as his own apartment was too big for a single person, he knew that he was infected by the illness too. He had spent a lot of time between those walls though, and he had also met and dined with Junmyeon’s parents hundreds of times before so he knew what to expect and didn’t feel particularly nervous.

 

His mother welcomed Baekhyun with a wide smile and a familiar,  loving voice that cooed at him with words of having missed him. She swooned only a little when Baekhyun pulled out the bouquet he had been hiding behind his back to give it to her. Junmyeon’s father had always been colder, not mean per se, but just a bit more stony, emotions never really showing on his face even as he cracked a lame joke. Junmyeon had inherited that humor.

 

They made small talk for a bit, Junmyeon’s mother asking him about a love life that Baekhyun claimed to be entirely empty and his father asking him how business was before they all settled around a lavishly garnished table. The food was, as expected, delicious and even Junmyeon seemed to enjoy it peacefully now that he was seated next to Baekhyun whose presence sucked in all of his mother’s attention. Laughter and conversation was abundant, Junmyeon’s mother was a really talkative woman, the kind to attend business parties or company meals simply to gather material to gossip about later on, which was exactly what she did to Baekhyun.

 

She told him about the new intern at one of their hotels, about her friend’s son’s scandalous life, and the downgrading business of one of their rival hotel chains. Once in a while, she even mentioned the daughters of a few friends, giving Baekhyun pointed looks but looking even more insistently at Junmyeon every single time. The latter ignored it to focus entirely on his meal and Baekhyun realized that his best friend wasn’t exaggerating at all. The situation was severe and he had a feeling she would start trying to marry him off too as soon as she would be done with Junmyeon. Not that that would ever happen.

 

"How’s your father doing, Baekhyun?" the radiant woman asked halfway through the meal, when there was a small moment of silence where everyone enjoyed their food. "I heard his health is degrading a little."

 

She was a very polite woman in spite of everything. She wasn’t mean, she just had a hard time understanding situations and maybe she was a bit too naive as well. She hadn’t asked that question with any kind of bad intention but Baekhyun still tensed up a little and put his chopsticks down to take a sip of water instead, the eagerness to eat as much of this delicious meal as possible now wavering a little.

 

He didn’t even know how to reply to that. He hadn’t seen his father since their encounter in the company.

 

"He did get a bit worse," he settled on saying with an appropriately dampened tone of voice. Her eyebrows furrowed, as if that news affected her deeply. It probably did, she was a kindhearted woman. "But he’s still ongoing treatments. He’s also still smoking, from what I’ve seen."

 

"Why would he do that?" she whispered to herself. Junmyeon’s father continued eating silently. Baekhyun felt discomfort knitting in his stomach, filling it up with knots and not sparing any room for more food. 

 

"I’m not sure," he eventually answered, truthful.

 

He didn’t know why his father smoked despite nicotine being one of the main triggers of his lung cancer. The doctors had strictly forbidden it and any patient who wanted to get better probably would’ve listened to their advice but Baekhyun had never understood the man. He had tried, for long years. Some people were meant to remain as a big, dark, and heavy lump of knots. Some people weren’t made to be untangled by anyone.

 

She didn’t press on. She knew that Baekhyun’s relationship with his father wasn’t  ideal. She probably didn’t understand it but Junmyeon’s family was close enough to Baekhyun's to at least know a few things.

 

"Your family is very unfortunate," she sighed after a few seconds of heavy silence. Baekhyun felt Junmyeon tensing up next to him. "First your mother and now your father."

 

Baekhyun let out a small chuckle. It sounded dry, heavy, but at least his voice didn’t rattle. He could feel Junmyeon’s gaze on him but he didn’t look back at him, digging his chopsticks into his bowl of rice instead.

 

"Granted, your mother was different. She fell down the stairs in a very unfortunate way and couldn’t recover. I hope your father will get better soon. He still has a chance."

 

Baekhyun only noticed that his whole body was tensed up when a hand settled on his thigh, Junmyeon silently showing him support. He could barely feel it, however. That grounding sensation was very faint, barely reaching Baekhyun who felt like his whole body was buried under heavy lumps of snow, the cold infiltrating into his skin and blowing through his chest like the frozen wind of a winter night.

 

"4C recently came out with a new skincare product, right, Baekhyun? I think it became one of Mother’s favorites," Junmyeon suddenly said, his voice registering through the fog in Baekhyun’s mind a beat too late but still pulling him out of it.

 

"It did!" his mother chirped, the sadness and nostalgia on her features instantly fading away. "It works wonders for my skin and makes me look so young."

 

Baekhyun dragged the corners of his lips up into a smile at those words and fought off the bitter taste in his mouth. That was his father’s company, not his.

 

He remained grateful to Junmyeon for changing the subject, however, realizing that his own words had tied up into a knot in his throat at the ones uttered by the carefree woman.

 

"I’m glad you like it," he said, widening his smile even if he could still feel ghosts of discomfort swirling around in his stomach. He wouldn’t let it deter him. Even if he hated Junmyeon’s mother for a split second. Even if he wished no one, absolutely no one would ever talk about his mother in front of him again. "The food’s really delicious tonight, by the way. Did you cook it yourself?" he asked, giving Junmyeon’s mother a wide-eyed, amazed expression as he shoved more food into his mouth.

 

It tasted like sand now. She swooned at him appreciatively, taking in the praise and enjoying it openly. He felt Junmyeon’s hand squeeze his thigh once before sliding away and he turned to him to give him a reassuring smile that Junmyeon returned with an apologetic one.

 

"I did! You know that it’s important to cook for your own family with love. Right, honey?" she asked, elbowing her husband with a grin. 

 

He merely grunted in agreement and grabbed his phone. He often did that, too focused on his work to even eat peacefully most of the time.

 

Then, she looked at Junmyeon with a slight furrow of her eyebrows and Baekhyun felt more than heard his best friend sighing next to him.

 

"See, if you learned how to treat women properly from Baekhyunnie, I’d already have a grandchild to sing lullabies to."

 

Junmyeon’s very awkward laugh was almost enough to bring a genuine smile to Baekhyun’s lips. His mother didn’t even look away once until Junmyeon simply sighed again.

 

"Fine, just send me the number of that girl you talked about earlier. I’ll go on a date with her," he ended up saying rather hollowly. His mother squealed in happiness.

 

The prospect of soon hearing Junmyeon whine about a failed date and a very severe lack of attraction for women made Baekhyun feel much better.

 

"But aren’t you too young to have a grandchild, Auntie?" Baekhyun said to her, smiling flatteringly but making sure that he sounded sincere. "You look so young. What if people mistake you for the mother rather than the grandmother and you upset your daughter-in-law?"

 

That took her attention away from Junmyeon and she laughed bashfully.

 

"You’re such a charmer," she said, narrowing her eyes a bit at him while grinning widely.

 

The rest of the meal was tasteless for Baekhyun but he made sure not to show it. Junmyeon seemed to sense it as well, he participated to the conversations more and Baekhyun felt a little sorry for him when his mother gushed about the woman she had successfully managed to set her son up with.

 

Conversation continued flowing, Junmyeon’s mother continued being her smiley self and his father barely even paid attention to them, gaze still focused on his phone as he continued eating. He had told his wife that it was a business matter and no one had batted an eyelash at it, used to it, but Baekhyun had caught the corners of his lips twitching up a little once and he wondered if it was that beautiful, blond secretary of his he was talking to. Junmyeon had never liked that secretary. Baekhyun didn’t comment on it, not wanting to make the rest of the meal more unpleasant for himself than it already was.

 

Soon, they were done eating and Baekhyun complimented Junmyeon’s mother on the dessert one last time before he let Junmyeon walk him to the door. They stepped out of the house and his best friend closed the door behind them. He leaned back against it, taking a deep breath in and sighing out heavily afterwards.

 

"This was a disaster."

 

"It wasn’t," Baekhyun reassured him, giving him a light smile even if he could still feel his chest rattling a little at what the other’s mother had said.

 

Misfortune. His mother’s death was anything but misfortune. It wasn’t just an unfortunate happening. There was a reason. A trigger. A push. 

 

He inhaled deeply. The evening air was heavy, they were more than halfway through August now. It was heavy. Baekhyun’s chest felt heavier than the air he swelled it with.

 

"I’m sorry for what she said," Junmyeon said softly, reaching to grab Baekhyun’s hand and squeezing it in apology.

 

He felt a little less constricted with Junmyeon’s comfort shrouding his hand and he shook his head. He felt the urge to ask Junmyeon if he wanted to go home with him tonight and stay over, they could marathon Star Wars for the tenth time even if Baekhyun wasn’t as excited about the movies as Junmyeon was. He would be willing to go through it if Junmyeon’s proximity would fill his home up after a dinner that left chills dotting him. However, despite knowing that Junmyeon would eagerly accept, Baekhyun was aware that it wouldn’t be appropriate and might upset his mother.

 

"It’s alright, I don’t mind," he settled on saying instead before morphing his features into a wide smile and ruffling Junmyeon’s perfectly styled hair. "You can just make me your best man at your wedding with this Han Jaehee to make it up."

 

Junmyeon simply groaned and batted his hands away.

 

"She probably wants to marry you off too. I wouldn’t laugh so much if I were you," he chided, narrowing his eyes.

 

"Regardless, you’re now closer to getting married than I am," Baekhyun grinned.

 

Junmyeon simply shook his head before giving him another look full of apologies.

 

"Thank you for coming, still," he said and sighed a little when Baekhyun merely waved his words away. "Wanna attend my niece’s recital with me next Saturday? You like piano."

 

Baekhyun crinkled his nose with mock distaste.

 

"Are you asking me on a date right after making plans with another woman?" 

 

Junmyeon quirked an eyebrow.

 

"You’re probably the worst date ever, why would I do that? You’d steal all my money and make me pay for everything."

 

Baekhyun laughed, not even able to deny that. He probably shouldn’t have told Junmyeon about that short thing he had with a much older man last year. He might have been as wealthy as him but Baekhyun still had enjoyed pulling money out of his wallet with nothing but a smile and feathery touches against his neck.

 

"I’ll see if I’m free this Saturday," he replied before pushing the other back a little. "You should go back inside before your mother starts thinking you ran away and calls me to scold me because of you again."

 

Junmyeon didn’t laugh. Instead, he looked at Baekhyun for a quiet second.

 

"Will you be okay?" he eventually asked, words simultaneously heating Baekhyun’s chest up and squeezing his heart a little.

 

Junmyeon knew he didn’t like being alone, especially not after this kind of conversation that centered around his mother for a few fleeting seconds.

 

"I’ll be alright, don’t worry," he smiled reassuringly.

 

The tight purse of Junmyeon’s lips told him he didn’t buy it one second but he didn’t press further either, sighing a little while nodding understandingly. He told Baekhyun to drive carefully on his way back home before turning around and reluctantly dragging himself back inside. The last glimpse of his face Baekhyun caught was a very exhausted, very exasperated one that pulled soft laughter out of him.

 

The drive back home was quiet. He didn’t put on any music, didn’t hum to himself, and there was no one to keep him company on the passenger’s seat.

 

The rest of his night was even quieter. He went to bed as soon as he reached home, doing his best to ignore the loud whispers of despair snaking around him like blurry, ghostly fingers carrying snowflakes under puffs of smoke. 

 

He played around on his phone, trying to distract himself from the nightmare he knew would reign over his slumber tonight by checking the news, social media, watching nonsensical and funny videos. Ultimately, there was nothing that took Baekhyun away from the despair crawling all over him, like dozens of ants filtering through his entire body.

 

In the end, Baekhyun spent most of his night reading through another kind of despair nestled between Junki’s last dozens of message to him before eventually letting the gentle melody of an even gentler pianist sing him to sleep, the same way it did only two weeks ago.